Copyright © 2013 by Erika Rummel
All Rights Reserved.
I’M LOST. The silence of the desert is in my ears, the void fills my eyes. Night surrounds me, stalking me like a prey, waiting for me to lie down and surrender, ready to swallow me up. But fear keeps me going. I walk on, putting one foot in front of the other, until the air turns misty gray and a sharp wind blows up and raises a cloud of dust, until the sky becomes translucent and turns purple, until the sun rises California-bright, and I see a peaked roof on the horizon.
It’s an abandoned cabin, surrounded by a garden of debris: an easy chair spilling polyester, a coffee table with splintered legs, broken patio stones in a heap, a rusting barbecue, shards of glass under a hollow-eyed window.
I walk to the front door, push it open and stand aside to let out the monsters – spiders, scorpions, coyotes, whatever – I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never been in the desert before. But nothing creeps or flutters or dashes out as the door swings back creaking on its hinges. Instead a man’s voice says:
“Don’t shoot. I’m unarmed.”
It’s a voice with a hint of Latino accent. The possibilities flash in my brain: a felon on the run. An illegal border crosser. A madman. And the impossibilities: I can’t run away. I’m too tired, and he knows I’m here. I swallow hard, move my mouth, breathe in and out. I can’t talk. My voice has been trapped too long in my throat. I work my lips to push out an intelligible sound.
“I’m not armed either,” I say, taking one step over, risking it, showing the left half of myself to the invisible man. Now he knows that I’m no danger to him. I’m slight, five foot two, a teenage girl.
“I’m lost,” I say. My mouth feels woolly.
He keeps a watchful silence.
I stare into the dark space beyond the open door. I can see him now. He’s eighteen maybe, or twenty, short and stocky, with a blanket draped around his shoulders like a serape. He has a round face, half-moon eyebrows, a fleshy nose. The lower half of his face is shadowed by an incipient beard. He is unsmiling, unmoving, like someone carved in stone. Then his hands begin to stir, open and close, as if to limber up for a fight. They are large hands, capable of strangling me. Fear is swarming my brain.
“How’d you get here?” he asks.
I’ve caught him by surprise. He expected a car engine to announce my arrival.
“Walking,” I say. My voice sounds metallic, thinned by the fear in my throat.
He looks at me uncomprehending. No one walks in the desert.
“Are you hiding from someone?” I ask. I am trying to keep up the conversation. We have skipped the introductions. I guess that’s because we are beyond the reach of civilization. We are in the wilderness, and neither of us is keen to let on who we are.
He looks down on the dirt floor and answers my question with a nod: yes, hiding.
We haven’t moved. We are still looking at each other from across the room. He has his back against the wall, and I am standing rooted in the doorway. Can he see that I’m afraid of him? No, my face is in the shadows. All he can see is my body silhouetted against the sunlight. He knows I’m no match for him, but he knits his brow and doesn’t relax his stance. He’s afraid, too.
“Who’re you hiding from?” I say.
He’s afraid of being deported. He’s an illegal. A criminal. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I haven’t given it much thought. It’s not a crime like rape or murder at any rate. It’s just being in a place where you are not supposed to be. A type of misdemeanour. Or is it theft – stealing someone else’s job?
“So what d’you want?” he says.
I’m trying to answer, to come up with words, but I’m not used to talking.
“I’m hungry,” I say. “Do you have any food?”
He drops his eyes. A ghost of a smile appears in the corners of his mouth, a smile of embarrassment, because I’ve asked for something he doesn’t have or doesn’t want to share with me?
“How old are you?” he says.
“Fifteen,” I say.
“You talk like a child,” he says. “I’ll get you something to eat, but then you have to go.”
He shrugs off his blanket and opens a closet door in the back wall. The door is crooked, hanging awry and scraping against the floor. I can see a few cans piled in there. He bends down and picks one and takes a can opener to it. It’s a can of baked beans. He sticks in a plastic spoon and hands it to me.
“You can have half of it,” he says. The muscles on his arm are corded. He has a worker’s rough hands.
There are bottles of water in the closet as well, and he gives me one that’s already been opened. “You can drink the rest,” he says. “That’s all I can spare.”
His voice has no ups or downs. He doesn’t want to sound inviting. Better not talk to her, his face says.
I step into the room and accept his gift of food and drink.
He leans back against the wall, watching my next move.
I stand undecided with the open can in one hand and the half-empty water bottle in the other. There is nowhere to heat up the beans, no table to sit at.
“You eat the stuff cold?” I say.
He nods. I guess he can’t have a camp fire. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. He’s afraid someone will spot him and alert the immigration people.
I dip my spoon into the baked beans and eat standing up. I wash the meal down with water.
I am ashamed of my manners, scraping the spoon against the sides of the can, gulping the food like a dog. It takes me only a minute to suck the water bottle dry, to eat my portion, and hand back the can reluctantly. I would have loved to eat the rest.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Now go,” he says, jerking his head in the direction of the door.
“I’m too tired. I’ve been walking for hours. I need a rest.”
He looks away, avoiding my eyes. He doesn’t want to see my need. I know what he’s thinking. I’m lost. What if they come searching for me and find him instead?
“You can’t stay here,” he says.
“Please,” I say. “Half an hour?” My shoulders droop, and he relents.
“Okay, half an hour. But then you have to move on. There are cabins up that way,” he says, pointing out the window at a gravel road. It’s barely distinguishable from the surrounding scrubland, a little smoother maybe, but the same colour and the same texture, a yellow crumble. It’s not even banked up. That’s why I didn’t see it earlier.
“How far away are the cabins?”
“About two hours on foot.”
“I’ll check them out,” I say. “Maybe someone there can help me. And don’t worry: I won’t tell on you.”
He doesn’t say anything, but I can see it in his eyes: he doesn’t believe I can keep my mouth shut. He doesn’t know how good I am at it. I’ve kept my mouth shut for a long time.
There is no furniture in the place except a wreck of a sofa. I take off my runners and lie down on the sofa. I close my eyes, but before I can go to sleep I have to say my prayer. I call it a prayer because I use the same words every night when I go to bed and I’m afraid if I skip it even once, I’ll forget. It’s a formula I’ve worked out, an invocation of memory, a chronicle. I can’t afford to lose any part of my prayer. If I drop one syllable, it will drag down the rest, and everything will collapse and vanish, like all my other memories of the beyond. I have to hold on to this last bit of my prenatal life. The history of life after birth doesn’t matter. That’s shared property, family history, repackaged in anecdotes and brought out every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I don’t care about that part of my story. It has been handled s
I was scheduled to be born in 1962, in a city 50 miles north of Saigon, but I preferred staying in limbo, and who wouldn’t, considering what was going on in Phuoc Vinh at the time. I fought hard against the call, and my would-be mother was glad of what passed for a miscarriage, a bit of clotted blood in a rag. She was on the move with all her possessions bundled on her back and a five-year old trudging beside her, silenced by exhaustion. She was glad it had turned out that way and vowed to celebrate Buddha’s 2527th birthday with special devotion, and she did, but government troops fired on the celebrants, and she was killed.
I had another call in 1974, this time from New York. The situation was more promising. My would-be mother was set up nicely in a brownstone in Manhattan. Her family was wealthy, but she was a drug-addled teenager. I didn’t think I could handle crack, and I’m sure she, too, was glad when the pregnancy test turned out to be negative.
In 1995 the powers that be finally had enough of my recalcitrance and kicked me out. I ended up in a petri dish in California and was implanted into a thirty-eight year old housewife who decided to have one last shot at motherhood. And that’s when I was born.”
I put together my prayer a long time ago, in words I brought along from the beyond. But do they even have words there? I’m no longer sure. I can’t remember. That’s why it’s important to keep reciting my story, to engrave it on my brain, so it will always be there for me, to carry me back to my pre-birth world.
I paid for fighting destiny. Fate doesn’t alter its timetable for a stubborn embryo. The growth and development of my brain was arranged eons ago, when atoms bonded into molecules and the planets started orbiting. There is no way to stop the motion and reset my brain to zero. That’s why I was born lopsided, with a ’95 body and a ‘62 brain. Later, there was some give and take between my infant body and my thirty-something brain, an exchange of essence and energy, with my brain trying to lift off and my infant body hanging on like deadweight, dragging it down, but never all the way down to its own innocent condition. My brain is still ahead of my fifteen-year old body, by ten years or so. I am a fairytale creature, half teen, half adult, fantastic, monstrous, unbelievable like a mermaid.
My mother is tracking my life in a scrapbook. She likes cutting up time into regular squares and taking the coordinates, putting coloured dots on graphs. Everything about me that can be weighed and measured is noted down in her scrapbook. My name is on the first page, MELANIE in felt-tipped pink, wreathed with a daisy garland. After that, no more flowery nonsense, just the facts, pounds and inches traced on a chart, a perfect time line of sitting, crawling, and first steps, but on the page marked FIRST WORD: nothing. A blank page. I couldn’t get myself to speak. I didn’t want to shock people with the contents of my ‘62 brain spilling hot salsa, when they expected the milk of innocence. I decided to delay the business of speaking until I could reasonably be expected to talk in full sentences and say clever things. Around fourteen, I thought, would be a good time to stage a medical miracle and make my speaking debut, but fourteen came, and I didn’t take the plunge. It wasn’t the right time, judging by the sounds coming from the master bedroom. My parents tried to keep their voices down, but the walls couldn’t contain them. Their words escaped hissing like steam. You never, he said, yes I do, she said, no you don’t, I can’t, you aren’t even trying, I hate you. The two of them were jerking the handle of the word pump. Hot geysers shot out, breaching the wall, flash-flooding the room where I lay on my bed with my eyes squeezed shut and my hands over my ears. I could not keep their words out. A black lagoon formed in my head on which the debris of their marriage floated like little islands of rubbish. Being in a room with them was worse. I saw their eyes writing composite messages to each other across the dinner table, setting off word flares, burning through layers of courtesy, leaving the air scorched. Ugly spirits blossomed on their lips and infected the insides of my ears, making them tingle and quiver. Not good enough, he said, that’s because you are a workaholic, she said, you are never home, I am bored, you are boring, he said, it’s frustrating, we can’t go on. Their words were so ordinary, it’s hard to believe they had any firing power, but they were deadly, ripping out hearts and shredding lives. Their faces went pale and turned into graves. My name was never mentioned but I knew that I, their idiot savant child, was guilty by association. Their quarrels had a force of gravity from which there was no escape. No, this was no time to speak up. I kept my secret and stayed mute. I bit down on my lips, drawing blood. I lowered my eyes. I avoided the bloated suffering that showed in their faces. I thought I kept silent out of kindness, out of consideration for them, but I discovered that, really, I no longer had the will to speak. My words had sunk to the bottom of the black lagoon and were stuck in the briny sludge. I regressed from reading books to scanning lists: spreadsheets, the TV guide, nutrition facts on candy wrappers, dictionary entries. Books became incomprehensible. Their contents had the logic of dreams, melting before my eyes into something dubious and shapeless. Web pages were even worse, with their crazy all-over information jiggling and jumping at me. And tabloid headlines screamed at me from supermarket counters. I could no longer distinguish truth from fiction. Were aliens attacking America? Was the creature in the Scottish loch real? Was octo-mom a fake? I needed alphabetical order to calm my stomach. I was incapable of considering anything more complicated than information arranged in columns while I brooded over the question: did my mother volunteer to keep me, or did my father abandon the two of us when he moved to New York? It was hard to tell from the way they said good-bye. She gave him a concussed look. He kept his hands in his pockets. If he kissed me good-bye, I don’t remember. My head was full of numbers and titles of shows I had never seen. 8 pm How I Met Your Mother. 8.30 pm Mad Love. 9 pm Two and a Half Men. Eightthirtynine, ninethirty, or is it, what is it? Mad love, half men. Sleep. Deep sea exhaustion.