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Desert Spirits

Angelica's Dream

By Claire IbarraPublished 7 months ago Updated 7 months ago 9 min read

Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. Mountains lurked in the far off distance. Large, free form cacti dotted the dry landscape, across flat lands of sand and rock. At the beginning, Angelica thought the figures she saw were cacti. They stood tall and human-like with bulky arms stretched out. But the longer she stared, she could see the spirits sway and twirl, with smoky arms waving above their heads in a strange dance. The moon was always full above the hazy clouds, and the twinkling stars were like cloaks of jewels adorning the dark spirits.

Angelica’s husband thought she was foolish. He would tell her, “Damn woman. You are as stupid as a mule.” Miguel was not a kind man, and he had no patience with Angelica who was prone to visions of dark figures dancing by moonlight in the purple-laced desert. On those nights, Angelica would stare out the bedroom window, clutching the drapes, telling her husband in a hushed voice that the spirits were drawing near. Every time she saw them, they appeared to be closer. She began to notice their roughly sketched features– the lines and hollow pockets where a face should be.

The military base was the largest compound for hundreds of miles around. Miguel and his men were sometimes sent out into the desert to patrol, as the tension along the border mounted. Shots could sometimes be heard. It was an intimidating tactic used by both sides.

Like most military wives, Angelica had to follow Miguel wherever he was assigned. She found herself packing the family belongings countless times, military base to base, each like small towns onto themselves, barricaded by cement walls, barbed wire and guarded gates. She didn’t complain, even though with each move she felt her true self diminish.

The military wives dedicated themselves to raising the children, domestic chores, hosting afternoon teas for the ladies and cocktail parties in the evenings. It was another world outside the cement walls and in the town awash in desert winds, open terrain, and midnight spirits.

Miguel didn’t pay much attention to his wife and children, and so Angelica became a free spirit and subliminally rebellious under her pleasant demeanor and floral housedresses. Whereas most of the other wives lived out their days contently inside the base, never really itching to go out into the rustic, simple town of peasants and farmers, Angelica would walk into town and chat with the locals. She began to trade herbs with the women and buy her produce from the street vendors.

One of the women, who sold potatoes and corn from a blanket on the sidewalk, told Angelica, “A dark shadow sits on your left shoulder. He whispers insults into your ear. Don’t listen.” Angelica laughed nervously and shook her shoulders, shaking off the invisible threat.

The other military wives gawked in dismay, as Angelica’s two sons ran barefoot and wild, playing side by side with the children of humble farmers and shopkeepers. The children played among the goats and chickens. They scampered through cactus fields, rummaging to find toys scattered about the countryside. By far their greatest diversion was a collection of discarded bottles and tin cans, coveted by the youngsters for their improvised percussion band. There they congregated, in the middle of a dry, sunbaked field, to bang away at the scraps using sticks–preferably wooden spoons taken from Angelica’s kitchen.

One afternoon, a few of the local children and Angelica's sons sat in a large circle and banged away at the scraps while shaking their bodies to the beat. The eldest of the group, a stocky boy, got up and kicked up his feet, then danced in circles. The other boys held their stomachs as they laughed. Then the boy stopped his one-man show and stood very still. He motioned for the others to follow him as he walked across the field toward a lone mule. They all approached the animal cautiously. The boy said, “I bet none of you can ride this old mule. You’re just a bunch of babies.” He walked right up to the animal and held onto its neck. “It’s even tame.”

“Then why don’t you ride it?” One of the younger boys asked their leader.

“No, I bet Miguel and Carlos could do it; their father’s the Major,” another yelled out.

This peaked the boy’s interest and he walked over to the two and stood in front of them. “That’s right, your father is ‘el jefe,’ so you should ride the mule.”

Miguel looked up at the animal, and it seemed ten feet tall. He glanced around at the other kids and they all grinned and nodded their heads in unison, in agreement that he and his brother should mount the stout, broad-eared mule.

Carlos pulled back his shoulders proudly and said, “We can do it. We’re big enough!”

The enthusiastic group gathered around and cheered the two boys as they, with brave innocence, climbed onto the back of the stubborn, willful creature. And just then the older boy threw a rock as hard as he could, hitting the mule in its rear. The animal sprinted off.

The mule belonged to a local farmer but had been missing for three days. Now, with the two boys on its back, it trotted along. Gradually it slowed down, but there was still no stopping its determined gait as the three made their way further out into the desert.

Two hours passed. “Miguel, how far do you think we’ll get before we die of thirst?” Carlos asked his older brother as he looked out at the never-ending expanse of dry brush. He had been crying and now fought back hiccups as snot dripped out of his nose.

“Look, Carlos, an old man. Do you see him, wearing a straw hat and carrying a walking stick? He’ll help us. Everything will be okay now, he’s getting closer.” But as they neared the old man they could see it was just a cactus. Carlos’s hiccups got worse. He began to see strange people, dark figures hiding behind cacti, laughing and taunting them. The figures dashed across the landscape, while large black vultures circled overhead. Purple clouds began to gather over the mountains in the distance.

The mule marched without slowing down, and the two small boys whimpered as they rode ever further from town into the open dry land speckled with irrigated fields and farmhouses. Miguel began to see the ground swell like waves and the cacti dance to a silent tune, while buzzards jeered at them.

Angelica was beside herself with worry. Even after a day of mischief, by then the boys would be running into the house famished and sweating, hot and tired from their day’s adventures. Their baby sister would cling to them and bounce up and down with her wobbly legs, eager to have their attention.

Instead, Miguel came home to find his wife standing precariously atop the six-foot cement wall enclosing their backyard. She whistled and called out at the top of her lungs with tears streaming down her face. Idiotic, he thought. She could fall and break her neck.

Miguel was a man of action, and with his boys lost in the middle of the desert, he immediately called his entire unit into a search party. Before Angelica even had time to explain, countless privates were looking for the lost boys through the harsh terrain with four-wheel jeeps.

Angelica prepared the tub with cold water, ready to douse her two sons when they returned, along with a wooden spoon in hand, not to be played against tin and glass this time, but rather to be spanked against the tender flesh of a child’s buttock.

Angelica dusted, washed dishes, swept the patio, and made rice pudding–but still her boys had not returned. She fidgeted and paced. She imagined their sweaty, red faces–smudged from tears–and her heart melted. Her children were the only things she lived for, and without them she had nothing. Even so, her children didn’t fill that hole at the center of her being, the hole that kept growing and sucking all life force into it.

It was dark outside. The purple clouds began their dance with the sky, swirling to bring the cacti to life.

Miguel and his men still roamed the desert, calling out to the boys. They found an old mule trudging through the open terrain, but there were no boys in sight. Miguel began to curse at the young privates, and silently curse his wife. Angelica was dimwitted, in his opinion. The more Miguel thought of his wife as stupid, the more in control and powerful he felt. He didn’t analyze that–he just accepted it.

Angelica looked out the bedroom window, and watched the shadow people dance. They were so close now that she could see their dark eyes stare at her. She could see the way their fingers clawed at the earth, and how their mouths opened wide and howled at the sky. She knew they had taken her boys, but she could fix that.

Angelica slipped off her sandals. She let her hair loose from its bun. Her housedress flowed freely around her small frame, as she walked out of her house and into the desert. The ground felt rough and hard against her tender feet. The wind was sharp and unkind, much like her husband Miguel. The moon offered its condolences, and the only glimmer of hope. Angelica felt a surge of courage, a surge of defiance.

As she got closer to the shadows, they appeared monstrous. They towered over her, with their smoky bodies swirling, as they roared and howled in rage. “Take me instead,” she commanded them.

Miguel had searched all night. He arrived at his house nearly at daybreak, dead tired and defeated. He still cursed Angelica under his breath, though his voice was raw, and he prepared his assault on her. His fists were already clenched.

Yet upon entering the house, there was a calm and tranquility that threw him off balance. He didn’t expect that. He went into his bedroom, but Angelica wasn’t there. The window was open, and as he stood looking out at the desert, a slight, delicate breeze caressed his skin. Miguel shook off the sensation.

He began to call to Angelica. She didn’t answer. But just as he was about to search the other rooms, he saw his two sons standing in the doorway. They were in their pajamas, sleepy-eyed and holding their droopy pillows.

“Where is Mama?” Carlos asked. He yawned.

The baby began to cry from the next room.

Short StoryFantasy

About the Creator

Claire Ibarra

Claire is the author of Fragile Saints, a novel published by Adelaide Books in 2021. Claire’s poetry chapbook Vortex of Our Affections was published by Finishing Line Press in 2017.

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