The Box Canyon Serial appears below, after Bibliophagia
by Marie Johnson Parrish
Margaret tied her apron strings into a neat, round nut against the small of her back. The tip of her index finger touched a metal rivet on the spine of Better Homes and Gardens, then slid to the worn, sticky dust jacket of The Joy of Cooking. She curled her fingers around the spine. The book was one-quarter off the shelf before she reconsidered and pressed it back into place.
Her hand dropped two rows below to draw out a paperback. She studied the cover, opened to a page near the back, and, after letting her eyes trace over the text, let the book close again. Beside the crosshatched cutting board, Margaret fingered the edge cover of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then pulled it back, peeling it away from the title page. She did the same to the back cover and the last few leaves, which were black-creased and wilted at the edges. She turned the body of the book over in her hands, checking for bruises and scuffs.
She spread the pages, ran the heel of her thumb along the part, and with the tip of her knife cut a neat line down the spine of the book. She made another clean cut just before the membrane line of Chapter XI, before the Grangerfords and the Shepherds. She gathered the larger pieces and pressed them cut-sides together, set them aside to be wrapped in foil and saved for later.
She stacked the pages by fours and rolled them. Her knife worked them into forty slivers, each as wide as a line of text. She let each slice unspiral and gathered the bunch between the frame of her hands, evening the ends before she drew her knife through the bundle. She felt the paper drag against the edge of her blade, like the half-wood stems of thyme.
The strawberry jam chattered against the coarse mustard when she opened the refrigerator door. She nudged the milk aside and rooted out the packets that had been pushed toward the back after breakfast—raw chicken legs wrapped in paper, carrots and half-stripped celery in cellophane.
She turned the ribs of celery belly-down on her cutting board, snapping each arced cross-section into something more manageable. A nice, even dice, the size of the tip of her smallest finger, the carrots peeled and cut to match. She swept the curls of peel and broad, white-fanned ends of celery into an old gallon-sized ice cream bucket, forgot them. She diced onion—yellow Spanish, because that is what her mother had always brought home—while a knob of butter melted to foam at the bottom of her stock pot. Carrots, celery, onion into the frothing butter, a gritty pinch of coarse salt and cracked pepper.
She worked her fingers under the chicken skin, peeled it away from the purple-pink flesh. It fell in heavy folds against the plastic bottom of the ice cream bucket. More pepper on the chicken legs, more salt. She didn’t bother to remove the bones. They would come out when they were ready.
The stock went in first, hissing and spitting around the muted orange and brown vegetables before mellowing. She nestled the legs down into the bath.
She stripped thyme and tarragon away from their stems and chopped them in a heap. Grey-velvet sage were leaves rolled into neat cigars and slivered, then chopped to join the rest. She held the domed silver lid in one hand and tipped her head, watching as the fresh green fell. The heap of slivered paper she left, for now, lying quiet at the bottom of a ramekin.
The humid scent that escaped when she lifted the lid after two hours of gentle simmering was promising. Margaret held her face over the open mouth of the pot and let the steam wilt her hair against her temples. She removed the vacant bones with rubber-tipped tongs and breathed in the mellowed sting of black pepper and onion—the deep, murky brown scent of cooked chicken.
The first taste, taken from the edge of a wooden spoon, was dull, muted, hollow at the center. She could barely taste the crusted rim of salt, the drowsy herbs. There was nothing to linger or make her want to take another spoonful. She looked down at the shimmering, oil-jeweled surface. And then she drew back, set the spoon down.
She added only a tablespoon of Huckleberry Finn begin with. The paper softened on contact and she stirred it down, bringing up dregs of vegetable. She caught a translucent pane of onion and a butter-soft bite of chicken with a capital A clinging to it.
No longer hollow. She could taste salt and the dark taste of meat. And between, sweetness—mellow onion and delicate, sugary carrot, the muted green licorice of tarragon. The clean-ground taste of thyme, the earth of sage, the homely trick of rooting out a boy by the way he threads a needle.
Flour, baking powder, salt. Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Prose would be too heavy for biscuits.
She chopped ‘A Prayer in Spring’ into fine grains and added it to the deep, floury bowl, mixing the letters and powders with her fingertips. She washed her hands before handling Emily. She used her kitchen shears, snipping the dry, delicate dashes from the ends of the lines. She added them to the bowl along with a pale lump of shortening, careful not to crush the tender pauses against the bottom of the bowl.
In twelve minutes, they were out of the oven, burnished gold and resting on a cooling rack.
The soup had thickened as it simmered. The broth clung to the chicken and the bite of carrot she’d swept up on her spoon. It had a ribbony, yolky richness that lingered on her tongue.
She smiled and ladled the soup into a red, wide-brimmed bowl. She perched a biscuit on the edge and thought of Austen and Neruda, cream, port wine.
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Marie Johnson Parrish
Marie Johnson Parrish is a writer with roots all over the United States, most recently the Mountain West. She holds an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She has been most recently published in Gingerbread House.
The Box Canyon
A Serial in Eight Parts
The sun was high overhead before Sam heard footsteps. They were coming from up the arroyo rather than down the slope, but his hiding place was still concealed. The gunman approached his horse and slipped the long Sharps rifle into its saddle scabbard.
As he reached for the reins he heard Sam rise from his spot. He whirled around, but his pistol had just cleared the holster when Sam shot him in the chest. The horse shied as the gunman fell to the ground. When he reached for his fallen pistol Sam shot him again.
After all the hours waiting, it was over in the blink of an eye. Sam stood shaking, and felt bile rising in his throat. He sat down on a nearby rock and waited for his body to return to normal. After a long, long moment Sam rose and picked up the pistol and slipped it into the horse’s saddlebags. Hefting the gunman, he finally managed to throw him over the saddle and tie him on with one of the reins. Sam led the horse with the other rein up the side canyon. Reaching the box canyon, he went and saddled his horse.
Leading the horse up the side canyon Sam found one of the steep walled cuts where runoff water entered the canyon. Carrying and dragging the gunman, Sam finally dropped him in a narrow slot. Going back to the horses, Sam examined the saddle and saddlebags. The Sharps he laid aside. The scabbard and the saddle were tooled and distinctive, so Sam carried them up and dropped them with the body. Inside the saddlebags was a hefty sack of five and ten dollar gold coins, miscellaneous personal items and some ammunition for the Sharps. Sam put the sack and ammunition with the Sharps and carried the saddlebags and pistol to the cut.
For the next hour, Sam carried large rocks to cover the gunman, making sure they were wedged in hard enough so they would not wash down the cut. The next rain runoff would bring down dirt to fill between the rocks. The gunman would probably never be found.
Getting on his horse, Sam led the gunman’s horse up the trail to the top of the mountain range and part way down the other side. Removing the halter, Sam gave the horse a good swat on his flank and sent him down the trail toward the range beyond. The smart thing would have been to add the horse to the grave with his rider, but Sam could not bring himself to do that.
* * *
The rest of the day passed in a daze: climbing the javelina trail to retrieve the Remington rifle and canteens, taking care of his horse, rubbing out tracks in the arroyo and mesquite bosque, cleaning the rifle and his pistol. Through it all Sam tried not to think about the gunman and the shooting.
That evening Sam stared into the fire while his venison roasted. He liked the cabin and decided to spend some time here before moving on. The loneliness of the box canyon appealed to him. Here was everything needed to live through the coming winter. After eating he sat down to write a letter to Chester’s mother. She deserved to know what happened to her boy. He’d mail it the first chance he got. Send her some money for Chester’s horse too.
Dear Mrs Jefferson…
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Lester L Weil