Where the Devil Lost His Blanket
As the plane taxis away from the gate, I see Gordon standing with our children, Jamie and Sarah, at the big plate-glass window. And even though I know they can't see me, I press my hand against the tiny window next to my seat. The plane lurches along, with alarming creaks and vibrations, and gradually picks up speed. I watch the trees and the Air National Guard hangar whizzing past, and at the moment we leave the ground, I nearly cry out. Partly it's the unreality of taking flight, but mostly it's knowing how far away from them I will be when the plane touches ground again.
We rise above Pittsburgh, circling over the bridges and the three rivers that look motionless and glistening from above, and turn west, climbing into the clouds. Bogota. I say the name to myself. It conjures up nothing.
Somewhere beneath me, in the plane's luggage compartment, Margaría Flores lies in her funeral box. And her husband, Arturo, in an urn, packed in a little crate. I know so little about these people whose remains I have inherited, but Margaría wrote in her will that I should be the one to take her home. "My friend Elizabeth Tenney," Jackson read from the pages he was holding. Gordon and I sat together on the sofa in his office while Jackson read the will, and Gordon held my hand, as if we were hearing the news of my own terminal illness.
Margaría left me a pair of silver candlesticks I remember seeing them on her dining room table and money for the trip to Colombia and back. "I want my friend Elizabeth Tenney to have some remembrance of me and take me to my final resting place," she had written. Jackson held the will up for us to see, several sheets of lined paper filled with very precise, sloping handwriting.
We sat there looking at those pages for a minute or two, and then Gordon said, "I'll be damned."
Watching me, Jackson tipped his head to one side. "I didn't realize you and Margaría were friends." "We weren't close," I said. "It is kind of surprising." I tried to think of who else she might have asked instead, but I couldn't come up with anyone.
Jackson straightened the papers on his desk, looking amused. "Of course, you don't have to go. I can arrange to ship the casket."
"That wouldn't be right," I said, a feeling like shame curdling in my stomach. "I think I do have to go. She chose me."
That evening we called at the Cantwell Funeral Home, where Margaría was laid out. It's the only funeral home in Tenney's Landing. Our town has one lawyer and one undertaker. And one aging priest we share with Rownd's Point, a town nearby. Father Rollins stood beside the casket, a velvet-lined mahogany box that was too big for Margaria. She wore a black dress with a white silk flower at the neck, and she looked as if she had only closed her eyes for a moment, preparing herself for a photograph. A strand of her hair had come loose and trailed across the tiny pillow beneath her head. Instinctively, I reached out to tuck it into place, remembering how Sarah as a baby had been fascinated by Margaria's dark, glossy hair, the way she would reach up from her stroller and stroke it when Margaría bent down to speak to her. "Pretty," Sarah would say, her small hand patting Margaría's cheek.
Both of my children liked her. Jamie would call out "Hello, Mrs. Flores," whenever he saw her. Once she had given him a small jade carving of a turtle and told him it would bring him luck. He carried it in his pocket for a long time.
Father Rollins was speaking with Margaría's next-door neighbors, Aggie and Jasper Moffat. They were the ones who found her, lying in her back garden with a rake still in her hand. She'd been mulching her rosebushes, getting ready for the winter.
"I guess it's not such a bad way to die," Aggie said. "Except that she wasn't very old." The Moffats themselves were in their mid-seventies.
"Heart attack, it must have been," Jasper added.
Gordon stood next to me, his hand on my shoulder. Since leaving Jackson's office, he had been moving through the day reluctantly. When we had lunch in Pittsburgh while we waited for my passport, he took forever to choose a sandwich and then left half of it on his plate. As we were getting in the car to come to the funeral home, he decided that he needed to change his tie and spent another ten minutes picking out the right one. It's not like him.
"I'm glad you came," Father Rollins told me in a near-whisper. "You're the only ones from town, besides Aggie and Jasper, and just three or four from the college. Margaria told me she was grateful to you for your kindness last year when her husband died."
Because we are Presbyterians, I don't know this priest very well, so I did not say, "But all I did was take her a vegetable casserole on the day of the funeral," even though that was the extent of my kindness. Sometimes I'd see her at the post office or the grocery store and ask, "How are you, Margaría?" On those occasions, I would rattle on about the children, our busy lives, suggest that we get together maybe next week. But the days would roll by, and I would forget about Margaría until I saw her again. Each time, her expectant glance caused a guilty shiver down my spine.
One thing I do know Margaría was afraid of fire. That day last year when I stood in her kitchen clutching the steaming casserole between a pair of hot mitts, Margaria said, "It was Arturo's wish to be cremated. I do not wish it myself such a hellish way to die."
I hadn't pointed out that Arturo was dead already. Instead, I put the casserole on the table and, not knowing what to do next, hugged her clumsily with the hot mitts and said, "I'm sorry for your loss."
"You are a kind woman," she replied as I pulled away from her.
She asked me to stay and have a cup of coffee, but I told her I had to take Jamie to the doctor; he had an appointment for his school physical. I promised to come back soon. At the time of Arturo's funeral service, I was reading a magazine in the doctor's waiting room.
Margaría and Arturo appeared in Tenney's Landing so quietly, we hardly noticed them at first. One day they were living in the old Kramer place at the end of Pinkham Street, hanging curtains and sweeping the front walk. They were small, dark-haired people with unfamiliar accents, and because they seemed reserved we pretty much left them alone.
The morning Gordon stopped to help him fix a flat tire, he found out that Arturo taught Spanish at McClelland College, a small, expensive school of graceful red-brick buildings about twenty miles downriver in Fayette. No one from Tenney's Landing went to school there, and no one who taught there, except Arturo, lived in our town. It seemed odd, Gordon said, that Arturo would have come all the way from Colombia to teach at McClelland College. Although Margaría and Arturo lived there for years and had the house painted a new color, we always called it the old Kramer place.
As the plane levels out, I open my purse and find one of the memorial cards printed up by the Cantwell Funeral Home. Margaría Flores, 1931-1982, it says at the top in black letters. Underneath is a short poem:
God hath not promised
Skies always blue,
All our lives through;
God hath not promised
Sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.
On the back is a picture of a sheaf of wheat in warm tones of tan and gold. Most of the little cards were still stacked on the table by the door when Gordon and I left the funeral home last night. For some reason, I gathered them up and took them with me.
Who picked out that poem, I wonder, and who wrote it? I read it again, as if it might have a message for me as I set out on my strange journey. Except for the two years I went away to college, I have never been far from home. I peer out the window again. We are above the clouds now. Around me, the other passengers appear unconcerned, flipping through magazines, chatting with each other. I tilt the seat back and close my eyes, imagine my family driving home from the airport, the leaf-dappled light on the river as it flows past our town.
The Monongahela runs fast and green most of the time, with thick, ropy currents out in the middle, so you'd think it was constant. In the coldest winters, though, when we were kids, it would freeze over. The first warm night of March, lying in our beds, we'd hear the ice start to creak and moan in some kind of water agony. By morning it would be cracked into big, ragged pieces that slid up over each other, trying to push their way downstream. Townspeople walked out and stood on the banks, looking it over and checking their watches, making bets on what time it was going to break up and let loose.
In the flood of '52, when I was nine, the river went wild, rising and rising until it ran down Front Street the sixth day of a seven-day rain. My cousins who lived in the house next to the post office came up to stay with us because they had river water running through their downstairs. They kept saying, "Two feet of water right in the living room." They couldn't get over it. My little sister, Ruthie, gave her bed to these boy cousins and slept in with me and pressed her knees into the middle of my back as I imagined the river washing up against our second-story windows.
The first morning of the flood we walked down the hill to see if it was true that houses and goats and chicken coops were floating downstream. But it was only dead trees and one old rusted-out truck that turned and turned in the current. Then one of my cousins yelled, "Hey, it's Gordy!" and I saw Gordon in the back of his dad's rowboat, coming down the street. He was wearing a blue jacket, and when they went past I could see his black-and-white collie, Skipper, in the bottom of the boat, soaking wet and shivering. Gordon looked right at me and raised his hand and said, "Hey, Lizzy." I remember that.
Walking through the gate at the airport in Bogotá, I am surrounded by a knot of people pressing forward to greet the arriving passengers. Everyone is hugging and talking all at once as they exchange greetings in Spanish. Then, quite suddenly, I am standing alone, watching the others stride away down the long, fluorescent corridor. Why has no one come to meet me? Through the plate-glass windows, I can see the shimmer of heat on the tarmac, planes nosing along like docile silver beasts.
I begin to picture myself wandering through the city loaded down with my suitcase, the coffin, Arturo's small crate, growing more and more tired, afraid to stop and rest. I hold on to the back of one of the plastic seats in the waiting area and try to think.
Then I hear a voice approaching behind me and turn around.
"I think you are Elizabeth Tenney," says an odd-looking young man coming toward me.
Something is wrong with his face. As he gets closer, I see that one side of it is badly scarred. "How did you know?" I ask, wondering if I should shake his hand.
He shrugs. "I am Margaría's brother Herman," he says, looking at me quizzically.
I try to concentrate on his name, to avoid staring at his face. In its Spanish pronunciation, the name sounds more masculine Herr-mon, with an emphasis on the end.
"The youngest brother," he adds, in response to my confused look.
"I'm sorry about your sister," I say quickly. "It must be very hard for you, living so far away."
I almost expect him to explain his strange appearance to me, as someone might do if he were bleeding, as if an explanation were necessary.
Instead, he guides me down the corridor with occasional light touches on my back. "I apologize for being just a bit late," he says. "I was detained in Customs, filling out papers. It's unusual, the circumstance. And now I must take you there, so they can look into your suitcase." He turns and smiles at me, adding, "In case you are a desperado."
I can feel my face flush as I think of someone pawing through my neatly folded clothes. "Is your home nearby?" I ask him.
"Not too close. A drive of an hour, a little more. There is also a hearse outside for Margaría and Arturo."
At Customs I am asked, in careful English, if I have anything to declare. The official nods at Herman as if he is used to seeing him and stamps my passport. He does not open my suitcase.
I watch the hearse behind us in the side mirror as we take the expressway into the city. Herman's car is a kind I have never seen before, and although it is square and serious looking, it smells of leather and dogs. I have the impression he would like to drive faster, but he has to go slowly because of the hearse.
I sip from a paper cup of coffee Herman bought for me at the airport dark, bitter coffee that is also sweet. Sitting in the passenger seat, I can see only the scarred side of his face, the pale skin taut and wimpled at the same time. His right hand, too, is badly scarred. On the steering wheel, his two hands: one the color of caramel with smooth, shapely fingers, the other a livid pink, fingers ending in calluses rather than nails.
He mentions squares and buildings as we pass many named after Spanish conquerors. The names flow like quicksilver, and I catch only a few. Iglesia Santa Clara. Plaza de Bolívar. Chorro del Quevedo. In the older sections of the city, where the heavy stone buildings are surrounded by brilliant flowers, it seems to me that I have traveled back in time hundreds of years. Even though my eyes sting from lack of sleep, I can't stop looking at everything.
When I ask Herman where he learned to speak English, he says he studied it in high school. "Also," he says. "I went to college at Stanford."
I try to think of all the words I know in Spanish. Sí. Gracias. Conquistador. Only three?
"I quite liked it," he continues, "but then I got homesick and came back after the graduation."
"So did I," I tell him. "I mean the homesick part. I never did get used to being away. So I quit after two years and got married."
"And you are happy with that decision?"
It seems an odd question, coming from a stranger. "I don't need a college degree to live my life," I say, taken aback at my own rudeness. I begin to suspect there's something devilish about him, as if he might enjoy taking advantage of his disconcerting first impression. "I'm sorry," I add. "I think I must be tired."
"Yes," he says. "I can imagine."
From the elegant and bustling center of the city, we pass through its rougher edges, where the streets are littered with paper and broken glass and rusted trash cans overflow at the curbs. When we stop for a light, two young women in tight-fitting leather jackets are waiting at the corner. The one with a butterfly tattooed on her cheek bangs her fist on the fender of the car as they start across the street, and the other one gives us the finger as they pass in front of the windshield. Herman rolls down his window and says something in Spanish, and the butterfly girl turns her head and grins as they reach the other side.
I expect Herman to tell me what he said, but he doesn't. Maybe they're angry because he drives an expensive car. Maybe they're prostitutes.
All at once, we are beyond the city and driving into sweeping grasslands as far as I can see, deep green grass, thigh high, billowing in the wind. And hills in the distance, rolling hills that look like the rumpled edges of an immense green carpet.
"Our ranch is out beyond those hills," Herman says, pointing with his chin and stepping down on the accelerator.
"This must be pampas grass," I say. "I've heard of it, but I didn't know it would be so beautiful."
"No, this is sweetgrass. Our cattle graze on it."
"Oh," I say, a little disappointed. "I had visions of ostriches running through the pampas grass."
Herman looks over at me. "No ostriches either. I believe you are thinking of Argentina."
When I come awake, we are driving between two stone pillars and down a long, narrow driveway planted with trees on either side. I think they are eucalyptus, but I don't ask. The drive is covered with fine white gravel, which crunches pleasantly beneath the tires, and at the end of it a rambling two-story house with a red tile roof. I check the mirror to see that the hearse is still with us.
We cross the wide porch, and someone opens the door just as we approach. "Gracias, Tiva," Herman says to the small woman standing in the shadow inside. A house with servants, then. I follow him down a hallway darkened by closed shutters. Although the day is quite warm, the house is cool inside. Our footsteps clatter on the slate floor, and the hushed darkness reminds me that this is a house of mourning. Herman stops at another doorway and waits for me to enter. Inside, near an open window, three women dressed in black are seated at a low table set for tea. The furniture is heavy and dark, a small vase of pink roses on the table the only color.
The women watch us with no change of expression, their faces set in sorrow. They might be figures in a painting, they're that striking. Herman introduces me to his mother with a little bow, saying, "Señora Tenney, I would like you to meet my mother, Señora Márquez."
She takes my hand as if she were about to kiss it and says, "Buenos días, Señora Tenney. I do not speak English." As she holds my gaze for a moment, I can see the resemblance to Margaría. Señora Márquez must be about seventy-five. Even in grief, she looks as if her life has not been too hard.
The slender woman I took to be Herman's wife is his sister Dorothea, and the plump, less pretty one, his wife, Rosamond. Each takes my hand in the same formal way as we are introduced.
At dinner that night I am seated next to Señora Márquez, who is at the head of the table, and across from Herman, my translator. Unlike the other men, who wear dark jackets, he has on a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Where he is not scarred, his face and arms are very tan. Herman is probably in his early thirties, and as I have a chance to observe him, I realize that he must have been quite handsome at one time. Even though I can understand almost nothing of the conversation, I see how the others follow the lead of his good-natured, irreverent spirit. In such a family, perhaps it is possible to remain beautiful, come what may. They say Margaría's name often, and I'm struck by how different it sounds here. Mar-ha-ria.
Herman turns to me every few minutes and tells me what they're talking about. "Eduardo is telling of the time Margaría let his pet birds out of their cage because she thought they needed to fly. They soon flew out of sight, but she told Eduardo not to worry. She covered the cage with flowers and put fruit inside and sang to the birds to come home. And when they did not come back, she cried for two days." Eduardo, one of the older brothers, looks down the table at me and makes a flying motion with his hands. Then he shrugs, as if to say it didn't really matter.
Señora Márquez interrupts their reminiscing after a while to ask me what my husband does, and I try to explain what it means to be a riverman, pausing between sentences so Herman can translate. Using some forks and knives, I demonstrate how the locks work and tell them that Gordon is now the lockmaster. With a serving spoon I show how the big cargo boats and pleasure boats pass through the lock a few miles downriver from our town.
Gordon has spent his whole life on the Monongahela River which is appropriate, I tell them, since his ancestor Lucius J. Tenney, a fur trapper, was the first white settler along the section that came to be called Tenney's Landing. Lucius went ashore one day in the spring of 1765, his raft piled with rabbit and coon hides, and felt the need to stretch his legs. He so liked the look of the river from that spotthe way it curved around a bend upstream and then widened outthat he decided to set up his own trading post right there.
When Gordon was a boy, I continue, one of his older cousins, Fred Tenney, ran the ferryboat that crossed over from Tenney's Landing to Lynchtown, and Gordon rode with him whenever he could. He'd be down there after school and most days in the summer, and sometimes he asked me to come along. The ferry was little more than a large raft with a motor; it had wooden planks for a deck, a rope railing, and old car tires tied to the sides for bumpers. It could take six cars and of course a few people on foot or even a horse and buggy. Gordon collected the fifty-cent fare, while his cousin directed each car up the ramp and placed a wooden chock under one of the front tires. The crossing took about twenty minutes; the small motor chugged across the current and churned up a wake that made you dizzy if you stared at it all the way across.
I tell them how, one time on the Lynchtown side, Gordon showed me a heron's nest with two gawky baby birds inside. We could see the tiny bald heads and the dark pouches of their eyes, the long beaks jabbing the air above their nest. A couple of weeks later, they were perched on a limb, turning their heads this way and that, puffing themselves up. Even when he was young, Gordon could predict the weather by watching the clouds, I say, and sometimes he made up names for them. The ones he liked best he called "broom tails," those clouds that look like horses' tails galloping off in the distance. "You might not notice it unless you're out there," he'd tell me, "but the river is different every day."
"You love your husband," Señora Márquez says approvingly, and a glance at Herman's amused expression as he translates tells me I have been talking too much.
The Márquez family has a cook, who along with a spry, elderly man who may be the cook's father also brings the food to the table. We are served several courses: sweet pan-fried fish with pepper sauce, hot garlic soup, crisply browned game hens with orange sauce, polenta, ripe plums, and cheese. The energetic father of the cook keeps bringing new bottles of wine to the table, and finally brandy and the bittersweet coffee. The dining room is fragrant with cilantro and cinnamon, fresh-cut limes, other scents I can't name. From time to time, two or three of the men step through the open doors to smoke on the terrace. I am so tired and so charmed, I feel as if my chair is floating above the floor, as if I might tip out and float away into the darkness outside.
But the weight of voices keeps me anchored. Looking around at Margaría's relatives, the brothers and sisters, the aunts and uncles and cousins, I think of her quiet dinners with Arturo. And then her final solitary year.
It is close to midnight when I finally get to bed. I have a room in the upstairs at the end of the hall, and I listen to the sounds of hushed voices and running water, doors closing. I have a feather pillow and smooth, soft sheets. When the house goes quiet, I can hear the wind in the grass. As I fall into sleep, just as in the car, I see the endless grasslands and feel the sun on my face. I hear the tune Herman is humming as he drives.
All night a river flows through my dreams, our river. But I can't be sure of where I am, whether I am awake or sleeping...
Birdsong and the sounds of cattle pull me awake. Before I open my eyes, I try to picture Gordon and Jamie and Sarah at home, but I can't quite see them, place them in the day. I get up and look out the window. Beyond the lawn, where the fields start, the grass is still damp, and small brown birds perch on the tallest blades. The heavy shoulders of the cattle push the grass aside, and they twist their necks to bite it off near the ground. They stand chewing, long tufts hanging from their mouths.
Herman has explained that although it is unusual for the youngest son to take over the family place, he and Rosamond live on the ranch with his mother. His older brothers have gone into business in Bogotá and have no interest in raising cattle. As I'm thinking this, Herman appears on horseback with his small son seated behind him. They ride slowly through the grazing cattle and farther out into the grassland. Two brown-and-white spaniels follow them. Herman wears a Panama hat and khaki pants and again a white shirt. At a distance, he looks unreal, as if two different people have been joined together somehow. His son clasps his waist tightly and grips the horse's flanks with sneakered feet. I watch until I can just see the top of Herman's hat vanishing in the high grass.
I don't see him again until late in the afternoon, when he and his son slip into the pew beside me at the start of Margaría's funeral. Rosamond, who is sitting two rows in front of us, turns around, looking pointedly at her watch and giving Herman an exasperated frown. He pretends not to notice. He smells clean; his hair and his son's are still wet from the shower, combed back in the same way. The little boy looks at me, smiling shyly, then ducks back behind his father's jacket.
The church is large but surprisingly plain, with its white stucco walls and tall, clear, leaded-glass windows. Behind the raised altar, a peaceful Christ hangs on a heavy wooden cross, his forehead pricked with thorns. Margaría's casket stands before the altar on a cloth-covered table. The air is heavy with flowers and incense, and underneath these, a lighter scent, something like chalk dust. I have never, even in a dream, found myself in such an extraordinary place.
I follow Herman's lead through the unfamiliar ritual, kneeling when he kneels, standing when he stands. The women carry white handkerchiefs trimmed in black lace. They cry softly and continually throughout the funeral. Dorothea has given me such a handkerchief, and I hold it bunched awkwardly in my hand.
During the priest's long sermon, Herman leans over and whispers, "Don't bother about this, he's just talking of life after death."
"Oh, that," I whisper back. It's easier, I admit to myself, to be on Herman's left side, the good side.
Margaría's brother Eduardo gives the eulogy, and when he mentions America, people turn to look at me. At the end, when Dorothea stands to sing, Herman says, "This was Margaría's best song when she was a little girl." The song is a kind of lullaby, maybe the song she sang to the lost birds. As Dorothea's clear voice begins to tremble, I feel tears come to my own eyes and try to blink them back and dab at them with the crumpled handkerchief. When Herman reaches over to pat my arm in a comforting, brotherly way, my heart lurches in my chest.
The cemetery, a family graveyard on a small rise overlooking the house, is shaded by immense trees. I stand at Margaría's grave next to Dorothea; Herman is on the opposite side with Rosamond and his son. I watch him tuck a strand of Rosamond's hair behind her ear and kiss her on the cheek. Her face is streaked with tears, and something about his tenderness toward her makes me think she is pregnant. The priest reads from a small black book as Margaría's casket is lowered into the ground. She and Arturo are buried together, next to the grave of Margaria's father. Only now I wonder why Margaría didn't come home when Arturo died.
Dorothea turns away before the first shovel of dirt falls on the casket, and I walk with her down the hill toward the house. She is a young widow Herman told me her husband was killed in a speedboat accident two years ago and she lives with her mother too and helps manage the household. We walk around to the terrace, where friends of the family are already waiting and where drinks and food are being served again.
I don't see Herman for some time, then he comes out of the house with Rosamond. They go sit near his mother. Standing with Dorothea and a few of the cousins, I feel somewhat lost and unaccountably disappointed. After perhaps an hour, when the guests have started to go, Herman catches my eye and motions for me to join them.
"My mother wants to thank you again," he says, as I take the seat next to him.
Señora Márquez smiles at me tenderly and speaks to Herman.
"She says that you will miss her," Herman tells me. "Margaría."
"I will," I say, flustered. It begins to seem true.
Rosamond, who has been watching me intently, now leans forward and speaks. She seems to be asking a series of questions. Her tone is rather fierce.
Herman pauses before translating. "My wife is asking if you will be the one to send us Margaría's things, her personal belongings," he says. "Rosamond is not feeling well today, as you might notice."
At first I wonder if she suspects me of stealing things that belonged to Margaría, but then I realize they must be disappointed that I brought nothing of hers to give them a picture album, a favorite book or piece of jewelry. All I have are the memorial cards from the funeral home. "I'm sorry," I say, embarrassed to have come so unprepared, "but I had to leave home quickly. Is there something special you want me to look for when I get back?" I address the question to Rosamond, but she is already getting up and moving away. I think she is the only one to see that I am not a real friend.
Herman's mother gives me a sympathetic look and follows her daughter-in-law into the house. When the two women have gone, I start to ask Herman why Rosamond is upset, but he looks at my feet and says, "You need some different shoes. Can you get a jacket? I want to show you something."
He meets me in front of the house, driving a very old Jeep with faded paint and a dented door. I wonder if anyone is watching us. We drive past the stables and into the horse track where I saw him with his son this morning. Though we drive for more than half an hour, neither of us says anything. Where the track is narrow, the tall grass whips against the fenders. Otherwise, it is quiet and still, the end of the afternoon. Herman stops at the top of a low hill. When he gets out, I follow him a little way. We are looking down on a kind of basin, a bowl of flattened grass about sixty or seventy yards across. All around us, the grassland goes on forever.
"What is this place?" I ask him.
"Ah. This is where the devil lost his blanket."
I try to guess what a devil's blanket might look like. An old horse blanket? A scarlet cape? "What does that mean?"
"It is hard to tell someone from away if you lived here, you would understand but it means something like the edge of nowhere, a place where strange things might happen."
Herman is not looking at me; he's gazing across the basin. I feel a little nervous, though I'm not sure why.
"You were Margaría's only friend in America," he says finally. "And so I wanted to bring you here."
"The truth is I didn't know her very well."
"Not many people did. She stayed too much inside herself."
"What I mean is I didn't really try to know her. I wish it had been different."
Herman sighs. "Half of life is regret, don't you think?" He turns to me and says, "She knew you well enough, in any case."
I can see my reflection in the darkness of Herman's eyes, and once again his closeness is confusing. I want to reach across the space between us and touch him, to take hold of his slender brown wrist. I walk away from him and stand closer to the edge. "That grass down there why is it so flat?"
"Wild horses sleep here at night. Come, I will show you."
Walking down the slope is difficult because the grass is slippery. Now it might be natural to take Herman's arm, but I avoid looking at him and keep some distance between us. When we reach the bottom, the grass is matted and twisted.
"This is the place where Margaría saved her own life once," Herman tells me.
"When was that?"
"Oh, it was a long time ago. I think Margaría was just twenty-four. She and Arturo had been married about a year, and she was pregnant then maybe three months. The autumn that year was very dry. Margaría was out riding one afternoon when a grass fire started, no one knows how."
As he talks, Herman looks around as if he can still see the grass fields burning. Maybe he can, although he would have been a young boy when it happened, seven or eight. He tells me how Margaría's horse was running from the fire when it stumbled and fell, throwing her to the ground. They had just noticed the smoke from their house when the horse came galloping back, and everyone ran out to look for Margaría. The fire was so hot they couldn't get close, but they could see it was burning all through the place where she liked to ride.
"The flames were taller than a house," Herman says. "And they roared like a hurricane. Even at a distance, the heat was scorching. I remember that I kept touching my hair, to make sure it wasn't on fire."
"But you were burned."
"Yes. Sparks were blowing, and my shirt caught fire. I tried to run away from my own burning shirt. Finally, my father got hold of me and pushed me to the ground and smothered the flames."
Herman's father carried him back to the house, where Tiva covered his burns in aloe leaves and caked him with mud. Then she wrapped him in damp sheets and put him to bed. The others stayed out for hours, calling Margaria's name, driving and walking all around the edge of the fire. Exhausted, they went back to the house and watched from the terrace as the fire burned farther and farther away through the night and finally burned itself out. They were certain Margaría was dead.
"Arturo was wild," Herman says. "My father and brothers had to hold him back from running into the fire to find her. They kept saying, 'Think what happened to Herman.' I could hear them."
The next morning, where the fire had been, the ground was still too hot to walk over. So Arturo and the older brothers walked around the edges, calling Margaría's name. Finally, they could see a figure in the distance, limping along. A miracle, their father said. They brought Margaría into the house and pulled off her riding boots, which were scorched from the heat, and gave her water to drink. She told them that when her horse ran away she knew she was close to the basin, so she ran here and slid down into the gully where the wild horses go and hid herself under the ledge. When the fire came it jumped over and kept going on the other side. She stayed here all night and started walking back as soon as it got light. She had burns on her feet, but that was all.
"Arturo blamed himself," Herman tells me. "He said he should have forbidden her to go riding."
It got worse, Herman continues. Margaría had a miscarriage. The doctor said her baby was probably damaged when she fell from the horse. He also told them Tiva had saved Herman from a great deal of pain with her leaves and mud. And no, little could be done about the scarring that would come. "Besides," the doctor had joked to Herman, "you're only half ugly now."
"We shared a room, Margaría and I, for two or three weeks, while we recovered, side by side, in our beds. Arturo would come in and read to us, and Tiva would bring us special things to eat. My mother started crying every time she looked at me, and finally Margaria told her to stay out."
Herman starts walking again, and I stay beside him. "You see," he says, "it meant much to my sister that you would do this for her, that you would bring her back to her family. She believed that you would."
"I think she must have died of loneliness," I tell him. "And I remember how once when I was talking to her, she mentioned something about going to a concert at the college, and I envied her a little. I thought she had an interesting life."
"Margaría stayed in America because of Arturo," Herman says. "My father was hoping she would marry a rancher, but of course she fell in love with a scholar instead. Arturo was still in graduate school, studying political history, when they met. Then he got in with an antigovernment group when he taught at the university in Bogotá." Herman stops for a moment and fingers a blade of grass. "In a way they used him, because he was passionate and he could write. Such groups are really quite mercenary, you know; they don't care about one person. Eventually, they persuaded him to publish things that got him into trouble."
"You mean he had to leave the country."
"Yes. He would have been arrested, and perhaps Margaría too. One of Arturo's uncles got them out, and then a friend helped him get a job in America."
"How strange," I say, "to think that someone in your own family wouldn't be allowed to come home. Only because of politics."
"You say that because, truly, you don't take politics seriously in America. People die for politics in my country."
He sounds angry, but when we go out through the gully, he takes my hand and leads the way. It is so odd, the feel of Herman's scarred right hand. Though hardened from work, the palm is smooth, but the back is rough and crisscrossed with welts. In my nervousness I keep squeezing the tips of his fingers, which feel thick as horn. When we get near the Jeep, he lets go suddenly.
Herman opens the passenger door and takes out the jacket I left on the seat and puts it around my shoulders. "Forty is a good age for a woman," he says, looking me in the eye, smiling.
Before he can move away, I step closer and kiss him on the mouth and put my hands on his waist. When I lean into him, brushing against his scarred cheek, he takes my head in his hands.
"I can't feel anything on that side," he says. "Now you have to kiss me again."
I can feel his heart beating and hear the rustling of the grass all around us. The sensation is confusing and exhilarating, as in a dream of falling from a great height and discovering I can fly. Eventually, I let go of him.
Then he says, "Yes, we must go." He holds the door for me as I climb into the seat.
We return over the bumpy horse track, and after a few minutes Herman switches on the headlights. I look out the side window, fascinated by the blurry image of my face in the glass.
Tonight the house is quiet because many of the family have gone back to the city already, but I lie awake in bed, restless as a girl of sixteen. Herman and I said good-bye at the bottom of the stairs. He has to travel south early tomorrow morning to meet another rancher and look over some breeding stock. He has arranged for his brother Eduardo to take me to the airport.
Coming back in the Jeep, Herman asked me what I do when I'm at home. "I will want to think of you," he said. "And not just floating around in my head, like some spirit, but like a real person, doing things."
"I don't do anything very exciting," I told him. "I take care of my family. I have a garden in the summer. I teach people to read."
"You are a teacher, then?"
"Probably not in the way you think. But a few years ago, after my father died, my mother decided to start a program to teach adults who can't read and write. I help her with it. For the past couple of months I've been working with an older couple, Joyce and Bill Eberling, who both had to go out and get jobs when they were children. They're in their eighties now and reading Dr. Seuss out loud to each other."
"He's the doctor who wrote The Cat in the Hat. My son has that book."
"Do you know the first thing this old man wrote? It was a note to his wife. They've been married for sixty years, and he wrote her a note that said, 'I love you.' He even drew a heart around the words."
"You are a very romantic person, Elizabeth Tenney."
"I didn't tell him what to write, it was his own idea."
Then Herman decided that I should send his mother some of the roses from Margaría's garden. "You know," he said, "Margaría wrote to us that you had the most beautiful flowers."
"She wrote to you about me?"
"Quite often she would mention some small thing about you. A pretty new coat you had one spring, another time something funny you said. She told us that once you gave her a rosebush."
"The President Eisenhower," I said. "I'd forgotten that."
It came back to me clearly, though, the day I was walking Sarah in her stroller and waved to Margaría on her porch, how she came out to say hello. How in a rush of proud motherhood I'd responded to her admiration of Sarah by giving her the rosebush we were taking to my mother-in-law. "This will look so nice with your others," I'd said. "See, you have a little empty space right there." We'd both laughed, enjoying the bright June day, and I had invited her to come over for lunch the next week. Then I'd had to call and cancel because by then both of the children were sick with chicken pox.
"All the better," Herman insisted when I told him it was illegal to ship plants from one country to another without a license. "That means you will have to contrive some way to make it look like an innocent package."
When we said good night, he looked at me in that quizzical way I remembered from our meeting at the airport. Now I lie here thinking of Margaría's lost life. And Herman, my wish to touch him, the necessity of pulling away. I can imagine how the stuff of an ordinary day buying a roast to cook for dinner, walking along the riverbank with Jamie and Sarah looking for herons' nests, reading Green Eggs and Ham with the Eberlings at their kitchen table will take on a kind of luster because Herman might be thinking of me as I'm doing them.
I get out of bed finally and wrap myself in the robe Dorothea loaned me and open the door to the hallway. No one is up, but the house is washed in moonlight. I go down the stairs and through the dining room and out onto the terrace, where the stones are smooth and cool beneath my bare feet. Herman must be asleep by now, lying next to Rosamond. In the last hours of night, Gordon often talks in his sleep. Most of it I can't understand, but sometimes he says "Lizzy," very clearly, as if he were still the boy in the rowboat.
In this silvery light the grasslands ripple and shift like the surface of a vast lake. I can picture Margaría standing here, a young woman about to leave her home, composing a memory to take with her. All of it: the faces and voices of her family, the sounds of birds and cattle, the sweet smell of sun-warmed grass, the hills rolling on to who knows where.
Copyright © 2005 by Catherine Tudish