by M. Wilson
We are building a road. We are a very small Indian village, only a couple dozen people or so, but we need this road desperately to reestablish the trade we formerly had with surrounding areas. As it is, they have forgotten us. Trade has lapsed. The dirt paths that run out of the village to other places are disused and disappearing, because they are so hard to travel on by automobile. Near the village, the paths begin as a series of lines pointing outward in all directions like rays from a solar disk; the paths are marked by deep ruts where bicycles and car tires once sank into the mud (fully hardened now, in summer) but a few hundred yards out, the ruts lessen in depth — as if the wheels here were finding firmer ground — and farther on, they vanish. Hardly anyone comes here anymore, only some farmers and craftsmen who have journeyed these parts of the desert since time out of mind. They arrive, taciturn, in clouds of old-engine exhaust and drive off in them, and when the exhaust dissipates it is as if they had never been here… The frequency of their visits has dwindled. Our connection to the rest of the world has been erased.
And which way is it? the world?
A magnetic fault line runs through our village, sending compasses spinning as if one were standing at the North or South Pole; this effectively nullifies navigation here. If some stranger says, “Go to the west corner of the house,” we cannot; we do not know which corner that is.
I know; you wonder about the light. It seems easy enough to say, “Just follow the path of the sun, as it rises in the East and sets in the West. Mark that path.” But take a look at it. There is the sun. Now turn one-quarter turn to your left; there is the sun, again. Now turn one-quarter turn to the left again, and there is another sun. And turn again, there is a fourth sun… The atmosphere splits it into four dimensions… And at night, the stars are similarly mirrored across the sky. We are building our road in front of the village, since there is a natural front and back. It will, when finished, run to the right and to the left, for a total of 52 miles. We don’t know what the road will reach. We are shooting an arrow into the air.
The villagers all work for part of every day on the road, even the poorest people who are barely scraping out an existence. We all agree this road must be made or the village will not survive.
I paint pictures. It is a poor living, now. When I first came here I was relatively wealthy; my pictures found several good markets; they were considered curiosities and sold well to tourists. Now, I am nearly as destitute as the rest of the villagers. Running out of supplies, I draw in charcoal or make my own paints from crushed clay and animal fat. And of course no tourists come here to buy them, so I must get them to the agent who sells them for me. I have resorted to carrier pigeons. If I roll up a canvas and secure it with twine, four birds together can manage to get it the twenty-three miles to the agent, who lives in a fair-sized market town. But the pigeons do not like it; they growl and stamp their feet impatiently while I tie all the strings to their thin legs. However, they do it for me, and return to my porch the next morning where I have spread out a feast for them: hard dried horse corn, smashed with a rock into small pieces they can eat. There used to be other methods of getting my work to market, like commercial vandrivers passing through, or even tourists who could be bargained with, but these no longer come frequently enough. So I must make alliances previously unconsidered.
We are starving, I suppose, — or soon that will be the case. There is, moreover, a beast that threatens the village, an animal that has stolen meager caches of food, made off with hen s and a small goat, even broke open someone’s fence and attacked a child. It is a wolverine. It seems to be one of many pressing dangers that make us hurry to build a road, because there is no capturing it. It was seen exactly once, and indistinctly at that. It is almost legendary.
A small girl knocks at my door in the morning and wants to know if I will trade some of my cooking oil for some jewelry she’s made. She holds out her wrist and shakes the bracelets to show me. They are made entirely of old electronics pieces braided with their own wires — capacitors and resistors, and there is a brooch lacy with them that also has a minuscule on-off switch. I seize her arm and hurry her to the hut of a man who knows metals, because I suspect these have lead in them and she is poisoning herself. Inside the hut, this man sits in the center of the dried-mud floor repairing something; he is using a small flame burner he shuts off with a pop when we enter. I gabble my concern to him, and he nods.
“Yah. Don’t worry.” He reaches into a pile of junk beside him and extracts a rolled spool of thick soldering wire, which I know for sure is made of lead. Straightening out a short end, he holds it over the burner which he has turned on again. The flame licks at the muddy-gray wire for a minute, but it fails to melt, or even soften and bend. He grins at my confusion. “You didn’t remember, hah? No poison, no lead, not while it’s here.” He gestures, indicating by “here” he means, in this village. He tosses the spool aside. “It has no use here. If no use, then no harm.”
I walk slowly home, musing. The girl skips beside me and dances, laughing, to my house. From my pantry I give her a round jar of corn oil and refuse to take any jewelry in exchange, but on second thought accept a jangling bracelet for each arm. If I wore them somewhere else, I wonder, would I hold a charge, complete a circuit? I keep forgetting that things are different here. Many natural laws are held in abeyance.
A truck driver carrying bags of food to a distant market has an accident outside the village — slides sideways into a ditch because of the road ruts. Numerous bags have fallen off the back of his truck and split open on the ground. He unloads the rest onto a second truck — the two trucks were driving together, luckily — but the broken bags of rice and gleaming grain still lie there spilled. He tells us we can have them. He looks at us once more, says, “Ahh, shit,” and climbs up into the back and pushes two more crates of vegetables off with his foot. “Catch!” he tells a young Indian. “Terrible what happens when you hit a ditch,” he coments; he waves and gets back in his truck to laboriously back out of the ditch, winched by the second truck. Both drivers turn their vehicles around and drive into the distance until they vanish. It is good fortune for us. The elders, smiling, direct everybody with jars and bags to collect his share.
The most needy person in the village is a widow with nine children. Her black hair is ragged and she wears a long, red and brown striped cotton skirt which has become so loose it is almost falling off. Her nine stand close around her. They all have the sharp faces of small wolves. She and her children have not eaten for two years… The elders, after brief discussion, set her share at twelve times everyone else’s and also decide a village dinner, in celebration, will be cooked at her house. This is wisely done; the dinner will be made under her supervision and will give her a position of honor instead of pity. All the villagers begin dragging cooking pots to her place, which we set up on tripods or racks outside over wood fires. We all donate some of our food. One man, who takes care of the village’s yard of chickens, a collective hold, consults with the widow and returns with two of the precious number; these are sacrificed and put to boil. Seeing them forced down on the chopping block, helpless, is an intense moment for us. But soon they are nothing but food. You know how people are. To live is to regret.
I am pushed aside by the other women who take over the cooking, because I live alone and do not cook for a family. I am considered fairly useless, being an artist. I try to stay out of their way, and like the men squat around the pots and add wood to the fires every so often. The men do not object to my joining them. We look at each other across the fire eagerly. The cooking food is beginning to smell like heaven. We will all be fat tomorrow, and have incredible strength for working the road. The widow approaches me with some of her tortillas. Her sense of importance today makes her black eyes beetle-bright. “Will you eat them in the house?” she queries, gesturing towards her hogan. I shake my head and indicate that out here is fine. She hands me a plate and goes inside to feed the others.
I begin to wonder what is in the tortillas. I did witness some of the preparation, and saw her tuck fried egg, small heaps of rice, beans, chopped green peppers into them, deftly, with her brown fingers; there are also some pinkish-brown bits that I — wishing to spare myself — decide is pork. But who really knows. It could be meat from the local “livestock.” Even as I think this a small brown rodent of indeterminate species peeps cautiously from the bushes nearby, then breaks from them and zooms across the path. It has a long tail. A thin canine, as well, slinks around the wall of the hogan.
I bite into the tortilla, and it is fortunately mouseless, dogless. I taste chicken, is all. I finish almost the whole thing and lick my fingers, cupping a few shreds of egg and rice in my hand. And stand up to go find the mouse, or whatever it was.
It takes some time, but I locate it a few yards from where I first spied it in the brush, and lay out the bits of food on the ground in front of its hiding place, and sit down to wait. I have to sit perfectly still for forty minutes… Then it emerges. It darts forward to seize the food. “I love you,” I tell the mouse. I think I may only be practicing saying this, but it feels true. The hair on its face moves as it looks at me. At least it looks around, sniffing; it’s hard to tell what exactly its gaze settles on. This mouse… he is one of those animals who are more physically aware than others, I can tell this by the way he moves and reacts. He has too many nerve endings, is his trouble, nerve endings to luxurious excess, making him terribly sensitive to touch and sound. All these nerves are tuned to exquisite pitch, and this affects the relationship he has with the rest of the world. Ones like him choose outlying areas like this to live in, for protection; they also tend to keep low to the ground or high in the air. There is an entire civilization of them, sort of an undercurrent to our own world, a secret society like the Masons or Rosicrucians.
I moved here from a large city thirteen years ago, I was looking for love. The city was a gorgeous carnival, a heaving, ringing, yelling, laughing, pulsating sort of place, and the people talked so fast I couldn’t sort out what they were saying. It took a while before I discovered I couldn’t…And if you can’t tell what they are saying, you also can’t say anything back…I decided I needed a vacation: I ought to go either back in time or to the end of the world. I opted for the end of the world, boarding a bus one day and taking it to the end of the line; then I just got out and continued walking.
And here it is quiet. Here I reduce my life to what is manageable. I am beginning again, but I am not sure what exactly it is I am beginning again. It is something about love. A tree, a rock, a cloud. I am practicing.
When I stand on a high place, like the dirt plateau behind the village, I can feel the city in my head. It is a cold pain, a reverberation like the ringing of an iron bell. It feels also like a magnetic pulling, which is strange since I think this village is isolated from the earth’s lines of force. I have wondered sometimes how the pigeons find their way. It must be that the magnetic field is continuous at a higher altitude, although disrupted here on the ground.
For the road today we are crushing stone, as we have been doing, for many days. In the canyon a hundred yards away, the strongest men swing picks and break off large pieces of granite and load them into wheelbarrows. This is the hardest job. Others of us bring these pieces over to the trench which is becomiing the road and drop them in. Then we take sledgehammers and metal crowbars and smash, smash, smash them into smaller pieces to fill the space of the trench. It is six feet deep, this trench. Hot work, and it will take a long, long time. I pause to rest, and take a package of hard, ancient gum from my pocket. The crinkling of the wrapper alerts a small boy’s attention. He too has been working on the road, picking small stones and carrying them over in a sack. “What’s that?” he demands.
“Gum.” I show him.
“Give me a piece!” I extract one piece and give the rest of the pack. Also in my pocket I find a bottle of soap bubbles and plastic blowing ring, which I give him. I pull out the rest of what is in my pockets and he keeps accepting the things as I hand them to him — a fragment of white chalk, a broken Bowie knife, a dog collar, the core of an apple, a cat’s eye marble, a piece of string to swing a rat with, six yellow tickets with Bible verses printed on them. Have you ever known a child who didn’t want everything you had?
I sit in front of the house where the red pickup truck is parked and wait for the man who owns it to come out. I watch for him almost every day. He may not even exist — like the wolverine. I put a basket of flowers in front of the door. Night falls, then the morning comes. An old woman, knitting with flame-colored yard on the next porch, says, smiling, “I don’t think he’s ever coming out.”
Sometimes I walk at night and stand outside the house of the man with two wives. The villagers might turn him out of the village, if they knew. The younger woman is slight and dresses as a boy and the man refers to her in public as his son. But one night I saw them… I stand outside their window and watch them make love, sometimes all three together. I am conscious of a furious wish to join them.
I awake in the middle of the night, hearing a crackling noise. The bed is on fire, as well as the whole bedroom. Little flames lick around the bedding, trying to get at me… My nightgown ignites at the hem, and I grab it and slap it, unfortunately pulling the fire onto my own leg. A flash of pain on my thigh… The valance of the canopy is alight; it starts to creak and crumble, so I take a flying leap from the bed, where the mattress is now burning, to the floor, which I can’t see through the smoke billowing upwards from underneath the bed, praying that the floor is not afire too. I land without knowing if it burns under my feet or no, I can only see that the room is become a red hell. In fact, the whole house….Somehow I run outside and find my neighbors outside awakened and rushing to help. They take me to the widow’s, next door. There the women spread a poultice over the fearful burn on my leg and wrap it. They murmur soothing things as I shake and sob over a mug of tea. My house is gone. There is no way to stop the fire. My clothes, furniture, paintings, even my share of the windfall food, is burned up.
Now the villagers have the added burden of helping me. They cannot afford to have me stay here much longer because I suspect the expense of my existence will get greater and greater…But a plan forms. The charred and broken pile of wood, crockery and stuff that was my house can provide fill for the road. There are a few working vehicles left in the village, and to these we can attach metal plates like steel plows, and, using up the precious small store of gasoline remaining, push my house over, into the trench. Into nothingness.
The widow tries to make me spend the night at her place, but I cannot bear the sight of her children all huddled against the walls on straw pallets, like mice in a barn. Even though the recent feeding has rounded out their faces somewhat. My pity for myself is about all I can stand just now. I slip out the door and walk along the canyon, where the wind howls long and low. I come to a small cave hidden between two broken boulders, and I toss stones into it for a while until the answering silence convinces me nothing is inside and it is safe to enter. It is dusty and cold, but huddling myself into a curve of the walls makes me eventually warm enough to sleep.
Something terrible awakens me — something has entered the cave and knows I am here. I jump up. It breathes horidly, rasping. In the pitch black I can’t tell it’s near until a rank, musky odor fills the air, thick and suffocating, and a massive body falls on me, knocking me flat on my back on the cold ground.
It is the wolverine, only it is as large as a man. A huge arm — or limb — is laid across my mouth and neck; what starts as a blow begins now to be a caress, this huge hand feeling my face. The hand grasps my throat and I feel his other hand on my body. I am tilted backwards and my naked legs pushed apart. Through the denseness of my fear, I feel what he is about to do and am suddenly, fiercely, glad.
As I choke into his shoulder, he enters me and it is surprisingly easy. The thickness pushing into me is almost more than I can manage; with each withdraw, part of my flesh slides too, trying to cling to him. It is only a couple of minutes before my orgasm starts to overtake me like a rocket, my whole form giving planetary shudders. I feel him finish not long after that. I tell him to go slowly, slowly, as he pulls from me. After I’ve caught my breath again and push him away, I sit up and think: This is just like me. I’m exactly like this. What have I done? Everything is getting out of hand.
In the morning there is trouble in the village. The chickens are gone! The young man who tends the clay-walled chickenyard runs around in circles, holding his head and muttering. Every single one gone; how will we eat this winter? I think of the beast of the night before, and freeze in guilt. Maybe he ate them, I consider silently. But there is no evidence they are dead, probably only run away. The young man finally tells us the gate to the yard stood wide open at sunrise when he went to feed them, because the gate latch was broken and the wind opened it. So we scour the village looking. Every so often, someone cries out and points to a bush, a clump of grass, but the chicken has relocated before we reach it; they are amazingly swift. Stumbling around, I trip over two of the widow’s sons who are searching with her, and scrape up my hands on the rocks and dirt as I fall. The widow wipes my hands with her apron apologizing, then frowns at the bruises on my neck and legs, gotten during the night. She looks worried… Someone tries to lure the chickens with a tray of feed set out in the open; but no birds approach. We search the thicker brush and grass of the adjacent meadows, and twice I get close enough to a chicken to catch a glimpse of bright eye, a whirry of feathers as it eludes me. And strangely, these chickens are in the trees. Can they fly?
Hot and dusty, we gather at noon to discuss this. Many others have come to the same conclusion — the chickens are hiding in the trees, can fly and evidently were able to all along. One of the old men says this flock is descended from wild chickens, so it is natural. The big problem now is the chickens’ behavior. They intend to remain at large. They have experienced freedom and for the moment it is better than anything else. Moreover, they are toying with us. One man says, what we need is a better lure than chickenfeed.
Water? someone suggests, unimaginatively.
Everything suddenly becomes clear to me. We must show the chickens something they do not know yet they want, and they will desire it more than they have ever bothered desiring before. I feel in my hands, my head, the ability to create it in paint. I begin to dream, conjuring up paradise from a bird’s eye, and it appears in my head so swiftly and vividly I wonder from where it sprang. But I can bring these chickens back. All afternoon I paint, using up every bit of color I can mix or cadge from others; I get some paint from potters and dye from a weaver. If I get the chickens back, I will finally be of use.
I paint the picture of desire on the front clay wall of the chicken yard. I wish the onlooker to think the wall is a field, and one could walk to the wall surface, and keep walking into the picture. Of course it is clumsy trompe l’oeil, not realistic enough to fool a person, and that was always the fun of the style — that we see it is not real after coming close enough — but it is good enough for chickens. Yellow sunlight pours through the tops of the grass in the painting, soft branches reach over the grass and make shade so deep and cool you can see it is still a little damp under the trees. I work especially on the colors; I find some gold, and make the light heart-wrenching. The Indians stop sometimes and look doubtfully at it, and a little toddler child runs up from behind my back and smacks full into the wall, then falls back on his seat, wailing. The adults stare. I continue the painting on the back wall of the yard that faces the open gate. Reluctantly, the Indians start to gather things to help: long brushes and branches to sweep the chickens in toward the gate if they approach; insects, which they toss in bowls of water, to occupy the chickens’ attention once they are here. The chickenyard man repairs the gate latch. Nobody is out searching for the birds anymore because they are beginning to believe they will come to us.
Two elderly Indians, tough of cheek, small-eyed, long-legged sisters, stand before the picture and look at it with their heads to one side, blinking from time to time. Noncomprehension in their faces. These two women come almost undiluted from a family so ancient their minds are less differentiated than other people’s, they cannot see a painted image as having three dimensions. They look at it as a bird would, a lizard would. It might be a glittering pile of pebbles. Gleaming rain on a wall.
The branch of nerves on one side of my face jumps, like a tiny hand of pain. Oh, hell, what a miscalculation! How could this picture work for the village chickens either? All my labor wasted and useless. I say nothing to the others, however. The painting is done.
But the chickens come. They arrive with the sunlight the next day, and the noise in the yard, from cackling birds and the laughing people who have flown outdoors to see them, is joyous.
And one day, it is moving day. We are moving my burned house. I drink milk out of a chipped mug, and eat my rice off a cracked, blackened plate. Afterwards I throw the dishes into a trash barrel. Soon the cars and the one truck in the village will begin pushing the remains of the house towards and into the trench.
The cars’ makeshift plows are held on by heavy wire and a few nails. The men rev the motors, eager. Everybody in the village gathers at the burned house; we cheer each time the engines roar. Yelling a signal to each other to begin, the men stomp on the gas and zoom at the house. They hit the rear wall simultaneously with a deafening crash. One smaller, lighter car bounces backward, spins its tires, and leaps forward to hit the wall again. There is a huge chunk punched out on one side, a long fissure on the other, through which all three vehicles shove. The entire wall gives way and collapses inward, revealing the living room. It is black and unrecognizable to all but me. I begin to feel distressed, and go away to sit somewhere until the initial wrecking is done; only will I be needed to sweep and wheel rubbish into the trench. I sit and weep at the enormity of this undertaking, this road.
When we have hauled and shoveled enough for the day, we all sit on the ground near the trench and pass jars of cold well water around. The mothers begin calling their young ones together to go home and cook dinner. The men put the wheelbarrows beside the road, and stack the picks and other tools inside the barrows. The suns, all four of them together, are setting and they blare a light greater than the ultimate splendor into our eyes and we hurry indoors. I can feel a difference in the air as I run to the widow’s; something has changed since the house has been leveled: I now feel the city dragging at me more strongly than ever. Shading my eyes with both hands, I turn and look at the naked plot where the house stood. I feel exultant. I feel free to go.
Two hours before dawn, I stand beside a small pack of clothes and belongings. I kiss the widow goodbye; she knows I am leaving today and has risen earlier than the rest of her family, earlier certainly than the rest of the village. She says little, only squeezes my hands again and again. It is good to see her skirt is tighter, her bones covered by more flesh. The door closes after me and immediately I hear a child shriek, and she yells back. Her day has already begun. The path follow is roughly alongside the projected road, it seems the logical way to take. A brown rabbit twenty yards away seems to accompany me for a while as I start out. The dark is lessening in intensity, but the dawn is still far off. I enjoy the quiet as I walk. It will be loud enough soon, when I get closer to the city. I visualize its inhabitants: lone men, lone women, all together and unquiet, I hope I am ready for them, for you. I could love you, I could want you. I could dream you. I could eat you. Pick one.