Desert Story

A work of fiction

by Karl Oman

I went to this writer’s paradise when I was 20. I’d been rolling along before that, trying all sorts of things. I was out in the Mojave, sleeping in my car, burning tires at night in the cold, when I saw the sign. It pointed off down a dirt track, white paint, gilt letters. “Writer’s Paradise,” it said. I had to go and see if it lived up to the billing. The place wasn’t far, a palace in the desert, something out of the Arabian Nights. High turrets, horseshoe arches, a golden dome. Turned out they were wonderful people. Gave me a suite to stay in, good meals, everything was taken care of. Strangest thing. 

That first day I went for a walk around the yard. There was hardly a soul out, all the guests were working, shut up in their rooms writing away. The grounds had the look of an English garden, there were hedges, stone fountains. A man was mowing the grass. I was admiring the hydrangeas, wondering how they got them to grow in the desert, when a face poked out from the foliage. It was a girl. She had dark hair, the look of a cherub, teeth sharp as a saw. Came right up to me, asked me my name. Hers was Uma. She’d been dreaming away, the garden was her favorite place to dream. Her dress had flower prints all over it, she wore a sweater, leather shoes. Had the look of someone I’d known before, though I couldn’t place it. She told me she’d see me at the seminars, she had to run, write down all the things she’d seen while she was sleeping. Dreams passed quick, there was no other way to remember them.

 These seminars, part of the deal was that you had to go. They dealt with writing, the nature of it, what really was going on when you wrote. A woman called Chief Winona ran it all, wore a headdress, a big, strong-built lady. She took a hands-off approach. No instructors, no hierarchy, everyone gave a piece of their mind. I’d never seen anything like it. These people acted like writing was carpentry. Precision, artistry, craftsmanship....those were the virtues. Writers were the preservers of language, curators of civilized thought. I’d always figured there was nothing to it, you just took a pen and some paper and you were off. The ideas were different here. It nearly opened my eyes, but I fought against it, held them shut. 

Uma was true to her word, came to every seminar. She was in her element there, all the talk of art, the high notions. I didn’t hold it against her. That girl, she had a presence. She’d read these unbelievable stories, these tales of dancing champagne bottles, boats made of molasses. The material she used came from a deep well. Strange, bittersweet water, but it satisfied the thirst. Her heart was in it, the person she was shone through. 

 I wrote a letter to her, just to fill the time. It didn’t say much, only hinted at my feelings. I slipped it below the crack in her door, went away quick as I could. That night I was reading by the pool and a chair slid up by my side. It was her. We sat out in the cold and spoke awhile, no one came around. The mist was lit up by lamps that stayed on all night. She talked about this philosophy she had, told me about the clouds. Her face was flushed from the chill. I fell in love. I’m not afraid to say it. The kind that turns your body into a husk, that makes you starve. Never mind that it doesn’t last long, leaves only ashes. Everything turns to ash sooner or later. 

It had gotten late, the stars were going to sleep, the pool was phosphorescent. I didn’t want to leave her. Asked her to tell me one of her stories. She knew a few by heart, recited one aloud to me. It was about a river that never ran dry, never froze over. It only went on, past where anyone could see. There were some who tried to swim it, but they were swept off, never seen again. She believed in the place, it lived inside her like a ghost. The words floated off into the air, left us in a silence. Her cheeks were damp. 

After that I saw differently. The shades were pulled open, bright rays everywhere. I told her everything, wanted her to know all of it. Wove together the threads of my story, drew her attention away from the frayed ends. Uma spun her yarns too. Nights were spent like that, talking, living in dreams. There were no hours, not a taste of sleep. Imagine all this, after being alone in the Mojave. Twists and turns with every step.

The arc of our time together descended after that, fell quick as it had risen. Uma knocked early one day, asked if I’d like to skip seminar. I agreed, didn’t think twice. Not until we’d made it past the palace walls did I ask what she intended. Hunting for pearls, she said. My faith in her was complete, I didn’t question it. Under strange cacti, in the red dirt, we searched, kept our eyes to the chase. But there wasn’t a pearl to be found, not even an oyster shell. Even then my devotion was unwavering. The change took place in her. I never had the gift of clairvoyance, never learned to read the language of the body, but there was a new thought in her that day, it was clear. Walking back, neither of us spoke. At parting, there was cold in her smile. That was the beginning of our falling out. It was a natural process, doesn’t merit much description. The façade cracked up, the facts of our lives emerged. Till then we’d dealt in fictions. 

I realized later who Uma had reminded me of that day in the garden. There’s a statue in the place I’m from, a memorial by the harbor built to remember all the lives lost at sea. You drown, or get caught up in a winch, and they engrave your name in noble typeface. Above the list of dead is a tall figure, a maiden cast in bronze. Eyes like pearls, a melancholy look, classical features that face into the wind. No resemblance to Uma if you want the truth. Far too reverent, not enough pluck. But there was something in common between them, no mistake.

I remember the talk she and I had at the end. We were sitting out by the palace walls, it was early. She told me about this velvet room she’d dreamt up. No furniture, no paintings, empty of everything, just walls and floor, colored deepest red. Not a soul inside. Looked at me after she said it. I didn’t like the idea, didn’t want to understand, didn’t want to see. I told her what I thought, said it wasn’t for me. Couldn’t help myself. She looked away, didn’t meet my eyes, took a drag from her cigarette. Then she asked me why. I wasn’t expecting it, couldn’t explain. I’ve never been any good at talking. I said there were people starving in the world, people on their deathbed, and a velvet room didn’t do them any good. I could see her mind working away while I spoke. She didn’t say much, just that she was tired. We said goodnight, went back to our rooms.

After that, I hardly saw her. Not by any choice of mine, our paths just didn’t cross. It made me uneasy, wary. At the seminars we met, but she was cold. I felt it, cornered her one day outside the seminar room. Her eyes looked past, towards someplace new. Told me her heart had stopped being in it. Said it plainly, matter of fact. There was no doubt. After that I went to my bed, pulled the shades closed. Falling the whole time. That’s what you get for building a house on clouds.

There were ghosts in my sleep, my thoughts grew near the mad frontiers. It was a new kind of sorrow, there was a violence to it. Something in me gave way. I couldn’t write, couldn’t think. The memories escaped mostly. I stopped going to the seminars, stayed in my room. Things went on like that for a while. Finally, Chief Winona came up to see me. I was lying in bed, muttering away to myself, when she walked in the door. Hands on her hips, the big bust, an imposing figure. Told me I had to leave, they didn’t tolerate this kind of thing. It was a writer’s paradise after all, no one was allowed to stay if they didn’t write. There wasn’t any fight left in me, I packed my bags, got everything ready to go. Opened the window, felt the Mojave cold in my face, saw past the palace walls, all the space, the wintry moon. 

Then I got this idea. It really stirred me up, got the cogs turning again. There was a story in my head. I only had the night, the Chief was coming through the next afternoon to make sure I was gone. I turned on the desk lamp. It put out a cold light, but there was no other to work in. I took a few sheets of paper and sat down with a pen. The writing came fast, I was seeing in pictures, not words. It had never happened like that before, not in all my life. There had been forebodings of it, shadows, but never the sheer energy itself. 

I stayed up all night, wrote till there was sun. It was all I could do. After it was finished, I fell onto my bed, slept for an hour. Then I went to seminar. The Chief wasn’t happy to see me, but she let me take a seat. I saw Uma across the room looking aloof, distant. The seminar began. A few of the others read stories first, then came my turn. I could hardly talk, but got through it all somehow. It was a shock to see the reaction. The Chief got this raging, twisted look. My eyes tried to find Uma, but she was gone. Fled out the door. The Chief was screaming terrible things, a voice that cut like slivers of glass. I left, went looking for Uma, didn’t look back. She wasn’t going to want to see me, but I didn’t care, I was dying, really coming apart. Life or death. I made it to her room, saw the open door. A letter from her waited there on the bed. All it said was goodbye, written in all capitals, a large crooked font. The eeriest handwriting. A rope of white, shining fibers hung down from the window. 

I left right then, climbed down the rope before the Chief could find me. Broke into a car parked outside the palace and drove off. Kept on till I hit the sea and foundered beneath the waves. The engine stalled, the cab filled up with the ocean. I rolled down the window, swam tothe shallows. Made it onto the beach and looked back. A slick of oil gathered on the surface of the water, I watched it spread, smelled the diesel in the sea foam. Then I walked away, started life anew. It’s all I knew how to do. 

 There’s a sickness...not love, I’d been waiting, hoping for that, it came and went. This disease isn’t so easy to explain. Last night I dreamt of her, Uma, dreamt we were at the seashore. It was a picnic, we had bought oysters, packed a bottle of wine. The sun didn’t look so angry in the sky, it was dusk. Uma started pulling the meat from a shell, then suddenly she stopped, laughed, held a small orb up to her eye. Of course it was a pearl. The dream ended there. I woke on the beach, the tide had come in and drenched me, there was no one around. I was afraid, because I’d fallen asleep in bed that night, didn’t know how I ended up by the water. The sky was dark, unbearably dark, and the shore was glowing. I thought an algae bloom had washed in, and I reached down for a handful of sand. But there was no algae mixed in it, the sand fell away through my fingers, and left behind the source of all the light. It was awful, you see. There were pearls in my hand.