Alta Journal is pleased to present the second installment of a five-part serialization of the opening section of Properties of Thirst, 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, 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.
On that morning, as on every morning since then that he’d made this walk, he’d turned back toward what he’d built, toward the adobe house, the people in it, and resolved to keep the memory of her alive. Keep her, daily, with him. Save the thing he loved.
Turning back, now, he watched the signature of smoke from the kitchen woodstove spill like ink across the sky, turning sharply north, downwind, on the prevailing current. Blue light. Deeper blue in shadows, the sense that water ruled—water in the vapor of the darting low flat purple clouds specific to this valley in the mornings, water in the blue ice on the mountains; water, water everywhere, except where he needed it. He leaned down and picked up a shin of tumbleweed and tossed it for the dogs as a signal it was time to turn back home. These dogs: not the ones that she had known—Cyrano, the last one to survive her, had died a couple years ago and now these three on the run ahead of him were the most current of the maybe twenty mixbreeds that they’d had these thirty years. They’d always kept between two and six at a time (the greater number when the kids were young): he had picked the first one up when he was out here the first time. (Uncle Tom. Hound mix.) Next couple dogs picked him: once he’d settled on the property and begun to build the house they had turned up, itinerant and hungry and, like the Mexicans, who had also come, hardworking and blood proud. He’d named the dogs after characters in fiction. Heathcliff. Pudd’nhead. Pickwick. (His wife had named her share too, in French: Lulu. Cousine Bette and Quasimodo.) Now his pointer (Huck), his border collie (Jane Eyre), and the manic orphaned Jack Russell that Sunny had brought home from Bishop earlier in the week (conveniently pre-named Daisy) raced around him. The Mexicans called Jane Eyre enero (Mex for January) and “Huck” lodged in their throats, like something full of gristle: chuck. Those older dogs were having none of Daisy’s antics, turning on her, baring teeth, but she kept coming, pouncing on them, forepaws jabbing at their snouts, jabbing at their chests…
…and there it was: Punch: the connection: the little bitch had all his father’s moves: her gambols had evoked his image: those combative feints: tireless, persistent.
Well that was one mystery solved.
…he should be the one to talk.
Hardly any better at it than his own had been. (At least with Stryker.) (Sunny was a different story.) (Daughter was a different story altogether.) Maybe there had been something in the mix from the beginning, from the time the twins were born, that had soured Stryker toward him (christ knows he, himself, had waged a private war with Punch as long as memory served), but whatever fuse had been lit, whatever friction had existed between Rocky and his son was redefined the moment his wife was dead.
She wouldn’t of died if we’d of had more chairs. Stryker, at age five.
—cruel, accusative, precocious.
—almost funny in its childish logic:
Stryker squaring off against his father, showing Rocky he was no dummy: the house should have been called Four Chairs.
The underlying message was I blame you.
—that had been the road with Stryker, now, for, christ, too many years.
There was something almost chemical about it. Stryker’s rancor. Even after he was old enough to understand how polio infiltrates, nothing could diminish Stryker’s anger, or refocus it away from him.
Three years—long time to maintain a void in nature, sustain a breach of such ascetic stoniness, estrangement from a parent, but Stryker was having none of him, no proximity, no communication; nothing, since The Incident. Rocky hadn’t said Get out or I never want to see you again, in fact he’d engineered the getaway that had kept his son from the law. Sunny had heard from Stryker, of course, she had been his conscience, his outer (inner) compass, since his birth six minutes after hers. He wrote to her—maybe even telephoned—then Sunny would pass the news to Rocky days later (maybe weeks). In that way he knew his son was still alive, still kicking dust: christsake he’d joined the Navy of all things, goddamn Navy knowing how precisely rooted, how devoted Rocky was to land. Who was it—Victor Hugo? Dickens? Samuel Johnson had written that being in the Navy was like being in prison with the added advantage that you could drown. Thing that galled him was not the rejection (hell he’d rejected Punch’s favorite pastime—making money—too), what galled him was the fact that Stryker was so well suited to the land. He could sit a horse sideways and backwards from the time that he was two; rope, fish, trap, track, birddog, wrassle, and take down prey like he was Zeus. Rocky’s own New York City childhood had not prepared him for ranch life—(His first attempt to run away from home, escape from Punch when he was six years old, had been prompted by the governess who’d pointed out the roof of “the Dakota” way across the park, inspiring the young Rocky to cross what he’d believed to be the greater part of the United States—in truth, Central Park—to go West.) (He’d got as far as the west side of Fifth Avenue before one of New York’s finest walked him home.)
Everything he’d done he had had to think through, learning from books before he’d had the chance to learn from doing. There were few things, now, that daunted him (and those were bears and mountain lions; threat of thirst), but accomplished as he was on foot and horseback, he had never had the talent Stryker had, the natural ease and grace. The boy just knew—knew his footing, had an instinct for it, knew his balance, his next move. Always something reckless in that knowledge, Rocky thought, as if his son had had no need to learn how quickly things could go bad—still, Stryker’s poise in the outdoors had been a constant source of pride, even when, to his unspoken skepticism, Stryker voiced his longing, in his teens, to grow up and be a cowboy movie stuntman.
Not the guy who falls in love; the guy who falls off horses.
Gets shot, falls off the stagecoach, falls, backwards, through saloon doors.
Tom Mix, America’s First Cowboy, had been coming to the Valley to make his movies since the 1920s (since the Department of Water in Los Angeles had paved the roads), and it still made Rocky smile to think that the enduring image most early movie-goers had of a cowboy West had been the sight (site) of granite strewn at the foot of the Sierras in the Alabama Hills, a mile from his ranchland. Stryker had started jobbing out (the pay was good) along with other local boys each time a movie came to town, and it hadn’t taken long, with his good looks, before he’d started getting speaking parts, hadn’t taken long for him to change his horse, mid-dream, and start to want to be a movie star.
—hard to say if Rocky would have disowned him. (Having inherited, himself, half of Punch’s wealth, Rocky didn’t like to think along those lines. Property lines. He was of an age when Lear had started meaning more to him than Hamlet.)
Anyway, The Incident had ended it. (Though Rocky still believed, given his history with Los Angeles, that Stryker never would have gone to Hollywood.) (That would have been the final straw.)
He still believed (though he’d never confessed as much to anyone, especially to Sunny) that one day Stryker would return. And all would be forgiven.
—doesn’t every father of an errant son believe in that?
Not for nothing is the legend of the prodigal son still kicking—hell, Punch had probably breathed his last hoping Rocky would come crawling, start to see the glory in zinc mining, borax, tungsten—you name it, Punch had dug it up, extracted it from earth and made a nickel on it (tricked the nickel from the ground, himself). What captain of industry hasn’t hoped to add “And Son(s)” to the family business, hasn’t seen the sign, the hereditary blazon, go up on the family’s storehouse of his dreams?
Even Thoreau, senior, who for the larger part of his son’s youth had tried to gang press him into the family enterprise (PENCIL MANUFACTURING).
Incense cedar, Rocky knew: wood preferred for making lead pencils. Durable. Good for fences, too; native to the Eastern slopes of the Sierras, life-hardened, scrappy trees whose little bell-shaped cones looked like tumbled fleurs-de-lis. He’d strung his fences from them, timbers shaped like pencils, “Thoreau” pencils: Western literary joke. His wife had had it in her head to come out here and run a herd of sheep (among the other things she did), reminiscent of the life the sainted mother had known back in the sainted French village.
—what a grand folie that had been:
They’ll eat you out of house and holm.
Also: phenomenally stupid.
He’d built the fences (he’d have built the fences anyway) and the resident/nomadic Basques on this side of the Sierras had jobbed up to roam the flock in the foothills on a summer basis. He had never wanted a lot of livestock on the land (certainly not beef): no ready market, to begin with, and herbivores were fatal to the semi-desert soil—the numbers had never added up, but he’d agreed to a starter string of a dozen ewes, and had sequestered sixteen acres for them to winter over, closing the parcel off inside the pencil fences. Back then, he’d been running eighty acres in alfalfa—now only one of the six windmills pumped, irrigation ditches drifted out of recognition with backfill of desert duff. Captured water—stream piracy. Geologists had a name for streams whose courses had been altered, headwaters interrupted, cut off or, literally, beheaded—called them decapitated streams.
His was decapitated land.
—stranded on all sides by de facto Los Angeles, its water authority having soaked up the deeds of the surrounding lands decades ago, rendering his ranch afloat, a body without access to its throat.•
TO BE CONTINUED
Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.