The house moans in grief as the wind tries to take it away, sand stripping down the paint like nails scratching in a coffin. Isra lays there, straining her ears to hear it all. Her eyes clenched shut as tightly as possible, watching the flecks of color dance behind her eyelids, everything around her becoming clearer. She can listen to the slide and rattle of the snake’s ribcage against the house, flicking his red-hot pitchfork tongue; hear the mouse hiding, heart racing, unaware of the heatwaves it’s giving off, then its final high-pitched scream when the snake strikes; the yelping and bickering of emaciated coyotes in a field over fighting over a sheep carcass. If she strains her ears, the echo of four hooves pacing outside her door becomes just audible, along with the soft chain-clinking of spurs and chains, but just as her eyes rip open to see the intruder, all that’s left is an empty hall. Every night is the same, with no footprints in the dust coating the floor next to hers. She’ll stare across the spotting of creosote until sunlight burns her eyes.
Some days she forgets her name. She forgets she can speak. On the days when Isra realizes it, she’ll scream to make sure talking isn’t just a dream. She’ll bang pots and pans together to drown out the whispering of the wind through the house, making sure that the desert sounds aren’t the only thing her ears can hear.
Her bare feet hit the floor, and she follows the sounds through the wide-open French doors at the back of the house and wanders out into the desert.
Caught in a trance, Isra’s bleeding feet drag through the dust, The goatheads in the soles of her feet ramming her onwards, dust following faintly. The stars above her bleed and blur together like how the rain over a windshield blurs oncoming headlights. Eventually, she walks far enough out that the lights of her and her neighbor’s houses aren’t visible anymore, and neither is her body. She feels stripped and laid bare, like that squirrel she dissected back when.
She found it drowned in a pool of water, scooped its’ sopping body out, and slapped it down on the cement of her uncle’s shop. Its soggy blood and guts streaked the pavement until the dogs came to lick it up, hungry for any taste of life. This far out in the desert, everyone becomes a ghost, a waving blur of heatwaves and streaked blood is all that remains. The only receipt to signify you once lived, breathed, walked, and had a name. Dead men are all toeing the line between skeleton and carrion. Isra feels herself on that line, like the edge of the world—which world she doesn’t know. She has just enough muscle and physicality to move, but just. Her tendons are tightly coiled and knotted like a snake waiting to strike, just alive enough to still bite.
She sees the rocks when her vision comes back, lagging and blurred. They’re piled high like stone coffins, monumental. They have a name, but it’s a name that is not meant to be spoken in this world. It’s a name human mouths can’t make—the echo of road-killed dogs’ last yelp as the semi slams into their starved bodies, strike and woosh of a match dropped onto gasoline, the howling of hungry coyotes after feeding them your heart, rattling of bones and rain sticks promising If I cannot have the water, I will taste the blood—That’s where she found thousands and thousands of little fishbones, filling dusty sandwich bags with them. She stares out on the white sea now, recalling fragments of a childhood. Her softer, chubbier hands clutch a broken pine branch as she searches for halves of sheep carcasses and river stones. It’s where she went to escape the unwanted touch and hit of hands and broom handles, where she went to be without. Without a name, I can’t be called back there.
Next to the monument to death, an old and gaunt black horse is there. The presence of the horse is familiar and frightening. Familiar, but not reassuring; it just IS, Isra thinks, as the horse walks closer, hooves crushing slivers of bone in half, each step another crunch, crunch, crunch. It was always there, pacing through the halls of her house and mind.
In front of her, Isra can see the horse has amber eyes. They look out of place in a prey animal’s face. They are the burning eyes of rattlesnakes and God. Those eyes burned her even further down to her bleached bones, the divide between carrion and carcass wholly gone in her now, this horse the God of the desert and source of everything she’d heard and seen.
“I’m done running from you. I’m ready now,” Isra hears her own voice speak, ringing like a steel guitar.
She rips the frond of a solitary Joshua Tree and swears an oath, digging the blade just under her rib on the left side and cutting jaggedly. The release of an insurmountable weight is felt and immediately missed. More of her blood feeds the sand and drips off the frond’s yellow-green teeth. Heatwaves rise and kiss the wound like a mother. She sees glimpses of herself stretching her arms and spine to embrace the cold far-away starlight, an embrace from a father, as her back is pressed against the rocks. The horse’s long white headstone teeth rip into her liver, and dawn begins to break. An aching tells her that her liver is growing back already, and the horse seems just as starving and gaunt as before, mouth looking wet.
Isra gazes at the sunlight coming in, seeing the horse’s eyes reflected in its bright unrelenting light, and asks, “Is this what it means to feed the Gods?”
The horse’s voice echoes through her mind and the desert, braying, “Sustain me.”
This story explores the theme of death, the desert, and the escape they seemingly provide. Through metaphor and imagery, I explore this theme by showing the main character (Isra) willingly turning over herself (namely her liver, which the Ancient Greeks believed was the source of human emotion) to both death and the desert and that surrender doesn’t release her. In the real world, many people wish they could cut out their hearts/emotions and free themselves of that weight, to be free from the importance of having a name and a physical presence in the world. However, hollowness is an emotion that still dies and revives itself no matter how much the person tries to stifle it. This story also pulls a bit from the myth of Prometheus, who was chained to a rock by Zeus for giving humanity fire and had his liver eaten out by an eagle every day, as it always grew back. There is no fire exchanged in this. Instead, the horse (The Zeus/Eagle figure) gives Isra the hollowness and namelessness that she seeks in exchange for her to provide the horse with human emotion. I combined this with the trope of characters not having names or identities in many westerns.