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Mourning Flatcrown

August 16, 2022

Or, The Middle Desert

Illustration by Sydney Wilton for Red Canary Magazine

In this short-fiction piece recently published as part of Red Canary Magazine’s wonderful EcoLit series, we’ll travel deep into The Middle Desert to meet Irving and Polina, who have a tragic history, a seemingly God-forsaken patch of desert, and a miraculous secret that will complicate everythingHere’s the introduction — you can read, or listen to, the full story by visiting Red Canary.

In the days before the Middle Desert disappeared, I drove to Irving’s each morning well before six. In the winter, that meant smelling the fine cool emptiness of desert dark. In the summer, it meant catching the gold from the east just as the sun pulled itself over the ridge of Mud Pony Mountain. Each day I spent long hours and untold calories unloading ornamental shrubs and preening fan palms that had arrived by night on large trucks from the distant High Desert. I didn’t yet understand, botanically speaking, why they couldn’t just grow these things in the Middle Desert. Something about our shitty soil. Not enough shit in the soil, I guessed, caused by a general lack of life forms.

Our town, recently small and a little less recently nonexistent, was attracting waves of retirees, deposited in closely packed clusters at our port of dust as if by a desert cruise line. The newcomers did not distinguish the Middle Desert from other, less deserted deserts, and they enjoyed the conventional symbols of desert living more than the less glamorous natural fittings of our local real thing. Our real thing, Irving always told me, was the wonder of wonders. But it did not sell.

“I tried for years,” Irving told me. It was one of my first days on the job. Irving grabbed a fallen frond and flicked a scorpion from his boot. “I wanted to do right by this land, kid.”

“Haven’t you?”

Why the guilt? The man was running a nursery, not a copper mine. God, it was hot. My face was covered with grit and sweat and tiny splinters of unknown provenance. I knew the place was going bust. I knew the newcomers liked palms more than scrub. I knew that Irving had apparently set aside his principles to import the alien fan palms, and that I was here to unload them and prepare them for sale. At the time, it was all in a day’s work to me. But to Irving, we were complicit in a cover-up, a fake, a forgery of reality: the illusion that our desert was the kind of desert envisioned by people who had never before lived in the desert.

One of the new symbols of our community, thanks to us, was the cactus, which did not grow in our Middle Desert, only in the neighboring Low Desert; another was the Joshua tree, which grew only in the neighboring High Desert. Without Irving’s imports, what we would have had, most of all, was a sort of pale-green tangled brush that grew from the shady side of basalt boulders on our three acres. I thought it was sagebrush, but Irving told me it was something else.

“What is it?” I asked Irving.

“It is the tree of life,” he said.

“It’s not much of a tree,” I said.

“It’s not much of a life.”

Irving’s smile was the kind that made a young man want to hug an old man and soak up the bittersweet wisdom of all those wasted years. His skin was browned from half a lifetime of hiking deserts, high and middle and low. When he smiled, the creases spread like sunrays from the corners of his eyes. He vowed never again to develop his three acres beyond the nursery sales hut and the 900-square-foot home he’d built from rough gray cinderblock for himself and his wife, where they had lived and she had, briefly, died. …

Read — or listen to — the full story in Red Canary Magazine.

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