Sprawled across the bed, you slept facedown, wearing that red cowgirl shirt and the velvet skirt you love. I stood by and watched your breathing. Your hair, so straight and black, reminded me of my people, our people, and I wondered what you dreamed. Years ago, the Nez Perce surrendered to broken treaties, broken dreams. I’m sorry, daughter, but I’m surrendering too.
You’re only five, Muri, but you learn fast. In this Oregon desert, the sun beats down hot, and today our tan faces shone with sweat. We walked across the sagebrush and you held the corn snake we found. You held it gently, without fear. I felt as proud as I ever have.
After sunset, we sat on the hill and looked up at the stars. When you got cold I draped my old coat around you and told you all about angels. On the way home, you didn’t ask for your mother, not once. It’s wrong, I know, but I was pleased.
I had big plans to be your daddy. I was going to read to you every day, teach you the names of all the Civil War battles. I’d teach you how to fish. You’d learn how to listen to the wind and how to skip a stone. Most of all, I’d teach you how to pray. None of that will happen now.
After your mom called, I broke down and cried, and I couldn’t stop. I’ve lost. Your mother doesn’t know our ways but she has the white man’s courts on her side. They call it full custody. I cry because I won’t see you on your first day of school or when you get your driver’s license. My ears won’t hear your laughter. You’ll learn to climb trees and hold snakes without me. I won’t even be able to tell you why I wasn’t there.
Maybe when you’re grown you’ll understand. Or maybe you won’t care about the secrets we could have shared, secrets of land and water, secrets of fixing refrigerators. I pray that God, who made all of this for us, will reach your heart in time.
Tonight, I hugged you close, but you held your nose and said, “Daddy, I hate smoking!” I can’t seem to get that cigarette smell out of my clothes. All I smelled right then was the pain of your mother’s victory.
Her car pulled into the driveway, and she leaned on the horn. I waved out the window. She could wait. I shrugged into my suede jacket.
Before I handed you over, I picked up the framed picture I like: the one where you’re standing on that wicker chair, holding your ragged blanket. I took the photo out of its frame, careful to hold it by the edges and slipped it into my wallet. When you got sleepy we hunted all over for that grimy blanket.
Your old man has the magic touch with broken appliances too. Just this week I fixed the neighbor lady’s old stove. The bottle? Now that’s a different story that I’ve tried to change a hundred times. If you only knew.
Standing by the bed, I watched you sleeping. I stroked your flushed cheek and whispered your name. I carried you to your mother’s car, and you opened your eyes and smiled. I saved my tears for later when I opened my wallet. I looked at your photo and weakness ambushed me.
There are days when I feel strong. Those times, nothing can stand between you and me. Most times, though, I’m broken. I’m nothing but an old sinner praying for another chance.
Someday, Muri, come looking for your old dad, will you? Maybe God will light a fire in you and our ancestors will fan the flames. I’ll put up a beacon so you’ll know where to look.
My father left my mother and me when I was five, but back then I didn’t hate him for it. He was an angel because he showed me things, told me things, made me see things for the very first time. How to hold a flat stone in order to skip it. The feel of water slipping through my fingers. How to tell the moon’s phase.
The last night I saw him alive he took me to the top of a hill to look at the stars. Out where we lived, in Oregon’s high desert, there were more stars than black sky. He draped his worn suede coat over my shoulders, and I kept tripping on the bottom, that’s how little I was. We walked and walked, and once I fell over a sagebush. When I cried he said, “Sh, angels are watching.” Dad pointed to the Milky Way, which took my breath away, and then we shouted out with joy, singing right along with the whole heavenly host. That’s how I thought of my father then—as an angel—alive and real and always with a flask of whiskey inside that suede jacket.
Before Mother died she always said he was just an old holy roller. His idea of religion was speaking in tongues while reaching for the bottle. When I was young she mocked him every day.
“Why don’t you just take your baby girl on down to the bar with you?” Mother would say. Her words dripped with her special brand of sarcasm. In those days her bitterness only made me feel closer to this father who prayed and this God who loved a sorry man like Joseph Pond.
But by the time I grew up I had come to hate him. Mom did a good job of encouraging my disgust, but I admit that most of my bile came of my own free will. I carefully tended doubts about God the Father, too, and I routinely blamed my troubles on one or both of them. The day I drove to Murkee, where Joseph Pond had lived and died, I believed that angels didn’t exist, at least not on desert highways like this one. My ex-husband Chaz said he and I had simply “grown apart.” I tried to make it work for the kids’ sake, but after I caught him with that Victoria woman one time too many, I decided enough was enough. Anyway, Chaz admitted he wasn’t the daddy type. When he left, I let him go.
The kids and I were alone now, bound for the middle of nowhere. I wondered if angels took assignments out here on Mars.
Mars must be a lot like central Oregon, I decided. I didn’t see a drop of water anywhere, and the wind blew hard and constant. Gusts pressed down the grass, leaning it over like a wino who had fallen asleep. Sagebrush, the ugliest plant I’ve ever seen, was probably the only thing holding down the red dirt. With the way my life was headed, if I didn’t find something to hold onto soon, I might blow away too.
At times the kids dozed against the windows, their relaxed mouths jerking shut each time I hit a pothole. They must have been so tired to sleep through all the jouncing. We’d been on the road at least six hours, thanks to my lousy sense of direction and countless sibling quarrels. Nova started complaining as soon as we crossed the Cascade Mountains.
“We’re doomed,” Nova moaned. Then she argued with Truman over our bottled water supply and how many Milky Ways were left.
“What are you looking at?” I heard Tru yell at his sister. She was probably drilling him with the ultimate weapon—her famous stare. I could see her smoldering gaze in the rearview mirror.
“Everything looks dead.” Nova pointed out the window. “Water’s probably poison. Acid rain or something.” She snapped her gum then, knowing I’d thrown many a student out of the high school library for that very infraction.
“Maybe that’s why Grandpa died,” Truman volunteered. At nine, Tru, named after my favorite president, was still cheerful most of the time. His sister just groaned and made a face at Tru, then put her earbuds back in place.
I swear she didn’t hate everything and everyone last week. Her dyed orange hair, only two inches long on top this week, had been stiffened with Elmer’s glue and stood in small peaks.
“Woolly worms,” I told her. “Your hair reminds me of fuzzy caterpillars.” She attributed her dark mood to my observations and said it was my fault that everything, including the landscape, had died. Sometimes she could be a stereotype of herself.
Maybe stereotypes were all anyone was, including my father. After years of thinking about how I could connect with my roots, Tru had found him on the Internet. He was doing a report for school about Oregon ranchers and accidentally bumped into his own grandfather’s name in an article about ongoing feuds over water rights in the desert lands. An address popped up almost instantly, and decades of searching condensed into a few lines on a computer screen.
I’d written to the address that same day, only to learn that Joseph Pond had recently died. His sister, Lutie Pearl, wrote back, “Your daddy was only fifty-five, but liver disease doesn’t care who it kills off.” He owned a piece of property that was now mine, she said, and coincidentally, the neighbor was threatening to sue their socks off. “Muri,” she wrote, “it would bless me if you could come here to clear things up.”
Bless her? I wasn’t sure I could balance my checkbook, much less clear up a lawsuit. But I wanted more than anything to know my roots, and truth be told, we were temporarily homeless.
As we chugged closer to my father’s land, the dust hid deep ruts in the road that could have rolled our VW bus over on its back like a turtle. The kids had named it Homer because it was a camper inside, complete with a miniature stove and a roll of paper towels that came unwound unless held together with rubber bands. Tru kept saying we looked like the Beverly Hillbillies.
That might have been funny if I hadn’t piled all our belongings on the roof rack, including a couple of twin mattresses that anchored an assortment of mismatched luggage and cardboard boxes, mostly containing kitchen appliances and old books.
The thought of driving to nowhere looking like characters from The Grapes of Wrath made my eye twitch. As if that wasn’t enough, Nova was so embarrassed she threatened to bail out of the van and walk all the way back to Portland. My daughter, who was sixteen and therefore knew everything, added, “Your dad’s already dead, so what’s the point?”
Tru stared at her, with that serious expression he gets. He opened his mouth to say something but closed it again and went back to playing his handheld video game.
I’d told them we were here to settle my father’s affairs, but that was only half true and they knew it. Once the school district eliminated my library position, Chaz knew he could pressure me to unload the house. I couldn’t stand to live under the neighbors’ stares, so I went along with the sale. As soon as the house sold, my ex-husband took his half of the money and ran straight to Victoria. He left his children unable to understand why he wasn’t interested in them.
They didn’t completely grasp the fact that we had nowhere else to go, and that’s why we were driving into the Oregon desert. It was as simple as that. My half of the home proceeds would go for living expenses until I could land another job. I tried to explain that I saw this trip as a means to get my act together and figure out what we should do next. They didn’t get it, and I confess, half the time I didn’t either. My arms felt numb from gripping the steering wheel; I was a blob of weariness that began behind my eyes and permeated to my fingertips.
“Turn around and find a hotel,” my daughter moaned above the chatter of the engine.
“There’s not even a Motel 6 out here, Nova,” I said.
She sarcastically reminded me that at least motels have swimming pools. I was thinking of letting her test her desert survival skills when we pulled into Murkee and parked in front of the Mucky-Muck Café. The place was as dried up as the rest of the landscape except for a scrub lilac bush straining for shade next to the building.
If we thought this looked like Mars, out here we were the strange ones. At least that’s the way the waitress in the café acted. She took one look at Nova’s pierced eyebrow (the one I’d forbidden), shook her head slowly, and asked for our order. “Today’s special is the double cheeseburger basket,” the waitress said, pointing her pencil at a hand-lettered sign that leaned against a water glass full of cut lilacs, no doubt from the bush outside. She was dressed in one of those oldfashioned uniforms with a Peter Pan collar and a suffocating polyester bodice. A printed name tag said, Dove, and underneath, Welcome to the Mucky-Muck Café. The sign on the front door read, Mucky-Muck is Chinook for Good Food.
“You have GardenBurgers?” Nova wanted to know. She’d declared herself a vegetarian last week. “And a double-skinny hazelnut latte.” My daughter had forgotten that we were now on a different planet, one without a Starbucks.
Dove looked at me to translate.
“Pick something,” I growled, handing Nova one of those menus where someone had typed in the selections and slipped them inside a thick plastic sleeve.
When lunch arrived, Nova picked at hers and stared, catatonic, out the window. In the light I noticed again that my daughter had Chaz’s eyes, a light intense blue that could turn the color of the stormy Pacific when she was angry.
Although most of the time he was mature for his age, Tru made a touchdown by flicking his straw paper between the salt and pepper shakers. I had a sudden urge to hide beneath the table.
Instead, I asked Dove if she knew about the place out on Winchester Road, the estate of the late Joseph Pond.
“Sure, everybody knows the Ponds,” Dove said, but I wondered why she was whispering. She gathered up the little wads of paper where Tru missed the field goal. “So sad about his passing. His sister and her husband still live out there, though. Tiny comes in here and hauls off anything we don’t want.”
“We’ve been on the road since this morning,” I said. “I’ve gotten lost more times than I can count.” I fidgeted with my straw and tried to ignore Nova’s grimaces.
One guy at the counter turned around. He was about fifty, his cheeks creased and tanned with the marks of sun and wind. His clothes were standard rancher’s attire: plaid western shirt tucked into dark blue jeans and boots with pointed toes and a thick layer of dirt clinging to the heels. A real cowboy instead of the phony environmentalist types I’d put up with in the city. This cowboy sat hunched over the remains of a greasy lunch platter and hadn’t eaten the pickle garnish. He stood it straight up in the middle of a half-eaten sandwich and chuckled. He had sharp, deep-set eyes; I couldn’t see if they were brown or green. I looked away, hoping he hadn’t noticed me staring. Being a librarian, I also hoped he wasn’t the type who breaks the spine on a book.
The man stood up and strode over to our booth. “Welcome to Murkee,” he said and extended his hand. “Just passing through?”
“No, not exactly,” I said. “Nice to meet you. I’m Muri.” I shook his hand but felt myself recoil. “And these are my children, Nova and Truman.”
“Since the new highway went through we don’t get that many tourists,” he said. “You got to get off the beaten path to find us, right Dove?”
The waitress nodded. “Way off the path. You got that right, Linc. Unless you’re out hunting fossils, that is.”
He laughed. “Where are my manners? I meant to say I’m Lincoln Jackson. I know just about everything that goes on around here.”
Nova’s head popped up from her sulking. “Tell us how to get back to Portland.”
I gasped. “Nova! I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson. We’ve gotten lost a number of times today, and we’re a little road weary.” I hoped my eyes weren’t puffy.
He waved his hand. “Call me Linc, please. And I don’t blame—Nova, is it—for being wary of our little town. The sidewalks do roll up pretty early. Not much action here, I’m afraid.”
“Linc, then.” I nudged Nova under the table.
“Sorry,” she said.
Dove broke in. “It’s even worse when there’s a rodeo over in Prineville. Then we’re lucky to serve lunch to the rattlers and jackrabbits.” She chuckled at her small joke, and her uniform swished when she moved her arms.
Tru perked up. “Rattlers? Are there rattlesnakes out here?” He pushed up his glasses. Nova rolled her eyes.
Linc patted Tru’s arm. “Sure there’s snakes, little guy. You ever hold a snake?”
“No, but I want to.” Tru sat up taller.
Linc leaned on the back of our booth. “How about roping? You ever roped a steer?”
Tru shook his head. “Like a cowboy?”
Linc laughed. “Shore, pardner. I can teach you all you need to know.” Linc brought over his black Stetson and handed it to Tru. “Go ahead, son, try it on.”
Tru looked at me for approval, then plunked on the hat. It nearly swallowed his head. “How do I look?”
“Like a doofus,” Nova said. “Like this town. Who’d name a town Murkee, anyway?”
I sighed. “Nova, please.”
Tru returned the hat, and Linc smoothed the brim. “No offense taken, ma’am,” Linc said. “I don’t rightly understand it myself, young lady. But my Great-grandmother Ida had the idea. And she insisted on Murkee. She said it sounded like some Indian word.”
“So this whole area was settled by your family?” I didn’t want to sound nosy, but I was intrigued. I smiled, relieved that these rural folks were so friendly.
Apparently, Dove had been eavesdropping. She came over with our check and said, “Linc here owns just about everything in these parts. Everything but the church and a couple of parcels next to his place.”
Tru’s eyes got bigger again. “You mean you own the whole town?” He dribbled ketchup down the front of his t-shirt, but I resisted the urge to wipe it off.
Linc seemed to consider Tru’s question. “Well, son, I guess so. And when I get access to that creek I’ll be a lot happier.” Dove shot him a look and resumed scrubbing down tables.
“Why do you need a creek?” Tru looked puzzled. “Does it have lots of fish or something?” He stuffed the last of his french fries into his mouth.
“Tru, use your napkin,” I said. I grabbed my purse and dug out money for our lunch, plus a nice tip. “And don’t ask so many questions.” This was getting embarrassing.
“No problem, ma’am,” Linc said. “Let’s just say one of my neighbors has been difficult.” He sighed. “Then he up and died before we could see eye to eye.”
Tru practically shouted, “My grandpa died too! Last week! But I never met him. I just heard about him.”
“Sorry to hear that, son.” Linc’s expression changed, and suddenly, he seemed guarded.
The wind picked up outside, rattling the windows and door. Clouds sped past the restaurant like a stampede, as if they knew there was something wrong here. I shuddered at the thought of getting lost again before the sun set. Now I was anxious to get on with it. Even in death Joseph Pond would complicate my life.
“Mr. Jackson, we’re not in Murkee to stay,” I said. “But my father, Joseph Pond, passed away recently. We’ll be here long enough to set his affairs in order. Maybe you could direct me to his property?” I smoothed a stray hair.
Linc’s pleasant demeanor had vanished. His jaw now worked from side to side, and the light in his eyes had turned to sparks.
“Chief Joseph’s place isn’t hard to find,” Linc said. “First eyesore you come to, that’s the one.” He laughed, but it was a hard laugh. He went back to the counter and straddled the stool.
“Eyesore?” I said aloud. I wondered why he had called my father Chief.
Dove shook her head and gazed up at the ceiling. “Lord, here we go again,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff in the yard: bicycle parts, old cars, and that ridiculous fence.”
Nova jabbed me with her elbow. “Mom,” she hissed. “Let’s just go.”
“No, I want to hear more,” I said. “What did you say about a fence?”
Linc interrupted. “She’s talking about that idiotic fence out there. It’s, well, you’ll have to see for yourself.”
The bells on the café door jingled, and another man walked in. He was the opposite of Linc in terms of first impressions. Instead of western attire, he wore a flannel shirt and baggy, worn jeans. A short graying ponytail trailed out the back of his ball cap. He sat at the counter, and I wondered what he was doing in the middle of nowhere.
“Hey Good-looking,” he said to Dove.
“Good-looking my foot, Doc. The usual?” Dove grinned when he nodded. She slid behind the counter, poured coffee, and set the cup and saucer in front of him. “It’ll be a few minutes for your order.”
The man called Doc smiled. “No problem.” He was Linc’s opposite. His tanned face was easy and relaxed. I liked that, but I quickly reminded myself how foolish I could be about men: giving in, saying yes, and stumbling in, when I ought to be running for my life.
Dove came over to the booth, slapped the check in front of me, and I snapped to attention with a small gasp. She was careful to keep her back to Linc.
“Honey,” she whispered to me. “Linc’s your next-door neighbor. And he can be a bear, if you get my drift.”
I stared at Linc, looking for bear-like signs. Doc wasn’t overly friendly with Linc, either, but he did nod his head. Doc’s cell phone rang, and he spoke into it in hushed tones, which I appreciated. I was trying to teach Nova a cell phone wasn’t the most important accessory on earth.
“Hold the sandwich,” Doc said. “Gotta run, Dove. Sorry.” He dug around in his jeans pocket.
Dove waved him off. “Get going, Doc. No charge for a measly cup of coffee.”
“Thanks, Good-looking.” He winked at Dove and rushed outside.
Dove went to the counter, removed Doc’s cup, and then turned back to me. “Head straight out to the first gravel road,” she said, tossing the dirty dishes into a rubber dishpan, “till you get to the yellow gas company sign.”
Linc nursed his coffee. “If you go past the creek, you’ve gone too far,” he called across the room, and Dove nodded. His gaze locked on me. I felt more and more uncomfortable, but I wasn’t about to let him intimidate me.
“So we’re neighbors.” I stood up and approached him. “I’m Joseph Pond’s biological daughter. I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding.”
Linc looked surprised, but then his eyes narrowed. “Biological, eh? What’s that supposed to mean?” He stood up. “You must be the big city girl Lutie’s been carrying on about, come to show the country bumpkins a thing or two.”
Dove clattered a stack of dishes into the plastic tub.
I stood up taller and cleared my throat. “I’m a librarian, not an attorney.”
He rose and reached into his jeans pocket, plunked down a dollar bill, and shook a toothpick from the container. “Well, Miss Librarian, if Lutie thinks I’ll back down all because some smart girl from Portland steps in, she’s got another think coming.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” I said. “I only want to get things straightened out for my aunt and uncle. That’s what my father wanted.”
Linc paused and turned to face me. “You think you know your old man?” His neck muscles were beginning to bulge, and he pointed at me with his index finger. “I reckon you’re about to find out more than you ever wanted to know.”
I couldn’t find an answer to that one. Nova and Tru kept giving me anxious looks. “We’ll talk soon, Mr. Jackson,” I said finally. “I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Yeah.” Linc threw another bill on the stack. “Here’s a little something extra, Dove.” He tossed the toothpick into the trash can and picked up his western hat.
Nova muttered, “Hick.” I elbowed her in the back.
“I’ll look for the sign then,” I said as cheerfully as I could. Linc Jackson yanked open the door of the café, and the cluster of little brass bells jingled frantically on the doorknob.
He threw his next remark over one shoulder. “Have a nice day.” The door whooshed shut, and a pungent sorrow swept me along with the aroma of lilacs and french fries.
On our way out the bells sounded again, whispering something I couldn’t quite hear.