fantasy by Gay Degani
Heat poured over them like hot lead. Three women on a hard buckboard plank, Raney in the middle, bones rattled, throat choked, her stomach shriveled to dried leather. She squinted into the late-afternoon shimmer praying for a cluster of trees, the slope of a wash, any sheltered place to camp. All she saw was unbroken plain. She groaned.
Agnes pinched her. “Stop your moaning. You ain’t gonna find no Romeo in a hellhole they call Perdition, so stop your wool-gathering. Lucky to find a man won’t beat you ten days to Sunday.”
Agnes lifted a laudanum-soaked handkerchief to her nose and sniffed, ran her other hand down her wrinkled red dress. She looked exactly like what Raney’s grandmother used to call a woman of the evening.
“Young men go west,” Raney said. “And men need wives. That’s what that Reverend told me.”
“That old gospel-monger?” Agnes spit. “Guess you’ll learn the hard way like the rest of us, you and your Romeos.”
Raney didn’t want Romeo. She wanted a man like Mr. Rochester, but without the crazy wife in the attic. She wished she could pull Jane Eyre from her stolen portmanteau to read, but the ancient wagon made that impossible. Maybe in this next town, she could stay in bed with a full tummy and read her book. Maybe. She sighed again.
Next to Raney sat the driver of the wagon, a large, comfortable woman whose romantic company had been appreciated by many an outlaw. Mary Jane slowed the buckboard and stood up, bracing her legs against the worn wooden seat.
“Now what?” Agnes shaded her eyes and followed Mary Jane’s stare.
“What is that?” Raney looked too and realized that what she had seen before as a distant shimmer was now a swelling cloud of dust. “Indians?”
“I – I don’t think so.” Mary Jane click-clucked out the side of her mouth and the horses snorted, moved forward.
Agnes plucked at Raney’s arm.
“Let’s turn around now,” she said, in a high voice. “We can outrun it, Mary Jane, if we turn around.”
Raney saw Mary Jane consider their options. They were in a flat land with no trees, no valleys to hide in. She set her jaw and kept heading toward the odd, billowing haze.
“Turn around right now,” Agnes demanded. “I mean it.”
“Hopple your lip, Aggie. It’s a dust storm, is all. Those clouds are right where they said Perdition is.”
“Don’t you tell me to hobble my lip, you slutty old soak. That’s a cyclone.”
“Cyclones are funnels. That ain’t no funnel.”
Raney shivered. Mary Jane was right. It wasn’t a cyclone, but it was more than a dust storm, moving slow, coming steady, sucking up about half a mile of horizon. The rays of the sun filtered through, speckled orange like an egg. And was that wind she heard? A mutter of voices?
“Cover your eyes. Keep the sand out.” Mary Jane’s usually strident voice came out a quiet whisper.
Raney turned toward her, gasped. Mary Jane’s face had softened, the deep weathering around her eyes, the skin folded around her mouth had smoothed and almost disappeared. The orange glow through the mystery cloud made the older woman look almost beautiful.
And at that moment, the buckboard jerked to a halt.
The cloud was closer, and Raney caught the slightest hint of — what was that sweet, flowery smell?
Agnes’ bony fingers tightened around Raney’s arm. Raney glanced at the old harlot and glimpsed the sweet, vulnerable girl Agnes must have been once upon a time. Raney touched her own face with the tips of her fingers, wondering if the light had transformed her too.
“Smell that?” Mary Jane asked. Even the horses raised their snouts, snuffling the air.
“Lilacs,” said Agnes.
“Lilies of the valley,” said Mary Jane.
Raney shook her head. “Roses.”
They sat still on the hard seat of the wagon while the sky and its swirl of dust darkened and the air turned chill. The cloud hung over the trail, looming black on black, its edges a swarm of blurred incandescence.
Raney nestled close to Mary Jane.
“What — what’s gonna happen now?” Agnes asked.
No one answered.
Thick tendrils of grainy matter dipped in at the horses – licking, licking, licking.
They watched as the animals slowly transformed from flesh to granite.
“That Reverend,” Raney said. “He sent us here on purpose.”
Tears leaked down Agnes’s cheek. “The woman at the general store told me she wouldn’t sell to no damned whore.
Threads of heavy dust began to snap like fire at the wagon.
“I saw a fellow fixing up a noose,” Mary Jane murmured. “I never thought –
The storm came in waves, filling the buckboard with blackness and grit, just as oceans swamp boats. Raney had never seen the ocean, but she knew her Robert Louis Stevenson, even though she’d left behind Treasure Island and Kidnapped when they weren’t enough to sustain her anymore.
Raney’s felt the blood in her veins turn to sludge. Agnes’ hand gripped her arm, and then let go as the woman pitched forward and fell between the horses, her laudanum-laced napkin fluttering to the ground.
Raney tried to shift her gaze toward Mary Jane – Mary Jane who’d robbed banks and killed a man before setting herself up in the whoring business – but her eyes stayed where they were, clouding with icy tears.
Dust waves knocked Raney to the hardened ground, bringing her the suffocating scent of her grandmother’s roses. She heard again her grandmother’s pleas, not to abandon a dying old woman. Then Raney felt her spine stiffen, her heart go rigid, just as it had that day, the day she walked away from her grandmother’s stone house in St. Louis, the day she began her journey to Perdition.
Copyright 2010 by Gay Degani