Sweeping over the Arctic Archipelago, puckering nipples and chapping faces across Nunavut: in Grise Fiord, Resolute, Gjoa Haven; crossing into Manitoba, freezing the top layers of Island Lake, Gods Lake, nameless ponds, dew crunching underfoot. The front gathers, pushes over Winnipeg, Grand Forks, Fargo, Lincoln, on it comes, barreling through tornado alley to meet its match: Spring! A current weaves a lothario path across the Gulf of Mexico, up through Anguilla, Santo Domingo, Port de Paix, Nassau, bringing the scent of cinnamon, slums, and rotting magnolia leaves, trailing across tobacco farms, mighty rivers, strip malls, state colleges, Army barracks, drained wetlands, golf courses. Pushing west into dry Pacific air. Blowing across the southwest, arid and punishing—imagine dustbowls, cow skulls, locusts, parched earth—rolling off the Rockies, faster as it flows east. Sisters clash and mingle in the wide open skies of the continent’s midpoint—dry meets damp, warmth amassed and shuddering into updrafts and squalls, rushed by the eager fingers of their cold northern lover. Thunderheads build, form, break apart, and build again, gathering strength unseen by those below. North, south, east, west, we’ll put these people to the test. Havoc’s in play, the winged creatures sense it, though even the crows don’t know the scope of what’s to come.
Hover at the midpoint. Turn the radio dial, hear snatches of the lives below. Listen.
Crows rustle on the wires over Main Street, over Mondragon’s Emporium and Dunleavy’s Fine Shoes (&Shoe Repair); over The Bluebird Cafe and the bank and the old town square. Black feathers lift and wheel past the liquor store and a shuttered B&B, past power lines, houses, cars and churches, over the cemetery, streets giving way to fields, farms laid out in a neat expanse: the vast acreage of agribusiness, a few sturdy family farmers holding on, green squares of corn and soy bringing order; and in the center, down the old county road, not far south of Johnson’s Creek just past the Infamous Elm, Rose’s overgrown reluctant acres.
One small, tangly patch, that land of hers, the well pulsing like a heart. Listen.
Chapter One: Rose
Rose moved through the thickets with a sharp set of shears, pruning, smoking a cigar. Her dog, Fergus, dreamt and farted on the porch. All this growth and nothing to show for it. Lance would have been shocked. Her son was so good at making things grow—crops, blackberries, houseplants, hopes. There was nothing he couldn’t coax into life. A good kid, her soldier boy. Smart in every sense of the word. Fergus thumped his tail. He always knew when she was thinking of his number one love.
“That’s right,” she said to Fergus. “Him.” He scratched an ear in response. She had the sense of the sky pulling taut into a bow. No, she shook her head—a bowl. Overhead, a great bowl. Chipped at the edges but still functional.
Rose gave the stogie one final pull and coughed in a hard burst. Phlegm rose and Fergus lifted his head. She set her shears on the porch and peered into the well. Either the well was getting deeper or the sky darker; she couldn’t see her reflection. There must be a scientific reason: cloud patterns, air molecules. Or no reason at all.
“Onward, into the void,” she told Fergus. “Come on, let’s check the mail.” They walked down the long drive, gravel skittering, her anklebones clicking in protest.
“How did this happen to me?” she asked Fergus. There must be some mistake.
The well was getting deeper but the mailbox was smaller. Its little red flag was rusted upright, and faded letters spelled out her dead husband’s name. Theo. She reached in to pull at the contents and could barely wrench her hand free. Nothing but junk. Last week there had been another letter from her stepsister, on prissy peach-colored paper and smelling of lilacs, with the careful spidery lettering of a serial killer. Rose hadn’t read Stella’s letter yet—it waited on the mantel for her to build a fire, so she could throw it in and watch the flames.
The mailbox held a catalog full of crap she didn’t need. And more notices from the bank, the vultures. She tore the catalog and the bank’s window envelope into strips and threw the pieces into the air. Shiny paper caught in the branches. Then the metal box vibrated a little—something inside wanted her attention. Fergus looked up the drive and whimpered low in his throat.
She shoved her hand into the mailbox once more and pulled out a flimsy pale blue airmail envelope that had been caught in the back seam. Rose Red looped across the paper, in elegant script. Next to her name was a sketch of a long-stemmed rose with a single thorn. There was no return address.
The bowl of the sky, paler than the envelope she held in her hands, contracted a bit. She cleared her throat. Her thumb was bloody, nicked in some way that escaped her, and she spread her fingers wide, considering. Something dark as pinesap had worked into her fingerprints and calluses, and her cuticles were a mess. She had no idea about the rest of her. All the mirrors in the house were covered.