“Secret in the Desert” – Tantra Bensko

In the line to get into Parch, we drove past signs along the pale road which ran through the dried-up lake bed that reminded me of a canvas carried through the dust, spat on by the gods, and wiped off with robes made of thorn. In fact, it was just those gods we were each paying five thousand dollars to see. We hoped they would give us a fashion show some time during that week without water, hoped our very eyes would turn to dust enough that we could blink when the dust storms cleared, and we would see the truth.

I didn’t believe in truth.

One sign said: WHAT IS IN YOUR HEAD IS IN THE GROUND.

The next: OPEN YOUR EYES.

YOUR PUPILS GO STRAIGHT TO YOUR BRAIN.

YOU TURN YOUR WORLD UPSIDE DOWN COMPLETELY WITH YOUR BRAIN.

We knew Parch would turn everything we had ever believed on its head. We didn’t expect the music. It came from everywhere and nowhere, and we looked through our windows for signs of other cars in line playing something so beautiful and saw only other attendees, looking around themselves.

We got to the stand to pay our money, and were given our tickets in the form of chokers. We weren’t allowed to look at them. The ticketeer asked us to close our eyes and then clasped them onto our necks. They felt like living silk. Being a businessman, I had never worn a necklace before. I was to never know what my trinket was, and they were all different, every one. It would affect everything about my week. People were allowed to tell us what our trinkets looked like, but only in lies.

Mirrors were not allowed in Parch. The men were already searching our trunk for those, for water, timepieces, recording or communications equipment, or for hidden dogs that would threaten the lives of the night-cats. We had nothing. We were serious.

Evan worked for me. His trinket was a hand, open, receiving drops of gold from the sky in a line rising from the hand, each drop becoming more transparent, more cloudy, more gone, so that the top ones were only etheric. That’s good, because otherwise the pointy gold drops would have jabbed into his chin when he looked down. And at Parch, you want to be able to look in all directions at any time. You never know what’s going to be leaping, rolling, crawling up your leg, looking at you with big yellow eyes that tell you everything you want to know while dancing with you, licking you up, and laughing. That’s the point of going. We knew this would take our business to new levels when we got back home.

We found our parking places and with our gear set off toward the hundreds of parchment tents spread out in complex forms across the desert. We were given no maps to show us the configurations. They were patterns that could only be understood from above. We hoped we might soon see them, flying with our near-dying minds.

“Your trinket is a night-cat,” I said. “I guess you should touch one if you can. Follow it.” He knew I was lying. He studied my comment and thanked me seriously.

“Your trinket is a globe with all the continents shaped like animals. I see Persia: the night-cat’s eye,” he countered. I smiled while I still could, without hurting my dehydrating lips. I spent my moisture laughing at the parchment balloons on strings, shaped like the god-chimera of animal parts, looking like a mad, ancient clown had gone insane and twisted his balloons into everything all at once and opened his hands to them as they became storm clouds.

Evan took an available tent as I settled into one next to it. The placement of the tents directly around us seemed to be shaped something like the mechanics inside a clock. We noted we were situated at 1 o’clock, and we set off to explore.

Already thirsty, I did my best to ignore my sandy tongue and itchy skin and focus on the gods. They ran around, many times the size of humans, part animal. The parts were always changing, and which animals, morphing as well. A dark god had a dog for one arm and a night-cat for the other, and they fought loudly, their finger-teeth bared and biting. A pale goddess had a mouse for a left hand and a snake for a right arm. The snake chased the mouse all over the goddess’ body, and as it tried to hide in her ear, it was swallowed. A child-god had a bear’s head, but the nose was a fish, which the bear mouth kept trying to catch.

I too was starting to change. I had never seen anything like this before. I had only heard about the annual Parches from participants, otherwise known as “survivors,” who were only allowed to lie about it. No videotapes or cameras were allowed near the event. The lies had led me to believe Parch would be different. I was already formulating my lies for when I got out, if indeed I did. Each year, most people died. That’s why it was illegal, and one reason it was kept hidden using such labyrinthine methods. That, and the gods used it as their private playing ground, their chance to deign to spend time on Earth, showing themselves to no more than three hundred people at a time. For the gods, and for the participants willing to risk death for truth, it was just too much to turn down. But I didn’t believe in truth. And I didn’t want to die.

I could feel the new wrinkles on my neck, the skin loosening. In the hundred and ten degree temperature, I pushed past the fatigue of dehydration with willpower that pumped adrenaline through my body and made everything look like a mirage. The wind kicked up pale dust, and I could barely make out the shapes of the gods. I put on my goggles and breathing mask and called out for Evan but heard nothing. I headed into the white.

I ran into someone’s parchment tent, cutting my ankle on rebar. I wished I could put something on it, but nothing like that was allowed. We had to bleed. We had to fester.

The head of a god smiled at me, his hair long and red. As I got closer I could see he was letting his rabbit hand and his hare foot play together. Dust made his eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair white, like those of an older god. He curled down in front of me as he watched them and chuckled. I took my chance.

I leaped up onto the back of his neck and held onto his shoulders. I saw bunny-hands rushing toward me, but they didn’t quite reach. I had counted on him not being overly flexible, and I was glad I had taken the risk. I was glad I was impulsive, and brave. He stood up, thrashed, tried to knock me off, but I held steady. And when he gave up, I balanced on his shoulders and perused the tents. I wanted to know.

From above, through the dust, their patterns weren’t anything like I thought. They turned into a maze-mirror. From that angle, through the maze-mirror ran black night-cats, huge yellow eyes gleaming, darkness all around them, even in the day. I had wondered how they were to be seen. That was a secret meant only for the gods, and perhaps those who grew so parched they floated their minds above after days in the heat. I had cheated.

“I’ll tell no one,” I told him.

He dislodged me and I fell longer than I should have from that height. I didn’t fall back into the normalcy of the tents as they had been when I left them. Instead, I still saw the sacred vision from the heights, which had remained with me as I neared the ground, or what I assumed to be the ground. I didn’t know any more. The air felt thinner and I shivered from fear. Dust stuck to my lips, and I licked them. A mistake, I told myself each time I did it out of habit. It only made the saliva evaporate, and further dried them in the wind.

I heard his god-voice echo from above: “I’ll let you live because you have that trinket. Any other and I would stomp you up.” As he spoke, the dust grew in his open mouth and filled up the sound, muffling the ending. He spit out the dust that had been vibrated with his words, and they covered me like a blanket of OM. And I knew something I had never known. Something wordless to do with the mysterious trinket they would take from me when I left. But the mirror-maze might let me see.

I landed inside it. The mirrors were darkened by the night-cats, and reflected in something like an X-Ray. A night-cat ran along the side of the maze in front of me and turned its head back. Its owl-like eyes the most intense thing I had ever seen, glowing in the dim light. They lit up the mirrors enough that I could glimpse bones inside my trinket. The bones looked like a skeleton key.

Where was the lock? Was it all the lock? The trinket had unlocked the continuance of my life so far, but for how long? It seemed there were no other people in the maze. There were god faces looking down at me. A goddess with shoulders squirming with toads. I want to tell everyone about this, but I am not allowed. This is lies. I hope you make it through them and come out to something good.

Once the night-cat looked at me, I changed, and I looked up and saw the gods turning into something else. They were all egregores made by animal wishes and by human myths, and they were laughing at me. I was the key. They were the lock.
I felt as if we were making love. I turned to steam. I was pure sexual bliss. I was a bone on fire. I was you. Let my key come unto you. I mean that.

The people who had died in that desert in prior years held the parchment balloons up as if they were helium inside the critter-shaped surfaces. The people’s souls were created by their animal-body’s dreams. They did not exist before, and will not exist for long, before the parchment wears out and they escape into sky and are no longer anything at all again.

This was going to be great for business. Evan and I were recorders of dreams. I couldn’t tell him what really happened, but my newfound enthusiasm for the real value of sacred dreams would drive business through the roof. And maybe he would find his way inside the maze as well, dead or alive. He did have my lie about the night-cat trinket to guide him.

I wandered through the maze, doing my best to determine its shape by the feel of the walls as I moved my hand across them in the dusky light. As I memorized the twists and turns, I decided the maze seemed to be configured something akin to the way the brain is made. I was in the cerebellum.

A night-cat leapt at my face.

I threw it off and licked the blood from my lip, which had already split from dryness and begun to blister. The blood was welcome drink. When I looked up, I was the night sky. I no longer heard music. I vibrated as notes, as frequencies played in mathematical rhythms.

I had been getting awfully tired anyway. This was easier than trying to keep walking when dehydrated in an endless day-night. I was truth.

I no longer needed my dreams and wishes, my myths. I no longer needed the dead skin of balloons to keep them there. They went free. My mind was created by them. It did not exist before. I realized it might not ever exist again. I had no idea if my body was still alive, if such a thing as having a body was something I could have comprehended. I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t know any of this if I had no body, unless I were floating in a parchment balloon. I wanted to poke the world around me to see if it would pop. But there was no way to poke it. I was it.

Yes. Yes, I did have a body. And the night-cat was attacking it.

I came back to my senses and fought it off, flinging it against the mirrored wall. I was bleeding everywhere from its claws. My skin stung, and I felt betrayed. I had created my mind as a god and let it go, yet this creature couldn’t see me beyond being just a mundane thing to bite and scratch. I thought it would be more copacetic than that.

Something like a dozen night-cats came at me, crawling over each other. They would take me in their mouths and shake their heads. They tore off bits. That many of them in one place made the maze go dark. Only the glowing yellow of their eyes remained. I couldn’t tell how many more scampered toward me after that. They piled onto me, and I writhed inside a mound of them, screeching. I thought this might not be so good for business, after all.

I stood still and quiet inside my mind. I was the darkness. I was the sky. But no, I wasn’t. I didn’t know what the heck that meant.

Had I been given the key trinket out of pure chance? Was any one of us singled out for any fate in this life? Or was it all mechanical like a clock, simple, like an animal sans wishes?

Evan leaped into the fray, yelled, and flung his jacket around in circles, up and down, this way and that. I could tell by his voice that he was my friend, and the jacket brushed against me, once it scared away enough of the mound of cat.

“Let’s get out of here!” he yelled. I was ready to go.

We kicked and threw away the rest of the felines and scrambled over the walls, landing in another hall of the maze which had no cats. We ran in a random direction.

“I have a feeling we are going to have to face this thing in full, whatever it is, if we want to make it out alive,” Evan panted.

I certainly thought I had already faced the entirety, become the entirety, and succeeded in my goals. I had let go of illusions. He grabbed me by the hand and we went even faster through the maze. Toward what, we didn’t know.

“I think we’re in the cerebral cortex,” I said, stumbling.

“What? Listen, don’t bother to talk any more. You’re so parched, your words are coming out all blurry and mushy.”

I wanted to ask him how he had gotten into the mirage, but I let it go. He could only tell me a lie anyway.

I spied a hole in the wall about the size we could crawl through and ran toward it. “I don’t know if this is the optic nerve or vestibular or what, but I’m going in.”

He grunted and swore and followed behind me. I hoped nothing awful was ahead of us in this body-sized tunnel. I was glad we were slim men. If we died in there, we would have no place to bloat in a natural way. If anyone found us, we’d come out shaped like cylinders.

The tunnel narrowed. I had to squeeze my body tightly to make progress. It was hard to breathe. I wanted to sleep off my dehydration until I died. I no longer was sure being alive was better than death. I wanted my five thousand dollars back.

At that point the mirror-maze stood high above the earth, amongst space debris and comets, and a giant hand swatted at us. We squiggled through the rest of the tunnel and came out into a round thing that seemed like it could be the cockpit of a spaceship. We swam through the transparent gel inside it. It had a round window through which we could steer through space if we pulled left, right, up or down on a cord. The cord seemed to be a nerve. Perhaps the optic nerve?

As the cockpit was attached to the maze, we could influence its direction but could not fly. I was disappointed, but glad for the gel, the liquid against my skin. I was worried that I could breathe inside it. I decided that must mean I was dead. I had hoped to avoid that.

On the other hand, if I was dead, I wouldn’t know it. I had just learned that. It would take some time to let it sink in. I wanted to at least feel like the sky again. But the sky is not an I. Everything is a lie I tell myself about myself. It’s all as stupid as dreams. Our business was the pretense of implying our ideas upon waking are accurate. This makes it easy to tell no one the truth. The only way I could do that would be to stand in front of people and take off all my clothes.

I plunged my face through a membrane, through something like a pupil, and I took a humongous breath. I had not been breathing when swimming in the globe of gel. I had apparently been holding my breath.

I opened my eyes wide as my head flew up out of the pupil, throwing my hair back, wet with drops of gel, glinting gold in the light of the sun. Evan crawled out, drawing a heaving breath as well, and he made a sound that could have been a laugh. He stuck out his hand to catch some of the gel. I would have smiled if my lips weren’t so cracked and swollen.

We had just blinded the eye of the mirror-maze. The viscous fluid splashing into the brightness would not be seen by the maze, in all its golden splendor. And neither could we.

We turned the world upside down from the mind’s eye, and landed on the cracked ground solidly, on our feet.

We’d survived. We looked back from a perspective beyond eyes.

 


 

Tantra Bensko teaches fiction writing through UCLA X Writing Program, Writers College, and her own academy, featuring Interstitial Fiction Genres: New Wave Fabulism, Magical Realism, Slipstream, Surrealism, and Weird. She has a couple hundred narratives in journals, and her next book is a Slipstream novella from ELJ. She lives in Berkeley. http://lucidmembrane.weebly.com/