FICTION | The Deserted
Renée Sands, Durango Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada, August 2016.
A scorpion stung my foot in the shower. Again. But this time, I became so sick I had to stay in bed for three days. The leg started to swell and swell, higher and higher all the way to the thigh--it scared me. The pain radiated, foot-to-belly. I puked. At the end of the second day, I thought it would never stop. Perhaps I'd die.
I want to know where their nest is. I heard they come from the palm trees in the parking lot. They breed and they stay inside the leaves of the trees. But I don't think so. I think they inhabit the air ducts and come out at night through the vents. Then in the morning, they hide in the shower curtains or in drawers (I found one in my bra last week), or they curl up in the sheets at the foot of the bed. The old man next door--I barely know him, but he insists on blocking my way and talking with me every time we cross paths--says I should get a chicken, but I don't want a chicken. I want a new place.
I sealed off all the vents in the apartment with duct tape. At night the heat is unbearable, but I don't want to leave any window open either. I just sleep with packs of ice against my ribs and between my knees. And two portable electric fans.
Because I was sick, I missed three rehearsals. Before I even had the chance to talk to M., they had replaced me with some new girl. I talked to M. today. I told him he had to give me a third chance. He said he had never heard of such a thing as a third chance, but he did not hang up. He let me speak about scorpions for a while. He likes them. That did not surprise me. He had heard too that the bark scorpions were the worst type and that it was well-known that my neighborhood was infested. On the radio, they had said it was a bad year. For maybe thirty seconds I was stupid enough to believe he would offer for me to stay at his place. Or at least that he would help me find another show. But all he said was it was a mistake not to go to the hospital. I wish I had what it takes to quit him. To leave this place.
Yuta Hirano, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Mojave Desert, March 2017.
Today I found a foot in the desert, not too far from Spring Meadows Drive, as I was on my way to the Crystal Reservoir. A very beautiful foot, that had once, not long ago, belonged to a young white woman. The skin had the soft blue hue of the rarest moon jars from the Joseon dynasty, my favorite porcelain. I admire the delicacy of the curve of its longitudinal arch. She was a dancer--she ought to have been one. As I am writing these words, I am touching with fear and awe and bliss the articulation of the ankle. So slender! I marvel at the quality of the blade and at the precision of the hand that used the blade. The work of a perfectionist and a purist. Someone with a loving understanding of bones.
I wasted an entire work day--I have so many more plant specimens I need to collect before I can start experimenting on their cells--lost in my contemplation of the foot, thinking of different ways I could preserve the foot and how it could find its place within my collection of rare plants.
I found the foot at sunrise, near a bush of astragalus phoenix, in bloom. I was so shocked, I almost stepped on the very flowers I had crossed the world to study and protect. It would have been a terrible disaster. But I must admit with shame that I neglected the flowers and concentrated all my energy on the foot.
It had been freshly cut. The sun had not had the chance to start its power of destruction on the delicate skin. I noticed what I took for a scar underneath the big toe. A sting. A wasp, perhaps? Though it is rare to be stung under a toe by a wasp. This flaw, this mark, upset me at first. So much perfection and purity of line, marred. But then I remembered that if the foot had been a traditional Japanese ceramic, such a flaw would have added to its value.
Maurice Cantor, the Wynn Hotel, Las Vegas, October 2017.
Two men finally came to ask about Renée. They must have had other reasons to wait to contact me. I don't know what exactly I expected, but I was surprised. They insisted we meet at the bar of the Longstreet Casino, near Death Valley Junction. I said they'd be more than welcome at the Wynn, that I would find them a room. But they said no. I decided not to contradict them. Not to ask questions too soon.
When I arrived at the bar, I realized I had forgotten to ask them how I would recognize them, but the bar was almost empty at noon. Such a depressing place. Why meet there? I am quite sure Renée never ever set foot there. She'd have told me. Or maybe no. Red carpets, red upholstered chairs. A red, the color of cheap wine. No direct sunlight, even at noon, even in the desert. Everything cheap. The glass ashtrays on the formica tables. The red carpet with the pink roses. The white plastic panels of the ceiling, reminiscent of an insurance firm, with the faux chandeliers and the small disco ball, gloomier than ever in day light. The red velvety chairs with the metallic feet. Everything stained. But only old stains. Faint. The stale air, full of cold cigarette ashes and carpet cleaning products. The constant sound of bad news on TV. No one around. No one behind the bar even. But then I saw them. As if they had just materialized, underneath one of the tv screens, near the jukebox.
One of them, I had never seen before. If I had to guess, I'd say he was Russian, but don't ask me why. The accent was hard to trace. It was more about the silences that he lay like traps in our conversation. The fingernail of his left thumb was very long and he was using it to carve intricate geometrical figures on the formica table while he talked. Mostly triangles. He scratched at the table, the only piece of new furniture in the bar. I could not imagine any string instrument that would justify the long nail.
I'd guess he was in his early fifties, in a blue, tailor-made silk suit. Prussian blue. Nothing from around here. I must admit I had a fleeting moment of envy for his anachronic elegance. He had the jaws of a boxer and the eyes of a monk. Don't ask me what I mean. Just that he tended to look at me or at the red carpet with the same distant gaze, not focused on anything tangible.
He had very few questions, and none of them made sense. At first he just said that he had not seen Renée in years but that urgent family matters had prompted him to contact her. Given the few things I knew about Renée's family that seemed highly unlikely. He knew she was missing.
He never asked about the type of contract she had with me, nor anything else about me and her. He already knew.
He asked me if I had ever been to the Longstreet Casino before, if Renée knew the place, if she ever mentioned the Wildlife Refuge nearby. But one quick look at my face gave him all the answers he needed.
The other guy, I had seen him before, but it took me days to remember: once at Renée's old place in Durango drive. Once at rehearsal. She never introduced him to me, and it struck me that perhaps they were related. Something about their thick, arched eyebrows, black like China ink on very white skin. His eyebrows twisted and curved, as if from pain, and every now and then he placed a finger on his temple, perhaps to stop a bad headache. The mixture of the roses of the red dirty carpet and the pungent smell of detergent had started to give me a headache too. It was difficult to know for sure whether he was even listening. He did ask one question. He wanted to know the number of air vents in my suite at the Wynn. I heard it as a threat.
Eve Alder, Horizon drive, Las Vegas, November 2017.
I know he is insane, but I love him just the same. I remember the first time I saw him. Only eighteen months ago, but for me now, it feels like in a different lifetime. We were rehearsing at The Stage. At some point I noticed his presence, but I don't know when he came in or how he was even allowed in the studio during rehearsal. He just sort of materialized out of nowhere. He sat barefoot and cross-legged by a window. I remember one ray of sun was barring his face like a scar. He was writing. I noticed that he was left-handed and that he was using a pencil. Perhaps after all he was not writing but sketching. Renée did not acknowledge his presence nor talk with him. But they left together. That's all I noticed that first day. I did not know they were siblings. Though I ought to have guessed, even that first day. They both had intense dark eyebrows, as if drawn with charcoal. Pale, pale skin that bruised too easily. A ghost-like presence. Sharp, angular elbows. Very vulnerable-looking necks and wrists.
After that he came back a bit every day. Sometimes just for a few minutes at the end of the day. Sometimes he'd spend several hours sitting, always in the same corner of the studio, his long, skinny legs crossed in an awkward lotus position, either reading or sketching or writing. Step-by-step I started noticing his absence, too, more and more. I noticed that, though he did not seem to ever watch us rehearse, I'd dance differently when he was around, the energy of each move radiating effortlessly in all directions.
Then Renée started missing rehearsals. By August, she became so unreliable that Maurice replaced her. But her brother sometimes stops by the studio. The tacit agreement surrounding his clandestine presence remains a mystery to me. Yesterday, eventually, I decided to talk to him. I realized I was nervous. He was so withdrawn, it was not easy. When he first saw me walk toward him, he quickly shut his notebook and acted like he was ready to stand up and leave, but I sat next to him and as gently as I could I put a hand on his shoulder to ask him not to move. But I think that scared him. I felt how tense his shoulder became under my touch. His short black hair smelled of warm sand, sunshine, and brown tobacco. His eyes were very different than Renée's. Gray. But with glitters of ochre around the iris. Being exposed to his presence, just for a few minutes, was like being exposed to a music, impossibly sad and warm. I had nothing to say. I could not come up with anything remotely casual. Long everlasting seconds passed between us during which I was trying to determine whether or not his two eyes were of the same gray-blue. Then I heard myself ask How is Renée? and was shocked to realize I genuinely cared.
August Sands, Desert Parkway Behavioral Healthcare Hospital, Las Vegas, February 2018.
She was lost. At first I thought that was what she wanted. I said nothing. I just followed. I don't remember the car. I have no memory of where she left it. She was almost a sleepwalker, and I was scared to wake her up. She was more silent than usual. All her movements were slow and heavy as if she was walking underwater. And she only gazed at things that were not visible to me, all around us. She was drawn to them, and I could not help her. I was terrified that if I said something, if I mentioned we had no map, no food, no water, that soon night would come, she would be furious toward me, she'd desert me.
And that is exactly what happened. She deserted me. But not because of anything I said. I just followed. I loved that the wind had brushed thin particles of sand and dust in her eyebrows and that in too much sun her eyes became greener, more reptilian. Her skin was bruised from lack of sleep. Her lips were white and peeled and dried and cracked and she wanted me to know water ran underground, invisible under our feet, water sprung in hidden places. She warned me not to be scared of flowers.
I lost track of time. At some point, after we had walked for what felt like hours, yet the night had not fallen, she said she wanted to lay down and rest. I remember red mountains against blue skies. I remember a silence vibrating with distant bird cries. I remember a thin layer of ochre dust between my fingers and in my eyelashes and in my nostrils. I remember snakes and lizards disappearing soundlessly in dark narrow clefts. I remember terrifying pink flowers with petals that looked like they were made of delicate human skin, moist. I sat on a rock next to her and watched her. That's when I noticed she had no shoes. Her feet--they looked so vulnerable. I wondered what it'd take to protect them against her will. She did not close her eyes. She just followed the movements of clouds above us the way a cat watches the movement of a bee; he wants to catch and kill the bee, only because it's beautiful, but has been stung before, so now he just watches. When she got up again, her long black hair and her white shirt were covered in what looked like dry moss, and I even saw two small yellow flowers entangled in her curls. But even then, I did nothing. I was paralyzed. Between her and me, a void and a curse. The sun had flushed her cheeks and narrowed her pupils. The green of her iris was unbearable.
Maybe she sensed it; she kept her eyes down. Silence fossilized within us and all around us and my knees felt weak, and I wanted to beg her forgiveness for something either I had forgotten or something that had not yet happened. Then I saw the spring. Its sleeping water, a familiar green. Tall brown grass all around it. No wind. The surface of the spring, a mirror, and hidden creatures underneath, their presence betrayed by intermittent circles. I saw everything in her face changed. It radiated liquid light from within, as if the bones of her face wanted to vibrate and fuse with the stones in the water and then I knew and I grew scared. She was not lost. She had arrived.
I felt myself disappear in anticipation of her leaving me. I felt weak and numb, trapped in someone else's nightmare. I could neither move nor speak. She turned toward me, but her eyes never met mine. I heard a very loud throbbing that seemed to come from above us but now I believe it was the sound of my own heart pulsating in my ear canals. I can see her now as I saw her then, her loose black hair covered in moss dust and her white shirt covered in sweat and ochre sand down her back as she entered the water. And also how she spread her arms and kept her fingertips just above water for as long as she could. Though I knew she would not come back, I told myself I'd wait.
Lucie Bonvalet is a writer, a visual artist and a teacher. Her writing (fiction and nonfiction) can be found in Jellyfish Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Entropy, 3AM, Fugue, Oregon Humanities, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, Word Riot, and Shirley Magazine. Her drawings and paintings can be found in Old Pal magazine and on Instagram (@lbonvalet).