Jeff Brooks is a webmaster, author of junk mail, founding member
of the Seattle Writers Collective, and can be reached at email@example.com.
The air itself became our wine--bouyant, sweet, full of
promise. We drank it and spoke of History, then we fell back
into mats of fragrant bracken. I fashioned gowns from
weather-smoothed pebbles and the forest light for us to wear.
We called animal noises into the woods, our foreheads dusted
with the reddish earth, while green spiders dropped from the
trees to march on pinlike feet across our shoulders and arms.
At last, we sank into silence and sat in the moss as twilight
collected around us and the birdsongs dwindled away.
You said: "The last man ever to walk here was a gatherer
from a band of the Snoqualmie Tribe. That was several days
after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He
passed on to a meadow above here to pick berries. He went
home by a different way."
* * *
The new highway runs over the top of the hills, a green sign
marking the summit: Umtanum Ridge, 4,020 ft. The Old
Highway, though, winds through the canyon, skirting the
broken basalt cliffs, looking down on the Yakima River, a
glittering ribbon below. At every curve, the Old Highway
sprouts a garden of knee-high white crosses, each a reminder
of somebody who lost contact with the pavement and plunged
over the edge. New crosses continue to show up as the old
ones turn gray and fall over; it is surprising that this
highway could have undone so many.
"Who in hell are all these people?" you asked.
Someone had once told me they're mostly Indians on their
way back to the reservation--drunk, lost, whatever.
We rounded a sharp descending curve where the crosses
grew thick like a bramble. "Someday I'll take charge of the
Washington State Highway Department," you vowed. "I'll get
rid of those goddamn useless Golgothas. Instead, I'll pay
hyper-realist artists to install scuptures showing the cars
at the moment they went over."
And I could see it: three wheels suspended high over the
river; a piece of wooden guard-rail flying; a face, eyes
round with surprise, showing from a side window.
* * *
"Can you eat it straight off the stalk?" you said,
running your fingers over a bulging head of wheat that leaned
through the wire fence.
I didn't think you could.
You looked around at the brown hills and the high brown
sky of the Palouse. A banner of dust billowed away from a
combine on a far hillside. "I thought there was a story in
the Bible where Jesus and the Disciples are walking through a
field on the Sabbath, and they're eating the wheat. Do you
know that one? They get in trouble with the pharisees."
We stripped kernels from the wheat stalks and ground
them between our palms, hoping to mill the husks away into
the wind, but they only rolled out from between our fingers.
We put kernels between our teeth and bit down until the
grains cracked; they were as dry as paper and tasted not of
bread, but of baked dirt. A truck whined past, whirling
chaffy dust into our faces.
"It must be nutritious," you said slowly, picking the
wheat from your back teeth with your thumbnail. "Whole
civilizations were built on wheat. Weren't they?"
I tossed what was left of my wheat into the air; a curl
of wind caught it, and, as if the world had flipped itself
upside down and we now clung to its roof, the grains hovered
a moment before dropping from sight. You shrugged, and we
got back into the car.
* * *
You drove, bent forward over the steering wheel as if
you could push ahead and get there sooner. I read a little
newspaper I'd picked up in the narthex of a church-converted-
into-a-restaurant back in Mountain Home: an A-frame that
didn't seem old enough to have fallen into abandonment, yet
it smelled of mashed potatoes and gravy, not sacraments and
prayer. What had happened to the congregation? Had they
been called to migrate across the desert toward a promised
land? Now instead of an altar, a salad bar stood across the
front of the sanctuary, facing Jerusalem; a waitress in a
short brown dress flounced from table to table with no regard
to the once-critical issue of aisle placement. There was
even a bar off in the Christian Education wing.
I looked up from my newspaper at you, then out at the
hills, round as bodies, at gashes of rock that spilled from
slopes of dead grass, at barb wire fences so tangled with
tumbleweeds they looked like tan hedgerows.
One classified ad, under "Personal," said:
TAKE CHARGE! Make ANYONE your slave! Simple
booklet tells how YOU can be the ABSOLUTE MASTER
over ANYONE ON EARTH.
It gave a P.O. box in Idaho Falls. I wanted to tear the
ad out of the paper so we could laugh about it some day, but
I left it where it was.
You coughed, and I looked up in time to see a message in
large white letters stenciled on the highway:
Which made you smile for the first time since we'd
crossed over the Columbia. You were wondering what kind of
person could be converted by such a message, turned away from
the urge to send fires raging across the Idaho desert.
The weather streams in across the ocean; it brings
pollution from Japan, so they say.
On the beach you found a tatami mat: a crushed sheaf of
straw melting into the sand, tangled with seaweed and gray
feathers. "Who threw it in?" you asked, nudging it with your
toe back toward the waves.
The wind flung a curtain of rain over us and passed
whispering up the bluff above. You picked up the straw and
began stripping off bloated strands and dropping them into
the wind. "I wish I could unfold this thing," you said.
"Maybe somebody used to sleep on it.
"Maybe her dreams linger in the straw. Who knows?" you
said, "Who knows?" You held it close to your face and
sniffed. A salty muck of organism. "Uck," you said, and
pitched it with a loose overhand at the ocean. It landed in
the mottled margin of a retreating wave; the water pulled a
mantle of sand around it.
The rain began in earnest, pocking the beach with tiny
craters. It was time for us to go.
* * *
"An immensely wealthy industrialist," you said, leaning
over the concrete railing between piers to look down into the
oil-dark water of Puget Sound, "--a wealthy industrialist
decided he should hunt out and marry the most desirable woman
in the civilized world. So he took out full-page
advertisements in all the newspapers:
OWN EVERYTHING YOU DREAM OF.
Marry fabulous wealth!
Live in 7 cities!
Small print at the bottom of the page instructed all
hopeful young women to appear at a certain ballroom in a
certain hotel--no detail overlooked to enhance their beauty.
Their benefactor, he who was to take one of them as a wife,
would provide a magnificent feast and watch them from a
hidden vantage point (perhaps even disguised as one of them,
said one rumor) while the hundreds of young women, charming
and lovely beyond imagining sat at long, white tables,
tilting their sculpted heads toward one another, issuing low,
husky laughs. From each city he chose two or three of the
most beautiful, most exquisitely mannered of them and sent
them back to his mansion in the country where they lived
together in luxury, some two hundred of them, waiting for a
decision that would lead to the wedding of the decade. Their
days became weeks, and then months. Many of them had left
behind jobs, homes, husbands, situations on the chance of
marrying the rich industrialist. Eventually, of course,
there was trouble. The second loveliest of the young women
took care of the most beautiful one by staving in the side of
her head with a gold candlestick and pushing her down a
marble staircase. Her blood beaded like dew on the cold
stone. Our industrialist, naturally, knew exactly what had
happened, and promptly married the murderess, sending all the
others home without further word. . . ."
A bent, white-haired Vietnamese woman with gold teeth
came up beside us, set a bucket of water on the pavement,
skewered something red onto a fish hook, dropped her line
into the water. She had lived in America for ten years, and
she knew two words of English: "big fish." That was enough
for her, though, and she came to the waterfront to fish every
evening at sunset. "Bee fit," she said to us, smiling, her
I looked over at you; your eyes had become the color of
the bay. I asked you if the industrialist and his wife lived
You turned your back to the water and watched a bus
lumber by, its windows reflecting squares of cold light onto
your eyes. "At least not unhappily," you said.
* * *
back to author list