I only wanted him for his clean, warm blood, you know. And for the brightness of him. He was a normal man with smooth arms and legs, who ate gentle, ripe things like apricots and loaves of bread; like almonds and deer meat. Mine is the realm of decay, of rot and decomposition, the underbelly of every one of your wild poppies and love stories. I only wanted to hang on to something that still flourished, touch it before the rot set in. I wanted to know what that was like.
So did my mother. We liked having captive things, fresh and blood-beating creatures—men and women who worshipped their Christ faithfully and shone positively blue with all their yearning, all that repentance and prudence. We kept perfect chickadees who sang in cages and great broad grizzlies, like he was for all that time; golden-eyed, so strong they held off decay with their shoulders, the whole black weight of it.
We came here because you brought us along with your dreams for gold. You brought your monsters, your devils, goblins, imps, gods. The figures you prayed to and cursed, blamed for your bad luck, for your or lust or your rage. Northern Europeans brought my kind, but our only purview is decay, not evil, like they think. Not deceit and trickery, only rot—the way worms take over a body and turn it back to earth; the purple fungi, the weathered world, all the places it releases itself back to the ground, crumbling and falling and getting consumed.
You brought us with you in your dreams and quiet longings, between your intolerant God and his merciful Son. You call us evil, but ours is only the profit of equilibrium, of right balance, the necessity of worms. You’ve carved the rivers to carcasses with your hoses, for that shining stuff, dense as stars. You’ve ripped the others here, the ones before you, who have no need for Gods and Devils, because theirs is a living land, flicker and cougar and oak the true deities. You’ve torn up their bodies for sport or a sack of gold-dust, their lands for your own breakfast table.
So do not call me evil for taking only one of you, a cursed boy. My mother did it to him anyway, the grizzly body, the curse, so I could have him. Do not hate me for wanting a little bit of what you want.
When the bear came, we were so poor that the towhees had stopped fearing us and would land casually on our shoulders, as if we were trees. We were saving up our energy, our hunger, slowly, as trees do. Not moving much. Trying to eat up the sun. We lived, my father and three sisters and I, in a hut, one room, in the foothills of those mountains that turn a savage blue and white at dusk, the Sierra Nevadas, where the gold flowed from. The Sierras threw down a blue shade when the grizzly bear came, granite dust and snow in his fur. Scars made bare patches on his shoulders. From the bullfights, he told me, those goring horns.
It was later on he told me that; later when I lived in his home of gold-hung tree roots and wildflowers in pewter vases, which he must have picked at night when his hands were human, for me to smell and to smile at. I liked sweet things then, silly things, because they were new to me. I ate bowls of sugarcubes he brought to me in sacks shipped from the Caribbean. He caught the most tender brush rabbits and quail for me in his merciful claws, killing them instantly. I didn’t suck their marrow, like I used to, in that other life of the miner’s shack and the endless dust, because I didn’t need to. I wasn’t starving. I wanted to be wasteful and to toss those bones still heavy with food into the fire, knowing there was more, always more.
Years of hunger will do this to you. I hoarded things in my stomach, my pockets, the brim of my sunhat: cheeses and pretty ribbons, Indian paintbrush flowers and gold flakes and wishbones, the bulbs of wild onions, and nails, because my father always made us collect them off the ground, rusty and misshapen. Nails were a luxury. I never could shake the habit, that smell of rust, like blood, on my fingers.
I didn’t get him in the end. You know this. It is always a girl, young and pure, who does. She was a miner’s daughter, clean in heart somehow beneath the dirt of deceit and greed she grew up in.
They call us trolls, the Norwegians who dragged us along in their mildewed wagons, in the immaculate folds of their linens aired daily by their wives. Then they forgot us. The Irish forgot their banshees, the Portuguese their mouras encantadas, the Chinese their Ba Gu Jing. We all dwell in the forgotten places now, the barren, the desolate and windswept. We live in the abandoned barn, the site of an old village, perhaps the one we were first brought to, rolled up in their stockings and bedskirts, beside the canning jars and their single precious silk. We are bedded down in the roadside plants you call weeds—the dandelions, wild onions, nettles. All nourishing; you’ve just forgotten.
We trolls, we’ve taken the Southeast Farallon. We like it for its winds, for the mildewed lighthouse keeper’s attics, the ghosts of children killed by typhus and sailors killed by waves. For the paint of sea bird guano and sea lion afterbirth. We live in the granite caves, in tunnels carved deep into that ridge that was once mountainous, now surrounded by sea. The lighthouse keepers don’t notice us, because they don’t believe we are here. And the island is so torn with violent winds and strange bird-cries, with a frightening melancholy, that we are not out of place.
I knew he would not have loved me. My mother told me he would come to, one day, when he was old and ugly too. But I know that no one loves a troll. No one loves the rot and weather and disintegration of things. They don’t remember that else this, nothing ever grows.
When the grizzly came to our door, my sisters and I were sewing up the holes in our clothes. It was the heart of winter. Snow dragged the base of our house deeper into the ground. My father was at his desk across the room, nearest the door. I call him a miner, but he hadn’t stuck a pan in cold stream water or blasted the riverbanks in three years. He wrote articles for a local newspaper, just enough to keep us alive.
He had a miner’s broken heart, the grief of someone whose boyhood dreams, burnished with gold and hope, had been broken down by those years of frenzy. He couldn’t have known that bringing his young family—wife and three little girls—would have destroyed his chances. You had to be mean, and solitary, to make it. No one to protect or love but yourself. He didn’t realize what streams full of gold, wild country and native tribes who had little avarice and no steel or gunpowder, did to lawless men. What so many men together did to men.
Our mother died a year after she arrived, of tuberculosis, but now I think it was homesickness that killed her. Not for the flat green land of Muskego, Wisconsin, where we had come from, but Norway, where she was born. Where tradition was rooted like old linden trees and change came slowly, measured and even. In these Sierra Nevada foothills, the mountains themselves so harsh in their beauty, so unpredictable, change and chaos are constant. The world is being built up again from gold-dust and dirt and blood. Nothing is certain, nothing is set. The violent openness of it killed her.
When the grizzly bear came to our door, I was mending the holes in my father’s shirt. When you have only a few things to wear, there’s a constant battle against holes and weak places. You are always up against the endless friction of life; its weathering.
My father opened the door from where he sat at his desk. A grizzly bear stood on the tiny porch in the winter night. He looked right at me, straight through. His winter coat was in, gloss and shag, and he was wider than two men. The musk of wilderness came through the door with him, halfway in. His whole body would have taken up all the space we had for standing. None of us started—the stillness of hunger made us slow as trees. But inside I went pale, I went cold, I smelled death and I shook.
“Good evening,” said the Bear, and his voice was deep and rough like dirt.
“The same to you, sir,” said my father, but his voice quivered.
“I am only a bear, old man, and you know what I want.” His eyes were caramel, his fur thick and rippled. I was looking at his paws, as big as my skull. “I can smell how soft and clean she is, through all this reek of threadbare human grief. I’ve come for your youngest daughter. Give her to me, and I will make you as rich as you now are poor.”
It was not an offer to be easily refused. He stood there in the door with the winter at his back, his thick fur and wide shoulders holding it off. He stood there and filled up our little home with the smell of pine and wind.
I said “no,” a whisper, but I could see in his face that my father had already sold me. I was afraid, pale and cold and shaking underneath my skin. I was so used to my sisters, the small room and its close walls, the birds right outside that landed on my shoulders, my hard and hungry stomach. I did not want to be alone. I did not want to be somewhere big, and open, and solitary.
The bear came back the next week. The winter snow had deepened. Even my sisters begged me to go—think of how all of our lives would be changed, they said. He seemed a gentle sort of bear anyway, they said, not so bad; surely you won’t be eaten, surely.
I packed one bag. I put on all of my socks. I left with him into the snow.
“Are you afraid?” he asked.
“No,” I lied.
“Then grab onto my fur and climb onto my back. It is wide and warm, and we have far to go.”
V. Lady of Gold
I knew her before she ever came running for help, before she lost him, stupid thing. I know the whole story; how he carried her tenderly against his back, like a groom carries his bride, up the granite mountains in the snow, to the great, fallen sequoia that was his home. Inside, he had carved and scrubbed it into a gnarled palace. Outside, it was only a fallen log, a bear’s den.
I know this because I was there. I am the dust of ancient, imploding stars; that pressure and rift. I am the flakes, nuggets, powders and gems that men came for in the thousands. They reached their hands into the streams of my body and ripped up pieces of me. They took me into their little bags.
Anywhere they have taken part of me, I know about. I watch the insides of saloons and brothels where small sacks of gold are exchanged for sad, tired women and tumblers of whiskey: the things that men turn to when they begin to wonder if they are wrong. I know the fine restaurants of San Francisco where the rich come to eat oysters and drink champagne, gold as my blood. I know the insides of wooden trunks, the undersides of floorboards, where I am hidden away, for fear of deceit. And oh, I know the cold streams that flip and unfurl over granite. I know the blue quiet of riverbeds, occasionally the spindled feet of some heron or egret churning the silt. I know the earth’s insides, her dark hot chambers of pressure and stone; places humans will never touch me, places so dark and heavy, so full of that planetary force, they would combust your bones and heart in a second.
So of course, I saw her father pan desperately for pieces of my body, never greedy or cruel enough. Of course, I know the inside of that bear’s home. I watched her in there before she ever tripped out into the wind to look for him, finding me along the way. He had covered the inside of that fallen sequoia with gold leaf so it shone from within like a wild, bark-rough star. Every burl, old owl burrow and crack he smoothed gold.
He panned it himself, at night, when he had his man’s body back, when he wasn’t in danger of being shot by the other miners camped by the San Joaquin River, that soft arm of water which held me to her bosomed banks for so long. The carcass of a grizzly shot dead always brought them to a frenzy of victory: man over wilderness, man over chaos, man over death. He was very careful, in that heavy gold body, with claws and teeth that tore and killed without effort, because he knew what men were like in their hearts. He had killed a grizzly too, before all this; knew the thrill, and the sorrow, of such mastery. The godliness and the terror to feel ursine blood all over your hands, warm and dark as earth.
He panned that gold for his den with the patience taught by hibernation. He slipped and coaxed my pieces from the riverbanks with seducing fingers, like a lover. I came to him in flakes and whole chunks, wriggled up through the silt to be near. He felt like a bear, quiet and strong and without malice; not a man. The grizzly had seeped far into him: a gentle love of thimbleberries and acorns, hibernation-dreams, irrevocable strength. He painted his den with my gold body. He painted each piece of furniture carved of wood, the bedposts, the plates. Then he went to look for her.
I liked him despite myself, and he did make a very handsome bear. I don’t know much of curses, or of the strange beings who make them; all brought here with the gold-seeking men. But I do know that he wanted a human girl to love him. This was necessary. I do know that he wanted that girl to be held in starlight. He wanted her to be so dazzled she’d forget her horror at being married to a bear.
His part of the tree, where he kept to in the day, was only a tree—dank and piney, with bark-eating worms, loose roots, dirt. I forgot my hatred of men for him and for that girl, who as the months passed would rather curl up in his dirt-den than loll in the light of my body, mute with luxury. They both seemed to find peace when she came and pressed herself beside his bear-body in the humus-dark.
He always took me up on his back. I missed this when I lost him, more than the nights he would come into my gold room, right into my bed and into me, with the bare body of a man. Those were slick and tender nights, nights of human lust and comfort and skin. But when he let me up on his back and took me to the acorn groves, or to his berry patches—blackberry, thimbleberry, salmonberry, huckle and elder and mora—those afternoons I still long for. He let me lay down on his back as he walked, or sink my hands into his fur. He smelled of bear. It was a little bit like the wool of grass-eating animals, but with a sharp blood and musk-scent, like fresh meat. To be held by a bear—this made me feel as though I might belong.
At first I stayed in my golden chambers, eating everything rich, hoarding everything shiny or soft. The tree smelled like butterscotch and pitch inside. I fell into a sort of stupor. Winter turned into spring. It was dry and fresh outside. He picked me wildflowers by night. We lived high up in the Sierras, where the air was thin, close to where all the streams started. The lakes were perfect as ice and as cold, bluer than sky. They were full of frogs with lemon-yellow legs who didn’t sing much but watched me with their uncanny round eyes. We lived just below the place where the air got too thin for tall trees to grow, just below that harsh landscape with its desolate purple columbines.
Maybe it was the thin air, going to my head. Maybe it was the company of a bear throughout all my daylight hours; the gold-coated rooms grew too bright for me. My stomach started to turn at the little cardamom cakes and sapphires set in gold. I began to sleep in his end of the tree, the bear-end, through half the day, curled up in his paws like an unnatural cub. I wanted to be near that wildness; I wanted a coat of my own, and teeth, and claws.
At night when he was a man I wasn’t allowed any light in the room. He never said why. What is a girl supposed to do but grow obsessed with candles? I knew it was wrong, some kind of betrayal. But I stole a tallow taper from the dining room. I stuck it under my pillow. He didn’t speak much, as a man. It seemed like he was happier as a bear, more comfortable. Without human conversation, I didn’t know him at all, those nights, except by touch. I wanted to see him. I thought this would make a difference. The curiosity of the eyes is insatiable, particularly in a young girl. You think you will know a person’s heart if you can know his face. So I lit the taper one night, after he fell asleep.
You know this part. Everyone knows this part. The crane-woman knew it and the man with the winds tied into his hair, he knew it too. The candle dripped hot tallow onto his nightshirt. I stared for too long, because he was beautiful, because I was looking and looking and couldn’t find the bear in his face. He woke up into that traitor’s flame.
“You’ve ruined it,” was all he said. “You’ve ruined it. I’m gone from you forever.”
Our curse—that string tied around his ankle—yanked him back. He came to us with his shoes torn open to his skin, having walked the stream and riverways that lead out of the Sierras, all the way down through the prairie and marsh of the Central Valley as it heated up with spring and burst out its orange poppies and checker-blooms. The water took him to the San Francisco Bay. He followed the same routes as the silt sloughed off the riverbanks by miner’s hoses.
It’s none of my business the reason things decay, what breaks them down and tears them open, only that they do. I should not be partial to wind and bacterial infestation over men’s hands and desires, but I am. They did with their hoses what only centuries of proper disintegration, of the world’s great weathering, should do. We trolls have never liked it when men take it upon themselves to guide the ways of destruction. We have always punished them for it. Lived in burrowed palaces beneath stone footbridges and reached up our strong and clammy arms to pull them under, horse and all, maiden and all; it makes no difference to us. Sometimes we eat them ourselves. Sometimes we feed them to the worms and the black beetles, the small maggot, smaller bacteria, and the molds that are our pets. Now and then, if they are pleasant to look at, more pleasant than usual, we keep them until they are old, and we savor the process of shrivel and age.
I’m not sure how he made it over the ocean to our granite doorstep, but he made it all right, in the dead of night. The oiled lighthouse up on the Southeast Farallon peak must have helped him. The lighthouse keepers were asleep in their wind-thrashed white cottages. The auklets hunted insects on black wings. They filled the night with fey shrieks. He knew right where to come, how to get to the entrance of our tunnels in a sea cave that fills daily with tide. We put him in with the chickadees, next to the cage of perfect gray foxes with their red tails and kohl-dark eyes, next to the pleading virgins and a stray priest. Our tunnels were lit with sea lion oil.
“So you don’t try running, before your wedding night,” my mother said to him when she locked him in.
“I thought I couldn’t.” It was a growl, although he was a man now, at nighttime, a skinny one who almost made me sad. “You’ve got me now, this old carcass. I couldn’t do it, run. No human can really love a bear, not all the way through.”
We put him in with the chickadees anyway, in locked a room with thick quartz walls, to save us the trouble of chasing him, to keep us from deciding to eat him after all, on a lazy evening. My mother and I began to prepare for the wedding. It hadn’t been done, a troll wedding with a man, not in centuries, not on this barren island where we ended up, forgotten and far from home. But we were bored, no longer necessary in nightmares or dark prayers.
We’d caught him early in the morning while he panned the San Joaquin River and smoked a cigarette, his hands rough and warm but his face almost too pretty for a man. We like to toy with pretty things. It amuses us. And we were angry that we’d been forgotten.
We wanted them to remember us and fear us again, to fill up the pantries and parlors of their nightmares with our bodies. So we went through all the accumulated curses of our people in our minds, catalogued there like so many mushrooms.
Mother came up with this one, and I sniffed him out. A typically blond Norwegian miner with blood still under his fingernails from the sport of killing a grizzly bear. Mostly they killed them and didn’t eat them; mutilated their bodies, like men will do in the heat of their wars to the bodies of enemies. Their own blood gets in their eyes. The taste of bear meat was too strong for them. Sometimes they took the skin. They always took the head, the seat of power.
When I found him by the river, there was a grizzly head outside his tent. He’d left the body to rot. It wasn’t hard to put them together, grizzly and man. The bear was only just dead. It was a good, wholesome curse—man by night, bear by day. Needing the love of a human girl to break the lock.
Anyway, I got a little giddy, preparing for that wedding, as bad as any human girl. I took to embroidering the outlines of the most delicate murre wing-bones on my dress made of cobweb and the mycelia of poisonous mushrooms. For a little while, I thought about love, the human kind. I got intoxicated by the idea of it, so fragile and strange and soft to me, like flowers just starting to grow or a smooth red plum, all juice, all sweet and flesh that hasn’t yet fallen and begun to ferment.
His bear body began to fall away when we brought him to our caves. The curse lifted, because he had failed. A human woman had not fallen in love with him as he was by daylight. She had to go and peek at his human body at night, as all young girls will. He had failed, and that meant he was mine. The bear body died around him and it rotted, so he could know the wasting of flesh. It is an alchemical and nuanced process. It is not to be taken lightly, bodies slaughtered and cast over the ground.
The man emerged from the rotting bear like the naked stone of a plum. That’s when I could tell. It was in his eyes: if he’d had a choice, he would have chosen the bear instead of the man.
VIII. Lady of Gold
He left her that morning. He didn’t explain. The gold-leaf fell off all the surfaces in the sequoia like tears. It’s true: I liked them too much. I’ve always liked a good romance. My flakes and shards drift up through silt or pebble at the hint of love, the vibrations of passion. And in this new California of gun-point law, where the blood of everything here before ran across the ground—Maidu, Miwok, Wintun, snowy goose, tule elk, elephant seal, pussytoes, yarrow—in this new California, tenderness was hard to come by. A love story between a broke miner’s daughter and a grizzly bear? I couldn’t resist it. I like a good curse as much as any troll.
When he left her there in the tree den, I saw her cry. She kicked out at the furniture. She smashed the champagne glasses in the cupboard. She broke all the tallow candlesticks in her fists, like they were carrots. Snapped them, crying. She went and lay in his end of the den for days. I don’t know what she thought about.
I wanted to be a bear too. I lay there and tried to grow claws. I tried to creep up and break the necks of birds. I couldn’t. So I packed up my little bag, like I had those three years before. I wore all my socks at once, to save room in my pack. I started to walk down the mountain.
The air got thicker as I descended. It felt heavy and damp, after the alpine mountain passes and their strange blue lakes. There was a purity there, hitched into the alpenglow of dawn or dusk. There was a purity to our days that I had never known. A purity of spirit, like I had really found God, not just knelt down on my knees and prayed for things: my mother to get better or the cold to stop or a sack of anything, more parsnips, dried pinto beans, to drop on our house, bust through the ceiling and feed us.
I followed the tracks of bears. I avoided men. They seemed more dangerous now to me than the bears. Maybe that was stupid. Maybe I was almost eaten a hundred times. I don’t know. Their tracks reminded me of the texture of his leathery cracked paws. Sometimes as I walked down the mountain, as I cut my shoes open on the sharpest granite, as I picked red columbine and the purple and yellow blossoms of shooting stars, I wanted to be eaten. Carried in a strong thick body with dense gold-brown fur and an appetite for spawning salmon and dusky huckleberry skins. If I were eaten, I would become a bear.
At first, I thought about going home to my father and my sisters. But I’d gotten shy of that smell, and I didn’t know what I would say. I couldn’t sit by the fire and mend holes, now. I would only think of him and how in the daylight his eyes looked so completely different from human eyes. How they held another universe, black and gold. How his head swung back and forth when he walked, low to the ground, as if he were reading the brush and rabbit droppings. The twitches under granite and dust, where the earth was breathing. If I went to them, I would only think of the bear trails he took me on, sitting on his back through the quiet and ruthless wilderness of butterscotch-smelling pines.
I saw, from that broad back where I felt safe from all the world, a mother bear leave behind a cub whose back legs had been smashed by a fallen Jeffrey pine. He squealed for her like a piglet. He tried to walk. She moaned and howled for him to come along. She paced and nudged. Soon enough she knew he couldn’t move. She knew she had to leave. I wanted to go to the little cub and take that broken body up in my arms, but he wouldn’t let me down. He batted me back with his teeth. He did it himself, the man in him did it, felt obliged. It only took one slice of claw to slit the cub’s throat. I covered the body in orange poppies.
I saw my bear-husband sniff out newborn elk calves in the grasses and break their necks. He brought them home to share. I saw him dig young pocket gophers out of their tunnels and swallow them. Sometimes he plundered their stores of onion-grass bulbs too. He brought these to me in his teeth. I made thin soups with alpine water, and he drank them in the dark through human teeth. At first I hated him for those kills; even the cub whose suffering he ended. I hated him for the broken bodies of soft calves, downy and long-lashed. I cried in my room. I cried for my sisters, my mother, my father before the gold took his heart away. I cried for our faraway farm, which seemed from that vantage so peaceful to me. I could only remember it in two images: a sky blue and crisp and comforting as a sheet drying on a line; my mother’s brown eyes full with a gentleness that cushioned me.
But there was a day I saw men—men like my father or the clerk at the grocer’s, the man at the post office desk, the one who published the newspaper or delivered the sacks of oat grains; normal sorts of men who used to tousle my hair and bring me carved horses and dolls and other trinkets because the sight of a child moved them so—I saw them chase down a group of Indian men. There was talk of cowhides stolen. The Indians had one gun between six of them. The men who all looked like my father killed the Indian men. They cut off scalps. They all raped the Indian woman who was with the men. One by one. Scalps piled on the ground. Laughing and talking the whole time as she screamed.
These men weren’t so far from our den. I watched from a warm granite rock, and I couldn’t move. I didn’t know that this was truly how the world worked. My bear husband was watching from the trees, too. He stalked them all down. He was a strong bear and a ruthless man that day. He left their bodies in the dirt, and all he said that night, in the dark, was “they can’t haunt a man who is also a bear.”
I began to understand a few things then. Evil. Balance. Mercy. Necessity. A clean heart.
So when he left me that morning, after I ruined everything and peeked at him in the night by the light of a tallow candle, I didn’t know what else to do but follow. I knew places to find berries and sweet tubers, because he had shown me. I avoided human settlements. I didn’t trust them. I wondered what they would make of a young woman alone. How many would really want to help me; how many would know exactly how to use me. I followed the San Joaquin River, sneaking in the cover of alders, wild grape vines and cottonwoods.
It was on the bank one evening, as I washed, that I met the Lady of Gold. I couldn’t help myself, faced with a creature part-sandhill crane and part-woman, tipped everywhere in gold. I had to ask.
“Can you help me, ma’am?”
“And a fine evening to you too, little one,” she said, and her neck quivered and her eyes gleamed. “You people never do know how to ask for anything politely. But at least you’ve stopped to ask, rather than try and knock me down into the mud and rifle through my skirts for gold.” Her voice felt sharp in my ears.
“It’s just that I’ve lost something important, and I don’t know where it’s gone.”
“As a rule one generally doesn’t, with lost things. Hence the definition, the state of lost-ness.” Her beak clicked. The place around her neck where feathers became flesh glowed in the sun. “Are you hungry? I was just about to fish up some dinner. Hard to talk over serious matters on an empty stomach.” She walked toward the river and bent her bird’s head, breasts moving heavily under a strange, mineral-sharp dress.
X. Lady of Gold
I speared a spawning rainbow trout. I had the girl make a fire for me. I liked to play with her a bit, see what she was made of, treat this whole thing like a fairytale with tasks and old persnickety crones and blocks thrown up in the roads to make things more interesting. She made us a stingy fire, the product no doubt of a childhood in a mining town with a broken-down dad. I criticized it all I could, and snapped my beak at her, and caught her staring at my shadow. It moves independently of me. Sometimes it takes on the silhouettes of other creatures than the body it should be casting, because things are more fluid than you would think, particularly in the slow realm of minerals, waterways, tectonic pressure. At the moment, it was a bear. Her bear. It was playing with her.
I finished eating my fish slowly, before mentioning him. I washed the oil off my hands in the river. I reached into the silt bank and sifted out handfuls of gold pieces. They come up to me when I call for them. Slivers rained down between my fingers.
“Listen, I know everything about you,” I told her. “I know the pockmarks on your father’s hands and the faces of the Maidu men he’s killed.” I watched her sweet face go red. “Oh, don’t look so innocent and hurt, girl. It’s no surprise. He isn’t special. It’s what happens to the men of your kind when they come to a place like this where something they call ‘money’ tumbles down the riverbeds. I know your husband is a bear. I know his curse. I know the scars on his shoulders between that huge ridge of a back.” I watched her face turn redder. “I know what his fingers tasted like in my rivers, when he was only a man. I know you’ve ruined the whole thing, silly pet, all because you were messy with a candle, and now you’re after him because you can’t think what else to do. You’re brave enough, I’ll give you that.”
She looked a little dazed, uneasy, as if my appearance wasn’t enough to begin with. But a good meal after weeks on roots will steel you, and she smiled, and then she laughed, and then continued to pick meat off the trout bones.
“I’ve been held on the back of a bear,” she said. “I can’t go back now. I want to be one too. I’d rather be one than a person.”
“It is peaceful, a bear’s world. It is. But there’s no coming back again. It’s not what you think. I can say that for certain.”
I gave her three things out of the river, then. Sluiced them up in my woman’s hands. A hard little apple, all of gold. A golden carding comb, for smoothing wool. A golden drop-spindle.
“An apple for changing, a carding comb for straightening and path-making, a spindle for twisting and for strengthening.” I said. “Such things are necessary, when dealing with trolls.”
I did it because I liked to watch a good story unfold. We are all weak to the appeal of a curse. I couldn’t resist playing my part, pointing her in the right direction, filling up her gunnysack with talismans and charms. She put them in her bag, and they weighed it down to the ground like rocks.
“Don’t sell those. Your bear, he’s in the place East of the Sun, West of the Moon. A very ambiguous direction, I know. You’ll have to ask the winds about it. I deal in mineral and stone, the earthen leaden things and the currents that carry fish through streams.”
She couldn’t sit still after that. I caught and cooked her another fish, wrapped it up in dock leaves, slipped it into her pack now heavy with gold. She set off again, following the river. She hardly looked back to thank me.
I walked away from her. I will never forget the way the sun caught in her neck feathers, right where she went from woman to bird. My back ached within minutes from the gold. I ate the fish the next morning, and was hungry. I’d forgotten how to carry hunger in me, and it lashed around like a caught bird, all feathers and beak.
Whenever I felt a breeze touch my back, my check, ripple my hair, I talked to it. Hunger will do his. Desperation and the love of a bear will do this. It’s alive, the world. I never did know it until I left my home, that clapboard town.
I asked the breezes about the North Wind, where he was. That I needed his help. That a crane-lady told me to look for him. I walked on and on, talking to the little gusts off the river, the unfurling breezes that leapt from the cottonwood leaves, that had touched the necks of coyotes in the thickets, goldfinches and marsh wrens in the tule grass.
Near towns, I slipped along in the vegetation on the river bank. I smudged my face in dirt and tried to look as orphaned and uninteresting as possible, then walked barefoot past the general stores and feedshops, the saloons and the houses. I didn’t trust men when women were scarce; not anymore.
I met a young Indian woman digging in a sedge bed, making a basket. She had strong smooth hands. We were startled by each other, then calmed to see that we were both female. We didn’t know how to speak to each other, but I sat in her company for a whole afternoon; I hadn’t sat down next to a woman and felt that certain strong warmth in years. Since my mother. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.
I saw riverbanks carved out and raw from the mining hoses. Tree roots exposed. I saw the levees built recently to keep the towns from flood. I saw the sluices and channels diverting streams for drinking water. I saw three men shoot an Indian boy in the head when they encountered him at the riverbank. They left him where he fell. I ran and ran, the bag of gold bruising my back.
When the Wind finally did come, I was so hungry I walked only a couple miles each day, then lay in the shade and slept.
“So you’re the little thing I’ve heard whining my name like a wasp to the breezes?” a voice said behind me, smooth as a bell wrapped in silk. “I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d known you were so small. Fit a lot of desperation into that little skeleton of yours, don’t you?” He looked at first just like a man to me, in a blue velvet coat, as traveling musicians wear. There was a harmonica attached to a cord around his neck. But it was hard to keep my eyes on him, as though the edges of his body weren’t clear, as though they leaked out breezes every direction. His face had the look of a skinny coyote, almost handsome, long.
“It was the Lady of Gold who told me you would help,” I said, trying to look him in the eye, but unable to find its center. “Clearly she had a different wind in mind. I’ll walk, sir. I’ve been walking, I’ll keep walking, I’ll find my way eventually.”
“Isn’t that what you all say to yourselves?” His voice seemed now to come from the harmonica, three-toned. “Let me just take a good look at you, see what I can do.” He leered at me like an old creep. He didn’t touch me with hands, but a breeze did; picked up my skirts, swept under my shirt, stroked my hair.
I was only toying, playing with her. That’s all there is, in the end: playing, against the sea, down along the coast; playing the branches of cypress trees like a harmonica, playing with the warm inland airs until they bend under me or slip up over me.
“You feel well enough against my breezes,” I told her. “You smell about as bad as a young raccoon but your hair rustles like a varied thrush singing in the summer. Even I envy her that sound, and I’m the one who makes all the whistles and rustles and the moving of tree limbs. I’ll do it, I’ll buffet you over the sea.”
She stared at me with that look of a girl cornered, about to be ravished. I wanted to oblige her fears, really I did, but, well, a Wind must keep up a thin veneer of decency, after all.
“East of the Sun and West of the Moon, that’s where he is. It’s a very clever name. That’s just like them, to try at poetry and come up with something so completely useless. They’re just playing, girl—if you really tried to get there I think you’d find yourself fallen straight into a crack in the earth, or on the ocean floor where the plates spread and magma leaks out.”
“The plates, sir? How do you know I’m going there? Who are they?”
“Eager questions!” She was as fresh as any schoolgirl; she made the breezes in all my veins rise up. “I pulled the name right out of your mouth, between your teeth and off your tongue, just now. It’s sitting with you like a tattoo, blue across your hands. Anyone who’s actually looking would see it. Let’s get moving, I can tell you about tectonic plates on the way. You’re going to come with me the way winds travel, not on foot like this, scraping through the alder trunks and the wild grapes, getting ourselves muddy. We’ve got to dye you first, so you match the sky, so she doesn’t notice you’re just a human girl with soft lungs and squash them like two pumpkins.” And without asking, I grabbed her in my arms that are also wide as skies, pressed her closer to me than was entirely necessary, and blew upward.
When he carried me, I was weightless. I didn’t want to be held like a baby or a sack of ryeberries but there isn’t really another way when travelling with the wind. It has to hold you, buffet you. His arms felt like air currents buoying, not like arms, even though that’s what they looked like. They didn’t hold or clasp, just lofted me. The bag of gold clanked at my shoulders. We went up toward clouds that were wisps and strands. They looked thin from far away, but as we got closer, I saw that they were beams and footpaths, sturdy and silver. They made a vast landscape that was open and flat as a prairie. It shifted under our feet but never gave way.
Two women were there, although I don’t know what to call anyone now, but they looked like women to me, older than anyone I’d ever seen; they were so wrinkled that the lines, stretched out, could have woven a blanket. Their skin was entirely blue, their hair black despite their age. They sat by a wide Vat and stirred it with two wooden ladles. Except at the mouth, they were identical—one had teeth, one didn’t. Up close, I could see that the wrinkles weren’t blue but skin-colored. Their bodies made blue and cream maps. I wondered what they led to.
“Home,” the two women called Chi Nu said at once.
“What?” I said.
“Home. They lead home.” Their voices were gummy and round.
“Dunk her in the Indigo, will you?” said the Wind who carried me, impatiently. They laughed. It was a terrible sound, crows and gunpowder and bones breaking.
“We’ll ruin her pretty soft skin! Take away that bloom of youth! Those days of frantic love. I used to skin my knees and blister my feet to get across the Big Star River to my lover, once a season when the light was right and open. Wasn’t allowed otherwise. The bans of the universe. I always made it rain for days after. Wove squares for this quilt that will never end, this net to hoist him up here with me.” They both gestured toward the cloud-plain around us. Up close, I could see it was like a great net, regular, geometric, streaked blue.
“It’s all very said, my loves,” said the North Wind, harmonica-voiced. “I know this, the woes of thwarted desire.” He threw me a leering look, then winked. “But madams, I need to get this girl over the sea without bursting her rosebud lungs, so if you don’t mind terribly, I’ll come up for a chat some other evening.”
“Oh yes, of course you’ll remember me, you hideous cold wind,” Chi Nu said, clasping together four hands in a blue tangle, one’s left to the other’s right. “You’re the only one who does. Everyone else down there has forgotten. Brought me here in their damp little dreams and cramped ship-bowels over the Pacific, saw gold in the rivers and let me fall out of their hearts like bean husks. But why should I bother with her?” They paused, leaned in closer. “Why, by the way, are you?”
“I’ve nothing of the resentment you forgotten daemons possess, brought here and abandoned. I was always here. I’m only carrying her because it’s not something I’m often asked to do, hoist a human girl over the sea in my arms. I like to do a new thing, to carry something so much heavier than birds, to break the rules of sky and ground. And, let me tell you, is she a hot bundle of flesh to hang on to—gets my cold limbs going, truly.” Chi Nu cackled and licked their lips at me.
“But you might be interested,” the Wind continued, “that she is going to where the trolls live, because they turned a man into a bear and she is his lover.”
“Oh, the poor thing, I know all about thwarted love.” They sighed, one sound. “I would have scorched my bare feet on all the stars for him, my cowherd, my Niu Lang. Come close, my dear, I’ll have you blue and ready to follow his tracks in no time.”
They grabbed me with their blue hands. It felt like being held by spiders. Their bones were thin and light through their skin but strong as steel rope. They wrapped me up in those weaving hands, suddenly big enough to twine me like a moth in a web. Their Indigo Vat smelled foul with a tinge of sweet. A blue crust, around the edges. They plunged me under with their four spider’s hands. They kept me there until I knew my lungs would burst, that this was murder, and then longer. Until it had seeped through my skin, all the way to my lungs. When they pulled me out, I was almost unconscious, with rot and leaves in my teeth and hair. I looked, and found myself entirely blue. Even my toenails.
“Well now, you look fine!” said the Wind in my ear, and his breath was cold. “You look like my kind of woman, blue as my vast home, my queen, my slave-mistress. I’ll pay you, ladies, I’ll pay you kindly for your service, in rare laces from the snows of the Sierras, in baskets made from Klamath River fog. I’ll sweep them up here for you, one of these days.”
“ Just whisper my name, down below; just whistle it into open doors and across kitchen counters, into the bedrooms where they sleep, so they don’t forget me all the way. Just carry that girl over the ocean to her love. God knows there’s not enough un-thwarted lovers around.”
I took my little blue girl and was gone. I told her she looked like a daemon now, blue as the djinns. I told her she would never be able to go back to her kind, and she said she knew it; she already couldn’t. I almost fell in love with her myself, that strange blue creature who clutched at the bear claw on her neck like it was the only thing in the world worth holding onto, the only thing to believe in. The only reason she wasn’t afraid was because of that bear. It is peaceful, their world. When humans get a good long look into ursine eyes, they never want to come back.
I flew her high up over the clouds, blue in my arms, with her bag of gold things clutched to her chest. We passed through the blue country in a cold whirl.
“What do the other winds call you, Sir?” she asked me.
“I couldn’t say it in your language, my pretty blue djinn. It would fly right past your unrefined ears.”
“Say it anyway.” Demanding creature, how I wanted her.
“Khkhsiyyhlashhiii.” Like a breeze in alder trees, that’s how it sounded to her, like air through the holes of a recorder, along the teeth of grasses.
Sometimes I could see down through the clouds. The land looked very small, like something I could rip, something I could step on and break. I had to endure his somewhat consuming embrace. That Wind, I began to realize, thousands of feet in the air with him, was a consummate flirt, worse than any Byron. He warmed all the way up to me once I was blue, talking away, tightening his arms, letting his hands, soft air currents, wander. I didn’t have much of a choice. It wasn’t as if I could twist free.
The air was very cold. It nipped at my blue body but didn’t freeze me. My lungs took in the thin air and didn’t pop. I liked to look down at the riverways. The delta where they met the San Francisco Bay was an unfurling plant, a nest of brown-green snakes. I had never been to San Francisco. I would never go to San Francisco. I was a little afraid of it, then, how fine the women would be, clean and broad, wearing egret feathers and red satin shoes; maybe prostitutes, maybe mistresses, probably not wives. So sure of their own bodies. Now, well, it’s a matter of pride. Of disdain. Of immense solitude.
From above, the city was all straight lines and sand dunes as we passed over.
“Nothing like a good tumble through that soft sand. How it whirls up in waves around you. What do you say, my blue demonette, we make a brief detour down to those dunes and have a frolic ourselves?” His pale hands were on me.
“You forget, sir, that I’m not a Wind. You would certainly blast me to pieces by accident. And I don’t want to be late.”
“So stiff, you people, so very rigid and dull. And we already may be too late as it is. There’s no way to know. What could we be late for, pray?”
When we passed over the Bay, out that opening where the fog comes in, and skimmed the open ocean, the Wind began to croon and sing. Like to a baby in a cradle, and like a dark incantation, at once.
“This is where I was born, you know, off these wavetops, right here, where the sky meets and touches the sea, saucy thing.” His voice was warm and sad. “I can go anywhere, following the map of her skin. See all of those ripples and wave crests and currents? Pathways each. I cruise those streets and comb across half the world with the pelicans and the gray whales under my hands. I like to eat up their shadows on the water, their exhalations.”
“That’s what you eat, shadows and breaths, like I eat bread or plums?” I felt ill.
“Why yes, girl, how do you think I stay immortal? I’ve been having yours this whole time. It’s part of the deal, the exchange. A toll, if you will. Your shadow isn’t nearly as mild mannered as yourself, I must say. Quite a vixen, really.”
“You mean, I have no shadow now? You mean you’ve sucked the air out of my lungs on top of turning me blue?”
“No, no my dear, you aren’t shadowless, what a thought! No, I only take small nibbles and licks, around the edges. The notches grow back in a matter of weeks, like a robust mint plant will, if watered well. Pick off the tips, it grows back healthier. Indeed, you should be honored by attentions, since your corporeal form is so ungiving; you will have a very potent shadow by the end of all this. I’m doing you a favor, as it were. And my little djinn, did you think the air in your lungs was ever yours? No, I give it to you, and then I take it back again when you’re through with it. Honestly, your kind thinks everything belongs to it by some sort of demented birthright..”
I shook as we gusted over the sea. I craned to see my shadow but couldn’t find it anywhere. The ocean was gray-blue and it rocked and plunged like the skin of an animal. The Wind flew me on routes and paths, marked in those waves, that were invisible to my eyes. I watched the pelicans glide between the troughs, almost touching the water, never faltering. The Wind loved those shadows. He ate pieces of them like I would eat sun-hot blackberries. I could see the Farallon Islands, wrenching up out of the water, rough and lonely. The waves were deep blue around the granite peaks.
He dropped me down on the marine terrace. My bag of gold clattered. He nipped at my shadow, rustled my skirts, kissed me right on the mouth, pointed me toward a large sea-cavern, and left the ground. My lips felt like ice.
“I’m still blue!” I cried out to him, when I looked down at myself.
“You always will be, my little daemon. That was the tax, the other toll. And I can pick you up in my arms anytime I please, now, take you up over the clouds. So don’t relax too much into domestic bliss, once you win back your man and all that. I’m always near. One day you may be glad to know it.” Then he was gone, a flash of blue velvet and a strong breeze.
So there I was, hands cut on that rough terrace of granite. It smelled like birdshit. The wind howled everywhere in my ears; a farewell. Waves made white troughs as they hit the abrupt rock of the shore. I felt I was at the top of a mountain, flooded to its neck. At the beginning of Creation.
I went toward a sea cave, had to climb over rocks and water to get inside. I found a tunnel, easy as that, open to the daylight. I crawled in. Within a few yards, it widened and widened, and I could stand. Lanterns hung on bone hooks that looked like the vertebrae of seals. The shadows they cast on the rough walls were animals I had never seen before, maybe heard of in storybooks—elephants covered in wool with tusks long as crescent moons, lions with teeth that curved out of their mouths and huge legs full of muscle, big broad wolves with short noses and tails, a creature like the camels of the Far East. It was a medieval bestiary, dancing along the walls, but the animals were new to me, not the unicorns and the dragons, manticores, griffins, harpies, giraffes. Beasts that were big and unglamorous and full of power.
I walked in those tunnels lit with oil, dancing with beasts I couldn’t name, for what felt like days. The gold pieces clanked against my back and made my shoulders ache. My shoes ripped to shreds on the sharp rocks. Sometimes I felt like one shadow animal followed me—a big bear with a short nose, or a creature more slender by far than a deer, with twisting horns. They leapt next to me; they seemed helpful, guiding me through bends and forks and crossroads. The air felt thin and damp below ground.
I came to a place where bones covered the walls in a mosaic, in patterns like you see in Persian rugs. I knew I was near. I heard a fox yap and howl. I heard the desperate alarm-songs of chickadees. As I continued, the tunnels opened out and were lined with fungi and molds that seemed planted, even painted, like garden patches of green, orange, white, purple, red.
“You’re making this way too easy for us, girl.” The voice came from a shadow. “Walking right into the trap, without any complaints? You want to see your man? I’ll throw you right in with him.” A creature shaped like a big woman walked toward me. In the light, she was not a woman. Her skin was blue mold and the greens of lichen, her nose long and knobbed as a parsnip root. Her breath filled the cave with the smell of fresh dirt. Her shadow was furred. “We’ll just keep you there after the wedding and watch you grow old,” she continued, laughing. “What fun. You’re even more delicious to look at than him, with all that blue skin. Fetching color. Good thing you’re just in time for the festivities.”
It was never her fault that I realized I loved being a bear more than I wanted her. It was the offer of another world, a siren call I couldn’t resist. I don’t know many men who can, at least not in this place, where all men came following the song of gold in the water, unable to hold themselves back from the promise of a new world.
I held her, strange and blue as a fruit, when she showed up in the granite tunnels to save me. It made my heart split. Once, it was all I wanted, to have this body back, to have the love of a sweet woman. But when she dripped the tallow on me and sent me back here, and they took the bear out of me, I began to grieve. I began to long, not for her any more but for that other body. You always want what you don’t have.
I want the balance of four legs, all rooted; the mercy of claws; the colors, burnished and sanguine, through bear eyes. And the smells. The world is full of them, layered like muscles against the skin of the air. I could walk the world on pathways of smell.
This is all I can think about anymore. It has become a worship, a trance, my only love. So when she came, I held her, I smoothed her hair, I kissed her cheeks, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it: you should not have come. I’m nothing to you. It was all a mistake and I’m sorry.
Instead of crying in my arms, like she might have done once, she did something extraordinary. She opened up a beaten bag on her back and pulled out a spindle and carding comb made entirely of gold. She wouldn’t tell me where they’d come from; only smiled around a secret and went to the corner, where my bearskin was. It had rotted off me, all the extra muscle and fat, but the skin was still intact, shed like a snake’s. She began to pull and brush it with the golden comb. I tried to stop her—it was all I had left—but she wouldn’t let me.
I didn’t pay much attention to all that carding and combing. I didn’t either when she took out the spindle and starting spinning it all. I figured these were the domestic neuroses of a recent prisoner, trying to find something to do with her hands. We’re not always the cleverest lot, not by your reckoning, your measure of wits. Our intelligence lies more in the way of stones and roots. It’s earthen, slower, dense as clay. So, I didn’t think much of it. My wedding dress was almost done. I was growing a blue mold along the edges, like a fur trim. They have to be waited upon, these molds, given their proper time. I was distracted, thinking the trim would be pretty with my eyes. A vain thought, very human. They were rubbing off on me.
I suppose most curses don’t go exactly as planned. This is what makes life unexpected, you might say. I wasn’t expecting that blue waif of a girl to have the power to transform. It was the Lady of Gold, I’m sure, meddling as always with her pretty hands, seeing a curse laid, wanting to muddy the waters, to stamp down her own claw-prints. Beautiful females are like that, expecting everyone to look at them, craving the reflections. If I’d known the spindle, the comb, the apple, were hers, I’d have snatched them away in seconds. But I was distracted. And while I grew blue furs of mold, while I made a speckled bodice of orange spores, she’d spun and woven a huge cape with the bones of a grey fox that had died next door, whose rot we had been enjoying after dinner. Piece by damned piece she wove it, sewed the pieces together with sinew and bone sliver.
On the morning of the wedding, I tucked the cape around him and gave him the apple. I took his hand, which was cold in mine. I threw the carding comb down, and it became a wet river of gold that shattered our glass cage and seeped down the stone tunnels. I held tight to the spindle and it clicked like the needle of a compass. We ran through that river of gold, and it stuck to our feet and the cape. The granite walls flickered around us. Chips of mineral glowed as we passed, giving us light, making my blue skin flash strange shades.
“This way,” the walls seemed to whisper. “That way,” wanting to keep us. The spindle felt like it was wound up with a long string attached far away, above ground, a string that pulled and pulled so I knew where to turn.
I tore after them in my delicate dress. It rippled against the walls as I went. But the river of gold caught my feet like quicksand; not hardening, just a deep sludge. I called after them with the old songs of trolls, the ones that charm stones and tree burls into submission. None of them worked.
Nothing of ours does, in this new world.
I knew when the tunnels passed under the ocean floor. The pressure in my ears felt like being far up in the sky. The weight of the water above us; the weight of air.
When the tunnels pushed up through the earth, out the entrance of an old badger den and into the air, I couldn’t resist the apple any longer.
“Wait for me love,” she said. “Let me under the cape, I’ll be your bear wife. We can share it.” She held out her blue hands.
I ate it whole, without thinking, without waiting, like the first time I saw the rivers here and the miners bending over them. Like the bear I killed long ago, in a perfect instant, without a thought. Pulled the trigger. I ate it all, because I couldn’t wait, because I couldn’t control my sudden desire, the soft luster of the apple like a star in my hand.
He became a bear again without me, so fast, a tempest of fur. I reached out for him, like I used to, when he let me climb on his back or curl against his chest. This time, he just looked at me. Blank, no recognition. Something different in his eyes, something I didn’t know. He growled. Then he lunged and his teeth ripped my arm open as easily as a pair of scissors in cloth.
I screamed, it hurt so much. Everything hurt.
I ran. He followed for a few paces. When I turned my head to look back, he was walking away from me into the night, satisfied. The place where the cape had trailed in gold made the fur around his tail and his back legs blonde as dry grass. I wanted to lie down and bleed out my whole life onto that ground, to have lost him.
I never saw him again.
XXIII. Lady of Gold
I had the last say in this story. That’s how I wanted it. I was tired of being used, and I liked the boy too, in the end. I gave him what he wanted. I couldn’t do the same for her. And who would be left, among her kind, to tell that story, to keep us all in the air, if she were a bear too, cavorting through the acorn groves, nursing clumsy cubs?
No, you need one left behind, to grieve and to scream that sad story against the clouds, against the sky-wet stars. To shape her sadness, big as a bear, into a memory that stays rooted in the human world and keeps us in your dreams.
No one wanted her, with that blue skin. She had sacrificed everything for the dream of a bear who only loved her because he was also a man. Bears love, oh they do, don’t get me wrong. But they don’t love the way humans do. Their love is like the long dark patience of winters, unflinching and slow. They don’t need it, desperately, to be whole; they already are. A human’s love and a bear’s, well, they just don’t fit. One needs to be transformed to match the other.
For a while I watched her dig and pan in the water. Not to get rich, but to find me. She demanded I come out. She whined and she cried and she yelled for me. I didn’t feel like obliging. My finger had been in the pie long enough. And I only have so much patience to grant wishes and such things. I let her dig and call, and dig, until she gave up and went back to the mountains.
I stopped outside the door of my father’s house one night. I stood by the window next to my sisters’ bed. The room looked warm, the covers thick goose-down and silk. The luxuries my going had bought. One of them turned in her sleep toward me and opened her eyes. I started to smile, and wave, but she screamed and screamed. She woke up my other sister and they ran to the door with a cast iron pan. I fled into the woods, crying blue tears down my blue cheeks, drying them with blue hands.
I went straight east, then. Up the streams, along the river, to our den once covered in gold. I didn’t go in. I barely looked at it. I had to be disciplined, to keep from crying. I kept walking, up and up, until I reached the highest blue lakes of the Sierra Nevadas, the lakes surrounded by jagged snow peaks. The air was very thin but at least my lungs were good for this. My blue skin was happy and tough in cold places, dyed to withstand the regions above clouds.
There, I found myself a cavern. I taught my body to hibernate, blue and slow. There, I stayed. One summer, I saw a mother grizzly and two cubs dancing through the columbines around the lake. Both cubs looked like their back ends had been dipped in gold.
In the end, she took me as a lover, though it was only now and then. No one else would have her, and after years she became lonely. It’s suitable, really. I doused her in sky. She was bound to me by a strange blue vein that bled. I taught her some of my songs, and we sang together in the cold crags of the mountain, while she drew bear after bear in the snow. They always melted in summer, ran down the rocks into the streams, down to the places where people lived.
They had stories about her, after a couple decades. The blue woman in the peaks of the Sierras. Once every few years, some foolish boy would climb near the top, wheezing on the thin air, fingers purple. He would leave a pile of apricots. Or a long blue velvet ribbon, or a candle. Offerings, I think, for general good fortune or strength, for a girl’s love. Something like that. He’d sit up there in the snow and talk for a little while to the air, thinking she cared.
“It was a dare,” a boy might say. “For a kiss.” I would gust, and he would tremble. “God, it’s cold. I told her I’d find you, the blue woman up here. C’mon, where are you? I’m going to have to lie. I’d do anything to kiss her, really I would.”
She always threw the candles down the cliffs and watched them break. Then she ate the apricots, tied up her blue, knotted hair with the blue velvet ribbon, and laughed at them all.