Authors: Vestal McIntyre
Dedicated to the memory of my mother,
igh in the mountains of Cameroon, West Africa, there was a small lake surrounded by green, treeless cliffs—Lake Nyos. No river emptied into Lake Nyos; it was fed by rain from above and springs from below, leaving the surface utterly still—a blue jewel set in a mountaintop, penetrated by slanted bars of light. Water trickled gently from it into a valley that held three small villages of cattle herders.
Summer was usually the rainy season, but the August of 1986 had been dry. Then, on the evening of the twenty-first, a warm, pelting rain began to fall. Children came outside to run through the grass and slide in the mud, while cows lumbered into the shelter of the great, waxy-leafed trees.
The cattle here were of an African variety that Idahoans would never have seen: giants with great wide horns and spines that hung like suspension bridges between humps at the shoulder and hip. As majestic in unblemished white as Idaho cows were humble in brown inkblots, they looked more like wild things—water buffalo or wildebeest—than anything you’d raise and eat. Those Idahoans who saw the news reports in the following days, which showed these animals twisted languidly in death, imagined that, in life, they had moved regally, their muscles rolling and twitching under their sleek coats. The Idahoans fixed their minds on the death of these cows rather than the cows’ owners. A cow lying dead with flies in its eyes was a common enough sight.
The rain died off at sunset. Then, in the middle of the night, a gust of wind blew through the villages and up over the mountains. This wasn’t a howling tempest; it didn’t have force enough to snap limbs off trees, just to flap the leaves and send down a second, lesser shower. Nobody even woke up. But the wind moved the blanket of rain water across the surface of Lake Nyos. Like a tablecloth that one pushes across a tabletop, which gathers momentum and falls of its own weight to the floor, the warm water collected in one corner, then slipped down the side, past the still strata of frigid water, to the depths where something lay sleeping. The villagers, who regarded Lake Nyos alternately as a benevolent mother and a sanctuary for evil spirits, would later say it was the Lake Witch. She awoke, swam up the opposite side of Lake Nyos, and emerged from the water with a groan and a rumble. A few villagers woke and sat up in bed, wondering,
Was it a dream?
Seconds later their breath was taken from them, and they fell back onto their pillows. Their family members sleeping across the room didn’t even awaken, but made a few gasping snores before they died. Outside, cows fell on their knees, surged to heave themselves back up, then rolled onto their sides. Birds dropped like black fruit from the trees. A bat swooped to catch an insect that had fallen dead, but failed, died, and tumbled through the air. Strangely, though, another bat flying at a higher altitude didn’t die, but flitted away to find a fresher meal elsewhere.
Farther down the valley, the Lake Witch seemed to tire. She allowed the people of the next village to rouse their children and make it outdoors before they fell. She let them feel the struggle of their children gasping for air under them before taking their lives.
Dawn came hot and steaming. A man used a switch both to drive his five cows up the road and to swat the biting flies from his own ankles. He entered the trail of the Lake Witch where there were no more flies, but he did not notice this. The buzzing and chirping, which never stopped,
stopped, but until the man came upon that first dead cow, he couldn’t name the chill.
A similar, though much less ominous, disorientation—a gap between feeling the chill and naming it—was experienced only days later by Connie Anderson in Eula, Idaho. Temperatures had reached one hundred degrees every day for a week. At dusk one Thursday, when husbands were plugging in their Weedwhackers to charge them up for the weekend, and wives were turning on their sewing machines, and everyone was tuning their TVs to
Hill Street Blues
, which was thought to be set in New York City (where few Eulans had ever been but which seemed gritty and fascinating and made their own lives seem dull, yes, but clean), the electricity, already overtaxed by air conditioners that had been running all day, went out.
Connie happened to be leaving First Church of the Nazarene at that moment. She and some women from her group, the Dorcas Circle, had volunteered to change the decorations in the sanctuary. They had taken down garlands of plastic roses from the stained-glass windows, replaced them with bunches of Indian corn, and propped up sheaves of dried cattails and corn stalks in the corners. The last to leave, Connie stepped out of the church and opened her purse to look for her keys. She found them, looked up, and everything had changed. She reached for the handrail in case she was fainting. A dog’s insistent bark echoed in the distance. A car passed, and its tires on the smooth road made a sound like breath. Above Connie, clouds hung like knotted wool blankets that had been dipped in gold on the edge closest to the horizon, behind which the sun had dropped. The scarlet haze on the horizon and the faint odor of spice were due, Connie knew, to the wildfires that had been burning steadily for several days in the brush lands across the Snake River from Eula. Small clouds suspended above the haze in the west shone like nuggets. Then, before Connie could name the difference, the streetlights flickered on, and the windows of the houses glowed, and something buzzed—the power line that entered the church building above Connie’s head, which she never would have noticed otherwise.
Nothing more required Connie’s attention, so she went to her car. It was as if whatever had turned the lights on had turned the sky
; it still hung there but was no longer something to admire.
The African man came upon the first cow, whose white body made a dazzling U in the grassy arms of a creek bed. Another cow lay among the bushes farther up the meadow. The man had been swatting at his ankles with the switch out of habit, but now he stopped. In the silence, his swallow was a brief melody of ticks and gurgles.
warm breeze rattled the venetian blinds as it entered the classroom and brought with it a tingle of mint from the nearby fields. Mr. Peterson made an announcement: “The Snake River District Science Fair will be in the field house in Chandler on November 18. Anyone can enter.”
In the front row, Enrique was jarred by a hiccup of excitement at the idea of pink foam flowing down the slopes of model volcanoes, fronds of exotic plants unscrolling under bright grow-lights, tadpoles, guppies, sea monkeys darting in jars, shedding fins, sprouting green hands, mutating, and blinking a cluster of intelligent eyes up at him from the palm of his hand. It was the nature of Enrique’s mind to fire off images in rapid succession—images that lit others like a string of firecrackers, or like popcorn whose first promising pops seemed to set off subsequent ones, until they multiplied into a cacophony of buttery explosions.
There was a flip side to these ecstasies, however. Any insult, no matter how slight, lodged in Enrique’s heart, then burrowed like a worm, leaving Enrique no choice but to dig after it until he found himself in a hole so deep and dark he could do nothing but hide his face and cry. “Sensitive,” his mother had called him when he was little, and he had considered this a distinction that set him above other, brutish boys. Then one day, his older brother, Jay, had called him “sensitive,” but said it with a lisp, and Enrique had hated the word ever since.
“The winner from each grade will go on to the Idaho State Science Fair in Boise.” (In Enrique’s mind: gleaming trophies, applause, the dark lenses of local TV news cameras confronting him from the crowd,
Speech! Speech! Speech!
) “The winner
will go on to National.”
Enrique saw Miriam trying to catch his eye from a few seats away. But instead he nudged Gene, next to him.
Enrique said to Gene with his eyes.
“Start thinking about projects, all right? It will be an assignment due a week from Friday to come up with a project proposal, whether or not you plan to enter the science fair, so it’s not too early to get started on a hypothesis. Who can tell me what a hypothesis is?”
In raising his hand, Enrique used his arm to momentarily block Miriam out. Miriam was Enrique’s friend, but Gene, whose beady eyes still rolled after something in the air only he could see, would be the better partner.
“An educated guess.”
“Correct. And can anyone tell me what the seven steps to the scientific method are? Miriam?”
“Problem, research, hypothesis—um—experimentation, analysis, results . . . and presentation.”
“You are absolutely correct, Miriam. Thank you.”
Miriam now sat stiff and didn’t look Enrique’s way—very purposefully, it seemed to him.
UST ACROSS THE
lawn, in Building C, Fred Campbell, the principal, sat at his desk, sweating and wringing his hands. Then he stood and paced. This was ridiculous. How could he be so weak? He had to do this. It was his job. But when he imagined approaching Coop, putting his hand on the man’s sloping shoulder and saying, “Coop, my friend, let’s sit down. I have somethin’ I wanna discuss with ya,” he felt a chasm of horror open beneath him that he could fall into and become nothing. He wasn’t man enough to be principal. Why had they hired him?
They had used a classroom for the interview on that day last June, since Eula Schools didn’t have a conference room. An unsettling
of sprinklers on the football field filled the quiet moments as school board members, with their reading glasses riding low on their noses, sifted through papers.
“You realize you’ll be responsible for discipline among the kids, both junior and senior high,” said Brenda Simon, the school board president. “That means chewing them out and calling their folks, since they’re too old to paddle.”
“Alas!” said the English teacher, always the joker.
“Well, Brenda,” said Fred, “as you know, I have five little ones of my own, so I’ve done plenty of chewing out in my time, not to mention paddling some fannies good and red from time to time.”
This was a lie. Karen alone disciplined the kids. Sometimes they would even run behind Fred, using him as a shield against their mother’s anger.
“And you’ll do the hiring and firing, in conjunction with the board,” Brenda said. “Basically, you’ll be the bearer of news both good and bad.”
“I’m your man,” Fred said. He had uncrossed and recrossed his legs easily.
What a fraud he was! Never, ever would he be able to tell other adults, fellow teachers, that they were fired. Look at him now, and he didn’t even have to fire Coop, just confront him.
He was qualified on paper at least. He held a master’s in education, concentrating on driver’s ed., from Brigham Young. He had taught driver’s ed. and world history at Eula High for eight years, and this put him at a great advantage, since the last principal had been a Methodist from Oregon. This time (it was whispered in the teachers’ lounge) they were looking for a Mormon from here in town.
Fred never dreamed he’d get the job, but he was obliged to apply. Karen was pregnant again.
So, this was his first test. Last night he had worked himself up into tears—tears!—about it. Karen had awakened and muttered, “What is it?”
He had slowed his breath and forced ease into his voice. “Sorry, honey, just a bad dream.”
Karen had rolled toward him and laid her arm across his chest. “Poor little quail,” she had said, falling back asleep. She and the kids said he was like the Papa Quail of the family that foraged in the backyard. It had to do with the abrupt way he jerked his head toward the source of any unexpected noise.
Now Fred stopped pacing and sat down at his desk. How could he get a hold of himself? He decided to call Dean, an elder in his church, his prayer partner and confidant—the only one who knew the magnitude of his self-doubt.
“Dillon Auto Parts.”
“Dean, it’s Fred.”
Dean, who had a million things to do, clenched his jaw and wished he had let the receptionist get it.
INA TWISTED THE
long nozzle onto the vacuum hose, knelt, and ran it along the carpet under the skirt of the sofa.
You sound like a fuckin’ wetback
—it had been in her mind all day. It wasn’t fair that she had heard, but she hated Jay a little for it. That’s what he wanted, though, to make her hate him, to be a stranger in her house. Usually Lina filled her workday with old songs—songs from the Mexican dances at the field house in Chandler she attended when she was young—whistled in a way audible only to herself, through her widely spaced teeth; but today it was Jay’s words that kept her company.
This bright room was the parlor of the Halls’ house. The sofa was upholstered in a natural linen—stiff, not so comfortable to sit on, but beautiful. Last March they had had all the furniture professionally cleaned, and the little grayish impressions left by rear ends of the Halls and their company, who must have sat upright—there were no impressions on the backs or the armrests—vanished. Lina turned off the vacuum cleaner and paused before she stood. She pushed herself into a squat and let the weight settle into her heels. She couldn’t just stand anymore; everything required planning. Her hips were so heavy, and she wasn’t even forty. She took in a breath to say
as she stood, and, in her mind, Jay prepared to answer her,
You sound like a fuckin’—
but then she felt the presence of someone else in the room and stopped mid-breath. A footstep fell like a whisper on the carpet. She stood and, although she expected to see someone when she turned, she still jumped.
“I’m so sorry,” Mr. Hall said, raising his palms in surrender. He had the shiny bald crown and ring of hair that made Lina think of a monk.
“That’s okay, Mr. Hall,” she said from her squat. Using the armrest of the sofa, she pushed herself up to stand.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, Lina,” he said.
Lina waited a moment to see if he would say anything else, and when he didn’t, she pulled the plug from the wall and gathered the cord. “I didn’t know anyone was home,” she said.
“Yes, I decided to come home for lunch.” Again, he stood and stared. “Sandra is in Salt Lake with her parents.”
“Have you had lunch?”
“Yes, I ate before I came.”
“But you’ve been here for hours.”
Lina nodded patiently, but said nothing.
“I have an open bottle of chardonnay from last night. I’m having a glass with lunch. Can I offer you some?”
“No, that’s nice, but no thanks. I got to finish up.”
“Of course. Well, if you change your mind . . .” He made a shrugging gesture toward the kitchen.
Lina wiped down the upstairs showers. She had understood from the day she first cleaned this house and saw wine in the basement and Coke in the fridge that the Halls were Jack Mormons. Bend-the-rules Mormons. But what did he want to give her wine for? Maybe he just wanted company. He was a strange man. He had books about trains in the library, train magazines in the bedroom, and toy trains all still in their boxes down in the basement. “Lina,” Sandra had said last year, “we need to cut back a little. How much would you charge if you didn’t do the basement every time?”
Lina had been thinking of raising her rate, but now she wouldn’t. Money embarrassed her, and for that reason she always undercharged. “I don’ know . . . forty?”
“Great, let’s do it,” Sandra had said, patting Lina on the shoulder like it was an idea that they had struck upon together. And it was done: she’d work a half hour less every other Thursday. That was nowhere near enough time to fit in another house, so Sandra had effectively tricked her into a pay cut.
Lina threw away her gloves, washed her hands in the bathroom, and put on her shoes. She gathered all the bottles and rags and put them in the broom closet, then hesitated. It would be rude to just leave when Mr. Hall was in the kitchen. So she poked her head in. “All done, Mr. Hall. Tell Sandra hi.”
“Are you rushing off? You won’t join me?” He had an empty plate and a folded newspaper on the table before him, a bottle and two wine glasses, one half-full.
“You know, I don’ really drink.”
“It’s just wine.”
“And the boys will be home soon.”
Mr. Hall lifted the wine bottle, offering to pour.
“Well, maybe one glass.” She left her duffel bag in the foyer.
“How is Jay?” asked Mr. Hall. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
Two nights ago, after Mass, someone (maybe Connie, her neighbor, had had company) took Lina’s spot, so she had to park a few units down. As she approached the porch, she heard Jay’s angry voice and stopped to listen. “Why do you talk Spanish to her, Enrique? Talk English.”
“Why you care?” (Enrique’s sad little voice.)
“See? You sound like a fuckin’ wetback.
‘Why you care?’
Say, ‘Why do you care?’ ”
“Guys, I’m home,” Lina had called. She climbed the stairs and stood at the screen door. Enrique was on the floor surrounded by his homework. Jay sat on the coffee table looming over Enrique’s shoulder. He was shirtless, his long brown torso leaning forward, elbows on knees, his big hands hanging.
“Jay?” she said now to Mr. Hall. “He’s good.”
“Still playing basketball?”
“He will once season starts.”
“And what’s your younger one named?”
“And . . . the boys’ father?”
Two sips of wine were enough to make Lina bold. Instead of scrambling for an answer, she pursed her lips and wagged her finger scoldingly.
Mr. Hall dropped his head and squeezed his eyes shut. “Sorry,” he half-coughed.
For a while they talked about the townspeople they knew in common. “You know Dr. and Mrs. Barnes just celebrated their fiftieth,” Mr. Hall said.
“Yeah, big party.” Lina knew this because she had cleaned their house the next day.
“Fifty years. You know, Lina, Sandra and I . . . our marriage isn’t so much of a marriage anymore. We love each other for what we once had, and for Abby. But we don’t love each other . . . passionately anymore.” He said this matter-of-factly, as if it followed what came before. Like a car with bad alignment, his conversation kept turning this way, and it seemed funnier now than at first, because he was so clumsy, and she was so tipsy. She would never let him in.
They talked on and Mr. Hall refilled her glass. “Not so much, Mr. Hall. I have to drive home.” He was a nice man, just lonely. She would have used his first name if she could remember it. But he didn’t seem to notice enough to say,
Oh, Lina, please call me . . .
whatever. A lawyer for the city, he was certainly used to everyone calling him Mr. Hall.
“My husband, he got a job in Nevada,” Lina offered when conversation failed.
“And that’s where he lives? Nevada?”
“When was the last time he . . . lived here?”
“Long time ago. He’ll come up here around Christmas.” Lina didn’t know why she added this little lie. She didn’t know when Jorge would come around, or, for that matter, if he still lived in Nevada. She called him her husband—she always had; he was the father of her two boys—but he had never married her in the church. Jorge hated priests.
“Do you want to see something really amazing?” Mr. Hall asked in a brisk voice, as if to clear the air.
“It’s upstairs. Bring your wine.”
“I don’ know . . .”
“Come on,” he said, picking up her glass, “you’ll like it.”
He led her up the bright staircase under the skylights and down the hall to the bedroom. He set her glass on the bedside table and sat on the edge of the bed.
“No way,” she said, laughing.
His face was like a baby’s, searching your face and copying your expressions. He laughed, too. Then he remembered. “No, it’s right here.” He opened the drawer, took out a magazine, and patted the bed beside him.
Shaking her head, she sat down and reached over him for her wine as he opened to a page that he had marked with a colored paper. “There’s a new type of train they’re building in Japan. It’s just incredible. The maglev train, they call it. Magnetic levitation. They don’t have wheels. They use electromagnets to levitate over the track.” He pointed to a diagram. “They go superfast. Imagine going three hundred miles per hour, completely smoothly, without a sound, just whizzing by.” He flipped through pages. “They’re going to make one from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. A six-hour drive will be a half-hour train ride.”