(These books are unavailable while I am seeking agent representation and publication. You can read or listen to first chapters.)
Resisting the twilight of her career, a much-loved high wire performer climbs the tallest tree in an old-growth redwood state forest to battle corporate forces colluding to clear-cut the land and install yet another vineyard. She sets up living quarters and a high-tech media nest in the branches and her antics to draw national attention reignite old wounds in the adjacent rural community, embolden the local Indian tribe to confront its legacy of shame, and threaten the governor who depends on corporate money for reelection. When a humble craftsman from Japan takes interest in the forest, all the parties must reevaluate their beliefs to address this greater threat.
The Taking: Chapter One
Opening night. Moscow. Thirty-seven feet up. No net. No fear.
Pravda has proclaimed Delicia Fortunado the “Queen of the High Wire,” and she is proving it. She nails her hoop routine. She sticks her front flips. The crowd loves her clowning. Three minutes in and not one fault. Only her signature move left: The moonwalk, the feat everyone said was impossible on the wire. Now she owns it. Her body rocking with adrenaline. Mind steady like the North Star. The Perfect Present.
Midstride, she and the music halt. Seconds pass. Her raised foot, not a tremble in it. Not a cough in the crowd. Then booming bass ignites her. Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. Every muscle and bone working the rhythm. Footwork flashing. The illusion of strutting while gliding backward on the wire. People leaping from their seats as if God has arrived. Exultant.
Two steps from the far platform, she wheels and moonwalks again. Halfway across…the wire fails.
It’s. Not. There.
By instinct, her feet seek it. Her arms spread. Hands fluttering, futile, like the wings of a hatchling bumped from the nest.
Though a hardcore realist, Delicia thinks her request is fair: Just this once, can’t gravity fail?
Waiting for the answer, she locks onto a face in the crowd. A child’s. Blond. Blue dress. Eyes wide. Fist of popcorn, rock-still.
The sound of her striking the ground kills the music. One collision, a succession of blows: feet, a knee, a hip. Head still upright, safe. Except the jolt knocks every thought out. Earth without compromise.
No breath. Thankfully, she doesn’t need any. Her mind is clear beyond measure. Bright lights. A cacophonous bowl of dread, each howl distinct. Yes, she heard bones cracking. But she feels no pain. None. Perhaps someone tried to catch her.
People running toward her. Real emotions in circus makeup. Her right arm, locked stiff, propping her up. A regal pose to greet them. Except for pressure somewhere. Her thigh. It’s twisted, like an injured slug. Wearing something jagged. Bone white. What is it doing wrapped in her leotard? Who is bleeding?
She replays the impact like a classical symphony’s final chord. A minor triad, octaves of it, stacked one upon the other. Her body is ablaze with all the instruments. The chord repeats, building to a final release. Brahh. Brraaahh. Brrraaaaaahh. Celebrating the end of something. Her career?
Her first clear thought is: Fight. She was born to do this. More to come. She opens her mouth to roar, but she has no air.
In the Moscow emergency room, then on the private jet that whisked her to New York, and later in conjunction with the medications they gave her before and after her surgeries, Delicia drifted in and out of consciousness.
In time, she learned her surgeons were the finest available. Because equipment failure leading to injury guaranteed lawsuits, both Delicia’s company, Cirque de la Lune and the Moscow entertainment venue’s corporate entity, immediately sought cover by throwing money at her health care. But in her first days, she didn’t know which hospital she was in. Whenever her medications wore off, she used the temporary lucidity to address two issues: breathing through the incredible pain, and denying that the X-rays doctors hung on the light screen in her room were hers. A compound femur fracture and a broken pelvis.
Two months later, when Delicia was able to venture into the ward using her walker, her favorite nurse recounted how she had fought the truth. “It took you weeks to link the pain you had using bedpans with your pelvis being held together with platinum mending plates.”
Delicia had her reasons. Athletes who bought into conventional truth never made comebacks.
Which meant she had to battle the fatalistic looks her visitors brought. Most were celebrities and political types, snatching public empathy for their own ends. A few circus friends were able to come, but their faces were etched in pity. The mountain of get-well cards wished platitudes upon her. She stopped opening them.
However, flower petals pressed into a handmade paper envelope with a gallery of exotic stamps got her attention. Cursive writing, smooth and practiced. Not like a man’s. Perhaps the founder and director of Zimbabwe’s Tsongumatta Wildlife Preserve had asked a woman to draft it for him. Its message was refreshing. He imagined the pain and disappointment she must be enduring, and he carried her in his heart as he made his rounds on the savanna. He also enclosed two photographs of elephants, because, he wrote, Your deep love of them is known the world over. It was signed, An African Gentleman.
The gentleman wrote again after People magazine showed her walking with two canes. Dear Ms. Fortunado, see every step you take as a gift. She drank his optimism like nectar.
Delicia’s physical therapist looked as if he could use his own services. Olympic ski jumping and hours bending over patients and computers had given Adam a crook in his posture. But he was New York’s go-to professional for figure skaters, football running backs, and pole-vaulters. He worked her body hard. To make up for it, he couched his words in feathers. One day, he tugged gently on his sideburn and kept his eyes on his paperwork. “The surgeons are nonplussed at how perfectly your femur has mended. The fusion of bone has made it exactly the length it was before.”
Delicia had never doubted that outcome.
“When you get the plates removed,” Adam patted his own pelvis in solidarity, “we’ll assess ligament stability and tendon verisimilitude.” He looked up. “But Delicia, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. You have a long way to go. Your muscle atrophy is significant. That will compromise your balance. It may take years to get it back.”
Delicia set her cup down definitively. “I’m twenty-six. I don’t have years.”
When she put aside the canes altogether, new pain appeared in her right ankle. Adam said it was probably adjusting to the old regime and would be all right.
It got worse with use.
And worse. New imaging tests revealed three previously undiscovered micro breaks that had healed incorrectly. Though it meant she would be laid up again, she had an orthopedic surgeon for ballet dancers scrape away calcium deposits, re-break the bones, and set them with tiny pins.
She sailed through more rehab. At last, doctors pronounced her well enough to move to a special home. In their final consult, they said she would eventually walk normally. But her performing days were over. A maddeningly short announcement appeared in the Circus Standard.
As she was packing to leave, her nurse led a tall, elegant African man into her room. He had a streak of grey hair on his right temple and his skin was the color of water on a moonless night. His voice was resonant and his lips dropped sibilants as if they were jewels marking the trail for a woman to find her way home. With a long-fingered hand placed over his heart, Waluco “Joseph” Wassama asked Delicia if she would consider continuing her rehabilitation on his five-thousand-hectare paradise, assisting with the care and documentation of the herds of elephants. “And when you are all healed,” he said, “however long it takes, I will gladly hold the gate wide as you again offer yourself to the world.”
Listen to the Opening
Imperfect Burials: Chapter One
The note looked innocent. Simple cardstock, folded once with care. The beautiful photographer from Naples that Wade brought up from the foreigners’ lounge saw it first, lying on the floor when he opened the door to his hotel room. Laughing, she held it behind her for the ransom of a kiss and after he paid, they both wanted more. But what he read stunned him and as he pondered his priorities, her patience crumbled. Moments later, with her bitter stream of Italian ringing in his ears, he trotted down the worn marble staircase, crossed the lobby, and headed into Warsaw’s unlit streets.
Rain fell on grimy snow and except for soldiers huddling miserable in doorways, the city prepared for sleep. His throat burned from the smoke of a million coal stoves that wives had lit to warm husbands returning from the day’s demonstrations, and curtains drawn to hold the heat made the night seem thick with secrets. Underfoot, slush masked ice.
Wade didn’t see the pair of soldiers until they had him flattened against the door of a bank. They were surly, not young, and when his ace in the hole—his American passport and press ID—failed to appease them, he grabbed the first thing that came to mind, saying in perfect Polish, “I’m on my way to the cathedral to pray for your countrymen.” His fluency caught them off guard and they released him with smiles and thumbs up, not pausing to consider that the cathedral was behind him.
And in that way they confirmed his choice.
Further on, as he turned up his collar to ward off the rain, his feet slid in different directions on a patch of ice. He didn’t fall—he’d grown up in snow country—but he took a moment under an awning to gather himself and to check the address. The note was written in a confident hand. Strategy meeting. Come on foot and alone to the fourth floor. No recorders, no pen or paper. It was signed with a red ink stamp. Solidarnosc.
Wade understood the caution. Any leak could hand advantage to the government. Still, he felt naked without the tools of his trade.
Behind the old school at Kowalski 137, he found a matchbook inserted between the doorjamb and the strike to keep the heavy wooden door unlocked. He looked at his watch and once inside, he headed up the darkened stairway on which the door opened, lighting a match at each landing. His footsteps echoed and through his shoes, he felt the swales that countless feet had worn into the stone treads.
Had he been using all his senses, he might have smelled the man who grabbed his arm on the third floor landing. Russian tobacco left a bitter odor on the breath.
“Kill the light if you want to live.”
Surprise jerked Wade’s hand and the flame died.
“What are you doing here?” The voice was thick with phlegm and the accent wasn’t local. Wade guessed the man was in his sixties.
“I’m here for a meeting of—” he paused, wondering if he’d he ever get used to the games required to work behind the Iron Curtain—“some old friends.”
“It’s late for a meeting, isn’t it?” There was wariness in the voice, with a splash of amusement, as if the man were playing poker in the dark.
Wade laid down a queen. “Some soldiers were bored and decided to play with me, so I’m later than the note specified.”
“The one slipped under my door this evening. Sometime before ten-thirty.”
The man’s chuckle rumbled in the stairwell. Or perhaps he was clearing his throat. He flicked on a flashlight that cast a weary glow on heavy wool pant cuffs gathered on street shoes. “Go to the next landing. If you’re the right man, we may meet again.”
Wade climbed another flight and after checking his conviction, opened the door. Low wattage bulbs overhead lit a long hallway. A sturdy fellow leaned against the wall, hands in jacket pockets, his breath steaming in the air.
“You’re the journalist who speaks Russian?” He was in his late thirties, heavy browed, with a moustache that conveyed virility. The hand he extended was missing the index finger.
Wade shook it, wondering how he managed a pencil. “Yes, I know some Russian.”
Still holding his hand, the man inspected him up and down. “And your Polish is good.”
“My mother was born in Poznań.”
The man considered this. “You have no recorder, correct?”
Wade shook his head, trying to imagine why his knowing Russian was important. Most Poles spoke some or could get by because it was a sister language. Perhaps Solidarity had caught a spy or someone had defected to their cause. A Western journalist’s wet dream.
Clarissa would argue otherwise. Time and again his wife had warned about his ambition landing him in dangerous places.
“Arms out. Spread your legs.”
Wade’s credentials usually spared him being frisked. Excited that maybe Walesa, the head of Solidarity, had asked to see him, he raised his arms and felt stern brush strokes down his body core and from his groin to his boots.
Satisfied, the man poked his chin down the hall. “That way.”
Only then did Wade hear boisterous voices in a distant room, rising in bursts, overlapping each other like waves on a beach. The cadence of fierce debate.
When Wade’s escort rapped, the voices hushed and the door opened. For a moment cigarette smoke obscured the faces. Wade had never been allowed into the big room when the Round Table Talks were taking place, but the giant in the worn wool vest whose chair faced the door often spoke to the press during the breaks. Mateusz Dabrowski, an organizer from shipyards in the north, wore a stevedore hat even during the sessions. The word was that he would take over if anything happened to Walesa.
“You,” Dabrowski said, motioning to Wade with a hand the size of a baseball glove. “If you came on such short notice, you obviously weren’t with a woman. Don’t you like Polish girls?”
Laughter rolled around the room and Wade met it with brightened eyes. He did like Polish women, dammit, in particular, the ones who served food and coffee to the press corps. They moved like ordinary waitresses until they had cleared the plates, when they poured forth passion and intelligence such as he only heard in places like Rotterdam. And there was one among them he had slept with not ten days ago, though, like him, she was married. That night at least, sex had seemed the only cure for the angst she was carrying for her people. In return, she had eased his loneliness now that Clarissa’s depression had become so intractable.
“A chair for our American guest,” Dabrowski commanded.
“And a vodka, too?” The speaker wore ratty boots, unlaced.
“No, though after, he may beg to drink to keep from pissing in his pants.”
A chair was set facing Dabrowski and Wade feigned calm. The light-shouldered older fellow with wire-rimmed glasses on Dabrowski’s left was one of the Solidarity assistants that stayed in their own room down the hall from where the press corps waited for announcements. Sitting on Dabrowski’s right, taking notes, was Viktor, the man with the bolo necktie who often drove Walesa to the talks. The rough clothes and manner of the other seven men cut a sharp contrast to the cardboard formality of the generals and government party officials. To remember them for any article he would write, Wade linked their faces to friends from high school.
Dabrowski scanned him as if assessing his character, then spoke in perfect Russian. “We have been watching you.” He placed his palm on his chest. “I became a fan, reading your coverage from Berlin.”
Whatever this gathering was for, Wade hadn’t seen the like in his time abroad. He bowed his head. “Spasseba bolshoya.”
“And do you like me?” Dabrowski asked.
Wade considered his answer, looking also for the right words in Russian. “I don’t know you well enough to say, but when you speak to the press, I find complicated ideas making sense.” He paused. “I steal things from you.”
It seemed the room took a collective breath and several men slapped each other’s shoulders in delight. “He speaks like a Russian.”
“And I intend to sue you,” Dabrowski said with a laugh. “As soon as we have courts that respond to more than money and bullets.” He switched to Polish. “So you’re safe for now. Safe to talk about opinions. Your newspaper proudly says it doesn’t peddle opinion. Is it true?”
This was a harder point to handle on the spot and Wade realized why Dabrowski could sit at the table and fight with generals who had the power to have him shot. “I try to adhere to facts.” He looked around the room at men whose press had lied to them at every turn and hoped he wasn’t ruining whatever goodwill they had. “But a man who has no opinion probably writes—” and he hesitated, thinking again of Clarissa, back in the good old days, when she’d taught him to speak directly as things arose in his mind—“probably writes shit.”
Glasses of clear liquid appeared in the hands of several of the men and after exultations, they finished them off with the confidence of butchers strangling chickens.
Dabrowski raised his hand for quiet. “Good. So how do you deal with opinions?”
Wade preferred being the one in control of the questions. “If they get too loud when I’m writing, I shove my pen down their throats.”
Dabrowski stood up on massive legs, walked outside the circle and ran a finger across the old slate blackboard. When he came to the youngest fellow in the room, he placed his hands on the man’s shoulders. “And if you could find the truth to an old secret, could you be trusted to tell it and not expose the people who brought you to it? Do you have opinions about that?”
He was being tested. “What does a secret have to do with opinion?”
Dabrowski sucked his lips. “Opinion is the juice that makes a man care. Being true to the facts shows that he does.”
In salute, Wade lifted a glass he didn’t hold.
Dabrowski acknowledged the gesture with a nod. “And protecting his sources shows his humanity.” He turned to address the wall behind him. “And the Soviets? What is your opinion of their treatment of the Eastern Bloc?”
“My opinion?” Two nights ago in the hotel lounge he and some colleagues had argued this very issue. “Debatably worthy ideas misused to garner power. Though in that regard, capitalism comes in a close second.”
Dabrowski turned back to face his men. He seemed pleased. “Frankly, I’ve never been able to understand why you Americans don’t all kill each other.” He started walking again. “But here’s what I want for Poland, and it’s something I can’t give my country. Time. More than anything, she needs time, time to negotiate an end to this oppression. And these talks are probably the only ones we’ll get in my lifetime.” Heads in the room nodded as if connected to camshafts. “And though Gorbachev may mean what he says about keeping his hands off—God knows he’s ass deep in his own problems—I know our generals are begging him for KGB-sponsored riots to give him pretext to send in the troops massed along our border. We have informers in their midst that tell us so.” He placed his palms together like a priest about to pray. “Jaruzelski—our beloved president—will do anything to keep change from coming. At this point, he still has to go through Gorbachev, but there’s a crowd of thugs under Gorbachev who will . . .” Dabrowski drew the fingers of his left hand across his neck. “All it takes is for a couple of generals to act on their own, to send the orders, and in a matter of days all will be lost on our side.”
Sensing Wade’s impatience to know where this was leading, Dabrowski continued. “We need someone to keep the Soviets spinning toward their own demise, make it worse for them in the short term, so they won’t invade us. Before you leave here you’ll understand why it can’t be a Pole, why it can’t be anyone in the Communist sphere.” He made a spitting sound. “Pack of thieves and bullies. We need the truth to get out to the West.”
“The truth about what?”
“The biggest lie ever told, at least if you’re Polish.” His face suggested he was going to be specific, but all he said was, “Will you help us?”
The contest for the biggest lie ever told was crowded with entries. New ones cropped up every year.
“My mother was Polish,” Wade said. “Russians killed her father and she saw her grandparents skewered on German bayonets.” He stopped, unsure of where this tack was taking him, but he knew from the quiet of ten half-wild men that he was in the presence of history. He longed to join it. “What do you need?”
“Go to Belarus. We’ll help you get there. Talk to a man and bring his story to the West. Put it in the papers.”
The Round Table Talks had been fraught with struggles over minutiae and had been stalled for the last four days, but if Wade was gone when they resumed, that was grounds for getting fired. Something Clarissa might welcome. “How long will it take? And the risks?”
“A couple days,” Dabrowski said. “And, since you ask, you could create an international incident. Or simply disappear.” He backhanded the air with such disregard it took Wade several seconds to realize it was his life Dabrowski was dismissing.
As Wade’s heart slammed once, Viktor flicked his hand to get Dabrowski’s attention. His voice was not unkind. “Tell him we know what happened to his father.”
Wade bored his eyes into Viktor’s. “You know?” His mind leapt to the noire 8 x 10 photograph of the journalist Robert Waters from the shoulders up, standing in the light of a street lamp, a fresh cigarette hovering near his mouth, head cocked with a glint in his eye as if just called by the photographer. The rooflines behind hinted at some European city.
The day after his mother told him his father wouldn’t be coming home, he’d found the pieces of the photograph in the trash. In the early years when she slept, he would fit his father back together on his desk. Even now he carried the meticulously repaired image in a plastic cover.
Dabrowski pulled him back. “Viktor’s not correct. We don’t know what happened to your father. We know he was a casualty of—” and he made small loops with his hand to signify everything that could go wrong—“the troubles inside the Curtain.”
There it was. The troubles inside the Curtain—a simple way to express Soviet tyranny grinding forty distinct nationalities into one ruined tribe. Wade’s troubles would always include his father vanishing in the hellish days of the Hungarian Revolution with barely any outcry from the United States.
Dabrowski clapped his hands to keep himself on track. “We’re sending you to finish fifty years of mourning and to help us create a new era. In return, we’ll do this for you: if you’re not back in seventy-two hours, we’ll delay the talks another day, even if Jaruzelski begs to give us everything. And we’ll do all we can to get you out.” He looked each of his men in the eye. “If you succeed, Poland will become free in the present and free from the past.” He gazed wistfully at the map of his country that hung crooked on the bare wall to his left. “Her remaining free in the future depends on whether we Poles are idiots or if we are truly tired of being run by them.”
Wade had worked abroad for more than a decade. His research was relentless when good stories arose and his reporting was distinguished by his flair for drama. But what had always eluded him, what he longed for, was breaking the one great story that would make his career.
“Without knowing what it is, I can’t say if I’m your best choice, but I want to help you. Promise me, though, this is news, not spying.”
“Some don’t believe there’s much of a difference there.” Dabrowski pointed his finger as a warning. “No one ever needs to know how you get this story. That’s your protection.”
“Where do you want me to go?”
Dabrowski leaned forward and spoke in a stage whisper. “Have you heard of Katyn?”
Listen to the Opening
THE TROUBLE WITH WISDOM
The Trouble with Wisdom: Prologue plus Two Pages
Prologue: Tibet, March 1959
At first light, Selpo Rinpoche woke to the roar of his monastery’s warning gong. Thinking fire, he threw open the shutters and scanned the temple, the library and the labyrinth of monks’ cells, until movement outside the walls caught his eye. A monk was running barefoot down the mountain, maroon robes flying, blood staining his trail in the snow.
Later, while he and his lamas tended the monk’s wounds in the warmth of the great kitchen, Rinpoche listened as the monk relayed his news from over the Iron Snow Range. A Red Army unit had corralled laypeople and monks in the courtyard and demanded the senior lamas renounce their faith and bow down to Mao Tse Tung. When the lamas refused, soldiers shoved pistols into the hands of the novice monks and ordered them to kill their teachers. But the boys, in keeping with their vows, turned the weapons on themselves. In response, the soldiers emptied their guns into the crowd, then dragged the women and girls to the temple, laid them on their backs under the statue of the Buddha and raped them.
All that day, Rinpoche walked the halls, rallying monks and villagers as they passed supplies and relics hand-to-hand out the Eastern Gate to the parade grounds, where porters loaded a caravan of yaks. Close to midnight, he waded through the crowd in the moonlit courtyard and mounted the horse his attendants had packed for his escape south, over the Himalayas.
Reins in hand, he peered through the juniper smoke at the ancient square—the raised plaza where he had learned to debate the fine points of wisdom, the prayer wheels he’d turned as he circumambulated the statuary hall, the banners and gargoyles and, on the roof, the golden Wheel of Peace. He saw, too, tomorrow’s courtyard awash in blood. Centuries of labor and devotion were about to be swept away.
He’d had no time to think of what to say to the multitude now pressing around him. Upturned faces and wind-scoured cheeks. “This life we cling to is . . . ” In the sphere of light he saw his little brother in the arms of his uncle; and the old boot maker, Dundrup; and there, Chintso, the girl who once inspired him to question his monastic vows, now pregnant, leaning into her husband Gyaltsen, the handsome salt trader. “This life we cling to . . . is a dream. It can’t be grasped.” The words weighed on him like a lead cloak and he steadied himself on the horse’s withers. “Those that harm others don’t know they are tightening the ropes of their own suffering. So when the soldiers come, show your compassion.”
As all the people Rinpoche loved bowed their heads in honor, his old teacher, Lama Dawa hobbled toward him, breathless. “Rinpoche, my heart son, we cannot leave these here.” He raised a small bundle in both hands. “The Chinese will just melt the gold for their teeth.” He peeled back the brocade to reveal the Scepters of the Lineage. The sight of them made Rinpoche draw his breath.
He had only held the scepters twice. The first time, he was three years old. Lamas from the monastery had come to his parents’ nomadic camp and laid them before him alongside perfect counterfeits. “Choose the ones you held in your previous life,” they’d said. The task was easy. The real ones spoke and the copies lay dead. Couldn’t these wise lamas tell the difference? He’d broken into laughter lifting the real Dorjay, and the lamas had celebrated the discovery of their deceased abbot, reincarnated.
The second time was five years ago. The scepters had been coming to him in dreams and, though his vows prohibited him from even seeing them, one night he sought them while the monastery slept. In his hands, they became hot, as if protesting his disrespect. Frightened, he’d put them back. And for a fortnight, in meditation, his mind churned.
“You should be on this horse,” he told Lama Dawa, “not me. You have the polished wisdom.”
The old man shook his head. “I can’t change what’s coming, Rinpoche. The prophecies are clear: the slaughter of monks and, more, the violation of women in the temple is the beginning of the Dark Age. And you, my son, are too valuable. You carry all the skills of the lineage and the world needs them.” His toothless gums appeared behind a smile. “I’ll be here to help in the morning. Go, and don’t look back.”
Knowing argument was futile, Rinpoche slid the bundle into the pouch inside his robes. “I’ll keep them safe, but they belong here in these mountains.” All around him, monks and villagers were still bowed, peeking up with their dark eyes, straining to hear. He raised his voice. “They belong here, in these mountains, in the hands of the Enlightened Ones. When this chaos ends, I will return them. Somehow, I will return them.”
His teacher’s bony hand hooked the back of his neck. As they pressed their foreheads together, Lama Dawa whispered, “Find an heir and train him well. Don’t let these teachings be lost.”
Ninety-two years later, in the year 2051.
After cinching the saddlebag under Coco’s belly, Zhampa watched him wheel and bark in anticipation of setting out. The dog didn’t understand they wouldn’t be coming back. One last time he looked around the courtyard where he’d lived for almost fifty years, then felt behind his arms to make sure old Rinpo’s lineage scepters sat snug in their holsters. In the narrow view they were two small objects, six pounds of gold and silver, and he was simply their porter. But Rinpo had convinced him they were the key to ending the misery The Unraveling had unleashed on the world. The lamas at the foot of the Naked Red Lady Mountain in Tibet were waiting for him to return them. They’d already been waiting a long time.
The farmhouse door opened and candlelight spread across the last of the snow. When Zhampa turned, Celeste was leaning against the jamb the way her mother used to on summer evenings. Backlit, her hair glowed red and she seemed to be cradling the old cat in her arms. But when she raised her head to speak, her hands were fingering the knife sheathed between her breasts. “It doesn’t seem real, leaving here separately.”
As if to quell her worries, he smoothed the tarpaulin on the cart where he’d hidden tools and cookware under bags of seed on the off chance one of the Valley Folk was on the road after midnight. “If anyone saw us together with loads like this,” he said, “They’d know we were leaving.” All winter Zhampa had avoided suspicion by keeping to his routines, but that afternoon he’d opened the corrals and pasture gates, freed the chickens from their house, emptied the grain barrels onto the barn floor and hooked the great doors back. Everything else he owned he’d left laid out in the house like at a bachelor’s wake. For those from the village who would come looking, he’d hung a sign on the door. Take the livestock. Share the rest with your neighbors. “You know what to say if you run into anyone,” he told Celeste. “We’ll be waiting for you up there.”
He shook the harness straps straight, and after working his shoulders into the yoke, he touched his palm to his chest and extended it to Celeste. She hesitated, then mirrored the gesture. Glancing at the rising moon, he slid his head into the pulling strap, whistled to the German shepherd and leaned forward. The old bicycle wheels of the cart creaked into motion. He didn’t look back.
At the first turn, when the three-year-old Suffolk ewe trotted alongside as if intent on joining them, he stamped and bellowed to drive her through the gate into the high field, knowing the other sheep would follow her bell. Her bewildered look haunted him all the way down The Hollow road.
When he came to the river, he followed it south through what had once been the most productive land in The Valley. With the farmers gone, poplar and sumac engulfed the carcasses of tractors that had died when the oil stopped coming. Cherry, birch and oak stood twenty-feet tall in the cornfields and Vermont farmhouses lay cracked open like husks of hickory nuts, their hand-hewn timber frames dissolving in the rains.
Soon, spring would harden the ground and pulling the cart would be easier, but Zhampa agonized over what lay west. Since fleeing college in South Dakota many years ago to escape the chaos of war, he had gleaned one truth from the wild stories travelers told: the main threat would be the packs of survivors they ran into, their choices about civility, and what they might try to exact from his little band before letting them pass.