It was stone country where a bone cage could last a thousand years under the moon, its ribs a perch for Vesper sparrows, its skull a home for Harvest mice. The hills rose parched from the still lakes, the mountains beyond them faded to a mauve so pale they seemed stones under ice. Sage brush and bitterroot weathered the September night. In the desiccated grass of a vacant lot, a rattle snake followed in the tracks of a Kangaroo mouse, a Fiery Searcher beetle clambered over the dried body of a dead Wood rat in the dust, and a magpie slept inside its wings on a branch of dying chokecherry, the berries hard as dog knots. Stars shone like sparks thrown from shattered quartz, Orion reeling in the southern sky and Mars sullen and red in the west.
In the heart of it was a valley leading nowhere out but north or south. North was going toward narrower cuts of rock, deeper winters, darker forests, and even more desolate towns that turned into villages, villages into clusters of trailers and isolated shacks in the trees, nothing beyond but bush that ran clear to the tundra. South was going toward the desert states where there was no place a man could get work unless he was Indian or wetback, someone willing to take cash wages half what anyone else might ask. The only way you could stay alive down in Washington or Idaho was to break your back in the onion fields and orchards, set chokers on a gypo logging show, or steal. East were mountains piled upon mountains, the Monashee giving over to the Selkirks and Purcells, and finally the Rockies and the Great Plains. To the west was a rolling plateau where nothing lived but moose, bear, and screaming, black- headed jays. At the edge of the plateau, the rolling forest rose up the Coast Range until it dwindled against the scree, and on the other side of the peaks and glaciers was the sea, something most people in the valley had only heard of, never seen, the Pacific with its waves rolling over the dead bodies of seals and salmon, eagles and gulls shrieking.
The town squatted in a bowl beneath desert hills, its scattered lights odd fires stared at from up on the Commonage where a rattlesnake could be seen lifting its wedge head from the heat- trail of a white- footed mouse and staring down at the three lakes, Swan in the north, Kalamalka to the south, and Okanagan in the west, the Bluebush hills and mountains hanging above them in a pall. Against the sky were rocky outcrops with their swales of rotted snow where nothing grew but lichens, pale explosions that held fast to the rough knuckles of granite as the long winds came steady out of the north. In the valley confluence where the lakes met were the dusty streets and avenues of the town shrouded by tired elms and maples. What the snake saw only it could know.
It was the hour after moonset, dawn close by. The darkness held hard on the Monashee Mountains. Eddy walked thin down a back alley halfway up the east hillside, his eyes blinkered, their blue faded to a mottled white, the colour of the junk in his veins. Ankle- deep yellow clay lifted and swam around his boots. Silica whirlwinds, they shivered behind his heels as they settled back into soft pools. He moved slowly between broken fences and sagging, fretful sheds. The open windows of houses gazed blind into backyards, sleepers heavy in narrow beds, sheets damp and crumpled at their feet. In the alley, wheat grass and cheat grass draped their seed heads over the shallow ruts. A single stem of spear grass brushed against Eddy’s pant leg and left two seeds caught in the wisps of cotton on his worn cuff. He waded on through dust, the seeds waiting for their moment to fall in what might be some giving dirt, some spot where life might find a place to hide in winter. The alley held the illusion of water, thin waves of powdered clay shot through with the dead leaves of grass and chicory.
A slender ghost, lean as a willow wand, Eddy flowed in the languid glow of the heroin he’d shot up a half-hour before. Sergeant Stanley’s German shepherd slept uneasy on its paws in the run next to the ashes of a burned- out shed. Eddy had set the shed on fire the week before. He’d watched the flames from his car on the hill above and imagined Stanley in the dark staring at the wild fire, raging.
Sergeant Stanley was nowhere around. Eddy knew he was likely taking his usual time with some frightened girl he’d picked up and squired out to the west side of the lake on some false, misleading threat or charge. Eddy had seen Stanley’s women. The cop took his due with all of them, each one owing him her body in unfair exchange for the cell she didn’t want to see, the father, friend, or husband she’d never tell. When he was a boy, he’d crouched behind a chokecherry bush up on the Commonage and seen Stanley with his pants open, a scared girl on her knees beside the police car, working for her life as she bruised her knees on rock shards in the clay.
The shed had been the first thing.
The dog would be the second.