At night, a boy appears. He sleeps “as heavily as a dead horse” between two bounty hunters, Brooke and his brother Sugar (who is biologically a woman, a fact that goes unacknowledged by either sibling). The boy is called Bird, and he soon takes to the ultraviolent ways of the brothers, who just before his arrival felt themselves as “victorious and cheerful as ever they could be,” having reached an unexplicated ending just as Haints Stay begins. “There will be blood,” Brooke (who is more Daniel Day-Lewis than Paul Dano) explains of Bird’s first task, sawing the teeth out of corpses, “but not more than you can handle.”
This is prescient: Bird’s arm is broken in a fall, and then amputated. He is found by homesteaders, who care for him until the patriarch is shot by “bandits, marauders, rustlers, thieves.” Bird flees to the town of Wolf Creek with his adoptive sister and mother, Mary and Martha, shortly before its residents are murdered by an escaped new mother with an impossibly mannish appearance. Mary pursues the killer into the countryside, leaving Bird and Mary to bury the victims: “Two boys who might have been fourteen or so. A young girl, probably thirteen. She had been bleeding from the waist before she died. Another girl had bled from a wound in her forehead. Her eyes were open and staring and they held the pale blue coloring of the thin clouds above her.”
The culprit, of course, is Sugar, who was separated from his brother after they were captured by lawmen (one of whom tells Brooke, “Your brother as you call it, is carrying a child. As decency demands, we’ll bring it to term, deliver the child, then deal with the creature.”) Sugar’s escape is bloody, while Brooke’s is little more than a stroke of fate — his stagecoach is waylaid by bandits (my, there are a lot of bandits in this place) and he is left behind to die.
Haints Stay is intricately put together (as all circular mechanisms must be), but it would grind and stall without Winnette’s prose to power it. As a diversion from this plot summary (which is both as condensed as feasible and going somewhere, pinky swear), then, this fine description of the environment in which Brooke wanders for the better part of the book: “In every direction, it was rock and desert. Small plants cropped up like lint on the horizon, but there was nothing substantial, other than stone and vastness, nothing that would lead him to believe food would be coming any time soon.”
Forget the obvious Cormac McCarthy comparisons the subject matter begs: Winnette’s prose has none of McCarthy’s mysticism or antiquity. Instead, Winnette’s images appear as deferentially as desert wildflowers. He is almost tender in the care he takes to craft them, as when he describes the town where Brooke and Sugar (unwillingly) go their separate ways as “splitting apart like a radish root in a dish of water.”
Now then, deep breath: Martha finds Sugar in the forest and watches as he feebly nurses his child (“He opened his shirt and held the baby at his chest. The baby gummed about for a minute then took hold. It was painful, but ignorable.”) before killing him at a distance. She takes his child and, as the snowfall makes the way back to Wolf Creek impossible to discern, does as Han Solo did a long, long time ago and seeks warmth in the “blood and slick innards” of her mount. It is in this liminal space (“There was nothing to set her heels upon. Nothing that would hold her.”) that the arc of Haints Stay’s circle begins its inexorable climb back to where it began.
You see, Brooke had “met his wife during a brutal snowstorm, many years ago. The circumstances weren’t far from those of his current situation. He’d left the riders he was with. He’d struck out on his own.” Suddenly the flashback reads as the present — Brooke is found by a woman wandering in the snow, a woman who pursues a baby, a woman who was once married. “Her hair smelled rotten,” Brooke remembers, “like death and sweat.” Or like a horse’s intestines.
Once the snow thaws, Bird and Mary leave Wolf Creek and Brooke (along with his new wife, who has taken the name Mary) join a group of other settlers in reoccupying the town. But Brooke had a wife before, and “he was not a good husband. After the first few months, he grew mean.” Bird, too, is not a good husband. He is abandoned by his Mary, and in the closing line of the novel, has “lit out for territory.” How soon until Brooke does the same? Or has he already? Either he will find a new bird, or he will meet the one with an already broken wing and teach it violence all over again.
Haints Stay by Colin Winnette. Columbus, OH: Two Dollar Radio, 2015.