[MetroActive Books]

[ Books Index | Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Illustration Artist Jane Gregorius teaches silk-screening at Cabrillo College and exhibits her work widely. Her monotype silk-screen Earthquake in Santa Cruz, which appears on this week's cover, was completed just after the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989.


In the wake of the Big One, a man and a woman stitch together their fractured love

A short story by James D. Houston

Author's Note

I grew up hearing fault-line legends. As a kid in San Francisco, I drank water from reservoirs stored in long depressions created by the movexment of tectonic plates. In my travels up and down the coast, I crossed the rift zone countless times. It had been there all my life, this creature called the San Andreas. Yet I had never given it more than a passing thought. I hadn't seen it at all, not until I came across an article in Scientific American about a recently verified theory called Continental Drift.

In 1971, this astounding global vision was just then going public. In the air for decades, as a beguiling idea, it had not been universally accepted by geology professionals until the late 1960s. I was electrified. Here was one of the most influential features of our western American terrain. I'd lived within a few miles of it since birth. Yet it had been virtually invisible to me, a legend, a folk tale, an elaborate rumor.

I had to know more. I called my pal Gary Griggs, earth sciences ace at UCSC and already a San Andreas aficionado. In his pickup, with a six-pack and the radio tuned to KTOM-Country out of Salinas, he took me on a little field trip, pointing out the signs and traces, outside Watsonville, along the Pajaro River channel, to San Juan Bautista and Hollister, then south down 25 to the old La Cienega branch of the Almaden winery, where the fault line's pattern of steady creep had first been identified, back in 1958. A warehouse there is still being gradually pulled in two.

That trip with Griggs was the genesis of my novel Continental Drift (1978). In the yin and yang of our coastal origins, I thought I had found a weighty metaphor. I returned to the subject in Californias (1982), in a chapter called "How Various Large and Small Pieces of California Move Around From One Place to Another." But I wasn't finished writing about such matters. Half a century in earthquake country and I had not yet experienced a major shake, not until October 1989. After the Loma Prieta quake broke apart two chimneys in our house, I found I had a somewhat different tale to tell. That's when I started thinking about "Faith." It's hard to believe 10 years have passed since that harrowing day and night.

James D. Houston, October l999

MAYBE IT happened as the first long earth-wave rolled through our town. Maybe it was later. We had aftershocks all night. Faith, my wife, wouldn't sleep inside. No one would but me. Everyone spent the night in the driveways on cots, or on the lawn in sleeping bags, as if this were a neighborhood slumber party. I think I had to prove to myself that if all else failed I could still believe in my own house. If that first shaker had not torn it to pieces, I reasoned, why should I be pushed around and bullied by these aftershocks that rated so much lower on the Richter scale?

When the second big one hit us, just before dawn, I was alone and sleeping fitfully, pinned to my bed, dozing like a corporal in the combat zone waiting for the next burst of mortar fire. I sat up and listened to rafters groaning, calling out for mercy. I heard dishes leap and rattle in the kitchen. I listened to the seismic roar that comes rushing toward you like a mighty wind. I should have run for the doorjamb. I couldn't. I could not move, gripped by the cold truth of my own helplessness.

I sat there with the quilt thrown back and rode the tremor until the house settled down. Outside I heard voices. They rose in a long murmur of anxiety laced with relief, as children called to their parents, as neighbor talked to neighbor from lawn to lawn, from driveway to driveway.

Eventually the voices subsided, and I was aware for the first time of a hollow place within, a small place I could almost put my finger on. Describing it now, I can say it felt as if a narrow hole had been scooped out, or drilled, right behind my sternum, toward the lower end of it, where the lowermost ribs come together.

At the time I had no words for this, nor did I try to find any. From the rising of the sun we had to take things one hour at a time. We were out of water. Sewage lines had burst, contaminating the mains. Phone lines were down. Power was out all over the county, and many roads were cut off. Long sections of roadbed had split. In the central shopping district, several older buildings, made of brick and never retrofitted, were in ruins. They'd been built on flood plain. As the tremor passed through it, the subsoil liquified. Faith and I live in a part of town built on solider stuff. No one's house jumped the foundation. But indoors everything loose had landed on the floor--dishes, pictures, mirrors, lamps. Half our chimney fell into the yard. Every other house had a square hole in the roof or a chimney-shaped outline up one wall where the bricks once stood.

The next day I was working side by side with neighbors I had not talked with for weeks, in some cases, months. As we swapped stories and considered the losses, the costs, the federal help that might be coming in, I would often see in their eyes a startled and questioning fear that would send me inward to the place where whatever was now missing had once resided. I found myself wondering if it was something new, or an old emptiness that had gone unnoticed for who knows how long. I'm still not sure.

By the third morning we had electricity again. We could boil water without building a campfire outside or cranking up the Coleman. I sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and I guess I just forgot to drink it. Faith sat down across from me and said, "What's the matter, Harry?"


"Are you all right?"

"No, I'm not all right. Are you?"

"You've been sitting here for an hour."

"I don't know what to do. I can't figure out what to do next."

"Let's sell this place. Let's get out of here while we're still alive."

She looked like I felt. Along with everything else we were getting three or four aftershocks a day. It kept you on the ragged edge.

I said, "Where can we go?"

"Inland. Nevada. Arizona. I don't care."

"You said you could never live in Arizona."

"That was last year."

"The desert would drive you bananas, you said."

Halfway through that sentence, my voice broke. My eyes had filled with water. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to break into heaving sobs right there at the table.

"It's too hard," she said, "trying to clean up this mess and never know when another one's going to hit us. Who can live this way?"

"What does it feel like to have a nervous breakdown?" I said.

"Maybe all we need is a trip. I don't care where. Let's give ourselves a week, Harry, while we talk things over."

"That's not it."

"What's not it?"

I didn't answer. She waited and asked again, her voice on the rise, "What's not it? What's the matter, Harry? What's happening to us?"

Her eyes were blazing. Her mouth was stretched wide in a way I have learned to be wary of. It was not a smile. Faith has a kind of chiseled beauty. As the years go by, her nose, her cheeks, her black brows get sharper, especially when she's pushed. We were both ready to start shouting. Thirty more seconds we would be saying things we didn't mean. I didn't need a shouting match just then. Somehow she always prevails. Her background happens to be Irish and Mexican, a formidable combination when it's time to sling the words around.

Thankfully the phone rang. We hadn't heard it for so long, the jangle shocked us both. It was her mother, who had been trying to get through. Once they knew the houses were standing and no one had been injured, they talked on for half an hour or so, the mother mostly, repeating all the stories she'd been hearing, among them the story of a cousin with some acreage here in the county, where he grows lettuce and other row crops. Some men on the cousin's crew had recently come up from central Mexico on labor contracts, and one of them had asked for a morning off to take his wife to a local healer. During the quake the wife's soul had left her body, or so she feared, and this healer had ways to bring a soul back. Faith's mother reminded her that after the big one in Mexico City back in 1987, numerous stories had drifted north, stories of people who found themselves alive and walking among the ruins, while inside something had disappeared.

I still have to wonder why the mother called when she did. Whether it was by chance or by design, I still can't say. Probably a little of both. She claims to have rare intuitive powers. This healer, the curandera, happened to be a woman she knew by name and had been visiting for a year or so, ever since her husband had passed away. Faith had been visiting her, too. Her skills, they said, remedied much more than ailments of the flesh.

As soon as her mother hung up, Faith repeated the story of the field worker's wife. It came with an odd sort of pressure, as if she were testing my ability to grasp its importance. I don't know. I'm still piecing that day together. Maybe Faith, too, was feeling some form of inexpressible loss, and maybe she, too, was groping for a way to voice it.

"This healer," I said, "what does she do?"

"It's hard to explain."

"Is it some kind of Catholic thing? The devil creeping in to steal your soul away?"

She shook her head. "I don't think it's like good spirits and evil spirits or anything along those lines."

"What is it, then?"

"Maybe it's like the door of your life springs open for a second."

"Why do you say that?"

"Maybe your soul flies out and the door slams shut again."

"You think that can happen?"

"I'm just thinking out loud."

"It's a hell of a thing to say."

"Don't look at me that way."

"Just tell me if you believe something like that could happen."

"You hear people talk about it."

"When are you going down there again?"

"Sometime soon, I hope. It would be a good time for a treatment."

"Is that what they call it?"

"You can call it whatever you want."

"A treatment? That sounds like ..."

"Like what?"

"Some kind of medical deal."

"Please, Harry. If you're going to get defensive, I don't want to talk about it."

"I'm not defensive."

"Your guard goes up."

"Gimme a goddamn break, Faith!"

"I can feel it, Harry! You know I can!"

My guard goes up. What guard, I was thinking. I had no guards left. That was the problem. Everything I had ever used to defend myself or support myself was gone. I was skidding. That's how I felt. Supportless. I had to get out of there. I had to think. Or perhaps I had to get out of there and not-think.

I TOOK OFF FOR the hardware store, to pick up some new brackets for the bookshelves. I switched on one of the talk shows out of San Francisco. The guest was a trauma counselor. The theme was "Living With the Fault Line." Someone had just called in a question about betrayal.

"Can you give me an example?" the counselor said.

"Maybe that isn't the right word," the caller said.

"You feel like something has been taken away from you." It wasn't a question.

"It's almost like my body opened up and something escaped."

A long chill prickled my arms, my neck. I had just reached the hardware store. I pulled into the parking lot, switched off the engine, and turned up the sound.

"That's big," the talk show host said. "That's major."

"Hey," the counselor said, "let's think about it together for a minute."

"Think about what?" the host said. "Betrayal?"

"The earth. Think about the umbilical tie. From your mother, to your grandmother, and on down the line. On back through the generations to whatever life forms preceded ours. Sooner or later we all have to trace our ancestry to this nurturing earth, and meanwhile we have laid out these roads and trail and highways and conduit pipes and bridges and so forth in full faith that she is stable and can be relied upon. You follow me? Then when she all of a sudden gives way, splits open, lets off this destructive power without even the little advance notice you get for a hurricane or a killer blizzard, why, it's like your ground wire disconnects. It's so random ... you realize how we're all just hanging out here in empty space. Believe me, folks, you're not alone. I've been feeling this way myself for days ..."

He had a low, compelling voice that sent buzzes through me. I was tingling almost to the point of nausea. The tears I had not been able to release in the kitchen now began to flow. I sat in the hardware store parking lot weeping like a young child lost on a city street might weep for the missing parents.

When my tears subsided, I tried to call the house. The line was busy. I started driving south, sticking to the roads I knew were open, more or less following a route I had followed once before, on a day when Faith's car was in the shop and she needed a ride. It only takes twenty minutes, but you enter another world. Down at the end of the county it's still mostly fertile delta land. From the highway you look for a Burger King and a Stop-N-Go. Past a tract of duplexes you enter an older neighborhood of bungalows and windblown frame houses from the 1920s and earlier. The street leading to her cottage was semi-paved. Beyond the yard, row crops went on for a mile across broad, flat bottomland--lettuce, chard, broccoli, onions. The grass in the yard was pale and dry. Low cactus had been planted next to the porch.

The fellow who answered my knock said he was her son, Arnoldo, lean and swarthy and watchful. He wore jeans and dusty boots, as if he might have just walked in by another door. When I mentioned my wife's name he did not seem impressed. Anglos never come to see this woman. In his eyes I could have been an infiltrator from County Health, or from Immigration, or someone shaking them down for a license. When I mentioned my mother-in-law's family name, he softened a little. Dredging up some high school Spanish, I tried to describe my symptoms. Arnoldo spoke a little English, but not much. I touched my chest.

"Mi alma," I said. "Después del temblor, tengo mucho miedo. Es posible que mi alma ..."

"Ha volado?" he said. Has flown away?

"Sí. Comprende?"

He looked at me for quite a while, making up his mind. He looked beyond me toward the curb, checking out the car. At last he stepped aside and admitted me into a small living room where a young mother and her son were sitting on a well-worn sofa. There was a TV set, a low table with some Spanish-language magazines, a sideboard with three or four generations of family photographs framed. In one corner, votive candles flickered in front of an image of the blue-robed, brown-faced Virgin of Guadalupe. Between this room and a kitchen there was a short hallway where a door now opened. A moment later a pregnant woman appeared, followed by an older woman, short and round and very dark. She stopped and looked at me while Arnoldo explained the family tie. The names seemed to light her face with a tiny smile of recognition. I heard him mutter, "Susto." A scare. She nodded and said to me, "Bienvenidos." Welcome. Please make yourself at home.

She beckoned to the woman on the sofa and her son, who limped as he started down the hallway. The rear door closed, and Arnoldo offered me a chair. I couldn't sit. I was shivering. I made him nervous. I was sure he regretted letting me inside. He pointed to a long, jagged lightning streak of a crack across the sheetrock wall behind the TV set. "El temblor," he said. The earthquake.

Again I pointed to my chest. "El temblor."

We both laughed quiet, courteous laughs and looked away. I sat down then, though I could not bear the thought of waiting. This was crazy. I was out of control. What was I doing? What did I think would happen? I remembered the day I'd driven over here with Faith and parked at the curb. I remembered the glow on her face and how I had extinguished that glow. She had wanted me to come inside with her. "What for?" I said. "There's nothing wrong with me." The idea filled me with resentment. "It's not a lot of money, Harry," she had said. "She doesn't charge. You just leave something on the table, whatever you feel like leaving."

It wasn't the money. It was the strangeness of being there with her. Faith has these dramatic, mixed-blood looks that have kept people guessing, and have kept me guessing, too, I suppose. Greek? they ask. Portuguese? Italian? Black Irish? Mexico has always been somewhere on that list, but when we first started dating she never would have emphasized it. Her Spanish was no better than mine. Faith McCarthy was her maiden name. Suddenly I did not know this woman. Mexican on her mother's side, that was one thing. Going into the barrio to visit healers, that was something else. I wasn't ready for that. When did it start? Where would it lead? I remembered the rush of dread that day in the car as I realized I was looking at a complete stranger who was inviting me to some place I had never been.

Sitting there with Arnoldo, I felt it again, the dread of strangeness. Who was he, after all, with his boots and his lidded eyes? Her son? He could be anyone. What if this was the wrong house?

I heard voices from the hallway. Then the young mother and the limping boy passed through the living room, out the front door, and the healer was beckoning to me. I, too, was limping, crippled with doubt. I had no will. I followed her to another room, with a backyard view across the fields, once a bedroom, now furnished with a chest of drawers, a couple of chairs, a long couch with a raised headrest. She didn't speak for quite some time. She just looked at me. She was no more than five feet tall, her hair silver, pulled back in a short braid. I guessed she was in her sixties, her body thick and sturdy, covered by a plain dress that left her arms free. Her face was neutral, neither smiling nor frowning. Her eyes seemed to enter me, black eyes, the kind that go back in time, channels of memory. She knew my fear. She knew everything about me.

She asked me to take off my shoes and my shirt, nodding toward a chair before she turned away, as if involved with some small preparation on top of the chest. My panic welled up. It was mad to be doing this, stripping down at the edge of a broccoli field, inside the house of people I'd never seen before. I imagined the old woman asking me to swallow something terrible. Above the chest a shelf was lined with jars and small pouches. Who knew what they contained? My panic turned to fury. I could have taken the old woman by the throat. I wanted to. She knew too much. Maybe I began to understand hysteria just then, how a person can start to spin around and fly to pieces. Why didn't I spin? Why didn't I run? I stood there swearing that if she tried to give me something, I would not swallow it. That was the little contract I made with myself as I lay down on the long couch.

She covered me to my neck with a sheet. From a pouch tied around her waist she withdrew a clump of leafy fragrant stems and waved it up and down the length of my body. Her lips moved but made no sound. She leaned in close, pressing her thumbs across my forehead, digging into the furrows there, digging in close to my eyes. She began to speak, a soft murmur of words that were not Spanish. Later on, Faith's mother would tell me these may have been Yaqui words, a Yaqui incantation. There is something to be said for not knowing the literal meaning of words. If you trust the speaker to be using them in the proper way, it makes it easier to surrender. You can surrender to the sound. Is that what was happening? Did I trust the sound of the curandera's voice? Let's say I wanted to. Let's say my need to trust her outweighed my fear. Who else could I have turned to? In her hands I began to drift. I would not say she put me to sleep. I was not asleep. I did not feel asleep. I just wasn't entirely awake. My eyes weren't open. But I was still aware of being in the room. I was outside the room, yet in it, too, listening to her gentle voice.

While her hands worked on my forehead, my temples, my eyes, my nose and cheeks, her voice became the voice of wings, large and black and wide as the couch, as wide as the room, as wide as the house, sheets of darkness moving toward me, undulating, until I saw that these were the wings of an enormous bird, a dark eagle or a condor hovering. It finally settled on my chest, its feet on my skin so I could feel its talons. They held me as if in the grip of two great hands. They dug in. They were on my chest and inside my chest. From the talon grip I understood some things about this bird. I knew its solitary drifting on the high thermal currents, soaring, waiting. I knew its hunger. I knew the power of the beak. When the flapping of the wings increased, I wasn't surprised. They made a flapping thunder that sent a quiver through me, then a long shudder, then a shaking as sudden and terrifying as the shaking of the earth, with a sound somewhere inside it, the slap of a ship's sails exploding in a gale. I was held by the chest and shaken by this bird until my body went slack, exhausted by the effort to resist. In that same moment the wings relaxed. The hold upon my chest relaxed. I watched the bird lift without any motion of the wings, as if riding an updraft. It hovered a while, and I had never felt so calm. A way had been cleared at last, that's how it felt. Everything had been rattled loose again and somehow shaken into place. A rim of light edged the silhouette of dusky feathers. I saw the fierce beak open as if about to speak. Its piercing cry almost stopped my heart.

My eyes sprang wide open. The woman's dark brown face was very close. The heel of her hand had just landed on my forehead with a whack. Her black eyes were fixed on mine. What did I see there? Who did I see?

When I got back home Faith met me at the door. She, too, had been crying. I'd been gone maybe three hours. She stood close and put her arms around me. We didn't speak. We looked at each other. In her face I recognized something I would not, until that afternoon, have been able to identify. Her eyes were like the old woman's eyes, that same fierce and penetrating tenderness. It swept me away. We kissed as if we had not seen each other in weeks, as if we had the fight that had nearly happened and we were finally making up. It was a great kiss, the best in years. It sent us lunging for the bedroom, where we made love for the first time in many days.

In our haste we forgot to pull the curtains. Afternoon light was pouring through the curtains. At first she was bathed in light, though as we thrashed and rolled she seemed to be moving in and out of the light. Then she was above me so close she blocked the light. As she rose and fell and rose and fell I could only see her outline. When she abruptly reared back, her arms were wings spread wide against the brightness, while she called out the words I could scarcely hear. A roaring had filled my ears. A thousand creatures were swarming toward the house, or a storm-driven wind. Maybe it was another aftershock. Maybe it was the pounding of my own blood.

"Oh! Oh! Harry!" Her voice came through the roar. "Harry! Harry!" as if I were heading out the door again. Had I been able to speak I would have called to her. Maybe I did call. I know I heard my voice. "I'm here!" I cried. "I'm here! I'm here!"

Novelist James D. Houston's latest book is The Last Paradise. "Faith" first appeared in Ploughshares, Spring 1993, and in California Shorts, Heyday Books.

[ Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

From the October 13-20, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.