Read an Excerpt
Riding a memory, hot air floats up from the river and slides through an open door, finding Brunella Cartolano with her eyes closed. She takes a deep breath, feels lighter. Eight months of limited play and fitful sleep have passed under a cloud cover on the other side of the mountains, and now this—the air tickling the insides of her legs, a thermal tease. She orders black coffee and ice in a cup from the roadside caffeine hut and kicks off her shoes. She feels liquid.
“Let’s go sit on the rock.”
“Are there rattlesnakes?”
“Yes, but they usually warn you. Follow me, Ethan. I’ll show you something—”
“What if I see one?”
“You’ll feel alive.”
“And how long will that last?”
“As long as you dare.”
Crossing the Cascade Range, Brunella and Ethan Winthrop have stopped just east of the pass, an hour from the Cartolano family home, in a canyon lit by slices of sunlight. Though she lives in Seattle, barely two hundred miles from her father’s coulee, Brunella has not seen a summer in the land of her birth for three years. She is the middle child, the only girl. As they left thickets of salal and salmonberry and the mist of the maritime pelt of the Cascades behind, she felt the tug of home. She was a different person—she could feel the change coming on, mile by mile—whenever she crossed the divide from the wet west side of the Cascades to the desert east.
“I’ve never seen the river this low,” she says. As she leads Ethan around a boulder he stumbles a bit, the hesitant walk of an indoor man. “But look . . . see where it turns there? That’s where we used to go tub- ing. They say it’s class three: a few bumps but it won’t kill you. Not this year. Water’s too flat.”
“It’s dry heat. Don’t you love it?”
“I hate the sun. Why live in the meteorological equivalent of a smiley face?”
“You’re such a stiff, Ethan.”
Here the big summits have given up their snow and the meadows are aflame with Indian paintbrush and columbine, brushed back by the thermal. She presses her feet into the sand and spells out n-e-l-l-a with her big toe. Two days removed from ice holds in the highest reaches of the mountains, the water slides over stones and pools up just downstream. Brunella takes off her top and wiggles out of her shorts.
“Hold this.” She hands him her clothes. Ethan glances back at the road, frowning.
“And you can look if you want.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Now listen.” She cups her hand to her ear, near the froth of a small channel of white water. Zeee-eeet! Zeee-eeet!
“You hear that?”
He shakes his head.
“Dippers. These dinky birds that live in the shade of mountain streams and love white water.”
She plunges into a deep pool just below the riffles and, when she is fully submerged, opens her eyes. The rocks are a polished blur, the river grass sashaying. Brunella lets herself go limp in the arms of the current, riding the water downstream until she is out of sight and her laughter bounces against the canyon walls.
They drive through a faux Bavarian village, the hotels, restaurants, and supermarket framed in costumes of alpine Tudor. At the town’s lone stoplight, she looks away at the crowded balconies of the town structures and wonders if they would hold up if this part of the Cascades went into a shudder. It is the kind of trance she has fallen into of late—staring at brick warehouses or the stilts of the bridges that stitch one hill to another and thinking tectonic thrust: ocean plates pushing up against continental ones, shaking off the urban attachments like fleas on a dog.
She pulls into the liquor store, buys scotch, gin, and a squat bottle of gold tequila for the party. “Is this going to be enough?”
“You know I don’t drink.”
She gives him a straight-on look, one eyebrow arched. “But you’ve seen people do it.” Her black hair is still damp from the swim, face primed for a laugh.
“It’s never enough, from what I can tell. Get another bottle. Get another half dozen, for all I care. I’ll pay.”
“Your millions are worth nothing on this side of the mountains, Ethan. Close your wallet and open your senses.”
“Then how will I sleep?”
Ethan has narrow fingers and hair as thin as spider webbing. He seems afraid to be out of the city, troubled by his sudden dependence on Brunella in unknown territory. In the city, he is master; without him, Brunella would never have made her name. She had been working nearly a year—for him—on their latest project when he told her he wanted to “see the West.” Not Arizona or Texas but the big brown land on the other side of the Cascade curtain. It surprised her. Ethan Winthrop, the Great Indoorsman? She promised to show him salmon in the desert, Indians at a rodeo, and sunrise over the North Cascades.
Driving east, the pull on Brunella is like gravity now, orchards all around, heat still rising, the land burnished in wraparound brown. At a fruit stand, she stops the car and rushes to a bin overflowing with peaches as if greeting a lost friend. “My God! Look at these Red Havens!”
She fondles a piece of the fruit and bites deep; the syrupy juice dribbles past her lips and onto her chin. She wipes it clean and shivers in joy. “Wars could be fought over a peach like this. Here . . . try it.”
A teenage girl sits at the cash register, fanning herself under a tarp. A sign, in bold colors, is hung just behind her:
SAVE OUR DAMS
She wears a button with the same message. Brunella sorts through the fruit, whistling a tune. “Oh . . . and cherries!” The Rainier cherries are nearly as big as plums, have the color of flushed cheeks, and taste like candy. She plucks one from a pile and tosses it to Ethan. “There is certainly nothing wrong with a garden-variety Bing cherry. But this—here—this is a cherry. And wait till you see our place. It’s mostly grapes, but my father grows a white apricot that is better than sex.”
She slips away to the bathroom. A sign over the toilet reads don’t flush unless you have to. When she turns on the faucet in the sink to wash her hands, a putrid coffee-colored liquid dribbles from the tap.
“What’s up with the water around here?” she asks the clerk.
The road levels out, the land losing its green except for the orchards. A few homes are planted in the foothills behind windbreaks of Lombardy poplars and cottonwoods. And here is the Columbia River, bulked up and sluggish, the flat water holding the sky of late afternoon, dimpled by little whorls. The high walls of the old river channel rise hundreds of feet above the surface, tiers of the ages bleeding minerals. Brunella turns down a rutted side road to a rusted fence, gets out, and opens a gate with a no trespassing sign shot through with bullet holes.
They pass an arthritic homestead, roof caved in, the wood sun-bleached and perforated. In front are lilac bushes, domesticated orphans now left to their own in the raw basin heat. The road ends suddenly at a cliff above the Columbia. They walk through dried brush, raising a clatter of hoppers, to the edge, where they can see what the river has done, consuming bluff and rock in steady gulps during its epochal mood swings. She picks a handful of olive-colored leaves from a scablands bush, crumbles them, smells the release, and offers Ethan a sample: sage.
“The scent of the West,” she says, with a proprietary hand sweep through the air, “and its biggest river.”
In a crease of beige rock, a petroglyph stands out: three human figures, floating and legless, with horned heads, following animals, next to a swirl—all of it scratched onto the desert varnish of oxidized stone. When Brunella presses the palm of her hand on the head of the rock image, it makes her tremble, as if she has just tapped into a current in the stone.
“This glyph is so simple. They’re hunting elk—”
“What’s with the antennas on their heads?”
“I think they’re horns. Like the elk.”
“I find these petroglyphs to be rather banal and overly romanticized,” says Ethan. “Is there really any difference between that rock sketch and an e-mail about what you had for dinner last night?”
“There’s no mystery to an e-mail. It’s a word fart.”
She moves closer to the cliff, crab-walks over a section, and is gone. Ethan pales, falls to his knees. “Brunella . . .?”
She stands on a ledge barely wide enough to hold her feet, face to the desert wind, an eagle-beaked hood ornament out of Ethan’s sight. She fears nothing at this moment. She leaps from the ledge over a deep crack in the high cliff, to a landing closer to Ethan. As she comes down, she laughs, but a twitching muscle above her knee betrays her true feelings. The drop, had she missed, is several hundred feet.
Ethan stares at her. “Why would anyone build a house this high up from the water?”
“You’ve been to France, Ethan—”
“Every other year since I turned twenty-two.”
“I forgot: You’re a Francophile in addition to being scared of snakes, water, and sun. Or maybe that’s why you’re a Francophile.”
“Could you at least pretend to suck up to me?”
“This river gets its water from an area about the size of France, so they say. Think of the power. This old place was built high because those homesteaders were afraid of the river. They knew enough to stay out of its way in the spring.”
“Then why did they leave?”
“Our national impulse. Why do tumbleweeds roll?”
“What’s a tumbleweed?” Ethan says, but this time he winks at her.
They head north, following the river, Brunella still at the wheel, the window down to let the oven air on her face. Above, the walls of the canyon are lined with irrigation pipes, the coronary veins of the basin. Brunella steers away from the river and onto a gravel road, a steep switchback that contours along a streambed. She gets out and leads him by the hand to a ravine where a bare trickle of water flows toward the river. She crouches down and examines the ground.
“This is the stream I told you about.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Except I’ve seen puddles in the city with more water.”
“Where are the fish?” He mimics her. “ ‘Salmon the size of toddlers in the middle of the desert basin.’ ”
“There’s nothing here.”
“What’s that?” He points to a fish dried crisp by the sun, its eyes pecked out.
“We used to come here at night, me and my little brother Niccolo. You’d hear them thrash around, splashing up through this little canyon. It’s one of the things that made this place so magical for me, Ethan. And look at my little stream now: It’s been killed somehow. I don’t even hear a mosquito.”
“So this is the end of that run of fish?”
“Not if they can get water back in here.”
Up higher, groves of aspen and tamarack huddle in deep shade. Larch trees, their needles usually a velvety green in midsummer, are bare and sick, as if the tops and outer branches have been singed by a flame. Just inside the coulee, Brunella stops at an apple orchard overrun by dandelions gone to seed. The trees have not been pruned for some time; their tops are shaggy-headed, the trunks fountains of leggy sprouts. The fruit is sun-mottled and moth-eaten. Many of the leaves are chewed to the base, consumed by fibrous nests of tent caterpillars. A for sale sign is hammered to the base of one of the bigger trees. And beneath that: any offer welcomed.
She touches the hardened sap of the tree with her fingers, stepping around an anthill at the base. “My God. This is the Flax farm. You’ve seen those stickers on the polished apples at the store, Flax in Wax? This was their first orchard. I can’t believe the Flax family, of all people, gave up on apples.”
They drive through a natural portal of enormous stone; on the other side is a valley of near-perfect proportions, the granite walls of the north Cascades at the distant end, well beyond the coulee.
“È bello da mozzare il fiato!” says Brunella.
“Is that a curse?”
“That’s what my father says whenever he gives directions to our place. When you can say, ‘It’s so beautiful it takes your breath away’—È bello da mozzare il fiato—then you’re here.” She finishes the sentence with her hands, unbound again as she nears the refuge of northern Italy her father has built in the interior Northwest. “The mountains look like the Dolomites, don’t you think?”
“I’ve never been east of Nice.”
Sunflowers nod in the early evening breeze, their big heads lining the road. They follow the only road in the coulee, a single lane of rust-colored earth. It veers through a sentinel row of thick-waisted pine and then opens to a place where the coulee fans out into an amphitheater of vines, lavender, and fruit trees. The ages have worked orange and gold coatings into the big rock walls, slow-fading monuments to the epic flood that covered parts of three states, carrying water equal to ten times the flow of all the world’s rivers. This edge of the coulee, a tilted bowl facing south, catches more than thirteen hours of sunlight in midsummer. The last rays glance off clusters of red grapes from old vines trellised along galvanized wire. A river rock wall encircles a cream-colored farmhouse with a wraparound porch painted baby blue. Brunella stops just short of the house and jumps out of the car, leaving the door open and the keys inside.
“Have you ever seen a more beautiful place?” She pulls him toward the house. “Have you ever smelled a more fragrant garden? Look here”—she points to a row of fruited bushes in large terra-cotta vases, wheels at the base—“oranges, from my father’s limonaia. My God, how could I have stayed away? Have you ever seen such poetry in the land?”
“I’m soft-sentiment-impaired,” he says. “Don’t let that stop you.”
She pinches a sprig of rosemary and hurries up the steps. Opening the screen door, she calls out for her father.
She calls out again, using the Tuscan word for father favored by her long-dead nonna. She walks to the edge of the stairway but goes no farther. Since the death of her own mother three years ago, Brunella has been afraid to see the little landmarks of the house, the nooks and corners where her mother used to read or sing, the window seat where she looked off to the east, faraway east, a three-thousand-mile stare. These places will never be neutral. And she cannot imagine her father roaming the two-story five-bedroom farmhouse without becoming a haunt who speaks to himself as he shambles past the rooms given life by thirty-seven years of marriage.
She leads Ethan back outside through the rose garden. Every few steps, a new wisp of floral perfume envelops them. Hummingbirds buzz in the last angled light of the day. A small fountain circulates water from a big earthen pond. She skips ahead, uphill, following the sound of a baseball game coming from a paint-splattered radio in the back rows of the vineyard. She spots her father from a distance, a Mariners cap on his head, wielding a pair of pruning shears like a conductor’s baton.
Angelo Cartolano is in cutoff jeans and high-top baseball cleats; he has winged eyebrows and a face of untrained honesty, wearing the years with a proper fit. He stares down the hill, squinting in the last sunlight. They hug and twirl around. She kisses his nose, spins the cap backward, and holds him tight. The sweat runs through his shirt, and his hair is moist and askew. She resembles her father in one striking way: They have the same green eyes, though most of the color has gone out of Angelo’s.
“You need some sun,” he says.
“I have three full days here to catch up, and then we’re going hiking in the Methow. Babbo, you look healthy. Let me feel your muscle.” He makes a fist with his good hand and bends his arm the way he used to do when Brunella was a little girl and he was Popeye.
“Strong man. How’s the fruit?”
“The grapes are stressed, Nella.” He cups a bunch of velvet-colored fruit. “You know how this Nebbiolo likes to cluster. This year it’s different. Everything is different. I’m not sure what kind of wine I can make with these conditions.” Brunella notices his quivering left hand. “Every day, hot, hot, hot all the time, tutti giorni. Everybody’s complaining about the water, and I must tell you I am very afraid.”
“It can’t be that bad. You still made wine last year.”
“That was last year. I had—you can say—some help.”
“Nothing. But this year, fourth year of the drought, and guess what? They are giving us less water than any time since the Grand Coulee Dam was finished. Thank God I have my pond. But listen, I still have so much hope, Nella—we’re less than two months from October, and the Mariners are three games ahead of Texas.”
“They have no immortals, Babbo, since A-Rod and Griffey left.”
“But they have magic again this year. And look at you—you’ve been away too long. You smell like the city.” He points to Ethan, who is finally making his way up to the vineyard, a panting willow of a man with a pallor like milky tea.
“That’s our guest from Seattle, Ethan Winthrop. I’m working for him on my latest project. He wanted to see the other side of the state.”
“He’s your boss?”
Angelo grins. “Fare l’amore?”
“With him?” She giggles. “No! I mean, look at him, he can hardly walk. I’m fascinated by his mind but I think he’s asexual. Neutered or something. I’ve never felt any—I mean I’ve never asked him. And he’s never said.”
“Not that. He’s just not a physical man. He pocketed more than seventy million dollars on a dot-com that he sold two years before it went out of business.”
“What did they make?”
“Some kind of virtual thing that nobody needed. Now obsolete. Imagine being forty years old and not knowing what to do with the rest of your life. He’s helping this billionaire remake the old Ballard section of Seattle. Ethan is the conceptual brain behind the project. But first they have to pass a hurdle that won’t allow you to knock down a city block if there might be something worth holding on to. That’s where I come in. They hired me to do the cultural impact statement, freeing up the space. How many are you expecting for the party tomorrow?”
“A big crowd this year. I think they love the wine more than me. Va bene. Niccolo will try to make it by tonight, but I’ve heard nothing from your other brother.”
“Did you expect to?”
“No. And I should thank you for coming before I start complaining. Some days, I think you look down on the little place where you grew up; you’re such a big shot now you can’t come home—”
“Stop it, Babbo. It’s not that at all. Who else?”
“Some of your friends from growing up. Everyone from the Last Man’s Club has promised to show. We’re down to five of us, you know.”
“The Last Men could almost fit in one tent.”
“And there’d be one big symphony of farting, wheezing, snoring, and belching. From the coulee, the Flax family.”
“I saw their orchard today. It’s in horrible shape.”
“They had to give up most of their water for the fish. Solvan Flax could not take it. He got drunk one night and shot up the construction hut that the Indians are operating out of, down by the river. Solvan says the Indians are behind all the water take-aways. Says they put it in the government’s head to take back our water and—if they get their way—maybe even tear down one of the dams.”
“But the Indians . . . my God, a more broken band of people does not exist in this county. How could that ragged little cluster of welfare cases have anything to do with it?”
“They’ve got a treaty promising them salmon for all time. If there’s no water, there’s no salmon. They use the treaty to get the water, you see. Thank God nobody was inside when Solvan went crazy with a twelve-gauge, but it’s terrible. I tell you something, Nella: I no longer recognize my oldest neighbor. The man is sick with hatred.”
“Some two-oh-sixers may come down from on high to join us,” he says, using the nickname for people from the Seattle area code who maintain homes in the coulee. “Look at Stuart right now.”
They turn to the west. The summit of Mount Stuart is in plum- colored silhouette against a burning sky, gold trim on the edges, nearly ten thousand feet high.
“You must promise me, Nella, that when you plant me in the ground here it will be high enough in the vineyard so that on Judgment Day the first thing I see will be Mount Stuart.”
“I will, Babbo, I will. You have my promise. But you have another twenty years left in you, so shush.”
In the kitchen, Angelo Cartolano is ready to cook. He has picked zucchini flowers, filled a basket with three kinds of tomatoes, and brought wine up from the cellar. The cutthroat trout are cleaned and iced. Lamb shanks are marinating in Zinfandel, rosemary, brown sugar, garlic, and lemon. He pours wine and offers a simple toast.
“Beviam, beviam, beviam!”
Brunella holds the wine in her mouth before taking a longer sip. Ethan sets his glass to the side. “Wonderful,” she says. “It tastes like . . . heaven without a dress code.”
“Very good,” says Angelo. “Truth is, it tastes like 1989. A mild winter. Early spring. Rain at just the right time after the bud. Then around Memorial Day—poof!—I never saw a cloud for the entire summer. Cooled off enough in August to keep the acid up in the grapes. The harvest was flawless. Stems and skins loved each other. Oh, God, what a blend! A vino rosso for all time. Strong tannins gave it enough backbone, and now it’s starting to smooth out. I’m worried about this year, though. It’s been too goddamn hot.”
“Global warming, Mr. Cartolano?” Ethan asks. “Or do you distrust the science?”
“No one alive has ever seen such a time in this coulee. Up in the meadow, the ground is like bread crust from last month. The trees are spooked, no life left inside ’em. Nature answers only to its own rules, so we’ll see what follows, yes? Try the wine, please.”
“He doesn’t drink, Babbo.”
“I’m . . . so sorry,” Angelo says in a hushed tone, funereal. To the Cartolano family, the only thing worse than someone who does not drink wine with food is the person who cannot laugh.
Angelo retreats down a hallway to a side pantry, where he keeps drawers full of flour and dried herbs, the ceiling draped in twined garlic and strips of oregano hanging overhead.
“What do you think of my father?” Brunella says, when he is out of earshot.
“Rustic,” says Ethan. “I can see where you get your passion. Is there anything you two do not get excited about?”
“Is that so bad?”
Angelo returns, white flour dust trailing behind him. He mixes the flour with eggs and water in a bowl and adds olive oil. He takes moist balls of mozzarella and cuts them into one-inch sections, and dries the anchovies on a paper towel. His left hand is badly gnarled and knotted, and it shakes uncontrollably, making it hard for him to finish. Brunella folds her hand around his; it feels like a bag of marbles. She helps him open the petals of each flower and pinch out the filaments. They fill the insides with mozzarella and anchovies, add a dollop of honey, and press the petals until they are closed up again. The zucchini blossoms are dipped in the batter and pan-fried until golden brown.
“Alora—fiori di zucchini fritti,” he says, with a jack-o’-lantern smile, turning to Ethan, sweat dripping from his brow. “My uncle used to make these in the camp in Missoula. The highlight of the summer. The guards thought we were crazy—look at the stupid dagos eating flowers. Hah! You do eat, don’t you, Mr. Winthrop?”
They are just sitting down to dinner—grilled lamb and trout, potatoes quartered and roasted above the coals, a salad of Cartolano tomatoes with basil—when a car pulls up and Niccolo Cartolano bounds into the house. He has a deep mahogany tan, short hair dyed blond on top, broad shoulders, and Jason Giambi arms. This summer he has added a branded mark of a grape above his elbow. He is wearing shorts, sandals, and a UC Davis T-shirt. Angelo is ecstatic; his younger son is his favorite, something he has given up trying to hide. Niccolo sets his backpack down and pours himself a glass of wine in a single motion. He kisses his sister, shakes hands with Ethan, and winks at Brunella as he raises the glass.
“Pancia mia, fatti capanna.”
Brunella translates for Ethan the old ritual blessing before a big meal: “O belly of mine, make a storehouse of yourself.”
Niccolo has finished his third year of college and is in his fourth summer as a smoke jumper for the Forest Service, which has a regional headquarters not too far from the Cartolano family home.
“This fire in Colorado: We dug breaks to the south, breaks to the north, backburned on another flank—no go. Finally, all we could do was spit on it and walk away. Some people were bitching ’cause we couldn’t save all the trophy homes. Like, Hello? Jesus H. You’re living in a fire zone. These are people who hate government and want us to save ’em. I’m in the Methow for the month, if I’m lucky. You did the trout just right, Dad. Haven’t lost the touch. But the lamb needs something.”
He helps himself to a second mound of food, pours another glass of wine from a different bottle, gulps it halfway down, then fills it to the brim. He pops the potato quarters into his mouth, five in a row. Watching the spectacle of three thousand calories vanish in a few minutes, Ethan is mesmerized.
“I’m not sure, but I think the ’89 is better,” Niccolo says. “This is the ’89, isn’t it?”
His father beams. “Niccolo, you have the nose of the Cartolano family, eight centuries in the making.”
“And what am I,” Brunella says, “a truffle pig?”
Niccolo always said he wanted to be a winemaker. He talked of Sonoma and Napa, as did nearly every aspiring vintner at UC Davis, but the frontier had long ago left those valleys and they were off-limits to anyone who had not amassed a fortune during the late gilded age.
“Moisture content in the Rockies is under ten percent,” Niccolo says now. “They’re starving for rain. Those pinyons were opening like popcorn. Parts of the Cascades aren’t much better off. The Okanogan is one big bundle of upright kindling right now. You gonna eat all that?” When three seconds pass without a response, he scoops up Ethan’s well-trimmed lamb. “So I’m here for the Last Men bash and whoever else straggles in for the party tomorrow. Maybe get a day of fishing in with the master here before another round of ground pounding and extra H-pay.”
He separates the backbone from the trout and swallows the entire fish.