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A charming tale of a chance meeting in the wilderness, Sandy Fletcher's fictional story impresses with its artfully painted word pictures, deft use of dialog and crafting of characters.

 

 

 

Prelude to Enchantment

It's not just the great outdoors that can suffer from a long dry spell, or welcome an unexpected change in the weather.

By Sandy Fletcher

 

It had been dry for over six months and the only ones happy about it were the vultures. Zia was watching four of them as they circled lazily up a slope dotted with juniper and mesquite. She was sitting by a small stream cleaning the fish she'd caught that morning, her hands working instinctively, the way she'd been taught as a child 30 years ago. Thunderheads peeked over the cliffs above but she paid them little notice. In southwestern New Mexico, the clouds were usually teasers this early in June, preludes to the true summer monsoons. Those would come later, wild and black-eyed, bringing thunder and lightning, hail and heavy rain.

She put the fish in a canvas creel with some wet moss, washed her hands and pocketknife, and stood up, tucking a loose strand of dark hair behind one ear. "Ready to head back to camp, Paco?" she said. Paco, her black Lab, splashed across the creek to her, shook gleefully from head to toe, and then bounded up to the trail.

Only a few moments later, a rogue cloud dropped a curtain of rain across their path. Zia quickly ducked under an overhanging rock for shelter. Thunder echoed off the canyon walls and Paco sidled up next to her, shivering.

"It's just thunder, you big 'fraidy cat," she said. "Shouldn't last long." She gave him a squeeze and scratched his chest, and absentmindedly let her eyes drift up to the rock ceiling just above her head.

"Pictographs! Look, Paco, there's some paw prints that look like yours, only smaller. There's an antelope. And over there, what are those jagged lines? Lightning?"

The clouds answered crackle and BOOM as a thunderbolt splintered a treetop.

"Shit," Zia said. "That was close." She hugged her dog closer and looked at the pictographs with awe. She'd seen similar designs at national parks, but never up close like this. Never alone. Knowing that others had sheltered here hundreds of years before didn't comfort her. They were strangers she didn't understand.

She pulled an apple out of her creel to eat while contemplating the image. "There's a handprint," she said, reaching up to touch it. It was larger than hers, a man's hand. She found herself imagining what he might have been like: strong, lean, graceful, with mirth in his voice and keenness in his eye. It was his eyes that lingered in her imagination after she drew her hand away from his.

"Ahh," she sighed. "It's been a long time since a man's gazed into my eyes." She scratched Paco's head and started humming a Girl Scout song to pass the time:

"I know a place where no one ever goes. There's peace and quiet, hum-hum and repose. Sittin' in a valley beside a mountain stream. Something, something, I can dream. . . dang, I've forgotten the words."

From outside the cave, a much lower voice carried on, "Only of things of beauty to the eye," and a bearded face appeared through the rain curtain. "Mind if I join you?"

A shiver ran down her spine and it wasn't from rainwater. His blue eyes sparkled like the surface of a deep lake, drawing her in. She mumbled through apple bits, "Umm, sure, mister. There's room on the other side of Paco, but you'll have to leave your pack outside." When he turned away, she whispered into Paco's ear, "Why didn't you bark?" He thumped his tail, gave her a sloppy kiss, and leaned closer to make room for their visitor.

"My name's Ben," he said. "That storm came up suddenly, didn't it? I was standing under a tree for shelter, but then one exploded right in front of me and I thought I'd better move. My hair stood up. Strange feeling."

Really strange, she thought. "My name's Zia," she said. "I'm a nurse at the Sacaton Clinic, about 20 miles west. You're not from here, are you?"

"Is it so obvious?" he said with a smile. His voice was soft and smooth, like old whiskey.

"Most New Mexicans know not to stand under trees during a lightning storm. Also, your accent. Midwestern?"

"Missouri. I was a professor in St. Louis."

"Was?"

"Was," he said, looking down a moment, then up at her again. "When my wife divorced me a couple of years ago, I quit my job and went to take care of my mother. She was dying of old age, basically. My father had already passed on, and my sister and brother were both busy, so I volunteered. When she passed away, I hit the road. I'd always wanted to visit New Mexico."

"How long have you been out in the Gila?" she asked.

He scratched the stubble on his chin as if to take measure. "About a week and a half," he replied. "I left my truck at a campground north of Silver City and took off from there. I'm headed for Whitewater Baldy, the highest point. Then I'll work my way back."

 

She tossed questions at him while she observed him. God, he was handsome, forty-ish, with traces of salt and pepper in his beard, a mountaineer's felt hat that still dripped rain, and a flannel shirt that hung loosely over a wiry frame. She made idle chit-chat about the weather and backpacking, while inwardly wondering why he'd gotten divorced. He calmly answered her questions in that mellifluous voice.

"So, what do you think of New Mexico so far?" she interjected.

"Dry and brown. And I'm sorry to be unflattering, but Silver City isn't as charming as the guide books make it out to be. There's more traffic than I expected, and parts of town look rather rundown. Like that big ugly building with broken windows on the hill in the middle of town—what's that?"

"It's their old hospital," she said, laughing openly. "They keep talking about tearing it down, but this is the land of mañana and nothing gets done. Besides, some people like it. They say it keeps others from moving here. Newcomers always think New Mexico is their secret and want to slam the gate behind them. But I'm afraid it's been discovered; house prices have gone way up. We're even seeing it in sleepy little Sacaton."

"Tell me about Sacaton," he said. "Did you grow up there?"

"I did. It's a one-saloon town. Couple of banks, an elementary school, a Forest Service office, a medical clinic. The population's about twelve hundred, more or less. Depends on the season. We get a lot of tourists during our Frontier Festival in September. That's always popular. Everyone dresses up like Apache chiefs, cowboys, miners, ladies of the evening, Mexican bandits, whatever they want to be. A few old hippies just come as they are. Anyhow, we have a big cookout with ribs, corn on the cob, cole slaw, beans, fresh tortillas and lots of beer. A couple of western bands play music and people can dance til dawn if they want to."

"Does your family live in Sacaton?" he asked, glancing at her bare ring finger. She saw his glance, but pretended not to.

"My parents do," she answered. "Well, Dad does when he's home—he's a good man, but he's got gold fever and spends months up in the mountains prospecting. Never has found much. Fortunately, Mom's a nurse and had a regular income while we were growing up. She still works part-time at the clinic. My sister's a nurse, too, at a rest home in Phoenix. I think one of our ancestors must have been a curandera."

"Curandera?"

"A Hispanic woman healer who uses folk medicine. My mother's great-great-grandparents came to New Mexico when it was still a Spanish colony. But there's also Irish, German and even some Comanche in the mix. We're Americans."

Zia stopped, suddenly conscious of how freely she had been talking to this stranger. He was sitting with his back against the rock wall, relaxed, calmly smiling. Was he hiding something? Was he a smooth player who was just reeling out line until he could set the hook? She needed to steer the conversation back to him, test him, watch him.

"I still live at home," she said, studying his face. "Almost got married once, but it didn't work out." She thought she saw a flash in his eyes, but his expression didn't change. He had a quiet strength about him that she recognized from patients who had suffered through great loss and found acceptance. She felt her defenses melting away; his gentle presence was like liquid sunshine.

"I don't usually go on and on like this," she said. "I'm real quiet at work. But you're so easy to talk to. You didn't even interrupt me to tell me how great St. Louis is."

"Well, I came here to get away. Besides, I like listening to your voice after having only myself for company. One-sided conversations get real boring."

Why would any woman leave this man, she wondered? He's drop-dead handsome, intelligent, kind. A thought hit her. Maybe he decided he liked other men. That was it! That was why he was so comfortable to talk to! She had to know.

She softened her voice. "Why'd your wife divorce you?"

"The rain seems to be letting up," he said abruptly. "I should be on my way." He turned to leave, but not before she saw the pain cloud his eyes.

Paco whined, looking back and forth between them.

"Wait!" Zia blurted out. "I'm sorry for being blunt. It's an occupational hazard." She paused to collect her emotions and said, "I'd like to talk some more. I know you're headed the other direction, but my camp's only about a mile downstream. Your clothes are wringing wet. Can I at least offer you a cup of coffee before you move on?"

He nodded slowly, as if coming back from somewhere far away. "Coffee sounds good," he said, his gentle smile returning. Outside, when he shouldered his pack, she noticed a spray can strapped to the belt.

"Have you had any cause to use that pepper spray?" she asked as she picked up her fishing gear.

"No, but my guide book mentioned bears, cougars and wolves, so I brought it along in case I ran into one," he said. "I suppose you just swat them with your fishing pole."

She grinned at him over her shoulder as she started down the trail behind her dog. "They don't usually bother you if you use a little common sense. Besides, I figure Paco would defend me, or at least warn me."

"No offense," Ben said, "but he doesn't seem like much of a guard dog."

"Maybe he knows I'm not being threatened," she said offhandedly.

"Grrrr," Ben said in a low rumble that made both Paco and Zia stop in their tracks. Zia caught the gleam in his eye and thought, No, he's definitely not gay.

 

After they resumed their pace, he said, "I did have to step around a rattlesnake on the trail a couple of days ago. You're a nurse. What are you supposed to do if you're bitten way out here?"

"Get to help as soon as you can," she answered. "Stay calm. And hope the rattler didn't inject a full dose of venom. Oh, and don't try to catch the snake. We don't want it in the clinic."

"This is what I carry for first aid," Ben said, pulling a nylon case out of a cargo pocket.

Zia glanced back and said, "I hope it's not a snake-bite kit; they can cause more harm than good."

"It's a satellite cell phone."

"Of course," she groaned. "Big city professor. Should have known. So tell me, did you like teaching?"

"My work wasn't nearly as interesting as yours," he answered. "I was at a technical college for 15 years and loved teaching, but I didn't care for the academic world. Too many prima donnas and pointless meetings. I've about decided not to go back. That's been on my mind a lot."

"This is a good place to come if you need to sort out your thoughts," she said. Zia reflected for a moment and said suddenly, "Do you believe in God?"

"You do go right for the jugular, don't you?" he said. "I'm not sure, to answer your question. I thought math gave me all the answers I needed. It made sense; it was logical. I always taught students about mathematical patterns in nature, like the branching of trees and the way seeds spiral in a sunflower. I wanted to believe that life is not entirely random. But I feel as if I've lost my faith. How about you? Do you believe in a God who has control over how things turn out?"

The silence between them was poised like a balanced rock. She knew her words mattered and chose them honestly.

"I was raised Catholic and still go to church Sundays with my mother," she said. "But personally, I like the Native Americans' idea of God in everything—that it's all connected. The rocks, trees and weather; and our songs and dreams and art."

They paused to hop across rocks at a stream crossing. When they fell into stride again, Ben said somberly, "Our son died. Timmy. He was only 18. My wife couldn't handle it and turned all her grief and anger against me. He was our only child; pregnancy was hard on her. Tim was such a great kid. Everyone liked him. Student-body president, quarterback on the football team. He went into the Air Force because he wanted to fly jets. But he was reckless, like young men are. He'd just gotten his orders to go to Iraq, but he never made it. Crashed his jet over at White Sands. That's the real reason I came to New Mexico. That's my connection."

"I'm so sorry," she said. "Losing a child must be about the worst kind of grief there is." She noticed the sun had come out and filled the world with sparkling droplets. "I've seen those military jets flying through these canyons. Maybe he'd like you to remember him that way, at his peak, young and happy and full of adrenaline."

A muffled sonic boom sounded from far away. Ben heard it. He blinked and said in wonderment, "What a strange coincidence."

"I don't believe in coincidences," she said. Underfoot, the damp leaves and pine needles added spring to her step. She breathed in the fresh, moist air with its earthy scent, and felt renewed, alive. Confident.

"Why don't you stay for supper?" she asked. "It's only three o'clock and sunset isn't until after eight. You could still cover several miles before dark. Do you like trout?"

"Yes. Thanks. After 10 days of Ramen noodles and trail mix, that's an offer I can't refuse."

 

She turned off the trail to follow a faint path through dense willows to a small clearing. "Well, here it is," she said, "Home away from home." A breezy tent sat to one side, with a log bench in front of it and a table of flat rocks that held her cooking utensils. Zia walked across the clearing to a tall ponderosa where her food cache was hanging from a branch, and quickly untied a knot to lower it to the ground.

"Can I be of assistance?" Ben asked as he dropped his pack at the base of a tree.

"Nope. This is a one-woman kitchen." She noticed how bedraggled he looked and said, "I'll let you in on a little secret. If you go up that side canyon, there's a hot spring with a nice pool. Why don't you go have a soak while I fix our meal?"

"Thanks. You don't know how good that sounds." He took some dry clothes from his pack and smiled at her as he passed by. "You're amazing," he said.

Zia quickly fed Paco some dog food, then started some water boiling on her one-burner stove. By the time Ben returned, the fish were sizzling in hot oil, and steam was rising from two pots sitting off to the side.

"Smells wonderful," he said, running a hand through his wet hair, which was streaked with gray and getting shaggy around the ears.

"I prefer to cook on the coals," she said, "but I can't right now with the campfire restrictions." When he went to drape his wet clothes over his pack, she added, "You'll need to bring your own cup and fork." She deftly spooned some hot vegetables onto plastic plates, added two fish each, a slice of wheat bread, and an apricot-coconut bar made from homegrown fruit.

"Dinner's served. Sit," she said, nodding towards the log next to her. She briefly re-warmed the pot of water, then poured instant coffee and hot water into their cups. "It's not much. I'm heading home tomorrow and this is what's left. Paco had to give up his share of fish, but I gave him an extra doggie biscuit. He'll survive." Paco looked up at the two of him soulfully, then laid his head on his paws and closed his eyes.

Ben ate like he was savoring every bite. "Mmm," he said. "I've never tasted anything so delicious. I feel like all my senses are sharper out here. The food tastes better, the air smells fresher. And after that hot bath, I feel like a new man." In a lower voice, he added, "I haven't felt this good in a long time. "

"Likewise," she said. They ate in silence, listening to the sounds of birds and trickling water, alone with their thoughts.

As they set their plates down in unison, he looked at her and said, "Did you know that even beauty is mathematical?"

"No," she said wistfully.

He reached out and gently framed her face with his hands. "Symmetry and certain proportions are pleasing. In an ideal face, the eyes are about halfway between the top of the head and the chin, like yours are. But no face is perfectly symmetrical. You have that freckle on one side of your nose," he said, making her smile. "And when you smile, your pupils and the corners of your mouth form a perfect square, and the length of each side is the same as from the top of your lips to the tip of your chin." His fingertip landed on each point like soft raindrops. While gazing into her eyes, he added, "I have my own theory on the mathematics of love."

"You do," she said dreamily.

"Yes," he said, stroking her cheek and then leaning back. "It's a function of space and time. Speaking of which, I should be on my way." He stood up, nodded at her politely and said, "Thank you for a truly refreshing afternoon. If it's all right with you, I'll stop by your clinic next week after I make it out of the woods."

"Umm, sure," she said, giving him a wry smile. "I'd like that very much."

Then, in a blur of motion, like a storm front moving out, he collected his belongings and was gone.

"Paco," she murmured, "I have a feeling that the drought is finally about to end."

 

Sandy Fletcher is the pen name of a Silver City writer who says she visits the Gila Wilderness as often as possible.

 

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