The research hospital sent three drivers—one for each day of travel, one for each highway. He was the last. Armand. I didn’t ask the name of the first, a twilight fellow in gray, nor did he offer, but when he pulled into my driveway, emerged from the car, and turned to the snow, I could see that he was terrified. It must have been his first time. He took my single bag. His hands were shaking. Brr, he said. Then, boldly: Are you the brother? The father, I said. Your son? he asked. My daughter. We traveled the rest of the black highway in silence. He drove the hairpins slowly so that I did not feel ill. I watched the road drop down into the forest and saw the snow-fed streams (water, liberated) for the first time in my life and felt only a minor, yellowed awe. Near dawn we skirted the rim of the canyon, and the highway turned from black to red. I folded and folded the note that was permitting my travel until it was hard and small. The first trade-off took place at a border checkpoint near a crumbling dam. Great bursts of water. Great rumblings. The first driver waved goodbye, closed the pedestrian gate behind him, and drifted away down the mesquite aisle. The second (Boris, he offered) sank into the driver’s seat and asked if I wanted to take a picture. Of what? I asked. Of the breaking. It’s historic. No, I said. The dam doesn’t interest me. That was the extent of our conversation. We followed the red highway through a leaf-green valley. We passed a black horn jutting up through the earth without saying a word, or stopping to see, or reflecting. The rest of the way was turquoise salt fields and hide-homes tearing in the hot wind. We, each of us, pretended to be alone. My thoughts were not on the waiting body, on Ophi’s body, as they should have been. My thoughts were not on the middle-night lapses, the times when I left her alone with her deepening bowl, to cry, to cry out for me. The unthinkable time when I lost my cool. The time of the too-rough bath. My thoughts were on a woman I’d met thirty years ago outside of the fish market and known for just a single night.
The final trade-off took place while I was asleep, so that when I woke up Armand was already there in front of me, as if he had always been, his thin brown hair electrified, his beautiful hands on the dark wheel, his massive shoulder hanging before me, the highway no longer red, but white. The note permitting my travel was not in my hand. I searched the floor of the car. I lifted my feet. Nothing. Quickly, Armand said, pointing to a spot in the road. An armored animal I had never seen, the back of it crushed, was dragging itself toward the side of the road. Poor thing, I said. What is it? What is it called? What would you call it? No, not there, said Armand. There. Look there. He pressed on the brake and glanced in the rearview mirror to make sure there was no one coming up the road behind us. Our eyes met. He blinked once, slowly, and I surprised myself by doing the same. He slowed the car to a crawl as we passed the pool of rosa that the animal was leaving behind. There, he said. There, on the rosa. A butterfly, yellow and black. It opened and closed. Opened and closed. It’s drinking the rosa, said Armand. Is it? I said. How can you tell? Where is its mouth? I couldn’t see clearly. I looked away and rubbed my eyes. Armand in the rearview mirror, brimming with tears. Round Rosa, he whispered. He floated onto the shoulder of the highway. I stroked the handle of my only bag and closed my eyes. We came to a gentle stop in a cloud of white dust. His eyes, textured, velvety, chenille. They never left the mirror. Armand. He turned the car off and slumped over in the driver’s seat. I took a look around. White sand for miles, tumbleweeds catching on what looked to be an ancient, exposed coral reef. In the distance, four white hills, each higher than the last, rising and rising to nothing. I can’t go on, he said, sobbing. I can’t see. I’m so sorry. This is not my day to be sad. I’ve had my