A native of a decaying Pennsylvania steel town (the one from the Billy Joel song), Emily Kiernan writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, the West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them. Emily is a graduate of the MFA writing program at the California Institute of the Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, The Collagist, The Good Men Project, fwriction: review, Atticus Review, Cobalt, and other journals. In spring 2011, she was named a finalist for the Orlando Prize in short fiction. More information can be found at emilykiernan.com.
She was a woman who made few traverses—a woman placed in her time. A woman, let’s say, who stood at the window of a poor and early marriage and watched as something bright flashed through the sky. The sky went bright, and then a wind. Later her husband would return, and she would say nothing. When he asked if she’d heard the
explosion, it would feel like an invasion. He’d taken the truck down into Alamogordo for some business with the bank the day before and stayed the night; he’d not said why and she’d not inquired. She’d been left alone at the ranch, all the men out on the range, moving the herd to new pasture and not likely to be back until evening. The desert had been so quiet, and she wondered if she’d pulled the noises into herself—drowned them in the lump of her tummy. Everything had begun to feel personal, the round edges of the horizon no different than the orbs under her eyelids. So she hadn’t been surprised. Anything seemed likely enough in a place like that.
After the light she stood shivering in her nightgown, hands caught in the middle of their work, resting on the bulge of kneaded dough that was to be biscuits. She stood watching the darkness, seeing how it had begun to tinge purple and orange, as if that other dawn had lingered. She’d not slept, and for hours she’d drifted in a sudden understanding, buoyed up with the night and feeling it in her clothes. She’d noticed the sensation the evening before, after a dinner eaten alone, standing in the kitchen because there was something about the empty table she could not stomach—the way it seemed to stretch to the corners of the spare little room.
She had been standing near the window, watching prairie dogs scratch divots into the loose dirt beyond the fence, when she felt something new—a glistening in her skin, a clearing of her vision, a lifting-off of the lonesome fear that had trailed her through that place. For the first time since she’d left Ohio, nearly a year before, she looked square into the horizon and did not quail at the vastness, the deadness of the place. Outside a small wind was picking up particles of earth and carrying them for featureless miles. They would land in a place like this one. She wished, for the first time, that there were no other places. She wished she had been born into this harsh nowhere rather than the coddling green she still ached for. The desert would have pared her down; it would have made her hard.
She’d left her plate in the sink and changed for bed, but she couldn’t sleep. She’d lain awake until the quiet outside had sunk into her blood and made her legs jump and twitch as it coursed through them, and then she’d gone out in her nightgown and paced up and down along the fence-line, arms wrapped tight to her chest, and then she crossed beyond. The desert was cold (she couldn’t understand how it got so cold at night, no matter how warm the day. The simplest things were strange) but now she felt something sweet in her goosepimpling skin, a steady chill that did not sink to bone. She felt she was on the edge of a discovery, and so she wandered out to where it beckoned. Remembering that night, she would not say that she was lost. She would say nothing, of course, to anyone but herself, and to herself she would say that it was only a lapse in attention, that she had been incautious, wandered a little too far, and allowed it to frighten her. But really it was farther than that, it was further. It was night and she was alone. The desert was silent and beyond her.
Along a dried riverbed she found a place where a cow had died. All around the scrubby grass was flattened, the stalks bent or torn, and she wondered if the animal had been thrashing. Her husband had told her how they starve, the old ones who can’t eat, or the weak ones when the summer is so hot that the ground cracks and plants shrivel. He’d told her how they lie on the ground and paddle their legs, scoring dark marks into the earth, as if they could swim to the end of the world and pull themselves out of it. He’d told her this to frighten her, and had succeeded.
She had married her husband because he’d asked her to, and because she hadn’t known how to deny the request of a man like him—imposing, respectable, this distant friend of her father’s. He’d been in town on some business; over a week of family dinners he’d pulled her out, laid claim. In her father’s eyes there were flashes of anger, of hard betrayal, but little was said; they were reasonable, eastern people. It was as it must have always been: her gentle father cowering for the approval of this older, stronger man. Such was her inheritance. There was some streak of solidity in him, some firmness that lasted through his sulking moods and sudden cruelties. He vetoed her. It was not that she was unwilling so much as she was overawed, desirous of a will like his. She wanted some of his power for herself, but knew no way to get it but to stay close, to follow, to watch. And so she’d married, and come to this place, and discovered an emptiness so terribly matched to her own.
Her legs had begun to ache, and she sat, nestling into the sand where the cow lay, stretching her body out next to it, looking close. Mostly it was bones, but here and there the flesh had hardened and held. She put out a hand, but didn’t touch. She would live only another decade before cancer took her, and no one she loved would ever die. She cried, and did not know what for, but at heart it was simply for the animal that had been in the body beside her.