Talk was vain and Jac took little pleasure in it. The tanned man driving the taxi from the airport out into the flat expanse of country had attempted it from behind his handlebar moustache. She had taken ever longer pauses between responses—their exchange mirroring the diminishing frequency of markers of civilization along the desert route—until finally, he ceased.
They turned off an empty, paved road and onto a dirt one, the insides of the vehicle rumbling low over rough terrain. They stopped. The car had stalled. 'Must be the choke,' the driver said. He popped the hood and stepped out to have a look. 'How far from here?' Jac said. 'Hell if I know, lady,' came the voice from beneath the hood. Suitcase in one hand, portfolio in the other, she stared down the road cut through a tract of bonemeal earth. Signs of life out there. She walked clear down the middle of the track, kicking up lazy clouds of dirt with every step.
Jac was a painter. She’d arrived in the southwest wing of the dust bowl, come from the north country alone, to an artist residency. It was one flat mile under the sun. Her condition degraded out of the comfort of the air-conditioned vehicle: face rouged, hair matted, throat parched, tongue: sandpaper.
Her boots crunched sand, grainy silt pounded into solid ground by eons of trampling. The sunlight was dense, thick, disorienting. Finally there was the gate, the barn, the farmhouse, the lavender fields, the stables. The gate was flanked by a twin set of totem poles.
In that dry heat you preserve speech for instances of necessity. No point wasting saliva unless there’s no better way to navigate around the petrified obstacle of need than to make a sound.
A hunk of rose quartz sat on the reclaimed-barnwood reception desk. She stood with her weight shifted onto one foot, pelvis tilted to that side, torso in a half-slouch, ass taut inside close-fitting Levi’s. She’d thrifted a pair of cowboy boots for the occasion. All quiet outside, inside her head talk went on as she waited for the slow, arrhythmic stutter of the woman’s keyboard to confirm her identity. The air-conditioned room was thick with sandalwood and bergamot essential oils from beeswax votives alight beside the quartz. In the absence of the arid air her sweat evaporated at once, leaving a film of salt on her skin.
'I dug it up in the garden,' the woman said with a wink, noticing Jac’s fascination with the crystal. The receptionist looked her over twice more, comparing face to passport photo. The woman had a kind, weathered countenance and a honeyed voice inflected with a drawl, each vowel painstakingly drawn out. She looked curiously at Jac as she handed her passport back. 'Sah-leent rey-treyt? ' Jac lowered her eyes in a nod.
The concierge approached. 'May I?' He extended a hand toward her portfolio. She handed it to him and watched uneasy as he unzipped it, laid out her pieces on the talavera tile floor. Her expressionist nudes wore stretched, contorted, tortured faces as if photographed at the peak gasp of orgasm, for which she’d received a merit-based grant and the distinguishment of being Artist-in-Residence at the organic lavender farm–turned–luxury resort.
'Gorgeous,' he said, 'Really stunning. Let me take you to where you’ll be staying.'
She had read about this place in a magazine: a ranch and farm some rich couple had bought and converted into a doubly profitable resort. The family had since founded a nonprofit arts foundation—mostly for the tax write-offs—and the ranch now played host to the region’s largest collection of contemporary art, which was not to say much of their collection nor the proliferation of fine art in the region. Jac thought they had terrible taste. Theirs was the only residency program that had liked her work enough to extend to her an offer.
The concierge led her to her fieldhouse: white stucco walls, pitched terracotta roof; on the walls inside, old Spanish-style paintings of conquistadors or their unnamed kin, alongside vibrant Navajo tapestries.
In her personal statement, Jac had styled herself as a socially conscious artist, coming to the American Southwest to create borderlands art that would promote empathy for The Other through tactful narrativized presentations of individuals at their most vulnerable. The opulent resort cum farm, originally a settlement on poached land: a setting most apropos to the contemplation of colonial violence.
Here they harvested, distilled, and sold certified-organic lavender aromatherapy oils. They grew sage, too, that they’d dry and wind in thread. The crystals and arrowheads they’d found on the grounds, they sold as mystical healing items and historical souvenirs. They supplied a superfluous demand, fuelled by dubious cultural appropriation, she thought, for the novelty of affluent Americans—who else in the world would blow $50 on herbs to burn? As if smoke could cleanse a space of negative energy—all sage fumes did was make her sneeze. If 'negative energy' was real, was it invisible? A poisonous miasma like carbon monoxide, toxifying one with an unpleasant mood? Where did the energy go, anyway, if the smoke warded it off? L’appel du vide, Jac thought.
The on-site accommodations she’d opted into included an onsite Manifestation Advisor, chia pudding or quinoa bowl ‘constitutional’ breakfasts, and a complimentary mantra. Compulsory add-ons: a crystal healing session; an Ayurvedic bodyscan; Kundalini yoga sessions catered to one’s particular chakral blockages; a spirit animal consultation, and energetic cleansing.
The vow of silence was a convenient excuse, but not her prerogative. Speech for the sake of appeasing others did not interest her. Why concern herself with it if it did not please her? Like anyone, she could say anything: that the inexpressible becomes expressible only in the expressed; that attaining a primary state of consciousness is the sole noble pursuit; that it is tiresome to fill the air, or the blank page, with judgments; that there is no shortage of judgments with which to aimlessly busy the mind. What is worth, if not a subjective judgment? What is worth telling? What is —that is, the hum of the sublime that exists in the space between brain/mind utterings. Space in the consciousness resonant with internal sound, protecting something within from the outside world. A meditative core where she felt safe and like a good person, no matter how much wrong she’d done that day, how much ill she’d thought of others. The whole idea to come here borne not of a lust to critique colonialist cultural appropriation, but of a desire for space, quiet, calm. The cynical mission serving to justifiy/pay for sanctuary. In her innermost safe harbour she could accept herself, accept what a phony, dilettante, sycophant fraud she truly was—she had long since made peace with her ways of exploiting such opportunities.
Jac walked into the bedroom: a handwoven, chevron rug anchored with hardwood furniture; tapestries with tufted fringes on the wall behind the bed. A dreamcatcher in the window. On the antique cherry wood vanity sat a violet, glass bottle of essential oil mist. The label read energy cleanser. She expelled it all over the rug and the tapestries and the bed linens and, after inhaling some, found she felt relieved. There was a scratching at the kitchen door. The shaggy dog that patrolled the premises, keeping scavengers and predators away from crops and chicken coops, wanted a companion. She let her in, left the door cracked open, retired to the bedroom and gave in to fatigue.
In a dream Jac was a child in a rural town again, at play outside a mobile home with her friend Trista. Makeshift stables for bedraggled ponies, a pig pen with sows caked in obsidian mud, and a cage of rabbits stunk up the summer night. Trista’s mother yelled to them from the steps. She was top-heavy, sallow and bottle-blonde with dark, sunken eyes. Jac followed her playmate inside, wishing she could go home. Trista’s stepfather sat in an easy chair with a Budweiser watching the Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt had just been killed. The stepfather yelled to the mother to get him another beer, and where was dinner, and why was Trista’s friend still here, shouldn’t she return to her own family? The woman snapped back, 'Leave the child alone, her parents asked if she could spend the night.' Talk escalated into row. The drunk struggled to get up, the woman approached ready for confrontation, he backhanded her jaw. Bone and flesh to flesh and bone. The thick smack rang so clearly from memory that it startled Jac to consciousness—in a cold sweat, radiant with anxious alertness, no want within her but for water.
Then the dog, barking. She walked barefoot through the fieldhouse, knotted barnwood planks rough under tender soles. Each room on the eastern side tinted egg yolk yellow by the dawn light. Wall hangings of feather and wool and wooden beads, chevron-embroidered pillows and rugs; crystals, wind chimes. She noticed that she enjoyed the illusion of authenticity that hoped to justify the expense. Her jaw froze mid-yawn—sprung back, mouth rounding into a gasp. Five crows in the kitchen. Perched on the back of the wooden chair, perched on the sill of the window, which she realized now did not have a screen.
Jac stood stock still. The largest bird cawed, waves of guttural screech ricocheting through the narrow corridor. She winced at their sharpness. To her left, one crow raised its wings, then hesitated, perhaps considering the limited space between them. The murder loitered there, intimidating the barking dog. Jac remained motionless, hands pressed to chest. To her right, the largest bird flapped its wings. She assumed a threat in the gesture and slowly—silently, but for the peel of her foot unsticking from hardwood—withdrew one step at a time into the hallway. All the while, yearning to pull the walls close around her like a shroud.
She saw the clock on the wall and realised it was time for her appointment with the Manifestation Advisor. She slipped into her boots. She left the front door open, hoping the creatures would be gone by the time she returned. She followed a hand-drawn map of the premises, past the barn where sweaty farmhands were tooling around underneath a tractor. The sun beating down, the barn door ajar, industrial-size fans fixed on them.
A man with a hide tanned burnt-sienna leaned against the barn, smoking, muttering. His unruly hair and bushy eyebrows stood out black beneath a straw hat, his greying beard stained yellow. He intoned Jesus is comin’. Jesus is comin’. Jesus—like a tic. She watched, off in the faraway-nearby, the lavender crops swaying by the velveteen touch of the morning breeze. She tipped her head back to nose the bouquet. Jesus is comin’. His mantra, she guessed. Wary as she was of him, she revered something in the man; the righteousness of his primal emanations, how he kept watch.
The porch of the fieldhouse across the way, marked SANCTUARY on the map, was decorated with prisms and dreamcatchers, bundles of lavender and sage wrapped with twine hung upside-down to dry in the sun like carcases in a butcher shop. Jac knocked on the door.
Enter, the voice behind it said.
The Manifestation Advisor sat in full lotus on a handwoven rug. The room wreaked of patchouli and palo santo smoke. Her hair so long it grazed the floor. Her eyes David Bowie two-tone. She gestured with open palm to invite Jac to sit before her. Jac struggled to situate her feet atop her thighs, adjusting and re-adjusting her posture while the woman looked on impatient, until at last she grew still.
'Deep inhale,' she said, 'with slight constriction in back of the throat.' Jac obeyed.
'Hold it at the top.' Jac held her breath for a beat. 'And, exhale, H-A.'
Close your eyes. Focus on your breath.
Jac breathed self-consciously.
'Now bring your awareness to the room around you. Relax your jaw. Relax your shoulders down your back.'
Muscle by muscle her body went slack, but her spine kept upright.
'Release any remaining tension.'
She suddenly noticed every ache.
'Now imagine you’re standing in front of a staircase.'
At first, nothing but darkness. Then she conjured the image of a staircase. She was standing at the bottom.
'Now I want you to walk down the stairs. Walk down ten flights.'
Jac panicked. She had imagined the wrong stairs.
'I want you to see a door. Open it.'
She saw no such door.
'Walk through the door into a part of nature that makes you feel safe and grounded.'
She felt around in the dark corridor. No door. She turned back, retracing her steps, to see if she’d missed something.
'Now I want you to envision a tunnel and walk into it.'
She yelled 'Wait, I’m not there yet! Give me a minute,' but her mouth didn’t open.
She paced in the dark while the Manifestation Advisor talked on, she didn’t know for how long, no way of measuring passing time.
'Now return your awareness to the room, to this Sanctuary,' she said. 'Return to the breath.'
Jac saw herself sitting in half-lotus in the room, hands at rest above her knees, jaw slack. She abandoned her body and walked in the direction of her cabin. Time and space swelled and contracted around her as if she was coursing through the gut of a great snake spirit. She could hear it, like the breathy push-and-pull of an accordion. A mesh, she could see it now, moved with and around her. Slithering sparks shot through each of its interlacing fibers—an angel-hair grid that latched onto everything.
She entered the house and found the balls of her feet united with the ceiling. The sickly sun reflected onto a puddle on the floor. Blood? Hers? She felt for herself. She was the only one here. In this condition, she hewed close to whatever was there by which to feel grounded. The dog appeared at the other end of the hallway, body perked, black tufts along her spine standing to attention. Jac felt wretched with inverted suspension. She commanded the dog to heel to no avail. A prism swung pendulous at eye level casting oil-slick rainbows on opposing walls. She descended the shelves of the bookcase as if climbing to reach the floor, until she’d gotten herself so turned around she had to roll onto the hardwood and pull herself along in a belly crawl. A splinter penetrated the palm of her hand as she advanced toward the kitchen. Fuck! she gasped through clenched teeth.
She reached the back door that led to a porch overlooking the sprawling, terracotta plain; the fields where lavender grew, the main house, where Reception and the gift shop were—far enough away that nobody would hear her yell, nor the dog bark. Once she exited outside the house, she could stand head-wise again. Stepping around succulents and thorned brush skeletons, she wandered in some direction, picking out one of countless mountains upon the horizon, each speckled with naked trees that looked as absurd as a shorn alpaca. So overwhelming was the depth of the world that it flattened into a two-dimensional cacophony. All the same chaotic difference.
With every tilt of her gaze, the ground shifted between two flat visions like a holographic image. She seemed to hover over earth, as if the moss concealed a sheer carpet above ground peppered with snake holes. Her perception of the holes’ depths flattened until each seemed a scorch mark—not a risk at present, but a terrible void. She looked into one as if to assess the depth of a pool from a high dive. There were too many to avoid stepping on them, so she stepped on them if she did, and didn’t if she did not. She did not feel fear. Certain she was hallucinating, fully aware of the illusory state that had reconfigured her perception, she turned around to find the farmhouse, the lavender stalks, someone, some assurance of someplace she could return to, but she’d gone too far, unaware, down a slope. She knelt and put her left hand, wrist, forearm into a hole until she knew only the dry, crumbling texture of roots, lost in the parched earth. She removed her arm. She clapped off the dust.
Inside her, a contraction shot pain through her diaphragm, as if her uterus was being wrung out, a dishrag soaked in bolognese sauce. Aahh. The ease with which she’d always moved through her world suffocated by the arid landscape. Plans changed abruptly in response to the whims of a hostile environment. What looked dead, quiet, and still was actually in constant flux, the unbearable detail and texture of everything overcame her senses—too much information to process, no matter where she laid her gaze; too much to see, to paint, too much to hold onto any one thing at all.
Who knew how long the delirium would last, but she was resigned to see it through. The disorderliness of her internal mechanisms forced her to sit on a boulder and rest. Time came to a point, though she could not say when. It had all happened in one and the same moment: the interminable present.
The hum she mistook for the Om of the immaculate conception of the universe was in fact the synchronizing micromovements of motor-parts. A tractor to crop the lavender stalks. Its timbre, a nodule on the spectrum between string and wind, oscillating as if between numbness and pain.
Reaching the fieldhouse, she recalled why she’d gone out. A crow perched on the windowsill, observing her. It flew out, and joined the rest of the murder on a nearby yucca palm. They cawed in unison as she passed, a scolding—or a warning. She went inside, the screen door swinging behind her, clanging as it smacked against the siding. On the kitchen floor, beneath the table, something black, slick like oil, then feather and guts: a dead one, flies, it’d been there awhile.
The dog sniffed at it, ears pinned back as she looked up, whined, balked, slunk off. The murder: the investigators, she the suspect; the enabler of irrevocable harm, the intruder, the introducer of variables that compromised the integrity of the scene. The sunlight that cast the day’s end through the window disappeared. She cleaned up, threw the trash bag outside, shut the window, the door—locked herself inside. The crows watched the flickering glow of her bedroom window until she extinguished the lamp. Like water in water, they minded the business of other wild things.
Photograph by Los Poblanos