by Emma Cline
If there was a landscape that was more blessed, none of us knew it. We grew up with the sun generous and round in a blue sky, with fields and fields of dry grass. We knew from childhood the lines of the coast angled against the vast and shifting Pacific, the arc and swell, the rocky cliffs. We learned how the cows moved in the evenings, the way the creeks ran like veins across the hills, how the vast and startling sunsets appeared, biblical in their breadth and scope. We felt subtle changes of weather, the disruptions of patterns and habits, and studied the quail that made their daily migration to the oak trees behind our houses where they settled in low for the night, squawking and chittering to each other in the growing darkness.
There were the long days of waiting. We met each other in the dim sparking hours between sunset and dawn, the long night. We drove the back roads early in the morning, lights on at the convenience stores, past the shadowed oaks and houses of our sleeping families. Our parents knew how much time we spent together, at first anyways, were pleased to see us pile into packed cars, knew about the late-night drives and the parties at the wooden house outside town. They didn’t know that no one lived in the wooden house, that no one owned it at all, that it was full of a strange detritus, aluminum plates and brocade armchairs, colored light bulbs and the drugs of someone long gone. We babbled incoherently, talking thickly to the speed freaks that pedaled there furiously on their lavender girls’ bicycles, felt the motions of a thousand flies buzzing overhead, the floodwaters sloshing in our hearts.
It used to be that we only went there on Friday nights, left the rest of the weekend for the daytime, for the hikes with our fathers and naps on our broad leather couches. Soon we started sleeping our strange hours, waking startled and blinking in the evening light. We were groggy and distant at the dinner parties our parents gave for the conductors and art critics from the city—the circling trays of food, the drunken wives shivering alone on our balconies, gardenias drifting in the blue light of the pool. Soon enough we left that behind too, sneaking out every night to gather around the fire in back of the old house. The older boys showed us how to handle metallic powders with our bare hands while others of us diligently crushed black seeds in the corner for a foul-smelling brew.
And when deep night comes, we found beds, clustered into a close wood room, using towels for blankets. The air was heavy and still. Someone vomited silently into their cupped hands. The boys made the wet low sounds of the very drunk, the cough and hack, the moist screw in the throat. Some grabbed the hands of sleeping girls and moved them over their crotches. One muttered in his sleep, And the dead, the dead, while the rest of us were dreaming too; our favorite English teacher getting ripped apart by dogs in a snowstorm, stinking red tides loosed over our town, gangs of thieves roaming bleached African deserts with nowhere for us to hide.
In the small rooms the menace gathered and hung. We knew it would come, just not which night, and so, when one of the younger boys, with blood running down his face and his swollen tongue lolling, jumped head first out the attic window, it felt as though things had reached the point we had been building towards all this time, all the drugs, all the darkness, all the sly feels and ways of giving away parts of ourselves. We scattered, one of us calling the cops, the rest of us back in the cool, unfamiliar sheets of our bedrooms, twitching wildly with nervous energy. For days we saw black snakes sudden and stark in our path, lizards scattering, a coyote waiting under the stairs. There was danger everywhere. Always the shadowed figure of the stranger cutting across an empty, moonlit field.
The city razed the wooden house, while our parents asked us if we had known the boy. We said, of course, that we hadn’t, and it was true. They would ask us this many times again, because this guy was just the first in a long line. We got to an age where people we know started to die. It happened around high school graduation; the first mention in the newspaper of a boy crashing his truck at three in the morning, along the string of 101. The freshman who killed himself with his father’s shotgun in his basement the week before homecoming, the girl from high school who drowned in the Russian River. Your first kiss, your choir teacher’s daughter, the vice-president of the junior class. The deaths stacked up. And they were written about in the dulcet, innocuous tones of our smalltown newspapers, the sports, the hobbies, the dental-hygienist dreams. The radio played Teen Angel on a loop that summer, while the local DJ jokingly kept a death watch, promising a case of Coca Cola to the family of the teen with the prettiest yearbook photo;
Just sweet sixteen, and now you’re gone
They’ve taken you away.
Are you somewhere up above
And I am still your own true love
I’ll never kiss your lips again
They buried you today
We all knew about the time the dead girl took off her shirt and bared her breasts to a crowd, danced languidly in a darkened room, but we kept it quiet, drank a beer to her memory.
Everyone was scared then, felt the fear of our parents in waves. We rolled away from each other like marbles, some of us to the junior college, some of us staying home. None of us encountered anything but aimlessness, dreamy days that turned lazily around and around. Our parents had expectations but let us easily shrug them off, pleased when we shaved, went walking, groomed our horses or idly baked zucchini bread from the harvest of our mothers’ gardens. What they couldn’t know was how far away we were by then, how much things seemed to have shifted. We couldn’t stop our minds from catching again and again on the fact of the bodies, the splintered bones and leaking hearts. We dreamt endlessly of a meeting between the dead in an empty ballroom, watched the town erect a huge white cross strung with lights on the hillside above the football field. Though we made our movements away from each other, lived alone in apartments, and held jobs, bought groceries and pickup trucks, we never forgot those sparks at the back of our throats, the dark pale sky of early morning.
The first night we were together again, we drank sweet wine in the high hills of someone’s parent’s vineyard, in a row of vines. The summer wind rose, a dry heavy heat, and we lay back and took off our clothes, all of us, our white limbs clustered together in the moonlight. Later we rode our bicycles down the rows of vines, following the dark roads of the ranch to the meadow to feel the horses’ brambly breathing against our bare chests. We rubbed the foamy sweat that secretes itself in their curves across our arms, touched it to our necks to feel the moist heat of it. Some of us walked silently into the pond, floating on our backs where the daylight warmth collects, diving down to the muddy depths, letting the black water rise up and catch our hair. We gasped for breath, while the harvest moon kept the rest of us dazed and circling the banks.
It was like the old times, but better. We spent the hours gathering what we needed: the wet stones from the lake’s edge, the turkey feathers with their calcified hollows. The chimney swifts swooped low over us, heading south. We made piles of leaves arranged by shape, by minute changes of color, found soft-skinned Chanterelles burning under a stutter of leaves, carried them like babies in our arms. We crushed silt-red rocks for a dry pigment we mixed with water and marked our bodies with, concentric circles around our stomach, rings up our legs, streaks drying stiff and tight under our eyes. We flaked off the crust to feel it sting.
Our wealthy parents—the San Francisco high-society philanthropists, old sitcom actresses holed up in sprawling estates in Healdsburg— didn’t mind us living on the rocky part of Sonoma Mountain where grapes were hard to grow. We mapped the land, roving with our picnics and the old simple guitars. The girls made rosemary pan–bread and black beans in coffee cans while the boys roasted peppers and corn tortillas, and it all tasted like fire. At first we camped in our parents’ nylon sleeping bags, high on the grassy ridge over the lake, but soon enough, structures started to rise, rigged in trees, dug into the hillside, made of mud, sheets of cotton and car doors, corrugated tin and hay bales. They were beautiful, and the girls would make velvet curtains from their first communion dresses, and the boys kept the dirt down in the roads and offered up shirtfuls of dark berries for the girls’ white bowls. We dragged together beds and hung paper lanterns in the trees, lit them as darkness came on, played volleyball under their diffuse glow. We danced in two circles, like we’d been taught as children, the give and take, hand over wrist, the dizzy, reeling turns. They trucked in an old church organ from town, and we spent the nights wine-drunk and smeared, someone playing murder ballads and the sweet religious songs from our childhoods while our voices met under the fixed and radiant stars and our hearts opened like hothouse flowers.
Reporters liked to make the things we did sound dirty, make it sound like the guys forced the girls into it. That wasn’t true, not at all. There was an incense we burned sometimes that made us all drowsy, made us feverish and yielding. Girls read aloud from sacred texts and back issues of Playboy, one hand on the page and the other hand unbuttoning their blouse, five shameless mouths on you at once, it didn’t matter whose, Some girls tucked their long hair into caps and wrestled in the grass like men. They tricked the boys into posing for obscene and luminous polaroids they secreted away and traded like baseball cards. We felt so generous with one another, someone’s finger in your mouth making you tremble like a bass string, warm breasts in your hands like full-bellied birds.
We used an embroidery needle and India ink, tattooing blue ships in full sail on each other’s backs, interlocking hearts on the white expanse of our thighs. These were the symbols we recognized each other by, the striated feathers that came to us in dreams, the silhouettes of Western mountain ranges, religious medals we had won in some other life.
And when October came, and the girls among us grew swollen and tight in the belly, it was better. It was life, at least, fecundity, none of the death or darkness that riddled that old wooden house, that left us dead too. We imagined growing corn in the high heat of summer and canning peaches for the winter, drying sheets of lemon verbena under the noonday sun, jam bubbling hot and dark in cast-iron pots. We would all be their parents, since no one would know whose child was whose, and the children would know about moss, about snake skins and maps, and they would pick apart owl pellets to birth the bones of mice beneath their hands.
And so it came to be, the main house, the babies born, all of us growing together into women and men. Our hen-house was papered with pages from Rolling Stone and our children charted the voyage of the planets in the dirt with their fingers, rode together to the pond on the back of their Indian pony. We trusted the magnetics, our ripe-red hearts, the hills that take human shape and remind us who we are.
Emma Cline‘s work has appeared in Tin House. In 2009, she was the recipient of a Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference scholarship.