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SIX SIXES by LISA MILLER


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C O N T E N T S Living Under the Sky …… 5 Hunters …… 7 In the Dark …… 9 Lilac House …… 10 Thin Places …… 12 Where Fate Takes Us …… 13

About the Author …… 15

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Living Under the Sky

We don’t whiten our teeth, indulge in fancy haircuts, or grow long fingernails out here on the high plateaus of the West, where a strong back and a farmer’s tan is the badge of the highly sought after Solid Woman. We may have college degrees and a taste for expensive wine, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be found plowing the kitchen garden in the spring, getting it ready for the vegetables that will grace the pantry shelves in row upon row of glass jars our grandmothers used. Once, maybe twice a summer, we’ll get together and drive the long miles into the city for a girls-only weekend of lunching and shopping and tearing it up in a bar & grill where, inevitably, one of us will have one too many beers with the steak & prawns combo platter and challenge some pretty city boy to an arm wrestling match because he stopped at our table and called us girls. And while we’re in the city, a few of us will get our nails done, although the smooth edges and pale pink polish won’t last a week since there are new bird dogs to train, irrigation pipes to move, and evening horseback rides down to the river, where we sit with our men and fish while they talk to us about cattle 5

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prices or wheat prices and the hay we need to put up for winter, all after they’ve put in a full day of work managing accounts at the Co-Op or the grocery store in town. They are the last of the cowboys, stretched out on a shady river bank and resting for a few brief hours between chores and bed, full-time farmers or ranchers, full-time town employees, and full-time dreamers who look at the land as the mother who grows what they need to sustain their way of life. Those of us who stay and make a life under the open sky pay for it in every line and wrinkle courtesy of the sun and wind, with job opportunities never realized after college, learning to make do when cattle prices fall, or ice covers the roads for weeks in the winter, or when we drive a grain truck during harvest instead of substitute teaching at the grade school to make ends meet; but we pay gladly.

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Hunters

I remember when we picked Tucker up from the pound, a skinny little one year old Viszla who had spent more time in the house than most children, brought her home and turned her loose in the field behind the house where she proceeded to run until her muscles quivered from fatigue. Every day I took her out to the fields and watched her run in figure 8’s, a mahogany gazelle leaping in long, graceful strides, and yelping with excitement every time she caught the scent of a bird. “Damn dog’ll scare everything away,” you said one evening as we watched her hunt the grass around the barn and I showed you how well she followed my commands. But her nose never failed and her yelps of excitement didn’t seem to matter because every Autumn she effortlessly flushed out birds; even in fields other bird hunters claimed were hunted out. No, not hunted out, just populated with the smartest birds that dodged and ran through the brush, leading the hunters on a wild chase, and refusing to flush unless a dog was snapping at their tail feathers. Tucker’s favorite place to hunt was in the reeds and cattails around the pond, where the 7

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pheasants came to roost in the Russian Olives, and every Saturday in December the other hunters heard my shotgun as I brought down Sunday dinner with the help of my dog.

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In the Dark

“The a/c unit is toast,” Jack said. I didn’t even bother to ask him if he could fix it because when Jack said something was toast, it was beyond repair. “I’ll just put a few fans in the here, keep the windows open, and it won’t be so bad.” I sighed and rolled over on the bed to look at the clock, but without glasses I couldn’t quite focus on the numbers. Jack turned the fans on low and left them softly humming as a breeze wafted in through the open window, carrying the scent of baked grass and spent flowers on its warm midnight tendrils. We both pushed the blankets off the bed and stretched out to catch the breeze as coyotes yipped in the darkness, close enough to wake up our dogs for a moment, close enough to sing us back to sleep.

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Lilac House

We met the first time where our properties joined near the lake, while she was riding her horse and I was walking my dogs, and she said all in one breath as if she hadn’t seen another human being for a few weeks, “I sure am glad to meet you we moved out here to get away from all the people in town but it’s nice to have one or two neighbors so come on over one of these evenings and we’ll have a barbeque.” Kay and her husband were retired teachers who’d bought an old farmhouse on a few acres, with a barn that looked like it could fall down at any moment, nestled in the middle of rolling range land that had been worn out by the last rancher. I didn’t remember there being much of a house over there, and I was right, but Kay and Billy had plans to remodel the farmhouse bit by bit until it resembled its former self, plus a few more rooms and an entirely new electrical system that wouldn’t shoot sparks at anyone foolish enough to plug in a toaster. The evening we stopped by for dinner, Billy had just turned on sprinklers to water the garden, and the smell of water and dirt and ripe tomatoes mixed with the late summer smell of baking bread that rose from the yellowsixsentences.blogspot.com

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dry range grass and put us in the mood for cold beer and steaks the size of supper plates. The tree break of poplars to the south rustled in the breeze as we sat in lawn chairs and enjoyed the sunset while Jack, my husband, spun tales for them about the history of the house, how old the lilac trees were, and even confessed to bringing more than one girlfriend out here to poke around in the abandoned rooms. He remembered that the last of the family to live there had painted the house the color of deep purple lilacs because those lilacs had been brought to the homestead by the great-great grandmother and kept alive and propagated by each generation until the only thing left to remind us of their family were the old lilac trees weeping purple flowers at our feet.

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Thin Places

Stay with me, you said, and live here forever. I didn’t want to leave you alone out here on your farm, so I stayed, and all my theories of life turned to dust in this place where the world changes so slowly we don’t measure time in days but in lifetimes. Once you get used to the smallness of people and the largeness of a sky overhead that seems to be there just for you, the idea of leaving it behind is harder to bear than leaving any one person. I know I was a fool for you, but I’m an even bigger fool for a sunrise over the canyon wall, a long hot day made just for swimming in the river and napping under the trees, and midnights full of things you’ll only see if you sit on the porch in the dark and dream. Our hopes and dreams are as fragile as an early frost, but they seem so real when you plot out next year’s planting and calculate the bushel price of what stands in our fields right now. You were right about living here forever, only the Here is nowhere to be found and only really exists between us, as long as we stay together in this very thin place.

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Where Fate Takes Us

The summer of our 10th wedding anniversary, you were looking for a new job. On the 14th of June, we celebrated both events by leaving the kids with a neighbor and drove 100 miles to the city of Williston, North Dakota, where we parked in the WalMart parking lot next to the light pole with an “Aisle 4” sign tacked to it because that was the spot where Yellowstone Public Radio came in loud and clear, and talked about what we were going to do next. We were supposed to buy a new bike for one of the kids and enjoy dinner in a restaurant that didn’t ask us if we were “dining in” or ordering “to go.” Instead we sat in the truck, listened to the radio, and watched a thunderstorm roll by in a series of wind gusts and tantrums of pea-sized hail that bounced off the hood like Mexican jumping beans as the clouds boiled in a mix of black and blue and green. Shoppers ran through the parking lot, holding old newspapers or jackets over their heads, while we thumbed through a road atlas and settled on Oregon as our destination. It seemed like fate to finish the western migration our ancestors had started by finding a job in a city on the Pacific Coast, where 13

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a cowboy with a touch of a Canadian accent, and a new college degree pieced together in night classes at the university extension office over the last six years, would seem as exotic as our German and Irish ancestors fresh off the boat from Europe.

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About the Author

Lisa Miller has lived in different towns in the West most of her life. She is married, has two boys, two dogs, and loves the east side of Washington State much more than the west side.

Personal Page on the 6S Social Network: sixsentences.ning.com/ profile/LisaMiller Website: currentlydreaming.wordpress.com

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Six Sixes by Lisa Miller