“The Land,” Barbara Neu
Petal meets my taxi. “Are you my spiritual advisor?” I ask. She bends back her body, a stick twined with old rubber bands, wheezes out a laugh.
“As if. On The Land you serve The Vessel. Don’t get uppity.” The Land is a scrappy gathering of tents and metal shacks surrounded by stagnant jungle. “Here’s another one, Cory,” Petal yells to a man with dreadlocks. He hands me a shovel. “Dig,” says Petal. Six feet down, in a pit of red dust is Cindy, the other novice. We dig together. When mosquitoes prick our skin, Cory brings us an ancient bottle of insect repellant.
“Doesn’t that stuff expire?” asks Cindy. Cory shakes a finger at us.
“On The Land we always say: Waste Not Want Not, Take It and Use It.” I spread the liquid up my thighs, feel them appraised by Cory’s eyes. Don’t waste me, I beg him in silence.
On the second night, Cory dips under my mosquito net and blanket like a duck into water. A finger to his lips. Shh. Cindy snores across the room. Of course, I’d done it before, on the soccer field with the Center Forward, his mouth tasting of crushed grass. Cory doesn’t kiss. He spreads me apart, launches his thin hips, sets the old bunk to creaking. I want to wrap him in my arms, but he rears up and shakes his head in warning, so I crush my useless fists into the mattress. With three more thrusts, Cory grunts softly and slips away.
Cindy and I mend mosquito nets, dig out latrines, cook porridge. “Work is a form of prayer,” says Petal. But the work is boring, except that Cindy and I talk about our families. Her family has strapping women who bear many children by men with penises like rutabagas. All I have is my mom, who tossed me a brochure for The Land while I was at work busing tables. “Think fast!” she yelled. I dropped a plate. “Look,” said Mom, “The Land has meditation classes and you can help feed Third World babies. Maybe if you go to this place, you’ll stop fucking everything up.”
Cory comes to me after dark and I wait for him to say that he needs me. Then we’ll make love for real. Meanwhile I’m pulled apart, opened up, used and left. Splayed on my mattress while the tree frogs peep down by the water tank.
Patchouli. At first I smell it only on Cory. Then it’s a musky cloud that spreads over The Land, infecting it, until I’m sucking it in through my pores, like the copper dust that burrows into my skin. Petal, Cindy, Cory and I are brown-barked like four trees. Who has the shade? What ever happened to it?
Cindy and I have to make banana soup. We pound them into a pappy mess. An old woman with a herd of goats wanders into camp. “May I have a banana?” she asks. Cindy peels one for her, fetches a chair, gets her some water. The old woman nods her head approvingly. A nut wrapped in dirty tattered rags. “You are a very kind girl.” Then her blue eyes dig into me. “What about you?” I had been poking a stick in the dust, drawing stuff. “What are you drawing? Man’s penis?” Cindy and the woman laugh. I scuff my foot through the dirt. “Of course not,” I mumble. “Heh!” she yelps like a jungle dog. “We can’t all be kind. Some of us are simply meant to be useful.” She finishes her banana and is swallowed back into the tired jungle, the goats nah-nahing behind her.
We tell Petal about the old woman. “Old woman, my ass!” shouts Petal. “That was the Vessel, you idiots. I hope you made a good impression.”
“What if we didn’t?” My voice is clotted with red dust.
“Then you are totally and utterly fucked, my friend. Say your prayers.”
I don’t know how to pray. When I was little, I’d sometimes think of Jesus or horses before I went to sleep so I wouldn’t have nightmares. But that wasn’t praying any more than lying under Cory is making love. They’re just tricks to push away the dark, numbing dread that hovers outside your black window.
“Build a wattle and daub wall,” orders Petal. So I stomp in a tub full of mud and straw while Cindy and Cory spread the mess onto a rattan frame. “There is a spiritual lesson to this,” lectures Cory. “Apart, the building materials are weak, but together they are strong. Get it? Like all of us together.”
“Oh, deep, very deep,” says Cindy. “I feel so enlightened.” Cory throws a mud ball at her head. Soon they are smearing each other with mud, ignoring me, chasing and screaming through the tattered banana leaves. Jealousy is a swarm of ticks on my skin. Kicking the tub to a shed, I wash my feet, go to my bunk and lie down.
I awake in the dark. There are murmurings, rustlings, groans. A woman gasps, “Oh, oh, oh my god!” It’s Cindy. A man whispers, “I love you.” Cory. In Cindy’s bed.
Lost in the jungle, I’ll lie down under the leaves, let the ants crawl into my eye sockets and up my nose. Tendrils and vines will pierce my skin, scour my brain, flush out memory. My body will sink into the soil, and I’ll finally belong to The Land.
When I try to get up, I discover my hands are bound with rags to the bunk frame. My feet are tied, too. Up drifts the mosquito net and a spare body reeking of goats settles itself next to me. Eager hands wriggle under my t-shirt. Another pair of hands grasps my face.
“We thought you were too good to waste,” whispers Petal and ties the gag over my mouth. Peep peep, chirp the tree frogs. My body is slicked in sweat.