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The cowgirls meet on a slight ridge that rises above the thicket of desert. It is sunset, one of those violent purple-rose-gold western sunsets that people still reference, even after all this time. The three women meet, unexpected, startling to all of them, but they make no sound. It’s hunting time, the light bent in blinding angles. Even though the ridge gives them some vantage, this is not a straightforward desert. It is a desert of towering grey-green cactus, spiny trees, twisting washes, boulders which jut here and there. All provide cover for those ancient predators, the coyote, the mountain lion, the javelina, the rattling snake. For the animals, when they roamed there, this desert was a paradise.

And the three women are cowgirls, so they know the land like they know their own knuckles. They do not give away their location, even in their extreme surprise. Presumably then, one or all of them makes a cowgirl signal with her or their hand or hands. They are an antique order, the cowgirls, full of arcane secrets, so a covert sign language is only logical. In any case they meet in silence, and after a moment all three relax.

Should we share the fire? one of them signs or whispers or communicates through thought. They had many strange powers, the cowgirls, so telepathy is possible to believe. However they communicate, they set up camp, each one doing their part, switching between their labors and care of their horses. Cowgirls’ horses are famous, splendid. They move as if they are a part of the cowgirl herself, and are trained to fight savagely. Once they bond with their riders, the bond lasts for life, and when a cowgirl’s mount dies, she loses half of her power. Or so it is said. The cowgirls treat them with great care, as if they are lovers or children. Even in the cowgirls’ time, horses are rarities. But they are majestic. There are still images of them, here and there.

These cowgirls’ horses are bay, black, and palomino. Coincidentally, these are the colors of the cowgirls’ hair as well, though mounts do not match riders. As they care for the horses, the cowgirls build the fire, cook the food, crumble the protective herbs in a ring around themselves and their horses, hang the awning from cactus rib posts. It is a spring night, the desert air perfect, so they would only need shelter to keep off any unexpected rain. It still rains in this time, a blue-grey flood that awakens green smells and stray flowers, if the poems are to be believed. Tonight, when the cowgirls meet, there are only a few thin clouds, once rosy but now faint and silver, strung across an immense starlit sky. It is spring, not summer when the fierce storms roar all afternoon long. But rain is always possible. In this desert, anything is.

The cowgirls sit around their fire. They eat their meal, which could consist of biscuits, beans, dried fruit, sunflower seeds, coffee. Very few cowgirls eat meat. It is said those that do risk becoming monsters, strange cannibals with spiny teeth that roam the foothills of the amber mountains, prowling for travelers. These three cowgirls have no interest in that. They eat their meatless meal and they drink their coffee. After they are finished, one of them, let’s say the palomino, passes a flask of añejo around and all drink from it solemnly. And then another one, let’s say the bay, looks out across the flames and thinks or signs or says,

Anyone got a story?

And because they are cowgirls, all of them do.

 

 

Wishing

This was back when there were still roads and phones and society and shit, the cowgirl says. Her palomino hair is pale in the firelight. She leans forward and her eyes are full of sadness or laughter, whichever one of great profundity.

It takes place in one of those old cities, she says, a desert-valley city, just as cities started to come apart at the seams. Anyway, the disaster could have been predicted. Many people did predict it, but the air was full of so many prophecies in that time, flicking through signals and into people’s pockets that no one knew what to pay attention to. It was some real tower-of-babel shit, though in a much different desert.

So disaster struck, but it struck slowly. The people in the valley city watched as the world got eaten away in tiny bits by plague and violence, and fire coming down the mountain. All their nights were colored by the monstrous smile of flame that draped across the slopes, and the air filled up with smoke and plague and anger and sorrow. It was probably midsummer too, all the dead dog heat coming down, hitting that city asphalt and barreling straight back up.

A dead dog summer never made nothing better for no one, the palomino says. The other cowgirls nod, half smile, maybe echo their agreements in silvery telepathic murmurs. But none interrupt now the story has started. “Never interrupt a story” is the most important tenet of the cowgirl way.

Anyway, there was society, and it was crumbling and the world was on fire, but this girl still loved this boy. She hadn’t wanted it, had given up on love and other ephemera, but it came to her regardless. She had known him for some time, and the love just bloomed one day, like a gorgeous foreign blossom, seeding itself through her brain and heart and finally her loins. She had it bad, I tell you, could have flooded the whole valley with her want for him. With her love for his beautiful soul. But they had grown almost-old together. She knew his heartbreak and didn’t want to further it, or take it upon herself. And she’d had some heartbreak too.

So she swallowed her love till she choked on it, and it filled her limbs with cement. If she tried to speak to the boy of her love, only the cement came out of her. She could no longer go back. She could no longer go forward. The rest of the valley city was taken over by disaster, by fire and disease and sudden hatreds. But this girl, she lived each day drowning in the beat of her own heart.

One night, waking with a fat moon high in the sky, she couldn’t take it no more. She crept out of her apartment, swathed her face, and went into a city lit up by the fiery grin on the north side of the mountains. She slunk through the streets in her shitty little car, searching for something. All around her was violence and plague, and she dodged police lights swirling through the streets like schools of fish. Every place she looked was boarded up or burnt out or at war. She drove randomly, despairing, until she happened upon the little wishing shrine.

This shrine was one of those remnants of the old valley city. It had been there forever, and why is a different story entirely. It was small, dusty, a miniature clay-brown cave, and despite the disaster, or because of it, it was bright with lady-candles and strewn with colorful flags. There were offerings of a wide and profuse mixture, teddy bears and bottles of wine and photos and the sleeves of old sweatshirts. The girl stopped her car in the middle of the street and left it there, because nobody cared about that shit anymore. She stole through the flickering, fire-and-candlelit darkness and into the heart of the shrine.

Now the girl was a long time in this valley, so she knew the rules about wishing. Even without a candle, a petitioner to this shrine could have a wish granted by the castaway buried deep beneath the grey-brown earth. The trick was, if the wish was the wrong one, it would be granted slantwise. Become unfortunate. Curse the wisher and maybe others beyond them. She sat for some while feeling around the roots of her heart. She could wish to be free of her love, or she could wish to be free to love him. One wish would be true and good, and the other would damn her, maybe leave her wandering the arroyos, a toothless, wailing ghost. Or some worse shit could happen. History could repeat itself. She had to choose. She waited until the roots of her heart sent out a spore. It twined up her lungs and throat and bloomed though her mouth. It was her wish, so she spoke it. It hung for a moment before evaporating, a cool blue-violet in the fiery night.

 


 

The palomino cowgirl leans away from the fire, though she keeps her palms close to it. In the dim light, despite her youth, she could be a hag, her hair bleached of color, shadows under her eyes. The black-haired cowgirl hands her the flask and the palomino sips from it, signifying the end of the story. Now, not interrupting, the bay asks,

What did she wish for?

What true hearts wish for, the tale-teller says.

Poor darlin’, one cowgirl murmurs, or all of them do, or they say it simultaneously with their slender, calloused fingers. The palomino passes the flask widdershins under the just-risen sliver of a moon. A horse sighs in its horse dreams. Bats—small winged creatures that were rumored to carry pestilence or secrets—flutter everywhere, crazy from the lights in the campfire and sky. The cowgirls blink at them, slowly, to show their affection. There’s a moment of quiet. A new tale begins.

 

 

Building

This was before there were cities, the black-haired cowgirl begins, when the world looked a whole lot like it does right now. Her black hair could be scattered with threads of silver, stars in a long dark night, but all cowgirls have ageless faces.

There were people in the valley, sure, she says, but they hardly pocked the skin of it. They only wove a few streams to places of their liking, lit fires at night, and scattered themselves across the grey-green earth. No tribe of humans can ever be called peaceful, but they were fairly close. Their enemies called them bean-eaters—that’s the worst they could come up with.

And so the people wove in and out of the desert, until one day, strangers arrived. These strangers were tall, and had a kind of imposing silliness (they sealed themselves up in cans sometimes, even in dead dog summer, and had a flag for every occasion) and the first thing they did was build a strange tall thing. It was a gangling structure, white against the dun breasts of the desert. The valley people watched this structure grow, even helped build it, but when it had risen to its full height, some of them saw its wrongness. How it squatted unmoving on the curves of the land. How it tried to defy the immeasurable blue of the sky, and looked weaker for doing it. How the magic of the earth bled into it, the unseen streams weakening a little every day.

But these were, if not entirely peaceful, then sociable people. They left it alone. Then the strange folk started up this nonsense in other parts of the valley, and they knew something had to be done. Or two of them knew it. Two young people. A boy and a girl.

They went one day to the heart of the valley, a point between all the white points of buildings that were bleeding out the land. They walked a circle together consulting the spirits around them. Initially, a wind whipped up, not much of a response, so they lay on the caliche together, the crowns of their heads just touching, their arms flat.

Did you hear that? the girl said.

I hear a rabbit pissing in the distance. I wouldn’t call it a sign.

The girl stretched up her hand and flicked the boy’s forehead, and he tugged her hair in return. They were just out of childhood, all ripe with new perfections, but they hadn’t seen it in each other yet.

You can’t hear a rabbit pissing, the girl said. Nobody can hear a rabbit pissing this far away.

How do you know it’s far away?

The girl sat up, looking around at the near empty plain they lay in. She made a scornful, encompassing gesture with her young ripe arm, but the boy was smiling. She found herself smiling in return. You’re a rabbit pissing, she said.

The boy shook his head. Pathetic.

Bean-eater.

Dung-licker.

Horse-cock.

Shit-face.

It happened very quickly. One of them lunged at the other in the familiar way of childhood, and then they were entangled. Their ripe lips met, their hands twined in hair, their hearts beat in unison.

We all know what a first kiss feels like, the black-haired cowgirl says. All the cowgirls smile into the cool, starry night.

Of course magic calls at odd moments. You may do what you want to fight it, but it goes its own way. So they were still locked together when the sky above them blackened, and the smell of rain sprung out of the earth, and each of the cacti put out a single brilliant bloom. And then something spoke to them, or simply placed the choice in their hearts.

It was simple and terrible, as magic always is. They could go from this spot and live their lives in bliss and harmony, or they could hold the magic within themselves—the magic of the land, and all the potential magic of their love, and sink right this moment into the earth. Their bones would grow cold in darkness. And even if they did this, the magic stressed in whatever way it could, they might not be able to save the land, the spirit within it. They would not be able to shape the course of their sacrifice. But they might hold a store of magic for a while.

For this they must give up their future happiness, not just in the life they were living, but in any that might follow. They must give it up just as it began. They must make this choice and never change it. Only so dramatic a sacrifice could have any weight. The magic stormed around them, impatient as a toddler, tossing raindrops and cactus blossom. Choose, it said, each of you must choose.

The boy and the girl looked at each other. They had known each other since childhood, and could speak with their eyes. They each took a breath and their hearts beat in unison. They chose.

 


 

The black-haired cowgirl drains the first flask and opens another. The cowgirls pass the reposado around. There is a long moment of silence before the bay shakes her head and says, And they chose? though she knows the answer.

What true hearts choose.

The cowgirls sigh in unison, or they make little ghost flickers of poignancy inside each other’s heads. They sit a long time under the blue-black sky. There is a weird moan from something outside the circle of firelight, but the arcane herb barrier holds. The flask circles in silence as the cowgirls ruminate, and then the last begins to speak.

 

The Castaway

Anyone who claims to know the true story of anything is basically bullshitting, the bay-haired cowgirl says. She takes a drink and wipes her mouth on her sleeve. There is no one true story. There’s millions of them. And every single one has some truth in it. And some heart too.

For example, she says, it is possible that someday, if this old earth goes the way of roads and phones and society, some castaway far in the future, pining away all alone for a true heart and a true sky in dim grey tunnels beneath a planet with only caliche left upon it, could be telling a tale about us—this evening, this fire, the way the blue stars tilt across the night and waltz on into the dawning. Or it could be two tellers together, flat on their backs, their crowns just touching, spinning the same tale.

It is conceivable that at this point, the bay tips her head back and sits in silence a while before she once again speaks. And in this tale, she continues, the poor darlin’ or darlins’ could make us wicked conjurers or intrepid cowgirls or simply lonely survivors of the world of cities that has passed on long ago. These could be true tales or false ones, in the same way a tiny spot of earth can be consecrated to love or despair or sin or sacrifice, or all of them on top of each other. It is the way of stories, hearts also. Only the land is real.

The bay drinks a tiny jolt from the flask. In reality, she has probably drunk to her limit, though the tolerance of cowgirls is the stuff of legend. “Never get into a drinking contest with a cowgirl” is a maxim from this time. She just sips to show completion and then passes the flask widdershins again.

The palomino turns to the bay, who is rising unsteadily. That’s not really a story, she says. But seriously, what do you think this shit means?

The bay sways a little. She looks up at the night, now nearer to morning. All hearts are true hearts, she says.

For Sunshine



Rachael Cupp lives in the desert. She teaches writing at Pima College, and sometimes writes stories, but rarely manages both things at once. Like everyone else lately, she has grown intimately familiar with the views from all her windows. Her work has previously appeared in Interzone.
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28 Nov 2022

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