Hills rise and roll, brown and lonely like the saddle the family’s oldest uncle left. We are nearing the bullet-holed road signs, the scripture-inscribed walls of the old store where the wandering or heartbroken danced, shoved their palms into the chests of those they loved or were up against.
This is the wash where relatives took the mattresses of the dead or dying to burn—where cousins gathered to shoot bottles, old dishes, the dogs that killed four sheep.
This is also the sisters’ place.
This is where the girls stopped their bikes to listen for shots, to watch cottontails scatter and kick up casings, to watch the smoke and dirt rise until it consumed the crows, covered a rising moon—
But look to see the palominos running, grass-stained and wild into the wash, back out and up. Watch your hands now tracing their sun-white tails, following them like cornfield birds.
We are here, the rusted Mustang marks a churchyard, the deer tracks, a holy place. This was once their home, before the windows were boarded up, the woodstove stolen—a home with coffee boiling, a quilt-covered couch, quail climbing woodpiles with black crowns shining.
Place your ear to the door like a shell—listen to laughter, watch them unbraid hair fragrant with dirt, or cedar, or both, black hair gathering, rivering in the water of a silver tub. Watch a grandmother chase the girls out to run, tell them to not come home until the sky goes purple or pink, to cover their handprints, to not look back—
Watch them race hand in hand to the cornfield—a moonrise reflecting in the bellies of the dark horses, in the girls’ hair, undone.
From the Lower Rio Grande
The Rio Grande carries the grey, wet skeletons of trees, a child’s shoe. Watch the water, muddied and angry, weave its way around a rusted dryer.
Watch the left-behind sister turn under August clouds, swollen with monsoon rain. Help her list their names in the river sand, the constellations, the names of mountains, the horses hand-printed with mud. Place your mouth to the cold, watered earth. Help her remember the taste of the cornfield she called a church.
Walk her into the water as she tells you about how a cowboy pushed her out of and then against his truck, how she ran from him then walked four miles back into town but how this thought, the song that was playing on the radio still doesn’t split her heart as much as when she thinks about all her sister left her with—how they pretended to be astronauts, how they used a thrown-out dryer as a spaceship, how a late September rain once flooded the house, how her sister rode her bike into the cloudburst, how she lost her shape as she faded into the road, how this was the first time her sister left her barefoot and crying on the porch, Come back escaping her mouth like a prayer.
The grandparents parked between Village Inn and Motel 6, the sisters slow danced beneath cottonwood leaves, golden and mixed with snow. The grandmother marked one sister’s socks, jeans, and shoes with permanent marker. The left-behind took in the shape of the initials.
They stood knee-deep in the low, brown river, walked until the waterline touched ribcages, their hearts. Grandma scolded the left-behind, It is not good to cry after people. Watch her watch the road for miles, close her eyes somewhere between Laguna and her home.
Watch how the years go by—more mattresses burn, watch men board up the store, listen to the songs of birthdays, new songs of love. Watch one sister crawl out of a boarding school window, apply lipstick as she goes into downtown Albuquerque or further south. Watch her walk into the backrooms of trailers. Hear the car honking when she calls from payphones, I finally left. Can you send me money? I’ll find my way home.
Watch the herd of palomino grow in numbers, grow wild. Listen to the firewood crack in the stove. Take note of the silence when the left-behind traces the initials tattooed inside her wrist, tells the grandmother, I heard from my sister. Watch the grandmother’s eyes look down to the floor, to her shoes, the tops of her white socks brushing the bottom of a bird-printed skirt.
Follow the left-behind into a canyon, white and yellow rocks towering to the left and right. The girls found deer tracks in this place once, drew hearts around them but never walked deep enough to find the herd—
Listen to the left behind tap a bottle, list her maybes. Maybe she’s smoking a cigarette right now in the belly of a city, Tucson, or San Francisco, maybe. Maybe that was her my uncles saw. Maybe she’s walking near the ridgeline, watching the palominos running, grass-stained and wild, tracing their shell-white tails. Maybe her hair is still midnight-black and rivering. Maybe she found a fawn. Maybe it’s curled, almost sleeping, her singing the names of mountains, naming the stars scattered on its back.
Paige Buffington’s family is originally from Tohatchi, New Mexico. She is Navajo, of the Bear Enemies Clan Born for White People. She received a BFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2013 and an MFA with a focus in poetry in 2015. Paige currently lives in Gallup, New Mexico where she works in elementary education.
Header photo by Marcin Perkowski, courtesy Shutterstock.