- Vol. 01
- Chapter 06
I made it so you could find me, it’s not like I’m hiding. The first thing that happened that wasn’t supposed to happen was that there were two of them. And the second one was a woman. Would you have wanted me to go through with it then? Even doing what we’re doing there’s a code, I thought. They didn’t show up. He didn’t show up. I waited and waited. Slow flood of shadow from the mountains covered the car, covered me. I was pretty pissed I can tell you standing there like I don’t know what, my hands all numb and too clumsy anyway. Why I didn’t call you? Why I didn’t call you… My sister … There was … The can is from target practice. I was all rared up to do my job. Now the wind whistles through it in a whining automatic blues. It’s a shame. It’s not what I wanted, I can tell you that. I had a blow out and remember I used the spare last month so I was too late by one hour. I lost the trail. There were three of them. I saw cops. The desert can just drain all your purpose away. It burnt me down into my miserable boots. I admit I drank some. My mother had a premonition. The sun shifted at the crucial moment into this unfortunate alignment, locked in with his windshield and blinded me. It was like the universe didn’t want it to happen. I think he got spooked and turned back. The wind felt very narrow, like I was in a tunnel and I didn’t want to be, you know what I mean? And an eagle was riding it right at the top, and that spooked me. There was this glare from his windshield right in my eyes. Everything got very light or very dark. It all got separated into floating pieces and it wasn’t safe to try. I think he must have got the day wrong. He’s out there. Oh, I know he’s out there. I wish he wasn’t as much as you. I hope you remember I’m your friend.
I thought I saw Jesus, arm stretched high, head wrapped in a blue cloth as if he stole his mother’s robes and left her bare headed, gasping. The sun is turning the sky liquid and the sand into salt that scales my skin. Heat haze: look up, and the hope that rushes through me is the beginning of a bright, bright glory, filling my heart as if that Jesus has been put there just for me. I never believed in God before, but after the way I have learned to pull the trigger, after the shells I have scattered, after the dust I have blown across this once verdant land? I do.
I voted in 1999 and I marched in 2003. I had already enlisted and I hoped that the war wouldn’t last long enough for me to go to it. I grew up shooting holes in a beer can stuck on a post, trying to be better than my brothers, so I got my orders. Jesus, this place looks nothing like our yard.
I used to shoot and think about how one day I would bring peace. Save the people from the vultures and the dogs and the cheetahs, the sand flies are the worst: spies everywhere. Red ants don’t crawl; they scoot away from me, from the poppies that drop from me. In the desert the stillness is so eerie and I’ve counted seven bullet holes in me like eyes in a potato. I think I can see Jesus, waving me down.
Stop. Stop with the heat and the pale blue sky, a cathedral roof blown out over the earth. Make it stop, because it hurts. Is this what praying feels like? Soaring of a dark bird over distant hills, with no promise of return? Come back, my mother wrote me, over there is no place for girls.
Mother, I say. I get to the post, and the old bud can with the dark holes and the wire fence and the homestead. The red curtains flutter in the breeze: there is a breeze. And she is there waiting, like we just said goodbye. I remember her funeral, when I was last here.Read more >
There are no casual bullets in the desert. The only signs of life, signs of manufacture. This scrapwood drawing instrument is seen from all angles, a catchpole splint in urban camouflage. Almost it leaves no shadow, does not call on light to make any decisions whatever. But where is incendiary evidence of an aim, the smoking gun of the camera? And what is the difference between pure and applied garbage? The one fails even to rein in visible surface debris, the other becomes tethering-post for an entire state. With or without suction, the extended synonymy of light and power is terminated here, in a word that jams in the breech, in a bud that will not blow.
The two men were the first people to come upon the scene, that is, since what had happened had happened.
‘What’s the story here?’
Larry followed Tim’s eyes to the can of Bud Light glinting in the sun a few feet from them. The pointed end of a length of wood that looked like it was once a part of something bigger was stuck in the can’s opening, holding it up in the air.
‘Target practice,’ Larry said. ‘See them bullet holes.’
‘Yes, but beyond that, beyond the obvious, what do you see?’
Larry was walking behind, so he could roll his eyes without Tim seeing. After three weeks working with Tim, Larry had decided that his revered mentor sounded much smarter with a camera before his eyes. On their last shoot yesterday, in an empty room with white walls and an empty picture frame hanging askew, Tim kept screaming, his voice bouncing off the walls, ‘Visualize the things no one else can!’ Larry visualized himself decking Tim.
In keeping with their theme for the week, Empty Spaces, they had come to this place.
‘It’s like someone set this up for us,’ Tim said.
He was right. The day before, after burying the body of the friend he’d shot for sleeping with his girl – having decided to do so just a moment before he turned from the Bud can during their daily target practice – a local man had decided to leave the scene as it was.
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He stands there, in silence, honouring his self-appointed task. He wears tattered clothes, his tired eyes never sleep. They intently stare at the invisible line that decades ago men in black suits drew on a map while drinking fragrant tea that travelled the oceans in puffing steamers.
The lone guardian never moves, he worries that in the split second of his absence the line may shift, or worse disappear thus depriving him of the very meaning of his existence.
He was caught as a child in a buffer as men with rulers traced the straight line that parted two countries, divided families and appointed enemies. He was caught in the middle, on the line, where would he go? He was too young to choose, too lonely to understand: he did not know and opted to stay.
He decided to inhabit the line he could not see and found himself neither there nor here. It was an act of faith, he trusted the invisible and he is now its lone guardian. And so he walks on a split horizon. Each ear is tuned on the slightly different inflections of what are now two separate languages. Each eye focuses on a minor declination of what have now to be considered separate landscapes. He is in both sides, but belongs to neither.
His stooping shoulders have endured years of insults. He fears trespassing, the challenges to the unseen authority, the dreadful possibility of mixing and exchanging. “The line is clean and clear”, he thinks. Its reassuring straightness is comforting so much so that he can forget its arbitrariness.
He knows that eyes he does not know are watching him as he watches the line. He knows he is not alone. He knows that, if nobody else, at least those eyes love him. And so he stands. In silence. And lets the wind blow dirt on his shoes even if dirt comes from either side of the border.
I know that desert.
I remember the signpost.
I tethered my horse there.
I got my bearings,
that is my trade mark
sticky-sticky life tape.
Keeping the wood together.
Keeping the faith.
Lining up the holes.
Wood worm eating
up my life – splinters
in the desert heat.
Fractured from the mother
of all suns.
My horse kept me sane
but I ran out water
and food stuff.
But I came back to
find him and he had
the wood and only
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This is what they call sky blue
A serene wash. Not cool.
No, not cold. Never cold here.
Dust, dust everywhere. Bone dry they say.
Like that stick of wood. Parched. Splintered.
Run your fingers along it and you'll soon know.
Not peaceful. This quietude drinks everything up.
See that can there:
I watched him suck the contents out.
A caterwaul came from his mouth. A liquid wail.
The ground met his knees.
Head lolling forward. Arms spread out.
A desert scarecrow.
God! Where are you God?
Words screamed into stifling air.
And the caterwaul again.
His own Jesus in the wilderness.
desolation of plain, mourning
the woods and fields which once
birthed leaves and verdant green,
the hum of bees: exuberance of life.
Already in our greed we ravish
land, tear up the trees,
spit out the silicon from sand.
Pitilessly steal Earth's living wealth
and call riches our financial health.
How long can we still murder her,
before we find
that death is shared by all:
when all that's left
is one tin can pierced to its empty heart,
keening in voiceless testament
to the unforgiving fall?
So she weaves tales of a stark obliqueness.
Desire drowning in desert,
The art of attrition.
Blood against a white background as
She builds him in the sand
A token, emblematic,
A shambling straw man in the line of fate, of futility, of folly.
She piles him high and stares.
His body is barren,
Riddled with holes,
Spirit strained through intangible years she can only imagine,
Grasping for that jouissance that has evaporated into the ether
But lay etched across the skin.
There is no one to fill in the ellipsis but her,
Her longing for him.
He greets her,
Scarred and weathered with wisdom infinite,
And she loves him for it.
Joey, he was this little kid, all slumped in the shoulders and eyes too close together. Sure wasn’t no second coming of Jesus. A little scrap like that! Ugly too. Like nothing we’d seen before. And Mama Louisa – she never could convince us it was Immaculate Conception, not with that glint in her eye. The woman was mostly bosom anyway – and women built like her – all wide hips, breasts and arms like rising bread? They’re just about made for bearing children. Not miracles.
No one would tolerate her. A Sister turning out a child? Red Hollow was too small a town for your sins to go un-repented for. The wives and even the husbands, they used to ignore her in the street. Going against the Good Book, and that oath she swore? No one would trust a woman like that. Let alone respect her. She was asking for too much. Even the Pastor, Rev. Ouston used to cuss her and now, he was a man with a terrible temper. He took the Lord’s word as gospel alright. His sermons could turn the desert air to ice. I heard him say she made light of the good word by having the baby and staying around for us to watch it grown.
Oftentimes she took these long walks up past the edge of the town, taking a bus or hitch-hiking I suppose. “Just going to see my Aunt Delta,” she’d say and off she’d walk with a homemade pie in her bag and dust clouds chasing about her feet. I reckon she was just getting outta sight, so she didn’t have to feel ashamed no more. She was always ready to forgive. Always had a smile taped on. I admired her for that, after the way we all treated her.
This is our playground, our front yard.
It’s your first day. We’ll show you around.
Steal the letters of your name off the plastic sign of the liquor store
in the neon light of the morning.
Welcome, to these dry rituals.
Your eyesight needs to be good here.
Burning light is an asset. Especially when following the moving target.
Flat gravel is good to do wheelies in - as the trucks race each other
like giant growler beasts.
Welcome, to survival.
There always should be a cooler in your trunk.
Noon is not an option here. You better learn how to track lizards.
You know how to drink beer like water? Well done, girl.
Now aim at that glint like the sky. Yeah.
Welcome, you done good.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Daddy alus tole that story when someone new came in the bar, to see their eyes go wide at the power of nature. He liked telling stories. That’s why he had the TVs removed from the rooms, said folk should talk to each other. He was right too. When I was a kid, I remember the bar was alus full with customers talkin t’ each other, bout where they was from and where they was going.
Daddy tole them about the coyote too, how it had lost its ma and had been beggin by the roadside since it was a pup. He made sure to tell em not to feed it, that it needed to hunt for itself. No one listened though. That coyote got fat on Cheetos and salami. It use to waddle along like a Florida pensioner. Me and my twin brother Nate called him Homer.
Daddy bought us guns when we was eight years old, said a man should learn to hunt. He showed us how to clean and load and aim and he rigged up targets in the yard using cans left by customers. We’d spend every free moment firing at those targets. Sometimes the city folks’d watch and give us quarters for hitting em. Looking back, they must’ve thought we were freaks, little eight year old kids wielding rifles for their entertainment. It was about then that Ma got sick and Daddy was away at the hospital a lot. A big mean woman called Matilda looked after the motel and we spent most of our time outback with the targets.
Ma never came home.
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“I can handle it,” I said and could feel the morning heat on my face and neck, my skin beginning to pink.
She helped me tuck the AR-15 into position, arms wrapped around me, then pointed with two fingers across the desert past a small strand of creosote to the target. “Hit the can,” she said and stepped back, smiling. “You think you can?”
“What happens if I do?”
I looked down the length of the barrel across the expanse of beige at the can of light beer balanced atop the stake stuck deep in the ground and shot full of holes already. “Thing’s taken a lot of abuse, huh?”
She scuffed her workboots against the earth and cracked her knuckles and laughed. “I bring all my boyfriends here.”
I wasn’t sure if she was kidding or not and took my finger off the trigger and lowered the gun. I visored a hand on my forehead to block out the sun, watched as her form evaporated back into being. “Can you hit it?”
“It’s a legitimate question.” Pause. “Can you?”
“Of course I can but this isn’t about me.”
She removed her sunglasses and I could just make out her eyes in the light. “You want to use these?” She handed them over and I put them on and watched her and everything drown in brown-green. “Might make it a bit easier for you.”
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will. I chose this place alone and
it was there that it was found.
What was found is for me alone
to cherish. What was left behind
is for the sky to witness.
Small sacrifices take place away from our eyes
on a daily basis - this was mine, and it was nothing
Messenger: My Lord, he overlooks the city: crowned
He is…my tongue is shamed to speak the words –
A paper crown to mock his bold ambition.
Beside, him, Sire, your brother Rutland bends
His sightless eyes upon his father’s face.
All this was done at envious Clifford’s hands.
But even in our grief, my Lord, we marvelled
Much how brave York’s eyes in death could yet
Enkindle fires of sure revenge within
Our hearts. And so we come to kneel before
You, Sire – your true liegemen in life and limb,
The hope of York and England’s rightful heir.
“Where are you tonight?” I say.
“Vegas,” he replies. “Next door to Frank, you never know I might meet him.” He met Frank Sinatra years ago at the Golden Buffalo; Dad’s band was practicing and Frank strolled through the rehearsal room. He told my Dad ‘he dug his groove, it was real loose’. I heard this story every week growing up, until the memory became buried treasure.
“Where’s the band?” Dad asks.
“It’s okay Dad, I’ll sort it.” I pick up the chipped mp3 player from its home in front of my parent’s wedding picture.
Sometimes Dad asks who the people are in the photograph; I tell him that he’s the groom. He doesn’t believe me; he says a woman that beautiful would never marry him.
I rub my thumb across play as I open the front door; the initial bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Strauss begin. Another of Dad’s anecdotes was that Elvis stole this opening after seeing his band.
“I don’t want to miss my cue. I’ve never missed a cue,” Dad says.
“We’ll make it,” I reply. Dad’s swing band was a vocal sensation in Nevada lounges and hotels in the sixties, they made a single and he sang with Dean Martin. Mom used to tell me she fell in love with him every night he took to a stage; she said his eyes burnt, his energy arced across the venue and he was so alive. She also made me promise to take care of him after she was gone.
Leaving the house, the evening is cool and the sky has a yellow hue like hamburger cheese. The kettle drums are building to a crescendo.
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I hope the desert is all you hoped it would be. You always liked life spread out flat before you, nothing concealed. No nasty surprises. But I know you will be heading for those hills. You could never resist having a destination in sight.
And when you reach them you will turn your back on them and stare at the dry ocean before you, thinking those thoughts that you never let others hear.
You will think of the coast, how you always walk to the lapping waves and look out, imagining yourself the only one left alive in a world of water. Yes, I hear some of those thoughts, however well you think you hide them. We are the same, you and I.
So take a look at those hills, calculate the time it will take, then double it because you always get it wrong. The distance will be deceiving, we always say, but you march on regardless, flinching at the blisters that form, determined to reach your goal.
Yes, head for those hills, my love, and then please head on home. We are waiting for you.
sorry about that
but I will mark it
briefly, swiftly, while
my engine is running
on the horizon.
Before splintered wood
fells me, forces me
to face my brother.
from whatever comes to hand -
gaffer-tape and special stones;
contraception; voices blown
buttons from a uniform; a damaged icon.
Then fridges whispering “best before”,
grief; daffodils; broken crates; a spar;
the cost of love. For a flag, on top,
a tattered can or . . . anything. A lone X
always marks the end. Night's lip-licking tide
belly-sneaks across the level sand. Again.
Six shots and the sky bled invisible, caustic driblets of pain on the horizon. One! My sister. Broken and dry, nothing could patch her up. Two! My cousin. He was beginning to show the first symptoms of the illness. Three! My face. The arid personification of my life. Four! My husband. More of a nomad than ever. Five! The lurking fear: was it coming for me? Six! Not my daughter...
And the signpost read: “The Desert of the Furies”.
on the deserted horizon
I see the end of your sport:
Serious, now, no bluff
the trophy lies behind.
How a blown can-
shot after shot fired
at a target-
Gaping holes in the fabric-
of a tin.
It's tied to the horn
seducing the sun.
A wilderness's testament.
like empty clothing dropped upon the floor,
in sudden silence stilled beyond recall
and justly, though misfortunate in war.
An empty can impaled upon a post
brings back the image to my inward eye.
Too empty were those heaps to hold a ghost
as empty as the wind that whistles by
a bullet-riddled can that keeps its shape
upon a post held up by strong, black tape.
indolent in its accident;
bandaged up as a whipping post
for those out of uttering,
for those out of hearing,
for those out of tune.
It nods to those willing to draw up;
to yoke themselves up to the unknown
where time pieces lose credibility;
where waiting just becomes.
You halted in your progress, to speak
into its innards.
Being here, you said, is not to be known;
when being denied speech like a dulled beacon
throttled in an attempt to transmit,
is to be rejected
by a web of wasteland
ring-fenced by a ribbing of mountains.
To look up close, you said,
is to listen;
to be up close
is to be heard.
What made it worse was the fact that it wasn’t the sort of ambition you could discuss with anyone; it certainly wasn’t something you could bring up on a second date – the last time he’d tried that, the rattle of ice in the empty glass had, to his ears, sounded like a crack appearing in the previously unyielding land outside.
He blamed his father; of course, that’s what all the men round here did, for having the temerity to think that their sons might want to tame the wilderness, abjure the comforts and pleasures of urban living in order to prove something, the hypothesis never being made clear beyond some sort of abstraction that focused on ‘a man’ needing ‘space’ to ‘grow into’, to ‘fully realise’ who they might be – the implication being that said ‘man’ could only find this ‘space’ in an actual canyon, rather than the canyons of a city.
In his memory – and what else counted out here? – his father had only ever said one thing that was worth holding on to, delivered on a birthday instead of a present. “If you want to play at being a god, start your own religion. If you want to play at being God, become an architect.” Fortune cookie deep, sure, but it stuck.
He hammered the taped-up planks into the ground, put the can on top, and declined to think about which of his father’s truths he was now confirming.
Considering what might have been
Fingers dig into silky dust
Blue jeans now sprinkled with a clay
Snow that never melts, a constant
Reminder of our time under the
Watchful eyes of the moon
Leave something, anything, in this place
So we may remember our time here
When we return, whether together or alone
We’ll know this was the spot
Where our world ceased to exist
Has he ever had swollen ankles? Poor man.
Lord knows, this must be Death Valley.
The map’s the wrong way round.
She’s not looking good, the fluid’s rising,
ironic in a desert. A bullet might be the solution.
Is anyone on the bus a crack shot,
or shall I holler for the Man with No Name?
I so l o n g for the city.
“Where did you think you were going?”
I bring them out here then wait for it to happen.
It’s as if they’ve never thought about it, not until they’re standing in the middle of it.
The desert is a big place.
So big it gets inside you. Because it’s not just big. It feels big.
There was a guy used that very word once, like he’d practiced it. Envisaged standing under a blue sky, declaring how expansive it was. Big wasn’t good enough for him.
But even he dissolved.
Because the thing is, in the glare of the afternoon sun, it’s the white that gets you.
It shrinks perspectives.
And when you squint into the distance, all you catch is a shimmering on the horizon. A vague sense that there are things there, just beyond your reach, just beyond your gaze, that you can only feel.
with dolls and prams.
You preferred your
brother’s toy guns.
On your sixth birthday you
asked for a child’s play army outfit.
Ten years later and you
were wearing a real one.
The day before you left
I tried to change your mind.
But you said, ‘those people
need our help, Mum.’
And that foreign land
snatched you from me.
No poppy fields for you
with white cross.
Your grave is lost
in a barren landscape,
but if you’re lucky
it will be marked
with a piece of wood
and perhaps an old tin can.
He said he knew some friends of mine.
I knew he lied, since I don't have any friends.
I closed my eyes and imagined I was somewhere hot and sandy,
And when I opened them I was somewhere hot and sandy.
There were so many flies that I closed my eyes again to stop them crawling on my face.
Bud said there were others, but their voices were distant, like the voices in a dream where you try to wake up because you think something bad's going to happen, but you can't because you secretly want to find out how bad is bad.
I waited with my eyes closed, listening to the voices, and above the voices the vultures called, wheeling and crying.
I asked Bud what we were waiting for and he just laughed and walked away.
I think I'll go home now, I called after him, but he carried on walking.
I must have fallen asleep, sitting there in the hot sand. I don't know how long but it was dark when I woke up thirsty.
I asked Bud for some water, and he shook his head.
I said this isn't such a great party after all, Bud.
So Bud shoved my face into the dirt, with one knee on my back and his big hands gripping the back of my head until my lungs filled with dust and my nose crushed against the ground, and the distant voices stopped.
She stared at the huddle of caravans, their matchbox shapes quivering on the horizon and felt the beat of her heart pick up pace. Was she really going to go through with this? Near the roadside, a bullet-riddled can sat on top of a pole that was speared in the ground. Target practice for the locals, thought Laura. She touched the can with her finger, feeling the sharpness of the holes and fear stabbed her chest. What if he really was everything that her mum had said he was? The fear was almost enough to make her jump in the car and head straight back to the highway, but then she thought about the letter again. If she hadn’t have come home early that day from college she might never have found it lying there on the kitchen table, his Nevada address scribbled on the back. Although it was the only letter she had seen, it was clear there had been a lot more and that her mum stopped replying to them some time ago.
A lot could change in four years. And the fact that he still cared enough to write after all this time must count for something.
She took one last look at the horizon and wondered how much it was going to change her life. Then Laura jumped back in the car. She headed off to find out.
He knows. Locked me in upstairs, even locked the windows. I'm stealing wifi from next door. He doesn't know about the old laptop. I didn't either - found it under the bed when I flipped it over. Took me a fucking hour just to get Hotmail up. Can't find the charger and it's running out.
I can hardly breathe. He's down in the yard now shooting his cans. What I'd do with a gun if I had one. If I stare hard enough I might be able to bend the bullets back so they plug his fat guts.
I've tried picking the lock. I can't do it the stealthy way. It's either smashing the window open or ramming the door. Think I'll go for the window - it's cheap and the dictionary should do it. Think of all those words flying out of the window, ha! Let's hope I don't bust my ankle.
So what we'll do is this. You'll meet me at the old fence at 5, pick me up, and we'll do it. I can feel it now. Wind rushing in, sun going down, beer down our necks. You come, and I'll be there. I promise. We'll hit the road, get out of this hellhole.
Remember to bring: your meds, some matches, the map, the beer.
I'm counting on you. Be there.
We left somewhere between 3 days and 3 weeks ago, just as supplies dwindled to almost no water and almost too much swill beer. So we took what we could and set out for that rumor that spelled l-i-f-e. As we learned to know it upon leaving it felt like a dull humid sweat of existence. The all too comfortable humdrum of knowing everyone and having done everything. That is to say, within the confines of the town.
We talk about it now and can't seem to recall its name, its role. We were just settled there. Some came from who knows where, some were born there. When we talk about it now I see tears gleam the reflection of the high sun.
I suppose no one really promised anything, it was merely manufactured hope. We needed it. Politicians were run out fairly early. People banded together and tried to stay peaceful. Food came and went until the water started getting sucked up into heaven. Then people stopped passing through. And those that stayed got ornery. Once the reality of our situation set in the numbness wore off like frostbite. There was word of lakes, oceans, government funded reservoirs. Words don't quench thirst these days. Even the beer leaves one high and dry.
It had to happen eventually I suppose. Hope fades and spirits soar away. We decided to stop and camp here for some time. Found a well that was still pumpin. Now we've almost forgotten the last place. We've almost forgotten where we were going. People don't come through much, when they do we've got plenty of beer to trade for salt, building supplies, or even clear water. People don't come through much, so our misplaced bullets fall on what we've got too much of.
of late capital, rare metal shot up for
the shit of it. What you illuminate: nuclear
states, of which this flat flat is one: “after.”
Protestors visible in the rearview, mirror
to your stick and sticky tape approach. No
desert as deserted as the one you deserve/
disseverated. Kiss my fission, I’m saguaro
decolonising your honchorific horizon. Honor
this, in all its carcinogenic. Muta- or. Forms
are not for filling, filing, punching holes in: bodies
grains foliate oceanic. Your bomb’s an atomic
burp (…dealt it, bud); in my dilatory temporality,
even your nukular aluminum erodes. So over it.