The coyote ran across the path in front of Shana not two feet ahead of her. She stopped to watch it disappear into the arroyo before continuing her walk down the dirt path. A feeling was awakened in her again, something she felt often on her solitary morning walks while her girlfriend, Raven, slept back at the casita. Hot coffee would be brewing when Shana returned. They had their routines, their predictability. This is what becomes evident in a long relationship.
Pulling her mask up onto her face as she noticed an elderly man approaching, walking his dog on a tight leash, Shana picked up her pace. They nodded to each other without exchanging words in shared anonymity. This is all so surreal, when can we get back to normal, Shana thought. “It’s like we’re all hungry ghosts,” she whispered out loud to herself.
Most mornings she was alone out here, only occasionally passing another early riser out walking the dusty roads. She felt the crisis had much to do with that, keeping everyone indoors and out of sight. It was at once eerie and peaceful, inducing a soul-searching before the day kicked in, another day of wondering what the future held for a humanity hanging by a thread.
It had been Raven’s idea to come to this desert town after quickly leaving Mexico when the news of the pandemic hit the airwaves. They had stopped briefly here in the charming tourist town in December en route to Mexico and it came immediately to mind when they were deciding where to quickly escape to. Having been on an open-ended road trip together for a year after leaving their Oregon home behind, the adventure had taken a sudden halt, a pivot, a redirect.
On an early March evening, they had sat in their hotel room watching the national news as it became apparent that the one week they had planned to be here would extend into a much longer stay. “We might as well just stay put for now,” Raven had said, “Ride this thing out.” The next day, Shana was on it. The more organized of the two, the keeper of logs and maps and itineraries, she began looking for a short-term rental so they could get out of the hotel sooner than later and assume a more accommodating temporary residence. Walking through town that afternoon, they stopped to look at listings on the window of a local broker.
“Can I help you folks find something?” a voice chirped from a young man who suddenly appeared at the office door.
By the end of the next day, they had secured their new place for a fraction of the price it would normally cost. Thinking it would be a month, maybe two at most, the couple were so happy to have things resolve so quickly and in their financial favor. They had already spent way more money than they had anticipated on the trip and the two house sitting gigs meant to see them through a four month stint rent-free had both been cancelled. No one was going on a cruise or traveling to Europe or going anywhere right now.
No one needed a house and garden looked after, their pets walked and fed and loved in their absence. No, people were hugging close to home for the foreseeable future, putting everything on hold.
Shana dropped down into the adjacent arroyo for the last leg of her walk before ascending the hill back to the casita. Her lithe body traversed the terrain effortlessly, her blond hair in a long, loose braid down her back accentuating her elongated form. The sun was warm on her back and the blue sky held its golden orb in a cradle of expansiveness. She stopped to take in a deep breath, to smell the red earth, to feel the cool breeze across her face. She felt a deep affinity for this place, a mysterious karmic connection as though she was always meant to be here.
A memory surfaced. A morning long ago, camping near here with her then husband on their migration west to California. She remembered waking up and climbing out of their tent perched on a hill to a cold, cold morning. A cottontail scurried by. She had caught sight of her husband down below taking photographs with his new camera, talking with an old-timer who had slept in his pick-up truck the night before. As she watched him from above, he turned and spotted her and waved. After a long haul from Indiana, she remembered how she had felt squarely in the West at that moment, in this exact same desert landscape. She had watched the sun begin to rise over the hill, felt the dry, cold morning awakening around her. Awakening her very own spirit to new beginnings.
Back at the casita, Raven was just putting breakfast together for the two of them, a cheese and onion omelet, toast and jam and a French press of coffee. Shana opened the door and the aroma stirred her appetite immediately.
“Smells like Joe’s Diner in here,” she laughed.
Raven turned, spatula in hand, “You’re just in time! Hungry?”
Shana pulled a chair out at the dining table and removed the mask from around her neck, unlaced her hiking boots and set her cowboy hat down on the table as Raven dropped a steaming mug of coffee in front of her and ran back to the kitchen to plate up the breakfast.
“How was your walk?” she asked from her post at the stove.
“Great. As always. I don’t know why you don’t get up and join me once in a while?” Shana said between hot sips.
“Oh, I know. It’s just not my rhythm.”
Appearing at the table with warm plates, a dish towel slung over her shoulder, Raven beamed brightly over her accomplishment and offering. “Besides, look what you get to come back to!”
Raven pulled her chair out and sat down, heartily digging into her omelet, her black hair pulled up into a towering topknot over deep brown eyes and thick eyebrows, aquiline nose and full lips. She was of Belgian by way of Greek descent, a natural beauty carried over millennia and captured in paint by old European masters; classic, timeless and exotic. “So, what do you think about what we talked about last night,” she said looking down at her plate, loading up her fork with egg.
“I’m still pondering it, Raven. I’m not sure it’s time to move on yet.”
Raven looked up and set her fork down. “Well, we could get stuck here for a while if we don’t make a move soon. Who knows what’s gonna happen next in this crazy world!”
Meeting Raven’s gaze directly, Shana explained to Raven that she was pretty happy to be “stuck” here and didn’t feel the impetus to do anything, decide anything different.
“If we left now, it would feel prematurely over. Unfulfilled. I don’t know. It would be like unrequited love. I can’t explain it, it’s a yearning. I’ve only felt it in a few places on this earth and this is one of those places. When we were here before, I was sad to leave. I even told you we didn’t spend enough time here as we were driving away, remember?” Shana asked. “And now that we’re back, it’s like it’s home. Some part of my life has already mapped this out. I’m completing a destiny. I can’t leave. Not yet,”
“That’s an awful lot of “I” and not much “we”, Shana,” she said but Shana just looked away and cast her gaze out the window onto Western Junipers sharing residence in the foreground of a sweeping sky over not so distant mountains. Majestic clouds hung loosely across a horizon that filled her with wonder and expansive hope. How is this stunning beauty lost on Raven, she wondered.
“Well, whatever. I’m not a desert person. It’s too dry. The earth smells weird to me here, potent, cloying even. Smoky. My eyes hurt and my sinuses are so dry, my skin feels like paper… I prefer a wetter climate. How about we head to Maine, Shana? Like I suggested last night…see what we can find there?” Raven pressed. Shana sat still, unmoved by Raven’s plea, unable to find words to express things with more clarity than she already had. Standing, she gathered up their empty breakfast plates, walked into the kitchen and began to wash the dishes in silence.
Raven is a messy cook, this will keep me occupied and at safe distance from her for a minute, she thought. But Raven was suddenly there, leaning on the kitchen island counter directly across from Shana, not letting it drop so easily.
“C’mon, Shay, don’t leave me out of this. We’re in this together, ya know. Let’s decide on something that works for both of us. Would Maine be so bad?” Raven said.
Shana felt things were undefinable. She tried persuading Raven to see the desert town the way she did. How it spoke to her with its unique architecture – a style Raven sarcastically called “Flintstone Chic.” She tried to explain the attention to a specific visual aesthetic and the town’s support of art and artists. But Raven kept on with her complaints about the arid climate, the heat.
And then when the temperature dropped dramatically on an early September afternoon dumping snow out of nowhere after weeks of 90-degree temperatures, she grumbled that this place didn’t even know what season it wanted to be. She couldn’t win an argument against that kind of thinking. To Shana, the unexpected snow refreshed everything and added to the magical quality of this place. This. Place. This place of mine, she thought.
The two women met at an art opening seventeen years earlier in Portland, Oregon, introduced by a mutual friend. They hit it off immediately and made a date for lunch at a cafe on Hawthorne later in the week. Shana learned that Raven was a French teacher and assistant Lacrosse coach at an all-girls private high school in Lake Oswego, just outside the city. She loved to hike and camp and be outdoors as much as possible. She was a bon vivant and liked being around people.
Shana was her opposite in some ways, preferring a more quiet existence. She found solitude in her Everett Station loft, sculpting for hours alone, lost in creative reverie. She went for walks through the dense downtown neighborhoods leading to the river every morning to consider the new day ahead. In an unhappy marriage that happened too fast, Shana had explained to Raven over that first lunch how she left California and her ex-husband after three years and disappeared into the Oregon forest to figure out her life. Emerging from her living mediation, she moved into the city to fulfill her identity and life as an artist.
Though they were different personalities, they found common ground and before too long they fell into bed together and into each other’s lives so deeply there was no turning back. In a few years, just after Shana’s gallery rep sold three major pieces of her work, the two women in love decided to rent a big house together in Lake Oswego. Raven would have quick access to work and the natural beauty she craved while Shana converted the oversized, backyard tool shed with an amazing skylight in the center of its roof into her studio. It was a satisfying move for them both.
The road trip was Raven’s idea, part of her restless nature and a need to get out and explore new places. When the school hired a new director that Raven did not get along with, it was another push to leave. Shana agreed she could take a year off from her work and get reinvigorated, inspired anew. Packing several sketchbooks of all sizes, a 300-color set of Prismacolor pencils, some watercolor markers and a writing journal, she was prepared for the adventure as long as it would produce material for her work. And the two had talked more than a few times about the need to revive their stagnant relationship, to eradicate the inevitable slump that occurs from long time cohabitation.
Shana wandered through the used bookstore in Tucson, just days before they would cross the border into Mexico last winter. Raven was next door getting her hair cut into a short and curly bob, often in need of changing things up. Loading her basket with a couple of new novels and a few classics she knew they would both enjoy, Shana found herself in the section marked Religion and Philosophy. She set her cart down and ran her finger across the titles, some familiar and others not. She had taken a class in college on World Religions and remembered that the Hinduism and Buddhism segments had resonated with her, though she did not retain much of it in her life on purpose.
Her finger stopped on a slim book with a red cover and a mysterious title that felt oddly familiar. Opening the book to a random page somewhere in the middle, she read the title Samskaras, which marked the top of the page. She studied it silently, oblivious to the activity and bustle all around her in the shop. Reading a few pages, she learned that samsakaras were the karmic grooves that were etched into us from our words, deeds and actions in life. Suddenly it sparked a memory from her college course, remembering how she had thought the word sounded like “some scars” which was what they were, in a way.
Her teacher had described it like this: Imagine an old vinyl record. There are grooves where a song begins and where a song ends. Over time, the record gets scratched and some of those scratches are small and some are deep; we drop the record, there are dents and dings and dust, it may get cracked in places. All of those blemishes interrupt the melody, disrupting the continuity of the song. We, too, have grooves – imprints we are born with along with new ones that form across our lives from all our beginnings and endings, the cracks and dents are the events that shape us and affect the sound of our music.
The professor went on to explain that samskaras were the karmic data etched deeply into our souls, but that unlike the vinyl record, we could buff out the grooves and scratches with better actions, that nothing was eternally engraved unless we allowed it to be. It was coming back to Shana slowly, then. She recalled how the teaching had encouraged her to leave her husband, how to restore her internal song back to its proper cadence.
Just then, Raven bounced up to where Shana was standing, breaking her entranced state with the book.
“Find some good stuff? What’s that one you have there in your hand?” Raven asked.
“Oh, this? Just some ancient philosophy,” dropping it nonchalantly into the basket. “Hey, your hair looks great! Let’s get out of here. Unless there is something particular you want, I found us some great books to read on the beach in Mexico,” Shana said. With a nod, the two sauntered over to the check-out and were on their way.
Over an early dinner on the patio a few days after their breakfast conversation about moving on, Raven broached the topic again with Shana.
“From Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, huh? I love the way that sounds, finding ourselves in the same named city but on opposite sides of the country in whole new surroundings. Doesn’t that sound fantastic, Shay!” she urged with a giggle, taking a sip of red wine.
“Ya know, Raven. You are the most persistent person I know. You just won’t stop until you get your way. I hear what you’re saying you need, but are you hearing me?” Shana asked, looking deeply into Raven’s dark eyes.
The relationship had been strained for a while now, and they were both just making the best of a slowly deteriorating situation, further stymied by the global crisis. Their physical relationship was nothing like it used to be. But bigger issues loomed. Blames had been inaccurately assigned over recent years. Arguments erupted with more frequency, tensions and differences revealed more openly than before. While they shared in each other’s small successes, they had become each other’s dumping ground for failures and disappointments, too. Love had become a desert. A desolate silence engulfed them until Shana broke it open.
“I think it’s obvious we want different things right now, Raven.”
Raven looked down at her empty plate. “What are you getting at, Shay?”
“Look, we’ve been struggling for a while. All couples do after this much time and maybe we need to take a break. Recalibrate. Consider our options, that’s all.”
“Oh, like when you left your husband in California and disappeared into the woods, ya mean, like that? Those kinds of options?” Raven asked with dry contempt.
Shana knew she hadn’t handled things well with her husband and if she could undo the hurt, she would. But that was her past, a groove left in place, etched forever on her soul.
“Raven. Go to Maine. I’m staying here. I’m not saying it’s forever, I’m not kicking you out of my life. But how many times are we going to have this conversation, it’s a broken record! A record that is full of scratches so deep we can’t even hear the music anymore. Just static. Maybe after a while, we buy a new recording…one that’s sweet and beautiful. Like we once were. You see what I mean?”
Raven left two days later, driving away at dusk down the dirt road leading from their casita out of town. The sun was dropping across the horizon and bringing a cool ending to the day. After spending an hour or two separating their things and cleaning out the van of any remaining articles of Shana’s, they had shared a mostly silent meal, followed by tears and a long embrace at the doorway.
Raven didn’t turn back to take Shana in one last time but simply drove away in slow movement away from her. Shana stood on the front porch and watched the sun make its final dip, went inside and drew a bath to wash the residue off her skin.
Shana opened the French doors of the bedroom to let in the new morning air, a single red book sitting solitary on her nightstand. Stepping out into the patio, she turned her face into the warmth. Across the road, a raven fluttered its wings in a nearby tree, taking flight to other realms unknown. Somewhere in the desert a coyote wandered solo down a dry arroyo. A cactus flower opened its blossom to the sun.
© 2020, Mary Corbin
Desert is from the Ephemerata Collection. Featured artwork: “Coyote Dreams” – painting by Mary Corbin. This story was first published online in Hedgeapple Magazine on April 19, 2021. The print magazine copy will be available through the Hedgeapple website beginning June 1. No reprints without permission.