In the year with no summer, the native women take to their fields in the nude. The missionaries protest and the Christian women are appalled, but the miners crawl out of their shanties at night and peer between the dried out corn stalks at the women in the moonlight, their skin velvety and dark with sweat. They lift their arms and stomp their feet, so that the ground is worked so fine that the dirt lies light and loose like flour. Sometimes the wind takes it up, and then the women disappear in the dust.
As the Laundress unlaces her boots at the side of the field, she does not think about the naked women. There are two dead men, sprawled beside her, their chests pocked full of lead. Their eyes are still open, staring blankly at the stars, which the Laundress imagines to be nothing more than pinpricks in the sky. There is lake of blood in the first man’s mouth, and his pants are unzipped. The beads of a rosary slip out of his chest pocket. His name is the Reverend. The other man lays on the ground with military precision, his hands by his sides and his chin up high. His hair is knotted and stiff with blood, and there is a big blue hole between his eyes from where the bullet went in. He is known in the Great American Desert as the General, and although he had not attained any rank in the federal army, the title suited the grandiloquence of his character in such a way that it no longer seemed to matter if it was true.
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The dead men do not trouble the Laundress any more than the women. All she can think about is the thing in her belly. She imagines it to be large and brown, its skin cracked and chafed like the salt flats. It often hiccups loudly in the amniotic fluid, and bucks against the walls of her stomach, scratching her flesh with its little fingers until her insides are raw and pink. The General laughed at her when she told him that his child would be horned and scaled, with two heads and a forked tongue because he said that having a wedding ring didn’t make any difference at all. But she can’t help but think that it does. Because if it is possible for spring to turn into fall with no summer in between, then it might very well be that her child will be covered in scales, and she would have to scrape them off like the skin of a fish.
Leaning forward with the slowness that comes with pregnancy, she pulls off her boots and begins the long and almost tedious exercise of undressing. Her elbows knock against the corn stalks as she peels away her long underwear, her skin prickling against the cold air and her legs sticky with dust, so comforted by the slow baring of her body that her motions become mindless, automatic. And then she begins to remember how her clothes became bloody and how the General became dead.
It all began in the Great American Desert, a wide belt of red land that stretched west of the Mississippi until God knows where. One river runs through the desert, but the prairie sod is still so tough that no one but the natives can charm it into productivity. The high mesas are dusty and barren, flecked with the bones of scalped white men who had made the mistake of scarring the Indians’ fields with their wagon wheels. The land was so bleak that no one dared to settle it until a pioneer dipped his tin cup into the river and choked on a gold nugget the size of his fist.
The Laundress came to the Great American Desert with the first caravan of miners to set up shop washing the grime from their clothes. As the heels of her palms grew calloused from the board and her skin blistered from the wash, she became rich, richer even than the miners, who had exposed the ribs of gold in the quartz and dust in the rivers. As the inhabitants of the Great American Desert became wealthy, they built a whitewashed church and a slapdash saloon and a scaffold where they would expedite criminals to a hot place beyond the confines of this world. They nailed the boots of the hanged cattle thieves and counterfeiters to the doors of the church, because even if they died with their boots on, they sure as hell were going to meet the devil barefoot. And so as the years went by, the doors of the church grew heavy under their weight until no one could force them open any longer.
The only other white woman in the Great American Desert beside the Laundress was the Indiana Girl — an enormous woman who had made her debut in their camp wearing nothing but the enormous tail feathers of an Australian ostrich. At night, the Laundress could hear the Indiana Girl, moaning like a bear from the shanties beyond the fields. It made the Laundress shudder beneath her sheets.
It was at this time that the General had crawled into the Laundry, holding his stomach together with one hand, and spitting blood into the other. He looked at the Laundress, and asked politely if she could please sew together his insides before they all leaked out. She threaded the needle, burned its tip in a candle flame, and cross-stitched his stomach without a word.
For the next few months, the General slept in the Laundry, beside the tubs of water and the washing boards. At night, the Laundress would crawl beside him, sitting him up with her palm between his shoulder blades and her shoulder against his back. He leaned against her while she unwound the cloth from his body. She could smell the suds from the wash in his hair. Sometimes they fell asleep this way, with her head against his and her mind on soap.
As the weeks passed, the General’s scar turned from pink to white, the gathered skin running like a ridge across his belly. Often she would run the tips of her fingers along it, wondering how it had gotten there in the first place. She imagined him, alternately, as a vigilante-man, a cowpuncher, a deserter from the federal army. She was happy in her not-knowing until the night in mid-winter when he grabbed her hand as she wove the dressings around his belly. His unshaven face glanced against hers and she lowered her chin so that his face was not touching hers. They paused, deliberating. Then she asked — sin-soft, love-sick soft — about the day his insides almost spilled out of his belly.
He turned away from her, leaning his back against her, and began to explain. Years before Little Bighorn, Custer had pulled him aside — “You ever been close to death?” he asked, but had not let the General answer before he continued. “No matter how many times you has, I’d wager that I’d been there more than you. And each time,” he hiccupped, “I swear to God, I wake up a different man. A better man.” The General figured that that last fight had brought him as close to death as he cared to come, and he did not care to get shot up any more, because he could no longer see any point in good men.
He tried to turn her toward him with his hands, but she did not turn at first, her stomach knotted with that last desire to resist. The force of his hands was so strong that soon she gave in to the movement, her hips turning like the hinge of a great machine.
As the sharp sun struck day after day on the Great American Desert, the riverbeds grew shallow. The miners still hoped that the summer would come and the river would rise and the flumes would run as they always had. But the air grew colder and the sky more pale; and each day, the earth paled too.
As the flats grew cracked and parched, the General’s flesh began to slowly knit itself together. He worked odd jobs — cleaving rock with a sledgehammer, building the flumes that redirected the river to expose the bedrock and the veins of gold within it. At night, he crept between the stalks of dried-out corn in the fields to where the Laundress stood waiting, eager to have left the Laundry, stale with the smell of soap.
It was at this time that the Reverend Baker announced his candidacy for the bishopric of the Great American Desert — a position that did not exist, but that would exist now that the flumes had dried up and the miners had taken to the idea of their civil-i-zation. There was also the problem of the Indians, who had at that time been shunted onto a tract of arid, unproductive land. Although they had packed their deer-hide longhouses in silence, they had left the enormous chambered heart of a buffalo on the church steps, still pulsing against the wood planks, as a notification that they had given up Father Jesus, and returned to the Corn Mothers.
By the end of June, the election had been called off due to the Reverend’s overwhelming popularity. Just as the miners thought to commission a makeshift miter for their new Bishop, the General had stepped forward and declared on a blessed soap box in the middle of the town their loving devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen. He wasn’t respectable, and he sure didn’t pretend to be, but he had fought with Custer along the Washita River, which was as good as an ordination in the Great American Desert. What counted most in life, he said from the soapbox, was a big revolver and self-reliance — both of which he had in abundance.
The election had recommenced.
It was the night before Election Day when the Laundress told the General about the thing in her belly. They were lying in the dried out field underneath the General’s wool blanket, their heads propped underneath the balls of their discarded clothes. She knew that the General must have known from the size of her belly, which had grown round like a globe, but she was afraid to tell him that his baby would be brown like an iguana. When she said it, he had just laughed, kissing her forehead, her eyelids, her ears, her mouth. Then he rested his chin on her shoulder, his palm rough against her stomach. She slid her fingers back and forth between the raised bones of his hand, and tried to make out the constellations between the cracked ears of corn.
Finally they folded the blanket, pulling on their jackets and their thick boots. Then they slipped through the field, her hand in the General’s hand, the silk from the cornhusks falling in her hair. But suddenly, at the sound of a commotion, she stopped, and parted the stalks of corn. The Reverend was crouched in the field, with his pants at his ankles. He turned, startled.
He stood up, struggled to dress himself, but tripped on a pant leg. “Only let me get hold of your beggarly carcass once,” he panted, “and I will use you up so small that God Almighty himself cannot see your ghost!”
The General smiled, an ironic half smile, like a crocodile. “There was a mule, which I had ridden from California Gulch to the Great American Desert,” he said. “She was an animal that I thought a great deal of, as she had saved my life in Colorado from two Mexican desperadoes. And if there is such a place as mule heaven, I’d wager that she’d get there before you, Reverend.”
The Reverend said nothing, but sat in the dirt, buttoning his pants.
“While on the subject of the hellfire,” the General continued, “I had been meaning to ask you what sum of money I could pay you to save me from it.”
“I can do as much against a whirlwind with a fence rail,” the Reverend said.
“That unredeemable?” the General asked, clicking his tongue.
The Reverend looked at the ground.
“What about now?” The General asked, pulling the six-shooter out of his belt.
“I don’t want no trouble.”
“Tough. Because you got it coming.”
The men quarreled. She stood beside them, her feet swollen and her belly aching and the pink skin on her palms pulsing as she absent-mindedly peeled the blisters away. She moved her fingers along the dried husks of the corn, feeling the soft ridges of the sheath beneath the hard crust of her skin, wondering if that was what her baby would feel like, ridged and dry like a leaf.
Then, she heard the cock of a hammer. The General stood with a gun against the Reverend’s forehead.
“I don’t want to die,” the Reverend was pleading.
And the General said that it was good to die.
She dropped her hands from the husks of the corn, and wrapped her fingers around the belt loops of the General’s trousers, as if she could hold him in this world by the seat of his pants. He did not move at first, and then, slowly, he lowered the pistol. He turned towards the Laundress, and lifted his hand to her neck, tracing the line of her collarbone, which arched upward like the wings of a seagull, rising up and down with each breath.
But, at that moment, the Reverend pulled a gun from his jacket. As he stood there, holding the grip with both hands, he pulled the trigger, a bullet shot out of barrel and rocketed straight through the General’s head. The General fell, and the Laundress broke under the weight of his body, her arms wrapped around the small of his back, and his armpit balanced on her shoulder. He was too heavy, or maybe too bloody, and so he slipped through her grasp. As the General fell, she began to recall haphazard pieces of information: that the organs of the body were contained in a diaphanous sack, that the world was tilted at twenty-three point zero-five degrees, that the bartender in Palisades, Mississippi, where she had grown up, had kept the ashes of his wife in the corner pocket of the pool table. But she wanted the General, not his ashes. Even though she knew it was too late, she pulled the pistol out of his belt, and leveled it at the Reverend, her hands shaking. The first shot went straight into the Reverend’s heart, but she pulled the trigger again and again, her body heaving with anger. The shots rang out in the cold, still air.
Then she sat down and began to unlace her boots.
The Laundress folds her blouse and her skirt, and places them on the pile of her clothes. She admires the tidiness of her belongings as she stands in the night, her stomach curved like the moon. Then the thing in her belly begins to move, as she knew it would, sliding out of her like a swimmer. Water streams down her legs, and she pulls herself beside the dead General, taking his hand in her own, the calluses of their palms scraping against one another. She worries one last time that her baby will be pockmarked with holes or covered in scabs. Then she begins to heave and scream, with the General’s blood wedged beneath the whites of her fingernails and the dust caked against the small of her back. She remembers, in a series of images (each taxing, each beautiful): his hand on her belly, the smell of soap in his hair, the scar arched like a ridge. And she feels her baby slip out of her, no more remarkable than a year with no summer.