THIRST
by
Beneitha Trayne

 

The big yellow dog scratched behind one ear. Stretched out his long muscles in the sun and yawned a great toothy yawn, then went back to sleep.

* * *

The woman sat up and shook her head. Looked around. Cactus. Rocks. Parched scrub. The hot white horizon shimmering as she squinted, trying to make out where she was.

She tried her arm, then her other arm. Shook out a bit. Stood up. Noticed she was barefoot. Noticed the rattlesnake that had been cut in two by one of a pair of tire tracks that started a few feet from her and went on as far as she could see.

She felt something crawl down her face, creep slowly down her temple and cheek, and a panic rose inside her. She slapped at the unseen bug and realized it was only a trickle of sweat.

Last night. She couldn't remember a thing about it. She stepped forward, away from the tracks. Gently tested her foot on the soil. The ground was full of sharp little yellow stones that hurt. She thought she could see something scurry by, a little too quickly to catch or name.

Her ribs hurt. So did her groin. And she felt sticky, and her eye throbbed. She touched her lip, experimentally. It was swollen and sore. Oh god, something awful must have happened. Better not to think about it. She decided to take inventory. Okay. I don't have a car or a purse or my shoes. What do I have? She realized she was wearing a sweater. Too hot. She pulled it off and wiped her face.

She took a few steps, concentrating on yielding to the implacable earth, trying to let her feet glide over the soft parts of the soil and rest lightly on the rocks. But it hurt. And it was obviously going to hurt more if she kept going.

A sudden tug hit her stomach so hard she thought it would knock her down. I'm hungry, she realized, and as soon as the thought appeared in her mind it crowded out all her other thoughts and became an incandescent shouting scream inside her: I'm hungry I'm thirsty my feet hurt I'm in the middle of goddamned nowhere and whoever knows I'm here wants me dead!!!! But the scream collapsed like a bubble and became a hollow emptiness instead. She lay down on the ground.

And then she saw it. The snake. Of course. If they'd brought her last night or this morning, the snake would still be good. She knew just how it would taste, its warm flesh filling her mouth, her teeth tearing muscles from the long backbone. Then, thinking of the things that shimmered and scurried below her, realized she wasn't the only one in the desert with a hunger.

"The snake is mine," she said out loud, and surprised herself because she'd done so. Her voice sounded strange in the silence. But she liked it, and said it again: "The snake is MINE!"

And it gave her a curious joy to own it like that, to own it because she herself had declared it was so.

She carefully picked her way back to the tire tracks, avoiding the big rocks but landing heavily on the small ones, ignoring the pain. She got to the snake and brushed away the small bugs that already surrounded it.

"THE SNAKE IS MINE!" she said, for a third time, and this time she laughed. And she picked up its tail and noticed that it fell away from the rest of the body where the tire had smashed it flat, and without stopping, without thinking, she held it up and tore a big chunk out of it with her teeth.

* * *

The third day. Or maybe the fourth.

She felt the sun pound her forehead. A steady beat, like a metronome.

The pain tore through her shins with every step. Her heels stung where they'd cracked open on the second day, before she'd lost track of the days.

The coppery sweet taste of snake blood had long ago turned sour in her mouth. She sucked her cheeks, trying to make moisture, but the moisture wouldn't come. Even the blood she finally drew tasted dry.

Water! She'd promised herself she wouldn't think of water.

* * *

Darryl always felt dry at about 2 p.m. Time to get into the big blue pickup truck and head into town to get three pints. Never more than three pints, because that would be like an admission that he needed it.

Except he did buy four pints on Thursdays, because Sunday the liquor store was closed. So what could you do?

He looked around and pulled on his pants. His mouth was full of dust. Yep, time for that trip into town. Maybe pick up something fresh for dinner too. Maybe some eggs. Hadn't had a good fried egg in weeks. He whistled to Byron and opened the door of the truck.

* * *

Bats swooped low, missing her hair by inches. Scorpions crawled along her legs, first a few, then more, then a whole army of grayish bodies poised like warriors with their stingers held high. And the waters, always the waters, shimmering just beyond her reach, receding whenever she moved near.

* * *

Smiling while they patted her ass, juggling dirty plates, hoping for 20 percent but grateful to get 15, thinking always how much her feet hurt. Blood seeped through the cracks, even now, hours or maybe days since she'd taken off the wrapping in hopes they'd heal. She touched the blood with her forefinger, smeared it with her thumb, and started to doze off again.

* * *

"Catch this," yelled Skip, and threw the football at her. She'd never played football and they knew it, and suddenly five of the biggest boys in seventh grade were piled on top of her, squeezing out all her breath, hurting her. Her hair was tangled in the mud. The football slipped from her fingers and she rolled over and curled into a ball, sobbing. "What a baby!" murmered Skip, kicking her lightly with his toe.

* * *

She sat with her head resting on her hands like a child, as though listening to a story, wondering at the object in the distance. It came closer.

* * *

Younger now, naked and smeared with cold cream, standing on the small rug in her mother's bathroom, fluffing her hair and mimicking an ad she'd seen on TV: "I never use soap. Lakeland makes me so much more beautiful" in a high falsetto voice just like grownup women used. Her mother walking in and laughing. "For god's sake, don't let your father see you like this!"

* * *

The truck bounced and jolted in the dust. "Hey, Byron!" called Darryl. The dog pulled its head back inside the cab. "Wanna see if Maudie's got a steak bone set aside?" Byron thumped his tail once on the vinyl seat. Darryl turned the wheel.

* * *

Finally it sank in. A truck. She sat up.

Tried to stand, but couldn't. Put her legs together and smoothed back her hair. Practiced a grateful smile that made her lips crack open even more. Raised her arm and waved.

Once, twice.

It was all she could do.

* * *

Byron saw her gesture, and thumped his tail on the seat in response. Once, twice. He barked.

"Good boy," said Darryl, absentmindedly. He hadn't seen a thing. "Let's go get you that bone." He rubbed the dog's ears, then turned the wheel, heading away from the woman, toward Maudie's.

* * *

"Are we there yet?" she asked. "Almost," said her mother. "I can't wait," she said.
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