“Rural Folk” by Hilary Fair

It’s years ago now that Mikayla’s ma found her crumpled on her bedroom floor dumping tears and snot into a coarsely braided rug. Her ma had barely paused to sigh; she didn’t abide any hiccupping story about how Bobbi-J Pinkett had thrown a basketball at Mikayla’s chest, knocking her tender breast buds in on themselves and mortifying her in front of the whole class. She just hooked Mikayla under the armpits, pulled her to her feet, and said, “You can have all those big feelings, but you’re going to need to learn to handle them, you understand?”

They shuffled along the wide pine floorboards of their old farmhouse, muffling the creaks into their socks, then down the back stairwell and into the kitchen where they paused to listen. When Mikayla’s pa gave out a heavy, spluttering breath from his recliner in the next room, her ma opened the cupboard above the stove and pulled out a jar of bay leaves.

Mikayla’s ma shook three of the leaves onto the pocked kitchen table, then pulled a pencil from her apron.

“Write your grievances,” she said, passing the pencil to Mikayla. “Get them out of you.”

When Mikayla hesitated, her ma took the pencil back and picked up a leaf herself. “For example,” she said, writing Clara Wilf on the leaf. She held it up for Mikayla to see. “Woman’s a crabble-ass,” said her ma. “But I let her blow right through.” She made a whooshing motion with her hand, down her body and toward the window. Then she picked up another leaf and wrote Henry, Mikayla’s pa’s name. Gin. She licked her thumb and smeared the graphite deeper into the leaf. “You can always blur it up,” she said. “Go on. Try.”

Mikayla’s ma shook more leaves from the jar.

The pencil tip thickened and dulled as Mikayla wrote. The tender spines of the leaves cracked under the pressure of her hand, taking on the weight of all the people who grieved her. Bobbi-J Pinkett. A boy at school named Thom. Her pa, who called her false and cuffed her head.

When Mikayla finished, her ma beckoned her to the kitchen door and led her out into the moonlit yard.

“Now,” her ma said when they reached the compost pile at the side of the barn, “toss them on the heap.”

Mikayla held her smudged leaves over the mouth of the pile and tipped them from her palm. She bent over to look at her woes caught in a thick layer of carrot shavings below.

“See?” her ma said, turning the pile with a pitchfork. “It can be simple like that.” The bay leaves disappeared into a mound of half-decayed orange peels and potato scraps. “Turns them to silt,” her ma said.

Over the years Mikayla grew swift and skillful at mapping her grievances and tossing them on the heap. She whispered through high school—unremarkable, extremely neutral—without much regard from anyone, not even the guidance counsellors who were supposed to watch for that kind of thing: young people fading into the paint; needing someone to help them locate their dreams.

It helped her to avoid what could have been a fantastic beating the night she came home with caramel and blonde streaks in her hair and her pa grabbed a clump of it in his fist and told her: “You best get true to how God made you.”

She waded through a terrible date with one of the farmhands, Steve, who had waited for her by the bus stop after school and caught her by surprise. When, later that week, Mikayla found herself watching Steve saw at his food with his elbows winged out, spitting wads of cheddar cheese back onto his plate, she felt inside her purse for the little jar of bay leaves. She remained placid-faced as Steve talked about bagging deer; unflapped when he rubbed his fingers at the server as though requesting the bill and then pointed at the mucky cheese on his plate. “Thing is too spicy,” he said to the server. “I’m not paying for that.”

After high school, Mikayla carried her jar of leaves into the long, slow days she began to spend working alone as the sole teller at the local bank. It was a role that required her to see, serve and somehow disappoint everyone in town. Whenever the bank was quiet, she would scribble her grievances onto her leaves: the endless smell of shit on the local farmers’ jeans; Theodora Krug’s name—for how she chomped her gum and always asked to see Mikayla’s computer screen while the deposits were made, and for how she held her face in expressions that made her look like a slack-jawed pig.

The bay leaves trick had given Mikayla a vaguely meditative countenance. Something the folks from town might—and often did—perceive as simple-mindedness. Neither deliberately zen nor legitimately slow.

Mikayla was in a state somewhere between the two when the bell above the door jingled and Estelle Lemieux walked into the wide, gray room that, by the standards and requirements of Cotton, Ontario, passed for a bank.

They’re here, Mikayla thought dully, intending to barely look up from the cold toast and peanut butter on the counter in front of her.

A recent parade of “temporary bank managers” led her to expect another nondescript, middle-aged man, sent from the city for a country experience and tasked with cleaning up and troubleshooting the basic errors and inefficiencies in the rural outposts. Given a chance to escape their cranky wives and needy kids for a while.

But then Estelle came into view, bare armed and clean in a white and gray striped jumpsuit, her pelvis thrust forward on a pair of turquoise pumps with a lick of mud hugging one heel. At the sight of her, Mikayla’s effort at a disinterested, brief glance morphed into a forceful double take.

Estelle wilted slightly as she took in the bank’s interior.

Mikayla swallowed a hard, under-chewed bite of toast as Estelle approached the teller’s counter. Against the ripped vinyl on the customer chairs and the dingy overhead lights with dead flies pooled in the corners, Estelle became only more luminous. Like daffodils backlit by an overcast sky.

Estelle’s glossy pink lips parted, just enough to see a stretch of straight, pearlescent teeth—the kind of teeth Mikayla thought only movie stars had.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Estelle Lemieux, your new temporary manager.”

When Estelle extended her hand, Mikayla reached out to meet it and grinned dumbly, toast crumbs and a smear of peanut butter still in her gums.

Estelle hovered behind Mikayla as the first customers arrived. She leaned over, dusting Mikayla with the smell of lukewarm cucumber as she hit the delete button several times, discreetly correcting the account number of a scrubby-faced farmer who kept asking Estelle to go outside to shoot the breeze.

“Can’t I take you on across the road for a slice of pie?” the farmer said, his skin growing redder and redder with the unusual pleasure of viewing someone like Estelle in that town.

More men filed into the bank, as though a public service announcement had been made.

“I have some questions,” Mitchell Limpman said to Mikayla, putting his heavy forearms on the counter. “Might take a minute.” He leaned over to look behind the counter, and to look Estelle up and down. “Maybe that lady could help me.”

 “I’ve got some big picture purchases,” Mitchell said, the arms of his stocky body barely moving but his wrists and hands flicking like tadpoles as he followed Estelle to an empty teller’s wicket. “Know what I’m saying?” He cocked his hip out as he leaned into the counter. “I’ll need to move some of those large investments you’ll be seeing there, on your computer.” He tapped Estelle’s screen. “Maybe we should talk about it over lunch, know what I’m saying?” He leaned in further. “How’d you like me to take you out for some pie?”

Estelle declined, as she had declined invitations from Dougie Smythe, Todd Dinney, Hamm-Bone Baker. But Mitchell Limpman then reached out and touched her as she passed him a stack of bills, clasping her wrist in his massive hand.

Mikayla held her breath.

Mitchell poked his tongue into his cheek, letting it rest there like a bloated slug.

Estelle froze briefly. Her face shifted into an eerily mild smile. “You’ll have to let go of me, please,” she said. When he didn’t, Estelle dropped the bills onto the counter and twisted her wrist quickly, using her pisiform bone to drive down through Mitchell’s thick fingers and break his grip. A few bills fluttered to the floor in front of Mitchell’s boot.

Estelle tilted back on her mud-crusted heel as Mitchell left the bank, muttering to himself. She touched the blonde bun at the top of her head, as though to check it was still there, then excused herself to the tiny cubicle at the corner of the room that was intended as her office.

“Inappropriate and repulsive!” Estelle’s voice rose over the cubicle’s felted walls. “This was a big mistake,” she said. “Huge.” She paused. “Yes, I know what I said. But I don’t know where I am, Rod.” Estelle’s voice pinged off the ceiling. “I am actually nowhere, I think!” 

When Estelle returned, she smiled wanly at Mikayla and said, “Print the morning totals, please.”

Mikayla stared at her, uncomprehending.

“What?” Estelle said.

“We don’t do that here.”

“What do you mean? You have to.”

“No,” Mikayla said. “We don’t usually get enough people in a day so we leave it go to the end of the week.”

Estelle closed her eyes, letting the lids flutter. “Okay,” she said. “That’s okay.” When she opened her eyes, her face softened. She leaned on the counter and put her chin in her hand. “So, where’s this pie place?” she said.

In the pie shop, Mikayla crushed small pieces of pastry through the tines of her fork, trying not to look at the wad of jammy peach filling that had fallen onto Estelle’s left breast.

Estelle daubed the tip of a paper napkin in her water glass, then onto her jumpsuit.

“Shit,” she said, slapping at the bits of paper clumping on her chest.

Around them, gray-haired people stooped over plates of mashed potatoes. Young men in coveralls shoved pieces of schnitzel into their mouths, many of them staring at Estelle as they chewed. Their jaws moved slowly, as though they were masticating cud.

“This place,” Estelle began, glancing at a man wearing a T-shirt that said Girls Don’t Poop. She shuddered and sat back against the rungs of her chair.

Mikayla mirrored Estelle, sitting back in her own chair. The muddy tarp taped to the back

windshield of Steve’s pickup truck flashed to Mikayla’s mind. The tailgate sticker that said I Eat Ass. When, several months into dating, Mikayla finally worked up the courage to ask, Whose ass do you eat? Steve had just shrugged and said, “Kip give it to me. Don’t mean anal, you know.”

An engine grunted in the parking lot beside them. Everyone in the pie shop turned to look as Billy Dickson pumped the gas and then the brake of his red Silverado. He spun the backend of the truck quickly to the left. Wrenched into the spin. Corrected it before colliding with a parked car, then squealed his tires and tore out onto the street.

Estelle gasped and pointed even before Billy laid on his horn. One long, droning warning at a pair of mallards who had walked up from a flooded ditch, into the path of the Silverado.

Billy didn’t stop. He didn’t veer. He didn’t even look back after his tire clipped the female duck, flinging her brown and white-flecked body to the side of the road.

Inside the pie shop, Lucy Price dropped a tray of glasses. Another waitress, Dal, shrieked and ran out to where the duck lay, not moving.

Jake Mackey whistled—a fading sound, like a firework fizzling down from the sky.

Someone muttered, “Fool.”

Estelle kept her eyes on the male duck who had begun ringing frenzied circles around his mate. He lunged at Dal as she approached, the sun glinting off his green head and his wings spread wide.

“She ain’t breathing,” Dal announced when she came back inside. “She’s dead. Not splat with the guts out.” Dal used her hand to motion a flat plane. “Simple dead. Just quiet. He don’t get it, poor thing.”

Estelle was still staring out the window.

“That’s nearly the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said, wrapping one arm around herself, covering her heart and the smear of peach on her breast. “God, he’s just quacking at the sky.”

The duck was standing over his mate when Estelle and Mikayla left the pie shop. They walked toward the bank wordlessly as he nudged her limp body with his beak.

Outside the doors, Estelle pulled a watch from her purse. “It’s not quite time yet,” she said. “Want to sit?”

The watch was white and wide-faced, too big for Estelle’s wrist. Remember was cut into the black metal of the hour hand; You will die on the minute hand.

“That’s—an innovative thing,” Mikayla said, trying on the word in her mouth. She pointed at the watch as they sat down on a bench under a crabapple tree starting to bud.

 “My brother gave it to me. It was a gag,” Estelle said. “I can’t wear it, obviously—but it reminds me not to get complacent, you know?”

Mikayla nodded. “Like, it makes you braver, you think?”

“Yes,” Estelle said. “I think so. But I ended up here, so it’s not foolproof.” She wiped at her eye with a manicured finger and Mikayla noticed, for the first time, the clear beads of fluid dotting Estelle’s lower eyelashes.

“Are you really sad about the duck?” Mikayla asked. She put her hand out tentatively, then pulled it back when Estelle jerked her shoulders toward her ears.

When Estelle finally spoke, it was in a suffocated voice that sounded nothing like the woman who strode into the bank that morning, who had karate-chopped her wrist out of Mitchell Limpman’s hand.

“My brother rode his bike into the back of a minivan. It had stopped because some kid pushed another kid off the curb and into the street,” she said.

Mikayla ran the soles of her running shoes along the dirt beneath the bench. “Your watch-brother?” she said.

Estelle pushed her whole body back against the bench and pursed her lips. She cleared her throat and nodded.

“He died. They said he died on impact, but I don’t know. I always imagine him lying there, everyone just staring, no one doing anything while he bled out from the head.”

Estelle looked up into the crabapple branches.

Before Mikayla could conceptualize appropriate courtesies—I’m so sorry for your loss—or make connections—just staring, like the people in the pie shop—Estelle’s face rearranged itself into its familiar, impeccable neatness. She pointed to a single blossom burst above them.

“That’s so beautiful.” Estelle’s deep inhale cued Mikayla to breathe again, too. “But honest to God,” Estelle said, smoothing the fabric in the lap of her jumpsuit, “how do you stand it here?”

Mikayla’s mind had flooded with thoughts of Estelle’s faceless brother, bleeding on the side of some road. Now it veered to thoughts of the Pattersons and their mashed potatoes; Jake Mackey and Tippy Hunt looking cow-faced and amazed at Estelle while they chewed schnitzel; the seam of Lucy Price’s pink jogging pants pulled taut as she carried plastic cups between the tables in the pie shop.

She looked up into the branches, too, trying to think.

“My ma?” she said. “She showed me a trick one time.” Mikayla pulled the little jar of bay leaves from her purse and told Estelle about the heap, about her ma, about Bobbi-J Pinkett, and about how the moonlight can keep a secret for you—you can clean out the woes from your body without anyone having to know.

Mikayla searched Estelle’s face for understanding.

“It’s like witchcraft,” Estelle said quietly.

“Maybe,” Mikayla said. “But it sure does help. Maybe it would for you, too.” Mikayla sprinkled some of the leaves on the bench between them.

Estelle stiffened again. She scratched her ear. Her cheeks twitched and her lips tightened.

When Estelle said nothing, Mikayla filled the silence by telling Estelle about how the leaves helped her process her grievances with Steve. The way hay clung to his leg hair after working in the barn, and how he sometimes got into bed that way, expecting things from her.

How he smelled funny down there and talked back to the TV all the time; and left his Bud Light cans in the living room when he was finished watching his fishing shows and casting bullets into little piles that he left on the coffee table for Mikayla to clean up.

In the year since she got engaged to Steve and moved into his little house on the outskirts of town, Mikayla had written hundreds of grievances out of herself. Perhaps more. She had made so many trips to the heap at Steve’s house that she could find her way even on a moonless night, weaving in her bare feet around the thistle he still hadn’t cut from the grass.

Estelle’s cheek twitched again. “How old are you?”

“Twenty,” said Mikayla. “How come?”

“You just have so much time. Don’t you want something more,” she waved her hand and paused. “More like that?” Estelle pointed to the duck who was lying beside his mate, his head on her back.

When Mikayla didn’t say anything, Estelle continued. “I think, maybe, you’re smarter than you think you are,” she said.

A feeling like warm water ran through Mikayla’s body—a flooding in of something good; a sensation startlingly, remarkably different from the feeling that came with always pushing out something hard.

Mikayla looked down; she scuffed her shoes along the dirt again. “My pa?” she said. “My pa says I’m so plain I’d have to look in a radius larger than a thousand men could piss to find somebody better than Steve.”

 Estelle nudged the toe of her pump into the dirt beneath them, too. “That’s not that far you know.”

Mikayla and Estelle worked quietly for the rest of the afternoon—Estelle behind the walls of her cubicle; Mikayla processing pension and disability cheques as little flurries of customers arrived.

With one ear to the muffled conversation that was happening in the cubicle, Mikayla learned that Rod had been persuaded. Yes, Estelle could—she should—return to the city immediately. That evening, even. And no, she didn’t ever need to return to the bank’s rural branch again. An old woman with coarse white hairs on her upper lip rapped the handle of her cane on the counter in front of Mikayla.

“Into your chequing?” Mikayla said, on autopilot, as the woman’s accounts appeared on the screen in front of her.

The woman nodded tersely, then turned back to the line-up of her peers to grimace and roll her eyes. As she did, Mikayla’s gaze landed on the last digits in the account, very close to her own.

It would be so simple. So easy to transpose a six for a nine; to mis-key a two for a three while the old woman distracted herself by commiserating with the others about young people these days. “Not very bright are they?” the woman said to a fat, bearded man who was next in line and shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Not like it used to be.”

Human error. It happens all the time. Mikayla had heard stories of a teller misdirecting a cheque for $900,000—the proceeds from a land severance—and no one noticing until the lawyer’s office called yelling. Eventually, but only days later, the central branch got routed to the line and a paper trail was followed, not back to the lawyer’s trust account, but to a small boy’s first savings account where he had been accumulating money for a puppy.

Just from the teller dropping a few eights; by her typing nines in their place.

“Would you hurry up?” the woman said, her voice high enough that Estelle poked her head out from the cubicle. Mikayla flattened the spine of the woman’s bank book, having deposited the money into the proper account, and fed the book into her printer, letting the balance smack out on the page.

The ducks were still there when Estelle and Mikayla left the bank at the end of the day.

“That really is so sad,” Estelle said, nodding at the mallards. When they reached her car, Estelle handed Mikayla a business card with a phone number and direct extension at the bank headquarters printed in blue ink. “Call me if you have questions. Or, if you ever come to Toronto.”

Mikayla pushed the sharp corners of the business card into her fingers until they numbed.

“How have you gotten to all the places you’ve been?” she asked suddenly, clutching the car door as Estelle slid into her little yellow hatchback.

 Estelle looked up at Mikayla from the driver’s seat. “I always say yes to opportunities,” she said, with the door still ajar. “My brother taught me that.” She closed the door and turned on the car, then rolled down her window. “And he said to always watch for the exit signs, too.”

Mikayla stood on the sidewalk as Estelle drove off. A daffodil resurrected by the light. She waved at the car in the distance, then sat down on the curb across from the duck who was asleep in a pool of feathers. If it weren’t for Estelle, Mikayla might never have noticed love like that, the loss of it.

Steve raised his arms as though cocking a rifle and pretended to shoot when Mikayla told him about the ducks. 

Behind him, out the window, tulips bowed in the wind. Mikayla had planted them in clumps the previous fall because her ma had said, “Always give yourself something bright to look at outside your kitchen window.”

Mikayla served Steve a plate of ground beef and onions, then excused herself to their bedroom and wept—the same fluid-filled way she had wept the day that Bobbi-J Pinkett lobbed the basketball at her breasts.

Mikayla was curled up on top of the quilt when Steve came in. He began to undress. The fabric of his underwear clung to his groin and he waggled his balled-up penis at her.

“Come on,” he said, pulling at the covers. “I wanna doink.”

Mikayla’s mind swirled while Steve groaned in her ear. The duck keening on the side of the road; Steve making bullets to shoot ducks with; yellow flowers and peach jam on white clothes; Estelle’s watch and Remember, you will die.

When Steve finished, Mikayla lay next to him quietly, tugging his earlobes to shut up his snoring when it began. She thought of the duck, sitting there bereft. How it showed the way men can get lost without women.

For the first time, it occurred to Mikayla that, perhaps, this was not her problem, or the problem of any woman in fact.

Her mind drifted to her pa, to what he would do if her ma died. After all the years of drunken, nasty words and her ma’s secreted grievances tossed on the heap, would he bumble around? Or just lie there wide-eyed and disbelieving, poking her ma’s body with his nose?

Her feet hardly brushed the floor as she crept from the bedroom, not even pausing to put on clothes. She stood naked at the kitchen table, letting her grievances skitter across the bay leaves in front of her. She picked up her purse and felt around for Estelle’s card, then pulled on underwear and heavy socks from the laundry room. A plaid flannel coat. She took a clutch of large bills from the emergency fund they kept in a crock beside the fridge, folded them in half, and shoved them inside the breast pocket of her coat.

When she looked around the kitchen, she imagined Steve, in the morning, pacing the room like the duck. Mikayla filled the coffee maker with fresh grinds and water before scooping the bay leaves into her palm and opening the back door.

At the heap, she picked out a rotting banana peel and folded the leaves into it, wrapping the edges like a package and placing it back on the pile. She thought of Estelle. Long-legged and radiant. Aware of opportunities and exit signs.

Then, Mikayla turned and walked away from the heap—due east and into the night. The wind brushed her own bare legs as she wove through the clusters of tulips, into a newly planted wheat field where her boots imprinted the damp earth beneath her. She counted the steps she took until she got far enough to know that even if she only wound her way home again—if she made it back to the house and slipped the money back in the crock, her body back in the bed before Steve woke up—that she had expanded her perimeter. Further than one thousand men could piss.

Hilary writes and lives in a small town in Ontario, Canada–one nestled into the landscape that inspired this story. She works as psychotherapist and as a teacher in the Sarah Selecky Writing School. Every day, she is witness to, and awed by, the power of story.