"It's not an easy thing to tell a true story," she said.
She was a tiny, dried woman, still limping over last year's bad hip. A woman who managed to maintain a kind of self-contained elegance, even under her cornhusk skin, the swollen marbles of her joints. It was in her unvarying posture, the meticulousness with which she placed a fork over her plate. A toughness to recall certain wildflowers: how you can twist at them and the fibers in their stalks will hold them together.
She displayed her wealth in tasteful, understated flourishes: Molesworth cabinetry, an exquisite little Maynard Dixon landscape above her writing desk, a tiger skin draped over the back of her couch, its back split by a brief, hardened cut. "That first shot went high," she said.
She had taken to giving away some of her treasures -- photographs, charm bracelets, well-historied watches -- as if possession were a burden from which she was asking to be delivered. We walked through her emptying apartment, room to room, the woman hobbling over a man's overlarge cane.
"I'm fine from here up," she said, easing down into her chair, holding a level hand to her throat, "but this body has been giving me no end of trouble."
I asked my first question and she looked at me with eyes light and quick as bees. "I was not so naïve," she said, "as to think that stepping onto that train had not been experienced a dozen times, a hundred times before: the young lady goes west. I was not so unexposed, not so unread as to suppose that those mountains had not always existed as a potential. But how many people go west not to find hope but to put an end to it? My mother's reaction when I caught pregnant? Ship her off. The first significant betrayal of my life was not my father's death but my mother's insouciance."
She stared past the iron railing of her concrete landing, past the green, manicured skirt of lawn and into the kiln-fired reds of the desert.
"Wyoming," she said, starting. She leaned forward to touch my knee. "Let me tell you about Wyoming."
The woman, the girl. Restless in a Pullman sleeping car.
A night late in her seventeenth year, a night in the
middle of the high plains. Glass rattles in its frame to a constant, quick rhythm, dust cobwebbed in its corners. The passing of the dark, leaf-dry prairie has come to match, in some oddly appropriate way, the hitching clack of the train. The tilled fields. The cottonwoods isolated in the lowest, moist pleats of the plain. Then it comes to her: the landscape has been running past her window like film through a projector.
Her aunt asleep in the next bunk, she slips out of her nightgown and into yesterday's chemise, naked under the silk and cotton. She makes her way through the sleeping car to the observation lounge, eleven cubicles empty around her, a black porter dozing in the closed vestibule between cars, chin on chest. He makes no motion, no noise. Beyond the drum of the wheels on their tracks, beyond the hollow clank of steel, it is so quiet. She steps onto the observation platform and stands with the cold railing under her hands, an inch of fabric trim flapping over her head, yellow sparks spraying away from the wheels, arcing to either side.
North Dakota. In all the world, there is no light. A war and a flu epidemic and a hard winter in 1919. A time and a place with empty chairs still set around a thousand supper tables, pieces of each family as absent as teeth from a smile.
She leans to the side, beyond the shelter of the car, and closes her eyes against the wind. The sleeping cars were so stifling. To the east, the first light of morning bruises the horizon. She reaches back into the car and pulls out a camp chair, sitting down on the platform to prop her bare feet on the rail. The infinite scroll of tracks catches the morning's new light and cuts the world with it, paring at the plains until they fall away in halves. Pages split by a binding.
The train pulses beneath her. She drops her feet off the rail and bends over her knees. Something in her would like to cry. Needs to cry. But she won't allow herself. She's already decided. Perhaps the first entirely adult decision of her life. And after a moment she sits up straight, cradling her stomach with her palms, her eyes dry and red.
No fingertip touches her cheek, no hand strokes her hair. In her breasts, in her chest, loneliness spreads like an infection. The ash-dead, baling-wire snarl of her heart. Except for the eyeless child in her womb -- a pea's worth of dividing cells - she is so alone. A thumbnail with no name, no country, no language. That's all she has.
Boy or girl? she asks herself for the first time.
The boy, the man. Alone above the North Fork of the Shoshone. Digging inside a grave, head and shoulders rolling against the setting sun.
West of Cody, this hardscrabble, mosquito-bit valley. Fifty miles of clay riverbank gnawed by the teeth of the world, torn by erupting knobs of quick-cooled volcanoes. Foothills like bunched muscle, blistered to red, andesite bones. Fecundity is sparse and treasured, limited to a few acres of good hay ground in the bottoms and a hundred thousand miles of coarse wilderness back behind.
Here is a valley that displays its history, its brief succession of tiny tragedies and triumphs, as conspicuously as crumbs on a table. Human advance and retreat to be seen in each abandoned soddy, every honeysuckle windbreak blooming around a bare foundation. If this isn't home, it's as close as he's likely to get. He has always been drawn to the idea that he might be important to this country. Against the ancient cathedrals he saw in Europe, the brick-lined banks of the Seine, there is a lack of record here. His own small surface scratchings have a chance of becoming remarkable, if only for the dearth of other participants. There have been no kings here. No generals.
But three weeks back and they've already got him digging a grave, for Chrissake.
Maybe he's never left. If it weren't for the lines of tourist autos on the road -- as many as a dozen to the hour, filling the recesses of the valley with dust and exhaust -- he could be eighteen again, scornful still.
He digs, falling into the old rhythms. The rotation of spud, mattock, spade; a mound of fresh clay and gravel over his left shoulder. In France, the earth tossed out of a rifle pit had been nearly as important as the pit itself, and one quickly grew into the habit of placing each shovelful, patting it down with the back of the spade. At night, the tick of rats on the duckboards, running bay to bay, had sounded like tapping fingernails. The bodies over the crest of the parapets, the ones within sniper range of the Boche, had had to be left out in the sun until you started resenting them their stench.
He resists the idea that he could be eighteen again. His father doesn't know it yet, but things are set to change. It won't be like it was. If he took anything at all away from the war, it is this determination. It won't be like it was. No kings here, he thinks with satisfaction. No generals. He smoothes the walls of the grave with the spade reversed in his hands, chiseling at the corners, scooping out the loose scree. Six years after armistice, the magazines are still carrying ads for the most comfortable prosthetics.
He climbs out of the new hole in the earth and squats on his heels, thin enough himself, narrow enough, to rest without prominence among the crooked gravestones. There you go, he thinks, looking into the grave.
A sear wind blows at his back, drying his sweat. The same wind that's been blowing for weeks. An endless unspooling of air, straight out of the sun. The parched odor of woodsmoke, a yellow evening haze from the fires in the Washakie. He rolls a cigarette and lights it, unwinding his loose-hinged legs to sit half in the grave.
The boy, the man. At twenty-four, a man without qualification, although there is something in him, some hard and buried kernel, that won't allow him access to his own manhood. A mother who's half Indian and more than half crazy for religion. A father with a cast-iron eye forever set on the next scheme. Between them, the kind of quiet that comes from adjusted expectations. He thought he'd left for good in 1918, but he'd been wrong. Seems like the grooves this place had worn into him had been deeper than he thought.
There's a change coming. He can feel it. A throb in him like a second pulse. The Shoshone dam. All those tourist cars on the road. The slow consolidation of homesteads. This valley's getting ready to hold people, like it or not. He's just not sure if it's meant to hold him. He's just not sure where he should be.
It sure got ahold of old Buskin, he thinks, flicking his cigarette into the grave.
Buskin hadn't been so old as he'd looked. Fat like his mother, with his gray scrub-pad hair cut close. An index finger missing at the first knuckle. Not being much good for anything else, he'd been the one to deliver Mohr's hooch. Taking a day or two to wend his way through the mountains, approaching neighbors' farms from the most unexpected directions. Turns out he hadn't been very good at that either. His horse trailed back to the ranch three days ago, saddlebags empty, blood smeared across the pommel. If Henry's father has obvious regrets, it's only that he'll be having to deliver his booze himself. A riskier proposition than just making it.
Henry stands and gathers his tools and walks the path down from the cemetery, his shadow stretching thin-legged beside him. A dark and following absence. Up the valley, the sun edges below the horizon, rolling evening over the ground like quick oil. He'd smelled cinnamon this morning. His mother and that Chinese cook must be baking today. The thought of a good apple pie reminds him how hungry he is.
Below him, his father's Pierce-Arrow churns a tail of dust out of the valley's gravel road. Must be that girl from back east. Damn if he hadn't already forgotten.
Seventeen years old, with the narrow hips, the developing chest of an adolescent. The conspicuous absence of flesh between skin and ribs. A neck thin for her body.
She lies facing away from her aunt, both of them still dressed from the trip. Staring at the hand-hewn, dovetailed logs, at the loosening lengths of concrete chinking and exposed fretwork of nails and, behind the nails, twisted rolls of newspaper insulation. The single crooked window curtained in crinoline, pieced from some old petticoat. She stares at the ceiling, at the roughly milled boards with their warped edges and the roofing tin showing through the cracks, and tries to tell herself that this is an adventure. That this is a story she's within.
The old woman stirs beside her, dry flesh rustling against the blankets, and reaches up to brush her hand over the back of Virginia's head, flattening the bobbed hair against the girl's neck. Her marcelled curls still hold the shape of her Gimbel Brothers cloche.
I miss braiding your hair, the aunt says.
The girl shrugs, feeling her aunt's hands drop to her shoulders.
Short hair makes you look cheap, the aunt says. Girls with their lives ahead of them should wear their hair long.
What was it they said about a funeral tomorrow?
The aunt removes her hands. I think it's one of their help. A cowboy. They would call themselves cowboys, wouldn't they?
Mother said I might get sick. The girl rolls over to face the aunt.
Women on your mother's side always seem to get the morning sickness.
Mother said I'll need new clothes.
That town where the train dropped us off, where they picked us up? What was it called?
There must be a place for a lady to buy clothes in Cody. We'll go shopping.
Mother said it was my fault.
The aunt exhales heavily, filling the room with the baked apples they'd had for dessert.
A bird lands on the peak of the roof, claws scratching against the tin, wings shuffling.
The aunt says, Charlie's a good boy.
The girl rolls abruptly away, tousling the smoothness out of her hair. I'll be outside, she says.
But she goes only as far as the rough steps, the half-rounds of logs nailed in an uneven tier below the door. She sits there with her elbows cupped in her hands, shivering despite the night's dry heat. It occurs to her that this is the first time she has traveled without her father. Even now, a year later, she finds his absence startling. He had been the one to decide things for her. He had been the one to take responsibility. Her entire life, the odor of cigar smoke will mean security and warmth to her. A vague sense of loss eventually disassociated from its source.
She leans back, hands crossed over her stomach. Same old stomach. Her breasts might be a little larger, though. And sore. She pushes herself off the steps, brushing at the seat of her skirt, catching her fingers on a fresh smear of sap. A walk, she thinks, tasting the sap. She turns north toward the river. From this distance, she can just see the undercut banks, the burgundy thumbsmears of willow, the flickering sweep of water. Water so different from the slow, wide rivers of home. Those are proper rivers, to her mind; their age measured by width and depth rather than erosion. Below the dam downstream, this water sprays through the rock walls like a thumb over a hose. Straight out of the mountains. That's what Adze had said: That water only melted yesterday, Miss.
She turns right, around the northern edge of the ranch, walking between the river and the main lodge, past the firepit toward the barn and corrals. On the north side of the barn, barely visible even from this angle, she can make out the steeply pitched roof of an attached jog, a shanty. Bunkhouse for some kind of hired man, probably. Smoke unravels from a black stovepipe and warm yellow lantern light sifts through the filthy windowglass, spreading weak and diluted on the riverbank gravel. A shadow passes in front of the light, then back.
She stands quiet, allowing herself a brief moment of envy for the figure in the shed, gifted with such warmth and light. Security. But what kind of warmth? What kind of light? Look at all the dirt on that window.
From the empty blue air above the river, she hears the deep burp of a feeding nighthawk. From the opposite bank, a deer rattles through the willows, coming down to water. But she is unable to put a name to either of these sounds and can imagine only bears, mountain lions. Red in teeth and claws. She turns and starts walking back to the guest cabin, holding herself to a measured, controlled pace, a pace that quickly uncoils into long, hurried strides, then an awkward run. Bears just behind, lions.