Those bits of light bite so harshly on flesh- exposing the skin so well, make it look like a desert plane. All those cracks along the highways, the sand rolling along like a dehydrated fog. All the scars the land collects over time, all the water it seeps into the earth in clumps of dirt. Skin is not as delicate as in the dark; the shadows pull the flesh to sleep with potions and whispers and blackness. There is nothing to see, yet it is imagined as smooth. That desert plane looks flat barren, no cracks and sand rolling along. No scars and water collecting inside of the dirt. The funny thing about the light that bites so harshly on that flesh, is that it creates these shadows. Little pockets of darkness to make our skin not look so diseased. We can focus on both, and balance the light and dark. Looking so human, but not so human at all. Or not- a desert, full of creatures and sand and desperation.
The lizards scuttling along my knees are my brother’s carelessness when he carried me on his back and I slipped between his arms. The pavement on the highways are the weeks I spent in the hospital after splitting my head open when I was nine and I fell out of bed. The tumbleweeds blowing across my hips so silently are signs of the years of puberty I endured and cried over endlessly. The sandblasts covering my face are my neglect for personal hygiene and my lack of interest in holding another face close to mine again.
I’m proud of my brother’s love for me and how he made me tough. I’m proud that I didn’t scream or cry on the way to the hospital. I’m proud that I am a woman but I do not let my shape become who I am. I’m proud that I don’t let anyone closer.
I am a goddess of golden sands, ragged cactus laughs and twelve-hour sunshine. For myself, and only that.
In my bathroom mirror, with the lightbulbs bright, I am reminded. I see the light stinging my flesh and telling my stories. I see it in the man’s sunglasses across from me on the bus, through windows and the police car’s side mirrors across the street. The light shines and my self is exposed. But to everyone else, the shadows are there too. All I ever see is the light because all I ever look at is the light. But everyone else watches my self as a whole with the shadows included, not tearing it into bits to read. That is only for myself. Not the man whistling to my chest and legs. He doesn’t know their stories, he only sees the way the shadows fold around my clothing. That’s all he’ll ever know. Same as my mother, though I have seen her own deserts.
They’re carved explicitly in her arms- not even the darkness can consume them. A passion so deep that the night loves it too. Her opiates are all she needs, not my stories or hers. They’re only for me. She hides her purple eyes and her purple veins from me, because she thinks that she can hide them as well as I do, but her weakness takes over too easily.
My poppies bloom underneath cactus bones, between crooked street corners. I don’t let any light shine where needles prick, not even for myself. The alleyways where I hide are purple satin skies spread low across the perfectly smooth skin. No mirrors around, no bits of light to illuminate my desert. It’s dangerous, to be so exposed. But at the same time, all anyone sees is shadows then. Some nights I’ll end up in a dirty mattress on the floor, not mine but a man whose face I can’t see with a name I don’t bother to ask for. We can’t see each other, only the shadows. There are no scars or hollow eyes. As exposed as I feel, so naked between the stiff sheets, there is nothing to fear. I hold no secrets on top of my skin, no sins to bear to the world on a sun-bleached cross. He doesn’t have to know why I called him over while he was walking or why I grabbed his thighs. And I don’t have to know why he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me up his apartment stairs. All I know is the way those shadows make me feel: shameful and sick. All I need is how the light looks on my skin in those bathroom lights when I’m alone.
The one thing the Indians never tell you about the desert, are how many bones are buried in the ground. You can’t ever see them, no matter how hard you look and how much light is biting at your skin. Those bodies underneath my flesh are the souls I do not wish to conquer. There is no sense of sacred between them- a quick burial with no remorse. I fight them down, but with each pulse they breathe upwards. They are not the stories I wish to remember. They are the stories I try to repress. In the shadows, they lurk sometimes, and the man who whistles at me and my mother and the man behind the sunglasses can catch waves of the unmarked graves.
My whole right arm is full of skeletons for the man who ran away with a bottle in one hand, and a twenty dollar girl in the next. My father’s abuse of alcohol and children hurt everything except him. The way he tucked my brother and me in too late at night, which drove my mother to her poppy dens didn’t give him any remorse. The other arm is for the boy I picked at flowers for. Some of his bones line my hips and fall in between my own bones- he meant to much to me, for no good reason. He didn’t ever love me back, he loved the way my fingers bled underneath his boots and the way I shouted at him to stop. He was the only boy who made me afraid: afraid to cry, afraid to feel upset, afraid to think of him. His skeletons between my desert and my veins still make me taste blood. The bottoms of my feet are covered in the bodies buried in shallow, shallow graves. They refuse to rot, they feel alive. Hit by cars when the sun was too bright and dragged off of the highway with some handfuls of dirt thrown to cover them. Those are for the boy who loved me. He loved me and loved me and loved me, no matter how ugly I was. He said the way my words came out were the reason he was living, but all I ever told him was how much I hated him. He said he loved the way I smiled at him, but all I ever did was laugh when he tripped and scraped his chin and palms. He said I was always there for him, but I ignored his calls and always said I was too busy to see him after work. He shot himself between his teeth, the same teeth that I made fun of for being too crooked. I didn’t go to his funeral or read the note he left me. I didn’t miss him until I realized I was the reason he was dead.
I bury my father’s abuse and my love for the boy I picked at flowers for and the boy who loved me even though I was ugly towards him. They’re all underneath and between the stories I wish to keep with me. The parts of the desert Indians forget to tell you about are forgotten for a reason. They are not the things I see in the mirror. I do not see my shame when light shines too brightly and bites my flesh, I see my desert. A desert worth remembering and worth keeping on the surface for me, and only me, to see. Those graves are not even for me, they’re for no one.They reach out into the shadows to torment and abase, ridicule and mock- they destroy me slowly until all I have are those bits of light that bite so harshly on my flesh- that expose my desert plane’s sandy cracks and animals, but never my shame and my secret, rusty graveyards.
Hailey Hartford is a student at Full Sail University. She has published poetry to the Pulp Zine, and flash fiction to Apocrypha and Abstractions and Linguistic Erosion.