Photo: Robin Esrock

Kaly Thayer recalls encounters of another kind on the road.

NEW MEXICANS HAVE a dozen different metaphors about dust. Most of them involve housecleaning and car washes, but they’re all meant to be ironic. I love this place, this dust. And two things you learn about dust pretty quickly are:

  1. it goes everywhere, and
  2. it can make you see some pretty strange things. Even meet some strange people. Some of them aren’t people at all.

Here is what I’ve seen in the dust, and once, what the dust saw in me.

The Wolf and the Robin-Jay — Providence, RI, USA

It’s spring in New England. The ground is wet and green and I miss the windy desert springtime in New Mexico. Everything smells like mud and the sky has been gray for days. I am homesick.

On a public bus, I sit by myself across the aisle from a tall man in a red sweater. His baseball cap is dirty, and two of the fingers from his left hand are missing. He stares at me. I stare ahead.

He leans across the aisle and smiles. “You’re the wolf?” he asks.

I wear a wolf and moon pendant on the end of a silver chain, the moon spangled with stars. I have worn it for a very long time and almost never take it off. In New Mexico, the lobo is the mascot of the local university and a symbolic connection to my roots. I’d never heard this reaction to it before and am caught off guard. “I’m sorry?”

He points to my necklace. “The wolf. You’re with him? The wolf make you tall?”

I am six feet tall. Genes from my 6’8″ father made me tall. I shake my head and stay quiet. He sticks a thumb in his chest. “The wolf, he make me tall. But I’m with robin jay now,” he says, making a circle on his chest in the redness of his sweater. “Robin better for my heart. You see the wolf?” he asks.

I stare at him, still unsure of what he means and who he is. “Tell him I miss him,” he says. He smiles at me and gets off at the next stop.

It is spring and there are robins singing. I wonder if I would be homesick still if I had a robin on my necklace instead of a wolf.

Mother Storyteller — flight between California and New Mexico

I’m six years old and love the two rows of seats on airplanes that face each other, because I can play on the floor in between. My family and I sit in these — Mom, Dad, little brother, and myself — flying back from a family vacation in San Diego to our home in Albuquerque. It’s late, and the only one sitting with us is a friendly woman.

She has dusty skin, curly hair, and silver earrings. She laughs when she talks. Even at six, her jewelry puzzles me. I learned at a very young age to recognize the different styles of jewelry produced by the different tribes that live in my state, and it’s very strange to see a clearly native woman wearing more than a single style. Her earrings are Hopi, her pendant Zuni, her bracelet Navajo.

Photo: contraption

My family does the things people do on planes: read, sleep, ask for more peanuts. I play with my beanie babies. The woman sitting with us asks if I tell stories to my toys. I nod, letting the Siamese cat nuzzle the spotted puppy. In my mind they are falling in love and running away to happily-ever-after.

She invites me to sit next to her. Neither Mom nor Dad protests my closeness to this stranger, so I accept. She asks, “Has anyone ever told you the story of the thunderbird?”

To me, the thunderbirds are a team of puppets fighting evil on Saturday morning television, but I don’t think this is what she means. She tells a tale of mighty birds, her hands making little puppets and telling the story the way I would with my toys. She tells me about the Hero Twins and Monster Elk, the Colors of the Medicine Wheel, and Coyote and his Ghost Dancers. I am enraptured.

She asks, “Has anyone ever told you your story?” I shake my head.

She looks at my mother, who has fallen asleep with my little brother in her lap. “I will tell your Mama, little tale, and maybe she will tell you.”

“But I want to hear the story too!” I whine. “`Specially if it’s mine!”

“No one can hear their own story except from their ancestors. I’ll tell your Mama, and if she wants, she can tell it to you. Now, have you heard about White Buffalo Woman?”

It is thirteen years later.

My fiancé has broken my heart and left me. I am nineteen, and my mother tells me some of what the storyteller said.

Be careful with her, she is bright but foolish. She will have her heart broken before her teenage years are up, and the man she gives her heart to will never want for love. Keep her on the trail, her feet will want to stray, but if she runs true she can go farther than the wind.

The wind. That is all I can think of, sitting on a beach now in Tasmania, Australia. That I miss the wind in the desert.

Fox Fires — Grasmere, Lake District

I am invited to England to present a paper at the Wordsworth Conference. I rub my twenty-two year-old shoulders against the giants of the field, people whose books I used to write my humble thesis. These people are my rock stars, and here I am in dirty backpacker clothing pretending I have something important to say.

I therefore spend a lot of time in the conference hotel’s main lobby, on my laptop, hoping my paper will change into something worthy of presentation. It doesn’t, but I have a good view of the countryside and love the quiet authority of the vintage sitting room.

One evening, I am sitting cross-legged on a threadbare Victorian couch, looking out at the rain. I twitch when someone walks into the room.

She is middle-aged and very beautiful, with deep red hair that matches her eyebrows. In her hand is a lit taper. Walking around the room, she lights the scattered votives and candles. When she makes it over to my little corner by the window, she smiles at me. I notice that one of her eyes is blue and the other green.

Photo: author

“You shouldn’t worry,” she says. Her accent isn’t British.

“I’m not,” I say, wondering how she knows. I try to cover my nerves up, “These people are just a little intimidating.”

“They all put their trousers on one leg at a time in the morning,” she says, still smiling. She puts down a sputtering jar candle. “You can’t let the ghost lights come in, this early,” she says, not looking at me. “They’ll put in such a chill.”

My scattered brain wants to mention that my thesis is about sacred space, yes, but doesn’t involve ghosts. She looks up at me and says, “This time of year they’re bitter about the warm weather, so they’ll give us rain for a while.” It has been raining nonstop for the past four days, and I miss the sunshine.

She moves away, finishes lighting the room I’m in, and heads for the door. She turns back and asks, “When are you reading this unworthy work of yours?”

“Sunday morning,” I tell her.

“I’ll leave a light on for you, so the ghost lights don’t slip you up.”

On Sunday morning I walk into the lecture room. There is a little candle lit on the mantle behind me. I deliver my paper to great success. It is sunny that day.