It was my husband’s keen sense of the moment that did us in.
1933 was an evil year and our farm was a monster even by Saskatchewan standards. Our town of Weyburn was a grain hub on the Souris River not far from the Manitoba border. Fence posts stretched into the distance and gathered at sloping hills. At thirty-nine, my husband had spent half a lifetime listening and looking. He searched the morning wind for portents in the same way that a sailor reads the night and morning sun. Sometimes his unspoken questions were answered by the pitch of the rust-speckled weather vane, or by a rustling in the fields barely audible to me—the posture of the broad-seamed scarecrow when it tilted into its crucified arm and appeared to mumble.
He was a man of ins and outs. “You’ll want to get your outside work in right away,” he’d say through the open kitchen doorway, the 5 a.m. coffee still warm in his cup. And I knew that some voice in the dark had alerted him to rain.
He recognized my stockinged-feet footsteps in the hall, the night creak of a settling house, the patterns of the hired man who lived upstairs.
One night he told me to “Listen.”
“What am I listening to?” If I understood the type of sound I was straining to hear, I might catch it. An inaudible song playing in a distant room becomes clear once you know the words of its chorus.
Even in a God-fearing province during a depression of biblical proportions, the sound of a woman in a single man’s room was a possibility. The hired man had a private entrance, a set of wooden stairs leading to the side of the house. Anyone he wanted to invite upstairs was free to use them. We placed no restrictions on the stairs.
I held my breath until I imagined a repeated sound.
“The bed,” my husband said.
I was frustrated by an empty sensation. The noise had manifested itself as flavorfully as the taste of water, as tactile as the touch of still air. I could not hear a narrative. But my husband could.
“Rutting,” he said. “Listen.”
He pulled me out of bed, had me stand near the window. And then I knew it. It seemed cheerlessly disembodied, a muted, rhythmical thud, empty of content, until I heard a woman gasp, and I fleshed it out.
That night, for the first time in two weeks, my husband and I made love.
After that night, the hired man didn’t look the same. He had been a variety of nouns on the end of the self-same adjective, a human spade, a human pitchfork, a human plough. He took on a name, “Branson,” became a gerund, “rutting.” When he met my eyes the next morning, I blushed. When had I done that before?
And every night we listened for the sound that would spark our lovemaking. After a month we knew Branson’s habits. His woman was a Tuesday and a Thursday girl. The rest of the week he went to bed early. Alone. On those nights, my husband told me he could hear the pages of his book. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays his woman always arrived at nine. She wasn’t a talker. I knew her at first only from her louder gasps and sighs. But then one day I heard her laugh, and I felt strangely cheated. It hadn’t occurred to me that she would have a personality.
He couldn’t know when he engaged me in conversation that, twice a week, I heard his sexual play. But I’d gone further than that. It wasn’t enough to listen; I imagined myself watching while he brought his lover to joy, later imagining that my husband was him.
Until I could listen no longer.
When it was the “lovers’ hour,” I excused myself to ambiguous barnyard chores, returned late, washed for bed.
“You’ve missed him again,” my husband complained. “I think he’s got a new woman. This one’s much more…” He seemed stuck for a word and finally settled on “active.”
Thank you, I thought.