Jill Winsby-Fein

It was too late, and in the evening, the great panacea, death, which always comes to the relief of the sufferer when anguish is too great to be borne, rescued her from her terrible misery.

—Eugene D. Fleharty

Wild Animals and Settlers on the Great Plains


Out on the prairie, at substantial distance from any other homestead or thoroughfare and before the incursion of the railway, two couples lived in two homes dug into either side of a steep hill. This was without intention and without initial awareness of the others’ presence. The hill was the only rise for miles, and both couples had been drawn to it for the semblance of protection it offered, the hillside into which they might build. One couple had come to the hill from the north and the other from the south, and it was not until ground had been broken that the man of the south summited the hill a week after arrival to surmise from the sky the next day’s weather that he saw the others down below. He thought he must have turned himself around, for what he witnessed was a mirror image of his own fledgling homestead: there was the horse tied up near the freshly cut well, the cook fire and a small canvas tent, and the bulge of earth which belied the dugout dwelling beneath. There was a man in brown pants and a loose linen shirt, just as he wore, and a woman in a gray dress bent over a pot. But with a single turn to the south where his wife stoked their own evening stew, reality took hold, and he understood that in all that vastness, they were not alone.

The hill was the height of a five-story house, rubbled with gray rock amid the lean grasses and dry reddish dirt. The base spanned a half mile in circumference and rose to a skewed peak like a shoulder slumping into a downturned head. The uppermost portion was bald of grass and smooth. After several passages from north to south and south to north, the couples established a trail up and over via the path of least resistance—where, had there been more rain to fall, water might have snaked its way to the ground—and later also a route that traced the broad eastern perimeter, for the western edge was more treacherous: large boulders which had cleaved from the sheer cliff and formed, where they lay, rampant habitat for rattlesnakes, copperheads, scorpions, and other low-to-the-ground dangers drawn to the gullies and shadows. The eastern way, by contrast, was a clear and gentle slope bearing the rise to flat.

The couples on either side of the hill began to dig their houses within days of each other. Each had a single horse on which they had spent two months’ wages. Each had brought with them their entire lives’ possessions from their homelands across the ocean: seeds, vessels, tools, bolts of cloth, a rifle each, traps. The couples did attempt, at first, friendship. They shared hammers and knowledge, cornmeal, lard, salt, a killed bison, its meat, its hide. “Those clouds there,” one man would say to the other with an eye to the horizon. “Spread thin with the lifted edge. They mean it will be warm soon, for a time.” And the other would nod that this was good, lift his finger and remark upon the direction of the wind, that their vegetable gardens should be planted on the leeward sides of their houses.

If a saw blade broke or a rock too large for two needed lifting, the other couple was called for help. If the well pail began to draw clouded water, the well of the other was drawn upon until the sediment settled. This aid, they agreed, was very lucky. This was a harsh land, the nearest town thirty miles east, the native peoples whose land this all had been reduced, besieged, and desperate, the ranchers lawless and greedy, the other immigrant homesteads as distant and dispersed as stars. They felt certain they inhabited the end of the world, that their homes teetered on the edge of blackness. 

But so gently do parallel fates begin to diverge.

Early in their time there, coming over the hill one evening to offer a portion of dinner, the couple of the south saw down below the woman of the north bathing in the horse trough. Her husband held a blanket as if to block her from the south side, but because of their elevation, the couple of the south could clearly see the woman’s naked form. She was taller by two fingers than her husband, and save her brown face and hands, ivory like a new bean, her hair usually knotted at her neck now fanned down her back. The couple of the south had never seen anyone except the other naked, and that rarely. The woman of the south said to her husband, “Look away,” and he did, hunching over the pot he carried.

“Didn’t they know we were coming?” he asked. But the woman of the south didn’t answer him because at that moment, the woman of the north looked up from cupping water to her neck and saw her and they locked eyes. The woman of the south wouldn’t have sworn it, but did think that the woman of the north smiled ever-so-slightly at her. And yet, when finally the couple of the north had finished their bathing and dressed and begun their own dinner preparations and the couple of the south descended to them, the woman of the north said: “It’s a good thing you didn’t come sooner. We just had our baths.”

When they returned across the hill that night, the couple of the south pulled off their clothes and pushed into each other with unfamiliar ferocity. They had known each other since childhood, survived the same hardships, incurred scars of similar severity and quantity, the same lines through their brows. Both were scrawny and snub-nailed but strong and wiry. They could have no children for the woman of the south had never begun to bleed, and were tired—always tired—and lived together more like brother and sister than husband and wife. But this night they found each other new, the woman of the north’s presence unspoken but alive in both of them.

The next morning they couldn’t look each other in the eyes, and when the woman of the north appeared in the doorway, the man and woman of the south each thought for a moment that they’d conjured her. She had come with newspaper for their dirt roof, and the man of the north hurried to help her. He put his hand on her shoulder as he said good morning and then removed it, looked at his wife and then away. The woman of the north looked between them good humoredly and busied to spread the paper on the table.

“How did you sleep?” she asked, pulling sticks from her pocket to pin the paper into the dirt above. The woman of the south felt the other woman’s gaze linger on the bed, that her slow smile over her shoulder was knowing, but felt equally that what she feared could not be believed, for what could the woman of the north want that she did not have? Her marriage seemed whole and their homestead sturdy. Though her husband was a somber man, on the rare occasion he laughed, he looked like his face had broken into an extended sob and it was impossible not to laugh with him. He brought his wife coffee in bed and brushed and braided her hair. She spoke in a different voice to him, like a child, though she carried her portion of the labor and knew how to do things that he didn’t, like re-shoe their horse or clean their rifle. He coddled her when she wheedled and complained, and she respected—even seemed to relish—when his sternness swelled to anger. 

But this night and morning faded into the unblinking brightness of day, buried by the work of breaking the land and pulling water and cutting sod, and the next night the couple of the south slept solidly beside each other, again disinterested. They might have convinced themselves it was only wonder that drew their attention to the woman of the north—when their lips chapped, hers somehow remained smooth, her figure still full despite the insubstantial food, her skin glowing beneath the dirt, and her hair, rather than tatter in the ceaseless wind, retaining the gloss of a well-groomed mare—but soon attraction again asserted itself. The woman of the south began to see her husband up on the hill with his hand at work between his legs as he watched the woman of the north below, and in bed at night the woman of the south began to lose hours of sleep as the woman of the north walked through her head. During the couples’ shared evening meal, the dinner fire pulled from the dark their pale faces, a shoulder here, a pair of knees there, all pointed towards the woman of the north, luminous in the flickering light, words directed towards her and her response the only one sought.

So too was she capable.

When the man of the south suffered a snake bite and fell, his wife ran to the hill’s peak and screamed for help. The woman of the north returned with her, and with a knife cut away his pant leg and pulled off his boot. Without hesitation she ran the blade through the wound, connecting the puncture marks. He screamed in agony. She pulled from her pocket a flask of whiskey and tipped it into the man’s mouth. He wept and choked and finally fainted. She then made two perpendicular cuts, resulting in a bloody H. She lowered her mouth to each juncture and sucked. She sucked and spit, sucked and spit and her mouth was bloody and so were her teeth and the grass wet with red. She poured whiskey over the wound. Finally, rising and rinsing her mouth with a swig from the bottle, she instructed the woman of the south to keep the wound clean and boil rags in which to wrap her husband’s leg. He should remain off his feet, and rest.

The man of the south was sick for many days, and though the man of the north ran his plow through the south field when he could, by the time the man of the south was well enough again to work, the southern crops were much behind schedule.

Further, while the man of the south was laid up and his wife tending to him, the man of the north found a stand of cottonwood trees congregated along a low sling of spring water two miles to the north of the hill. It was young growth and not nearly enough for an entire cabin, but if placed properly, half the house would be of wood, while the other half remained as earth. The hill and the couples’ proximity had drawn an unspoken bifurcating line: the world north and all that it contained was purview of the northern couple, and so the world south of the southern. But to the south, there was no mirror spring, and no mirror wood. The couple of the south continued to crater away ground and build up walls of sod, and some evenings, despite their exhaustion, they would climb the hill to overlook the other side and see the northern house another trunk taller. Even had there been enough wood, the couple of the south could not have transported it, for they soon lost their horse: so hard did they work the animal in an attempt to make up time that while pulling the plow, the horse collapsed and landed on a coiled snake in the weeds, which the man of the south claimed was the same as had bitten him, the very same. The snake struck the horse on its nose, and though the man attempted to draw out the venom with his mouth as the woman of the north had done, the animal’s throat swelled; soon it could not breathe and finally its eyes rolled back and its mouth foamed and it lay still. The couple of the north could not spare their own horse, for it was already overworked and its flank shrank around its ribs and its hide showed thin. And so the couple of the south was unable to finish turning the grain field. They seeded by hand, late and slow in rock-ridden dirt. 

The woman of the south felt a bitter mix of shame and anger and did not want to ever see the woman of the north again, no matter how hungry she was or how futile their farming efforts.

The wind pushed and pushed, always present upon the land. It was the wind that in mid-summer revealed the growing curve of the woman of the north’s stomach, pulling her dress tight around the mound, around her legs beneath. The couple of the south watched the woman of the north carry her belly through her tasks and shook their heads. With so much work yet to be done, and their existence still so tenuous—though indeed the northern homestead seemed more stable by the day—to invite another life was surely unwise. Or so they told themselves to quell the terrible ache gouged in them by the pregnancy, the slow rise of their panic when morning after morning they woke under a new layer of dirt fallen from their ceiling to find their fields still fallow, their food stores another day depleted, the ants and beetles and flies further invaded. Across the hill the wheat waved waist-high and tomatoes winced in the garden fat and full amid their verdurous tangles of stalk and leaf.

Worry kept the woman of the south awake, and one night in late summer, lit by a sliver moon, she climbed the hill. To be confined to groundlevel any longer felt like waiting at the vacated dry floor of a sea for the waters to return and submerge her. The wind was oddly absent, though the grasses never ceased to sway, and the crickets never quieted. At the bald peak she took a deep breath. She lay down and reveled in the air which swam in plenty up there, higher, thinner, above her dirty house and lost garden, her lusting husband, the insects. She may have fallen asleep or simply drifted, but after a while a figure emerged as a black outline against the sky and stood over her. Without a word, the woman of the north lay down beside her and sighed deeply. In it the woman of the south could hear how vast the chasm between the south side and the north had grown. The sigh was one of a weary laborer, yes, but laced with contentment, a dreamy quality which belied hope for the future. The woman of the north looked forward to the years ahead, rather than dreaded them.

The woman of the south’s nerves pricked and she was angry. They had so much on the other side, could this hilltop on this night for this hour not be hers alone? The woman of the north’s belly rose like her own hill, full of self-satisfaction and smug insinuation. The woman of the south wanted to raise her fist and bring it down on that belly, watch it burst like a raincloud, a burl of bees, a murder of crows. She did not realize she had raised up her arm until she felt a cool, strong hand about her wrist. Gently the woman of the north lowered both of their hands to her belly and the sensation that traveled from that hand through the woman of the south was akin to the prairie fires she’d seen set by the native peoples as she and her husband made their way deeper west: a red-rimmed sear pushing hungrily forth.

There was a faint twitch beneath the taut bulge. Then another, a more distinct kick. The woman of the north lay back, but the woman of the south’s hand lingered on her belly.

“She’s been keeping me up,” the woman of the north said to the stars.

“She?” asked the woman of the south, raised on her elbow. The woman of the north nodded. Her eyes shone like dark water. 

“I think so. I hope so. I know I’m supposed to hope for a boy, but.” She turned her eyes back to the woman of the south. “And when will you have one?” 

The woman of the south said nothing for a time. Was it not obvious? She felt she must wear her infertility like a mark. And further the south side of the hill was not any place for a child: for food they grew only rocks, for shelter they were housed in only dirt.

Finally she said, “Soon.”

The woman of the north said, “We want to help you more. We know it’s been hard.” She sighed again as if encountering a minor inconvenience like needed socks still wet on the line, and to hear her say it like that felt far worse to the woman of the south than if she’d said nothing at all.

As they talked she began to rub the woman of the north’s belly. It was so round and firm. The woman of the north closed her eyes, and her breath began to deepen. The woman of the south thought that she might have fallen asleep. She ran her hand in wider circles around the belly, grazing the woman of the north’s chest, her upper thighs. The woman of the north’s eyes flicked sleepily open and over the woman of the south’s face.

“My husband is a good man, but sometimes,” she said with a half-smile, “I want there to be more. Do you not feel so too? How utterly alone we are?” She closed her eyes again. “That feels good. That feels nice.”

The woman of the south felt her anger again rear—to not know what one had was surely the worst sin of all. She brought her face close to the woman of the north’s, as lovely up close as from afar. Slowly, she tucked her nose into the woman of the north’s neck, which was soft and smelled of sweat and lye. The woman of the north did not flinch or pull away. The woman of the south raised her head and both women looked each other in the eyes. The woman of the north smiled and the woman of the south kissed her smile and how soft it was reminded her of kisses exchanged when she was a small child. The woman of the north lifted her head and deepened the kiss and the woman of the south felt want from her.

With both of their dresses bunched up around their waists, their hair rivered about them, they became one entangled creature of open mouths and reaching fingers. The husbands in the heavy earth homes below them slept on, and if they stirred, the calls they heard sweeping from on high could only be the wind through the grass, the yips of coyotes to the sky.

Though at first gentle and reverent, her fingers tentative and uncertain, the woman of the south began to kiss more fervently, touch more forcefully. The woman of the north at first matched her passion but was soon surpassed; the woman of the north suddenly feared that the woman of the south had become possessed—that rather than lying with the familiar woman from the other side of the hill, she had lain instead with a demon. She was taken aback at the other’s ferocity, for the woman of the south seemed almost to be trying to claw open the woman of the north’s skin at the spine, peel it back, take it for her own. She seemed almost to want to eat the woman of the north, lunging open-mouthed at her shoulder, her breast, her thigh. 

When the woman of the north came with a low, long yell, the woman of the south shifted till they were eye to eye. With her free hand she reached into the woman of the north’s hair and began to pull. At first she pulled gently. They held each other’s eyes. Then she pulled harder and kept pulling even as the woman of the north inhaled sharply, as her expression grew fearful. She did not cry out, did not beg, though her eyes watered and her head tilted back and her neck reared. The woman of the south leaned forward and opened her teeth on the exposed neck. The nails of her other hand dug into the woman of the north’s naked side. And finally, when she was very close to drawing blood, she released in one swift movement.

She lay her head upon the ribcage of the woman of the north facing the uphill rise of her belly and wept. The woman of the north lay absolutely still and let her cry, feeling the tears fall hot on her skin and draw cold lines as they ran to the ground. She wanted to cry as well but didn’t; she waited, trying to breathe as shallowly as she could. When the woman of the south’s crying finally ceased, she stood and returned the way she had come, back to her side of the hill, leaving the woman of the north laying naked under the stars with teeth marks on her neck and a crescent of nail bites on her side.

The next morning, the only shift evident to the men was that the woman of the north wound a scarf about her neck, but the days had begun to pick up a chill anyway; fall was coming.

Soon after, the woman of the south’s belly began to grow with an unnatural rapidity. Neither she nor her husband acknowledged it, for they had not touched in months. Both assumed the hunger had simply begun to distend her abdomen, but as the sun rose later and later, nausea began to accompany her mornings, and her breasts and back and feet grew sore. She and her husband slipped into a shared delusion: through some divine impregnation, she was with child.

On the other side of the hill, the woman of the north grew stronger through her pregnancy, as if the life inside her gave her increased life. In adverse parallel, the false child within the woman of the south only drained her further. Rather than find sisterhood in their shared states, the night on the hill pushed between them like an axe blade, cold and dull.

...even as the screams were loosed and lost to the wind to travel across the prairie, the loss was not just of life, but of the lives that could have been, all that might have been shared, if there had been enough, if things were not as they were.

The man of the south’s health had waxed and waned in the aftermath of the snakebite, and as his wife grew weaker and more unpleasant, he began to lose hours looking from the top of the hill at the north camp, the sturdy house, the hale wife. So fatigued were the southern two that they could not keep up with the weeds in the vegetable garden, the sand burr and bindweed consuming the barely knee-high stalks of tomatoes and peas, the feathered growth of carrots unable to compete with the broader leaves of the dandelion, the onions with their fragile hollow-walled horns unable to pierce the rapid spread of foxtail barley.

So defeated were they by day’s end that their dugout home remained unimproved, its door insecurely fitted, its windows only stretched canvas tacked to the sod. When grasshoppers descended from the sky, they consumed only the young, weed-heavy growth of the southern garden, leaving the northern plants—well-established and often harvested, the produce preserved in glass and tin—mostly unscathed. Through the makeshift door, the cloth windows, the grasshoppers invaded only the southern home, and ate only the southern clothes, their leather and their food.

A downpour of rain: with no planks for their floor and only sod laid flat for ceiling, the southern home became saturated with water. Their gunpowder ruined, they could no longer hunt for even the small prairie rodents on which they had been primarily subsisting.

There was no more semblance of friendship, no longer anything shared. The woman of the south felt a bitter mix of shame and anger and did not want to ever see the woman of the north again, no matter how hungry she was or how futile their farming efforts. When the man of the north pressed his wife on why she no longer wished to help their neighbors when they so badly needed it, she finally told him that the man of the south had tried to touch her, had come into the house and lifted her skirts, though she had smacked him with a jar of cornmeal and he had scampered away like a dog. She had to halt her husband from taking his rifle across the hill: “Nothing really happened,” she said. “Let’s just leave them be.”

On both sides of the hill it was understood that in this land, a person must fend for themselves. Still the bellies on either side grew, the woman of the north’s gourd-like and sturdy, the woman of the south’s like a barrow of ash. As the couple of the north looked to the sky and gave thanks for the plenty of this land, the couple of the south cursed it.

When late on a cold fall night the woman of the south woke in paralyzing pain, her husband was certain it was labor, despite the brief span of her pregnancy, and helped her to push when it was time to push, and made her comfortable when it was time to rest. He boiled water and kept a hot cloth on his wife’s brow, mopped at her neck and collarbone. She wept through the duration for she now knew there was nothing to push from her womb but a phantom child, and with it the last of her hope, and by the time gray sifted into the eastern sky her husband knew it too. They held each other as they never had before and mourned and wished they had never come to this place.

In a stupor, they climbed to the top of the hill and surveyed their endless surroundings. When the woman of the north down below in her garden began shrieking and clutching herself in pain, her skirts dark and wet, it was as if the couple of the south had been waiting for that precise moment to arrive. Inevitability threaded their movements. The woman of the north dragged herself towards the house, calling for her husband, heaving herself to their bed. She did not also call for the couple of the south as she might once have done, in the beginning, when the four looked across the hill and thought they might find there friends. Rather she called for her husband only, but he was too far out in the field, running the plow to dislodge the potatoes from the dirt. As the woman of the north pushed out a dark wet head, the woman of the south entered the half-wood house, and her husband cut across the north camp towards the north field. The woman of the north, dazed from exhaustion and pain, reached down between her legs for the squirming, bloody thing emitting its own guttural calls and saw that her baby was already in the hands of another, a knife already slicing through their cord. In tandem, the man of the south was arriving in the field. The woman and man of the south then held knives at the throats of their neighbors and all people of the hill held in their eyes resignation. As the knives were drawn and blood ran hot and fast, a promise was issued to give to the baby the name of the northern mother, and as the northern two twitched terribly and stilled, a story was whispered in their unhearing ears of the future to come, a beautiful future, full of love and full of light, of many rolling seasons of crops, of a child who could read, of eggs and milk and butter and pies, sugar and flour kept dry in glass, irrigation run from the spring, wood to replace the earth half of the house when the railroad finally came and window panes and metal fixtures, hives for bees, flowers grown for the table, a floor lifted high above the dirt—a river of words, hope-filled and feverish. Even after the knives were drawn—the woman of the south with her cold fingers behind the woman of the north’s neck, the man of the south holding the man of the north down in the dirt among the potatoes—even as the screams were loosed and lost to the wind to travel across the prairie, the loss was not just of life, but of the lives that could have been, all that might have been shared, if there had been enough, if things were not as they were.

For what if, that first night when the man of the south had discovered what lay on the other side of the hill, he had turned his back on the north and returned to his wife and told her this place was already another’s? Had packed up the little they had and moved to a more forgiving land? Had learned to love her, and she him. 

But he had not done this, and the couple of the south assumed the life of the couple of the north. They buried the bodies on the hill’s south side, and yet found when they returned to the north home and stoked the northern fire that they still did not feel relief.

A distant line of pale-skinned men on horseback appeared like dark ridges on the horizon. They had been tracking the smoke in the sky for days, and would arrive at the hill in the dying light of late afternoon. They would find first the lost homestead of the south side, empty except for two fresh graves resting in the sun-riddled floor of the sod house, and on the north side, a couple and a newborn, the woman’s stomach apparently still round from childbirth, her breasts indeed heavy with milk, all stained pink and the meat smell of blood still heavy in the air. Though less than ideal specimens, the hair dark but thin and brittle, the riders claimed the scalps of the woman and man and returned to the south side of the hill where they dug up the graves and claimed those scalps too, for the price they could get for them was high, and no one would question whether they were from native head or settler.

The leader then wrapped the baby in the soft plush of a buffalo shoulder hide and tied her snug amidst sacks on the pack horse. He gave her a long lick of jerky to suck on, for they had far still to ride. She cooed at the movement of the horse and blinked her dark water eyes. She would remember none of this. Behind them the riders left wet, red earth, to the north of the hill and to the south, and the hill’s shadow moving solid and godlike from west to east with no one live to bear witness save the rattlesnakes and lizards. Blood had been spilled here before and would be again, and the land sighed, and drank.


Headshot: Jill Winsby-Fein


JILL WINSBY-FEIN in from Milford, Delaware. She received her MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College and now lives in Wassaic, New York, where she works in arts education and is writing a novel. “Groundswell” is a 2023 Pushcart Prize Nomination.