Carpet of Sand

Kat Kleman Davis
January 01, 2002
two pairs of feet on sand

My whole life is about writing stories. Everything I see or do or think is a part of my work. "Carpet of Sand" came to me one morning when I woke up in our small trailer. We had been living there for six months or so, and, as with any home in Tucson, everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. I could see it in the air, particles floating on currents as I breathed, when I moved. I was overcome momentarily with a feeling of helplessness against the elements, and wanted to transfer this feeling to the page.

My objective in "Carpet of Sand" was to present the idea of becoming one with the desert. I wanted to explore the feelings of being in a foreign place over a period of time, and of finally giving in to the demands of time and the land.

Over the course of the project, this theme of alienation has become stronger because I moved far from home. I consider myself a southwestern writer, and this story in particular emphasizes my own bonds with, and struggles against, my homeland. Moving to State College has taught me that many people have never seen the desert. I hope this story captures some of the magnificence of the desert, and adds to an understanding of the west in general.

I began work on this piece two summers ago. Living in the desert, I spent time looking and remembering, trying to capture the landscape in my mind and transcribe it. This act of research continues as I attempt to recall more details through memory and photographs.

"Carpet of Sand" is my attempt to blend my own life with an imagined experience. Many of the details are real, from the description of the barbed wire fence, to getting stuck on top of the waterfall (except it was my father who threatened to leave me there, and I was only 12). My approach to fiction is very much a mixture of life and imagination. For me, the line between fiction and non-fiction is thin, if not non-existent. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James describes this blend, this crossing over of imagination and reality, as follows:

The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience… . If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience.

"Carpet of Sand" has been rewritten three times. The original version began with Jolene waking up (the most stereotypical way to begin a story). I had to search for Jolene's history and motivations, in other words I needed to answer the question, "Why today? Why does Jolene lose it today?" The time scale was also off for her walk; it seemed as if she only walked for an hour but she was gone all day. And finally, some of my language was sentimental. Sentiment is good. Sentimental is not.

Stories are never really finished. I can always find a better word, a new way of looking at it. Characters change and grow as I write, sometimes outgrowing the beginnings of their stories. This story represents a stylistic change in my writing. It is the first story I wrote that emphasized setting. I tend to skip over descriptions when I read, hungry for action. This is evident in some of my earlier work, where I had to go back and add a landscape. In "Carpet of Sand," however, the landscape functions as a character, demanding more attention. I feel it is one of my stronger pieces, and that it accomplishes my goal of representing desert life. I am one step closer to finding my voice as an author, that elusive piece of story that is mine alone.

Kat Kleman Davis is an M.F.A. student in English, College of the Liberal Arts. Her advisers are Bill Cobb (814-863-9583; wjc7@psu.edu) and Charlotte Holmes (865-9126; cxh18@psu.edu), both associate professors of English, 116 Burrowes Bldg., University Park PA 16802. This essay is excerpted from her poster presentation at the 2001 Graduate Exhibition.

SIDEBAR

An Excerpt from "A Carpet of Sand"

A rusted barbed-wire fence marks the property line. From their land, Jolene can see the remains of a waterfall, a gash of white against the brown foothills, darkened by a memory of water in the center. When they first moved here, nearly thirty years ago, Jolene wanted to explore. The desert was so different from central Pennsylvania, where she’d grown up. The dryness, the dust, seemed so real, so crisp. She led Hank up to the lowest edge of the waterfall, maneuvering over boulders and stretching higher and higher until she could touch that center area, slick and rounded as blown glass. Hank held her up so she could take that last step, reach the ledge. He didn’t need to go any higher, he said. Jolene stood there, on top of the world, a slight breeze knocking sweat from her brow into her eyelashes, and scratched at her sketch pad while Hank stood below. She was surrounded by a different forest from the ones she’d left behind. Where they were lush and wet, the desert was dried and shriveled. She’d felt free up there, a newlywed looking out over the promise of life. Then she realized she couldn’t get down.

Hank threatened to leave her there, ship in food and water once a week. He was anxious to go home, unaware of the magic that surrounded them. If you can ship in food, Jolene said, you can helicopter me out of here. Hank met her halfway, took her in his arms, and lowered her down. She didn’t go back after that, even when Hank and their son Casey picnicked up there. That was their time, and over the years she learned to prefer her own yard, a space she could organize, to the wilder desert beyond it.

Jolene ducks between the wires where the barbs were stripped back and bunched together at the edges of the fence near the stake. Her back skims the smooth metal as she stands again, sending a vibration through the fence like a tripwire.

She follows the wash, stepping into sand powdered from rains long forgotten. One brief shower has fallen so far this spring. Prickly pears sent out their new blades, tumbling on top of each other, poking through the centers of their own flesh, to taste the few drops of moisture left in the air. There were flowers then, too, in dusty desert pinks and yellows, taking advantage of the breakdown in the drought, the oversight that let the rain come. But now the tips of the Creosotes are brittle, the flowers shut up tight and crumbling. But Jolene doesn’t see these things today. She sees only her leathered legs as they pump and the layer of dust that has collected on the top of her white tennis shoes.

&mdash:Kat Kleman Davis

Last Updated January 01, 2002