Stones in Translation
Insects eat sage and rabbit bush. Snakes and lizards eat insects and other snakes and lizards. Bobcats eat rats and mice. Rats and mice eat snake eggs and lizard eggs. Wolves and coyotes eat jackrabbits, rats, and mice. Hawks and owls eat any small animals they can catch; vultures eat the dead. And the desert ate away rock. She could start there, sucking on them to squeeze out their voice so she could hear. Just like her, rocks had their longings.
Their last time together, she said, Look if you just wait a minute I’ll tell you what I want. She waited but he did nothing. I’m pregnant, she said. What about our baby? He looked at her then but not really and he left. No words, no touch, no nothing. One day they’re entwined, sweating between the sheets; the next day he’s gone and the sheets are cold.
For one whole year they’d made plans. Travel the world and then have a family. First he would make a lot of money selling high-top kicks while she landed some sort of job maybe translating for the United Nations (her English was that good—what with two gringos for foster fathers, even though they hardly spoke to her at all, so busy rummaging through her body).
A desert is a place lacking and to desert is to abandon. She knew about that well enough. One dysfunctional home after another and now, here she was, out on the street again. There was no way she’d stay in that tenement alone. She had her bag and backpack. She had shoes. She had a life too you know and another one coming.
Foreign sounds had always appealed to her, desert words the most. Cac-tus. Bas-i-lisks. Scor-pi-ons. Kangaroo rats, petrified forests, horned toads, chaparral cocks. The words were rough inside her mouth, then popped out, hardening before they hit the air alive, carved out of her. She imagined riding a bicycle in the desert, the bike chain clicking against the heat, the smell of dust mixed with grease, wheels caked in blanched sand. Maybe she’d find the bones of pter-o-saurs or maybe a mid-get-fa-ded rattle-snake. But mostly she’d be walking with the baby, slowly, with a film of heat wavering around their bodies. The two of them would be a mirage, walking until the sun went down. There might not be any shade for rest. She hadn’t any when she crossed the border. But she was just a kid then. Stupid.
There were other things too. She’d seen pictures of towering sand dunes and bleached bones. A snapshot of a blue raven sleeping inside a white bone. Those bones howled in the night. A bobcat hiding in the shadow of a hoodoo. She even saw a video of a gila monster eating an iguana. She wanted to see that for herself. Show that to her little girl waiting to be born.
In the end, he’d lost all their money. She’d supported them both by tutoring kids in Spanish, which was fine with her. He rode his Honda 850 who knows where while the dinner got cold. They had no TV. She didn’t care. He held her tight in bed. Besides, Northern Mexico was a hell hole and she was in America, even if she wasn’t legal. Crossing that mean desert littered with syringes and rape (another item of addiction) still gave her nightmares. At least her boyfriend didn’t do crack. Her last father did, for God’s sake But now he was gone too, like all the other men in her life, in a cloud of dirt spewed out from that damn motorcycle, clogging the air with his need for freedom. She’d show him freedom. What was more free than barren heat?
She really wanted to know what a midget-faded rattlesnake looked like and find out its secret. Tiny and invisible was good.
She knew desert; it was in her bones. She was born under a cactus at high noon, or so the story went. Maybe she was. She was hot enough. Besides, she hated those white kids with their Converse high tops and hot-pink lipstick. They didn’t want to learn Spanish. They only wanted ass, and they weren’t getting hers. Besides, it was too cold. For her the desert never had good or bad weather, it had no weather. It refused weather like it didn’t belong. Just like her.
It was not a question of when to go but how to prepare. She’d start with the rocks. They were ancient and held wisdom. Rocks would help her understand how to live true and choose true like the earth does. She practiced first with pebbles, arranging them on her black plastic bag according to size and color. The dark ones she whispered to. The white ones she put in her mouth, rolling them against her teeth and humming. When she was ready to try words, she thought Spanish was best but not English. What did English know about heat anyway? She was the one to hear desert rock speak and then translate. She could read minds. She read his. She knew he was leaving before he did, like all the others.
She has plenty of water so this isn’t the problem. The problem is simple and therefore makes her angry. She hadn’t considered it would be hard to catch a lizard, rabbit, or snake, because she never sees any. When she crossed the border in that putrid water infested with leeches, she’d seen plenty, even crocs. That bastard coyote that ran off, taking all her savings, led her right to that raging river. But out here, out in the forsaken land, this Devil’s pit, there isn’t any food. She searches under those compelling rocks but there is only more sand. She worries about the baby; not the food, only water. She’d gone without food plenty of times. But no water, they would last three days max. With one gallon, four days. Double that and she’d have a good ten days, more than enough for her to hear what rocks have to say.
The heat is luminous. The clear, blue sky hitting the shimmering sand leaves her reeling. Now that she isn’t running she can appreciate the beauty of the desert. Lying in a patch of cactus shadow, she watches the trailings of heat across the sand and imagines, like the rocks, that the heat has a voice too. Everything can speak, even the thorns in the cactus and the bits of plastic flying in the wind. The desert is silent, a perfect place to hear the stories of the earth. The earth is the only being that is true and she is here to listen and listen hard. She’d wanted the truth her whole life.
Walking is okay but after awhile her body doesn’t want to go anymore. Why would it? Everything she needs is right here. In one square foot she has a million grains of sand and all the rocks she’s collected, enough shade, her water and the baby inside. If she stays put the water will last longer. She needs time to hear. This time there will be no border to cross because she’s stopped crossing. Even to God because there isn’t any. She is done hoping, except for her baby. That is hers alone and she has volumes of hope, which, she knows, isn’t the correct English.
When the rocks first speak to her, she isn’t ready and forgets to say the words she’s practiced. She’d piled up a tiny mound of rocks under her head to hear better and when the sound first comes, it’s more like soft, warm waves than actual sound. It is comforting. She and the baby sleep well on them.
At night when it’s cold, she finds that the rocks, along with her black plastic, keep them warm. She makes little excursions during the day to collect more rocks until she has enough to build a small shelter not much bigger than a gravestone but big enough for the two of them, a flat rock pillow and her black bag. She likes the rocks’ weight, their hard insistence, as much as she likes their taste, like bitter salt. Or chipotles, which he never liked. He never liked anything hot.
After she sucks out their taste, she needs more rocks. During the day she wanders further from their home, leaving behind a trail of rocks. She and her baby are home now, not some box in the city that they share with someone who never understands. Not some cardboard box under a railroad bridge. Not some trailer box she was made to share with her dirty old so-called fathers. She is here for her baby and the rocks. To hear their language. Rocks are quiet and ancient, still and at peace. When she hears them, they will tell her the truth about life and then she will tell her child because no one else will. She could even translate these findings for others, giving lectures about the earth and its sustaining power. I will hear the earth, she’ll say, and give you the right path. The land will tell me and I will tell you! The world might need her even if he didn’t.
Day after day she collects rocks while composing her lectures. In her mind, more people come to hear and she always has more to say. But then one day she forgets that sound comes from her throat. She sits under the cactus trying to recall sounds she’s made but how can she remember if she doesn’t know how to make them? She tries shaking her head, twisting her body, pricking her skin with a cactus thorn but nothing comes out. She slaps her feet in the dust but there is only the muffled slap, the print left in the dirt. She is mute, just like he always wanted.
The rocks can tell her how to make sound so she sucks on them longer. But her saliva has no moisture. She rubs water into their curves, giving them wet to speak. Even on her swollen belly she watches the water evaporate. With the rocks in her mouth she tries rocking back and forth, like a pendulum, giving them rhythm. Words have rhythm. No sound comes so she tries stillness—rocks know stillness—but still they say nothing.
She can see the pores of her skin tightening into tiny fractures. At first she likes that, wanting to be like the desert reptiles that she has yet to see. But after awhile she can also see she is shrinking. Her fingers look like the snake bone she sucked dry. There isn’t any pain but then maybe she is too dried out to know. Her baby lies against bone.
Every night the sky dances overhead. Her cactus salutes the half moon, the color of snow. She remembers snow, so white and cold, but she’ll never go there again to that frozen world of frozen voices. He never talked to her, even when she begged.
Even if she doesn’t hear the rocks yet, she can detect prehistoric creatures waking up under her body encased in the dust of centuries. She hears them slither to the surface and buff the thorns of the cactus with their tails. A sky of spilled stains drips onto her skin and moistens the scales. The reptiles will teach her the secrets of their cold blood. When night slips in between the orange and red, a shooting star offers her a bit of boundary for the endless expanse, but still the desert hasn’t revealed its secrets. The night feels sticky inside her toes, eyelids, and heart. That’s okay. A placenta is sticky too.
The last time he listened, if you could call it that, he said he didn’t know why she had so many problems about his bike. Bike, she said, bike? I don’t give a damn about that bike. I’m pregnant! What about that? He went for his jacket, zipping it up, then the helmet. Now he’d never hear. Wait, she said. I love you, she said. He had on his helmet now and asked What’s that you said? and walked out the door. Just like that. Another bastard. He turned away for the last time.
Then there is the turning. How could it have escaped her attention before? Only ten feet away, she sees a funnel of sand. She watches as the dust stains her eyes and the brown powder grows heavy in her hair. It is not inside her, like her baby and so many other things, but outside. The turning.
Carefully she watches. It never changes rhythm, only round and round, round and round. Like English. Soon the rocks join in. They turn inside the turning. They dance. They spiral and leap and swing. Like Spanish. Like real life.
The turning is pulling her so she jumps in to join the rocks. She wants to dance with them with her baby. Soon bigger ones, flat like saucers, join in too. Everything is dancing now, even those illusive desert creatures. There, she’s sure of it, is the midget-faded rattlesnake with ten of her babies as tiny as fingers. The horned toad and chaparral cock. Everything is dancing happy and free. All the dancing is inside the turning. She and the baby. They are free now too.
The black center of the turning grows. The dancing is a growing frenzy. All the turning, she and the child and the desert, spin into chaos. She grows dizzy. Confused. Terrified.
She must slow the turning down. Dried yucca stalks snap quickly. She hurls rocks but they are sucked into the center and disappear. Vultures that have been hovering for days fly in. Rocks swirl and pound against her chest. The sands curl and twist. The burnt crust trembles.
Then the earth begins to spit. The turning reverses and out from the center come the desert creatures—iguanas, snakes, cactus, coyote—spewing out, all banished from their home.
Quick, she must do something before her home is taken away from her too. Headfirst, she dives into the center of the turning. At her insistence, the earth yields. She drops deep inside, sinking below to no sun. The darkness here is silver and blue and she finds it calming. Even the roar of rocks has ceased, but she can feel their echoes lying cold inside her joints and skull, inside her open mouth. Nothing resists, least of all herself. She is inside her home, she and her baby. Safe.
Now, inside the earth, she can hear the clear voice of stone and understand.
Gently, they begin. At first they are only faint murmurings inside her belly. It is not enough. She wants them on her tongue. She must lie still, as still as night, and let the vagueness solidify and become more insistent. She is listening! She is here for them!
They begin to speak. First with sighs against her thighs. Then whispers along the spine. And in her belly too. It twists with glee. Sí, mi bebé, mamá te oye. Estoy escuchando. I will always listen.
The rocks are speaking. She hears them clearly. They speak to her and the baby. They speak of distant rains. Of spongy, wet soil. Of heavy oxygen, dense humidity, and seeping places. She sees the images they speak of so clearly, right before her eyes. Buttress roots and banyan, ilang-ilang and bamboo. Perpetual mist. Barrel cactus. Madagascar periwinkle. Lianas. These words reach high into the fluid canopies of teak, mahogany, and rosewood.
Her body becomes a warm, moist couch for the incessant pull of the rocks’ voices. The rocks stretch and roll and rest on her. Oh, what weeping she hears. She can feel their loss, palpable. They are mourning their forsaken roots, like hers, now dust in the earth. Their gushing streams now dry as ashes. This earth, cracked wide open, seeking water to be bathed. She never expected feelings—only wisdom—in their stony silence. But she had asked and now they are relentless.
She listens as the stones tell of their erosion. They’d once been granite sheets of cold, pointed peaks piercing thin clouds. And before that, supporting the massive pressure of the inky deep where ancient squid flutter. So much stone, upholding civilizations of humans in their towers of achievement, now bombed and blasted.
The rocks press hard against her bones, cracking them to splinters. Merging blood to blood. Inside the earth.
Under the hot sand the blood of rock and her blood and the baby’s blood all surge ahead, creating new pathways. Building new worlds.
Rocks have their longings. And she had listened. Dian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications. A passionate gardener and oil painter, she also reviews art and writes about artists in their studios. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she has worked professionally in theatre for 25 years as an actress, dancer, director and teacher. Her home is in the country outside of Chelsea, Vermont, with her husband, Jasper Tomkins, children’s book writer and illustrator. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Selected by Aaron Counts.