First chapter of The Girl in the Boots

1. The Beginning

In the beginning — this beginning, anyway — there was nothing but water.

You could chase the sun across it for a thousand miles. Sometimes it was frozen, smooth as a cat’s eye. Other times it seethed like liquid fire.

In the summer, when summer finally came, great chunks of ice broke off the face of the glacier far to the north and drifted across the water. They were so big they dragged along the bottom, ripping up the earth in whichever way the wind was blowing.

You can see these gouges today if you fly across prairie fields in the spring, before the crops are in. You may have once idly wondered what caused them.

Now you know.

On a hot July day 10,000 years later — give or take a couple — Jane, with her cute bare toes resting on the dash, asked: “Don’t the hay bales remind you of Muffets?”

She and Robert were driving out to the lake with their two dogs.

“The cereal? That’s exactly what I was thinking.” That happened a lot. They were a new couple.

“I want to see one up close.”

Robert parked on the shoulder, the dogs’ heads springing up as soon as the tires hit the gravel, and off they set across the field. Towards the hay muffets.

The sound of traffic was soon far behind them. It was just a whistle, like a neglected teapot. The sounds of the birds and the bees took precedence; a lazy buzz leaking out from another world.

“Well, look at that,” Jane said. Amid the hay muffets, there was a hollow. A slash in the earth. The machines that cut, rolled up and bound the hay couldn’t be bothered with this little ancient depression. It was just too damn much trouble.

She flopped down into it, rolling on prairie grass and yellow and blue flowers that had never been cut.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I wonder why it’s here.”

Yeah, but what Robert found even more wondrous was how easily her thin little paisley sundress peeled up off her shoulders. He was amazed at how much soft skin there was under there. He was amazed at how her waist curved; how her nipple swelled. He was amazed at how this peep show was being arranged just for him.

That happened a lot, too.

Years later — around the time he learned what caused those serendipitous gouges in the sunbaked July earth — Robert also devised a theory about the sundress: Sex, for women, is a rite in which they mark you and cut you and roll you up and bind you so tight that all you can think is, “Holy shit. Does anybody else know about this? About how good you can feel? Sometimes even four times a day? Women give you dreams; dreams in which all you can say, even many decades later, is, “Holy shit.”

But that was just a theory. The truth, it turned out, is much more complicated.

Ten thousand and 26 years later (give or take a couple), Robert walked alone beside a broad and meandering river called the Red. It was one of the stragglers left behind after an ice dam burst near Hudson Bay and the biggest lake the world has ever seen, bigger than all the lakes in the world today added together, drained in just a few months. It was all that water, gushing into Hudson Bay, surging into the Atlantic, swooshing around Cape Hope and rolling into the Red Sea, that caused Noah to ask, “What’s an ark?”

Robert’s question was a little less memorable.

“How are you?”

It was addressed, not to a vengeful God, but to a young woman bending over a stroller.

Wouldn’t you know it? She wore a paisley sundress. But what he noticed even more was that she also wore boots.

It was September. The sun was starting to go down at a more reasonable time. September evenings are often cool in Red River, but sometimes they can feel like a warm breath on your shoulder while you are curled up with your lover.

There was a man with her, doing an impatient dance along the path beside the river.

“We’re good,” he answered for her.

The girl in the boots stooped under a pair of cottonwood trees. They looked out of place in the groomed park along the river, but it was really everything else that was out of place: the broad winding path under the ornate lamps; the carefully tended flower beds and artfully planted aspens; the strange art installations that had so far resisted the graffiti artist’s spray can. The cottonwoods had been there first. By a long shot. They had been there so long, they mostly spent all day snoozing — although they sometimes woke up long enough to shout, “Hey you punk maples, get off my lawn.”

The woman finished her fussing with the baby, smiled briefly at Robert and ran a couple of strides to catch up with her partner, who clearly had something important to get to. She playfully grabbed his arm and said something Robert couldn’t hear, and as the two of them rolled off into the twilight with their baby, Robert was filled with longing.

In the evening, he told Jane about the girl; about what he saw, and felt.

“You felt longing?”

“Yes. But it wasn’t the kind of longing that makes you feel like you have to do something about it.”

“That’s the best kind.”

“I long for you,” he said.

“I know. I feel it always, like a second skin.”

Around midnight, Robert stood on the balcony of their condo and gazed at the two cottonwoods. He listened to the sigh of the wind in their leaves; to the sound of crossing bells, of diesel engines, of steel wheels on tracks, of railcars tightening their grips — clang clang clang clang — tracing a line right back through St. Boniface as the engine lurched forward after being cleared to enter the downtown station. And even though it was very late, the night still felt like a hot breath on his shoulder.

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