Bourbon Penn 17

A Song for Ocotillo

by Kali Wallace

She had stopped watering the rose bush. Luisa had not thought about it in weeks, but she remembered it now, as she looked past the porch railing toward where the yellow blossoms drooped in the sun. It was the middle of July, but there hadn’t yet been a single afternoon thunderstorm to crack the skies open. Luisa had taken it as a sign: The roses were not meant to survive.

“Look,” DeeDee was saying, her smoker’s voice rough over the phone, “I just thought you ought to know. He didn’t say anything about, you know, bothering you. Just that he’s heading back here for a while. I’ll make it a short while.”

Luisa said, “Thanks. I appreciate the warning.”

It had been a stupid impulse to plant the roses anyway. She was surprised they had lasted this long.

“Don’t you worry.” DeeDee had said that two or three times already. “You give me a call if he hassles you. But he won’t.”

“Thanks,” Luisa said again, the word fading to breath on its sibilant end.

They said their awkward goodbyes.

Staring out the kitchen window, Luisa’s gaze drifted to the middle distance, the split-rail fence and white-barked aspen trees, the hillside she had looked down every day of her life blurring into an impression of summer colors. DeeDee wasn’t her sister-in-law anymore, but she still tried to help. Nobody else had thought to tell Luisa that Mike was out of prison. He had served four years. The state of Colorado was satisfied with him.

Luisa focused on those sad yellow roses again. The soil over Ocotillo’s grave was pale and dusty, a tan color not much different from what the horse had been in life. Around the grave, which was barren but for the roses, crisp brown grass stretched to the fence. She needed to cut it. A couple of days ago there had been a haze in the air from a fire down in New Mexico. This summer, like every summer, Colorado was only waiting its turn. To nurture a single rose plant, to flood its roots when the mountainside around it was parched, it had felt too much like shouting into a canyon, the way she had during summer trips to Mesa Verde when she was a kid, where she had done exactly that, throwing her voice recklessly against the ancient stone walls and gnarled pinyon trees, bellowing, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” until her parents shut her up with a root beer from the cooler in the car.

Mike was out of prison. Luisa had never felt more like shouting.

She went outside and filled a metal bucket from the spigot on the side of the cabin. Had DeeDee said he was out already, or he was getting out today? Had she mentioned how he was getting from Cañon City to Fairplay? Luisa should have listened more carefully, but her thoughts had been a beehive buzz of nerves and disappointment. Luisa had always hoped Mike would die in prison. You heard about it happening: a brawl, a stabbing with a sharpened toothbrush, and nobody shed a tear. It had been a fight that got him locked up in the first place. Not with her — the police had never cared about what he did to her — but with a group of ex-Army guys at a bar in Pueblo. During the trial, DeeDee told her that Mike’s defense was that he’d been so upset Luisa was divorcing him. It wasn’t so far-fetched that he might come to his end in another storm of insults and blows. The first couple of years he was locked up, she had lain awake nights wishing for a con named Bubba or Tiny or Slim — bald head, “Mom” tattoo, biceps like boulders, she saw him clearly, this simulacrum of a man — to take issue with Mike’s attitude and put an end to him. But she had no such luck. You could not make a thing happen by wishing it.

Cold water overflowed the rim of the bucket. Luisa stepped back, too late, and cranked the spigot off. Drought-killed grass whipped at her soaked, squelching sneakers as she carried the water to Ocotillo’s grave.

The Garcia brothers from down the road had dug the grave with their excavator. Although it had been five years, Luisa still felt the earth trembling sometimes; 1,200 pounds of 15-year-old gelding did not drop gently. The brothers had refused payment with pity in their eyes, and she had been silently relieved. At that point, before Mike’s arrest, she had been terrified he would try to take her house, her land. Only when he was in prison and the divorce was final, and nothing of hers could be his anymore, had she planted the roses on Ocotillo’s grave. She had not been able to bear looking at the grassy depression in the ground anymore. She had thought something beautiful and new would help.

But the scraggly bush and tattered yellow blossoms did not make the grave any less a scar on the land, and what right did she had to crave something beautiful when every summer was hotter than the last and every winter brought less and less snow? Luisa poured the water out, circling the base of the bush slowly, taking care not to wash the soil away. The dirt crumpled and darkened as it sucked in the moisture, becoming less like Ocotillo’s coat and more like his mane and tail: the color of ponderosa pine bark, almost black, so dark she had felt she was braiding shadows that night she had knelt in the blood-soaked hay to cut his beautiful locks and keep them for herself.

A marriage is like a drought — somebody had said that to her once. She remembered the bitter shape of the words but not who had spoken them. You work years and years for the promise of a fruitful spring that might never come. Maybe they had said a bad marriage. Maybe not.

Luisa flung the last drops from the bucket and turned to leave, then stopped. A flicker of green in the soil caught her eye. A leaf — but the dirt stirred. A rise and a fall. Something was pressing upward from below.

The land was breathing.

Luisa’s heart skipped. Nine feet deep. Deeper than what the county required for equine burial, the Garcias had assured her. The words had struck Luisa as so absurd she had laughed, then she had cried, pathetic, hitching sobs that made the brothers avert their eyes. Nine feet deep. For days she had thought the ground would never stop trembling. When she had realized how selfish she had been to cut Ocotillo’s beautiful black mane — he had been so vain, even for a horse — she had rushed out one night to bury the coiled braids above the grave, blubbering with guilt and shame as she gave back to him what she ought never have taken. With every scoop of dirt, she had felt the trembles weaken, retreating to the roots of the mountains, to the heart of the continent, leaving nothing but the echo of a nauseating vibration in her bones. Grief and fear opened the mind to unthinkable thoughts, like a fresh wound left to suppurate and fester.

There was no tremble now. There was crumbling dirt, and there was green. Small chasms opened in the mud, revealing a tiny, gleaming black eye. It was so small, so round, so perfect. The black shine was ringed by the color of spring leaves. The eye became a head, the head a body, and the body parted into wings. A little green songbird crawled from the ground.

Luisa held her breath and leaned over for a closer look. The bird did not look injured or ill. It shook itself to shed the clinging mud and fluffed its feathers. Never taking its oil-black eye off Luisa, it crooked its head to one side, then the other. It was utterly silent. She wondered if she ought to try to capture it, to check it for hidden injury, but she had no more than twitched her fingers when the bird took to the air. Luisa felt a puff of wind and the damp kiss of a speck of dirt on her cheek. The bird whirled into the aspen grove and was soon lost among the turning silver-green leaves.

She looked eagerly to the ground again. Another glimmer of green was breaking through the mud. The second bird shoved at the soil with its beak; it had the same black eyes and green feathers. It followed the first in shaking its wings and taking to the air. Before its feet had even left the ground, a third was emerging.

Luisa counted as they emerged. There were ten, eleven, twelve, then a long, breathless pause. She could not bear that to be the last. They were such strange little creatures, so unexpected and bright as they broke free and fled to the skies. She did not want them to be gone. She watched the soil for a long time. Her breath was shallow with swallowed gasps and her skin was tingling. Birds! From the ground! She wanted to laugh with the absurdity of it. The sun was hot on her shoulders and hair, and shadows stretched as the world rolled toward night. DeeDee had called well after lunch. She had said Mike was already out — Luisa remembered now. He was out, signed through the gate a couple of days ago, and his buddy who plowed the county roads had gone to pick him up. The soil around the rosebush dried, paling from dark brown to deerskin tan once again. Luisa had dropped the empty bucket. She sat cross-legged on the ground for her vigil.

At twilight the last and littlest bird struggled from the soil. Luisa ached to help it; she did not dare. It was impossible that such a tiny thing could move the earth, but move the earth it did. It was no bigger than a hummingbird. It flapped its wings once, twice, three times. It could not fling the mud away as easily as the others. Luisa worried that it would not be able to fly. She imagined easing it into the bucket, crooning gently to soothe its panic, catching bugs to feed it — then the bird hopped in a circle, a wobbly burst of activity, and flung itself into the air. Soon it was gone like the others.

Luisa watched the sky for a long time. Evening crept over South Park, silky and purple, dry and quiet. The air cooled, the stars emerged, and the birds did not return. When she began to track satellites, and wondering if they had wings, she gave up and went inside.

• • •

The birds returned before dawn.

Luisa felt them as a fluttering at the back of her throat, as the gritty iron taste of soil on her tongue, as a puff of air from nowhere, from everywhere, teasing her hair in the curtain-dark solitude of her bedroom.

She had not slept well. Four years ago, she had bought a new mattress, new sheets, even new pillows, replacing the cheap, flat kind Mike preferred with decadent foam that cupped her head. She had given all her old linens to the senior center and carefully filled in the donation receipt. Mike had never been in this bed, but still she had dreamed about him. Not the man he had become during thirteen years of marriage, with bitterness and anger rotting him from the inside, but as he had been when they first met: 22 years old, floppy-haired, flirting with bad high school Spanish and a loose smile. In Luisa’s dreams, that smiling mouth became a crumbling sinkhole, and every time it began to yawn open, she snapped awake, her entire body rigid with fear.

She heard no tires on the dirt road. No knocks at the door. No rattling of the locks. The night was quiet until dawn.

The first notes of birdsong had Luisa springing from her bed. Her bare feet found her slippers, and she shuffled swiftly through the cabin to unlock the front door. Doorknob, deadbolt, the two bolts she had installed after she kicked Mike out. Her shaking hands had been unfamiliar with the drill and unable to press the heads of the screws flush against the metal plates, but for that, at least, she had refused to ask the Garcias for help.

At this altitude, the nights were cold even in summer. Luisa stepped into a bracing morning cast in soft shades of gray beneath a blushing eastern sky: distant mountains and meadows, lakes and oxbow rivers ribboned between them, the grid of dirt roads and wire fences carving up land more empty than developed.

On the porch railing were three little birds.

They hopped along the rail, their claws dancing over the smooth log. They were fists of dark gray except for their eyes, which gleamed red. The birds were free of mud, but the tips of their wings were damp and darkened. They were as silent as ghosts, the flutter of their wings their only sound.

There was something almost like a sob, or a laugh, caught in Luisa’s throat. They had come back. She had not imagined them. They had come back.

A loud grumble broke the quiet. Luisa started before she recognized the sound: the Jake brake of a truck on Highway 24, slowing for the southward curve toward Antero Reservoir.

That mechanical chatter roused the morning around her. A breeze rustled the aspens and swayed the high tops of the ponderosas around the pasture. There was a light on in the Garcias’ house down the hill; their friendly, slobbering boxers began barking for breakfast. Headlights bounced along one of the arrow-straight roads below: That would be Mabel Pearson in her Ford, heading into town to open up the Shell station with a batch of fresh burritos to sell. The mountains, the valley, the morning, all of it woke as it had every other day, inevitable and familiar. The only oddity was the birds.

Two more joined the three perched on the rail. The newcomers flicked their wings, spattering the log with small, dark droplets. Luisa reached out. The birds bumped away from her, but they made no sound and they did not flee. Her fingertip came away smudged with red.

She had the outrageous urge to lick her finger, and even as the thought fluttered through her mind she tasted iron and blood: the mineral evidence of a split lip, a bitten tongue, a bloody nose draining down the back of the throat. The five birds were looking at her, every head tilted at an identical angle.

Her heart thumping, Luisa turned and retreated inside. She shut the door and leaned against it.

Nobody had come to the house in the night. Her dreams had been troubled but her safety undisturbed. There was not a sound from the little birds outside. The morning was so quiet. In her dreams, Mike had called out hey chica, hey chica, and the words had filled her mind with the splitting violence of summer thunder. She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. You cannot make a thing happen by wishing it. Her pulse was footsteps, wing-beats, the clap of a spring door in a storm.

She washed her hands. She put the coffee on. She shed her robe and pajamas for jeans and a flannel shirt, traded her slippers for her stable boots, the ones she had once used for mucking stalls and shoveling manure. She clomped noisily through the cabin, not caring how much noise she made or dirt she tracked. She knew how to use a broom. She could clean, or not, whenever she wanted. She imagined Mike appearing like a phantom in the kitchen doorway — his spite-pickled older self now, not the grinning youth — with his mouth opening to snarl at her about the mess, the clutter, what was the point of having a wife if she was going to be a fucking slob, and instead of cowering and apologizing, because sometimes the right apology could forestall the blows, she let her imaginary self take the broom from the closet and snap it over her knee and drive the broken ends into his gut. She imagined the noise he would have made. She imagined scrubbing his blood from the floor. She was good at washing away bloodstains.

She poured coffee into her red mug, sweetened it with heaping spoonfuls of sugar, and carried it outside. There were seven birds now. Luisa tugged the door shut. An eighth alighted on the rail.

The morning had brightened enough that she could see the verdant green of their wings and the wet gleam at each tip, like burnished copper. She rubbed her fingers against the seam of her jeans.

Carefully, taking care not to frighten the birds, she sat down. The rocking chair had been a wedding gift from her father, built in his garage workshop before the Parkinson’s had gotten too bad. Luisa had never used the chair for soothing babies to sleep, for nursing or napping, none of the things her father had wished for her. But she liked to think he would not begrudge her now, sipping her coffee as the sun rose over the Front Range, the new day a blaze of blue sky and searing mountain light.

By the time the unfamiliar Chevy Tahoe turned onto her drive, the last five birds had joined their siblings on the rail. Luisa counted them from one end to the other as they fluttered their wings and splattered the railing with dark, dark droplets. Thirteen. She could not tell which had been the last and littlest.

She didn’t stand as the truck rolled to a stop, but instead stayed where she was and swallowed the dregs of lukewarm coffee from her mug. The truck had the gold star of the Park County Sheriff on its door. The officer who stepped out was a woman, tall and pale like a stalk of prairie grass, her yellow hair in a tight braid, her face leather-rough from decades in the sun.

The birds took flight as the door slammed shut. They spun upward in a dust-devil twist, out of sight, but Luisa knew when they settled on the ridge of the roof because she felt it, the prick of their damp claws, the breath-soft weight of their round bodies.

The deputy crossed the dirt driveway with an unhurried stride, and she said, “Good morning, ma’am. Are you Mrs. Egan?” She spoke with a strong Texas drawl.

Luisa said, “No. Not for five years. I’m Luisa Diego.”

“Apologies, Ms. Diego. I’m Pauline Mancuso, deputy with the Park County Sheriff’s Department. Mind if we have a word?”

“Did something happen?” Luisa’s mouth was dry. She wondered if she ought to offer the woman some coffee. Her own mug was empty. There was only one chair on the porch.

“I’m afraid so,” Mancuso said. “Sheriff Halverson asked me to stop by. I believe you know him?”

Luisa’s hand tightened on her mug. “What’s the problem?”

“A fisherman down at Spinney Mountain found a body by the water early this morning.”

“A body,” Luisa said.

“Little more than an hour ago. Right by the water,” Mancuso said. “The man who found him recognized him. It’s your ex-husband, Michael Egan.”

“Mike,” Luisa said without thinking. He hated to be called Michael. It reminded him of his mother, just like mashed potatoes, Japanese cars, the scent of lilacs in spring, women in three-quarter-length sleeves, an endless list of insignificant things he had demanded they carve out of their lives, lest a stray thought of his departed mother drift across his mind when he did not invite it. Mike’s mother had died shortly after the wedding. She had been a small, frail woman with a wobbly smile that vanished when her son was looking away.

“What — ” Luisa cleared her throat. The back of her tongue tasted like rust. “What happened?”

“We’re trying to work that out,” Mancuso said. “When was the last time you saw your ex-husband?”

Five years. A flurry of signatures. Phone calls unanswered. Heartbeats counted out like drumbeats urging an army to march. The slam of a door, any door, still reminded her of Mike storming out of the lawyer’s office.

“Not since before he went to prison.” Luisa weighed the risk of asking, decided it was natural to want to know. “Did somebody do something to him? Is that why you’re here?”

Mancuso’s eyebrows lifted. “To be honest, Ms. Diego, it’s a little bit hard to tell. It looks like — well, I apologize for having to say it straight like this, but it looks like animals got to him before he was found.”

“Animals?” Luisa’s gaze flicked toward the dark droplets on the railing.

Mancuso followed her glance. The spots were dried now, seeped into the wood. They barely looked like blood at all. A careless splatter of wood stain — that’s what she would say if the deputy asked.

But Mancuso only said, “He was sitting in a camp chair. Line set up to fish. I’m told he’s always been a fisherman, and he just got out a few days ago. He might’ve wanted some fresh air.”

He always wanted fresh air. He always wanted room to think. He wanted quiet. He wanted company. He wanted silence. He wanted conversation. He wanted freedom. He wanted affection. He was a thing made of wants, voracious, and all he ever wanted was for things to be exactly as he wanted them. The legs of his folding chair would have been sunk into the soft shore of the lake, his fishing line thin and slack over the water, like a single filament of a spider’s web. Luisa could see it. She could see it so clearly she might have been standing in front of him, a flicker at the edge of his vision, a shiver of worry he would pretend not to feel. He would have his coolers beside him, one for bait and one for beer. Mesh baseball cap on his head to hide his bald spot, the tattered brim shading his face.

Whoever found him would have thought he was only dozing through a quiet morning by the water.

Hey, mister, they might have said, that unlucky person. Hey, mister, are you okay?

“We’re trying to find anybody who can attest to his state of mind yesterday,” Mancuso said.

“I haven’t seen him for five years,” Luisa said. “You said it was animals?”

There would have been blood, but early in the morning it might have looked like water, or piss, or spilled beer. Luisa imagined a wound in his gut. She imagined claws. She had raked her fingernails across his face once, years and years ago, one of the few times she fought back, or tried to. She had not scarred him. She had always known that was unfair, how little of what he was inside showed on the surface. In her mind the wounds in his gut changed from claw-slashes to ruptures punching through his pale skin. A man couldn’t carry that much malice and not have it explode out of him in a geyser of blood and viscera. It would have hurt him more if it hadn’t happened all at once. Ten, eleven, twelve ragged wounds. A long breathless pause. One more.

Deputy Mancuso was saying, “It seems that way. Would he have picked up a dog after getting out? One of those fighting dogs, maybe?”

“He hates dogs.” He had been afraid of them, really, but fear turned to hate in the acid alchemy of a man’s fragile pride.

Mancuso nodded. “Did you know he was back in the area?”

“DeeDee Burgess called me yesterday to say he might come back.” Luisa paused. The deputy wasn’t taking notes. She wasn’t looking at the dark-spotted log rail anymore. “That’s his sister. She lives in Alma. You should talk to her.”

“Sheriff Halverson is on his way over there now,” Mancuso said. “Did Mr. Egan call you when he got out of prison?”

“No,” Luisa said firmly. “I wouldn’t have answered if he did, but he didn’t.”

“The sheriff said you might say something like that,” Mancuso said.

Luisa met the other woman’s eyes. “I’m sure he did.”

Five years ago, right after May had tipped into June, Luisa had saddled up Ocotillo and rode into the Mosquito Range for the night. She couldn’t remember what Mike had said when she left, or if he’d even noticed. She had probably forgotten that very afternoon, when it was just her and Ocotillo on the trail, clomping up a snow-swollen Rough and Tumble Creek to Buffalo Meadows, where she made camp beneath peaks that became dark silhouettes as the sun set. In the cold valley bottom that rustled with wind and nocturnal animals, she had lain on the ground with her hands behind her head, listening to Ocotillo munch on spring grass and ignoring the ache in her back from the kidney blows Mike preferred — the bruises were more easily hidden than any on her face and arms. She had watched the stars emerge in the clear sky, and in that eerie, floating calm between numbness and pain she could feel the whole world, the solar system, the galaxy, everything moving and spinning, resonant and blurred like tires on sun-baked asphalt, a dizziness and a certainty she only had when she was alone. She had thought that if she shouted somebody — something — might hear. Hey, hey. The mountains might shout back. She had thought that she might take her horse and her truck and drive away, find a place where nobody knew her name. She had thought that when she woke in the morning, damp with dew under the golden mountain dawn, she would be different. She would know what to do. Go back to the cabin while Mike was at work. Pack a bag; she didn’t need much. Load Ocotillo into the trailer. Drive until her vision blurred and her head buzzed and — there her vision stopped, because she could not imagine herself anywhere but on the land that had been her father’s, and her grandmother’s before him, living in the old log cabin that had become a nightmare distortion of what her home was meant to be.

When she had returned the next evening, Mike was waiting. Waiting, he said, last night for his dinner, this morning for his breakfast, and all day for his goddamned wife to do a single goddamned thing a wife was supposed to do. Luisa had ducked away from his fists, and he had laughed, a sound that sliced at her like razor blades. He told her to make dinner. He stomped outside.

Luisa was in the kitchen when she heard the gunshot from the barn.

She had called the police, but Ocotillo was dead by the time the sheriff arrived. Sheriff Halverson had shaken Mike’s hand and scuffed his boots on the barn floor and said he guessed that a man taking care of his own injured livestock was no crime.

“You don’t keep horses anymore?” Deputy Mancuso asked. Hers was not a voice suited to gentleness. The sheriff had sent her out here to deal with Luisa, woman to woman, but if she resented the errand, she hid it well.

Luisa looked at the barn. It needed fresh paint. Every couple of months she resolved to pay the Garcia brothers to tear it down. Every time she changed her mind.

“No,” Luisa said, the word a hollow ache in her chest. She had named Ocotillo when he a foal newly dropped, because in those first wobbling hours of his life he had been tall and spindly, a little bit ugly, but beautiful too, gleaming like the first sunlight breaking through the clouds after a rainstorm.

She remembered now. It had been Mike’s mother who told her about marriage and drought. Young and newlywed and gnawed by regrets, Luisa had believed the woman was scolding her to try harder. She had not recognized it as a warning.

“That’s a shame. This sure is a pretty piece of property,” Deputy Mancuso said.

“Is there anything else the sheriff wanted to know?” Luisa asked.

“He’s not a man overly motivated by curiosity.” Deputy Mancuso turned away from Luisa, looking across the driveway, over the fading yellow roses, down the sun-warmed hillside. “I’m sorry to have brought you this news so early in the morning, Ms. Diego.”

After the deputy drove away, the little green birds whirled down from the roof in a single tornado flutter. They settled on the rail again. The black tips of their wings shone in the morning sun. They hopped along the log, jostling each other into a line.

Luisa counted them again: 13.

After Mike had fired the gun, after the sheriff had left, Luisa had knelt in the blood-soaked straw and cut Ocotillo’s mane and tail with a sharpened kitchen knife. With every snap of blade through hair she had wished she was cutting a piece of Mike instead. The fingers of one hand, then the other, that made ten. His dick, that was eleven. A slash through his left cheek, a slash through the right, that would give him a bloody grimace where his flirtatious smile had once been. Thirteen wounds for thirteen years of marriage. When she finished, she had wiped the knife clean and put it back in the kitchen drawer.

He’s gone, Luisa thought, moving her lips but making no sound. They were the same words she had whispered to herself when Mike drove his truck away in a gravel-spitting fury. When she changed the locks. When she sharpened her knives. When the bruises faded. When she walked into the lawyer’s office. When she signed the papers. When she’d rid herself of his clothes, his bed, his sheets, his scent.

He’s gone, she had said to herself over and over again, but every time, every time, the reassurance in her mind ended with the retort of a gunshot, the trembling of the earth, and the memory of a raw howl of grief tearing from her throat.

“He’s gone,” she said.

The words quivered on the morning air. The birds stilled. Their restless hopping, their careless bumping along the line, it all stopped. Thirteen pairs of red-gold eyes, thirteen sharp beaks, thirteen sets of claws stained ruddy, thirteen feathery green bodies the color of spring leaves, and not a single flicker of motion. They were all looking at her.

Luisa searched the humming cavity in her chest for guilt. She felt hollow and light, as insubstantial as dandelion fluff. If she exhaled, she would float away.

“Okay,” she said. “It’s okay. He’s gone.”

The birds tilted their heads. Then, all at once, they burst into a noisy, chattering song.

Surprised, Luisa let out a bark of laughter. The notes they sang were high and clear. They jumped from the railing to take to the air again. Luisa stood to watch them. The birds wheeled away in a loose spiral, climbing and climbing, carrying their song upward until they were no more than specks against the clear blue sky.

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees and the middle grade fantasy City of Islands. Her first novel for adults, the sci fi thriller Salvation Day, will be published by Berkley in 2019. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s,, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.