It surprised me that Jane wanted to buy a cow’s skull. Dead animals as ornaments weren’t her style, but she seemed intent on the idea and I guessed that she wanted a souvenir of the whole brushwood desert and big sky atmosphere of New Mexico. I felt neutral about it, had noticed the skulls in a couple of gift stores, saw their appeal but couldn’t think where we would mount one at home. It surprised me that she wanted to stop in Espanola after leaving the Georgia O’Keeffe house rather than wait until we got back to Santa Fe, and that instead of a solid head with polished horns from a gift store she bought a fragile specimen chipped around the jaw and eye sockets from a guy selling bottom end gifts from a covered stall.
“Are you sure about that?” I asked. “You can afford one that looks more impressive.”
“It’ll do for me.”
Then she dragged me along the street to find a florist, turned down the first because they had no white roses, but a hundred yards further saw some in a window and bought a bundle of five.
“We have only two glasses in the hotel room,” I said. “We’ll have to ask for another to stand them in water.”
“That’s not important. Let’s get back to the car.”
Ten minutes later we were back on the road.
“Do you mind if we take a diversion?” she asked.
“That place we did the trail walk yesterday.”
“Something I want to see.”
I sensed that she wasn’t ready to say more, felt confused but remembered the spot was just ten minutes off the main road, so I did as asked. We had been together for eighteen years – twice as long as she had with her late husband – and I could spot the rare occasions when it was better to just let her do whatever she wanted to do. When we parked the car she took the skull and roses from the back and led me towards to the trail we had walked the day before, and I began to think this was going to be something for her Instagram account. A hundred yards on she stepped off the path, up a scrub filled slope towards the splintered walls of white rock close to the trail. I thought the spot resembled those in a couple of the O’Keeffe paintings we had seen in the gallery in Santa Fe, the artist’s meditations on the local landscape, and that Jane wanted to place herself in a similar picture. I got it; she was no flake but had a taste for the vaguely mystical, stuff that just hinted at something beyond what you could see. She took a few steps beside the rock to a spot where it had fractured, leaving a small gap into a dark vertical crevice, placed the skull and roses on the ground then moved her fingers over the rock’s surface. I took out my phone and turned on the camera.
“You going to hold it up for the pic?”
Instead she examined a point in the crevice just above with her waist, then picked up the skull to tilt its jaws inside and wedge the rest into the gap, not quite straight but deep enough for it to stay fixed – at least for a while. Then she took two of the roses, pushed the stem of one into a crack in the forehead and took minute to fix the other into the lower part of the jaw. She stood back and stared at it.
“You want to stand beside it for the photo?”
“No. I don’t want a photo.”
It made me wonder for the first time if she had a touch of crazy in her head. She moved back a little further and continued to stare, like she was seeing something other than the remnants of a dead steer. I moved up to stand beside her, wanting to share in it. I supposed there was something in life sprouting from death, but knew it wouldn’t be long before the roses dried out and died. A glance at Jane told me it meant more to her. I stepped back a little and waited for a while, letting my gaze drift across the rock and up to the sky, enjoying the sun parched grandeur of the scene. Footsteps and quiet voices moved behind us then stopped. I turned to see two walkers who had noticed the skull with roses in the rock, briefly intrigued but not asking, then responding to my smile and shrug with raised hands and their own smiles before moving on. Jane spoke.
“I will take a photo, but I don’t want to be in it.”
She took out her own phone, raised it with both hands towards the skull, took one picture and returned it to her pocket. Then she went back to the rock, placed her fingers on the sides of the head and dipped her face towards it. I didn’t hear her say anything but it looked like something between a prayer and a kiss. Then she came back towards me.
“We can go now.”
“Are you going to leave that there?”
“Yes. I hope you don’t mind the cost, but that’s why I bought the skull cheap.”
“It’s your money, but what was that about?”
“Let’s get back to the car.”
Once there she leaned back against its door and began to check her phone.
“There’s a mild signal. I hope this can make it.”
She tapped its screen and I guessed she was using its web browser. It took almost a minute before she seemed to find what she wanted, then she looked back at me.
“I know, that was a little crazy.”
“I won’t argue with that.”
“Look at this.”
She showed me the screen, a small copy of a painting, a cow’s head with two roses placed close to the points she had found on the real skull.
“You wanted to recreate that picture?”
“I did. It’s called Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses.”
I could see the similarity in style with paintings we had seen in the gallery, the clean lines and sparse colours, conveying the sense the sense of intense dry heat.
“Don’t think I noticed that one yesterday.”
“It’s not there. It’s in the Art Institute of Chicago.”
A weight dropped. I knew what had happened there.
“Is this something to do with Greg?”
She nodded. A second later I realised what it was about.
“Was he looking at that picture when it happened?”
“Near enough. He stepped away from it, turned and said ‘I’d have that on the wall’. Then he clutched his chest, his face twisted and he went down. He was dead by the time the paramedics got to him.”
A long silence hung between us. I had known that he died in the museum but not that detail. A sad smile crossed Jane’s face and then, something I had only seen when her father died, a tear ran down her cheek. I placed my arms around her and hugged. It was almost a minute before she spoke.
“Don’t ask me to explain why I did that. There was something crazy in it.”
“Yeah, crazy but human. When did you get the idea?”
“Earlier today, in the gallery. Wasn’t sure if I would do it until we left the O’Keeffe house.”
“Do you feel better for doing it?”
She looked up at me and wiped her eye.
“Let’s get back in the car.”
We got inside and sat. I touched her hand and she smiled, the sadness in her face fading. It was when I turned on the engine that she leaned across and kissed me.
“I got lucky twice,” she said.
“I’ve been happy to get lucky once.”