I knew about the stories for years but had relegated them to that mental stack of things I never get around to for one reason or another. Only a series of accidents a few weeks ago induced me to buy a copy. I had no expectations when I started reading, which may be the best way to begin any book, perhaps to encounter other people.
The first five stories are set in the middle of almost nowhere, the Imperial Valley in Southern California, a place of deserts and fields and irrigation, the time around the ’60s. This is a good place to begin, too, with almost nothing, then see what you can discover, what you can add, as Ariel has done.
“Hunter,” below, is my favorite. It begins quietly, slowly, maybe innocently, and from that ground builds into a story that has engaged and haunted me as much as any I’ve read in a while. I didn’t expect that at all. The story is told in its images and in something else Ariel touches I’ll never be able to explain. Each time I reread I see small lights I missed the first time through.
I ran into Ariel a few weeks ago, and she gave what is the most compelling reason to write I’ve heard. She said she didn’t feel right inside when she wasn’t writing. It was this comment that moved me to buy the book.
Ariel Smart, in fact, grew up in the Imperial Valley, was born at the Green Lantern Motel, mentioned in this and other stories, and writes and teaches now in the San Jose area. “Hunter” was first published in Love and Sex in the 21st Century (New Mexico University, 1988), then in the collection The Green Lantern and Other Stories (Fithian Press, 1999). She has another collection, Stolen Moments and Other Stories (Fithian, 2003). Both are available, of course, at Amazon.
by Ariel Smart
Cabin Number 1 of Frank Harper’s Green Lantern Motel smelled of the after-breakfast aromas of fried bacon and eggs and smoky-tasting coffee. The sound of a bulletin being read from the California Farm Labor Bureau droned from a radio placed on top of the refrigerator. Delia Harper put aside her book, Lad, of Sunnybank, and watched her father prepare the lunch she would take with her to her fourth-grade class at Acacia County School five miles from El Centro. His dark face, browned from the sun, was intent and purposeful at a perfunctory task. With a steel-bladed butcher knife, he carved cold beef from the Diamond Jim pot roast he customarily simmered on Sundays with fresh tomatoes, green Anaheim chili peppers, yellow onions, cloves of garlic, and red beans.
He placed an ample wedge of sliced meat between two thick slices of bakery bread. “Want horseradish?”
Delia turned up her nose, shaking her head vigorously. Her dark, brown hair, which her father had plaited into one thick braid, swung behind her neck down to her waist.
“Okay for you. More for me,” he said good-naturedly.
“Tell me again about Uncle Les’ work horses.”
“Not about his twenty-six milking cows? Named alphabetically, Alice through Zelda.”
Her father wrapped the sandwich in paper and slipped it into a brown paper sack along with an apple.
“Let’s see. Well, you have to keep an eye on them. They act like big, lazy overgrown kids sometimes,” he said, remembering the coltish-acting, great-rumped Clydesdales he had worked with as a boy on his uncle’s dairy farm in Idaho. “Especially when you first harness them up after they’ve been quartered in a barn most of the winter.”
“Why won’t you let me have a horse?”
He shook his head in mock exasperation, having heard her plea many times, lifted a boiling kettle of water from the stove, and doused hot, scalding liquid over the kitchen sink counters. Then he scrubbed them down with a bristle brush. “Now, Delia. We’ve been all through this.” He reached into an upper cupboard for the bottle of cheap, Mexican tequila he used as a disinfectant and poured some of it out on the counter, continuing to scour. “Where would you ride? We don’t own a ranch. We have the Green Lantern Motel, right off Interstate 8.” He picked up a coffee cup, and, discovering a chip on its rim, pitched it into a garbage can.
“Did Uncle Les and Aunt Rilma have a dog?”
“Never. Not in the farmhouse. Never in the barn around fresh milk.”
“But if I can’t have a horse, why won’t you let me have a dog? I’d shower and scrub him down every day. Mr. Terhune’s Lad doesn’t have fleas.”
“I don’t give a damn about Mr. Terhune. Dogs are filthy. I’ve told you time and time again. They carry disease.”
He set his jaw hard and took down from a wall hook an old, weather-beaten Panama hat his wife had bought for him on their honeymoon weekend in Santa Catalina. He pushed the hat down on his head and strode toward the front door of the cabin, preparing to leave for his registry office, adjacent to the motel units.
“Now, don’t dawdle, Delia. You don’t want to miss the school bus.”
Delia sighed and, following her father out the door, walked slowly in the direction of the bus stop. She didn’t understand her father’s wrath and meanness toward dogs. She pitied any lost, wayward dog, without master and home, that foraged its way down the edge of the highway until he wandered onto the graveled court of the Green Lantern, there to amble toward her father’s registry office. If her father spied the wretch, he raced outside and grabbed up a few stones from the pile by the door and hurled them one at a time at the accursed brute until the vanquished pariah fled from the inhospitable motel keeper with its tail between its legs and vanished out of sight.
Her spirits brightened when she caught sight of her playmate, Hollis Crow, waving to her impatiently from the stop, and she ran to catch up to him.
They stood together on the side of the highway, not far from the entrance into the courtyard of Harper’s Green Lantern Modern Motel, where a sign read either Vacancy or No Vacancy, depending on the circumstances, and, underneath in smaller black letters, No Dogs.
Cars swished past them on their way to town. Two expensive yellow Caterpillar tractors rolled by toward the rich green alfalfa fields and sugarbeet crops under cultivation. The morning air carried aloft two distinct sweetnesses; one a rank distillation, heady, spoiled, a cloying odor like boiling brown syrup exuded by beet pulp from a sugar refinery five miles away in El Centro; the other a natural honey-like freshness of green clover, which drifted to their nostrils from acres and acres of uncut lucerne in nearby pastures.
The bus stop was near a portion of the remains of an old road which had buckled during an earthquake. A new highway had replaced the old one. The vertical fault line made the ground lying parallel to the new road uneven and bumpy, and a collapsed depression in the earth had created a jagged-shaped, shallow burrow, running approximately six feet in length, its depth varying from one to two feet.
Delia and Hollis grumbled about how the school bus broke down and was habitually slow and late. Hollis was a reluctant schoolboy. He made no attempt to conceal a pack of Lucky Strikes, whose red bull’s-eye logo glared out with conspicuous defiance from a pocket of his worn bib overalls. He would have liked an excuse not to have to attend school that day, so he could go hunting for rabbits in the desert brush with his newly acquired .22 Marlin bolt-action rifle.
“It has a clip magazine that holds eight shells. I can wing anything that moves,” he said. “It’s as easy as a water pistol. Only you shoot bullets. That’s what. You plink away at jackrabbits or doves and wing anything that moves. Like that magpie over yonder.” He lifted an imaginary rifle to his shoulder, squinted an eye, and feigned taking aim at the black-and-white-feathered bird, which chattered down at them and heckled from the branch of a mesquite. It seemed to mock the boy’s silly play by flitting from higher bough to higher bough, a flicker of black feathers, a flutter of white, the streak of an impudent, black tail. At the pinnacle of the tree, the magpie shrieked, wildly leapt in the air and flapped its wings and lit and pecked at some locust pods with his sharp, curved beak until they shook loose and popped on the ground almost near the children’s feet.
“I’ll get you, Hollis,” Delia cried, rushing in front of the boy and standing in his line of fire. “He’s just an old bird. Just a dumb bird.”
“Okay. Okay,” he said, and shoved her out of his way just as the magpie took flight.
He was in a sulk, and she moved away from him quickly. By a trick of thought, Delia associated the colors of the magpie’s feathers with the distorted, old-fashioned black and white woodcut engravings in her worn copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. She was especially drawn to the illustrations even though, whenever she opened up the book to them, she feared what she would see. If she turned the pages to one place, the book would have its own way and fall open to a print depicting a dark country churchyard where a sexton, having hidden himself away in a coffin, lay fast asleep. If she found herself at another part of the book, she might come to a printed scene of a dark forest and the humped shape of the witch, who imprisoned children. The picture showed the witch poking at Hansel’s stomach with her gnarled, bony finger as she waited impatiently for the boy to fatten up, so she could kill him and roast him and gobble him up like succulent suckling pig. Several pages ahead of this print led her to a picture of Snow White and Rose Red. She could behold the two sisters as they discovered an ancient, withered dwarf with a white beard flowing to the ground at his feet. But most dreadful of all the woodcuts she might turn to was the sight of a princess, high up in a room in a castle battlement, who looks down from one of twelve windows in the tower and views at its bottom ninety-seven decapitated suitors, whose hideous heads, wide-eyed and gaped-mouthed, have been impaled upon stakes. These frightening scenes left an indelible impression on Delia and transformed themselves in her dreams. If she were in half slumber on a dark, gray morning and heard the anxious cries of cranes flying from distant rice marshlands to the Green Lantern and over its rooftops, their whoops sounded to her like the wild gibberish of black-winged witches in flight.
Her daydreaming was interrupted when a flat-bed truck, conveying a crowded load of Mexican field workers, approached the two children at the bus stop. Before the vehicle lurched onward toward a distant field of sugar beets, some of the dark-skinned men wearing broad straw hats and white shirts smiled and waved their arms in greeting to them. Their friendly distraction caused Delia to reopen a conversation with Hollis about his favorite object.
“Can your .22 kill a witch?”
“Whadda ya mean a witch?”
“Oh, like ghosts? I dunno. Let me think on it.”
She looked at Hollis’ glistening black, cropped hair. He was unlike the other migrant children, who were usually ubiquitously blue-eyed, tow-headed blonds. He was tall for his age, hard and sinewy of frame. He had told Delia that his ancestors were Plains Indians, great warriors and horsemen. Except for her small stature, she resembled Hollis enough to have been mistaken for his sister. Like her, he was also in the fourth grade although he was two years older than she. The Crow family, his father, stepmother, aunt and uncle, and sister, Corliss, who was thirteen and already married to a packing foreman by the name of Ben Honeybee, came to the Imperial Valley season and worked in farm labor or at local canneries on the outskirts of town. They rented two cabins from Delia’s father from winter to early spring before migrating to the San Joaquin Valley to harvest grapes.
All of a sudden, as Delia and Hollis stood on the wayside of the highway, expecting to see the school bus at any moment, a rangy stray, a reddish mahogany and black collie-shepherd crossbreed appeared seemingly from out of nowhere and gamboled up to them, wagging his long, bushy tail. Delia backed away timidly from the strange wolfy dog while he bowed his head and forepaws and fawned before them. Then he raised his dainty head and opened up his jaws and arched his upper lip in a roguish, collie-like smile.
“Do you think he’s rabid?” Delia said.
“Don’t be stupid.” Hollis said. “Can’t you see he’s a smiling dog?”
He hunched down by the dog’s side and petted his heavy, dark coat. “I wonder where he comes from? He don’t have a collar, no nuthin’. He’s pretty young, too. Still has puppy smell. Milky-like.”
The mongrel frisked in and out between them. With his wet, black nose he sniffed down their legs, right to each child’s pair of leather shoes. First he smelled Delia’s high-polished Oxfords, the ones her father kept shined and had purchased for her in the nearby Mexican border town of Mexicali. Next he nosed Hollis’ scuffed, hand-me-down workboots, one size too large. Like manacles about his ankles, they caused the boy to shamble. The dog pranced from one child to the other, as if in high glee, and nudged each one’s brown paper lunch sack, his pink tongue glistening with saliva, panting in playful camaraderie.
Delia supposed that as usual Hollis carried in his lunch two sticky, clumsily made sandwiches of Skippy peanut butter and grape jelly on white Langendorf bread. Delia tired of having a meat sandwich for lunch. It didn’t take Hollis too long to figure out that he could finagle out of her one of hers for one of his. He called the swap “an even Indian trade.”
The male shepherd-mix nosed winsomely at Delia’s sack until she reached into it and fished out half a roast beef sandwich, which she threw out on the ground The stray wolfed the portion down and groveled before her for more, cocking an ear, barking, and finally training his deep-set eyes on her.
“Hey, there, you beggar,” Hollis said. “Gimme that.” He grabbed Delia’s sack away from her and raised both of their bags high up over his head out of reach of the dog.
The mongrel’s keen nose traced the pungent scents of flesh and oil, sugar and salt emitting from the lunches. He leapt up on his hind legs and placed his forepaws across Hollis’ chest and the upper top of the boy’s bib overalls. Then he stretched his long, shaggy neck and smooth white and black muzzle and licked Hollis’ mouth and face. The boy smiled and revealed a hiding dimple in each cheek.
”You can be my hunter,” he said.
Delia wished they could ditch school and coax the dog to follow them back to the Green Lantern, where they could look for a place to hide him away from her father’s knowledge and keep the dog as their secret pet forever. He could hunt with Hollis all day, and, when night fell, she could sneak “Hunter” into her bedroom in the cabin after her father was asleep. He could sleep at the foot of her bed and guard her from the wiles of the old, haggy witch who came invisibly in the night and poked her crooked nose into the ears of sleeping children and gave them howling earaches or spat infectious juice into their slumberous eyes and made their eyelashes stick together, yellow-scabbed and itchy. Just a husky growl from Hunter’s throat would chase away the hag who whorled through the tiny mesh of the window screen in many disguises. She was the buzzing, pesky mosquito who brought chills and fever. She could make the bed feel as if it spun about the room in vertigo circles. She was the chigger picked up unknowingly in the high, dry foxtails that clung to socks and wheedled its way up to a soft, resting stomach and burrowed into the navel and left a nasty, swollen welt. If Delia had a nightmare, she could cry out “Hunter,” and he would crawl up from the foot of the blanket and reach her, his hairy nape nuzzling close to her face.
“Let’s call him ‘Hunter’,” Delia was ready to say aloud, when almost in spite of her thought, the dog answered to an instinctive, erratic impulse and turned his attention away from the children to hunt a brown jackrabbit bounding across the open highway toward a field beyond them.
The reddish-brown and black dog Delia had fallen in love with plunged headlong after the hare into the oncoming flow of morning traffic.
At first, Delia and Hollis watched in dumb horror when the stray dog was struck sideways by a passing motorist. But then Hollis acted nimbly. He reached down and loosened the laces of his oversized boots. Once free of them, he loped lithe of foot after the wounded pup.
Yelping piteously, the stricken dog hobbled in blind panic toward the other side of the road as motorists swerved to avoid hitting him and the barefooted boy who raced after him in pursuit.
The school bus arrived shortly after the accident occurred and creaked to a stop just as Delia saw the wolfy dog she wanted to call Hunter limp to the side of the highway and fall down in a huddle near the burrow on the vertical fault line.
She had lost sight of Hollis.
In her hands she held two lunch sacks though she couldn’t remember exactly when she had gained possession of them.
“Hurry up. Hurry up,” the bus driver yelled. “I’m already late. Make up your mind if you’re gettin’ in. Say, I’m supposed to pick up two kids here. Where’s the Mexican?”
Delia knew he meant Hollis, but she shrugged her shoulders.
She hesitated before pulling herself up to board, feeling wretched and guilty about leaving the scene of the accident and yet fearing the consequences if she hung back and did not go on to school.
Before boarding, she placed her lunch bag on the ground next to the worn boots Hollis had abandoned and flung by the wayside in his haste to pursue the wounded dog. Then she took a deep breath and entered the open door of the crowded bus with its load of active, yelling children who looked forward to the end of the week and the beginning of summer vacation. Only when she had reached the back of the bus and found an empty seat on the hump did she cry in silence as she looked out a window toward the scene of the accident, her face heated and forlorn and desolate.
At last she caught a brief glimpse of Hollis. He stood over the earthquake burrow, seeming small in the distance as the bus heaved onward past fields of sugar beets and brown, zigzagged shapes of field workers bent over in labor.
At the close of the school day, in the long-shadowed afternoon, the bus returned her and the other children to their home stops. As Delia walked away from the departing bus toward the motel, she almost passed by without noticing the shallow earthquake crack resembling a burrow, which ran near the shoulder of the highway. Her father had explained to her that many years before her birth, the Imperial Valley had undergone a severe tremor of enormous magnitude. The crack in the earth was the result of this natural phenomenon. Somehow, she felt peculiarly drawn to the mysterious oddity and stopped at one end of it and peered down. There, at the bottom of the trench, lying in a coagulated, rusty-brown pool of dried blood, surrounded by a thick, black cloud of flies jealously veiling him, sprawled the carcass of a dog—the mongrel yearling she had wanted to claim as her own and had fed a portion of her beef sandwich.
Her father had told her that hurt creatures often instinctively crawl away by themselves and hide, then, with time, either heal or die. She reasoned that this was why the injured dog fled in its pain and disappeared into the den-like burrow.
She looked down once more at the sight of the rigid dog, and then drew back from the crack in the earth in repulsion and pity. He had lost his milky puppy-smell and, with the heat of the intense desert sun, there rose from his corpse the smell of putrification. Like the flies, ants, too, had sniffed out the carcass and had begun their ravagement. They had set the rich black and red mahogany coat rippling alive with their steady, crawling battalions. She puckered up her nose and mouth in disgust and turned her back on the hole and ran away from it in fear.
In the last week of June, Hollis Crow left the Imperial Valley with his itinerant family to pick grapes in the vineyards near Fresno. After the Crows left and their cabin lay vacant, Delia picked some scarlet and white oleander blossoms from the bushes that grew in front of it and took them to the earthquake crack, the grave site of the mongrel dog. On this return visit, she observed, with morbid fascination, mysterious disturbances on his body. His reddish brown and black fur had thinned away; there appeared two open sockets in his skull, where once had glowed luminous brown eyes. Centered in the bone of his forehead was a third round hole, the size of a shirt button, where a .22 bullet had entered. Though the jawbone remained long and wolf-like, the canine fangs sharp and menacing, parts of the spinal skeleton were absent; segments of the vertebrae had disappeared. Under the fiery sun, its dog-ness had flattened, sunk, receded farther and farther away into elemental dissolution, the interment resolved into the salty, alkaline sod.
“Hunter,” by Ariel Smart. This story is reprinted here by permission of the author.