COTOM: Chapter One


As of today, I have changed the first chapter back to what it was originally. It doesn't have that first "action scene" that some believe is essential for a book to succeed, but it is now back to its original vision, so the Old Mermaids and I are much happier. Enjoy!

Chapter One

Get the starfish outta your eyes, sister.

—Sister Sheila Na Giggles Mermaid

Myla walked the wash looking for trash in the dirt. She looked for treasure too. One man’s trash was another woman’s treasure. And vice versa, she always said. She carried two bags over her right shoulder. Into the plastic bag, she dropped garbage; into the ruby-colored cloth bag, she put those bits of refuse she believed she could sell on Fourth Avenue, at the Church of the Old Mermaids. It was not a real church. At least not how most people defined that word. It was the space where she put her table, chair, and wares on Saturdays, shine or shine. She called it the Church of Old Mermaids because her mother told her when she was a child that the desert had once been a vast sea. She liked imagining that the mermaids had not dried up when the sea did; they merely changed their attitudes. And maybe their skin and fin-ware.

Myla’s feet slip-slided over the sand as she went around a palo verde whose bare branches stretched out over the wash. Dry rust-colored bean pods dangled from the green twigs, like offerings from the skeletal fingers of a Catrina doll, enticing her to snatch up a couple. So she did. She dropped them into the ruby bag.

“Thank you,” she murmured. Wasn’t about to say she wouldn’t be able to get a nickel for them. Unless she came up with a particularly good story. Like how these pods came from the wash that used to be a river where the Old Mermaids were stranded when the Old Sea began to disappear; or these pods came from a tree hanging over the wash where the Old Mermaids were first stranded, where they finally came to shore, and the first thing they did, these Old Mermaids, was to plant themselves a palo verde, all green, just like Mother Star Stupendous Mermaid’s tail had been, you know, before she had to leave the sea, the river, the wash.

Normally Myla did not take anything organic from the wash to sell. She removed only that which humans made, except for an occasional feather. She knew she could sell the latticed skeletons left by cacti--especially the cholla bones that grayed into exotic desert art--but she did not feel she had the right, not yet. Perhaps after she had lived on the land a bit longer. After all, ten years was only a drop in the proverbial time bucket. Sometimes she asked permission to snag an animal bone or cholla joint which she then stored in a room next to her studio apartment in the modular barn near the Crow house. She was not certain what she was going to do with these bits and pieces of the desert, but she felt as though she was retrieving pieces of long ago dismembered desert creatures. Or sea creatures. One day she would reassemble them.

But now, today, she needed to finish her walk and check on the houses in the Old Mermaid Sanctuary. Gail would be at the Crow house soon to pick her up. Myla was caretaker for the houses and land of five families while the owners were away, which was most of the year. The Wentworths usually came for the week between Christmas & New Year; the Castillos visited most every spring for a couple of months; the Martins and Fords stayed most of the fall, and the Crows usually took up residence October and March. Now in late January none of them were home.

All of the families wanted the houses to look as though they were lived in while they were away, and Myla did what she could to accommodate their wishes. The Crows encouraged her to use any part of their house since she lived on their property. They told her to watch television, swim in the pool, sit in the spa, use the library, or cook in their deluxe kitchen, but she rarely went into the house. Once or twice she had used the kitchen when she needed an extra oven.

She did like sitting by the Crow pool. It was peanut-shaped and a deep dark indigo blue with patches of lighter blue, creating the impression that one had stumbled upon a curvature in the bedrock where a natural spring pooled. The palm tree growing next it, along with other desert flora, helped further this nature fiction. Or maybe it wasn’t a fiction. The house was surrounded by the Sonoran desert. At midday sometimes, Myla sat on one of the lounge chairs and listened to the quiet and watched the cactus wrens hurry along the chest-high earth-colored wall that enclosed the pool area. Or at dusk, she stood at the edge of the pool and listened to the great-horned owl in the palm tree awaken and try to solve its daily identity crisis, “Who? Who?”

She especially liked seeing the mermaid at the bottom of the pool. David Thomas Crow had painted it when his parents drained the pool soon after Myla arrived. The mermaid was beautiful, with black eyes, a peach-colored tail, and tiny multicolored starfish in her wild black hair. She was quite voluptuous and had an uncanny resemblance to Myla, a fact everyone was too polite to mention. Everyone in the Crow family. As soon as the family left that year, Myla showed the mermaid to Theresa, Gail, and George. Theresa and Gail asked her when she had posed for the boy nearly young enough to be her son. George said, “He got the chimmychangas wrong. Yours are more lifelike.” Myla couldn’t really argue with him. He was right. Hers were more lifelike.

Myla started working at the Old Mermaid Sanctuary ten years earlier when she left her husband--or he left her--after she answered an ad in the Tucson Weekly. The owners came to town and interviewed Myla collectively. After talking with her for fifteen minutes, give or take, they offered her the job--pending a reference check. She had to get bonded too. They promised her a monthly stipend, studio, apartment, and use of a car; she promised to care for their land and houses.

She moved in almost immediately. Soon she was walking the wash every day, many times a day. In the beginning she felt a bit like La Llorona, weeping and wailing for her lost children. Only she did not have children. So she wailed for her lost life. Not that she thought about her life. She did not think about much of anything then: She felt. She felt sad, angry, lost, lousy. She felt the sand beneath her shoes and tried to keep her balance so she would not fall left into a prickly pear stand or right into a cholla tree, or the other way around. Sometimes she let David Thomas Crow walk with her. When she cried, he did not tell her everything would soon be all right; he did not tell her to look on the bright side or say time heals all. He never seemed uncomfortable with her sorrow--or anything else about her. Every once in a while he would put his hand on her back, lightly; this gesture steadied and relieved her, either by drying up the tears or causing them to flow more profusely.

She drank too much then. She hadn’t been a drinker before, and she wasn’t one afterward. But for a month or more, she used alcohol as her medicine, like someone with a cough taking cough syrup. That was how she thought about it. Just to stop the hacking ache.

Then one night the Old Mermaids came to her in a dream. They swam the wash, which was filled with sea water, and motioned to her to join them. One of them reached down to the sandy bottom and pulled up an old glass bottle and held it out to her. When she awakened the next morning, she stumbled into the wash and found the same glass bottle--or one that looked like it. Her life changed in that instant. She felt as though she had heard the call of the wild--or the call of the Old Mermaids. The Church of the Old Mermaids was born that morning. She stopped drinking, and David painted the mermaid at the bottom of pool.

David left soon after she stopped drinking, and Myla hadn’t seen him since. His mother, Sarah, gave her updates on him now and then, but Myla did not ask a lot of questions about his life. She remembered that month only vaguely, and she was afraid she might find out she had done something embarrassing to drive him away. Besides, he was out of her life, and she did not like to dwell on the past. That was long gone.

Myla leaned over and picked up a piece of gray metal lying on top of the sand in the wash. It looked like the top half of a shepherd’s staff. She dropped it into the ruby bag and kept walking. She passed several pieces of concrete in the sand. She had not yet figured out how so many blocks of concrete ended up in the wash. Even when the arroyo became a river again--temporarily during the monsoons--concrete could not float. Could it? She supposed the force of water could move just about anything.

She stepped over a mesquite log with an orange plastic rope wrapped around it. She did not feel like unraveling it now. Maybe one day. She had been considering that orange rope for many days now--maybe even years. She shrugged. It must be that no one needed it yet.

The wash split, and she followed the left branch. She had not been here for a while. No horses and few other creatures had traveled this way either, judging from the lack of tracks. She stopped in the shade of an old mesquite. She always overdressed on these chilly mornings. Now the cool blackness of the mesquite felt good. Several prickly pear pads had draped themselves over the mesquite trunk that bent toward the ground a bit before curving up. The prickly pear pads looked wrung out, as though they had been traveling a long distance and had finally succumbed to exhaustion and thirst. The cactus had found a good companion in the mesquite. Very grounded. Rooted. Mesquite had the deepest root system of any tree, she knew. Someone had once found a live mesquite root 160 feet beneath the surface, in a copper mine. Myla put her hand on its trunk. Mesquite trees knew how to hold their ground. Old souls, she thought when she saw one like this, crouched toward the desert floor yet still reaching out to the world around it. Its yellow leaflets appeared almost fluorescent next to its dark branches and trunk.

In the sand near the base of the tree and the prickly pear was a piece of rusty metal; about a foot long and six inches across, it looked vaguely like a skeleton of the push part of a miniature lawn mover. Not that she had seen a mower in a long while. The Wentworths had a square of grassy lawn in the front of their house when Myla first moved into the Old Mermaid Sanctuary. They gave her detailed instructions on how to keep it living and thriving while they were away. She read the instructions and watched each day as the lawn shriveled and then died. She had George pull out the sod and let the desert floor be again. Eventually she talked George into helping her plant some prickly pears, chollas, and a young palo verde. By the time the Wentworths returned, the land looked like desert again. Mr. Wentworth asked her what had happened. She told him, “Putting sod like that on the desert is like putting a bad toupee on a bald man.” He frowned, not understanding. “It covers up his beautiful bald head which was what was attractive about him in the first place,” Myla said. Mr. Wentworth smoothed his hand over his shiny head and nodded. They never mentioned the lawn again.

Myla picked up the piece of metal and slipped it into the ruby bag. “Thank you, Mesquite,” she said.

She walked out of the shade and went to the main artery of the wash. A crow called out. She looked up as it flew over her, its wings whooshing-whooshing against the dry desert air.

“Good morning, crow,” she said. Sometimes she wished she was a crow. At least when she was walking the wash. Crows could spot treasure in the dirt even if they were looking down from the moon.

She looked away from the flying crow and at the ground and saw the metal loop to an earring sticking out of a dent in the sand made up by a horse’s hoof. She reached for it with her cotton gloved fingers and pulled it out of the dirt. Hanging from the bent metal was a tiny red dreamcatcher with a metal feather at its center. She could get a good price for this with the right story, but maybe she would keep it for a bit, to see if anyone had lost it. She slipped it into the left pocket of her pants.

Myla glanced up again. “Thanks, Crow. I owe you.”

The wash continued across the road, but Myla did not follow it. The road marked the end of the Old Mermaid Sanctuary. She turned around, walked a few yards, then started up a path to the Wentworth house. She had memorized the paths to each house, but she never traveled the desert thoughtlessly. It was too prickly for that. Besides, the desert moved. Like a glacier. She was convinced. Well, she shrugged, maybe not exactly like a glacier. Maybe like a slow dance troupe. When the moon came up, the mesquite, palo verde, saguaro, and prickly pear did the two-step. Or maybe yoga. She shook her head. She was getting a bit too fanciful; Gail would say she was spending too much time alone.

Not too much, really.

Myla walked around the outside of the Wentworth house to see if anything was out of place. Her feet crunched over the pebbly dirt. This house looked similar to other houses in the sanctuary, made from adobe or fake-adobe, this one with a tiled roof. A small covey of quails scurried across the dirt drive, whimpering and cooing, reminding Myla--as quail often did--of a group of nuns bustling from sight, worried they might become tainted if they did not hurry, hurry, hurry away.

Myla pulled a ring of keys out of her pocket, searched for the Wentworth key, put it in the lock and turned it. She stepped inside the dark, quiet house and closed the door behind her. She paused in the foyer for a moment and wiped her feet on the mat. She looked down to make certain she was not bringing in any dirt or cactus thorns. Then she walked to the living room and called, “Buenos días! Es Myla.”

A moment later, a five year old girl came running around the corner from the hallway, her arms outstretched, her long black ponytails bouncing on her back. Myla bent over and enveloped the girl in her arms.

“Oh, Lily my Lily,” Myla said in Spanish. “You are the most beautiful flower in this desert. I’ll have to take you home with me and never let you go.”

Lily kissed her daintily on the cheek.

“Ahhh, stingy with the water are we,” Myla said.

Lily turned her cheek to Myla, and Myla gave her a wet kiss. Lily laughed and wiped it away.

“Oh! You don’t want my kisses? Okay. The kiss is on your hand now, so if you want it back, you can touch your cheek any time.”

Lily put both hands up to her cheek and smiled. Her mother walked into the room.

“Hola, Maria,” Myla said. “Cómo estás?” She embraced the thin young woman.

“I am well,” Maria said, running her hands through her short black hair. “Lily had another nightmare.”

“I was in the water,” Lily said. “I couldn’t breathe.”

“We had to cross a river coming here,” Maria explained. “It was higher than we expected. Below her knees, but the current was too strong for her. She started screaming. It was nearly dark. Everyone started running, afraid they’d be caught. She fell and the water grabbed her.” Maria squinted, remembering. “But I got her right away. Didn’t I, Lily?” She looked down at her daughter. “I would never do anything to put her in danger.” She looked at Myla again. Both women knew she had risked her daughter’s life by crossing la frontera and bringing her into the desert. “I couldn’t leave her behind,” Maria whispered.

“Did you eat?” Myla asked.

Lily slipped her hand into Myla’s as they walked into the darkened kitchen.

“We made the oatmeal like you showed us,” Maria said.

Microwaved. Less chance of them catching anything on fire. Myla wasn’t sure how well-versed Maria was with modern kitchen equipment.

“Then I washed the dishes and put everything away,” Maria said. “It is very kind of these people to let me use their house.”

“Yes, well,” Myla said, “tonight we will have dinner at my place, when I get back from the Church of the Old Mermaids. Will you be all right until then? If anything happens, remember you can walk out onto the road and the second house on the right is where I live. There’s a phone in my apartment in the barn. I will leave my door unlocked.”

“I remember,” Maria said. “You showed us.”

“By the way, you can leave these kitchen curtains open if you like,” Myla said. “No one could see you from here.”

“Any news on my husband?”

Myla shook her head. She had discovered Lily and Maria in the desert a few miles from the border several days earlier, after their guia had deserted them. Myla had been searching for items for the Church of the Old Mermaids in a wash that ran through a stand of cottonwoods--huge old silvery-gray trees rising above the dry riverbed like ancient druids--when she heard a child crying. She followed the sound until she found Lily, alone. A few moments later, Maria seemed to appear out of nowhere. She took Lily into her arms and explained to Myla that she was looking for her husband Juan who had come to the United States three months earlier. She had not heard from him since. Could Myla help her, Maria wanted to know. Finding Maria’s husband would be like finding a particular thorn in the desert, Myla thought at the time--and she still thought so--but she did not say that to Maria then or now. Besides, maybe Theresa would find him.

Myla looked from the mother to the child now.

“I need to get going,” Myla said. “I’ll see you both later.”

“Thank you, Myla,” Maria said.

“Don’t go,” Lily said.

Myla crouched down. “I’ll be back. I’ll tell you another story tonight.”

Lily turned her cheek to her. Myla bent over to give her another wet kiss. Lily laughed as though tickled.

Myla left the house. She stood outside for a moment until she heard the door lock behind her. Then she walked down the dirt street to the Martin house. She went around the outside of the building, then inside. All appeared to be as it should, although she needed to take down the Christmas lights sometime before the next holiday. She locked the house up again and walked back across the wash to the Castillo place. It looked as though the javelinas had been trying to dig up something near the palo verde by the master bedroom. No harm done though. Javelinas did what javelinas did. She went inside the house, stood in the semidarkness, then called out,” “Hola! It’s Myla, Ernesto.” No answer.

She walked across the living room and looked out the sliding glass doors at the enclosed patio. Ernesto was lying on one of the chaise lounges in the shade of a tall conifer. He was covered from head to foot. Myla nodded. This was good. He needed the rest. He had gotten sick picking cotton, probably pesticide poisoning. His friends had taken him to the hospital emergency initially, but he wouldn’t go back after the first visit. He was afraid someone would report him to la migra. He had not been able to work for two months, he had no money for rent or food, and hadn’t been getting any better. Theresa heard about him from a friend of a friend and told Myla about his situation. Two weeks at the Old Mermaid Sanctuary and he was almost back to his old self.

Myla opened the sliding glass door and went outside.

Ernesto looked up, took off his sunglasses, and started to stand.

“No need to get up,” Myla said. “You’ve been eating the soup?”

Ernesto stood despite her protestations. He looked far older than his thirty-five years, fragile, his body slightly bent.

“I have been eating your soup, señora,” he said. “It is a miracle soup! You are a miracle worker!”

“Just thank the Old Mermaids,” Myla said.

Ernesto smiled.

“I will be gone until dark,” Myla said. “But we will have dinner at my place tonight. Shall I have Stefan come get you?”

“I can come on my own,” he said.

“Still, wouldn’t his company be nice?”

“That is true,” Ernesto said.

“Until then,” Myla said. “I’m late so I have to go.”

“I will see you out,” he said.

“It’s all right,” she said. But he followed her anyway. They slowly walked to the door together. She said good-bye again, stepped outside, and listened for the door to lock behind her. She hurried down the path to the wash, then headed toward the Crow house.

Cathy and her teenaged son Stefan were at the Ford house, but Myla would not have time to stop there this morning; they would do well on their own. At least she hoped so. She did not normally have this many people at the Old Mermaid Sanctuary--and never anyone except migrants. Until now. Theresa had vouched for Cathy, an old acquaintance of hers who was fleeing an abusive husband. She could not stay with her, Theresa had pleaded, because Theresa was still a newlywed. It would only be a few days, she had promised. It had been ten days so far. Myla was not sure why she had agreed; maybe it was because Theresa never begged and she was so desperate for this second marriage to work. In any case, she had let Cathy and Stefan come to the Old Mermaid Sanctuary.

Myla hurried by the Crow house and empty horse corrals to her apartment on the north side of the barn. She went inside and dropped the plastic bag full of trash in the garbage. She added the contents of the ruby bag to a cardboard box. Then she put that box onto another cardboard box and carried them outside as Gail drove up. Myla waited for the dust to settle, then went to the back of the car. The hatchback opened as Gail got out of the car.

“Good morning,” Myla said.

Gail looked irritated, but she often looked irritated. Myla was convinced she would be a beautiful old woman: her face a network of wrinkles--like arroyos on a mountain--from a lifetime of frowns.

Gail pushed her curly brown-hair out of her eyes and asked, “The table inside?”

“Yep,” Myla said. She put the boxes in the back of the car, then followed Gail into the apartment and picked up two more boxes and carried them to the car. Gail got the table. They packed the car, closed the hatchback, and both got in.

Gail started up the car. “You been rushing around this morning?”

“Of course,” Myla said. Gail turned the car around and drove down the dirt drive. “Saturdays are busy.”

Gail glanced at her. “Someday you’re going to have to take me on one of your walks in the wash, so I can see exactly what you do.”

“Nothing exact about it,” Myla said. “And you know the Old Mermaids like me to walk the wash alone.”

“Yeah, right.” Gail turned out onto the road, and they headed for the main road that would, eventually, lead them into town. “I’d think you’d have all the alone time you’d need out here.”

“You’d think,” Myla said.



kerrdelune said...

Kim my sweet, I am rereading COTOM this evening with a lovely pot of tea and loving it all over again.

Kim Antieau said...

I'm so glad, my dear Cate! Did you notice the Old Buck Old Mermaid in the collage?

kerrdelune said...

You bet I did, and I was so happy to see both the old buck and the mermaid there. Hunting season started this week so the big buck and I had a conversation on the weekend - he is going to lay low until hunting is over for the year. (I told him where the hunters were going to be.)