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Splinter by Tobey Hiller


Tobey Hiller’s “Splinter” is one of three winners of the
2020 CRAFT Elements Contest: Conflict.


Tobey Hiller’s “Splinter” opens with a balanced, dramatic blend of description and imagery, action and interiority—while placing Chekov’s Gun in the room. Though the story begins in conflict and doesn’t let up, the action is never over the top. Hiller deploys skillful prose to build tension and breathe life into the familiar subject of marital infidelity: the execution keeps us turning the page for more as we walk around the edges of the actual act of the affair. The writing is tightly controlled but creatively nimble with excellent figurative language and specific detail, incorporating both setting and place, the surrounding farming valley environment, tools, weather, animals, etc., into metaphors for the intense feelings and thoughts the two point-of-view characters experience (“In the early mornings, looking out at the ring of mountains circling the river valley and then watching the powerful slabs of the cattle’s shoulders ride up and down as they walked, their long bodies hung between their legs like well-packed canvas, their gait so suited in its swing and plod to the grassland, a satisfaction that made him think of well water rising clear and cool filled his chest.”). Read Hiller’s author’s note for more on imagery, intention, and POV. Her perspective shifts are masterful, priming us for a final confrontation that incorporates rapid pivots seamlessly.  —CRAFT


 

He sighted down the barrel. He could see her legs moving, her arms pumping. She was wearing a billed cap, probably her 49ers hat, and she was running down a road on the other side of the forty-acre cleared field, maybe a quarter of a mile away. The mown rye was a yellow wash under the barrel, the faraway fence a regular dit dit dit in his eye. He followed her motion just as he would a deer’s, waiting for the moment, keeping the notch just a hair ahead. He exhaled. He squeezed the trigger. He felt how he became hard and merciless, iron as any unbroken promise, just like the bullet as it sliced a tiny lethal hole in the air, and arrived.

He watched her fall.

The way he imagined it, she did not stagger, or whirl. He was a good shot. He figured she would just slam into the end of motion, pitch sideways and lie down on the dirt road. When he pictured it, he did not feel better, but the vividness of it gave him some sort of satisfaction, like eating or pissing when the urge was strong; all the details filled themselves in and unreeled almost like a memory, like something already done, and he didn’t try to stop the fantasy, though he didn’t think of himself as planning anything. He stayed away from the road and the barn when she went out on her morning runs, made sure he was out on the tractor or working on the irrigation lines. Not in his car, with the gun rack. Or in the house. He made sure what he held in his hand was a shovel or a wire cutter or a wrench, and that he was far away from her where she ran along the road in her black sweats and billed cap, keeping her body in good shape. Running right by Rigby’s farm. Son of a fucking bitch.

Working, he was pretty safe from it. But, sometimes, repairing a fence, or pitching hay into the rack in the bull pasture, he’d turn to get another tool, and it would rise up, sudden and blearing, like smoke blown in your face from a fire when the wind changes direction. The picture of shooting her. The knowledge of his own ache, turned into a bullet. He didn’t feel angry at these moments; he didn’t feel anything. It seemed the imagined bullet was not an end, just an underlining, because the end had already come on that morning he’d found the note.


Lying in bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, listening to him snore, sometimes she’d hear an owl’s call, a faint shadow of sound. Hunting, she’d think, and picture the bird skimming down, broad lethal wings silent as the moon, toward the grass and some unfortunate mouse. Then the house itself would tick or groan, and she’d lie there some more, trying to clear her mind, trying not to think of Rigby. What was the use? Across her stomach and under her heart a heat bloomed and shimmered in spite of resolution. While next to her Wayne. . . she turned her mind away from hope, away from imagination, away from the tiny glittering pieces of mosaic it insisted on building into something, column by column. No use to it. When Wayne coughed and heaved himself into a new position, she wondered if he could be getting sick and stopped her mind right there, before any wishes she didn’t want to own leaked out. It had begun to seem that every state of mind, every thought, every quiet nook in her mind, was a prison.

“Is that all the coffee there is?” He was standing next to the kitchen counter, his hat already on.

She nodded. “I’m going into town this morning.”

“What about your run?”

“I’m taking a day off. My knee’s bothering me.”

“Well, don’t forget the pea gravel this time. Take the truck.” The screen door slammed.

Looking down at her hands in the soapy water, she felt the warmth of the water and at the same time how cold her back was, the wind of his exit a little vacuum sucking at her, and the wish, sprouting from her back like wings, to be held, to be warm, to be enclosed in Rigby’s arms. Yes, she was going into town. No, she wouldn’t forget the pea gravel this time.


He drove by Rigby’s on the baler, going slow. The stupid yard was full, as usual on Wednesdays, of all kinds of junk and claptrap. They did a weekly garage sale. Who knows where they got the piles of crap people pored through. Old tools and tables, plastic dishes, other shit that looked like what you’d get dumpster diving, bouquets of dried flowers, pumpkins at Halloween, mistletoe and wreaths at Christmas, eggs and fresh vegetables for sale all year round. Rigby and co. couldn’t make it, apparently, without the trickle of tourists and curious neighbors and antique dealers from up north to stop at the gate decorated with a red cutout of a farmer and his dancing wife.

Maybe Rigby just wasn’t up to it. It was a hard go in the Valley, that’s true. Alfalfa and a small herd of Red Angus, his own mix, and it was a constant struggle. The squeeze chute needed considerable work, which he didn’t have the time to finish right now. Not to mention the well, which seemed sluggish, and they really needed new panels for the pump. But that was what it was. You worked and kept at it, and some years it was good. In the early mornings, looking out at the ring of mountains circling the river valley and then watching the powerful slabs of the cattle’s shoulders ride up and down as they walked, their long bodies hung between their legs like well-packed canvas, their gait so suited in its swing and plod to the grassland, a satisfaction that made him think of well water rising clear and cool filled his chest.

But Rigby was a comparative newcomer, from some city down south, he’d heard, and who’s to say what drew him to farming? People had all kinds of weird reasons for what they did. Maybe what he really wanted was the “natural life,” there were a lot of those types around, run a dude ranch or something. Hah! He sighed and turned his mind to the weather. In the west, bluish clouds were massing. No rain was forecast, but those bastards were too often wrong. Time to start getting the alfalfa in.


She arrived at McCall’s Barn & Feed and parked. First, she went into the nursery area and looked around, stopped at the sale six-packs. But it was late in the year, nothing much that made sense. Maybe another African violet for the kitchen windowsill. . . she felt the heat at her back and knew at once he was there. It was like all her molecules were aligned to his. She turned.

“Hi.” He stood about four feet away, his hat in his left hand.

Heat had already leapt to her face. “I didn’t mean—”

“I know.” They stared at each other. Just looking at him, it was almost like touching. Except keeping herself from stepping closer took everything she had.

“How you doing?”

“Fine. Okay. I just stopped in for some pea gravel and a few—”

“Bits and pieces?” His smile washed over her. “No run this morning?”

“No. Knee’s bothering me.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment in order not to step forward, in order to bring the conversation to a close.

“Well, I better. . .”

“Sure,” he said. And then he did step forward, one step. He said, voice very low, “I’ll be alone, one o’clock, for a couple hours. Can you come?”

Everything about him seemed brown, warm, muscular, irresistible.

“Don’t know.” She turned away, waved over her shoulder. “Nice to see you, Rigby. Say hi to Anne.” Just in case anyone could hear.

She went back into the store and stopped by the rack of horse brushes. She waited till her breath calmed and her cheeks felt cooler before she went to the back counter; after the usual brief chat with Darlene, she ordered three 200-lb. sacks of pea gravel. Then she went off to Shop ‘n Save, where she didn’t know whether she hoped or feared to run into him again, though she did know, quite clearly, that she didn’t want to run into Anne.

On the way home she tried to think about it, while next to her the fence posts jammered by, great wheels of water arced from the irrigation rigs, and faraway clumps of blackbirds clustered and sank out of sky onto the fields and burst upward again. But thinking didn’t seem to help. Even if she talked to herself out loud, as she could do in the truck, the words flying forever out the window, she could only repeat dire warnings, familiar complaints about Wayne, regrets and accusations of herself, and self-serving wishes for the impossible. If only this, if only that. She thought of herself as a down-to-earth person. A pragmatic person. But there was no reason here. Really, it was like walking through a windstorm, with huge and heavy pieces of bright fabric blown against her from every direction, pushing her this way and that. Her skin felt hot, as though she had a fever; she felt lonely in her exaltation, and the only remedy for that was to be with Rigby. But I still love Wayne. I do. The words whipped out the window. Pieces of hair wrapped themselves around her mouth. I have no idea what I’m going to do. Saying this out loud made it real that there were only two, three maybe, things to do. She just couldn’t imagine telling Wayne. His face. I didn’t mean for this to happen, she whispered. How had this happened?


At the lumber yard in the afternoon Wayne bought some two-and-a-half-inch PVC pipe, a backflow valve, six sheets of plywood, and some tin roofing for the baling shed. He spent some time talking to Freddie about solar panels, but he wasn’t going to buy them here. Cheaper to order them online. He’d worked all morning baling alfalfa, but the weather looked better, so he’d come on into town. Before that, when he stopped at home for lunch, she was home and putting groceries away.

“Pea gravel’s in the truck. Three sacks.”

“Thanks.” He opened the fridge and took out the ham from last night, began chipping away at it with a knife, eating it at the counter.

“Here, I’ll make you a sandwich.”

“This is fine.”

“Wayne.”

“Don’t bother.” He pivoted, opened the fridge again, took out an apple and two cold pancakes, which he wolfed, cut another big chunk of ham, wiped his hands on the kitchen towel. She could smell his morning on him, the alfalfa, the reek of the baler, sweat. “This is fine. I have a lot to do. See you at dinner.”

She wondered. He was acting awfully distant.

It was already past one. She was out in back, feeding the chickens, pretending to herself she didn’t care what time it was.

She glanced at her watch. She ran in the house, put on her running clothes, her cap, wrote a hasty note. “Decided on a short run. Maybe up the creek. Be back soon.” When she got outside, she looked around. The truck was in the driveway; the baler was gone. She stepped out on the road and looked down it ways. The road curved, so she couldn’t see the field he was probably working in. She turned 360 degrees slowly, looking. She began running down the road. Sweat popped out on her forehead. She felt like a hunted deer, her hearing unnaturally tuned to the sound of motors, her breath coming hard and short as though she’d been running for a long time, fast. It wasn’t far, but it seemed to take forever. She kept her eyes down; the dust in the August road puffed up around her ankles with each footfall. As she approached his farm, she saw three people out in the yard, and as she got closer, she saw them both, Rigby and Anne, talking to someone looking at a rusty harrow. As she ran past, eyes squeezed almost shut, Rigby and Anne both waved and she waved back. She kept running, feeling sick. God in heaven, what do I think I’m doing? Anne might have come home in the middle of it. The sun was hot on her shoulders and arms; she rarely ran at this time of day. A foolish time. She wanted to turn around and run home. But she couldn’t do that. She turned up the creek trail and began walking. A snuffling sound, and her cheeks all wet. Standing in the shelter of the big oak at the first turn, she heard herself crying but paid no attention, staring out over the landscape. Home. That no longer felt like hers. Everything subtly moved over one notch into strangeness. Clouds roiled at the western ridges. Maybe it would rain this afternoon, and then all Wayne’s hard work would be wasted.

She started home. Showered. Weeded. She made his favorite meal: Southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, big green salad. All the time the sense of her close call hovered just behind the transparent veil of the everyday. She felt obscurely angry, and not just at herself—at everyone in this. It was like looking at weeds—say, mustard—growing in the garden, bright and interloping, messing up the order, drawing away the water, using up the heat and light and time all for itself. As though everything harbored a greed to grow out of bounds. And what if he—Wayne—had been doing this? Having an affair? She would want to kill him. She knew it. She couldn’t pretend she’d be understanding.

Six o’clock. His usual hour. She put the food in the warmer oven and cleaned up the kitchen. Seven. He wasn’t home. Of course, it was late summer. Long days, and he was trying to get the alfalfa in. Not so unusual, she told herself.


He’d found the note in her underwear drawer a week ago. He never looked in there, but one of her socks was in his drawer and he’d gone over to put it in the right place. It was tucked on the side, a blue edge sticking up. He pulled it out.

I see you running by and I can
hardly breathe. Hardly think. Only
wait till the next time. My life has changed
completely now that you’re in it.

He began panting. Blinked. Read it again. He almost crumpled the note and threw it across the room but caught himself in time. He put it back carefully, fingers actually trembling, and stood there in front of the open drawer feeling sick. She was out back in the garden, and his first thought was that he had to get out of there before she saw him. She’d know. The note wasn’t signed, but he knew who it was. He’d noticed a certain electricity. He left the house, and all that day he felt alternately drained, as though he’d just had flu, and swept by thoughts he couldn’t recognize, as though doors had been opened inside him he never even knew were there.


He was hungry and he’d gotten the whole field baled, but he didn’t want to go home. Maybe he should get the tractor and trailer and start hauling—no, it was too late, and it didn’t look like rain tonight. Tomorrow.

He drove down the road in the gathering dusk. Lights on in the farmhouses. The long, checkered fields always spoke in a soothing tone at this time of day, like a code for order and righteousness and peace, and even now, he felt it, the satisfactions of a long day’s work and going home. He thought about the solar panels and changing the oil on the truck, and the Chevy too. Probably needed to backwash the lines to the water trough in the bull field and dig out the spring down there, also set out some gopher traps in the back garden. Or she could do that. Beside him in Fred’s field the cattle ambled and stood, black against the darkening green, the young ones still bothering the cows. He kept his mind as carefully clear of its edges as he could, kept his eyes on the road, waved to the few trucks that passed, going home. Home.

And then, when he got home, it all changed. He went to her drawer to get the note, intending to lay it down next to the plate of chicken she’d set out for him. But it wasn’t there. Slammed the drawer shut.

“Where’s the note?”

She looked up. Flushed. “What note?”

“The note I found in your drawer.”

“You were looking in my drawers?”

“I wasn’t fucking looking in your drawers! I was putting a sock back I found in my…” He stopped, dismissing explanation.

She stared up at him, sitting in front of her plate. He noticed, against his will, how pretty she was, brown hair lying in a curling clump over one shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut against it.

“It’s gone. I threw it away.” Her voice was flat, mineral as spring water.

“Oh, so you do know what I’m talking about? You do know? You know I’m talking about…” But he couldn’t bring himself to say the man’s name. Her white face looking up at him.

Fear and stillness possessed her in equal measure. She had no idea what she was going to say. Her own thoughts seemed puddingish, so slow she wondered if something had gone wrong in her head. Neither one of them seemed able to breathe, and the room felt as though they’d been transported to some other planet, an airless place without past or future, just a jagged now with bloody edges.

“I love you,” she said in the same flat voice.

“Oh, you love me, do you? You love me?” He had no idea how loud his voice was. “Then why the fuck did you fuck Rigby. Huh? Huh?”

She was afraid he’d move toward her, but instead he just stood behind his chair, swaying slightly, his knuckles white on the chair’s back.

“I—I—” She stopped. “It just happened.”

“It just happened?” He exploded into motion. The chair flew across the room, crashed into the highboy, fell with a splintering sound. In the following silence, she sat up straight, looking not right at him but over his left shoulder.

“I might love him, too. I don’t know.” She hardly recognized her own voice.

He put his face in his hands and sat down, stumbling sidewise into a chair as though he were drunk. In silence, his shoulders shook. Wanting to touch him, wanting to comfort, she sat still, emptied. She felt so blank she wasn’t sure she could actually move if she needed to. Waiting. For the blood to return to her hands, her brain, for her thoughts to settle into the field of her mind, like blackbirds who had flown up too high and out of sight. Waiting. That was what this had all been about. Waiting for something she hadn’t even known she expected. Waiting for the crack in things to appear. Or for the spring to rise. Everyone’s always waiting, she thought, a stray thought like a useless flashlight beam in the darkness of all this.

He sat there crying. Carefully, she got up, moving slowly as though she’d been injured. He looked up. His face bright red around the eyes, white around the mouth.

“Get my gun.”

She stared.

“Get my gun.”

As though hypnotized, she went to the gun cabinet, unlocked it, took out his rifle. She came back to the table and stood there, the gun lightly held in the crook of her elbow, barrel down. She knew how to hold a gun. She knew how to shoot. She stood there, next to the plate she’d laid out for him. Waiting to see what she’d do, what he’d do. Slowly her mind settled toward the things around her, the plate of chicken and mashed potatoes grown cold, the cool haft of the gun against her elbow, the dark windows reflecting splinters of the room, his still regard.

He straightened. His cheeks were wet.

“Give me the gun.”

“Wayne, a gun doesn’t belong in this…discussion.”

“Oh? Is that what this is? A discussion?”

She didn’t answer. His eyes, which were a pale blue the color of early lupine, looked into hers. “Wayne, I—”

“You’re going to have to give me the gun before this turns into any…” he paused, clamped his mouth shut for a moment, and she heard the word fucking deleted from what he was saying as though she could read his mind, “discussion.”

She handed him the gun, feeling the challenge of it like a terrible, irresistible dare.

He took the rifle and held it still for a moment, barrel pointed upward at the ceiling. Then he broke it open, emptied out the ammunition and dropped it on the floor, handed the gun back to her as though she knew what to do with it.

“I kept thinking of shooting you,” he said.

She stood there, holding the gun. “I know,” she said. “Yes.” He turned his face away. “Now I don’t—” He didn’t finish. She could see something like defeat in the set of his shoulders, and she read an ill-starred future for the two of them in the lines on the back of his neck, as though his skin were a map, the unused bullets a testament but also a prophecy—of disuse, of a nothing where something used to be. Though maybe that long wrinkle there just above his collar, in the reddened skin that had sat under the sun already for over thirty years, might mean something different. She wanted to touch him, but didn’t.

He stood. It was past time to feed the horses. She followed him out the back door and went to check that the chickens were all in the coop for the night.

 


TOBEY HILLER writes fiction, flash, and poetry. She’s the author of one novel and four collections of poetry, most recently Crow Mind (2020, Finishing Line Press). Her stories and poems have appeared widely in print and online in magazines such as Askew, Ambush, Canary, Sisyphus, Here Comes Everyone (HCE), The Fabulist: Words & Art, MusePie Press’s Shotglass Journal, Sin Fronteras (forthcoming), Spillway, The Racket, Unlikely Stories Mark V. Her writing, both fiction and poetry, has appeared in five anthologies, most recently Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Press). She writes both realist and fabulist fiction, and three of her stories have been shortlisted for prizes (The Reynolds-Price Short Fiction Award, the Los Gatos-Listowel Short Story Contest, the Bosque Fiction Contest). Her collection of fabulist fiction Particle to Wave: A Fabulary was a finalist for Omnidawn’s 2019 Fabulist Fiction Contest. Currently she’s developing two collections of fiction, one realist, the other fabulist.

 

Author’s Note

This story began with gun racks. When I begin a story, I don’t plan its trajectory. I’m taken by a strong image, a scrap of dialogue, a faraway figure running past an empty field, some weird bird of thought or feeling that accretes detail once I start to write. Thoughts about process are mostly after the fact. I’m just grateful when a story hunts me down and nails me.

I’ve spent time in a part of California where there are farms. Almost every truck you see has a gun rack. The fields are irrigated—green in summer, blond stubble in the fall, and broad. Cattle. Wooded hills in the middle distance. The river, which barely escaped the destruction of gold-mining, suffers runoff from fertilizer and cattle. As I began to write, the place itself became a character.

I did have a plan (due to the gun racks) for my opening: to drop you, my reader and partner, directly into a violent moment, in medias res. A shock. Then a sort of trick (a bit of narrative violence, I suppose) in which this is revealed as a thought-film. So we arrive at the background topic of imagination and its entanglement with thought, feeling, intention. Something that’s fascinated me for a long time.

When is intention like a story? A successful story is a kind of trance, a hypnotic entry into somewhere else, taking you into a place you recognize, despite unfamiliar settings or a different language of behavior. How people, no matter how familiar or foreign to your experience, read each other, the world around them, the future, the now, whether chaotic or peaceful. You enter the thicket of other interior worlds. This is nothing new, of course—writing must always try to do this: round some corners, investigate basement or attic, hear the words flung out into wind. Entrance.

As for narrative perspective, I’m drawn to multiple points of view. It shouldn’t be easy to tell who’s at true north, who’s askew. The struggle of this pushes toward compassion. How feelings like anger and pain are two sides of a dangerous spinning coin. How hope hides in there somewhere. Still, stories each have their imperatives. You probably noticed that Wayne’s wife, who could be called the pivot of the story, certainly one of its two beating hearts, is only called “she.” She wouldn’t accept a name and kept her whiff of myth, though her life’s specific.

A bullet opens the story, but it isn’t “about” guns; it unrolls into the pain and confusion of what’s happening in what turns out to be an ancient shape of human relationship. But guns make me think, always, about the hunted. Wayne is hunted down by his own pain, which makes of him a hunter. She’s hunted by her own desire, the complexities of love, and freedom’s tangents. And then there’s us: writer and reader, hunting clarity or connection, navigating time’s violence and strange beauties, and wanting to make something of it.

 


TOBEY HILLER writes fiction, flash, and poetry. She’s the author of one novel and four collections of poetry, most recently Crow Mind (2020, Finishing Line Press). Her stories and poems have appeared widely in print and online in magazines such as Askew, Ambush, Canary, Sisyphus, Here Comes Everyone (HCE), The Fabulist: Words & Art, MusePie Press’s Shotglass Journal, Sin Fronteras (forthcoming), Spillway, The Racket, Unlikely Stories Mark V. Her writing, both fiction and poetry, has appeared in five anthologies, most recently Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Press). She writes both realist and fabulist fiction, and three of her stories have been shortlisted for prizes (The Reynolds-Price Short Fiction Award, the Los Gatos-Listowel Short Story Contest, the Bosque Fiction Contest). Her collection of fabulist fiction Particle to Wave: A Fabulary was a finalist for Omnidawn’s 2019 Fabulist Fiction Contest. Currently she’s developing two collections of fiction, one realist, the other fabulist.