By Jerome Stueart, illustration by Lydia C. Burris
2 July 2007
I came out to mend a wooden fence. I figured the cows had knocked the rail over. Maybe the wind jimmied it loose. Then again, seeing the man walk out of the caprock, without a car or anything, and no public road for a good ten miles, I could entertain the notion that some god wanted a conference with me.
It was a hot morning in June, the temps already accelerating. I watched him pass head-high mesquite, his grey felt cowboy hat never touching a branch. He had on jeans and a denim work shirt, but his boots were Tony Lama, and his pants weren't even dusted with dirt or mud. The shirt looked pressed. He must have thought this all charming, like playing a role. He leaned on my wooden fence. He smiled a lot. We yapped for fifteen minutes about dry West Texas weather, like we were neighbors, except he had a gleam in his eye. I knew I would lose something. With my wife having moved to Indiana, it was just me and Susan now, and a few hired hands. We'd already lost enough around here. So, I tried to calculate just what that loss, this time, was going to be.
While we talked, I watched butterflies fly out of his right palm—one after another, each different than the one before. Kinds I'd never seen. He produced them like a nervous tic. I was supposed to be impressed.
He was so busy being creative, he hadn't planned on any of these species actually surviving. There weren't any pairs. Each butterfly, wings testing the wind, tossed itself over my fence.
"This all your land?" he asked, as if he didn't notice the butterflies at all.
"I'm just borrowing," I told him with a smile.
"A hundred acres."
I could tell he didn't care by the way he changed the subject. "So, about your daughter . . ."
"Susan's a bright kid. She's going to college," I said.
"My son's got his eye on her," he said. He looked across the fence, looking at my hundred acres.
"Well aware of that," I said. I still held a hammer in my hand, and I tapped it against the wood.
He looked at me, "And what do you think about that?"
"About your son?"
He summed it all up for me. "About my son, a full-fledged river god, being interested in your bright, college-bound daughter."
I took a moment to think. I really already knew what I felt about it. Nothing good ever comes out of the love affairs of gods. Every young girl got turned into something. I imagined a Susan Savane cactus—a new species—somewhere on my land in a few weeks. Or maybe by refusing, I would be turned into something. My family had been marked already.
"Well, it don't please me none."
He acted shocked. "Have you met my boy?"
"Can't say that I have. Heard he's a little trapped by the Brazos."
"He is the Brazos," his dad said proudly.
"Yeah, but he can't leave his river, can he?"
"He's 840 miles, the longest river in Texas. His reach extends from New Mexico, across the middle of the state all the way down the Gulf Coast. I don't really think that's trapped, do you? Especially when he's a bit more mobile in that area than you are."
I chuckled. I had him running. "But I can take a truck and drive to Oklahoma."
He looked over the fence as if he liked my land. He changed his strategy. "He can give her everything she wants. A hundred acres, a thousand acres. Waco."
"He can have Waco." I smiled.
"She could have a whole city, or more than half the state."
"Hmm," I nodded. "And that would be impressive. It would. But what happens if it don't work out?"
"Don't work out?"
"Divorce is pretty common around here." Unfortunately, I was the poster child. Two, so far. They left me. You move on, survive. "You gods don't have the best reputations for leaving your spouses . . . girlfriends . . . with much security."
I was hoping he wouldn't strike me down there, figuring he wanted to win my daughter's favor. That wouldn't happen if he killed her dad.
"Transmutations are unfortunate, but very, very rare. Even then, one gets great things by risking greatly."
"You know, you can jump off the canyon thinking you can fly, but that doesn't mean it's worth the risk. Some great things aren't."
He'd never gone back to leaning on the fence. He pulled it toward him with one hand. "But it's really not up to you."
"Then why are you talking to me?"
He laughed, like, oh goodness, I had done something clever.
"Your customs. Asking the hand of the daughter from the father."
"Usually that's a job for the boy interested. Not his dad."
He looked at me hard. "If you'd come down, I'm sure my son would ask you himself."
"I'm sure he would."
He tried to find something cracking in my eyes, and I wasn't gonna give him anything, especially my daughter.
I was pretty sure she didn't love him. She came back from a Baylor weekend all flustered by this charming guy she'd met, told her what beautiful skin she had, how he could see that she had a beautiful soul—like an aura around her. He'd appeared beside the Suspension Bridge, rising on the top of a waterspout, his arms out wide. Asked her if she and her friends from Lamesa High wanted to go swimming. He'd heard them talking on the Riverwalk, loved her voice, her laugh. He'd touched her too. In the water, she could feel something warm try to get under her swimsuit, like the water itself was curious. On a calm day, waterspouts danced on the surface of the river, and he picked her up in one and spun her about and she got dizzy. Nearly puked, she said. He was cute, except for that. Golden hair. Wide chin. Muscles. She'd heard stories about him. About a couple of the other gods he hung around with, Whit and Leon, how they partied with naiads.
"Why would he want someone like me?" she asked me over breakfast.
"Cause you're smart and beautiful and he can have any naiad he wants, but he wants something he can't get." I stacked pancakes on a plate for her.
"What if he gets me and it turns out . . ." she said, and I looked back at her. She bit her lip. She looked like she was seven all over again.
"That he leaves you?" I said.
She looked away, over into the living room, towards the fireplace where things are burned. "I'm not as strong as you."
"Is that what this is?" she said quietly. She didn't mean it as a jab. "I want someone who will stay for sure. Gods are fickle."
I wanted to tell her that everyone was a bet for leaving, that you couldn't tell it in their face, or their laugh or any moment that you took them to the lake. They could lie there on a blanket and tell you that they couldn't imagine another face next to them but yours. They could rub sunscreen on your shoulders and talk about how full of peculiar habits you both would be when you were old. They could stand in front of a preacher and say the words that they would use on you as a binding contract, but for them it would just be a day's thoughts, as changeable as a sunset sky on a summer evening. To escape you, they could explain all their previous decisions perfectly.
"Honey, I don't want you to give up on regular people because of your mother. I do want you to think twice about being the girlfriend of a god. They don't treat us equally. They can run over us. It's not a good spot for anyone." I put the pancakes in front of us and we prayed quickly to the other God, the one who let these lesser ones run amuck, the one who couldn't control wives and mothers either, and we doused the pancakes and prayers in syrup.
She said Brazos had kissed her. It was really slobbery. She smiled.
"What do you expect from a river god?" I winked at her.
She had plans to go to Purdue. We'd talked about it. I was going to help pay her first three years. She promised to get a scholarship to help out, and a job in her senior year and I said that was great. But she glowed when she talked about him.
"He liked me, Dad."
"A lot of guys like you."
"But he's a god."
"Which means he's trouble."
"But it means something else too."
Still, she didn't write him or call his waterproof cell. The last few weeks she wouldn't really leave her room except to go to school. I looked at her face. She was afraid of everything, as if we lived on a frozen lake and every step might cave the whole thing around her. She needed someone. Sure, I wanted to give her a river god. He had the power to protect her if he wanted. But would he protect her from himself? I remembered all my myths. Nobody came out unchanged.
His dad—and I didn't really know what god he was, except that he could make little lonely butterflies—stood in front of me and gold coins appeared out of his palm, one after another, dropping to the ground on my side of the fence.
"College is expensive these days," he said.
I didn't answer.
"Two good schools on the Brazos: Baylor and Texas A&M. Susan would do well at either place—two of the best schools in Texas. I'd make sure she got her medical degree."
"Susan doesn't need your help."
The coins slapped each other on the ground.
He said, "You expect to afford a good college on what you're making? You know you can't, that she'll have to take out loans, work when she should be studying. I wish you could see that this is an opportunity. Brazos loves your girl. He's smitten. Just last week, he was so distracted thinking about her, he ran backwards for three hours! She hasn't called him. It's been a whole month and he's just feeling tortured. Some of his forks and bends are drying up. As a father yourself, you must know how hard this is, to watch your kid going through this."
The coins made a pile at my feet. I looked down and back up and he smiled at me.
"They met for a weekend," I said. "That's puppy love."
"Maybe so. But you could drive Susan down there and meet him for yourself. See if it's a weekend fling—or if it has the potential to be everlasting."
Now he offered immortality. He was getting desperate. I knew the stories—and the immortality often ended up being a constellation in the sky, something too far to ever visit. Funny that you have to give up life to become immortal. I look up there and see everything this world has lost. And I don't want to see Susan.
"No. I have a better idea. Why don't your boy come up?"
"He can't—as you've so boldly pointed out."
"Well, let's see. He's a god without the powers to go get the woman he loves. That's pretty tragic. Lowly, powerless humans would sacrifice anything to be with the ones they love. And your kid's a god?"
"Your point?" he asked and the coins had stopped falling from his palms. The sky above us clouded up and it looked like another storm was coming.
I figured this was him.
"When I think of a good match for my daughter, I think of a hardworking boy. Someone willing to stick with her when the going gets rough, not someone who's used to calling in dad for a favor, or turning her into a tree or a rock or the Possum Kingdom Dam."
"That was a journalist."
"It doesn't matter who it was. It's behavior that I don't think makes for a good husband."
The grass on my side of the fence began to turn brown and wither in a half-circle around his feet. I was playing with fire, I know. I remembered Tammy, who became a drive-in theatre, and her family transformed into Dairy Queens all along Interstate 180. They popped up overnight, even as her family disappeared. My daughter needed stability, not power.
A wind kicked up over the caprock, rushed at me.
He opened his arms wide, much like I figured the boy did for Susan when they first met. It was a magnanimous, easy gesture. "Where I come from," he said, "there are whole forests—tall blackjack oaks and willows, bright yellow flowering dogwood, huge pines and, in between, there are secret prairies covered in wildflowers. We got lakes stocked with fish—largemouth bass, crappie and catfish. You can see chickadees darting from tree to tree, waxwings singing cantatas, whip-poor-wills calling out from the forests of the night. It's beautiful and lush. We're offering the better side of the state." He sighed. "Forgive me for being honest, but your side has always seemed like a dirt floor to me, more for sweeping—" He looked through me, behind me, and the vision of West Texas scorching behind me made me turn, just to reassure myself that it wasn't all gone. "—than for growing anything."
"It grew the girl your son loves. Now, that's ironic."
He stayed calm. The world around him bubbled and thrashed. He knew I knew where it was all coming from. He smiled, laughed a little. He paused and breathed out. He reworked his pitch. He opened his palm again and water poured out. "Your side is such a dry, dry place. A family married to a river god could pull some weight on Mount Locke. You wouldn't have to bargain with the water-hogs of West Texas, the ones you rent from to irrigate. You know what they say about West Texas—the rich ones are the ones with water, not oil."
I was tired of him. I grabbed his palm, stuck a finger over the stream of water. It splashed against my hand. I was fast. He didn't know what to think. He didn't strike me. "See this palm—it's got no marks on it. Things come out of it, but nothing marks it." I opened my own palm and placed it in his hand. "Now, mine is different. See the cracks, like a map with rivers in it. I stuck my hand in this land and pulled out what I needed. Wound barbed wire fences. Hauled mesquite. Planted cotton and maize and sorghum. I created these hands, Mister, and these hands created my life. What have your son's hands done? I'd like to see them. I know he has arms to reach out and grab my daughter, but what do his hands look like?"
"My son doesn't need to work with his hands like you do. It is the privilege of being a god that I offer your daughter—and, by association, your family. You won't have to work that hard again."
"That's too easy. I ain't selling my daughter for some time off. Your son's going to have to work harder than that if he wants Susan."
"I can approach Susan, you know."
"You can try." I pulled on one of the boards of the fence, the fence I built, and by moving that particular rail, the rail he'd been leaning on fell down, nearly got his foot. It was mechanical magic. I meant to show I was a threat. Even if I ended up being the next strip mall on the Lubbock Highway, I wasn't going to let him near Susan.
Thunder in the distance.
"But," I said firmly, "he can come up and see her."
"He can't do that and still be the Brazos."
"So he wants her to do all the sacrifice. If he wants her—if he truly loves her—he'll find whatever way he can. As a god yourself, I'm sure you know of some way."
Clouds swarmed, blanketing us in black.
He said, "To leave the river, he would have to become human."
I nodded. "There are worse fates."
"He was meant to be a god."
"My daughter was meant to have a normal, stable life."
"He loves her."
"You have no right to ask."
I leaned back, made like I was going to my truck. "Maybe you can see this as a window of opportunity. I need some help on the ranch. All we have is irrigation, as you pointed out, but he's welcome to come help out this summer. Let me meet him. Let him get his hands dirty. Dry. He'll learn a lot about Susan seeing her here, seeing where she came from. That should be important to him."
"You would expect him to give up everything on the chance that it may work out. What's he supposed to do if it doesn't?"
I got back into my truck, rolled down the window, escaping the raindrops falling around us, a whole sheet of it above me ready to descend. I rested my hand on the steering wheel, getting ready to start the truck, to make a slow getaway. The band of paler flesh around my ring finger was almost the same tan as the rest of my hand.
"Live. He's supposed to live."