She covers her bare chest with her arms and curls into herself.
For another week Dessa plans with Zion on how they will travel and talk about how much fun they will have. The girl watches and listens. She plays with the twins in the yard and living room and smokes weed in the evenings. They listen to the Talking Heads and Steely Dan at night and dance. Blanche mothers her. She sits her in a chair at night and rolls her hair using a crochet hook to make locks. The girl has not shaved since she met Dessa. The hair under her arms is thin and blonde. She wears patchouli oil.
Another few days pass. And early in the morning in late June, Roland and Blanche and Austin and Ocean wave goodbye from the front yard as Zion, Dessa and the girl load into the red convertible and drive away. The travelers wave back heading towards the high deserts of New Mexico leaving behind them the red megaliths like abandoned altars where a former and forgotten race of giants once offered prayers to their celestial ancestors.
The drive is slow and hot and they stop to panhandle for change. Dessa has a red gas can she asks people to put a little gas in and then puts it into the convertible. At bigger grocery stores the girl sneaks candy bars into her sleeves and tucks bottles of soda into her waste band under a thick sweatshirt she wears. They get to Cuba, close the national park where the gathering is being held that afternoon.
The road is narrow and dusty and they park the BMW at the end of a long line of cars. Zion carries a rucksack and is shirtless in shorts and a pair of leather bound sandals. Dessa and the girl wear their stained jeans and tie knots in their shirts at the breast. They walk past skinned tree branches staked into the ground ornamented with large bird feathers and bells or windchimes and pictures of children or impaled stuffed animals. Along the line of cars trash is scattered on the ground. A bit further there is a tripod of bare poles taken from local trees and set like a teepee without its canvas over an assortment of trinkets: a few candles, a wicker basket holding a myriad of gems, doubloons made of heavy metal some shiny and some rusted, someone’s leather shoes, quilts knitted out of old T shirts, balls of brightly colored yarn, a strange brass bowl and incense smoking next to a crumbling arrangement of herbs tied into native smudge sticks. There is one large pinecone, a tarot card, an ivory rook and bishop and geometric arrangements of egglike stones and sticks stacked together with the skeletal pumice of animal bones and skulls. Three pictures lay prominent and brightly colored in the pile, two of nameless Indian gurus and one of Jesus Christ holding up two fingers and his heart aflame. Next to the pictures is a shiny silver charger holding half an orange, a watermelon wedge and a cup of tea as if left in offering to some invisible goddess yet walking the wood among them. There are the slimy white rinds of previously devoured melon stinking in a pile where flies drone paths of a spiraled geometry.
The first camp holds those who drink alcohol. It is sparse and scattered in the trees and bushes. Wiry framed men with rotting teeth and jagged white lines of scar tissue running through their arms and otherwise purple faces stumble in the brush or in and out of tattered tents. Their heads are swollen like terminal cancer patients in their last miserable throws of chemotherapy. They speak in voices hoarse and ragged and their words are so vile their very utterance seems unhuman, as if birthed from some place of seared consciousness and sulfur. These are a derelict set, an immortal band of marooned pirates as ornery and violent as the days of old Blackbeard himself. One fatter than the rest sits and sings in a howling gibberish and bangs out discordant melodies on a splintery guitar. The only female among them has skin sunburned red and covered in brown moles. She wears nothing but a bra and denim skirt. The yellow callouses on the soles of her feet stick out. Her hair is grey and thin and she is slobbering on herself asleep in the grass. She has visibly fouled herself and the three move through a clearing in the bushes past the alcoholic fray towards the faint and frantic beating of the drum.
Through the clearing the terrain opens up. The great burning orb of the sun is half sunk into the horizon of mountain silhouettes. Long clouds trace the sun’s descent like giant plumes of a purple and spiraling smoke through the immense blue void of the sky. There is the drummer seated in a circle of four all cross legged on the ground and smiling in the last light of day. Across the meadow large numbers of men, women and children wander. They are dispersed and meandering among themselves letting out friendly shouts or conversing quietly. There are men and women wearing pointed witch’s hats and others naked and some caked in dark mud. One is bleeding and naked and caked in black dust and he screams at the girl asking her why she has come. His friends hold him back and the whites of his eyes contrast against the filth in fear. Another pair of big bearded men play a flute and pan pipe. They wear the colorful getup of mediaeval jesters. Zion looks toward the tree line and points.
They walk across the field and come up on a group standing in a circle looking up into a giant tree. The bark rolls back in places like curtains drawn to reveal a charred layer of black. It holds in itself a history of the land otherwise invisible and unknown. A man hugs the trunk and straddles a branch. He wears the feathered costume of an owl and hoots, his eyes wild with fear. The group looks up at themselves with hands to their foreheads. The man asks the women,
How much acid did he take?
I don’t know.
I think about two thousand mikes.
Two thousand mikes? Who gave him two thousand micrograms?
He took it himself.
The man shakes his head and walks away. Dessa, Zion and the girl continue towards the trees where men and women and children sit around a large round bottomed pan made of cast iron. It sizzles and plumes of smoke from cooked animal fat and hints of roasted green chili rise in the shade. Cool air is moving through the trees and over the gathering of those ready to eat. They are sitting on the grass and smiling and smoking. There is a man plucking his banjo. A brown eyed child gyrates her hips inside of a hula-hoop sticking her tongue out. The three sit down in the grass and wait for bowls to be passed to them and drink the broth and chew soft morsels of salty meat and pepper.
They move into the shaded area and find a place next to a man who wears a floppy felt hat. It has been crushed and creased and stained. He smokes a pipe and holds his left hand towards the area behind him.
Stay here. Won’t you?
They unpack and Zion unfolds the tarp for the tent snapping together lengths of pole and creating a domed skeleton on which the tent’s skin hangs. The man with the pipe offers the smoke to the girl and Dessa and Zion and the three sit in a circle on the ground smoking and talking. They laugh. A naked woman whose skin is painted in murals of falling angels and fire walks up and holds her palm out to the man in the hat. He hands her a deck of large cards as if this has all been rehearsed or done before and repeated through eternity past, as the universe has exploded to create everything and collapsed again so that every moment of every life is forever being relived. She fans the cards in her hands and holds them out to the trio.
The girl moves towards the offered Tarot cards.
The girl picks the empress and the others pick theirs, each quiet about what they have chosen before the woman walks away without another word. Her lines given and part played, she moves towards the clearing and sings up into the trees. The man with the crumpled hat bows and leaves the three sitting on the ground with a last few words.
You have your cards. Find what they are and you’ll find where you’re going.
Zion looks at the girl and the girl looks at Dessa, all three laughing. Dessa shows her to the girl.
They take acid at night some days after the fourth of July while sitting around a fire. A boy whose face looks to have been made of soft clay, mashed into a permanently angry countenance walks by and instructs those staring into the flames to stick out their tongues and drops beads of the clear liquid into their mouths. Twenty or more take a dose. They smoke cigarettes and pipes making quiet conversation and an older woman dances with her hula hoop. They are waiting to come up. At midnight the girl is gazing into the great black cavern that is the night sky and she wonders what life exists revolving around those pale and anemic points of light, so cold and distant. Is there another version of herself on a mirror planet looking up?
Zion and Dessa lie next to the girl. The three share looks of silent understanding in the fire’s flicker giggling and squirming. The girl watches the others sitting with them whose skin becomes a thin and translucent paper revealing all to her and who tabernacle within themselves histories of violence and loss like webs of an internal scar tissue. She sees them as the children they have been. Only now they wear masks and operate bodies like photodegraded avatars and she reads their wrinkles like palindromes printed in a black ink upon their skin. There are no words for what she knows. There is only this visceral perception. Somewhere in the group a man is repeating the mantra that the universe is one and so are we. A woman’s voice sings Yellow Submarine and two more accompany but soon trail off. The party floats on a raft in the dark. As dawn breaks the earth is sinking in a pool of purple light and those upon its face moan and wallow, all of them lost and laughing like figures painted blue in the dropping dew.
The morning is grey and a drizzle falls on the huddled party dressed in psychedelic rags. They stare out from those stygian bores thick as their own thumbs which held the universe and all its stars only hours before but now contain the same coal black void of burned out buildings. Their faces are drawn and complexions grey.
The girl asks Dessa. You wanna go to the tent?
Sure. Zion, what are you gonna do?
I don’t know. Probably go find a bowl to smoke.
Okay. We’re gonna go sleep in the tent.
The girls stand and smile at the congregants sprawled around the smoldering ashes of last night’s fire. Dessa and the girl step over legs and arms and walk unimpeded after that to the tent where they slide into sleeping bags and actually talk for the first time since Arizona. It’s the only time they’ve not been around Zion since they met him.
I’m happy for you and Zion. I think you’re a great fit for each other.
Yeah. Of course. He obviously loves you and seems like you love him. Right?
Good. You deserve it, little sister. You’re beautiful.
The girl blushes. I love you, Dessa.
I love you, little sister.
The girl lies in the tent’s warm womb. Her heart beats at thoughts of being loved and this new family. She has discovered a purpose and identity in her place among this rag tag lot of society’s outcasts. They love her for who she is. This is where she has always wanted to be, what she has always been looking for. She smiles to herself and her cheeks flush as she drifts towards the bizarre land of her dreams.
She is visited with chills as she sleeps and foreboding visions of pain and death set before her. There is some dark entity on the horizon of her mind calling her by name. The blood of those she loves will be spilled. She will be chained and forced to watch. She will bear a child. She doesn’t know how only that she would and that the child will save her. She wakes up paralyzed. There are footsteps cutting the rain and now standing silent outside of the tent and casting a shadow on the canvas by her head. The girl calls out but there is no response. The shadow lingers a moment and the presence moves away from her and the girl steps out of the tent. There is the small man dressed in a suit from another time walking across the meadow. He hoists a black umbrella and smiles back with those carnivorous teeth and mismatched eyes acknowledging their future engagement and its certainty. He holds an antique pocket watch. There is no need to meddle with what will come in its perfect time.
The rain lets up a day later. There are a few straggling members of the gathering picking trash from the mud and puddles and a couple of dogs sniffing the soggy ground. Dessa and the girl and Zion help for a day before they leave. While sitting at a fire pit in late afternoon, the naked man who accosted her at her arrival sits on a log beside her. He wears clothes now and smokes a pipe with lucid eyes and speaks to her in soft words.
You don’t know?
Dessa calls from across the meadow to the girl. She says its time to go and that they are leaving. When the girl looks back at the man he is walking away from her and she picks up her bag running towards Zion and Dessa. They walk to the car and get in and take off leaving behind them the gathering of souls in the woods and the girl thinks of the man at the fire and his question.
You don’t know? She does not.
Zion has a number to call for a place to stay in Farmington. They call. The man on the other line is named Tamarack. He has a family of six kids and two mothers who live with together. It is dark when they finally find the dirty double wide and the man’s silhouette appears in the doorway as soon as they pull in.
Found it easy enough?
Sure. We’re here ain’t we?
Yes. You are. Come in.
There are kids inside running around with rings from red popsicles around their mouths, half naked or dressed like princesses and cowboys. Two dogs breathe heavy and lick their hands as they walk into the trailer. One of the women looks up from breastfeeding on the couch and the other is stirring a pot with a wooden spoon and Tamarack spreads his arms to speak.
Here it is guys! Our humble abode. We take care of our family and you are family. Make yourselves comfortable.
By midnight the house is quiet and the three lay their sleeping bags on the living room floor. Zion lies in the middle. That night his kisses are different. He turns away from her as she is undressing for him and faces the ceiling with his hands behind his head.
Nothing. I’m just tired.
She covers her bare chest with her arms and curls into herself. He snores next to her.
Blue morning light pours into the house through the windows. The floor is cold and room empty except for her. She walks to the front door and stands barefoot in the cold gravel driveway. There is no red Mercedes. There is only an oil stain on the rocks where it was parked the night before. The girl falls to her knees and clutches at the ground and screams. The woman with the infant comes out and leads her back in to the house and everyone is awake. Soon empty bowls sit on the table and boxes of cereal come out with a jug of milk while the kids spoon and slurp their breakfasts. The girl stares at an empty bowl. The family lets her stay with them until September tenth. Tamarack takes her to the only place he knows she can stay indefinitely, to his old friend Gus’s place on the Mesa in Taos.
submitted by ASavageLost
Dessa - Skeleton Key