The Welsh Desert by Mark Jack
Associate fiction editor Tori Rego on today’s bonus story: In this short story, Mark Jack writes on the troubles of semantics and identity, reminding us of Juliet’s desperate question to Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet.” Jack’s narrator interrogates this assessment of language by drawing on hurricanes, Socratic philosophy, college drunks, and false deserts. His prose meanders artfully around meaning and correspondence, revealing the subtle duplicity and obstinate authority of words.
The Welsh Desert
When I was ten my family spent the summer in England, first in London and then in a small town in Cornwall, where my father, participating in a pulpit exchange as it was called, was to take up the duties of minister to a handful of small rural churches. We had, therefore, only a short window for tourism, and we did what sightseeing we could—saw Stonehenge all unimpressive and next to the highway, visited a castle, ate fish and chips—but as my father was also working during much of even this part of the visit, and had three young children with him, we didn’t end up traveling as much as we’d promised ourselves. We didn’t make it to France—the Channel Tunnel had just opened—nor even to Scotland or Wales. Wales, I had thought, had been the most interesting possible destination and I was heartbroken that we wouldn’t travel there. I don’t recall why I cared so much for the small country, so often an afterthought appended to the British Isles, but I blame a map I saw before leaving the States which indicated the existence of a desert at a heart of the mountainous terrain.
When I was young I was lead to believe that a desert is a vast, hot, sandy place. It is the desert, perhaps, of The Little Prince, or it is the desert of Peter O’Toole, his blue eyes scanning the endless repetition of dune and blurry expanse, his cunning Lawrence baking under a merciless sun.
(As a child I repeatedly came across Lawrence of Arabia on one of the few cable channels which, with little to no programming of their own, often played old movies. At some point I also saw O’Toole in The Ruling Class. For the longest time, I never saw either movie from start to finish. Instead, I saw both—mostly Lawrence of Arabia—in piecemeal fashion. I recall happening upon the actor in the desert, encouraging his Arab partners in their battle against the Turks, and then, sometime later, coming across those bright blue eyes shining ecstatically as Jack Gurney as Christ, and for a long time, I thought it was the same movie and I saw nothing in the clips I came across to prove otherwise.)
At some point I had learned that a desert can be rocky and dotted with cacti and mesa, but either way, a desert still had to be hot, I thought. I did not know the British Isles to be hot, so the Welsh Desert confused me. My visions of Britain, pulled mostly from the cast off BBC fare which showed on PBS, where often damp, gray skied, green hilled, and filled with sheep.
I was not a little disappointed when I learned that the Welsh desert was sometimes referred to as the green desert of Wales and contains numerous lakes and rivers. It is simply somewhat difficult to get to with few towns or roads. Worst or all, I felt, it was a term invented by English travel writers. Of course there are sand dunes in Wales, but not in the desert. In fact, when I looked out over the Bristol Channel at the age of ten, I was looking towards one of the larger sand dunes in Europe, Merthyr Mawr. But sand on a cold beach was not a desert to me, so I would have been disappointed and felt, had I known, as if the fact of these disparate, desert-like features were somehow mocking me there across where the River Severn empties.
(The river, perhaps like the desert on the strength of its strange name, also fascinated me at ten. And similarly, I never got all that close to it, unless one might consider the Bristol Channel itself or the Avon, which empties into the Severn not long before it itself empties in the Channel, the Celtic sea, and finally, the Atlantic, as being, insofar as it is a tributary of the Severn, in fact, part of it—a possibility which seems to highlight the problem of determining rivers or river systems, and which also, worryingly, suggests an ontological uncertainty, given that the larger river is, perhaps, the true river while not exactly asserting its identity onto the tributary rivers so much as denying their existence, not as such, but as rivers properly so called, as if the term tributary, like feudal equivalents, suggested that, for instance, Shakespeare’s Avon was a river only at the pleasure of the Severn, called Hafren in Welsh and Sabrina in Latin. To be honest, I was quite unimpressed with the Avon where it flowed past the birthplace of Shakespeare. Stratford and its surroundings was so achingly quaint that I was dizzy with boredom.)
I lost all interest in these matters soon after my family and I left England, but roughly a decade later, I was reminded of these old concerns with rivers and deserts after leaving a class on Shakespeare I was attending as an undergrad and finding a group of three young women arguing near the entrance to the building in which the class was held. The three were known by myself and a few others as the Rinas, an unfortunate name resulting from the latter parts of their names. I knew that the three of them disliked the appellation but it was also abundantly clear that though they were almost always found together, there was little about Trina, Katrina and Sabrina that recommended them to each other besides the similarity of their names and, subsequently, their collective hatred for their group name.
When my brother, who is older than me, went to college, I knew him by a nickname derived from his given. When he returned during winter break, he was going by another nickname similarly derived. It was jarring for those of us who’d always known him as Andy, to find him suddenly Drew. He responded to both, but it still felt strange. He wasn’t a Drew, I decided. My mother felt similarly. I still can’t decide if it would have been worse or better if he started going by a different name entirely, though I have the suspicion that the closeness, the reasonableness of the change bothered us more.
(He claimed there were two other Andrews on his dorm room floor. I never asked how the names were distributed.)
Sometime later, during my own time in college I read the Cratylus wherein Socrates contemplates language with two interlocutors, discussing the relative merits of what might be called naturalism and conventionalism, finally arriving at a sort of compromise position. I recall little of the class discussion other than that we talked about magic. That I remember it at all is a product of the strange habits of memory: it sprang suddenly back to mind, though unclearly, like the irritation of having something on the tip of my tongue, after I recently heard a discussion about doxxing on the radio. I understand the concern that some of the heinousness of the computer screen might be realized in the physical world if one knows a physical address, but the woman who spoke on the radio seemed to have an additional dread, and I couldn’t help but think that her concern hewed closer to the magical than anyone was ready to admit, as if knowing one’s true name might afford some mystical control, as if the doxed person is a Rumplestiltskin-esque character. Perhap this was at the center of my uncertainty over my brother’s name change. Andy revealed him. Andy was true. Drew was a false name. Suddenly, I didn’t know my brother. Of course I call him Drew now, and writing Andy in reference to my brother now feels strange and false. But perhaps this name magic, similar, it seems to me, to the magic of correspondences, has other aspects, and these lie at the heart of the Rinas’ strange relationship, both of each to one another, and as a group to outsiders. Perhaps -rina was a false name. But if Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare, do I care any less about Stratford, a town I found touristy and boring?
I didn't know any of the Rinas well but I was closest to Katrina. She was small and bold, with rounded features, retroussé nose and pale blue eyes—a caricature of impishness. She was also often staggeringly drunk. In her drunkenness she was harsh and though she slurred her words and swayed, her mind was sharp and she would lash out quickly at fools, heartlessly correct the ignorant and ferociously humble the arrogant. She had, I had felt, the strongest personality of the three, though later, I understood Sabrina to be a subtle but compelling force. Sabrina was taller than the other two and smiled slowly. Languidness was central to all her actions and even her stillness appeared steeped in a confidence that the destination would not simply be arrived at, but that it was only a destination because Sabrina willed it to be. Trina, unfortunately, was simply like the weights added to over-balance a wheel and move it round until the friction of the world inevitably intrudes.
The Rinas and I went to college in the nation’s capital during the Bush years. I was there from Shock and Awe through early mortgage crisis, and I learned a deep pessimism from my interactions with the scrum of protest kids and interns that I encountered. There was a deep inevitability to it all. I learned about Abu Ghraib while walking to an Ethiopian restaurant near Woodley Park. I didn’t lose my appetite, I recall, though I began drinking more.
What I remember most from my first year was a hurricane which struck the city. Classes were canceled and my friends and I smoked weed and drank bad liquor in our dorm rooms, and as the eye passed over we went for a walk, stepping over branches and bits of trash and signage in the eerie silence. It was my first experience with a hurricane. Katrina was with us, but not the other Rinas. When we returned to the dorm rooms Trina and Sabrina were outside as well and we all said hello, and eventually Katrina wandered off with them. An hour or so later Katrina appeared without the other two Rinas. A few of us were still drinking in someone's room. In homage to cliché, someone introduced a funnel, or beer bong, and we all started to get properly drunk. Katrina had a bottle of red wine, and, drunk already, defiantly declared that she could beer bong the entire bottle. We tried to dissuade her, but not that much and indeed she downed most of the bottle, with only a little dribbling down her cheek and neck. She gasped, I remember, and then stared us all down. We all grew quiet.
I don’t know why exactly, but her feat made us all a bit melancholy and a few of us decided to head downstairs and have a cigarette. As we began to leave, Katrina, following us out into the hallway, slurred something that was impossible to make out, then stumbled hard against the wall. Before anyone could make a move to help she began to vomit. It came in three loud heaves, red, and with every indication that she’d eaten little to nothing all day. When I helped to pick her up off the floor where she’d fallen, I realized how skinny she was, and I was concerned that I’d not really noticed before, and I was a little panicked at the thought of all the red wine like blood and her wrist, which I held lightly and which was like a child’s. Down the hall I saw Sabrina and Trina appear from around a corner. Sabrina asked what happened without getting too near. We explained that she’d gotten a little too drunk and Katrina slurred something spiteful at them, some spell, while the other two conferred with each other. Then, without another word, they turned and left.
After my freshman year, I saw the Rinas less and less. The group had dissipated soon after the hurricane. In the fall of our junior year, in 2005, Katrina started going by Kat.
Mark Jack lives in Oakland, California. He is currently pursuing his MLIS while working for the University of California and finishing his first novel. This is his first published story.