Authors: Karen Osborn
whose love of
made this book
and for my parents,
who gave me
the idea in the
The letters were there first, long before I was. They were given to me by my great-grandmother just before she died. Written by her mother, the great-great-grandmother I was named after, they were bound with ribbons gone thin as tissue paper and closed inside a wooden box. Unlike the rest of our family, which has stayed in Virginia, my great-great-grandmother lived most of her life in New Mexico, a place so foreign to all of us that the stories that evolved about her ended up sounding like fairy tales. My great-grandmother had grown up among cacti, Indians, horses, and mesas. She spoke more Spanish than English by the time she started school, and her younger brother and sister eventually disappeared like loose bits of sagebrush blown to some unknown part of the desert.
My great-great-grandmother's name was Abigail, while I am called Abby. Beginning with the trip westward she took as a young woman with her husband and small children and ending years later when she grew old on her land in northern New Mexico, the letters were written to her sister, Maggie, who had stayed in Virginia. They followed the strange course of her life. After Maggie's death, my great-grandmother, Amy, inherited her mother's letters, and she did not think to give them to anyone but me, she said as I took the box from her. I was still a child, but she seemed to know the part they would eventually play in my own life.
I first saw Abigail's land late one afternoon after having driven the better part of four days, the letters only partially read in their box on the back seat of my car. I had quit my job at the university, where I had worked for ten years as an underpaid assistant librarian, and left my parents' house, a square colonial built to look like most of the others that lined the street of a large subdivision built on what used to be a farm. I'd grown tired of my life the past five years, the hours of cataloging books, the Saturday afternoons spent roaming the shopping mall with my sister and her kids, the nights I'd spent with one boyfriend or another.
Abigail's valley spread between two mountain ranges, with a river that ran along each side. While the mountains were desert-like, streaked with browns, reds, and yellows, the land between the rivers shimmered with alfalfa grass, fields of shiny pepper plants, and the paler green of cornstalks, which stretched as far back from the road as I could see. All along the roadside grew Mexican olive trees of soft grayish green, a luminous color with a hint of silver just beneath the surface.
The land that had been Abigail's stretched back from a gravel road next to a few old trailers. The address I had was still accurate, and I had contacted the local post office for directions. Anita Martinez lived on it now, in a house made of adobe with a peaked roof, and geraniums that had been planted in long, thick beds of white stone that ran along each side of the front door.
Anita was an old woman, but the first time I saw her, she came out of her house as I shut the car door, drawn up straight, reaching her arms into the air. Her black sleeves opened like wings.
“Vete de aquÃ!”
she yelled. “Get out!”
As I tried to explain that my great-great-grandmother had lived on her land years ago, she took a few steps towards me, and I saw the deep creases in the dark skin of her face and the startling light-blue eyes. “I was born here,” she told me. “I live on this land.”
When she turned and walked back into her house, the door fell shut behind her, and I got in my car and drove through fields of beans, corn, and alfalfa, past the apple and olive trees, back to the main road.
I do not remember how many times I returned to Anita's before she let me in and allowed me to ask her about Abigail. I had found a place to stay temporarily, a nearby orchard where I could camp at night and pick fruit during the day, and I had most of my savings with me, enough to live off of for some time.
From the beginning, Anita and her granddaughter Julia watched me walk towards their house with pale, quiet eyes. They moved slowly, cautiously. Later I would learn that Anita's youngest daughter had been a professor of mathematics at a university in California. She had become pregnant and decided to raise the baby herself as a single parent. When she died in a car accident three years after Julia's birth, Julia had come to live with Anita.
It was a language of loss in which Anita spoke to me. “Owl screech all through the night, and then I knew.” Or, “This is the place of ghosts. The desert brings it back.” And, “Dust devils everywhere that summer. The air was black with them.”
She told me about her daughter, how her black hair would fly through the wind she made, running. When her daughter was a young child, Anita used to build a wood fire in the mud oven, emptying green chiles on the red coals. “These roasted peppers I would peel, and oh, my daughter would say these are the best thing she has ever tasted.”
The afternoon before Anita let me inside, I had driven out to see her but she had left me standing on her porch. The red peppers she had been threading rolled at my feet, and I thought of what they could feed in me, bright as the wing-flash of an oriole.
That next morning when I knocked again, she watched me through the screen, then opened the door, gesturing that I should step inside. The sigh that came out of her, a slight hollow sound as she closed the door, spiraled away from her house, out into the valley, over the mountains.
“Esta tierra es mÃa.”
I saw the web of her face, how her shoulders slumped. “I lived here since my birth, and all my children were born here.”
“I only want to know about Abigail Conklin,” I told her again. “I could show you the letters.” I had them with me, tucked inside the bag I carried.
But Anita turned her back to me, and so I followed her into the kitchen. “I've seen the court records,” I told her. “I know you got the land from Abigail. Did you work for her?”
Her laughter unraveled, circling the room. When the sound finally ended, she wiped her hands across the dark skirt of her dress and then rubbed them with white cream from a shallow dish that sat on the table. “You would suck everything dry.”
Later she poured thick coffee into a cup and said to the child, “This lady, so pale, like a ghost,” setting it in front of me.
“No, really. I'm Abigail Reynolds,” I told her again. “My great-great-grandmother lived on this land.”
“Crazy. Or some
She sat across from me, the child in her lap. “Then drink if you are no ghost.” I swallowed and felt the thick coffee burn first my tongue and the roof of my mouth, then the curve of my throat.
“Ha!” The old woman nodded when I gasped. “It is hot.” She brought a plate of thin cookies to the table, offered one to me, and then set the plate in front of Julia.
As the coffee pulsed through me, the room spun with heat, bright tiles around the sink the color of sky through the window, whitewashed walls shimmering. “You come again,” Anita told me. And as I followed her to the door, I didn't think to ask her why I must leave or why I could return.
“I will make
for you. Have you eaten them?”
Stepping out into the bright air, I shook my head. In the months to come, I would spend many hours in Anita's kitchen, drinking the coffee she kept in the blue-enameled kettle at the back of the stove and eating
She would tell me about years of drought and how her grandmother Teresa buried cloth or stones the color of turquoise, then prayed that the sky would see what was under the ground, would want what it saw, a piece of itself, and storm down after it.
She would show me how to make
soaking whole kernels of dried corn with lime in an enameled kettle. Sitting in the late-autumn sun, she would tell me about riding up into the mountains each fall with her husband to gather piÃ±ons, spreading sheets on the ground and shaking the trees, roasting the nuts all winter in the fire.
The first morning I entered Anita's house, Julia's dark eyes followed me. Later I would see that the child had the ability to move like wind or water and that her laughter, like light, could go everywhere. Before I left her grandmother's house that first day, she slipped her hand into mine and let it rest there a moment, thin, warm, and dark, before pulling it away.
Her grandmother touched me also, lightly on the shoulders. “Abigail Conklin,” she whispered as she shut the door after watching me drink the hot coffee. “She was my grandmother.”
June 15, 1867
I am in high spirits despite Mother's refusal to say goodbye to us. I know you are right when you said she is only fearful of “losing any more of her slender family” and wants to “gather us around her until she feels the semblance of normalcy again,” but, Maggie, she must be reasonable. All of Clayton's family's property is gone. I hope you and Aunt Celia will be able to help her see the sense in what I must do.
The feather tick you gave us and all of our other belongings are tucked beneath the white linen wagon cover drawn tight to the sideboard. Some nights we sleep in our wheeled home, but if there is time, Clayton sets up the tent and we have more room to lie about.
Yesterday when we stopped for lunch, I laid out a table cloth and napkins and we ate our picnic in style. For breakfast I cook a pot of mush and milk, and brown the coffee in a frying pan. I am thankful we have our provisions, the bags of flour and the dried apples, rice, sugar, and coffee.
The land we travel through is thick with trees, and the trees are thick with heavy green leaves. After the wagons had circled this evening, I went under their cover to find some wild onions to cook with supper. I turned around in the green light once or twice, picking a few mushrooms, and could not find my way out. The light fell through a hole in the tree tops and lit the spot like an altar in a magnificent church. I thought how I could easily stay there, living off mushrooms and green light while the rest of them went westward. But, of course, I soon heard voicesâthe men herding the stockâand stepped out into the clearing. Since then I live in fear that Amy or Josh will wander into the trees and become a forest child, never to return to my arms again.
I watch Sally and am uneasy; I know she will wish for a doctor when her time comes. Rachel cries often, sometimes sitting in the dirt refusing to move. Sally tugs at her, begs and admonishes, “Look, Rachel, they're leaving us behind,” her voice lost in the dust the mules kick up. I carry Rachel on my back often as I can, but Josh begs to be picked up also, and I cannot carry them both.