The Washington Post Magazine has been publishing an annual fiction issue for eight years now. In the beginning, it came at Valentine’s Day—and featured short stories that centered on love, heartbreak, lust or those lonely islands in between. In recent years, we shifted the Fiction Issue to the winter holidays, where characters found themselves sorting through the delicate layers of thanks, looking for small miracles or trying to fortify themselves for the new year ahead. Now we’ve moved it to summer to see what writers—this year’s esteemed group includes Curtis Sittenfeld, Sandra Cisneros and Padgett Powell—might find lurking around the renewed promise of freedom or the expectation of uncharted adventures. But that’s the only directive we give authors: give us an original tale plunked down in the middle of the season. The term “summer reading” has a few connotations, but we sure hope these stories of rivalry and mission, unexpected companionship and acceptance, warm up your hours of leisure.
—David Rowell, Deputy Editor
For new mothers, new growing pains
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Of the 10 of us enrolled in the prenatal yoga class that summer at the Y, I was the second-most pregnant, and the woman who was the most pregnant was named Gretchen. All of us sat on oversized rubber balls, and Gretchen always occupied the center of the front row, closest to the instructor. The first class, when we were supposed to go around and say our name, due date, whether we knew if it was a boy or girl and where we were planning to deliver, she said August 18 — mine was August 29 — before adding, “Carl and I want to be surprised about the gender because in our information-saturated world, it’s nice to still allow for some mystery and magic, right?” She’d turned around on her ball so she was facing those of us in the second and third rows, and she smiled self-congratulatorily.
She had a high brown ponytail and wore a mint green tank top that stretched over her belly and cost $62, which I knew because I’d seen it at a maternity boutique full of clothes I couldn’t afford. “We’re delivering at home with a midwife,” Gretchen continued. “Drug-free and all that. And then I’ll be a stay-at-home mom because it’s like, if you’re going to outsource your child care, why even bother to become a parent in the first place?”
Lest it seem like this class occurred in a place where you could get away with saying such things — Brooklyn, maybe, or Berkeley — it didn’t. It occurred in Omaha, and I heard Gretchen repeat her comments verbatim — Carl, information-saturated, mystery, magic, drug-free, outsource — every Saturday morning for the next five weeks because the instructor liked us to reintroduce ourselves each time. The seventh class, Gretchen wasn’t there. Her absence meant that when we discussed which parts of our bodies were newly sore or swollen, a discussion Gretchen had consistently dominated, my concerns took precedence over everyone else’s.
At the end of class, as we lay under nubbly Mexican blankets while the instructor guided us on a visualization of our peaceful, joyous deliveries, I wondered how Gretchen’s home birth had gone. Or perhaps she was in labor at that very moment, simultaneously snacking on organic trail mix and breathing mindfully as stalwart Carl massaged her hips.
As for me, at the grocery store, strangers would look at my belly and say, “Any minute now!” Then at 5 a.m. on a hot Thursday, after a bunch of contractions, a lot of pushing, an epidural and a lot more pushing, she arrived; we had known in advance she’d be a girl, and we’d decided to call her Sadie. Everything about her was otherworldly and astonishing: Her eyes were big and brown, her nose was tiny and upturned, and her mouth was set in a nonplused purse. “She looks mad,” I said, and Adam, who was choked up, said, “We have a daughter.”
It was a month later that I saw Gretchen again, this time at the weekly breastfeeding support group hosted by the maternity boutique whose clothes I couldn’t afford. By then Sadie was sleeping at night in a carpeted cat box between Adam and me, and we’d removed the covers from our bed, all efforts to get rest while not smothering her. Also, I was finding nursing unbearable. The moment of her clamping on was like someone biting your skinned knee, and whenever she turned her head toward my chest, rooting, I was filled with dread. Intermittently, I’d set huge green cabbage leaves on my boobs, between my bra and skin, a recommendation I’d read on a Web site, though I’d yet to experience any decrease in soreness.
Adam had returned to his office a week after Sadie’s birth. I, meanwhile, would have a three-month maternity leave before resuming my job four days a week, one of which I’d work from home. On the days I couldn’t be with Sadie, Adam’s mother would come to our house. Although my job was considerably less cool than what I’d once imagined doing with my life — my employer was a multinational food manufacturer that, as it happened, was the No. 1 seller of infant formula, which I wasn’t planning to use — my flexible child-care arrangement made me feel as if my seven years with the company and good relationship with my boss were paying off.
The breastfeeding support group occurred in a room accessed by a curtained-off doorway at the rear of the boutique. Despite the swankiness of the boutique’s merchandise, this room was filled with furniture whose best days had come and gone: Three mismatched, stained couches and a handful of chairs formed a lopsided circle. Scattered about were those C-shaped pillows I had believed until shortly before Sadie’s birth were meant to alleviate the discomfort of hemorrhoids but now understood as platforms for nursing babies. When I entered the room, 11 or 12 other women, all with infants, were chatting, about half of them with their breasts fully or partially displayed; instead of being differentiated by their personalities, the women were differentiated by their nipples. I’d carried Sadie inside in her car seat, and I set it on the floor behind an empty chair, along with her diaper bag, and lifted her out.
Mother-baby duos continued to trickle in as the support group leader, who was a gorgeous and slender blond woman wearing a crocheted turquoise sundress, got things rolling. “I’m Niko,” she said. “I’m the mom of Scarlett, who’s six and has self-weaned, and Declan, who’s four and loves breastfeeding. I’m passionate about helping moms like you give this beautiful, natural and super-healthy gift to your little ones.”
As with prenatal yoga, we were then supposed to go around and introduce ourselves. Gretchen went third, and after she’d said her name, she said, “And this is Piper, who was born via C-section after a grueling 26 hours of labor. I was like, ‘No drugs! No drugs!’ and Carl was like, ‘Gretchen, seriously, you’re superwoman,’ but there was an umbilical cord prolapse, so it was out of my hands. On the upside, Piper’s nursing like a champ.”
“If your delivery didn’t happen how you wanted, it’s important to grieve,” Niko said. “At the same time, don’t underestimate how amazing it is that now you’re literally sustaining her with your own body.”
The next person who introduced herself was named Andrea, her baby was Ethan, and both of them began to cry as Andrea described how challenging Ethan’s tongue-tie made breastfeeding, which caused me to perk up with interest. Introductions were then stalled for 20 minutes as other mothers murmured support and a discussion of positions occurred. Niko was soon on her knees crouched over Andrea, maneuvering Andrea’s left breast, though she looked around at all of us as she said, “Breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt. We wouldn’t have survived as a species if it did, right? So if you’re in pain, what it probably means is that you have a bad latch.”
Introductions never did get all the way around the circle, and the hour was finished — it concluded with Niko reading aloud a poem that rhymed “lactation” and “revelation” — before I’d said my own or Sadie’s name. I set my daughter back in her car seat, hoisted the diaper bag onto my shoulder, took all of us out to the car and drove home, stopping on the way to purchase a 1.45-pound container of powdered formula. Fixing Sadie a bottle that afternoon felt at first like a transgression and then, as she accepted it unfussily, like a relief. I planned to alternate between formula and breast milk, but within a week, I’d stopped nursing altogether and was using my employee coupons to buy formula in bulk; needless to say, I didn’t return to the support group.
The third place I crossed paths with Gretchen was at infant swim lessons. By that point, Sadie was six months old. The lessons occurred on Tuesday mornings, the day I worked from home, though I already knew my original plan to get things done while Sadie napped had been delusional, and I’d basically given up on it. To overcompensate, I sent frequent e-mails to my co-workers.
Only five babies were enrolled in the swim class, but if Gretchen recognized me, she gave no sign of it. A strange intimacy existed between us as we stood in the water next to each other in our tank bathing suits, or took turns holding our babies in the center of the circle while singing (“Purple potatoes, and purple tomatoes, and Sadie is in the stew!”). Yet Gretchen and I never spoke directly. Piper seemed good-natured, and I assumed that she was still nursing like a champ and that Gretchen was greatly enjoying not outsourcing her child care.
Then, around the eighth class, Gretchen and Piper stopped showing up. The weird part was that I almost missed them. Without the tension created by my antipathy toward Gretchen, the half-hour felt slack, and I realized for the first time that I found the swim lessons boring.
Another four months had passed when my company laid off 1,200 employees, including my boss and five other people in my department. My new boss was a 26-year-old with an MBA — that is, he was three years younger than I was — and he told me that if I wanted to keep my job, I needed to work full time and on site. The next day, my mother-in-law, who’d been walking with a limp for two years, was approved by her orthopedist to have her hip replaced; her recovery would last four to six weeks, and taking care of Sadie during that time was out of the question.
“I hadn’t felt that bad about some of the things women having babies were supposed to feel bad about, but this seemed like a failure of a different magnitude.”
It wasn’t that I disapproved of parents who put their kids in day care, or at least if I did, I knew enough to be embarrassed by my disapproval. I wasn’t a person compelled to broadcast my own choices in the hopes of reminding other people of their inferiority. Nevertheless, on Sadie’s first day at Green Valley Children’s Center, I didn’t even make it out the front door before I burst into tears. I hadn’t felt that bad about some of the things that women having babies when I did, even in Omaha, were supposed to feel bad about — an epidural, formula — but the collapse of my carefully crafted child-care setup seemed like a failure of a different magnitude.
Although Adam and I had planned to take Sadie together, a last-minute meeting had been scheduled at his office, so I was alone. Blinded by tears, I pushed open the front door of the day-care center and stood in the parking lot, sobbing. I needed to get to my car, to hide, but I was so flustered that I couldn’t remember where I’d left it.
And then someone’s arms were around me — the someone was female, and her shampoo smelled like coconut — and she was saying, “It’s your first day, right? I saw you doing drop-off upstairs. But don’t worry, because, seriously, Green Valley is great. I was nervous, too, but now I love it so much.”
It took several seconds of collecting myself, and then of focusing on the woman’s face — she still was embracing me, and we were almost too close together for me to see her — to realize that the woman was Gretchen. I think she understood that I was recognizing her — perhaps I flinched — and she dropped her arms. She said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but we were in the same —”
“I remember you.” I wiped my nose with my left palm. “I thought you were a stay-at-home mom.”
She laughed. “Well, Carl left me in March, which kind of threw a wrench in things.” Then she said, “It turns out my husband was having an affair, and now I’m single and working full time. Life is full of surprises, huh?” I was taken aback and said nothing, and she added, “Really, though, I’ve been so happy with this place. I’ve actually learned a ton from the teachers.”
It was early June, almost a full year since Gretchen and I had met, although in a way we’d never met. Neither of our daughters had celebrated their first birthdays yet, and when I look back — our girls are eight now — I’m struck by how that was still the beginning of them becoming themselves and of us becoming mothers. In the years since, Sadie and Piper have learned to tie their shoes and ride bikes and read, they’ve had croup and stomach flu, their feelings have been hurt, they’ve lost teeth, they’ve performed in ballet recitals. I don’t know if it’s more improbable that Gretchen and I became each other’s closest friends or that our daughters did, too. Not that it’s all been easy for any of us — I had two miscarriages before the birth of my son, and Gretchen got engaged again but subsequently called it off. Sometimes when I see photos that Adam took of me holding Sadie in the first month of her life, I can discern the faintly bumpy outline of cabbage leaves beneath my nursing bra, and I’m reminded of a particular kind of confusion that hasn’t entirely disappeared but has, with time, decreased.
That morning in the parking lot, I sniffled once more, then stuck out my hand. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Rachel.”
The animals would always be there for her
By Sandra Cisneros
Missus Rivera fed the animals in the courtyard as soon as she got up. They made an awful racket, her animals, especially on the days she most wanted to sleep in, when her back bothered her. During the summer, the season of afternoon rain, the animals misbehaved the most, and on rainy days her bones misbehaved as well.
The neighbors claimed Mister and Missus had as many animals as if they came from a ranch. And the animals claimed the same. This was not a compliment coming from people, but the animals were more generous and civilized and saw things differently.
The animals were only a part of a long list of Mister and Missus’s eccentricities. The way they lived, for example, with poor people’s furniture when they could’ve well afforded better. The light fixtures in their rooms, ugly naked bulbs dangling from dusty cords. The outside walls of their house painted a gaudy cobalt blue, a hue so bizarre everyone in the colonia knew the address simply by saying “la casa azul.”
Mister, after all, was an artist known across the republic and beyond. A circus of admirers arrived at all hours and left at all hours singing in Russian, Chinese, English and French. Sometimes gunshots were heard, for it was well known in all of Coyoacán that Mister liked nothing better than to fire his pistol in the air when he was feeling content after his mezcal.
And that was not all. ¡Ay, no! It was a fact the Mister and Missus were not believers. They lived dissolute lives. Hollywood starlets, the wives of millionaires, as well as the mistresses of powerful politicians posed for their portrait naked in front of the Mister. And this with the Missus’s knowledge and approval. A barbarity!
Oddest of all, Mister and Missus had no children, though they were well into middle age. This was why they could indulge and overindulge themselves with animals. More than some thought healthy.
Some animalitos were rescued from the streets because they looked, to Mister Rivera’s eyes, like ancient Olmec pottery. Some were abandoned on their doorstep with flaccid bellies after giving the world too many gifts. Some Mister and Missus had given to each other, and some Missus fell in love with in secret, on excursions into the countryside, scooping them up and helping them into the car herself when her husband wasn’t looking; he was jealous. These Missus Rivera loved the most, because their eyes were filled with grief.
Among the animals living in the household was a bad-tempered Guacamaya macaw, passionate, possessive, who flew into rages, scattering seed cups and upsetting his water, cursing in several languages.
There were the six hairless dogs who waited patiently for Missus to rise before beginning their day, warming her back, radiating heat like meteorites, and when she moved, their intelligent heads alert, their ears fluttering gently like the wings of a butterfly, greeting her always with infinite joy.
Cats — there were several varieties, feral as well as tame. One as fat as a Buddha, one as elegant as a carved Egyptian, one who looked like a dirty bath mat, and one who repeated all day, “Me, me, me, me.”
“There was a little fawn who tap-tapped her way throughout the house like a blind woman, ears and nose swallowing air.”
There was a little fawn who tap-tapped her way throughout the house like a blind woman, ears and nose swallowing air, a lovely creature with a silvery coat flecked with hail. And there were, at various times, many others, elegant and inelegant, some adoring and some indifferent, who shared their residence with the Mister and Missus. Tempestuous monkeys, nervous tarantulas, lethargic iguanas and on occasion, most troublesome of all, orchids, as imperious and spoiled as an emperor’s favorite courtesan.
The animals consumed more than food. They devoured Missus Rivera’s attention from the moment she opened her eyes. Even before she opened her eyes. The dogs pawed and rubbed themselves on her belly and spine. They slept on her starched pillow embroidered in silk thread — “Amor Eterno.” They brought dirt into her bed, nosed their way under the blankets, curling themselves in the nook behind the knees, the swell of her stomach, the soles of her feet. They insisted and insisted. And when she locked her bedroom door, they scratched and pawed and pleaded, destroying the wood with their urgent devotion, peeling the paint from the doors, swatting and rattling the doorknobs, hobbling and then dodging the servants’ brooms, and kneeling outside her door like the adoring Magi before the just-born Christ.
When she had been well, Missus cooked her husband’s favorite meals and brought them to him in a basket wrapped with embroidered dish towels and bougainvillea blossoms, and sometimes wrapped the desserts in banana leaves. “You Are My Sky,” the dishcloth said. She had embroidered it herself. The meal was her handiwork as well.
On occasion Missus Rivera picked up a pencil or paintbrush and ventured to draw pictures of her life, because she was the subject she knew best. The Señora liked to make things. Embroidery. Sewing. Baking. Gardening. Flowers arranged in Oaxacan black pottery. Fruit placed in pyramids like in the market. The colors of the walls and the colors of the furniture, she mixed and painted these herself so that they would turn out just the right hue of mamey orange, Manila mango, xoconostle magenta.
“What a lot of bother!” people said. “What a lot of trouble and work!” But work is something you don’t want to do, and the things you enjoy are not work but the day’s best moments. Missus Rivera liked to make her special meals for her husband, to paint the walls, her nails, do her hair in elaborate braids adorned with flowers, arrange the house so that when her husband raised his eyes from his soup, he would feel happy, he would feel he was in his home.
This was her gift to him. People hissed this was too much. “He’s spoiled.” “He’s a fat toad.” “He’s always chasing after women, the Mister.” But his wife saw only too clearly his flaws and loved him anyway.
This is how much I adore you, this much, ay, how much. As if he were her little boy and not her husband.
He was used to being adored, to have her look at him the same way the animals looked at her, with devotion and gratitude, as if they were all sunflowers radiating light.
She had to do this. Her husband was famous.
“Ay, qué lata ser famoso,” Mister would say at first as a joke, and later because it was so very true, it is a lot of trouble being famous. Because Missus Rivera was not famous, she had time to make sure her husband was taken care of, so that he could go on working. He left at dawn and he came home late. Sometimes he did not come home at all, but slept at work in his clothes, pobrecito. This was why Missus Rivera did not mind taking him a clean change of clothes and hot lunch herself. She did not send the servants. He worked hard painting frescoes taller than their blue house. She dressed so that she would be a flower, too, radiating light.
Because I love you, I cannot be with you. You are like a rabid dog I can only watch from a distance. You bite and hurt me, even though you do not mean to hurt me.
Sometimes she locked herself away from him, but she could never lock him out, because love is like that. No matter how much it bites, we enjoy and admire the scars.
Sometimes Missus lacquered a table, and sometimes she smoked her cigarritos de yerba mala, and sometimes she cooked, and sometimes she crossed her arms and sat on a step in the garden and exhaled and rubbed the ears of her favorite dog, Chamaquito. And sometimes she drank her tequila and swore and made sure she swore like a man, so as to fortify herself and keep the world from thinking her too fragile because of her ill health.
“You son of a mother who … ” And the parrot would finish the phrase.
When Missus was young, she’d worn trousers like her husband and helped him with his work. But now that she was ill, she stayed indoors more and more, only going out to the garden. Only preparing some portion of her husband’s meals. Sending the girl out to the market, and not shopping for the food herself. She’d learned to cook from his former wife, because she knew if she didn’t, he’d go back there hungry for more than food.
On the days she did not feel well enough to rise, Missus stayed in bed, and her husband came into her room and sat on the edge of the bed. His weight was familiar to her and was as much a part of her life as the garden and his work and the food they ate together.
“My little girl,” he would say, but it was really he who was her little boy. “My little boy,” she would say, because this was true. They took turns being mother and father, instead of man and wife, because that part of their life had passed already, and with both sets of parents dead, they were orphans in the universe, and they needed and wanted each other as much as children.
Today Mister had left without sitting on the edge of the bed. He often did not come in anymore, and she often did not even notice this. They went on living with each other, and sending their love to one another through the things they loved in common. A slice of watermelon. The dog Señor Xolotl. A plate of steaming green rice.
On the days when the sky was the color of pewter and the clouds hurried by like women on their way to the market, when the afternoon rains began in thin drizzles and then finished so hard they bent the calla lilies at their stalks, she did not feel like working at anything but sleep.
She would’ve stayed in her room and asked for a little broth and a corn tortilla rolled tight as a Cuban havana, but the dogs were waiting for her to walk with them. Missus Rivera was not in a mood to walk. She ate what she could, and then she let herself be combed, and the dogs adjusted and readjusted themselves as she rolled about, always making sure they were touching her when they resettled.
When she finally rose from the bed, they leapt like acrobats, they pirouetted like dervishes, they made her laugh. And when she laughed she did sound like a girl.
Missus Rivera could look at photos of herself when she married her husband and say with complete honesty that back then, she was just a girl. But now, though her hair was only beginning to silver, and her teeth were rotten stumps, and all the organs and bones had been simmering and broken and aching, she could admit she was sliding into decline.
Visitors asked, “How are you?”
“Well, I’m still here, no?”
So it was.
The truth was that the Mister had always been dishonest. Not with his feelings but with his heart. He would be the first to tell you how honest he was about his dishonesties. He was like a chronic bed-wetter; he could not control himself. He would always be a bed-wetter even if he were not given a drop to drink. He had no wish to overcome this weakness. A big overgrown child indulging in whatever he saw, his eyes bigger than his pajarito.
And so Missus Rivera surrounded herself with animals. For what could be better than creatures when one has been betrayed, what finer emblem of loyalty and steadfastness and pure love.
Puro amor y amor puro. That’s what each pet gave her, pure and clean. Pure love and only love. Who wouldn’t want that?
“¿Quién quiere amor?” Missus called out. It was as if she was giving away treats and not simply love, for the creatures rose from all corners of the house and courtyard.
The little deer hobbled forward on slippery tiles, protruding her gentle snout timidly through the doorway as if asking permission to enter. Sleepy tarantulas scuttled across the garden as if startled from a delicious hibernation. Dappled orchids nodded their graceful heads from elegant stems in approval. Cats clambered down from secret hiding places and approached gingerly as if asking, “¿Mande usted?” You commanded? Iguanas, hidden behind a fence of organ cacti, shook their prehistoric manes and all the colors of the rainbow glinted from their flesh. Monkeys set the tallest trees trembling and sent down a fine snowstorm of dung dust.
The Guacamaya, who had the most acute hearing of all the household, stretched out his feathered neck, revealing flesh as pink as a toreador’s stockings, batted magnificent wings, bobbed like a prizefighter, the black orbs of his eyes growing larger, then smaller, larger, smaller, until finally he shrieked with wicked pleasure, “¿Quién quiere amor?” in the voice of a crone, as if making a mockery of the Missus.
The click-click-click of their nails announcing them, the six xolos burst into the Missus’s room, exuberant as clowns through paper rings, leaping onto her ruffled bed without waiting for an invitation.
“Whew! What a lot of work it is to love you,” the Missus said. “What a lot of lata. Son necios. Troublesome.” She brushed each dog, wiping the night from the eyes of each with the hem of her nightgown. “Hold still, Señor Xolotl,” Missus instructed. “Come to me, Chamaquito. Paricutín, what a terror you are. Ixta, Orizaba, Xichu! Tell me the truth. ¿Quién los quiere? Who loves you?”
They raised their obsidian eyes to Missus and answered without answering.
Sandra Cisneros is the author of “The House on Mango Street,” a novel, and more recently “Have You Seen Marie?,” a fable for adults illustrated by Ester Hernández, and the nonfiction “A House of My Own: Stories From My Life,” to be published in October by Alfred A. Knopf. She lives in Mexico.
It was getting strange on the frontier.
By Padgett Powell
Wagon boss: Today there are fewer Indians than before. Clouds are swaying up there in the big sky like the bellies of belly dancers. Our teeth feel loose. We are not possessed of resolve. We wonder if the same doubt has seized the red man. We do not think of him as often subject to doubt. The idea of him in his teepee cowering from a want of self-confidence disturbs us as much or more than the idea of our own cowering. We are not afraid of him, mind you, but of something less tangible that we cannot name. It is precisely the murkiness of this fear that makes it disturbing. Alas, I suppose I am saying we fear fear itself far more than a thing to be feared. As cornball as that may sound, I am afraid it is true. We do not fear resolve, right or wrong, but we are made much uncomfortable by want of resolve. It is easy to understand in this light how General Custer appeared so delighted at the end. The music was about to stop playing for him and his band, but until it did his needle was in the groove.
The only party not unhappy in this camp is Cook, who pounds away at something too hard to eat in its native state and all day has in his brain the notion Delicious. Or maybe the notion is Good enough that these bastards will not complain within earshot. Either way, he beats food with resolve. We sit here without.
We will need to move all these wagon wheels, broken or not, over here, and leave those skulls alone, and push these tiara sets into the woods. (We never contest the unfathomable on the Inventory; the labor required to fill out Form 0009.09, Derequisitioning Items on the Inventory for Which No Earthly Use Can Be Divined, dwarfs the labor to carry the unfathomable to California; we can possibly use them for a Little Miss Prairie Beauty Contest, possibly put them on the bulls for a rodeo.) We will be firm with our untoward and uncharitable desires, and forsake fresh meat, and be so incredibly generous with children that we burst into tears and spook the children, and fear the Indians but never show it, except as we run like hell, and just in general I think we are ready to accede that it is all pretty much too much for us, the ordnance questions, the panniers, the supply lines, the weather (it’s summertime and the livin’ is easy except it’s a hundred in the shade and except there is no shade), the hearty meals or not and the hearty hopes or not, it’s all just …
Settler one: Your position, perhaps because it is so ill-defined, is certainly not for that less than imminently defensible. You have our sympathies entire.
“In short, I think our leadership has gone daft. I want a tiara. I will herewith lead a revolt on behalf of any others who wish to have a tiara, or two.”
Settler two: I might take exception to one matter within our leader’s resolve manifesto. I would like one of those tiara sets before we push them into the woods. Or two. It might be nice to have a friend wear one with me. I question also the curious phrase “push them into the woods.” Do we severally do this with our feet, or do we fire up the dozer? Why not hurl them into the woods? Why into the woods? Why, now that I am alert to it, get rid of the tiara sets at all? Are they a liability? Why can they not be merely left alone like the skulls? If we don’t want them (the tiaras, and I see no sense in not wanting them), we could even, say, put them on the skulls before we invest in the peculiar energy of by whatever means transporting them into the woods. In short, I think our leadership has gone daft. I want a tiara. I will herewith lead a revolt on behalf of any others who wish to have a tiara, or two, or who at least question the wisdom, for want of better term, of pushing them into the woods.
Wagon boss: The Indians have not manifested themselves on the ridge lines of the surrounding hills in such prodigious number that we lose momentarily our breath and wonder if we are not in some kind of eclipse before finding ourselves indeed in some kind of eclipse, that of our very lives in one of those maddening tomahawk storms, those hurricanes of stone and hoof and yelling paint and buckskin and blood and everyone, including ourselves, hitting us with one thing or another while we generally find it more and more difficult to breathe, more and more difficult to see, more and more difficult to stand up, more and more difficult, alas, to keep on keepin’ on.
The Indians have not shown us this unhappy formation and preparedness for, really, quite some time now. I wonder if it is not that collection of tiaras somehow protecting us. My order to dispose of them may be imprudent.
I have never thought about the tiara much. I have thought much about the Indian. One of the most recurring thoughts I have in that venue is of the last hurricane they put us through, which so many of us, constituting so few of the original number of us, somehow survived. I was personally on my knees, having given up; I was dementedly lining up fallen tomahawks on the ground in front of me, in an interesting head-to-tail bric-a-brac pattern, when I noticed an Indian pony go closely by me and wink at me. This happened then several more times, perhaps five or six, interrupting me at the business of arranging the tomahawks attractively on the ground. The pony kept winking, as if telling me that it would be all right, that this was not the disaster that it was his job to help make it all look like, that I was not to worry overmuch. So I did not, and eventually quit my brocade of tomahawks and fondly watched the revolutions of the winking pony exclusively. And here I am today, and I think now that I too would like to have a tiara. I don’t think I need two. No, I don’t, I don’t want two. I just want the one.
All of these pelts are good to go. Had we any idea where the fur traders are we would be sitting prettier. We will be eating beaver-tail sandwiches by the estimate of the quarterback, the quartermaster, for six weeks, no exceptions.
Nearly every time we slake our thirst of the effects of the blistering sun by guzzling water from the clear, cool mountain streams, face down like dogs, we discover about a hundred feet upstream something big and putrid and dead, or I should say big and dead and putrid to more accurately reflect the sequence of perception. What you first see, actually, is something big enough that you notice it at all, and then when it does not retreat at your approach you surmise it is dead, and by then you are sufficiently upon it to revel in its inevitable putridness. So we discover, every time we drink of life-saving cool water, something big and dead and putrid in it. And we move on, to the music of steel and leather and oncoming gastrointestinal complaint.
I was once struck by an arrow so sharp and so deftly put in me that, after the initial sting, which I ineffectively swatted at and decided had been a large carnivorous insect of so fearful a description that I was lucky not to have seen it, I went about my day, not discovering the arrow until I reclined upon it that evening. Perhaps as many as 25 of my pioneer brethren and sistern may have, must have, seen this wicked protuberance from my back and said nothing, operating, I suppose, under the general directive we obey out here not to dwell on the negative.
One of the supreme difficulties of living on an advancing frontier such as ours is that we may not have dogs and cats. We try, but they, like, we guess, get lost, or decide that the nomad life is not for them and just wordlessly slip off to make more permanent homesteads along the way. We have many (unconfirmed) reports that the Indians do have dogs and cats. If so, this will be an area for investigation in the matter of final reparations and restitution in the grievance settlements.
Here is what we wear on our shirt sleeves: mud, blood, snot, not feelings. Our feelings we wear somewhere inside our vests, close to our chests, like grubs in moist wood. This is best.
Padgett Powell’s latest book of fiction, “Cries for Help, Various,” will be published by Catapult in September.