The house he built and the animals that died there
We moved to Nye County, Nevada, when I was six years old. My stepfather built our house himself on the edge of BLM, on the rim of a dry lake bed surrounded by mountains, with a well and a basement. We had to heat our bathwater on the stove, shake the sheets for centipedes, check under the table for snakes, stamp our feet in the basement for scorpions. My stepfather’s friend Gordon, who lived with us for a time in the basement, caught a tarantula in a jar. Animals often found a way to die at our house. Ground squirrels drowned in the horses’ water barrel. Mice died in the attic. Feral dog packs prowled the desert and littered our yard with bones. Once, a snake crawled into the swamp cooler and decorated our walls with snake and half-dissolved bird. Sometimes I came home from school to a decapitated chicken hanging feet first from the shed.
The light that burned
My mother’s father had worked at the test site. He was an ironworker. He raised her like a son, taught her how to train horses, how to survive in the desert, took her riding on the back of his motorcycle. He was a hard man, but he was a good man. When I would go to him after a bath, he would haul me into his lap, take a sniff of my toweled hair, and announce, You stink! He worked at the test site in the 1950s. Back then, clouds bloomed from the land like jellyfish: ghosts of a vanished sea. He and his team wore radiation badges to measure their weekly exposure. The badges were flawed. One by one, they all got cancer and died, including my grandfather. Soon after, my mother married my stepfather.
Sometimes I procrastinated the evening feed until I had to find my way by touch and starlight. In this way, by accident, I fed my own horse a flake of moldy hay—the blush of mold undetectable in the dark—and so caused her gut to fall silent with colic. My mother stayed up all night walking her back and forth, back and forth, but the mare died anyway. Before we could haul her body to the town pit, her stomach swelled where she lay, lifting her stiff legs skyward. My mother’s own beloved mare wasted away, despite all the surgeries my mother paid for and couldn’t afford. Tootie broke a leg in her corral. It was a holiday so the vet would not come to our house, but instructed my mother to draw a line from each ear to the corner of the eye opposite, and to shoot where the lines made an X. Janie colicked. Fancy twisted a gut giving birth. Her orphaned foal, Pookha, a gift to me from my mother, trapped her head in the fence and broke her own neck.
Not a horse
Gordon died in our basement, drunk and drowning in his own vomit on the stained mattress he slept on.
The wires that trapped us
My stepfather had fought in the Vietnam war. His troop had been doused with Agent Orange. I woke him by poking him from a safe distance with a broom. He hated me, and he grew to hate my mother, but he wouldn’t let her go. He stole and pawned her jewelry. He spent months on the couch, while my mother was a groundskeeper, was a cashier, was a janitor. He took his pants off and lounged in sagging briefs, his testicles spilling out the leg holes. He watched me through the crack of my bedroom door, which had no lock. He walked into the bathroom as I sat on the toilet. He called me a whore. He called me a cunt. Once, when my mother was at work, he hallucinated, screaming and spitting into my face. He dragged my little brothers off in his truck, and when he came home a long time later, my brothers ran into my bedroom with white faces. I blocked my door with a dresser. I heard his rumbling voice say, I don’t know if I should just shoot the bitch or her mother, too. The sheriff said that without proof of physical harm, there was nothing he could do. The attorney said that if she left him, she would have to pay alimony and share custody, leaving my brothers alone with him and his guns.
She gave up. He slept in the living room, on a couch stained by his body. We lived our lives in my mother’s bedroom, her door between him and us, his slow tread creaking the floor at the other end of the house.
Cats and cats and cats
Often, stray cats found their way to us. Or were dumped on our property. Or were left in a box on the side of the road. When the queens came into heat, we locked them in the tack shed to wail their erotic yowls while toms prowled outside, singing replies. Still the cats multiplied. My brothers and I searched the property for kittens, dragging them out from beneath the shed, from inside the woodpile, our fingers flinching at imagined black widows, scorpions, centipedes, emerging with a fury of fuzz, needle teeth puncturing our thumbs. Sometimes the queens gave birth under my bed, eyes dilated, purring in agony; the kittens sliding out in banded membranes, umbilical attached to a dark, wet sack. Once a queen went mad, abandoned her kittens to die in the heat; and once I found a litter of them my stepfather had tossed in the burn barrel, lacquered in birth fluids, a stone of dried blood glistening from one kitten’s nostril.
What he loved
Oddly, he loved geese, and kept his own flock, weeping when one vanished to coyotes or the lurking feral dogs. My stepfather loved geese, but he hated cats. Especially mine, a gray tabby who slept curled on my chest. If my stepfather saw my cat, he kicked him. If he found my cat on his couch, he sat on him, or dropkicked my cat across the room. After the last time, I found my cat underneath my bed, in the birthing cave, only his back legs visible.
What I did to repay
In my life, I have rarely been brave. But that night, I left the gate to my stepfather’s geese pen open after the evening feed, and in the morning, drifts of white feathers covered the yard. He wept like a child.
Strange things and beautiful things
But there was also the time I startled a desert fox from a tangle of sage. Her wide, swift ears, her bottlebrush tail, her wary, intelligent eyes regarding mine.
There was digging for clay after a rare rain and sculpting it into white, chalky horses, speckled with grit.
There was the family of jackrabbits, their kits venturing out in the early dawn while I fed the horses, balls of fluff the size of my palm.
There was the nest of gentle black ants that lived in the gravel of our driveway, their sleek jaws clasping eucalyptus leaves, passing into and out of my shadow as I squatted to watch.
There were the stars at night: a thick scatter of gems, layers upon layers of them, the Milky Way a bright band of smoke.
There were the mountains.
There were the shadows of mountains, striping the clay flats.
There was the silence like two palms pressed over my ears.
There was the time I found an entire horse or cow skeleton laid neatly on top of the shed roof. When I asked my brothers what it was doing there, they looked at me patiently and said, We found it in the desert, as if that answered my question.
There was the winter morning when I went outside to feed and found the dry lake filled to the brim with fog.
There was the abandoned gourd patch my mother and I discovered on a wandering desert walk—out in the clay flats, in the middle of nowhere, a splintered fence enclosing a mesquite grove, wrapped with rusted barbed wire. Inside: a hidden room, slivers of shade, a carpet of dry leaves, the husks of vines and gourds light as feathers, rattling with seeds.
There was the fact that in spite of all of it, in spite of him, my brothers grew into good men, and kind.
You can grow used to anything
At one point, twenty-two cats lived in my bedroom. Their feces dotted the floor from wall to wall, their urine soaked the carpet. I emptied the litter box in the desert, dug new dirt to refill it. Sometimes the litter stirred with maggots. But all night a blanket of cats covered me, their chins on my chest, their hearts thundering against my ear. I peed in their box to avoid the bathroom.
I went into the desert to shit, though. Holding it in for days, sneaking out with my pockets stuffed with toilet paper, squatting in a mesquite grove, watching the house through a screen of branches. The stiff yellow brush scratching my skin as I hovered, thighs burning. Afterward, I buried my dung like a cat.
Sometimes I came home from school and found my mother had cleaned my room for me: clean sheets on the bed, the floor cleared of filth, the litter box fresh, all stench aired away. Sometimes she left a small gift behind on my bed: A scotch-tape dispenser. Plastic barrettes. Scented erasers. Tiny treasures as comforting as a blanket of cats.
A terrible beauty
I have a book of archival photographs of mushroom clouds. I’ve watched the black and white film of an empty house in the test zone, tattered away by wind and blinding light. Is it wrong that I find them compelling and beautiful?
Memory can’t be trusted
Years later, my mother would tell me that Gordon never died in our basement. That he had moved away and passed on somewhere else. What else have I misremembered?
But the bare, stained mattress he had slept on was true.
Some evidence of care
Long after I had fled, my stepfather heard voices telling him to murder my mother and brothers. He installed locks on the bedroom doors and told my family to lock them at night. He would then tie himself to my great-grandmother’s scratched mahogany coffee table.
The other desert
By then I was living in Qatar, alone in a high-rise flat with cold tile floors and blue-tinted windows overlooking the sea. The sea was dense with silt and jellyfish.
When I came home to visit, my stepfather and I ignored each other. He still slept on the same filthy couch. The pain had moved from his spine to his legs. He would sleep like this: kneeling on the floor in front of the couch, arms crossed and head resting on his arms. I slept in my mother’s bed, her back warm against mine.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
The house and the basement were cluttered with dust and water-stained paperbacks and tubs of old toys and broken furniture and dessicated mouse scat. But in those depths my mother kept records of her father’s illness. She sent them to the government. She expected nothing.
They gave her $100,000. How much is a life worth? How much is a father, a grandfather, worth? But it bought her a house. A house that was brand new, and hers.
The other sea
I went skinny-dipping once in my life. It was at night, on a tidal flat shore deep in the empty Qatari desert, behind vast dunes of sand. The water was warm as spit, dense, and shallow, and as I swam, phosphorescence trailed my bare limbs so they were lit from below, pale and blue and luminous.
Everything wears away
My mother and brothers moved out. My stepfather died soon after, old, alone, and unloved, surrounded by filth in his cat-stained lair. He had arranged some friends to squat there free of rent in exchange for looking after him, but instead they stole his tools and his cash, and left him to die untended.
I went there, after, to the old house. I didn’t go inside. The yard was full of weeds and garbage, abandoned piles of scrap, the fallen shells of horse corrals. I didn’t go inside the house, but I went into the lake bed, following my old nostalgic paths.
I found the gourd patch flattened, shards of beer bottles and bullet casings littering the dirt. Along the rim of the lake, new houses crowded what had once been empty desert. The town had grown and moved on in my absence. The evening stars now blank, erased by heedless light.