Desert – Mary Corbin

Desert – Mary Corbin

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. After a yearlong, open-ended road trip originating from their Oregon home, the adventure startlingly halted, pivoted, redirected. The early March uncertainty extended their stay indefinitely. “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 secured a temporary abode, an uncertain home for a fraction of the cost it would normally cost. Their usual means of living had vanished. 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. 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, inhaling a deep affinity for this place, a mysterious karmic connection as though she was always meant to be here.

Surfacing, a memory of long ago, camping near here with her then husband on their westward migration to California. She’d woken up and climbed out of the tent to the cold, cold morning on the hillside. A cottontail scurried by. She caught sight of her husband down below taking photographs with his new camera and talking with an old timer camping in his pick-up. She watched as her husband turned and waved. Shedding the Indiana dust, she remembered how she had felt squarely in the west at that moment. The rising sun alerted the dry, cold morning around her, rousing her own spirit to dawn.

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 she was pretty happy to be “stuck” here and did not feel the impetus to do or 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. 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 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 a 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, adding to the otherworldly quality of this place, Shana’s place in the world.

*************

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.

*************

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 samskaras were the karmic grooves 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, unlike the vinyl record, we could buff out the grooves and scratches with better actions. 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.

Raven sauntered up to Shana with a new haircut. Shana’s hand dropped the book into the basket nonchalantly. “I found us some great books to read on the beach in Mexico,” Shana said of the other works beneath the red cover. “Hey, your hair looks great! Ready to get out of here?”

*************

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.

Author Bio
Mary Corbin is a writer and artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her approach is one from the heart, seeking connection to the global community. Whether in words on a page or paint on a canvas, she aims for strong narrative and relatable characters and experiences. Mary seeks common ground by capturing a simple moment, thought, or gesture of the ordinary, while suggesting the mysterious layers that lie beneath the surface. This contemplation is her constant source material.

One Reply to “Desert – Mary Corbin”

  1. This is a touching story, wrought in bittersweet, melancholic tones of deeply lived personal history about finding oneself, recalibrating to the music of one’s soul, the beat and heartbeat of a distant drummer. Just beautifully told.

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