from Missing Persons (a novel in progress)
Three months after Artemis Jacob Macdonald was conceived, his father was killed in an airplane crash off the coast of Ireland, barely a footnote to the second world war. A tailgunner, the pilot saw too late the end of ocean and lip of green shore, and hit the westernmost point of Europe, a mess of metal and glass that melted into earth and blank stone. Unfortunately, Artemis' father, Artemis Louis Macdonald, was not the man his mother was married to. Instead, Martha, a schoolteacher in a one room schoolhouse, was married to the younger Artemis’ older brother, Samuel, a salesman.
At one point the narrator will ask: have you heard the one about the travelling salesman and the one-room schoolteacher?
To Samuel, who travelled regularly across the prairie in long, squalid stretches, selling whatever he did at the time – clothes, farm equipment, encyclopedias – and paid attention to his own calendar, he would never know the difference. Martha knew. Martha always knew.
Martha was a woman who could feel every change. The hairs on one arm. Her long blonde body worn by the wind. A stick of bones. There was no extra flesh or tissue to protect her.
By the time the plane made the shore, Martha was already sure what had happened. She knew the shape of her world – flat, from the weight of its own secret knowledge and guilt. And by the time six months had passed, the news of her brother-in-laws doomed flight arrived by hand at their doorstep, along with his mess kit and Bible. Killed during a training exercise. He never even made it to the front. A. J. Macdonald at the back of the line.
Artemis Macdonald, the younger, was the brother Martha met too late. The one she should have married, instead of the elder Sam. A salesman, Sam could sell anything, including himself to the maiden Martha, who had seen enough of the world to be wary, but not enough to not be fooled. And she was fooled.
Martha and Sam had been married two years by the time she gave birth to her first and only child, named after his uncle who was secretly his father. That only his mother knew.
Before she was married. Martha Yanko. Made of old Russian stock. Her parents’ last years built on a single phrase, “Vife, go vait in trrruck.” Those rolling r's that went on for miles. Much like these hills. Much like that wind. And she, a schoolteacher made of dust. Teaching dust, learning dust. Teaching dust to dust.
Somewhere, Martha had read of a body that drew strength as it touched the ground. Martha felt no strength; she was the ground. There was nothing left to draw upon.
She would continue teaching to the end of the school term. When the evidence became obvious, became physical. What would they think. Miss. Miss. Even though they knew she was married. The superintendent. What would they say if they knew.
When I come back, the second Macdonald boy told her, you can divorce him, and we can get married, and raise a hundred children. When I come back. And he would crack a smile that was both truth and jest. That if he could, he would give her a hundred children. He threw his dufflebag over his shoulder, and disappeared down the dusty road.
Martha watched him leave, as passively as she could bear, and waited for him to return.
She would not be taken in again, she told herself.
She would not bear any children by her husband.
related notes: another fragment of the same novel; a further fragment; three novels: on writing fiction; a link to rob's first published novel; fiction recommendations;