You had to get out of the city, where the indistinct bourbon of autumn got lost between the buildings, to see how different the light was this time of year. That was why she was here – and because she hadn't seen her uncle in a while.
He lived inland and north of town, close enough to drive but far enough away that this was a weekend trip. She had called ahead and worked it out so that she'd be staying with him. Then she took the freeway north until city, paved streets and suburbs were cast aside like the skin of a fruit, exposing the flesh of parched and vacant prairie.
Her uncle lived in a ranch style house that looked like it had started lurching out of the plains sometime in the early 20th century and gotten stuck in the dirt. Wisps of wooden fence marked the property, and a skeletal windmill – too tall and any identifying markers blasted out of legibility by time and sunlight – guarded the gate. She drove past the fence, parked and stepped into the sun. She didn't go up to the house, instead making straight for the backyard.
It was October, but her uncle's sunflower field was still in bloom. He was famous in the area for the late summer field, which supplied local markets and anyone who passed by with fresh cut flowers well into autumn.
She found her uncle under the massive umbrella of an avocado tree not far from the sunflower field. He was on his hands and knees inspecting a series of holes ringing around the tree. They were not neat and contrived, but raw and marked by uneven clods of earth and scattered tufts of grass.
She approached him from behind as he inspected one. "Raccoons?"
He pushed himself halfway up, turned and squinted at her. The sky was clear and bright, and it was just late enough in the day that the sun could be an irritant.
"Eve." He shifted on his knees until he was out of the sun and in her shadow. "Evie."
"Hey Uncle Joe."
There was plenty for them to gossip about. No one in the family had ever communicated well, and relations had only deteriorated after her parents had divorced. It was an amicable separation, but it further fractured an already fractured family. She and her uncle spent the rest of the afternoon catching each other up with the pieces they knew until both seemed satisfied they had a better view of the whole. It was conversation they should have saved for dinner.
After she put down her overnight bag in the guest room, after her uncle had seated them and set the table, after she observed the dinner – stewed tomatoes and chili beans and peppery ground meat, complimented with oven-baked corn bread and water pumped from a nearby spring, all served on a bare table with gnarled flatware and gently cracked plates, a rural bachelor's idea of a thought out meal – they realized they had run out of eventful things to talk about. So they talked about the past.
"How long have you lived at this place?" She looked around the room, counting the scarred boards in the ceiling and the stains in the corners. "It seems like you've always lived here."
"Oh, not long. Maybe twenty-five years."
She couldn't hide her laugh, and he couldn't hide his smile.
"That may not seem so long to you now, but time has a way of shrinking when you can't keep a hold of it." He nodded his head, placed his hands on the table and started absently pushing his fork back and forth. "I didn't always want to be here. When your grandpa came out from Oklahoma, it was easier for folks like us to get work in the country rather than the city. Your dad didn't like that. He liked living down there. He went to college, same as you. I didn't, and I didn't want to do what our dad had done either. But I ended up here all the same. Folks like us, we have to get away to get to be who we are. Before he died, your grandpa -"
"I know, I know." She didn't really, but she felt like she had heard this story before. She closed her eyes and continued. "And when he came to California, he left Oklahoma in a prairie schooner pulled by . . ." She realized she could no longer hear the fork moving across the table. She opened her eyes and looked at her uncle, and he looked back at her with a puzzled expression. Under the silent kitchen light, she noticed his left eye had a pale film subtly covering the iris. She held her tongue, afraid she'd hurt him.
"Sorry." He shoved the fork away and stood up. "I've got to get up early. You can leave the dishes if you want."
She cast her eyes on her empty plate, listening to him shuffle out of the room. She sat a while, letting the cool and quiet of the house settle in around her. Then she collected their dishes, set them in the kitchen sink, switched out the lights and retired to the guest room.
How long it had been a guest room was debatable. It looked like someone had lost a month of their life searching for something and never bothered putting anything back. The bed was made, although the sheets were faded and lightly musty. The chest of drawers was empty, and rough blankets drained of color lay haphazardly bundled on top of a trunk. The bookshelf was lonely, its erstwhile contents scattered around it like the entrails of a gutted animal. Crickets hummed in the gaps between the floorboards. Dust catchers did their work on a nightstand that was nowhere near the bed. A shade was half drawn over the window, which revealed the sunflower field beyond.
The books surprised her. They were old but in good condition, as if someone had recently taken them out of storage. Titles that offered to untangle spooky physics or expose shadowy untold histories rubbed spines with volumes on ontology written by authors with unpronounceable European names. She tossed them aside, shut the door and lay on the bed. She was asleep in seconds, and dreamed of empty roads and open doors.
When she woke up the next morning, the house was empty. She dressed for tingling late summer heat – cuttoff jeans and an airy top--climbed into her car and drove to the nearest town. She found a diner that was long and dark and green, and smelled delicately of bargain disinfectant. The only other customer was an old man cackling at a paperback novel, its cover long gone leaving an unmarked title page, stained with age, to hint at its contents. The tattered remains of a wall-mounted fish, labeled "Ca ch of he D y," stared at them both from a spot above the register.
She crammed herself into a back corner booth and waited for the server to eventually find her. She played with the menu in the meantime and considered a "farmer breakfast": toast, orange juice, coffee, eggs any style, potatoes and a beef patty. In the end, she went with French toast. She still talked herself into orange juice. It was fresh-squeezed and acid sweet, overpriced and worth every cent.
She ate slowly and waited until it was just before noon to head back to the farm. Early morning or twilight was considered the best time to take pictures, but she bucked the trend and shot in the hours around midday. Optimistic sky blue, crackling yellow, living green, all the natural colors were crisper and shadows more clearly defined, giving the world less haze, more structure and cleaner lines.
As predicted, her uncle's sunflower field looked splendid in the early afternoon light. He had mostly planted giant sunflowers this year, and they often dwarfed her, stretching Halloween tall and standing at organic attention. Fragile, twisted petals ranged from yellow to orange to earth, surrounding the pinprick black and seedy faces. Birdsong provided background, and the sweet smell of dirt was beneath her feet.
She never appeared in her own pictures. She was looking for detail shots with the flowers' great heads pristine or picked apart, or shots taken from the ground of shadowy stalks reaching toward a distant sky. She took several of those from various angles while moving deeper into the field. It was only when she wanted an image of the whole field that she realized she was utterly turned around. It was a big field, but she always assumed it was smaller than she knew, its vast size a childish trick played on an adult memory. But now it seemed even bigger and more confusing, a living maze without barriers or rules, just endless rows of tall flowers that flowed into one. The bird calls were conspiratorial and came from every direction except the one she faced.
She blundered through a tightly woven fence of sunflowers into a clearing. For a moment, there were no birds, there was no sky, there was only a terrible bright. Emerging from that was only a pruning knife, huge and hooked. It looked wet in the sudden sunlight, and it was held by a square shadow squatting in the middle of a patch of empty bamboo stakes.
The figure rose, and it was her uncle. Of course it was. He tended the farm alone, only hiring help when planting and harvesting.
He took a step toward her. She instinctively slipped back and felt the sunflowers behind her. Her uncle reached for her, but his hand passed her by and gripped a sunflower. He stepped forward again and flicked its head off neatly with the knife. He leaned down, clipped a couple of ties and cut the stalk at the root, leaving a quivering bamboo stake behind. He threw it behind him onto an ugly stack of chopped stalks.
"Kindling," he said.
She meant to spend the afternoon tidying the guest room, but she got lost in the unshelved books. There was a copy of the Dominguez-Escalante journal, lectures on physics by Willem de Sitter, and something called Witches and Witch Doctors of the Southwest. It sported a delicately frayed dust jacket and proclaimed its title in enormous tabloid lettering. The book was dated 1934, and the author was only identified as "Howard."
She read the inner flap: "We of course have much to thank Mr. Kluckhohn for for his time among the Hopi and Navajo. His contributions and insight into understandably secretive cultures . . ." She flipped pages until she came to a black-and-white image of man with an austere expression wearing a pair of sweeping feathers and an elaborate string tie.
"Some medicine men are said to turn into animals, in part or in full, or to steal the form of other men," the text beneath the image read. "Legends vary from tribe to tribe, and the ability is said to come from the breaking of certain taboos or by joining esoteric cults. Even within the tribes, stories are merely whispered, and rarely, if ever, revealed to outsiders . . ." She kept reading for a little while, mystified as much by the 1930s writing style as by the lack of concrete information.
Eventually she set it aside and picked up a slim cloth-bound book called Implications of an Expanding Universe. There was no author or date. She respectfully flipped through it until she found the introduction. "If the universe is indeed expanding, as recent theorists have suggested, this leaves us with profound physical and philosophical implications for once familiar topics like time, distance, direction, perception and identity. The purpose of this treatise is to consider these implications in a sensible and practicable way." What followed was increasingly dense jargon that bled into the kind of math she hadn't seen since high school. When she finally set it aside, the sky outside the window had faded to nightshade blue. She shut the shade and left the room.
Her uncle was already eating when she got to the dining room table. He didn't speak, only nodding in acknowledgment when she sat down. Dinner was franks and beans in a sauce that was savory, sweeter than spicy, and she swished drinking water between her teeth multiple times while eating.
"Sorry about that," he said once all that left on his plate was a few blobs of beans. "In the field. I forgot--"
"That's all right." Her reply was subdued, but it was enough to silence him. She took a long drink of water. "I was looking at some of the books you have in the guest room."
"The books. In the guest room. The old books. I didn't know you read those kinds of things."
"The books . . ."
"History and physics and philosophy. I didn't understand some of it. Where did you get them? When did you get them?"
"No one should be reading those books." The words had such forcefulness that she closed her mouth and stared at him in shock. In an instant, his features softened until they mirrored hers. "I'm – I'm sorry." He rose and stepped behind his chair. "I've got to be up early."
He left. She remained and stared at her plate until the food grew cold.
She locked the guest room door and lay on the bed with the books and the light, but did not read. She closed her eyes, only to open them hours later to a darkened room. The light was out. The door was still locked.
She opened the shade and stared groggily into the clear night sky. The moon was honey orange and October big, and the sunflower field was well lit for how late it must have been.
At first, she thought it was a trick of the moonlight or a smudge on the window, but there appeared to be a shape, wispy and dark and darting around the edges of the sunflower field. She squinted, trying to force it into sensibility. At first it was just a shadow, but then it became an animal, four-legged, skirting the perimeter of the sunflowers, maybe a coyote. Except that wasn't quite right. It moved too awkwardly for that, as if its limbs were being pulled in strange directions, plucked by the arms of an invisible torture device.
It disappeared into the sunflowers and reappeared, closer to the window. She held her breath. It was a human figure, male, naked, glistening in the moonlight, stretched onto all fours and scurrying into the thin, pale night.
It bobbed and weaved in and out of the sunflowers, each time moving a little further out of the field and a little closer to the window. A coldness gathered at her back, spreading from her shoulder blades and down her spine. The flowers shuddered as the thing brushed them. Then, it ducked into the field and did not reappear. The flowers did not move. No clouds obscured the moon.
All at once, it rose and unfolded right against the window. It was slow, deliberate, unconcerned. It reached its full and square-shouldered height, and she saw why it seemed to glisten. Its skin had been neatly peeled back, from the top of its head to its exposed waist. It seemed to look through her, like it could not see her, even though its face was only inches from hers.
She felt herself being pulled back, back into bed, back into darkness. She dreamed of rattling doors, and eyes wide and strange against the dense night.
In the morning, she found the door was still locked. The light was on, but the shades were wide open.
She left the room already packed and fully dressed. The house was empty again, but when she stepped into the daylight her uncle was in the front. He was near her car, repairing some twist of wood on the fence, and the gate stood open.
"Uncle Joe." She spoke as if he was asleep, and she might wake him up. He still heard her, turning around to face her, his expression as simple as a child's.
She chewed her lip before pointing to the ancient windmill that loomed over them. "That thing. What's it for?"
Her uncle looked up, and his expression fell into sad confusion.
"I don't know. I've never known."
A swirl of breeze stirred around them, but the windmill remained still. Only the dust moved. "Thanks for having me, but I have to go." She smiled as best she could. "I have an early start next week." She climbed into the car and started the engine.
She drove off the property and onto the dirt road that would connect to the highway. She kept glancing in the rearview mirror. As soon as the farm was no longer visible, she stopped the car. She looked again into the mirror and touched her face. Those lines, those wrinkles around her eyes, she wanted to know. Had they always been there?
About the Author
Colin Newton is a writer from Los Angeles whose fiction has appeared in The Ignatian, The Fabulist Words & Art, and Maudlin House. Newton is an upcoming Rose Library fellow at Emory University and, in the meantime, blogs about media, monsters and metaphysics at IdolsAndRealities.wordpress.com.