It is dark inside, and cool in the way that radiates outwards from thick concrete, but beyond the open door the sun sears downwards, terminating the weak or wet, and so there will be no looking today. Wynda Sweet will perform her search rooted in place, plastic lawn chair bracing against the bloom of her bottom with cane extending fist to ground, door open, eyes outwards. Dragonflies circulate. Window unit fizzles. It may be many months before the sun recedes and it is safe again for Wynda, in her age, to rove about. Such is the Terlingua dweller’s cross to bear, the west Texas desert recoils for neither kind nor kin.
Like many others, Wynda is old now. Time has risen and claimed her, nearly eye level. That is when they say you drown. She senses the closing, which is why she can feel you here, visiting. Life has passed in gentle charades for Wynda, being this or that, performing the caretaker or the life-giver or the void, as women do. Her home’s simplicity points to what is left - a canvas, blank, finally every day she can project something new that will be hers only.
Behind her on the wall the only piece of adornment besides a tiled cross is a framed movie poster of the film Paris, Texas, the sole shred of acclaim that’s ever drifted through these wasted parts. Wynda remembers its filming. She was working at the deli then, a counter girl, when Nastassja Kinski came in and ordered a cup of coffee that she sipped while running lines in a corner booth. Nastassja Kinski. Wynda nearly wept at the marvel of it. Nastassja seemed more lush than life, the very fact of her sitting in a Starlight Deli booth was to Wynda iridescent, lucent, momentous. Wynda prepared herself to walk over and offer a refill. She knew what she would say. Hello Nastassja, we are so glad to have you here in Terlingua. Wynda wanted to ask her about cameras, how was it to be in front of one, so seen? She smoothed her apron, scrubbed off a bit of ketchup with a dishrag, and turned around to find Nastassja had gone.
Look, Wynda is turning her head to the left. She knows she has a visitor. Be gentle, then. It’s difficult to say how long it’s been since any but herself have seen inside her home. There, her mouth drops open, the lower lip trembling with a slight tic. Her eyes are wide, milked over with tears from the dryness, and encased in other tiers of sunken skin that build upon one another in small walls of flesh, creating buckling pockets. Self-watering she does not blink.
I suppose you are from the outside looking in. In my case I am usually on the inside, looking out. She chuckles. It may have been quite some time since she’s had company to joke with. Tell me, do I seem ridiculous?
It’s okay, there’s no need to answer her. She won’t hear you where she is.
We’ll turn away for now, out into the sun so you can have a proper look around, though it’s possible you remember how it all falls into place. The gray of Wynda’s cinderblock one story house, red curtains, the rickety wooden fence coming apart now in fierce splinters, the dirt of the garden. Dirt and dirt. All is as dirt and rock and bramble on and on under candy blue sky until one mile away we reach the tiny grave beneath which Wynda knows nothing lays.
To be unremarkable, that was the only thing. There was smallness and big sky. Me, a fleck, a hairline fissure in the scenery. My own hair is transparent now, the kind of white that radiates light and creates the unnatural impression of a glowing bald head. Alien, spat down from some planet or other. Or at least it feels as though the old are received that way. Remote, nebulous. It’s them though, the young and lithe, that have detached from us to be left alone with our creeping decomposition. Once my hair was the notable thing about me. People commented, Wynda that red! I was dying it the whole time, hell. Otherwise it was an ashen, rodent-like brown, one other forgettable thing. The first package of dye I purchased before I was even 14 at the Piggly Wiggly. Two dollars back then and I’m tellin’ you men started hollerin’ at me a week later. I was naive enough to find this flattering. A blessing, though, that I grew out of that. Some never do.
As for my husband, Peter, well he’s dead and hardly worth commenting on. We met when I was 16 at a touring carnival up in Pecos. He was a tack hauler, lean and scratchy with unwrangled facial hair and a too big cowpoke hat up top. Sure, I liked him at one point. I was young and dumb, wanting to move out of my momma’s house and all I knew of the way to do it was marriage or dancing. Not that I didn’t do the later. Surely did, without Peter even catching wind for a few months. Made me more money than I’d seen before or have since. Turned me suspicious about showing any part of myself for free, once I saw what men were daffy enough to throw my way for a bit of skin they knew they would never touch.
Then, naturally, as the was the course of things back then, someone let slip to Peter they’d seen me at Lambskin Nightclub the next town over, and the bastard made it public. Confronted me in a grocery checkout line to make good and sure other folks heard and I would be shamed into renouncing the gig. Yes, I lied to him about a bartending job or taking a night class at the community college. But he didn’t mind the extra bottles of bourbon that materialized in our cupboards, or the venison I brought home on multiple occasions, or the bills that got paid on time. Peter knew I didn’t have that kind of money, but he didn’t care (or think, more like) to ask until one of his buddies rubbed the stink of it in his face and forced Peter to reckon with the shame of having a dancin’ wife. I ought to have left him right then and there. I recognized the humiliation he’d cast about me as purposeful, and a great evil. I was swollen with scorn at the thought of him. But of course, by that point, I was pregnant.
She’s still out there somewhere, Maybel, my daughter, though after what happened I’ve long since been dead to her. It is of the most unnamable sadnesses to me, this loss. In the face of it I have my work to do. It’s not Maybel that I search for – over the years she’s made it clear that by no means am I to seek her out – but for her own, the nursling I let slip through the cracks. First, her. Then maybe Maybel will follow.
She’ll continue to call to you, as she has for nearly 14 years. The shadow of her veil is thinning, she takes her tea weaker and needs less to see more. The sense she has of you now is stronger, and so the calling will follow suit.
Don’t let it distress you. You are so loved.
I am in my most trying stage. Heat from above charges downwards - in the light of it I imagine a scape of tiny chariots, each driven by a miniscule creature, ablaze, setting fire to the air that I must breathe. The desert does become more punishing with age. But it should be said that, despite its easy bruises and waffling folds, my skin performs now as cured leather armor from years of arid living. I am the ancient alligator squat in the shade, peering out from black button eyes that see all and betray nothing. I imagine myself as such, but really I am the tortoise, no, a simple ground beetle, inverted onto its shell and flailing, waiting for some fat finger to descend and either squash me or with a rough flip bring me back to the living. I have much more ground to cover - craters of earth, emptied barrels, old mercury mines and water towers and the whole of the Rio Grande. She could be anywhere. But, as ever, I am too small and the horizon too big.
No matter, today I will go about my wandering. It’s been some time, and the hard plastic of this chair is morphing my bottom into something ghastly, I’m sure. I will rise and gather my hat and my water. I have no cell phone. They’re pesky, those things, and the buttons are too small for my stiffened fingers to poke about on. I have a landline, but when I go out on my searches I am phoneless and alone. It’s a folly, I know. Should I find her, well I’d almost certainly need help. Perhaps there is a part of me that wants to be it all for her. I lost Elizabeth once. Me. I was the one. It ought to be the whole of me, summoning every internal shred of force to bring her back. And then there is the unutterable - the part of my soul, muted deep down, that knows there will be no finding.
There Wynda goes, circling ever onwards. When she does venture out, your grandmother takes one of three paths that lead her south or west or east, until her legs give and she recedes, like an ocean wave reaching its furthest point before it must turn back or dissolve foamy into the sand. North is the Rio. North is the grave. In that direction she rarely strays. Once she went, to the river. She went and stood near the swirl of it, where dark velvet waters churned against one another, in a fit it seemed, to out-drown the self. There was a bend that caused a great display of boastful froth. The grave sits in the swell of this bend, a mere cross emerging small from dust and thicket. When she went, that one day, Wynda was paying her penance for not attending the burial. She knew how it must have looked, to the townspeople and Peter and Maybel. Too cowardly to surface and pay her respects. Was her own damn fault. Least she could do...But by then you’d been missing a full nine months, time enough for a whole other baby to grow and come to life, and Wynda had mourned you what felt like nine lives through. Nine times she died of sorrow, nine times she went out on searchers lasting days, sometimes weeks, to upturn stones beneath which she thought you might have fallen. What was she to do? One minute you were there, sleeping tender in a crib beneath the Paris poster, safe enough to sneak a cigarette out doors, surely, and then what? Then you were gone, soundless.
All of Terlingua went on alarm about coyotes, naturally it was thought that was the creature which had taken you for a plump snack. Wynda was rabid, frenzied inside out by the knowledge, deep down, that no damn coyote had up and grabbed you. She’d seen that shadow after all, out of the corner of her eye as she squinted up at the sun and sucked deep on her Dunhill blue. At the time she hadn’t paid it any mind - it was big enough to think it could be a cloud passing overhead, or a tractor rolling past. But of course, there were no clouds in the sky that day, and there isn’t any such thing as a silent tractor. Besides, she trusted you to make a sound should something dark and distrustful come your way. You were good at that. Wynda used to say the Good Lord must have blessed you with lungs of steel and then some, the way you’d bellow. Like all the winds across earth had up and settled in your tiny chest at once, only to rush out, magnified and baleful the moment you needed a burp.
That day, the day you went missing, Wynda finished her cigarette leaning up against the wall of her home, feeling gratitude for the quiet solemnity of it. She’d recently left Peter, and with the pension she’d managed to squirrel away over her years of waitressing, this was about all she could afford. It was enough though. It was still and out of the way, a solid drive’s distance from the heart of Terlingua and the main drag of bars Peter frequented. Here Wynda felt she could finally be of use to Maybel now that she was retired - she could watch the baby while Maybel worked, and nobody would have to worry about Peter’s drunken spells or heavy clamoring about. Still, the divorce wasn’t final yet. But, as it ended up, it wouldn’t ever be. Peter died some months later of a rotten gallbladder, alone and howling about Wynda leaving him this, Wynda neglecting him that. She never did go to his side. She held strong in that, by some sort of grace. But why am I telling you this? You may even have seen Peter trailing around our parts, heaven help you. Course, I’d be surprised. He seemed like the type who, weighed down by bitterness, would become stuck in a malaise of hauntings.
Wynda stubbed her cigarette out against the underside of her boot and with her hand raised to block the harsh rays of sun, turned to go back inside. Stepping in she remembers an unnatural sense of sound, a quiet that engulfed her and made the pebbles churning beneath her shoes a screeching choir. She tensed. There was no baby. Where was thebaby?
Calling the name that you yourself were too young to even interpret as your own.
Inside your crib there was nothing left of you. Not a rogue sock or stains of burped milk or a single hair. Even the blankets appeared nearly undisturbed - not remade, just simply as though they’d never been touched by child or caregiver. A quiet too deafening to cling to, she lost her bearings. Gone. You were simply gone.
Soon after she disappeared, they came for me. I tried to explain to them. It was no use. They told me I was in distress, that’d I’d hallucinated, that I was old and had nodded off. They announced I was too vapid to take note of a child evaporating into thin air, I was a cunning trickster, fooling the whole town into deducing an animal had made off with my granddaughter. I should never have been left in charge, old as I was. I was senile and a loon and a drunk. I was a crafty old fogey, a conniving bitch, a selfish insipid matriarch who couldn’t admit that she had no worth and now look what she’d done. I was astonished. Upon reflection, I was stumbling, askew with wonder, this way and that, trying to re-image the picture of myself I knew and trusted. How could I be so many things at once? Stupid and conspiring? Agile and old? Distrustful and piteous? I don’t know. I never was any of those things. I was only ever woman, only ever a forgettable blip on desert surface. Now they had made me more. Now I was the shamefaced star in front of the camera, lens shuttering against my likeness, flapping, there she is, why doesn’t she cry for us, why won’t she name her guilt, where is the baby? Crucify her.
When the shadow came, something rancid engulfed me also. I know it was him, making out to ruin me, making out to mark me as brutal and unkind. Naturally both those things were true. But only to those who wronged me. Only towards him. Elizabeth, you never wronged me. It was only ever my task to protect you. Else it was the Lord, taking one firstborn to make sure the whole of our line would perish. If the root is rotten, it will drown and suffocate the living. But it wasn’t me who was rot through. I only ever went about my business until enough was enough and he had his vengeance. Nobody believed me. A trick of the mind. She always was a moony one. I never did find where he took her. Having no money to care for no infant, and being the unfeeling husk of a human child that he himself was, I’ve not been able to bear these years with at least the forgiveness of hope or optimism that somewhere my grandbaby was cared for plump and happy. Still, there is no choice. I have to look. I do know that what was buried in that far away grave was by no means by granddaughter. I know they made a mockery of her burial, to appease the public and hush the mother. I know that grave carries nothing.
I peer about the dust in such a plain way. Eyes agape, lids opening and closing like the lips of gasping fish frantic for water that does not come. Such is how I see. And so I see nothing. And so nothing can be done. The water is eye level now. That is when they say you drown.
Kelsey Gray is a writer and visual artist living in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Litro Magazine, Alta Magazine, Big Big Wednesday, Gigantic Sequins, Metatron Press, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work on her website: https://www.kelsey-gray.com/