You are reading Fiddleblack #18
Edward notes the changes in the size of boulders, the sweep of the opposing slopes, the color of the dirt, now pink, now orange, shifting with the color of the sun. He reads out loud from the trail guide and listens to his voice echo down the canyon. Shireen is standing in the dry wash, rubbing the leaves of the various plants around her.
Eshgham, she says. This whole valley is about erosion. Do you realize that?
He says he does but he knows he doesn’t, not the way she does at least.
There, she says, pointing to the striations in a rock at the side of the wash. All done by water.
Edward knows from water. He knows how important it is. He knows it composes some 60 percent of the body and that it is, finally, the only thing he will drink, save an occasional beer when they go out for Mexican food. But they haven’t had water here in so long. Five years of drought, strictly speaking—that is, five years of less than an inch of rainfall. And then you have to count the three years before that when there was hardly more than the one-inch minimum. So he wonders what part wind has played in shaping this place.
When the valley floods again everything will look totally different, Shireen says, and he nods, because this is what attracts him to her, and me to her as well: the conviction she feels in the things of this world. In their private moments she’s admitted to him that she doesn’t believe in God, but she believes in nature, and by nature she includes geologic processes often imperceptible within a lifetime. It’s a kind of pantheism he admires but doesn’t entirely understand. He is thinking now of the flood his wife describes, and of what it would be like to be hit by water in motion, and of her under the water, happily holding her breath.
He continues reading. He tells her about the ocotillo, the way its stems burst with leaves after a rain, the way in spring red flowers bloom along the spine and sometimes white and sometimes yellow. The way it really isn’t a cactus at all, because cactus spines grow in clusters and the ocotillo has a single spine.
There’s a picture of it, he says.
She climbs out of the wash and comes over to see and as she is standing next to him he can smell her, salty, sharp. She is letting the hair grow out under her arms. It began the week before in Yosemite, when she caught him staring at the European women hiking up the Half Dome. He’d been asking her to grow it out for years and now that she has he feels nervous, because even though he has long fetishized different parts of her body this is the first time she has indulged him. He’s afraid of what it might mean, afraid that the profusion of hair won’t be enough, because it’s not just the hair, it’s the way the European women carry themselves, the way they inhabit their bodies, the way they wear their tank tops and their khaki shorts and their brightly colored scarves, all along remaining impassive in the extreme heat.
An Italian woman comes striding up the trail. She’s wearing red hiking boots and silver hoop earrings. She’s accompanied by a Japanese lover, a young man with a navy blue windbreaker and aviator sunglasses. He’s handsome like a Japanese lover, like the lover in Hiroshima Mon Amour, his hair cut over his ears, his straight black bangs falling into his face.
Edward and Shireen are shielding their eyes from the sun, scanning the ridge for bighorn sheep. The trail host said some hikers had spotted one and that the trick was to look for the white tail, as they were difficult to detect otherwise, their coats taking on the colors of the slopes.
I don’t mean to put too fine a point on it, but if they don’t strike up a conversation with the Italian woman and the Japanese lover now the rest of the hike will become a negotiation of space, the one couple waiting for the other to abandon a viewpoint before they approach. And it will quickly become awkward, as the Italian woman and the Japanese lover want to move up the trail much faster than Edward and Shireen, and yet they don’t want to bypass a single viewpoint. And things will be complicated further by the fact that the Japanese lover also wants to read from the trail guide, read to the Italian woman out loud in his own soothing voice, tell her, for example, about the ocotillo, but will feel ridiculous doing so after having listened to Edward read the very same passage only moments before. And though they can hang back they can’t hang that far back, far enough to be out of earshot, as there are other couples, families even, moving up the trail.
Edward continues reading.
This is an active desert wash, he says. It contains water infrequently, usually after summer thunderstorms. Voluminous floods may move huge boulders. Notice how most of the plants, unable to stay rooted in the water’s path, crowd the sides of the wash.
He listens to his voice as he reads, trying to find that particular register Shireen said she first fell in love with over the phone. He knows he has no right to deny the Japanese lover the pleasure of reading to the Italian woman, and yet he does, raising his voice for all of them to hear.
Sometimes, on cool nights, the stream resurfaces, Shireen says.
Edward sees the water swelling up, soundless, black. He sees Shireen holding her sandals in her hand, slipping into the water and calling him to find her. She could be any woman then, a European woman who hasn’t showered for days, bathing here in the middle of the night. The smell of the wet rocks. The smell that has always led him to her, even before she grew out her hair. Private the way the night air defines her. She unzips her shorts and pulls her shirt over her head and he sees the moon a thin white crescent and he wants her like he hasn’t wanted her in years. After all the nights of false starts, turning from his kisses, lying still, in this night stream she is taking off her clothes.
We’ll come back after dark and watch for it, he says. But they won’t. If it rains they’ll leave the canyon and drive out Highway 22 past Coyote, as far as they can get to the Salton Sea. They’ll pull over and touch the formations at the side of the road, the trail guide saying the earth here is soft as sponge. It will be too dark to take pictures and there will be a warm wind coming down from the Santa Rosas. He’ll hold her hand. Then they’ll get in the car and drive back to Borrego Springs, to the Whispering Sands Hotel, bringing the blue blanket they first slept together on in an apple orchard in Oak Glen to the room with them. They’ll throw the blanket on the bed and turn on the television and fall asleep and late, far too late they’ll wake up hungry and drink the first of the two complimentary bottles of wine in the mini-fridge and drive into Borrego Springs looking for food.
But maybe it doesn’t rain. If it doesn’t they’ll strike up a conversation with the Italian woman and the Japanese lover. It will begin with Edward. He will ask her where she’s from.
Where I am from, she says.
Italy, he says.
No, she says.
The Japanese lover takes off his glasses and pushes back his hair.
It’s beautiful here, he says.
We have nothing like this where I am from, the Italian woman says.
After a long day of hiking the four of them go to a Mexican restaurant in Borrego Springs. It’s not a real Mexican restaurant because there aren’t any real Mexican restaurants in the area—the closest one is a taco stand in Indio, over 60 miles away. Edward remembers it from years ago: a concrete bunker with no windows, dark and cool inside, and an overweight woman with a flowered apron and thick brown arms asking them what they wanted, not writing down a thing, bringing back bowls of black beans and plates of corn tortillas and steamed cactus and bottles of Mexican beer.
They were heading up from El Centro to Joshua Tree to see Halley’s Comet, to get a view from the desert. The stars were brighter that night than he’d ever imagined. But it was still cold in the middle of April and he remembers not caring whether he missed history.
They set up camp on a dry rise overlooking an early blooming elephant tree and rolled out their sleeping bags and watched the shooting stars. As impossible as it seems he doesn’t remember whether they saw the comet. All he remembers is shitting in the dirt the next morning, and Shireen with her camera, taking his picture in his moment of distress. When he ate the jalapeños the night before he knew they would burn coming out, but he didn’t think they would burn that much.
A white woman wearing glasses and a white apron comes to the table and takes their order, writing down everything they say. They have to ask her for water—she doesn’t offer it because of the drought.
It hasn’t rained in so long, she says. It was supposed to rain today but it didn’t. The clouds passed right over us.
She excuses herself and brings back two bowls of corn chips and two cups of salsa.
Most of the dishes Americans order in Mexican restaurants aren’t really Mexican, Edward says.
I don’t follow you, the Italian woman says.
The burrito, for example, he says. There’s no such thing as a burrito in Mexico.
I had burritos when I was in Mexico, she says.
They were probably tacos, he says.
I know the difference between a taco and a burrito, she says.
I’m not saying you don’t.
But you’re thinking it.
Yes, he says. I’m thinking it.
After dinner the four of them go back to the Whispering Sands Hotel for an evening in the hot tub. They each sit in front of an air jet, the water pounding their backs. It’s almost too much for Edward. His glasses fog and he dips them in the water and they fog again.
Just take them off, the Italian woman says.
I can’t see without them.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
Under the bubbles and the foam she presses her leg against his. He can see the water beading at her throat.
We drove down from Temecula last night, Shireen says. They were playing all these disco songs on the radio. It reminded me of when Edward and I were first going out.
What she doesn’t say is that they spent their first two dates—and the better part of their third—driving around the freeway all night, and that on the third date she wore her little black dress and her grandmother’s necklace, and that she raised her arms over her head and started pushing with her hips in time to the music until he got on the 14 and drove out to Lancaster, to the Pearblossom Highway, to the beginning of the desert. It had been a long time since he’d been out this way, not since the trips his family took to Las Vegas, when they would stop in Littlerock just long enough to get date shakes and then get back on the road. The desert was a place he was just passing through then, not a place at all but an empty space between two points on a map. He didn’t know how to look at it, to see its subtle changes, so the further they drove the emptier it all seemed, until there were no more mountains to catch the wind, until the blowing sand started to drift, piling up in white banks along the highway.
That night he pulled off on an access road and headed due south towards the Angeles Crest until they were far away from the highway lights. Then he cut the engine and rolled to a stop. The mountains were black against the purple sky and Shireen took off her shoes and her stockings and her little black dress and told him to take off all his clothes and when he was finally naked she took off her bra and her underpants and kissed him full on the mouth.
Later, as the sky slowly faded to blue, he got out of the car and walked towards the mountains and stopped, because he wanted to be sure she saw him when she woke up, that he didn’t pass out of her sight. What he didn’t know then, and still doesn’t know, is that she was never asleep, that she was watching him the whole time, because she knew he was trying to get her attention, to make her think he was the kind of man who would walk around the desert without his clothes on, and that it was the sight of him standing there, trying not to shiver, that first moved him towards her, that began her love: that long slow process of seeing the world through another person’s eyes.
They get out of the hot tub and wrap themselves in the hotel’s white bath towels, each of them looking away, because they don’t want to see each other’s bodies, or be seen seeing each other’s bodies, at least not yet.
Back in the hotel room the Italian woman and the Japanese lover sit on the bed while Edward takes the second bottle of wine out of the mini-fridge and Shireen turns on the clock radio. It’s the same disco music from the night before and she wants to dance. She sweeps her arms wide and snaps her fingers and spins her wrists. She slinks her hips. Edward goes to her and holds her by the waist, pressing down with his hands until her movement, her rhythm, is his. Then they separate and circle each other. They’re doing the Persian wedding dance.
I don’t know why Shireen chooses this dance, this dance her grandmother taught her, this dance from her childhood. Maybe she’s trying to alienate the Italian woman and the Japanese lover, because even though the Persian wedding dance isn’t difficult to do it’s probably unfamiliar to them. Or maybe it’s because she’s nervous, because she knows she and Edward are entering new territory and though there are problems in their relationship she isn’t ready to change things, to put their marriage at risk. Maybe. But when she was a child she was closest to her grandmother. She had to speak Farsi to her because her grandmother couldn’t speak English. This was when they were living in Tehran, when her mother was trying to persuade her grandmother to move to America, because even though the Shah hadn’t left yet things were going badly. She remembers everything from this time. She remembers the bleached buildings and the courtyard with the tiled fountain and the little chirping birds and her grandmother in her red silk wrap, teaching her how to dance the wedding dance, and the happy music playing on the tape recorder.
But she’s not just evoking these memories for herself—she’s evoking them for Edward. He knows she was born in the United States, that she was named by her American father for his German mother, that she spoke English to the age of three, until she moved to Iran with her mother, leaving her father behind. He knows she then took her middle name, her grandmother’s name, and that she spoke Farsi for five years before returning to the United States and trying to learn English again, and that she was treated as an American in Iran because of her complexion and as a foreigner in the United States because of the way she spoke. He knows her grandmother stayed in Tehran and went down with the regime. He knows she never saw her grandmother again.
The Italian woman looks at Edward. She pushes her hair off her shoulder. He can see her silver hoop earrings and her long neck.
Dance with us, he says. He takes her by the hand, but she pulls back.
We’ll just watch, the Japanese lover says.
Edward smiles because he doesn’t want to jeopardize the night, but he hasn’t expected this, and though there’s still the possibility for something more he feels it slipping away, and so it does. This is how it always is with the possible.
I don’t know why Edward and the Italian woman don’t become involved. All signs seem to point to it, so long as it doesn’t rain. Maybe it’s the way it begins. Asking her where she’s from may not be the best idea. She might feel like she’s being treated as a curiosity, not realizing that it’s just Edward’s way of getting at the hair under her arms.
Maybe, instead of asking questions, he invites the Italian woman and the Japanese lover to join him and Shireen in their search for the bighorn. Now the four of them are shielding their eyes from the sun, scanning the ridge for the animal’s white tail.
The bighorn gave this place its name, Edward says. Borrego is Spanish for ram.
Actually it’s Spanish for lamb, the Japanese lover says.
When I was in the sixth grade we had to write a paper on an animal of our choice, Edward says. The teacher told us to choose an animal we thought we were like. I chose the bighorn.
He’s lying. He never wrote a paper about the bighorn. He wrote his paper about the coyote because there wasn’t enough information about the bighorn at the school library—just one article in National Geographic, while every other magazine was running stories about the coyote, much maligned at the time for feeding on livestock. There were several bills floating through Congress, each one designed to grant ranchers greater hunting rights.
He says he wrote his paper on the bighorn because he’s trying to gain favor with the Italian woman, because he thinks she might be more attracted to him if she believes he’s more like a bighorn than a coyote. After all, the bighorn is a rugged individualist, pure of heart and mind. The coyote, on the other hand, is a scoundrel. He’s defined by the criminal, by the degree to which he stands against the world as opposed to separate from it. So if Edward sees a bighorn along the ridge right now he will take it as a vindication. He will realize that this moment was contained in his original choice, in the decision he made over twenty years ago.
Anza comes from Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, the Japanese lover says. In 1775 he led two hundred and forty-two men, women, and children, a thousand head of cattle, and a hundred horses through the valley and up the canyon to the Pacific Coast. They eventually reached Monterey, then moved on and founded the pueblo that is now San Francisco.
Eshgham, Shireen says. They once stood where we’re standing now.
They once stood where we’re standing now. I think about this a lot, even when I’m standing in a place with very little recorded history. Sometimes the feeling overwhelms me.
Before de Anza there were the Cahuillas. They placed hot coals on the flat rocks. The rocks steamed and split and they ground down the fractures with a pestle. Then they ground down the blue seeds of the elephant trees and made the paste into cakes. When a depression wore too deep they moved to another rock.
These rocks still shimmer at dusk. It’s from all the dust that’s settled over time—that’s what makes the bright orange patina and the bright orange rings. But a rock has to be stationary for a long time. The small rocks don’t have any color because every time it floods they’re carried further into the valley.
I don’t think it’s going to rain today. Storm clouds are gathering, but they’re only following El Niño down to Baja and across the Mexican Plateau. And yet there’s a part of Edward that wants it to rain, wants it to rain more than anything else, more than kissing the Italian woman under her arms, because they haven’t had rain in so long, because every time it’s threatened to rain the clouds have moved south, thinning out and settling somewhere else as mist or cool breeze. A sign, a symbol that once had a particular meaning, no longer does.
I studied philosophy in college. I remember one of my professors once telling us there was no necessary connection between cause and effect, that we couldn’t infer one from the other, that the idea itself was just another metaphor, a kind of poetry that helped us cope with the complexity of existence. He was standing in front of us holding a pencil in his hand and he said when he let go it would float in midair. We looked at him like he was crazy, but he said it wasn’t a matter of physics, that necessary connection was simply a habit of mind. We experienced the constant conjunction of certain events and formulated a belief based on that, an expectation that had no basis in reality.
None of us would admit it, but we were all sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for him to let go of that pencil.
I started cutting classes not long after this. I spent entire days at a pool hall in town until eventually I was kicked out of school. But I remember thinking about this professor and what he had said and it messed up my game for quite some time. I missed shots that I used to make with my eyes closed: cut shots, combination shots, bank shots, jump shots. It wasn’t until I made peace with the fact that all my beliefs—including the belief that I could drop the eight ball in the side pocket without scratching if I put a lot of backspin on the cue—were always, at best, possibilities, but that, as a consequence of my being in the world, I was bound to believe, that I began to get my confidence back. Which is just to say that I sympathize with Edward. He wants the rain clouds to mean rain. He wants to believe it will rain. He believes it will rain.
If it doesn’t rain the canyon will smell like cheese from the leaves of the cheesebush. They look more like pine needles and turn brown after the white flowers bloom.
It smells like feta, Shireen says.
Edward isn’t surprised. Everything smells like feta to her. When she lived in Tehran she ate feta and flatbread for breakfast every morning and she still talks about it, bemoaning the fact that the feta they sell in the States isn’t real.
He didn’t grow up eating cheese so he can’t tell the difference: It all tastes the same to him. So much so that he’s pretty sure the cheesebush doesn’t smell like cheese at all, that cheese is just a word they use to describe something they don’t have a word for. It’s like rattlesnake. If you ask someone who has eaten rattlesnake what it tastes like they will tell you chicken, but it doesn’t taste like chicken at all; it just tastes more like chicken than anything else we can think of.
He wonders whether the Italian woman and the Japanese lover have more precise words. He wonders whether the cheesebush is a private joke between them.
It’s one of the oldest plants in the desert, the Japanese lover says.
The Italian woman breaks off a leaf and brings it to her nose. She makes a face.
Disgusting, she says.
The smell keeps herbivores at bay, the Japanese lover says.
Edward breaks off a leaf and crushes it in his hand.
It’s not that bad, he says.
The Italian woman touches his arm.
It smells like shit, she says.
I’ve smelled worse, he says.
No you haven’t, she says.
Birds burst forth from a mesquite thicket. Hundreds of them fill the sky.
Eshgham, Shireen says. They’re hummers.
They’re Anna’s, the Japanese lover says. You can tell by the red. But my favorite are the Costa’s. They have violet crowns and deeper violet throats.
When Edward and Shireen lived next to the Ventura Freeway they had a hummingbird feeder outside their kitchen window. In the evening after dinner they would wash the dishes and wait, Edward up to his elbows in yellow gloves. When the hummingbirds came Shireen said their hearts must beat so fast. And that’s how it looked, like feeding must be the hardest part, because they had to pause long enough to suck the nectar but not so long that their hearts stopped. Every evening she would watch for a few minutes and then she would go out on the balcony so she could be closer to them, but as soon as she opened the screen door they were off, over the line of cypress trees and the cinder-block wall and the freeway at dusk.
Chuparosa is Spanish for hummingbird, the Japanese lover says.
The Italian woman looks at Edward. She pushes her hair off her shoulder. He can see her silver hoop earrings and her long neck.
She is sitting on the bed in the hotel room at the Whispering Sands. She undoes her towel and cinches it again, just above her breasts.
Dance with us, Edward says. He takes her by the hand, but she pulls back. He smiles because he doesn’t want to jeopardize the night, but he hasn’t expected this, and though there’s still the possibility for something more he feels it slipping away, and so it does. This is how it always is with the possible.
Shireen closes the distance between them. She rests her head on his shoulder and they slow dance for three songs. Then they get in the shower to rinse off the chlorine. The Italian woman stays seated on the bed and the Japanese lover stands in front of her. She undoes his towel and begins at his waist, running her hands over his hips, burying her face in his stomach so she can smell his skin. It smells like warm bread. Then she stands and asks him what he sees and he says something from de Anza, from a journal entry at Lower Willows from the spring of 1775, on seeing a Cahuilla bathing in the night stream: a woman most complete.
A flash flood is the result of a summer cloudburst. The rain comes down so hard on the hard earth that nothing can soak it up, so it starts to move, to collect and move, rushing downhill, widening the arroyo, scouring the slopes, looking for the sea, until it finally empties into the alluvial fan. There is the rush of white water, but it’s the sound you hear first, the thundering sound, the canyon walls shaking. You think it’s an earthquake, because just before you feel an earthquake you hear it, hear the earth heaving, buckling towards you. It’s the sound that seizes you and you don’t know what it is; your fear is exhausted by the sound so that when the earth starts shaking you’re not afraid anymore. The sound makes sense.
When Edward and Shireen feel the earth shaking they think it’s an earthquake. They’ve been through several earthquakes together. Once, in the middle of the night, the bed started shaking and they heard the dishes and the liquor bottles smashing in the kitchen. They got out of bed and Edward pushed Shireen into the doorway. Then he ran back to the bed and grabbed the stuffed alligator he had won for her in a knapsack race at the Space Needle in Seattle. I’ve often wondered how he could do this, how he could take such a risk for the sake of a stuffed animal, and a rather cheap one at that. But it was early in their relationship and they didn’t have much in the way of shared experiences and even less in the way of keepsakes, so every one seemed important to him. In later years he simply got up and joined her in the doorway, but this is the earthquake they remember, the earthquake they refer to when conversation turns to earthquakes, because of this gesture, this rash act.
I don’t want it to rain. But the clouds are heavy and dark and it has to.
Edward takes Shireen by the hand and they climb out of the wash and run to higher ground, high enough to watch the water surging past, breaking the summer plants, sweeping up every animal that can’t swim.
This is what I know. This is what intrigues me about all of this. It’s the way the palm spreads itself, the way the new grove is formed. It’s the way the coyote eats the small brown fruit when it falls to the ground, eats it whole unthinking, then moves down through the valley, looking for ground squirrels and kangaroo rats, staying close to the stream, as at night he will need to drink, at night he will come into view, but during the day he moves quietly behind the mesquite. It’s the hard seed in the palm fruit that passes through his digestive tract unharmed, unchanged. He can carry the seed in his belly for days, the length of the valley even, feeding along the way. It’s the seed deposited with his droppings, the seed taking root somewhere in the desert, further down stream. It’s the palm that grows and then the grove and then the oasis. It’s the stiff green fronds fanning out from the tops of the trees. It’s the skirt of dead leaves, brown and sharp, draping down around the trunk sometimes all the way to the ground. It’s the only variety that keeps its dead leaves this way. It’s the calloused skin that doesn’t give away its age. It’s the ferocious roots spreading wide, keeping out competing species. It’s the way Edward and Shireen and the Italian woman and the Japanese lover would have stood under the great green fronds. It’s the way they would have lowered their shoulders and looked at each other, smiling, feeling the cool, listening for the water. It’s the way they would have known this was the end of the trail, that they had hiked as far as they could today and that it was worth it to stand here together now, to lean against the big rocks, to stare into the stream, each of them wondering how far this would go. It’s the way they would have stood amid signs they couldn’t see, signs they couldn’t recognize: the bedrock mortar where the Cahuillas ground their seeds, the bits of broken pottery, the fading pictographs, now just ochre smudges on the largest stones. And de Anza passing through, leaving nothing but his name. It’s the way it all gets started, with an animal shitting in the dirt.
Robert Radin’s work has appeared in Salon, Marie Claire, and The Morning News, among other publications.