Marie stepped off the white salt, which shattered quietly under her step, and onto the verge, scuffing up the dry earth. She felt as though she might sneeze and sent finger and thumb up to her nostrils to pinch them. The underside of her nose was sore, the edges of her nostrils flanged with heat. She had sunburnt the underside of her nose again. Her lips crackled as though chapped; licking them she found they were salty. She needed to drink some lemonade. Not the water that trickled into the basin there. The salt tasted good, she loved the taste of it, but it was not the same as fresh water. Or maybe a beer would be good. Her hand felt for the change in her pocket and jingled it a bit. There should be enough.
Wandering back towards the old store, she glanced up at the small, puffy white clouds that dotted the clear sky, drifting from one ridge of mountains towards the other. Their tempo seemed to suit the silence. Marie loved the silence. She stopped a moment to listen, so that her footsteps died away and there was nothing but silence, nothing to listen to… but silence. She had always loved it. As a girl she would run around, tiring herself out in the heat, that excessive heat, until her mother and father would draw her into the shade and make her drink plenty of water.
The silence was everywhere, all around her, in the air, in the mountains. It sealed off the valley from the surrounding landscape, a hot, heavy airlock. She made her way towards the old store, so lonely now, shuttered up. But there was nothing else to do, the valley was secluded from the rest of the arid, rocky landscape. There was just that trickle of water coming in from beyond the top end of the valley. Nothing to speak of, it never flooded any more. At least it hadn’t for many years now. She took it to be a sign that everything had changed out there beyond the ridged enclosure of the mountains. Just that trickle of water — and whatever might be in it, which she convinced herself got neutralised by the saltiness of the place.
Her head was beginning to thump. The heat she thought. She really needed that beer.
Then there was the matter of the road. Now and again someone would enter the valley from one end or the other, driving some newfangled species of car. Like a new species themselves, perhaps. Like the last survivors looking for somewhere new. But she had her way of dealing with them. She reached the parking spaces at the front of the old shop, passed the old borax wagons and patted the rear wheel of an old wreck, a huge four wheel drive she had deprived of its driver and left standing there to weather in the sun and salt like a monument to something forgotten. The rubber was tough as a piece of old leather, buckled, riven and scorching hot. She liked to pat it, to feel the brief searing of the skin and how it tingled as the heat dispersed.
She opened the door of the store with the key she kept on a piece of twine around her neck, and the musty smell and the coolness of the air billowed out into the heat. Inside with the door shut, the throbbing of her temples redoubled, growing in volume and presence. Large motes of dust milled in the thick air under the old beams. The smell of old wood, the old familiar smell, came through once she had grown accustomed to the mustiness. Behind the counter she opened the antique register and dropped the coins from her fingers one at a time, her lips moving slightly as she counted. She took a bottle of lemonade and popped open the ceramic stopper; watched the little plume as it smoked out of the rim of the glass neck and listened carefully to the tinkling of the bubbles down in the bottle. Then she put the bottle to her mouth and cast her head back, taking pleasure in the cool liquid and the popping of the bubbles in her throat.
The bubbles tickling inside her made her think of drinking cans of soft drinks as a child. Long ago, before her parents had lived half their lives, before they came to this deep, scorching cleft in the landscape and ran the store. Wandering along quiet roads in the sun, wandering with her parents on the dry grass in front of the triumphal arch, with the remains of the settlement on the other side of the road, the ancient Via. It had always struck her that the little triumphal arch had remained standing, small but proud. Now that she thought of it again, it seemed slightly silly, being so small, but of course she hadn't thought that then. What had struck her then was that the arch was on the other side of the Via from the town, to the extent that the town existed, the old houses and other buildings present in the form of low walls, in some places little more than outlines of the ground plans, odd columns still sticking up — the triumphal arch and the mausoleum had remained standing there on the other side, triumphing over yet preserving nothing.
Marie drained the bottle and her headache subsided a little. It was a very long time since anyone but her had been inside the store. A long time since anyone but her had spent any money there. In what was now her store. All the goods had grown old but most of them were still edible. She kept check on things, kept things neat and tidy, never took anything without paying for it. She had to honour the way her parents had kept the store ticking over. She couldn’t go ruining what they had managed to build up just because things had changed. Only a few cars came through the valley now, and it was better if they didn’t. What exactly had happened she couldn't say, because she seldom ventured beyond the valley and then only at night, when the landscape was even more desolate than in the day. But in the day she never went beyond the walls of rock, the slender basin between the red-blue ranges was the extent of her world. She was on guard against what might enter her valley, and never stopped to ask.
Just then the crunching of wheels on the dusty gravel outside interrupted her thoughts, a slow uncertain crunching. She cursed herself, caught off guard. Usually she hid in the old borax wagons when she saw someone approach from afar, never allowing anyone to get beyond them. Crouching in the wagons, she would take aim like a sniper through a gap between the old boards.
This time, Marie ducked behind the counter and took hold of her father’s shotgun, loaded it and came up slowly, turning herself towards the window, trying to keep out of view of anyone outside.
The car was creeping along the gravel towards the entrance, as though the driver were trying to work out if anyone was there. She ducked down again and darted around the counter, waddling low like a duck to a spot near the door where a knot had fallen out of the dry wooden panels that formed the wall. She positioned the barrel and ran her eye down it and followed an imaginary line out into the bright light and sharply defined shapes of midday. The pounding was in her temples again. The bonnet of the car nosed into view, then the windscreen, a wall of reflections in the harsh light, then the driver’s window, rolled down so that she had a clear sight of his face looking towards the door. Looking straight at her had it not been for the boards.
She squeezed the trigger. There was a crack louder than the thumping in her head and she saw the man’s face explode in a shower of red. Then came the screaming; a woman in the passenger seat leaned over the slumped body of the man, screaming pitifully and bringing her head into full view. Marie squeezed the trigger again and there was another crack that made the screaming stop. There was a vast silence and through the silence the thundering flowed again and stuffed up all the nooks and seams of her skull. After some moments she registered that the car had come to a halt; the man’s now useless foot must have slipped off the accelerator.
Marie staggered to her feet and threw the gun onto the counter. She eyed the register narrowly and told herself that the couple in the car were bound to have a few coins on them. Popping open another bottle of lemonade, she began to take great slugs from it without thinking to pause and watch it smoke — the fizz got up her nose and made her sneeze. She sneezed hard twice and lost her orientation for a few seconds. The murky recesses of the shop took their places again; she was thinking about how little the triumphal arch was.
Shortly, or later — she couldn’t tell — it dawned on her that the bottle of lemonade dangling from her hand was empty. She held the neck between finger and thumb, where it swung infinitesimally, as though nudged by a light breeze. Remembering the couple in the car she let the bottle fall to the floor, where its thick girth thudded dully. She went into the stock room to get her equipment: her mother’s washing up gloves, so old that the yellow rubber was faded and cracked, her father’s leather apron, which she treated by applying butter long since turned rancid, and an ancient gas mask the provenance of which had been the source of many family discussions. Discussions that always ended in a particular kind of silence that settled on everything, both animate and inanimate.
Suited up in her ragbag attire, she went outside to the car. First she rifled the couple’s pockets, finding the cash she had expected, and plenty of it. Credit cards, IDs, and other official bits and bobs were of no interest to her. She took a fancy to the lady’s leather jacket, and finding it unscathed but for a little staining, decided to take it. On the back seat and in the boot she found a jumble of items and took them in case they might come in useful.
Marie stashed the loot behind the counter, remembering to put the required amount of money for the second lemonade in the register, and went back out the car. She pushed and shoved the man aside, heaving him on top his wife, and drove the car to a small canyon among the hills. The last stretch was along a stoney track not designed for vehicles at all, and the bumping and jolting caused the man to roll onto the handbrake, leaving a sludge of half-dried, unguent blood. She had to grapple to release the handbrake again, getting blood all over the old rubber gloves. It would never wash out of the cracks, would forever give a fine pink grain to the yellow rubber. Marie got out of the car leaving the handbrake off, left the door open, and pushed the car until it began to trundle over the edge into a small ravine below. She knew the coyotes would be out that night. Soon the smell of blood and carcass would be in the air.
By nightfall, Marie had gone up to one of the old tourist campsites in the low foothills, taking the shotgun along with a heavy jacket. She sat with her back to the hills as the nightly cold gusts blew down in great walls of air, each gust sustaining itself in a lengthy belt of pressure, seeming to last minutes. Four or five of these moving barriers buffeted her — and in an instant the sun-roasted air had turned to freezing cold. She put on the jacket and lay down with the gun next to her.
She was awoken, as she had anticipated, by the cries of coyotes in the hills around her. No matter how many times she heard their calls, her flesh still tightened around her bones. She lay quite still in her heavy coat, the cold creeping into her. The calls seemed so close, and carefully her hand moved, slowly, imperceptibly, to grasp the gun. Gripping the gun firmly, she rose to her feet, her eyes darting about the darkness. She knew the hills even in the dark, had them imprinted in her mind. She made her way towards the little canyon as quietly as she could in that echoing stoniness. The clear, cold nights calmed her.
As quietly as she tried to move, the stones still rattled under her footsteps, sounds bouncing off the rocky walls. The landscape announced her presence, just as it had announced the coyotes to her. She was on a level with them, they a group with their sharp teeth, she alone with her father’s gun. As she moved into the little canyon, the crunching of her own steps closed in around her. She saw something move ahead of her, and then sets of eyes turned toward her, eyes reflecting the light back at her. But other pairs of eyes had done the same so many times before. A snarl. Marie levelled the gun, crouched slowly, carefully, taking aim right between a set of shining eyes. Another pair began to come towards her, she could just make out the movement of the legs, the shadowy body.
The crack resounded excruciatingly in the narrow canyon, made loose stones tumble and roll; the shot cracked back, lower and more distant from more distant rock faces, rolling back and forth. The pair of eyes she had aimed at had disappeared, in a blink, followed by fleet feet rushing away from her, scattering in all directions. Gradually the echoes faded from the space. She waited with cocked gun until she was quite sure the silence was all-encompassing.
Marie’s legs hurt from crouching for so long, and she walked gingerly in the line of the shot. She knew the routine well. Roughly where she expected it she found the lifeless coyote. With the gun resting over one arm she dragged the body by the tail over the stoney ground, back towards the old camping area. In the first inkling of dawn, even though it was still cold, she worked with a knife to skin the animal. She hadn’t even noticed how cold it was until she got back to the campsite. She never did. She liked to do the work right away, before she could really see what she was doing. No matter how many times she had done it, she didn’t like getting her fingers into blood and fur and gristle. She preferred the distance the trajectory of a bullet gave her.
By the time the bright light of day had come, Marie was preparing the fire. It was her habit to roast the coyotes she shot over the fire and then keep the meat in the old freezer that still chugged along in the stock room. She did not know who or what kept the electricity supply going. Current arrived from beyond the valley as it always had, constant and reliable, unlike the unpredictable trickle of human beings. The meat would keep her going for a while without her having to deplete the store of tinned foods. She wouldn’t have to put so much money in the till. She patted the pocket full of notes taken from the couple. Now she had a leather jacket too, she could wear it when she felt like looking good, maybe when she was taking a walk out to the salt pan.
She turned the skinned coyote once on the grill and went for a walk up the nearest outcrop. The heat was coming on now. She could feel it as she climbed, always a little later than the bright sunlight. Then suddenly it was there, burning. At the top of the ridge she looked down across the valley, at the smokey blues and russet magentas of the rocks. In the middle of it all that brilliant white salt, glistening in the sun. She could stand there for hours, just gazing. It was all hers.
Back at the store, she slung the roasted carcass into the chest freezer. The appliance rattled into action after the door had been open for some moments, and continued in the background. Remembering that she had put money in the till earlier in the day, Marie opened the drawer and saw that it was getting full. After counting out the notes and coins, she decided it was time to hide them. The crowbar was in a corner of the stockroom, she knew it was there even though it was cloaked in darkness. Her fingers found it, her hand gripped it. Nearby were the loose boards which she quickly jacked open. Disturbed dust filled her nostrils with a fungal scent. A small torch lay on the top of a pile of objects, and once on, it shone a narrow glare on them. Topmost were the framed portraits of her father and mother. She removed them carefully and arranged them side by side on the floorboards. At the bottom, resting on the dry earth over which the store had been built, was the old safe. The money she had removed from the till over time lay inside it. Little wads of notes and coins were wrapped in paper inscribed with dates and brief descriptions of the people she had taken the money from.
She didn’t know how long she had remained there, with her knees pressed against the unforgiving dry boards and her upper body bent double over the hole. She didn’t know how long the headache had been filling out her mind like the distant pounding of a pile driver. But clear to her in that moment was the idea that she had to block up that last trickle of water. She could see herself doing it, sharply outlined against the salt, lodging the old safe in the sand. It’s weight settled it immovably in the silt. She could see the sandy earth beginning to slowly to dry out in front of her eyes. Of course the water would build up behind it like a dam. It would take an age, but it would. She had thought of that. She hadn’t hoarded all those empty tin cans over the years for nothing. She would build up a barrier, and she would take a knife and cut a big strip off one of the leathery tyres of the car to waterproof it.
Through the running of her thoughts, a smell assailed her nostrils — the thick and pungent stink of burning. With sudden alacrity she was up on her feet, the pain from the pressure on her knees and shins forgotten. Her senses directed her without a moment’s pause towards the source. Her body dodged through the murk of stockroom into the store. In the light that streamed through the gaps in the wooden boards she saw another light, a flickering yellow and orange of flames behind the counter, by turns veiled and unveiled by charcoal grey plumes of smoke. She observed herself grabbing an armful of bottles from the shelves and smashing them across the source of the flames. But the images were not of an act she would carry out, her mind watched her motor reactions at work.
The flames were doused in a racket of shattering glass, fizzing liquid and hissing flames. A few wreaths of smoke swirled about in the shafts of light. The smell hung in her nostrils. Her head began to pound, and in another moment she had picked up the gun from its place and crept carefully up to the gap in the boards, taking aim. There was no one to be seen, the parking lot and the road were quite still except for the intense heat haze. Everything in her line of sight wobbled in repeating waves. After studying this for some time, her shoulders tensed in suspicion, she cracked open the door with the muzzle of the shotgun. She nudged it further open. Nobody, nothing. She listened intently, at length, stock still and hardly breathing, gun still poised. But there was only more nothing. At last her eye strayed from the length of the barrel to the mess of glass and liquid. A plastic bottle of oil, warped and riven, and some cloths lay among the shards. She nudged the door to again and poked the muzzle of the gun around in the remains. She didn’t remember leaving the bottle and cloths there, it wasn’t like her.
By the time she had cleaned up, dusk was approaching, the air marginally cooler. Her mind replayed the sight of herself lodging the safe squarely in the stream. In the stockroom she got back down on her hands and knees and emptied the safe of the little packets of notes and coins. She lined them up in a row according to date on the top of the freezer along with the two framed portraits, and hauled the steel box out of the hole. The chugging of the freezer and the pumping of her blood merged into one. The empty safe gaped up at her from the desiccated floorboards. Round the back of the store there was an old wagon with a long metal handle.
She heaved the wagon from the road onto the salt pan, through the long grasses that survived on the edge of it. The long, tough stems wound around the axels of the wagon and tore away from their roots. With the motion of the wheels impeded, she dragged a trail through the salt, the crystals crackling behind her. There was a fifteen, twenty minute walk to the point where the stream entered the passage between the mountains. The darkness deepened as she made her way, the crunching of the wheels carrying off into the shadows. She couldn’t bear the crushing of the salt crystals any longer, and after resting for a while took the safe in her arms and bore it the rest of the way. Her steps rang clear on the crust of salt and in the empty air. She listened intently, following the departure and return of her footfalls. The wall of the mountains came towards her more slowly, less surely than usual. Finally the safe rolled from her arms and thudded into the trickle of the stream. Exhausted, she sat down in that familiar spot and looked expectantly at the water, willing it to dry before her eyes. She would come back with the tins, with the strip of leathery tyre and finish the job. She had time.
Her breathing calmed and slowed. Out of the profound silence of the mountain sides in the still early night, a faint, crisp sound reached her ears, almost as though she were still hearing her footsteps on the salt. The sound persisted for a long time, growing gradually louder. She could see nothing. Sound travelled far and clear across the salt crust. For a long time she convinced herself that the sound was the faint reverberation of herself. It persisted, until she began to see a poorly defined shape moving across the salt. A low shape, zig-zagging a little as it approached her, the crisp crackle of its steps now getting incontrovertibly louder, insisting on themselves. Two points of light gleamed in its front.
The coyote came close enough to emerge from the salt pan’s glow into soft definition. It stopped a little way from her, on the other side of the shallow trickle of the dammed stream. The crackle of its four paws on the salt desisted and the thumping in her head reclaimed her space. The two softly lighted eyes looked straight at her. Marie had the sensation that it was reflecting on her, on her presence there, on what she was doing in that valley. She cold not make her mouth speak but in her thoughts she answered its patient gaze that she had nowhere to go, nowhere even to be. The coyote raised its muzzle to the sky and let out long howl that resounded from one side of the jagged faces of the mountains to the other, until long after Marie had ceased to understand whether it was the same or the answers of many.
© Christopher Sand-Iversen