Only an Oil Tycoon Could Ruin This Friendship
"Wren & Riley" from Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep by Adam Soto, recommended by Karen Russell
Introduction by Karen Russell
One of the hardest things for me to talk about, let alone teach, is how a writer arrives at that Frankenstein “It’s Alive!” moment. I have so many ideas for stories that never sit up on the table. Shells of stories that can’t be prodded into drawing breath and opening their eyes. So it’s a joy to recommend Adam Soto’s “Wren and Riley” from his excellent collection Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep to you, a ghost story that is alive from its first sentence: “Wren was leaving New York to live in Wyoming with a white man named Riley.”
You can hear the story revving its engine, the rubber meets the road of those repeating “r’s,” the ache of inevitability in the past progressive “was leaving.” Slipping around the stubborn consonants is a plaintive why? Why-yo-ming? her friends ask Wren, the word “stretched out into something resembling a caterwaul.”
Yessenia and Junip tell her not to go. “Not because Riley was white, but because it was Wyoming.” These three women grew up together outside of Tuba City, Arizona, “second-generation Nahua transplants,” best friends and business partners who move to New York to sell their art, hustling to make rent, sharing not only their lives and their dreams but their expenses. Money haunts their friendship as perniciously as the most relentless phantom. Yessie and Junip do care that Riley is white–“but neither was quite willing to admit that to Wren.” They care when Wren breaks their childhood promise “never to go anywhere without each other” and leaves their Crown Heights studio for a life of alpenglow with Riley, purchased with his Texas oil money, “half a country away from the only two women who could keep her safe.”
The other day, stalled in traffic on a truss bridge, I found myself thinking about the strength and the simplicity of the triangle, the most stable geometry in construction. In human relationships, of course, a triangle is rarely stable and never rigid. Unlike the trusses made of rebar steel, human triangles are queer and cartilaginous and ever-shifting alliances. They hold spaces haunted by the unspeakable.
If you’ve ever been part of a trio, a flesh-and-bone-and-spirit triangle, you’ll recognize the ghostly spandrels and roaring silences that Soto explores here. The unspoken warning. The swallowed accusation. The quiet hunger for connection. Poltergeists of rage and jealousy and pain and desire haunt these three women. Triangles can bear astonishing weight, but that doesn’t mean one can’t snap.
Four years after Wren elopes with Riley, the triangle reassembles itself. “Wren needs our help,” says Yessenia, and the old lines pull taut. The three friends reunite in Wyoming for what turns out to be a collective haunting, a metaphysical showdown in the October woods. Soto reminds us that you can survive a brush with death, but it survives with you. The story glides beyond one terrifying night to its long afterlife in Yessenia’s body. How can we live safely with the ghosts we can neither forgive nor kill? “Wren and Riley” asks this “lurching question” and answers it in form. The best stories, like this one, never leave us. They go on cycling like erratic moons. With the uncanny resilience of those memories that refuse to disappear, and the satellite lives that tug at us with “separate plans for different futures.” New moon, crescent moon, full moon. A wink, a sickle, a portal.
– Karen Russell
Author of Orange World and Other Stories
Only an Oil Tycoon Could Ruin This Friendship
Wren & Riley by Adam Soto
Wren was leaving New York to live in Wyoming with a white man named Riley. Yessenia and Junip, her friends and business partners, told her not to go. Not because Riley was white but because it was Wyoming.
“I mean, why Wyoming?” Yessenia asked in short.
“Why-yo-ming?” Junip stretched out into something resembling a caterwaul.
They grew up outside Tuba City, Arizona—second-generation Nahua transplants and non-tribal citizens—but four years in the city had turned them into New Yorkers, as Yessenia and Junip explained it. They did care that Riley was white but neither was quite willing to admit that to Wren.
“It’s where Riley keeps his fortune,” Wren said, and left.
She called Yessenia a month later to say Riley hadn’t been lying. The house was huge. Three stages of the last ice age visible from the front porch, a little bit of the epoch before that one. She and Riley had begun living together in a bowl surrounded by some of the youngest mountains in the world. The silver noise of bull elk, bugling for love, kept Wren up most of the night. Black-footed trumpeter swans roosted in trees draped over a nearby lake Riley promised to dive into buck naked the first day of spring. As much as Wren looked forward to watching her stoic millionaire mountain man freeze his ass off, she admitted the idea of Riley’s naked body slipping under the frigid glass of the waters, parting the steady reflection of those broken mountain peaks, turned her on. She said that Riley had his pilot’s license, too. He’d fly them over Idaho to his beach house on the Oregon coast, where they’d take after the little oystercatchers dotting the shoreline and spit any pearls they found right back into the sea—they didn’t need them, that’s how rich they were, rich as birds. He’d already hired a contractor to convert the property’s thousand-square-foot barn into a ceramics studio for her and was looking into buying a storefront in Jackson where she could sell her wares to tourists and collectors, just like in New York. Yessenia and Junip could come stay with them during the summers, hike and kayak through the Grand Teton National Park, attend intertribal powwows, if they wanted.
“That does sound nice,” Yessenia was finally able to say, the fuzzy hum of the apartment’s lousy phoneline tickling her inner ear in the little silence that followed. Maybe it was Wren’s mountain line producing so much interference.
Yessenia rubbed her ear and stared into her water glass. Catching the light of a lamp, the water looked the color of olive oil. She pictured Wren marching contentedly through forest snow, the animals watching her without stirring as she passed.
Truthfully, Yessenia couldn’t trust anyone with so much money, and Wren had broken their childhood promise never to go anywhere without each other. Now Wren was half a country away from the only two women who could keep her safe. Not that Yessenia thought she could say any of this to her friend. Wren insisted she’d been rescued from New York and the chokehold of the struggling artist, that she’d made the smartest choice she was ever going to make in her life. Instead, Yessenia tried to believe her. She tried very hard to be happy for her.
“We won’t be having a wedding,” Wren eventually clarified. “But you should visit, you really should. The two of you would make a killing in Jackson, I’m telling you.”
For the second time that evening, Yessenia considered the invitation. There was no money for travel. Not visiting could be a punishment, at least for as long as they all still meant something to each another.
“Maybe next year,” she said, and then, to get Wren off the phone, and because maybe it was true, “We’re happy for you.”
Four years straight, Yessenia made excuses for why she and Junip couldn’t visit; each year she would listen for the disappointment in Wren’s voice, the regret and hesitation in her own, and hang up.
Junip and Wren were ceramicists. Growing up, they took lessons from their mothers, Navajo women from Tuba City, and a white woman from Lake Tahoe who lived like a lizard person in the desert between Tuba and Bitter Springs. They blended principles, techniques, systems, and meanings. They could make anything out of clay; they only kept making cups and plates and bowls and pitchers because people liked having things that helped them hold on to other things. Taking one of their saucers or butter dishes or bolo pendants into your hands, however, you sensed something beyond the object’s purpose, some sort of indigenous Michelangelo genius, the way the items were as thin as bone tools, fell right into place anywhere, could double as body parts whenever you felt lonely.
Yessenia was a weaver and a loom artist, well versed in Nahua, Navajo, and modern techniques as well, and the three hid behind her shawls year-round. With every garment, she tried to make something to make a woman appear larger, the way a bird might when it feels threatened. It worked sometimes. Junip would come for Yessenia some nights, to yell at or hit her, and Yessenia would open her arms like a condor, her shawl dropping and spreading at her sides, and send Junip stumbling backward to the couch or bed to fall asleep. Afterward, Yessenia would search for something else she’d woven, a blanket or even a towel, to drape over Junip while she slept, to offer her the protection too. Sleep was to be at sea, her mother had told her, a person couldn’t be any more vulnerable. Once, wrapping Junip in a tzalape, Yessenia heard Junip begin to speak to her from her dreams, the sea.
“I hate you,” Junip said, over and over. “I hate you, I hate you.”
They could fight over anything, but those days Yessenia and Junip mostly fought over whose idea it had been to leave Arizona in the first place; whose fault it was Wren had left; how they were supposed to keep on living in New York now that they’d lost a third of their income and a fourth of the rent they shared with a Jamaican man named Steven. Though, Junip had been violent with Yessenia before Wren left and long before they’d ever made it to New York.
Standing over Junip’s furious, sleeping body that night, Yessenia thought of Arizona. A land of double-wides and LSD and long, droning hours belonging to the Navajo old-timers who’d tell them to shut up and listen to the world as it had been before the world they’d been born into. And not just the one the young girls had been born into, but the one everyone had, as far as memory could recall. Was it the same world her people remembered? The Otomí? The Mazahua?
Stepping away from Junip, Yessenia recalled the Kaibab National Forest. The time she, Junip, and Wren dragged a gas generator up a hill through knee-high cliffrose to watch a scary movie with a bunch of ponderosa pine. Looking over her shoulder as she climbed, Yessenia was dismayed by what she saw. Hummingbirds driving the clear-cut lane they’d left behind, butter-colored petals flying off in the wind. It stopped her where she stood, and Wren had to turn to her and say, “There’s plenty more where that came from. It’ll grow back,” to get her moving again. When they reached the trees, they set up camp, passed a joint around, and ate sandwiches they had packed while they waited for it to get dark. After nightfall, they fired up the gas generator and climbed into their canvas tent, where they’d also positioned a miniature TV and a VHS player, both borrowed from the high school. Seated atop their blankets and sleeping bags, the girls lit another joint and pushed play. The Amityville Horror. Within minutes, Wren was asleep, snoring and farting long before the fake blood started to ooze. Glancing at Wren’s sleeping figure, Junip asked Yessenia to please stay up with her.
“Are you scared?” Yessenia said.
“I just don’t want to be left alone,” Junip answered, and turned to look back at the tiny screen.
Like most of the movies they watched, The Amityville Horror made Junip laugh. People died horrible deaths in the movie and Junip laughed. Blood splattered and sprayed and Junip laughed.
Watching her friend watch the movie, Yessenia wondered how anyone could get so much pleasure out of violence. It wasn’t like people didn’t have violence in their own real lives. When the film ended, Junip caught Yessenia staring at her in confusion and said it was all the stuff about the Indian burial grounds that made her find the whole thing ridiculous.
“White people are so funny,” she whispered, careful now not to wake Wren, though she hadn’t seemed to care much at all while the movie was playing. “Losing their property is their biggest fear.”
“That’s what you got from the movie?” Yessenia said.
“Yessie, the whole movie is about a family trapped in a bad real estate investment. No harm would’ve come to them if they were just willing to cut their losses. And doesn’t the white man know they’re the ones haunting us?”
Yessenia kept staring at her friend, lit by the light of the credits, the soundtrack music warbling as they breathed, the generator roaring beside them through the tent’s canvas wall. Wren had already stolen all of the blankets. Junip was the smartest person Yessenia knew. She simplified the world to a complex state of insignificance.
“Sometimes I think you’re too smart to be hanging out with people like me and Wren,” Yessenia said, hurting so bad but also amazed by her friend’s insights and shaken still by the movie. Yessenia didn’t know if she was haunted. Wasn’t their little group just left all alone? Was it better to be haunted or alone?
“We’re all too smart for this place,” Junip said. “And someday we’re all going to get out. And not because of my smarts, but Wren’s looks.”
They stared at the sleeping Wren again. Her even skin, her endless hair. Her even brows and thin nose. Junip was intelligent. Wren was beautiful. Yessenia didn’t know what she was.
“And your talent,” Junip said, reaching to touch Yessenia’s hands. They’d worn her shawls up the hill, as the sun had set, and they were wearing them now. Wren got tangled in hers as she tossed and turned. Junip let go and instantly Yessenia felt brittle, incapable of moving her own fingers without losing them.
“It’s too stuffy in here. I need some air,” Junip said and unzipped the tent. “And I gotta turn off this damn generator. The squirrels are trying to sleep!”
Yessenia knew just the ones, with their tasseled ears and red spines and shocking, white tails. She followed Junip into the cold. For the squirrels, for Junip, for herself. The sky, an ice cave of gauzy constellations, beared down on them. Junip turned off the generator and, within seconds, took off all Yessenia’s clothes. She left on her own. Within seconds, Yessenia lay down her hardening body on the tilting Earth and spread herself like she was about to have a baby. Brilliant Junip moved her hands all around. Hypothermic from the waist up, fevered from the navel down, Yessenia stared straight into the sky, her breath casting obscuring clouds in even streams beneath the starlight. She did nothing with her own hands. The stars were hers; her body, Junip’s. She listened for the world as it had been but heard only the world as it was.
In the end, it was Wren’s beauty that delivered them, the beauty of the objects she created. A shelf of bowls in a restaurant gift shop and an impassioned directive from a woman from New York on an Artist’s Retreat.
“Move to Chelsea. Make some real money. I’ll help you.”
The girls rented two corners of a shop in Brooklyn that people rarely visited. Mainly, people came in looking for a bathroom. Twice, someone ODed on the toilet, and the staff had to put up a hand-painted sign. They subsisted on each other, living in a two-bedroom with Steven. Yessenia and Junip slept in one room, Steven the other, while Wren slept on the couch. The eighties crept on with glorious indifference toward them for forty-six months before Riley appeared in the shop.
Wren’s arms, dipped in plaster, from her fingers to her elbows, were the color of milk when he found her. Her black, black hair fell over her shoulders, so long now she could tuck the ends into her shoes. Yessenia and Junip watched her fall in love and disappear. It took two months.
“Wren did this to us,” Yessenia whispered to Junip. She knew Steven was already awake and listening. He’d want to talk in the morning. “This is all Wren’s fault,” she said again, louder this time.
Four grueling years after Wren’s first phone call from Wyoming, Riley was dead. Wren had killed him. Again, she called to speak with Yessenia on the phone. Again, Yessenia listened without saying much at all. The murder was totally legal, Wren explained. Self-defense. She’d gone before a judge and jury and emerged triumphant, as a kind of Rosie the Riveter of battered wives, a Take No Shit Sheila, she said. Women everywhere believed they could do it too! Shotgun blast in the living room, a ruined rug. Buckshot collecting in the arm and knee pits of the room, between frills and door hinges.
“He was beating me, Yessenia. He was going to kill me someday. But it’s over now.”
“I’m so sorry,” Yessenia said.
Junip watched her from the other end of the apartment the night of the phone call, shifting, in her usual way, from curious to upset. She didn’t like Yessenia talking on the phone too long. She didn’t care to be left out of anything.
“I’m not,” Wren said. “I’m just glad I had a gun and knew how to use it. Might not hurt to have one in the apartment the next time Junip goes on a rampage.”
Yessenia didn’t say anything, stared at Junip as she began angrily moving their few things around the kitchen.
Wren said, “I’m just kidding, Junip’s not that bad.”
Yessenia gagged into the receiver. She’d had no idea. AIDS was crawling through the walls in New York; a team of crafty youths was extracting stereos from every car on the block. They didn’t own a car, but they could imagine the special kind of violation that must come from hearing your hi-fi play someone else’s favorite radio station as they drove past your window. Her friend had been abused, had lost her husband, was a murderer no matter what a judge or jury said. She shouldn’t have ignored her all these years, but when Yessenia tried to comfort her, Wren told her to give it a rest.
“All I need now is a hand moving my stuff out of the godforsaken state,” she said.
“What is it?” Junip hissed.
“Wren needs our help,” Yessenia said, cupping the receiver.
Three stages of the ice age. Part of another one. Wren could afford the movers but none of them would have the heart it’d take to really see it through properly. There were enough racks and points and antique Navajo rugs in it for Yessenia and Junip to pay their Brooklyn rent for a few years if they only came out and saw her, helped pack a U-Haul, and caravanned back to Arizona.
Off the phone, Yessenia told Junip everything.
“What’s the weather like this time of year?” was all Junip could think to ask, simplifying the situation into a complex state of insignificance.
Landing in the Jackson airport on a blue October afternoon, they were only a few minutes on the ground when they saw Wren drive up in an old mustard-colored Jeep. Her hair was short. The truck had belonged to Riley’s father; like many things, it was Wren’s in the end. The man had named the truck Mister. Wren called it Mister, too. An Alaskan huskie named Cheer Up sat in the back with Junip while Yessenia rode up front, choking Mister’s dial for anything but country and bible babble, settling for Corinthians read in a twang before turning it off altogether.
The reunion didn’t feel four years in the making, and the drive along the Grand Teton National Park was too beautiful to take death seriously. Sprawling stiff yellow prairie and purple sage. An endless stand of evergreen. Quaking aspen, dropping their yellow leaves and flashing their witch eyes, kept watch over everything. You could wear the aspen chalk as sunblock, drink the earth in a tea. The mountain peaks shined with something called alpenglow.
“Riley called them the tits. Used to bother me, but I guess that’s what tetons means, in French. He’d say, ‘Hey, Wren, ain’t life the tits?’ He had a lot of fun getting me worked up.”
Yessenia listened for misery in her friend’s voice, an openness to regret. She needed regret, she decided. Wren had looked so happy, waving at them from her mustard-colored truck, her hair shorn like the girls’ in the punk clubs, a smiling dog by her side. Yessenia had been in rooms with men and women Junip had slept with, attended a birthday party and talked for twenty minutes with an uncle who used to feel her up when she was a kid, but being beside Wren contorted her, blurred her insides. She needed remorse.
“He wanted to put up a billboard,” Wren said, “to remind people that all of this was worth fighting for. He had guns against animals and guns against men.”
Yessenia imagined the billboard blocking the face of a mountain, a bullet hole tearing through the image or text the way bullet holes blew through the road signs back home in the desert.
“And you offed him with a shotgun like the beast he was,” Junip said, and leaned forward, husky hair dashing her eyebrows when Yessenia turned to cut her a look.
Over the stick shift, Wren said, “Well, I wanted to get my point across.”
“And you didn’t even need a billboard,” Junip said.
Silent, Yessenia stared at the back of her friend’s ear. She’d never seen this part of Wren’s body. What was it for? What could it help you hold? Michelangelo genius still throbbed inside, she tried to remember.
Yessenia saw the house and what a beautiful life it could’ve been, may have been for a little while. A massive cabin of blond, flaying timber with long windows encasing the sky like tall glasses of water. A house large enough for parties and guests but mostly to be alone. “Why Wyoming? Why so far?” she’d asked Wren. “Because Riley wants me for himself,” Wren had said. “Wyoming is somewhere to belong to no one else.” Yessenia was glad no children were involved, but her mother had said a woman without a heart for children was like a canteen filled with sand. In every home Yessenia had ever occupied—apartments, trailers, tents—she’d always imagined space for children, for the idea of them, the consummate. From Mister’s front seat, she could see Wren and Riley’s home in the Tetons was a basement excavated, propped on stilts, emptying. A ruin of selfishness at the end of the world, the beginning of another. She was glad children weren’t involved, but how else was it supposed to have ended? How was Wren supposed to regret the inevitable?
At the foot of the icy Tetons, Yessenia gulped the hard, glacial air, watched herself approach the house with bags in hand, Junip’s and her own, in the cabin windows’ reflection. An unsteady Sherpa with stale apple on her breath, a childless woman with distended breasts sloshing across her broad chest. The Puerto Rican girls she knew called her Poca Tonta. The look made white men laugh at her and white women want to trample her into the gutter on the streets of New York. Junip and Wren, talking to one another behind her in the reflection, were like avian twins, sisters from the same egg, with necks to climb. The only difference between them was Junip’s teeth were destroyed and Wren’s were not. If they never opened their mouths, they’d both be perfectly beautiful.
Inside the enormous cabin, Yessenia was taken aback by what eerily effective work Wren had done cleaning up after the murder. Not a trace of buckshot, no smell, no gore. A little island of blood on a Navajo rug, which Wren pointed out with a shrug. Some things go and they’re gone. Yessenia remembered watching a man’s body burn into the dry air when she was little. Different from the Navajo and Nahua customs, they’d gone to California for the funeral, a family friend. His spirit, she’d assumed, was probably that quaking heat-air gumming up the atmosphere just above the flames’ tallest point. She didn’t pay much attention to the metaphysics of most situations, so she was never sure, but she was almost certain all spirits had at least the power to congeal. She saw the tits from the kitchen windows, a woman laid on her back, tethered to the heavens by her nipples, a kind of religious torture.
“Know Southern women during the Civil War were jarring their pee to help make gunpowder for the troops?” Wren said. She was knocking around, putting together a snack.
Yessenia tried to see the antebellum ladies napping in their hot, cobwebbed parlors surrounded by glinting jars of golden urine. It was important for her to see the physical aspects of things people said. In New York, she’d almost painted Riley’s murder to quit its lurching question in her mind. Now she could see she’d have been way off. A dead body in the home was like a dead body in the street; it’d most likely just have been lying there, for a while, at least. She’d seen a body in the street once. A boy napping in jeans and gym shoes, his shirt probably crumpled in his mom’s apartment, on the couch—New York was sweltering. His face had a smoky opening in it the size and grimace of a swallowhole.
“Who told you that?” Junip said, asking about the pee.
“Read it in a letter some chick wrote me. Crazies from all over write me stuff like that every day,” Wren said, and put fistfuls of pretzels into elliptical bowels, half-moons of ice into whiskey.
“Fan mail?” Yessenia asked.
“I guess that’s what it’s called,” Wren said.
Then Junip shouted, “Bingo!”
She’d rolled a doobie one-handed, unnoticed, like a miracle.
“Oh, thank God,” Wren said, and rushed for some matches in the stone and walnut kitchen. “Riley wasn’t exactly a homeopath,” she said over her shoulder. “More of a psychopath.”
The oil was two generations family-owned and in Texas. Wren had seen the fields once, the tall crows going at it. “How I make the Earth move, let me name the ways,” Riley had told her, and for a while it seemed like there wasn’t a single object on planet Earth that wasn’t connected to his field in some way. She’d asked him why Wyoming. He’d said because oil was dirty, he’d smelled it from the womb, it’d tanned the water he drank, and it was the war paint on his daddy’s face when he beat his mother. When his brother and cousin died in a plane crash, up in oil flames, and it was all his, and he could afford to be away from it, he went to the cleanest place in America. Glacial-scrubbed. Wasn’t there oil in Wyoming? Still, the rocks were so sharp they winnowed the air. For Yessenia, too thinly. In the kitchen, as she sucked at the canoeing joint, curled and gray brittle paper flecking to the timber rafters, she felt faint and had to find a stool. Outside, onyx colors were chasing after the pink setting sun. The chill in the house was a solid, and the women had circled close. Cheer Up had made himself into a neat pile in the middle of them.
“So, what was the last straw?” Junip asked.
Junip was capable of asking anyone anything. The ideas came from her ruined teeth, which had always been gray—a side effect of an antibiotic—and were blackening now. She was the one who got them rides when they were kids, scored them dope, collected spare change for beers; she was their pushy salesperson in Brooklyn. It was her brilliance, all grown-up. She’d directed Yessenia’s life since that night in the Kaibab Forest. Junip, twenty-four now, the only one of them who’d grown up with a father. Yessenia remembered it taking Junip three months to finally take her clothes off in front of her, to show her the body she’d somehow hidden their whole lives. It was speckled with cigarette burns.
Wren pinched the remaining weed, soot, and paper to a ball and swallowed it like a pill.
“That’s what the lawyer wanted to get straight. He said if we could tell a clear enough story, the jury would understand why I did it and believe that I’d done the right thing. He gave me this triangle diagram and was like, ‘Okay, this corner is you marrying Riley, this opposite corner of the base is you shooting Riley, the peak’s the worst thing that he ever did to you, you pick something extra bad for that one and two or three events scaling up from the marriage and two or three others scrambling down to the death.’ What that guy didn’t understand was being married to Riley wasn’t like climbing a mountain and killing him certainly wasn’t like coming off one either.”
Then her eyes were off like buoys, bobbing, blinking in the darkening room. Yessenia, high, wheezing, hoping her clutching lungs weren’t actually making the sound she was hearing in her ears, caught sight of a dusky cylinder beside the fireplace. It wasn’t a fire poker, but probably the murder weapon; she didn’t look at it long enough at first. She’d been the one Wren had called, but Junip was the one who’d said they’d go. Upon second glance, the shotgun slanted against the stone wall like James Dean.
Breathe, she told herself. Hesitation had followed Yessenia like a sick dog her whole life. It would inflame and grow lethargic and keep her from herself and other important things. When Wren called, she was glad the old dog was still kicking around. Wren had killed her husband. The will designated her heir apparent to his wealth—the wells belonged to a board of trustees or a company, but some inexplicable amount of money was automatically hers. Breathe. Yessenia had watched enough TV to know the virtues and trappings of the black widow. Even if she believed Wren had had a right to kill Riley, which she didn’t know if she had, there was the question of what Wren was owed in the end: her freedom, sure, but a fortune? Aware of her hair pushing through the skin atop her skull, her cuticles overwhelming her nails, Yessenia noticed Wren’s white Keds skimming across the dark wood floor. Who wore white shoes to a murder scene?
“What will you do with all the money?” she asked Wren. “Whatever I want,” Wren said.
Around midnight they were all high and drunk. Junip was using the unloaded shotgun like a cane. A gate outside swung open and shut, and Yessenia thought wind rarely exercised so much courtesy. Reagan’s ghastly old face was on the TV. She wouldn’t have noticed it then, but years later she’d reflect on how everything on TV in the eighties looked like a dream—it was the resolution.
“And you just keep sleeping in that bed?” Junip asked. They’d talked of nothing else.
“It was my bed too. And now it’s just mine. The movers are gonna kill themselves getting it into the truck. Solid mahogany,” Wren said.
Yessenia, a distant planet, muttered, “I thought we were your movers.” “We’ll move the little things,” Wren said.
Yessenia couldn’t take it anymore. The ambiguity. The indifference. The altitude, the alcohol, the weed.
“You don’t feel any guilt?” Yessenia said.
She wasn’t fearless, she just didn’t drink often. “About what?”
“Killing your husband.”
“What part of he was beating me do you not understand?” “You could’ve left. You could’ve come home.”
“She is home,” Junip said.
“You just didn’t want to give this up,” Yessenia said.
“Why don’t you run away?” Wren asked Yessenia. “Why don’t you go home?” she said, and somehow this made Junip smile.
“What did you think was going to happen?” Yessenia said. “You came out here knowing it was going to be a nightmare.”
“It was heaven for a year, Yessenia. I had no idea what Riley was capable of.”
“He was a man,” Yessenia said.
“Steven is a man,” Junip said.
“Riley was a straight white man,” Yessenia said, toggling between Wren and Junip, uncertain with whom she was arguing, what she was arguing.
“Not all of us get off on women,” Wren said. Yessenia felt saliva readying her throat.
“And if you knew something back then, why didn’t you say anything?” Wren said.
Yessenia hadn’t said anything because she was scared. She didn’t say anything now because she was scared.
“I’m not asking for anyone’s forgiveness,” Wren said, lowering her voice. “That’s not why I asked you two to come. No forgiveness, no guilt. I asked you two to come get me the fuck out of here. To put an end to this. That’s it.”
“You weren’t supposed to go without us,” Yessenia said.
“You’re right, Yessie,” Wren said. “But we’re together now, aren’t we? And it’s a miracle that we are. Not just me. All of us. It’s not anything but a miracle.”
Yessenia knew what she meant. Junip did too. They both knew Wren was right. They all knew sleep might’ve been a sea, but life aboveground, on dry land, in the desert, where everything else had a stinger or an armored face . . . Yessenia tried to remember how many girls. How many girls? Everyone talked about how the men had been picked up in buses and never came back. Only a few people ever brought up the girls. In Yessenia’s mind, each of the disappeared, when she pictured them, were always walking, the last you saw of them were their elbows and the soles of their shoes. But then she knew they’d later been seen washing their faces in truck stop restrooms, holding a Budweiser in a dance hall in Perry or Cheyenne, answering an ad for an at-home nurse in Tulsa. She knew a stranger had seen the last of them before they disappeared forever.
Wren said, “And I’m glad we’re together, even here. I need you, Yessenia. It’s so important that you came.”
She grabbed Yessenia by the hands, and for a moment, Yessenia did not feel so brittle.
“The kindest man I’ve ever met was a bear trainer,” Wren said, weaving her head side to side to stay in Yessenia’s sightline. “He was Riley’s friend, he came to the house once, he didn’t bring his bear. I told him all about you and Junip and our childhood and he listened and asked questions and didn’t drink too much and told me all about his wife and kids. You’ve seen his bear in movies and commercials, I promise. He was sitting right where you are when I asked him, ‘Let’s say Debra Winger was acting in a scene with your bear and your bear starts to go haywire and tries to eat Debra Winger’s face off, would you shoot it?’ He didn’t like this question, said he didn’t like to imagine it, but if something like that did happen he’d let it happen. ‘Can’t blame a bear for being a bear,’ is what he said at first, and then he told me a story about the first time he and the bear went to the southern hemisphere. They got off the plane in the middle of nowhere, someplace in South America, and the first thing the bear did was look up at the night sky and start crying. They had a police escort and the cop raised his gun to the animal and the trainer put his own body between them. The bear was only frightened, he said. Because the bear couldn’t recognize any of the constellations in the night sky. He’d been all over Europe and the United States and never made a fuss because he knew exactly where home was. In South America, he was lost. The trainer said he couldn’t kill a thing that read the stars or experienced the fear of getting lost. You’re right, I should’ve known. Because that’s what a man is. A person who forgives the animal. You’ve been right about everything forever.”
Wren showed Yessenia and Junip to their room. Beside the bed was an Afghan loom on which the fine startings of a shawl were strung, stuck and dangling. Outside was a tallow moon. Moose, beleaguered with rut, horned in the woods, and when Wren left, Junip gave Yessenia a devilish look. Yessenia hated it when she didn’t want to have sex because she always had to anyway. Getting turned on took courage first.
“I’m gonna pee,” Yessenia said, and the way she said it made it sound like she was taking a stance, but she really wasn’t.
In one of the upstairs bathrooms, from a few feet away, overlooking the toilet, a mounted doe watched you go. The taxidermist had given her a pulse in her throat, which he’d forced softly to the left. Her ears and nose were tuned to something, the hunter or her children, while her black eyes kept forward, dividing her captivation. What was the last thing the doe saw? Food? A skunk ambling through the litter? Or was the doe still seeing, watching now a stoned woman on a cold porcelain toilet, pretending to still be peeing? A male deer might gore a man during mating season. Female deer occasionally trample people when they think their young are in danger. Winding her hand with toilet paper, the expensive kind that left her feeling fuzzy and unclean, Yessenia remembered the month she’d worked as a janitor at an all-girls school when they first moved to New York and the smell of the rag traps she emptied every day. Waiting, she thought she could smell that rich and tarring scent in the room. She tucked down, but it wasn’t coming from her. It was drifting off the doe’s tongue. She’d only just located the clammy toilet handle under her armpit when she heard Junip shout her name and then “Wren!” Someone’s feet running down the hall. Fists pounding at the bathroom door.
“Yessenia, Yessenia, Yessenia!” Junip’s voice called from the other side.
She’d barely opened the bathroom door when Cheer Up came charging in, barking and circling, his whole body an electric fizz. He pointed to the doe and then went tearing around again.
“There’s somebody in the house,” Junip was saying, but Yessenia was after Cheer Up, smoothing his collar fur, telling him it was okay while she choked on that smell. She’d managed to pull her pants back up but hadn’t buttoned them yet.
“Wren, is that you?” Junip called into the hall.
Cheer Up snapped and growled, let out a chirp.
“Goddamnit, shut that dog up,” Junip said.
But Cheer Up wouldn’t stop barking, outing the doe, drawing whoever Junip was talking about to them in the upstairs bathroom.
“What is that awful smell?” Junip said, and reached down to grab Cheer Up by the snout at a pass. He bit her, and she paused for a spell, looking at her blood on her hand before kicking the dog in its side. Bewildered, Cheer Up quit for a split second and then nearly knocked over both women racing back into the hallway.
“You hurt him!” Yessenia said, and Junip had to grab her to keep her from running after Cheer Up.
From the bathroom, in Junip’s arms, Yessenia heard the animal’s nails on the stairs, galloping down in the way she knew old dogs do, hip swiveled, front paws in quick succession, back paws in quick succession, tail a swinging side gate, the whole thing an unstoppable mess. And then she did hear him stop at the landing and could picture the dog looking onto the darkness, at something in the pooling shadows. The courteous wind. Their visitor. The man. Wren appeared in the doorway with a shotgun in her hands, a different one, more beautiful and polished, but she just as soon darted off too, down the stairs, leaving Cheer Up where he stood. “Argos, my ass!” Wren shouted, bursting out the front door.
From the landing, with Cheer Up by her side, Yessenia heard the report of buckshot on the field and its echo. The living room was lit up and there was nothing there but the stool on which she’d sat, greasy drained tumblers, the sleeping TV. Junip slinked past her and met Wren as she came back through the open front door.
“Think I scared him off,” Wren said. There was a little bluing on the gun or some effect of night.
“What the hell is going on?” Yessenia said.
“There was someone in the house,” Junip said.
“Don’t know how, I set the alarm. Must’ve shut itself off, didn’t go off when I ran through the front door,” Wren said. “Shit.”
“I don’t understand,” Yessenia said.
“I was lying in bed and Wren comes in and whispers that she hears someone downstairs, then I see someone running down the hall, Wren darts off to grab a shotgun and that’s when I came after you,” Junip said. “Thought he was going to get you.”
“He’s gone?” Yessenia said.
“On foot, he’s still on the property for at least another thirty minutes in any direction, which means I ought to hunt him down while it’s still considered trespassing,” Wren said.
“No way,” Junip said. “Just call the police.”
“He’s long gone by the time anyone gets out here,” Wren said.
“It doesn’t matter, he’s out of the house,” Yessenia said. “We should get out of the house too. We’ll come back when the movers get here.”
“I’m not leaving this house until I’m done with it,” Wren said. “Did you even see him?” Yessenia asked Wren.
“Just his shape,” Wren said.
“You too?” she asked Junip.
“Just his shadow, yeah.”
“Either each of you stays here or each of you takes a gun and flashlight,” Wren said.
“What the hell, Wren?” Yessenia said.
“Those are your options. And if you see him and you can’t shoot him, you aim at him anyways and you start screaming like hell,” Wren said.
Riley had these beautiful boots, and when they stepped into the studio in Crown Heights that first time, Wren asked him if she could put them in a shadow box for display. Rattlesnake. He’d killed and skinned each of the serpents himself. His friend crafted them into the size-fourteen masterpieces from which his giant body erupted. Stooped and slouching a bit at forty, he suffered from adventure, he was still beautiful in stone-wash jeans and a wrinkled oxford that Brooklyn spring day. There was ash in his brown hair and his glasses were circular and gold and he could take them off as he pleased and make it around the workshop no problem. Yessenia was working the register and Wren was working the slip. Wren’s hair was long enough and her waist narrow enough that she could wear her hair as a belt, which she sometimes did at parties, much to the distress of her roots and ends, but the crowd usually loved it. Artisan textiles and wares, that was Riley’s passion, and Wren said she didn’t like big cities that much anyway. She never asked them what they thought about Riley. Had she, Yessenia would’ve said she liked him a lot. He’d checked himself out of his hotel in Manhattan and stayed with them in their dingy apartment for a time. He cooked and cleaned and stomped roaches but let mice carry on their way and he was easy and good to anyone who walked through the door no matter who they were or what they were on or who they’d slept with and he knew more Nahua history than they did and he once remarked to Yessenia and Junip that he knew love when he saw it and he wasn’t at all the zealot he could’ve been, had every right to be, but was instead kind and gentle and smelled of cigars and cedar shavings. “He’s like Teddy Roosevelt, or something,” Junip had said. He reminded them of a time they’d never known. Before Yessenia’s and Wren’s fathers and half the other men were carted off to Vietnam never to return. A time immemorial and unimaginable, with separate plans for a different future. Maybe love had lived after all, Yessenia had thought, icing the olive marks Junip had left on her neck. Maybe this white man would rescue her too. But then Riley must’ve sickened with some evil in Wyoming. Maybe it was those boots that bit him. He cut Wren’s hair because he was finding it in his shit. He told her she wouldn’t get a studio after all because her work was shit. He beat the shit out of her in that magic home of his beneath the mountains. Yessenia had had no idea and now she did, and Riley hadn’t been bitten by anything but himself.
At some point in the night the moon had guttered, a totally different phase than the one Yessenia had seen from the bedroom window less than an hour earlier. Her flashlight caught the moisture on the black air. Wren had gone her own way, and Junip was hunched over her rifle like a plastic army man, even the way she stepped was reminiscent of their toy feet, bound in the mold. Ahead of them was a bristling wall of evergreen, colorless in the dark. Cheer Up, repaired from his spell on the staircase, went headlong into the underbrush. The Pluto of Wren’s flashlight bobbed against some tall grass beside Yessenia.
“Cheer Up knows what’s up,” Junip whispered.
Junip walked enough paces to shrink to the size of Yessenia’s thumbnail. The glacial air and marijuana turned Yessenia’s thoughts thin and useless. Drained of adrenaline, she could hardly muster fear. Her great-est anxiety was an asthma attack, though she did not have asthma. Her every cell focused entirely on staying awake. But the trees were brushy and drowsy. She was looking at things or nothing changing shapes in a field of charcoal static. She looked for Junip, but Junip was buried in the dark. She listened for Wren, but heard only the rutting moose, the calls and the woodsy sound of their thrashing antlers. An elk bugle. Cheer Up did not bark or whine. The night swirled and swirled.
Then, from out of the dark scribbled wood came something like a sliver of soap. Milky like soap, slick and eroded to something smooth and tenuous like soap. In relief against the blackened wood, the white, soapen figure, as it drew closer, became not so small and not so tender, but more than six and a half feet tall, broad, stalking, and belonging to a man who was also stark naked in the gelid, open air. She could only see so much and so she composed the rest from memories. The truth was plain and awful. He had returned. He’d come back. There was no mistaking it. She’d seen the body before, swimming in a pool at the Y. While everyone else was busy staring at the black python streaking behind Wren’s head as she swam, Yessenia had been watching Riley’s body scale the green and generous length of the pool. She’d sat on those shoulders with that smoky head between her thighs to chicken fight Junip, who sat atop Steven’s rickety frame. Nude Riley, back from the dead, paused midstride and turned to look directly at Yessenia. His ghost eyes were great and she knew he saw her perfectly without his glasses. He remembered this woman. The body beneath the body, the muscle-strapped skeleton, warped the surface of his skin, like a baby kicking inside. She’d seen a cat twitch like that. Why had she come to antagonize him at his home in the mountains? The gun in her hands, the last living thing he’d ever seen, he wouldn’t let it have him again. He’d died ashamed of the shock and surprise. Never again. Riley. He’d cleaned himself of oil, she could see this now as he moved towards her, walking, running.
When he got to her, Riley would reach into her mouth and tear out her tongue, rip her hair from her skull, break her legs, and eat her for coming here, for seeing the shameful spot where he’d died. She saw her future yards away. Feet away. She saw it practically upon her, it was also her end, and then Riley’s naked body tore off, dashed into a shadow, and left in its place the massive bloom of a moose charging out of the wood, the animal’s broad, winged antlers. Cheer Up was dancing at its legs. Wren was shouting, “Shoot it, Yessenia! Shoot it!” Yessenia could feel it moving the ground. She could smell its yearning as it charged her, rearing its headpiece into the dying moon.
The beast ran for some time beyond her, rutting and dying before crashing like an aircraft, peeling up a curling dermis of earth in its final slide. The veins in the bull’s antlers ebbed and winced with the last of it. A reddened cave had opened up in its neck. Junip and Wren were panting with Cheer Up, and Yessenia could barely sip the air. She had no idea who’d taken it down. An elk kept bugling in the death silence.
“It was Riley in the house, wasn’t it?” Yessenia said.
Wren bent over, panting.
“Riley’s come back, hasn’t he?”
“Did you see someone?” Wren said.
“I saw Riley.”
“Did you shoot him?”
“Why didn’t you shoot him?” Wren said.
Yessenia realized for the first time that Wren was wearing one of her shawls.
“He was naked and running towards me. I was scared,” Yessenia said.
“Why didn’t you shoot him, you idiot? Why didn’t you shoot him?”
Junip pulled Cheer Up back from the moose. The husky was a bloody swab now.
“How could you be so stupid? Why didn’t you shoot him?” Wren sobbed.
“You knew it was Riley. You knew he’d come back,” Yessenia said, sobbing, too. “You’ve known all along, haven’t you? That’s why we’re here.”
But Wren tore back running, back into the wood. Junip looked up,
holding the bloodied dog, her face bloody, too.
“You’re so stupid,” she said. “You’ve always been so fucking cowardly and stupid.”
Yessenia saw Junip was also wearing one of her shawls. She looked away, toward the moose. Between its splayed legs, it had no testicles.
Wren, who put Yessenia and Junip on a plane back to New York that next day, moved to San Diego in the end and wrote letters to Junip but refused to speak to Yessenia for not having re-killed Riley. New York kept cleaning up its act and Junip took rent escalation as permission to return to the desert to do things that remain a mystery to Yessenia. Steven passed away. Yessenia, carrying an urn of Steven’s ashes, climbed his favorite mountain in the Catskills and scattered him in the wind as his will had dictated. Shortly thereafter, Yessenia left New York too, to teach looming at the Rhode Island School of Design. In Providence, she purchased a home, her first and only, on the Seekonk River. In the spring semester of 1998, she and two other staff members took a group of students to Uzbekistan as part of a study-abroad program hosted by an Uzbek artisan collective. It was a raining spring, a time of wet boughs, black soil, and the odor of roses. The government was cracking down on Islam that year, and she recalls having watched Muslim men being beaten in the streets. Over the course of her brief stay she met a man named Ablayar, fell in love, and married him. In the fall, once his papers were processed, he joined her in Providence. That winter she discovered she was infertile, which caused them both a great deal of suffering and nearly ended their marriage. Ablayar died of stomach cancer in 2005. “Forgive me,” he’d said. She’d vowed never to cut her hair again, but he’d died anyway. As per his will, Yessenia traveled back to Uzbekistan with his cremains and scattered those along the Turkestan Range The country was again rainy. At dinner with her father-in-law in his home, the old man, grief-stricken and stunned by his son’s death, asked her about a story Ablayar had once told him. It involved a female moose with antlers. It was not fair that his son should have escaped the gruesome deaths of his generation, moved to America to be a husband, and still have died before his time. For her father-in-law’s grief, she told him the story, in its entirety, not in any way she’d ever told Ablayar. After which, having opened a window a crack to wet his fingers to wipe his face, her father-in-law said, “Yes, that seems right. An unfortunate preservation, but sometimes it happens.”
Dropping her off at the airport, her father-in-law offered her a suggestion for her hair, which she’d vowed not to cut when Ablayar first fell ill, but she was now burdened by. “You should weave something out of it,” he said. “Something pretty.”
She did as her father-in-law suggested and wove a short scarf out of her hair. From time to time she wears it for protection, as from the banks of the Seekonk she has seen men swimming, ferociously, in the nude shapes of Junip’s father, Riley, Steven, and finally Ablayar, men of other places and times, and she can never be certain what kinds of pasts they want to build out of her future. And because she still cannot kill them or forgive them, she must live somehow safely with them. Beside the Seekonk, she is big, and no longer bruised, and so alive. And the men, dead, rutting in the waves, threaten and apologize. She wishes the old dog would quit her. And no longer does she listen for the way the world had been.