She stands at the tops of her hills, looking out at the dormant grasses that fill her valley, golden and shimmering gently in the wind.
Smoke fills a corner of the sky. It casts a warm shadow over the valley.
She pulls her hood up over her head, grapes dangling from her antlers, and she disappears down the hills and into the grass.
In her valley, there is a town. In her valley, there are many towns. In this particular town, there is a pair of train tracks that sit just out past the end of Grove Street. The tracks are shaded on both sides by cottonwoods and oaks and walnuts, and it someone were to point you in the right direction, you might even find grapes, undersized and a little sour, crawling over the fences with the other vines.
There are, of course, people in this town as well, and this time of year the children can often be found by the train tracks, their bikes tucked safely against the fence, with fists full of fruits or nuts or both.
One of these late summer days, not so very long ago, when the heat knew better than to overstay its welcome, a half dozen such children set their bikes down on the moss and weeds and gravel, and helped themselves to the fruit, clapping their hands over their ears and yelling on solidarity with the horns of the trains that rumbled through.
They were wont, as many children are, to study the cracks of things. On this day they found a place, on the far side of the tracks, there the fences seemed to overlap each other, leaving a little gap between them. This space, like most spaces, was filled with leaves which clung to the walls, but they noticed that one might be able to slide between the fences if they so desired, and the group played a game of seeing who could go the farthest. In turn, each reached the end of their bravery and backed out, until, after much egging-on, one child happened to make it clear to the other side.
She made a sound that they could not quite decipher. So, worried and curious, not to mention emboldened by the recent and apparent success of one of their friends, the group filed through the gap one by one.
Even the girl who usually was happy to watch approached the gap and wriggled through it.
She went last, of course, and by the time she pushed through the vines and into the golden valley sunshine, the group had already moved a short way into the waist-high grasses that radiated out from the fence in every direction. As she looked out towards the horizon, she could see that the grasses disappeared periodically, into shallow lakes and hills dotted black with brush and trees.
Those trees and brush and grasses, though they matched ones she knew from him and from trips out towards the coast, seemed suddenly very strange and new outside of the context of houses and fences and roads.
She jogged out to join her party as they waded through the valley, in awe of the bold, clear blue sky and the bright, unseasonable green of the grasses in the wetlands ahead of them.
Great blue herons, disturbed from their foraging, looked up at the newcomers and swiftly moved away, drawing the childrens’ attention toward a handful of very small boats which had been pulled ashore.
Uninitiated but more than willing to learn, the group clambered, wetly, into the very small boats, one to one. They drifted out into the lake and, once they found their balance, paddled clear across, past beaver dams and ducks and herons of many colors, and around a tall, jutting island which seemed to exist only to support a single valley oak.
The shy girl thought that she could see a beast of some kind caught up in the oak’s branches, but as it was not struggling, she could not be sure.
The group of children landed on the other side of the lake, running ashore amidst reeds and cat rushes, scattering nearby rabbits away from the water’s edge. They clambered – wetly, again- back out of the little boats, finding themselves so near to the bottom of a hill that they felt it would be no large feat to climb it.
The woman watched them, of course. She was always watching, and little could happen in her valley without drawing her attention. She watched, and she waited, and she saw when the children drew up over the crest of her hill. She looked at them for a moment, and seeing that they did not know what to make of her, and guessing that they might fear her, she looked away from them and turned her attention back out over the valley, so that they might have time to talk and decide amongst themselves about how to proceed.
As the group was trading murmurs, one girl crept up beside the woman, who looked down to greet her. They traded a small smile, and then looked out over the valley.
In the distance, in hills that were not hers but that belonged, rather, to the mountains, smoke rose up into the sky. The girl watched, and the woman was thankful not to be alone in her watching. They watched the smoke pour out of the trees of the foothills, and they watched the smoke scatter across the valley, and the shy child was not afraid because the woman was not afraid.
Fire was the way of things in the mountains, as fire was sometimes the way of things in the valley. The black marks never lasted long, the woman knew, and in the past a burn had always brought with it cleaner lands, brighter plants, vibrant wildlife.
They watched the lakes and the grasses and the trees, and the girl thought that perhaps she saw an elk down in the vineyards, and the woman thought that perhaps she was right, and asked had she seen any elk on the way in?
The girl did not know, but the woman suspected that perhaps the elk had seen the girl.
The other children, emboldened by the long, quiet watching of the shy child and the woman, crept towards the place on the hill where they were watching, and they all watched together, taking in the golden grasses of the wild valley, and the patchwork greens and browns of the farms in the distance, and the sharp grays where cities has grown into the earth. They watched until the familiar rumble and scream of the freight train called to them, and the children realized that they had been gone for a very long time.
The shy girl looked up at the woman and smiled, and waved goodbye, and they all followed the trail they had made coming up the hill back down it. The children clambered, less wetly this time, into the little boats, and around the island with the tree and the beast.
The shy girl stopped her boat, unnoticed by the other children, and looked at the island again, deciding that it was worth seeing. When she turned to tell the group this, they had already landed on the other shore, unconcerned with her absence. She decided that she would be comfortable with whatever the consequences of her delayed return might be, so she ran her very small boat ashore against the island, and climbed towards the tree.
Her dirty palms pulled her onto the top of the little island,. Standing up and dusting herself off, she saw that she had been correct about a beast.
Standing there, antlers caught up in the branches of the tree and unconcerned with that fact, stood an elk. It was very large. While she had never seen one close, she suspected they might be huge normally, but this one struck her as doubly so.
Its antlers were draped- no, overgrown- with grape vines. The fruit was just beginning to change color, and the shy child recognized that, for the time being, the elk was healthy and content and strong. She reached out for it, and it allowed her to touch its snout, and she thanked it and climbed back down the island.
The train horn blared again as the shy girl pulled her very small boat into its place amongst the others, spooking the great blue herons from their foraging. She clambered out, and sprinted along the bent grass path that the group had made. She reached the fences, and as she emerged through the gap she could see the train’s last car clear Grove Street. The place seemed a little darker, maybe, in the aftermath of the bright sun and vibrant color of the valley, but she knew that this was the valley, too, and the darker greens and browns were home, and that the woman would still be watching.
An earlier version of “Veraison” was published in the Spring 2017 edition of Sacramento City College’s literary journal, “Susurrus”.