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I began seeing the wolf the night after I listened to the tapes for the first time. I was out, walking like I do when I’m swollen with sleep but can’t lay still. Back behind the last of the fences there was an old abandoned vineyard, lost long ago to the owner’s inability to hold his own against the earth. It reminded me of what they say will happen after The Rapture; that those left behind will find the clothing of others who’ve been taken up pressed against the ground, all eerie-like, as though their bodies had been splayed flat, and vaporized into quickly scattered moon dust. Vines and mummified grapes twisted over the soil, shadows of something formerly ripe, living. In the starlight, it reminded me of maps I used to study of the rivers and creeks that snake through the Rockies. Like living a life bedeviled by preparation for The End Times, erecting a vineyard in the arid tablelands of Colorado is a fool’s errand – nothing will come of a life force that isn’t there.
The first night I saw the wolf, I was walking the vineyard in an agitated state after listening to the tapes. I’d heard things that threw me headlong into a past I knew could become a plague upon the most tenacious of spirits, and I could see how the words that floated up from those tiny spinning reels might encroach upon me, again. I wanted to take it back but I couldn’t. I felt twisted. Once you’ve seen, once you’ve heard, there’s no retreat. You know too much, and once you’re told how the heavens will roll back with fire brimming behind, there is no forgetting. The sky was silver molting into dawn. It is an hour of ominous becoming, right before the sun hints that it will once again rise. Light has not yet made itself known, but the air stands electric, and you know that as much as you may want to let the moment lavish upon you, it too will slip through your fingers like the sands of time, like bacon grease, like everything in the world.
I saw the wolf. I did, I saw the wolf. Folks don’t believe me now, but I saw it many times over, and I believe it came to me. There have been no recorded wolf sightings in the area, but I know what came to me and I know what it wanted. She, I know what she wanted. She wanted me, because I knew too damn much. But she did not take me, because I think I was more wolf-like myself than even she was anticipating.
I ended up in La Junta the way most folks not born there probably do – passing through and finding that they’ve run out of gas, or money, or time. I was short on the first two, but time I had plenty of. I was nineteen, freshly divorced, and looking to get right with the Lord without ever having to set foot in a church again. I’d let my hair grow very long, kept it clean, and I wore it in a thick braid that bounced against my spine as I walked, reminding me of my core. I found La Junta after ten hours of black sky on the 25, coming down from Buffalo, Wyoming where I’d married a burgeoning preacher fixated on a form of neo-Calvinism that meant evangelizing to any soul he encountered. He evangelized me right into bed, and when I came up pregnant, there was no choice but to put a ring on it. Blessedly, the baby miscarried, with a little help from some castor oil, and I was freed from that hardship at least.
I made my way into La Junta during that cusp hour of fledging dawn, and I knew this was the place where I was to allow myself to still, at least for a time. I took a job cleaning hotel rooms, and for a while I felt alright. I was not happy, but I don’t believe I wanted to be. I wanted to be discontent on my own terms, to make my own way, to recognize my miseries as self-formed and then fix them because I could. Cleaning was a steady occupation. I arrived at the same place every day in the same clothes, and though the specifics might vary, the task remained the same – to straighten what was disordered. I found it calming. I brought bleach against lousy marks and made them disappear, I erased the most foul parts of the human body, I brought order to what was recklessly left behind. Of course, there were moments of resentment; moments of gritting my teeth in anger at the messes people assume the labor of another is going to clean up after them. But largely, it was bearable.
The other fact of cleaning up the filth of folks is that there is maybe nothing more intimate than being fully immersed in the mess of another. Shit, grime, waste. The things we forget behind us. In one memorable room I found a dozen or so half-finished Yoplait cups along the headboard. Inside a Boston-cream-pie-flavored one, there was a used condom, and I did my best to stop my internal questioning there. But there were other things I found. Deeply personal things. Things I ought not to have touched, but found irresistible.
I found the tapes under the bed in room 7. I remember I was cleaning alone that day. Usually Mathilde or Lucy worked alongside me, but we were short-staffed and I was hustling to do double the work I usually had to. Opening the door, I thanked my lucky stars for the godsend of a room left in nearly pristine condition. It all appeared untouched, even the sheet corners were still folded in the particular tight triangle-square that we were required to make every bed with. It’s not unusual for the rooms to be used for anything other than sleeping; I’d found plenty evidence of that, but for the bed to not even be sit upon? That was strange. I nearly walked out, figuring someone had just paid for the night over the phone and never shown up, but a glimmer under the bed caught my eye. Bending over, I pulled out a Tupperware container the size and shape of a shoebox.
I knew it was ill-advised to keep anything I found. It was obviously against company policy, but that didn’t stop some cleaning folks from holding onto little trinkets here and there. Books, bracelets, cell-phone chargers. Most often though, we turned the forgotten objects in. There was a well-developed lost-and-found behind the front desk, and every six months or so it was dumped clean, at which point employees could pick over what was left in the pile. It was the nature of cleaning up after people – sometimes they left parts of themselves behind, and we got to choose whether or not we wanted to take them home with us. Usually, I couldn’t care less. This time though, I felt myself bloom with curiosity, and it was nice to feel such an interest, like maybe there was valuable information waiting in that box, or simply a window into another way of being. I took it.
The container was too oblong to carry about without raising questions, so I snuck it between a bottle of Ajax and Soft Scrub on the caddy I wheeled between rooms. There was a label on the top that said simply “tapes,” as though the visible contents weren’t clue enough. I don’t know what I thought I’d glean from the taking. Maybe music – I felt myself to be perennially culturally ignorant. The only CD I’d had with me in the car down from Buffalo was a copy of Osmondmania! naturally, and regrettably, featuring Donny and Marie Osmond. I hungered for clues about what folks in other places listened to, how they dressed, what buzzy chitchat passed between them. It’s true, I was sorely lonesome. But more than anything, I felt I was pawing about in the dark for a reorientation of how I knew myself to be. I needed a grasp on the material world I felt closing around myself. When I thought about who I was in my core, my spirit, I felt an undeniable mismatch between the two and I longed to reach a point of reconciliation. In other words, I wanted to assimilate. And I wanted to know how others did it, living, when to me it felt impossible to linger in what was beginning to feel so stale.
After listening that first night, I went walking, and it was then I saw her. She met me in the thick of it, deep after I’d walked for some time. I lived on the cusp of La Junta, next to Vanhook’s Market in a brick apartment flanked back and front by a halfhearted iron fence. When I walked, I left through the back and went to the edge of town where sagebrush met the Arkansas River. All in all, La Junta is two, maybe three miles square, and it wasn’t long before I felt I knew the whole of it like the back of my hand. I liked walking in the seam of empty space that held a boundary between La Junta and Pueblo. Even the air felt different here, somehow less dense, more scattered, like I had to take in double the breath to get just as much, and so with every step I would feel myself inflate.
I kept them for good, the tapes. I knew I shouldn’t. The way they appeared so worn, meticulously labeled, of course someone had poured care into their creation. But I thought perhaps I could envelop them, and pour equal care into their listening. Maybe their maker thought nobody ever would. Maybe I found freedom, or even power, in the truth that I could.
How to Get into Heaven, June 19th, 2003. This is what the first tape out of forty was labeled. That Tupperware container fit forty tapes exactly, and I set about listening to them all. It quickly became apparent that there was a singular voice speaking, a husky, masculine one with an agenda. How to Get into Heaven was blunt. It leaned heavily on the words of Revelations and Billy Graham, and the tone of it was so familiar it made me sit up in the night and double take over my shoulders at the headboard behind me. This was the born bread and butter I’d absconded from, and though I knew it held court in La Junta, I felt darkness at the strange way I found it in my lap, again.
How to Get into Heaven was thorough; it left nothing to the imagination. Every part of the body or mind that was capable of twisting in sin was addressed in the general admonishment of Thou Shalt Not. I felt individual cells recoil listening to the elaborate manner in which the body might bring blight to the earth, or worse, the heavens. I heard how daemons will ride flaming mares bareback seeking out the weak, and how four horsemen will gallop out of the red, white, black, and pale. I thought, Wherein does the pale fall? Why not another color?
My dreams that night were a tepid green, ashen plains and loved ones sick in the face. Putrid green, pallid chartreuse, the green of the dying. All was awash, and out of this morbid landscape, which I knew to be death itself, came my husband, steady, walking with slow intent, never breaking his gaze.
I woke and walked. I woke and walked. The pattern continued. I’d listen, unable to put the tapes away, and after a fitful sleep, I found I had to take to foot. I was young. I was so young. I bore within me the blood of the restless, and the day-to-day of one who was dreary inside but wanting to push against. The dreams of my husband stilled me; they always came the nights I listened. In some he was riding horses, bloodied after a fight with the divine. In some he was awash in sweat, glistening, creating waves of light when he flexed flesh against shadow. Sleep would purge me, nothing of the comfortable could hold such images, and I’d awake, gasping, feeling as though I were a corpse only now coming into reanimation, and I would leave through the back into the outside.
The vineyard was of the deepest pitch, somehow livid in its darkness. The kind of night tones that seethe back at you, throbbing every ounce of absence into your being, filling you with it, reminding you of your smallness in the wake of a color that swallows all others, including light. I went by touch and smell. Reaching the boundaries where grapes once grew, I went by what bouquet of rot wafted up towards me. I knew underfoot what it meant to flatten the rainless fruits, what smells came of kicking up small dirts. I didn’t worry about colliding with trees or others – they couldn’t be found here. It was supposed to be only myself, twisted in unsleep, and the rotted vines twisting beneath me. I think maybe it was always meant to be just those two things.
The first day at work after seeing the wolf, I was clearly unwell. I doubted my whereabouts, replayed a private monologue talking myself out of what I had seen and how she had fixed her gaze upon me. My coworkers said things like, Wild night?, and told me to drink water. I was distracted, I walked all the way home with my rubber cleaning gloves still cinched up my forearms, and wiped sweat from my face leaving the day’s Clorox-laced toilet water glistening along my brow.
What can be said other than I collided, muscle against bone, with a beast that regarded me with venom in her eyes, but was content to look and not touch? Rambling across the vines, I felt my body jolt against a sudden low wall of muscle, warm and hirsute against my thighs, it too moving, it too breathing, hurdling back, craning neck behind in a bestial twist, rasping growl thick in the throat, striking air. The surprising, low warmth in my legs seduced me, briefly, in its comfort. Abdomens may be the most enduring of softnesses, and one unnervingly velveteen had just spooned the walking part of me. I shuddered, I acknowledged an unexpected arousal, I shot my head upwards at the moment of the groan and before me stood an indomitable wolf.
My husband was not a kind man. He repeated words of care with stony eyes, but his breed of love was reserved for those who ascribed to God’s – or his version of God’s – plan for His chosen. It’s not that his words were cruel, it was that frailty in the face of them was intolerable, and dealt a swift hand. I made the mistake of being taken as beautiful by a man who wanted to seize the delicate, and rather than nourish its spirit, burn it in the fires of the faithful. He once told me, while I knelt in tears at one of his rebukes, that emotions for the weak were inevitable, but always meaningless. And in the face of such harshness, all my needs, all my thoughts, all my personal complexities, were simply erased and rendered inconsequential. So what could I do, to preserve myself, but quietly shed all traces of his body upon – and within – mine, then take to the road as rapidly as possible? Before I became too held in the spirit of his God, too anointed in the burning blood of the chosen, I left. I left as I felt it closing upon me, and for that I lift my hands in ardent gratitude. I do not think I am strong for it, but I believe myself more godlike than he for seizing the out.
The night I came unto the wolf for the last time, the wind stood still. I was accustomed, after the tapes, to venturing out into a still breadth of sparse air, but usually a gust or two would rip through in a brief frenzy and shake the quick of vines and myself alike. Quick, before rapidness, meant life. Quick meant the marrow of something. The night after listening to the fortieth tape, it was but a moment after I set foot upon the mass of eroded soil that the wolf stepped into my line of sight. When I’d encountered her before, she always kept herself quite close to me. This night, she made herself seen from afar. I watched her pace the horizon and thought, But here is a great wonder, a woman bathed in light raining down from celestial skies, one woman breathing across an expanse of space into another, and above our breathing I know there is war in heaven. I felt a sharpness underfoot, and as I looked down, a thorn within me. Blood came forth from the center of my arch. I reached and retrieved the piercing thing, pressed it to either palm. There, now I am one of God’s as well.
I watched the blood but for a moment, and when I looked up, my wolf stood only at arm’s distance. She was calm. I tried to puzzle out the folds of her face, tried to discern what intent was carved there. But she regarded me with mildness, and I would not be lying if I claimed I saw something of the merciful therein. I was compelled to stretch out my hand, and when I did, she came forward and offered a tentative lick. I gave. She lapped against my palm; I heard it, muted like pond water on loose sand. I felt myself shake in the crying that came, saline bathing the scape of my cheeks, and then there, too, she brought her tongue. She licked the whole of me, stroked each unbeloved fold of my frame, left me glistening and heaving under a small pearl moon in such an unbound sky.
I now tell others that I know what it means to have the Lord come upon you in baptism. I have seen the quick of God, and I have felt her purify my marrow to its core. I left the hotel, and I no longer clean after the messes of others. I live on a vineyard in Chile, but I never partake of its grapes. I no longer allow others to touch me. That ended in La Junta; she was the last. I live for the spirit, the kind that licks bestial tongue to palm, and I cannot find belonging in the weight of other bodies against mine. There are nights when I wake, mouth agape like a fish struggling against dry land, and I am consumed by the worry that he has had his way, at last, with the story of my body. Then I look to my left, and my right, and see the marks of what has been made holy, and I remind myself that the only sanctity I hold encorpus is my own.