“East of Chula Vista”
by Samantha Henderson
Fine ash falls like night snow on the front steps and coats the beater truck, and I’ll be cleaning out black grit from my cupboards for weeks. The smell of woodsmoke — sharp mesquite and the tangy musk of oak — fills the air, and the moon is huge on the horizon. Squat and full: the color of old dried blood. This morning the Santa Anas beat the palms to a frenzy. All night I listened to them whipping the air, whipping each other, and now their fronds lie in tatters. It’s quiet now but by morning time the ghost wind will come back, howling like La Llorona for her murdered children.
I rock in the bentwood chair on the porch and wait. I know about the bodies in the arroyo, in the mesquite ash between the charred trunks of the live oaks. The grass beneath the mesquite had grown long in winter rains and was shriveled dry by the summer heat. Fire had crisped it quickly, and the oaks were dense hard wood, old fuels, burning long and hot and all-consuming.
Eventually they all come to me like homing pigeons, those unlucky ones who die in the unforgiving desert, short water or caught out at night with no fire and not enough of them to huddle together to keep warm, not thinking how cold the badlands get in the middle of the night with nothing to keep in the day’s heat. They come to me at dusk, hollow-eyed and bewildered to my front yard, all of them. They stand, wavering in the moonlight, waiting for me to let them go.
Like some others this side of Chula Vista I keep gallon jugs of Arrowhead, canned food, and blankets and clothes sometimes in a shed half a mile from my place. I’m not an altruist, mind, I’m not one of those Holy Roller humanitarian types that plant those blue tanks, water tanks, out there with the flags and refill them every week.
I just don’t want them knocking up my shack. I like to be left alone.
Except sometimes some folks knock holes in those plastic blue tanks, and let the water drain into the thirsty ground, and sooner or later those hollow-eyed, puzzled people will confront me under the stars, days after the Holy Rollers or the border guard find their bodies, jaws locked open to the sun, mouth and eyes crawling with flies.
There’s the pollos whose coyotes, less merciful than La Migra, decide are easier to dump in the waste than deliver to San Diego. Or maybe they’re left to boil in the back of a truck. There’s hikers sometimes, who didn’t pay attention when the signs at the ranger station said take water, walk in company, don’t leave the trail: some still have their backpacks with their empty water bottles dangling from a strap. The desert is nothing soft, despite the way the evening light falls across the hills, red and yellow and black; despite the golden hour – the desert will kill you fast or slow and never care and we forget that simple truth sometimes, until realization come much too late.
Sometimes it takes years for them to find me – the girl, for example, missing for two years from a Tijuana day trip, finally came, a dark stain down her shirtfront, hair hanging over her face like she was shy and tired.
That bothered me, how long it took her. I borrowed a trail horse from my next-over neighbors a couple miles over the ridge, and went looking for her. Camped out two nights and sat by a dying fire through dusk and dark, seeing if she’d come. But no sign, ’til she came to the porch months later. Maybe it’s the house that attracts them. I bought it sight unseen, needing nothing more than shelter and a place away from the noise city folk make about their business, and it suits me well enough, most times. But I didn’t bargain on the night traffic.
Her I told like I tell the rest: “You can go now. You won’t find your way back to where you were so you might as well go forward.” And she stared at me a long time through her dark hair, and I waited with her until she realized the truth of it, and with a dusty swirl and the clatter of dried oak leaves over gravel she was gone.
Sometimes I have to tell them twice, sometimes they come back a second night, rarer still a third, but they all go in the end.
This night I wait until the stars are hard and crystal in the sky before they come: two men and a boy, maybe ten years old, with the smell of smoke still on them. The bodies were too charred to identify, said the police, but they did know one was a child. One man keeps his hand on the boy’s shoulder; I wondered if he was his father. The other could be uncle, cousin, stranger. It didn’t matter. They were all family now.
“Go,” I tell them, and the boy looks confused. It’s usually the children that don’t understand. The father’s grip tightens on his shoulder and he bends as if to speak in his ear and they’re gone, all three, the ash falling where they stood a second before.
My feet are getting cold but I wait, because the police said there was a car in that arroyo, its paint blistered off and a body inside, burnt but recognizable. A Hispanic male, mid-twenties, and no pollo, this one. A thick wad of Americano twenties in his jeans. Perhaps he’ll find me tonight, so I wait.
Orion is high overhead by the time he comes. He’s handsome, his fancy jeans are pressed, his shirt crisp and white. A Stetson is pushed to a jaunty angle back of his head, he’s still wearing his sunglasses. He comes to the foot of the steps and waits, impatient, like I’m a valet taking to long to fetch his ride.
“You got greedy, and stupid, pollero,” I say. “Robbed your chickens and made sure they couldn’t talk, burnt the arroyo so they couldn’t be traced. But you didn’t think about the speed of fire when grass and mesquite touch off: it must’ve raced up the gorge like a flash flood. You couldn’t get the car started in time, or maybe it stalled.”
Still he waited. Maybe he doesn’t remember. I lean forward in the rocker. “I’m not letting you go, coyote. Stay in the arroyo, stay forever and howl between the stumps. Forever for you the smell of charr. Never for you the newborn leaves. Never for you heaven and home.”
I can’t see anything behind the sunglasses: he stares at me as if he didn’t hear. Then he scuffs the toe of his vaquero boot silently in the gravel, turns away, and walks, good living and arrogance still in his step, back to the arroyo.
No one else will come tonight but I sit for a long time, until Orion rotates and sets. It is very cold tonight.
There are rumors that those people, those angry people who punch holes in the water tanks will try a new tack. Some say they’ve been hiking out there with containers of anti-freeze.
The ghost wind blows tomorrow.
Samantha Henderson lives in Southern California. Her fiction and poetry has been published in Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and Lone Star Stories, and her novel Heaven’s Bones was released in 2008.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish