Of all the refugees, we were the cleanest.
And it was just my luck that I met Hilda during the roundup as we were ushered away from our homes and packed into rusted buses, crammed together like livestock. I held her heavy tote bags with the cloth handles bundled into knots in my fists. The totes overflowed with scraps of fabric and twine, and pieces fell out onto the streets, like tiny bandages and bows on sidewalk cracks and spilled garbage. We stuck together throughout the roundup and were assigned to the same partition, in a refugee camp built in the expanse of the desert.
And then, in the stormy days that plagued the camp with relentless torrents, when the floods came and the bullets could be heard from a distance, Hilda, with her wrinkled, clever hands, collected the water in an old rubber-lined baseball cap. From her weathered leather satchel, she pulled a small bag of lye, Tupperware containing lard and tallow, and an Altoids tin storing bits of dried herbs — lavender, rosemary, cinnamon, thyme.
The following morning, she slipped a roughly-hewn bar of soap into my hands. I awoke to thyme circling my nose, pungent against the bitter, sour smells of sweat and dirt.
She smiled at me as I balked at the gift, cradling it in my hands already caked with playa. How sacred it was then — a hint of life before, when we had comfort more than chaos.
I smiled back, and then I wept as I pressed the gift to my chest like it was a lifeline to my former life.
With Hilda I communicated through smiles and cries and drawings in the dirt. Hilda was mute, but I’ve never met anyone who could speak like she did. For Hilda knew how to turn morning dew and playa dust and animal fat into something sacred. Hilda spoke the language of the earth. And that was the most valuable language to know when the earth was screaming.
It’s hard to wake Hilda at dawn. We have a batch of vanilla-scented soap prepared the night before — the vanilla sacrificed from a box of cake mix since eggs are sparse — and it needs to be divided and counted, and there will be a queue soon.
I crouch beside her, and touch her lightly on the shoulder. She waves me away. This is the third day in a row she’s turned from me, choosing instead to bury her face in the sleeve of her knit sweater. I finger the material; everything Hilda wears was made by her own hands. Maybe when the winter settles in, she’ll show me how to knit.
But in that moment, my stomach churns, and doubt settles in for the long haul. I’m afraid she’s giving up. I’m afraid because if she gives up, I might follow. She is the reason I have a purpose. We are leaders, now, within the camp. All of the makers are, anyone with a creative skill. Hilda finds this wildly amusing — her mother nearly disowned her for running off to art school, and yet so many years later, it’s what gives her stability where it is in such short supply.
I who was once no one am now known as the soapmaker’s apprentice. The process is familiar to me now and I take solace in the routine. I light the camp stove with flint and steel. I measure the lye and add it slowly to the water, boiling in a canteen. Lye is mercurial, like gunpowder, and demands patience. White vinegar sanitizes the metal pots, and I stir the lye into the rendered tallow, sprinkling in ground herbs and leaves and the magenta petals of a plant Hilda calls coredex. I pour the mixture into a tin, and let it cool, and later I will saw through it to form a square for each person in our camp.
I feel like any day now the planet is going to shake itself dry, like a dog with fleas, flinging us all into the atmosphere. We are fortunate to have no shortage of water, but that too is being rationed as a precaution. Nothing is a given now. Who knows if the next war will pull the water from us, through dried spores in the earth desperate for a drink. We can’t risk it. Everything is precious to us now, and we survive on the minimum.
Like the soap, we are distilled — with fat to burn, tears to boil, ashes to keep.
The next morning, I find Hilda cold, unmoving and grey.
She is sitting up, the thin blanket partially draped around her shoulder, and her eyes stare into nothingness. When I first enter the tent I am relieved, thinking she has found a will. And perhaps she did, but I will never know now, because as soon as the smell of a soured human body hits my nose, I realize that she has died.
I bite my fist to keep the scream of anguish pushed down in my throat. Despair floods my senses. Without Hilda, I am alone.
I don’t know if it’s a minute later or thirty when the tent flap opens. Light streams in but I take no pleasure in the sunrise. I am usually so relieved to awaken to the start of a new day.
The man with the dark beard, a hunter in his former life, peers into the tent. His name is Ari, and Hilda liked him, liked his surprises of sagebrush and dandelions and his large hands that look perpetually stained from oil. Ari finds me in the corner, looming over her bed, my clenched fist still in my mouth and my face covered with tears.
“What do you want?” I demand, standing in front of Hilda. He looks at me, and then over my shoulder — he is at least six inches taller than me, so my shielding does little. I’m trembling.
Ari sighs, puffing his cheeks and blowing air as he does. He scratches his beard. He knows she’s died. He looks at me, brows creased, eyes sympathetic. If he touches me I might sob.
I don’t know what to say but I try to stall him by remaining silent. I need a moment to process everything; never was I very good at making decisions quickly. My mind and heart spin with panic and grief. I worry that without her, our partition will descend quickly into desolation. I don’t think anyone knows like I do that the soap she made us meant that we were clean, and we could sleep, and we weren’t like other refugees who paced in the night.
“Would you relax?” he says impatiently, glancing around me to confirm his thoughts. “You’re flinching like there are bird wings in your ears. What are you so afraid of?”
Last week, Hilda took out a small wicker box, wrapped in bits of scrap fabric. She opened the lid, and I peered inside. A thorny sprig of something potently perfumed lay within, and I gasped as it emitted a faint, blue glow. She held the box next to my ear, and the plant hummed, its song a low vibration just barely audible. She moved the box under my nose, and the heady scent filled my sinuses. I sighed with pleasure as the scent enveloped me, and I could feel my heartbeat calm like the moments before falling into sleep. This is what Hilda and I use in our soap, and I’m convinced that’s what makes it so special. And as of two days ago, we’re out.
“We’ve been — running low,” I say, chewing on each word, evaluating it before I let it out. “On certain supplies.”
“I don’t understand,” says Ari, impatient. “Can you just tell me what’s going on?”
To trust Ari requires faith, of which I have none.
“There’s a plant that we use,” I say. “And we’re out of it. It’s called coredex.” Hilda and I had played a lively game of charades for her to communicate the plant’s name. “It’s very rare. It — makes people happy.”
He laughs, but it’s a bitter laugh of disbelief. “You’re telling me that you and Hilda have been drugging people?”
“Jesus! No. It’s not like that. It’s just a plant. It’s like chamomile. It’s calming, that’s all. The scent — it’s soothing. It was Hilda’s idea.” I say this defensively, then immediately I feel like a coward. Why am I throwing Hilda under the bus? It’s the worst kind of cowardice, to place blame on a dead person. “She just wanted to make people feel better. And it’s worked, hasn’t it?”
“Where do you find it?”
“In the forest at the edge of the desert. She used to grow it, before the roundup. I need to find some.”
Ari smoothes his beard, considering this. “I’ll go with you. Tonight.”
The partition rangers visit her tent, and they wrap her body in a tarp. To my relief I don’t have to answer questions. They chalk up her death to old age, and I can’t help but wondering if heartbreak is the real culprit. What did Hilda lose in the war? Was I not enough for her now?
As they move her body, I distract myself with the vanilla soap, cutting it into blocks. The queue forms, and some of the children ask after Hilda. I don’t tell them the truth, and Ari keeps the secret, for now.
As the morning descends into a sweltering day, the camp sleeps, waiting for the cool reprieve of dusk. I lay on my cot and stare at the seams in the tent. I force myself to nap in preparation for my excursion. At long last, tenuous sleep grips me, and I slide and stumble and fall into it, still somehow conscious of how it engulfs me.
We leave camp under the cover of dusk. Guards surround the perimeter, and we’re allowed to leave, if we choose, but a mass exodus weakens us all, so it’s safer if we’re subtle.
It’s a two mile walk from the desert to the forest, and I hold my breath every step, remembering the tumultuous initial journey to the camp. I had been evacuated from my home in the early morning, explosions looming and thundering in the distance, and my breath was caught in my throat. Hilda held my hand on the bus, and I remembered how to breathe.
As we distance ourselves from the camp, the halo of light begins to fade.
My breath returns once we reach the forest. Damp and cool, the scent of pine and soil are welcoming. How do I articulate what soil smells like? I wonder. Wet. Earthy. Humid, natural. This is my practice, a ritual — challenge myself to describe the indescribable. It keeps my mind focused when it threatens to spin out of control.
Ari walks beside me in silence. I’m unwittingly grateful for his presence.
“So what are we looking for?”
I recall Hilda’s drawing of a plant with spiky green stalks that support a vibrant magenta flower. I take a stick and pull a large leaf off a low-hanging branch, and onto it I scratch the outline of coredex.
“It looks like thistle,” Ari says. He frowns at the drawing. “How do we know if it’s thistle or not?”
I pause, because I know what I need to tell him sounds ridiculous.
“Because it hums. And glows.”
He raises an eyebrow.
“I know.” I toss the sketched leaf to the forest floor. “I didn’t believe it either. But I’ve seen the leaves — they glow with a faint blue light.”
“Sure.” The next part is stranger. “And they hum. The plant vibrates.”
He shrugs, and we proceed. I stumble over tree roots as we trek deeper, and Ari catches me each time. This is his element, the forest, and I wonder how he suffers in the desert. After an hour I grow comforted by his touch, and he grows bold. He reaches for my hand, and pulls a condom from his pocket. “I’ll trade you. Thistle for a kiss?”
My face flushes with heat I didn’t know I still possessed, and I grin despite myself. “Where did you get that?”
The night darkens around us.
We pull our clothes back on hurriedly, fumbling with buttons and straps. I avoid Ari’s face, but I’m not sure why. All I know is that I feel like crying, and the day has been heavy on my soul, and my throat is thick with the suppressed emotion. I feel like a bottle of carbonated water, shaken with the cap just slightly opened to let out the fizz before it explodes. It’s like I’ve been undammed. All my bubbles are rising with nowhere to go.
I’m hyper aware of every movement in the shadows. When I was a child, I used to fear the forest. I had nightmares of deers with too many antlers — antlers that looked like tree branches, trees without leaves. I thought of the bone protruding through their skulls, creaking and bloody. Something beautiful gone terribly, disfiguringly wrong.
Deformity in nature unsettles me. But now the overgrowth in the forest feels welcome. I’m surrounded by life, and it grows wild and unrestrained. The forest floor is covered with blooming mushrooms, bulbous and porous. It feels good, somehow, knowing that life carries on. It feels good knowing that, were I to die, I’d aid that process. It might be harder, sometimes, for life to happen, but it will happen regardless.
The peace I feel arrives briefly, and then it’s gone again, replaced with anxiety and panic. I try to focus on my goal — replenish my supply of coredex, and try to continue what Hilda started.
At long last, I see a faint halo of blue in the distance.
“I found it!” My voice comes out hoarse, like I’m thirsty. I clear it to remove the buildup, wondering if I’ve so quickly caught a cold. I can’t worry now about getting sick, and even the notion doesn’t scare me, because I’ve found it — I’ve found the coredex, that elusive plant with its perfumed, singing body, and with it, my hope for survival, and perhaps, happiness. I hurry toward its glow, a new light inside me also illuminated, and I tear through the brush, unphased by the snarly plants that bite at my bare calves.
Ari follows me, trampling the thorny bushes with his boots. I hold out my arms toward the coredex bush like I’m Vanna White. He looks at me, concerned.
“There’s no light.” He pinches the pink petals and rubs them between his fingers, then lifts them to his nose. “I think it’s just normal thistle. Although it smells faintly like sage.”
“What? No, Hilda showed me — don’t you see it glowing?”
He says nothing as I clip off several large stalks and place them in a canvas tote. I’m emboldened and empowered by my discovery, despite his wary expression. Having a task heartens me. I will hang the coredex in my tent to dry, and pluck the round fuchsia heads from the thorny stems, and for once, I let myself dream of a rose-colored future.
We emerge from the forest into the blue light of the desert.
I used to dream of the desert in shades of red, as if the heat settled above the atmosphere and bathed the landscape with the aura of its temperature. But now that I live in the basin, I see it now as its namesake, a dry earthen bed in which we now reside. It’s so quiet in these early hours. In a strange way it’s like I’ve been birthed into a pool, submerged into water, dropped into a tank, viewing the world behind algae-covered glass. My voice feels muddled in my throat; I’m aware of its absence, somehow, without needing to test the vibrations of my vocal cords. But the air is dry, and it’s a welcome relief from the moisture of the forest. Perhaps it will cease the chill in my chest.
The guards don’t question us when we return. They give their apologies about Hilda, and I let them smell the fresh coredex. They, too, look at me peculiarly. Ari and I don’t speak as we head to our partition. I can sense his doubt and uncertainty of my sanity, but I feel no need to debate or argue. Instead, I press my canteen into Ari’s hands. I’m barely able to croak out instructions:
“Fill this with water, then meet me at the tent.”
When I find that Hilda’s belongings are still in her tent, I’m relieved. I have what I need, and although I miss her with an ache that I’m sure will never subside, I feel free of fear.
My hands are nimble, all angles and knuckles, as I craft the soap like an alchemist. I know that I am creating life in my hands, for what are humans but fat and water and pieces of earth? I work quickly, plucking the petals of the coredex and slicing it into tiny pieces with my pocket knife. I keep a stalk just for myself, rubbing the bits of it between my thumb and forefinger, and the scent is soothing to my senses.
In the cool morning air, the soap sets quickly. I press a small sliver into Ari’s hands. He runs an index finger along the jagged edge, bringing the soap to his nose, and inhales deeply.
“You did good,” he says. “Hilda would be proud.”
I nod and smile, but already I feel the lack of my voice. I know what I have made: A sacrifice.
Or what I have found: a gift that Hilda gave to me. This is what it means now, to be an unwilling leader, to placate the cries of fear and heartache that plague the camp. I realize now how Hilda and I function as healers, beyond the body. Perhaps this gift means that the glow of thistle is unique only to me, and the forest hums at decibels only I can hear. Through silence, Hilda taught me how to listen.
When the children gather around the wash basin, the soap turns to lather in their hands, and they laugh at the bubbles, and they rub the herbs into their skin where it dries on their limbs and faces, placing the leaves strategically like tattoos. Slivers of purity, and that’s the magic of the soap: the normalcy of it, and the chance to feel human again.
I want to laugh and cry — but I open my mouth, and no sound comes out. •