Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.122] The next morning Walter drove them out to view the western part of his ranch, forty miles away into even deeper desert. Allison sat between father and son, trapped; both were eager to describe their operation. They wintered the cattle out west and drove them back to Rockwood each Easter.
Walter also told her that the summer before, he had decided to make a little money by building a bath house over the hot mineral pool on his property, to make a place for sheep herders and tourists to soak their tired bones. Allison looked out the windows at the stretch of white and gray desert, marked by gray desert bluffs, barren as west Texas. Tourists? When he started to dig the foundation, up came a grinning Goshute skull, hardly decomposed. He had called the University of Utah and soon a team of anthropologists were working the dig.
When they arrived, Allison saw that the edge of the pool was covered by a blue canopy. A mummified, doubled corpse lay on a table—a large figure with a small one bound across her belly with inch-wide bands of leather. “We’ve named her Marilyn Monroe,” said Walter.
Allison stepped forward. “Don’t touch,” said a woman—one of the university anthropologists. “They’re very fragile. We’re hurrying to get them back into a brine solution.”
“She died in childbirth,” Allison said. The mummy woman’s [p.123] hands were at her sides, not curled around the child bound across her belly.
“Probably,” the man said. He looked up. “Have we got skunks in our tent again?”
“It’s me,” Allison said. He looked askance at her and then went back to his work—using a thick-bristled brush to remove salt crystals and particles of black clay from the woman’s face. The woman’s mouth and eyes were three flat lines. Stoic in death. There, Allison wanted to say to Howard, that’s the condition of your ubiquitous ancestors. The face chilled her. She imagined the woman grimacing in childbirth. “The valley of the shadow of death,” her religious Aunt Jenny called it. That valley had nearly killed Jenny, nearly killed Allison’s own mother; one inheritance of the Franklins was a narrow pelvis.
Next to the table lay a fiberglass box, coffin shaped; in its cover were set humidity and temperature gauges. Allison bent face to face with the corpse. The skin had no pores, taut as stretched leather. Her face was thick and dark, stolid beyond suffering. Allison had never before seen anything like the face of this woman, hundreds of years dead. Her features—sharp nose, high cheekbones, wisps of hair—were familiar as a dream. Everyone who lives dies, Allison thought. Howard, toward the end of his mission, had flirted with that truth but had reverted to his belief that the universe was populated by dead ancestors. She thought of Michael breathing water, of this woman lowered dead into the heavy water. Her chest tightened, and she jerked herself away.
“We’ve found three so far,” said the man.
“Yes,” said Walter. “One in July and two this past week. We hope to find more.”
“Two?” rasped Allison. Walter pointed. From the mud below the tables grinned another face, shrunken but hardly decomposed, skin white with crystals of salt, leathery eyes closed. They had only cleared the mud away as far as the top of the corpse’s shoulders; it looked like someone buried in sand at the beach.
“The pond shifted and buried them in mud,” Walter said.
The man pointed to thongs tied around the woman’s ankles. “They must have tied boulders to weigh them down.”
[p.124] “We first thought they were sacrifices,” the woman said.
“Maybe it was the Goshute Mafia,” said Howard.
“That was another theory,” said the man. “Some kind of revenge.”
“Now we just think that it was for burial preservation,” said the woman. Allison stood on the bank of the pool; the water was deep, as black as the volcanic ridge. “We can’t find a bottom to this pond, the roots go so deep. They may have thought of the pool as a passageway to the next life. Reborn in this heavy mineral water, salty as the ocean.” Allison looked down into the water; the gray banks made the water look milky. The woman’s people had hoped to bind her and her child through that difficult passage. Perhaps they had stood on the shore where Allison now stood, conducting some paltry, insufficient ceremony as they laced the dead child to its dead mother. Allison had no confidence. The only sure binding was that which the child had accomplished, dragging its mother after it into death.
She had seen enough. Behind the dig rose a black volcanic ridge, three or four hundred yards high, rounded like a grave mound. It extended south out of sight. Across the white and gray alkali flat were scattered dry bluffs, blue in the distance, misshapen like the grotesque bodies of prehistoric reptiles mired in mud. Stark and dry as a moonscape, except for the impossible sunflowers, seven feet tall, which grew in the margin of the road. Rockwood town was forty dust-choked miles away across the desert.
She opened both doors and sat in the truck, hoping Howard and his father would catch her hint. Covering her face with a map from the glove compartment, she tried to sleep. She still saw the face of the woman as if it hung suspended above her. Much darker, more composed—no, indifferent—than Michael’s face when they pulled him from the water. Howard and Walter remained at the dig for what seemed hours, actually only forty minutes by her watch.
“It’s been three days,” she said, when Howard finally came back to the pickup. “I’m going to Anchorage in the morning. I want to get back to your house and get some rest.”
He frowned. “Three days is tomorrow evening. How about a short detour before we go home?” He drove up the small valley toward a [p.125] ramshackle cabin. The cabin was covered with black tar paper on the walls and roof; a huge flat boulder served as the doorstep. Following him inside, she smelled dust and mice and heard the ticking of feet behind the refrigerator. In the middle of the room was a wooden table, covered with stacks of books; against the walls were a bed piled high with worn-out blankets, a large black cook stove and a refrigerator. “This is it.”
“Is what?” she said.
“I thought we might sleep here tonight. The anthropologists are driving to Hamblin for groceries. They’ll give Dad a ride.” He pointed to the chair behind the table. “My grandfather used to sit here. He had a white bristly beard. He’d bring out the cribbage board and then dish up metal bowls of stew while I shuffled.”
She looked around the cabin, hardly knowing what to say. She knew from what Emily had told her that morning that Howard’s grandfather had sat behind the table for twenty years before he died. Alone. One day he had gone crazy and, folding his clothing on his bed, had climbed naked in January up the side of the black ridge. “His joints were bad by then,” Emily had said, “so he couldn’t walk without crutches. I’ve never understood how he made it up there.” The family had a private theory about what was in his head. Before his death, he had been saying that he heard Marilyn Monroe wailing from the rocks above his cabin. He asked Walter once, “Do you think she’d be kind to a decrepit old man?” He had been dead for several days before Walter drove out from town. He had followed the tracks in the snow and found his father, blue, his fingers, nose, and privates gnawed by coyotes.
She said, “I will not sleep in this son-of-a-bitching cabin.” In Anchorage the first thing she would do was drink until she forgot this man who was determined to become his father and grandfather. “This old coot in Willy’s said this should be our honeymoon cottage. Now you get me out here and you tell me you want to spend the night. Feels like the Twilight Zone. In the morning I’d wake up looking like that corpse.”
Howard touched her. “She died in childbirth,” he said. “We can go back to Rockwood.”
[p.126] “Damn right we can.” She turned and found herself nearly running to the truck.
Allison strode into the brightly lit kitchen, still warm from the heat of the day. Emily sat at the table, her head down. “What’s wrong?” said Allison, walking forward to touch her arm.
“I don’t know how to think about it. Bishop released me as Relief Society president.”
“Released?” said Allison.
“It was important to me.” Walter sat next to her, placing his hand on her forearm.
“Did he call you to something else?” asked Howard.
“You just went too far,” said Walter.
“Thomas Feldsen told him.”
Howard frowned. “Who?”
“New in town,” said Emily. “I wrote you. The man who told his wife that the only thing that kept him with her was the children. Well, he told the bishop to keep me away from his wife.”
“Keep the Relief Society president away from a woman in the ward?” said Howard.
Allison watched their faces for clues.
“He was kind. Let me talk about the ward, me and Walter, you and Allison. Then instead of giving me stupid advice like get a makeover or repent or whatever, he talked to me about Walter’s father, how he went off in the desert because he could get along with cattle better than he could with people. He said that Walter is his father’s son. Howard, are you your father’s son? Then he gave me a blessing. He told me I’d be comforted through trials that are coming.”
“How could he release you?” said Howard.
Emily twisted her hands in her lap. “I knew it was coming. I gave priesthood blessings when I don’t have the priesthood. What do I do now?”
“Keep talking to women,” said Allison. “From what I can see, you’re good at it.”
“My father’s house is a house of order,” Emily quoted. “I can’t act [p.127] without authority.” Her lips and hands fiddled. “I didn’t know I’d enjoy being in charge. All my callings before have been teaching or organizing dinners. I like speaking in front of large groups. I give women solid, careful advice.” She wiped her eyes with the fingers of each hand. “They want to unload all their problems onto me, as if I were Bishop Hansen or their therapist. I’m not a therapist, and I’m certainly not a bishop. Maybe an angel of the devil inspired me to give those blessings.”
“There’s another way to tell this story,” said Allison.
Emily folded her hands in front of her. “I just needed to be more patient.”
Allison sat down at the table. “Being submissive will eat your guts out.”
“It didn’t feel evil. I told them, ‘Stand up to your husbands. You are daughters of God.’ But that’s another reason he released me. A few weeks ago I gave a fireside in Hamblin.”
Walter said, “That the one where you told all the young women they didn’t need men?”
“How do you know anything about what I said?” said Emily. “It was a young women’s meeting and you don’t even go to your own meetings.”
“I go to Willy’s,” said Walter. “Vernon tells me.”
“Well, Vernon has it wrong. I told them that—” She shook her head with frustration. “The bishop wasn’t at that meeting either.”
“What did you say?” asked Howard.
“I talked about morality.” She looked from Allison to Howard. “Last summer one of the leaders gave the girls a lesson on chastity. She offered them gum, and then when they tried to take it, she chewed it and stuck the wad against their palms. ‘Who would want chewed gum?’ she asked them. And then she held up a rose, plucked the petals off. Same message—you’re not worth anything if you’ve made a mistake. A couple of the girls’ mothers complained to me, so when this young women’s fireside came up, I decided to give them another view. I told them that they should stay chaste not to please a man—they all [p.128] have this belief that men are like princes, I don’t know why—but because they are powerful daughters of God.”
“So just tell the bishop what you told them,” said Allison.
“I did. He understands that whoever reported to him has it wrong, but he believes that the young women need the kind of warning their leader gave them. So many young people are unchaste, he says, that anything that can keep them pure is good.” She faced Howard. “I told him that there was another way to keep them chaste: tell them that their destiny does not depend on pleasing men. That kind of thinking makes girls confused, timid, or false.” She took a breath. “I compared sex to roast beef and potatoes. If you eat them early the meat is raw and the potatoes are crunchy.” She glanced at Allison but continued speaking to Howard. “Then I told them that even if they had sex, their petals were not plucked, their gum not chewed, virtue not destroyed, and that they could still find a man to love them. Then I told them that once a man, Jesus, stopped by a well and asked a woman for a drink of water.” As Emily remembered the talk, her motions and voice became animated, as if she gripped a pulpit in front of a crowd. “He spoke to her in a kind and open way. He saw into her inner soul and he taught her. When he left, her life was transformed. There were three reasons he shouldn’t have even talked to her. One, she was a woman, second class. Two, she was a Samaritan, hated by the Jews, and Christ was a Jew. Three, she was a sinner, and why should a holy man talk to a sinner? ‘After the water I give you,’ he said, ‘you won’t thirst anymore.’ What is that water? The gospel. What is the gospel? Forgiveness and remission of sins. He forgave that woman. Can’t he forgive you, Howard?”
Howard’s face, usually mobile and expressive, was unreadable. “I don’t know that,” he said. “I want to know it, but I don’t.”
Walter stood and walked to the stove. He turned the burner up under the frying pan. He cut a pat of butter with the spatula. “Let’s have some dinner. We’ll all feel better.” He looked in the fridge for something to fry.
“I’m not hungry,” Emily said. “I’m going to make new plans. Maybe go back to school. I’ll have time now.”
[p.129] Allison woke to Howard leaning over her on the bed. “Marry me,” he said. “Marry me.” She started to respond, but he put his mouth against hers and then bounced off the bed. He was already dressed. The room was still dark, but outside the barnyard had turned gray. Pulling on her pants and shirt, she followed him down to the kitchen, where he handed her a pair of rubber boots. “Daylight’s wasting. Come help me move the pipes.” The boots flopped around her feet.
Outside he pointed eastward toward the steaming meadow and creek. Long rows of silver sprinklers turned above the black fields. She shivered in the cold air. “I’m freezing.”
“Want to drive?” he asked, as if the dilapidated truck were a Mercedes. She climbed in and ground the reluctant starter. He directed her down the lane where the skunk had sprayed her. Though most of the sky was filled with dark clouds, a clear band showed above the mountains where the sun would rise. She drove south along the canal and parked next to the first line of sprinklers. Howard climbed out quickly, walking ahead of her toward the top of the line. Damn, she thought. After all I’ve invested in him, he’s made a decision. Either/or: slut or wife. No room in his head for lover.
The nozzles tapped, turning slowly. The spray showed white across the hayfield. She passed him, grabbing the handle of the valve that would turn off the water. “Men call women wife when they’re married. They start thinking they have rights. They start presuming.”
“That happens when men aren’t married.”
“I like the idea of two people running together like wolves,” she said. “Nothing constraining them to be together except their free and natural attraction for each other.” She looked down at the crank, which would shut off the water. “How does this work?”
“You’re so idealistic,” he said. “That arrangement would last maybe two years.”
“Then it should last two years.” She turned the crank one way and then the other. It sprayed cold water in her face, but the level of the sprinklers remained unchanged. “It’s not working,” she said. “Okay, what’s the secret?” She flinched as the spray from the first sprinkler splattered cold across her back.
[p.130] “Exhilarating, isn’t it?” he said.
“That’s not quite the word I had in mind. It’s six-thirty in the morning, I’m standing in half a foot of freezing water, getting sprayed and—” She flinched as the water hit her again.
“Push the handle down while you’re turning.”
“Oh.” She turned the crank and watched the water die from the first nozzle, then the next and the next, down the field.
“See, that wasn’t so hard. Now you’ve shut the water off.” He patted her on the shoulder.
“You’re acting like a husband. I’m not a spaghetti-head.”
“Sorry.” He unhooked the valve. “We wait for it to drain now.”
She looked into the next field where a short stocky man was moving pipes. “Brother Jenkins,” Howard said. He pointed around the valley. “Brothers Sorenson, Olson, Stringham.”
“Such a brotherly valley.” She tapped a dry, long-stemmed weed on the disconnected valve. “It’s going to choke your mother.”
He said, “I have no say in your decision?”
“Eliot’s words exactly. He meant that he couldn’t control me.” She shook her head. “Can you understand why I don’t want to be a wife?”
“Barely. Personality seems more important than marital status. Men who aren’t married are authoritarian with women. I don’t understand the difference.”
Finally he smiled. “So it’s down to our moral compunctions. Whose have priority?”
“Mine,” she said.
“You’re asking too much of me. How can I be happy if you insist I give up everything to be with you? You want me, but on your terms.”
She tapped him on the head with the weed. “Whatever you do, don’t turn into a whiner.” Beyond him, toward the horizon, the coming light turned the undersides of the clouds luminous. Brother Jenkins was lifting the pipes quickly, walking as water drained out of each end. He had a fourth of his line moved already. “I would give you room. Come with me.”
[p.131] He shook his head. “You’re already forcing me. Please don’t persuade. Just shut up.” He unscrewed the first pipe and carried it quickly to the valve, plugging it in.
She twisted a pipe and lifted it, unable to get one end off the ground. She moved to the center of the pipe and wrestled it across the field. “Damn. Your neighbor makes it look easy.” She set down the pipe and scooped a handful of water off the ground, flinging it across Howard.
He chased her and tried to make her sit in the water, but she twisted, leveraging him down with her hip. He sat looking up at her. “That’s cold,” he said.
“Give me a year,” she said. “Stay with me a year and I’ll marry you if you still want me.”
“A year in Anchorage?”
“No,” she said. “If we marry now and go to Anchorage and you don’t like it and want to come back, we’re stuck. I want you free to do what you want.”
He looked around at the green and silver field. “A year?”
“I can’t wait on this job. You can wait on the ranch another year. Even if your father is slowing down, he’s still managing.” She looked at him, waiting. “It’s the best compromise I can offer. I vowed I’d never marry, never put myself under anyone’s control that way.”
“I’m giving up the ranch and my conscience. You’re giving up nothing.”
“How are you giving them up? It’s just delayed gratification.”
“You will be open to persuasion?” His voice was sarcastic.
“I am a stubborn woman,” she said. “But we’ve been together only five days total. Who knows what will happen? We need to test ourselves.”
“We need to declare ourselves before society and God. Commit first, then test.” But she could see that the fire had gone out of his voice. “A month.”
“Nine,” she said, grinning.
[p.132] “Three months.”
“Six. End of bargaining.” She breathed deeply, a slow breath in, a sigh out. “Do you know that after you left for Navasota, I thought about you all the time? You’re like a disease.”
He caught his breath; tears ran down his face. “I’d give up life to be with you.”
Rain fell around them. “Dammit!” she said. “I’m going to Alaska, coldest state in the Union. I’ll never be warm again.” She grabbed the front of his jacket. “Howard, you simple man, you want everything perfect.” She pressed her lips against his ear. Moving forward, he pushed her off balance, and she slipped, pulling him down on top of her into the water. She shrieked at the cold. “You bastard!”
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She locked her arms around his neck. “Damn you, Howard. Why did you come to Texas? I wish you’d stayed in your desert.” The rain splattered as they untangled and stood. Howard waved to Brother Jenkins, who stood in his field, hands on his hips, watching. “Nothing constrained,” she said. “It feels so good to have agreed.” She grinned at him, and he returned an unsteady smile, weak like Utah beer.
After finishing with the pipes, she ran through the rain, feeling it wash cold across her face.
“See what I’m giving up,” he said.
“You haven’t given up shit yet.” Leaping into the truck, she started it, revving the engine.
“I’m starving,” he said. He kissed her throat, her neck, her soft mouth. “Allison,” he said. “Allison, Allison, Allison for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” she said. “Let’s hit the road. I want to get you out of Rockwood before you change your mind.”
Allison stood on the walk as Howard held his mother on the front step. She was crying. “Why couldn’t you just wait and get married? Why can’t you get married now?”
Howard didn’t answer, he just stared at the green field to the south of the house.
[p.133] Emily laid her hand on Allison’s arm. “Please take care of him.”
Allison watched her face. “Good luck with your bishop.”
Emily finally smiled. “I don’t need luck with that kind man.”
Then Walter surprised her by touching her shoulder in what she thought was a friendly gesture. “Ride herd on him,” he said. “He’s flighty like a yearling colt.”
“I will,” she said. Howard grimaced.
“The honeymoon shack will be waiting, if you decide to come back,” said Walter.
“I’ll keep that dire warning in mind,” she said.
“What?” said Walter. “It’s a fine cabin.”
Emily wiped her eyes. Allison said, “I don’t want to be your enemy.”
“I know you want to see if Howard is the kind to stand or bolt under the halter,” said Emily. “I just wish you’d unbend a little. It would be so easy.” She pushed the swinging gate, pushed it again when it swung back.
“Did you know there was a Rockwood who went prospecting in Alaska,” said Walter to Howard. “I believe it was near Anchorage.”
“Damn,” said Allison. “I thought we’d be getting away from them.”
“A woman,” he said. “Hardly any of the family know about her. There’s records of my grandfather marrying three women. When my father was about a year old, his mother was killed in a conflict over irrigation water. Shortly after that the other wife left town. One of your cousins has a letter from her, written to J. D. from Anchorage, where she had dressed like a man and was prospecting. Somewhere near Anchorage.”
“I might find her grave,” said Howard.
“I told you so you won’t feel so lonely,” Walter said. “Our people have been there.”
Allison rolled her eyes. Suddenly she hugged Walter and Emily, hustled Howard into the car, and drove up out of Rockwood Valley as the deep, beautiful thunder sounded. Ahead, across the desert, black clouds roiled toward them. Wild lightning danced on the horizon.
[p.134] Howard watched her in glances as they sped north across the desert, a hundred, sometimes 110 miles per hour. The car seemed like a Viking ship or a space capsule. She seemed a steady enough pilot as they raced toward the top of the world and a new life. His ancestors came across the plains parallel to the Oregon trail, leaving it at Utah; he would take up the journey again, following a Rockwood woman to Alaska. After a year, maybe two, short like a mission, they would come back to the ranch. As she drove him farther away, the trees of town—green, then black, then no more than a dot—finally sank into the white desert.