Oona lit a candle. Aside from the heavy plank table where she stood, the room was stripped of furnishings. A gust rattled the window frame behind her, and for a moment the candle burned bright, before its flame dwindled to a tentative blue point. She stared into its feeble glow as she listened through the silence for the crunch of gravel under tires.
Another draft troubled the curtains, encouraging the candle. Oona reached toward it, spreading her hands as if to warm them. A faint radiance hovered around her fingers, and the backs of her hands went dark. They could disappear entirely, she thought, leaving only a blood-red fringe like the ones in ancient cave paintings. What was real, her hand or its wraith floating in the air? Opposites existed together and became one in the same small room: light and shadow, silence and wind, living flesh and ashes.
A shoebox sat on the table’s planks, which had been cut by her grandfather from a Russian olive that once shaded the house. Oona knew by heart every nick and scar. She knew she was touching them for the last time.
The rumble of an engine, a red pickup with a camper shell backing toward the house. Oona turned. Here we go. She held the storm door open for her mother and the man her mother had married not long after the split with Dad.
Valerie burst in complaining about the wind, the tail of her cardigan flapping behind her. “About blew us off the freeway.”
Oona gave her mother a quick hug. “It’s April in Wyoming. Hello, Roy.”
He answered with a nod as Val led him toward a back room.
Oona held the door as he carried out pieces of a brass bedframe to the truck and laid pads and blankets between them for the long drive home. Next he took chairs and lamps—whatever might have value, Oona noted.
Finding nowhere to sit, Val leaned against a wall, her eyes darting around the empty house. She looked to Oona like a caged animal.
“I’d offer you a seat, but they just went out the door.”
“We have a few quick things to discuss.”
Oona perched on the edge of the table and waited.
“I couldn’t make the old man leave, but now that it’s my property…you must have made arrangements.”
Oona nodded toward the box on the table.
“Not for him. Where are you planning to go?”
“Back to college, but I have a few months to kill.”
Val’s face softened. “Look, I’d be in trouble if you were caught here, right? What if the roof fell in?” Another gust produced a screech of wood on wood, and Val jumped away from the wall. “See? It might collapse right now.”
“Not the worst thing that could happen.”
Oona didn’t blame Val for kicking her out. Grandpa’s house had been condemned along with most of Greasewood after the ground began collapsing into an abandoned coal mine. It had swallowed sheds and shacks and old propane tanks that added to the hazard. She had been sleeping in her car since Grandpa died.
Val took a step toward the front door, fiddling in her pockets for a cigarette. “Still in the truck,” she muttered.
“I’ll be out of here within the hour,” Oona said.
Val’s frown straightened into her approximation of a smile. “I vowed never to step foot in this shithole town again, and here I am because your grandfather left this godforsaken dump to me. Meanwhile, you get the cabin.” The color rose in her face. “If nothing else, you can park there until school starts up.”
Oona laughed at the prospect. She had spent an occasional summer weekend in that cabin as a child. Frosty mountain mornings, damp log walls, a persistent chill and darkness inside that never lifted even when the woodstove was blazing. Water came from the creek, and a latrine served in lieu of a toilet. “I’d have to find a snowmobile to get there,” she said.
Val’s eyebrows rose. “You didn’t know? They took that place apart and moved it. You can drive to the front porch.”
“I can’t believe he didn’t— Well, I guess I can. I’ll draw you a map.”
Grandpa had said little toward the end because it took too much effort to speak. He had mumbled, barely whispering places and names, as he pointed to photos in his album. The only ones that included the cabin showed it as she remembered, barely hanging onto its crumbling piers, hunkered under the pines.
Roy stood in the doorway jiggling his keys. “Even if that place is a scraper, you got a good deal. Bet the land alone is worth a quarter million.”
Oona rolled her eyes. “Sure.”
“Roy works in real estate, remember, so he’s more of an expert than you are.”
“No claims to expertise on my end.”
Oona waved as the pickup disappeared into a landscape of endless gray: last year’s tumbleweeds stacked against a chain-link fence, the crushed gravel road beyond, bare hills of clay and sandstone, the damp sky lowering toward them.
She carried Grandpa and a few of his belongings to her car, along with Val’s penciled map. She emptied the kitchen of canned fruit and coffee. Last, she picked up a bundle wrapped in burlap and carefully placed it in the passenger seat beside her grandfather. After a final look around, she bent to the hand-hewn table and kissed it. Then she pushed the candle wick into its pool of wax and let smoke fill the room.
Route 191 took her up and over White Mountain, an eroding escarpment of mudstone and clay. As she crested the top, the land spread into an expanse of sagebrush. Ground-hugging clouds hid the mountains, but they made their presence felt in the fresh chill of the air.
Mile after mile, the road led her farther away from Greasewood. As the distance increased, Oona felt her neck relax. Her ears adjusted to the rising elevation. A car passed, carrying skis.
Beyond the only town big enough for a stoplight, bluffs and hills enclosed the roadway. Shrubby willows meandered along creeks, their bare branches a wickerwork of crimson, mauve, and gold. Trees replaced the sagebrush. Oona sped toward a gap in their dark towers.
The road reached the rim and curved down the far side, straightened, curved again. The snow and mist evaporated, and a bright banner of blue sky unfurled over a valley surrounded by sunlit peaks. Its beauty was marred on one side by the blackened snags of a recently burned forest. Oona hoped the cabin was still standing.
Val’s map showed a loop road serving a collection of cabins and summer homes. Oona soon discovered that half of it lay under snow. She might need that snowmobile after all. But chimneys rose beyond the snowbanks, cheering her with the prospect of having neighbors. Smoke confirmed that a few of them were home.
She turned at a reflector nailed to a weathered post, her landmark, but the roadway was blocked by a drift.
“Great,” she said aloud.
Having driven this far, there was no point in turning back. She parked, tucked the cardboard box under her arm, and set off to find the cabin.
Beyond a ditch nearly hidden by willows, there it stood, surrounded by a sagging buck-and-rail fence. Sturdy and compact, and built on a real foundation. The metal roof looked new, as did the window trim, a clean bright white set against the dark logs. Wide steps led to the covered porch.
As she approached, a feeling of unreality came over her. There had to be some mistake. This wasn’t the ramshackle structure that Grandpa had used as a summer camp in the mountains. She expected the owner to come out and scold her for trespassing.
She started at the sound of slapping branches and turned to see an old man tottering her way. He looked as battered as his pickup, parked on the far side of the ditch. From under a sweat-stained cowboy hat, his raisin eyes peered from a creased brown face. He was a wiry bundle of energy, all chin and elbows, and he seemed anxious to make her acquaintance.
He thrust a hand toward her. “Name’s Harlan.” Looking around, he added, “How’d you get here?”
“You coulda used that.” He pointed with his jaw.
She turned. The plowed road hadn’t been on Val’s map.
“If you’re looking to rent, the place ain’t available. Old guy who owned it up and died.”
“That old guy was my grandfather.”
Harlan’s head jerked back. “I’ll be damned.” He fumbled in his shirt pocket and shook a cigarette out of its pack. It waggled in his mouth as he talked. “You probably don’t remember me.”
“Y’mighta been five or six, skinny little squirt on a big bay horse. Anyhow, that’s me across the way there.” He jabbed a thumb in the direction he had come. “I take—took—care of the place for him.” He paused and held her eye. “Could do the same for you.”
She nodded vaguely before taking a few steps toward the cabin. “It snowed all the way from Greasewood. Until I came over the rim.”
“Way it is. Socked in from Pinedale to Jackson Hole, and…” He looked up and raised his palms.
Oona smiled. “It must snow sometimes,” she said, with a glance at the piles left by the plow.
“Only at night.”
Harlan lowered himself onto a porch step. Oona’s eyes kept running over the cabin, its outline, details, freshly oiled logs. “I remember a dark little hovel full of mice.”
Harlan cackled. “Mice ain’t gone anywhere.” After a long drag from his cigarette, he continued, “None a my business, but how come I never heard about a service for your old granddad? Saw a little nothin’ in the paper and that was it.”
“My mother’s in charge of that.”
He chuckled. “Come up to see what he left you, that it?”
“I came to bury his ashes.” She laid the box on a step and shook the kink out of her arm.
“Ground’s probably thawed next to the house. Got a shovel?”
She hadn’t thought of that. Her gaze drifted toward the tool shed and the padlock on its door.
He chuckled and stood up. “Be right back.”
Oona stepped onto the covered porch, generous enough to accommodate four chairs against a wall as well as a deep plywood box for storing firewood. The box, empty, had been left open. She glanced inside, and a mouse scurried into a hole at its base.
The door’s kick plate was dented and scuffed. Oona imagined Grandpa with an armload of firewood shoving it open with his boot. She ran her hand along the jamb, wondering which layer of paint held the memory of her grandmother’s absently brushing fingers. She tried the latch, and the door swung open.
The air inside was cold and still. A round pine table with two simple chairs stood beside the largest window, on the south side of the cabin where it would bask in sunlight on autumn afternoons. In the opposite wall, another window illuminated a sunken leather sofa. A rocking chair sat in the middle of the room beside an ornate parlor stove. Framed photos by her grandfather, including some of Oona’s favorites, hung on the walls. As she moved through the downstairs rooms—cabinets stocked with plates and bowls, bathroom stocked with towels—images of the cabin as inhabitable came more easily.
She climbed partway up the open steps to look into the loft. A double bed occupied most of the space. The mattress stood on its side against a wall, wrapped in heavy plastic against the mice. Over a beam hung pillows, blankets, and a quilt she recognized, its wedding-ring pattern sewn in rose and pale green. The quilt had come from the great-aunt for whom she had been named. She stood on the step and saw herself under that soft, nappy quilt, snug as a mouse in a slipper.
The scrape of metal on gravelly soil told her that Harlan had returned, now accompanied by a compact, muscular red heeler.
“This here’s my buddy Hank,” he said.
Oona bent to pet the dog’s head, causing his stub of a tail to pump so hard that his butt wiggled.
Harlan started digging.
“You don’t have to—”
“I know it.”
Oona leaned on the porch rail and watched him work. Around Grandpa’s age, she guessed, but powerful and spry, bending to his task as if he’d been waiting all day for something to do.
He jammed the shovel’s sharp nose under a sandstone slab and pried it out, ladling it off to one side. “Make a good headstone.”
“When did he move the cabin?” Oona asked. “Must have been while I was away.”
She asked about the forest fire, and he told her it had burned the summer before.
“Lost a shit-load of houses up the way. Dumb-ass place to build if you ask me.” He tossed a shovelful of dirt aside, and Hank sniffed it for edibles.
“That’s deep enough,” Oona said. “I want him to smell the mountain air.”
Harlan stood up straight and winced. “Suits me. Back’s been giving me fits lately.”
Oona held the box, hesitating. “Now what, just sprinkle it around?”
“Don’t suspect he cares at this point.”
The ashes didn’t sprinkle so much as fall in a heap. Oona didn’t know what kind of prayer she ought to say and didn’t expect Harlan to have one either. Good-bye. You were a good man. Thank you. Tears welled. She glanced in Harlan’s direction and caught him wiping an eye with his sleeve.
“I’ll find some wildflower seeds to plant over him,” she said.
“Better be something the chiselers won’t eat.”
“He always liked yarrow. When it started to bloom, he knew which places were ready for the sheep. Would it grow here?”
Harlan guffawed around his cigarette, took his shovel, and walked away with Hank. Oona wondered what she’d said wrong, but a minute later he returned with a clump of dirt and a snarl of roots in his shovel.
“This’ll take over your whole damn yard if you aren’t careful.”
“I’m going to fetch the car,” she said. “There’s one more thing we have to do.”
Harlan was sitting on a step, smoking, when Oona returned. She parked and pulled the burlap bundle out. He looked the other way, out of politeness she supposed, not wanting to be nosy. But when he saw her laying the bison skull on the ground beside the yarrow, he stood up, his face crumpled in concentration. He hooked a thumb in a belt loop and scanned the horizon as if trying to remember something.
“You staying?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she whispered. “I think I will.”
He showed her how to turn on the power and start the water pump. The baseboards began to tick as they warmed, sending the smell of singed dust through the room. Harlan turned valves until the cabin’s faucets sputtered and coughed, then gushed with clean cold water from a spring box.
“Need to keep the heat on now that you have water.” He reached for another cigarette. “Outside, I suspect?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“I’ll get out of your hair. Run into a snag, you know where I am.”
Oona went back to her car for the sandwich she had planned to eat on the way north. It sat unopened on the table while she surveyed the room again, her eyes landing on details—the way the nickel-plated stove trim reflected light, shining onto the grainy photos hanging on the opposite wall. The place was hers: unbelievable. The condition of the cabin, the surreal beauty of the country surrounding it, the kindness of her neighbor—it all had Oona feeling as if she’d walked into a dream. No wonder Val had been ticked off.
Thinking about Val drove the tranquility from the cabin, and Oona pulled on her sweater for a walk around the neighborhood. Mountains surrounded her, their snowy faces glowing like embers in the last rays of sunlight. Again, it seemed unreal.
She knew she’d never actually live here; she had already decided to return to school and reboot her brain for finishing her senior thesis. The smart thing would be to rent the cabin and make some income. Or, as Roy had suggested, sell it. But that idea brought an unexpected pang. This was Grandpa’s gift to her, and its value lay not in real estate. Besides, what was she going to do with a degree in American Studies?
How the past few months had changed her! When she’d left for college three years before, she had felt like a caged bird set free. She had excelled in her classes, made friends, met people with ideas and enthusiasm. But the nights when they had stayed up talking about their plans and hopes and budding philosophies felt distant now.
While nursing Grandpa, she had heard and reheard stories of the old days, days spent running sheep in the mountains and desert. His words came slowly, and by slowing her way of listening Oona found a restful place inside. The evening of his death, she sat with the body until some hospice people came. She called her mother to deliver the news and then lay sleepless, waiting for the phone to ring.
Instead of returning her call, Val had emailed the next day. Thanks for the news. I know what he meant to you.
Oona’s anger had flared. Even death couldn’t thaw Val’s heart. It was a heart whose chill had been nurtured by life’s disappointments—marriage to Dad, places she hated but had to live in anyway, the death of her mother. He killed her, you know. When Oona tried to argue, Val cut her off. It’s the same as if he took a gun and shot her.
Remembering this, Oona hurried back to the cabin, where she stood before the photo gallery across from the wood stove. Grandpa, tanned and muscled, with thick dark hair and a shaggy herding dog in his arms; beside him a shy brown slip of a girl in a checked flannel dress and braids wrapped around her head. Oona’s grandparents had been younger than she was when they posed for that picture. He didn’t look like a man who would murder his wife.
Other photos hung on the wall, including her favorite, the same picture that had stood on her dresser when she was a girl. A herder stood with a band of sheep like scattered lumps of snow; beyond, a high, distant rim was barely visible through a winter storm. Unlike the picture in her childhood bedroom, this one bore an inscription: Tiago at Steamboat Mountain.
Tiago—at last she had a name for the mysterious man of the desert. She had been drawn to the photo for its mystery, that small person in an immense landscape. As an adolescent she had made up stories about the solitary herder, replacing him with heroes from books and movies—any seeker who faced in solitude trouble that could not be avoided. She conjured a composite character and fell in love with him. She saw in that photograph a movie of her own, the shoulders of Tiago’s duster turning white. The snow fell more heavily until he disappeared.
Who was he, she wondered, and where was he now? And where was Steamboat Mountain? Grandpa had made up names based on incidents: Poison Spring, Breakdown Flats. What sort of adventure would lead him to name a mountain Steamboat? It would have been a ship far off course, grounded in sand dunes a thousand miles from the sea. The mountain’s rim had a curve to it, rather like the prow of a ship. Perhaps it had been nothing more than that.
Oona turned away from the photos and ran water for tea. The tap ran clear and cold, and she quickly drank a pint jar. The well at Grandpa’s house had delivered the same sweet taste when she visited as a child, before the coal mine contaminated the water table. By the time she left for college, it had been on its way to its current flavor. “Like drinking a goddamned fart,” Grandpa had said with disgust after spitting into the sink.
As twilight settled, Oona sat in the rocker with her tea, staring into the dark interior of the woodstove. A fire would be cozy, but she hadn’t the first idea how to start one. Plus, the long drive from Greasewood had brought a deep weariness. Long drives were unavoidable for people in Wyoming. It was no big deal to hit the freeway for a few hours to Salt Lake or Cheyenne, shop or see the dentist, then turn around and drive home. But it had been months since Oona had driven twenty miles from Greasewood.
She moved to the sofa. Worn shiny, it held her as if molded to her form. The hum of the baseboards, though less convivial than the snap of a fire, comforted her as the cabin warmed. Her grandparents had thrived here, stocking the cabinets to avoid having to go to town more often than necessary. To her child’s eyes, they were rugged lovers of the outdoor life and each other. Val had been their opposite, as children often are.
Her thoughts drifted to Harlan’s interest in the bison skull. He knew something about it, for sure. She remembered vividly the feeling that had come over her just before she found it, while picking wildflowers. Something had led her toward the creek she’d been told to stay away from. Normally she would never disobey her grandparents, but this time, before she realized how close she was, she heard the gentle slap of water over rocks. Her scalp prickled, and she held her breath as if she’d heard a twig snap in the shadows.
What struck her was Grandpa’s reaction when he pried the half-buried skull out of the mud. He didn’t chide her, and he didn’t ask how she had felt its presence. “It pulled you like a dowsing rod,” he told her.
Gran had pressed her fingers to her lips when she saw it. She didn’t want it in the cabin, even after it was cleaned up. Too young to know what she’d done wrong, and trained in any case not to ask questions, Oona spent the rest of the day on her cot, reading and dreaming about how the skull had come to lodge in the creek.
Her grandparents had spoken in low tones that evening while she feigned sleep; they were discussing something to do with the great-aunt whose quilt hung in the cabin’s loft.
“Things like this run in families,” Gran had said.
“She might outgrow it.”
“What if she doesn’t? What if—”
“Shhh. No sense kicking the hornet’s nest.”
Gran’s voice had fallen to a whisper. “That nest has already been kicked.”
Oona climbed the steps to the loft. The quilt had been hand-stitched, with no sign of shortcuts via sewing machine. She brought it downstairs and into the light, where she searched the corners. What she found, instead of the standard embroidered initials, made the hairs on her neck stand up: a bison skull stitched in black thread.
Who was this great-aunt, and what strange malady did they have in common? Oona set her teacup aside and unfurled the quilt over the sofa. A lavender sachet fell out, and she tucked it into her sweater, then folded the sweater into a pillow. Before she settled down, she filled a pitcher, padded across the porch in the dusk, and slowly emptied it over the yarrow.
EYE OF THE MOUNTAIN concerns an ordinary person with modest ambitions and explores how such ambitions can suddenly enlarge in unexpected ways. My protagonist, Oona Stratton, leaves college to care for her ailing grandfather. After his death, she’s at loose ends and decides to take a bold leap in a totally new direction, joining a scientific survey as its field assistant.
Oona has never spent a night in a tent and has never wanted to. She knows nothing of earth or biological science. But she finds herself committed to months of field camp in Wyoming’s remote Red Desert with four experts in these professions, an intimidating and dubious prospect for a third-year humanities student. She knows she was hired out of desperation when a qualified candidate took another job. In spite of her doubts and lack of experience, she is determined to do her best—to serve them and to learn about a place where her grandfather spent much of his youth.
Taking a break from cataloguing specimens, she walks away from camp and finds a fossil bison skull. Its potential value impresses her less than the way it seemed to beckon her. Something like this happened when she was a child, and after her discovery she returns to a phenomenon she’s tried to forget—a sixth sense, a mental disorder, or maybe some of both, that she shares with the great-aunt for whom she was named. The skull is also the first in a series of objects and artifacts that will lead Oona to see the desert not as a desolate hell-hole but as a numinous place holding intrinsic value, and as a large part of her family’s history.
Oona’s grandfather left her his cabin; her mother thinks she should have inherited it. Their disagreement builds, revealing many unhealed cracks, taboos, and secrets in the family that weave through the story.
A growing affinity for the desert encourages Oona to seek ways to protect it, and by doing so she finds a direction forward in life. I believe in the power of nature to heal and instruct us, and in the ability of families torn apart by strife to come back together. In this story, I’ve combined those threads.
Susan Marsh lives in Jackson, Wyoming. With degrees in geology and landscape architecture and a lifelong interest in creative writing, she has combined her interests into a body of work that explores the relationship of humans to the wild. Her work has appeared in journals that include Orion, North American Review, and Fourth Genre. She is the author of an award-winning novel, War Creek, and ten nonfiction books.
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020