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Shawn Huelle

A Determination of Parts

Mark Rothko's #19



A finger that has recently been slammed in a car door points at a map of Delaware, specifically Wilmington, where the Kalmar Nyckel landed on March 29, 1638.

The Nyckel set sail from Sweden, land of snow and ice, with 24 passengers from four different countries: Sweden, Finland, Holland, and Germany. One of those passengers was the notorious Hans-Peter Schwieger, perpetrator of one of the most heinous mass murders in the history of Germany at that time.

Hans, known as the best butcher in all Schleswig-Holstein, had gone to the market in his home town of Husum to buy some cows for his shop and was cheated out of several coins by a man named Otto Finkelstein. Hans, who was thought to be a calm man, very quietly led his purchases back to his shop. However, a week later, Otto Finkelstein, his wife Greta, and their children Marianne and Oli were found butchered in their home. Their necks had been slit like swine, their blood drained into buckets, and their flesh cut away from their bones by someone who was very obviously gifted with a knife. The police inspectors, being some of Hans’ most loyal and corpulent customers, immediately recognized the butcher’s handiwork, but when they went to his home, his wife informed them that he had fled into the sunset.

In fact, he had gone to Sweden, changed his last name by transposing the ie vowel combination to ei (and thus changing the meaning from in-law to keeper of secrets), and booked passage on a ship to the New World. When the captain asked him if maybe he wasn’t Schwieger the wanted criminal, Hans replied that it was a coincidence, and that he was leaving to escape the shame of the unfortunate association.


Gene’s other prize possession is a block of ice that, in 30 years of room-temperature conditions, has not melted. Gene keeps it out so that people can touch it. It’s as cold as if it were in a meat locker. It’s sitting on top of a conical, flat-topped pedestal. Around the base of the pedestal is a sensor. The sensor is connected to an alarm system and a pager. Should the block of ice even shed one single drop of water, that drop will fall into the sensor, set off the alarm (which can be heard in a three-block radius), and send a message to Gene’s pager (just in case he’s out hunting or rummaging around somewhere) so that he can get to the museum and inspect the block and watch it go if that’s the case.

Gene acquired the block of ice from a woman who came to his door one night when Hardscrabble was being doused with the tail-end fringes of hurricane Agnes. The woman said her name was also Agnes and asked Gene for a glass of peach juice if he had any.

She told Gene a story about how she had just been in Florida, holed up in a shack that was threatening to blow away with the hurricane. One midnight, about a week beforehand, during the worst of the winds, she heard a loud thump on the roof. She thought it was a tree, but since it hadn’t broken through, she stayed put. The next day, after the winds had died down some, she went out to investigate and found, instead of a tree limb, the block of ice that, during the whole drive up to Hardscrabble, hadn’t melted.

Gene gave her $1000 for it and offered her a bed for the night. The next morning, she was gone and so was Gene’s mummified Mongolian horse’s head.


The storm moves in and sits over the canyon. Rain falls so hard and fast it looks like the atmosphere has liquefied. The thunder is so loud that it breaks windows. During the night, the creek rises and threatens to wash Opal’s house away.

She can’t sleep. She’s wide awake in the darkness and can’t quite remember where she is. She’s not sure what woke her up: the storm, the howling of the dogs, or the horrible nightmare she had. A giant, floating horse’s head came to her and spoke of the remains of a man who had fallen apart and wanted to be put back together. The horse’s eyes burned like the dark clouds outside, saliva dripped from its lips, and its voice was part piercing whinny and part low growl.

She can hear trees crashing into the creek, sections of bank sliding away. She’s afraid to look out the window and see just how close the water is. She’d rather be carried away in her sleep. But she can’t sleep.

She calls the dogs up to her, and they circle around her like earthbound vultures before settling down. They’re pressed as close to her as they can get, and their shivering rattles her teeth. She pets their dark fur and scratches behind their ears.

She lies down and closes her eyes, but the image of the horse’s head returns, the thunder crashes, and the dogs howl from their positions next to her.

So she waits. She knows this will pass. She hopes this will pass. She waits and listens to the water rushing by her front door. She waits and listens to the thunder break the sky. She waits and listens to the echoes of that desperate voice. She waits and listens for the dawn.


Merle is counting the pennies in the enormous, rabbit-shaped bank he insists on calling a piggy bank. He has somewhere around 14,000 pennies, and as he counts them, he separates them into piles according to the year they were minted. Within those piles, he separates them further into three smaller piles by where they were minted—D for Denver, S for San Francisco, and blank for Philadelphia.

People often tell him that he should get some of those penny collecting books so that he can keep his coins organized, but he doesn’t like to look at books. He likes to organize his pennies this way, and he does it every six months. It allows him to look at and touch every single penny. It allows him time to think.

Merle’s not a miser, he just likes pennies. His obsession started when he was a kid and his father gave him a small bank shaped like a horse’s head and told him that if he put his pennies in there, he’d be rich someday.

Over the years, he’s had several "piggy" banks, each of which was larger than the last. There have been several shaped like horses, a sandblasted glass one that bore the words A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned, and Merle’s favorite: A cast-iron sandhill crane; when a penny was inserted into the beak and the tail feathers were pressed down, the crane would gulp the coin down its long neck.

Now he has the snow bunny bank, which is as big as his torso. It pleases Merle to think that he could fit well over 14,000 pennies into his chest cavity and more than once he has considered adding something to his last will and testament about donating all of his organs and being buried with the pennies in their place.


A fine silting of chalk dust falls down around Charlie Buckthorn’s jack-o’-lantern mask. He’s out beating the erasers on the playground again. Mrs. Getha has told him that he will have to do this every day until he takes the mask off. She thinks of it as punishment, Charlie thinks of it as a reward.

He grabs one eraser in each hand and smacks them together like cymbals. Sometimes he hears music when he looks at things—like now, as the chalk dust explodes from the erasers and poofs out in little clouds and eddies.

In kindergarten Charlie was amazed to learn that a P could be turned into an R merely by adding a tail. The teacher asked him why, and he said he didn’t know you could change a banana letter into a tangerine one.

People keep asking Charlie why he won’t take the mask off, and he just shakes his head. He can’t quite put it into words, but it has something to do with seeing Jenny Stilton dressed as a whooping crane for Halloween. There was something about the way she looked with those extra-long sleeves and that cowled hood that makes him want to cover his face.

He smiles a lot under the mask and makes faces at the other kids and the teacher. He likes that they can’t really see him when he sticks out his tongue or crosses his eyes.

As he beats the erasers and marches around the playground to a silent soundtrack, he hopes that Mrs. Getha will always let him do this. The music the chalk dust makes is so much better than the music the dry-erase dust makes or even the kind the fish make when they get fed.


The Ranchhand Motel in Ainsport, Nebraska, has pictures of Hereford cattle on the wall. The motel was built sometime in the 1950s and retains its original look. The owners, Cliff and Mim Rudnick, make most of their money in the fall, when hunters come from all over the country to shoot turkeys, deer, and sometimes, accidentally, the local ranchers’ cows.

When Agent Williams checks into room 5, Mim hands him a letter and tells him that it’s been waiting for him for a couple of days.

Agent Williams asks her to put it on the counter. There’s no return address. The envelope has been typed and reads, in part, Please Hold for Sam Williams. He reaches into his pocket and removes a pair of latex gloves. Mim arches an eyebrow, but says nothing. Agent Williams picks up the letter, thanks her, and goes to his room.

He closes the door, locks it, and pulls the blinds. He tosses his briefcase onto the bed, carefully places the letter next to the phone, and leaving his gloves on, removes his jacket.

Since there is nowhere else to sit, he sits on the edge of the bed. He opens his briefcase and removes a paper knife, which he uses to slice open the envelope.

The letter has been typed on lemon-scented stationery, and Agent Williams smiles in recognition. He unfolds the letter, and two photographs fall onto his lap. They are both of a woman. She is bound, gagged, and blindfolded with strips of old bedsheets. The sheets have been printed with pictures of dancing citrus fruit.

He reads the letter, which begins, Hi. It’s me. I hope you’re not surprised. By the way, you’re getting colder, not warmer. That’s too bad.


Howard sits on the side of the road for about 15 minutes before he reaches for the keys, starts the car, and begins to drive off.

As he’s turning the wheel, Howard thinks about what will happen when he gets home. Tracy will have just finished putting smiley-face stickers on all of her student’s papers. He’ll tell her the story about getting pulled over by Jerry, how he almost peed his pants, how they now need to go out with Jerry and Judy, and then he’ll give her the letter.

Tracy will laugh because Jerry’s always been kind of a funny, good ol’ boy. She’ll put the letter on the table and get up to kiss Howard, who will passionately kiss her back; the combination of the radio story and being pulled over will have scared a little fear of death into him, and when Tracy kisses him, he’ll feel life come rushing back to him in unexpected ways.

Howard and Tracy will end up on the kitchen table, where they will make love like it’s the end of the world. When they finally get up, the letter will be sticking to Tracy’s thigh. They’ll laugh as she peels it off and sets it back down on the table. Then, too tired to cook, they’ll go out for some dinner, maybe to that Puerto Rican place where they make all those great dishes with bananas.

Howard presses the accelerator with his right foot and turns the wheel a little more to the left. Just as he pulls back onto the street, his car is broadsided by a speeding 18-wheeler.

The police report will say that after the accident there were four inches between the inside of the driver’s side door and the inside of the passenger side door.


Hans Schweiger puts down his quill and thinks of his wife’s face, which over the years has come to look more and more like her aunt Greta’s.

It’s late fall, most of the leaves have fallen from the trees, and Hans feels the old sadness creeping into his bones. It’s late, he thinks.

He’s sitting at his desk, trying to compose a letter to his wife, trying to her tell the real story of who he is and what he’s done. The sentence he just finished reads, All blood smells the same whether it’s pig, horse, or human.

He reads the sentence over again. He knows she won’t understand. He knows she won’t be able to forgive him. He knows he shouldn’t be writing this, but he wants to be free of his past. And he wants to be free of his future.

When he finishes the letter, he’ll slip it under Gisela’s pillow, grab his boning knife, walk down to the bend in the creek where he first met his wife, cut his arms open, and bury himself under the leaves he loves so much.

He writes another sentence, And human flesh separates from human bone just the same as all flesh separates from all bone, just the same as leaves fall from trees.

Leaves, he thinks, and for a moment, he sits motionless.

Then he thinks of his wife’s face and of the bend in the creek and of the bird that flew up at him like the end of the world and of kisses on the cherry wood rocker.

He reads the letter again. He inhales deeply.

He thinks, Fall. . . . and rips the letter to shreds. He throws the pieces onto the fire and watches them burn. He goes to bed.


Shawn Huelle's work has appeared in fold:the reader, The Pulchritudinous Review, and on He is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Denver.

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