I didn't grow up where my mother did. Elise Steele flourished in the cattle country of the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon, on the ranch Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce called Heart of the Beast. I was my father's daughter, born twenty-eight years ago at his homestead alongside the Columbia River. I was what occurred two centuries after Lewis and Clark sailed down our river eating dogs and writing history.
On that last day of harvest, the full moon passed. My pioneer family had always farmed by the cycles of the moon, and I was no different, cultivating the way my father taught me. The waning period, when the pull of the moon releases, is the time to reap, to plant, and to dig. It is when the ground lies vulnerable, carvable, and pliant. Ike Steele was my father, and he told me how things would go in the end. Life pours out from the downward horns of the moon.
Only twenty acres remained of the bright-colored wheat, a half day's cutting. As I walked out to my combine, all around me unfolded the darker auburn of harvested stubble, tinted by the minerals of the soil. My mother was so sick now, I could barely stand to leave her in the house alone. But a farmer had to finish reaping. It was as simple as that.
I fired up the combine, and waited while the engine smoothed out. That Indian summer morning, a soft breeze blew across my ear like the whisper of a beloved. I inched forward past the truck parked next to me, and made my way out to the last land. The sickle zigzagged into the standing grain, mowing the rustling carpet of bounty. The combine eased into the endless pattern of tracks that lay down platinum against the burnished spent stalks, the nourishment gone to seed.
Even after two months of harvest, I fell under its spell, watching the waving awns shake as the glinting bat of the header laid them over the blades. I sliced them forever still. The smell of wheat filled the cab as the cutting began, and sometime later gold grain rushed into the bin the way a mother's milk comes in a while after a baby is born.
The sun warmed the earth quickly, hardening the wheat. Most mornings went slowly because dew made the stalks cut and thresh poorly. It was my father who taught me how to cut grain, and how to seed land. My mother taught me never to let go of it.
With the thirty-foot header, I worked the long rectangular piece down and down, trimming away its edges and shortening the ends. Finally, all that remained were the small triangular patches where I made my corners. I cut up one side, completed them on the return; and I was finished. The end of harvest was the termination of the land's and my twelve months of labor, simultaneously the birth of the seed and the death of the crop. I loved and feared that time -- loved it because the cycle of guessing, hoping, and shepherding the stand was finally over. I feared it because a person could never tell what would come next. Fire, floods, disease, drought. These were the things that could get in the way.
For a moment, I turned the combine loose, not bothering to drive anywhere while the wheat threshed completely out. Unloading at the truck, I slipped the machine into fourth gear for the sprint home. In the past, there was a tradition of pulling the headers up and racing them back to the ranch. The run home wasn't as exciting now that I was the only one there. But still, charging over the completely cut fields from twenty feet above was the best part of the year.
It was the course of things to wash the machines afterward, to blow the awns of wheat from the pulleys, flush the last bits of grain from steeled and twirling augers. But instead I left it by the compressor and steam cleaner, and started into the house to see how my mother was doing. I took off my bandanna, shaking the dust from my hair. I hadn't washed it for days, but it still glowed white blond, the color of flax. By now, my hair had lost the green tint that came in the spring. After the long chill of winter was over, I always felt the sun in my feet and the urge to swim in the emerald Columbia. Every spring, the water turned my hair the lightest shade of green, the color of newly sprouted wheat.
My mother's sickness was why I had stopped reaping three days before, an unconscionable act for a farmer. I was compelled to take her to the mineral baths one last time. In May, the doctors at Hanford Regional Health Center in Richland had told me she had advanced brain cancer.
"Your mother probably doesn't have more than a couple months, Iris," said Dr. Groves, the oncologist. "We see a lot of this lately," he added, placing his hand on my back. His fingers were drawn together like a feeding sea anemone.
I imagined he was reading my bones, deciphering a braille X ray.
"Lefort was the first to study the head," he whispered, as if he were sharing a great secret. "Before any of them. Such humble beginnings," he said, making soft clicking noises with his tongue.
I drew away. I resented his authoritarian manner. "I've never heard of Lefort," I told him.
"He took guillotined heads of the French Revolution and smashed them," he said, staring down the hospital hall.
"Smashed them how?" I asked nervously.
Groves shrugged. "With boards. Cracked them with rocks. Dropped them on the ground. He wanted to see how the breakdown happened."
I nodded. There was an uncomfortable silence. I thought it was odd what doctors thought about when faced with death.
"It's brilliant the way Lefort discovered how things fall apart in the head," he said finally. "Don't you think?"
At home, my mother sat during the day in the green parlor room filled with her sister's art -- the busts of the family Hanna had done long ago. At eight o'clock every night, she went to bed. I stayed up later, long enough to help her when she called because she had wet her sheets. She was always cold and had a permanent chill in those bones that I had once come from. They stuck out now and were barely covered by her skin of wet tissue paper. Her snow-colored hair floated around her as the tide pulls and sways in ocean forests. My mother had always been stunning, but when she was dying, she was as beautiful as anyone I had ever seen. She had the violet eyes of fate, and the loss of weight made the bones in her face stand out like I imagined Helen of Troy's -- the beautiful destroyer of two worlds.
Before the end of harvest, my mother had told me she wanted to go to the mineral baths. She loved Carson Springs; and like her parents and grandparents before her, she went to the waters with religious regularity. Mother worshiped her family, especially her father, the horse trader, who successfully bargained the Nez Perce out of their best Appaloosas. They were some of the finest horses in the world, so tough they were exported for the military campaigns in North Africa and the Bosphorus.
When my mother's family first came to the state of Oregon, my great-grandparents went to sit in the caves along the Columbia River. They placed satchels of camphor around their necks to ward off disease, drank fossil water, and twined copper bracelets around their wrists, curing themselves of rheumatism that laced their bones into stone. For days, they lay thin and naked to the numbing cold night, strengthening their movement and will through the alchemy of mountains. The ranges of the great Northwest were made of strange erupting volcanoes that healed even the clear-cuts.
"It's my baptism," Mother said to me. She touched the bone of her wrist to her half-closed eyes as I lifted her into the Blazer. "It's time for me to go under the water."
For two months, she had been closing down, sleeping constantly. She napped even while drinking her coffee, spilling it on herself. I could not get her fine clothing clean, and trips to the dry cleaners in Pendleton were impossible until after harvest. She wore her designer clothes daily, refusing my offers of T-shirts and sweats. Mother sat remote and spotted with sepia like the photographs of our family generations ago.
Together we drove out to the Columbia River Gorge, and that empty feeling came back, the way it did every year near the end of harvest and before seeding the new crop. I felt as if I'd been lifted up by my flanks and thrown to the ground hard, had the wind knocked out of me like our calves, caught in the chute and waiting to be branded. I would catch my breath for a minute before the air was pushed out again by the weight of the glowing red brand, twisted and fashioned into the shape of my family name -- the Bar S. The Steele bars.
When I drove out to the river, I understood why Meriwether Lewis killed himself after navigating it. A melancholy came over a person there. It was ironic that this river would call forth the migration that created our country. My ancestors had planted trees to shelter themselves from what they called the immensity of the land. Even back then, they tried to escape from the wind sickness that plagued our family and caused the jangle of nerves. They used to call it shell shock. Where we live is like that, so vast that a person feels unnecessary, where everything without snarl and tangle is blown away.
I blamed the melancholy on the colored winds of the Indian summer, blamed it on anything. We drove through them there at the water, the white blasts that came at dusk generated from the current charging through the turbines of the Columbia's dams. I loathed that wind, thought it would poison me, take me as my mother's generation had been taken. So, I sped under the power lines, the unending metal tributaries that came running like rain off the water dams. Even energy was harvested in fall; the river filled again, and California would be ready to buy its power once more.
Flowing over the white gales of the river was the wind of the west, a deep shade of crimson. The farmers in the Willamette Valley grew clingy crops like pole beans, grass seed, and other tender yields dependent on rain and caring hands. The scarlet of their field-burning smoke blows over us, as every autumn they light their lands on fire to kill the diseases harbored from reproduction. We never did that; we always let disease go.
Driving to the mineral baths, I glanced over at my mother. She was slumped down to the side with her head drooping. It was a long-held terror of mine that my mother's features would someday run together and there would be nothing to remember her by. There, with her head forward, I saw her mouth part and let escape a glistening line of saliva. I thought then she had given up her complex thoughts to the wind.
We rode on west, under the blowing wire harnesses with the sun setting over Mt. Hood, mauve and pink, colored like a cathedral. There was a righteousness in Oregon that annoyed me. We passed it along the gorge: the truck drivers that haul garbage from Portland and Seattle to the largest landfill in the Northwest, out here in eastern Oregon.
The people in the cities were righteous as well, those who made all that garbage and dumped it here. They were the same ones who complained about the farm subsidy program when they bought cheap food at the grocery store. They said we didn't care about the land, our mother they called it. Said farmers just robbed it, cut it up, and poisoned it with pesticides.
The truckers didn't bother with philosophical arguments. They figured there was no one but themselves to enforce any law, and their rules were naturally the best ones. They drove in tandem down the highway so you couldn't go speeding by them. Plastic chickens danced out of their windows, and they fired starting pistols at cars they thought were going too fast. They made for treacherous road.
I mostly ignored them, the self-appointed freeway constabulary. I sped by them on any side of the highway I pleased, and hoped that when I passed, a rock would fly up and dent their shiny tractors -- to the truckers, that was like damaging their jewels. So I gave the garbage haulers the finger and blew past because we had Ike's old Blazer with a Hearst gearshift and a 454 engine, quicker than those trucks'. The hood rose up and down from the rattle and hum of the motor, and we sailed on down that highway as though we were surfing on the big river itself.
When we passed over the Bridge of the Gods, a trucker yelled out his window at me. I slowed down and drove alongside him. My mother had slumped over even more, and with her relaxed face and open mouth, she looked handicapped. I kept her by the trucker's window for miles; I wanted him to feel as trapped as I did. He quit bothering me then. Maybe he thought I was on my way to a hospital and he figured that's why I was driving so fast.
"It'd be an insane asylum," I said to myself. I'd go to Dammasch, the same one she took her sister, Hanna, to, and drop her off there for good, just like what my mother had done.
My first memory of my mother was of her singing. She said it was the same song since the day I was born. In the evening air that breathed with the saw of crickets, she rocked out on the screened-in porch, waiting deep into the night for my father to come in from the fields. "My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea," she crooned softly, and swayed in the Shaker rocking chair.
"Your bonnie is right here, Mom," I interrupted her, hoping for some attention.
"Oh, bring back," she sang on, and then stopped. She walked inside the house, over to the wall next to the washer and dryer, and hit her forehead against it three times. It sounded deep, funereal, the toll of a bell. "You can never get away from your blood," she told the old flower-papered house.
I knew she was right; I couldn't cut her loose, especially now that she was about to die. If I did, I knew, out of retribution, I'd get all the same diseases and problems she had, and her mother had had, and on and on. So I kept her with me by my side, and we went out to the mineral springs instead. I should have slowed up but the sun had gone down and that meant no one was on the road but us. I wondered why she hated sunsets so much; I've always liked them better than the sunrise.
We rented a cabin for three days. It was made of pioneer wood that talked all evening as if it had found a long-lost friend in the wind. It didn't matter because my mother had fun that night waking me up every hour to go to the bathroom. It was her Norwegian philosophy that if she was paying for my lodging, she deserved to get something out of the deal. I had to help her sit down and get up from the toilet, and if I didn't get there fast enough she screamed from her room, and gave me a dirty look when I came running. I knew it was difficult for her. It was as if all her bodily functions were developing personalities of their own and disagreeing with her about the timing of their use. But I became angry anyway. She told me to pour warm water between her legs to help her urinate. I was embarrassed by the sight of the trickle running down her small and unprotected white crotch.
She delighted in the reversal of roles, called me her little nursemaid. It occurred to me then that she had once done this to my body. I was mortified that I had ever been so small and helpless that I had to depend on her for such fundamental things as voids and sustenance.
As the nights at the springs drew on, we commerced in health. I watched her fall into sleep, hypnotized by the black spiders dancing on her eyes, those things caused by the cancer. I began napping like her in the day and sleeping restlessly as she did at night. We sojourned on at the baths, gaming like sinners of Babylon.
In the mornings after her massage, I gave her showers. Though it would have been smarter and easier for me to take one with her, I refused. It became hard for me to undress around my mother. I avoided her envious eyes. I washed her standing in the shower with my shorts on, like I was washing a dog. I became entirely wet as I cleaned the places that scared me -- her armpits, her breasts, her stomach that pouched out and looked perpetually pregnant. She told me it was the price she paid for my having invaded her body for nine months.
I pulled up her arms while steadying her, soaping those armpits, the endless hollows. I reached my fist into her body there, like she was a puppet waiting for a hand to take her over. If I could have invaded my mother, I would have captured her idols and held them ransom. I would have massaged her heart to make it beat more sweetly.
The laws of the earth talked to me as I labored my way down her body. Gravity had pulled everything into that immensity of belly. Her torso was thin and witchlike, and her legs came out of her like crooked wood. I wet towels, soaped them, and cleaned between her legs. I rinsed them out and washed her again, worrying whether all the soap had been removed or whether she might contract a bladder infection. I wondered if it ever crossed her mind whether she had left me clean.
"Your father abandoned me when you came. That's why we never had any more children. We were happy before," she said. "And now all I have left is you." I noticed she was smiling.
"He abandoned you before I came. He did it when Jake was born," I replied. I couldn't stand anything being blamed on me when I could just as well blame someone else, especially when that someone happened to be my brother.
"When you were born was when I stopped practicing law," she mused.
"You were having so much fun at home you couldn't stand to leave us?"
She smiled and closed her eyes. "Yes," she said. "That's right."
"People make choices," I replied.
"Ike never talked to me after you were born," she added.
"That's because he was so busy telling me what to do," I said, smiling back at her. "And anyway, isn't that what happens to people when they have children?"
"I never heard that one," she whispered hoarsely.
"It's what everyone says," I responded. " 'Kids ruin everything.' " I rinsed the washcloth. "I would have known," I said. "I always know how things will turn out."
The truth was my parents survived together as long as they each had an enemy. My father's was his son. My mother's was her daughter.
"Everything would have been different if you had been another boy," she said. "You can't be as strong," she told me. "And there is the name. Ranchers need to keep their legacy."
"Do you wish you were born a boy, Mother?" I had asked.
"Not for one second," she responded.
I think my mother felt she had contributed, had rendered something that my father could use in the fields. But everything beyond what my father worked, my blood, muscle, bones, and the turning to stone of my tongue, I knew belonged to her.
We soaked in the lithium pools together. In the ultrabuoyant water, I anchored a circular life preserver at her neck, two around her knees, and she floated. She laid her head back in the water nature had given Vikings like us to make up for our deficiencies of mood. I watched her while I sat immersed down deep in lithium. I inhaled the sweet smell, drank the soft water, and felt dizziness, gnawing euphoria. The skin on my fingers puckered and curled into miniature mountain ranges. The water floated my hands up, holding her near me as she slept. She looked peaceful, and I smiled at her before she dozed off. In that sleep, her body flowed into me. She pushed me over toward the hard rock edge.
It was on the third night of our stay that I murmured, "We need to finish the harvest."
"Yes, it's time," Mother answered, stirring from sleep.
Sitting on the side of her bed, I rubbed my palm on the white satin sheets I'd brought so her weak body could move more easily while she slept. I was infatuated with those heavy sheets that draped like a river over me. I had begun to sleep with my mother; we shared her bed, and I lay back next to her and thought of my great-grandparents. They were the ones to slap their soles to the Oregon Trail, the ones who claimed the earth. I wondered if I would ever be different, if I would ever be free of them.
My mother talked to me as we lay there. "They say, if you want to learn about yourself, study your mother." Her head shook from loss of muscle control.
I found myself thinking she was nodding like she was an expert on the subject.
I responded with silence.
"Do you want to know what you will look like," she went on, "when you die?"
I watched the bones in her head move as she spoke from above the shimmering satin. "You," I whispered. "I'll look like you." She frightened me. If she had said jump off the Bridge of the Gods, I would have done it for her. At that moment, I would have done anything.
"And what will you know when you die?" she asked me.
I searched her eyes for the answer. But she didn't look at me. She never looked at me. "What?" I asked.
After a long pause, she growled in a fresh rush of pain.
"Tell me," I insisted softly, leaning over and placing my ear to her lips.
"Water will never rise above its source," she said, closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep.
I stared at my mother for the rest of the night, didn't fall asleep until almost daylight, when even the rhythm of my breathing matched hers.
Heart of the Beast
In astonishing language, Joyce Weatherford combines unflinching descriptions of ranch life with the sensuous beauty of the Oregon landscape. part romance, mystery, courtroom drama, and history, Heart of the Beast is a family saga of epic power and import.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
HEART OF THE BEAST
1. Heart of the Beast opens to Iris's disturbing and bloody dream of the Nez Perce Indians and concludes with her father's violent death. What other violent images and scenes do you remember from the story? What do these scenes tell us about this land, this life, and this family? What does the calving scene illustrate about the relationship between Iris and her mother, and, likewise, what does the branding and castrating scene show about Ike and his children?
2. Farming has often been portrayed in literature as the work of men against an implacable earth. In this novel, the farmland is often portrayed as feminine: on page 7, we learn that the family farmed by the cycles of the moon; on page 8, the ground lies "vulnerable, carvable, and pliant," and later, the "gold grain rushed into the bin the way a mother's milk comes in a while after a baby is born." How do these and similar images shape our perception of the land and the act of farming? What do they say about Iris as a single woman running a farm on her own?
3. The novel revolves around the question of whether Iris and her family are the rightful owners of the property they call Heart of the Beast or whether the land belongs to the Nez Perce. Were you surprised by the way this issue was ultimately resolved? Was the decision fair? Who do you believe the land belongs to, and what would you have done in Iris's p see more