… goes like this:
An old man and an old woman live on a remote ranch adjoining thousands of acres of public land in the American Southwest. They raised a boy and a girl in the ranch house and in the surrounding hills and mountains and still encounter younger versions of these children and of themselves everywhere on the land—reflected in a pool of the seasonal creek, in the lengthening shadow of a hoodoo at dusk, in scattered cloud patterns just before noon, in the wavering rainbow of the sprinkler on their little lawn. When they were old enough (but not too big) these kids sat atop horses—the boy in front of his daddy, the girl in front of her mother and they rocked together under the wide sky over trails braiding the land.
No more. The kids went off to college twenty years ago and more and live in urban centers where they’re raising their own families. The man and the woman remain.
The woman is vigilant in her management of the domestic sphere, whose boundary is marked by the manicured yard fringing the house– a rectangle of green that stands out among the tans, browns, reds, and deeper greens of the country all around. She moves in this area with a steady knowledge of where she can find her pleasures in the absence of the children who are always on her mind. She converses with her sisters on the telephone, she sees to the rose bushes beside the house, she knits, she cleans things to within an inch of their lives, she makes goods for the church bake sale and for the grown children and grandchildren on the rare occasions when they come home to visit.
The man is like an appendage of the rugged land, and may as well be a hoodoo upon it– a hard escarpment, a pile of scree, a cactus, a gnarled spruce. Gone is the cowboy jauntiness of his twenties which initially drew the woman to him but which began to diminish, leached out by the necessary constancy of hard work, by his late thirties. He wakes before dawn, works all day, roams the land discovering and doing what needs doing, always returning to the house and its yard for lunch, which the woman has ready at 12:00 without fail. After lunch, he’s back out mending fences, getting water where it needs to go, seeing to the sheep and horses, making improvements as he sees where they’re needed, shaping the land as it shapes him.
A loaded shotgun hangs on the wall above the kitchen table. The ranch is close to the border and more and more dangerous. Immigrants from the south cross, go to cities and towns, get jobs and money. Then, in the absence of steady jobs in the bad economy, return after exchanging some of that money for guns.
While they eat their lunch, the woman often tries to coax the man into conversation. Some days he’s receptive to her gentle prods and they remember many things from days that had seemed so lost as to have gone unlived, things the kids did and said: the time their boy, still a toddler, came through the door carrying a strangely docile rattlesnake longer than he was, the time their girl let out the horses and tried to get them back in herself, scattering them up into the foothills and remaining lost herself till after dusk. When the remembrances flow freely, the man and woman spend a delightful hour or more recovering details and sometimes end reminiscences reaching across the table to pat one another’s hands, warm in the certainty of their path together, before the man stands up from the table to return to the land and she to her next project in and around the house.
Other times a mood has come over him. He’s surly and quiet. Her attempts to raise his interest in helping her tell their story finds hard ground. Something specific or something vague has gripped him– regrets at not having been able to live a different kind of life, or a feeling of stuckness he doesn’t understand, or maybe even pain at missing their kids (that he can’t bring himself to admit as she can), or the call of the land and its demands which is ceaseless in him. Over the years, she’s learned the hard way, one time through bruises on her face and arms, not to try to discover what has carried him so deeply into himself. On these days they eat in silence.
She doesn’t think much about the inequality of these exchanges, doesn’t dwell on the fact that on those rare occasions when she feels the need to retreat into herself, she’s likely to hear, hard and bitter and admitting no concern: “What’s eatin’ you?” She knows there is no rest for her, no one to look out for her in this place except herself.
One day, this story goes, close to noon, while the man is finishing up some chores across the dusty driveway where the wilderness begins, a rabid animal flings itself out of the deep shadows under a twisted juniper. This animal is bigger than a raccoon but smaller than a bear or cougar. A bobcat, badger, or coyote. It shrieks in its agony. Yellow foam lines its mouth. The man is knocked to the ground, or perhaps he trips while trying to back away. The animal pounces, but somehow the man manages to get his hands around its throat. He holds it off, just barely avoiding being bitten through the agility and wiliness his body has been taught by the land. Man and beast writhe on the ground, raising clouds of dust, froth flying. The man is self-sufficient to a fault and wants to handle this without his wife’s help, but the animal’s determination to slake its devilish thirst by ripping into him changes his mind. In spite of himself, he begins to call the woman’s name.
The woman has just finished making roast beef sandwiches and potato salad and iced tea and has spread the food and drink out on the table in anticipation of her husband’s noon arrival, when she hears the shrieks and snarls, her husband’s grunts. She stops to listen, what is that? Under the strange noises, she hears her name choked out in the man’s voice but sounding so labored and desperate she thinks it must be coming from a stranger, a voice from the past.
An explosion echoes off the hills behind the house and against the house itself, competing in its own register with the glare of noon, confronting and shattering the other noises. Warm, stinging liquid splatters his face and arms. The snarls and gargles cease. He feels as absurd as he does relieved. It’s as if he’s come to consciousness holding a messy pelt in a store that everyone sees he’d meant to buy. He lies on the ground in the dust for a few moments, reorienting, still holding the animal minus its intact head, before looking over toward the house to see his wife lowering the shotgun, smoke trailing out of the barrel’s little dark mouth.
The man and the woman make and hold eye contact for a time in a way that is similar to the held eye contact they’ve experienced on a few occasions over the years during sex, when, in the middle of the act, they seem more animal to one another, more man and woman in an ancient species than in a particular sense. In these moments, as now, it is as if they’ve caught one another in another guise that renders mysterious who they pretend to be most of their waking lives. Neither says anything.
No warning, he thinks, didn’t get my permission. Just a few inches to the left… He releases the creature’s lifeless body, which settles into the dust as if thankful for the opportunity to rest in some semblance of a quiet restoration of dignity, then stands and continues into the house.
The woman does not speak or move as he passes. She stays where she is, as if feeling the pull of, and willing herself back into, the snarling moment of crisis. She stares at the carcass till it blurs in her vision there in the dusty boundary between the house and the rangeland wilderness. Her heart rumbles in her chest. The butt of the gun rests on the flaking paint of the wood porch, the still-warm barrel in her hand, which shakes now as it did not when she lined up the shot and fired.