Permian Flats

James Stolen Click to

James Stolen was adopted from Calcutta, India and has lived in Alaska and Oregon. He also served in the Peace Corps in Lesotho. He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Virginia Tech. He has work published in Bellevue Literary Review, and is currently working  on a series of short stories and a novel.

 “Permian Flats” was runner-up in the 2nd annual Bevel Summers Prize for the Short Story.

            It had taken them three days to find the Spragg boy. A migrant worker heading to Permian Flats had found the abandoned truck out past Crooked Creek where the road sloped down and away from the pasture of feed grass. An hour or so later the group of searchers found the body lain out beside a great rent in the earth. A deputy later told us at the Blue Hat that down in there was a storm of hot slag flung up beneath the soil. Said that it reeked of bad things. Another man said that he could see the fiery glow from the top of Elk Butte where he had been trailing wolves for the state. A few of the boys finished their beers when they heard this and left their frothy bottles along the bar so they could drive out to find it. I watched them go and finished my own drink. The bar was mostly empty now and the silence sobered me. Although I was also curious I ended up driving over to Enterprise to see Amaya instead. She heated up some cold pork and rice and I ate them in corn tortillas and had another beer as I told her about what the deputy had said. It was a strange thing to talk about. Of otherworldly gashes in the earth and of the way it so easily killed. Of things one could not explain. Amaya crossed herself and put her small hand there on my chest as we sat on the couch together with the lights off and an afghan around us for warmth.

            ­–Lo siento por la familia, she told me.

            –Me too, I agreed.

             The next morning I took Amaya with me when I drove out with the others. There was a line of pickup trucks and a few sedans with scattergun blasts of mud across the undercarriages parked along the road. In the east two farm hands were rolling out spools of barbed wire at the direction of one of the deputies. They flung steel posts from the four-wheeler as they moved, and it was apparent they were building a barricade between us and that place beyond. Amaya and I stood apart from the others at first and I felt her hand move to my waist. Her fingers fit in at the belt loops her closeness comforted me. The father was a man I knew and whom I thought was decent. He stood out ahead of everyone else and was crouched near the ground. After a while he dug his hands under the grass into the netting of roots to find the clumped loess beneath. He brought it up and examined it before letting it sift away between his fingers. Trying to excavate some kind of reasoning for what had befallen his boy, I figured. A woman was smoking beside us but no one really spoke. Finally someone came up from the road and passed back a bottle of rye whisky. It made its way around and I took my share before giving it to Amaya. She swallowed a bit and I could smell the sweetness of it on her mouth. A stray heeler circled noiselessly. Its canine slouch looking like a patch of dirty snow in the late-summer grass. One of the men gave a low whistle to bid it return. The sound of it ended up seeming dramatic and loud.

            Back at the road we waited to offer our condolences to the father but I grew uneasy with what to say and ended up leading Amaya back to my truck. She sat there in the middle of the bench seat and I saw that she was crying quietly. I kissed her hand and told her to wait and went up the road and spoke with Burgess and Stokes who were unloading another spool of wire from the farm truck. They had seen the place already and told me it had spat and stung of lava and smoke. Other men had come to climb the hills to the north the night before, but Stokes said the sheriff turned them away. Not that it had stopped many of them. There at the edge it had been like the earth had parted to reveal itself, and at first it had been strangely alluring, but then it reminded the men of what hell must look like. Burgess spat to the ground with his boot and said that that now he wished he had not seen it at all.

            At the bridge where Crooked Creek bent and then widened I brought the truck to a stop beneath a windbreak of cottonwood. I wanted to tell Amaya about how I had wanted to move on past the father and up over the berm to see that place. The very thought of this made me feel ashamed however and I remained quiet as she leaned against me. Outside I pushed the strands of barbed wire apart so she could slip through first and we both walked through the morning glory and into the pasture. Up the flank of the long hill we could finally see the bulk of smoke flattened out over the valley. In the fading light the smoky underbelly lay bruised with color as what unseen below seethed.


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