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Finding Women

 
 
From Alaska Quarterly Review

1. Silences           

            Russ didn’t start out mute. He didn’t start out wandering through thorny underbrush and weeds, forgetting all of his temporary mothers by the time he made it to the swinging fence door, the edge of switchgrass, the wild blackberry bushes. Rather, the quiet years descended upon him with no warning and no explanation.

            He can’t remember when his speech returned. He can’t remember much about not having had it or what was good about getting it back. What was speech in the face of disappearing women, of nights in suburban dumpsters that at least blocked the impossible North Dakota wind, of abandoned sheds with soggy walls that pushed in easily, even for a boy.

            The women came and went, their colors spun and merged and separated, a maddening kaleidoscope. The women fed him and bathed him and sometimes talked to him. But he ran away because he didn’t believe a word they said.

            He stopped speaking.

            One summer, in a woods that whispered to him, he dug a hole in the ground and formed the dirt into a tiny cavern that he could slip into, where he could string together his neverending moments free from sound and syllable.

            Years later, it’s the mud he remembers, its potential for sculpture, how it rewards with darkness and protection and silence.

2. Hitchhikers

            Russ grows up, and women come to him again. He watches this new set of them from up in his semi. By now he is accustomed to the sight of so many—an entire transient community strung together with asphalt, electrical wires, and taut lies—walking the gravel, the crabgrass, the guard rails. They all have the same crooked step, they are all branded and wayward. They say, I’m from Canada,
originally
. They say, Bite my neck when you fuck me. They say, I hustle because I never found a place for myself. They say, Not long ago, I became old. All of them lost to the next town, the next stretch of buckled concrete.

            The youngest hitchhiker Russ finds is not his first, but she’s the one he drives the longest distance, all the way across three state lines. She is quiet and still in the seat next to him. She cries, then sleeps during the four hundred and forty-five miles she is with him. He hates to wake her every time he stops for fuel, and to make up for it, he buys her hot chocolate and a ham and cheese sandwich, which she eats sitting cross-legged and finishes by the time he gets back from the men’s room. So he buys her another one, egg salad, plus fruit juice and potato chips. Later, on the road, she says, Thanks for the food and smiles a heartbreak straight under his skin.

            He drops her off at five hundred and twelve miles, slips her twenty dollars, and realizes that he would have driven her across the country, had she asked.

            Is it best to start with the most significant woman? Or is it better to blend them all together so as to see all of their riches at once?

            He gets used to the road, to the way everything eventually becomes something else, to how there is no going back to anything. Years pass; there are just stretches of concrete, a future close by and tightly held. For years he listens to CB snippets of half-conversations put together between location updates or static or sex noise, all delivered to him endlessly from the same baked tar he drives, the same overnight stops he parks at to sleep, lulled into dreams by the highway’s vibrations.

            His vocal cords dry up like stale rubber bands. He is practically mute again.

            One night after fueling up and heading for the on-ramp, he sees another stray. She has a new backpack strapped to her. He slows to a stop, and when she climbs in she says her name is Rita. His nineteenth. She’s shaggy-haired and pierced, slightly pixie-eyed, hitching, she says, from LA.

            She, too, has always been mobile—always been, she says, a damned itinerant. When they reach their seventy-sixth mile together, she tells him of her superstitions, of how she believes that similar life events bundle themselves together in specific groupings, and that these groupings are not accidental. She talks of what the sky is capable of delivering if you ask it enough, and in the right way. She tells him that her dreams are of a pit of children, and she stirs them around with a giant wooden paddle.

This woman’s dreams make Russ fierce and calm. He understands this soup of thrown-away people. He pulls into a motel parking lot, stuffs the log book under the seat, sees her looking at him. She follows him to the room and turns the lock on the door. He is surprised when he kneels next to the bed and looks over her. He is surprised when she sits up, when his arms hang heavy at his sides, refusing to touch her.
He is shocked at how difficult it is to undress and lie next to her when she holds the covers open for him. He is shocked by his shallow breathing, his dry mouth, his shoulders touching hers.

            He is shocked by what he doesn’t say, such as how unreal she looks, and by what he does say, such as, Sometimes I worry that I always take things and never give them back, such as, I can’t remember the first seven years of my life, such as, You’re a good girl for going home, such as, You make my feet numb.

            He turns to her. He says, I think I feel okay now.

            Okay how? she asks.

            Who are you?

            Never ask me that.

            You should tell me.

            I told you, she says, I’m an itinerant.

            Her hand slides over his torso. Damned to roaming the flattest land on earth, she says.

            Russ takes her hand, kisses the tip of each finger, is shocked. Is this the flattest land on earth?

            Probably. Look how far you can see. Nothing gets in the way. I like it, but I don’t. Sometimes I do.
           

            He kisses her forearm. Tell me about the place you’re from.

            She tugs at her necklace. A tragic place. My town is filled with three things: dust and big attics and men who can’t see past their back doors. This necklace? Amethyst, for protection.

            Tell me about hills. Russ hoists himself up and over her, mounts her, shocked. I’m going to take what I can get now.

            I know that already, she says. Hills keep me honest.

            She says they should love each other raw before she changes her mind, and that’s what they do in the Vista Motel, until the sheets, stretched and damp, twist around their crawling limbs, roping them together.

            Russ wakes in the middle of the night with Rita’s arm resting on his chest. Moonlight brightens a spot by her feet and cuts across her calf. The precise weight of her arm, the disheveled bed, the strange, slow hours: he has been in a room like this before. He feels a far-away woman seated next to him, remembers rolling toward her weight, how her hand stroked his chest, how the sound of the heartbeat in his ears subsided. There were tiny blue flowers on the curtains and they filled his vision before the lights went out.

            This woman fed him and spoke to him. How old would she be now?

            Russ takes Rita’s limp arm and moves it along his body. She stirs, then is quiet.

            He sits up in bed, desperate for flight. He forgets Rita and the moonlit room as he pulls out of the motel an hour before dawn.

            After fifteen miles, he feels a weird knot in his stomach, which he attributes to hunger. He thinks of Rita’s loose ties, the greedy ears she had for him, her dreams of a hot sibling soup. Twenty-four miles later he craves her skin and her heat and her stories, and by forty-nine miles he understands that he has found and lost his first love.

            She is gone by the time he drives back to the motel to find her. He doesn’t even know her last name. He wants to strangle the clerk, who remembers no one, who sits eating a cheese and tomato sandwich, who doesn’t care that the cleaning lady now strips the bed, washing away all of Rita’s traces.

            Russ drives the same forty-nine miles again, then pulls over, drinks bourbon, and vomits until he can’t breathe. He sleeps it off right where he falls, in a scrubby ditch, two feet away from a colony of red ants.

            That night he wakes before morning and blinks hard, his chest warm from the weight of a woman’s touch. The weight does not disappear. He rolls over on the ground and is a mute child again, rolling toward the warm spot on a moonlit bed. Toward a woman, one of his disappearing mothers, toward a person he couldn’t believe in, toward his other first love.

            Just a portion of those missing years comes rushing to him: chili cooking on the stove, a woods, a girl his age but noisier, a mud cave, a fire pit with hot stones intended for purification.

            He asks the sky for memory. Rita would tell him how. She would tell him to go home.

            He realizes what time it must be and climbs, dizzily, to his feet. He has always been late. He is late, now, again, with a delivery to an office-supply store in Wilmington. When he finally pulls up to the loading dock and goes inside, the receptionist gives him a look.

            Russ doesn’t bother waiting for the dispatcher to contact him or for the company to let him go. He finds his pickup in the lot and heads east with the same cracked-up heart that sent him roaming, and now would bring him home.

3. Locations

            The day Russ arrives, Madison is out on the old Ford. Russ watches him, the younger brother who stuck around, the one who now lives in the farmhouse where the two of them grew up, for years drifting apart under the sweaty palm of their uncle Ives.
 
            His foot sinks into the fluffed soil at the edge of a mounded bed, and he steps away, suddenly aware of his weight, of old ghosts rising from the earth. Russ hasn’t seen his brother for six years, which doesn’t seem like a long time until this moment, as he stands on the periphery of the neatly plowed field, as he motions toward him.

            Russ’ heartbeat quickens as Madison jumps off the stopped tractor. Russ had left this for a world of concrete and asphalt, but around him now are acres of dirt, miles of beds swirled over the ground like cake frosting.
           

            Years ago, his returned speech fell on him too heavily. He hadn’t known what to do with it so he launched words at people like boomerangs. When the words doubled back, they told him that he was a bastard child of uncertain origins. They said, You have no father because you dared to be born. They said, Once a fuckup, they crawled into every empty space inside him and took long, recalcitrant residence. Sometimes they skipped around in his brain like flat rocks on water.

            He hadn’t stolen the money from his uncle’s cash register. He wasn’t the one who left the truckload of grain outside to get rained on and spoiled. And it was his brutal, recurring non-sleep that made him walk in the night unaware of his own motion, of gates left tragically open, of switches turned on, of precious equipment parked outside, hidden, to rust.

            He knew enough to know that any attempt to convey the truth would have fallen on ears trained to disbelieve him.

            The nights in jail were his, this he acknowledges. It’s not that he can’t accept blame: he ran the streets before he rode them on eighteen wheels. In jail, in a cement cavern blocked off with bars, the boomerangs richocheted. They said, in the voice of his blood mother, Why do you do this to me? Just leave.

            Russ stands in the dirt, back home now for the first time in his whole damned life. He watches Madison—grown up, a man, darker and more serious. A man with a farm and a store to run, a man with roots and firm ground beneath his feet.

            When Madison is a few feet away, Russ looks at his face. They shake hands. They wait.

            Russ says, Can’t believe you’re still here.

            Can’t believe you’d show your fucking face, Madison says.

            For a week Russ sleeps in a room with a sloped ceiling and a bare mattress on a metal frame. One night Madison appears in the doorway. I just want to know why you’re here, he says. You need work?       

             I can keep driving, Russ says.     

            Well, if not, I can use the help. One thing, though, this is for real. Pay’s not much.         

            Yeah, okay.

            For the first few days Madison sends Russ on errands and sets him up at the farm stand at a corner near town. Russ learns the names of all the vegetable varieties. He rings up purchases, watches women sort through bins. He smiles when he bags their items. He keeps his mouth shut.

            One morning Russ wakes to find a note taped to the kitchen table, telling him to pick up a rototiller blade in Cheyenne. As Russ nears the town, one grey cloud gathers in the sky. Three drops land on the windshield. Tragedy comes in threes, Rita said, because God created all patterns, and every pattern holds numbers within it. Ahead, parallel with the horizon, is a line that seems to hover above the ground. As Russ drives, he sees that the line is a set of railroad tracks.

            Rita said, Two tragedies have between them the energy of the third, already brewing. It is only a question of how much time you have to wait.

            Two old Soo Line cars are parked at the juncture, their red color faded to a light orange, their sides tendriled with graffiti and bird droppings. He approaches the tracks and stops. He looks both ways: left, the direction of the drops, and realizes he had once been at this very intersection, facing this very direction; right, and he feels her next to him, the woman of the moonlit room, her hand on the stick shift, a turquoise ring on her pinky finger.

            This woman once took him to a pond, to a flat rock big enough to lie on, and with him watched frogs swimming. She fed him waffles, she said, And you are discovered, and she left a tiny light on in the bathroom for him.

            Two tragedies, Russ thinks. Long ago this woman took him in, rubbed his chest in the night, and he fled. And Rita, who made him weep and never waited to be rediscovered.

4. Lists

            Russ jots down the names of the women he remembers. These include a real mother, all temporary mothers, girlfriends, and highway strays. It’s a game he cannot win. Over three days, he compiles a list of thirty-two, and as he runs though them, he comes up with three more. The list begins with his biological mother, the original mother: a sinful one, of course, who has babies without men and raises them without fathers. This original mother, stained and imperfect, one day lights a fire in the middle of the living room during an episode of Days of Our Lives, because she wants her past to become ash. The wind takes this fire and pushes it, tumbling over itself, to the other side of the room.

            When Russ can’t think of another woman, he heads out to the feed store’s receiving area. He untangles irrigation tape and stacks it in piles along the wall. Madison grabs the grease gun and goes after the Ford’s fittings. Russ asks him about the fire.

            All I know, Madison says, is that it was an accident.

            Russ imagines the rooms of that small house combusting. He imagines high flames, curling cloth, the blackened legs of a coffee table. He imagines his mother, young, sitting at the table with a gin and tonic, cigarettes stubbed out in a cheap ashtray from Tijuana.

            Russ pictures this woman’s hair pulling the flames into her body, burning her from the inside out into a pile of carbon.

            Mom’s been put away again, Madison says.
           
            How long?
           
            Don’t know. Aunt Angie has power of attorney.


            Madison moves on to the carbeurator, fishing out the rust, then tipping it over to test the float. He says, I went to Aunt Angela’s for a year while Mom got her shit together. He pauses, then looks at Russ. That was in Minot, I think.

            At least it wasn’t the foster system, Russ says. And how do you know it was an accident?

            That night Russ goes upstairs and lies on his side, listening to the rain pound the wooden sill he knows is rotting—the other day he pushed his thumb through the moist spot where the frame meets the wall. He smelled mold, a century of heat.

            He looks at the list and can’t find the justice in it.

            He dislikes this brother of his, steadfast and lucky, the one with a sound mind, the one people go to for help. And he has things to say now to these women on his list, such as, Would you recognize my face?, such as, I never should have run away from you, such as, Why didn’t you try to find me?

            The sky has no answers. It is clouded with tragic droplets.

            Now it’s Cheyenne that comes to him in the night. The town that wasn’t Cheyenne, that maybe was Cheyenne. The place on the tracks where he saw her, lifelike and dead, a ring on her pinky finger.

            Russ’s first phone call is to the Division of Social Services, which directs him to the record office. The woman finds his name in the computer. Russ gives her the dates.

            There are five women listed here, she says.

            That many? Russ says. Give me the first names.

            Nadja Wilkenson is the name Russ writes down. It is all the office can give out legally, but it doesn’t matter, the name is golden and heavy and warm in his breast pocket.

            He starts with the phone books—not the skinny ones in the farmhouse, but the whole range of them at the Bismarck library. Not a single “Nadja,” but plenty of “Ns,” which he lists on a sheet of notebook paper, along with addresses. He tapes this sheet, this forest of Ns, next to his bed and looks at it in the morning, thinks of it in the field and as he drives to the farm stand six miles away, his own feet growing roots as he watches new moms with their babies examine pints of strawberries. His patience shocks him, the sudden opening of his gut and throat, how his chest becomes overwhelmed with breath, so much so that he knows that Nadja lives and that she is near.

5. Strays

           Castoffs know how to build a fire. Besides Russ, there were three other boys and one girl at the fire pit. Not so much a pit as just a space to huddle in, a place to refuse to leave, a place to return to. A fifty-gallon drum held the hot orb that kept them heated, that freed the smoke that reminded them of what they were: nothing children on the out.

            There were the regulars and the strays, the ones who stumbled upon the gravel clearing in a patch of weedy field about a half-mile through bramble, if you knew where to look.

            They dragged railroad ties sprouting mushrooms from the middle of a group of saplings and baby maples only as tall as they were, thriving despite the litter and junk thrown to them by the careless and the stupid. They stacked the ties into benches, wrapped themselves in blankets, and lay on them. One boy had a thermos, which astonished them all. It was filled, more astonishingly, with whisky or scotch. They all assumed he had at least one parent, a treasure trove from which to steal.

            It’s why Russ didn’t mind his own thievery—the five-dollar bills, the cigarettes, the boxes of cereal or bags of potato chips, a toaster from somebody’s barn that he could sell to somebody’s brother for cash.

            Here, there was sound. Here was a sky that was too black but that looked upon them as equals.

            One day a girl turned up with a slab of breaded fish freshly discarded in the back of a restaurant. They all skewered chunks of it on thin twigs, felt their saliva prickle the backs of their mouths. If they swallowed bones, they didn’t care.

            Russ watched for Jasmine most days, but soon she disappeared. The thermos boy was replaced by an older kid, a bully with dried snot around his nose. The two other boys, who were cousins, showed up with bread and rotting fruit, and gave some to Russ before they left for good.

            One night, Russ searched the jacket pockets of the sleeping bully and came away with two dollars, a lighter, and a pocket knife, which he thought of using to slice open the bully’s arm—anything to make him run.

            The next time Russ went to the fire pit, no one was there. No bully. But also no fire, newspapers all used up.

            Russ followed the path through the bramble, then turned off it, making his way through untrampled flora. The woods got thinner, the sky brighter, and soon he could make out a farmhouse with a woman working in the yard. Russ crouched behind a boulder and watched. He ventured out into the yard, heart pounding, terrified of discovery, terrified of not being heard. He vowed silence to keep clean. The woman saw him. She fed him and bathed him and talked to him. She didn’t mind that he didn’t speak. One night he rolled toward her as she sat on the bed next to him.

6. Nightmares

            Russ’s sleep is not friendly to him. Sweat flows from stale pores driven by broken glands. He wakes with mud on his pants, leaves in his hair, insect bites on his neck. He wonders how far he went this time. A few days earlier, he traced his footprints all the way to the woods and back. He lost the prints at the gravel part of the driveway, then picked them up again in the garage, where they stopped well before the door but did not go back or loop around themselves. He scanned the walls and pallets, searching for a clue to his own disappearance.

            He feels the remnants of burrs wadded in the hair around his ear: a sign of his new route, his expansion of nocturnal borders.

            He hears Madison moving in the room down the hall, then the creak of the steps. These stairs are hollow, or they seem hollow. Every morning he wakes drawn to the specter of concavity, the lure of a deep crawl space.

            After a while, Russ smells melted butter. Madison shouts up the stairs, Russ, you want pancakes?

            Yeah, I’ll be down
.

            He sees a muddy print a few feet from his mattress. There I am, he thinks, but then realizes that the print is an old one. He gets up and goes to the window. The rain that began weeks ago and never really stopped has come on strong again. It is the middle of summer, and the swirling clouds drop inches of water at a time, then clear out and bring a white sky raining slow and steady. First the vegetable beds compact with the flood, then puddles form in the middle of the pockmarked fields and overflow into narrow streams rivuleting through rows that are no longer distinguishable.

            Madison calls up. They ain’t getting any hotter.

            The tractors are useless in the muck. Nothing but rows of yellowed stalks dropping leaves by the minute, nothing but stem rot and bloat. The galoshes Russ wears every day make his feet sweat and wrinkle.

            After breakfast, Russ writes to seventeen N. Wilkensons. He drafts a letter, writes it out in his best hand, then goes to the library to make copies. He gets home and folds the sheets into thirds, then puts them all in envelopes, careful to avoid the gummy seals, which are sticky from the humidity.

            He goes downstairs and outside, not bothering with a rain jacket. He starts the truck and turns on the radio, which broadcasts the names of the latest flooded streets. The rain is so loud on the roof that he reaches for the volume twice, but the noise is too much, so he turns the radio off.

            The letters haunt him. They say, It is fair for lost years to be returned to you. He thinks of his migrating women, his lost Rita, her traveling sisters. If only he had stayed. He tells them all to get to where they are going. To move quickly. To stay.

            He puts his seat back. He tells his women that he’s here for them, will always be here for them. He reaches out his hand and helps them over the cracks and crumbled edges of highway shoulders that drop into gulleys and ravines. He watches them pass him by and not look back.

            He doesn’t remember closing his eyes, but when he opens them he sees a dark gray sky, a bolt of lightning cracking it in two. He’s lying in a pool of water or maybe sweat. He tries to move but he is too heavy. The sky flashes, the wind picks up, the remains of a squash plant brush across his cheek.

            His back is kinked from the hardened soil, and despite the heat, a chill runs through him. After a while, he’s not sure how long, he hears his name. In moments, Madison is there, looking down at him.

            What the hell are you doing?
Madison says.

            Russ blinks, his vision blurred by the thick drizzle.

            Come on, Russ, get up.

            Russ begins to pull his arms from the muck. Why did she let them take me away? he says. He bends his legs, shifts his body to the flat space between rows, sees the impatience in Madison’s face. 

            You can’t just run off like this, Madison says, extending an arm. Russ grabs it, then reaches for Madison’s legs, tripping him.

            They struggle, gripping each other, deadlocked.
           
           So you haven’t changed, Madison says.

            Russ wants to say that if he’s causing trouble, he’ll leave, but instead he pictures a huge pot of water. He envisions himself jumping into it, simmering there with his past sisters and future brothers, spinning around in the hot current.

            Okay, if you want to ask questions, Madison says. Why did you leave me with her?

            Russ sees his brother as a kid, finishing his homework at a tiny desk in a bedroom that the flames didn’t touch.

            Madison says, Let me tell you how it was with Ma. How I had to hide the kitchen knives, how I waited for her in the emergency room while she got her stomach pumped for the sixteenth time. How I found her lying in her own vomit and had to clean her up.

            Russ releases Madison’s legs.
           
            Years of my life, gone,
Madison says. Watching over her, feeding her, carrying her. And I’m not about to clean up after you.

            Russ has a fistful of mud ready to launch, the ease of the fight drawing him in. Damned itinerants, he thinks. Walking roads of glass that drop out from under them, roads that unwind and spiral down into bottomless canyons. Shivering in the gravel with soaked bones and spirits, tripping as they look back to catch the next ride.

            Destined to roam these flat lands forever.
           
            The clump of mud is just silt now, running over Russ’s opened fist and into the ground.

            Tell me about the place you’re from, Russ wants to say, but Madison is gone. The rain pounds his forehead and he lets it go on and on because he’s settling deeper into the earth now, marking it with his fleeting imprint.

7. A Response

           In a few weeks, even the mud has disappeared, submerged under a mass of standing water. There’s time for the town: the new cineplex, family restaurants, and hair salons alongside the old hardware stores and the bar with the pool hall in back.

            Russ plays a game there now with the townies. He knows a couple of them from high school. They have the faces of hoodlums gone almost good. When the game is over, Russ drives to a nearby restaurant and orders the roast beef special, then treats himself to an ice cream sundae. When he goes to pay the cashier, he sees a woman with Rita’s long neck and messed-up hair go into the ladies room. Even though he’s caught just a glimpse of her, he takes his time paying, then goes to the phone to pretend to make a call. He thinks maybe he actually will make a call, to Madison to see if he wants anything, but he fumbles too long for spare change—a woman can slip out of a room in that space of time and lose herself in the fog or the heat waves or the gravel or the masses.

            Five minutes pass and still there is no sign of the woman. Russ is sure he missed her while digging for coins, and now can’t bring himself to call Madison at all. He sits on a bench by the window, grabs a newspaper, and flips through it, keeping one eye on the bathroom door.

            Five more minutes pass. She is gone.

            The train tracks in Cheyenne are safely above the level of the nearby standing water. Russ stops his truck on them, looks right, then left, sees the two rails converge in the distance. Rita is with her brother now, he thinks. She is happy.

            But he can’t know this.

            He heads home along the empty highways. The kitchen light is on when he pulls in. On the table is a letter addressed to him. The return address reads “N. Wilkenson.” He looks at the envelope, then sits.

            Dearest Russ,
                        I remember you, my favorite runaway. I will call you soon.
                                    Love,
                                    Nadja

8. N. Wilkenson

            They agree to meet in Cheyenne. It’s Nadja’s suggestion. On the phone, her voice could have been anybody’s. His was what it was. I can’t believe you have one, she said. I thought maybe that’s why you wrote to me instead of calling.

            As Russ pulls up, she emerges from her townhouse. She is dressed in khakis and a t-shirt, the clothes of any woman. Russ parks. As he approaches her, he can tell right away that his memory has been even meaner to him than he thought—protecting him only by erasing her. He shakes her hand, takes in her straight dark hair, a grey streak through the front. The lines on her face mean nothing.

            There is the ring on her finger, still.

            Little Claw, she says. Your nickname, do you remember?

            Do you remember, he thinks. These three words kill him.

            They go inside and sit in a small living room on a floral-patterned couch, which Nadja calls a davenport. She serves breakfast tea and cookies. Russ watches her walk, bend, pour, sit. The woman of his dreams, the woman who haunts him and makes him walk through burr patches in the night. Here, to touch.
            He cannot speak.
           
            Nadja moves to the floor and sits crosslegged near his feet. She pulls out a photo album and turns to a marked page.

            You’ve come back, she says. Most never do. I had twelve foster kids, do you know that?
           
           The photos help. There is the kitchen floor and the box of toys, the olive green carpet of the living room, the braided rugs, the Legos. Uno cards, and the girl with the flower crown. Had she been so blond? So tiny? The backyard, where you arrived, the steps, which you walked up as if you’d been born on them, but only after three days went by, the low shelves, your favorite corner, your safe place, the woods, where you wanted to live, and the pile of dirt, your escape.

            I remember piling up the dirt, Russ says.

            How many times did I find you there? You were a strange boy.

           
            His throat closed. I remember you now. You saved my life.
           
           No, you charmed us.

            How far did I run? Russ asks.

            Which time?

            Russ can remember only the one time.

            The last time?
Russ says.
           
            The photo album closes and Nadja sits back. About three miles, she says.
           
            Where?

           
            And that’s barefoot. Your feet were bloody when they found you.

           
            Who found me?

           
            Sky, with her chanting, but in theory, the police.

           
            Your sister?

           
            Yes.

           
            I knew there was another woman.

           
            It doesn’t matter who found you.

           
            Russ grabs a butterscotch candy, which he hates, from the bowl on the coffee table, and unwraps it.
           
            I went crazy when you ran away, Nadja says. You nearly killed me.
           
            I’m sorry.

           
            I knew they found you, but that’s it.

           
            I know.

           
            I think you knew you were going to go back to your mother. That’s why they were coming to get you. I told you. You were playing in the dirt when I told you.

           
            I know.

           
            No, you don’t. Maybe you ran because you couldn’t sleep. You were having nightmares. Well, not nightmares, exactly.

           
            What then?

           
            Night scares. You ran and ran, even though you were sleeping. Kids do, sometimes. They grow out of it.

           
            Nadja goes to the refrigerator and pulls out a tray of sandwiches. Russ gets up to help her. She hands him a bowl of fruit salad and they walk outside.
           
            They picnic on the concrete porch, sitting against the wall with their knees up. Nadja tells him that her sister still works with the bureau, that she’s still a healer, and that she still tries to keep the Lakota people on the map. But you wouldn’t remember any of this, Nadja says.
           
            You’re Lakota?

            She is more than I am. But yes. She tried to heal you with a ritual, but you bolted out of
the hut.


            How did I walk three miles?

            It’s good to hear you speak.


            I didn’t say anything?


            Not a word. We had you checked out.


            Russ tells her his life as he remembers it, ending with his arrival on the farm. The parts he leaves out are significant, and the parts he changes are unfair to her, but there it is, a beginning.

            After lunch they look at more pictures, and when Russ can’t bring himself to look at any more, he says he has to be going.

            On the porch he kisses Nadja’s hand, and is shocked. He holds it between his own hands, feels her warm palm, sees the dirt under her fingernails, the hairline scratches on the sides of her fingers—these, the fingers of this particular hand, the hand of all his women who came, who went away.

            We’ll see each other again, Nadja says, and then is gone.
           
            One morning two weeks later, Nadja calls to say that she wants to take him to the farmhouse he wandered to all those years ago—they’ll do a driveby and then go through the town, maybe have lunch. Russ tells her that he’d like that, then hangs up.

            He goes downstairs to make pancakes. When they are close to being done, he calls for Madison. He hears his brother above him, then his steps on the hollow stairs, and is grateful for the sound.


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