The Starlit Wood
IN THE DESERT LIKE A BONE
he sky is the color of bleached bone, neither white nor yellow, but a creamy in-between shade that speaks death from one end of the horizon to the other. Under it, the desert, the sand little darker than that endless sky. Upon that desert, two riders on horseback. Coyote has the lead, has had it since the day he swung a scrap of a girl barely worth the patchwork cotton she was wrapped in onto the back of his horse. She has her own steed now, can choose her own way, but still she follows in his wake, close and quiet and biding her time.
His shadow rides before the both of them, drawn bitter-black on the desert that stretches under the bone sky. As always, his face is concealed beneath the brim of his hat, and the gun at his hip glimmers with poisonous menace. He is a thin creature, is Coyote, raw of bone and furrowed of brow. The sun has burnt itself into him an inch at a time, turning his skin leathery and
hard. Mosquitoes cannot pierce that skin, and fly away hungry when they come too close.
Behind him on her swayback mare rides his red fox girl, her eyes bright as bullets and scanning the horizon for signs of death or danger. Her hat is brown leather, but to listen to the people who have seen her, it should be red as blood, red as a harlot’s corset, red as a rare, expensive apple stolen from an eastbound train. Her hair is the color of straw on a barroom floor, and her skin is tanned the color of the desert sand. She disappears, the fox girl does, whenever she slides from her horse and sets her feet to the ground. She is a child of this blasted, unforgiving land, and when she looks upon it, she sees a paradise, and not a waste at all.
She knows the rock, and the shadow of the rock, and the flowers that bloom there. If there is danger here, it does not frighten her.
The man in the black hat and the girl with hair the color of straw ride under the bone-colored sky, and no one knows from whence they ride, and no one watches them go.
“Once upon a time,” say the prairie harpies and the respectable housewives, the snake-oil saleswomen in their jewel-colored gowns and glittering cosmetics, the woodwitches and the wisewomen and the lost, “there was a little girl in a place where no little girl should be. Her mama was long gone to blood on her handkerchief and fire in her lungs, and her daddy was no daddy at all but a man who saw no difference between daughter and dog—and he was a man who’d beat his dog besides. They lived in a little house all the way to the cruel, civilized East, and everyone who knew him for a widower said ‘wasn’t it fine’ when they sighed over the way he was bringing up his little girl, all by himself, without a woman’s hand to give him aid. That little girl had the best clothes and the best bread, and a cloak as red as the blood she’d seen on her mama’s lips before the man in the black wagon came to carry her mama away forever.”
That’s where the stories diverge. “She would have been a fine lady; she would have grown up draped in diamonds, wrapped in silks. She would have danced in the finest parlors, and if her daddy didn’t love her, she would have found a man who loved her more than the moon and the sun and the stars. But that bad wolf came in the night and gobbled her up, and she never got her dancing shoes, never got her debutante ball. She’s a ghost in the desert now, lost and lonely and brokenhearted as a bobcat in October, and if you see her, child, don’t you meet her eyes; don’t you let her lead you astray.” So say the housewives and the rich women as they tuck their own dear daughters into bed. For them, she is a cautionary tale, a way to keep their children close, and who can blame them? Who can blame them in the least?
“She would never have been a fine lady, as she had no grace for dancing; all her grace was in stillness and in silence, because those were the things her daddy prized, and so those were the things she learnt to please him. She would never have danced in the finest parlors, and who’s to say the man in the black wagon, the wolf of the west who was never a wolf at all, didn’t love her? What other reason could he have to come like a shadow in the night and sweep her away? Maybe she never got her diamonds, but she got the high desert stars, which shine far brighter. Maybe she never got her fine silks, but who would trade a single midnight breeze for all the silk in China? Her debutante ball was danced with jackrabbits and red-eyed lizards under the harvest moon, and if she never looked back, not even once, who can blame her? She’ll lead you astray as easy as breathing, but that’s no shame on her, or on you, for she never met a path she cared to follow. If you see her, child, don’t meet her eyes; I need you here with me.” So say the snake-oil saleswomen and the frontier wives, and they’re as right, and as wrong, as anyone.
The girl in the hat that isn’t red anywhere but in stories follows Coyote across the desert, and the stars are diamonds in her
hair, and when she speaks—which is rare, for she trusts slow and warms slower—her voice carries the sound of the Atlantic, of deep woods and harsh snows and a climate she was born to but never belonged in. She could tell them another story, if she chose to, if she thought they’d listen. She could tell them about choices; about following because sometimes it was easier to track your prey when someone else blazes the trail. She could tell them all her choices have been her own, and will remain so: that if she had wanted someone else to make her choices for her, she would never have opened the window, never have left the path.
She says none of these things. She has other matters to concern herself with, and other jobs to do. She builds the fire when they stop for the night, piles the kindling high and coaxes the flames toward the moon. Some nights, Coyote goes hunting, and she sits close to the warmth and listens to the howls in the far distance. Other nights, she fetches the rabbits and the grouse for their supper. Her hunts are silent, unlike his. They are no less effective. Her feet still leave dents in the desert sand, but he assures her that this, too, will pass; one day, she will move as light as the wind that blows between midnight and morning, leaving nothing behind. On that day, she will earn bullets for the guns she wears strapped to her sides. On that day, she will finally be free.
Until then, she builds the fires when and where he tells her to, and she listens to him howl in the dark, and she tries to forget the house in the green world, where a man who claimed to know her had given bruises where he should have given kindness. She sleeps in the arms of the desert, and the stars keep watch above her.
This day, the sun is high and harsh in the sky, beating down until even Coyote shields his eyes. The girl huddles under her hat and thinks longingly of caves and mountain springs, of places of safety and succor. All of them are hidden somewhere in the desert. She does not think this a contradiction. The desert is the greatest safety she knows.
Coyote looks to her. A frown is on his lips, and there is worry in his eyes. “Are you well?” he asks. His voice is gunpowder and grace, as bone-bleached as the sky.
“Just hot,” she says. Her voice still belongs to a young woman, growing from childhood into womanhood. She might still find her way back to the green world, if she chose to seek it. That door is not yet closed to her. “We almost there?” Questions are small, skittering things, like mice. Answers are the predators that pounce on them. She has learned to unleash her questions cleverly, rather than risk them all being devoured before she can learn what she needs to know.
“Close enough. You sure this is where we need to go?”
Her nod is tight. New Woodbury is a small town built around a well that cuts all the way to the bones of the world, down to where the water waits. The people who live there think they’re going to thrive on that water. They don’t understand how fickle the desert is; they don’t know they’re being hunted. “I’m sure. There’s a man there. He says he’s looking for something he lost.”
Coyote looks at her, expression giving nothing away. “We have money. We could stop somewhere else. Rent a place, maybe get you some schooling before we finish the ride.”
“I’ve had enough schooling. I don’t want any more.”
“Bullets are good. Knowledge is better. You want to keep riding with me, you’re going to need both.”
The girl, who knows better than to cross the man she rides with, says nothing. But her eyes burn beneath the shadow of her hat, and Coyote feels a pang of pride. She’s growing up to be a proper wild thing, his little stolen pup. She’ll learn soon enough why he insists on things she thinks have no value, that to reject something, it must first be understood. They all learn, given time. That’s when they leave him. When they understand, and no longer need looking after; when they decide that it’s time to start looking after themselves.
Distance has no meaning in the desert—not if the rider knows the way of things, the points of similarity between this and that, the places where the sky can fold. A man with a map, now, he’ll have a hundred miles of hard land to walk, and every inch of it resenting him for what he represents, for the way he pins it down. A lake that was once free to move from here to there, as migratory as a bird, finds itself tethered by the intersection of pen and paper. The predators are heroes to the desert. If the mapmaker is lost, if all his possessions are destroyed, the landscape can be unbound. But if other eyes should see those lines, those laws, then all is lost.
To the mapmakers, Coyote and his red fox girl started the day a good sixty miles from New Woodbury, separated by long stretches of empty earth. But Coyote is no mapmaker, and his horse has no eye for cartography. He rides into town as the clock on the town hall strikes high noon, the girl still close behind him. The townsfolk stop what they were doing and turn to watch the strangers come, the man on the tall horse, the girl on the swaybacked mare. Their shadows are ink on the ground, etching them in the here and now as cleanly as any map could have dreamt.
They ride until they reach the boardinghouse, where a trough waits to soothe their horses, and a tying post stands ready to confine them. Coyote swings down as easily as breath, setting his feet to the ground and freeing his horse to drink. He leaves his reins to dangle. The horse would stay or go as it chose, and either way, he wouldn’t try to argue with it.
The red fox girl doesn’t seem to dismount at all. One moment she is seated on her horse’s back, and the next moment she is standing on the ground, her hat still covering her eyes. Like Coyote, she leaves her reins untied. Unlike Coyote, she stands nervous, worried that her mare would leave her to ride double with the man who led her across the desert—but if he can trust his horse, she can trust hers. It seems the right thing to do.
Both horses stick their faces in the water and drink greedily, gulping until their bellies fill and their throats are no longer dry. Coyote and the girl dip their hands in the cool wetness and run dripping fingers across their faces, cutting trails in the dust that covers them. When they turn away from the trough, a man stands before them. He is plump, in the way of townspeople, an amiable, enviable softness that speaks to things being done for him, and not by him. His neck is thick, and his arms are heavy with muscle. A boss-man, then, and one for whom enviable plumpness was a new thing. That makes him dangerous. Men who haven’t had a thing for long always know how valuable that thing is, and they more than any will fight to keep it.
“Welcome to New Woodbury,” he says, and there is no welcome in his eyes. “We don’t get many visitors around these parts.”
“Can’t say as we’re visitors,” says Coyote. “I’m John Branson.” A simple name. A liar’s name, a lying name, stolen from a tombstone at the edge of the green world that was Boston, a thousand miles and a lifetime behind the both of them. He glances at the red fox girl, who nods minutely. This is her lie, but he has to be the one to tell it. Little girls have no voices here. Little girls have no voices anywhere. “This is my niece, Mary. We were in East Canaan, saw a poster hung at the request of a man named Paul Stabler, said he was looking for someone as could retrieve a thing for him. Said as he’d pay. My niece and I, we’re fond of money. Find it buys nice things, bread and wine and a basket to put them in. If you could direct us his way, we’d be grateful.”
The red fox girl—whose name is not Mary, had never been Mary; her name is a secret to be guarded and concealed, as precious as a pearl and twice as prone to being stolen—holds her silence and watches the man with narrowed, mistrustful eyes. He meets them for a moment and then looks away. The things she isn’t saying are painful even when unheard.
“Paul Stabler? He runs the bank. Other side of the town.”
Not that there’s much town to be on the other side of anything. New Woodbury matches its name: still new, still scented like sawdust and aspirations. The main street doesn’t even have a sign. It’s the only candidate for the position, running from one side of town to the other. It tapers off into the desert at either end, becoming one with the sand and the stone. The same fate awaits everything men could build here where the sun holds cruel dominion, and there is no forest to hide them, no path to lead them home. Conquer the desert, defeat it with wells and with walls, or be lost to it forever.
Coyote tips his hat. Somehow, the gesture neither reveals nor conceals any more of his face than was already showing. “We’re much obliged. Is this a safe place to leave our ponies for a spell?”
“There’s a livery stable,” says the boss-man. He’s losing control of the situation. He can feel it slipping through his fingers, never to be recovered. He just can’t say how, and somehow that’s the worst part of all for a man like him, in a place like this. He came to the wastes because here, no one would ever challenge his authority. This man in his black hat, this little girl in her brown one that still manages to be red as a berry on a bush, they’re not challenging him. They’re not doing anything of the sort. And they’re winning.
“We’ll keep that in mind for after we’ve been paid,” says Coyote. “Come along, Mary.” He starts across the street toward the distant outline of the bank. The red fox girl follows, leaving their horses untethered at the trough, leaving the boss-man to blink after them, confused and unsettled and feeling as if he’s just escaped a predator with eyes that could see right through to the heart of him, and claws that had been poised to snatch him up.
He watches them go until he’s satisfied they won’t be coming back, and then he turns and walks toward the saloon. The sun is high and the day is young, but he needs a drink more than he can remember needing anything in his life.
The air inside the bank is cool and stale and old. It tastes like Boston, resting heavy on the tongue and carrying a hundred years of silent commands. Sit still, stand up straight, be quiet, be good, behave, or pay the price for misbehavior; do not stray from the path, do not wander into the wild places, do not speak with beasts. The red fox girl says nothing, but she steps closer to Coyote, haunting his shadow like the ghost of a drowned girl haunts the ditch where she died. He doesn’t say anything either. He just slants his body to afford her more cover and walks on, toward the long oak counter where the teller sits, nervous as a rabbit, and watches him come.
The counter is a good ten feet long, polished wood from a forest so far from this place that it might as well have fallen from the sky. The teller, groomed and polished and perfect as a magazine ad, could have come from the same distant star. She forces a smile when the pair draws close enough, and says, “Welcome to the New Woodbury Bank. How may I help you?”
“We’re here to see a Mr. Paul Stabler about a job he was looking to have done,” says Coyote. “I hear there’s a nice boardinghouse here in town. My niece and I would like to sleep there tonight, which means we need paying. Paying means working. So we’d like to see about that job sooner than later, if you don’t mind.”
The name of her boss is a rope, and the teller is swift to grab it. Let him pull her to safety. She works for him; the responsibility should be his. “I’ll get him for you. If you’d wait here?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. She’s off and running, and Coyote and the red fox girl are, for the moment, alone.
“You can go, if you like,” he says, looking down at her. He can’t see her eyes under her hat, but he can read her posture, read the way she hunches her shoulders and dips her chin. She could live a hundred years, become a wild thing never before seen in the world, and he’d still be able to read her clear and easy. “I know
this is your hunt, but a good hunter knows when it’s better to stay home and hidden. I won’t blame you if you go.”
She shakes her head, ever so slightly, and for a moment the light slanting through the bank windows turns her brown leather hat apple-red, blood-red, the red of an expensive silk bonnet tied to the head of a girl too young to understand why she should value it. She wore the bruises for that bonnet on her skin for weeks after an errant gust of wind carried it away, leaving her laughing until the shadow of her father fell across her face. She was a girl who laughed then, his red fox child, and it was the sound of the laughter being beaten out of her that had drawn him, for no true hunter can stand the cries of a young thing being hurt. Kill them clean or give them peace and plenty, but do not harm them for sport.
“As you say,” he says, and he turns, the man in the black hat with the young woman beside him, to wait for the door at the back of the bank to open.
Seconds slither by, the baitworms of time, followed by the larger minnows of minutes, until finally the doorknob turns, the door swings wide, and Paul Stabler appears. He is tall, in the way of men who ate well as children; his belly never ached in the night, his jaw never chewed at the air for the lack of anything else to eat. He is pale, in the way of men who never see the sun without glass between them and it. His mouth is hard and dips downward at the edges, for he has lost so much to come here; he has already paid so dearly.
“There you are,” says Coyote, and his voice is bones and ashes and the white moon against the horizon. “I understand you’ve lost something, and you want to have it returned to you. Is that right?”
But Paul Stabler’s eyes are only for the red fox girl. He takes a step toward her, drawn as if by a magnetic force, and says, “That’s my little girl.”
“She’s her own girl, actually, and not so little for all of that,” says Coyote, and his voice is teeth, nothing but teeth, teeth from one side all the way to the other. “That’s the funny thing about children. They can belong to you as long as you’re only dreaming them, but once they walk in the world, they have a nasty tendency to belong to themselves.”
“Did you steal her?” For the first time, Paul Stabler looks at Coyote, and he does not have the sense to be afraid. “Are you the one who opened her window and carried her away?”
Coyote says nothing. The window had been opened from the inside; the tree that had been used as a ladder to freedom would never have borne his weight, even slender as he was. There had been no kidnapping to pull her from the path, only a running away so comprehensive that it had reached across a desert and demanded aid. He had come for her, to be part of her story, to aid in leaving the green world she had always known. But steal her? Never.
She stole herself.
The red fox girl steps forward, tilts her head back enough to let the man—to let her father—see her face. This is her hunt. She must be the one who moves. She is thinner than she was in Boston, older, more wild thing than woman, and more woman than child. But her mother’s eyes are her birthright, and no one who had known his wife could deny her parentage. “He didn’t steal me,” she says. “He found me. He helped me find my way here, to you. You’ll pay him, won’t you?”
And then, the most painful, most difficult word of all: “Daddy?”
Paul Stabler pays. Oh, yes, he pays. Some debts must be settled, after all, no matter how long it takes for them to come due. Coyote walks out of that bank with full pockets, and he does not look back. His part in this is not over, but it is finished, for a time.
The sun is setting in the desert outside, and the shadows it casts on the street are the color of blood, the color of garnets, the color of a lost red bonnet floating to freedom on a distant river.
Paul Stabler is a man who lives alone. It suits him, he finds, and if that’s a surprise, it’s only because he’s never had cause for solitude before. First had come his parents, and then came his wife, and when his wife had gone his daughter had still been there, and when his daughter had gone, there had been all the eligible women of Boston, wanting to dry his tears and tell him he could be a father again. He fled west to escape, both from them and from the quiet ghost in the red hat who looked at him reproachfully from every shadow.
New Woodbury was exactly what the name had promised: new. If there were ghosts here, they belonged to someone else, and they had no interest in haunting him.
Now he walks into the front room of his modest home, and the red fox girl who was his Rosalind follows, her feet silent as a whisper on the carpeted floor. He looked for her not because he wanted her back again, but because it was his duty as a father to find what he had lost. As long as he was looking for her, he had had no need to remarry or to explain himself; his grief was seen as motivation enough for everything, from his stony silences to the bruises on his workers’ arms. A man may be a wolf, if he’s been bitten hard enough.
He leads her to the back of the house, where a narrow door like a coffin lid sits ajar. He pushes it open, looks to her, and says, “This is your room. You’re not to leave it without speaking to me first. You’re precious to me, and I’ll not lose you again. Do you understand me?”
Rosalind nods, silent as a prayer, and steps through the open door, into the narrow child’s room on the other side. The bed is covered in a thin layer of dust. It has never been used. She looks
at that bed, and is still looking at it when the door closes behind her, and she is alone.
There’s nothing to be done now but wait. This is a path she needs to walk alone, if she’s to see it to its conclusion. So she sits down on the floor—she cannot bear to think of sitting on that dusty bed, or worse, sliding between those rigid, cobwebbed sheets, like a corpse sliding into its crypt—and waits. The sun will finish setting soon enough, and the wolves will come out to feed.
Night is the time for wolves.
She waits, and the hours run down around her, great river catfish chasing the baitworm seconds and minnow minutes into the undying ocean of the past. She waits, and the room grows dark, and she can hear her father’s footsteps on the living room floor. Her father, who did not ask her why she had run away, who paid for her with crisp new bills and did not ask her where she’d been, did not ask her anything at all worth knowing. Maybe he should have. Maybe he could have saved himself.
But the hour grows late and the shadows grow long, and still she waits, until the soft tread of a father’s footsteps in the next room have grown heavy, until she hears him coming toward her door. The knob turns. The door opens.
“You are an arrogant child,” he says, and his breath is whiskey and winter.
“The better to defy you, sir,” she says, and her words are summer in the desert, hot and cruel and unforgiving.
“You are an unwanted child,” he says, and his breath is bruises and blame.
“The better to leave you, sir,” she says, and her words are time to heal, hard and hopeful and full of peace.
“You are a spiteful child,” he says, and his breath is captivity and cruelty.
“The better to spite you, sir,” she says, and her words are
freedom, freedom opening all the way to the desert, freedom that knows no horizon.
The door closes behind him as he steps fully into the room. He reaches for her then, as he reached for her once on the other side of the country, in a green place where she wore a red hat she had not yet earned. He reaches for her, and she falls upon him, and the world is red as a desert sunset, and not half so forgiving.
Morning finds her sitting outside, picking her teeth with a splinter of what had been her bedroom door. Coyote strolls up, their horses following patiently behind him. This town is too small to contain them; they need the wide sweep of the desert, the hills and the rolling dunes, and the wind to carry the tears of children treated bad and women treated cruel.
“Your hat’s red,” says Coyote.
The red fox girl looks up through the tangled corn of her hair and smiles like a thousand miles of empty horizon. “It is,” she says.
“You handle your wolf?”
“I did.” She stands, stretches, moves to his side. She leaves no footprints.
It brings him no pleasure to ask his next question, but ask it he does, for some things must be observed: “You ready to ride alone?”
“Not yet,” she says. “Got some lessons left to learn. Don’t feel like looking for another teacher.”
Coyote smiles. He sets his hand atop her head for a moment, feeling the reality of her. Then he swings himself up onto his horse and waits for her to do the same before he turns toward the horizon. There will always be wolves, even if some of them walk wrapped in human skins. There will always be woods, even if some of them are difficult to see. And there will always be little girls who leave the path in search of something bigger, something
better, and find their own salvation on the line between morning and midnight.
The sky is the color of bleached bone as Coyote and the red fox girl ride across the desert. His hat is black as shadows, and hers is red as blood, and none saw where they came from, and none will see where they go.