Only a few travelers have taken this late flight, but
since they unbuckle and rescue their carry-ons with singular leisure, it
takes longer than I expect to move down the plane aisle, into the metal
sleeve of the hallway, and on to the lobby.
Even fewer people are meeting Flight 596 from New Orleans
by way of Dallas, and I immediately recognize the woman who's come to ferry
me to her mountain.
Tall and gaunt, with a single, taffy braid down her back,
she wears a khaki work shirt, khaki bush shorts and army-issue socks tucked
into all-weather shoes of bilious yellow. She stands watching the door
with a stare that can charitably be described as disengaged.
I stop beside her. "Swallow?"
I feel a fool, but I know with certainty that she's someone
who would run the kind of mountain retreat I'm retreating to, that she's
a left-over back-to-the-land type who would choose her own ornithological
Her eyes, pastel egg blue, click toward me. "You're
Dalton Randall, aren't you?" She reaches out a no-nonsense hand, with
the bone structure of a hardy farmer, for my suitcase.
I relinquish the bag without protest.
"Is this all you've got?" she says.
"I've been on enough archeological digs to know about
But she's already striding ahead, clearly knowing I've
brought only one suitcase, and as we weave past baggage claim without pausing
and emerge into the lavender evening heat, she dislodges a heavy gold chain
and pendant-a four-inch-long crystal with the blunt angles of a perfume
vial-from beneath her khaki collar. The huge, sallow obelisk, on a herringbone
gold chain, thuds against her sternum.
The electric door wheezes shut behind us, and I want to
grab her capable sleeve and tell her that I need to return to New Orleans
before my husband Trent leaves for Rio. I feel a desperate urge to tell
her that this whole trip has been a wretched mistake.
Her yellow shoes pace too far ahead for me to reach her,
however, and as we cross the pedestrian yellow lines into the parking lot,
I lose the moment to tag her elbow and inform her that I can't possibly
go with her.
I follow her to a black Jeep, and as she stows my leather
case with the solicitude of a Grand Central red-cap. I wonder how she perfected
such a servile mannerism since I know from the gold chain and the too-large
crystal that she comes from money.
And not Trent's kind of high-salaried money. She comes
from wealth that doesn't even realize the point of wearing a shaft of silicone
dioxide is to mock the opulence of conventional diamonds.
We climb into opposite sides of the Jeep, and she turns
the key. The motor, the air-conditioner, and the car radio purr on in mid-sentence
as a news reporter announces in a mid-western accent-an accent identical
to every other news reporter in the nation-that Governor Clinton of Arkansas
has decided to run for president after all.
With no political commentary, she punches off the sound,
and within seconds of being ticketed from the lot, she swings onto a freeway
and roars into the velvety night.
I shallow my breath, stave off the panic of being out
of control, and say, "How far is your retreat?"
"Three hours. It's only a hundred miles, but the
last twenty take a good hour." She glances at me. "This is the
first retreat we've scheduled for writers. Don makes all the arrangements
and since this is something new, I just hope it goes well. Don's dad had
by-pass surgery yesterday in Atlanta. There were no complications, but
with a controlling mother like Mrs. Seward, she insisted Don come home
I haven't heard of a Don Seward, and I'm surprised he hasn't taken a name
like 'Leaf' or 'Peace.'
"So Don won't be here for the Fourth of July,"
she adds in a faintly whiney voice. "I'll drive down to meet the plane
from Atlanta when I take you back to yours, but I'm not used to doing this
alone, and I'm worried about how a bunch of writers will fit together.
Especially with Archer Giles. Have you ever seen him on a talk show? He's
a piece of work."
She snaps on the headlights, illuminating the dashboard
dials in undersea green, and asks, "So why did you come to this workshop?"
The air-conditioner is pumping iced air onto my neck,
and when my hand shakes as I deflect the vents, I tell myself my fingers
are merely quivering with the cold. "I saw a poster in the Liberal
Arts Building advertising a writing retreat with Archer Giles, and I thought
I'd like to see for myself how a bunch of writers fit together with him
for a weekend."
She slides green incredulity toward me. "You're an
archeologist! Don even has your monograph on Hopewell pottery. Why would
you want to attend a fiction workshop in Arkansas?"
Trent had asked the same question. "Come with me
to Rio," he said. "Why in hell would you want to go to the Ozarks?"
Trent's outrage, perfected for use on the residents he
supervises, is galling, but I resisted snapping, "Why the hell not
the Ozarks?" and substituted, "I've been to Rio with you. Remember?"
"You were in Brazil twenty years ago," he said.
"I think both you and Rio de Janeiro may have changed."
His emphasis on the passage of time and change is also wearying.
I don't say any of that to Swallow and I answer her query
with, "I read a couple of Archer Giles' books. I decided he'd be interesting
to study with."
"Giles is a piece of work all right," she repeats.
"Don wanted people who wouldn't bite each other's heads off, but when
we called Archer Giles to see if he wanted to review the applicants, he
said it didn't matter, that they'd all be--" She breaks off into a
"--that they'd all be bad." I laugh to soothe
what's likely uncharacteristic concern. The laugh is my forced, telephone
version, but she won't know that. "From what I've read, that sounds
exactly like something Archer Giles would say."
The sudden anxiety that she's blundered spurs her into
a volley of descriptions of the other workshop attendees already secure
on her mountain, but since I haven't heard of any of them, I don't try
to sort them out.
Nor, as we turn off the freeway onto a two-lane highway
winding into the mountains, do I attend her review of how the businesslike
Don has managed the sleeping arrangements. I knew from the brochure that
I could pay extra and reserve a cabin for myself, so I let my mind wander.
To a rumpled bed, a head of black curls, and calloused
fingers stroking my bare skin.
I bring myself back to the green dashlight, Swallow's
voice, and the night countryside. She's explaining that all of her meals
An inverted overhead basket of oak branches glares down
briefly from the night, then vanishes into the blackness as Swallow maneuvers
the right-angle curves of the narrow road.
A yellow warning sign, NEXT THREE MILES WINDING AND STEEP,
jumps into the headlights and informs me that I've been clutching the hand-rail
above the Jeep door under the mistaken impression that as soon as we left
the interstate, the road became winding and steep.
I continue to clamp the bracket firmly.
The dashboard clock reads 11:21 as the sleepy lights of
minuscule towns funnel by, and the highway at last straightens into a valley.
After a few more miles, the Jeep swerves off the yellow-lined
blacktop, crosses a one-lane bridge that leads to a discernibly more cramped
Within minutes we're on a gravel road.
"The last three miles are a little rough." She
yanks the steering wheel to avoid a boulder the size of a skull, and the
Jeep labors along what could be a dry riverbed rather than a road. We bounce
over the pipes of a cattle guard, and a dirt lane replaces the gravel road
in the headlights.
"I came down this far to meet Hovencamp and Montell
and lead them up. There's a mailbox if you're expecting a letter."
She indicates with her head while she keeps her eyes on the rocks and the
If Trent has sent a letter, I don't intend to take it
from the mailbox. And if someone else gathers in the mail and hands it
to me, I won't open a letter from Trent before I toss it.
The sky becomes a vast crust of stars, and Swallow drives
through an open gate into a compound. It's vaguely what I imagined the
retreat would be from the hazed photo on the brochure. A large house sits
surrounded by cabins, a stand of trees, and in the shadows, log cubes with
roofs of faintly gleaming tin rise somber and deserted.
But a lamp shines from the window of the main house, and
a rectangle of yellow light splays onto the ground.
Just as Swallow spins in beside two parked cars, the silhouette
of a man holding a tumbler passes the window. The man comes out the front
door, stands briefly, then reaches back for the light switch. Light floods
the porch with a savage white beam.
I climb down from the Jeep, conscious of the rasp of pebbles
under my sandals. The light glares into the night with the harshness of
flint, and I step into it.
"My God! Dalton!" Archer Giles says from the
porch. "What are you doing here?"