An excerpt from Brock Zawila’s novel, A Dome Within Falling Domes. The following is one of the novel’s many vignettes.
A Sweat Lodge, Somewhere in the Desert
The sweat lodge was centered in the dirty expanse of land otherwise known as the Chihuahuan desert. It was a circular building, brick, a dome in dominion of sky and flatness. At the structure’s front, dirt was disturbed by footprints and then tire tracks which funneled away from its arched doorway like blades of grass from a clump of sod. A red SUV with soft-top taken off sat parked, ticking pleasantly as its engine cooled. Atop the lodge trailed smoke and steam from a pin-hole chimney, its humid warmth mixing with the dry heat of the desert.
Inside, coals were smouldering in the room’s centre. A rectangular wrought iron bucket was on a grate above this, filled with stones and water and gas. The fire’s glow provided little light and thus the steam-maker was illuminated from above and below like something holy. The adjusted darkness revealed Rudy, boney and sleepless as ever, sitting in his underwear across from a person of androgynous features. Their curled fringe caught the coal’s glow and they appeared to be sitting on their knees with their head downcast.
Rudy knew this person. This was his boss, Ambrosia. He leaned forward and wiped his forehead clean. The lack of light was giving him the impression of cool shade, but this was none such place. It was sticky, not humid enough to be a steam room, not dry enough to be a sauna. He was thankful he’d not worn a pair of whites today as he shifted his weight to find a level of comfort.
The two of them had crept inside the space like a house that wasn’t theirs. Ambrosia, upon seeing its emptiness, had reignited the coals with the blunt end of their pocketknife and a piece of flint. The structure had retained its heat from a previous session and soon enough there was a hollow flicker emanating from the centre.
Rudy had watched as Ambrosia spat on the stones to ensure they were hot enough. Satisfied with the sizzle, they procured a couple gallons of bottled water from the trunk of their vehicle and released a slow and steady stream that sputtered and exploded into steam. From then the space had become fixed to its true purpose and its exposure had been an intense but fleeting phenomenon, as not ten minutes later it had reverted to dankness.
“There’s a stool beside you,” said Ambrosia, eyes closed and calm.
“Thanks.” He grasped at the darkness till his fingers felt a rusted leg. He dragged it over and dusted off his briefs before sitting back down. The stool was three-legged and wobbly, but it managed to offer Rudy a wink of serenity that the dirt lacked. “Do you think we’re ready for the stress test tomorrow?”
“Basically, yes.” Ambrosia knelt before the iron bucket and observed this simple machine. “Though my confidence makes me super suspicious.”
“Oh,” they groaned. “There’s no humanity in writing code. No misunderstandings. Programs are ridiculous impolite children who’ll only do what you tell them.”
Their face was enshrouded in a pithy radiance. The shadows on their face pulled angles, sharpened their cheekbones, softened their chin. They hoisted the gallon onto their shoulder and tipped its plastic spout to release its contents. The room filled again, grey and black and gold. Ambrosia was just shadows till they reached up and grabbed something that snuffed out the light.
Droplets formed on the domed ceiling, running down the brick walls in rivulets or thudding into the soft earth from above. Rudy closed his eyes now, hoping to get something out of this experience. He rocked back and forth on the stool’s legs. In utter darkness he’d begun to feel incorporeal, an evaporating ghost or a set of phantom limbs connected at an arcane idea. He dug into the sand with his toes, feeling the small grains of it infiltrate the space between them. His nostrils burned at the sensation of it all. For an impossible amount of time, Rudy was adrift.
“Rudolph.” Ambrosia’s voice came from somewhere in the blind heat. “What is the oldest thing you own?”
“As in, what’s the most aged thing I have in my possession, or, what object have I owned for the longest amount of time?”
“The second one.”
Rudy straightened his posture. “Nothing,” he said. “My mom threw everything away after I moved out.”
“And the things you took away with you? Books? Hard drives? Wrist watches? Clothes?”
“Don’t be broody,” they said. “Gone?”
“I wish it was that simple. Yes, gone.”
“By what metric?”
“There was a fire.”
“Of what variety?”
“Jesus, what a question,” said Rudy. “Some years ago, I lived in a place and it burned down.”
“Burned or burnt?”
“What’s the difference?”
When they didn’t respond Rudy wondered if they were making invisible gestures. A silence passed. The room smelled faintly of coal and this caused Rudy to think old thoughts. A lake of black smoke lapping at his ceiling like a conspiracy. The infernal heat of blankets. He remembered this and shook it away.
“Some days I think burned,” said Rudy. “Others, burnt.”
“And the authorities?”
“The evidence was inconclusive. It was an old house. Bad wiring.”
“And you lost all your stuff.”
“Photos, plants, and pants!” Rudy forced out a laugh that faded into the darkness. “Letters from old girlfriends, the pamphlet from my dad’s funeral, a bottle of thirty-year-old bottle of Spanish whiskey, my computer. Everything. Everything except the shorts I slept in.”
“Do you still have them?”
“No,” he said. “The hem got caught in the track of a rowing machine and they tore apart.”
“Wow.” They grunted as though stretching a muscle. “So, you’re adrift.”
“Adrift?” Rudy thought about this. “What does that even mean?”
“Like a shopping cart pushed down a hill.”
“No,” said Rudy. “I still have a birth certificate filed somewhere. I have tax information, a driver’s license, and even a membership card for my grocery store. Legally speaking I am moored.”
“Like a stuntman hanging from wires.”
“Are you saying that, what? I don’t exist because I don’t have things?”
Rudy could sense Ambrosia’s shrug the same way he might sense a person sneaking up on him. He could picture their round collarbones rolling back and forth and the slight grin they were hiding. The darkness had made everything seem small. In this way, Rudy had to imagine his boss’s face the same way he’d reached for the previously invisible stool he now sat on. Hot and dark. Hot and dark. In here, the two of them were just voices.
“Arson, do you think?”
“Don’t say that,” he said quietly. “Don’t name it.”
“I’m just asking questions.”
“They aren’t pleasant.”
The room receded to his shoulders. Rudy was pushing sand around with his toes. “Have you ever felt important enough that you thought someone would kill you?”
Ambrosia laughed dryly. “You know something Rudolph?” They opened the flue, revealing their semi-naked form. “You’ve got a very unfashionable worm in your head. It’s eating up all your healthy thoughts and keeping you up at night.” They arched backward to stretch their back. Their shoulders had pinkened in the heat.
“And what about you?” asked Rudy. “What’s the oldest thing you’ve owned?”
Ambrosia’s hand was empty and then wielding like a magician appearing a bouquet. They produced an olive wood handle with brass ends that concealed a blade and then spun this around in their hand to offer it to Rudy. In the shallow light of the chimney, Rudy could make out a visual history. There was a dedication carved into its side like a name into a tree. ‘For Cassandra’ it read. The object was warm to the touch and when Rudy unfurled the finger length edge, he saw that its tip had been snapped off.
“What else am I gonna spend my money on?”
“I never took you for a Cassandra.” Rudy ran his thumb along the rough carving. How did you shorten it? Cassie? Sandy?”
“Sandra.” They took the knife, folding it up.
“The Roman wormwood. Humble weed? Or recipe for Greek immortality?”
Ambrosia laughed. “It’s unthreatening. Smart sounding.”
“Well I’ll say one thing.” Rudy knelt, putting the back of his hand near the stones. “This explains your thing for knives.”
Ambrosia went down. “You think I collect knives out of hobby?”
“May I be honest?”
“I have no idea what to think of you.” Rudy smiled wearily. “You confuse me.”
Ambrosia put their hand beside Rudy’s. The room was now devoid of steam. All the moisture had collected along the bulge and sinew of muscle and in the sticky press between thigh and hamstring. The air was empty of everything save the chalky smoke drifting upward. Two faces became subliminally clear like the subject of a charcoal drawing being revealed in whitespace. Two sets of eyes, downcast and widened, noses flared and mouths aligned. Ambrosia whispered the answer to a question and poured water overtop the stones, consuming everything till all to be seen was the dome-like silhouette of two figures, together.