Patricia L. Meek


HOT SPRINGS

 

 Mary Ellen Stahl sat in the back of the old Lincoln, watching the silver Airstream follow behind, quietly pounding her chest so her grandparents wouldn’t hear the sound over the country music station. Of course, they’d already discovered her secret. It was the reason they’d decided to take the long trip from Pine Grove, Texas, to Hot Springs, South Dakota, to cure what they called an infliction with the healing powers of the water there.

The day after Mary Ellen had turned thirteen, she decided she would not grow breasts. Like many of her past birthdays, she celebrated by blowing out the multicolored candles on her frosted cake and by opening her gift. This year, she’d gotten a blue sweater, dotted with tiny rosebuds; “perfect for church” was what Grandmother Kay had said. The next morning while she was still lying in bed, she looked at the sweater draped over the chair and thought about the present her mother would have picked. If it had been a sweater, her mother would have picked red—something tight and fuzzy. She would have said something like: “The more plush, the better to hug,” or “Little Miss Mary, you just wait. You’ll have those boys admiring that figure of yours before too long.”

Mary Ellen was what her mother had affectionately called a late bloomer. Only recently had she noticed that her chest, which had been as flat as a boy’s, was beginning to grow, forming what looked like robin’s eggs. Mary Ellen had stared at the sweater, a size too big, when she imagined the rosebuds forming into a pattern, then swirling into a pool of colors. She’d cried then, and a few minutes later, she’d made a fist and brought it squarely down on her chest, hoping that her shells would crack. Although she knew there wasn’t much hope, she’d imagined that with time, and a little patience and determination, she could retard the growth and—with a little luck—avoid puberty.

Mary Ellen struck herself again and looked over at the front seat. She had to make sure that she would not be discovered. She knew all too well her grandparents’ response.

On the morning she was caught “abusing” herself, her grandmother had afterward sat at the kitchen table, crying, gently rocking Grandpa Spence resting his hand on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort¾all because Kay did not believe in knocking on doors in her own home. Later, before the sun had gone down, they’d nailed three small crosses to her bedroom door, and one rosary from a Catholic neighbor for good luck.

During the past two nights, they had been on the road, Mary Ellen had been careful to sleep on her stomach so she wouldn’t have a sudden growth spurt during her dreams. Above all else, she was afraid of her grandparents’ religious voodoo, afraid that it might work. In the mornings, when the tiny trailer was loud with activity, air steaming with brewing coffee and the smell of fried eggs, she would look down from her bunk, a cubbyhole in the front of the cabin, and tried not to stare at Kay’s low-cut nightie and wrinkled chest. On some mornings she couldn’t help herself, and gazed at the flesh exposed above the lace trim, wondering what Kay had looked like as a young woman. Had she ever worn tight sweaters after forty, receiving whistles from the men at Terry’s Market, the way Mary Ellen’s mother had? No matter how much she tried to imagine it, Mary Ellen could not picture a chest that looked so old.

Her eyes were watering¾even quiet, gentle pounding would hurt if sustained long enough. She didn’t care. A little soreness now would prevent a lot of pain later. To avoid thinking about the discomfort, she stared out the window and concentrated on the Wyoming landscape. They were already past Lusk on Highway 85, according to Spence’s last navigational report, and there were very few trees—mostly tiny shrubs like sage, Indian paintbrush, and tumbleweeds that collected like snowdrifts on the iron rails that lined the road.

She was pretending to be lost among the shrubs, imagining the slow walk beneath the noonday sun before she reached blackness, then death, when a billboard broke the muted green landscape and caused her to relax her fist. Stop! blurred across the window, followed by Time To Enjoy The Wild West seconds later. Mary Ellen counted six billboard messages before she read Buffalo Rides—6 Bucks.

“I want to ride a buffalo!” she shouted with excitement.

Spence hit the brakes, and the trailer snaked behind them, causing Kay to scream, leather handbag thudding from seat to floor, Hostess Ding Dong wrappers falling from the dash. Mary Ellen was amazed at the confusion she had created and began to laugh, hands over her mouth to block the sound.

“Damn it! Don’t-you-scream-like-that,” Spence snapped. “Unless you see a semi slidin’ across the lane.” He had the car under control, but his face was red with anger and embarrassment.

“Can’t we stop? Please,” Mary Ellen said, quietly.

“No!”

“Why?”

“Because I said no.” Spence’s voice was hard and raspy, and sounded determined, so she turned her attention to Kay, who was pressing her hand against her chest in the area of her heart.

Five years earlier, the doctors had told Kay that she had a slight murmur, and since that time she was convinced that her aorta would break open for the Lord at any moment and she would be yanked into heaven. She said she didn’t mind dying¾she just didn’t want any surprises, but Mary Ellen knew that her condition was the other reason for the trip, although Kay would never admit to it. Now her eyes were wide with shock¾fingers moving to her puffy neck, checking her pulse.

“Kay, tell him to turn around and go back.”

Kay took a deep breath, then slowly sighed. “Honey, that’s a kiddie ride.”

“How would you know? And if it is, why do you care?”

“You’re almost an adult,” she whispered.

“So what!”

“Really, Mary Ellen. I wish you’d act your age.”

“I bet my mother would’ve made you stop.”

“This is nonsense!” Spence shouted, voice sharp with rage.

Mary Ellen could tell that she had pushed him to his limit, so she sat back and vowed not to say another word. She doubled her fist and began to count the blows. Number ten came down, muffled, when Kay turned around and screamed.

“My God, Spence. She’s doing it again!” 

He looked in the rearview and slowed the car. “For Christ’s sake, do I have to pull over?”

“No,” Mary Ellen said, her voice weak with guilt.

They no longer asked her why. They had done that nine months ago and had never gotten a satisfactory answer. The “I don’t know” and “Because I feel like it” were not good enough excuses. Then they had quizzed her, wanted to know what kind of music she had been allowed to listen to, what movies she had recently seen, and what kind of material was in them. A short time later they were told by Preacher Taylor that what Mary Ellen suffered from was an “infliction,” resulting from a lack of spiritual identity, with only an off-chance for demonic possession. “Needs a good baptism, something to cleanse the spirit,” he said as he’d removed his palm from her forehead.

The car had been quiet for almost an hour when Spence broke the uncomfortable silence. “Finally, South Dakota.”

“It’s about time,” Kay said. “I hope we get there before dark. Because a KOA after dark.” She shuddered. “You never know who you’re sleeping next to.”

“Sweetheart, I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.” Spence winked, and Mary Ellen watched as he moved his hand over. She imagined him patting Kay on the thigh, and it made her feel ill. She couldn’t understand why she didn’t have normal grandparents. Kay’s bag was always full of oil-free cosmetics designed for women over sixty, and her hair was colored. This month it was raspberry yellow, but Mary Ellen thought of it as ugly orange. Spence wore cowboy boots to match his belt, and on some mornings since the beginning of their journey, his silver bolo would catch the light of the rising sun, bouncing shapes off the window. Although he hadn’t owned a cow for twenty years, he still called himself a cattle rancher. Mary Ellen thought they might have been fun people before they’d stumbled into the religious shadow of megachurch.

“I wish I’d known about this hot springs sooner,” Kay said as she picked at her hair with the handle of her comb. “Can’t imagine that kind of water comin’ straight out of a mountain. We could’ve brought Patty.” She paused, then quickly looked at Spence, who did not respond.

Mary Ellen imagined her mother riding in the car with them¾fidgeting with her red wig, the one she’d wear, blowing smoke into the air conditioner, popping Coke tops with her long nails. There would have been less bed space, and one more person to fill the septic tank. Mary Ellen stretched her legs into the spot where her mother would have sat. She was thankful for the extra room, even if her mother would have made Spence stop the car for the buffalo ride.

“Do you think she’d have come?” Spence finally answered.

Kay looked out the window. “I don’t know. That child of ours was …” She shook her head. “She might of … might have surprised us all.”

Fat chance, thought Mary Ellen. She knew her mother had always had a difference of opinion with her parents. They didn’t like the fact that there was no father in Mary Ellen’s life. Her mother used to tell her parents that Mary Ellen had been a product of Immaculate Conception, and until Mary Ellen was old enough to learn what that meant, she had been proud of thinking that she was different. But thinking about her mother only made her angry, so she tried to imagine what the hot springs would look like instead. She wondered if it would be clear—smooth as ice and taste invisible—or be heavy brown with swirling minerals and taste like rust. But like always, she was unable to push her mother from her thoughts, and she wondered what she would have looked like kneeling at the springs, holding up a thermos, her throat moving with impatient gulps. What if her black hair had grown back and she had no longer vomited after each trip to the hospital? The idea came to Mary Ellen so clearly that she thought she might be having a vision. But her mother had been immune to miracles, and so Mary Ellen would have to be immune to visions¾the image quickly gave way to the vast monotony of the landscape.

She finally turned her attention from the window to the back of Kay’s head and resisted the urge to yank the woman’s curls. After all, this trip was her fault; she was the one who’d gone to Preacher Taylor seeking advice¾first a baptism, then a miracle. Mary Ellen could almost see Kay remain after a fiery service, sitting in a fold-up chair, smiling. A moment later, she would have slowly joined the small crowd that would have begun to gather around the man descending from his pulpit¾“What does the Lord say about arthritis?” “Will prayer stop my husband from cheating?” Of course, he would have an answer for each, but Kay would have been embarrassed and would not have spoken until last.

Mary Ellen had already been to a service twice within the last year¾just before her birthday and immediately afterward. During that first night, she’d stood in the back corner, watching faces twist as chanting filled the neon-lit auditorium. Brother Taylor had molded those chants into prayers,“ Jesus would bless—Jesus would heal—Jesus would save the repentant.” She’d thought of bluebells, the state flower which gathered like weeds at the side of any road, how she’d picked a bunch earlier that morning, carefully separating the short, fragile flowers from the handful of crabgrass. She knew that the afternoon sun would have reflected hot off the white gravestone, and by then, with the moon lifting high above the rolling hills of the panhandle, the tips would have already been shriveled black. She had wondered where the next batch would come from, because living flowers from the store, the ones you could plant¾were always too expensive.

“Sinners!” Taylor had said, spitting with excitement.

Mary Ellen had never minded that she’d grown up with various men, and several women¾at various times, always seeming to emerge from her mother’s bedroom on rain-filled Sundays. Those who had been her favorites, the ones who stayed through the holidays, she’d called Uncle, or Auntie. They usually tried to be helpful by performing the chores Mary Ellen’s mother hated most. It was always a treat to throw the tennis ball against the house while watching an uncle—bare-chested, jaw covered with beard, nose red with burn—working on the roof, straightening the TV antenna, or fitting new shingles among the old. Her mother’s girlfriends, though she never called them that, were almost the same as the men, except they were nicer and brought flowers more often. 

Once she had overheard Kay calling her mother a slut as she spoke to one of her neighbors. The woman, who was Kay’s best friend at the time, had nodded her head vigorously. She’d looked as if they were talking about a disease, or a bunion which made walking difficult. Mary Ellen had been angry at them, because they knew nothing about her mother.

The mother Mary Ellen knew would overlook chores for Frisbee in the park or for a drive to the mountains. They had sung camp songs at night and told what-ifstories—what if they won the lottery; what if the sun never went down; and what if life was fair.

“Mary Ellen,” her mother had whispered at night. “Keep your innocence for as long as you can, and you’ll be all right.”

“Salvation!” Brother Taylor had raised his arms toward the heavens, and Mary Ellen had looked down at her T-shirt. There was a noticeable fold across her chest, and it was frightening. The chanting got louder, the preacher was pointing to the back of room where the sheep would most likely be running astrayand Mary Ellen had fled¾the swing door brushing against her bare arms.

“Are you feeling okay?” Kay was looking over the seat at her.

Mary Ellen shrugged.

“Are you getting excited about the springs yet?”

“Sure,” Mary Ellen mumbled.

Kay had talked about Hot Springs so much that Mary Ellen knew everything about the place, and what she didn’t know she could make up. She knew that the Indians had once fought for it, protecting the sacredness of the water. Then, it had become a mining town. Rocks and men were blasted away in a search for silver; the springs were forgotten under the dust. After the Second World War, a veterans’ hospital was built, and old soldiers were moved there until they died. She wasn’t sure how the evangelists had taken over.

The second time Mary Ellen was at the church, she’d almost been baptized. Ten volunteers had emptied bottles of water by the gallon from a flatbed truck into a giant fish tank that was placed next to the stage. Mary Ellen was brought to church early, to prepare herself, and was given a white cotton gown to wear during the submerging. She’d held it tightly to her chest and inhaled the crisp scent of soap. She went up to the tank, tentatively climbed the marble stackable steps, and put her fingers into the water. The water was cold, and she could smell the faint scent of shellfish and bleach. She knew that she could not go through with it.

“Mary Ellen!” they had called out to her even as the others had begun to form a crude line in front of the tank. Mary Ellen remained flattened to the damp earth, underneath a sheltering tree in the cemetery behind the church. Three days later, they’d been on their way to the hot springs.

Mary Ellen put her head down on the armrest and closed her eyes. Hot Springs, South Dakota, did not sound like a very happy place.

When she opened her eyes again, the sun was low in the sky. She sat up and stretched. Kay had her head against the window, mouth open, gently snoring. Spence was watching the road, hands tight on the wheel. The soft light made his wavy gray hair look white.

“Decide to wake up?” Spence looked in the rearview.

Mary Ellen rubbed her eyes and nodded.

Kay stirred and, after a moment, wiped saliva away from her lips with tissue. “Must have fallen asleep.” She looked over at Spence. “Where are we?”

“Twenty miles from Hot Springs.”

The landscape had finally changed, and they were now climbing into the green knees of the mountains. Mary Ellen had seen pictures of the Rockies before, so she knew that the Black Hills were not real mountains, not technically, but to her eyes they were kings compared to the Texas hills she’d grown up with. Where the road cut through the rocks, a damp, earthy red clay lay underneath the trees, darkness, and she could see her reflection much better floating across the landscape. When this happened, she traced the pattern of her face—eyes, wide and round—nose, sharp at the bridge, then flared slightly at the nostrils—mouth, thin top lip and puffy bottom, just like her mother’s. With her thumb in the air, one eye closed, she tried to decide what she would look like if one of the parts were suddenly removed. She could only imagine a dark hole spreading across her features and the upwelling of nothingness. She was vaguely aware of the conversation being whispered up front. She heard enough to know that for the tenth time since they’d begun the journey, her grandparents were talking about her problem.

“Do you think she’s worse,” Kay said, leaning toward Spence. “Maybe we should have stopped at the ride.”

Spence grunted. “She’s fine. We’ll be there soon.”

Mary Ellen hated it when people talked about her. Like after the funeral, after the mourners had followed Kay and Spence back to the house where a meal had been prepared the day before—the same day the mortuary had applied the final touches to her mother’s face. Mary Ellen had to wear a dark blue dress, something Kay had picked out; and after the guests had passed the food table at least twice, she had to help Kay clean away the chicken bones and pie crumbs. She had been scraping plates, behind the louver door of the pantry, when two women walked into the kitchen. Mary Ellen did not know the women, but she recognized them from Kay’s circle of friends. She held her spoon still.

“I still think they ought to take that child in. For God’s sake, a good therapist can make anyone normal.”

“I almost fainted when she told Brother Taylor at the service that she was glad her mother was dead,” said the other.

“She said that?”

“Sure did.”

“I mean, the mother out of her misery and all. Cancer must be awful, but for a child to say …” The woman shuddered.

“I hear the mother brought it on herself. That kind of life. Still, a good therapist for sure.”

They both nodded until one of them saw Mary Ellen’s dark eyes peering from behind the door. The woman blushed and motioned for her friend to stop talking. Mary Ellen watched as they retreated from the kitchen, thanked Kay, and left.

Mary Ellen brought her feet up to the seat and hugged her knees. She put her head down, tried to curl into a ball and pretend to be invisible. It was comforting to feel her warm breath on her skin as she slowly exhaled. It reminded her that the darkness she felt contained at least some warmth. But for that warm breath to touch her, she would have to stay frozen in the same position forever. If she could, she thought, she would never change her shape, but always stay wound around her ankles.

She couldn’t help looking up though when they finally drove into the town. Kay was noticeably excited. The back of her red-blonde head swiveled as she viewed both sides of the road, pointing out places to remember. “There’s the Texaco. Oooh, Black Hills Café looks like a good restaurant to splurge on. Spence, just look at that beautiful mansion on that hill. I bet you can see everything from there.”

“I think that’s the veterans’ hospital,” he said.

The streets were narrow and crowded with camping trailers. Spence was holding the directions for the campsite, so they moved slowly as they passed tidy buildings made from red sandstone. Mary Ellen saw two men ride by on bicycles. Their bikes were loaded with sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, and their calf muscles were well developed. She couldn’t help staring at them, turning around to watch, admiring their shapes until they disappeared. When she turned around again, she was suddenly filled with guilt, and she couldn’t help making the fist which she knew she could not use.

After a short drive from town, they found the RV park, paid the $7.50, and backed into their slot, number thirty-seven. It was always the same ritual whenever they came to a new park. Spence had to make sure that the trailer would sit evenly so cooking would be easier for Kay. Most of the parks had level slots, covered by concrete, but not all of them. If the ground was uneven, Spence would have to take out the double set of two-by-fours from the trunk, place them under the wheels of the trailer, and back the Airstream up until it rested firmly on the boards. As usual, they had gotten out of the car and were now waiting for Spence to emerge from the trailer door. Mary Ellen focused her attention on the distant hills—trying to decide if they really looked black.

“Bubble’s dead center,” Spence said, stepping down.

Kay smiled. “I knew this trip was blessed.”

Mary Ellen rolled her eyes.

It didn’t take long for Spence to finish hooking up the facilities—sewer, water, and electricity. Then they all stepped inside, into the shelter of their portable home.

The morning sun brought in a stream of cold light and a clearer view of the hills. Mary Ellen looked out the tiny window of her cubbyhole and tried to untangle her legs from her sleep sheet. When her eyes adjusted to the light, she decided that the Black Hills weren’t black. They were greenish purple. Although they were very beautiful, Mary Ellen couldn’t help thinking of dead frogs. She’d seen dead frogs before when she played at the creek near her old house. She would dig in the mud with a stick, and sometimes she uncovered one, pulling it out with her fingers. At the time, she’d been fascinated with their color, dark gray or bruised green depending on the frog, and the softness of death. Most of the time, if they weren’t rotting in the mud, they were dried and felt like wax paper, only harder. Either way, she’d poke at them, with the stick or her bare finger, only mildly aware that she should leave what she called their outer shells alone. Now the thought of touching something that dead was horrifying, and it only reminded her of the dream she’d been having.

In her dream, she was talking to her mother. She thought that maybe they were ready to go somewhere because her mother was holding her car keys, slapping them against her palm like she always did when she was in a hurry. Then the room got bright, so bright Mary Ellen could see her bones silhouetted under the skin of her hand like an x-ray. It was the same for her mother because the bones in her face were silhouetted as well¾shadow-like. They stood across from each other like two separate mirrors, exchanging reflections of light and shadow. Then her mother mechanically unbuttoned her blouse, seemed perfectly calm as if she were doing something completely ordinary. She took Mary Ellen’s hand and pulled it toward her chest, but there was nothing there, only dark hollows where her breasts should have been. Mary Ellen screamed, and her mother disappeared.

Mary Ellen turned her head toward the wall so she could hide her tears from Kay, who was already taking a skillet from the compact cupboard above the sink. Mary Ellen was anxious to begin her morning ritual but couldn’t because Kay was too near. Instead, she held her breath until she saw black sand moving behind her eyes and felt a blunt pressure against her temples. She wished that she could die by holding her breath.

“You can help anytime.” Kay looked up at Mary Ellen.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, slowly exhaling so it sounded like a sigh.

“Try setting the table.”

When the breakfast dishes had been washed, Spence walked to the main office of the park to call the Disciples for Christ Church, which was affiliated with the Holy Christ Church in Texas. Mary Ellen watched him disappear behind the green Overland parked next to them, candy-striped awning pulled over the windows for privacy.

“Isn’t this an exciting day?” Kay turned to Mary Ellen. She’d already changed into her Sunday’s best. It was a simple polyester dress with large blue buttons descending from neckline to hem, interrupted at the waist by a thick matching belt.

Mary Ellen shrugged. “I guess.”

“It’s going to be okay.” Kay walked over and gently brushed Mary Ellen’s bangs. Mary Ellen shrank from the touch.

Kay turned red, seemed confused, but didn’t say anything. “Anyway,” she said, “I swear I’m feeling better.” She turned her attention toward the window, fingers moving to her neck, again timing her pulse. “Your grandpa should be back soon.” She sighed. “What a wonderful place for a miracle. Don’t you think?”

It started off silently, but Mary Ellen couldn’t control her laughter, and soon her body was shaking with loud, bursting giggles. Suddenly Kay seemed so funny, the way she stood at the window, waiting, watching, fingers always searching for a beat underneath the soft flesh. Kay turned around, eyes wide with fear, lips moving without sound, all of which made Mary Ellen laugh harder.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Kay put her hands over her ears, voice rising in an attempt to overpower the laughter.

The slap was sharp! Mary Ellen never saw the hand, and it cut across her cheek with a burn.

“Such a hateful kid!” Kay stepped back, face flushed. “What on earth would your mother think?”

“What do you care? My mother was a slut. You said so yourself.” Mary Ellen stopped laughing, voice almost shouting.

“I never …” Kay was trying to formulate her sentence. “I loved my …”

“You’re a liar,” Mary Ellen yelled as she pushed past Kay and hid in the bathroom.

The bathroom was small and dark; there was only room for the toilet and a small shower. The walls were made from thin plastic, covered in a blue seashell print. Mary Ellen sat on the lid and listened to Kay’s muffled sniffles, which gradually subsided.

Mary Ellen rubbed her cheek to ease the sting. The burn became a blush, and without thinking she moved her hand until it rested inside her T-shirt, against the soft, delicate skin. She then traced the shape of her breast, was certain she’d grown despite her efforts. It was a horrifying thought, so she checked again. It was true, the shape of her breast was changing, becoming fuller, and there was nothing more she could do. She thought about her mother and the time she’d seen her naked, had witnessed science’s version of a saving grace.

“It’s okay. It won’t bite.”

Mary Ellen had walked into the bathroom, forgot to knock, just as her mother had stepped from the shower. They had previously talked about the procedure, gone over graphs, articles, percentages for survival, but to actually see it—the ripped hollowness of her mother’s form—was startling.

“No need to be afraid.” Her mother had tried to smile as she dropped her hand away from the towel rack and shifted her feet on the cold floor.

Mary Ellen had lowered her gaze to her own feet, which seemed big and awkward. It wasn’t just embarrassment or fear that she had felt¾it was disgust.

“Would you like to touch? The scar doesn’t hurt.”

Mary Ellen looked at her mother, horrified. “You’re sick!”

Her mother pulled the towel over her drying skin. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “That was the wrong thing to say.”

Mary Ellen had backed out of the bathroom, her mother calling out, “There’s time to get used to it.”

The slam of the trailer door startled Mary Ellen, and she jerked her hand away from her shirt. She heard Kay talking to Spence. Their voices were low, but she heard enough to know that Kay was still scared.

“It’s time to come out of the bathroom,” Spence said. His voice was surprisingly gentle.

Very carefully, Mary Ellen opened the door.

“We’re worried about you,” he said, fingers nervously pulling at his chin.

Kay stood behind him, affirming with quick nods.

“What do you want us to do? We’d hoped this trip would make a difference…but we don’t know what else…” he said slowly.

“We don’t,” Kay mumbled.

“Now, the springs might help, but I ain’t going to force you. Especially since you refuse to be baptized.”

“No, we can’t force,” Kay agreed. “But we drove so far.”

“We told Patty we’d take care of you, so take care of you we’re doin’, but we’re too old to be fighting with you,” said Spence.

Mary Ellen nodded. “I’m sorry.”

They had to drive back into town, down several hills before they found the church. It was not what Mary Ellen had expected. It was a short building painted a mundane gray, and there were no bell towers, or stained glass, or steeples. Spence parked the car in the space marked Visitors Only, and they waited for him while he ducked through the metal doors. Spence had said earlier that there would be a small registration fee, a church donation of twenty dollars apiece. In return, they would provide drinking containers, which they called chalices, and a special evening service¾a hands-on affair for the participants. It wasn’t long before Spence returned, carrying a cardboard box with three silver cups.

“Is that all?” Kay asked as he handed her the box.

“Yep,” he said and then started the car.

Kay shook her head. “I certainly hope it works.”

Hot Springs was like the bones in a back. Either a tourist took the curved spine in an east-west axis or followed the ribs into the hilly neighborhoods on the north and south sides. The springs were only ten miles west; so when they reached Main Street, they turned left, again passing the Green-Eight grocery, the post office, the city limits sign, and later the KOA camp.

Spence said the springs would be on public land, just inside the gates of a wild-game preserve¾a safe haven for a buffalo herd. They were instructed to look for a sign and a gravel road. He’d also been warned that it being May, the females from the herd would be aggressive in their attempt to protect the calves.

“So don’t get too close,” Spence said, repeating the warning.

They drove for at least twenty minutes, a slow process because of the hills and winding road. Finally, they passed two brick pillars, like walls of a gate connected by a cattle guard in the asphalt, that marked the entrance of the preserve. Then the road leveled off, mountain pasture stretching calmly to the distant blue hills. It looked like a picture from a travel brochure of Ireland or Scotland, and Mary Ellen half expected to see a dotting of sheep on the carpet-like grass. Instead, there were grazing buffalo¾massive heads bent low, curled lips pulling up tufts of grass.

The calves were what intrigued Mary Ellen. Somehow they balanced on their awkward legs as they ran around the solid forms of their mothers. She was able to see one calf clearly as it settled on a nipple of its mother. For a moment she caught the image, hand pressed to glass, but the car moved away, and the calf and its mother were gone.

Mary Ellen squeezed her eyes tight. She wondered what would happen if a nursing cow died. Could another replace the flow of nourishment? Or would the starving calf have to wander off and die?

They found the designated gravel road, which cut north and ending in a parking area two miles further on. As they drove up, Mary Ellen was shocked to see a tulip bed, curved petals flaming into colors of red and yellow on the other side of a wood railing. She’d always associated such flowers with the lowlands of Holland or with flower shop windows, not with a South Dakota landscape. Although they looked out of place, and Mary Ellen was baffled by their existence, they brought her peaceful thoughts¾suddenly gave her hope. She wondered if any of her bluebells had survived, if perhaps one had taken root in the cemetery. The wood fence was low to the ground, and it curved around the outside of a gravel path, which sloped down into a hill. From where they parked, she saw the top of a white gazebo, Victorian gingerbread trim weathered by winter wind and snow.

Kay turned around and handed Mary Ellen her cup. It was surprisingly light, and she realized that it was not really made from metal. She held the cup in both hands, feeling silly, not sure what she wanted. Kay got out of the car first, and lightly brushed the hair from her face. Her gaze seemed transfixed on the short gravel trail and the gazebo. Spence was next, but he seemed more cautious as he looked around.

“Are you comin’ with us?” he asked Mary Ellen through the open window.

She shook her head no, put the cup down beside her, and watched as he shrugged his shoulders, turned, and followed his wife down the hill.

Although they had said they wouldn’t force her to participate, she’d been convinced that they would be more insistent. After all, time and money were involved. But they disappeared, and Mary Ellen was left alone. The car was warm, getting hotter as the sun flashed overhead, so she left the Lincoln and climbed over the railing to where the flowers were. She squatted in the black dirt; then she slowly began to pull up the tulips within reach, shaking off clumps of dirt.

From her position, she could see her grandparents standing in the gazebo. Their stiff-backed shapes seemed to fill the entire space, heads bent in prayer. She was unable to see the specifics though, only man and woman locked together, and although she was curious, she turned her attention back to the flowers and slowly inspected each color-filled bloom. They were all unique, varying in design from solids to flecks to stripes.

She wiped watery sap from the stems on her sleeve. She felt a little sad that the flowers would die now that they had been picked, but they gave her joy, and she did have a purpose for them.

She’d finished gathering six flowers, was already standing by the footpath with the blooms behind her back, when she saw Kay and Spence returning up the path, holding hands and smiling. It hadn’t taken them long, Mary Ellen thought, but her knees were stiff, and she realized that she herself had lost track of time.

“Ready?” Spence said when they got closer.

“I’d like some time alone,” Mary Ellen said, pointing to the gazebo.

Spence and Kay looked at one another. “If you want to pray, we’ve got plenty of time,” Kay said, turning to her and smiling.

She didn’t plan on praying, but she wasn’t going to correct Kay either. “Thanks,” she said.

“By the way,” Spence added. “We decided that we could stop at that ride on the way back. If you still want to go?”

“Maybe.” Mary Ellen shrugged her shoulders.

She waited until they’d turned away, headed for the car, before she walked down the gravel¾pebbles crunching beneath her shoes, flowers now held in front just in case Kay turned around to watch.

The first thing she saw when she reached the bottom of the hill was a metal plaque hanging over the arched entrance of the structure. It was a listing of the minerals—zinc, magnesium, iron, copper—found in the water and seemed so scientific¾no more mysterious than the list of ingredients on a vitamin bottle. The gazebo itself was almost six feet tall, a pentagon, slender columns and lattice trim. On four of the sides, there were small iron benches which faced a metal trough three feet long¾ornate iron leaves trimming the rim and running down along the edges.

Mary Ellen sat on one of the benches and watched the steam gently rise from over the black metal foliage. She could see how the water bubbled up from below, becoming more violent as it neared the surface¾a solid wash of circular motion. The only thing she heard was the hissing of air as it escaped from the springs and pushed into her ears. She could have sat there forever, covered herself in a web of forgetting, but she looked at the flowers, their stems already damp in her hand, and without knowing why, she began throwing the tulips into the water, one at a time. They bobbed together for a moment in flashes of color before swirling, then sinking under the spray. She thought about her mother, who’d be sitting on the next bench¾wig, smokes, and all. She would have laughed, a deep, hearty laugh, at the thought of buying the water¾such beauty was too simple for that¾but she would have used the cup anyway.

“For my folks,” she would’ve said.

When Mary Ellen got up to leave, she walked over to the trough and looked at the flowers one more time. The trough was deep, narrowing like a well under the surface. The tulips had flattened at the bottom—they looked broader, less delicate—and the dark water surrounded them now so they no longer blazed. They were there though, had not disappeared, and Mary Ellen knew just how beautiful they were.

She leaned over and plunged her fist into the spray, then pulled it out slowly, fingers relaxing, and with her open hand drew a cross over her heart and could feel the dampness quickly drying. The minerals in the water crystallized on the back of her fingers, and she thought about the herd of buffalo they would again pass on the way back, and then the ones that would come later, those that had been hidden from the road. To stop and ride one suddenly seemed a horrible thought. It had never occurred to her that simple signs, a little money, and some barbed wire were sure to break the spirit. No, she thought. She would not stop to ride a buffalo. Then she turned and headed up the path toward the Lincoln.


Patricia L. Meek's novel, “NOAH: a supernatural eco-thriller,” was published by All Things That Matter Press in 2011. Her poetry and prose are widely published in such journals as Natural Bridge, Euphony Journal and Penman Review. Her poem “Weather” was a 2016 finalist for the International Literary Awards, Rita Dove Award in Poetry. Her short story “The Crucified Bird,” published in Puerto del Sol and “REDUX #59,” won the AWP Intro Award for Fiction. “Dialogue with Georgia O’Keeffe IV: Feast For The Dead” appeared in Masque & Spectacle, and a video of the same title, “Dialogue with Georgia O’Keeffe IV: Feast for the Dead,” was screened at Southern Colorado Film Festival, October 2015, and was long listed at Rabbit Heart Poetry Film Festival, 2016. She has taught English composition and creative writing and holds a BA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University, an MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University, and an MA in Counseling from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is currently a medical integration clinician (LPC) in Southern Colorado. 

 

                                                     Jeanne Bessette

                                                   Jeanne Bessette