Outside Winslow, Arizona, 1983


     The drive to Second Mesa had been distressingly uneventful, the highway ruler straight, the sky bleached and approaching cliffs indeterminant through haze, their outlines pale and wavering. The conversation had been languid too. Fitful bursts of conversation broke the silence, as if Alex and Penny, relieved at discovering a topic—their friends at the university or her life back with her family—swiftly harried it to exhaustion. 

      They’d lived apart six months now, and this morning marked Penny’s first return trip from Scottsdale to their Winslow trailer. They had just the weekend together, and, though Alex had spent days warning himself against hoping too much, he couldn’t resist hoping too much. He day-dreamed, longing for gossip and shared stories that set them both laughing before their endings. He anticipated reminders of love sharp and dazzling as sunlight. Instead, the pavement blurred, and Penny huddled against the passenger’s door, gazing across thickets of blue-green sage.

     But when he reached for the radio, she stopped him with a hand. “Sorry I’m so dull. I woke up at five in the Valley and have been driving except for that cup of coffee in the trailer.”  She drew in a theatrical breath then exhaled forcefully. “There. All better. Now let’s engage in those scintillating discussions for which we’re renowned.”

    And her words served as an incantation. Movement flashed in the desert. Instinctively he slowed the car. A tumbleweed careened like a sun-maddened animal toward the pavement, battering over rocks and bunch grass. Alex pushed his sunglasses up, waiting on it to pass, but it leapt the embankment and caught, windshield high, suspended a moment wrestling the wind. It dived out of sight. Alex rolled the car ahead, but then stomped the brake. Whirling like a swarm of hornets, the tumbleweed reappeared, carving the air in sharp diagonals and blocking their way forward. 

      “What the hell is that?”  Alex said. The tumbleweed whipped, side to side, side to side, then met equilibrium above the highway’s center stripe, clawing up an invisible wall, shuddering from its struggle to return the way it had come. Its rotation slowed then stopped entirely. With a startling fall it struck the asphalt, shattering to dust and branches that dragged across the road. 

     “Jesus, that’s insane.”

     “What?” Penny laughed nervously. “A dust devil maybe?”

     He shook his head emphatically. He couldn’t say why. “That’s magic. A message from the spirit people. That’s what my students would say.”

     “It was a tumbleweed caught in a dust devil.”

    “You can say that, but crazy stuff happens here. You’ll see this afternoon. I tried talking about it before you left.”

    “So, what’s the tumbleweed’s message, my pagan darling?”

    “That we’re welcome at this ceremony. We belong here.”

    “Maybe you belong. You’re the celebrity in Hopiland. But….” She leaned over and pecked his cheek, sunglasses shielding her eyes, “Signs and portents don’t ease my anxiety. It’s my first ceremony. What if I embarrass you? I expect etiquette isn’t a gift of brie and bottle of merlot?” 

     “Not exactly. The Home Dance is a big deal. The kachinas—the Hopi gods—live near the villages half the year, but their real home is there.”  He nodded out his window at the San Francisco Peaks, penciled like shark’s teeth against the horizon. “Today they say goodbye and go home.”

     Her leg bounced off the ball of her foot. He patted her knee, calming the movement. “I know it’s a miserable drive up here. But my students will love you. They keep saying I’ve made you up.”  

     “Oh yes. Here I am, in the increasingly substantial flesh.”  She patted her stomach. “I’m starting a diet.”

     He rolled his eyes. “Only beautiful people can talk like that. Coincidentally, etiquette rule one is eat when it’s offered. Food wards off monsters. One comes to eat you, just invite it in for a bowl of stew.”  

     “Many monsters skulking in this vast nothing?”

     “They love it here. Two hearts, werewolves, community college English instructors. But there’s a code. We accept your stew, you don’t go in the sack for dessert.”

    At the junction with the cross-reservation road, he rolled the stop sign onto another empty highway. The engine strained so hard climbing Second Mesa speech again became pointless. Penny resumed staring out the window, but when he cradled her hand in his lap, he earned a responsive squeeze. She’d been a year ahead in the PhD program when they met, both anointed as department luminaries, but his studies of the British Romantic movement felt pointless from the onset. One night he shared his need for meaningful work, and Penny surprised him by supporting his desire. Her dissertation papers in hand, she moved with him when he accepted a community college job in the border towns off the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

    He still believed their plan should have worked. They were in love, obviously. They were smart. Penny passed her comps in the spring, leaving just that dissertation to write. When she graduated, his turn would come, to follow her as she embarked on her new career. So they rented a trailer in a clay flat outside Winslow, a town built around the Santa Fe railroad, Native American jewelry stores and pawn shops, gas stations and bars, and every morning Alex kissed Penny goodbye and headed off to teach. 

     And those hours apart revealed an eventuality neither of them had considered. That fall, the wind blew unbroken for weeks. Gusts rattled the windows and sent Penny jumping from her writing, certain an intruder rapped on the glass. Dust seeped through the trailer’s seams, choking her. She slept restlessly and rose with her thoughts clouded. Her writing progressed by syllables dragged from the fog, scraps of research she wouldn’t share when Alex asked. Images of their friends in the Valley, gathered without her, struck her physically as a blow. 

    Meanwhile, Alex’s classes grew, students sharing with families and friends until he spent his days surrounded by life. Evenings he locked his office door, thoughts of his classes rich in his blood as whiskey, a sensation that faded as he neared home. Some nights, Penny greeted him like they were reuniting in an airport after months apart. Others, she wouldn’t glance from the TV as he stepped inside. And on the worst nights of all, she lay in his arms, eyes brimming with tears, reviewing the many ironies of a person deserving of love, crying for love, yet coming to feel so alone. 

    She hung on until February. He bounced his Nissan across the lot in the winter light to find her car gone. She had centered a note on the kitchen table. He knew without reading it. He felt disoriented, like he’d woken in a hall of mirrors, one question repeated but the angle altered each time: Penelope was gone. How had he witnessed what he had without knowing she would leave? How could he love her so desperately but found her intentions so opaque? How had she arranged the logistical puzzle pieces for this move—a bed in her parents’ house, a resumption of her spot in the university—completely outside his notice? 

     He dragged a chair across the linoleum and craned over the note as if observing its words from a windy height:        

 My love, my dearest love. I’ve moved to my parents’ to finish my dissertation. I’ve only hinted. You’ve seemed so happy. I married you to increase your happiness, but fear I’ve only diminished it. I’m sorry, my darling, so very sorry. 

Let me share the reality of my day, every day, when you’re gone. I pretend to write but can’t imagine an audience. I ration my time at the windows. When I look outside, I hope a car will pass, a horse trot free down the road, the neighbors’ dogs dash past, snarling over a bone. I pray you’ll surprise me for lunch. I strain after a voice other than my own. I’m freezing in a prison built by loneliness. 

Do you understand how this feels? I’m sorry I’m too weak to face you, but every day drains more from me. I need to go home, Alex, or nothing of me will remain. I love you, but I can’t love you enough to stop myself from disappearing.

     The engine quieted as they topped the mesa. Pinyons and junipers along the shoulder replaced the endless run of sage below.

    “I’m sorry,” he said, like she was telepathic.

    “For what? Oh, wait—an apology. From you. Apology accepted.” She stuck her tongue out at him.

     “That wasn’t an apology. I’m just sorry.” 

      “Of course, it wasn’t.”  She sank into her seat and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “You’re such an idiot.”

    “Hey, has anyone told you how beautiful you are today? I was this close to mentioning.”

     “Baggy-eyed from driving and chubby from sitting on my ass. People are so blind. That’s why I love you—the man who discerns my ethereal beauty amongst all this decay.”

    They switch-backed down the mesa’s western cliffs. Entering Kykotsmovi, a trading post and cluster of buildings beneath Third Mesa, Alex slowed. His college’s sign stood on the shoulder, letters half-erased by the daily blasting of sun and sand. A ramshackle structure squatted back of it, flanked by dunes. Farther on, the desert ran to infinity, pools of shadow washed grey under flooding light. 

     “That’s where I teach Mondays.”   

      “Not quite Altgeld Hall.”

     “The students built it for a grant project. Illegally, it turns out. They hang out there all day, the evening section too. When the weather’s bad, I drive them home to the pueblos.”

    He downshifted for another climb, up Third Mesa now. He remembered his musty Altgeld Hall office and Penny perched on his desk, swinging her legs, tempting him out for a drink. Without thinking, he asked, “You contracted to teach all next year?” 

    “Jesus, how long have you been away from academia?”  She folded her sunglasses in her lap, gripping both earpieces. “That a serious question or you just picking a fight?”

    “That’s not what the question was about. I know we can make it an academic year.”

   “You’ve had this job. You know how assistantships work. You’re an indentured servant. You don’t request accommodations simply because you miss your husband and your marriage is crumbling. My dissertation was in the toilet. I’m fortunate they took me back.”

     “I’m agreeing. We can make it work. I’ll drive down more. Something.”

     Sunglasses still grasped tight, Penny glanced over. She ran a knuckle under one eye. “No pouting today. OK? We agreed.”

     They topped Third Mesa’s eastern wall. From the highway, the village of Bacavi could have been a stack of boulders, colored like the surrounding earth and positioned so near the mesa’s edge it might have been floating. Alex jounced onto the rutted road, a cloud of dust trailing. Each entrance into the village was a narrow, shadowed corridor, one indistinguishable from the next. Alex, taking his best guess, pulled tight against an adobe wall.

     “We’re here,” he said. 


     A screen door swung wide, propped open by a skeletal woman in a flannel shirt. She wheeled her free arm, ushering out the people inside. 

     “That’s Mean Jean,” Alex said. 

     “Mean Jean?”

     “My teaching assistant. The students’ not inaccurate nickname.”

      Jean scolded them as they left the car. “You’re so late. Third round is starting already.”  She had a long, wooden face, cheeks sucked tight against her teeth. Her head swiveled away as two of Alex’s students emerged, hands flying in bickering debate.

      “Hey, folks.”  He wrapped his arm around Penelope’s waist. “This is my wife, Penny.” 

     The students, Emmy and Beatrice, could have been characters in a mismatched buddy comedy. Emmy shot Alex a dancing glance behind crooked glasses that in class kept sliding off into her hands. She was diminutive and impish, with a droll sense of humor and surreptitious smile, as if on launching a joke she questioned whether anyone would notice. Bea dwarfed her, only an inch or so taller but rotund from birthing god-knew how many children. Her personality was a contrast too, so perpetually affable it defied interpretation.

    Both women had enrolled to study for the GED exam, with Emmy his best student. She breezed through practice tests but ignored his encouragement to board the town bus and take the real exam. This, he believed at first, was due to her friendship with Bea, whose own studies attained spectacular levels of failure. Then he noticed something else. Emmy, like all the students, fell silent when Bea spoke. When Bea cheerfully raised her hand to deliver another inevitably wrong answer, nobody snickered. Bea, Alex learned through overheard whispers, led a traditional women’s society. Its name was an incomprehensible tangle of consonants, so he guessed at the spelling when researching it in the college library. No book mentioned the group, a circumstance Alex found oddly comforting. He imagined a mysterious realm outside his experience, one where a person could scale the ladder of diplomas and degrees only to discover that hierarchy meant nothing. 

      The students greeted Penny with eyes lowered, but they’d clandestinely taken her measure already. Emmy nudged Bea’s hip. “Now we know why he always wants to drive to Phoenix.”

     “Ehh. He’s in a big hurry every week.” Bea nodded vigorously, and both women laughed. 

     When Alex blushed, they laughed more loudly still. 

     “He gets so red too.”

     Penny hugged his waist. “He’s cute when he’s shy, isn’t he?”

     “Get up the ladder, you two. Quit teasing,” Jean broke in. Then she turned to Alex and Penny. “You too! Hurry up. Somebody will steal our place. They’re dancing already.” Her speech followed an idiosyncratic rhythm, syllables drawn out and accented like rocks taking random tumbles, clattering in an otherwise murmuring stream. 

      “You can see why Jean’s such a good assistant.” Alex waved Penny ahead. “She keeps these two in line.”

     One hand on the ladder, Jean stage-whispered back. “I keep them all in line. Him too.”

     She wasn’t far off, Alex thought as he waited. On assigning Alex reservation classes, his college dean had commented, “They’re taciturn people, you know. No reflection on you. Just the culture.”  But, after a few weeks of mutual observation, his classes evolved into something more like raucous community potlucks. Without Mean Jean silencing groups with rapid-fire bursts in Hopi or Navajo, his teaching would have drowned in a sea of conversation.

    Climbing the ladder from the alley felt like emerging from a cave.  They blinked, blind in the sun. From the plaza below, a buzzing song lifted, like music from a choir of bees. Bea and Emmy drifted off to huddled groups while Jean shepherded Penny and Alex toward rugs that marked their places, draped over the perimeter’s raised wall. Leashed by one leg to a stove pipe, a hawk inverted its head, eyes tracking Alex as he eased between Penny and a Hopi man who rested his hands lightly on a young boy’s shoulders. 

     “Mr. E!”  The Hopi man welcomed him, voice alive with surprise.

     “Hey, Eric.”  Alex reached over and shook Eric’s hand. 

     Penny nodded at the kachinas lined across the plaza. “Which ones are your students?” 

     He touched a finger to his lips. “Can’t ask that. Like telling kids there’s no Santa.” 

     Eric caught Alex’s eye and grinned. He pursed his mouth into an O and shrieked, ear-splitting and high, an ogre kachina’s call. The boy shook free, twisting, scanning the crowd for the monster creeping up behind.

     “Jesus, that’s cold, Eric,” Alex said. “Really cold.”  He nudged closer to Penny. “See? Like I told you. Monsters.”

     Down on the plaza, the Home Dance kachinas pressed side by side, wearing kilts and waving gourd rattles. White symbols marked their painted torsos. Their masks rose high, curved cylinders for faces and carved blue headdresses flared to the sides, stair-stepped like ziggurats. Empty rectangles marked their eyes, and they sang through intertwining black lines that obscured their mouths and distorted their speech to an electric hum. 

     Sun rebounded off the hard-packed earth. The wind stirred and the harsh scent of dust lodged at the back of Alex’s throat. He wiped sweat away with his forearm. The dancers bent forward, muscles tensed, lifting the heel of one extended foot then dropping it hard, the movement tight and restrained. Behind them the hawk whistled, and Alex and Penny jumped high as Eric’s son had. 

     The dancers’ bodies melded into a wave that broke with the music, the great masks rolling forward and drawing away. Each time their voices loudened, Alex’s chest constricted like a hand compressed his heart. From rugs set before the wall of dancers, Maiden kachinas stood and ran into the crowd surrounding the ceremony. A red dog slipped through the tangle of legs, head cocked at a moon-headed ogre shuffle-stepping in pursuit. 

     Alex felt his right heel lifting, synchronized to the dancers’ movements. Jean touched his shoulder. “Let’s go down a minute,” she said. “These guys get boring. They’re putting me to sleep it’s so hot.”

    Penny paused on the ladder. “Apparently, it’s time for lunch. I’ll meet my ceremonial requirement and eat like a pig.” But Jean led them to the plaza’s edge instead, steering them through the puzzle of bodies. The Home Dancers howled and swung in a snaking line, dancing toward the kiva on the cliff’s edge. A Maiden kachina searched the crowd then dashed forward, stopping so near Penny she flinched back and stomped Alex’s instep.

     “Ow!” he said. The kachina clacked in response, its face a horizontal band of orange between black stripes. A breeze stirred the prayer feathers hanging from its chin and hair. Catching light, its eyes shifted behind the rough wooden mask.

     “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” Penny pressed her palms together like she was praying. “Thank you, but….”

     The Maiden lifted an object into Penny’s view, a carved doll with a serene expression and hands folded over its belly. 

     “It’s talking to you. It’s for you,” Jean said, and Penny extended tentative hands.

     “Thank you.”  Her voice was husky. “That’s so thoughtful,” she started, but the kachina was sprinting away.

     Jean herded them down an alley. At her rap on a screen door, Bea answered with a singsong call of “Come in. Come in,” and they entered a mercifully cool room. Faint light seeped through cloth curtains. The walls were a mix of white-wash, strips of wallpaper, and bare stone, decorated by red chili bunches and kachina dolls in plastic wrap. Bea ladled out stew and stacked a platter with blue piki bread. 

    While they ate, Penny solicited comments on Alex’s teaching, to which Emmy briskly responded: “Every student loves Professor Alex. He has a car. He’s nice to his girlfriend, right?”  She paused, spoon to her lips as if anticipating a contrary answer.

   Penny patted his hand. “He’s a marvelous husband.”

    “Mr. E is the best teacher we’ve had,” Bea said. “He gives us good knowledge we don’t understand.”

    At Penny’s glance, he said, “I can’t deny it. I have a gift.” 

     “What did that lady give you?”  

    Penny positioned the carved doll on the table so Jean could see it.

     “That’s a snow maiden.”  Jean ran a finger alongside its face. “The hair is up on both sides.”

     “She’ll help you have babies,” Bea said. 

     “Oh you! I knew you’d say that!”  Emmy strained to kick Bea under the table and nearly slid off her chair. Righting herself, she pushed her glasses up her nose. “She wants everybody to have twenty kids like her.”

     Jean raised a hand and twisted it like drilling an opening. “You have to let this kachina breathe. You keep her in glass, you need to cut a hole.”

     “I’ll do that. This was awfully sweet of you, Jean.”

    Jean shook her head. “She is from these kachinas here. She’s special. That’s why you treat her that way.”

    “Bea, the stew is great,” Alex said. “Thank you.” The piki, which resembled blocks of wood retrieved from a fire pit, baffled Penny, so he broke a loaf in two and demonstrated, scooping up his stew. Outside, a group hurried through the alley, their excited chatter echoing off the walls. As those voices faded, the hum of the Home Dance song returned, dominating the air as the dancers approached. 

     “You go. You go,” Beatrice said. “I’ll get the dishes. I hear these guys singing all the time.”

      From the ladder’s base, Alex glanced up after Penny. The strip of sky above was etched by horsetail clouds that diffused the light. He climbed and swung a leg over the wall. Darker clouds, thick as wool, were breaking over the western peaks, grey-white streamers toppling down the slopes. 

    He squeezed into his spot on the wall. The dancers’ bodies rocked forward. Penny’s hand slipped in his back pocket. For a moment, the day felt natural as home, as family, repeated songs, ridiculous jokes, and stew served from eternally chipped bowls. But as the line rolled and receded and Alex’s heel struck the roof in time, the ceremony transformed by increments. The hawk keened and Alex finally understood that wordless song, understood its heightening undercurrent. The kachinas no longer sang about home. They sang about the loss of it. 

     “They’re going.” Jean surprised him, just off his shoulder. He turned his face up, shocked at the darkening sky as if he’d slept straight into evening.

      “We have to go down right now.” 

     They followed her around the crowd’s perimeter, to the narrow passage leading to the kiva. The wind gusted, pelting them with sand. The lead dancer straightened and spun, the others wheeling in turn, rattles clattering and farewell song cresting. Caught in the crowd, Penny and Alex backed against the pueblo walls, clearing the dancers’ path. Onlookers wailed from across the plaza, startled by a sudden sheet of rain. Drops swept nearer, pock-marking the ground and spattering off the dancers’ masks. Alex cast a protective arm over Penny’s shoulders but yelped with her as the blast soaked his t-shirt. The kachinas danced away, colors veiled by the rain, vanishing as though they’d leapt from the mesa into the swirling sky. 

     Penny crouched over her doll, sheltering it from a second downpour that never materialized. Jean wrung her hair out then waved across the plaza. “We’ll go to my grandmother’s house. I have something for you.”

     A cat perched on a rickety bookcase just inside the door, toying with the hook used to latch the screen. A Hurricane lamp threw shadows from the kitchen table, lighting the chilis and dolls decorating the stone walls. When Jean left them for a back room, Penny nuzzled under his arm to warm herself. “Thank you. I never expected such a memorable day.”

     Alex leaned to kiss her but pulled back. Jean’s grandmother had appeared where the hall entered the main room. Her eyes were downcast, but a shy smile creased her mouth. She stood no taller than Emmy, wrapped in a bright-banded Hopi shawl over a blue dress that pooled into the room’s shadows. According to Jean, she could have been 90, could have been 100. She’d lived long enough no one bothered tracking the number. 

     Alex smiled back. The old woman spoke only a handful of English, so he used a word his students had taught him. “Kwakwha. Thank you. For today. Daisy, this is Penny.”

    “Your wife.”  She nodded. Her smile was persistent as stone. She shooed the cat and bent to a shelf on the bookcase, lifting a sepia photo framed under a curving sheet of glass. Easing between them, she positioned the picture to catch the light. A young Hopi woman stood alone, staring uncertainly into the camera. Behind her, clusters of junipers dotted an otherwise empty landscape. 

    Daisy studied the picture as if struggling to place the scene. “I was pretty,” she said with finality. “Now I’m ugly.” She hugged herself and shook like she warded off a chill. 

    “Oh no,” Alex and Penny exclaimed together. Penny laid her hand on Daisy’s withered forearm. “You’re still beautiful.” She bobbed her head for emphasis. “Still.”

     Holding two grocery bags by their rolled down tops, Jean came down the hall. “Red piki for you to take home.” She noticed the photo. “Oh, she shows that to everybody. That was when Daisy and Kenneth got married. In the Hopi way, a hundred years ago. Every day since they fight like cats and dogs.”  


     A seam of sky opened above the San Francisco Peaks as they drove home. The orange ball of sun expanded, light rolling like spilled mercury along the ridgetops. Alex talked too much now, speculating, as he did after every ceremony, how ordinary people in faded Levis and Arby’s t-shirts metamorphosed into gods. 

     “Too crazy a topic? You’re the only one I can talk to about what I’ve seen here.”  

     “I love seeing you this excited about something.” She gave his thigh a pat. Winslow lay in the distance, a silvery glow held tight to the earth

    “All our friends in the department say hi,” she said. “Karen and Jerome come by constantly. Last week they even brought me a casserole, like I’d been recently widowed.” 

    “Tuna, I hope.”  

    She mock-gagged. “By the way, we’re planning a TA party to kick off the semester. Everyone wants to hear from the legend, the brilliant student who rejected the ivory tower’s pomp and circumstance for the lord’s work in the desert.”

    “I’m surprised. I didn’t sense much support for this choice.”

    She loosed a high chirp of laughter. “It’s purely theoretical support, silly boy. Actual consensus is, you should return to Tempe, crawl to Chairman Vasher’s office and live happily ever after with your beautiful wife.”

     He gave her a look then scanned the highway, headlights catching nothing besides a boulder pile off the road shoulder.

     “The point,” he said, “is to do something worth doing. I’m not sure cataloguing Romantic tropes about Gawain in the wilderness meets that standard.”

     “You certainly are doing something meaningful. You give your students good knowledge they don’t understand.”

    “Just another snotty university prof.”  He pounded the brakes, jerking them against their seat belts. The rock pile had sprouted legs and clambered onto the pavement. Their headlights reflected off a steer’s white muzzle. The herd following it blocked the road, milling aimlessly until the cows caught an inaudible command and trotted single file into the night. 

     “Here’s the romance of the open range. We had a student killed this spring, plowing into a couple of cows.”

     “I hope you don’t do much driving at night.”  She massaged his shoulder and sank back into her seat, but Alex sensed a question coming. 

     “I wonder about you, darling. What’s ultimately in this for you? Dead in a car crash on a deserted highway. No one would find you for years. You just lit your academic gift on fire and tossed it aside. Don’t you ever miss the life?”

     “That sounds like we were in the Mafia.”

     She loosed another chirp. “That’s an analogy worthy of examination.”

     He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I miss the way authors—even some critics—frame the world.”

   “Always so literal. Alex, I’m talking about us. How can you not miss being half of an academic power couple, a brilliant scholar of British Romanticism and —no false humility here— a none too shabby critic of modern American fiction?”

     “I know. The missed interviews and magazine covers, you wearing a dress slit to your navel while I brood behind a bust of Wordsworth. We’re not just brainy. We’re crazy hot.”

    “That barely needs noting.” She leaned close, breath soft against his cheek. “Did I tell you I finished my first chapter? The dedication took longest because I wanted it perfect.”

    Thinking he glimpsed another movement, he twitched and tapped the brakes. 

     “Hey, selfish! Aren’t you even going to ask?”

     “You’ve got me hallucinating cows and my bleached corpse in the desert.”

     “You should worry.”  Then she inhaled deep and recited: “To my husband, who defied my critical microscope and filled me with heaven. That’s my dedication.”

     His throat and eyes instantly burned. An impulse to apologize swept him, unexpected as that burst of rain at the ceremony and as swiftly washing past. “I love you, Penelope. I can barely say how much I love you.”

     “Oh, don’t get too choked up. They’ll probably make me pull it. The department is seriously pissed at you.”  

     In town, he wound the backroad home. All three trailers scattered across the five-acre parcel were dark. He bounced off the asphalt and onto packed clay, parking beside the car Penny’s Scottsdale dad had bought on her return to the Valley. 

      Alex climbed out and stretched. A fresh wave of clouds had built on the western horizon, approaching fast, pursuing a diminishing strip of stars. When the car doors slammed, a dark hulk padded from behind the trailer and nuzzled his hand. 

     “Hello noble Argus,” Alex said. Curly Joe was a neighborhood stray, hound dog ears and body like a coyote decked out in a black shag rug.

    Penny clapped and Curly jumped, paws on her shoulders. “He’s still alive!”    

    “It’s your fault. You saved him.”  One morning Penny had heard whimpering and found a soggy puff of fuzz huddling under their porch. She’d given him to the neighbors for their kids, who promptly turned him out to run wild.

    “He’s a fucking monster now. Chickens quake at the mention of his name.”

    Alex unlocked the trailer door, wrestling the dog back with a foot while Penny dipped under his arm. Dusky light leaked through the kitchen’s smoke-coated fixture. He dropped the piki on the table and Penny stationed the snow maiden alongside the bag, gently as if she feared the figure might break. 

     “She’s harboring a secret that promises the future will be perfect,” Penny whispered. “How glorious that must be.”

     “She’s beautiful.”  Alex opened a bottle of wine, and, glass stems intertwined in his fingers, followed Penny into the front room. She hesitated on the strip of carpet between the TV stand and couch. 

    “No better options than ever. Couch or the director’s chair in the corner if you’re feeling standoffish.”  They tapped glasses, the sound echoing off the metal roof. “To youth and beauty.” 

     “Too late.”  She slapped the back pocket of her jeans and took a trust fall onto the couch. “You haven’t noticed, but I’m up a size in pants. Too much time at a desk. I’ve even set up a jogging outing with Rob Hailey—a chubby new medievalist— to battle time’s ravages.”

     “‘For ever wilt thou love and she be fair.’”  He toasted her and tapped his chest with his fist. “I watch you doing anything, it’s like a tiny punch to my heart.”

     “You’re ridiculous. What if I’m flossing?”

      “You put Guinevere to shame then.”  

      “You picked your literary field perfectly. To the world’s last surviving romantic.”

     “All right, you cynic. How about this? To a hundred years of marriage, like Daisy and Kenneth, fighting like cats and dogs every day.”

     She set her wine on the TV stand. She folded hands between her knees and turned to him, waiting.

     “I just don’t want us to let time or distance damage what we have,” Alex said. “I don’t want us to ever change.”

     “But the river never stops, my love. That’s the risk.”  She waved him to her. Her fingers curled over the waistband of his jeans. He ran his free hand over her cheek and back through her hair.

     “I cut it short for summer,” she said demurely, her face in profile then opening like a sunflower in the muted light. Her arms locked around his waist, and she toppled backwards, so uncontrolled he had to straddle her and catch the couch back. Wine splashed down his arm, and he shoved his glass onto the windowsill. Rain spattered off the roof like water shaken from a person’s fingertips. 

     She tugged his head down, and they kissed so hard their teeth hit. “My god, you’ve forgotten everything,” she laughed, and they moved together more deliberately, his lips brushing hers. Alex pulled away. The initial patter of rain had barely registered, but its absence felt dramatic as a withheld breath. Then the rain cascaded down, drowning the room in a torrent of noise. 

     “Good god!” Penny laid her mouth to his ear. “This thing leak?” 

     “It hasn’t rained since you left. I have a bucket.”  

    “Later,” she said. They kissed again, hard but efficiently this time. She jerked his t-shirt over his head, and he gave an involuntary, “Ow.” 

     “You big baby.”  Her hips rose while he fumbled with the zipper of her jeans. Thunder clapped, two booms that shook the windows. The room flashed black. Penny pulled Alex on top of her and moaned. She murmured something he couldn’t hear. The storm growled low, sweeping beyond them already, and they made love in darkness so absolute they might have been blind. 

    He rested his forehead in the hollow of her shoulder. All he heard was breathing, his inseparable from hers. She pressed his palm to her chest. He mirrored the gesture, and they lay without moving, feeling both their hearts race. 

     “None of those Hopi girls who likes you so much could do that for you.”  

     “No one else, ever.” His feet hung over the arm of the couch, so he shifted to swing them to the floor. She clutched his waist. “Just wait a minute. Just stay put for once.”

     He kissed her neck. “Today was magic, wasn’t it? Gods made it rain. People who have nothing shared with us. That wasn’t my imagination. You saw it too.” 

   Her reply felt disembodied, resigned as a sigh. “Darling, this was one day. One wonderful day. You want to live in a world where everything has meaning, but it takes so many days to fill a life.”

     She gave his cheek a lingering kiss. When he moved again, she let him go. He rummaged under the sink for his camp lantern and rattled it loose by its wire handle. He set it on the floor, painting the room in chiaroscuro. 

    He swept his wine off the windowsill and pushed open the trailer door. Lightning slashed the horizon. Anticipating the answering boom of thunder, Alex got a rasping croak instead, almost at his feet. One of the ordinarily dormant river toads had burrowed up through the clay, to the puddles the storm left behind. Paws splashing, Curly Joe careened through the purple night, hunting the animal that so bravely announced its arrival. 

    Alex turned in the doorway. Penny lay on her side, her body an unreadable map of golden skin and hard shadows. She pillowed her head in the crook of her elbow. 

    “You make me self-conscious, staring like that,” she whispered without moving to cover herself. Her eyes rested on him, soft, like he’d been reciting her a fairytale.

     “I’m just trying to remember,” he said. 

    “Come back to me, Alex. You say it’s only a year, but how much time do we have?”  

    “You’re the one who left.”

    “Not that, please. Think of what matters, darling. Think that way. What matters most?”

     “I know what’s important.”

     “But maybe not what’s most important.”

     “Maybe not.” He laughed under his breath. He stepped onto the porch, the wood damp under his toes. Another toad croaked, and the dog spun a frantic circle, made hesitant by the revelation of so much life. Alex drained his wine. Sound filled the air. One animal after another called into the distance now, like radio signals intended for points beyond the limit of his hearing.

About the Author:

Doug Emory is a freelance writer and consultant who lives with his wife and son just outside of Seattle, Washington. His range of publications is broad, including a textbook on college writing, a soon-to-be-released hiking guidebook, and numerous articles on climbing, cross-country skiing, and mountaineering culture. His short stories and adventure narratives have been short-listed in major writing competitions and published in such highly regarded U.S. national magazines as Rock and Ice and Alpinist. He is an accomplished mountaineer, and much of his writing reflects his experiences in the mountains.

*Featured image by Pablo Rey from Pixabay