a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Even to himself, a man riding the mountains is a speck. When his intention is to cover ground, he is even smaller. Slower, if his ride is through time as well as space.
Because the horse chooses where to place his feet, the man’s eyes are free to take in the immensity of his isolation. It doesn’t matter that, beyond his field of vision, lies the crowded world. There are perils enough where he is, hazards to which the rider must be alert. Up north, in the old west, the hidden sniper always misses the lone rider who just happens to be the star of the show. In this world, presence unknown, rifle braced, it is next to impossible for one man to miss another.
Miguel, though, is not concerned with what lies unseen, in front, or even hidden to the side, but behind.
For years it seems he has been riding away rather than towards, leaving something, he would like to hope, at worst, in slow pursuit. Perhaps it is only the past, el pasado, a fragment of which, like a bullet, of necessity left where it is, he carries with him. Though, in a world in which all that goes around comes around, it might also be the future, el futuro, and a real bullet after all.
At the thought, Miguel, subtly, under his sombrero, checks the points of the compass. Centenario feels him turn, however slightly, in the saddle, but does not forget to place his hooves where they ought to be placed, between the loose rocks that, stepped on, might result in a skid, a stumble, and then…
No horse, no mule or burro for that matter, even if he doesn’t much care for the life he’s been handed, or even the man on his back, takes a single step, knowingly, towards the bitter end. Hazards, especially those lying in wait, are to be avoided before they are underfoot. A horse, after all, is a flight animal. He also has a deadly kick in reserve, and not only with both hooves lashed out behind, but with one hoof flung lightly to the side, to foil an attack from that quarter before any other contact is made. In a word, like every living thing, a horse is never quite ready to give up the ghost.
The horse also knows when he is in the middle of nowhere, when there is nothing behind and maybe less in front. Only the man knows if there is a reason for being there.
Man and horse have a lot in common, especially when they have spent years joined, so to speak, at the hip. No centaur, however, they are separate beings, each making allowances for the other, each of whom has his difficult, if not his impossible, side. By now, though it is standard procedure for the man, periodically, to run his eyes over the terrain, both know where they are: headed back where they came from, back where it all began.
But what, Miguel asks himself, after so many years, could have turned him around? What got him going in this direction?
Was it really a dream?
They had come to him in the night, certainly. Not once. Repeatedly. Who? The children. Whose? Hers. And the strange thing was, though the boys had to be on the brink of adulthood, adolescentes, they were, in the dream, children, children no older than they were the day he had ridden off.
Sometimes they stood at the foot of his bed, faint as apparitions, nearly holding hands. Sometimes, nearer the head, they sat on the floor, legs crossed, simply themselves, innocent as angels, looking up at him and speaking, as must they have been taught, when spoken to.
“What is it, boys?” Miguel had asked, his voice, as he had felt it in his throat, tending, only a decade or so late, toward the fatherly. Remembering that the situation was, at the least, improbable, in a somewhat harder voice, he had questioned them.
“What do you want?”
“You,” the children had answered, speaking in unison, as if in a variety show, as not even she could have taught them, and repeated it.
That’s what it had been like, for some time now, if not quite since he had ridden off into the nothing he had hoped, at the time, would, at least, be something. But when did it begin? Really. Looking up from the work he had clawed his way to, and thinking as he had, with the years, come into the habit of thinking, Miguel had thought about it.
When did it all begin?
Like nearly everyone in his unchanging, if unnamed pueblo, Miguel had been born into a world of impossibility, dropped on a day when his mother had nowhere to go and no time to get there, dropped into the furrow of never-ending toil, the same one she, along with the innumerable men and women who preceded her had been dropped into. Just so much compost, in a way, though the land, sweated over, shat upon, bled into, with the years, had somehow grown, not darker, richer, but thinner, harder.
A timeless sifting of small rocks, tiny stones, in places no more than gravel.
And time, thinks Miguel, is not that different from the space he now finds himself in. You think you are moving across it, through it, but as progress appears impossible in a landscape immeasurably larger than you, so now is then and then is now. You are motionless. In time as well as space. And, in a way, not matter how determined your lookout, a target.
Oh, you might look for paid employment, you can leave and look for it, since there is none where he is now headed, but you’ll be back, breathing the dust of the dry season, leaning into the slanted rain of the wet, because, as everyone he ever knew knows, the exhausted land, the unhelpful sky, are in your bones, your blood.
In your eyes too…even as they cover all possible angles from which you might be observed or stalked, as they check ahead for whoever might be lying in wait…eyes instinctively half closed against whatever the known world throws at you.
Even its brightness. Its certainties. Its knowledge.
Whatever is behind, as those who lived and died or were sacrificed in the times that preceded his own well knew, is also out in front. Awaiting your return. All we do, all we have ever done, is go away and come back. We occur. We recur. Daylight and darkness. Drought and flood. Life and death.
And so Miguel, perhaps at work, thinking when he ought to have been doing, perhaps, but only partly, at the urging of the children of the night, los angelitos, one day made up his mind, pulled on his old boots, retrieved his horse from the broken glass and blowing paper he’d kept him on, mounted and rode back where he came from, leaving the cityscape far behind.
In the saddle Miguel is, once again, simply a body in motion, going, he hopes, from here to there, mostly without a thought, even if, without a sound, he sometimes speaks, as has become his habit, to himself.
‘But you are a man, not a hard luck laborer who never looked up, not from this earth, never even thought of leaving, and you can’t help wondering what’s different, who’s alive now, who isn’t.’
At these unspoken words, Miguel, taking in the topography, left and right, actually opens his mouth, identifies the returnees to the world at large, his world, halloos…
“Miguel, the man, and Centenario, his horse..! We’re back..! Here we are..!”
Nothing. Not an echo. He listens to the sound of hooves carefully placed, barely skidding. He questions, soundlessly as usual, himself.
‘Aren’t you worried? About anything? What about your ghosts? Or simply the unborn, one yet to be born when you rode off?’
There had been a story carried on the air that a certain young woman, finer boned than his mother—looking more ahead than back, more hopeful that his mother had ever been—had died in childbirth, that the child had died with her, that that was one lineage, one line of descent, that ended right there.
‘Worried? No, I’m not worried. What’s done is done. Over with. Finished.’
Miguel returns to his questioning.
‘Then why, why, risking all, your work, maybe even the life you carry within, have you come back?’
Miguel, without an answer, comes to el campo santo before he comes to his unchanging, forever unnamed pueblo and the horse, perhaps anticipating a slight touch to the reins, turns before Miguel, given as he is to second thoughts, really makes up his mind. Centenario walks between a couple of vaults, those of the few who could afford them, places his hooves, almost carelessly, as if he knows the way, and suddenly, the spent land stretching behind and beyond, there it is…
Little more than a wall, three meters high, three meters deep, and wider, much wider, still holding onto those who went before, who preceded him, his antepasados, one on top of the other and, only steps away, stacked in the same wall, neighbors in death, those of the family of one he has not been able to forget.
Miguel dismounts and, in some small way, perhaps because he is somewhat less of a man without his horse underneath, it occurs to him that if old enough to father, if not old enough to be a father, he certainly had been too young to husband.
Suddenly, it seems, his ancestors, speaking in unison like the well-trained children of his dream, almost theatrically, address him.
‘No, Miguel, there is no redemption. Repentance is meaningless. Time will tell on you as it tells on all. There is always, even for the poorest of us, a price to pay.’
Thinking he will have to think that one over, Miguel, instinctively, in the silence that so often follows the unspoken, takes a few steps toward the neighboring family and there it is, chipped in the concrete of one slot not quite as old as the others…
María de la Luz
…complete with references to the families conjoined in her, not to mention tributes to the father, the son and the holy ghost. And, underneath, another name, that of the child, he supposes, forever snuggled close. Let the unnamed, in his mind anyway, remain unnamed, thinks Miguel, and does not lean in to read the smaller letters.
In fact, suspecting that the mother, forever young, might not, like his ancestors, wish to speak to him, he takes a step back, taking in the likelihood of her presence, the failing land beyond the wall that bred her family and his, the sky that, as always, looking down, neither led him here, or didn’t, that neither approves of his return, or doesn’t. It is his turn to speak and so, in a moment, he will…if barely audible words barely spoken through a mouth as closed as a cowboy’s can be called speech…to the wall, and further, to a place within, airless, dark and… And cold.
Miguel has never liked the cold.
“I don’t know if, somehow, you know it, or not, but I…”
Here he cuts it short, half spreading his arms in an unassuming presentation of himself, as if to say ‘here I am.’
“I know. I wasn’t here. Not in the long night when she—she is a she, isn’t she?—wouldn’t…wouldn’t…then…too late—when, at dawn?—did.”
Miguel knows he has revealed that, somehow, if only by rumor, he knows what happened, knows it now, though he would add in explanation, if she wished to know, the fact that he hadn’t known at the time. He hadn’t ridden away knowing. He would like to, if he can find the words, make that clear.
He shuffles a little. He looks down.
There it is, as always. The gray ungiving soil, little less than gravel, little more than bone dust, that works its way into everything, even your tortillas.
He looks up.
“Tell me… Were you…were you, then, when they placed her…in your arms…still warm, as warm as I remember you…or were you…were you both…cooling..?”
Miguel is only seeking clarification, the facts, though he might attempt, in some small way, justification.
“Listen. When I left…maybe I knew that I didn’t know…but…I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
He shuffles again. He looks down.
Worn out boots, as ever, in worn out soil.
He looks up.
“Maybe you knew what I didn’t and…not yet…not yet, though it is hard to imagine you ever…cold…kept it…to yourself.
“Listen. The night you labored alone I… I was on my horse, heading up, up and out. Leaving, I thought, our pueblo far behind. I couldn’t know your labors were in vain, that they would take you too. Not knowing, I might have thought I’d just look at the stars, breathe the cold air on the mountain, and then, when I’d had time to think it over, turn my horse around, come back down to you.
“But tell me: when did you..? When were you…? Before, or after, you asked if I was there? Or was it when you knew, without asking, that I wasn’t even walking back and forth outside the door? Was that the moment?”
Though he feels, at times, that he is being listened to, Miguel knows, of course, that there will be no answer. But in the pause that follows a question, he has time to realize there are nurses, nurses he knows by name, that he could call on, knock and ask, if they happened, by chance, to remember, exactly, when they, mother and child…
Miguel turns, not turning his back, once more, on her, on them, just enough to walk between the sealed wall and the vaults of the better off. Centenario, perhaps relieved that the trek, at least for that day, appears to be over, watches. His reins still draped over the saddle—there’s no need to tie up your oldest friend—his head does not quite follow the route of Miguel’s boots, but eyes and ears keep track of him.
And Miguel decides no, no reason to seek out, to question, the nurses. There are things he doesn’t want to know, not in detail. Though what, he wonders, has happened to the children, the children from before, from another time? Children from a man gone before Miguel had even thought of leaving, if by the once-a-week bus, they said, not as he himself went, over the mountain, in the saddle.
On a night very like tonight.
Adolescents, now, if children he should have taken charge of, then. Boys he should look up now, not, as with the nurses, to question, but to offer…
What? What does he have to offer? What and to whom? The ghosts of their former selves? Boys, already bending their elbows, upending the tequila of choice in their unnamed pueblo.
And then? To stay? Through the years? To watch? To see the road not taken. The boys, when their brains clear, their backs bent to the earth, stiffening, like their father’s, their father’s father’s.
And then? The boys, men really, livers, kidneys, ravaged in adolescence, and finally, catching up with them, carried here, to el campo santo, twenty, thirty, years before they should have been.
No, he wasn’t up to it. Let them go. Let them slip through his fingers. But…
Miguel stops in his tracks and, where there is really no one to listen, to overhear, speaks aloud.
“But isn’t that what you did to her? Isn’t that what you did to her child, yours? Are you going to do it again?”
Miguel returns to the sealed wall, her body, the smaller body at her side. He opens his mouth. Closes it. Hangs his head. Speaks more quietly, between lips that hardly part.
“It was them you thought of, wasn’t it, then, with your dead baby in your arms, of her of course, but also of them, your children of another time, children you knew, if you had time to think of it, that I wouldn’t stand by. Wouldn’t because I couldn’t. Young. Can you understand that?
“I was young!”
Miguel, a boy again, a boy-man, stamps his feet to make his point, scatters the worn soil, the rocks, causes Centenario’s head to jerk as the flight animal, without thinking of it, thinks of flight. He wonders if the poor workmanship of the sealed wall on the wrong end of things, on other side of the tracks, if there had been tracks, if his adolescent fit, his teenage tantrum, has caused Maria de la Luz, in her not so fancy box, to shudder.
To shift a little, left to right, right to left, and back before returning to…to stillness, utter and complete.
En Paz Descanse
“No. Nothing changes. It’s the same all over again. You knew that before I did, didn’t you? Had to.”
Miguel, a man again, sits in the dirt, his back to the wall that holds her, her child. His.
The day has been long, horizon to horizon, and night falls quickly. Before it is complete he gets up to free Centenario of his saddle, his bridle. Let him glean what there is between a couple of crypts with their wrought iron and leaded glass, between them and the back wall. He takes the blanket to sit on, unties his poncho. He wraps it once, twice, around himself. Like what? Never mind. He sits where he sat before, pulls his sombrero down, makes himself small against the night of all unnamed pueblos in the middle of nowhere, a night that is always darker.
And dead still. Not a breath of air. The swallows have long since given the night over to the bats. To its sounds. An unhappy cow, far off, in one direction. A brief gathering of coyotes, far off, in the other. And closer, much closer: something unseen, creeping, crawling, scratching. It’s a wonder he can’t hear the worms.
No. Tomorrow he won’t ride out of the past into the present, listen to the click of Centenario’s hooves on the cobblestones between those he used to know, one to the other, to learn what happened, or didn’t, to each. To all. He’ll ride back over the mountain, take the trail he chose for himself, years ago.
Make the same choice he made before.
He remembers, even before all that has happened happened, putting his hand on his father’s chest, what death feels like, what she must feel like now inside a body that had been perfect. Her fallen breasts. Her shrunken stomach. The cold. The cold that is always waiting. A cold she does not feel. At least there’s that.
María de la Luz
Since everyone knows everyone else in our unnamed pueblo, Miguel knew her from childhood, always a couple of years older than he was, always a little more grown up. She had to be. What with a father who worked himself to death when she was a child, a mother hacking in the same rut.
Yes, from the time she could walk, she had the house to tend when her mother was bent to the earth and then, in no time, it seemed weeks not years, her own children to raise, to lift their heads, somehow, to something else. To what? The Light? To give them to the light? What light? And then, the first boy-man, father of her children, gone, the next to deal with, Miguel himself. No.
There’d been no time, never had been and, though she didn’t know it then, never would be.
And yet there’d been…he hardly knew how…after her father, her mother, her first man, her first children…a sliver of time in which, somehow, to love. To love him.
The cold is getting through. He shudders, draws his poncho tight, tighter, calls without turning, calls out to the body behind him.
“What do you think, lying there? Is it time, at last, to think of yourself? Or do you see, behind eyes that were closed for you, your sons, if they’re alive, already, as you were, running out of time?”
In the middle of the night, when the half moon has sunk and Orion is striding overhead, Miguel wonders aloud.
“Is there room for me in there, maybe if you move over a little? I’ve never liked small closed-in spaces—I prefer the wide-open ones—but maybe, if I keep my head down, if we scrunch our child between us, not quite warming her… Maybe…”
Miguel is still mumbling the matter, somewhere between closed lips and chattering teeth, when the horizon clears, except for one low, black cloud, stretching south to north in the east and, before sunup, not even considering the slow walk—as if he, at last the star of the show, if with some differences, were headed for the showdown, the shootout—into his unnamed pueblo, Miguel saddles up, turns Centenario into the mountain.
It is stone cold, the shadows thick, heavy, except for the occasional expanse of gravel or white rock, but, though he hasn’t seen or spoken to a soul, other than hers, he has a feeling there is someone, somewhere, not that far away. Maybe behind. Maybe out in front. He can’t be sure. He has been keyed by the movement of Centenario’s ears, but they are going both ways at once.
Yes, Centenario too has a feeling they are not alone, though he can’t be wondering, as Miguel, if one of the sons he had not taken charge of, is himself taking charge. It can hardly be boy-man #1, their father, a man at last, come home to find the woman that had once been his, dead, his children grown and, so the talk has it, the one who’d taken his place, shuddering, if not raging, raising questions that will never be answered, in el campo santo. No. Not even if she had, much earlier, said to him, as would have been her nature…
‘Go on, out there, find something, what you need to, and, when you’ve found it, come back, to me, to your children.’
And he, having found it, had come back.
More likely the son, not yet the man who will work himself to death, just a kid gone bad, sitting most of the days of the week up some dead end in a wreck, dealing what can be dealt through the window, the only distraction that can distract from nothing, nothing at all.
And his brother, the other good-for-nothing, both of them sitting, night after night in the low dirty wreck as if they’d been born in it.
Yes, it’s them, los abandonados, the ones he left when they were children looking up at him…rifles ready now, braced…one on either side of the trail, watching him come.
Or is it, more likely…considering the movement of Centenario’s ears…one kid gone bad out in front, the other ne’er-do-well behind, placed so they don’t end up shooting each other—as if it would much matter, as if it would be much of a loss—but only, perhaps to give a little darkness where darkness is due, putting a bullet, or two, in you, the man who, for some reason, had to come back?
Michael McGuire was born and raised and has lived in or near much of his life; he divides his time; his horse is nondescript, his dog is dead. Naturally, McGuire regrets not having passed his life in academia, for the alternative has proven somewhat varied, even unpredictable. A book of his stories (The Ice Forest, Marlboro Press, distributed by Northwestern University Press) was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by Publisher’s Weekly. McGuire’s stories have appeared in Guernica, J Journal, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, Hudson Review, New Directions in Prose & Poetry, & etc. His plays have been produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, and many other theatres here and abroad, and are published by Broadway Play Publishing. The Scott Fitzgerald Play, University of Missouri Press, a Breakthrough Book chosen by Joy Williams, has been published as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition. Both books are available on Kindle.