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The Lord Shall Provide | Kyle Dartnell-Steinberg

The Lord Shall Provide | Kyle Dartnell-Steinberg

 

The Lord Shall Provide

 Genesis 22:8

 

The hunted becomes an object, and that object always knows that it is hunted. There’s a feeling it gets. A feeling, Jerome thought, that had kept the Indians in this village alive and free from the reservation for the last two years. A feeling, Jerome couldn’t help but think, as he crept down the eastern slope with the rising sun, pinning the Shoshone against the river, that might have warned these Indians of the impending attack. His wet palms slid up and down the stained stock of his rifle. Trickles of smoke were just beginning to rise from the tops of a few teepees. It was a beautiful dawn to be fishing. Back home in Pennsylvania, Jerome would have been sleeping at this hour, but he’d like to think that he’d be fishing with his son on the creek by their house. The quaking aspens lining the river were just like those at home, though here the river ran too fast and deep.

Jerome’s stomach churned. He’d filled his flask with coffee at camp the previous day, drinking it to stay alert on the long overnight march. His left hand shook where it loosely held the steel barrel of his rifle, metal and skin weathered to the same shade of coppery brown as the stock. Jerome clenched, with every step his body threatened to betray him, fouling his already muddy blue trousers. The line of soldiers flanking Jerome reached the bottom of the slope and began trotting silently across the flat that stretched a hundred yards to the village. Sage caught at their trousers and released with little waves of breaking twigs. Dogs began to bark in the village and Jerome saw Isaiah, dark and small, only eighteen but four years a veteran of the violence, sprint towards an old woman emerging from the outermost teepee, sleep heavy on her face. A blur of shadow through spring grass and he was upon her, tackling her bundled form as she bent to wipe the dew from her beaded moccasins. A thud was the only sound as Isaiah landed on top of the old woman a few feet from her home. His hatchet was no different from the hatchet Jerome kept in the kitchen, the hatchet Mary used to splinter kindling for the stove and to break the crusted morning ice on the water barrel. Jerome heard nothing as Isaiah, holding the head of the hatchet like a chisel, hammered the blade into the old woman’s throat.

It felt as though the world went silent, the quiet breathed a terror on his soul. Jerome could hear his footsteps and the footsteps of his company speeding across the grass over the sound of the river and the birds singing in the aspens. And then Isaiah was leaping up, crashing into the old woman’s teepee, hatchet tearing into the buffalo hides. A moment later the line of soldiers reached the village.

A tumult of rifle shots, barking dogs, screaming horses, and staccato screeches of alarm, followed by the rising wails of the wounded. Jerome pounded through the village. The teepees were burning, pyramids of flame heralding the morning with their collapse into writhing bundles of screams. Jerome could no longer hear the river though he knew he must be nearing it. A few feet to his left at the outer edge of the village a woman stumbled from a teepee. She took a few lurching steps away, towards the river and the forest beyond. Jerome raised his rifle and fired. He saw the bullet tear through her robe and into her hip and she fell to her knees. She turned on her knees to face him. Her eyes were creases, almost closed, anguish wracking her face. Dropping his rifle Jerome ran to her. Drawing the knife he used to gut fish, almost as long as his forearm and not much wider than a finger, Jerome stabbed the blade sideways into her neck. As she fell onto her side, knife lodged in her, a bundle rolled out of her arms and into a small dip in the grass. Bending, Jerome jerked the knife from her neck. The spurting blood echoed the blood roaring in his head and he wondered whether he too was bleeding out in time with the woman. He moved to the bundle. Standing over the dip in the ground, an old rabbit hole, knife drawn, Jerome looked down on the baby.

The ground began to shake, a ululating howl rose from the trembling dirt and Jerome knew the earth was about to break. He looked up into a wave of clay brown bodies. Pain. He was the last note of the church service as the organ ran to the heavens and then the white of the sun filled his eyes, burst his brain, and he fell to the ground.
________________

Smoke filtered through the dirt into his nostrils. Jerome tried to open his eyes, but his right eye remained closed. The side of his face, pressing into the earth, felt sticky, and as his eye struggled to open Jerome felt tears pooling beneath the crusted lid. He could hear gurgling beneath his stomach and a burning pain pulsing through his thigh. Pushing himself onto his side, Jerome scratched the muck from his eye and looked down onto the baby. He looked around. Smoke rose softly from the smoldering mounds of the village, circling heaps of mud, hair, and fabric. A dark hole blossomed just above his knee. A hole in his pants, a hole in his leg, the wool around the hole was stained black under a clinging layer of dust and he brushed a shower of twigs, dirt and small pebbles from the wound.

The baby opened its eyes, the warm embrace of Jerome’s body replaced by the too-bright sun and heavy afternoon heat. It began to writhe inside its tight cloth swaddling. Blinking, obsidian eyes grew brittle and ready to break. Isaac’s eyes were green when he was a baby. Jerome was the first thing that they saw. The baby whimpered. Its thick sheaf of brown hair shook like the grass. Jerome didn’t remember whether Isaac had hair when he was born. He’d been gone for so long now. He hadn’t seen Isaac since he went home after the war, and then not for long. He couldn’t stay, the river had changed. He found no peace on the bank, luring brook trout to their death. The house was full of shadows and too quiet. Mary looked at him like he looked at the trout. Isaac hadn’t even known him back then he realized. The boy hid behind his mother the day Jerome returned, tarnished brass clinking with every weary step. Jerome didn’t know how old Isaac would be now. He was a memory and a promise for the future, a dream, and Jerome knew it was best like that. He put his hand across the baby’s chest and it calmed.

The sun moved toward the horizon. The river roared softly, the wind swept and whistled. Jerome’s eyes glazed while before him the baby lay and watched. The smell of charred skins hung to the ground. It always smelled the same once the clouds of sulfur had blown away, the churned earth turned old. Eventually the chill of evening crept up Jerome’s back and he returned to the world. He cleaned the grime from under his fingernails with the point of his knife. He rose up onto his knees and then onto his feet. The pain was like the sound of the river. He picked up his rifle from where it lay. Driving the barrel into the ground with every other step, Jerome limped towards the sound.

The bank sloped softly into shallow pebbly water. The barrel of the rifle clicked against the rocks as Jerome moved out into the current. He could hear the baby crying with the wind. He sat down, falling mostly. The cold raced up his spine and the pain returned in full, blinding force. Sometime later, Jerome opened his eyes and pulled himself from the depths.

The baby stopped crying as Jerome moved over it, blocking out the sky. Pulling loose its swaddling Jerome saw that it was a she. She giggled at her newfound freedom, waving her fists at her side, gazing up at him as he spread her blanket onto the dirt. Twisting the cloth at the ends, Jerome rewrapped the baby against his chest, tying the ends under his armpit. Jerome limped towards one of the smoldering teepees, lay the baby and his rifle on the grass, and coaxed a fire from the remaining embers. He lay down next to the baby and fell asleep.
________________

Jerome awoke in the early morning dew to the sound of the baby whimpering. He rolled over to look at her. Quiet, he tried to tell her with his eyes, you’ll wake the birds. Clean my blanket you fucking cunt, she replied demurely from the slits beneath her squinting lids. He scrubbed the blanket with wet grass to a semblance of cleanliness, thinking on a course of action.

He could see from the pattern of bodies what had happened. His company attacked, a trail of bullet-riddled Indian women, children, dogs and horses ensued, leading almost to the center of the camp. Here the tide turned, stigmatized brown skin replaced by blue uniforms bristling with arrow shafts and the occasional gaping musket wound. Blue bodies radiated outwards, soldiers scattered in all directions as they tried to flee.

Jerome could see the path of the surviving Indians, a swathe of flattened grass leading south. They had left their dead with the corpses of his company, fearful of reinforcements. Jerome knew that there would be no reinforcements, his company was it and now they were gone. Soon the bodies would begin to swell and stink in the sun, already the smell of the ashes had turned acrid and sour with the moisture of the morning dew. Jerome wrapped the baby in her damp blanket, tied her to his chest, and limped north along the river.
________________

Jerome’s leg collapsed as he topped the rise. He twisted as he fell, away from the baby. The stock of his makeshift crutch jarred into his stomach before he crashed onto his injured side. He lay panting on top of the hill and the sun climbed towards its zenith. The baby girl had slept while he walked, lulled by the rhythm of his pitching gait and the warmth of the morning sun. He didn’t know whether she woke when they fell, but as he lay panting, crippled by exhaustion and pain, he felt the slow, shallow breaths of her tiny lungs against his.

The baby woke, long minutes after the fall, to the rumbling of his stomach. With this call to arms she began to cry. Jerome stroked her thick brown hair. He rocked, hummed, sang to her, deep and whispering. She continued to cry. Jerome forced himself back onto his wounded side before staggering to his feet. The baby cried as they seesawed down the hill, cried as Jerome laid her down in the long grass by the river, and continued to cry while Jerome inched out onto the bank overhanging the river and plunged his arm to the shoulder into the water.

He smiled as he lay there, partially submerged. If anyone had been watching they’d think he was crazy, ear pressed almost into water as if he was listening close to the current. The cold water felt good. After a while his arm went numb, though he continued to slowly flex his fingers. Eventually he jerked his arm out of the river, casting a fish onto the bank. He lay smiling as the fish flopped and drowned in the sun, then scooped it up and returned to the crying baby.

Soon Jerome was sitting against a tree, baby in his arms, watching the rainbow skin of the trout fade to grey over the fire. Mouth watering, he pulled the fish from the flames and bit into its flesh, burning his tongue. The baby girl watched his foolishness, mouth also watering. He chewed the flesh into mush, and fighting the contractions of his throat, spat the mush into his hand. Jerome swabbed a smudge of masticated trout around the baby’s sucking mouth. The baby sucked hard on his finger and began to choke. Reaching his finger down her throat, Jerome pulled the mush out and flung it onto the ground. The baby began to cry and Jerome slumped heavy against the tree, the fish lying forgotten in the dirt.

Jerome sagged despairing against the tree for hours as the baby cried in his arms. No song, movement, or whispered promise could quiet the hungry child. Jerome slipped into troubled sleep beneath the wailing baby. At the edges of this shallow sleep, Jerome could feel a steady tugging on his chest.

He woke gradually to the sound of the birds, the wind, the river, and no crying. His eyes caught up with his ears and opened to see the baby girl sucking contentedly on his shirt, and beneath that, his nipple. Jerome smiled, what would Mary say if she saw this. He shook with laughter, back rubbing against the bark. What would the men think, he laughed harder, shaking stomach jolting the baby’s attention away from the nipple. They wouldn’t think anything. His laughter died and the shaking in his stomach turned sickening. They wouldn’t think anything.

He slumped back, eyes closing.
________________

Jerome woke with the rising sun against his face. Groggy and glaring into the brightness, Jerome struggled to remember where he was. His hands found the baby, asleep with his nipple in her mouth, and it all came back. Cradling his arms beneath her, Jerome lifted the baby from his chest. The moment her mouth was pulled from the nipple, the baby’s eyes sprang open. The whimpering began, mounting to a keening cry as Jerome placed her on the ground. Once again, Jerome’s efforts at appeasement failed, and tortured by her wailing, Jerome replaced the baby at his nipple and she returned contented to her suckling. She remained at Jerome’s nipple as he ate the fish, as they made their way farther north, and as he built them a hut in a clearing where the river bent west. As the day progressed, Jerome felt a tingling growing in the breast at which the baby resolutely sucked. As Jerome sat with her by the river, making a rod to use with the line and hook he always carried, he noticed that the tingling had gradually turned into a dull ache. The ache continued to grow as he fished, cooked and ate, and by the time the sun began to set, his breast burned as though filled with fire. Finally Jerome could take no more. Pulling the baby from his nipple, he placed her inside the dark hut, made his way down to the river and stripped off his shirt. As he scooped the glacial water onto his burning chest, Jerome could see that his left breast had grown larger, heavy and tight, the nipple dark and purple like varnished hickory.

He returned sopping to the hut, the fire in his breast reduced to embers. Jerome fell asleep, baby suckling at his breast, rain drizzling on the leafy roof of their little home. As he slept, Jerome dreamed he was building a fire on top of a pile of emeralds. Up and down the coast he ran, then west, combing the plains, foraging through the woods and hills. Finally, he could find no more wood to feed the now-raging bonfire. Before him, the fire expanded, a sheet of flames filling his vision. Through the flames, in the middle of his seething conflagration, Jerome could see the emeralds melting away into nothingness.

He awoke, the burning gone, a dribble of white trickling down the baby’s sleeping chin.

The days blurred. Jerome sat at the river for hours every day, suckling the baby while he fished. He spent the evenings whittling—knives, spoons, pipes, toys for the baby—and watching the fire, the river, the stars. As his leg healed, Jerome walked with the baby around the surrounding area. Occasionally he found edible plants he recognized, similar to those back east, and tobacco that he dried in the sun and smoked through the days. He leaned less and less on the rifle until he no longer needed it. Jerome no longer remembered his dreams when he awoke. He had no plan for the coming winter and rarely thought of it. At times he passed the whole day sitting on the riverbank, gazing into the water, never remembering to throw in his line.

He woke one afternoon, napping on the riverbank, to the sound of voices. He reached for his rifle, but it lay in the hut, unused for some time. Standing, Jerome took the fishing rod, and with the baby at his chest, walked towards the sound. As he neared the hut, Jerome could see three men emerging from the trees at the edge of the clearing. He walked towards them. Their light blue pants swept through the dry, late summer grass as they approached him.

Jerome recognized the front-most man. Abram Maury towered over the two men following him, long hair pulled back tightly from his forehead, beard hanging below the golden insignia on his shoulders. Calvary sergeant Company A, 1st U.S. Cavalry. The crossed sword insignias on the other men’s caps told Jerome they were Abram’s men. Jerome knew Abram from their time stationed together at Fort Bidwell. Jerome looked into Abram’s eyes. Sharp, glinting green set deep beneath dirty leather skin. Though they were close in age, Abram reminded Jerome of his father. He was strict. Unbendingly so. Unbendingly strict and uncompromisingly fair. As Jerome’s company marched from Fort Bidwell those many months ago, he’d seen Abram collecting firewood outside the fort. “The Lord shall provide,” he’d shouted at the train of men and beasts, “for sinners and for saints. Let us send them on their way!”

As Jerome collected wood and made a fire, he told them the story of the attack and his time with the baby. At first their questioning eyes were drawn to the baby, slung across Jerome’s chest suckling contentedly. Eventually, they became used to the sight, and focused on the story at hand. The flames crackled in the glow of dusk as the men sat beside the hut. Abram told Jerome that they were scouting for the rest of Company A, who were following a day behind. The Company had been charged to search for any survivors of the attack, and to capture or kill the defiant Shoshone. The men slept by the fire that night, Jerome in the hut with the baby wrapped against his chest. The next morning the men rose early. Picking up his rifle, Jerome rose to join them. They walked east, away from the hut, the clearing, and the river. Jerome was still half asleep when, as they neared the trees at the edge of the clearing, Abram spoke.

“Leave the baby.”

Jerome stopped walking. They stood in the silence before the birds begin to sing. The river rushed behind them. Jerome untied the sling and lay the baby in a small dip in the wet grass. She looked at him, as he looked down at her. Jerome walked away with the men and the baby began to cry. Her tears echoed through the trees as the men moved away. Milk oozed from his nipple, wetting his shirt. He squeezed at his breast as he walked farther into the forest. Squeezing, harder and harder, a river of pure white milk streamed down from his breast as her cries receded beneath the water.

 

 

Kyle Dartnell-Steinberg currently resides in New York City where he studies Creative Writing and English at Columbia University. For the past two years he has worked as a wildland firefighter during the summer season, traveling throughout Oregon, California, and this last summer up to northern Alberta.

5 Questions for Kyle Dartnell-Steinberg:

TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
KDS: I wrote this story late one night, lying in bed with the woman I loved at the time. We were sharing a single bed and I had the laptop perched on my belly, writing looking down over her, sleeping on my chest. For a while I ascribed the story solely to fiction, but passing time has outlined the blaring parallels of the story with that period of my life. The idea originated as a seed from Erdrich’s story of a frontiersman suckling a native baby in her novel, The Antelope Wife. The concept remained embedded in my subconscious for years, until I had a dream in which the aforementioned girlfriend gave birth to a pair of my green wranglers. This triggered the idea for a story in which a studio assistant, ordered to provide a negative pregnancy test as a prop, discovers that he himself is pregnant, and before giving birth to the wranglers, defends his apparently gender-defying body, in an argument with his oppressive boss, with the story of his great grandfather’s lactation.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
KDS: {Gabriel Garcia}Márquez.
TD: Where is your favorite place to write and why?
KDS: Wherever I can is fine, I prefer quite places.
TD: Do you hand write your work or go directly to the keyboard?
KDS: Both. I often scrabble in the dark, from bed, unintelligibly.
TD: Finally, what book would you want to take with you on a desert island?
KDS: The Bible has nice thin paper, but, in terms of reading, I would bring Pound’s Cantos. I could spend a lot of time with the Cantos, maybe enough time to understand them. At that point I might be insane, outside of my desert island society. Maybe they’d keep me sane.


  1. Martha

    26 February

    This is an unexpected and moving story. The ending also has echoes of the end of The Grapes of Wrath.

  2. Dorien

    27 February

    Wow! A powerful and moving story!

  3. Neil Zussman

    27 February

    You had and kept me with the first line Kyle~conjured up vivid visions..great effort!

    Did u really write this at one sitting? Easy to see influence of Marquez…

  4. Melissa Leet

    27 February

    Lovely and evocative.

  5. Melissa Leet

    27 February

    Evocative. Powerfully sparse.

  6. Andrew Deakin

    3 March

    Good ideas, well woven narrative.

    Looking forward to more

  7. Joanne Shaw

    5 March

    Striking and unsettling, made me think of Cormac McCarthy. Hope to read more…

  8. Dylan

    7 March

    Wow, what a talented young writer. I would love to read more of his fiction

  9. Lauren

    10 March

    Cool piece Kyle. What an unexpected twist to have Jerome nurse the baby and then have to abandon her. So sad. Poignant and creative story telling.

  10. Michelle

    12 March

    Jerome’s experiences, so skilfully and powerfully evoked, made a great impact on me as did the vividly painted setting. Look forward to reading more from this talented writer.

  11. Giovanna

    12 March

    I’m an italian friend of your parents..my english is not so good but could relish your moving story!
    G.G. Marquez has been my favourite, too
    All the best Kyle !

  12. Vinita

    22 March

    After the violence of the opening, it was a surprise to see how tender Jerome was towards the baby, and then have the story end with him abandoning her. It makes us question the title of the story which, in turn, makes the title all the more powerful. Good to read this Kyle. Keep writing!

  13. Edward

    27 March

    Wonderfully evocative story. Powerful use of strong language. Good job !

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