An excerpt from the prologue of All Things Left Wild
by James Wade
Two barn swallows hopped and danced between thin branches in a grove of tangled salt cedar, never getting too close or too far from one another. It was as if their movements were circumscribed by some choreography they were born knowing, and should either decide to quit the routine, the other would surely die of incertitude, and the world would become in an instant a less balanced place.
I watched them, turning away from the sad scene in front of me. The cemetery wasn’t much to look at, unless you were needing to look at wood crosses and chewed-up dirt. There were a few rocks. Somebody had tried to set up a little fence around the graves and their markers, but it didn’t take and now there were old posts lying about on the ground like bodies waiting to be buried themselves.
Fall was late in coming, but the morning air was crisp, and the baked brown grass held onto the dew as long as it could, fighting the rising sun over water rights. The land sloped down into town and the trail up the hill was covered in greasewood and flowered yucca, and the preacher had spoken of the beauty of the morning and the wonder of eternity and all that it held. Beyond the plots the trail gave out, like some woebegone spirit too tired to continue, and there the sumac grew thick and would often times mantle the valley with its perfumed scent. Higher still, the earth pitched itself toward the sky and borne upon it were the juniper and pine of the high country and out from amongst them he rode, atop the old bay horse he’d given to her when they married.
I saw him there on the ridge. He sat his horse like a drunk, slightly slumped and tilting off to one side. He was a drunk. The preacher spoke to the part about life everlasting, but he was too far away to hear. He was too far away for anything.
He had on a black coat and he’d taken off his hat and there he sat in reverence and in sobriety. I turned back to the preacher, and when he was finished I scanned the ridge again and there was nothing and no one and the service had ended.
I smoothed my hair back and pulled my hat down firm over top it and the few dozen people shrouded in black began to all move as one, trudging toward the cheap pine coffin in a manner withdrawn, sending up muffled prayers, wondering about rain and war and if it was too late for breakfast. They nodded at us or gave half-hearted smiles or both. There were hands on our shoulders and pats on our backs. Some offered kind words. Others offered food. We watched them go.
“He was settin’ up there on that ridge,” Shelby said. “Just past the tree line.”
“I know,” I told him.
“You seen him?”
“Well?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
“What do I think about what?”
“Nothing, I guess.” Shelby walked toward the line of mourners as they filed down the hill, and he stopped midway and turned and stared for a while at the tree line, then walked on.
I stood and watched as the gravediggers lowered her down and filled in the dirt, and when they were finished I stood some more. I didn’t want to go back to the house yet, not even to change clothes.
I walked out from the graveyard and followed a well-trod deer path to Red Creek and sat in the grass. The morning sky glowed golden behind a bank of blue-gray clouds, a quiet caution to the world’s awakening.
The sun was distancing itself from the horizon line, but the clouds had yet to burn off, leaving the eastern half of the world to be filtered through an orange tint. The creek moved slowly, matching the pace of the morning, the water shining pale pink, and on its surface, a bleeding reflection of the world.
A cat-squirrel duo on the far side of the creek were hard at play with some game I could not follow. They barked at one another or at me or at nothing, then in fits and starts they hopped from one tree to the next, clinging to the bark with their arms and legs splayed in an almost sacrificial manner.
A siege of herons passed overhead. The long-legged shorebirds flew beneath the lowest clouds and I saw them and they me and it would be months before they returned north, passing again along the same sky.
I watched them glide across the morning, unencumbered by the changing of the times, following the flight of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, all the while unburdened by such things as doubt and desire. Participating by blood. Born into decisions made long ago and born knowing, but not knowing why. I envied the certitude of their existence. I longed for the conviction of those like my mother who, despite all to the contrary, could maintain a faith in the way of things, holding tight to a structured and resolute reading of every breath until her last.
Instead, at a moment I couldn’t recall, or perhaps in a series of built-upon moments, I accepted ambivalence and unease, and there inside of me they did remain in some dogged cellar of the soul, determined that I should never know peace or certainty again.