March 2015

STILL LIFE

by Jedd Cole

 

Pale light filtered through the tinted window as Beatrís tucked her two sons into bed. The boys were on either side of her, the covers whispering and scraping as they tried to situate themselves. She reached up to the window in between them and lowered a gray brown screen over the empty pane. It melted the light into nothing, and the room crouched around a dull glow of no particular color.

“Tell us a story, mami,” said Domingo, the younger.

“It is late, mijo,” she said.

“Tell us about the wind!” said Roberto, the older.

“What?” she said. She felt her brow crinkle into a knot. “Who told you about the wind? ”

Roberto’s eager face turned into a frown. Domingo answered for him: “Anciana Loyola told us!”

Beatrís sighed. “And what have I told you about bothering Miss Loyola? Roberto–what have I told you?”

He hid himself under his blanket, as penitent as a boy could look in the dark. “We’re not supposed to,” he said.

Beatrís was silent for a while, standing still and looking into the darkened window pane with thoughts that dwelt somewhere far away. “No story tonight, mijos,” she said. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Beatrís retreated to the basement, where she found her desk and the bookshelf and the box where she kept all the letters Alejo had ever written to her. She stood still in the coolness of the basement, staring at the box but not touching it.

Alejo would have been gone two years tomorrow. She stared at the box a long, long time before curling up in the armchair where her husband had slept alone the nights his migraines hit.

“Oh, Alejo,” she whispered in the dark. She slept fitfully, her arms held out, clutching the old chair with her fingers.

***

Next morning, the sun watched their little house. It always watched them, halfway between horizon and noon, fixed and hazed over in wrinkles of immovable time and occasionally a brow of sweaty clouds that hung motionless until evaporating  away. The sun never moved. It never rose. It never set.

And Beatrís stood on the porch, looking where the sun looked, down at Sierra Vista. On the hill, the house would have been forever exposed, for it was built many, many years ago before, as part of a different world. Before Alejo had left, he had built them a screen shield out of cheap mesh stretched between long curving struts that lent a little shade to the yard and kept the house from overheating.

The town of Sierra Vista was situated in the valley below these hills, and so some of them had shade. Over the years, many had moved a little ways south, building their houses under the purple shadows of the Huachuca peaks, but anyone who had any money had long ago moved north to Tucson, where there was cheap underground living. The big city was congested and crime-ridden because of it, and in some ways Beatrís preferred their solitary home on the hill.

It didn’t matter where you lived, after all was said and done. The earth didn’t spin anymore. You could always see the sun, and it could always see you, night and day.

Roberto and Domingo would be getting up soon. Beatrís walked into the kitchen behind the creaking screen door. The coffee pot was already empty of its first load. Eggs soon made soft sizzling sounds in the skillet. The coffeemaker gurgled and sputtered another pot full.

A weary sigh joined the sounds of morning. Sundays. Sundays always brought Alejo to mind. The silence in the morning, the void that recommenced each unmarked twenty-four-hour period. Drinking coffee alone in the warmth.

“Boys, wake up! Breakfast!”

They descended with a slow opening of the door followed by the halfway steps of sleep. She watched them eat, peering from the edge of her steaming coffee mug.

“Boys, I’m going to see Miss Loyola today.”

The boys stopped their eating and looked at her.

“Aw, mom,” said Roberto.

“Why?” said Domingo. His older brother glanced darkly at him.

Beatrís didn’t move from where she stood leaning against the counter. “I’d just like to talk to her, that’s all. What are you boys going to do today?” She raised her left eyebrow in punctuation.

Roberto opened his mouth silently to buy time. Domingo gave up quickly and shrugged.

“Well, you can start by finishing your homework,” she said. This was followed by a meager list of chores that the boys received like shackles on their wrists. “Then afterwards you can play,” she said. “Be sure to stay behind the screen.”

Roberto rolled his eyes. “There’s plenty of shade behind the hill, too” he said.

Beatrís set down her cup. “You’re not wandering off again. Am I clear?”

The boys shifted in their chairs.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

***

When she cranked the car to life, the gas meter was next to empty. The thought of paying for gas made her sick. Mike at the Down Town Diner had only given her morning shifts the past couple weeks. Customers didn’t tip as much for breakfast. She’d have to talk to Mike about it. Again.

The road was rough heading down the hill. She turned onto the main drag, going south. One car passed her going the other direction, a trailer full of strapped-down furniture behind it, probably Tucson-bound. She could see no other cars anywhere. She wondered how long it would be until even the Down Town would dry up. Beatrís didn’t want to think of moving.

She looked to her left, towards the east. If you kept going, through the bottom of New Mexico and into Texas–maybe further–you’d cross the shadow line, into the perpetual dark where the sun couldn’t see you, and all was black. There were lots more people living closer to the shadow line. But that was far away. Too far.

And she thought of him again.

The husk town began to pop up around her like shriveled corn stalks. Fort Huachuca, the old air base, lay dormant and empty. The stores and shops on this end of town were closed and dry and tasteless in full sun. She drove quietly into the inhabited parts of town where the shade of the hills just started, and turned in at Cochise Gas.

She walked into the store, digging her wallet out of her purse. Thomas sat on a stool behind the counter and the nearly empty cigarette stand. He was smoking one and reading an issue of Still Life, the newspaper out of Tucson. The date on it was at least three months old. The news runners didn’t get out here much.

Thomas looked up and smiled, setting down the magazine and rubbing his white scruff noisily. “Missus Valencia, nice to see ya,” he said.

Beatrís smiled thinly. “I need some gas,” she said.

“I can give ya six gallons this week.”

“Um, maybe just a couple,” she said. “I’m a little short on cash.”

Thomas sighed, nodding. “Hm. Sure thing. You know, gas rations are lowest they’ve been since I’ve been alive, but I don’t think I’ll run out. Not with this traffic.” One half of his mouth smiled, the other frowned. He began punching buttons on his cash register. “Say, it’s gonna be a couple years soon, idn’t it?”

She looked at him. “Today, actually,” she said. Her throat felt thick and constricted.

“Your husband was always good to me,” Thomas said. She watched him hesitate with the old green bills in his hand. “You know, Missus Valenc–”

“Miss, Thomas. Just Miss, please.”

“Sorry. Miss Valencia. You know, this town hadn’t seen a kind soul till you two showed up. I’m glad you haven’t gone north yet with the others. I’d miss the visits.”

“Thank you so much,” she said. She didn’t say another word as she paid, returned to her car, pumped two gallons of gas, cranked the car up again, and drove away. She didn’t even cry. It was too hot to cry.

***

Miss Loyola’s house was unassuming, plastered white, on the sunlit part of town where fewer people lived. The boys and their friends called the area the Graveyard. As Beatrís walked from her car through the opening in the brick half-wall around the yard, she heard the house hum with the sound of an air conditioning unit somewhere out of view. The yard was covered in gravel out of which sprang milkweed and prickly pear. A single dead mesquite tree lent its wiry shade to the sidewalk.

She rang the doorbell and stood utterly still.

An elderly woman answered from behind the screen door. “Oh, I was expecting you,” she said. Miss Loyola was a dark portrait of antiquity. Her brown Pima skin folded around small, expressive eyes. The eyes were disarming, impossibly alive, and Beatrís found herself relaxing under her gaze.

“Come in, Beatrís!” she said, opening wide the door.

“How do you know who I am?” said Beatrís.

“The air talks to me, child, and the little boys do too. I have my ways.”

The house was unlit save for the sunlight through the windows, making hard shapes on the tile floor. The air smelled old.

Miss Loyola gestured toward the dining room table, and they sat. “What a pleasure,” the woman said. “What brings you my way this evening?”

Beatrís smiled. “Evening? It’s only about ten in the morning, isn’t it?” She looked for a clock on a wall, but could find none, just old frames with pictures and paintings and little wreaths of dry desert things, full of time-tellers, but none of them of the present.

“The way I see it,” Miss Loyola said, her voice slightly diminished, “it’s always afternoon with that sun hanging still out there in the western sky.” She looked meaningfully out the bright window, where only the brick fence and the side yard were visible.

In that moment, Beatrís forgot why she had come, and tried to remember. A strong smell of herbs suddenly wafted toward her.

Miss Loyola slowly turned her head. “Are you all right?” she said.

Beatrís looked through the old woman at a dream she had once dreamed, a cool place. A brief memory of Alejo in the water flashed before her eyes. “Tell me a story,” she heard herself saying, as from a great distance. “About the wind.”

“You know, your two sons were in here just yesterday asking the same thing. Come to hear la bruja’s tales, have you?” She chuckled.

Beatrís realized it was something she’d asked of Alejo once, before they were married. They had gone to the caves under the Huachuca, where there were pools of cold water.

“Tell me a story,” she had said then, “about the wind.”

“You mean you’ve never felt the wind?” Alejo had said. He had told her then of his own hometown, far to the east, where the sun hung low over the horizon and barely lit the world. To Beatrís, the wind had always been a wonderful thing, a magical thing, an invisible thing that could bring you places. After all, it had brought Alejo to her.

When she opened her eyes, she saw Miss Loyola, just smiling.

Beatrís cleared her throat. “Roberto and Domingo don’t need…stories, right now. Not with everything they’ve gone through recently.”

“They seem to enjoy stories quite a bit,” said Miss Loyola.

“No,” said Beatrís, perhaps too loudly, “not–not about that.”

“About what?”

A pause. The elder woman rose from her seat and shuffled toward the stove, where rested a terracotta tea kettle. “Would you like some tea?” she said.

Beatrís thought of all the coffee she’d drunk this morning. She tried smiling to make her voice sound brighter. “Only if it’s decaf.”

The elder woman shuffled back to her seat at the table, stared at Beatrís. Beatrís could feel bubbling in her stomach, infected somehow by those ancient almond eyes. The soft hum of the air conditioner became joined with the steely tingling of the stove burner, the microscopic fracturing of stone.

“Little Roberto told me about your husband,” Miss Loyola said. “I’m very sorry.”

Beatrís’ hands clenched around her purse in her lap. “What did he say?”

“That something happened to him across the shadow line. He said their father went to look for work and never came back.”

“He’s dead,” said Beatrís. The words sounded cold, steaming against the warmth of the room. “Police came and reported it two years ago. He grew up there, near the shadow line, before he met me. Said there’d be more work, but he didn’t want us all to move if it didn’t pan out.”

The tea kettle hissed gently.

Miss Loyola looked out the window. “They finished that oil pipeline two years ago as well,” she said.

Beatrís nodded. She could still hear the mild voices of the policemen, hear their jeep purring out in the driveway behind them. “If it hadn’t been for that pipeline,” the lieutenant had said, “well, the cartels wouldn’t have been there, you see. The increased traffic heading east is just drawing out all the worst kinds, ma’am.” The police report was folded on top of Alejo’s letters, sealed in the box on the basement bookshelf.

The younger woman exhaled, all energy flowing out of her. Her hands let go of her purse in her lap and extended pleadingly upon the tabletop. “They asked me, the boys did, to tell them a story about the wind. Everybody knows the shadow line is the only place there’s wind.” She breathed. “They don’t need stories–reminders–of what happened. They need to be able to move on and be strong for me.”

“But I didn’t tell them about the shadow line,” Miss Loyola said. The kettle was almost ready, letting out a breathy squeal. “I told them stories about before the world stopped spinning.”

“What?”

“Didn’t you know the world used to spin?” Invigorated, the elder woman rose and went to turn off the stove. “The sun would rise and set,” she said, “and the mesquite and the saguaro breathed at night, and everybody knew what night was like.”

Beatrís became quietly mesmerized.

“There were clouds that rolled and grew large and moved like the great buffalo across sea and sky. They poured rain on the desert, all over these parts in the late summer. And people slept at night, and the shadow line moved across the world every day…”

“Stop, please,” said Beatrís. The tea stopped its crying. She looked out the window and the glass shimmered like water. The boys had asked her the same thing she’d asked Alejo so many times. They must have just overheard. How could she be so blind?

And suddenly Anciana Loyola was sitting there, watching her. A cup of tea sat in front of Beatrís, steaming.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and felt a tear falling. It touched the table surface without sound, crystal droplets radiating like beams of a small lightless star beneath her chin. “How long have I been…” There was a stirring in the room that stopped her tongue. The air felt cooler. Still.

The old woman’s voice came softly like a song, a motet out of a dream of history, and her eyes held a light in them like something stolen from the sun. “My great-great-grandfather used to take his wife to San Francisco every Sunday in April, the month they had first met. They’d met in San Francisco, you see, at a mountain lookout. On this mountain, they could see the endless ocean and its waves. There were waves in those days, when the earth still moved, and like the air moving over your hands when you ride a bicycle, so the air moved over the surface of that ocean. The water would catch the air in its hands, and bring it up in great splashes and white crests as far as my great-great-grandparents could see. I think the wind is what brought them together there in the first place. It was as if the wind had made them, molded them from clay.

“When they went back, year after year, to remember those beginnings of days, my great-great-grandfather would take her to that lookout. The wind would whip around them strongly and gently and push them together. And do you know what they saw?”

“What?” Beatrís could barely hear her own voice.

“The sunset,” Miss Loyola said. “And the sun would change color as it dipped into the sea, scattering blues and purples and reds and yellows and golds far and deep over the water and high up into the sky, painting the clouds and lining the mountains with it. Night would come, and still they would stand there looking, remembering.”

The tea in Beatrís’ cup no longer steamed. Its water was a mirror reflecting the ceiling, where a paint crack reached from a light fixture.

“It’s a shame your husband didn’t wait a while,” said Miss Loyola. “Word is that most of the cartels have moved on north.” She pointed to a copy of Still Life sitting on the window sill. The date was current. She leaned across the table and lowered her voice. “Oh, I meant to tell you: if you ever need any extra gasoline, my late husband–descanse en paz–kept a bunch down in the basement.”

Miss Loyola got up then and moved to the kitchen. Beatrís heard dishes and water and the familiar clanking of dishwashing, and she listened as to music there at the table, staring at the newspaper.

***

The next day, Beatrís only made a half pot of coffee. Roberto and Domingo came down the stairs to go to school, their backpacks on and the backlight of boyish dreams and plans already faded from their eyes. They stopped at the table when they noticed that the close air of the house was void of that familiar sizzling of eggs, the smell of burning cooking spray.

Instead, three large paper bags stood on the table with mouths rolled up and fastened.

“What’s going on, mami?” said Domingo. Roberto’s eyebrows asked the same question.

“We’re going to see the sunset,” was all she told them.

She’d already loaded the car with all she could fit. The boys rode in the back seat and, sitting on the empty seat next to Beatrís, was the box.

As they drove east, Beatrís stuck her hand out the window and let the air move over it, and through shimmering puddles of sunlight she thought she saw San Francisco, mountain lookouts, cool waves, old couples in a hundred months of April.


When Jedd Cole is not writing stories, one can find him brooding over the pages of other worlds both real and imaginary (but mostly imaginary), usually accompanied by his wonderful wife. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Plasma Frequency Magazine, and Quantum Fairy Tales, among several others. Find him and his creative writing blog at electricdidact.weebly.com or like his Facebook page at facebook.com/electricdidact.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.