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Gila River Review
Patti Hartley

Tracks

            The adobe house baked white-hot beneath the sun. Shaped by his father’s hands and his father’s before him, and slowly tempered by wind and sun and sky. Carl sat alone outside in the truck, his head back, the windows open, the barest breeze snaking in from the fields. His gaze shifted from the house to the rows of alfalfa waving in third flower purple, the eastern plot already hand-harvested and baled. He thought of his grandfather who’d died in the house, his father who’d done the same, and of his own infant son waiting inside. He thought about the earth beneath him, that timeless ground with no trace of moisture or softness to make it more bearable. About being rooted deeper and deeper into the land each year of the twenty three of his life; and about his wife, Vivian, now gone forever.
            
‘How do you grow a thing in this place?’ she’d once asked.
            
He laughed. The early days of marriage when laughter was easy. ‘Well, what’s the ground like where you’re from?’
            ‘Dark and rich. It smells wonderful.

            Below the stand of pine along the eastern slope, the bunkhouse stood like a dark stain in the shadows. ‘Why so close, Carl? They’re too close.’ He’d hired three hands this season, an Apache boy so shy he still had not spoken, and two young Mexican brothers who talked nonstop. He imagined the men inside, supervised by his caporal, Adolfo, waiting out the hottest part of the day. He took a deep breath. Soon he would go inside and change clothes and walk over to the bunkhouse and join them. He would look Adolfo in the eyes; and Adolfo, both a surrogate father and friend, would see and know. He would know that Vivian was gone and was never coming back. Adolfo would know and say nothing; they would simply go on with their work, and that would be that.
            
Carl leaned his head and arm out the window. Stretching his little finger and thumb from sun to horizon, he calculated the time. Two o’ clock. Only one hour since he’d sat inside the Greyhound station in Tucson and watched the bus roll away like a watery phantom into the sun. One hour since he’d watched the shadows of the passengers, his own wife among them, fade into oblivion. He’d hated her at that moment, hated the eagerness she didn’t bother to hide, the look of hope as she slid her money through the window, the brightness on her face when she thanked the agent for her ticket. And he’d hated himself for pretending, for grinning as she pecked his cheek and stepped inside the bus.
            
Carl stepped out of the truck. He walked toward the house and rounded the corner, then stopped short. The first trickle of fear skittered along his spine at the sight of the kitchen door standing wide open, caught and held in a small mound of dirt near the foundation. He walked slowly to the door, hesitated at the dark yawn of the doorframe, then stepped inside. Sunlight streamed in from the western window, buttering the walls and floor; an unnatural quiet hung in the air. 
            
“Consuela?” he shouted. No answer.
            
He stood stock still and waited for his eyes to adjust before moving them around the room in a practiced pattern. The familiarity calmed him: the color print calendar pinned to the south wall, its numbers 1933 gleaming at him in bold black, its photo of a bright blue Buick parked beside a cheery red gas pump, today’s date circled in black marker; the dishes in the drainer; the broom standing like a withered body in its accustomed place beside the stove. But his mind stuttered when he spotted one of the chairs, cheap metal and formica red, tumbled and wedged in the corner near the stove. Then he saw them: tracks of faint pink and red, a primitive pattern running along the floor, beneath the table, and out through the door. 
            
His body tensed with animal rigidity, impulses traveling from eyes to brain to neurons, an instantaneous exchange of information. Canine, his mind told him. Forepaws, back paws, ancient movements and muscle and bone. Breathing deeply, he smelled the blood stench, the iron scent of what his mind could not comprehend. His insides shifted, his body reacted, and he bolted through the house to the back bedroom. The door stood open and he gripped the doorframe with his hands and stared inside. His mind processed only images: the crib tipped onto its side, blood pooled on the floor; a tiny arm; shreds of the little dress she’d insisted he wear; and beneath the window the skull with its floss the color of pale wheat, the soft, creamy-pink fontanel. 
            
Carl dropped to his knees on the floor then pushed back against the wall, one leg folded crookedly beneath the other. He heard a low moan he realized was his own voice. He rolled, struggled to his feet and ran from the house out to the truck. Wrenching open the door, he clambered inside and fell shaking across the seat. His heart hammered; he felt cold. The seat springs pressed against his ear and he smelled the barely perceptible scent that had been his wife, gingerroot and vanilla, the last lingering memory of their life together. He lay shaking for a long time then sat up and reached behind the seat for the rifle. He scrambled from the truck and walked toward the bunkhouse, cocking the rifle as he moved. He opened the screen door and stepped inside, closing it gently behind him. He heard the slap of cards, the sound of the men’s voices. The dog lay sleeping in a corner of the tack room, her eyes closed, forepaws stretched out beside her muzzle like runners, a being part wolf and countless dogs along the way. Her ear twitched; a small circle of dried blood dotted her snout. Carl aimed the rifle, then fired. The dog splayed against the corner wall and he flipped the rifle over in his hands and began beating her with the butt. Voices shouted behind him. He heard his name over and over, a firing squad of noise. Then a pair of powerful arms grabbed him and the world turned black.

#

            When he opened his eyes, he was lying on the living room couch. The room was dim, the curtains pulled. He sat up slowly, then stood and moved over to the high-backed chair. His body shook; his eyes burned. A bucket sat in the hallway and he could hear the scrape of furniture from the bedroom. Patterns of dust covered the coffee table, her imprint on his life, his house, his heart. Closing his eyes, he remembered sitting in the same chair that morning, holding his son, watching her slip through the house as she packed and talked about duty. How it was her duty to go home to Illinois, to be with her mother now that her father was gone. She’d fed the baby, reminded him about the milk. She scalded the bottles and left them on the counter to dry; she swept the floor then pinned her hat on her head and worked her hands into her only pair of white gloves. As a final gesture, she cleaned the wood countertops that she claimed harbored all manner of things that could kill them. There was danger everywhere she’d looked.
            
‘Carl?’ she said, one last time. ‘You ready?’
            
“Carl?”
            
Carl opened his eyes. Adolfo stood in the doorway, a tall, elderly man with creased leathered skin and a lean, corkscrew body whittled by wind and sand. He stepped into the room and sat down across from Carl on the couch. They sat together in silence, their elbows on their knees, their hands loose. Adolfo had taught him to hunt, to track, to set traps with the scent he kept squirreled away in colorful bottles on the shelves of his little cabin, but not how to live. Not how to be married or how to keep a wife happy. 
            
“Where’s pop’s gun?” Carl said.
            
“I have it.”  Adolfo spoke slowly, carefully, in the style of his beautiful Mexican mother. “The stock is broken.”
            
“How bad broke?”
            
“Pretty bad.”
            
“I told them to get rid of that goddamn dog.” 
            
“Yes, you did. You told them.”  Time pulsed. Shadows grew along the corners of the room. “That girl you hired to watch him,” Adolfo said, “she didn’t understand. She thought she was supposed to change and feed and go. She didn’t understand,” he repeated.  
            
“She’s gone, Adolfo. For good.”
            
“Yes. I know. Her things are all gone. And when you sat out there in the truck so long, I knew.”
            
“They’re both gone.”
            
“Yes. You are right about that. I can’t sit here and say that you are not right about that. I can’t do that.”
            
They sat silently together for a long time. An unspoken, eternal sorrow ticked between them like a great clock with the inner workings gone haywire. “How could she do that?” Carl said. “Leave her own child behind?”
            
Adolfo stood and laid a hand on his shoulder. When he spoke, his voice was soft and gentle. “She was never happy here. You know that. I’m very sorry.” He nodded toward the bedroom. “I’ll go finish. You’ll be all right alone?”
            
“Guess I got no choice.”

#

            They’d met at a hotel in Tucson, where he’d gone to bid on farm equipment. From the moment he laid eyes on her, he’d loved her. The ladylike way she touched her handkerchief to her brow when she smiled, her ruffled dress and clubby shoes made for anything but farming, the seams that ran up the back of her stockings. She said her name was Vivian, but all he saw was chestnut curls, a coral mouth and beautiful grey eyes. And when he saw himself beside her in the window’s reflection, a bowtied young man, thin and plain, he looked like more, felt like more than he’d ever been. 
            
She was visiting her brother, searching for a life, for answers, for a way of being in a world gone hard. She took a job in a laundry at the outskirts of town, took her own room at the hotel. One morning he’d followed her to work. He stood outside and watched her bend into the tunnel of an enormous dryer and gather up great bundles of hot sheets. That night, he took her to dinner in the hotel dining room, bought her a corsage. 
            
“I wish you hadn’t come into the laundry,” she told him.
            
“Why not?”
            
“I just wish you hadn’t. That’s all.”
            
Toward the end of the meal, she smiled at him across the table. “You look like you’d be easy to live with.”
            
“I don’t know about that.”
            
Six days later, opening the door to the office of the Justice Of The Peace, he turned to her. “I hope you’re right.”
            
“About what?”
            
“About me being easy to live with.”
            
He booked them into a nicer hotel, a place with cool stone floors and brightly colored birds caged in the lobby. Their wedding night was spent in a large dim room on a bed covered in rosy chenille. During their first intimate moments, lying beneath him, she’d been insistent, almost angry. She looked up at him in the moonlight saying, “Carl?” as though she doubted his existence. It soon became a motif of their life together, so much so that he’d finally taken to announcing his presence by shouting or stating, “It’s me,” whenever he’d entered a room or their house. On the morning of the first full day of their married life, they’d sat across from one another in the hotel dining room. “Well, I suppose we ought to be heading home,” she said.
            
“Don’t you want to stay a couple of days? Look around town some more?”
            
She stared out the window. “You have everything we’ll need at that farm of yours?”
            
“Ours. It’s your farm too now.”
            
“My farm too,” she said. She dabbed her napkin to the corners of her mouth. Smoothed it onto her lap. She sighed, the first of many sighs. “I guess you’re right about that.”

#

            Carl bore the emptiness he could not bear long enough then stood and walked over to the couch. He reached beneath it and pulled out his shotgun. He checked to see that it was loaded, then snapped it closed and walked out of the house and out into the fields. The sun had shifted west and the brown mountains shone bright with streaks of cream-colored stone. The wind had died. He sat down in the remnants of stubbled alfalfa and balanced the gun between his knees. Staring up at a sky wisped with white clouds, he remembered a Sunday morning not long before. Vivian had been in the kitchen when he’d opened his eyes and watched his son pull himself up in the crib. He stood there, staring solemnly at Carl, chewing his fist. Suddenly, they smiled at one another and Carl’s heart soared. The baby grinned even wider then gripped the crib and rocked it violently.
            
“Hey there,” Carl said. “You’re feisty this morning.” Another grin. “You gonna ask what I’m still doing here? Like your ma? Carl, is that you? I’ll bet them’ll be your first words.” 
            
“Carl?”
            
Adolfo approached, his feet crunching in the field. He carried a jug which he set on the ground. He leaned down to Carl, his hands on his knees. “Carl?”
            
“Yeah, I hear ya.”
            
“Here.”  
            
Carl looked up. Adolfo reached down, picked up the jug and held it out to him. “I will give you this water and you will give me the gun,” he said.
            
“Go away.”
            
“I will. I will go away and leave you here for long as you need. But first you are going to give me the gun.”
            
“Take it.”
            
“No. You are going to give it to me.”
            
“Why should I?”
            
“Because, if you give it to me, then I will know what you are thinking. That you are thinking maybe you want to live.”
            
“Maybe I don’t.”
            
“You feel that way now.” Adolfo set the jug back down. “But that is only now. And now doesn’t matter when you are not thinking clearly. Now hand me that gun.” 
            
“I told them to get rid of that dog. Not to let it near the house.”
            
“Yes. You did. They feel terrible, Carl.” 
            
Carl followed Adolfo’s eyes and saw the hands standing like sentinels in the shade of the trees, their bodies poised, watching and waiting. Carl grasped the gun barrel between his hands. It felt smooth and solid. He looked up at Adolfo, not three feet away, haloed by the afternoon sun, a being of light. “She left all the stuff I give her. Just took what she brought when we got married.”
            
Adolfo sighed and nodded. He picked up the jug again and held it out to Carl. "Come back to the house with me, or stay. It is your choice. But first please give me the gun.”
            
Carl handed him the shotgun. Adolfo gave him the jug, then took the gun and turned and walked off along the guttered furrows of the field toward the house.
            
“Adolfo?”
            
Adolfo turned, the shotgun held lightly in his hand. 
            
“You remember when I was a kid? That time we went huntin’ up near Table Mountain?”
            
“Why would you be thinking about that?
            
“I dunno. I was just thinkin’ it.”

#

            Carl clambered up the outcropping of icy rock, his gun held above his head as he followed Adolfo through a stand of mesquite and pine. He was twelve years old. The weather was perfect for rabbit hunting, the snow fresh, the sun shining painfully bright along banks of pure white. When Adolfo crouched to the ground ahead, his body tense and alert, Carl hurried up behind him. Adolfo waved one palm an inch above the ground, like a blessing, then motioned for Carl to come forward.
            
“What is it?” Carl said.
            
“These tracks.” 
            
“I see ‘em.”
            
“Wolves.”
            
“Yeah?”
            
“A pack. See how the tracks overlap in a straight line?”
            
“Yeah.” 
            
“Dogs will zig and zag.” Adolfo made fish motions with his hand. “Wolves move straight, like this.”
            
“How come they go straight?”
            
“They move very quickly. For hunting. To grab the ground and jump.” 
            
The sun shied its way behind the clouds; suddenly it was very cold. The trees rustled and ticked and the breeze streaked up Carl’s jacket, around his collar. “Let’s go. I wanna go, ok?”
            
“Let’s track them.”
            
“I wanna go back. Go find some rabbits.” 
            
“Let’s try.”
            
They found them not two miles away, nine wolves loping elegantly along the shore of a creek clogged with ice. They rolled in the snow bank, snapped playfully at one another. One wolf paused, his forepaw lifted as he sniffed the air, and Adolfo lay down in the snow and ice and pulled Carl down. They lay quietly, watching the wolves dart along the bank, their bodies curling as though poked with fire sticks. Carl listened to them howl; saw their white breath puff in the air. Adolfo gave him the field glasses and he looked through as a wolf plowed his nose through the snow and came up, his face bearded in white. He wanted to see its eyes and, for some reason, wanted not to.
            
“Okay, let’s go,” Carl said.
            
“We will.” Adolfo took the field glasses, put them to his eyes. “Mexican grays. God. So beautiful. Look,” Adolfo said in his low, passionate church voice. He gave the glasses back to Carl who looked again and twisted the focus knob. The blurred vision of a wolf appeared; he focused on its yellow, slanting eyes, the wind stirring the ruff of its neck. The wolf settled into the snow and curled its tail around its nose with delicate precision. “Okay, let’s go.”
            
“What are you afraid of?” Adolfo laughed softly. “We have the guns.”
            
“I dunno. Something about ‘em.” Carl whispered.
            
They camped in the lee of an arroyo, cooked rabbits over the fire, then sat and ate in silence. The horses stamped in the cold, their shoes ringing brightly against the stone. The stiff wind had died and the fire sawed shadows around the campsite. “Is it cuz you’re named after ‘em?” Carl said to Adolfo as they cleaned their plates. “Is that how come you like wolves so much?” 
            
“I am not really named after them.”
            
“You told me your name means wolf in Mexican.”
            
“It does. It means noble wolf.”
            
“What’s noble mean?”
            
“Oh, proud, I guess.” Adolfo leaned back against his saddle. “Strong.”
            
“How can a wolf be proud?”
            
Adolfo looked at Carl then looked back at the fire. “Wolves are special. Different from other animals.”
            
“Aint they just dogs?”
            
“No, no,” he said firmly. He reached over and fed the fire a log. He looked at Carl again and his eyes glowed and flared like the coals. “Dogs are wolves but wolves are not dogs. A hunter must know the difference. El lobo sabe.” Adolfo put his finger up to his temple. “The wolf knows.”
            
“Knows what?”
            
“The ways of God.” Adolfo looked up into the night sky. “He sees through the eyes of God. You can never fool the wolf. And you must never try.”
            
“Well, how is it wolves ain’t dogs?”
            
“Dogs are pets,” Adolfo said dismissively. “People keep them when they shouldn’t.”
            
“Why shouldn’t they?”
            
“Because they are pack animals; like the wolf. They don’t belong with people and yet people take them in, feed them, care for them. Then they stop caring for themselves. That is why they lose their strength. People and animals must live profunda, from the place deep inside them. Or they turn inside out. Dogs turned the wrong way when they stopped needing to run and hunt. But they still have the instinct.” Adolfo looked over at him. “You know a wolf must ask the leader of its pack before it can take a mate. The leader decides.”
            
Carl thought about the wolves he saw that afternoon. He remembered their grace, the flicker of their shadows along the snow, their thin howl. “How does he do that?” 
            
“No one knows. He just decides.”  The fire snapped. The horses leaned their faces into the firelight like wizened, whiskered old men. “And wolves fall in love, just the way people do. That much I know. There are even those who say they mate for life.” 
            
Later, when the fire had died down, Carl lay on his back on the hard ground with his hands behind his head. Treetops paintbrushed the stars and the moon lit the snowcapped peaks in the distance. He stared up at the great vault of the sky and his mind whirled with the day and all that he had seen and heard. 
            
“Hey Adolfo?”
            
“Yes.”
            
“How come you say wolves fall in love like people? How do ya know that?”
            
Adolfo was silent for a long time. Then he spoke. “I once shot and killed a she wolf, not far from here. When I was about your age.” 
            
“But I thought you liked wolves.  An’ you ain’t got cattle for her to kill. So why’d ya shoot her?”
            
“I have no excuse.” Adolfo spoke softly. There was a slight tremor in his voice and Carl thought that had not been for the darkness he would not have spoken at all. “I saw her and she was beautiful. I wanted her, and I don’t know why. She was something I just had to have. I ended up killing what I wanted. I was just a boy. Only a boy would do such a thing.” His voice faded and Carl wondered whether he was crying. “I left her there. I was too ashamed to do anything else. Later that day, I went back. There she was, frozen in the snow and I walked around her. That’s when I saw his tracks.”
            
“Whose?”
            
“Her mate. He had been there, lying next to her. Do you know how that made me feel?” Adolfo took a deep breath, then sighed. “That night, he came to my camp. He howled like a fantasma for three nights in a row. He blamed me, you see. I should never have killed her. I will always carry that shame.”
            “What happened to him?”
            
“One night he just stopped coming. He must have decided to go on living. Anyway, he never came back.”

#

            Adolfo and the men were piling wood in the clearing beyond the house, moving back and forth like ducks in a shooting gallery. Carl sat and watched them for a long time then stood on stiffened legs and picked up the jug and made his way back into the house. The bedroom furniture was rearranged, the crib gone, every trace of his wife and son wiped away forever. He staggered through the rooms like a man searching for a quiet spot to die, then walked outside to where the last of the sunlight sifted down among the trees and fields. Adolfo met him halfway to the clearing then they turned and walked together toward the men. 
            
Sitting apart on a small hill beyond the trees, Carl sobbed as Adolfo buried his son in the shade of the pines. The Apache boy sang a blessing. It was the first Carl had ever heard of his voice, and something about the bright strong sound in the air drew his eyes to the violet sky and its reefs of dark clouds. Closing his eyes, he saw them coming: all the timeless horses and riders and beasts of all description and purpose that the land could hold, the vaqueros and conquistadors and armies of men marching in the ragged boiling dust of his boyhood imagination. And surrounding them all los lobos, moving in swift packs, the chuffing smoke of their breath as they ran in straight, sure lines to God. Finally, as evening wrapped around the trees, he watched Adolfo light the wood pile, saw the crib go up in flames. The Mexican brothers walked out of the bunkhouse carrying a bundle wrapped in a blanket and tossed it onto the pile. The blanket unfurled like a flag and the dog took one final death leap in the air on stiff, rickety legs. Smoke belched into the sky like a heavy black engine. Carl heard his son’s cries fill the smoky air, felt the brush of his wife’s flowered skirt. Then he stood and made his down the hill toward the men.



Patti Hartley: "I am a writer living in Mesa, Arizona. I have worked as a nurse, a Deputy Coroner and in medical research. I am originally from the Midwest and have been living in Arizona for five years."

 

 

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