Mice, even snakes, leave their tracks in the dust.
Follow them, to their hideaway.
Knock at the entrance and enter.
Come home, explaining, "Last night my mind blossomed."
Even with premonitions of spring all about, the air's viciously cold. Kyle spends most of one evening trying to fix the plastic film encasing the back porch, which shredded in high wind. Then, with Wesley's assistance, he attempts to wrap more heat tape around the frozen pipes under his shack. In addition, it's time to see if the forced bulbs he stored in the barn are dead, since he's done about everything wrong, or if they'll actually bloom.
Except for the frozen water line, spring's coming on too fast for Kyle's sensibilities. Flocks sing lustily, trees bud, lilacs hint of lavender, bunchgrass shoots appear with a red-streaked base.
On Good Friday, a strange sound under the house awakens him. Gurgling. Proves the line hasn't burst halfway between the pump house and his kitchen. About an hour later, he crawls from bed to take his first shower at home in three months. Returns to the blankets with fresh java. Before leaving for the office, he catches up on chores — cooking, washing dishes, and scrubbing the floors, before Jen's weekly return.
That weekend, he decides to investigate the ridge behind their orchard one last time before rattlesnakes reclaim their preserve. This time, Kyle finds a cow skull to carry home. From the crest he cannot see his wife in that white pebble just beyond his feet. In a few more hours he'll sunbathe at its back porch. In the barnyard far below him, Jen's telling Emma in an annoyed tone, "Kyle's finding cow skulls in bunchgrass." The orchard itself hums with a multitude of bees. From four hives set close to Kyle and Jen's shack, bees shimmer everywhere, feathering blossoms. Again the plentitude of wild asparagus along the irrigation canal amazes him: the more spears they cut, the more they get, in ways that exceed tautology: the heads grow back fatter, and cut stems don't go as quickly to seed. Kyle and Jen engorge themselves, wielding the big skillet to caramelize the stalks in butter.
When the cherry blossoms open, apricot petals fall like snow. In one cherry bloom, he sees bees pulsate. Listening closely, he learns what Japanese monkeys have long known: far to the west, "flowers" always express cherry blossoms unless otherwise noted. When most of the apricot petals vanish overnight, reddish balls — throats of each blossom — dominate the limbs. What starts out half-white and half-red becomes almost totally white before russet reasserts itself ever more forcefully.
The cat awakens him at three-thirty. Kyle showers and prepares to sit in prayer but hears wind machines braying like turboprop airplanes unsuccessfully seeking takeoff. The neighbor's cherry grove is already aglow. Dull orange flames flicker like coals; shadows play within and over expanses of orchards, resembling forest fires that in daylight appear as smoke rather than flames. As the frost line climbs from the base of the river, Wesley and Tyson begin firing their pots, too. Kyle's never before seen this ritual, although others have tried to explain. When the sun slides into his vision, smudge pots no longer glow, even though they're blazing within. Their steel chimneys instead appear white.
Millions of clusters blossom on morning trees. Pears, peaches, a few plum blooms open. In white pear flower clusters, there's only a touch of yellow, and none of apricot's deep pink. Peaches are pink and emit the stronger odor. Plums, too, are white. All open when nobody's looking — it's days, in fact, before anyone really notices. Kyle tries the best he can, observing any of this so close.
This time, though, Jen ignores the green stalks he brings home. These days, she says he can't do anything right, that he always speaks for her, that he doesn't love her. As he tries to allay her, the apples bloom fully. On colorful branches, the king buds open. Then as all five flowers on each cluster expand, the orchard hisses with clouds of furious honeymakers activating fruit-to-be. Kyle envies the bees their sense of purpose, their skill, their community. Their white boxes move with the blossoms, wintering in California almond groves and migrating north for fruit, wheat, and alfalfa. Orchardists rent the hives for several weeks, hoping their own chemical sprays won't kill the colonies, even though each bee lives only a month and a half anyway. In the lilac bush at the perimeter of Kyle and Jen's yard, bees swarm and encamp, hanging together like a living football without a home.
"Me, I think I'd want to be one of the fellers on the outside," he says of the fluttering, their fanning the air while their landlord phones the agency for a new box. "How will they lure those bees in? Keep 'em warm and centered?" he wonders. Maybe there are lessons for marriage.
"The bees swarm if their queen dies or is injured, or if there are two queens. The new swarm," Wes explains, "can freeze to death in the night."
How many thousands of bees are there, anyway, wound as tight as a hairdo? All around the hives, Kyle finds dead bees.
"Natural causes," Wes shrugs.
Len, their landlord's older son, says, "I saw a bee trapped inside a blossom, so I carefully pried the flower open and saw that the bee was dead. I keep wondering about that."
As the flatbed comes to take the bees north to interior mountains, Wes prepares for some really serious spraying, starting with insecticides and followed by bud thinners, mildew controls, drop-stop, and more. On the ridge, grass in the heart of spring appears lighter than an Englishman's finger. Below the canal, everything grows in intense greens.
Len, meanwhile, brings Kyle a second cow skull.
Up close, this springtime desert's a vast garden. From a distance, though, it seems mostly a dusty olive film atop a lavender brown — and even then, only the initiated eye detects any green at all. For that matter, perhaps any awareness of color at all. Up close, springtime desert contemplates the heart. Within it, as Kyle learns, clumps of violet phlox appear, as well as tiny yellows atop grassy stems, native sunflowers, seeding grasses, clusters of tiny scarlet explosions — all emerging briefly, once a year, at best. From a distance, all of this could be an overflowing dustbin.
With wildflowers carpeting the roadside, Kyle flows through a pale purple haze as he commutes to and from his office. This vision has none of the hardness he encounters in the furnace cinders of summer, or the pallid embers of autumn, or the dead darkness of winter typically lining the way.
In times of change, he suffers both high hopes and entrenched fears. Because familiar people and situations generally offer reassurance, he climbs Mount Cleman a second time, this round in a drizzle with two coworkers and their wives; Jen, however, chooses to stay home. Since they don't shut up the whole time, he sees nothing exceptional except for a rattlesnake, its head shot away. Even so, he wishes his own wife had come along. She'll wonder why he didn't bring her the rattles. She's hard to predict, for sure.
Another weekend, come and gone. Like his wife, who's returned to college for the week. As Kyle goes to bed alone once more, he's forced to admit nobody likes a mystic. Poets and scientists are difficult enough. Prophets can be impossible.
These days he's admiring the fullness of purple-tipped grasses along the canal bank. Some offer bunched, short seeds in clusters. Others have long-shafted seeds in plumes. Or oblong, spiked seeds suspended like bells. "There must be a thousand golden variations," he marvels. Oats. Wheat. Barley. Bread and beer. Silk-enshrouded ears of corn for sweet butter. Fat tender steaks. Sour whiskey mash. The people he knows.
The many named needles and strands of whips and brushes reach skyward, flaying the wind, inviting birds to flight as Kyle and Jen spend a Saturday at home. It's so quiet with the Blackburns gone and the orchard left to rest, they sunbathe nude in the yard while the thermometer extends into the nineties.
Sunday, his friend Daisy phones to say her Trident submarine trial's approaching. They bicker about political involvement. He says he can't, it's a consequence of professional standards. "They've morally castrated you," she insists. Instead, he writes a check when he can.
Rejoining Jen to pick tender spring peapods and pluck their umbilical balls, he completes another simple rhythm toward summer. Then, lopping off elm shoots that block the garden pathway and branches that shade the carrots, he calls forth sunlight. One simple task leads to another. He repaints the prayer flags and pole, so they now look like Alexander Calder's jetliners — not quite what he envisioned, but bright, nevertheless, and taking flight.
That night, rejecting his every caress and kiss, Jen calls him weird and slaps him with an icy air. It's come back to this, so soon after she reclaimed more than she realizes.
He leaves the room.
She enters with her own caresses and her own demands. "Make love. Now."
He turns to respond, but she turns off again. NO MORE OF HER! He weeps silently, feeling he has no companion. Even after a whole weekend together, he feels an urge to throw her out. He's had no loving from her for at least two months and no longer sees any way to save this, for she refuses to communicate and, Lord knows, he's tried. Still, he persists, taking her the next weekend to Seattle, where, in the middle of a fight, they run into Ross and Renee with two of their friends who've just taken part in a 7,000-contestant 10K fun run.
"We're not spending any money," Renee announces.
"Come on, Renee, you can't even park for free," Jen chides.
"OK, so we spent a dime."
Renee asks Kyle if he knows their friend, Walrus.
"We've met. I really enjoy talking with him."
"Well, they're expecting," she says. "Just got the test results yesterday."
On the drive home, Jen asks, "Who's Walrus?"
Kyle wants to tell her the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Or how, during her party, when she was giving him the cold shoulder, he went for a walk to clear his head a bit. Sober up, actually.
"It's a long story," he says tersely.
Sometimes Jen and the cats come along on his evening walk.
She cries out, "Kyle! Kyle! They got a chipmunk!" Squealing proceeds a flash of ermine. Two pursuing felines, a mamma kitty and son, hop through knee-high grass.
"There aren't any chipmunks out here," he reminds her. Run, halt, and then follow, what, a gopher? A squirrel? Whatever, it's hiding in the pear grove. Without breathing, they both freeze in place until one tall blade moves out of sync with the wind. Whatever it is scurries across Jen's foot. She jumps, shrieks, and laughs, then freezes again. His eyeballs contemplate the jungle aground. He takes a step. Jen takes a step. He takes another and feels whatever it is bolt off across his bare feet and sandals. Whatever it is had been hiding more than a minute no further than three inches from his toes. He feel its tracks several seconds before the sensations connect with his thoughts. So that's what it is? A furry thing like a mink stole? A precision team, the cats pursue, pinching its movement until one corners the critter on a limb.
"Hey!" Jen cries out. "Gophers don't climb trees!" Her kitten pursues the creature clear out to the edge, then promptly retreats in a hissing spat. Leaves rustle with a leap to the next tree, as whatever it is escapes.
Heading back to the house, they piece together what they can. Agree on a skinny body and long red tail. Turning to the book, identify a short-tail weasel. "Didn't look like such a short tail to me," Jen retorts.
"According to this, they kill rabbits and chickens. Cats, too. Maybe that's why ours gave up their pursuit."
Wesley is pleased. "Weasels will go down into gopher holes, root 'em out. Catch mice and rabbits, too. Yeah, that's real good news."
Kyle's inventory of wildlife grows. She sings to herself, quietly, "All around the mulberry bush."
But he knows there are still no monkeys in these orchards. Not yet, anyhow.
While hunting the last asparagus along the ditch, he nearly steps on a three-foot-long green snake sunning on the cistern. His cat comes along the other way. The snake, frozen erect, doesn't move. That cat walks all around it, even sniffs its tail. Snake! What eerie feelings it leaves behind! Kyle jumps at twigs; his intestines twist. This is rattlesnake country, just above the orchard.
Yes, he should follow them to their hideaway. Knock at the entrance and enter. But with many excuses, he doesn't.
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