WITHOUT A SIGH
by R.S. Wynn
When I was seventeen I moved out west, abandoning my
crowded, coastal hometown in Maine to be a groundskeeper at the
Hope Springs Community Center in the Painted Desert—Navajo
land. I lived in a double-wide trailer there with two other women
who worked at the center: Katerina, a middle-aged former nurse
from Oregon, and Bess, who was the daughter of a nurse, from
Georgia.

At dinnertime, Katerina and Bess would flump down in the living
room in front of the TV and slurp Cup Noodles while they watched
“Trauma: Life in the ER.” The lights of phantom ambulances
flickered through the steam rising from their Styrofoam cups as
they sucked threads of ramen through puckered lips, their eyes
fixed on the victims of accidents writhing supine on stretchers.
They ate and watched, unperturbed, while I eyed them from the
kitchen. A slick of broth would drip down their chins, reflecting red
from the gore on the screen.

When a dire case was wheeled in, Bess might lean over to
Katerina and ask her professional opinion: “That one’s a goner,
right?”

Katerina would shrug or nod and lift a finger to wipe oil from the
corner of her mouth.

That was twenty years ago now, but I still remember watching
Katerina and Bess as they watched TV. They seemed to me like
Aztec priestesses, thoughtfully sampling the organs of a sacrifice,
digesting pain, and fear, and mere mortality.

* * *

The desert was a departure, in every way, from my home. Back in
Maine I’d worked at The Crown Theater. I started taking acting
classes there when I was five years old and by the time I was
eight, I was running lines in backstage shadows and silently
awaiting cues from the corridors under the theater’s tiered
seating. At sixteen, I dropped out of high school. My mother didn’t
try to stop me, thinking acting might prove more lucrative than
other local careers, mostly in retail or waitressing. Between acting
roles, I took on every other gig available at The Crown. I stage-
managed, worked the box office, joined the tech crew. One slow
summer I even cleaned out the costume barn. I didn’t care what
work I did as long as it revolved around the axis of the stage.

The stage was freedom. My mother saw it as an unlikely orb of
glamor in a dreary fishing town, a hopeful future funded by out-of-
state arts endowments. But to me it was more than just an
escape from the poverty of my surroundings or the drudgery of
high school; on stage I could be anyone I wanted to be, from any
time, and any place. I could inhabit a character—Beatrice or
Titania, Rosie Probert or Luisa Bellamy—and they inhabited me. In
regional theater reviews, I was called a prodigy, but I was more
pretty than skillful, I think. Still, the pay was good enough that I
was able to move out of my mother’s house and get my own
apartment by the time I turned seventeen. The trouble with being
so young and ungoverned is that I had no idea who I, myself,
might be and no conscientious guide directing me toward who I
should be. In a way, surrendering my mind and my body to the
desires of the characters I played was a relief.

The autumn after I turned seventeen, I leapt at an opportunity to
work with Johnathan, the theater’s scenic designer, helping him
build sets for the upcoming season. Johnathan was impressive, to
a teenager at least. He was more than thirty years older than I
was, but I liked being around him. He was literate and passionate
about stagecraft, he was worldly and, above all, he spoke to me
like I was worldly, too. We worked late at night together, after all
the actors had gone home, but a theater never feels empty. He
showed me how to use a jig saw and a die grinder while we talked
about Shakespeare, Ibsen, and O’Neill, and all around us the
theater was hushed as if an enraptured audience was watching.

One night he gave me his hardcover copy of Anna Karenina, the
pages dog-eared and softened with turning. On another night, he
told me I reminded him of Emma Bovary. More than once he
talked about a cabin he owned in New Hampshire, where he said
he wanted to take me. Picture a woodstove crackling and a kettle
whistling through the smoke, he said. Picture a down comforter,
warm as skin, and frost on the windows. Picture I was there with
him. It was an exciting role to picture, like I was Laura and he
was Yuri Zhivago.

One night in December, around midnight—the very witching time
in Hamlet, act three, scene two—Johnathan suggested we take a
break from our set-making and rest in The Crown’s green room; it
was more comfortable there, he said. He followed me up the
steep staircase by the balcony, across the catwalk, and into the
green room. I could feel the heat of his breath on my back, he
followed so close to me. The green room was in disarray, half-
empty coffee mugs and wilting take-out boxes littered the floor,
the typical debris left behind from a light night rehearsal. I was
leaning over a worn, floral couch, folding an abandoned sweater,
when Johnathan came up behind me and wrapped his arms around
my chest. The urgency—the sudden force of his need stunned me
as he ran his hands down my belly and up under my shirt.

I didn’t say yes, though I might have if he’d asked me. But he
didn’t ask, so I just didn’t say no. He guided me down, prone,
onto the thin carpet and I froze, uncertain how this scene would
unfold, then I heard him unzip his jeans. His muscular, furrowed
body pressed into mine and my breasts pressed into the floor. I
felt his sweat on my back, like he was opening a vein for me, an
ore of silver, ore of gold. He worked to satisfy his need, and I
wanted to help him—but what satisfaction can be found between
a man and a girl who is not quite a woman, a woman who is still
almost a girl? I felt like he was searching for something I didn’t
know I had or was hiding, something neither of us could reach.

All I said when it was over, when he collapsed on me and I turned
my head to see flecks of light falling soft outside the window, was
“Look, snow.”

The next day, in the early morning, The Crown’s manager—
Caroline, an angular, urbane, woman in her late thirties—appeared
at the door of my apartment. She gripped the porch railing with
her bare hands despite the snow that had settled and shifted her
feet on the slick steps; her knuckles were as white as teeth.
Caroline had been crying. Her eyes were streaked with red and her
straight, sharp nose was swollen and raw: the work of more than
just the cold.

“I know about you and Johnathan,” she said. Her voice was
frayed, the way someone sounds after they’ve screamed. “You
know he’s my boyfriend.”

“I—I’m sorry,” I stammered. I hadn’t known; Johnathan had never
mentioned her. Maybe I should have guessed, but I hadn’t
thought about details of his life outside the theater. Jonathan
may as well have been a character that dissolved when he walked
off stage.

Caroline clearly hadn’t expected me to be surprised by her
revelation. My shock seemed to cut her though her anger and, for
a moment, she hesitated. I could see her mind working, turning
over her confrontation with Johnathan after he’d come home to
her stinking of me. The excuses he must have given her: she was
checking their veracity against the expression on my face. She
must have been wondering, could she trust me? I was an actress
after all, and she had a difficult decision to make: blame him or
blame me.

“This affair stops now,” she said firmly, and started to turn away.
I’m not sure what decision she would have reached if I had just
kept quiet, but as she gripped the railing to descend the steps, I
exhaled. Deeply. It was a careless thing to do, but I was relieved
that both the affair, as she’d called it, and our altercation were
over almost before they began. And it might have been over, had
Caroline not heard me sigh.

Something about that sigh got under her skin. Was it sexual
jealousy, a concept alien to me at that time? Did she wonder if I’d
sighed like that when Johnathan was on top of me? I don’t know.
I think she hated that sigh because she didn’t want me to feel
relief. She wanted me to suffer as long as she was suffering. She
wanted me twisting on a hook.

“You fucking slut,” she snapped suddenly, her voice edged with
ice. “Where did you do it? Where did you fuck him?”

I remembered the weight of his need, the urgency, like a
landmass moving toward cataclysm. Where did I
fuck him? I
wondered, was that what we’d done? I thought about blaming
Johnathan, telling Caroline that he’d started it—he’d surprised
me—but,
started, surprised: were those words adults would use
when talking about fucking? Would Caroline have cared? I knew
what she thought of me—the words slut, bitch, whore, strung on
the bow of her lips—and in my own childish way I trusted her
judgement. Caroline thought I was a slut and even though a part
of me thought that was unfair, a greater part of me believed her.
She was the grown-up, after all. She managed the theater. She
oversaw my world. I wasn’t old enough yet to buy a pack of
cigarettes.

Caroline and Johnathan: they were both so certain, so quick to
trust their impulses; they were so grow-up. Yet, neither of them
could see I was not. I’d navigated my childhood by giving
audiences what they wanted from overture to curtain. Johnathan,
I suspected, had already gotten that from me, but what did
Caroline want? How could I end this scene? I slid the key to the
theater off my keychain and laid it next to her hand on the porch
railing. She sneered at the bright circle of metal, starry in the
snow, not comforted in the least by her victory.

* * *

Running away to the desert isn’t new. People have sought solace
in that unadorned landscape for centuries. A friend of mine who’d
worked a few jobs in Arizona and New Mexico said I should move
out there and apply at the Hope Springs Community Center. They
always needed help, she said, and she was right.

Hope Springs consisted of several trailers and a couple
hogans:
traditional, round Navajo dwellings made of rough timber. These
buildings were spread out across acres of dry earth, featureless
except for the sky that ran like a vein of turquoise above them
and the burnt mineral pastel of the sand below. The large meal
hogan was where the Georgian, Bess, a chef with no particular
talent, prepared food for the staff and served occasional
community dinners. The smaller prayer hogan was where vigils
and celebrations took place. Katerina, who’d given up nursing in
Oregon because she hated spending long shifts on her feet,
worked at the reception desk in the center’s office, a double-wide
trailer. Another trailer housed a small library and classrooms
where a dozen or so elementary-aged children were tutored after
school. Except for the afternoon rush of activity around the
classrooms and occasional evening gathering at the meal or
prayer hogan, most days at Hope Springs were quiet, with only a
few visitors and locals stopping by.

Hope Springs was run by Dan and Alicia Gould, a husband and
wife team. The Goulds were good people, I think. Alicia had been
born on the reservation but when she turned eighteen she’d
escaped to California where she met Dan. I imagine the decades
she spent living with Dan in San Diego had exceeded anything she
had dreamed of as a little girl: they’d had homes with plumbing
and electricity, not to mention window treatments and furniture
sets; they’d owned BMWs and Audis; she’d made regular dental
appointments and visited salons; she’d even had a little work
done, some Botox and light rhinoplasty. How far away from the
poverty of her past she must have felt then; her role had changed
so completely. But Alicia and her husband were drawn to service
work—perhaps Dan a little more than she. After Dan retired, they
came back to support the community Alicia had once fled.

The trailer that Katerina, Bess, and I lived in was tucked behind
scraggy juniper trees on the center’s property, not far from the
trailer where the Goulds lived. Alicia worked in the center’s office
with Katerina. While Katerina greeted visitors who stopped by
Hope Springs and answered the center’s calls with a practiced,
friendly chirping, Alicia seldom emerged from her private office at
the far end of the trailer. She sat in that one-hundred-square-foot
room with the door closed, a sign on the doorknob indicating she
was not to be disturbed—she was never to be disturbed. I rarely
saw her except at the beginning and end of the workday when we
might encounter each other on the sandy foot-trails between our
trailers. Even then she dodged me, skittering away like a
jackrabbit through tall sagebrush. Far from being spiritually
ennobling, it seemed Alicia’s years back on the reservation had
embittered her. Self-sacrifice is not a suitable costume for
everyone.

Not that I was inclined to strike up a conversation with Alicia; I
was newly wary of the walking danger that adult men and women
posed. Dan managed the social aspects of running a community
center on a reservation: he greeted tourists curious about Navajo
life and culture, shuffling them around on tours of the campus,
and he implemented new programs aimed at addressing the
community’s many needs, like access to water, internet, and
electricity. Bess and Katerina spent their spare time watching
reality TV and exchanging gossip about a neighbor’s husband who
was a hopeless drunk, and another neighbor’s kids who would
surely amount to nothing, or so they said. Alicia and I fled from
all this during and after hours, but, unlike Alicia, the quiet
remoteness of Hope Springs suited me.

* * *

It was late January when I started working at Hope Springs. In
the morning, I would drive a golf cart with a wagon out to the
property’s limits. My costume was a pair of hiking boots, brown
Dickies, a sweatshirt, and leather gloves; a shovel was my prop. I
would walk the perimeter, digging up the pancake prickly pear and
Christmas cholla that blossomed along the fence line and I’d toss
them into the wagon. I’d clear rabbit brush and desert sage
growing up in the pathways that connected the trailers and
hogans. I’d gather the tattered ghosts of plastic shopping bags
that haunted the desert wind, flying from Gallup, New Mexico, or
farther. It was peaceful and so simple, laboring in a landscape
made of sand, and sun, and the sighing wind. For the first time I
could remember, I felt like I was one person in one place.

At lunchtime each day, the staff would join together in the meal
hogan. Bess would watch us from the service window. She’d wipe
sweat from her forehead and reach her hand into a bag of plain
potato chips. Dan and Katerina would chat about whoever had
stopped by the center that morning.
Weren’t the couple from
Phoenix so nice,
they might say. Or else they’d comment on the
state of the trails after a tour group had gone through, shedding
water bottles and snack bags, which I understood to mean that I
should go collect their debris. Before I went back to work, though,
I’d stop by the kitchen and grab some scraps to feed to the stray
dogs that wandered in packs across the reservation.

Locals feared the rez strays, especially Alicia. On one of the few
occasions she’d spoken to us, she took pains to warn Katerina,
Bess, and I about them. Those dogs were sick, she said. They’d
been used, beaten, and neglected—they’d turned bad, all of them.
I’d never seen an unowned dog before, let alone a pack of them. I
should have been afraid. Alicia was not alone in her wariness and
accounts of dog attacks proliferated across the reservation. Bu the
dogs didn’t seem feral to me, they just seemed frightened. They
didn’t look ferocious, they looked confused and lonely.

I’d crouch behind the meal hogan with my hands open, extending
pieces of fry bread or crumbles of ground beef in my palms. The
dogs approached with their tails tucked between their legs and
their ears pinned back. They gently took the food I offered and
fled away, but there was no joy in their flight. It seemed they
were biologically incapable of the coyote’s blithe wildness.
However perverted their nature might become, dogs at their
hearts are docile creatures, and eager to please.

Within a few weeks of my arrival at Hope Springs, one dog started
following me around the property. Initially he took his scraps of
food with trepidation like the rest of them, but he grew bolder in
time and instead of running behind a tree to eat, he’d settle at
my feet to gnaw the crusts I gave him. After several weeks, when
I returned to work after lunch, he started trailing silently behind
me.

He had wavy blond fur that glowed in the desert sun and cast an
angelic aura around him, so I named him Angel. I’m embarrassed
now by how earnestly I bestowed that name, but still, I think it
suited him. I wish I could remember Angel in photographic detail,
describe the outline of his muzzle, the curve of his tail, the color
of his whiskers, say if he was thirty or forty or fifty pounds, but
twenty years have passed since I left the reservation. How well
can I trust my memory? I reason now that his coat was probably
brittle from poor nutrition, his paws cracked from the arid climate,
his teeth blackened, or broken, or missing, but when I picture
Angel, I repair every harm. I imagine him always strong and
healthy.

I picture his eyes, warm and brown as sandstone. I remember
feeling the heat of his body as he leaned against my legs in the
cold desert mornings, and how the tips of my fingers would brush
his coat as we walked together along the edge of the Gould’s
property. Angel would tuck into the shade of a piñon tree when
the afternoon sun glared down. I pierced through the low limbs of
cacti with my shovel, startling rabbits, collapsing silky pocket
mouse burrows as I dug into their earth. Sometimes I’d pause and
Angel and I would drink water together: I from a bottle, he from
my hand. When the wagon was full, I’d drive the golf cart to a
clearing. There I’d set fire to the debris in a knee-deep pit near an
abandoned
horno: a large outdoor oven, rounded like a beehive,
made from straw and adobe. Angel waited, watchful and
uncomplaining throughout each shift, and then followed me home
to my trailer in the evening.

Dogs were barred from entering any of the center’s buildings,
residential trailers included. I suspect this was Alicia’s policy. So,
I’d sit with Angel on the wooden steps to the front door of my
trailer and watch the sun set. My feet and hands would ache. I’d
take my boots off, then stretch my fingers and inspect the blisters
on my palms and heels. Angel would lick the salty sweat from my
arms as I picked dried rabbit brush flowers from his fur.
Sometimes he’d bow and rub his snout on my belly, or lean his
head against my legs. How strange and comforting it was, that
cross-species communion, that unexpected caretaking.

* * *

I remember once, my mother warned me: “When you take care of
someone, you grow to love them.” She said, “You must be selfish
when deciding whom you’ll care for.” I think what she meant was
that caretaking teaches us empathy, and empathy leads us to
love. I’ve heard that empathy is a survival tool that evolved in
pair-bonding animals, like prairie voles (a.k.a. field mice) and
human beings, so we would care for our offspring. I don’t have
children, but my life began at the theater. I spent so many years
trying to inhabit the minds of others and live inside their
experiences, I never learned to divine the lines between
caretaking, empathy, and love. I felt driven always to please the
audience in front of me, whoever they might be: a desperate man
or an injured woman; a roommate or a stray. With Angel at least,
I thought, no harm would come from this weakness in me.

Katerina had once made a career of caring for others, and Bess
had been raised by a mother in a caring profession, but neither of
them seemed overwhelmed by love or empathy: they kept their
emotions leashed. One evening in the trailer, as “Trauma: Life in
the ER” blared on the TV, I asked how they didn’t find it upsetting
to eat their dinners against such a background. Couldn’t they
imagine themselves as the patients? Didn’t they care about their
pain?

“You’ve got it backwards, honey,” Katerina said. She enjoyed
taking a condescending tone with me. “If you feel too much for
someone, you can’t possibly help them. You won’t make the right
decisions.” She said that’s why doctors are often banned from
treating family members: “They can’t separate their loved one’s
pain from their own and they’ll do anything to end their suffering.”

I wanted to be impassive, like Katerina and Bess. I wanted to be
invulnerable, too. I tried to watch with them as victims were
wheeled in and out of operating rooms, but my nerves were
strained, humming low with the pain of others. I didn’t want it to
bother me, but I found myself averting my gaze from the wounded
on TV. Night after night, I heard their disconsolate cries, their
voices fraying in pain, and it drove me outside at dinnertime.

I’d sit on the steps at the front door with a plate on my knees and
Angel at my side. I’d fix a meal for Angel too, and when I was
done eating he’d lick both our plates clean. After dinner, I’d bury
my feet in the cool sand, moving pebbles around with my toes.
Sometimes I’d startle a sagebrush lizard that’d been clinging to a
rock shadow, hiding from the desert sun. Sometimes sirens would
pierce the trailer’s thin walls, echoing from the TV. I’d try to not
let it bother me. But when Angel heard the sirens he’d howl, a
thin, plaintive cry that rose above the stout arms of the piñon
trees. Whether empathy is a habit or a survival mechanism, it is
most certainly an amplifier of pain.

* * *

One night, Dan invited everyone who worked at Hope Springs to
join our nearest neighbors in the meal hogan for a celebratory
dinner. Dan had launched a new program to provide free internet
access from the center’s “computer lab,” a pair of refurbished
desktops in the library. He was feeling pleased with his efforts.
We gathered for the usual dinner of Navajo tacos, like standard
tacos but on a soft fry bread shell, while Dan stood at the head of
the table and detailed his new program. He was nearly a foot
taller than anyone else in the room and maybe a foot wider, too.
His shoulders were broad and his stomach rolled gently under a
white button-up shirt he tucked into spotless, pressed jeans.
Alicia was a small thing sitting beside him, rumpled like an
overcoat someone had tossed on the back of a chair and
forgotten. She’d curled her black, cropped hair in stiff semicircles
and painted her thin lips cactus flower pink. My chest ached when
I looked at her. Sadness spread from Alicia like smoke: I knew I
shouldn’t sit too close to her because, if I did, I would breathe it
in.

Dan finished his announcement to a half-hearted pattering of
applause and he sat down to eat, slapping the table merrily with
his hand. The silverware jumped and Alicia startled, as if she’d
been shaken from a dream.

“Hail,” Bess announced as she passed salt and pepper down the
table. “They’re predicting hail tonight. But I guess you knew that,”
she said, nodding to the red knit beret I was wearing.

“You look like a young Elizabeth Taylor in that hat,” Dan piped in,
more kind than accurate in his comparison, I thought.

Alicia thought so too. She glowered at me from her seat,
unimpressed with her husband’s comment. Her eyes narrowed as
she examined my face inch by inch, pursing her lips like she’d
tasted bitter coal. Caroline had looked at me the same way, and
shame burned in me again, a guilt so deep it felt predetermined,
biological. I could see what Alicia was thinking as clearly as I’d
been able to see Caroline’s mind at work: she hated me for being
there, for being young and pretty and naïve. She saw me as a
threat. I’d been insensible to it before, but now I knew the threat
I carried inside me, like a host carrying a disease.

Dan didn’t notice the anguish his hapless comment had caused his
wife; maybe he ached when he looked at her too. I wanted to be
a child again and be doted on by women. I wanted to be cared for
and held in their sheltering arms. Why had no one warned me that
I would lose their protection? I folded my paper plate with my
Navajo taco nestled inside and excused myself from the table. I
wanted to flee and forget Alicia’s contempt. I wanted to forget
The Crown, forget Johnathan and Caroline, and the wider world of
men and women searching, aching, struggling. I wanted a stage
that was open, empty. I wanted room to be myself.

* * *

When I left the meal hogan, I found Angel waiting outside for me.
We walked home together in the black night scented with wisps of
juniper smoke. I followed his lead, ducking under piñon trees, my
fingers gripping the soft waves of his fur. Angel could sense my
isolation, and I knew his. I wonder if that’s why, long before there
were cities, people began domesticating wolves? The story is that
men used them for hunting, back when beasts were plentiful and
humans still scarce in the wild. I wonder though, if their true
impulse more resembled mine—a need to care and be cared for, to
give love and receive? Over centuries, wolves learned to read our
expressions, understand our cries, and feel our needs under their
skin. We turned them into dogs and, as we cared for them, they
made us more human.

When Angel and I reached my trailer, he curled into a soft ball
beneath my bedroom window, tucking his snout under his front
paws. I opened the window over my bed so I would hear if the
wind’s sighing turned to a cry during the night and hail started
falling. Then I pulled an extra comforter up around my ears and
went to sleep.

A few hours later, I woke up sweating. Damp sheets stuck to my
skin though the wind drifting through the window was thin and
sharp as a cactus spear. Bleary, blind to my room, I could feel
Johnathan’s hands on my body—he’d seized me in a dream. I felt
him reaching inside me for the threat I kept hidden there, moving
over me the way glaciers move, tearing up the earth as they go.
When he finished and collapsed on me, my chest became a
canyon, something frighteningly open and hollow, echoing back
whatever Johnathan cried into me.

Outside my window, Orion burned across the sky. Canis Major and
Minor followed close behind him. I heard Angel’s sporadic, muffled
barks and wondered: when he dreamed, was he in pursuit of
something or was he fleeing? I rolled onto my side, pushed the
comforter to the floor, and listened for the storm Bess had said
was coming.

* * *

In the Painted Desert, the skyline tells the whole story of what
the day’s weather will be. I awoke the next morning to a pale,
yellow strip of sunlight in the east. The sky was a foundering
turquoise green, but I saw no clouds lurking behind the horizon’s
distant mesas.

After breakfast, Alicia called me to her office and told me to ride
into town with Bess and help her pick up the center’s groceries.
Alicia’s face was stony, but it was always so. There was no hint of
fraying in her voice and her eyes were clear. Unhappy as she’d
been the night before, she hadn’t cried or screamed. Perhaps, I
thought, she was extending an olive branch. Or perhaps she
wanted to be rid of me. Either way, I was happy to go into town:
those weekly runs were our only excursions off the reservation
and Bess was the only employee insured and authorized to drive
the center’s van. Last time I’d gone into town, I’d bought Angel a
blaze orange collar, signaling to any who crossed his path that he
was not to be harmed, and a dog tag with his name engraved.
This trip, I thought, maybe I could buy him a bed or a tarp for
shelter.

The nearest grocery store was a Walmart Supercenter more than
an hour away, down a tangle of washboard roads and up a gusty
stretch of I-40 into New Mexico. The reservation roads jostled and
made me carsick, but I liked the drive up I-40. The wind rushed
powerfully across the flatlands, hurling tumbleweeds at barbed
wire fences, stretching thin, gold clouds across the sky like taffy,
and churning sand over the desert floor in river patterns with
eddies. The whole earth flowed like water flowed back in Maine.

Sometimes, the wind would charge against the broadside of an 18-
wheeler and blow it straight over. Once, I saw a furniture truck
that had rolled over, with couches, chairs, and cushions strewn
about like giant confetti. And once I saw a truck curled over on its
side like a wounded animal, milk spilling from its guts, painting
the desert white. But on that day, just outside Gallup, I saw
beaming red and blue lights reflecting off two semis in the
highway’s median. One truck’s cab was upright on its wheels,
untouched, but its trailer was twisted and gutted where the other
semi had hit it head-on. That truck’s cab was crumpled like a
littered beer can.

“Not good,” Bess said, nodding to an ambulance idling in the
break-down lane. “Driver probably died on impact.”

Traffic slowed to a jog. We merged right, skirting the corner of a
trailer protruding into the left lane. Bess sat up taller, squinting
to see inside the cab, straining to lay an eye on the victim. I
could feel my nerves singing, transmitting dull waves of pain. I
tried not to imagine the moment of impact and the devastation
inflicted on the driver’s body, his bones shattering, piercing his
skin. I tried not to imagine his arms and legs twisting, his
ligaments tearing, his chest sunken to a cavern. I tried not to
imagine his final cry of disbelief—cut short as his eyes glazed. I
turned away from the wreckage, looking instead across the
heaving sand and natural debris of the arid terrain. A raven
hopped over the hot earth, pecking at a flattened rodent  on the
shoulder of the highway.

When we returned to Hope Springs in the late afternoon, I helped
Bess unload the groceries at the meal hogan. Angel, whom I’d left
napping in the shade of a piñon tree near the kitchen door, had
gone. I wasn’t worried; he liked to roam sometimes. He didn’t
appear during the rest of my shift, which was unusual, but I
figured he’d gone back to the trailer to wait for me. When I
returned after work, he wasn’t there either. It hadn’t hailed in
New Mexico, but I thought maybe Angel had sensed the weather
turning and had left in search of shelter. He would come back, I
thought, when I went outside to eat and he caught scent of our
dinners.

While I cooked in our trailer’s kitchen, I listened to Bess tell
Katerina about the accident we’d seen on I-40. “Trauma: Life in
the ER” was on mute in the background, red lights flashing in
shadow play.

“It was an eventful day here, too,” Katerina said when Bess had
finished her tale. “Alicia called Greg Haskie over, a friend from
Low Mountain. He came with his sons. They trapped maybe half a
dozen stray dogs—”

“Where’d they bring them?” I interrupted. My throat was closing,
choked with fear.

“Bring them?” Katerina asked, amused by my naivety. “Honey,
Alicia said those dogs attacked her on her way to the office. They
didn’t bring them anywhere. The Haskie boys shot them.”

I abandoned my dinner on the stove and ran through the failing
light, along the pathways Angel and I had tended, to the Goulds’
trailer. I hammered on the door, the whole trailer rattling as Dan
walked over to open it.

“Where’s my dog?” I demanded, pushing past Dan’s mass trying
to find Alicia. “Where’s Angel?”

Dan looked confused. He stuttered a half question but I don’t
remember what he said, or maybe I never heard him, because
then I saw Alicia sitting at the dinner table. She smiled at me.
She knew the dog I meant—she’d been watching—and she smiled
at me. Twenty years later, I can still picture that smile: it
appeared instantaneously and she tried to mask it, forcing the
furrowed corners of her mouth down into a grimace. What strange
comfort it gave her to share the wellspring of her misery with me.

“I warned you, strays are dangerous,” she said, clutching a steak
knife in her hand. “It was only a matter of time before they tried
to hurt somebody, especially now—I know you’ve been feeding
them.”

“Angel wouldn’t hurt anyone,” I said, my voice starting to unravel.
“He’s safe, he’s always with me.”

“He wasn’t with you today,” she said, calmly laying her knife down
on the tablecloth and fixing her eyes on me. “I told you, they’re
sick. There’s no knowing what a sick animal might do.”

Angel had survived alone before. I told myself that he’d know how
to evade a predator. My only hope was that he’d hidden himself
while Greg Haskie and his sons had prowled the property, but I
knew Alicia wouldn’t tell me if he had. I would have to search
through the dogs’ discarded bodies.

“Where did they leave them—the dogs?” I asked Alicia.

She shrugged her shoulders dismissively and returned her
attention to the steak on her plate. She’d already gotten what she
wanted from me.

“Try the old horno,” Dan offered, his voice soft, but without
apology.

The horno had been one of Alicia’s early projects at Hope Springs,
before her return to the reservation had worn her to a sigh.
Katerina said it had once been a gathering place for women: they
would join together there, share their burdens, and bake bread for
their families, but the oven had fallen into disuse years ago. I
only knew of its location because I used the nearby fire pit to
burn debris.

I followed the setting sun’s crescent though the piñon trees and
out to the clearing, slowing as I pushed aside branches and saw
the horno’s clay dome hunched over in a circle of sand like a beast
bowed down in pain. A scent hung in the air: an animal musk, a
smoke of sweet meat crawling from the oven’s open mouth. Even
the twilight then was still, afraid to breathe. I’d heard of people
using poisoned meat to lure coyotes, and I thought Alicia might
have ordered Haskie to dump the dogs out by the fence line. I’d
met Haskie once or twice before, though. While he seemed like
the sort of man who would do what was necessary to protect his
friends and family, I think the task of slaughtering the dogs
weighed on him. He and his sons had stacked the dogs’ remains
in the oven and burned them, hoping to discourage other
scavengers from approaching the Goulds’ property.

I grabbed a rake by the horno, a cold sweat stinging my skin as I
steeled myself to pull the charred bodies of the dogs out into the
sand. Though as I leaned down and reached the rake into the
oven’s belly, I saw a light glinting, fluttering like snow. A circle of
metal was half-buried in ash by the door. I picked it up and
brushed my fingers over its pitted surface, feeling the name that I
had engraved there. It was Angel’s dog tag. No mistake. His collar
hadn’t protected him, it had made him an easy target. Katerina
was right, after all. Far from keeping him safe, my care had
condemned him.

* * *

Twenty years might not seem like a long time, but the distance
between being a girl of seventeen and a woman nearing forty
feels vaster than deserts. Sometimes I see young women who
remind me of myself at their age, so carelessly beautiful, and I
want to take them in my arms, shelter them, and promise them
life will hurt less someday—but I don’t. I see men who remind me
of Johnathan too; I see them lusting after their vanished youth,
trying to recover scraps of it from bright young bodies. Those men
never surprise me anymore. And I see women who remind me of
Caroline and Alicia; I watch them most carefully. I have the same
faint lines around my eyes now as they have, and my hair is
starting to send out the same bolts of white. I feel sorry for these
women, and for myself a little, and I understand the pain of
fearing that you’ve grown too old to be loved, though you’re but
halfway through your life. Then I remember how much harder it
was to be loved—to be cared for—at seventeen, and my
compassion for those women ends.

The bitterness I carried with me when I left Hope Springs has
eroded, softening the way time softens varicolored mesas and
badland hills, wearing us all down to pastel sand. I still miss
Angel. Especially on cool mornings when, in the sunlight, I can
almost feel his warm body leaning once more against my legs.
The illusion quickly fades. Back then though, the violence I felt in
my heart toward Alicia sickened me. I hated myself for the threat
I carried inside me. I blamed myself for underestimating our
human capacity for cruelty. But I had learned from my years at
The Crown Theater to sense when a story was ending, and I knew
that endings hold some promise of relief.

I left Hope Springs the morning after Alicia had Angel killed. Bess
drove me to the bus station in Gallup at first light, and it took the
better part of a week, and several bus transfers and nights sitting
awake in lonely stations, for me to get back to Maine. I didn’t
think of Maine as home anymore, but I didn’t know where else to
go. I welcomed every mile that brought me farther from Hope
Springs. But on that night, my last night in the Painted Desert, I
never returned to my trailer. I leaned my back against the still-
warm clay of the horno and watched the sun set, burning the
horizon’s mesas to ash. Darkness smothered the clearing and the
wind started sighing again, sweeping my legs, prickling my skin
like I was held in the spiny arms of a saguaro tree. I tried to not
let any of it bother me: the cacti I’d uprooted and burned in
hissing fires; the trauma victims offered to the gods of television;
Katerina and Bess gossiping over their nightly feast. I envied,
even, their remote attention to the devastation of other beings.
Then I thought of Alicia and the hardness she’d learned from the
desert. I thought of Angel whom I’d endangered with care.

I thought of Angel’s lifeless body heaped onto the bodies of other
dogs. I inhaled and tasted his burning. I imagined his blond fur
shriveling and turning black, his body fat catching fire, his organs
howling, his lips melting away from his teeth, and his teeth
charred black as obsidian. You can learn to suppress the burden of
care and the blistering love it creates, but the ability to do so is
not inherent. Katerina knew that: it’s a skill bought with pain and
practice, a badge earned by not looking away.

I sat in the clearing and picked up pebbles like fire opals from the
desert floor. Smoke drifted from faraway cookstoves, carrying the
fumes of fried onions through the overcrowded air. I laid back in
the sand, a flowerless bed, and felt the clay of the oven run cold.
The moon hauled itself up from the graveyard earth, turning white
as it fled away. I stayed still while the wind threw sand over me,
and listened without a sigh as a jackrabbit die screaming,
helpless in a coyote’s teeth.


R.S. Wynn lives in an antique farmhouse in Maine, which she
shares with her family and the perfect number of dogs (five, in
case you were wondering). She earned an MFA in Writing from
Vermont College of Fine Arts and currently serves as The Maine
Review’s Associate Nonfiction Editor. Her work has appeared in
Pithead Chapel, PULP Literature, Inscape, and elsewhere, and is
forthcoming in Guesthouse.
AUGUST 2018