Reprint Prize Winner: “The Dowsing of Linus Spalding” by Craig M. Foster

February 5, 2024

Whenever I read a story for The Masters Review, I’m of course looking for excellence in craft—engaging, well-developed characters; a unique voice; expertly controlled pacing; sharply rendered setting—but usually, I’m homing in on the ending: Does this story stick the landing? Does it manage to both fulfill the promises it sets out at the start and surprise me? It should be a given, then, when I report that “The Dowsing of Linus Spalding” Craig M. Foster, winner of our first Reprint Prize, excels at all of the above. We reviewed hundreds of remarkable stories and essays for this prize, but none could surpass the story of young Ellie Spalding and her father on the banks of North Fork River. Here is an ending you will never forget. —Cole Meyer, Editor-in-Chief

“The Dowsing of Linus Spalding” was first published in The Jabberwock Review.


East of Friendship, Oklahoma, breaking crudely from the North Fork River, runs a creek I used to hurdle at its narrowest point. It meanders through a hickory grove and past our cabin, but expends most of its short life dissecting grasslands where the Kiowa hunted buffalo before they were hoodwinked and burglarized. Aptly named—Trace Creek—it is granted no opportunity to flourish, to neither widen nor sprout creeks of its own. Less than three miles from inception, it dumps right back into the North Fork, then etches the top of Texas and pours into the Delta. Sometimes, water ran so freely that it sloshed over the edges. Then one day it dried up and devoured my father as he watched and waited on the front porch.

Our cabin was a one-room ode to western expansion, a haiku of grayed wooden planks butted up against a cotton field. I have a picture taken days after my birth, before Daddy’s shoulders started to sink. He is holding me to his chest, and his hands are lost under my white dress; his moustache curves out like a wave. Momma stands next to him, a pillar, straight and detached. Their boots are inkblots in the snowy ground, and our faces so washed out as to be anybody’s. Behind us is the cabin, with windows like dark eyes. The creek isn’t pictured, but we see it there, frigid and full, just beyond the camera lens.

We used to gig frogs together. Daddy would rustle me at midnight from dreams of red-clay men, giants who protected us as we slept, his face in my face, finger to his lips to not wake Momma across the room. Armed with a lantern and makeshift tridents, we floated the creek, listening: a splash, a croak, murmuring waves of June bugs. The stars were so clear that I’d flick to try and set them loose.

Once, when I was twelve, we went gigging and the frogs were practically hopping into our laps. We hardly hauled one in before spotting another, wide-eyed on the bank, pleading to be captured. Daddy kept laughing at our good luck, which had me giggling like the time I snuck a drink of whiskey. We had almost filled our bucket when I impaled a fat one and flung its slimy body into the boat. Daddy quickly stabbed his knife through its meaty thigh, pinning it to the wooden seat like a Wanted poster.

“That’s a nice one,” he said, his moustache creeping up into a grin. “Your momma will be glad to cook it.” I gripped my trident tighter, imagining the blood on its tip to be from a Trojan warrior. He then reached for the bucket full of frogs and accidentally knocked the fat one loose with his knee. It squirmed up and jumped for freedom. Daddy lurched forward, but it was already splashing in the creek, the knife along with it. “Dammit,” he whispered, holding the lantern over the edge of the boat. “Got away. . .with my knife even.” He swept the lantern across the water like a lighthouse. The surface blinked back with a lazy ripple.

“I know this spot,” I said. “I’ll come back and find it.” The previous summer, just up the creek, I had watched a pair of burrowing owls every morning. Perched for hours in the broad arms of a nearby oak, I obsessed over their every hop and paranoid head-jerk, over the way they hissed and rattled like snakes from the bottom of their den to scare me. Until one morning, one of the hottest days of the year, I arrived and the den was empty as if Easter had come in July.

Daddy pretended to search for a minute more, then snuffed the lantern with his fingertips and placed it at his feet. We floated in darkness for some time, looking out at the shadows of the cypress and the distant Wichita Mountains inching toward the moon. The skiff hung motionless in the creek, still as the air. It seemed Daddy was going off into his head, a foreign place I always wished to visit.

His voice boomed out and startled me. “You know my father gave it to me.”

“The knife?” I asked, knowing full well what he meant. I had often watched him sharpen it, a three-inch blade that folded into a redwood handle. On the front steps of the cabin, he’d flit the edge along a smooth stone carefully chosen from the creekbed.

“Yep,” he said, leaning back fully into the bow, his face and chest vulnerable to any falling thing.

“Don’t worry. I’ll find it,” I said. I looked toward him, but it was too dark to gauge his features, to see if he thought I was being a stupid little girl. Quiet again. I was afraid he was going back in there, deep, but he continued, and I felt like how the disciples must have when Jesus said listen.

“He said buffalo used to cover everything out here.” He was talking about my grandfather again. “He said you smelled them first. A breeze would bring it to you. Like a thousand sweating men. Then you’d come up over a ridge and there they’d be, brown spots all over the grass. He said all you had to do was kill one and the whole herd would circle up around it. They’d lick and paw at the dead one, grunting and snorting and all hysterical like a bunch of ladies at a funeral. Then you could walk up right behind and kill them all real easy if you wanted.”

I grimaced, sick at the thought of a mound of the dead beasts. “Doesn’t hardly seem fair to me.”

He clicked his tongue lightly. “No. I suppose it don’t.”

“Kind of like the war,” I said. I had seen a recent newspaper headline at the post office: WILSON SIGNS WAR DECREE.

“How do you reckon?”

“Well,” I said, unsure of myself, “Momma said they’re just gonna send all our boys over there to get slaughtered.”

He exhaled briskly through his nose. “Your momma probably shouldn’t talk about things she doesn’t know.”

* * *

It was beans again for dinner. I once counted forty-four days straight of beans; Momma always had a pot full of them soaking in the corner. We ate in the light of a small candle, spoons clinking in the silence of the cabin. I sucked the saltiness away from a single bean, then bit down, its flesh squishing between my teeth. Daddy was hunched over his bowl like always, scooping the food through his lips. He looked at Momma and stopped chewing and pointed his spoon vaguely in her direction. “Ellie says you have thoughts on Wilson declaring war.”

I froze, spoon to my mouth. Momma’s eyes flicked to me like an owl’s to a field mouse. She drew a breath and turned to him. “Same thoughts as always, I suppose.” She lowered her hands into her lap, speaking measuredly. “Against it, like everyone else.” I remained still, hoping to be forgotten in my chair. These conversations usually happened in whispers while I slept.

“Well, that might be changin’.” He tore a piece of bread in half and dabbed it in his bowl. Momma shifted in her seat and opened her mouth a sliver. For years we heard nothing but anti- war sentiment. Everyone in Oklahoma clung to it for fear that the war—with its tariffs and blockades and conscriptions— would cull us right off the earth. It was surprising to hear a different tone from him.

He saw her confusion and continued. “There was this professor at the co-op meeting yesterday. Down from Stillwater. Had this funny black beard all pointy down his face.” He covered his chin with his hand to illustrate; Momma wrinkled her brow. “Told us cotton prices are going to soar up now—need it to clothe the soldiers, for bandages and whatnot.” He walked across the room and retrieved a piece of paper from his satchel. “He’s gonna come and show us new farming techniques and how to really do our part for the war.” With a rigid finger he pinned a tattered pamphlet in front of her. She pursed her lips and slowly scooted the candle closer; its flame flickered, and wax dripped onto the table near my bowl. “The government is telling banks to give money to farmers. It’s like free money.” He pointed to an image at the top of the page. “That’s the President’s seal there. Straight from the White House.”

She read silently, tracking the words with her finger. Daddy hung over her shoulder, pretending to follow along, though he never could read.

“I was thinkin’ we could expand our fields,” he said. “Double or triple the amount of cotton, maybe.” Ours was one of the smallest farms in the county, and he struggled to harvest it by himself. I tried to envision Momma forced to work the plow, skirt hems to her ankles, auburn hair plastered to her face and neck.

“It’s a loan, Linus. It’s not free money,” she said, like a teacher chiding a dim student. I picked at the dried wax on the table, wondering what a loan was, imagining Daddy with a net, skimming dollar bills from the creek.

“Wheatley said they all but begged him to take a thousand bucks.”

“Frank Wheatley has twenty times the acreage we have.” She rubbed her temples between both hands and took a deep breath. A coil unwound in my stomach as curiosity turned to unease.

“Was he wearing a tie?” she asked.

“Who? Frank?”

“No. This professor. Did he have a tie on?”

“A bowtie maybe,” he said, giving her a funny look.

“So, he’s not a farmer?”

He squinted in irritation and shrugged his shoulders. “How do I know? What’re you going on about?”

She raised her eyebrows at him. “All I’m saying is he sounds like a meddler to me. A dandy in a bowtie who wants to tell farmers how to farm when he’s never put a crop in the ground in his life.”

Daddy stared at her, then shook his head. He gathered the pamphlet and placed it in his pocket. “Frank gave me the name of his banker. I’m going to see him tomorrow.”

* * *

Soon, new things arrived on the farm. A plow with a seat; a speckled horse, broad enough for the work; a pyramid of burlap sacks filled with cotton seed. Me and Momma were set to preparing the old field while Daddy sat atop the plow for hours, dredging up the earth for the new acreage. He’d skip right through lunch, stopping now and then to drink from the creek. Momma watched him, always quietly, but I knew she was worried because I heard her tossing around in bed at night when she should have been dead tired. I thought her vomiting behind the barn was from worry, too, but learned later that it was normal for pregnant women.

Daddy said our biggest problem was going to be irrigation. When our acreage was smaller, he could water it on his own with barrels and buckets, but that wouldn’t be possible now. “We need trenches,” he said. So, for the first time, he paid for help. First came an old, gray-headed man with hairy ears, who used dynamite to blow a large boulder out of the ground. The explosions took my breath, and I was thankful not to be a soldier, mangled by the same stuff. Then two dumb boys with blond hair showed up to our house with shovels, and Momma told Daddy they weren’t allowed in the house. She meant it, too—even when one of them sneezed behind the speckled horse and got kicked in the leg. She made him lay on the porch, sweaty and unconscious from the pain, covered from hair to heel in dirt.

But the trenches were dug, and I thought them beautiful in their straightness. One wide trench ran from a bend in the creek and split off again and again like rungs on a ladder. When he at last connected the trench to the creek—when water flowed over and into our empty fields for the first time—you’d have thought Daddy had won the war single-handedly. He beamed and patted the dumb boys on their backs; he lifted me and hugged me and looked to Momma, who was shaking her head on the porch. Standing there with the baby in her belly, I think even she was hopeful.

Daddy let me help with the sowing. He’d sling a pouch over my shoulder and wrap my knees with Momma’s old scarves for padding. His hands worked softly then, cradling the seeds in his palm. “Don’t just toss them all about,” he said, kneeling along a freshly tilled row. With one hand he dug a small hole—“go an inch down”—then he pinched three seeds between his fingers, placed them in the hole, and brushed the soil back over. “Make sure to tamp it just so.” He used the back of his hand to pack it down, gentle like a bitch cleaning her pups. We worked in unison, down one row then up the next. Eventually the cloth on my knees was spotted with blood, but he never knew. I moved along next to him, sometimes under the moon, and it felt like creeping down a cave, closer and closer to where the world crashes silently against a wall. Then Momma would yell across the darkness and tell him to get me inside.

* * *

Spring was losing its grip as we seeded the last of the fields. In the mornings, we felt the sun before seeing it and knew the days would soon be longer and hotter.

One afternoon when we were sowing, the preacher showed up unannounced with another man. Daddy was lost in whistling a meandering tune. We both turned at the sound of their crunching shoes.

“Afternoon, Linus,” said the preacher, cloaking me in his imposing shadow. “Have you met Professor Moorling?”

Daddy stood, wiped his palms on his dungarees, and shook their hands. “Not officially, but I saw him when he spoke at the co-op meeting.” Daddy had been right about the man’s strange beard—it belonged on the face of a European revolutionary, not a crop sciences professor.

“We don’t want to be a bother,” said the preacher. He flashed a grin in my direction, and I pretended to poke another seed into the ground. It was cool in the shade of his wide belly. “There’s been lots of talk in town about your trenches. Wanted to see them for ourselves.”

“Oh, yes,” replied Daddy, wringing his hands uneasily. “It was quite a job, but I had good help.”

The professor peered toward the trenches. Petite and dull-eyed, he wore formal daywear: a waistcoat and trousers; a black morning coat draped over his elbow. He removed a domed hat and wiped sweat from his forehead. “You’ve moved a substantial amount of earth here, Mr. Spalding,” he said, still looking in the direction of the trenches. He spoke so solemnly that I wondered if he had come straight from a funeral.

The preacher curled his fat thumbs under the straps of his overalls. “It really is something, isn’t it, professor?” He winked approvingly at Daddy, who returned a modest nod. “No greater patriots than Oklahoma farmers.”

Without responding, the professor broke away and strolled along the edge of one of the nearby trenches. Coat and hat in hand, he resembled a land baron called abruptly to the fields on his way out to the theatre. We watched attentively as he inspected the matrix, walking all the way to the creek. Daddy raised a confused eyebrow at the preacher, who shrugged. “He was real anxious to see them—and the creek.”

In the distance, Momma watched the strange scene with hands on her hips. A welcome breeze drifted across the fields, whipping a blur of dust that swirled and disappeared. The professor made his way back, and the other two men walked to meet him. I scooted loosely behind, laying a careless line of seed.

The professor lowered his head in thought. “Your creek,” he said to Daddy, running a small hand through damp hair, “and these trenches, they siphon quite a lot of water from the main river, no?”

Daddy shifted his weight from one leg to the other, unsure how to respond. “Well, I don’t know how much exactly. But no farms are affected. The only thing downriver is the co-op.”

“Yes,” said the professor, speaking like an expert. “And that’s precisely the concern. In my experience, co-ops need a tremendous amount of water. And the war is only going to make that need greater.”

Daddy crossed his arms. He had taken me to the co-op many times, and I enjoyed getting lost in its towering barns and silos like an ant in a castle. “That river flows deep,” he said. “We don’t even let Ellie here swim in it ’cause it can be so fierce at times.” He looked at me sheepishly. Having swum in the river many times by myself, I was anxious that he felt the need to lie.

The preacher, who was also the co-op president, stepped toward the two men and chuckled awkwardly. “All due respect, professor, but I’ve gotta agree with Linus. The co-op’s got more water than we know what to do with. It flooded out there a few years ago.” He winked at Daddy, who took some relief from the preacher’s endorsement.

“Yes. Of course,” said the professor with a strained smile. “I have no doubt that is true.” He put his hat back on and reached for Daddy’s hand. “Mr. Spalding, you really should be proud of what you’ve accomplished here. My apologies for the interruption. I can see you and your daughter have much work to do.”

* * *

It took another week to finish the sowing. Daddy didn’t whistle much then, and I figured the professor occupied that space instead. We zigzagged on our knees, fingernails scratching at the dirt, closer and closer to completion. With every seed, I raised my head to check our progress, and, as we neared the end, the curious weight of the professor seemed to evaporate. Finally, with no rows left to sow, we looked out across the fields. They were heaping with expectation, and I felt like Momma carrying the baby. I drew a long breath through my nose and could almost smell the ivory and green sprouting up from each tiny hole dug by our fingers.

Daddy crouched down and swept a hand over the dirt. He wrapped an arm around my swollen knees and looked up at me. “I’d say it’s good.”

I knelt beside him, squinting against the sun, swollen with pride. “I’d say so.”

* * *

The next Sunday, for the first time in months, we went to church. Momma scrubbed her skirt for what seemed like hours and put me in a white hat she wore as a girl. Daddy brushed the speckled horse clean and we rode in the open wagon, bouncing on rocks the whole way. At one point, the wagon still in motion, he stood and started marching in place, holding the reins and singing Yankee Doodle.

“Sit down, Linus!” Momma shouted. “You’re a madman!” But he kept going, and I was laughing so hard that when he said the word “macaroni” I thought I’d never breathe again. Even Momma giggled when he sang “and with the girls be handy” and reached back to touch her hair.

The church was white and square and always smelled like moss. Old wooden pews lined the entirety, except for the front, where the preacher stood behind a leaning podium. With only four small windows, it wasn’t long before we were all sweating and fanning away. In the quiet moments, you heard every creak, so my legs were sore from sitting tense and motionless. I was surprised to see the professor, with his black beard perfectly manicured, sitting like a dignitary in the front row next to the preacher’s wife.

After the service, we filed outside, and the preacher’s wife passed around small sandwiches with bits of pork fat. I ate mine slowly to not miss the taste. The other children ran circles around the lawn, and I noticed the preacher pull Daddy aside. My heart quickened as they walked to a hickory tree where the other fathers were huddled around the professor. They all shook hands, and Daddy responded to a question from the preacher. I was glad to see them smiling. The other men listened as Daddy talked, sometimes excitedly. He was describing our new fields and trenches, the dynamite man, and the boy getting kicked by the speckled horse. At one point they all laughed in unison, a loud burst of crowing men. Relieved, I turned back to my sandwich, savoring the lushness of the fat.

He finished his story and a moment passed; the laughter cleared. Then the professor started speaking right to Daddy. The preacher looked at his feet as the professor motioned strangely with both arms, moving them in a perpendicular line, as if tracing a river on the ground. He pointed at imaginary points along the river and looked somber as always. Daddy mindlessly scratched at his arm, eyes fixed on the professor, who continued his lecture for several minutes. The other men watched attentively.

Then Daddy broke in, pointing to the imaginary river. He kneeled down to thump his finger in the grass. His back was to me, but his voice grew louder, and I heard the anger without hearing the words. I looked to Momma, sitting on a low brick wall with some other ladies. She cut her eyes toward the scene, then to me. When Daddy stepped into the professor and stretched his arms in exasperation, she got up from the wall and hurried toward him.

He was full-on yelling now, about water and the war. Momma reached him and lightly touched his shoulder from behind. Instinctively, he thrashed an arm backward to slough her off, sending her reeling to the ground. The preacher dashed toward her, and Daddy turned to see Momma on her backside, red-faced in the grass. His eyes widened, and he pushed the preacher aside, scooped her up, and tenderly carried her to the wagon. The other ladies watched with mouths open. They pitied us.

Daddy could barely keep the horse in a straight line, his eyes wet with anger. He called the professor a snake and the preacher a thief. “They can’t steal our water. It ain’t right.” The wagon hurtled along the path, jostling me and Momma around like potatoes. “They have plenty of water for that new mill.” I remembered the professor’s ominous visit and his veiled warning. It was a punch to the stomach when he finally said it: They’re going to dam up our creek.

Momma breathed heavily. I always thought her prettiest when angry—her jawline tight and eyes flickering—and I hated that she was beautiful that day in the wagon. I hated that I didn’t know who she was mad at. I scooted into her body, but she sat rigid. The wagon slid and banged against the hardpack soil, then hit a large pothole. I was tossed completely up and crashed down hard on my elbows.

“Linus!” Momma yelled. “You’re gonna kill us all!” She heaved, almost bursting from her blouse. He slowed the horse but kept on with his mumbling the rest of the way home.

* * *

That week passed in fog as the pleasant air of spring bowed to the reign of summer. My parents applied themselves to avoiding one another and also me, so I wandered down the creek to look for Daddy’s knife. The water was clear and chilled, up to my shoulders. I dove down with eyes open and swept my hands across the bottom, sunk my fingers into the mud and around sharp twigs and stones. Then up for a breath. I imagined myself in a river in France with bullets whirring overhead. I imagined the two dumb boys, helmets rattling as they dug their trenches, rats crawling on their infantry boots. This continued for several hours—dive, sweep, breathe—as I was carried slowly, dive by dive, bit by bit, farther down the creek. The sun moved straight overhead, and my body cast a wavy shadow on the creekbed that reminded me of the professor’s beard.

I had drifted nearly to the mouth of the creek and stood to see the water splashing up into small white peaks as it funneled into the North Fork. The rush of water pressed strongly against me, but it was curiously lower—reaching only to my waist. I clambered up the steep bank and turned to rinse the mud from my fingernails. Laying on my stomach, I reached my hands into the water. A dark band crept up the creek wall where the waterline previously reached, like a beach after the tide retreats.

To my left, a flash caught my attention: the sun reflected against metal. My heart jumped. It was the knife, embedded in the mud just above the water. Excitedly, I excavated it with my fingers, still sore from planting the rows. The handle was soft in my palm, and I pressed the cool blade against my cheek, wondering at all the flesh it had stabbed.

I sprinted home, anxious to show Daddy what was surely a sign of an imminent salvation. Running hard, I thought the sun was playing tricks in the creek, as if I could see the water getting shallower with each step, as if God himself pulled the plug to watch it drain down into the mud. But nearing the cabin, I knew it was no trick. The creek barely trickled, and Daddy was a lunatic, pacing along the bank.

Momma stood in the doorway. She rested a hand on the round bump of her stomach, a small thing barely growing. Deflated, I dropped the knife into my pocket and sidled up beside her, the usual pillar. Strands of her hair blew freely, having escaped from their pins. I touched my own hair, feeling the loose braids damp from swimming. The smell of fire and beans wafted through the cabin door as we watched Daddy at the trenches, mumbling to himself.

“He is such a fool,” she whispered. Her taunt was fearless—the type that wraps around a marriage and squeezes the guts out.

I rubbed the knife in my pocket, hoping to summon a miracle. “There’s nothing we can do?”

She breathed out incredulously. “Like what? Maybe you two should go out and plant twenty more acres.” My cheeks scorched as if the blood might come out in tears. This was not her usual coldness, that freezing old jacket she always dressed me in. It was a heavy shroud of blame that I wore without knowing why.

* * *

That night the cabin was empty without the hum of rushing water, without the plinks and plunks of fish and frogs. The full moon cast a cross on the floor beside my bed. I dreamed of a blue wave falling from the sky, pressure building in my chest as it hurtled toward the cabin. Then a click near my head—my eyes opened to see Daddy sneaking out the door with an unlit lantern. From the window, I watched him disappear into the barn, where slivers of light shot from under the door. He emerged on the speckled horse, shrouded in the glow of the lantern. In my nightgown and bare feet, I peered at Momma sleeping, then delicately opened the door as if the knob might crumble in my palm.

My footsteps hurried in the grass beside the path. I followed the glowing orb through the sounds of early summer until the cabin was gone. The warm night soon had me sweating and panting to keep up. The path ended, and we started across open pasture, still flanked by the creek. Everything was capped by the vast, black sky as Daddy, just a hazy glimmer ahead, dissolved over a hill. I started to panic. It was stupid to follow him out here with the snakes, creeping like burglars on our own land. Having nearly decided to turn back, I came over the hill and saw him. He had left the horse and stood on a mound, holding the lantern.

I tiptoed down and crouched behind a small bush, close enough to hear gravel crunch under his feet. The horse was between us, tied to a tree. Daddy had come to the source of the creek, where it first broke off from the North Fork. I realized the mound was a pile of boulders, freshly placed. They were the dam; they kept our water from us. The professor’s grand plan was just a pile of rocks. But it was enough.

He raised the lantern to inspect the dam, then climbed down the opposite side. Shadows danced up and around the boulders, and I heard him grunt. Pebbles cascaded from the pile, and he came back into view. I ducked lower as he walked toward the horse, no more than twenty feet from me. If I blinked, he might hear.

Through the tangle of bushes, I watched him open a leather pouch tied to the saddle. Out of it came a roll of string and a red tube—a stick of dynamite left over from the old, hairy- eared man. My heart beat harder as he unwound the string in a line up to the dam. Then, down on all fours, he reached deep into a crevice between the boulders and buried the dynamite. Through quivering breaths, I wanted to call out to him. He wouldn’t blow it if he knew I was there. He wouldn’t want me to see.

He stood, and a pleasant breeze blew in from behind. His hair fluttered up, and a swell of dust washed over the horse, then me. The horse sneezed and took a step forward, which knocked something loose from the pouch—another of the red sticks.

A red stick falling, and I’m standing to run, heat in my stomach, and Daddy sees and then the blast clobbers me. My eyes burn and itch. Full of dirt. Dry. Wet in my hair. Scrambling back, the dirt in my chest. Coughing. Dirt in my mouth. Dirt everywhere. Throbbing inside my head-cave. Screaming, but no sound, and then arms pulling me up. The smell of burnt hair. Rough hands sweeping my face. Rough hands sweeping, sweeping across my forehead and eyelids. Blinking, trying to see. The arms lift me like a baby. Bouncing, bouncing, bouncing in the arms, then lowered and freezing water all over. The rough hands again, sweeping my face and eyes. Light pokes through in blurry strands. I blink and blink and see Daddy yelling in my face, spitting in terror. He sounds underwater. “Ellie. Oh, God. Are you okay? Please tell me where it hurts.”

He knelt beside me as I lay in the river, his hands darting across my body, frantic to find something. Under the full moon, my white nightgown glistened with crimson splotches, saturated with blood. His wide eyes led me into panic. I yelled “Daddy!”, tore my clothes off, and searched over my body and into my hair. My hand was covered in bloody dirt and clumps of something like flesh. My fear was of death, but it didn’t hurt.

He submerged me into the river again, still hunting for a wound. He rolled me over to look at my back. Then he stopped, picked me up, and placed me next to the dam.

Kneeling over me, he tilted his head back and breathed heavily to calm himself. He rested his palms on his thighs and let out a sigh. “It’s the horse,” he said, sucking in another breath.

What is the horse?” I cried.

“The blood,” he said, pointing to my chest, “is from the horse.”

My eyes shot to where the speckled horse had stood moments before. It was gone, replaced by a smoky pit. It existed now only in the clumps, the blood, the flesh—sprayed all over me. The gunk in my hair; the splotches on my clothes. My stomach convulsed, and I retched the terror out all over Daddy’s boots. I thought of a tower of buffalo, climbing up into a pyramid, then a breeze, and they evaporated. I thought of the foreheads of boys peeking over the tops of trenches, getting sprayed with the same gunk or worse, and knew that they must vomit, too.

For the rest of my life, when I pictured him in my mind, this is what I saw: Daddy, cast in the bronze of Oklahoma clay, crying over my shivering body. A man battered; a statue sandblasted to its hull; a divining rod in the hands of an impotent god. Kneeling there small and weak, in front of the dam still intact, because he failed at that, too. Cotton never grew on our farm again, so he’d pace the dry creekbed hunting for that knife. A million hours wasted because I never told him to stop. I never said, “I found it.”

Daddy kissed my forehead and covered me with his shirt. Heavy clouds trampled the sky, blotting out the moon. I squinted for the stars, but they were hidden, and Daddy’s sobbing was barely audible over the loud rush of the North Fork behind us, running full and happy.

Craig M. Foster lives in north Texas with his wife and three sons. His stories have appeared in
Blue Mesa Review, Jabberwock Review, J Journal, and The MacGuffin. He was the recipient of the 2021 Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize for Fiction.


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