by John Brantingham
Harrison is testing the water in Lytle Creek just
after a rainstorm when Bridget calls to him.
Something’s in her voice, an edge that makes him
pop up, makes him think she’s fallen into the
swollen creek that almost never runs. After a good
rain, it goes from being just a rut in the sand and
rocks and scrub into being a torrent, a deadly rush
of water that sucks in boulders, snakes, and
people. So it’s no surprise that when Bridget calls,
“Harrison!” his head floods with emergencies,
shocking him out of the meditation he’s been in.
But she’s not hurt, not in danger of falling in. She’s
holding something up and waving him over to her.
He should probably take the time to pack his test
tubes and chemicals and get them into their
protective cases, but he’s just going to have to test
the water eventually. Besides, Bridget’s face is all
electricity and fun, so he trots over to her, winding
around the bushes and avoiding getting near the
“Look,” she says as he gets closer. “Check this out.”
Up close enough so that he can feel her breath on
him, it’s a shard of something, a rigid, brown
triangle the size of his palm. On one side is a black
line, now fading but clearly painted on, long ago.
Harrison lets his eyes ask the question.
“It’s pottery,” she says.
Harrison is by no means a stupid person. His wife is
an anthropologist, and finding a shard of pottery in
the desert is obviously significant, but there’s more
energy here than he might have expected. He’s
missing something essential about what’s
“You don’t get it,” she says.
“No, I don’t.”
“They didn’t do this.” She holds up the shard.
Harrison shakes his head.
“The California natives aren’t known for doing this
kind of work. They didn’t make this kind of pottery,
certainly not around here.”
Harrison nods now. “And you think you might have
found a tribe that did?”
“No, I’m sorry, no. No, there might have been
someone around here that was trading with tribes
in Arizona. There’s a chance,” she cocks her head
and looks at the shard, “a really small chance that
there was a civilization, maybe even a village or
something that was trading with the tribes from
Arizona. It would mean finding a settlement that no
one’s found yet.”
“Or it might have just been dropped when someone
was walking from one place to another.” They’re
standing at the bottom point of the Cajon Pass
where anyone walking from what is now Arizona to
the Pacific would go, but he wishes he hadn’t said
Bridget nods considering, and some of the joy
leaves her face, being replaced by the hard-nosed
skepticism that is vital to the scientist in her.
Harrison finds himself lifting his hand to placate
her, wishes he hadn’t mentioned the obvious. He
prefers the energetic dreamer to the plodding
scientist. He always has. He’d follow that dreamer
through the desert barefoot if she asked. He’d
follow her through this desert up into the mountains
to find the source of Lytle Creek in the vain hope of
finding an ancient Indian settlement if it meant
having that face back, the one that he loves so
“And of course,” she says, “I can’t be sure this isn’t
just a piece of junk pottery dropped by someone in
“How would you know?”
“Have to get it tested. I know a guy.” Her face
retreats back into the scientist place of plans and
She sits down on a boulder and watches the shard.
Harrison has an idea of what the next hour is going
to be, so he might as well get to his work and finish
it before she comes back to life.
He leaves her there in her meditation and goes to
his testing. The rain hasn’t come back, and he
supposes that it might not.
As he does his work on the bank, he glances every
now and then to his wife, who is either considering
her newfound treasure or staring up into the
mountains above them. He knows what she’s
thinking, knows how she’s doubting herself, knows
the battle inside her that’s waging. It’s a battle
between the pixie she was in her youth and the
doubts that come to all people as they grow older.
And he wishes he’d gotten to know her better back
then, the girl that she must have been, the girl who
was all promise and enthusiasm before life taught
her better than that. He wishes that he had more
than just a glimpse of the woman she was. He
wishes that he could have been the voice in her life
to tell her that her enthusiasm was all right, that he
could have fought against whatever it was that’s
turned her into what she is.
Not that he doesn’t love what she is, but he wishes
that all her life she could see herself as he sees her
now. He wishes that she could see her this way,
standing on the edge of a raging desert creek that
will likely be dry and gone in three days. Her
clothes are snapping in the wind and the clouds
have darkened her world, but somehow, and he
doesn’t know how, she’s luminescent, starkly
shining on a murky day.
He wishes she could see this, but it’s the nature of
things that all she can see is what she isn’t. So
Harrison calls to her, and he comes over to her,
and he asks her where the pottery piece might
have come from. Her face lightens, and she smiles
at him, wanly now.
“That’s the thing. It’s pretty hard to tell.” She
points up into the desert mountains that rise up
above them. “I suppose what’s most likely is that it
was on the banks of the creek up there.” She
points. “But maybe it just washed off the hillside. It
might be from anywhere over there.”
The “over there” that she gestures to with a wave
of her hand is miles and miles of sometimes
vertical desert. It rises up eventually above Los
Angeles, eventually up to Mt. Baldy, and there’s
something about the sweep of her gesture that
“Where do we start looking?” he asks.
She considers him for a moment the way she did
with the shard, and then she smiles and laughs.
She shakes her head. “We’re not going to find it,”
And maybe that’s true. Ancient civilizations could
easily be lost and never found in those hills, and
pottery too. People could be lost up there and
never found. Anything might be lost up there, and
there would be such a small chance of finding the
source of the shard that even trying feels pointless.
Still, Harrison will take her by the hand and try to
coax out that part of her that feels most like her.
He will try to find the woman inside of her who
wants to walk up into the hills where ancient people
might have lived. He will follow that woman
wherever her dreams take her. He will follow her
into the desert in a rainstorm. He will follow her up
a mountain. He will follow her into an ancient past
that might or might not exist, follow her to that
place where there are only her dreams of what the
world might once have been, and it doesn’t matter
to him whether that place existed or not. It is
where the best part of Bridget spends her days,
and it is where Harrison wants to spend the rest of
John Brantingham’s books include the short story collection
Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods, the crime novel
Mann of War, and the poetry collection The Green of Sunset. He
has published hundreds of poems in magazines in the United
States and England, and his work has been featured on Garrison
Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.