Ciela tasted her lips as she lifted them from Zachary’s throat. Salt. At times, she confused her visions of salt and sand, salt and sun, naïve as they were, foolish as they were, with reality. But this was Zachary’s skin. His heat. His light. His salt. Yet, it was the flavor of every man south of Phoenix, at least the men she had tasted. Not that it was unique to men. The lime-white rim left its residue on her as well—the briny flesh of her neck, her breasts, her knees.
Zachary raised his mouth to hers, and she imagined he tasted her salt as well, his tongue touching the rim of her lip, briefly, before burying his head into the darkness of her thick black hair. Serves him right, she thought, and only fair that he should know the true flavor of the Sonoran. For Ciela, it had been three years – three years at the entrance to Organ Pipe Cactus Monument and a lifetime in Arizona, and still that overwhelming flavor persisted. And that scent. She thought that by the age of 28 she would have become accustomed to the acrid aroma, but she had not, perhaps due to the fragrances brought west by park tourists—Chanel and Mysteria and Opium encroaching on the scents of the indigenous growth. At the park, emerald bees gravitated toward the women as if they were the newest seasonal blossoms on the heads of barrel cactus— nectar for the taking, reward for their perseverance.
Ciela tensed as Zachary moved inside her, and she stared past his blonde temple at a fissure in the plaster above her bed and the sparks of white left by the chipping brown paint, angular and shifting points like stars against a dark sky.
“A penny,” Zachary breathed as he raised himself and rolled over against her hip.
She thought of telling him about her attempts to connect the stars on the ceiling, but what she really thought was this: for six months Zachary had been in Arizona, what he described as the only untamed place he had ever visited, and still the banalities slipped from his lips as predictably as if he were still writing copy for The Baltimore Sun. A penny. A penny, he would say. Then, Zachary was a predictable man; Ciela had come to memorize the pattern of his kiss—from north to south, breast to breast, nipple to nipple, east to west. And the movement of his hips, the tonal moan before pulling out of her, and the fall to his pillow, his arm dropping across his eyes as if the white light of day was more than he could bear. She told him none of these things.
“I hear we’re both Southerners,” he had told her on their first meeting in the park staff office. Merely small talk, but that was the line that drew her to laugh and to his bed in one fell swoop. Baltimore like the Sonoran? It only took him a few days to also see the humor in his comment and gain a dose of desert reality in the process—two days at the edge of Alamo Canyon, and two more treading the stony trail from Mt. Elijah to the visitors’ center, and the last time he ever forgot water.
“Water?” Ciela asked as she rolled out of bed and to her feet. She fastened the lower two buttons of her park officer shirt. She filled a glass from the pitcher on the sideboard. While waiting for his answer, she filled a second for him. He slid his hand behind his head and smiled at her.
“Coffee,” he said.
“Water’s what we have,” she said. “You need water more than coffee when you’re on the job.”
“You’re a hard woman, Ciela,” he told her.
She sat on the bed and leaned back against her pillow, then passed him his water. She was a hard woman, harder than her parents had expected her to be. In her mother’s mind, Ciela was God’s child, the chosen, steeped at once in nature and grace. To Ciela the two were incompatible, like the monsoons of August and the still sky at dawn, the daggers of yucca and the ghost flowers of Picacho Peak. The Sonoran was real—neither dream nor desire, neither solemn nor gracious, and one who was born into it could not be God’s child.
As hard as she was, she struggled to resist any impulse toward cruelty with Zachary. She closed her eyes and sipped her water as he traced a single finger along the back curve of her thigh, and she wished to fall into the softness of his hands. But the very idea of such a sweet caress, here in her room, here in the desert, aroused in Ciela only amusement. The tube of hand cream he carried at all times in his back pocket was nearly empty, and she had no idea how many others he had gone through in his first season. Toller, the veteran of the small group of rangers, taunted Zachary whenever he saw him squeezing a glob into his palm.
“What in hell you afraid of?” Toller would ask him. “Think your skin’s going to wither away? I’ve been here a good long time—long enough to see a man’s skin peel away from his bones or his hands drop off. I haven’t seen either.”
Zachary usually ignored Toller and continued rubbing the cream into his skin every chance he got. Ciela thought the entire exercise might be for her sake, a part of his eastern courting ritual, as she felt his hand glide nearer to the tendon at the back of her knee. When she felt his ever-softening skin grazing the dry segments of her legs, she accepted Zachary’s obsession over hand cream as a tender respite from an otherwise harsh world. She let him continue to caress her skin as her eyes drifted closed once more.
“Hope I can make it through the rest of the day with no coffee,” he said as he touched her.
She dropped her legs and turned on her side. He grazed the same soft hand over the rise of one breast.
“That’s not the way to coffee if coffee’s what you want,” she told him, then drained her glass. “You’ll shrivel up in this heat if all you drink is coffee.”
He leaned across her and kissed her lips.
“Okay then, gin and water,” he said, and kissed her once more.
“After work,” she said and shifted away from his hand. She slid her empty glass across the sideboard, pushing back the crystal vase with the withering arrangement of carnations and baby’s breath he had brought to her the week before. He had insisted on giving her a birthday gift even after she had told him that she wanted nothing from him. Flowers and a poem. She supposed she should be grateful for his attention, his language, his voice, but she could not help resenting his forcing upon her what she clearly did not want. She had some lingering recollection of a few words from his note—something about love arising from passion’s center—although she tried desperately not to remember. A few droplets of water clung to the lip of the vase. A small pool collected in the base, just beyond reach of the drooping stems. She pulled on the tan trousers of her uniform and tucked in her shirt. The dusty scent on her collar overpowered Zachary’s aroma. She rushed to finish dressing.
“Let’s go,” she said and threw his shirt over his head. “Lunchtime’s over.”
At the staff meeting that afternoon, Ciela had trouble concentrating, not all that unusual as of late, her attention wandering to Trail’s Head or distracted by passing rain or a hot wind. She pulled her penknife from her front pocket and sliced across a page of notes as Toller droned on. Disconnected phrases dropped onto the floor around her chair. The blade whistled along the paper. Increasingly, the sounds surrounding her had taken on a near human voice, a distant and strained whisper of caution. About what, she did not know, but its language was familiar. Brisa. Brisa del sur. Her mother had heard voices, on their travel north, and before—voices of promise and desire. For her father, a man of reason, the voice was a more urgent call to America, for work, for fortune, and for food. From the time Ciela was old enough to remember, her father had confronted her mother about faith, warned them both about voices of spirits, ghosts of long dead lives, meuertos vidas, but her mother could not ignore them. That was years earlier, before Phoenix, before tourists.
Now she was hearing her parents’ voices more often, although she retained only a hazy memory of their last expressions of sorrow. She did not know if either of them was alive to tell disparate versions of the same story; perhaps they were lost in red hills or sand. Tierra arrasada. In her dreams, she would try to reconstruct her mother and father into something recognizable—an embrace, a breath against her cheek, but her visions fell short of any transfiguration. Her mother had been driven by tales of faith, but voices faded from generation to generation, finally forgotten, leaving little more than thirst and solitude and the myths of distance and death. Half-remembered tales were as useless as the heat.
Zachary pressed his knee against hers, and the pressure brought her back to the office surroundings. She instinctively tapped him back. Across from her sat Wayne, a man who seldom made eye contact with her anymore. What had it been with him? Two months? Three? Hardly an eternity of the fresh roses he would offer her. Or the poetry he would recite to her. Or his expressions of tenderness that would wither in the noon sun. Ending their affair was for his own good, she had told him, but it was as much for hers. Sex was easier to take than poetry, and the last thing she needed in her life was a poet, since both poetry and passion were sure to be destroyed. At least Carl had continued to talk to her at the end of their affair. He could still look her straight in the eye during meetings, and with him it was only about sex. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed hard against Zachary’s leg.
After work, she and Zachary met at her place, polished off a bowl of iceberg lettuce topped with canned citrus fruit segments and had sex. Later, Zachary grabbed a cotton robe from Ciela’s corner clothing tree and retired to the sofa with a gin and water, extra ice. Ciela drained the last of a bottle of Chablis into a glass. She had thought about opening the Cabernet, which was what she really wanted, but she was tired of seeing the sweating bottle of Chablis roll back and forth over the glass shelf every time she reached for an apple or a plum.
She sat on the sofa across from Zachary and sipped her wine. He propped up her dog-eared birthday card, still lying at the center of the coffee table. The red notepaper slipped from the inside of the card and rested against his glass. He lifted the paper and looked at the words inscribed across it. He smiled, then carefully placed it back into the fold of the card. Even after so many months, Ciela’s acceptance of his tenderness continued to surprise her.
He slid a book from the tabletop and began to flip through the photographs—glossy shots of landscapes that did not exist anymore, at least not in the way photographed in the book— Natural Bridges Monument, Arches National Park. These places were the truly transfigured, a few through natural decay and advancing years, most through human volition.
“Haven’t had enough of that?” she said as she tucked her legs beneath her.
“Don’t tell me you’re tiring of the desert,” he said.
“It’s only the desert,” she said. She twirled the stem of her glass.
“Let’s see about that,” he said, tightening his lips and peering down. He turned to the index of the book.
“Sonora…Sonora,” he whispered. “Sonora Texas, Sonora California, Sonora Mexico, Sonoran Desert.”
He flipped the pages of the book, almost too large for him to balance, stopping once and again to scan a page before moving on. Moisture streamed from his glass, melting ice filling the space left by downed gin and water. He lifted his glass without lifting his eyes from the photos and took a drink. Water dripped onto his robe, his chest, a single page. Zachary appeared comfortable with Ciela’s robe and gin, and she imagined he would be comfortable anyplace, an idea that might have seemed healthy to her had she felt the same comfort within her own walls.
“Here,” he repeated. “The Sonoran Desert covers approximately 100,000 square miles,” he read. “Average rainfall is 12 inches in the Arizona upland region and less than three inches in the lower Colorado Valley region. Temperatures throughout the desert vary widely: from 40 degrees at night in some areas to 120 degrees in mid-afternoon.” He flipped the page. “And here it is,” he announced, then held the book up to a double page spread of the desert plains—saguaro cactus in the foreground, flatlands and wolfberrystretching back, Red Mountain rising in the distance.
“Books…books,” Ciela whispered, shaking her head.
“Something wrong with it?” he asked, flipping the book around and staring at the photo.
“Not at all,” Ciela said. “The perfect romantic getaway. A hundred and twenty degrees at noon, no water, rattlers, and plenty of rock. Beautiful.” She sipped from her glass.
Zachary closed the book and emptied his gin.
“You’re much too young to be so cynical,” he said. “More?” he asked, walking into the kitchen.
She held her glass up behind her head. “Bottle’s on the counter,” she said, but brought her arm back down when he did not take the glass.
He returned with the open bottle of Cabernet and poured her a drink. The bottle, he set in front of her and dropped back into his chair. His glass was full, this time with less ice. Ciela stared into the bottle of wine, the surface still swirling beneath the label. Even in her relaxed state she could count three glasses left. She raised her glass to Zachary.
“For the duration,” she said and took a swallow. “Or until the bottle’s empty.”
“My bottle’s not as full,” he said, but raised his glass to her anyway.
“I’ve been there you know,” she told him. “Red Mountain.”
“In the photo?” he asked. “So it’s not such a bad picture after all.”
“Sure,” she laughed. “From the back seat of an SUV.”
“What do we Easterners know, right?” he said. “Did you think this way about me from the time I first arrived?”
“Like we’re all crazy to come out here. Like we’re out of our element, or out of our minds.”
“Not everyone. Only my ex lovers,” she told him.
Zachary’s smile melted away.
“What is it that makes you so cynical?” he asked. “You work at a job that depends on non-native visitors. Then you criticize them for their lack of nativity.” He stopped abruptly. “Is that the word?” he asked. “Nativity?”
“They’re native to someplace.”
“Maybe it’s envy, then.”
“Over what?” she asked, looking into his drowsy eyes.
“You’re not native to anyplace,” he said.
“Native to everywhere and to nowhere,” she sang. “Born in the desert, breathed to by the wind, scrubbed clean by the sand. Fuerza del viento, viento ligero. I’ve assimilated my mother’s stories well, don’t you think?”
“Fear then. But of what? Not fear of men,” he said, sitting up and looking suddenly startled by his own question.
She drank her wine, the red more effective than the white, and she began to feel light headed. From the direction of Diaz Peak, she could hear the dusk bay of a single coyote, but after her second glass of wine, she doubted her own senses. Her eyes closed. She heard the howl once more and imagined the black blood tongue and the dark sacrament of its satiated hunger.
“I doubt if it’s death,” Zachary continued.
“Why not?” she asked as her eyes opened. “Why would I want to die more than anyone else?”
“Fear means you need to believe it might actually happen,” he told her. “You’re too sure of yourself to be worried about death.”
She laughed and grabbed the wine bottle. “One more,” she said.
Zachary took the bottle after her and filled his glass over the gin tainted ice cubes.
“You don’t need to be dying to think about death,” she said.
He moved to the sofa and rubbed the back of her neck, a generous gesture, she thought, considering the grief she often gave him. He kissed her neck, but she recoiled from the softness of his lips.
“Do you want to know what I’m really afraid of?” she said. “I’ll tell you. The September I began working at the park, a man came strolling through the gates. Portland I think he was from. Oregon. He talked about how excited he was to be in Arizona after a life in the rain-soaked northwest. Had hopes for drier days ahead, he said. He carried a book of photos, not so much different from this book here,” she said, poking at the coffee table with one foot. “A perfectly romantic notion, a perfectly lovely notion, that he would somehow descend ragged canyon walls, or pierce sweet hot mountain air. His book, a backpack, a bottle of water, and a tune to hum. That was it. Didn’t ask about the park, just looked at a few charts and blurbs of information. I handed him a trail guide for luck.”
Ciela stretched her arm along the back of the sofa and dropped her head back. A strand of web that, for weeks, she had threatened to remove followed the length of the ceiling and disappeared into a crack where the walls met. Zachary leaned his cheek against her arm.
“He parked near the station and headed off to Trails Head,” Ciela went on, still following the twisting of the strand. “He sang as he walked, but he could barely carry a tune.”
Ciela extended her legs out onto the table, one ankle crossing the other. Zachary rested his hand on her skin and closed his eyes.
“Pretty hard to get lost at the visitors’ trail,” he said quietly.
“You’d think so,” she said, “but at closing that day his car was still in the same spot he had left it that morning. I looked in the windows but didn’t see a thing, like the man never existed. A memory. A figment. I walked maybe a hundred yards onto the trail. I remember calling out ‘Park’s closing,’ but no answer, just wind. Anyway, we finally got a search party out there.”
“Find him?” Zachary asked.
“We found him alright. Broken, and his hips wedged between two boulders. Water bottle tossed to the side, still half full. His pouch of trail mix beside the bone that stuck out his twisted shoulder. His book of photos, smeared with oil and blood was still in his hand, like a life preserver for a drowning man, except it was bone dry in the desert. A world away from Portland.”
Ciela poured more wine, an increasing need to drain the bottle.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Zachary said.
“That’s not the point. I already know my part in his death, and that was long before he arrived in the Sonora. I might as well have beaten and broken him myself. The death of one more tourist marching bravely into America. He didn’t even know what America was. Even my father, as misguided as he was…the land of wealth and opportunity, and…” Her eyes closed. “America the beautiful. America the photo book.”
Zachary caressed her leg. She relaxed beneath his touch and breathed deeply.
“No guilt” he said. “You don’t have it in you, baby.” He doubled over and kissed her knee.
She stroked the back of his neck until she could feel heat rising from his crimson flesh. Strands of his hair slid between her fingers, and she drew them up. She held his cheek, nearly as soft as his hands, against the flesh of her leg.
“It doesn’t bother you, does it?” she asked. “That I don’t have a wisp of remorse over that dead man. What does that say about your chances?”
“I wouldn’t want you feeling guilty over me,” he said.
“Even if I twisted you, destroyed you? Are you so romantic that you can’t see that I could destroy you?”
“How will you manage that? Will you come at me with a knife in the dark?” He laughed, and his neck heaved beneath her touch. “In my sleep? A femme fatale?”
“You’re as foolish as the man from Portland if you don’t think I could,” she murmured. “Even in the desert the heat doesn’t last forever.”
Zachary raised his head and continued to laugh. She opened her eyes and pushed him away from her.
“I’ll get the knife for you myself,” he said. “Will you put an end to me?”
“It’s easy to be careless when you don’t believe in ends,” she said.
Zachary set down his glass and walked into the bedroom. Ciela picked up the photo book and paged through the images— wistful recollections of something harsher and more dangerous. Ciela had wanted to feel something for this doomed man from Portland, sympathy or sorrow, just as she wanted to feel something for Zachary. Love, perhaps. Not sympathy, since it was such a wasted emotion. Passion. Tenderness. At the moment, all she could manage was regret. What else was there for vague memories and hazy visions—or voices of kindness from mothers to daughters in a cruel terrain, or family stories of redemption in a hopeless storm? Or the romantic notion that faith might save the dying or might save the world, instead of the reality of life in the desert, which is rock and blood and dust? Meuertos vidas. Ciela did not fear death or love; what she feared was faith—her mother’s faith in her daughter, the dead man’s faith in her knowledge, Zachary’s faith in her love, and the faith of all men to follow—the living and the dead.
When Zachary returned he fell back into the sofa. He laid her penknife on the coffee table and leaned into the crook of her arm.
“There you are,” he said with a drowsy voice. “Let’s see how much of a realist you are. Let’s see what you really think about life or love.”
“Do you expect me to use this on you?” she asked. “Who will I sleep with tonight?”
Zachary sat up and reached for his red note from the coffee table. He held it close to his eyes.
“This is real,” he said as he read the lines on the page, the gift for her birthday. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be real.” He held the poem up to her half closed eyes.
She took the poem from his hand and held it up to the brightness of the light behind her. She followed the string of words across the page, but she could not seem to make sense of them. She did not remember having drunken so much during earlier readings, which was a probably a good thing for Zachary. The sentiment had become more meaningful to him than to her.
She picked up her knife from the table, opened it, and slowly sliced the thin edge from the red paper. The sliver curled and dropped into her lap. She sliced through it again, separating an “o” from a “t,” although it was difficult to know for sure. She looked past her blade into Zachary’s eyes. In her half-drunk state, she could not tell if his expression was one of anger or pain, but it struck her that either one would do, so it didn’t much matter. She sliced through another word, then another and another until the language fell away, bit by bit. Each subsequent shred curled and drifted down like dried desert honeysuckle. Soon a mound of segmented language, letter on letter, thought on thought, desire on desire lay upon the fabric of her robe and her skin.
She dropped the final slice, and beyond its descent, she watched as Zachary’s eyes followed it, which momentarily surprised her. She had nearly forgotten he was there.
“Maybe I don’t know what’s real,” she whispered.
She dropped her knife amidst the slivers of red. The photo book slipped from the sofa and fell to the carpet. She watched Zachary’s eyes close, perhaps out of sadness or despair. She did not really expect him to understand and was sure he did not. He knew too much about tenderness, a poet on the desert path to his own destruction, and at her hands. Yet, it was something she could not stop, anymore than she could stop the monsoons of August or the whispering of sand. Brisa. Brisa.
Zachary opened his eyes, then reached into the folds of her robe and scooped up the remnants of poetry. He placed them on the table beside the greeting card. He leaned toward Ciela’s arms and pulled her toward him, an awkward embrace that made her nearly smile. He led her from the sofa and to her bed. She lay on her back, stiffly, and he stretched out beside her. On the ceiling above her, the mock stars continued to spark. Zachary’s arm encircled her and he pulled her toward him. Now, her body lost all shape, all life, and she released her hot breath into him. He slipped down one strap of her shirt, and his soft and drowsy lips kissed her mouth, then her throat and her shoulder and the flesh of her arm, sweetly, foolishly, almost as if he intended to make love.