This was when I was living with three other classics majors in a stonehouse north of Española on the edge of the desert. A long dirt road led down from the highway through the cottonwoods by the river and then out again into a lot of brown rock and dust and neurotic rabbits. The boulders that made that stonehouse were all big smooth grey and pearly ones that had probably come from the river by burro a hundred years back. The place had an unfinished feel to it, which I loved, and it was crazy cheap, which I required. I used to think certain things when I heard the phrase dirt floor, namely that it was made of dirt and left your foot bottoms black. But the dirt floor of our kitchen and living area didn’t do that at all. That dirt there was so well-packed and silky, it didn’t even seem like dirt but flesh. Seriously, when you walked across it barefoot, you felt like you were treading across some enormous lady’s belly.
Also notable was the old coyote mutt that came with the place. I say mutt because that’s how the landlord introduced it, but really it looked pretty unmutt to me, i.e. it looked just like a coyote. Big bushy tail. Skinny legs. Long snout full of needle teeth. Then again, it acted like a dog, so maybe the landlord knew what was what. Either way I adored this creature and would put water out for him and occasionally pork chops. He had a bunch of names, but the one that stuck wasn’t very creative, so I won’t drop it here. Sometimes when my roommates were out, I would leave the door open and he would come in and sleep on our belly-like floor while I read or worked on a translation.
Like all the houses in that neighborhood, ours had a barbed-wire fence that ran all along the property line. Unlike all the houses in that neighborhood, which had electric driveway gates that opened with garage door openers, our gate had just a padlock and a chain. This was a pain because every time you came or went you had to get out of your car to deal with it. Making it a bigger pain was the fact that I had only one key ring with all my keys on it, so whenever I pulled up to the gate I would have to cut the engine and take the gate key along with all the other keys over to the gate to unlock the gate lock and then go back and restart my piece of shit, which was a piece of shit and therefore not great at restarting, and drive through the gate into the driveway and shut off the car again and get out and rewrap the chain around the gate and relock the lock.
See? Major pain.
Point being, my roommates and I got in the habit of leaving the gate open during the daytime even though nobody else in neighborhood did that and our landlord repeatedly warned us not to.
And then one afternoon a car pulled in and honked three times.
At first, I figured the coyote was asleep in the road, which happened sometimes, but after three more honks I looked behind me and there the coyote lay, snoring in a square of light.
I got up, parted a curtain, took in the big black sedan idling in our driveway. The driver must have seen me do this, because the passenger window slid down just then, so I went out barefoot and hunched over to look inside. The driver was an old woman with short gray hair and dark leathery skin. She wore frameless glasses and looked miniscule behind the wheel. I crossed my arms, perched my elbows on the doorframe, said hi, sniffed a fresh baked bread smell.
She asked who owned this place.
An odd question, I thought, but I told her the landlord’s name.
Quien? she said. Hadley who?
I told her I didn’t remember who. Hadley Hooper maybe.
She asked if this lord lives here. That’s how she said it—lord, not landlord.
No, I told her. This lord just rents out.
She asked for the last name again and the phone number and I said I didn’t know the last name or the phone number either but could check.
I went in and looked at the lease on the bookshelf and found the name and number and felt weird.
I went out again and said, Hadley H. Harper. Can’t find the number though.
The lady repeated Hadley H. Harper, Hadley H. Harper while poking around the cabin, eventually finding a long receipt and caddy pencil in the cup holder and writing it all down.
By then I really wanted to know what was up, so I asked in that extra respectful tone I reserve for elders, which basically means I sounded uncertain and a little bit sad, if she were interested in renting a place.
No, no, she said. Ha. She said she needed the neighbor’s name for her final will and testament. She wanted the final will and testament drawn up so that her grandkids can, how do you say, grasp the legacy of this land.
To which I said, You need a neighbor’s name for this?
She nodded slowly, gravely, chinning towards one adjacent property and then the opposite. This was all once ours, she said. Road to river. No mas. I want to get the story together, see. That way those who come later can comprehend.
I said, Oh.
Now was the time for her to ask me where I was from and how long I’d been here and what I was doing and why and I told her these things the best I could and she nodded and asked me for the landlord’s name again and I told her again, staring at the written-on receipt in her hand.
Right, right, good, good, she said. This name will go up last on the list of names.
Last on the list of names, I thought. What a curious phrase. My knees wobbled a bit and it reminded me of the sea legs I felt at the end of the rafting trip a bunch of us had taken the previous spring. For three days we had floated a stretch of the Rio Grande up by the state border, a nice slow downstream bob peppered with occasional class three rapids. Overall, it was a very relaxed pace, very easy to drink endlessly through. Beers we towed behind the raft in a mesh bag where the grit and floating chunks of pumice could erode their bilingual labels. At sunset on the final day, we were almost home when we entered a narrow pastel-colored canyon. Soon after the walls closed in, petroglyphs began appearing a few feet above the water line, gold scratches in the pinkish rock. Each symbol was the size of a book and in line with the next. We saw suns at the dawn of the authors’ history and swollen moons and lightning bolts and chevrons and arrows of war and squash and bean stalks and elk and lions and canted flutists and famine gods and good gods and spirals spiraling away, each episode etched after the last. It was the most powerful reading experience I’d ever had. The bobbing pace was like a return to pre-literacy and made me feel like I had chosen wrong somewhere in life, spending my days constrained by pages only eight inches wide, reading twelve to fifteen words in a row before whirling around to do it all over again, just a little bit lower. I had fantasized for years about a book projector that could cast paragraphs onto the ceiling above my bed, also of a quick little propeller plane capable of spelling out entire novels in smoke along an ocean horizon while I ate mangoes on the shore. This here had all those pipe dreams beat. To float slowly down river, reading canyon walls. I wished the story would never end.
And then it did.
At last we floated by a petroglyph of four simple horses upon which four simple stickmen sat. The stickmen held long sticks in their stick hands and wore helmets shaped like boats. Nothing was written thereafter. This one-line history ended with them.
An hour later we reached the parking lot. Not until our wheels touched the interstate did I realize those stickmen were conquistadors.
The woman and I shook hands. She didn’t use her thumb, just kept it sticking up in the air, so for a moment I thought she was challenging me to a thumb war. When I stepped away from her car, I noticed a breeze had blown the gate shut and I said I’d get it for her. After she completed a seventeen-point turn and drove away, I almost locked the gate after her, but didn’t.
I went back inside. The coyote was still asleep on the floor. I reseated myself before my books, all those linear histories, and eventually found the sentence I had left off on.
Dan Tremaglio is the author of Half an Arc & Artifacts & Then the Other Half (Mint Hill Books), a finalist for the 2022 Indie Book Award for the Novella, and of the novel The Only Wolf is Time, forthcoming from Sagging Meniscus in late 2024. His stories have appeared in numerous publications, including F(r)iction, Pacifica Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Collidescope, and twice been named a finalist for the Calvino Prize. He lives in Seattle where he teaches creative writing and literature at Bellevue College and is a senior editor for the journal Belletrist.