Come autumn and the edges of things would coarsen and go brittle thin with the cold. The downy milkweeds and fleshy mosses took on a lustrous, metallic sheen, and the tips of our eyelashes would snap and blanket our pillows like brown evergreen needles on snow. Blackened branches scratched silently across bright, chalky skies.
Ours was a patient town. For a long time, it’d been static, unchanging, breathing evenly across the seasons, the years, the bend and break and build of damp wood. Once, it had been called Lonerock, for the pale lump of white granite that lay, still, by the right flanks of the Methodist Church. A Scottish man named David Spalding had woven his way across the Atlantic to make smooth a space for his young bride. Here, she’d become Oregon’s first nurse, tending to the ill and the poor in a church overgrown with sagebrush and juniper trees. Sophia died and David went to war, and Lonerock was muted with lichens and rain. The swallows wove their nests in the rafters of the Church; gathering strips of Sophie’s bandages, blankets from army cots, the cold and crusted flowers on the graves of the dead.
For many years, the space sprawled ripe and damp with passing life, the softness of flesh spreading out into the rich earth, rabbit’s fur dusting the ground beneath which hundreds of thousands of earthworms churned the breathing soil. Grey wolves snuffed at the thick air, pawing at rusted tin cans and yawning great hot breaths that cracked in the cold air.
A war lost in the annals of the West, called the war of the Snake Indian, flared and then passed. The only disturbance to the silted grounds of Lonerock was the lone passage of a cavalry officer called George B. Curry, alongside a fat, drooling river which he named Donner und Blitzen.
There was no mention of the lakes before the arrival of Charles Astor Haines, the sole settler of a town he now called Narrows.
The man kept brisk, fragmented accounts of the development of his ranch in Narrows. The bones of the house he built are buried beneath my own. But the remains of his boat are moored on the banks of Lake Malheur. In a splintered cubbord on the starboard lip of the boat I found a corroded Hull-Grummond Cigar box in which Mr. Haines kept his leather-bound journals, now bloated and blue like the lips of the drowned. They’ve been there for some 70 years now. His handwriting is light and fragmented as the footprints of a fruit fly across the page. He writes of one lake, and then later, of the two. I’ve spent the better part of autumn evenings such as this one, bent over the musty spines of these journals, tracing back the skeletons of trees grown and snapped, the tangled lattice of worm tunnels beneath the limestone, the rain showers, snow falls, drizzles of comets across the sky.
I know more about the town of Narrows than any other, yet I know not how it came to be as it is now. Was Mr. Haines mistaken? Did he overlook Harney Lake as transients so often do? For if his accounts are to be accredited, the valley of Jawbone, Oregon was once one rich expanse of mineral water, split somehow, suddenly, into two, leaving a stretch of space in between, in which is now tucked the town of Narrows.
The river runs alongside the northern edge of Narrows, through the debris of marble quarries and broken fiberglass from the factory town of Burns (some 80 miles upstream). At the mouth of a Rosemary Willow, the river splits up into five blue threads of water, like the carpal veins of a slender hand. Each stream sews in and out of the fleshy earth, spitting out, at last, into the mercurial currents of Lake Malheur.
It is a lake shuddering with life. Pumpkinseed sunfish press their backs onto the tops of the shallow water, the wide-stained half moons on their dorsal fins shimmering in the water and the heat. The bluegill fish flutter through pale yellow water grasses and vanish at the pursuit of deeper and darker waters. Silver catfish weave shadows beneath the scabs of broken lily-pads. My sister and I spent our summer days with
Captain Kessler’s boys, fishing for cats and tickling one another with the severed whiskers of our prey. Tammy Kessler went on to become a salmon fisherman, untangling his nets in the moonlit Pacific fog. His eyes became so dimpled with cataracts, and his soul so weary of the work, that he slipped one day from the stern of his boat and was swallowed by the salt and the foam without a sound. The other boys had been long gone by then, and the thrice-stamped letters that my sister sent me, stained with spots of her cologne, were becoming fewer and further between.
the kestrels and cormorants float inland with the tides of the ocean to feed on the unassuming, sun-struck fish.