There is something equally freeing and unsettling about the wide-open desert—the horizon stretching out forever is both unattainable and inspiring. In Battleborn, a collection of stories by Claire Vaye Watkins, we get to explore all aspects of Nevada, from the sad allure of a brothel to nights out in Vegas that can only lead to trouble, told in an honest and yet lyrical voice. We bear witness to those moments in time beyond which there is no return. And what comes after this tipping point—that is our salvation.
Of course the themes and ideas in this book are not limited to the American West. The concept of a parent making a mistake that can change things forever—that’s a universal fear. Turn away for a second, and your child can wander out into the street, can open a screen door and simply disappear. In “The Last Thing We Need” we get to see this very moment spill out onto the page, and whether or not the father in this story meant to educate his daughter by engaging her in a moment of wanderlust, that unsettling wash of anxiety is powerful.
“When I awoke this morning there was no snow on the ground and Layla was gone. She’d left no tracks. I pulled on my boots and walked around the camp. A layer of white covered the hills and the valley of skeletons of the old buildings, lighting the valley fluorescent. It was blinding. I called my daughter’s name. I listened, pressing the sole of my shoe against the blackened rocks lining the fire pit. I watched the show go watery within my boot. There was no answer.”
Such an uneasy feeling, when you betray the trust of the innocent, when for one moment you fail not only as the parent, but also as teacher, prophet and warrior
And what about an innocent night out—two girls sick of working a crappy job, covered in fast food grease, just looking for a little distraction, a little fun in the city? Off to Las Vegas, committed to a good time, willing it to happen, even when their instincts start to kick in and the night feels off, destined for abuse. These choices will scar us forever. Take this moment from “Rondine al Nido” set in a hotel room where we all knew things were going to go wrong, and yet, we watch anyway:
“Lena. She passed out on the other bed. I thought maybe she was faking. I don’t know why. During the movie the big one got on top of her. Brad. He took off her clothes. Her eyes were shut but she was mumbling something. I don’t know what. The other one spread her out, kind of. The big one spit into his hand. I remember that. I was on the other bed, with mine.”
Past the point of no return, there can only be the echo of what happened, becoming more faint as the wind pulls the sobbing and whimpering, out across the desert. These last observations by our protagonist in the story address the horror of September 11, an announcement at school that will change us all. And at the same time, these thoughts reflect back on that one night in Las Vegas, and our need to take chances, to feel alive, and to suffer the consequences of our actions:
“The loudspeaker will emit a disembodied human breath. Things will never be the same, it will say, as if she needs to be told this. As if she doesn’t know the instability of a tall tower, a city’s hunger for ruin. As if this weren’t what she came for.”
In “Wish You Were Here” we get to see two young parents embrace the idea of raising a child, the fantasy now paired with reality, the true character of our depth and limitations revealed for all to see. We want to be perfect, to read all of the books, to breast feed, and buy the perfect toys that are educational as well as entertaining, to mold and encourage our children to be more than we are, to evolve above and beyond what we are. But, when the sleep doesn’t come, and the body is exhausted, the mind wandering lost through panic and uncertainty, we betray ourselves, we fail. And that’s okay, right, because it was never going to be perfect. So why not turn against each other?:
“The pediatrician told her to drink more water. She did, constantly, but it was never enough. The baby had to get fifty-one-percent of his milk from the breast, Carter said. Fifty-one at least. Marin tried Mother’s Milk herbal tea. She tried blessed thistle. One fenugreek capsule a day. Two. Three. A prescription for Reglan. Still, she was expressing only three ounces on the right and two on the left. His word, expressing. Finally, they went to formula entirely. Another disappointment her husband has endured silently.
Or silently until today. In the rental car on the drive up from Reno he asked whether she was experiencing any pain from stopping. Any pressure.
No, she said.
No, said Carter, thoughtfully. I guess you wouldn’t.”
The power in those words, the embarrassment and crush to your ego when a basic function of child rearing will not happen for you. The mother is kicked while she is down—the cruelty is unforgivable, and yet, these moments happen all the time—an offhand comment, our disappointments shared.
What we see in this collection of stories by Claire Vaye Watkins are not only cautionary tales of what we could be (what we are in our sheep’s clothing, if we’re honest with ourselves) but tales of war—between lovers, between family, between friends. We are all Battleborn, are we not, thrust into this world and groomed for the day that we will have to defend ourselves, always preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best? With a strong sense of history and place, an eye for the exact moment where a threshold gives, the momentum carrying downhill, out of our control, and a courageous voice that dares to speak the truth, to show us our imperfections, Claire Vaye Watkins has created a powerful collection of stories that will haunt your memories, remind you of what could be, and show you what it is to be truly alive.