Today we introduce “Ledgers” by Claire Boyles, the second-place winner of our Short Story Award For New Writers. Claire’s story is about an ornithologist who returns home to care for her father after he suffers a stroke. Claire does a beautiful job of connecting her story’s disparate elements in a way that drives at the heart of her characters and themes. You’ll love this beautiful tale about nature, family, and loss.
“My Pop has always been the north star of my life… I set my moral compass by his worldview, consider always how my choices will affect his good opinion of me. I see Pop’s heart for ranching and his heart for the environment, and I’m grateful for the clear land ethic I learned at his knee.”
We let the dust settle for a month or two after Pop had his stroke, and then we sold the family ranch all in one piece to a cattle man from Montrose, Henson, whose name Pop didn’t recognize. I had been living on the Farallones, studying site fidelity of Ashy Storm-Petrels, birds most people probably haven’t heard of and might not ever. An oil spill or other catastrophe on the central coast of California any fall could wipe the whole species off the map. It was a plum research gig, every ornithologist’s dream job. But I love my Pop, so I gave it up and came home. That closing was the only time I’ve been happy that Pop lost his speech, because I didn’t want him to say out loud how much he wished I’d taken an interest in the damn cows instead of the damn birds.
Pop refused to let a subdivision be his last crop, so he gave Henson a good deal. We closed at the end of September. Henson signed the papers with rancher’s hands, leathery and sun-weathered, just like Pop’s. Henson is my age, plus a few years maybe—divorced, one young daughter—and I’m flat suspicious of the guy. How does anyone in their thirties come out of that recession with the kind of money it takes to buy a quarter section on the river, water rights attached, outside Gunnison?
Pop’s stroke stole a lot of things from him that I miss too, some more precious than his ability to manage cattle—verbs, for example, and with them, anything resembling sentences. Also the use of his entire right side and all our savings in medical bills, though that last resolved just fine when we sold the ranch. The worst is that he can’t say my name, Norah. Instead, Pop calls me Vera. I’ve stopped bothering to correct him. Vera, my mother, died in a puddle of her own blood and placenta the day I was born, waiting for the ambulance that turned down County Road 68 instead of County Road 68 ½.
Pop’s not confused the way you’d think. He knows the difference between his dead wife and his living daughter. For the first month or so, he’d wince every time he said it, “Vera,” shake his head sadly, look down at his shoes—New Balance sneakers with therapeutic elastic laces, not the boots he wore his whole life. A baseball cap has replaced his Stetson. He’s nearly unrecognizable. My friend Julie is his speech therapist, and she tells me that he still thinks ‘Norah’ when he looks at me, it’s just the signal gets lost in the aphasic fog that has settled somewhere between Pop’s brain and his tongue. When he thinks-Norah-but-says-Vera, it sounds like “Vvvvveera.” He gets stuck on that first ‘v’ sound, which according to the manner of articulation chart Julie put on our fridge is a labiodental fricative.
“Sounds dirty,” I said to Pop. “Labiodental.” I adjusted the magnets so I could see the whole consonant chart—the nasals and the alveolars, the voiced and the voiceless.
Pop laughed, and my heart fluttered a little, which I took as proof that it’s not broken all the way. When Pop laughs, it feels like we’re having a conversation instead of a series of Norah monologues, which are far less graceful than the stories Pop used to tell. There is no real prognosis for Pop, no clear number of months to live, no percentage of independence he’ll regain. Pop appears at once fragile and strong, like an egg. Every morning when I tie his shoes I think, This might be the last time I tie his shoes, and also I wonder, How many more times will I have to tie his shoes?
I’ve seen Henson exactly five times since he bought Pop’s ranch. I know because I started a page in my ledger just for him. I keep track of a lot of things in my ledger, how often I’ve turned the compost over, various downy woodpecker sightings, the fact that there were maybe 5000 Gunnison sage-grouse left in the entire world last spring. It’s a habit I picked up from Pop, the same way I got my head for numbers and my love of Oreo cookies. On October 30, Henson and I nodded hello to each other in the Safeway. He was pushing one of those double decker small carts instead of a family-sized one, and he was buying corn flakes and vanilla ice cream and other plain, sensible foods. On Christmas Eve, he showed up to church for the first and only time. I swear I caught the candlelight reflect off tears on his cheeks when we all sang “Silent Night,” but I can’t be sure. By the time the deacons turned the sanctuary lights back on, Henson was gone. He rode a horse in the New Year’s Eve parade, his saddle strung with tiny white twinkling lights, and he tipped his hat and smiled at me when he passed by.
The other two times I saw Henson, he didn’t see me. I was out birding on the BLM land on the west side of our old ranch property, well hidden by willow and brush, silent, patient. On March 24, I saw Henson cutting wire on the property line fence that separates the ranch from the BLM land behind it. On April Fool’s Day, about 100 yards down the fence line, he did it again. I got pictures of that one. I went down and checked for new grazing leases, and Henson’s name wasn’t anywhere. If he wants to graze the BLM land, he’ll be sending cattle across Pop’s and my secret Gunnison sage-grouse lek in the middle of breeding season, which is just as bad for those birds as a real-estate development would have been.