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Invisible Woman

The Yellow Desert

By John CoxPublished 3 months ago Updated about a month ago 24 min read
2
Artwork by the Author

“Your free,” Kat whispered.

“I’m free?”

Slowly wrapping her arms around me, she kissed me softly on the lips. Closing my eyes, I held her a little tighter, melting in the warmth of her embrace. For a moment or two, my pain and disappointment slipped away, like sand in the top of an hourglass.

As her arms slipped from mine, I opened my eyes, the gentle evening breeze brushing the cheek that a moment before had pressed against hers. She disappeared as if she had never existed at all.

“Hey Kat … wait,” I murmured with a sob, “If I am free, why do I feel so lost?” But the only answer was the sound of the sand rustling softly in the breeze. Wiping the tears from my face, I gazed heavenward in the twilight darkness as if I might find her hiding in the stars. But the evening had cooled since the setting of the sun, so I wrapped my shawl over my shoulders to ward off the chill. Not knowing what else to do, I began to walk into the night.

In high school my nickname was Miss Runner Up. Not surprisingly, the boy who took me to the senior prom was rejected by two other girls before inviting me. I am the woman that men settle for when the women they really want won’t have them. I’m the one they marry and have children with – Mrs. Second or Third Best. I’m the one they will cheat on because women like me will always take them back.

But it’s no easier to run away from my circumstances than to run away from myself. As the night grew colder, I’m began to wonder if I made a mistake. I don’t know what I will do if this fails.

The day seemed so promising when it began. Although I had not heard from Orfy in more than a month, he called to tell me he had planned a surprise for my birthday. I’m thinking maybe a fancy dinner in downtown Minneapolis, Murray’s or Jax Café, but instead he had paid in advance for a private séance with Madame Hekatos. Postings on Facebook gushed – an evening at one of her group sessions was exhilarating, jaw dropping, terrifying. Best entertainment value in the Twin Cities. But a private one? How had he scored that?

It hardly matters now that I have disappeared. But still, I wonder fearfully if he reacted the way Hey Kat promised once the smoke in the room cleared.

It began innocently enough. The receptionist led us into a dimly lit meeting room where he seated us at a small table with a crudely woven lace covering. Half hidden by shadow, faces peered creepily from dark paintings as a grandfather clock chimed the hour in the gloom. Although I was already spooked, it soon got a lot worse. Before long I wished we had eaten at Murray’s instead.

When Madame’s Hekatos entered, she carried a single candle that she placed on the table. As the candle sputtered and popped the weak lighting grew even darker, her eye color darkening from a golden amber to black, her heavy white mane making her seem more ghost than human in the gloom. The intensity of her frank gaze felt like a violation, as if she was looking into me rather than at me.

The receptionist entered the room with a steaming pot and placed saucers and cups on the table before pouring tea and leaving again.

Lifting her cup, she sipped with a sigh of pleasure. Following her example, the tea surprised me. It tasted mildly sweet, its pleasant fragrance lingering in the air. As I returned the cup to the saucer, I noticed that with the lights dimmed the design on the lace now appeared almost three-dimensional. Towers of foxglove woven amongst unspooling fronds of fern shimmered like a tiny mirage, the lace that had seemed so plain when I sat down now ornate enough for white gloves and high tea.

Continuing to regard me with her hard stare, she did not speak, and I grew more and more uncomfortable till she finally turned her gaze to Orfy. When she finally said, “Shall we begin?” I jerked with surprise.

“Sometimes people pay me for a thrill or a scare, sometimes because they can’t let go of their dead, and sometimes because the dead won’t let go of them. Why are you here?”

Though she turned to me as she said it, Orfy answered for both of us. “Since the last two don’t apply, I guess we’re here for the thrill.” As she continued to thoughtfully gaze at me, I stared mutely back. Just because the dead won’t let go of me did not mean I wanted to do something about it. At that moment, my only interest was in getting it over as quickly as possible.

“So … when do we start?” Orfy said, mildly irritated.

“Can you hold that thought?”

“Excuse me?”

She pushed her chair back and picked up a large display case resting behind her and turned on the lamp within it. “Do you know what this is?”

“An old sword?”

“An Iberian cavalry sword. It’s over two millennium old … very rare.”

“Not very impressive now, is it?”

“Maybe you should look a little closer.” He leaned forward with a sarcastic squint. She did not seem to care or notice. “Travel with me into the deep past,” she said in a husky voice, “see the sword freshly forged, it’s edge so finely honed that it would cut to the bone with the tiniest flick of your wrist. Imagine gripping its hilt in your hand, its blade gleaming brightly in the sun. You’re a wily old warrior atop your steed on the flank of a phalanx of infantry, your face and arms scarred by many battles, your shield on your left arm and this sword unsheathed in your right. Feel the terror of the endless waiting, your adrenaline helplessly flowing in anticipation of the approaching combat.”

But he did not reply, his mouth open just enough to form a small ‘o.’ Grasping his elbow I murmured “Are you OK?” but he continued to stare silently at the sword. After turning off the case’s light and quietly returning it to the floor behind her, she turned back to him.

“Can you hear me?”

“I can hear you,” he answered with a low moan.

Facing me she smiled and said – “Have another sip of tea, my dear.” My hand trembled violently as I lifted the cup to my lips.

“What’s … what’s happened to him?” I finally stammered.

“He’s in a hypnogogic state – between awake and asleep.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to talk to you not him.”

“What?”

“Now … where were we? Oh yes, I asked you why you are here. So why are you?”

“He brought me.” I gestured unhappily at Orfy. It took a genuine effort on my part to keep from bolting from the room. “I didn’t ask to come. A surprise birthday present.”

“That’s too bad, you probably won’t enjoy this.”

“Are you trying to scare me?”

“I’m trying to warn you.

“The people in this business are typically frauds looking for an easy buck or fools who think they can hear the dead. But under my roof there is no make believe, no tricks, no hallucinations of mine or anyone else’s fancy. Those who expect a bit of fun usually get more than they bargain for. Most of the people who pay for my services have never had an occult experience in their lives. On occasion I’ll have a customer who is actively haunted by the dead or bearing a curse passed from one generation to the next. But you ….” she said with a puzzled expression and then left the words hanging unspoken.

“But me,” I replied.

“But you,” she said with a sigh, “are veiled. You did not ask to come and yet here you are with a dragon doll in your purse.”

“Dragon … doll?”

“A mandragora root.” She smiled when I winced with surprise. “It’s not the first time someone has brought one to a séance of mine, but the doll you carry is very different from those others. I feel it in my bones. They were merely painted roots. But yours ….”

I gripped my purse defensively as tears began to well in my eyes, the desire to stand up and run from the room almost overpowering.

“I can see the pain etched in your features, but I cannot see you. Something’s hiding you. Something very powerful.”

I clutched the purse tightly and felt it lurch. Not now, I thought desperately.

She raised her eyebrows and whispered, “Playing with fire, are we?”

Blinking in alarm, I did not reply.

“Do you know what the Harrowing is?”

I answered with a wet-eyed stare.

“The great emptying. Fits of vomiting of such intensity and duration that eventually you will long for the release of death. The Harrowing is the dark night of the soul – life stripped of artifice and emptied of the refuse that we unwittingly label meaning. Nietzsche said, ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger.’ But his wits did not survive the Harrowing … men’s wits rarely do. He certainly wouldn’t,” she said with a rude jerk of her thumb.

“But I’m guessing you already know that. A doll with the kind of power that yours just demonstrated would have exacted a price.” She asked, “Would you like to show it to me, dear?” the music in her voice tugging at my heart before my purse lurched even harder than before.

I growled “Mine,” through gritted teeth.

“You shouldn’t play with things you don’t understand.”

I had already lived through my own emptying after reading my father’s letters, my heart afterwards like a fire that would not light for want of a spark. I ate so little that my mom finally admitted me to the hospital. They ended up drugging me to keep me from pulling my feeding tube out. She thought I was anorexic, but I was just terribly sad. Once I returned home after the treatment I did not laugh for a very long time. I never truly recovered. A part of me is as lost as the love my father might have given me and I think always will be.

People say it’s not the child’s fault when mommy and daddy stop loving each other. But I know better. I read his letters. My father made it clear to my mother from the beginning that kids were out of the question. In the last one he reminded her of the many times he had warned her to be careful. ‘I might have stayed for a boy,’ he wrote, ‘but for a daughter? That is an insufferable abuse of my trust.’

Although she never said it aloud, I know my mom resented me as well. I heard it daily in the weariness in her voice and could see the bitterness hiding beneath her emotionless expression. If I had been a boy, my father might have stayed. He might have loved us both.

The only good things that ever happened in my life are Hey Kat and Orfy. Mom didn’t care for the former. “Imaginary friends are for the weak-minded, we’re better than that,” she often scolded. But Hey Kat is not imaginary. She is as real as any person I have ever known. It did not matter to me that no one could see or hear her except for me.

Mom assumed that I created Hey Kat for lack of friends. Acting on that assumption she arranged a playdate with Orfy, the son of a fellow assembly worker at the Federal Cartridge Company. Orfy never gave me a hard time about Hey Kat. Since his mother left when he was four, he understood me like no one else I have ever known. Soon we were inseparable, both of us loners shaped by abandonment and want.

As we got older, my feelings for Orfy turned from friendship to desire. But it was Lila who caught his eye and enslaved his heart. After that she was all he ever talked about. Every hurt she inflicted, every slight, every reminder of her advantages and his deficits he shared with me. Some tearfully, and others in red hot anger. How I longed to tell him that he didn’t need her, that I fully accepted and loved him. But he desired her with the same intensity and feeling that I desired him. That kind of fierce longing, at least, I understood.

Lila came from a close knit and well to do family, her father a sitting judge and her mother our high school principal. She came from a world the two of us could only imagine. No one could ever hope to compete with her pearly smile, lustrous golden hair, and care-free perfection; least of all a girl who wore a perpetual scowl.

In high school he needed me as friend, counselor and priest, but not for the role of lover that lived only in my imagination. Lila is my nemesis. She has enjoyed every advantage in life, every lucky break, every little joy denied me. She was president of our High School’s Honor Society, Homecoming Queen, class Valedictorian, and given a full ride merit scholarship at the U of M that her parents could have easily afforded.

But I could never share my feelings with Orfy, not when he is so blinded by his own. And I could not share them with my mom. She is too busy feeling sorry for herself to ever show true interest in me.

Things for Orfy changed for the worse after graduation from high school. His Father could not afford to pay for his schooling and his grades were not good enough for a scholarship. So Orfy got a job working nights at a local bakery and started attending Anoka Tech to study mechanical drafting and design. Lila made no effort to hide her disappointment.

One morning Orfy turned up at my apartment frantic with grief and fell into my arms. I had never seen him so distraught. I walked him to the couch as he stammered that Lila had broken up with him. Holding his face to my heart, I gently rubbed his back as he wept, rocking with him like a mother comforting her child. How my heart ached with him in my arms, my hands trembling with the hope that I might finally win him.

But as the days passed, when he wasn’t talking about Lila he would grow silent and moody. I learned that it was best to leave him to his own devises.

We became lovers only by accident. After two weeks together, he blundered into the bathroom just as I was stepping into the shower. Seeing me naked, the scales finally fell from his eyes as he recognized the desire in mine own. For a few days, even he saw the possibility of he and I till death shall we part. But my euphoria was short-lived. Even though our lovemaking briefly revived the old Orfy, he never stopped loving Lila. A few weeks later when Lila told him she wanted him back, he didn’t even say goodbye.

“Does he know what you have in your purse?” Hekatos asked suddenly, hooking her thumb at Orfy.

Slowly I shook my head no.

“Does he matter to you?”

Dread penetrated deep into my guts as my eyes began to helplessly water.

“I think we better go,” I finally replied.

Turning to Orfy she asked, “Would you like to go?” but he did not answer, his eyes staring blankly, his lips still forming a little ‘o.’ “I guess he needs to think about it,” she remarked with a sardonic smile.

“Is he in danger?” I finally whispered.

But Madame Hekatos changed the subject. “Have you ever heard of Hecate?”

I shook my head a second time.

“Goddess of the crossroads and the liminal spaces of this world, she is very powerful. The mandragora root is so similar to a human body that Hecate once breathed a soul into one and brought it to life. She promised the doll that if it earned it, one day she would change it into a flesh and blood woman. I worry how that doll came into your possession.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“How do you know you can trust the creature in your purse? All magic comes at a price. A doll with that kind of power, I dare not even imagine the true cost.”

In response, my body began to shake violently, a deep hiss piercing my lips and slipping into the darkened room like steam from a boiling pot, my purse lurching so hard that it landed on the floor and popped open. As smoke belched out of its opening Madame Hekatos howled, “You stupid fool!” before disappearing in the smoky darkness.

Stooping to the floor, my hands flailed for the purse and the precious doll. But instead of finding either, my hands plunged into sand. “Hey Kat,” I shrieked.

“Don’t worry, love,” she quietly replied, “she’s gone. They’re both gone.”

Something in her voice shook me. “Gone, gone?” I whispered.

“No, silly. Gone … as in not here.”

Slowly standing, I looked at my new environment in bewilderment. “Where did you take me?” I whispered with a shiver.

Hey Kat shrugged. “Don’t worry. Orfy will move heaven and earth to find you. Follow my instructions and he will never desire Lila again.”

Our surroundings shone with an unworldly yellow light, as if someone had plunged the sun into the earth. Natural columns of stone dotted the plains like a petrified army and in the distance trees lined the horizon as if a promise of water and life. Everything else was sand.

She took my hand, and we began to walk toward the woodland, a light breeze rustling the sand around our feet. Occasionally, a dust devil would glide haphazardly into view and just as unpredictably disappear again. On the far horizon I saw gulls riding the wind above an invisible ocean but could not hear their cries nor the sound of the waves beneath them.

But I felt a worrying hollowness, as if a doorway had opened to my past and all my former troubles now threatened to return. Hekatos’ whispered comment, ‘I dare not even imagine the true cost,’ had lodged itself in my thoughts like an unwelcome guest.

When I was eight, my mom took me to a large antique store. In one of its many rooms the display tables and cabinets had a collection of spirit dolls from all over the world. Carved wooden Kachinas from the American Southwest, Ashanti Akuabas with large disk-shaped heads from Ghana, Daruma good luck dolls from Japan, Haitian Vodou dolls, carved root Poppets from Northern Europe as well as many others long since forgotten. When I spotted the dragon doll lying on the floor beneath the table covered with Poppets, I felt compelled to pick it up when my mother wasn’t looking and hid it under my shirt.

But I was only a little girl. I signed no contract in exchange for my soul nor made any explicit request to injure or kill others. But Madam Hekatos was right, Hey Kat’s magic came at a price. It was innocent fun in the beginning. When she first began to appear to me, she was little more than a shadow on the wall.

But before long bad things began to happen to those who hurt me. A few months after I read my father’s letters he was diagnosed with cancer and was dead within the year. The leader of a group of girls who frequently made fun of me at school tripped and fell down the stairs and broke her back. Our sadistic gym teacher in the tenth grade was hit by a car after making me run so many laps around the school track that I vomited.

Shortly after my father died, Hey Kat manifested herself physically to me for the first time. Each time someone else was hurt she would appear in physical human form, as if feeding off the suffering of those who abused me. It wasn’t difficult to draw the obvious connection. I never explicitly condoned Hey Kat’s actions, but I did not condemn them either. I simply chose to look the other way.

But after Orfy left me, something snapped within. I had allowed myself to believe that he had begun to love me the way that I loved him. The pain of his rejection hurt worse than learning that my father left my mother because of me. Weeping does not begin to describe the tears I shed at his betrayal. I wailed at the top of my lungs till my voice gave out. I beat my breasts with such fury that they turned purple with bruising. After four days of excruciating grief, I begged Hey Kat to return him to me. “No price is too great,” I whispered. “I’ll do anything, agree to anything.”

Her plan was both simple and terrifying. “Only if you disappear will Orfy recognize your true worth.” Because I loved him so loyally, I suppressed my jealousy and hurt and dropped everything whenever he needed me. Disappearing would make me more inaccessible than the imperious Lila. “Only then,” Hey Kat explained, “will he finally compare your love for him with Lila’s and grasp the enormity of his mistake.

“He will come for you,” she promised, “but others may come for you first. Be careful whom you follow. And whatever you do, do not say Orfy’s name until you have safely returned.”

But that seemed hours ago now. Now that the darkness has fully engulfed the night, I look up again at the limitless expanse of the stars above me. But no matter what direction I turn, I cannot see reflected light on any horizon. I am deeply lost in a huge and desolate place. If I had not regretted my bargain with Hey Kat before, I begin to regret it now.

I don’t notice the change in my surroundings at first. But then something causes me to stop and observe more closely the columns of stone gathered about me. For a moment only, it seems as if one moves a little toward me before stopping. I stare so hard at the now immobile stone that my eyes water. Did I only imagine it?

“Please don’t walk away,” a man’s voice cries out in the night.

I’m not sure why I pause. “Stay away from me,” I reply through chattering teeth, my body trembling with terror and cold.

“Please don’t leave,” he continues piteously. “You can’t imagine how lonely it is here in this place.”

“Don’t move any closer,” I warn.

“I only want to talk; I won’t hurt you."

I know I should walk away, but something in his voice stirs my pity.

"Tens of thousands dwell in this place," he continues, "but I cannot see them, and they never speak. They jostle and shove me. Always jostling, never speaking. Terrible place. Just terrible.” Its voice trails off in a lunatic mutter.

But no one jostled me as I walked through the ghostly, stone columns. No one shoved me. Save for the voice, I am alone. Still the hairs on my neck stand on end. Why does fear seem so much greater in the darkness?

“Do you know where I can find water?”

“Why would you want water?” he answers in surprise.

I feel sick to my stomach. Where am I?

“You don’t know?” The voice answers as if reading my thoughts. “Weren’t you judged?”

Turning my back, I begin to walk swiftly away, barely suppressing the urge to break into a run.

“You don’t understand … there’s nothing and no one out there.”

I pause and turn, my heart in my throat. “Why are you here?” I ask, partly curiosity, partly fear of leaving without learning the answer.

“I died and was judged. They didn’t even tell me my sins. ‘Unfit,’ the judge said, and I found myself in this hell. In the daylight, the sun burns me as if I still had flesh, and at night my fleshless form trembles violently in the cold, just as you do now.”

“How did you die?”

He emits a mirthless laugh. “Lung cancer. Never smoked a day in my life. One day I had trouble breathing and went to the doctor and boom, stage four lung cancer. Before that not a single symptom and suddenly I’m condemned to die. I ask you, is that just?”

Staring, I do not answer, tears of rage welling in my eyes.

“‘Unfit,’ said the judge, no explanation; alone for all eternity, jostled and shoved. Does that seem right to you?”

Again, I do not answer.

“What did I do to deserve such a thing?”

“You abandoned your family,” I reply flatly. This silences him for a few moments. I can feel his invisible stare as if the stone facing me has eyes.

“Eury,” he finally whispers.

“Eury,” I answer firmly.

His voice sighs. “Your mother’s fault. I told her I did not want children.”

“I know. You made that clear in your letters. And yet you made me just the same. And then you abandoned us both.”

“Eury,” he repeats quietly. “I’m not your enemy. I never was.”

“You made me invisible, father. You did that by leaving. You did not love me, and now no one else can. You made me invisible and now you are too. That sounds a lot like justice to me.”

I turn and walk away, his voice crying out in the night even as it slowly grows more and more distant. Eventually, I no longer hear him at all. But our brief encounter has created its own inner torment. I now realize how stupid this gamble really was. Orfy is no better than my father. He left me after giving me the false hope that I was good enough for him. If that was a test of love, Orfy failed it. Why would this time be any different?

When the sun rises, the stone columns are absent. I cannot see trees no matter the direction I face. The yellow sand stretches seemingly forever. The breeze of the previous day has turned to a blustery wind. The sand stinging my face, I tie my shawl around my mouth and nose.

The day is long, hot and dry, my mouth cottony with thirst. After walking for several hours, I feel lightheaded. I do not know how much longer I can do this, the events of the night before seeming little more than a dream. Perhaps they were. Who knows what is real in this place and what is imagined.

But I have grown so hot that even my sweat has evaporated, my skin and scalp prickly and scratchy. Pausing I scan the horizon for trees or a place offering shade. Even a rock outcropping would be welcome. But there is nothing between me and the horizon but the same yellow sand, no matter which direction I face. My dizziness increasing, I stumble and crash before almost blacking out. Pushing myself up to my knees, I sit back on my haunches with a sense of defeat. A moment later I begin to vomit bile onto the sand. This is intolerable. I continue to wretch even after coughing up all of the bile in my stomach.

But I have yet to say Orfy’s name. “Hey Kat!” I yell. “You promised he would come. If he doesn’t come soon, he’ll find me buried in the sand. That wasn’t the deal.”

Staggering to my feet, I begin to walk again, but I don’t get far before dropping to my knees again. Looking toward the horizon, I see a figure like a trick of the light in the distance. But it does not engender any hope until the image begins to grow larger. Standing, I weakly wave my arms, but the figure does not return the gesture. Stumbling toward the figure, I wave my arms and weakly cry for help. But the sound does not carry, nor does the figure reply.

As I continue slowly forward, the figure begins to fade as if a mirage all along. “No!” I cry hoarsely. “Orfy! Come back. Don’t you know how much I need you?”

But the figure disappeared once I uttered his name and I collapsed to my knees for the last time. Sitting on my haunches, I watched helplessly as the fabric in my clothing began to slowly unravel in the buffeting wind, its threads disintegrating into dust.

This can’t be happening. First my shirt and shawl came apart and were stripped away, and then my pants, shoes and socks followed. My bra and panties were the last torn off by the wind driven sand, my naked and reddened flesh fully exposed to the sun. Is this how they will find me? But such thoughts do not last for long, as my once solid flesh is lifted from my bones like so many grains of sand to join its fellows in the endless yellow desert.

I might have chuckled if any voice remained to laugh within me. Somewhere that bitch Hey Kat probably wears my flesh. Will anyone even notice that I have departed?

Engulfed in the desert’s parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.

fiction
2

About the Creator

John Cox

Family man, grandfather, retired soldier and story teller with an edge.

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Comments (2)

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  • L.C. Schäfer6 days ago

    Thought I'd already commented, apologies! This is my favourite of yours, well worth setting aside the time to read.

  • Naveed about a month ago

    This story is a thought-provoking exploration of human vulnerability and resilience in the face of adversity, with elements of the supernatural adding an extra layer of intrigue. Well done!

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