Path of Service

In Long Short Story by Claudia Putnam

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Photo by Nina B on Shutterstock

1. Insinuation

For years after her divorce, Fay had trouble referring to her husband by name. My husband, she would say, and then eventually, my ex-husband. Doesn’t he have a name, newer friends or colleagues would ask, laughing, and she would relent. Desmond. Des, she would make herself think. Des, Des, Des.

The archangel hadn’t asked for his name. No name had come up between them that day in the mineral pool under the high Colorado sky, with the Great Sand Dunes white gold against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the hot water piping onto Fay’s back. Fay had been in that spot for hours, sipping water from a two-liter bottle, her daughter playing in the kiddie pool to her left. Fay was pinned there, this wire-muscled man in front of her, eyes as blue as that sky, golden hair wreathing his face.

The man called himself Michael, with all the syllables stressed. Mi-cha-el. “Sometimes,” he said, “couples reach a point where they discover that their path of service to one another…has ended.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Fay.

They hadn’t even been talking about her husband, or her marriage. They’d met only hours before. They’d been flirting, though, and she’d finally had to say that she was married. Then, wham. He’d suggested she consider leaving Des, basically.

And there was her kid, in the next pool. Leave my marriage, because you want to fuck me?

Jesus Christ. Brutal.

But actually he had been offering her more than sex, or even love.

2. Red lettered

That was in the nineties, when Fay was in her thirties. Having been unpopular in high school, she did not imagine herself especially beautiful. She had long, fine hair, a soulful eye, large breasts, an athletic way of moving. But she also had a plain, sharp-featured face, and a roundness to her belly. Then again, who knew what men found attractive?

Whatever it was, men were insinuating right and left. There was the father in her daughter’s class who had asked Fay’s advice on lubricants—for his wife, of course. That was awkward. And her chiropractor commenting out of the blue, as he probed, of all things, her inflamed neck, on “that fine line” between pleasure and pain in sex.

The thing was, how did these men know? How did they know her marriage was weakening? They knew before Fay did.

“That’s good for your ego, I suppose,” her husband said, as if it were all a theoretical matter. They were making turkey loaf together as she tried to describe this hot streak she seemed to be having. She started many of their conversations with a thesis statement, voiced outright or implicit in the examples she offered as evidence. Thesis: you should want me more. Proof: other men do. Support point: when her friend Liza wanted to go to a sex-toy party, it was Liza’s husband who had suggested that she invite Fay. That evening as she laid these matters out for her husband while they stood in their maple-and-granite (his idea; too conventional for Fay) kitchen, Fay tried to look at her husband objectively. Lanky. Pale indoor face. Shining scalp. Fay thought, Your indifference is not helping matters.

“Is there anything you’d like me to get for us at the party?” she asked him.

Her husband frowned, a line coming straight down from his blank, bald head and dividing his heavy brows. Right, she thought.

“That isn’t gross to you?” he said. “Fake penises?”

She did not go to the party with Liza. Instead her husband sent her and their daughter down to Crestone, Colorado, a town known for spiritual pilgrimages, yoga retreats, meditation centers. He frowned over this description as well, which is why he was sending Fay, instead of going himself, or sending one of his valuable employees. Her husband owned an Isuzu dealership, and the purpose of the trip was to deliver an SUV to a resident of the town. Fay was to pick up the trade-in.

She packed up Gwen, who was a very precocious four at the time, and headed south. The Isuzu did not have an airbag in the passenger seat, so she put her daughter in the booster up front. Fay preferred to have normal conversations when she was driving alone with Gwen. Her husband was at the dealership by the time she had the SUV loaded, so she didn’t even get to say good-bye.

3. Down

“Some valley for you,” Fay murmurs.

Down she plunges into the third-largest high-desert valley in the world. The basin could swallow all of Massachusetts. Her chest aches as she tries to breathe into the broad space. Some sceneries just feel right. You’re at home, even if it’s nothing like the landscape you grew up in, or anything you’ve ever seen before. Boulder isn’t one of those places for Fay. No reason, it’s just not. She wishes her husband were beside her, so she could see his reaction. They used to drive all over the West, telling each other how they might build a life in this or that spectacular setting.

Fay and Gwen turn off the highway at Moffat, an eye-blink town where the residents seem to subsist by selling crystals and gemstones, and head east, toward the Sangre de Cristo range with its cluster of 14,000-foot summits. Fay automatically assesses the peaks and bowls for their directional aspects, the density of the glades, the potential for avalanche. She’s heard there’s great telemark skiing, but the approach to the skiable bowls is long and steep.

She and Gwen check in at the White Eagle Lodge, a long, low building as sparkling white as the mountains behind it. The pale man behind the counter smiles hollowly at Gwen, offering her a green lollipop.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“Boulder,” Gwen answers. “What about you?”

“The Pleiades.”

Gwen nods as if she knows what he’s talking about.

In the hallway to their room there’s a bulletin board advertising spiritual workshops and retreats. Right beside her door there’s a poster for a tantric sex weekend. Fay glances back to the front desk; the Pleiades emissary is staring right at her. She tries to pretend she’s working on her key. She notices that one of the tantric facilitators is her former yoga teacher. The workshop was held the previous weekend; she’s missed it. As a mother she always misses this sort of thing. When the key finally turns, she and Gwen put their luggage—Gwen had insisted on her own roller bag—inside. Gwen can’t understand why they have to go back to the car. Fay realizes she should have left her daughter in the car for the five minutes it would have taken to check in and throw their stuff into the room.

Now, she is short-tempered. Plus, she has sex on her mind. Tantric sex, which isn’t just sex, but spiritual sex, a woman’s wet dream. She’s brought it up at least a dozen times with her husband; he winces and turns away. Fay has diagnosed: for her husband the spirit is too abstract, the body too gross. Why did she marry him? She was young, that’s why, and he seemed nice at the time. It can be that simple. They’d gone on all those driving trips together. You could also ask what made a man who doesn’t like yearning, or arguing, or skiing off cliffs, or fucking, marry a woman such as Fay. He is not going to answer.

Gwen throws herself on the bed, kicking her black lace-up boots and demanding they order pizza. “There is no pizza in this town,” Fay says. She grabs her daughter by the arm, dragging her down the hall. Literally dragging her, as Gwen’s legs go completely limp, her combat treads sparking on the plaid carpet. Mr. Pleiades’s eyes, dark in his thin head, follow them out the door.

In the parking lot, a black woman with crooked lipstick and slept-on hair dashes up to Fay. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she cries. She just had to get in her car and drive straight through from Lawrence, Kansas. She seems frantic, almost fearful; clearly, she’s never done anything like this before. Fay watches her go inside to the guy at the front desk, who smiles.

Fay and Gwen meet the Isuzu’s buyer at the entrance to the Baca Grande, a sparsely developed subdivision stretching out along the roots of the mountains. Wispy and short, Sally is tiny beside the gray SUV. She hands Fay the keys to her Saab. Gwen cries as Fay moves her into the wind to change cars. “There must be a restaurant around here somewhere,” Fay says. Though that doesn’t actually seem very likely.

The other woman glances at Gwen, comprehending the situation instantly. “I’ll lead you there,” she offers.

However, when they pull up at the Desert Sage, a sign on the door says, as it apparently often does, “Gone Fishing.” “It’s off-season,” Sally apologizes. “Dead of Spring.” There is a moment of panic, Gwen throwing back her head to open her round mouth, which Fay also wants to do, but Sally quickly suggests that they all come back to her home. She and her housemates are already having company for dinner and it will be no problem to add two more to the table.

4. Interlude with laughing women

And so Fay and Gwen are swept off to an adobe home filled with laughing women who are preparing coconut-ginger tofu. Gwen perks up, diving into the scene, pushing legs out of the way, and climbing onto a high oak stool in the middle of the room. The women laugh some more and hand the girl strips of dried mango. Fay hangs back, but eventually she too is encircled. Sally has two housemates, and the five others are, like Fay, visitors to the valley.

“Love those punked-out boots,” Sally says, watching Gwen. Fay smiles. Gwen had seen the cover of Fay’s London Calling album and nothing would do but they search for such boots in her size. They’d found them, too, which gave Fay pause.

As they cook, the hostesses explain that the big landowners around here, a Spanish family dating back to the Entrada, had planned a retirement village. Then the wife had a vision. An Indian man, White Eagle, appeared, telling her this was holy ground. She began donating large chunks of land to spiritual groups. Anyone who seemed legit to her. Zen Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists, Theravadan Buddhists, Mahayana Buddhists, whatever kind of Buddhists they have in Bhutan. Carmelite nuns, Shiva devotees, Hari Krishnas, Christian-Shinto syncretists. The occasional UFO cult. There is a yoga school, a massage school, an acupuncture school, a Reiki school. The followers of serious, established religions rub shoulders with the new agers, and the whole mountainside thrums with prayer.

Fay would like to pooh-pooh the notion of a generic old Indian chief bequeathing life purpose to a rich white woman. But she agrees this is, as her old yoga teacher has said, a sacred place. There was that wild rush against her body when she crossed the pass. The valley’s energy, a clean, lively feeling, now slides around on Fay’s skin. Perhaps it’s the aquifer beneath the valley floor. Perhaps it’s the westerly wind, or the vacancy between the mountain ranges. She feels both alert and calm at the same time, usually mutually exclusive conditions for Fay.

She wonders what it would be like to dwell beneath this broad sky, in a house like this one. What would her spirit open to? “Wisdom only arises in silence,” her therapist, a Tibetan Buddhist herself, has said. There aren’t many opportunities for silence in Fay’s life. Not since all her values went to war with one another in her head. She’d kept up her yoga, doing handstands and shoulder stands all the way through her pregnancy. She hadn’t gotten involved with those trendy hot yogas or attack yogas; it had been before all that and deeper than all that. She’d wanted to go to India, before Gwen. Once, eight months pregnant, she’d found herself on a ladder, leaning out over one leg, with a watering can, to reach the spider plant atop a bookshelf. She was perfectly balanced on that one leg, so perfectly that it didn’t even occur to her that what she was doing with her pregnant body might be dangerous. Therefore, it wasn’t.

Gwen says, “Mommy, can we call Daddy?”

Fay glances down the table at Sally. “I thought we’d wait till we got back to the hotel. It’s long distance.”

“Oh, you can use our phone,” says Sally. “It’s down the hall.”

It’s already nine o’clock and Fay isn’t sanguine about the likelihood of her husband answering the phone. He normally gets home a little after eight and goes straight to bed. This theme of husbands turning into workaholics after the advent of children—so typical. Most of her friends are in the same boat, but Fay had expected more of her husband. She wants to put notes in his margins: Cliché! Rephrase! C-!

Gwen dials by herself, carefully selecting the buttons. Her hair is electrified around the top of the receiver. Fay watches the way her daughter tries to hold her parents together with the telephone cord.

“He sounds sleepy and grumpy,” Gwen whispers, handing the phone to her mother.

When Fay speaks to him, he sounds hostile. “I was asleep,” he accuses.

“I know it’s late,” she murmurs. “We were thinking of you. You’d like it here. We should think about moving here.” It’s a mistake to say that, she knows, after all, the man is tired, but then again when is he ever not tired? It rushes out of her, the thesis statement. Her therapist has explained that her husband probably sees her rhetorical style as bullying. Why should he feel bullied? He’s welcome to do some research, come up with arguments of his own. She’s not convinced that she’d want to move here. But she wants to advance the statement, hear the counterarguments.

“You can tell me about it when you get back,” he says.

She blurts out a description of the tantric flyer she’d seen in the hotel. She knows there’s no point, but she can no more stop herself than if he had asked her outright: See any interesting posters in the lobby, honey? “Ravi was leading the workshop,” she says.

“Who’s Ravi?”

“You know, Ravi Stevens. Who ran that Hatha Yoga class I took for six years. You met him a couple of times when you picked me up.”

“Huh.” He frequently says that: huh. It means he’s not listening, has decided not to listen. He does this when his mother goes on about Rush Limbaugh or when someone starts getting excited about theoretical physics. Something he disagrees with, can’t understand, or that just overwhelms him. Huh.

But now he lets on that he’s listened more than she thought: “Is anyone around you?”

“No. I’m down a hall. Gwen already went back to the dining room. No one overheard. Anyway, don’t be so repressed. It’s 1995 and also, hello, this is Crestone, the land of tantric sex workshops every other week.”

“Sounds like the perfect place for you.”

That’s what she’s been saying. Fay places three dollars beside the phone before following the passage back to the women.

Sally looks up. “I have to tell you, your husband is the best person I’ve ever bought a car from. It’s awful buying a car as a single woman.”

“That’s the whole business model,” Fay says tiredly. Her husband excels at the soft sell. Single women are his specialty, particularly recently single women. Fay knows that Sally bought exactly the car her husband intended for her to buy the moment she walked onto the lot. She knows this because her husband spoke favorably of Sally. Every once in a while a woman comes in who doesn’t take his advice, and he’ll be angry. In a mellow way. “What a power bitch,” he might say, mildly.

“He seemed like a gentleman,” Sally goes on. “A gentle man.”

Gwen nods, but Fay does not respond. It is nothing new, this difference between the way she sees her husband and the way others do.

“What about you,” Sally asks. “What do you do?”

That inevitable question. There are a lot of things Fay doesn’t try to explain to people she’s recently met. I’m just a mom is the easiest answer. Best not to get into the head injury that derailed her plans for career and grad school, leading her to choose the safety (she thought) of her relationship with Des.

“Nice work if you can get it,” Sally says. “I had to keep working when my kids were young.”

Fay nods. She gets that she’s privileged. She would know, having grown up in a falling-down house sided with plywood and tarpaper in rural New England. Wanting more is what got her out of there, and now that she’s comfortable, she wants a different level of more—she wants meaning.

Sally offers Fay a tour of the house. The rooms ramble, with quiet spaces removed from the flow of the structure. They climb a ladder into a cupola with a view into darkness. Fay sees that this is exactly what she wants. A dark cold room high in the air. She doesn’t see any way to get here, with or without a fight. When motherhood grew demanding, she’d had to close the gates on the spiritual avenues that had started to open for her in the wake of the head injury. Or felt she had to. Those paths were so intense, they wanted so much of her, just as Gwen was, and did. So, were they still waiting for her? Was she strong enough to travel them again? Would her husband feel it too, if he were beside her? It had seemed, once, that they were on the same wavelength, but they’d been smoking a lot of pot when they first got together.

Missing him is just a habit, she tells herself.

Sally and Fay wind up on the deck, where Gwen has been blanketed into a chaise lounge. The women are stripping. Wine glasses line the edge of a roaring hot tub. A dew has formed, and Fay inhales the tang of sage. She climbs into the spa and leans back to gaze at the sky, which has no city lights to murk it up. Several of the women comment on the visibility. It says right at the beginning of Genesis that God installed stars and comets to serve as signs, one says. Among other purposes, Fay thinks.

Sally says the sky can be spooky. “Another San Luis Valley factoid,” she announces. “We’ve got the highest concentration of cattle mutilations and UFO sightings in the world, even more than in South America,” she claims. Who gathers these statistics? Fay wonders. She mentions that the hotel counter guy comes from the far reaches of the galaxy.

The women laugh. No one seems disturbed by the possibility that ambassadors from the Pleiades may have settled in Crestone.

The conversation carries on, peppered with accounts of synchronicity, significant dreams, wisdoms imparted by various sages. Fay can barely manage her envy over the blitheness with which this information is traded. A couple of the women are here to attend a meditation retreat with a Tibetan master. Another is a follower of Shiva. This woman, Melinda—they all look the same, white vegetarians in a hot tub—explains to Fay who Shiva is. Fay doesn’t tell Melinda that she studied religion in grad school, and that she cringes at every mention of the god’s name. In some Hindu traditions each invocation actually materializes him. Shiva is about as dicey a god as you could try to manifest. Fay always liked him, the way he rolled the world over, the way he’d lie down in corpse pose so Kali could rage forth. The Lord of the Dance. She’d come nearly to tears once, reading the Rig Veda. Shiva in his fire aspect, Agni, agitating Brahma with lust over his daughter, the dawn antelope. Then, realizing where this could lead, Shiva in his archer aspect, Sharva, trying to shoot Brahma before he can mate with the dawn. The arc of Sharva’s arrow creating time, thanks to its own delay as it flies through space. Shiva isn’t able to stop the conception of the world, and when it comes into being, he’s stuck being its lord. As Rudra, the roarer. Fay wipes sweat or condensed hot tub steam from her right eye. It had been such a revelation. She was so used to Western theologies, with their concern for good and evil. But here was an ambivalent God.

It made sense to her. Didn’t all artists freak out once they started their projects? Hadn’t any mother, no matter how much she’d wanted a child, felt this same ambivalence once she became pregnant? Hadn’t Fay, once or twice, eased up her bow?

In her own life there used to be signs like her spa companions have been describing—mountain lions spotted out of the corner of her eye, dreams of ancient wolf-women who instructed her to follow them, strange hippies who came up to her on the street, offering timely advice out of the blue. “I don’t have beliefs,” she would say to Liza-of-the-sex-toys. “I just have experiences.” They sometimes seemed numinous, but she was too lazy, she thought, to build a narrative around the signs she received. Once she’d dreamed that a passenger plane had crashed in Denver, flipping on the runway. She’d seen the people hanging upside down from their seatbelts. A week later, such a crash had occurred. But what were you supposed to do with that? Call up the FAA? Over the years, Fay has come to question the usefulness of visions.

Gwen has fallen asleep on the chaise and Fay pauses before gathering her up. In her arms her daughter feels light and drifty as milkweed seed, and Fay’s heart is as big and dark as the valley. She reaches out to all that space around her. There will be time later, she tells herself, to retreat into Shiva.

At the bottom of the driveway, Fay gazes back at the house’s glowing, arched windows, the dark silhouettes of the pines. Laughter drifts down from the deck. Anyway, Fay knows that if she moved to Crestone, she wouldn’t really fit in. She’d be too critical, too analytical, and people would say she wasn’t spiritual enough. Being too much of one thing does not make up for being not enough of something else.

5. Talisman

In the morning, Fay and Gwen take the Saab up to the Desert Sage to see if the owners are still fishing. Luckily, the place is open and Fay finds a pleasant, terra cotta-colored dining room with an array of organic and vegetarian offerings. The restaurant is packed. Fay hears Japanese, French, Spanish, German, and what she guesses must be Tibetan. At the next table, four people hold an animated discussion on the spiritual and moral dimensions of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s philosophy of international relations. Specifically: should the U.S. intervene in Bosnia? Definitely, Fay thinks. If we are going to use our military, this is the kind of thing we should use it for. As an undergraduate, before the religious studies thing, she’d majored in Soviet studies. She’d planned to continue under Brzezinski at Johns Hopkins. Her degree trailing so many honors, her GRE scores so high. She tries to eavesdrop unobtrusively as the conversation moves on to definitions of genocide. These kinds of discussions must go on in Boulder, but whenever Fay tries to bring up topics like this, her friends shy away, preferring to talk about climbing or skiing, or husbands.

Foreign service in Russia, yoga in India. There were any number of life paths Fay might have taken. But she chose this one. This husband, this child. She doesn’t want to regret it. She doesn’t want to screw it up, with everything she’s given up to be here. There has to be a way for her to incorporate her husband and her child into whatever comes next. All of the arguments in her head overlap on that one point.

The waiter tells Fay about the Hooper hot springs pool. That’s all Gwen needs to hear; the circles under her eyes are erased by her smile. Fay dissolves her half-formed plans to visit Shiva’s ashram and light a candle at his feet. Fay has to admit it’ll be a long drive home, and starting it off with a prayer exercise would be a lot to ask of a four-year-old. Fay and Gwen head south in the maroon Saab, toward the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

In daylight Fay can see the houses that spill down the mountainside between Crestone and Moffat. They appear to be in various stages of construction. Thick, stuccoed straw-bale walls, glass-mouthed earthships, shining solar arrays, wanded wind turbines. Fay is touched by the evident care with which these houses are being built. Once, she and her husband had dreamed of building an adobe, solar house.

South of Moffat, the houses thin. Mobile homes are flung about on the valley floor. About twenty miles farther on, they pass a domed structure with a platform on top. Near the road, an E.T.-shaped sign beckons visitors to this UFO viewing “tower.” Fay laughs; the ground is flat all around; there’s nothing that a platform thirty feet high could offer. Gwen begs to stop, but Fay points out that UFOs almost never come out during the day.

That logic seems to work. “I wish Daddy could see this,” Gwen says.

“Me too,” Fay says. All those early roadtrips, along with skiing and sex, had defined their relationship. Back east to visit family. West to pay homage to Haight-Ashbury. Through the jumble of the Canadian Rockies. To the ancient Pueblo ruins in the Utah deserts. When had he stopped coming along?

“You didn’t let me say goodbye to him.” Gwen begins weeping as if she will never see her father again. Gwen is prone to intense emotional moments; each feeling as it arises wipes out all the others.

“You kissed him when he left for work,” Fay says.

“That doesn’t count. I was sleepy.”

“You called him last night,” Fay says. “You said goodbye then. And hello.”

“And good night!” says Gwen, switching to laughter.

Fay pulls a Kindermusik tape from the console, but Gwen grabs it.

“Not this one. I want The Rodeo.

“Find it, then. I can’t take my eyes off the road.”

It’s a good thing she enjoys this symphony herself. Gwen has been playing it incessantly, picking out themes on her Kindermusik glockenspiel and mooing and neighing according to her inspiration. She’d tried to get her husband to pay attention to Gwen’s musical obsessions. Did the girl need advanced instruction as her Kindermusik teacher had suggested? “Huh,” he’d said.

They drive into a Joni Mitchell song. Fay slows the car. A flop-tongued coyote lopes along the highway, chasing a teasing hawk.

“What’s wrong?” says Gwen.

“Look at that coyote,” Fay manages. “Do you think he’ll catch that bird?”

“No way,” says Gwen. “Unless the bird makes a big mistake. They’re just playing.”

“Do you think he knows he can’t catch it?”

“Sure,” says Gwen. “He’s just trying anyway. He can’t help it. If he does catch it, he’ll eat it. But he’ll be like Maggie with that squirrel.”

Fay laughs. Their retriever had been so shocked at catching the squirrel, she’d dropped her jaw, and out it leapt, like a character in a fable. “This is kind of odd, though” she tells Gwen, pointing to the coyote. “There’s a famous song about this, a coyote chasing a hawk.”

“I want to hear it,” Gwen says immediately.

“I don’t have it in the car. You’ll have to wait till we get home.”

“Sing it, then.”

But Fay can’t remember the exact words, not that she could imitate Joni anyway. Gwen holds invisible glockenspiel mallets in her hands, making up her own coyote song.

The sand dunes keep rising to their left. Apparently they’re the size of Egyptian dunes. Awed, Fay almost misses the turnoff. There’s just a small sign that says Hot Springs Pool, with an arrow pointing to the left. They bounce down an improbable dirt track. At a jog in the road, another sign points to the left, and at last Fay discerns a low, clay building amongst the sage. There are about two dozen cars parked, most of them older and American, and when Fay pulls up, the air is full of children’s cries. Gwen flings off the seat belt, leaps from the car.

It turns out that this is spring break for the valley; cannonballing brown children fill the pool while their parents gab along the concrete sidewalks, eating tacos and hotdogs. Where do they all live? Fay wonders. The radio blares Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd; they seem to be in another world from Crestone. Or Boulder, for that matter. Or Kansas.

While she pays the entrance fee, Fay becomes aware that an attention has settled on her, there’s been a swivel of someone’s head. That Unsatisfied Wife sticker, no doubt. With her ticket in hand, she surveys the swimmers until she finds the man responsible, a thick-haired blond staring at her with huge blue eyes. Not bad, she thinks, heading for the locker room to change. The attention feels good, but Fay is sure he will be dissuaded by the sight of her body in a bathing suit. Not to mention her unwaxed, late-winter legs. She’s probably safe.

Gwen grabs an orange Styrofoam noodle, jumps into the shallow end. The water is a shade between the green of the pool’s bottom and the deep blue of the sky. Fay finds the warmest corner, where the springs feed in, leans back against the rough cement. A reddish adobe wall circles the complex on three sides, blocking the prevailing, sandy winds. Like the air, the water feels alive. There is no scent of sulfur; Fay’s read that the minerals in the valley’s several hot springs have a higher percentage of lithium, which everyone probably needs more of these days. When she opens her eyes, there is the gold-maned man, framed by the opening in the eastern wall, and by the sand dunes and the Sangres beyond it.

They don’t get to names right away. Fay tells him she’s from Boulder, and he says he used to be a prominent water rights lawyer in the Attorney General’s office in Denver. He was sent into the San Luis Valley to conduct research related to a controversy. Denver developers were trying to buy rights to the valley’s aquifer from as many farmers as possible, so they could pipe the water back to the city. Preliminary negotiations were stalled. “After I got done, I decided to drive up into the town of Crestone to check it out. I figured it was just some quaint little ghost town.” However, in Crestone, his car, a new Lexus, had inexplicably died. Of course, there were no Lexus dealers nearby, so he’d had to call for a flatbed truck. There was an unaccountable delay, and he ended up having to stay in the town for nearly a week. “So I met this guy who was running a Zen retreat. For just that week. He gave me a place to stay and put up with having a raw beginner around. If you’ve never meditated before—well, I thought I’d go crazy with boredom, and plus my ass burned.”

Throughout his stay, he kept sneaking out to start his car, with no luck. But when the car was finally brought to Denver, it started up immediately. It’s been fine ever since. Naturally, he pulled up stakes and moved to Crestone, where he built an energy-efficient house and has been living for two years.

Already Fay has noticed a pattern to the How I Arrived in Crestone story. Perhaps it was just a name on a map that “called” to the person, as with the woman at the White Eagle Lodge the previous night. But now, listening to this beautiful man in the pool, Fay considers that most people are like the knights of the Spanish Entrada, who named these mountains for the blood of Christ. When people make a violent transition in their lives, they need to see the hand of God in it. It is no small matter to veer from being a high-powered city attorney to living in a mountain town that is not even Aspen or Steamboat Springs.

While Gwen splashes happily in the baby pool with several other children, the man, Mi-cha-el, continues to regale Fay with the Story of His Life. He’s just finished reading a book by Marianne Williamson and has been inspired by the inner beauty of women. Fay nods. If Marianne Williamson is a step forward for this guy, well then by all means let him take it.

The man stops talking and stares at her meaningfully. “I’ve had a hard time in my life with commitment,” he says. “But now I feel I’m finally ready to take on a woman, in all her glory.”

“I’m married,” Fay says. “Speaking of commitment.”

“Oh.” Pause. A glance at Gwen riding her orange “horsey.” “How married?”

“Married.”

And then the archangel says the extraordinary thing. He says, gently, searchingly, just a touch hopefully: “Sometimes couples discover … their path of service to one another … has ended.”

Fay’s heart seems to crack, an egg with a hatchling inside. She’s already discovered that some new-age men will say any kind of thing to get into a woman’s pants, or bathing suit. (I’m monogamous but available, another man had told her once. With his wife standing right there.)

Nonetheless, the suggestion rings with significance. She has said nothing to him about her husband or the state of her marriage. Is it just that he senses that she would like to go off with him, to some hotel—or to his off-grid house in Crestone, she doesn’t care. He is beautiful, more beautiful than her husband, or her chiropractor, and he is looking at her with wanting, more wanting than she can remember ever seeing in her husband’s eyes. Though perhaps she is not being fair to the early days of their path of service.

If she hadn’t brought Gwen to Crestone, she might go with him, but that is unthinkable now. And perhaps the hand of God is involved in this as well.

The hours pass. Fay buys Gwen a hot dog from the refreshment stand; there are no organic options here. Mi-cha-el moves with them to a cheap metal table near the adobe wall. Available or not, she wants to be attractive; she wraps her towel to cover her stomach. Luckily, this man seems to regard hairy legs as part of that feminine glory he’s been talking about. He continues to describe his life here in Crestone, his mastery of martial arts, visions of White Eagle, his hopes for womankind. He gives her his card.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Mi-cha-el concludes, referring, it seems, to their meeting.

This is just the sort of weenie statement that Fay detests about the new-age movement. There might be signs, but not all of them are significant. How to discern significance is something many fine minds have grappled with.

She watches Mi-cha-el go with some regret. He is certainly her type—the tall frame, the long hair, the corded muscles in his legs. He looks over his shoulder sadly. Maybe he really thought Fay would go home with him. Maybe women, even married mothers, did this kind of thing all the time. Fay actually has little idea what types of things go on in the world. Men might frequently consult married female acquaintances about vaginal lubricants. It could be common for a chiropractor to bring up S&M with a client. Maybe Dr. Greg ends up tying them up right there in his office. Though this hadn’t happened to any of Fay’s friends. That they’d mentioned.

Mi-cha-el has left his towel behind, a white and beige striped rectangle of organic cotton, but when she carries it after him into the parking lot, he is already gone, a plume of dust obscuring the legendary Lexus. She puts the towel in her own car. It’s a kind of trophy, she supposes.

6. Invisible hand

To make up for her inattention earlier, Fay splashes for another hour in the pool with Gwen. Gwen points at a feathery cloud unspooling from Mt. Blanca, a fourteener south of the dunes.

“If you were to paint that cloud, what color would you start with?” Fay asks. Gwen’s Waldorf preschool is watercoloring like crazy.

Gwen tightens her narrow jaw, little teeth denting her lower lip. Fay lets herself drift on the Styrofoam noodle. Oh, please. Don’t make me leave, she thinks. White-peaked Mt. Blanca defining the high-altitude blue of the sky, behind which you could sense the black of space. Then the dunes, and then the Sangres racing north like God’s EKG, starting with the five spikes of the fourteeners ranged behind Crestone.

How can I make this mine? Liza has said no one really leaves a spouse unless there is at least a hint of someone else waiting in the wings. You might not end up with that particular person, but you won’t leave unless they’re there, she’s insisted. There has to be some possibility. Fay wonders if it can be a place instead of a person that calls to you. A place you can imagine your partner living in, even if you can’t imagine him agreeing to move there.

Gwen says, “I’d start with blue.”

Oh, the cloud. “Really? It looks gold to me.”

“But it’s blue first,” says Gwen. “That’s the cloud-heart. Then you’d add water and put in the yellow around the edge.”

“You’d have to be careful it didn’t turn green.”

Gwen nods. “You go slow. I’m sad we have to leave,” she adds after a pause. “I’d like to try painting that cloud.”

Fay doesn’t have her camera. “Try taking a picture with your mind,” she suggests. “Painters have to do that sometimes. Then, when you get home, you pretend your mind is a photo album.”

“I’ll copy the cloud from my head,” Gwen says, nodding. In the changing room she won’t go into the shower. “I want this pool on my skin forever,” she says. Her combat boots are the first thing Gwen wants to put on, which complicates the donning of her trousers.

They begin the long drive out of the valley. The curls return to Gwen’s yellow hair as it dries. They turn north from the dirt road onto the state highway. The accelerator seems to grow stiff and sticky. It could signify something about Fay’s reluctance to leave, since around here cars apparently serve as spirit mediums. Or, Fay thinks, it might just mean something’s wrong with the Saab; maybe it’s why Sally traded it in.

Fay doesn’t get up to speed for nearly an hour, until after she’s passed the turnoff to Crestone and is approaching the base of the pass. That’s when she, like the others who have been “called,” has her own undeniable Crestone experience. A panel truck blows by them going the other direction. There’s an odd crashing sound. The road suddenly grows louder. Fay slows, looking back.

The Saab’s entire rear window had been sucked out of the car. It’s strewn behind them like ice cubes.

7. Refusal

“Aren’t you going to stop?” Gwen asks.

“Why?” says Fay. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“I want to stop,” Gwen says. “Just to think about it for a minute.”

“I don’t want to,” says Fay, turning up the heater. “Let’s think while we drive.” The truth is, she doesn’t dare stop. If she pulls over, she might just swing the wheel around. She could wait in Crestone for a flatbed truck, or until her husband came to get them in disgust. Where would she wait? Back at the White Eagle? Would she knock on Sally’s door and beg for a room? Would she call Mi-cha-el?

“Good thing it wasn’t the windshield,” Gwen says. Poncha Pass rises before them like a wall they could slam into. Resolutely, Fay pushes the accelerator to the floor.

“It would not have been the windshield,” she says to Gwen. She knows the suction at the back of the car is a summons, knows that the archangel, for all his smarminess, was acting as some kind of messenger. Maybe even Jesus was a smarmy guy, and all that distinguished the disciples was that they could leave their lives, their Denvers and their Kansas Cities, and follow the call. They had the time or the money, or the lack of children. Or they were living on the street and had absolutely nothing to lose.

She looks at Gwen, the girl’s fine curls sticking to the leather seatback. Meditating in a remote valley might be one spiritual path, but surely raising Gwen is another.

“I want to stop, just to think about it for a minute,” Gwen says again.

At the top of the pass, Fay does pull over. “Let’s look back,” she says. She and Gwen stand in the ripping wind. The valley swoops out, its grasses still winter-brown, the snow bright along the range. What is it? The brightness? Simply the expanse?

“I’m taking lots of pictures in my mind,” Gwen says. “I hope I can find the ones I want later.”

Fay thinks about her divorced friends, with their 50 percent custody splits, their children schlepping from one house to another. “I can go on a date while Ken babysits!” one friend has said. Theoretically, Fay could be in tantric yoga workshops 50 percent of the nights of the year. Then again, she’d miss at least half of the interesting things her daughter says and does. She hadn’t borne Gwen only to miss half her childhood.

They return to the maroon car. “Dad won’t believe it about the window,” Gwen says. “He’ll think you had an accident, even if I tell him what happened.”

Fay hasn’t considered this, but she feels it’s true. Even without dents anywhere, he’ll think she must have knocked it somehow or parked the car where some vandal smashed the window, and then lied for reasons known only to herself. Fay knows she might in fact be making up a story to deal with the window’s dramatic exit from her car. The accelerator so hard to depress. What are the chances that these “signs” are random? There’s some chance, of course.

As the backside of the pass closes off the valley behind them, it hits her: the brutality of this afternoon. That Mi-cha-el hadn’t merely tried to seduce her. He had actually suggested she rearrange her alliances. Why? Just, like Joni’s coyote, to see how far he could get? It seems that somehow he, like the other men around her lately, had known. He had zeroed in like a pedophile on an eight-year-old. She’s read that they don’t usually pick any eight-year-old. They target them somehow. Instead of candy, Mi-cha-el offered her cosmic potency: there’s meaning here, significance in this encounter, it can be what you’re looking for.

He’d homed in on her deepest longing. A spiritual path merging body and soul, perhaps a man to accompany her along it. Transcendent sex.

Then again, why else would she or anyone come to Crestone? Perhaps he had been ready, waiting, prepared to use that longing, like aliens wait for bewildered, frazzled women from Kansas. Fay keeps driving, winding along the Arkansas River, the empty brightness of the San Luis Valley pulling at the back of her brain, at the far side of her heart.

No, she tells herself. No, you cannot have this.

8. Huh

Re-entry is always hard. As a teen, her husband had done a forty-day Outward Bound course, in winter. He broke his collar bone. He often spoke of the life lessons that arose as a result of his team having had to build a ski sled to haul him out of the frozen Boundary Waters. But did he apply those lessons when he returned to normal life? Fay had never seen any evidence.

Ravi Stevens said she could learn to open her upper chakras, let the Kundalini energy rise till it reached her head, stretched for God. It was a way, he said, to remain sexual without having sex. Ravi didn’t have anything against sex, obviously, what with the workshops in Crestone, which Fay understood were not presented as abstract lectures. Sex was one path to ultimate reality, he said, but she ought to ponder the way of celibate monks and nuns, some of whom were “householders.” Ravi Stevens was of that indeterminate age yoga teachers seem to settle at after their thirties. He could have been on the cover of GQ if you replaced his yoga gear with designer clothes, which she had no desire to do. Sometimes Fay felt the same longing for him that the archangel had stirred, but Ravi had an exotic girlfriend, someone snapping and Italian.

She had come home from Crestone and waited while Des called every glass installer in town to ask if they had ever heard of an entire rear window being pulled right out of a car before, just by air pressure and velocity. She waited till he had finally, reluctantly, slotted the loss into its spreadsheet cell. Gwen had immediately told her father all about the pool and the UFOs and the cloud she was going to paint. She never mentioned the man Fay had talked to in the pool for all those hours.

Fay actually did want to discuss the archangel with her husband. Another proof point. It was the kind of thing you were never, ever supposed to mention to a partner, but she wished there were a way she could tell him about Mi-cha-el, his beauty, his clichéd yet sincere spiritual quest, and how she’d come home longing to have all that in her marriage. With her own husband. She wished Des would be able to see past what was silly about Crestone to the thing she wanted, underneath.

Fay waited. Finally there was a weekend when Des didn’t seem as tired as usual, as preoccupied with either the business or with yard work. She suggested a picnic, with wine, and to her surprise he assented. Gwen chased bird shadows across the meadows of Chautauqua park. Fay kept an eye on their daughter while Des lay back on the blanket, savoring the strawberries she’d brought.

“It’s nice to see you so relaxed,” she said. She’d worked hard not to fall back on her usual M.O. Thrusting assertions at him.

So, that summer Saturday, three months after her trip to Crestone, she told her husband about the beautiful houses she saw in Crestone, reminded him of the dreams they once shared.

“It sounds great,” he said. “I wish I could have gotten away.”

“Maybe we could do it this fall, if we plan ahead,” she said. Too eagerly?

“Too much going on,” he said. “Labor day, kids coming back to college, or starting high school. Parents line up to buy them four-wheel drive cars.” He yawned. She had never liked his horsey teeth.

Fay could see that Gwen had turned back, was zigzagging toward them. She reached over and stroked her husband’s bony shoulder, letting her hand drift onto his stomach. “I missed you when I first saw the valley and it clicked so much for me. I wondered if you’d feel it—the way we both did when we were in the Black Hills, or that place in British Columbia?”

He nodded, turning on his side. The one facing away from her. His favorite side for sleeping. He was thin like the archangel, but his muscles had lost the tone she had so adored back when he was building solar systems and spending weekends hiking and skiing with her. Parenthood slowed them all down, she supposed.

“I missed you more when I saw all those hand-built houses,” she went on, stroking his ribcage through his T-shirt. She could sense Kundalini, the serpent, uncoiling inside her pelvis. Des had once liked this kind of touch. “I knew we could design better homes than that.” By the way, this archangel guy actually did want to have sex with me, she wanted to argue.

“That’s nice, hon.” He yawned again, audibly. “I guess it was a good trip. The thing is. You know this, Fay, don’t you? We’ve found dozens of those cool spots, and we’ve wound up in Boulder. Everyone loves Boulder. It might as well be here, and we’ve got the business and so forth.”

Was that why he’d stopped going on trips? Because one cool place might as well be any other cool place? “But—”

He has a point, Ravi was saying inside her head. This is where you are.

He moved just an inch or two out of her reach. “I’m going to take a nap, if you don’t mind. Can you watch Gwen?”

Her daughter threw herself down on the blanket, panting. Fay gave her some organic apple juice. Gwen wriggled up beside her father, insinuating herself into his arms as she, too, fell asleep. Fay leaned back on her elbows. She imagined all three of them picnicking on the sand dunes, coasting down the bigger ones on round metal sleds. Called flying saucers, come to think of it. Gwen never had painted that cloud. Fay’s friends had hooted when she told them about the archangel. “Marianne Williamson?” they’d cried. “Path of service?” But what about the glass all over the road? she said, and some of them fell silent.

“Pay attention,” Ravi said. “That’s all it was telling you. Find a way to incorporate the essence of Crestone into your daily life. ”

Anyone paying attention could see that Gwen needed her father. Look at the two of them, snuggled up. Fay still had hope. Perhaps if she could learn to be more patient. If her spiritual practice could deepen.

9. Trickster

But Shiva rolls the wheel when Shiva rolls the wheel. Here’s what will happen.

When Gwen becomes a teenager, Fay’s path of service to her husband will come to an end. She will find a manila envelope crammed with cash—more than two hundred thousand dollars—behind the cabinet in the study. She’ll stand with her arms down at 45-degree angles, doing Breath of Fire, the packet with its fat bulge clamped between her knees. Thirty minutes will evaporate while her mind clears. Whatever her husband is up to—preparing to run? Dealing drugs?—she will decide that she won’t confront him about it. Such fights arose out of hope, which as of that moment she will no longer possess. She will hide the money in a secret place of her own, without ever mentioning it, assuming he has other hidden resources.

Divorcing Des will turn out to provide more service. Although he was always skeptical of Fay’s yoga practice, her visits to chiropractors and homeopaths and whatnot, he will go on to marry a vegan quasi-Buddhist with angelic guides. Her husband will reverse his vasectomy so that they can conceive a new daughter, a member of the shining generation of “crystal children” sent forth to save the earth from the follies of their parents. With the new wife’s encouragement—“heel-nipping,” Fay will say to Liza, almost enviously, wishing she’d known how to do it; the newlyweds had even adopted a cattle dog—he will sell his dealership to become a general contractor, a builder of green homes. Unbelievably, his rediscovered vocation will lead him to Crestone, with its strong market for alternative housing. Fay will remain in Boulder, where Gwen is still at the Waldorf school.

But, as Fay has feared all along about the way divorce divides children, Gwen the Goth will soon find herself unable to bear being the part-time child who comes and goes from the new nest her father has built. Sprouting breasts and metal, Gwen will see that she is in danger of being upstaged by her cute baby sister. She will demand to live with her father in Crestone. And friends and therapists will advise Fay that her daughter might run away if she doesn’t let her go.

So, Fay will drive Gwen into the Baca Grande, knocked breathless once again by the beauty of the valley and by her own longing to belong there. As they turn into the cul-de-sac where her ex-husband now resides, Fay will stop the car at the bottom of the driveway, earning a cry of dismay and disgust from Gwen as she is thrown forward into the seatbelt. The curved windows of the adobe house will be unmistakable. An unlikely coincidence, perhaps, but that is just the way things are in Crestone.

“Don’t you remember this place?” she’ll ask her daughter.

“No,” Gwen will say, crossing her arms. “Not really. Maybe.”

As they get out of the car, the same afternoon sun that makes the mountains bleed will find the golden roots of Gwen’s now-black hair. The shrug of Gwen’s shoulders as she swings her backpack out of the trunk will make Fay stagger. It really is too much to ask of her, that she leave her daughter with the aliens and drive out of this valley again.

Her ex-husband and his new wife will invite Fay to stay for dinner, but she will decline, stumbling in only to use the guest bathroom. She will find the renovations spectacular—desert shades of paint on the plastered walls, new alcoves carved into the stone ones. But somehow the house will feel echoing and drab without the cheerful women.

It is when Fay turns to dry her face that she will notice the towel. Somehow it must have ended up in her husband’s pile of stuff when they divorced. It will be in fine shape. The natural dyes look just right against the maple wainscoting the new wife has chosen. The organic cotton will feel as soft against Fay’s face as it did when the archangel left the towel with her, nearly a decade before. Having nearly forgotten about him, she will wonder again: how had he known?

About the Author

Claudia Putnam

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Claudia Putnam lives in Western Colorado, where she has a small craniosacral therapy practice. Her fiction appears in Cimarron Review, Sunspot Lit, phoebe, bosque, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry has previously appeared in The Write Launch. Her debut collection, The Land of Stone and River, won the Moon City Press poetry prize and should be out by the end of 2021. A long personal essay, Double Negative, won the Split/Lip Press CNF chapbook prize and is forthcoming in March 2022. She's had a few residencies, including The Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, and most recently at Hypatia-in-the-Woods.