“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 muted, definable tones. The breeze died. And though they were loath to admit it—to each other or even themselves—they were bored.
It was discouraging. Having to acknowledge that deep-felt need to be distracted, recalling that no pleasure was pleasure enough, feeling haunted by the presence of other places, other doings, every other possible thing that was not this thing, here. And though they did their best to busy themselves with the small tasks of camping in the woods, it all added up to the long-gnawing suspicion that although they’d made a worthy effort, they had failed. They had driven four hours in the wrong direction.
“Why didn’t we bring any pretzels?” the older brother asked.
“I asked you what you wanted and all you said was ‘Apples and beer,’” the middle sister reminded him.
“That was last week though. We need pretzels, and the whiskey’s almost gone.”
“Yeah, look,” he said, and swirled the few remaining ounces of drink around the base of the bottle.
“Damn. Do you want to go to the store?”
“Not really, do you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care.”
“A—, do you want to go to the store for whiskey and snacks?” the older brother asked the younger sister still
in the tent.
“I don’t care. Do you want me to?”
“Only if you want to.”
“Where is the store?” the middle sister asked.
“It’s back in the town we passed. It’s like ten miles,” the older brother said.
“Do they have a grocery store?”
“Probably a gas station.”
With the corner of a t-shirt, the middle sister scrubbed the stubborn rice baked into the bottom of her aluminum pot. The older brother drank from the bottle of now very nearly empty whiskey. The younger sister emerged from the tent in clean clothes.
“Well, should we go to the store?” the middle sister again asked the younger.
“If you want.”
“I would eat some pretzels,” the middle sister assented.
“I would drink some whiskey,” the younger sister confirmed.
“I would do both,” the older brother agreed.
This went on for quite a while, actually, until finally the sisters took to the car and turned toward the town while the brother opened a book to read, stretched in the shade and grass, falling promptly asleep.
When the sisters returned and woke the brother, unwrapping the much-debated pretzels and whiskey, it was only moments before they again wondered what to do with themselves. To swim again? To walk through the woods? To stay with the whiskey? It was past 5:00 now, and with only three hours of light left to the day, they found themselves torn between the sunset and their dinner. They could make a meal, but risk missing the sun, or they could walk the few miles to see it, returning in the dark, having only pretzels and liquor before bed.
Eventually they agreed on the sun, and so gathered their things—the cameras, the cigarettes, the marijuana and blankets—and followed the path they had followed earlier: the bridge, the snake, the family-stained shoreline. As the air had cooled, most of the other people had returned home for the day. In their absence were the trash cans overflowing, the bones of roasted chickens tossed in the leaves, the glass bottles of Corona here and there, quietly returned to the earth that had made them.
The siblings found a place, a steep climb in the rock, and facing west, perched themselves again above the water, waiting for the white heat of the sun to dismantle itself as it drew from the world the entire range of color and shadow it had so casually dolled out over the course of its long day.
They were quiet. As the sun moved on to other places, the siblings enjoyed that now-rare pleasure to be had in the company of blood—an easiness so assured as to allow for this kind of prolonged emptiness. Because they spent so much of their lives among strangers—people they knew but did not understand—it was rare when silence did not have to feel like some failure, or a distance, or a running out of things to share.
Maybe in the ages when people lived more closely together, this wasn’t so uncommon. Maybe in the face of so many shared experiences it was easy to be quiet then. Because when they moved, they moved together. And when they slept, they slept together. When they worked and played and dug in the earth, they did it all together. Maybe then, we were even all once a little less believing of our own pretenses, thinking it no great thing to occasionally give up our selves—the whole elaborate ordeal—because really who was there to fool when everyone you knew was your sister?
“Pretend you’re looking at the sunset,” the middle sister called to the younger. Looking up from the world of her phone, the younger sister donned an expression of mock-rapture, and in the smallest fraction of a second became a glowing image inside her older sister’s camera.
Every minute was born a new stranger—someone, somewhere—unknowable. And unfortunately, even the ones worth knowing, worth loving were so easily swallowed by the vacuums of other lives and other places to which—for those left behind—no access was permitted. It made some sense then, that in the shadow of so much loneliness all anyone could do was talk and talk and talk at each other, never once acknowledging what they really wanted, which was a family.
“I have to pee,” the older brother said finally, climbing down the rock. Around the corner, behind the cover of trees, he came across the endless parallel lines of a railroad’s track cutting through the ground. Opening his shorts, he began to relieve himself there. And though there was no other person around to validate his impression, to second his motion, he felt compelled to proclaim, in fullest of voice: “For Thoreau!” while his water wasted itself in the soil, crashing against the steel and iron—each droplet containing the light of all the sun’s indifferent color.
After the sunset, and the pretzels for dinner, the older brother lit the fire, which was no small effort. Everything around them that wasn’t rock was instead some damp form of green life, and it had been very difficult to find wood even close to suitably dry for burning. Still, it was lit. It wasn’t large or especially warm, and it did produce a lot of smoke, but it was lit, which was good because it was now rather dark.
“Can I see your phone?” the younger sister asked the middle. Barely moving, digging beneath her head, the middle sister emerged a telephone from her bag. On the drive up the day before she had paid 99¢ for the download of an app which, when pointed in the rough direction of the sky, would translate the once-inscrutable stars into constellations—the variously named shapes and figures identified in some of the oldest human myths. Phone in hand, the younger sister leaned back, and pointing her face and arms upward, looked through the screen.
There were Bears there—one small and one large. Fish, Fox, and Scorpion. A Bull, several Dogs, and a Whale—a whole family of finned and legged beasts, escaped from the messy world below.
Other people had put them there—so many years before. With the help of the stars they had left across oceans for new places too far and wild to be guided solely by the delirium of their own longing. On nights quite similar to this one, they had looked up and found faces and stories and meaning in what they had seen. It was, of course, only fitting that they should find, in heaven, earth.
“Cool,” the younger sister said, and returned the phone to the middle.
“What time should we leave tomorrow?” the middle sister asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t care,” the older brother answered.
The fire dimmed, unmoved in the still