Listen to an Excerpt
High on the Divide
The men are descended from hard-rock miners, their lungs gone to granite, their hearts chunks of ore. “On the rocks,” they say when they order their bourbon. The bar is O’Sullivan’s. The city is Butte. They call me Angel of Mercy because they’re Catholic and can never remember my name, not when their eyes mist with memory. Not when they cry. You can cry at O’Sullivan’s. In a city where the Bulldogs are Double-A wrestling champs year after year and the jail fills on St. Patty’s by noon, there are still places where grown men can cry.
I refill their glasses and leave extra napkins, and they whisper, “You’re the Angel of Mercy. Sent by the Lord.” Sometimes, when it’s someone with a sense of humor—Dylan Downey or Old Man McClure—I say, “I was hired by Liam, and he’s not the Lord.”
“Yes, Angel, we know that. But who will tell Liam and break his old heart?”
“You can’t break his heart,” says another. “It’s stone.”
And they all fall to silence, labored breathing, alcoholic fumes I could light. Sometimes I imagine flicking a lighter and blasting another hole in this scarred mountain. New veins to explore, new work for this town.
The men, when they’re sober, say go back to school. “Girl, that’s the future. A college degree.”
And though none of their wives—first, second, or third—had degrees, they want more for me, this future whose fingers they can touch.
When they’re drunk, they say, “Angel. Don’t leave. Take us into the next world. Angel. Mercy.”
I’ve nowhere to go, so I stay their saint, serving up spirits, mopping those broken circles they leave under their drinks. Sometimes I imagine flicking that lighter and starting to smoke. My pink lungs will seize up, and I’ll cough when I need to inhale. Sometimes I touch my wrist to remember the pulse. Michael Rourke sobbed one night—a sound like choking—because he couldn’t find his pulse. He wept that he’d died and, since that one pope erased purgatory, he was surely in hell.
“So I’m a demon, am I, Mikey?”
“Mercy, no,” he said when he could breathe again. “I know I’m in hell because I can’t touch you. You’re miles away, up in the sky, holding Our Lord’s punctured hand.”
I clutched his thin wrist, pressed his finger to the groove below his thumb, and I counted with him. One, two, three, four. You’re not pounding on death’s door.
That night Liam couldn’t drive him, so I walked him home, counting his heartbeats aloud on the steep mountain streets. One, two, three, four, Mikey’s heart ain’t made of ore.
“Unless it’s gold,” he whispered, stumbling at the threshold of his small, dark house. I wavered there in the doorway, unsure. Tuck him in? But I wasn’t his mother, and I wasn’t a saint. I shut the door on his cave, sealing him in. Fool’s gold, I thought I heard him say, but the door was metal and warped and it could have been whose gold or too cold or so many things.
One night the cowboy comes in, and I feel for my pulse. Thumping, thumping for escape. I think of that lighter under the bar, this place sky high in a shower of flame, my blood rushing out of me, my heart set free. I crouch low to the bar, swish my hair in my face, and Danny Riordan says, “Angel, you okay?” And one by one, these men still on their bourbons but ready for Coke walk to me. Wobbly as toddlers. “Is she sick?” “Is she hiding?” “Is her heart broke?”
Silence. Then someone, not me, says, “An angel’s heart can’t break.”
And someone else, the cowboy, says, “No, it just flies away.”
No one here entertains strangers, so none of them like how he steps through their words. They grumble as if they are young men with strong hearts, strong lungs, strong fists.
No stranger to me, this cowboy. He’d held to my finger a circle so perfect that I fled all my dreams of riding over the plains into the setting sun. I came back to this place high on the Divide where whole generations believe the sun is lit on the end of a wick a mile underground.
The men cluster tight like they can save me. But they’re the ones drowning in bourbon and rum, in memory shafts they’ve cut with too little air.
“You could cry here,” I say. “You could pour out a bottle and, depending on which side of this mountain you chose, it might join the Pacific. Or head to the Gulf.”
The cowboy knows. He studies the men, how they clutch their drinks and stare. Later, he will say stony stares.
That night I think of gold. Golden rings, golden plains, his bare golden arms, those golden sunsets melting through our golden years.
I let the lighter decide. Flame on the first try means “yes.” And it lights like a tiny sun. I inhale this air soaked with bourbon and the sour breath of old men. Nothing explodes.
I flick the lighter again, and it glows in the dark bar. Circles of light on every man’s glass. Extinguished as soon as I raise my thumb.
I flick it again and again, but that night the lighter is constant. The cowboy waits just outside the glow.
So I leave these men descended from miners. Without mercy. I unlace my angel wings, reckless as I abandon what they know of copper, what they’ve taught me of gold. Broken rock, all that broken rock.
– Chauna Craig’s writing has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies including Prairie Schooner, CALYX, Crab Orchard Review, and Sudden Stories and has been cited in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She has received fellowships to Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and teaches creative writing in western Pennsylvania.