A few minutes past one o'clock in the morning, a hard rain fell
without warning. No thunder preceded the deluge, no wind.
The abruptness and the ferocity of the downpour had the urgent
quality of a perilous storm in a dream.
Lying in bed beside her husband, Molly Sloan had been restless
before the sudden cloudburst. She grew increasingly fidgety as she
listened to the rush of rain.
The voices of the tempest were legion, like an angry crowd chanting
in a lost language. Torrents pounded and pried at the cedar siding,
at the shingles, as if seeking entrance.
September in southern California had always before been a dry month
in a long season of predictable drought. Rain rarely fell after
March, seldom before December.
In wet months, the rataplan of raindrops on the roof had sometimes
served as a reliable remedy for insomnia. This night, however, the
liquid rhythms failed to lull her into slumber, and not just
because they were out of season.
For Molly, sleeplessness had too often in recent years been the
price of thwarted ambition. Scorned by the sandman, she stared at
the dark bedroom ceiling, brooding about what might have been,
yearning for what might never be.
By the age of twenty-eight, she had published four novels. All were
well received by reviewers, but none sold in sufficient numbers to
make her famous or even to guarantee that she would find an eager
publisher for the next.
Her mother, Thalia, a writer of luminous prose, had been in the
early years of an acclaimed career when she died of cancer at
thirty. Now, sixteen years later, Thalia's books were out of print,
her mark upon the world all but erased.
Molly lived with a quiet dread of following her mother into
obscurity. She didn't suffer from an inordinate fear of death;
rather, she was troubled by the thought of dying before achieving
any lasting accomplishment.
Beside her, Neil snored softly, oblivious of the storm.
Sleep always found him within a minute of the moment when he put
his head on the pillow and closed his eyes. He seldom stirred
during the night; after eight hours, he woke in the same position
in which he had gone to sleep--rested, invigorated.
Neil claimed that only the innocent enjoyed such perfect
Molly called it the sleep of the slacker.
Throughout their seven years of marriage, they had conducted their
lives by different clocks.
She dwelled as much in the future as in the present, envisioning
where she wished to go, relentlessly mapping the path that ought to
lead to her high goals. Her strong mainspring was wound
Neil lived in the moment. To him, the far future was next week, and
he trusted time to take him there whether or not he planned the
They were as different as mice and moonbeams.
Considering their contrasting natures, they shared a love that
seemed unlikely. Yet love was the cord that bound them together,
the sinewy fiber that gave them strength to weather disappointment,
During Molly's spells of insomnia, Neil's rhythmic snoring,
although not loud, sometimes tested love almost as much as
infidelity might have done. Now the sudden crash of pummeling rain
masked the noise that he made, giving Molly a new target upon which
to focus her frustration.
The roar of the storm escalated until they seemed to be inside the
rumbling machinery that powered the universe.
Shortly after two o'clock, without switching on a light, Molly got
out of bed. At a window that was protected from the rain by the
overhanging roof, she looked through her ghostly reflection, into a
Their house stood high in the San Bernardino Mountains, embraced by
sugar pines, knobcone pines, and towering ponderosas with dramatic
Most of their neighbors were in bed at this hour. Through the
shrouding trees and the incessant downpour, only a single cluster
of lights could be seen on these slopes above Black Lake.
The Corrigan place. Harry Corrigan had lost Calista, his wife of
thirty-five years, back in June.
During a weekend visit to her sister, Nancy, in Redondo Beach,
Calista parked her Honda near an ATM to withdraw two hundred
dollars. She'd been robbed, then shot in the face.
Subsequently, Nancy had been pulled from the car and shot twice.
She had also been run over when the two gunmen escaped in the
Honda. Now, three months after Calista's funeral, Nancy remained in
While Molly yearned for sleep, Harry Corrigan strove every night to
avoid it. He said his dreams were killing him.
In the tides of the storm, the luminous windows of Harry's house
seemed like the running lights of a distant vessel on a rolling
sea: one of those fabled ghost ships, abandoned by passengers and
crew, yet with lifeboats still secured. Untouched dinners would be
found on plates in the crew's mess. In the wheelhouse, the
captain's favorite pipe, warm with smoldering tobacco, would await
discovery on the chart table.
Molly's imagination had been engaged; she couldn't easily shift
into neutral again. Sometimes, in the throes of insomnia, she
tossed and turned into the arms of literary inspiration.
Downstairs, in her study, were five chapters of her new novel,
which needed to be polished. A few hours of work on the manuscript
might soothe her nerves enough to allow sleep.
Her robe draped the back of a nearby chair. She shrugged into it
and knotted the belt.
Crossing to the door, she realized that she was navigating with
surprising ease, considering the absence of lamplight. Her sureness
in the gloom couldn't be explained entirely by the fact that she
had been awake for hours, staring at the ceiling with dark-adapted
The faint light at the windows, sufficient to dilute the bedroom
darkness, could not have traveled all the way from Harry Corrigan's
house, three doors to the south. The true source at first eluded
Storm clouds hid the moon.
Outside, the landscape lights were off; the porch lights,
Returning to the window, she puzzled over the tinseled glimmer of
the rain. A curious wet sheen made the bristling boughs of the
nearest pines more visible than they should have been.
Ice? No. Stitching through the night, needles of sleet would have
made a more brittle sound than the susurrant drumming of this
She pressed fingertips to the windowpane. The glass was cool but
When reflecting ambient light, falling rain sometimes acquires a
silvery cast. In this instance, however, no ambient light
The rain itself appeared to be faintly luminescent, each drop a
light-emitting crystal. The night was simultaneously veiled and
revealed by skeins of vaguely fluorescent beads.
When Molly stepped out of the bedroom, into the upstairs hall, the
soft glow from two domed skylights bleached the gloom from black to
gray, revealing the way to the stairs. Overhead, the rainwater
sheeting down the curved Plexiglas was enlivened by radiant whorls
that resembled spiral nebulae wheeling across the vault of a
She descended the stairs and proceeded to the kitchen by the
guidance of the curiously storm-lit windows.
Some nights, embracing rather than resisting insomnia, she brewed a
pot of coffee to take to her desk in the study. Thus stoked, she
wrote jagged, caffeine-sharpened prose with the realistic tone of
This night, however, she intended to return eventually to bed.
After switching on the light in the vent hood above the cooktop,
she flavored a mug of milk with vanilla extract and cinnamon, then
heated it in the microwave.
In her study, volumes of her favorite poetry and prose--Louise
GlYck, Donald Justice, T. S. Eliot, Carson McCullers, Flannery
O'Connor, Dickens--lined the walls. Occasionally, she took comfort
and inspiration from a humble sense of kinship with these
Most of the time, however, she felt like a pretender. Worse, a
Her mother had said that every good writer needed to be her own
toughest critic. Molly edited her work with both a red pen and a
metaphorical hatchet, leaving evidence of bloody suffering with the
former, reducing scenes to kindling with the latter.
More than once, Neil suggested that Thalia had never said--and had
not intended to imply--that worthwhile art could be carved from raw
language only with self-doubt as sharp as a chisel. To Thalia, her
work had also been her favorite form of play.
In a troubled culture where cream often settled on the bottom and
the palest milk rose to the top, Molly knew that she was short on
logic and long on superstition when she supposed that her hope for
success rested upon the amount of passion, pain, and polish that
she brought to her writing. Nevertheless, regarding her work, Molly
remained a Puritan, finding virtue in self-flagellation.
Leaving the lamps untouched, she switched on the computer but
didn't at once sit at her desk. Instead, as the screen brightened
and the signature music of the operating system welcomed her to a
late-night work session, she was once more drawn to a window by the
insistent rhythm of the rain.
Beyond the window lay the deep front porch. The railing and the
overhanging roof framed a dark panorama of serried pines, a
strangely luminous ghost forest out of a disturbing dream.
She could not look away. For reasons that she wasn't able to
articulate, the scene made her uneasy.
Nature has many lessons to teach a writer of fiction. One of these
is that nothing captures the imagination as quickly or as
completely as does spectacle.
Blizzards, floods, volcanos, hurricanes, earthquakes: They
fascinate because they nakedly reveal that Mother Nature, afflicted
with bipolar disorder, is as likely to snuff us as she is to succor
us. An alternately nurturing and destructive parent is the stuff of
Silvery cascades leafed the bronze woods, burnishing bark and bough
with sterling highlights.
An unusual mineral content in the rain might have lent it this
Or . . . having come in from the west, through the soiled air above
Los Angeles and surrounding cities, perhaps the storm had washed
from the atmosphere a witch's brew of pollutants that in
combination gave rise to this pale, eerie radiance.
Sensing that neither explanation would prove correct, seeking a
third, Molly was startled by movement on the porch. She shifted
focus from the trees to the sheltered shadows immediately beyond
Low, sinuous shapes moved under the window. They were so silent,
fluid, and mysterious that for a moment they seemed to be imagined:
formless expressions of primal fears.
Then one, three, five of them lifted their heads and turned their
yellow eyes to the window, regarding her inquisitively. They were
as real as Molly herself, though sharper of tooth.
The porch swarmed with wolves. Slinking out of the storm, up the
steps, onto the pegged-pine floor, they gathered under the shelter
of the roof, as though this were not a house but an ark that would
soon be set safely afloat by the rising waters of a cataclysmic
In these mountains, between the true desert to the east and the
plains to the west, wolves were long extinct. The visitation on the
porch had the otherworldly quality of an apparition.
When, on closer examination, Molly realized that these beasts were
coyotes--sometimes called prairie wolves--their behavior seemed no
less remarkable than when she had mistaken them for the larger
creatures of folklore and fairy tales.
As much as anything, their silence defined their strangeness. In
the thrill of the chase, running down their prey, coyotes often cry
with high excitement: a chilling ululation as eerie as the music of
a theremin. Now they neither cried nor barked, nor even
Unlike most wolves, coyotes will frequently hunt alone. When they