Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Swan's Home

Mitch Wieland
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 82, No. 3 (Fall 2008)

For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draweth nigh unto the grave. —Psalm 88

The call comes at high noon, with the sun bright on the rocks and sage, not in the dark midnight hours like Ferrell Swan always expected. On her cell from his old Ohio home, his ex-wife Rilla asks if he's sitting down.

"You bet," Ferrell says, standing at the porch rail. He looks across the high desert country, knowing the news is about Levon, Rilla's child from her first marriage. Ferrell helped raise the boy preschool to high school, the most strife and turmoil ever seen. Though Levon's now thirty-one, not a whole lot has changed.

"What this time?" he says when she doesn't volunteer the words.

"He crashed his car."


The quiet on the line puts Ferrell's knees to trembling. He hopes for anything but Levon being dead, anything else but that. He tries to steer his thoughts from the tragic, but that never helps when it comes to a child, whatever the age.

"Real bad." Rilla goes silent again, leaving Ferrell to feel every mile between his beloved Idaho and the charming brick house from his past, where Rilla now huddles alone.

"I'll get a flight," Ferrell says, already planning the eighty-mile drive to the airport in Boise. "I'll try to be there tomorrow."

"Try very hard," Rilla says and hangs up.

Ferrell pockets his own cell phone in disgust, high-tech messenger of bad news. He studies the colossal smoke columns above Oregon, a half million acres, the radio reports, burning out of control. It has been the worst fire season in a century, months of no rain and hundred-degree days, the air itself ready to burst into flames. Over the summer, Ferrell has seen wildfire in every direction from his isolated cabin, nights lit in garish orange and red, the horizon aglow like the fires of hell have broken through. In daylight hours, the smoke pouring from behind the Owyhees seems a sign of distant war, the bombing of far-off cities.

Last night, Ferrell recalls, the full moon had risen so deeply crimson it scared him, a horrible sunset, he imagined, run backward in the smoky haze. Watching the smoldering moon, Ferrell heard his long dead mother quoting Scripture, something about the moon running the color of blood, a signal terrible events were about to begin.

The plane ride home might as well be a rocket trip to the stars, following as it does Ferrell's decade in the wilds of the West. After years with his oil lamps and solitude, his propane fridge and wood pellet stove, lifting off into the clouds seems a sort of miracle.

Rilla stands outside security, looking worse for wear. She smiles bravely at seeing him, holds him tight when he comes close. Despite the divorce, Rilla has visited the cabin every Thanksgiving since Ferrell moved away. For the last year, she has wanted him to come home, to give up his desert exile and move back to the place of his birth. You need people, she has said. You need family. No, he's told her. I do not.

"Levon?" Ferrell says when she releases him at last.

"Still critical, but they may upgrade today."

"You know Levon won't give up the ghost. He's too afraid he'd miss something."

Rilla gives him the eye, as if he's just criticized Levon in his hour of need. It's no secret Ferrell's had his share of conflict with the boy. Levon ran wild from the time he could run, and during his troubled youth it was all they could do to keep him from jail or serious harm. Ferrell tried hard to get the boy onto the straight and narrow, but Levon had other plans.

On the ride south from Akron, Ferrell learns the specifics of the crash, of the damage velocity times weight imposes upon a healthy young man. Levon was coming home late from the bars in Dover, racing the dark winding backroads, when he plowed into a tree. A common fate, Ferrell knows, often repeated in their rural hinterland.

Moths to a flame, he thinks.

In the coming days, he and Rilla hold vigil outside the icu. They take turns driving home for showers and short, furious bouts of sleep, eating something only because they must. Levon doesn't wake, and so they keep their eyes open for him, guarding him from a world malevolent and unforgiving. Ferrell's mind grows hazy from lack of sleep, the hectic halls of the hospital viewed as if a dream. Evening of the third day, Ferrell parks in Rilla's drive and stares at the house, his fatigue like gravity increased. The pale red light fanning out behind the roof seems not the sunset, but the glow of things burning close at hand, destruction on an epic scale. For a moment he believes the fires of the West have hunted him down, traversed the Great Plains in search of his scrawny ass.

Five days after slamming into a tree, Levon wakes up sore but hungry. Ferrell and Rilla are both in the room, standing at their places on either side of the bed. Levon looks at Ferrell as if he were the one just returned from the shadowy netherworld.

"Swan's home, sweetheart," Rilla says. "He's come back to see you."

"Ferrell's in O-HI-fucking-O?"

"I thought cheating death would make you more personable, son."

Rilla interrupts their standard father-son repertoire. "You scared us, honey."

"Was it bad?"

"It was touch and go." Rilla gently takes her son's hand. His face looks unrecognizable, bruised and swollen to the degree his features have disappeared. The dozen black stitches along his hairline seem too neat and tidy in the bloated face. "You're going to need some time to recover."

"I'm back from the dead?"

"In a manner of speaking."

Levon turns to Ferrell and winks. "What do you know, Ferrell. A new goddamn start."

"Your forte, son."

During the unfolding weeks, Ferrell and Rilla settle into a makeshift routine of hasty home meals and visiting hours. Twice a day Rilla drives him to the hospital, where they pull up chairs beside the bed, chatting with Levon as they've never done before. Always a talker, Levon seems to relish the captive audience. He regales his listeners with tales of the days since he left home, a long litany of self-inflicted mishap. In all the sagas, Levon is the star player, center stage in his drama of job firings and bungled schemes. For every relationship, what begins in a fury of hormones and thrill ends in shouts and broken things, the woman unwilling to go the distance with Levon's twitchy ways.

Twilight on a Saturday, as the boy winds up his latest story, Ferrell claps his hands. "Then what?"

"She piled my stuff in the yard and burned it," Levon says, looking like a court jester in a lime-green smock. "And my wallet was still in the pocket of my jeans."

Rilla gathers her cloth handbag. "I'm craving some of that cafeteria espresso. You boys want some?"

Ferrell and Levon shake their heads, and Rilla hustles out the door, leaving them suddenly and altogether alone. Without Rilla the room has changed into something quite different, and Ferrell decides to make that cafeteria run. Before he can stand, Levon reaches out and abruptly takes his hand. The boy looks on the verge of something terribly emotional.

"I know I disappointed you at every turn," he says solemnly. Ferrell shrugs and tries to free his hand, but Levon's grip is surprisingly strong. "Hell, you weren't that bad." "Let's not hide behind our false rituals, Ferrell. Let's speak from our inner selves for once and be done."

"All right, you first."

"I'm sorry for failing you as a son."

"Good, we've gotten that out of the way."

"Dammit, Ferrell, that's not what we are after here. We're after honest communication and freely spoken minds." Ferrell gives another half-hearted tug to loosen his hand, but Levon holds tight. "Okay, son," he says, resigned.

"Do you think if I'd been more like you, a straight shooter and such, you would have treated me differently?"

"What do you think?"

"I think you'd have found fault with Christ himself."

Ferrell feels the nagging futility he always feels when too many words get said. "Is this helping us, Levon? I mean really."

"I just want to say I know I fucked up in spectacular fashion, and I know you tried your best and only wanted what you thought was right for me. That said, I want to say I'm sorry and I forgive you. And I want you to do the same."

"You want me to apologize?"

"A full-fledged apology for any and all wrongs, plus unconditional forgiveness of any and all things I've said or done."

In the time taken for Levon to speak his mind, the sun sank smoothly and steadily down, and now the whole room is awash in this last flaring, finely crimson and otherworldly. Ferrell decides there's nothing to lose and thus reaches out, taking Levon's other hand. To his surprise, Ferrell feels at peace with this man whose history he shares. He doesn't think for a minute the feeling will last, but he'll always have this one moment, this tenuous truce.

"I hereby forgive your trespasses, dear Levon," Ferrell says in his most assured voice. "Accept my unconditional and repentant apology?"

"Fuck, yeah," Levon says. He pulls Ferrell down into an embrace, holds him fast until the sunlight has slipped below the window sill.

When the phone rings out in the brilliant autumn morning, all hope seems possible. Rilla rises from the breakfast table, laughing at the sunny noon she and Ferrell hiked naked on the ridge, among the curious coyotes. He watches Rilla lift the receiver from the kitchen wall and then looks out the polished picture window, today a framed painting of Sunday residential bliss: prim brick homes, lawns like golf course greens, fat newspapers on concrete porches.

Rilla hangs up the phone and is stricken somehow, as if blood has drained from her face. Her expression turns impassive, though a funny smile worries the corners of her mouth. In the few steps she needs to reach the table, one world passes away and a new one begins, and Ferrell knows he will remember this very minute for his remaining years, knows this is how it feels to have terrible wrath swarm down.

According to the hospital's finest, the cause of death was pulmonary embolism, a fancy way to say what Ferrell learns was a simple blood clot, lingering undetected in Levon's thigh until he rose near dawn to walk the halls. He collapsed while chatting up the night nurse, a young and pretty thing, Ferrell recalls, with sleek auburn hair. Despite immediate attention, Levon died within five minutes.

In the numbing days that follow, Ferrell guides Rilla through the needed arrangements. He chauffeurs her from appointments at Lingler's Crematorium to the church where the service will be held. Their house fills with Rilla's aunts and uncles and cousins, plus friends from her job at the counseling center in Akron. Neighbors bring an assortment of casseroles and cakes, pies of every description. It is a ritual of solace, and Ferrell moves through the crowded rooms glad for the faces around him.

Come the morning of the funeral, the sky dawns bright and mockingly blue, a feedstore calendar of midwestern splendor. It makes Ferrell's regret that much harder to endure. Surrounding him is everything Levon will miss: the sun glow on his head, that faint trace of wood smoke in the breeze, the lulling drone of nearby lawn mowers.

Outside Rilla's church, Ferrell paces the sidewalk in his tight dress shoes. He found the oxfords in the bedroom when he put on his suit, worn for the first time since retiring early from Dover High School, a history teacher no more. The formal clothes remind him of the lengthening distance from his rugged Idaho, from jeans and hiking boots and open space.

A somber, dark exodus converges on the white clapboard building. Ferrell doesn't recognize most of the crowd, Levon's charisma, his easy outlaw charm, having touched more folks than Ferrell could have guessed. Given his solitary ways, Ferrell wonders if anyone will come mourn him. Across the wide lawn, Rilla waves from the doorway of the church. She's sad and lovely in her plain black dress, red hair pinned beneath a black hat. She meets him halfway down the cobblestone path.

"So many people, Ferrell. Levon would be surprised."

"He left his mark."

Ferrell sits at Rilla's side in the front pew, clasping her hand. He does his best to listen to the young pastor, a neat dull man Levon would have truly despised, reading from his typed notes. The eulogy is a carefully edited and cleaned-up account of Levon's short life, his various transgressions turned into achievement, his sins redeemed. From the sterile phrases and stock images, none of Levon's frantic exuberance comes forth, none of his nervous fervor, that feeling the boy was about to leap from his skin. Soon Ferrell ceases to listen to someone Levon never met speak of him as friend.

Near midnight, Ferrell wakes with gripping sadness full upon him. Rilla said true grief would arrive after the funeral, and right on cue Ferrell lies beneath its brunt weight, as if something cold and dank covers his skin. The deep chill seeps into his eyes and ears, floods his heart until it aches. He has always lived on the fragile edge of his moods, able to turn dark and woeful at the drop of a hat, but with real tragedy now at hand, he knows those flights of despair were only practice runs.

In the living room, Ferrell finds the television blaring cable news. It takes him a minute to understand that the shape on the floor is Rilla, cocooned in a sleeping bag from their family camping days, tangled hair spilling from the faded green cloth. The loud tv sends a torrent of tragedy over her ears, a lullaby of murder and terrorist bombings, freak accidents that have wrenched more desperate souls from the world. Ferrell makes coffee and carries two cups back to Rilla. He stops in front of the fireplace, where Levon's urn sits on the mantle. In the disparate thoughts roaming his head, Levon seems a trapped genie with some wishes to grant. But then Ferrell's synapses fire in a different direction, and Levon is simply dead and gone, ashes in a fancy urn.

"Everyone's dying everywhere," Rilla says from the floor. "I counted seventy-five killed since I started watching. And those are the ones that make the news. Imagine how many died today? I bet last breaths are being drawn right now."


Rilla offers Ferrell a look that scares him. She has awakened into a life forever altered, with new rules she has yet to discover. Rilla emerges from the sleeping bag still in her black dress, and she walks straight to the dining room table, where she pours single malt into a shot glass. She downs the scotch and returns to her camping spot with bottle and glass.

"Is there anything I can do?"

"You can bring my son back."

Ferrell closes his eyes, his thoughts worthless and stupid. He knows Rilla knows each possible condolence he could offer. As a counselor for twenty years, she's comforted scores of the grieving, kids who'd lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, best friends known since kindergarten. Ferrell was always amazed at her talent for soothing such raw wounds, how she could talk someone out of their pain. Now, he understands, her special prowess has left her defenseless against her own sorrow.

"If I could, Rilla, I surely would."

"You would not."

His hands tremble badly, and Ferrell sets the cups on the end table. He mainlines a dangerous dose of remorse, with potent self-pity mixed in. He looks to the front door, with an overriding impulse to flee.

"You never liked him, did you?"

"Rilla, please."

"I mean you rode his ass all those years. The damn kid couldn't do a damn thing to please you."

"I did my best."

"Your best wasn't fucking good enough. Your best wasn't even close. Finding fault with his every move, never a good word. That boy grew up believing he wasn't worth shit. That's what you were, Ferrell, a constant reminder of his limitations, his many and varied flaws."

"I thought I was keeping him in line."

Rilla pours another shot, her green eyes daring Ferrell to utter a word. "He's dead, Ferrell, and what good did he hear from you? Bitch and moan, criticize and find fault. Did you ever let the kid feel good about himself?"

Ferrell considers revealing their heart to heart, that last prophetic meeting between father and son. But to open his mouth would be to contradict her, a rebuttal to the blazing vision she sees.

"You take a person's delight," she says. "You steal their fucking bliss. You know that, Ferrell? You steal a person's goddamn bliss."

Tears scald his eyes. An invisible hand clenches his throat. He stands dumb and blind, utter doom rocketing his way.

"I'm just setting the record straight," Rilla says and drinks from the bottle.

Ferrell can't seem to get enough air. He goes clammy all over, feels ready to collapse under this blackness raining down. He wonders if despair can kill him outright, if his heart might finally seize.

Oh, God, he thinks, take me now and be fucking done.

When he opens his eyes, Rilla looms before him, an angel of mercy come to sweep him from the earth. Her eyes show untold suffering, and then the fires of hate brightly burn. She turns her back to him, head hung low, shoulders slumped. He notices how rumpled her mourning dress has become, the black cloth creased and wrinkled. Heaving sobs wrack her small frame, and he reaches out to comfort her, the one thing he knows how to do.

As Ferrell's hand rests on her shoulder, Rilla whirls. Her arms become a sudden and confusing blur. His head twists on his neck, and fine white sparks shower the room. The thudding blow registers home. Rilla hits him with her fists, slams his temple and chin, the bridge of his nose. Her punches sink into his belly, his ribs, the bone plate of his chest, and he watches her through bursting fireworks of silver and red. These are not wild flailing blows, he realizes in a detached way, but punches calm and calculated, Rilla intent on putting him down. He opens his arms to accept her gift.

In the night, Ferrell sleeps among the wretched and the damned. He hovers on the ragged border between rest and dream, his wounds smarting whenever he moves. In fleeting fragments of a shifting world, he lies in the steamy torture rooms of Hades, beaten by beings he cannot see or hear. Then he's in the hot sand of the ridge, pinned beneath a creature sinister and grotesque: a naked woman with a horse skull for a head. This beast grips a white cannon bone, and she strikes Ferrell in the head with the blunt shaft, his nose spurting red. She clubs his eyes until he's blind, his mouth until he cannot speak. Where his teeth have broken free, his blood runs bitter as wine. Then Ferrell sits alone on his cabin porch, watching wildfire pour off the ridge, the tumbleweeds thousands of miniature suns. Orange flames rise into the night, a sharp crackling roar. Soon fire engulfs the corrals and barn, and then the porch boards smolder and flare, flames blanketing him in a horrid heat. He raises his hands to protect his face, but his skull melts beneath his fingers like wax.

Ferrell wakes to fierce light filling the room. He lies without moving, studies the water stains on the ceiling as if secrets will be revealed. His head hurts a billion ways past Sunday, his ribs bruised and aching.

He finds Rilla sitting crossed-legged before the television. A deluge of CNN misery still washes over her, and Ferrell gets a quick hit of indignation at these constantly talking heads. He walks in front of the screen, blocking Rilla's view, but she doesn't lift her eyes to him. He reaches back and shuts off the television.

Rilla stares straight ahead like a statue of defeat. Ferrell doesn't move or speak, and she finally looks up. She seems to study his damaged face with honest wonder.

"You look terrible," she says.

"You don't look so hot yourself."

"I haven't slept in days."

"Maybe the doctor can do something."

"Can he bring my son back?"

"Look, Rilla . . ."

"Christ, Ferrell, I'm sorry."

When he steps toward her, Rilla raises both hands from her lap. Her fingers have swollen twice their size, the knuckles invisible beneath the smooth taut skin.

"You're hurt," Ferrell says.

"I want to be."

"But you might have broken bones."

"It's my punishment. For hurting you. For failing Levon."

"You didn't fail Levon."

"I couldn't keep him alive. My role was to protect him."

"But you weren't there. You couldn't have been."

"Always driving so fast. Always so reckless. Damn him, Ferrell, why couldn't he slow the fuck down?"

"To slow down wasn't an option, honey. You more than anyone knew that boy had only one gear."

"Knowing didn't fucking help. All my training, and I couldn't do a thing to save him. I can't even do a thing to save myself."

"At least you understand what's happening to you."

"It's like a disease," Rilla says, and shakes her head. "It's inside me when I sleep, when I'm awake. It feels like it's in my damn blood."

"They say it gets better."

"It doesn't. It'll change and become something else, but it'll never relent."

"How can I help?"

"I want to see where it happened. Can you take me there?"

The anguish in Rilla's eyes gives him no choice. "If you think it's for the best."

"There is no best anymore."

Rilla rides shotgun and Ferrell drives, the big car leaving their little town and edging quickly into the pastoral. Ferrell notes the leaves on the wooded hillsides have mostly fallen, and in the fields the cornstalks stand hollow and pale. Much of the cropland has already been plowed, dark loamy earth prepared for the long wait to spring. Ferrell feels secretly comforted at how life has been going on despite their grief, but he keeps such observations to himself.

At Broad Run Dairy, Rilla points out a gravel road and Ferrell swings the car east. Stones ping off the undercarriage, and he slows to a crawl, delaying their arrival as long as he can. He finds he doesn't want to see this spot, Rilla or no, doesn't want to view what stopped Levon's rowdy ride.

"We should be close, Ferrell. The police said a mile past the dairy, before the abandoned coal tipple."

Ferrell brakes even more, peering over the hood for signs. Ahead a lone birch towers beside a straight stretch of road. Ferrell parks as far to the side as he can, without getting stuck in the shallow ditch. First off he sees the boy had to veer wide right to leave the road and hit the tree. Indeed the boy managed not only to lose control on a straightaway but to hit the only tree in the whole hundred-acre pasture. The irony would not be lost on poor Levon.

Ferrell gets out and paces to where tire tracks cross the ditch. Torn sod leads from the busted fence to the broad trunk, its white pulpy wood exposed from the impact. He feels the crash could have been yesterday, such an aura does it cast. Rilla walks into the pasture alone, her funeral dress dark against the sallow grass, and Ferrell hangs back, leaving her to private thoughts. She stands before the tree for minutes too painful to witness. Ferrell returns to the car and sits on the hood, but each time he looks up he wonders how Levon rammed a tree ten feet off the road. Ferrell feels another black crying jag swoop down, and he presses thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, as if stemming the tears will stem the sadness. Try as he might, he can't imagine Levon never again wreaking glorious havoc upon the land.

"You all right?" Rilla stands in front of him, a gap in time somehow.

"Are you?"

"It takes the mystery out of it, that's for sure. It's just a tree, and Levon ran into it at seventy miles an hour." Rilla reaches out and touches his knee. "You want to go over?"

"I'm hard put as it is."

"You always were a softie, Ferrell, beneath your cranky gruff act." Rilla sits beside him on the hood. He recognizes the most common pose of their youth: side by side on the hood of a car, single lane stretching away from the front bumper.

"You loved him, Ferrell. I know you did."

"I know that too."

"I'm sorry for what I said. What I did."

"You just can't hold your liquor, Rilla."

"Humor aside, beating your ex-husband is not legal in most states."

"It is in Idaho."

"Let's go, Ferrell. I'll drive."

Rilla accelerates past the tree and keeps going, Levon's original route that fateful night. At Willy Slater's Lane, she bears left where the road forks. Ferrell's been gone long enough that this maze of unnamed backroads eludes him.

"I'm lost," he says.

"I'm not."

The car enters woods so dense and dark it seems night has abruptly fallen. Ferrell stares into the complicated tangle of the trees, primordial and uninviting, even to him and his love of wild places. The car tops a brief rise and then swings down into a low hollow. Rilla slows and leans forward in her seat, searching for something in the murky light.

"There," she says and turns onto a drive Ferrell would have never seen: rough ruts passing through poison ivy and nettles. Tucked in the heavy shadows, a battered single-wide hunkers parallel to the road.

"What the hell?" Ferrell says.

"Levon's home," she says. "He lived here for almost a year. His longest residence ever, not counting our house."

"This place would make a hermit proud."

"Maybe he took after his stepdad more than we knew."

Rilla gets out and Ferrell follows, the branches of the trees pressing down until he wants to duck. Without sunlight, the air is damp and cool, and Ferrell wishes for his coat. The mobile home is an eyesore at best, probably a Fleetwood from the seventies. Most of the siding has peeled in sharp metal curls, revealing faded yellow insulation.

"He won it in a poker game," Rilla says, before Ferrell can ask.

"High stakes."

Ferrell studies the trees crowding in. It's as quiet as it gets, some birdcall above, the light rustling of leaves. He visualizes Levon living in this spot, such an utter lack of stimulus to a man who injected agitation directly into his veins. Almost too much to believe, this Levon he never knew.

Ferrell hears keys clanking. Rilla shoulders the door and steps inside, a mother simply checking on her boy. Ferrell tries to rein in his galloping heart and then goes inside. The interior is another surprise in a morning of surprises. Though clearly beyond its better days, Levon kept the place clean. No dishes in the small sink, the carpet vacuumed, no dirty socks or rumpled boxers in sight. Even the cabinets in the kitchenette have been recently painted.

"Cozy," Ferrell says, and means it.

In the rear of the trailer, the bed was meticulously made, and Ferrell has to smile: year after childhood year, he insisted Levon straighten the covers, to start the day with a little order, not stagger from his room like an orphan boy. Above the bed hangs a blown-up snapshot of Ferrell and Rilla on the cabin porch, neat whiskies raised to the setting sun. Rilla has her mouth open in laughter, at some joke of Levon's before he snapped the photo. Ferrell returns down the narrow hall, passing the bathroom with its cramped shower, commode, and sink. Rilla sits on the ratty couch, a sheaf of notebook paper in her hand, Levon's loopy script scrawled across the lines. Beyond the thin walls Ferrell hears not a sound.

"Sure is peaceful, Rilla."

"He said he liked it that way. He said the noise in his head grew hushed out here." Rilla stands up without warning, as if remembering something she needs to do. "I'm going to check the bedroom too."

Ferrell watches Rilla pass down the hall. Her slow and considered steps, her bowed head, remind him, spookily, of a penitent approaching an altar. He walks to the front window to give himself something to do. Outside, total gloom still reigns, and he's surprised somehow, as if expecting the sun to have penetrated the trees. In this sheltered place, he can't help but picture Levon strolling the woods in thoughtful meditation, hidden from the temptations of town. Ferrell understands how this unwanted strip mine became shelter for Levon, reprieve from the clamorous places where trouble always found him, where neon bar signs called his name in such hoarse, urgent whispers, where women could not stop needing what he had, his own blood opiate to their famished needs.

Ferrell stares hard into the woods, hunting between the dark trunks rising everywhere, and he sees the boy himself, Levon in the flesh, as much in the physical world as the black trees. Levon walks with his head down, a posture never witnessed when the boy was alive. Ferrell blinks at this crazy trick of his tired eyes, leans closer to the filmy glass, but Levon's still there, tramping slowly by the trailer. He won't look at Ferrell, ruler of his domain for fifteen years, king of law and order. If Levon would give him some sign, Ferrell would know absolution has come his way, but the boy keeps his unbroken pace, moving farther into the shadows.

Ferrell hears Rilla call his name down the hall, and he glances from the window, dazed at his return to the living. It takes a moment to gather his wits. Rilla calls to him once more, and something in her voice raises gooseflesh on his neck and arms. His feet move on their own accord and Rilla calls yet again, his name murmur and shout at one and the same time. He looks down at the black leather shoes she was wearing, then, inches farther, finds the crumpled dark pile of her mourning dress. Her pure white undergarments lie at the threshold to the room, but Ferrell doesn't raise his eyes to the bed, where he knows she lies waiting. His fingers find the buttons on his shirt, and he slips free from the cloth. He bends and pulls off his boots, one echoing thud after another, his redemption song while ghostly Levon wanders the woods outside.

The flight west retraces the dusty route of covered wagons and washboard oxen, that fabled Oregon Trail five miles below Ferrell's feet. He tries to wrap his mind around the physical fact of Rilla, asleep in the next seat, but can't seem to fathom the how of his new traveling companion, his amigo. From the requested window seat, Ferrell keeps watch on their steady progress across the sprawling continent—the tabletop plains with those lonely intersecting roads and then the heaving snowy spires of the Rockies, reaching to scrape the underside of the plane.

At last the terrain below turns lunar and forbidding, fold after fold of the featureless hills near Boise, such oddly contoured land. Soon the subdivisions slide into view and then the Outlet Mall and Micron and the neat square blocks and bare trees of the city. The runway rises up fast and jars Rilla awake. She turns and kisses his cheek, their second life begun.

When Ferrell reaches the skinny bridge over the Snake, night has long fallen. He drives through a blackness total and complete, the high desert invisible all around, though beyond his headlights he knows the vast spaces touch tomorrow. He's as tired as ever but doesn't feel the need for sleep, only an urgent wish to stop and be still. Above a road that keeps spooling out, icy stars pack the sky.

Parked at the cabin, Ferrell sits with the highway still rushing his closed lids. Rilla stirs at the absence of movement, and she sits up in her seat, staring into the dark.

"Are we here?"

"We are."

"What time is it?"

"Midnight, I expect. Maybe later."

"When does the moon come up?"

"Should be within the hour."

"Will it be full?"

"You bet."

While Ferrell hauls their bags inside, Rilla waits on the porch. He traipses from truck to cabin, cabin to truck, Rilla's creaky rocker keeping cadence with his work. After the luggage is stowed, Ferrell carries an oil lamp from room to room, checking on his meager possessions. Beyond the log walls he can smell the acrid scent of soot and ash, but his cabin is unharmed, and for that he gives silent thanks.

Ferrell brings the lamp to the porch, casting fluttery light on Rilla and the rocking chairs. In her arms she cradles Levon's blue funeral urn, which she must have packed in her carry-on when Ferrell wasn't looking. He understands in an instant what she intends, and he blows out the flame, darkness rushing over them like flood water. A radiance shows above the ridge, and then the curve of the moon emerges like some exotic fiery scimitar. The moon clears the ridge, scary huge and rising fast.

"Are you ready?" he asks.

"I am."

Ferrell lets Rilla lead this sacred pilgrimage he knows too well. Around their feet, ash floats up pungent and strong, and he wonders how Rilla can find her way in this unfamiliar landscape. He himself supposes they cross nothing short of the charred ruins of hell. Rilla stops and takes her bearings, checks the stars like a captain at sea. Ferrell squints into the night, surprised to make out the white boulders of the wash.

"I'm amazed you found the place."

"I had help."

The moon has slipped higher, and Ferrell can clearly discern the shadowed entrances of the coyote dens, tucked beneath the embankment. He knows the dens are vacant this time of year, occupied only in late winter when the alpha female has her pups. Rilla sits at the opening of the largest den. Ferrell recalls their previous visit to these dens with another funeral urn, the damp fog and snow of that Thanksgiving morning, and how deeply cold he felt as Rilla performed her strange ceremony. She'd left her father to rest with the coyotes, bones and ash among the littered bones of the dens. They took a private sacrament that day, such bitterness on his tongue.

Ferrell walks over to Rilla and eases himself down. He senses the endless motion of the day has finally ceased, that he has arrived someplace where he can rest, where some measure of stillness can be found.

"He never met my father," Rilla whispers. "Do you think he would have liked him?"

"They had the same blood in their veins."

"That's never enough, Ferrell."

"But Levon would have understood your father. They fought the same hard battles."

"That's right, Ferrell. They will get along."

Rilla's hands move in the shadows, and then she reaches out to Ferrell. He opens his palm to receive the round glass top of the urn, cool against his skin. He cradles the lid in his lap.

"He'll like it here, I think," she says. "He'll have plenty of room in which to roam."

"And a traveling companion," Ferrell says.

"And a traveling companion."

When Rilla moves quietly once more, Ferrell holds out his hand. He feels the ash as something fine and weightless on his palm, with substance and yet not there at all. He wishes beyond reason for Levon to be among the living, and then feels he still is among them, not ghost or spirit, not memory encoded in the creases of his brain, but somehow in the air around them.

"He will be part of us," Rilla says, both hopeful wish and absolute truth.

Ferrell raises his hand as he did years before, touches tongue to bitter ash, eyes shut so tightly they ache. He feels the heated rush of forgiveness, not from without but within, forgiveness of himself for his myriad failings, for hardships imposed upon those under his watch. At his side, Rilla tosses her handful of ash before them, and Ferrell does the same. Then she upends the urn and ash whispers down. Ferrell imagines the coyotes sniffing this strange scent, this peculiar ash hinting of man. When the coyotes pace this sacred spot, traces will cling to their swift paws and carry Levon with them as they run beneath the watchful eyes of heaven.

When Ferrell wakes in the dark, years may have passed. He lies next to Rilla in their soft bed of sand, the surrounding sagebrush like guardians of their sleep. His mouth tastes of sooty ash, and his bleary mind recalls Rilla hugging him with great strength after emptying the urn. They stretched out under the electric stars, the moon pale as weathered bone, and slept fast and deep.

Now the stars have dimmed, and he finds the moon on the other side of the sky. To the east the horizon has brightened - another day, he thinks, neither sought nor desired. If Rilla were guide through their surreal night, then Ferrell will lead them into this impending day, and he nudges her awake. He wants badly to witness dawn from atop the ridge, a desert ritual of his own.

"The sun," Ferrell says. "We've got to hurry."

Ferrell hikes surefooted through the chaparral, and Rilla follows without protest, trusting him as he trusted her. He reaches the trail to the ridge and starts to climb, drawn as if a rope pulls him up. He can hear Rilla breathing hard close behind, but he doesn't slow until he reaches the top.

On the ridge he and Rilla hunch over, winded but laughing. They've beaten the sun, and Ferrell feels pleased at this small victory, happy to have raced the day and won. He stands before this new beginning: the two of them and nothing else but the comfort of unmeasurable distance. He'd forgotten how tremendous the vista is from his ridgetop, how much pleasure the sight hundreds of miles can bring. From here he can almost see the curve of his parched planet, so inhospitable a place that he feels more alive.

Rilla grazes her fingertips across his cheek, reminding him of the sustenance she provides. He puts his arm across her shoulders, such a fit over the years, their puzzle of two, and they remain embraced as the sun breaks the horizon. Somewhere in Ferrell's mind voices whisper of war and rampant carnage, but for now he refuses to hear.

"Damn, Ferrell," Rilla says.

"Damn straight," he says.

In the rising light, Ferrell studies the impressive reach of August's fire. What he hoped was night shadow is miles of scorched desert, the pitch-black skeletons of sagebrush and tumbleweed, the indigo bunchgrass. Rilla walks south and looks down upon their homestead, and Ferrell joins her to discover how close the cabin came. Below he sees the sweeping turn the fire made, his northward corrals and fences blackened, his burned barn like a razed ship. A dozen paces farther, the log cabin sits untouched, as though the calloused hand of God intervened.

And then, unexpected but utterly perfect, a lone coyote calls from the ravine. It's one sustained cry, not yip or bark, but the mournful howl of a coyote seeing who's around. I'm here, it asks, anyone else? The call lasts ten seconds at best, and then cuts short, ringing in Ferrell's head like a struck bell. No answer arrives from the rocky spine of the ridge, and the coyote doesn't call again. Ferrell and Rilla look at each other and raise their voices to the sun.