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Chapter 1


AS SOON AS HE WALKED THROUGH THE DOOR and saw the body, Prospero realized what had to be done. Miranda could not be allowed to see Beatrice like this—blood oozing out of the side of her mouth, a small pool of yellowish bile accumulating under her legs, staining the hard wood floor. Not that death was new to Miranda. She knew about death first-hand, having lost her mother, father, and great-grandmother within the last year. But she was not familiar with it, had not seen the mangled, bloody, corpses of her parents, or witnessed the last, gurgling, gasps of her great-grandmother. Prospero had so far been successful in protecting Miranda from the ugly reality of death, and he was determined that this death—Beatrice’s—could be hidden as well. So he set about cleaning up the mess promptly and efficiently. He had done this before.

He began by moving the coffee table off the round, braided carpet on which it sat, and transferring it to the side of the body. Then he gently moved the body to the carpet, careful not to let any additional bodily fluids stain the floor. He rolled Beatrice in the carpet and carried her out of the room. She was remarkably light.

He would have to bury her, of course—somewhere where Miranda would never find her. But for the time being, Prospero had to be content with placing the body in a wheelbarrow behind the red barn. It was cold, so there was no fear of decomposition, but there were animals, all kinds of scavengers that would like nothing better than to snack on poor Beatrice. Prospero shrugged—nothing to be done about it, more important things to think about. He left Beatrice wrapped in the carpet and started to walk back inside. At least she won’t be cold, he thought. A silly, useless thought. Beatrice was dead. Warmth and cold meant nothing to her anymore.

But, it suddenly occurred to Prospero, it meant a great deal to him. In his haste to remove the body, he had made a stupid, inexcusable, mistake. He had gone out into the cold, Montana winter’s night without bothering to bundle up. How could I have been so stupid, he thought, even a greenhorn would have known better!

It was only a short walk from the house to the barn, but in sub-zero temperatures, it didn’t take long for exposed skin to freeze and for lungs to stop working. Prospero looked up at the sky—the big Montana sky, filled with billions of stars, so many, so bright, so magnificent, they drove some people mad. That’s what happened to Ellie, he thought, Couldn’t stand all the beauty, so she ran away. His daughter Ellie had left the farm as soon as she turned 18. Went to Hollywood to become a star like the ones she looked at every night. Came home about two years later with little Ralph in her arms. Ellie didn’t stay long, left Ralph with Prospero and Grandma Ginny, and went back to Hollywood. A few years later, the sheriff came to the door with news that Ellie was dead. Prospero had the body flown home and buried on the hill—buried Ginny next to her when her time came.

Prospero had been thinking about Ellie so hard that he didn’t realize he had climbed the porch steps and was standing in front of the door to the house. He extended his hand to open the door, but his fingers wouldn’t move. Not frozen, he thought. Not yet. Not yet. He tried with his other hand, but he was still unable to grasp the small, round doorknob that would open the door. He was aware of his danger. He knew of many men and women who had frozen to death within a few feet of safety, although, he thought, none so stupid they died on their own front porch. He tried placing the doorknob between both of his hands and turning his body as he would a wrench, but this, too, proved useless. He walked along the porch until he came to the window that looked in on Miranda’s brightly lit playroom. He looked at his great-granddaughter, sitting in her tiny rocking chair, watching “Sponge Bob Square Pants” and clutching her dolly to her chest. Prospero could hear Sponge Bob‘s loud bangs, crashes, and shrieks, and Miranda’s soft giggles.

He thought of breaking the glass, or tapping on the window to alert Miranda, but he couldn’t bring himself to violate the scene. He wasn’t thinking straight of course. Hypothermia does that to you. He was strangely aware of his danger and, at the same time, unconcerned about it. He was very tired. Tears froze on his eyelids, and his breath fogged the window, enveloping Miranda in a dream-like mist. He reached out to her, placed his hand on the window—and felt warmth! He moved closer, pressing both hands on the window, and resting his face against it. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to enable him to feel the tingle of blood moving through his hands to the tips of his fingers. After a short time, he made his way back along the porch to the front door, which he was now able to open.

Entering the house, he was almost overcome by a blast of air so warm that he fell backwards into the door jamb and grabbed at his chest in reaction to a sharp pain. He stumbled to the couch, where he sat listening to his heart beat in his chest, and feeling the blood as it thumped through his veins. He realized that he might be having a heart attack. In a man of his age, it had to be expected. But he had cheated death many times before; he would do so again. As he sat, willing his body to return to normal, he thought of Miranda, and how happy he and Ginny had been at the birth of their great-grandchild, but their happiness would prove to be a mirage. It wasn’t long after Miranda’s birth that the sheriff once again appeared at his door—this time telling him something about his grandson Ralph, and Ralph’s wife Josie, and a car crash on Route 2, outside of Harlem. Prospero had to go to town to identify the bodies. Afterward, he had them shipped home for burial on the hill alongside Ellie.

There had been a court hearing, Prospero remembered. A man with a brief case said the State of Montana was taking custody of Miranda, that he and Ginny were too old to care for her. The third time the sheriff came to the house, he came with the man with the briefcase to take Miranda away.  Prospero and Ginny waited for them, sitting on the front porch, in their rocking chairs, with their double barrels resting on their laps. The men left, vowing to return, but they never did.

Gradually, as his body returned to normal, Prospero’s attention was drawn to the two stains on the hardwood floor, one red, one yellow-brown. Bleach, he thought. It will discolor the floor, but it will remove the stains. Miranda is young. She will not notice. He went into the kitchen, retrieved the bleach, cleaned the spots, and, when he was finished, sat back down on the couch to wait for Miranda.

As he waited, his thoughts returned once again to his grandson, Miranda’s father, Ralph. He and Ginny had raised Ralph to manhood on the farm, Prospero teaching him all he knew about farming, and Ralph taking to it like a fish to water. When Ralph brought Josie home, he and Ginny welcomed her into the family, a family that grew bigger and happier when Miranda appeared. Prospero recalled those days with melancholy—he and Ginny, Ralph and Josie, all sitting around watching Miranda playing on the living room carpet, the same carpet that now held Beatrice. Those were good days, happy days. He and Ginny were younger, still able to work the farm alongside Ralph and Josie. But those days ended too soon, as one tragic death followed another, and now it was just him and Miranda. Not even Beatrice remained. And what would happen if I left too, he suddenly thought, what would happen to Miranda then? The sheriff would come! And the man with the briefcase, and they would take Miranda away!

The thought terrified him. He realized then that he had to stay alive long enough to see Miranda to a time when she could take care of herself and find someone she could love and share her life with.

Prospero was tough. You had to be to survive on the high plains. The winters were brutal; the farm barely produced a living even in good years. But Prospero came from strong stock, and he inherited his ancestors’ toughness. His grandfather had come west right after returning from the civil war, built a log cabin and started farming land that really didn’t want to be farmed.

When the Indians burned down the log cabin, he rebuilt it, and when a tornado ripped it apart, he rebuilt it again. The Confederates couldn’t kill him; the Indians couldn’t either, but eventually the Montana winters, hard work, and old age did what no others could. He left the farm to his son, and his son to Prospero, who had thought to leave it to Ralph. Now Ralph was gone, and the farm would pass to Miranda—if she wanted it, which was by no means certain. Miranda, Prospero thought, was too frail, too fine a creature to spend her life in toil on a worthless piece of land like this. Maybe it would be best, if she were to leave; maybe Ellie was right all along.

Prospero was lost in these thoughts when he heard Sponge Bob’s theme song signaling the end of the show. It wasn’t long before Miranda appeared in the doorway, dragging her dolly by one arm. She climbed up onto the couch and into Prospero’s lap. She yawned and looked around.

“Where is Beatrice?” she asked.

“Gone,” Prospero answered.

“Won’t she be cold?”

“You needn’t worry about Beatrice, child. She is warm.”

Miranda thought about this for a few moments. “She’s not coming back is she?”

“No child, she’s not coming back.”

“Is she with Mommy and Daddy and Gramma Ginny?”


Miranda absorbed this new information for a few minutes. “That’s good,” she said, and she yawned again.

Prospero felt a stab of guilt thinking about Beatrice wrapped in the blanket in the wheelbarrow next to the barn. He vowed to bury her on the hill as soon as the ground thawed.

“Grampa,” Miranda asked, “Why does everybody go away?”

“Don’t know, child, that’s just how it is.”

“Will you go away?”

“Not for a while. Not until you are all grown up and are able to care for yourself.”

“I won’t go away.”

“No child, not for a long, long time.”

“Not ever.”

“No, child, not ever.”

Prospero could see no reason to tell Miranda otherwise. Life, with its hard lessons, would catch up with her soon enough. Let her be a child for as long as possible, he thought.

“How about some milk and cookies before bed?” he asked, desperately wanting to change the topic.

Miranda’s face lit up, “Yes!” she exclaimed.

* * *

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