Though the people in this town may not all know one another’s names, they know the pinto.
Of the many ways she might have responded, walking toward an act of violence is not the one she would have expected. Not for herself. Not for anyone she could picture in the same situation. But when the talking turns to yelling, and the yelling accelerates quickly to that reveal of metal—the sun reflecting frantic light across Ramona’s shirt—she is surprised to find herself not backing away but instead closing the distance between her and two men she does not know.
Ramona runs with the leash wrapped around her wrist, trying to forget about the dog’s tugging and instead focus her attention on her own stride. The dog: a heeler that runs this way and that like a bloodhound, follows the scents of rabbit, coyote, other dogs. He has never been a great running partner, interrupting her rhythm and forward motion, but she’s always taken him anyway, especially when she wants to be alone but not alone.
The arroyo parallels the road, its current trickling alongside her, narrowing and widening, marbling the sand. This is how it looks most often—small, not so impressive. But sometimes, when it rains in the spring, flash floods cause it to rise five times its capacity for an hour or two. Then it wanes to its meandering trickle once again, erasing the illusion that water is of abundance here.
It is December, and small chunks of ice tumble through the shallows. From behind her, Ramona hears an engine revving but doesn’t turn to look. If she doesn’t look out for them, perhaps they will look out for her. But more often she finds herself dodging both the rusted trucks and the sleek lowriders that hurtle down her otherwise quiet dirt road.
The growling of the car continues and she can’t ignore it. She turns, slightly, and sees a Jeep plowing through the arroyo, its meaty wheels churning the mud. Not an uncommon sight, though one she has never grown accustomed to. It seems so destructive.
A few months before, signs were posted along the road that this arroyo and the winding gullies that lead up to the mesa nearby were not for public use: Pueblo land—permit required to walk here. A few weeks later the signs were gone. Perhaps the rules were too difficult to enforce, or maybe the signs had been destroyed. Ramona’s neighbor told her the signs had been reactionary—someone was shooting deer out there, leaving the carcasses to rot in a pile. We can’t have that, her neighbor said. We can’t allow such disrespect.
We have stopped caring, Ramona thought. Not just caring, but caring for. Caring for ourselves, for one another, for the land.
The sound of the Jeep, charging through the water behind her, fades.
As she runs alongside pointed coyote fences and crumbling adobe walls, Ramona allows herself to glance briefly up at the town of Los Alamos as it glints from its perch atop the mesa. The national laboratory where she spent nearly 15 years installing wells and analyzing groundwater samples is pleasantly distant from this small valley town.
Signs were posted along the road that this arroyo and the winding gullies that lead up to the mesa nearby were not for public use: Pueblo land—permit required to walk here.
She needed room to breathe.
The letter came just before she left the house—the dissolution of her marriage to Tomas was official. She thought the word “dissolution” seemed needlessly unpleasant, as if she and her ex-husband had somehow melted into a puddle of insignificance. It was better though, she had to admit, than “divorce.” At the very least, it was amicable. But then that word too—amicable—felt so much more of a cliché than she ever imagined pinning on herself.
At the bottom of the letter was a single sentence returning her name to her, the blank lines filled in by hand. Married name: Valchin (which had always sounded curiously like a sea creature or an unreliable car). Maiden name: Flores (which was centuries old, clearly dependable and tethered firmly to reality). It startled her, as she stood in the doorway—the letter fluttering with the breeze—to realize she hadn’t missed the name he’d lent her, that slipping back into the old skin of Flores was so effortless. How she simply took one coat off and let the one beneath it breathe again.
It was similar, she realized, to how she abruptly left her job as a geologist to spend her days running. As a child, she was always fast. She’d joined the cross-country team to give some purpose to her desire for constant movement, and she couldn’t remember when or why she decided it would be a worthwhile endeavor to leave her field job to sit at a desk all day in front of geological surveys and well construction plans. Though she was still doing the environmental work that she found meaningful, she was weighed down. She’d traded cloudless mornings at the bottoms of canyons for meeting rooms with fluorescent lights that only gave her headaches. The lightness in her body returned quickly and was so familiar once she left her job and began her daily runs, and she got progressively more competitive with herself each day, so that after a few weeks she was running nearly a dozen miles a day. More and more she needed another mile, increased cadence, better form.
Tomas’s affair was like the rattlesnake Ramona nearly stepped on beneath a tree one morning. She was walking the dog, had stopped to give him water. Once her eyes adjusted to the scenery, the snake was so obvious that she didn’t know how she could have missed it.
In retrospect, the circumstances were almost entertaining. The party in Albuquerque, at the home of a friend Tomas worked with at the lab. The kind of party she avoided, he’d told her—lots of people she didn’t know tripping over one another to get to the bathroom or the beer cooler. Loud music. She would surely be out of her element, and it was merely obligation for him, a favor for this friend…. This friend without a name.
Then someone at the party had shot a gun—an accident, supposedly—and Tomas happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the ER, as the doctors ushered him in on a stretcher, Ramona alongside trying and failing to take his hand, she noticed another woman, clearly dressed for a night out, weaving herself into the current of concerned and determined faces.
The bullet had nicked his left side, grazed his rib cage. He’d live, and Ramona was thankful for this, but also conflicted. Once she put the pieces together—Who are you again and how do you know my husband?—it was hard to feel sorry for Tomas. It was hard, as she watched this other woman succeed in reaching his hand, to not wish the bullet had stuck a more vital spot. Ramona wondered if Tomas even knew whose fingers he was gripping.
He’d recovered, and then he’d left. He bought a house in White Rock, closer to work. It was the fourth house ever built in the town, he told her. A silly detail, Ramona thought. It sounded impressive if you didn’t stop to think about it, and what was that compared to the 400-year-old adobe they’d been living in together—the one that she got to keep, with its sturdy vigas and gentle, ghost-harboring closets?
The dirt road peaks at the busy state route, and Ramona turns abruptly and begins the descent back toward home. She crosses a set of rabbit tracks that trail off from the road into the dry grass. The effort of running is suddenly minimal, her feet simply falling.
Beside the arroyo again she notices a red car parked on the embankment, someone closing the door and crossing the road. The man is short and stocky, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, and by the time she is close enough to see a face he has turned away, stepping onto the mud.
Ramona sees then what the man is walking toward. The Jeep is still there, stuck now in the middle of the stream, tires sunk two-thirds into the wet sand. Is this the enforcer of signs, she wonders. An annoyed neighbor? A helping hand? The driver seems to be getting more and more frustrated, and when he sees the other man striding toward him, he quickly rolls up the window. The man in the hat is not deterred. His pace remains slow, steady, direct. He approaches the Jeep, hands in his pockets. He stands close to the car and waits for the driver to step out.
Ramona stops running and ducks between olive and juniper trees at the edge of the road. Distracted by the men, she loosens her grip on the leash and the dog pulls free. His body knits through low shrubs, nose to the ground, driven by the search for something only he can smell. Ramona starts after him, then stops when the shouting begins. The dog bounds further and further away.
The letter came just before she left the house—the dissolution of her marriage to Tomas was official.
After Tomas left, and after he bought the fourth house ever built in White Rock, New Mexico, Ramona had the impulse to drive there. It was twenty minutes from her house, though she’d been there only a handful of times before. She had no idea where Tomas’s house was, or if he’d moved in with the woman he’d been with the night of the party, but finding him wasn’t her intent.
Street after street of landscaped yards and flagstone walkways, the town felt like an island whose boundaries touched an expanse of orange dirt and sagebrush. There was sky everywhere. Although only five hundred feet more in elevation than where she and Tomas had lived together, she was struck by the feeling of being perched on top of the world. Somehow it made sense that Tomas would move to a place like this. He had run away to higher ground. She needed to feel rooted, planted firmly in soil and rock, while Tomas needed an ever-changing view of the clouds.
Ramona didn’t belong here. Having spent her career drilling into layers of earth to reach water at its deepest levels, she had always started on the surface, but was comfortable only when forging her way down. She had depended too heavily on equations and predictable outcomes. On pushing forward at a steady pace, pausing when there was resistance, ensuring it was safe to continue. She’d never wanted to allow a moment of friction or ambiguity in their relationship, and then all at once the rock walls around it crumbled inward.
Passing a house with a “sold” sign in the front yard, Ramona caught sight of a man in a plaid collared shirt pulling bags of gravel from the back of a truck. She was sure it was him, despite the black hair that had grown long, curling under his ears. Despite the khaki shorts that he had never worn. Despite the edges of a tattoo peeking from beneath his shirt sleeve.
Her foot wavered between gas pedal and brake, unsure if she should stop and retreat or pass by quickly. She forced her foot down and sped up, not looking at the man who she knew then with one hundred percent certainty was not her ex-husband.
Ramona turned down a winding road through a park, past picnic tables and soccer fields. When the road ended at a concrete platform overlooking the surrounding mesas, she got out of the car and looked over the railing. The Rio Grande rushed at the bottom of the canyon, so distant that her brain was dizzy trying to reconcile the size of things. She felt the sudden need to be down there, as far below as possible.
She found a trail, snaking down the canyon’s side, between broken rock and cactus—a path that led to the river. Without thinking, Ramona began descending, feeling gravity and momentum build to the point of nearly losing control, tumbling forward. The trail was steep, probably a mile to the bottom. She jumped over large rocks and reacted quickly when the ground seemed to drop away beneath her. Her feet skidded to a stop before her eyes registered the end, and she realized the scenery had changed significantly from the dry dirt and rock at the top of the trail. Now Ramona was surrounded by tall cottonwoods and yellow sweet clover. A spring seeped through the grass and emptied into the muddy river.
She climbed onto a boulder at the edge of the river and reached over her head, catching her breath. Behind her was an immense canyon wall rising over 900 feet, while before her a river swept ferociously down until it emptied, a thousand miles from there, into the great expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. Her heart, if not her body, almost leapt into the water, but she pulled it back and turned herself up, toward the path home.
Her chest still hammering and the salty taste of her swift decline still in her mouth, she saw now the graffiti on the same giant chunks of volcanic tuff that she’d passed on the way down. Exaggerated letters and cartoon faces, elegant arrows and upstretched fists. She paused to touch the image of a sun, rays radiating from the center of the rock to its edges. Petroglyphs of the future, she thought, as she began to climb, her breath catching in her throat.
Her shirt was soaked with sweat and her eyes too blinded by afternoon light to look for Tomas’s truck in the passing driveways as she drove home. Dark clouds encroached on her peripheral vision. It will come back, she insisted. Eventually, it has to come back—the seeing, and the caring to see. She blinked again and again, but nothing changed.
Hesitating, she searches for the dog. He isn’t far away, pawing at something under dead leaves. Ramona hovers behind a juniper, thinking she can reach him and leave without being noticed.
The two men are arguing, but she hasn’t figured out why. The man in the hat takes a step closer to the Jeep. The driver turns and reaches into the backseat and pulls something out. He holds it up so that it glimmers briefly, then aims it directly at the sky.
Though she is not afraid, Ramona realizes that, at this point, she can’t back away. Dry needles beneath her feet, fallen branches around her like a cage. They might hear her and then she would become a part of the bigger picture, rather than lingering on the periphery. And there is the gun. Suppose someone is shot after she leaves. She must have some responsibility, now that she’s seen what she’s seen, to stick this out to the end. A coyote yips somewhere out on the mesa, fused into the backdrop of bird song and early morning sunlight.
Ramona waits, incapable of retrieving the dog without gaining a larger role in this story, yet already unable to disentangle herself from it. She feels the energy of the moment building to what seems a point of no return. There is only one ending: the gun must go off, it is about to go off. She steps forward, almost revealing herself, but has no plan for what she’ll do once exposed.
That is when the horse emerges from the trees.
One shaky hoof in front of the other, the pinto mare keeps her head down in a way that seems strained, as if extra cautious. Feeling her way instead of seeing. She is, Ramona realizes, the blind mare from the farm just past her house. The one always standing by the road, stretching her neck over the fence when people pass by in cars, taking apples and carrots gently from the hands of walkers. She moves with confident steps only when close behind the other horse that shares the field—a grumpy old stallion. Though the people in this town may not all know one another’s names, they know the pinto.
At first the men don’t see the horse. Ramona watches as they continue yelling, gun in the air, fingers pointed at chests, until the horse moves closer, stands so near that either of them could reach out a hand and touch her neck. When they see her, they halt in unison.
How the mare escaped the fenced pasture and wandered across the road Ramona doesn’t know. All she knows is what she can see right now—the horse moving closer and closer until she is standing between the Jeep and the men. And the wound, perhaps from the fence or the claws of another animal, on the horse’s chest, blood trickling down her dappled front legs.
The moment breaks. Nothing else exists. There is no argument. No line drawn and then crossed. Nothing at all, except a sudden pain in Ramona’s own body—a rising flame that travels from the center of her stomach.
Some twisted metal coiled inside her unwinds, and suddenly she is crying and caring and acutely aware of how empty her house is. How lonely and cruel the world has become.
The dog stops and turns toward her. The gun is lowered and set back inside the Jeep. The man in the hat draws the horse by the neck and the driver steps from the Jeep, removes his jacket, and presses it against the pinto’s bleeding chest. Together they turn her back in the direction of the farm. Together they lead her, hooves scuffling as they cross the road. Ramona steps out of the brush and picks up the dog’s leash, wondering what might have happened if she hadn’t remained so distant. Both men turn their heads briefly in her direction, acknowledging, somehow, her participation in a moment that never took place.
And the wound, perhaps from the fence or the claws of another animal, on the horse’s chest, blood trickling down her dappled front legs.
The sweat on her skin is cold. As her legs tingle awake and the crisp air fills her chest once again, she remembers a time when she was a child, visiting a beach in Maine with her family. She was seven. There was a wall of piled rock along the perimeter of the beach. It was a brisk fall day and kids were playing in the shallower parts of the ocean even though the water was too cold to swim. Her father and mother walked behind her on the ridge of rock, ocean on one side, a grassy picnic area on the other.
Ramona had felt her feet moving faster, until without realizing it, she was sailing. The distance between her and her parents swelled, and she heard her father’s voice calling her. Louder and louder, filled with more urgency each time.
She didn’t know why she kept going, ignoring the sound of her own name. Only that she felt something above it, beyond it—a flight that could not be penetrated. She ran and ran until she tripped and tumbled down the rocks to the sand, elbows and knees bloodied. Her father was furious. She’d been hurt, but he was the one who was angry.
At the time, these tangled displays of affection confused her. She didn’t understand then how compassion can spring up out of darkness—or how darkness can bloom within compassion. How there is a spectrum of pain and joy, and how everyone lives somewhere on that continuum at all times, in a place that changes moment to moment, and they carry that scale with them into every encounter—whether they want to or not.
Nearing home, Ramona can hear the Jeep revving again, a distant sound. The man in the cowboy hat drives past her on the road, his arm hanging from the driver’s side window. He waves as he passes, though so swiftly Ramona wonders if the wind may have lifted his hand involuntarily.
A silence sets in. This small part of the world—despite a momentary swirl of energies rising and colliding—levels once again. Subsiding to its particular, measured kind of peace.
Jessica Bryant Klagmann received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. She now lives in New Mexico and is thankful to have an adventurous husband, some maybe-too-adventurous kids, and endless canyon trails to explore. Her work has appeared in Whitefish Review, Stonecoast Review, Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics, and Hippocampus Magazine, among others. More can be found on her website: www.thehillsdranktheriver.com.