Mom says they are going on a vacation, just the two of them, but Henry knows it isn’t because they are packing in the middle of the night and shhshh quiet through the living room, down the stairs into the Kia. This is when the moon is starting to fade and the grass has ripened again, licked by dew. Henry loves that smell, wants to sit on the lawn to make grass angels but mom starts to hiss get in now, voice laced with danger, so he clambers into the back. Mom starts the engine and the car coughs loud into the dark.
Henry smacks his cheek on the door with the quick swerve out the driveway, the reverse into the main road and then the ramp onto the 5 freeway. Henry watches mom through the mirror up front. He starts to drowse from the ping ping of smart pain and worn adrenaline. Between blinks, he sees her looking at him clutching his face. Mom’s eyes glistens in leftover light. She says nothing and keeps those starry eyes on the road.
Henry knows what deserts are because he’d learned it in class from Ms. Scribner last year. Forests, where lots of big trees grow. Mountains, where the air is thin and sometimes people are buried under giant blankets of mean snow. Desert, where sand rules and water is scarce. This is when Henry also learned that water is life, and when he wakes to morning drenched land all he can see is a vast yellow brown, and pitiful bushes mixed with gravel. Look Henry, mom says after feeding him McDonalds breakfast , well into the desert. Those are Joshua trees. Henry, mouth full of hash brown, observes their squashed bodies and knubby arms and prickly fingers and says, they’re very ugly. You don’t mean that, mom replies, mind somewhere else.
When mom makes an exit onto long local roads, Henry realizes that their vacation is going to be in the desert instead of a different ecosystem, and he feels grumpy. Instead of pulling up at a hotel or motel, they park in the driveway of a one story house in a cul-de-sac, a system of them nestled between the desert expanse and a road that led to shops and plazas. Where are we, Henry asks, though what he really wants to say is, I don’t wanna go inside. He shakes his feet a little bit in protest. Mom opens his door and reaches for his seat belt.
My friend lives here, mom says. We’re going to stay with them a little while. She has a boy around your age, you know. You can be friends.
The car eats up the seatbelt with a rapid slurp. Mom takes Henry’s shoulders into her slim hands, crouches so that she can look him straight in the eye. The shadow around her right eye is not a shadow. He knows when to listen.
Henry 야, she says, be good and always stand straight. Then she straightens up tall and proud and waits for him to jump off. Henry closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
The other boy goes by Jung. He is tall and bulky. His body reminds Henry of those trees: stout and with nubbed bits. Jung looks down at him, so Henry looks down too. He doesn’t want to have to look up. He’s not sure if they will be friends.
The house smells like jinsaeng and dust, and with the neatness there are flung clothes and other knickknacks around to give it just enough clutter. A nicely worn home. The house is fully curtained and therefore dark and cool, and the couches are an old mustard corduroy unable to hide pool shaped stains. And the backyard is expansive, full of gravel and big rocks and outlined by brittle wood fencing. There is a bench and a child sized wagon missing a wheel in one corner, and then at the other corner there is a handful of plastic animals – a pretty flamingo, faded almost to white on its right wing; an exactingly realistic pelican streaked with dust, a greyed turtle with large sad eyes, an owl knocked to the side. Henry is enamored, presses his nose up on the glass. Admires their tipped over forms. What’s all those animals? Henry asks Jung. Their moms are in the kitchen, talking quiet. At the very corner of his eyes, he can see Jung’s mom giving mom a hug. Mom’s shoulders shaking.
Jung looks at him like he’s stupid. I dunno, Jung says. Yard junk.
Henry hopes the animals don’t hear Jung. He waits for him to walk off before crouching to mouth right up against the glass, I know you’re not. The animals still prostrate. Henry waits for their reply, folding his knees to his chest, feeling the slightly crusty carpet embed patterns to the back of his thighs. At some point mom shakes his shoulder and Henry shakes her off, and though mom would usually give him a little slap on his back to get him up, she leaves him be this time.
The sun creeps along the gravel, the little dirt pathway. It illuminates all of their eyes, makes them luminous, like the sun is making them itchy and they’re just about to blink. But then night comes, and mom gives him a heavier tap on his shoulder, enough to remind him of sleep. Come on Henry, mom says, and gathers him up in her arms.
[…Joshua Trees are not trees, but plants. One distinct feature that proves this categorization is that Joshua trees do not have growth rings. Instead, their age is determined by their height, which is extremely slow after the first five years of survival. Those first five years, in contrast to expectations, are when these plants burst up in height from the ground.
Joshua trees can grow so densely in parts of the Mojave Desert that some have referred to these portions as forests. Green in a sea of hot dust. Their roots grow up to thirty feet into the ground…]
When Henry stirs awake mom gently pulls him to his feet to feed him some 밥 with 콩나물국. They sit at the table and the house keeps quiet, swelling with dusted sunlight. Henry slurps the broth loud and looks at mom. He thought that he’d gain a desire to be naughty, but instead he sees how deep the mottle is around her eye, how dry her lips are. How she is looking at the wall unfazed, chin in hand. He stops slurping.
Get dressed, mom says. There’s a big national park close by. I’ve always wanted to go. Mom changes into overalls and a tanktop and then helps him into a shirt and shorts. Slaps copper sun on his face, lathers her limbs in it too. The stuff smells like sweet powder, like beach visits and sandy food and his tall father holding all the folding chairs under his arm, smiling with all his teeth –
Mom makes sure to put on her sunglasses before she opens the door.
Somewhere along the way between the home and the park, mom fills up on gas and buys a kodak disposable camera, snacks, Gatorade. They park at the very edge of a very large parking lot, like the kinds at Disneyland, except there is no Mickey or cotton candy or candied apples or that tall shadow walking ahead, there is just desert and desert and more sand, the kind of land that makes Henry remember that he’d learned his body is a whole sack of water. Like a big whole sack, he explains to his mom, and she laughs and laughs and holds his hand tighter.
Mom gets tickets at the big entrance wooden booths and they walk the whole day. Marking on the map which short trails they’ve done. There’re some pictures of animals that supposedly live there, like a great pretty owl and some tortoises, but they aren’t there no matter how hard Henry looks, so it must be some great lie. Which makes him disappointed, but if he thinks too much about it, his mouth starts to dry, becomes sticky like jelly, congealed – blood –
They stop in front of one of those ugly trees, except the one they stop at is huge, nothing like the ones that they’d passed by on the drive here, unimpressive and endless and very short. This one is like even taller than Jung’s house. Those knubby branches are knotted up with each other, forming a tremendous affair from a distance. Mom is also impressed. She’s cranking the kodak and taking a picture of it by itself first, then she stops an old white couple and asks them to take a picture. Mom gives them the camera, hugs him from behind, so warm and tight. He grips her arms.
Henry faces the old man, who says say cheese, and mom nudges his cheek with her nose. He smiles as big as he can. All teeth.
Henry wakes up to mom and Jung’s mom speaking quiet in the kitchen. He is in Jung’s home on the couch. His cheek resting on a damp towel, cool to the touch.
He walks in and observes the tan of his mother’s shoulders, the long face of her friend. Jung’s mom is very skinny and tall, and Henry wonders if Jung will stretch out like that when he grows up. Jung’s mom gives him some 약과 and some milk, and it helps with the sticky mouth, with the sour taste. He eats and watches the women, who watch him. He smiles, so that maybe they will smile too and stop with the quiet.
Henry sits on the oversized office chair, built for a grown man, to watch footage of a rescued tortoise named Tuga on the Joshua Tree National Park website.
“… footage of Tuga was shot outside of the national park, as it is illegal to bring pet tortoises inside park boundaries to prevent the spread of disease among tortoise populations.”
Tuga is very cute. He eats plants for the footage and only gently kicks at the biologist’s grasp when she picks him up.
“Desert tortoises, unlike turtles, do not need a body of water to live. Tortoises get all their water from what they eat. They eat wildflowers.”
Tuga shows off his limbs.
“The shape of desert tortoises’ legs resembles those of elephants. They also have armored-like skin on their legs, to protect them from desert climate and predators.”
Ravens eat baby tortoises. The biologist in the video kindly suggests you pick up your own trash to keep raven populations appropriately low.
“Desert tortoises use their bladders much like a canteen, holding pee for as long as a year. If a tortoise pees from stress and cannot find access to water to replenish the lost supply quick enough, the tortoise will simply die.”
Tuga does not pee during this video. He eats the grass and keeps shifting, carefully with each leg up and then down. Armor and canteen at the ready.
Shriveled up air and desert heat have Henry’s head spinning most days. He peeks out in the morning, sky blazing, and the entire cul-de-sac is always busy with cars and girls running around and behind them, boys playing basketball. It feels like only Henry burns so quick, can’t sweat too much without falling into a heap outside, but it’s ok because he’s happy to watch the animals from the glass, where the damp light swarms his vision, the corduroy bleeds into the carpet as he naps, then someone would thump around the kitchen and surely it is –
But there are plenty of other days when the sun is too much even for Jung – mid 100s, almost 110, high risk of heat stroke – and those days, Jung is at the couch, watching cartoons Henry doesn’t recognize. Jung lays on the couch as if there’s no room to share, so there’s lots of times Henry crouches at the slider doors where there’s a fan to the side, always turned off at night but at full power during the day, poor hardworking thing, and he listens to the whir of blades and stares out at the gravel.
None of the plastic animals have moved. But if they did, the flamingo would be beautiful and petty, always stomping its needle legs at their friends if things didn’t go their way. The owl is supposed to be wise, but really, Henry thinks they’d be the most useless, because they only fly at night. They’d be sleepy. The turtle would be the leader, and the one the flamingo would peck at when peeved. That’s why the turtle has gouges on its plastic back. From the punctures of its friend, of its father –
the pelican would long for the water. Would come to hate the sun.
At some point, Henry sees the flamingo flutter its body. He stands up, and finds his mouth crusty from drool. Henry, mom calls from the kitchen, come and eat lunch now.
Blazed days meld into clumps. When it is molten outside, Henry lounges against the AC, reading first through the Wishbone chapter books he grabbed from home in the dark of that first night and then, finishing those, reading the comics off of the bookshelf in the living room. There were not a lot of books in there. He tires of Garfield quickly.
Mom is often speaking quiet on the phone, with her friend. Sometimes she emerges from the room they share and, seeing him, will remember to kiss him, ruffle his hair all big the way he likes. Other times, he can tell she does not want to see him, not really. So he will skirt along the walls, be a shadow.
And Jung never invites him to play with the other kids, instead slipping out fast in a slingshot and jersey shorts, always returning in red dusted evening red faced and drenched in sweat. Henry watches them play from the front window sometimes. Collides with the sofa in imitation of their sturdy bodies. Practices shooting, aiming for the clock on the wall.
More often Henry goes into the yard and sits with the animals until he feels faint and needs to chug some of the Minute Maid. He’s given them names: the flamingo is Jack. The owl is Nancy. The tortoise is Turtle. The pelican is Penny.
Jack says, run for me Henry. I want to see how you take off.
He can’t fly Jack, Turtle says. He’s a human boy. Look at his noodle arms.
Nancy is sleeping in a shady corner. She’s on her side like she was frozen and knocked over. The desert really is the wrong place for her, poor thing.
Jack pecks at Turtle, says, I don’t need you to tell me what I –
Penny says, leave __ alone, leave __ alone for –
I don’t feel great, Henry tells them, I need some lemonade. He gets up and feels woozy from the heat, the blood rushing back to his head, the sweat that covers his damp eyes. Henry wishes they could just get along.
During one afternoon haze, Jung comes inside from playing outside to chug some lemonade, a ball tucked under his arm. Even though he is already so tall and stout and sun drenched, he is still a squishy boy, a bit soft. So it felt ok to go up to him and say, I want some too.
Jung, round in the cheeks. Shrugging. Yeah, he said. Wiped the wide mouth with the bottom hem of his slingback. Just make sure to birdy. Didn’t even say anything mean when Henry almost gets some up his nose. The sweet trickling down his neck. My favorite, Henry says when he’s done. Mine too, Jung says, and when he smiles it’s sweet.
On his way back out, already dribbling the ball at the entryway, Jung stumbles on a corner of the shoe rack, unearthing a pair of dusty oxfords. He doesn’t notice and goes straight outside.
The shoes have patterns swirling all over the leather, tender and soft and wrinkled at the toe. They have some cobwebs in them, some drywall specking the footbed. And Jung doesn’t have his dad around either so these must be –
Shoes hiding things in them all the time: spiders and sweat and the habits of their owners, like when his father would take off his shoes so careful, before something will shatter –
Henry puts his feet into the oxfords. Stands tall, puffing out his chest. He’ll grow that big soon, that’s what mom always says. Henry turns to his Power Ranger themed shoes, the Velcro straps uneven like cowlicks. DO IT RIGHT he roars, and he clomps around on the tile, trampling his shoes and slinging his power around. He is big and strong. The animals watching.
Then: mom takes a phone call behind a closed door, the room with the big bed. Henry knows that is where Jung’s mom sleeps and that he is not allowed to go in, but sometimes, if the door is already open, he stares at what’s inside. A big dark dresser. A small 상. Carpet, worn with the pattern of foot grease. Henry likes to see how the clothing strewn on the mattress edge change, always mid-slipping off to crumple on the floor. Mom comes back out, pants and shirts and tights still clinging to the bed. She goes straight to him.
아들아, mom says. She kneels and smooths out his hair. You’re so good. So patient. She chews on her cheek for a moment. Then she says, let’s go back home tomorrow night.
Henry freezes, feeling cold and hot. He studies her eye, almost all the way healed. She watches him do this and her eyes slowly go shiny. She puts her hand to his cheek, and he leans into it and closes his eyes. Memorizes its small shape.
[coffee stain] -eather tips for trave-[ink run]
[…summers are very hot and winters are cold in Joshua Tree, California. It is dry and mostly clear year-round. Temperatures typically vary from 35°F to 99°F between day and night, and at their extremes are rarely below 28°F or above 105°F.
…the drier season lasts generally from March to July, with the smallest chance of precipitation being 1% precipitation at its height…]
Based on the beach/pool score, the best time of year to visit Joshua Tree for hot-weather activities is from late June to early September.
When mom is asleep, hair in a mess around her drooling face, Henry gets up and packs his bag. A towel for Turtle, just in case. A bottle of water. A volume of Garfield he hasn’t read yet.
Henry opens the bedroom door. Turtle has anticipated Henry’s feelings, like he always does, and he is moving, slowly, towards the backyard gate. Jack is peevish even in sleep; the only movement Henry can see is his chest puffing in and out. Penny is ruffling her feathers. Nancy is awake, her yellow eyes watching.
Henry makes sure to wear his jacket before opening the sliding doors into the biting night. He taps Jack on his back to get him up. The clang of hollow, because Jack is heartless. But Jack still gets up, fluffing up his torso. They file out the yard, Henry leading the way.
They walk out into desert, Henry cradling Turtle in his arms with the towel. At first it is so cold that Henry shivers in his jacket and only walks because it is warmer than staying still. When it gets blazing, Nancy droops on Henry’s shoulders, a hot mess dripping down his body.
Jack does not want to follow when he finds out Henry has no plan. Something will come up eventually, Henry says. Maybe another house, with dim curtains and familiar musk in the back of the nose. Jack snaps his beak. You’re so stupid, Jack says. What would your mother think? Henry tears up in missing mom, adding to the salt on his face, but then he remembers he must conserve water, that she is returning home and he can’t –
Of course, you coward, Jack says. You weak boy. You soft thing. Jack pecks at him, but the pelican intervenes, saying enough! and they peck at each other. Henry imagines blood, and he stops to tuck his head into his knees until the desert is once again a silent expanse. The pelican brushes up against him, spiny feathers scratchy against his shirt. And that is how Jack is the first to leave.
You understand, don’t you, Nancy says before she leaves in the night. I really need trees and cooler weather. When Henry points to the stubby Joshuas and says, it’s really cold now, Nancy huffs and says, see you. Watching her fly away makes Henry very sad. Don’t cry, pelican says. You need the water.
Which Henry knows is somewhat an issue, because he drank through his water bottle much quicker than anticipated, and he is not hungry, even though he hasn’t eaten since the night before. Head dizzy, Henry lets Turtle out of his arms and huddles against a Joshua for the night. He says to Penny, I don’t feel good. Penny tells him to come closer, and Henry falls asleep to Penny’s humming, just like mom does those nights when home is still.
When Penny leaves, it is betrayal. It is high sun the next day, and Penny says, Henry, I have indulged this for too long. It’s time to go back.
No, Henry says, but also Henry means yes. Penny is not impressed with this answer. Penny says, I’ve had enough, Henry, and the tone of her voice brings panic to Henry’s chest. No wait, I’m sorry, Henry says, but by then Penny is gathering strength for a takeoff. I have to go back to the ocean, she says, and then spatters Henry with sand as she takes off, and the sky is so clear Henry can see Penny fly for hours, the whole day, for so long that he does not even notice that he is on his back, sun bringing fire to his whole body, just missing the shade of a nearby Joshua.
Henry tries to get up, but he finds that his body is molten into the sand, crystalized hot glass, and when he finds that he cannot get up Henry is scared, and cries for mom. Don’t you get it, Henry says to the sky, to mom, to the birds that have abandoned him there, mom is home but home can’t live in that house –
Turtle comes to nudge him on his cheek. You’re still here? Henry says to Turtle, and closes his eyes. He feels turtle’s beak nudging his leg, his arm, the outline of his body. When Henry opens his eyes again, he is surrounded by a sea of tortoises, a slow wave, and he can no longer see Turtle anymore, somewhere tucked behind one of his kin. Wait, Henry says, where’s my towel, won’t I make you sick? That is when the tree so close, with its stout body, bends at the bark, takes its bulbous arms to gather Henry in his arms, pins spearing at Henry’s skin. The tortoises form a grid of spiny shells, and the Joshua, strong, Jung-like, strengthened by buildings worth of roots, lowers Henry onto the mass, until the tortoises have distributed the density of his weight between them. Then slowly, gradually, the tortoises take Henry home.
Michelle go-un Lee is a recent graduate of the Litowitz MFA+MA at Northwestern University. She was born and raised in southern California, and currently resides in Chicago.