M. Q. Stewart

A Patch of Dryness in the Back of the Throat

“My sand and dirt-colored pencils have been whittled away from all of the desert landscapes I have drawn,” she said, taking a long draw of a cigarette.

It was a lounge-around sort of day. Those were the best. She wore her laziest outfit: gray hoodie borrowed from an old boyfriend, baggy t-shirt, comfy shorts, comfy slippers.

“There’s just something...” she struggled to find words to describe the emotions she felt. “Ugh! I don’t know—eerily mysterious—about a desert. Something I love, but can’t quite touch.”

The Cactus-Man said nothing, so she continued to scribble her nubby sand pencils onto her sketchbook. This was her favorite spot in the cottage, the big luxurious window-seat. The view outside was of red-orange poppy fields and of the last warm rays of streaming sunlight from behind pale blue skies. Her work was coming along nicely, which made her happy. The only thing that gave an air of slight discomfort was the Cactus-Man. He was still staring blankly with his hollow eyes. She tried again to make some conversation with him.

“Maybe you understand what I’m getting at here? It’s shifting sands, it’s prickly natured flora and fauna, the remnants of lost cities—tombs and mummies are especially fascinating to me. I would like to be a mummy, and that’s weird, but it might be cool.”

The Cactus-Man shook the tiny beans inside of his head like a maraca.

“No, no. I—no, I don’t quite think you understand me now. That’s why I like the excerpt—um—I mean—desert! That’s why I like the desert.”

The Cactus-Man ruffled his needles a bit. Without another word, he scuttled under the door and away from the cottage. She turned her head quick to catch the cactaceous creature before he was gone, but even through her glorious window-seat there was no such thing to be seen.

The sun began to set ominously. Illusions were hard to spot. Was the Cactus-Man real? Yes. Yes of course he was, you can’t imagine something like that. Things of that nature don’t just pop into your head. What about the cottage that her father left her? How could a place like this even exist? Well it doesn’t, does it? No, of course not. Places like these are like the places you only visit in dreams. Not for the weekend when there’s nothing better to do and you’ve grown tired of the human race. Or maybe she had these things mixed up. Nothing was ever certain and time was an illusion, much like the mid-to-late 80’s and everything you read on Facebook.

She scratched the bed-head and sleep out of her hair. She had a horrible sinking feeling, something was terribly wrong here. When she looked again at her work, she was startled to find that her beautiful desert portrait had become a black satanic bed of ash. A sudden fear gripped her heart like an iron vice.

“It’s an omen! But what does it mean?”

She tried to start up out of her peaceful lounge and wound up tripping over her own two feet. She fell with all limbs and art supplies up in the air and cracked her head on the hardwood floor.

“Ouuuuuuuuch!” she cried, as a sudden, splitting pain reverberated across the surface of her skull.

There was nothing good about a portrait of blackened death and she knew this. It always whispered doom. The smell of brimstone burned from inside her nasal cavity. These were dark signs indeed.

“It rises from the East,
Only to dive into the West,
Where the Egyptians believed was the land of death,
Only to rise like Osiris,
Again and again,
Like so many cyclical journeys,
Again,”

These weren’t her words, but the sonorous words of a strange visitor. The place where she had fallen was directly behind the tacky yellow sofa with the floral print, so she couldn’t see what this visitor looked like, but she could hear his every word and sense his every move. She held herself harder with each of the visitor’s footfalls. What she wouldn’t give to have the strength to get up and run away. A pointed olive shoe attached to a long purple leg stepped its way around the sofa.

“A fallen angel,” said the visitor, producing a slender hand. “Come with me.”

“That’s alright. I like it better down here,” she said, shrinking into the floor as if she could camouflage herself like an octopus.

“Ahhhh... Hath thou not summoned me here?” said the voice of the mysterious man. “I bring with me no evil intent, only my poetry. Let me help you.”

She definitely didn’t trust him, perhaps that was fine. After all, she didn’t really trust anything. She took the hand of the man from the darkness. She stood nose to nose with this mysterious figure. His mask had quite a long nose, so there was at least a foot between them.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he sang as he cast back his black cloak. “Frederick Quinn, Master of Poetry.”

She now could fully inspect this visitor. He had pointy green shoes and purple tights. His Tuscan tunic was embellished with Celtic spirals. His long dark cloak touched the cottage floor. His mask was a dark green, at the moment, but it always seemed to shift ever so slightly into different shades. His hair was long and black, like his cloak, and his chin jut-out like a doorstop.

“Really? Frederick? Doesn’t fit you,” she said reflectively.

“Well, no, I agree, Frederick isn’t particularly threatening. Not like Crowley is. But Frederick is my name and that’s all there is to it. Now, you must tell me who you are, for I feel I must have met you before.”

“Oh me, well I’m—um—Haley Black,” she told him.

“Nice to meet you, miss Black,” bowed Frederick.

“No, actually I’m sorry,” she changed her mind. “I was just trying to be cool. My real name is a secret. I’m not going to tell you what it is.”

“Ah, so you’ve lied to me once already. Maybe I will yet gain your trust,” he stroked his massive chin. “No matter. Did you know that there are little men underground who have never seen the sun?”

She looked down. Maybe if she tried hard enough she could see them. Alas, no, only hard wooden planks and blood. “That’s a little off topic don’t you think?”

“No, not off topic at all, I’m trying very hard to tell you something important. You realize this don’t you? By the way, your head’s bleeding.”

She, the woman, whose name will remain a secret, touched her fingers across a great big gash on her forehead. “Yeah, that happens to me a lot. I can be a bit careless at times.”

“A little distant minded? I understand,” said Frederick, as he ran his hand along the awful, off-yellow upholstery of the tacky couch. “What I’m asking you to do now is hone in on your desires. There is something you are searching for, I am looking for it too, but I have not found it yet.”

“Like a secret?” she said, sort of swaying back and forth. As she did, the walls seemed to shift around and turn chartreuse, but when she stopped, they melted. “That’s so cool. You know, I do love secrets. Like there’s a little loose brick in the fireplace. I hide all of my love letters behind it.”

He smiled at her. It was hard to tell what he saw when he looked at her. Perhaps it was gratifying for him to know that he wasn’t the only one who kept secrets.

“It’s shifting sands,
They bury it a tomb,
It’s tomb,
The universal womb,
The moon,
And all before it wail and croon,
Such is the secret of the desert,”

He said, breaking into poetry again.

“Finally! Somebody gets it!” she exclaimed. “That’s what I told the Cactus-Man before he left.”

“The what? Do not trust a cactus-man! Devilish rogues! They harbor nothing but deceit!” said Frederick in a most urgent tone.

“Uh-oh, I’m sorry Freddy—can I call you Freddy? Or Fred?” she didn’t wait for him to reply. “I sort of gave it away already. I talked with him a long time about the desert. I just didn’t think he was listening to me, or really, that it was even so important.”

Frederick took her hand in his. “That is where the secret lies, somewhere in the desert, journey there and find it.”

She tried to stare into his eyes, but only the darkness of space and emptiness of the universe could be seen through the double portholes of the mask. “You can’t come with me, Freddy? It sounds kind of lonely if it’s only me,” she said.

He let go of her hand, only then did she realize that an object had been placed inside of it.

“My heart,” he told her, before she even had the chance to comprehend it.

“My heart,
My heart,
I feel it pulsing with desire,
My heart,
My heart,
Feel it searching,
Feel it yearning,
My heart,
What secrets do you hide from me?
I wish to know, my heart,
Tell me what you want.”

“Um, thanks,” she said, holding the still beating heart of Frederick Quinn. It felt cold to the touch and within it were stabbed two golden daggers and several giant pins. “But don’t you need this?” she asked.

He sighed and bowed his head. “I tried, but it won’t talk to me anymore. Perhaps if it won’t speak to me, it will speak to you instead. Take it with you, it will help you on your quest.”

The sun was rising, when it had only set moments ago. Had time gone by at break-neck speed, too fast to comprehend? Or slow as sludge and everyone else just sped up around it? Violent red sun hit pale translucent glass. The eye of Ra stared in and cast dutiful looks. Red light turned winding yellow walls to epic orange.

Freddy looked to the West. “I must leave you now, miss Black,” he said. “Even if that isn’t your real name, it is what I will call you.”

“Do you have to leave so soon?” she asked him.

“You will see me again,” he told her. “I don’t know when, so don’t ask, but I will return.” The fabric of reality twisted and whirled on into itself to create an inter-dimensional cosmic vortex. “Farewell, for now.” He stepped into the vacuum and left this plane.

Reality shifted back into place. The cottage interior shone a brilliant magenta. Then it returned to the previous epic orange. Then it turned to yellow again, then to it’s normal white opaqueness. Things had fixed themselves back into place, at long last.

“What a trip,” she said, relighting her cigarette and taking another draw. “Why do these taste so weird?” She looked down, and in her hand was not a cigarette at all, but the burnt tip of a yellowed-ochre colored pencil.

“Oh my God, you dummy! How did that happen?”

It’s possible that from absorbing the toxins created by burning colored pencils one could experience such symptoms as: nausea, headaches, stomachaches, blurred vision, and even hallucinations.

After this experience, she quit both smoking and art for a while.