The horse turned up on a late summer morning, foraging underneath the burnt tree trunks on the hillside adjacent, inky bark staining its white coat. Ben hadn’t seen another living creature, aside from the handful of stock he had in the pasture, in over a year. The day’s second visitor, a woman hanging over a sagging fence rail, seemed in keeping with events.
“That your horse over there?” Her voice was gravel in a well.
“No, ma’am. Thought it might belong to you though, you both being new in town and all.”
The rocks tumbled in an approximation of a laugh. “You call this a town?”
“Such as it is. Don’t get many visitors.”
“Mara.” The hand she held out was cooler than he expected. “Just passing through. I didn’t know anything was out here anymore.”
“It isn’t.” He turned back to the hillside. Below it, spiny sunflowers erupted from buckled chunks of the old highway, the last tires having passed over it years before. “I take it you’re taking the road less traveled for a reason?”
“Where is everybody?”
“I don’t reckon I know how to answer that.”
“I’m headed west. Having a little trouble. Lucky I found you.” She nodded to a dirty, ticking Jeep next to the paddock. “I’ll earn my keep until I’m ready to go again. Maybe I can locate some new transportation.” She looked at the horse.
“That a question?”
“Is whoever you’re looking for still wherever you’re going?”
“I think so.” She shaded her eyes to squint at the sun, scuffing a boot against the dirt. “Have to try, don’t I?”
There is a kind of summer heat when not even the night brings relief. The sagging mattress catapulted their bodies together like two bears in a valley. Where skin touched skin, a wet burn propelled them away from one another, clawing their way back to the edge of the bed, dangling a foot or an arm off the side for ballast. The white horse stuck its head through the open window and snorted.
In the morning, Ben showed Mara around the place. The house was solid, but the outbuildings were in shambles. A faded red barn sprung from the field next to the house. The roof, having long since surrendered its crossbeam, pulled the structure into a jumbled pyramid. Chickens darted between the joists. A black cow sat on its haunches like a dog, looking up at the sky.
“Why is it doing that?” asked Mara.
“I’ve never seen a cow sit like that before.”
“Been around a lot of cows, have you?”
She followed the cow’s gaze to a flat mountaintop. “What happened here?”
“The mines. The water. First, everyone tried. Then they stopped trying.” He shook his head, hands searching for the right gesture.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean…”
“No one does. First, you cut away the pine, strip the soil for the rock. You spill the trash with the treasure, that’s all.”
“How long do you think you’ll stay?” asked Ben.
Mara opened her mouth, then closed it again. She took another drink from her tin of huckleberry wine and made a face.
“I don’t know.”
Something whisked at the front door—the sound of a horse’s tail.
When it got cooler, they lay together more slowly. Ben took a long time exploring places he hadn’t been very often, deep recesses and pools. In the middle of the night, sometimes, he’d wake up and hold her as tightly as he could, until her bones eased into a new shape, something stinging in his chest. If she woke up, she’d ask what it was, but he never had an answer.
“We should get you ready,” he said. “The last of the spring storms should be about played out now.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Mara, over a mouthful of eggs. Her calloused palm hovered over his hardened fingers. “Maybe then.”
“You can’t stay forever.”
“You won’t find whoever you’re looking for here.” He jabbed at his plate with a fork.
The night of the last spring storm, they drank chicory until it was too windy to hear each other over the din, too cold to do anything else but sleep. The symphony of trees kept them at the edge of dreams.
In the morning, they awoke to the black cow lowing a somber cantata. Out the window, the horse trotted vaguely westward, barely still in sight, white, riderless in the grey snow.
CAMILLE GRIEP lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The First Line, Every Day Fiction, Bound Off, and Treehouse.