SHORT STORY CONTEST
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 grownup, 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 grownup. 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. But 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.