Megan Miller returns to the farm in July or August when the river is low and the air yellow. There’s been a six-year drought. She looks across the barley field to the twin silos and interprets them as reassuring. It’s all a sequence of impressions to which we assign meaning. I could call them sores or anchors, she thinks, deliberately selecting the later.
Eleven cottonwoods line the front fence. She counts them anyway. There’s a new horse in the pasture. There’s always a new horse in the pasture. She’s been told his generic name several times but forgets. Blacky. Honey. Wheaty. Rusty. She can’t remember them from season to season. There’s a take home message here. One must not fraternize with livestock. To give them names implies a psychology, a personality, an emotional involvement. The next thing you know, you’re screwing sheep and everyone in church knows precisely the category of your sin. They smell it. It’s a capacity they’ve developed, like scenting sudden wind changes and ominous indications in shifting cloud structures.
She calls this horse Lady Gaga. “Hey Lady,” she yells through dense sunlight, across channels where voices are effortlessly lost. It strains the mouth to carve syllables into the laminated glare. The Sargasso is with us, Megan thinks, in our suitcases, our briefcases. We unpack salty red kelp as we do our silk suits. And the horse comes running. Megan waves a carrot she prepared in a slow motion, stood at the sink pealing with a dull knife while watching the aluminum coated silos. Such containers are festering lesions or acts of revelation. The farm is ground zero. And the silos her first punctuation. They rose from the ground like metal teeth.
Her father passes, almost grazing her shoulder and climbs into his pick-up truck. “You’re going to spoil that horse,” he warns. He shuts the truck door hard, but it’s not a slam. That would be too decisive. Still, it’s a clear dismissal.
Megan observes her father drive away. This is how she remembers him, precisely, in insomniac nights in Paris, Maui and Los Angeles. He leaves a deliberate funnel of dust and the irritating scratch of gravel scattered beneath him. It’s an unmistakable threat. He’s a man of tornadoes and flesh wounds, surrounded and camouflaged by untouchable elements, stones, wind, motion, and the ripped air that leaks through wire fences. You know his plaid jacket better than his face.
An area is defined not only by what it contains but also by what is missing. That’s what Megan thought three days ago when they picked her up at the airport and drove home. She saw thunderheads and smelled damp barley. Fields like sea grass wind cut paths through. Perhaps this is the specific absence she is trying to fill or define, some weedy fluid movement loitering at her borders.
We carry intangible mistakes and garish miscalculations we never reveal. Megan recognizes they are simultaneously indulgent and brutally irretrievable. She glances at the barley. It’s a piece of her that’s been removed. It’s an amputation.
Megan is assaulted by the absolute knowledge of place. She surrenders to it, the river swollen with sun and insects, heat blowing in, thunderheads circling like gray walls growing up from the ground. Clouds are a speckled bouquet in reverse; a mysterious expanding fabric a woman initiated in such practices would know how to pick. Here all materials are saved, arranged and stitched. It is always quilting season.
August is white and yellow moths, monarch butterflies, oriels and golden eagles. Dust turns the sunset red and exquisite. It redeems and elevates the flat fields of wheat and barley, alfalfa and potatoes. There’s an insistent indication of gold between sheets of leaden gray and she thinks, suddenly, of medieval illuminated books.
That first afternoon, watching her father carry her suitcases into the house, Megan realized climate and personality are intimately linked. It is possible that geography is a form of fate. The valley is entirely ringed by clouds. They rise from the earth like a sort of crop. Potatoes are flowering with tiny white buds and if she ran the division of nomenclature, she would call the blossoms comafaces.
It’s two o’clock and Megan inhales heat from the unpaved road where her father drove away. It feels brittle, could settle on skin the way dust does, pollens, particles from plants and stalks when they’re cut and everyone’s eyes run. Harvest tears. But there’s more in this air, an underbelly tarnished with bits of wings from dying butterflies and yellowish feathers from sun-bleached hawks that often fall, a further layer of stained accumulation.
The posts on fences are ashy, the identical color of gravel in the driveway. Everything is chipped off, rubbed away. Even horses in the pasture with stalled summer across their backs are muted, dazed. The one blue spruce by the highway looks parched, neglected, scrubbed out. It’s merely an inconsequential blue afterthought, easily erased. There’s residue to this thought containing a darker implication, a midnight blue of bruises, perhaps. It’s not a psychological resonance but three-dimensional, you might actually see it in a mirror.
“She’s so dark,” her mother repeated. “That’s the darkest girl I’ve ever seen.”
Dylan was four that summer, black haired and olive skinned like her ex-husband. A girl with enormous dark brown eyes who laughed and tanned easily, wanted to touch and ride the horses, swim in the river, pick flowers, eat peas from the garden, feed the chickens. A four year old from the season of infinite yes.
“I’ve never seen a child that dark,” her mother said again. “So dark and so small. Is that normal? You get her tested? She going to fade out? Is that her permanent complexion?”
Megan has not brought Dylan back. Now she wonders why she returns to her hometown, continues this pilgrimage in reverse, this journey where she expects to find nothing and does.
Restless, she drives the gray pick-up her father doesn’t use anymore. She parks on River Street, one block north of Main and walks toward Maple. If the town had a center, this would be it. If there were answers, they would be here under the accidental circle of tall pines. In such shadows, one can engage in acts of personal architecture and invent a strategy for reconstructing seminal events.
Megan squints into sunlight. Morning comes at her in fragments, as if she’s an accident victim with extensive memory damage. She has a form of selective amnesia. That’s why she returns to the actual site where place should reveal itself as definitive.
Megan spends much of her life picking out shards like a woman stumbling from a car crash. She is paralyzed in a long startled, moment of pulling splinters of glass from her skin. There’s a sharp, gritty irritant she can’t identify. That’s why she returns each summer. It’s an archeological excavation. Decades of dust, sun and relentless digging pass before the unearthing of one gold bowl, an orb of what might have been a concubine’s earring. Or one singular coin with the face of a princess known only from rumor. You stand on a plateau, wind anointed, staring at the face of a god in your palm.
There is danger in this heat; in the way thunderheads assemble above her shoulders when she isn’t tracking them. You must constantly bear witness. Now a crack of thunder behind her, close like a warning shot. And could it have happened here, on Maple or Main or River Boulevard? The specific coordinates she is searching for?
Megan Miller returns home like a journalist sent to cover a catastrophe. It’s an assignment. She’s collecting evidence, prepared for body counts, mass graves and vistas of burned acres. What she finds instead is Joe Carlson’s Fountain, Drug and Prescription. A woman could drink a milkshake at the counter while filling her pain killer supply, in one swoop like a hawk. Mrs. Carlson is seventy-nine. She can barely count. Megan can pass fraudulent scripts, give Mrs. Carlson telephone numbers of non-existent doctors in Los Angeles or New York, and confuse her with area codes and unusual spellings. Then Megan remembers she has already done this many times.
Outside is thunder like a plane straining at a blue edge too fragile to be a real border. It’s a juncture created by intention and rumor, composed of insects and feathers clinging to underside of yellow air. It has nothing to do with her. Neither do the desolate stranded silos, derelict barns and brittle roots of cottonwoods along irrigation canals that seem trapped and trying to claw up from the dirt.
It’s raining when she walks into the house. Her mother sits at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and playing solitaire. No lights are turned on. Rooms are cool hollows, suggesting bones and forests, images from a children’s book. A yellow dishrag lies on the table beside seven piles of cards. But her mother isn’t drying or dusting anything.
Megan realizes her mother engages in domestic chores only when her father is home. When her mother hears the pick-up truck in the long driveway, she empties the dishwasher, sponges surfaces, piles plates, moving her fingers and objects through space. When her father is home, her mother washes clothes, puts them in the drier, and busies herself with fabrics and how they are folded, stacked, ironed, stitched and carried.
She wonders when her mother began preferring cotton, china and silverware to her husband. She suspects her mother is living secretly. Her father doesn’t know his wife possesses a deck of cards. She keeps cards in a box in her apron pocket. Her mother is surreptitious, layered, and indecipherable She has her own climate now, her own seasons and storms, and rivers that relentlessly change and bend.
Perhaps this is what naturally accrues to rural women. They learn camouflage, notice subtleties, the way a trail winds, how a bent branch might contain information that will save your life. One becomes adept at finding niches you don’t tell your children or neighbors about. What appears to be a lethargic primitive state is actually an evolutionary adaptation.
“I always used to know what you were thinking,” her mother stares at the nine of diamonds. Fields of barely and potatoes and willows slung along irrigation canals tremble between thunder. Lightning now, hot neon pink streaking directly at the ground. Her mother is not looking out the window. “I used to know,” she says.
It’s not a question or accusation. It’s so neutral, without emotional direction, that the statement is less than a gesture with incidental sound. It’s like placing plates in a cupboard. Her mother is leaning over the table, studying a black king. Lightning is lavender and forked.
“What was I thinking?” Megan asks.
“That last year. You’d walk across the yard, pressing hard, leaving your boot prints in the snow. See these tracks, you’d say. Remember them good. They’re the last marks of me you’ll ever see.”
“That was cruel,” Megan realizes. “I’m sorry.”
“No need,” her mother places a red seven below a black eight. “It was your way. You were heading out and telling us. Fair warning, fair enough. We didn’t think you’d get that scholarship. Whole year early for college. Never had your senior prom. No graduation pictures. No corsage. But you were right. Those tracks faded and they never came back.”
“I always come back,” Megan is defensive. “I come home every year.”
“Some girls have a phase,” her mother slides a red seven below a black eight. You were different. No phase. You left and you were gone.”
“Are you saying you missed me?” Megan senses she’s being baited, but takes it anyway.
“I don’t even remember you,” her mother says. “ What’s there to miss?”
Megan walks into the bedroom she is sharing with her sister. The room her father built into the earth, paneled with pine, constructed one wall out of gray stone he carried in his truck from the quarry. He mortared all August, working in silence in the long late afternoons of sunlight, hammering and painting the extra room he didn’t believe they needed. He hauled and nailed and knelt with his back turned away, his face and hands to the wall. Rage entangled in the ridges of his muscles like vines on certain trees, tendrils growing into and over the branches, strangling them.
Her younger sister, Martha, sits on the bed smoking. “You don’t come back to see us. You come back for us to see you.” Martha doesn’t shift position. Her words are small rocks.
Martha has been discarded by a man a sane woman wouldn’t have given her telephone number to, let alone married. Martha has been abandoned by this man and left with three children under the age of seven. Two boys and a girl, blond and bland like everyone else in the region. They’re names are inspired by television programs, so contrived Megan cannot remember them, like the horses, Paint Spot or Brownie. These children wear the syllables of characters from ports and capitals where they will never go. Paris, Brittany, Austin, Kingston and Wellington, Chelsea. Three children with features Megan cannot remember. They are generic, sturdy, already solid and fleshy, a good harvest. She couldn’t pick them out of a line-up.
Martha chain-smokes, follows her around the downstairs bedroom where she now lives with her three uniform children, her plain wrap kids. Martha is tracking her, resting a hand on her rolling acre of cotton flowered print skirt hip and says, “We’re some sick ritual for you. Something you do before the verdict comes in instead of a prayer. You think we don’t know?”
What does Megan actually know of the intelligence of these people, their ability to synthesize? Martha is convinced all attorneys are dirty, greedy and corrupt. She has a T-shirt with a rendering of a white shark. Beneath the caricature, block letters spell out LAWYER. Martha wore this shirt at the airport.
There is a further level of disdain she recognizes in her sister. Martha considers it absurd that a woman should work, or rather and more precisely, that a woman would deliberately choose this. Women only work from necessity, from external and unavoidable harsh circumstances, like death or abandonment. A good woman would be taken care of. Everyone knows that.
“You come by once a year, flaunting yourself. Get yourself a new name. Megan. Mildred wasn’t good enough, right? You’re a brunette. You’re a redhead. You’re getting an abortion. Then you’re divorced. You’re smoking pot. Then wed up a Jew boy. Now it’s lifting weights. Yoga and sailing. You know what?” Martha stares directly at her face. “You use us. We’re your private clinic. We’re your private mirror. Don’t you think we know?”
Outside is lightning pink and lavender like neon party streamers. Outside is rained on fields and horses, everything a sodden dark green. Outside is a driveway leading to an interstate, more fields, and a tributary winding to the Snake River. When she looks up, Martha and her children are gone.
Obviously, what she needs to see isn’t in the house at all, but rather in the distance. In the morning, Megan drives into town and buys a pair of l0 power binoculars and a book titled Birds of the Western States. What she is searching for is beyond the frame. It requires the aid of a technological device. It must be behind the silos or on the edges of irrigation canals, past the barns and gully of cloud, a slice just beneath the horizon.
Megan drives back to the farm, one hand resting on the box containing the binoculars. She’s forgotten what it is to drive a truck, to be intimate with a machine, the gears that feel abnormally warm in her palm, the spectrum of metal motor sounds you must listen to. She can’t drive with the radio on, it’s too distracting. There is nothing on the radio but religious sermons and country western songs, a squalid repetition of alcohol and poorly educated people without recognizable options whining about it in strict and predictable rhyme schemes.
Megan Miller spends the afternoon on the south field where the irrigation canal is. She studies the book of birds with its intimidating glossy pictures. She can’t identify anything. They all look like big black birds or medium sized black birds. There is more to classification then she anticipated. She spots magpies and hawks. The golden and bald eagles are easy, and the oriels and robins, pelicans and seagulls. Everything else eludes her. How does it fly? It flies well, she thinks, furious with the text. It flies with authority.
Later, she hears her brother Matthew say, “She’s got binoculars.” He is talking to her father, reporting in. “Looks like one of them tourists from California. Dressed up like she’s on safari.” There is laughter.
The city where she now lives is a region of collective contempt for her family, a contagion. For a moment, Megan feels she has been ambushed when she least expected it. But that’s the point of an ambush, after all, she remembers.
Matthew is engaged in a singular process of subtraction and reduction. He is continually divesting himself of what he learned in school, even to the level of grammar. They used to read plays out loud together. She recalls a winter of Tennessee Williams in the basement. They memorized and recited their lines with conviction, acted them with cleverly assembled props. They had lighting cues. Martha designed and sewed costumes. Then it was another winter. They had aluminum paper crowns and swords. Matthew glued on a beard. Perhaps it was Chaucer. Her brother had a beautiful voice. Some actors can read the telephone book and bring tears to your eyes. Matthew could do that, naturally.
His hold on words is each season lessening. They have failed him. Or perhaps he is growing in reverse. All the attention to the ground is pulling him in. Soon he will communicate in a sequence of grunts and slaps. Then he’ll be ready to marry someone like Martha.
In the late afternoon she drives the old pick-up to town. She is going to call Karen Kaplan her partner and best friend. Megan promised to telephone but she hasn’t. There’s no cellular service in the valley. And she cannot physically force herself to use the one telephone in the kitchen at the farm. She senses her mother in the air, in the wires, in disguise, tapping in, listening and recording, saving words for a future sabotage. Megan exists on the farm in a paralysis, as if she’s had a stroke. She must separate herself by seven miles of interstate before she remembers how to use her credit cards.
“Why do you do this?” Karen Kaplan asks. She is talking about the farm, Idaho, and her summer ritual that has nothing to do with purification. “It’s perverse. You could have had Shelly’s condo in Kauai. Dylan’s in camp. You could have gone anywhere. You do it to make yourself feel worse. Admit it.”
Megan considers the possibility that her summer returns are an obvious propitiation. It is her ritual supplication, her unique blood letting to insure her own crops. Harvests of clients with injuries. Fields of clients who are victims of fraud, irrefutable negligence, breech of contract, misconduct that has a criminal code clearly attached to it like a price tag on a suit. And the bad faith that is someone else’s fault. Megan glances at the river across the street from the phone booth, the river slow as if damaged slides through the center of town. It looks dull and beaten in early August. She is prepared to tell this to Karen, to reveal this as an absolute confession, but she doesn’t.
“I’m collecting Jewish lawyer jokes. They’re Neanderthals but they have rocks and clubs. And there are so many of them.”
“As your attorney, I advise you to stay out of the mashed potatoes and gravy,” her partner offers, voice too light. Megan detects her concern. “Limit your biscuit intake. Remember Los Angeles lent. It comes the spring of your 15th year and it lasts through your first grandchild. Keep your priorities, dear.”
A small corridor of laughter. It feels sticky and contrived. Her words and reasons are weak, exposed and inadequate. The inside of her mouth is dusty.
“I always used to know what you were thinking,” her mother says. She holds a cotton cloth for washing or dusting. It’s a prop.
Her father is watching television. Her mother looks directly at her and the words are an accusation. Her mother rinses dishes and smokes. She brushes a strand of gray hair from her eyes, barely glances out the window at the view she has memorized. At the end of the barley fields are two silos stranded above an irrigation ditch. Then the purple etch of Morris Road with the railway crossing and cemetery and the roof of the new high school. They were building it when she left for college. She remembers enormous piles of bricks.
“I used to be able to read your mind,” her mother says. There is sorrow in this, but Megan cannot determine why or for whom. “You’d be looking out at the potatoes. But I knew you seeing bridges and cities on the other side of the ocean.”
“Yes,” Megan says. “I was.” Is this the door she must walk through? Is this the sudden portal you cross and find the other and more vivid world?
“But now,” her mother pauses, lights another cigarette, straightens an invisible wrinkle in her apron, losses her train of thought. Her mother looks each year increasingly like Central Casting sent her for a farmwoman crowd shot. They all are. Her father and Matthew and Martha and her children named after detectives and districts.
Outside is a sunset dust has turned into unexpected strands like lava. There are islands of purple embossed above a molten orange that might be Hawaiian. Summer opens like an oven. Megan waits for her mother to remember that she is speaking.
“Now you’ve been those places,” her mother points out, turns to examine an area of linoleum near the door. She extracts an envelope from her apron pocket. It’s a stack of postcards Megan sent in what appears to be chronological order. Her mother places them on the kitchen table. They are merely another set of cards. But there are more than fifty-two. Oahu. Paris. Venice. Bali. Amalfi. Tahiti. Shanghai. Prague. Rio. Bora Bora.
“Was it worth it?” Her mother asks.
That’s the question, of course, the matter of worth. You bring in your acres and what is the yield? There is the computation of planted field to pound, to ton. People are no different. Is that what her mother is attempting to measure? Did she plant at the right time? Were the seeds spoiled? Was the effort appropriate to the product? Or is there something else, more primitive than even the biblical? After all, Megan has sacrificed her blood, her kin, the village of her birth, her ancestors, the incontrovertible rituals and borders, the bones of the ancient ones. She violated them on a molecular level, brought the black haired daughter from the foreign tribe into the world. This is unforgivable.
When a witness is encouraged to engage an unnecessarily ambiguous question, particularly one with an implication of damnation, it is best to equivocate. Megan can negotiate this obvious treachery. “Worth it?” she repeats. “ Well, that’s difficult to say.”
In the morning, Martha screams at her. “You don’t come at Christmas when we could use some decoration,” her sister is following her down the driveway, into the road. The three standard issue children she has spawned are in various stages of ambulation behind her.
Megan walks toward the road that leads to a trail with a marsh. She has her binoculars around her neck and the book of birds under her right arm even though she rarely identifies anything with certainty and wants to abandon the entire project. Big and black, or is it perhaps merely charcoal gray? How large must it be to be considered big? What of other markings, colors around the neck, the bands on the legs and, of course, how is it flying? It’s using its wings, she wants to scream. That’s how it’s flying.
Megan cannot master the book of birds. She cannot articulate flight patterns and body characteristics. It seems incredible that she grew up in this region and can barely name what is flying or growing, trees or bushes or birds. How did she manage to miss all this? Did she spend her adolescence sleepwalking? Was she already living in Los Angeles, surrounded by another vocabulary of vegetation and necessity, even then?
“No. You don’t come at Christmas when we could use something festive,” Martha informs her. She has left her three children in the gravel roadside and they sit down, reach out for small stones, and dig with them. Soon Martha will leave her children at a daycare facility in town while she returns to her job in the photo developing section of Smith’s Supermarket. That’s what she did before her disastrous marriage. She spent her days in an enormous blue cotton smock counting out pictures of men exhibiting their rainbow trout while smiling sunburned from boats and docks. And women at barbecues, holding up spatulas and infants, raising them to the camera like banners or trophies. Megan remembers photographs muted by too much sun, all the backyards, lawns and moorings blunted, beaten into conventional submission. Even the water looked barely alive, undernourished, anemic.
“Don’t you dare look at me like that,” Martha sneered at her in the supermarket once. “Don’t stick your nose up. It’s an honest living.”
Now it’s a high plains August, baked green with flashes of neon white lightning in the night storms. Megan remembers thunder after midnight, how the air was vacant after the strikes and the shake. She considered the possibility that the house might collapse. She felt not bruised but numb.
“No, sir,” Martha screams. “ You got better stuff to do for Christmas. Hawaii with your boyfriends of the Hebrew persuasion. Skiing in that town where Oprah does with all the movie stars. You come when the river is low and the air stinks. That’s how you remember us. You come with the dust. You come to feed in a famine season.”
She crosses the highway, a demarcation she suspects Martha will not venture and she doesn’t, turns back to her three gravel-sitting children. It’s always a disappointing yield with not enough to go around, Megan thinks. Who are you kidding?
Suddenly, she remembers an August when she was ten. She went to Y camp in town for theater week. They put on a production of Little Women and she was Jo. Later, she won the summer county library award. The prize was dinner at the pizza parlor and a game at Bowlero in the mall next door. She had to read forty books to win, including The Yearling and the entire Anne of Green Gables series, nine in all. Megan thought her achievement was worth more than a slice of pizza and twenty minutes of bowling. That’s why she stood in the parking lot crying. There is the matter of worth and value and the moment when we set our price per pound.
Martha stands on the edge of the highway. “You pretend you’re coming to see us,” she says, voice high and wavering. Behind her wind is blowing. “You come back for us to see you. Your new implants and hair-dos. Don’t pretend.” Martha laughs and it is harsh, brush and wire, gravel and wild fires. “But that’s what you do. That’s what keeps you in feed. Lying and pretending.”
Martha is experiencing a contempt so vast it’s completely beyond the known human range of expression. She is rocked with a silent laughter that makes her body violent. It is swollen and mute and terrible. Then she starts crying.
Megan walks toward the trail that leads to the marsh where there are bird feeders on poles and numerous nests and she is certain she will not classify anything. We become the landscapes we inhabit, she thinks, the molecules in the air we allow to enter our lungs. There is nothing random about this. It’s volitional. We consort with textures and fragrance, the shadows they cast and what they imply. We are infiltrated and redesigned. Of course there are spirits of rock and sky, reasons to worship eagles, hawks, the flight of geese and cycles of the moon, all moons, those named and charted and those still encased in their unmolested and hidden sleep. But this is only a partial explanation.
In the afternoon, Megan rides her bicycle out Lincoln Boulevard past the town limits to the ridge where she can see the Oregon Trail markers, the two pieces of mountain she considered indisputable as a child. They were what she would always navigate by.
It is mid August and patches of barley on the low hills are round as wells. Wind rolls through them like waves. Everything is some gradient of yellow, a golden swirl in unceasing motion. It is precisely the hay fields van Gogh painted, the dried grasses battered by their own hurricanes, perpetual, rising and falling as the earth breathes. It occurs to her that if she watches the barley field long enough, if she finds the one absolutely accurate angle, she will know what van Gogh was thinking.
It had nothing to do with absinthe or inhaling fumes from turpentine. Such an interpretation of van Gogh is trivial. The fields actually swirl as if painted and lacquered. They reveal the entire history and etiology of yellow and the wind is a hieroglyph a lucky woman might decipher.
For six consecutive days, just at sunset, one lone black elk passes a few yards in front of her parked bicycle, almost brushing the wheels. He crosses the highway, ambles into the scrub around the barley. It’s the color of twilight then, a suspended washed out purple that elongates and has no edges. The moment of borderless held breath. Megan is waiting for an indication, perhaps magical, like a stumbled upon enclave of lavender scented with prairie rock no one has seen before. If she could discover and resolve this, it might be possible to determine where home actually is and go there.
The next morning, Megan witnesses a storm form around her. She rides her bicycle into a squall and finds herself in the absolute unblinking yellow center of it. The gold bull’s eye. It’s like a nest. She is in the barley field on the top of the ridge where she spends afternoons attempting to determine what van Gogh knew. The sky is black, she is surrounded by it, but she stands in a circle of sun. Then it comes at her, gray and black clouds distinct like bats flying at her face, moving like predators, shockingly fast. She watches them approach and thinks, then come, already. Come. And the squall is wind and rain and then a sequence of sudden pink lightning she simultaneously smells and hears. The air is a wound you put sulfur in, she thinks. You can put it in me.
She lies down in wet barley. Her bicycle has fallen over. It is raining hard. There are so many women within me, she realizes. Women with histories of tin and feathers. Women with veins of infected yellow water. Women abandoned by their fathers and mangled by August, by voices that ricochet through screen doors, by sirens and cursing. There are dialects of stones and bullets. Then she puts her head against the ground and lets the rain enter her.
On the plane the next morning Megan takes a window seat. Her mother and sister are standing against the fence waving handkerchiefs. She wishes her mother would ask her now, as the plane races across asphalt, what she is thinking. Now, at the juncture between ground and air when all things are possible. She is thinking van Gogh knew we are less than islands. We are anomalous rock in a stretch of bad ocean, one boulder in a thousand miles of aggrieved waves. We stand as long as we can, dreaming of yellow, our feet bleeding in sand. Then we collapse.
Her mother and sister, the fence and landing strip are gone. The sky is an immaculate blue like the painted capes of certain saints on cathedral walls. Megan knows women are traditionally traded for a string of beads and few cows, a horse, maybe. Where is the surprise in this? It is a perpetual cycle of poor harvests when you consider drowning the girl children.
Of course, rumors persist. There are ambiguous disappearances. A woman here or there invents techniques to elude detection and escape the compound. There are trails in mountains and methods to extract water from cactus. Some women scale the walls and reap years of fortunate seasons. They don’t count livestock, measure grain or define themselves by harvests and droughts, floods and contagion. They refuse to save discarded fabrics like they were holy relics. Some women reject induction into the society of females who stitch quilts. They change their names and destinies, slip off their shoes at 27,000 feet, ask for a scotch on the rocks, close their eyes and wake up in another millennium.