(A successor of sorts to: Hypervigilant)
On location, huddled behind a huge and craggy boulder with the wind howling at me to get OUT, I hurriedly sweep the few things scattered around me into a bag, with the exception of a dirt-stained spiral notebook and a cheap ballpoint pen, which I clutch to my chest as though they were treasured relics. My hand seeks the pen with the certainty of a bird charting its course toward home. Fingers crimped around it, I think of the events unfolding around me and, brow furrowed, eyes closed, I put them down on paper. Writing it down is an act of profound intimacy between myself and her, but I try to stay distant. I am cool-headed as I try to relate, to explain, to analyze. But it’s hard, in the middle of reliving a memory, to unglue these two minds of mine. I am caught in the sticky, hazy, jewel-toned marrow between the past and the present. Even as an observer, my emotions participate; they balloon out from my body, even as I restrict myself, physically, to a strict perimeter around the boulder.
In the past, unfolding right before me, she staggers through the desert, hands crudely bound. Sand swirls around her feet and fills her field of vision with rays of rough and chalky bronze. The wind picks up, abruptly, cruelly; it yanks her off her feet and sends her tumbling forward. In the present, stealing glances at her fallen form from behind the boulder, I am clear-eyed. I don’t hear her cries. I don’t step out to rescue her. Instead, I crouch back down to record what’s happening in the fairest possible language. In describing the events, I strike the exact right balance between understanding and condemnation.
She gets back up; she tries, bravely, to resist the desires of the indifferent wind. When she collapses again on the dunes, face and hands rubbed raw, her breath coming in shallow, harsh gasps, her skin purpling under the dusty apricot and gold of the sunset, I don’t interfere. I watch from behind the security of the boulder, my fingers digging into its crevices. Everything will continue on. I can’t change what happened here.
The wind dies down. I emerge from behind cover. She is at her lowest now: head sinking into the sand, eyes fluttering closed. I approach her. I slip my hand under her shirt and sink my fingers through the pink and gray flesh in which her ribcage is buried, in order to borrow her heart. Against my palm, it beats a staccato, fearful rhythm. Its red meat stains my skin wetly, like a kiss.
Returning to the shadow of the dark stone, the heart squirming in one hand, I pull a pair of burnished scales from my bag with the other. Gently, I set her heart on one side of these scales and, dutifully, methodically, I weigh her sins. I let the judgment proceed and, when she is found lacking, my spirit plummets. I had expected the outcome, but not my own reaction. The lilac twilight watches, bewitched, as, abandoning all pretense at neutrality, I get on my knees and pray, like a child. I should not intercede on her behalf, but I do. Every star turns my way, studding my eyes with their blue and bitter light, as though keen to blind me, as though I were a broken man in need of their brand of punishment, the punishment of all-powerful and paternalistic gods. I bite back my own resentment at their divinity, their dangled and withheld promise of redemption. They speak the truth so plainly, so matter-of-factly, it registers like a curse. If I could burn every last star to nothing, I would.
I think of every wrong choice that led her to this rusty red desert under this black and limitless sky. The sand, ash-colored in the dark, stings under my knees. I think of all the pain and ritual that came to nothing. I must admit that I despise every bone in our shared body, every incandescent drop of blood. I would do anything to change our path through the desert. But hating her will not make the present any easier to live. Hating her will not heal me. Hating her will not change me. I turn back to the hard-eyed stars and, my hands trembling in the still air, I ask them to forgive her.