by Jennifer Tubbs
Thin, green fingers of sagebrush reach up and out of the foothills, towards the blue swath of sky. My body is a slippery filament that flickers between gravestones. We had wanted to do the ritual at midnight, but turns out it gets cold in the desert at night. So here we are, naked in broad daylight, peeling off from the not-so-scenic part of Route 66 into a field overgrown with creosote, white crosses sticking out every few feet. Mia’s lugging our cooler with food offerings, hairline jeweled with sun blisters. Deva’s got the box with the photos, the broken locket, the umbrella. But I’m the one who trips over a cow mandible, even though I’m not carrying shit, because I don’t look where I’m going.
My pleather boots are barely up to treading even ground, let alone the rolling terrain of the Sandias, so I find a stump and kick them off. Nestled inside the tree rings are two scrawny worms writhing either from ecstasy or death throes.
“Chaparral’s good for the skin,” Deva says. The golden flowers are stars in her palms as she gathers them.
“Mm,” I say, picking out a bur from my instep.
Deva’s mom died when she was sixteen. Ovarian cancer. She gave Deva a locket with a chunk of her onyx hair in it, and Deva wears it everywhere she goes, the shiny brass hidden between her tits. Mia, meanwhile, only has photos of her dad. Not because he was shy, she likes to remind us, but because he kicked the bucket when she was only four.
Mia ducks behind a shrub oak to pee, and a knot of pubic hair flashes in my periphery, darker than I had imagined.
My grandfather taught me that chaparral is called gobernadora in Latin America, Spanish for “governess” because it sucks the water from nearby plants, ensuring its survival at the expense of others’. You can only use it topically because the tannins can fuck up your liver and kidneys. He left all his notebooks to me when he died a few years back, and the entry for chaparral was scrawled in an appendix, chaparral not being native to his Irish homeland or the Pennsylvanian woods where he settled. But he had always wanted to see the King Clone in the Mojave, an 11,700-year-old chaparral ring that qualifies as one of the world’s oldest living organisms. “Right up there with Pando and the redwoods,” he would muse when I went to see him at the nursing home. The ammonia-burn of piss and lemon disinfectant would sting my nostrils, reminding me of everything my Pap Pap hated—the sterility of the modern world.
“Let’s do it here.” Mia points to a gnarled piñon further up the face of the mountain.
I pick my way through the white crosses, gleaming like abalone in the sunlight, careful not to step on the soil in front of them. I wonder about the people buried here, if their relatives ever come out to visit. I never went to Pap Pap’s funeral, much less visited his grave. He would have hated the whole thing. This is the best way I know to remember him by. I twist a pine cone loose from a slim inner branch and jostle it along the whites of my knuckles before setting it down at the foot of the nearest cross.
Mia squats by the base of the piñon with a shot glass full of cheap wine and some stale Cheez-Its—all we could scrounge from the gas station as we snaked our way westward. “We call on those who came before us tonight—or, you know, today. Spirits of our ancestors, we welcome you to join us for this afternoon. We invite you to share our meal,” she says and crunches a Cheez-It.
Deva says a few words about her mother, but the wind picks up, and all I can hear is a soft, oceanic hum. When she opens the locket, a shock of black lifts into the air and whips around us until it’s swallowed by a riot of cholla. My eyes search their amethyst crowns, waiting for it to reemerge, as if by magic. I’m staring dumbly, unblinking, until Mia elbows me gently.
I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. I open up my grandfather’s old, crusty umbrella and hunker down in its shade. One summer after my parents divorced and my dad moved across town, my Pap Pap came to visit. He and my dad sat in the small herb garden out back as I played with my cat on the patio, pretending not to eavesdrop.
“When will she grow up already?’ my dad had asked. “It just takes so much to keep her busy.”
“You’ll miss this time you had with her one day. Remember that.” Pap Pap had winked at me through the sage.
My dad got up and arranged my grandfather and me in front of his tripod. Pap Pap indulged me by holding my kitten in his arms, even though he was allergic. He plopped his paddy hat atop my pigtails right as the shutter went off. I still have the photo. It’s the one I like to remember my Pap Pap by most. The way the sun glinted off his bald head, dazzling white above an expanse of green. You can make out thyme next to marjoram, the suggestion of purple in the bottom lefthand corner where we let wild lavender grow amok. Afterward, we would plant dillweed at Pap Pap’s insistence, his fingers fluttering like butterfly wings as he pulled a packet of seeds from his breast pocket.
And what happened then, at the foot of the piñon, was so small, the tiniest tremor on the surface of reality, that it didn’t mean anything, really, except that I spent the whole car ride home thinking about it. As sagebrush gave way to bluegrass, I remembered how the umbrella pleats had folded in on me like petals, and I felt warmed not by the desert sun but as if by some inner light.
Jennifer Tubbs is a Southwestern writer, although she recently had the privilege of calling the Deep South home. She received her MFA from The University of New Mexico, and she will be attending Texas Tech University in the fall to pursue her PhD in Creative Writing. Her fiction focuses on queer womanhood through the lens of magical realism. When she isn't writing or teaching, she can be found wandering in the woods.