The crunch of the pickup truck’s wheels and the sound of the girl’s breathing were all that could be heard as the rusty vehicle huffed to a dusty stop in front of the low sprawling wood-and-stucco house with a very rusty farm windmill attached on the side. The door to the driver’s seat slammed, but Alicia was staring out at the miles of foreboding sand dunes, broken only by some very distant grayish-brown hills, harsh against the bright sunlight, and did not move to join him.
She was rooted to the frayed vinyl seat, the words of her last conversation with her mom running through her head again and again, as if trying to impart some hidden meaning which she had not yet grasped, an answer to why she had been sent here, banished to this isolated place for the whole summer vacation.
She knew the answer, it was simple: her mother had just gotten a job offer, which required her to teach a summer session art history course for exchange students at the university in Siena, in Italy. She could not take Alicia with her (although she’d begged to go along), so she had sent her daughter to her grandparents’.
It really was quite straightforward, Alicia reflected, but she couldn’t help feeling a touch of resentment towards her mother; why did she have to send her to a place so far away from everywhere that there was not even any Internet connection, let alone any other people, let alone anyone her own age? This was not Alicia’s idea of any way to spend a summer vacation.
Alicia had been looking forward to hanging out with her friends, and taking that watercolor class she’d longed for, not sweltering with two old people on what now was staring her in the face: a decrepit homestead in the middle of a desert.
“It’ll be even better than what we were planning before,” her mother had said, “I promise.”
“Hey, Alicia, you coming?” The gnarly voice shocked her out of her daydream and she got out of the cab of the truck into the glaring light. Her grandpa was waiting for her with her luggage—two suitcases and a backpack. He handed her the backpack and took the suitcases, carrying them over the hot gravel as if they weighed nothing.
She studied him as they walked; he was thin and tall, with a tanned weather-lined face, and still some wisps of gray hair on his scalp. Everything about him was tough and leathery as old hide. A bit like a cactus, Alicia thought, and had to stifle a giggle.
As she took a few steps, the screen door of the house banged open. A short, wrinkled white-haired figure in a beige apron and faded denim dress came quickly limping out, like one of those desert hens who roosted in the cactuses and strutted about on the sand clucking. Her grandmother rushed to her, wrapping her in a tight hug, smelling very very faintly of old-lady perfume, exclaiming with happiness at seeing her… the usual greetings after a long time spent without seeing someone, Alicia thought, but it had all happened too fast, her mind was still processing the previous day, unable to cope with the present.
“So, Alicia, how do you like your new home?” her grandmother indicated the house with a proud gesture, which would have been used more to indicate a grand palace, even a fancy car, but never this…
Stung with bitterness at the words “new home,” Alicia stared at it critically. It was a typical decaying ranch house for the area, maybe a bit bigger than normal, with a sagging porch supported by cracked wooden beams. Looking around, Alicia decided that everything here was dry and cracked; the earth, the house, her grandparents… She winced as she tried to smile… even her lips.
Now was the time to stop musing and put on her actor’s face. Alicia had always thought of herself as a good actress, now was the time to use this talent. She noticed, just in time, three brand new pots of marigolds in the shade under a window which clearly someone had very recently organized. They were already a little wilted.
She rallied around to hug her grandmother. “Oh my gosh, it’s awesome! It’s so big, I can’t wait to see the inside!” Lying, she excused herself for doing that, it was better than making other people feel bad. But her words, even to herself, sounded like she was overdoing it.
Her grandmother smiled, she looked a little bit relieved, but quizzical, and Alicia realized that she must have been worried about what her granddaughter would think of her house. See, it’s a good thing I lied, she told herself.
“Well now, you come along right this way, and I’ll show you your room. I’m sure your grandpa will manage with the suitcases,” and she led Alicia over the wooden porch and through the screen door.
It was dim inside and Alicia’s eyes had trouble adjusting after the glare of the desert outdoors. The inside of the house enveloped her with the musty smell of really old furniture. They were walking rapidly down a narrow hallway, her grandmother giving her a tour of the house. They passed the living room, the dining room and an incredibly archaic kitchen to the back of the house, stopping in front of the last door in the hallway. Her grandmother flung it open with a grand sweep of her arm. “And this is your room! It used to be your mother’s.”
The door creaked as it swung open to reveal a tiny uncarpeted room, with faded yellow walls and nothing except a bed with a thin white bedspread, a wardrobe, a small wooden desk and an old wooden chair. No evidence of her mother having grown up in it. No pictures on the walls either, she noticed. Alicia gulped; she had to live here for three months?
“Wow… it’s cozy…” OK, maybe I’m not such a good actress, she thought, as she set her backpack on the bed. Her grandpa had come in with the suitcases, and her grandmother was overseeing him placing them on the floor in the corner, and she fortunately did not seem to be paying much attention to what Alicia had said.
She stood at the door, waiting patiently until her grandmother stood up, dusting her hands off in a businesslike way. “Well, we’ll be leaving you to unpack and Grandpa needs to get back to work after he’s been away all day.”
Alicia, who at the moment could not yet face unpacking because it would be resigning herself to being stuck there, asked awkwardly, “Um, actually, I was wondering if I could maybe take a shower, get freshened up a little bit.”
Her grandmother glanced back with a look that Alicia could not read, but then smiled and replied, “Why of course, the shower house is right behind the house, we have a pump which brings up groundwater to our house, but it’s not heated. I hope you don’t mind showering with cold water?”
Alicia shook her head, though she had never taken a cold shower in her life, and her grandparents left. She sat on the bed, motionless, for a few minutes, just letting her thoughts hum around inside her in that meandering way they always did when she did not try to control them.
This room was so empty, and dead, and did not seem like any kind of bedroom to live in. Where was all her mother’s stuff? She supposed they had cleared out the room long ago, but she wished there could have been at least some hint that there had been life in the room sometime before. It seemed like an abandoned shell.
It was going to be hard to find the desire to make the effort to figure out what would be the wrong thing to say or what would be impolite or what would maybe offend her grandparents in terms of what she took for granted and what was actually different out here in the desert and might be difficult for them to provide.
Like the water supply and showers…
Another thought idled into her head: what was her grandpa going to work on? And where? And then she wondered why her grandparents had chosen to even live here in the first place and how and where her grandpa had worked when he was younger because there was nothing around, that was for sure. And how her mother could have stood growing up in this desolate place, and how had her mother become who she was now, if this was where she came from?
Finally, she roused herself and, getting out some clean shorts and a T-shirt from her suitcase, uncovered a muslin bundle hidden under the clothes: her mother had packed her brushes and paints! What in the world for? she thought angrily, there is absolutely nothing here to paint, it’s totally ugly and hot and there is nothing to see. The house was as old as her grandparents themselves, and they seemed never to have changed anything in the style or the furniture or the decoration in the last half a century. It’s just dead, dead, dead, with no colors or life at all!
And she clacked out the back door in her flip-flops into the dry furnace blast of the sun.
The shower house was actually a lean-to with metal sheeting across both ends, like an oven at this time of day. Alicia winced as she entered into its stifling heat, thinking that somehow the lack of hot water was not going to be a big problem, carefully stepping over the weeds growing at the edge in the only bit of damp there was.
Alicia turned the water on full blast, heard the hum of what must have been a pump, and was shocked into the first pleasant experience that had happened in several days. The water ran over her back in streams of pure, cool delight. She could practically feel it washing away all of the dirt from traveling, smoothing out the kinks in her back from a long night on the airplane and a long unair-conditioned drive to the house.
She forgot about everything and in any case felt too tired to wash. She simply stood there, letting the water pour onto her, wondering if she could somehow paint a picture of how cool water felt, until some strange clunking of machinery nearby jolted her back and she remembered again, too late, about the water supply. She quickly turned it off at about the same moment that it had begun to splutter and turn brownish. Getting dressed in a guilty hurry, she left the lean-to.
She heard some hammering on metal from the windmill tower and figured out where her grandpa was and wondered how much extra work she was causing him by showering. A brush of hot wind against her cheek startled her into looking up across the wide plain of the desert; miles of unbroken earth and sand ravaged and scarred by the sun, over to those hills apparently scorched barren of all vegetation.
Alicia shivered, this truly was the end of the world, the doom of man, she was thinking dramatically: how could anyone survive in such a forbidding place? Where the heat ate at the bodies of the people, and the wind tore apart their souls and buried their memories. It was depressing beyond belief.
She didn’t even want to think about it, she just wanted to go back home to what she had started thinking of as “civilization.” Despite the heat, she shivered, breaking into a trot towards the house.
* * *
After dinner, when she was lying on her bed in the small shell of a room, listening to the last clicking of the cicadas outside, she thought of how the bedroom was like the dry empty exoskeletons of those insects and then kept on thinking of bones, bleached white by the sun, being enveloped by the sand and, when they were gone, no one to cry because everything and everyone had been swallowed up by the awful heat.
The sound of a radio softly playing really old-fashioned music outside filtered into her head and she got up to get away from her bleak thoughts and that desolate room and went to see who was listening. Outside on the porch, the old swing creaking, sat her grandmother, humming along to the radio, as she looked out over the wide expanse of the sandy plain.
The radio was so full of static out here on the porch that Alicia was about to turn away when her grandmother’s voice stopped her. “Come here, hon, I want to show you something.” Alicia stepped through the screen door, outside into the cooler night air, settling herself beside her grandmother. The old woman set the swing into gentle motion, rocking it back and forth. “Now,” she said, “look up.”
Alicia looked up, and her eyes were caught on the wide expanse of deepening blue, which was bigger, far bigger, than she could ever imagine a sky could be. As she watched, the very tip of the sun finally sank down under the horizon, turning for a moment at least the whole desert into a rosy fire and infusing the air with sparkly gold. Both the far-off hills and the rolling sands before her were coming alive with colors all merging into each other and changing by the second.
“You see, honey,” her grandmother was speaking again, “the desert is just like any other bit of land; it rewards those who are brave enough to live in it.” She sat a moment longer but did not say anything after that, just stood up and faded back into the house, leaving her granddaughter on the swing.
Alicia stayed there, motionless, watching the pinpricks of stars, incredibly brilliant, pop out dozens at a time, and the blending of rose and gold evaporating into shades of blue. She’d never seen anything like this back in “civilization” and it was unbelievably beautiful. It was like the desert was breathing and singing a silent but glorious song! She wanted never to stop looking at it.
And as she observed, she finally began to understand. You did not live in the desert because you had to; you lived in it because you loved it and it was a hard love, that much was clear. The desert did not give you water or food if you did not work for it, but it gave you something better, it gave you a place where the dreams inside you could be born.
Fingers itching to get started, and grinning now for the first time about her mother’s words, she rushed back inside for her paintbrushes…