The sudden vision of the wings of seven-banded color made me halt as I headed for the doomed pig’s pen.
I blinked at the striped light like refractions from twin prisms and the knife slipped from my hand and I swiveled and the men behind me parted.
In a trance I retraced my steps and sat down in the sun with my back against the barn’s hot wall.
“Delmus, you all right?” someone asked, it sounded like Aaron Winters, and I heard myself answer, “I need to think a minute—”
An hour ago I had awakened under a grapevine, the empty fifth of whiskey rolling from my chest as I jumped up and was running drunk through the vineyard toward the frantic barnyard.
I remembered the pickups arriving for the harvest party, honking horns and shouted greetings, bottles passed in a wide circle, gunfire as the men took turns shooting Woody’s rifle, the blast at my ear when Aaron Winters rested the barrel on my shoulder and the running horse weathervane skated down the barn’s tin roof—
Then the shout that the horse had escaped the corral, Silva’s hired man had let it loose, and I hurried for the lasso and swung it wide over my head—the way Endicott had taught me 60 years ago—
I approached Kate’s terrified pony that had run up onto the lawn by the house, under the kitchen window where Kyla was having her morning coffee and Kate ate her cereal.
“Nice throw,” someone said and I was leading Sox from the barnyard, saying, “Easy boy, easy,” now stepping into the young orchard to quiet it, to get away from the gun and from Baylor Clark who’d been nipping at my heels, insisting that Aaron Winters had struck oil west of New Lund, that if I didn’t fill him in he’d tell everyone about Kyla’s mother—
I’d heard someone coming through the dirt, with my hangover the footsteps loud as a dinosaur’s tread.
“Aaron?” I said. “You alone?” I sat out of sight, under the young Suncrest peach, Sox’s rope tied to the branch.
“Just me.” Aaron was plodding through the deep white-ash soil without his hat, his short shadow thrown behind him like a stunted wing.
“I followed your tracks— Figured you were hiding— Or getting ready to ride off—”
He was breathing hard, it was work for him walking through the plowed ground. Aaron put out a speckled hand, grasping the peach limb above my head. He blinked, his washed-out blue eyes gazing down at me through the shade.
“You’re not sore, about the weathervane?”
“Forget it. You get rid of Baylor?”
“How’d he find out about the oil lease?” Aaron put his other hand on the branch.
“He knows everything. He’s a spy.”
“Your mother’s brother. Can’t do much, not with family.”
“Baby Brother Is Watching You,” said a voice among the silent leaves and I remembered I was drunk.
“I was ready to wring his neck.”
It should have been funny, coming from old Aaron, who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
“Join the club,” I said, picking up a dirt clod.
“I got hold of myself,” Aaron said. “He’s spreading some pretty nasty stuff—”
I threw the clod over my shoulder. Sox snorted.
“Kyla’s mother?” I touched a fallen crescent leaf, like the moon last night. “He’s full of shit.”
“Old news,” Aaron said.
With my finger I traced a circle in the blonde dirt. The narrow peach leaves stirred, casting shadows like fingerlings in a stream.
“Larry Jones knew something about Baylor—” I drew a line through the circle, then a second line, making a cross. “What was it, anyway?”
“Aprons,” Aaron said, “lambskins.”
I looked up at Aaron’s white face.
“Big profit. Sold them to the different lodges. That’s why Baylor joined the Masons.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“That’s what I thought it was, anyway—” Aaron’s voice trailed off.
“What do you mean?”
“Something Hazel told me. After Larry’s funeral. Something I’ve never told anyone. Something Larry never told me—”
Aaron stared off across the orchard.
“Looking back, I can see he hinted at it, in ‘Raisin in the Dust,’ that part about the Johnson Grass choking the fields and ditches. About the seeds of something evil here.”
My head hurt. When I looked up at the flickering leaves, the splintered light stung my eyes.
“You shouldn’t have got drunk the night before your party,” someone said at my right ear, it sounded like my dead mother’s voice. “All the Wild Turkey the Butterfly lowered on the string, after you dropped the Early Times—”
“Do I want to know?” My temples hurt.
“No,” Aaron said.
“Tell me,” I said.
“I want to tell you, Delmus.” Aaron looked down at me. “For your mother’s sake—”
“What’s she got to do with it?” I felt the old irritation spark and rise like an orange flame.
“I know you and Florence didn’t get along, after your dad died. I think maybe you blamed her a little for Walt’s death.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t. It just went that way.” But I did, I always had. “I’m going to get me a switch,” she’d say when I wouldn’t mind.
“It’s got to stay here, between you and me.”
“All right,” I said. I slashed another line across the circle in the dirt, so it looked like a pie.
“You were overseas. It was when Baylor decided he was going to write a book about Joaquin Murrietta and the buried treasure. Said if Larry Jones could write a book about Murrietta, he could too, only ten times better. He wouldn’t fall for an old wives’ tale about some ‘fancy lady’ finding the gold, using a crystal ball. He didn’t have to be a ‘damned professor.’”
“Yes,” I said. I made a furrow in the dust with my fingertip. “That sounds like Baylor.”
I’d just been talking about Murrietta— With who? Now the sectioned circle looked like a puzzle.
“Well, Baylor bought a great big new desk, set up an office. He had an old desk, real old. Real cheap. He tried to sell it to Larry, then to me. It was just good for kindling. Plus it was his. Nobody wanted it. Baylor began to bother Florence about it. He’d call and come over nearly every day. Said he’d never given her a gift, always meant to and never had.”
“He wouldn’t let up. Said it was ungrateful if she didn’t take it, a present from her only brother. So finally, to shut him up, Walt went over in the truck. Baylor helped him load it, all the time bragging what a great desk it was, how happy Florence would be when she saw it. Baylor said he’d be over later to help them decide where to put it. They should put it somewhere important, so people could see it.”
“I’m coming to it. When Walt got home, Larry Jones was there. He’d had a hunch on a site and wanted Walt to dowse it on the map. Oil. Larry waved hello and pointed to the desk. ‘Baylor finally find a buyer?’ Larry said.
“‘No,’ Walt said, ‘a goddamned gift. Would you help me unload it?’ “‘Christmas comes early,’ Larry joked, and Walt laughed, said what a bother Baylor was. So Larry and Walt got it down.
“Walt had started to dust it off, Baylor’d had it in the barn, when Larry said, ‘You know, these were pretty common once, mail order stuff. Just a cut-rate piece. But there was one thing. They all had a hidden compartment. I wonder if Baylor remembered to clean out all his secrets.’
“Larry was that way. He found Murrietta’s ivory-handled pistols in the cave.”
“Yeah.” Larry had brought one over. I’d held the heavy silver pistol in my hand, grasped the white grips carved with screeching eagles.
“Treasure,” said a different voice. “Under a flat stone .… These aren’t rhinestones but diamonds in my dress—”
“Larry leaned over, reached way underneath. Sure enough, there was a button, it worked a spring release. A secret drawer came open and Larry reached in.
“‘What do we have here?’ Larry said. ‘Baylor’s treasure map?’
“Larry handed Walt the piece of paper. Walt unfolded it.”
I looked up. Aaron took a breath, both hands on the limb, his white brows raised.
“That’s the moment that killed your father—”
“Walt turned white, took one step and collapsed. Just like that.” Aaron lifted a hand and snapped his fingers. “Like a hammer’d hit him.”
“I never heard that—”
“No one has,” Aaron said, “I never did, not till Hazel told me. I guess Larry got Walt into the car and he and Florence took him to town, to the hospital. No use.
“When Larry brought Florence home, Florence asked Larry to put the drawer back in the desk. She asked him to drag the desk out in the barnyard and pour gasoline on it. She set it on fire herself, with a kitchen match. Larry and Florence were standing in the yard, watching it burn, when Baylor drove in.”
And Bob Brawley died that same day, of fire, over Nagoya, 100 yards off my silver wing—
“‘What the hell’s going on?’ Baylor yelled. ‘What the hell?’
“Florence never answered him. She never spoke to him again. Remember, when you got home from overseas and he’d come visit, for coffee? She would sit there, staring at the wall, at Walt’s picture of the grazing horses. ‘Florence—Florence, look at me when I’m talking!’ Baylor would say. She never turned. And later, when she was in the hospital? Baylor came to see her every day. She wouldn’t speak, she wouldn’t look at him, even when he begged her, as his sister, his last blood relative.”
“What was in the drawer?” I stared up at Aaron.
“A diagram. A map.”
“Gates,” Aaron said. “Each gate had a number.”
“What gates? The ditch?”
“At the bottom of the page each number had a name. Each gate.”
Aaron looked down at me. His eyes were sad, watery.
“I don’t understand.” Gate. Number.
“The Klan,” Aaron said. “They killed Endicott Lowell.”
I watched the ground tilt and rise. I put a hand down for balance.
The dirt glittered with grains of quartz and pyrite, threatening to ignite as a roar started in my ears. Each second was like an arrow going in. Each minute. I could die now, turn to dust.
The case was finally closed:
Negro Rodeo Clown Killed in Mysterious Stampede!
It was Baylor and his “friends” who put chili powder under the bulls’ tails, between shows while Walt and I and Endicott had the picnic in the pasture under the oak, Endicott in his purple pants and shirt and his face still painted with white paste, the orange wig beside him on the blanket before everything was torn and soaked red .…
“You all right?” Aaron asked after a while.
“No,” I said. “Real tired.”
In the barnyard a radio was playing, where earlier the men had taken turns firing Woody’s .22, where once Endicott had shown me how to throw a rope:
“Just like this, Delmus,” Endicott said, guiding my hand. “Thatta boy!”
“You’re wearing your dad’s boots.”
“Yeah,” I said to the sandy ground, “my Red Wings wore out.” I touched another fallen yellow leaf and again remembered the moon. “Like everything else.”
“I want to talk to you,” Aaron said, “while we’re still sober.”
“I’m not sober. I’ve been drunk since last night.”
Wild Turkey or Early Times? The bottle rolled from my chest when I woke under the grapevine. I thought it had fallen and shattered by the elm.
I ran a hand through my hair, what was left of it.
“I’ve been drunk all my life. Jesus—”
“I figured it was like that, when I saw you in town yesterday.”
“Odd cycle.” I glanced down the row of young peach trees. “Strange weather.”
“The wind is part of the process, the rain is part of the process .… Like the phases of the moon—” Who said that? When?
“I can feel it,” Aaron said. “Everywhere I go. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I was going to wait until everybody left, but I don’t know if I can stick it out.”
“You going?” I looked up. I didn’t want him to go. Aaron was the only one I wanted to see.
“No, not yet,” Aaron said. “I’ll stay a while.”
“I appreciate it, Aaron.”
“Let me sit with you a minute.”
I lifted my hand and gripped Aaron’s as he squatted down beside me.
“There,” Aaron said, “that’s better.”
How slender his wrist was. Almost bone.
“Remember the meteorite, Delmus?” Aaron asked. “The one that hit the milkhouse?”
“Walt’s shooting star.” I nodded. “Rock of Ages.”
After the war a swarm of bees lived inside the thick walls and when I tore it down honey flowed like liquid gold from a spigot and Kyla and I skimmed the pool with buckets and poured it into milk cans.
“They saw it up in Fresno,” Aaron said. “Been tracking it. Some teacher at the college.”
“‘Someone’s vandalized it,’ he said, when Dad gave it to him. ‘This isn’t a natural break.’
“‘No,’ Dad said, ‘I guess God fiddled with it.’”
It was summer, hot July, I was 11. We’d been sitting on the screen porch drinking homemade root beer when we saw the sudden blinding streak that lit up the barn and then an explosion, a tin roof boomed, sparks flying up.
“What is it?” Florence cried.
“A meteor!” Walt said.
Walt and I ran out across the barnyard. I saw stars through the hole in the milkhouse roof. A black silverish rock sat on the concrete floor with the full milk cans. It was smoking, spirals going up toward the lit overhead bulb.
“Don’t touch it—It’s still hot.”
Walt sent me back to the house to call Aaron.
“The guy growled,” Aaron said, “but he took it.”
“It’s still up there, at the college museum.”
“Made of nickel. I figured you’d remember—”
“All the days of my life,” I said, dropping my hand in the dirt as I heard another sudden buzzing voice in my head:
“And the third angel sounded his trumpet, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood .…”
Aaron set his hand on my shoulder. With a sigh he got to his feet and stood in the deep earth, then reached around to his pants pocket.
“Have a drink?”
He dropped a half-pint so I had to reach to catch it.
Old Granddad. I drank the burning whiskey, throwing back my head, and handed it back.
Aaron took a dainty drink, coughed, took a better one. He screwed on the cap and backhand threw the flat bottle in the air beyond the peach tree.
I started to rise, to make a failed effort to grab it in time, and eased back down as I saw the glass fall safely in the soft plowed ground, not like last night when I tripped and the Early Times floated from my hand and broke in a thousand wet pieces in the crescent moonlight .… “Damn it to hell,” I said on hands and knees before I heard the creak of a window sash—
“Wealthy man,” I said, looking up. “You must have found oil.”
“Not yet,” Aaron said, “maybe never. Maybe—”
He made a strange jerking motion with his arm.
“Aaron?” I thought he’d had a stroke, Aaron’s eyes were blank, empty looking—
Then I recognized the signal. I was tired, but I got to my feet. I gripped Aaron’s hand.
“By the level.”
“By the square.”
“King Solomon’s Temple.”
Aaron stared steadily at me. Now his eyes were clear, intent, blue.
“Look at this,” Aaron said.
He was opening his shirt, showing his thin t‑shirt and bony chest, then reaching in, as if to grasp his kidney.
Aaron pulled out a varnished peach fork.
“Gave up the L’s?”
“This is better.” Aaron held the V with two hands. “It’s Larry’s. Hazel gave it to me.”
I recalled it dimly. It had lain on the kitchen table as Walt and Larry had coffee. But it was different, there was something bright fastened on the end with electrician’s tape.
“What’s that thing?”
“A piece of the meteor.” Aaron smiled. “Walt fiddled with it.”
“You found oil with that?”
“After years of dry wells. Lots of shale, tar sand. Bentonite that time. Never oil. Then bingo, first try with this and up it came.”
“I didn’t even know you were drilling—”
Things were coming too fast. First Endicott, Florence and Walt, Larry. Now this.
“At night. Secret. Capped it off. It wanted to gush. Right under the surface. It’s been on the move. Migrating.”
“You really hit?”
“Real pure, no sulfur. I meant to bring a little for you to taste, sweet, but I forgot—”
Aaron let one arm of the rod swing down, raising a hand to scratch his forehead.
“Lots on my mind. A big pool, it looks like, a lake of oil, the way it came up. Lot of pressure.”
No wonder Baylor—the murderer!—was antsy. He smelled oil. Everyone had looked for 70 years—Standard, Shell, geologists from Arabia and Iran. There was a fault, but no one could locate the deposit.
Understandably, Aaron was excited.
“It’s on the Island,” Aaron said.
“Jesus— The Island?”
Aaron nodded. “Where the Kings’ two forks split apart for a mile.”
“Jones always said it was on the Island—”
“He didn’t have a shooting star,” Aaron said.
Again he held it out with both hands, the rock shining at the end of the V.
“Let me see it,” I said.
I gripped the peach fork that once had been Larry Jones’. The Professor. It dropped straight down, the piece of star pulling heavily.
“You sitting on oil?” Aaron frowned.
“Naw, I’m rusty. The ditch line runs through here.”
I threw the stick back up, held it out lightly in my palms, but again, with a will of its own, the shiny star shot down.
“Pretty strong,” Aaron said, “give it here.” He took the rod, balancing it belt high, level with the ground, and I saw it plunge.
“It’s not here.” Aaron tilted his head to the side, feeling the pull through his hands. “It’s over there, real strong, right under the barnyard. Or no,” Aaron said, swinging the branch up again, “it’s farther on, by the house.”
“It’s the pump. Metal magnetism.”
“Either that or Kyla’s mother. The rhinestones in her dress.”
“Shall I play a record?” said a voice.
“Unless it’s the old still,” I said. “In the cellar.” Suddenly, I was thirsty again. “The raisin whiskey. The barrel of bootleg wine.”
“Or the book, behind the loose brick—”
“What?” I turned. I’d been about to wade out into the dirt to retrieve the thrown bottle.
“Ford’s book,” Aaron said, holding the fork level again. He squinted, looking at me. “Remember the book?”
“The book is gone,” I said.
The slender peach leaves fluttered, casting shadows across my father’s boots, and suddenly I heard singing:
“I’m next of kin / To the wayward wind—”
“Wayward Song”, Larry’s book about Murrietta, the treasure.
“No,” Aaron said. “It’s in the car.”
“Whose car? Where?”
“Mine. In the trunk, locked up. I got it started. It was worth chancing a ticket, don’t you think, Delmus?”
“You sure it’s safe?”
“It’s in the tin box. Wrapped in the Ghost Shirt.”
I stared into Aaron’s blue eyes.
“I’ve been looking for it.”
“I figured you had.”
“Where’d you find it?”
“I had it. Walt gave it to me. He was worried you’d get killed in the war.”
From Ford to Walt to Aaron.
“You didn’t throw it in Walker Lake?”
Ford had told them to, when he was dying in 1932 and read from the book and stopped the rain and then Raymond sang “Rock of Ages” and my grandfather gripped my hand—“My hand is a stone in a river. Now the river’s in you—”
“Nope.” Aaron shook his head.
I wanted to drive up today and drop it in Walker, weight the box with stones and watch it sink and disappear through the clear water, so the sky wouldn’t rain and ruin the raisins.
But the book was Aaron’s now, and the Ghost Shirt sewn with the colored hawk like a butterfly. Once it had belonged to Fall Moon, Ford’s first wife who knew the Ghost Dance—
“The whole Valley’s a lake,” Aaron said. “A sea. At least it was at one time.”
Like Atlantis in reverse, I thought or remembered. “Edgar Cayce believed in Atlantis—” I’d told somebody, in a dream, maybe the woman who held the end of the string .…
“You can lose something anywhere,” Aaron said. “Or find it.”
“I’ve lost the touch,” I said, looking away, at Kate’s horse.
Now I wanted to ride away, like Silva’s hired man. He’d tried to throw on the saddle blanket and Woody’s rifle spooked Sox.
“Depends what you’re looking for. Gold. Oil. Water. Something else.”
“You were looking for oil.”
Remember Ride Away? You and she won the Raisin Day Race, before the Baptists late for church ran her down, came back at night with the bloody front end and tried to pay 20 dollars?
“I found oil,” Aaron said, “on the Island. Enough to float a battleship. You’re in, of course, if you want to be. Anyway, you’re in my will. You know that. There’s something else.”
“What else?” I couldn’t take much more.
“Delmus,” Aaron asked, “what’s that?”
With the divining rod Aaron was pointing at the horse.
“I think it’s a horse,” I said. “I’m not sure anymore.”
“Or a donkey?”
“Horse,” I said.
“Good. Now remember the burros, with the black crosses on their backs?”
“Jerusalem donkey, jack and jenny.” JJJ.
“When did Jesus ride a donkey?”
“On Palm Sunday.”
“Who told the disciples to meet at the house with the white horse?” Aaron asked.
“What is Al-Buraq?”
“A white animal with wings.”
“Smaller than a mule, bigger than a donkey.”
“How far can it stride?”
“As far as its eye can see.”
“Who rode it to heaven and back?”
“What happened at the Dome of the Rock?”
“The angel Gabriel took Mohammed to heaven.”
“What will the Mahdi, the 12th Caliph, ride when he returns at the end of the world?”
“The Moslems keep a black stallion in a stable.”
“Is it ready?”
“It’s saddled night and day.”
“Who is the Mahdi, Delmus?”
“You’ve done your homework,” Aaron said. “And a horse and donkey are brothers, aren’t they?”
“I guess so.”
“You know the poem about the donkey?”
“‘The Donkey,’” Aaron began, he cleared his throat and lifted his chin.
It was a strange world. Aaron had just given a history lesson, now he was going to recite a poem in the middle of the orchard:
“‘When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.’”
But why not? Aaron had a voice strong and sure as Raymond’s was when Raymond sang—
“‘With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The Devil’s walking parody
Of all four-footed things.’”
Aaron had been a lay preacher now and then, but no steady church would tolerate his gospel—
“‘The tattered outlaw of the Earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb.
I keep my secret still.’”
Aaron had initiated me into the Masons. “If a tree falls,” Aaron used to say, “the other trees hear it. So do the stones in the Petrified Forest.”
Lots of times Aaron addressed Larry’s classes at Fresno State—about pioneer days, geology, Indians, even religion and his perpetual motion machine—
“‘Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.’”
I remembered now, I knew “The Donkey,” it was one of my favorites.
“What’s it mean?”
Now Aaron was waiting.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Think hard,” Aaron said.
“My memory’s no good anymore.” It was true, I had a bad headache. The sun made me squint.
If I’d dropped the bottle by the elm, how’d I get drunk and wake up in the vineyard Sunday morning?
“There’s only one thing to remember.”
“Who wrote it?” I asked. “A Mason?”
“Catholic,” Aaron said. “Chesterton. A drinker. He wrote ‘The Man Who Was Thursday.’ About Sunday, which is all the days—”
“I don’t think I’ve read it.”
“Remember that book Jones had, with the drawings the drunken Roman soldiers carved on the wall of the guardroom? After the Crucifixion? After they threw dice for Christ’s purple robe?”
“I’m with the Master now,” I thought suddenly, watching Aaron’s bright eyes. “He washes his read hair in the blue bowl.”
Who said that? Edgar Cayce, the Sleeping Prophet, in the book, “There Is A River”—
“It was a man, on a cross, with the head of a donkey.”
“Awful,” I said, “that’s awful.”
“Yes, but you can learn from fools, even criminals.”
I could see Baylor’s head, on the body of a bull.
“And from good things,” Aaron said. “The mountain dogwood, four white petals, each one with a notch. The cross on the sand dollar. It’s the same one on the burro’s back. The monarch’s chrysalis on a blue gum leaf, hanging upside down in a ‘J’ above the milkweed pods.”
“Have you ever read about butterflies?” asked the woman who lowered the bottle on the shining cord. “Ever seen the king of them all?”
“All of nature was crucified?”
“It’s all a broken mirror of one thing,” Aaron answered, holding the branch. “The red bud, Judas Tree, first to flower in the spring? The blooming limb, where Iscariot hung? Christ’s profile in the line of the continents, the continental plates? On and on, all pieces of one puzzle.”
“‘Out of many, one,’” I answered.
“That’s right! And not just once! Many times!”
“You found it,” I said, watching Aaron’s excited face.
The Knight’s Grail, the Brimming Cup. The Philosopher’s Stone and Key. Aaron’s Rod. Oil, the formula to make lead into gold, Murrietta’s gold turned to diamonds disguised as rhinestones in a dress—
“You can’t find it alone,” Aaron said, blinking his eyes as if he woke from a dream. “Jones couldn’t find it. But I have a hunch. I can feel it, straight as a line, deep.”
Aaron cocked one eye, aiming down his pointing arm past my shoulder.
“It’s a long vein, sleeping, untapped—”
“What is it?”
Aaron turned, dropping his hand.
“What are you looking for?”
In the gusting breeze, Aaron’s thin hair blew back, white, like a prophet’s in a storm.
In late August of ’84 you stood west of Lemas with Aaron Winters who kept the book and star and with his peach-fork found the lake of oil on the Island, between the Kings River’s blue channels—
My hand is a stone in a river. Now the river’s in you .…
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“But you’ve been looking.”
“I’ve got a map,” I admitted, glancing at Aaron. “A kind of map. Found it in a magazine.”
“No— Something else.”
“I’m not sure.”
I’d laid it out on the bench in the barn, drunk, under the orange bug light, the night the Olympics opened in L.A. and Pearl Bailey led the crowd in “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
“Masons?” Aaron said.
“Mason Valley,” I answered.
“Ghost Dance. Mormon Trail.”
“Valley of Smoke,” I said, watching Aaron’s face.
“Then where?” Aaron asked quickly.
“Tell me if you know!”
“Ciudad de Nuestra Señora, Reina de Los Angeles— The end of the trail.”
“City of Our Lady,” Aaron said. “Queen of the Angels.”
“Or Fresno. Lemas,” I said. “New Lund.”
Aaron wiped at his eye.
“I always told your dad, I said, ‘Walt, it’s right here where we stand. I can feel it, right under my boot, like a heartbeat, like a fountain ready to spout up!’”
I bent down, scooping a handful of dirt. I stood, letting the grains sift like gold dust through my fingers onto my father’s boots.
“It’s the Garden,” Aaron said, one hand gripping the limb of the peach tree. “Right here. Right here where we stand!”
“It’s everywhere,” I said, opening my hand and dropping the white ash soil. “And nowhere. When you reach out it turns to dust.”
I’d forgotten to wear my cap. Where was it? The sun was burning, straight up. High noon.
“No,” Aaron said. “Not dust.”
“Why not? Everyone’s going broke, Reagan’s getting ready to blow up the world and they’ve got his picture in every store in town. Everybody’s asleep. We’re way east of Eden, past Goshen in the Land of Nod.”
“It’s the weather,” Aaron said, staring up through the leaves. “Clouds and wind. Salt breeze. Sea.”
“It’s going to rain,” I said. “Three years in a row.” No weather song of Wovoka’s, the Ghost Dancer, would stop the clouds soaking the drying grapes laid out down the vine rows.
“A rain that’s rain and isn’t, a rain like light that’s light but more than light. I’ve had dreams of a woman. A beautiful woman. She speaks to me, tells me things. Things if I told you, you’d think I was crazy.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” I said. “Last night I dreamed a woman lowered me a bottle of Wild Turkey on a string.”
Or was it a woman with a veil? Mystic smile .… “Mona Lisa men have named you—”
Who played the record and lifted the sparkling dress?
“I’ve seen them,” Aaron went on, not hearing. “Every one of them.”
“All of them.”
“All of who?”
“Everybody— Jones. Your dad. Raymond. Endicott. Ford. They’re here, all around, like candles burning.”
“Ghosts,” I said, looking at Aaron. “They’re all ghosts.”
“No,” Aaron said. “Not ghosts.”
He slipped the forked rod over the limb and put out both hands, palms up. Now he flung them in the air.
“Like a phoenix, a fire rushing from the ashes. I’ve seen your friend Brawley.”
“Bob was blown to pieces. Over Japan. Forty-five years ago.”
Aaron bent toward me. “In Necis Renascor Integer,” he said softly. “INRI.”
“‘Reborn, intact and pure—’”
“All of them. Every one. Your mother too. That’s why I had to talk to you.” He waved his arm sideways. “They’re all here, waiting.”
“For the right time.”
“Delmus? Where’s the Big D?”
I heard the men calling from the barnyard.
Where was Delmus? The wind blew, moving the clustered peach leaves like fingers.
“I don’t know what to say—”
“What did Chesterton say?” Aaron asked.
“I don’t know.”
“‘The Tavern doesn’t lead to the open road. The open road leads to the Tavern.’”
Aaron slipped the divining rod back into his shirt and fumbled with a button. “Come on,” he said, “they’ll be out here in a minute.”
I untied Kate’s horse, then hesitated. I turned, looking into Aaron’s eyes.
“Roma,” I said.
“Amor,” Aaron answered.
We stood for a moment, looking at one another, and through one another, at the long ranks of doubles, of men and women lined up behind each of us for a thousand years.
Now the orchard seemed crowded, there were whispers among the trees, the crackle of silent, invisible fires, as if an army were encamped.
“Everybody is alive again, I don’t know when they will be here, maybe this fall or in the spring, by the sprouting tree when the green grass is knee high,” Wovoka said when he woke from the trance, when the white eagle brought him back from heaven to Walker Lake.
Aaron touched me on the shoulder and we started back to the barnyard, through the young orchard and deep ground, me leading the horse, Aaron walking slowly behind me, his arm leaning on the horse’s back, the three of us 10,000 miles from Jerusalem.
“Delmus! Where you been?”
“Taking a breather.”
The barnyard was strewn with trash, beer cans and paper plates, watermelon rinds, empty .22 shells. The derrick for the hog stood to the right of the barn door, where Silva’s hired man waited, hands at his sides.
Aaron held the horse while I went into the barn, past the men in chairs drinking, a circle playing poker around the bale of hay. I could hear the forklift’s motor, Briggs unloading the raisin bins south of the barn.
“You going to shoot that hog?” Will asked.
“Just as soon as I saddle this horse,” I said.
“Going somewhere?” said Baylor, looking up from his cards.
“No,” I said.
I took the saddle from its peg, the bridle and Indian blanket, stepped back into the light.
The hired man positioned the striped blanket and I threw on the saddle, lifted the stirrup, tied the cinch. Aaron adjusted the bridle.
“Okay,” I said, dropping the stirrup. “Amigo.”
Silva’s man swung up smoothly into the saddle. He touched the horse’s flanks lightly with his heels and he was off, trotting down a vine row.
He held himself a little like Celestino Rodriguez, the tail gunner on the Beau Geste. Head back, neck straight, chin square and level.
“Cada cabeza es un mundo,” Celestino used to say. “Every head is a world.”
“He going to pick grapes from a horse?” Baylor asked.
Someone laughed, drunkenly. I ignored Baylor.
“Who’s going to help me?” I asked.
“Right here,” said Bill Woody, striding forward. “I got the gun.”
“Here.” Earl could hardly stand. “Have a drink.”
“Okay—” I turned, put a hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “For the road.”
“For the tavern,” Aaron said, nodding seriously.
I took a drink, a small one, and handed the bottle back to Earl.
With the other men behind me, the sitters up from their chairs, we marched around the barn to the poor pig’s pen—past the A‑frames and the pulley and ropes, the swinging hook—
and I remembered the yellow crescent moon above the roof and Kyla’s ageless attractive mother at the upstairs window—
“Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?” sang Nat King Cole. “Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?”
“Ever seen the king of them all?” she asked as I sat beneath the elm.
Smiling, in blue velvet spangled with Murrietta’s diamonds—“I found the gold with a crystal ball,” she’d said, the swinging bottle of Wild Turkey safely lowered on the string—Dolly Mable dipped her head and lifted the shining dress to reveal the striped span of the butterfly’s amazing seven-colored wings—
“Delmus? You all right?”
It was Aaron’s voice. He was leaning over me as I sat against the barn wall. The men were behind him, looking down at me with 20 worried faces.
“Yes, Aaron,” I said. “I’m okay.”
“What happened to you?”
“I remembered something.”
“What did you remember?”
The circle of drunk faces leaned closer to hear, waiting.
“That I was happy—”
That was it. It was like déjà vu and now my friends were laughing in agreement as Bill Woody lifted his rifle and fired five times in the air and the flock of purple pigeons flew from the loft.
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montréal Review, and other journals. He lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.