Traveling Light

She washes up on the frozen riverbank, shivering from the cold and the desolation in herself. The tide lifts her – jingling with shells and sharks’ teeth — wedges her under clods of leaves. She stares up at the leafless trees, recognizes nothing, holds her breath. She’s listening for the sound of stealth. A muskrat scrambles over the ice, his right front paw chewed to a stump. The woman’s eyes follow him, shift to the color and emptiness of long rain. She huddles into herself. …maybe what I do won’t be enough….

Suddenly geese on the ice floes around her start rousing. A girl and a flat-coated black dog race toward the woman.

Instantly the woman disappears into the protection of her imagination: …feel I’m lying in the Greek olive grove I left months ago — sun throbbing, bees drowsing over a haze of white flowers…. She feels the dog breathe past her ear. His paws slap deep claw marks into the mud, and he’s gone. The woman lies there immobile. …like nothing’s left of me but the smell of old, wet weeds….

She lets go the warmth of her remembered olive grove; shivers in the ice of this shore. Slowly she pulls herself up — hands, elbows, arms — making herself out of earth. She breathes deeply: The air is sharp with dampness she hasn’t felt in ten years of other islands. Her eyes turn the color of aged honey. …not me anymore – just a traveler….

A pair of iridescent trout lies arched at her bare feet — still soft, their mouths full of gurgled blood. The woman leans down, fingers the texture of snow she’s almost forgotten. …everything unsure…. She lifts the fish on their line. …whatever I find, I’ll make myself up….

Across the beach, a wave of exhilaration sweeps toward her. The girl and her black Labrador retriever whirl across the sand, flustering up the gulls. The woman turns, shocked. Blood pounds in her ears. …that kid — just leaning into the wind, trusting sheer air…

The girl swings around in her scarlet jacket, stops at the sight of the woman — bright green eyes, angles of her face poised just before womanhood. She smiles.

The traveler gasps.

The dog surges forward – barking, rapturous. The woman’s body aches to drop on her knees and crush both of them into her arms. But she can’t. Even with these two, she doesn’t dare show herself. Her body freezes, helplessly wary. Slowly she forces herself to extend her right hand. The dog washes it desperately.

The girl cocks her head, her back straight, hands on her hips. –Did you wash off a ship? I won’t tell.

The woman breathes with relief. There’s a sense about the girl: …Everything about this kid feels like home… But slight, fierce, irretrievable — like the faint scent of a fox who’s passed in the night, fearing nothing….

She steps closer to the girl. –Oh, make me up a story.

The girl grins. Short blonde whips of hair sneak under her red cap, beat around her eyes. –You make up this story. You could be a scientist. Or a pirate. Or a sea monster.

Her black Lab races around them, the whole length of his body whipping ecstatically. …can’t let myself touch him… She thinks her lungs fill with the same air as the girl’s — feels everything they share is ineffable.

Her eyes flicker green like the girl’s. –Why scientist?

–Those people at Saw Whet’s Point. They count birds. Or band them. Or something.

–Is there anyone there now?

The girl watches her quizzically. –Not in winter—

–so I can say I am.

Cold air cauterizes the woman’s nostrils. …I’m breathing the same story she is….

The girl leans back, tall for her age. –I know everybody here. I’ll take care of you.

Abruptly, the air behind the woman goes flat. She whirls toward it — old, unnamable terror.

A man’s watching them. He cradles a rifle over his left arm like an entitlement.

The woman’s eyes go empty, desolate. Instantly she disappears out of herself – no more than a traveler. And her memory of the Greek olive grove rushes over her, wraps her in its hum of cicadas and goat bells, protects her.

The man stares. –Who’re you?

Her mouth’s dry. She’s gone – like a body empty of itself. She just reacts. She steps toward him — big-shouldered, long-limbed. –Do you live here?

–That’s my daughter.

Her body aches like a beaten child’s. …His face right in front of me….

Protectively the man tucks his daughter behind him, but she jumps away — open-eyed, smiling. He circles the woman, studying her with his pale eyes.

The woman’s frozen in her jacket …nothing left of me: just sea spray and violence and loss…. Her eyes lighten to the color of the man’s. The dog plants himself between them.

She points at the girl. –Your daughter won’t talk to me.

–Course not. You don’t belong here.

The girl’s watching her — head cocked, her eyes enchanted. In the brutal cold, her cheeks are as bright as her scarlet jacket. She runs to her dad, grabs his free hand and swings his arm, smiling up to him proudly. The woman shudders.

She’s desperate to shift his eyes off her. –Why’s this kid running around on her own?

The man raises his rifle. –You’re barefoot.

She lifts the trout on their line. –I was ice fishing: boots got soaked. …make myself up again on any shore…

His eyes soften slightly. –You walked in this cold?

–Yeah.– Her body aches from the habit of terror. …but he can’t reach me….

He squints — pale brows, eyes searching. The cloth patch of a Sheriff’s star is sewn on his threadbare jacket, and his hands are big in buckskin gloves.

He shifts the barrel of his rifle. –I’m the Sheriff of this county. What’re you doing here?

She wraps herself in the story the girl just told her. –Looking for early raptor migration, she starts. –Red-tails, ospreys, broad wings.

The Sheriff watches her, his eyes wary. She stretches out, reaches into his memories: …see him as a boy shooting a hawk—-bursting its brains across the air: rapturous to punish something other than himself…. She shudders. …If I show myself, he’ll obliterate me, too....

The man stares back at her, his eyes as pale as river ice. Then he rubs his cap, and the woman’s shocked — his face is young and unlined …younger than I remember…, his eyes disillusioned, and his savagely razored hair is as light as his girl’s.

His gaunt face softens slightly. He edges down the barrel of his rifle. –Go up to town, he points, –There’s a store. I own it. Get boots.

She steps away from the girl so he won’t see their quick sameness. –Can I put them on the tab like the rest of our banders?

The girl’s head swivels from her father to the woman, eyes surprised with delight.

–You folks always do, says the Sheriff. –And tell the guy there to feed you. I pick up the bill. End of each month.

The traveler’s body is stiff, clenched. But the girl’s watching her, smiling. …she knows I guessed the bird banders run a tab….

The man turns sharply to his daughter. –Damn it. Stay with me. You’re on your own too much.

His daughter’s still smiling up at him. The woman winces. …still safe and proud to be with him….

He and the girl start down the beach. But the black Lab drops down beside the woman, wagging happily. Desperately she strokes his wide head with her frozen knuckles. …feel that tough fur… Her eyes turn wet. She gestures for him to go with the girl. He hesitates, then whirls away. The girl turns — a luminous green-eyed glance over her shoulder directly into the woman’s eyes.

The woman stands – shocked. …Suddenly their backs going away together…. She drops her head, aware the air’s stingingly bleak, her feet lifeless with cold. …alone, any animal dreading snow… She turns up the hill, blown on the heaves of the wind, …like the hitch and limp of the muskrat I saw by the river….

Ahead of her is the back of a building — clapboard, once painted yellow — the only store in a scattering of houses. A light bulb streams out on the wind under a tin cover. Her body stiffens, once again the traveler wanting not to be seen. She slides the fish she no longer needs under leaves, opens the shop door. Heat hits her. An old man with anxious eyebrows looks up from behind a counter.

The woman gasps. She drops into a chair at a card-table covered with a length of scissored paper. The shopkeeper blinks, looks pleased. He calls to her, would she care for coffee? And could he get her socks, boots, food? Her body’s so stiff, she can barely breathe. She nods. …haven’t felt this in ten years; enter a store, hear original language I no longer dream in, feel surrounded by his voice….

The shopkeeper leaves a cup in front of her. But the heat of being indoors and the shock of being in this place are too much. The traveler’s arms are too leaden to lift the coffee. She glances around: …a few tables, mismatched chairs, walls lined with laminated photos of local people who’ve moved away and done well….

She stares at one picture. …my own eyes…. Her breath stops. She’s staring at who she was ten years ago.

In the shop’s heat, waves of returning feeling break over her, convulse her body. She fears losing consciousness. She can no longer think, no longer see, then no longer hear. Images of Greece months ago come to her, cover her mind, protect her — the whir of cicadas burning through afternoon, goat bells nudging and clinking away. Then those bells mix with the sounds as she lay hidden on the riverbank: the hammer of goose wings, slither of marsh grass, scuttling of the muskrat without a leg. And she thinks …I’ll gnaw off any part of me to save myself….

Her body adjusts, her shuddering subsides. She glances at her picture from ten years ago, and its taped-over yellowed words, …like an obituary of who I was…. In the photograph she’s smiling, hair reddened by the sun, her young arms balancing a trophy and her skis. And under it: “Orionne Wins World Cup Bronze.”

She sits staring at her printed name. …want to put my fingers on my name, feel that word again…

From behind the counter, the old man brings bread, soup, and drops socks and stiff, unlaced new boots for her. Orionne grimaces acknowledgement, struggles her feet into them. He stands, his eyes still startled, puzzled, searching her face.

She bites her lip. …want to say my name. Can’t…. Suddenly, just for an instant, she turns her eyes green — the exact shade of the girl’s she saw on the beach.

The shopkeeper stands back, disbelieving, smiling — rubs his hand over his unevenly shaven jaw. –I’m Hal, he says. –You know.

…he’s seeing the eyes of that girl… Orionne drops her eyes, eats — grateful for the first hot meal in the two days since she went on a rope over the side of a container ship into a rubber raft, and rowed alone in the dark toward the sound of land birds waking.

Hal’s still staring at her, delighted, confused. –You staying at the banding station?

Orionne nods. …like the girl, his voice feels like home, but impossible to catch, again like the rare visitation of a fox…

–You need extra blankets? Hal asks. He holds out a stack of old, scratchy wool blankets. She reaches for them gratefully.

Suddenly the voice of the Sheriff comes along the outside of the wall. His footsteps echo on the porch. The woman’s body aches as if burned.

Orionne looks for an exit. The Sheriff slams open the door, throws a chair in front of her.

He looms over her — jangling with cell phones, a revolver, implied threats. Hal hunches his shoulders, bites his lip. The Sheriff yanks off his gloves. –Give me some I.D.

–My identity’s my story.

–Hell. Something I can see.

The traveler holds her breath. –I’ll tell you myself.

The Sheriff’s pale eyes stare. –You’re not getting away from me. I’ll fucking find out who you are.

For a second she disappears into herself again. …heat of olive grove burns my shoulders, sizzles over thin flowers, hides me like the carapace of a locust…

–You’re fucking lying, says the Sheriff. –I went to that banding station. You didn’t sleep there last night. You’re full of crap.

The woman breathes. ….now I can follow his footprints, find where it is… She slips into the story of the bird bander that the girl gave her. –Come hear the owls like I did last night, she invents. –Two Great Horned owls in the sycamores by the river. Saw-whets near the marsh.

–I don’t give a shit what you’ve seen, says the Sheriff. He slaps his chair back at its table, stamps out, slams the door. Orionne’s body is clenched.

Hal watches her with anxious eyes. –Eustace’s only been Sheriff six months. He’s just trying to take care of us. My nephew. Well, you know.

Beyond the door, the Sheriff’s standing on the porch, shouting orders. Orionne snatches up the blankets. The picture of who she used to be catches her — desperate eyes of a girl lost from home, afraid everyone knows she’s lost.

The Sheriff snaps open the front door. Orionne bolts through the store room and out the back door into driving snow.…white-out: no hope of following the Sheriff’s footprints… Instead she gropes her way down the riverbank to a line of overturned rowboats. She heaves the blankets around her, lifts a boat with her thick-veined hands, slides under it, thinking it’ll protect her from the wind, and the snow will obliterate her tracks. She closes her eyes, summons the heat of one Mediterranean afternoon eight months ago. …Come. Enclose me….

Julie Houston

Julie Houston

Julie Houston graduated from The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. She has published short stories and poems in a number of journals including The Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Texas Quarterly, and Colorado Quarterly. She has also published some archeology articles. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart by Joyce Carol Oates. This excerpt is the first scene from a completed novel.
Julie Houston

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Author: Julie Houston

Julie Houston graduated from The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. She has published short stories and poems in a number of journals including The Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Texas Quarterly, and Colorado Quarterly. She has also published some archeology articles. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart by Joyce Carol Oates. This excerpt is the first scene from a completed novel.