Silver. Sand. Fire. The cloudless sky reigned above them and the sun’s rays ricocheted off the chrome pumps of the Chevron station.
With sunglasses perched atop her head, Aggie looked down at her fingers and the silver bands that encircled them. She had always loved silver, for its glints were like those of the moon—it was bold and beautiful but without the audacity of the gold and the sun, who were both tinged with connotations of relentlessness, oppression and heat. She had just gotten a new silver ring this week, at a Diné (Navajo) jewelry stand not far from the Hoover Dam—it was inlaid with coral and turquoise—the delicate handiwork of the silver prongs encircling the stones in a relief of vine and ivy leaf. As she sat contemplating the silver setting, she felt a momentary pang of guilt, given the “silver setting” that would be their next stop.
At that moment she heard the click of the pump and the shiny squeak of the gas station store door open simultaneously, as Mimi pulled the nozzle from Maggie (Aggie’s beloved Magenta Trans Am convertible), replaced it in its cradle and Sam emerged from the tiny store holding maps and three cold bottles of Coke.
Sam dispensed the Cokes, plopped into the backseat and Mimi swung into the front seat. Their first cross-country road trip. It had been a dream of theirs since they had all met in seventh grade—to see the country, on their own terms, nothing between them and the open road. Now seemed a good time as ever what with the bad cough going around town—no one knew if it was “catching” or not yet but it did seem to have something to do with the mine. In fact, one of her brothers—the younger of two who worked in the coal mine—had caught it. Mimi had tried to attend him as best she could (singing his favorite silly songs through the door) but her mama had shooed her away and was still angry at her for causing such as a ruckus in town, as she put it. It also seemed best to take a cross-country road trip before it got too cold and while the town cooled down in response to the hoopla about the potential new mine tunnel.
“Actually, why don’t you and Sam seats switch for this part? I’m going to need the navigator up here cause of all the tight switchbacks coming up.”
Sam was a genius with maps. In fact, she made her own: a real trailblazer, she loved the thrill of discovering topographical differences between maps and real terrain (if only by a few feet or so), re-documenting the area, and sending in her corrected versions to the proper authorities.
Mimi squinted and sighed but relented, crawling into the back seat, her long legs pressed against the seat back in front of her. Aggie started the ignition, they all put on their shades, and Maggie turned out onto the highway, heading West.
The past week had yielded some of the most breathtaking sights that had seen yet—both on the trip and probably over the course of their young lives. They had explored the peaks of the Rocky Mountains (they had even seen moose in Estes Park!), beheld the majesty of the Grand Canyon, learned the traditions of the Hualapai people who inhabit its Western side, swam in Lake Mead to the howl of coyotes and even beheld the manmade splendor of the Hoover Dam. Now they still had a sliver of Arizona left and planned to end their night at the tip of Nevada.
Before their Chevron station stop, they had filled their boots at a local diner, stuffing themselves with crinkle cut fries and sandwiches amidst the Americana paraphernalia and jukebox decorated walls. Aggie made a stir at the end of the meal when she slipped a shiny nickel into one of them, playing Cream’s “White Room,” dancing the length and breadth of the restaurant, to the onlooking cheers and whoops of the diners and staff.
“It will be a right turn in about a mile or so,” Sam declared loudly, over Jim Morrison’s voice crooning balefully over the radio (and the sounds of the wind). They had been riding along the smooth, straight path of Highway 160 when the turn right onto the narrow gravel path ahead gave Maggie a jolt.
The path wound up and down the stony gulch, sand spraying from tires and rocks caving to sides of the embankment. In the backseat, Mimi braced herself and held on, squeezing her eyes shut against the treacherous climbs and torpedoing falls. The radio sounds begin to crackle and pop with static until at last fizzling out to pure white noise. Aggie turned the knob to “off.”At last the ground flattened out all around them and they beheld a kind of valley around them on either side. They plodded along slowly, looking for a sign of the old site. Finally, a dilapidated series of wooden shacks and signposts appeared on the near horizon. They reached it, exclaimed in triumph and Aggie turned the key in the ignition, the motor dying down.
As they disembarked from Maggie, the sounds of birdsong reached them and they saw small tufts of grasses and cacti peaking from the crags of rocks. Mimi took out a trowel and fresh Mason jar from the trunk, digging and heaping a pile of native grass into it, then closing the lid shut along its groove. Mimi loved collecting native grasses and cross-pollinating the strains.
“Watch your step,” Sam warned. “There could be mine shafts that you can step through.”
“Should we really be walking here then?” Mimi rejoined, tremulously. Her father had fallen in a cave when she was very young, subsequently perishing there of exposure when he couldn’t be lifted out.
Aggie grabbed her by the waist and hugged her playfully. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out if you get stuck.”
They headed towards to the small wooden outbuildings. A hanging sign with faded paint read, “‘s Silver mine.”
Who knows why they were fascinated by that what they were trying to escape, why they chose to come somewhere almost entirely across the country that would remind them of what was ailing their hometown. Granted, this was silver, not coal (and abandoned, not active) but chalk it up to human curiosity along with searching out familiar miseries rather than novel ones. The devil you know, I suppose. But then again, that was also just it—they didn’t know why some thought what was beneath their very feet could save their way of life, their livelihoods, when there was so much evidence that it could also destroy it.
The planks of the door of the first building creaked and splintered as it opened. There was a charred blackboard inside, scribbled with what looked like shift schedules and silver yields.
“This must have been the office,” Sam said, fingering the dusty edges of the board. The roof was charred and faint rosy sunlight shafted through the boards.
The second building was larger and had even more evidence of fire damage. Inside was a caged elevator, rusted and hanging on its hinges—the one that would have ferried men down to the depths of the mine. There were old carts too, lying on their sides like rabbits who had passed away in their sleep, dreaming of movement and warmth.
There were holes in the ceiling here too, but the light that filtered through was more blue than rose. Twilight was coming on. The sun set earlier here than back home and each day it seemed to surprise them. Back home the sunset would linger over the hills and you knew when it left. It gently furled away in watercolor waves.
Here, between the dryness of the air and how high the sun appeared suspended in treeless expanse, it seemed to do a disappearing act each day with magician twilight taking a quick center stage: the curtains fell and opened again, their rigging shaking from the quick pulls.
“I think maybe we should leave now.” Mimi breath grew more tremulous as she looked through the slats of the roof.
“But we’ve barely even seen that much ye—“ Aggie’s words were cut off as they heard what sounded like…”is that someone singing?”
They all stood stock and looked up. Aggie’s new silver ring gleamed with a preternatural sheen. They looked down. The sound wasn’t coming from above or below, but outside.
Without a word, they stepped gingerly forward and clasped hands. They opened the charred door. Twilight had gathered its cloak around the rocks and grasses. A desert owl screeched nearby.
From about 150 yards away, a segment of Debussy’s Trois Scènes au Crépuscule (« three scenes at twilight ») played over Maggie’s speakers. A woman in blue, her back turned against them, leaned against Maggie’s front door, gently swaying to the music, her lips moving as she hummed.
They approached gingerly, edging their way in a line.
“Can we help you?” Aggie proffered, fingering the car keys in her pocket.
The woman turned, slowly, then exclaimed.
“Oh well, I’m so sorry I must have startled you. I do apologize.”
The woman was dressed in a blue old-timey school marm’s outfit, with a bonnet tied tight under her chin but loose hair flowing out behind her.
The wind had picked up. In the desert it got cold quick, with little moisture to keep in the heat from the day’s sun. The three shivered but the woman in blue seemed impervious to cold.
“What are you doing here?” Sam asked.
“Well I might ask the same of you three,” the woman in blue responded.
“We were just leaving,” Aggie replied tersely.
“Oh well, I didn’t mean any ill will. I just meant, what are you three women doing here alone, unaccompanied, without your husbands, for instance?”
Aggie gave a guffaw. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” she replied. Mimi and Sam laughed nervously.
“Hmm, well, you should find somewhere to stay soon, before it gets too dark.”
“And where are you staying then?” Aggie parried back.
“I live just over those hills.” The woman in blue gestured to the horizon where Orion was making its rise. “I like to go for walks since my husband died.”
“Oh, so sorry for your loss,” Mimi offered, shakily.
“I thank ye. I’m not one to take ill and find comfort in the stars rising of late.”
Debussy’s strings rose and reached fevered pitches from the speakers.
The woman in blue continued: “If you ladies just keep on this road,” she pointed away from their entrance, out of the valley, forwards further switchbacks, “you’ll find a place of lodging about five miles out. You should seek there as I don’t think anywhere else will be open until you arrive in Las Vegas, at this hour, by the time you leave.”
How could that be possible? Sam thought. She had mapped out their route and everything, but to be fair, had banked on finding a motel off the highway when they had returned to it. They had been so eager to find this abandoned mine they hadn’t really thought to look that far away and now it was dark to use the maps too much, without turning the flashlights on and off constantly as they drove.
“Well we certainly will take that in stride and thank you for your advice. I think we can manage from here. What about you, do you need a ride back to your house ?” Sam asked. Aggie turned to glare at her. They had rationed their gas for this trip and couldn’t afford many detours.
“Oh no, I thank ye though. I will just carry on my walk. I bid farewell and safe travels.”
And just like that, the woman in blue unpeeled herself from Maggie’s side, gave a curtsy, placed a hand atop her bonnet against the wind, and walked in a diagonal line, past the mine, and into the desert valley, towards Orion rising in the hills. The music on the speakers fissiled out. They watched in wonder until she could no longer be seen walking against the backdrop of the horizon.
Getting in the car, Aggie turned the key and stomped the accelerator. She didn’t even realize until a mile out that instead of going back to the main highway from whence they came, she was following the woman in blue’s directions, past the valley, up the switchbacks, further into the wilds. About two miles in, they saw lights in the distance. Aggie slowed Maggie and the three gave consenting nods of agreement. She carried on.
At last the road came out of the brush and rock to a short, paved main road that looked something out of a Western.
It was full night now and a half moon hung overhead. There were storefronts on either side: a general store, a saloon, an apothecary. To the right a graveside rested on the side of the embankment. The only sign that was lit was at the end of the short street, on the left, a neon “vacancy sign” blaring red. They pulled into the parking space in front. As they got out of the car, they saw the letterhead atop the building that, “Clown Motel.”
Sam took one look and said, “Oh, hell no.”
Sam had a deep-seated fear of clowns, since she was young. She didn’t really know why, as there had never been an inciting incident to make her fear them. She just knew that whenever she saw one, she booked it. And so far that intuition had done her well.
“Oh come on now, we at least have to give it a try, at least ask what’s up,” Aggie implored.
They had half a tank of gas left. Enough to get them to the main highway, sure, but after that who was to say how long until they found something else, somewhere else to stay.
“Fine.” Sam huffed and turned to walk to the front door with them. “I’d still rather sleep in the desert. With the scorpions.”
In the lobby of the motel stood a man with a prominent two front teeth (perhaps because they were the only two teeth visible in his upper jaw row) spitting tobacco juice into a tin can.
“What can I do you for?” He asked, with a grin and a cough.
“Just one room. Two beds, preferably, if you have one.”
“You betcha.” He replied. He fumbled through some keys and pulled one out. He told them of the history of the place, after asking if they wanted to know.
“Well we have about 600 clowns here.”
They looked around to see a lobby adorned (or stained) with each kind of clown imaginable: scary clowns, sad clowns, cute clowns, musical clowns playing pipes. There were figurines of all shapes, colors and sizes. Sam shuddered. Mimi said, “Aww, I think they’re really sweet.”
“Oh well thank you,” the man tipped a non-existent hat. “We’ve been collecting them a while, since the fire, that is.”
They all gave appreciative murmurs of questioning.
“See, there was a fire here, in the year 1900, one of our silver mines. 17 of our boys died. And most of them,” he spit in his tin can, “are buried in the cemetery out yonder.” He gestured. “Well, one of him, he loved clowns. He lost his kids to his first wife then and they didn’t really know him but thought they had opened this motel for him after he died in the fire. They knew he loved clowns. His second wife was with him when he died of his burns, she never gave him no kids though. The clowns were cause he wanted his first wife’s kids to be happy, cause he hadn’t seen them in years, thinking they still loved them.”
They nodded dazedly, exhausted. Glad to be rid of his grin, they took the key from his nicotine stained hands and retired to their room. So badly they wanted to piece together the puzzle of the night; the strange, unjointed pieces that hung in the air but needed to be fit together. But as soon as they unlocked the door to their room, they moved to their beds and collapsed upon them—one for Aggie and Mimi and one for Sam—barely even able to pull the covers up before falling into sleep.
Halfway through the night, they awoke from the smell of smoke. It clogged their nostrils and throats. Unable to sleep, the three sat up straight in bed and saw a clown standing in the room with them, at the foot of their beds. They coughed. Sam screamed.
There was a clown, in old lead makeup, baggy pants and clown pants, holding a balloon and leaning over them.
“Get out of here!” Aggie screamed.
The clown laughed. “We were all there. We died there, we couldn’t breathe that day,” it said, twirling the balloon with its wrist.
The three jumped from their beds. They ran past the clown, opened the door and ran into the desert behind the motel. They screamed as they ran, in their pajamas, crunching rock and small cactus underfoot, not caring for the small cuts slicing the bottoms of their bare feet. The clown followed after, laughing, the wind trailing his balloon behind him. The half moon reigned directly above as they ran, kicking up more sand:
“We’ll call upon the moon,” Aggie conferred as they ran.
“But all of the Eleven aren’t here with us!” Mimi responded.
By the Eleven, they meant their other Shifted Sisters. The night all Eleven of them had called upon the moon—Samhain night—and shifted into their Shifted Selves: Aggie to a Wolf, Mimi to a Deer, Sam to a Spider and the rest of the Eleven turning to a Frog, a Possum, a Bat, a Mouse, a Crow, an Owl, a Goat and a Groundhog.
“And we aren’t in our Sacred Grove!” Sam called.
The clown’s balloon gleamed blue under the half moon as it trailed behind him in the wind, forever trailing, “17 of us died, coughing in silence,” he whispered and laughed.
“Well we have to at least try!” Aggie yelled into the desert. No echoes sprang up.
“Fine!” They returned.
Together they chanted: “Oh maiden, mother and crone,
We call upon ye to open doors unknown.
‘Neath light of moon, under guise of bone,
Let our skins shape to fur and feather
Yet hold on fast to spirit’s tether
Whilst we shift self, not time or weather…”
They ran. They ran until there was nothing behind except for the faint gleam of the neon sign of the Clown Motel and the gleam of the clown’s blue ballon. Nothing below them except for the crunch of sand and rock. Nothing above them but the half moon.
I am the moon. I have seen, sensed and experienced so much, and for so long. I heard the Three call upon me one night, while I was taking a short rest. Or I think it was them. So tired, I barely came to consciousness. I looked for them but I could barely see. Their Sacred Grove was empty. They weren’t where they were supposed to be. I refocused my lens to their call. Somewhere, halfway at the desert at night. But I could not fully see them. The light of something blue blocking my view. I tried to heed their call but was left, cold, stark, alone, unseeing. Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.
About the Creator
-cottage-core meets adventure
-revels in nature, mystery and the fantastical
-avoids baleful gaze of various eldritch terrors
-your Village Witch before it was cool
-under command of cats and owls
-let’s take a Time Machine back to the 90s