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COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Micah R. Bochart

Micah Bochart 86-45 St. James Ave. Apt. 1A Elmhurst, NY 11373 (917) 755-4827 mbochart@gmail.com

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN

No burden do We place On any soul, but that Which it can bear They will be Companions Of the Garden, therein to dwell forever. The Holy Quran Transl. Yusuf Ali

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN

~1~

Dig dropped his hoodie on the Greyhound seat and stepped outside, eager to stretch his legs, and to satisfy his hunger for something salty and ruinous. A Muslim woman in her mid-twenties cut him off on the way to the register inside the nearby Subway. He could tell by the haggard expression on her face that she hadnt done so intentionally, so he held back, without irritation, as the expertly tailored honey oat BLT ate away at the palm of his hand, and he watched the woman pay, with credit, for a packet of Trident gum. She wore rose and brown and brown again, in the order of altitude; an anklelength skirt and a corduroy vest and a maroon hijab that went just past the edge of her hairline. Her skin was a dark shade of white, and she stood perhaps 5 9, her features lean and streamlined, in a manner that called falcons and harriers to mind. Thank you, she said, to the cashier, and was already in the act of tearing the gum packet open as she made her way to the exit, headed for the bus. Dig closed the deal on his sandwich and walked back outside, out into the late afternoon heat and the muted roar of the freeway. On re-boarding the Greyhound, he was happy to observe that the seat next to his was still unoccupied, the only such seat on the bus, but the happiness proved short-lived when, five minutes after the bus had departed from the rest stop and returned to the

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN freeway, the Muslim woman from the Subway appeared next to him and asked if she could sit down. Of course, he said, and moved the sleeve of his hoodie out of the way. Thanks, she said. The smell of the bathroom was just a little too intense back there. At the mention of bathroom he impulsively glanced over his shoulder, and noted, with belated curiosity, that what was now the only empty seat in the bus was in fact several rows removed from the lavatory door. That bad? he said. She nodded, and looked away. He glanced over his shoulder again. A middle-aged blonde with agitating blush lounged to the right of the Muslim womans former seat, paging through an edition of The National Examiner. Sensing Digs gaze she looked up at him, glared for a moment, glanced over at the back of the Arab womans head, and then went back to her magazine. Not surprised, he said, in the interest of closure. They dont exactly run a

glamorous operation around here, and turned back to the window, not wanting to trouble his new neighbor any further. In that vein, it occurred to him that his BLT which he hadnt touched since the woman sat down was no longer, strictly speaking, appropriate. His mind searched for the precise wording of the Islamic injunction forbidding the consumption of pork, and with no hits returning, save for the overarching theme of fire and brimstone, he wrapped up the sandwich and stored it in his backpack, grabbing instead for his camera. A sign outside had said Baltimore, 76 miles, which meant they were getting close to the Delaware River, and though hed crossed the bridge on multiple occasions in the past, the closeness of the sun to sunset and the mottled pattern of reddening clouds in the sky suggested to him that a photo was in order. This is my first time, said the woman. Is it always this bad? By first time, he assumed she meant Greyhound. He let go of the bag, camera at large, and leaned back in his seat. Youre asking about the bathroom? he said.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN The bathroom, the driver, the people . . . everything. He could sense in her voice the insatiable need to vent, a need that overwhelmed (perhaps) a conflicting desire to keep quietly to herself. Dont tell anyone, he said, but this is my first time on Greyhound too. Oh yeah? You a Chinatown Bus man? No, he said. I usually drive. Huh . . . yeah. I guess I forget there are still people out there who do that. Yeah, well . . . guilty as charged. Hed used that expression far too many times since first it entered his repertoire,

but it got the woman smiling, so in this instance, at least, it seemed a worthwhile venture. So wheres your car right now? she said. He gestured ahead. Baltimore, he said. Its a pickup truck, actually. A friend of mine was moving down there from Brooklyn, so I let him drive the truck so he could take all his stuff in one shot. Im on my way to retrieve it, then Im heading on to DC. He expected her to ask what hed be doing down there, but instead, she asked him about the truck. What kind of truck it was. The facts leaped forward with brazen eagerness. 83 Ford F-250. 3/4 ton. Black and gray. Diesel engine. 98,689 miles on the odometer, with another forty added by the time he hit Washington. I call her Cassie, he said, in reference to the truck. Kind of stupid, I guess, but anthropomorphizing happens to be one of my vices. Nomenclaturitus, she said, her eyes on the seat in front of her. Good one! Thanks, she said, and seemed almost to mean it.

They crossed the Delaware, sunset commendable, and continued on toward Maryland.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN

By then theyd been speaking for ten minutes, a block of time just sufficient for the routine exchange of names and places of origin. Abida Khaleel. Astoria, Queens. Dig Carson. Midwood, Brooklyn. Wheres your family from originally? Dig asked, a cop car parked on their right shoulder, an arrested motorist standing outside his vehicle with the cop cornering him, his hands outstretched in the throes of explanation. Jordan. My fathers a computer programmer. His company transferred him to the States in 1988, and my mother and I came over the year after. We moved straight to Queens. I was four years old. Do you remember it at all? What, Jordan? No, not really. Just the heat. I never want to feel that kind of heat again. It gets pretty hot in Queens, last I checked. She smiled again, but this time the smile had an edge to it. Youve clearly never been to the Middle East, she said. Nope. That I havent. Ive been to Africa, Vietnam, Europe, Brazil . . . a few other places. But not the Middle East. Not yet, anyway. In the lull that followed, he marveled at how in defending himself against what sounded like an accusation of All-American provinciality hed ended up sounding like a trust fund brat. Wow, said Abida, confirming his fears. Just how wealthy are you? Not wealthy at all! I just spend all of my free money on travel. Thats why I drive around a $500 fossil of a pick-up and live in a windowless basement. Even still, she said. My familys one of the richest in the neighborhood and I havent left the country since I got here. Do you live in a windowless basement? No, she said, I cant say we do.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN But nothing in her words resembled concession, nor anything in her cocksure snatching of the sunglasses from the pocket of her jacket, nor the way she smiled when she slid them on her face. They sped past a billboard advertising some kind of intestinal medication. Dig felt his stomach tighten.

Anyway, he said, feeling more and more stung the more he dwelt on it, I work for my money. My parents dont give me a cent. What do you do? Im a plumber. Eight years now. Ive gotten pretty good at it too. At least, I like to think that I have. Im sure you have. Would you have stuck it out this long if you hadnt? Hey, plumbing isnt as bad as its made out to be. In fact, I think its better than a lot of jobs out there. What youre doing always has this sort of tangible result. Theres always something youre working toward, and something you can look back on with pride. I guess so, she said. In any case, it is what it is. The will and the workings of God. Thats what shed say if he asked her to elaborate. Hed been stepping all over himself ever since he asked about her family, but he was still sharp enough to spot a maxim or two before he pulled it down on his head. He asked her about Baltimore instead. What brings you down there? A conference, she said. Thats cool. Whats the subject? Its complicated. Yeah, but Im interested. Im sure you are, but its a really long story. Believe me. Of course, he said, understandable, and turned back to the window again, daydreaming of his BLT.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN His mind wandered to the city ahead of him. Not Washington, but the city beyond. The city hed never been to before. It hovered in his thoughts in near-perfect void, the product of his studied attempt to avoid any photos or moving images that featured the city as a background. He shrouded the streets and the alleys and the cobblestone squares in deliberate haze, into which he could fall, on arrival, with the bluntness of infancy, everything known fully and finally and without preconception. Vibrant and new. And yet still in his mind hed conjured projections. How the music would have bled from the bars and the coffee shops into every corner and block. How the micro-infernos of the gas lamps would dance in the night. How the storm would have lingered. The things it shattered. The things it spared. Crooked telephone poles, water-stained streets . . . sagging stores with darkened interiors and incongruous signs proclaiming them open for business, either with bravado or in raw defiance, and shuttered-up schools with empty playgrounds, and block-wide bruises, and survival persistent survival at the core of it all. Projections, also, of the river. First and foremost the river. How hed sit on its banks and watch the eddies, watch the mass of water trundle

to the nearby Atlantic, watch the sun slip down on its muddied and unfathomable surface . . .a river he would already have known in intimacy for a day or two prior, having tracked its course down Highway 61, having stood at its bayous, having drawn in its fragrance. There on the bus, sandwiched between a BLT and the suburbs of Maryland, he drifted again toward his roster of daydreams, but was startled to find Abida there with him, standing at a distance while he sat by the river. Watching. Assessing. Wondering what to make of him. Surprised by the company, he attempted to push her out of it, and was just making progress when in waking life she spoke to him. Asked him about his name. Its short for Digory, he said, a character from one of the Narnia books. Have you heard of those?

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Yes, she said. I have.

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Yeah, well, Digory was the main character of The Magicians Nephew, the one where Narnia gets created. Hes also the old professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, though you dont realize that until youve read the whole series. Have you? What? Read the whole series? Yeah. And so, needless to say, have my parents. Atheists, both of them, and endlessly fond of practical jokes. Like naming their only son Digory. Abida chuckled and looked at the seatback in front of her. Those books knock Arabs, she said. I dont know if you noticed. Theyre old. Theyre dated. Theyre Christian propaganda. I dont think they knew how nasty they were. But yeah, I read them. And yeah, I noticed. She nodded. Looked thoughtfully amused. Do they bother you? she said. Yeah. A little. She nodded again. Is that why you cut your name in half? she said. Digory to Dig? No, said Dig. Not really. It just rolls better off the tongue this way. The palate, she said. The what? The palate. Dig is a word that rolls off the palate. The tongue stays pretty much in place. He laughed in spite of himself, the sound gagged upward from a well of anxiety that went much deeper than hed realized at any point prior. Bewildered by the intensity of emotion that their conversation had provoked in him, and feeling as if he had to succeed in some way at giving voice to it all, he shook his head and said, You know . . . sometimes I feel like taking every book of his from every bookstore in the world and just freaking burning them. Along with Bill O'Reillys. Really? said Abida. They bother you that much? He laughed again, and the tension eased.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN No, he said, and then, with the intention of blowing the lid off everything and calling it a day, I just wanted you to like me. Okay, she said, and the word seemed to drift from a place of sudden and complete ambiguity. In the confused silence that followed, Dig felt an overwhelming need to apologize to the dead helpless author. He swallowed. He loosened his hands. Iqra, he said. Im sorry? Read. Recite. It was Gabriels first command to the Prophet. God revealed Himself to the world through a commandment for literacy. He wouldnt approve of burning books. She turned to look at his face.

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Thats right, she said, and there was something in her voice that he hadnt heard before. Yeah, he said. Thats right.

When the bus pulled into the undistinguished parking lot that constituted its Baltimore terminal, Abida uttered a nondescript goodbye, grabbed her bag, and slipped out the door with a grace that impressed him. By the time he made it outside, she was already gone. Bookmarking the weirdness of the episode for subsequent reflection, he stood in the lot and scanned his surroundings. Spotted Cassie in an instant. Walked up to her bumper and stood for a moment with his hand on the hood, amused, if not surprised, at how much hed missed her in just five days of separation. He found the key in the agreed-upon spot, taped to the inside of the fender, and when he climbed inside the cab, a note on the seat apologized for the absence of its author. Come back soon, it said. My apartments got the kind of view you die for.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN He leaned outside to check his rear-view mirror and caught sight of Abida,

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scampering out of the dark, her heavy shoulder bag bouncing against the place where the curve of her hip would have been. Abida, hey, he said. Everything okay? She stopped just short of the passengers window and steadied herself, one hand on the rear-view mirror. Hed turned the key at this point, the low hum of the diesel purring its way through the words that followed. Thank you, she said. She was breathing heavily. Thank you for talking to me. I needed the company. Youre welcome, said Dig. I mean, no problem at all. She looked at him. At Baltimore. At him again. That woman back there, she said. She asked me to change seats. She said I was making her uncomfortable. I was just sitting there. I was barely even moving. Im sorry, said Dig. She shouldnt have said that. She shouldnt have. I hate her. He looked to see if the woman in question was still visible. She wasnt, and now the bus was leaving. Do you know how to get to the place youre staying at? he asked her. Ill take a cab, she said, but without conviction. I can drive you, he said. Ive got a really good atlas in the glove compartment. Im sure we can figure out how to get there. Youd do that? she said. Of course. She was all the way into the passengers seat, seatbelt fastened, when the tension broke, when she shook her head, when she climbed back out to the street again. If you see that woman, she said, crush her. He scribbled his number and handed it to her, telling her to call him if she got lost. She thanked him and walked away.

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Be safe! he said, but she didnt reply, so he slipped the truck into gear and made his way back to the highway, thinking, Right. Ill crush her. Ill crush her just because.

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~2~

His cell phone rang at 2PM the following day, snapping him into full awareness of his living death. He rolled over in the darkness and picked up the phone, and his voice was not was his own. Hello? he said. Hi, Dig. Its Abida. The girl you rode the bus with yesterday. The carpet smelled like Fritos and crotch. He tried to sit up, to put some distance between his nostrils and the scum-ridden fabric, but he couldnt, not without something to lean against, and it was dark inside and he couldnt find the walls. You have my number, he said, falling back on the rug, his stomach reeling from the aborted attempt at altitude. You gave it to me. Remember? In case I couldnt find my way to the hotel. It was very kind of you. Is everything all right? Truth be told, I feel like I should be asking you that question. Are you sick? Not really, no. What time is it? Its two oclock in the afternoon. I didnt think Id wake you. You didnt. I did. Im sorry. Im sorry for a lot of things. Thats what I called to tell you. But . . . for what?

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN For yesterday. I wasnt very nice to you. Id like to make it up. He tried to sit up again, and this time when he collapsed there was something solid to support him. He examined his surroundings. Someone Matt, perhaps had drawn the

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curtains, plunging the room into a state of merciful gloom. Two people slept on the bed, Matt and a woman whose name Dig couldnt remember, both fully clothed and lying head to toe. Somewhere outside the door came the sound of someone snoring, and with it the smell of vomit. Where are you? said Abida, echoing his thoughts. Washington, he said, a statement broad enough to cover every possible reality. He shifted the phone from one ear to the other. How about you? Washington. Really? Not Baltimore? No. I caught a bus down here this morning. No mean ugly ladies this time. But why did you ? Ill explain later. First and foremost . . . can I buy you lunch? Lunch, he said. Or breakfast. Whatever you want to call it. I dont know what neighborhood youre in, but Im pretty close to the National Mall. We could walk through there afterwards. Ive never actually seen it. But . . . no. You dont have to do that. You dont have to buy me lunch. Yes I do. My conscience demands it. Unless youre not feeling up to it, in which case you can just say so. He looked for his watch and couldnt find it, so he took her at her word that it was already after two. He remembered standing there, right where he sat, twelve hours earlier, the curtains still open, Matt down on his hands and knees with his face buried in the closet in search of a tie and Dig saying Matt. Yeah? Matt . . . you dont have to do this. Do what?

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Dazzle me. We could just take it slow.

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Take it slow? Fuck that, man. I havent seen you in two years. Ive been on this side of the continent for twelve fucking months and I keep asking to come up and see you and youre always too busy for me to visit and too broke to drive down here and its been too long! Im here now. Exactly. And thats miraculous as hell. So youll pardon me if I dont feel like sitting back and treating this visit like something that happens every day. And Dig stood in the doorway and watched him look for his tie, and from somewhere outside came the smell of something sizzling on a barbecue. The sound of people talking and laughing. The crack of someone opening a beer can. The way the sound split open the evening and left it there to bleed. How about tea? he said. Could we just go for tea? My pleasure, said Abida. Where should we meet?

He found her leaning against the trunk of a cherry tree on the side of the Capitol Building that faced the National Mall. She had her bag at her feet and a book spread open in her hands. The wind whistled at the hem of her skirt; a blue skirt this time, a shade or two darker than her coat. Hey there, he said, coming up behind her. Hi Dig, she said. How are you feeling? If youll allow me to cut to the chase, he said, its great to be outside. He glanced at the spine of her book. Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain. Twain was a tripwire, had always been a tripwire. The kind of author he couldnt behold in someone elses company without asking how he got there. He opened his mouth to act on the compulsion, but Abida cut him short. You read the Quran, she said. Yeah, he replied, trip-wire faulty.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN In college? He smiled, said, No. 10th Grade. Youre kidding. Not exactly.

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She shook her head, bewildered, as if hed just revealed a mental defect; the kind of defect that made her quietly happy. Can I ask the infamous why? she said. He looked across the Mall. The sun clung soft to its three oclock posture, the Washington Monument stark on the skyline. Theres this guy called Thomas Jefferson, he said. He buys a copy of the Quran from the Virginia Gazette, reads it cover to cover a dozen times over . . . even teaches himself basic Arabic . . . all in the name of wrapping his mind around something fresh, something totally new. He laughed and turned back to her. Thats how my sophomore history teacher opens his lecture on the first day of school. Were all thinking, wow, thats cool. Thats really, really cool. Then seconds later he blows the whole thing up, telling us, all Jefferson ever did with that knowledge was to bolster his case for the invasion of North Africa the good old, I know our enemy now routine. I guess the point of the lecture was how things never change, but thats not what I took away from it. Instead I bought a copy of the Quran that night and skipped class the next three days so I could finish reading it. I dont know. It just seemed like the right thing to do. She smiled. Shook her head again. Folded up her book and slipped it in her bag. Tea? she said. Please.

They cut a path down the sidewalk, past the Smithsonian and on into town. Prompting what turned out to be their only conversation en route, Abida asked him where he grew up.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Massapequa, he said. Wheres that? Its on Long Island. About a third of the way out. That explains why I havent heard of it before: Ive never been east of JFK. Yeah, well . . . theres not much reason to. Not unless you know someone. Whats it like there?

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Again that question. Someone asked it the night before, when everyone had gathered in the living room of Matts apartment and the roommate with glasses went to grab the bottle of Chilean Almaviva that kicked off the nights drinking. Matt stood there in the center of the circle with his hand on Digs shoulder, explaining in detail how the two of them knew each other, a story that retained a certain polish in spite of the long time that passed since last he told it. Yes sir, said Dig, at all the right moments, and in all the different capacities that the phrase could be applied, That was Massapequa High. All part and parcel with the same standard Long Island narrative: two straightlaced white boys born into a nexus of lawns and sprinklers a village in periods of pride, a suburb in times of derision, a small town in moments of technicality, and otherwise the simple and popularly unpronounceable Massapequa for which Manhattan functioned not as anything metropolitan but instead as a rich dessert, to be consumed only in moments of familial opulence, which of course was all the time; a Broadway show or a stroll through Central Park at the far end of a ninety-minute drive, dangled like a sugar beet in exchange for youthful obedience, and otherwise and at all other times Long Island . . . Massapequah . . . the passage of time . . . the two boys finding singular relief in the late night sibilance of a Taco Bells AC, and the hum of the motor of a Maxima or Suzuki cruising aimless circles through the blurred borderlands of Massapequa and Bellmore and Freeport, and the looming presence of the shopping mall that more and more resembled the keystone of existence, not for the sake of shopping but rather for the sake of staring and wandering, and growing so huge and monarchical in its rule that Manhattan and the

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city of New York, at the fringes of existence, found themselves demoted from dessert to sangria . . . the two boys meeting each other for the first time in 9th grade and knowing at a glance that their life experiences were sufficiently similar to veto the need for questions, and after that an even deeper foray into homogeneity, the same girls dated from the same part of Massapequa Park and the same Sublime songs blasted from the same pairs of headphones, and though there was never any shortage of drive among Dig and Matt and the people they knew, never a shortage of talent or imagination or even the opportunity for artistic expression, there was always that damn shopping mall and its stockade embrace, its magnetic centrality, daring the youngsters to venture somewhere else, daring the admission into evidence of a world where parking lots occupied less than 30% of the surface area of a given community, and Yeah, said Dig, that was Massapequa High. And then came graduation. Dig and his scholarship to Brooklyn College, and the hope that going there would make the city of New York less translucent. Matt and his scholarship to the University of Washington in Seattle, and the hope that going there would make the nation less translucent. And in the intervening summer, with no coherent game-plan, and both boys families at last deciding to be earnest about their opulence, Dig and Matt decided over Coors Light and a furious tournament of 007 on the Nintendo 64 (The World is Not Enough) that they might as well go to Africa. So we did, said Matt. And thats how we escaped the shopping mall, said Dig. Though not in so many words. Gotcha, said Abida. Id still like to see it. They found a coffee shop on the edge of Folger Square. The walls were golden and the air was fresh and Dave Matthews crooned Crash Into Me from an inconspicuous pair of speakers, his voice intermittently muffled by the blasts from the coffee machine. They ordered two chai teas with dashes of honey. Grabbed a table by the window. So tell me, said Dig. What brings you to the capital?

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN She shrugged. Stirred her tea. Id never been. I figured I was close enough I might as well go all the way. Theres a lot to see here, and Ive always wanted to see it.

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He stirred his own tea. Remembered how much he hated waiting. And stirring. So thats why youre here, he said. You made it sound like it was something complicated. It is. Im starting with the simple part. Ask me what my conference was about and youll see how much lengthier it gets. Okay, then: what was your conference about? Asra Nomani. Have you heard of her before? The name sounds familiar. Give me a second . . . She sipped her tea. Think Morgantown Mosque, she said. Of course, said Dig. In West Virginia, right? One of those random facts thats parading around in my head right before I leave my card in the ATM machine. You could do a lot worse, said Abida. Shes an incredible woman. Sure she is. Wasnt she the same person who helped organize . . . what was it . . . the first female-led prayer in Islamic history? The first public, mixed-gender prayer, yes. In New York, in 2005. By all accounts Im aware of, it was the first of its kind. But its Morgantown that shes famous for, at least as far as Im concerned. Do you remember the details? Vaguely, he said. They wouldnt let her walk through the front door of the mosque. Yeah, said Abida. A brand new mosque that her father helped build. Her father was on the board of trustees. And it was the president of the board who turned her away. She had to walk through a backdoor and into a balcony, where all the other women sat and prayed, partitioned from the men, this hip-high wall blocking their view of the sermon. And she refused? said Dig. She pulled a pink sheet of paper out of her bag and handed it to him. He looked at the title: An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques.

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You dont have to read it now, she said. The point is, she kept fighting back, even after thirty-five people voted to ban her from the mosque altogether. In the end, she organized a march; Asra Nomani and three of the smartest women in Islam. They walked up to the mosque, speaking the words that pilgrims always chant when theyre making the walk to Mecca. Which are? She sipped her tea. At your service, Oh Lord, she said. Here I come. How many marchers? Enough: they won. The leadership publicly reversed the ban and elected the first woman ever to the office. Needless to say, it got a lot of press. And the conference in Baltimore, said Dig. How was it connected? Keeping up the fight, she said. The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a report in 2000 that found that two out of three mosques in the United States required some kind of partition between the women and the men. I havent come across any statistics that would lead me to believe its changed since then. And yes, its a deeply-rooted tradition, and yes, in a lot of cases, theres nothing intentionally oppressive or discriminatory about it, but there are just way too many instances of the wall or curtain or whatever it is being abused by the imams and the umma to debase our women and to keep them down. Long story short, Ive come to the conclusion that it has to change. The conference was aimed at spreading awareness. Were you an organizer? No, not this time. The point of the conference was to help me get there. Me and the other women like me. And what kind of a woman are you? said Dig, well aware that this was his sixth question in a row. Abida laughed. A spoiled rich kid from Queens who finally got it through her head that it might be worth getting out there and making a difference, she said. What do you do? said Dig, for seven. I didnt ask you before.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN I havent done much of anything. I was a double-major in history and gender studies and I made it all the way through college thinking that would be enough. My

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parents paid for my first apartment and for a whole year after graduating all I did was sit around and read. Two, maybe three books a week. Id binge it. It was all I did. Glad to hear it. Did anything stand out? A lot did, she said. Read enough books, and the odds are in your favor. But along with Nomani, the one author that really lit a fire under me, and most made me want to be an activist, was this Muslim American professor from the Midwest. She writes about a phone call she got one day, from a womens shelter in her neighborhood. They needed someone who spoke Arabic to translate for a woman whod been beaten by her husband. Its not the story that sticks with me but the reasons she gives for consenting. The way she frames it, she was the only kind of Muslim who was suitable for the job. If it wasnt her, it would have been some fire-breathing conservative who would shame the beaten woman for speaking out against her husband and tell her to go back home as soon as possible and repent. Either that or some radical Western feminist who would blame the problem on Islam and yank off her veil. And the more she thought about it the author, I mean the less it felt like choice. The more it felt like duty. To Islam, yes, but most of all to herself. As a Muslim and a human being. And that was just one work out of many that made me feel like I had to do the same. You say that, said Dig, and yet just a second ago you told me that you havent done much of anything. Well, I havent. Not yet. And honestly, the prospect of doing something like this of trying to make real changes in my community is so daunting that I start wondering what I could even hope to accomplish. You can help all the brow-beaten women you want but in the end youre not doing anything, not as long as the Muslim faith is a casualty of war, caught between the extremes of self-perpetuated ignorance that powerhungry imbeciles have propagated all over the planet. She blushed and looked at her nails. And yes, she said. Ive worked on that sentence for at least the last month. He laughed.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Yeah, he said. Ive got a few of those too.

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She floated the prospect of a second cup. He told her yes, yes please. She returned and sat and was quiet again, and she cradled her cup in her hands. Ten grand for your thoughts? he said, having long abandoned the notion that a penny could suffice for products of that nature. Well, she said, I guess Im wondering what was going through your head when you offered to drive me. He faltered a moment. Given the warmth of their previous conversation, it wasnt a question hed expected. You needed help? he said, and wondered if he could have made the truth sound any less truthful. Her expression didnt change. I know, she said, but not everyone sees a gal like me and wants to put them in the shotgun seat, if you catch my drift. I catch your drift. Im just not sure Im drifting with it. Meaning you saw me and all you thought was, damselle in distress? Well, to be fair, I thought woman alone in a dark parking lot, but its a similar concept. And still not the concept I was going for. Im sorry. Wish I could be of more help. He sat back in his seat, his eyes open but his mind fishing, wondering if there was any way he could jump back to the Quran and his reading thereof, thinking maybe this detail would be enough to reconcile his willingness to help her with her apparent certainty that no one would ever be comfortable doing so. Im sorry, she said. I get stuck in a way of thinking. I get it with you. You get it? Yeah. I get you, I think. Could you explain it to me then? I cant say its something I ever got myself.

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She laughed, was quiet for a moment, and said, Mehram. You ever hear of that one? No. Sorry. Thats fine. A mehrams a man you travel with. If youre married, its your husband. If not, its your brother or your father or your cousin. . . someone you cant have relations with. Anyhow . . . theres an injunction out there that says its a sin to travel with anyone whos not a mehram. Im not calling it a Quranic injunction, because its not in the Quran. Like all the other brainwashing garbage in swathes of the Muslim world, it was something that started out as a cautionary measure to protect woman from harm, back in the old days, before three-hundred years of deliberate misreading twisted the whole thing into a shackle. I hate it like crazy, but its still a huge part of my thinking. Its the kind of mentality I was raised with. Not my parents, so much, but nearly every other Muslim I knew, including any imam I ever felt desperate enough to look to for guidance. Which made it really hard to get in my truck, said Dig. Which made it hard to think about anything except how much it would hurt when I burnt in Hell. Which made me feel like a hypocrite for preaching about reform. Which made me snap. Im sorry you caught the brunt of it. Funny thing is, he said, I hadnt even thought that far. I just thought, here you are a woman and here I am a man and arent you a little nervous getting into my truck. You know. Like any woman would be with any strange man. Yeah, well, there was that too. I get reckless sometimes. Im trying to be more careful. Were each a work in progress. Im glad you got here safe. They finished their tea, Dig noting the habit she had of continuing to sip from her cup long after the tea was gone. The coffee shop stuck with Dave Matthews until theyd played out the album, and then they switched to Blues Traveler, a mellow selection from the early years, when it was still about blues. So whats next for you? she said. New York, or someplace else? Interesting, he said. Why would you think someplace else?

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN She shrugged her shoulders. The way you talk about your truck, she said. Its like the two of you are plotting something. He thought about that. Youre right, he said. Im going to New Orleans. She sipped from her cup, no less empty. No less dry. Just to see it? she said. Yeah. To see the city. See the South. See as much as I can in between. Can I ask why? she said. He sipped in turn. Also empty. Just like before.

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I like Mark Twain too, he said. And Ive wanted to see that river for as long as I can remember. She smiled again, and somehow he knew, just by looking, that a jab was heading his way. As long as you can remember, she said. Why do I feel like a certain river is about to let you down? He tapped his fingers on the table, next to her book bag. Tell that to your author friend, he said. Hell ask you to leave the country.

Outside the building they stood for a time with their sunglasses off, looking each other in the eyes. She stood almost as tall as he did, the crown of her head level with the bridge of his nose. Her fingers long and slender and filled with an odd kind of energy. Well, Dig, she said, its been a pleasure. All mine. Thanks for the invitation. Thanks for the ride. And hey: good luck with the Great American South. I hear they pull you over in Mississippi if you look out of place. I know they do: thats what the pickups for. Itll help me blend in. He resisted the urge to shake her hand and instead opted for a weird and wimpy half-salute, and she laughed and waved, and he was a half a block away from her when he remembered her offer to walk through the Mall, and of course she was still visible

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when he turned back around the only woman in sight with a headscarf and boots but shed traveled too far for him to call out her name without feeling awkward, so he watched her until shed vanished from sight, and he went on alone. He entered the Mall at the edge of the pool, the Washington Monument casting a long and scary shadow on the afternoon grass. Families surrounded him. Insects sang from the bushes and branches. Joggers muddied the soil with their sweat. Dig laid down on his back and folded his arms behind his head, and he looked up at the clouds, and he found them shapeless and altogether plain. He thought about the night before how the last bar they went to had a theme that seemed so pronounced and yet so utterly indecipherable, and seduced the booze-busted quartet only by virtue of its empty counter and its relative spaciousness. He remembered going inside and sitting down, Matt singing Mr. Jones at the top of his voice and Carrie singing next to him, glancing at her watch whenever she had a break, planning for the inevitable moment when the trains would stop running and shed have to FedEx the crooning maestro back home in the hind-seat of a cab. Dig ordered a shot of Jameson and a full draught of Guinness, and he swallowed the shot and turned to the full-figured red-head sitting next to him the friend of a friend of a friend, whose introduction to Dig was one of Matts top-billed events of the evening and said Hi. Im Dig. Thought Id introduce myself now that weve finally found a bar where I can hear myself think. And she said Hi. Im Rachel. And he asked her if it was true, the part about her working at the Air and Space Museum, and she said Yeah, More air than space, and she asked him if it was true, the part about him and Matt crossing Rwanda in the back of a flatbed pickup, and Dig said, Yeah, thats true too, and Dig said, Tell me something: do you ever wonder how many people were burning to death in Vietnam at the exact moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, and Rachel said, No, not really, but Carrie was telling me you went there. Vietnam, I mean, and Dig said, Yeah, I studied abroad there, but please, they already asked me about Africa tonight. I can only discuss so many of my privileged adventures before I start feeling like a prick.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN So they talked about family. And they talked about despair. And Carrie hauled

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Matt out the doorway at one oclock, Matt telling her how beautiful she was, and Carrie telling Dig and Rachel to be safe, and to call her on her cell if they had any problems, and Rachel said, Hey, lets check out the Mall, and Dig said Now? And Rachel said, Of course, and the two of them ran free, leaving behind the confederation of empty glasses whose perfunctory execution had blurred the lines between passion and wreckage, out into the bosom of the cool summer night, out through the blocks and the empty shutdown city and into the massive sprawling quadrangle of grass, void of all traffic, and almost of humanity. Running free to the place where the ghost-light of Capitol Building fell unchallenged on the lawn. Dark and open and warm. I have a bottle of wine in my purse, said Rachel, so they split it among themselves, bleeding Shiraz into their footsteps. Fermenting a lilt. They crossed the lawn from end to end, laughing, tipping the bottle to the sky, to the figments of a nation. They skipped up the hill to the Washington Monument and spread their arms to the stone and looked skyward, the confluence of booze and perspective collapsing the spire into unexpected dwarfism. Running again toward the White House, and contracting en route the irascible urge to cling to bars, to rally against cages, Dig slipped from his jacket the flask of Jack Daniels, and shouted to Rachel as he stumbled against the fence, Behold, fair maid, I mix my poison! and he drank from it slowly, rinsing out his mouth, staring at the White House fountain and the marble behind it, and wondering how far hed make it if he slipped through the fence and took off sprinting toward the entrance as fast as he could go. The dream died before his speculations could catch up with it, and he left it unburied, and with Rachel at his side and the Jack setting in Jack and Co., the fastacting and earnest Shiraz and the brow-beating Guinness and the unforgotten Jameson, all three shots of it he came at last to Lincoln Memorial, thoughts and words merging, speaker and audience. Here I am, he thought amused, as always, at the degree to which even the notional tongue could slur. Here in the looming spectral silence of this default darling of

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN history whose most corporeal accomplishment was the codified gestation of a war, a

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raging bloodthirsty conflict between the North of my coming and the South to which Im bound, in whose great silent house I stand drunken on every mode of poison, watching the massive marble figure glare at me through my inebriation as I endeavor to the best of my abilities to read the Gettysburg Address. As if I couldnt recite it in my sleep. Feeling like Im lurking somewhere in the center of the apex of hypocrisy and loving every moment of it because Im drunk. My favorite state of being. He stumbled in the shadows, Abe and Rachel and the signs demanding silence that stood by the door all forming the perfect triad of softness, of non-intrusion, and then everything swooped into ionized darkness. Four score and seven.

He bobbed awake and found himself sitting on the steps of the Memorial, looking back across the Mall, his vision clear in a way that suggested something must have changed. Something must have vacated his body and left itself on the steps. The stars so clear now. The moon so clear. The remembered conversation of Neil Armstrong and the war in Vietnam. Vietnam. Five whole months in Vietnam. I got there, he said, and left the there unspoken, and I thought the war would just suck up my mind. That the ward be all I could think of. How fucked it would be to just stroll through the streets and have people wave at me and smile when men back home cant even stand to hear the name of that country spoken, and fuck-all if I didnt feel anything at all. Just people waving. Just people on their bikes. And the more I kept looking, the funnier it got. Cause Im travelin the world and yet lookin for this. Just looking for fucking America! And Rachel nodded and put her arm around his shoulder.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN You wear me out, she said. And she took him by the hand and led him away. Back to the cab. Into the house. His cell phone ringing in the darkness a full twelve hours later. Snapping him into full awareness of his living death.

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~3~

She called him again at half-past three the following afternoon. He was sitting on the sofa with the Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques, reading off the bright pink pamphlet shed handed him the day before. Women have an Islamic right to enter a mosque. Women have an Islamic right to enter through the main door. Women have an Islamic right to visual and auditory access to the leader of prayer. Hello? he said, picking up his phone. Hi, Dig. Its Abida again. Im so sorry to bother you. No bother, he said. Is everything all right? Yes. Fine. Everything is fine. I have a proposition for you. If you have time. Yeah, sure, he said, sitting up on the sofa, self-conscious of the loudness of his voice in spite of being alone at the apartment. Yeah, I was just doing some reading. Matts out for the day. Youre still in DC, she said. It sounded like she was trying to catch her breath, like shed run a long distance in her effort to get to the phone. Dig, she said. Dig . . . Id like to go with you. Id like to come along. Where? To the South?

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Yeah. To New Orleans, if possible, but if not that, then as far as you can stand me. In return, Ill pay for the gas all of it. Ill pay for the hotels too. And the food. And anything we do on the side, I could probably pay for that also.

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Now hold on! said Dig. Just a second, all right? Where are you getting all this money? She laughed. I love it, she said. He asks about the money. Another breath, heavy and ragged. Abida, he said. Are you sure youre okay? Breath. Silence. Breath. Yeah, she said. Can I please come over? Here? he said. The apartment? Yeah. If I can. If its not too much trouble. If that wouldnt scare you, you know. Me wanting to come over. I just dont like phones. I never have. Its just better if I talk face to face. Okay, sure, he said, but its raining, and he looked out the window, to factcheck his words. It is, she said. I can take it. You sure? Im sure. Okay. Its the red line. Just get on the subway, pick out the red . . . He faltered, the bizareness of the moment threatening to swamp him. Look, he said. Are you sure youre I am, she said. Just tell me where to go. He gave her the stop. She knocked within the hour. He opened the door and she swept inside. She giggled and thanked him, and went straight to the bookcase in the corner. Amazing, she said. Are these all yours? I wish. Its not my apartment. Right, she said. Forgot.

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She grabbed a hardbound volume of Rumi from the top shelf. She seemed almost to buckle beneath the weight of it. Amazing, she said, spreading the pages. This is beautiful. As in, amazing. This is the best collection Ive seen. Yeah, said Dig. Hes really outstanding. Can I get you something? Some tea, maybe? No thanks, she said. Ive had enough tea. But thank you. Seriously thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Its fine, he said. Anytime. Im just a little worried. Thats all. Dont be! Im thrilled. Okay. Then I guess were good. Cool, she said. You see, my parents are rich. She put the book back on the shelf, and paused just long enough for Dig to wonder what the wealth of her parents had to do with anything, then realized shed unceremoniously jumped back to the question hed asked on the phone. The question about money. Really rich, she said. Theyve been throwing money at me since the day I was born. And if thats the way its going to be if thats the kind of resources Im going to have at my disposal I might as well start spending it on something meaningful. And that something meaningful . . . thats the one thing Ive spent most of my life avoiding. But Abida . . . Im sorry if Im being slow here, but . . . Im just driving, you know. Im just . . . She glanced at the shelf again, then shot to the window and looked outside, as if trying to ward off some intangible gravity that the shelf exacted on her. Look, she said, turning back to Dig, leaning on the windowsill, her fingers tensed. A creature that poised itself to spring. One of these days Im going to find myself in Mecca, she said, standing in front of the kabala, and I want to do it sooner instead of later, when Im still fresh enough to know what Hajj is about, but the thing is, Im one of those screw-ball Muslims who feels like its not just a matter of walking up to the stone; its a matter of what you bring with you. Where you come from. What you are. And as far as those last two are

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN concerned, the only identity I can claim is Muslim from Astoria. Call me crazy, but thats not enough for me. Im also an American, from America. And it occurred to me after speaking with you yesterday that I She stopped again for breath. God, thought Dig. Shes really talking fast. it occurred to me that I have no idea what that means. And I want to know, Dig! Ive been living in this country for twenty-one years and this right here is the

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farthest Ive been from New York. I want to know America! Whether I love it or hate it I want to know what it is! In Saudi Arabia when they come at me with their cheap-shot America bashing, I want to be able to bash them back; something informed and knowledgeable that will blow all their preconceived notions out the window. And what better place to kick off my education than the American South, traveling with a man I can trust, who respects my right to prayer, and knows enough about my faith to not start harassing me about why I dont believe in Jesus?! She raised her head and caught his gaze. You know we believe in him, right? she said. Yes, said Dig. He tried to steal the moment, to interject something that exceeded a syllable in length, but before he could do so she was off and running again. And thats not all thats down there, she said. There are also mosques! Tons and tons of mosques! And not just in Morgantown, but in Atlanta, and Birmingham, and . . . and all over the country! What better opportunity could I ask for to discover how my fellow Muslims live; how each individual Islamic community experiences America? And not only that, but what better chance to continue the work of people like Nomani; to see how women are treated in mosques and try to spread awareness of their rights as Muslims? Its perfect, Dig! Its a mission! Its fulfillment! Its a chance to go to Mecca and really feel like Im bringing something vital to the circle! She coughed abruptly. She turned back to the bookshelf. And yeah, like I said, Ill pay for everything. Hold on a second, he said again. Just . . . just hold on. Of course! Im sorry. No, no! Dont be sorry! Its just . . . . Abida, are you sure youre okay?

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Her panting stopped. Yeah, Im okay, she said. Why wouldnt I be? Well, because . . . Never mind. Okay, look . . . can we sit down? She laughed. Yeah, she said. That. That sitting thing. We can do that. Sure. She laughed and wrapped her arms around her chest, then turned and dropped immediately to the sofa, as if someone had just kicked the legs out from under her. Dig grabbed a cautious recliner, some six feet away. He studied her face. She studied the ceiling. Okay, he said. Lets think about this for a second. For starters. . . I was planning on camping. Thats fine. Ill buy a tent. Are you sure? Yes. Absolutely sure. You should see Mecca during Hajj: the tents go for miles. Ill try to book a room when I go there, but with everyone else trying to do the same thing . . . Lets just say I should probably get used to camping.

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Okay, cool. But thats not all of it. The trip . . . well, its not exactly going to be the lap of luxury, let me put it that way. Most of the time I cook my own food. I stop to eat at pullouts on the side of the road. I might pull over and go for a hike, spur of the moment, if I see a spot that looks inviting. And Im fine with that, Dig. At least, Im willing to try. God forbid that I ever become the kind of Muslima that perpetuates all those stereotypes of fragility and meekness, and if its my destiny in life to be a city girl, I dont want anyone saying I went down without a fight. Seriously, Dig: I want to learn. He faltered in his reply, sensing in her voice a quality not of desperation so much as a misfit bliss. Okay, he said. Thats great. Really. But theres one other thing. Its . . . You want to be alone? I respect that, of course! Just say the word. Its your trip. Your game plan. I dont want to intrude. Truth be known, said Dig, and knew it as truth, even as he spoke it, I could use the company. Its more a matter of . . . how can I put it . . .

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN (Honestly, perhaps? You already know how shes going to react.) People down there, he said. I dont know how well theyd respond to . . . ah . . . To a terrorist, she said. Or no! Better yet, to the wife of a terrorist! Excuse me? She laughed. Hugged herself again. He noticed, for the first time, how the rain had soaked her shoes. Its like what they teach kids in wilderness training, she said. The one thing worse than a bear is a bear cub, because where theres a bear cub, theres bound to be a

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mom. Or in my case, an angry husband with AK47s and a bomb strapped to his chest. I can never tell if youre joking or not. Well, that makes two of us. In any case, I know what youre talking about. I know what to expect. And youre okay with that? Its not a matter of being okay or not. Its a matter of principle. This is my country. I can go where I want. But seriously . . . I know, where the South is concerned, that Ive got some stereotypes of my own, but . . . seriously. It could really get bad. Dig, she said, leaning forward in the couch, I went through 9/11, okay? In New York City. I got egged at the entrance of my high school. If I can stomach that out, I can stomach out this, and if they try to make it tough for me . . . I know a thing or two about the Bible. Theres a passage or two I can draw from thatll stop them in their tracks. He glanced around the perimeter of the apartment. Matt and his roommates were off working in the city. There was no one to turn to for guidance or advice but the angles of the book case. The stains on the rug. The offkilter vein in the middle of the blinds. Wow, he said. You really want to do this, dont you? Yeah. I really do. I might go so far as to say its my calling, but that wouldnt mean much to you. I know you dont believe.

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You dont know that at all, he said, the sting of her assumption prompting for the first time since her arrival an emotion distinct from confusion. Im sorry, she said. I didnt mean it as an insult. I know you didnt. Its just not true. Talk to me a little. Ive got belief dripping out my ears. Then you can tell me about it on the ride. Unless, of course, you want to travel alone. I did, he thought, with something resembling amusement. I did until this morning. Until this morning, I wanted to travel alone. Can you give me a couple of hours? he said. Take as long as you want. Ill be at my hotel. Okay, he said. Okay. She sank back on the couch. She let all the air drain out of her, and with it went all visible signs of the tensions she carried. Her longing to pounce. The pull of the book-shelf. Im alone with you, she said. What am I doing? He pressed on the floor with his heels. His chair scooted backwards the length of a wheel. Talking? said Dig. Yeah, she said. Talking.

Ten minutes after she left the room he called her and warned her that hed probably be drinking on the trip. Do what you want, she said. But thats one thing I wont pay for. Good, he said, and tossed the phone on the sofa.

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~4~

A pair of unmatched Walmart tents sat together at odd angles on a sparsely populated shelf, shoved in between a sleeping bag and a camp stove, all three labeled with the same image: a smiling family and a purebred dog. Seriously, said Dig. Im sure there are some mountaineering stores around here somewhere. These tents arent really what Id call quality. I dont know, Dig . . . If I put off our departure too long, I might lose my nerve. Really? Your resolves that fragile? No. I guess Im just that anxious to be on the road. Whats wrong with these tents, anyway? Well, for starters, theyre awfully thick and heavy for their size, and they dont pack down very well, so they take up a lot more room than they should. Second, they dont come with stuff sacks. Youre stuck with these cases he tapped the nearest one for emphasis which are big and awkward and dont fit that well into backpacks. The tents dont fit that well into the cases either. It can turn into a bit of a nightmare. Sounds like youre speaking from personal experience. Yeah, just a bit: this is the kind of tent Matt and I used when we went to Africa. It took us until the third day just to figure out how to get it in the case, and that was only because Matt was a math major, and could figure out how to fold the thing into fifths, or something ridiculous like that.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Did it keep you dry at least? Well . . . yeah, I guess it did, but thats not the only thing you need to worry about with a tent.

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It might be the only thing that matters on this trip: Im not planning on carrying it anywhere, and if we cant figure out how to fold it, well just toss it in the back of the truck. I can always buy a new one if this one drives me crazy. I guess so. All right, then: lets talk about sleeping bags. And they did, with a similar outcome. Just be glad its my truck thats doing all the heavy lifting, said Dig. Oh, believe me, I am. They crossed to other side of the aisle. Dig gestured to the display. So how do you feel about this stuff? What, bug spray? Yeah. Have you ever used it before? She laughed. Where would I have needed it? she said. Astoria Park? Hey, dont knock it till youve suffered it: New Yorks got some of the worst mosquitoes Ive ever seen. You dont know it until youre visiting some friend in the city who lives next to a construction site, especially if its right before the rain. Ill take that as a no, though. Yeah. That was a no. She picked up a bottle of Muskol and studied it at close range, and turned it around to examine the label. Think itll mess up my complexion? she said. It wasnt the implied note of vanity that impressed him, though it might have done so once upon a time, when caricatures of Muslim women still plodded through his thoughts in unadorned austerity, when he was unaware of Irans status as the nose-job capital of the world or the presence of lacy lingerie shops in Mecca or Medina. Rather, it was her frankness about it that stood out to him. She was not, it seemed, the kind of girl to mince words.

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To be honest, he said, I have no idea. But Ill tell you one thing: bug bites will mess it up worse. Will they be that bad? Hard to say. When we get down into the bayou country, I feel like theyll have to be. Theres one thing I can tell you for sure, though, he added, examining the unbroken blackness of her attire that day, trying to predict without success whether the following would seem insensitive, the darker the colors youre wearing, the more likely the mosquitoes are to swarm you. Thats just my experience, anyway. It probably counts for more than mine. Will I be all right with the blue I had on yesterday? I only have three changes of clothes. That struck him as a bit on the scant side, and he found himself wondering again, belatedly just why she chose to travel with such a small bag. Yeah, probably, he said. I guess you could buy some more clothes too, you know . . .while youre here. I guess I could. Ill do that part alone, though, if you dont mind. No. I dont mind. And I guess theres no harm in buying the spray, you know. Might as well. She laughed. Do you have any idea how obvious it is when youre nervous? she said. I guess not. Okay, then. Well work on that. See you in a few. She left him holding the bottle. In the twenty or so minutes she was gone he strolled through the sporting goods section and wondered what products he would look at if he were capable of concentrating on sporting. He gravitated toward the gun display, which sat adjacent to a shelf of basketballs. The guns consisted entirely of rifles, and not one of them exceeded a cost of $300, including the one with the scope. He looked at the rifle with the camo body a bolt-action 243 and he found himself thinking of the jungles hed seen, both at home and abroad. The complexity of

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN color and verdancy. The ease with which the forest could swallow any hue of a muted nature. Void it of being. Theyd mounted a map of America on the spine of the gun rack, color-coded to

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show which residents of which states could buy guns in Virginia. He looked at the map and pondered the apparent randomness of the affair: how Alaskans could buy guns in Virginia but Pennsylvanians could not. How Wyoming residents could buy guns in Virginia but Californians could not. How New Yorkers could buy guns in Virginia but only with a permit and only (or so it seemed) at certain times of the year. Then he looked beyond the colors, at the borders of the states and the look of the map itself. Without thinking he reached out his finger and traced a line from New York City to Virginia. Down through Tennessee and Alabama and Mississippi and the stop-all Atlantic. To New Orleans. He caught himself pointing, and without questioning where his mind was headed he decided to run with it. He drew another line from east to west, along the northern borders of Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. Then back east again. Then west. Investing in our defense? said Abida. She stood at a respectful distance, a bulging plastic bag in her hand. Nah, said Dig, smiling. Just looking at the map. Wondering what it would have looked like if theyd won. The Confederacy, I mean. Thats right, she said. You were a history major too. Was and am. Quite chronic, actually: the amount of times I find myself doing stuff like this is embarrassing. Its an interesting exercise. Borders get fixed in our minds and we forget how totally haphazard they are. She walked up beside him and looked at the guns. Ever fired one before? she asked. No, never did. My friend Matt, the one Im staying with, he got into it while he was living in Seattle. He and his college buddies would go deer hunting up in the Cascades. I think he even got a kill in once. She nodded. Crossed her free arm in front of her.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN I wonder what it would feel like, she said. Pulling the trigger. Heck if I know. Just looking down the barrel of a gun is too much for me. I dont think Id ever be able to fire one. I think I could, she said. At least, Ive always felt like I could. It would depend on the circumstances, of course, but . . . She giggled. What? No, its just . . . Thereve been times Ive thought about becoming a cop. No kidding! NYPD? Straight up. Age fifteen to sixteen it was something I dreamed about. My

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parents said theyd shun me if I ever mentioned it outside the family, which yes, youve guessed it was probably the reason I thought about it so much. Not that I ever rebelled against my parents all that often, but you know . . . every once in a while, it was fun to dig a spur in. Its kind of the American Way. How about now? You still see yourself with a badge? Well, in my fantasy, I was always what youd call a plainclothesman. If I ever went out for it, thats how Id want it to be. I havent thought about it much anymore, except maybe once or twice during that year of reading. The Year of Reading, said Dig. Dont you love how many periods of our lives we can sum up like that? Oh yeah. Its great. It doesnt make me feel melodramatic at all. They chuckled in turn. Dig grabbed the tent and the sleeping bag and asked her if she needed anything else. I dont know, she said. Any suggestions? Just your carrying bag, he said, deciding to risk it. Do you want to pick up something bigger? She looked at the bag that hung from her shoulder. Shed refused to leave it in the truck, and Dig watched her as she carried it through the Wal-Mart, all the way from the battery pack section to the camp-stove fuel, the bags subtle, pendulum-like motions bumping against her body.

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We could, I guess, she said. Theres just something about this one . . . Its . . . I dont know. Its hard to say. Abida Khaleel at a loss for words. This has to be a first. If only. She looked at the bag again. The first time I left home, she said, when I moved into my apartment, this bag was all I had. Inside I had a change of clothes, some basic cosmetics, and my Quran. A rich kids foray into humble living. And yeah: the experiment lasted three days before I fled to Ikea and splurged on the cheapest dresser-and-television combo I could find, but still . . . something about that departure, and having this bag on my shoulder and nothing else . . . It gave me a bit of a rush. Can I guess where this is going? said Dig, feeling a rush of his own, the sense of going out on a limb and no longer being able to fool himself into thinking Abida wouldnt notice him balancing there. Sure, Abida said. When you got on the bus to head down to Baltimore, you felt that rush again. All you had was your bag. And part of you wants to keep it that way. She laughed and lifted up the shopping bag for him to examine. Clearly, abstinence is not my strong suit, she said. But yeah, you pretty much hit it. As long as this bag is the only one Ive got, I can still hang onto a part of that feeling. Its a feeling I really enjoy. So I guessed right? said Dig. She laughed again and nodded. Not bad, she said. Not bad for a Long Island boy. Are you sure history was your only degree? What else would there have been? said Dig. A B.A. in Sniffing Out Neuroses that You Yourself Are Prone To? Dont they call that psychology? And Dig laughed as well, but his mind was no longer on the conversation. When shed lifted up the shopping bag, the shoulder bag had swung against her hip and it suddenly occurred to him watching its movements for the twentieth or

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN thirtieth time that there was something heavy inside. Hed seen the prayer rug, and shed mentioned a moment ago that there were three changes of clothes with her. The

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bag was barely large enough to fit anything beyond that, and yet the way it was swinging, there had to be something else. Something compact and heavy, and yet bigger than a laptop. At once consumed by the mystery, and more than a little disturbed by his own obsession, he cleared his throat and said, by way of breaking the tension, So I guess my trucks doing all the heavy lifting again. Fine! But dont expect it to like you. How very animist of you, said Abida. And you call yourself a non-believer! Not at all, said Dig. Refer to my earlier comment. Noted, said Abida. Ive got belief dripping out my ears. I cant wait to hear about it. No. I dont think you can. Outside the store she looked at her watch and told him it was time to pray again. Do you know if theres a park anywhere nearby? she said. Sure, he said, running his hands through his hair. Well drive around a little. See what we can find.

While he drove around, while he parked, while he waited for her to finish, he found his thoughts drifting back to a Saturday morning in his early adolescence when he slept in late and decided to be angry. It was his thirteenth Third of July, and the library was closing early, the same way it always did before the holiday, and hed thrown on his clothes and raced out the door and sprinted the last few block to the library entrance to ensure that hed get there on time. Hed gone to the movie section and checked out every war film he could lay his hands on, and when he got back home again he hooked up his tape deck to his VCR and skimmed through the movies from start to finish, stopping whenever a battle scene erupted so he could record the sound of the gunfire.

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He kept it up for all of the week that followed until hed filled up a sixty-minute cassette, recording the scenes as close to one another as possible, to avoid any breaks in the mayhem. He played the tape on his Walkman every morning and every night, speculating on a date that was no doubt soon in coming when he could parse out the Kalashnikov from the M16s, the chain guns from the Gatlings, the bazookas from the Panzerschrecks, and he wondered how hed feel about it all. If his expertise in gunfire would perhaps destroy the magic of listening. If maybe it was better to leave the matter ambiguous. Keep on with enthrallment, awash in the music of the ushers.

The sound of Abida opening the passenger door snapped him back to the present. They were sitting alongside a renovated city square that didnt show up on the map, and that lacked any visible signposts to clarify the mystery of its name. It boasted a patch of grass and a rose bush and a single lonely cherry tree, and Abida prayed on the side of the tree that faced the sun while Dig watched the street and remembered. You good? he asked, when she climbed in the cab. Of course, said Abida, fastening her seatbelt. I was just in the presence of God. She adjusted her sunglasses. Stuck a piece of gum in her mouth. All right, she said. Lets see what kind of damage we can do.

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~5~

By late afternoon, they were speeding southwest through the farmlands of Virginia, headed for the Blue Ridge Mountains. Are you sure you dont want to go to Morgantown? said Dig, as they approached an intersection. Yeah, Im sure, said Abida. Its close enough to New York where I could go there some other time if I wanted to. Right now, I just want to go south. She had her window rolled down all the way, the wind blasting in her face, her fingers drumming on the body of the truck. Dig had his window down too. The air outside smelled like earth and dust and hay and jungle, and the sun beat down on the asphalt, on its crooked serpentine patterns of tar and scabbing. Of shifty erosion. The weathered green signs that whizzed by on their right said Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway, and even without this periodic reminder, it seemed to Dig as if the landscape were in a perpetual state of outcry. The soil still rich with the memory of blood. Every tree and hill and gully bearing out the textured virtuosity of cannon balls and chain gun fire. Sweaty palms and fingers carving auditory scars on the landscape with their crank crank cranks on the chain gun winch. Beards and coats and uniforms both gray and blue all soaked in the stink of the unwashed and the first latent strains of the Unforgetting, and older still the crack of the whip and the choking hovering

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN pathology of cotton. A land overwhelmed with sensory assault, and at once knowable and unmistakable for the northern visitor and his anticipated pageantry. At once his nation. At once his own. I cant believe Im doing this, said Abida. I just cant believe were going. I know, said Dig. Feels good, doesnt it?

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Feels amazing. Thank you so much for taking me. I mean, seriously: so much. Hey, buy me some authentic roasted peanuts in Mississippi and were all even. Mississippi? I thought Georgia was the peanut hub of America. Were New Yorkers, Abida. Do you really think wed notice the difference? She laughed louder and harder than he expected her too, but he felt much too buoyant for the strangeness of it to bother him. I just cant wait for the crawfish, she said, recovering. Ive never had it before, but the way Twain writes about it, I have to put the book down sometimes or else I start feeling faint. Yeah. Twains a jerk that way. You still enjoying his work? Loving it. Can I read you a passage? You can read me the whole freaking book. Read me twenty books. Read me . . . Good Lord, Abida . . . I feel like I could fly. He meant it, too; the metaphoric nature of the words diminished almost to the point of irrelevance. He saw the cab of the truck splitting, the highway breaking, the Earth rising up and chucking him skyward, wildly at ease. Its Reverence, said Abida. Call it what you like, but thats what it is. I mean . . . just smell it out there. Just smell the earth out there. Its Reverence, Dig. Reverence. She fished out the book and spread it on her lap, and again seemed to tremble, to bow down and quiver, as shed bowed down with Rumi. By the way, she said, This is Huckleberry Finn. Lovely, said Dig. She breathed deep and read.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN . . . a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the

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rivers softened up, away off, and warent black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks rafts; sometimes you could a hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far. . . He goes on for a bit in that vein, she said, turning to the next page, tracing with her finger for a spot to land on, but heres the part I love. She tapped the page. . . . Next youd see a raft sliding by, away off yonder, and maybe a galoot on it chopping, because theyre almost always doing it on a raft; youd see the axe flash, and come down you dont hear nothing; you see that axe go back up again, and by the time its above the mans head, then you hear the kchunk! it had took all that time to come over the water. So we would put in the day, lazying around, listening to the stillness . . . She set the book down and looked up at the roof, her hands folded behind her neck. So what is it you love best? he said. The part with the axe? The part with the axe. The fact that an author any author could love an everyday phenomenon so strongly that hed blow three pages describing it. That you can read that passage and be absolutely certain that hes lived it, that its his own personal experience. That hes so in love with the sound of everything that he spends an entire day listening, even when theres nothing to listen to. Yeah. There are a lot of things I love about that passage. How about his love for the river? The Old Miss herself? She smiled. Again, she said, it was a case of Reverence. There are those out there whod call it severe. And those out there whod call it idolatry, he said. Or am I off-base? Depends on who you ask. You ask my dad, hed say yeah. Most certainly. You ask me . . . Id say Twain found God without knowing it. A pagan by ignorance. Id be stepping way out of line to say this with any kind of conviction, but just the same . . . I feel pretty certain God forgave him in the end.

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Unlike those poor misguided rejecters of God who believe in humanity instead. She shot him a look of confusion. Thats the answer to your question from yesterday, he said. I believe in humanity. Just not God. So . . . you are an atheist? she said. I guess so, yeah. But I believe very much in the species. She laughed and turned back to the window. You realize, of course, that to my ears, that sounds like a blatant contradiction. Of course, he said. Contradictions are my passion. Arent they yours? She nodded, still chewing her gum. Yeah, she said. After a fashion. He coughed a little, a tiny bolt of lightning busting through his head. He adjusted his glasses. Anyway, she said. Im glad we got that out. Touch. Now read that again. And this time, I really want to hear that axe. She read it again. They talked about the river. They never stopped smiling, not even on the subject of God.

They stopped in the town of Front Royal on the edge of Shenandoah National Park. The clock said 7:41 and the sun hung low in the sky, not quite at sunset levels, but getting there fast. They stopped in the empty parking lot of a Holiday Inn. Dig killed the motor and let his head sink down against the back of his seat. Im sorry, said Abida, her blackberry in her hands. Im still new at these things. Im not quite at the point where I can mapquest on the fly. Thats all right. Im a nervous driver, if you havent noticed. Any and all breaks are welcome. How you holding up? Fine, fine. Just get a little food in me and Im golden.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Me too. Some quality food. Something befitting of a first night out. He fought the urge to ask her for the third time if she was ready for it. Not for the food, but for the dining. At first glance, Front Royal was just another roadside distraction, a wide spot in

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Highway 340, its Holiday Inn and its Subway and its Burger King rendering it indistinct from every other wide spot in America, but Dig had a feeling that it would change as soon as they got off 340 and moved into the heart of the town; that it might have the potential to be everything he expected. A half hour earlier, his thoughts running along a similar track, Dig had asked her (his second time asking) if she was sure she was ready. Are you kidding? she said. The way Im feeling right now, I could take on every redneck in the world. And how are you feeling right now? he asked. She laughed. Like a cop with a gun. A cop who knows how to use it. So they sat in the lot of the Holiday Inn. She thumbed through Google in search of perfection.

The Soul Mountain Restaurant and Bar was alluring by name alone. Dig asked her to check the reviews. She did. They all came up positive, save for one lonely voice of dissent that complained about the wait time. Dig explained to Abida how this was the one comment in the whole lexicon of restaurant criticism that was least likely dissuade him. Abida concurred, so they gave it a try. They crossed over 340 and drove through a brief section of vine-choked houses and overgrown backyards before coming to the center of town, a semi-active main street with shops on either side. Dig saw the restaurant they were looking for. There was a city park adjacent to it, with a public parking lot, an old locomotive engine that sat alone in the grass, and a quartet of eight-to-ten-year-old boys whod gagged a young girl and tied her to the trunk

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of a tree. The girl watched her captors with a look of extreme boredom, and would have glanced at her watch if her hands hadnt been strapped to the bark. Dig got out and stretched his legs. Abida crossed over to the patch of grass where the engine sat. Dig watched her go: a column of blackness moving away into green and gold and asphalt gray. The boys stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at her. The girls eyes got wide, but the gag on her mouth stopped her from gaping. Elsewhere, a small knot of teens hung out in the back of a flatbed pickup listening to Beyonce. Dig watched as the solitary woman in the bunch tapped one of her comrades on the shoulder and pointed. The conversation cut off instantly. The shoulder-tapped comrade grabbed the brim of his baseball cap and switched it from backwards to forwards, and tipped the brim down low so that his eyes were in the shade. He raised the bottle of Pepsi to his lips and sipped it with a slowness that could almost be felt. Dig crossed the lot and waved at the gang as he passed. The girl in the truck waved back nervously but the kid with the Coke just kept on looking at Abida, and didnt acknowledge Digs presence. One of the young boys with the rope said, Hey mister, in a tone Dig couldnt decipher. Dig waved again. The boy waved back. A thin concrete median at the end of the lot shielded the grass from errant tire tracks. Abida stood just shy of the grass line, her eyes on the engine, its wheels resting on a pair of tracks that ran thirty-odd feet on either side, as if to tempt the train into one last delusion of mobility. Typical New Yorker, said Abida. I get to Virginia and the first thing I gawk at is a train.

They stepped through the front door of the restaurant and were greeted first by a blast of air conditioning and second by a pot-bellied waiter in T-shirt and shorts, a burgundy-colored menu tucked beneath his arm. Howdy, he said. Where yall comin from? Dig glanced at Abida.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN New York, he said.

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Right, right, said the waiter. We see yall down here quite a bit these days. All coming down to see the park, you know. Real nice this time of year. Where can I seat you? Wed like to sit outside, if thats all right, said Dig, gesturing toward the Al Fresco section of the restaurant, accessible only by way of the interior. The waiter looked at Abida, and gestured, in turn, to a table by the kitchen. You sure you dont want to sit in here? he said. Its mighty hot out there by the sidewalk. Thats all right, said Abida. Wed like to sit outside. The waiter led them across the room and through the door that led back to the street. He left them with their menus and said hed come back with water. Dig settled down in his seat. The seat had a wicker base, and obvious signs of craftsmanship. How you doing? said Dig. Fine, said Abida, her arm resting on the partition that separated the dining area from the sidewalk. You dont always have to ask me that, you know. I know. Compassions a bad habit of mine. No. I mean, you dont have anything to worry about. She spread her hands. Im in Virginia, she said, and its a beautiful day. Then she smiled and said, By the way, can I ask where were sleeping tonight? To be honest, he said, I hadnt given the matter all that much thought. Theres probably a cheap hotel somewhere in town, if you want to grab something now. How about camping? Well . . . yeah, he said. Yeah, we could do that too. The parks just ten minutes away from here. Im sure we could camp there, if you want to. I want to, said Abida. My mood is perfect. Theres no beating that, said Dig, and he looked across the street to where an old woman in a walker had arrested her progress to stare in their direction and suck quietly at her gums.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN The waiter came back with a notepad in his hand and a smile on his face that didnt quite seem natural. Dig ordered marinated breast of chicken with garlic infused

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penne. Abida ordered a spring vegetable wrap with basil pesto. Both orders came with fries. You like fries? said Dig. I do right now, said Abida. She grinned and breathed deeply. Seriously, Dig: thank you so much for taking me.

When the food came they slipped into a lull, Dig lost in the richness and complexity of the flavor and Abida (presumably) feeling something of the same. It was balmy outside the waiter had been right about that much and after several bites of the steaming hot food Dig could feel the sweat working down his face and into the margins of his meal; the garlic infused penne infused not only with garlic but also with water and salt and remnants of the mornings cologne. Abida sweated also, but she didnt seem aware of it. Her mode of dining had an almost military precision, every slide of the knife and dig of the fork calculated and acute, and yet also graceful . . . no real sense of pleasure lost, nor even a sense of pleasure subdued. How are we doing on gas? she asked. All right, said Dig. We should probably fill up at some point in the next twenty miles. Let me know when were getting close. I want to try my hand at the pump. Youve never pumped gas before? Oh, sure I have. Im a regular grease monkey. Cant you tell from my hands? He ate to the bottom of his plate and moved out to the sides, and when the food was gone he sat for a moment in silence, basking in the sunshine and the smell of more food to come, feeling as he often did that mild sense of panic that came with the awareness of something miraculous; something so sublimely wonderful that hed never be able to convey it to a fellow human being, not for all the eloquence of literature.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Except that Abida was with him, and he could tell by the look on her face that

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shed suffered a similar ordeal, and this rescued the experience from its otherwise solitary character. Wonderful, she said, confirming his thoughts. How was yours? Worthy of reverence, said Dig. The waiter came out and asked them how it was. Worthy of reverence, said Dig. Glad to hear it. We do what we can. He dropped off the check. Dig paid, arguing that theyd only spent half the day on the road and thus Abida could wait another twelve hours before she started delivering on her monetary promises. Abida folded up her napkin and set it on the table. All right, then, she said. Im ready for a walk. A walk? Yeah. A walk. How far? She stood up. Fifteen minutes, she said. Thats how far. They thanked the waiter and left the restaurant and took off down Main Street in the direction opposite the place where theyd parked the truck. Dig allowed himself to fall a pace-and-a-half behind her, watching her move, her clothes so dark against the concrete that with the help of a slug or two of Jack Daniels he might have confused her with her shadow. She walked slower than hed ever seen her walk before. A step. Three-quarters of a breath. A step. Making eye contact with every person they passed, even the people who struggled to avoid it. Greeting the ones who smiled at her. Smiling at the ones who didnt. Five blocks from the restaurant a gray-haired lady stepped out of a pastry shop and asked them to come inside. The air in the shop was odorless, and Dig blamed the AC; its ferocious campaign to keep all the chocolate from melting.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN The gray-haired lady handed Abida a chocolate cherry chunky. She held it in both hands, as if dropping the pastry would incur something awful. Abida took it from her, and also used both hands. She chewed and swallowed, and she told the lady thank you, and they walked out to the street again, Abida smiling even wider than she had

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before, her hands rolled into fists, and they walked down to the end of Main Street, where an interpretive sign directed their attention to a building on the opposite corner, a landmark of the Civil War, its walls still riddled with the pockmarks of bullets.

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~6~

Im in the woods, said Abida. She sat on a fallen tree at the edge of the campfire glow, the dome shape of her tent just visible behind her. Dig sprawled on his side and threw sticks in the fire. The branches of the hickory trees flickered overhead, riding up and down in the breeze. Im in the woods, she said again. I cant believe it. The trucks just a little ways down the hill, said Dig. If you change your mind, I wont think less of you. I promise. She broke off a twig of her own and tossed it into the center of the blaze. It just takes a while to sink in, she said. Okay. Thats fair. But if it does sink in and you find you dont like it I wont. Not tonight. Tonight, I feel like I could fly. I feel like Im flying already. Me too, said Dig. Im not gonna lie. A firefly drifted over Abidas head, blinking on and off in rhythmic succession. Abida turned to look at it. The firefly shuttled around and positioned itself for a staring contest. It hovered in front of her in that strange way its species had of hovering, tail straight down and forward a little, looking at her with a gaze that seemed blank and empty even for an insect, the blink of its light not quite bright enough to reflect on her skin but by all means bright enough to show in her eyes.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN An hour-and-a-half earlier, theyd parked the truck at the place where the

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Appalachian Trail crossed the road, five hundred yards from the entrance to the park, the crossing marked by a series of zebra stripes that felt somewhat incongruous in the middle of the woods. They went five minutes up the trail and cut off to the right and up to the top of a hill in search of a flat plane of ground. A ten-inch garter snake sat in the middle of their path, basking in the last of the sunlight. Dig tapped the snake with the end of a twig and the snake played dead and kept on playing dead until Dig made contact with his finger, skin on skin, and the snake slid away with a swiftness that caused him to gasp, expecting, as he had, the lesser velocity of an insect or a spider and not the speed and fluidity of the fleeing reptile, gone before his mind had time to catch up, back to the bushes and another place of rest. And now the firefly. Abida watching it hover in front of her. Reaching out to touch it. The firefly darting away into a deeper part of the woods, where others of its kind flashed on and off and off and on. Abida watched it go, and something seemed to implode in her, something spectacular and systemic. Her smile was the first and most obvious casualty. The rest defied words. Are you okay? he said, shocked by the sight of it, its suddenness and thoroughness alike. Yes, she said, with dwindling patience. I already told you: you dont have to keep asking me that. He waited long enough to gauge her mood and make certain the foolishness of asking her again, and then he tossed another stick in the fire and walked over to the place where hed pitched his tent. He unzipped the tent flap and rummaged through the contents of his backpack. I need something to drink, he said. I hope you dont mind. She didnt answer. She was looking at the tent and the fire and the woods behind her, as if her surroundings had abruptly changed clothing. Sorry, he said. Its just a dumb thing I do. Ill only drink a little. He picked out one of the bottles in his backpack, checked first to make sure it was the Jack Daniels and not the 101-proof Wild Turkey, the latter reserved for occasions of a

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN more climactic nature, and walked back to the edge of the campfire, the bottle cradled tight to his chest. Are you sure you dont mind? he said. Yes, said Abida, but not as much as I mind the fact that I mind it. He laughed. What the heck is that supposed to mean? It means Im not in any position to judge you. Oh yeah? And why not? Because Im human. As such, its not my place to judge. I dont get it. Give me more detail. Im human. Its not my place to judge.

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He ran his thumb around the cap of the bottle. The bottle glowed a dull shade of orange, the color of skin irritation, or possibly of sunset. But you do judge, he said. You do it all the time. Your whole campaign against gender oppression, or whatever you call it: the whole things driven by this inherent form of judgment. No, said Abida. No . . . I dont think Id call it that. Really? What would you call it then? She was quiet a moment, her gaze on the fire. Id call it, she said, a strongly-rooted opinion. He laughed again and collapsed on his back. For a time he was tempted to walk back to the tent and bury the bottle in his backpack, but the shape of the thing had begun to feel good in his hand, so he left it there a while, and then he unscrewed the cap and took a deep swig. It burned his throat, and in his prostrate position he coughed like a novice and lifted his head. He could see the moon through the trees above him, the phase almost full, the wind and the branches creating miniature eclipses, moon and then no moon and then moon again. Off and on like the fireflies. He took another swig, this one a little heftier then hed planned on. He could feel it working its way down his throat. In another three minutes, hed be feeling it elsewhere.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN So tell me, he said. Whats your strongly-rooted opinion of my drinking? Do you really want to talk about this now? Sort of. Whats wrong with now? How about, Whats right with now? He spread his arms, shrugging, the whiskey spilling in the soil.

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I dont know, he said. Its a beautiful evening, were out in the woods, it was a great day . . . its our first night on the road . . . I dont want to sit here wondering what you think about me. Does my opinion matter that much to you? Yeah, he said. It does. Its mattered to me since Day One. Why is that, Dig? I dont know. Its just . . . Look, Im putting it away okay? (One more swig for the road.) I told you I drink. I dont know why youre getting upset. Im not upset. Im just sitting here by the fire, feeling like I could fly. Remember? Yeah. I remember. I was feeling it too until You drank. Excuse me? It was true until you drank. Now its just a feeling. Can you translate that into English, please? She stood up and brushed the dirt off her clothing. You dont get to fly anymore. Not until tomorrow. According to what? She smiled. My strongly-rooted opinion. She stepped into her tent and pulled up the zipper behind her. He laid there listening to her rustle around the inside of the tent. Heard the zipper go down on the sleeping bag. Heard another series of rustling, of a nature he couldnt quite place, and then silence. Then silence.

Bochart COMPANIONS OF THE GARDEN Then the rustling again in reverse order. The zipper on the sleeping bag. The

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zipper on the tent. Abida coming back out again and sitting on the log, as if shed never left. Gazing, even, toward the very same part of the fire. Im sorry, she said. that was another one of those moments. I know. Im sorry. Dont be. Im okay. Its just . . . Dig. Im alone with you in the middle of the forest. Thats a lot right there. And now, on top of that, youre drinking whiskey. Youre being a real gentleman about it, but . . . still. I have no choice but to trust you. I cant help it if that scares me a little. I thought you wanted to camp. I do. I just . . . . we just cant expect it to be easy. Please tell me if its getting too It wont, she said. Im not going to let it. She lifted her head and looked at him, for the first time since the bottle arrived. Thanks again for a great day. The first of many, said Dig. They listened to the woods. Abida asked if she could tell him a story. He told her she could. She told him about a time she laid awake all night, certain there was some kind of creature outside her window. She could hear it licking the glass with its tongue and pawing at the window with its claws, and she stayed awake from dusk until dawn thinking about it, not certain which was worse: the fear of the beast or the sensation that God had abandoned her. Dig told her about one of his early visits to Manhattan, when he met a brown-eyed acoustic guitarist in Madison Square who played blues tunes from the Mississippi Delta. The man claimed he sold his soul to the devil out on Highway 61, and Dig too young to know a clich when he heard one asked the man how much his soul had gone for. I tried to play the piano once, said Abida. I could never master the chords.