Joe braked without thinking, without checking for other cars in the rearview mirror. He loved this route: the sunny Hawke’s Bay countryside rolling away as far as his eyes could reach. It made him feel boundless. A moment before he had almost said that out loud. “I’m boundless!”
Now he struggled from the high perch of his pickup, hands beginning to shake.
The dog wore a collar. Joe reached for the tag as he lowered himself onto the road. Stones and grit dug into his knees and shins as he knelt, but that barely registered. He turned the tag in his hand, running a thumb over the engraved letters.
The dog must live nearby at one of the orchards.
Joe had hit a rabbit before. It had bolted—impossibly fast—from the side of the road.
A bird flew into his windshield once.
He’d never hit someone’s pet.
Now the dog lay on its side all profile, ear turned toward him and unmoving.
Joe moved his shaking hands. One over the dog’s firm skull, the other to find spine and ribcage intact. There was no blood pooling in glossy black fur, no bone cutting through outstretched legs. Joe sought the dog’s watchful eye, still open. Was that eye dimming? He buried his hands in the humid fur.
A voice called in the distance, coming nearer, “Buddy! Buddy!”
Come on, boy…
Joe’s whole body ached like a truck had hit him. His hands began to tingle.
They flushed. Got hot. A spontaneous combustion.
What on God’s green earth was happening?
The dog’s mouth twitched. Part whimper, part protest slid through an octave.
The dog’s whole body quivered, re-gathered with an inhalation. All of nature seemed to bend near to it—soil, minerals, vines and light—and the dog leapt, nimble. Bounded back amidst the apple trees and toward that voice calling the dog’s name. Joe stared after the dog in disbelief.
Joe pulled himself back into the driver’s seat, looking straight ahead. He drove home, each hill memorized and every bend a familiar habit. But he was shaken.
At home in their kitchen Gillian gathered Luna and Ralph to send to camp for a summer day filled with forest walks and surfing lessons. Their homestead’s morning light poured in through glass doors and over her. Gillian was a good mother.
They weren’t soul mates, Joe and Gillian. They agreed on that. They had married so his Luna and her Ralph could have two parents and a sibling. It worked for them. It was good for the children. And his little Luna… She had been too young to notice her mother’s sudden and absolute absence. That had broken Joe’s heart, yet somehow comforted him, too. It was why he uprooted their lives from California. Why all Luna now knew was this small corner of the world, why when she asked for ‘tea’ instead of ‘dinner’ Joe’s first impulse was still to boil the teapot. He was okay with all of that.
“Gilly,” Joe said, all girth, as he stepped through the swinging door and into the kitchen. His dark hair was a mess, as if the shock of the dog in the road affected even his hair. “A dog…”
He addressed the back of her head. She scratched a tangerine’s skin to smell the citrus before nesting it into a lunchbox. He noticed Gillian’s movements were slow motion, which wasn’t like her. She usually approached all tasks, housework or otherwise, as aerobic exercise.
“Time to go!” Gillian called to the children in the next room.
Ralph jumped on the couch barefoot. Luna practiced her penny whistle—one a-penny, two a-penny. The house smelled of beeswax. Then Gillian said, turning so he could see her face, “I left lunch in the fridge. I thought you’d get hungry.”
Joe moved to the sink, ran a cold stream of water over his hands to bring the temperature down. He might need to start doing that now, run his hands under cold water.
“My hands—” he said.
“Another time,” Gillian said. “Tell me another time. I’m struggling today. My headache from the market yesterday hasn’t gone away.”
Joe would have said something supportive in reply, something like, You’ll soldier on, but Luna skipped into the kitchen looking very pleased with herself, waving her penny whistle like a little flag. Joe wanted to reach for her as she passed, as she scooped up her lunch box. He wanted to tell Luna—Luna, there was a dog, Buddy—but managed only to grab a tea towel and kiss the top of his little girl’s head before the front door closed.
In the empty house Joe called his sister on Skype. He pulled a stool up to the kitchen island in front of the family laptop, waiting for her life back home in California to appear on the screen. The familiar soundtrack of dongs, dings and plops bounced and sank. He turned up the volume.
“Remember that time Mom and Dad packed us into the station wagon and drove to Vegas?” Joe asked when his sister appeared, before hellos. “Family trips were so random.” Two kids, two adults, one station wagon, playing hooky from school and work across three-hundred-and-fifty miles of Southern California and Nevada desert. All to see a renowned healer make a rare appearance. The station wagon had pulled into a convention center’s overfull parking lot where a single protester waved a hand-lettered sign. Charlatan. Joe had asked his parents what the word meant.
“We waited in line for hours,” Joe’s sister remembered. “The air conditioning was broken. Or there was no air conditioning. And the people smelled.”
What he remembered was the cavernous gray space with people standing, shuffling toward the front of the room, patiently waiting, unspeaking as if in prayer to step beneath the outstretched hands of a man in a faded button-up. The man looked as generic as anybody’s uncle yet it was said he had healed weak, lame, crippled, blind and mute with nothing more than hovering, open hands. He never spoke a word. There was no Las Vegas showmanship. No circus barker. Except for the occasional cough and sigh, the room was a subdued refuge filled with hopefuls awaiting their miracle.
At the time young Joe had whined. He would rather be swimming in the hotel pool.
“Look at him, Joseph,” his dad had said. “You might never see anyone like him again.”
Joe looked and thought the man must have very strong arms because they never wavered. Like a puppeteer must have very strong arms.
“This morning,” Joe said, “I was driving…” And he told his sister about the dog.
When he finished, when he got everything off his chest that he had wanted to say first to Gillian and then to Luna, his sister took off her glasses. She leaned forward and looked at him, from Southern California to New Zealand. “So you think you’re a healer?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Joe said. He said, “Maybe.” He said, “It sounds crazy, I know, but how else do you explain…?” Joe scratched at his hands. They were cooling, settling to body temperature with a residual itch. “I could shake hands with people more,” he said. “Test it.” He could stop tucking his hands into his pockets while advising orchard and vineyard and dairy farmers on how to build healthier farms. He could slap those farmers on the backs now and then.
Joe held up his hands so his sister could look at them, so they could both wonder at the possibilities.
“Have you been to the doctor…?” his sister asked. “How’s your heart?”
With those two small questions he knew she’d tell her husband everything. “My heart is fine,” he answered, disappointed.
“Don’t work too hard, Joe.”
She sounded like their mom.
“Your weight…” she added.
Just like their mom.
His arms and legs, all of him was fleshy. True. He admitted, even to himself, the inconsistency with his profession as a farmer. But his heart was strong. “I’ve got someone coming to help in the garden for the summer,” he said. “From the Midwest somewhere. She just graduated college.” Joe looked at the clock on the wall. “I’m picking her up at the airport in an hour. She found my website and wants to volunteer, learn organics from me.” She would have been en-route at 33,000 feet over America’s plains, mountains, cities and deserts before the vast Pacific to touch down on their local airstrip between coast and countryside. Joe wondered what would be her first impression of New Zealand. “I have so much to teach,” he said almost as an afterthought, yet wholeheartedly stood by the statement.
Joe had told Gillian about Jane only after he’d invited Jane to come.
Gillian and Joe had never considered taking on a volunteer, never advertised for one let alone brought an unknown female into their home. Gillian insisted that if Jane must stay, they put her in the unused room at the far end of the house, next to the laundry.
He told his sister, “I said yes. It felt right. I’ve got a lot of travel, a full schedule. But Jane can work in the garden. Do the manual labor around here.”
Joe’s sister looked relieved, shifted on her couch surrounded by clutter and discarded magazines. She had always flourished amidst disorder. “So I don’t have to worry?” she said.
“You don’t have to worry.”
“Gillian can’t be happy about it though.”
“Gillian’s fine,” he said, though he knew it wasn’t true. He knew Gillian had searched for Jane online, had found a picture of a bronzed and dirt-smudged Jane smiling broadly from a community garden. A raffia hat shaded wide eyes. Jane in shorts and rubber boots bending to feed chickens in a greenhouse. Gillian didn’t tell Joe about the pictures, but he’d found them in the laptop’s search history.
And only yesterday at the farmers’ market a girl, no older than twenty, wore fairy wings and UGG boots and skipped past Joe and Gillian, leaving a trail of iridescent bubbles and a trail of children—including Luna and Ralph—jumping, howling above their fingertips, quickening and teetering with each bubble popped. Gillian had said, “That’s what I’m worried about, Joe. Some girl traipsing into our lives and blowing bubbles. I see the way men behave with girls like that.”
Joe knew Gillian well enough to know she thought her headache was because of Jane. So there, see—he does pay attention.
“Gillian’s fine,” Joe said again to his sister, then stood from the stool, leaned his hip against the island. There was a point about the healer he was trying to make and hadn’t yet. “When it was my turn—after you and Mom and Dad—and I stepped beneath the healer’s hands, something happened. They hovered half a foot over my head.” Joe indicated the distance and steadied his breath for his next statement, his grand finale. “His hands were radiators. The heat was palpable. I wouldn’t be surprised if people saw heat waves coming off them. You can’t just make that up.”
“I didn’t feel that.” His sister, older by a couple of years, added, “Do you remember how the day ended? We all left in the exact same way we came. No one got their miracle.”
Jane stepped outside the airport between kinetic sculptures of godwit flocks, soaring and simultaneously perched. Joe recognized her at once. She was small. Had an honest face. His hands pulsed when he saw her. Joe waved and called her name from where he waited beside his pickup under a sign, a warning: no waiting! She crossed the forecourt to him, from shade to full Hawke’s Bay sun, with a ready smile. Though Joe welcomed her warmly—“Hawke’s Bay is a long way from home”—the dog and Vegas healer were still on his mind. Maybe his sister was right: Buddy had only been stunned. Unhurt. The dog’s resurrection was a coincidence of timing, nothing more than that.
Good thing, then, Joe hadn’t told Gillian or Luna.
He didn’t like looking the fool.
Jane settled her backpack on the pavement between her feet. That backpack looked over packed and brand new. Jane looked brand new. Fresh off the boat. She unzipped her hoodie and tied it around her hips. “So far away,” she agreed as other arrivals breezed by, including two pilots in trim uniform. “And my first trip to New Zealand.”
Joe wrestled her backpack onto the front seat of his truck and Jane climbed in.
He could have driven Jane half an hour south, to Te Mata Peak, where hang gliders and paragliders take their particular leap of faith and launch themselves into views that drop away and unspool in all directions—hill country and river valleys, mountain ranges and Hawke’s Bay’s curving coastal sweep. And on a clear day, like today, views to the volcanic heart of the North Island. Joe could have driven Jane south and up the hairpin road to the summit, so she could see that panorama—New Zealand’s North Island. But as Joe and Jane sat on the high perch of his pickup’s creamy leather seats, her backpack balanced between them, Joe turned left out of the airport terminal. A sudden urgency compelled him north, home.
For his last birthday Gillian had pinned a poem to his study wall, the only wall not lined with farming books. Gillian had found the poem and copied it out for Joe in deliberate handwriting. It was about a farmer plunging and planting hands into the ground, every year entering into death and resurrecting in spring. “Only a divine farmer could have written such a poem,” Joe had said.
He wanted to put the dog and thoughts of healers out of his mind. He wanted to go home and open the kitchen’s sliding glass door with a welcome swoosh and step between the long rows of raised beds. The trees. The worm farm.
The Peak as it offered up its vista. The vista, wide open. Jane could wait for that.
“It was a mistake,” Joe heard.
He blinked. Saw Jane in the passenger seat. “Come again?” Joe asked.
She must have been talking and Joe hadn’t heard her.
“It was a mistake to trespass and jump off that waterfall,” Jane said. She twisted the frayed threads of her cutoff shorts. “I’m usually honest.” The wind streamed through the open windows, making her hair whip and fly.
Joe rolled up the windows and switched on the air-conditioning. He wondered if he’d heard her right.
“Hot, long summer should help.” Jane shivered.
He started to say something but stopped.
”That’s what my doctor suggested,” she said. “But on the plane, the long flight, I got these twinges. That’s how it starts.”
They cruised at an even speed. They passed shops and neighborhoods, a football field and vineyards and onto this two-lane road that curved along of hills undulating and rolling away into folds and swells. It was just up ahead, he noted, where the dog—
“So, Joe?” Jane asked.
So. He pieced together what she was telling him.
Joe squirmed in the seat, sticking and unsticking to and from the leather, to ease an unexpected pain in his back. He scratched his hands against the steering wheel. They were blotchy, warm. Like radiators.
Maybe his sister was wrong.
“There was a dog…” he began. “This morning.”
Jane had landed wrong, jumping off that waterfall.
“Buddy,” he added.
Since then, back pain could strand her on the couch for weeks. Jane had hoped the summer here would do what the operations hadn’t. That she’d work in his garden without pain. That the work would make her back stronger.
“My truck hit Buddy, just ahead.” Joe talked as if a new future might open for him. “I’m a healer,” he said, and saying it out loud to Jane seemed to make it true.
Jane faltered. “What?”
He downshifted, slowed, allowing a car to pass and then accelerated again. He shifted in his seat. “Yes, a healer,” he said again. “I lay hands.” Like the Vegas healer. Just like that.
Without warning Jane, without second-guessing, he jolted the pickup off the road. It bumped and rumbled into the shoulder’s tall grass. Joe’s knees knocked the steering column, his stomach bounced. Even his face jiggled unpleasantly with every rut, every rock. Jane grabbed at the seatbelt cutting across her chest.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, slightly breathless.
Sparrows flew from the grass as Joe hit the brake with a sandaled foot, bringing the truck to an abrupt stop. “I can help.” He pulled the parking brake, left the engine running.
Jane grasped the seatbelt with both hands.
“I’m a healer,” he said again. He leaned his head back on the headrest with a long exhalation. “I can heal your back.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the truck?”
“The truck is fine.”
Jane turned her body away, faced a group of fruit pickers—tourists like her, or migrant workers—amidst gnarled trees backdropped by low, dry hills. They glanced up at the truck and its occupants from under their straw hats.
“What are you doing?” Jane said.
“I raised a dog from the dead.”
Jane unbuckled her seatbelt, looked toward one of the fruit pickers who wiped stained hands across his jeans. She did not reply.
Joe turned his whole body to face her back, bent one knee on the bench seat. Inside his truck cab a hush combined with the absolute awareness of Jane’s very human presence. Joe perceived that, clearly, they were sharing a moment.
They lingered like that until a kind of resolve made him act.
“The moment I saw you I knew I could help,” Joe said and he half-lunged, half-fell over Jane’s backpack, fingers splayed with a hot, open hand. His hand landed on her back, heavily.
Jane pulled away.
Joe’s upper body strained against the seatbelt and toward her, blood thumping. With his left hand he fumbled for his seatbelt buckle as if his life depended on it, and Jane’s life too. At the same time his right arm stretched, hand stretched, fingertips searching after Jane with his every muscle alert. His focus single-minded. That’s when the moment began to fall apart. The seatbelt clicked undone, releasing Joe awkwardly oomph as he grasped only air. Jane and her backpack were gone, the door hanging open.
Joe looked across the Hawke’s Bay countryside and saw the fruit pickers in their straw hats, running to her.
Joe turned earth with a garden fork, uprooted tangled roots and worms with a renewed fervor. He rested often to catch his breath, to swipe at the sweat in his eyes and drink long gulps from a water bottle before picking up the garden fork again. Joe found solace in the simple rhythm and holy smell of sunned earth and dirt under his fingernails. Maybe he would acquire calluses—he had calluses when he first met Luna’s mother, before Luna was born. She had taken his hand in her own and said she trusted a man with calluses.
As the sun settled toward the horizon Joe took off his shirt to feel its final warmth. Gillian would be home soon with their children. He would hear her open the kitchen’s sliding glass door and the children would tumble into the garden throwing off their shoes and socks with stories of forest walks and surfing lessons. Maybe they would get chickens. Luna and Ralph had always wanted chickens, to collect eggs. Isn’t it wonderful that Luna and Ralph have mother and father—that Joe and Gillian had married so they could?
At the sliding glass door Joe would hear Gillian call his name, glad to see him working in the garden because it had overgrown with weeds and neglect. Gillian would take a position beside him, work in synchronicity and ask, “Now Joe, what did you want to talk about this morning?” He would shake his head, say it was neither here nor there, that he had already forgotten and plunge his hands into the ground. The cool of the soil would be a balm for his hands that still pulsed with heat. His fingers would stretch for cooler, and yet cooler depths. Gillian would say, “I’m feeling better. My headache lifted this afternoon,” noticing Joe was alone but not drawing attention to Jane’s obvious absence. “Isn’t that a relief?” she’d ask. Joe would agree it was a relief and begin to rattle off all the ways the homestead’s rows and rows of raised beds would soon flourish under their care.
Then their little family would file back inside for dinner, closing the sliding glass door—swoosh—behind them.
Brindi Joy was born in the Pacific Northwest, USA, and lives inŌtautahi Christchurch. For ten years, she was National Flash Fiction Day’s City Chair in Ōtautahi Christchurch (2012-2022). She is currently working on a collection of short stories.