He comes undone when an old woman on the street in Tucson snatches a loose thread on his suit jacket and jerks it loose. He shouts at her to let go, but she laughs and disappears around the corner, pulling the thread along with her. By the time the unraveling is done, his skeleton has rattled free from his body.
He feels neither pain nor surprise, just contentment and release. He looks at the pile of meat and skin glistening slickly under the streetlight and shrugs his shoulders. The gesture feels good, feels loose.
Following a vague instinct, he walks south, gliding across the empty late-night streets and feeling the air move through him. The sensation is strange at first, but soon it is smooth and strong, like the caress of a new lover gaining confidence, and by the time he’s walked a few blocks he hopes to never return to the confinement of flesh.
He pauses at the edge of a vacant lot and revels in the honesty of his new form, still shining a bit here and there where the blood hasn’t dried. There is nothing to tone or shave. Nothing to negotiate with, just bony fact.
He raises his right hand, holds it in front of the moon and twists it in a slow circle, curling his fingers into his palm one by one and watching the moonlight caress the bony curves.
Still heading south, he walks on, the feeling of peace growing within him.
Between a liquor store and a gas station near the edge of town he pauses once again, this time in the moon-shadow of a saguaro standing silent and proud in the hot night air. In front of him, the shifting lights from neon beer signs play over a dead ocotillo lying on the landscaped sand like a beached squid. Bringing his hands together and bowing his head, he whispers an impromptu prayer of gratitude to whatever forces have chosen this blessing for him.
After giving thanks he begins to walk once more. It isn’t long before he is striding across an expanse of flat ground dotted with tufts of tawny grass poking up through the otherwise unbroken desert pavement.
* * *
The next morning, he wakes curled at the base of a palo verde, expecting to find nothing around him save cactus and buzzards and the sun throwing long shadows off the hills. But when he stands he sees another skeleton a short distance away.
Somehow, he knows the skeleton is female. Her head is cocked to one side, and a quizzical look is plain on her bony face.
“Where’d you come from?” he says.
“Women are always somewhere first.”
“Alright then, where are you going?”
“Same place as you.”
“Which is south?”
“Sun’s up,” she says. “We should be walking.”
* * *
They walk the washes all morning, reaching the bottom of empty, blue-veined hills haunted by shafts and adits in the early afternoon. The few times he ventures conversation she shakes her head, so he watches the cross-hatching patterns of their shadows move over the ground, watches the shadows on the rocks above them slowly change direction.
Near dusk they come over the top of a hill and look down onto a world of dry, cracked plains. At the base of the hill, jagged upright rocks have erupted like teeth from the parched ground. Beyond the rocks a stand of teddy bear cholla is backlit by the setting sun.
They pick their way down the hill to a patch of sand between the rocks and cholla. When they reach the bottom, he sits and leans against one of the rocks. A short distance away, she does the same.
Rusty cans scattered around low mounds and shallow pits in the sand hint at the presence of prospectors long past. He wonders what might be buried beneath the sand, so he works a dry branch free from a crevice in the rock wall and is pleased to find it is a foot or so long and stout. He starts to dig.
The sand parts easily. He unearths shards of glass, rusty bits of cans, and what looks like a fragment of a shovel blade. He drops these in front of him. Roughly six inches down the stick strikes something solid. He reaches down and taps with a bony fingertip and hears the clink of glass.
Working carefully, he expands the hole until he pulls an intact wine bottle into the light. He scrapes the dirt and crust from the neck then turns the bottle over and pours the sand and gravel out of it. When it is empty, he sets it on the ground where he’d build a fire if they had need for one and sits back, pleased with his find.
“May I?” she says.
He nods despite having no idea what she intends.
She whispers a swift incantation over the mouth of the bottle. Then she raises it to the setting sun. After a moment she turns it to the north. She repeats the gesture to the east and the south.
He looks at her, questioning, and she passes him the bottle.
He feels the new weight, though when he holds the bottle up to the fading sunlight it appears empty. A shiver passes through him as he catches the scent of wine. He lifts the bottle to his mouth and feels the familiar tingle of alcohol. He passes the bottle back.
Her spine arches against the stone as she drinks.
* * *
They are sitting quietly, the bottle between them, looking at the night sky and waiting for the moon.
She says, “I think we met Before.”
“When we had flesh.”
He reaches for the bottle. “What makes you say that?”
“It’s just a feeling. But I trust it.”
He looks at her. “How will we know?”
She shrugs. “Don’t worry about how. Either we will or we won’t.”
* * *
He wakes in the night. The desert is still, the moon bright behind a thin veil of clouds. He’d been dreaming a dream from Before.
The first time he’d dreamt it, he’d been camped in the Mojave with the woman he would soon marry. Their tent was sheltered by giant salt cedars and the biggest creosotes he’d ever seen.
In the dream, he’d wandered lost on a dry lakebed, stumbling in the starlight as he searched for his campsite. After walking for hours, he staggered into camp, shivering with cold, and blew his fire back to life and piled on new logs. The flames were above his head when he reached for his bottle of whiskey. When he turned back around, a skeleton was dancing in the middle of the fire.
She was beautiful, her bones weightless and elegant in a way flesh could never be. Flame-shadows glinted on the curves of her orbits. Eddies of smoke twisted through the bones of her lower legs, curled around her swaying hips, filled her chest cavity. She swayed within its currents and gathered wisps of it to her with long glances and gently curling fingers as the shifting flames alternately hid and revealed her form.
She danced until the fire exhausted itself, and he was so entranced that he didn’t notice she’d stopped dancing until she bent to light a hand-rolled cigarette from the glowing coals.
He started to speak but found he couldn’t.
She stepped out of the fire ring and into the desert. He watched the glowing tip of her cigarette carve a red arc in the night when she bent her elbow and raised it to her mouth.
* * *
When the skeleton returned to his dreams two decades later, she did not dance.
She sat in the middle of the fire and played a cello, her form almost entirely hidden by the smoke and flames that twisted and soared around her. She played the smoke burning his eyes, the electricity that sparked the first time they’d held hands, the bliss of their two bodies together.
She played the pain of their misunderstandings and the petty cruelties they inflicted on each other as retribution for broken hopes they’d never expressed.
In the spaces between the notes, she played the silence that eventually swallowed all the words they ever spoke to each other.
She stopped playing and let her cello fall into the fire and reached toward him through the leaping flames. But he was frozen again, paralyzed this time by sadness and fear, and failed to offer his hand. Her shoulders slumped and her hand fell, and suddenly he saw nothing.
The next morning he woke in an empty bed, his head thick with dream fragments. On the kitchen counter he found a note saying she had left, that he shouldn’t try to find her, that she was sorry for many things, that she loved him.
* * *
Far out in the desert, an owl calls, bringing his mind back to the present. The moon has dropped toward the hills. The clouds have thickened. He wraps his bony fingers around the neck of the wine bottle and drinks.
She sleeps leaning against the rock face. He nips at the bottle again and she stirs. He tries to say her name, but he can’t.
“Our names don’t follow us here,” she says. “Just our selves.”
“I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Maybe you never saw me before.”
He thinks about this. “Maybe so,” he says. “Maybe so.”
“I’m glad you finally do.”
“Me too. When…”
She shakes her head. “Go back to sleep.” She leans her head against the stone.
Instead of sleeping, he remembers their first date. It was supposed to be two drinks, some laughs, a hug at most.
Not eating sushi with only three chopsticks between the two of them, passing one back and forth and laughing.
Not drinking wine on the hillside and watching the stars spiral above them.
Not tangoing down Main Street, dancing cheek to cheek past the jumbled geometry of milk crates and hay bales stacked in stock trailers parked parallel.
Days later, he’d rubbed his fingers together and fondled the ghost of her hair, remembered her ice-blue eyes and her voice full of smoke and laughter.
He’d thought then they’d be together forever.
Leaning against warm stone, he falls asleep thinking he hadn’t been wrong, just impatient.
* * *
She wakes him and points to the sky where cloudbanks roil and clash. The wind moans in the cracks between the rocks at their backs. From across the waterless plain lightning dances toward them on jagged legs. She pulls him to his feet, then turns and sprints up the hill. He watches, dazed, as the wind snatches the dust her toes lift from the hillside then scrambles after her.
Standing on the peak, she raises her arms and leans backward, surrendering to the storm. He does the same and starts screaming, howling out everything there had never been a word for. The wind begins to swirl, whipping small stones off the ground and into their shins. He circles to his right, slowly, and notices she is doing the same. They move in concert, back to back in the center of the storm.
Lightning flashes. He catches the bolt between his teeth and bites down on it with everything he has. His entire body begins to hum, and the hum builds, becomes a roar. The roar is life, is pain, is pebbles in the wind, is sand between his teeth, is the only thing in the world. He looks over his shoulder and sees himself reflected in her orbits, sees the electricity writhing around and through their bones.
The current courses through them in ecstatic bursts. Smoke rises all around, spiraling ever higher in knife-blade circles that cut at the soft underbelly of the clouds.
And then the rind of the world comes free. The sky disintegrates into fragments that swirl down upon them in an avalanche of heat and light as a deep, irresistible rumble surges up from below.
* * *
It is morning. Leaning into each other, they stagger down the slope. Low clouds are draped over the jagged mountains. They regain the sandy patch at the base of the rocks and sprawl on their backs. Silent and still, they watch as the sun rises over the rocks behind them and the sky becomes blue and untangled.
When the last cloud has vanished, he stands. He turns and extends his hand to help her up only to find her standing next to him. She takes his hand in hers, and together they begin to walk south.
Jim Latham’s work has appeared in Rue Scribe, 50-Word Stories, The Drabble, and Spillwords.com. His flash fiction chapbook, Noon in Florida, is available on Amazon. More of Jim’s stories are available at https://www.jimlatham.com.