The hills call in a tongue
only the language-haunted hear,
and lead us back again
into the place where we have started.
-The Wood Wife, Davis Cooper
Nigel came down the street toward her, his face shadowed with annoyance. Her heart, that traitorous organ, still leapt when she saw her ex-husband through the window glass. She knew then why she'd run back to Los Angeles, away from the nice man up north who said he loved her; Nigel was a hard act to follow. He entered the cafe, his irritation and his energy like a cloud that entered with him, changing the weather of the entire room. And reminding her of why she'd once run away form Nigel, too.
He looked around the cafe with displeasure. Maggie and picked the place, a little Czech bakery popular with film students and would-be poets half her age. She imagined that he would have preferred some trendy new restaurant where he could make a point of paying the extravagant bill. But this was her turf, not his, for once in their lives. She needed every advantage she could get. And he'd be mollified once he tasted the pastry. Good food, in Nigel's book, always won out over ambiance.
"For god's sake, there you are." Nigel threaded his way through the students to her table in the corner. She stood for his embrace. In her boots with the heels she was even taller than he was. He kissed her on both cheeks, the European way, and said, "You're looking well. Fantastic, in fact."
Maggie shrugged off the compliment as lightly as it was given. Unbidden came the image of Nigel's current wife, a skinny young Parisian fashion model.
"How are you, Nige? You look…tired," she said.
He sighed as he sat, rested his chin on his hand, and gave the grin that had won her heart years ago. "What day is this? Thursday? Still Wednesday for me. I never got home to bed last night. We play Toronto this weekend, Chicago on Tuesday, my alto is sick and my percussionist has just discovered his wife is sleeping with the soundman. So what's good here?"
"The coffee. The strudel. Any of the unpronounceable Czech pastries. The French ones will disappoint you."
He signaled the waitress, a young woman with hair dyed an alarming shade of magenta wearing a "Kafka in Prague" T-shirt covered with paint. Nigel ordered for both of them without consulting Maggie, a habit she'd never been able to get him to break. He remembered this too late, and gave her a guilty smile. "Is there something else you wanted? I'll call her back."
Maggie shoot her head. "So long as there's coffee and lots of it. Look, Nige, I can't stay that long. I've got a plane to catch at four."
"Today?" he said, genuinely taken aback. "I thought you'd be in L.A. a while."
"This is just a stopover. To pick up a few things. And see you." She rolled a fork across the table nervously. "Actually, I'm headed for Tucson."
"Tucson? As in Arizona? Whatever for?" He leaned back in the chair and asked the question casually, but she knew that she had rattled him. His transatlantic accent shifted back to his native British whenever he was feeling out of sorts.
Despite her nervousness, she took a certain malicious pleasure in telling him, "I'm going to live there for a while. I found another tenant for the house here; I told that piano player of yours he could have it. He's made an offer to buy it, and I think we should consider it. I can't honestly imagine coming back to Los Angeles."
Nigel sat still, with the ominous quiet he sunk into whenever something displeased him. She envied him that. She always spoke first and thought after--and usually regretted it.
The waitress brought their order as Maggie waited for the inevitable barrage of questions. She picked up the coffee cup gratefully, letting its warmth dispel her anxiety. She didn't need Nigel's permission or blessing. She needn't have told Nigel any of this at all. So why did she feel nervous as a cat on a griddle, as her granddaddy in West Virginia used to say?
For all Nigel's attempts at cool British reserve, his emotions were as tangible in the static field around him as if the air had changed color. Surprise shaded into suspicion and anger. It was not that he needed her here in L.A. But he didn't like things happening outside of his control. They still co-owned the little house by Venice Beach where she'd lived for several years after the divorce, and it was his plan that she should come back to it. They prided themselves on a "friendly divorce." She went to his concerts and he went to her book signings, the former considerably more frequent and star-studded than the latter; she was seen in the better L.A. restaurants in the company of Nigel and his current wife Nicole.
But for the last two years she'd been renting out the beach house, determined to stay away from L.A. and the circle of friends who still thought of her as half of the Nigel-and-Maggie Show. First she'd gone up to San Francisco, living on a boat owned by an actor friend of Nigel's who was filming abroad for the winter. Then farther up the coast to Inverness, and then even farther to Mendocino. Each time, although the destination and been her choice, the way had been comfortably paved by Nigel. Accommodations and miraculously appeared which she never could have afforded on her own--always "on loan" from some friend of his but subsidized, she suspected, by Nigel's wealth.
It was still odd to think of her ex-husband as wealthy, although he had always assumed he would be. The popular and financial success of the medieval music group he directed had taken everyone but arrogant Nigel by surprise; whereas the fact that she was barely making it on a writer's income came as a surprise to no one. It was not that she worked less hard than he did, or that she was any less well known in her field; but sales on poetry and essay collections, along with the occasional teaching gig, rarely earned enough to pay all the bills. Too often it was Nigel who paid them.
Nigel picked up his pastry and took a bite. His expression was bland, but there was thunder in the air. Then he pinned her with those lovely blue eyes that she'd never been able to withstand. "Why on earth Tucson, Arizona? I played a concert there once. There's nothing in that city but two-stepping cowboys and retired old dears from Long Island. Have you looked at the map? There's no ocean in Tucson. It's the desert, and hotter than bloody hell."
"Do you remember Davis Cooper?"
He nodded. "The cranky old dodger whose poetry you're so enamored of. I know he's dead. I saw it in the papers--what was it, last spring?"
"Yes. Six months ago."
"Awfully sorry about that, Puck. You were still corresponding with him, weren't you? You know, I hadn't realized he'd won the Pulitzer till I read it in the obit."
"I've inherited his house. In Tucson."
For the second time that day she had the sweet pleasure of startling her ex-husband. He choked down his pastry and said, "Good lord, why? I thought you'd never actually met him."
She shrugged. "I hadn't. To be honest, it was just as much a shock to me. We've been writing for years now, but he always put me off when I suggested a visit. I wanted to write a book on him, remember? No one's done a definitive biography of Davis Cooper. He said 'no' flat out, but then he kept writing and we got to be friends. Of a sort. He's left me his house, and his papers. I assume this is his way of letting me do the book now that he's gone."
"What about his family? Wife? Children?"
She shook her head. "His ex-wife is dead; his lover is dead; neither had any children. There's just an elderly housekeeper, and he's left the rest of what he had to her. Not that there's much. The royalties on his books, some of which are still in print. A small life-insurance policy. Some other bits of property in Tucson."
"Arizona is a damned odd place for an Englishman like Cooper to have ended up," Nigel said testily. "It's a long way from Dartmoor to the desert."
"His lover was Mexican, remember? Anna Naverra--the painter. He met her down in Mexico, then they moved over the border to Tucson. Naverra died a few years later, but he never left the desert again."
"As I recall," Nigel said, interest warring with his anger and interest winning, "there was some mystery surrounding Naverra's death. And now your Cooper has died under mysterious circumstances as well, hasn't he?"
"He drowned. Isn't that strange? In the middle of the desert, with no water anywhere nearby. Murder, definitely. But no one knows why. His house was ransacked, and yet everything of value seemed to be untouched. The police never found out who did it. Poor old Davis. What an awful way to go."
She stared down at her coffee cup, swallowing her anger. Death had touched her life before, but nothing so brutal as murder. It maddened her that Davis had died when the streets outside were full of people who would never give anything half so fine back to the world they lived in. Why on earth would anyone want to murder an elderly poet?
"Hey Puck," Nigel said, leaning forward and encircling her wrist with his hand. "I'm real sorry. I know you admired old Cooper. I still remember when you did your master's thesis on The Wood Wife. You had a copy of the book under your arm the day we met."
"You remember that?" She looked up and smiled. It was a detail Maggie had forgotten herself. She remembered the scene, in an artist's studio in a bad but trendy part of London. The artist had been her good friend, Tat. Nigel had been her good friend's lover. The electricity between them had been immediate although it was two years, two lovers, and two cites later before they finally got together.
"I remember everything about you," Nigel said, giving her a look calculated to melt bones.
"You're married. Stop it." She smiled as she said it, but she withdrew her hand and picked up her cup.
"And whose fault is that?" he countered.
Whose fault? His as much as hers, surely. She might have been the one to end the marriage over his protestations, but the Parisian fashion model, and any number of other lovers, each more beautiful and empty-headed than the last, had preceded the divorce, not followed it. "I've a weakness for stupid women," he'd told her at the time, "they're just so restful. But you're my life."
"Well, your life is walking out the door," she'd snapped. Out of the door but not out of his orbit. She was moon to his sun, still trying to break free; and never quite certain it was freedom she desired.
"So it's research you'll be doing," Nigel was saying, framing her departure in more comfortable terms. "All right. I understand now. You'll probably get a good book out of this, even if Davis Cooper isn't exactly canon anymore. Second-rate Yeats, they called him at Oxford; too fairy-taley I suppose. But still, a Pulitzer…"
"For his war poems. Not The Wood Wife. The critics savaged that one."
"Ah, well that explains it. Look, you should talk to Jennifer, my editor friend at HarperCollins. A book like this would be right up her street. Give me your phone number in Tucson and I'll have her get in touch."
"Nigel, wait," she said as he flipped a leather-bound notepad out of the pocket of his Armani suit jacket, identical to her own jacket. They'd bought them together a couple of years ago; she always wore men's clothes, in basic black. "I don't know what I'm walking into," she explained. "I don't know what I'm going to write, or when. I'm just going down to check it all out."
"But nonetheless you want to sell our house in Venice Beach," he said, looking at her sharply. "It sounds to me like you intend to be there a while."
She made a helpless gesture with her hands. Unlike Niger's other women, she knew herself to be neither beautiful nor stupid; so why did he always make her feel like an incompetent child? "I don't know where I want to be yet. Maybe New York or Boston for a while. Maybe back to Europe. I'll spend some time in Arizona, go over Davis Cooper's papers, and try to figure out my next move. The only thing I know at this point is I don't want to come back to Los Angeles. There's nothing for me here now."
"That's not true, and you know it," said Nigel, his voice seductive, pinning her eyes with his own.
"Stop it," she said, and this time she did not smile.
He sighed. "All right, I won't call Jennifer for you. But I'll send you her number, just in case. Give me your address. Puck. I'll send you silly postcards from Toronto. You werent't planning to disappear into the desert altogether, were you?"
Irrationally, she didn't want to give it to him. But of course he had to have it. They were friends, weren't they? They still moved in the same circles; he still had her cat, an arthritic Abyssinian who loved Nigel more than the air she breathed and pined when parted from him.
He claimed her address, then restrained himself from asking after her affairs again. Instead he regaled her with stories set in his international Early Music world, courting her with his wit and his brilliance, nuggets of gold from his glittering life, clearly intended to remind Maggie Black of just what she had given up.
He succeeded. By the time she boarded the plane from LAX to Tucson, it was Nigel's parting embrace she carried with her, hot as heat rash upon her skin, and not the embrace of the perfectly adequate man she'd been dating up north. She watched the sprawl of L.A. diminish as the plane leapt up into the clouds.
"Goddamn you, Nigel," she said to herself as the city faded from her sight.
Fox sat on the steps of his adobe cabin breathing in the intoxicating smell of the desert after the rain: the pungent scents of creosote and sage, and the spicy scent of mesquite wood burning in a house farther up the mountain. The rains had brought autumn wildflowers to the rock-strewn mountain slopes. Yellow brittlebush blanketed the hillside and orange globe mallow lined the sides of the wash. The small oval leaves of the cottonwood trees were turning autumnal gold. In the stillness of early evening he could hear the call of the mourning doves, a lone coyote high in the hills, and the sound of someone approaching, tires sliding on the old dirt road. An engine revved, revved again, then silence. A string of steady curses.
Grinning, Fox got to his feet and ambled down the path to his truck. Someone was stuck in the wash again. He wondered who it was this time. Dora, he wagered with himself. In Juan's new Jeep, looking guilty as sin.
He got in his truck and drove down to the wash. The vehicle that was stuck was unfamiliar, a small Toyota with rental-car plates, totally unsuitable for mountain terrain. The car had gotten halfway through the wash bed, then stuck in the sand on the eastern bank. A stranger emerged from the driver's seat, a tall, dark-haired woman with a thin, unusual face. She looked up as his truck approached, her expression a mixture of worry and embarrassment.
He backed his pickup close to the Toyota, parked, and took the chains from the bed. "Don't feel so bad," he said to the woman. "It happens all the time."
She followed him as he hooked the chains to her car, looking as rattled by the unrequested rescue as she was by the car sunk in water and mud. "I saw the sign," she said, pointing at it: do not enter when flooded. "But I thought it looked so shallow.…"
"I know. The water's just rain runoff. By morning the streambed will be bone dry. Right now, there's no traction under there; you ought to pay attention to the signs." He grinned. "But we all ignore them half the time. I don't want to tell you how many times I've been stuck myself. Go get in your car now and put her in drive."
The woman got back into the Toyota. Fox couldn't quite peg her. The clothes--a loose and mannish black suit over a casual white T-shirt--were pure New York or Los Angeles, her short haircut was artsy and European, but the accent was something altogether different. Kentucky? Virginia? He couldn't tell. He knew who the woman was, however. She'd come to live in Cooper's house and write a book about him. He'd pictured someone older and more stereotypically librarian-ish. Not a tall, dark woman with a voice like Kentucky bourbon. He shook his head as he started up the truck. That son of a gun, Cooper; six months dead and he was still full of surprises. The truck protested the weight on its tail, but it slowly pulled the Toyota up out of the water and onto dry land.
He parked under the paloverde trees and unhooked the car behind him. The woman rolled down the window. "I'm looking for Redwater Road."
"This is it," he said. "You've found it. It runs for another three-quarters of a mile and then stops at the Red Springs trailhead."
She got out of the car and looked around at the valley wedged between two mountain slopes. The road had wound through the lower slope, a ridge topped with boulders, populated by tall cactus. On the far side of the canyon, Mica Mountain rose from he desert floor to a height of fifty-five hundred feet, a part of the Rincon Mountain range that stretched across the eastern horizon.
To the north, the Catalina Mountains dominated the sky and local imagination. Most hikers, horse riders and climbers favored the taller Catalinas, or the Tucson Mountains at the city's western edge, leaving the Rincon range in the east to the deer, the mountain lions, the botanists, and the rangers who fought off the lightning fires each summer. The Rincons were a secretive range; there were no roads up to the heart of it. To learn its secrets, one went on foot, climbing hour after hot weary hour, through cactus and scrub at the base of the mountain, up through gnarled groves of live oak, to the forests of pine at the peak.
Although designated as a federal wilderness, there were still a few places in the Rincons where old land claims permitted people to live, removed from the sprawl of city life below: the cattle ranches of Reddington Pass and along the Happy Valley Road, and the dude ranch in Red Springs Canyon, nestled in the northern slopes. The ranch had been built in 1912 out of oak, mesquite, adobe, and stone. It buildings were scattered across the small valley, connected by footpaths and one rutted road. The dude ranch had flourished for a handful of years; a hunting club had owned the property for several more; and then the land had been broken up, the buildings sold off one by one. Each cabin had its own history now of owners and tenants who had come and gone; yet together they still formed a loose community close to, but separate from, Tucson.
For prided himself that he knew damn near everything there was to know about the history of the canyon; after growing up here, he knew these mountain trails far better than the city streets below. To him, this was a beautiful land, dramatic, surprising, and mysterious. But he could tell by the look in the woman's eyes that she was not One of Them, as Dora would say. One of Them, with desert heat in her heart and a desert wind singing in her bones. She looked around at the loose, dry soil, the spiny cactus and ocotillo thorns, with an edgy, city-bred wariness as though it was an alien moon.
She turned that wary look on Fox, appraised him, then stuck out her hand. "I'm Marguerita Black," she said. Her grip on his hand was firm.
"Johnny Foxxe. Or just Fox. You're Cooper's friend."
"That's right. I'm looking for his house. If you're Johnny Foxxe, you're the son of Davis's housekeeper--and the man who has my key."
He acknowledged that he was the keeper of the keys, and turned back to his cabin to fetch them. He was conscious of her eyes on his back until he stepped through the cabin door. He found the woman disconcerting; there was something too direct for comfort about her manner and her level gaze. He reckoned she was older than him, five years at least, maybe even ten; she had streaks of silver in her dark hair, and a sexy air of worldliness. He glanced out the window as he reached for Cooper's keys on the hook by the kitchen sink. She stood looking up at the Catalina crags, watching them turn the color of old violet glass in the setting sun.
She clearly hadn't expected to find the place so isolated and rough--a reasonable enough assumption on her part, Fox had to admit. Cooper's address merely said Tucson, and Tucson was a modern enough city with a population of over half a million; you had to know the town to realize it had these wild pockets as well. He grinned, imagining what she must have thought as the roads took her farther and farther from civilization. She didn't seem entirely pleased by the place. But she also wasn't scared off. Yet.
He went back outside and handed over Cooper's keys: the heavy iron key to the house and the smaller one to the generator shed. "I'll take you over and turn on the water. We ought to check the flue as well before you light a fire there--I think something is nesting in the chimney."
"Thank you. That's very kind of you."
He waved away her thanks. "It's my job. Didn't anyone tell you that? You own my cabin. And all this land from here, up the wash, to the third bend in the road. I take care of all the house repairs instead of paying rent. Don't look alarmed. I'm not a nuisance, and old adobes need a lot of work. I'm patching Cooper's roof at the moment. You'd best be glad you have me around or it would flood come the winter rains." The woman looked at Fox warily. Too bad. He came along with the house. He'd claimed that cabin long before and wasn't going to let go of it now. "There's another cabin on your land, up there, just beyond that ridge. Tomás lives there. He's an auto mechanic. He doesn't pay rent either, but he'll keep your car running, and he'll bring you good game during the hunting season."
"I'm a vegetarian," the woman said flatly.
Fox grinned. "Take Tomás's vegetables then. And his eggs. You eat eggs? He's got a big garden. And chickens. And a bunch of goats."
"What can possibly grow up here, in this soil?" she asked him curiously, looking around at the rocky expanse of micaflecked granite and quartz.
"You'd be surprised," Fox told her as he climbed, uninvited, into her car. He waited expectantly until she joined him. "Follow the road on this side of the wash," he directed as she shifted into gear. The sun was passing behind the outer ridge, casting the valley into shadow.
"How many houses are there in the canyon?" she asked him, pulling back onto the road.
"Just six?" She sounded surprised. He was right. She hadn't expected the isolation.
"Just six. Cooper used to own five--our local land baron," he told her. "There's your house, and its two cabins. There's my mother's house--but it's so run down that no one really lives there now. I've turned the most functional part of it into a carpentry workshop. Then there's the old stable, which Cooper sold to Juan and Dora del Río a couple of years ago. And there's the Alders in the Big House, down where the road dead-ends."
"The Big House?"
"It was the main guest hall when this was still a dude ranch. You'll like John and Lillian Alder. They're retired now; all their kids are grown so it's just the two of them rattling around the place. The house was in Lillian's family; she's been on the mountain even longer than Cooper."
"And I'd venture a guess that John Alder is the reason you go by Fox and not Johnny, am I right?"
"You got it. John Alder and John Alder Junior. We got divided into John. J.J., and Fox fairly early on."
"Well, it suits," she said, leaving him to ponder just what she meant by that.
She steered the car through a mesquite grove of small, crooked trees, roots fed by a stream that ran through Red Springs Canyon and then disappeared underground. On the other side of the grove was a clearing where a simple, rustic adobe house stood, shaded by an old cottonwood tree, and guarded by three tall saguaro cactus with many heavy arms. A wide wooden porch ran entirely around the low, square building the color of wet sand. On the front porch, two weathered Mission rockers and a Mexican bench stood to either side of a heavy wood door painted indigo blue. A wisteria vine as old as the house arched over the porch with twisted, woody growth. Beside it a tall bougainvillea was weighted down with bright scarlet blooms. The flowers glowed like flames in the dusk, brightening the gloom of approaching night. The woman cut the car's engine, and the wind in the mesquite grew still.
They sat for a moment, in silence, for no reason he could fathom. Then he swung his long legs from the cramped little car, waited while she did the same, and followed her to Cooper's door. The porch light was busted. Another thing to fix. She fumbled with the heavy key, and finally it clicked open. He reached past her to turn on the light, and a blur of darkness came at him. Fox heard a sharp intake of breath, felt feathers brush against his skin. Something hit his shoulder hard, pushing him away from the door. A huge white owl swooped from the house, through the porch, and out into the trees. It must have measured a full five feet from outstretched wingtip to wingtip.
"My god," she said in the low whiskey voice that sent a shiver through the core of him. Her eyes were wide, alarmed. "I've never seen a bird that big. How long has it been in the house? Has the place been empty since…"
Since Cooper was murdered, Fox finished the sentence silently. The old man had died some miles away, but he doubted that distance was comforting to her. Six months had passed since Cooper's death, and the police had no clue who had killed him.
"I've been in and out of the house, doing repairs," Fox assured her, "and I've never seen that owl before. It must have just gotten in somehow. There's probably a broken window. I'll take a look. Right now, I'm going to go turn on the water. If you go through the door there, into the kitchen, you'll find a light switch to the left."
He left her in the kitchen, looking curiously around her new home. It was strange to think of Cooper's house that way…but the old man must have had his reasons for leaving his house to a lady friend he'd never even mentioned.
He stepped back out onto the porch and looked down the road toward the mesquite wood. The white horned owl had disappeared. He knew what Tomás would say about that. An owl was bad luck, a sudden death, or the ghost of someone who had died. Fox had lied to the woman. He had seen it before. Six months ago, over Deer Head Springs, on the night Davis Cooper was killed.
He stood on the porch for a few moments more, but the huge white owl did not reappear. He stood and listened to the song of the lone coyote somewhere farther up the canyon. He'd often seen its skinny figure skulking near the house since Cooper had died, smaller than the others in the hills, one eye white and blind. Fox yipped back to his four-legged friend, whose answer came an octave above. Then he headed back to the water pipes at the rear of his farther's house.
Dora put a tape on the tape deck as she maneuvered through the evening traffic on Speedway. R. Carlos Nakai's Navajo flute filled the truck with haunting music soft as water on stone, a whisper of feathers, the wind in a high mountain pass. Nakai was a Tucson man, and his music perfectly suited the underlying rhythms of the desert land.
Outside the Bronco's windows, however, the desert was decidedly less tranquil. The city's traffic was beginning to swell with the autumn migration of college students and snowbirds--as the locals called winter residents--escaping cold northern climes. She was glad that the fierce summer heat had passed and the city was coming back to life, but she already missed the quiet of the season when only hard-core desert dwellers remained.
The day had been far from quiet at the Book Arts Gallery where she worked downtown. Two important collectors had come down from Santa Fe, purchasing several pricey hand-made books between them. Then there were the chatty tourists from Dos Moines, book lovers who spent an hour among the shelves, asking a million questions. Then twenty students from the Book Arts class at the university--all dressed, despite the Tucson heat, in the black uniform of art students everywhere--crowded into the gallery's small storefront for a lecture on hand-binding methods. After the slow, sweet summer months, Dora had to learn to deal with people again, to put her thoughts and her troubles aside and smile when the gallery door opened.
It was a relief when her boss closed the door for the night and there was only the gauntlet of rush-hour traffic between her and the silence of the mountains. The traffic thinned out on Tanque Verde at the easternmost edge of the city, and then disappeared altogether when she crossed to the Reddington Road. The road snaked into sage-green hills backed by the blue of the Rincon slopes. The pavement ended. Dora shifted into four-wheel drive and began to climb.
The dirt road wound upward into the mountains, past Lower Tanque Verde Falls, past the Upper Falls as well and over the top of a cactus-spiked ridge surrounded by acres of sky. A narrow, pitted, unmarked road led back to Red Springs Canyon--at least when the summer monsoons or winter rains didn's wash it out. Then Dora stayed downtown with her in-laws until the floods had passed.
Thank the Lord it wasn't flood season. She needed her own house around her. She wanted a fire, some Mexican beer, the patchwork quilt draped over he feet, and the four cats over her lap. The days were still hot at the end of September, but the nights were brisk, especially up here. She hoped that Juan had made something warm like soup or chili for dinner. She hoped he'd remembered to make anything at all--all too often these days he hadn't.
Dora sighed. She'd never really minded being the bread-winner for the two of them before. She believed in her husband's artwork and his need for the time to paint. Up until the last six months he'd also worked restoring the house; he'd sold a bit of his art, and taken on the odd commission. But lately …Dora turned firmly away from the depressing line of thought. Juan needed her now. And so she needed these two jobs. There was no paint in dwelling on the inequity of it--for what was she going to do, up and leave? There was nothing in Dora's blood and bones that would permit her to let a loved one down.
As she approached the wash she saw water in it, turned to silver by her headlights. She ignored the flood signs, gunned her engine, went through the standing water at a steady speed, and made it safely up the other bank. She followed the road deep into the canyon, noting that there was lights on in Cooper's place. A line of smoke came from Cooper's chimney, and another one from farther up the road in the direction of her own house. Juan, dear heart, had already lit a fire. She smiled as the pulled in beside his Jeep and climbed down from the truck.
The house had been a stable that she and Juan had converted themselves--or more accurately, were in the process of converting. The big main room was cozy and complete, with a kitchen at one end of it, but the bedrooms were little more than Sheetrock shells awaiting their plaster walls. An old stone barn stood next to the stable, built for barn dances in the duderanch days. It made a good-sized studio for Juan. Her won workspace would be in its upper loft when Juan got around to reinforcing the floor; meanwhile her desk was in a corner of the kitchen surrounded by stacks of papers, books, and the inevitable clutter of a building site.
She entered the wide stable door into the house, which smelled of apples baking. She and Tomás had picked them in Wilcox last week, and Juan had apparently made one of his famous pies. Dora let out a small breath of relief as she hung up her beaded Indian jacket, kicked off her cowboy boots. She clung to these signs of normalcy, added them all together each day to convince herself Juan was all right.
"Juan?" she called. He wasn't in the kitchen, he wasn't in the bedroom. She crossed the courtyard to the barn, but that was empty too. A single light was lit over his worktable; the rest of the studio was dark and cold. The doors had been left wide open. Outside, a movement caught her eye. Four shapes--coyotes?--dashed across the yard, headed toward Cooper's house.
She stepped farther into her husband's studio. The floor was cold beneath her feet. On Juan's table was a sculpted figure that he had been working on all week, the image of a local cowboy hero. It was the kind of schmaltzy commission he loathed but used to accept anyway just for the work. Now he turned these jobs away; he would have turned this one down as well only this time she'd clipped the overdue electric bill to the client's request.
Dora stood in front of the table and looked at the work before her in alarm. The cowboy's blandly handsome features had changed: his eyes were thinned to narrow slits, his nose was hooked, his cheekbones high, and stag horns were growing from his forehead. Beside it, a bucket of plaster was over-turned, its contents puddled on the table and the floor. Juan's favorite cup was smashed and coffee was stained across the wall.
She could feel the rapid beating of her heart as she crossed the room to the open doors. "Juan?" she called into the night. Silence and darkness answered her. He's all right, Dora told herself firmly. He just got a little frustrated and now he's gone for a walk, that's all.
She turned off the lights, shut the doors, and crossed the yard to the kitchen's warmth. But even sitting beside the fire, a warm quit wrapped around her, Dora found herself shivering as she waited for her husband to return.
Crow climbed the funnel of rock that led to the top of Rincon Peak. The rock was sharp beneath his bare feet. A strong wind whipped his long, black hair. When he reached the top, he sat under a star-filled sky and waited. At last he heard the boy approach, a rush of air, footsteps on stone.
"The man is dead," the boy told him, angry, daring him to deny this.
"Yes," Crow replied mildly. "It's been six months since you've been gone."
The boy ignored this quiet reproof. Time, as yet, meant nothing to him. "Then who stands guard over the east?"
"Not I. Not you. The stars still watch. The rocks still sleep. Nothing has changed, my deario."
"You lie. He's dead. He's gone. And you lie."
Crow shrugged. "And what if I do? You know who I am, and what I'm like. All things must be true to their nature. Even the dead. Especially the dead."
The boy laughed. And laughing, flung himself right over the mountain's edge.
Crow shuddered. And then he laughed himself.
The boy had left a white feather behind. Crow picked it up, tied it into his hair, then began the long decent.
Big Sur, California
October 5, 1947
Henry, you old bugger,
You are entirely wrong about deMontillo's latest. How you can get excited about that self-serving puffery disguised as poetry is completely beyond me--all that pathetic he-man verbiage about the terrible beauty of battle When we all know he spent the war safe in his mistress's villa, waited on hand and foot by sloe-eyed Moroccan girls (or was it boys?). This sudden critical appetite for deMonty the Perpetual Dilettante is bewildering, and you, at least, ought to have better sense.
By now you'll have read about the floods. Our land remained dry, of course, being so far up in the mountains here, but we were cut off from the valley for several weeks. Redwater and Tanque Verde creeks flooded over, entirely washing the roads away. I tell you, I was beginning to go stir-crazy, cut off from the mails and the news of the world--but Anna was in her element. I swear she wishes it would flood again. It's gotten so she doesn't want to see anyone with the single exception of yours truly, and on some days barely that. She is obsessed with these new paintings of hers, and they are, indeed, magnificent so how can I complain when the washing piles up and dinner is beans on toast again? I want to get a girl up here to do the work, but Anna won't have it. She's shy of her creations now--she won't paint if anyone else is around.
She has taken to roaming the mountain by night and it's no good trying to stop her z
My own work, it comes…in bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, it comes, it comes. I am nearly done with Exile Songs and count myself an exile indeed, from Europe, from Pairs, from the cafe life which the war has stolen from us all. Perhaps when this collection of poems is done I'll be able to lay those ghosts to rest and resign myself to this raw, brash land; but so long as I work, I am back there again, sitting in the Paris streets with you and Fred and Brassai and the rest. Then I leave the page and I leave the desk and I find myself here, on a mountainside, in the desert, the farside of Nowhere. In truth, Nowhere is as good a place to be as any other--it doesn't matter where I am so long as I can do my work and live on the streets of Memory.
Yet for Anna, in her own exile, place has become the crux of her being, the source that now feeds her art in a way that I am still trying to grasp. The Red Springs is just water to me, not the well of inspiration it is for Anna; I see no salmon swimming in its depths, no hazel nuts falling from the trees. I have no muse. I struggle on my own. Every word, every line is chiseled with great effort from the hard white block of language.
Exile Songs will be published next spring. And then deMontillo better watch his ass.
Yours as ever,
Copyright © 1996 by Terri Windling