The ocean feels far away in the dry redness. The succulents and cacti and scrub are too brown or too washed-out green to cut through the aching and endless brightness. Dilapidated fences of powdering wooden stakes and ancient strands of barbed wire run parallel to the road. Asphalt is bleached white by the sun and the pounding of sand it gets when the wind blows. The horizon is broken by far off rock formations, red stones reaching towards the sky in silent ancient prayer.
Arizona is beautiful, sometimes, but now I just feel like it’s hot and dirty. Grit sticks to my socks inside my shoes and every bit of me is damp with sweat. My hair is too short for a ponytail but too long to keep it off my neck, and the strands feel like slippery little fingers running across my skin. I still feel the residual shiver from the blasting air conditioner of the school bus.
My tank top sticks to my skin. A fold of cloth is tucked beneath the left wire of my bra. It sticks to my skin when I pull the fabric away. The bookbag straps cut into my shoulders.
The side of the house shines with corrugated metal, big chunks cut out for the windows made of stolen glass and slotted into unsanded wooden beams and the roof curves gently, long and thin just like the house. The driveway is loose gravel, lined with half-bricks. Two crumbling pots hold the parched remains of tomato and jalapeño pepper plants. Even my mother cannot keep desert plants alive in a desert.
Instead of front steps we had cracked concrete blocks, the ones with the big holes in the middle. The first step finally broke in half a few weeks ago. Dave replaced it with a couple of stolen dog-eared Yellow Pages, stacked on top of each other. The smooth covers slipped against each other. The pages were already feathered from the nibbling of ground squirrels and kangaroo rats. It gives softly under my feet, gently working its way down further into the sand.
The rubber toe of my sneaker catches on the next step and I stumble my way through the front door. I catch my weight on the standing-up crate we use as an entrance table. The little metal tray with spare change and bottle caps and pop tabs and the car keys with the yellow smiley face keychain clatters to the ground.
“Shit.” I drop to my knees and scramble to drop it all back down into the tray, holding my sunglasses off my eyes with one hand.
“Sofiá?” Her voice crackles with sleep. At 4:38 in the afternoon.
She’s in the living room on the couch. The Peruvian woven blanket is draped over her legs like an art installation. Four bottles and two cans are leaving ring marks on the coffee table.
My mother says she isn’t an alcoholic. She doesn’t drink every day, she doesn’t even drink very often, but when she does… Her binges are like clockwork, once a month like they follow the insanity principle of the full moon.
Instead of werewolves, I have a roaring, babbling creature in my living room. It’s worse than a werewolf because she still has my mother’s face.
“Why would you..?” Take a breath. “Mommy, why would you do this again?”
“Do what again?” Her words blur together. Her eyes were bleary and bloodshot. The yellow crust of sleep rims her right eye and creeps up on the bridge of her nose.
“You said you would stop!”
“Honey, we’re celebratin’! I got a call on my phone and we won a cruise.”
I would have believed her, too, except for the small, watery chuckle that leaked from her lips. “Jesus fucking Christ.” I reach out over the table and sweep my arm across it. Bottles and cans roll and one of them leaks out liquid onto the floor.
The screen door slams at the back of the house and I can hear the sickeningly familiarly sound of biker boots on tile floor. Dave walks into the room with a can in his hand, water dripping off his fingers. “Who’s yelling?” he asks, then looks at me. “You’re home.”
“You gave Mom drinks again!”
“I wanted something, she asked for a swig.”
“A swig?” I cried. “Just a sip? What about the six drinks in the living room?”
He grabs the front of my shirt. “Watch your mouth.”
“Get off me!” I bat against his arm and twist in his grasp. He releases me and I dart backwards, towards the backdoor and I shed my backpack when I reach the tiny porch.
I keep moving but he’s faster than I am and he grabs me by the shoulder, spins me around. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Instead of answering, I try to shove my elbow into his beer gut. “Get out of my house! Get out of my life!”
He puts his hands against my chest and shoves hard. I tangle up my own feet and start to pinwheel my arms. Hitting my elbow on the banister, I fall down the stairs with a thud. My head sinks into the sand, my feet still propped up on the bottom step. Pulling myself backwards, I scrambled against dry and shifting sand to push myself up.
He sees me moving away and, stomping down the stairs, Dave comes towards me. He grabs me by the wrist and pulls me up sharply, holding my arm up above my head.
“Don’t fucking touch me!” I twist my arm towards the weak point of his thumb and slide out of his grasp. I try to back myself up with a knee to the groin but I miss and my shin collides with his thigh instead. More surprised than hurt, he jerks away from. I kick off the side of the porch for traction and Dave can’t catch me. He doesn’t try.
My bike is leaning against the far corner of the house and I kick one leg over while I’m still running, pedaling hard. On the paved road, I sail. I soar with wings on my feet, my heart thudding so hard it hurts my ribs.
Peregrine falcons follow one of the longest migration patterns of North American birds—it can add up to more than 15,000 miles round way. That’s why they’re called “peregrine,” from the Latin root peregrinus. It means wandering.
Their calls remind me of the ocean, with high whistling and sharp clear cackles, like a sound you make in your throat. Krak krak krak. No longer on the endangered species list, they could be laughing.
Half of the songs on my phone are ambient noises, and another third of those are falcon calls. So when I hear that familiar krak krak krak, it takes me a few seconds to put my hands on the brakes. I don’t have headphones on, there’s no sound playing, it’s coming from real life.
Splitting off the main road is a service exit with space for accident victims or breaking down cars to stop instead of the shoulder. It leads up to a tall chainlink fence surrounding a power pylon. By the base is a big black-painted box and the rest of it is slightly rusting metal in a crisscross pattern that reaches maybe fifty or sixty feet up.
On one of the broad bars of the structure is a big brown blob. Too far away to identify. I take the turn slowly. There’s never been a reason for me to come over by the pylon before. A big gray box at its base hums loudly with electricity and the air feels all shivery with the humming. The hairs at the base of my neck prickle and stand a little straighter.
I get off and walk the bike at the end of the pavement. There are broken stones and gravel at the very front of the gate. Curiously, I pull at the gate. Locked. I lean my bike against the fence and start walking to the left, staring upward.
There it is again. Linking my fingers into the fence, I squint up towards the sky, pushing my sunglasses onto my sweaty forehead. A glimpse of feathers, the tip of a gray wing. The back of a dark gray head. My heart hops. “Oh shit,” I breath, and prepare to jump the fence.
The thin metal cuts into the ridges of my fingers as I raise myself up. My toes slip against the squat diamonds and I scrabble to use my legs as I climb. The metal is sun-warmed, getting hotter on my hands as I move higher. The long bar at the top reflects the sun and hurts my hands. I hoist myself over the top and fling one leg over the side, then the other. I let my heels slip out of their holds and I fall. Air pumps out of me in a big whuff and I scrape my palms on the rocks on the ground.
Curling my fingers over, I rub at the skin while I slowly pick my way towards the pylon, afraid to make noise in case I scare off the peregrines. Still looking up, I slowly encircle the outer edge of its base.
There’s definitely a recognizable feathered head in there and it stares down at me, clicking its beak twice and then letting out another krak. I keep walking, only inches from the pylon, until my arm hits against something. The service ladder. I immediately begin climbing it reaching up one hand at a time. When I reach the beam the birds are on, I tentatively lean forward and catch myself on the long metal beam.
I throw one leg over it and slowly start to inch myself forward. The falcon’s head shoots up to look at me and we stare into each other’s eyes. They’re a beautiful, shiny black, rimmed with a line of yellow feathers. She stands proudly, her little chicks huddled in the nest beneath her.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I whisper, moving one hand slowly closer to her. “I promise.” I stop about a foot and a half away from the peregrine, my hearth thumping just as quickly as my frantic escape from the house, but it’s a more pleasant feeling of frenzy, a delighted fear.
I’m being watched by this beautiful, majestic bird. About a year and a half ago, I found a note from a secret admirer in my locker. It didn’t really work out, but after going on a date, he invited me to homecoming. When I came out of my room that night in my dress with my hair all curled, the way he looked at me… I feel that now for this bird, that jitter of awe and excitement.
My hand is shaking as I reach forward. The bird shies away and I quickly pull back, continuing to stare in silence.
Dull and dry as bones is the listless surface of the desert sands. No wind to twist it up, the sun at the wrong angle to make it shine. The sand is less bold red and more drab brown.
Three buildings make up the strip of humanity between the scattered houses and the nearest town, a grocery store/pharmacist, a McDonalds, and a gas station/convenience store. Everything all conveniently rolled together. I’ve come this way often, on my own or the school bus, like it’s been imprinted in the back of my eyes. More familiar than National Geographic or the high school or, even, the ocean. This one desperate patch of humans where they should not be.
I stop when I reach the gas station and lean my bike against the side of the wall back behind the dumpster. My hair sticks to my forehead.
The blast of the air conditioning hits like a snowball and I shiver, the sweat on my body immediately picking up the cold air. I rub down my arms as I walk through the snack aisles towards the back where the drinks are. I lay the bottoms of my wrists against the glass. The clear doors are so clean, but they smudge quickly under my skin.
I twist on the cap and take a long swig. Almost half the bottle is gone before I make it up to the counter. Behind the register is Jack. He raises an eyebrow when I hand him the bottle to scan.
We’ve known each other since eight grade when we first moved out here. He called the cops on my mother once, the first day I came to school with a black eye, but since then… We have an understanding.
“Need a place to crash tonight?”
“Nah, it’ll be all right. Dave’s just riled. I caught him handing out drinks again.”
He opens the locked gate at the counter for me in silence and I slip around him. There’s an alcove for employees on break who don’t want to go out in the heat and I sit on one of the folding chairs, stretching my legs out in front, slowly sipping my soda and waiting. I have Jack’s whole shift to sit around and watch him.
I sip the soda slowly. It grows warm and flat in my mouth. The empty bottle falls to the ground with a hollow clacking sound and I stand up. “I’ll be right back.” Jack
I grip the white sides of the sink till my knuckle joints crack, the pads of my fingers bloodless from the pressure. Staring into the mirror, I can see my wide eyes, bright with wetness and the pupils wild and huge. I feel like I could fall into them.
My heartbeat grows stronger, louder, more erratic in my ears and my blood pulses hot and hard in my throat. I can’t breath, the air coming in quickly and shallowly, turning into a gasping and rasping noise. A whine grows between my clenched teeth and there’s a pain in my chest.
The screaming starts before I see my mouth is open, still mesmerized by my own eyes. One foot slides against the floor towards the wall with force behind it. I ignore the pain in my toes and whirl to face the wall. There’s a metal paper towel dispenser in front of me and I throw a fist towards it, bruising my knuckles in the process. The rivets on the side skin against the top of my fingers, drawing blood and scraping the skin back in folds. My nails bit into the cuts on my palms and now when I open my hand, blood pools in little droplets. I rest my hand against the wall and when I pull it away, there’s a red smear on the tile.
Business is slow in the middle of nowhere. There are long stretches of silence
I know when Jack’s shift is finishing soon because he starts to get all fidgety. He plays with the keys of the cash register and thrums his fingers on the counter, tapping one foot in a frantic rhythm. He keeps watching the door.
When Jack hands off his keys to the next guy, a big dude with tattoos and dyed-green hair, it’s dark outside. He walks with me toward my bike. “Do you want me to drive you home?”
“No, I’m good. It’s not very far.” I want to go visit the nest again.
He sighs. “Okay. Let me know that you get home, okay? I’ll spend all night thinking you got hit by a car if you don’t.”
“See you tomorrow.” He’s already halfway out of my mind by the time I hit the street. The air is starting to cool down finally.
The nest is empty. The falcon is gone. I sit silently, legs dangling in the air, and stare down at the empty bed of sticks and feathers and soft brush. There are the remains of eggshells and what looks like half a skeleton of some little animal. Its fur is matted with blood and stuck with petals from a yellow flower.
I pull on the handle. Locked. Dave locked me out.
I walk the bike around the side of the house and start looking for my backpack. Instead of being on the porch, it was down in the sand. Dave must have pitched it over the side. I bend down to fish the keys out of the pocket. Slightly worried about my bike, I lock it up on the railing. Hopefully Dave won’t be pissed enough to try and sell it. Last Boyfriend pulled that shit and it took me forever to afford this one.
Gently, I push the door open. It’s completely dark inside, till I make it to the hallway, out of the living room. A thin shade of light spills out from my mother’s bedroom door. Her voice is hushed, Dave’s less so. “Jeannie, she can’t tell you how to life your life. She’s just a little bitch of a kid.”
I clench my fists and then loosen them so I can take off my shoes. He’ll be gone soon; her record is about nine months. She’s only been with Dave for about five months, but she’s been dating guys just like him for years. Sometimes they wanted me to call them by their first name, sometimes Dad, sometimes they just told me not to speak to them at all. I just called them the Boyfriends.
When I was nine one of them offered me a joint and invited me to sit on his lap. When I was eleven, I had to clean up glass from a shot out window after the Boyfriend was arrested the night before. After that, we moved out to the desert, hiding further inside the country, far away from the water.
They’re still talking as I close my bedroom door.
In the morning, she’s lying on the couch again, the same blanket over her legs. One arm is falling off the couch, knuckles brushing the floor, her dark hair splayed out over the pillow.
“Mom?” I crouched down next to her head. There’s still the scent of beer on her skin. She mumbled in her sleep. I was more than used to finding her in this position. Gently, I raised her arm so it lay across her stomach. From the kitchen I bring a water bottle and loosen the cap for her, putting it on a coaster on the coffee table. It will be there when she wakes up.
I tip the change out of the tray next to the door into my pocket before I leave.
In ancient Egypt, the sun god Ra was portrayed with the head of a falcon. He created man and holds the sun on his head, one of the most powerful of their entire pantheon. Sometimes bulls were even sacrificed to him. Egyptians viewed their pharos as the human presentation of Ra. They worshiped the Nile too, the great river that was the main water source, food source, resource. I don’t have a great river, not even a big pond.
I stare out the window of the bus, watching for the pylon, and thinking about falcons and the ocean. The last time I sat on a beach, I was eleven. We were in Los Angeles and I ate an ice cream cone for breakfast. There were peregrines there too.
Still, there’s nothing there to see. Maybe I’m too far away, maybe the falcons are still gone. The pylon passes by my eyes in a speed-driven haze.
Gravel crunches beneath my feet and I swallow hard, waiting to see Dave glaring through the window. I don’t see his face even when I walk up the uneven steps and let myself into the house. My key turns in the lock. Maybe they went out.
But no, my mother is lying on the couch again.
“Mom, I’m home.”
She has no reaction. I pull off my backpack and leave it by the hall table, walking towards her. “Mom?” I slip in between the couch and the table to get closer to her.
The water bottle from this morning on the table is tipped on its side. There’s a big puddle on the floor that disappears under the couch. She’s still lying there, under her blanket. The arm I tucked up in the morning is sagging down, her elbow reaching towards the floor. Her eyes are glassy and open halfway and her hand is hard to the touch, and cool.
My mother smells like cinnamon. It doesn’t matter how often she showers or what she’s been drinking or if she’s had sex—it’s always there, the perfume of her skin. My earliest memory is of soft hands, sunlight, and cinnamon.
Even in death she smells like the spice.
I can’t move her fingers or her hand, the joints are stiff. “Mom?” I shake her a little bit. “Mommy?” I shake her harder and I slip in the water, falling back against the table, skinning my elbow against the edge. It falls back with a heavy thud and the plastic bottle bounces off with a hollow sound. I scramble up from the floor.
Her bedroom door is wide open and Dave is lying on the bed. Asleep. I can see him breathing. Hear his snoring, a light almost buzzing sound. He’s asleep in her bed and my mother is dead on the couch. His girlfriend.
I grab the handle and throw the door shut as loudly, angrily as I possibly can and scream and scream and scream. Inside I can hear him scrambling, dazed from waking so violently. But it’s too late to make a difference.
The car keys on still on the table by the door. I grab it by the keychain and I can feel the face’s features pressing hard into my palm. The door swings wide, open behind me.
The car seat feels like a hundred degrees but the gray steering wheel is only warm beneath my hands. To fly would be the truest feeling of delight, gliding above everything. I can settle for car tires on smooth asphalt, sun bleached to the color of clouds.
My head feels heavy. The krak krak krak of the peregrine echoes in my ear.