Music by Mike Castillo
The desert swallowed my sister like Mama said it would, but it hadn’t spat her bones back yet and I was getting impatient. There was no laughter or smiles to fill up the house, which was now in the midst of a funeral. Worst of all, there was no freedom without Jia. The town was becoming a distant memory and I spent days mapping it out in my head. Since we were kids, we had traced the town border several times a week, skipping or dancing around the houses and stores. We spent years soaking in the sounds and running our hands over the surface of every building until the town’s contours were as familiar as our own home.
In those years, Mama always knew we would be back by dinner, pulled in by the smell of her cooking and of a warm house. The first time we went outside the town to finally see the cacti, she had been waiting for our return. As she stood up from her chair, the candles flickered and elongated her shadow against the wall. She fingered the grains of sand that had slipped into the creases of our clothing. Her brow furrowed in that way it did when she was truly angry, and we could only stand still as she stripped and inspected us until the candles took their last sputtering breath. Then she hugged us so tight I could feel her heart pounding against my cheek, and she told us she would kill herself if we ever went outside the town again.
After climbing into bed, I tried to fall asleep to Jia’s breathing but couldn’t discern it. A few minutes later, I turned to see if she was in bed at all and found her standing by the window. Her hair reflected the slivered moonlight and pooled like oil as she rested her head on my shoulder. Tendrils pricked my neck as she told me she wanted to see the cacti once again before she died. I promised her we would, thrilled at the prospect of defying Mama and going into the unknown again. I thought I could map the desert like the town, catalogue its smells and sights. I thought it belonged to Jia and me, even if our names and our presence hadn’t been carved into it yet.
When I finally drifted into sleep, the cacti flowers slowly unfurled beneath my eyelids and the soft rattle of the wind crescendoed to an inviting howl.
On her birthday, we packed the food and water we had secretly stashed in our bags and went into the desert instead of to school. According to town gossip, I came back alone, barefoot and with a chest covered in blood. Incoherent words poured from my mouth, but Jia’s name was discernible. When someone tried to touch me, I started frothing at the mouth and bit them. Nobody will tell me who I bit, but I woke up tasting blood.
A doctor was called in and he examined me in every possible way. For three days, the touch of his cold instruments frequently cut through the hazy delirium. I didn’t dream of anything, but I heard the rustling of sand and felt a hot wind rolling over me in waves that only intensified. I was a child cradled in the dunes, surrounded by an absolute darkness and I was safe. Then I woke up. Everything was too bright and I screamed at someone, anyone to turn off the lamps.
The day is still painful, so I close the curtains in our house when I have to do chores like sewing and reciting prayers. Apparently I’ve become the mystery of the town and everyone wants to know what I do. Mama’s proclaimed friends knock and call out to me, telling me about the gifts they’ve brought and how much they miss me, but I know they are hunting, looking to tear away. They salivate at the door, waiting to attain a piece of my story to present at the table during dinner. The food they bring is rotten and lingers in the house even after they leave, but it smells better than the incense Mama burns. At least the sweet and sour fragrance of rot is familiar.
Boys who never looked my way before throw pebbles at the window, sweetly asking to see my face just one more time. Like children in a zoo with a reticent animal, they throw things to get it to move and get angry when I throw things back. Mama tells me boys tease girls they like, but I liked it better when they left me alone. She says she’s in mourning for Jia in her heart and has set out the altar as if Jia is dead. We play a game; she pretends to be sad and I pretend to believe it.
She talks about me more, raising awareness of things I’ve never thought about. “Your skin is better now,” she says over dinner one time. “Jia’s skin was never this pale.”
She makes me try on Jia’s dresses, which are too big. When she pinches the fabric at the waist and remarks she needs to tailor it, she smiles. She does all the laundry, checking the sheets and looking for something. Jia did the same thing everyday for a couple of weeks before we left, pacing around the room in the early morning as if something were chasing her. I start examining the sheets immediately when I wake up, relieved when I see the blank canvas that signals normality.
The worst thing about the house is not waiting for Jia to come back but that I have nothing to remember her with during this absence. Now that she is gone, I don’t think of Mama as Mama anymore. When there is only one other person in the house, she does not need to be named. I chant to and for Jia, calling for her to come for me and reclaim her space. Even if she is only a spirit and cannot touch me anymore, I would be satisfied if she appeared to me in a dream. If I cannot touch her or bury her properly, I should at least see her. But she has never done anything I wanted.
One day, I’m overwhelmed with the desire to find anything left of her and revisit every spot she has touched. I crawl into every crevice of the house and eventually return to our bedroom. Jia’s bed is pristine, unlike the rumpled sheets we left it with, but I find a piece of candy in the corner of a drawer. I roll it in my mouth, distracted by its sweetness, and split my fingernails trying to open our secret hideout. The floorboard has been nailed down since we left and there is nothing in the house to pry it open with. She holds my hands in a bowl of ice and vinegar to stop my nails from bleeding and to punish me, but they had gone numb and as I stare at the blood swirling into the vinegar, the heavy softness of sand slips through my hand. My fingernails heal, but the beds remain bloody. No matter what she does to make it go away, it still shines red and I smile at her futile attempts.
As days turn into weeks and months, she stops smiling at me. She scrubs at my skin with bristle brushes, sanding a never-ending layer of dirt away. When hair begins growing on my body, she dedicates hours to shaving my legs and back only to have it reappear the next day. More and more, she pulls me out of bed at increasingly early hours to check the bed sheets and press her lips together when she sees they are pure white. I understand Jia’s early morning pacings now, but I refuse to do the same. It is no longer a matter of if but when. Unlike everything else in my life, I can choose to accept or deny this.
One day it comes, shaping my body into something strange but not new. As I peer through the bars of the window, I know Jia will not return. We stepped out of this house together, but we were not the same. She carried a weight into that desert and managed to release it. I also carried a weight, but was pulled back to the house. Slowly but inevitably, it disintegrated and left a hunger. For wind; for running nowhere and anywhere; an urge to unravel myself out of an imposed skin that tightens every year. I only have to twist a hairpin and the door clicks open for me. I leave the blood and skin on the sheets and walk into my desert and to my sister. Somewhere, there are cacti in full bloom, watching others tremble before they burst open defiantly.Beata Garrett is a queer Chinese American student at Mount Holyoke College whose works have appeared in Sine Theta Magazine, AASIA Journal, Her Culture, and The Merrimack Review, among others. She enjoys horror movies, fantasy, and science fiction.
For over a decade, Mike Castillo has played with many bands in many historic and historically dingy venues, including the band Mourning Blues, which recorded three studio albums, countless live recordings, and was a finalist in the 2010 Battle of the Bands. From heavy metal to soul, reggae to punk rock, and blues to prog rock, Castillo’s music finds inspiration in many different genres and subjects.