One of the stories in the new book, Certain Dawn, Inevitable Dawn, this draws on surrealism, images and symbols of medieval alchemy, and my experience living in a 110-year-old “haunted” farmhouse out in the country in Kansas.


I saw him out to the road. I walked him down the long driveway that ran from the farmhouse to the road. The sun was not yet up and the gravel driveway was silver and the air bluish and rustling with lingering night ghosts. In the dim I could just make out the prongs of his hands at the ends of his swinging arms as he walked ahead. He wanted to get an early start. He wanted to get as far as he could before the scorching July heat set in. Then he would find a shady spot, wait the day out, resting, saving up his strength to move again at night, all night. This was his way—it was, he told me, the way of the nomad. I understood this. I got out of bed before him, and I didn’t insist he stay for breakfast.

His pack was full on his back but he walked easily in his lunging, tigerly stride. He stopped when he reached the road. He stopped before stepping onto it or out into its current and looked back for me and I came up beside him. The road ran before us, a river of white limestone glowing in the darkness. We stood together on its bank and it seemed I was going with him.

The arms of the road spread north and south like a cross and at both ends clove hills we couldn’t see beyond. Lucas squinted past the southern hill, at what he knew was there: seas of waist-high prairie speckled with cattle, collapsing homesteads like mine, with their rotting barns and silos, lines and lines of barbed wire and telephone wire and telephone poles, repeating and repeating, and above it all, the boundless, tundra sky. Lucas did not look both ways. He looked south, his focus was on his way. I looked north, and saw him top the white hill there as he had day before yesterday, an omen, a mirage emerging from the dust, shimmery and see-through


* Fractus tessera: An alchemical symbol, the coin two friends break and share upon parting ways.


with the sun all on him, then denser, then flesh, blood, then a man, a man I loved—Lucas, back after so long and I couldn’t believe it.

But now the sun was coming up behind us. Fast. Nothing was stopping it. Some light was leaking through the crack it made in the horizon and throwing our shadows thinly on the road. That was the way of Lucas and I and it was okay. I waited, he wandered. He sought out there, I sought in here, this I understood. Then one day he would reappear, materializing from the white light of years of absence. I looked at our shadows. We were two pointed ghosts, daggers standing side by side.

I looped my arms around him and put my face in his neck. The neck was damp, the smell of his sweat just under the skin.

Into his ear, I said, Thanks for coming.

When I stepped back he was smiling. He said, I’ll always come.

I know.

He dug in his jeans pocket. When his hand came out there was something in it, between his thumb and forefinger something small and sharp the sun twisted off.

Suddenly from behind we heard the sounds of steps crunching the gravel. I turned and saw two figures coming up the dip in the road from the north. They were covered head to toe in black robes and black shawls drawn close over their heads. The top halves of their faces were covered too and you couldn’t see their eyes, I didn’t know how they could see or if they could. They struggled up the hill, leaning into the incline. One held a bundle wrapped tightly in the same black cloth. They shuffled up close—they were moving at a turtle’s pace—too close and at first we thought they were going to walk right through us. But they stopped and we stepped back from the road to open up some space. They were panting and their breath was sour in our faces. They were old—what little skin we could see was withered and sagged past their jawbones and the dry lines of their lips were spoked by tiny wrinkles. On the black bundle, the one’s hands were blue, and maps of veins showed through the tissue paper skin. As I studied the bundle, I thought I saw a twitch at its rounded end—a living jerk deep within the wraps of cloth.

What hills, spoke one. The voice was female, high and papery. What a death in those hills.

We didn’t expect a death in those hills, but we got one, said the other, in a voice deeper and scratchier, though also female. She added informatively, We buried it in the ditch. You don’t want to get far off the road.

There are bogs in the pastures.

We dug a grave with strong branches. You don’t have to make them deep for the little things.

It was just a little death, said the first one, a coated, yellowish tongue poking between the lips like a piece of wood.

And before that, we had another one. That was in the mountains.

Yes, said the other. That was in the mountains.

Far from here.

Not particularly far.

No, not that far. That one we buried in the stream.

The stream took it. Not like the one before that. That one everything was frozen. We couldn’t bury that one at all.

We had to leave it.

We left it in the frozen road.

Someone would come along.

Someone has come along by now.

They looked at each other, or the bound heads rotated as if their eyes could see through the visors of cloth and I wondered if they could, if they had laser eyes or eyes with x-ray abilities. They added in unison, Just as you two have come along now.

Lucas and I looked at each other.

What a run of bad luck.

The other nodded. A run of bad luck.

The one holding the bundle looking down at it. She said—and I thought I detected sadness in her until now cheerful voice—This is the only one left.

As we watched she unpeeled the layers of black cotton, lifting layer after layer as one lifts away the moldy leaves of a cabbage. At last we saw skin—a tiny fleshy arm. She lifted a final layer and a baby’s red, turnipish face appeared.

We’re taking it to be baptized, she said, sealing the cloth back over its mouth. If it survives.


We gave them directions to the spring—Lucas gave them directions, I had never been myself. The spring was nearby, and I could have found it on my own. There really was no excuse for not having visited it yet. The spring was a place of magic, it could save you. There really was no excuse. How much longer would I wait in the old farmhouse, reading decades in the leaves of wallpaper that curled from the molded walls?

The spring lay in the limestone-studded hills to the southwest. The Virgin was said to have appeared there, touched her divine feet to the waters, and imparted healing powers to them. People from all over the countryside used to come and camp in the pastures around it. They heard whispers, they saw visions in the cottonwood treetops. Years ago, Lucas had told me just last night, he had seen a boy healed there. The boy was near suffocating with pneumonia. Each choked breath he spit stones of yellow phlegm onto the grass. The healer held him in the water so long Lucas thought he would have drowned but the boy came up shining, face haloed with light and the coughing was gone. Over that night’s campfire the boy told how the choice came to him in the image of two doorways. Through one he saw fire and through the other ice. He chose fire.

The two of them repeated Lucas’s directions and moved on without thanking him, their feet in the gravel rasping the dawn quiet. As their stooped black figures topped the first hill to the south, I said to Lucas, How can it breathe? He didn’t know.


Now the sun had risen enough there was a gap between it and the earth. The sun was a perfect circle, its light still soft enough its clean edges could be seen. Neither was the heat bad yet, but it was there, a force waiting beneath the dawn.

You should go, I said to him.

He nodded and shifted under his pack to face me.

I want to—he paused, seemed at a loss. He held his hand up between us as he had started to before. The thumb and forefinger were pressing a band of light. He tried again: There’s this—

A hawk called and swung very low over us. It arced to light on a fencepost not twenty feet away. We looked up at the sky from where it had come, the sky was the color of smoke. Somewhere in its depths we heard a faint crescendoing, an engine. We watched and listened until an airplane poked through. It appeared to be coming straight at us. It too was flying very low, like a crop sprayer but it was not a crop sprayer. It buzzed over our heads and spiraled back up into the sky. The hawk called again. It blinked at us and lifted and lowered its wings, lifted and lowered its wings. What is the world trying to tell us? I thought. Together we took a deep breath.

This—Lucas began again, and twisted his wrist to hold it up in the fresh sunlight, where it gave a bigger shine.

As the shine spilled out, touching my face, the sound of an engine, on the road this time, cut the air. A jeep popped over the north hill. A military jeep, its top off, painted camouflage. It pulled up and stopped, tires grinding, before us. There were two soldiers in it wearing army fatigues and caps that shaded their eyes. The driver said, We’re looking for two old women. They’re dressed in black, like nuns—

I cut him off. They went over that hill, I said, pointing a long arm south. And not long ago.

He nodded, pounded the gas and the jeep drove off, spinning dust in our mouths.


By this time the young sun had bleached the road as white as the cattle bones scattered in the fields. The grass in the ditches, too, had been scorched colorless over the droughted summer, not a hint of green remained in it. Looking south I saw the future. I saw Lucas’s shape disappearing over that hill into this paleness. I saw his feet going over and over on the road, one replacing the other, lifting and dropping and lifting and dropping in an endless recycling of feet. I dropped my head on his shoulder and leaned into him. His body did not sway. He was solid, a pillar. His arms came around me and there was no longer any time left.

We heard the shuffling. The same shuffling, already very close. The rhythmic back and forth of their feet scraping the gravel and between this the softer rhythm of their heavy skirts dragging in the dirt. Keeping my head on his arm I looked down and back through my feet and I saw the skirts come into view, a good three inches of white chalky dust hemming their bottoms. Lucas took his arms away and we faced them together. They had no sense of the polite distance from which to stand. We backed away, but they edged closer yet. Their rancid old-woman smells turned my stomach.

We lost the way, they said at once. They had come from the south, I was sure of it. We had seen them disappear over the south hill with our own eyes, then after them the jeep. Why hadn’t the men in the jeep caught them? I looked for the baby, but couldn’t distinguish a bundle in all that black cloth.

Where is the baby? Lucas said.


Right here, one responded cheerfully. She patted a tumorous bulge in the region of her liver. I couldn’t tell if this was the same one that had carried the baby before. While one jagged jawbone may have been broader than another, or one set of teeth grayer and more crumbled than another, the differences were too slight to recall.

Is it alive? he said, voicing my thoughts.

Of course. It’s feeding. We listened for it—the suck suck suck. Our faces must have shown our concern, for her fingers peeled back the layers of cloth to reveal the little pale lips at a wilted breast. What portion of the young cheek I could see was the color of a chili, and glistened with sweat. The sun had started to beat down. It really had.

Isn’t it hot? I said.

It is, the one without the baby agreed. What heat.

July. Typical for July, said the other.

Typical for these parts.

Yes, for these parts.

I mean isn’t the baby hot? I said, losing patience. Smothered in all that cloth.

Keeps it from the sun. Her vaporous hand patted the bundle.

Best to keep it from the sun. To outwit sunburn.

The one who had not said this giggled. To outwit sunburn, that’s right, she said, as if getting a kick out of her companion’s words.

Now tell us again. Which way to the spring?

Lucas told them again, this time in greater detail. He pointed firmly to the south: it wasn’t far, a mile at best, then half a mile west on a pasture road likely to be grown over, you have to look close for the washed-out ruts—pilgrims to the spring are almost always walkers rather than drivers—follow this road until it fades out, then look for a trail leading southwest a few hundred yards over the high bank that slopes down to the spring. You will know it when you come to it—in a horseshoe of scrawny elm trees and sandplum bushes, the spring breaks from the cracked earth to spill into a little sapphire pool. It’s small, its diameter hardly the length between fenceposts. But you’ll feel it before you see it, the spring gives off a feeling of calm, it’s a jewel in these barren pastures to be sure. There’s a spiritual feeling there, just as the legends claim. The water is so clear its surface appears silver, and it tastes strangely sweet and when you let it run through your fingers it trickles down in crystals. He described it so beautifully, his face seemed to take on some of that beauty as he spoke. The blue in his eyes the hue of the water he described, the gray in them its depths. He went on and on, until the thought came that I couldn’t bear him to leave, not this time, not again, and then he went on some more and another thought came, it was his thought, I heard it in my head, which was something Lucas and I could sometimes do, hear each other’s thoughts. In this thought he told me he was stalling for the jeep.

At last they interrupted: That will do, they said, that’s enough, making no effort to hide their irritation.

Then: We won’t be back.

We won’t see you again.

You won’t see us again.

We’re on our way.

We’re off, and they shuffled away, a wriggling pair as if joined at the hip beneath their shawls, over the south hill.

While he was talking Lucas had taken his pack off and set it in the driveway. Now he hoisted it up. He gazed up at the sun, then south.

I really have to be off, he said, regret in his voice.

I nodded.

I’ll meet the jeep, he said. It’ll be coming back and I’ll meet it. It can’t miss them this time.

I grabbed his hand and unfolded the fingers. A gold coin lay there like a miniature sun in the hollow of his palm. I took it.

Where did you get it? I said.

The grin I loved opened. In a land faraway.

I grinned back.

Really, he said. It won’t be so long this time. Winter. I’ll be back before winter.

This was what he had told me last night, too, when he held me in the windowpane, the full moon over our faces. Then I had felt bitter when he made this promise, now it was gone. I knew he wanted to keep it, even if he could not bring himself to do so.[…

He held his hand out for the coin and I gave it to him. He pressed it between his thumb and forefinger then held it out flat, parallel to the earth. He held it out to me. He nodded for me to take hold of it with him. I heard an engine, and the rattly sound of tires on gravel, and then I saw the jeep top the southern hill. Lucas dropped his hand. We turned to watch it pull up before us.

Before the soldiers could speak, I said, How could you miss them? They were just here.

The passenger side soldier shook his head. They weren’t. We scoured the ditches too. We got out and raked through the ditch grass. They were nowhere.

It sounded weird. They were nowhere.

Didn’t you try the pastures? I said. The pastures have bogs they could hide in.

The driver looked at me sharply. How do you know the pastures have bogs?

What do you mean?

How well do you know those two?

Lucas straightened his arm in front of me across my body. He stepped forward.

Don’t be ridiculous! I shouted. I told you where to find them, and you screwed it up! For the love of God, they’ve got a baby.

I felt Lucas’s hand rest on the back of my neck.

I grew up here. I know the pastures, he said.

We looked! they protested together.

We got out and raked through the ditches, said the driver.

We ran our binoculars over the pastures, said the passenger.

They’re super strength, said the driver. Suddenly I saw how young he was, he was only a boy. His face smooth and fleshy. Eagerly he added, They’re binoculars to be used in combat.

As are these, said the passenger soldier, reaching into the back. He pulled out two machine guns, propped them between their seats. Uzis, massive and sinister. He added, Not that we’ve needed them yet. But if we do—

We drove all the way to the other end, interrupted the driver.

The other end. I didn’t know where that was. I had never been that far, I didn’t think Lucas had either. I slammed my fist on the hood.

Go! I said, pointing to the horizon. We’re losing time. They have to be over that hill.

They blinked and looked at Lucas. He gave a curt nod. The soldiers slammed the jeep into gear, spun around in the road and sped off, kicking up that smothering gas of white dust. We covered our mouths.


The sun was bright, the heat gaining strength.

Lucas! I said. I clung to his shirt. Where are they? Why don’t they find them?

He slid his hand up and down on my back, caressing. It’s okay. It’s okay. Maybe they’re not all bad. They don’t seem to want to kill it.

The hawk that had perched atop the fencepost called. It was still there, watching us all this time. I turned on it. I flapped my arms and ran at it. It rose gracefully from the post, then dipped and swooped at me, wings spread wide. Its curled talons just cleared my head, then it soared into the white sky. I sank to my knees, my face in my hands.

You can’t leave now, I breathed into my palms. You can’t leave, you can’t leave me alone with them.

He came and stood over me in the ditch. I stared at his boots. He said, The day grows older.

The phrase sounded medieval, it sounded absurd, juvenile. I felt anger flare up. My hands fell on his boot tops. The toes were tipped in half-moons of white dust, like the hems of their skirts. How did this happen? I snapped.


You haven’t yet stepped into the road. How did your boots get dusty?

What are you talking about?

Are you in cahoots with them? Is that what’s going on?

He spoke my name. Softly, with a tinge of sadness. I rose up and met his eyes. I was looking in them for something I didn’t recognize when over his shoulder I saw them coming. Two humped figures approaching slowly, slowly cresting the hill where we stood.

Here they are, I whispered. Grab them! Don’t let them go.

Lucas and I turned and they shuffled up close close as was their way. Their breath flooded out in a wave of sourness. The tumor, the baby, was there beneath the breasts.

Here we are.

Here we are, they echoed with glee.

We’ve had more trouble.

We didn’t expect it. They shook their heads at each other.

The run we thought was broken.

The run of bad luck.

We should have known.

Bad luck.

I felt my face go cold, in that brutal heat a cold washed up from deep inside me as she dug in the black depths beneath her breasts. At last she produced the bundle, snugly sealed, a lump of black showing no gaps where the cloth had been wound. She shoved it at my chest. My arms moved to take its stony weight. It was stiff already, hard as a slab of flint.

You bury it, she said. You know these parts better than we, and we’ve got to get back.

July’s bad, but August is worse.

Better to outwit August.

We’d never make it in such heat.

We never would.

They began to shuffle away. Lucas touched the arm of the one nearest him. She stopped, turned her faceless face to him. She didn’t say a word. The black panel where eyes should have been. I saw his fingers tighten a little around her elbow.

I think you should wait, he said, not unkindly. Wait a little while.

Wait for what? they said in unison.

Lucas changed strategy. Help us bury it. Don’t you want to be part of the burial?

We know how it goes, said one.

We’ve buried our share, the other.

One by one, her bony blue fingers uncurled Lucas’s strong brown ones, one by one, finger by finger, in no hurry, no hurry at all. She picked up his hand and gave it back to him. The pair turned and moved off as one.

Goodbye! they waved back without turning round.

Good burying!

We stood watching them go. From the very same spot we had been standing at since dawn, we stood watching their swaying skirts lick the road around their heels until they vanished over the northern hill. We just stood there, holding our separate things: me a dead baby, and Lucas a golden coin.


They had not been gone long when we heard the buzz of the jeep crescendoing from the south. With my arms full of that awful weight, I sent Lucas my thought. We lunged for the ditch.

As luck would have it, a culvert ran under the driveway where it branched off the road. Weeds had grown over its entrance, tall ruby-stemmed stinkweed and sticky white-spattered milkweed. I shoved the baby through them inside the corrugated pipe. There was no water standing in it thanks to the drought. I crawled in after, just fitting. Lucas would not fit, the pipe was too small. I looked down my prone body and saw him squat and curl his head into his knees. He spread the weeds over his head moments before the jeep pulled up.

We listened to it idle. Then shut off. We heard its rusty doors squeak open, their boots hit the gravel. We heard one say, What did I tell you? Then nothing. We held our breath like the poor dead baby except it would hold its forever. I felt sure they had seen Lucas’s head in the weeds and were aiming the uzis at it at that moment. The moment passed. The doors slammed. The jeep pulled away, the hum of its engine dying off to the north, and two of three of us breathed again.