Liz Stephens holds a PhD in creative nonfiction. A winner of the Western Literature Association’s Frederick Manfred Award and a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award, her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Brevity, Western American Literature, and South Dakota Review. The following excerpts are from The Days Are Gods by Liz Stephens by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224.
Utah looked like this to me, when I drove in: First sage breaking out of the desert, and then slowly, rocks. And then pine trees breaking out of the rocks, and miles later, rocks becoming mountains. Mountains embraced by the sky at the top, where the clouds reached down and threw themselves greedily around the peaks. Sheep grazing where it seemed there must be nothing to be had—only sage, again, in the high mountain desert, and a prehistoric-looking tall plant that began green and ended towering in the blackest brown imaginable, in a lethal-looking tassel. Sheep, and then cattle, that would have appeared lonely and lost on so wide a horizon except that each was utterly grounded, felt elemental, and, if possible, unconcerned. Similarly, from inside the car I began to feel wind-swept, thin-skinned, with a clear-eyed calm emerging from the traffic-snarled many-highwayed past behind me.
When we drove through the town in which we knew we would live, I saw yards I read as haphazard (later I would know better) containing a dog pen, a goat pen, and a trampoline set flush against the back door. The driveways of farmyards in huge gravel arcs dropped back from the road to the privacy of the side door and then back to the business of getting out on the road. I craned my neck for every farmhouse (I would lay my head, my neck, gently onto my hotel room pillow later, demanding not to be asked to look at anything on the television), sure that some key to the whole place would be there in the dirt between barn and house yard, the negative space I couldn’t decipher, couldn’t get my head around wasting. A dachshund running to meet her boys from off the school bus nearly put me in tears, I was looking so hard for home. I owned dachshunds too; later I would know how impractical they were out in ranch country, bellies dragging in the snow, feet hurt easily, always nearly being trampled by horses, rolled by horns of goats, hating barn cats, useless at keeping up when hiking, barking skittery hot-house flowers of dogs I kept inside (and loved on with ferocity, knowing I can’t get the breed again now till I’m ancient and not going anywhere outside, barking mad and skittery myself).
And this image stood out: a boy running down his crescent of a driveway, into a holler where a house waits. I see him hightail it down from one angle—we drive past a crowd of cottonwoods—and craning my neck back I see him met at the door by a little sister and, best, half a dozen sheep, milling on the porch. Sister’s hand resting idly on a warm wooly back as it coasts by. This may mean nothing to you, local as you are, to wherever you’re from. Everything in me reached out for that. Cottonwoods, curved road, boy, girl, sheep, dog, home, running.
It must have been about three o’clock, if the boy was just getting home. The light was gold like that. It lit up the inside of my brain, my mind’s eye, I guess, for days.
Leaving is an experiment.
I can only say, and I am amazed to say it: I have never before left a place I loved. Always finished with the people and sights, the responsibilities and the mistakes, dissatisfied with the place or myself within it. Always urged by a better idea, and usually downright bored.
I’d had no idea what I was feeling now, even as I was living it, calling it fascination and mistaking it for research and not knowing it was love. I always said, before I moved here, that it would take something huge to make us stay, some sign that would indicate that terminal degrees were less important than this home. I’m afraid now that if that sign happened, I must have missed it, single-minded as I can be. Maybe I was looking too hard, thinking too big, not trusting the simple answer in my blood.
Maybe I didn’t believe in the power of forward momentum. But here we are, preparing to leave. I’m afraid I’ve made a horrible mistake, and I can’t believe I got Christopher to agree to it.
Of course, for him, being closer to family is most important. And the rolling hills and trees of the southern Midwest remind him of upstate New York, where he was raised. He never had the love I do for harsh land, land one has to work toward understanding; just the other day I sighed (dramatically, I’m afraid) across some gray-gold fields in Idaho: “I’ll miss these long views.” “Oh,” he said, “there’s beautiful views there.” He meant without buildings; I meant without trees. To imagine my views circumscribed by rings of trees and short slopes of gentle hills, rising so easily to one’s step, so spoon-fed a landscape, all curves and no lines, feels claustrophobic from here. I can only hope I am wrong, that some love waits in the creases of hills and undergrowth of trees that I don’t know yet.
I’d already flown to southern Ohio, in the flats of Appalachia, to search for a house. The wall of humidity, the vines hanging off highway billboards, the click of frogs from ponds in every other field, felt like a foreign country to me. But this is America, I heard myself thinking. And I’m from around here, right? Still, I cried when my plane got back over the desert, when I could breathe again, over spines of rock again, knowing I was going to have to leave it all.
And so an assessor has recently been to our home in Utah, as a preparatory step to placing our house on the market. This seems infeasible while I’m living it: that a home can be sold, the dense weft and weave of this air, this solid clenching handful of life. But the assessor stopped his car in the middle of the road, walked past Christopher, and stood open-mouthed at the street’s dead end, gazing rapt not at the house but at the mountain. “I’ve driven through Wellsville dozens of times,” he said, “but I’ve never been on this street.” This is a good sign, assessment-wise, as it means “private.”
“Yes,” I tell him. “We see as many horses go by as cars.”
“This view,” he tells us wonderingly, gravely, “is extremely rare,” and he turns his head to take in the busy chickens, the placid cows, the scattered presence of cottonwood trees, the lack of neighbors. In assessment-speak, this means “worth a bunch of money.”
My hearbeat suddenly feels like there’s something wrong with it. Remind me: why am I leaving this? “Why are you selling this?” he in fact asks, bewildered. I step inside the house to stare in blank confusion at the walls and let my husband deal with the talking. Why are we selling this? What will someone else pay for our dream, the way we paid so hopefully a few years ago, and why are we selling it? Are we sure we can get that hope back when we call for it later, anywhere but here, any time but now?
We’ll find out. We’ll be back, we’ll be back, we’ll be back.
I hear the man say over and over, as if trying to convince himself, “Of course, this is an exceptional day.” He means that the air is so clear, the sky so sunny, the mountain so perfectly snow-capped, that the view is postcard worthy, which must be a coincidence timed with his presence. No, I want to tell him, this isn’t exceptional. The mountain looks that close, that sight-filling, that mysterious, that mouthwatering every day. It calls and answers.
That the view is worth money is insulting to me, that someone else may buy my kitchen window full of mountain and rip it down, realign a new monstrous dwelling to “maximize” that view, and cart away as junk the boards and plaster where I lived. My old house is a constant project, not the move-in most of the local new subdivisions are building, I know. But I am kept in mind of a book I’d read in class the last semester, which my classmates may have seen as homework but I’d begun to willfully read as parables, named Staying Put. Scott Sanders wrote that “mortar and nails alone would not have held the house together even for sixty years. It has . . . needed the work of many hands, the wishes of many hearts, vision upon vision, through a succession of families.”
I would like my little family not to be the last on the record for this house. Being the last people to live inside this house would seem to represent a failure of stewardship on my part, and a dismantling of my own memory.
And I do want my memories. These are holding me to the earth.