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Erin Stalcup

Ochre Is the Color of Deserts and Dried Blood

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If you want to marry me, the phlebotomist said to the chemist, you must complete these tasks.

Get me limonite, hematite, and goethite, for me to dye my dress to a halcyon gilt.

Gather me ebony, mahogany, and teak, for me to fashion a crown.

Dig me up bronze, alabaster, and onyx, for me to craft ornaments to adorn me.

I'll need graphite and ash for my lashes, lapis lazuli and cobalt for my lids, the fruit of prickly pears for my lips.

Brew me chartreuse, absinthe, and claret for our feast.


They took DNA tests when they decided to get hitched. He was Swedish, Irish, and Polish Jewish. She was German, Armenian, and Red Ocher.

What's Red Ocher? the phlebotomist asked the chemist.

The chemist did not know. They looked it up. The Red Ocher are people named and studied by scientists, and thought to no longer exist.

I draw other's blood and had no idea what was in mine, said the phlebotomist. My family has lived in Nevada for generations. Not Washoe? Not Winnemucca? I'm not Duckwater Shoshone? Lovelock Paiute? Mojave? I'm not descended from the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation?

Some of your ancestors are from what's now called Illinois, the chemist told her.

I'm descended from a people thought to be extinct, named because they buried their dead under red minerals. I'm glad you study chemicals, the phlebotomist said to the chemist, the things that make us, but you don't study people. You don't put humans in a taxonomy.

We need new traditions, the phlebotomist said. I want to cover my body with things from the land, things the earth made, elements from this place I am from. We need new American traditions, since I don't know my own.


The chemist went to deserts, jungles, and caves, and brought her back what she'd asked.

He said, Here is your hydrated iron oxide, my love, your three kinds of ochre—yellow: FeO(OH)•nH20; red: Fe203; brown: FeO(OH). Here is your wood. Your metal and stone. Your cosmetics. Your intoxicants.

She'd woven a dress from the silk of worms, laced with the pearls of oysters and shells of periwinkles. She mixed the crushed compounds with water and submerged the dress and it turned aurelian. It dried while she painted her face. She donned her crown, gown, and jewelry, and asked her betrothed—who wore a jet velvet suit with a ribbon tied in a bow round his neck—What shall we do? To tie ourselves to each other, and to this land?

The chemist said, To fully commit to what will be, I think we need to tour what once was. He loaded up their red '67 Mustang for a road trip and said, That's my suggestion for a new American tradition.


They drove to the Nevada Proving Ground, where there once had been mushroom clouds and were now craters. They saw hollows made by bombs named Cyclamen, Lampblack, Sturgeon, Petrel, Kestrel, Baseball, Tuna, Bevel, Cobble, Minnow, Cerise, Sepia, Pike. Deep divots in the pale sand, deviations from an almost-blank expanse, basins, cavities, caverns, where once had been conflagration. The phlebotomist thought they should worry about radiation; the chemist said the longer-lived isotopes like plutonium and uranium would linger for tens of thousands of years, so he wouldn't live on the land, he wouldn't drink the water, but after a quick visit they should be okay. All the atomic glass, fused sand, had been scavenged by previous tourists, but the chemist said that's not something they'd want in their pockets anyway.

This tainted painted desert, he said as they climbed back in their car.


They drove to The Lost City Museum, full of artifacts that were going to be covered as the Hoover Dam filled Boulder Canyon and Virgin Canyon to make Lake Mead, but were salvaged, put in glass boxes in a building. Woven black and white baskets, painted black and white pottery, manos and metates, arrowheads. The phlebotomist wanted to hold it all in her hands. Some call those people the Anasazi, some call them Ancestral Puebloans, some call them the Hisatsinom. Some say they disappeared. People of the Taos, Acoma, Isleta, Cochiti, Kewa, Jemez, Ohkay Owingeh, Nambe, Laguna, San Ildefonso, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Sandia, Picuris, Pojoaque, Tesuque, Zuni, Zia, Ysleta, and Hopi Pueblos say they are their ancestors.

I don't know how to learn this, other than from a museum, the phlebotomist said.


They drove to the Valley of Fire and saw petroglyphs; the phlebotomist wanted to see where people had lived, the buildings they made, but there aren't any left in Nevada. What people call ruins. So they looked at places where people had carved the stone's patina to expose lighter rock underneath. Red-orange under red-brown. Crosses and circles and weapons and animals and people and plants. The phlebotomist looked around her. Some of what the ancients saw is still here, she said.


They drove to the ghost town of Rhyolite, saw its abandoned buildings, the house made out of bottles of Adulphous Busch beer and opium medicine flagons sealed in concrete, crumbled schools, derelict banks, abandoned stores, dilapidated railroad depots. At high noon the shadows stacked under the broken bits of neglected walls that once held roofs, that once housed people and wares. It felt no more or less haunted than all the other places they had been that day.


They drove over the Hoover Dam and saw a white ring showing that the water level of Lake Mead had dropped, lower now because of drought, because of more people using water. They knew the entire canyon below was now white, minerals deposited on top of minerals. If the lake emptied of water, even the chemist didn't know if the white would dissolve, flake off, reveal the former colors of the canyon. The ruins of St. Thomas are sometimes visible when the water level in Lake Mead drops but they couldn't see the surviving parts of that town today.


They stopped for gas at the Moapa Paiute Travel Plaza and met the owner. He told them, My mom started this business. She died of cancer. They say it's from watching the tests, being downwind of the fallout. I inherited this place. There are only 329 of us, he said. We've put solar panels all over our land. We sell electricity to Los Angeles, but someday, I want us to be the ones who light up Las Vegas.

They could have gambled in the casino, or bought fireworks, or liquor, or beer, but they just got an Indian Taco to share.

We didn't invent this, the owner told them. The Navajo of Arizona did, the Diné, using the flour, sugar, salt, and lard that were given to them by the government in New Mexico, after they were forced to walk three hundred miles away from their homeland. They usually ate vegetables and beans. Most people think it's ancestral food, and I guess it is, in a way. Each tribe serves fry bread a different way. Ours has hot red chiles. Good, yes?

They nodded with their mouths full.


After their tour, it was time for their ceremony. He drove into the desert, the wilderness. The layers were mauve, magenta, maroon, vermillion, crimson, scarlet, sienna, umber, ecru, puce, fulvous, topped by a cerulean azure viridian sky. The layers were coral, salmon, tangerine, oriole, marigold, canary, saffron, poppy, the striations were eggplant, lilac, lavender, violet, plum, heliotrope, the strata were almond, eucalyptus, fawn, as if they were surrounded by living things, sustenance, rock that could walk away or bloom or feed them. Under the witness of hawks, snakes, and coyotes, under the witness of ocotillos, saguaros, and chollas, under the witness of survival, with knowledge of all the destruction that came before, with no knowledge of what devastation was ahead of them, they married each other.


To make it official, they drove into the glittering sea of Las Vegas, went to a drive-thru chapel, exchanged palladium rings, signed the papers, kissed, and said cheese into the flash of a Polaroid, without ever leaving their car. They drove to the drive-thru and feasted on grass-fed burgers, organic sweet potato fries sprinkled with Herbes de Provence, and drank the glimmering bottles of hooch the chemist made. They listened to hip-hop, blues, and jazz—the best American inventions, they agreed, far superior to the atom bomb, manifest destiny, and reservations.

Thank you for this ritual, the phlebotomist said to the chemist. I feel bound to you. And this earth, and its people.

I've planned a celebration, the chemist told the phlebotomist. I'm so glad you're mine.

They drove to the neon sign graveyard, where the broken signs go. Neon signs can last for decades, he told her. Eventually they stop. But there's been enough ruin, he said. I want to show you something else. I learned how to fix them.

He tinkered with a cowboy, and then he blazed. He used his tools on a cowgirl, and she shone. He restored a diamond ring, red roses, a horseshoe, a slot machine with three red cherries spilling gold coins, and they all lit up like flames. She applauded. It's so beautiful, she said.

He pointed to red; That's neon. He pointed to yellow; That's helium. Green; Neon and argon combined. Violet; Argon. Turquoise; Argon and mercury. Purple; Argon and xenon. He pointed to white; That's carbon dioxide. What we exhale. What our car emits. What is heating our planet.

Thank you, she said. And here is my gift to you. I learned how to make fireworks. The gas station owner showed me, while you were paying for our gasoline.

She set off a firecracker that sparkled red and she said, Strontium. Yellow, and she said, Sodium. Green exploded next and she said, Barium. Blue, and she said, Copper. She knew he knew but she liked showing him. Every time he gasped. Silver, and she said, A mixture of titanium, zirconium, and magnesium alloys. The last was gold, and she said, Hematite. Like my dress. And he'd never seen her smile so brightly.

They kissed their best-yet kiss. And so they celebrated and solidified their union, surrounded by all the elements, on land that held the bones and bodies of some of their ancestors, others oceans away.

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