Issue 62: Open Hands is available for pre-order! While we wait for the print copies to ship this June, we're celebrating by releasing select content from the issue.
Up today: a short story from Gabriela Halas, which is one of five prose pieces featured in the issue.
Between the Fog and the River
If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy…. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible.
Between where the fog kisses the river, and the river tongues the sleek sequin flesh of fish. Where each scale finds a ripple of light, joins the sweet surrender of water. A horizon, in currents, always moving. We arrive at morning’s periphery, tilt our faces toward the quarter moon. After its orange, earth-sink globe is gone, you lean in, show me how to adjust stirrup, straps, the pattern of leather slipping into leather; your voice becomes a low tender rumble. The fog hardly lifts as the sun attempts first color between the peaks. We ride out with the river on our left. Snow alights on the lip of land and water; the fresh white fall lends radiance like starlight. Our eyes attempt to trace the outlines, the seep of form and matter. The river shifts from flow to frozen state.
Between where the fog, like wet ash, is heavy on our skin, and where forest floor brushes the edgeless, diluted sky. Sky that folds around our bodies like the burdened arches of grass that soak the horses’ legs. We ride into hillsides filled with ponderosa, fir, the late-season gold of larch, still holding their needles through days that have grown shorter, colder. I lean forward during steep inclines, feel the power of each hoof press into earth, the buckle of hips over long-dead trees. I imagine the undulation of your spine like the scale of a song, working in perfect arrangement.
Between where a pocket of air is still, before the horses’ hooves gust into that space like small hurricanes. With each footfall, a moment of release as ground becomes a real thing again. Weight in place. Shoulders give. Our hands float there, in-between a skyless sky and the horn of the saddle. I mirror you; I am learning. I watch the space between your stirrups, your horse’s body. Where your elbow lifts, away from your side. This large animal and you rock together with emphasis. I try and mimic the rhythm, the light beat against belly your legs communicate. You use a firm voice and a soft touch, then a soft song and a firm hand. We see deer moving, pause, the shape of ears hidden among low-hanging branches.
Between where our eyes meet across distance and our hands gesture, there. We talk in whispers. I am learning your voice; you are new to me. This, the horses, these hills, are new to me. My hand on my rifle is familiar, but when I met you, only a few weeks back, I had not known this coming-together. The merging of bodies, this kind of hunt.
That ridge, you offer, we’ll glass from there. Your gloved hand points. I follow the sight line along a low shoulder, up towards an outcropping of rock. Vantage points, hidden swells of stone. A high place for mule deer, the lower forests for white-tailed.
I hunt here every year, you say. But usually alone. There’s only one or two others I know who love this as much as I do. You seem to be one.
I smile. I don’t know you well, but I know time here slows, and that matters to us both. Our chance meeting, where I decided to trust you, also slowed some version of time I didn’t know existed. The time it takes to know someone, compressed.
It’s less tiring than hunting on foot, I say, and we both laugh quietly.
Somehow the animals seem less afraid of humans if we’re atop these guys, you say, as your hand glides through the rough mane of my horse when I come up beside you. But mostly it’s luck. The right time and place. But you already know that.
We continue to roam the hills, the ridge drawing closer. We scan tight draws for the stilled look of deer. Sometimes, their eyes catch us in an otherworldly stare. Other times, only a flutter of movement, like a wing whipped through air. There seems even less time to let go of breath, then to pause forever their panicked run. The bodies of deer as they bound away, divided among trunks of trees, become like dusk; flesh fades. My rifle remains firmly in place, tucked in the scabbard.
As we climb up the shoulder to the ridgeline, the fog above the river continues to shift. My horse diligently follows yours.
A pack horse mostly, he doesn’t know how to lead, but he’s steady on his feet, you explained back at the truck. When we first met, I told you it had been years, close to half my life since I had been on a horse, and never like this, just open in the country. I remember your crooked smile, the gap in your mouth from a missing tooth. You’ll learn quick, you assured me. Just remember they feel everything you do.
The fog shifts across the water and moves, nearly like a living body trying to take more space. The low clouds hover above the canopy we move under.
Here, you say, when we arrive at the top of the ridge, we’ll glass for a while. Eat something.
I slide off my saddle and can feel the width of my horse’s body shaping mine.
Between an opening left by boulders, I settle in next to you. We look for movement down below; fog and earth and sky blend to one like a silt-heavy river. Hues fade as moisture remains, crawls into our bones, obscures any vantage point we might have. I cradle my rifle. Open my thermos. We offer each other what we’ve brought. We eat and look out across the gaps in the forest we’ve ridden in from, the ponderosas reaching, heavy with wet green. I scan with my binoculars, but the land is a haze, the air thick with water. From high, it looks as though the heavy mist has followed us from behind, filling in any available spaces of the lowlands.
I can’t see anything, I say, and we chuckle.
That’s hunting, and we both nod, smiling.
It’s cool up here, without the heat of the horses warming through our thighs. Only our hands move, slowly eating, sipping. Trying to see.
I ask you about your sons, three young boys you mentioned earlier. You tell me their names, ages, that the eldest is riding more, and the middle and youngest still share the saddle with their father.
Does the oldest hunt with you? I ask, eager to imagine how it could have been, to grow up like this. Away from the playground and into the forests.
He’s starting. He’s good at being quiet, moving slow. He likes practicing his elk calls. Smiling, you glass again but we both know the futility of this gesture.
We sit and watch the shadows and light change in the valley below. Beyond the blur of color, we remain.
And you, your voice asks into a long silence, no children? You haven’t said.
I make a sound in my throat, something I think you might hear. Not yet. We’re trying. It’s been rather difficult.
You look at me then, no longer pretend to be watching for deer. I’m sorry, you say.
Thanks, I reply, and your voice let’s me know I don’t need to explain. It’s good to be out here. There’s times I never want to leave.
Isn’t it though. I feel the same.
Between where the day wanes and where we sense the light slipping, the silhouettes of the staggering, surrounding range bleeds a plum-black twilight. I can no longer tell where the trees thin, the mountains begin. Chilled air descends through layers of wool, fabric, my boots. We pack our small items into our saddle bags and stow binoculars away. We leave the ridge as the last of the light fades. The horses know the way, as do you. We steel our skin as we enter night. Our bodies, once outlined, disappear into a negative space; I no longer see your face, but I hear your voice singing softly to your horse. A familiar melody, yet not one I can place. I side up against you, hold onto your back briefly to be still.
I’ve never ridden in the dark, I say.
I can feel you smiling. Trust in them. They can sense where they are and can see better than we realize.
And I do. Between where the curve of my palm is filled by the shape of your back. I feel your shiver transmit from heart, to core, then my hand. The night stretches cold. I fall back in behind you, let the reins rest between my loose fists.
Between where the stones on the now-black dirt road clatter against the stonelike feet of your mare, my gelding. Our words are the stones of the past piling around us; we drop them from up high, watch them ripple outwards and finally still. It is now so dark that I’m unable to see the ears of my horse, circling like satellites. All blackness now, but for the soft shoulder of the moon moving through clouds like billowing curtains. Not enough light to see by, simply a suggestion of what could be, given an opening in the jagged dark.
We urge the horses forward, give rein to a pace suited to them alone. They begin to trot. Quicken. First yours starts to gallop, then mine. They run. Past where the land carries the river. Past the ponderosas twisting high up the ridgeline. Past where the deer settle in the trees. No edge to the road. No knowledge of the trees that border the road. My horse moves under me, forward, forward. Soundless, except for their feet pounding the earth. We cross from one threshold to another. My trust in you expands in this diminished space, the squeeze of time. The proximity to where the truck is parked.
The space between word and song. Between light and dark—not two things, but one.
Gabriela Halas immigrated to Canada during the early 1980s, grew up in northern Alberta, lived in Alaska for seven years, and currently resides in B.C. She has published poetry in a variety of literary journals including Inlandia, About Place Journal, Prairie Fire, december magazine, Rock & Sling, The Louisville Review, The Hopper, subTerrain, Broken Pencil, The Whitefish Review, Grain, Pilgrimage, and High Country News. She has received Best of the Net nominations in poetry (2021 & 2020). She lives and writes on traditional Ktunaxa Nation land.
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