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Rutting Season




About The Book

This sparkling collection of short stories explores the effects of loss, and the surprising ways people find to keep going, for “fans of Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson” (Refinery29).

In these lucid, sharply observant stories, Mandeliene Smith traces the lives of men and women in moments of crisis: a woman whose husband has just died, a social worker struggling to escape his own past, a girl caught in a standoff between her mother’s boyfriend and the police. Wise and insightful, Smith is “an uncommonly talented writer with a particularly sharp eye for the serrated edge of human nature” (Publishers Weekly).

In “What It Takes,” a teenage girl navigates race and class as the school’s pot dealer. “The Someday Cat” follows a small girl terrified of being given away by her neglectful mother. “Three Views of a Pond” is a meditation on the healing time brings for a college student considering suicide. And in “Animals,” a child wrestles with the contradictions inherent in her family’s relationship with the farm animals they both care for and kill.

In barnyards, office buildings, and dilapidated houses, Smith’s characters fight for happiness and survival, and the choices they make reveal the power of instinct to save or destroy. Whether she’s writing about wives struggling with love, teenage girls resisting authority, or men and women reeling from loss, Smith illuminates her characters with pointed, gorgeous language and searing insight. Rutting Season is “an arresting debut short story collection…At once powerful and delicate, compassionate and clear-eyed, this book is sure to breed interest in a new literary voice” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).


Rutting Season MERCY
The children’s puppy was run over at the end of May. Not on the main road, which Pam might have expected, but on the dirt track that formed the western boundary of the farm. How was it possible? No one even drove there. But there he was, splayed out in the lush, green weeds of the shoulder, his sweet muzzle soaked with blood. Pam wrapped him in her coat and carried him across the field to the house, his body still soft in her arms.

With the kittens, the vet thought it was some sort of congenital defect. The goldfish were most likely from overfeeding—no surprise there, given the twins’ fascination with the food shaker. And the duckling? Who knew? Pam didn’t need to settle on a definite culprit, but the children did. The children needed an explanation for everything.

“What animal ate Duckle?” Jack asked again. This time he wasn’t looking at her; he was pounding his hot dog headfirst in a puddle of ketchup.

Pam turned back to the sink, unconsciously shutting out the sight of his smooth, too-serious face. He was seven years old and his father was dead. The list of things she couldn’t protect him from had suddenly become infinite.

“I don’t know, sweetheart,” she said lightly. “Maybe a fox?”

“Or a raccoon?”

“Or a raccoon.”


She could not escape. The chicks died, the barn cat came down with distemper, the goats wandered out onto the rotten ice of the pond and drowned. By the time Aidan’s hamster disappeared she was beyond caring; she was in a whirl of fury, like a horse maddened by flies. Besides, she had always hated the hamster.

“How could you hate a hamster?” asked her best friend, Trish.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Pam held the phone with her shoulder as she scooped the warm clothes out of the dryer. She saw again the little curved teeth, the furry face. “It was just greedy, you know? Greedy and self-serving.”

“It was a hamster! What’d you expect, Gandhi?”

“No, really, I’m telling you, all that thing cared about was eating. It would have eaten its own ass if it could have gotten its mouth around it.”

Trish laughed and Pam felt the heaviness inside her ease up a little. To laugh, to make a joke, however feeble, restored to her a sense of herself as someone normal—a mother, a woman in the world. She stuffed another load into the machine and let the lid slam shut.

“What’s that noise? You’re not doing more laundry, are you? Seriously,” Trish added in a gentler tone, “it’s late. You should go to bed.”

Pam sighed. “I wish. I’ve still got the barn to do.”

“Okay, pioneer woman.”

It was their old, half-serious dispute. Why take on so much? Why make life so complicated? Trish kept things simple: one child, one cat; a backyard just big enough for a swing set and a patio.

“Don’t worry,” Pam said. “At the rate we’re going, every living thing on this place will be dead by July and I’ll just sit around eating bonbons.”

There was a heavy pause. “Joke,” Pam said, but it was too late.

“Are you really okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Pam said. She pictured Trish hanging up the phone and padding down the hall to relay their conversation to her husband, Brian. A bitter envy rose in her.

“You call,” Trish said. “One a.m., whatever.”

“I know,” Pam said, “thanks.” After they hung up, she lay down on the kitchen floor to wait. The grief came in a surge: savage, shocking. She cried hard for a few minutes; then she wiped her eyes, got up, and went back to folding clothes.

Brian had died six months earlier of a massive coronary. There was nothing Pam could have done even if she had been there, and she hadn’t; she’d been inside cooking dinner. When he didn’t come in on time, she had stomped out to the barn, fired up with her habitual annoyance (he dallied over everything), and found him lying facedown in the frozen mud of the paddock. He had been thawing the horses’ water. They weren’t even his concern, the horses. He was a lawyer, not a farmer; he didn’t even like to ride. Yet he would do such a thing—to help her out, to revel in the crazy, animal-filled circus that was his home life. He had loved all of that: the chickens sneaking into the sunroom, the mice making nests in the horse blankets, the rich, crowing absurdity of having three children and six horses and four dogs and two cats and God only knew how many chickens and goats and ducks. He would come home from work and stretch out on the couch, sated, an only child surrounded by fecundity.

It was up to Pam to say no, to set limits, to buy life insurance and save for the kids’ college. She was vigilant, always. Her father had died young, and she knew how quickly things could go bad. But Brian had believed—if not in God then in his own good fortune: Pam was the best; the kids were the best; everything would be fine. But he had been wrong.

She was bitter, she knew it; her heart was clenched like a fist. The last time Reverend Pratt had come by, she’d barely been civil. She was cleaning the bridles in the tack room when she saw his car coming up the driveway. For a second she had thought about pretending she didn’t hear him or slipping out the back, but she stayed where she was; she answered his call and waited while he followed her voice to the tack room. The proper thing would have been to take him up to the house and make him some coffee but she didn’t; she offered him a hay bale to sit on and went on with her work.

“Thank you, Pamela,” he said, lowering himself gingerly onto the prickly surface.

She and the kids hadn’t been to church since the funeral. That was what he’d talked about on his previous visit: He thought the children needed the continuity. But this time he didn’t mention church. Instead he talked of “God’s mercy.”

“God’s plan is something we just can’t know,” he said in his wavering, old man’s voice. He went on: He knew how hard it was; God knew how it hard it was. Hadn’t He given His only son? “We just have to trust in His mercy,” he said.

Pam scraped her fingernail along the bridle’s dirty stitching and turned her hand over to study the brownish green gunk that had balled up under her nail. He wanted to talk about God? Fine, let him talk. When he was done, she let him peck her cheek and then watched him walk to his car with a piece of hay dangling from his pants.

Reverend Pratt came to defend God, she told Brian. He sat on a hay bale.

That was it? Brian said. Reverend Pratt on a hay bale? No thunder? No whirlwind?

Pam laughed. But the truth was she didn’t know what Brian would have said, and she never would. Staring at the empty square of gravel where Reverend Pratt’s car had been, she suddenly knew she couldn’t make it through another minute.

But she did, of course. She made it and made it and made it.

Pam finished folding the laundry and put the basket at the base of the stairs so she would remember to bring it up. She glanced at the clock as she pulled on her boots. Trish was right, it was late, but Pam liked the evening barn work. The solitude and quiet were soothing after the hectic pace of the day. She shoved the plastic baby monitor in her back pocket and went out into the fragrant June dark. She breathed in the exhalation of the cooling earth. The crying had released her a little, and now the sensations of the world flooded back: the scent of the linden tree, the damp air lifting the tiny hairs on her arms. She let herself stop inside the barn door to listen to the horses eating hay in their steady, peaceful way. It was the sound of comfort and routine, of everything as it should be.

The farm had been Brian’s idea. If he had to be married to a horse person, why not move out to where the horses were? That way he’d at least get to catch a glimpse of her galloping by. It was the kind of quip he used at cocktail parties and barbecues, places where he was likely to meet other beleaguered horse husbands, but the truth was he had been generous about her need to ride, even after the twins were born. “Go, crazy lady,” he’d say, shaking his head in amusement, and she would put on her riding boots and go, her body light with relief.

What was it she loved so much? Riding was hard, hot work, repetitive and often frustrating, and yet she always felt better afterward. It untangled her, somehow, to engage in that physical call and response, to guide, through the live wires of the reins, the pressure of her legs, that spectacularly powerful body, that wild, mostly unknowable mind.

They were down to only six now: three boarders, two ponies for the kids, and Ace, Pam’s four-year-old Thoroughbred. Ace was the best she’d ever had, the first with a chance of competing at the advanced level, but when Brian died, training him had become just another low priority, like getting a haircut or cleaning the car. She went to his stall and he stretched his head over the door to sniff her face with his soft, whiskery nostrils. He was a beauty, a real mover. Even when he was hacking around in the pasture you could see it—the springing stride, that natural ease. And he had heart, meaning that he was willing, that he would give you everything he had, not because you forced him, but because that was how he was.

People had begun to suggest that she sell him. Her mother-in-law, her sister; even Trish had tried to bring it up. They thought it was too much, caring for all those horses—too much time, too much money, too risky leaving the kids alone every morning. Those were all reasons Pam could dismiss, but there was another, better one: She had no right to keep him if she was going to let him go to waste. She ran her hand along the crest of his neck. Already he had lost muscle.

I should sell him, she told herself, and a rush of anger went through her. Trish, she thought, suddenly remembering something that had happened the week before, goddamn Trish.

It was at a birthday party for one of Alice and Aidan’s friends, a real production, with a dozen three-year-olds, a trampoline, an ice cream cake. Pam and Trish and Lacey, another mom, had stayed to help. Or that was the idea, anyway. In fact, Trish and Lacey had disappeared halfway through. Pam hadn’t even noticed; she was rushing around in her usual way, anticipating dangers, fielding demands. When she came upon them talking in the kitchen, she stopped in surprise.

“Every night?” Lacey was saying.

“I kid you not,” Trish said. “We have to order condoms in these boxes, I mean like this.” She showed the size of the box with her hands.

“Oh my God!”

They both laughed. Then Trish looked up and saw her, and the amusement died away in her eyes.

Now, in the quiet of the barn, Pam saw again their turning faces, bright with laughter and sweat, and herself in the doorway behind them—sexless, drab, a figure who stood aside.

I kid you not.

She leaned over the stall door and pressed her hot face against Ace’s neck. Her brain lurched in the sudden dark. She was tired, she was much more tired than she’d realized. Through the thick plane of his muscle, she could feel the grinding of his teeth, the quick jerk of his head as he tugged more hay from the net. Slowly her face cooled, her mind went quiet.

In the months since Brian had died, she had lost all taste for the wants of her body. She ate but she had no appetite, and afterward she often felt nauseated, as though she had forced herself to do something unnatural. Washing was worse and most days she didn’t bother, so her short, blond hair was frequently dark with grease. Dimly, she knew this; she knew that people noticed, but she could not bring herself to shower more often. Her breasts, her belly, her thighs, even the sensation of hot water on her scalp—all this had belonged in some part to Brian, or to their pairing. To see her own flushed skin, to run the soap over the muscles of her arms and legs, felt like a betrayal. That part of the life of her body was over; she wanted it to be over. And yet when she had come upon Trish and Lacey laughing, she had felt the stab of exclusion.

She opened her eyes and looked at the line of shovels and forks hanging along the barn wall. The neat row of handles spoke of order and calm: the tools in their places, the children safe. Why not start riding again? What harm could it do? An hour or so while the kids were in school.

She straightened up, buoyed; her exhaustion had drained away. She swung open the stall door and let Ace bomb down the aisle to the paddock. Then she put the baby monitor on the windowsill and started mucking his stall.

“Guess what we’ve got for breakfast?” Pam said. “Bagels! Alice, get away from that fish tank.”

Alice’s face took on a stony aspect, as though she’d suddenly gone deaf. She reached over the back of the chair she was standing on and touched the dirty surface of the water with one small finger.

Pam suppressed a flash of irritation. “I’ve got cinnamon raisin!” she said in the singsong, kindergarten voice she despised. Alice spun around.

Bribery and manipulation, manipulation and bribery—really, she was getting worse and worse. But today she didn’t care. She had woken early, not with her usual dread, but with a sense of expectation. She had thought through the logistics as she lay among her sleeping children. (None of them spent a full night on their own anymore; she couldn’t bring herself to make them.) If she put off going to the feed store, if she skipped lunch, if she left Ace in the paddock instead of turning him loose with the others—she could squeeze in an hour, anyway. It was a start.

She put half a bagel on each plate, and a spoonful of cream cheese; then a handful of Cheerios, then banana slices. Food and backup food. She needed ten minutes, fifteen at the outside to get the morning barn work done. She had it down like a drill: run up the driveway, dump the grain, toss the chicken feed, put the halters on the horses, let them out, shut the doors so they wouldn’t get into the grain bins (even an hour of gorging on grain could kill a horse). Still, ten minutes was a long time; ten minutes was a minefield, and today she’d need a little extra time to get Ace set up in the paddock. She walked over and latched the door that led to the stairs.

“Raisin!” Alice said to Aidan, holding up her bagel.

Pam grabbed one of her boots from behind the door and pulled it on.

“Mama,” Aidan said in his slow, deliberate voice.

“Yes?” She pulled on the other boot.

He lifted his eyes to her solemnly. “Can I det a durtle?”

She stopped, pierced.

“He said ‘turtle,’?” Alice said.

“I know, sweetie, thanks.” Pam bent down and kissed Aidan’s head. “Sure, we can get you a turtle.” It might live, she thought. And she wouldn’t have to get him another hamster. She put an extra blob of cream cheese on each of their plates to boost the entertainment value and grabbed the baby monitor. The dogs crowded up against the door, jumping and whining.

“Jack, you’re in charge,” she said, pushing the dogs back with her leg.

“I know,” he said.

She opened the door and the dogs shot out. It was a beautiful clear day; her heart lifted. Outside the barn, she scooped up the dead bluebird by the fence and tossed it onto the manure pile without a thought.

She was already letting the horses into the pasture when she heard something over the monitor. She rolled the wooden door shut and stopped to listen: nothing, overamplified silence. Ace whinnied frantically in his stall. Pam went back to him and slipped the halter over his bobbing head. Then she led him down the aisle to the door that opened onto the paddock.

“I’m gonna tell Mom.” That was Jack.

The next sound came through in a burst of static. A crash? An explosion? Pam let go of Ace’s halter and whirled around. She heard him clatter out the door as she ran the opposite way, toward the house.

She found them standing on the chairs, unhurt, above a flood of greenish water. She swallowed a wild urge to laugh: It was only the fish tank, and it wasn’t even broken.

“It fell!” Jack said. He was trying not to cry.

She splashed over to the table and pulled them into her. “Hey,” she said. “Hey, you pumpkins.” They were soaked, all of them; they stank like a pond.

She pressed her nose into Aidan’s head and waited for the adrenaline to stop chattering in her veins. She could have been thinking of how lucky she was (the tank could have landed on one of them; it could have shattered), or feeling guilty for leaving them alone, or trying to recall whether she’d finished everything at the barn. But she wasn’t; she was coasting on a surge of relief and well-being. Everything was okay; she could still ride.

Pam drove the back way to Jack’s school, taking the curves low and fast. The air coming through the window was laced with the smells of summer: new hay, warming asphalt, the secret damp of the woods. She would start Ace off with some basic dressage, she thought—halts, extensions—get him back into the mind-set. She held her hand out the window like a wing and let it fly up on the rush of air.

When she came home from the grocery store two hours later, she found Ace with his nose in the grain bin. She had forgotten to shut the paddock door.

That terrible night, when Pam had spotted Brian lying so strangely on the frozen ground, her mind had refused. No was what she thought. Not a plea or a prayer but a command: No.

Even as she ran to call the ambulance, even when the EMT stood up in defeat; even the next day, when she was making the funeral plans and relatives were arriving, she was secretly refusing. The blows that came after—the animals dying, the children’s bewildered grief, the nightly jolt of waking and finding him gone—these were nothing somehow, or rather they were more of the same, water poured into a torrent of water. She stood there and took it.

But now her resistance deserted her. She had done this. If Ace died, if he foundered, it would be her fault alone.

He raised his head and looked at her; then he burrowed his nose back in the bin and began eating in a frenzy, flinging grain against the metal sides. She made herself step forward and grab his halter; then she jerked his head out and backed him into the aisle.

She clipped him into the crossties with shaking hands and went to get the thermometer and stethoscope. A fluttery weakness had come over her, and she leaned against him to steady herself while she took his vital signs. She had seen a lot of colic over the years but only two cases from grain: one in her first pony, the other in a dressage horse at the barn where she had trained. The horse had died when the swelling grain ruptured her intestines. The pony had survived, but afterward he had foundered—his hooves had curled back on themselves like elf shoes, and he could never be ridden again. They had kept him anyway, as a pet. You could do that with a pony.

She put Ace in his stall and took the water bucket out. Then she went back to the house to call the vet.

“Oh boy,” he said. It was Leland, the younger partner, the nice one. “Any idea how much he ate?”

“No,” she said. “A lot, I think.”

“Pulse and everything fine?”

“So far.”

“Well, get him walking and let me know how things progress.” He told her his cellphone number and she wrote it on her arm. When he had hung up, she called Trish to ask if she could take the kids overnight.

“Of course,” Trish said. “Oh, Pam, I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks,” Pam whispered. She stopped to get control of her voice. “You still have their sleeping bags, right?”

She walked Ace on the driveway: down to the mailbox, then back up to the house, then again. He was bright-eyed and frisky, and every time he caught sight of the other horses, he tossed his head up and whinnied. Pam looked away, sick with guilt. He didn’t know what was coming. She had forgotten to change out of her riding boots and they were blistering her heels, but this seemed to her justified, so she did nothing about it.

Around two o’clock Ace started nipping his sides; by three he was trying to go down on the driveway. She put him in the paddock, where he wouldn’t hurt himself if he thrashed, and went to call the vet.

She waited for Leland in the scant shade of the linden tree, watching Ace paw and turn and bite at himself. He went down and rolled, and she pulled him up by the halter—if he twisted a gut it would be all over. He stood for a while sweating, his eyes anxious; then he went down again. The dogs came by, sniffed the air, and slunk off. When the vet finally came, an hour and a half later, Pam’s relief bordered on elation. But Leland’s face went still when he saw the horse, and he performed the examination in silence.

“Is there an impaction?” Pam asked.

“Yes, in the colon. I’m not sure if the cecum is involved or not.” Leland rubbed his jaw. “Well, we can give him mineral oil, see how that does.”

Pam managed a nod. Mineral oil seemed to her a remedy from the nineteenth century, like cupping or leeches—well intentioned but useless. She held the twitch on Ace’s lip while Leland slipped the tube down his throat. When he was done, she trailed him out to his truck.

He opened the door and put in his bag. “Do you have insurance on him?” he said.

She nodded. What he meant was could she afford surgery, but she knew that if it got that far, Ace’s chances would be slim.

“You might want to go ahead and hook the trailer up just in case we need to take him in,” Leland said. “If he hasn’t passed anything by nine or he gets noticeably worse, you know, pulse over fifty, an increase in distress—”

“Sitting like a dog,” she added, grimly. That was what the dressage horse had done.

Leland paused. “Well, yes, of course, if you see that,” he said. He put his hand on the truck door. “So, anything changes for the worse, call the answering service and they’ll page Norton.”

“Oh,” Pam said, “Norton.”

Norton was the other vet, and he didn’t like Pam. He was a homely man, with large, squarish limbs and the bitter arrogance of someone who expected to be slighted. His wife had left him, very publicly, for the local dentist a few years earlier. Pam would have felt sorry for him, but his dislike for her had been so immediate she never got the chance. When she had brought in the dead kittens, he had just raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Congenital would be my guess,” he’d said, and then he had crossed his arms and waited for her to go.

She had stood there for a moment feeling frivolous, spoiled, shallow—whatever it was he disliked her for. Then she had picked up the box of kittens and left.

“Norton’s good, Pam,” Leland said. “He’ll do a good job.”

“Oh, I know,” she said. She watched his truck until it disappeared from view.

The hours dragged on. Dusk fell and she brought the other horses back to eat. Later, she went to the house and called the children to say good night. She made a peanut-butter sandwich but her throat was closed, and she threw it away and went back out to the paddock. Ace was standing by the fence, his head sunk. He had extended his legs in an effort to ease the pain, and this made him look swaybacked and broken, like an old nag. She went up and put a hand on his dirt-encrusted neck, but his eyes reflected no awareness of her or anything else. The horse she knew had disappeared.

She turned away, sickened. A terrible pressure was building in her head. She walked around to the back of the tree and sat down where she wouldn’t have to see him. The things she had done—against nature, against her own ability even—were coming back to her. Carrying the bloody puppy. Dragging the bloated goat bodies from the pond. Stacking the dead kittens in the shoe box.

She gripped her head. She had the feeling of something cracking, of a tremendous force bearing down. What good had she been? She hadn’t even been there when Brian died. And when she had gotten there— Her mind recoiled at the thought of her exaggerated gasping, her stupid fingers fumbling to get under his scarf. There was something monstrous, something treacherous and insincere about the ordinary way she had gone on functioning while Brian lay there cold. And the dumb show of running to call 911—running, when she already knew it was too late.

Ace’s hooves scraped wearily against the dirt. She put her hands over her ears and shut her eyes. She didn’t mean to fall asleep; she was just going to spell her eyes for a minute, but the relief of giving up was too strong. She let herself sink.

She was floating in a green dream, in the sleepy, droning calm of a summer afternoon. A horse took shape and went galloping, galloping, bright as a penny. Not lame, she thought. She could hear the hooves in slow motion, rising up and coming down on the dry, solid ground. But the rhythm was off; the hoofbeats were too far apart.

She woke with a start. It wasn’t galloping she’d heard, it was Ace, rolling. She jumped up and went to pull on his halter, but he lifted only his chin; when she let go, his head flopped back into the dirt. Her watch said 11:05. She should have called the vet two hours ago.

She phoned the answering service and then she went back to the paddock and sat down in the dirt with Ace’s head in her lap. Now it seemed right that it was Norton who would come—Norton, who had seen through her.

He was there in less than a half hour. She stood unsteadily when she saw him walking up along the fence. He didn’t bother with a greeting, just took a stethoscope out of his bag and went straight to the horse. “How’d he get into the grain?” he said, crouching down to take the pulse.

“I had him in the paddock—I was going to ride—” she began, but it was too much effort. “I left the door open.”

Norton took the stethoscope out of his ears. “And what time did you find him?” He went over everything: when the symptoms started, what Leland had given him; how he’d been since. She answered blindly, hardly knowing what she said.

“What was his pulse when you called?”

Pam flushed. In her panic she had forgotten to take it.

Suddenly Ace lurched up and sat on his haunches. Norton stiffened. The horse’s ears were back and his eyes had suddenly focused, as though attending to something they couldn’t see. For a long minute nothing happened. Then his back legs jerked. Please, God, Pam thought, but she was alone; she knew that. No one was going to help her.

The horse’s legs jerked again. With tremendous effort he dragged them under himself and scrambled up. He lifted his tail.

“Here we go,” Norton said.

It was the sound of the manure falling that made her understand: He was past it; he was okay.

She stood at the horse’s head while Norton talked. Something had made him friendly—the horse’s recovery or maybe just the late hour—and he was chatting away about other cases, about founder, about a prank in vet school years before. She listened in a daze, not following. She would have liked to speak, to show her gratitude, but she couldn’t. The terrible knot of the day had unraveled; she had been spared. It made no sense.

When Ace had passed the rest of the impaction, Norton folded his stethoscope into his bag and clicked the clasp shut. “He should be okay,” he said. “Leland will be out in the morning to check his feet again, but they seem all right now.” He pointed a finger at the horse. “Next time don’t eat so much,” he said.

“Oh,” Pam said, “there won’t be a next time.”

Norton slung his bag over his shoulder. “Well, everyone has to eat.”

“No,” she said, “no, I mean I’m going to sell him.” She could feel Norton watching her. “I can’t, you know, I obviously can’t take care of him properly anymore. So . . .” She kept her brimming eyes focused on her hand, which was stroking the wide, flat bone of Ace’s head.

“Everyone has to eat,” Norton said again.

She did not understand his words; she couldn’t even attach them to the conversation they were having, but, like an animal, she understood the tone. Not forgiveness, not liking, but a kind of permission. Something rushed loose in her. She listened to Norton’s feet turn in the dirt, the slap of the fence boards as he ducked through. When she heard his truck door slam, she put her head against the horse’s neck and sobbed.

Later she got a couple of horse blankets and lay down in the paddock where she could hear Ace. She gazed up at the dizzy, patternless sweep of the stars. Brian had died here, alone on this dirt. Her exhausted mind summoned up the shape of his body with startling clarity: the weight of his arms, the smell of his chest where her face had reached. He was gone; she would raise their children alone. She thought this; she felt the iron truth of it in her mouth, and at the same time she felt herself drifting away—into comfort and sleep, into the electric hum of her own pumping blood.

She woke before dawn to the silvery fluting of the wood thrushes. Ace was up, eating hay. The air was cold, but she could see that the light was coming, a bluish green band hung over the eastern hill. She threw back the blankets and stood gingerly on her blistered feet. She wanted coffee and a hot shower and an egg-and-sausage breakfast; she wanted the children back. She put her hand on Ace’s neck, and he bent around to sniff her. Then she climbed stiffly through the fence and started for the house.

The valley lay quiet under the changing sky. She turned her head to take in the whole of it: the three dark hills, the broad, dim swath of the pasture; in the middle, hidden, the running stream. Soon the sun would break over the hill, morning would come. A thrill passed through her. It was Saturday. She would take the kids for a picnic, she thought, or maybe to the lake. She would get her hair cut.

She stopped at the truck, which was still parked the way she’d left it, with the horse trailer hooked up. Better to put the trailer away now, she thought, when she didn’t have the children to watch. As she reached for the driver’s-side door, a flicker of movement caught her eye.

Something was in there.

Warily, she put her head through the open window and squinted into the gloom. For a long moment she saw nothing. Then, in the dim light from the windshield, she caught the unmistakable gleam of an eye.

Aidan’s hamster. It was sitting on the passenger side, holding one of the shrunken French fries that collected in the cracks of the seats.

Pam stood still, putting it together. It must have been Aidan, carrying it around in his pocket; he must have brought it into the car one day without her noticing, and accidentally let it go. It had been in there all this time, living off the food the kids dropped. Her eyes had adjusted, and now she saw it quite clearly: the twitching nose, the shiny, bulbous eyes. The old revulsion rose in her throat. And yet it had survived, she had to give it that.

She stared, wonder and disgust battling in her mind. Reassured by the lack of movement, the hamster raised the French fry to its mouth and began to eat.

About The Author

Photograph by Simone Parsons

Mandeliene Smith’s stories have appeared in GuernicaThe Sun, New England Review, and The Massachusetts Review. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her story “Mercy” was selected by Stephen King for the list of “100 Other Distinguished Stories” in The Best American Short Stories 2007. Mandeliene has waited tables, weeded gardens, taught writing, worked as a secretary, and translated books into Braille, among other things. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in comparative literature from Hampshire College. The author of Rutting Season, she currently lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, with her husband, her two daughters, and two dogs.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 21, 2020)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501192715

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Raves and Reviews

"This short story collection checks off two big marks for a memorable read ... Desperate characters and punchy writing."
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"Mandeliene Smith's short story collection will appeal to fans of Alice Munro and Marilynn Robinson. The seven stories in this collection are well-crafted gems that peer into the lives of seven women and girls at pivotal moments. With gorgeous prose, Smith incisively uncovers truths of the human condition — and introduces us to some great characters, too."

“This arresting debut short story collection often finds its protagonists poised between disaster and redemption. It's not always easy to foresee how the stories in Smith's collection will end… Nuanced and empathetic, at times dangerous, tragic, or redemptive, these stories find their subjects in the midst of pivotal moments in their lives, as they struggle with impulses and actions both animalistically urgent and deeply, hauntingly human. At once powerful and delicate, compassionate and cleareyed, this book is sure to breed interest in a new literary voice.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred

“In Smith's unsettling debut, characters must confront the most basic, animal sides of themsevles as they navigate crisis and tragedy, whether it is a husband's sudden death, workplace tension, or a police faceoff ... Smith's characteres skate the razor-thin line of brutality in a way that's both chilling and compelling ... This collection proves that Smith is an uncommonly talented writer with a particularly sharp eye for the serrated edge of human nature."
Publishers Weekly

"Smith’s wrenching first collection features characters encountering indelible, complex shifts in their lives and relationships ... Characters have little choice but to confront their difficulties and ghosts head on, and Smith’s nine tales sharply convey their internalizations as well as the glimpses of acceptance they so desperately seek."

“I will follow Mandeliene Smith wherever her wise, tragicomic vision leads me. These stories about parents, children, and secrets of the soul are absolutely fearless. Smith finds mercy within darkness and even a deadpan humor in disaster. Exposing the animal nature of our human selves, Rutting Season will leave you looking anew at the world’s dark, dangerous beauty—even “the red animal of your own heart.”
—Daphne Kalotay, author of Sight Reading and Russian Winter

“Mandeliene Smith’s debut is a collection of haunting and propulsive tales—families, children, mothers, men fighting daily horrors for their lives, for decency, for the glad shock of an unexpected joy. Rutting Season is as urgent as it is irresistible. What beautiful stories these are.”
—Martha McPhee, author of Gorgeous Lies and Dear Money

"The lyricism and gritty naturalism that inform the haunting, extraordinary stories in Mandeliene Smith'sRutting Season bring to mind the dark, incisive vision of Joyce Carol Oates where love and cruelty commingle with often crushing force. Smith is a master of pathos and the casual terror of the everyday. Her characters are vibrant, flawed, vulnerable, and above all, wholly memorable."
—Christine Sneed, author of The Virginity of Famous Men and Paris, He Said

"Mandeliene Smith's stories are empathic, wise, and do not look away from uncomfortable truths, whether they be about black-white race relations, the necessary cruelty of life on earth, or the pervasiveness of loss. This is a beautiful, sensitive, and sophisticated debut."
—Rishi Reddi, author of Karma and Other Stories

“Mandeliene Smith’s gorgeous, evocative debut story collection stunned me with its sharp language and almost painfully vivid insights into the human condition. Rutting Season tackles hard topics—grief, death, poverty, the search for self and shelter—with haunting beauty. Smith is a phenomenal new talent.” –Whitney Scharer, author of The Age of Light

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