Rock-a-bye, Ute (Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner: NONFICTION)

Issue #122
Winter 2013-14


In nonfiction, our winner is Mary Winsor, for her essay “Rock-a-bye, Ute.”

Ploughshares’ Editor-in-chief, Ladette Randolph, writes, “Mary Winsor’s essay, ‘Rock-a-bye, Ute,’ is a meditation on environmental history, native American legend, and family—with its bittersweet ties to the past—refracted through the lens of second chances after bodily pain and loss. As her western family gathers for an Easter weekend, Winsor summons a complex brew of memories: lessons from long ago, misunderstandings, musings on belief, questions about what we do and don’t know about those closest to us, and how the environment is ultimately disinterested, despite our efforts to claim its power—especially for retribution—as our own.”

Mary Winsor wrote “Rock-a-bye, Ute” a few years ago following some minor strokes. (Since then, her children have begun outrunning her, but only because they have longer legs.) Winsor’s fiction has been selected for Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Award and Glimmer Train’s Top 25, and was recently long listed for the Paris Literary Prize. She is a technical writer and lives in Utah.

About the piece, Winsor writes: “I wanted to observe recovery, my family’s and mine, from loss or injury or illness, in the context of the landscapes we call home. This essay is equal parts love letter, investigation, and reminiscence. Like any responsible borrower, I will return this record to its place in our collective memory, and let the people on the other end of a cell phone call or bouncing beside me in the pickup tell their version and have their say—as if I could stop them.”



Running north on La Plata County Road 101, I am in pursuit of nothing and no one. (The pursuit was over, apparently, when I carried the smart box labeled with promises of Strength! Endurance! and Stability! from the super-size athletic shoe store managed by sheep-faced children.) I wear a ball cap, purchased with the shoes, and lower the bill of the cap against the Colorado sunrise. I have no destination or route in mind, only the inexorable need to exert deep breathing and solitude against my Weak! Exhausted! Unstable! body and mind.

The new running shoes are a celebration of full clearance to do as I wish with my body and its recovered potential. But now that I have permission, I wonder if running and hiking and sneaking the occasional highball will lose their appeal.

Recently, I suffered a brain attack—a few, in fact; so stealthy, they’re called transient. I’ve dropped stroke from my vocabulary, since it is too soft and soothing a word for an event that often goes unnoticed until it has choked your words and energy right out of you. A brain attack happens silently, and can be as shocking and devastating, or as deadly, as a heart attack. This is a comparison I wish I did not know how to make (since my heart launched an offensive of its own a few months after my brain attacked). Instead of the noun stroke, shouldn’t the verb form be used, as in my brain struck? Or if a noun, then why not a brain strike? Now, a few months of rehab and a stainless steel implantable cardiac device later, my heart is efficient and fortified. And I’m taking it on a test-drive this morning. My first real run since the repairs and the rehab and the recovery.

I try to concentrate on the beauty all around me instead of worrying about the mess inside me. I want to outrun my fears—baseless, according to my cardiologist—that my brain will slap me down again, harder than before.


Before me looms the mountain known by locals as “Shark’s Tooth.” No one—not the red-bearded pirate at the only gas station for fifty-nine miles, or the oldest woman in the county (who, according to the pirate, knows anything worth knowing around here), or the leathery rancher on a neighboring place—could explain to me why this mountain, and many landmarks in the region, are called by names reminiscent of the sea and its own: Hesperus, Coral Dunes, Whale Peak, High Tide Mountain, Capitol Reef.

The breakers of prairie grass at the foot of this mountain, the rolling dunes that boil in a windstorm are not so very different from the ocean. “This place, children, was once under water, after all,” I repeat, happy to recall something of the history and geology from that day, hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles and a dozen pairs of running shoes ago. My recollections are gifts from the would-be midwives of these rocks and mountains—sand-covered men with sedimentary stares, and station wagons full of fossilized bones and shells. I remember chalky fingers, tenor voices, and orange crates that held compasses, water bags, and dog-eared maps. The poet-scholars, geologists and archaeologists, and writers were from universities in places near and far, but mostly places we’d only heard about: Montana, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. These sunburned explorers had transformed a horde of distracted, fidgety children into attentive students, and turned a makeshift auditorium that smelled of mutton and cedar into an institution of higher learning when they began their story by saying, “This place, loves, was once an ocean.” As one of the sweaty seventh-graders, I was for that hour captivated by sun-bleached hair and the softest, prettiest English I had ever heard, and I was for years afterward enchanted by the stories of the many incarnations of Earth and the history of the water.

Years later, that encounter sent me scurrying through a university library in search of anything that would explain it all. I would eventually settle on John McPhee’s Basin and Range as a place to begin my search. Here was someone who wrote about dirt and rocks and water, tectonics and fossils, in prose that made you want to sing along. And it seemed at times that he approached Earth as if she were a fierce and beautiful woman—basins and ranges of thought and mystery, country undiscovered or unappreciated, and ultimately unprotected or unforgiving. I would spend hours studying the course of the water through his volumes.

It’s always the water that comes rushing back to me from that day in the auditorium. Well, the water and Virgil, whose dark eyes I remember falling into some time before the geological tent revival. Virgil responded to the geologists’ description of the earth submerged in water as he offered me his math book for a seat, “We’re knowin’ that already. We always been knowin’ that.” His clipped words got my attention because he usually only whispered. I didn’t ask him, but I was certain that his “we” referred to the earliest inhabitants of these mountains, these hills, this desert—the Ute, Paiute, the supplanted Navajo and Hopi, whose songs and stories have always known what the sunburned explorers and scholars labored to discover with their hammers and shovels and brushes: this place was once under water.

So, really, I am running this painfully bright morning at the bottom of the sea, the ocean floor. I am as I feel, skimming the deepest parts of a world in which I am not made for survival. Even in these ninety-dollar shoes, I am ill equipped for efficient travel here. A few miles off these bladed dirt roads, I’d find myself in sand and rocks that some thousands of years from now will hold the sliding impression of steel-belted tires or maybe a mud flap with the imprint of a curvy, naked woman in the center. What will the anthropologists and archaeologists of the next millennium make of that? I draw a ragged breath, nearing the greatest incline of my morning run. And taken a few thousand years ago, each deep inhalation here would have come with a lungful of the earth’s first and oldest friend, the amniotic fluid from which life itself emerged.


With the sunrise washing up its leeward side, the mountain in the distance begins to resemble more the tooth of a shark with each bite of the cold morning air into my lungs. Or maybe that rock rises against the horizon like the fin of some silent creature, cutting through the water, knowing and satisfied with what will transpire here tomorrow, next year, or a thousand years from now.

The Sleeping Ute, one of the few landmarks around here with an un-oceanic or non-nautical name, lies just to the west, in my peripheral view. I wonder if his slumber is ever a problem for the people whose salvation is said to depend upon his waking. When the Ute stirs, finally, one day, will he save his own disciples? He is said to be waiting to rise up and strike the wicked, to emancipate and empower his people. Will there be a reckoning for all the fat-eaters, the takers, the blood thirsty and power- and land-hungry? Will it be a bad day to be a White Eyes when the Ute’s alarm clock sounds? Will they look around in amazement, incredulity dripping greasy from their chops? Will they understand what has brought that moment? Likely not, I think, and this makes me sad. And a little afraid.

I pick up my pace and begin to recite to myself the history of my own people, the beggars and thieves and farmers from a place across the real sea, the sea I can point to on a map. I tell myself that when the Ute awakens, perhaps he will spare me because, after all, I am directly descended from people also oppressed, farmer warriors whose lands and birthrights and languages were also stolen from them and trampled in the name of Someone’s God and Someone’s King. Would the Ute, ready to strike even as he rubs the sleep from his eyes and stretches for the first time in a millennium, stay his wrath and spare the descendants of the vanquished, ever roaming and brokenhearted Irish?

Or would he be merciful only for my love of Virgil in the seventh grade? Virgil’s whispered pronouncements had made more sense than the grown-ups paid to teach mathematics, I think. His soft lips (the same that had whispered a promise to always remember that kiss behind the pump house) and his talcum-powdered neck I thought of for years afterward, keeping my promise too, even when I kissed a grown man for the first time. Maybe Virgil would put in a good word for me with the Sleeping Ute.

This is a little much—piety, sentimentality, neurosis—too much for a morning run through the high desert. The idea was to turn off the brain for a while, not fuel it for the further search for patterns and the quest for reason. And anyway, the Ute is as likely to smite me as anyone, and he probably knows that when I was in the seventh grade, I carved my name in the sandstone ribs of a mountain not far from here.

I take the next turn and again try to increase my speed. I am comforted by the sight of my brother’s house, encircled now by trucks and camp trailers. We didn’t live in one place for long when we were growing up, and few of us have stayed put in our adult lives. Whatever is important can be strapped into a car seat, stuffed in a backpack, or saved on a hard drive and transported on a set of good tires. We make use of our tax dollars on interstate highways so we can meet now and then, and try for that feeling of going home.


I enter the yard unnoticed except by T-Bone, the coyote-mangled terrier in need of a haircut. Gone five miles and forty-five minutes, but no one here has missed me; the dog opens only one eye, and then lays his mud-traced snout between his paws on the cold cement. I’ll love you til I die is pledged in smoky voice and crying fiddles from the open windows, and I wonder whose not-so-secret pain is being nursed by Vern Gosdin. Or is that George Jones? The steamed kitchen window bleeds the suggestions of bodies, faces, shoulders, brightly colored Western shirts muted by the fog. An impressionist captures my family? What would we call this watercolor? I ask the sleeping dog. Pepsi in the Kitchen with Milton? Women Jerking Giblets? The dog has no opinion. I lean against the tailgate of my brother’s truck to stretch my legs.

The children talk of dying. I hear this conversation carried on the breeze, and I wonder whether it is the dead deer they discovered in the ravine or a broken-winged bird they caught this morning that inspires this sober discussion. I hold my breath, difficult to manage after my run through the Colorado ocean, and strain to hear the rise and fall of my own son’s voice contributing to the discussion. An oddly frightening experience, to overhear a conversation between unseen children about a topic most of their parents won’t confront. Where are those kids? Another word or two is carried on the breeze from the mesquites, or was that from behind the shed, and then Oh! They talk of dyeing eggs, Easter eggs! Bright colors and tie-dyeing and swirling and the best way to achieve a true purple; they are not talking, after all, of mortality or decay or where Grandpa Barney went when he left and never came back. Dyeing to achieve color, perfection in pinks and purples; not dying and rotting and leaving to achieve perfection, period. I am relieved. Not up to a discussion of that magnitude, or even up to monitoring one. I’m not certain that I could easily transition from the stinky deer carcass the kids discovered this morning to the Easter story of sacrifice—described in a magazine article pressed into my children’s hands by their father when we left him standing in the driveway two days ago—a story promising that decay and hopelessness are conquered, and sin is remitted, all the ideas that were zapped when my brain struck.

The brain strike didn’t kill my faith; my respect for God was not dependent upon good times and smooth sailing. Maybe the oxygen deprivation damaged my ability to deeply believe in anything, or maybe it increased my capacity for believing a little bit in everything, so that God and Jesus now share space on my hard drive with Yahweh or Allah; with Buddha or Mohammad or Krishna, or with the Love, the Light, the Universe. But I no longer have room in my brain for the Devil or his equals; the only real monsters now are old age, poverty, sickness and death—what else is there to fear?

Someone changes the music in the house; now it’s “Smile.” Leaving the cowboys behind for Nat King Cole. Someone is in bad shape today. Or maybe it’s only a prelude to the dance tunes that follow this track on a playlist I’m pretty sure we’ve heard a few times this weekend. I make a mental note: watch for the tapping feet, listen for the fidgety fingertips on the tabletops, and find the one who needs to dance today. I scratch the clipper-shy terrier behind his half-ear, enter the house unnoticed, and shut the door on the Sleeping Ute.


The dance music begins—Sinatra, George Strait, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Duke Ellington. The adults are crowded into the kitchen despite ample space in a “family room” beside. From the refrigerator, while I stand gulping down blue stuff that promises Power! Electrolytes! and Energy!, I assess my fellow weekend guests. I profile the kitchen in search of the would-be dancer, the orchestra leader for this scene.

Was it the giant veterinarian who chose this music? The guy who carried the wounded sparrow in his great paw last night, granting his children the one and only medical visit he swears he’ll ever make to a feathered thing? Doubtful. Mit, the smiling horse doctor, would not dance, could not dance, and everyone knows dancing inspires in him deep gratitude for his wife’s no-nonsense approach to life. The union between my sister Shannon, the only one in the family who doesn’t care to dance, and the man whose hands were better built for laying bricks than for mending broken wings is sometimes puzzling. Shannon, whose patience and fresh-eyed view of the world won her the Most Likely Should Have Been Our Mother award in a secret ballot last summer, is forever badgering the man she adores, the one person on earth with whom she has no patience. And the Pig Doctor, as my brothers call him, sets his jaw and fidgets with the Leatherman hanging from his belt loop until her storms blow over. And they always do. He has been good medicine for my sister—a safe place to put her disappointments and her frustrations with the family she came from, even while she tries to build another with him.

Is the dancing music cued up by Baby Uncle, then, whose truck roared up in clouds of dust to the delighted squeals and feigned protest of five nieces who will pull his hair, dump sand in his boots, steal his shaving cream, and then scream when he gives chase? He is the lesson to his family in the dangers of wanting more for someone than he wants for himself. I will talk to him about this tonight—for the seventy-eighth time—when we share a lamp and the foldout sofa bed. We will read together, aloud, because this is ther-a-peu-tic, a word my rehab coach has permanently sliced into four halting, distinct syllables for me. We’ll swap books to share great paragraphs (he nails it there, doesn’t he?!) or funny lines (oh, shit, don’t let Mama read that) and, while the books are passed over the “good” bed linens—leopards and lions on a jungle print, brought out only for company—we will ask and answer questions, make confessions, and sigh out the wishes that go unspoken in the daytime.

I wonder if Baby Uncle’s parents, my parents, could have spared him some pain by simply choosing another name for him—anything but Tristan. Would he have avoided the traps and travails of love and addiction if he had not been named for the saddest opera ever composed? Sad name or not, he dances when he wants to. He will grab the nearest woman, usually one to whom he is related by blood or marriage, and with the help of a beer or two, dip and dive and duck his way through an attempt at two-stepping, maybe a waltz, even a little dirty dancing here and there. So it is not for his itchy feet that this music was chosen.

What about the women working in the kitchen—would they rather be dancing? Is it they, glazing the ham, trussing the turkey, and pinching soft dough between their floury fingers, who chose this playlist? No, they talk steadily and fast, thumbing words into balls of bread dough and cramming as much conversation as they can into the forty-eight hours they will be together. They will not turn their attention to dancing until Sunday evening, when the furniture is moved to the walls and the room is filled with the relief of meetings adjourned and the aroma of fudge cooking on the stove, when Cecil B. DeMille’s version of Exodus is broadcast for the second time this weekend and we’ve all done our best impersonation of Anne Baxter’s moaning contralto: “Mohhhh-ses, Mohhhhhhh-sesss…”

Then I see the back door, propped wide open with a sand-filled boot. The ramp from the door is clear of children, dogs, shoes, bird feathers, and swirls of sand from the morning’s wind—all sent away and swept clean. And on the sunny side of the porch, where the music steals out an open window, sits my brother Sean. His back is to me, his face turned to the sun. He drums his fingers on the arms of the chair that has been his home for a few years now. I feel stupid and a little cruel when I think, I should have known. And I should have. You ain’t been blue til you’ve had that Mood Indigo… What are a few little sneak attacks by a brain I wasn’t using as I should anyway, when my brother’s broken neck means he’ll never again shoe a horse or chase his kids or dance with his wife?

I watch Sean for what seems forever, but actually it is only one more verse and a rousing chorus before he turns and notices me. “Used to love that one. Hey, how far’d you go today? See any coyotes? Kim says you were worried ’bout mountain lions, that true? You’re probably right about that. I’d be more scared of them than I would that stroke crap. You’re fine, you’re fine. Doin good.” He makes it easy, natural. He always has. We talk comfortably now, neither of us held hostage by the knowledge that I caught him dancing. But the stereo has no such luck; it has been captured by Baby Uncle, whose accompaniment to Lenny Kravitz on an empty salt bucket is arousing interest from the children in the ravine, a place they call The Bottoms. The children emerge, wielding cattails and mud pies, in search of the uncle with whom they love to make war. I oblige them by slipping back into the house as a spy; I will find him.

But I’m stalled by fragments of adult conversation from the kitchen. The brain strikes have left me with an almost debilitating interest in dialogue and rhythms, in the dialects of the communities I call mine, and it’s even more fascinating to me if I can’t see the speakers. (I’m completely transfixed, for example, by conversations between people three rows away from me on an airplane, or while I’m standing in line in the ladies’ room after a movie, listening to women in the stalls, who saw a movie together and are now peeing together, holding a critical conversation about the film or its adaptation from a novel they love.)

I’m distracted from my duties as a spy by the rhythms and phrasing, the rise and fall of the voices, and the accents in the words all around me now, and I have to make a conscious effort not to repeat aloud some of the conversation:

“You can’t sedate a cut hog”—while the women, glasses fogged and sliding down their noses, drizzle honey and orange juice and cloves over the ham.

“You ever hear from that Cricket girl again?”

“Who’ll bet me—was it Shakespeare or Kipling wrote them lines about the band of brothers?”

“By God, it’s the Saint Crispin’s Day speech, you asshole. Henry the Fifth—don’t they teach you college boys nothin’?”

“Who’s the last one talked to Tammi?”

“Dunno, gotta call that girl, but Jenney hears from her now and then.”

“Hey’d you see that new mare over at Boo’s place? Good lookin’ horse. Hear he paid for her straight up, no trading.”

“You’ll never get anything that fine under you—beggin’ your wife’s pardon.”

“Damned wind today. Like to took me off the road, even with a load of wood piled in the back.”

“…Yeah, he went off to Wyoming, dumb kid, looking for hisself. That’s what he said—he had to find hisself. Shit. What the hell does that mean, anyway? Finding myself. What the fuck is that?”

“Hey, language—”

“Uhhh, pardon me. Sorry, Shannon. Pardon me, pardon me.”

“Well, anyway, I don’t know if he found hisself, but he found that Proulx lady.”

“Annie? Got-dam Annie Proulx?! No shit? He met her? What’d he say to her?”

“Probably said something genius, like ‘Pardon me.’”

“And when’s he ever gonna settle down, anyway?”

“No, no, hey, don’t go there. Don’t worry about him. I’ve known trappers, now there’s a bunch for ya. Them guys’ll disappear for weeks with not much, come home fat and happy.”

“He’s no trapper.”

“Well, some guys is just made that way.”

“Hey, Mare—come in and shut the door. What’re you doing? You got yourself a little blue moustache there—good stuff?”

I lower the bill of my cap, to keep out the shine of memories that glint off the people in the room. And then it seems to me that those bright days, the days of dare base and dirt basketball and kick the can never happened, the days without drudge and dread, the days without suspicion and regret are gone. Gone for good, I say, and wonder at that awful phrasing we use to punctuate the loss or departure of all things loved or reviled. No, not for good. Those days may be gone, but not for good.

I go into the bathroom, clear space between the ducks and dolls and dinosaurs, and turn on the water that won’t run hot from the faucet any longer than it takes me to remove my sturdy shoes. I undress while avoiding the mirror that won’t forgive—my face belongs to me again, but I still avoid my reflection. For a few weeks after my brain struck, my kids referred to one side of my face as “Monster Mommy.” I step into the bath. I immerse my body, soak my hair, feel for the shampoo bottle and find instead a hard plastic T-Rex whose snarl makes him look as if his brain struck too. Then I slip under water again. Like the Sleeping Ute, still and knowing, waiting to strike.

I wonder about the effects of baby shampoo on the electrical potentials of the human body—then decide that these are thoughts not dignified enough for a sleeping warrior mountain. I’ll lie here, still, waiting, like the Ute. But then there are raps on the bathroom door. I sit up, call out, but there is no reply from the owner of the shadows and sneakers in the two-inch gap under the bathroom door.

Scrubbed pink and warm, I emerge from the tub and wrap myself in a towel of smiling Barbie, with whom I will be content to dry my ears and behind; there is a price for perfection, I tell Barbie of the gleaming teeth, symmetrical facial features and ten-inch waistline. There is another knock on the bathroom door; I crack the door open, and look down to find a nephew performing the Full Bladder Dance. I usher him through the perfumed steam to the toilet, and then scurry to the bedroom where I dry off and dust myself with powder. In the afternoon heat, I’ll be like one of Harper Lee’s old ladies—a melting teacake by four o’clock—but for now, I feel clean and new and young. Or preserved, maybe.

I go to the kitchen to peel potatoes. I pull the blade over one potato after another, curling the skins into the sink. Everyone is working at some chore or other, in preparation for our big supper. And I’m glad to be working alone. I’m lonely, but I prefer being alone these days, which I can’t allow is a good thing, but I don’t know what to do about it. The brain strikes have left me feeling isolated—alone even in a room full of people.

I drop the potatoes into a pot on the stove and grab a dishcloth. I scrub the counter, trying to erase from my mind the recurring image of the doe in the ravine, once a swift and graceful creature now splayed out, looking clumsy and dumb, her eyes eaten out by beetles. We’re all dying, and it happens one stride at a time, or with one turn of your head in the wrong direction, or with the surrender of even one dream about the life to which your soul aspires.

“We’re all dying,” I say, as I toss the dishcloth into the sink.

“What did you say?” Kim, my sister-in-law, asks. She’s polite enough to pretend not to notice how out of step I am or how I talk to myself a little these days, but she doesn’t miss a thing. “Yeah, the kids are dyeing eggs today,” she says, but she knows what I said. She squeezes my arm, and hands me the salad dressing to set on the table. No wonder Sean loves her so much.


It’s time to feed this crowd, and the kids are called into the house to stand in line at the sink and have their hands scrubbed by their serious, non-dancing aunt. The wind has picked up, so the folding chairs and picnic tables are set up in the living room. The men remove their Stetsons and feed store hats and baseball caps and hang them on the antlers fixed to the wall. We all squeeze into place around the tables.

Maybe I am lonely, but I am not alone. I am surrounded at this Easter supper laid by other casualties of love and love’s labors, by the companions of my earliest memory and by their companions. I seek the comfort of all that is common between us, all that is shared, but there is getting to be less and less of it as the months and years go by, so I settle for the little gray and green flecks, and a few gold ones, that make their homes in the blue or brown eyes all around me. And then I close my own blue eyes, and let the conversation, the dialogue, the cadence and inflections in the stories around the table, hold and carry me as they always have.

If the Sleeping Ute ever awakens, and turns this place into an ocean of blood or water or whatever the scholars and medicine men have prophesied, it won’t matter. My love for these people clattering knives and forks around the overcooked ham will be as immovable as those mountains are now—an ocean of pain won’t change that, I think. These people are home to me; we are the home we never had. Wake up, sleeping warrior, and bring it on, man.

I watch them, my family. They talk, narrow their eyes at one another, listen with their heads down, whispering at times to protect the room from the infection of more information than their children can yet process; mostly, they laugh and force each other into their true characters, their best practices. It feels to me almost childish, even obscene, to tally and compare losses with these people whose lives I ought to know as well as my own, but that calculation cannot be resisted. And I can’t resist the thought, either, that the longing for bygone moments in their company will be as non-negotiable as the pain in my brother’s eyes when his wife lifts him into the bed or helps him back into his chair after a fall. I look around for the hat I called stupid when I purchased it but whose many uses I could not have anticipated.


Supper has been consumed; the remaining homemade vanilla ice cream melts over bits of frosting or sliced apples, the food dries on the dishes. No one seems to notice or mind that the conversation is being had in near darkness. I give the baby, my youngest nephew, back to his mother, and turn on a lamp in the corner of the room.

I think, as I wash plates and scrape bits of ham and potato into T-Bone’s dish, that the Ute has been asleep far too long—the wind is blowing hard out there, but still he sleeps as he has for thousands of years. I stare out the kitchen window at him, catch his profile in the pink and orange of the setting sun; then, splashed with colors that the Easter egg dyers now stand outside to admire, the Ute looks more man than stone. Perhaps he is not sleeping, lying in wait. Maybe the great waters didn’t gush from his wounds, after all, and cover the earth; instead, he went down, fearful of all the tumult and chaos and shame with which the earth had been ravaged, and then the great waters came. He held his breath, hoping for it all to go away, and he died there. He’s not waiting; he’s drowned, dead, deserving more our compassion than our fear. It has become too easy to neutralize villains and heroes; I was content only moments ago waiting for the Ute to rise up and destroy the wicked, the treacherous, the greedy. The faithless.

I pull my cell phone from my pocket, and then think better of it. I walk outside to admire the sunset.


The children yell code names into the walkie-talkies I gave each of them this morning. “These things work real good,” they tell me. “We were clear up to the mile marker at the top of the hill, and we could still talk to each other when Colton was down in the Bottoms.”

And I tell them that’s the trick, isn’t it? You have to be able to hear each other from the summits and the valleys, right? I mean, anybody can communicate on a long flat road. Trick is to keep good reception when one of you is down in the Bottoms, right?

They laugh at me, call me weird or silly, and hug my legs or my waist and run back down to wait for sunset, and the moment that the sun is down, they will run right back up again to the comfort of bug zapper lights and coals burned down for marshmallow roasting. Or for cooking the Easter Bunny, they will be told by Uncle Tristan.

I walk to the back of the house, intent as the kids on catching the sunset. The code talkers return from the darkness of the ravine to fence with their marshmallow-tipped swords of willow. The evening breeze ripples the shirt on Sean’s back as he rolls out onto the porch. My brother hums a tune I recognize, but I can’t recall the lyrics.

Life does not happen in your body. To be unafraid and know your place when the sun goes down, to lie still when the storms rage, and find peace in the company of people and stories that compel your loyalty and invite your return—this is happiness; it’s in the navigation, not the destination. And when the waters recede, and the seas are spent, there will be the comfort of memories, shining sharply off the rocks from which tomorrow’s children will deliver their own stories. But we’re knowin’ that already. We always been knowin’ that.

The sun sinks into the oceans of Colorado. I hum my brother’s familiar tune, and push him out onto the porch to watch the last blaze behind the Ute’s sloped and sleeping forehead.