BRYSON WANTED TO GO HOME BUT ALLISON HAD WANDERED OFF INTO THE DESERT TO DIE AND HE COULDN’T YET IMAGINE HER DEAD.
So from his shaded porch he watched the desert flowers tilt in the wind. He watched them fade to brown silhouettes and then to black and then again to blue specters, thin and whispering. She emerged from this blue with her long gray hair affixed in a knot and secured by a found twig. The twig he mistook for a flower bent wrong for the wind but swaying with a familiar motion. Hair became a face and face became a thin body rising up from the dry ground. She walked toward him, stepping amidst the flowers as if they were the eggs of rare birds. He moved to get up — nothing discernible in the movement yet, just a thought not yet formed to move muscle and bone — and before it could be so, she stopped it with a smile and then was gone. The twig, a flower still bent wrong for the wind and him cold in the blue light of morning. He looked down at his hands and saw they were still old, and he wondered at the prospect of dreaming in such a place.
Dammit, Allison, he said.
He got up and made coffee and warmed some eggs and savored the bitter tastes and the sulfuric smells, and on a whim he checked the cupboard for some hot sauce, and indeed there a bottle stood. He shook the overturned bottle above the eggs and reddened them with drops of the hot sauce and forked mouthfuls until the eggs were gone, and then he washed it all down with the remainder of his coffee.
He put the dishes into the sink and re-hung the spatula. The cold metal handle slowly warmed to the heat of his hand, and a pang of fear passed through him at the thoroughness of this detail.
Dammit Allison, he said again. I’m going to leave. But I’m not ready yet. I’m going to stay for a while longer and write.
He picked up a thick Indian blanket from the couch and set it next to the chair outside.
See that, he said. I learn from my mistakes.
He walked back inside and sat down at the desk by the window and began to type, and as he did so he noticed that the E key felt heavier under his finger.
FIFTY YEARS EARLIER, BRYSON FINDS HER IN A RIVER. She sits cross-legged and naked near the far bank. The water is shallow and moves swiftly, but she sits in an eddy formed by a large rock and scoops brown clay from the river bottom, slopping it into a canvas bucket. With this clay she is covered so that her body seems a part of the river. Her arms are thin and strong and her breasts swollen just enough to make him flush. Her hair is tied back into a ponytail and her eyes are closed.
He sits down cross-legged as well and watches her dredge the clay up from the river bottom and wring the water and silt from it. She gives the brown clump a last bob with her hands before letting it drop into the bucket. She doesn’t set the clay inside but holds it up over the mouth of the bucket and lets it drop so that it makes a sound he finds satisfying.
It takes him a while to notice that her bucket is full and that her eyes are open and staring at him. Hello, she says. The clay here is quite good. What are you looking for?
Firewood, he says.
Little warm for a fire, isn’t it?
Sure, he says. But it’s good to have a fire anyway.
Well. Good luck to you.
She stands up and he watches as a new and naked part of her emerges from the river. She turns and climbs the far bank and disappears into the woods along a narrow trail.