How to meet an angel at the desert crossroads
Do not give in to despair, to the emptiness without paint, without that smoothing of brush to canvas turning the land around you to a fire in your chest. Walk slowly barefoot toward the place where two washes make a crossroads. It is not far. Watch for rattlesnakes sleeping arrow-headed under the sagebrush. Stand at that crossroads, where the floods move with the rains. Now the washes are just rivulets and trenches made in stone and sand.
A man will appear, and you will be afraid, but you will have no need to be, not in the way you think – a woman alone in the desert, a man coming toward you. You will see his skin is dark blue as the night and just as covered in speckles, silver-bright as stars. He wears a tall dark hat and rattlesnakes follow at his bare feet. He has two wings like the piñon jays, grey-blue, slightly iridescent, scruffy.
‘What would you trade me for a box of paints, sweetheart?’ he says, and it is not a hiss like you expect but rich and deep and blue.
Of course you’ve heard of this sort of business, and aren’t sure you want anything to do with it. But he pulls a box made all of coyote bones from behind his back and inside are glass jars of pigment, mixed from pockets of miraculous blue sleeping in the earth, reds and oranges and sage greens too.
‘My first born,’ you say, as it sounds like the right thing, and you mean painting, not child. He understands, and agrees.
When you have finished it, which takes you all night by candle and part of the morning, a silhouette of that ridge and the sky going dark, luminous and sun-bleached and also somehow the ridge of your own dreams, a spine you touch only briefly, you brew up a cup of coffee over a fire in a ring of stones. Your cup is tin, blue and speckled. You go down to the crossroads and leave the painting.
By night, the coyotes are yipping. They surround the painting. They eat it as they would the carcass of a bighorn lamb, snarling, fighting for the deepest veins of colour, blood on their teeth.
While you sleep, mice gather around your bedroll. You dream inside your blue rustling sleeping bag, on top of the old Egyptian blanket, wine-dark and woven with flowers, that your uncle who lived in Cairo sent you when you were a little girl. You dream of a house in the canyon just beyond the one where you sleep, a house made of old adobe and the bones of animals long extinct – the American camel, the giant sloth. The mice – a cactus mouse, a piñon mouse, a Great Basin pocket mouse, a chisel-toothed kangaroo rat, a brush mouse, a southern grasshopper mouse – harvest the little bits of your dreams from your desert-lank hair like mesquite seeds.
You don’t notice, only that you feel bleary-eyed when you wake to the dawn slanting across the eastern ridges, basalt and the memories of volcanoes. It is late October, cold until the sun moves full into the wash. Come daybreak, you build another fire, heat more coffee, use the last of the milk you brought in a jar, measured out for seven days, thinking you’d stay no longer. This is the seventh morning. A handful of trail mix and an apple left. You paint again, what you see. The colours are live as cactus mice and the great flocks of piñon jays, live as sun drying dew off your sleeping bag.
The journey down
At home, before, in the city, you sit at a computer and process donations, write grant proposals. It is not a bad job. At 5.30am you make coffee in a yellow pot on the stove and it smells nutty. Sometimes you add cardamom. You take it out onto the little porch and look for the sunrise, or for a star, or the small beginnings of dove coos. When you come in, you try to paint at the easel you have set up in the laundry room, coffee hugged one-handed to your chest for warmth. You only do it at dusk and dawn, when the sky and the sun are changing, the world is unformed, and a thing like painting is acceptable. Your heart smolders at the edges, keeping you warm through the night, and then the day, that way.
On weekends you take hikes on the nearby coastal mountain. You like the smell of the coast live oaks, the bays. Sometimes on Friday evenings you bring a book and buy a pint at he local pub. Sometimes men try to sit by you, buy you another, and you smile but shake your head, keep reading. You’ll know him without even looking up, you assure yourself. And he probably won’t be at the pub.
There comes a morning when you rise, the usual hour, grind the beans, set the pot on, and find that you can’t do it, not one more day. You find that when you sit to paint, your heart does not smolder at all. It is cold as ash. You don’t feel like sitting for one more second. All at once you want to kick the door down. If you have to stare at the bright screen of your office for one more day, you will break it right there, with anything handy – stapler, heel of your shoe.
It feels like an animal rising up in you, furred, clawed, green-eyed. You slam your hands once into the wall, which smarts the soft skin of your palms. You drive to work. You do this for several more months. The swallowing of something clawed every morning, cold at the edges of your heart no matter what you paint. The expensive gauche and new set of oils that you buy for yourself don’t help.
There comes a day when you wake up, go to the yellow coffeepot and find that this time you no longer fit inside the square walls of your house at all. The ceiling feels as if it is pressing on your shoulders. The coffeepot makes you want to cry. Your mother gave it to you as a going away present when you left for college ten years ago. You throw it through the window. The glass breaks and shatters like rain. The coffeepot lands in a bush. Shaking, you think about how glass is made when lightning hits sand, and what a miracle, truly, electricity shearing the grey sky is.
You call in sick and go get the yellow coffeepot calmly out of the bush amidst the glass shards. Then you pack your old Volkswagen van, red as dried blood, and drive south for ten hours. It is the 21st of October. The land drains of green and turns gold, then dun, dry and rocky.
You go to the place the sun loves best in all the continent, the lowest bowl of land where that star can lay his body down big and unchecked: Death Valley. You like that once it was neck-deep in salt water and prehistoric fish, spiralled gastropod fossils left behind. You like that the driest and hottest and most barren place once held an ocean in its arms.
You worry that you are having what doctors might call a psychotic break. Well, you decide, that might be, but you don’t particularly care. You have always had a mistrust of doctors, and diagnoses, and little colourless pills. As you drive through the desert, waiting until you feel ready to stop, passing wind-worn ridges and moon-pocked canyons, your tyres stirring up dust, you think maybe the invention of the car was the ultimate psychotic break and laugh to yourself.
When you get out of the car the air tastes dry and so clear you think you can taste the blue sky in it. The ridges are barren rock, cragged, the bones of a place in its essence. The valley is miles wide, the mountains bigger by several times than the green forested ones you are used to. It is so big you could fit the whole city inside, and then some. Here there are only flat sandy washes, creosote, a herd of bighorn sheep in the distance. The mountain ridges are the closest thing to time itself that you’ve ever seen.
You pull on your framepack and leave the car behind, then walk north, carrying several plastic gallons of water in your hands until the weight digs into your palms. You have to make two trips with the water.
How to win the milk of a bighorn ewe
Around noon you go to the crossroads again. You want proof that the blue-skinned man is not part of your possible psychotic break. A few of the scraps of your canvas are scattered in the sand, like bits of flesh, with blood at their edges. You don’t know what to make of this and turn away, but you are hoping he’ll come back to explain. When you think of that, the feeling in your chest is the same as the first night on the rough dry ground in your blue sleeping bag, lonesome but content, staring up at the bowl of night, so dark and so full of stars the sky itself felt like one great faceted mineral, shimmering. And the Milky Way, for the first time in your life, looked like just that: a river of white, the milk of a million mothering stars.
You turn back to those canvas-scraps and pluck one of your hairs out at the root, curly and dark like your aunt’s, a tiny spiralling staircase. It’s not much, but you remember a class fieldtrip, age twelve, how the lady leading it said whenever she picked a leaf, a flower, she left a piece of her hair. A fair trade, she said. At the time this concept seemed loony to all of your classmates, who sniggered. You did too, but on a level beneath the self-doubt of puberty, you thought this idea magical, heady, this assertion that plants might be as valuable, as feeling, as people. You wondered, however, if a person did this all the time, would she go bald?
You place the hair impulsively among the scraps of your canvas. It feels surprisingly good to leave it behind. Tangible, as much a piece of you as the thin sagebrush leaves are to their stems.
On the way back to your three-legged easel, you wander up the narrow canyon from your dream, half expecting to find a house of giant sloth and camel bones. At this rate, you think, why not? Before, you had read about the ancient fossils of forgotten beasts. How they are still lying under the sands and dry stones of Death Valley, which some million years ago was near tropical, thick with vegetation.
Millions of years before that, ocean water smoothed the stones, but now they are sun and wind torn. Your boots are covered with scratches and a tear on the side. You climb over a boulder, keeping your feet to the sandy areas where the flash floods have made paths and the bighorn sheep have followed. The middle of the canyon widens. It feels like an almond-shaped bowl, holding.
You feel a tingle in your chest and look up to see bighorn sheep, a whole herd, hazel and chocolate brown, wool so close to their bodies it has no curl at all. They are sturdy beasts with clever amber eyes. The rams have huge horns lined and whorled as the gastropod fossils. The ewes have shorter horns, no dramatic curve, hardy and sharp. They watch you from a steep path they’ve made in the far canyon wall. You cannot read their faces. Desperately, all at once, you wish that you could. You lift a hand. They look to their leader, a stout ram with horns that curve far out on either side of his ears. He snuffs the air, stamps a hoof, moves away. They all follow, clip-clopping, sun-burnished. You see a mama with a young one, fur still a gold glow. Her teats sway. The lamb stays right against her legs.
Back at the easel, you paint them into the half-finished canyon on your canvas. The ochres and mustards and browns of the paints in their glass jars in their coyote-bone box seem to be made, under your hands, of sheep wool, of sheep hooves, of sheep horns. You wonder what they eat. Where they sleep. How they speak to each other.
You’re out of milk. Actually, you’re out of everything except coffee and a small sack of oats. You decide it is wise to leave the next morning, not particularly wanting to starve or, worse, risk dehydration. The plastic gallons of water are empty except for the bottom of one. It is hard not to think about the drive home. Back inside each precise box. Briefly you imagine that the streets and the houses will feel little and insubstantial as tin cans or dolls’ toys, the fences and lawns and sidewalks painted on, a stage set hiding the real thing underneath – muddy creek and moles and that big sleeping creature, the bedrock.
You decide you’ll leave empty-handed. The bighorn sheep painting will stay behind too, in case he comes back. It seems suitable to take the paints. The paintings are as much his as yours, because of the trade, but the paints, they are your gift, like canopic jars, full not just of pigment but of necessary organs.
By his, you wonder, walking down to that crossroads again, do you mean his, or the desert’s?
You leave the painting, sheep-tawny and spiral horned, in the wash. At the last minute you painted one of those horns with star-speckles like the semicircle of the Northern Crown constellation, Corona Borealis, you’ve seen every night at the darkest hour. In the sand, that horn gleams.
Back at your camp you build a final fire. The sun goes down softly. You stare into the flames for a long time before remembering to put the water on to boil, and your dinner with it: oatmeal. Not very appealing. The flames and embers seem to make orange canyons, washes blue as river floods. You wonder if you will be able to hold all of this when you go back, and feel like crying, confused. You thought a week in the desert would be like recharging a dead battery. That simple. Unplug, full bars. Instead you feel pulled apart into many little pieces, scattered about and used by the piñon mice for their nests. For good measure you tug another hair out and throw it in the fire. You sit up, face hot from the flames. From here you can smell the juniper wood smoke, sweet and spiced.
When your eyes adjust to the dark you see a figure at the far edge of the fire, sitting on a sharp stone. He has two grey wings, blue-tarnished as the piñon jay’s. In the dark his skin is darker, and full of stars. The firelight on his face and hands turns them indigo. He has kind, human eyes, like a friend sitting down companionably to help make dinner. Around his feet are dozens of desert kangaroo rats, eyes black and glinting, eating at oats stolen from your little sack when you weren’t looking. Instead of the black top hat, he is wearing a flat, round hat made of kit fox fur, like the hats you’ve seen in photos of Siberian nomads.
It’s a chilly night. You look at his wings and imagine the cold of clouds. You lift a hand, like you did to the sheep, and smile. He smiles back and holds up a ceramic jar, gestures for you to come take it. Then he pulls a brace of jackrabbits from over his shoulder and skins them right there with a knife sharp and clear as ice. He throws the offal behind him. Coyotes, you can hear them, fight over it. Before you can even speak the jackrabbits are on a spit over the fire. You pour the ceramic jar into the oats. It is bighorn sheep’s milk. It smells of grass and sun. You are laughing.
After a moment you say, ‘Did you like my sheep painting?’ trying to make normal conversation, like one does over a campfire to a friend. He smiles again.
‘I didn’t even see it before the bighorn sheep got there. Chewed it to pieces like the most delectable of springtime grasses. They lay down around it to let it come up again as cud, and it turned all the ewe’s milk thick and sweet. They gave their milk to me for you. I didn’t take it.’
You think of the Milky Way, and the ewe with her lamb close to her legs. You come around to his side of the fire with the pot of cooked oatmeal. Both of you eat out of it with two spoons. You are surprised to see him chew and swallow. Yesterday he looked like he was made to eat only cloud and rainstorm and desert wind. Now he is making contented, hungry sounds. When you lean near he smells of nothing except the night, near and crisp, juniper-wood spiced, dark. You eat the jackrabbit meat with your fingers. In this moment you feel that if you could sit here, leaning over a pot of oatmeal by a fire and licking rabbit fat off your fingers, October-dark, ringed in red ridges and dry washes, beside him, always, this point the axis and your whole life spinning around you, not linear but spoked, you would be happy.
How to bring on the first desert rains of autumn
The kangaroo rats leap to your ankles, munching dropped bits of oatmeal. They are sleek, their tails balanced. You start to cry. The tears get in your mouth with the jackrabbit and the oatmeal. You swallow, choking. The tears pool at your chin as you cry more than you ever have in your life, breaths ragged. The salt starts to sting your face. You feel like you are crying out your bones, like your sobs are starting to howl. The man holds out his two dark speckled hands and they widen and widen and deepen like a basin to hold all your tears. They become as big as the whole night.
‘I thought it smelled like rain,’ is all he murmurs, tenderly, holding your tears. When you are finished and hiccuping, he throws his cupped hands upward. You duck your head but no water falls back down. A cloud passes in front of the moon. You lean against him, only able to breathe through your mouth, little whistles. The kangaroo rats have gathered in your lap and you stroke their heads.
He holds onto you and you lean nearer, find your nose against his bare chest, where the fabric of his shirt is open. There is no hair on his chest, only smooth darkness, a dry sweet smell, speckles of light. Your lips open and press there. You are not this kind of woman, but it seems the only thing in all the world to do, and you don’t even need to look up to know it.
By the fire, as it turns to hot and shifting embers that flicker with towers and ancient sandstone cities, camel caravans and ridges sharp as vertebrae, the man lays down your old Egyptian blanket. His bare arms dark and flickering can barely be distinguished from the night.
You make love on the blanket on the hard ground, your spine pressing against the rocks, his spine a thing you are uncertain of. You can feel the bumps under your hands but, eyes closed, he seems as huge as desert mountains and what happens between you is a salt sea, a sky full with the milky teats of stars, his grey wings grazing and grazing at your hips.
Somewhere toward dawn, curled up against him under your blue sleeping bag, you smile thinking of who you were yesterday, and who you are not now.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he whispers, awake beside you. You are not sure what he means, but you nestle near again, thinking no, no, I am not. How can this be? I am not afraid.
Just as the sun is lifting the eastern hem of the world a shade paler than indigo night, you hear a yipping, a snarling. You know it is coyotes before you open your eyes. You’ve been
dreaming of them again, bone-white, walking the white spines of the mountains, looking down at you. The snarling sounds very close. You open your eyes. There are at least six of them, maybe nine, big and healthy though their desert diet is lean. Almost wolves, save that skinny sharp face, eyes slightly closer together, big cunning ears. Their teeth are bloody.
When you see what they’ve done, you vomit onto the black sharp ground.
He is ripped into pieces, blue-skinned, red-muscled. They are snarling not at you but at each other and at the pieces. There are forty-two pieces in all – head and hands and fingers and toes and bits of leg and each organ separate, surgical. His heart, you see it at the far edge of the fire, is blue. His blood on the ground is not quite red, but rather a rich brown-black, river silt. His wings are whole, damp with the mouths of coyotes. Not all of him is there. They’ve carried off important organs, his liver, parts of his calves, his penis, his ears.
You stand up shaking, sick, and yell and throw rocks and the coyotes growl but back away, a tight group of seven, shoulder to shoulder like one big beast. They run, leaving you there alone.
The sun has turned the east ridges pale blue, but it is still somewhere behind them. Cold and naked, you put on whatever you can find – an old wool skirt, a sweater, your boots. This is a different you operating, the one you were not yesterday but are today. This you will not throw up. This you drank bighorn sheep’s milk and held the blue-black night and the sharp spine of the mountains against her breasts, winged, his kit fox fur hat pillowing her head.
This is not the same as a crime in the city, a grotesque murder discovered in a garage. This is like gathering mesquite pods to grind and bake into breads round and bright and caramel-rich as suns. You don’t know where this thought comes from but it does and you move deliberately, calmly, placing each piece of him into your big red woven basket with its leather handle, where you had been keeping your clothes and the glass jars of paints. Those jars are still in the basket.
The other you is there too, holding a blue index finger, cold, holding a wet kidney, that big blue heart. The other you is heaving and crying, dropping tears across the ground.
You don’t know how long it takes to pick up each piece. Your hands are dark with blood and the basket is heavy in your arms. The sun still hasn’t risen over the ridges.
You notice that pieces are missing and feel despair. Somehow it is clear to you that you must find every last scrap of him. You sit down on the rough ground and want to cry or scream but then you see a little desert woodrat holding a small and perfect blue pinky-tip in his paws. You lean toward him, whispering, and he scampers off, his furred tail flickering. You follow slowly with that heavy basket. It leaves a dark seeping trail, as if of wet silt, behind you.
The woodrat leads you to that canyon, the one you dreamt of, the one of sheep. The sun does not fill the sky because the sky has become full of dark grey clouds. In the dim light you trip often, scuff your boots, almost drop the basket. His wings are unwieldy and large, balanced just under the handle.
You imagine carrying only a bird and not a man. The big slate-blue feathers brush your hands.
In the centre of the canyon, in a sandy clear place surrounded by creosote, desert mallow, cholla cactus, more mice and rats are gathered than you can count: desert shrew, Panamint pocket gopher, pygmy pocket gopher, great basin pocket mouse, little pocket mouse, long-tailed pocket mouse, chisel-toothed kangaroo rat, Panamint kangaroo rat, Merriam’s kangaroo rat, desert kangaroo rat, western harvest mouse, cactus mouse, deer mouse, canyon mouse, brush mouse, piñon mouse, southern grasshopper mouse, desert woodrat, bushy-tailed woodrat, house mouse. Each subtly different in shape and size and whisker and paw and colour, like tawny pieces of the desert itself, its most essential prey, food for all.
They’ve made a bed of sagebrush, jackrabbit down, yucca fiber. Coffin-shaped. In a neat pile: two ears, liver, calves, penis. The mice are a seething carpet of gold and dun and grey, tiny paws, quick tails. They come to the basket. You start to take him out, bit by bit. They show you how to do it – head by neck by clavicle by bicep by forearm by hand. Stomach, intestine, kidney, liver. You lay him out until he is forty-two pieces whole, jagged as a shattered window. All that’s left in the bottom of the basket are the glass jars of pigment. His silt-dark blood has oozed inside the jars. You take each one out, dip your fingers in. Mix your own saliva too, to make it wet enough, and paint along each seam of him, each tear, as if the paint were glue.
The mice and woodrats and kangaroo rats hug their bodies against him, as if to keep him warm. A zebra-tailed lizard watches from a rock. Overhead, black ravens circle and you work faster, painting green and ochre, red and blue. The pieces of him are not speckled silver now, only the darkest indigo. You can’t paint the wings on as they are tucked beneath him. Instead, you trace the feather-tips with a yellow pigment like pollen. The final touch.
Rain starts falling then, sudden and big and without warning. The drops begin to rinse the pigment away almost immediately. You yell up at the sky. Thunder shakes and booms. The mice run one by one for cover under stones and creosote and the edge of your basket. You see a bighorn sheep silhouetted on the top of the far canyon ledge, feeding, unconcerned at the rain on her short wool.
The smell that rises from the earth is baked bread and sage and a bodily musk. It is so full in your nostrils and mouth that breathing feels like drinking. You watch the rain rinse the paint pigments down into the lines of his forty-two-piece body, cracked but fit together perfectly, like dry earth waiting for moisture.
You lay down on your back beside him in the rain. Spread your arms and legs wide, like making a snow angel on winter vacations as a child, except here, now, this you, the motion feels like a handshake with the wet body of the ground. You reach your hand out gingerly to cover his, each loose finger. You don’t think about what you are doing here. You don’t think about psychotic breaks or the journey home.
You are the first desert rain of autumn. You are the roots of the creosote and desert mallow far below, that have spent the summer drinking groundwater fifty feet deep and are now fanning their rootlet hands to catch all this rain. You are the sky grey blue and opening.
Lightning sears down. Thunder. Only a second between. Again. You count. The lightning is close enough that you should be worried but you lay still. Up the wash a half mile the lightning strikes straight down into the sand and forms a crooked tube of glass, shining and dark inside.
It doesn’t take long to flood. The rain is heavy. A sound begins, a roar as of large waves. You can barely sit up before the water is rushing toward you, a churning muddy white-capped flood. You roll to grab him, lifting him against you without thinking. The flood is upon you. He is all one piece in your arms as you swallow water and together are thrown upward, tumbling, to the surface.
The floodwaters seem to have a revivifying effect on him, like a bolt of electricity. Suddenly you are not holding, you are held. Great grey wings shake above the surface of the water as you are whipped and tossed, avoiding rocks. He lifts the two of you on those big piñon jay wings. Water drops fall like stars from the feathers. You don’t make it far together, just to the ledge where earlier the bighorn sheep perched, feeding. You huddle near, both cold, and watch the flood.
It mesmerises you as it tears the desert canyon into channels of silt. Beside you he is breathing deep, not in alarm or shock at being all of a piece again, but deliciously, a fresh noise, a leaf unfurling in the morning. You look at him, his arms resting on his knees, knees hiked up to his chest, and see that his body is a tracery now of green lines where you rubbed the pigment in. You touch those lines.
‘It takes all year to grow a skin full of stars,’ he says, softly, and puts a hand over yours.
Down below, a red Volkswagen van the colour of dried blood whips past in the whitewater flood, its wheels spinning. You gasp, exclaim, pointing, then laugh. It’s hard to stop laughing.
You sit for hours together watching the flood, holding hands. When it subsides near sundown the water vanishes abruptly, as if it was never there. The washes of the canyon floor trace new paths. In some places sand has been pushed violently aside, crushing nearby creosotes.
Your eyes catch a smooth white shape, half exposed. Careful of the wet, you climb down, thinking of sheep hooves and their balance. You don’t slip.
‘I want to see what that is,’ you say over your shoulder. He nods, smiles, something cunning there at the edges of his lips.
When you reach the wash, the white shape is clearly the knobbed end of a large bone. Extinct American camel, Camelops hesternus. Beside it is a spindly tube, rough as coral on the outside, the glass inside luminous and dark as planets, lightning-made.
After the flood, or, how a person can become a legend
Even if anyone had looked, their eyes would not have been able to focus long enough on the strange leaning house of camel bones and red mud, windows made of rippled lightning glass, to process its existence. Like your life, it has about it a quality of the miraculous, shifting dusky edges, and needs to be expected before it can be seen.
They most certainly would not have noticed the paintings on the canyon walls: suns and floods and river silt; a male form, winged, sometimes blue and sometimes green, out of which both the sun and the waters rise; a female form, followed by sheep, leaving a trail of milk like stars.
‘Osiris’ was originally published in Dark Mountain: Issue 9, Spring 2016 and reprinted in the paperback collection Walking on Lava -Selected Works for Uncivilised Times