True to her pure Rumsen nature, Anselma leaned toward the taciturn. Her speech was known for its veracity and brevity, and Bill did not live in hope of a colorful or detailed explanation. She spoke of coming down the trail when a great wind tore a tree from the earth and trapped her beneath its branches. Then her son found her and helped her escape by shifting the biggest limb. There was nothing more to say for the moment.
Bill shook his head and looked to his son, though he entertained little hope of much help in that direction. Even before his father spoke, Frank piped up with his mixed patois of English, Spanish, and Rumsen. It always took a moment to coax Frank to pick one language and stick with it. The boy told his father that he had been in bed when his mother's spirit had come for him in a light. She had led him up the mountain to move the tree so she could come home. Frank said his meager piece with an air of all-inclusive acceptance, as though this kind of experience was an everyday occurrence. Again Bill shook his head, but he was patient enough to realize that it might take days to secure all the details of the story.
As Anselma tucked her child under his goose-down quilt that night, the boy looked at his mother and asked whether he could someday learn to call her with the light when he was in trouble. Anselma looked at her son, caressed his face, and told him that the light was not something one learned how to do. Love made it happen. Little Frank smiled, blinked once or twice, and fell asleep, content with the answer.
The next day, after the storms had passed well east, Bill Post rode out with the Ortiz brothers to survey the general damage and do what they could to clear the trails. Bill eventually had to rig two mules with a wagon harness to help move the heavier debris.
Later that day and only out of curiosity, Bill and his men rode up the ridge trail to inspect the site his wife and son had spoken of. It was just as they had said, possibly worse to Bill's way of thinking. The local damage was extensive due to the erratic winds.
That evening over supper Bill asked Anselma about the boy lifting the tree to let her escape. Could she by any chance have been mistaken? Could the tree not have moved in the wind? Anselma looked at her husband coolly and shook her head.
Bill continued in a rather abashed manner. With just a tinge of a blush, Bill said he had asked only because it had required the labor of two sturdy mules and a horse just to haul the offending snag a few feet off the trail.
Anselma smiled, shrugged, stroked her husband reassuringly on the forearm, and kissed away the small tears of relief that scrolled down his cheeks.
This is a complete short story from Down to a Soundless Sea by Thomas Steinbeck. Copyright 2002 by Thomas Steinbeck. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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