In a beam of sunlight streaming through a tear in the cardboard above, the woman's face appeared haggard, full of hollows and creases, though she was not yet old. Her eyes merely reflected the incoming light and added nothing of their own. This in contrast to the luminescence that would fill them for the man lying by her side, the man who was her companion and lover, whenever he smiled at her or said something that pleased her. Or touched her in the special way she liked.
But the man lying by her side only moaned and shuddered. At that, she momentarily ceased the back-and-forth sweep of her hand over his face to keep away the buzzing flies. She looked down for a moment and then looked away, resuming the mechanical fanning motion. He was not aware of her presence.
She had not been able to sleep for some time. Again and again she had seen the sun and the stars wheel across the sky. The feeling in her stomach kept her eyes open, though they saw nothing but the things only she could see in the air in front of her face. The sensation was that something was not as it should be in their makeshift home, behind the convenience store where thay had camped ever since the street patrol told them to get off the streets or else. So she sat there, in the depth of noon heat, sequestered in their hut of scavenged cardboard and odds and ends gathered from up and down the wash. Their sole luxury was a foam mattress found in a nearby field. It was on this bed that he lay, moaning now and then. He needed help desperately, she knew, but she could not will herself to leave his side. Instead, she remained rooted there, brushing away flies from his face, staring all the while into the air that swam with secret images.
The man in the store behind the counter knew they were there, and he watched them as surreptitiously as he watched his customers. He regarded them as squatters even though they were actually camped on a patch of no-man's-land on the other side of the wash marking the rear boundary of his property. He knew they had been there for some time, living in a cardboard hut and scavenging from his and others' dumpsters nearby. He never caught them at it, but he knew that much about them anyway.
Often he would find himself caught up in a dilemma: whether or not to throw out a perfectly good loaf of week old bread, a partial crate of overripe fruit, or whatever. Then he'd come to his senses and shake his head at whatever had possessed him to even consider the idea. It would be too much like he was condoning their wretched existence. It wasn't his fault they were there. They merely had gotten what they deserved, hanging around town without any money or legitimate business. If they really wanted to, they could go back to whereever it was they were from. Surely they had someplace; surely they had someone.
With that, the man would find it easier not to feel sorry for them. They were perfectly capable of walking to the highways leading out of town and out of his mind.
He had discovered their presence behind his store not long after the cardboard hut had appeared in the tangle of weeds and young Chinese elms crowding the sides of the wash. He investigated right away, poking his head into the shaded interior. He saw it was surprisingly clean for what it was. There was a weathered foam mattress, and a sack hung from the fork of a branch propping up the top of the hut. He knocked down the sack and spilled the contents onto the dirt floor. He was amused and repulsed by the things that fell out: a quarter-carcass of a barbequed chicken, a partially eaten microwave burrito, and some stale potato chips. He recognized the items as being the kind he sold in his store, and for some reason that made him angry.
He kept a lookout for their return, and when he knew they were back, he stormed out there and told them to get the hell off of his property or he would call the police. They responded to his threats with glum stares, which made his blood boil. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," he said, "living like animals, rummaging through my garbage for food." But they only stared, so he began tearing apart their flimsy hut. In his single-minded fury he did not see them walk away.
A few days later, he saw them again, sitting in the shade of saplingsa couple of hundred feet up the wash. Every day thereafter they moved closer and closer until eventually they had returned to the spot where their hut had been. One morning it reappeared, but he didn't bother to yell at them. They'd only stare dumbly and infuriate him with their silence. For the sake of his blood pressure, the only sensible thing to do was to ignore them as much as possible. And though he would never have admitted it, his bare tolerance for them gradually became something more like a proprietary interest in their whereabouts. It became something of a ritual to glance in their direction as he took out the trash in the mornings.
So they had stayed, dark shadows under the trees in back of his store.
She was patient and kept up her vigil, fanning away persistent flies. None of them would have a chance to land for even the briefest moment. But a vigilant as she was, her motions were listless. Without his voice to lead her, she seemed lost. He was an ordinary man, but he was good to her and she knew only to respond in kind. At one time he had been an imposing figure, she could see, because of the way he carried himself. She was content to remain in the background and admire the way he had with people.
He was an ordinary man, but he called her by a special name that had made her blush the first time he had used it. She remembered the star-strewn sky and the sound of crickets and the weight of him gently crushing her as his breath burned her throat. She'd lain quietly next to him afterwards, listening to his breathing and feeling the cool night air move over her body.
But then he groaned again. She tugged at his shoulder and slowly turned him over on his side as he succumbed to a fit of coughing. In the mottled light he looked suddenly younger, and she heard herself answer his moans with those of her own.
She hadn't suspected, even when her menses had stopped. The pain and blood had come one night without warning. In the morning she carried the bloody rags into the hills and buried the bundle under a large juniper tree. He didn't ask about her long silences afterwards and gently touched the back of his hand to her cheek. He couldn't have known she was sick until she collapsed. It was he who had run out into the streets for help, and it was he who had folded her into the back of a squad car when it came.
She woke to the frowning face of a nurse who scolded as she cleaned her, admonishing her for not coming in sooner. Afterward, a doctor explained that she could no longer have children, and that it was her fault the infection had spread.
She drifted in and out of a fog for days, calling the names of people he did not know. Finally one day she could focus on the underbellies of clouds through the window. A few days later she followed him back out into the glare of the sun and trailed after him as he walked down the hill from the hospital. Her eyes drank in the sight of the land around her and it filled her with an intense longing that ballooned inside her, until with a shock she realized she was floating right over his head. She rose high over the town, and the surrounding hills, over the dry flat plains beyond, and onward toward the distant blue mountains. She skimmed over the rocky foothills and higher up onto the lushly forested summit, where the winds moved among the pines and the air was thickly scented with the smell of growing things. Wildfires and butterflies, iridescent birds and insects - all vied for her eye and she abandoned herself to the sensations.
But then she heard his voice calling her. Its warm timbre drew her back. bit by bit, until with a loud wail she hurtled back into his arms and sobbed.
The man in the store felt strangely agitated, and he paced back and forth behind the counter. He blamed the coffee for his restlessness and drummed his fingers on the countertop, grimly staring at the closed circuit television that showed the well-stocked shelves of his store from several different angles. Wordlessly he tended to the wild-looking men who came into the store with hands full of change for bottles of cologne and mouthwash.
She dabbed the spittle from his lips with the hem of her skirt, and in the same motion wiped his glistening forehead. He ground his teeth and shivered. After a while, she put his head into her lap and began crooning a melody she remembered from somewhere. Traffic droned in the background and the leaves of nearby trees rustled in a chance breeze. A group of schoolchildren passed in front of the store, laughing and chattering in high-pitched voices that faded slowly into the distance. He sighed deeply and stopped shivering. She looked down. The grasshoppers stopped clattering in the grass. His face had become a mask of youth so handsome her heart ached.
Just at that moment a sonic boom startled a flock of birds from nearby trees. They circled once overhead in a wide arc before flying away to the north. She felt the coarse texture of his hair between her fingers and sat looking down for a long time. At last, she got up and walked to the front of the store where the storekeeper noticed her standing.
He came out immediately and told her to move on, but the way she looked at him stopped him in his tracks. "Go on now," he said, "you and your friend both." But she merely stared like she didn't see him at all. "Go on," he repeated, 'I'll go roust your friend. And this time I don't want you all coming back, you hear?" He walked around to the back of the store and slowly approached the squalid hut.
He heard the buzzing of the flies before he actually saw them. What he saw in the hut made him step back quickly and stumble back across the wash. "Jesus," he said, and swore under his breath. In his mind he saw clearly the emaciated body crawling with flies. He ran around the corner, meaning to grab the woman and call the police, but when he looked up and down the street, it was motionless as at dawn.
From Neon Powwow edited by Anna Lee Walters, Northland Publishing.
© 1993 Irvin Morris
The Bloodstone & Squatters are included in Irvin Morris' book From the Glittering World : A Navajo Story, University of Oklahoma Press. (Hardcover)
Return to Day 5
Return to Day 6