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Judith Cox


"My camera, I forgot my camera."

Franklin opens his key ring, gives her his house key. "I'll wait for you in the car."

Celie unlocks the door, her other hand steadies the key. Genuflecting before the Virgin Mary on the mantle, she gives the hollow statue a brisk shake. She scrambles through baggies filled with pot, downers, and other drugs she has no name or immediate desire for. "Sweet Mary, deliver me," she murmurs, smiling, her hand closing tight around a bag of black beauties. She runs her tongue around the inside of her mouth, working up saliva to swallow one capsule, then another. Pocketing the baggie she packs the other drugs inside the statue, crosses herself again.

Franklin's car speeds through the dark toward the Taos Pueblo. "A bruja," he says suddenly, "what do you think a bruja feeds you on vernal equinox? Maybe Tila uses the magic to seduce men, like you, huh?"

She evades the hand he reaches out to stroke her hair.

"Hey!" Franklin shakes his fingers as though the air between them has scorched his skin. "Be nice tonight, huh? I need Tila's power pieces. The Indians will never work with me if I don't have her. This is a big deal, her inviting us to this ceremony, letting you photograph her."

She turns up the radio. Rocking in her seat, she beats out the rhythm of the song on her thighs. Two weeks she's been with Franklin and already she's tired of listening to him go on about his art center. Tila should be interesting, though. Not just a witch, but a witch who deals drugs, a witch practicing sacred rites.

"Ready for your appetizer, compliments of our hostess?"

She takes the windowpane Franklin hands her, hiding the tiny celluloid-like square in the curve of her fingers. He places the acid on his tongue, kisses the cross around his neck, winks. "Lord we give thanks for what we are about to receive."

She pretends to put the tab in her mouth, lets it instead drop off her fingers. She is content to go on flying, listening to the secret buzz her blood makes rushing headlong through her brain, clattering past her ears, pulsing through her limbs. Her hand plays across the cache of black beauties in her other pocket. Franklin never mixes drugs. By the time he wants to speed, he will be past history for her.

She presses her face against the glass, the darkness, relieved not to see the inverted dome of the sky pressing down, insistent. She came here for the open land, the views, but now Taos feels enclosed, a series of dark rooms where she is gradually losing her sight.

Her hands play over the small camera on the seat beside her. Tracing the smooth arc of the lens, closing her fingers around its predictable compact heft, she feels herself take on substance. She holds the viewfinder to her eye, centers Franklin's dark shape in the frame. Photography is easy. Unlike relationships, it just comes. The camera shunts off distractions, makes the world clear, defined. Even in this light she can see there is nothing about Franklin to hold her interest beyond tonight.

Outside Tila's, chickens scatter, settle beneath the trailer. A chained, wolf-thin dog paces his prescribed circle of dirt, yellow eyes arcing in the headlights.

Franklin taps on the door twice, walks in, turning around to make sure Celie sees how familiar he's become with Tila. The tiny wood-paneled living room is dark except for the light from a candle burning in a mayonnaise jar.

A big Indian is on his feet, aiming a shotgun at Franklin's head. "Are you crazy, man, walking in here?"

Franklin's hands shoot up. Trembling fingers graze the low ceiling.

"Hey, easy." Tila puts herself between Franklin and the gun. "Leonard, this is Franklin and his lady. They're people."

"Fuck." Leonard cocks the safety, lays the gun beside him. Ignoring them, he goes back to dividing the pile of grass on the spool table into nickel and dime bags.

Franklin retreats to the corner, to a seat pulled from a junked car, an apologetic smile frozen on his face. He's a coward, Celie thinks, watching him sweat.

The stagnant air holds the smells of marijuana and old cooking grease. The window behind Leonard is boarded shut. More closed dark rooms, she thinks, just able to make out the big painting of Jesus on the opposite wall, Jesus praying in a cool overgrown garden. She wishes she were back in the mountains, in the snow, the thin air exaggerating her amphetamine high. Her feet in their heavy boots skim along snow and ice. Despite the freezing cold and her thin coat she is on fire on the slopes, drawn to the creek where water flows black through blue snow. There is no sound but the click of her shutter, the crackle of ice beneath her feet. Quick, her eye keen as that of the ravens and gross beaks flying above her, she balances beside the boles of aspens, beneath spruce trees white with the froth of frozen vapor.

"Celie." Franklin pleads, his voice small. Franklin's gotten off. She trains her lens on Leonard's hands, big hands, hands so big they could snap a neck. In her mind she sees them close around the shotgun, point at her. She goes wet between her legs.

"What is this shit, Tila?" Leonard tosses aside the bag he's working on. "What's she doing pointing a camera at me? You fucking nuts, too?" he says to Celie. "Don't you see what I'm doing here?" He picks up his gun, aims it at Celie’s lens. "How about this, you like this shit?"

Celie focuses on the barrel of Leonard’s gun, the rest of him drops off in a blur. She clicks the shutter once, twice.

"Come on, it's all right." Tila, smelling of sage and juniper, grabs Celie's arm, pulls her into the narrow kitchen. "Leonard gets mean sometimes when he's tripping. Sit here," she points to a stool, "shoot me."

The speed hits Celie. She paces up and down. Bunches of drying herbs dangle from the ceiling, catch her hair. With each pass she takes in objects on the kitchen table, a plastic sandwich bag filled with feathers, branches from a cottonwood tree, sanded and smoothed, a worn flannel shirt, its back cut into narrow ragged strips.

"What is all that?" she asks.

"A blessing for the land." Tila stirs a pan of refried beans, a boiling pot of sprouted corn. "I carve dolls, dress them in clothes from the tribe members, make headdresses from feathers I find on our land." She tastes the beans, shakes the salt box over them. "I put the dolls around the Pueblo and out by Blue Lake, our sacred site in the mountains."

Celie photographs the feathers, the wood, working her way around the table. "What about tonight?"

"On solstices and equinoxes I go back and move the dolls further out. It's old magic, from stories my grandmother told me. Somewhere we got lazy, stopped protecting what's ours. Little by little I'm reclaiming Pueblo land."

Celie turns her camera on Tila, swinging the lens from the curve of upturned breasts beneath her sweater, the silver cross and skull dangling from her earlobe, the blue lightening bolt tattooed along the index finger of her right hand. She will make a collage from the photographs, rearranging Tila until she understands her.

"Show me some dolls."

The steam from the cooking rice obscures Tila's face. A smile plays at the corners of her mouth. "Too late for that. All the ones I've finished have got the magic already. Nobody but me can see them when they got the magic. You come another time, maybe, watch me work."

Tila holds a chicken under the faucet, water running pink over her hands. She begins to chatter, indifferent to the rapid-fire clicking of Celie's shutter. "I forgot about the chicken. We'll eat it when we get back, there's beans for now. You don't care do you? No, I bet not. You're thin, you like to fly too much. That stuff's no good for the woman's body, it eats at you, takes away all your curves." Tila has plenty of curves, from her almond-shaped black eyes to her rounded hips. She tosses her hair, smooth gleaming black silk. "Better be careful. Nobody wants a bone but a dog. You know how I got Leonard?" Tila's breath, sour with tequila and limes, mingles with the heat of the oven, rises in Celie's face. "I cut a heart from red cloth, I heated three needles with a match until the metal turned blue, then I said a spell when I stuck the needles in the heart. You could do that."

She watches Tila baste the chicken. The brush pulls at the bumpy skin, picking up stray feathers. Beneath the floor she hears the rustle and cluck of the other chickens. Leonard killed this bird, she thinks, breaking its neck in one quick twist. She moves to the door, stares straight into the red glow of his cigarette.

"I got something for you, something for tonight." Tila opens a bottle of tequila, drinks a healthy amount, pouring the rest down the drain. She holds her hand under the mouth of the bottle, closes her fingers around the worm. She offers it to Celie. "Chop it up, put it in Franklin's beans. He's going to love you all night."

She looks at the worm in her hand, pale, anemic, bloated with alcohol. "Nobody eats when they're tripping."

"Go on," Tila urges, handing her a plate filled with beans and rice, the boiled corn greens, a paring knife. "In the beans. Just a bite, just a little bit, that's all he needs. Here." Tila hands her another plate. "Give this to Leonard. He can always eat."

Not Franklin. Freaked by Leonard and his gun, he is trying his best not to let Leonard see what a bad trip he is having. Celie gives Leonard the beans with the worm. Watching him attack his plate, she feels a hunger deeper than food.

"I seen you before." Tila says from the kitchen door, the charge in her voice telling Celie she knows what she has done. "Yeah, in the desert."

In her mind Celie sees a crow land in her viewfinder, train its sleek black eye on her. She shivers in acknowledgment. Started, the quivering continues, building to a full blown case of the shakes. The plate falls, a dead thud in the orange shag carpeting.

"You remember," Tila whispers, her eyes suddenly small, glittering, familiar. "What are you looking for out there? You looking for the one that's got you hiding in the desert, the mountains? My grandmother can show you his face."

"Cut the witch shit, Tila," Leonard says, not bothering to look away from Celie. He sets aside his empty plate. In one stride he reaches Celie, stilling both her hands in one of his. "Speed running away with you?" he asks. "What is it, blacks?"

"Yeah,blacks," Celie manages to get out.

"You know about the black mirror, white girl?" Tila moves closer, her eyes darting to Leonard. "That's obsidian, the black volcanic rock under the ground. It forces you to look at your devils. Looks like you seeing some of them now."

Leonard pulls Celie closer. "Hey, shut the fuck up, Tila."

"She used my magic on you, Leonard." Tila's voice climbs several octaves, rising over Franklin's moans and mutterings.

"Why don't you work some magic on that sack of shit in the corner, huh, shut him up before I get pissed."

Leonard inverts his plate, empties a vial of cocaine, divides it into four lines. He hands Celie a tightly rolled ten dollar bill, nods his head.

She snorts a line, nostrils burning, the back of her throat numb. She settles against the couch, into Leonard's arm.

"What are you doing, Leonard?" Tila keeps her distance, moves into Franklin's corner, telling Celie Leonard hits her. "It's the equinox. I've got to move the dolls."

Celie snorts another line, hands the ten dollar bill to Leonard.

"So move the fucking things," he says, twining Celie's hair around his hand, pulling tight. He pockets the cocaine, the ten dollar bill. "You got a place to go?" he asks her.

Celie leans forward, Leonard's hold on her hair making her eyes sting. She runs her hand over her hip, feeling Franklin's key. "Yeah, I got a place."

Leonard stands up, looks over at Tila pulling at Franklin's rigid arms, trying to uncover his face. "You're wasting your time, Tila. Leave him until morning, go on with your dolls."

Tila comes at him, small hands like talons. "I'll fix you for this, Leonard, I'll fix her too."

"Wait for me in the truck," Leonard says to Celie over his shoulder, like Tila is a stove he forgot to check, lights he forgot to turn out.

The inside of Leonard's truck smells like stale cigarette smoke and saltbush. Celie kicks at an empty coffee cup, at the dried mud on Leonard's work boots. He's left his keys in the truck. She turns the ignition key over. Patsy Cline is singing "Walking After Midnight." She opens the door for light, flips through the torn pages of a Hustler magazine.

"Jesus." Leonard takes the magazine, tosses it in the floorboard. "You some kind of carpet muncher?"

Celie retrieves the magazine, opens it to the centerfold. "What took so long?"

"I had to fuck her, how else would I shut her up?"

Staring at the dark-haired model Celie tries to picture Tila pressed up against the wall or maybe splayed over the kitchen table, the pieces of her dolls pushed to the floor. "With Franklin there?" she asks finally.

Leonard laughs, slams the truck into gear. "Him, you think he saw anything? Why do you think they call it tripping? He's off on the fucking moon."
"You're tripping."

He grabs her chin, fingers pressing to the bone. "Hey, I can handle my shit. I can handle you too."
She drives her hand between his legs. "That will take all night."


Near noon Celie stumbles into Franklin's living room, her eyes half-closed against the sunlight's assault. She needs something. She's too down, way down. She sinks into the couch, pulls herself to the coffee table covered with Franklin's papers, discarded baggies, ashtrays, and beer cans. Leonard's vial is here, empty. She had the last of it during sex, refusing to finish him until he agreed.

She runs her hand beneath her nose, rubs her parched sore throat. The thought of water turns her stomach and there's no beer, they drank it all last night. She idly shakes the discarded beer cans. Warm, flat, the beer soothes her, evens her out. She reaches for another, one more.

A drowned cigarette lodges in her throat. Choking, she grabs onto the edge of the coffee table, heaving over an ashtray in panic, inhaling ashes. She sees herself dead, her face smeared gray, a thin trickle of stale beer running from her mouth. She remembers Leonard's hand wound in her hair last night at Tila's. He would find her, pull her up by her hair, let her drop back in the ashtray, leave her body for Franklin to deal with. She sticks her fingers down her throat, makes herself wretch.

Panting, wet with cold sweat, she collapses against the couch.

Behind her in the bedroom Leonard's breathing continues, even, untroubled. On the porch Franklin's dog scratches at the door, whimpering. When she doesn't answer she hears his claws click along the floor, tap in a circle, then the thump of his body settling on Franklin's old denim shirt. He's probably hungry. She's heard him like this before, other mornings when she and Franklin have been too wasted to do anything for themselves, let alone the dog. She goes to the kitchen, rinses her mouth, opens a can of dog food. She sits back on her heels watching him eat. The dog wolfs his food, making her wonder when Franklin last remembered him.

Taos will kill her. If not Leonard, then the next man, or maybe the drugs, taking too much of one thing, making a bad mix, or being too high to think of coming down from the mountains, in from the cold.

She gets up, steadying herself with the porch railing, and goes inside to dress. The Virgin's gaze follows Celie, wide blank eyes seeing inside her. She locates her clothes, gathers the change Franklin has dropped and left lying. What had he said? 'Indifference keeps me from need.' She empties the statue. Just the beauties she tells herself, swallowing two. She has to keep going long enough to escape, then she'll get clean. She finds her keys on the table, picks up the statue. She could use someone watching over her.

Her brain begins to hum, the speed kicking in. She has her cameras, her equipment, her leather jacket, the change of clothes she keeps in the car, that's enough. She stops at the bank, then for coffee and gas. Driving south toward Albuquerque and Interstate 40 she heads east, away from everything she has become.

Judith Cox writes: "My work has been anthologized and published in numerous journals, including Pedestal Magazine, Snake Nation Review, The American Literary Review and Potomac Review. Other awards and fellowships include 2003 residency fellowships at VCAA and Fundacíon Valparaiso, Amería, Spain, an Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction, Virginia Arts Commission; and the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Award. I have taught fiction at the Writers’ Center, the Chautauqua Institution, New York, the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Danville Writers’ Conference. My work is represented by Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Associates, Inc., New York."

Equinox is taken from her novel-in-progress, The Drawing of Angels.

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