“When You Reach the Red” by Gabriela Frank
“Sometimes she feels that her body is open to the air. There is nothing that separates her from herself.” —The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers by Bhanu Kapil
The test of a woman is not in what she will achieve or what she won’t. It is not in how far she will travel nor the height of the mountains she’ll climb. It isn’t in what she will suffer or endure or forgive—not in what she’ll overcome or survive. The test of a woman isn’t her tenderness, the softer side of the so-called softer sex. No. A woman’s mettle resides in the power of her beliefs, namely in herself. This is how I arrived at the entrance of a box canyon trail in the high desert of New Mexico, the red clay dust caking my pilgrim’s feet.
Imagine: a boulder, ash gray. Balanced atop that, a large rock, mesa red. Atop that, another, ochre yellow. Another, a sizable stone, flint gray. Atop that, a flat rock, quartz white. A river stone, urchin blue. And, finally, the last, sandstone brown. All told, the trailhead cairn stood five feet; we were nearly eye-to-eye. The path beyond it offered to lead me, though I had no clue as to the destination. The cairn said, I promise; in exchange, I said, I will. The light wind tickled my skin as it transported our vows to the beryl heavens above the box canyon. Only as I passed into the rolling bucklands did it occur to me that, despite these vows, I had embarked on this sweaty pilgrimage alone.
A red-tailed hawk drafted above on the air currents, her wingspan yawning into the boundless blue. I stepped, exuberant yet nervous, past the scanty deciduous trees. My hikes back home were predictable: gravel paths or manicured forest trails, sometimes sidewalks in the city—but not in the desert, not alone.
Walk until you reach the color red, Bhanu had said, our mistress of mystics. In the regal turn of her ruddy British tongue, this petite goddess flung nine women writers into the desert like the limbs of Satī, each in a different direction, charged with discovering whatever it was that only we, ourselves, could know. Pay attention to the company on your journey, Bhanu advised. I marked the hawk’s shadow drifting back and forth in lazy arcs across my path on earth, which I scanned scrupulously for spiders, scorpions and snakes.
The scrub and trees fell away as the path turned from soft red dust to hard-packed tawny earth, rumbling down from the desert plain into the rocky canyon. The air smelled of sweet ragweed and dirt. I paused at the rock’s lip to rest, to drink from my canteen. It was humid and hot. A ring of puffy white clouds began to amass along the western skyline, the start of that afternoon’s thunderstorm. Only when I stood still did I perceive the sound and smell of water below. In my amateurish quest to hike the box canyon, I hadn’t considered the river that made it.
Zzz-zzz-ree! Tinny insects stung my white, freckled flesh, opening veins into my past, a childhood spent in the unforgiving Sonoran desert, desiccated, thorny and brown—nothing so verdant as thunderstorm-dampened meadows outside Abiquiu. You see, I was born in lakes and forests and marshy Midwest plains, pink and mewling and perfect, if my mother is to be believed—born there, but not of there. My parents moved from Michigan to Arizona when I was six; the desert’s vast, blinding soul made me shudder. Something in me knew that I had come home to my real home, and it was not welcoming. Somehow, I knew that I was the desert and the desert was me. This terrified me.
At the trail’s input, the river burbled a plumb line into the earth. Its undulating sandstone walls edged the water with striated mesas and tumbling bluffs whose shear, sandy faces only a deer in flight might attempt. At the canyon’s feet, the river rolled cheerfully over the rocks, cool but not cold, from where the undefined trail led. I stumbled reluctantly from the banks into the stream, my feet sinking into the gravelly bottom. The strong current poured against the bare skin of my goose-fleshed ankles. I was not prepared for this. Upon feeling the will of the river against my life, an unstoppable determination the likes of which drove Virginia Woolf down, down into the Ouse, I connected the information they had shared at check-in: a flash flood had ripped through this very canyon only days before, obliterating a ranch building downstream.
When I was six, we crossed over a river into Phoenix—barely a river, an arroyo—a dry, sandy bed with a dirty, wet crack. As we crossed, I whimpered, reaching into the front seat to grasp my mother’s arm. An echo of the heart-dread I would one day feel thudded through me, a vision of the future, not that I understood its portent, except that I felt my mother and I would lose each other in the desert. This was an inevitable journey, the result the same no matter the path—she and I always ended up in the desert, caught in the cracked earth. At the time, my mother seemed not to sense this, or else wouldn’t she tremble, too? But I knew it as surely as I knew that the desert was a part of me: my soul had returned to the valley of suffering, Valley of the Sun, and it would be my mother’s undoing.
Bhanu asked us in class, Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?
The desert, I wrote, shielding my answer with my hand because I am the desert and the desert is me, therefore I am responsible for my mother’s suffering and death—which is a crazy thing to think, yet also true. Did she not stay married to my father because of me? Did she not relocate to the desert because of him, because of me? If the answers are yes and yes and yes, then I am responsible for the suffering of my mother. I am the desert and the desert is me. The thought of her death terrifies me.
I hiked on. The box canyon trail was actually a river marked haphazardly with occasional cairns. The way became rockier as I went, the stones giving way to boulders. I had little choice but to follow each marker step by step, maddeningly slow like Virginia wading into the river, pausing at the turns so that I could verify the next cairn ahead. Birdsong partially cheered my task as I ambled beneath the bright sun, losing my footing on the slippery rocks. The water slushed up to my shins in places, the river tumbling down over the red and ochre canyon, a grand hallway whose walls were studded with gnarled trees and thorny bushes whose wind-whipped branches creaked against each other, scraping out a ghostly symphony. If only the trees were bushy enough to block the sun—but no; the ceiling remained painfully blue.
I carried on, slipping and sliding along the water’s ragged margin, torquing my ankles, my sandaled feet ungainly against the slimy river rocks. My city-girl body jutted forward and back, a rag doll learning to walk, sinking into unexpected gluts of mud that squished between my toes. This was not a trail. This was ridiculous. Why was I clambering through a rocky canyon alone wearing the wrong shoes with only these cairns to guide me? This was punishment. This was self-penance. (This would make a good story if I could find my way back.) This was me trying to prove something because hiking alone in a box canyon is the last thing I would normally do.
Also: I am a coward. It was impossible to stop the ticker tape running through my mind: What if I get lost? What if I starve to death? What if, by the time the folks at Ghost Ranch realize they’re missing a camper, the vultures have already picked my bones clean?
By ten a.m., an hour into my hike, the sun had sharpened the insect chords—Zzz-zzz-ree!—into razors. The dismal pests harangued me as I zigzagged from bank to bank in search of the next cairn, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, sometimes just four or five stones standing a foot high. I kept looking over my shoulder, my skin slick with sweat, bug spray and sunscreen, to make sure I could find the way back. Tripping through this so-called trail, I felt like Ariadne without her thread. I was no hiker, no outdoors-woman. I had no compass—not that I knew how to use one. This quest was absurd. I should turn back. The red-tailed hawk screeched overhead in agreement.
This trip to New Mexico did not merely happen. It was part of an unavoidable rhythm to my life. The desert called me home, this time through the voice of Clarice Lispector. In 1973, a year before I was born, she wrote in Água Viva that her readers should leave the world of order to embrace “some mad, mad harmony.” Forty-some years later, her words seduced me from the flat, well-kept dirt paths of Ghost Ranch into an unmarked box canyon to find what only I was meant to discover, to learn what only I could know. Bhanu had knocked on the front cover of Lispector’s book, flipped to a page, and read her words as my guidance on this vision quest:
“It’s like moments I had with you, when I would love you, moments I couldn’t go past because I had descended to their depths. It’s a state of touching the surrounding energy and I shudder. Some mad, mad harmony.”
Was that so difficult to believe? That the trail I followed was as much about the past as the present and the future? Was it so unimaginable that Clarice could foresee Bhanu reading her words aloud to me, sending me into the wilderness on a deranged errand that she, herself, had set? If it’s impossible, then why could I imagine myself following her footsteps and one day transcribing my thoughts here in this essay? This is what it means to survive, to re-member, to write, to outlive time, to place thoughts together atop each other like cairns on a trail for readers both present, future and past.
The sky in New Mexico was as blue as the morning we buried my mother in Phoenix when I was sixteen. My tears leaked a trickle on the seething asphalt, a wet crack in the box canyon of my heart. Sonora was our Rubicon, the stream we couldn’t cross intact—that was why I came to this desert, to this canyon, on this trail, in this stream, on this quest to re-member my mother under the watchful eye of a red-tailed hawk.
Beneath the thin shelf of path, the river twisted and turned like a sidewinder. I followed it until I couldn’t see the next cairn and had gone so far I nearly lost the last. How would I find my way back from nothingness? How much nothingness could know until I was truly lost? I considered quitting. Maybe I had already reached the end. Maybe there are no more markers. Maybe it was up to me to make the last link in the chain—or maybe I hadn’t gone far enough. My faith wavered. I spun around in search of a sign, but found no guides. Still, something in me said not to give up yet. What if another cairn waited beyond the arc of the next turn—or above me on the opposite bank?
I reached into the river and drew out a large, smooth brown stone, squishing it into the muddy bank. I squatted to pull up another rock and stacked it on top. Then another, green. Another, blue. Another, russet. One more, gold. There was no one else to make a cairn but me. I turned to look over my shoulder, squinting at the last cairn I had passed, which lay far in the distance. It was taller and better built by my predecessors. My cairn became a new end-point, not only for me, but those who would come after me. We are all pilgrims searching for the path.
Waves from the past spilled into the river, crashing on the beachheads of the future. With good fortune, perhaps I could set enough cairns to make it the whole way there and back, wherever there was.
I looked up into the sun’s glare. How have you betrayed you mother? asked the voice of Bhanu.
My mother never saw the real me. She never saw that I was the one who led her into ruin across the river and into the desert. She saw only the precious thing she loved above all things, for what mother isn’t blind to the shortcomings of her own baby? She stayed in the desert too long. The sandstorms swept away her memory, her birth into this life, the beginning of her end, a stinging cyclone that consumed her every thought. There, in the calm center of its eye, stood a daughter, me, a stack of blood and bones whose betrayal she could not know. I led her astray.
By noon, I began to panic that I would never find my way back. There had been too many twists and turns, too many leaps of faith, too many subtle markers I couldn’t remember when I walked up the side of one bank or crossed to the other. But the river still existed, did it not? And wasn’t the river the trail? I had to keep moving. I was too scared to stop and see that I was lost.
In one bend, the river exploded from running water into whitecaps breaking over large boulders, the waves splashing and tumbling like unruly toddlers at my feet. How would I surmount this? Then I saw it: just over the top of the boulders, the next cairn in the distance. Someone had been there before me. A woman had stood where I stood. She beckoned me from the other side. The cairn was proof that she went on, that I must go on, too. My benefactors waited alongside her: Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keeffe, Clarice Lispector, my mother. I placed my trembling hands on the dry spots of the boulder. Was I strong enough pull myself up the four-foot span to the next level of the river? If so, could I make it back down again?
I pictured my mother, her olive skin turned waxy, her sparse, brown hair, soft as down. The tufts made a rustling noise against the pillow when she turned to look at me from the hospital bed. What did it feel like to walk through a desert of one’s own making? Her fevered forehead warmed my cheek when she pulled me into her wasted body, a dark cave in which I once dwelled. There was never a home like the one I knew in her. At birth, I shed her like a second skin and entered the world, pink and mewling and perfect, my conscious reborn clean for a time. Like a wave crashing, I saw myself at six again, the thunderous desert looming, flooding my brain with dread. Ten years later, I would watch my mother’s body swept into the chop. She abandoned me on the shores of the desert sands. Or, I abandoned her.
There was nothing I could do to save her. She and I remain in pieces, torn asunder by a storm in the desert. Pilgrimage is, after all, about dismemberment, Bhanu had said. It’s about moving from fragments to wholeness, from limbs and heart and head to a composed body.
Suddenly, I recalled that my own body was not made merely of arms and legs—I had a torso, a chest, a butt. I could sit back on the lowest boulder and use my glutes to pivot and cantilever my legs up and over to the next boulder where I could push myself up and over, rock by rock. It took my entire body to reach the top. At the crest, I stood for a minute, hands on my newly re-membered hips, to review the river trail I had traversed. The cairn called to me like a siren from the far-off shore. As I passed it, I gave the top stone a gentle high-five.
This trail, this quest—walk until you reach the color red—was made of Virginia and Georgia and Claire and Bhanu. Their legacy set me upon a mad, mad journey, but underneath it, I saw my mother in everything—the desert, the canyon, the river—the derangement and order of nature. How beautiful is it to let go of compulsion, to care not of progress or destination, and instead allow the red-tailed hawk’s joyful shrieks to settle into my skin? I recognized my mother in places she had never gone, places I must go because she can’t. Why were our fates so different? At night I sometimes conjure the memory of holding her, the aroma of milk and spice, my cells and hers. We belong to one body that forever aches to re-member itself.
Deeper and deeper, this unending canyon, these profligate cairns keep leading me nowhere. I make new marks, stacks of rocks drawn from the quarried past, set as my future guardians, leading me into and through and out of time. Was I the one who marked the trail’s entrance for myself a hundred years ago? It sounds like nonsense, an unending task, but nothing was for sure anymore. I had gone too far. It was too late, too hot. I was thirsty. The sun shone down, relentless. My mind—I was exhausted.
The daylight seared though my eyelids, so bright I could not shut it away.
I swayed beside my mother’s grave until my father shook me by the shoulders. It’s time to go, he said. Move. That is why I hate the blue. The desert sky witnessed my mother’s death, and demanded that I see it, too.
This trail… was there ever a path or did I imagine it?
I opened my eyes and turned in a circle. My mother stood on the other side of the river, calling out to me. Break open your mud-brick heart. Inside you will find me, curled up, asleep.
I descended into the stream. It rose to my ankles, the rocks in my pockets weighing me down as I stepped, deeper and deeper to the center. The cool water kissed the curls of my iliac crests, the swell of my hips, the cinch of my waist, the white fingertips of my ribs. This life I’ve lived, obsessed with words and writing, mis-communicating everything. What was it worth? This river, the liminal veil between my mother and me, began to break down. I could see how its membrane separated us.
Fuck it, this distance, this glassy Rubicon between her and me.
I walked forward, deeper and deeper, until the water closed over my head.
“Who are you?” I might have asked my mother, had she lived.
“A traveler,” she would have whispered, her eyebrow raised.
“Who have you loved?”
“You,” she would have said.
“What do you remember of the earth?”
“The beaches and the worms. The sailors. We followed the impressions of their feet in the sand. Oh, yes, and the spotted lake fish that tickled us when we swam in the weedy fishing holes each summer.”
“Those aren’t memories of the Earth,” I’d scold.
“Ah, but desert has swept everything else away.”
“So,” I would say, “you do remember.”
A nod. Nothing more.
“Who did you betray in life?” I would ask, but she’d only shrug.
“Who was responsible for your suffering?” It was only fair to know.
Here, she would laugh. “My antlers are my own, darling. They grow inward, and my, do their points smart!”
It was hopeless, to have come all this way for nothing. No answers.
Sitting on the sandy beach, I licked the salt off my knees and contemplated the lost trailhead, the canyon, the sky, the black cumulonimbus clouds bulging overhead, burdened with impending rain. I could not fathom how I arrived here, my ankles caked in sucking mud, the bloodthirsty mosquitos buzzing in my ears, but this was it: the red heart, the plumb line, the trap door leading down into the earth. I could feel its monstrous contractions giving birth to time. An ancient rage welled within in me. I was ready to charge into the underworld, as if my mother was Persephone, and I, was Ceres—give her back!
In her hospital room, on her last night on Earth, I lay my hand on my mother’s skin, and knew instantly: This is it.
“I love you,” she whispered.
She hadn’t spoken for a week. Out of nowhere came these three words, the last she would utter before the black flies swarmed her brain. Cancer flooded the canyons of her memory with a dark, rotting liquor, devouring her speech and sense and will. Thousands of tiny tumors, inoperable, took everything but love, which inexplicably remained.
When you speak your truth there will be waves in the desert, Bhanu had promised.
All my life I’ve feared oblivion. I never once considered that oblivion was a lie.
It wasn’t my mother who was blind to her fate, but me. I am the desert—yes—but I am the cairns, too; what brought me here does not define me. I came to retrieve the parts of myself that were lost and flung into the river. That’s why my mother returned again and again—she kept looking back over her shoulder at me until she knew I could re-member the way on my own.
Walk until you reach the color red.
Bhanu. Clarice. Georgia. Virginia. Mom. All of us, cairns along a nameless river, an unmarked box canyon. The path that we make together forms a legacy. For the first time in my life, my eyes are open.
The red-tailed hawk screeches above, an echo of my own barbaric yawp reverberating against the sandstone canyon walls. I holler, “Pa!!! Pa!!! Pa!!!” like a banshee until my voice falls hoarse into deranged laughter and then silence.
The river, the love, the desert, the cairns—when you reach the red, it envelops you. No. That’s not exactly it. When you reach the red, it matters less how or when you’ve arrived so much as you know you’re not alone. Fear is loneliness; it is a lie, fear is an illusion meant to keep us locked in place.
When you reach the red, you glimpse the love that has been curled up inside your mud-brick heart all along, baked shut by the sun. When you reach the red, faith draws a river over it, dissolving the shell of your heart into sediment, returning the goddess to the goddess, your wet heart center cracked open as wide as the sea. You cannot be shown or told or led to the red, only guided. You must find the red yourself, but it is not the end. Red is a test of your faith.
When you do finally reach the red you begin to see that, no matter where you walk, you can always find your way home. You are already home even if you don’t know it yet. When you reach the red, you understand that red is love, red is endless, and red is gold—and red is merely the beginning.
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Gabriela Denise Frank is an Italian American writer of essays and fiction whose work explores identity, faith, aging, nature, cities and technology. Her writing been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Normal School, South 85 Journal, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Off the page, her literary art installations transform storytelling into experience. With A Novel Performance, Gabriela staged a month-long performance installation in Seattle’s Central Library that allowed the public to watch via monitor as she wrote a 70,000-word novel. With UGLY ME, Gabriela staged a multi-media spoken word installation in the New Media Gallery at Jack Straw Cultural Center that explored beauty through the medium of the selfie. Her story, “When You Reach the Red” was inspired by her experience as a Participating Writer at the 2015 AROHO Retreat.