When I began this journey across the desert the sky had been crystal clear and aquiline blue. Now, days later, and still staggering towards those same distant mountains, mountains made no closer despite three days flight, that crystal clear had become marred with flecks of swirling gray and ash- vultures waiting for me to fall.
All around me sprawls a menagerie of burnt oranges and lime greens, with bands of red, white and rust colored rock. Deadpan flats broken only by a series of gigantic stumps, cracked and twisted rock taking aim at the sky, while running high overhead a rag-tag collection of gray and white low hanging clouds, fast moving and for the last three months completely barren.
It was true; this particular world had died out a long, long time ago.
Throughout my journey, all that remained to me were my memories, picture postcards of a time gone by, faces, places and things once seen, now only imagined or dreamed.
Of childhood days spent on the banks of the Mississippi. Times, distant as thunder, unreachable as the horizon, and as out of reach as the sky…
Of rainbows without end, whispers of a breeze, dew laden mornings and silver shorn evenings.
Of early morning skies giving way to cool crisp evenings, hints of an early fall biting crisp in the twilight’s evening glow.
And of Polaris riding the rim of the world while Mercury, seldom triumphant, reigns freely, even if only for a season-
My only other companion, if you can call her that, a golden-red coyote, rail thin and half starved, as hungry for my companionship as I was hers. Throughout the journey she had remained, constant and sure, watching my every move, dogging my every footstep.
We kept our heads down and our backsides tucked the entire time, for you see we followed ‘them’, and ‘their’ world began where all others ceased, such as within the folding’s of a cartographers map.
The four cardinal points and their bastard siblings held very little sway over direction or destination.
In the days of my youth I had been taught the use of a sextant by my father, one of the few devices left capable of navigating their world- or ours. Between this and my father’s only other birthright besides lex talionis, his wrist watch, I would know both time and seasons. I also knew how to measure, as well as be measured by them, for you see, time and distance can be no mans friend.
Somewhere between hallucination and dehydration I discovered the grotto, a small cave drawn straight into the hills of night poised to my right.
All the while ‘she’ remained, my shadow, my shade, stalking, sharing, dreaming of the same darkness as I-
Craggy red and windblown, the old woman’s features mirror the sun beaten wastelands around us. Her lips and teeth have been stained a deep ochre red from chewing peyote… and the visions she utters, ah the visions, always seeking, always seeking to guide-
But what good can an old woman’s visions do if I were to perish in this blasted desert? For three days I have given chase, and for three days we have been pursued… as my father used to say, ‘from out of the frying pan and into the fire’.
My father had been a very wise man.
Gummy cackle to split the darkness of the grotto, “They’re coming to kill ya, know that do ya?” This from the Peruvian, all wrapped up in her dusty red serapes and black crossed blankets. Her steel grey hair has been pulled back so tightly she almost appears Asian.
My initial response to her half formed words… nothing, for you see I stopped to rest not speak.
I could still feel the rock beneath me blistering from the mid-day sun. My lips both parched and peeling, my forehead, face and arms blistered, burnt a deep swelling red by an unforgiving sun. Lying beside me, my entire world contained within a single canvas bag. Along its length, a glitter here, a thick stitch there, lines drawn and words recorded- road maps to where I have been passages to where I may be going.
Again comes the old woman, “Seen it in a dream I have… you too I’ll reckon.” The entire time she speaks her chin goes round and round. She pauses only long enough to purse her lips and spit.
She may speak as truthsayer; however, I cannot condone her waste of water want.
‘I am delirious and dying.’ I murmur. Three days ago my water ran out, oddly the same amount of time it took for the Galilean to rise from the dead. Like the Galilean I have remained true to myself, true to my purpose- and ‘they’ still hate me.
Closing his eyes against the midday glare, “What do you want from me old woman? Can’t you see I have nothing else to offer? I am spent.”
In the dampness of the grotto I notice that the old woman has become the coyote, goldenrod red, lean to the bone. So this is the ‘bitch’ that has been following me for days, at least as long as the incident at the Filling station.
“I ask no more than you can offer,” she replies.
“If you have nothing more to offer then riddles and words, then I beg of you… be gone, let me die in peace.”
“So quick to coincide, so easy to give up… you may find that I am not so easily banished,” she laughs.
“Then why are you here, other than to ridicule and accuse? ‘And the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son, yea unto seven times seven generations…’ Can you not see? Have I not been born into this place?”
“I care not for what has passed, but for what looms ahead. I come to offer an alliance, that’s what I come to do.”
“An alliance,” I manage a dry and throaty laugh, “A dalliance perhaps. You offer me nothing more then I already have. I am dying old woman, can’t you see that? What can you offer me besides justice and a quick death? Whispers of rain perhaps, stories of water… once and for all, leave me be.”
In answer to my query, from deep within her serape, she draws forth an earthen vessel and opens it-
Memories… of being ravaged by a fever in a world gone black, lips parched, throat ravaged…
“Why are you here,” I weep, “to torment me further? Take it away. Can you not see that God has forsaken me, woman, I beg the same from you- forsake and take pity.”
In reply she reaches out, takes hold of my head, and draws my lips towards the earthen vessel. “It is often our lot to ask why, when sometimes it is as simple as to accept or deny.”
As I drink what she offers, most of it running down my chin and pattering the grotto floor, I am reminded of Elijah, befreit of land, company and home. Cast into a wilderness, beggar/prophet for a God, delivered by the hand of providence from famine and thirst-
When I awaken I find that I am no longer alone, besides the old woman, I have been joined by another. “Are you Elijah? Have you come to torment me as well?”
However, it is she who replies, “You’re plights seem similar. He too was shunned, he too was hated, and like you he too was hunted- him for following his God, you however… are being hunted for hating theirs.”
“You know I cannot do this, and yet you ask it still?” At the moment it is all I can manage. Where do I even begin, to explain what I have endured to free this place from ‘their’ god?
“You must if you wish to survive. You have no other choice. You must choose to hunt, or be hunted. To kill or be killed, it is simple as that.”
“Nothing true can ever be that simple.”
“This time… perhaps it is.”
I manage to smile; it splits my head like a wedge shoved between my eyes. “You have become lhiannan sidhe, my guardian angel?”
She answers me with cackling laughter, “I have never been known by such; still, it is enough to say that I keep a keen eye turned to certain events.”
“Then you must be an enemy.”
A subtle shake of her head, “No more and no less than you my friend… I simply am that is all! Now rest, we will remain with you this night. Afterwards you may seek after me, but I may not be found.” And with this, her final words, my world, the grotto, our other visitor begins to fade, subtle darkness in an ever increasing shade of night.
In my dream the boy is no more than seven years old; with strands of errant blond hair a-flying. The boy’s eyes are the color of milk and as ancient as the night. There is a man standing behind the boy, he resembles the shadow of a stick, one that has been bent and twisted.
“You chase after your own doom,” the shadow states. The entire time the boy says nothing, stares sightlessly off into the distance.
“I seek to find that which has been stolen,” I reply. And in my dream I am aware of this. “When Polaris rides the shoulder of the world I will find you. Until that time… woe, woe unto the world, for there will be such wailing and gnashing of teeth-” I stop, “You have drawn me here… why? If I am aware of why I left, then what precedes me to this place?”
However there is no answer; for the boy and his shadow have passed-
Come morning, the dreams, as well as the old woman and her visitor have gone. As beyond the shadowed confines of the grotto the desert has taken on the pale luminescence of an early dawn. A horned moon, barely a smidgen above the horizon, yearns to trail across the sky.
Beside me in the dust, lie the shattered remains of an earthen vessel, while in the distance the yapping of a coyote.
An hour later and I am in the open desert among the ruins, the reddened skeletal remains of an ancient Navaho village built of clay and daub. Many of the structures have long since been marked by graffiti, with swaths and streaks of spray-painted blue and black, crushed beer cans, discarded cigarette butts- an ideal place for an ambush if ever there was one.
Tucked in securely behind an outer wall, situated above the desert plain, I commence to draw forth the sextant and take aim at the sky. Armed with these new calculations I quickly double check the time measured against the time marked by my father’s watch- exactly fifteen seconds.
Somewhere during my headlong flight I have managed to gain a good fifteen seconds. It would be more than a lifetime to spend.
Time passes, and with it all hope that I am not being followed.
Of the original ten, no more than three remain, two men in various dregs of clothing and a woman wearing a bright red dress. All are dust covered, and all are sporting at least one injury or another, violent testimony to our last run in.
As expected, as soon as they cross the hill going from plains to village they draw up short, the woman barking out harshly for the men to stop and return. Hunkering down, they appear to converse for a moment longer before splitting up. One of the men, the one I’ll call Red, his hair as well as his sunburned face, remains behind with the woman, while Raven, the other male, strikes off into the hills and gullies surrounding the ruins as if trying to outflank me.
They are obviously getting smarter.
Leaving the pack where it lay, and with lex talionis in hand, I quickly take to the winding and narrow paths strewn behind the fallen structures. I would need to cut Raven off before he could cut me off.
A s I began to round a series of low rolling hills, their flanks clotted with rock and ruin, I catch sight of my assailant a split second before he catches sight of me. In an instant he has drawn his weapon and fired- triple claps of thunder roll across the village, break from the canyons walls and scatter across the plains.
In my hand lex talionis smokes lazily, its entire length hot and wicked. Lex has spoken authoritatively and with finality, Raven lays sprawled before me across the desert trail, streams of ruddy red bubbling from beneath and behind.
He attempts to move, he attempts no more.
I’ll give him this; Raven did manage to squeeze off the first shot, the shell coming blisteringly close to the side of my head. However, I also managed to squeeze off a shot or two, both in quick succession. And unlike Ravens, mine did not miss, in fact, quite the contrary; one to the head and the other to the chest.
Before I could celebrate however, the dislodgement of gravel from somewhere behind me had me spinning quickly. I quickly ducked behind the nearest rock; an elephant shaped mass easily the size and shape of its namesake, as an errant shot careened off the canyon walls and caused a rain of debris to scatter.
“It is a good day to die,” I exclaim. With little time left to react I reach down and thumb the side of my father’s wristwatch-
For all intents time has ceased.
Like a map, time remains a construct, wherein between one second and the next, one fold and the other, an entire generation of time and distance can lie.
Thanks to my Father I knew how to walk them both.
As I began my trek back I hoped to run into Red and his old lady long before they had a chance of running into me. Seeing as I had only fifteen seconds to do so, I highly doubted I’d make it back successfully.
At ten after I ran into myself. At eleven I passed my shadow. At thirteen all hell broke loose.
To give him credit, Red immediately knew what had happened. Before I could bring lex up to speak, Red had hammered it away from my hand and was even now grappling for my wrists. Uttering a muffled shout we went down in a flurry of loose gravel and kicked dust, my knees and elbows striking rock, my fists clenched and striking. We circle, his hands grappling, our sweat pouring-
Suddenly I am tasting blood.
I continue to scramble- sudden numbing blows -my world is rocked; a sudden piercing sting causes me to pull away.
Somehow, someway, Red has managed to produce a knife; because of this I am sporting a single shallow cut across my right bicep approximately three inches long. Bloody to look at, but harmless nevertheless. As a result lex has been kicked quite a distance from where I now stood panting.
I watch as Red licks his split upper lip, rubs at his swollen left eye. For the most part; he seems to have suffered more than I from our initial little run in.
This is good.
With but a word spoken between us, I decide to go Darwin on his ass- kill or be killed, survival of the fittest.
Once again we square off, each looking for the other’s open. Granted, I could have used the remaining seconds but why waste them, what with his old lady still a force to be reckoned with?
For the moment lex is safe. The time it would take for one us to reach it would be time enough for the other to kill.
So we continue our slow dance; all the while I keep a sharp eye on Red. As I said, luckily I had landed a blow to the side of his face, dotting one eye in the process. Sooner or later Red would have to blink that eye and when that time came-
Reaching inside I grab hold of Red’s wrist, and with a crack twist it one side, bringing it and the knife it held straight up under his chin- and before he can stop me -on through the darkened ring of dirt and into his brain. He is dead before he hits the ground.
I immediately let go of the knife. At the same time Red is beginning to arch his back, his hands out thrust as if to catch himself from falling to death- I lunge for lex– to feel the weight of him in my hand once again is my only hope of salvation. In that instant, just as my hand closes over the pistol’s grip, a tattered and torn heel slams down upon my wrist, numbing my fingers and crushing my hand. Above me comes the flash and swirl of scarlet, followed by a hammering blow to the side of my head.
Beyond the darkness looms a rotating pain I cannot even contain or quell.
She is above me, this woman in red. She is screaming something incomprehensible at me. I manage to retain my grip on lex, even as all light begins to fail. She strikes again, this time savagely stomping down towards my shoulder and my face. Her hands have become claws, scratching, tearing at my face, hair and clothing. As I fall back towards the night, my world one of vertigo and fear, I manage to squeeze off three of the four remaining rounds- thunder and lightning crash. At the same time I hit ground and know no more.
Sometime later I awaken. It is night falling. Lex has tumbled from my grip again, but that’s okay. It is over.
Obviously I did not miss, for I am alive still.
Silence can be golden, even as I lay in the late afternoon haze, sweat in runnels pouring down my cheeks. All I can recall is a funeral dirge, ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, while high overhead, set deep within an aquiline sky flakes of gray begin to circle and fall- ‘Ayin tahat ayin’ God has spoken, justice has been served.
Once again, I am alone. I weep and I do not know why.
Once again I have prevailed; next time however, maybe not so lucky. Next time there might be more than just three. Next time it might just be me left out in the blistering sun, coughing up my life and wondering where all the light has gone- today however is not that next time, it is today. And I am alive.
Copyright 2009 by Steve Muse
All Rights Reserved.
First Electronic Printing June 2009