A widow, an Irish wanderer, a house built on a fault line and a mysterious light form the essential furniture of Gerard Beirne’s fine new story “Fault Lines.” Beirne is an Irish writer and you can hear the fierce rhetoric of the Irish in his opening cadences, the insistent lists and parallel constructions. The story is dark, almost noir in its atmosphere of eroticism and constant menace. Gerard Beirne and I don’t know each other except in our email interchange over this story, but we have tread common paths. Beirne was the Writer in Residence at the University of New Brunswick where I also have been Writer in Residence; he is the fiction editor at The Fiddlehead where I published some of earliest stories, yea, these many years ago; and he just published a poetry collection, Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual, with Oberon Press in Ottawa, a publisher with whom I have had a long association including a decade of editing the annual Best Canadian Stories. So he and I exist in almost parallel universes that have somehow flowed together on this page. Read the story.
You could look at it this way. You could say I was the one real beneficiary of his death. Not so much the car as the air conditioning, the house as the pool, the cellar as the wine collection, the lady as his wife.
As a lady she brought with her charm, sophistication, impeccable dress sense, a taste for good food. But as his wife she brought with her everything. His fortune, his lifestyle, his foul mouth, and his filthy mind.
* * *
“We’re all so much better off without him,” Maybelle told me on that first night we ended up in bed together. I was drinking his champagne, eating his caviar, lying passively beneath his gyrating wife. “He was cruel. He was fucking cruel. Cruel to all of his previous wives. Cruel to their children. Cruel to himself. And, worst of all, cruel to me. Irrespective of his ability to increase his fortune we are all so much better off without the bastard.”
She tipped over her champagne glass and poured his 1975 Dom Perignon along my chest, then bent over, extended her tongue, and licked that expensive liquid up in one long sweeping motion. And in that prolonged salivating moment, I knew just how wrong she was. How it was I, and not anyone of his close or distant family, who was the better off.
I fed her with his caviar, and she sucked it from my fingers. I appraised her firm body as it pincered me from above, grateful for the multigym he had purchased on its behalf. Then I thought of the swimming pool outside where earlier we had stripped and swam in the moonlike glow of the veranda spotlight. It was the first time we had seen each other’s bodies. The first time I had seen the naked flesh of a widow of barely forty-eight hours. The yellow glare of the spotlight jaundiced her pale skin. A light breeze blew in from the canyon, that large empty gulch that stretched ahead of us, carrying the smell of creosote bushes. The dry desert dust landed softly on the flagstones and tiles, on the surface of the shimmering water lit from below, on our warm flesh lit from we knew not where. We were exposed not just to each other but to the world if the world had cared to look.
The only lights to be seen were those dotted around the property for security, a row of house lights eighty miles to the east, and the stars they could barely be distinguished from. We scarcely glanced across at one another before diving on in. If I could help it, I was determined never to resurface. But resurface we did, together, in a hardened embrace.
Maybelle’s toes curled against the white sheets. She grasped my shoulder blades tightly with her fingers. Her long manicured fingernails scratched across my skin. “Cruelty is the worst sin of all, don’t you think?” she whispered close to my ear. Then she did something with her body that might not have been thought possible. “This was the only way I could hurt him in return.”
I almost screamed with the excruciating mix of pleasure and pain. The white curtains billowed out from the half-open shutters. A solitary star twinkled within my line of vision. Maybelle shuddered violently. Her strong legs gripped my thighs. Her fingers clawed at my torso. The star plummeted through the black sky. Died before my eyes.
Later as Maybelle showered, I stood by the window in his study and looked up, as he had looked up on so many occasions, at the constellations with his telescope. Orion. Pegasus. Ursa Major. What would happen if one of those stars died? I wondered. What sort of hunter would remain, what sort of winged horse, what sort of furrowing instrument? What would become then of the great design? How would we read the night?
I turned the lens towards the darkened desert, the canyon. That other great void. From deep within the canyon I witnessed an uncertain flash of light shooting upwards for which I had no explanation. To the east, the distant houselights flickered. Outside the glare of the security lights reflected against the lens. In the bathroom a flow of water spread in rivulets down Maybelle’s hard body.
How had I come this far?
* * *
Leaving Ireland had been easy. Leaving a small Donegal town. A small landholding I had no interest in. Leaving home.
I was happy to fill a hold all and empty it on the bed of a YMCA on the other side of the world. Happy to be paranoid on the streets of New York. Happy to work the graveyard shift washing dishes in an all-night cafe. Happy to tire of all that and board a Greyhound for Los Angeles.
Happy to get work with a landscape firm cutting lawns and trimming hedges in Santa Monica. Happy to meet Maybelle in one of his holiday homes by the side of his pool in a pastel orange bikini. Happy to peruse her shapely body. Happy to amicably converse. Happy to return to his secluded mansion in the Mojave Desert to replace his Mexican gardener who had flown the coop with immigration on his tail. Happy to inhabit his property. Happy to rise through his ranks. Happy to become, on his request, her personal assistant. Happy to follow her wherever she might go. Happy to assist in his early demise.
* * *
Maybelle pulled at my shoulder, woke me up. She sat up in bed distraught. The moon shed its light through the shuttered window. “Did you feel that?” Her face was pale. She crossed her hands over her chest like a corpse and held on to herself.
“What?” I looked for my watch on the table next to the bed. It was twelve minutes past three.
She turned angrily. “Didn’t you feel it?”
“It was an earthquake.” She pushed her head slightly forward as though listening intently. As if something might be heard that would confirm her suspicion.
“I didn’t feel a thing.” I tried to put my arm around her to comfort her, but she brushed it off. She turned suddenly to the empty champagne bottle on the table beside her. “Look.”
“What is it?”
“It’s vibrating. Can’t you see that?” She got up out of bed, and walked to the window. “We’re on the fault here. Right on the fault. Any moment the Big One could come, and when it does we’ll be swallowed up whole. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“It was nothing,” I said. “A small tremor at the most.” We had talked about this before, but never at such intimate quarters, never so close to death.
“The bastard. The fucking bastard.” She looked out into the dark. In the breeze the light material of the curtain wrapped itself around her naked body. “That’s why he built it here. Goddamn him! Because it was so fucking cheap. His one great ambition in life — to buy up the fucking fault lines!”
“He’s dead now,” I said. “Everything can be undone.” I held my hand out to her. “Come back to bed.”
“Bed,” she repeated. “The great undoing.” She pulled the shutters closed as if they could somehow protect her. She came back over and got in beside me. The shutters rattled. Maybelle heard them and jumped.
“It’s only the wind.”
She glared at me. “Did we really screw?”
“Yes we did,” I assured her. “Like there was no tomorrow.”
* * *
Maybelle honoured his wishes and had him cremated. A simple ceremony had been arranged. Three of his previous wives showed up and six of his children. Maybelle was unclear how many wives there had been before her and was equally unsure about the number of children. She had none by him that much she knew. He had insisted on that. He told her he did not want her destroying her body like all of the others. That she was his last chance.
“His last chance for what?” I asked.
Maybelle shrugged. “I have no idea.”
She did not speak to any of them, but she assured me they would be as glad to see the back of him as she was. He had treated them all despicably. “There are no bruises I can show you,” she told me one time sensing some slight doubt of mine. “Not on this body, but up here,” she said pointing to her head. “There’s where the damage lies.” At his cremation I looked at his array of wives and children and considered the cumulative internal injuries.
Afterwards I drove Maybelle and the urn with his ashes home. Keeping the urn with her, Maybelle went up to lie down. She did not reappear until evening. She ate a light dinner and asked me to send the staff away. She said she needed time alone. They would be paid of course. I asked if her dismissal of the staff included me also, and she told me not to be so foolish.
After dinner she asked me to drive her to the canyon. She held the urn in her lap as we drove. The orange dust swirled up from the wheels past the windows. The hot evening air wafted in shimmering waves distorting all that was visible. I looked out at the wavering yellow sneezeweeds and desert trumpet. A Jackrabbit leaped dangerously across the road in front of us clambering for shade. I put my hand on the urn, our fingers touching accidentally. Maybelle appeared not to notice, although she told me later that her heart for a moment ceased to function. The urn and Maybelle’s fingers were cool to the touch, his air-conditioning keeping all of our temperatures low. I felt the cold waves sweep over me, their calming influence, as our fingers parted.
Maybelle drummed on the lid of the urn impatiently. She glared through the front window. “You never talk about Ireland.” She tightened her lips and brought me under her gaze.
“I’d rather forget it,” I told her. A viscous green and orange sunset soaked through the widening sky.
“Yes,” she agreed pulling the urn in against her stomach, “there are certain things best forgotten.” She glanced through the window at the vast expanse of gleaming desert. “I’m sorry. I’ll never ask you again.”
But Maybelle was right. In the three years I had known her I had never willingly spoken of Ireland. On a few occasions in the beginning she had alluded to it, but I skilfully deflected the conversation. I was living a new life now. Perhaps the first I had ever really lived. At its worst Ireland was a womb, a time pre-birth. At its very best it was a uterine contraction forcing me out into the life I now lived.
A shaft of light speared the road in front of us. I steered his car deliberately towards it. Permitted the light to dissect the metal car, and us within it, like a laser cutting tool. It shone brilliantly through the front windscreen, sparkling on the side of the urn, and leaving a line of gold along Maybelle’s toned body. She shielded her eyes with her hand, stared absently ahead.
“A meteor fell to earth here one time.” I had not heard mention of this before. “Some time in the sixties.”
“A lot of things from outer space were visible in the sixties,” I reminded her.
Maybelle ignored me. “The marks are still visible although the meteor itself was broken up and removed for scientific evaluation. The crater is somewhere around here.” She twisted the lid of the urn in a half-circle. I thought for a moment she was going to take it off to check if he was in there still. “He used to speak about it. He said he wished they had left it where it had fallen. He said he could have made a fucking fortune out of it.” She gritted her teeth as though constraining a further obscenity.
The car bounced on its suspension over a series of ruts in the surface of the road. A plump turkey buzzard swooped low and flew past the front of the car flapping its black wings viciously. We watched it circle the rotting trunk of a lone pinyon tree.
“Vulture.” Maybelle seemed in awe of it. She chewed on the side of her mouth. I looked at her fluffed out hair, her carefully applied eye-shadow, mascara, lipstick, and face powders, her slinky black mourning dress, her high heels. I surveyed the flat expanse of water-starved decay that surrounded us. Maybelle seemed more out of place here than I. More removed. I wondered about her past. She had never spoken openly about that either.
The road turned directly into the blazing sunset. The sky was engulfed in flames before us. We could have been driving into hell itself. A hundred yards or so up ahead a dirt track veered off to the left leading down to the canyon. I slowed down, pulled off the road, and followed along the rough surface until the earth opened up before us.
I got out and opened Maybelle’s door for her. She swung her long shapely legs out, and placed her high heels on the desert soil. I took her arm, and we walked slowly out towards the canyon. Her shoes scuffed on the loose stones. Maybelle twisted on her heel, her left leg buckling beneath her. I supported her weight and helped her to rebalance. Then we walked together right up to the edge. The yellow and red ochre walls of the canyon dropped sharply downwards for thousands of feet. Giant stalagmites of crumbling rock pierced upwards from the canyon sides and floor. Maybelle showed no fear.
“He’s been down there,” Maybelle said. “At least that’s what he told me.”
I steadied myself and looked down into the dry gulch. In all the time I had lived here I had never been this close to the canyon before. Obscure trails wound their way along narrow switchbacks making me feel dizzy.
“He’d stay overnight,” she said kicking some loose soil over the edge. I watched it fall lightly through the air. “He said it felt good to be sleeping in the bowels of the earth. Of course he might have been anywhere fucking any one of his lady fucking friends.”
Maybelle smiled and swiftly drew back her arm with the urn. She swung it through a wide arc and, letting out a grunt like a hammer or discus-thrower, she flung it as hard as she could out into the ravine. The urn soared through the air then dropped swiftly downwards. It struck a ridge a few hundred feet below and bounced outwards.
“MIND YOUR BIG FUCKING HEAD!” Maybelle’s shrill voice echoed through the walls of the canyon before returning to haunt her. She laughed hysterically. The urn fell deeper into the gulch crashing into one of the sharp peaks. A dull thud like broken bone sounded upwards. Pieces of ceramic splintered and showered. Heat hardened clay shattered against the earth it had been raised from. His ashes gusted outwards. A cloud puffed up past our faces and over our heads. A mixture of sobs and laughter bellowed from Maybelle’s open mouth and ricocheted back out of the throat of the canyon. Her make-up was smudged with tears, and her black dress was covered in red dust. She rocked on her high heels. I held onto her fast, afraid she would topple over the edge, and it was then we kissed for the first time, even as his ashes continued to swirl about us. We may have tasted them, him, on our pressed together lips, our pro-offered tongues. I was aroused and repulsed at once. Our mouths separated, and we clung together at the edge of the great divide.
We drove home in the dimming light. Maybelle’s fingers trailed across the back of my neck. The tyres churned over the dirt road. I observed the silhouette of the buzzard atop the decaying tree. I knew that Maybelle had been watching out for it too. I drove on quickly. Miles of road disappeared behind us. We approached the huge outcrop of his mansion. I pressed the remote control and the heavy metal gates opened at my fingertips. Maybelle watched them shut securely behind us in the rear-view mirror. Inside the house she reached immediately for the champagne and brought it out to the pool. She popped open the cork. A gush of champagne spurted into the air. The veranda spotlight switched on automatically. Maybelle filled our glasses. Frantic bubbles spewed over the edges. “To life,” she said raising her glass. We tipped their fragile edges together and drank thirstily washing the dust down. Then Maybelle turned her back to me and instructed me to unzip her dress.
I pulled the zip downwards along the ridge of her spine. I was still in her employment, still serving as her personal assistant. My assistance in his death could even have been construed as a part of my service. Likewise our trip to the canyon. But surely the kiss had changed all that. Unless the provision of comfort and release for a grieving wife was a part of my duty too. For yes, despite her relief at his demise and despite her contribution to it, Maybelle was grieving, grieving for something as yet unclear.
She flicked her shoes off her feet into the swimming pool and slipped her dress off her shoulders. I watched the shoes sink heel-down into the warm water. She cocked a glance at me, and I knew that I was expected to undress too. The low howl of a distant coyote lingered in the dense air. We teetered for a moment unclothed on the edge of the pool, then dived in.
* * *
Until the very end I had little contact with him. He was hardly ever there, always jetting around on one business concern or another. Whenever he was present, I was usually too busy with his wife’s life to intervene in his. We nodded from distances, exchanged casual remarks.
“You take care of her,” he told me early on establishing the nature of our relationship, “like you took care of my gardens. Trimming, pruning, watering. Keep her neat. Keep her beautiful. It’s what she wants. Pay attention to her whims, but be wary. There’s a certain wildness in any good garden that ought to be cultivated but contained.” He held my wrist firmly. “I don’t need to tell you this, you do your job and I’ll pay you well, you don’t, and I’ll kick your fucking ass all the way back to Ireland.”
I took no offence in these latter remarks. He was a business man adopting a sensible economic position. He was paying me good money after all. Incredible money. He had a right to certain expectations, and I was not an unwilling party to all of this. As for comparing his wife to a garden, it could easily be interpreted as the stuff of poetry, love even.
Whatever about the first kiss, or the first glimpse of Maybelle’s naked body, the instance of our coition, I knew, should have represented a moment of catharsis in my life. But just as my departure from Ireland was welcomed but left me none the wiser, this moment too escaped me. Nothing could ever be the same again, and yet beyond the champagne, the caviar, the sex, the selfish indulgences, the difference eluded me.
Our first night together became two, became three, became four. I slept in his bed, I ate his food and drank his drink. And, yes, I fucked his wife.
His phone was disconnected, his staff were excused from their duties, and his guard dogs prowled the perimeters. Maybelle was raucous, crude, and undisciplined. She was burdened with grief. But I, I was free to savour the delights. The champagne, the caviar, the grinding of our bodies. Although I barely knew him, he bequeathed me all of that.
The remaining dispersal of his fortune had still to be determined however. Maybelle was not ready for lawyers just yet she said. Nor the relatives. Not ready to face the swarm that would descend to pick over his bones. She felt certain she would come into the most of it, but the others would surely contest. Apart from his unnumbered previous wives there were any number of women out there who may have borne his children she said. Any number of individuals who would lay claim to his past. For now she didn’t want to have to deal with that. She wanted a few private moments of dignity.
We awoke hot and clammy at four in the morning after a fiery night of cavorted passion. My limbs ached. Maybelle tossed and turned. Flipped her pillow over, beat it flat. She turned on her back and kicked the remaining sheet off of us.
“He hated nights like this,” she said. “They were somehow my fault.” A trickle of sweat ran down the side swell of her freckled breast. Maybelle started to cry.
“Maybelle.” I reached over and curled up against her. Our bodies meshed stickily. I stroked her tear-stained cheek. The heat between us was unbearable, and yet we clung on. Over her shoulder through the open window, the sky was filled with burning stars. The light breeze swished through the palm leaves. Maybelle convulsed in my arms, sobbing heavily. She began to curse him loudly. All manner of crudities slipped off her tender lips.
“Shh!” I brushed the hair off her forehead. I took her hand and helped her from the bed. I led her into his study and brought her to the telescope by the window. I positioned the eyepiece on Venus. I stood behind Maybelle and clasped my arms about her waist. Her body trembled against me as she leaned in to look.
“It’s startling,” she whispered.
“Venus, the most brilliant of all.”
“In all our years together he never once let me look through this instrument.” She swung the telescope through the heavens. Took it all in. Then she lowered it down to the black horizon. “My God! Look!”
I lifted my head from her neck which I had been gently kissing. Even with my naked eye the flame of light was visible flaring brightly upwards. The guard dogs began to whine. The padded beat of their paws as they ran in circles around the compound punctuated the stillness.
She pulled her head back from the telescope. “It’s coming from the canyon,” she said. in that moment it died away. It was the same light I had seen a few nights previous. Maybelle looked at me horrified. “What is it?”
“It could be anything,” I said. “Anything at all.”
I knew she was thinking of the urn arcing through the air, of its body shattering against the rock, and his ashy remains scattering in the winds. The whining of the dogs lowered in pitch and volume until it disappeared, and the rhythmic beat of their paws came to a standstill. Maybelle turned in my arms. She pressed her bristling goose pimpled flesh against me.
We would go back to the bed now I knew, and she would hurt me. Harder than ever before. Doling out her vengeance in the only way she knew how.
The following afternoon we sat out by the pool on the veranda eating a late breakfast. We drank the orange juice I had freshly prepared and ate a mix of dates and figs. A full pot of Colombian coffee waited beside two white cups and saucers. We looked across the flat desert to the canyon. The sun shone down, and a light breeze trickled through the scattered low brush. A green and yellow lizard slipped over the balcony. Maybelle bit lusciously into a fig and spoke as she chewed.
“Do you think we should check the canyon?” She looked at me seriously.
I laughed. “It’s too vast, Maybelle. There would be no point.”
Maybelle stared at me, annoyed by my laughter. She deliberated on something. “The telescope is pointed directly at the spot.” She shrugged. “It was only a thought. It would ease my mind.”
Her response intimidated me. We were not on equal footing yet. An element of authority persisted in her tone. I would have to proceed more cautiously.
She took a drink of orange juice and peered over the balcony. I saw something give way within her. “I was scared last night, that’s all.” She smiled back at me. “The light was unusual, don’t you think?”
“It was curious,” I replied.
“But you’re right,” she said. “It could have been anything. It would be pointless to investigate.”
The empty cups rattled in their saucers. Maybelle looked to them and then to me. The tremor ran through both of our bodies. Maybelle gripped my hand. The water sloshed in the pool, broke in waves against its sides, and splashed over the edge. Then the tremor subsided as quickly as it began.
“It’s alright,” I said. “It has passed.”
Maybelle looked terrified. We sat there waiting for more, for the aftershocks, but nothing more came. “In all my time here, I’ve never got used to it.”
I looked across the flat country, followed the line of weakness with my eyes. “It’s the earth coming together,” I told her, “not renting apart. That’s its saving feature.”
“It will be the death of us,” she said. “Believe you me.”
The water continued to ebb in the pool. For the first time since his death Maybelle mentioned what had occurred.
“We did no wrong, did we?”
I shook my head. “We administered his medicine, that’s all.” And that was all we had done. I had no regrets about that. “Irrespective of what you thought of him, he was in great pain. We did him a service. A final act of loving generosity.”
In the end all we did was hasten up his dying. People did it all of the time. The dose was greater than the recommended one, but his passage out of this life was eased considerably.
“It was the least we could do. If you had left him in pain, if you had deliberately done that and had taken pleasure from it, that would be something else. That might give you something to trouble your conscience with. And even then who is to say whether you would have been right or wrong?”
Maybelle ran her finger across the table top. She disturbed a light covering of dust. She held out the coated tip of her finger. “A part of him? It has to be possible.”
I didn’t answer. She looked hard at her finger then ever so slowly pushed it into her mouth and sucked on it suggestively.
I looked away as though I had caught her engaged in a personal act. I firmly believed we had done the right thing, but it was true our motives had to be questioned. When Maybelle initially discussed it with me I had felt it a part of my duty. But did I also hope that we would end up together like this? Did I conspire to partake in his fortune? And yet he was going to die anyway within a matter of days or weeks, a month or two at the outside the doctor had said. So what had I altered? But of course what I had altered was the nature of our relationship. Together, we had plotted the taking of a life. Conspirators. Implicated by each other’s actions.
As for hoping we would end up like this or that I would partake in his fortune, I honestly could not say. I could not remember consciously aspiring to any of that, still can’t, and yet a part of me pleaded guilty on this behalf.
“Depending on how this turns out I intend to sell this property,” she said.
“In some ways I will hate to see it go.” She got up and leaned over the balcony where the lizard had earlier crawled. The bright blue cloudy sky sloped to meet the seared horizon. Maybelle turned to face me. The front of her white silk dressing gown flapped open. Her pale lightly freckled flesh, as if the scorching Californian sun was incapable of touching it, was exposed above and below the knotted belt.
“What do you see?” she asked.
I responded with a puzzled look.
“In me? When you look at me what do you see?”
I poured myself a coffee, tasted it. “A strong woman. Someone capable of surviving out here. Like the odd rare plant that intrudes into the desert, that has no place belonging here, but somehow makes it this far. Survives against the odds. And with a fresh fall of rain blooms magnificently, beautifully, brightening up the dullness in a way unimaginable to the natural habitat.”
Maybelle laughed harshly. “My god! You do have the gift of the gab, no doubt about it. You’re a rare bloom yourself.” She turned back to the dry expanse and spoke quietly, almost to herself. “If I asked you to take me back to Ireland with you, would you? For me, would you return?”
“That would depend,” I said considering my reply, “in which capacity you were asking me to return. As staff or as something else?”
Maybelle brushed out her hair with her fingers. “What would be your choice?” .
“As staff I would return, for a while at least. But I would not remain indefinitely.”
“And as something else?”
“I suppose it would depend on the something else.”
The lower half of her gown had slipped open further and her muscular right thigh was now exposed to the hip. The inner curves of her firm breasts were clearly visible.
“What have you got in mind?”
I took another drink of coffee. Maybelle’s collar bone protruded like a primitive neck adornment. “That is up to you,” I said. “I have no mind of my own.”
Maybelle quickly pulled her gown in around her. “That’s where you are so wrong.” She was agitated, upset. “He did not buy that. He was never able to buy minds. He could bruise them, but he could not own them. That was his mistake. That was always his mistake. He thought he could recognise something flawed, something imperfect that would be available for less, and then work on it, renovate it, pretty it up to be admired by all and make a handsome profit. But the trouble was the flaw would always be there, could not be painted away, and as sure as God the weakness would finally break through to the surface bringing him and everything around him down with it.”
She clutched the lapels of her gown tightly about her chest. The knuckles of her clenched fists showed through as white as weather exposed bone.
“You are right,” I said. “Right about it all except for in one respect. What you say he recognised as flaws were not flaws at all. They were not weaknesses but strengths. Not to be hidden away but to be revealed and revered.”
A sharp wind gusted across the veranda. Maybelle braced herself against it. Out above the horizon the blue sky darkened upwards to grey as a wall of swirling particles rose like a curtain of gauze.
“Dust storm,” I said. “We better get inside quickly.”
Maybelle steadied herself. I reached across, took her arm, and led her indoors.
The storm lasted throughout the afternoon. Maybelle and I watched it from the bedroom window. The pale particles of dust repulsed and attracted one another. We could see nothing outside of ourselves. As though we too were swirling somewhere out in the universe at some point in its infinite existence where something, a planet or a star, some heavenly body, was either being created or destroyed. We held on to one another. From time to time Maybelle wept.
The storm blew over. Lifted like a fog departing. Maybelle kissed me on the cheek as if something had lifted within her also. Something that had caused her to wonder if the storm would ever pass on, if we would not be lost within it forever. She took my hand and we walked outside.
The figs, the dates, the white cups and saucers, the empty jug of orange juice, the table and chairs were covered in a shroud of yellow and red dust. The veranda, the trees, the shrubs, the carefully watered lawns. Particles floated on the pool water, dispersed beneath the surface in a murky haze. Maybelle looked at me, and in a single movement shrugged off her dressing gown. This time we understood each other perfectly. I nodded my assent and undressed. I took her hand and together we jumped into the dust-filled water.
That night Maybelle and I withdrew silently to his study. We stood either side of his telescope watching the night sky. I listened to Maybelle’s heavy breathing, and she listened to mine. The stars flickered on and off. We waited patiently until we finally saw what we had come to see. Like a meteorite burning upwards, returning to bring order to the cosmos. Maybelle bent her head into the telescope where it was trained. She raised her head and nodded her confirmation. The light extinguished. She led me back into the bedroom and made angry love.
* * *
I set out alone the following morning while Maybelle slept. I took his car and drove down to the canyon. The morning haze clung lightly above the desert. The yellow sun had begun its upwards curve. Already the day was hot. I had decided the previous night after our rough lovemaking to go out and take a look at the canyon. To see, for Maybelle’s sake, if I could find anything that would explain the light.
I looked through the telescope before leaving to where it was pointed. I observed the prominences, the distinguishing features that might help identify the exact location later.
As I drove I turned the air-conditioning off and rolled down the side window. The hot air wafted through. The skyline was tinged in pink. The soil all around warmed to an orange gleam. A kangaroo rat hopped out from a clump of sagebrush across the road in front of me. I felt the soft bump of its body beneath the front wheel. I looked back and saw its innards spewed across the road. I recalled the turkey buzzard Maybelle and I had seen the time we had been out here together.
I reached the canyon about three quarters of an hour later. I went over to the edge and looked down into the canyon where Maybelle had previously cast the urn. There was no sign of its fragments anywhere. I glanced along the canyon floor and tried to gauge the location the light had flared from. I looked back to identify the position of his house. Although the house itself was not visible, I recognised the landmarks around it. I turned again to the canyon and took my directions from the features I had observed through the telescope. I estimated that I’d need to travel another two or three miles along the canyon rim.
I drove as far as I could in the car, about another mile and a half, before the track ran out. I pulled in, turned off the engine, and began to walk through the dry dirt and brush. The gouged out gulch fell sharply to my right. The large gaseous sphere of the sun ignited high in the sky. Perspiration broke out from the pores on my forehead and underarms. My throat was already dry. I should have set out earlier. I was crazy to have come without water. It was a basic rule in the desert to always carry an extra two days food and water. The body could lose up to a gallon a day. Even when you are not thirsty you need to keep drinking. I knew this only too well, and yet I ignored this ingrained knowledge. I hadn’t even bothered to take his emergency pack from the car. Flares, first-aid and snakebite kit, matches, compass.
I walked labouriously across the baked earth. I wiped my brow and scanned back across the flat desolation to where Maybelle lay in bed sipping, no doubt, from the remainder of his champagne. We had drunk fourteen bottles between us in the last few days. Maybelle told me she was developing a taste for it, that it was becoming an obvious part of her future.
The sudden buzz of a rattlesnake stopped me dead in my tracks. A number of rocks were scattered out to my left-hand side. It could well have been hiding there in the shade. I listened keenly to trace the sound, but the rattle abruptly stopped. For a while I stayed where I was watching and listening. Then I cautiously pushed on.
I finally made it out to where I believed the light had come from. The muscles in the backs of my legs ached. My shirt sleeves were soaked with sweat. It clung to my back. I wondered if Maybelle could possibly be watching me. Looking, from his study, through the great lens seeking out my human form.
The sun scorched downwards relentlessly from high in the sky. I was exhausted by the energy I had expended walking in its heat. I rested on my hunkers and looked down into the wide gulf where the earth had once been cut through by a surging flow of water. Layer upon layer of rocks receded downwards, through time, to the oldest strata at the dried out river bed. I thought of the flash floods that could sweep through in a moment, higher than a person, careening destructively through the gullies.
I stood up and walked to the rim. I viewed the crags and razor-back ridges eroded by wind, water, and extreme cycles of heat and cold. The sun caught on the phosphorescent tint of mineral deposits and flashed back a myriad of minute glinting rainbows.
I ought to have taken binoculars along to bring the bone-dry gullies and washes closer. To look for anything out of the ordinary. Staring down this distance scared me though. I felt genuinely fearful that I would be drawn over the edge to fall helplessly like the urn which held his ashes.
I walked along the rim for over an hour forcing myself to look between the buttes and ridges, but I could see nothing unusual. I knew I would have to go down. I would have to overcome my fears and find a trail winding over the switchbacks down into the heart of the canyon.
It was approaching noon, and without water it would be reckless to attempt it. And yet I didn’t want to go back to Maybelle without having tried. It would be the death of whatever we had between us to do otherwise. To lie, to pretend I had been down there and had seen nothing that would give any explanation, was not something I would have been capable of doing, was not something she would have believed.
I searched for another fifteen minutes and found the beginnings of a trail along the side of the canyon. It could have been formed by the feet of a past nomadic tribe or by miners seeking out the minerals stored beneath the earth’s surface. It might not even have been a trail at all but the basic lie of the land.
I inhaled steeply and stepped cautiously out onto the pathway. I tried not to look down. I walked as far away from the edge as possible, clinging to the rough canyon wall, shuffling each foot along. My throat contracted with thirst and fear. A gust of wind caused me to teeter momentarily. I leaned in against the canyon wall for protection. My heart pounded deep within my skeletal frame. I felt the hard rock pressing into my spine. No more than five feet away the sheer drop below veered up to meet me. I caught my breath and held it. I stood erect, my body straightening away from the angled wall. I exhaled slowly and began to move again.
I had only come a few hundred yards. The top of the canyon was not far above my head. I had a long way to go. I eased my way along, looking straight ahead of me, until I reached the first switchback. The trail curved steeply through a sharp U-turn, narrowing at the point of curvature to less than three feet. The dry soil and loose fragments of rock scattered beneath the soles of my shoes. The worn grips of my light footwear slid dangerously over them. Particles of grit and dust trickled over the edge. I had come completely unprepared for this. The temperature was rising into the nineties. I had no water, no headwear, no decent footwear, and not enough nerve. I was weak and sweating profusely. I stopped at the curve of the trail and leaned once more against the hard jutting wall. Against my better instincts I looked down. The vast depth of the gulch was fearsome. I felt dizzy and nauseous, parched with thirst. My sense of balance wavered. I could hardly believe how irresponsible I had been. I knew the dangers of desert country as much as anyone.
The sun flashed in my eyes and dazzled me. My body swayed lightly. I tensed with the overwhelming terror of my mortality. The buzz of the rattlesnake shook loudly in my ears. The dark wide span of the vulture’s wings cast its shadow across the whole of the canyon as the vicious trembling began.
The ground shook violently beneath me. It shook its way through the base of my feet up through my spine to my skull. I thought of Maybelle lying in bed gripped with fear. I heard the loud rumble of earth and rock as it loosened and fell away. I watched it shower down around me. Then I closed my eyes, wrapped my arms tightly around myself, and listened to the catastrophe of my quaking body.
* * *
I drove back to Maybelle wondering where it would go from here. Although I could always try again, I knew I wouldn’t. Even with the right equipment, even taking the necessary precautions, I would not descend again into the canyon. His fortune, his air-conditioning, his pool, his wife were not worth that to me. Had I finally reached a moment of catharsis in my life? Had something of magnitude about my existence finally been revealed to me? Would everything be different from here on out?
But deep within me I knew that this was no different from my decision to leave Ireland. That there too I had forsaken a livelihood people would kill for. There too I had forsaken the people closest to me.
I drove along the winding desert road realising that nothing had changed, that my life would go on as it always had done in a way I would never comprehend, that the mysterious flame from the canyon was as deep as any mystery got and that understanding left you nothing but the flat logical explanations.
I looked out my side window at the solitary tree where the buzzard had been, and whether it was a trick of the light, a desert mirage, or not, I believed I saw an enormous crater just beyond it, one I had not noticed before. I would take Maybelle out to that in the early morning, I decided. Before the sun came up. And whether the crater existed or not, we would make love there and watch together the fiery dawning of a new day. I would tell her of my decision to leave and allow her, in her lovemaking, to hurt me as she had never hurt me before. Not by any act of violence, but by an unprovoked act of tenderness. Assuming we were permitted that final grace.
— Gerard Beirne
Gerard Beirne is an Irish writer who moved to Norway House, a Cree community in Northern Manitoba, in 1999 where he lived for three years. While living there, he interviewed Elders in the community and edited for publication an anthology of those interviews. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead.
His novel The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express. His most recent novel Turtle was published by Oberon Press, 2009.
His short story “Sightings of Bono” was adapted into a short film featuring Bono (U2) by Parallel Productions, Ireland in 2001 and released on DVD in 2004.
His poetry collection Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual has just been published by Oberon Press- Fall 2011. His collection of poetry Digging My Own Grave was published by Dedalus Press, Dublin. An earlier version won second place in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.