Windmills, The Boys (third place winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)


 Windmills, the Boys

A Short Story

By Laura Farnsworth

The boys drown in the pond on Myrtle Dag’s property. Windmills, the two of them, arms and rocks and driftwood and pinecones painting the water with rings and diagrams and dusk, and then the postures of dare, pulleys for shoulders, rope for arms, run farther and throw farther, hoot and shout and leap, catch the rock, the pinecone, farther, and still farther. Dive to save the boy who takes the dare.

Windmills, the boys, arms and arms and arms. And then.

And then nothing.

Myrtle sets her binoculars on the drainboard.

Percolator, decaf, two lumps. She peels potatoes for supper, leaves them cold in the sink. Rain titters overhead, becomes heedless applause, and then fists. Denial, anger. Rifles of lightning.  Sobs.

And then nothing more.

Myrtle signals the dog to her bed. She stands there, at the kitchen window, until well after dark.

Sheriff’s car. Lights, a wet ribbon up the dirt road, toward the boys’ mother, her house, her wondering kitchen table. Good boys have fried chicken for dinner, milk at bedtime, oatmeal at sunrise, before the school bus. Good boys, smart boys. Once, a teacher drew a red line through a spelling word on her Jack’s paper. Boy. Buoy. Float, boy. Float.

Myrtle puts the binoculars in a casserole dish in the cabinet. She fills her mug, sits at the kitchen table, watches the dog sleep. She lets her head set itself down upon the Mount Rushmore placemat, turning what has been witnessed today sideways.

The pond stirs beneath its bed sheet.

Lou paws a dream in which she is a puppy again.

Then, all sides of the sky, an envelope full of pink.

Myrtle scrambles an egg for herself. For the dog, some leftover squash, the last of the cottage cheese. Lou goes out the side door and does what she needs to between the rosebush and Jack’s old swing set, her piss pooling neon atop the mud.

Binoculars, Myrtle holds them to the window. Down the dirt road come the searchers. Hounds, the kind with very long ears. Something flagging from an officer’s hand, a child’s pajamas, scents of sleep and toast and morning cartoons. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You; Myrtle always liked that one, the giddy sameness every Saturday, ghouls, pancakes, chores.

Doorbell. She puts the binoculars behind the cookie jar.

Ma’am. Mrs. Dag, is it?

A deputy. He sweeps his hat clockwise, sets it on the porch hook where Roy’s always hung. Shoulders poking at the fabric of his uniform, forehead smooth as piecrust. Fidgeting on her sofa, where to put his hips, his elbows. The dog sits her chin on top of his knee, lets out a long, patient breath. He wears the mirrored kind of sunglasses. She could reach for them and wipe away the smudges with her shirt, hand them back. He folds them into his pocket. He looks about twenty-five. Her Jack would be twenty-eight.

Mrs. Dag, ma’am. You were home yesterday. Afternoon and evening.

Well, she was, yes.

We’re looking for some missing children. Brothers. The deputy shows her a photograph. Birthday party, chocolate ice cream.

You must know them. The family. Questions without marks.

She has watched the boys with their mother. Walking, with tote bags, kites, sometimes a Frisbee. Down the dirt road towards town, and then back up again. The mother launching kites upward, handing over the spool, yelling run, run, the boys’ bodies leaving earth for moments at a time.

A proper asking: did you see the boys yesterday?

Will it help to answer this question, Myrtle. She tells herself this the way a person would address a child when the answer is a foregone negative, when there is no other acceptable response. No, it would not help a thing, the worst thing that can happen to boys has already happened, done and over, and eventually they will be found looking nothing like their mother’s memories of them and is that not better than telling a man with a notepad what she has seen in this life.

Would she tell him about windmills, and how she set her binoculars on the drainboard.

Well, then. Myrtle Dag, he writes in his notepad. No.

If you think of something.  You can call.

Well, then.

The boys’ mother will be sitting on a kitchen chair telling a notepad every truth. Good boys, walking to the churchyard to climb trees, letting them have a little freedom, be home by dark. No, they never get lost. Yes, they always come back. Weeping, skin of her nostrils crude, snagged hair in the prongs of her unwedding ring. Or maybe she is on the sofa, knitted afghan smelling of cheese and sweat and modeling clay, her eyes spread round like gravy. We’ll find them, someone will say, they will be just fine. The mother will try very hard not to scream at this.

There will be things said in town. Those boys running loose all the time. Late for school. Often absent from church. Probably, she tipped herself back onto the sofa, closed her eyes a spell, and then they were gone. Going it alone, you know, can’t be easy, but still. People examining cause and effect, wanting their own contentments guaranteed.

The boys’ father left awhile back, Myrtle heard, moved away. Boise, maybe. Spokane. Someone will have called him, he’ll be on an airplane, coming to help, to look, asking the flight attendant for orange juice because the boys always liked it and because he doesn’t know what else to ask for.

They all have names. Myrtle cannot recall a single one.

She fills the coffee pot with suds to soak away its brown tidemarks. She wipes a cobweb from the window.

The deputy’s hounds call out, and the searchers change slant.  Myrtle lifts her binoculars. Some cross the dirt road into a potato field, the backs of them dominos in a line. More of them now, townspeople in caps, work boots. Women, too, other mothers, blue jeans, windbreakers, setting up card tables along the road with water jugs and juice and muffins, on a Saturday, after a storm, because two boys are gone, just gone.

The deputy accepts a cup of water.

Then: a car in the gravel drive. Janet, from town. Myrtle sets the binoculars in the fridge.

Myrtle, hiya, sorry to just drop in and all, but the phones are all out, did you know? I suppose you’ve heard what they’re up to out there, I see those boys all the time when I head up to your place. Made me think of your Jack and your Roy and all, and I’m sorry for mentioning it, but Myrtle. Can’t help it, you know? And I wondered if you’ll be needing any groceries, I can swing back by later. Nothing? That’s fine, hon, hope you didn’t get too wet last night, our sump pump’s goin’ like runaway horses. Make it harder, I suspect, the scents washed away and all. For the hounds, I mean. Okay, Myrtle, take care of that hip, and bye now.

Her Jack.

Jack, who was a boy.

Myrtle who was a mother.

Stuck in Myrtle’s head at the age of nine, homemade buzz cut, like a kitten to pet him, stuck there because he was still hers then, stuck there because he was still happy, tree swings, quail’s nests. Hay bales, horseshoeing, helping her with canning, apples peeled in one curling serpent’s tongue. Chasing after sheep on his pony. A road trip once, just Myrtle and Jack, South Dakota. A sack of donuts powdering the air between them. Hank Williams, hamburgers. No worries at all about love, no wondering: is there any other kind except mother and son.

Boy Jack swung at baseballs from the apex of a dirt diamond, Myrtle tucking her hands between her thighs and the bleachers, pinching her knuckles numb in a sort of prayer: connect connect connect. Once, it worked: the violence of wood on leather, red stitches wincing as they went airborne, away from a mother tipsy with pride, a father who willed the ball into the second baseman’s glove.

Roy stood his son in the field to practice batting that night until he crumpled.

Myrtle plastered Jack’s shoulders with salve and Epsom salts.

You cannot make him into something resembling a man with that nonsense. That is what Roy said to her. Why does a boy need to resemble a man, and doesn’t that come along soon enough in this life.  That is how she answered him.

Who would Myrtle Dag be without a boy to fix?

A boy that does not become a man is a useless effort. Roy’s final word on the subject. Roy, who has never sat up all night in the rocking chair, loving away an earache. Roy, who put newborn lambs next to the skin of his own chest. Farmer, father. Rancher, reaper.

No more ballgames after that. No more Junior Mechanics meetings, 4-H competitions, marksmanship meets. She bought Jack a puppy, named her Lou, showed him how to rub the felt of her belly until she snored, demonstrated housebreaking and the rites of obedience until he shrugged. He learned to drive, and they never did ride together anywhere again.

Then Jack turned seventeen, sideburns on a sapling, stabbing at his meat until blood turned the potatoes pink, eyes plain and blank and chrome. Churning up the north hill, after dinner, down to the club of cottonwoods by the stream.

Where are you going, boy?  He never answered that.

Myrtle didn’t have to follow far, just up to the old smokehouse. The tiny, west-facing window. Binoculars. Her son. And that Ricky. A miner’s kid, trouble, shoplifting, smoking. Talk of him in town. Another kind of love, a starving, seething tussle, denim jackets and ball caps and birch-white legs, not the love of a man and his wife, but something else. She went to the smokehouse once, and understood. And then twice, and she no longer did.

She loved her son just the same as always, like a boy, her boy, but that was the wrong thing to do, reaching out to smooth his hair, put a biscuit on his plate. Jack hurled back at Myrtle hunks of her love, because he wasn’t a boy now.

That day, that night:

Roy gave Jack a hard time about not putting the hay in the barn before supper and Jack spun a kitchen chair across the room and through a window, Roy, in that chewed-up way of his, asked her: do we have a problem here, and Myrtle had shaken her head no. Because to say yes would be giving life and a name to a thing that was better off not living under the steepled roof of Roy’s mind.

Jack ran off after he threw the chair. The smokehouse, follow him, she wanted to, to be sure he was fine, just angry, just young. Jack, Ricky, bodies like books, bodies like blades. No, Myrtle, the man you’ve named Jack needs to run. She stayed back and dealt with all the broken things.

Roy drove away to count lambs in the back pasture. Evening watch.


Doorbell. The young deputy again, dark birds of sweat on his uniform.

Bloodhounds seem to have a scent, along the broken fence and toward the pond. We’ll need to go over your property. Before it storms, Mrs. Dag. Urgent, as you can see.

Yes, Myrtle can see. She beckons the dog, bends to breathe the cornbread smell of her ears.

What’s her name? The deputy smiles.

Lou. She was my son’s.

Mrs. Dag? Are you all right?

The pond. It is hollow. It is full.


The night her family broke:

Myrtle heard two shots, perhaps a third. Roy’s rifle. She knew the cough of its discharge, the following echo. Dusk. Coyotes. He’d be warning them off. Myrtle picked up the puppy and shut her in the bedroom, away from the shards of their evening.  She swept the shatters into piles, the piles into islands, the islands into continents. When Roy came back to get a thermos of coffee, before the overnight watch, she would try to describe for him the terrain that was their son.

Dark arrived. Roy had not.  Neither had Jack. Myrtle unclothed herself of expectation. The boy needed to come home of his own mind. She turned down the bedding, ordered the lock to a position of welcome. Well, come.

For Roy she filled a sack, swellings of meatloaf between bread, a taste of it dropped for Lou, red beet relish in a jar, to see him through overnight watch. She hung this on the porch hook for him to find. For Jack she left an oatmeal cookie on a napkin near his pillow. She made up the sofa with a sheet, a feather pillow, a cotton blanket, just in case. In case of lost boys.  She found Roy’s brandy, the bottle inside his old boot at the back of the closet, for the worst nights, the longest deliveries, and wet her coffee cup.

Over the busted window she taped great white incisors of poster board, Jack’s old science projects: kill cabbage worm larvae with lye soap and vinegar, one percent iodine solution on squash beetles, graphs and sketches and the teacher’s remarks in red, points subtracted for penmanship.

Then Myrtle and the puppy stirred, settled, slept to the sound of thunder closing doors, rain stewing up a fog for morning, and nothing else.

Myrtle sometimes allows this account of events to be truth.


The men are searching Myrtle’s property. The hounds wear stockings made of mud.

Fracturing without regard, the skies. The sheriff’s deputy and the local men back away from lightning above the pond. One of the men wraps his arms around the boys’ mother, dragging her to the safety of Myrtle’s porch. She kicks, her heels blunting the man’s knees and shins.

The hounds are ordered to the patrol car. The searcher team and the boys’ father lean themselves against the house, beneath the overhang. Myrtle fills the percolator. Offer comfort, she could. She dumps it into the sink.

Water rises to the level of the kitchen door.

The deputy knocks. Mrs. Dag, please.

How simple it would be to save them all.

Mrs. Dag? Please, we need a blanket for the boys’ mother. Soaked to the bone, do you have some tea, set her here on the sofa, let’s get the fireplace going. Equipment on the way, drain the pond, footprints at the edge, only clues, almost erased, no sign of them elsewhere, fearing the worst. The boys.

Swallowed. In the pond, too many truths.

You are very kind, Mrs. Dag. To let us disrupt things this way.

The mother is a fallen tree. She has the smallest hands, Mandy, so much smaller than Myrtle’s.

Mandy. The name of a young mother whose boys are gone.

Myrtle could tell her things about that. About making ready, watching out windows.  About beds unslept, toast unmade. Sweatshirts unwarmed by the arms inside of them, the ribs, the sweat.  How a woman bags the shirts and the boots and the Superman sheets for the church charity. Then leaves the bag in her trunk. Then stops going to church. Then stops going anywhere.

The pond. What does a boy come to believe when the water’s surface is out of reach? Calling out to the algae. Drifting, into the innards of tractors, astonished rubber tires. Does it seem hopeless? Myrtle allows these questions, answers herself that dying must offer something gentler.

She sits down near Mandy on the sofa. Tucks the afghan tighter around her shaking limbs. Lou offers the comfort of her fur.


Myrtle knows the story of a man with a rifle coming upon his son in the woods. The son grappling with a boy the father has seen around town, their denim jackets and Wranglers and work boots and briefs discarded, their skin dirtied by the tumbling-away sun. The man, seeing a problem that cannot be reconciled otherwise, raises his rifle. The boy from town slants toward his jacket, his own weapon in its pocket.

Two shots, three.

The man, the boy, the son. Letting go their redness onto sand and rocks and the bones of trees. The mother hearing, seeing, knowing, from the smokehouse, kneeling down and retching.

This true story she knows becomes about the Dag family, a speckled old filmstrip, a war.

Roy’s truck at the side of the road, door aghast.

Myrtle running, shoeless, to the trees.

Help me, Myrtle, help. Get the boy in the truck. Get his legs.

Help me.

Ricky is not Ricky any longer, the bare whole of him small and wrong and limp in her hands. Roy is not Roy, his shoulder joint showing itself, a peeled spud. Jack is shaking. She wraps him in old towels, the lambing rags from the truck. He can’t see her, something wrong with his eyes, he can’t, is she there, mother, and shush, she tells him, these things can be fixed, we will get this fixed, and yes, I am here. I will fix you.

Ricky and Jack, in the back of the truck, spread out on the old mattress that is for lambs and calves. Roy at the wheel, Roy, the father of a ruined boy, a boy he ruined, speeding away, the door handle snapping at her wrist, before she can jump in the truck and tell him to take highway fourteen to Sheridan, paved all the way, hospital, Jack is allergic to aspirin, gives him hives, sleepwalks sometimes, likes to be sung to when there’s thunder, can’t abide cold feet.

Myrtle runs after them, down the dirt road. Blood in the spaces between her toes.  She was screaming. She must have been.

The truck slows. He’s remembered her, Roy has, that she is the one who mends things, the blisters, the frostbite, the barbed wire stuck through flesh. In reverse now, she can catch him, catch right up and jump in the back and watch over those boys all the way to Sheridan, but the truck swings wide, punching her off her feet, and onto the knothole of her hip.

Roy arrows his truck through the fence at the edge of the Dag’s property, sundering clover and early red sedge, staggering over dead timber. Myrtle sees one arm rise from the back and fall back down. Jack. The truck finds the pond, spitting mud behind, gagging on gravel and moss and the pale ooze of carp. The pond is a swallowing thing.

Myrtle crawls. The slowness of a baby. The urgency of its young mother.  She crawls to the pond until mud takes her wrists, her shins, her knees: stop, you see, there is nothing to be done. There is nothing to save. There is nothing to fix.

This is sometimes the case with stories that are true.

She could tell Mandy about the pond holding her in its teeth that day, until the rain began, and for a long time after.


Laura Farnsworth is a Denver-based writer, artist, and gardener. Her work appears in The Progenitor and Aquifer, and she was recently awarded the Meek Prize for short fiction by The Florida Review. She is currently at work on a story collection exploring the humanity hidden within seemingly incomprehensible behaviors.