TERRAIN VAGUE – Emily Wortman-Wunder

Chapter One: Julia

It’s the start of the third week of school, and Julia is determined to unpack the rest of the boxes while Will and Annie are away. They’re off learning about colors and numbers and how to manage their hedge funds, or whatever it is their school means by “the tools to succeed.” She glances toward the chip of sky and roof visible through the bathroom window as she wipes Jeff’s shaving splashes off the sink. Success in this place is material, as crisp and glittering as asphalt shingles, as hard and pure as the sky vaulting over the newbuilt streets. A thing utterly unlike the limestone creeks and deep saggy comfort of rural Indiana. She has a wave of homesickness so strong she has to close her eyes.
The boxes murmur down below, their contents getting restless. Or else it is the house she hears, impatient at the mess and clutter. It was designed for showroom tableaux, not their motley collection of hand-me-down furniture, and its disapproval is intense. She can feel it on these mornings she is alone, bubbling up through the pipes and vents. She wonders again how she’s going to do this.
She dawdles, picking up kid detritus and absentmindedly using Jeff’s grad-school T-shirt as a duster as she goes down the stairs to the kitchen. It is unreal how much dust this house collects, she thinks, new as it is. It is as if it deliberately exudes dust, and toys, and broken crayons—I mean, here is Octopus Olivia’s weird plastic head on the top banister, and I was just here and didn’t see it, and the kids have been gone over an hour already. She notices again how vast the spaces are: how far the ceiling is above her head, how wide the windows, how tall the cabinets. Acres of materials, just for them, and yet the house makes her feel like a maid. One who is possibly on a Personal Improvement Plan.
She shakes off the feeling, tucks back her hair, and goes to fetch a box. Jeff’s right, you know, she tells herself. You will get used to it. Maybe by this time next year you’ll even be like the other moms, gliding along in your Lexus SUV like it’s your birthright.
She rolls her eyes just a tiny bit. Jeff has such faith, but to go from a backwoods farm surrounded by his family to an upscale Denver suburb seems too much, too fast, no matter how optimistic he tries to be. He believes so completely in his new job and their new money that Julia feels it is her marital duty to nurture doubt.
She hauls the box—rocks and fossils, handkerchiefs, and kid crafts—into the space beyond the kitchen. This is her favorite room in the house: sunny and private, with a view to the south over an abandoned ranch and a fleabit mesa. The view of the ranch, in fact, is the only reason she agreed to this ridiculous McMansion at all. She rubs her nose and opens up the box. Oh, smell of Indiana creeks and unfired clay and art-room tempura paint! She starts pulling out fossils.
Pressing the cool rocks against her forehead, her eye drifts to the far hillside, where the old ranch shines in the sun. Ranch. That’s one word for it. “Eyesore” is what she’s heard the neighbors call it—because of the bare dusty reach of the prairie-dog town, probably, or the boarded-up house that’s not quite old enough to be picturesque, or the dented stock tank smack in the middle of a knapweed patch. It’s parched and barren, crisscrossed with the ghosts of cattle long since sent to slaughter. Prairie dogs waddle and shit among the weeds. Some people say it is slated for development, but she refuses to believe that; she’s seen how that house at the center holds its own. She can feel its resistance now, a shiver through the glass. A spiritual ally, she thinks, against the McMansion.
It’s as she is sorting rocks from art that she hears something strange. Like singing. A solitary voice, singing, from somewhere outside. She lifts herself to a kneel—she can almost make out the words, she thinks, when the field beyond their yard gives a tug and a slide, as though it is coming loose. At first she thinks the field itself is rushing toward the house and leaps to her feet. Then she realizes that it’s the grass-colored prairie dogs that are moving—scores of them, a seething pack. They rush down toward the houses as though they are going to overrun the neighborhood, and she braces—there! The six-foot wooden fence is hit, and trembles with the impact. She can see the individual impacts along its length, and hear the scrabbling thuds. The prairie dogs at the back of the pack—she can see them, oddly vivid, even from this distance—are grimacing, as if they are panting in fear. They’re running from something. She is certain of it, even as she clutches the back of the couch. A smell like loss blows through the room.
The fence shakes furiously, then less furiously, then hardly at all. The prairie dogs disperse as suddenly as they emerged.
Julia ungrasps the couch. She brushes back her hair in two dazed swipes. Then she goes to the deck and slides open the big glass door, stepping out into the August heat. Nothing. Perhaps a scent of disturbed dust; but perhaps that’s just the normal dusty smell coming off the ranch. The neighbor’s AC unit buzzes on. The field is not merely as it was but even emptier; usually on a sultry afternoon there are a handful of prairie dogs, out grazing or waddling from mound to mound. Now there is nothing. She walks across the deck to the side, where stairs run down to the common lawn between the houses, and is about to go examine the fence when she sees that their across-the-street neighbor is out in his driveway, working on his boat.
“Did you see that?” she calls, walking out onto the front lawn. She’s barefoot, but the grass is soft and slightly damp with the morning watering. She runs quickly across the burning asphalt to his grass, also soft and damp. It’s as if they’ve dressed their properties in verdant baby hair. “That field,” she says, waving an arm toward the space between the houses. “The prairie dogs—”
He looks at her, not at where she’s pointing, and squints his eyes as if it’s an effort to understand her.
“The prairie dogs on that old ranch,” she tries again. “They were, like, stampeding or something. A bunch of them. They hit our fence.”
At this he does look over. It was as if he needed a word he could understand. “They’ve been trying for two years now to get the city to do something about those prairie dogs,” he says finally, picking up one of the wrenches laid out on a towel in front of him. “Nuisance. Prolific as bunnies, and these ones don’t even get plague, they say. Always sending someone out to study them, and meanwhile here they are, digging holes in the yard, bringing god knows what diseases—it’s a crime.”
She looks over at the field, placid as a tablecloth. “Is this a thing, then?” she asks, uncertain.
He nods emphatically and changes wrenches. She tries to get him to elaborate, but he has gone quiet again. She dashes back across the asphalt.

She is about to go inspect the fence when she remembers with a rush of panic that today is the day she has volunteered to do reading groups in Annie’s kindergarten class. She runs upstairs to shower and put on something presentable.

*

After the reading groups she has to go to the store, and then it’s time to bring the kids home, so she doesn’t quite have time to think about what she saw. But it marinates in her brain. Did I really see…? Did that exactly happen…? She puzzles over it as she slaps down the street toward the school bus stop, aware of the ranch at her back like a sleeping dragon.
Before her is a sea of rooftops, as crisp and neat as products out for sale. Two, three years ago, these long gradual swells were like the ranch: grassy and windswept. Pure. The suddenness of the transformation, and the loss, laps uneasily at the edges of the houses; Julia can feel it beneath the heat and the dryness. Acquiescent, sure. But simmering. Maybe that was what precipitated the prairie-dog swarm, some spasm of subterranean energy. The way the relict row of enormous cottonwood trees preserved along the bike path at the bottom of the neighborhood looks awkward and alert, self-conscious at being spared.
Julia imagines what the hills of Jeff’s family property would look like if they were clear cut and contoured and laid with houses: horrific. She passes a hand over her hair to calm herself.
A few other familiar women walk toward the bus stop—the nanny pushing an enormous stroller, the young mom with a toddler in tow, someone’s ancient grandmother. This last woman looks Russian; the week before Julia assumed she must feel even more discombobulated than Julia herself, but the one time she reached out, the old woman responded with such greedy pride in her son’s house and car that Julia recoiled. Do these women feel the buried prairie beating against the soles of their feet? Or is Julia the only one?
Kylie and Becky are already at the bus stop. Kylie Romer, former gymnast, is the powerful and icy-eyed mother of one of Will’s new buddies, and the better-humored Becky Gries, a Stanford grad, has a son who has actually been over to Julia’s house once or twice. So Julia knows them, sort of. She smiles reflexively. Becky is in the midst of telling Kylie about a dog who learned how to open the refrigerator and how it took his owners six months to figure it out—they just thought their teenager was stealing food.
Becky tells a great story, Julia thinks, hovering slightly outside their duo. At a break in the conversation she forces herself to ask about the prairie dogs.
Becky is curious and incredulous: “Swarming? Like cockroaches? Why would they do that?” And then she starts to answer her own question. “Maybe it’s some kind of mating thing, like those fishes on the beach at Baja, or maybe they’re like lemmings—”
Kylie cracks her gum impatiently. “That ranch is known for that kind of stuff,” she says. “Since I was a kid. Dirty, weird place.”
Becky gives her friend a genial once-over, her eyebrows lifting into her bangs. “I didn’t know you grew up here.”
Kylie says with the offhand boredom of an athlete, “It was all farms and horses then. We were the vanguard. Had to drive all the way into DU for the gym.”
“What is it about that old ranch, then?” Becky asks. “Ghosts? Murdered farmhands? Hangout of Billy the Kid? Give us the lowdown.” Her conspiratorial grin makes Julia feel both included and managed.
Kylie wrinkles her nose. “It’s just rumors. Nothing, you know, historical; it’s not like anything happened here, ever. It’s just always some kid or other goes up there and is never the same, blah blah blah. Not that normal kids go. Normal kids stay away. But there’s always someone—”
Julia thinks of Tate, Kylie’s brash battering ram of a son, and has a sudden irrational urge for Will to be one of the someones.
“I mean, apparently there were five or six kids who died up there, or disappeared—”
All three mothers turn to look at the ranch. “My god, Kylie, five or six?” Becky says.
Kylie backs off a little. “Nothing’s happened since that old lady rancher kicked the—passed on. Like maybe it was a resident thing, if you know what I mean. Gruesome. But there was a kid in my class who lived in a trailer up near here—I think he was the last one. First grade. We had just done a field trip up to the ranch—”
“Back this train up,” says Becky. “Your school took field trips to a place where kids died?”
“Well, that was the last trip. Because when we got off the bus he wasn’t on it. Turns out he’d never gotten on. They checked the pond, the well, the cistern, the gullies, and nothing. It was terrible.” They are all silent, and then she manages to wrinkle her entire face. “It’s just an eyesore and a hazard, if you ask me. Like, tear the place down and fix it up already.”

Julia murmurs some sound of appalled interest and steps back. It isn’t that she thinks Kylie is wrong. It’s totally possible that there are rumors like that about the ranch, and even strange happenings. Like the prairie dogs. But she can’t help thinking that if there were more to the story, gum-cracking Kylie Romer sure as hell wouldn’t know anything about it.

*

When the kids pile off the bus, Julia greets them as if she is slaking a thirst. This is what I’m made for, she thinks, whenever she is with them again. They fill up the house and make it seem less antagonistic. With Will and Annie there, the suburbs seem shiny and innocent and logical.
But it’s not perfect: within ten minutes of walking in the door the kids are telling on each other and being condescending and sneaking handfuls of Cheetos.
“Mama!” shouts Annie, starting to walk off with her juice box and bowl of apple slices.
Julia corrals her back to the table. “What, my sweetheart?”
“Mama!”
“I’m listening.” Julia swiftly drops some more apple slices into the bowl, as Annie twists around, a slice in each hand. Her sparkly headband has started to slip down her forehead so that it presses against her eyebrows, making her seem indignant and earless. Even more indignant than usual, that is. Annie is her fierce one, her delight, her mystery.
“Mama! Today there was an earthquake!”
Will shakes his head, and Annie whips around. “It was so! It was an earthquake. The ground rattled and shaked and everything! But Mrs. Dade the Playground Aide didn’t hear it.”
“Shook, Annie,” says Will, opening the wrapper of his string cheese and laying the two pieces neatly side by side. “It did shake,” he adds to Julia, “but it wasn’t an earthquake. It was a kind of a—an air thing. It happened in the air.”
“THE GROUND SHAKED!”
“It was like when it thunders,” he explains to Julia, “Except it was silent. Like an air-quake.”
“An air-quake,” she says, trying to match the seriousness of his tone and not squeeze his cheeks and say how much she loves him. Will is the child of her own spirit.
“All the kids on my playground heard it because it was AFTER! LUNCH! But Mrs. Dade didn’t hear ANYTHING because she was giving Garner a time out, and Garner didn’t hear it either, and the big kids didn’t hear it because they were inside—”
“We didn’t hear it because it was silent,” says Will. “But we did feel it.”
Annie hops off the bench so that she can stamp her feet while she emphasizes WHO HEARD and WHO DIDN’T HEAR.
“Some of us felt it more than others, and I was one of the ones who felt it most,” Will says to Julia. “Tate and Tanner say it’s because I’m all nature-y and stuff. That’s, like, who I am.”
“Nature-y?” Julia waits, holding her breath, to see if he thinks this is a good thing. Of course you’re nature-y, she thinks. And you should be proud of it. She has a sudden vision of him just before they moved, when he insisted on farewell sleepout in a pup tent in the big woods. They could see the tent from Jeff’s parents’ porch, a little scrap of blue under the enormous trees, and she sat there late, trembling with love and grief at what they were taking from him. In the morning she watched him climb out of the tent, his face raised to the treetops, reverent and serious and sad.
He shrugs, crunching up the string-cheese wrappers into a ball. “I guess that is what I am,” he says, “but there’s no one else here like that.”
Julia wants so much to ask more about this, but she can tell he’s done talking, so she just smiles and asks him what his homework is.
He makes a stinky-smell face and throws the balled-up wrappers toward the trash. “I hate homework,” he says.
“Me too!” says Annie, wandering off from the table, her juicebox squirting with every step. “I hate homework too!”
“That seems to be the general consensus,” Julia says, gently putting the juicebox back on the table.
This is good, she thinks, her heart singing and full again. Or nearly full. It’s true that the emptiness of the day is creeping into this joy like dry rot, but here in the fullness she can ignore that.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she thinks she sees movement on the far hillside. She snaps her gaze toward it, focusing, but all she sees are a handful of prairie dogs.
That reminds her that she has a leisure moment to go inspect the fence. She checks to make sure the kids are settled and then slips out, walking down the deck stairs to the front and then following the turf around to the gap between their fence and their neighbors’. The turf ends abruptly, and the long tangled grass begins; a barbed-wire fence strung on posts made of unpeeled tree limbs parallels the crisp new fence. She walks down between them, straddling this little ecotone between suburbia and ranch.
In the dirt between the weeds she can see a few trample marks and some scratches; on some of the posts and a few of the barbs there are bits of gray fur. But the thatch of turf grass sticking out from under their fence is intact, impervious in its thick watered state. The fence, too, is clean and caramel-colored. A few scratches, maybe, at the base. If she bends over and peers in close, maybe a few of the rougher edges have caught some fur. But overall, there’s nothing she would have noticed if she hadn’t caught them at it this morning, which makes her feel savvy and sharp-eyed. I too am nature-y, she thinks.
And then she draws up short. There, on the clean new wood of their fence, is a big swipe of white mud, like an upside-down Nike swoosh. What a muddy prairie dog might make if it threw itself at the fence and slid down? No. It seems deliberate. Hostile. The back of her neck feels electric, and she turns to look at the field, the blinded ranch house, the empty stock tank. Nothing. She looks back at the mark. It’s as clean as an eyelash and smack in the middle of the fence, equidistant from either edge of their property.
Like we’ve been marked, she thinks. She remembers the way the fence trembled and shook under the impact of all those bodies; she imagines them hitting the house next time, or flinging themselves at the sliding glass window. She rips up a handful of ranch grass and rubs the mark out.

Author’s Statement

About a decade ago, I moved with my family from a small college town to an urban suburb, and I felt lost for about five years, cut off from the places and rhythms that mattered to me. I became obsessed with the fragmented remains of the prairie landscape in my neighborhood and wandered through the office parks and unbuilt lots, trying to figure out what this place had looked and felt like before it was built up. I began to be aware of a strange spiritual energy radiating from these scraps of land, which the architect Ignasi de Sola-Morales has called the terrain vague. This is the territory I explore in this novel, which, while it sits squarely in the territory of literary fiction, borrows elements of speculative fiction, in the mode of Karen Russell or Kelly Link.
In Terrain Vague, a family moves from rural Indiana to the edge of a new Denver suburb. Their divergent responses to this suburb, and to the unusual prairie dogs on the abandoned ranch beside their house, begin to tear them apart. The mother, Julia, finds herself more and more drawn to the broken pieces of the landscape, while the son, Will, believes that the prairie dogs, or some other force on the ranch, have taken possession of his soul. The five-year-old daughter struggles to keep her family together in the face of her father’s blithe denial and the growing conflict between Julia and Will. The unraveling of the family unit culminates in Will’s disappearance one snowy night. Only Julia’s ability to navigate the ranch’s mysterious core brings him back, although she herself never fully returns.

 

Emily Wortman-Wunder lives in south suburban Denver, Colorado. She has published widely, both fiction and nonfiction, most recently in High Country News, Vela, and Nimrod.