Between dropping seeds like raindrops onto pitted soil and slogging hotly through the creek at the hatchery, I often thought what it might be like to find someone to love. At some point in my life, dreams of finding a guy surpassed my childhood hopes of finding fairy friends in the woods. These ponderances of love drifted in and out like a mosquito buzzing at my ear. The solar-powered motor of the biodigester clattered during hot, yellow afternoons while I worked. Every day I fed the fish, rode my horse Casey, planted seeds, gathered eggs, listened to wild wolves sing, smelled the slurry, and wondered if any decent men still existed. A few neighbors and friends dotted the mountain nearby; we formed a network of survivors. But men for me? Zero.
Where men were lacking, the scenery was plentiful; it was wild and snarling, bright with colors. Tall western hemlocks and white pines cradled our sub-alpine home; Douglas firs and red cedars nestled the lower trails. To the northwest of us was Priest Lake, divided by the Thorofare River. We could see its foggy waters on a clear day if we climbed the mountain high enough. Directly west and downslope was Chase Lake, now mostly a dry bed, having been choked by flowering rush, milfoil, and pollution. But even smaller than that was the still healthy Lake Stardust, on a mesa below our ranch. It was fed by snowmelt that trickled to the catchment through soil, streams, and down rocky cliffs looming above, where light and fog played in the mist.
Spring was changing Wild Mountain, and like every year at this time I headed with my horse down to my summer place. As far as summer places go, it was not the kind of home I’d seen in Mother’s old yellowed magazines, like Southern Living. Not that kind, with a big wrap-around porch, stately pillars, hardwood flooring, and dainty furniture. The summer home I had adopted was a cave.
I passed beneath the warm shade of apple trees, and Casey whinnied. She knew where we were headed. The temperature rose as we trotted down the mountain on an old trail. Flies and insects crashed into my face until Casey moved into a slow walk on a precipitous part of the trail. The evergreen canopy above me thinned, and a brooding, uncomfortable sun hung stubbornly from the highest reaches of the sky as a dry wind swept the land. Pink and orange wildflowers flanked the trail, and the day smelled like birth. I felt good and carefree. Feathers and seeds whistled through the air, and I began to daydream about the cool beauty down at the lake and the damp walls of the cave—such relief it would be when I got there.
I was brought out of my reverie by a grunting noise at the trail-side bush, and Casey reared up. She attempted to bolt away, but I gripped the reins and calmly said, “Whoa, girl.”
When out on the mountain, I always carried a quiver and was glad to have it within reach, along with a bow strung across my back, which Dad had made me a long time ago. I noticed a nearby blackberry bramble’s rustling leaves and nocked an arrow. I was aiming toward the bush, attempting to calm my horse, when a hog charged out squealing.
Casey backed up, snorted, and began to sidestep wildly. The pig missed us completely and clumsily became unbalanced before screeching again loudly. I let go of the arrow and quickly strung another. The first arrow pierced the swine’s shoulder, and the second fell just behind it. The pig weighed a good 150 pounds and dropped in pain. I knew it had strength left, but also knew that my arrow had already damaged its vital organs and it was dying. I waited a few minutes, petted Casey, told her to settle down, and then prepared to lift the boar up on Casey’s back and walk the horse back home, foregoing my summer cave adventures, at least for today.
Casey was not too pleased. She liked going to the cave, as did I. But we had a job to do. I arrived back home, dripping with pig’s blood and swatting flies and mosquitoes away. I had to quickly skin the hog and do something with the meat before it went bad.
I let Casey wander off toward the stable and got on the walkie with my best friend Elena. “Got a hog.”
“No shit? I’ll send Daniel down.”
About a half hour after I clicked off the walkie I heard the merry clinging of sheep bells up the mountain. Daniel would be herding the animals back now. He and Elena lived nearby with their twin toddlers, Kristy and Cameron. Daniel didn’t take long to ride down to my ranch with a grin on his face. I could see his tall frame cantering across the meadow between their place and mine. He was just happy about the meat, I figured.
Behind him were the western-facing slopes of the Priest Lake Selkirk mountain range, which ran across parts of British Columbia and down to our Idaho panhandle. Daniel arrived with a wave and smile and helped me get the boar to the abattoir next to the barn. We hung the pig by its Achilles on hooks and began to peel off its skin. Blood dripped around our feet and gathered into the drainage pipe below. We didn’t talk much as we removed organs and began to cut up the pig.
When we were done, Daniel said, “Want me to brine the fat?”
“Sure. I will smoke this guy tonight but was just on my way down to the cave today, so want to try to leave first thing tomorrow.”
“If you found another pig tomorrow to put you off another day, it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen to us. We’d have meat this winter.”
“He found me,” I said. I began to rub salt over the meat. Daniel helped. Sweat rolled down his brown cheeks, and his sandy colored hair kept falling in his face.
“As many times as we’ve hunted this spring? You are just lucky.”
“Maybe he was stuck in a briar. I don’t know. He about scared Casey to Mars.”
“Well, I can finish up whatever needs to be done tomorrow. And I’m glad you got the garden all planted. Elena hasn’t been feeling well.”
“Tired, she says.”
The way he said it worried me. My best friend Elena was a beautiful dark woman with long black hair and soulful eyes. I’d known her all my life. She was a weaver and an avid reader of classic literature. If we had lived in the old world, she would have been an author or teacher, but now she made clothes for those of us who resided on the mountain.
I preferred to be off on my own, investigating the plant biology of the area. If I had lived in the old world I fancied that I might have been a scientist.
I sometimes closed my eyes and could remember riding my childhood horse Jack under slanted sunlight peering at us from the heavens, running through pure-fine meadows of nootka rose and lupine and sego lilies, bounded by the dark green of distant juniper, spruce, mountain oak, and ponderosa pine flinging themselves up to feather-kiss the blue skies. I missed those cooler days.
These days we all each had a big responsibility, now that our parents had died or gone away. Mine was crops, Elena’s was clothes, and Daniel’s was animals. There were others on the mountain too: old Jimmy Coombs and a few ranchers who had known Elena’s folks and mine. It was an ancient mountain, and its tales were wild. Elena had been through a lot, like we all had.
“Tell Elena I love her,” I said to Daniel.
“And we love you.” Daniel kissed my cheek good bye.
The next morning, before my second attempt at the journey to the lake, I dreamed a memory. But some backstory first. After my father Alejandro Herrera died from old age—he had been 20 years Mom’s senior—Mom began talking seriously about getting in our old car and driving all the way to South Carolina, where her sister lived. Aunt Reece said her house hadn’t been ripped up by any hurricanes, and she had gotten some of her friends to make the structure withstand high winds. That was two years ago when networked charities still ran limited mail services and a few years after what we called the tipping point, when society finally and abruptly transitioned from what still resembled a gradually devolving civilization to a new wild world.
My aunt invited my mother to travel down to see her in that time period after the tipping point, and I thought they both were crazy; my mother wanted to leave too. It didn’t help that she’d never wanted to move away from the South to begin with—but had, she pointed out often, suffered temporary insanity when she met a handsome Spanish man in her youth, promising her a grand and lively fortune in the beautiful West. She was also convinced a year into her marriage, and forever after, that her French heritage and southern upbringing had been far more sophisticated than my father’s raw and rugged lifestyle. His version of a grand life with a lively fortune didn’t equal hers. Similar to the way my summer home was a cave, not a mansion—still it was a lively and rich place to me.
He was tall and brown-skinned, with a dimple on his right cheek and a twinkle in his eye. She was short and blond, blue-eyed and fiery, with a smattering of freckles on her nose and a constant shade of plum lipstick. He climbed mountains. She climbed social ladders. He traveled on horses. She traveled on quirky ideas. He read books. She read people’s faces. He dressed down. She dressed up. I took after him far more than her.
On the other side of her high-strung and reactive personality was a protector and a nurturer. She had worked to save our ranch from loggers before I was born, and when I was just a baby, so the story goes, with her bare hands she killed a rattlesnake she found in my bedroom.
In my dream I recalled a big occasion from last spring as I was planting seeds on the melting mountain. Mom and I had argued for days about her heading down South and the fact I didn’t want to go with her. She had a shrill voice and an irrefutable stance, as she did with every subject beneath the sun—but in the end, I would stay here on my turf. I had been telling her that someday we would drink sweet tea on the veranda of a grand old place, beneath the shade of a magnolia tree, but it was just talk in my mind, nothing to materialize except in dreams. Sometimes dreams were all you had. They were all that kept Mom going.
I would stand my ground in arguments with Mother, but if I thought I might have genuinely hurt her feelings, I felt guilty for days, sometimes weeks.
“Francesca Carmen Herrera,” she said, and the madder she got, the more southern she sounded, “You’ll see that this mountain was never the place for me or for you. If you stay here, you’ll wither up like this godforsaken land and die young.”
“I think the mountain is the best place to be, Mom.” Should I remind her that her old home—her dream—was also bad, like most other places?
“Horse-rubbish. I can’t stand the way it hardly rains anymore. I miss the South.”
“Mom, down there it’s worse. Every damn place has dried up more than it used to be. Vector-borne viruses are more common now due to their bloody polluted rivers and lakes and heat. At least we still have snow up here at elevation in the winter.”
“You and your science talk,” she yelled. “Just like your father.”
Comparing me with Dad was her favorite trick, even though her execution was awful on this particular line, especially since my dad’s knowledge and rationale was something to be proud of. I knew she had always loved him, but her version of love was immature and capricious. Dad had zoned it out. I was still learning and felt that I could sway her to be more intelligent and level-headed if she would only just listen to me.
“Thanks, Mom, but I already had decided it’s better to be more like him than you.” I had a way of keeping calm even when feeling emotional, and it drove her nuts.
I regretted it the minute I said it. I wasn’t like her. I didn’t like to break down my opposition, especially if I loved that person. But it was too late to un-say it and I was still too mad to apologize for it.
We’d been standing in the ranch kitchen, and she marched off and started packing. I thought it was just another fit. But Mom left the next morning very early and took two other ranchers with her, one of them being Elena’s father, Willy Shay, and the other a long-time neighbor Johnny. She didn’t even say good bye.
I still remember that day like it was yesterday—a scene so unpredictable. So unbelievable. My mother may have had a lot of issues, but neglect of family wasn’t her style. Was it just me? Or had she really just gone flighty for good?
I didn’t cry until after she left. I simply couldn’t believe she had just left me like that. Sure, we didn’t always see eye to eye, but she was my mother. Family stuck together. I had to rationalize her leaving with the onset of more of her so-called temporary insanity after Dad died. That, and the way the world had gone so rugged and dangerous. My mom, out of desperation, just left. I worried, I bit my nails, and I rued giving her the ammunition to fire off. But I had to believe that she was not herself, that she longed for something that would never again be the same. My mother wouldn’t leave me, I kept telling myself over and over. Maybe a changeling took her. But who had it left in its place? Not a soul.
When I awoke, I was drenched in sweat and shook off the dream like it was old plumage. Whenever I thought of Mother, I began to feel things that I’d rather not feel. Regret. Sorrow. Nostalgia. It was better to move on. Yet, one thing kept coming back and punching me in the face: family. Dad would have wanted me to keep us together. These thoughts circled me like ravenous hawks day in and day out.
Casey and I set out again the morning of the sad dream.
My summer camp was a part of a small cave system that went back about 200 yards from Lake Stardust. My shimmering front yard was the beachfront, and my back yard was dug into the mountain. Going back into the cave led to a maze of tiny rooms that a person could stand in. It was part of a naturally occurring formation of cool underground springs rising into terraces deep within the cave, full of travertine, which was a type of limestone deposited by mineral springs.
In the olden days, the cave would have had little pools in its back rooms, though for the past few years, the weather had been too dry and hot to sustain such water collections. We had days and evenings of rainless thunderstorms. If it would rain, it was a fast flooding that built up in eroded soil, but was a non-sustained rain, coming down hard and short-lived. It was enough to make the grotto damp, but unpooled, as it had been for the past 13,000 years. The cave was still cool, though, and sturdy, right in the foot of the Selkirk Mountains, like a smaller version of the limestone-walled Cody Caves north of Ainsworth Hot Springs.
I finally arrived at my cool summer home. Yesterday I had met a hog on my adventure. Today—though I didn’t know it as I rode Casey down the mountain—I would finally meet a man.