Phyllis Barber

EXCERPT from THE DESERT BETWEEN US

(University of Nevada Press, 2020)

In her nightgown and worn slippers, Sophia makes her way through the darkness, through the everlasting sand, through the large and small pebbles and nettled bushes. After Weston sighs into sleep, she has gone outside to find peace in the quiet night. On her favorite rock where she can sit. She is not far from her son, ever, but tonight, she needs to be outside. To sit on this warm rock which gives her solace. She needs the companionship of the desert, its contours, its silence. She needs to ponder the web she has spun. She needs to think about direction. Weston is safe in sleep’s arms. God will watch over him.

The night is cooler than the day but for now the rock still holds the sun’s heat. She looks up into the sky and sees a plethora of stars, more than usual because the moon is a crescent rather than a full round. A full moon shines almost too brightly in the desert sky, making every little thing, every path by whoever passed through, clear. It makes the desert alive with shadows, both long and short, wide and thin. But tonight, the moon is pale, and millions of stars wander, wherever they come from, whatever they might be. Some constellations, but mostly stars with no name, with no purpose other than to shine in the night and make humans know how small they are. She is so insignificant. So small. Only one of so many beings, and yet she has an incontrovertible allegiance to her singular life.

She did lie to Charles about his son who is not his son. That is the truth. A bald lie, even, though she’s tempted to reassure herself, to repeat to herself, that she knew nothing for sure. Nothing for sure. But she needs to be truthful with herself especially, once and for all. Her son, Weston, favors Geoffrey Scott. He is her souvenir, what a funny word, of that day, that time in the red rocks. Heaven forbid, she could not tell Charles how she felt so alive in her rebellion. The irregularities of the rocks had meant everything because life was not meant to be predictable or dictated. The time she spent with Geoffrey Scott had freed her from her sense of being stuffed into a tight stocking of third wife and a rigid person who always cooperates. But whatever that was, tonight she is simply full of gratitude for the quiet beauty of the stars and the small sliver of moon. The solitude. Thankful for her beautiful son who lies sleeping on a blanket on the floor of the house that will no longer be her home after tonight.

There is movement on a nearby hill. Slow motion. A strange shadow. It reminds her of Adababa though the camel has been gone for a good while now. But there, on the outskirts of St. Thomas, something has now stopped and is standing on a hill. In profile. Its head high. Its feet buried in the sand. Maybe what she is seeing is the stuff of dreams. Something caught between the real and the imagined.

She watches the silhouette move higher on the hill, meandering in the half light of the night. It nibbles at leaves and branches. It must be a camel. Adababa even, if her eyes are seeing the truth. Except, she notices, the camel wanders with a slight limp. What has happened since the last time she saw him? But even as she asks herself this question, she remembers that this desert is where the camel lives. His geography. His home. This is where he eats, drinks, defecates, and wanders. Where the sun heats up the sky and the ground beneath his feet, where the landscape seems painted and imagined, where flash floods change the shape of things, where the land seems both empty and full at the same time.

As he wanders on the hill, he seems at ease with the seasons, the moon, and the sun. Night and day. He seems perfectly at home. At peace with the world. But if someone were to look at this landscape with naked eyes, they would most likely not see this camel who blends with the subtle colors or the monotony of the landscape nor would they believe what they saw anyway. A camel. She would wager that most humans do not understand what Adababa would and could do for them. Attah Allah. God’s gift. Geoffrey Scott’s words.

Adababa crests the hill. He pauses, tilts his head skyward, his mouth open, swallowing the sky which has become a cup—pouring itself down, giving all it has to give. Sophia forces her eyes wide open. She cannot see the camel’s matted hair—the coat it is probably shedding in chunks by now—or smell its musty smell, but she can watch him holding a pose against the moonlight, almost as if he were standing for a painting. The profile. The camel. The same one she rode behind Geoffrey Scott, sitting at the front, feeling its thick coat with one hand. The animal is regal in the moonlight.

Endless stars shower their light, and she reminds herself that she was gone for a long time. Gone to Willard about a year. And besides, she had told Geoffrey Scott she was not interested in continuing anything between them. She’d been almost hostile in her shame, in her confusion, the closer they got to St. Thomas that day. She wishes she had not been so blinded by her devotion and that she had been able to see his worth even though he is an outsider. He is still a person. A child of God, even if he’s not interested in people who are busy building the Kingdom, the ones more than attached to the world after this one, ready to shake the dust from their shoes after someone is unresponsive to their message. But then she remembers she believes some of these things, too. She believes in God, in “the presence” Wordsworth has written about.

She looks back to the hillside. She thinks too much, that she knows. Always thinking. Maybe it is time for her to spring into action and ride Adababa into a new life. Go retrieve Weston from his sleep and ride into the forever sky. But Adababa has disappeared over the hill. Gone. Vanished. And she cannot keep from wondering if he was ever there in the first place or if she has needed him to be there in the moonlight to help her beyond this moment in time.

“Adababa,” she whispers. “Animal of mystery. Animal so exotic, and yet animal so faithful. Thank you for appearing to me.”

As she stands—her slippers half-filled with sand, her nightgown untwisting and falling into straightness—she leaves a pocket of extra warmth on her rock that is cooling with the change of temperature. She knows, whether or not the camel is real, she will not escape into a faint blue line on a horizon with him. She has a life to live. A child to raise. Sisters to aid. But Adababa will always be a reminder. A vision even. She must remember to speak the truth, whatever that is, to herself and to everybody else. She must remember not to let fear be her ruler or her guardian. This she believes as she traipses back to this home for the last time—through the sand. She watches the desert sky spin with stars.


Phyllis Barber, Writing for Peace AdviserPhyllis Barber has published nine books, including THE DESERT BETWEEN US, which will arrive in the world between covers in 2020 (University of Nevada Press). She won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction for HOW I GOT CULTURED: A NEVADA MEMOIR, and has been awarded in 2016 for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters by the Association for Mormon Letters and the Smith-Pettit Foundation. She has also been inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame and is the mother of four amazing sons.

 


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