This section of The Long Dry provides a wonderful snapshot of the novel as a whole. Here we can spot the tense-yet-loving dynamic in Gareth and Kate’s marriage; we sense the interminable hardship and danger of farm life itself; and we get a glimpse of the book’s central plot point: the cow that has gone missing at the height of a drought. Perhaps most importantly, we also get a snippet of Jones’ lean, spare prose — the signature quality of this fine book. — Mark Sampson
Inside she sets the table. The knives and forks and plates in piles on the vinyl cloth. She starts to read her catalog of supplements, things she hopes will stop her aging, help her hold less water, help her be less tired, and make her want sex more. For her age, she is a very beautiful woman, but she does not see it. It is beginning to go from her. She knows it.
He comes in, scraping his feet on the metal grill outside the back door, not because he needs to, but from habit. Or perhaps it is his announcement—a signal they have always had but never spoken of. They had many of these when they were younger.
She rinses the cafetière and warms the cup with water from the kettle, which she’s boiled several times while she has waited for him. She does not make the coffee. Some things she mustn’t do. She’s threatened by the coffee, about how strong to make it, how it tastes when it is made. He makes coffee every day, just for himself as no one else drinks it. He makes a strong potful of coffee at this time of the morning and it does him for the day, warming up the cupfuls in a pan as they are needed, which makes them stronger as the day goes on. No one else touches the pan. She says it’s why he does not sleep. His first coffee each morning is the remnants of the night before because he does not want to wake the house grinding the beans, and the children sleep above the thin ceiling of the kitchen.
He sits at the table with a loose fist and runs his thumb over the first joint of his forefinger in the way he has, so it makes a quiet purring sound, like rubbing leather.
“What about the dosing?”
“It’ll have to wait,” he says.
He rubs his finger. He does this always at the table, talking or reading a paper, even with the handle of a cup held there, so that this part of his finger is smooth and shines. Whenever he’s at rest.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve checked the obvious places and she’s not there. She’s got her head down and gone.”
He does not tell her about the stillborn calf.
“It’s typical. It has to be today,” she says. “I should have gotten up to check.”
“She would have gone anyway,” he says quietly.
He looks down at the missing part of his little finger on his right hand and makes the sound against his thumb again. She still blames herself for this damage to him. He was trying to free the bailer from the new tractor and she had done something and the catch had just bit down. He takes a mouthful of coffee. It was a clean cut and it healed well and he could have lost his hand instead. That’s how he looks at it. In some ways he loves it.
She burned the toast, so he goes quietly over and makes some more while she tries to rescue the wrecked slices.
“The vet phoned about Curly,” she says.
“He wants to come today.”
He knows the vet will put the old dog down. Not today, he thinks. It’s a hard thing to have happen today, if he has
to find the cow too.
“You should have some breakfast,” he says to her. It’s odd how seriously we take the silly names of animals.
The door latch snaps and Emmy comes in still dressed in her pajamas and with her blanket tucked in her hand, thumb in her mouth. She shuffles over to the old settle and curls up with her green-and-purple zebra. She would come down when she heard her parents talking in the kitchen below in the morning.
“Hello, sweetie,” says her mother.
She shines her eyes up at her mother, looks to her father quickly, shyly. Something secret passes between them and she smiles and settles. They stop talking of the cow.
He sits there rubbing his finger and looking at the stump of his little finger fondly.
“It’s going to be hot again today,” he says.
“The Finger” is excerpted by permission from The Long Dry (Granta Books and Parthian Books, 2014; Coffee House Press, 2017). Copyright © 2014 by Cynan Jones.
Cynan Jones is the author of six novels, including The Dig, Everything I Found on the Beach, and Bird, Blood, Snow. He lives in Wales