The woman appeared in a park foaming with dogwoods, crawled from the playground tunnel to stretch and open her bones. Tall, angular—like an elk, they’d later say. On Main she’s greeted by cats, their wails heard blocks away. Terrible, says one of the early drinkers at Jax’s, what a male cat does to a female. Jax’s was full of mirrors and soft light. The mirrors, claimed the drinkers, reflected the wrong things: men with faces like antelope, rooms packed with people dressed from another century. Look! they’d shout and the bartender, nodding, would ease them back to the rail. Brains full of cottony hope, the drinkers inched outside, shrank back at the touch of the sun. There in the street cats tore one another apart, producing those terrible yowls. Some crawled in circles trailing bloody-blue organs. Several, dying, calmed at the touch of the drinkers’ hands. Breathe, one man whispered, shaking with grief, so all six took up the chant: Breathe, breathe, breathe. Townspeople emerged. Their screams drove the drinkers back inside Jax’s, where they squinted at mirrors, felt for their faces.
Next she was spotted on Walnut. Errol and Elsa Lennon, owners of Family Video, asked if their daughter was feeling all right. Outside the woman went by. Little Jessica Lennon, tugging her nightshirt, began to pee. Her parents leapt up as a river of honey—or something like honey—poured from her mouth, filling the room with a terrible smell. By evening five transients are dragged to the courthouse, that limestone breast bared for all to see. Mayor Shaw emerges sweat-drenched and red, holds up his list: the names of the transients, plus four more. Somebody shouts, What about the woman, she on your list? Patience, Shaw preaches, vigilance, community virtues.
In the morning she’s spotted atop the post office. To the horror of passersby cats plunge from the roof. But the cops arrive and find the roof empty. The Rangel boy, rumor spreads, vomited sap in the middle of the night. On Wednesday, as usual, Calico Feeds & Litter opens its towers, filling the farmland with malodorous fog. Some residents wear face masks while others breathe deeply, puffing their chests, hoping Shaw will see. The Blevins girl mentions a headache at school; honey suddenly spews from her nose. What, someone shouts, will you do when you catch her? Shaw surveys the crowd, bellows as though announcing an execution: Drive three counties east and send her packing! Like the wolves in ’88? a woman calls. The crowd roars approval so Shaw cries out, Precisely! Now go, go, plumb those stinking woods!
The next day, a cassette in the Family Video returns bin: a cornfield at night, camera hidden in the crop. Headlights. A police cruiser. No sound. Men are dragged into light by deputies with faces like eels. The deputies beat the transients, drag them back into frame; the violence lasts two, three minutes; then they stop, shake hands, vanish. Who, Errol Lennon asks his empty store, would make such a film?
On Main she appears, cats scaling trees, somersaulting off cars, eviscerating flowerbeds. At the river the star linebacker dunks transients underwater, five, ten, a full twenty seconds. Names! screams Shaw. Others are pulled from tents in the woods. A second video: three men whipped beneath a windblown oak by a man in a mask. A transient, blind-drunk on gin, gashes a deputy’s dog with a broken bottle. He’s flung into the river. Fish him out, orders Shaw, but the man is carried away. A third: four hung by the ankles, hairy guts quivering. Errol closes his eyes. At Jax’s the star linebacker, on his way for a piss, stops before a mirror, points at the glass, gasps: Who’s that?
The next day she’s spotted, briefly, on Eighth. People run and scream. Reports of illness from Krinkle’s Meat circulate; the store, naturally, objects. A crew finds tents by the river; Shaw shouts towards the trees: This is what you get, preying on our town! When deputies set fire to the tents a man barrels from the woods, is tackled and kicked for good measure. Shaw wrenches his arm, demands names. Mercy, Mister Shaw, somebody whispers. Mister Shaw, have mercy.
I hate to show you this, Errol tells Elsa. They watch deputies force meat down a man’s throat. He topples forward, vomits what looks like his insides. Elsa, from long ago, has Shaw’s direct line. How’s little Jessica? he asks and Elsa replies, Please, Leonard, stop sending those tapes. After a moment he speaks: I don’t have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about. Tapes? And what are you still doing with this number? Word circulates: an underground faction hides food behind the Boy Scouts’ hall. Shaw discovers bins stocked with greens, bread, beans, ravioli. The next morning, nine a.m., a bearded man collapses in front of Jax’s, coughs blood. The early drinkers help him to the clinic. Your recklessness, Shaw shouts from the courthouse steps, your spoiled food nearly cost him his life! Where, he asks his deputies, are they getting these fucking tents? Smoke from the woods blackens the sky. When Wagner Reed refuses to stop selling tents Shaw hurls a baseball, shattering the trophy case. So Wagner puts up a sign—All Tents Gone—and when customers inquire he shrugs and simply says, Shaw.
The Lennons, after discussion, join a group that drives to Templeton with its big box stores. They purchase sleeping bags, lanterns, water filters, tents. Despite what happened to our little Jessica, they say, those men don’t deserve this. Was it the woman, they’re asked, who caused that stuff to come out your girl? Errol and Elsa close their eyes, shrug. Both seem to ask: Is there a woman? That night Shaw surprises them in the woods. Errol, when Shaw goes for tents, socks him in the mouth. Shaw, bloodied, leaves without a word. But the following morning, hat in hand, Sheriff Purdle visits Family Video. Elsa, screaming, yanks her husband’s arm. Quiet, Errol says, following the sheriff out. That night, face swollen, he’s seen exiting the courthouse. Services at Christ Presbyterian are interrupted by parishioners wishing to discuss the removal of Shaw: what he did to poor Errol is inexcusable! Others shout that Errol attacked Shaw—and what about these tents? Shaw, at that moment, addresses Shiprock Youth Ministries. Some question my methods, he says, but I assure you—my methods are apt! Peace be with you, cries the minister, we must stop the spread of tents!
Then the cavalcade arrives: tinted sedans, stern-looking men and women—scientists. There’s been an inspection at Calico Feeds & Litter unbeknownst to Shaw. Your water’s riddled with pollutants, they announce. Your litter practically radioactive. Before long, says a scientist, cameras clicking, you’ll all be mad as your cats! The woman is spotted on Walnut. Some scream, others point, others dash forward with questions. As before, she turns a corner, is gone. I don’t understand, Elsa says that night, icing her husband’s face. Did we do the right thing? A rust-colored stain has spread across their living room wall. Little Jessica, voice shaking, asks, Is something in the walls?
The early drinkers wake to darkness. One prepares coffee, closes his eyes, counts to ten to temper trembling hands. Then mixes in creamy liqueur. Another waters grass, whispers to birds. Another admires the mauve-softened sky. Yet another—the best-off of the group—bakes his famous bread heavy with seeds. Sometimes he hosts dinners, this drinker, dinners that last until everyone’s asleep on the floor, the sofa, right there at the table. Another feeds his cats, waits in the darkness. The sixth and final drinker, his house repossessed, wakes on a bench underneath the park’s dogwoods. Those little pink flowers titter in the breeze. It’s time, he tells the flowers, folding his blankets. Asks, Is today the day? The others don’t know of his recent hard times; he’s thankful those nights the baker hosts dinners. This early drinker circles the park, pauses, circles the park again. He stops to admire the road running east, towards farmland and river. There the sky bleeds pink, making magic with the mist. On this particular morning, or perhaps it’s some other, he heads that way instead of towards town and is never seen again.