Issue > Fiction
Megan Staffel

Megan Staffel

Megan Staffel, the author of two novels and three collections of short fiction, is most recently the author of The Exit Coach (Four Way Books, 2016). She has been a recipient of a Michigan Council of the Arts Grant, finalist for an AWP novel award, shortlisted in The Best American Short Stories and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program.


It happened on a brilliant September afternoon. No great cataclysmic event, only the sight of a woman walking. And yet, watching her move in and out of the trees, Fiona felt a moment of fear. It washed over her so completely she understood in that moment, that everything she was, everything she had worked for and attained, the ship of state that was herself and all her endeavors, was sinking. It was a clarity so piercing it took her breath away: I am bull-headed. I am arrogant. I talk too much. I take over social situations and that's why people no longer invite me to their dinner parties.

And then, just as quickly as it had descended, the clarity passed and the old, dusty, obscurity of self locked into place. And that was a relief because the thing dearest to Fiona throughout her life, the thing she most counted on beside her husband and her children, was the certainty that she was loved and admired.

The shape was still moving down the hillside. Now she could see it was a deer, not a woman. It flickered, crossing from sun to shadow. And then she realized it was neither woman nor deer, just a shifting of light, a dappling in the trees as the sun slanted through them, an illusion of movement. Fiona was standing on her porch across the road, watering geraniums, so she had an excuse to watch. Not that she needed an excuse to stand on her own porch and look over at the field across the road, that is, at her field, her hillside. Well, hers and Richard's. The flickering held her attention. And of course it did; she was the one with the green thumb, the one most sensitive to the vegetative world. But then as it emerged from the woods it became a woman again. She could see dark slacks, a white top, and knew at once it was Maya Zeller, her friend. Richard's too. She was walking down from the sugar shack towards the road.

Leaves, loosened by last night's frost, floated through the air. Fiona considered a wave when Maya was close enough to see a person at the house, but then, strangely, she didn't lift her hand. Was it because Maya was already looking the other way, angling off the path to the spot where Richard parked the tractor, or was it because, and here she forced herself to be truthful, was it because that sudden glimmer of her bludgeoning methods had shamed her? Who could know? Maya's car, screened by the catalpa tree, had been invisible, but now, as it backed out, the metal sparkled in the autumn sun. Fiona waited for it to pass the house, but it went off in the other direction. Curious. Why was Maya driving the long way home?

The geraniums were overwatered that day, but it didn't matter. And, to her credit, despite a lingering sense of defeat, Fiona did not go back to bed. She was not a person who gave up. She never had been. So she ignored all unsettling thoughts and commenced with the tomatoes.

The night before, she had harvested all of them. There were hundreds, different shapes, sizes, shades of red. They covered the tables and floor in the greenhouse. The basil, another creature easily wounded by frost, stood about in buckets of water, and the recently harvested garlic hung in bunches overhead to dry. She breathed in the bounty, moved through the solar warmth of the building, and felt better. Yes, much better. Nothing was going to change and she was simply being paranoid. Maya Zeller was one of Richard's clients, no one to fear, a widow. And thin as a bramble besides. Beautiful if you liked the starved look, the girl body.

Fiona herself was a big woman. She did things on a big scale. She didn't make only enough tomato sauce for her household, she made enough for the village, for the county even, and this year, for the Finger Lakes area to the east. Fiona Markle tomato sauce, like Fiona Markle pesto, Fiona Markle corn relish, Fiona Markle sauerkraut, pickles, and roasted peppers, was an item sought by people who were too urban, too scattered, too modern to plant gardens and can the harvest themselves. Though, and this was something she wished these people could pause for a moment to understand, their lives would be greatly improved if they did. As a dear old friend and neighbor used to say, canning the summer harvest is to save nature's gladness and sunshine for a winter day.

She used to feel lucky if August passed without a freeze. Now, with climate change, the nights stayed warm through most of September. So now it was September, not August, that was dedicated to basil and tomatoes. And it was a busy month because pesto and sauce were her biggest sellers. Especially with the wineries. People in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse took weekend drives to the Finger Lakes and returned with autumn plunder: grapes, wine, and now, Fiona Markle specialty foods.

The summer kitchen, a one room building between the greenhouse and the barn, was the place where the ordinary was transformed, where simple produce was skinned, roasted, boiled, blended with other ingredients and then poured into sanitary jars, processed, and slapped with a label she had designed herself, a cornucopia of colorful vegetables with her name dancing across it in loopy script.

She set water on the stove to boil and dropped in the tomatoes, one at a time. She ladled them out, slipped off the skins, and by mid-afternoon, cauldrons of soupy sauce thickened on the stoves. Steam rose into the air and Fiona, wreathed in its fragrance, felt purified. Sunshine and gladness! The suspicions of the morning were gone and work, positive, fulfilling work that was beneficial to humankind and the earth, had restored her. I am an industry unto myself. Bludgeoned. The word rose into the mist and a tiny voice said: She bludgeons you with good intentions. I most certainly do not, she told it.

Fiona's first industry had been the industry of children. There were three in close succession because she was a fertile woman and she loved pregnancy, she loved babies. But after three she and Richard had discussed the shape of their lives and no more of this, he pleaded, meaning the buckets of soaking diapers, the toilets stuffed with diapers in presoak, the washer never not spinning, and the lines outside if it was summer, inside if not, hung with hundreds, thousands of identical cotton squares in various stages of brown because there were two things Fiona would absolutely not countenance: bleach or the using of electricity to dry things. The first, because chlorine created dioxin, the world's most toxic substance. According to Fiona and various other authorities. There had been two major dioxin escapes in the earth's history, one in a small city near Milan, Italy, and the other in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. But as with any environmental disaster, once the oh-my-gods had passed, all was forgotten. Not by Fiona; she held onto things. Nuclear power was her other foe. Splitting atoms to boil water, it was like killing a squirrel with a machine gun. Plus the nuclear waste. She slept better knowing she used as little electricity as humanly possible: air drying clothes, unplugging appliances, monitoring lights.

Nevertheless, she understood Richard's point of view. She was compassionate. And she did agree, more than three children was not beneficial for the planet. Particularly since there were so many ignorant, hapless mothers having too many babies as it was. It came to the others to act responsibly. But that meant birth control and for Fiona, artificial hormones were a problem. So once her period had returned, she commenced with the monthly sponge and read about natural methods. Then, every morning before leaving bed, she put a thermometer under her tongue to chart her cycle. That was a chore, but she dedicated herself to it for Richard.

At first they did the garden together, but Fiona was particular and when Richard discovered the abandoned sugar shack on the hillside, he developed his own project. He cleaned the stove, repaired the evaporator. Then he thinned the sugar bush so the stand could be more productive. And then, starting in February, the whole family tramped through the snow, hauling buckets of sap to the shed. For a few years they even had a donkey pulling a sled. It was romantic, but, as Fiona said, no one should be mistaken, it was also very hard work.

When the children grew up and moved off to their own lives, Richard set up tubing, installed a more modern evaporation system, and every year, for the month of March, he closed his law practice and devoted his days to syrup. Now friends walked up the hillside to help. He gave away quarts and quarts, and with every old farmer he met, he discussed the old methods and how to improve the system. Sex stopped.

"Tell me, how'd ya learn all of these old fashioned things?" The interviewer was a gum-chewing, after-shave reeking youngster from a cable network. He looked barely old enough to grow a beard, but he certainly knew his way around gadgets: lights, wires, computers, phones. Her simple environment had been kidnapped by technology. At least he understood that was not the message. He posed her in the rocker, next to a table spread with her products, nothing un-natural or un-organic in view. Regal in a billowing purple dress, Fiona opened her hands over her bounty, smiled at the equipment, trying to discern which was the eye of the camera, and said, "My business follows a noble and worthy tradition. Homegrown produce, homemade food." She squeezed in the sunshine and gladness bit, and finished up with, "Anyone can do this. All it takes is patience and common sense. Preserving the fruit of the harvest is to partner with the earth. It's understanding the cycles of life, youth to age, plenty to scarcity. Farm women used to put up a hundred jars of pickles every summer. That's how it went. The older women canned the harvest so the younger women could be with their children. Think about it; it really makes perfect sense. And my children are grown, you see. They're off in their own lives."

It was a simple statement. But when their youngest had left home, things had not been so easy. Fiona suffered bouts of depression. One winter day, while waiting at the dentist's office, she read an article about cottage industries taking hold once again in rural America. She hadn't even realized she'd been looking for the next thing, but that was all she needed. By spring, she had re-invented herself. She expanded the garden, studied marketing, and that summer she developed her signature tomato sauce, a blend of Italian plum and American heirloom. News media discovered her the following year and ever since then, they'd featured her story of down-home success at least once during the canning season.

The facts about Maya: She kept her hair short; she let it go grey. (Fiona did not. She colored hers with a natural product.) She had sallow, indoor skin. She was petite, both in height and bone structure, and though she was as delicate as a bird, she was a woman of accomplishments. She played cello; with her husband she had made and repaired cellos. When her husband died, she had hired Richard to handle the estate. Of course, there had been sadness. Her laugh had vanished, but then a year or two later, it had returned, and at community events, those soft ripples of sound lifted over the crowded rooms just like before. Maya travelled. She appeared with well-known quartets as a guest artist, but every October she assembled a group of local musicians and gave a concert in their village. It was a fundraiser for the library, and last year, when they were walking out together, Richard had said in an amazed and happy voice, "Music is so good. Isn't it wonderful? It doesn't take sides. It has no opinion on any issue. It just does what it does and allows you to feel."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it," Fiona said. She had noticed the peacefulness of Richard's body in the chair next to her and felt a moment of envy. How hard it was to live in the twenty first century. For a person who cared, there was no relaxation. Consequences were everywhere: gas, water, electricity. Layers and layers of damage a person had to understand. Making you miss, of all things, simply sitting at a concert and giving yourself over to music. Allowing it in. It wasn't fair.

The sauce would be done by midnight. She kept a stack of novels in the summer kitchen as a reward. Ten canners boiling at once: it was the only time she permitted fiction.

But this night, Fiona couldn't concentrate. The image from the morning had returned. A woman walking between trees, moving in and out of sunlight, descending the hill, getting closer. Of course, Richard was in bed already. A lifetime of leaving the house at six AM to get to his office had created a man who fell asleep by nine o'clock. And Fiona liked having the nights to herself. The last crickets were singing their summer song in the grass, so rather than close the windows against the chill, she wrapped herself in a shawl. This is what she would say to him over coffee in the morning:

I saw Maya yesterday. She was walking down from the sugar shack. Was she up there? Visiting you? Did you see her?

First, he would clear his throat. He always cleared his throat when he had to think. In the early days she'd watch him in the courtroom, and she'd seen him clear his throat as a pause, a secret way to review the things he was going to say. I asked her to come. I needed a tool. Well, it's complicated. A winch, but not an ordinary one. She's loaning it to me for awhile.

But why wouldn't she park at the house? Pop in, say hello. I'm her friend too. Why would she park where I couldn't see her car?

I needed it quickly. I was in a fix. Look, I told her to park there. It was faster. And the winch was heavy.

But why didn't she drive past the house? I saw her leave. Why did she go the long way?

She was going to the hardware store. And then, I think, I think she said she had an appointment of some kind in Sharon.

She would hear his answers, but she would also notice his body. The looseness of his shoulders, the tranquility of his face, even his hands, and it would be clear to her that something unfamiliar and not quite visible had slipped into the room.


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