It was a hot day in June, the humidity on her skin like a lotion from the air. The field was at the end of a dirt road, not far from her house. Isabel wasn’t allowed to go there, but she went anyway because her mother was only trying to keep her from growing up brave.
“Come on!” Isabel rushed Amy along.
Isabel’s dad had bought her the metal detector at a garage sale for her twelfth birthday. “You can find treasure around here,” he’d said, his eyes squeezed narrow from smiling. But he’d said it as if he doubted she ever would.
The field looked dead and full of weeds, the bored-looking oil derrick see-sawing in the distance, but this land had seen things older than her dad and her mom, and Isabel was hopeful there was something valuable to be found there. It was stupid that she was only allowed to use the metal detector around town, searching under swing sets and monkey bars, or beneath the Kroger parking lot.
Amy was tall and cranky and not afraid of most things, which was why Isabel liked her, but she wasn’t allowed to say “lucky,” she had to say “blessed.” They had only about half an hour left before they’d have to head back and recite the lie about where they’d gone: to the drugstore to buy makeup and to treasure-hunt along the dismal strip mall sidewalk. In case they needed proof, Isabel had a packet of eye shadow and an unopened lip gloss in her pocket.
They moved to the brown, cooked part of the field, where the bald dirt was flecked with pitiful hairs of weeds. “This is where I found the bone,” said Isabel. It was long with a curved, beige, shallow bowl at the end. She hadn’t been able to tell what kind of creature’s skeleton it had been broken from. “I buried it again over that way and put a cross on top of it.”
They both held the handle of the metal detector, because it was getting heavy and because they decided to treat it like the piece on a Ouija board, to direct them. Four hands were better than two for divining what you couldn’t see.
“Hold it straight,” Isabel said. She listened for the beep, watched for the light at the handle to flash red. Nothing.
“No offense,” said Amy, “but this is kind of boring. Can’t we go back to your house and watch YouTube?”
“I thought you wanted to find some jewelry.”
“I did,” said Amy. “But if you think about it, who’d be wearing good jewelry out here?”
The field went on for miles, desolate and ugly, the ground flat and utilitarian as cardboard. The torn-looking foliage and brown dirt seemed to be waiting; the silent birds overhead watched.
“Wait,” said Amy. “Is that something?” The light flashed undecidedly.
Isabel put her eye near the indicator so she could see the spot. She bent down and marked it with the small shovel, then dug a few inches into the dirt. “Do you see anything?”
“No,” said Amy.
“Hold it closer.”
Amy knelt on the ground, pointed the metal detector at the hole. The beeping grew more frequent.
Isabel sifted through the dirt and finally saw the dull metal—a rusted post about the size of a serving fork. It could be old or not so old, but still worthless. So far, being twelve was filled with disappointments like this one.
“That’s it?” said Amy, chewing on her thumbnail. Isabel looked up at the clotted gray cloud overhead and saw an open-mouthed face that seemed to be laughing.
“Okay, let’s go back.” Isabel handed Amy the lip gloss. “If my mom asks, that’s what you got.”
If you crossed this field and went to the next one, then crossed that field too, you would eventually get to the oil fields where, years ago, the bodies of 20 murdered girls had been found. Her mother didn’t know that she knew. When Isabel went into the field nearest her home, she talked to the girls, though they were far away. She wanted to be friendly, to let them know she wouldn’t forget how they’d been taken from the earth. She wanted to remember that, before the TV show, before the pictures in the news and the rumors, they had once been as real as she was now. “I’m sorry for what happened to you,” she told them. “If you want to talk, I’ll hear you.” She imagined the voice of a dead girl would be low and hushed like wind blown over an open bottle.
This is an excerpt. The full text of René Stainke’s “The Field” can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 5.
René Steinke’s most recent novel, Friendswood, was named one of NPR’s Great Reads and was short-listed for the St. Francis Literary Prize. Her previous novel, Holy Skirts, was a finalist for the National Book Award. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. Her essays and articles appear in The New York Times, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, Bookforum, and elsewhere. She has taught at the New School and Columbia University, and is currently director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson.