On April 10, 1893, a Monday, Beth Leather shot the moon.
The moon came down like a medicine cabinet. It came down with broken hinges and the bottles spilling miracle tonic. The corks popped out and the cherry cough syrup sloshed into the laudanum and only the thick-glass bottoms were left unbroken. When the moon came down, the salt flats went dark.
In 1886, Beth Leather lassoed the Milky Way and rode its width from Minnesota to California. Upon arriving in California, she and her horse Sunny Jim were hired as traveling librarians.
First time Beth came to White Horn, I was sitting on the post box eating bell peppers out of my apron. Beth came up the road looking at the horizon like it was forever. I think she would have ridden out where the salt crust was thin and sent Sunny Jim right into the deep mud if Darleen hadnâ€™t run off the porch, bare-feet kicking up salt, raw with it, and grabbed hold of her reins.
â€œUh-uh,â€ she said, â€œIâ€™m not setting no horseâ€™s leg today. Half the kids in town got scarlet fever and theyâ€™re sick as rats. What you doing out here without a map? Did the government send you? Whatâ€™s in your bags? Whyâ€™re they so big?â€
Sometimes I wished itâ€™d been me. But only at night, after Iâ€™d finished a book and I was closing up, alone but for the smell of lemon cough drops and hydrogen peroxide.
For seven years, Beth Leather rode into town every April with cow-leather boots and a felt hat sporting yellow flowers and her saddlebags full of romance chapbooks. Used to be I watched her from the window, packing salt into tin boxes with my thumb. Iâ€™d watch my sister pull thickets of hair up with a resin pulp comb and saunter onto the salt flats like she wasnâ€™t mad in love with Beth. Beth always had a book for her, patched with Christmas cards and horse glue gone yellow.
I could hear them talking, with the window cracked. â€œHowâ€™s the trip?â€ my sister said.
Beth patted Sunny Jimâ€™s neck. â€œAh, peach. Went left at Sartin-Down and took a bison trail through the zodiacs. It was so hot up there, the chickens were laying hard-boiled eggs. All anyone could cook was solar flares because everything else burned to the bottom of the pan. So I thought to myself Iâ€™d go up north a tick for a block of ice.â€ Beth rubbed her chin and winked at Darleen. â€œProblem is, Great Bear didnâ€™t like me cutting his ice.â€
â€œHowâ€™d you get it, Beth?â€ It was the only time I got to hear my older sister sound like the littlest girl, with silk bows down her back and jam on her face.
â€œWell,â€ Beth drawled it out long, like she wasnâ€™t going to tell. She folded her hands over her chaps, leather stains on her palms and knuckles scarred like cauliflower. I used to imagine her smelling like pages, before I knew she smelled like gun oil. â€œGreat Bear, heâ€™s snarling, stretching his jaw so wide I hear his jaw popping. Looks like heâ€™s got a mind to swallow me down. â€˜Hold on, Mister Bear,â€™ I said. â€˜You canâ€™t eat me. Iâ€™m bitter as wormwood and salty as the sea. But if you let me go, Iâ€™ll eat a jar of honey and comb my hair with molasses and then Iâ€™ll be sweet as a honeybee hive.â€™ He thought that sounded pretty fine, so I came back down to the bison trail with my ice in my bag. I rather think heâ€™s still waiting.â€
Darleen grinned, her book held careful as dandelion seeds between her hands. â€œOne of these days youâ€™re gonna end up like Stingy Jack, Beth Leather; lost between here and there with nothing but a Jack-oâ€™-lantern.â€
Beth stayed two weeks, sitting on an old schoolroom writing desk out front of her shack, taking back last yearâ€™s books and loaning out new ones. She had a whole page for just usâ€”Nevada on the right, White Horn on the left, and the library address in the middle. She wrote names and book titles with a fountain pen and it came out ugly because of the shakes in her hands. She didnâ€™t like us looking at her poor writing, but we still gathered around the page like it was magic.
I never thought itâ€™d be me greeting Beth Leather, holding up my hands for the slim novel and the salt burning my heels.
In 1888, Beth Leather was one week late on her route on account of a starry girl who took her riding down a lute string road between the North Star and the Southern Cross.
Beth and Darleen fought a lot. They fought about anything; if violets or geraniums suited the kitchen table, how come Darleen wouldnâ€™t fix up fennel tea for Bethâ€™s headaches, why Beth arrived this year on a Wednesday instead of a Tuesday. The year Beth came late and left early, the fights would have put a tornado to shame.
â€œOught we go riding or something?â€ Darleen said. â€œYouâ€™re not getting a better day for it and youâ€™re leaving tomorrow.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t ride so well, Darleen.â€
I watched them through the door, spooning opium through funnels into the glass bottles lined down the counter. Beth leaned on the kitchen table, sorting through maps and star charts. She was leaving a day before my birthday this year. Iâ€™d be eighteen.
â€œWell you canâ€™t hardly do something as simple as making tea.â€
â€œYou make enough tea for the both of us,â€ Beth said.
Darleen stood behind, her arms crossed and her shoulders up. â€œThen weâ€™ll go slow. Sunny Jimâ€™s an old horse.â€
â€œSunny Jimâ€™s the finest horse youâ€™ll ever seen, Darleen. Not every horse has the iron-cap knees needed to jump far enough to get to the sky.â€
â€œItâ€™s all about that damn horse.â€
The maps scattered on the floor when Beth turned, her lip slipped straight and angry. But she only hooked one arm around Darleenâ€™s neck and closed her eyes. Darleen curse into Bethâ€™s collar until her shoulders shook.
At the end of April, Darleen put on button-up boots and my straw hat with the bluebird on the band and walked seven miles to church rather than wish Beth good-bye. The next year, Beth pretended sheâ€™d not brought Darleen a book and only gave it to her after four days of sore eyes and enough yelling that Pa came to Bethâ€™s shack turning his hat round and round in his hands and offering to mediate a discussion between the two over breakfast.
But Iâ€™d still find them in the evening perched precariously on the roof of Bethâ€™s shack with Darleenâ€™s book spread across their laps and Bethâ€™s arms tight around Darleenâ€™s waist. Darleen read aloud very slowly so sheâ€™d not read more than a chapter by the time Beth left. I wondered sometimes if I could stitch them to the fabric of the sky, suspended so just their toes touched the gabled roof. Then theyâ€™d stop fighting.
Instead I maintained the roof beams, year to year, so it wouldnâ€™t fall in. Itâ€™s a wonder that house lasted as long as it did; though in the end it was swept away during an autumn flood in 1893.
Beth used to eat dinner at our house. Iâ€™d see her come in as I swept up the front room, locked up the cabinets, and put away the surgical knives. It was a good thing Beth lived out west because noplace else would have enough space. She had a way of being big as a bison, filling up so much space there didnâ€™t seem room for a pat of butter. It made me shy and I didnâ€™t consider myself shy. But when she came in, I took longer cleaning up, too nervous to go in and sit at the kitchen table, smelling her onion sweat over the steamed cauliflower.
Ma and Pa didnâ€™t notice Beth knocking knees with Darleen under the table. They probably thought it was just Beth being so big, moving like she was on horseback and no one for ten miles. Besides, Paâ€™d never have a suspicious or evil thought about anyone who liked his pumpkin soup. But sometimes Beth bumped me too and my heart went into my mouth.
Darleen never helped Beth pack up. She hated it. After she stormed off when I asked about it, I ran to the shack so fast I near broke my neck just to spend a half hour alone with Beth.
Beth laughed the first time I came to her door, panting and my ankles all over salt, â€œI was expecting someone else.â€ Said it the second and third time, too. Then just said, â€œAfternoon.â€
I packed all the returned books so they were snug, like medicine bottles wrapped in paper for long travel. Iâ€™d started thinking I understood Beth, looking for the vestigial blue between the storm clouds like the sky could cure her headaches as good as any medicine. It was uncharitable, but I thought I knew her better than Darleen, on account of noticing things like that.
â€œUs two should go riding some time. As thanks for helping me pack up.â€ Beth rubbed her knuckles where they swelled in the heat.
â€œTo go on one of your adventures?â€
â€œMayhap.â€ Beth smiled. I smiled back because I wanted that bad as anything and I was afraid sheâ€™d never take me.
She didnâ€™t that year.
Darleen watched Beth go from the road, a kerchief mangled against her chest. Beth wasnâ€™t one for looking back, though she always waved. White Horn got quiet when she left, Sunny Jimâ€™s hoof prints left like torn pages before the wind whipped them away.
â€œIâ€™ve got soup for daughters,â€ Maâ€™d say the next week when us two went moody and slow.
Darleen spent the whole year fixing Beth Leather up in her head as a high-flying adventurer with as much charm as a horseshoe nailed above a door, more tall tale than skin and bones. Sitting on the post box, I watched her stuff herself with stories: Beth the Wanderer, wearing the Milky Way on her hat brim, birds black as black swinging off her saddle; Beth the Flirt, sweet as cherries, who always swept Darleen up when she came back and kissed her neck where it was hidden by butterscotch hair.
I wondered if that was why she loved Beth. Not because she knew where Beth was when she left White Horn or had been on a single adventure with her even once. Just because sheâ€™d made that Beth from the stories the real thing. I thought about telling Darleen she was fooling herself, but I figured Darleen wouldnâ€™t appreciate it. Every year she thrilled to the high heavens at seeing her darling appear on the salt road. But Beth never was quite what Darleen had made her to be. No wonder they fought so much.
And then Darleen told Beth she didnâ€™t want to have anything to do with her anymore. She sat on the porch swing with her arms crossed and said, â€œI donâ€™t love you, Beth Leather.â€ Kept her eye on Beth until Beth went down the steps and walked away over the salt. Darleen never borrowed a book again. Her hands stopped smelling like inked paperbacks and went back to smelling like poppies and acetylsalicylic acid.
In 1890, I stood on the only street into town with a pickleweed bouquet, waiting for Beth Leather to come up the road with four dozen paperbacks in her bags.
She flicked back her hat when she saw me and her smile was so big it nearly knocked me over. â€œYouâ€™re too chipper, Rose. What am I going to do with you?â€
In 1890, it rained so hard the Milky Way ran backwards. Beth Leather got washed out of the sky, hooting and hollering all the way down.
It seemed like Beth rode into town already telling stories, the gab spilling behind her like hoof prints. Darleen was right when she told me Beth always was talking about going to the sky, which was so perfect it hurt, filled up as it was with white bison and cinnamon trees and velveteen rabbits mashing up moon cakes. If she wasnâ€™t chasing a reindeer under the Sky Nail, she was eating dried olives and sheep cheese with Capricorn, who she affectionately called old sea-goat. Sometimes it seemed like she didnâ€™t know how to talk about anything else.
But we liked those stories. Because every year the basin flooded and we sat on the beds with our feet up while the floor turned to mud and the salt marsh snails crawled up the doors. We told each other the salt was bad. Pink in the spring, blue in the winter, and made half of sand. It was accepted wisdom that there wasnâ€™t a sorrier sight in the world than the children selling salt to travelers who came rattling by in their black carriages, the wheel rims eaten up by our very own salty road.
I went riding on Sunny Jim for the first time in 1890.
We went out in the dark, Ma calling behind me not to fall into the lake. It was her way of saying â€˜good evening.â€™ I held my knees so tight around Sunny Jimâ€™s belly that in an hour I was shaking. He fidgeted like a rabbit and even though it didnâ€™t look it, his hooves came down so hard my coccyx seemed to bounce into my spine. He had such strange gait about him, I kept thinking he was going to jump. Beth led him around, her head against his, murmuring into his cheekbone. I couldnâ€™t hear what she was saying, on account of how hard I was concentrating on not falling off. Iâ€™d be mortified if I fell off in front of Beth.
We rode west out of town, where the bottle stoppers bloomed yellow against the foothills. Went so far it got dark and the little lamps in the windows were just small orange stars fallen to the ground. â€œThis what itâ€™s like in the sky?â€ I asked, trying not to shift even though I felt small and awkward in the saddle, marked with Bethâ€™s fingers and smelling like eucalyptus.
She looked around and rubbed my knee with her knuckles. I went all jittery. â€œA little. The airâ€™s sweeter, like a whole cup of sugar in lemonade. And when the wind blows, oh it blows. Once it was so strong, it took me to the other side of the world and then back again. And thereâ€™s always some news going on. Always something happening.â€ She pulled the heel of her hand in a circle against her swollen knuckles. I started thinking about scraping out an egg membrane for her to eat so her joints wouldnâ€™t be so red. â€œItâ€™s the sort of place you donâ€™t want to come back from.â€
â€œIâ€™d like to see it.â€
Maybe she nodded, or maybe her head was just bouncing with her walk. It was hard to tell.
â€œToo bad you canâ€™t stay longer in White Horn.â€
She kept on just the same and I still couldnâ€™t tell if she was nodding or just tilting her chin in to whisper something to Sunny Jim. I bit my tongue so I didnâ€™t say anything else foolish.
When I couldnâ€™t hold on any longer, Beth held up her arms. â€œDonâ€™t worry, Sunny Jim wonâ€™t let you come down bad.â€ She caught me when I snagged my foot in the stirrup. â€œHold on, hold on.â€ She chuckled as I gripped her neck, her arm tight around my waist while she untangled my ankle and set me down gentle.
It took us an hour getting back and I couldnâ€™t stop sighing, I was so happy.
I spent the April of 1891 flighty and jittery as a wet cat.
â€œCalm down, Rosie, there isnâ€™t a thing to be so excited for,â€ Darleen said.
I thought she was being jealous, all frowning and hunched with her belt cinched too tight over her waist. That day I just wanted to be bright and pink as a rose, colorful and shining as Mars next to the moon. Iâ€™d even worn the only dress I had with some pink in it.
â€œYouâ€™ll tell me about the constellations, wonâ€™t you? Iâ€™ll be so embarrassed if I donâ€™t know them when she comes.â€ My teeth chittered and I had to sit my chin down into my hands and my elbows down on the windowsill to keep from my shivering.
â€œShe wonâ€™t even bring it up. How much can you talk about in two weeks? I spend more time with the cows.â€ She humphed and hawed and I heard her cursing out in the garden, but that night she taught me about the constellations anyway.
â€œShe really been to all of them?â€ I asked.
Darleen settled back in her porch seat, sagging like sheâ€™d fall asleep. â€œYou know the North Star, right? That oneâ€™s important. Canâ€™t go anywhere without it up there or youâ€™ll be lost as soon as you arrive.â€
She said it like it was something she knew, and not something sheâ€™d been told. But I wasnâ€™t going to be mean about it. I just wanted Beth to come so we could sit together on her roof and sheâ€™d tell me stories.
Beth came late in the day that year. It was already dark when I saw her, my whole body heavy with waiting. I tried to smile, even though Iâ€™d expected her hours ago. She came down with a thump beside me and put a hand on my shoulder.
That was all she said before she went off to her shack and went to bed.
I understood. She was tired.
We didnâ€™t go riding that year. Sheâ€™d had some fever that winter and sometimes she was dizzy in the morning. I hated hearing about it. I hated thinking about her lying up in bed all day, Sunny Jim wandering aimlessly around the yard, eating rotten apples off the ground and nickering at the sky.
â€œBeth, you couldnâ€™t have been that sick.â€
â€œSure was.â€ She leaned up against the shack, the sun coming down so bright it seemed like even the salt would dry up.
I thought I probably should have scooched over so our hips were touching, but I just stayed still, my hands balled up in my lap. â€œThen you ought to have come out here. Weâ€™ve got feverfew.â€
She smiled and rubbed the back of my shoulder. â€œTheyâ€™ve got doctors elsewhere too, you know.â€
â€œCouldnâ€™t you have gone up and found some miracle cure in the Milky Way? Moon poppy milk or something?â€
â€œThatâ€™s not the sort of thing the sky goes into. Not a lot of sick people that side of the horizon.â€
I looked down at my fingernails full of sand and wished Iâ€™d been there to fix her up. â€œYou werenâ€™t really that sick, right? I canâ€™t imagine you sick.â€
Beth shrugged and pulled her brim down over her eyes. â€œGuess then maybe I wasnâ€™t.â€
â€œDidnâ€™t you do something interesting on the way here this year? You havenâ€™t told a lot of stories.â€
â€œStayed on the ground this year. Admired the roses. Put together a few books too.â€ She flicked closed the book in my lap with her thumb. â€œI made up that one I gave you, you know.â€
â€œThank you, itâ€™s very nice.â€ It was nice, a whole lot of recipes pasted together. I guess it just wasnâ€™t what I was expecting.
In 1892, Beth Leather rode around the moon with a pistol in each hand. She came back with a bison tail white as limestone and two scrapes on her knees.
Beth Leather told me about the moon.
Beth and Darleen werenâ€™t talking in 1892. Beth came in the front instead of knocking on the window on the side of the house, catching the bell on the door so Darleen wouldnâ€™t come out from pounding up peppermint. I mixed Beth chickweed and fennel tea for her headaches and if I was nearly closed up, Iâ€™d call for Pa and take the tea out in a clay pot. Weâ€™d go as far as we could before the salt crust broke, right until the salt peeled up like carpet. I thought myself nearly as good a surgeon as Pa in those days and I was drunk on fixing everything. It was all mashed pumpkin poultices and stitching up scythe wounds with catgut and giving women celery leaves for menstrual pains. Beth looked at me so indulgent I blushed. It wasnâ€™t until years later I thought she probably hadnâ€™t been listening much.
â€œYou love all the things no one else can,â€ Beth said, â€œanatomy bloodying up surgical table, the salt, those lemon-green sinkholes where the children drown.â€ She chewed on her tongue and kicked boot-loads of salt at the horizon. â€œNever understood it, Rose, you being so sweet when you were raised on opium and gin and knowing how half the people in town scream.â€
â€œItâ€™s the paperbacks,â€ I said, putting my tongue through the gap on the left where I lost my teeth when I set Widow Pearlâ€™s leg and she kicked me in the jaw. â€œYou know I keep thinking about how some of the people in those stories could do just about anything. All riding from one end of the country to the other and catching coyotes and chasing buzzards. It seems like the best thing in the whole world. That how you got into it?â€
She raised an eyebrow and I swallowed hard. Iâ€™d never asked what sheâ€™d done before a comet caught her bootstrap and took her up so far she had to grab the North Star soâ€™s it wouldnâ€™t take her any further. But asking it, I wanted to know. I couldnâ€™t even imagine what she might have been doing before.
Beth put her thumb on her chin and turned her face up towards the dark blue. â€œNo. That what you want to do? Riding and stuff like that?â€
I waited, hoping sheâ€™d say more, but she didnâ€™t. â€œSure,â€ I said. â€œOr maybe Iâ€™d just set a ladder against the moon and live with corn silk window frames and a tea parlor clean as peroxide.â€ I locked my fingers together and held them against the sky. â€œIâ€™ll cook sun spots in big silver pots and the kettleâ€™ll always be boiling.â€ I laughed because it was sort of embarrassing, and then louder because Beth was looking at me kind of funny.
Beth pulled her thumb over the moon. â€œThereâ€™s no windows on the moon. Moonâ€™s a white bison. Black hooves like tar and a snort like sulfur.â€ She pulled the yellow flowers forward on her hat band and lay back on the flats. â€œSomeday, Iâ€™m gonna shoot the moon.â€ She glanced at me and even in the shadows it was hard to hold her eye. â€œIâ€™ll shoot it for you. If you want.â€
I must have flushed even darker, like cranberry honey. I shook my head, kinda slow, while Beth set her jaw as grim as Iâ€™ve ever seen. â€œNah-uh. You think you will, Beth Leather, but you never will.â€
In 1893, the state went broke and stopped paying the traveling librarians. Beth Leather went out on her route one last time.
A week after Beth Leather arrived in town, she rode up in front of our house two hours before dinner. Darleen pretended like she didnâ€™t notice and went back to crushing parsley and ergot. When I came out the front door, Beth said, â€œIâ€™m going to shoot the moon.â€
I could see the moon from where I stood. It was thin as a suture needle, a pale wash against the thumbnail of blue beneath the veranda roof. It looked like milk spilled on the floor, and all the cream skimmed off.
I looked at Beth. Her hands shook against the reins and her knees were too tight on Sunny Jimâ€™s flanks. Sheâ€™d put fresh flowers in her hat. Iâ€™d watched her all week, glancing at the sky, her eyes filling up and draining out. She kept touching the pistol on her belt.
I went inside and came back with a straw hat tied over my hair with a white cotton scarf and a carpet bag.
â€œYou think I wonâ€™t do it,â€ Beth said when I hung the bag on the back of the saddle.
â€œYouâ€™re real sweet.â€ I smiled, big and nice as I could.
When I mounted up, Darleen threw open the window so loud the frame shook. The sun cut over her neck and she looked like sheâ€™d boil.
â€œRosemary.â€ The air caught in her throat. Her eyes welled up and I wanted to tell her not to look at me like that. Like I was too young to know what I was doing. â€œThe rains are coming.â€
Then Beth leaned forward and the Bonebreak home vanished behind us.
We rode out toward the sink in the scablands, the horse hooves tearing up what little soil there was on the rock. Beth said we were going to the lowest point in the whole country, the last place to dry up in the summer.
â€œIâ€™ve been looking for this place, Rose, ever since I came here.â€
I thought about her, the first time she rode into town, so starry-eyed. It scared me a little that sheâ€™d been thinking about shooting the moon this long, even before she met me and my sister.
â€œYou looking to go on an adventure then?â€ Beth said past the wind.
â€œYes, maâ€™am, I am.â€ I tried to say it like I was older than I was.
â€œYouâ€™re not just coming to make sure Iâ€™m not lying to you?â€
â€œBeth,â€ I said, affronted.
I wanted to go on an adventure with her. I wanted to so bad.
That night, we camped up the mountain in the bristlecone pine trees, laying out needles under our blankets. Some people still lived up the mountain, off the bighorn sheep and jackrabbits. They wore corks on their hats and one of them kept a mouse in his pocket, feeding it dried corn and pine nuts.
We traded some of my opium for dried meat and water. Beth told them we were going to shoot the moon.
â€œYou shouldnâ€™t be doing that,â€ the man with the pocket mouse said. â€œItâ€™s like catching a coyote, seems like a good idea until you do it.â€
That night I lay on the needles on my side with my hands under my chin. I fell asleep watching Beth stare at the sky and her eyes so big, big as full moons.
In April, Beth Leather took her oldest pistol to shoot the moon. It was made out of boot nails and painted the color of a buttermilk sky.
In the morning I asked if weâ€™d ride up on the Milky Way to shoot the moon. Iâ€™d heard stories about her riding around the moon before, though not close enough to get it between the eyes. Beth didnâ€™t answer right away and I went squeamish and embarrassed.
â€œOnly, itâ€™d be a real adventure then. Like one of your stories. The skyâ€™s something else, right?â€
Beth looked over her shoulder and she looked distracted even when she smiled. She looked like the idea of the moon had filled her all the way up, poured into her belly liked spilt cream, the whole Milky Way draining down her throat and not leaving any room for anything else. â€œSure, Rose, if you want.â€
â€œNo.â€ I scrunched up my skirt on my knees. â€œThatâ€™s alright.â€
It was quiet a long while after that, but when we came down to eat lunch, I asked, â€œYou really shooting the moon for me?â€
â€œYeah.â€ She smiled weird and gentle and put her arm over my shoulder, holding me up against her side so I broke out in a nervous sweat. â€œJust for you.â€
I turned one of Bethâ€™s knives over in my hand. â€œWhatâ€™m I gonna do with it?â€
â€œWhatever you want.â€ She stood and left me feeling small.
She shrugged. â€œYou could skin it. Youâ€™ll have the finest tanned hide this side of Texas. Then you can do anything you want. If you like, you can cut it into strips and make a rope bridge up to the sky.â€
â€œWonâ€™t it be awfully dark up there without the moon? Itâ€™s like the starsâ€™ sun, isnâ€™t it?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re bright enough on their own.â€
I wondered why Beth was always going off on her adventures, other than it seemed a lot more fun than watching the floods roll in your front door. Maybe it was just the kind of thing she did. Shooting the moon was just the next thing.
â€œYou know.â€ She pulled herself up straight, turning her chin a little to talk past the wind. â€œThe program, itâ€™s been defunded. Theyâ€™re not sending people out with books anymore.â€
â€œOh. Iâ€™m sorry.â€ I shifted away as Sunny Jim stomped. â€œWhat are you going to do now?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Thereâ€™s still a lot of places I havenâ€™t seen.â€
â€œMaybe you can come by more often, now that you donâ€™t have to go to all those other towns. You could stay a whole three weeks. Or longer even. Weâ€™d find you a job, I promise.â€ I laughed at how impossible and grand the idea seemed.
â€œI guess Sunny Jim might appreciate not carrying around such heavy books anymore. They do wear on his withers.â€ She patted his neck and wrapped up her fingers in his mane. â€œHeâ€™s been real good about it. Didnâ€™t complain once. Maybe weâ€™ll go to the east coast. Havenâ€™t been there before.â€
I stood and Beth helped me mount back up. â€œBet there are lots of adventures out there.â€
Beth crossed her hands on the saddleâ€™s horn, her fingers shaking just enough to see, just enough to make her writing sort of twisted. â€œMy mother always said I loved too easy. Easy as a star falling.â€ She sucked in a breath and pulled herself up in front of me.
That night, the moon hung above us bright and round like the bottom of a tonic bottle. I didnâ€™t think it looked like a bison at all. It looked like our medicine cabinets, where all the cures in the world were kept, even the fake ones. Colored syrup and sugar pills between boneset and borage and poultices.
Sunny Jim galloped toward the sink, kicking up dust and salt while I held Beth around the waist and my hair stuck to my neck with sweat. Sunny Jimâ€™s hoof beats rattled through my ribs but the quiet was as wide as the whole basin.
Beth held up her pistol, her body like a gallows, and I could feel her breathing under my arms. She shot once.
On Monday, when the moon went out, it started to rain.
We waited in the dark, Beth and I. I didnâ€™t let go of her waist, not when her arm rocked with the shot, not when the moon went out, not when it started raining down my neck. Bethâ€™s hands twisted on the reins. The salt crust cracked. The ground turned to mud. The wind picked up and blew rain into our faces, down our necks until we were wet even between Bethâ€™s back and my chest. It smelled like the ocean. Maâ€™d told me about the ocean. Iâ€™d never been there.
I looked at the sky through Bethâ€™s hair. Iâ€™d never been so scared, looking at that gap in the sky. My chest knew something ought to be there and it wasnâ€™t, not even a little bit. I held Beth tighter. My breath went fast. I pushed my face into Bethâ€™s shoulder. I wanted her to say something, about how itâ€™d be alright.
Sunny Jim turned of his own accord when his hooves started to sink into the flats. Bethâ€™s legs tightened on his flanks. I couldnâ€™t see a thing, not even the mountains against the horizon. We could have been in the sky, in the middle of a rain cloud, and I wouldnâ€™t have known it.
â€œBeth.â€ I said it into her shoulder, my mouth moving over the bone.
â€œIâ€™ll find the moon.â€
I remember Sunny Jim stumbling as it got muddy. I remember thinking I saw the moon standing on the horizon like a scythe, caught in the pine trees. I remember letting go to point to it as the water came up to my ankles and the waves broke on my calves. When Beth put her knees into Sunny Jimâ€™s side, following the motion of my arm, he leapt. He leapt and my grip broke and the water tumbled us away.
I lost Beth. I lost her quick, quick as a bone breaking. I took her hand, slick with salty water and she slid away. It was so dark. I didnâ€™t even get to see her face as she went. I screamed after her, the moon slipping away so I wasnâ€™t sure Iâ€™d seen it at all. The noise of the waves mixed up with my shouts and I could hardly hear myself. Couldnâ€™t find the ground with my feet. Everything tumbled. The water went up and I went down and I never saw Beth Leather again.
I came out onto the scabland long, long into the night, slick with mud and my nose burning like death with salt. I could hear the waves crashing over the rain and the wind moaning through the pines. I shivered and screamed for Beth through the storm, but no one came. I stood in the surf and slipped and ran back and tried to throw pine needles, which stuck to my hands. Up and down the banks, up and down and no idea where I was going or if I was about to fall into that current again. Beth, Beth, where did you go?
It was a long time in the dark.
In the morning, I stood shaking on the banks. I watched the lake, bright and new as a penny. I waited for a book to wash up, or a yellow flower. I expected to see her hat floating on the water. Or one of her blackbirds. Nothing came. The lake looked so big and empty. Like the ocean. Like thereâ€™d been so much rain the whole world drowned. Salt crusted on my ankles and I could hardly walk for the mud. My hat was gone too though the scarf had plastered itself to my shoulders. There was so much salt, I felt like it had filled up my blood, filled up my lungs.
I walked north, along the shore, shivering and not expecting the walking would do any good. Seemed like if I was going to find her, it would have happened already. I went so far I came back around south again and walked toward home.
I slept that night out on the salt and the sky was dark as anything. No moon and all the stars dim like they were in mourning.
When I got home, I told everyone Beth was gone. They didnâ€™t much listen. They were all mucking out their houses, rebuilding the walls and roofs that had come down in the flood. Bethâ€™s house was slick with mud, but itâ€™d held against the water. Darleen came out with her sleeves rolled up and her hem wet. Said one of the medicine cabinets broke. Covered the floor in honey and chalk.
â€œBethâ€™s gone,â€ I said, and I nearly choked.
She squeezed me tight and didnâ€™t let go so long as I was holding her back. Made me caraway tea when we went inside.
It kept raining for a week, the lake swelling up through the flats. Pa came home with his boots caked in white mud. My toes wrinkled up with the wet. Ma couldnâ€™t keep anything dry, even when she hung it in the rafters over the stove. I spent a lot of time sitting on the counter, holding bottles while Darleen sorted through the cabinets. I couldnâ€™t help leaning forward every few minutes to look out the window, see if anyone was coming up the road. Darleen finally put me in the back room, I made myself so nervous looking. The same people got colds as did every year and we ran out of lemon. It stayed dark at night and we walked around with shuttered lanterns, leaving ruts with our heels.
A week after Beth vanished in the flood, it stopped raining. The lake settled out and the ground started to dry, all the places weâ€™d walked crystalizing into the ground, until people started filling them up with sand and salt. Darleen pulled back her shoulders and went to scrub out Bethâ€™s shack. She hauled out the schoolroom desk and buffed it â€˜til it looked like new and then left it out to dry. The shackâ€™d wash away five months later. Darleen came back so tired she stayed out all night on the porch.
I sat out at the side of the house while she scrubbed, away from the road, looking at the primrose and gravel ghost flowers. Didnâ€™t think about much of anything until it started getting dark and I went to see if the garden had lasted the flood. The garden was a little thing, all the soil pulled in from miles away, and even that only wanted to grow radishes. Had to keep up a little fence, so the salt wouldnâ€™t kill the green tufts.
And it was the funniest thing, what I found leaning up against the back of the house like a mill wheel. If it wasnâ€™t the moon. There between the water tin and the eggshells like itâ€™d rolled in off the flats and sat down to rest awhile. Sunken and washed up as an old bull. So I picked the moon up. Popped it back in the sky.
That night, the moon rose just like anything. Just a sliver, a whisper of hair blowing in the wind, yellow like it was at the other end of a fever, but there all the same.
A note from Rosemary Bonebreak
There are lots of legends on the flats, preserved in salt and growing crystals. People tell stories about shooting the moon. We start sober and someone says they took every trick in a hand of Hearts, like they were pulling games on the flats to impress a girl with calloused fingers and a face like wheat stalks. But by midnight weâ€™re all drunk and suddenly someone took down the whole moon. Lassoed it, caught it by the horns, dragged it down. Wrestled it for seven days while it rained and the sink flooded. Until finally the moon galloped away, back up into the sky, panting and lolling its tongue.
Out here where the tumbleweed knocks for a cup of water and the floods are like the end of the world twice a year thatâ€™s the sort of story I tell. Someone with a pistol made out of the soles of their boots was so big she galloped onto the salt and shot the moon right out of the sky. Sometimes, when itâ€™s late and the parlorâ€™s nearly I empty, I tell the story like she really did do it for me.
Copyright 2018 Sarah McGill