Every Living Thing in the Desert is Afraid
Julia Dixon Evans
“Are you ready?” Samir asks, not looking up from his phone.
“It’s not time,” I say, zipping up my pack. “We have to wait until night.”
“I’m looking at that blog you sent me,” he says. “This woman is so full of herself.”
We’re on a quest. I want to find evening primrose and creosote in bloom, in the desert, tonight, and maybe white sage, maybe whatever else smells strong. I want to harvest them because it’s a full moon and this website is telling me that the best time to harvest medicinal herbs is when the moon is full and the flowers are in bloom and ancient indigenous peoples around here, the Cahuilla, the Kumeyaay, used this stuff for all sorts of healing. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how anyone knows what they’re doing but I want to be the kind of person who can do this stuff and I wonder if some mixture of evening primrose and creosote and cattails and whatever else on this blog post can fix my sister. I want to be the kind of person who can fix my sister.
We set up camp here, as far as we could get Samir’s 90s Subaru off-road in the wash, and then trekked about a half mile with our gear poorly strapped against backpacks and in our arms. The desert used to be a place I hated, resoundingly inferior to lush forests and alpine mountains, but Samir loves the bleakness out here, and I want to love him and here I am, trying. Samir was born in the wealthiest suburb to an immigrant mother who wanted him to have everything new and clean, everything she didn’t have, and as soon as he was old enough to disobey, he came out here to the very old dirt. And that’s all I really know about his family: they’re why he comes here. I’m anxious for the night, surprisingly. I flick my toes against the desert floor, a thin crust of sand against hardness. Some thick earth that seems to both absorb the heat and bounce it right back onto me.
“I love you,” Samir says, and I wonder how long he’s been done staring at his phone. He sets the phone down, balancing it on top of his tin coffee cup, filled not with coffee but with scotch. He stands and leans down above where I’m sitting, kissing me on the head. “I’m so glad you’re finally here.”
I reach up to touch his face.
“You can’t save her, you know,” he says.
“I’m not trying to save anyone,” I say and I move my hand away from his face. That feels like a jerk move so I act like I was reaching for his scotch. I push his phone to the dirt while grabbing the cup, and that also feels like a jerk move. Involuntarily, I say ugh out loud.
“I don’t mean to upset you, Ruth,” Samir says, his voice soft and kind. He’s a soft and kind man. “I’m just trying to, I don’t know. Let you off the hook. Someone needs to let you off the hook.” I don’t answer him and he doesn’t continue. We don’t look at each other but we’re both staring at the same dry earth so that has to count for something. “You can finish that drink if you want.”
“I’m not trying to save her or anything like that,” I say, and I realize that I’m mostly lying. I’m literally on some hippie desert nutritional plant quest to fix her right now. “I’m just trying to do something with my hands. It helps. I think,” I say, and my eyes tear up because I realize I’m not even bullshitting anymore.
When Jenny was born, I had barely just started walking, barely over a year old. I have no memories of life before my sister. I don’t know what the world looks like without her.
“What if this doesn’t get any better?” Jenny asked me last year, and I laughed at her because she’s always so fatalistic. And then I felt bad because what if I technically had done this to her? I was driving. I was at fault. I was in charge. I’m the older sister who crashed the car that broke two of her vertebrae and then they found out how sick she was. She was dying faster than any of us all along. Jenny, of course, said it was never my fault. Jenny holds me at fault for many stupid things in our past but not this, never this.
“You’re young. You have no choice but to get better. This is just your quarter-life crisis setting in a little late.” I said, not even really believing it myself but needing to say it out loud. “You heal better than anyone. You have no scars. The only time you broke a bone, you had a cast for, like, a month.”
She turned her face to me and her eyes were bright but the skin beneath her eyes was a purplish taupe, her face pasty and pale. She smiled back to me and I loved her and the guilt crushed me into something messy and small.
“Here, this must be it!” I whisper. We haven’t turned on our headlamps because the moon is bright and the sky clear. It feels like a secret out here with no artificial light, no electricity and a ridiculous part of me hopes the harvesting will be more successful without manmade intruders like electromagnetic forces or whatever. Maybe the evening primrose will be stronger or more effective. Maybe it won’t do shit anyway.
I cradle the buttery yellow petals in one hand and feel down the stalk. It’s soft and delicate, pretty and small. There’s a patch here, a little family and just as that thought crosses my mind, Samir speaks.
“I feel bad for taking them.”
“They’re like a little family.”
“Maybe we should take all of them so they’ll die together,” he says.
He is quiet for a long time but his face is blank. He’s never met Jenny and I don’t know why. I’m guarding him from my conservative parents, is the thing I tell myself but that doesn’t explain Jenny. I crush a petal between my fingers and imagine Jenny being so fond of him, so sweet to him. I’d keep him around, love or not, just to keep her happy. Like a little family.
“And then maybe when you make your oil or your paste or whatever the fuck it is you’re doing with it, it’ll have more power.” There’s something about Samir’s voice, slow and quiet that tells me that even though he’s being a bit snarky he’s also being serious.
“I’m going to try to make oil and also a paste. But it’s called like a poultice or something,” I say, not really knowing how to pronounce a word nobody has ever uttered in my presence. I’ve only read it on these blogs.
“Mmm, poutine,” he says.
“So flowers have to stay in their families but animal gravy is okay?”
“Yes,” he says. “Probably.”
With my multi-tool I snip each of the flowers at the base, including some leaves because I can’t remember what the blog said about the leaves and I left my phone at the tent. I put them in a small box and tuck them in my pack. I stand up, brushing the desert off my knees and something howls in the distance, beyond the shadowy ocotillo, against the mountains to the west. The sky is thick with stars, pinpricks spread greedily above us and I suddenly feel distant from Jenny, because this sky is so different from the sky she has above her. I try to tell myself that the rustling I hear right behind us is harmless, because every living thing in the desert is afraid.
At home, I call my parents.
“Put me on speaker, I want to talk to Jenny,” I say when they answer, like I always do, every day, fully knowing that the day she dies, this will be how I find out. I’ll say this, I’ll say put me on speaker phone, I want to talk to Jenny and they’ll say Ruth, you need to come here now. We were just about to call you. It won’t be long or maybe they’ll say into their speaker phone Ruth, oh god, she’s gone, it’s too late.
“Ruthie,” a weak voice in a small room, gritty with technology and speaker echo.
“Jenny, I’m crushing up some evening primrose for you right now.”
She laughs. “Are you going full quack on me?”
“I got some creosote too.”
“Is this Samir’s doing?” she asks.
“He doesn’t believe in this stuff,” I say. “We went to the desert and found some. It was beautiful out there, and I thought you should see the stars, I think you should come—” I trail off because I know she was going to interrupt me and I also don’t want to say you should come when you get better.
“You hate the desert.”
“I went for you.”
“Thanks, Ruthie. When am I gonna meet Samir?”
“He didn’t come back with me, he has his place out there, y’know?”
“He doesn’t sound like he loves you enough.”
“I need to focus on my kitchen full of herbs,” I say. I think of Jenny, her body, her smile. “It’s like full-throttle witchcraft in here right now. You’d be into it.”
“I’m into it,” she says, and she coughs a little and it feels like this is the part in the movie where there’s a silence, no soundtrack, no music, no dialogue, and we all know shit’s gonna get real sad real soon.
By morning I’m frustrated that I can’t find a good way to get the oils from the seeds so I dry them and eat one, a tiny black spec. I have other stuff here, cattails and calendula and whatever else turned up once in one paragraph of one blog of one google search. I turn my efforts to making the poultice, twisting and turning the mortar and pestle until a weepy green mess remains. I call Samir twice but he doesn’t pick up. An hour later he texts: Come back out here
And a minute later: I want to see you again on my turf. I liked it
It literally isn’t turf I write back and I get pale green smudges on the outside of my phone. But okay.
Jenny is asleep when I get there, on my way out of town to see Samir in the desert. I try to wake her but then think better of it and stop. She needs her rest. I lift the blanket from her knees and she’s so small and frail and cold. Her skin seems almost see-through. The day of the accident, our time at the state park before we drove home, her legs were so strong as she hiked in front of me. She was always in front of me. Always so vital. I open up the tupperware of green sludge, resting it on the nightstand, and lift each of Jenny’s legs to put a towel beneath her. I look up at her face, and then, inexplicably, suspiciously, I glance over my shoulder. This feels like it could be seen as violating but what if she never wakes up again and what if I never even tried this. I went to the desert to make this and I fell in love with the desert to make this. I rub the weird green salve over each of her legs and she doesn’t move, she doesn’t flinch. I realize that I’m not crying or anything, and I don’t even know what I’m feeling. I just need to get this done. If I can fix her legs and she can walk again maybe everything will go back to the way it was before the accident and we’d never find out she is sick, she’d never be sick. Her legs look dirty when I’m done and I write a note to my mom to explain it and tell them I’ll come back on Sunday.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
Samir doesn’t answer the door when I get to his trailer, even though I’m already an hour late and the sun is sinking low. His Subaru is parked nearby. I walk around the back of the trailer, to the edge of his little property. It would be so nice here with some thick trees, lush hedges for shape and privacy. It’s still bright enough to see out, but the sky is darkening, a deep blue against the mountains almost glowing from behind. My phone rings in my pocket and it’s Samir.
“I can’t make it tonight,” he says and his voice is weird.
“I’m here,” I say. “I’m already here.”
“Oh god, I’m sorry.” I’m trying to pinpoint what’s wrong with his voice and suddenly I realize that I’m hearing him twice. Once through the phone, twice somehow else. He’s here, in his trailer, I swear to god.
I drop my phone into my pocket and approach the trailer, climbing up the narrow aluminum steps on my tip toes, trying not to make a sound. Everything creaks and squeaks and wobbles anyway. I yank on the door until the puny lock gives way, and the motion of the door and my full body momentum pulling backwards knocks me down off the steps and onto my butt on the ground. I get up and rush in. I think I’m expecting to see Samir with some other woman in here. I’m expecting to see him mid sex act, gleefully pounding himself into someone else because he’s too perfect, and I don’t love him yet, and this is what I deserve anyway, incomplete love. I do not deserve the fullness of another person. I close my eyes as I stand in the door frame, palms braced. This trailer is tiny, like the kind you hitch onto a truck to go on vacation. It has one bedroom in the back, and a small toilet plus shower stall room, but otherwise it’s just this open seating area with a kitchenette. I don’t think this thing has driven anywhere in years.
“Samir?” I call out. “Are you here?”
I open my eyes and the place is empty. The bedroom, empty. The bathroom, the shower stall, empty. Everywhere, empty.
I sleep in Samir’s bed, alone, briefly, until I wake in the middle of the night and step outside. The desert would feel so much bigger if it weren’t flanked by such massive mountains on either side. They made it feel less endless. I want to be up there, where Jenny likes to be, watching her strong feet hop from rock to rock on a sharp ridge trail. The moon isn’t full anymore but it’s still bright. I walk beyond Samir’s property and into the open desert, rocks cutting at my feet. I smell the blossoms before I see them, the sweetness of primrose. We traveled so far to find this stuff last weekend. I pluck them and bring them in fistfuls to my face. I’m careless and I don’t know if it’s because I’m nervous out here or if this is what giving up looks like.
I dial Jenny’s number. There’s rustling in the low, scraggly brush against Samir’s property line. I spin on my heels, quickly, to try to catch a glimpse. It’s probably a bird. Or some sort of desert reptile. Or a coyote. Or a vigilante about to murder me. Or a ghost.
Every living thing in the desert is afraid, I tell myself.
“Jenny,” I say into her voicemail, faking something cheerful. “I’m in the desert again and I’m thinking about you. I wonder if the salve I put on your legs helped. Or maybe it was stupid. It smelled nice. Anyway, I miss you.” I almost hang up. But I don’t. “I’m sorry, Jenny. I’m still so sorry.”
And from behind me I hear, “Ruth.”
I spin around and around but nobody is there. I call Samir and breathlessly I tell him I’m seeing ghosts and to hurry. Right now that seems like a mixture of a joke and the truest, deadliest thing I’ve ever said.
“I didn’t know you’d stayed there!” he says and I realize I just hung up on him earlier and flipped out before going into the trailer. “I’ll leave the city now and be out there as soon as I can. Stay inside. It’s…” he trails off. “It’s weird there alone.”
I sit down on the ground and close my eyes hard. Everything feels unreal. Jenny being asleep today. My parents not being home. Samir not being here.
Jenny would love it here. We’d love it together, I think. I want to buck up and start making plans with Jenny the way she is, unable to move, unable to care for herself, unwell. I could drive her out here. I’d wheel her around for as long as she could be seated upright in a chair and then we’d rest for as long as she needed, and I’d bring her plants to sniff and try to catch lizards by their tails to show her, and I’d care for her: a nurse and a sister and an adventure-mate and everything I used to be to her. The way I act now I’m just waiting for her to get better or waiting for her to die. There’s a scritch scritch scritch next to me or maybe it’s super far away; I don’t know how to tell time and space in the desert.
When I open my eyes, Jenny from a year ago is in front of me, a black t-shirt and cut-off jean shorts. She bends down and runs a fingertip across a wildflower petal, her nail polish chipped black, and I realize that springtime in the desert is made for people like Jenny. Jenny from a year ago sits down across from me and looks up, so I look up too. The skies above us different just last week, and here she is, the stars between us the same.
She lowers herself onto her side, perfect spine curled up in fetal position, her hands like a prayer beneath her cheek. I want to speak to her but when I open my mouth just a loud, ragged gasp comes out. With a smile on her face, she closes her eyes. Something howls off to the west.
I fumble for my phone and when the screen lights up it’s 2 a.m. and I’ve missed two calls from my mom and I know, I knew all along it would be like this. I call them back.
“Mom,” I choke out. “Put me on speaker.”
JULIA DIXON EVANS is author of the novel How to Set Yourself on Fire, forthcoming from Dzanc books on May 8th, 2018. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Paper Darts, Pithead Chapel, Fanzine, Flapperhouse, Hobart and elsewhere. She is program director for the literary nonprofit and small press So Say We All in San Diego, nonfiction editor for Noble Gas Qtrly, and hosts the San Diego literary reading series The Foundry.