Fiction, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010
The thing that comes to her most clearly is arriving at the lemon grove, the dappled shade, the scent of lemons biting at her thirst, and the sound of birds. Usually she gets this far and wakes up. She tries to go back to sleep, access it again, return by any means except memory. Sometimes she succeeds; mostly she only manages to drift into a dreamless pit, colorless, odorless.
“Mary, its eight. I’m leaving, shouldn’t you be up? Are you okay?”
Darryl is worried she’ll never be the same. Whatever she brought back with her, a virus, bacteria, a foreign bug…who knows? …it hasn’t completely left her body yet. He wishes they had never decided to set up the study-abroad program that led her to fly down there.
“I’m fine. I’m getting up. My first class isn’t until 10:00.”
She knows he has a right to worry and she tries to hide her unease, struggles to balance her urge to re-enter the dream with his need for her to wake up, be herself again. She sits on the side of the bed, confused and exhausted. At work it’s the same story, infinite difficulty going through the motions. The only place she feels a semblance of her old self is in the classroom where, if anything, her lectures have become more interesting, taken on a new perspective. Her colleagues are patient; they understand one can’t be expected to overcome months of terror and hardship in any set time frame. A few of them have asked her carefully and in an oblique manner about the details of those months. She finds ways to avoid the topic, a strategy her colleagues chalk up to the magnitude of what she lived through.
December: finals week. Christmas break is two days away, marking almost a year since she flew back across what seems like a galaxy to return home. Home—Darryl, her daughters visiting for the holidays, a large, well-manicured colonial in a leafy suburb not far from the college, friends and colleagues, her office, her students, Christmas lights twinkling, eggnog. The faculty on her hall have their usual celebration involving wine, funny anecdotes from student papers, and readings: from poetry to snippets of news from The Wall Street Journal. Mary drinks her wine and listens; she also watches María carefully for signs of change, anything that would indicate that she too is sleepwalking. After the wine, she returns to her office exhausted from the effort involved in pretending and avoiding, and the discipline required for the waiting; waiting for nightfall, for bedtime, the end of struggles, and the chance to enter the dream again. In the office she opens her e-mail and begins to work her way through a glut of student requests.
It’s dark and cold. Freezer cold, meat-locker cold, the kind of cold that Massachusetts, with its central heating, pea coats, and down blankets had not offered up. And dark like tar—she can’t see her hand in front of her face. The last thing she remembers is the men with stringy black hair hanging below their alpaca-wool caps, and rifles poking out from under their ponchos. And the woman in the bowler hat who stood up, her hat bobbing as she angrily berated them in a language Mary could tell wasn’t Spanish. Next she remembers gunshots, and the bus took flight off the precarious mountain pass in the manner of an airplane, roiling through the air. María pushed her down to the floorboards between the seats, then this: black ink and ice.
She smells the faint scent of cinnamon and oranges before hearing María’s voice. She has a sense that she will forever associate these scents with being alive in a way she had never been; the kind of alive that must come after dying momentarily. There is a sharp pain in her chest, neck, shoulders, and arms.
“Mary, are you okay? Can you hear me?” María is crouched over her, fingers gingerly working through Mary’s head; she’s thinking it would be impossible to return without Mary. How would she survive there? How would she explain her survival here?
“Mary.” The voice is like an echo, far away but inside her, jumbled up with the scent of cinnamon and oranges.
“I don’t know, everything hurts. How about you?” She’s aware that María is better off. She senses her crouching, maybe cringing. It takes a minute for the answer; a minute of life, of blood thumping, the sounds of moaning around them in the distance, and María coming back from somewhere.
“I’m okay. You have no blood on your head, no bumps. Where do you hurt most?”
“Shoulders, back, chest, arms…” She feels María’s fingers move from her head to her neck, down her throat, gingerly slipping under her sweater and thermal T-shirt to her shoulders and chest. They stop at her collarbone; deftly she runs her fingertips around; her breath feels soft and fuzzy, relatively warm in the freezing night, like a small animal curled on Mary’s face.
“You broke your collarbone. It’s painful but it’ll be okay. I’ll go see if I can find a bag from the bus, something to make a sling.” Mary protests, begs not be left alone. She worries that in this darkness María won’t find her again, then she’s alone. The warm little animal of María’s breath is gone; in the freezing air she hears the same moaning sounds and the crunch-crunch of María’s feet moving away, becoming fainter. She lies looking at the stars twinkling out of the black ink of night sky like a mockery. She feels the earth beneath her, her hands dig into the sandy ground; she has the feeling she’ll float off the planet into a sea of black ink speckled with an archipelago of impossibly bright stars.
When she wakes there is a scent of cinnamon and oranges, and María is sorting through the contents of a small duffel bag. Mary senses her working away at the contents, her fingertips exploring in the darkness, searching for something. She wants to ask María to crouch over her again, she wants to feel the warmth of her breath; she is freezing. María has fashioned a sling and a brace from two belts and a T-shirt; Mary screams when she sits her up to place the contraption on her. The sound shears through the blackness sending María into a crouch, kneeling, forehead to the sandy, rocky ground, arms over her head. Sitting up, Mary is sweating from the pain; under her layers of clothing she feels rivulets wend their way down her skin.
What seems like hours pass; the sounds of moaning fade and are replaced by silence, swirling stars, blackness, and the scent of dry, mineral earth. Finally, María’s voice comes across an unsalvageable distance, like the impossible bright points of light in the inky sky. “Mary, we have to leave here. Those men’s people will come eventually. Can you walk?”
“How do you know that? Where would we go?” She realizes the sling has helped her pain; immobilized some tendril of fire inside her, concentrated the ache into a smaller area. María isn’t answering so she repeats her questions.
“I heard what people are saying while I was searching for a bag. Everyone is heading down; they say up is certain death.”
Mary thinks of who “everyone” is. The dark little people on the bus, most of them wearing sandals made from worn tire rubber, the women in bright, flouncy, layered skirts, bowler hats, and wool ponchos, the men in dusty jeans, wool caps and ponchos; everyone wrinkled and dirty. Can they know? Can their judgment be trusted? Before she says anything she hears María’s voice.
“They live here, they know what they know. Like you know to stay out of certain neighborhoods in Boston.”
She moves to help Mary up but they both buckle under the weight of her pain, like a molten lead ball exploding in her left shoulder. She sweats under her layers again, and rivulets run down her face in the freezing air. “I can’t…sorry.” She’s crying, tears mixing with the sweat as she sits on the sandy earth at the opposite end of the world. Back home people had joked before the trip, telling her that after flushing the toilet she should watch the water carefully, notice if it swirled in the opposite direction. For a few minutes the silence is terrifying. Mary senses through the dark that María is busy working on something. There is a flash of light and Mary sees that she’s lighting a cigarette.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
She tries to make her vision pierce through the black into María’s eyes, but all she can make out by the glow of the cigarette is a vague outline of her face. Then she feels her moving closer, hears the slight crunch-crunch of the earth, and sees the red tip of the cigarette coming almost to her face.
“I don’t smoke. This is something to dull the pain, help you walk down the mountain for a while.”
It smells familiar, from years ago, pulling her back to high school and her undergraduate years; the pungent smell of pot. Mary hesitates, years of being the wife of a successful engineer, raising two sons in a leafy, well-to-do suburb, teaching at the college, and now this. The red glow near her face belonged to a life sloughed off long ago. Even then, it had only been to keep up with friends at parties, and she had mostly faked it.
“Mary, it’ll help with the pain. Otherwise, we can’t leave here.” Finally, she takes the joint and sucks on it.
“You found this in the bag as well, huh?”
There is no answer. The tip flares up every few seconds like a firefly hovering in the dark. Finally, María takes it back, sucks on it one more time, and carefully knocks the tip off onto the sand. A few minutes later, they start down the mountain; Mary’s pain has shrunk to the size of hot little marble in her shoulder. In the pitch black they see nothing, they walk slowly, María leading with Mary close behind, her right hand holding on to María’s backpack. Tiny steps. The longest journey begins with one step, a proverb she remembers from a fortune cookie at “The Asia House.” Or is it a childhood game remembered vaguely: take one giant step forward… “Mother may I?” She’s not as cold now, moving. Baby steps crunch-crunching in the darkness, glittering stars, maneuvering around large boulders; her free hand occasionally feels their surface, cold and hard. Once in while there is the faintest whiff of oranges and cinnamon.
“Too bad there’s no snow, we could ski out of here.”
“Except we have no skis.”
“You could’ve found something in the stuff from the bus, like you found the belts and, most importantly, the pot.”
She feels almost good now, hopeful, as if this will certainly be a story she will share with colleagues and friends in the not-too-distant future.
The night drags on, downward. Hours pass; Mary begins to feel the pain grow from its hot-marble stage to a burning baseball-sized area in her upper-left side. Hunger has set in as well, splitting down her middle, the lining of her stomach unfurling itself, turning her inside out. She groans, asks to stop.
“We’ll stop at first light, I promise.”
It dawns on her that María has been here before, maybe not here exactly, but in a similar situation.
“Why at first light?” The pain makes it hard to ask.
“After dawn it’ll warm up enough for us to sleep a little without freezing.”
She tells María about her hunger and gets no reply. Thoughts of Father Julian saying mass at the college, the way he refers to eternity. Forever, no end, infinite; eternity is this feeling that she will go on without ceasing, that the fire in her upper left quadrant comes from a motor inside her, one that won’t quit, runs on nothing, once tripped into action it can’t be stopped. The scent of cinnamon and oranges grows stronger; she realizes María has stopped and turned around to face her. Mary has come up against her, not enough room for even the tiniest of steps. She’s surprised that she can vaguely see María’s outline, can tell she’s looking up. When Mary tilts her head slightly she feels the fire in her shoulder flare up, but what she sees is worth it. A faint nimbus over the peak of a mountain ahead in the distance, the palest shade of orange; she lets herself down onto the sandy, rocky earth. The light grows from pale, sherbet-orange to a robin’s-egg blue streaked with yellow; fingers of light stretch across the sky and roll down the mountain like giant strips of ribbon coming loose from this colossal-sized gift. It’s the first look they get of each other since flying through the night on the bus. María’s face looks tired but okay. She is bruised along the left side of her torso, ugly black and blue extending down to her waist when she lifts up her clothes to inspect herself. Mary’s collarbone is cracked like a Sunday-dinner wishbone; a bump the size of an egg marks the spot.
María rummages in a backpack and hands Mary a piece of bread, the flat, disc- shaped, heavy bread with its delicious layers of dough. They sit chewing, enjoying the light and the feeling of warmth from the sun.
“Do we have anything to drink?’
María shakes her head.
“This is a desert, the driest in the world. Where will we get water?” She wished she hadn’t read the materials they had been given about the local customs, history, and geography so carefully; it would have helped to know a little less. Not to know, for example, that this was the driest desert in the world, that there was a spectacular lake high in the mountains, the color of emeralds dotted by the startling, Pepto Bismol-pink of the flamingoes that live there, that there was an internal conflict raging in the neighboring nation that threatened to spill over the border, that the conflict pitted those with money against those who had none, and that those who had none associated foreigners and people with lighter skin tones with wealth.
They are sitting side by side; María avoids looking at her, she speaks without turning.
“We have to go down further into the valley where the snow melts into the rivers.”
The tops of the mountains are blanketed with snow; the valley is too distant to see.
“Will we try to reach water by night or will we walk by day?”
María tells her she thinks they should sleep a little later, then try to walk late afternoon and into the night. Mary notices that her eyes haven’t changed; they still take everything in and let nothing out, like black holes the color of the ocean. Mary remembers this perception of her at the time they met, when María started teaching at the college and was assigned the office next to hers.
“How’s that?” María is pointing at Mary’s shoulder.
“It hurts a lot again, but I think I can walk a little more now.”
Everything looks the same, a lunar landscape of sand and rocks. The sun rises and the sky turns a blue so pure it reminds Mary of how snow looks first thing in the morning, before a single step has been taken on its surface. Hours pass; by midday they come across occasional vegetation, stunted and thorny, but it nevertheless lifts their spirits. Early afternoon while the sun is still high in the sky above them, they take shelter in the shade of a boulder. By now their parkas have come off, along with their sweaters. They have stripped down to their thermal T-shirts. They split a disc of bread between them and lie down on the sandy ground behind a boulder. Mary remembers when they bought the bread for the bus ride. They couldn’t get enough of it; María because she grew up eating it, and Mary because the delicious, buttery taste, and the heavy, soft texture had trapped her. They had bought it warm, fresh from a bakery close to the bus station.
When she wakens, the pain has immobilized her, has grown shoots radiating out across her torso, neck, back. She can’t sit up. She lies weeping silently; the shade from the boulder has moved and she can tell it is late afternoon. She calls out for María, who wakes up slowly, as if trying to figure out where she is. Oddly, she smiles at Mary when she finally wakes up fully. She sits up, looks down at her and realizes she has been crying, that she is pinned by the pain. Mary watches as María reaches into the backpack, pulling out a small tin box; the kind chocolates come in. She places this on the sandy ground beside her and Mary can see it is packed tightly with dark green sprigs. On top of the bed of sprigs is a pack of cigarette papers; it looks like something that might hold post-it notes. She rolls a joint, lights it, and passes it to Mary immediately. Mary pulls on it, lying flat on her back. After a few puffs she begins to feel the pain ease, dissipate away like fog in the sun. A few minutes later they’re walking again, across the lunar landscape that reminds Mary of a trip she once made to west Texas. The descent has flattened out; it seems to her that they are no longer heading downward, toward a valley. She asks María about this.
“We need to walk away from the rising sun, toward the setting sun.”
This logic seems irrefutable to Mary, who is feeling no pain now. There are occasional bushes, crispy, stunted things with leaves that seem to curl into thorns. The sun starts to set over a chain of mountains in the distance in front of them. Mary remembers the reports of illegal immigrants dying as they crossed the desert between Mexico and the United States; she asks María about snakes.
“There are no poisonous snakes here.”
Mary finds that impossible; it seems to her this is the kind of morsel that would have been mentioned somewhere in the informational material given to them prior to their departure.
“This isn’t Ireland—it’s too dry. You don’t have to lie to me to keep me moving; I know we have to walk or freeze to death.”
It’s light again; the same pale-orange dawn peeping over the mountains. When she opens her eyes, she is lying curled up against María. She can feel María’s breath, faint and warm behind her. Pain has taken over her body; there is no focal point. She groans. Sometime during the night they must have stopped, collapsed. How many hours had they spent on the rocky ground in the freezing air? She hears María’s voice as if through a forest of gauze; she can’t make out the words but it sounds like a prayer. She feels panic well up in her but she can’t move her body to look behind her. She closes her eyes and when she opens them again María is kneeling in front of her holding the pot to her lips; mouthing something Mary can’t make out. She tries to suck in but pain ricochets through her chest; she cries without any tears. María takes a long puff of the pot and holds it; cheeks inflated like a strange species of frog. Mary sees her face come closer until their mouths almost touch. She opens her mouth and breathes the smoke in until she is able to puff on the joint herself, then she rolls over, back flat on the ground, staring up at the brightening sky.
When she opens her eyes again everything is black, and she wonders if she’s dead. The blackness is littered with flickering points of light. She realizes it’s night, and freezing, but she isn’t shivering. María is curled up against her right side. She hears María but can’t tell if she’s dreaming or not. The words are clear, slicing a neat incision through the dry, thin air and into her consciousness: “Don’t worry, Mary. The Yastay has found us.” Mary drifts off into the black night. It feels soft, silky, like her dog’s shiny, smooth hair. She feels warmth radiating up at her, and the earth moves under her, rhythmic, like waves, like floating on the surface of a warm, silky ocean. There is the crunch-crunch of steps in the rocky soil, the warmth, the rhythmic bobbing, and María’s back in front of her.
She opens her eyes and realizes she can hear her colleagues’ voices faintly from down the hall, along with the rhythm of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” in the background. She notices her computer screen has gone to her screen-saver; a picture from her trip stares back at her: a llama with doleful eyes and colorful ribbons in its ears standing by the side of a road. On a pad of paper on her desk she jots down the words “Yastay” and “poisonous snakes?” Exhaustion overwhelms her.
Pain like shooting flames through her limbs, her back, her head; she’s afraid to open her eyes, afraid it will hurt more, afraid she’ll see death. When she finally opens them, she’s staring up at a motionless, robin’s-egg-blue sky through the branches of a tree. Patches of light sift through tiny leaves. A tree makes no sense to her. Is this heaven or hell? Unable to move, she wants to go back to sleep, to the rhythmic, silky bobbing that brought her here. She closes her eyes but the slightest whiff of cinnamon and oranges tells her María is nearby, and she realizes she’s alive. She hears María’s voice, clear but from a distance, across galaxies: “Don’t worry, Mary. The Yastay knows we’re here.”
“María, there’s a tree.”
María’s voice sounds closer. The tree seems the most beautiful thing she has seen. Tiny, oval-shaped leaves look like flattened out pine needles; brilliant green. The green hurts Mary’s eyes. She’s crying again, without tears. Sunlight filters gently through the branches above. She hears María shift and sit up, sees her holding two green globes the size of small apples. María is crying; hard, snotty blubbering of the kind that makes her appear to gasp for breath, hiccup. There are no tears, though. “Tuna” she manages to say in a voice drowned by tears that don’t fall.
Mary pictures, like flash cards, stock mental images of ocean, schools of fish, a can of “Starkist.” She watches as María peels a thick skin off the outer part of one of the green globes and puts what is left, a lime-green, oval-shaped, pulpy, seed laden fruit to her lips. She looks at María, who pushes the fruit gently at Mary’s lips. Wet, sweet, delicious beyond description. Mary lifts her right hand to hold the fruit herself as she eats it. When they finish savoring the wet sweetness offered up to them by the tamarugo tree, Mary notes that there are no more on its branches. María tells her the tamarugo doesn’t produce tuna; it comes from a cactus plant.
When Mary wakes, María is shaking her gently. The llama still staring dolefully out her computer screen at her. Before saying anything she reaches for a pen; next to the word “Yastay,” she writes the words “Tuna – fruit.” María watches her and says nothing. The pad now has the words “Yastay,” “poisonous snakes,” and “Tuna-fruit” written sloppily in black ink. The llama on computer screen-saver stares mournfully at them; María offers to bring her another glass of wine, which she accepts. When María leaves her office, she googles the first word on her list and reads the text flashing at her like the stars in the night sky on the opposite end of the world: a mockery. When María returns with the glass of wine, Mary reads to her:
Myths and legends of Chile: the Yastay has the appearance of a very large guanaco and can look like the most fearsome or the most angelical of beings, depending on a person’s attitude. If they are an unscrupulous hunter, the Yastay will fight them off by becoming a demon of sorts that spits fire from its snout. On the other hand, if the person is peaceful, the Yastay will take on a friendly, sweet appearance and will go to the aid of anyone in need.
María listens without comment. “When I look up information on poisonous snakes, it will say there are none in Chile, won’t it? And when I look up ‘tuna’ in the translator, it will tell me it is the word used in certain regions of South America to refer to the fruit of a cactus.”
“I’m really tired; I don’t want to go back out there.”
“I’ll close your door and come for you when everyone is gone.” María leaves, gently closing the door behind her.
She goes back to continue forward, all the way to the lemon grove in the valley where the glaciers and snows send their water; she sees him and he is beautiful. His hair is silky, soft, the color of wheat. He is large and gentle; he enters the grove and keeps going until he finds a tree with a branch high enough and strong enough to allow them to hold onto it as they slide off. He waits patiently while each of them struggles to get up. Once her feet are on the ground, Mary leans up against his shoulders. She puts her arms around his neck and cries. He waits patiently until she steps back. María has taken off her amulet and threaded it into the tendrils of hair on his ears. Mary does the same with her cross. He is watching them patiently with wise, doleful eyes. Before he leaves, Mary thanks him. She knows she has to go back now; María has opened the door and is waiting quietly.