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Swiftly, silently, they continued west through fields that stretched toward enormous cities, those glittering, dreamed-up escapes where people had possibilities and could take charge of their lives and weren’t so haunted and hunted like people she knew. People like Raúl, whole families even, forced to uproot their lives again and again. People like Peggy driving her husband from one VA doctor’s appointment to the next while disappearing with an occasional trucker to “feel a little less dead.” People like her father, so haunted by other people’s hurts, by those pains he couldn’t reach, pouring his love for this world into sermons he offered each Sunday morning to half awake souls and then slipped into manila folders ordered by date and filed inside drawers marked DELIVERED. She’d seen them, the oldest pages yellowed and crumbling, returning unused–like so much available love—into air.
The roar of a train engine blasted Larissa from her trance. She shoved on the brake. The truck jolted to a stop. Raúl slammed his hands on the dash but made no sound. She’d shamed him with her silence. She’d made him feel invisible, but she would not apologize.
The engine blurred past followed by a rush of freight cars, each one yanking the next. No cross gates fell across that unpopulated stretch of highway, but she should have seen the train crossing the wide plain.
She remembered a similar near-disaster, another train streaming out of nowhere, only that time it had been night. She’d been driving back from the women’s health clinic in Wichita with Peggy in the passenger’s seat, months after her husband’s deployment to Kuwait. Larissa had loaned Peggy money she needed for the abortion. Larissa had given her a ride. But instead of thanking her, Peggy only said that even though they made the same pitiful wages and cheap ass tips, she knew Larissa would have money saved. And, she knew she could get Larissa to offer it to her.
Nice. “You’re one of them,” Peggy said. “Doesn’t matter how much you think you’re not.” Then Peggy gave into her body’s exhaustion, sleeping the rest of the way to their town where Larissa nearly got them both killed.
That night, no whistle blared. There was only a single, solitary light sweeping across the track. That was the first Larissa saw of those night trains, swift and silent with pristine wheels that flashed like silver as they pulled shipments of military equipment, tanks, and vehicles. In the path of her headlights, the tan and beige camouflage designed to infiltrate the Gulf’s desert terrain looked pale and sickly, like ghost versions of the familiar jeweled greens made to invade jungles in Vietnam.
There were reasons, she supposed, why military trains traveled at night. Rights of passage. Lower temperatures. Less visibility to communities, like hers, that might stage protests. And even after the Gulf War ended, those trains kept coming, carrying midnight loads from manufacturers to southern ports and military bases.
What dark genesis spawned the first war? Had her father asked the question one Sunday morning or was it some unspoken darkness hovering over generations? For from that war was begat the next, and from that war was begat the next, and on and on—no exodus–only ghost trains and railroads cutting through the country, delivering the next war already begun.
The last car passed. Larissa crossed the track and continued toward Hutchinson, its low silhouette etched onto the western horizon.
In Hutch, Larissa turned north onto County Road 14 and headed north toward Ellsworth County. As they left the city, oversized grain elevators graduated into smaller ones. Houses and schools and shopping areas thinned into long stretches of cropland. That too gave way to grazing land beneath endless waves of sky. Somewhere an invisible border was drawn: to the west, tumbleweeds hurled themselves into the road during their season, clogging up fenders and clinging to fence posts. To the east, tumbleweeds did not exist.
Raúl was either asleep or pretending to be, his cheek pressed against the window, sunlight washing down his ear and collarbone. They were almost the same age. No logic or faith could explain why she lived paralyzed by the privilege of possibilities while he lived forever moving, forced to accept whatever opportunity opened.
My life is perfect, Jesús, a translator from San Salvador, one of the men who called her at night, shot back after she tried to express recognition of injustices done to him. Spurning her pity, Jesús insisted he wouldn’t have his life any other way–without the people he’d loved, without the people he’d lost, without being forced to learn how little is missed after abandoning everything. Living with death as an everyday fact, his life had rid him of illusion.
“You don’t know shit about your own life,” Jesús said. “How can you pity me?”
That was when, Larissa began to limit her responses. So sorry, she’d say. Can’t imagine.
Because Jesús was right–she didn’t know shit about her own life, let alone theirs.
As they drove down that road with its veil of dust undulating across the hot asphalt, Larissa knew too that the intensity she’d dreamed up when she first saw that image of the petroglyphs was only more evidence of that same you-don’t-know-shit. Seeking to preserve “history” with two-dimensional pictures as if one could interpret and catalog 400-year-old etchings of soul, seeking for meaning inside other people’s mysteries, demanding this even, without putting her own “white-girl” existence on the line—this was that same “you don’t know shit,” proving her false, selfish, and imaginary.
“Informational drawings” her instructor called the Ellsworth petroglyphs as the class passed around the image, a stereograph taken by a guy working for the Union Pacific Railway. The petroglyphs were small: only two feet high and nine feet wide hanging over Mulberry Creek. The colors, if there ever were any, had long faded. Drawn by Plains Indians or maybe Pawnee, other petroglyph sites from the same time period showed more artistic advancement. But the rushed, crude quality of the drawings in Ellsworth suggested they were drawn to convey a story, some urgent history drawn in-transit by a people moving toward a new life.
Like Jesús said: we-don’t-know-shit. Colors lost. Stories stolen.
Only shapes and silhouettes remained. Triangles representing tipis. Horses standing on long stick legs. A row of warriors holding shields drawn as bull’s eyes—soldiers with bodies made into targets–guarding a figure that dominated the center, a sacred shaman or chief wrapped in death robes. Lines radiated from its sacred skull. A current undulated from its mouth.
As Larissa held the picture in the classroom, she’d suddenly felt cold. Was that a serpent, river, or spirit, or some collective line of soul? The shaman’s eyes had no pupils. Its hollow stare absorbed a place far wider than the Great Plains, absorbed time beyond the transient human scene in front of it, far beyond students passing pictures in an airless summer classroom in 1991.
After 400 years, the sandstone bluff threated to slide into creek. Documenting the site would be “a service” their teacher said. Larissa volunteered that same day.
Larissa glanced at the odometer. According to her calculations, the road to the petroglyphs was near. She slowed the car, searching for a break in the fence line, and saw a turnoff. “Private property” a sign read. Then, in smaller letters, “RUINS.” She made the turn. Gravel popped against the bottom of the truck bed. Dry, loose dust made the uneven wheel ruts almost slippery. She shifted the engine into four-wheel drive. The truck lurched.
Raúl sat up.
“This is it, I think,” she said. Gripping the wheel with both hands, her thighs tensed, she felt as if she was driving a horse through an open field of low-lying grasses.
A red pickup sat cattycorner across the lane. As they neared, Larissa made out a silhouette, a stick figure backed by afternoon light, carrying a hunting rifle as he walked toward his truck. An enormous dog shadowed him. The slant of afternoon light exaggerated the length dog’s long skinny legs. The man motioned them to stop.
Larissa cut the engine.
As the man secured his rifle on a gun rack crossing the back window of his truck cab, the dog turned.
Larissa glanced at Raúl. He sat very straight, sweat beading his upper lip. He hadn’t spoken since he’d made his confession: I-like-you-very-much-you-are-very-nice. This realization pained Larissa.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “He’ll tell us we’re in the wrong place. Or, he’ll let us go on.”
With the air conditioner turned off, the day’s heat pressed against the truck. Larissa rolled down her window. Hearing her movement, the dog raised its head. Legs tensed, its giant paws pressed into the ground, the dog watched them.
The man herded the dog inside the cab, the animal’s long skinny limbs reminding Larissa of the horses on the petroglyphs. After the man slammed the door and started toward them, the dog lifted its head again, its bark soundlessly sealed off behind the window.
“Private property,” the man said when he stood beside their truck. “Mine.”
Larissa held out her student ID card. “We came to see the petroglyphs. For a class.”
Ignoring the card, the man peered inside the cab, the bill of his hat still shading his eyes.
Raúl stared at the lane in front of them.
“Who’s the Sanchez?” the man asked, assuming Raúl wouldn’t understand the slur or not considering the term to be one.
“A friend,” Larissa said. Her face tightened into its habitual smile. She said too cheerily, “Hear you’ve got a real sight back there! You oughtta charge admission!”
“Think I aim to sit here all day waiting on dollars?”
“No, sir,” Larissa said, unable to get rid of the stupid smile stuck to her face. If she didn’t get to see the drawings after coming all of that way because she’d brought Raúl, she’d never forgive her father.
The man took off his hat and shoved his fingers through his hair. Face bared to sunlight, he looked younger than she’d assumed. Fixed on the lane in front of them, his steady gaze reminded Larissa of landscape painter from Cottonwood Falls, a customer at Hank’s Peggy disliked. His stare, she believed, bored through her skin and saw right into her poor soul.
The man settled his hat back on his head. “Keep going. Road you’re on here is the old Indian trail. Park beneath the wind break. Can almost see the drawings from there, but you got to cross the creek to get close. No matter. Water’s low.”
Larissa nodded. “Okay if I take pictures?”
“Do what you do,” the man said. “Just don’t go into the cave. Whole site’s near collapse. Don’t want injuries. Lawsuit, neither.”
“Got it,” Larissa said.
The man turned back toward his truck. As his master neared, the dog began to jump from seat to seat, barking soundlessly until laying its chin on the dash as if offering its own head, an animal gesture of devotion Larissa strangely envied.
Larissa smelled Raúl’s sweat. Damp circles showed beneath his arms. The air conditioner had been turned off during the conversation, but he’d been too anxious to roll down his window. Thank you, Raul, for being so patient, she did not say. Or, Almost there! I promise! Instead, she started the truck and turned on the air-conditioner and tried to focus on the fact that the lane they drove on was the actual Indian trail.
As they drove into the trees, the light changed. The shaded area seemed like a secret garden. She parked and stepped outside. The solid ground felt good beneath her feet after driving so long. She smelled the mix of sun-scorched dust and the musty green smell of mulch and wet ground. She lifted her sunglasses to the top of her head. Filtered through cottonwood and aspen leaves, the afternoon light flickered down the ravine toward Mulberry Creek.
Larissa turned back for her camera. Raúl stared through the front window, his seatbelt still fastened across his chest. He looked miserable. Larissa pulled the strap of her camera bag firmly over her shoulder. His disappointment could only demand her attention if she let it do that.
She slammed her door and started toward the ravine.
The image the instructor showed them had been taken by the railroad company in 1867. In the century between, the people and animals drawn on the rocky wall had been used for target practice by cowboys and scouts, a common practice. After that, white settlers imitating the eastern rage for “picnicking” had made day trips to the shaded creek and had etched their initials into the stone between the images.
But even with this warning, Larissa wasn’t prepared.
The warriors became visible first, the bulls’ eyes in the centers of their bodies entirely shot out. The shaman’s body was stained and blackened. Bullet holes forced open its stare. The current spilling from its mouth was cratered open.
The truck door slammed. Larissa looked back. Raúl stood at the top of the ravine. His white shirt stuck to his chest. His face was flushed. He looked miserable. At least he understood this wasn’t a date.
Balancing on the wet stones in her tennis shoes, Larissa crossed to the other bank and picked through the brambles along the base of the wall. Up close, the petroglyphs looked even more pocked and ruined. Too high to reach, the settlers and sightseers must have climbed up the wall to carve their initials, like those decades of drunks who stabbed their initials into the walls of the old saloon beside the scribbled markings of Jesse James as if one could take another’s immortality.
Larissa heard Raúl’s hard-soled dress shoes slipping on the wet stones behind her.
She started up the path that wound around the base of the sandstone and found the entrance to the narrow tunnel behind the wall that supported the drawings. Like everything else about the site, the cave looked smaller and dirtier and less elegant than Larissa had expected, but it at least offered a place away from the day’s disappointments.
“Larissa?” Raúl called.
She ignored him.
Too impatient to wait for her eyes to adjust to the dark, she stepped inside, feeling her way into the cool wet air. She knew priests and priestesses and shamans once gathered in caves all over the world to offer their chants and prayers, believing the echoes returned from the dark were responses from the divine. Her own history included 16th century Anabaptist pacifists. They too had been hunted, like Raúl considered enemies of the state. They too huddled in mountain grottos to pray to their God where no one would hear them.
But pressed against the wall, Larissa felt no urgency. She felt nothing holy. She hadn’t even known she wanted such things. She felt only small and alone in a crumbling cave, surrounded by the mysterious nothingness of the plains.
“Larissa?” Raúl stood at the cave’s opening. He couldn’t see where she stood in the dark. “I wait for you?”
That was when the first shot sounded.
Raúl’s body tensed.
The shot was far away, most likely the rancher going after a ground squirrel or prairie dog or taking potshots at sparrows. But a second shot triggered something deeper in Raúl. His stance changed. Sunlight outlined his fear. His body remembered God-knew-what. He became war’s fugitive again, hunter and hunted, driven to protect.
“Larissa!” Raúl hurled himself into the cave. His body shoved hers hard against the wall. Her arms and shoulders scraped against the stone. Her bare knees smacked the ground. She landed on her side underneath his weight.
“Get off me!” she said. The strap of her camera case dug into her neck. She feared she might choke. “He’s not even close!”
A third shot sounded. Raúl’s body trembled and went slack, his weight sinking into her body.
“Raúl!” Pinned beneath him, Larissa couldn’t move. She heard the slow trace of Mulberry Creek. She heard wind blow through the leaves of the cottonwood trees at the cave’s entrance. “Raúl?”
He lay still. His sweat had begun to soak into her shirt.
Had his heart finally given out? Would he die on top of her? Larissa’s mind raced. She would have to drag his body out of the cave and to the car. She would have to report the incident. She would be found guilty because she was guilty. Though of what, she wasn’t certain.
Her own petty meanness haunted her. Raúl didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know why they’d come there. He’d done nothing except call her when he had no one else. He didn’t understand why she picked up the phone. He didn’t understand nice. He’d trusted her.
She tried to inch her body forward. His weight sank, pressing her more solidly against the ground. Dust coated the back of her throat.
Raúl’s body started.
He took a deep breath. His fingers clutched at her clothes.
Larissa tried to pull herself out. As her body shifted below his, she felt–or did she only think she felt?–his erection pressing into her hip. Her body stiffened. She opened her mouth but nothing came out.
Stranger in a strange land. Exodus 2:22. Yes, father. We are all strangers here.
Don’t reject him. Don’t make him feel unwanted. Yes, mother. Nice, nice, nice.
“Get off me,” Larissa said, but her words were so quiet, they sounded like words she might take back.
Raúl’s mouth opened. His breath dampened her collarbone.
With force that surprised her, Larissa shoved his body away.
Raúl fell back but made no sound. Had she hurt him? Did he deserve to be hurt?
Hand. Foot. Hand. Foot. Larissa groped toward the sunlight. Hand. Foot. Hand. Foot. Nice. Weak. Nice. Weak. She stepped back into the ordinary afternoon. The heat choked her. Dust stung her eyes. Mulberry Creek trickled. Forcefully, she brushed filth from her clothes. She brushed the smell of his sweat from her skin. She didn’t touch the sticky place where his mouth had been.
Her torn camera case gaped open. She’d taken no pictures, one more failing to add to the afternoon. She pulled out the camera. The lens hadn’t been scratched.
She heard Raúl’s hard shoes slipping as he crawled toward the cave’s entrance. Already, she dreaded their drive back to Newton. I’m sorry, so sorry, she’d have to hear him say through stupid, unnecessary tears. Or, Don’t tell your father.
She pressed the top button. The film advanced. That first picture—her scraped knee and shredded skin–was an accident. But with it, realization rose, one new and ugly. She could say Raúl attacked her. Her father would believe her. Peggy and the rancher had seen them together. She was white. She was nice. Society’s thick, vile prejudice leaned toward her side. All she’d have to is tell that old used-up story, and, wasn’t it even true? Raul had followed her into the cave. He’d pressed his body into hers even after she told him to stop. Hadn’t he?
She waited with the camera held to her eye.
Her second picture captured the crown of Raúl’s head emerging through the opening. She photographed him crawling outside. He was crying. Snot shone above his lip. He must have heard the shutter’s noise, but he didn’t look up.
It’s okay! Larissa did not say. Or, I know you only wished to protect me.
She photographed his fingers covering his eyes, his trembling mouth glistening with spit, his white shirt yellowed with grit. Evidence, she could call it.
A gunshot sounded again followed by the dog’s bark. Larissa watched through the viewfinder. Raúl didn’t respond. Perhaps he understood these were everyday American sounds: useless gunfire, echoes carried by wind.
Larissa returned to the path. Her footsteps sounded louder on the loose stones. She crossed over the creek. On the other bank, Larissa turned and raised the camera to her eye again. Through the viewfinder, the warriors and the shaman grew clearer, their mouths defiled, their eyes forced open by hunters and ranchers. She zoomed in. The initials cut into the sandstone grew sharper. A picnic site for white people, and wasn’t that her with the camera in her hand?
Raúl came down the path. He stopped beneath the warriors with their bodies made of targets. The shaman with its eyes shot open stared unnaturally at her. Raúl looked, too. Through the camera, she saw him open his mouth.
The story was hers. Wasn’t it? For as one story begat the next and as that story begat the next, her story–made of guns, of war, of so much whiteness–would be believed.
Or was this too a mirage, a crumbling ruin, disappearing beneath the afternoon sun?