Birdsong strikes up and musters in the first soft press of dawn. Starlings, sparrows, magpies, meadowlarks, blackbirds. There is the flush and shuffle of feathers. Throat tunings. The hollowing chitter of beaks. Bursts of flight. Wrens, flycatchers, cowbirds, crows. Complaint. Exultation. They work the meadow grass, the cottonwoods along the creek, the open barnloft, alive in tilting sweeps of hand-size shadows. The raptors float silently a thousand feet above, turning, spiraling atop the early-morning thermals, hunting the edge of the ebbing night.
A downdraft masses cool and heavy against the escarpment of the Front Range and totters and slides from the warming sky. It thrums against the sides of the stocktank, the outbuildings, the house; ripples the surface of the pond below the barn. It swings the pasture grasses east, lifts the boughs of a Douglas fir beside the house, scatters in bursts of cottonwood and aspen leaf. It smells of dew, juniper, sage, pine, horseshit, and stone. It chills McEban's exposed shoulders, his arms; pricks him away from sleep. He turns in his bed. He drifts. He is, for this brief moment, without memory, without longing. Simply one of God's naked creatures, accepting of the seasons.
The wasp-yellow curtains quake at the window, reflect as light beige. The bedroom furniture stands in subdued angles of gray and darker grays. Gretchen's dress, cornflower blue, draped over the ladder-back of an oak chair, catches in a predawn shade of snow-shadow. Her plain cotton bra and panties lie wadded on the seat of the chair, dull as weathered vertebra.
McEban doubles a pillow under the side of his head and relaxes into it, and hooks the hem of the sheet with a forefinger, and draws it gently back from her. He feels the flash of her body's heat against his own and lies blinking in the half-light, remembering that he has known this woman all of her life. Forty years and change, he thinks. He remembers they were children together, and that he loved her when she was a girl, and later, and that he loves her now.
He looks into a corner of the room, at their reflections caught in the freestanding mirror. There is the curve of her spine, lambent; flawless as a small burl of cumulus. She flexes and turns, and her reflection turns onto its back, its legs and arms splayed, settling. McEban looks away from the mirror. He looks again at the woman beside him.
Her arms are sun-stained to her shoulders, and her legs to her knees, and her face flecked with freckles. The rest of her runs milky, gone translucent in places, and at those places puzzled faintly with bluish veins--at her throat, the sides of her breasts, the smooth slope of flesh that draws low across her hips into the nappy wedge of auburn hair.
She moans lowly and moves her head from side to side and her long hair pools to the sides of her neck, spills across her shoulders, across the pillow, across the sheet, appears artesian. He cups a palmful of the hair to his nose and inhales. He has prayed to have this woman in his arms, and feels full of the power of his prayers. Her hair smells sweet as blood.
He is afraid to look again into the mirror. He is afraid of what he might see. It is his belief that his family's ghosts watch and record his transgressions. He imagines them as judgmental, with notebooks--as scouts for a prudish God. And then he thinks of Bennett. He thinks of the three of them--Gretchen and Bennett, and himself.
He thinks that Bennett does not believe in an afterlife, in witnesses, doesn't give a shit for the quick or the dead. He thinks he has never heard Bennett speak of his dreams. He has, in fact, heard the man state aloud that dreams are for the unfocused. He knows Bennett's trust lies in a world he can kick. A world that kicks back. And Bennett is his best friend, and Gretchen is Bennett's wife. He thinks there is no way for that not to be a blow. In the real world, for a focused man.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Spragg. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Putnam.
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