Valley of Red

"I'll be back by sunset." He left the house with his rifle and his old leather bag. She nodded and kept washing. After laundry, she had dinner to get back to, then cleaning, followed by canning and checking their storage. Since moving out from the city, every day was like this. There was no time for either of them to rest. Trips for supplies to the nearest town could only be done once a month. He told her coming here was a great opportunity they couldn't pass up. To her left, a desert. To her right, a rocky mountain of thick pines and steep cliffs. No neighbors for miles beyond the coyotes howling in the night and bears seeking out their food. If she was lucky, others seeking opportunity traveled on through in the distance or some Indians passed by on a hunt or to tell her of strange things they'd noticed in the woods and weather. A cheap plot of land not worth anything at all. Two years had passed since she last saw her family. Her friends forgot her. Most nights, she slept and nothing more. Resentment built silently into her body, trickling out in hasty movements in the kitchen, careless stitches, and rough hands against wet cloth. He noticed. She saw it in his eyes. He uttered not a word. The air was thick with self-defeat. Between the drying sheets hanging around her, she watched him out of the corner of her eye. He disappeared over the horizon into the deep woods. The sun beat down on her back, as if the desert to her left came to mock her with its emptiness. When she finished washing, she moved on to the next task. Late in the day, two Indians knocked at her door asking for water. She gave them some in exchange for one of the small rabbits they caught. She knew the two of them. They sometimes hunted with her husband. The younger one asked her, "Is your husband out again?" "Yes," she said. "If he goes out again tomorrow, tell him he should meet up with us. I saw some strangers coming this way. We watched them for a while. They're not bringing any women or children with them." "I'll tell him about all this when he gets home." She nodded along as she wrapped them a little cheese to take home to their children. Sunset came two hours after the men left. She lit a lantern by the front door. He often came home late. Sometimes, he didn't come home until the following morning. When they lived in the city, he always came home from work at least three hours after he should have. She used to think he was meeting with other women. Now, she understood he simply couldn't keep track of time. She sighed and went to bed. In the morning, the bright light of the sunrise revealed how empty the space beside her remained. She thought nothing of it and went about her usual housework. Around noon, the Indians paid her another visit. "Where is your husband?" The younger one asked. "He is still out. He didn't come home." Her voice was empty. She prepared them a lunch with some of the food they brought with them. "He'll be back today. You know how he is." Sunset came and went. She lit the lantern again. Standing in the dark outside the home, her resentment faded. The woods to the right loomed over her like a wild beast and the vast, great desert washed away her hopes of safety in the moonlight's showcase of its emptiness. She locked the door and lay in bed with her husband's other rifle. Morning came again. She waited out in front of the house for him to return. No visitors came that day. At night, she kept the lantern on and watched the yard from the window. She heard nothing but the howling of a lone coyote. Despite her vigilance, her body gave out on her and took her mind into a dream. There, she wandered the woods. The coyote's voice carried on into her sleep, a formless creature stalking her in the darkness. She ran until she reached the desert. A full moon encompassed all of its emptiness. Red earth froze her bare feet. The coyote's voice drew closer. She kept running until she tripped. At her feet, she saw something that terrified her so greatly she woke from her dream. By noon, she had packed up her husband's spare bag and all the supplies she always saw him take. Rifle in hand, she wandered out into the woods. At first, she looked for him, hoping out of a deluded hope to find him camping nearby somewhere and lost. After several days, she expected a body. A few days after that, she knew to look for bones. All the while, as she wandered the woods and the mountain, she watched out towards the desert. She didn't know why, but she couldn't stop herself from being drawn to it. When they first came to live here, they crossed that long desert together with little food and little else. She was so mad at him then. Moving was always his idea. Their home in the city, she thought, was fine enough. What did they need more land for? What opportunity existed outside the city? But he was her husband, and so they went. They crossed that desert many times, to town and once to see family. She hated it. She knew he knew, but no one said anything. Back then, she expected him to say something. Anything to acknowledge his mistakes and her suffering. She waited, and as she waited, she too said nothing in a stalemate of silence. She never said anything. In the last three years, she hadn't once said "I love you". The pain haunted her as she held each bone in the forest. At first, when she found bones of travellers and other strangers, not knowing if they could be his or not, she pretended they belonged to coyotes and deer. She put them back where she found them. If she couldn't find any proof it was him, she told herself it couldn't be. That delusion buckled in time under the weight of her regrets. If they were his, she needed to tend to them. She couldn't leave them abandoned and exposed. Between these two fears, of finding him and of being mistaken and giving up early, she could never do anything. Like the last three years, she wandered aimlessly in her thoughts as if expecting that he would reveal himself to her eventually. As before, no one called out to her to show her the way and her time was filled with silence save for the lone coyote that howled in the night. Lonely, she reminded herself that he often disappeared during the summer for months at a time to work far away. She had been separated from him before for longer than now. Another part of her snapped back at her with the truth. She knew he was coming home back then. She argued with that other part of herself. His return was never certain. She hoped he would. Like when they lived in the city and after he went out hunting, he always returned late and left her at home alone in uncertainty. Out of frustration and anger, she tried to convince herself he finally left her for good--that he was hundreds of miles away from her now in some city with some pretty lady working a normal job, living in a nice house like the one they left behind. That anger-fueled illusion faded as she saw in herself her anger was merely hope in disguise, and so she let it go. At night, she dreamt of the coyote chasing her out into the desert again. This time, she managed to get farther in the dream. When she tripped and looked back, she saw what frightened her most--a pile of scattered bones. The coyote stood beside them and looked down at them. He looked back at her and howled. His voice was so beautiful she cried. All around them, the red earth was so rich and deep the moon paled in comparison. She could feel the coyote and the earth were somehow one, though she couldn't explain why. When she woke, she was alone again. She continued her search, occasionally taking glances back at the desert valley and hoping to see a certain beast wandering near. She never saw the coyote, but she heard his howling at night--always somewhere out of sight. Every night, she dreamt of the coyote, the desert, and the full moon. She no longer ran from the beast, but chased him from the mountain and the forest down into the desert to meet with the moon. He was always ahead of her. When she could run no farther, he stopped and howled. She watched him as she caught her breath, unable to say anything. Sometimes at dawn, when she woke, she swore she saw the silhouette of a coyote on the horizon before the blazing sun. But when she was fully awake, the beast was always gone. She presumed it was merely part of her dreaming. Every skull she examined, she felt over the bumps and smoothness trying to imagine in her mind what face used to be there. Would she know him if she held his? Her heart told her yes while her mind reminded her of her foolishness. Thousands of bones made their beds in the woods, and many more in the desert, and she could barely tell a human one from a deer's. How could she ever know him? Her heart wouldn't let her stop. In the creek, she sifted through the sand like a miner looking for gold. She watched the sand slip through her fingers back into the water. Trinkets, old gloves, shoes, and bones. Nothing definitely his. She returned everything to their resting place and wandered on again. After reaching the top of the mountain and chasing both ends of the creek before it stretch on into some other land, she wandered around back near their home. There, she found it. A red bandanna. She wasn't certain it was his, but it looked like his. The bandanna hung from a low branch, likely pulled off without its owner noticing. Not a trace of blood or violence. She sniffed it, expecting to smell him on it, but the only scent it had was that of the trees. Unlike every other item she found, she couldn't bring herself to return it to the tree. She held it tightly in her hands, then tied it around the strap of her husband's bag. That night, she dreamt of the desert and the coyote again. The coyote howled for her underneath the full moon. She wanted to join him, but her voice couldn't match his. She reached for the coyote but he always moved away just out of reach. A thousand questions formed inside her, but none escaped. She could do no more than listen to the coyote howl at the moon. When she woke, she wandered once more. She had grown careless in her desperation that she didn't notice the two bear cubs playing near her. She was too busy chasing hidden bones. The cubs noticed her. Curious, they went to see her. She ignored them as she dug through the earth. All the noise the cubs were making got their mother's attention, and she too went to see what was going on. The mother bear was not curious. A stranger was near her children. The mother bear growled at her. She turned around and saw how close the bear already was. Everything was happening so fast she couldn't think of how to react. She looked for the rifle, but it was too far for her to reach. The mother bear charged at her. She fell back in fear and braced herself. Her eyes were shut closed while she waited. The woods were silent. She opened her eyes. A coyote stood between her and the bear. The beast bore no fangs nor claws at the fearful mother. He only stood there in silence. The bear calmed down and walked away with her cubs. Then, he turned to her. She was too afraid to move. The beast lowered his head and looked into her eyes with its own of gold. In his eyes, she saw the red desert and the moon, and a face she knew. The coyote walked away from her, down the mountain. She followed him. He walked on until he reached a steep cliff. The beast looked down below, where the edge of the desert met the forest and mountain. She knelt down and looked, but saw nothing more than rocks. She turned to look back at the coyote, but she was alone. Something inside her broke and her entire body shook. Tears poured out. She cried out as she hadn't done since she was a young child. With all her strength, she looked down the cliff again. Her tears fell over the edge, but she couldn't see them hit the ground. In her agony, she wished she was a coyote, so she that she could howl to the land her pain. Her voice was weak and carried nowhere. Something rustled in the woods behind her. She reached around for the rifle, but in the chaos of the bear encounter and her need to chase the coyote, she left it behind. The noise drew closer. She reached for anything to protect herself with. The ground was barren. Afraid, she rushed to get up and run, but her feet betrayed her and she slipped over the side. Out of luck, she managed to catch hold of a branch of the sole tree growing beneath her. Her weight was too great for the young tree. She could feel it cracking. She was left to choose with taking her chances dropping down to avoid whatever was coming or calling out and hoping there was no danger above her. Too afraid, she couldn't get herself to speak. The coyote appeared below her on top of several of the jagged rocks. He howled restlessly. As the branch cracked open, something grabbed her wrists. "It's you." A familiar face pulled her from the cliff. It was the young hunter. She couldn't believe he was really there. If not for the touch of his hands, she would presume him a ghost. "You...I thought you were all gone. I saw...everything was burned..." "I wasn't there at the time. My friend and I were out in the woods then. I couldn't make it home in time." He said. "What happened to him? Is he near?" She asked as she got her footing and sat down in the dirt. "He went to join his wife while I tended to the remains." The man offered her food and water. "You, how did you survive? I came to your home many times, but you weren't there." "I've been searching...for him." She watched the clouds pass by over the desert. The sun's last light shone brightly on the horizon. "Did you find him?" She stood near the cliff and looked down. There was nothing there. She stared up at the full moon. "His voice." "I see. Where will you go now?" The man rose, his gaze somewhere else. "I don't know." She turned to him. "What are you still doing here?" "I too have been searching. I never..." He lowered his head. "I couldn't find my wife's body. Everything may have burned in the fire, but I thought, perhaps, she managed to run away or they took her." "Did you find her?" She asked. Just then, she noticed what he was staring at. A pure white owl perched on a tree watched them with golden eyes that matched the moon. He spoke softly. "Her voice." "I see." By fire, they warmed themselves amid the night's cold embrace. The night blossomed into a song, of crickets and cicadas, coyotes and owls, and all others who roamed in the dark. Though the trees hid most of the world the moon illuminated, their cries calmed her into a dream. Under the brilliant moon, she wandered the endless desert again, following a distant howling. She ran through the night, in that space of red, black, and gold. Her feet were impossibly slow, yet she kept running. A hill came into sight before her. At the top of it, she found him there howling. Her desperation grew to reach him. The full moon appeared larger than the hill, shining behind him. Her heart ached, from her love and from the beauty of view before her. She reached her arms out towards the hill. And then he stopped. The coyote looked down at her. A red mist came down over the hill behind him. He stared at her with his golden eyes. In that gaze, she froze. No words could express what she wanted to tell him. He said nothing, but she understood. Her hands returned to her side as tears fell from her face. The mist turned to fog and rose higher. She whispered three words to him. He raised his head and howled once more before vanishing behind the fog. When he was gone, she realized the moon became the sun and woke. The young hunter was already awake. He stood by the cliff and looked out at the desert. She stood beside him. "Where will you go now?" She asked. "I don't know why, but I feel like where I need to go is out there." He motioned to the red land before them. In that moment, like in her dreams, the deep red overwhelmed her. She smiled. She'd forgotten the last time she smiled. Her heart knew neither happiness nor amusement. She was smiling out of sorrow and fear. She laughed under her breath. "I was thinking I would do the same."
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