Words by Rohini Walker
Illustration by Martín Mancha
There is a lake in a desert, under which bubbles a hot spring. Mature desert willows overhang the water from the sandy bank. There is so much lush vegetation here that the spot could easily be mistaken for a watery clearing in the jungle. Bullfrogs abound, their sporadic, guttural croaks echoing in the silence, reverberating off the stillness of the water.
Under a full moon, recently replete after being eclipsed by Earth, I gratefully immerse myself in this water. There have been catastrophic fires caused by human hands in the surrounding mountains. Over the past few days, the air has been dense with ash and smoke, the heat of the desert summer intensifying. The horizon has been absent.
The night before, la Luna was a fiery red. Not only because late July is the season of this moon, the ‘Blood Moon’, the ‘Thunder Moon’, when, it is said, the buck’s antlers realize their full-grown glory; but also because Mars is currently closer to Earth than it has been in over a decade. And then of course, there are these fires, their livid glow shining off our reflective moon. This aspect is just for us, those ones who are within breathing distance of the raging inferno. From the mythic, to the planetary, to the local: what a magic mirror our moon is.
And here she is in her fullness, calmly reflecting off the water’s glassy surface. I stand neck-deep in the moonlit water, digging my toes into the muddy lake bed with the glee of a child splashing around in puddles. Every now and again, tiny fish curiously nip at my legs and ankles, occasionally with a slight ferocity. At first, I am alarmed. Visions arise from the dark depths of my imagination of razor-toothed creatures, out for blood and flesh. I become aware of voices within debating whether or not I am in mortal danger from what lies within the unseen depths of water. I look down and see my reflection in the moonlight. Another voice, a distance away from the cacophonous rabble, a quieter one, whispers, “Oh look, it’s only you.”
Closing my eyes, I remember the blurred edges of the late July day that I first met him, some eighteen years ago. I was a precocious 21 year-old, he about a year older. I had gone to meet a friend on the green, open spaces of Wimbledon Common, in the suburbs of London where I grew up. They were good friends, and the two of them were sitting under a tree, waiting for me. We chatted a bit, I can’t recall what about. All I remember were blue eyes with a faraway look, eyes that I knew I had known before.
A decade passed before I saw him again. We had our own lives and loves. He had moved away from London, to Bristol, a couple of hours west. I had gone away to university in the north of England, and lived in France for a time before returning to London. Our mutual friend often spoke about him to me, and I noticed a vague curiosity arise whenever his name came up, a delicate eagerness to see him again, this man I knew from some long-forgotten past. Finally, our paths crossed again. I had arrived at a precipice in my life, and was ready to leap into the unknown abyss before me, to leave behind everything that had become familiar, stifling. He held my hand and we jumped together, surrendering to the exhilarating free-fall, to the pull of forces beyond our control.
We landed in this desert, far away from where we had been.
And now here in the water, a dear friend offers me a large bowl of rich, bitter, brown liquid made from ground-up cacao beans. Someone plays a solitary flute nearby. The fish continue to nip at me and I surrender to the sharp, sudden sensations as I inhale the arousing aroma of the cacao. The voices fall quiet.
Like the fish, the dark liquid is curious about me, but gentler. It travels down to my heart, where I sense it coalescing into the shape of a tall, dark, slender woman. She is neither young, nor old; her heavy lidded eyes seem to look at me and through me in a way that makes me breathe a sigh of relief.
The words of a song echo in my mind:
The water sustains me without even trying,
The water can’t drown me,
With my dying.
Inside my heart, the dark woman sweeps regally down a corridor lined with many heavy, wooden doors, some open, some locked. She continues purposefully, until finally she stops before a locked one on the right. Producing a key from her dark, velvety skirts, she asks me if she may open it. Silently, I consent.
I follow her into the room, a large chamber with high, vaulted ceilings carved in stone, and large windows that bathe the room with a faint, dusty light. He is sitting on a wide window bench. Next to him is a small, dark child, a little girl, no more than four or five years old. I recognize her immediately. He is thin, emaciated almost, and looks at me with the same look in his eyes as the day of our first meeting: faraway, haunted, searching.
Unspoken volumes spanning births and rebirths pass between us. With each new life, I find him, but force myself into forgetting who he is. The child remembers but I lock her away, afraid that in listening to her, I will lose myself, lose the fragile illusion of myself as separate from him, from the water.
The dark woman turns and looks at me with a brilliant smile “Oh look, it’s only you.” She walks out of the room, leaving the door open.
I open my eyes. Tears are streaming down my face, mingling with the moonlit water. I feel the fish swimming around me, gently brushing up against my legs and ankles like an affectionate cat. Some distance away, the coyotes howl in discordant unison.