He was bathed at dawn. They escorted the boy to the marbled riverbank that sloped into the water, laid him on his back with his feet held towards the highest peak of the mountain range. Each of the four women cupped flattened stones in their palms and brushed him down, beginning at the heels. His city feet bled at the burr of rock against his young skin. For the other members his age, the callouses would flake off and return their bodies to God’s original intention. He had only been in the mountains for a few hours and had never made the migration to the desert and back again, to live the summer in the wooden fortress that stood high on the pass above the blue river. Each passing day aged the young of the group tenfold, but beneath his school uniform and Oxfords, the city had kept his body preserved.
After a few months in the seventh grade, his life was beginning to make sense. He felt the allure of the girl’s in his class, his teachers, the older sisters of his classmates. An easiness had come over him – one of laughter and a sudden dismissal of self-doubt coupled with growing confidence. His mother noticed this change in him and sent him on the train to visit the Doctor, the man who lived in the mountains. The Doctor was his mother’s first love after the divorce. He kept a home in the mountains and would entertain all guests, students really, who could withstand the trembling cold and then sudden dry heat of the dead west.
The boy had come home late one night, missing dinner. He walked in, dropped his backpack at the door, and stiffened, unaware of his next move. From the kitchen, he heard the brisk clank of a metal spoon, a rush of tap water, an agitated huff from his mother. There was a dish of carne asada warming in the oven and beans stewing on the stove. He’d eaten, he said. At his friend’s house. Homework to do. School project. The friend? Sorry, girlfriend. Lard was heated in a skillet, tortillas flash-fried. Peppers burnt on the range, skin charred, steamed, peeled. His mother had chopped white onion and cilantro into a small dish, a squeeze of lemon, dash of salt. His grades were good, he said. Never late and missed no classes. He’d made the tennis team. His mother asked, girlfriend? Yes, he told her. You’d like her, he said, I know I do. She didn’t like the joke.
The Doctor was called and a room was made for the boy, who took the train and was to be prepared for approval. Bathed at dawn. Prepared for approval. He heard the phrase but asked no questions, his mother had sent him, and it was summer, and this was a camp or a vacation or a combination of both or whatever, he was ready to learn and grow but now he was naked facing the rising sun, course rock scouring his skin and all of his body hair had been removed. His scalp remained untouched by the women but not his face. His acne raged and ballooned in red splotches, abrasions, tender flesh, and fierce blood.
From the river floated a row of five long blue spruce trunks strung together into a basic frame. The women guided it to the shore, laid down a fresh cowhide, the muscle and ligaments both gelatinous and stiff in the morning air. Here we are, they told him. Fold your arms across your chest. He did. He thought he may have said girlfriend too soon, mentioned love to her too soon, a pointless rush to the end. End of what? They guided him down onto the wooden raft and laid the hide over him, his eyes clear to face to the coming morning.