burn and then planted in corn. He decided on corn, and started planning the right time to propose it to the townsmen, working on the phrasing for such a proposal. He noticed the woman walking along the edge of the field, away from the town, unaware of him. He slowed, watched the bright furl of her skirt as she climbed the little rise at the edge of the field. He stood down among the vines, and she stopped when she reached the top. She gazed at the sunset through the distant smoke. For John Harper, she glowed in that red light, shining through her and around her, flickering in the breeze on the hilltop. When the sunlight suddenly ceased, and she winked out into the soft gray sky, he turned and walked the rest of the way into town, trying to pick up the thread of his lost thought.
Interlude: Old Man in a Half Burned House Outside the main part of town, surrounded by potato fields, an old man lives alone in a half burned house. Seen by one coming from town, as the woman who stayed at the hotel sometimes came, the house looks whole and well kept. But the back half of the house is burned away, and the man is left with only a parlor, an attic loft with a pallet bed, and half a kitchen open to the weather. Each month a tongue of fire reaches down from the hills to lick at the charred beams and the broken ends of the floorboards of the back bedroom. He watches the moon and beats the flames back with a broom. “Aagh! Back, you son of a bitch! Get back!” The fire scampers away like a laughing dog. “And stay away from my tomaters, you bastard!” One day the woman came and made coffee on the little parlor stove. They sat in the remains of the kitchen, looking out over the valley that rose to foothills that rose in turn to crumpled mountains in the distance. The sky was clear chalky blue with an occasional breeze and acrid hints of smoke. He sniffed the air and squinted into the distance. “Grass and sage. She’s in the flats, about ten mile, or thereabouts. Time to move the cows soon.” She rose and stepped to the burned edge of the floor with her hands folded around her cup, standing as one stands on the end of a pier. “The light here is so strange.”
Part Two: A Day of Ash There was a day of ash, with a white sky, then rain, then intolerable blue noon. The day bloomed strange, the morning already stiff with late summer heat, the sun blind behind a white sky. Flakes of ash drifted down like dry snow. The people of the town looked up and watched the swirling drifts wrinkle in