Debbie Urbanski’s stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Southern Review, The Sun, and in the anthology New Stories from the Midwest 2012 (Indiana University Press).
Here’s some advice. If you’re going to tell a story about a journey, which you are, and you want the story to be an interesting one, which you do, then somebody in it should turn out to be a monster. There are many kinds of monsters in this world, some real, some not, but we are talking presently about one particular type, the kind that allows the hero of the story (hopefully you) to save the world, which would be exciting for us to watch. This kind of monster is wicked but can also be tricky, so if you are the hero, you will have to be careful when identifying who are the monsters of your story, as such monsters may want to play mind games with you. One of their games is changing how they look since they can do that. In certain moments they can look like an ordinary person or they can put on a uniform and look like you.
One option to identifying these particular monsters is to assume everyone held in a certain place, like a room, or a block of rooms, is actually a monster. This is a convenient way to make sure you won’t be tricked.
There are certain environments such monsters tend to frequent, for example the dark, or caves, or cave-like dwellings with locks on the doors and bars across the windows, the last of which is very similar to the place where you will soon be shipped off.
One way of identifying a monster is seeing who is kept in such places.
June, 20xx. Over there.
I know you can’t read this, but maybe Grandma Barb can read it to you pretending to be me (OK Mom?), then I bet you’ll understand plenty of what I’m trying to say. I’m doing just fine so nobody lose any sleep. They feed us here and there are showers where I work but cold but nobody is starving either. Breakfast today was granola bars (honey oat) then for lunch was beef ravioli then dinner was, guess what, more beef ravioli. Yum :) Ha ha not really. What I want to know is where are all the camels!??! You definitely need a picture of a camel, Zoe, but none of us have seen any out here. Maybe they are caged up at the zoo, if people like this even know enough to build a zoo. I bet you are too young to worry about me which is good. You have enough to worry about, like your numbers and your colors (Grandma told me, keep up the great work!). I keep that photo of you in my pocket so you are with me every minute. The photo at the river park where you wore the green dress. Remember to listen to Nana, and go to sleep when she tells you, and don’t forget to dream about me. You are beautiful. These days I don’t think I can make anything as beautiful.
All love, MOM (Rachel)
P.S. Mom (Barb), please send more barbeque Pringles, the ones in the orange container.
P.P.S. Zoe’s Very Special Present is on the way! I hope there’s room in the house, as it is pretty big! It was supposed to come after I left but it didn’t.
Your mom thought you were joking when you said, despite your situation, you were joining the army. You told her in the fall after the leaves all browned then dropped due to a lack of ideal conditions, not the most optimistic setting but it had to do. Barb reminded you, her voice threatening, there was a war going on – “You will be in a war!” – not understanding this war might be the journey you’d been looking for all your life. An opportunity for heroism and transformation, who among us hasn’t longed for that? You would enter as a weak and nervous dimwit, barely able to make your own bed or twist a bun in your hair, and they promised you would emerge some time later, by the end of this story, with a strong yet secretive look on your face, surfacing into the weeping arms of your mother, or your boyfriend, if you still had a boyfriend, which you do not, or your child, if you had a child, which you do, but who will cling to your mother’s legs, pretending not to know you.
Or is it not pretending.
Oh. You almost forgot. Your child: the situation. “Like white trash,” your mom has been known to say at certain neighborhood gatherings. As if she, with her history, should talk. You met the father at a party when he set down his drink and leaned across the battered couch, where you also sat, and said, in all seriousness, “Call me Beauty.” Like the horse in that children’s book, you thought. The horse who dies or was he merely sent abroad. Beauty’s eyes were filled with pain. How is that even possible. What does pain even look like? “You do know he’s damaged goods, right,” your friend advised as you pocketed his number. You felt you could take his pain and put it – where? In your skirt pocket. Where it pulsed red and warm for a time. “Tell me what happened to you over there,” you said. He never told you. Eventually he was nowhere to be found. It’s like you made him up. Except months later, there is your daughter.
Your decision to enlist will begin to make more sense if you recall your family’s devotion to this country. On every Fourth of July for which you have existed, remember how you gorged yourself sick on tricolor desserts while the uncles set off illegal fireworks on the patio, the end of at least one cousin’s braid usually catching on fire, and in the sparkler light, the grown ups of your life – grownups! – started bawling as your grandmother crooned patriotic songs in her emotional voice. The suggested subtext: you owed this country. Where else could your family have become anybody. Where else could each generation of you become better and better.
So when America, in the form of army recruitment commercials, sent out its cry for help, what were you supposed to do. Start dreaming, as your myopic friends did, of becoming paralegals to a cute lawyer? The army recruiters made it sound fun, being a hero, in the videos they played for you, your favorite one being where the helicopters were lowering their rescue litters to rock music in front of a flaming sunset, and not without a sense of grace either. It was made clear, through multiple camera close ups, that the setting sun over there would be other-worldly, and they assured you the beginning of your journey would be filled with wonder as well, in your case a dramatic night landing under an unfamiliar sky cramped with more stars than you ever thought possible. Your old life, as you land, was already becoming a story you might tell truthfully or not, so you loosened your grip and let it drift out of reach, as the M.P. beside you got on her knees, and tilting her head back to stare at all those points of light, for remember there was light over there, at least at first, she asked God or whoever to deliver us from evil men and guard us from wicked hands. And you thought, there is evil in such a place? There is a war in such a place?
“Dinner time!” Barb says. “Pork chops and scalloped potatoes, still your favorite, or so a little birdie told me. I don’t want to see more pictures of burning vehicles. Will you put those away please.”
June, 20xx. Home.
Can you write more about your day to day there, as I would like to know everything. Are you finding it easy to make friends? What do you do in your free time, is there a recreation room with a TV? How early do you wake up in the morning, and do you go to sleep the same time every day or is each day different? What do you think of the weather? Do they have umbrellas over there in any case? Why did you say you are so tired, are you not getting the breaks you deserve, or are the hours longer than you expected?
Here are some stories Zoe wrote for you. Where she gets this from I have no idea. Looks like she has your taste more than my mine! She made me promise I’d send them and also the pictures she drew so here, I am sending them. Now it is 9:42 p.m. meaning it is already Thursday morning where you are. Where does the time between us go? Zoe has been asleep for an hour and I am hoping you are sleeping too and staying out of harm’s way.
In the paper, I read about some United States soldiers who brought a clean water machine to one of the rural villages. Where before the children had to drink toilet water. Do you have opportunities to help like that? If not, try and volunteer, either at a local school or hospital. What an experience that would be for you.
Remember even if you do not see combat this tour, you are sacrificing as much as anyone – i.e. away from family, living in that strange country, so stand tall and treat yourself well! If you need small luxuries to make yourself comfortable, go ahead and buy them. Now is not the time to worry about cost. I will do what I can to help you when you come home.
As for here. You must have heard about the tragic shooting in that school out east. All this week TV stations will air the sad memorial services, even a Catholic mass. People are starting to think, well perhaps we need God. Perhaps God can lead us out of our violence. So lots of religion on TV at this moment which is good. The crows came back yesterday. Mr. Nelson’s dog got run over. That’s about it. Remember, if given the option of fresh vegetables and fruit, make sure to take advantage. Eating the same food day after day is not healthy for your body.
Be good and say your prayers. I will too,
P.S. Are you finding your experience what you hoped it would be?
P.P.S. Enclosed are Zoe’s stories.
Your homecoming balloons, for eventually you do return home, you know the ones filling up your mother’s front room which is now decorated for a party, streamers twisted up the banister and Zoe’s handmade signs taped in the window probably forever – we should prepare you that these balloons will all be heart-shaped, shiny, and enormous, like what you would give to a lover who really likes balloons. For days the hearts lurch drunkenly around the house, banging themselves against the ceiling or the windows, like they are trying to get out of here, not that you could blame them. After days of this, it’s not difficult to start imagining them as real, a dozen actual organs, pulsating and vulgar above you, dribbling vitals onto the carpet in the afternoon.
“Oh. Those,” Barb says, admitting their strangeness.
Apparently there was a sale at the florist’s.
She offers to get rid of them until Zoe sobs at the idea.
At night it’s worse because, at night, they project their shadows onto the walls, and you can bet the shadows are up to no good, creeping along the hallway while you are asleep, or at least while your mother and Zoe are asleep. Sometimes the shadows look like the shadows of a dozen inflated hearts but other times they coalesce into the shape of a person or two people. You may pretend, for now, not to know who the people are. One shadow in particular appears recognizable, and when he looks at you, you notice the familiarity of his eyes which he repeatedly gestures toward, as in, Look at my eyes. Can’t you see my eyes? The choice you are facing here: either believe you’ve gone a little crazy, or believe the dead can reach across great distances to touch you. You try numerous approaches and discover if you jerk your head like this, back and forth, sharply, the shadow pointing at his eyes will leave you alone for now. Barb asks why are you shaking your head like that. Consider this the first clue that your nights at home will be sleepless.
“Can you tell I’m nervous?” Barb says. “Okay, I’m nervous, I admit it! The reason is that moronic list they sent me. Like you’re going to fall apart if I speak the wrong word out loud. Are you going to fall apart? I put the list up on the fridge and if I ask you any of the questions on it, like if I ask how are you doing, or if you’re glad to be home, all you need to tell me is, ‘It’s on the list, Ma,’ and I promise I’ll respect that. Zoe, I’m right here. You can let go of my leg now. You thought you could go out into the world and make it better, so you gave it your best shot. Not everybody can say that. And guess what, you must have done something right because the world’s still here! We’re all still here. Zoe, nobody is going anywhere. Let go. Because I need to help your mother. Now what are you looking for, Rachel. Well, I think you’re looking for something because of how you’re walking around the room in circles. As if you’re looking for something. Oh, is that what you’re looking for. Your ‘cutout.’ Is that what it’s called? We had to throw it away because it made Zoe cry. I thought I wrote you. I guess it looked like you but it looked like you if you were frozen. No, I don’t know how much it cost you. I think you’re getting upset because you’re exhausted. Of course you can go on up and get settled in, but before you do, why don’t you prepare yourself for a big surprise. Oh. Of course you don’t like surprises. That must be #1 on some list, right? #1. Your returning vet does not like surprises. Do not surprise them. So I’ll just tell you now: Rachel Peterson, you are about to become the lucky recipient of an entire bedroom makeover! Everything is new up there. Zoe helped. She cut out all the pictures for my inspiration folder. I thought you of all people deserve a fresh start. You know what I mean, a brand new room for your brand new life. There’s no way I’m letting go of you unless I have to. Fine. I’ll let go of you. Welcome home.”
As for over there, where you came from, it was like this dream you had.
July, 20xx. Over there.
Thanks for the surprise pictures. They are hanging on the wall above my mattress though the one of the witch with the bloody mouth is super scary! Speaking of surprises, Nana said my special present arrived. I hope it was a BIG SURPRISE to find me awake and smiling in the box!! They promised it would look exactly like me. Does it? And be my exact height (if not let me know Mom and I can get money back.) Now you have double mommies, one over here and one over there. I told Nana to stand me in your bedroom so I can watch over you every night and make sure no bad dreams come. In your last letter you asked about the toilets here. I wanted to tell you the toilets are good enough. Everything is fine. We work a lot taking care of the baddies but when we’ve finished our work, there is time for fun. For fun, I play a game called Solitaire or, with friends, I play a different game called Hearts. Do you still bring your dolls to the park in the wagon? Do you still like to swing? Zoe, I hope every day you make the time to learn a new skill or lesson that will help you reach your dreams (the good dreams). I think you are going to be that kind of person who grows up and can do anything.
Sleep tight, night night,
At home you wake at 7 o’clock in your enormous and unfamiliar bedroom to an alarm that chirps until you fling it against the wall. This room of yours appears to have bloated up while you were away, its walls somehow warping apart, the resulting extra space now filled with beanbag chairs and various decorative accents. Above your bed is a poster of the New York skyline, a place that has had nothing to do with you. You’ve never even been there, which maybe is the point. “Come on, Rachel. You have to love it!” Barb has said previously, pointing out the new curtains and the mint paint on the walls while your new bed, unbeknownst to her, has begun sinking every night, with you in it, under the weight of all its optimistic throw pillows.
What happens next is you shower at 7:05, during which you properly align the shampoo bottle with the soap, and then you dress by 7:16 in sweats and a t shirt, clean or otherwise. By 7:20 your bed is properly made, the door to your bloated room is shut, and you are downstairs at the breakfast nook across from Zoe, who is eating the same breakfast as you, Cheerios and skimmed milk with raisins on top. Especially if you are running late, the dead man with injuries around his eyes – this is what you call him now – may appear beside you to run his finger along his throat. Sometimes there are the shadows of other men as well, the one occasionally standing in a trash can filled with ice for instance, but the man with injuries around his eyes is the most constant. He acts like he knows you. There are shadows trailing from his fingers like a swarm of bats. You shake your head and he may or may not depart. Zoe thinks it’s a game and shakes her head whenever you do. “It’s not a game,” you tell her.
After breakfast you pile the dirty dishes in the sink and you and Zoe sit on the couch and watch TV, the upbeat morning shows. Then Zoe takes out her box of dolls and you remind her, Zoe, it is not the time for dolls. She drops her favorite, Char, on the couch where Char doesn’t belong. That is not the right place, you remind her, so she returns Char to the toy box. Then it is time for you and Zoe to go outside and have an adventure in the woods. In the woods, despite the dead leaves buckling under your feet, the trees themselves are welcoming, crowding together in order to cover up what might be buried there underneath the wide branches. Who wouldn’t want to be protected like that and covered up? Only it’s lunch time now, so you leave the woods and return home to make jelly and cream cheese sandwiches. Zoe begs to have the crusts cut off but you make her sit there until she eats the crusts as they’re the most nutritious part. Then you take a nap. Claiming she is too old for naps, Zoe plays beside you with Char and her other dolls, making them argue. When you wake, it is time to eat ants on a log for a snack. Then Barb comes home. Wash the dishes, Barb says. Would it kill you to have dinner ready, she also says. Then it is time for her to remind you this kind of lifestyle can’t go on forever. “You do know, right, that your schedule will have to change when Zoe begins school?” You tell Barb yeah, you know, because she is reminding you about this every fucking day. Then some shadows hang themselves from the ceiling, then it is time for Barb to open up the freezer and choose a family-sized frozen dinner tray. While you eat, the man with injuries around his eyes might wander into the room to pose beside the fridge, pointing at his eyes one more time in case you aren’t getting his point. Or he might go somewhere else. Perhaps he has other people to haunt. After all you were not the one who caused his injuries yet you did do other things.
After dinner is over, it’s 7 o’clock which is when you and Zoe have to go upstairs. Zoe, it is not bath night, you remind her, because she is tugging down her bathrobe from the hook on the door. She stops tugging at her bathrobe. Then she brushes her teeth in the dark with a toothbrush that pulses light and she also combs her hair as you’ve taught her to do. Cropped short, your hair does not need any tending. Do you think you’re a boy? Barb has asked you. Then it is time to enter Zoe’s room. You wriggle her out of her day clothes and dress her in a nightgown as if you are dressing a doll, although Barb says Zoe isn’t a doll so stop treating her like one. You are guessing Barb is still good because she will not leave you alone. But how can you be sure. Possibly bad people also will not leave you alone. Tonight it’s Zoe’s turn to choose what book to read. She chooses the one about the blushing turtle who breaks his shell but everything is fine in the end. Barb also wants to pick a story but you say no and shut the door to Zoe’s bedroom.
As you read to your daughter, the shadows from over there start crowding at Zoe’s window. What a long distance they’ve journeyed to find you, and now content pressing their strange forms against the window screen, they do not seem to want to go away. When you reach the part in the book where the turtle is afraid yet again, this time because he needs an X ray, as an X ray will expose how scared he is on the inside, and everybody, the hippo doctor, the tortoise parents, the owl nurse, is gathered around saying it’s all right to be scared, you can be scared and brave at the same time, the shadows shiver closer as does Zoe. What do they think is going to happen next? What do they think we’re going to see on the inside? It’s a relief when the book ends happily: the X ray goes fine, there are no monsters, the turtle is healed, he arrives home to the cheers of the neighborhood zoo, hip hip hooray! You return the book to the shelf, then the shadows fly away into the dark, into the forest, to wind themselves back around the trees. Then it turns 8 o’clock and time to lay Zoe in her bed and find her a doll to hold, and sing her a song about how, in the rain, you will be her shelter, and in the ocean you will be her anchor. While you sing, you rub your cheek against hers, allowing her downy warmth to sink into you, to sink to the very center of you, spreading over the chaos and the caves. You mean to tell Zoe to be careful, to walk delicately. “Closer,” she says.
July, 20xx. Over there.
I am learning loads about this very different country. Like there sure is a lot of sand out here! Who would have guessed!?! Though this sand is very different from our sand at home. At home, our sand usually goes around a lake, like up by Aunt Loraine’s, like at a beach, but over here there aren’t any lakes so the sand stretches on forever. A lot of people here hate the desert because it blows into our eyes and our mouths. I think all the sand is pretty. I bet you would like to play in it. When the sand gets in your mouth, all you have to do is spit it out.
In other news, your mommy has a nickname now! A guy here started it then the name stuck. Nicknames are fun because they make you feel like you’re a different person. For example, all of a sudden today I’m the kind of person who can kill a herd of ants with her left shoe! That’s what I did on my last shift, Zoe. The ants marched into a boy’s room (there are some boys and girls here) and the boy didn’t have his shoes, so I had to help him, because how was he supposed to kill the ants crawling all over him. Also I tried spraying Lysol on the bugs but it turns out that doesn’t work.
What did you do today? I hope it did not involve any hungry insects!
To be serious for a minute, I am counting down the days until I see you. I bet that day will be here before we know it. Until then, promise me you won’t grow taller if you can help it or change how you talk. I want to know you when I come home. I dream of scooping you up in my arms and hugging you on the glider under the purple blanket.
I’ll end here as the lights just went out. Probably the generator again. Do you still like the dark, Zoe? That’s when many interesting things happen, like the moon appears. (Tonight there’s no moon.)
Momma Tool / Rachel
P.S. for Mom, nobody talks about those cutouts scaring children so I don’t know why mine would be the only one. It’s actually supposed to comfort the child. As the cutout looks identical to the absent parent. On the website they said some kids start talking to it at night then the kids dream the cutout talks back which sounds pretty nice to me! Also it cost me much $$$ so can you give it a better chance. To be honest, the idea where I am watching over Zoe while I’m also here is very important to me. To protect her when I’m gone etc. I think she could get used to it.
Your daughter is wearing one more dress you didn’t buy for her, this one decorated with pink birds perched upon pink branches, her entire wardrobe unfamiliar to you now and also pink. In addition, while you were over there, she shot up several inches, and another change, no more glider. Now she prefers to sit at the kitchen table where the grown ups sit and tell you her own stories, in which people usually drown or disappear. “Mommy,” she begins, “I was washed on shore in Alaska far away from my mom and dad. They threw me in the river and then they ran after me but I got lost in the water. The end.” In her mind, every story is true once spoken out loud. “Your stories are sad,” you tell her. What could she know of becoming lost like that? Around you the shadows are taking on all sorts of human shapes. They put disposable gloves on their hands and flex their fingers as if crushing the air. If you shoo them off, they’ll merely pretend to withdraw. “Why are you staring at the wall?” Zoe asks. Some clarity would be useful here. Can the real things please become real and can everything else vanish? The shadows, when they touch you, feel like cobwebs draped in your hair and across your face, surprisingly delicate and soft, who would have guessed. Zoe takes your head in her hands and turns your head toward her and kisses you, once, on the lips. It is like kissing a flawless peach. You promised me you would not change.
Let’s assume young children such as Zoe cannot be monsters yet. The question then is how do they become so at a later point. And what determines whether they will become so. And how does one prevent it. If it’s the friction with the world that does it. So let’s imagine if the world is taken from the child. Or the child taken from the world. This line of reasoning suggests to you several ideas, one of which involves a still pristine and isolated portion of this country, like, say, Wyoming.
“You can not sit around,” Barb says, “staring at your daughter all day. I’m sorry, but life doesn’t work that way. That is not what I call a life. You need to get out of the house. Because it’s depressing in here, Rachel. Fine. Then I’m opening all the blinds. There is nobody out there trying to peep in at you. You know what, when Mrs. Anderson dropped by with her plate of welcome home cookies last week, she told me right off, ‘I don’t agree with what those young people were made to do over there, but it was a war, and you have to behave differently in a war versus if you’re at home watching it on TV.’ Zoe, go outside and play. Do you know how many troops have come home already? Thousands. Or tens of thousands. A lot. And do you know how many of them did a bad thing over there? Every one of them I bet. I said get outside. Shit happens. You do things you regret, all right? How do you think I know? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry – I mean that’s life. That’s what everybody’s life sounds like. Nobody is mulling over you and passing judgment on you each minute of the day. That you fucked up prisoners or you watched somebody fuck up some prisoners or whatever you did. I don’t want to know. Look, why don’t you tell yourself a story. If you change it in your head, I think that would make you feel better. Tell yourself you were rescuing children or building them a school. Remember I told you to go build a school? Nobody’s going to say you didn’t do that.”
The first job you were given over there was to name them. Their real names were difficult to pronounce so you were told to give them different names like Groucho, or Godzilla, or Bruce Lee. When touching their skin you had to wear blue disposable gloves which means you got used to always wearing gloves. The wind outside picked up tendrils of sand and shoved the sand through the cracks in the walls. “Come on, Piggy,” you said to the one you named Piggy as you led him down the corridor to his cell, knowing very well that such a name could be said either with spite and ridicule, or as you said it, softly, with as much kindness as you can muster, like it was a beautiful name. Pig-e.
Piggy rubbed the back of his hand against the urine-soaked mattress of his cell. What a cliché, this cell, this urine-soaked mattress, how unoriginal, as if it all hadn’t happened before. He asked you, in broken English, what was please that noise. To get sent here, he must have done something bad, the kind of things monsters do, despite his claims that he can’t remember what it was he did. A different part of your job will be to help him remember. “Possibly,” you tell him, “it is the dogs,” and it is time you learn that in a place like this filled with monsters, the rules are different, if there are any rules.
Today in the woods Zoe lags behind you to peel the bark off an old tree. Next she tears the gills from a shriveled mushroom, then is plucking wildflowers, although you’ve ordered her not to. What a boring world this is to her, and if given the opportunity, right now she would pick apart the entire planet, in the hope there would be a different world at its center, one where she actually wants to be. You can relate to this. When you look at Zoe, you imagine her hair becoming gold and turning precious in the rare light that is allowed to fall between the trees.
It is said to be easier for a child to leave this world for another world, at least according to certain books where it happens often enough, as long as one has not passed beyond a certain age. To leave this world for another world, all Zoe needs to do is begin singing to herself, as simple as that, the song quiet and private and indecipherable to you, a song, in other words, that isn’t meant for you. And there: when she reaches out her hand, she touches a fairy lantern bobbing on a spider’s thread. When she looks up into the trees, she spots a distant cave, and there are dragons in the cave. Don’t leave me here, you mean to say, take me with you, though she is already leaving. You have to speak Zoe’s name many times, each time more loudly, before she turns. Her eyes, hazel, like yours, are enormous. The way she stares at you, it’s like she’s trying to peer inside of you, as if peering into a cave. “Momma,” she finally asks, “what’s behind your eyes?” The world is shifting into whatever it was supposed to be all this time, a painted fable or a daydream. “Oh, dungeons and monsters,” you say and she does not appear disappointed when you begin to tell her the story of Wyoming.
One day a royal princess and her daughter went riding through a forest somewhat like this one along with their maid. The daughter – “that’s you, Zoe,” you say – rode on a white horse and the mother – “me” – rode a gray one. “Or you can have the gray one,” you say. “I don’t care, Zoe. It doesn’t matter what color your horse is. No one cares.” While their maid sat upon a horse that was brown and lame. On the maid’s neck, can you see there’s a birthmark shaped like a bird about to dive on top of its prey. They were on their way to the Country of Wyoming because they did not like where they lived anymore. In Wyoming, all the children are tall with hair like gold, and mothers brushed their children’s golden hair every night in front of the fire, and nobody died there, and the silver trees smelled of almonds.
Plenty of people before had tried making this same journey but most of them gave up along the way, as the forest is wide and dangerous and dark, and you have to go through its very center. Even if they make it through, the closest those people get is the border, where the prince’s castle stood. “This is the same prince I’m going to marry,” you say to Zoe. Everybody assumed this prince was someone great. If you stood in the north tower of his castle and balanced up on your toes, looking out of the highest window, you could see the light sparkling off the Wyoming trees, the very tips of the trees. That was as close to Wyoming as many people get.
The mother, the daughter, and the maid rode for hours through the forest until they grew thirsty and the mother said, “Maid, fetch us some water from that creek over there.” But the maid refused, so the mother and daughter had to kneel beside the creek in the mud, and they drank out of their cupped hands. When the mother stood to remount her horse, the maid pushed her down. “What are you doing with such a nice horse?” the maid sneered. “What are you trying to do wearing my clothing? Those are my clothes. That is my horse.” She made the mother take off her dress and wear her rags instead. “You don’t have to be frightened,” you tell Zoe. The maid said, “I will hurt you if you tell anyone.”
“Homeschooling is not a viable option for you at this time,” Barb says. “Because Zoe has to get out of the house on occasion and interact with people who did not fight in a war. Also does it look like I have a clucking hen here in the basement who can lay us golden eggs. What I’m trying to say is it’s time you found a job, Rachel. Now I set you up with two interviews for Thursday. Mr. Beedle is at noon and Cohen Dudek is for 3 o’clock. Please use your actual name. The name I gave you. Because that’s who I said would be coming in for an interview. That’s who you are. I’ll cover Zoe, don’t you worry about that. Worry about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to dress. They already know the basics, that you’re a single mom and a hard-working veteran who’s ready to settle down and do some good. Because I told them that. No, I didn’t mention exactly where you served. I think that might make them, or their office staff, uncomfortable. It’s probably best you don’t mention where specifically. I’m not saying lie. Can you simply say, in general, you served in the war over there, and they should get the idea. I mean, I’m sorry, you look like you were in a war. They aren’t going to challenge you about that one.”
You remind your mother of Wyoming and how you wouldn’t need a job once you move there. You are about to pull out the picture when Barb says to put away the fucking picture. “I don’t believe in that place,” she says.
In Wyoming there are no monsters. Instead, there are mountains and scrub, and grazing animals, and rustic fences, and people who don’t like company, and dead-end roads. At the end of one such road is a single-room log cabin, whose picture you print out and keep folded in your pocket because this is your plan, where you intend to move with Zoe in the near future. The cabin is large enough to hold a wooden stove and a bed and two chairs. “We can share the bed at first,” you explain, and Zoe claps her hands at such a prospect. Around the cabin the trees are scruffy and spaced far apart. Clouds, yes, but wispy, inconsequential. At this point it’s probably a good thing for the land to be exposed like that. “It will be like living in a closet,” Barb portends, “a tiny suffocating closet!” Snow on the distant mountaintops.
What do people do all day in Wyoming? “Sit back on the deluxe porch and watch your neighbors (i.e. the wild life!),” the real estate listing gushes. Or they hunt. Or whittle branches with pocketknives. Or ignite fires in their wood-burning stoves. Zoe falls in love with the quilt patterned by stars and draped, in the picture, across the bed. “I’m not sure we get the quilt,” you explain. There will be wildflowers in the late spring out back. There is the head of a deer mounted above the table. “Looking for long term occupants who want a life of dreams,” the listing concludes. The dead deer’s eyes gaze around the room with a gleam of protectiveness.
Barb says, “Oh and by the way, the VA called. Did you miss another appointment?” There is still a war going on. You begin to read a lot about Wyoming. “Did you hear what I said, Rachel?” About its deserts and wind and how, in the entire state, there is nothing bad. Instead, in Wyoming, most of the towns are small and wildlife wander innocently through the small towns grazing upon the landscaping. Many of Wyoming’s people believe in God, though Wyoming doesn’t have many people, so there’s a good chance God wouldn’t bother with it. You are fine with this. Instead of people and God, there are vast areas of emptiness, shown as blank spots on the map, and you will live in one of these blank spots.
Living in Wyoming will not be exactly like living as shown in the tourism booklet you received, where serious people lift their faces toward an expensive-looking sun. For starters, the serious people are taking a vacation and you will not be on a vacation. Nonetheless the theme of the brochure is relevant: how one can find themselves only after they discover, in a vast landscape, their own insignificance. You would like to feel insignificant, to believe that what you did over there was a tiny act which has no bearing on our reality. In Wyoming, you will have many responsibilities, including how to raise Zoe to be a hopeful and decent person. All the world is good, you plan to teach her when you are ready to talk about the world.