Sam knew there would be trouble the night the saguaro came to call. “Evening,” she said, and stepped aside for her unexpected guest.
The cactus scrunched down as far as it could and skittered through the door on its roots, bringing with it the breath of rocks, sage brush, and the cold Sonoran desert night. It stopped in the middle of the cabin’s sparsely furnished main room and straightened until its spines brushed the roof. “I hope I didn’t come at a bad time.”
“Not at all. I don’t get many saguaros stopping by.” She didn’t have many anybodies stopping by anymore, but saying so would have been rude. She settled into the rocker by a bookcase crammed with dog-earred issues of Popular Mechanics and National Geograhic. “What can I do for you?”
The cactus tried to straighten to its full height, but the roof got in the way. “I wish to marry a gila monster.”
Sam stopped rocking. She stuck a finger in her ear to clean out a bit of wax. “Um…Come again?”
“I wish to marry a gila monster.”
Sam took a moment to gather her thoughts and clean her glasses with the tail of her shirt. “You don’t say.”
“She hunts in the early morning, and I am rooted near her burrow. We started talking, and now we spend most of our mornings together. She is lovely, all black and pink and yellow skin, and has a very dry sense of humor.”
The cactus quivered with what Sam supposed was laughter.
“I see.” She let her glasses drop to the end of their beaded chain. “And?”
The saguaro twitched. “We don’t know what to do. We both love the sand, but I stand far above it, and she burrows beneath. I drink in the glory of the sun; she feasts on mice, and eggs, and such.” Its arms slumped. “I gave her one of my fruits, but she said she could not eat it.”
“Of course not.” Sam looked at her hands, short, wide fingers with nails worn ragged from working in the garden. Growing up on the Taos Pueblo, PopPop Donner used to say her hands were “beautiful with hard work.” “Why come to me?”
“You are very wise. Your family has been here for always.”
Sam snorted. “I wouldn’t say always. I moved to Arizona in ’73.”
“But your people know the desert ways.”
Sam shook her head. “Not so much. Ma was a nurse at the Taos clinic, and Pa worked as a handyman any time he climbed out of the bottle.” She scratched the back of her head. “My grandfather kept to some of the old ways, and I used to, but that was a long time ago.”
“For the always, yes,” said the cactus.
Sam set her glasses back on her nose. “I spent thirty years fixing cars, and working the liquor store counter in Yuma. I’m too damn old and set in my ways for magic anymore.”
“The gila monster and I do not need your medicine.”
Well, that was a relief, but it didn’t tell her what she wanted to know. “Then why come asking me for help?”
“Your family has the always.” The saguaro straightened as best it could, arms upright and sure. “Will you marry us?”
Sam blinked, and barely noticed when her glasses slid to the tip of her nose. “Pardon?”
“The gila monster and I want to marry, but we don’t know how. Will you marry us together?”
Sam sat upright in her chair. “That’s not really possible. You can’t—It’s just. I mean, you’re two different creatures.”
The top of the cactus’ stem bobbed in something like a nod against the roof. Bits of spines fell to the floor. “Yes.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me. You can’t get married. You’re a plant. This gila monster’s an animal.”
Again the bobbing green nod. “Yes.”
“It’s not natural.”
“That is why I have come to you, to make it natural. Will you marry us?”
Sam ran a hand through her hair. “You’re not listening to me. I said—”
“I am hearing, yes. Will you marry us together?”
Sam frowned. After a handful of heartbeats, she took off her glasses. “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”
The saguaro bent in half, more a bow than a scrunch. “Thank you.”
Sam levered herself out of the chair, wood and bone creaking with the effort. “Don’t go thanking me. I never said I would.”
“You never said you wouldn’t.” The saguaro bowed again. “That is your wisdom.”
Sam walked the saguaro to the front porch and watched it skitter into the night, a shape to a blob, a blob to nothing. Standing under the open sky where the sickle moon hung sharp and bright, every breath brought something new—coyote must, scrub oak, piñon pine from the heights. The desert night wrapped cold and dark around her, stirring memories she could have done without.
Against her better judgment, Sam followed the memories back inside to a Red Wing boot box at the bottom of her bedroom closet. She pulled the box out, settled onto the unmade bed, and removed the lid.
Memories lived in the box, dusty, musty memories that made her sneeze. Good ones, bad ones, other ones. Her first driver’s license, Daniel’s death certificate, the deed to the house and land. Her GED certificate, Daniel’s 4F papers from the Army. Matching mother and infant hospital bracelets, a crumpled, white construction paper heart with LOVE U ALWAYS HPPY MOTHERS DAY!!! scrawled in red crayon. A rusty Band-Aid tin held Ma’s silver locket with a picture of Pa from bootcamp, a candy bracelet on an elastic string and a gold plastic ring from the state fair in Albuquerque.
At the bottom? Sam paused, then pulled out the memories banished to a plain manilla envelope.
A marriage certificate. She’d married Daniel, a boy from the Pueblo, and lived alone with her husband on the other side of the bed. Sam refolded the meaningless piece of paper issued by the Taos County courthouse and set it aside.
Three black and white photos from one of those instant picture booths. Two young women, laughing, making faces, hugging. Tousled hair, turned up collars, eyes filled with stars and the lights of the midway. Herself and Dayline at the state fair, sixteen years old with the world spread before them. The Sam in the picture didn’t know a thing about the world. She set the pictures on top of the license.
A different photo, Polaroid, in color, two women in their mid-twenties, the white-capped ocean behind them, the wind whipping their hair into delightful tangles. Her daughter Kaitlin looked vibrant and lively; she had Sam’s eyes, Daniel’s unfortunate nose, and straight black hair cut in a bob. The other woman, blonde-haired and brown-eyed, was a stranger in all but her gap-toothed smile.
Sam turned the picture over. Written in blue ink on a piece of masking tape was a California address, and a phone number.
Sam returned everything to the box, and set the memories back in the closet where they belonged.
The gila monster stopped by the next night while a pot of chili simmered habanero hot on the stove.
Sam ushered her guest inside. Light from the lone floor lamp near the rocker cast muted shadows along the lizard’s colorful beaded back. PopPop Donner told stories of the Yaqui people’s reverence for the skin’s healing powers. PopPop told too many stories.
The lizard wandered around the room with a leathery egg in its mouth, searching out the small, hidden places. It’s tail, thick with early summer fat, made wide, lazy “S”s along the dusty floor. Sam stood by the stove and let it roam as it pleased. A gila monster in the house couldn’t be any weirder than a cactus.
After exploring all four corners and everything in between, the gila monster set the egg at Sam’s feet. Its blue-pink tongue tasted the air, flick-flick. “I brought you a gift. Garter snake. Quite tasty.”
Sam picked up the egg, careful to keep her fingers from the damp, venomous areas around the tooth marks. “Thanks. I appreciate it.” She set the egg on the edge of the sink. “Mind if I sit down?”
The lizard laughed like sand blowing across an empty stretch of asphalt. “Go right ahead.”
Sam gave the chili a final stir, then retired to her rocker. This looked to be another long night, and her knees weren’t what they’d been thirty, hell, ten years ago. “What brings you out so late?”
Flick-flick. “The saguaro said it came to see you last night, and I wanted to speak with you myself.”
The lizard bobbed up and down on its front legs. “I want to marry the saguaro. It said you were very kind, and would think on the request with your full wisdom.”
Sam stroked her brow with a finger, wondering what she could say to make the lizard, the cactus, all of it go away. “Like I told to the saguaro, you really can’t get married. It just isn’t done.”
Flick-flick, flick-flick. That tongue never stopped. “But why?”
“It just. . .It isn’t.” Sam began to rock in quick, agitated bursts, her legs letting on when she couldn’t find the words. “You don’t have anything in common beyond, you know, desert things.” Even to her ears, the argument sounded weak, but she straightened her shoulders when she said it.
“Yes, but our hearts want more.” The gila monster stepped back and forth in a strange little dance, black claws ticking over the wood floor. “It seemed so tall for a cactus, catching the sun as it went by. We started to talk and it turns out we both like morning dew, and the cool of sunrise, and the song of the black-throated sparrow.”
As if to catch a stray thought, the lizard paused with its left foot in the air. Flick-flick. “The morning I sank my claws into its pleats and climbed through its spines to the very top of its stem, the saguaro asked to marry me.” It lowered its foot, then its head. “My claws. In its pleats. It gave of itself to lift me up. No one had ever done that before. Watching the sunrise, so far above the ground yet still touching it through the saguaro’s roots, I said yes. I would give my teeth if it meant we could marry.” Flick-flick.
Sam listened, and hated herself even more than she hated the thick-bodied lizard at her feet. She bit off every word like a piece of sour lemon: “People marry to have kids.”
“We are not people.”
“Very funny. You know what I mean.”
The lizard bobbed again. “Will you do this for us? We want to marry.”
Sam’s threw up her hands. “It’s not always about what you want, sometimes it’s about doing what’s right.”
The echo of her mother lost itself in the wind beating against the windows, and all Sam’s anger drained away, leaving a fine film of guilt on her heart. She got unsteadily to her feet. The gila monster skittered back, hunched with fear.
“No, no.” Sam soothed the air between them with open hands. She stepped over the lizard and made her way to the window with the peeping tom moon.
When had she become her mother? The day she married Daniel? The night Kaitlin declared she didn’t owe Sam a wedding or a grandchild, that she could love whom she chose “right or wrong?”
She could still smell the cotton candy and fry bread, the roasted corn and Dayline’s dime store cologne. After a dozen turns on the Tilt-O-Whirl, the skitter of claws on the wood floor came from behind. “If you’ll open the door, I can show myself out.”
Early the next morning, Sam packed up her truck with her camp bag and plenty of water and headed out along El Camino Del Diablo.
She followed the highway west to Papago Well, then past the wildlife watering hole to slip on and off road the way PopPop taught her as a girl. When the sun had stretched itself orange and gold, and the closest thing to a road were the tracks of an occasional Sonoran antelope, she eased off the gas and looked for a place to lay camp.
A clearing surrounded by rocks and sage proved just the place. Sam laid out her blankets in the back, then built a small fire in the truck’s shadow. Her one concession to age was the French press for her morning coffee. She had no time for that instant crap any more.
After a quick dinner of campfire biscuits and last night’s chili, Sam propped herself against the camp bag and settled in next to the fire. Sometime after midnight, she greeted the Milky Way. It stretched across the sky like an inverse of one of PopPop’s beaded belts, bands and bursts of color nestled in a cradle of night. She hadn’t beaded in years, had given it up right about the time she gave up Dayline and PopPop’s old ways. PopPop hadn’t said a word, but there was no escaping the disappointment in his eyes. Nights like tonight, with only the stars and memories for company, she felt the disappointment all over again and missed her grandfather something fierce.
“You gonna to finish that?”
Sam looked left and found a coyote bitch sitting at the edge of the firelight. The mangy thing was missing part of her left ear, and a thin scar caught the shadows along the left side of her muzzle.
Sam nudged the pot of leftover chili beside her. “What? This?”
The coyote nodded, eyes flashing orange in the firelight.
Sam pushed the pot towards her visitor. “Suit yourself, but it’s pretty spicy.”
“I lick my butt. How bad can it be?”
Sam snorted and went back to watching the stars. “Suit yourself, but I wouldn’t do any licking after you eat.”
The coyote laughed and helped herself to the pot, chasing it over the sand. Finished, the bitch settled on the other side of the fire, her tail curled around her legs. “What brings you this far into the desert?”
Sam kept her attention on the sky. She should have shooed the coyote away when she had the chance. “Peace and quiet.”
Now it was the coyote’s turn to snort. “Overrated, if you ask me. Give me a good story any night.”
Sam uncrossed her ankles to ease her arthritic hip. “Didn’t ask you.”
“Sure you— ” The coyote attacked the base of her tail before settling down again. “—did. That’s why you came all the way out here.”
Leave it to a coyote to complicate matters. “I was thinking about my daughter. I haven’t talked to her in—what?—hell, I don’t remember how many years.”
Trouble was, she did remember, and the memory ate away at her heart.
The bitch snuffled the sand, licked her paws. “Why not?”
“Why not what?”
“Why haven’t you talked to her? I hear my pups all the time.”
“Because. . .” Why hadn’t she? The real reason, the one she’d kept at the bottom of a Red Wing boot box. The one that left her hollow inside without even the echo of her own tears for company. “Because I want what Kaitlin has.”
Sam waited for the cathartic rush of the admission, but nothing happened. Everything was the same—the sky, the fire, the damn coyote, herself.
She sat up with a grunt. “Me and Dayline fell out of touch back—”
“What? Oh. Dayline was my girlfriend.” Sam frowned at her hands, waiting. When the coyote didn’t say anything, she continued, “Anyway, me and Dayline kind of fell out of touch around the time Kaitlin moved west. We hadn’t talked much for a couple of years before that.”
The coyote yawned, tongue uncurling orange and black in the firelight. “So?”
Sam wedged a chunk of pine into the coals. Her eyes watered in the smoke. That’s what she told herself. “Dayline died of lung cancer last November. I miss her, miss what we had. She used to wear Tweed. Folks gave her shit because it was supposed to be a dyke cologne, you know?, but Dayline didn’t care. We figured we’d be together forever—” A jagged laugh made the word bleed. “—then I let my mom talk me into marrying Daniel.”
The bitch scratched her ear, and then licked the tips of her claws. “And that’s it?”
Sam cut the coyote a sharp look. “Yeah.”
“What kind of story is that?”
“Hey now, I—”
The coyote stood. “You won’t talk to your daughter because she’s happy and you’re not? Big deal. You ever think maybe she won’t talk to you because you tell such lousy stories? You’re selfish and petty, nothing happens, the end. You make things happen. That’s a good story. Yours is boring. You don’t even burn your tail or learn a lesson.”
Sam balled her hands into fists. “Listen you – ”
“Still boring.” The coyote turned tail to the fire and wandered into the night, its casual observation hot against Sam’s cheeks.
“I’m not boring!” she called after the retreating shadow. She wasn’t. She’d done the right thing. Hadn’t she?
Sam pulled up to the house and eyed the desert reception gathered around her front porch through the dusty windshield.
The saguaro stood by the stairs, the gila monster wedged in the crook of its arm. Roadrunners, ground squirrels, and sparrows darted about. A barrel cactus with an elf owl on top inched along on its roots. A bobcat stretched out under the porch. A drove of dusty brown hares grazed in her garden, while two tortoises and a clutch of Gambel’s quail kept to the saguaro’s long shadow.
Sam set the brake, pocketed the keys. She rubbed her mouth with the back of a hand. Finally, she climbed out of the cab. The early morning sun beat down on her shoulders with a promise of more to come later in the day. “Howdy.”
The saguaro came forward. Tiny drops of water in the shape of the gila monster’s feet formed a dotted line up the cactus’s pleats. It inclined its top. “Hello.”
“Good morning,” the lizard said.
Sam waved a hand at the gathering. “A little peer pressure, huh?”
For a moment only the wind spoke. Then the saguaro drooped, straightened. “We will leave if you ask it of us.”
The plants and animals gave her their full attention. The hares paused in their forage, and the bobcat came out from under the porch.
Words warred for tongue-space in Sam’s mouth, wants and needs and do-rights tumbled together. She scuffed her boots in the dirt. “I’ve never done a marriage before. I’m not saying I will, I’m just saying I haven’t.”
One of the hares laughed and whispered something to a tortoise. The tortoise tucked its head in its shell.
Flick-flick went the gila monster’s tongue. “We trust you.”
Sam grimaced. “Not sure that’s the best idea, but I suppose if you’re still willing then I am, too. It’d make a good story to tell, tell my daughter someday.”
Sam didn’t have many stories. That had always been PopPop Donner’s thing, all the old stories Coyote used to tell. Mom never believed the stories, said they were wrong, all wrong. Sam shushed the doubts.
She took to the front steps, and the animals arranged themselves behind the saguaro and gila monster in the yard. She pushed up her glasses, then clasped her hands in front of her. “I’ve only been to a handful of weddings, and most of those at the courthouse, so I don’t really know where to start.” She cleared her throat. “We’re gathered here. Um, we’re gathered here today. . .to. . .Hold on a minute.”
Sam hurried into the house. She found what she wanted in the manila envelope at the bottom of her memory box and returned to the yard.
“Is everything well?” the saguaro said.
“Fine, fine.” She held out the Polaroid photo. “This is my daughter Kaitlin and her. . .wife. I think. I’m going to call her when we finish up here.”
Sam looked around, and brought over a rock the size of her fist. She propped the picture against the rock beside her on the porch.
She put her hand in the pocket of her dungarees and wrapped trembling fingers around the strip of black and white photos. “Come on now, let’s get this marrying done before it gets too hot.”
She stroked the slick photo paper. Damn coyotes and their logic, but it did make for a better story. Sam hoped her daughter would agree.