Philip Tate (M.F.A., Vermont C) teaches English and creative writing at Trinidad State Junior College, where he is the editor of its literary magazine, Purgatoire. He is also currently teaching a fiction writing course over the internet. His story, "Thieves," won first place in the 1994 Rocky Mountain News/National Writers' Association fiction contest.
The two of them had lived in the canyon all their lives, most of it together, but now it was over: the man, Alvaro, could take no more of her. "I've had it," he said, standing in the yard, a box under one arm, a bundle tied up with cord in his other hand. "Don't even talk to me," he said, but waited to see what she would say.
Ersilita, his wife of all those years, stood on the porch of their shabby house half-looking at him. "Then go on," she said. "If your mind's set, just go on." She waved him down the canyon, turned and went in.
So Alvaro turned and left, dragging the bundle of clothes, the heavy box. He walked down the canyon toward the river. It was late in the day, and under the high pines it was already dark. He walked around outcroppings of rock, in and out, left and right. I should have done this a long time ago, he was thinking, turning here, turning there. As soon as she did what she did I should have taken off. That was enough. That was too much, especially after putting up with her obstinacy all my life. He stumbled over the rocks with his bundle, his box. Even going down it was hard, especially in the near-dark, because of all the jutting rocks. Once they had been at the bottom of the sea—the layers were clear, and there were things imbedded: trilobites, ancient crustaceans—but they had risen from that depth to become these mountains. Alvaro imagined the land working against itself, pushing together like two fists until there was no room for a trilobite, a layer of sediment, and it began to rise, to inch skyward. What a groan it must have been! What a grind of rock and bone!
In among the trees he was cold, now that it was dark. I should have left last summer, he thought, thinking of the high warm sun, the months he would not have had to endure her. July the second, he thought. It was the second or the third. He thought a moment as he sat on a dead log. The second, he decided. That's when it was. That's when I should have left her. The second, the day after she did what she did. But it was not just then; it was all his life in the rocky canyon; it was all that time with her. He got up from the log and went on down the canyon below the trees, carrying all the things he could carry of his life: his two good shirts, all his intact socks, his extra pair of pants that still fit, a few dollars in his pocket, a book. He followed the land, going in and out, right and left, went down with it through the canyon toward the river, where the road twisted along its banks and would take him after countless more twists to town. He would go there. Now that he was free of her he would go to the town and do as he wished. Maybe he would get a job, work in a store. Maybe he would get a room.
Alvaro stood near the river. The sun was gone, or at least most of it: the sky was still bright, or it would have been bright if not for the trees. Where he stood it was mostly dark and mottled, the way it is when light filters through cottonwoods and oak. He stood with his box under his arm and his parcel of clothes on the bank behind him. I'm lucky to have even this, he thought. I'm lucky she didn't give it all away. He walked up and down the river bank until he found a level spot of ground clear of rocks and bushes. This is where I'll sleep, he thought. I'll never get to town tonight, not as tired as I am. He put the box down, began to untie his parcel. At least I've got my knife, my clothes, my book. At the bottom of his parcel lay his book, the only one he owned. It was a very old book that had been his mother's, a novel, but he had never read it. But now I will, he thought. Maybe tonight. I'll sit and read. And the thought of reading his old book he had never read, especially now that he was free of his wife, thrilled him.
I have always been against her. We have never agreed on anything, not of importance, nothing beyond whether or not it was a good idea to get in out of the rain; we have different ways of seeing things, of deciding what ought to be what, of which way we ought to turn. I don't know why it's been this way. I don't know whose fault it's been. Both, I suppose, or maybe it was me.
The dim sky faded. Crickets and toads and frogs started up, and there was the sound of the river with all its rush, its turn and swirl against the bank as it cut through the muck, all that rock. Alvaro gathered dead wood from along the bank, stacked it carelessly, lit it. Then he sat with the fire behind him, facing the river, watching the little bright flashes on its surface. I ought to go back, he thought. I ought to go back and tell her what I think. There's plenty I ought to tell her, but you never think of such things until later, until now. He took a hunk of bread from his box and began to eat it, knowing it would not be enough. If he had gone to the town it would have got him by, but staying the night by the river it would not be enough; he would sleep hungry, and even now, eating, he worried about the burn in his stomach, the twists and knots of it when it had nothing in it. All around him were the crickets and toads, the black night sounds of the river as it ate ever so slowly into the bank.
Alvaro was once a hunter, and now he was not; to get by he fed and watered his goats, he milked them and made cheese, which is no more than his father had done, once he turned old. His father tended his herd until he could no longer get out, and then he lay days on end on his cot and let them wander off. Alvaro said he would never tend goats, and if he ever did he certainly wouldn't let them wander off and die, but now he was no better; he tended goats. He had forty-some of them in the big pen behind the house. For all that time he had them, until July the second—or was it the first—and then he had one less. They were in the pen, as they had been, but he stood counting, over and over, until he was certain that one of them was gone. He went stomping to his house, to his wife, who was supposed to watch them for the morning. "I'm not counting the same," he said.
"The same as what?" she said, wiping her hands.
"The same as always."
"Well, count them again."
"Has someone been here?" Alvaro looked up into the rocky hills, as if he might see someone among the pines.
Ersilita looked where he looked. "'Someone,' he says, 'Someone.' Do you think I've got nothing better to do than have some man around?"
"Where's my goat?"
"Who knows? A bear ate it. A pack of coyotes. A mountain lion. Alvaro, you're a suspicious old man and I'm not going to have it."
Then he saw the tracks. Very clearly, right there in the mud at his feet, a set of man's tracks stepped off into the hills, climbing, then disappearing where the rocks poked sharply up out of the ground at that severe angle, where the earth had heaved upward. And then he knew. He looked at her face, knowing now why there was that look on it. Someone's been around. Ben. Robert. One of those. She gave him a goat for some reason and thought I wouldn't notice. She thinks I can't count. "So," he said. "What about these?" Alvaro pointed to the tracks leading off into the hills.
Ersilita turned toward the house. "You're a foolish old man," she said, passing into the shade of the porch. "You think you're not what you used to be, that's all it is."
"I'm everything I ever was, and that's got nothing to do with it." But she was gone and the door was closed. Look at this, he thought. These are the tracks, and that's got nothing to do with me!
On the river bank Alvaro was cold. It was dark and chilly, and he wished he had thought to bring a blanket, maybe two, but who would have thought he would get no farther than this? He was only down by the river, many miles still from town, which is where he expected to sleep. The river made its river sounds, much stronger now that it was dark, and the crickets and frogs were at it, the way they would be if they were making fun of him. Some old man. Some old man. Some old man. It's just that. It's just that. It's just that. And then for a while they were quiet, ebbing down. Alvaro put another stick on the fire. It lay steaming for a while, then lit up and took a fraction of the chill. He put another one crosswise to the first, then another. The fire built up. He sat on his box with his arms crossed about him, sitting as close to the fire as he dared. It was Ben, or it was Robert. One of those two. Ben, I'd say. If someone asked me, I'd say Ben. Those were his tracks. Those were Ben's. He sat in the yellow light of the fire, thinking he should have left sooner. The second of July. I shouldn't have waited a day, and here it's been months. I should have lit right out. The river was no quieter at night, even though it seemed to thicken, its sound heavier, somehow deeper. Alvaro imagined the water dark and slow, the way it sounded, but also rising; he imagined it creeping up the bank. And here I am, all out in the dark with the water coming up. And there she is. He imagined the rising water, floating in it in the dark, staring at the stars, even though it was getting cold, and there was no reason for the water to rise. It ought to be going down, not coming up. Where's it coming from?
He put the last of the wood on the fire, watched it flame up brightly as soon as the sticks caught. But he knew it wouldn't last; in half an hour the fire would be nothing. It would be embers and coals, a meager warmth if he held his hands close. Then it would be nothing, and he would be cold, and he knew that he would not be asleep yet, not the way the river was going, the way the frogs kept at it. He would be lying on his back with no blanket, cold, with all those stars over him. Alvaro took out his book. Now he would read it. His mother had given it to him when he was twelve, and all this time he thought one day he would pick it up, but there was no hurry about it; there would always be time to read. He opened the book, turned himself sideways so the light of the fire illuminated the page. What a way to start! he thought, marveling at the ornate, oversized first letter. It was a T, because the book began with "The." A dozen crooked lines for one letter! He touched the letter, believing he might feel it. But he read nothing; he was thinking of Ersilita.
They were dancing crazily: he was flinging her about, twirling her, and they were both laughing, their faces red from the effort and from the drinks they had been drinking. Alvaro watched from the table. A dancer, he thought. That's all he is, but he thinks he's really something. Look at that! Ben dipped, then rose and twirled, his face sweaty and red. Alvaro turned away. He could not stand to watch this man dance with his wife.
Then they came back and sat down noisily, breathing heavily. Ersilita took a quick drink from her glass. "Alvaro, I wish you could dance," she said. "I wish you could dance like Ben, but even if it was only a little, that would be enough."
Alvaro sat looking out the window into the night, where he could see nothing.
Ben Martinez, who lived down along the river, drained his glass. "Now you've got him mad," he said, then laughed. "You've got him jealous."
They were at the tavern, a Saturday night. Alvaro and his wife often came to the tavern, but it was to sit and drink, to talk, to listen to the band. Musicians from all along the river came to play on Saturday. Most of them were miners; you could see the soot about their eyes even though they had bathed. Tonight Ben had come over. He asked her to dance.
"Well, I don't know," Ersilita said. "I'm not much of a dancer."
"He won't mind, will you Alvaro?"
Alvaro had waved his hand, because he could think of nothing to say, certainly not on that short notice, not when it was about his wife, about her out there with him.
Now he waved his hand, waving off Ben, who was saying he was jealous.
"Well, we don't want to make him jealous," Ben said, getting up.
"Oh, sit down," Ersilita said. "He doesn't mind. He's just quiet, that's all."
Ben sat at their table, tipped his empty glass for the last few drops. Then the band began again and he tapped his fingers against Ersilita's arm. "If he doesn't mind" he said.
Alvaro waved his hand, turned to the window, began to count the change in his pocket to see if he had enough for another drink. A dancer, he thought. That's all he is. And I'm glad I'm not.
They were off by the band, turning, tilting, and he was flinging her about.
I am not that, he thought, seeing them now in the reflection of the dark window. And I won't be. If it comes to that, he can have her.
Alvaro stood up, held his palms toward the fire for a while, thinking of the heaving rocks, of how the earth worked against itself. Then he went off to stand at the river bank. It was dark and cold there. He walked along the water looking for logs, dead sticks in the starlight. He gathered up some wood, then turned back toward the fire. He kicked something. In the starlight it looked like dirt, a mound of it, but there was an odor to it; it was something dead, what was left of it. He nudged it with his toe, felt its texture, its rigidity, then hurried off to the fire. Maybe it's my goat, he thought, thinking it was the right size. It could have wandered off.
He built the fire up, then began to circle it, thinking of them, circling, thinking: Maybe it was a lie. Maybe she told the truth. And he began to think about going back, talking to her, letting her say what she wanted. I could listen, he thought. I could at least do that, see if it sounds like the truth. The last time he had scarcely let her speak, because he thought he already knew, but now, with all those stars and this meager fire, with the sound of the night bearing down on him, he thought he might let her speak. He might listen. Anyway, if that's not my goat back there dead, it was still only a goat. He turned toward the dead goat. That's all that's really gone. That's all I know for sure, and who cares anything about a goat? It could have been a bear, of course, because bears often came onto their land seeking this and that; it could easily have been a bear. If she was up to something, she wouldn't give away my goat! That would be stupid! Alvaro threw a twig into the fire. Nobody's that stupid, he thought. Give away a man's animal to another man? How could I ever have thought that? He decided to wait until the fire was gone, and then he would go back. He would talk to her. He would listen. We don't always have to be against each other, he thought, thinking of the rocks, how they had been forced up.
It seemed the fire would last forever. He sat close to it, turning now and then to get its heat and light, and it continued to burn vigorously. It wasn't hardwood, unless there was a little oak in it, but it kept burning and burning. The moon rose through the trees, cleared the trees, turned smaller with its height. I ought to just go, he thought, but the fire was warm and the night was cold, and as soon as he left the fire he would surely regret it. I don't want to waste this, he thought, thinking of the heat, the reading light. The moon was high and round, nearly full, and with its luminance the night seemed less cold, until he could imagine going off into it. Alvaro got up, stretched, gathered up his box, his parcel, kicked out the fire, put away his book.
The canyon was steep and rocky. Coming down, it had not been so bad, but going back up Alvaro had to rest often: he leaned against a tree, sat on a rock, stopped here and there to huff and puff. Sweat ran from his forehead and down the back of his neck. His arm tingled. His chest hurt. He sat for a long time thinking it would go away, thinking he had simply climbed too quickly, that he was too old. But he began to feel dizzy. He put his hand over his heart, felt it pound. What if I die right here? he worried. Who would know? Who would ever find me? He imagined a bear carrying him off, his body limp and lifeless, the bear crude and severe. Alvaro got up, thinking he would go slowly. He would rest often. Three miles separated him from his shack, all of it rocky and steep; he began to calculate how long it would take: twenty steps at a time, which is maybe fifty feet, and it will take half a minute, and then I'll rest two minutes, so it will take two and a half minutes to go fifty feet, only I'll say 52.8 feet, so a hundred of those and I've got a mile, and three hundred will get me there, and that's He thought for a long while, sitting with his hand on his heart because the pain was drawing down on him harder now. Seven hundred and fifty minutes, and that's that's too long. That's tomorrow afternoon. He looked up at the moon, which was high over him. She'll think I went off, that's all. Then some day she'll come wandering down through the woods and she'll find my bones. Then she'll wonder. She'll wonder the rest of her life. He tore the last page from the book. There was nothing printed on it. He wrote in pencil: "I was coming back to see what you said." For a while he thought he would tack it to a nearby tree, but he knew that wouldn't last long, and then he thought of putting it inside his boot, but if the bears came along a boot wouldn't slow them down a second, so he settled on the box. He put the note on top, then closed the box and put it between his feet. He was feeling weak and dizzy, and his chest was tight and burning. He lay back against an angular rock and drew his arms about him, imagining that it was daylight, that it was warm and sunny, with black birds sitting high in the trees against the light. He imagined many things, past and future, the way you do when you think you are dying.
There was a sharp burning in his stomach, a nasty taste in his mouth. The sun would soon rise. Alvaro sat up straight, stretched the kinks out of his limbs. He spit a few times. All over him were pains, but not in his chest. He took a deep breath, let it out. There was nothing to it but the air. I'm over it, he thought. If that's what it was, it's gone! He stood up slowly, as if he might be wrong. Through the trees the sun was trying to rise. Above him the sky was changing to blue, the stars were fading. It wasn't my heart at all, he thought. It was something else. It was just this steep climb. His stomach burned. He spit again and set off toward his shack.
In no time at all he saw it, there, that shabby gray wooden shack in the trees. That wasn't three miles. That wasn't half a mile! That wasn't anything! Alvaro hurried up the canyon into the light of the clearing, his box and parcel still in the trees, forgotten among the rocks where the earth heaves so sharply skyward.