by Alessandra Stamper
“Michael says we adorn ourselves as the mountain does. Turquoise and silver, lavender and sage.”
“I’d say so.”
The night is not yet cold, our breath not yet a cloud, and Jenny and I are alone on the patio beneath the tamarack trees. Jenny’s index finger draws hearts and arrows on the dusty red stones, but her scrawls, like the heat remembered from the day, don’t last: she wipes the warm stones smooth to draw on them again.
The other girls on staff have turned in to the bunkhouse. The boys are playing cards in their loft above the barn. The guests in their yurts are sleeping off a day of horseback riding, crafts, ritual sweats, and gourmet food and wine. Only Jenny and I tend the fire, and we keep it alive by feeding it from a dwindling pile of young pine rounds. I know the night will get cold because the crickets are down. The horses have opted for the stable. They know. The hottest days invite the coldest nights, and the bluest skies bring a darkness bright with icy stars.
“You’re sure Michael will like this?” Jenny asks.
“I know what he likes,” I say.
Jenny is new. She lies with her back to me, her head in my lap, nestled into my batik skirt’s reds and browns, and her warmth becomes mine. I am wrapping hemp string and turquoise beads around a lock of her thick black hair. I tell her that every girl gets hemp wraps. I tell her about my first time. It was a cold summer night like this when Fern wrapped locks of my hair and sang Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon.” The wraps used to be a bold red like the mountain, but four years of sun and sweat have drained the dye. A faded pink remains, and I am glad to leave them buried deep in my hair.
A third girl, Temple, shuffles out of the darkness. She sits near.
I say, “Better late than never.”
Temple does not reply. Her shoulders are hunched, and her head is bent. She opens a jeweler’s kit, takes up a lock of Jenny’s hair, and begins wrapping it with silver wire. Onto the silver wire she threads coins hammered thin and light as abalone, making an elegant curve around the back of Jenny’s ear. The coins tinkle, aspen leaves. Temple hums to herself while the jingling of her silver bracelets follows its own tune. Her loose hair hides her face. Jenny is learning you do not talk to Temple. Instead, she tips back her head as Temple and I work, and I figure she is watching the sparks climb into the black sky. I have tipped back my head before.
Jenny is dark and beautiful. She said her grandparents are Native American, which may explain her allure, and she is so delicate and lovely that if she grew wings and flew away that would be fine by me and best for her. Best for Michael, too. Jenny is only sixteen. I don’t mind saying I know how that goes. I first came to Michael’s ranch when I was sixteen and a quarter, and since then I have never aspired to summer anywhere else, although I admit that the first time was hard for me. My mother had read about Michael’s ranch in a magazine, and it was either this or tennis camp in Palm Springs, so the choice was easy. After three months, when my parents met me at the airport, I had beads in my hair, vanilla oil and henna on my skin, and joy in my heart. I was as stunned as my parents that I had found my place in the world. I did not tell them that on these same flat stones beneath tamarack trees, Michael had held me in his arms, gazed at the cold moon, and divined my life, and that by August I was the one kissing him and whispering the future in his ear. I had been wise enough to know a transgression had occurred, and I let Michael daub my dusty tears with his clean cool fingertips and promise me that everything would be okay. At summer’s end, when I stood in the airport parking lot, leaned against my parents’ hot black Mercedes, and cried in my mother’s arms, I recited exactly those words: everything would be okay. Four more summers have passed. Michael is a good man. Why put Michael through that again? Jenny is sweet and simple, and we love her so much we call her Boxelder Beetle, a dark bug that squishes easily, a meal for a kingbird, a husk by autumn.
From the great white oak comes laughter. The white oak holds the lodge in its muscular branches—the lodge is an elaborate treehouse of Michael’s design—and the dormers of the lodge jut from the branches like turrets of a castle. The lodge is dark except for one glowing window at the top of the tree. The laughter comes from there.
“Is that Fern?” says Jenny. She lifts her head to look.
“Probably,” I say. I push her head back down.
“That would depend on what you mean by with. Now lie back this way.” I tug on the lock of her hair.
Jenny, gazing up, finds my hand and touches it. The other day, one of the girls, Persimmon, inked my skin with henna to make a pattern of native vines. Jenny turns my hand in the firelight and says, “I want that too.” The vines begin at my fingertips and climb my arm. They slide under the bracelets Temple has made for me, the silver cuff she has fitted around my upper arm, and they blossom somewhere beneath the puffed sleeve of my peasant blouse, a private display for certain eyes. Jenny’s dark hand sliding up my skin makes me ache.
“It comes off, yes?”
“Actually, it lasts quite awhile.” My skin prickles with her touch. Beetle.
Jenny says, “I think I want that.”
“You want that, or you think you want that. Settle your thoughts, dear girl.”
“What does Michael say about it?”
“Michael says the body is a tableau. A canvas. Persimmon will paint yours. We’ll see to it. Temple can do a piercing, too, if you desire one. But henna for certain. It’s so goddess. And you’re so pretty.”
“It’s beautiful and sexy.”
“You can say that again.”
Jenny makes a breathy voice and pouts her lips. “Beautiful and sexy.”
Jenny and I laugh. I love her. Temple shuffles off to fetch Persimmon and her henna kit. Persimmon will do her up right. The noise of Temple’s jingling bracelets fades like the music of a chime after the wind has died. I love Jenny’s thick soft hair in my hands, and I wrap it as tightly as I can. I would take up Temple’s song, but I don’t know how to sing about the things I love.
Jenny is the housekeeper. Cleaning yurts isn’t enlightening work. It’s not labor that nourishes the soul. It’s pure toil, but when you first come to Michael’s ranch, Fern has to assign you somewhere. While Jenny is stripping beds and emptying baskets and putting fresh flowers in each earthen vase, Temple, Persimmon, and I station ourselves beneath the tamaracks for long contemplative hours of body art, intricate braids, flower pressing, and readings from Rumi and Rimbaud. The guests tell us how beautiful we are, and we show them how to beautify themselves. We teach them to throw pots, weave baskets, and distill essential oils from myrtlewood leaves. We lead ritual sweats. Sometimes Michael calls one of us to climb into the swaying heights of the white oak, and we excuse ourselves to join him. It is important work, all of it, but each of us has our role, and Jenny’s role is solidly on the ground. Ten yurts need cleaning and dusting. Ten guests need to settle into organic cotton sheets and goose down pillows, certain that each glimmering day has been the finest of their lives. Ten guests need fresh cakes of hypoallergenic castile soap beside their wash basins, they need fresh sprigs of lavender and velvet sage beside each soap cake, and these touches need to happen while they’re out, riding horses, soaking in the cedar pools, tipping back wine, or seated with us beneath the tamaracks. Jenny’s role is to seem like she was never here. I’ve spotted that sweet girl, trudging from yurt to yurt, shouldering her broom like a yoke, a blue plastic bucket dangling from one side, a basket of linens from the other, her velvet coin purse swinging from her waist, hoping for a tip. She’s busy from sunup to sundown, and maybe that’s why she has never met Michael. He’s asked about her, the small native girl with blue-black hair, and surely Jenny has seen him at his window high in the lodge: straw hat, strong arms, T-shirt always clean and bright in this dusty place. I know she’s heard about his blue eyes, azure, I would say, like the sky, and I do admit to planting curiosity in the young girl’s mind. I was sixteen, once upon a time. Sixteen and a quarter. I had seen Michael’s shadow cross a window and heard his low velvet voice. I figured things out. I am the one who let slip to Jenny that if she worked quickly there would be enough time to lie on a freshly made bed beside a window and watch the trees sway against fixed clouds in a still, hot sky. I am the one who told Jenny that a girl could imagine whatever she wished to be true. But when I said this, I figured that the girl yoked to that broom would wish to fly away.
The cold will be here soon. I reach for a pine round, leaning away from Jenny, and I jam the round into the fire. Sparks find places to die in a dark sky. Let them. There’s no place for me out there. Michael says not to worry, not to be afraid, he will hold me near, and I believe him. I resume tying down Jenny’s hair, glad for her warmth against mine.
The jangling of silver bracelets swells out of the darkness. Someone hums a song. It is Temple, back from the girls’ bunkhouse, dragging a sleepy Persimmon with her. Persimmon stands behind me and takes in our work. I can feel her. She has the warmest skin. At night, when the only light is from the window staring down from the top of the white oak tree, I have stood in the grass and held Persimmon, sad and afraid, and she has done the same for me.
Jenny sits up and turns. Her hair slides from my fingers. My hands guide her down.
Persimmon is tall, slim, and her batik skirt rides low on her hips. Michael met her two years back at a craft fair in a college town, and she’s been here every summer since. She makes a lovely tableau. Every space of her skin is painted with wonderful things. Her silver bracelets jingle, thin as wire, ten of them around each painted wrist. She leans over me, and I kiss her patchouli hair.
Temple takes up a wordless song, and we settle back into our work. There’s room for Persimmon and her tiny brushes and paint pots on the other side of the girl. She opens her henna kit on the dusty stone.
I say, “Give her remarkable eyes.”
Persimmon has given each of us the eyes of women in Minoan frescoes. Michael has touched my eyes with his hands, and he has wiped tears from them, and the dye does not run. Persimmon looks at Jenny’s pretty face. She strokes her fingers down Jenny’s cheek. She looks at me.
“Is there a problem, Persimmon?” I press Jenny’s shoulders. “Lie back, Beetle.”
“Do it, please.” No one moves. I look away. I add, “Michael says so.”
Persimmon takes a tiny brush. The tip grazes Jenny’s face as lightly as though Persimmon were painting a flower petal.
Jenny says, “You know, my grandparents are coming out to see me. They’re going to freak! In a good way, though.”
I say, “My parents won’t leave the poolside in Palm Springs.”
Persimmon says, “My parents are okay with things. I mean, what choice do they have?”
Music. Silver bracelets. Temple says nothing.
The boys in the barn laugh. Faraway light.
I say, “Temple doesn’t have any parents. She’s our orphan girl, our urchin.”
“My grandpa says Michael’s a radical, a heretic, and a libertine,” Jenny says.
“Save your ten dollar words,” I say. “Hold still. Michael is a good man.”
Persimmon dips her brush and says, “He is a good, kind man.”
“A very good, kind man,” I say.
Persimmon says nothing.
Temple presses on with her song, her fingers knotting silver into Jenny’s hair. Her wordless voice finds the next note, and the next, pressing on.
“That’s a hymn,” Jenny says. “I know it.”
“She won’t talk to you,” I say. “Don’t you get it?”
“So you talk to me then.” Jenny says. “Tell me more about everything.”
“You do smoke weed, don’t you? And you’ve made it with a boy, haven’t you?”
“Well, last year, when I worked at church camp, I—”
Persimmon says, “This is no church camp.”
Jenny sits up, forcing everyone to pause. “You’ve obviously never been to church camp.”
“It’s just that you’re so young,” Persimmon says. “Charlotte, she’s too young.”
I say, “That’s the point. Lie down, Beetle.”
Jenny says, “Well, you’re all young too. You were young once, I mean.”
“But wise,” I say. “Michael says I am the reincarnation of an old soul.”
“Me too,” says Persimmon.
“Then you should realize that I can take care of myself.”
“Hush. Persimmon needs to do your pretty mouth.”
“I’m a big girl now.”
“Boxelder Beetle! Hush!”
At the beginning of the season, Fern and I were taking Jenny around. The days were already hot, and the dust pillowed in the still air. We wore bandanas across our mouths, and we surveyed the yurts, the lodge, the bunkhouse and the barn. We held Jenny’s hands. “Michael did all this. Every building. Every fence rail. The boards are hand-hewn, and they fit so tight they don’t even have nails. Michael is our dreamer. He’s pie-in-the-sky, and we love him for it. As for keeping the books, cooking the food, worldly concerns, that’s Fern. Body work, spirit work, that’s us. Housekeeping, that’s you.” I handed her the broom. She stared at it as though unsure which was the business end. She blinked slowly. Then she pulled down my bandana and gazed at my face. She was so pretty I kissed her forehead, the first of many times I have done so. I said, “Most of the boys, and the girls, they’ve been in the family for years. You come one time, you want to stay forever.”
Fern laughed. She always laughed. Laughter had wrinkled the corners of her eyes. She walked toward the lodge, climbed the DaVinci stairs, and she was still laughing.
I said, “Michael built all of this completely alone. It was a feat. He is a great man.” I pointed to the lodge high in the white oak. “Imagine him up there dangling in the raw sky. He had a vision, and he made it come true. Michael says—”
Jenny said “Your face. When you talk about him.” She touched the henna lines around my Minoan eyes. I trembled with the touch. I loved this girl. I had known her for a day, but I would do anything for her.
“What about my face?”
“You are unhappy. My grandmother taught me how to tell.”
“Silly girl. Get to work.”
Jenny turned, the broom slung across her shoulders, and I made for the tamaracks to resume being beautiful. Call me unhappy! Call me blessed! Be like Temple and call me nothing at all.
The night cools. I knew it would. Our bodies close around the beautiful girl. Temple’s low song, her steady breathing, begins to feel like mine. Persimmon’s heat feels like mine. I know little about these girls beyond what Michael has told me, but I love them. I have let them paint my eyes and weave silver bits through my hair. I have let them pierce my skin. As I have done to them in turn.
We work away, and the boys in the loft deal hands. It is good to sit with Jenny and Temple and Persimmon and hear those boys, knowing the boys are in their lighted room with cards and candles and good night sounds of horses below them on solid ground. The boys have never touched us, never will, and we like to drive them crazy. Every day, the boys amble around the corral, easy and slow, with sweaty shirts and dusty jeans and all the right muscles in their legs and hips and the right look in their eyes as they glance at the pretty girls beneath the tamarack trees. One day there was a pony who got out of the pasture, and I brought the frightened thing in. I was Daniel in the lion’s den. I had walked into the fields to pick morning star, and I saw the loose horse and I whispered him down, leading him by the bridle through the tall grass. The thin dew that had settled on the grass brushed my skirt. There was the jingling of my hair, beads and silver in long tresses. My words were calm words. The horse’s breath was warm. When I left the barn, I tossed back my hair and looked at those boys over my shoulder. They were watching me. I am not afraid of any boy. They talk at night, but only of girls far away. We all know how it is. Michael’s vanilla oil on our skin. There’s never been hay in my hair. I have never heard a boy call out my name. I am not afraid, just a little sad.
Persimmon says, “Now close your eyes. Charlotte said remarkable, so remarkable you shall be.”
“Don’t lay that on me.”
“Oh, that’s right. Apparently Michael told her. Well, Michael has told me a few things too.”
“He told me the sun rises in my eyes. Has he ever told that to you? Temple? Charlotte?”
Temple says nothing.
I say “Nothing like that. He’s never kissed me and held my face and told me the sun rises in my eyes, and kissed me again and again. He’s never done that to me.”
The craft was flower pressing. It was early, low light, the kind that fills your dress. The flower called morning star had burst across the meadows. By six a.m. I had gathered the blossoms, my skirt dusty and wet with dew. Jenny came out of the bunkhouse, wrapped in a blanket, dreamy in the heat and dust, our pretty girl, tiny and lovely and fresh. I kissed her. She must have looked from the window and seen the world beginning to play. The boys were taking the guests on a horseback ride. Temple was seated beneath the beech tree, tying up a blonde girl’s hair. Persimmon was painting henna around another girl’s hands. Grown-ups, glad for sun and quiet, drank coffee and read thick novels on the stones beneath the tamaracks. I began pressing morning star behind hemp paper and panes of glass. Jenny looked over my work. I knew she had had a vision, and it must have been of herself being happy. She leaned over my back, resting her chin on my shoulder, her blue-black hair spilling past my face.
“I was asleep. I heard Michael’s voice. I ran to a window and looked, but he was gone. There is that picture on the wall in the bunkhouse. A younger Fern with a young handsome, kind-looking man. But Fern is older now, so he is older too, yes?”
I knew that picture. Michael and Fern in the white oak tree. The lodge was a skeleton of what it would become. Fern gripped a ladder rung. Michael stood against sky. He looked ready to fly. I knew that pretty Jenny had stood in front of that little framed picture and prayed to be pretty enough, and when the prayer ran out of words, she broke her hands to lift her arms like wings.
Jenny’s breath tickled my ear. I pressed a morning star flat and twisted the bolts to tighten down the glass.
I said, “The dust is watered, but you still smell it.”
“I can taste it.” She kissed my neck. Her cheek grazed my shoulder, her arms enveloped me. It was too much. In my world, I didn’t bear any weight but my own. I stood. She let go. She had to.
She said, “I want to meet him.”
I said, “Let me tell you something. Do you know what Michael says?” Here I pointed at the girls around the grounds. “He says Temple is his angel. He says Persimmon is his muse. He says I’m his soul mate. Maybe now you see how it is. Don’t worry; he’s a kind man. But he doesn’t get you, Boxelder Beetle. He knows he doesn’t get you. He told me so.”
“He talks about me?”
“Michael talks about you. He says you’re his obscure object. I mean he really doesn’t get you. But don’t worry yourself. You don’t even need to understand what that means.”
“I want to understand.”
I twisted the bolts of the flower press too hard and snapped the glass. Last night I had come back to the bunkhouse crying: was Jenny supposed to understand that? I had come across the grass, cold, arms wrapped tightly around my ribs, and I was not singing, but could she understand? Every day she was becoming more beautiful. Black hair shining. Batik skirt. Brown skin darkening in the sun. Her eyes were pools that should have seen far, but instead they were dark and solid, thoughtless as stones. She was so pretty, but it was an innocent pretty, capable of nothing but wilting like a plucked flower.
I said that the only thing she needed to understand was that Michael was a good man.
She said her grandfather had fought in Viet Nam, and he had come home to the reservation and raised his family, and he was a good man, too.
I said we weren’t talking about the same thing.
She ran for the bunkhouse, kicking up wet dust that should have stayed down. She yelled that there was only one kind of good in the world.
Pine rounds die in the fire.
“Shh…” I say.
Persimmon speaks. “Um, no one is saying anything, Charlotte.”
Temple is more closed around herself than ever. Her hair shrouds her face. Her hands, silver-tarnish-stained, tuck back her hair, leaving tracks on her sweet face, but her head is downcast, letting her hair fall again.
I say, “After we’re done with you, Jenny, you’ll be a goddess. Men will lay down silver and gold to make it with you.”
“Like a ho,” says Persimmon.
“You’ll be a goddess, not a ho. Silver and gold.”
“Silver and gold, silver and gold. That’s from Rudolph.”
Temple’s song ends on its own. She has not uttered a word of friendship. She hasn’t said a word at all. She packs up her wrap of clinking jewelry tools. Persimmon packs her paints and brushes. I stuff beads and hemp into the pocket of my skirt.
It is done. Jenny sits up, gazing from face to face, seeking the approval of the most beautiful girls she will ever know, but we say nothing. The fire is fighting for breath. Persimmon, Temple, and I look at each other. Jenny tries to break in, to find someone’s eyes. It always comes to this. Try to stop the sun from rising.
Persimmon says, “You’re not ready.”
I add, “I need to warn you. Michael is a good kind man.”
“Well, I’m a good girl.”
My hands stroke her hair, then her shoulders.
“A very good man.”
“I’ve been with a good man. At church camp there was this man—”
“Michael is different. He’s not like that.”
“I know how to treat a man. I know what a man needs.”
“He doesn’t need what he thinks he needs. You’re just a girl. A good man can do a thing that’s wrong. Pretty girl like you.”
“I want to.”
“Just go,” I say. “And stay warm. That’s all I have to say about it.” I lean in to feel her heat, and I shut my eyes and kiss the pretty face I cannot see.
She walks to the white oak tree, her silhouette moving in a straight line among crooked shadows. Her arms seem to be reaching back, fluffing out her hair. The beads and coins rattle and ring. Her silhouetted arms gather the tresses, fluff her noisy hair again.
Three girls walk arm in arm to the bunkhouse. Settling onto our mats, we know exactly whose heat is gone, whose breathing is gone. We inventory everything that remains: the swaying trees, the sighs of horses in the barn across the grass, the cold. Charlotte, Temple, Persimmon. The breathing of girls.
In a few minutes we hear footsteps across the grass. It is Jenny singing a Joni Mitchell song. We hear enough to believe that everything is all right. Farther off, we hear Fern chuckling softly.
Michael took one look at Jenny and sent the simple girl away.
Temple mumbles the first word I have ever heard from her, “Remarkable.”
Jenny’s footsteps shuffle past the bunkhouse and head toward the barn. One of the horse boys will have her. His eyes had better be closed, though. He’ll close his eyes and have her good. Jenny and the boy will settle in the hay and smother the jingle jangle of her hair. His eyes will be closed, hers will be gazing at dark blue gaps in the shake roof.
Persimmon says, “She doesn’t know.”
Temple rises from her mat and puts away the bunkhouse mirror. This is the mirror we all share, the mirror where we find space for all our faces. Without this mirror, Jenny will have to figure out things for herself. Of course, her grandparents will tell her when they come at the end of the season. They’re the mean ones, calling Michael all those things. Her grandmother will remove a small silver mirror from her purse, hand the mirror to the girl, and a single glance will tell our story: the crazy twists of wire, the tangled knots of hair and string, the goofy henna lines clowning her face. Jenny will daub at her eyes, her mouth. It won’t come off for months. The clown. The silly girl!
My last words to Jenny will be, “I’m sorry. We couldn’t let you do it. I tried to warn: he doesn’t get you.” I’ll smile and remind her it comes out eventually. To be so mean breaks my heart, but we did it for her good. I’m not a bad girl. I actually want everything she has, even the bits of barn hay stuck in her hair in the morning. The ink will drain from our faces, someday, but on mine a hardness will remain. It will sharpen my features with shadows that don’t wear away, although Persimmon would say the hardness was already there. What will I see in the mirror? Will I see Jenny? I’m not that pretty, and her story isn’t mine. Will I see Persimmon, looking past things? Will I see Temple, stealing glances at myself through my shroud of hair and shame? Will I see Fern, a face that understands, but only after time has wrinkled and dried its beauty? I’ll ask Michael, listen to what he says, and that’s what I’ll see.
I smell Michael on my skin, permanent as a tattoo.
Everyone is out. Horses are brushed. Guests are milling by the lodge, which can only mean that Michael has come down his DaVinci stairs, like a saint receiving blessings, or handing them out, each with equal grace. I cannot see him in the crowd.
Jenny must still be in the barn, combing the hay from her hair.
Such a perfect morning. There’s enough cool in the air to be pleasant, but enough warmth to bear me up. The curl in the leaves tells me that fall is coming. Last night’s fire is just a thread of smoke in the crisp air.
The boys are parading the horses, rubbing cool fat into their brown flanks and harnessing them for a dusty trip. The girls’ job is to hose down the pathways and the patio. Sprinkle down the dust. Knock it down from the tamarack trees with long poles. Chase away the dust like chasing a flock of starlings. The dusty sweat beads on our skin. Persimmon stands in the sun with a hose, fanning a mist over the stones. Temple, wielding a pole next to mine, tries to teach me to hum a song as we whack at the leaves.
Tonight we will rinse the dust away, and we’ll be the most beautiful girls again. We’ll build another fire. Wrapped in blankets against the cool, we’ll listen for his call. His muse. His angel. His pretty thing. Whatever he says.
But I can’t carry a tune. Temple gives up trying to teach me. We work in silence. I begin to understand this much of her world: being content to say nothing at all. Swinging a stick at the dust that will be back tomorrow, I would gladly give no voice to my pain.
Evan Morgan Williams‘s collection of stories, Thorn, won the 2013 Chandra Prize at BkMk Press (University of Missouri- Kansas City). The judge was Al Young. Williams has published over forty stories in such magazines as Witness, Antioch Review, (The) Kenyon Review, andZyzzyva. The bearer of an MFA, tattered and faded, from the University of Montana, he has taught in a high-poverty middle school for over twenty years. Most recently, he has held a Writers in the Schools residency, an AWP Writer to Writer mentorship, and he gave the inaugural reading in Eastern Oregon University’s revived Ars Poetica Visiting Writer Series. He has stories forthcoming in Phantom Drift, The Timberline Review, and Weber: the Contemporary West.
Clay Hickson is a freelance illustrator and printmaker living and working in Chicago. His work combines 1980s post-modern design and the Northern California New-Age Hippy aesthetic. He runs a small publishing company. Tan & Loose Press, which produces limited-edition artist’s books and prints.