A man works in the Republic. He suffers. The interstate cuts the desert like the dream of a ruler, and half a mile away a dirt road crosses a gully into an orchard’s metal fence. Past the trees, the sleeping trailers for the season’s workers pour heat from their roofs and perturb the mountains.
The trees are staggered in straight rows, and every step through the orchard opens new views of avenues between them. They are copies: each splits branches from its body in the same pattern. For the man on the ladder each tree is a half hour and three boxes of oranges, and when he enters the tree he is always entering the same world, leafy and yellow, the size of a room, always with the same branch at his left foot and L-shaped crook at his hip. Reaching in leather gloves, he takes not oranges but images of oranges; they break from their stems and drop to the box at his feet having touched nothing but his eyes. After an hour his mouth dries and his back and wrists cry murder. A hand in the sky wipes out the clouds and spreads the white sun everywhere, making all things enemies.
The others want to take his hat away. When the tamale truck drives up the road they all drop out of their trees and race each other, without breaking into a run, up the orchard’s avenues. In the crush at the truck’s rear, around the tamale woman with her dog and coffee cans packed with hot husks, the others grin at him under their mustaches, jerk their heads up and reach out to bat his straw brim. They have hats of their own, or could get them; that isn’t the point. They speak with desert accents and he doesn’t. His home is green.
Evenings everyone goes into the town across the interstate and drinks what he can. A burlap awning makes a trailer into a cantina; pity the benches at the doorstep, the boy who serves cans from an ice bucket. A man called Jackrabbit sits apart from the others: no rabbit ears and no rabbit teeth, but a whisper of the animal in his cheeks and hunched shoulders. He is older than most and has no friends among the workers. His pinched voice shares an accent with the man from the green country, and the man hates him for it. The town has a few young women who don’t come to the cantina but stand across the street in jeans and thong sandals, watching. After his beers the man crosses the street: what an evening is open to his senses! The sun is gone but a track of burning clouds is seared behind it, and the stars shy away for fear of being caught in the blaze. Black beetles inch over the gravel, called by floodlamps, wandering centers to the miles of shadowland. The miles! The terrible clear air, bringing all distances to the eye’s surface—the inalterable rocks!
“I come from a volcano,” he tells the young woman in the street. “In the morning its slope was green over the earth. But in the evening it was covered with clouds, we saw nothing, and we measured distance with our limbs.”
In her dark room he pulls the thong sandals from between her toes and holds her bare feet in his hands. This has happened before and has never happened before, they were not meant to suffer, they shine steady and low like candles in hushed air, the earth smiles at them through the house’s foundation. In a midnight that blazes like noon they walk into the kitchen wearing nothing but blankets over their shoulders and find her mother wide awake, making coffee and tortilla soup. She sits him at the table blotched with old varnish and candlewax and serves the meal with a command in her plump smile: she will feed him from now on.
Without telling his crew leader, he gives up his bunk in the sweat-smelling trailer. Now the others see him at dawn walking in from town and throwing his long shadow before him. They stop batting at his hat. He hasn’t become their friend, but it is now at Jackrabbit and his tiny hunched shoulders that the crowd points its teeth. If Jackrabbit would only look up, they might be content to glare at him, but since he keeps his eyes to the ground, they take turns sticking their boots between his legs and making him stumble. When the man finds Jackrabbit before him, he tries a small shove and immediately takes fright: what if he turns around, his face will call judgment on me. But no one turns to look at him, not Jackrabbit and not the others. He might as well have shoved at the sky. He sets his teeth and a satisfying contempt comes to bathe his heart, lifting it up in its pillar of blood.
In his new home he eats himself into bliss. Everything is warm and wet: coffee, tomato sauce, chicken broth, endless glass jars of water from the town’s tower. He and his woman swell out with joy and more—she tells him she’s to be a little mother. Is she sure? A drop of ink strikes the center of his happiness, bleeds out from the core. This has never happened before and it’s happened before, there’s a little mother back in the green country, with children that fell like laughing stars from heaven, laughing and hungry—this is why he spends his days reaching for oranges and never touching their skins. He thought he’d made peace with all things but it was only a truce, the walls and bedposts and window frame all glare at him as enemies, he has to hit them, he hits her, she hits him back.
“You can’t kill him,” she shouts, “only God can kill him!”
What does that mean? Which of them does God have it in for? Her mother comes into the room, crying: I gave you coffee and water, coffee and water! They both slap at his body but can’t drive him out, his feet are bolts in the floor, but as long as he stands there he’ll only hear the same thing, coffee and water, so he quits the room and house and goes errant into the night, out to the interstate, where trucks flash like dragons.
At the orchard he finds his old bunk taken and darkness in every trailer, full of men who threaten him with their sleeping breath. He falls asleep outdoors on the gravel. The sun wakes him in yesterday’s clothes, thirstier than ever before in his life. He gulps from the wash faucet behind the trailers and the water drops in his stomach without soothing his throat. The sheet-metal sky! When does it ever rain here? All morning he thinks of his cloudy home and feels its dew pricking his eyes, climbs into the yellow branches and sees the oranges hanging luminous under their leaves. His throat aches and aches. His dry glove takes an orange; there is another world, a heaven of rain, just under the peel. His teeth rip in. Tart oil kisses him, his tongue cries its need, he takes the warm pulp in his mouth and a voice calls from below. The crew leader, a sharp-faced desert man, is squinting up at him from the bottom of the ladder.
“Spit it out,” says the crew leader.
World in suspension. He stands on the ladder, juice in his mouth, far from earth.
“That’s a unit out of your box and fifteen minutes docked,” says the crew leader. “Spit it out.”
The man looks down. His mouth closes on itself and he swallows.
The crew leader starts to yell. He shakes the ladder as if to drop him from the tree—you’re off the job, off the site, I can call the immigration cops, get you kicked out of the Republic, send you back where you came from—and the man nearly strikes him in the head as he comes rattling down the ladder, shouting fine, send me back, these terrible people, this nightmare desert, send me home.
“Those are the company’s gloves,” says the crew leader, “give them back.”
He gives up the gloves. The crew leader grabs both by the wrists and flaps them against each other in idiot applause, then reaches out and slaps them over the man’s shoulders. The man jerks back and the crew leader follows, chasing him down the avenue with the empty gloves flapping at his back, until he is driven from the orchard.
During the day the cantina’s door is shut, its awning is rolled up and it is only a trailer and some benches asserting their dull shapes in the sun. The man knocks on the door. He walks around to the dark mirror of the window and knocks again until the boy appears on the steps.
“I want to drink,” says the man.
The boy looks unsure. “I’ll ask them inside,” he says. “It might cost extra.”
“My money is in a pair of pants I don’t have,” says the man, “in a house in back of here. I was saving it to send home.”
The boy shrugs. “So save it to send home.”
“No,” says the man, “I want to drink it. Can’t you give me credit, until I get my clothes back?”
The boy disappears. After a short while he comes back, looking unhappy, and rolls out the awning to shade one of the benches. The beer he brings is warm, in a can that fits the man’s hand like another hand, pledging friendship. He gulps the bitter water. From mouth to feet he is dry caverns, empty gullies, rocks bleached to brittle shells. He waters them all. He orders more, and more clouds empty themselves in him. The awning’s narrow shade slides down the bench as the sun rolls under the sky’s weight; he follows it, and finds each new inch of bench hot to the touch. The town shimmers, the heat is a spirit about to take shape. Down the empty road he sees the white house where his lover and money and clothes are. He squints at it, ready to start an argument, and it doesn’t answer. He drinks and drinks and can’t keep ahead of his thirst. Once or twice an hour he goes to empty his bladder behind the trailer. All is quiet, no one sees, the dirt sucks the water.
Toward evening men appear one by one in the dusk, like candles winking on, scattered over the benches and speaking low. They keep surprising him when he turns his head—why so many? But they must have colder beer. He turns to his neighbor on the bench and discovers Jackrabbit next to him.
“Looking for a drink?” asks Jackrabbit in his pinched voice.
“No,” says the man, and pulls back, “don’t talk to me. Don’t tell me that we talk the same.”
But he can’t talk like anyone. He feels his tongue dead in his mouth, slurring. Jackrabbit folds his arms into his plaid shirt and waits, as if understanding that the man has already passed the point of silence, that the daylight hours have packed him full with unspoken words.
“Do you remember the volcanoes?” he asks at last.
“Volcanoes,” says Jackrabbit. In his mouth the word loses its beauty. But it doesn’t matter, the man is already telling everything and telling it badly, out of order, his green home, the family he left, the woman and her mother in town. Jackrabbit listens to everything, and at last says that he had a wife and child too. They were with him ten years ago, when he crossed the border.
“You have a family? Where are they?”
“God takes away,” says Jackrabbit. “They were with me ten years ago.”
What everyone told him was not to cross with his family. They could have told him to leave his arms behind. There were many borders and each took longer than he’d planned, each cost more money than he’d planned; but they were never robbed outright, never stranded, and after each safe crossing it seemed that his wife and child had become still deeper parts of him. His beating heart seemed to cover them all, or else his heart was a boat into which they were packed and which he steered as he steered their lives. At the last border, the desert border, they climbed with twenty others into the back of a van and bumped and swerved for hours through the dark, wreathed in heat and the smell of one another’s skin. Then the small space pitched, the doors were thrown open and they were told to get out. Hands reached for them. They were brought into dry air and darkness. The earth’s four directions stretched out in black and the sky hung a colder black above them. The stars had never seemed brighter or farther away.
They walked all night, facing a faint yellow bloom that was supposed to be city lights. It never came closer, its glow never cleared. Dry air rasped in their chests, the black turned slate gray and then dun, God’s eye broke from the horizon and stunned them with its glory. In sidelong rays it roared: you don’t know how small you are, measure yourself against this earth. The party of walkers stretched far ahead into the white sand on the horizon. The guide was already lost to sight, but others were still visible as bobbing specks crowned with black hair or pale hats; now and then the blip of a face would appear as one of them looked back at Jackrabbit and his wife. No one was behind them. Jackrabbit’s wife panted and walked with shuffling steps, bent at the knees and hardly moving her hips. Her head hung slack from her shoulders. Jackrabbit took the child from her arms but they couldn’t seem to walk any faster, and as the heat mounted the figures ahead winked out, one by one, against the far white. Before they vanished he saw them waving to the left, and he understood: there was a road, a police truck might come, they should wait to be picked up and taken back over the border. With his free hand he touched his wife’s shoulder and guided them away from the sand, toward the embankment of mesquite and reddish dirt that dropped to the road.
They stumbled down. His right boot had split its sole and the sock was worn to netting. At each step he felt the earth grind his blisters. Their food was finished and they had only a plastic jug of turbid water that he was afraid to drink. They had filled it the previous day from a cow pond slimed over with green. His wife had taken a long drink there, she had been thirstier. Now her dry lips were parted, her breath came light and fast, and something in her look had changed; her eyes were out of light. The child, who had also drunk from the pond, twisted in Jackrabbit’s hot arms.
Was it the heat of fever, was it a universal heat? His own breath burnt his nostrils. There was a fire in all things and someone’s hand was slowly turning a knob, raising the flame. The road shrugged away under its cover of gray dust and cried no, too bright, you and I alike have caught fever, stay back or we’ll scorch each other. There was no shade. Jackrabbit hung his shirt over a thorned branch and his wife and child lay in the scant grass beneath. No one had spoken in hours, there were no hours. The stream of time, dammed up and boiling, rose in blocks of still vapor. The sky had no forward or back, it circled light and more light, Jackrabbit’s mind moved in the circle as a black dot, two black dots. They spread black wings on high. And all was held in the distant rim of mountains, the whisper of blue ridge that bled into the sky under a dark line. If he shut his eyes he would fall into the dark line and not wake.
The spirit of the desert came to him. Its bones were rock and its flesh was the sun.
I thirst, it said.
Go on, said Jackrabbit, there’s nothing here for you.
There is blood, it said. I thirst.
That blood is mine. We three have mingled it. Go on.
It’s not true.
Not true how? We are one flesh. I steer them under my heart.
You know it’s not true. You can walk and they can’t. If you stood and walked, they would remain here.
You saw the city lights. There are houses past those mountains. There are green lawns, shade and water.
And if they remained here?
Red salt and sweet. I thirst.
I’d come back for them. I’d find a car, a truck. They gave me a telephone number to call.
The police wouldn’t find me. I would tell them there were people in the desert. They’d bring a helicopter, I would guide it.
If you leave you won’t come back.
That isn’t true.
You won’t come back. You can walk and they can’t. See the miles between you and the mountains! The light on the thorns! How many sparks of life will you bring out of the desert?
All! cried Jackrabbit. All or none! He shut his eyes and bent his body over his wife and child: he wiped out the sky, blotted the mountains from horizon to horizon, and felt wind at his brow.
In the cantina’s evening all is heavy black past the floodlights. The man’s head is clearing; the beer has left a sour stain in his mouth, and now he craves warm food and water. He keeps looking to the place across the street where the women used to gather, trying to make out shapes, as if he could pick out a form that has become part of him. Jackrabbit sits as before, sloping shoulders under a thin neck.
“What happened?” asks the man.
There was a weight in the wind, a scent that reminded Jackrabbit of home. He hadn’t felt it since the journey began. It pressed like a hand against his brow, relented and pressed again. When he opened his eyes he saw the dark line spread over a third of the sky, piled in gray heaps with wisped edges, and its shadow approaching fast on the scrubby plain. When it reached the sun its light went suddenly orange, then vanished, and Jackrabbit felt as if steam were lifting from him, as if he had been pulled from a hearth. Thin lightning glittered over the peaks and thunder tumbled back and forth on the plain. He uncapped the jug and dumped the foul water into the dirt, his wife opened her eyes in the gray light, raindrops struck their faces. He lifted the jug to heaven and it rattled as if filling with pebbles. An inch of clear water splashed at the bottom, he brought it down and his wife lifted the child to drink. She drank. He drank. They filled the jug with mouthfuls of water until their stomachs began to hurt, then Jackrabbit laid it down and they drew near one another in soaked clothes. Their hair plastered their faces, gray wash covered the land. It was dim as evening. They felt a chill in the water; they hadn’t been cold in weeks, they had forgotten what it was like. A tremor took their shoulders. They drew closer and waited for what was coming.