written by Michael Lehman | illustrated and art directed by Plum
One time there was a girl living way out in the woods with her father in a cabin all alone. I know her name, but I ain’t gonna tell it to you, ’cause I hear she’s still on the run.
Her father was tall and thin. Stringy, you might say. He got that way from eating pieces of string like they was noodles with sauce on top and everything, and string beans, and nothing else. But out in the woods the girl and him didn’t have much of anything to eat. He was too proud to farm in the dirt and he was a lousy hunter. They would have starved except the wolves took pity on him and left out a few scraps of rotten meat.
He was too proud to chop wood or draw water or mend the roof or any of that, and so the girl did as much as she could. Fact was, he’d been a rich man, the owner of a whole coal mine back in the east. He couldn’t hold on to it, though, on account of some of the miner’s daughters he summoned to his mansion for “instruction” were never seen again, and the town, even though it was a company town, and even though it was his company, grew restless, and on some dark night in some dark room with the windows shut the word “justice” was even mentioned, and he took his own little daughter and lit out for the west before that justice got any more real.
So they lived in a cabin all alone in the woods, and the girl, despite her hunger, grew stronger. She would slip away from the cabin and lie among the hummocks of deep moss and intricate lichen and it was almost, as she slept and dreamed, almost like the mother she’d lost. And she listened to the birds and learned from them how much food there is to find in a forest.
When she’d reached a certain span, her father brought out a dress a miner’s daughter had worn, a dress he’d folded and saved and carried all the way out to the woods, and he commanded the girl to put it on. Then he threw a great big pile of the wood she’d chopped on the fire and paced around and around the cabin floor reading aloud in a thunderous voice from the most boring part of the book of Leviticus and snapping a stockman’s whip he happened to have among his possessions for no reason.
What would you do, if you were the girl? It’s not such a simple question. He was her father, you know. The only life she had ever known. But you’re right, in the end, she ran out the door. And do you know what else she did? She nailed the door shut from the outside and set fire to the cabin and watched it burn until she was sure her father was dead.
She walked away for days and nights without end, and came to the tracks, and climbed aboard a train going west. She figured she’d ride to end of the line, where natives patrolled the ramparts of the Sierra Nevada with good Chinese steel. The rumor she'd heard from the birds was that a refugee might be allowed to cross the frontier.
In California they gambled with yarrow stalks and the prizes were the past and future. She wanted to live in a country where everything was strange. It would be like dunking her head in a bucket of cool, clean water.
She climbed aboard the saloon car. There was a man in the corner with huge side whiskers and blue tinted glasses playing a jangling little piano that rattled with the rails. There was a bartender with a moustache like a whisk broom slouched on the bar and a bunch of gamblers in black Stetson hats around a table playing cards.
“Sit down and mix some biscuits with these boys,” one of the gamblers said.
She sat down at the table and laid her father’s money down. They dealt her in. She looked at her cards. The suits were sails, wings, wheels, and hooves. A wasp lit on her ear. When the gamblers saw it, they shouted, they reached towards her face, they did all the things that would make it sting. She held up her hand to still them. It was not a gesture they would ordinarily have respected from a girl. But at that moment it seemed to come through the train wheels from the silence deep under the earth. The wasp crawled into the little amphitheater of the inner ring of her ear and buzzed and buzzed. The buzzing unraveled seams in space and time and she saw herself, and the gamblers, sitting at different tables, playing other cards, reflected back into infinity like mirrors facing each other. They sat in a mud hut beside a road paved with stones. Her face was lined with tattoos. The suits were coins, whips, seeds, and graves. She stood under the open sky and the gamblers were wolves all around her. She held a burning ball of pitch wrapped in moss in her hands.
She turned in one card and drew The Wanderer.
“That ain’t even s’posed to be in this deck,” said one of the gamblers.
“That means we get all your money,” said another.
“It means I go free at the border,” she said.
“Now miss . . .” said a gambler. “What’s all this talk about ‘going free?’ What does that even mean?”
She raised the butt of her father’s pistol just a hair to where it caught the light and they could she had them all covered under the table.
“I’d tell you,” she said. “If I thought it would do any good.”
About the Artists:
Michael Lehman has worked as a farm hand, fisher, and news reporter. His writing has appeared recently or is forthcoming in The Citron Review, Empty Mirror, Jelly Bucket, and Camas: The Nature of the West.
Plum is an illustration collective based in Brooklyn, NY.