Ages ago, wild water found the low
spots in the land, one after another, and filled them up, overflowing,
until eventually there came to be a river proceeding southwest. The river
regularly flooded, washing layer upon layer of soft soil away, until it
ran on hard rock, which eventually relented as well, crumbling, grinding,
until there became a canyon wide enough and deep enough that the river
appeared to be a harmless tiny crooked silver thread way down at its
A host of
animals lived in the canyon’s world of short sunlight and long twilights.
There were plenty of deer, beaver, fox, muskrat, weasels, mice, marmots
and prairie dogs; a number of unsociable lynxes, some nomadic brown bears
and a mountain lion who could have climbed out of the canyon but elected
eagles, an uncertain number of them that nested in dark well-hidden spaces
in the canyon walls. And there was a man who was not born there, but who
lived there now in a little rented cabin.
The man, whose
name was Arden, hadn’t been there very long, but he’d been there long
enough to grow close to the canyon. Though he had no claim on the canyon
at large, he looked after as much of it as he could. He kept a written
record of all he discovered and observed and realized soon after this
began that the canyon did a good job of supervising itself.
some time writing and rewriting an essay in which he compared nature’s
management of itself to man’s management of his various enterprises. When
his essay was as good as he could make it, he drove to a nearby town to
send it off to a publisher in New York.
At the Post
Office in town, Arden picked up a sizeable stack of mail that had been
accumulating for him. Four envelopes in particular interested him, one
from his ex-wife’s lawyer, a second from his old office, the third from a
publisher, the fourth from the National Psoriasis Foundation. Of the
four, he was immediately interested in the one from his old office.
Whoever it was
from did not identify himself on the return address. He held it up before
the light and could see that the contents were handwritten. He tore the
end off this envelope and removed the single sheet of company memo paper.
The handwriting was familiar; nevertheless, before he got much further
he glanced to the bottom of the page to read, “Love, Georgette.”
He felt a quick
anticipatory warmth in the pit of his stomach, like after a slow first sip
of good scotch. He refolded the letter, slipped it back into the envelope
and put the envelope in the inside breast pocket of his jacket.
The letter from
the publisher was good news. A piece had been accepted. Arden would soon
receive payment, the letter promised. This letter, too, Arden put in his
Psoriasis Foundation newsletter said what it always said — no cure had
been discovered for psoriasis. Reading the page 1 headlines made him look
at his inflamed hand and badly deformed fingernails. One of the his
ex-wife's stinging comments when they were breaking up came to mind.
You've lived up to your potential, Arden. That's obvious
just looking at you.
his mail to the town’s only restaurant and bar. It was about one in the
afternoon and only one booth in the restaurant was occupied. He went
straight to the corner booth.
He was reading
the letter from Georgette for the second time when the waitress emerged
from the kitchen with a scotch and soda.
eagles of ours?” she asked and, glancing over her shoulder toward the door
to the kitchen, slid into the seat across the booth from Arden. She put
her hands in the middle of the table, palms down, fingers splayed, and
studied her nails.
the letter and set it aside. He put his hands on the table, mimicking her
gesture, and slid his grotesque fingers forward until the tips nearly
touched her hands. He studied her hands as he did this to catch a twitch,
or a withdrawal, but her hands lay still. “Our eagles are fine,” he
said. “But I don’t think the hatchlings made it.”
She frowned and
looked at the psoriasis on Arden’s hands. “Think something got to them in
said and, sitting up straighter, pulled her hands away. “I wanted to
bring Larry out to see them when they started to fly.”
Trish was quiet
for a moment then moved towards the edge of her bench. “You ready to
eat?” She stood up and began to wipe her
hands with her apron.
said. “I know I said I’d have you back out, and I mean to. I do. I’ve
“I know it.”
finished a piece.”
“I hope you
“Thanks. I can
take a breather now. Maybe Sunday? What about Sunday?”
She cocked her
head and closed one eye half way, “I have Larry to look after all day
Sunday. You inviting my boy, too?”
“Oh. Well —
sure. I mean, if you want to. Or you can come some week night and stay
back to the kitchen door, then smoothed her apron against her dress.
“I’ll think about it. You ready to eat?”
When Trish was gone, he took Georgette’s letter and the letter from his
ex-wife’s lawyer, along with his scotch and soda, to the pay phone in the
He called the
lawyer first and was made to hold for several minutes. Finally, he heard,
the situation to you last month.”
thank you, and how are you?”
“Cut it out,
Roger,” Arden said.
We’ve checked. We know you’ve gotten paid the remainder of your vacation
pay. We think any further postponement of alimony is unwarranted.”
checked you also know how much I’ve been paid. I can’t spend it all on
“Make a partial
payment then. A gesture. Try to understand. From her perspective you’re
on some kind of fantasy camping trip. She didn’t make you quit your job
and move out there.”
happening with the house?”
considering. You know how real estate is here right now.”
“What about if
we make an adjustment in the shares of the house to cover back alimony?
What about that?”
“We can do that
anyway. Beth’s problem is cash flow—”
“Then take out
an equity loan.”
“I can look
“Do it then.”
probably do that, but to make it all nice and tidy it would be nicest if
you’d sign the note.”
“Fine. Send me
“It will take
some time. You should still send some cash.”
Roger! I don’t have anything to send! Listen, I just sold another
piece. How about if I send you the acceptance letter with a note from me
saying it’s all hers?”
“We could get
that anyway, Arden.”
goddamned bastard, Roger.”
the sentiment, Arden.”
He hung up the
phone and breathed heavily until the warmth in his cheeks subsided. He
scratched his head then brushed the flakes off his shoulders. His ex had
“dandruff from too many smoky bars.
His derm had said it was psoriasis, but his wife had stopped wanting to
hear about his psoriasis.
Then he reread
Georgette’s letter and dialed another number.
receptionist recognized his voice. “How are you, sir?” she asked.
“I bet it’s
nice out there where you are. Not much humidity, is there?”
“Do you have a
“But I bet you
could. Am I right?”
“Yes, I could.”
“It just sounds
lovely. You should send us some postcards. We could hang them on the
“Maybe I’ll do
that, Vicky. Is Georgette in?”
“I think so.
Let me check for you. Nice talking to you.”
He finished his
scotch and soda while he waited. When he saw Trish emerge from the
kitchen he rattled the ice cubes in his empty glass to get her attention.
She came by, took his glass and winked at him.
“Geez it’s good
to hear from you. You must have received my letter.”
“Got it right
here. Called right away. I don’t have a phone at the cabin. I’m in
town. So when are you going to do it?”
beating around the bush here, huh? Same old Arden. I don’t know when I’m
going to quit. I guess I was waiting to give you a chance to talk me out
of it. Or into it.”
“I want to
listen to you.”
Georgette. You stick it out and you’ll go places.”
“I put in my
years. I’m old enough to be your father.”
“What does that
have to do with it, anyway?”
“If you quit
now you’ll never know.”
“What you could
have done with yourself.”
“You make not
being a commercial illustrator sound like dying. Maybe I’d just quit for
awhile. Why couldn’t I come back?”
“I guess maybe
you could go back,” he said. For a moment he said nothing and scratched
his beard. He saw flakes cascading down from the lesions under his
beard. “I keep forgetting you can do anything you want to.”
patronizing me. I wish you wouldn’t treat me like a child.”
He didn’t want
to treat her like a child. He squeezed the telephone handset until the
lesions on his fingers hurt and reached for his drink that was no longer
“I’m sorry,” he
said. “I don’t mean to patronize you.” He paused, she listened,
waiting. “So what will you do?” he asked.
“Well, I’ve had
several thoughts. You’ll laugh.”
“Not unless you
want me to.”
“Well, I think
I want to paint.”
paint, as opposed to commercial illustration.”
right. People still do that, you know.”
“I’ve seen some
of your early stuff. Your college work. It’s good. You could do that.
Pay’s awful, though.”
that until the end. I don’t want to think about money.”
“Fine. What do
you want to paint?”
“New things. I
want to paint people and places and objects and incidents I’ve never seen
before or heard of or even dreamt about. I think that to find myself as
an artist I’m going to have to look in altogether new and different
mirrors. Know what I mean?”
“Yes. Yes, I
about going to Australia. Reaction?”
“I don’t know
what to say. Why Australia?”
and different mirrors.”
“Do you have to
go that far away?”
“You tell me.”
here.” He’d said it; it had shot through the phone circuit at the speed
of light and now the silence hung like a visible vapor trail.
“Tell me what
there is to paint out there.”
mean like the bald kind?”
“Uh huh. And
pure blue skies, bright red earth, shades of green you’ve never seen
before and that don’t linger more than a week or two; wild flowers with
blossoms so small they look like drops of pigment sprayed from a crop
duster; and some of the oldest ugliest, saddest looking cows you could
“And ugly bugs,
skittish lizards, lethargic snakes, and an old psoriatic
copywriter who feels sorry for himself, sheds a lot and drinks too much.”
“It all sounds
much too strange, Arden,” she said, laughing still. “Can trial
excursions be arranged?”
“You bet,” he
said. “In fact, they’re recommended.”
she said and he thought he heard her smiling.
days wandering through the canyon. Unable, uninterested in writing
anything, he studied scenes within the canyon, different views from
different vantages, and framed them between his angry fingers, trying to
assess how they would fare as painted landscapes. He sat with his bare
flaking feet in the shallow, fast river, sure that every so often he felt
a fish nibble at his scales. In his imagination he scripted their meeting
at the bus depot in the town, their drive to the canyon, her first
impressions, their first evening in the house, their first night.
he heard distant spitting reports from small caliber rifle fire. He moved
fast at first, trying to distinguish between the direction of the shots
and their echoes, but when he sensed he was near he slowed until he paused
after every other step to listen and to watch.
He heard their
voices first. Young men, four or five of them, punch drunk and plinking
away at anything and everything. He came across their old rusty Land
Rover and peered in all the windows. A weasel pelt, wet with blood and
fat, was draped over a tool box. He proceeded in the direction of their
voices until he saw them.
They had taken
off their shirts. They looked alike: the same close haircuts, same smooth
tanned skin, same builds. He guessed them in their late teens. There
were three rifles between the five of them and they were arguing over a
handful of bullets. One of them was noticeably shorter; this one cursed
the loudest and appeared to have the remaining few bullets in his hand.
He was demanding that someone hand him a rifle. His friends groused,
called him names, but a rifle was soon handed over. He dropped most of
the bullets at least once before he got them loaded into the pump-action
rifle. Then he shouldered the gun and spun around carelessly making
everyone duck, including Arden, who watched unnoticed from within the
cover of bushes several yards away.
“Let’s go find
us somethin’ decen’ to shoot at,” the boy-man with the loaded rifle said.
“Just shoot at
the cans, Freddy,” someone said, and Freddy spun around again shouting
obscenities until he had to stop and lower the rifle butt to the ground to
Freddy, shoot the thing’n pass it on.”
“I need a
goddamn beer,” someone else said.
to all our ammo?” someone else complained.
“I thought you
said there was all sorts game in this canyon,” Freddy said and looked
cross-eyed at everyone. “Les go back to where we shot the mink.”
“You dunno a
weasel from a porcupine you...” Freddy cursed and let loose a round that
ricocheted with a lingering zing off the canyon wall.
squatted when the shot went off, including Freddy, who dropped the rifle
but retrieved it again when his friends made a lunge for it.
yer gonna shoot someone.”
“These are my
bullets,” Freddy said and rose unsteadily. “Comeon. Les git outta here.”
low and in the bushes until he heard the boys drive off. He heard one
more shot fired from the moving vehicle followed by a volley of curses.
He let their noise die away completely before he moved, and then he went
to where they had stood and did a slow circle looking everywhere, at
everything, to assess the damage. He kicked dirt over the shell casings
and took off his shirt to use as a net for collecting the beer cans.
Trish sat down
in his booth after glancing at the door to the kitchen and put her hands
on the table, trapping the scotch and soda she had brought to him between
“I saw you
coming from the Sheriff’s office,” she said. “Are you in some kind of
He touched the
tips of her fingers with his own. “Nah. Trying to keep drunk teenagers
out of my canyon.”
He told her
what he’d witnessed. “The Sheriff says it’s an open area but he’s going
to talk to the boys.”
“You knew those
them, he knew them.”
“Then you must
mean our beaver boys.”
the Sheriff said. Beaver boys. Are they all related?”
smiled broadly. “They got that name because they’re always chasing beaver
and looked away from her. “I get it.”
the only teenagers we got. Has to be them. And besides, that’s just the
sort of thing they’d do.”
They were quiet
for a moment, then Trish said, “No mail?”
picked it up yet. I guess I forgot. I’ll get it when I finish this
eagles of ours?”
He looked at
her and she averted her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I have some company
“I didn’t say a
thing about coming over, did I? Can’t I inquire about the eagles without
you thinking I’m inviting myself over?”
He leaned back
and remained quiet until she looked up at him. “Of course you can,” he
said. “The eagles are fine but the hatchlings are definitely gone.”
At the Post
Office Ken spotted the letter from his old office and shuffled the handful
of envelopes so it was on top. He was staring at the franking on the
envelope as he crossed the street and the Sheriff pulled up beside him in
his police car.
“I’m going out
to talk to those boys now,” the Sheriff said, “but just to let them know
that you live down there. Though I gotta believe they already know that.
Just remember, from what you said those boys were shooting well away from
your place, and the rest of that land down there, well, it’s open range.
No law says those boys can’t shoot down there. You understand?”
On the way to
his booth in the restaurant, Arden motioned for Trish to bring him a
scotch and soda. When he sat down he opened the envelope from his old
office and read the letter from Georgette.
In a while
Trish hollered over from the kitchen door. “You ready for another one?”
brought the scotch and soda she saw a letter folded on the table in front
of him. The rest of his mail was set aside, unopened. He wouldn’t look
at her. His eyes were fixed on nothing. She saw the flakes of skin
scattered near him on the table and knew he had been scratching his arms.
“Bad news?” Trish asked.
He took a
gulping breath and seemed to shudder, then he blinked and his eyes focused
again and looked up at her. He took a long pull on the drink she put in
front of him. Then he shrugged and wiped his lips with the back of his
“It’s about my
visitor,” he said. “Change of plans. Not coming.”
“I’ll say I’m
sorry in case it wasn’t relatives and yippy do dah in case it was.”
He looked at
her for a long moment and finally he smiled.
back. “That’s better. You ready to eat? Or do you want to sit here and
scratch some more before lunch?”
Arden looked at
the flakes around him and brushed them off the table hurriedly with his
hands. “I’ll tell you what,” he finally said. “You get off at four
“Why don’t you
get somebody to look after Larry tonight?”
notice. What have you got in mind?”
“I’m going to
drink plenty more of these scotch and sodas and I was thinking you could
drive us to my place. We’ll go find those eagles of ours and then—” he
paused. “And then tomorrow morning I’ll fix you breakfast and bring you
back to town.”
It was the
final hour of the long canyon afternoon before they made it to the base of
the cliff beneath the eagles’ nest. This was the time of day when
twilight was already dark in most of the canyon and the birds made their
last rounds; the time of day when the small animals came out under the
cool cover of the long shadows. For awhile they saw nothing. They sat
together on a fallen tree near the river, facing the canyon side where the
eagles lived. Arden put his jacket over Trish’s shoulders.
“Your skin is
looking worse,” Trish said.
his hands into loose fists, hiding the deformed nails and some of the
lesions. “I need to get some prescriptions refilled,” he said, shrugging.
“Does it hurt?”
“It’ll be all
right,” he lied. And then he said “They’re out hunting. But keep watch
and we’ll see them come home any time now.”
One eagle came,
but rather than flying directly to the nest, this one flew some circles
above them and then swooped to perch in a long-dead willow tree. They
could see this one clearly.
whispered, “It’s so beautiful.”
said and pointed skyward.
In the last
rays of the sunset the other bird was high and circling, much higher than
the canyon walls. Its flight seemed uncertain, nervous. The bird below
sat calmly, waiting.
other bird began a slow, spiraling descent into the canyon. Then there
was the thudding, dull report of a shotgun.
For an instant
nothing changed. The reverberation of the shotgun blast faded and the
eagle continued its spiraling descent. Arden rose, eyes glued to the
descending bird, and felt dizzy. A second shotgun blast jolted the eagle
in midair, but it took incredibly long milliseconds for the bird’s wings
to cave in and for the controlled descent to become a death plummet.
Trish began to
wail, first softly, then louder. The perched eagle took off and climbed
to its falling mate, swerved out of its way, turned, and followed it
down. When the birds disappeared in the ground foliage, Arden bellowed
“NO!” and the sound of it overpowered Trish’s wail. He squeezed his hands
until lesions cracked and blood flowed.
back at them.
The echo made it impossible to determine where they were this time, but it
was young men laughing, he was certain. “Oh Jesus,” he said.
laughter’s echoes died away Trish began to move in the direction of the
Arden moved to
follow her. His legs were shaking. He took a huge breath to maintain his
equilibrium. “Trish,” he said. His voice was weak. He willed his feet
to move faster and not to stumble. He did not want to lose her. He did
not want to lose sight of her.