In the hipbone slopes of the Owyhee Mountains, my sister lives in an abandoned shepherd’s homestead. She says the white alkaline hills are closing in on her, that she can taste the iron in the sand and it tastes like blood, like Jesus Christ.
“Do you know that this all used to be an ocean?” Mio says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Think about it. A graveyard of sea sponge, octopus, and killer whale. That’s what we’ve built on. Think if it all comes back.” She traces fish shapes in the stale air of the cabin. I notice she no longer has fingernails. “I’m waiting for it.”
“We need to talk about it, Mio.”
“Talk is cheap. I want to find fossils.”
“What did you do with the baby?”
“Fuck you,” she says and she lays her stringy rose-colored hair on the ground.
“Or I’m going to take you to the doctor, so help me God, where is it?”
“The toilet. In the ocean. It all ends up in the ocean.”
It’s the third time she’s miscarried. The first two times, she was further along, and her ex-husband Finn buried the babies in the backyard with the bulldogs and daisies. Afterward, Mio would sit for hours in the bathroom with a hand mirror between her legs. She said her uterus was full of red vines, devil’s snare, and somehow the little ones had managed to escape. “My body is a malevolent herbarium,” she had said.
The second time she miscarried, Mio floated around her house in Boise and she wore only Finn’s flannel shirt. I lived on the opposite end of town. The doctor had said, “You need time.”
Finn called me two weeks after that and said, “You need to come here. She has slammed the bedroom door so many times it’s come off its hinges.”
“What’s unhinged?” I asked.
“Closure. The doctor said she needs closure.”
But then she got better. I lived in their guest bedroom, served her chicken broth, and stayed with her until she was no longer sick, until she walked the dogs, went back to being a secretary, watered her plants, and picked The Idaho Statesman off the concrete. I went back to my life across town. I had another child, one who looked just like me and not at all like my husband.
Two years and a divorce later, she lost the third one at the end of last month. I knew she was pregnant. Fran, her neighbor, called and said that Mio had left, that her dogs were barking and thirsty, and no one was collecting the newspapers.
“It’s Mio again,” I told Will. “She’s gone. And I have a feeling she’s at the ranch.”
“Why don’t we come with you? It would be good to show the girls where you grew up.”
“Not this time,” I said. “I think it would be better if you just stayed here.”
I wrapped a scarf around my neck and slipped my hands into leather gloves. The mountains are different than the high desert in early September. “Lindy,” Will said, “don’t do this again.” And then I closed the door and left.
From Boise, I took my old Chevrolet and drove two hours into the Owyhees. I realized it had been years since I last went into these hills, brown like cardboard, their weeds and wildflowers perennial. I followed the Snake River. The fly fishermen wade there, and I watched them from the car window. But I went into the hills—because it is the hills that haunt. Rivers do not cast shadows the way mountains do.
I drove past our parents’ old place, now owned by a wealthy Californian couple seeking the country life. The ranch is no longer working, but the land is still leased and old Basque families run their flocks through the sage and cheatgrass, and there is cow dung scattered on the ground, gray and stale, dung dust billowing like the clouds above. These are the sons and daughters of the mothers and fathers of the Basque land. These were our great-grandparents who arrived from Pau to build from the ground up. Telephone and radio towers are the only fences in this Old West, and their wires run vertical.
This is where Mio and I found arrowheads that should not be touched but handed straight to the BLM. They always went in our pockets, anyway, and I later framed them like exotic butterflies by the kitchen window. On the far side of the land is the old shack where Mio is now. We used to play there as kids, five miles from the ranch our parents owned. You take the service road to get there, and it has grown untamed and gnarled—not clean as in memory. We’d walk this soil to the old shack, our bandit hideout. To the best of my knowledge, our parents never knew it existed. We’d ride our horses into the mountains and pretend we were pioneers, ones who hadn’t made it far west enough to see the ocean. We staked here like horseshoes around a pole. Our late ancestors built its single room and dirt floor—now it is but a skeleton barn. And this is where I find Mio. I know, this time, there will be no doctors. It will be country medicine or nothing. I sit down on the floor and open my backpack. I have a loaf of sliced white bread and a package of sliced roast beef.
“How about a sandwich?” I say.
Mio says the world is gothic: The outside is wicked. The hills are red, unjust, prejudiced things. The roof of her shack is made of wood shake, and light and rain pour liberally through the cracks. The clay chinking fails the walls, and they bend concave as though in pain. They are dark, and the floor is made of dirt, which Mio eats instead of sandwiches, supplemented by wild blueberries and chives. She has lived here for a month, she tells me, and weighs nothing—less than nothing. Her feet look like tumors, and when I found her in this house, she was tracing her veins like river tributaries on a map. As the autumn light wanes toward solstice, her skin has taken on the hue of green—light, though, like lichen.
“Let’s go,” I say, “just for a walk. Nothing more.”
But she says she’s grown allergic to the sunlight. She says a twister is going to rip down the plains and sweep her off to Kansas.
“There are no tornadoes in Idaho,” I tell her. Mio sweeps her hand across the floor. Her knees are at odd angles and her bones protrude from skin like the knobs of trees.
“Fran was worried. You left the dogs,” I say. Mio loves those goddamned animals to pieces. And this is what does it. She starts to cry. She says she wants Mom, and collapses into me, the bony ridges of her spine against my palms.
And here I think she’s lost it, because Mom has been dead ten years, but then she says, “Can we go see her? Can we go to the river?”
“Get in the car,” I say. “I’ll drive.”
“No,” she says, “I need to be behind the wheel.”
She looks at me. Her eyes are the color of roasted squash. She hasn’t seen the light of day in a month, and her pupils will shrink to the size of pinheads when she steps outside, but she says Remember Colter’s Run, and I have no choice but to give her the keys.
I was eight and Mio was fifteen. She was driving our two Border Collies to a vet in Boise, and we ran the course of the Snake. The truck was cobalt blue and broke down nearly every hundred miles. Somewhere before the halfway mark, smoke began pouring from the hood like we were burning dinner, and Mio pulled over to inspect.
“Goddamn it all,” she said. “For Pete’s sake.”
Then she lifted the hood and plunged her head in the mess of automobile innards for what felt like hours. I sat on a rounded slab of granite and waited. Dad had told us the story of John Colter’s Run over dinner the night before, a man who supposedly lived overnight under a raft when hiding from the Indians, and I wondered how long I could stay underwater. I’d heard of old Westerners who breathed that way with a snorkel reed in the mouth. I suggested we play a game.
“Lindy,” she said. “I need you to shut up for a minute.”
With half her body still planted inside the engine compartment, I left my boulder and walked to the river’s edge. The water raced, and I picked a ripple and tried to follow it like a car moving down the highway, but it rolled underneath another black current and slipped away. Closer to the bank was a pool where the current snailed. On the opposite shore, someone had left parts of an old machine—so far gone you couldn’t make out its original form. They had oxidized copper, and there were several tires that had deflated to ovals from their original spheres. Spokes and sharp edges, old red paint, an old weather vein that gleamed in the sun.
I uprooted a straw of snake grass, figured it would suffice, and then undressed down to my skin, my shirt over my head, and then I folded my jeans and set them on the bank. I was a good hider, and Mio was a good seeker. I scuttled down to the edge like a crab, the grass vertical in my mouth. The bank was muddy and I sank down to my wrists. I waded in with my chin up like a retriever and breathed deep.
But the eddy was hidden, it sucked me down to the bottom of the river, and I was certain I was going to die instantly. I could feel my stomach fill, lungs scrunched like aluminum. Of course, the water was pitch, and my tossing sent galleys of bubbles spinning like thrown marbles—I did not have time to appreciate them. After Mio pulled me up, I don’t remember anything besides puking up water that had once been on its way to the Pacific.
“You okay?” she asked, heaving in oxygen like it was her last.
“Yeah,” I said.
She nodded and then slapped me hard on the face. “If Mom asks, you tell her you were stupid enough to shit your pants and I made you throw them away at the Texaco. Okay?”
I nodded and we got back in the car. I was in my underwear. It was June, and Mio turned the heat on as high as it would go and opened the windows so we’d dry off faster on the way home, but I watched as she shook so hard she couldn’t drive straight, and Mio was the best driver I knew.
She pulled the car over. “You drive,” she said.
“I can’t drive.”
“Yes, you can. Now drive.”
And so we switched places, and I drove until we were a mile out of town, before we reached the ranch, and then we switched back again.
Mio sits in the shack with the keys in her hand and saws its gold teeth across her hand. I’m waiting for us to leave, but Mio just stares at the window. There is a spider hovering against the glass, its limbs thin and terra-cotta-colored. Mio is fascinated by the stretch and bunching of legs. She mimics the motion then spits on the ground.
“How long are we going to stay here,” I ask. The smell of the place is making me lightheaded.
“How long do you want to stay?”
“Well, I need to get back to Will and the kids.”
She flinches at the word. “Sorry,” I say and watch as Mio begins to dig a hole in the floor.
“What if we go get you another dog right now? We could find one in the newspaper and you could take it home today.”
“Jesus, Lindy. Really?”
“Well, I was just thinking.”
“You and your two precious little girls,” Mio says, a mound of soft dirt piling next to her. “You don’t need a dog. I bet you never even thought about getting one.”
“Will is allergic.”
“No. Because you don’t need a replacement. And I have dogs, Lindy. Enough of them.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” I say, as I stand up and brush the dirt from my knees.
“You’re always sorry. Don’t be. Quit coming to save me. Get a new problem.”
“If that’s how you feel.” I try to be diplomatic, but my voice comes off steely as scrub brush.
“What I need,” Mio says, “is a goldfish.”
“Let’s go see Mom,” I say, and grab her by the hand. I am worried that her bones are going to break in the clutch of my own. I worm the car key out from her grip and we walk to the nearest stream. It is not the Snake. It is nameless.
We walk. I don’t ask who fathered her third child. I look at Mio’s hands, naked without nails; her fingers look long and spidery. “I’m hungry,” she says.
Once we reach the stream, she walks over to the water, and her torn prairie dress blows across her thigh.
“Remember you and Mom making daisy chains here?” I say.
“They always fell apart.” She smiles and says, “Dandelions make better chains.”
She folds herself in half, and without bending her knees, gathers handfuls of dirt and holds them close to her dainty nose and mouth, then she puts the soil in her pockets.
We sit there a while. Mom was the first to go. She died in the rest home. Three days after cremating Mom, we sealed her ashes in a Ziploc bag and walked her into the mountains.
“Promise me you won’t let me go like that,” Mio had said. We sprinkled Mom like birdseed over the water and she mixed with leaves and algae before sinking.
Mio watches a monarch flutter around a bit of hemlock. For a second I am not certain that she will kill it, but she takes her palm, cups it in the cocoon of her dark hand, and then flattens it out like she is pressing her hand into wet concrete. It comes up like pale orange crepe paper in her hands. She puts it in mud.
“It’s a fossil,” she says, and smiles. Her teeth are brown and her mouth is more gum than bone.
This is when I jingle the keys and say, “Time to go home.”
She tells me the veins in her eyes are the veins in the monarch’s wings. “Look at the patterns. Look at the symmetry,” she says. Mio makes the whole thing into a cake and holds it in her hands. She says nothing, but places the butterfly fossil in the lap of her dress. “Now it will stay put,” she says.
I force her back to the car, and we sit there for a moment overlooking the bank and watch red-winged blackbirds and the swallows as they nest and fight a hawk—I swear I feared for the predator’s life.
“Let’s get some food,” I say, turning the key in the ignition.
“I can’t leave the car. I can’t go outside,” she says.
“But you were just outside,” I say.
“And I regret it immensely.”
“I really just think you should have some bacon and eggs. You are hungry,” I say. “Mio? There’s coffee. You can order whatever you want.”
She contemplates this for a second. I decide it is time to go back to the city. I invite her to stay with us for a few days. Will is on a hunting trip and the kids are staying with friends. But she says no, she’d rather be in her own room.
We stop at a small café and I order two egg sandwiches and two black coffees to go while Mio waits in the car. The place is nearly empty except for a couple of old folks. The girl behind the cash register is about fifteen and stands behind a shelf of knuckle-ridged pies and maple-glazed doughnuts. In the corner sits a man with a grizzly beard, wearing cowboy boots with spurs. He is playing the fiddle. I sit down, wait for our order, and listen as the man draws his bow across the strings. I wonder if they still make the bows with horsehairs.
There is a chime as the door opens, and I look up to see Mio. Her hair is wet. It’s started to rain and her clothes cling to her bones and are see-through.
“Frankenstein? What is alive? What are you talking about?”
She looks around and then whispers to me, as though telling me a delicious secret.
I nod. “I don’t think so.”
“No, it is. I saw it. It’s flapping around in the car. It was,” she says, “disgusting.”
“Mio,” I say as calmly as possible. “How about some coffee. I’m sure it will go away.”
“No, no it won’t. This is the problem with the goddamned wilderness.” Her voice is increasing in volume and pitch. “I want to go home. My place.” She reaches her arm across the table and spills the coffee all over the table. It floods on to my jeans and stings the color of red.
I jump up instinctively, but Mio doesn’t flinch. “Goddamn it,” I yell and grab her by the arm. I drag her through the rain to the car, and then we sit there without speaking. I am still hungry.
“I’m sorry about your pants,” she says after a minute.
“Don’t mention it,” I say and then turn on the engine.
Mio and I arrive at her place in the Boise foothills, stand in the kitchen and look out the window. The hills continue through the distance and are brown in the fall, undulating in big mid-ocean waves. Far away they turn to mountains, housing the shepherd’s asylum. And I thank God it’s not a view of the river. I try to get Mio to eat something, but she says she is not hungry. I make her tea and a plate of crackers, set it on the granite countertop while she looks over a polluted sunset, orange as clown fish. She says she’d rather be looking at skyscrapers, anything but emptiness.
“I ate the butterfly,” she said. “That’s why I’m not hungry. I wanted to get on the road.”
I nod. I am not surprised. I make eggs like Mom did by frying them over-easy in bacon grease and eat three. “Mom was a good mom, you know?” I say. “You would have been good, too.”
“I would have been terrible,” she says. “What makes you say it?”
“Genetics.” I open up the back door, and we go sit on the balcony. Mio stands over the railing and removes handfuls of dirt from her pocket, tosses it over the edge into the sagebrush and yarrow below. We sit and watch the storm roll in.
“It’s supposed to be a good year for farmers. La Niña,” I say. “Maybe the ocean will come back.”
“Only the dead survive the water.”
“Not quite,” I say. And Mio smiles at me.
“I just want things to be different. But it’s always the same, same, same.” Mio says. “It kills me.”
Later that night, Mio falls asleep quickly on the couch, and I do not move her. I go sleep in the guest room I’ve grown so familiar with and leave the door open just in case. In a few hours, however, I awake to the sound of dry heaving. I open the bathroom door, and Mio is on the ground, white foam and dried spit on her face like calcium deposits. I ask her what she’s done. I hold her up and her head falls back with the weight of water. I shake her and then drop her to the floor and run to the kitchen to make a saltwater slurry. I force it down her throat where I stick my finger hoping she’ll vomit again. Then I call an ambulance.
“What did you do?” I say.
“Roundup. The weed stuff.”
“A coffee cup full.”
I tell the doctors. God. Oh God. Oh God, I think.
“Lindy.” She grabs my shirtsleeve. “I needed to take the wilderness out of me.”
I do not go with Mio to the hospital. I go sit on the back deck and refuse to leave. I picture the curve of the road we took, how it hugged the river, how we followed the cairns and crosses as they mark those dead who rolled into the river bank after drinking too much. I call Will and tell him what’s happened. When he arrives with the girls, I am drinking green tea in Mio’s kitchen. Will takes the children outside to play in yesterday’s puddles. The curls of their dark hair are just visible beneath their yellow polypropylene hoods. Together, they run through the streets, through the gutter streams, and the water splashes around their fire-hydrant-red galoshes. They pick worms from the puddles. There are dozens of them, their flesh-toned eel bodies squirming for their lives, and I wonder how they live so long underwater. The kids pull them out, tossing and twisting, and chuck them into the grass. Again and again. The worms seem to replenish, as worms do, as if they were cut in half and regrown. But my family does not sever them, does not split them like hairs. Beyond them, the view is of Mio’s dead arranged silently underneath their rock graves, nameless. The winds blow and the fragile, tiny daisies shake by the headstones. And in the most silent of worlds, where even the most hostile of birds are gentle speakers, the storm returns, thunder rolls dryly over the hills and goes out with a bang. A jagged white light cuts like a branching vein down the center of the sky, and my instinct is to be like the humble flowers and hunker down into the ground, but it takes another hour for the rains to finally come.
Katrin Tschirgi has work appearing or forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Hunger Mountain, Passages North, and Post Road. She currently lives and writes in Boise, Idaho.
“Shepherd’s Asylum” was originally published in The Glutton’s Kitchen (TLR Summer 2014)