August Fiction: Barry Lopez
In the spirit of August and the tradition of summer reading, Places is featuring a series of short stories in which landscapes are central to mood and meaning.
[Photo by Michael Lundgren]
The barren mountains rose swiftly from the plain, an accordion of jagged walls from which no water seemed to flow, the vault itself harboring creases of fugitive shadow amid planes of adobe brown and burnt sienna light. Two hours after sunrise little life moved on the plain below, aside from small rodents and their hunters, coyotes and hawks. Less life stirred above in the stone redoubts. The woman in the blue pickup, seen from the high ridge line, was no more than a dark dot in the gray sage flat, and would have been lost to the eye had she not been following the straight rule of the highway.
From behind the steering wheel the black road ahead would appear to terminate at the foot of the mountains, but the woman with the dog knew it didn’t, that it swung up to the left and climbed through a long set of hairpins to the ridge. From there it dropped into a high valley.
The woman was comfortable with none of the people she’d met out here, but she understood that the dark forge of her own life had made her a person difficult to approach. Only some patient and diligent inquirer might work past her inbred suspicion, the squirrelly sense of danger she emanated, and enter through some door she had not secured. Pride, anger — perhaps even despair — had kept the door ajar. She didn’t know why and hardly thought to care. She could neither remember completely nor entirely forget what had been done to her, and years of indistinct and poisonous memories had made her habitually tense. Only the dog, a black-and-white border collie she’d gotten fixed, moved around her easily.
Terrin Macdonald, no drifter, she believed, no woman looking for a man, drove the speed limit across Constance Basin in northern Nevada with both hands on the wheel. She’d earned a degree with honors in biology at Scripps, a master’s at Yale, and at the same place wrote her doctoral thesis on disturbances in the hormonal cycles of certain frogs in the California Sierra. A string of failed job interviews followed graduate school, ending with an offer from the Nevada Office of Public Health. The department took her on as an epidemiologist, a field biologist, and sent her away into the unpopulated basins and ranges of the state’s northern counties, to monitor water sources for the kind of viruses that might cause encephalitis-like disease.
She accepted the job as soon as it was offered — she preferred to work alone, and far from any warren of offices — but it didn’t occur to her to thank the professor at Scripps who, having heard of all her previous failed interviews, interceded on her behalf. The supervisor at Nevada Public Health decided to hire her largely because Terrin’s name was one that already stood out in the professional journals. She had been among the first to see the connection between the intensification of El Niño/La Niña oscillations, which increased rainfall in the Southwest, and consequent changes in microhabitats on the Colorado Plateau, which altered the viral ecologies of those habitats. Her insights had been the crucial piece in understanding the cause of occasional flare-ups of hanta virus pulmonary syndrome across the Southwest.
Just over six feet tall, a rangy but not gangly woman, Terrin had an overlong, deliberate stride. She kept her short auburn hair neatly trimmed and wore the same type of clothes everywhere, every day: baggy pants, long-sleeved cotton shirts, and L. L. Bean swamp boots laced halfway up, with her cuffs tucked in. Other than a nondescript pair of ever-present silver ear studs, she wore no jewelry. She kept a GPS unit and a cell phone in separate scabbards on her belt and a black, solar-powered watch on her left wrist. She had the phone primarily to get on-the-spot help from labs and libraries and the GPS mostly to ground-truth details on her 1:250,000 USGS maps. When she stayed in motels, she stripped the bed, put on her own sheets, blankets, and pillowcases, and secured the door and windows, already locked, with hammer-set wedges.
That morning, driving west across Constance Basin, she recalled an exchange she’d had the year before with the dean of the Graduate School at UC Davis, an authority on the small mammals of California. She’d phoned him when she discovered a muskrat living in the marsh she was now headed for, in the Petersen Mountains on the Nevada-California border. Muskrats had never been seen there, not in historic times. What did he think? He said muskrats could never have gotten there on their own, the distance between patches of suitable supporting habitat was too great. They would have become fatally dehydrated on the journey. She’d probably seen a mountain beaver, he suggested, of which there were, he told her, several local records. The insinuation that she didn’t know the difference between a mountain beaver and a muskrat got under her skin. A few weeks later she live-trapped a muskrat at the marsh, photographed it, and e-mailed him the image, with a note: “Hadley — You don’t know dog shit about small mammals. Terrin.”
But she couldn’t fathom it either. Unless someone had brought the muskrat in — and why would anyone? — it had gotten there in some way she couldn’t picture. She brooded on the event, driving across the valley, because this was not the first time she’d run into such a situation, been in an area where everyone from long-time local residents to Fish and Wildlife biologists claimed that all members of one particular species or another had been hunted out, or had died out, only later to learn that the species had been living there all along, or, alternatively, had come back.
Terrin, who took some Native American lore as seriously as she took juried papers, recalled that when she was working with frogs in the Sierra Nevada, first a Maidu man, Richardson Five Sparrows, and then Marian Yellowater, a Northern Paiute elder, had told her the same thing: wild animals can live in two dimensions in the same place. If they are not respected in the dimension where we are used to seeing them, they said, the animals go to live in the other dimension. When conditions improve, they come back. They are never really gone from a place.
For Terrin, such notions quivered at the edge of believability. They were something a purely empirical mind, the mind she began college with, would reject out of hand. But, scrutinizing her close observations in her Sierra notebooks, what emerged for her finally, from the shadow world behind her hard data sets, was a companion thought: the world was more weirdly hinged than she’d been taught.
* * *
At the foot of the mountains that rose so abruptly from the plain, Terrin turned north and drove three miles to the Shannon ranch house. She wanted to let the foreman know she’d be spending a few days again on one of his allotments in the Petersens, on rangeland that belonged to the Bureau of Land Management, actually, but which the foreman’s employer, who now lived in Australia, considered his own because his family had held the leases there for nearly five decades.
The foreman, Bill Clarkson, was gone, but Terrin felt compelled to accept his wife Muriel’s offer of instant coffee.
“Frank’s home now, my boy, working with Bill,” Muriel began, trying to draw the younger woman into conversation. “He’s back from the war.” She paused. “He said the other day he seen a mountain lion up there at Dixon Marsh, but I don’t believe it. Never heard of any lions up that way.”
“Oh, possibly he did.”
“I can tell you though, Bill, he sees one he’ll shoot it, law or no law, ‘cause sooner or later it’ll be comin’ after these cattle.”
The living room where Terrin endured the bitter coffee and rural protocol was shuttered completely against the harsh morning light that now flooded the plain. She was familiar with the figurines in the room, tripled-shelved across two walls and spread across tables between pieces of heavy furniture. They intensified, in a cartoonish and eerie way, a feeling she had there of being trapped underground. The inexpensive china figures, horses and dogs, cats with nursing litters, seemed part of a time capsule, with the truck-stop plastic grizzly bears and mountain lions in defiant and skulking poses.
“You’re up there then ‘til Thursday?”
“Okay, then, if you’re not back by Friday I’ll send Bill up.”
“I’ll see you noon Thursday. If I don’t show up, you send Bill.”
“Well, you bein’ such a mountain girl, I’m not assuming you’re in any danger, if I don’t know.”
“I expect you might know some about danger, Muriel.”
“Maybe I do. Maybe I do. Thursday then, if you’re not here noon.”
* * *
She drove the road that slowly climbed the mountain wall and an hour later, in the next valley over, Chevrolet Valley, she again turned north. She drove nine miles to the road’s end and parked. With the dog running loose ahead and the 40-pound pack on her back she set off for Dixon Marsh, a five-mile walk over hilly ground. She watched the trail closely for tracks, but saw nothing she didn’t expect.
This time of year, she knew, late autumn, migrating waterfowl might still be on the marsh pond and hunters might be there, poaching. What she had to accomplish — draw water samples, check her insect traps and reset them — would take until late Wednesday, only two days, but she didn’t want to hike back to the car in failing light. She’d leave early Thursday morning, stop at the Shannon Ranch, then take the samples to her home in Tonopah to work on them.
Just shy of the marsh the dog, ranging far ahead on the familiar trail, returned at a lope and stood anxious by her side. She was approaching the pond at the southern end of the marsh but stood now below a rise that kept her from actually seeing it. She shouldered off the pack, took a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol from one of its side pockets and got the dog on a leash. She reshouldered the pack and with the leash in one hand and the gun in the other left the trail. Walking below the rise she wouldn’t be seen by anyone in the marsh, not until she passed to the west of it. From there, though, she knew she could glass the entire area from beneath the cover of two small junipers.
She made the traverse, shed the pack, clipped the dog to it, and crept hunched over toward the top of the rise, carrying binoculars and the pistol. For fifteen minutes she studied every crease in the land. She studied the whole of it again. There was nothing.
She set up her tent apart from the marsh and far from the trail, and as she bent to the routine, she rued, as if it were part of the routine, the history of her life, the layers of caution it had induced in her. Her father had not been the worst of the three men that first night, and he hadn’t been there the other times when his brothers came back. But he refused to hear her speak of it. Not his own brothers, not his family.
* * *
She set off early the next morning, carrying her lunch and sampling equipment in a day pack, the pistol concealed in her waistband. Crossing damp ground, she kept an eye out for lion tracks, but saw no pug or claw mark. No scrapes. Late in the afternoon two men on horseback came over the ridge to the east. They rode down into the depression that cradled the hundred or so acres of marsh. She knew they’d spotted her before she was aware of them. The contours of the land, anyway, offered no place to hide. She stood her ground with the dog, the butt of the pistol hidden by her shirt. Mostly, she thought, she wanted to avoid an impulsive mistake. If she waved them off with the gun, where would they go? Would they split up? Would they come back after dark? Would they slash her tires at the trailhead and wait?
The men came on slowly, in the clothes of cowboys, young men carrying nothing. Thirty yards away they reined up. Dark-skinned men, maybe Mexican. The man on her left touched the brim of his hat. “Afternoon,” he said.
She nodded but didn’t speak.
After a moment the man took off his sunglasses and said, “We didn’t expect to find anyone up here.” He waited, and then he said, “This is my brother Wayne. I’m Eddie Bannerman. We’re from over there at the Simpson Ranch.” He cocked his head sideways, in the direction he meant.
The second man had a rifle in a saddle scabbard. His fist rested on the stock.
The brothers exchanged a look but she couldn’t gauge it. The other one said, “We got permission to be up here.”
She didn’t know what that meant.
“You surprised me, is all,” she offered. “I’m up here a lot. I never see anybody else.”
“You huntin’ ducks?” the second man asked.
“I’m working. I’ve got an experiment going here.”
The first one dismounted cautiously, handed his reins to the other, and approached Terrin, sizing her up, picking his way around the rocks, wary like a crow. When he was a few yards away he stopped. The leash twitched in her hand, the dog tense now as a loaded spring.
“That’s a good-looking dog. What’s his name?”
The man wiped moisture from his cheekbones with a kerchief.
“What my brother meant was this. This land, I guess you know, is leased to a guy lives in Australia. We don’t work for him, but long ago all this belonged to us, to Washoe people.” He watched her face for a sign, a signal that would let him continue, but saw nothing. “We always come up here in the fall.” He swept his arm across the marsh. “To look around.”
“What do you look for?” she said, suspicious but interested now.
He thumbed his hat back. He took a chance. “Tiltoshmineh
,” he answered.
She nodded for him to go on and he did. “It’s a little bug. Five of ‘em could fit on your fingernail.” He held his hand out to show her, fingers splayed, palm down, a settling gesture. “Right now, they’re out there on those sedge spikes. We want to see how many. We need to count ‘em.”
Her fingers tightened and loosened on the dog’s leash.
“A little bug?”
“If you’re interested in bugs like that, we could go over there by the water and I could show you.”
“Okay. I’d like to see ‘em.”
The man looked back to his brother sitting his horse, sullen and disapproving.
The Washoe man walked Terrin down to the edge of the pond, the dog between them. He reached out with a willow stick and turned a few sedge spikes to expose the sides of them opposite the rays of the sun. Terrin saw dozens of dark creatures on the surface of each shaft. They looked like a type of salid to her, what local people called shore bugs.
“Is that a lot?”
“Yeah, that’s a lot.”
She drew a breath and exhaled sharply — and felt the pistol slip against her stomach. She inhaled quickly.
“If it’s all right with you, me and my brother, we’ll just look around and then we’ll be leaving,” he said, laying the stick aside.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. She made an offhand gesture and began petting the dog, hoping to look more professionally at ease. “You have as much right to be here as I do, I get that.”
“Can I ask you, what is it you do?” he said.
“I’m a biologist. I look at how animals live in a situation like this, over time you know, what happens to them. And then I try to figure out if it bodes well.”
“If it’s going to be harmful to people. You can learn quite a bit about what’s coming from watching animals, but I expect you know that.”
“I know what you mean.”
“You ever hear of hanta virus?”
“Yeah. Down there with them Navajos. I heard about it.”
“It was people like me tried to figure out how that happened,” she began. “How come all of a sudden it was there?” She tried to keep from taking a lecturing tone. “Navajo singers told us Na’ats’oosi
, a mouse, brought it. It was a little creature in Na’ats’oosi
’s urine, they told us, that caused the sickness. They were right. They already knew what we were trying to find out.”
The man seemed uncertain how to respond. He signaled his brother to bring his horse, as though they would leave then, but when he took the reins from his brother he just tapped at his palm with their folded ends.
“I want to tell you,” he began to explain, “I was told to come up here with my younger brother to see how many tiltoshmineh
were on the sedges. The older people, they say when there is a strong year here for tiltoshmineh
, people get sick that next summer. It’s a breathing sickness. They say that years ago we used to move up north in the fall when that happened, and then come back the next year. But we can’t move around much now. Today, you mostly have to stay where you are.”
He saw she was unguarded now and that the leash had gone slack in her hand.
“Anyway, the older people, they say there’s a connection.” He moved apart from her to mount the horse. His brother had already turned away and was riding on.
“When you finish up here, finish your work,” he said from the horse, “if you want to know more about those bugs, you should maybe go see a person lives at Silver Lake — you know where that is?”
She nodded, she did.
“There’s a Shell station down there, guy named Leo runs it. You tell him Eddie Bannerman sent you. Ask him for directions to Amos Willard’s place, how to get to his house. If you really want to know about tiltoshmineh
, Amos can tell you.”
He settled himself again against the cantle of the saddle. “I think hardly anybody but you and us ever comes up here in the fall,” he said. “It’s too far. No one is going to bother you here. You don’t need to worry.”
He nodded in a measured way, as though he’d said everything he should, and followed his brother and after a while, after they had crossed to the other side of the pond and looked around, they went over the ridge to the east.
When she was putting dinner together and thinking about Amos Willard she recalled an evening in Teec Nos Pos, on the Navajo reservation, when the Burning Water clan mother had told her about Na’ats’oosi
, and about how in those moments the pieces of the hanta virus puzzle had fallen into place for her. She understood it.
Later, when she was doing the dishes, she realized she’d forgotten to ask Eddie Bannerman about the mountain lion.