Mirage by Sabrina Ortega-Riek

Look to the horizon. If you are standing on Interstate 40, that black ribbon of asphalt unfurling through the desert between Kingman, Arizona and Victorville, California, you will see the mountains, spearing rough and jagged from the gold earth. Beyond them you will see the Mexican border, and if you squint and hold your hand up to block the glare of the persistent sun you will see where this world evaporates into a white haze and another universe grows from the sand beyond it. Can you see the magic seeping into this world? Can you see it in the way the liquid light shimmers on the Interstate and how, in the evenings, the riotous iridescence of the sunset bleeds into the mountains and the sand? At night, can you see it in the clusters of stars so bright that the sky is silver pinpointed with black?

Consider the Interstate to be your refuge in this borderland: flanking the narrow, torn-up road, is a world that doesn’t belong to you. This desert is the world of the ghosts in the copper mines and the women who run with coyotes under gilt moons and the mermaids who swim in the blue waters of a hallucination. Take one step into the desert and you won’t belong to you, either. Do you see the wraiths of old buildings crumbling beside the Interstate and the way every roadside town phosphoresces with white mirage? If you made a stop in one of those towns you would see that its inhabitants have been marked with the same white glow. Do you see the prairies of sage uninterrupted by civilization and hear the wind skidding against the sand? If you look anywhere you’ll see the emptiness, the boundless void between earth and sky.

Do you see the way the chimerical land rearranges itself around the highway into wild shapes painted a palette of colors you can’t adequately name? One day in late July you might find that the highway dips into a shallow valley between pink hills rising lush and round from the gray veld under a boundless lavender sky streaked with magenta. The next day, you might find gold scrub dusting the tawny plain and the highway passing through a constellation of red flowers, each no larger than the pinpoint of Mercury in the summer sky. When the clouds of the summertime rains roll in, the blue of the sky drains into the earth and floods the land with a conflagration of orange and yellow and crimson. When the rain bridges the gap between land and sky once again, the earth fades to beige and the spindly gray bushes and gold-green barrel cactus press themselves through the soil. Throughout the sempiternal cycle of the desert’s faces, only the mountains remain, extending their peaks to the sky like the wrinkled and tanned fingers of an elderly farmer. In the haze of the horizon, the craggy hands pick cotton from the sky. Human encampments seek purchase on the earth as the landscape roils and shifts into infinite permutations of reality but most have already been shaken loose. The survivors, the decaying houses encircled by barbed wire fences and the gas stations whitewashed by the sun and the empty asphalt lots of RV parks, have been taken by the churning sands.

Have you heard that this desert is made from the same matter as that world beyond—that world where goddesses are born from the dusty soil? Have you heard that, here, when the heat forms a film over the air you can feel the sunlight plucking at your skin, rearranging your atoms, in the same way that the wind rearranges the grains of sand into new dunes? Ask anyone who has lived here long enough – the woman who works behind the counter in the café beside the gas station or the man who lives just far enough from town that the only voice he hears for days is the murmur of the night sky pressing its lips to the metal roof of his trailer – and they’ll tell you that, eventually, the desert gets inside you and claims you for its own. They’ll tell you that it will replace pieces of you with tiny segments of another universe. They might lean toward you and whisper that now, sometimes, if you listen closely enough you can hear their thoughts passing just above their heads. This is the place where worlds bleed together and the outlines blur until you can’t tell the difference between human and mirage and earth and magic. You can be a part of it if you want. You can step off the highway and feel the silence as it slips over your skin. You can step off the highway and head toward the horizon. The sands are always hungry: the desert welcomes you.