“It’s about the stars,” she explains. “He doesn’t know if they’re there, or if they’re not there. So he decides all he wants is to look around—see what he can see. Fuck the stars.”
Then she turns off her light. Falling back into the cushion of her canvas bag, she lights the next cigarette from the butane flame of a Bic, and with a cast of her wrist returns her book of Lorca to its place by the tent. It’s gotten to be very late.
The mosquitos are asleep, a small miracle so late in August—that, or the tumorous smoke of green leaves and wet wood on the fire has kept them hiding in the shadow. The cicadas and crickets, though, are vehemently awake. And so in the silence, there is no silence—instead only the constant wheezing and humming of small life’s various frictions.
Sex and eating sex and eating sex and eating.
She is there—in the bluff and riverland of lower South Dakota—with her brother, who is older, and her sister, who is younger. Going on twenty-seven years now she is by so many measures in the middle. Middle of the siblings; middle of the country; middle of the warm, shared bottle of rye. Middle of the college degree (postponed thirteen semesters now); middle of this or that romantic disaster; middle of the long-troubling bout of restlessness. Whatever else she had landed in the middle of remains hers alone to catalogue—there being, after all, only so much that whiskey and campfire and the palliative of wilderness can reveal.
“Well holy shit!” the older brother says. “Lorca, huh?” And passing the rye back to the younger sister, he too makes a bed for himself in the dirt, turning up toward a modest patch of black sky and white stars.
Three days earlier—in the gently-used Volvo—the siblings had driven the four hours across farm and field to find themselves here, outside. And before the Lorca and the rye and the incorrigible lights of fire and star, there was the oatmeal breakfast. There was the shared mug of instant coffee. There was the battered apple. There were, emerging from the linty darkness of the middle sister’s purse, the tiny squares of acid waiting to be dissolved on outstretched tongues.
“Open up!” she said.
“Amen,” they said.
Then from camp they had walked to the wooden bridge thrown fifty feet above Split Rock Creek. Having had to pass through so many numbing miles of industrial cropland to get here, they now felt acutely aware that this place was different. Here, where the creek dammed and pooled. And where from both sides of the water grew sheer cliffs of granite and pipestone. And buttressed by the blue-green of the water and the hard pink of the rock were the various colors of grass and shrub and tree reaching above it all. And in the air—fleeting from ledge to ledge—the cunning beaks and squat bodies of kingfishers, impatiently pursuing a meal. The spit-and-mud nests of cliff swallows hung in the shadows. And then beyond the horizon, nothing. It ended. Bled back into the city and interstate and standardized shopping experiences it had spawned.
And maybe it was the chemicals slowly warming their brains, and maybe it was the slightly caustic particulate coloring the air (blown over from Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Albert Lea), or maybe it really was simply that lovely, but the siblings did manage to spend quite a long while on that bridge, looking every which way, taking photos for future use.
Holding her iPhone to the middle distance, the younger sister pressed the screen, then consulted the results. Pressed the screen, then consulted the results.
Curled a few feet away on the bridge, was the crushed body of a ringneck snake. “Look at the goo!” the older brother said as he settled on his haunches, camera snapping the teaspoon of translucent mess that once must have been some critical bit of snake plasma.
Finally, past the bridge, sitting on the bank of the creek, the three undid their shoes and unlatched their clothes for the water.
“This is so chill,” said the younger sister.
And in fact it was—the birds birding themselves across the water, the current rolling out its waterly patterns in the sand, the breeze—very chill, indeed.
Needing always to be first, the older brother said something loudly, and then dropped gracelessly in. The cold sting of water shrinking his vitals. The clean rush of creek through his knotted hair. The immediate buoyancy of the body.
“It’s perfect. I’m going out to the middle,” he explained.
“Why do you always have to narrate everything you’re doing?” the middle sister asked.
“I just want us to be on the same page. I don’t want you confused.”
“Yeah, thanks for that.”
“I’m going to take out a cigarette and light it and smoke it and then go swimming, ok?” the younger sister interrupted.
“Ok,” the middle sister said.
“Ok!” the older brother said.
And so it went. The next hours were passed swimming and talking, but also, and not insignificantly, high on the powers of some foreign chemical borne from who knew where—amazed for the sunshine, curious at the weeds, falling over hysterical at the shape of a rock, climbing to the edge of the cliff, wanting to jump from the cliff, to fall from the cliff, to fall twenty feet from the edge of the cliff, to hit the soft welcome water below. Jumping.
And then everything was God’s. “God’s Candy!” the middle sister said, biting into the flesh of an avocado; “God’s Couch!” the younger sister said, stretching across a sun-warmed stone; “God’s Toilet!” the older brother said, returning from the trees, emptied.
When they climbed, with bare feet and wet hands, to a high ledge in the rock and sat staring for a full silent hour, they could finally only laugh at how conspicuously weird they must have seemed—stoned stupid in the sun, gawking at nothing but the breeze.
“Can we stay forever?” the younger sister asked. “I don’t see why not,” the middle sister replied. And their young bodies agreed. And the warm earth agreed. And the cool still water agreed.But soon, other people. They came first in pairs, then in small bands, and by lunchtime whole families—grandmother, uncle, eight and nine children—piling out of cars, claning together around the shore. And they were hungry. They carried white Styrofoam coolers filled with raw meats and mayonnaise. And there along the edge of the water they arranged all varieties of disposable feasts across tarps and blankets anchored by small stones. The children had come already near nude, so it was no time at all before they had jumped screaming into the water. The oldest of the people had brought chairs from home and were soon sitting in them. The slightly less old were quick about finding work to do, lighting fires, organizing chips and casseroles and sun-resistant lotions on picnic tables. The rest—the late teenagers and early adults, too old for swimming, too young for work—stood in circles, trading beers, laughing privately to themselves.
One family had had the foresight to bring a stereo of the kind that communicated telepathically with cell phones and mp3 players, able then to play thousands upon thousands of collected songs at any place at any time. And of course there was the Iggy Azalea song so popular that summer:
I’m so fancy,
You already know;
I’m in the fast lane,
From L.A. to Tokyo
Three young girls—maybe sisters—sang the chorus in unison, worming their bikinied bodies in something like a rhythm to the electric beat.
And so very soon, to be on the shore of Split Rock Creek was to be somewhere very loud and crowded and smelling of DEET. The lighter fluid lighted, the plastic rafts inflated, the footballs tossed.
Can’t stand no haters,
And honest, the truth is
My flow retarded, they speak it depart it;
Swagger on super, I can’t shop at no department.
And though they said nothing from their perch on the rock, the three siblings silently agreed that the day would have been so much better were it not for other people. They had come so far, and out of their way, to be here. And to find only the same human commotion and Top 40 songs they could have so easily found anywhere where there was mown grass and public parking was, at best, deflating. And though they said nothing from their perch on the rock, the three siblings silently agreed that the day would have been so much better were it not for other people. They had come so far, and out of their way, to be here. And to find only the same human commotion and Top 40 songs they could have so easily found anywhere where there was mown grass and public parking was, at best, deflating.
Of course, the families could have only agreed, having come so far themselves, and for the same selfish reason: the humble desire to be, if only briefly, nominally further away from other people.
Nature, they had all believed, was anathema to other people—immune to their influence, their corruption, their noise and hunger and habit of carrying with them, wherever they traveled, things to throw away. And like Iggy, they all yearned to be—from L.A. to Tokyo—in so many places at once, free from the indignities of the haters, the un-fancy, the banalities of department store shopping.
Leaving the rest of the world behind to their weed whackers and magazines and bottomless programming queues should have been easy. But here they were.
The siblings climbed down from their peak, and ambling past the shore and the bridge and the ringneck snake still dead, they came again to their camp. While the middle sister boiled water for rice and the younger sister changed into dry clothes and the brother organized wood for that evening’s fire, they found their space had been overrun by small bees.
“Goddammit!” the middle sister said, swatting at the back of her own head.
“Goddammit!” the younger sister said, chasing a swarm from the tent.
With the drugs now passed, they found themselves again needing to rely only on their own resources in reconciling each passing moment with the fantasy that had bought them there. The sun, once so remarkable, was now merely bright, and perhaps a few degrees too warm. The colors of the sky and grass and dirt resigned themselves again to more mute