My SUV looked lost. Like a motorcycle stored in a jumbo jet aircraft hangar, it looked tiny, insignificant, unsure. The car sat still far below, windshield and black chrome gleaming in the merciless sun. It looked incongruous, almost vulnerable out here. Its wheel arches were stained with the brown of earth, the windows clouded with sprinkles and icings of dirt. Pain built inside me like the pressure of a brimming volcano. It exploded with a gulp of warm beer, a blink of arid eyes and the shake of a weary head. Bright colours danced in my eyes, only to be broken by veils and distortions of black curls dangling over the skin of a soft, round, caramel face; ladders to the head I had once touched, smelt and kissed.
I stood atop the jagged, red encrusted spire. They were erected all around me – rough, gilded spires piercing the hot, still air like the skyscrapers of a major city clawing to the skies, vying for a place at the top. Only these rocky spires weren’t competing for air – this land was of infinite space, deceitful possibility. High up here, the air sang with a whispering wind – bald eagles with white necks and black bodies glided effortlessly above, riding the hot air currents without batting those great, black wings. Circled and circled they did, swinging hooked beaks and blinking, glassy eyes betraying the composure of their flight, their bodies; revealing the nature of their true anxiousness.
Scanning for prey under the hot, remorseless sun a mile below was what the eagles were doing. I thought it ironic they were hunting in this barren land, for bald eagles were the icons of this country – they stood tall and proud on the United States Presidential Seal and many other governmental institutions, reeking of power, irradiating with opportunity the country had sold since the days of Abraham Lincoln. I felt the impetuous anxiousness of the birds – I felt the same unrest that had convinced their advocates to ride on chestnut horses, white skin scalded to a healthy, golden brown, round hats deflecting the sun’s glare, reigns making zipping sounds as they were flicked, hooves clattering, steeds braying impatiently, golden pills of death glimmering and clinking in the black ammo belts laced across midriffs, hazel and silver rifles at the ready, fingers ready to banish the identity of the desert into the dust that never wept.
This was a land of legends; the land of Cowboys and Indians, of heroes and villains, of vigilantes and bandits, of rogue men and damsels in distress, of Clint Eastwood and rolling tumbleweeds signifying weak comedy, of dreams that had both been built and destroyed. It was here. Under the shimmering heat waves bouncing off the dry ground like foam coated waves on a stormy day at sea. Under the green cactus plants that leapt from the hard, red earth with green trunks pointed perpendicular like a nervous soldier’s spine, green arms curved and pointing skyward as though pleading to the sky for the puffy, white ice cream formed moist that failed to flourish under the blue, dry sea hanging above. Pale, large boulders that weren’t strong enough to last as vertical spires and were therefore banished dotted the land here and there. Erratic sprouts of green, scraggly foliage lacking the moist to be dressed in the exuberant colours and vitality of cousins that flourished in fairer and moister regions speckled the pale, sandy brown and red earth in spread out bunches. Dark, jagged mountains with knife-like pinnacles tore undulating ground from beneath, causing the sun’s light to sneak through valleys in narrow funnels like dirt slipping through the slits between fingers.
I heard them. I heard and saw the silver coloured and black stained wolves below, the alpha male confidently trotting a few feet ahead of his crew, charcoal tail swinging, black muzzle darting from side to side, pink tongue lapping between canine teeth. The alpha led his comrades who prowled like a gang of malicious youths treading through urban streets, looking for a fight, yearning for blood. The canids growled and snarled, ignoring the veils of thin dust rising around them. Rattlesnakes made their tails dance, their distinctive rattling singing a warning to all. The reptiles slithered on the hot ground, through the thin veils of dust moving with the whispering wind, their slick skin reminding me of the chrome of my car as they gleamed with unabridged abandon. Grey furred rabbits poked their heads from small nest mounds, patiently scanning for predators.
An eagle called. I slumped on my rump as I watched the screaming eagle bat its wings for a moment, its body fluidly falling vertical and cruising towards the ground. Mesmerised, I saw the bird’s claws stretch outward like malevolent hooks; it then levelled out, swooping a couple of metres above ground. The Bird of America rose a moment later, only to have its claws interlaced and clasped shut, only to hold a rabbit desperately squirming from the hold of steel. The bird and rabbit disappeared in the direction of the sun.
A maelstrom was what it was called. The remaining eagles called to one another, almost as though they were furious for the lapse in concentration that had cost them a meal. They screeched and dove, plunging towards the ground. The wolves noticed the frenzy and knew that where birds amassed, prey promised. They snarled and barked, their trots transforming into gallops as they hurled towards the terrain the birds were skimming. My head throbbed. Beads of sweat rolled down my forehead. My armpits were moist, my heart swelling with the anguish of what I’d expected, of what had deserted me.
I watched animals, heard their sounds and calls through the day. Watched and watched, removing bottles of beer from the duffel bag next to me, drinking and feeling. Watched the cavernous sky channelling the blinding white and yellow glare, caressing the colours into the early evening into a brilliant bosom of bloody red, feminine pink and deep flame. The sky looked like a painter’s playground. The orange sun lowering over the horizon shimmered with deep flame, saying a temporary goodbye.
The desert night was brilliant; a purple ink curtain carried a silver moon attempting to drown itself in a too-shallow sky, a million stars flickering and gleaming in a clear sky like cold, convictional diamonds. The temperature cooled to a welcome chill. The land below me was painted in tranquil black and silver, the jagged black silhouettes of mountains on the horizon glaring back at me with dark, silent mystery. The bald eagles retired, but the wolves continued to snarl and howl through the night. The crickets chirped. Owls were hooting. Coyotes were crooning. Mountain lions were screaming. It all bode together like some great, disorganised but strangely solemn, natural symphony. The sounds didn’t frighten me. I was only lost like the SUV below me. Instead of staring anxiously around me, looking for the juxtaposition of elegance and danger in the tawny auburn and tanned brown skin of the cougar. Instead of retracting my car keys from the pocket of my khaki coloured three-quarters, I removed a photograph of my family.
Through the silver incandescence of the clear night sky, a woman and two young girls stared and smiled at me. The mother held her girls close. Long black hair hung over their swelling foreheads. The brilliant black of eyes and the light, caramel coloured skin were gifts from their mother. Their lips were full and their chins soft, gifts from their father, gifts from me. The word divorce sent a pang of pain through me. I had to take a deep breath as I tucked the photograph back into my pocket.
I felt betrayed. Not by a wife that was tired of adultery and negligence from a distant lawyer who had no time for family life, not by the imminent custody the woman I’d loved since adolescence would have over my daughters, but by the desert. I felt betrayed by the Arizonan wilderness of the Sonora. I’d left the land riddled with steel and glass skyscrapers for a reason. I’d left the grey mist of pollution that perpetually loomed over New York City. I’d left behind the clamour of activity, the meshing of vehicles, the clicking of heels, the shuffling of official papers, the smell of fine, polished hazel that symbolised the sacred but frequently sullied court of law, the chorus of voices and the mistress of an assistant for a damned good reason. It was supposed to be empty out here. It was supposed to be silent, soulless – it was supposed to be the earthly depiction of my heart.
But it wasn’t. It just wasn’t. Birds rode the skies, calling – wolves prowled the grounds, howling, snakes wove here and there, cougars roamed. The Sonora Desert had soul – it had activity, it had life and worst of all, it had song. The song my imminent ex-wife had sung during our teenage years, the song my daughters sang on Christmas Day mornings; the very same song that had ushered me into existence. The song that had left my soul like the clouds of breath spewing from my lips.