A journal of narrative writing.
Uncharted Waters

Listen to “Uncharted Waters”
read by Cynthia Nitz Ris

Josie Bassett Morris lived alone for forty years in a cabin she built near Green River in Colorado.
She was also Butch Cassidy’s girlfriend.
* Rain swells the river: another chance for parched fields; filled reservoirs for months when only scars cross the creek bed. I dream of a cratered pool, heavy with golden fish, a cat to sweep at them, and a tumbler of whiskey for watching sunset reds dissolve across its shimmering surface. * Pictures never did him justice. When we’d kiss his water-blue eyes turned milky, as though for him, my flesh clouded the world with me the only real thing in it. His hands on my body would float and tremble, caught, he’d say, in ocean currents. He’d remember the expanse he saw once—uncharted waters— nothing called dust. Just this smooth against his skin. Long mornings, instead of rolling dough, feeding chickens, I’d listen to him talk. How he almost blew a train in half before he figured how much powder to use. How he and Harry scammed a sheriff, rode him back to town in his union suit. People would slap their backs, buy them rye. He’d sprinkle women’s names across his stories like sand. * Split rails came loose in slanting rains. From Hogan’s tree to just south of the footpath, I unwrapped heavy gauge, cut the wires, then wound new coils around wood I fit back into place. Fingers blood-full and tight, they clutched a mug stiff-handed, refused to unbutton his old workshirt I slept in. At night, my skin remembers his body along mine. * We’d walk the river bed at Brown's Park, Uinta Mountains rising distant behind blooms of cactus roses. He’d drop to his knees, sift dirt in his hands, hold out sharks’ teeth like gold nuggets, or fish scales turned rock that once gleamed like sequins. He’d say my hair was sandstone he could fashion into dreams. But he'd also say Ann’s eyes rushed gray and blue like floods at spring. He’d call her sister-in-law, as though we’d married, and kiss her on the mouth. * Just last week, influenza—my stomach dropped like a gully under my ribs. Pulled what water I could from the spring then thick with fever, fell flat. Laid until daybreak striped my face. Next county’s neighbor brought warm bread and jam—first food in days. I held berries to my mouth’s roof, as if it were a sin to swallow. Walked out at dusk along the cliffs, the petroglyphs shining: lizards, flute players, worshippers of the sun. I argue rights with men whose ranches stretch past Steamboat Springs, men who think water can be broken like a horse, bent by will. The ones who think each head of cattle's more important than the farmer’s child, our sheep, the flowers that line my home like diamonds in the spring. But Green River winds as it winds; it won’t be dammed for any wants. And want, want dries up in this sun; need blossoms, replaces his body pressing against mine. * When ranchers tried to steal our cattle, Ann rustled theirs. Two dead men later, the townfolk called her Queen Ann. Some claim she rode with Butch and Harry, breakneck at night, holed up at day with compatriots in Mexico. Some sighted her in Argentina, white starched petticoat, playing hostess to gringos in a house with a picket fence. I hear her voice sometimes when I walk the flats, the wind strong and gritty from the south. * Box canyon walls soft as leather, tanned and cool beneath the higher glaze of light. My boots steep in sand that courses like the sea around islands of grass. I heard the sheep last night, bleating in the rain. A coyote, I thought, but this morning, I counted every one. Now lambs skitter sideways towards ewes who know my scent, drop their heads as if to ask what else could there be? Hem of sky, sheets of rock, this ground yielding under our feet.