Ashes

Photo – Jesse Reeves

Cresting the rim rock he stopped and took a quick drink of warm water, the truck shimmering a mile and a half below in the last of the horizontal light to touch the valley. He crossed the shoulder of the desolate ridge tangled with the low malformed sage and lichen ripened boulders chasing the flickering tail of his fleet companion. The canyon had burned to the backside of the ridge two summers ago and the junipers rotted like rusty ashen statues across the bowls to the east. He remembered taking her to this spot in the years past, how she always liked the way the scant high trees branches were all bent to the will of the prevailing wind, and the sprawling emptiness behind them in the valley from which they started. He would take her here for two reasons – it was a pretty drive and even prettier summit, and the short smooth drive made it perfect for day trips. She wasn’t afraid of boot work, but she hated the windows shuttering down the washboard as much as she did coconut confections. He used to drive at the perfect speed to induce the most vibrations, turning the entire road into a rumble strip. He would gently turn the knob down on the patchy radio and watch her slyly out of the corner of his eye. She wouldn’t show a thing until she would pinch his leg and nearly make him swerve into the wash of sage endlessly lining the divide of the inland sea of gray.

The dog circled back from the burn and nuzzled his knee for water. As he put down the collapsible bowl and began to pour the first bitter wind of the fall came up strongly and sprayed droplets over the faces of the nameless stones. It was the first moisture they had seen in months and disappeared before he could wipe them away. His mind shot to the coming winter, the lodgepole rounds waiting to be split at home, the yard that needed cleaning, the house that was too big for just him and the dog. The dog drank a few laps and caught scent in that west wind, bolting for the burn on the back of the ridge while he fumbled to put the bowl in his vest.

In the lowered light he could see the dog lock up in a tall patch of cheat, undressing the cover with its nose and twitching in anticipation. The dog was straddling the incomprehensible border of the fire break, the arbitrary and visible incarnation of what nothing breathing will escape. He moved between the split boulders that used to be joined and were cracked by forces who tolerate nothing innate. The dog held oblivious to the world around them with its nose stuck in something greater than faith and less than certainty. The grass bowed and bellowed and from them a torrent of wings cascaded skyward as he hopped off a boulder. The birds were in range, leaning their backs into the wind and cutting away right to left for the cliffs below. He mounted and watched them frantically gain speed, and then put the gun to his side.

She never fully understood why he loved to chase the desert birds. She knew it was a part of him that ran deep and understood those notions are the hardest to change, and she never dreamed of trying. She let him run free because the look in his eyes when he put his spoils on the table was one she could never achieve herself, and it made him whole and it made them stronger. He would return from the desert mountains and bring her deer sheds and feathers from eagles, adorning her flower pots and marking the pages of her silly books that he would tease her for reading.

The dog looked at him and whimpered, cheated of its life purpose. He released the dog and called it back to the ridge top. He explained that he didn’t want to chase the birds into the night on a far ridge away from the truck, but he could hardly believe that story himself and the dog had already forgotten those birds and was already thumbing its nose to the wind, hoping to find stragglers.

He let her roam the ridge line and he walked to the highest juniper somehow left untouched by the blaze even though the ground had burned around it. He leaned his gun to the trunk and swept the branches with his hand, all trained and pointing to the east. He took the box from his game bag and held it for awhile, picturing the canyon before it was charred and unforgiven. He opened the box and watched her fly across the canyon, arcing like the birds he just saw and fading into the paling light. The dog walked behind him and nuzzled his knee, and they turned and walked back toward the truck in the gloaming, quietly picking their way down the scree and sage as the valley dimmed below.

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