INVENTORY: a matchbook-sized sewing kit. Figure-eights of wound thread in black, brown, blue, pink. A small brown button. Three needles, three pins. My favorite travel accessory.
I wiggle a pin out of its slot. Sitting on the warm sidewalk at a rest stop, my head, neck, shoulders are resting in Kit’s lap, arched to expose the small itchy bump on the underside of my chin.
I say, “This must be my fluke hair. Do you ever get those? Remember Bonnie had one on her shoulder and it was so long the end of it poked out of her shirt sleeve?”
“Stop talking or I can’t see it.”
“Okay.” I shut my mouth.
“I meant a short-sleeved shirt sleeve,” I say.
Putting her left index finger and thumb on either side of the ingrown hair, she pulls my skin taut. “There it is,” she says, “tiny line coiled just below the surface.” She holds the pin flush with the skin and pokes. I try not to flinch. I study Kit’s face above mine, years of concentration already etching in lines, echoes of attention and focus, determination. I wonder if she has ever studied me so intently before. I feel her use the tip of the pin like a crowbar against the hair, but it’s rooted tight. I picture the skin flushing red, a minute drop of blood. I wonder if Kit can also hear the faint snapping of the point against the hair. Finally something breaks free; the end of the hair is loosened and uncoils from the skin.
“Oh, thank god.” I open my eyes. “How long is it?”
She teases its length out. “Almost an inch, I’d say. Fluke hair indeed. You want it plucked?”
I smile and sit up, say, “I’ll let it flap in the breeze a little.”
A small museum dedicated to Billy the Kid, packed with artifacts from the earlier half of the twentieth century. Between two yellow blossoming cacti outside, we leave some ashes. Her favorite blooms. Inside, rooms of antique guns, tools, and saddles give way to roomfuls of buggies, cameras, typewriters, and more guns and more tools; a museum of brown things made of leather and rust. Walking into the room of equine equipment, I fall in love. A sign taped to the glass case: SIAMESE HEREFORD CALF calf has 2 bodies and 8 legs Two legs are on top and six on the bottom This calf was born on the Dickenson Ranch in 1942. Purchased and put on display in 1958. It doesn’t say when the calf died. Animal magnetism unto me. The impossible object, confoundedly made to be at home in the world—the natural world that’s always trying new ways of surviving, not this indoor world of industrial artifact.
“Hello, spectacular creature,” I say, crouching down to see her face. One eye stares over my shoulder.
The calf looks like something that might’ve grown out of the ground. All lump and leg. Mangy and eaten away at, absolutely dead and still aging. Two bodies fighting over a single head at one end, legs in a tangle at the other, flanked by two tails. Splendor of her fearful symmetry.
“How did you ever stand up or walk on your own? How long was your life? And how on earth were you birthed?”
“Oh, how you love an abnormality,” Kit says behind me. (In the past: a wingless chick precious pet, fascination with news stories of frogs altered by chemical dumps, conjoined faces of daisies.)
An outlaw by nature, I think. Didn’t even have to shoot anybody. “You are perfect,” I tell the calf. “You are peculiar and beautiful and tremendous.”
I stare and try to memorize all of her deteriorating details—whorls of fine tawny hairs, the angles of the joints in the sprawling legs, the grain of the hooves, it all seems like a holy text that’s written only within her body—until Kit’s made her way through the rest of the museum and comes back to drag me away. She’s burned into my vision: the silhouette floats and glows wherever I look.
At Dos Caimanes, we drink free refills of hot black coffee, split a burrito platter (red side Kit’s, green side mine). The sky is dark through the diner window, big curtains of clouds shutting down the sunset to a thin strip of fluorescent pink like the leg of a supine flamingo. Our secretly unshod feet pile on each other under the table. I lean back against the booth seat, feel my body gently swayed by my heartbeat. I’m thinking about the idea of outlaw, whether murder is necessary, if thievery is required. I wonder what kind of life the calf may have lived, what law of nature she defied. On a napkin, Kit makes the tally of jars to dollars to gas to miles, studying the map in her mind.
A night spent in the Honda, mountains edging the horizon outside every window. Knock-off Native woven blankets, all acrylic, no wool. The constant forward motion of the day’s driving thrums through our muscles, a phantom throttling down the road. My foot thinks it steps on the gas and the highways go swirling around our heads. We roll and dream and roll and dream.
Sometimes I look at the invisible things in our jars and just think all this is different parts of the universe here in one place and then I remember that all the parts of the universe are always here anyways because it’s all swimming and here is far as much as it is near. I think if any of the invisible things were visible they might look like the mirage that rises off the street, rippling and quaking.
We stop for gas in the early afternoon and while Kit pumps, I go in the store part and buy peanut butter and jelly and a loaf of bread. The jelly is in a glass jar we can use later. The girl at the counter is maybe sixteen. I pay in exact change and notice her duckish lips she hasn’t grown into and maybe never will. Her name tag says KIMBERLEY. All ten of her fingers drum the countertop, chipped green polish at the bouncing fingertips. They’re moving fast, as if she’s not quite in control.
I pause, feeling the squish of soft bread under one hand, the hard, flat jar lids under the other. “Hey,” I say, feeling bold, thinking maybe I can distract her from whatever’s got her jittery, “do you think you have to see things to really believe them?”
Her eyes snap onto mine like she’d been waiting for someone to ask and she says, “Yes, I think so. But I don’t think everyone can see things the same.”
“Well, these angels? Two of them. They’ve been fighting at the foot of my bed every night the past two years—doesn’t matter what bed I’m in. Keeps me from getting good sleep but no one believes me that they’re there. No one else has been able to see them. So, yeah, I do think you have to see things to believe, yes.”
I don’t know what I expected—ghosts, maybe, or mythical roadside attractions. “How can you tell they’re angels?”
“They’re kinda see-through, bluish and glowing. They look like what we put on top of our Christmas tree—like Marilyn Monroe with fluffy wings—they have wings different sizes and those gold hoops over their heads. They look nice but, god, they fight hard.”
“What a nightmare.”
“I mean, I wish it was just a nightmare. Then I could at least wake up from it. They don’t make any noise, but they wrestle so rough the bed moves and thumps against the wall and wakes up the house. And no one believes me. It’s like I can barely live without all that sleep.”
I think of Kit and tell Kimberley I have something that might help. I gesture that I’ll be right back and go out to the Honda. Kit’s sitting on the trunk. I tell her what Kimberley told me and Kit slides off and opens our stock.
“What do you think?” I ask.
“Not an animal. Something…placid and galactic.”
We pull different jars half out of their paper nestlings so we can read the labels.
“She needs something far away.” I pick up a baby food jar near the back of the box: WHAT IS LEFT AFTER A STAR EXPLODES. “Maybe this.”
It’s a little risky to choose from such a wide assortment for someone else, I think, rather than letting them feel what they need, be drawn to something. But there’s also something to be said for the prescriptive element, of someone handing you what may be a solution, doing that work for you.
Back inside, I put the jar on the counter.
Kimberley looks anxious still, reads, “…after a star…How will this help? It sounds violent and they’re already—”
“You just keep this with you,” I say. “It’s not like for inhaling or putting on your body, but it came from a place far away from Earth, a silent place, where there’s this dark pocket of stillness, where whatever’s capable of existing will be sleeping for a long time. In the way we measure time on Earth, I mean.” She looks at me with her eyebrows raised so high I wonder if she thinks I’m an alien.
She lets out a big breath. “Okay. I mean, I’ll try anything, I guess? Might as well. Is this what y’all do? Ride around delivering…whatever?” She holds the jar up, looks in, and her eyes wobble through the glass. “Looked like you have more in your trunk.”
“We trade them. We’ve been traveling for a while.”
“Mhmm.” She punches some buttons on the cash register, the draw- er rings open and she slams it shut. “Don’t worry about the gas,” she says. “People drive off all the time, so.”
Then she empties the leave-a-penny-take-a-penny tray into her hand and empties her hand into mine, fingers still twitchy. “Boss calls these karma pennies,” she says. “See how they treat you.”
Outside, Kit’s pulled the Honda around to the side of the store. I get in the passenger seat and pour the pennies into one of the cup holders.
“Small trade there,” Kit says.
“Plus the gas. Don’t fret, sister.”
“Oh.” Some muscle in her face unclenches, softens her. She hands me a sandwich. A wind must’ve blown through while she was making it because the inside is gritty between my teeth. But I like feeling land in my mouth.
A blessing: this small basket of sopapillas, sopapillows, little pouches with clouds of dough aroma tucked inside; we tear off corners with our teeth like hungrily opening love letters, vicious to get to the sweet honey writing on the inside like gold leaf. Ideally, I could crawl in and fall asleep. Surely that is what happens in a paradise. Mouthfuls of hallelujah.
Driving through Spaghetti Western-lookalike geography, except out here it’s the real West, fake spaghetti. Thinking about movie cowboys, how I always wanted them to be the Robin Hood type but the only poor they ever seem to give to is themselves. I guess they don’t promise they’re going to be a hero. So American that way: shoot for loot, then ride off to some other territory. Staying nameless and shameless. I wonder if the calf ever had a name, something not marking her strange nature with disgust, a name that wouldn’t make her seem like a sideshow. A name that embraced the goodness of her outsider-hood.
Sign after sign warning about hitchhikers and the state prison, about being near the border, all down this winding gray-stripe of highway that eventually leads us to the diner Bonnie had told us would be here. “Eat yer eggs an’ have ’em too,” she’d said.
It’s a plain wood-sided house with a gravel front yard full of yucca and cacti and all kinds of shining, iridescent ornaments that spin gentle in the wind. We sit at a table on a back patio facing the bird yard. Red, black, white chickens, some more exotic and spangly-feathered than others. White geese, a few ducks, a flock of peacocks, and interloping sparrows and black birds. We marvel at their movements: so ungraceful, almost mechanical yet all their own, these animals preoccupied with their insatiable appetites and desire for authority and territory. We watch until the waitress slides our food before us on hot platters: generous tortillas stuffed with beans and peppers and slithers of onions, swimming in a pool of blood-red sauce. Kit’s has a fried egg laying on top, the yolk sagging over the side.
“I just want to dip my whole face right in it,” she says.
“Egg on your face, more ways than one.” We smile at each other. “Very happy that this journey has brought us such bountiful plates,” I say.
“Very happy that you are very happy. Hope we don’t get sick of them.”
I gesture toward outside with my fork and say, “Wonder which one of those girls your egg came from.”
“Hopefully one who is living a fulfilling life, however brief it may be,” she says.
“I wonder what kind of chicken and egg mishaps happen here.”
“What, like mixing peacocks and chickens?”
“Like eggs with two yolks. Three yolks. Eggs with a little more chicken inside than intended.”
“What can go wrong in an egg, you know?” I grin.
“Thinking about that calf?”
“I’m just curious about the odds, is all. How frequently does one head get matched to two bodies? How often is it one body to two heads? And with that many limbs—the possibilities are endless!” I swipe the last cor- ner of my burrito through the saucy carnage on my plate and stuff it in my mouth. “It’s not just me, Kit,” I say with my mouth full. “Someone else thought she was special enough to preserve.”
Kit just laughs like she’s heard this before.
The burritos are hot and the air outside is hot and soon our stomachs, already in the upper nineties, are full of more hot and the heat expands us, makes our hands and feet pink and heavy. The blood in my head is buzzing with spices. Tongue aflame.
After, we go and mingle with the birds. I don’t tell Kit but I scatter a little Bonnie I had pocketed in their feed on the ground, which I think she’d enjoy. A pen of scraggly new ducks in the shade, a couple of the peacocks roost on top of it and their tails flow down the side like so much water. They caw and I wonder if it’s aimed at us. It’s the loudest thing I’ve heard in a while. Kit and I just look at them and wander around, reveling in being so close to creatures we’ll never understand, who maybe don’t understand each other. Food and territory: we have these concerns in common.
We stop for gas at a station that looks abandoned: tall sign rusted out, logo half-shattered, store windows full of dust and faded beer signs. But there’s gas in the pumps and someone making change inside. Someone who looks like a middle-class mom (bright white sneakers and sensible, dry, bobbed hair) gets out of the minivan. Do they even make mini- vans that aren’t that color maroon anymore? I wonder. We’re on the other side of the pump, watching the gallons and cents tick up. I’m tired, hot, wind blowing the sweat cool on my back. The mom-woman plugs the nozzle into her gas tank and flinches when I say, “Excuse me, hi,” but she turns around, doesn’t lower her sunglasses. “You wanna buy a jarred soul?” I restrain myself from waggling my eyebrows at her. “Belonged to an elk, you look like the elk type—strong and kind of refined, you know?”
This is a lie I don’t expect to tell. She looks more like the bowling shoe type. Kit managed to get something (UNSEEMLY LOVE) from a bowling shoe once. Never underestimate the powers retained by things that rapidly house various human-energy outlets, particularly ones that have “soles.” I don’t expect this woman to say anything back but she does:
“Does it have a shape—a physical form?”
Kit’s glaring at me, eyes saying, Do you have to be so casual with this really I am also tired come on. I dig out the jar labeled ELK (COW) and show her. Our gas pumps thump at the same time. “You can’t physically see it,” I say, “but she’s in this jar.”
“Oh,” the woman says, waving a hand at it, “I can’t handle invisible things.” She slides open the wide door of the van. No kids inside, just deep plastic tubs loaded with rocks. “I deal in minerals, stones, crystals—I need my energies in a physical form, you see. Something solid, something that won’t escape.”
“Would you like to buy one?” She asks in a cool, saleswoman voice.
“Gloria. Tank’s full,” Kit says from the driver’s seat.
Slightly crestfallen (crestwilted, crestslumped), I ask if I can just look at one. She leans into the van, finds something, holds her fist over my hand. A knuckle-sized piece of watery gray falls into my palm. “It’s quartz,” she says. “Smoky. Unclear.” I roll it over my fingers, hear Kit buckle up.
“This isn’t right for you, either,” the woman says, voice low.
I know she knows. I say thank you, put the quartz back in her hand, and she holds my fingers for a second. “Good luck,” I say.
“Same to you.”
We do our best driving at dawn, when the light changes from blue to gold, and the landscape’s events get revealed like a blanket pulling back. Rock formations and humps of bushes transform back from the sleeping things they become in the dark. Our little silvery Honda heralding the light, waking up the desert as we chase forward, trying to cover a distance before the sun does. The afternoon light is diamond-hard; the road is a long mercurial tongue lapping us up.
Kit’s driving and I’m dozing with one foot out the window, dreaming about being forced to eat small rocks that are actually gelatin, when I wake up because the car’s stopped, engine off.
“Are we outta gas?”
“No, I just…took a detour.” Kit grins, looking past me out the window.
The sun’s starting to dim and lower. I pull myself up through the sun- roof and look around like the turret of a tank. We’re on a dirt road flanked by rows of clapboard buildings the same color as the dirt. Their porches sag into the road like wide tongues hanging out of mouths, railings and posts leading up to same-sagging skeletons of awnings and the upper arches of facades reaching high. The buildings all have several boards missing from their sidings, some walls bearing holes, but I can’t tell if the holes came from something trying to get into or out of the buildings. There’s a breeze and I think I hear creaking. Most of the windows I can see are cracked or missing, and what window panes have stayed are coated in gray dust. Outside the buildings, there’s no detritus of human life—no evidence. Our Honda is the newest thing here.
“There was a sign,” Kit says. “It’s a ghost town.”
In the fading light, the dirt road leads into hills that darken into each other, into what might be a dead end.
“What kind of sign?” I ask. “Blue or brown?”
“Brown.” She raises an eyebrow. Brown means it’s a state thing, an officially recognized yet likely not-attended-to joint. “Of course, the sign didn’t say ‘ghost town’ outright,” she says, “but, you know, jargon, codes.” She starts to get out. “It’s a jackpot.”
My eyes fix on a building on our left, behind Kit, with triangles of curling ironwork like cobwebs in the corners where posts meet porch roof. The windows and doors are boarded up completely. The letters F E _ D are still nailed to its front, a sun-bleached phantom shape filling in the other E. I slide back down and crouch in the passenger seat. My heel slips into a crack in the vinyl.
“Ethical?” I ask. We haven’t done it this way before, going to a graveyard or someplace haunted. My stomach tumbles, internal turbulence.
Her brow furrows at me.
“I mean it just feels like…hunting at a zoo, or something,” I say. “A little too fish-in-a-barrel.” My mouth feels grainy, like I ate something too sweet, and I can’t pull my eyes off the dark windows of the buildings, some kind of magnetism gripping my eyes, my mouth, my stomach. The road feels narrower.
“You think this is a ghost zoo? No. Whatever’s here hasn’t been caged, hasn’t been hunted down. We don’t even deal in ghosts, Gloria, you know that. This is just a place of saturation.” Her tone is annoyed, but coaxing.
I don’t know what to say next but it doesn’t really matter because something about the road distorts and the faces of the buildings yawn open like mouths and I have to quick open my door and vomit onto the road. Beany.
“Ah, shit.” Kit opens her door and comes around to my side. The keys in the ignition make the open door beep morse code for H, for Honda. I don’t like putting the sound into such an empty place, a place I don’t think wants us in it. I feel like an interloper.
Kit puts her hand on my forehead and her palm feels warm, the fingers cool. I’m glad she knows how to do mother-gestures sometimes. I heave forward into her hip and burp. Kit catches what breath she can in a jar she snags from the backseat. Later I’ll make a label: APPREHENSION (ABOUT EXPLOITING A DESERTED DESERT TOWN).
I spit onto the road, catch my breath. The rancid taste brings up a memory.
“Kit, I hadn’t thrown up in twelve years,” I say. “Remember? It was at your birthday party.”
“Well, it was after the party. And we decided to go to a skating rink even though we thought we were getting too old.”
“Oh yeah, it was just us and a bunch of little kids we didn’t know. And I—”
“You spun too much and puked right on the rink,” she laughs, “and some of them skated through it and fell down, right in your puke.”
I laugh and lean my cheek against the car door. “We ran out and Bonnie was waiting for us in the station wagon, motor running, like she knew we needed a getaway. And I ate more cake when we got home.”
Kit hadn’t been mad that I’d puked on her birthday. We’re quiet for a moment as the memory settles around us.
“And now we’re here and you’ve ended your streak.” She sighs, but I can’t tell if it’s tired or disappointed. She takes a half step back from me and looks down the road, some plan forming in her brain.
I wait a little while before I say, “Sorry I puked on you, Ghost Town.”
Kit paces, one hand rubbing her stomach, considering. The buildings have loosened their grip on my senses, but my feeling of intruding remains.
The sky is bruising and Kit says, “We’re gonna sleep indoors tonight.”
“Inside the car’s indoors,” I say.
“Nope. Real doors. Walls. Floorboards. Inside. Don’t you miss houses?”
“It’s been a while—they’re here—we’re here—why not? Cheaper and closer than a motel.”
“No way. I think we should get back in the car, drive somewhere else. Like into tomorrow.”
INVENTORY: Kit’s pulling our blankets out of the backseat, the boxy yellow flashlight, peanut butter and Saltines. All these things that feel like part of me. She fills her arms, says, “Grab Bonnie. We’ll go to that small one on the end.”
I get Bonnie’s jar from between the seats and hold it against my chest. Blue shades of night are swallowing up everything around us. “Kit,” I call, “I have some serious heebie-jeebies about this.”
She keeps walking away, flashlight beam dancing ahead of her, and jingles the keys over her head.
I think about what might be inside, about what the dark might be concealing, about what makes the ghost of the ghost town, about what’s worse: outside and alone, or inside and with this sister?
I walk toward her, say, “Will you just tell me what’s going on, why you want to do this?”
“Didn’t you feel it when you threw up?”
“Yeah, I felt terrible, what does—”
“Wait—I felt it but you didn’t?” she says.
“This vibration! It was like a rubber band had been plucked, stretching between your stomach and that building.” She jabs her thumb over a shoulder. The whites of her eyes glinting.
I hadn’t felt it. Maybe too busy feeling sorry and creeped out about barging in here. I hadn’t noticed the building Kit’s headed toward, like all the other buildings were hiding it.
We walk down the road, Kit has one arm loaded with our stuff and holding the flashlight, the other stretched out to her side, hand in line with my stomach, feeling some current, I guess. I assess my insides: numb and deflated.
The building she leads us to is a narrow A-frame, porchless, worn. Dirt packed between grooves in the wood. The door has four panes of glass neck-high. Kit tries the knob. It rattles, squeals through corrosion, but doesn’t open. She tries again, leaning into it with one foot pushing against the door frame; we hear a schink and she pushes a little harder. The bolt breaks inside and the door opens.
“Oh look at that,” Kit says. “Just had to encourage the disintegration.”
We step inside, flashlight on, and my head fills with stale smells and dust. Our circle of light reveals a wooden floor, exposed beams in the slanting ceiling, a long low table on the left side, a tall cabinet against the back wall, and to the right: ghosts. I freeze and Kit lets in a small gasp, but she steadies the light so we can see the rack of draping, long, white garments, swaying in the push of air we brought in. This place is small enough that Kit just reaches her arm out and touches them, rubs the fabric between her fingers. I’m clinging to her back, jars of Bonnie and peanut butter wedged between us by my arm, and I can see little pleats, scalloped edges, no waistlines. Long sleeves.
“Are those…nightgowns?” I ask.
“Hmmmm,” says Kit. “What was going on in here?” She closes the door behind us.
A moth flies out from between the folds, draws toward the flashlight. Now that we’re inside, I think, I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up, I don’t feel like I’m being swallowed.
“Do you feel anything?” I ask her.
“A humming, in the air. Do you feel anything?”
“Nothing. But, different from what I felt out there.”
Kit spreads a blanket on the floor and we settle our bodies down on it, flashlight beaming up between us. We make dry sandwiches with the crackers, eat them slow. I try to keep quiet. I try to ignore the tension in my muscles.
“So we were outside,” Kit says, voice low, “and you were sick, stomach emptied, and now we’re inside, and you feel okay, and you’re filling your stomach.” She says this like a kind of math.
I look up, wobble the flashlight around the peak of the ceiling. Thin silver lines looping and crawling, like slug tracks, or some kind of map. Celestial.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Kit. I don’t know why you felt some- thing connected to me and I didn’t. Maybe the scorning feeling I had got puked out and then you could sense it?” I chew. “Tell me about the humming you felt.”
“It kind of is like…what you remember feeling right before something important happens. The feeling you have before that you only realize after—the feeling that comes before the car crashes, or before you meet someone you might fall in love with, or before someone else says exactly what you’re thinking—a premonitory feeling, but very small, and quiet. That vibration between layers of thought. That hum.”
I’m surprised she knows it so well. “Did you feel it before Bonnie died?”
Kit puts her hand on the jar of ashes, runs her finger around the gold lid. She looks at me, says, “No.” Says, “I think she’d been feeling it for years. Maybe even since we were born.” Kit lies down, hefts the jar up and holds it over her ribs. “That’s what kept her from being afraid of dying, you know? Bonnie isn’t in here. I mean, she is, but she isn’t. She knows that. We know that. I think it’s partly why she wanted us to learn how to feel these things, so we could recognize them without being thrown off by them.”
The calf drifts into my mind. I wonder if I’m remembering feeling what Kit’s talking about, or if I’m superimposing a memory. The calf makes an ache in my heart and a seizing along my nerves. Am I thrown off by this feeling, this new wanting? I was already thrown off by loss; the possibility of a new having is strikingly weighted in the aftermath of that. I look at Bonnie’s jar and the diminishing ashes and would like to label it LONGING.
“It’s awful being so far away from her,” I say.
We are quiet in the awfulness for a while.
“As much as she wanted to be everywhere—” Kit says, “‘don’t bury me and keep me in one place’ and all that—and as much as we wondered what invisible spirit might have rushed out the moment she died, too quick to catch, I do wonder if she’s been fully freed.”
“Like if she really is all in the jar, in the ashes?”
“Like if it’s what she expected it to be, I guess. And if any part of her feels caught. She was devoted to the hidden world—bodiless, intangible, transcended things. Believing she’s part of that now, I do reckon there’s part of her that’s still tied to this world so long as it’s within the confines of this jar.”
I’m surprised to hear Kit questioning this. Usually her lack of doubt feels powerful enough to capture.
“I wonder what it’ll feel like when the jar is empty. To have none of her left.”
“Maybe she really will feel everywhere.”
We are quiet in the possibility for a while.
“I wonder what this place will look like in the morning,” I say.
“All will be revealed,” Kit says. She puts the jar on the floor between us. “Isn’t that right, Bonnie?”
Curled under blankets, I grab Kit’s hand, think about sleeping.
Sister Golden Calf was published by Split/Lip Press on September 19, 2023. It can be ordered here.