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Illustration from Patrick Saves the Troll, available on Amazon

The year is 2002. The Boy is just four, and we are at Grandma’s house. It is early summer, evening. The Boy is preparing for bed in my old room. The windows are open and the cool blue evening breeze is blowing the curtains. The first stars stud the sky, even as the last of the day turns the horizon to pearl. Bathed and pajamaed, his hair still damp, The Boy climbs up onto the bed.

My mother tucks him in, and then she asks, “Would you like to talk to Jesus?”

And here is where things get a little sticky. Prayer does not figure large in our home, largely because I am a witch. I am raising my son using one rule–the Hippocratic Oath, a simplified version of the Wiccan Rede (If it harms none, let it be). When we feel the need for guidance we meditate, then pull out the runestones, the Tarot cards, or the scrying bowl. When we need help we invoke the appropriate image of deity and cast a spell.

So there is my son, being invited to converse with a stranger. My heart sinks. I flash back to my own childhood, when my mother was teaching me how to pray. There was a certain language (King James English), a certain set of topics in which Jesus was interested (missionaries and colporters, the Vast Harvest Field, starving people everywhere, any sins I had committed, Grandma and Grandpa’s salvation…you get the idea), and a certain posture (Kneeling Up, or standing on one’s knees, hands folded with fingers laced, head bowed, eyes closed).

“Sure,” says The Boy. He is nothing if not game. And it’s not like the concept of prayer is completely foreign to him. After all, we do come from a Christian family. He has seen the process many times. He’s seen the posture. He understands that people pray and ask God for the things they want or need. He’s just never done it.

With the confidence of someone who has no clue what he is doing, he scrambles to his knees on the bed, turns to face the window, folds his hands, closes his eyes, and says, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” (We might not know about prayer, but he’s solid on his nursery rhymes.) And then, heaving a sigh of satisfaction at a job well done, he scrambles back around, lays down, and holds up his arms for his “good night” kiss.

Grandma and I oblige. We do not look at each other. We never talk about it. I know she is horrified and saddened that my son does not know how to pray. Though I have made no real secret of my new spiritual path, neither have I actually forced the information onto my family. I have allowed them to simply see me not as a practicing witch, but as a “Backslider,” the Adventist term for members who have, in the parlance, “wandered away from the fold,” “forsaken the narrow way which is rocky and hard” for the “broad, easy way that leads to damnation,” and are “drifting.” At the time I stopped being one, the Adventist view was that while members might “backslide,” they never adopted another active spiritual path, that somehow the very rightness of Adventism had forever spoiled them for other things.

I can’t tell my mother that while The Boy might not know how to seek answers and help on his knees, he’s very good at finding his answers in Tarot cards and runes. So we just walk out of that bedroom in silence. And we never, ever, talk about the fact that my son doesn’t understand about prayer.

We don’t talk about it, but I have thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot. And  I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong. I think of myself, finding a quiet place in my heart (my mom kneeling), focusing my will through the use of ritual acts and words (folding her hands, closing her eyes), reaching out to Something or Someone Beyond(“Dear Jesus…” “Star light, star bright…”) grasping hold of the promise of present abundance (“we ask these things in Jesus’ name… I wish I may, I wish I might…”). I think of temples full of rats, of shrines to ancestors, of saints’ faces painted gold. I think of this beautiful, bountiful, troubled planet, all of us on it, heads bowed, holding our hands out to Something Beyond, seeking connection, and our words arise like incense, carrying our hopes, wishes and dreams, weaving a web of hope, of contrition, gratitude, and I wonder if somewhere, in a place so far beyond us and our small ideas of religion and gods as to be unimaginable, and as close to us as the children we hold to our hearts, our prayers don’t meet and become one.

So mote it be.

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A couple days ago I posted a larger copy of this picture, and promised I’d explain it in the near future. I used to do something similar with another painting I did. It was a lovely painting of Holsteins in a Gothic cathedral, and when I asked my students what they thought it meant just about anything might come back. Some were very troubled by what they saw as sacrilege–cows? in church? What could I have been thinking? To them, the picture was blasphemous, a fist in the eye of all they held holiest.

Others saw it as a commentary on religion. To them, the cows meant placidly accepting the message offered, chewing it over…and over…and over…like a cud. To them, the picture was social commentary on the failed spirituality in our religious institutions.

Which group was right? Neither. And both. Here’s how that picture happened: I was driving a forage harvest truck for my dad one summer. We were harvesting for a dairy. It was a slow, slow process that day, and I had a lot of time between picking up loads. I found myself looking into the barn where the cows lived between milkings.

This barn had skylights–something I haven’t seen in many barns–and the early afternoon sun slanted down in rays, illuminating the black and white Holsteins in a gentle golden glow. I found myself thinking of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and the Nativity paintings of the Renaissance, with their classical settings, rich, warm colors, and soft, deep shadows.

Suddenly the barn wasn’t just a barn: I saw the high roofs, the open beams, and the struts and bracing overlaid with the arches and buttresses of classical and Gothic architecture. I saw the cows as organic shapes, contrasting with the visual logic of the simple, sunlit barn interior. I grabbed my notebook and a pencil, swung down out of my truck, and ventured into the alley between the twin mangers.

I gathered up some of the sweet-smelling hay, mounded it up into a seat in one of the mangers, and started to sketch the beams and rafters. Because I was concentrating, it took me a while to realize that something was breathing on the back of my neck. Actually, it took a large, slimy drop of saliva. I jumped and turned around–and there behind me was a crowd of cows, peering over my shoulder, watching me draw.

I had never seen cows at such an angle before–from below, and just in front. As I looked, one of the cows took another step forward, stretched her nose out, and sniffed. I reached through the fence. The cows stepped back. I pulled my hand back, turned back around, and went back to drawing. But this time I drew the cows across the way.

A warm, moist puff of air alerted me to my audience again. I turned, slowly, this time, and found myself eye to eye with several cows. And I began to look–really, really look, there in that quiet barn. The cows looked back. I started to sketch, quick little thumbnails of cows from a point of view new to me–nearly under the animals, but at peace, all of us mildly interested in each other. I sketched legs, feet, noses, eyes, eyelashes, the high arching curves of eyelids, ears, udders, bellies. Eventually I heard a horn blow out in the field, gathered up my pencil and paper, and stood slowly. The cows stepped back. The spell was broken. Life went on.

Two years later, in the midst of a Chicago winter, I found myself remembering that warm, placid afternoon, the gentleness of the moment, the golden, glowing tranquility, and I wanted to capture that. Conveying a feeling like that is not easy; I found myself resorting to the symbolic body the cows had first reminded me of–Renaissance Nativity paintings.

I began borrowing from religious imagery, creating an environment for my cows. And then I created the cows themselves, drawing in their peaceful, gentle eyes, their long sweeping lashes, their delicate ankles, their jaunty registration tags and bands.

I was seeking to capture a peaceful summer afternoon, but somehow a lot of other things got into that painting. My ambivalence about organized religion and the almost mystical connection I felt with some kinds of animals made their way into that painting through the symbols I chose. I hadn’t intended to paint about those things; but I ended up painting about them, anyway. The language of symbolism is like that–and in the end, the most important message is not what the writer or artist intended, but what the reader or viewer perceives. And that’s out of my control.

I can’t tell you what this picture should mean to you; that depends on how you read the symbols. What I can tell you is what I was thinking.

I was thinking about my family, how its public image survived by isolating its members both from each other and from the larger world, and how our religious practice factored into that. I pulled images from traditional art and illustrations, and put them together into something new. If you’re familiar with those things, you’ll recognize most of these elements. Many of them come from conventional religous paintings. But in this context, they take on a whole new meaning–and that meaning is determined both by the painting, and by what you see in it.

There’s just one last thing I’d like to tell you about this painting. I started it when I was in the midst of discovering the truth about my family history, and how child molestation, secrecy, and religion combined to create an incredibly destructive force. In my need to come to grips with my life I created a whole series of sketches. This was one of them.

But they hurt too much; I packed them away and got on with the business of survival. And then, years later, I found them again. I looked at the sketches. “I can do something amazing with these, now,” I thought. Before, all I could see was the pain in them, and it had swamped me. Now, I set to work not on re-drawing them–the whole series has survived intact in terms of symbolism, figures, and colors–but on teasing out the beauty in them. I was painting my pain, but doing it with the intention of finding beauty in it.

The result is a series of pictures that are at once lovely and troubling. I love the colors, shapes, and patterns in “Blest Be The Ties”–and I find the children, isolated on their sheer wall, trapped in their best clothes, heartbreaking. I find the dancing figures at the top infuriating–and lovely. I find the angel puzzling. And that’s the power of symbols. It’s impossible to reduce them to a one to one correspondence; what the painter paints may not be what she intends to paint, and what the viewer sees may be something else altogether. The meaning can only be a shifting, evolving thing that painter, society, and viewer create among them.

So what do you see? And what does that say about me–and about you?

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Here’s an excerpt from The Way We Did It, a memoir about growing up Adventist in a particular time, place, and family. This is about the day that I learned for sure that I couldn’t keep a secret.

At summer’s end I discovered that Daddy had been right all along; the cabins in the woods were not our home, but temporary way-stations on an apparently endless perambulation. We moved into a tiny two-bedroom house in Paradise, ninety miles from the cabins and the only world I really knew, and just a few blocks from the church school—close enough for Pam to walk each morning and afternoon. Her arrival each afternoon was the high point of our days.
I missed the daytime camaraderie of the camp, though nights were easier.

Daddy stayed in the woods, sleeping alone in our cabin, eating in the cookhouse with the single loggers. He came home on Friday afternoons. Momma, her belly big and round, stayed home with us in the tiny house.

The first week in November, she took us downtown to buy Daddy’s birthday present: black jeans, wool socks, and bright flannel shirts—work clothes, practical gifts. “Now don’t tell him what we got,” she told us. “We want it to be a surprise.”

“We won’t tell,” said Pam and Marie virtuously.

“You either, Bodie,” Momma said, giving me the evil eye.

“She always tells. Bodie can’t keep a secret,” Pam said.

“I can, too,” I retorted angrily. But Pam was right. Secrets had a way of just slipping right out of my mouth.

“Don’t tell, Bodie,” Momma said again. “If you do, I won’t tell you what the present is next time.”

“I won’t,” I promised. I would have promised anything right then, so elated was I at being in on the secret.

And all week long, while Daddy was off in the woods at work, I didn’t tell. Pam, Marie, and Momma reminded me often. Thursday came. At lunch time Pam burst in the door. “Momma, there’s a birthday party this afternoon and I got invited. Can I go?” Momma asked a few questions and then agreed. When Pam didn’t appear that afternoon I asked where she was. “She’s at a party,” Momma said. “She’ll be home in an hour or so.”

But she wasn’t. Sunset, and no Pam. Suppertime, and no Pam. Momma fed us vegetable soup and toast, moving stiffly between stove and table, rubbing her back and her swollen belly. We had no telephone. Finally Momma wrapped us in our coats and hustled us two doors down to a house where there was a phone. She dialed the party house from the bright, warm kitchen. No answer. She called the school. No answer.

“Let’s go find her,” Marie suggested.

“We can’t,” Momma said. “She might get home while we’re gone.” Momma called the party house again. Her finger trembled a bit in the rotary dial. Still no answer. It had been more than three hours—surely far too long for a Thursday night children’s party. Momma’s face paled, and her lips got tight. I saw her rubbing her stomach again. She hustled us back down the dark street to our house, worried lest Pam had arrived in our absence. We waited.

Finally, a little before seven p.m., Pam arrived home, chilled and rosy, laughing and full of the party. They had had supper. They had played games outside. That’s where they must have been the first time Momma called. The people had brought her home so Momma wouldn’t have to load us all into the car in her condition. Momma put us to bed early that night. The next morning, Friday, Momma took us over to Iris’ house.

Iris had moved to town about the same time we had, leaving the camp just about the time that the cold mornings began to creep out into the days, and the first Canada geese flew overhead. She and Iris made divinity. I don’t know what they talked about over that divinity, but afterward Iris loaded us all in the car, drove Momma to the hospital, then took us home and stayed with us.

We all loved Iris, but it felt funny, not having Momma there. I was too young to really understand that Momma’s big belly meant that a baby was coming, let alone that the baby was coming far too early; it was barely November, and the baby wasn’t due until the middle of December. We played quietly with our toys and talked to Iris. At lunchtime she fixed us hot dogs.

“We can’t eat those,” Marie declared. “They have pig in them.”

“No they don’t,” said Iris brightly.

“Yes, they do. I learned it in Sabbath School,” snapped Marie. “Hot dogs have pig in them. The Bible says we can’t to eat pig, so we can’t eat hotdogs.”

I wondered where the Bible it said “don’t eat hot dogs,” but I didn’t question Marie’s assertion. I couldn’t even remember more than one quarter’s worth of memory verses. What did I know?

“These don’t,” said Iris. “They’re a special kind. They’re all beef.

“Hot dogs have pig in them,” Marie said mulishly.

“No they don’t,” Iris said, her voice rising. She leaned down and held the package where Marie—who could not yet read—could see it. “See?” she asked. Her crimson finger nail stabbed at the package. “It says right there—all beef!”

“Hot dogs have pig in them,” Marie said again, setting her jaw. Iris gave up and fixed her a peanut butter sandwich. I ate the hot dog. It was delicious. “I’m telling,” Marie muttered. “You aren’t supposed to eat pig.

But that afternoon the hot dogs were forgotten. Daddy came home from the woods camp, found out Momma was in the hospital, and went up to check on her. He came back a little later, loaded us into our green and white Ford station wagon, and drove us out to the Caterpillar dealership. Before we left, though, he made sure all the car doors’ locks were firmly pushed down. Daddy had customized our car. The door locks could be pushed down, but once down they were flush with the door and could only be pulled back up again with a key. Our car didn’t have safety belts—Daddy considered them government interference into his private affairs—and our back seat was often laid flat. We four girls scrambled around in what was in essence a small room while we drove down the road. It seems odd, now, that he would consider safety belts effete and foolish but go to the trouble of installing locks that made us prisoners in the car.

That day, like all the others, we girls rode in the back until we got to the Caterpillar dealership, waited while Daddy used the special key to let us out of the car, and then went inside with him and stood quietly, as we had been taught. Daddy leaned on the counter and chatted with the man behind it, ordering parts, checking on back orders, passing greasy bits of machinery across the counter to the man, who turned them over, poked at them, muttered, and then passed them back. We ignored the conversation, as we had long ago learned to do, but then something caught my attention. “Yep, it’s a boy,” Daddy said proudly. “Six weeks early, and on my birthday.” Then he smiled. And that was how I learned that Matt had come to live with us.

After he finished at the CAT dealership Daddy drove us up to the hospital and left us locked in the car while he went inside. He came back out and drove us home, then arranged for our minister’s daughter to babysit us over the weekend so he could go up to the hospital with Momma.

Late Sunday afternoon he drove us up to the hospital again, this time to bring Momma home. He left us locked in the car yet again and went inside for Momma. We bounced and chattered. And then we saw Momma sitting in a wheelchair, holding a tiny blue bundle.

Momma had made two baby blankets before Pam was born, identical except for color. One was pink; the other blue. Five times, she had packed the pink and the blue blankets to go to the hospital. Four times she had held pink-wrapped bundles on her lap on the ride home. But now, at last, she had shaken out the blue blanket, wrapped it around her baby, and lifted him in her arms. Matt was an achievement. We all knew it. He was something new, something special, something different. He was fresh. He was a crisp blue blanket, rather than a tattered pink one.

Momma wouldn’t let us see him in the car. “It’s too cold,” she said. “He doesn’t have any winter clothes on.” Was he naked in there? I wondered. With just that thin blue blanket? It seemed vaguely indecent. At home we rushed into the house ahead of Momma. “Get out of the way, kids,” Daddy snapped when we crowded close as Momma came through the door. “Get back.” We got back, Momma came inside, and Daddy closed the door behind her. And then, at long last, Momma bent down and smoothed the blue blanket back and there was Matt, his head covered with fine platinum down, his lashes smooth crescents against his cheeks. Most babies are not beautiful, but Matt was, pink and gold and perfect, and so very tiny.

Matt was even tinier than my dolls. Daddy could hold him on his forearm, and his feet still didn’t stretch to Daddy’s elbow. “Can I hold him, Momma? Can I hold him? Let me…let me…let me,” the three of us who could talk clamored.

Little Sally just jumped and screamed and held her arms up.

“Go get a pillow,” Momma told Pam. “Sit on the couch…all the way back.” Pam sat, and Momma laid Matt on the pillow. Pam leaned forward, her arms gently encircling Matt on the pillow. After a few minutes Momma lifted Matt and Marie scrambled onto the couch, pulled the pillow onto her lap, and held Matt.

And at last it was my turn. Marie grudgingly handed me the pillow. I smoothed it over my lap and lifted my arms. Momma leaned down and laid tiny Matt gently on the pillow. I could barely feel his weight. I looked down at him in his fuzzy blue suit, then leaned forward as Pam had done and gently encircled him with my arms. I wished I could lift him, hold him close, hug him tightly to my heart. But it was not to be. The pillow would stay, an impenetrable barrier both protecting and isolating him.

Momma helped Sally hold Matt, then lifted him and carried him into the bedroom. “He has to nurse,” she told us. “The doctor said he has to eat often, because he’s too small.”

Later we got to tiptoe in and see Matt again, this time in bed beside Momma. Daddy’s wrapped birthday presents sat beside the bed. And that reminded me—Friday had been Daddy’s birthday. But Momma had been in the hospital, and now was already in bed, Matt sleeping beside her. How could we celebrate Daddy’s birthday? But Daddy had the answer. “Let’s just do it in here,” he said.

“I’ve already got my best present.” He smiled at Momma.

I looked at the packages. The small one was socks; the medium one was work pants, the large one new flannel shirts, I reminded myself. But I mustn’t tell. It was a surprise. “Can we do it now?” I asked, bouncing on my feet. “Can you open them now, Daddy?”

“Just be patient,” Daddy said.

“You’re gonna love it, Daddy,” The words rushed out, propelled by the secret I must not tell. “It’s a surprise and I know it’s just what you wanted.”

Daddy reached for a package and sat down on the bed. Pam and Marie each took another and moved to stand beside him. Daddy’s thick-fingered hands moved slowly, so slowly. “It’s just perfect, Daddy,” I said, my hands clasped tight, gripping the secret.

He peeled back a folded corner, carefully teased the tape free.

“We-got-you-socks-and-shirts-and-new-work-pants,” I blurted.

Daddy stopped opening the package and looked up at me. Pam, Marie and Momma glared. “Why did you tell me?” Daddy asked. “Now it’s no fun to open it.”

“You’ve spoiled Daddy’s birthday,” Momma said. Even baby Matt’s innocence reproved me.

“You can’t keep a secret,” Pam and Marie said. “We knew you’d tell. We’re never going to tell you a secret ever again.”

I looked at Momma lying in bed, at Matt beside her, at the half-opened present in Daddy’s hands, the gifts Pam and Marie still held.  There was no repairing it. A secret told cannot be untold. Daddy’s birthday had shattered around us.

“There’s not point in even opening them now,” Daddy said mournfully. My family looked at me. I looked back. Where could we go from here? Because I had been so excited about Matt’s coming and about the presents, so certain that Daddy would love them, I had ended up snatching away the very thing I had wanted to give more than anything. I still wanted to give the presents, but now Daddy wouldn’t accept them. Pam and Marie stood, angry and uncertain, the scorned gifts in their hands. The birthday had ended before it had properly begun.

We were trapped, I by my family’s anger, they by their assertion that there was no point to a gift if it wasn’t a surprise. If Daddy opened his gifts and expressed pleasure he was contradicting what he had just told me about the joy of a gift being destroyed if the secret was told. If he didn’t open them and express pleasure he was punishing Pam and Marie for my big mouth.

At last Pam found the way. “But you don’t know what color they are,” she ventured uncertainly.

“No,” said Daddy, smiling at her, relieved. “I don’t. I wonder what color you got me?”

“Open it and find out,” she said joyfully.

Daddy bent over his present again, started working the paper loose.

I opened my mouth. “It’s—”

Daddy’s head jerked up, and his eyes pinned me in place.

“Don’t tell,” Marie hissed, her face furious.

I snapped my mouth shut. Daddy, Pam, Marie, Momma, Sally, and Matt picked up the shards of Daddy’s birthday, piecing it carefully together again, finding their way back to a celebration. But they left me behind. I didn’t even wonder why—I knew. I had told the secret. I had spoiled things. I could not be trusted. If it hadn’t been for me, Daddy’s birthday would have been perfect, just perfect.

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Once upon a time there was a girl. She lived with her family in an arid, barren land. They scavenged what they could to survive. It was rarely enough. She had never seen rain. And then one evening they trudged over a rocky hill much like all the others, and there, in the valley beyond, lay a little pocket of green.

“What is it?” the girl asked her sister. Her sister shrugged.

“It’s an oasis,” her father replied.

“What is that?”

“It’s a place of water, and of peaches, apricots, and green and growing things.”

The girl stared. She had never seen such a thing, but suddenly she knew it was the thing toward which they had been walking her whole life. “It’s beautiful,” the girl said at last. “It looks like heaven. I will be happy there.”

“No, you won’t,” her father snorted. “Oases are not for such as we.”

But the girl knew better. She and her sister hurried down the hill rather than lagging behind their parents as they usually did. As they neared the valley floor the girl could hear the plashing of the fountains. She could see the water sparkling through the trees. Golden pink balls hung on the trees. She could smell a sweetness so rich the juices in her mouth—dry for many days—flooded to her lips, and her jaws ached.

She and her sister had nearly reached the first trees when her father said, “We’ll camp here.” Her sister turned and scuffed back toward their parents, but the pull of the oasis was too strong for the girl. She threw a look over her shoulder. Her father stood in the blazing desert sun, his heavy boot crushing a tiny white skeleton. The girl turned back toward the fountains, the green trees, and the peaches.

“Where do you think you’re going?” his voice flicked her back, stinging like a whip.
She stopped again, turned, and stared at him. Could he not see the fountains? Could he not smell the fruit?

“You get back here, little girl,” he roared. “I wouldn’t have believed my daughter could do such a thing, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. You get back here into the desert, where you belong.What kind of a girl are you?”

She cast another glance at the fruit trees and the fountains just a few feet away. She could almost feel the cool water on her face, laving her arms, soothing her feet. She breathed in the peaches’ sweetness, and her jaw ached anew, and the juices flooded her tongue. She could almost taste the phantom sweetness.

“Get back here, or you’ll wish you had.”

She could almost taste them, but she knew her father was right, if she didn’t get back there, right now, she would certainly wish she had. She could hear it in his voice.

Slowly, so slowly, she turned away from the lush, fragrant oasis and trudged back up the hill. Her legs and feet ached. Her younger sister and her mother had busied themselves starting a tiny fire, shaking out the dried animal dung they carried for the purpose into a neat pile, just enough to cook their supper, with nothing left over, nothing wasted. It was the wisdom of the desert, surviving on nothing.

Her mother squatted over the fire and cooked their meal—rabbit tonight, with a few cactus lobes. As a special treat, because the oasis was nearby, she poured water into the pot and made a little broth with the  blood, bones, and flesh. The girl drank her broth greedily, swallowed her tiny cupful of sour goat’s milk—the last the goat would give unless she had another kid, which didn’t seem likely.

When the goatskin waterbag—made from the skin of the last kid, killed and eaten months ago when he could walk no longer—came to her she took her three allotted sips slowly, holding each in her mouth, feeling the membranes swell and plump with the moisture. After her father drank she opened her mouth to ask if she might have more, since they could refill it at the oasis, but before the words cleared her lips he had upended the bag and poured the remainder out on the sand. It sucked the water as greedily as she had. She nearly wept.

“Shall I refill it?” the girl asked.

“No, I will,” her father said. He slung the bag over his shoulder, and strode to the oasis. The girl watched him, black against the blue desert night, then against the village torchlight, and then the golden, sweet-scented oasis poured over him and he was ruddy and bright, teeth flashing white against his black beard and dark face as he greeted the oasis dwellers, slapping backs, throwing an arm around shoulders, a friendly man among friendly men. And then he was lost in the crowd.

It was a very long time before he reappeared at the edge of the crowd, the goatskin water bag turgid and bloated on his shoulder. The girl watched as he raised something to his mouth, took a last bite, threw the remnant into the sand at his feet, wiped his beard clean, and strode, still laughing, to where she waited by the dead fire. She looked at his laughing face, smelled the sweetness of peaches on him, and felt hate swell within her. He saw something of it in her eyes and in her clenched hands.

“What’re you looking so owly about?” he asked. “You look like you’ve lost your last friend.”

She kept the flood of words dammed tight behind her teeth.

He relaxed, allowing her silence to be acquiescence, maybe even approval.

“One of the women there gave me a peach,” he said chattily. “Boy, she sure knows how to fix them—don’t know when I’ve eaten better.”

The hate curdled and turned to self-loathing. The girl knew that she, unlike the woman at the oasis, did not know her way around a peach. The failure crushed her. She would always be less, a desert creature, not a true woman. Peaches were forever beyond her reach, and her father, who had decreed it so, had just made it clear that it was a fatal flaw.

Days later, when trudging through the desert had burned most of the hate away, she asked her father a question. The family sat on a hillside, huddled in the skeletal shade cast by a dead greasewood bush. Her sister lay still, poleaxed by the parching heat. Her father sat in the deepest shade, forearms braced on his knees. He squinted out over the ridges piled up to the horizon. The nearly empty water bag lay beside him. The nearest water was still two days ahead, if it hadn’t dried up. They were having to be very careful.

The girl stared at the flaccid water bag and thought of the oasis, impossibly far away. It might have never been at all.

“Dad?” she asked.

“Huh?” He stared at the horizon.

“Why  didn’t you let me go to the oasis?”

He turned toward her at last. She watched his eyes change focus from the infinite to her tired, dusty face. “You know why,” he said gently. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.”

“But why? You went there.”

“Oases make us weak, not fit to live in the desert. You start eating and drinking every day and pretty soon you come to expect it.”

“But why couldn’t we just live at the oasis?” she asked, greatly daring. “What’s wrong with eating and drinking every day?”

“And leave all this?” he asked, shocked. “We love the desert. The desert purifies us, makes us holy and strong. Only weaklings live at oases.”

“But why was it all right for you to visit the oasis, drink the cold water, and eat the peaches?”

“Because I didn’t enjoy it,” he said. “I only talk and laugh to be polite. What would the oases dwellers think of us desert folk if I just stalked in there, filled the water bag, and stalked out? We have to show them that living in the desert makes us kinder, friendlier, stronger, better. Maybe then they’ll want to live in the desert, too.”

She thought of him walking back to their camp beside the oasis, head thrown back, roaring laughter to the night sky, and she knew he lied. She also knew it didn’t matter, because his lie was part of the story.

‘They sat silent until the shade shifted around to weary afternoon.

“Get the others up,” her father said. “We have to get moving.”

Why? she wanted to ask. How is this barren hillside any different from the next, or the next, or the next? But she knew better. If they did not find water soon, they would surely die. She crawled over to where her mother and sister lay, shook their shoulders gently, nearly  wept to see their sunken, dark eyes open and then film with despair.

They each got a single sip from the water bag. “It’s empty,” the girl’s father said. “We can’t stop until we find water. We’ll be there soon.” Everyone knew he lied. Probably. They trudged off down the hillside. Her sister kept falling. Even when their father snapped at her to “keep up—watch where you’re walking,” her sister kept falling.

They made a dry camp that night on another barren hillside. In the morning her sister’s eyes were open, filmed with sand. Her fingers were stiff and chilly. The girl wanted to cry, but the desert had burned her tears out of her. She left her little sister by the dead fire and trudged on, seeking the water.

The girl didn’t think anymore, and that night, when they made another dry camp next to the dusty streambed that was supposed to have been their salvation, she hardly even felt sad. She just lay still, her cloak pulled around her against the chilling night. She closed her eyes and listened to her breath hissing through her parched mouth, past her swollen tongue.

And then the dim little flame inside her, the flame fed by her rasping, hissing, breath, flickered once, then again, and at last she understood the true wisdom of the desert. The first wisdom—how to live on nothing—she had always known. But lying there, watching the tiny flame at her core gutter, she understood the deeper wisdom, the wisdom that comes when even nothing runs out. Sometimes it’s all right to just stop. And so she did. The hissing rasping fell silent. The flame flickered out, and the desert night was absolute. In the morning her parents trudged on without her. And it was all right.

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