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Kirk Nesset

Kirk Nesset

Kirk Nesset is author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road and Mr. Agreeable, as well as a book of translations, Alphabet of the World, and a nonfiction study, Stories of Raymond Carver. His book of poems, Saint X, is forthcoming. His stories, poems, translations and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, American Poetry Review, Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Agni, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. He teaches at Allegheny College, and is writer in residence at Black Forest Writing Seminars (Freiburg, Germany).

The Valley

I wandered for years, traversing mountains and plains, pausing on this westernmost edge, saddle-battered, beleaguered by doubt. Five winters I spent in this town. I stopped drinking whiskey, roamed valleys to the north and south, learned to banter with natives, spent all but a pinch of my meager inheritance, took up with the hotelkeeper's daughter, took up whiskey again. Something had to be done.

I left what I owed on the bed. And rode out in the fog, past the dim cut-out facades, weather-bent roofs and post office flagpole. It was just turning dawn.

People here had been good, not your usual gold-rushing buffoons, holding failure before them like banners, stuck for lack of money or means or for the trees they could raze. They weren't all pirates and crooks, Indian-killers, hangdog dregs of the earth. Granted, quite a few of them were. But many had heart, if not brains.

I reined to a stop, surveying fuzzy lines of facades. At the corner the tanner's door banged open; he was loading his cart in the fog. I don't know what I was expecting to see. Sarah the daughter rushing up the rutted street, maybe. Skirts clenched, wet-cheeked.

Mid-afternoon, I see wind-rippled Blue Lake, blue as its name. I push on past Willow Creek and Horse Mountain, on to the mouth of the canyon. At sunset I drop my hook in a creek and catch a trout, and make a fire and cook it, along with greens I find by the creekbed. No Indians. I eat. And eating, take up my map.

The map is government issue, stained now and torn. It's hardly complete. Certain blank spots I've penciled in on my own, sketching unexplored regions. I tilt the map by the fire, plotting a course from the known to unknown. The holes are what draw me back, white patches of void in the web of cartography. They correspond to some void of my own, this void where they say the soul should reside.

I tie the horse to a branch and unroll my bedding. I lay gazing at the stars, the bright starry splash of light in the east—gathering pieces, the jagged filings and ends of me, what I am and was and will be. I am hunting again for the valley. It's what I've sought all along, trekking into the mountains. This valley the Indians say is so lovely and holy that people who go there don't ever leave. It's high in the mountains, high as the clouds. Birds there have wings laced with gold, it is said. The water's pure, and peace reigns supreme. No meanness, no killing. Death itself, they say, enters only in dreams.

In Philadelphia my mother kept us sequestered, my cousins and me. I distanced myself later on—from this Society of Friends they tried to make me believe in, for one thing. Then my mother died. I squandered her money and house and gave away all, china, silver, wash stand, divan, cracked pictures of her and my dad, a stern-looking tow-headed captain, departed and gone before I was born. I met good people, yes, in towns coming west. Kansas City, Laramie, Rawlins, Eugene. I'd spend a year in a place, if it felt right. But Sarah's father, a good, kind, intelligent man, drew me right in. He drank but didn't get drunk. Like me, he pitied the natives, so many slaughtered like cattle. He listened. He had rooms full of books. He invited me in, entertained, fed me like a son at his table.

At dawn I move into uncharted terrain, dark forests I've never imagined. Toward evening I come upon an Indian village. They're in the middle of mourning, forty or more in a circle wearing deerskin, ashes smeared on their bodies. They maintain a low even wail, the sound pulling me in from a mile away. Dogs lay scattered on the dirt. I tie up, keeping my distance, and settle in shadow.

A man appears with a hide-bag of gold, pebbles and dust he's strained from the creek. He's Hupa, I think, but layered with ashes he looks whiter than me. I have no sugar or crackers or beads, no coffee or blankets to spare—I'm sorry, I tell him. In a while he brings me salmon to eat, and bread made from acorns. The wailing continues. Dogs slink over, skinny strange little things, shivering hopefully. I smoke with the man. Antler-bone pipe and tobacco. I speak Yurok, sprinkling in the little Hupa I know. He seems to understand. I ask him the question I've been asking them all.

He repeats my words, using different inflection.

The valley?

The valley, I say.

He isn't surprised, as most of them are. He sucks smoke in, eyes fixed. He could be forty, or sixty, his face plastered with ash. He says I have a way to go, glancing east. Unlike the others, he doesn't imply I am wasting my time. He doesn't say the valley's a place for the chosen. For those who got invited somehow.

A girl slides up with a dish full of berries. His daughter, perhaps. She wears buckskin over her middle, her young breasts rising in points. The man refills the pipe. He calls me Ul-yuki—white enemy. A dog sits scratching by my foot, the fur half-bitten off its back. The wailing stops all at once. Nearby, something creaks in the brush, something big, a deer or a bear. The man exhales.

You got the sign, he says, staring. I didn't know Ul-yuki could get one.

After ten days I drop south to the river. I ride down to a town and buy dried beef and coffee, staying only an hour, weakened by the clamor for gold. Then I head east through the flats, past huts made of thatch, sweat shacks and graves. The Indians are shorter and darker; we speak mainly by gesture. Now and then I want to hold up the map and say Where—which of course wouldn't work. Indians don't think in those terms.

In the high desert I linger in doubt. I could spend my whole life doing this, I tell myself. I could come close and miss. I could turn off miles too soon, fail to notice landmarks. Half of me says it doesn't exist, like the fabled fount that drove the old Portugee mad. The wind blasts from the south. Tumbleweeds fly as if shot by cannons. The other half says, Stop thinking, follow your feet, or your hooves: keeping moving, move on.

I ration the food. I run out of water. I hack cactuses open for their white soggy core.

I stay three days in a village in the foothills, eating deer meat and pine nuts and bread. Beyond are the tallest mountains I've seen, occupying the biggest, most fearful blank on the map. The Indians here look like Chinese. Young children have their skulls bound with thin slats of wood. The people are friendly. They crowd up to assess me, and touch, then smell their hands. They have odd-looking heads, angled severely—eerie, unearthly.

On my last night they put on a dance. The men shuffle to the middle, willow sticks pluming from heads, tipped with white feathers. They wear soft bark for breeches. On their belts birds' wings flutter in patterns, mourning dove, crow, yellowhammer and jay. The men dance. They clap wooden clappers together. Women blow into whistles carved from bones of eagles. They wave scarlet woodpecker scalps. Later, I sit with old men drinking tea. Tea made from buckeye and some other seed—I'll need it, they say, to see my way farther. The tea overcomes me. I wind up in my hut, half-blind, guts writhing. People and landscapes careen in air. I see my dead aunt and mother. And Sarah, and her father my friend. I see my town on the coast, but it's changed. The forest recedes. Shops crowd the square; billboards burn with their own inner glow. Houses stretch in every direction. Steel buggies rumble on streets. Across the bay a great pipe towers, puffing smoke. Then there's a kid beside me, an Indian kid. Staring at me, cold and still as a Quaker. His head's as square as a box; he has the eyes and chin of my father. I stare back, sweating, feeling air fill my lungs.

The kid doesn't speak. He doesn't utter a word.

After two days the trees begin to thin, then there are no trees at all. The climbing gets steep and then steeper. The ground gets rocky, hard to manage. The horse stumbles. On the fourth day I strap a bag on my back, blankets, water, dried meat and flour, and let the horse go. I shout at the dumb skinny thing. I bean it with rocks. It stands watching me climb.

The fifth day, the air is so thin I have to slow down. Breathing becomes an incredible effort. There's snow everywhere, ice; walking is difficult. The glare is enough to blind me forever. The wind is so strong at one point I have to get down and crawl, head hunched, moving on hands and knees. Later, I see peaks in the distance. They fit the shapes of peaks I've been told to look for, though they're partly covered by cloud. My hiking grows brisk, my lungs begin to thrive on the air.

Seven days after the village, I find a pass through the mountains.

By late afternoon I've scaled the grade, moving through freezing cloud into light. I see peaks rising beyond in a ring. Snow-capped, radiant, tinted gold in the sun. I inch toward the crest, slipping. I feel with my heart I am there. Fifty feet more and I'll see. I'll stand at the edge and look in, breathing the sharp, foreign air, erasing heartbreak and pain, gazing into the stillness, the fullness, the valley.