issue 5

We Made the Maps That Led Us Here, by Jessie Ulmer

There are people in the desert who will give you answers if you ask for them. If you drive the highway that runs wide and long between the last town to the east and the first town to the west, and only stop once, you will find them. Mind that you only stop once. Roads in the desert are particular things. If you stop twice you will not find them. Stop too soon and you will only find people who look like them. In the place of answers, they will only tell you what you want to hear, which is comforting but not helpful. Stop too late and you will find nothing at all: not the empty desert, not the next town, just the deep and endless void. It is not comforting. It may be helpful. I do not know. If you reach the void you have gone past the place where my advice means anything at all. 

Before you leave the town that sits at the eastern edge of the desert you must fill the plastic jugs in the back of your car with water from the spigot outside the gas station. You must buy handfuls of granola bars and candy bars from the gas station clerk, all wrapped in bright foil, and ask about his family when you see the picture balanced in the jaws of the cash register. His eyes will go soft when he tells you. 

You must buy, too, whatever leaves you with the nagging sensation that it might, already, belong to you: the zebra print toiletry kit that sits beside the solitary box of hair dye (ash blonde, always ash blonde), filled with tiny bottles of shampoo, body wash, mouth wash, and packets of Tide wash-and-go; the rocket ship air freshener that dangles in your memory from the rear-view mirror of your mother’s red car (red. Always red); the six-pack of disposable cameras tucked behind the packs of Trident, clearly out of place; the plastic raincoat with the yellow polka dots, which doesn’t fit, but might have. 

After the gas station clerk has rung up your purchases, after you have seen the faces of his family and learned their names, after you have given him whatever you feel should be left behind, walk back through the sliding glass doors and into the rich, vast heat that rejects nothing. Take your keys from your back pocket and walk to your car. Feel the bump of the plastic bag against your thigh, the trickling relief of sweat, the weight of your body in your shoes.

Then you must get in your car and drive. You must take as many breaths as you need to pull from the parking lot and onto open road. You must see the scorched sand stretch out before you and trust that you will find life within. If you can’t do this, if the wild space before you fills you with dread and acid fear bubbles up in your stomach, then you must turn back. I will think no less of you. The desert will not mind. Time works differently for the desert. Here, there is no such thing as late. If one day you change your mind, and I don’t know if you will, the desert will still be waiting for you, and when you reach it, you will find that it is at once unchanged and vastly different, much like you.  

If you choose to drive on, press your foot into your shoe, into the gas pedal, into the floor. Feel the machine of your car rumble around you, glad to be going. Watch the scrub brush shift past outside, the asphalt crumble to cracked sand, the passing matte-ruin of sun-bleached concrete that was once a building, where once someone thought he could stake claim to the desert. He has not been heard from since. A nest of scorpions has made a home in the abandoned shell of his car. Raise a hand as you pass it.

The people in the desert will ask you questions when you reach them. While you drive, think of answers. Mumble them along to the spark of the radio, like they are the lyrics of the chart-topping pop song that’s been rattling through your head this summer. Roll down your windows and let the hot air push in. Let it wrap around your bare arms and slide through your hair. Take deep breaths. Feel the air slosh around your lungs and roll back out, leaving them desert-dry. When the music of the radio is consumed by crackling static, find words that fit between the snapped peaks of sound and silence. Let your voice settle into the empty spaces. When you reach the static you have left the last town behind. You, in your car, are now strung out between the twin beacons of radio towers, suspended in the lull between radio waves. You must give something back to the silence.   

Drive until the egg yolk sun melts into the mountains, the thick orange glow breaking through its elastic perimeter to drip and puddle in valleys beyond your sight. You do not know it, but the people who live in these valleys are stepping out from their houses and shutting the doors of their screened-in porches behind them. Arms full of empty shoeboxes and laundry baskets, they move out to collect the light. In an hour’s time, they will walk back slowly, their arms brimming with a soft yellow glow, and gently lay the boxes out in the tall grass of their yards, where the light, for a while, may come to rest. As dusk settles where you are, you will jolt over the dirt road that branches from the highway, tires kicking up dirt and rocks to cover your tracks.  

The people of the desert will come when they hear the crunch of your tires against the ground. They will rise like ghosts from the dust between you. They will walk out from the guarded yucca and the night-dusted sage, their lips cracked, their skin salt-worn, and stand nearby as you switch off your headlights. They will wait amidst the comfortable silence of not-quite strangers as you step out of your car and into the night.

For their answers, the people of the desert will take what payment you can give them. They will take the lies you have told children: there is nothing in the dark. It won’t hurt you. They will take, too, the lies that have been told to you: there is nothing in the dark. It won’t hurt you. They will take the life patterns of coyotes and the perspective of youth: coyotes are monogamous. Babies have no concept of object permanence. There is one who is particularly fond of punchlines. He will seek you out amidst the rest, and in a conspiratorial whisper, tell you the first half of three jokes. His words will pull answers from your memory: because they have their own scales! All this sand, and no buckets! Mooooooooooo! When you tell him, he will laugh and laugh and laugh, a hand braced on your shoulder and face thrown back toward the stars. There are wrinkles around his eyes. He has been waiting a long time. The people of the desert will take your last words, if you will leave them, but they will give you nothing in return. Sometimes it is enough, just to have them held for a while. 

You will trade them the memory of your mother’s car, a quarter inch of the mass of your forearms, the photographs of your childhood home you have found rolled up in the bellies of the cameras. You will trade them blank film and the songs from the radio. You don’t know what kind of car your mother drove. The raincoat doesn’t fit you. You have already traded them. 

The people in the desert have the answers they have been given. You will touch dry hands and listen to the words that others before you have brought to the desert. You will roll them around your mouth to see if they are what you are looking for. The answers have come from places that are far from here. They taste like seaweed and wet clay and the blue of melting snow. They taste like iron and sunlight and round glass marbles, which roll from your tongue and drop heavy into your hands. They taste like the lavender the witches grow, the yew of the graveyard, the soft murmur of the dead. Here between the whispering stars and the cracked sand you may find what you are looking for. You will know by the way the words fit back between your molars and the slope of your tongue. If you find your answer, hold it in your mouth until it sinks into your tongue, like water over parched ground. I have heard that your answer, when you find it, tastes like full, rich soil. I have not found mine. I do not know for sure.

If you do not find your answers you can leave with new ones. You can keep them tucked in the empty camera cases and one day they might save you. Keep the cases by your side, your fingers at the latch, and when the shadows that are not yours begin to slither through the alley, or the hissing starts in the attic, pull back and let the answers stream out to stand between you and the fearsome unknown. It might be enough. You can drive on through the night until your radio coughs up songs and you reach the edge of something that was once vast and endless but is now shrinking to memory behind you. You can walk on through the world and leave the desert behind.

Or you can stay. In the place where questions and answers pass between dry palms and chapped lips, you can find room upon the sand-soft ground to kneel. You can sit amidst the boundless night, where meteorites and asteroids and satellites whistle above your head and sand presses up into your palms. And if you look now, you will see, in the turn of a head not far from you, a mouth with a familiar curve to it, as if you have heard it telling stories. We have lots to talk about, you and I. But there is no rush. For now, open the plastic bag at your feet, and give to the people of the desert the gifts you have brought them. They have done all they can for you. In return, the people of the desert will tell you the names of the plants and show you how to curl your tongue to shape them. 

You thought we were strangers. But as the night moves on, you will notice – across the campfire, amid the jutting limbs of cacti—features that are not strange to you: the slight frame of your second-grade teacher, her pink knit cardigan still so familiar; the bouncing hair of your favorite barista, who used to draw hearts on your coffee cups and who you haven’t seen in a while. She dimples when she sees you and whirls to show off her new raincoat. You are glad you came. In this dry place, where the wind blows warm and comforting, voices sound like rain. Let the rise and fall hold you until everything else ebbs away, and in the gentle space left behind, finally face whatever it is that brought you here.

Jessie Ulmer is a queer writer with a fondness for magic. She is delighted to edit for Sword & Kettle Press, and has been published in Syntax & Salt, Gingerbread House, 3Elements Review, Dread Stone Press, and Gordon Square Review. In 2019 she was nominated for Best of the Net. 

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