Iris was thinking about desolation. The way desert scrub burns. From the roof of her Winnebago, she watched clouds of dust that lay across the desert for miles. The mountains, these darkening figures that shone in the graying light. There will always be days like this, Iris said to herself. There will always be days where the earth is an ossuary.
She left the Winnebago sputtering in the middle of the desert and hiked five miles south through dirt flower and sand craters. She found a flickering gas station. A man stood in front. The man, who tied his beard at the crest of his navel, looked at her—not at her, past her. He was examining an approaching coyote (stark yellow raving), and so she edged her body sideways, afraid that she might awaken something fermenting in the air.
The coyote stretched his lean limbs towards the man. Iris squinted her eyes. She saw the station’s neon burning through the braids of the man’s beard, and she thought about the inside of the Winnebago, and how if someone came across her headlights at dusk, they might look like a coyote’s eyes. And as the glowing coyote approached, she noticed the man’s hands were in his pockets.
The desert scrub swallowed Iris’s breath. It traded air for sand. She swore to herself, no matter what happened, she would not look away.
The morning before, Iris found the first of her husband’s limbs. His arm tucked beneath sagebrush. Sewing the frayed edges of skin back together, she broke a needle, and lost it in the sand. She threw the arm into the back of her Winnebago. She drove off the road. The rest of the drive smelled like rotting flesh, but also like cheap perfume.
There are ways that a coyote can kill a man and there are ways that a man can kill a coyote, Iris thought. And everything on this earth has a surface, Iris thought. And every surface on earth must rupture, or divide itself in half.
It occurred to her that healing is capitulation.
The man set two Adirondack chairs in front of the gas station, one for himself, and one for Iris. They sat and drank beer and made themselves heavy. At some point the man offered her a bed to sleep on, and when she accepted his offer, she began to dream. She dreamed of a tree growing in the middle of a desert, and as she approached the tree, it transformed into the corpses of several dead mice. She held the tree’s leaves tightly in a fist. She watched the mice awaken and run away. When Iris woke later that night, her hands were still clinched.
The man smelled like soap suds and fish guts. He wore a watch made from coyote bones. The analog face, built from vertebrae and metacarpals, had a hand that clicked backwards. Iris asked whether the man built the watch himself, but he didn’t answer, and instead set the watch on the table between the two. Take it apart, he said.
She reached for the dial and tugged on the leather strap. The watch felt inconceivably heavy. As she continued to pull at the petrified edges of its face, the man asked where she came from. Missouri, she said. He nodded.
Why are you here? the man said.
I’m looking for body parts, she said. The man began to laugh, but there was nothing to laugh about. The largest hand on the watch struck the 11 mark.
Before the tornado came and stole her husband away, Iris stepped off her patio, saying she had to get out of the house. She worried the empty crib on their porch was beginning to decay. Her husband, who had promised to fill the crib and clean the drain, followed her under star shrapnel, asking whether she planned to leave. Iris did not know what to say. There are certain borderlines we approach, and this one, before the bones and the coyotes, before the Winnebago and the tornado’s weird green light, knocked at the inside of her ribs.
Iris kept walking until the dying grass melted into asphalt. She looked behind at him holding onto her elbow. She could hardly remember why her legs were moving. Come back inside the house, he said.
When she did, Iris tried to look away from her bug-filled sink. It was not long before the husband was asleep on the couch. She looked out the window onto their backyard, where the sky was flashing and fat drops of water were starting to rain. Deafening thunder awoke her husband off of the couch. He ran into the kitchen and found Iris standing still. The next day, he stepped outside to find a massive tree in the backyard split down the middle by lightning. Stripped of its bark and leaves.
The horizon bent in her windshield, and the Winnebago seared across unpaved roads. 28 miles away from the gas station, Iris was sure she had found another body part. She slammed the breaks. The body of the Winnebago whipped forward then back, interior drawers opening themselves, scattering broken glass around the bones in the back of the van. Iris saw something like a blackened liver, withering away in the shade of a cactus. She placed the Winnebago into park, and went running out the door.
When she reached the organ, she realized it was not a liver, but instead a dried fruit that had fallen from the cactus. Sweet and cellular. Not unlike a baby’s heart. She held the shriveled fruit tight between her hands, and lifted it to the edge of her lips. The wind picked up momentum, blowing dust between her teeth.
Iris knew her husband was around somewhere, and she knew the cactus fruits were sweet, and she knew that if she dug deep enough into the desert, she would find stone arrows and hatchets—fossils of a time long past. She looked out on the barren land, thinking about desolation, and as these synapses fired, she came to realize that by now her husband was a matter closest to stone. She snuck the fruit into her mouth, and let it sting the inside of her gums. She waited a bloated moment, then bit the thing in half.
Iris’s gums bled for hours. She spent the next day spitting cactus spines out. The salt-blood-sweet pooled inside her mouth, forming the type of potion that could burn light into a wound. She drove for miles. She continued through the most unmarked terrain, even when the sudden throws of the Winnebago would irritate the throbbing in her gums.
Late at night, she pulled her Winnebago to a stop, and slept upright in the driver’s seat. As the winds picked up and rattled the sides of the Winnebago, she started to dream of a Maya ritual. She was watching from a mountain, somewhat similar to the one she would arrive at later. The men conducting the ceremony pulled the carcass of a dead woman up the hill. They fed her to a coyote. Iris tried to look closer but she could not make out the girl’s face, and afraid the woman was her, she woke in a cold sweat. The sun still had not risen, so she turned the key to the Winnebago, flipped on the headlights, and tried to make out shapes in the distance. There were none. Iris floored the ignition. She drove all the way to the summit of a mountain, where she searched for a limb or a husband or an ancient ritual. She saw the beginnings of civilization—a flash of electricity miles from the Winnebago. Grids and light pollution. Somewhere a graveyard. She turned the car around. She drove the opposite way.
The drain in the kitchen sink was always clogged. Her husband promised that he would clean it out. In the summer, she washed dishes more than usual. A large pool would rise to the lip of the sink and sit there for days, attracting mosquitoes and their rotting larvae. Iris called her husband at work, said the eggs were starting to hatch. It was only a matter of time before the bugs would push them out of the house.
Mosquito bites constellated across the nape of her neck. Iris tried her best to empty the sink. She scooped buckets of water and poured them out in the backyard, but when she returned, the sink remained as full as before. Nothing would evaporate. Some nights, she stood in front of the mirror, and spread Neosporin across the bites on her neck, hoping the marks might fade. Others, she slept next to the drain, wondering what substances were inside.
The temperature outside rose. Iris was afraid her gums were infected. Water was running low, and her mouth tasted like sand. She had not found one of her husband’s body parts in days. Adversity has a tendency to make the mind grow weary, and so when she found a man begging for a ride in the middle of the desert, Iris could not think of a reason to leave him there. From the driver’s seat, he appeared to be a heap of bones. He didn’t speak. It was not until she nearly crashed the Winnebago against a protruding rock and the man shouted whoa that she realized he was the same man she met at the gas station.
Did you know it was me? she asked him. Of course I knew it was you, he said. What is your name? she asked him. He remained silent; just held out his hand.
She looked at his watch, still holding steady at the 11 mark. She wondered how many days had passed, how he had ended up so far from the station. The last time she saw him, when he was only a bed and the smell of gasoline, he was fuller and stronger. Now, the watch barely fit around his wrist. The coyote bones hung loose, dangling as a bracelet. She reached for his hand and listened to the watch rattle.
Thank you for picking me up, he said. Of course, she said. Her vertebrae were shaking. Now tell me, she said, rolling her neck. Where are you going?
While Iris was driving, the man snuck into the back of the Winnebago. He held her husband’s arm. When Iris looked in her rearview mirror, she could not help but notice that it appeared to hang from his chest like an extra appendage. She focused her eyes back towards the road. The man returned to the passenger seat. They watched each other for the next few miles, and at some point Iris thought she saw a stretch of clouds disintegrate.
The heat was unbearable. The molecules widened in the air. Sweat pooled in the lowest regions of Iris’s back. She slept with the Winnebago’s windows open, hoping it might clear the suffocating smell of fish and flesh that had permeated the space as long as she could remember. The man had only been with her a number of days, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he had been with her far longer than that.
Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the man, but the Winnebago was becoming volatile. It took longer for the engine to start running. The headlights were defunct. At night, Iris took to searching for her husband’s body with a rusty flashlight she found buried in the glove box. It was around this time she began to hear a beating, something like a heart throbbing in the earth. Iris set her ear against the ground. She began to dig, but there was nothing. The noises were put to sleep. An empty hole in the ground.
When she stormed into the Winnebago to accuse the man, he was asleep and his watch was clicking forward. His beard was shaved and his cheeks looked taut. There were gritty, red incisions on his face. Iris woke him, keeping her body at a distance, and asked if he had heard a beating sound. He said it was probably just the engine, but the engine wasn’t running.
Iris abstained from sleep that night. She sat upright in the back corner of the Winnebago, husband’s arm at her side. For a moment, she thought she heard another heart, but it was only the man’s watch. That familiar click of bones. Even at night, the heat would not evaporate. The sky twisted for several more days.
The day the man vanished, Iris dreamed again of a tree growing in the middle of the desert. She wondered what was feeding its roots. A coyote circled the tree, foaming at the mouth. He stretched his lean limbs forward, and the coyote’s phosphorescent eyes melted in their sockets, forming a glowing pool beneath the tree. And now the leaves became a series of mutated mouths strung in the air by gauze and branches and sparkling blood. Iris tried to scream. She tried to tell the coyote to run away, but her lips were sewn shut. The tree unhinged its jaw and swallowed the coyote whole.
It was daylight when Iris woke, and she barely recognized the interior of the Winnebago. She was not sure how long she had been asleep. She opened the blinds in the back of the van, and looked out past the rock plants and dusty mountain peaks, and she could tell she was further west. The arm was still safe in the back. The temperature was lower. A coyote moved across a distant cliff, and this was when she noticed the man from the gas station was missing. Iris wanted to call out a name, but she had none, so instead, she sat on the top of the Winnebago, continuing to look out on the desert, thinking about desolation and her husband’s body—the way desert scrub burns. This is what is wrong with living on a round earth. If the world was not curved, there would be no limit to how much flat land she could see. See, the man. See, the road. See, her husband’s body. See, the predator, the preying, he who predates.
The man never returned. As the moon rose, she left the roof of the Winnebago, and stepped inside. She decided to search for her husband. She reached into the glove box for the flashlight, but couldn’t find it. Everything was gone except the watch made from coyote bones. The face was broken, and the hands remained still.
After the sink had clogged, but before his body was stolen, Iris’s husband told her what to do during a tornado. You know it is coming from a dark green cloud, or extra large hail, he said. A roar that sounds like a freight train. If you see the funnel cloud, take shelter immediately. Try to find a place without windows. Somewhere safe from broken glass or falling debris.
He took her into the basement of their house, and they sat there for hours, listening to the sound of water dripping. There is no completely safe place during a tornado, he told her. But at least the bugs might disappear.
Iris drove until the Winnebago couldn’t drive, and then she started to walk, mouth hanging open like an exit wound. It is hard to know how many of his body parts she found. Sometimes, when her search was fruitless, she would walk backwards on the road. She would find a part she didn’t remember, and forge a different path.
By the time she reached the river, her husband’s bones had turned to stones. He hung across her shoulders like a cross or a weight. In a state not far from insomnia, she took his decaying body and set it on the shore. She ran her hands through the wet sand, dunked her face in the water, and if someone had been watching, they might have wondered if she planned on coming up for breath. This was the end of summer, and the flowers were starting to wither. The water was low, but not so low it couldn’t carry a body. Everything was covered in weeds.
She reached for a fat clump of sand, and spread it across her husband’s limbs. She thought about how the minerals might seep through his petrified skin and into his body, expanding every cell, until he was less of a rock and more of a man. The water splashed out of the river—onto her bruised legs. She removed the old man’s watch from her wrist and wrapped it around her husband. When the watch touched his wrist, its hands began to spin forward rapidly, whirling the way she imagined the inside of a coyote might sound.
Iris dragged her husband’s body parts, and lowered them into the river. She followed him in, sure that if she let herself float long enough, she would come across a man and a coyote locked in a stare. The water barely rose to her stomach, and she could feel the smooth brush of silt and stones, as she began to float away. A fractured arm. A bleeding mouth. This is all that was left. From where she was lying, the grass on the shore appeared to grow younger, and she closed her eyes, knowing the river was carrying her body to a place she knew well. If she had kept her eyes open, she would have seen a lightning bug flying above her, barely skimming the edge of her face as it flew west. Then, like the premonition of some kind of disaster, the insect caught a knot in the wind.