Tuesday, December 04, 2018

BEFORE DAWN (fiction)

Before she left for work, she switched off the porch light even though her job as a cook for the school in the next county meant that in winter she got up in the dark and arrived there before sunrise.  No use letting it burn all day.  In summer it was light when she drove.  This far north the nights were short.

The sound of the car door and the whoosh of the seat cover losing air, the slide of her coat backside across until she settled, and then the grinding of the starter were part of the ceremony of the trip.  She had a device that electrically warmed the interior.  If the temperature were really profoundly cold, she would have plugged in the heater for the vehicle but that wasn't necessary this morning.  Pausing in the dark, she took a breath.  Every drive was an adventure through the prairie.  The road was paved and wide enough, but it was unknown -- again.

The lights knob had to be pulled and twisted.  No need for the windshield wipers, but she slid the knife control for the heater over a bit and twisted the fan knob on.  Then the radio which was a little expensive because it was a satellite service and she loved to listen to Howard Stern, secretly and pleasingly all alone in conversation with the outrageous and outrĂ©.  Sirius XM.  By the time in the kitchen she put on her hairnet, uniform and apron, she knew who she was and yet was content to wear a bland, cheerful face, tolerating the antics of the junior high kids who didn't so much play with their food as play "about" food, testing all the rules.

Windrows of snow made by the plow meant that the well-lighted road was edged on both sides by long shadows across the stubble fields.  The road was dry and asphalt hummed against her tires.  The car didn't seem to be moving so much as it felt that the paving was unspooling under her.  There was a line in the middle, with its parallels that prohibited passing where the next interval couldn't reveal an oncoming car, and a fog line along the edge to guard against going in the ditch.  

The greatest fear and generator of PTSD in her drive was the terror of hitting an icy patch and sliding sideways into the ditch, gripping the steering wheel far harder than producing white knuckles, praying not to roll while hanging on mentally and emotionally.  Today there was no ice and no fog.  She was freed to listen to quips and questions that revealed how absurd the world is.  How scary it would be if you thought about it too much.

Here was the place where three or four small trees marked an irrigation ditch.  She had once seen a flock of birds unroll like a speech across the paper sky.  Too fancy a thought and yet it seemed right.  The world speaking.  Birds like an alphabet of only one letter.  A monobet.

The prairie seems flat because we are on a surface that doesn't suspect the sudden dropping in altitude into the wide and deep valley dug by glacier-melt ten thousand years ago and now centered by a thread of continuing river that feeds a long stand of cottonwoods, a place to pitch a shelter near water.  Her mind lectured her with a squib of memory:  "Willow  Rounds is not named for the tipi rings that were once the edges of lodges but rather for the circles formed by brush that grows across the valley floor, pushed back by the need for gathering firewood and taking shelter for private matters."  

She didn't like the hectoring information which involuntarily arrived every time she drove down, across and back up.  But she did like the vision of people going about their business under the tall arcs of the trees.  Cottonwoods shed branches all the time, though down in the bottom there's not much wind to rock them down.  Still, as long as they didn't fall on a lodge, the wood could feed fires.

Climbing out of the coulee she always had to shift down, even though her car was relatively new, well-maintained and powerful.  It was an investment in the preservation of life.  Stick shift because she preferred control and might have to rock the car out of being stuck.  

Reaching the top she could begin to hear the words of the radio again.  The Rocky Mountains were on her left, barely perceptible by starshine.  Clouds were only vaguely shredded along other horizons.  An airplane -- a big one, an airship -- made a straight line across the sky towards the mountains.  Lights from ranches, far scattered, began to grow brighter as people got up.  The red warning lights of the tall wind turbine field colored a third of the sky in the east, confusing the sunrise when it arrived.  Still tens of miles away, the cluster of town lights made a point of reference.

Then without warning a glittering bright jagged object tumbled across the high dark.  Reflexively she slowed, then stopped right on the pavement.  There were no other vehicles on the road and if they came she'd see their headlights.  She switched off Sirius as though she needed to hear this plummeting jeweled strangeness and froze to focus all sensation, feeding into her sense of emergency and a need for response or at least acknowledgement -- naming.  

A vehicle was behind her and the rotating blue lights of the sheriff's patrol car came on.  It was the one with the longhorn steer painted on the side, as though the sheriff were in Texas instead of Montana.  She pulled over to the fog line -- there was an irrigation trench just over the shoulder -- and rolled down her window but stayed in her car as she had been taught to do.  The patrol car pulled in behind her.

She knew the officer.  He was a young man and she had dished up his tray for lunch many times.  "Did you see that?"  His male figure in uniform, gleaming with accessories, stood close to the window, needing to put them together as witnesses.  But it was gone.

The dark and silence stretched out on all sides, even though there were a few rocker oil pumps and a scatter of cattle.  They could feel the planet turning underneath them, carrying the layers of atmosphere where the tiny but powerful instruments signalled earth as they flew in and out of sunlight.  Gravity was more powerful.  Success was limited by time.  He was impressed as she was.  "I'm guessing space junk returning to earth."  He spoke quietly as though someone might overhear their conversation.  Then his radio squawked.

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