We buried the child at midnight in the shadow of an ocotillo. The gravesite was just what Lilly laughingly called the field of death, a forest of jumping cholla cactus warning us off with slender, heavily-spined arms. Lilly carried the salt and I carried every other spice from the spice cabinet, except pepper. Pepper, Lilly said, was the devil’s spice. We planned to dig a hole two-by-two feet but, after our hands had bled down the length of the shovel, decided what we had was good enough.
The child didn’t quite fit in the hole. I knelt down and with a snap, snap, snap, bent the bones of the child’s back and wings and legs so it lay in the center of the grave, curved into a circle of bone and flesh and feather. Lilly covered the body in my favorite dishcloth, decorated with a print of desert birds, cardinals, roadrunners, burrowing owls. I tucked the towel beneath the body as if it were a blanket and the child merely sleeping.
Lilly scooped the first batch of dirt over the corpse, grit spraying over the towel. We took turns scooping until the hole was filled. We packed down the earth knowing the ground would never quite be the same now that we’d broken the crust of caliche. When it looked close enough to normal, we covered the head of the grave with a quartz-heavy stone, probably granite, to weigh the spirit down. Lilly didn’t want the child coming back to haunt us. She said the world was already haunted enough without adding the spirit of one more lost child.
I’d stopped arguing with her about the fate of the child at this point. I’d originally thought it would be the perfect solution to stuff the tiny corpse into the cave beneath our kitchen, the one Lilly was convinced Hitler was buried in. I didn’t understand why she thought so, but I never understood much about Lilly. She was older than me by a year and three months, seventeen to my sixteen. Before our mother died, brain decayed and kidneys failed, she would say Lilly just didn’t vibrate in tune with the rest of humanity. Mom said Lilly was born in starlight and conceived in the sky—made of stuff beyond this earth. When I asked where I’d come from, she smiled and whispered that I might as well be made of earth.
Seven days after our mother died, we found the cave. It formed from the wastewater of our sink that dripped down a pipe that connected to nothing. The dredges of our dishwater seeped below, hollowing out the ground the kitchen stood on. Lilly dropped a hammer, it hit tile, cracking, and then kept going.
“So that’s where the skin has been draining,” Lilly said, as if solving an age-old mystery from our childhood changed anything.
The water that had sculpted the cave walls was mostly absorbed, leaving behind only a stinking pond at the bottom of the hollow. We covered the broken-tile entrance to the cave with an upside-down bowl and lit vanilla-scented candles to hide the sour smell.
Lilly said burying the child in Hitler’s cave would have upset the balance of things, tipping the scales to send our house crumbling. Then we’d really have something to worry about. I still thought we should bury the child in the cave and use the burial as an excuse to seal the cavern, a real win-win, but the child was Lilly’s and how we buried it was her choice.
So we packed my backpack with spices, shoved the body into an old shoebox, and trekked into the desert armed with a flashlight and two shovels we’d dug out of the back of the shed. I walked just behind Lilly watching her auburn ponytail swish back and forth with a lightness I’d almost forgotten she was capable of. It struck me what our lives might have been if the child had lived, or better yet, had it never come in the first place.
She met the man on the side of the road leading to the highway during a rare spring rain. When she pulled up next to his truck, he was kicking his front tire and cursing God for his bad luck and broken carburetor. The man, nineteen, believed in God and everything in between. Lilly liked that about him. He’d worn a cowboy hat, not the kind real cowboys wear, but the kind tourists wear, crisp white felt encircled with a leather braid and turquoise beads. He tipped his soggy hat to her and the water collected in the brim soaked down his sleeve.
As misleading as his hat might have been, he hadn’t come to Tucson as a tourist. Instead, he was on his way to Tombstone where he intended to spread his father’s ashes. When Lilly asked him why his father wanted to be laid to rest in Tombstone, the man asked, “What better place to leave a dead person than in a town called Tombstone?” And that was when she felt it—a zing. Not love, but a zing sending shivers from brain to toe. When she told me this, I nodded like I knew what she meant, but I had never felt a zing. Lilly said it had something to do with the way they’d both been hollowed by the loss of a parent. I’d been hollowed too, but Lilly said I was too young to understand.
She took his hand and pulled him real close, wanting to fill a gap she wasn’t sure could ever be filled. It should’ve been weird, but it wasn’t. She told him she worked in the mall and had gotten so good at fake smiles she didn’t know if she was capable of smiling true anymore. He told her the real reason he was going to Tombstone was because his father had come to him in a dream begging not to spend his days sitting in an urn at the whim of his wife. The next morning, the man had stolen the ashes from his mother’s mantle, snatched the keys to his father’s truck, left a note, and just started driving. He’d chucked his phone out the window somewhere in Kansas, tired of his mother begging him to come home. He wasn’t sure he was ever going to be able to stop driving.
And that’s when the rain finally let up leaving them standing there dripping on the side of the road. He laughed and covered her wet, curling hair with his hat. When she pulled the hat off to see again, the world had become rainbow—optical illusion turned tangible—the end touching down precisely at the tip of the man’s boots, marking him treasure. And how could she not kiss him? So his tongue slid between her teeth to touch hers and the rainbow wrapped them in light that made Lilly’s skin fizzle like Coke with Pop Rocks in it. She said the rainbow made everything Technicolor and blurry and they were holding one another so tight she could hardly breathe until he stepped back to slide down their zippers. He did both at the same time—magic in his synchronicity.
She forgot to be sad between his touches. Zing. Pop. By the time it was over, the rainbow had receded, but they stayed breathing drying dirt and the smell of each other.
By the time she got home, her skin was dry, though her clothes were still damp. She traipsed into the house humming. She didn’t stop for days: humming in the shower, humming while eating Cheerios, humming in her sleep. She didn’t stop humming until her body started changing. She gained weight. Too quickly. Pregnancy tests landed with plastic plops in the wastebasket, all insisting negative, but still, her belly grew, her uterus widened, the child morphed within her. Her hair went lank. Her skin glowed. Her fingernails chipped and flaked. Her teeth eroded. She held her heavy belly up with an aching back. I massaged her sciatic nerve before she went to sleep so she could stand up in the morning without pain jolting groin to foot.
I’d never watched a pregnancy progress so closely before, but I knew Lilly’s was anything but ordinary. She didn’t even smile like a properly pregnant woman—her dry lips spreading wide, almost as menacing as the crack in the tile leading the cave beneath our house. Her body changed too quickly for either of us to keep up, her belly growing at a speed that caused her skin to break unless she maintained a near-constant level of moisture, which was anything but easy in the desert. She stopped wearing clothes a month in, tired of them stretching out as she slept, her body unfolding and rounding in the slivers of moonlight trickling in through her window. She took to spending her time in the bathtub, constantly refilling it with warmer and warmer water, stewing her swiftly stretching skin. She said it eased the discomfort, at least a little.
The child was born after only two months spent within. Both conceived and born in that damp space between rainfall and evaporation, it arrived on a muggy July morning after a thunderstorm. I had to yank Lilly from the bath for fear of lightning strike trickling down the pipes while the night sky raved with the crunch of thunder. The neighbors’ pool chairs flew into out backyard with the force of the wind, slamming against Lilly’s window. We huddled beneath the blankets in her bed trying to find a way to sleep in spite of the sound of furious water slapping the roof. We could only hope our house would keep standing on its half-foundation.
When the morning sun finally saw fit to blink out from behind the mountains, we found the desert outside transformed. Moisture added pigment to every corner. Lilly flung open the blinds to reveal the lake of our driveway catching the reflection of peach mountains touching a bright cloudless sky through a thick blur of low-swarming flying ants moving together like thickened smoke. Lilly shuddered when she saw them. She said they were the devil’s creatures. A bad omen. The ants always came out after storms, attracted to the moisture in the air. I was used to skirting their hover after rainfall, had never attributed anything like evil to their existence, but Lilly screamed at them, flinging a dishtowel at the window. It hit the glass and then fell to the tile below doing nothing to disturb the insects outside.
Stark naked, she stood in the living room with the window flung open so that any passersby could have looked in and seen her—stringy, perpetually damp auburn hair slung in a half bun, dense belly, eyes ringed in circles of exhaustion, hair-coated legs and armpits—but she was too busy cursing to care. She cursed the bugs. She cursed her body. She cursed me. She shouted and twisted her hands, scratching at her belly, leaving long lines of red agitation behind.
“Get it out!” she screamed, sick of her body changing without her permission. She’d wanted to fill the cavern within herself, but not like this. I reached for her, pushing on her belly with her, finding something hard and round lying beneath layers of skin and fat. I wondered how she had had the strength to carry this hardness inside for so long. It felt like bone where no bone ought to be. As I pushed on it, I found it moved with the force of my hand so I pressed again, down down down. She began to push with me, grunting and moving the mass further until a peek at her vagina revealed it crowning. Her cervix widened, the elastic of her body compensating to force out a huge slippery-blue egg. I stopped pushing on her belly, moving my hands to catch the egg between waiting fingers. When the egg was half out, I gripped its sides and pulled on the slick surface until I had a firm enough grip not to drop it. Warm to the touch, I could feel a heartbeat through silvery veins glinting through the blue. It looked as is a piece of the sky just where it meets the horizon—the blue of faraway mountains, a blue you can never see up close—had come undone, fallen from my sister’s womb. I rubbed the slick of the egg on my t-shirt so I could get a better grip on it. The surface of the egg began to crack and disintegrate, staining my hands and shirt. Bits of eggshell crunched onto the tile until I was holding a small, wet, feathered and winged child, bird-like yes, but undeniably human all the same. The child opened its eyes and cried once, a human cry, before quieting again. Its feathers were as soaked in sky-color as my hands. Together Lilly and I washed it clean in the kitchen sink, revealing feathers as auburn as Lilly’s hair starting at the top of the head and spiraling down, covering the back, belly, and wings. We didn’t think about the quality of the water then. We’d never thought about it, not even when we first found the cave with its stagnant pool, not even when our mother died. We didn’t think about where the water was coming from, didn’t think about filtration systems, didn’t think of rivers going dry, fissures in the ground, Mexico dehydrating, Las Vegas fountains, fertilizer run-off, oil spills, uranium, arsenic leaching, lead in the pipes. We had lived a lifetime of water pouring from the tap—why would we ever think about where it came from? So we filled the skin with the usual gush of clear water that we then rubbed over the child, giggling at how it flickered its eyelids and shook the moisture from damp feathers looking the picture of what could only be satisfaction. It didn’t make a sound the entire time we washed its strange body of bone, tendon, feather, skin. Just that one cry at the beginning of its life, then a soft whimper at the end like the cracked coo of a mourning dover after its body strikes a window.
We could have told ourselves the child died for no reason. That happens sometimes. But we opened the envelope detailing our mother’s autopsy, finally explaining how she had been stolen from us after being lost in the mail these past months. Black text on white paper stating cause of death as a definite result of complications due to a higher than usual lead concentration in the blood most likely as a result of drinking from a tainted water supply. We stared at the kitchen sink, a few stray fluffs of feather still stuck to the stainless steel sides, as if it were a Gila monster that had clamped down on our fingers with an iron jaw refusing to let go. We killed the child with a twist of a tap and gentle hands.
Lilly said it was probably better this way, but she wouldn’t look at the body. She wouldn’t touch the crumpled form of the child, its dark blue eyes gone black, its skin gone gray. I suppose she didn’t want to imprint the memory of those impossibly soft feathers no longer warm to her fingertips. She refused to cry. She hadn’t cried when our mother died either.
“We have to bury it,” she’d said.
So I packed the child into a dusty shoebox and Lilly filled my backpack with spices. I carried the body and the spices while Lilly carried the flashlight and the shovels. We waited until nightfall so no one would see us and then we walked beyond our neighborhood where no human lived yet, until we saw the ocotillo glinting copper in the moonlight. Lilly said, “This is the spot.”
We whispered seven prayers over the grave. Lilly did most of the whispering and I mumbled along, following her lead. Lilly didn’t believe in God, but she believed in the devil and she was willing to admit she might be wrong about God enough to whisper his name in the hopes it would keep the devil at bay.
I twisted a barrel cactus fruit from a crown of yellow fruit sitting like small pineapples atop a round cactus next to the ocotillo. I ripped it open and sucked out the black poppy seeds, the lemony, guava-esque taste of the juice, the bitter nuttiness of the seeds. I placed a hand on the grave, seeds sticking nastily in between my teeth, trying to put roots down to grow between the enamel. I spat them onto the ground and watered the area with a crumpled plastic water bottle. Grow, I thought. Grow here. A cactus would be good, a plump barrel filled with fresh water to purify what we buried.
Lilly knelt by the grave and pressed her lips to the soil as if her kiss could travel through the foot of dirt and rock and seeds and spices we’d piled atop the child. She whispered to the ground, her lips covered in dirt, caliche particles, salt, paprika, and what looked like dill, but might have been rosemary.
“I would’ve loved you. I would’ve been a good mother.”
I wanted to ask her if she meant it, but I supposed intention didn’t matter here. Did it matter if she lied so long as the child was laid to rest with love and good intent?
She stood up and took my hand in hers as we had when we were younger and had thought the desert had been built as a playground just for us. We walked away from the grave holding hands, as if the act of clasping our skin and bones so tightly together that we could feel the blood rushing through one another’s veins could ward off evil, defy the ghosts of the dead we’d lost, or serve as an antidote to liquid poison leaching into our water, our foundation, our blood, our child, our dreams. As if love could be enough.
Carrie Bindschadler is an artist and writer living in Denver, Colorado. She holds an MFA in fiction and pedagogy from Miami University in Ohio. She was a participant of the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2019 and the first place winner of the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Fiction Awards. Her writing can be found in HOBART, COSMONAUTS AVENUE, THE LIT PUB, and others.
You can find her on Twitter: @carriebeeeee7