the things under things
When Hannah dropped her friend off at the airport, the traffic they’d been sitting in for an hour at the exit ramp to the terminal meant they had to kiss cheeks in the car, and talk over one another as they said what a wonderful trip it had been and I’ll send pictures and be safe and I love you and talk soon. Then the security guard was blowing his whistle at the line of cars, maybe at Hannah, she couldn’t really tell, and she eased back into the steady stream of solo drivers. Some of them were surely relieved to be relieved of their passengers. Maybe others were crying. Hannah suddenly felt frightened to be alone, while also knowing that this was why she had come out here. The first half of the trip, with her friend, had been meant to gather strength for the second. Hannah didn’t have plans, not any real ones, for this week. Just one word, one destination, one place to get to, by the 11th. Taos.
In May, she had overlapped on the island with her old crew for a few days, and asked her former boss where she should go if she made it out to New Mexico. He’d made a name for himself out there, and knew every inch of that desert. He looked at Hannah for a few moments, and then just said, "Taos." It was the way he said it, not with an accent but just an odd sort of pronunciation that made it almost seem like he was whispering. Hannah repeated it - "Taos?" - but she didn't get it right. He narrowed his eyes just a little bit and said it again. "Taos. Go to the mission."
And so another summer road trip was born, and she convinced her friend to join her for a week to celebrate the ten year anniversary of their road trip to Alaska, the one they still told stories about. How they bought bootleg beer from the gas station attendant to drink in the hot springs in Alberta. How they had flirted so desperately with the kayakers at the campsite next to theirs in the Yukon, so young and not yet knowing how to just tell a man: take me somewhere and lay me down. They had whispered and giggled in their tent late into the night, hoping something they didn’t know how to make happen would somehow magically occur. A decade later, they still talked late into the night about men, but they had long since figured the other part out.
It got warmer as she drove down out of the mountains that looked down over Denver, and by the time she reached Colorado Springs the smell of red dust had replaced that of the green trees. As she rolled the windows down and inhaled the warm air, Hannah felt it loosen her body. The tension she’d needed in the mountains, to hold herself upright and steady her legs on the trails winding up and down and through the Winds, melted into her bloodstream and evaporated like the sweat on her skin out here, gone in the same moment she knew it to be there.
She got off the highway and followed the signs, rolling past a gas station nestled at the end of the mountains, and as she turned the corner around them the road and the world opened itself up to the sky and the sun and the heat. The line of cars waiting to get into the park prepared her for the chaos of the visitor’s center. Everyone was outside, it seemed, this summer. She slipped through the crowd quickly, making her way to the quiet of the backcountry office. In 10 minutes, she had a permit for a site on the far end of the dunes and a map to the overflow parking area. Hannah waded up the creek for a while, a wide delta of channels that shifted and collapsed and changed course right before her eyes. She found a spot far from the parking lot where she could hear the water mostly, instead of people talking, and sat down, took off her shoes, and buried her feet in the water.
When the day started cooling down, happening in a way that was so quick it still caught her off guard, she made her way back to the car and packed for the night. She wouldn’t need much - the small tent, a sleeping bag, a water bottle and granola bar for breakfast. It was only a mile back to the car, if she did need anything else. Hannah started off just before sunset, but it took her longer to get up the dunes than she anticipated. She stopped at the top to look at the view and the map, though there were markers sticking out of the sand every 30 meters or so designating the “trail.”
She felt an odd sort of anxiety. She’d camped alone plenty of times, but there was something about the landscape of the sand around her that made her feel like she was the only person on the planet - or rather, that she was alone on an entirely different planet. As it got darker, it seemed that the only things in existence were the sand and stars and maybe her, but she became less sure about the last one the longer she thought about it. It was impossible to get lost, all she had to do was head down and soon enough she could be in the parking lot and a coin shower at the visitors center. It was more that feeling of aloneness, which became more vast in this vast landscape, and a feeling that it wouldn’t matter much if she did or did not continue to exist.
Hannah stopped, and turned around slowly to look at the deep, round shape of her steps in the sand. Soon they would be indistinguishable from other, earlier hikers’ footprints, or from the wind blown piles and little valleys that were scattered along the surface of the dunes. She wanted to be the kind of person, the kind of woman, who hiked out in the Great Sand Dunes by herself and spent the night under the stars and discovered grand things about her life, but.. fuck it. She wasn’t sure she was. And no one would ever know if she did, or didn’t. Half an hour later, she was laying out her sleeping bag in the back of the rental car.
The next day, she kept making her way south, slowly, stopping at every roadside pullout and tuft of grass she didn’t recognize. As the road straightened out towards Taos, the light grew low and long. Hannah pulled in to the hostel she’d found online that morning, up one of the canyons outside of town. There was an old truck and a few tents scattered in the backyard, and as she walked past the outdoor kitchen and into the musty smelling building, she thought - this’ll do just fine.
The front desk was empty and there were piles of sheets and towels on the pool table in the adjacent common area. She waited for a few minutes, and then heard the sound of keys jingling and footsteps, and turned to see a slight, dark haired man piling up more sheets on the table. He had on a denim shirt, and a bit of a stubble on his long face, his nose was just off center. Maybe it had been broken once. Neither of them spoke for a moment- just a moment too long - before he said slowly, “Can I help you?”
Her eyes had already moved to the tan, woven bracelet wrapped several times around one of his wrists, and the turquoise ring on his left hand. She saw the way the bones of his arm poked out from around the edges of the bracelet, and thought that the length of his fingers seemed odd for his figure. Then he took a step towards her, towards the desk, and the movement made her blink, and she looked up at his face, with his question still on it.
She made the appropriate sounds, and he moved behind the desk and pulled out some paperwork and asked for her drivers license.
“Georgia?” he said, flipping it round the right way. “What brings you out here?”
Before she could understand why, Hannah was saying that she was an ecologist, and she was here to visit a colleague in Mora she was collaborating on a research project with - which was true, but also not the truth. She thought of the other things she might have said.
“Where else should I be? Can you tell me? Because I don’t know where else to go.”
But she heard herself, as if from a distance, saying some more things about the trees and forests out here, and her research, and she thought of how she must sound. She couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t just said she was on vacation, on a road trip. She never said any of these things.. if anything, she danced around what she did to make others more comfortable, sometimes. It was if she wanted him to be intimidated, like some men were by her. Like she wanted him to make sure he’d keep his wrists hidden, and his hands off her. Because, now, that was all she was thinking of.
He said his name was Shane, and he showed her to her room and said he’d be around for a few more hours if she needed anything. He seemed rather relieved as he closed the door behind him, and Hannah sat on the bed and looked around, as if she thought she might find herself somewhere close by, outside of herself, waiting until he was gone and it was safe to come back down into her body. She shook her head slightly, and got in the shower.
When she was clean and warm from the water and a beer, she heard the jingling of keys on the other side of the door, and she stepped out of the bunk room just as Shane was leaning down to get something from under the front desk. She walked towards him, knowing her face was flushed, and as he registered her presence she smiled broadly and openly, she hoped, and asked if he had a minute to talk about hiking up Red Canyon. His eyes lit up, just a fraction of a second before his face smiled, but then darkened again. When he had processed her question, he reached down and pulled out a map from a backpack behind the desk.
She knew that he’d accepted her attempt at some kind of apology, for before, when he stopped for a moment with his fingers hovering over a little blue squiggly line of a creek on the map. She realized how close together they were then, huddled over the desk. Shane looked up at her, and she noted that his eyes were the color of that green grass she couldn’t name, but kept seeing on the side of the road. She watched his shoulders rise as he breathed in and then said, “..but the hike I just can’t stop doing…” and then she didn’t hear anything else after that. She leaned back a bit and watched as his hands moved through the air, following the lines tattooed on his arms as they disappeared under the rolled up sleeves of his shirt.
He was asking her a question, another one she had missed while distracted by his hands, again. He had folded the map and was holding it out to her. She could borrow it, he was saying, if she promised to bring it back tomorrow before she left. He thought he could trust her, he said, with a slight smile. Then they were just two people smiling at one another, and she knew something then about what would happen later.
Outside, in the last bits of the sunrise, she settled onto one of the old couches in the courtyard with her guitar. She had been working on a song with her friend the last week, and it wouldn’t leave her alone. A few other people who lived and worked at the hostel - hiker types and ski bums looking for a cheap way to stay near the mountains in the summer - came and went from the outdoor kitchen area, making polite small talk with her.
Every now and then, he would come out of the main building, walking fast with a message or a task that needed doing. She found herself strumming old hymns, like The Angels Rejoiced, and Gillian Welch and Evangeline, trying not to remember that these were the songs that turned her voice into something that haunted men. A siren sound, one had once told her, when she was far too young. But once such things had been named they couldn’t be forgotten, and she had used those songs sparingly ever since.
But she knew it had had the desired effect, when Shane came outside and plugged in a string of lights that created a yellow glow that bounced off the tin metal over top of them. Instead of heading back to the kitchen, then, he stepped inside the warm ring of light and asked if she minded if he joined her. She smiled again, wider, welcoming him with much more knowledge and practice than she’d had with the kayakers in the Yukon. A far away sound of a barn owl in the distance sounded out, and he looked down at the cup in his hands, and then back up, and asked if she wanted some tea. She said no, thank you though, and he said almost to himself, as if he was bewildered by his own question and found it humourous: “Ok. Ok. That’s good, because there isn’t any more.”
She laughed then, and he did too, and then everything she ever hoped might happen began to unfold. They began to dance together in conversation, in that wandering way that those who know they will soon become lovers instinctively know how to do. People came and went past them, finding any reason to stop as they made little orbits around him.They smiled a certain way when they saw him, and she listened to their conversations, not hearing the words but registering the pitch of their voices, and learning what a great deal he meant to all of them by the sounds they made and the wideness of their smiles.
When they were alone, he answered her questions with much more honesty than she’d expected, and it was a new and strange kind of gift to listen to the story of someone else’s pain. Eventually he told her about the months in the hospital, and then about coming home to Taos. How it felt to have his body betray him so completely, and how he learned to forgive it. About what it meant to have the strength to get out of bed in the morning, on the days that he could. About how he couldn’t wait to go back to his job at the co-op, and bag groceries and make people smile all day. The way he said it was so clean and full of grace, without shame or regret, or any of the other things that could have been there.
He talked about how places out here could put spells on people, and how they could hold more promise than they ever gave back. She thought of her collection of crooked, tiny, peach colored pots that she’d made last winter and treasured, not for what they were in the end, but just for the process of making them. She thought of the potlucks she’d had in the old red house she moved into after he left, with one space heater for the whole place, inviting anyone and everyone she knew or met, in a way that some might have seen as pleading.
She thought of the looks on the faces of the people who did come, who saw the green heartvine crawling up and through the cracks in the bathroom wall, sneaking in from outside, to shower with her. She fucking loved it, but she knew what it took to remain proud when others looked at you and didn’t get it. She didn’t know how he saw that on her face, but she knew he knew.
The owl that followed her around followed her there, too. She thought of that sound of his cry at night, by the singing tree, on the island. She told him about the day on the beach in the fog, her first time back on the island. How in the afternoons, she drove around aimlessly. He wasn’t around to be angry at anymore, but the island remained, and she didn’t want to give it the satisfaction of going anywhere on purpose. She could barely stand to be, much less be any place there they had been together. One afternoon, she ended up at the beach, but when she stepped out of the truck and got over the top of the first dune, all she could see was a grey wall of fog in front of her where the ocean was supposed to be. She could hear the waves, but couldn’t see them. Her mouth opened slightly, trying to smile but not quite remembering how. For a few minutes she wandered around in the fog, captivated by the sound of the waves coming and going, that she couldn’t see. For a few minutes she forgot that there was a thing called pain.
Then, she suddenly felt afraid, and she turned back towards the truck. That’s when she saw how the fog was moving across the beach. It was steaming up from the ocean, moving over the dunes, and when it hit the treeline it went straight up and over them. It was as if the world had forgotten how gravity worked, or maybe the laws of the universe were moving backwards. It was water in the sky, moving fucking up.
It was the most magical thing she had ever seen. She had been in this kind of fog once before, with him. He’d taken a picture of her, with her pants rolled up around her calves and her bare feet sunk deep in the rippled mud. She had one arm thrown up in the air, trying to keep her balance, and they were both laughing. She remembered the way their laughs had sounded together. When things were good, they had filled up all the air and space in any place they were together with that sound. She felt very alone then, so alone that she didn’t know if she was real. She had gasped at this possibility, and put a hand to her stomach over an imaginary wound, as she crumbled to one knee on the cold, wet sand, and then let out the worst sound she had ever made. She hadn’t known how to protect herself from what she hadn’t known was possible - from water in the sky moving up, or from him.
She talked then, just a little bit more, about the how things broke completely - bottles, bones, her heart - and he listened in a calm silence that made her want to keep talking about these things that she had never had a witness for. Most people were unable to stand the sight or sound of such pain. At best, they might tolerate it long enough to say soft, well intentioned sorry’s. It was a relief not to have to take care of someone while she spoke.
It got colder as the sun went down, and they moved closer while their laughter got louder. After some time, he pointed at the tents in the yard and said with another soft smile, “We should probably go inside, or quiet down. Don’t want to get you in trouble..” He reached for her hand then, slowly, with a question on his face that he hoped he knew the answer to. She loved that he let that hope show, again, without anything else that could have been there. She leaned forward and kissed him, until he said quite under his breath, “I want to make love with you.”
He said it as if he knew a secret recipe for creating love, wherever or whenever they might need to. As if they could just make some love, the way a tree makes wood from the air. She had thought that love was something that you stumbled upon, something you picked up small pieces of along the way. When you had enough, maybe you built something crude, homemade and makeshift, and prayed it would hold up - you prayed for good weather. She had never thought of trying to make love, trying to do that act with that intention.
After, she fell asleep and dreamed of herself falling and settling into the island, into the center of the world, becoming as still as that place that she loved the most. Of reaching for that thing that’s coming next, that you find yourself pulled towards even though you don’t know what it is exactly or how you’ll get there.
She woke up the next morning as he slipped out of the bunk room, and left for the pueblo as the sun rose over the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the east. She was one of the first visitors to check in at the pueblo, where they were having one of several Feast Days that they held throughout the year. Normally, the pueblo was off limits to the public, but Feast Days were days of visiting with friends, families, and visitors to the pueblo, sharing food and stories and dances.
She lingered at the end of the group, looking up at the old church tower as the guide told the story of the bell in the mission, realizing only a few minutes after the fact that the guide had said it was the original bell from the 1600’s. The bells of the missions were baptized, given godparents and names, and returned with the priests to Spain when their tenure in the New World ended. She thought of the island and the mission, and the small, cold piece of the mission bell she had found once in a pile of shell and 16th century trash on the edge of the world as she knew it then. She thought of how heavy it felt in her hand then, heavier than it looked, and how heavy she had felt as she held it in her hand, looking up at him.
At the pueblo, she had followed the dancers up into the maze of buildings stacked on top of one another with ladders leading to outdoor living spaces, where laundry hung from nylon cords and where teenagers stood to try and find cell reception. They danced again, and sang an old song, and when the last echo of voices bounced down the narrow stairs away from the ring of dancers they started to move up the steps to the next house. Someone in the back of the crowd started to clap loudly, until the sound became solitary and they realized no one else was going to join them. The dances and songs were not a performance, and were not meant to be celebrated as such. The clappers stopped abruptly, chagrined, and looked as if they wanted to melt into the red clay walls. She walked around until there was nothing left to see or do, until everyone had gone home inside the tall buildings, and she was alone in the clean, bare square of the pueblo.
When she left the pueblo, she headed west, back up into the mountains. She pulled off on the side of the road, just outside of town on the other side of the bridge over the Rio Grande. She walked down a trail by the road, staring down at the river below that looked deeper with each step she took towards the edge of it, until she found a flat, red rock to sit on. She stared down at the canyon that looked about as deep as the one that was carved inside of her. She reached inside her pocket and twisted the ring inside over and over again, feeling once more for that sense of time tripping upon itself. She didn’t ever feel that way, not anymore, except when she touched it and remembered him making it.
Time, in some cultures, is the same as distance and they are measured by the same unit. She thought of the memories she had been holding on to, until maybe she could get far away enough away from them to see them all. The falling, and the rising. She’d thought she just needed more time, but maybe she’d needed more distance, as well. Maybe she’d needed a place like this, a canyon that was beautiful because of the way it had been carved. That held all the grace and beauty of the world that it just gave it away, for free, to anyone who was looking for it. She thought of all the things love is, and all the things it is not.
She thought of all the ways things had fallen apart over the years, and the reasons why. Reasons that stretched far beyond the warm coast of Georgia, back to nights and hours in a cold place, with secrets buried within the cold snows and arguments of his childhood. How many things had been broken, and then how the island, how that place, had undone them both. Over and over and over again, until she couldn’t stand the sight of the light coming down through the leaves and spanish moss. Until one day, many years later, she could.
She thought of the dancer she was before she knew him in that place: someone who was fun, but also unkind. Someone who didn’t know what it felt like to be so very, very alone that she didn’t know if she was alive or real anymore. That dancer didn’t understand the weight of the heaviness that people that walk all around her carried - people having the worst days of their lives, but still trying to be in the world as best they can - and how beautiful those people are. How, when they tell their stories, it’s for a reason that is important to them, but it’s a reason you probably don’t know because you haven’t heard the whole story. How what is most often needed then is just silence, and stillness. How you can learn to be still enough to let the reason find you.
She remembered the merry go round of making all of those tiny pink pots that spring, of how she learned, in that cold, dark, winter in that studio, that ending the pull slowly - releasing the thing you’ve been concentrating on so intently - is just as important as any of the other steps. That you must release it slowly, with as much grace as you can muster. That the way you let go of things matters. She held out her hand then, and let that small silver band of ferns fall away, down into the canyon below.
She stood up then and walked to the edge of the red rock, and held out her hand towards the water. She had always wanted to let this go in a particular place, far away from the salt breeze and slow laziness of the tides that might never take it far enough away from her to bring her peace. She wanted to know the last place she had known it was, and then to be able to think of it traveling miles and curves and waterfalls towards another ocean, far away from hers. She wanted to know where she had left it, but she didn’t want to ever know where it was, again, not really.
As she walked back down the trail towards the car, she thought of her favorite shovel, that was held together with duct tape and the sticky residue of beer. She knew that just because something is broke, doesn’t mean it don’t work. She breathed in that hot air that hovered above the canyon, and let it warm her, again, much like the fog on the beach had cooled her, until she knew she was real again. That she had been seen, and loved, again, in some way that was enough, for now. Enough to get her back home, to the coast and to the island, and that was enough, for now.