Thirst by Phoebe Tsang
Coyote can’t get the women out of his mind: how they stood waist-deep in the river, long hair skimming ripples cast by grazing fingers, the hint of buttocks beneath the surface, smooth and tawny as sun-warmed sand—so inviting, his toes curl.
The first three times Coyote threw his eyeballs up into the joshua tree, they came back. The fourth was lifetimes ago.
“Eyes,” Coyote hollers, cajoles, bribes. “If you come back, I’ll take you down to the river where the women bathe; we’ll go to the movies every night.”
Eyes don’t listen. Who’d blame them? They’ve got the best seats in the house. That view across scarred rock, mangy with cheatgrass tufts, south to Indio and that lakeside ghost town with the fairground past, dead fish and wrecked ships among the algal blooms—the stuff of man-made dreams.
Sunset turns the desert blood red then blood black. Night falls fast in these parts, faster each day.
Coyote reaches to swab the flies from his eyes, yelps as paws snag and rip his empty sockets. Easy to forget: the past is a cutout, shot full of holes.
It feels like yesterday that the world was newborn. Coyote had never seen a woman before. He followed them back from river to campfire-side, watched from behind a boulder as they assumed their eagle feathers and turquoise charms.
While they were sleeping, Coyote snuck up and stole one of their cubs, thinking its hairlessness would make for smooth digestion.
He couldn’t have guessed a baby’s fingers would turn cunning as a nest of snakes, grabbing for Coyote’s ears, eyes, muzzle. He dropped the thing in a cactus patch, never looked back. Still has nightmares about the way it screamed, “Mama!”
His canines must’ve punctured baby’s skin though, left him with this wicked craving for woman’s flesh.
The darkness is immaculate: a night sky resplendent with stars white and luminous as yucca moths.
Coyote sleeps beneath the joshua tree but his eyes are wide awake. His eyes are quarrelsome lovebirds lodged on separate boughs.
Before he went to sleep, Coyote took a few of the dried, spiky leaves he found by groping around in the desert dust at the foot of the tree and propped his eyelids open. His eyeholes gape: red-black craters haloed with drowsing flies, drunk on the rancid nectar of blackened tear ducts. Eyes bicker up above:
It’s a trick he learned long ago, sleeping with his eyes open. (The sooner he falls asleep, the sooner he’ll see the women again.)
It’s still dark when Coyote wakes but he knows the women are there. Hears them splashing in the water, scents their sweat on the breeze, wild gooseberries and musk. Recognises that ache in his belly spreading to groin, stiffening.
“Okay, eyes,” Coyote whispers, “don’t fail me this time. I’m not that baby I stole. None of these women is my mother.”
He’ll give them this, though: four was the perfect number. Three would have been too clichéd, too Pocahontas-meets-the-Judgment-of-Paris.
Coyote’s sinews flex and quiver. He crouches, belly to ground, makes like an inchworm. Like an inchworm, all parts are one; there’s no division between eyes and ears, nose and tongue, head and heart.
Mid-afternoon at the Lost Palms Oasis.
Despite numerous “No Swimming” signs, four women wade into the shallow springs, laughing and squealing as water licks their thighs. Purses and cameras dangle from manicured fingers. Small triangles of fabric cover the obvious areas.
Six feet above, Coyote’s checked in mid-air—women are women, anytime, anywhere, but what’s with the props and scenery? If this is a dream, his subconscious is getting way too hung up on the details. Time to add a few more clauses to the lucid dream inducer routine: no surprise drop-in landings over bodies of water less than seven feet deep; no sudden lighting changes unless he’s wearing Ray Bans; no more Baywatch reruns before bedtime (he’s allergic to Mystic Tan, breaks out in hives every time he gets within an arm’s length of studio-prepped, orange-tinted flesh).
If this isn’t a dream, then how come the reality checks aren’t working? Call it over-familiarity: this aerial view, treetop-high; washed-out sunlight so bright, everything it touches is already disappearing; the inevitable fall toward rippling, broken-mirror water while screaming as hard as his lungs can force air through choked-up vocal chords. Except the sound is off.
Coyote free-falls toward the distorted, out-of-focus reflection of some mythic monster with bleeding holes for eyes.
His last glimpse of the women: a stampede of sun-drenched limbs heading for shore; a sound like seagulls descending on the rot-strewn beaches of the Salton Sea. One woman stands firm, hands steady, candid camera for Coyote’s shame soon to be satellite-bound—via Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram—for virtual immortality.
His last thought before blackout: perhaps this is all he ever really wanted.
At first he told himself he’d be better off without them—and he didn’t mean the women. Better off without their fickleness and roving, their false hope and trickery.
“Good riddance,” he’d shouted up at the joshua tree, while holding on to its trunk for dear life.
It took some getting used to, but he soon found ears, nose, legs, and tail could manage very well by themselves. If only eyes would let them. Next thing he knew, the pair of them were scheming mutiny by remote control, yammering on about secret oases Coyote knew couldn’t exist this side of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, claiming mirages of women so far away in the future he’d die from dehydration before he reached them, or freak sightings of his long-dead mother (with her rasp of a tongue, sharp as a whip or lullaby-sweet).
Where do you hide from eyes that see everything?—except what’s in front of you. Nothing for it but to lie down in the desert sand and play dead, hope to out-bluff them.
To make matters worse, eyes don’t agree. Each keeps its own hours, switches on and off, back and forth, and a hundred blown light bulbs in between. Both spin litigious fictions without batting a lash. They’d have him believe he was barside at some quaint beachfront joint with a rusted, corrugated roof, plastic windmill, and faded Coca Cola sign. Sipping margaritas, staring out over that green, motionless sea so thick with plant life you could walk on water, when suddenly: lights out, all circuits fused. He’d find himself lying in invisible sand as if catapulted a dozen miles back to the desert at the speed of light.
Eyes must have dozed off in mid-argument, exhausted from contesting each other’s seasick realities. It was his chance to make a break, hightail it over the horizon or at least to the other side of Old Woman Rock. Except he was blind drunk again, on a night so ravenous it had swallowed the known world.
Either that or he’d fallen asleep despite his best intentions and the six-pack of Red Bull he downed right around sunset. Nothing for it but to fumble sightlessly, bumping into cacti, searching for one of those reassuringly sturdy, real-seeming yucca palm trees to curl up at the foot of and wait out the dream.
He used to tell a dream by the way it would end—abrupt, unpredictable, never at the right time. Lately, all endings seem unlikely and therefore depleted of mystique.
Lately, he can’t recall a beginning either, and the candidates seem vaguely suspect: the moment he knew his eyes were feeding him lies; the moment he realised his eyelids had nothing to do with it.
Lately, he has the sneaking suspicion: the dream hasn’t ended.
Coyote sleeps beneath the joshua tree. His eyelids are taut as deer hide stretched over the frame of a tepee, wide open to storm or strangers. His eyes nest like pale eggs among the bayonet leaves.
Ears speak to him of babbling girl-voices and lilting laughter.
(The vulture’s hungry hiss: a singing lasso, tightening each night—who knows if old Baldo’s getting any closer?)
Nose claims to detect traces of dew-kissed flesh, taunts his taste buds till saliva flows—the only drop of water for miles around.
(Lingering aroma of coconut—is that suntan oil, or the fragrance of joshua-tree flowers coaxed into bloom by the desert moon?)
Heart, that faulty old wind-up toy, can’t keep time to save its life. Speeds up, condenses hours to minutes, lifetimes to seconds, at the most inconvenient moments.
(Moments you wish would last forever.)
That night, Coyote becomes
the joshua tree,
sprouts ghostly tentacles,
root after root
to thrust and claw
through dry earth
seeking river’s source.
As below, so above
earth’s hardened crust:
cycles of green growth
flower to wither
limb after crooked limb
stars, moths, eyes.
©2017 Phoebe Tsang
Phoebe Tsang is a British-Canadian poet, short story writer, librettist and multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto. Tsang is the author of the full-length poetry collection Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse (Tightrope Books, 2009). Her poetry and fiction has been published in anthologies and journals including the Asia Literary Review and the Literary Review of Canada. She was long-listed for the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize, and short-listed for the Matrix Lit POP Awards in 2016. Her performance practice combines and explores the transformative and healing effects of music, poetry, and the tarot. phoebetsang.blogspot.ca
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