Jerry Clark and his daughter drove in on the fourth night in their tractor. She wore her green-rimmed swimming goggles and rain boots and he had on his old beat up earmuffs. The little girl, ignoring her brothers’ practical advice, had insisted on bringing her spade.
Plowing is a lonely job—but it’s cyclical work, and easy to get used to. Jerry Clark had politely asked permission from Mr. Whittaker to work on the field at night, when the valley had already fallen asleep and he could have the rolling horizons all to himself. His daughter often came with him, but remained on the perimeter of the rectangle that he traced in dirt with his machine. Jerry Clark always wore a pair of winter earmuffs he had bought for himself at the family dollar store when he plowed. He bought a pair for his daughter too but she didn’t like them and told him she liked to listen to the noises that the tractor made. The long grass quivered, high enough that the girl could stand in it without being seen, and serving as the field’s only fence—it reared back when gusts came hurtling out of the forests that climbed the surrounding mountains, and then settled, beating noiselessly in rhythm with the hard, cold earth. The birds were moving in the mountains. Jerry Clark could feel them, hidden behind the leaves, shifting and repositioning themselves on their birch branches. He found them difficult to ignore.
While he plowed, his daughter diligently worked on the hole she had begun digging the year before. With the good intention of keeping her from wandering off while he plowed, Jerry Clark had given the girl a spade and told her to dig the deepest hole she could dig. After the plowing was all finished she had left the hole with no particular ceremony or grief and by the time the winter passed and the weather cleared, Jerry Clark had almost forgotten about it altogether. Then late May arrived and his daughter began to talk of digging again, this time with bigger plans to make long and winding underground tunnels. She drew up plans on torn sheets in the back of old sketchbooks. “They’ll lead all around the world!” She cried.
“You can’t dig to China,” he had said with frustrated surprise, “There are too many layers you’d have to cut through.”
They lived in a house with Jerry Clark’s brother. He was not married and often he talked to the walls or nodded at invisible things. Jerry Clark told his daughter her uncle was practicing. When she asked him what he was practicing for, he had no answer. All the rooms were yellow and big and were covered with pictures. On some of the hall walls, nails stuck out in odd clusters, where pictures either once had hung or had never been put up. A cardinal had its nest balancing above the kitchen window. One day in January after an ice storm it tipped off the kitchen window and shattered on the porch floor. Jerry Clark had found it and carried it to the lumber pile, the place he brought all good things that had broken. The roof of the house was made of metal and whenever it rained the drops sounded like bullets hitting cans. Jerry Clark didn’t like that the roof reflected the sky and he didn’t like the constant muttering that echoed through the hollow rooms.
The fields were usually empty by early evening; but he waited at least an hour after the sun set completely before stiffly settling himself onto the orange seat that he had patched with silver duct tape and setting off to do his job. The last night of plowing was usually the fastest, as he had already turned the entire field up, and all that was left was evening out the middle section, so that Whittaker could rake it into rows. Once the night was satisfyingly calm, and the girl had clambered up onto the seat next to him, Jerry Clark started up the machinery. He felt that on this final night of plowing something wasn’t as still as it usually was. Without realizing it he began grinding his teeth together. The field was the darkest and most expansive it had ever seemed to him. “Will you be scared?” He asked. “No,” She said. “I have my goggles and my boots and I can make my scream really loud like one of those big dinosaur birds if I want to. I can make people go deaf if I really try my hardest.”
“Most people would be scared,” He muttered, “It’s normal to be scared.” She shrugged. He turned into the enclosure through a gap in the fence. The grass that had grown by the opening was now just upturned earth, and puddles collected in the muddy tire tracks. The glare of the tractor lights caught the water and from high on his seat, Jerry Clark decided they looked like eyes that had welled with tears. Jerry Clark watched the girl fidget for a while and then get up on her knees to look out backwards at the dark road they were leaving. She wove her fingers through the plastic, caged divider. Jerry tried to drive as smoothly as he could. He had long legs, which had only ever caused him trouble, and forced him to steer with his knees uncomfortably jammed under the wheel. The tractor was a sturdy piece of equipment. He had bought it three summers before, when Whittaker had first called him to ask if he could help with the field. His daughter was too young to come with him then, and anyway she didn’t have to.
That first summer when he left with the tractor, his daughter had stayed at home on the piano bench, perched beside the metronome, watching her mother play. Many things had changed since then and the girl came with him now because she was older, and there was no more piano bench to sit on. She liked to wear her rain boots when they went to the field, and though Jerry Clark always reminded her to take them off on the porch, on the nights they returned home late she would usually forget and sleepily track mud through the house on her way upstairs to bed. He sat downstairs until late on those nights, absent-mindedly coloring over his daughter’s scribbles in her finished coloring books. When the mud dried he’d sweep it up and throw it in the trash bucket with the spiraling apple peels. Sometimes the girl would accidentally fall asleep with the lights on. Jerry Clark made sure to turn these off on his way to bed. “You can’t dig to China,” he’d murmur to the sleeping girl. “You don’t even know where China is.”
The fourth and final night was no different than any of the other nights. He deposited her at the hole and murmured that he’d be around again soon. She leaned over and whispered something animatedly to him before getting out but he couldn’t hear her through the earmuffs and so he just nodded. Jerry Clark paused for a moment and then turned the tractor around to face the way they had just come. He had been meticulous in his work and knew exactly where he had left off the night before. The neighbors all had a saying about Jerry Clark. They muttered it throughout the town, perched behind the cashier counter at the grocery store, standing beside the table in the diner and walking past the man with his head down and his earmuffs on. Heads shook perplexed. “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Jerry Clark way.” That’s what they said.
There were no lights on in the valley and rain clouds hung like blocks above the field, lingering in thick layers from the brief shower earlier that evening, obscuring the moon and casting an alienating blackness on the man and all he could see. Corn grew here in midsummer. Whittaker planted the seeds himself. All Jerry Clark did was prepare the field and build the scarecrow to keep the birds away. In exchange he got a decent amount of money and a bag of unshucked ears in August after the harvest. The only lights there emanated from the tractor’s weak headlights, and the blinking red safety bulb at its rear. He could see only what was straight ahead of him. Repositioning his earmuffs, and heaving a sigh, Jerry Clark began his weave down the first row of his final section.
The summer smelled like the playhouse that had burned down the summer after Jerry Clark moved in with his brother. He could see from his brother’s porch the smoke billowing up in the field next to their old house. Jerry Clark sat on a rocking chair and watched it burn from the safety of the metal roofed house. Nothing could be done—the wood was too decayed. The little girl was asleep in the den and didn’t wake up. There had been two, white wicker chairs with wasps nests balancing on their arms, and a three legged table that a wild cat had lived under one spring. The floor had been covered in plywood and there were half empty purple paint bottles with frayed brushes that once had been brought in to decorate the rotting walls. Jerry Clark had always been most fascinated by the spider web in the corner. The spider herself was black with yellow bolts across her back. Jerry Clark had never seen her idle. She ignored the flies buzzing at the windows and was careful to mend any holes they made when they careless flew into her web. She was always there when he stopped in; the crumbling corner was enough for her. Before it caught fire, the musty playhouse had smelled of earth and cat and mold. The spider web must have burned quickly, but the spider by then was probably long gone.
The tractor moved slowly. He had a lot of time to think; there wasn’t much else to do behind the wheel other than follow the line of dirt he had plowed the night before. He considered the summers before he had begun working on the field. He barely remembered them. He always told himself he would write a poem about the valley at night, something that he could hold onto when he left the valley and the yellow house, or at least when his back got too sore to bear the rigid seat. He never wrote it though. He knew it would just turn into a jumble of words, or worse, something that he would be expected to understand.
He reached the end of the field and turned back around in the direction of his daughter. He had written a song once. But it hadn’t been about the valley. He hummed a verse to himself, but forgetting how the chorus went, started again at the beginning. He had written it for his wife to play on the piano. She could play anything through perfectly the first time as long as she’d listened to it once, and so he had sung it for her, embarrassedly under his breath, and she had loved it. He thought he could hear it now through his earmuffs, and it was so real he turned his head to look out the side of the tractor for a second to see where it was coming from, but there was nothing but heavy air and blackness. The humming continued in the grinding of the tractor’s gears. An owl swooped down in front of him out of nowhere. Its wing caught the tractor light and for a split second Jerry Clark thought he was going to hit it. The next second it was gone again into the darkness as fast as it had come and the man breathed again. He focused straight ahead and watched his daughter come into view. She looked up and waved. As he began the second row he called out over his shoulder, “I’ll be around again soon!” His own voice echoed in his ears.
Jerry Clark remembered the last day of plowing the year before and wondered whether or not he himself had changed much since then. He felt much younger then. His knees were definitely more tightly jammed in now. The past year had clawed at him, leaving him raw and brittle. It was the winter that had been hard, he thought. He had shoveled snow and done other odd repairs like scraping old paint off of houses about to be white washed and removing dead branches from rotting trees. His brother’s house had slowly fallen into disrepair, and any free time he had was spent fixing the leaks in the pantry or adding insulation to the attic. His neighbors had all suggested that he and his daughter move to the house down the road. It had been for sale for years, and they even all offered to help pitch in. He had thanked them, but refused. He couldn’t move to a different house, there were too many things he’d have to leave behind.
Jerry Clark had turned the tractor around again without even realizing it and was now on his way back toward his daughter’s end of the field. He looked for her hunched shadow, magnified against the long grass but couldn’t make one out. The tractor kept inching forward and he could see now that she definitely was not directly ahead of him. He thought about the time she had gotten lost at the country fair. She had curled up under the bleachers of the Demolition Derby and stayed there until the fair closed down. A watchman had found her when he was locking up the stadium. Jerry Clark started wondering if she had called to him and he hadn’t heard. He had reached the edge. He grabbed at his earmuffs and pulled them off. The air felt freezing on the sides of his head—and just as he placed both hands on the wheel again, the tractor suddenly wobbled and then lurched downward, listing unnaturally to the right. The motor shut off and the lights dimmed even more. He had been thrown forward, but did not feel hurt. He must have toppled into her hole, he thought. He could still hear the humming except now there was a thunderous drumming beat or pounding from his temples. He was shouting for her now. Shouting and wrenching himself free of the tractor’s cage, and all of his screaming drowned out her reassuring responses. He got his way out of the mess and started running around the hole, tugging at his hair and calling her name.
The birds in the forest flew up and joined in the screaming. They flew like dark shadows across the sky. He didn’t see her walking toward him from out of the long grass. Jerry Clark grabbed hold of the tractor and tried to lift it. When he realized he couldn’t, he kicked it and was trying to lift it again when his daughter tugged at his coat and he turned, pulling away from her. The man stared down at the small person by his side disbelievingly in the low light. The valley still echoed with the hollow, metal emptiness. Both the man and his daughter trembled. “I want to go home now,” she whispered. “I lost my spade anyway, and it’s too dark out here.” He nodded and without taking his eyes off her, turned the key out of the ignition and pocketed it. Everything was solid dark and the absence of the tractor’s roaring made the air and night swell in his ears. They started walking in the direction they thought the field’s opening was.
“What will I do about China?” She asked after a minute.
“We’ll walk there,” he answered.
“And what about the tractor? Is it broken?”
“It’s done its job.”
“We’re just gonna leave it there, lying in the hole like that?”
“We’ll come back tomorrow when the sun’s up.”
“I lost my goggles. I really need to find them soon. And my boots are too tight, I’m getting blisters.”
Jerry Clark looked at her, and didn’t answer.
“I said my boots are too tight.”
“I heard you.” He said.
Elodie Freymann, Age 16, Grade 11, Trinity School, Silver Key