Prairie Song

Ana’s Pick
Devin P. Bates

Daddy always told me that the prairie has a woman’s heart. Memory may be fallible, but when I try to recall, it seems that he always said it at the same time of year, during the late fall after harvest but before the snow. We would sit there in his old truck with the heater going full blast, looking out across the rows of overturned earth that were our fields, and he’d say it then: “Son, the prairie has a woman’s heart.” At that time of year, the sky is gray and the trees essentially divested of their foliage; skeletons under the dullness of the clouded heavens. The prairie goes on far past a point of infinity, expansive and open, but also uniquely full. It is interrupted only by the stands of woods that surround farm houses and line river banks.

I sometimes weep inwardly when I recall those moments. The prairie in such instants has been the womb I matured in and the canvas of my whole life. What I could see on the horizon was the farthest extent of what I could imagine. Visitors have sometimes said to me that the prairie seems empty or desolate, but in all my years here, the open space unfolding farther than my eye can see has been like a snug, warm blanket. When life begins to get the best of me, I can draw it tightly about myself for comfort. The thought of leaving this country makes me as desolate as outside people feel coming in. All that I have seen and experienced since I was born has become as much a part of me as I am inextricably a part of it. The soil in the fields, the deer in the woods, and the fish in the rivers and lakes do not belong here any more than I do.

Dad is gone now, resting in the graveyard just outside Gentilly. His grave is not far from the grain silo on the corner of Ostgaard’s farm, right in a part of the cemetery where he can look out over the land rolling down into Proulx’s soybean fields, towards the river. Things have been rough for me since he died. Most everyone else goes to Swede’s of an evening to sit at the bar drinking long draws of Grain Belt and Leinenkugel’s. But since Dad left us, I have taken the moments between dusk and dark to drive out to the graveyard and visit him. The shadow of Ostgaard’s silo is a good place to stand when the sky begins to flame at sunset. I always take my hat off and bow my head when I visit his grave, and then it almost seems that Dad misses me as horribly as I miss him. But it is an impotent longing; all I can do is pull the weeds and grass out from around his headstone and brush the dust and spiderwebs off of the granite before I go home.

Regular rifle season for whitetail deer has just about arrived in Polk County, and its approach is another painful reminder of my father. He was a master hunter, obsessive and meticulous in his preparation, and never unsuccessful. When the season opens, then as now, some folks just get in a line and fire off boxes of ammo, yelling and whistling as they walk across a field. Dad never drove deer that way, but still always managed to fill his tags. Our land was never open to anyone but our family and Dad knew every deer that crossed it. He had scouted every trail through the woods and fields where he was likely to see something, and started getting ready for one deer season before the previous one even closed.

Our place was a whitetail heaven. Dad made sure there was something special for the deer all year long, even in the coldest part of the winter. Sometimes it was pumpkins or surplus apples that came from our trees when Mom had got sick of making jelly. Later in the year, it was sugar beets that had fallen off the transport trucks or chunks of salt from a broken lick. He even planted a couple of small patches of corn exclusively for the deer, and when things got really nasty cold, he would fork out piles of hay, just to make sure they didn’t suffer. And Dad never stopped watching deer. For every week of hunting, he spent months just watching. It was a year-round thing with him.

“You have to respect animals, Son. God gave us stewardship over them. And we need to show reverence to the things of the Lord.” God help me if I ever did something cruel to an animal. If I even so much as stuck my horse a little hard with my spurs or hit the dog when he messed on the floor, I could only hope my Dad wasn’t there to see.

One time he caught me with my friends at the Winter Shows building in Crookston during a livestock show. My friend Ted had got a new, greener-than-fresh-cut-sapling gelding from some fellow at the show, and had him in a round pen off the end of the auction arena, trying to catch him and put a halter on. After a few attempts to soothe him, Ted lost patience and decided to run the horse until he was too tired to fight anymore.

By the time my Dad came along, that horse was dead terrified. His eyes were the size of dinner plates, with white showing all the way around. His ears were kinked back and his whole body was dark with sweat. Snap-marks from the longe whip we were hitting him with as we chased him around the pen marred his body from poll to croup on both sides. I had just hit the gelding when Dad saw us, and Holy Jesus, I have never been more scared in my life than I was when I saw him striding up the arena railing. His face was flat and drawn out, with ominous flashes of dark lighting streaking through his eyes.

I honestly thought my dad was going to hit me, but that just wasn’t his way. I still don’t think he ever came closer to losing control of himself than he did at that very instant. Instead, he pulled the longe whip out of my hand and threw it over the railing, giving me a look that said “You stay right where you are, boy.” The other boys shrank away and melted into the fencing, watching with fearful eyes. Dad went straight to the horse, and all the tension magically flowed out of its body. It stopped quivering right away, its eyes got soft, and its ears came up. Dad murmured to him, scratched his nose and face, and dried the excess sweat off his body with a towel, soothing him with every movement. He haltered the gelding as fluidly as could be, snapped a lead rope on, and handed it to Ted, saying, “You have a lot to learn where horses are concerned, young man.”

He didn’t say a word to me until after we left the show and were headed back towards Gentilly on the Highway 2 truck bypass. I wanted to cry, because I had never felt that much distance between my Dad and me. I knew he was struggling with his temper, wondering what he was going to say to me. His disappointment was almost tangible in the truck cab. The words finally came as we went down into the dip where the road crosses Red Lake River. “I never thought I would be ashamed to be your Father, but I was back there, Jaden.” He wasn’t looking at me as he spoke. “That little gelding may be Ted’s horse, but you are my son.” He took a few deep breaths and really struggled to keep the tears out of his eyes, but a few began to glisten anyway in the crow’s feet spreading across his weathered cheekbones. “I would have thought you knew better.”

Many years have passed since that day, but I have never been able to forget it, as much as I would like to. Every time I call it to mind, shame rises in my throat like bile, hot and bitter and more terrible than about anything I can imagine. Dad never said another word to me about the incident. He never needed to.

Lately I have been leaving the house after supper, walking around the Quonset work huts where the tractors and equipment are stored, and walking north directly across the hayfield behind our house for a half mile. I have never neglected my Dad’s lessons about being prepared for deer season. But sitting in our stand on the edge of the big woods and watching deer has taken on a new meaning for me since his death. I think my wife understands. She never asks me where I am going; she only comes up to me and holds me tight for a minute or two before I put on my jacket and step out the door.

I go to the same stand where my dad started to take me hunting a half century ago. On the morning rifle season opens, I will be carrying the gun he used for most of his life, an old lever-action Winchester .30-.30 with open sights. It glows with the care that has been taken of it, being more used than it is worn. The metal parts have been re-blued several times and the stock has been oiled and polished so much that its nicks have simply been smoothed over and imperceptibly absorbed. Even after the better part of a century, the barrel has never needed to be replaced. Dad never pulled the trigger unless he had a killing shot and knew it. If the rifle went off, that meant Dad had a deer, and one box of shells might last him through two seasons, even with the practice and sighting-in.

In 1959, when I was barely past eight, he took me out to the stand and slipped seven shells into the magazine, chambering one and easing down the hammer so the gun wouldn’t fire accidentally. Then he handed it to me and bent over his canvas hunting bag, looking for his Thermos of hot coffee and binoculars before settling in for the long wait.

I was born and raised in a deer-hunting culture. Here, the whitetail hunt is a literal religion. A boy’s first deer is about as important as graduating from high school or getting married, so I was taught to respect guns almost from the cradle. Before I ever even held one, I had to have a hunter safety course. Because my dad was who he was, I was taught to fear the destructive power of a gun as much as to admire its utility or mystique.

But I guess going hunting for the first time with your dad in rural northwestern Minnesota is about the same as your first sexual encounter. No matter how much you have imagined, rehearsed in your mind, and obsessed about it, when the actual moment comes, you are going to mess up. Maybe that explains why, as I sat there, eager to the point of nausea, I slipped the hammer back with my thumb and found my finger somehow inside the trigger guard. The sequence was almost instantaneous. A faint click as the hammer went back and in the next heartbeat, a deafening explosion, the rifle pointing straight upwards.

Down to the bar at Swede’s of an evening, when the night has got on a bit and tongues are well-lubricated by the golden streams of malt ambrosia that Swede pulls out of the tap like gossamer beams, you hear stories about this sort of thing. The fellows are just drunk enough to the point where they begin to brood on mortality and start talking like busted faucets. God knows, I’ve been there enough times. I know that’s when the stories of childhood come out, and all the stories of childhood center around hunting, farming, and horses. The “gun-mishap” stories of Gentilly’s collective repertoire ought to be written down in a book someplace. I can’t think of a time in Swede’s when I haven’t heard a story about some accident or the other that happened with a rifle in childhood.

“…tossed the damn thing out of the stand, and as soon as it hit the ground it bounced and went off like a firecracker,” I heard Bert Olmsted saying not long ago, “I about shit my pants.” Here he stopped and laughed almost helplessly, tears rolling out of the corners of his eyes, hunched over the bar in a paroxysm of mildly-drunken mirth until he was able to stop and breathe again, his eyes more sober. “Dad was sure a mite sore. I literally don’t think I could sit down easy again for a couple of weeks after that.”

In 1959, sitting on a battered old rotating metal stool in a deer stand so remote that it might as well have been on the moon as in Gentilly, Minnesota, I was hardly laughing. I can remember little specks of wood floating down from the newly perforated roof as the echoes receded across the expanse of the prairie, and the silence was terrible with impending tragedy. I hear from time to time these days of sons who don’t respect their fathers, who don’t love them. Well, I worshipped my Dad, even back then, and I was scared almost to the point of passing out as I waited for him to stand up straight and turn around.

A second or two after the gun went off, he turned and looked up at the hole in the roof, then down at me shaking like a tree’s last autumn leaf in an early winter wind. I was waiting for him to yell, to strike me, to send me home. To do something awful that I couldn’t imagine but richly deserved. But instead, he took a single cartridge out of the red-white-orange Winchester box and handed it to me with a look that said: “Well now, we won’t be doing that again, will we?”

Years have become decades and I still struggle to understand that day. I had every right to expect that it would become common knowledge in a little town like Gentilly, where everybody has known everybody else since birth. I should have been taunted about it at recess and kidded about it by the men in town, and even to this day, it should be a staple of discourse in the dark, smoky, neon-illuminated room at Swede’s. It is a stigma I should never have escaped. But a half-century later, all the other kids are like me, bald or grey, too heavy, and pushing sixty. And none of them knows the story. Most all of their fathers are either helplessly geriatric or dead, and not one of them has ever kidded me about that day. Even Mom, who worries more than a rabbit in a cosmetics lab, never heard a whisper of the incident. Dad imparted many lessons, but I think this was one of the greatest. When I visit his grave, I always thank him for it.

Dad was going downhill for a long time before he passed away. When he was too bad off for us to watch at home anymore, we had to put him in a room at the Villa St. Vincent in Crookston. He had trouble walking; he had become hunched over and gnarled, and was in pain a lot of the time. His room was small and ascetic, overlooking Riverside and Summit streets with their young children happily bicycling and playing. The nunnery was right next door, and his room was close enough so that at night, he could see the glow of the ballpark lights and hear the sounds of summer softball games.

One day, he turned to me as I came in and said: “I can’t do a goddamn thing these days, Jaden, except sit here forgotten in a rocker, watching the world go by. I’m just waiting to die.” I didn’t say anything. I don’t know what I could have said. But I do remember thinking that he wasn’t going to last too much longer away from the farm and open prairie. And I recall that my heart started hurting that very instant in a way that has never fully stopped.

The last time we had him out was that same summer, to the Water Carnival in Erskine. He was using a walker and had a small green tank of oxygen hooked into his nose. We drove past a colorful explosion of sparkling light that was reflected on the waters of Lake Cameron by the carnival and parked on a side street. We stopped at the beer garden and drank deeply out of plastic cups, sitting on wooden tables in front of the bandstand to listen to the band and watch people dance. My wife was on one side of Dad, and I was on the other. We were afraid to leave him even for a second. He was wavering and tired, but didn’t want to go home. “Take me on a ride,” he said, and my wife Lucy’s eyebrows went straight up, communicating urgently with me across the top of his head that this was a dangerous thing, and we should take Dad back to the Villa.

But I said, “Okay Dad,” and tried to placate Lucy with a glance that I hoped conveyed why this was so important. She wasn’t happy, but turned wordlessly away in mute assent. I was going to catch hell when we got home, but I didn’t care for the moment. We weaved slowly through the light and color and noise of the night. On the periphery, a ticket stand was doing brisk business in the shadow of a brightly-lit carnival food emporium. While Lucy bought tickets, I got a big wad of blue cotton candy and a coke to share with Dad.

There was a ride just kitty-corner to the ticket booth, the kind where the seats are somewhat like an undulating horizontal Ferris wheel. We got in line, but Lenny Overgaard, who was operating the ride, immediately gave me a glance that said: “No way in hell, Jaden. Get him out of here.” I had to leave Dad with Lucy and go talk to him. “Jesus Christ, Lenny, let him get on the damn ride. He’s ninety-two; this is his last Water Carnival, and probably his last wish.” Lenny started to shake his head, “Jaden, you have no fucking idea the kind of trouble I could get in over something like this…” but before he could continue I put a twenty-dollar bill in his hand and walked away. “Lenny says it’s okay, bring him on over,” I hollered.

Lenny gave me a dark look, but let me get in a seat with Dad, and we rushed up into the night and sped down towards the lake over and over again. Once, Lenny stopped the ride to let some kids on, and we were suspended at the ride’s highest point, with a light nighttime breeze rustling our hair. Streams of people were wandering in and out of the maze of booths and rides and games of chance that had taken over two blocks next to the lake. The doorway to the bar glared against the dark silhouette of the building. It was one point in a miniature sea of flashing lights and bright sounds. Out beyond town, the darkness of the prairie spread out in all directions, and cars hummed by on Highway 2, heading west to Crookston or east to Fosston and Bemidji.

While we waited, Dad leaned over to me and asked: “Jaden, do you suppose this is what Heaven is like?”

“What do you mean, Dad?” I answered.

He sighed in contentment, “Well, you know, here I am, looking at the place where I was born, at the only horizon I have ever known.” He heaved another sigh. “I grew up here, married your mother here, ranched cattle here, this is where you were born and where my whole life has played out. I have never known another place, or wanted to.” Just as the wheel began to rotate down again, he said, “I’d like to think I could always stay close to here and look down on my family and this place. That would be Heaven to me…”

Two weeks after the carnival, I was out cutting hay when my cell phone rang. The clatter of the tractor and wail of the old haybine were almost too great to hear my wife on the other end, but I could make out “…your Dad’s in Grand Forks…” That meant he had taken a turn for the worse and the Villa had transported him to Altru hospital, across the state border in North Dakota. Not what you want to hear when you have an elderly and failing parent. I shut off the tractor and told Lucy to come get me on the 4-wheeler and call our boy Andrew to finish the swathing.

It was an hour and a half before we could pick up Mom and get to the hospital. Dad was almost beyond words when we arrived. He was hooked up to a bewildering panoply of monitors and medical equipment, looking completely out of context in the high-tech setting. There’s not much I wouldn’t have given then for him to be at home, looking out the window at the farm.

A grave faced technician in green scrubs met us outside the door and told us, “If you have anything that needs said, you’d better do it now.” We went in and sat beside Dad for what seemed hours. He was too weak to talk much, and we all strained to think of something to say that would fit the situation. We prayed and asked God to make him better, but there was no miracle. Afternoon became nighttime. Mom went to sleep on one of the chairs in the hall and Lucy went out to pick up some food. I stayed, still wearing my coveralls and work shirt, sunburned and covered in chaff, dirt and sweat.

Just after Mom and Lucy had left us alone, Dad spoke, wan and smiling: “I can smell the prairie on you, Jaden.” He breathed deeply, coughed hard, and riveted me with his eyes. “Do you know what I am most proud of now?” he said.

The moment was so heavy I was almost unable to speak, but I had to, then more than ever before in my life, “No, Dad, I guess I don’t.”

He smiled, weakly, and said: “You were my son.”

I never was able to respond to that, to hug him, to tell him that I loved him, because he stopped breathing then, and it was all over. Part of me died with him.

Dad’s service was held a few days after he died, at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on the west end of Gentilly. The church is made of red brick, and has a white spire reaching above the tree tops. The spire is visible a long way off. It has guided me home more times than I can remember now. The funeral was mostly anticlimactic, but about the whole town showed up, a mark of respect for Dad. All the fellows shook my hand and told me they were sorry. I went to Swede’s afterwards, just as a matter of formality, and even Swede was not his garrulous self on account of Dad’s dying. He wouldn’t let me pay for a single beer that night. I wasn’t really thirsty anyway.

Deer season has now rolled around again. When harvest was done, I sat by myself in the truck, gazing absently over fields that had become mine when Dad died. I felt terribly alone, and broken inside. Life in Gentilly had returned to normal, but I just wasn’t there yet. The fellows had long been back to their usual nighttime banter at Swede’s. I had stopped going as much, and preferred to visit Dad, instead of the bar, when the day’s work was through.

On Sunday morning, the last day of rifle season, the day dawns calm, clear, and just a bit cool and breezy. I take a small canvas sack and Dad’s rifle and walk out to the stand before it is light. The air is so clear that it is almost liquid, a crystal stream flowing and ebbing constantly over the face of the earth. With every step, the undulating carpet of dead prairie grass crunches underfoot, but the sound quickly wafts away on a cold breeze.

I have been hours in the stand, gazing on the prairie’s bosom, when I hear steps behind me and turn to see a child’s figure in blaze orange approaching. It is my grandson, Scott. He looks up at me plaintively, holding a canvas bag and carrying a rifle over his shoulder. “Grandma says she reckons you can use some lunch.” I look behind him and see my wife at the far end of the field, waving. “Well, is that so?” I say, and smile, remembering how Mom used to send me out to Dad the same way. “Why don’t you come on up, Scotty?” He hands me his bag and his gun, a fancy new .270, and climbs into the stand, quivering with excitement.

Perfect moments, like jewels, come in settings of exquisite poignancy. They are the crowns making a good moment an immortal one. As Scotty and I wait quietly in the deer stand, I can feel such a perfect moment coming. “Do you know how to shoot open sights, Scotty?” I ask him, hoping he will say yes, and he does. “Here, give me your gun, and use this one.” I hand him Dad’s .30-.30, unloading his gun and standing it in a corner. A perfect moment requires the perfect weapon, after all.

Scotty is almost asleep when the moment arrives. I have to shake him awake. A hundred yards away, moving out of the woods between our field and DNR land, is an enormous buck, with twelve perfectly symmetrical points and a spread of what is easily more than thirty inches. He steps through the flowing crystal air, each footstep making a small noise in the brittle carpet of grey-brown grass. Each step, each breath, is an agonizing eternity, but the buck hasn’t spotted us.

My grandson is waiting for me to say something, so I nudge him in the back and whisper. “Get Ready.” He leans against the edge of the stand, aiming carefully, breathing slowly and deliberately. I realize he is afraid of my disapproval. He wants to do everything perfectly. He wants the moment to be perfect as much as I do, and I can almost feel his heart beat in time with mine and the prairie’s. The hammer is drawn back with its characteristic clicking noise, and Scott waits one breath, then two. The buck stops, swinging his head slowly from side to side, still oblivious.

One more breath. “Now,” I whisper urgently, when the buck is only thirty-five yards away. The gun roars and bucks, belching a spurt of flame and sending a faint puff of acrid smoke up into the crisp air. Scotty steps backward involuntarily, but I am there to steady him, even as he works the lever, chambering another shot instinctively in case it is needed. It takes one protracted second for the world to fall back into place and the echoes to fade. Below the stand, the buck is lying still in the grass. He is hit hard through the lungs, and even from here, we can see he has died almost instantly, a spray of hot blood staining his muzzle and forming a red halo on the dry grass in front of his head.

There is no hurry. We can sit for a few moments. Scotty tries to absorb it all. He has just realized the quintessential expression of his cultural heritage. The stories he tells his schoolmates won’t be about “almosts” anymore. I take the same moment, and sit on the stool with him on my lap. When we climb down from the stand, he is going to be too big to hold any longer.

The deer is lying with the immense curving outline of his left antler starkly visible against the horizon. The prairie is opening up, dancing with the sky, a tangy scent of fallen leaves, and the minty chill of a cold wind. I have seen so much here, learned so much on the stage of this land, seen it in all its moods. I know its fury, and its moments of joy. I can understand its complexity without being able to put it into words, and for the first time in a long while, I am earnestly and truly happy. I can understand what my Dad meant at the top of that ride, looking over Lake Cameron. This is what Heaven must be like. Soon enough there will be pictures and congratulations and back-slapping, people laughing in a warm kitchen on a cold day, drinking buckets of hot tea, and eating plates of sweet cookies. But now is the perfect moment.

One more time before getting down to begin the real work, I cast my eyes on the fields and woods and open space all around me. “Scotty,” I say, in an almost reverential whisper, “do you know what?”

“No Grandpa,” he whispers, still subdued and overwhelmed, “What?”

The next words come out of my mouth with a flood of emotion that I realize in an instant I have been holding back my entire life:

“The prairie has a woman’s heart.”


“I recently graduated from the University of Minnesota, Crookston, and am currently living in the Phoenix Metro area of Arizona. My two fondest ambitions are to earn an MFA in Creative Writing and, eventually, make a living in wordsmithery, which is my greatest passion. There is not a terrible lot to me outside of writing, but outside of this and literature, I do have a powerful affinity for Arabian Horses, opera, and the out-of-doors life.” E-mail: cuttinghorse240[at]