A west-blowing wind moved over the grassland, billowing Henry’s pants and shirt wildly about him and tousling his hair so that it whipped violently onto his face. He did not shake the hair from his eyes. His attention, instead, was focused completely on his hands held out before him, on the fingers that twitched ever so slightly as if they were keeping time to some melody that he could not hear but could only feel. Blood had spackled his fingertips, on his wrists and even further along his thin arms—almost up to where his shirt sleeves were rolled into cuffs at his elbows. The questions of how long the blood would take to dry completely and could he simply peel the dotted marks from his skin and become clean captivated Henry in that moment.
Surrounding him in the waist-high grass was the ticking of summer cicadas that alternated in intensity between gentle hum and frenzied uproar. But it was not the insects that brought his attention away from his hands and the blood there, nor was it the coming darkness and the realization that he would need to be home soon before Father and Mother took notice of his and Benjamin’s absence, but rather it was the distant sound of the Union Pacific engine making its journey to California that lifted him from his trance. The train’s song was low and rolling, one of both ache and hope that began in the churning wheels and then swept across the earth to where Henry stood, moving up from his boots and along his legs and arms until he became one with the rumble, a being different from himself entirely.
Though it was too far a distance for him to see the train clearly, Henry knew how it looked: a blackened silhouette moving at a great pace against the purpling skyline, the billowing smoke tracing its movement into the distant west until both train and smoke disappeared completely. His mind moved again to the wonder of this land and its steady flatness and how the train was the tallest of objects, manmade or natural, in these plains.
There had been so many afternoons that he and Benjamin stood not far from this very spot and watched as the engine pulled the adjoining cars and their loads of produce and wheat and livestock westward, transporting them to a place at once mythical and yet so close and real that all it might take was a sprint and jump to climb aboard and join the train as far as it traveled.
“We could ride til it stops and then keep goin til we see the blue of the Pacific ahead of us,” Benjamin had said their first afternoon standing out in the grass that climbed to their bellies. The sun was setting then in its patina of ochre and red and orange and the coming darkness: purple and blue and black.
“Th-th-th-then what?” Henry said to his brother, his head twisting with each halted attempt at speech as if he might be able to wrench from his leaden tongue the words he meant to say aloud but was incapable of voicing.
Benjamin was silent for a moment, his gaze sweeping over the open country. “Then you close your eyes and breathe in the salt air and know that nothing else matters anymore, and you become something new. Something different. Least that’s how I expect it to be.”
They stood quietly then, their shoulders nearly touching as they tracked the train’s movement away from them and this new land.
Neither Benjamin nor Henry had seen the ocean, Atlantic or Pacific. All they had were Father’s stories of his boyhood on the eastern coast of the country to paint the images of glimmering sunsets and white-tipped waves that rolled gently onto the beach and covered your bare feet in a blanketing coolness.
They had only been in the strange territory for two or three hours that first afternoon when they watched the train pass by them. Father and Mother were back at the wagon, unloading what small provisions were left over from the journey. Benjamin and Henry had been given a rifle each by Father and told to go in search of any kind of animal to bring back for supper. And they were collecting the small and bloodied bodies of four or five rabbits when the heavy, metallic thunder of the train brought their heads up in fear and confusion. They had run then toward the sound without second thought, both of them lifting their knees high as they went, and from a distance it might have seemed that they were preparing to vault over the grass and fly into the cloudless air. When they saw the train, they stopped and watched its steady movement over the stretching rails turned dark by the coming night, and they continued to look even after the cars had disappeared into the horizon with just the grayblack discharge of steam left there until that too could no longer be seen.
That moment and the many months that followed seemed long ago for Henry as he stood there looking again at the blood on his fingers. So much had changed, so much now broken beyond repair.
Above him, scavenger hawks circled, while at his feet the two bodies lay limp, their arms and legs draped loosely over each other so that he could not easily distinguish one from the other. And it was this scene that Henry left behind him when he started for home, though he’d need to stop at the stream to clean the traces of blood from off his hands and pant and shirt.
The small but bustling town lay several miles away from their newly claimed land, and Father rode there the second day after their arrival and purchased lumber on credit and with what gold currency he had left from his own father’s death six years earlier.
Over the next several weeks, he and the two boys spent hours each day setting the wood just right, building their home little by little. At night, they ate whatever provisions they had, whether it be vegetables that had been pickled before the journey or small animals they hunted, either boiled in a stew or roasted over a flame. They all slept in the wagon, Mother and Father and Benjamin and Henry, each crammed tightly against whomever slept beside them, the canvas covering flapping in the midnight breeze that swept over the land. When Henry might, on occasion, walk into the night to urinate or listen more closely to the whispering of the air, the black landscape surrounded him so thickly in every direction that he could only make his way back to the wagon with the help of his outstretched arms and the faint and sleepy memory of where he had just come from.
That night, though, they would sleep under a roof of their own making. This was the thought that both Benjamin and Henry returned to while they drove the finishing nails in their home, a small three-roomed cabin.
There was a pride in this thought—of sleeping within a structure that they themselves had built with their own hands—that made the two of them, Benjamin and Henry, aged seventeen and nineteen respectively, smile in a fluttering giddiness that seemed to move even through their limbs.
Just as they were about to finish and climb down the ladder to welcome Mother into their new home, Father stood beside them, looking a pinnacle upon the surrounding plainland. “Whoa,” he said, and the two boys heeded his words and stood also, their eyes collectively fixed on the two horses and attached wagon that came their way.
As the wagon grew clearer with its approach, Henry saw that the riders numbered three: a man and woman and a girl of his own age. The man stopped the wagon a short distance from the house, and Father climbed down from the roof to meet the newcomers and see to their business, leaving the two boys behind him with only the hammers in their hands. Benjamin and Henry watched as Father spoke to the man, and though the distance was still too great for them to hear what was being said, it was clear that it was amicable as both men eventually shook hands and Father made his way back to the house with the hints of a smile on his face.
Benjamin and Henry stood watching this dumbshow silently, afraid that they might break this strange moment’s existence if they but uttered one word of question to the other. Henry scratched at his neck but stopped when he saw the girl stand up from where she had been seated in the back of the wagon.
Her name, as they would shortly come to learn, was Susannah Hillock, though she preferred the name Anna. And when she climbed down from the wagon, helped by her father’s hand, the boys, still atop the house, saw her as a strange and delicate animal that they knew nothing about. Back in the south, where they came from, there was no one who looked quite like this girl. Hair a dusty golden color that swept across her face as she moved her head back and forth, taking in this strange surrounding; a sense of wonderment in her movements that seemed new and youthful and free.
Years later, when Henry closes his eyes, he will still be able to call forth this moment in his life—see the smile on her face, her eyes wide and expressing the same excitement he felt at his own arrival in this vast new place that held such hope for them all—and his stomach will carry the same light feeling of youth from days long ago. Anna, he will think, and this name will repeat like a word spoken into the depths of a cave, coming back to him again and again but growing fainter and fainter each time until it disappears entirely.
Father offered his and the boys’ help with constructing a home for the newcomers, and Anna’s father accepted quickly, shaking each of their hands several times. They spent the days of those first few weeks setting the lumber right and hammering nails in echoing explosions that seemed to coast over the sea of grass that surrounded them.
During that time, Henry came to learn about Anna, but only from a distance: stolen glances that she could not have noticed; nighttime conversations that played out only within the recesses of his swimming thoughts, her replies created simply by his deep hope and desire to hear her words of affection directed at him.
While sawing at lumber or positioning the frame of the new house just so, Henry would look over and study her movements as she helped her mother with cooking or constructing their makeshift camp around their wagon. She was so graceful and calm; each step she took was unhurried, and she often stopped whatever she might be doing to look around her with an expression of surprise on her face at the vast landscape that surrounded her, as if she might be seeing the grassland for the first time. When the evening breeze would sweep through their small inhabitation of the world, she would turn to the west and smile as the air pushed her hair away from her face. And in these moments, Henry smiled to himself and turned away quickly, feeling the strange emotion that he could only call love.
Nights during those first weeks with Anna only a short distance up and over the low eastern hill, Mother would visit her and her mother while Anna’s father would come and sip cupfuls of the liquor that Father brought with him from their old home. The two men would share stories from their pasts, and Benjamin and Henry would lie awake in their beds, feeling the tingling heaviness of the day’s work in their limbs. The brothers never once exchanged a word between them. Instead, their eyes would be open to the ceiling, and they would simply listen to the men’s words. Father, a bleeding loyalist to the union though having settled in the south, told of their old life and the war, how he wanted desperately to avoid his sons being required to join an army whose principles and purposes he could not justify. Father spoke of hope for a future here, and the other man agreed.
While Father told of their journey west to this place and how they had been guided only by “the knowledge that there was a land to rival that of the biblical promised land,” Henry remembered how they had taken flight in the middle of the night. He and Benjamin had sat in the back of the wagon, their bodies turned so that they watched the land they had just come from recede away, their laps weighted down with a rifle each. They squinted through the darkness, the words of Father heavy in their minds: “If anyone follows us, you take aim quick and pull the trigger.”
But no one followed them, and they eventually ended up in the grassland, where the world stretched distances beyond anyone’s reckoning.
Henry woke each morning before the sun rose in the eastern sky. The air cold on his bare arms, his mind swirling with the remnants of dreams that often remained as only flashes of light within the darkness of his mind: brilliant and almost distinguishable but ultimately without form.
He would walk the land on those mornings, smiling at how he was awake with the wild animals of the plain while his family members remained safely tucked away in bed. It was as if he alone inhabited some strange and beautiful world that no one else was welcome to. During these quiet moments, Henry would formulate full sentences in his mind, repeating them perfectly, and he would smile at the smooth flow of the internal words. The normalcy of them. Yet when he tried to voice them aloud, he was incapable of speaking even three words without faltering; his tongue or his mind would catch hold of one syllable, one sound, and repeat it over again and again until he closed his mouth and remained quiet. A dull sadness would spread over Henry in those moments, reminding him of how, despite his rehearsed fictions, he was no different from the boy who’d fallen asleep the night before.
Over the next two months, Father and Benjamin and Henry spent the majority of their days clearing the land in preparation for their eventual crops. Father had carried several pouches of seed on their journey from the south, and after the ground was made ready, they planted the seeds and waited patiently, praying that proper rains would come from the skies and the land would yield a healthy harvest.
Henry often spent his time alone during those months. Whether he be walking the land and rhythmically sweeping the scythe back and forth in front of him, felling the tall grass in soft piles to collect and clear later on, or sitting on the earth with his back pressed up against the side of the cabin, an ink pen in his hand and paper balanced on his lap as he copied pages of Robinson Crusoe from his mother’s book, Henry embraced the solitary existence. It allowed him time to think, and his thoughts often returned to Anna, the strange and beautiful girl whose actions he caught himself watching still, if for no other reason than the fact that she excited in him emotions that were so foreign that he sometimes felt afraid.
Afternoons, Benjamin and Henry would walk the distance from their home and watch silently as the train moved westward. One such afternoon, Henry found himself standing alone in the tall grass. The train had not yet come into view, though he knew from the stillness of the air and the nearly imperceptible trembling of the earth that it would appear shortly. When the engine did peak in the eastern horizon, Henry turned behind him and felt his body grow tense and an emptiness form in his stomach. Benjamin was walking slowly up; his right hand was holding onto Anna’s hand, and their two shadows were joined together and stretching a distance behind them. Henry continued to watch them as they approached, his face void of emotion but his mind consumed with questions.
Benjamin leaned in and said something close to Anna’s ear, and she tilted her head back and laughed noiselessly into the afternoon breeze before turning to him and smiling, her hand tightening around Benjamin’s, her body moving closer to him so that their hips brushed up against each other.
They stood there unmoving as the train journeyed westward, Benjamin holding Anna tightly against his body, his cheek beside hers, while Henry watched the two of them from the corner of his eye. The chorus of his heartbeats, joined by the whining of crickets and cicadas that surrounded him out there, made him feel even smaller and more alone.
When they were younger, Benjamin and Henry would set off to the lake, and there they would fling their naked bodies into the water. Then they would sit on the shore, their hips nearly touching, shivering under their clothing even in the summer heat, and they would cast lines from makeshift fishing poles out into the depths beyond. During those moments together, Henry would remain quiet while he listened to Benjamin as he created stories of pirates and magical beasts; the whole while, Henry would wonder how it must feel to speak without fear, to feel normal and be like every other person he’d ever heard. This friendship between brothers had lasted the move from their old home to the grassland, though the lake had been replaced with the train and the open field from which they tracked the engine’s steady progress into the western horizon, and the stories had been changed, adapted, so that now Benjamin spoke of a world that might exist at the end of the rails: a world replete with hope and wealth and warm skies all year round—“A world where the words run smooth from your lips without you even trying,” Benjamin said one afternoon while they watched the train recede into the distance. Several tears coursed down Henry’s cheeks then, which he wiped away quickly for fear that his brother might see them.
But all that had changed so suddenly.
Early afternoons when they weren’t working on the field with Father, Benjamin would be off with Anna while Henry was left alone at the cabin. He spent the majority of this time reading and practicing his handwriting in the hopes that his own lettering would become as graceful as Benjamin’s. Only just recently was he able to look at the writing and nod with approval, thinking that his own penmanship was not very far off from his brother’s.
Often during these times, Henry would stop his writing and look out at the distant horizon, to that place where earth and sky met, and he would think of his brother and how everything came so simple and easy to him, and Henry would imagine a world in which he and Benjamin were reversed. It would be a world in which he would be able to speak the words that existed in his mind, while Benjamin remained the shadow stretched a distance away from everyone else.
Late afternoons, Henry continued to make the walk to the open grassland where he and Benjamin had watched the train nearly every day since their arrival. But he often found himself standing there alone, waiting for his brother to come stand beside him and lay a gentle hand on his shoulder, though this did not happen. The afternoons when Benjamin did appear in the field with Henry, he was always accompanied by Anna, who redirected Benjamin’s attention from the chugging engine and silenced his fantastic stories of the west.
Nights in the darkness of their room, Henry would roll over and watch his sleeping younger brother, wondering what dreams might be filling Benjamin’s mind. And when Henry did turn away eventually and close his eyes, his own thoughts were assailed with images of Anna. The way the setting sun illuminated her face, the calming sound of her voice, lower in octave than any girl he had ever heard speak back home. Often, Henry fell asleep to the fantasy of Anna standing beside him, of her resting her head against his shoulder while he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her close to him, and then, just before the waking world disappeared completely, Henry imagined what it must be like to lean in and whisper the words “I’ve loved you since I first saw you” without any hesitation or faltering and know that she felt the same way.
When he returned to the cabin, it was past dark, and his arms and shirt sleeves were damp from the stream where he’d cleaned the blood off himself. In the darkness of the cabin, Henry knew that Father and Mother wouldn’t be able to see the damp stain of water on his shirt fabric.
Father was looking over handwritten notes on the crop field that he had taken and added to over the past several weeks, and Mother sat beside the hearth, stoking the fire; sparks erupted with each new wood piece that she added to the blaze.
“You’re late,” Mother said when Henry shut the door behind him. Father looked up from the pages briefly before returning his gaze back down. “You hungry?” she asked.
Henry only shook his head slightly and grunted in reply, and Mother nodded at this before asking if Henry had seen his brother. His legs felt weak at the question, and he gave a strange cough as if he was clearing his throat to speak, though he only shook his head again and walked off to the back room.
He stopped short when he saw Benjamin’s bed; he was barely able to shut the door behind him before his legs fully gave out from their trembling and he lowered himself so that he was sitting with his back pressed against the door. His breath came in short rushes that made his chest feel as if it might cave in on itself. He wondered at his brother and how things had come to this moment.
And Anna, Henry thought of Anna. He recalled the first moment he spied her while he and Benjamin stood atop the very roof that sheltered him now.
Around him, the walls seemed to shrink and then expand, as if the room were alive and breathing along with him. Then he rubbed at his eyes to block out the world and collect his mind. Henry knew what must be done, but he could not will himself to move, not yet, and so he let several more minutes pass before he tried to stand again.
When he was able to climb to his feet again, he walked over to his bed and knelt. From beneath the wooden frame, he pulled forth a candle and several pieces of paper and a pen and ink. He lit the candle and then set himself to the task.
It took several attempts, several discarded pieces of paper, either from his shaking hand or from an unhappiness with the words written, before he created a note worthy of his purpose. He read it over twice, his lips moving without falter the words he had written. And then he signed the name.
He didn’t realize until he stood up again that he was crying, and he sat back down on the edge of his bed and grabbed a discarded shirt from the day before and buried his face into the fabric and let himself sob into it, trying his very best to stifle the sounds of his sadness and pain.
When he woke, the sunlight was just beginning to show in the east, and he realized that he’d fallen asleep and slept through the night and that he still held the note in his hand. His eyes were crusted over with tears from the night previous. He licked his fingers and ran them over his eyelids in hopes of removing the salt white that must be there still and took a deep breath before walking out into the front room of the house where Father and Mother sat, eating their breakfast and preparing for the day ahead.
Father was the first to look up at Henry. “Mornin,” he said.
As was normal, Henry only nodded in reply, but then he handed Father the note. Father took it and before reading the words, asked Henry what it was.
“I f-f-found i-i-it,” Henry said, his fist clenching tightly at his inability to speak those two simple words without faltering, and then he turned his head to indicate the back room.
Mother looked over to Father, who was reading the note. “My God,” he whispered and then handed the paper to Mother, who took it and read it herself. When she finished, she looked up at Henry. “Did you know about this?” she asked him, but Henry only shook his head no.
When Henry looked back at Father, he saw that the latter had turned his head and was looking out the window toward the west, where the sun had not yet risen and all there was remained in darkness.
After Henry handed the note to Father and Mother, the three of them went over to their neighbors. Henry kept at a distance while the four adults spoke. His boot toed at the dirt, creating designs there before erasing them with an abrupt swipe of his foot, just to start over again. He only looked up once, and that was early on, when Anna’s mother let out a sobbed cry. Anna’s father pulled her close to him; in his other hand, he held the forged note.
They stayed there for nearly an hour, and by the time Henry and his parents set off, there were smiles of hope from everyone. Their children, as unchristian as it might be—running off together unwed—out there in the newly discovered world along the Pacific, it gave them all a strange excitement, and they spoke back and forth in a growing rapidity at the thought of someday seeing the return of their children along with several grandbabies for them to squeeze.
Yet the entire walk back, Henry lagged behind, shuffling his feet over the earth and feeling the knot in his stomach constrict even tighter.
The months passed slowly. The crops began to yield their growth, and Henry and Father spent most of their days walking out amongst the budding vegetation, each man as silent as the other, communicating only in nods and twitches of the face.
In town, people whispered about them, Benjamin and Susannah, the couple who had climbed aboard the westward train and ridden it to California, leaving in the late afternoon and telling no one of their plans except for a note left on a pillow. The stories told about the couple were always fantastic and seemed more exaggerated than the last, though it was one of the few stories of any merit in the growing town and its outer parts, and so people were constantly telling and retelling of the daring couple: Made off in search of gold or some such dream or Chasing bandits in hope of claiming the reward or any number of other fabrications.
Henry always listened to these tales with a slight shake of his head and an abrupt turn away. His hands shook still, and his legs trembled at any mention of Benjamin and Anna. He often woke in the middle of the night and looked over at the empty bed, so close that he could reach out and touch the fabric that awaited his brother’s return.
In the middle of the night, his mind often returned to that now distant afternoon, though he could only remember fragments of what had taken place then. He’d stood at a distance, watching Anna as she wandered alone about the grassland; she knelt every several steps, possibly to study some grasshopper or cricket. Then his mind moved forward in time to Benjamin standing before him; he never could remember Benjamin’s approach or how he even knew that his brother was there, catching him spying on Anna. But he could remember the words, feel them still as they echoed like buckshot within his mind: “A girl like Anna and you? You wouldn’t even be able to tell her you loved her, tripping over your words like you do.” And then Benjamin chuckled to himself, a painful sound that Henry would recall each night following. “No, Henry, that isn’t the life set out for you. You should just be happy with who you are and forget—” But the rest of the words would never be spoken.
Henry could never recall the moment he’d reached out and struck Benjamin with his fist, knocking him to the ground, nor could he bring back to his mind the cry of fear and surprise that escaped his brother’s mouth, alerting Anna and bringing her over in search of the sound’s source. Henry could never remember the feeling of abandonment that coursed through his mind as he reached down and took up the rock, no bigger than his fist, and struck Benjamin’s skull two or three times until the latter fell heavily to the ground, the words of anger at his brother and what Benjamin had said running through his mind without faltering. Running so pure that the speech was like a song created by all the emotions that had been contained within him after so many years of watching the world play on without his ability to participate.
And Anna. He could not remember how he had looked down and studied the bloodied rock in his hand and how when he looked back at Benjamin, Anna was stooped over the body, her face turned up to meet his own, words of hate and poison erupting from her mouth, though the words themselves he had not heard. Instead, he could only hear the train in the distance, its whistle coasting over the grassland to where he was. She had stood then and began to beat at his chest, and in her face, contorted in panic, he saw all that he’d ever wanted and all that he knew he’d never actually have. And so, without hesitating, he reached back with the rock and struck her hard on the side of the head with one blow. Her body fell on top of Benjamin’s. Though she tried to climb her way up to her feet, she kept falling down again and again, and when she tried to crawl away, her arms only entangled themselves in Benjamin’s body, keeping her there until she no longer moved.
Only then could Henry remember.
During the long, hot days, Henry wondered whether he should write another letter, bring it home after a trip to town—say he collected it from the post, say that it was addressed to him. But he never was able to sit down and collect his thoughts and find the right words to say in the voice of his younger brother whose body had all but disappeared from where he had left it all those months earlier.
When he closed his eyes and thought of Benjamin and Anna in the grassland, he thought of how, in the nature of the world, their bodies were not foreign, but rather they were simply part of the earth, their bones and what fabric might remain of their beings simply reclaimed by the soil and returned to where they had been formed.
Henry continued to walk out to where he and Benjamin had stood so many afternoons before, and he’d watch the train’s escape westward through tear-fogged eyes.
He had no intention of leaving when he walked out there the last time. But in that moment, something changed, something realized within himself, and he set out at a run toward the tracks. He heard the long-distant blast of the train’s whistle, though it was still too far away to see the smoke darken the air.
When he reached the twin rails that stretched out into the horizon, out to the world of his imagining, he doubled over, out of breath. His ribs felt as if they might push out through his skin, and his legs felt as if they might buckle.
The train itself was approaching at a speed slower than he had anticipated. He backed up several steps as the engine passed him by, and after several seconds, he began his run again, though this time it was alongside the train. His legs pumped beneath him, carrying him along, and when he spotted a metal platform and railing, he reached out with his hand and grabbed hold and hoisted himself up.
He sat down on the platform and watched the grasslands of his home recede into the past. Above him, the sky was darkening, but ahead in the west, the sun was still glowing, and he knew that he was making his way into that new world. He would write his parents when he arrived at the train’s final destination. He could continue the fiction from afar. Tell of how he and Benjamin and Anna were together, that they were exploring the mysteries of California. How his brother had found joy as he had never imagined and how he, himself, was happy with the person he was becoming. He would send letters every few months and in them create a life for his brother and Anna, one that they never would have been able to construct on their own.
He imagined Father and Mother receiving these letters and reading them by the fire, their hands holding each other’s, tears of joy at their boys and the lives they were creating in the west. And when Henry rested his head against the wooden side of the train car, he felt a strange hope that he had never felt in his life before, and he knew that this train, of which he was now part, would carry him into a world of his own making.