Ennis feels like he knows nothing but roads, even though he and Alma have a comfortable little place above the laundry in Riverton. It is hardly the kind of living situation meant to last. When his two girls get older, the little apartment won't be enough room for them all.
His life stretches far ahead of him like a long road with no turns. No going back and no other way to go than forward into the never-changing path ahead. There is no place he returns to after every exhausting journey, where he can rest and take comfort in the feeling of being back where he belongs.
He gets a postcard from someone who might as well be a long-gone childhood friend whose face he doesn't even remember. Yet the lost time suddenly feels like yesterday. Maybe, he thinks. Just maybe things can go back to the way they were. Maybe he can still return.
Ennis hated bright light. He couldn't stand having the sun in his eyes. When he went out he always had his hat on, even if sitting inside a diner near a window, and his head was always bowed to keep his eyes shaded from the sunlight. His shoulders were always stiffened and hunched, forming a protective barrier. His tightened, guarded appearance usually gave off the message that he wasn't the kind of person to walk up to and try to strike up a conversation with. Always looking down, he never had to make eye contact. It worked to protect him from the world. Usually, the world got the message and left him alone.
Jack Twist, however, didn't get the message. It made Ennis very uncomfortable the way this man he didn't know immediately started burning holes in him with his eyes as soon as he got out of his truck and noticed him standing there. Knowing he was being watched but not wanting to meet eyes with this stranger, he stood there with his eyes down on the rocks he nervously shuffled around on the ground with his feet, wishing he would just look away and let him be. The man seemed to be waiting for some kind of acknowledgement of him from Ennis, for him to say something. His eyes on him were like a bright light being shined on him as he was examined and inspected. Ennis felt like a helpless little ant under a magnifying glass focusing the unbearable sunlight on him in one blindingly bright spot. He stood with his hands dug deep in his pockets and his whole body clenched up like a turtle drawing into its shell to hide, just wanting to sink into a hole in the ground where it would be safe and dark and nobody could see him.
But then the man looked away. When he did it, it was like he was accepting something and giving up, abandoning an attempt. At what, Ennis didn't know, but he felt a kind of relief when this man stopped expecting something from him and went on with his own business, looking into his sideview mirror as he shaved his face, sometimes whistling a tune that the wind carried over in Ennis's direction.
Jack Twist. He wasn't so bad, as it turned out. He didn't know how to ever shut up and usually Ennis wasn't comfortable around people like that. They always kept asking him questions and energetically searching for a subject they could both talk about when Ennis really didn't know what to say in response to anything and didn't even understand why he should have to talk. At least Jack would usually do all the talking for the both of them. His voice wasn't the kind that hurt the ears after a while. In fact, sometimes Ennis found himself laughing at the things he said or even speaking back without being asked anything. Jack, who had decided to expect nothing from him, was always clearly surprised when he willingly opened his mouth and let something escape out of it that had been fighting around inside him and struggling to get out and see the light of day. Sometimes, it even felt good to let these things out. That was the thing that was so surpising about being with Jack. It was even intimidating and unsettling.
Ennis felt so unwatched and free up on the mountain. He started to act any way he felt like, making an ass out of himself after too many drinks of whiskey and joking around with Jack in ways he had never been able to with anyone else before, teasing him about being a terrible shot and making those unmusical nothing noises on his harmonica. And Jack let him. He was always expecting nothing from Ennis, but what he could get he took.
Perhaps it was too liberating to be up there. After a month of that kind of freedom, too many of the knots inside of him came loose. His tense muscles relaxed too much, slackening the barrier of his broad shoulders. His hands more often came out of his pockets where they were usually buried and reached away from him to let Jack hand him the whiskey bottle or his lighter, reaching out to take things offered. He forgot what wasn't normal and okay, only knew what felt right. He had forgotten everything he knew before he was here on this mountain. He did things he never, ever thought he would want to do. Then he realized what he was doing and knew he should be disgusted. But it was only as sickening to him as seeing his own blood flow from a deep wound.
He kept waiting to feel ashamed, embarassed, and disgusted with himself. But it still seemed like everything he thought he knew was right and wrong had no meaning out here. He always got the sense that there was nobody watching and even God himself didn't have a judgmental eye on them. He never felt the weight of the world's criticism on his shoulders. He and Jack did what they did in the dark, protected and unseen. When Ennis kissed him he would close his eyes and just not think about who he was kissing. He would close his eyes and fall into an enveloping darkness where he could hide, not seeing anything he didn't want to and not being seen. It was a safe, comfortable, nurturing darkness, a feeling like being in a mother's womb.
After the second night he slept in the camp with Jack, he woke up with a strange but familiar feeling that he knew he hadn't had for a very long time. Jack was still sleeping beside him, the sound of his breath a constant, certain thing. The night he had just spent with him had somehow vanquished all of his worries and anxiety about this thing going on between them and left his mind placidly blank. He was ready to just let this happen to him and stop questioning it. Everything seemed right and orderly like it does to a child who doesn't question anything or comprehend what there is to be concerned about. He felt like he was exactly where he was supposed to be, like he not only knew this place as well as he knew his own face, but had never known anywhere else.
When he thought about the last time he'd felt that kind of security and safe familiarity, his head suddenly filled with memories of the backyard of the house where he grew up, the things he'd had in his room, and the clothes he'd worn that his mother had made. Tangible memories he could feel and smell of bread baking in the kitchen, the thin cotton dresses with flowery patterns that his mother wore in June, the soft sound heard from another room of her humming tunes as she watered her plants, the collection of animal figures on his dresser that he had carved during long hours spent alone, and he and his sister collecting fireflies in jugs. Home.
It had been a hot, yellow day full of rank smells and the sound of flies when his father said to him and his brother, "Boys, let's go for a walk." When they got back Ennis was shaking and starting to feel sick, and his mother was waiting outside for them. Two women had come by hollering hysterically that old Earl was dead and they'd seen him, it was awful. The neighbors were all outside talking to them about it. Some kind of morbid local entertainment. Ennis's mother, however, was standing away from everyone else with her arms crossed, waiting in silence. She knew, somehow. When her husband passed her going inside, they exchanged a look that gave away nothing definite but seemed to give her all the answers. Her inhale of breath that followed shuddered through her whole body; for a moment she grabbed a tight handful of her skirt at her side. Then as Ennis walked by, she composed herself again, reaching an arm to the side to stop him.
"Ennis?" she just said in a concerned voice, running a hand over his hair. It was like she needed to touch him to make sure he was still her boy, still the same person.
"I'm fine, momma," he said without her asking.
She looked down at him with a warm smile that lasted a lifetime, putting her hand on his face, the corners of her eyes sparkling with what might have been tears. Normally he would have been irritated by her fussing over him, but he didn't draw back at all or flinch away from her touch. It just felt right then.
"Okay, honey," she said, lowering her hand from his face to pat his shoulder and gently push his back, easing him on. When he kept on walking to the house, his legs felt strong carrying him again, but they would be carrying more weight from then on than they ever had before.
He and Jack see each other once again, but it is for a brief time. Ennis knows all they will be able to get from each other is tiny samples and tastes of rest and solace. Never will they go back to the mountain where they had it all in their hands. There is no return to Eden. After that innocence and purity is lost, there is no getting it back.
To Ennis, his childhood is something that existed during the brief blink of an eye. Something cruelly cut short. Not when his folks died on that road. No, it happened before then. When innocence was taken away and a great burden was added, and that weightless ignorance of youth was no longer his. His mother looked into his eyes, knowing her boy was not her little boy anymore, quietly holding back tears for the loss. He would forever be under the overbearing weight his father had given him.
When he and Jack are sitting by a fire again just like old days, Ennis tells him the story about Earl. It is the strangest feeling to talk about it aloud; he has never told anybody else about this before, never before even given it any importance. Though the memory has jumped out at him from inside his head too many times to count, the image of that man's grazed and torn body haunting him even when he thinks he has all but forgotten it. It means so much more at this moment in time than it ever did before, and as he talks about it his heart starts to race like that of a frail little doe being chased by a coyote. He and Jack both are just helpless prey, he realizes.
After he explains what he saw when he was nine, Jack looks at him like he suddenly understands everything. What that missing puzzle piece in this person that he otherwise knows so well is. Ennis tries to say, "I'm scared, Jack," but it doesn't come out right, he says, "There ain't no reins on this one." But Jack understands and puts his hand to his face, the sad and hollow look in his eyes telling him how he wishes he could promise to never leave Ennis by himself with that terrible memory ever again. Ennis does not flinch at all at his touch. It just feels right.
Jack knows what he needs, moves his hand to the back of his neck to pull him towards him. For a moment they just sit with their foreheads leaning together, eyes closed, hands wandering blindly down to the buttons of each other's jeans. Then Jack kisses him, slowly and givingly, and Ennis drowns in darkness. It is this that can kill them, yet nothing in the world feels safer than being in this consuming darkness. Ennis forgets the burden he carries and returns to ignorance. It is the first time in a while that he has closed his eyes and not seen the image of a dead body behind his eyelids.
Far away in Lightning Flat, where the wind quietly blows dust across roads that lead only away from there, their shirts hang in a hidden place in a dark closet. They share the same hanger, Ennis's shirt inside of Jack's, unremovable and untouchable. No matter where he is, Ennis is always there inside of Jack. He is protected like a cherished secret, taken care of, kept safe. He is home.