The Preemptive Life of Ophelia Soderholm
Many stories depend on setting; without a certain setting they cannot be true; the stories become impossible and false in new environments. Other stories are true no matter where they take place, as long as they take place within the confines of men and women, within the thoughts they may think and the actions they may take.
This story is one of the former, and it takes place in a town separated from all other towns by many miles. The miles were made of nothing but wind and land, flat land. There were no mountains to see on the horizons; there were no chasms cut by ancient rivers. The precise geographical location isn’t as important as the low, flat, bleak topography, but I could tell you this town existed not far from where the border of Minnesota met the Dakota border, although, I’ll mention again, this does not mean much.
The year, on the other hand, is central. This story takes place before my grandfather was born, just after the war with Spain, before electricity was available in towns like this one, and before information flowed free and fast; before anyone knew, as they say.
The breadth of distance experienced by towns like this creates wonderful and dangerous worlds. These worlds are apart from the countries in which they lie; they are ungoverned by the governments under which they serve. Travelers come and go. Army divisions may rest here. At the center of town stood a post office, next to the post office was a Lutheran church. But there was no recourse except the appeal to those who were always there. That, and the determination of your own will. In a place like this, there is no forgiveness.
In a place devoid of forgiveness, a man’s will is paramount. He and is family will not survive without its strength. A family is bound to survival by the collective temerity of their will, each person feeding off the others, weaving his determination and bravado into an existential protective cloth created more from instinct than from genuine forethought.
This was as things were set the day a boy named Gustav Soderholm faced a sick dog in a path behind his home on the west side of town. The dog’s growl was low. Its teeth bare. Its black lips leaked thick foam upon the dirt. Gustav fired his pistol at the dog without thinking. He did not recall thinking, in any case. As he lay in bed that night, replaying the incident, he could not recall weighing options, could not recall right or wrong, even if he had told his mother he’d had no choice when she ran from the home, rifle in her hands, at the sound of the pistol shot.
“You are still here,” is what his mother had said. He was still there. If he had considered what to do, he may not be there. He may be dying, lying slack over the back of a horse as his father raced east for a doctor who would not be able to do anything anyhow. Gustav was not dying. He was still there.
Years passed, and Gustav grew into a young man. Alone, on a ride in from a hunt, he rested his horse by a tree as he walked a few paces to relieve himself upon the slope of a river bed. As Gustav turned back, the appearance of a man near his horse startled him. His gun was quick. His aim was more lucky than accurate. The man fell to a knee and then upon his own drawn gun. The man was a member of the Lakota tribe. He may have died. Gustav did not wait to see.
Gustav’s journeys into the wilderness increased in distance and scope. He became a tracker, trapper, and a hunter. He built a business trading the skins he sloughed from the animals he killed. He bought a store in town. When he saw a man stealing from his stock one afternoon, he shot the man.
The business began to take losses, loses that didn’t make sense. At night, Gustav pored over the books with his partner. As the pages slowly revealed small accounting inaccuracies, the partner became quiet, almost immobile. Gustav could taste the guilt in the room. He shot the other man and dragged his body to the street.
Gustav’s judgment was true. Right and wrong were never weighed, but it never mattered. He saw a man leaving his home midday; he shot the man for touching his wife. He was cheated at cards; he killed the cheat. He was wronged by a business deal; he killed the offender. This went on. Gustav earned an odd tacit power among the people of the town. He did not want this power, but he had no choice. He came to rule over the choices of those in the area. When his power was threatened, Gustav reacted. He came to be able to tell what other were thinking; he suspected, perhaps, he knew their intentions before they knew the thoughts themselves. He could foretell betrayal. He could predict a lie. He could smell a wrong and feel a slight like an itch on his scalp. Each action set like dominos in a line. Gustav knew how they would fall. And Gustav’s judgment was true.
Gustav grew older. The children of the town began to call the north hill Gustav’s Cemetery. His daughter, Ophelia, was sixteen when she asked if the things people said about him were true. Gustav did not ask what things. He only nodded and blew at the candle and retired to his bedroom.
That night Ophelia did not sleep. Not from fear, but from wonder. The next day, she did not speak; wonder marched onward and in circles in her mind, thoughts battled on fields of righteousness; victors fought on, the dead were forgotten.
At the end of her sixth day without words, Ophelia entered her father’s bedroom as he slept. She held his gun to his head. She waited until she knew he was awake, even if he did not open his eyes. She might have seen his lips move over two words. A blessing more than a prayer, she knew.
His was the only life she would ever take. The following week, she rode the half day to Marshall; she would plead guilty during the trial; and she would be hung in the basement of the new courthouse the week after her seventeenth birthday.