In the Atacama, allegedly the driest place on Earth, the buttery sun-ball melting its excess fat – in this fucked-up world, even stars are overweight – straight onto bowed heads and slouched backs of the Wanderers and the Banished, does not stop blazing until the rest of the world’s late evening. By the time it cooled down, we were too tired to even fuck. When you’re not fucking, you have to talk. The thought alone sends shivers down my spine. So the Wanderer and I kept walking sideways like crabs, focusing our inhuman eyes, red like albino rabbits’, on each other, to stay awake.
My canteen had sprung a leak, and his had gone empty hours before. Falling asleep dehydrated was not a good idea; we knew that much, and both of us still clung onto life, though we weren’t quite sure why. If we weren’t together, each of us, he and I, would have probably decided to sod it, lie down and dry up. Death. Another metamorphosis. A leap of faith. I had always wanted to be a scorpion rather than a Scorpio. We had to toss my backpack and stuff the necessities into his, because my ankle had swollen to the size of a small cantaloupe, and he had to regain some of the strength he had sweated out in case he would have to piggy-back me later.
Antofagasta was too far. We were hoping for some shade. Of any kind. Even if it had to be a mutant cactus shaped like a pear turned upside down that we could not lean on for its deadly needles or a pair of lizards that we would have to kill and arrange into a pyramid and then leave early, because they would start to smell too soon.
Instead, we stumbled on a trail of red sand that we followed for nearly two hours. We still crept sideways, hands shielding our faces, like two equally strong sparing partners paralyzed by the certainty of mutually assured destruction. It must have been funny to watch us. The trail led us to a crater with a shallow lake at the bottom. The Wanderer threw himself down like a fallen warrior and drank face-down; I curled into a fetus to protect my injuries and rolled downhill until I landed in it the water, flipped onto my side and started gulping too. Then we lay there, head to head, arms and legs apart, like da Vinci’s Vitruvian hermaphrodite. We were getting closer. I could feel it.
The sky was ink-black. I hadn’t seen a sky this dark in a long time. A red moon hung over our gleaming bodies, low, too low, like a magic lantern on a string that he could have hopped on, the Petit Prince with grey hair that had never grown old enough to learn how to linger, pull me up like a rag doll and sit me down on a swing made out of a silver spider-web that he would have woven out of moonlight and his unspoken grief. We could have made that bald moon with the shimmering hairnet into our little planet. But the Wanderer was too weak to fly up first, and I had never learned how to defy gravity sober. He had been silent for too long. Suddenly, I was afraid that he was dead. I cupped his hand, immediately exhaling with relief, because it turned out to be warm, squeezing it a little to establish a connection, as the doctors and the shrinks and the healers and the exorcists all told me to do with my future clients when they were treating me, but his fingers stayed still, palm gently curved, as if he were protecting an injured baby bird.
“Tell me who he is.”
It came out with a hiss. SSSS. “Thell me khoooeeesssss.” A snake’s hiss. There, I froze in the middle of the desert, momentarily, for five minutes that lasted at least half of one of my lifetimes. My chest was an iceberg, and I could not speak through my stitched corpse’s lips; all I wanted to do was kill him, and it was killing me that I couldn’t. And then he broke away, the Da Vinci Code hater who loved squaring circles; he flung his feet over his head into deaf man’s pose and then somersaulted, landing on top of me, breathing fire onto the wax-mask that was my face. When he kissed me, I started melting, first slowly, then at the retired sun’s pace, into a D-minor melody of golden little laughs that sprung out of my pores and sped out across the surface of the lake, bloody red from the reflected moonlight, like phosphorescent salamanders. I closed my eyes. I hated that he knew me so well.
‘Tell me who he is,’ he said, voicelessly at first, from somewhere up above. He must have jumped up while I was un-freezing. He was in my brain, my lungs, and my vagina. And now he started talking through me; damn, I shouldn’t have taught him how to do that back in Prague.
“Tell. Me. Who. He. Is,” he barked when I didn’t answer, in that commander’s baritone that sent vibrations of excitement across the desert, creating sand-waves and eliciting sighs from Scirocco; he was fucking the desert now, from the moon, where he sat weaving the silver swing I had requested, with a cock that didn’t even have to be erect because he had something better, a voice. My husky mezzo-soprano.
I met him when I was wounded, which is, perhaps, why I let him touch me in the first place. I don’t like being touched. Being touched is different from being fucked. I am not scared of my inner animal, the roaring Sphinx-like lioness with a fair mane, smelling sourly of caked fur, with the purple tongue dripping saliva on sand, on floors, on people, grinning with sexpectation whenever it senses weakness. Because it is strong enough to defend itself. Kill.
I am afraid of the human in me. He was the first, and the last, before you, that could wrestle me, until I was panting and bleeding, and hold me locked-down, defeated, until I calmed down. He could make me talk. Slowly, at first, with a stammer in a sick beat that he could write poems to. But it hurt him to see me struggle, so he would ask me to sing. I remember him laughing like a baby for the first time – it sounded strange because he hadn’t tried and practiced laughing before – when I belted out the high G. That’s when he fell in love with me. With my voice. He hated my body because it rejected him. Sometimes, I had to wait days until the swelling went down to be able to make love to him again. So I let him fuck other people and didn’t ask.
The snake-charmer. We lived together for three years: me, him, his Western diamond rattlesnake with one empty eye socket and my Luger. Was I happy? It was the closest I came to happiness, the bittersweet syrup for the coughing heart, which couldn’t stop it from getting sicker, and sicker; then it started bleeding: during my three years with the Departed, I contracted the rare tuberculosis of the heart. That is why my pain threshold is so high. He used to disappear, into 24-hour bars, drinking inspiration and chasing melodies he then forced me to sing, at 3am at times, because I was too scared of giving him what he needed to finish the story about us. Until he took it. And departed.
When I, he, went mute, the skies above the Atacama were rose-gold. The Wanderer stretched out his arm, and I gave him my hand. He could have pulled me up onto the swing hanging from the moon that had gone from full to crescent, but he didn’t; he dived into the shallow water and lay down beside me, letting the weightless swing pop and lock, a bit too wildly, as if it didn’t know what to do with its newfound freedom. I thought of grandmother Villager and her hated pigeons, of fly mushrooms under hippie skirts, of how much I wanted to fuck the Wanderer now that he made me talk, like the Departed did, bringing me to the verge of crying, of the un-happened and of the unimaginable, of love.
“You can do it now.”
“Where is the Luger?”
“You don’t need it.”
So I stood up, thighs burning, forehead feverish from the sunstroke and back covered in random abstract prints because it had been groveling in red lake water – suspiciously similar to blood in its thickness and tenacity – for too long. I looked down at him. I had never felt so weak before that, or after that, for that matter, but there he was, still, with his glassy gaze fixed on something only he could see, the skeletal ascetic, the un-sweating and non-drinking derision of a sacrifice that I had to make. He could not talk anymore, so he waited, in silence, with acceptance that both puzzled me and infuriated me. The anger had me riding on the rippling waves of half-orgasm already. So I inhaled, went down into a squat – he pulled down my army pants himself – and shat it all out with my eyes closed, in a violent attack of diarrhea, straight onto his face: the tequila, bartender the Soother and his magic mushrooms, the Departed, the snake-phobia.
While I was buttoning up, he rolled over, to rinse. Then I got the black candle. He took it with trust, the believer half-dead in his humiliation, into his mouth, like the ancient Greeks the coin for Kharon, the ferryman of the Hades, and he lit it up himself. I could smell gasoline, the sweet scent of the underworld that he had chosen to wear on this trip, and I finally understood. Now I, also, knew what he had known when he dropped into lotus in front of my folding fisherman’s chair, what I couldn’t figure out earlier, that he had come here to die. Instead of me. For me. When he started tilting his head, flames from the candle between his lips casting frightful shadows of squirming tribal dancers onto his cheeks, I mustered all of my remaining upper body strength to lift myself up onto the moon-swing, with a pained cry, because the laceration on my side and the twisted ankle had given me wound fever, and I was struggling not to faint. I made it just in time.
The black fire devoured the lake, red, with voracious hunger, because lakes were not meant to survive in deserts, especially not in the majestically dreary Atacama, and order had to be restored. I held on tight, and I swayed back and forth, like I was little again, while I watched it burn, like Sauron’s eye, until there was nothing left, nothing but me, and the pleasant loneliness, to doze off in, without the insomnia that had kept me awake for so many of the A.B. years.
I met him while I was buying a ticket from Antofagasta to Santiago two days after I’d recovered from the sunstroke. I was fifty pesos short, and he offered to chip in. Then he sat down next to me. 10A and 10B, no air-conditioning, of course, but this time, also no waterish coffee in plastic cups. When the bus set out, he elbow-poked me in the ribs. I giggled, and he touched my head, just like that, to pull a stray straw out of my tangled hair. He didn’t need to say it; I looked like a dishrag. Instead, he sniffed, and then came the voice, the sleepy, tender baritone that sent lazy, languid waves of electricity from my navel to my nose.
“You smell like those unhappy flowers. White magnolias. I used to grow them in my garden in Italy. What’s your name?”
I decided I liked his eyes, the familiar colour of dark honey, which made me think of brown bear cubs lounging on sweet-smelling moss, somewhere in Europe, or maybe Russia – I decided there and then that I had to go to the taiga again.
“They call me the Wanderer.”
The Wanderer Part I and Part II have been published respectively on May 8 and 22, 2014.
The picture is an artwork by Stefania Bonatelli, from her project Zumo de Flores, Italy