There is another world but it is this one.
August 98 a.v.
Eight months after the liberation of the Homeland
The ground yielded easily under her blade, unlocking a black smell of earth. The air was hot and moist; birds were singing in the trees. On her hands and knees, she stabbed the dirt, chopping it loose. One handful at a time, she scooped it away. Some of the weakness had abated but not all. Her body felt loose, disorganized, drained. There was pain, and the memory of pain. Three days had passed, or was it four? Perspiration beaded on her face; she licked her lips to taste the salt. She dug and dug. The sweat ran in rivulets, falling into the earth. That’s where everything goes, Alicia thought, in the end. Everything goes into the earth.
The pile beside her swelled. How deep was enough? Three feet down, the soil began to change. It became colder, with the odor of clay. It seemed like a sign. She rocked back on her boots and took a long drink from her canteen. Her hands were raw; the flesh at the base of her thumb had peeled back in a sheet. She placed the web of her hand to her mouth and used her teeth to sever the flap of skin and spat it into the dirt.
Soldier was waiting for her at the edge of the clearing, his jaws loudly working on a stand of waist--high grass. The grace of his haunches, his rich mane and blue roan coat, the magnificence of his hooves and teeth and the great black marbles of his eyes: an aura of splendor surrounded him. He possessed, when he chose, an absolute calm, then, in the next moment, could perform remarkable deeds. His wise face lifted at the sound of her approach. I see. We’re ready. He turned in a slow arc, his neck bent low, and followed her into the trees to the place where she had pitched her tarp. On the ground beside Alicia’s bloody bedroll lay the small bundle, swaddled in a stained blanket. Her daughter had lived less than an hour, yet in that hour Alicia had become a mother.
Soldier watched as she emerged. The baby’s face was covered; Alicia drew back the cloth. Soldier bent his face to the child’s, his nostrils flaring, breathing in her scent. Tiny nose and eyes and rosebud mouth, startling in their humanness; her head was covered in a cap of soft red hair. But there was no life, no breath. Alicia had wondered if she would be capable of loving her—-this child conceived in terror and pain, fathered by a monster. A man who had beaten her, raped her, cursed her. How foolish she’d been.
She returned to the clearing. The sun was directly overhead; insects buzzed in the grass, a rhythmic pulsing. Soldier stood beside her as she laid her daughter in the grave. When her labor had started, Alicia had begun to pray. Let her be all right. As the hours of agony dissolved into one another, she had felt death’s cold presence inside her. The pain pounded through her, a wind of steel; it echoed in her cells like thunder. Something was wrong. Please, God, protect her, protect us. But her prayers had fallen into the void.
The first handful of soil was the hardest. How did one do it? Alicia had buried many men. Some she’d known, and some she hadn’t; only one she’d loved. The boy, Hightop. So funny, so alive, then gone. She let the dirt sift through her fingers. It struck the cloth with a pattering sound, like the first spits of rain upon leaves. Bit by bit her daughter disappeared. Goodbye, she thought, goodbye, my darling, my one.
She returned to her tent. Her soul felt shattered, like a million chips of glass inside her. Her bones were tubes of lead. She needed water, food; her stores were exhausted. But hunting was out of the question, and the creek, a five--minute walk down the hillside, felt like miles away. The needs of the body: what did they matter? Nothing mattered. She lay on her bedroll and closed her eyes, and soon she was asleep.
She dreamed of a river. A wide, dark river, and above it the moon was shining. It laid its light across the water like a golden road. What lay ahead Alicia did not know, only that she needed to cross this river. She took her first cautious step upon its glowing surface. Her mind felt divided: half marveled at this unlikely mode of travel; the other half did not. As the moon touched the far shore, she realized she had been deceived. The shining pathway was dissolving. She broke into a run, desperate to reach the other side before the river swallowed her. But the distance was too great; with every step she took, the horizon leapt farther away. The water sloshed around her ankles, her knees, her waist. She had no strength to fight its pull. Come to me, Alicia. Come to me, come to me, come to me. She was sinking, the river was taking her, she was plunging into darkness . . .
She awoke to a muted orange light; the day had nearly passed. She lay motionless, assembling her thoughts. She had grown accustomed to these nightmares; the pieces changed but never the feeling of them—-the futility, the fear. Yet this time something was different. An aspect of the dream had traveled into life; her shirt was sopping. She looked down to see the widening stains. Her milk had come in.
Staying was not a conscious decision; the will to move on was simply absent. Her strength returned. It approached with small steps; then, like a guest long awaited, it arrived all at once. She constructed a shelter of deadfall and vines, using the tarp as a roof. The woods abounded with life: squirrels and rabbits, quail and doves, deer. Some were too quick for her but not all. She set traps and waited to collect her kill or took them on her cross: one shot, a clean death, then dinner, raw and warm. At the end of each day when the light had faded, she bathed in the creek. The water was clear and shockingly cold. It was on such an excursion that she saw the bears. A rustling ten yards upstream, something heavy moving in the brush; then they appeared at the edge of the creek, a mother and a pair of cubs. Alicia had never seen such creatures in the flesh, only in books. They prowled the shallows together, pushing the mud with their snouts. There was something loose and half--formed about their anatomy, as if the muscles were not firmly stitched to the skin beneath their heavy, twig--tangled coats. A cloud of insects sparkled around them, catching the last of the light. But the bears did not appear to notice her or, if they did, did not think she was important.
The summer faded. One day, a world of fat green leaves, dense with shadow; then the woods exploded with riotous color. In the morning, the floor of the forest crunched with frost. Winter’s cold descended with a feeling of purity. Snow lay heavy on the land. The black lines of the trees, the small footprints of birds, the whitewashed sky, bleached of all tone: everything had been pared to its essence. What month was it? What day? As time wore on, food became a problem. For hours, whole days even, she barely moved, conserving her strength; she hadn’t spoken to a living soul in nearly a year. Gradually it came to her that she was no longer thinking in words, as if she had become a creature of the forest. She wondered if she was losing her mind. She began to talk to Soldier, as if he were a person. Soldier, she would say, what should we have for dinner? Soldier, do you think it’s time to gather wood for the fire? Soldier, does the sky look like snow?
One night she awoke in the shelter and realized that for some time she’d been hearing thunder. A wet spring wind was blowing in directionless gusts, hurling around in the treetops. With a feeling of detachment, Alicia listened to the storm’s approach; then it was suddenly upon them. A blast of lightning forked the sky, freezing the scene in her eyes, followed by an earsplitting clap. She let Soldier inside as the heavens opened, ejecting raindrops heavy as bullets. The horse was shivering with terror. Alicia needed to calm him; just one panicked movement in the tiny space and his massive body would blow the shelter to pieces. You’re my good boy, she murmured, stroking his flank. With her free hand she slipped the rope around his neck. My good, good boy. What do you say? Keep a girl company on a rainy night? His body was tense with fear, a wall of coiled muscle, and yet when she applied slow force to draw him downward, he allowed it. Beyond the walls of the shelter, the lightning flashed, the heavens rolled. He dropped to his knees with a mighty sigh, turned onto his side beside her bedroll, and that was how the two of them slept as the rain poured down all night, washing winter away.
She abided in that place for two years. Leaving was not easy; the woods had become a solace. She had taken its rhythms as her own. But when Alicia’s third summer began, a new feeling stirred: the time had come to move on. To finish what she’d started.
She passed the rest of the summer preparing. This involved the construction of a weapon. She left on foot for the river towns and returned three days later, hauling a clanking bag. She understood the basics of what she was attempting, having watched the process many times; the details would come through trial and error. A flat--topped boulder by the creek would serve as her anvil. At the water’s edge, she stoked her fire and watched it burn down to coals. Maintaining the right temperature was the trick. When she felt she had it right, she removed the first piece from the sack: a bar of O1 steel, two inches wide, three feet long, three--eighths of an inch thick. From the sack she also withdrew a hammer, iron tongs, and thick leather gloves. She placed the end of the steel bar in the fire and watched its color change as the metal heated. Then she got to work.
It took three more trips downriver for supplies, and the results were crude, but in the end she was satisfied. She used coarse, stringy vines to wrap the handle, giving her fist a solid purchase on the otherwise smooth metal. Its weight was pleasant in her grip. The polished tip shone in the sun. But the first cut would be the true test. On her final trip downriver, she had wandered upon a field of melons, the size of human heads. They grew in a dense patch, tangled with vines of grasping, hand--shaped leaves. She’d selected one and carried it home in the sack. Now she balanced it atop a fallen log, took aim, and brought the sword down in a vertical arc. The severed halves rocked lazily away from each other, as if stunned, and flopped to the ground.
Nothing remained to hold her in place. The night before her departure, Alicia visited her daughter’s grave. She did not want to do this at the last second; her exit should be clean. For two years the place had gone unmarked. Nothing had seemed worthy. But leaving it unacknowledged felt wrong. With the last of her steel, she’d fashioned a cross. She used the hammer to tap it into the ground and knelt in the dirt. The body would be nothing now. Perhaps a few bones, or an impression of bones. Her daughter had passed into the soil, the trees, the rocks, even the sky and animals. She had gone into a place beyond knowing. Her untested voice was in the songs of birds, her cap of red hair in the flaming leaves of autumn. Alicia thought about these things, one hand touching the soft earth. But she had no more prayers inside her. The heart, once broken, stayed broken.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Morning dawned unremarkably—-windless, gray, the air compacted with mist. The sword, sheathed in a deer--hide scabbard, lay across her back at an angle; her blades, tucked in their bandoliers, were cinched in an X over her chest. Dark, gogglelike glasses, with leather shields at the temples, concealed her eyes. She fixed the saddlebag in place and swung onto Soldier’s back. For days he’d roamed restlessly, sensing their imminent departure. Are we doing what I think we’re doing? I rather like it here, you know. Her plan was to ride east along the river, to follow its course through the mountains. With luck, she’d reach New York before the first leaves fell.
She closed her eyes, emptying her mind. Only when she had cleared this space would the voice emerge. It came from the same place dreams did, like wind from a cave, whispering into her ear.
Alicia, you are not alone. I know your sorrow, because it’s my own. I’m waiting for you, Lish. Come to me. Come home.
She tapped Soldier’s flanks with her heels.
The day was just ending when Peter returned to the house. Above him, the immense Utah sky was breaking open in long fingers of color against the deepening blue. An evening in early autumn: the nights were cold, the days still fair. He made his way homeward along the murmuring river, his pole over his shoulder, the dog ambling at his side. In his bag were two fat trout, wrapped in golden leaves.
As he approached the farmstead, he heard music coming from the house. He removed his muddy boots on the porch, put down his bag, and eased inside. Amy was sitting at the old upright piano, her back facing the door. He moved in quietly behind her. So total was her concentration that she failed to notice his entry. He listened without moving, barely with breath. Amy’s body was swaying slightly to the music. Her fingers moved nimbly up and down the keyboard, not so much playing the notes as calling them forth. The song was like a sonic embodiment of pure emotion. There was a deep heartache inside its phrases, but the feeling was expressed with such tenderness that it did not seem sad. It made him think of the way time felt, always falling into the past, becoming memory.
The song had ended without his noticing. As he placed his hands on her shoulders, she shifted on the bench and tilted her face upward.
“Come here,” she said.
He bent to receive her kiss. Her beauty was astonishing, a fresh discovery every time he looked at her. He tipped his head at the keys. “I still don’t know how you do that,” he said.
“Did you like it?” She was smiling. “I’ve been practicing all day.”
He told her he did; he loved it. It made him think of so many things, he said. It was hard to put into words.
“How was the river? You were gone a long while.”
“Was I?” The day, like so many, had passed in a haze of contentment. “It’s so beautiful this time of year, I guess I just lost track.” He kissed the top of her head. Her hair was freshly washed, smelling of the herbs she used to soften the harsh lye. “Just play. I’ll get dinner going.”
He moved through the kitchen to the back door and into the yard. The garden was fading; soon it would sleep beneath the snow, the last of its bounty put up for winter. The dog had gone off on his own. His orbits were wide, but Peter never worried; always he would find his way home before dark. At the pump Peter filled the basin, removed his shirt, splashed water on his face and chest, and wiped himself down. The last rays of sun, ricocheting off the hillsides, lay long shadows on the ground. It was the time of day he liked best, the feeling of things merged into one another, everything held in suspension. As the darkness deepened he watched the stars appear, first one and then another and another. The feeling of the hour was the same as Amy’s song: memory and desire, happiness and sorrow, a beginning and an ending joined.
He started the fire, cleaned his catch, and set the soft white meat in the pan with a dollop of lard. Amy came outside and sat beside him while they watched their dinner cook. They ate in the kitchen by candlelight: the trout, sliced tomatoes, a potato roasted in the coals. Afterward they shared an apple. In the living room, they made a fire and settled on the couch beneath a blanket, the dog taking his customary place at their feet. They watched the flames without speaking; there was no need for words, all having been said between them, everything shared and known. When a certain time had passed, Amy rose and offered her hand.
“Come to bed with me.”
Carrying candles, they ascended the stairs. In the tiny bedroom under the eaves they undressed and huddled beneath the quilts, their bodies curled together for heat. At the foot of the bed, the dog exhaled a windy sigh and lowered himself to the floor. A good old dog, loyal as a lion: he would remain there until morning, watching over the two of them. The closeness and warmth of their bodies, the common rhythm of their breathing: it wasn’t happiness Peter felt but something deeper, richer. All his life he had wanted to be known by just one person. That’s what love was, he decided. Love was being known.
“Peter? What is it?”
Some time had passed. His mind, afloat in the dimensionless space between sleep and waking, had wandered to old memories.
“I was thinking about Theo and Maus. That night in the barn when the viral attacked.” A thought drifted by, just out of reach. “My brother never could figure out what killed it.”
For a moment, Amy was silent. “Well, that was you, Peter. You’re the one who saved them. I’ve told you—-don’t you remember?”
Had she? And what could she mean by such a statement? At the time of the attack, he had been in Colorado, many miles and days away. How could he have been the one?
“I’ve explained how this works. The farmstead is special. Past and present and future are all the same. You were there in the barn because you needed to be.”
“But I don’t remember doing it.”
“That’s because it hasn’t happened yet. Not for you. But the time will come when it does. You’ll be there to save them. To save Caleb.”
Caleb, his boy. He felt a sudden, overwhelming sadness, an intense and yearning love. Tears rose to his throat. So many years. So many years gone by.
“But we’re here now,” he said. “You and me, in this bed. That’s real.”
“There’s nothing more real in the world.” She nestled against him. “Let’s not worry about this now. You’re tired, I can tell.”
He was. So very, very tired. He felt the years in his bones. A memory touched down in his mind, of looking at his face in the river. When was that? Today? Yesterday? A week ago, a month, a year? The sun was high, making a sparkling mirror of the water’s surface. His reflection wavered in the current. The deep creases and sagging jowls, the pockets of flesh beneath eyes dulled by time, and his hair, what little remained, gone white, like a cap of snow. It was an old man’s face.
“Was I . . . dead?”
Amy gave no answer. Peter understood, then, what she was telling him. Not just that he would die, as everyone must, but that death was not the end. He would remain in this place, a watchful spirit, outside the walls of time. That was the key to everything; it opened a door beyond which lay the answer to all the mysteries of life. He thought of the day he’d first come to the farmstead, so very long ago. Everything inexplicably intact, the larder stocked, curtains on the windows and dishes on the table, as if it were waiting for them. That’s what this place was. It was his one true home in the world.
Lying in the dark, he felt his chest swell with contentment. There were things he had lost, people who had gone. All things passed away. Even the earth itself, the sky and the river and the stars he loved, would, one day, come to the end of their existence. But it was not a thing to be feared; such was the bittersweet beauty of life. He imagined the moment of his death. So forceful was this vision that it was as if he were not imagining but remembering. He would be lying in this very bed; it would be an afternoon in summer, and Amy would be holding him. She would look just as she did now, strong and beautiful and full of life. The bed faced the window, its curtains glowing with diffused light. There would be no pain, only a feeling of dissolution. It’s all right, Peter, Amy was saying. It’s all right, I’ll be there soon. The light would grow larger and larger, filling first his sight and then his consciousness, and that was how he would make his departure: he would leave on waves of light.
“I do love you so,” he said.
“And I love you.”
“It was a wonderful day, wasn’t it?”
She nodded against him. “And we’ll have many more. An ocean of days.”
He pulled her close. Outside, the night was cold and still. “It was a beautiful song,” he said. “I’m glad we found that piano.”
And with these words, curled together in their big, soft bed beneath the eaves, they floated off to sleep.