Whirlwind

by R. Christophe Ryber

 

Dayanara dug her toes into the warm sand and folded her arms across her bent knees as she watched the graying, polo-shirted man move about in his brightly lit ranch house. The stars sparkled in the clear desert sky behind her, but Dayanara only had eyes for Raymond Landry. What an unassuming name, she thought, for a man who had managed so much in just a few minutes; who, while her father had gone to the bathroom, had ripped Dayanara out of sunlit childhood and thrust her into the twilight.

Both Dayanara and the spectacled, pasty white middle-aged man were a few years older now. Raymond Landry had become her father’s immediate supervisor at the Vale Corporation, and Dayanara was now a reluctant student at Highland Preparatory Academy. But, she remembered exactly how those hairy knuckled hands had felt under her summer dress, and how oblivious her father had been when he returned and Raymond had offered him another beer.

Dayanara plunged her own hands into the pure, clean sand. If she could only scrub her mind with it, as well.

“Success doesn’t come without sacrifice,” her father, Eduardo Montenegro, who introduced himself as Ed, was fond of saying, especially after Raymond had promoted him to mid-level administrator. He never asked about the ironic smile on his daughter’s face when she heard those words.

“Why do you tell people your name is Ed?” Dayanara asked him over breakfast one day.

“It’s an Americanization.”

“But you are American. You were born here.”

“It’s complicated, Ella.”

“My name’s Dayanara.” She managed an indignant toss of her long black hair over her shoulder.

“Your middle name is Dayanara.”

Dayanara had glanced at her reflection in the sliding glass door that opened onto their parched back lawn and the desert beyond. She looked at the brown girl sitting at the breakfast table, and tossed her long black hair again.

“I don’t look like an Ella. I’m a Dayanara.”

She looked a lot like her grandmother, actually—her father’s mother, Sofia Montenegro. Sofia’s water had broken as she lay in the back of a truck that sped across the moonlit desert and had given birth to Eduardo the next morning at the hospital in Somervale. Eduardo was American.

Sofia was not. She lived in a trailer park outside of Somervale, on the edge of the reservation. It had been easier when Eduardo was a boy to avoid awkward questions, but now it was rare that Dayanara’s grandmother ventured into town.

“Your grandmother is a brave woman,” Eduardo had lectured Dayanara. “If it weren’t for her, you and I would have none of the opportunities we now enjoy. She gave up her family for us.”

Dayanara wasn’t sure how much opportunity her father enjoyed. His career had stalled out one level below Raymond Landry’s, and she suspected that’s where her father would stay. Most of the people at Vale looked more like Raymond than her father.

Dayanara slipped on her Birkenstocks and pulled herself to her feet. She took one last look at Raymond through his picture window and limped away into the darkening desert. She winced, leaning on her walking stick as the too familiar pain shot out of the base of her spine and down her left leg. It would be a long walk home.

Dayanara glanced up at the moon. Her parents would not be missing her for some time.

The light from Raymond’s picture window winked out as Dayanara slid down a dune, and she stood alone under the stars. The wind picked up and Dayanara sighed at the sound of sand stirring on the desert floor. The dust devil wound its way toward her through the saguaros. Tendrils of sand and wind brushed against her, stirring her hair and brushing at the hem of her plaid skirt.

Dayanara held out her arms, closed her eyes and stepped into the vortex of sand and dust. She gasped as she always did as the wind sucked her breath away, and the tiny sand particles crept over her skin like a swarm of ants. She stretched up onto her toes, wishing the small whirlwind was strong enough to lift her off the ground. Her body went rigid and her brown lips parted as the ferocity of the miniature storm intensified, all thoughts of Raymond scrubbed from her mind by the whirling sand.

* * * * *

Dayanara grumbled in confusion when her mother, Esperanza, banged open her bedroom door early the next morning. Dayanara’s brown eyes, red from dust and sand, squinted at her mother’s pant suit and polished shoes.

“It’s Sunday,” Dayanara protested.

“It’s Easter Sunday. You have ten minutes to get ready.”

It took Dayanara twenty minutes, so the Montenegros had to sit in the back of the church on the folding chairs that had been put out to accommodate the “Christmas-Easter” Catholics. Dayanara wanted to point out that they could have been on time if they went to Our Lady of Guadalupe instead of St. Michael’s, which was clear on the other side of Somervale, but the look on her mother’s face told her to stay quiet. Dayanara had learned early not to speak at church. One Easter, when she was seven, she had asked where the nativity scene was. Esperanza forced a tight smile as the people in the next pew chuckled, but once they were safely home, her mother had slapped her face.

Still, it would have been a lot closer to go to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church seemed nicer to Dayanara, and she would smile back at the multitude of brown children that played before Mass at the feet of the brightly colored statue of the Virgin. Saint Michael’s always seemed kind of cold to her. There were hardly any children, and the granite image of Michael driving a spear into the Devil had given her nightmares when she was younger.

But her parents steadfastly drove past Our Lady every Christmas and Easter, past the pick-ups and subcompacts to the gleaming white Saint Michaels, to park their Mercedes next to other Mercedes and BMWs, where no one walked on the lawn, much less played on it.

Of course, they would be even later, because Eduardo would have to stop at the confessional before taking his seat. Esperanza would wait in the foyer with Dayanara, tapping her polished shoe on the checkered marble. Esperanza didn’t go to confession.

Eduardo used to go to Mass every day when he was younger, Dayanara had found out, during one of those late night fights that happened after she was supposedly sound asleep. Esperanza blamed Eduardo’s “misplaced piety” as she put it, for “that mess we got ourselves into.”

“It was a blessing. Besides, contraception is a mortal sin.” Dayanara could just make out her father’s voice above the air conditioning.

“What do you think we were doing?” Esperanza’s voice grew shrill. “One sin, two sins, what difference does it make? You’re not the one who gave up their career.”

“You proved you couldn’t handle both.” Eduardo’s voice dropped and took on an edge. Dayanara pressed closer to the bedroom door.

“And you can’t handle the one.”

Dayanara rubbed the base of her spine and squirmed between the two of them on her metal folding chair. She watched the pained look of devotion on her father’s face as the Mass dragged on and tried to conjure similar feelings inside herself, but she had never been successful. To her, the polished wood, marble and glass building filled with tailored suits and elegant dresses, along with the gleaming cars baking in the hot morning sun in the parking lot seemed the farthest thing to her from the spirit world.

“You should try Wicca,” Zoe Calderwood had told her during lunch one day at prep school. “It’s all about nature.” Zoe had pulled a glossy oversized paperback from her backpack and given it to Dayanara.

Dayanara raised her heavy eyebrows at the tall blonde stirring the bubbling cauldron on the cover and leafed through the pages. At the back was an index of websites where Wiccan “supplies” could be purchased. Dayanara had borrowed the book for a week, had tried a few spells in her bedroom with kitchen candles and some sea salt, but it had left her feeling empty. She didn’t want a new car or for the quarterback to fall in love with her, or any of the other things the book assumed she wanted. Dayanara had given the book back to Zoe.

Dayanara didn’t know what she wanted.

Besides, she already knew that she didn’t need candles or sea salt to part the Veil, to hear the desert speak to her. Her grandmother had told her so when she was a little girl.

“There are places where the Veil is thin, Dayanara.” Sofia was the only adult that had acquiesced to her rejection of “Ella”. “Things sometimes come walking out of the desert into our world.”

“I know,” Dayanara had said matter-of-factly. “I can hear them. They tell me to come farther out, away from the backyard.”

Sofia had frowned at this, then went back to her knitting.

Sofia’s words echoed in Dayanara’s head as she watched her father slide off the metal folding chair and kneel on the hard floor. Esperanza remained seated. If she wasn’t in a proper pew with a kneeler, she did not kneel. She was exempt. Dayanara was always exempt from kneeling. Not even Esperanza forced the issue. The strains of the Agnus Dei filled the church. Eduardo, normally a soft-spoken man, allowed his voice to swell with the crowd. Esperanza did not sing. Dayanara twirled her walking stick. It was a new one. She changed walking sticks almost as often as Esperanza changed styles of glasses. The new ones were angular and had minimal frames.

Dayanara thought of her grandmother again as she turned the walking stick on end and spun it, ignoring her mother’s glare of disapproval. It was Sofia that had finally told Dayanara why her back and leg hurt when she walked.

“It was an accident, little one.”

“Did I get hit by a truck?”

Sofia had smiled and brushed her hair back. “No, dear. You fell.”

Dayanara nodded, adding the details to another midnight argument, after Esperanza had brought up going back to work.

“Not until Ella is in college,” Eduardo had said. “That’s what we agreed.”

“Ella is a big girl now. I don’t want to wait any longer to get my life back. I’ve done my penance.”

“No. You cannot work and take care of a child at the same time. You’ve proven that.”

“How long are you going to hold this over my head? It could have happened to anyone. I was distracted.”

* * * * *

Esperanza’s hand grabbed the whirling stick and thrust it at Dayanara. “Stop calling attention to yourself.”

Dayanara wanted to go walking in the desert that night, but her parents had a surprise waiting for her. They sat her down at the kitchen table with them, and they began to go through the glossy college pamphlets and handbooks. Dayanara frowned.

“These are kind of far away. Where’s the pamphlet for Kachina Community?”

“Don’t be absurd,” Esperanza said. “You’re going to a real college.”

* * * * *

Dayanara took lunch outside the next day at Highland Academy. She munched on a celery stick as she sat on the bench and watched the heat rise in waves off the desert floor. Lazy, her father had called her.

“I don’t want to leave Grandma. I don’t want to leave Somervale.”

“You’ll be back,” Esperanza had coldly reassured her. “At Christmas. And Easter.”

Dayanara had smirked. “Well, at least I won’t miss any church.”

Esperanza had raised her hand, and Dayanara had flinched, but the look in Eduardo’s eyes had ended the conversation.

The whirling column of sand and dust twirled about idly in the afternoon heat, just on the other side of the saguaros that bordered the school property. Dayanara heard the five-minute buzzer inside, but didn’t move. She watched the dust devil for a few moments, then ripped off her dark blue tie and walked across the tennis courts toward the whirlwind.

She showed up at the back door of her grandmother’s trailer later in the afternoon, her hair windblown and full of sand, her brown face burned from the sun. Sofia sat her down at the folding table in the kitchen.

“How did you get here, girl?”

Dayanara looked out the screen window toward the desert. “School’s that way.”

“You can’t be serious. That’s a couple of miles as the crow flies, and with your leg…” Sofia tilted Dayanara’s chin. “You’ll peel tomorrow, and itch the day after. I’ll get some aloe.”

“I’m fine.”

“You won’t be when your parents find out. I’m no fool. The way you walk, you must have left school hours ago to get here.”

“Dad’s working, and Mom—she’ll wait for Dad to get me.”

Dayanara’s mother never came over. Every Sunday afternoon Eduardo would bring Dayanara with him to visit his mother. Esperanza would take her SUV into Somervale and go to the mall for her “me time” as she called it. “Me time” involved the hair salon or the theatre, and lunch with some of her friends from the homeowner’s association.

A thought occurred to Dayanara one day as the Mercedes pulled into the trailer park that sat at the edge of the reservation.

“Why doesn’t Grandma come stay with us?” Dayanara had asked as they unloaded the groceries from the trunk. “Then we wouldn’t have to bring her food. She could just eat ours.”

“It’s complicated, Ella.”

After bringing in the groceries, while Eduardo and Sofia sat at the folding table in the kitchen and played checkers over coffee, Dayanara would meander through the trailer park and walk out onto the reservation. As she got older, she ventured further and further out, until she came upon the old pueblos that stood at the entrance to a box canyon.

They were Athabaskan, she assumed, since they were on the reservation. The sun was low in the sky as she climbed the adobe steps and looked into the dark rectangular windows. It had been so quiet there.

That was the night the dust devil had first appeared. She had watched it spin out of the box canyon. She had walked out of the silent houses onto the desert floor, had gasped in pleasant shock as it enveloped her that first time.

That was also the night she had met Joshua.

He had come upon her, confused and spent, lying on the steps of the pueblos. Dayanara had jumped at the sound of his voice.

“You’re on reservation land.”

Dayanara had bolted up, brushing at her sand-encrusted hair, staring wide eyed at the young man in faded jeans and a flannel shirt.

“I’m visiting my grandmother.”

Joshua brushed at his bad haircut and looked around at the silent dark windows. “She doesn’t live here.”

“No, she’s in the trailer park.”

Joshua pointed to the rusted pickup parked amid the scrub brush. “It’s getting dark. I’ll give you a ride.” He looked around the pueblos and into the box canyon. “You shouldn’t be here after dark. The chiindrii will get you.” He smiled wickedly.

Dayanara’s legs felt like rubber, so she climbed into the passenger side of the truck and stared out the window at the saguaros until the highway came into view. When Dayanara pointed out the powder blue trailer with the white trim, Joshua nodded.

“Sofia Montenegro’s house.”

Dayanara looked up. “You know Grandma?”

“My mom does. Picks her up every Sunday morning and takes her to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Somervale. There’s quite a few Catholics on the reservation and Mom’s one of ’em.”

Joshua’s eyes widened as they pulled into the driveway. “That your Mercedes?”

“My dad’s.” Dayanara quirked her mouth at Joshua’s reaction. “It’s a C-class, and it’s a lease, so don’t be impressed.”

“What’s your dad do?” Joshua climbed out of the truck and walked around the car.

“Eat enough shit at Vale and you can lease one just like it.”

“Vale Corp—computers. I’m getting into that myself.” Joshua pointed at the Kachina Community College decal in his rear window. “I’m studying networking. I’ll have my certification this summer.” Joshua looked up at Dayanara. “You think your dad would put in a good word for me?”

Dayanara rolled her eyes and stomped up the fiberglass steps to the screen door. “Thanks for the lift.”

* * * * *

Dayanara had asked her grandmother about the boy.

“Joshua Nizhoni. Jenna’s boy,” Sofia had said. “He does lawnwork for me and runs errands in town.”

Joshua’s truck was there next weekend. He made a point of helping Eduardo with the groceries. Dayanara looked off into the desert while the two talked about computers and college. Finally, Eduardo had excused himself and Joshua had walked over.

“That’s an evil one.”

Dayanara looked up, startled. Joshua pointed at the dust devil winding its way among the dunes.

“You can tell the evil ones because they turn counter-clockwise.” Dayanara frowned as he laughed. “Don’t be so serious.”

Joshua glanced at the trailer, then steered Dayanara to the back of his pickup. Dayanara wrinkled her nose at the wooden crate Joshua pulled out from under the blue tarp.

“You go to that prep school, right? You think there’s a market for these there? I would cut you in.”

Dayanara picked up a mushroom and sniffed it, then dropped it back into the crate.

“You sell these?”

“College books are expensive. Sheep farming doesn’t pay a whole lot.”

“I’m not selling your peyote’s for you.” Dayanara walked off in the direction of the ruins.

“Aren’t you going to college soon? You’re going to need spending money too.”

“Who says I’m going?” Dayanara called back over her shoulder as she disappeared behind the trailer.

It was dark when Dayanara found herself lying on a dune under the stars. The sleepy contentment she felt after being taken by the whirlwind faded as she realized how late she was. She grabbed her walking stick and pushed herself toward the distant lights of the trailer park. She found her father leaning against the hood of the running Mercedes, talking on his cell phone. His dark eyes glared at her as she stepped into the headlights.

Her father questioned Dayanara about Joshua, where she had been, had she been with him? She endured the lecture, and the slap from her mother when she got home. The next Sunday, her father had gone to Sofia’s alone. Dayanara was to remain in the house, as Esperanza was still going to the mall with her friends. Dayanara watched the SUV and the Mercedes leave, then walked to the sliding glass door and opened it, smiling when she saw the twisting column of sand playing out among the dunes. It had grown, and was several feet taller than her now. The ringing of the phone followed her through the open door as she walked out onto the patio and across the lawn toward the desert.

* * * * *

It was three months before her father took her back to her grandmother’s. Dayanara saw Sofia’s wrinkles deepen as she looked her over.

“Come and sit down.”

Dayanara took the coffee cup as she sat at the folding table in the kitchen. Sofia sent Eduardo off to town with a shopping list and pulled up a metal folding chair.

“You’re a sensitive girl, and you have the sight. But so do I, and I’m not blind to what’s going on, child. Bad things happened here, in the desert, back during the war when they began tinkering with things they shouldn’t have. The government dug poison up out of the ground, melted it down, refined it, made it into bombs hotter than the sun. They stopped the testing long ago, but it’s all still there—in the rocks, the sand, the water. It affects the chiindrii as well. They’re not the same as the ones in Mexico. These are… angry.”

Dayanara said nothing. She got up and went to the bathroom, turned on the water, washed the sand from her face, looked at her drawn haggard eyes. She shook the sand out of her hair, and went back into the kitchen.

“Mom’s leaving Dad.”

Sofia put her coffee mug down. “Nonsense, child. Those two are rock solid.”

“They talk after they think I’m asleep. Mom wants out now, but Dad is holding her feet to the fire and making her stay until I’ve gone off to school. Then Mom is moving back to New York.”

Sofia sighed and walked over to the screen door and shook her head. “Child, this isn’t the answer.”

Dayanara walked over to the screen door, felt the inviting gust of cool air pass through the hot trailer. The dust devil was out there, just on the horizon, in the direction of the box canyon.

Dayanara kissed Sofia’s cheek and opened the screen door. “Tell Dad to pick me up out front.”

* * * * *

Dayanara sat on the dune outside Raymond Landry’s house. Her dad’s boss opened his third beer and collapsed into his recliner, out of sight of the picture window. Dayanara picked up her walking stick and turned as the wind changed, stirring the grains of sand at her bare feet. She looked up at the whirlwind as it approached, so much larger now.

“Can you do it?”

She stepped into the funnel and gasped with pleasure as the vortex pulled her off the desert floor, leaving her toes dangling inches above the sand. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she went rigid as she slipped into oblivion.

* * * * *

“Raymond Landry is dead.”

Dayanara squirmed into a sitting position and pulled the covers over the sand-encrusted school uniform that she had fallen asleep in. Her mother stood in the bedroom doorway, wearing a pair of black slacks and a white blouse.

“Your eyes are bloodshot. What have you been doing?”

Dayanara drew back into the corner. “What about Dad’s boss?”

“Didn’t you hear me? He was stung to death by scorpions. They found a whole nest of them in his house. Your father is panicking. We’ve got an exterminator coming this afternoon to check. Raymond’s house is only four doors down. Check your shoes before you put them on.”

Esperanza looked at her watch. “You’ll be late. I’m off to the florists to get flowers. The wake is tonight, so you’ll have to fix something for supper. Your father and Raymond were close, so we’ll be there for a while.”

The door slammed and Dayanara slid over to the edge of the bed. She pulled on her shoes, not bothering to check them. No scorpions would be found anywhere else but Raymond’s house. She grabbed her walking cane and trudged downstairs and out the door, smoothing her wrinkled plaid skirt as she made her way down the sidewalk.

She limped zombie-like toward the academy, the metal point of her walking stick scraping on the cement as she dragged it forward. Dayanara wondered when or if it would occur to her mother that she should have given her a ride.

Dayanara was not at school long. Ms. Radcliff took one long look at her rumpled, dirty blouse and skirt and sent her to the office to call home for some fresh clothes. Dayanara didn’t respond to any of the comments thrown her way as she left the classroom. She never made it to the office. Soon, she was across the tennis courts and back out into the desert. To her disappointment, the dust devil was nowhere to be seen. She wandered in the general direction of the box canyon, the sun blistering her already red skin. She didn’t get far before her leg gave out and she collapsed in the meager shade of a saguaro.

She lost track of time. She had shifted with the moving shadow of the cactus three times before the familiar twisting column approached from the direction of the highway.

“Where have you been?”

Dayanara struggled to her feet. The dust devil was at least twice her size, now, and she did not step in so much as she was sucked into blissful oblivion.

* * * * *

The answering machine was blinking, red and urgent, when she staggered through the sliding glass door. Dayanara collapsed onto the sofa, heedless of the sand she had tracked across the hardwood floor. The door rattled. Dayanara went to the door, slid back the deadbolt and turned the knob.

“Joshua.”

Her fatigued brain struggled to make sense of his presence. He was out of breath.

“Where have you been? Didn’t you check your answering machine? Sofia’s been trying to get ahold of you.”

Dayanara glanced back at the furious red light, then shook her head. Her lips were cracked and blistered, and it hurt to talk.

“Your parents were in an accident. The car swerved into a tractor trailer.” Joshua took a deep breath. “The rear wheels went over the car.”

Dayanara blinked. “They’re at the hospital?”

Joshua looked down at his sneakers. “Your mother is. I’ll drive you there if you want.”

“Dad?”

“He’s not… he’s not there. I’ll take you to see your mother.”

Dayanara squeezed her eyes shut. They were too dry for tears. “Wrong one.” Her voice was a whisper. She collapsed onto Joshua’s shoulder.

* * * * *

Dayanara took her black blazer off and draped it over the kitchen chair. Her mother had already changed out of her black pants suit, the same one she had worn to Raymond’s funeral. She sat across from Dayanara, drinking coffee and looking at some papers she had pulled from the safe. A calculator sat by her coffee mug.

“You need to pick a college.” Esperanza did not look up as she punched figures into the calculator.

“Mom, this is hardly the time—”

“It is the time. You need to make plans.” Esperanza pulled out a classified section of the newspaper. Dayanara read the upside-down type. It was The New York Times.

“So that’s it then?”

Esperanza circled an entry with a red pen and peered across the table through her glasses. These ones were red and oval. “Honey, it was coming to this anyway. We were going to tell you after graduation.”

Dayanara grabbed her walking stick and slid out of the chair.

“You can’t keep me here by not deciding.” Esperanza circled another ad. “If you don’t pick a college, you’ll be living in that trailer park with your grandmother.”

Dayanara opened the sliding glass door.

“Good-bye, Mom.”

* * * * *

Dayanara awoke at sunset. She lay at the base of a giant saguaro. The yellow light from her grandmother’s kitchen window sparkled like an early star. She saw the red and blue lights flashing in the driveway and waited until they left before she staggered over to her grandmother’s trailer. Sofia was on the phone. She dropped it as Dayanara walked in, taking the girl in her arms.

“Oh, thank god you’re alright.”

“What happened?” Dayanara marveled at the detached calm in her voice.

“Your mother was bit several times by a rattlesnake. Honey, I’ve got some bad news.”

* * * * *

Dayanara looked up from where she sat huddled on the fiberglass steps of the trailer. She squinted into the headlights as the pickup pulled into the driveway. The engine sputtered to a stop and the door slammed, but the bright twin beams remained fixed on Dayanara.

Dayanara looked away from the black silhouette that crunched down the gravel drive toward her.

“Stay back, Joshua.”

“I just heard, Dayanara. I’m… I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

“Just go.”

Joshua’s hand crept toward Dayanara’s, but she slapped it away. Dayanara exploded off the step and shoved him in the chest.

“Stay away from me. You mean nothing to me.” Dayanara walked away from Joshua and called out to the dark, moonless desert. “You hear that? He means nothing to me.”

She stood there, arms wrapped around herself, until the door of the pickup slammed and the twin headlights turned back onto the road.

* * * * *

It was around midnight when Dayanara awoke on her grandmother’s sofa. She bolted up in alarm and padded down the linoleum hallway to her grandmother’s room. Dayanara sighed as she saw Sofia in the flickering blue light from the television. She was asleep on the bed, her chest rising and falling in a slow rhythm. Dayanara kissed her on the cheek and the woman stirred, pulling the blanket over her shoulder.

Dayanara closed the door to the bedroom and stepped out into the cold night air. She minced her way barefoot across the gravel driveway, scruffing away the stones that clung to the bottoms of her feet once she was onto the sand. The black funnel loomed above her in the night sky, the base as wide as a truck. The swirling vortex was illuminated now and then by flashes of lightning. Balls of static electricity darted about, playing in the maelstrom.

Dayanara trudged out into the sand in her nightshift, craning her neck to look up into the whirlwind.

“I’ll go,” she said. “Just don’t hurt her.”

Dayanara had time for one last look over her shoulder at the darkened trailer before the dust devil lurched forward and she was sucked into the blackness.

 

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