I met Ruby on the second day of Burning Man. I knew the risks, but I have learned to conceal my scars well. Perhaps I was distracted by the stream of strange and exotic vehicles, or perhaps it was the smell of hot desert sage and the song-babble of street performers on the playa. Or watching the people dance-bumping at the rave. Burning Man is a place, a moment, where I can let down my guard. I don’t have to feel like a monster there.
Ruby and I went for a walk among the art objects. The too-tall statue of a woman, the enormous drive-through human mouth, the dinosaur sculpture with fire teeth. We ate lunch at a camp with a puppet show. Late in the day we took shade on the edge of Black Rock City and watched the too-pale horizon and its dust devils, its shimmery mirage waves, its edge of eternity. After dark—near midnight—we were back at my camp under the night sky.
Then she asked me about the scars.
I thought I had hidden them well, the bumps and ridges across my shoulders and back. But now.
Once the question is asked it cannot be taken back. I wanted to tell her to run. To run far, far away. To save herself. But the words of the stories were already forming in my brain. Soon it would be too late.
Far off through the clear desert twilight, we could hear the rise and fall of human voices, DJs playing music for their shows. Overhead the sky was stunned with stars, stars so numerous that one could almost lie down in them like a meadow of flowering weeds. Stars from which my kind had come so many years before.
The words came forth from me then. Hideous deformed things that scrape the human brain clear of understanding and eviscerate the mortal soul. The words came out, slicing the night air to ribbons and shattering the silence with blackened spears of depravity.
It is the way of our kind. The rivers of my scars are a ceremonial act, cut into the torso in one’s youth. At the moment these fiery veins of blood are opened, the stories of our ancestors are embedded into the body. Once asked about these scars, the question must be answered by a re-telling of the stories.
Still the stories came. Still she listened.
It was just becoming dawn when I finished, not daring to look at her. Already I could picture her changed appearance, the wild vacancy about her, the absence of what humans call reason. The end would come soon after, I knew. Only a few hours from now they would find her, collapsed somewhere on the red-gray sand of Burning Man, depleted and deranged. There would be no turning back.
Yet she seemed sane, even still. There was no vagrancy in her eyes, no crippled thoughts in her bearing. She spoke then: Your scars, she said. The stain of love is on them.
I was confused. Was this the start of the madness?
There is a sweet disorder in your scars, she went on. They swirl confusedly. They have a wild incivility.
But what could she, a mere mortal, know about our way, about the violent practices from which had come the scars on my body and the stories I am compelled to confess?
Then, in the still-weak early light on the playa, Ruby touched the bubbles and paths on my skin. I felt an alien strangeness in her touch, a touch that reached deeper even than the scars that twisted across my torso.
They say Burning Man changes a person. Even a non-mortal.
This is our fifth Burning Man together. She doesn’t ask about me the scars any more. And I don’t ask her about the filmy brown wings that cling delicately to her shoulder blades.
<– Night Passage, by Court Ellyn