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The image returned. She remembered her father's hand reach down for hers. She could still see the raindrops that beaded on the back of his hand. How old could she have been? Three? Four? She could see the white foam of the violent ocean and hear its roar below the ridge they were on. Had she ever seen the ocean before? Likely not. Maybe it was the distance of time or maybe it was the pervasive light rain of that day, but it seemed in her mind's eye that the entire scene was suffused with a smoky blue-gray air as if the deep greens of the land were fading to black and white. The place felt lonely and haunted.
These many years later it was those shining drops that made her father's presence seem real somehow, tying his ephemeral ghost down to the earth. They grounded the memory, a fluid but physical anchor holding down the ethereal and elusive realm of the spirit.
It was also her earliest memory of the Spanish language. She remembered her father speaking of the mar bravo. At that young age, she already knew the dangers of perros bravos, so his words made her think of the sea as a pack of dogs, deeply baying and nipping at the heels of the land. Living landlocked and far away now, sequestered from that language, she had come to think of the sea as a place of oblivion and dispersion.
Her father's gift and her burden was that he wanted her to remember something she had never seen or could scarcely imagine and could now not fully recover. All she had were moments, not stories. Images, pieces of a broken body. How to assemble them and to make them cohere in her present life was the question that shadowed her. She would need more paint. She would need words too. And time. Lots of time.
The sound of a passing car, which was infrequent at this gray hour of early morning, snapped Alba out of her meditations. Her focus returned to the task of running up Grandview Hill. Shorter and more frequent steps, she had learned, were the key. She observed her heart and legs and decided that she felt strong. Who else had risen at this hour? Not too many, she thought proudly to herself. At the top, she stopped and turned around to face the direction of the rising sun, which was still hiding behind the Wasatch Mountains. The dome of light above her head brightened with a diffused blush that made even her skin glow. Her heart thumped against her chest. She heard her breath. Her mind grew still, and for a moment she had the impression that she might be nothing more than light and air, that all things were one. The only forms that gave the light distinction were the uneven and low canopy of clouds that reflected brightening and broadening brushstrokes of salmon — or was it peach? — against deepening blues. Shocks of cadmium yellow shone within the core of the clouds. She tried to memorize the color patches for when she got back to her paints.
As the light increased in intensity, outlines and images sharpened. To the west, she could see the reflections of the dawn on the surface of the ancient lake lying utterly still. The ring of mountains behind the lake began to reveal itself. She imagined the morning light weaving through the windows of all the quiet houses, lighting opaque walls in remote, intimate rooms, stirring individuals. As the minutes passed, it seemed as if she had suspended her breath altogether. The light intensified, increasingly incandescent behind the eastern mountains in one last burst before all things lay as objects, separate and ordinary in the vague light of morning.
Witness beauty. Bear witness to it. That was all she understood. It fed some ancient hunger in her. Or maybe it only increased her hunger. There was the rub. The more she painted, the more she scaled her exile. Besides, her medium of light was a fickle friend. It brought the world into distinction, it brought attention to things and to moments, but it never stood still and it always abated and returned the world to the black night.
A glance at her watch and her meditations came up short again. She would subtract the time she had spent staring. Five or ten minutes maybe. She wasn't sure. Next time she would remember to stop her timer. She began the run back down into town to her husband and their apartment before the responsibilities of the day would own her. Sketches that were due tomorrow. Reading for her art theory class. Dropping John off at his summer internship later that afternoon. The phone calls to the sisters for visiting teaching reports. And her search for summer work. John would want her home in any case.
He wasn't so much worried about male predators, least of all at this hour, but he was wary of the constant threat of cars to joggers especially in the indistinct light of early morning. It flattered her that he worried for her safety. In the short time they had been married, he had proven steady and solicitous of her needs, even ones she didn't anticipate or recognize, giving her the luxury of security she hadn't realized she needed. But as she ran, she wondered if the luxury would blunt her desire for the freedom of movement and thought, if that is what happened to people content with stasis. Maybe the eyes tire of looking at something so protean as the earth, she thought, and people end up seeing its surface as a blur, like a sea of glass. Until the violence of collision awakens the soul to the facticity of things.
Alba was alert to the growing traffic as she descended into the streets of the city and approached the last turn to their rental, a small house painted light green. The branches of the Catalpa hung their fanning leaves and seedpods over the driveway and darkened the front walkway almost to pitch. She jumped up the steps to the screen door, the creak of which announced her arrival to her husband. He had drifted off on the couch with a novel opened on his chest — the one he was supposed to be caught up on for his senior seminar — but the sound startled him awake and he sat upright. The reading lamp was turned on, but by now the morning light was bright enough in the front room.
"Hey. How's the run?" John asked, rubbing his eyes. Alba stood above him in her black running tights and her bright fuchsia shirt. Her long black hair was held in a ponytail. Her dark eyes looked at him endearingly. John had told her often enough how much he loved her eyes, the dark eyebrows, and the brilliant light of her smile. He wore his favorite gray sweats and a BYU T-shirt. She liked the way his blond hair always looked disheveled and his eyes uncertain, like he was in a permanent state of just getting out of bed.
"Good. What a sunrise."
"Yeah. How's the reading coming?" she said with a teasing smile. She leaned over and brushed the loose strands of her black hair out of her face and kissed him slowly.
The salty smell of her sweat perked him up. Pulling away for a second and sitting himself up, he said, "Oh, I did all right. It's just ... so many whales. More than I needed to know!"
"Whales?" She rubbed his hair.
"Yeah, pages and pages about whales."
"Hmm. Sounds awesome."
She touched his hand and left for the bedroom and began to undress. John craned his head around and watched as her lithe body entered the shower before realizing he had forgotten to get breakfast started for her. By the time she reentered the front room dressed for the day, with her wet black hair uncombed, the table was set with two plates that held omelets and smoothies.
"Wow! Thanks, sweetie. I'm starving." She sat down and attacked the meal with relish, just as John had hoped.
"Ready for class yet?" she said after a few minutes, looking up from her plate.
"Almost. If I hadn't nodded off. I've some time later to cram a few more chapters in." He glanced at the clock and then back at her. "I think you would like Melville. He has his moments."
"Summer reading, maybe. But I don't know. Whales?"
"Well, it's about everything, really. I mean, hard to explain. The depths of the sea. All those things no one sees. It's like nothing is lost on him, you know? Not even the whales are lost on him." She laughed.
"I guess not."
"Hey, I forgot to tell you last night that you got a phone call from a guy up in American Fork. During your class, I mean. Just your thing, you know? He's looking for a painter with botanical skills."
"Are you serious?"
"Serious. Sorry, I should've said something. It's just ... I was so tired."
"So how ..." she started to ask.
"It sounded like Professor Bailey recommended you. This guy, his name is Zach Harker. He wants wildflowers of the Wasatch Front, you know, painted. Watercolor, he insisted. You would like that, wouldn't you?"
"I'm definitely listening ..."
"I didn't inquire about the pay, but he said something about a grant he has. He's hoping you'd be willing to hike, take notebooks with you, that sort of thing, as a kind of tryout, I guess. It was weird though. He said, like, three times that he's of the 'Humboldt school of thought.'" John made air quotes. Alba looked at him quizzically. "I didn't ask. Didn't want to sound stupid. Of course, I explained that you hate the outdoors and that you were in no kind of shape to be walking up hills." She laughed.
"Awesome. Did you get his number?"
"Yeah. It's by the phone." He pointed to the end table by the couch.
She got up to make the call. John cleared the dishes and headed into the kitchen.
A few minutes later, she joined him in the kitchen. John's hands were sunk in soapy water, washing the dishes.
She leaned her back against the counter while he worked. "Sounds like a quirky guy, you know? But I told him I was definitely interested. The university gave him money to produce a book of wildflowers for the Wasatch Mountains. He has enough to hire a student artist, not a professional, he said. But he insisted he wouldn't hire anything but 'excellent talent.' And that this was going to be different than other books. Field observation, he kept saying, that's his thing. Plein air. I think that's what he means by Humboldt school. He went on about Humboldt as the first naturalist, he said, who understood life in 'ecological context' — not plants in isolation. So he says he wants images that convey ecological context. He said it, like, four times. He wants me to come to his house up in American Fork with some samples of my work and go for a short hike with him, and then I'm supposed to produce some samples of plants we find before he makes his final decision. Pretty sure I'm not the first person he's looked at. He was kind of condescending, said he didn't have high expectations."
"It'd be nice to know why he turned the others down."
"Yeah. That's just it. I'm in the dark on that."
"What's the pay?" John asked, as he handed her a dish to dry.
"Not sure. He said we could talk about it." She began drying the dishes as he handed them to her.
"Do you want to do this? It sounds right up your alley. You seem kinda unsure."
"Yeah. Of course. No, I want to. It's just that ... I guess he just was kind of odd, you know? If I'm going to be spending lots of time with him, I want to feel comfortable, you know? He just sounded ... old, and grumpy."
"Yeah. I got that feeling too. Blunt."
John went back to his reading. Before she turned to her sketches, Alba went online and read about the life of Alexander von Humboldt.
* * *
Driving along the east bench of the Wasatch Mountains, Alba looked at the Angel Moroni atop the white walls of the Mount Timpanogos temple. Homes spread in every direction. The length of the lake could be seen in the distance beneath the smaller mountains on the west side of the valley. A familiar suspicion arose in her as she watched the way the landscape around her shifted and turned with each bend in the road, a suspicion that she would never see the world from any other vantage point than from wherever she was. The world was fluid, and yet her perception of that movement was forever tethered to the fact of her own biology. And the paradox was that her body was itself in dynamic flux, only temporarily creating the illusion that it was a static, fixed, physical thing. As long as she was conscious, she would always be housed in the cranium and linked to swinging limbs, but always in love with the chaos of weather and its intimations of perpetual flux.
She drove with the windows down, preferring the rushing sounds of wind and the sensation of being anywhere and everywhere. She stuck her left hand out the window and let the wind push against her palm. She glanced back at the temple spires rising above the houses, and there she was again, anchored behind the wheel, driving exactly 37 miles an hour and buffeted by the limitations of time and space. And then the rebellious response: to cut the tethering line, close her eyes just for a moment, as she did often just before she began a painting, and imagine that her arms and legs could encircle the globe as she held the entire earth inside her.
She pulled off of the main road coming out of American Fork Canyon onto a sloping driveway that led down a gulley to a small faded white house in the shade surrounded by uncut grass and a dense grove of tall scrub oaks. After seeing so many new large homes and developments, it was a refreshing if unusual sight. A chocolate brown spaniel shot up from where he was napping on the front porch, ran to the car, and began yelping at her before she had even emerged. She rolled down her window and spoke to him to see if she could calm him down.
"Hey. Hey, good boy. I don't mean any harm." The dog's floppy ears drooped at his side as he bent his neck and barked. He didn't seem angry, but she wasn't sure. She couldn't quite bring herself to open the door and glanced nervously back at the house. At that, the door opened and a man came out yelling.
"Theo! Theo! Get your ass over here, you stupid beast! Damn it, Theo! Now!"
Theo started wagging his stump of a tail, but he kept barking as he backed off from the car. With her portfolio under her arm, Alba got out of the car and cautiously approached the door. Theo circled back to her, barking. He was too nervous and excited to let her pet him, but she could now see that all of his noise was just joy to see another human being. Zach Harker stood on the porch with his hands on his hips. He looked old enough to be her grandfather. His hair was a mixture of brown and gray, receding and thin at the top, and his beard, which was more incidental than intended, was short and mostly gray. He wore wrinkled tan hiking pants, well-worn hiking shoes, and a blank but dirty blue T-shirt. A dusty and rusted porch swing sat motionless to the left. She noticed the chipped paint on its sideboards.
"You brought some water and some food for hiking, didn't you?" His eyes darted, never settling on anything in particular. She had, but before she could answer, he reentered the house and then reemerged with a fanny pack in his left hand and two hiking poles under his right arm. She extended her hand for a shake.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Harker."
"Oh, right." He turned his body awkwardly to extend his right hand so as to not drop his poles. It was a quick and awkward shake, his eyes looked at her briefly, and then he stepped off the porch.
"Follow me," he said.
She wasn't sure what to expect visiting a strange man at his house, but his age and curt demeanor reassured her. He hurried off and Theo gladly followed, shooting into the surrounding vegetation with glee. She dropped her portfolio by the swing, quickly put her sketchpad into her CamelBak, and cinched it up across her chest. Would he want watercolor too or just pencil? She quickly grabbed her brushes and paints and stuffed them in. He had already walked around to the north side of the house and entered a trail that emerged from the woods. Alba ran to catch up.
"I brought some of my work to look at, if you would like ... at a later point," she said as she came up behind him.
"Oh, right. When we get back." He didn't turn around. Theo ran back and forth across the trail as they advanced. Alba found herself having to jog every so often to keep up. He stabbed his poles into the ground like a Nordic skier, pushing ahead with zealous purpose. Theo came back from time to time to check on her.
After a half-mile or so, her body found its rhythm and she could feel herself relax a little. She could see they weren't really in any kind of wilderness since houses appeared on both sides of what appeared to be just a slim corridor of green.
"Where are we headed?" she asked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "American Fork"
Copyright © 2018 Roundfire Books.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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