Desert Scene with Blue Female

By Ramon Arjona

The darkness around her, broken only by the yellow glow of a few stars, seemed to creep across the desert. She looked first to the east, then to the west, listening to the wind in the sand and waiting for the moon. Long thin clouds ran through the sky like slender ribbons. It would happen soon. And she had to be ready.

Amanda double-checked her stopwatch, then examined her camera one more time. She looked at her digital thermometer -- the ambient temperature was in the high teens and dropping quickly. It still amazed her that the desert could hold such extremes of temperature, blazing hot during the day and freezing cold at night.

A blue glow appeared without warning, spreading across the desert, casting strange shadows around the cacti and dry shrubs. Amanda fumbled with her camera, and pushed the button on her stopwatch.

Then Amanda watched as she came into full view. Amanda had referred to her as "cyanodermic female" in her field notes at first, because of her blue skin, but after the first week she'd taken to calling her Cyan because "cyanodermic" seemed too clinical.

Cyan's long sapphire hair ran down over her naked azure body. Her delicate blue hands moved gently between the branches of the low shrubs, as if she were searching for something. Her limbs seemed fragile, but still solid and human. Her eyes -- Amanda had never really seen her eyes before; they were a brilliant turquoise, like Navajo jewelry -- lingered over each thin twig, as if she were reading the secrets of the Universe there.

Maybe she was a ghost. Maybe she was a wandering spirit, something from Native myth. Amanda made a mental note to look this up -- turquoise woman, wandering the desert at night. Maybe somebody on the res would talk to her about it.

Amanda felt a surge of joy as Cyan stepped within twenty, maybe thirty feet of her, closer than she had ever been before, close enough that Amanda could almost touch the penumbra of Cyan's aura. Then, she lifted her foot to take another step, and was gone.

Amanda pressed the button of her stopwatch, and looked down. Twenty-eight seconds. She had remained for twenty-eight seconds -- a new record.

Amanda felt pure joy overcome her. She laughed, and her laughter made clouds of white steam that drifted towards the yellow stars.

Twenty-eight seconds!

It didn't even matter that Amanda hadn't shot a single picture, even though Cyan had been closer to her than ever before. She had stayed for twenty-eight seconds -- almost a half a minute.

Now that, Amanda thought, was something to celebrate.

Amanda made up for late nights by sleeping in until mid-morning. Almost nobody came in to the clinic that early, and if they did she would hear them knocking and wake up. There would be maybe eighty patients in a busy month. Back when she worked in the ER in Marin, she'd gotten used to seeing that many patients in a day. And the Navajo didn't come in with nearly the proportion of gunshot or stab wounds as her patients in Marin had. The change in her workload gave her enough time to think, to study, and to sleep in a little -- between allergies and asthma, and minor cuts and abrasions.

She divided the slow time into periods for straightening and cleaning the clinic, periods for learning Navajo -- how to say, "Are you in pain?" and "Are you allergic to any medications?" -- and periods for doing research on Cyan. She cataloged the few, fuzzy photographs that she had taken on the first couple of nights. She tried to establish a pattern in her appearances -- maybe one would emerge after more time? She tried finding a reference to something like her in any of the local folklore. At first her curiosity had been completely academic, something spurred by the spirit of science and methodical inquiry. But after just a month it had turned into something more like art. Amanda drew more sketches of Cyan than she made tables or graphs of the data that she had collected.

Around noon, a young mother and her one-year old came in. The baby was coughing and wheezing -- he looked like he might be starting on an attack of bronchitis. Amanda listened to the kid's chest, looked down his throat, took his temperature. She prescribed some decongestants, and told the mother to come right back if she thought the baby was having any more trouble breathing. Amanda wanted to be cautious of asthma. She'd been told some of the kids around here seemed especially prone to it.

They were Amanda's only patients all day. She drew sketches of the desert for the rest of the afternoon, until the clinic was officially closed. Then she shut the doors and flipped the sign over so that the side facing outward said "Closed." The place would be quiet until the next day, or the next. She'd open up again if anybody came by, of course -- there was the one time, right after she'd started working at the clinic, when a nine-year-old boy had shown up around half past midnight with a bloody rag clasped over a cut on his arm. His mother hadn't wanted to drive him to the clinic in the dark, but the boy hadn't wanted to wait until morning. So he'd walked seven miles down the desert road to reach the clinic by himself. Amanda remembered waking up and cleaning his wound, and giving him six or seven stitches. Then she let him sleep on the waiting-room couch until the morning, and Dave Tiger gave him a ride home in the ambulance.

Dave'd said that the family had been shocked as all hell, to see the boy ride up in the ambulance. And he'd said the boy's grandmother'd laid into the mom before he'd even backed the ambulance away from their house.

Dave said, "Lord, I feel sorry for that mom. She deserved it, Dr. Amanda, don't get me wrong. But that old woman looked like she was a holy terror."

Amanda just kept thinking, almost amazed, That was one tough kid.

Dave came by around six for dinner.

Amanda knew that she was a terrible cook. In fact, she often gave up without trying and just popped a pair of instant dinners in the microwave. Dave didn't come for the food. He didn't have any family on the res anymore, and he just needed the company. He'd sit around for an hour or two, and they'd talk -- sometimes about the life she'd left in Marin, sometimes about his bitch ex-wife and the kids she'd taken with her to Dallas. Most often, they just talked about the weather, their patients, and the res.

She wanted to ask him about Cyan, if he'd seen or heard of anything like her, but she wasn't sure how to mention it without sounding a little crazy. Maybe she'd sound like one of those crackpot cultural tourists, the ones who did sweat lodge on weekends between crystal therapy and dharmic regression. She didn't want to do that. She didn't want to risk alienating Dave Tiger. Maybe after some time, when he'd really gotten to know her better and could see that she wasn't the Beverly Hills shaman type, she could ask him.

Dave looked up from his coffee at a quiet point in the conversation. "Dr. Amanda, that blue girl you keep drawing into your sketches. Who is she?"

Amanda felt cornered. She wasn't ready. She said, "She's something I saw out in the desert one night." Then she wished she hadn't said it.

Dave nodded gently, without judging. "Lots of strange things show themselves, out in the desert at night."

Once she saw that she didn't have to be afraid, Amanda wanted to pursue the subject as far as she could. "Have you ever seen her? Is there a legend about her, a story? Anything?"

Dave shrugged. "Nothing that I know of. But I can ask around."

"No, that's okay," she said. Then, "Well, only if you don't think it'll make anybody raise their eyebrows at me."

Dave laughed. "I just thought maybe she was a personal symbol. Or an old friend you left in Marin. You know, the way that Dali worked his wife into so many of his paintings.

"I like the way you use color," he said. "And I like the way that she shows up against the bare brown of the desert."

"You paint?" Amanda said, trying not to show that this surprised her.

"I used to," Dave said. "A little. Then I just lost interest."

Then your wife left for Dallas, you mean, she thought. But she kept that to herself.

The conversation died down and the pot of coffee ran empty. Around eight, Dave told her good night, got in his ambulance, and went home.

Amanda took a brief nap, so she would be awake and alert out on the desert. She put her camera and her drawing supplies in the jeep. She filled a jug with coffee and put it on the passenger seat. By ten o'clock, she was out in the desert, waiting to see Cyan.

She worried. It was the same worry she'd felt ever since she'd first discovered Cyan by following the strange blue aura across the desert. What if this was the night she decided to not appear? What if she went away forever, without staying any longer or coming any closer, without giving any more clues of what she was or what she could be? Amanda drank coffee and waited, while the stars rolled through the cloudless sky.

Around ten forty-five, the blue aura appeared, just as it had before. Then Cyan, timid, fragile, and naked, appeared at the center of the shimmering blue light. She began her nightly task of searching through the rocks and dry shrubs. Every move she made was deliberate. Amanda noticed that she did not repeat the search from the night before. She was definitely exploring new territory, trying to examine new ground with each step. But what was she looking for? It was almost as though she were a very methodical woman who had misplaced something of great value.

Amanda snapped several pictures without using the flash, for fear that it might startle Cyan and make her disappear.

Watching her move across the desert, watching her long methodical search, Amanda felt the familiar sense of joy and peace well up inside her chest and spread throughout her body. It overwhelmed her again, and she had to let some of it out by giggling. She hoped that the sound would not be too sudden, hoped that it would not frighten Cyan away, but she couldn't help it. She just couldn't.

Cyan was close enough that Amanda could see the distinct shades of blue in her eye, between the turquoise iris and the navy-blue pupil. She could see Cyan's eyelashes and the individual hairs flowing from her head. She could hear the quiet sound of her footsteps in the dust.

Amanda held her breath. She realized, for the first time, that Cyan was heading for the spot where she stood -- she had always been heading towards that spot, Amanda realized, ever since the beginning. Had she unconsciously placed herself in Cyan's path? Or was there something else drawing her closer? Amanda wondered -- was she part of what Cyan was looking for?

Then barely, just barely, Cyan got so close that the edge of her aura brushed against Amanda's hand.

Wave after wave of joy shot up Amanda's arm and into her heart and brain. She wanted to jump forward, throw her arms around Cyan, fold up into her and disappear in the expanse of that aura. God, that feeling!

Then the feeling stopped. Cyan was gone.

Amanda looked at her stopwatch. Thirty-two seconds.

She stood there in the desert for what must have been hours, alone and trembling. And though her digital thermometer said that the temperature had dropped into the single digits, she was not trembling from the cold -- not from the cold at all.

Then next day, Amanda slept until noon, when Dave came by and woke her up by knocking on the window.

"Hey, Dr. Amanda," he said. "You up late last night?"

She'd been dreaming of Cyan. She woke up startled, disoriented. "What? Yes. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Dave Tiger just smiled and went on his way.

Amanda rose slowly. She needed to test the ground under her feet before she stood. The feeling of Cyan's aura still clung to her hand, like the physical memory of a first kiss. It made her giddy. It made her feel the need to giggle, to dance.

She remembered how she had wanted to jump into Cyan and become part of her. Then she thought of how much closer she had come, how she had seemed to make a steady path towards the spot where Amanda had chosen to stand every night. She wouldn't need to grab Cyan, because she was going to come to her. She was going to come right to her.

Amanda wrapped her arms around herself and hugged herself the way young girls do, just to make sure that she was still real.

All day, she felt giddy. She couldn't remember ever feeling like this before, not in her childhood and not in the life she'd left behind in Marin. She didn't do any work in the clinic that day. She spent all day doing pencil sketches of the desert, and pastel drawings of Cyan. Every now and then she'd stop, look at her hand, and then giggle again.

She couldn't wait for night to fall. When Dave came over for dinner, she knew he could see the distance in her eyes. But he didn't ask her about it, and they sat and talked about the weather and the patients until it was time for him to go. Mostly it was Dave who spoke -- Amanda had to focus all of her energy on listening and not drifting away into her own thoughts.

Around eight, like always, Dave Tiger got in his ambulance and went home. Amanda lay down for her nap. She knew that she couldn't sleep, but she wanted to relax. She wanted to rest, so that she could be alert and aware for whatever might happen tonight with Cyan.

Oh God, that feeling.

Then, an hour and a half later, she heard somebody knocking on the clinic door.

She closed her eyes. She willed the knocker away.

But the knocking got louder, more insistent.

Slowly, Amanda stepped out of her bed. It was just Dave, she thought. He must have left something behind at dinner. Amanda opened the front door.

It was the young mother and her one-year-old again. The mother -- she couldn't have been more than nineteen -- looked desperate, her eyes red from crying. Amanda knew that look -- she'd seen it too many times in the Marin ER. The little boy was in his mother's arms. He didn't look like he was breathing.

Amanda looked at him, then out over the desert.

"Get him inside, quick. Put him down on the table there. Have you been giving him his breather? Have you been giving him his decongestants?"

"Yes. Yes."

The boy was breathing, but very shallow and very slowly. Amanda put her ear up against his chest -- it sounded like it had been stuffed with cotton. He was ready to go from asthma attack into full-blown respiratory arrest. He'd need to be hospitalized. But first, she needed to help him breathe.

"Pick up that phone and call Dave Tiger. His number's next to the phone there. Your son's going to be okay but we have to hurry. Tell Dave to get down here right away. Do you understand me? Your son's going to be okay but you've got to call Tiger while I help the boy breathe. Hurry!"

Damn it, kid, she thought, as she pulled medicine and cotton balls and a syringe from her drawers. Breathe!

It took minutes to make the boy breathe better. Not perfectly, just better -- well enough that he wouldn't die. It took a few more minutes for Dave to bring the ambulance. Amanda bundled the boy and his mother into the back. She rode with them for forty-five minutes, maybe an hour, to the hospital, where there'd be a real ER and a respirator to help the boy breathe. She held his hand, stroked his hair, the whole time thinking Breathe. You're a tough kid, now just breathe.

She took her eyes off his chest just once as they barreled through the desert. She turned her head to look for the blue glow -- hoping it would be visible from this distance, at this speed. But if it was out there she couldn't see it.

In another hour, the boy was in a hospital bed, breathing with the help of a large respirator attached to his nose and mouth. His mother thanked Amanda profusely, in English and in Navajo. Amanda left the clinic's number with the mother at the hospital in case she needed anything else. Then she and Dave Tiger got back in the ambulance and drove back to the clinic.

She looked for the blue glow all the way home. She even made Dave slow down in places where she thought it would be likely to appear. But it wasn't there.

The next night, Amanda waited past midnight, until the desert cold was too much and she had to go home. She did this for days, weeks, and saw nothing except the brown desert and the yellow stars.

After a while, she stopped waiting. She gathered up her sketches and paintings and packed them away.

She wondered if Cyan had been there. Maybe she wasn't coming back -- no second chances, as if Amanda had stood her up for some very important date. And then she wondered if perhaps, without her there, Cyan had finally been able to find whatever it was she'd been looking for.

Amanda packed these speculations with the drawings and shoved them in a closet. She could come back to them later if she wanted to. She needed to create time, space -- enough space for perspective and rational thought, enough time for the memory of that feeling in her hand to fade and become bearable.

Dave Tiger saw her doing this and he asked why.

"I don't know," Amanda replied. "I just lost interest."

Dave shook his head at her. "You should keep painting," he said. "You're good at it."

Amanda shrugged as she shut the closet door. "I don't have time for it right now," she said. "There's too much else to do."

Dave picked a drawing up from her desk. She hadn't seen it there, mixed in with so many other pieces of paper. It was an early sketch she'd made in colored pencil, just a week or two after she'd first seen Cyan.

"She's beautiful," Dave said. "I never did find out anything about her. Nobody around here's seen anything like her before."

Amanda viciously snatched the paper from his hands, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it in the garbage. Then she looked at Dave's face, and felt suddenly embarrassed by her outburst.

"Whatever she was," Dave asked, "she left you?"

Amanda nodded. She felt a horrible rage welling up in her stomach.

Dave nodded his head sympathetically. "Do you know why?" he asked.

"No," Amanda said in a cracked sob. The sound of her voice surprised her. She hadn't realized she'd started crying.

"You could ignore it," Dave said. "I tried doing that for a long time. But then you end up doing nothing for years, while you're feeling sorry for yourself and wondering why the bitch ran off to Dallas without you."

Without thinking, Amanda said, "I thought she was looking for me. I thought she wanted me."

Amanda wiped her nose on her sleeve. Then she knelt next to the trash can and pulled the crumpled paper out of the garbage. She laid it flat on her desk and tried to smooth the wrinkles out with her palm.

"Does that picture have a name?" Dave asked.

Amanda made one up. "I call it 'Desert Scene with Blue Female.' I want you to have it."

She handed the picture to him, and he took it gently from her hands.

"Thanks," he said, smiling. "It's very beautiful."

Amanda felt silly for crying, for crumpling the picture, for kneeling next to the garbage can, for going into the desert at night, for painting pictures of ghosts. She laughed at herself and some of the anger she felt started to melt away.

"Will you show me your paintings sometime, Dave?" she asked.

"Sure," he said. "I might even have a new one to show you in a week or two."

"I'd like that very much," she said. Then, she stood and looked through the window at the sun as it set over the desert. She hadn't realized it was so late in the day.

The evening sky had all of Cyan's colors -- the navy blue of her pupils, the azure of her body, the sapphire of her hair -- and dozens of other colors besides. She felt overwhelmed by it. She reached towards the window, as though she could touch some part of the sunset with her fingertips.

She smiled at Dave and said, "I love this place."

Then she spread her arms, closed her eyes, and let the sunset colors soak into her skin until she could feel them blending with her nerves, and bones, and blood.


Copyright © 2001 Ramon Arjona

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Originally born in Hawai'i, Ramon now lives in Washington state with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared in the Hawai'i Review and The Absinthe Literary Review.