by Christie Cochrell
When Julian’s ashes had been strewn in his family’s Hudson Valley, and the apartment in Mexico City been sold, Carrie was left feeling strangely homesick. Not for the places they had lived, which held her husband and his memory, but for a landscape and a way of being she hadn’t been back to for more years than she could count. Santa Fe, New Mexico. She’d loved it once, the town where she’d been born and lived until she went away to college in upstate New York and met the man who would give her the further distances she sought. The world was wide, so wide, and Santa Fe only a little unassuming backwater—but now, having traveled that world exhaustively, she couldn’t think of any place she’d rather be.
And when she’d settled into a spacious nearly-old-style condo at Quail Run on the south side of town, she felt indeed that she’d come home. She realized she’d missed living closer to nature, open spaces, open skies—where you could see the stars clearly and not just city lights and air pollution. She looked forward to exploring favorite childhood haunts and getting reacquainted with the town and surroundings, while accepting the likelihood that she if not the town had changed almost beyond recognition. She hadn’t kept in touch with any old neighbors, classmates, or friends, and figured they would all have moved away as she had, but unlike her not come back. And that was okay too: clean slate, fresh beginnings.
They’d led charmed lives, Julian Raines and his much younger wife Carrie. They’d lived in Mexico City most of the time, with frequent trips back to New York and to museums for lectures and openings in London, Rome, Berlin. He’d been one of those archaeologists who catch the public eye and that of major donors connected with prestigious museums. He’d been in on the fabulous discoveries at Teotihuacan, beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. And she’d written the haunting novel shortlisted for the National Book Award about a spirited attendant of Empress Carlota at the time she and her husband Maximilian ruled Mexico City—Carrie’s focal point different from that of the Bette Davis film, and also optioned by a big-name producer. In her version the attendant, a young woman from Trieste, fell in love with an impassioned supporter of Benito Juárez, fighting for independence against the French-backed Emperor and Empress.
It had been on a Spanish class trip from Santa Fe to Mexico her last spring of high school that Carrie had been seduced especially by the castle of Chapultapec—retreat of Aztec emperors, she’d learned later, its name meaning “Hill of the Grasshopper” in Nahuatl. The class had visited the royal residence of Austrian Archduke Maximilian and his Princess, Charlotte of Belgium, and she’d taken blurry pictures of the grounds and terraces and found it charmingly romantic. She would learn only during her extensive research years later how tragic and how futile it had really been, with Maximilian beheaded after two years and Carlota spending the rest of her life lost in mental illness.
That trip from Santa Fe her senior year had been Carrie’s making. A taste of life out of the ordinary and free of constraints, it seemed. Funny that she now found herself rather taken by the idea of being reined in—of settling, nesting—after that long, capricious swath of time which, looking back, didn’t feel quite real somehow. As a means to that, a way of reclaiming something she’d left behind, she immersed herself in rediscovering the past. She faced the boxes she had moved to her new home from storage in New York, and went through them as she had once explored a new country. Julian’s papers and personal artifacts she sent off to his colleagues. Then as the almost-archaeologist she had become, she dug into her own variegated past.
On beautiful October days with brilliant leaves and skies, she sat in her new second bedroom/office with its rustic trestle table in a pullover that had been Julian’s, and skinny jeans, and as the month went on turned up her ancient writing files. There were a few old stories that she thought weren’t bad, from early classes in college, all of them exploring the insatiable aches and hungerings of female adolescence. That fateful trip to Mexico City with her Spanish class. The story of the pyramid she hadn’t finished at the time, suddenly catapulted into her future instead. Maybe, she thought, something worth rescuing? A little personal—but so much time had passed, she knew it couldn’t make any difference to anyone, including her.
She fiddled with the language of the stories, changed a name or two, and sent them off to various journals she found online. She hadn’t published anything for years, since her two lesser novels, and thought she’d like to find herself writing again after too long just helping with Julian’s papers and reports. It would be one more step towards rejoining the living. Last week she’d been persuaded by a coworker at the Library for the Blind where she’d started volunteering to buy a pair of cockatoos whose owner (the librarian’s mother) had just gone into care. The birds, Salsa and Mambo, did add some whimsical color to her days.
With a sense of growing disbelief, followed by a series of emotions he hadn’t let himself feel for years and years, Alec Sandoval recognized the scene after less than a paragraph. The vivid passage in the story recently submitted knocked him for a loop.
That day at Teotihuacan with his senior-year class. With Lyn Granger. The two of them together the whole day, and in a surreal sequence like something out of an art film (or maybe Hitchcock?) climbing up swarms of steps as if into the sky itself, up to the top of La Pirámide del Sol—and there, atop the pyramid, being stopped by the gitana, a Romani woman with spooky eyes, maybe with cataracts, maybe half blind, but seeing far more than she should, and showing no mercy. Seeing at once that they were terribly in love, Alec and Lyn—keeping apart from their classmates whenever possible, stealing kisses and touches full of light and heat. And seeing, beyond that, that they would have a life of parting, distances, of pain and loss.
She’d tried to sell them a cassette of Romani music and song, but really wanted Lyn to pay her for a palm reading and not just be allowed the “fun” highlights for free.
“Love will bind you,” she’d said, her English poor, her accent strong, but by no means impossible to puzzle out. “Bind you,” she’d emphasized. The young Alec had wondered momentarily if she’d said “blind,” given those eyes that seemed to see and not see, both at once. Despite his skepticism, and the heat that pressed itself upon them in that subtropical land, he’d felt a chill. She seemed so irrefutable, somehow. So drenched with the wisdom of the ages, and calamity and ruin too.
“Bind me, you mean?” Lyn had carefully clarified.
“Sí, you and he, this one, together.” Después, she’d said—until the end.
Though she had hidden her reaction at the time, and for all the rest of the day, Lyn (and here on the screen, the narrator of this story) had utterly panicked at that, supposing bind meant tie her up, keep her from places like that high breathless Mexican plain—”the place where gods are created.” The pyramids and squat temples, the blue volcano, sacred and extinct. And then Chapultapec, the castle with its bosque, its fountains and lake with swans; the Zócolo at night, the unfamiliar warmth and lights, the noontime ringing of the twenty-five cathedral bells; the wood and glass carts in the Plaza selling chunks of sweet tropical fruit (pineapple, papaya) warm from the sun; the colors, the music—all she had fallen for, all she now stood to lose.
While Alec had been steadily indifferent to the foreign city’s charms. He’d been so reluctant to go along on the class trip, hated going to Albuquerque even—to the zoo to see the zebras, up the tram. And he had gotten even more reluctant, dour, as the trip went on, seeing Lyn changed, seduced, by distances, by differences.
“Till death us do part,” she’d said venomously, paraphrasing the words of the gypsy diviner.
Both wounded invisibly, but not about to admit it, they’d broken away rudely as young people do, and gone off laughing unkindly, making fun. After, they’d fed each other quickly melting popsicles from the surprising little cart a weathered man was selling on the pyramid in view of all the Aztec gods. Surely a sacrilege in such a spot, Lyn had worried, wide-eyed.
“No—a blessing,” Alec had said, ravished by the icy sweetness in his mouth.
But on the flight of steps back down to earth, shot straight and true as a killing arrow, the fatal encounter had felled them, separate and estranged, as it sank in.
The story was beautifully written and moving, and the ending of it pierced him as the ending of that day had done then. He scrolled quickly back to the author’s name. Not Lyn Granger, but Carrie Raines. Her author bio wasn’t very detailed, but he checked her on Google, and found her linked with her husband’s research and finds. His death, in March. Her novel, which had done so well, followed by two historical mysteries. An author photo. Darker-skinned and white-haired now, wearing a beaded Huichol choker, almost a collar, inside a low-cut navy velvet shirt. Striking. And certainly, despite the changes, his Lyn. Carolyn, probably, though he didn’t remember knowing that—just shortened differently now. She’d been eager for change, transformation, nine lives, the whole Faustian bargain. Even before she went off to the east coast for college, against his helpless protestations, and vanished from there.
Alec himself had stayed in Santa Fe all of his life, with just two trips to western Canada via the San Juan Islands when his older daughter, Julia, got into the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at the University of Victoria. He’d installed solar panels, raised Julia and Fay as a single parent (or they’d raised him, as he liked to put it), then launched the literary journal he’d always wanted to curate, in a small friendly space in Sena Plaza upstairs in one corner of the central patio, his neighbors attorneys, a doctor, and an appraiser of antique jewelry.
He’d been perfectly happy to stay put, domesticated to the core. The days in Mexico City had burned him, like a match not soon enough let go when lighting farolito candles, votives, sparklers for the kids on the Fourth of July.
And now? Did he regret? Did she? His curiosity (and old feelings) stirred, he’d love to find out what became of Lyn. What she had given up to Carrie. Did her submitting this story all these years later mean that she was sounding out the past, their past? Had she written it recently, after her husband died, remembering wistfully a different path she might have tried? Or, giving thanks that she had fled?
Just one way to find out. Alec shrugged on his duffle coat and went down the rickety stairs outside his balcony office. The pleasant courtyard of the historic compound was quiet at this time of year. Only one table at the restaurant was occupied, a middle-aged couple (local, he guessed) nursing a bottle of French Burgundy. He settled on a bench near the sock shop where he frequently sat and read submissions or worked on edits with authors.
“We’d like to publish your story if it is still available, and if you’ll consider a few changes.” Choosing his words, hands resting lightly on the laptop, he grinned and entered what his actress daughter Fay called his mischief-making mode—”Oberon handing out the asses’ ears.” Her usually mild-mannered father, sympathetic to a fault, was famous for playing occasionally discomfiting jokes. She and thinner-skinned Julia had squirmed under his impish humor all too often, growing up.
“I wonder if you might consider changing the ending slightly?” he wrote to Carrie Raines, simply as Fiction Editor, Chilili Review. “I loved this story, until the last paragraph or two—which frankly disappointed me. It could have been much stronger if you’d left the option open that she didn’t after all leave Leo (right name?) in the shadow of the pyramid, knowing her future wouldn’t include him. Some element of hesitation, maybe—an image or word foreshadowing a change of heart?—clairvoyant flashes of her loveless life ahead?—might open it up nicely to effectual character growth.
“Sorry for jumping in, but you’ve got some powerful stuff here, which I think could only get better with a bit of soul-searching on the narrator’s part. I’d like to see your Ellen go a different way. (Again—right name? Ironic, of course, that someone named for Helios, sun or sunlight in ancient Greek, should make her fatal mistake on, or just after descending from, the Temple of the Sun.)
“Anyway, let me know what you think. Are you willing to go back and make these changes?”
Carrie was furious, at first, at the presumption of this idiot—messing with her story. And then, during a supper of white beans with poblano chile, vermouth, and herbs, afraid he had a point.
Still later, in the early hours of the morning, startled awake by a dawning suspicion. She stared at the moonlight spilling through her uncurtained windows onto floor and bed, and sitting up to find her cellphone, checked the masthead of the online journal as she hadn’t thought to do before.
She sank back onto the jumble of pillows, stunned. Alec Sandoval. The senior editor and publisher of Chilili Review, based here in Santa Fe. She found his Facebook page. Found daughters (one with a curly-headed child, it seemed), if no sign of a wife, as far back as she scrolled. Dead or divorced? A Red Tibetan Mastiff named Minnie. As in mouse? Just his kind of quip, Alec . . . .
Alec—she couldn’t believe it. Hair dark and face mostly unlined; looking still kind, intelligent, and full of fun. So much less serious than Julian, she knew instinctively, remembering her then-boyfriend delighted by those popsicles on top of the great pyramid. Julian would have been aghast.
She hugged her knees under the flannel of her nightgown, and considered for a long time.
“I can’t change it,” she finally wrote, in the fading moonlight. “Not and be true to what the story asks of me.”
Carrie couldn’t decide if she should she let him know she’d unmasked him. Withdraw the story, pretend it had been acceped elsewhere, verbatim?
“What would you like to see happen?” she temporized. “In your view, Leo—Dermott/Frankie?—ought to realize the error of his ways, and see the world with Ellen—Mimi/Daphne?”
“Or maybe,” he wrote back, awake early, “Clarity/Luz can see that Homer/Enrique means more to her than the urge to travel all her erratic days; that he’s her still center, her harbor and abode.” (Too strong? Yes, probably.)
She poured seed out for the two cockatoos, looked out at the shimmer of yellow cottonwoods in the first sun, the near foothills and vast, lightening sky. Thought where she’d been, and where she’d come, and why, and how she felt about it all. About her archaeologist husband, who she had admired terrifically and been one with in their passion for distances and academic truth, but hadn’t ever really loved in a romantic sense, she’d admitted during the long hour of the funeral in New York. Not desperately and unreservedly, head over heels. He’d been more companion, workmate—not once asking her to change.
She sat with her notebook and felt-tipped pen at the trestle table and wrote out several endings, several ways of opening the story out. Playing with words, crossing some out again, letting them lead and lure and undo her the way the words of the seer had done those years ago. False words, or true? Mistaken words, or words that showed her certainties she couldn’t run from, not this time?
“Love will bind you . . .”
Love will keep you back, she’d known the clairvoyant woman had meant. Keep you from being you, truly. Where you most need to be. She studied the figures on the cover of her second mystery, photos Julian had gotten permission to use after the discoveries at Teotihuacan, the exhibitions that followed, around the world. Wonderful images. A pair of ancient figurines, charming and dear, with incredible headpieces. Friendly faces that spoke to her.
And yes, her only babies, as it were. She felt a little sad, after it all, seeing again on the computer screen Alec’s happy family. But she kept coming back to the same conclusion, the only one that she could write. She’d done what she needed, for her, and the story had ended as it ought.
She turned the page, facing the waiting blank. Began again. A new story, which she called “After Julian.” (Let Alec pick another name for her, if he chose to engage in this venture.) A story with a new uncertainty, as requested, that started with a wrong interpretation but then headed in a direction she thought the editor with mischief in his eyes and huge dog at his feet in those scruffy old roper boots might like much better. Where the aged heroine ran into the gypsy again in later years, both almost daily visitors to Teotihuacan by then, and learned that the woman was farther-seeing than she’d guessed—if garbled in her speech. Through new thick spectacles she recognized Clarity right away, and asked, slyly,
“How’s your young man?”
When told how matters had turned out, because of her, she laughed unsympathetically, and scorned,
“Oh no, señora. You misunderstood. I didn’t say ‘love will bind you’—but “love will find you. Después. After, you know?”
Yes, she had said después. And then, el fin. Which Clarity—panicked, hearing only the threat she imagined crushing her desires and dreams—had understood to mean until the end, or until death. But now she understood that it had instead meant after the end (of her essential travels there in Mexico), after the death (of Julian). In her mind’s eye she saw the gypsy indicating the Road of the Dead that ended at the pyramid. Or started there.
She grew faint at the recognition, afraid it was long since too late to make up for having been fortune’s fool. She hurriedly packed up all of the things she’d collected over the years away, and headed home, to where she had begun—praying that love might indeed find her there. That it wasn’t irrevocably lost because of a mistaken word.
Carrie finished the story and, before she lost her nerve, pushed send.
Alec answered with words of a poem by Kalil Gibran that had always spoken to him—
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup, but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread, but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with
the same music.”
And then added,
“I’ve been here waiting to be found.”
About the Author
Christie Cochrell’s work has been published by Catamaran, Lowestoft Chronicle, Cumberland River Review, Tin House, and a variety of others, receiving several awards and Pushcart Prize nominations. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she’s recently published a volume of collected poems, Contagious Magic. She lives by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California—too often lured away from her writing by otters, pelicans, and seaside walks.