2020
short fiction contest
winner

Any Species of Joy

The colour of joy is green. It smells of burning sand and tarmac melting in the noonday sun. It moves like a pickup truck out of the haze at the end of a long, straight road through the desert.

            I had been lost in that desert since the smallest, darkest hours of the morning, my only companions a scattering of carrion birds that wheeled above the night’s fatalities. Everything in sight – the dust on my shoes, the blinding light – had taken on a clairvoyant tenor. For at least an hour before the truck appeared, I saw its ghost on the horizon. I heard the drone of its engine above the constant scream of cicadas.

            I was no stranger to these kind of encounters and, in my experience, they did not tend to end well. To be a young woman, alone and in the middle of nowhere, was to hold your life in your hands. I felt the familiar anxiety when the truck slowed down and pulled over onto the verge ahead. But from the moment the driver’s door swung open and he jumped down into the dust, I could tell he was not that kind of guy. Besides, my options were limited. There are few men more dangerous than the desert.

            He was younger and skinnier than most, but he wore the obligatory ripped up jeans, branded t-shirt and polarising glasses. “You’re a long way from anywhere,” he said in an accent I could not place.

            I glanced into the cab and noted the empty passenger seat before replying, “You too. On your own out here?”

            “Just me.” He gave me a half smile, and I knew we had entered the usual stand-off. I would get nothing from him without first giving something of myself. As always, I surrendered the barest details: my first name, the last town I had passed through, and the one I was headed to. Then I told him how I had been tossed onto the road at three in the morning, because I refused to give the last driver the kind of payment he demanded. I said that if he was expecting something similar then he could just get back into his truck and drive off. I would take my chances with the vultures.

            “I’m sorry that happened to you,” was all he replied. “There are some bad people out there.”

            “There are,” I agreed. “At least this one didn’t take it by force before throwing me out.”

            He frowned. “Does that happen a lot?” I thought he looked genuinely shocked, but I did not elaborate. It is not the job of women to tell men how other men act.

            The information, at least, was sufficient. He walked round the cab, opened the passenger door and said, “Get in.” That was it. No conditions or negotiations about how far we would go. No assurances that he was one of the good ones. Not even the snide comments about what a foolish girl I was to be out here on my own and how lucky I was that he had come along. Just, “Get in.”

            So I got in. Like most trucks I had traveled in, this one’s glory days were long past, but otherwise it was a different beast to those others. There was no overflowing ashtray, no food wrappers littering the seat, not a single empty can rattling around the footwell. It smelled of warm leather and sandalwood. But beyond its tidiness, it felt as though some essential piece was missing; something that would transform it from a prototype into a flesh and blood truck. It was only later I realized what that was: him. The truck bore no trace of him.

            He got into the driver’s seat, started the engine and pulled back onto the road. Neither of us said a word to each other. That was how things remained for the next two hours. Once I accepted the oddness of it, I could have traveled that way forever, in silence. He drove carefully, avoiding the potholes, his hawk-like profile fixed straight ahead. He could not have been more different to the others, the ones who saw themselves as gods of the road and who drove with the recklessness of actual immortals.

            It was only when a gas station appeared up ahead that he tilted his head fractionally in my direction and said, “Are you hungry?”

            “A little. I could do with some water.” I was half frantic with thirst, but had long ago learned the value of masking my body’s frailties.

            While we were pulled over, I stretched my legs, and he went to find someone to fill up the tank. If I’d been in any doubt before, I knew then that the truck was a rental. I strolled up and down in a fog of petrol fumes, watching his dealings with the attendant--polite, deferential--and his dithering over what food to pick for the journey.

            He came back with a grocery bag filled with a little bit of everything. All of it was for me. He would not take so much as a single drop of water, nor any money, no matter how much I tried to press it upon him. “You are my guest,” he said. “It wouldn’t be seemly.”

            I gave up after that. I thought perhaps he belonged to some kind of religious order, and my persistence would start to offend him.

            Throughout the rest of the afternoon, I dozed on and off, my head lolling against the window frame in the rush of warm air. There wasn’t much to see outside. On the horizon, we were accompanied by the constant rise and fall of a long mountain range, while the near distance was filled with rocks, grey shrubs, and occasional dirt tracks leading off into nowhere.

            It was only as afternoon faded to evening, that I started to see splashes of green pockmarking the arid ground. I leaned my head out of the window and watched them whiz past: tiny, grasshopper-coloured cacti, their leaves engorged with sap.

            “Is everything alright?” These were the first words he had spoken in a hundred miles or more.

            “Fine. I was just looking at the cacti.”

            “Euphoria,” he said. “There are over two thousand species. A good many succulents. They’re resilient, drought and heat resistant, so they can thrive in the most inhospitable places.”

            “I’m sorry, did you say euphoria?” I asked, after a moment.

            He smiled. “Euphorbia.”

            I nodded. “That’s disappointing.” My mind had already ventured down a path where two thousand species of joy thrived in the most inhospitable places. That was a road I would like to have travelled.

            As the sun set, more and more of them appeared, transforming the desert into a wild rock garden. Some were tiny crouching things, spiny sea urchin shells littered among the stones. Others were tall trees at the roadside, spectators to our passing. I wondered how I had never noticed them before. They must have been there all along, hiding in plain sight. I watched until the light faded to grey, and then black, until I could see nothing but a storm of insects in the truck’s headlights.

            A little while later, he swung the truck off the road, and we trundled a few hundred metres along a dirt track I hadn’t even noticed. He killed the engine and turned to me. “I hope you don’t mind sleeping out here. I prefer to avoid civilization where possible.”

            “Fine.” I did not mind at all. It suited me to not have to pay for a night’s accommodation, or to have him pay and so deepen my indebtedness.

            He switched on a lamp, drawing every insect from miles around. I followed him round to the pickup bed, battling a swarm of kamikazie beetles, and waited as he untied the ropes from some crates filled with glass jars. He pushed them towards the edges, clearing a sleeping space just big enough for one, for me.

            “What’s in the jars?” I asked, as he beckoned me up.

            At first he did not answer. I was disappointed, not in him but in myself. We had travelled this far on a basis of mutual incuriosity, and I wondered if I had overstepped the line. But after a moment he replied, “Samples. Local soil, flora and fauna. My employers need to test their suitability.”

            “Suitability for what?”

            “We’re hoping to build a settlement in the desert, but we need to know if the land can sustain us. I’m here to collect samples, and to assess whether we can coexist with the indigenous peoples.”

            “I see,” I said, silently reassessing my appraisal of him and his employers. Not a religious order: a cult.

            We sat up for a while. He turned off the light to keep the insectile night shift at bay. I ate a wilting sandwich from the grocery bag, and again he declined when I offered to share. The whole time we were together--at least a day and a night--I never once saw him eat or drink. He did not stop to wash, or pull over to disappear behind a bush. Perhaps this should have bothered me more than it did, but I had learned never to take kindness for granted, in whatever form it arrives.

            I fell asleep wrapped in a scratchy blanket, beneath a sky full of stars, surrounded by bits of the desert in jars.

            When I woke suddenly, just before dawn, I saw his shadow at the side of the road, his face turned towards the horizon. “I have been recalled home,” he said, by way of good morning. “I can take you to the next town but no further.”

            “That’s fine,” I replied. “I’m grateful to have come this far.”

            He dropped me just on the outskirts of town, avoiding civilization to the end. I jumped down from the truck and walked round to the driver’s side. Through the open window, I said, “Whatever it is you’re looking for, I hope you find it.”

            He gave a brief nod of his head. “Whatever it is you’re running from, I hope you manage to escape it.”

            I smiled. “Thank you for not asking what that is.”

            As the truck pulled away, without even thinking, I slapped my palm against the metal door. That was how my father used to say goodbye. It was the only way he knew how. Within seconds, the truck was swallowed into a cloud of dust.

            My life flashed before my eyes that night. At three in the morning, in a seedy roadside motel, I woke up in agony, as if some monster was clawing its way out through my rib cage. Everything I had never said, every moment I had lost, all the pain I had tried to outrun but had only carried locked inside me this whole time--it all erupted out through the gaping wound in my chest. For seven seconds I thought I would die. And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. There was nothing but the four walls around me and, outside, a blizzard of moths swirling around the fluorescent balcony light.

 

#

 

            I sometimes wish I had brought home just one of those euphoric little plants; a memento of the strangest two days of my life.  But if it had even survived the thousands of miles and the years I had yet to travel, it could never have belonged anywhere but the desert. It could not have been transplanted. If you find any species of joy in a place that had seemed barren beyond redemption, you leave it there. 

E. A. Fowler currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has been writing fiction for many years but has only recently started submitting, and her writing has appeared in Lucent Dreaming Magazine, Storgy Online and the Cabinet of Heed. She is absolutely thrilled to have won Scribble's first competition for beginning and emerging writers.'