The playa breathes. All around me its breath twists across gypsum, like dancing ghost-children beside a forgotten sea. Lakes appear and dry up over their phantom shoulders and rivers wind through the clouds and among those clouds great inverted cities grow and swing like pendulums, and vanish as I dare to see them, lonely as I am in my thirst. Welcome to the desert. Of the real lakes, rivers, cities, or children, I can say nothing. Of my life before the desert, nothing. The rags of my senses are held together by the rags I have saved from these sands, and wither with them. Tall dervishes stalk the horizon. Marching with no direction or purpose, throwing the ground shells of millions of dead marginalia into the arms of the sky and diminishing into the same.
In this desert, I saw a creature. Naked, windburnt, and sat on the floor of this immense and wretched ocean. Denuded like a gnarled mesquite. Shaved ugly by the wind. Count its ribs and find it one short. Find its name blasted away into the sky long ago. Find it squatting in sand so fine it leaves no impression when it rises as if to greet you. Hot spirits twisted between us and I reached out my hand to shake its hand. But as it came closer I realized it offered me a twisted and broken fruit withered on its vine, half-eaten already, ugly as a human heart, and I put my hand down because I could not take its last meal. It stopped.
“How’s it taste?” I asked. “Is it good?”
It didn’t answer. I started to go around it and it started to go around me, and the trick of the thirsty air made it seem like a wall of warped mirrors rose between us as we stopped, reversed, stopped, advanced, retreated, stopped and reversed. Ever in each other’s way. It held out it’s broken fruit again.
“Is it delicious? What’s its juice like?”
The creature sighed and at that moment another tornado squatted on the horizon. As if its nostrils gave lungs to God.
Bitter – bitter, it said.
“What did it cost?”
The creature turned back into the fog of the desert’s heat. I followed. “What did it cost?” Cities hung and swung and fell back into the sky on a whim.
We carried on into a higher badland where the stones teetered and peered over each other to the point of falling into gravity’s arms but withheld themselves on the edge. From so far above, the playa below was a sea that didn’t fade. Blue and beautiful and full of the promise of plenty and fish.
“What did it cost? Is it good?”
The creature turned to me and the stones answered
g o O D.
It squatted there, hunched over its shrunken prize, and ate. I stood above it and looked down on the desert floor. The lake and the cities marvelled me. When I looked back to the creature, it held its half-eaten heart out.
I love it.
Justin Briley is a writer and editor in the Atlanta area. He’s supported by a patient partner, three daughters, and a dog named Solo who doesn’t live up to the promise of his name.