when valdez couldn’t be taken out by sunny sundown


artist: Aeppol


A coupla weeks ago, I had shared with y’all about my excitement that one of my fav authors, Leif Enger, had this new book out.  I’m a-gonna check again later to see if the library might have received it yet.


One of my favorite parts in Enger’s previous book, Peace Like A River, is the close relationship between a young boy named Reuben, and his younger sister, Swede, who’s an avid writer on their home typewriter.

I always get a kick outta the name of Swede’s main character in her stories, Sunny Sundown.  And I began to enjoy using the word “smouched” (a nicer way of saying that someone had stole sumthin’), after having read it in this book.


An excerpt ~


One morning Swede didn’t come out of her room and foiled my snoopish concern by propping a chair beneath her doorknob.  “I’m working,” she declared.  “Don’t bother me.”

Her tight-throated resolve gave me new wells of unease to plumb.  “Working on what?”

“Isn’t your business.”

She was writing, of course; I could hear the whir of the typewriter carriage as she rolled in a sheet.  The fact made me nervous in some abstruse way.  What I wanted was for Swede to be Swede; that is, glad and funny and belonging to me, as usual.  We’d always been an exclusive pair, she being smart enough for the two of us and never begrudging me her secrets.

“Is it Sunny Sundown?” I asked – sounding, I know, like some dumb jealous boyfriend, but all the same you should’ve heard the passion she was pouring on those keys.

“How come you been in your room so much anyhow?  Don’t you know others of us live here?”

She was quiet a moment, during which I regretted being harsh; then she said, “Well, I’ll tell you about it if you want – you grump.”

I sure had missed my sister.

What happened to Swede, which I’ll admit didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time, was that she couldn’t kill Valdez.  That is, Sunny Sundown couldn’t kill him.

“One day an upturned stagecoach and its driver’s ghastly hue,

The next a blackened farmhouse and its family blackened too – “

I said to Swede, “What do you mean, you can’t kill him?”

“It doesn’t work.  I’ve been trying and it doesn’t work.  What can I do?”

She sounded a little panicked.  I thought something might be happening to her mind.  I said, cautiously, “Can’t you think of a word to rhyme with dead?”

She didn’t answer.

“Ill help you, Swede.  Let me help you – how about head?  Like he got shot in the head, and fell down dead.  Or spread – he fell down dead, with his arms outspread.  Or lead – say, lead is a natural – ”

“Reuben, that’s not what I mean.”  How quietly she interrupted – out of respect, I judged, for the literary roll I was on.  “It’s not that I can’t write it.  I’ve written it already ten ways.  More than ten.”

If she could write it, what was the problem?  I sat confounded.  Mistaking my silence for doubt, Swede recited:

“And as the gunshots echo back against the canyon walls,

Valdez begins to totter – now he staggers – now he falls.”

“Yeah,” I said, “yeah!”

“And later, Sundown finds a match and lights it with a stroke;

‘Cause graves in sunbaked ground come hard – a man can use a smoke.”

“Swede, that’s great!  He buries him and everything – now what’s the matter?”  She’d flopped back on the pillow.  So much weight my praise carried.

“Just because I write it doesn’t mean it really happened.”

I had to hold that in my head awhile.  I knew she knew what she meant, and I hoped she’d assume I did too.

She said, “It doesn’t matter if it sounds good.  I can’t write it so he’s really dead.”

You see what I mean.  I said, “It’s just a poem, Swede.  Here, tell me another ending.”

Heavy sigh.

“When judgement came as gunfire to determine bad from good,

And Valdez lay all soaked in blood, and weary Sundown stood.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I demanded – though honestly I wasn’t crazy about it either.  I preferred the other one, where Sunny lit the cigarette after putting Valdez in the ground.

“It doesn’t work,” she declared.

I tried to making my voice gruff, like Davy’s.  “Listen, Swede, who’s running this story anyway?”

She didn’t answer.  She was right not to.  It was a dumb old question.





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