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Creek Running North
June 01, 2005
The granite shone like madness in the sun, bright light reflecting off the crystals of feldspar, quartz, mica. He was clothed in a cloud of buzzing sweat bees. It made sense. He was covered with sweat. Whatever cold night air there was to roll down off the Harquahala mountains had long since been boiled away by the morning, then noon, then afternoon suns. Besides, he was too far above the mesquite flat for that to make any difference. He found no shade among the ocotillo and saguaro here. No breeze, no water quenched his growing thirst. He had no flask in his meager pack, only a photo, a letter, ID. Nothing to keep him alive in this desert. Little matter. He could probably make it to the road, and its concomittant truck stops and food and drink in an hour, if he wanted to.
This was his second day in the valley. The first, he had stormed up from the pullout -- his moping, half-hearted bluff called, his dog looking confused through the truck window as she pulled away in a cloud of angry dust -- thinking that he'd made a big, melodramatic mistake. Even though the intervening twenty-eight hours had been a hellish pastiche of sweat, dark cold and fever dreams of nonexistent full rock tanks of blessed, stinky water, he had lost the regret. The heat had baked all doubt from his soul. He was more or less at peace.
There were times when his body took over and forced him to seek out shade. This was one of those times. Ironic that the imperatives of the flesh would so totally overrule the despair, the longing for oblivion. There it was, a quarter-mile away, the patch of dark ground to which some reptilian fragment of his desiccated mind drove him. From his inadvertent shady perch under a stray palm he watched the valley, right hand reaching for the flask of water that wasn't strung on the usual place on his hip. Down there, along the alluvial fans washed off the range in a million years of light rain and flash floods, were the saguaros, dependent children of the basin ranges. Couldn't grow too high, for the cold that seared their flesh. Couldn't grow too low, for the baking, ill-drained soils – if you could call them that – of the valley floor. He could relate.
Thirst has its own demands, and they overrule the rational prerogatives of the sane person seeking to immolate his being in the desert. Five thousand years of civilization, four hundred years of reason hadn't freed him from this irrational desire to save his life. Like saving it would generate some interest. He'd been amply shown that the one person who mattered had no interest at all. No fucking matter. A smell of urine, of excrescence, of water trickled into his forebrain. There, in a wall of desert-stained basalt above the palm, there it was: a fern-infested, shaded artesian sump. Last thing he needed. Funny how his motherfucking guardian angel had stuck this font in the place his fevered mind had deemed most likely to be hospitable to his all-too timely demise. He climbed.
A few feet, a few yards, fifteen minutes, and he stood unevenly at the base of the wall. Only a sheer fifteen feet of black rock to go. Sun glinted off the basalt, obscuring vision, but it looked as if -- could it be? -- there were handholds carved into the dusky wall, almost too easy a climb to be believed. Wiped his mouth on his left arm; opened a new wound, blood trickled out onto his tongue. Burned lip skin came away on his shirt sleeve. He leapt for the lowest of the handholds, which dissolved before his eyes. Nothing but sheer, blank wall. He fell, hitting his head on an erratic granite. Fade to black.
Raucous cry woke him partway. A cloud of zopilotes. Black, comforting vultures, their gray heads shining in what was left of the sun. Destiny. But intellect intruded. Closer, closer than the buzzards, an obligatory inquisitive raven -- it figured, he thought -- croaked a question from the sparse shade of a stunted juniper.
Something in the raven's aspect prompted an answer.
"What can I do? Endurance is an old game for me, and I am sick to fucking death of it.
"Catharsing at some damn crow. Why the fuck am I saying this? Who am I talking to?"
His words trailed. Tired. If they made sense to the raven, it didn't show it.
"Exploring. Exploring. The imperative of the colonizer. She was exploring what it meant to be in love with me. Didn't work. She should never have landed."
He fell into a doze as raven watched.
And woke, and dozed, and woke again.
For some reason, raven stayed with him through the heat. Raven didn't understand why. Raven stayed motionless, while the man stirred, for fear of the two-legged treachery she knew so well. Traps and shot and poison his kind brought. Death and pain and loss.
Still, there was something new about this one. No guile, no threat. Raven allowed herself the luxury – while the man stayed safely inert under the juniper where he'd fallen – of stretching wing, cooling her black body in the slight breeze of evening.
And then morning. He'd stirred twice, that night, prompting Raven's involuntary, alarmed growl each time; the sound roused him for a moment, then drought swept him back to that fevered mapping of his unconscious.
Susan? Raven? They swapped bodies every time he thought to look; it was hard to tell. Dark, cautious, brooding, inaccessibly beautiful. He set his expectations, his disappointments on end in the glaring gruss under the juniper. Her foot swept from her perch and knocked them over, every one. He reached out to her: she withdrew further into a sudden hedge of mesquite thorn and catclaw. He sketched out the shape of his need in the gravel: she threw a handful of mesquite pods at his face, stinging and distracting him as he drew. He told her his life in lunatic prose: she sat on her branch, not responding, face turned to the playa to the south, away from him, away, always away.
"Oh, Susan. Oh Raven. You've made up your mind, so fast, so fast. Listen to me is all I ask. Listen to me is all I ask. The darkness, the welcoming darkness. So warm."
He was still again.
Until three in the afternoon of the third day, when the sun finally boiled his thirst out through his skin, there to dry in great salty welts about his shoulders. His tongue was what woke him: swelled past the point where it fit in his mouth, his brought him to gasping for air. Eyes opened, dazzled. Crust and clot wiped away, he tried to focus on the shape before him. "Susan?" It was Susan. It had to be Susan. "Yeah, 'sme, hon." She'd come back for him! In oddly measured tone, she told him how she'd searched the bajada where she'd dropped him off so long ago, three days ago. Found him dried to a lizard husk under the juniper. Shocked and grieving to see him this way. "Here's some water, some shade. The helicopter's on its way, and the EMTs."
He got up on his elbows, raised his lips to the offered water. It never came. Just that black Susan shape, sitting there in the mesquite, preening.
Anger. Rage. He was on the verge of death, and this pinche bird comes to him with fantasies of she who killed him? Fury. Venom. Murder. He launched himself at the damn crow.
Raven wasn't quite expecting his sudden assault, but where he had the advantage of surprise, she had the competing advantage of not being half mad with thirst and sunstroke. She lifted of, moved with three placid wingbeats to the rock ledge ten feet above, and watched as he flew past the juniper's lower limbs to the valley floor far below, tumbling, tumbling clumsy, sharp sounds of alarm giving way to deep grunts which gave way in turn to nothing but the elemental sound of flesh against rock and thorn. Then far below in the wash he lay, before the last of her hurriedly shed feathers had drifted to the base of the juniper.
A flex of leg, a breath, and she was coasting downhill on ebony wings, a hundred yards to where him there in the wash. He lay so still. No evidence of breath, of life. But there, over there, in the loose soil of the wash, was – wonder of wonders – a hill swarming with black ants! She hopped to the mound, letting the insects swarm pleasantly through her black down, eating the occasional stray louse. Felt tingly. He was dead, no doubt about it. Still, not ripe enough to do her any good. She'd come back to him when he was ready. Off she went, determinedly, to the west, the strong woof of her wingbeats the only sound in the valley.
Until the thunder, a few hours later. A crack of lightning, and pregnant clouds breaking over the range, and a wall of boiling mud surged down the declivity with a roar like Moloch's own freight train. The flood lifted everything in the wash, swept them far away and downhill toward the Colorado: corpse, driftwood, letter, ants, black feathers, ID, wallet.
Posted by Chris Clarke at June 1, 2005 12:31 AM
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A storm is brewing outside my window and soon the monsoon rain will start pouring down. Your story blended perfectly with the grey greenness of the air and the flock of jungle crows skittering across the rooftops while bandying words with one another. I can just hear the rumbling of the thunder beyond my imagination and the tumble of words stretching all the way across the Pacific to California.Posted by: butuki at June 1, 2005 06:57 PM
Wow, it didn't blend with anything in my current environment, but still got to me incredibly!
Last night I woke in the middle of the night and stretched out a hand to turn on the World Service, and heard your voice, Chris. This often happens when friends and colleagues of mine are on there in the middle of the night - their silent voices tap me on the shoulder and wake me up to listen. Seems that it happens with bloggers who reach me emotionally too.Posted by: Jean at June 2, 2005 06:14 AM
Great writing Chris; but I want a long, detailed explanation of both where this came from and why the poor Raven didn't get to eat.Posted by: OGeorge at June 2, 2005 06:46 PM