THE DESERT by Marya Hornbacher
THEN, THE DESERT SEEMED to creep towards you. It lay at the edges of things, surrounding you on all sides. You stood at the center. You stood there, clenching your teeth at the feel of bare feet burning on the white pavement by the pool, and looked up at the sky, which arched above you, crayon-blue. The flat-paddle cacti grew neatly at the edges of the pavement. At the borders. Wild things, kept at the edges of the pool, the same sky-blue, the white pavement, the white adobe buildings with white stairs leading up to silent rooms where vents hissed a freezing breath that always knocked you into sleep on the white couch, your wet hair and open mouth. A high white wall ran around the buildings, the pool, the flat-paddle cacti, and you, standing at the center, your hands on your hips, looking up at the wide sky. You were too small to see beyond the wall.
Out there was the desert. You could hear it. The desert has a certain audible silence, an almost tactile silence, a clicking, hissing, sibilant silence that you want to try to imitate with your teeth, forcing breath through your teeth. You don’t notice this yet. You notice this later, when you come back, looking for the desert, sitting on a hot step late at night. You notice this with your knees akimbo, your elbows on your knees, a sweating bottle of beer dangling from your hand, and you squint into the absolute dark and try to make out the precise quality of silence in the desert. It is a habitated silence. You will notice, later, that things in the desert do not make noise with their mouths but with their bodies. Lashing out. Striking. Holding still. The stillness is tense. When you come back the first time, it will be June, and everything you own will be in the back of your car, and you will not know why you are there, but you will hear in the distance the coyotes’ call.
But you don’t know any of this yet, because you are only seven, and you are wearing an orange bikini and seeing how long you can stand to feel the flesh of your feet burn on the white pavement before you run into the pool.
This is a summer. It is always summer when you go to the desert. You do not go to escape cold winters, or snow. You do not know why you go. You sometimes confuse the desert with Florida, and ask your father if there are crocodiles on the other side of the white wall.
You are always alone.
This is not true, of course. It only seems that way. It seems that no one is there except you. When you wake up in the morning, you put on your orange bikini and go outside. You are trying to wrap your mind around the idea of this kind of heat. You can only picture a thermometer, with the blood creeping up to ninety, then one hundred, one hundred ten.
At that point you picture the thermometer exploding and splattering blood all over the white adobe patio of the place where you live.
You know that it is hotter than one hundred ten. It might be one hundred fifteen. You have heard them say that it is one hundred twenty. They have said it would not be one hundred thirty.
There is no way to feel a degree. Only to feel heat. You are alone. Your mother leaves, every morning. Your mother has a scarf wrapped around her head, knotted under her chin, and dark glasses. She has long narrow arms, very dark. She stands in the kitchen with her right hipbone leaned against the sink, drinking a glass of water. Filling it again, drinking it in one long series of swallows. When she is done she sets it by the sink and disappears.
When you are older you will wonder where you stood, watching her. Or if you were sitting at the glass table, with your orange, peeled on a plate. Or if you only heard her; if she did this so often, in the same way, that you could sit sucking on an orange section and look out at the just-past-the-wall street, with its row of houses, set wide apart in stone and cacti lawns, and hear your mother drinking water, and know she would set the glass by the sink and leave.
You might have turned and seen the glass, empty but for the ice cubes, melting fast.
You might have turned back to the window and watched the way nothing moves. Outside, through the plate-glass door, while you sucked on your section of orange and shifted in the iron chair. The stillness was impossible. When you came to the desert, that first time, you asked why there were no trees. Why no grass. Were there snakes. Your father told you why, but you forgot. He explained that if a crocodile was to chase you, you should run in zigzags because crocodiles were so stupid they would follow you, zigzagging, and that they had to stop altogether in order to turn, so they would be much slowed.
When your father said things, you looked through the glass, out the window of the car. You watched the stone and cacti yards for snakes.
“The heat can be deadly,” your mother wrote. “Like the cold can, up north.”
She wrote that years later. In fact, what she wrote was this:
“In the desert, I learned that the heat can be deadly. Like the cold can, up north.”
She wrote that in a letter, when you lived in Los Ojos. You had a P.O. box and no address. There were more sheep in Los Ojos than people. You did not particularly want an address. And it was never clear whether you in fact lived in Los Ojos, Tierra Amarillo, or Chama. None of them were on the map. It was simply where you stopped.
The letter was on a thin piece of paper. She sent you a carton of cigarettes and some money. She said to be careful of heat. The heat can be deadly, she said.
She may not have said to be careful. That would not be like her; it would have seemed self-evident from the foregoing clause.
She must have learned that when she disappeared. When you were small, when you sat at the table, and she drank her water. She went to the desert, she said. That was where she went.
During the day, you stayed in the water until you were wrinkled and then lay on the white chairs until you were hot and got back into the water. You did this until the sun had put you into a starved stupor, and then you went up the white stone steps, into the shivering hissing air, and ate a bologna sandwich at the glass table, and fell asleep on the white couch.
A person could pass years this way. This is because that kind of heat is so extreme one thinks of only a few things, and they are these: the heat; the need for air; the need for food; the need for sleep. One passes between these things without thought. There is very little need for speech. The body speaks for itself.
You will discover, later, that another desire slithers into place, in that sort of heat. Water, food, sun, sleep, sex. You will abandon the empty bed, walk room to room, flushed, turning on lights and turning them off, open all the windows, finally go out onto the step, still hot with sun, and stare into the absolute dark, your body holding a desire so extreme and pointless that it seems as if you hold a lovely and very red dress that you will never wear.
You drive through Albuquerque one year, just before sunset, the sky a sudden shocked rose-orange, and press your foot to the pedal just to keep yourself from veering into the city, finding a bar, wearing a red dress, searching for someone who would let you say nothing, lift your red dress, straddle their hands.
When you are seven a bologna sandwich is enough.
It isn’t true, you don’t remember what happened after you slept on the white couch. You remember your mother, a shadow in the corner of your eye, coming in after her day in the desert, her face flushed, carrying heat into the cold room.
You would assume you ate.
You would assume there was a sunset, and then dark.
But what you remember is standing on the patio one evening, the sky suddenly turning a reddish grey, wind coming up slightly, and then pushing against you so hard it was as if the wind had hands, and you gripped the white stone wall around the patio. You watched the street disappear and felt the sand hit your skin, burning. You squinted, your hair flying around your face. You wondered if it was a tornado. You hung on. You wanted to see the desert, you had it in your head that when the wind died down the desert would have made it over the wall, the desert would have finally picked itself up and heaved itself in. The glass table on the patio behind you blew into the wall and shattered. The chairs lifted and flew into the pool. Flat paddles of cacti careened past your face like needled frying pans. The door opened behind you and someone grabbed your arms and lifted you and carried you into the house.
You don’t remember who, or what you said.
You would assume they made you stand away from the window.
It was a sandstorm, they said.
You remember lying in the bed with cool white sheets—that night or another night—wishing you were out in the sand storm, squinting, clinging to a white adobe wall.
Maybe it never happened.
Maybe you were never there. As a child. We could entertain the notion that it was but a dream. But, like the lovers in the fairies’ forest, like the sailors lost and drunk on Prospero’s island, we will never know for certain that the dream was not real.
In any case. In any case, the question stands, and there comes a time when you are somewhere else, and say you are sitting on the front step of a crumbling brownstone, shouting with the boys who go by, and say that suddenly your voice dies down, your head swings slowly south and west, toward sunset, just over the freeway, where the yellow sun is spilling into the soot-black shadows of the industrial section of town, smokestack and smokestack, and you know you will have to go back.
You know the desert will draw you back almost of its own accord.
But here we have to stop to consider. The story of the little girl dissolves in heat mirage and a surplus of naps and too many days of stumbling, heat-stunned and dizzy, into and out of the pool like an animal who cannot chose, for once and for all, whether it prefers water or land. Fish or snake. Girl or beast. So we cannot tell that story, only begin there. We can begin there, with the accidental arrival.
Say she is not native to the desert. She is not native to anywhere, really. Her mother, from the south, her father the deep north. Left to her own devices, darling, they said, follow the road where it leads you, and waved their beautiful hands.
This is a love story.
Waved their beautiful hands and turned to the window to look at the gathering dark. The dark which gathered like folds of a midnight-colored velvet in her mother’s long dark hands.
Here is a photograph: I would set it on the dresser in an antique pewter frame, if I had such a frame, and if the photograph were real:
My mother, bent over her lap, bent over a gathering of thick and midnight-colored velvet that spilled, uncut and unhemmed, to the floor. Broad and bony-shouldered, a woman with thick hair the color of velvet, pinned back, a dark and high-boned face, a mouth blood-red and drawn into a line.
One hand held up, angular against the soft, forgiving folds of velvet, calculating where to stab the pin.
The woman in the photograph, if she looked up, would look at you, indifferent to your presence, pause once, and back to her work.
MARYA HORNBACHER is the New York Times Bestselling author of five award-winning books of prose. She is currently at work on her sixth and seventh books, a work of science journalism and a collection of essays. These will be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2017.