The water smelled like sulfur and the ceiling panels of the toolshed housed hornets’ nests. Most afternoons, the summer heat was so extreme it shivered and vibrated above the ground, bugs chirping and whirring in the tall, dry grass. Wimberley, Texas, is as wild as the hill country gets, home to stinging bull-nettle, horned cacti, red scorpions. But it is also home to beautiful things. The same soil that grows the cacti also grows wildflowers.
Bluebonnets, Brown-Eyed Susans, Texas Plumes, Indian Paintbrushes… the list went on and on, and didn’t stop until we ran out of the names we knew and created some of our own. They populated the countryside in bright flushes of red, orange, yellow, blue, and white. To me, the wildflowers were Degas. They were Monet. They were Van Gogh and Renoir. They were every beautiful painting of nature that had ever been made. They weren’t even paintings, really. They were like music—a symphony growing straight up from the rocky soil. Every year, for those brief few weeks when they bloomed, the field between our house and the river canyon would burn with color.
Wimberley was not my hometown, though I often played pretend. When my dad and I collected branches for the burn pile, we tied our bandanas to cover our noses and mouths. Suddenly, we were pioneers—bandits, even. In reality, we—my mother and father and older brother—were city folk. Part-time pioneers who came to Wimberley only on weekends and holidays.
But even though I never lived there year-round, Wimberley was as steady a part of my life as any family member. When I was two and my brother Eric was twelve, our parents took us to the hill country near Austin for the first time. We were going to find property and build a house, someplace far from Houston and far from city life. When we finally chose the place—a smallish plot of land that stretched from the base of one hill to the banks of the river below it—my mother had already imagined the house in its entirety.
It was neat, small, and cozy, with wood-paneled siding and a tilted metal roof. It had a fireplace for the wintertime and wide windows that opened out onto the dry field between us and the Blanco River. My parents had decided that we would make the three-hour drive up from Houston every weekend to build it, for as long as it took.
Since I was too young to help build, all I cared about were the wildflowers. I painted them in sloppy watercolors on discarded wood and hunted tirelessly for them in the brush. It was an obsession—one that made the three-hour drives up from Houston just barely worth it.
I can’t remember a time before Wimberley, but I can remember plenty of time without it. When I visited it for the last time, it had been four years since the last time we had gone up as a family, two years since my parents’ divorce, and one year since my dad had put the house and its land on the market.
We had broken our unspoken promise to always come back to Wimberley. We had given up on it, but I was not done. I missed Wimberley. I felt guilty, shamed by the past self who had fallen so deeply in love with the colors of the wildflowers, and the dryness of the air, and the ubiquity of the creatures who lived in the wilderness. I was going up to say goodbye, I thought. It was December—rainy as always—and there were no wildflowers waiting in the field.
It felt like trespassing at first, but the markers of my childhood were still there: the single antler I had once found still sat above the fireplace, right next to my mother’s collection of mossy birds’ nests; our massive VHS collection still sat underneath the television, and White Christmas still laid on top. Out on the porch, our rocking chairs still sat under the awning and faced the bluff. Not far from the edge of the porch was the tetherball stand where my brother once threw a pitch that nearly broke my nose.
Close to the house, we had once grown succulents—spiny cacti and soft lamb’s ear—and kept a woodpile of chopped cypress for the fireplace. Only the woodpile remained, but the logs were too wet to start a fire. That night, the countryside was dark and silent, just as it had been when I was younger, and just as it had been, I had once imagined, back in pioneer times. When we still came up as a family, we would huddle close to watch old movies on our tiny RVC television as we ate homemade ice cream and played Chinese Checkers. I built pillow forts back then and felt small against the darkness, but not altogether alone. Sometimes it was so quiet there was almost a noise to it—like the way you can hear a person trying hard to hold his breath.
My boyfriend, Ben, and I slept in what had once been my parents’ bed (odd, we decided, but our only choice). In the dark, I counted the faint shadows of the picture frames against the wall and wondered what would happen to them when a new family moved in. I fell asleep late, long after Ben, to the sound of distant thunder.
In the morning, the rain was still coming.
Several years before, during similar weather, my dad and I had gotten up early to make pancakes. He gave me a step stool so I could watch the rain through the kitchen window as I stirred. My dad pointed at a thin, silver line at the edge of our property. See? he asked, See that? I saw: the river waters had risen so high they were threatening to spill over the canyon and into our field. Will it be okay? I asked, still stirring the batter for the pancakes. It’ll be fine, he promised, and it was. We ate our pancakes and chose not to worry about the riverbanks overflowing. We watched our favorite movie instead: White Christmas.
Ben asked me what I wanted to do. I wanted to stay in bed. When he asked again, I told him: I wanted to watch White Christmas.
I dragged the old JVC television out of the closet, tinier and dustier than I remember it being. We turned it on to AUX and popped in the tape. Pavlovian excitement made me shiver with glee. The tape whirred and buzzed. The screen went blue. Music signaled the opening credits: Paramount Pictures Presents… and then, a pop.
With a bright white fizz down the middle, the screen turned black. We tried ejecting it; we unplugged it; we called the customer service hotline. There was nothing to do. The tape was lost.
That evening, around dusk, the rains stopped. Ben and I sat on the porch in the rocking chairs and looked out across the bluff. I didn’t feel like a pioneer anymore, but it felt nice. The stretch of the field was familiar, and the sky still colored in beautiful ways. With the land out in front of me, I remembered flashes of activity: over in the pecan grove that edged the canyon, I had picked wild onions; that bush over there was the one that grew strange bean pods I had once tried to feed to our dog Kirby.
I had come back to Wimberley to say goodbye, and maybe to figure some things out, but I had never been more confused. We had come to Wimberley to build something permanent. What made us let go of that after so much time? Why did we give up?
On the porch, Ben asked me if I was going to miss Wimberley. I told him I had already been missing it for years.
When we sold Wimberley, it wasn’t a sudden death; it was a rotting. It was a slow burn into nothingness, not a flash or a bang. And in the way that deaths and losses usually work, there was no neat moment at the end where I had clarity and a feeling of closure. My December visit was supposed to be my last. I was okay with the idea that one of my final memories would be the view from the porch, looking out across the bluff like the pioneer I had been as a child. Only it wasn’t my last visit. The actual last time I saw the porch, the rocking chairs had already been packed into a U-Haul van. This later trip was not one I made with forethought, but one fraught with the kind of guilty anxiety you get when you realize you’ve fucked up and you haven’t yet said a real goodbye. I arrived after they had already packed everything into boxes. All that was left was the land.
The last time I saw the bluff, I walked out into the field until I was knee-high in the grasses and I cried. Standing there in the tall brush, I tried to commit to memory what it felt like to be in the flat openness with that particular earth beneath me: the crunch of the weeds, the dry grit of the soil, the dark shade of the pecan trees edging the river canyon ahead of me. I took a few last, deep breaths, and as I turned to go, I saw it.
An Indian Paintbrush: red, small, five petals, each tinged yellow at the center. I had crushed the stem with my shoe.
When I left that afternoon, I put it in a cup in my car, where it stayed until the time came to throw it away.
Skyler Inman was born in the flat, humid swamplands of Houston. She spent most of her childhood weekends in the Texas hill country, where she invented a large cast of imaginary characters to keep her company. Most of them were named Abigail, though she can’t remember why. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org