“Desert Animals” by Marie Belo
By Marie Baleo
Outside of the borders of our town, to the west, there lives a witch, in a ranch by a lake where no one ever goes. The boys watch her, lying on their stomachs behind the bushes, gravel biting their knees, dust clinging to their eyelashes. They barely draw a breath, the four of them. Their pupils dilate as she sheds her dress on the pontoon. She wades into the water, unmoved by the october chill, ravished into the current by a pull strong as a man’s grip. The children are close enough to hear her breathing through her nose, so loudly and so slow that they wonder if she may be sleepwalking. When she finds herself standing on the tip of her toes, she lifts her feet off the muddy floor and brings her legs up to the surface. Her skin glows; her body hovers an inch beneath the mirror. Her treading arms radiate from her body, pointing at the banks. She floats at the center of the river for hours, hair spread around her face like an oil slick. Sometimes her eyes are closed, sometimes they are open. Sometimes, one of the boys, not the oldest, wonders: Is she listening to songs only she can hear, played for her by the world below?
The truth, of course, is that to be a witch is the easiest thing in the world. Here is how I did it: at the ripe age of thirty-three, I moved, unmarried and without children, to a derelict town on the outskirts of the world, a place seemingly untouched by modernity but held together, still, by its stringent norms. There, I proceeded to buy a home on the vastest expanse of land I could lay my hands on. I was instantly propelled to the status of local mystery. Then, out of boredom or compelled, perhaps, by the same love of conquest that has fueled me since my youth, I moved on the men of town, fast and unavoidable. After news traveled of my first successes, men began to fall into my lap like drowsy children or wounded animals, and the less I seemed to care for my appearance- a side effect of living in complete aloneness, the faster they came. Some of them were single, some were not. Some of them were old, some were not. Three weeks into it and I’d become the town slut, but no one knew my name. I didn’t know theirs either.
There is only one word for a woman who has sex without belonging to a man or without acquiescing to the burden of motherhood, and that word is witch. Or perhaps it is slut. Either way, it is terrifying, for it means that perhaps women don’t need men; and if we merely choose them, they might just owe their existence not to necessity or fate, but to the will of a woman. Suddenly there is nothing more lethal in the world, nothing as unbearable as the black flame of women’s desire. No, you were not meant to be; yes, your mother could just as well have dispensed with you- she could have simply not felt like it. Now do you see why we are hated so? Do you understand the smell of singed flesh burning at the stake, the breaking voice of the lawmaker as he screams out what our bodies should and should not do? The hatred of women for themselves, for others? Now do you see why we so fear the free?
Yet rambunctious, light-headed sex alone does not a witch make. Where the traditional slut inspires hate and pity, the witch shines by eliciting fear and rage. One becomes a witch by way of discovering, inside herself, a thing that wants independence and freedom more than it wants water or air, a thing that wants to tell the world: “look at me, it is I, the self.”
You become a witch by letting others know that you have just recently arrived to their most feared conclusion: the realization that we don’t need others, and that, consequently, we don’t need to hear their words.
And yes, I know that no man is an island, and that man is, by nature, a social animal- I am no less educated than you are, and certainly more than my fellow townsmen, who approach culture with caution, like a rabid animal, or a coastal disease. But I am no man, and this life is ours only, so who are our poets and ancestors to tell us what to do of it? Who, beside I, can speak definitively of my nature? Who are you to tell me that to be alone is to have failed?
The townfolk simmer with resentment, especially the women, but some scorned men too, humiliated at the thought that I have decreed them too ugly for the touching. Yes, I have wrought onto them what they have fashioned our lives into: a constant sense of disappointment, an unstoppable crushing of the confidence. They seek revenge, those spiteful assholes. At night, they come and throw garbage onto my property. I find little traces of hatred everywhere, scattered in the leaves, in my flowers, in the desecrated blades of grass. I find the relics of bodies: nail clippings, shavings, dirty underwear. They send me traces of their natural liquids, they send me proof of their aliveness. They soil this garden that is the most exposed iteration of myself, and so they soil me. I hear their hurried steps, I hear the tossing of an object, the ruffling of the grass. I can see their thoughts, I can taste their jubilation like waves of heat seeping into my skin through the house’s fresh walls.
T’is the plague of the normals: after dark, when they can’t see themselves, they finally stop pretending.
Today I kneel down in the dirty grass with my limp dress floating around me in the breeze, and pick out, with slow and diligent fingers, a mouthguard, a stained sock, plastic pieces of condoms once filled with water, a beer bottle with the label peeled off, a dirty handkerchief. I place all the things into a pail, lift it with my good hand, walk along the fence and to the double doors of my property, unlatch them, take three steps in the general direction of the town, and drop all of it onto the ground. Then, satisfied and happy, I turn around, close the doors behind me, and dump the pail next to the bushes, where I will pick it up again in a few days.
I used to leave the things at first. Let them rot. Not worth my time or my fingernails. I didn’t want to show them that I cared, or that I didn’t care. I didn’t want to show anything. So I let everything melt and disappear in the grass. Some of the lighter things were swept away by the strong winds. Others lost their color, their shimmer. Some, organic, decayed and smelled under the power of the sun. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The coyote comes at night. In the morning, I find my chickens disemboweled, my garden ravaged. The wild dog has shit on my flowers. Even the townsfolk are above this, I know. I smell the animal. I smell, at last, a rage with no purpose, no malignance. Just a being moved by impulses larger than it. Predetermined, as if on rails. I did not hear the chickens. I did not hear my cat. Her blood dries dark on the white fur. There is nothing I can do.
I was seven years old the first time I was wronged. It wasn’t much, nothing happened, I did not die, I was not touched. I was asked to put my hand on the belly of a white-haired man, and so I did. I was asked to unbuckle his belt, and so I was about to do, when someone came along. I was not hurt, I did not feel bad. I felt nothing. I felt nothing again aged 20 at the theater when I noticed, shining in the blue gleam of the screen, white fingers resting on my ribs, under my arm, under my breasts, above my skin, through the gap between the seats, from behind my attention. I simply noticed those fingers weren’t mine.
What is left to want from the other?
It’s not just that aging sneaks up on you in the mirror, it’s not just that everyone you meet turns out to be a sublime disappointment. It’s not just that you force yourself to meet men who remind you only of dirty fingers and hairy bellies. It’s not just that it does nothing for you, not really. It’s not just the small, growing idea that perhaps there is more than this, more than being the supporting character to a man’s story, more than being locked in a house of compromise, where the smallest space available to you, freely, is your cranial box. It’s that somewhere along the line, on a day you don’t remember, in an instant you don’t notice, you just know. You know how to be alone. You hear the call of the sirens, you begin to walk, hypnotized, seduced, towards it: the vow of silence.
Last night I locked the chickens in the coop, instead of letting them roam free. They all have names: I am not immune to company. A hermit’s life is not devoid of tenderness. I miss my cat during the day. I buried it in the yard, far from the vandals’ reach, on the other side of the house where the grass slopes and runs into a barrier of bushes, not far from the path to the lake, where I drown my thoughts on the days when they get too wild. Daytime nightmares are not easily domesticated. Anxiety must find an object, always, and in the water it finds depth and a human’s sense of smallness.
Once, in the minutes preceding sleep, when the mind wanders freely from one hallucination to another, I had a vision of a woman standing on the sidewalk in front of the department store in my hometown, where I used to go with my parents on Sundays. I saw pearls, thick, white pearls tumbling out of her mouth with the pressure of a torrent. A scream for the ages. The rage of the hurt and the wounded, the kind of scream a toddler makes, moved by the pain born of discovering the world, the kind of indignant howl that makes you want to laugh at them but stops you short: there is something too real in this downpour, something that unleashes fear.
The coyote came back. I heard it, and had intended to get up and do something – whether that meant gazing at it, slack-jawed, or shooting it with my rifle, I didn’t know. But I did not get up. I couldn’t. I turned onto my side and smoothed the cold pillow with my hand and wondered at the kindliness of this, just this.
I was once introduced at a party to an artist, an old man whose years were running short, with droopy eyes that sauntered from girl to girl and a sleazy smile that always followed. It was a game of tag, and I knew from the moment he laid eyes on me that I was it. He had followed me in loops around the tables, around clusters of talking heads and sparkling drinks. His eyes had been anywhere I looked, dull and extinct, staring dead in the middle of me. He had seen something. He asked about me, I answered. There were others there, who knew him, who knew me. He is an artist, one friend said. Takes wonderful photographs. I saw the photographs. Naked women.You never see their face, because it doesn’t matter. Faces are alive, human. Women are not alive, or only conditionally. At times I’ve heard men joke that if a woman is really ugly, you can just put a bag over her head when you fuck her. When I saw him again the following week he said, would you pose for me? I said no. I said thank you. Why? Because. Why not? I’d love to take a picture of you. Because I don’t want to. Thank you. Not my thing. But thank you. You’re more of an intellectual aren’t you? Yes, I say. Yes, because he thinks it’s either body or mind, either woman or no woman. I say no woman.
The following month I am at his house. Later they’ll say it was a bad idea- you probably thought the same thing just now. Don’t lie to me. What was she doing at his house? The guy is obviously a creep. You know what he wants. Don’t act innocent. It is how it is. It is how it’s always been. What were you doing so far away from home, so late at night? You shouldn’t have gone. You shouldn’t have gone.
Of course, I am not there alone, but with the friend who introduced us. Of course, he has us visit his artist’s studio, which, of course, (and this delights me to no end) is nothing but his garage, with a plastic chair in the middle. Suddenly I think about the girls, all the naked girls, younger than me, young enough to have been the toddlers I played with as a small kid, the small kids I babysat as a teen-ager, young enough to think they should do this, that it’s good for them, that he knows, that he’s good for them. Young enough to tell themselves, OK, this is fine. Take this off now too? Ok, I guess that’s fine. What about now? Yes, still fine. Shivering, in the cold, in their lacy underwear, in their tattered, period-stained underwear, far from light, far from home, far from mother, from father. Far from the warmth. He has them stand here in their three-dimensional bodies full of light and color, full of life and wonder; then, he transforms them into mannequins, and from this affront there remains a flat picture the size of a postcard, and like a postmortem photograph of a decapitated Jane Doe, your family may be able to tell you by a birthmark, others may be able to tell you from the shape of your nipples, but you are gone, long gone.
Attached to the garage is his house and a tour is given to the other people and I, and our caravan dissolves into groups of one and two like a broken rosary. Soon it’s one and one, and one of those is me and the other is him and he turns to me like a mountain and his beard is white like snow and his hair is long and tied in a ponytail and he opens his arms and grabs me and I am twenty-three and that is the age he was when my parents were born, perhaps, and in an instant I am there, locked inside the cage of his arms, and I think he is very tall, yes, I’d never noticed, and I think I’m moving but it does not move him, and I think he’s stronger than me and I hate him for it, and I think my god Marie what a joke you are, running around all day like this is your life, like you are something, running forward to the future like an idiot, how dumb of you to think yourself free when all along you are this impotent, this weak, my God how stupid you’ve been, thinking you could decide, thinking you mattered, why do you make me tell you these things, how laughably foolish and blind you’ve been, you disappointment, you small thing, and then his voice is there and says You know sooner or later I’m going to see you naked, right? Right?
He puts on a show later at a gallery where his girls hung on the wall like trophies. I do not attend. I go to my sister’s once, and she’s put a postcard up on the wall of her kitchen: one of his headless girls.
Why did I go?
Some time in my late 20s I read an article about a woman in Latin America who was set on fire by her boyfriend after she told him she was leaving him. The boyfriend said the woman had done it to herself. All around the country the men began to lie and set their girlfriends on fire, set their girlfriends on fire and say that the women had drowsed themselves in gasoline and lit the match, breaths slow, mouths closed.
Not much later, my aunt called to let me know a man had punched her in the face so hard that she’d lost consciousness and sight in one eye. When I went to see her in the hospital weeks later she was undefeated: blue eyes hard and sharp, freckles, life indomitable. The next time she called from the hospital she said this won’t happen to you so don’t you even think about it. Don’t even think about it.
At another wasteful party, not long after, I met a man, an obvious American with white hair and a stoic face. He wore lilac and blue, a sweater loosely tied around his neck. With one gesture, neck stiff, voice high, he introduced a small woman whose age could have been 35 or 16. The woman affected the voice of a girl and swung from side to side with her arms wrapped around herself, as her owner talked of her in the third person. She punctuated his long sentences with nondescript yapping. She had a sense for telling when she was allowed to do this. He could have been her father, her grandfather. “I love learning languages by watching the Disney channel,” the child said. I looked into her and saw all of us. Was I this, too? Are you me? Can we be more than the things of men? My heavy dress brushing against my legs felt like a defeat, an admission of weakness, my long hair the mane of a pathetic animal. Why did I do the things expected of me? The presence of other men and women gyrating around me in deception, the sound of false amities told in a candied voice: unbearable. My skin raw and naked, chafing against the dress and the world, scraped by the others: unbearable. Behind the child-woman, the silver-haired photographer wrapped his arm around his wife and eyed me like I was shit. I was not shit.
No one relinquishes the company of others without a reason, or without a burning kind of conviction. Was it enough?
It was enough.
Now you know. Now I know.
Tonight, after I have dried from my swim, after I’ve walked back to the house my dress draped around my arm, my skin dripping, the earth pushing back against my feet, after I have pretended not to see or hear the boys behind the bushes, after I have pretended they aren’t going to throw junk into my garden, after I’ve stopped caring, after I’ve wrapped myself in a blanket and drunk a beer on my porch, with just this: the radio and a book, after all this, I go into the house, drag a barstool to the cupboard and bring the shotgun out of its case.
I go outside underneath a million stars and recline into the chair, the weapon strewn across my lap. I wait like the old men I saw in the Levant as a child, men in streets waiting in chairs, with an air of calm. They knew something, God knows what. But perhaps they felt this: content in the world, alone. I am one of them.
I sit in silence for hours. The wind blows in the leaves. I listen to it. What was at first pitch black darkness turns out, after enough time spent looking, to be a world of blues and greens, scintillating. I see the pail, I see the bushes, the flowers, the chicken coop. I see the grave I dug for my dead pet. I see the shining eyes of the coyote.
Getting to Know Marie Baleo and Her Work
I had the privilege of conversing with French-born artist Marie Baleo, whose work “Desert Animals” is our first digital fiction piece. We can learn a lot about ourselves and our art by looking through different lenses and approaches, and Baleo provides an expansive view of her own art, as well as fiction itself. – Charlie Martin, Senior Editor
Charlie Martin (CM): What drew you to short fiction as an avenue for your artistic heartbeat? Did you start writing short stories from an early age, or did you come to writing this type of prose later?
Marie Baleo (MB): I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer, and when I was 20 I wrote hundreds of pages of description-heavy memoir that I am now too embarrassed to go back and read. But I never dared venture into fiction, which I was convinced I lacked the creativity for. At age 24, I spent months trying to structure a novel, which turned out to be too much pressure to put on myself, and blocked me for the next three years. Fortunately, my taste for writing extended to nonfiction and journalistic writing, which I did a lot of, going so far as to create an online magazine dedicated to long-form journalism when I was 25. I only solved my problem with fiction when I started thinking about and experimenting with the short form in April of this year, at age 27. I still feel like I’m not on familiar terrain and have to be cautious when it comes to fiction writing, but I do hope I can make a habit out of it. Ultimately I would love to be able to publish a collection of short stories.
CM: Whose work do you feel has been most impactful upon your own?
MB: I am an avid reader who is fond of many very different authors, styles, and genres, but it is hard to pinpoint one or even several authors whose writing style or themes of predilection have influenced mine. I think my taste for description came from reading a lot of classics as a (French) child, books with splendid, ornate descriptions spread over several pages. I loved Zola! But today my writing looks nothing like that of my current favorites, who are all authors with extremely different styles: Chuck Palahniuk, Jim Harrison, Tristan Egolf, Amin Maalouf, …
If I had to pick one author I really love: Cheryl Strayed. Even more than her work, it is her personality and the way she approaches being a writer that impress me the most. Strayed wrote “Wild” to save her life, and that, to me, is the purest and perhaps only purpose of writing. Her honesty is what makes her work so wonderful, and it is something all writers should strive for.
CM: In “Desert Animals,” the narrator refers to herself by the name Marie towards the end of the story, which is also your name. How does persona and/or identity play a role in the work that you write?
MB: My writing is almost entirely autobiographical, even when disguised as fiction. I try to use my singular identity to hopefully get to something that anyone can relate to, and that can help them reflect on their life. This was especially the case with “Desert Animals.” I came to this piece using a very cerebral approach, a list of elements I thought would mix in an interesting way. But in between the first writing session and the next, an event in my personal life revived a deep-seated anger and sense of injustice that stem directly from witnessing and experiencing the oppression women have to contend with every day. From that point, the story took an unexpected turn, with my original intent taking a backseat to a new voice. The second half of the piece poured out of me in one hour. I was incensed when I wrote the train-of-consciousness passage about the photographer, and it became evident that the narrator was named Marie. Not just because the experiences I recount are mine, but also because I needed to make a broader point: Though we are different, she is me, as are all the readers of this piece, because it addresses experiences shared by all women. Part of the reason women’s oppression is allowed to continue is that women’s issues are seen as topical, not universal. This is because there is a fundamental lack of empathy with women, an inability to see them as bearers of a human experience, when really at their core anyone can understand the powerlessness, fright, and anger that come with being deprived of their agency by another. The urge I felt to bare everything by using my own name was on par with the anger I experienced and the need to jolt others awake.
CM: It’s refreshing to watch things come up at the beginning of “Desert Animals” and then re-emerge, transformed, later in the text. How did the images, like of the coyote, come to live in this narrative?
MB: I love weaving one image or theme through a story, inserting it into the piece early on in the hopes that readers will remember it when it comes up again in another form later on. In this piece, I found myself consciously and unconsciously peppering the entire story with animal-related nouns and verbs. Originally, the story was going to be an allegory, with a woman visited by an animal that reminds her of the insufferable men she has had to put up with over the years: its presence is unwanted yet it keeps showing up and ravaging what is hers. There was the obvious appeal of likening men who assault or abuse women to animals. I was also interested in considering whether she might recognize herself in this wild animal too, with its anger and solitude; she lives alone and you can make her out to be someone whom others consider too different, too dangerous perhaps, to be approached. In the end everyone in this story is an animal: the town folk who reject and attack her, she herself, and the various men she reminisces about. The coyote might be the most civilized of the bunch!
CM: As a poet, I am always interested in how things look on the page. What drew you to the physical structure that you implemented in “Desert Animals”? Does your other work engage with similar layouts?
MB: Yes, it does, and thank you for asking, because this is something I only just became aware of recently! “Desert Animals” is the second longest story I have written, the first being “The Invitation,” a strange story of war and denial that appeared in Tahoma Literary Review in May. This piece, too, started off with a short, ethereal paragraph, with the rest playing out in a more grounded, less flowery style structured in sections. I think what draws me to this layout is that I have an extremely hard time figuring out (and accepting!) the boundaries between poetry and fiction, and this structure allows me to get some of the poetry out of my system when writing long fiction.
Something else, also, when writing very personal fiction of this type: sometimes, out of respect for your character’s voice, you’ll find the need to end a paragraph and not tag anything onto it. What I mean is that sometimes the things that come out of your writing are raw things, that obviously needed to be said, but that you weren’t aware of. When that is the case, you really just need to shut up and give that last sentence the space to ring out like it needs to. That, to me, is when writing can reach its therapeutic purpose. It kind of knocks the breath out of you and there is this awed silence where you think, “OK, so that’s what’s really going on here!” Hence, the sections.
CM: “Desert Animals” is a very visual text, relying on gorgeous, often gritty, descriptive work. Do you work in any other visual artistic mediums, besides writing?
MB: I love drawing and painting, but mostly I love cinema. I grew up watching any movie I could get my hands on, and my imagination and sense of story were deeply shaped by that. I can’t produce good fiction or poetry unless I feel some sort of desire for a piece, and the only things that create that desire are music and mental images, and most often a combination of the two. The impetus for my writing is almost never an idea or a plot; or when it is, it rarely works out. Instead, I’ll listen to a song and picture a place, and if the combination is interesting enough, an idea will come up within that setting. “Desert Animals” came from the image of an old woman living in complete aloneness, sitting in a plastic chair outside her decrepit home at dusk on a mountain that vaguely resembled Mount Lebanon. (As you see, the story’s come a long way!) I also moved around a lot as a child, constantly skipping school to follow my parents on their travels, and later driving around with them in Norway, where we lived. In my teens, I lived in Beirut, a place I loved with a kind of romantic passion and had to leave very suddenly. I think these elements combined to make me obsessed with place, which is also why my work is so heavy on description.
CM: Do you have any upcoming readings or events that you’d like to promote, as well as any social media accounts you’d like your readers to follow?
MB: I have never given a reading or taken part in any writing-related event, which is probably a side effect of being a French person living in France who writes in English and publishes almost exclusively in North America! Feel free to connect with me on Twitter (@mariebaleo), or to check out my other stories and poems at mariebaleo.wordpress.com. Being a writer is lonely, and I love to talk with readers and writers!