First appeared in The Wax Paper, Issue 9 April 2019
On the first night, Grace dreamed of country music. Traditional troubadours like Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson. She woke up with the twang and rhyme of it.
Felt the swing beat somewhere in her hips. But try as she might, she only remembered three words – I love you – and when she reached that part in her mind, she felt certain it was a message from Pearl and tears sprung to her eyes.
Pearl was more like a tumbleweed than a roadrunner. She drifted in and out of people’s lives, going where the wind blew her, making good or bad wherever she found herself, no real compass to hand. Maybe that was to be expected given where she came from. Marfa is, after all, little more than a struggling water stop. A tough something-out-of-nothing town stuck out in far west Texas with not much going for it other than some hard to explain lights in the night sky and a collection of creative folks and resident oddballs. Both of these things were drawcards for those looking to drop off the grid and grow quietly famous for living sparse and living weird.
It sits high and dry in the Chihuahuan desert with mountains cutting the horizon and it’s beautiful in an empty, harsh sort of way. It’s a destination if you’re not from there – and it’s a place to leave if it’s all you’ve ever known. For a girl with itchy feet and restless dreams, Marfa was the kind of place that felt like it was slowly tightening its noose.
She took up running at the age of 11. She’d test her limits by stretching her legs in the stinging heat of the day, pushing herself to run clear out from the tiny street grid, past the gas stations that sell gas and the ones that sell art, past the one blinking street light and the elegant but monstrous Hotel Paisano, past the campground full of scout tents and tepees and neon-coloured nylon scattered across the scant landscape. She’d run past absolutely everything that looked like home and go deep into the big sky desert without anyone realising she was gone. Then she’d turn around and run all the way back home. Back to Marfa.
More than once, she collapsed from heat exhaustion, saw visions of dancing lechuguilla and watched rivers of tarantulas cross the hard-caked earth before her. She’d scrape herself up, stagger back home then plonk herself in front of the box fan, let the hot air blow over her. Dream of ice.
On the second night, shooting stars filled the sky. She couldn’t sleep. Not only was it too humid, but it just felt wrong being alone in bed. So she made a pot of tea, poured it over ice filled to the brim in a tall glass, spilled in some sugar, and sat outside with her back against the barn. She stared into the night and ran memories through her mind like home movies. She sipped at the tea, unaware of the mosquitos landing near her hairline, completely worn out but unable to cry anymore.
Just before first light, ground fog formed a wispy cover across the lawn. It crept up to her feet and swirled around, locked her in tight. ‘This is the best time to run,’ she heard Pearl’s voice whisper. She looked around, felt her skin shiver, tipped her head back, and there they were. Lights streaking through the sky. They broke up and crumbled like glitter across denim. She glanced toward the house, toward the bedroom, and there beneath the dazzling display, she saw a rippling silhouette leaning against the backdoor.
At 15, Pearl was struck by lightning.
She’d run out to see the lights nine miles east of town having begun to believe that they conveyed messages, secret meanings, mysteries open to interpretation. Went in search of guidance and direction, help that wasn’t coming from her caring but absent parents. They were artists who’d come to Marfa because they thought it was the one place where they could eke out just enough of a living doing as little as possible so they could focus on painting and sculpting and conjuring up crazy installations. That’s all they really wanted: to live and breathe art. Having a family hadn’t really figured into their dreams so when Pearl came along, they were shocked and dismayed because it meant they’d have to find more conventional work. But then one evening while out in the cool desert air, they turned to each other with clarity as they both realised the opportunity
Pearl’s arrival presented and set to work the very next day.
While her mother incubated their latest and some say greatest installation, her father gutted the gallery and turned it into a low-tech, functioning hospital room. They created fliers, sent out press releases and the local midwife agreed to play a key role. Before they knew it, on the longest day of the year, Pearl was born to an audience of nearly all of Marfa’s residents and a few thousand tourists who paid $10 each for a look. She was born a spectacle and as she grew up, she, herself, became a landmark to visit. It was no secret that her parents liked the residual attention that brought strangers with fat wallets to their gallery, but they also came to love Pearl like normal parents and they tried their best, making sure that she got to school, had food in her belly and friends over to play. They grew protective of her, too, as the gawkers who wanted their photo taken with the famous Marfa baby continued to descend upon them month after month, year after year. But often their art passion took over and they’d hole up in the gallery working all hours of the day and night, oblivious to their parenting responsibilities.
So at 15, Pearl felt ready to leave, independent enough to streak out on her own, move to a place where she wasn’t such a drawcard. She was ready to see the towns that existed beyond the miles of rock and scrub. Sitting on the viewing deck that night, she watched the lights and looked for meaning as they slid along the horizon and turned back on themselves. Electricity filled the air and lightning struck clear out of the blue.
It left a small burn mark on her shoulder and the exit wound on her big toe was forever numb. Years later, she’d recall the crack of thunder at the very moment the streak burst through the mesh of her sneaker and how she was deafened and paralysed for several seconds. Her mouth popped open and her eyes widened as she watched the lights on the horizon tumble and twirl in the distance. She hobbled back home, duct-taped the hole in her sneaker, packed her backpack and left a short note for her parents. Then she stepped out into the first rays of dawn and ran north.
On the third night, she listened to the wind as it tussled the trees and stung the side of the house. It was one of those relentless wind storms, the kind Pearl used to complain about because they gave her migraines. Wind full of reckless bluster and persistence. Just like Pearl.
She’d hardly any memory of the actual daytime hours. Her brother had been there, telling her to drink this and eat that. Dress, sit, speak. Please, Grace, speak, he said. And she tried. She really did. She looked right at him and opened her mouth to talk but she couldn’t because her eyes filled up and her throat seized. So he simply pulled her close and hugged her, and it felt like nothing. Nothing at all. She’d gone wooden or turned into a facsimile of herself. Completely empty. Her brother sat her down and made her promise that she’d go to bed to lie down at least, even if she couldn’t sleep. Then he kissed her on the forehead and left.
At some point, her head began to hurt. The wind threw itself against the house and the air inside pulsed in response. When the power flickered and finally went out, the hair on the back of her neck twinged and in the darkness, she saw the silhouette again. It stood in the bedroom doorway then walked into the kitchen and pointed to the map of Texas framed on the wall. She stood up and walked toward the apparition and when she was just behind it, it turned and passed right through her. She caught her breath, turned around quickly, but it was gone.
The lights flickered back on and she peered at the map. Marfa was circled in silver.
By the time Pearl was 26, she’d lived in more places than she had fingers to count. She’d blown in and out of Alpine, Fort Stockton, and a little speck of a place called Wink. She spent six months outside of Odessa stealing breathless moments with a rancher’s wife until one day lightning struck again, only this time in the form of an angry husband with a shotgun. She cleaned motel units in Fort Davis, welcomed tourists and locals alike to the cold springs of Balmorrhea, pumped gas in Pecos, collected litter for Denver City, was a live-in housekeeper in Seminole. She flirted with the cowboys and stole kisses from as many of the country girls as would let her. She learned to line dance in Tahoka with a woman twice her age and fell prey to a pack of college boys out roughing up in a place called Sundown.
In every instance, she paid heed to the signs and moved on when things just didn’t feel right any more. The runner in her would take over and she’d simply grab her gear and hotfoot it right out of town. No goodbyes or see you laters. Just up and go. She’d run as far as fifteen miles to reach the next scratch of a town baking under the Texas sun. And after the incident in Sundown, she made her way straight up the panhandle pretty quickly, all the way to the big city of Amarillo. She spent the first day getting her bearings and taking in the sights. Everything from the twenty foot tall cowboy to the strange helium sculpture that doubled as a time capsule, and, of course, the vintage Cadillacs rammed in the earth and pointing west along the interstate. Homesickness hit her like a freight train and she only lasted a couple of days before giving in to the tug back to Marfa.
She visited her parents first and was surprised when they gave her their undivided attention. Her dad fired up the barbecue and the three of them stuffed flour tortillas with peppers and beef before stuffing their hearts and minds with the wandering stories Pearl chose to share. As the night drew in, her parents drifted back to the gallery while she ventured out to the viewing platform. She watched the night fold in on itself and stars appear like fireflies. Her eyes stung from peering into the dark horizon, desperately willing the lights to reveal themselves, when a late-night looker from Austin appeared.
She said she was heading back to the capital, back to her office job, back to what had become familiar and uneventful. She said she drove all the way to Marfa on a lark, that she felt she needed to shake things up, and that she’d hoped the lights might clarify things but she hadn’t seen any all week long.
‘Maybe no lights is a sign, too,’ Pearl offered.
The talk flowed easily then until the first whispers of dawn brought the desert mountains into focus and a sky full of rolling thunder. They shared a common yearning, a desire for adventure, but while Pearl had yarn after yarn to tell, the woman only had wishes and dreams. They were two sides of the same coin and Pearl realised that something about this woman felt like home. And at that exact moment, lightning struck again. It split the sky and raced down her spine before jumping out through her toe and grounding itself. The woman screamed but Pearl recognised the lightning for what it was. She didn’t hesitate. Gathered her things that day, left another note for her parents, and set out east with new hope in her heart.
On the fourth night, she found herself in Pearl’s truck driving west, windows down and the radio blaring country songs with advertisements every twelve minutes. By the time she reached Junction, the cars had well and truly thinned out. She zoomed through Sutton County and over the Devil’s River, stopped for gas somewhere in Crockett and pulled over in Alpine to work some life back into her legs. Gather herself before driving in silence on the final push.
Hers was the only car at the platform and the memories from six years earlier rushed in. There was Pearl sitting on the stone wall, legs dangling, back hunched over, staring into the void. Pearl told her where to look and how they might get lucky. She laughed to herself. They didn’t see a single light that night but she had, indeed, been lucky. She’d been mesmerised by Pearl especially after the lightning strike. Followed her through the streets of Marfa, felt something grow and dance between them as they circled the outskirts of town together. And when the sun went down, Pearl announced that she’d travel back with her.
Over the years, they hiked through just about every canyon and dried up riverbed in the whole state. They floated on inner tubes down more than one hill country river, slept under the stars at the foot of Enchanted Rock, taken long runs to the gulf coast just to dip their toes in the saltwater. All those spur of the moment trips. She knew they were the only reason she managed to hold onto Pearl for as long as she did.
On this night, she scanned the horizon, prayed for the lights to reveal themselves and when something glittery caught her eye on the opposite side of the platform, she squinted and the ghostly figure appeared. It pointed south and there far in the distance were little orbs that swayed and circled, flickered from right to left and swooped in on themselves. The apparition edged closer, sat down beside her Fading light dangled
over the ledge.
‘I miss you,’ she said.
The figure pulsed and leaned toward the lights.
She nodded. ‘Go.’
And with that, the spirit leapt from the ledge and shot straight into the heart of the desert. A streak in the sooty dark, blending with the dancing lights, the mysteries of Marfa. Home.
First appeared in The Wax Paper, Issue 9 April 2019