Someone had once told him, the desert curved like a woman's back.
He had never seen the desert, but he could imagine it. Smooth and warm. After years of study, arrays, formulas, chemicals, he knew something about heat.
At the time, however, when he thought of a woman's back, there was nothing soft or smooth about the image most often in his head.
That afternoon had been very awkward. His late teacher's cluttered study. The musty drawn drapes.
The still figure sitting in front of him.
His teacher's daughter had bony shoulders. She had seemed small, almost too small for the large, intricate array drawn in her skin.
"My father trusted you," was all she said. He couldn't tell, however, what her mind was on that.
This wasn't alchemy, he had thought. He hadn't known what to think. Her father, his respected teacher, had made his only child a canvas. At that moment, her body was no longer human.
And then, the moment passed. The canvas breathed. Alchemy disappeared, and all he could see were bony shoulders. Her narrow neck. Her stiff posture.
But he had forced himself to see only the alchemy. Even so, when he had to look closer, he held his breath, and hoped she wouldn't feel the warmth of his face. He hadn't let any part of him touch what he suddenly thought he might like to touch.
He used to think about that afternoon sometimes. About the desert he had never seen and that woman's back. She had been pretty young, but then, so had he. He used to wonder if the desert had bony shoulders. That would be all right with him.
That was long ago. He does not think about those days now.
Because he has seen the desert. Seen her scorched and scarred beneath his steady hands. Stepped in her tattered remains, tasted her ashes with every breath.
But sometimes, he lets himself remember that she is still there. With her surface blackened and burnt, the desert withstood all the wreckage and ruin he could muster. Even after he carved his own alchemy into her skin.
He has seen the desert. And it curves like a woman's back.