With the publication of this excerpt from Properties of Thirst, Alta Journal is pleased to begin a five-part serialization of the opening section of the new novel by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Marianne Wiggins. The book is a multigenerational saga of California in which rancher Rocky Rhodes battles the Los Angeles Water corporation against the backdrop of World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the death of his wife.
Each week, starting July 11, we’ll publish online the next portion from this first section, titled “The First Property of Thirst Is an Element of Surprise.” Visit altaonline.com/serials to keep reading and sign up here for email notifications when each new installment is available.
You can’t save what you don’t love.
—he knew that. Christ, he’d learned that from the cradle, in his father’s house, at the knee of someone whose fierce love of money poured like baptizing water over every aspect of their lives. If you want to keep a thing alive (like this business, son) you need to will it. No one ever made his fortune from the milk of human kindness. Thirst. You have to want it, have to have the perseverance, self-reliance, stamina.
—all that. His father’s frothings at the mouth.
—man stood sixty inches on his toes, could knock a person backwards with his pixie apoplexies, carnal heat for making money—knock a person down: his son, especially.
Hadn’t called him “Punch” for nothing.
—christ he’d jump up on a table—full regalia—lifty shoes, the twill, the vest, the fob the starch the silk the onyx links and he would start to punch a person, punch a person with his finger, punch a person in the chest, digit homing heartward like a ferret on a rat: he would even treat his wife that way.
—go at Rocky’s mother on the stairs or in the parlor—always with an audience—punching at her sternum telling her how to and what for, while Cas and Rocky cowered on the landing:
Fronting by example.
Christ, she’d been a stoic woman.
—but why now, why was he thinking of that little bastard, here, this morning?
If he wanted to have Punch along all he had to do was summon the little shit for christsake but what he didn’t want and what he couldn’t understand was how, like now, the reverse could happen, his father, gone these many years, seeming to summon him.
How do they get away with that?
Well—they outnumber us, Rocky reasoned. Plus, they have a lot of time to spare.
But what had set it off—
—agents of recall (as Rocky remembered them: scent, of course; Ol’ Faithful in the brain…a bristlecone, its history buried at the root, as old as God:) (No. He hadn’t smelled his father.) (Had his father had a scent?) Yes. (Peppermint.) (And money.)
Music played with time in him—it was a function of time-telling, traveling over distance, dying, a dysfunction—but there hadn’t been the sound of music yet this morning; only distant sounds:
Maybe that was it: the distant train—but he heard a train every waking morning and his thoughts didn’t always run to Punch:
Something had set this ticking:
Some one unnoticed thing.
He was a man of science—or so he liked to think—an educated man reasonably versed in the Shakespearean and more current theories of behavior, and stopping in his boot tracks under this familiar sky, he was certain he could dog this damn thing down. Punch: I’m done with you this morning. You’re not going to interrupt this exercise.
To certify this little triumph, he looked up and clocked the point where the sun was climbing from behind Mount Inyo and noted out loud to the world, December seventh.
Thoreau had boasted (coot had been a feral boaster) that you could wake him up from a spell of several months and he’d be able to tell what time of year it was within two days from the way the plants and animals around his sainted Pond were interacting. When Rocky had first come out here, he’d traveled with Thoreau’s writing, ragged copies of his journals in his bindle. You look to other men to guide your manhood, he supposed—every man does that. Every boy, at least. It was Thoreau and Emerson, that pair of old Transcendentalists, who’d lit Rocky’s fuse, articulated the arguments to force his insurrection and cannon him straight off the East Coast into this great wild desert. He’d built this ranch, he’d built his life, as acts of emulation of those two thinkers, those two men. Emerson had cooled for him with age, his aphorisms petrifying into righteous stone, but Thoreau could still ignite the last loose shredded strands that lingered from his youth. He still made visits to the books—turning to a random page to trace a line or two—although he didn’t read them anymore, he didn’t need to, having translated them into living memory, something that was his. Like Thoreau, he’d fashioned shelter from the ground up, listing, diligently, materials he’d used, quantities and costs. Unlike Thoreau, he had constructed a true residence, a house; and—crucially unlike Thoreau—he’d built it for a woman. Not unlike the people around Walden Pond had said about Thoreau, those who came by to speculate on Rocky’s enterprise had ridden back to town to say he was an idiot. Madman. Word in Lone Pine since the earthquake had been that timber was the only safe material but Rocky had had a soft spot for Indian and Spanish masonry ever since he’d come out West and walked into his first adobe. Beams. Baked earth. Sustaining walls built eighteen inches thick. Bafflement of sounds. The sense that one’s surround was earth. The fact that out here, in an adobe home, even in the driest months you could smell the rootstock in the walls:
You can smell the water.
The East, whenever its restrictive memory surfaced, made him wince. It felt like a tight shoe. His childhood there seemed a disease, a crippling limp he had had to overcome. While at Harvard, that one disastrous half-a-year, he’d gone out to Concord, out to Walden Pond (knapsack on his back) to pay homage, breathe the air, the stuff (perhaps an extant molecule or two) that Henry David had exhaled.
The place had disappointed him.
—far less than the stuff of dreams, the Pond seemed tame and manicured, a city park, a Bronx or Brooklyn arboretum, the sort of place a clutch of ladies might descend on for tea and a controlled embrace with Nature. Thoreau had made it seem masculine and raw—a frontier, on both the borders of the safe world and the limits of rebellion, but there it had been, a stagnant pond around which one could hike without breaking a sweat while listening to the clatter of traffic. Scale was disproportionate—unless Thoreau had been a midget or a superannuated child. Rocky, himself, was over six feet tall. Thoreau could not have possibly considered Walden Pond so large unless his sense of distance had been narratively diminished.
Maybe only tiny people walked the past. Most heroes are not giants, but the diminuendo of Rocky’s expectations, there, at Walden Pond, must have primed him for the West. Nevertheless, even now Rocky carried in his pockets, in large part, what Thoreau had carried in that other place, a hundred years ago:
his diary his diary
a pencil a pencil
a spyglass binoculars
a magnifying glass
a jack knife a Bowie knife
Thoreau had never had to carry water around the Pond—Thoreau had never had to carry water in (what Rocky called “walking water”):
Thoreau had rain.
Thoreau had water-sated vegetation: he had otters, woodchucks, turtles, muskrats, sheldrakes, herons, ospreys, loons, and other waterbirds.
Rocky had a redtail dogging him this morning, threading its hawk hunger through the sky.
He had coyote skat and cheatgrass, alkali sink, scrubs and dust. Thoreau could tell you in what week the pitcher plant would bloom or when pond larvae had been laid but Rocky doubted Henry David had ever seen the cholla flower, heard the echo of an avalanche in the Sierras, tasted cactus.
Thoreau had never tasted West-of-the-Rockies thirst.
Walden had been Thoreau’s calendar but this Valley was Rocky’s clock. His water clock. His Stonehenge. When he walked out here, when he walked out from his adobe ranch house, south, about a half a mile, to this footprint where the Owens River used to hit an underscarp of granite and veer west, across the property: at this point where it used to go off south again, where there was still a footprint of its bed, one version of the Valley’s clock ticked in: from his experience (and from the earth’s), he knew that on December 21, on the winter solstice, two weeks from today, the sun would strike the limit in its southern course behind the Inyos, hit the notch beyond which it could never stretch, hang there for a cosmic exclamation and then reverse itself toward summer, back across the sky. On one side of the Valley: the Sierras: las sierras nevadas, the snowy sawteeth (sierra meaning “saw” in Spanish; nevada meaning “snowy” from the verb nevar, to whiten, to cover with snow). From the south, from where he stood, he could see, ranging toward him, the snow-covered peaks of Lone Pine, McAdie, Muir, Hitchcock, Crooks, Thor, Mount Whitney, Williamson, and Russell, their blazing white arêtes blush with alpenglow even now, before the sun peaked above Mount Inyo on the Valley’s other side. He could tell you where, exactly, behind which jagged notch in the Sierras, the sun would disappear. On any given day he could tell you where the sun would rise and set. In daylight, he could tell the time (to within five minutes). He’d been taking this same morning walk for thirty-seven years and he knew how to watch the land for signs better than he knew his face. (When his wife had died he’d stripped the house of mirrors.) And yet, this land would always startle him, this land had never failed to be, for him, substantively, one big Surprise.
He never knew what might turn up.
What he was looking for this morning was something specific, but the things he wasn’t looking for never failed to comfort or delight him. (A bear’s tooth; some silver ore, a whole fish skeleton.) (The latter having been robbed, then dropped, most likely raw, by a careless baldie, scavenging.) Once, he’d found a button from a U.S. regimental uniform, Civil War. Once he’d found a coin, a Mex cruz española from godknowswhen, out in the middle of shit-blasted playa. Thoreau, he knew (from reading), had had these moments, too: these moments on the land, out walking, when time and history spoke to him. (One morning, Rocky remembered, Thoreau had found red snow. Emerson had mentioned it, that Thoreau had “found red snow” on one of his walks, but neither man explained it.) On his first walk after his wife died, Rocky had come out here, alone, from shock or grief or godknowswhat. There had been a freeze the night before—the night she died—and what small amount of moisture that was in the soil had hardened, heaved up like sugar crystals in a pie crust, and as he’d walked, there hadn’t been a sound except his footfalls—just like this morning—mimicking the sound of someone wrinkling paper for a fire, someone walking through discarded news. Too early for the birds—the birds were sheltered in the foothills—too early for the quails, their silent running. The dogs hadn’t been with him either—they had stayed inside with her, sensing, as dogs will, another ghost.
And then he’d found her footprint.
There it had been, plain as day.
It had taken the polio, from first to last, eight months to kill her—for the first three months, she’d walked with canes and for the last five, she hadn’t walked at all.
But there it had been, the impression of her right foot, frozen in the soil, preserved, as live a thing among the gravel toss and bladdersage as a hidden nest or a fresh egg.
No doubt it was hers, her boot, its size, he’d know it anywhere—but its effect on him, the fact the land had saved this for him, the moment of its discovery on the morning of his rawest grief, brought him to his knees. He hadn’t thought about her walking, then, for months—he’d denied himself that vision of her freedom, so to find this evidence had been too circumstantially miraculous for him, in his fragile state. He had swung around and looked back at the adobe house where her body had been laid out and asked himself if it were possible that this could be the footprint of her soul. Could it have been the very last place she had trod on earth, could it have been the place her soul departed?
For a while, he’d thought about casting it, making a reverse mold in plaster, and over the succeeding months of grief he’d built a stone circle around it to keep out the wind. No worry about rain, the Valley’s average, in the shadow of the Sierras, was a sparse inch every year, at best—but he’d known that when the earth thawed and spring arrived again the footprint would decay and evidence of her would then be left unseen.
“Some circumstantial evidence,” Thoreau had written, “is very strong. As when you find a trout in the milk.”
He might have saved the footprint, had he truly wanted. Saving it had been well within his means but what had happened, as the months wore on, was that the meaning of it, his imagined meaning of it—that the ground needed to be sanctified because her sole, her soul, had lifted off from there—migrated: his imagined meaning of the place, itself, transformed. Consciously, unconsciously, he let the footprint go. At first, in the early days of desperation, he’d allowed himself to mythify the evidence, to seek solace in its mystical suggestion. Evidence of the Eternal was what his grief demanded and her footprint was the circumstantial proof of his thirst. God was in the landscape—that’s what he’d come to depend upon out West: Something-Very-Large, alive and present—and Something-Very-Large had designed to leave her footprint, designed for him to find it on the first morning of her death.
What had happened next had been another form of miracle, a human one. He had walked out every morning to this single spot, this place he’d been preserving, to look at it and touch it. What he’d wanted most was to return to her, to bring her back or to rejoin her and the only place where he could manage that was in his solitude, his privacy, his silent thoughts. If he’d had the selfishness he would have walked into the mountains, becoming, like a monk, a kind of holy absence, a human desert, surviving on the barest trace of her. But he had two children, three-year-old twins, and his absence would have doubled their dispossession. So every morning, he had clocked the change, clocked his life and willed her back to being, watching as the footprint had faded into something else.
It was not for her to decide to leave; it was for him to keep her memory.
If the memory of her was not to perish, it was for him to keep it alive.
She hadn’t left.
All that life, all that complexity of thought—her way of speaking, her vocabulary, all the vital synapses, her surprise at stars, her knowledge (culinary; medical), her unique experience: all that was gone; but the noise she made on waking, her specific warmth, the way she’d take his hand at table as the meal began, the way she tasted food, the way she tasted, moist, beneath her clothes: all that he could remember, his memory of that would never fade.
Christ, even as he stood looking at it, now, the ranch was her, the house, every line and slope of it, every wall and tile he’d set in place for her.
Las Tres Sillas: that’s what he’d named it all those years ago:
One for meditation.
Two for conversation.
Three for company.
According to Thoreau.
He’d named the ranch in honor of his hero but he’d built the ranch for her.
—including the bell tower. Sainted pain in the ass to assemble (tallest adobe structure in the county) but she’d made the goddamn thing a condition of her coming West, and of le mariage, and so he had constructed it. Her beffroi, she’d called it (he’d refused to call it that): sainted mère had had one in the native village back in France. There were things, largely culinary, that his wife had found impossible to express, except in French (mirepoix, garde-manger), and there were things, largely Western, mostly topographical, that he could say only in Spanish (barrada, ceja). The sainted mère had told his wife the story of the village bell: if you traveled farther than its reach, walked far enough to where the bell’s hourly tintinnabulation could no longer reach your ears, then you were lost. In foreign territory. On someone else’s strange (and hostile) turf.
The bell was how you knew that you were home.
Bigger the bell, bigger the sound, bigger the quitclaim.
—this was the West, this was her future and her mariage, so she wanted a big bell.
He thought it made the place look like an institution. Rescue station. He thought it made the place look like a mission.
She thought it made the place a home.
They had rung the bell the day they’d been married. They rang it every Fourth, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. Rang it at the birth of the twins.
He would ring it on his daughter’s marriage, he hoped:
He would ring it on his son’s.
Last time he’d rung it had been the morning after his wife had died.•
TO BE CONTINUED
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Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.