Mojave Desert, 2008.
Aye. He’s a thing to study.
The kid looked at Tobin. What’s he a judge of? he said.
What’s he a judge of?
* * *
I’m disconnected from my action, my foot pressing down on the brake and bleeding the speed out of the engine in the middle of all this white hot waste. I feel the car stop. I squint and open the door.
“Where are you headed?”
“Wherever you should chance to take me.”
“Well, I’m chancing to take you to San Diego.”
He tosses his stuff into the back. It is fascinating to watch him maneuver himself into the car: an enormous foot, a bend of the knee, the smooth descent of his titanic rump. He hauls the door closed. The seat glides all the way back with a creak and he levers the seat down and stretches out, a phenomenon akin to the collapsing weight of a mudslide but for the measured delicacy in it, and for the feline flexion of his trunk; my mind breaks him down to similes: hands like plates, thighs like tree trunks, feet like rowboats, shoulders like a barn door. He puts his hat over his eyes like a Mexican taking a siesta, plate-sized hands folded together across a middle that rises up, firm and immobile, like the mound of earth on top of a grave.
Old women in black rebozos ran forth to kiss the hems of their reeking shirts and hold up their dark little hands in blessing.
* * *
I have never seen water-colored eyes before, and I have never smelled such stink but these chains are familiar to me and so is the handling from one owner to the other. I have plowed, I have cooked, I have dug holes in the earth with my hands and I have left my flesh in the middle of the night, left it lying there on a pallet so a man could do what he wanted with it while I floated up between the stars, rolled around in the wind, prayed for the sight of water.
The water is here. Long thin tongues of it, murmuring up into the flat brown gleaming sand and dissolving into a film of saliva before falling into it. The endless cycle of the waters, smoothed out into a pleasing murmur. I don’t know if there’s a language because I’m a girl and girls don’t learn how to make the picture words and don’t learn how to separate out the sounds and render them into parts of pictures, or shapes of tongues. I don’t know if the water is speaking to the land. I don’t know if the water is entreating the land. I don’t know if it says please, please, I will give myself to you. I will do it over and over again. A man would say that it was only the motion of water and the inevitability of land, that it is an agreement, water will assert his power and land will crumble a bit at a time and that it is the gods’ decree that they should make sand together but that there is no salience in land or in water. Does the water speak when you wash yourself with it? Does it cry out when you swallow it?
I don’t know. Maybe it does. But I am a slave girl and my tongue is not for talking.
Your eyes are the color of water.
I see you marking things into a book of paper. I see you measuring things with your eyes and marking them down. All of your men are god-sized and wear the white skin of death underneath the loosened leather-lashed plates. You light the flatulence of strange war gods and your tubes spit flamed pellets into the soft guts of both animals and men. Your blades are of smooth gleaming stone that is not stone and this stone that is not stone does not break against the will of other stones. Even Huitzilopochtli could become sand. There is sorcery here but it is mundane sorcery even though the men argue among themselves and want it to be more, they want signs from the gods and auguries of identity and they want your language to be a mystery.
I am a slave girl. I am nothing. The nothing in me speaks to the nothing in you. I know you have seen me and your feather scratches deep into the papers of your book, I feel the sharpening of those water-colored eyes. I feel their scratching upon my skin. Are you writing me down, paying some final obeisance before your countrymen unleash their common everyday sorcery and their mysterious words to prowl across the divided lines and burrow into my ears? I feel their desire to take up residence in my head. They are weeds supplanting the native soil. Yes, write me down. I long to be more than a number. I wish to escape into another’s mind. I want to be tabulated in the reckonings of strange gods and made more or less than the flesh or the skill of my hands, divided by the knowledge of some other race, multiplied by the inevitability of their collision. Be water, be land. Make sand of me. My own gods are no less cruel.
You are smiling, showing me your teeth. You flip the book over and I see myself entire: the black lines and all the thoughts hiding in them.
You gesture me forward.
The kid withdrew the shaft from the man’s leg smoothly and the man bowed up on the ground in a lurid female motion and wheezed raggedly through his teeth. He lay there a moment and then he sat up and took the shaft from the kid and threw it to the fire.
* * *
The stones are immense and slab-like, leaning out of the earth at impossible angles dictated by the implacable nature of time. Is the earth even moving? I cannot feel its slow pulse. The texture of darkness spread out upon the ground is heavy and indolent and the wind doesn’t even whisper. These are the stones made gold by a strong afternoon sun and red by a weak one and transmuted into dark snarling sentinels by a star-clogged night.
You would compare timelessness to a lack of motion, you say. To stillness. Come here. Step into the ragged circle made by this fire.
I do and the light races up, flickers at my knees and casts pale shadows on my breasts and breathes its heat into my face. It moves along my hair and pulls me out of the gloom. The soft dust is cool on my bare feet, the sort of dust that receives its warmth only from flesh; it is revenant, it remembers when someone tells it to. I am dust. I am here to be soft under your feet and to make you remember the sensation of fire, greedy light of it crawling all over your face and dilating your eyes so the darkness is deepened, all this drama of simple nature, moths dive-bombing the flames and bringing their futility to the altar of what is about to happen.
See this circle, you say. What do you suppose made it?
I don’t know.
Speak of the manner of combustion. The reactions taking place on a molecular level so that heat and light may happen. The transubstantiation of air. It is a darkling thing and it is not. Common sorcery that no one thinks about anymore and yet once upon a time in the minds of men fire was the exclusive property of the gods. Do you think often of fire?
I do not.
You should. Fire speaks. It speaks to those who listen. What do you think the wood would say to the flame? Do you think it is cognizant of its own end? Maybe there is nothing. An educated person would tell you so. Wood does not speak, fire does not speak, water does not speak. One draws the blankets of what others have studied close to the body and soon forgets the cold. The cold is gone and then when one is confronted with snow there is outrage. I banished this! I drove it away and here it is, back again, and that is the way it is. No blanket ever destroyed the cold. So I will ask you again: what would the wood say to the flame?
It would say you are inevitable.
You clap your hands, slow at first, smiling in all this gluttonous firelight. Your hands clap more rapidly still. This ringing applause twirls back and forth between the faces of rock and the fire snaps at it. Jealous fire.
Brava, my dear. Brava. Come here.
My feet tread the dust that cannot remember until it is told. This chill and dreaming dust.
The flame is relentless. Would you agree? Relentless and ruthless and laying no claim to soft luxuriant manners, graces fashioned of silk and worn tight to the overabundant flesh of a harlot, in this case the harlotry of the mind, its tremulous urge to sell itself to the highest bidder. No promises told out of a painted mouth that by its very nature is a lying mouth. It is pure intention. It cannot lie for it can only steal the air from between those painted lips and burn.
You pass the tip of your thumb close to the bridge of my nose. It dips inward, follows the shape and there is no contact, only the stirring in a current of air. It hovers over the parting of my lips.
Look at me. I will not touch you. I don’t have to. My flesh makes heat and heat and air have always been irresistible to each other and flesh and heat will always yearn for one another and there it is, the gap bridged. Feel that. An imprint of skin that carries its own imperative.
I don’t want to breathe but I can’t help it. The heat swells and recedes in a softened tide. I feel them, tiny fires kindled at the cellular level. Straining nerve endings that want to be touched.
I am inevitable.
You are inevitable.
Your knees will give out. They always do. Kneel.
Look at me.
There are too many stars in the sky. Too many. I forbid the shedding of your flesh. The wind is not yours to play in. It is mine. Do you understand?
Cut. Do it now.
The hand that holds the knife is trembling. The hand holding a sheaf of hair is not. My heart shoves against my breastbone each beat sonorous and full of lead and the first slice falls on my brow, blood hot and savory flowing across my cheeks. It stings and then throbs, full of cardiac bravado and echoing the gash that never closes. I feel it crawling in, the blood that yearns to be ash. It clings to my eyelashes. My breath quickens. A wrench of the hand and I scream, raw and full of nails and indrawn anguish. I am loosened by the blood and unpinned by the indescribable sound of my skin divorcing my bone and the rushing roaring pain of it, the million hungry mouths. I fist both hands into my hair and pull and this time it’s a shrieking keening cry, a wail of trenchant dissonance, muffled by the weakness of my spine. I am befouled by my own blood. My hair is in my fists and my elbows are quaking in the dust.
This is not time but you know that.
I am breathing hard.
We are outside. Now finish it.
The rest of the scalp comes away. It rips with a low wet smooching sound. I want to feel the cool air on my skull, to know relief, but there is no relief. The length and breadth of my body is throbbing and my bones are knocking together. The adrenaline forming a thin margin between this and unconsciousness. I fling the hair onto your feet.
Lift your face. Oh my dear one.
The blood glues my eyes shut but it’s okay because there is the guiding force of your fingers, no heat now but the smooth intent of skin, under my chin.
My dear one flayed.
The kiss is dry and chaste, brief contact. A flutter, a twitch, a clench; a gasping breath exhaled on your smeared mouth, hitched in and let out, a whimper that wants to be a moan but has been beaten down into the sanctuary of a raw throat. Oh it’s so clever and keen, the edge of your knife made cool by the dust and this night that is not a night and illuminated by the fire that is not a fire but rather beautiful destruction, your knife poised on my carotid---my jaw stiffens and there is so much desire in me and at that moment a swift motion slices my throat, releasing my blood to the world.
New Orleans, 1892.
She directed him to a table where a woman was selling the chits and stuffing the money with a piece of shingle through a narrow slit in an iron strongbox.
* * *
It is stuffy in here with the stink of cigars and of perfumed flesh but the chandeliers are sparkling and there is polished light flung everywhere. Toothless whores and mirth in a bottle. The wood floors creak but no one notices. This is sweet music. We are all caught up in the machinations of it.
Your hand is light. Your feet float across these tired old floorboards and my body is pulled into your wake. My skirts swing around. My feet slide into the spaces left behind by your feet. I am a fallen petal floating on the coruscating surface of a stream.
Any man can buy a dance but few own it the way you do.
Mojave Desert, 2008.
What’s he a judge of.
Tobin glanced off across the fire. Ah lad, he said. Hush now. The man will hear ye. He’s ears like a fox.
* * *
It is a long flat stretch of road and through the shimmering haze of heat I spy a man waiting there. His stuff piled around his feet. My hand hovers over the directional.
Have I seen him before? Do I know that shape?
Something here is familiar.
It doesn’t matter. I flick on the directional and shift my foot to the brake. I turn down the radio. It doesn’t matter because none of this has happened yet.