by Annie Dawid
“This tape is my testament. Snow falls hard, as it has for the last three days, obliterating the landscape. In my white car, I am nearly invisible, creeping across the desert. Only my headlights illuminate the tumbling sky and occasional oncoming vehicle, though few are this desperate to be driving through the dark in the heart of a tempest. The heart of the tempest is me, Gerard, 45 years old, on my way to a monastery for Christmas Eve.
I am naked without Lily beside me, my blue heeler companion of seven years, who has shared my bed more consistently than any man ever did or wanted to. In truth, I didn’t want men either, after a while.
Despite their mission of hospitality, the brothers informed me that dogs were not allowed at Saint Sebastian’s. Without her, I experience the shape of my solitude as edgeless, vast, a black paper sack as big as the world. With her, I can know the tenderness of another body, her small, tenacious heart beating in rhythm with my own. Her presence shields me from nothingness. Perhaps I am foolish or even pathetic to invest a dog with such powers. Yet, most humans I know believe their spouse or lovers or children offer such protection, and always they end up bitter. Lily has never disappointed me, and yet, of late, the sack billows ever larger around me; despite her saving grace, I find myself receding into its dark reaches.
No radio. In this darkness, the long dead hours, the only sound is the hissing of the tape recorder, a high-tech machine left behind by one of my students, long ago. Strangely, I heard my own voice when I flipped it on – a lecture on the decline of Renaissance chiaroscuro technique. I was very dull, though at least I knew what I was talking about. That was ten years ago, before I left teaching and moved to the desert.
With an unexpected bequest from one of my many lovers who have died of AIDS – I myself am HIV – for no apparent reason, I purchased a shack in a town of 40, a barely surviving mining settlement south of the Idaho border, where a few ranches still manage to fatten enough cows to pay their mortgage. My neighbors are mostly old miners, their broken bodies and houses an oddly comfortable complement to my own hermetic existence. The miners and cowboys pay me little attention, in spite of my long hair, goatee and New Jersey accent.
In the beginning, I worked the shack into a Southwestern castle, all clean lines and windows. For years I painted fragmented landscapes in ocher and gray, which offered a certain cachet in Santa Fe galleries. Then, one Christmas, I was told, the kind of work you do is out, by the gallery owner from Long Island, her stetson bobbing portentously. Unless, of course, you’re a Native.
I am native to nothing except the white wall of storm continuously before my eyes. No cars have appeared for hours, and I am unable to read my watch, as the dome light is out. The stretch between the Nevada border and Salt Lake City is a straight and merciless line. I can hardly make out the road markers, as the blizzard keeps piling its weight atop every inch of available space.
If I want to die now, I can simply stop the car and walk. It is said that freezing to death is relatively painless; bliss sets in just before the end. Lily used to be my prophylactic against suicide. But tonight I cannot use that excuse, as a neighbor is attending to her, and if I do not return, Lily will be taken care of.
Or, if she were euthanized, would that be so terrible? Eu-thanatos: beautiful death. There is no comparable word for beautiful life. When my landscapes stopped selling, I changed my style, subject, colors, canvas. But not one of my creations has interested anybody, though I dropped all standards out of pure financial need and found myself in the shlock picture shops, pleading with owners to take my work. No one did.
I am at the end of my savings and have been out of ideas for the last two years. All that remains is my home; even if I could sell it, where would I go?
The monastery perches on a sandstone cliff 50 miles north of the Great Salt Lake. Surprising that in this Mormon country, an old order of Catholics should prosper. I, too, am an old order of Catholic. Lapsed, some would say, but that is too gentle a verb to describe my experience. Wrenched, perhaps. Ratcheted away from Mother Church by the metastasizing consciousness of my body, its fleshly desires branding me antichrist. Wandering in the desert ever since, though never as literally as on this night, when I no longer know where I am, or why I should be.”
Gerard shuts off the machine. Pulls the car over, though there is no over, as the shoulder is a place he can only guess at, a verge, which may not exist. He is exhausted, his eyes pure pain, strained muscle and attenuated nerve. If he were wise, he would have stopped at Westover, along with the other pilgrims and gamblers, to pass the night in a warm bed after treating himself to steak and roulette. But it is too late to turn back, there in the center of a white whirlwind, too late to return for Lily to save him.
The cold metal key vibrates in the ignition with a dull hum, the only noise his ears can detect. The heat, permanently stuck on low, sheds an eerie glow on his boot tops, themselves miniature canvases, pointillist abstracts painted by accident with splattering pigments. The tangerine rays of the heater turn the colors celestial, a milky way adorning his feet.
On the phone, the monk had said, “Brother, we understand and respect the love that can exist between man and animal, but in deference to all our guests, we must ask you to leave Lily at home.”
Gerard doesn’t remember disclosing her name, but evidently he did. When he closes his eyes, sweet blue Lily appears; her body beside his on the bed allows him to experience God’s warm breath. How could he have left her behind?
A truck, making its way so slowly it is barely moving at all, approaches, its high beams illuminating thick white lace cascading straight down in the windless night. Gerard cannot see the driver, only two arches of light. He waits for the truck to pass as if awaiting a sign. But he remains in darkness, his white car a white smudge in the snowfall, and the truck passes.
Again he shuts his eyes, but Lily will not reappear; he cannot summon her back. Gerard leans on the steering wheel, clutching its ungiving circle, his head on the horn panel. In the absence of Lily, there is only white, the inner lining of the vast black sack, and he plunges now without restraint into the depths of it.
“Please,” Gerard whispers, “give me back my Lily.”
He weeps for the love left behind and the absence before him, the open empty world. Tears drop from the rim of the wheel onto his threadbare blue-jeaned knees.
Reveille. His own head on the horn a trumpet.
The snow has stopped. Gerard, facing east, sees the underside of dawn, and hears in his vibrating bones the engine still running, and running.
Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at the University College, University of Denver. She won the 2016 International Rubery Award in fiction for her first book and the Music Prize from Knuthouse Press in Fiction. Other awards include the Dana Award in the Essay, the Orlando Flash Fiction Award, The New Rocky Mountain Voices Award (drama) and the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction. Her three published volumes of fiction are York Ferry: A Novel, Lily in the Desert: Stories, and And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family. Her short stories have been published by Litro, TubeFlash, Spelk, Octavius, Nowhere, WeSaidGoTravel, Structo, Fiction Attic Press and others. The photograph Falling Sky was taken by the author.