Sunday 12 May 2013


 I’M LOST. Night surrounds me, stalking me like a prey, waiting for me to lie down and surrender, ready to swallow me up. But fear keeps me going.  I walk on, putting one foot in front of the other, until the air turns misty gray and a sharp wind blows up and raises a cloud of dust, until the sky becomes translucent and turns purple, until the sun rises California-bright, and I see a peaked roof on the horizon.
It’s an abandoned cabin, surrounded by debris: an easy chair spilling polyester, a coffee table with splintered legs, broken patio stones in a heap, a rusting barbecue, shards of glass under a hollow-eyed window.
I walk to the front door, push it open and stand aside to let out the monsters -- spiders, scorpions, coyotes, whatever – I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never been in the desert before. But nothing creeps or flutters or dashes out as the door swings back creaking on its hinges. Instead a man’s voice says:

“Don’t shoot. I’m unarmed.”

It’s a voice with a hint of Latino accent.  The possibilities flash in my brain: a felon on the run. An illegal border crosser. A madman. And the impossibilities: I can’t run away. I’m too tired, and he knows I’m here. I swallow hard, move my mouth, breathe in and out. I can’t talk. My voice has been trapped too long in my throat. I work my lips to push out an intelligible sound.

“I’m not armed either,” I say, taking one step over, risking it, showing the left half of myself to the invisible man.  Now he knows that I’m no danger to him. I’m slight, five foot two, a teenage girl.

 “I’m lost,” I say.  My mouth feels woolly.

He keeps a watchful silence. I stare into the dark space beyond the open door. I can see him now. He’s eighteen maybe, or twenty, short and stocky, with a blanket draped around his shoulders like a serape. He has a round face, half-moon eyebrows, a fleshy nose. The lower half of his face is shadowed by an incipient beard. He is unsmiling, unmoving, like someone carved in stone. Then his hands begin to stir, open and close, as if to limber up for a fight. They are large hands, capable of strangling me. Fear is swarming my brain.

“How’d you get here?” he asks.

I’ve caught him by surprise.  He expected a car engine to announce my arrival.

 “Walking,” I say. My voice sounds metallic, thinned by the fear in my throat.

He looks at me uncomprehending. No one walks in the desert.

 “Are you hiding from someone?” I ask. I am trying to keep up the conversation. We have skipped the introductions. I guess that’s because we are beyond the reach of civilization. We are in the wilderness, and neither of us is keen to let on who we are.
He looks down on the dirt floor and answers my question with a nod: yes, hiding.
We haven’t moved. We are still looking at each other from across the room. He has his back against the wall, and I am standing rooted in the doorway. Can he see that I’m afraid of him? No, my face is in the shadows. All he can see is my body silhouetted against the sunlight. He knows I’m no match for him, but he knits his brow and doesn’t relax his stance. He’s afraid, too.

“Who’re you hiding from?” I say.

            “The Migra.”

He’s afraid of being deported. He’s an illegal. A criminal. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I haven’t given it much thought.  It’s not a crime like rape or murder at any rate. It’s just being in a place where you are not supposed to be. A type of misdemeanour. Or is it theft -- stealing someone else’s job?

“So what d’you want?” he says.

 I’m trying to answer, to come up with words, but I’m not used to talking.

“I’m hungry,” I say. “Do you have any food?”

            He drops his eyes. A ghost of a smile appears in the corners of his mouth, a smile of embarrassment, because I’ve asked for something he doesn’t have or doesn’t want to share with me?

“How old are you?” he says.

“Fifteen,” I say.

“You talk like a child,” he says. “I’ll get you something to eat, but then you have to go.”

He shrugs off his blanket and opens a closet door in the back wall. The door is crooked, hanging awry and scraping against the floor. I can see a few cans piled in there. He bends down and picks one and takes a can opener to it. It’s a can of baked beans. He sticks in a plastic spoon and hands it to me.

“You can have half of it,” he says. The muscles on his arm are corded. He has a worker’s rough hands.

There are bottles of water in the closet as well, and he gives me one that’s already been opened. “You can drink the rest,” he says. “That’s all I can spare.”

His voice has no ups or downs. He doesn’t want to sound inviting.  Better not talk to her, his face says.
I step into the room and accept his gift of food and drink…

I am ashamed of my manners, scraping the spoon against the sides of the can, gulping the food like a dog. It takes me only a minute to suck the water bottle dry, to eat my portion, and hand back the can reluctantly. I would have loved to eat the rest.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Now go,” he says, jerking his head in the direction of the door.

            “I’m too tired. I’ve been walking for hours. I need a rest.”

He looks away, avoiding my eyes. He doesn’t want to see my need. I know what he’s thinking. I’m lost. What if they come searching for me and find him instead?

“You can’t stay here,” he says.

“Please,” I say. “Half an hour?” My shoulders droop, and he relents…

There is no furniture in the place except a wreck of a sofa. I take off my runners and lie down on the sofa. I close my eyes, but before I can go to sleep I have to say my prayer. I call it a prayer because I use the same words every night when I go to bed and I’m afraid if I skip it even once, I’ll forget. It’s a formula I’ve worked out, an invocation of memory, a chronicle. I can’t afford to lose any part of my prayer. If I drop one syllable, it will drag down the rest, and everything will collapse and vanish, like all my other memories of the beyond.  I have to hold on to this last bit of my prenatal life. The history of life after birth doesn’t matter. That’s shared property, family history, repackaged in anecdotes and brought out every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I don’t care about that part of my story. It has been handled so much, the fabric is soiled and frayed. It has everyone’s paw prints on it. It has been dragged through the mud of their memories and chewed to pieces. Only my prayer is left intact, and I mouth it quietly, barely moving my lips, guarding it against the stranger whose hideout I am sharing:

I was scheduled to be born in 1962, in a city 50 miles north of Saigon, but I preferred staying in limbo, and who wouldn’t, considering what was going on in Phuoc Vinh at the time. I fought hard against the call, and my would-be mother was glad of what passed for a miscarriage, a bit of clotted blood in a rag. She was on the move with all her possessions bundled on her back and a five-year old trudging beside her, silenced by exhaustion. She was glad it had turned out that way and vowed to celebrate Buddha’s 2527th birthday with special devotion, and she did, but government troops fired on the celebrants, and she was killed. 
I had another call in 1974, this time from New York. The situation was more promising. My would-be mother was set up nicely in a brownstone in Manhattan. Her family was wealthy, but she was a drug-addled teenager. I didn’t think I could handle crack, and I’m sure she, too, was glad when the pregnancy test turned out to be negative.
In 1995 the powers that be finally had enough of my recalcitrance and kicked me out. I ended up in a petri dish in California and was implanted into a thirty-eight year old housewife who decided to have one last shot at motherhood. And that’s when I was born.

I put together my prayer a long time ago, in words I brought along from the beyond. But do they even have words there? I’m no longer sure. I can’t remember. That’s why it’s important to keep reciting my story, to engrave it on my brain, so it will always be there for me, to carry me back to my pre-birth world.
I paid for fighting destiny. Fate doesn’t alter its timetable for a stubborn embryo. The growth and development of my brain was arranged eons ago, when atoms bonded into molecules and the planets started orbiting. There is no way to stop the motion and reset my brain to zero. That’s why I was born lopsided, with a ’95 body and a ‘62 brain. Later, there was some give and take between my infant body and my thirty-something brain, an exchange of essence and energy, with my brain trying to lift off and my infant body hanging on like deadweight, dragging it down, but never all the way down to its own innocent condition. My brain is still ahead of my fifteen-year old body, by ten years or so. I am a fairytale creature, half teen, half adult, fantastic, monstrous, unbelievable like a mermaid.
          My mother is tracking my life in a scrapbook. She likes cutting up time into regular squares and taking the coordinates, putting coloured dots on graphs. Everything about me that can be weighed and measured is noted down in her scrapbook. My name is on the first page, MELANIE in felt-tipped pink, wreathed with a daisy garland.  After that, no more flowery nonsense, just the facts, pounds and inches traced on a chart, a perfect time line of sitting, crawling, and first steps, but on the page marked FIRST WORD: nothing.  A blank page. I couldn’t get myself to speak. I didn’t want to shock people with the contents of my ‘62 brain spilling hot salsa, when they expected the milk of innocence. I decided to delay the business of speaking until I could reasonably be expected to talk in full sentences and say clever things.


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful novella! Funny, touching and beautifully written. I loved it!