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Creative Nonfiction


A Letter Written in Iron

Tayah Nelson

Dear Desert, There’s a slow and hidden violence in your sprawling expanse. To the east are your red monoliths tiered with juniper, bruised beige and blue-black. To the west are your soft hills of dirt, arms of sage and greenery yawning back to meet the enclosing embrace of purple-grey mountains. I’ve seen your fossils of trilobites and dinosaur tracks, small prehistoric cockroaches and dominating lizards: both extinct now. You scrape away sand to uncover your memories just as I scrape away dust to uncover my own. Do you miss being barren of secrets and stories? Would you change your history if you could? From my perch on this rock in Kolob Canyon, high above the ground below, I see the morning rolling into afternoon. A breeze ruffles my hair, and I feel the slight nip of approaching fall. Somewhere far beyond my perch in Zion, the Three Patriarchs cast shadows that do not reach me here. Your fossils are in museums, mine in boxes in my closet. A shadow box full of polished rocks (agate, obsidian, quartz) hides a layer of childhood birthday cards. One is signed “Happy Birthday from Penny and Burt”'⏤all that’s left of the third wife’s attempt to forge a connection between me and the man whose blood hides in the caverns beneath my skin. I grew up in the shadows of your cliffs, my clothes stained in the red dirt of your desert. I’ve stood under your unflinching blue sky and watered your hearty weeds with my sweat. He decided to throw the title of “Grandpa” away long before I ever drew a breath. Your red iron is in my veins. I’ve debated throwing the birthday card away countless times but always keep it⏤a scientific curiosity in the museum of my life. I wonder how they knew this trail would fit on your mountain. Michelangelo said he saw his sculptures in the stone, but I see only what you are. I do not look down at the sandstone below and imagine new trails or buildings. Though I know I’m wrong, I imagine you unchanged years from now, even as I’ve grown older and seasons have spun past, a comforting constant against the flood of time. Do you remember a time before erosion and tectonics violently and slowly rearranged your landscape into something like braille for God to read? Your lineage is traced in the stripes of waving sandstone, stories told through cracks and rockfalls and stratum, a map of collapsing sediment. Mine is in my hair and cheeks and hips, my humor and anger and depression, a map of collapsing roots and branches thicker than water. He’s not here anymore, having fled to California years ago and now is ten ex-wives past thinking about my grandma. Or any of us. She’s forgiven him. Moments of sadness and regret flash quick as lightning in a desert storm when she mentions him, but then she’s speaking of him almost fondly. She talks as if he were a slightly wayward child, as if he never raised a hand or belt or door handle to her or her children, as if she and my mother weren’t eroded away by the waves of cavalier neglect and abuse. The set of my mother’s jaw is tighter, her eyes fiercer, but she says she has forgiven him too. They are weathered, like your arches and hoodoos, beautiful but fragile. Is there a difference between shaping and scarring? I wonder about the nature of forgiveness. Do you smite those who injure you? Do you let their footholds slip beneath them and pebbles trip their domineering feet? Do you send cave-ins and shadeless expanses of heatstroke to those who have dared to challenge your existence or subdue your rigid summits? I look at my hands with the same protruding, ridged veins as my grandma’s. Am I allowed to be angry? For them? For me? I only met him once, hidden in the furthest corner of the room. How can he be the cause of such molten resentment and loss? Why does this man, who I don’t know and who likely has forgotten, if he ever even noticed, that I exist, take up so much space? Do I mourn for the husband my grandma deserved, the father my mother didn’t have, for the people they would have been without him? Or do I mourn for myself, for the versions of those women I’ll never get to meet and the person I’m terrified I’ll become? A plant with green medallion leaves grows near me, rooted precariously into the side of the precipice. Forgiveness doesn’t erase history. My mother shaped me as gently as her jagged edges would allow, but she broke me all the same. You know better than anyone that breaking is a part of life. Ice freezing causes rockslides; earthquakes make fissures; humans carve highways. That small plant is so close to falling, such trust is put into those tenuous connections of filament and roots. I can see the base of the plant where it punctures the recesses of irregular crevices, beige tendrils desperately grasping at a solid foundation. I tell myself that I should be grateful her shattered pieces didn’t puncture me more deeply. I have scrapes where she has scars. I pluck a leaf away from the rest of the plant and run a thumb across its waxen surface. I don’t think I’ve forgiven them. My feet dangle from my perch even as my fingers cling to the rough and speckled ground behind me. I wonder if trusting in your roots really counts as trust when the only other option is falling. My mother’s father was told by church leaders that he was born with “unbelieving blood.” He’d have to work all his life, they said, to purge the stain of it. My grandma confessed she worries that by marrying him she corrupted our bloodline. I feel my heart beating in my chest. I have her cheekbones, her smile. I have my mother’s hair. I don’t remember the angles of his face or the color of his eyes, but I look in the mirror and wonder if I know what he looks like all the same. Some people think you’re ugly. I used to. I despised the melting heat and the monotony of a million shades of beige. I resented the goat-headed stickers of your yellow weeds and the parched wanting of your earth. You’re a harsh place to live. I longed for flourishing fauna and constant rain. I wanted the brush of new leaves and grass and the comforting soft light of a gently overcast day. So I left you. I spent a year where water was a loose commodity and suffocating kudzu climbed telephone poles. I walked through those southern rainstorms and imagined the drought in my soul was quenched by their warm caresses. From my window, the Mississippi River smudged the horizon, larger than any stream I’d known but smaller than the ancient and powerful oceans that carved waves into the towering terrain of home. It was beautiful. It was beautiful, and yet I found myself squinting at the blackened silhouettes of trees branched out against the sunset, that verdant foliage I had so longed to see, trying to blur their edges into mountains to match the topography of you. I didn’t fit. Among canopies of leaves, I was lava rock. In a place where even the air was pillowed into softness by humidity, I discovered I am sharp and hard like volcanic glass, placing boundaries between myself and others like dams needed to conserve precious water, hoarding like a cactus what they already have in abundance. When did I start to admire softness because I had none of my own? Have I always been like this? Was I only ever soft in the same deceiving way as magma? Your landscape isn’t soft. It isn’t gentle. It isn’t forgiving, and apparently, neither am I. Is that like him? You and I have hurt people. They have fallen off the cliffs of our fickle hearts and been crushed beneath our rock slides. I have made them cry while standing with eyes as dry as you. It’s inescapable, isn't it? You’ve seen millennia pass you by. Am I doomed to be an echo of the past? Some days, my heart is a stone dragging me to the floor below. I sit in the sand, unable to move, and watch the canyon mouth as the sky cycles through light and dark above me. Weighted down by the rock in my chest, I wait for the next flash flood that will careen through the canyon, dragging me along beneath it. Some days, I worry I will die of thirst. Some days, I am sure I will drown. But there are other days when the vague rustling of your yellow underbrush and the skittering of falling pebbles become whispered words of encouragement, of comfort⏤honest but hopeful. You say that maybe someday our histories will be weathered away so completely by these floods and these changes that we’ll have new landscapes on which to heal and start again. You say that maybe, maybe, someday I’ll learn how to forgive that man and my mother and myself, let them fade into just another stripe in my sandstone or leave them all behind, metamorphose into something new; all it would take is a little heat, a little pressure. We have plenty of both. Do I know what kind of rock my heart is made of, you ask. Rocks are surprising in how they change, you remind me, surprising in their properties. Take lava rock: basalt, heavy and dark; pumice, porous and light; obsidian, volcanic glass. Flash floods will come, you assure me, but when they do, how can I be sure I’ll drown? Do I know what kind of rock is in my chest? You remind me that pumice floats. And how could I die of thirst, you ask. Tamarisk trees dig their roots deep and wide and take the water they need. Cacti hoard liquid, shunning even leaves that would let the precious droplets escape. I grew up in the desert. Is it really so wrong, you wonder, that I have adapted to survive it? If I left this perch, followed the trail back down the canyon wall and disappeared through the sage, would you feel lighter in my absence or just confident in my return? I can’t abandon you any more than I can abandon the blood within my veins, circling back continually like a bird of prey. When I returned to you from the greener south, I almost wept. I stepped out under your regal blue sky crowned by red peaks and plateaus and almost threw my arms out wide right there, as if by stretching my fingers just a little further I could gather you to my chest in an embrace. For the first time in a year, my lungs remembered how to fill with air and my muscles remembered how to uncoil. I did not feel corrupt. I did not feel trapped beneath your cloudless sky. Now from my perch, watching morning transition to afternoon, the wind beckons in silky silence and my hands trace its currents like a bird. The world is quiet and calm today. To the south are your red-orange scorched canyons, scarred deeply into the earth. North is an open sky and the trail that brought me here, winding and sideways. I brace my feet beneath me and stand, surveying more fully your land stretched out before me. You are ugly. You are beautiful. You are harsh. You are free. You are fragile. Though my blood ties me to many things I would like to erase, I am grateful for its iron linking me to you⏤crimson dirt and crimson blood. You are strong enough to break and change and heal, and then break all over again. Tenacious. Harsh. Resilient. It would not be so terrible, I think, to become a little more like you. Under the zenith sun, I stand a little taller, firmer, draw myself up to the sky and down to the earth. Not rooted… grounded. All my love, x
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