*Image: “Seveso” by Marcy Hermansader, 30″ x 45” Color Pencil and Acrylic on Paper, 1981.
June was Fierce, Simple
by Jessica Bryant Klagmann
Wednesday was Discovery
It was really going on Thursday. Pietro went out in the middle of the night, not to see the stars but to water his plants. He wasn’t aware of the stars, not yet. He tripped over the hose. He swore the way his mother had taught him. As he sat in the dirt, smacking dust from his slacks, he looked up and noticed that indeed there were stars, many of them.
He’d never been in love. At least he’d never felt the thing he expected love to feel like.
Most of the time he didn’t fit into the world properly. In public places—where other people went about their business as if they were the only ones who mattered—even then it seemed he had no right to be there.
Outside at night, when it was quiet and there was nothing he could think to need—no money, no company, no time—he was at home. When there was solitude, he felt himself.
It was out there, under the just-discovered stars, over the garden hose, that he saw her through her kitchen window. How he’d never noticed her before he couldn’t imagine. Perhaps she’d just moved in. Perhaps she was not real. She was sewing something in her lap, eyes squinting and fingers pushing, pulling, in and out, in and out. Pietro watched her through that awkward square of light that lends itself to voyeurism, illuminating the inside and keeping what prowls outside in darkness.
He kept watching. In and out. In and out. It was all coming together, there in her lap. A dress, or a curtain. The curls and folds draped over her knees. Her hair, a wandering gray braid, tumbled over her shoulder.
Pietro wished he had more plants to water. He thought, wouldn’t life be better with more tomatoes, more lettuce? More time in the backyard with the water trickling from the hose at his side? More gray braid trailing over shoulder, breast, hip?
He wished, then, that he knew what she was piecing together with such intention, such obviously perfect stitches.
Thursday was Delicious
It was June, and the squashes were blossoming. The hot, dry landscape of northern New Mexico was not so different from the one in southern Italy where Pietro had grown up. There he’d learned to cultivate other kinds of plants—mostly trees. Cherry, lemon, lime, olive. The Russian olives that grew in this region were much different, practically considered a weed. They’d grow anywhere, even where other plants said, no thank you.
He snipped the delicate squash flowers from the vine and laid them gently in a basket. The midday sun was hot, but it was a sacrifice he had to make for this particular harvest. It killed him to feel the dryness of the earth under the poor, searching fingers of his plants. Draping a cloth over the blossoms, he placed them in a dark corner of the kitchen.
He saved them for sunset.
And when it came, he mixed ricotta cheese, honey, and cinnamon together in a bowl. He peeled apart each flower’s petals one by one and spooned the mixture inside, then folded the petals back together with a twirl to keep them closed. He dipped them in egg, then rolled them in breadcrumbs and added them to a sizzling pan of olive oil.
Pietro waited for the cheese to begin seeping and for the breadcrumbs to turn a crisp, golden brown. And just before the wafting smoke began to tickle the fire alarm, he plucked them from the pan with a pair of tongs and laid them to drain on a paper towel.
In Italy, when he was a boy and his mother was cooking, he would sit at the kitchen table, polite, pretending to do his homework. What he was really doing was waiting. He wrote in the margins of his notebook each step she took, each ingredient she used. He strained his neck to see if she was measuring out a half cup or a third, while he waited for her to ask him for help.
She didn’t. He busied himself with the task of taking notes.
This was how he could say his mother taught him how to cook. A proper Italian mama.
Sometimes, when he looked back at the near indecipherable scribbles of his childhood—at the times when he’d learned exactly no geography—he was struck with vivid images. When he might have written something like “knead the dough for ten minutes,” instead he’d put down something else, like “squeeze the dough with your fingers and palms, using all of your muscles and force, until sweat begins to drip from your forehead.”
These directions provoked overwhelming memories, but the specific motions that he so carefully recorded didn’t translate to delicious cooking once he got to the kitchen himself, as a young man living alone and as an old man still living alone. Perhaps somewhere in this disconnect—between want and fulfillment, between gesture and truth—it could be located: the reason he’d stayed alone all his sixty-two years.
Pietro took the squash blossoms out to the backyard in the dark. The air was cool again and the stars had returned. The moon curved at just the right angle to make him wonder if he couldn’t delve into astronomy. Or astrology? Which was about signs and the moon and one’s purpose in life?
These musings were for him alone, though he wasn’t without entertainment. The square window of light beckoned from the neighboring yard, and he made quick work of watering the plants, anxious to sit and eat and observe.
And so, alone in the dark, after taking great care not to trip over or swear at anything, he sat in a lawn chair under the moon and devoured bloom after tender bloom. It was still, clear. Which is how he saw that, folding herself over the cloth in her lap, the woman had begun to cry.
Friday was Misunderstanding
The following night, it was there. Pietro couldn’t tell what it was, slumped high up in the cottonwood just beyond the fence, where his yard ended and the arroyo began—lumpy and brown and maybe the size of a small bear cub. He’d noticed it when he first ventured outside. Tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and summer squash. He watered them all, and after each row he looked up to check, and it—the thing—was still there. It hadn’t moved, as far as he could tell.
The cottonwood’s branches were sprawling, some of them as thick around as Pietro’s own waist.
When he saw the dark shape of the woman step outside her back door and wander out into the yard, he stopped paying attention to the hose and looked down a few moments later to see he’d created a pool around his feet. In the moonlight, he could barely see the dark squash leaves floating on its glistening surface.
She stood with her hands on her hips, her neck arched and her long, thin braid nearly reaching the curve of her lower back.
“Psst,” he said, wanting to get her attention and a little afraid that he might. “Psst.”
She turned and leaned forward, her fingers clutching the top of the coyote fence as she peered in his direction.
“What is it?” she said, pointing above her.
Pietro shrugged, then realized she probably couldn’t see such subtle movements in the dark.
The woman had a youthful silhouette. He couldn’t quite understand how he’d gone all his sixty-two years without ever feeling this anticipation, this desire to be in the presence of another human being. Male or female, platonic or sexual—he’d never felt it. But now he found himself invigorated by the thought that they might exchange over-the-fence glances and gestures in the daylight.
“If you ever want to come over here,” he said, “and talk about anything… ”
The woman backed away from the fence.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I just mean, you don’t need to be alone at night. Or sad.”
“What makes you think I’m sad?” she asked. “Or alone, for that matter?”
Pietro shrugged again.
He wanted to say something more, to explain himself better, but he didn’t know how to say what he imagined was appropriate.
They stood there for a long while, both with eyes fixed on the wilder place just beyond their well-maintained lawns. So much beautiful, awkward silence, as the creature crouched in a tree that was neither in his yard nor hers. There but not theirs.
Saturday was Confession
“Do you think it’s dying?” she asked, tucking loose strands that had escaped her braid behind her ear. “The monster?”
This took Pietro by surprise. It had hardly done anything to deserve the term monster. The creature was in the same spot, maybe a little farther out on the branch.
The woman didn’t look in Pietro’s direction. Her eyes, it seemed, cared only to discern the true shape and vitality of the creature.
“Because if it is,” she went on, “it’s probably in distress. And here we are, just observing. I think we need to save it.”
Pietro squinted into the dark.
“Has it moved?” he asked, doubting his earlier conviction that it had surreptitiously shimmied up the branch.
“What if,” she said, “it’s a sloth. Maybe it escaped from the zoo. It’s in an unfamiliar environment, and it’s scared.”
“And hungry,” Pietro added.
Without speaking, they advanced toward the tree, slow and tentative, as if once they reached its thick base, the monster might suddenly drop to the ground and devour them.
Beyond their fences, the gullies became a blur of shadowy orange with black smudges of juniper bushes scattered here and there. It was an open, wild place.
They tilted their heads back.
Pietro almost suggested they get closer, shine a light up at it and really get to the bottom of things. But there was the possibility that the creature would run off then, and maybe that would be the end of these backyard encounters.
“Maybe we should come back in the morning,” Pietro suggested, putting it off for what he considered an unsuspicious amount of time.
She nodded. “And maybe try to coax it down?”
“Maybe,” Pietro said. “Maybe you could sew something, like a sack, so we can scoop it up and return it to the wild.”
The woman stood on tiptoe and peered over the fence posts.
“Have you been watching me?” she asked. “How would you know I sew? How would you know if I was sad?”
Pietro scolded himself for so carelessly revealing himself.
“It isn’t like that,” Pietro said, flustered. “I was admiring you. Not spying. And I’ve only seen you these past few nights. Just before that arrived. And then we met.” He threw his thumb in the direction of the lumpy probably-not-a-sloth.
“Sure,” she said. “I’m a little afraid of it, honestly.”
“Don’t be,” he said, almost on top of her words. His eagerness startled even him.
“Don’t be?” she repeated. “If that doesn’t frighten you, then tell me. What’s something you are afraid of?”
He paused and thought, but not very hard.
“Okay,” he said. “Imagine you’re walking down the street. And suddenly the cops are on you. They’re cuffing you, taking you in to the station, asking you questions about a murder. You don’t know anything about it. You’re innocent. But your identity has been mixed up with someone else’s. Or worse, someone’s framed you, made the authorities believe it was you. You spend years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. It happens.”
“So you’re afraid of being wrongfully accused?”
He realized how stupid it sounded, but it was very nearly what he meant to say.
“The point is,” he said, “the less you interact with people, the less likely you are to be cheated in life.”
“Well,” the woman said, “that part, at least, I can understand. My name, if you don’t already know, is Luisa.”
Sunday was Unavoidable
It was the first day in a long time that he’d woken up with a sense of purpose. Usually that sensation came at night, when it was cool and dark and his plants needed him.
But then that unusual feeling was stolen, and he was pitiful at hiding his disappointment—an unwelcome mix of loneliness and jealousy he wasn’t used to.
Luisa was apologetic on the phone—she’d forgotten that her daughter was coming by to take her to church and then out to brunch with some friends. And then, she told him, by the time they returned it’d be hotter than the hinges of hell.
Which was true, and which was why he stayed inside most of the day and let what was left of the squash blossoms wilt on the vine. He sat in the kitchen window, drinking iced tea and watching hummingbirds hover around the red trumpet flowers that spilled over the adobe wall. In all the time he’d been in New Mexico, the lightweight creatures had never made sense to him, their intense energy and the bizarre rotation of their wings. In Italy they’d had hawk moths, which were not quite the same and looked far more mischievous.
He’d forgotten about them, and he’d forgotten the fondness for birds that followed.
He remembered now an aunt’s house, where there was a small table in front of each window with a bird identification book on it. His aunt owned several pairs of binoculars—one for every room—and had journals overflowing the bookshelves, all filled with notes on the birds’ peculiar behaviors and when they occurred and what the weather had been like that morning or afternoon or evening.
As a boy he would pick out a journal and flip through it as he walked through the house with a pair of binoculars swinging from his neck, practicing the pronunciation of the Latin names she’d written down.
The hummingbirds he watched from the kitchen were graceful, though somewhat frantic.
It felt like a betrayal to Luisa to investigate the creature alone, but it was hard remembering what he used to do before she was part of his life. Only days ago.
He plodded out to the mailbox, slow and with much deliberation, as if intending for anyone watching to know the effort this required of him. When he found the box empty, he closed it calmly and plodded back. He went into the flower garden—a narrow patch of dirt between the adobe wall outside his kitchen and the front of his house. He hoped the hummingbirds would zip around him like the hawk moths had when he was a boy, under his arms, over his shoulders. Past his ears and in front of his nose.
But they disappeared when he inserted himself into their world. In their light restlessness, they fled.
Monday was Invention
“Fur?” she asked. “Or feathers?”
Pietro held the binoculars up to his eyes and blinked. The more he twisted and adjusted them, the blurrier things got.
They stood on his back deck to see it from another angle.
“This isn’t any better. There’s a branch in the way. It looks… soft, I guess. Like fur. I don’t see its head. Or a tail, for that matter. It could be feathers. But I don’t know. Goodness, it could be neither.”
“We need a new approach,” Luisa said. “We’ll have to get closer.”
He followed her over to her yard, where she began picking up dead Cholla cactus branches. He helped her piece them together. Luisa used some strong yarn—a deep maroon that was rough and, according to her, would have only become an itchy, unappreciated scarf anyway. Weaving the yarn through the hollows in the cactus stalks, and reinforcing the contraption with a broom, yardstick, and old television antenna, they finally pulled together a long pole about fifty feet long.
And even then it didn’t reach.
Pietro stood behind Luisa and together they lifted it off the ground. It wobbled, teetered. It knocked against stray branches going up, and came nowhere near the creature before it cracked and folded in half. Luisa dropped her contributing grip, which left Pietro grappling with the awkward weight before finally letting the whole thing fall to the ground.
“Unbelievable,” Luisa said. Then she cursed under her breath, which made Pietro’s heart somersault. She disappeared into her house for a few seconds, and then came out carrying a bin filled with bottles. She began throwing the bottles up into the branches.
They were wine bottles, San Pellegrino bottles, clear bottles without any identification on them. They bounced off the branches, none of them actually hitting anywhere near their target, and shattered once they hit the ground. Shards of green, brown, and shimmering crystal fell to the base of the tree, and the creature didn’t move at all.
“Get down here!” Luisa screamed. “You stupid monster! How do you expect us to help you?”
Tuesday was Departure
Then the next morning, it was gone. Just like that. They didn’t see it move an inch for days, and then suddenly it was as if it had never been there.
Pietro didn’t say what he was thinking: See? It obviously didn’t need us.
Luisa had an answer, regardless. “Clearly,” she said, “It wandered off into the desert to die. Animals do that.”
“Maybe we should let it,” he said. “Maybe that’s all it wanted and here we were bothering it the whole time.”
She shook her head. She dabbed at her glistening hairline with a handkerchief.
“Maybe it was hoping someone would care enough to follow it.”
At that moment, Pietro wanted to grab her hand and rush off into the wild unknown, but again he thought better of too quickly exhausting their time together.
Wednesday was Hunger
They met at the base of the tree, when the sun had twisted the sky into scarlet ribbons. Luisa was there first, sitting before the scattered mosaic of her broken bottles. Her burgundy skirt was spread on the ground around her like an unfurled wave. She wore a small backpack and had twisted her braid into a tight bun on the top of her head. With a piece of glass, she was carving indecipherable hieroglyphics into the dirt.
“Before I was born,” Luisa said, “my father left Colombia for America. He was going to send for my mother later. I was born six months after he left. He never wrote her. He didn’t even keep up a pretense, sending sweet missives that eventually tapered off. There just wasn’t a single one. I guess one night, I was too young to remember, she smashed an antique vase in the backyard. As a kid, I used to run my hands over the pieces—blue and white swirls—embedded in the dirt, grass grown over them. I thought they were put there intentionally, for decoration. But it was just the mess of a stupid girl losing control. And I was a stupid girl too, playing happily in the middle of her sadness.”
Pietro bent down and picked up a shard of clear glass, the arc of it absorbing crimson light. He tossed it aside and held out a hand to help her up.
“What people don’t understand,” she said, ignoring his gesture, “is that love is never simple. It always requires more effort than it’s worth to keep the balance. And then maybe you never even find that balance. They always want more. You could be the most lovable person in the world.”
Pietro wanted to ask who always wanted more, what was being balanced against what. He had no idea how to comfort her, or if comfort was even what she wanted.
“Maybe we should stay here,” he said. “I’ll get us a bottle of wine. We’ll have a nice simple evening under our favorite, newly decorated tree. I’ve begun learning the constellations. Do you know there’s one named after a slug? Or, more precisely, a ‘naked snail’?”
“I can’t imagine how I missed that one in school,” Luisa said. “You’re talking nonsense. We’re going out after that animal. We need to know what it is and it probably needs us to save its sorry life.”
They’d decided to head west, though Pietro wished they had made even more concrete plans. It took all he had not to ask her to sit down and draw a map and elect someone as leader of the expedition. He’d secretly made a detailed list of all the items in his backpack, checked old maps of the mesa for where water might be found, and left a note on his kitchen table with an explanation should they not return.
Beyond the tree, the arroyo broke off into winding gullies. Spiky goathead latched onto their shoes, and they stopped to pull the burrs out before venturing across one of the streams. Normally a tiny trickle, the water was ankle deep and moving quickly, carrying with it orphaned twigs and clusters of dried leaves.
Pietro balanced on the larger rocks snaking through the shallow current. He extended a hand back for Luisa, who waved him off, shouting, “Get lost. I’m not in the market for a lover!”
In the shadow of the mesa, the arroyo suddenly looked less impressive. Standing at the mouth of three separate gullies, Pietro felt the panic of a game show winner having to choose a door behind which a prize—or no prize—was waiting.
“What do you think?” he asked. “This one?”
Luisa’s gaze drifted directly above them and then swung down over her left shoulder to where the sun had set. She seemed to be calculating something.
“Okay,” she said simply. “Good as any.”
The sand was soft and gritty, like beach sand, swallowing their shoes with each step. The extra effort sent a jolt springing up into Pietro’s legs, a liveliness he remembered from childhood.
The path was serpentine layers of compressed earth, the walls three times their height and narrowing in on them. Everything was touched with flecks of mica, glittering answers to the quarter moon. Luisa kept reaching out and breaking off chunks of the softer pieces, those barely hanging on. She hurled them directly back at the cliff wall, where they exploded into luminous dust.
Pietro wondered what might be nestled in each dark, cavernous curve of rock. He knew there were animals out there—coyotes, rattlesnakes. He was frightened by the possibility of encountering something wild, and then he reminded himself that was why they were out there in the first place. In search of that very thing.
They’d walked more than half an hour, and the only plant life they’d seen was low sagebrush and juniper. Nothing new until two cottonwoods, with an abandoned car wedged between them. It was rusted and sagging to one side, but at one time, they could tell, it had been shining white and muscled, a voluptuous maiden bathed in moonlight.
Luisa lifted her skirt hem and ran toward it. Pietro followed, a little impatient with the diversion from their plan, and watched as Luisa traced over the cursive letters with a looping finger along the back end: Barracuda. Neither of them could come up with a good explanation for why, or even a plausible how, the car had ended up that deep into the hills. Dropped from a helicopter? Washed there by a flash flood?
Luisa opened the passenger side door. It moaned dully.
“Take me somewhere,” she said, nodding toward the driver’s side. She got inside and began cranking down the window. Pietro jogged over to the other side and slid in behind the wheel. The car rocked. He rested his flashlight on top of the dash, pointed out like a solitary headlight into the darkness. He rolled his window down too.
“There,” he said. “Imagine this: we’re in Italy. I’ve just picked you up. We’re going to see Nights of Cabiria. The moon is shining and we’re cruising along the coast of Sardinia. You’ll have to do some imagining with that last part.”
Luisa unwound her tight, braided bun. Her long, wavy hair seemed to glow. She shook it like a woman in a shampoo commercial and leaned out the window to inhale the salty sea air.
“I’ve got that covered,” she said.
Pietro grabbed the wheel and ran his hands along the bumpy leather, full circle. He adjusted the rear view mirror, pressed buttons on the dash. Had there been a moment like this in his younger life, he imagined his next moves would have been obvious to him.
Pietro reached for her hand instinctually at the metal-bending thump on the roof of the Plymouth, followed by four heavy paws sauntering down the windshield. The mountain lion continued down the hood and leapt to the ground. She turned and scraped her claws on the tree beside them and then climbed, looking down on them. Eyes eager and sparkling.
“That’s it, then,” Luisa said. “That’s our monster.”
“It doesn’t look very distressed to me,” Pietro said.
They sat, aware that they couldn’t go anywhere. Not until she left, and maybe not even then. Pietro felt panic first, and when it subsided, a sense of disorientation. He felt the presence of the cat above them and of Luisa beside him. He wanted both to relish in the danger, and to return to his simple, quiet life.
“I’ve never loved anyone enough to break something,” Pietro said.
“I have,” Luisa said. “Too many times.”
Pietro struggled to think of something else to say. A moth fluttered past the beam of his flashlight. “The hummingbirds,” he said. “They’re everywhere suddenly. I saw them when you were gone a few days ago, and remembered, for the first time in years, the hawk moths in Italy. They’d come out to feed on lavender nectar at sunset and sometimes stick around all night. I’d climb out my bedroom window and sit in the middle of the garden and close my eyes and hold my arms out and wait. I had to hold my breath to keep from giggling when they landed on me, thinking I was food. That’s how I imagined love. Like a sort of uncontrollable laughter.”
“We have them here too, you haven’t seen them? The hawk moths. My mother called them demons,” Luisa said. “‘Those demons,’ she’d say, ‘they’ll steal the honey straight from a bee hive. No sense of boundaries. No fear.’ But I always liked them. They’ve got something figured out. The way they move quickly from side to side, while hovering and feeding—it’s how they escape the predators that hide and wait within the flowers.”
Leaning forward, Luisa strained to see the animal crouched in the tree.
“It’s not like laughter at all,” she said. “What it feels like is this: just after she’s caught you and her jaws are clamped around your neck. Her teeth sinking into your flesh more slowly than you can bear, a little deeper, until you’re not sure there’s any of you left to hold. Something rips. She takes the parts of you she can use, then leaves the rest for whoever comes later. And there’s a little less of you each time.”
The branches of the tree creaked under the animal’s weight and Pietro thought she might be settling in to stay, but then the lion bristled and began sniffing the air. Her ears flattened. She smelled something—maybe a deer. Something alive. Worth pursuing and tasting. A fraction of a second and she vaulted out of the tree and disappeared into the darkness. Luisa’s eyes followed the last glimpses through the windshield.
“It’s just hunger,” she said. “A fierce hunger, but a simple one.”