ONE SATURDAY, WITH HIS MOTHER, Marilyn, out bowling at Lucky Lanes, Don stretched on the floor in his bedroom with a Spiderman comic book. The guy could go anywhere, up the side of the steepest cliff if he wanted, and Don imagined the ascent. He could do it too. It was 1978. He was eleven then, wearing size-seven shoes, and he laced them up. Outside there were rocks to climb.
In the month that he and his family had lived in the small town of Rio Bravo, New Mexico, he had scrambled daily up the granite outcropping by an arroyo running through his family’s property. Atop his perch, he was far enough from the house to survey the uninterrupted expanse: a high-desert plateau split by a canyon with extinct volcanos on the distant western horizon and mountains flanking the east. Esperanza, the nearest mountain, rose as blue as his jeans. He called it blue mountain, and it seemed close enough to touch. One day he would scale it, but for now the outcropping would do.
As he passed his sister’s bedroom, he peeked through the door. Viv, older than Don by two years, was sick with a cold. He had thought their father was watching the TV that blared from the den, but Walt sat on the bed at Viv’s side, applying VapoRub to her exposed chest. She was at the age where her breasts were no longer those of a child.
Not wanting to be seen, Don slipped through the den, the kitchen, and out the back door. Trouble. Everything about it rang trouble. He went to the outcropping and hoisted himself onto the lowest ledge. He told himself his father was doing what was needed, offering care to his sick daughter. After all, as head pharmacist and owner of the town’s only drugstore, his father dispensed plenty of counsel to the community when it came to colds and ailments. Yet Don’s insides roiled like last week’s thunderstorm, with its lightning and pelting rain. Forget it, he told himself. And if he couldn’t forget, he would never speak of it. It was his secret and his alone.
When he saw his mother in her Scout International, Don jumped from his ledge and ran along the drive, sticking his thumb out like a hitchhiker. His parents had bought the Scout for her right after they bought the house. It was as bronze as a Coppertone bottle, with two doors, bucket seats, and a gearshift. A wobbly bench took up the back, if a person wanted to crawl in there. But Don liked the front, here the large windows made riding there seem like being on safari.
“Where are you headed?” His mother’s hair, the same caramel hue as her jacket, blew about her face as she slowed to a stop. He hopped in, and she playfully tousled his hair. He leaned across the gearbox and gave her a quick kiss on the side of her face. She smelled of cigarette smoke and stale air from the bowling alley.
“Did you win?” he asked.
“Not this time.” She didn’t mind losing.
Maybe he could go with her sometime and watch, he said. Maybe she’d teach him to bowl.
“How’s Viv?” she said.
“I’ll make a pot of soup for dinner then.”
Now the day might end better than it had begun.
Later, Viv joined everyone at the table in the warm kitchen. Taller than Don by a good four inches, she was a lank, pale willow in robe and pajamas. She had Walt’s height, and more years to grow. Don remembered the day she topped their mother,ow Walt eyed her with a proud gleam. “My runway beauty,” he said. The man liked his pet names. “Peanut” was Don’s. It was something to get used to, he guessed.
As Don dipped bread in his bowl, he watched Viv with her wad of Kleenex. She barely moved her head, and hair hung over her eyes like curtains.
“Don’t hide that pretty face.” Walt reached out to brush her hair away, and she scooted her chair back. Walt rose from the table and filled the water pitcher. Viv held her glass up for the pour. “There you go.” Walt filled the remaining glasses.
“Feeling better?” Marilyn asked.
“I guess,” she said.
“That’s the spirit,” Walt said, settling into his chair. He wanted to buy the land down the road, he announced, a plot abandoned to sagebrush, burrowing owls, and prairie dogs. The family could turn it into anything they wanted. What would they do with it?
“We could raise goats. They are so smart and funny. I adore goats.” Viv took a bite from her plate.
“Oh yes,” Walt beamed.
How suddenly they were ranchers. “Some people eat the goat’s head,” Don said.
“That’s sick.” Viv shot her darts his way.
There. She was back, and secretly it was a comfort. Don didn’t want his ally straying into the adult world. But what he said was true. People all over the world ate animal parts that would never show up on their family table. His class had talked about it. “Some people even eat the eyes.”
“Enough,” his mother said.
Walt turned his focus to Don, who didn’t have any idea what his family would do with a meadow. He imagined growing mounds of stickery bramble covered in berries like the kind he picked with his mother and sister on hikes in the nearby mountains. “We could grow berries,” he offered. Now they were farmers.
Marilyn smiled. “Or leave the meadow as it is,” she said.
That night, asleep in his room, Don woke to his mother’s voice, a peculiar pitch he had never heard. Walt’s voice volleyed back. A bedroom door opened, then his mother left the house, and Don listened as the Scout. Started, pushed into reverse, then leveled out as she drove away. Water ran in his parents’ bathroom. Not a sound came from Viv’s room. The house fell into silence again, under a bright moon casting its light outside. The wind rarely blew at this hour, but tonight it threw moving shadows of branches against Don’s window. Had his mother left for good?
A bare sunrise lit the morning by the time she returned home. Don heard her footsteps in the carport, the swing of the back door. Only then did he sleep, but not for long.
In the kitchen, already in his pharmacist’s coat, his father read the morning paper while his mother fried eggs and bacon. The homey scent of toasting bread permeated the room. Don slid into his seat, and his mother kissed the top of his head. Viv had yet to rise.
No one mentioned the windstorm. It was Sunday, when people in this town went to church, but his family did not practice. Whatever had come between his parents in the night must have blown over. The knot in Don’s chest relaxed, and he whispered his own private plea, maybe even a prayer, that he and his sister were not unloved.
“Better check the store since I took off yesterday.” Walt took his empty plate to the sink. A tall man with broad, thick shoulders contoured by weightlifting and college basketball, he pecked Marilyn’s cheek, patted her behind, then turned to Don and put a firm hand on his shoulder. “Look at that. The day is getting away from me.”
It was Walt’s favorite thing to say when making an exit, and Don knew it as goodbye. With his overcoat under an arm, Walt hurried out. He made it as far as the hallway, where Viv stood at her bedroom door in yesterday’s pajamas. “Well, hello, sunshine.”
From her pocket, she pulled a paper folded into a complex triangular puzzle. On it she had drawn a flower. “You’re to unfold it when you get to work. Inside is a poem I wrote.”
“Until then, I’ll keep it right here.” He slipped the note into his chest pocket and pressed his hand against it.
Don’s mother slid into a chair beside him, holding her coffee mug. As usual, she had eaten nothing for breakfast. Her eyes seemed not to focus on anything, and she seemed to spool back into an internal nook within herself. She took in a deep breath and let it out, then was present again. “There’s a special place I want to show you. Let’s go, hmm? I’ll see if Viv is up to it.”
By now, Viv had withdrawn to her room.
As medications were their father’s remedy for illness, being outdoors was their mother’s. Don suspected his sister would prefer to stay in her bedroom with her books and radio, but his mother could coax a turtle from its shell if she wanted to. Minutes later, Viv followed them outside, bundled in a scarf and heavy sweater.
They drove away from town on a dirt road, heading west in the early light. Ahead, the high-desert plain broke into a shallow valley where water collected on the meadowland. In late autumn, plants and grasses were greener there than on the low chalky bluff to the east, or on the distant western mesa with its surreal landscape of geodesic domes and glass and concrete structures. Ahead, a pickup truck was parked alongside the road. Don’s mother slowed. A man in a worn cowboy hat sat behind the wheel, while young kids pressed noses and fingers against the side window. Don didn’t expect his mother to stop, but she must have sensed an empty tank or flat tire.
One of the kids rolled down the truck window as the Scout pulled alongside. “Do you need help?” Marilyn asked.
“You’re the newcomers,” the man called. He pushed his hat atop his forehead, a stony eye fixed on her.
Don waited for the fellow to introduce himself, but the man kept his silence. One of the boys gave the mission away. “We’ve come to see the elk.”
“Shussshhh, shussssh.” It was the girl.
The man searched the meadow. “You could help by turning off your engine.”
Marilyn complied. The three of them sat in the Scout, sharing that early morning with strangers. Not another vehicle was on the road. The cold air began to creep through Don’s jacket and sweater. His sister huddled down into her coat. Then, a huge dark shadow crossed the field to the stream and stopped.
“Tío, look!” The girl pointed.
Its head crowned by majestic antlers, the animal eyed its surroundings, putting a keen spot on the two vehicles. Then it lowered its head to drink from the stream and crop at grasses and plants.
“I’ve seen the tracks, but never the animal,” the man said in a hushed voice. “Gracias a Dios! Look at those antlers.”
The smallest boy began to cry. “My fingers are cold. They hurt.”
“Shhhh, mijo, the elk will hear you.” The man placed his hand over the boy’s to warm them, but the boy cried louder. The man took another look at the elk, and an expression of sadness settled in his face. He started the truck and the heater purred. At the turn of the motor, the elk’s head shot up.
Viv scooted to the edge of the seat, hands popping out of her coat pockets. She pressed them against the dashboard and leaned forward, her attention fixed on the animal. “Run,” she urged.
Seconds passed before it loped away. As it did, Don’s heart sank, for unlike his sister, he wished otherwise. Stay.
“Considérense afortunados.” The boys tousled and squirmed as the elk faded into the distant expanse. Don’s mother nodded. The man’s eyes never strayed from the pasture, not even as she put the Scout into gear. Before pulling onto the road, she thanked him for the morning’s providence.
Consider yourselves lucky.
After that, neighbors said they never saw the elk again. Its ancestral herd had fed on this land’s grasses long ago, but over time the animals had traveled north into the mountains of Colorado, where there was more water and better foraging. The bull took up the rear of that migration.
Following the road north, then rounding west to the great gorge, they parked the Scout at a rest area. They would cross the bridge on foot, a thrill better than any carnival ride, Don’s mother said. Viv needed no coaxing and hopped out of the Scout. Wind smacked their faces and pinked their cheeks, even Viv’s, and a chill pressed around them. They took the bridge’s sidewalk in single file: Marilyn, Don, then Viv, several paces behind. On one side traffic rolled by near enough to touch, pushing them toward the railed fencing and the six-hundred-foot drop beyond. Don and Viv skimmed their fingers along the chain links with now-and-then glimpses over before pulling back.
At the bridge’s center, they floated as if on a tightwire. Viv gripped the rail.
“Let’s go,” Don said, stretching his arms like wings. It was as close as he had ever come to flying. He was part of the sky. Viv peered down. “We’re as high as the clouds,” Don said.
“No, we’re not.” But she looked anyway.
And there they were, suspended in the mix of vapor and wind, watching swells billow and shift as they passed.
Squinting to see better, Marilyn pointed toward the gorge rim. Don and Viv squinted too, and spotted a trail threading along its top near the cliffs. “We’ll hike it when Viv is feeling better. There are rocks that glitter with minerals, and some are as black as night.”
Don loved the thumb-sized stones she brought home from her walks. He wanted to be with her to gather some of the magic, for it was magic he heard in her voice. “When can we go?”
“Soon,” she said. She looked at the cliffs again. “Each layer of gray, ochre, black, or tan has a story. Those cliffs are chattering up a storm.”
Don caught her eye, then shifted his gaze back to the cliffs. What did she hear them saying? “Where did you go last night?” he said.
“Here. Right where you are standing.”
He imagined her on the bridge in the moonlight. All alone. His mother without him. Without his father or Viv. Goosebumps ran up his back, and he slid an arm around one of hers. “It was cold last night.”
“Oh, I bundled up.”
She needed something more than she needed them. Don sensed it, and the high spirits he had felt moments ago began to recede.
“Sometimes a reminder helps. Out here I feel just how small I am.” Her wanting to be this way didn’t seem right. “Superman,” she said, roughing her hand over his shoulder, her eyes still on the cliffs. It was Spiderman, but he’d leave the correction for another time.
“I gave up on him a long time ago,” said Viv. She hung closer to the railing.
Stepping away from his mother, Don reached for his sister’s hand and caught it. Her grip was strong, urgent, like his, and they weren’t letting go. His mother didn’t seem to notice that he had stepped away. Those cliffs. She looked out at them and was as far away as she had been earlier, at breakfast. What was the big attraction?
But wait. Boulders as big as buildings seemed to teeter at the brink of the canyon wall, and he imagined pushing his weight against one, sending it crashing down the cliffside. Himself, alone, moving part of this terrain.
Then, as if blown in by the wind, two young golden eagles clowned and flirted above them, diving and chasing, one outsmarting the other. Marilyn, Don, and even Viv laughed and could not stop, even after the tears came. Viv pulled her hand from Don’s to wipe her eyes. He wiped away his own tears too, not because he was embarrassed, just to see. Eagles somersaulting in midair, acrobats without the trappings.
Each time they tried to stop laughing, one look at the others ignited another round. Boy, the birds had the advantage. Wings. And here were the three of them needing a bridge to give them release. How pathetic that they couldn’t soar away when they wanted to. How funny.
After Don dried his eyes again, he felt one last burst of laughter, then calm. His mother and Viv felt it too. Their faces relaxed. Finally, trouble left them and there was more to see. There was room to take it all in.
The vast panorama opened before him, and it took his breath. Beneath his feet, a great gorge cleaved the plateau in two. But the gorge. It was ragged and wide and dark, the place where the earth was torn on a grand scale.
At its bottom stretched the gray-green vein of the Río Bravo del Norte. Their mother told them how it followed its six-hundred-thousand-year journey, rising and bending, ponding and descending toward Mexico. Over there, the Sangre de Cristo peaks glowed watermelon red. The faded eastern sky was as pale as a wrung cloth laid out to dry. The squatty mountain in front was Esperanza, his blue mountain.
Then his mother pointed west, where inactive volcanoes rose dark as Hershey’s Kisses. “Locals call them Coyote Ears, Tres Orejas, or just Three Ears,” she said. Names of places were as intermingled as the people who lived here. Don was finding that out in school. Pueblo, Spanish, Mexican, Anglo. What was Tiwa for ear? “Listen,” his mother said.
They fell silent. Don felt as if he was pressing his ear to that big seashell a student had brought to class. That day, he heard the ocean. Now, into his ear spilled whispers of love and anger. Massacres. Time. And then, what it is to live. Thousands of years. So, so many words.
Minutes passed before a rush of wind spiraled up from the canyon and tore at their pant legs and hair. Viv folded her arms and rounded into herself. Listening was too much to bear. When her mother moved to her side, she muffled a cough. Intertwined, they held each other. Together they walked the long sidewalk and off of the bridge.
But Don was not going. Not yet. Standing on that bridge was the highest Don had ever been above the ground without having to climb. The thought surprised him. Consider yourselves lucky. The man’s voice had been clear and firm. Maybe luck had something to do with being small. He felt warm inside. He flapped his arms and helicoptered them around; he jumped and jumped again, without even casting a shadow. Now that was something. A sound blew out of his mouth like a bomb detonating, as he, a tiny atom, exploded onto the scene of a new universe before following his mother and sister back to the Scout.
Debra Hughes’s writing appears in Tierra, New Letters, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. She authored Albuquerque in Our Time (Museum of New Mexico). “Small” is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, “The Geology of Secrets.”