NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR FICTION
“The Language of Rivers” by Patrick Dawson of London, England
Patrick will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
The Language of Rivers
By Patrick Dawson
The Indians of the desert had a name for the river. It translated roughly as Mother of Time. They believed the river’s great rocks caused the water to speak, to sing. They had faith in the river’s voice and its secrets. In the language of rivers they knew, there are many words for silence.
Marty’s hair is cut short and stubby, deep black the color of coal. She has kept it short since the funerals though she didn’t like it that way. It is a kind of talisman, a symbolic mourning band. A public acknowledgement of loss. Or maybe a form of penance. Though she felt little emotion about their passing. Passing, that was the term everyone used. As though they had been just passing through life like you’d drive through a town on your way somewhere else.
Late afternoon. She sits beneath the shadow of the house. In the only place that is even passingly cool. The swift river is just beyond the pasture land, its waters rushing steadily, refusing to yield to the desert, the surface animated by great rocks. But it offers no chill, no relief from heat. Marty’s sheer tank top spirals from one shoulder. It barely covers her. She contemplates sitting here naked in the heat, letting the hot wind play on her bare flanks, her belly, down her legs. The house is empty, after all.
It is almost four. Marty should go pick up little William. She would have to change first into something that wouldn’t be talked about. She is a young girl in a desert town. The place is weary; its ways, even its air, indolent in the sun. Streets hushed like a churchyard. On the main street, working men gather in front of a bar at the end of the day. The bar is called Billy’s Sundown and has been there forever. Even in the shadowy corners, it pulsed with the desert heat long after the sun went down. So the ranch hands spread themselves across the benches outside. They press cold beer bottles against their foreheads and speak in short bursts. Marty knows the men talk about her after she passes.
The strangers among them, mostly young men with careless eyes, stood off by themselves. There was a row of flag decals on the window where they leaned against the wall and a hand-lettered sign faded like an old stamp that said NO Loitering.
At first, the boy had been one of them, one of the strangers.
She first saw him sitting on a khaki duffel bag, head down, thumb extended pointing up the highway. The pitched heat at midday was white, impregnable. The sun lay on him like rust. There was one cottonwood nearby casting a mockery of shade. From the backseat of the Marin’s car, he appeared to her like a statue of dust. They were driving slow. The desert air, crisp like old paper, blew in the car windows and lifted her hair from her face. It was six miles to town. A single gliding vulture, its wings in a shallow V, circled above, expectant.
Mr. Marin did not stop.
“Don’t know why they come here. Not enough work for our own.”
He said this as though giving a speech, to no one and everyone. His native drawl slipped into a stutter when he was agitated. Wordless, staring at the road shimmering with heat far ahead, his wife didn’t bother to agree.
He shook his head. “You never know what they’re running from.”
Marty made sure they weren’t watching when she looked back through the dust at him. The boy may be a stranger here she thought, but he knew enough to avoid the shade where the rattlesnakes gathered during the day to escape the high desert heat. Her only other thought…he was probably just passing through.
Marty lived in a spare room on the ranch that years before had been storage for hay and feed. It held the earthy smell of deserted barns. She tried to hold back her displeasure when Mrs. Marin first showed it to her.
“My husband doesn’t really like having people living with us in the big house. But if you want, now and then we don’t mind if you come up for meals.”
The woman looked away when she said this, uneasy with her lie. Marty sensed the first whiff of trouble. Thin, vaporous, it was gone in a moment. A ragged snap of wind from a coming storm.
“It’s OK. I can make it work.” Marty’s voice held just a touch of doubt and impatience. She would not make it too easy for the woman.
That January, shivering in her small cabin outside Boulder, she had pondered the ad. A nanny with some background in teaching. That week the cold around the cabin seemed to enter her, pressing against her bones like metal. She checked in the newspaper at the library and it was twenty degrees warmer in New Mexico. That’s all it took. Life turns on a weather report.
Marty had never taken care of kids. Her brothers were all older. But a few teaching courses in college had been enough to satisfy the Marins. She would take care of the boy and start some basic lessons. They offered her board and $50 a week. It was less than she wanted but it was almost spring and warmer, and anything seemed possible.
The room had an aluminium shower wedged in the corner. Marty hung a plastic sheet across it, which kept the water from the floor but offered little privacy. Sometimes she didn’t mind that, bathing in a fantasy of someone watching her soap the day’s heat and sweat from her bare skin. The room is sparsely fitted out with an iron bed, straight-backed wooden chair, and the artifacts of a life still vague. There is a paper lantern somewhat Oriental throwing a thinned-out square of light on the floor. Her alarm clock that emits a constant hum. A box of paperback books is pushed to the end of the bed. Objects that exhale solitude.
At night she drank beer from a can and listened to radio stations from cities distant enough to stoke illusions about the lives of people there. She had grown up in a small city in a small state. The past year she had been with a man-boy named Luke for a time. He was 20 and worked on an oil rig. When the well and the work expired, he was gone. She got a letter a month later, a single page of motel notepad with scrawl almost too hard to read, emotions too feeble to care about.
Gradually, she came to understand life at the Marin place. The great old house, its many rooms, some of them seemingly untouched, as though saved for something. There were close to 900 acres of working land. That didn’t make the Marins well-off she learned. Still, they always had money around. Twice Marty had come upon large manila envelopes filled with fat wads of cash. She wasn’t snooping. Once she had seen the money on Mr. Marin’s desk. The other time William was playing with twenty-dollar bills, laying them out in rows back to back. He had found them in the drawer. There must have been hundreds of them. She quietly put all of them back in their envelope.
When Mr. Marin spoke to her at all, it was always despairing somehow, dark at the edges. A flicker of reproach in his expression for just a second. Some quarrel in his eyes.
Once a week, Marty goes to Moran’s. She had two dresses she thought worked well for that. They are shades of dark blue and she had shortened them herself. She moves along the bar like a young animal. The men study her movements. Their lips work silently. Marty knows the heat in their glances, the weight of their stares. What they would say to her alone in the dark, given the chance.
Though everyone said this is the nicest place in town, she thinks this says little about Moran’s, but much about the town. Though it is nothing like the Sundown. The air conditioning struggles but works. The ashtrays are emptied regularly. The shelves behind the bar are bleached desert oak stocked with exotic liqueurs idling in the bottles. They are untouched. It is the Kentucky bourbon and rye that flow steadily. There is a picture of President Kennedy torn from a newspaper taped to the bar’s mirror and an emblem with the crossed sabers of the Seventh Cavalry. The regiment is in Vietnam huddled in the Mekong delta. The president has been dead almost three years.
Usually, the men here are from town. Businessmen and ranchers mostly, high desert nobility. She thinks of them as much older than she is, even the ones who are not. Their faces are hard. The sharp defining features polished flat by the wind and the sun. Habits fixed like a pole star. In the few months of her life here, Marty had been with one of them. Like someone just passing through. Passing time.
Often, there is only one other girl at the bar, thin and childlike with nervous hands and blond hair teased so it resembled a nest. She has a shrill laugh like a torch, too emphatic for her slight figure, but it drew men around her like honey. Sunny was her name.
“Sunny by name, sultry by nature.” Always followed by the laugh.
Marty had heard this again and again. Though sharing few interests, somehow she still felt a kind of kinship with her. Thrown together randomly in this obscure place. Two orphans adrift in a boat searching for something on the horizon. Sunny wanted a rich rancher, but in less than a year would marry the town’s druggist.
The room is full, a Saturday crowd. Men stand at one end of the bar, their black boots shined, propped on the rail. They wear white hats with wide brims. Couples at the tables eating in silence.
Marty is paddling her fingers across the ice in her drink. Her dreams are of the sea at Galveston at twilight. The long beaches and slow flat waves, the Gulf tepid like a bath and the bright Texas sun dipping toward Mexico. She thinks there could be nothing as good as that.
“You look lost.”
The drawl, wide and flat, glides out of the haze of voices. Oklahoma she thinks.
Her answer is directed to the amber drink in her glass.
“No way, cowboy. This is my bar.”
Marty runs a wet finger slowly across the bar forming an arrow that points to the door. She is not certain of the meaning.
“I work out on the Darwin ranch…since last month…first time I’ve been in here.”
Silent, she listens to the pauses pile up like dust against the side of a house. Yeah, Oklahoma. She’s almost certain.
Marty waits a beat, then one more, sure of what he will say next.
“What do you do?”
Right on cue, she marvels. Her eyes plumb the depths of her drink. She speaks without looking.
“I’m an expert on human frailty.”
His lips are now pursed, eyes thoughtful, the words weighed just long enough.
“Given what I’ve seen, the town should keep you pretty busy.”
She waits another beat then catches his gaze in the mirror. Oklahoma is waiting too, she knows this. His face is shadowed with some audacity she doesn’t recognize. It seems devoted to something worthy. She is aware of his hands which have a steady, heedless kind of grace.
“And you’ve come to take me away from all this, I suppose.”
“No, I’m stuck here too.”
It is a small insight, but there is a kind of casual honesty. Also, he has left the stool between them empty, which she likes. It is a measure of patience in short supply on Saturday nights here.
She shrugs. Her voice is playful. “Then you better sit down.”
There is a long moment before she recognizes something in his presence, something familiar. It curls her mouth in a half smile. It is the dusty boy from the road.
Her question is part demand.
“Do you have a…”
He fills her pause.
“First or last?”
“So we’re on a first name basis already?” She is teasing, probing at his defenses.
“Well, tempus fugit and all that.” He says this like a shrug.
Now she wonders if this may be a mistake, considers how fast even the bold ones lose the advantage. All that potential brought down by a cliche.
“Saw that on a greeting card did you, Cowboy Taylor?”
Watching his eyes, she waits for the hurtful expression to fill them. That stupid, doleful-boy look, the I thought you were nice look. His eyes are languid though, resting on her.
“No, it’s from Virgil originally. It was in a book that I really liked.”
Perhaps because he says it so quietly, she feels he is not showing off.
“Is it? So we’re playing name-dropping the classics?”
The fat bartender, the one who filled in some Saturdays, is walking up the bar wiping the surface, inviting himself into their midst. His crew cut, trimmed razor short, makes his face featureless. The words tumble from a mouth that barely moves.
“You folks doing OK? Need something?”
“No, we’re good. Taylor here was just telling me all about Virgil.”
His expression spreads from disinterest to confusion.
“You mean that half-wit boy at the filling station?”
“No, this one is from out of town.”
He nods, his face once again empty. She gives him the smile that says all is fine for now, then turns back.
“What’s your guess, Taylor…you think Virgil at the gas station knows much Latin?”
“Well, let’s not shortchange his potential.” Marty is pushing the ice cubes down into her drink. “On the other hand, I’ve been here awhile and I doubt I’ve heard a word of Latin. The place is dead, not the languages.”
She is watching his hands again. They are relaxed, resting on the bar. He seems unscathed by her insolence.
“That could be the result of that human frailty you mentioned.” He takes a slow sip from his beer bottle. “You know the tempus fugit thing is mostly misunderstood. What most people think of–if they know it at all–is time flies.”
“And you’re going to tell me that’s all wrong.”
“Well, they say, it’s not so much a cliche. It’s actually more subtle, different meaning entirely. More like…time is lost and will never come again.”
She knows he is enjoying this, doing it for her. Card tricks with a dead language. There’s boldness in her eyes. She has left her uncertainty behind.
“Well, that Virgil was nothing if not subtle. Unlike our Virgil here…”
Like a chorus, they both say it.
“…down at the filling station.”
Moonlight gilds the surface of the water. The cool plateau of river plays against the heat and the quiet. Against the dark. It is an invitation. He is a few steps ahead of her on the path. The darkness falls open to receive them. Marty wonders if she ought to be afraid. She imagines herself one of the desert animals out there right now, foraging in the night. Like them, she is prey raising its head to sniff the air for danger. Unlike them, she feels a need to be careless.
At the water, they are joined for a moment. The sound of unseen creatures nearby. All around the clatter of the night. She recalls the moist corners of his mouth at the bar, the jagged force of his gaze. In a kind of joyousness she leans into him.
His voice holds a lesser drawl now, as if intimacy is softening the edges.
“Your skin is so warm.”
“Everything is warm here,” she whispers, “you’ll learn that.”
All at once, Marty feels there are things she needs to reveal. She wants to hold his face in her hands and blurt out secrets. Confessions, desires. Her only allegiance is to this moment. She knows it is not love. It is simpler. Something between imagination and revelation. It is a rich thrill.
She sees a thin, yellow cross against his skin. She feels her own nakedness, how good it is. Then the cool, river water is around them, the current a kind of shared skin. Beneath the surface, Marty opens her eyes and he is there framed by the halo of light above. His hand barely touching her. The river is a dark tunnel, its water passes above and below, gliding along her like a caress. She wants nothing more.
Afterwards in the quiet, Marty willed him not to speak. Wishing for only stillness. Just the music of his breathing and the night. There is a storm in the distance, flashes of light behind the mountains. The sign of heaven glittering in the dark.
Taylor comes once, maybe twice a week. He parks the old borrowed pickup at the main road and walks to her so the Marins don’t know. Some nights they creep out of her room laughing silently like children and share his sleeping bag by the river. There is always the river, and they are often still awake as the desert light rises, comes to glisten on its surface.
He is looking at the sky.
“Have you noticed the people here don’t so much complain about the heat as immortalize it.”
“I felt a little immortal a while ago.” Marty murmurs this shamelessly, her hand clasped around his thigh, pulling him to her. Her desire is still raw like a wound.
There is a minute or two before he speaks again.
“My granddad was an outlaw.” He says this indifferently, as though reading an entry from the encyclopedia. Her longing will have to wait.
“And mine was Wyatt Earp.”
“No, he was, truly.”
It is embarrassing to her how she loves the way he says ‘truly’. She knows he is that earnest. When he sleeps, there is something admirable in his face. She often watches for the slight tremors of his dreams, as though it was where the truth of him lay.
“It was right around 1900…West Texas. He said it wasn’t really a bad life, I mean a bad person’s life. Claimed we all have a bit of larceny in us, just some people act on it more than others. And he never shot anybody. Said as long as you didn’t shoot anyone or steal horses, the Texas Rangers would leave you alone.”
The light has now begun to gather around them.
“And how did this tale of the Old West turn out?”
“Apparently, he was involved in some kind of mishap, mistaken for someone else. And in this mishap, someone got shot. That’s when the Rangers started after him. He decided to retire just across the border in Oklahoma, took to farming.”
Her mouth is on his throat, not really a kiss. She wants it to be intimate, maybe even chaste. Her question is a murmur.
“What about your parents?”
He shifts slightly, leaving a small space between them. For the first time she senses a wariness, as if some cruelty trailed after him.
“My father was a different kind of crook. He sold insurance to small farmers scratching out a living…a hundred acres of top land, a handful of underweight cattle. You listen to him, the talk was pure Texas. Like his people had been at the Alamo and he owned ten thousand acres.”
Something lifeless is now in his voice. Marty remains still beside him.
“The insurance was always more than they needed, more than they could afford. You know that expression, all hat and no cattle? Well, that was him. Oh, and he drank…professionally.”
His words sound depleted, tired.
“That’s why we got out.”
He says nothing of his mother. Marty can sense a darkness there, the void.
“Who was ‘we’?
“My little brother and me. We went to live with my grandad.”
She feels his hand on the inside of her knee, only a faint touch, weightless. The sweep of a cat’s tail. An intimacy restored. Yet something now suggests she may enter only when she has consent.
“So your daddy was a crook and granddad was an outlaw…”
She says this as much to the sky as to him.
“Yeah, I’m thinking maybe I should run for office.”
He remained quiet then.
Nights come, then days. The summer air is porous. The heat hard like iron. During these weeks Marty has taught herself not to anticipate. She is not sick with love. There is only a sweet tenderness, and sometimes the lash of desire. Somehow, she knows she will pass just the days with Taylor, not the years. He will be a sentence only half-written.
Early morning. The scrim of night slowly drawn back. The river is flat gray and sullen in the faint light. They are dressing when the gun slips from his bag, the leather bag Taylor always brings along. That he is never without. It gleams in what is left of the moonlight. She knows this is nothing strange, not in this part of the country. Still, she feels something then, something in the way he places the gun back in the bag. In the way he says nothing. A thing suddenly brittle between them. As if they are no longer co-conspirators.
Walking back to the house, he is quiet. Marty cannot shake a single image from her mind. The old man, his shock of pure white hair, his pale Stetson riding one knee and two small boys, rapt, listening to the stories. Hearing him tell the outlaw tales, the psalms of his country. The way of life that cannot be reversed.
“I came here looking for them.” He says this in a measured way, laid out evenly like cards being dealt. They are standing together just beyond the barns. He is looking at the big house.
The words are oddly austere. Yet she has the feeling of being lost in a whirlwind of things shifting, as in the moment before driving into a rainstorm. It is then Marty thinks of how much she has shared about the Marins. About the house, the money.
“For them, for the Marins? Why?”
A long silence follows.
“My brother did some work around here. Did some work for them, and for people they knew.”
His words are simple enough, non-threatening. The barest of facts. My brother worked around here for them. Yet she can feel their sullen force, that they are seeded with menace. That there is more he will not say.
What has been missing.
“Until he didn’t work for them.” This last has a sharp edge.
“Taylor, you’re confusing me…it’s even scaring me a bit.”
There is a spasm of flight from a tree above them. Birds suddenly alight in the dawn, birds of prey. Unseen the day has opened. His face is spoiled with tension, dark circles stretch below his eyes.
“Rock me on the water, soothe me with your mercy…” He says this as though thinking out loud.
“It’s something my grandfather used to say to us. Something between a prayer and a warning. It was a sign that something tough was up ahead. My brother said it just before he hung up last time we spoke. He was laughing, but I don’t think he meant it as a joke.”
She is silent after this, waiting.
“I know he was around here until a few months ago. He used to call every couple of weeks. And then the calls just stopped.”
“Maybe he just took off for California or Mexico…like an adventure. Maybe there was a girl.”
“He would have told me.”
“Do you want me to ask the Marins?”
“Be better if you didn’t, I think.”
Faced with a stab of something absolute in this, her assent is wordless. And Marty recognizes something else, something beyond anger. A stubborn force, but something holy in it too. What was honest and calm in him, now threaded with a grave intention. She wanted more time alone with him. Time to order all this…before what? To say what?
Some conclusion, unsparing, unknown, gathers around her. They stand saying nothing then. The sky is featureless, as if the heat had scoured all the life from it. A mirror of the land. The big house is not yet awake.
Friday, almost evening, and Marty is waiting for the Marins to return. She thinks Taylor may be at Moran’s later. She is making William’s dinner while he plays just outside the porch door. The boy is beautiful, the kind of informal, temporal beauty that will endure only a short time. A wistful child murmuring a song of his own making.
The Marins have gone to town. To meet the others. At least that was how it sounded. Marty had heard them talking in the hallway before they left. A slipstream of angry, strident whispers. It was clear Mrs. Marin didn’t want them to go. When she finally agreed, her voice held something ruinous in it. Bitterness, perhaps directed at herself. The acrid taint of surrender.
“I want a tree house.”
William is stacking lettered blocks into a structure that seemed incapable of standing.
“Are you sure? A tree house can be kind of scary and high up.” Marty says this through the screen above the sink. “Suppose we make a fort instead?”
Marty knew they would never let him have a tree house. The boy didn’t seem deterred.
“No, a tree house. So I can hide from the bad man.”
She only half-heard this, barely registering the imagined demons of a five year-old. Then after a few seconds, Marty thought to reassure him.
“There are no bad men here.”
“I saw them talking to Daddy.”
“Are you sure…where did you see them?”
“In the town. I was in the car. The bad man was outside talking to Daddy and then he hit him. And he fell down.”
She again weighs the realm of imagination in a lonely little boy. But there is something earnest in his voice.
“What did your Daddy tell you about it?”
“He said not to cry. And that only boys should know about this, not to tell Mama.”
He was holding back tears. The only time she had seen him anything but content with his world.
It is after ten. William is asleep and she could hear ordinary sounds, as if everything were the same. The windows are open, a night wind lashes at the house. Marty knows something is wrong. Mrs. Marin would have phoned. She wants to call Taylor but has no phone number. She wants to elude the fear rising like water around her.
In the morning, the sky is scoured to a whitish blue. Twin fence lines mark the edge of the highway. Driving north to south, the deputy is first aware of the smell of gasoline. It lingers in the air like something metallic. Then, he sees the vultures circling ahead. The landscape is stark, prehistoric. The desert here has taken everything. Except the car. Thirty yards from the road it lies flipped over. A dead insect scorched black on all sides. The Marins’ bodies have burned inside. So much so, there will be no real remains to be examined. Just human ash like something sacrificial.
The deputy approaches with his handkerchief held to his face. New to the job, his hands are trembling. He is a young man, his face unlined by trouble and he is here in the presence of death, in a field of dust. Stumbling on the uneven ground, his boots kick the loose, dry earth ahead of him. The dirt will bury all the spent shell casings. The vultures circle slowly, patient as priests.
In the first days of Taylor’s absence, Marty clung to the faith he was still somewhere near. That he would show up late at night, sleeping bag thrown over a shoulder. Until she knew better. It was just for a time, two saplings bent against one another by the wind. What else had she imagined?
In the river, there are now torrents of water, foamy and yellow from the sandy banks. The hard rains of autumn have pushed it almost beyond its banks. The cascading river that will give up the body. Give up its dead. The body has been submerged a long time, trapped beneath the great rocks. Distorted, its face smoothed of features like a balloon, it looks like no one; it will be impossible to identify. Had it not spent so much time in the water, someone might have recognized the features. Like a younger version of that boy that used to work the Darwin ranch.
Marty walks in the early mornings before the heat rises. The light is silver. Little William will go to relatives soon and then she would leave. For some things there is no explanation.
When she thinks of Taylor, about the last time she had seen him, he is shirtless. Standing in the river near the bank, surrounded by the large stones polished smooth by the current. His back is wiry, browned by weeks of work in the sun. The work done by strangers. His jeans are covered with the dry dust of summer to the knees where the river water had dyed them the color of night. He is motionless like the stones. She can imagine walking the long path to the river and standing in the water close enough to feel the heat from his skin. She would stand very still while the water bears their reflection in its cool surface. In dreams anything is possible. Especially with strangers.
There is the sound of the days passing. It carries everything along with it. At night she lies in her room, the bed turned to the window and the river breeze. Marty is twenty-four. She is a girl in a desert town. She knows the freedom of loneliness, the soft weight of longing.
In the river, the angry torrents have subsided, its peace restored. In a few hours the desert heat will begin again. The 7th Cavalry will be home next year. The dead President will be young forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Dawson spent nearly three decades as a journalist, most of it as an award-winning national and international correspondent for NBC News, CNN and ABC. He is currently at work on a collection of short fiction and a novel. He lives in London and New York.
“The Language of Rivers” © 2018 Patrick Dawson