by Laura Mahal
Art by Arizona Smith
Before several things turned odd and long before I heard the word “Amen,” I made a mistake.
So eager to be on time to pick up my friend for a shared evening of writers, editors, and fans of the spoken word, so anxious not to be late, that I entirely forgot about the time change.
On Sunday, we were to “fall back” one hour. I had done so, of course. Obedient to a fault. But one can never remember every single clock in the house—digital, analog, a child’s drawing on the refrigerator of a colorful, smiling clock face. I went with option number one, by all measures the most reliable in keeping with today’s technological world. Except my brand-new combined microwave / oven was set to the stainless-steel standards of some such place that does not play. Nevada, perhaps.
I did not yet know that.
Grabbing my heeled boots and car keys at 4:45 p.m., I was three-quarters of the way to my friend’s in a neighboring city, when I called over Bluetooth.
“GPS says I’ll arrive three minutes late. See you soon.”
She paused, and her silence was the first poke for me to pay attention.
“You mean in an hour, right?”
“Umm, no. I’ll be there in five or six minutes.”
She paused again, apparently wishing to spare my feelings.
“You don’t want to see me now. I’ve just stepped out of the shower. It’s 4:15.”
Crap. Crap, crap, and piss.
I’d forgotten the time change, or messed it up. It turns out the drawing on the refrigerator was closer to correct than my friendly digital readout, with a backdrop of photographically perfect autumn leaves. (Do they have autumn leaves in Nevada?)
“I’m so sorry. Get ready in peace. I’ll go to the library for an hour. I’ve brought work with me. See you at 5:15.”
Annoyed with myself, I now noticed the obvious. Half of a moon shown in the medium blue sky, delicate but defined, a beacon of information. Night coming, but not yet.
As I u-turned from east to west, headed to the tiny library I’d passed a few minutes before, the glare of the sun pierced the vulnerable nerve in my right eye, ever-sensitive to bright light.
“Not sunset. The witching hour of migraine badlands.” Waves of nausea rippled across the band of my pantyhose, rhythmic as clockwork. The pressure of my party clothing suddenly felt constrictive, and I longed for fresh air.
Pulling into a parking space—whipping into it would be more accurate—I leaned my head against the steering wheel and rested my eyes. Perhaps I closed them for a millisecond. I could not say. Nausea misted me, a shower of illness that took one hundred percent of my focus.
Until a tall man approached my car, tilting the brim of his Stetson with tanned fingers and a turquoise and silver ring the size of a Tootsie Pop.
He gave the front passenger window a knock, leaning in to gaze at me.
“Ma’am, are you all right?”
Something shifted. He was on my right. My bad side. That feeling when you are parked, but haven’t set the brake, then the person parked next to you starts to back out? Yeah. That.
As I pushed my right foot on the brake to stop the sensation that my car was leaving without my permission, I could hear Leonard Cohen as if he were sitting behind me.
His distinctive deep voice, odd and yet comforting.
Leonard Cohen, no doubt about it. Leonard was in my car. Not a Stetsoned stranger.
I held up my right hand in an “okay” sign, rapidly remembering that motion had been absconded by white supremacists.
The man rapped at the passenger window with distended, reddened knuckles.
“All right,” I said, my voice fading as I lay sideways, head on the passenger seat, atop my cute cropped jacket, wool and rough, scratchy and real, my fingers grazing the unlock button.
“All right,” I said again, as I closed my eyes, safely wrapped in Leonard Cohen’s croon, and the strong arms of a tall stranger.
I opened my eyes to see a book propped on a shelf. It was at eye-level, given that I was seated in a comfortable armchair, with my feet elevated on a library-themed footstool. The not-unpleasant smell of applewood-smoked bacon was prominent. Mr. Cowboy squatted on my left side, his fingers lingering on the armrest.
The book, Riding the White Horse Home, demanded my attention. At least for a few seconds, before my head swiveled, mindful and slow, to the books on either side of it.
West of Eden.
Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West.
That one, I noted, with the title in all-caps. Orange red lettering, vivid and exclamatory.
My senses might have been heightened, because they all struck me in some way. Riding the White Horse Home showed a picture of a darkening blue sky, stationary clouds, and a Civil-War era wooden fence.
Was the sky that dark outside? I wondered. West of Eden was the orange color of sunsets.
Returning my gaze to Cattle Kingdom, I noticed that the orange/red title was one thing, but there was more to see. The lower half transitioned to gray, with a black-and-white photo of suspendered cowboys in, what? Cowboy hats? The hats of Amish men? Fedoras?
Maybe the style of hat Abe Lincoln would have worn, tall, black, and formal.
I could not concentrate.
Not just because the man alongside me was redolent of good bacon, preservative-free and mouthwatering, but because the afterimage imprinting on the inside of my eyelids was of a stack of bison bones, taller than the library stacks of the quiet room.
I recognized this place.
And also, I didn’t.
It had to be the regional library. My car was parked outside, badly perhaps, because when I twisted the wheel to shimmy between white lines, those lines were blurry and dull.
Then Mr. Stetson had knocked, and now I was here, in a chair that invited napping, surrounded by books on the topic of the Old West.
Or maybe inclusive of the new West, but certainly not the section of Colorado in which I resided.
He cleared his throat, almost delicately, as if fearful I would perish should he make too startling of a noise. It was then I looked him full-on in his face.
Head turned to the left, my glorious, safe left, not the place of spinning death and vomiting, bottomed-out blood pressure and trips to the ER, I saw him.
He was gorgeous. Sam Elliott in his seventies gorgeous, but with an, I don’t know—Jackie Chan sense of physical humor, body confidence and competence, like he could walk across that fragile Civil-War era fence, while he winked at me, or carried me in his arms.
He seemed a little blurry, like the white lines in the parking lot. My eyes were not reliable. The trigeminal nerve that ran from my brain to a space behind my right eye was spasming, interrupting signals that bless the average person.
“. . . Charlie,” he was saying.
I think he had introduced himself, but I started to laugh. All I could think of was Charlie Horse. A charley horse in my side, kicking me as hard as a real horse, so much so that I was almost ready to tear off my party dress and feel circulated air directly on my body.
I did reach for my boots, right there in front of Stetson Charlie, and unzipped them, tossing them dead center between West of Eden and an innocuous book with a title I could not read. It featured a green cover, grassy, like the cows had consumed all the words.
“Bull’s-eye,” I said as both books toppled over.
I hiked up my dress enough to wrestle off my panty hose. Working those down my thighs and quads and calf muscles, I sighed with relief at the release of pressure.
Charlie looked to the fluorescent lights of the ceiling, whistling a familiar tune, until I was settled back into a more ladylike position.
“Umm, Alison,” I finally remembered. “Alison Cree.”
Not my real name, mind you, but my nom de plume. The place avid fans could find me if they Googled “Alison Cree” in a search bar. While my real self could be safely ensconced in an actual bar, knocking back single malts and whiskey sours.
“I guess I owe you a thanks?” I asked, the sarcasm not quite tamped down into civility.
He placed my car keys in my lap, eyes averted from the pile of panty hose resting at my feet like a sunning rattlesnake.
His hand hovered for a second, warmth shooting from him. Appreciated warmth, because I realized I was about to enter the next phase of Operation Head Hurts, called Chills and Other Surprises.
“This might help,” he said, though I hadn’t said any of this out loud. Not a word of complaint nor a request for further assistance.
He twisted the ring off his right hand and aimed it above my left ring finger, holding it there as he waited for an “Okay,” or a “Fuck off, weirdo.”
Nodding my assent, he slid it down, where it hung loosely, the silver heavy and cool, the turquoise charm turning south, away from my vision.
The heat did not hit me straightaway. But it did hit, along with the image of bison bones.
Here’s the thing.
Pain makes me feisty. I have no patience for diplomacy or kindness, because most of the time, my head is in a nasty public toilet, that is either filthy or reeks of bleach, all of which serves to bring out the worst in me.
“Are you a bison hunter or something?”
That tumbled out, ejected without a comma, unsoftened by the humor that might have made it sound like I was joking. He pulled back.
I’d gotten to him.
His silence was nearing the point of an admission of guilt, when he said, “No. I wouldn’t say that. Not in those words, at least.”
Not in those words, at least?
Unsurprisingly, I called him out. But with a softness that must have come from his warm-ass ring, because I was feeling mellow, that next-to-a-campfire waiting-for-a-s’more expectancy, a good anticipation.
“How would you describe it? Tell me.”
I leaned back, patting the armrest, inviting him to come close and stay awhile. Those long legs of his must be tired from squatting, knees jutting at awkward angles, practically to his chin.
”I. . . ahhh . . . the truth is . . .”
He rose to his feet, hips popping a little. A sound I could hear because that sense was heightened. Along with smell. And taste.
I could taste salt, like popcorn from a pan, prepared with butter so the salt hung tight.
Like something else, too. Something I had just once, when my family drove me to Rapid City, South Dakota, where we drank sarsaparilla, where we ate unsweet sopapillas filled with beef and beans. I was maybe four. Not yet in kindergarten. We had something else, from a cast iron skillet, like cornbread, but thicker, heartier.
The image was outside my grasp, lurking in the corners.
But I could definitely taste the bison burger I’d ordered the week before, alongside a full order of sweet potato fries.
Bison, lean, muscled, meant to roam this land that was now populated with Red Robins and condominiums.
I placed my hand on his and drew him down from where he loomed above me, face shadowed by his hat and the distance between us.
“I cannot stand. You must sit. Here,” again patting the armrest along my left side. “Sit and spin,” I said, silliness and lack of a language center causing me to revert to the words of a five-year-old. “Spin me a tale from a land long ago . . .”
Don’t mind me while I close my eyes, I thought, though again, I didn’t say this out loud. It was too effortful to speak. Looking meant perpetual assault. My body broken by waves of light, not streamed into an ivory softness, but split into shards of ROYGBIV. Roy G. Biv was a cruel motherfucker. He jabbed me in the eyebrow, cheek, jawline. But he was banished the minute I shut him out of my life with curtains of iron eyelids.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, in the voice of Leonard Cohen.
“I’ll take you there,” he said.
This place of great beauty felt real.
I was lying in a field, my head pillowed on something that was rough, like burlap. Not the wool of the jacket somewhere on the passenger seat of a nondescript car, registered to me. Such a mechanized and modern vehicle now seemed a fictional contraption.
Horses snorted and stamped, but only the frisky ones that ran, tails high, manes tossing, on the other side of the fence.
Not Civil-War era, maybe, but then again, not anything that had come from Home Depot.
This wood was hewn, with ax marks as evidence, notched together with pins I could not see, but certain sagging sections reinforced by wrapped x-shaped patterns of thick wire or darkened twine.
There were other horses, closer. One not more than three feet from my left hand, which sparkled with a turquoise light that bathed my horse in blue.
I knew in my bones this horse belonged to me. Her name was Elda, a mother of two. The younger of her colts was one of the prancers on the other side. He was Namuel.
Don’t ask me how I knew these things. My head was full of innate understanding that made me restful and indolent. I lay where I lay and didn’t try to analyze.
There were yellow buttercups all around me. Glossy and as buttery as the Irish import I liked to buy at the store, in one-pound sticks, fat and perfect. Priced for gourmet living and exquisite food. Every single joy sourced from butter browned in a pan.
Those, too. Wings lifted, and so did my pain.
Somebody was carrying it away. On wings or hooves or petals or Stetson hats. I could not say.
Charlie was nowhere nearby. Or, if he was, I couldn’t see him. Maybe he was out on a ride. Corralling sheep or calves or buffalo.
A word out of fashion in my day, due to cultural sensitivities and appropriation.
I wondered what Charlie would look like on the back of a horse. He was already about six and a half feet tall, not counting his hat? Seven feet of man and attire, astride another five-plus feet of rippled back and Western saddle.
He loomed in my imagination, grounded by a voice that called me back to the misconfiguration of Daylight Savings Time, Leonard Cohen hallucinations, and a friend—oh, my friend! Waiting at her house, now showered and dressed, for me to pick her up for a party. My pantyhose coiled on the floor of the public library near her house.
Was my body there as yet, sitting in that chair, feet on an ottoman?
My body was here, absorbing the sun.
Yellow, like most everything around these parts. But soft, forgiving. Embracing, not castigating.
Another soft thing, a whiskered nose, wet lips, placed itself in my hand. She—Elda—was nuzzling my fingers, a hopeful lick, seeking apples or salt or whatever sweet thing Elda might like best.
I had nothing to offer her, other than an open hand, not gripped in defensive flight.
She had trotted to my right, and I trusted in that.
I would be okay in a while. Back to the person who wrote books for a living under an assumed name. Who tweeted and bantered with fans but kept a fierce wall between my personal and professional life.
Not an open range, me. But a private space, with “No Trespassing” signs, and guards posted in towers with rifles and enhanced sites, night vision goggles, and an agent and publisher who respected my idiosyncrasies, since I earned them a fine living of trips to Barcelona and Dubai.
My body felt almost boneless, lying on the grass. The pasture did all the work. Better than an adjustable bed in a three-story house, or an air mattress in a waterproof tent from REI. The earth had a heartbeat I could feel. She sped my pulse to a rate that approached normalcy, rather than the forty beats per minute that drew me toward sleep in the midst of my fiercest migraines.
Elda nickered, and Namuel cantered toward her until their noses touched above a wooden gate.
“His name is Namuel. Namuel is his name,” I whispered to a buttercup, who leaned toward me.
Mother and colt, noses touching, made me think about intimacy—if you could call it that between absolute strangers. What would it be like to sleep with Charlie? He is much older than me, but graceful, a thoughtful lover, his fingers trailing light as butterflies across my skin. He’s salty but not sweaty, his limbs endless and forgotten as he attended to me, until I disappeared into him. His silhouette is much larger than mine, his shoulders wide, his hips narrow, which made me think of the bison I’d seen, their upper body a heft, their lower body tapering. Charlie could hover above me long enough for night to come and day to dawn, his shoulders strong and brown, the skin of his chest enough younger that I could forget about the lines around his eyes and mouth. Forget that he reminds me of Sam Elliott but with Leonard Cohen’s voice, crooning, “they slip between the sentries of your heart.”
Allow Charlie to blot out the sun for an hour or a night, he the stars moving within me, the deity of time that falls back upon itself so I wake up to a man ten years younger than me, fresh from the range, asking me to go away with him, to leave my typewritten world and read the leaves of marsh marigold and bastard toadflax, gather the yarrow for healing.
But this was not the place for forgetting.
I think of rock formations that narrow, canyons blasted so tourists can reach the Black Hills, and how those walls might move if a person wasn’t paying attention.
This was a place of fend-for-yourself, love the land and the land will love you. Blue sage and wild lupine nourished butterflies that fed the Black-headed Grosbeak. Bobcats, coyotes, and raptors plucked prairie dogs from their colonies . . . but for now, the prairie dogs squeaked and barked at me as if I were the one in danger.
I spied beauty as far as I gazed, taking in snow-capped mountains in the distance, white peaked so the mountains became clouds, reaching for a blue sky too big to be real. Jagged interruptions of triangulated winter contrasted with a perfect autumn day. Evergreens layered in lateral stacked plates of diminishing size, from serving platter to tea saucer, their cockamamie green reflected in cold mountain streams filled with Cutthroat Trout and land-locked Sockeye salmon.
It was the place of buffalo and—
Bison bones. Beware the cowboy who knocks on your window.
Perhaps I slept, the sun a sedative, the buttercups poppies in disguise. Charlie was there, lying alongside me, his firm hipbone stretching from my ribcage to below my thigh. A mathematical upgrade from my much smaller frame. The applewood bacon to my Hillshire Farms on sale self.
He was there, and he wasn’t, because when I patted the grass, Elda shied away from Namuel and headed for a far corner, away from her child, slapping him in the ear with her tail, so he too ran away from me.
What had caused the horses to grow angry? Or fearful, uneasy? I sat up and looked about me, shaking off the memory of Charlie’s body at one with mine.
Charlie was herding bison alongside a cliff. He was nudging them, as Elda had propelled her colt. He was pushing them to their death. They had no place to go but down.
I heard every sound.
The bison screamed, a collective exhalation of dying flesh, the magnificence of the creature extinguished as history was rewritten.
Splats of hair and bone, muscle and mightiness, dashing against shale, gripping to the rough rock like salt to buttered popcorn.
A horror of war. An accusation of culture killing, and white assumptions, the making of wealth and the frittering away of people’s livelihood—their actual ability to survive, feed their families, carry on as a functioning society with its own rules, its own ways.
Charlie took no pleasure in what he did, but he did it. The figure of Mars in battle, the god of war who held wolves to be sacred but sacrificed bulls, bison, and the October Horse as if these were no more than lunchmeat on a tray at a party for writers.
So when he pressed up against me, I turned away. I could not unsee the man he really was.
A man knocked at the passenger window, asking, again and again, “Are you all right?”
I sat up. Turned the key in the ignition. Switched on the headlights and disengaged the parking brake. Thought better of turning my head to the right to look over my shoulder into the darkness of the parking lot behind me. If anyone was standing there, they could get the hell out of my way.
I did take a moment to wave at him.
On impulse, I decided to roll down my passenger window.
“Forgive yourself,” I said. “Go forth and do no harm.”
“Bless you,” he replied, his hands moving into a prayer pose, “Amen.”
Post-migraine absurdity had a hold on me, but I added, “Our natural spaces are looking to get back to their history. You might consider starting a bison farm, raising herds to be released to their native lands. Not to sell them by the pound, mind you,” I added with a twinge of panic.
He nodded, lifting his ring, wiggling it off with some effort past his swollen knuckles, and set it on my passenger seat, on top of my cute cropped jacket.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
And then Leonard Cohen spoke to both of us from my backseat.
“Amen, already. Amens all around.”
Laura Mahal is a two-time winner of the Hecla Award for Speculative Fiction. Her work has appeared in a number of literary magazines and anthologies, including: Across the Margin, The Road She’s Traveled, Fish, DoveTales, The Daily Abuse, Still Coming Home, Sunrise Summits, Veteran’s Voices, and Flash! A Celebration of Short Fiction.
Arizona Smith is a British self taught artist/illustrator/storyteller, based on London, with a passion for community projects, dream, and especially women in magic. She’s also the co-founder of The Lurner Prize and The New Earth Art School – two independent projects supporting creativity. You can see more of her work on her IG: @arizonathecat