Sunday, December 6, 2015
Memorias de la Tierra - by Frank Strong
The votive candles flickered with the light taken from a remembered dream. An image of the Virgin of Guadalupe sat atop the altar with her heavy gaze perpetually searching the earth for the son she had lost. There were other faces though, hidden amongst the blooming marigolds, photographic portraits all colored with the same somber grey. The outlines of their features—strong jaws, wide eyes, linear brow lines—seemed to be pulled by Time’s eroding fingertips.
Tamayo kneeled in front of the altar and uttered a prayer to those faces, his ancestors. He imagined that the purifying salt atop the table was only a collection of dried and forgotten tears. Incense dripped into the air, and in between the bending and shifting wisps of smoke Tamayo heard whispers, sighs, moans, but they were faint and unclear as though the voices were coming from the opposite end of the desert expanse. Tamayo wondered how far his own words could travel, if those on the other side of Death could hear his prayers. His voice didn’t need to travel that far, he only wished that it would reach his disappeared mother so he could tell her that even though he loved his abuelo he didn’t want to live with him any longer, that he missed being with her, in her arms, how her hair smelled like flowers, how her hands were both rough and soft at the same time, and how her soothing touch was the only thing that could send him to sleep on certain restless nights. Maybe her voice was already there, alongside the others, murmuring to not be forgotten on this day, All Soul’s Day, Día de los Muertos.
A voice, heavy and human, called out to Tamayo and he lifted his eyes to see his abuelo standing in the doorway. The old man always stood a little taller in the shadows of nightfall, as though once the oppressive weight of the sun was gone his spine straightened out to its true length.
“Hijo, come. We have work to do.”
“Sí,” the old man said and walked out of the doorway, the orange candlelight making his image linger a moment longer. The old man never spoke much and Tamayo never asked many questions. Tamayo trusted the old man, and he trusted the old man’s silence even more.
He peered up at the Virgin Maria and the other nameless faces upon the altar, and they seemed to beg him to stay, to hear their stories, as if they had recovered a little life from him and a second death awaited them once they were alone and forgotten.
The old man was already waiting outside in his rusted pickup, the engine wheezing in the placid blue air of night. They drove off, two men, one old and one young. Somewhere along the way Tamayo lost track of their sleepy town, the constellations of streetlamps, the empty highway, the silent side streets, and he found himself on a crumbling road that trailed up a bald hillside. The headlights picked up the slowly swaying path, the curves a vague dance that only the hillsides knew. Low-lying, dead brush protruded from the otherwise barren soil and Tamayo imagined that those leafless branches were the hairs of a giant beast which hibernated just beneath the earth.
The old man parked the truck at the end of the paved road, then he walked a little farther off with Tamayo following, the ancient gravel sighing beneath their feet. The old man carried a small basket and Tamayo could smell the aroma of warm tortillas. They stopped at the edge of a vista overlooking the scattered light below. Tamayo whispered that the pockets of light looked like pools of water, maybe small oceans with invisible, black waves rippling through them.
“I’ve only seen the ocean once,” the old man said, his voice course like burning embers were lodged in his throat. “But I’ve known her cousin, the desert. It’s a waterless ocean, a sea of stones.” The old man was quiet for a moment. “After a lifetime you learn to love it in your own way.”
“It’s pretty,” Tamayo said. He thought about the old man and all those memories that must reside within that leathery, sulpheric skin of his. It was like peering at a dry riverbed and imagining the torrents of cold water that must have flowed through at one time. Tamayo only knew his grandfather had made a living as a ranch-hand his whole life, and if the old man stopped working his hardened hands would probably dissolve and be reclaimed by the parched soil, the same soil which had forged them with its inexhaustible sand and dirt.
They waited longer, Tamayo walked in circles to keep his legs warm, and time seemed to lurch directly alongside the light breeze.
The old man lifted a finger to the distance and said, “Beyond those hills is Mexico. You can’t see it, but it’s there.”
Tamayo had heard the whispered rumors about that place, that his mother had crossed back over the prismatic, crystalline frontier and she’d probably never return. His fragmented thoughts coalesced and he wondered what kind of place Mexico must be, where women drift in only to be swallowed whole and never heard from again.
“Our blood first simmered over there in that black heap. It still simmers to this day. You can hear her prayers sometimes, carried through the winds and the rains,” the old man said.
Tamayo listened and heard nothing. But maybe that was the prayer: a dense, monolithic silence. “Do you think Mama is there, like they say?” he asked.
“We pray for everyone on All Soul’s Day,” the man answered, “even those that are lost.”
Images seemed to rise from the earth and saturate Tamayo’s mental landscape, his mother’s soft face, her hair, then a deep chasm that slowly opened like a sleepy eye, and a pupil that was filled with an ancient, granulated black.
The lights below and the stars above floated and danced, both pulled by the same invisible tide. He wondered how many lives these lights had presided over, indifferent witnesses to the sufferings of those below. Then, for a moment, the faint scent of incense pressed against Tamayo’s nostrils, followed by the sound of hooves beating and dragging against the earth, but those noises seemed hollow, as though emanated from the shifting westerly winds more so than any real point in time.
“Ah, here we are,” the old man said.
A tall silhouette approached from out the darkness and Tamayo recognized the unmistakable outline of a man on horseback. The horse trotted with a severe limp, almost stumbling over itself. A stench of stale and dry sweat proceeded the lonesome rider, and as he came closer Tamayo made out a floppy Stetson resting on the rider’s back, gold yet rusted button’s running down his legs, leather boots with crevices like veins, a frayed poncho over his chest with dark circles matted into the cloth like spots on aged wood. A thin moustache and high cheekbones graced the man’s face along with deep set eyes reminiscent of precious metal that hasn’t been mined yet. Desert dust covered his whole body.
Tamayo’s abuelo spoke in an even-keeled Spanish to the rider, “Ella is muy bonita,” he said and stroked the taut neck of the brown stallion.
“Ay sí, pero her legs are hurt,” the rider said.
“I see. Her legs,” the old replied. “She needs rest. Come down and I can help you unsaddle her.”
The rider hesitated and didn’t move.
“You don’t recognize me,” the old man said. “It’s okay. Yo soy un primo de su papa. You’ve been away from the ranch a long time.”
The rider looked over the old man and then Tamayo felt the heavy gaze fall upon him.
“How long has it been?” the rider asked.
“Mucho tiempo. Un año” the old man said. “But you have the papers, of course.”
The mysterious rider nodded his head. “Sí.”
“Come, we’ll help you get them to su padre,” the old man said.
The rider dismounted from his ailing horse, which let out a deep, asthmatic breath. Tamayo peered at the rider and by the light of the moon he saw a face, young, barely on the cusp of manhood, yet vaguely familiar somehow, a resemblance to Tamayo’s own face but unfamiliar also, like he was peering through the shards of a broken mirror.
“Who is he?” Tamayo whispered to his abuelo.
The old man lay an almost skeletal hand upon Tamayo’s shoulder, “He’s one of those lost souls we pray for on this day.”
The rider faced them and asked, “Your hijo?”
“My grandson, Tamayo. Your distant primo,” the old man said.
“Israel. Mucho gusto,” the rider said with an outstretched hand, scars running across his knuckles.
Tamayo took the man’s grip and an alien sensation tore through his body, like infinite grains of sand and stone penetrated into his skin, burrowing itself in his arteries. He felt the languished desert sun burn in his chest, shrieking echoes clawed through his ears, a coldness cleaved through and severed his psyche in half. He saw them with innocent eyes, crystalized calamities, memories that weren’t his own.
He crossed over the border, that prismatic frontier of dry lands, the terminal point of two worlds: the United States and Mexico. The border-town was sleepy, a prevailing unconsciousness extruded from the peoples’ faces, similar to those early-morning dreams one has just before awakening.
Israel pushed past the town and rode farther along into the depths of the forsaken lands. Here, the thirsty mountains loomed a little closer in order to carefully examine the solitary figure riding along their stone ribs. It felt like he had been through here before, as though he were also crossing that nocturnal frontier within his soul towards some preordained rendezvous on the other side of the horizon.
Israel’s family used to call this land, Mexico, their country. But an invisible incision had been freshly sliced into the earth. After the war with the Norteamericanos Israel and his family found themselves stranded in Alta-California, strangers to their own land, foreigners of both the body and soul, motherless nomads. They tried to get along, make a life as they always had, but other settlers questioned the legitimacy of Israel’s family properties: a massive ranch whose only demarcations were the natural wrinkles of the earth. Israel’s padre, too old and too proud to leave his land, had sent Israel to ride into Mexico and retrieve the official documents that would justify ownership and the family’s right to live on the ranch they had always called home.
The sun and its endless caresses of warmth seemed to conjure a dream within Israel’s exhausted mind, one of stars collapsing, an oasis of flesh, an ocean evaporated, documents and papers written with the shifting sands in a language he didn’t recognize. The dream passed and Israel knew it was time to rest.
Inocencia, his horse, was strong but he could sense her muscles stiffening with fatigue. He remembered the words of his father: horses are like women, treat them right and they’ll keep you alive.
Once he set up a small, makeshift camp he watched the sun fall as though it was tired of holding up the weight of the sky.
Long, symmetrical rows of crops lined the hillside and horizon, a signal that Israel was leaving behind a solitary expanse and entering the lands of other men. He rode past a crumbling church with men lazily working as though their limbs, faces, and bodies weren’t their own, trying to reconstruct a distorted skeleton of walls and empty windows.
He arrived at the center of the small town around midday, the sun at its apex and the town devoid of shadows. Dust covered everything, the adobe walls, tiled roofs, iron bars, windows, and porticos. Even the townspeople’s faces couldn’t escape the omnipotent granules, they were there, between that old woman’s wrinkled eyelids, and here, beneath this young man’s tongue. The thin film of sand was a reminder that any lives built atop the exiled lands were condemned to Time’s amnesic gaze.
The official governmental building was adjacent to the central square, which wasn’t more than an open space with a few dead plants and one dismal, leafless tree in the center. Israel tied up his horse, and then once inside the building he spoke to an older gentleman, explaining the situation, the official documents required, who his father was (he was well known due to the sheer size of the family ranch), and the correspondences they had with their former country’s government.
The older gentleman said that yes, they had been expecting the young sir form Alta-California, the paperwork would be ready in one, maybe two days at most, governmental bullshit, you see, and leaned his heavy body closer to Israel.
“The matter of time is important,” Israel said.
“They’ll have it ready when it’s ready,” the man shrugged, “governmental bullshit.” Then he told Israel to enjoy this small town, that he would personally see that Israel found the finest accommodations, some lodgings where the young man could get some well-deserved sleep.
Israel agreed, helpless to do otherwise. He retrieved Inocencia from outside and followed the man to the lodgings across town. Once again the outline of the ruined church reappeared in Israel’s view and his sun-poisoned mind wasn’t sure if he had seen the crumbled walls only once before or a hundred times.
That night Israel lay awake in bed. Acclimating to the world of men is difficult when one has found the ocean of solitude between the desert and the sky. Outside the thin window he heard voices, murmurings of the town, then a woman singing a corrido about a drunken hero who buried his dead wife in the desert, but the sleek and slender body of the woman was actually only a large stone, and the man had never loved anyone in his tired life because the desert, that overbearing and jealous mistress, loved him too much and she would never let him out of her labyrinthine grip.
He idly listened a little longer to the sounds brought to his ear, before dressing and making his way to the stables out back where Inocencia was resting. She too seemed uneasy with this night and its noises. Israel patted the stallion’s thick neck and whispered sweet and soothing words into the animal’s ear. This domesticated beast was the only connection Israel had to his home, the ranch, and its crusted hillsides he knew so well growing up that they were firmly embedded within his soul. He could almost see all the faces of the ranch, tías and tíos, hermanos, abuelos, nephews, cousins, all the faces that passed through their land, their features slight variations on the same theme because they were forged by the same blood, sun, and history. He envisioned his father, the old soldier, riding atop his caballo with his perpetually loaded rifle because the old man was still at war, with time, with nature, with his own soul. He envisioned his mother with her stoical gaze, which always peered into the empty spaces of life’s shattered reflection. Could she see him as he was, a young man, tired, hungry, lonely, and maybe a bit older now because his soul allowed the bitter cold of the desert night to enter in? A fleeting, transparent notion crept across Israel’s mind, that his loved ones had forgotten him the moment he cleared the border.
He whispered a prayer into Inocencia’s ear, “Bring me home, querida,” before leaving to rest once again.
He went searching for those nocturnal sounds he heard earlier, but the town was a semi-conscious specter. Then, from out of the opaque night a silhouette appeared, and only a moment later did Israel hear footsteps.
The feminine outline spoke to him, her voice seemed like the fingertips of a cascading shadow: “Are you alone out here also?”
“Sí,” Israel said, then added, “It isn’t safe for a woman to be out alone. People might get ideas.”
The woman laughed and moved closer to Israel. “Everyone in town knows me and they know I’m not that type of girl. They think I’m mad, but they know I’m not like that. And I’ve found you, so I’m not alone now, am I?”
“No, I guess you aren’t alone now,” Israel said.
Thin yet strong lips above an angular chin with soft and slender cheeks composed the young woman’s face. Her large and round eyes competed with the half-moon above. She was simply beautiful, but something in her eyes made Israel hesitate, as though instead of looking at the constellation in the night sky she peered into those black recesses of nothingness which separate the needlepoints of light.
“May I join you?” she asked.
Israel shrugged and they started along together.
“I knew I’d find you,” she said. “It’s like I had remembered it before it happened, or I had read it somewhere.”
“You can read?” Israel asked, surprised that a woman of humble origins knew the writings of men.
The subtle wind seemed to laugh for her and she said, “No, not words. I read the same things everyone else does, the wind, the rain, the sun, all those things which carry the fate of men within them.”
“Ah, I see,” Israel said.
They walked along and she spoke more, about strange things, stories, the origins of this town, coyotes, empty graves, life, sickness, death, pyramids buried beneath the sand, the sun, the crumbled church, lost children. Israel tried to contemplate what she was saying but he lost her words as soon as she uttered them. Still, something in her voice was reminiscent of the hazy heat which woke Israel on summer mornings.
“We’re both a little lost,” she said.
“You don’t know your town?” Israel asked and surveyed the adobe buildings flanking either side of them. His hand brushed against his knife, just to be sure it was still there. He had heard stories of conniving women who preyed on the souls of unsuspecting men.
“No, I know this town well. It’s probably the only thing I’ll ever know. But us, you and I, we’re lost in a different way,” she said.
“I’m not so sure,” Israel chuckled. “I was sent here. I’m supposed to be here.”
“Any stranger that comes to his town is naturally searching for something they’ve lost,” she said. “I can tell by your longer left stride that you are searching for a home. And the way your head tilts you’re longing for a mother.”
Israel straightened his stride and stiffened his neck. “I have both, up North.”
“Then why are you here and not there with them?” she asked. “But what I mean to say is that you are motherless, without a land, an orphan to the hillsides with no dirt to call your own. Except maybe out there somewhere,” she pointed to the distance, “isn’t that so?”
He didn’t answer and they walked a long stretch in silence, the town also densely quiet, like it was on the precipice of collapsing into the cold earth, as though someone else were imagining it, and the dreamer was ready to wake at any moment.
“You can go ahead and tell me about yourself or I can continue listening to the night and it’ll tell me everything I need to know about you,” she said.
He spoke a little about himself, about his family, the hacienda, how he was sent by order of his aging father, how he had traveled through the desert without speaking a word, yet he heard more voices than he could ever dream to count.
“And they sent you alone? No tienes hermanos?”
“They have their own lives, families, wives, husbands, children.”
“They sent their youngest?”
“I’m not the youngest. There were others. But winters are cold and help is far.”
The two had circled the town and they were returning to the stables as she said, “It’s our innocence, you know, the pendulum within us, our salvation that becomes our condemnation.” Her eyes seemed to contain another story within, but the voice was too far gone, drowned in the edges of her transparent irises.
“I need to rest,” Israel said.
“I know. I’ll wait for you tomorrow, here, at sundown,” she said, and Israel agreed.
“You can kiss me goodnight,” she added, “I don’t mind.”
Israel leaned in and his lips pressed against warm flesh, inviting, soft and subtle like a thunderstorm a great distance away. Then her slight frame slipped into the tactile night, her body swaying to an ancient melody, and Israel was left alone with the ghost of a kiss that tasted so familiar.
The day leaked through Israel, one yellow, sun-streaked moment after another. The governmental papers hadn’t arrived when he checked in the morning, and he found himself with nothing to do except wander amongst the town once again. He attempted to retrace his steps from last night while the sun painted his skin with its vibrant vitality. During daylight the thirsty town appeared smaller and insignificant, as all things are when flanked by a gravel abyss and omnipotent sun above. In the nocturnal darkness of last night though, beside that peculiar woman, the streets had slithered into a labyrinthine coil.
Droplets of white clouds diluted the blue sky throughout the day until the quivering horizon swallowed the last daylight. Israel visited Inocencia, brushed her coat down, and whispered that soon she’d be free and out of the stable, amongst the open land where her muscles could stretch to their full length.
The wait seemed long and empty until the aquiline silhouette appeared. The young woman wore the darkness like a shawl draped across her shoulders. Maybe she only existed at night, a tangential entity to La Luna.
“How long have you been waiting?” she asked.
“Not long,” Israel replied.
“Here, I made these for you,” she said and unwrapped a few warm tortillas from a bundle of cloth.
Israel bit into the warmed masa which melted and slid down his throat.
She added, “I’d made a good wife if I had the chance.”
“Of course. Someday,” Israel said and took another bite.
“No, fate will have it otherwise. I’ll live like Our Virgin. She knows how similar we are.”
“You haven’t told me your name,” Israel said. “I thought about it as I slept last night.”
“You already know it. Maybe you dreamt it last night. It’s Maria. Now, let’s walk while we still have time.”
“You already know it. Maybe you dreamt it last night. It’s Maria. Now, let’s walk while we still have time.”
He let her lead and the streets seemed to snake into new possibilities, stretching and shortening at will. They ended at the crumbled skeleton of the old church.
“Here again?” Israel asked.
“All paths, no matter where they are in the world, naturally lead to the river or a pile of debris, sometimes even both.”
Israel said he had never heard that maxim before. His thoughts turned to the small streams that ran through the hills of his family ranch during the rainy season, and how he had mistaken the sighing water for human voices when he was younger.
“That’s how things are. You’ll find out for yourself, one day” she said and then continued on, telling the story of how the church collapsed, how some said the walls were sunk by an old woman, others claimed a child had opened her mouth and swallowed it, still others were adamant that it was simply the weight of forgotten sins.
“And which do you believe is true?” Israel asked.
“All of them. I wouldn’t tell them to you if I knew they weren’t true,” she said.
A current of light from the half-moon flowed onto everything below, except for the woman’s face, her skin allergic to the phosphoric glow. What frontiers lay within this woman whose presence was as solid as the ocean of stones and mountains just beyond the town, her soul a composition of wind, sand, and the vanishing horizon? Israel wondered if there was a point of congruence between the two of them, if a space within their souls overlapped, or if they’d always long for one another like the desert longs for its ancient ocean to return.
“Vamos,” she said. “There is nothing else to this town. Even if we search every day for a year, we’ll still find nothing.”
Israel didn’t mind, he could have followed this woman through the ghostly streets all night, but her hand, calloused and maybe even scarred, pulled him along.
She told him to eat, finish the rest of the tortillas. “God knows you won’t have any more home-cooked food.”
They arrived back where they started, somewhere outside the stables where Inocencia slept. Israel thanked her for the food along with the walk and her stories, and he began to say more but she interrupted.
“You don’t have to say, but I know you love me. I’ve heard it before, a remnant of your voice. And in my own way I love you, ever since you crossed that border up North. I know you can never take me to those lands up there, but for tonight you can be with me,” she said with sad eyes, her vision focused somewhere beyond Israel, behind, in the darkness that stretches across time itself.
Once the two of them were in the room she began to undress, silently, her fingers and hands following some preordained action. The same wind which had carved out the hills and the plains also shaped her almost perfect curves, and he stroked her waist with trembling hands, yet the wispy sensations in his fingertips was familiar, a path he had navigated many time before.
“Probrecito, probrecito, my little lost angel. You haven’t been with a woman before, I know.” She kissed his neck. “Don’t be afraid, there is nothing you can do, I’m barren.”
No, she was an oasis of skin, flesh, and tangible scents. He pressed his body against hers, he embraced her supple skin, his salvation was there, within the diaphanous yet fractured edges of her soul. Her breath was a chorus unearthed from the dry soil, an echo finally arriving from years past.
“How many times must you perish in my arms?” she whispered.
Israel knew he loved her, maybe even at the simultaneous moment she loved him, the exact moment he stepped through the crystal frontier. He loved her because she was barren, encompassing in her absence. He closed his eyes and an entire night sky floated through his head, the stars—those tiny needlepoints of light—liquefied and dripped down to the dry plains below.
The warmth of the sun gently stirred Israel awake like motherly hands. Daylight filtered in through the window, illuminating the bed devoid of a woman’s flesh. Somehow Israel expected it, her absence at dawn, because she was a creature that existed within the lungs of the night. She could never live beneath the sun, and he knew it.
The official documents had arrived at the governmental building and he had no trouble retrieving them. Inocencia’s muscles were well rested and relaxed, and Israel left the town simply like a whisper.
The days didn’t pass by, rather, they replayed in a cyclical loop fueled by the sun’s shrieking heat. Hadn’t he already seen those hillsides, the ribs of the desert? Hadn’t he already passed that creosote and cacti, the charred navel-hairs of these plains? He kept the morning sun to his right, the evening sun to his left, and Inocencia’s nose pointed North towards the lands he had been born into.
Visions traversed over the backdrop of Israel’s mind, simple impressions of the life he once knew, the dark and potent coffee his father drank, the crisp hiss of earth as it was being shoveled, water dripping off balconies after a storm, his mother’s joints that creaked like wooden walls on a cold morning. At nightfall he heard voices, the voices which whisper a man’s fate and cause time to exist and then pass on by. In the aquiline moments just before sleep he thought about her, that peculiar woman he had loved briefly in that unconscious town, the strange and sublime stories that poured from her mouth. At times he still tasted the ghost of her intimately familiar kiss, and he wondered how much longer it would linger upon his cracked lips now that he was out here in the amnesiac expanse. Her warmth was near also, hovering beside him, extruding from her oasis of flesh. He opened his eyes, his reveries disappearing once he gazed upon the dying embers of his campfire and the ocean of stars above, indifferent to his presence below.
The sun was renewed once again as Inocencia trotted along. Roads, trails, other towns should have crossed Israel’s path by this stage of the long journey, but the open landscape hinted at nothing except a continuation of its placid, beige coloration. His food was gone, the final droplets of water sloshed through his canteen, and Inocencia hadn’t lapped up anything to drink in days. The papers he had been sent to retrieve were still stowed away safely within a wooden box and the tough leather of his saddlebag, the ink and paper thrummed with life and gained weight the farther he pushed towards the horizon. He dreamed of casting the papers into the lifeless sand and riding off, Inocencia in full gallop back home. These papers were a needless anchor tethering him to the oceanic gravel. No, he convinced himself he could survive these lands with the papers intact. He recalled the words his mother spoke to him ever since he was a small child, that his family blood had been forged in the choking dust and heat, that it was an inseparable part of his soul.
He dismounted and rested Inocencia in the shade of rock outcropping. It was better to only run her at night from now on, when the cooler, blue air reinvigorated exhausted lungs. He looked across the dead plains and laughed at the shimmering, false water of the distance. With his right hand against the butt of his pistol he whispered to the cracked earth that he wasn’t that dumb, that he knew her tricks well enough. His voice clawed its way from out of his body as he cursed himself, then aimed. One, two, three, gunshots disappeared into the phantom waters of the distance.
Inocencia’s stride stretched across the nocturnal abyss, galloping along, chasing the silver mist cast by La Luna. Israel knew his horse’s muscles ached to be let loose, to be free from the constraints of the day’s heat. He had found a path earlier in the day, a forgotten path overgrown and barely visible, and he hoped it lead to somewhere, a town, a village, the cool waters of a river. Crisp air with azul edges blew across his face and sliced open his brittle lips. Every few strides Inocencia snorted thought her giant nostrils and Israel caught a draft of her hot breath against his neck. If Inocencia kept up this pace they’d make it home in a few short nights, the work finally finished and his homecoming complete, a son worthy of his own name. His exhausted muscles were on the verge of shattering and his starving stomach was gnawing into his ribcage. He shed those agonizing thoughts and left them behind to the deprived earth. Across the infinite sands there were people, loved ones awaiting him, those who would appreciate the fresh wrinkles carved into his face. His poncho trailed behind and caressed the wind as he kept Inocencia moving across the night.
Two loud, jerking snaps tore through the air. The pounding hooves ceased instantly, Inocencia shrieked. The boundless night halted, an absolute transparency overcame Israel’s mind. The desert whispered chorus of secrets to him, a revelation unfolded, and he saw each mountain, each forgotten crevice, each grain of sand, each thistle and thorn with perfect clarity, the images composing a panorama of desolation. Then he felt himself fall to the earth, his brittle body pummeled into jagged stones, his chest almost collapsing in on itself. He lay there, face down and cheeks bleeding, huffing the grains of sand that clawed at his parched throat. He slowly rose to his feet and attempted to brush off the dirt which clung to his body, trying to reclaim his skin as its own. His right arm and shoulder dangled uselessly, broken in more places than he could count.
Behind, a few paces back, lay the massive body off Inocencia, her hind legs kicking and scrambling, hooves scraping against the dry earth. She whimpered in pain and attempted to stand but her unsteady legs gave out and she buckled with a deadening thud. The whimpers continued, air siphoning out of her lungs as she lay inert. Israel drug his own wounded body towards his horse, his refuge, his sole connection to his home and his youth. The hazy dust-cloud between Israel’s temples cleared long enough for him to examine Inocencia, and his fingers brushed upon her broken and mangled front legs. She couldn’t go on, her stride would never return, her terminal point had been reached, here, on this lonely patch of land.
With his one functioning hand Israel stroked the neck of the animal he had loved like a member of the family he was desperately trying to remember now. She peered at him with her primitive eyes, terrified, unable to comprehend the numb cruelty of the night. Her shuddering hide calmed after Israel whispered words into her ears, “It’s okay, relax, I’m here. Niña bonita, estoy aquí.”
A throbbing pain swelled along the right side of Israel’s shattered body and he kneeled down. The night churned in its indifference as Israel nestled Inocencia’s head into his lap.
“You did good. You’ve always done good,” he said. “It’ll be over soon. Just rest, amor, rest.”
He muttered a dry curse to the placid stars above, the points of light that traced out every constellation and mapped out the unknown fate of each man. How many deaths had they witnessed from above, privileged in their apathetic reign overhead, while the lives below reached a silent terminus? Maybe this place, the desert and the sky, had seen too many deaths, knew the outcome of every man who wandered through with sin and innocence in his soul, and now this palace devoid of walls or windows had no use for the suffering of men.
A warm liquid seeped into Israel’s lap and for a moment he thought it was the blue night itself spreading across his skin, but the sensation was too warm, too thick. His fingers followed the droplets up towards the source: Inocencia’s flared nostrils. She huffed a few more heavy breaths. She wouldn’t make it to the morning. Regret and unfulfilled memories settled over Israel, he couldn’t give her one last sunrise, one last glimpse of the open land she had been born and raised to traverse. He unfurled his poncho and spread it over her head along with her eyes, those brown marbles that absorbed the mute heavens. The muzzle of the pistol briefly caught the silver light of the moon, trembling as Israel pressed it against the poncho. A single salvo ruptured the night before the opaque silence returned.
Israel grabbed the box of cherished papers with his hand, the left hand, the good hand. He staggered on, his aching body desperate to leave the negative expanse of land, sky, and the invisible incision of the horizon that separates the two and keeps the entire world aligned. Fleeting visions crossed the desert of his mind, forgotten as soon as they arose, fragments of lights, shards of sounds, voices, hands, warmth. Heavy feet barely slid over the sand, dragging dust along, each step seemed to cost him another lost night of his life, yet he lumbered on. How many steps had he taken, how many nights had passed? He peered behind to see how far he had gone only to gaze upon the limp outline of Inocencia still close, just barely out of reach. The desert wouldn’t give him up.
The wind picked up and whispered a hymn to him, low at first, then it gathered into a chorus until he heard voices, distinct murmurings, and they relayed stories to his ear, about how he was meant to stay here, how he had always been here, year upon year the same fate, voices like his mother’s, his father’s, the woman from the sleepy town that he loved only in the dead of night, and even more voices, familiar, always familiar with their prayers calling to him.
The dry earth, anxious for her ancient ocean to return, swallowed the saline droplets that fell to her, her thirst quenched for the night. Opaque silence settled once again.
The rounded outlines of moisture vanished in the heat of the sun’s rising tide.
Tamayo pulled his hand back from the caballero and the crystallized memories retreated into the night. He peered at the rider, Israel, and saw a face covered in dust, cracked lips and a sadness in his eyes that was washed out in the misty moonlight, yet Tamayo recognized all of these features as his own, like a reflection of his face filtered through a corroded mirror.
The familiar voice of Tamayo’s grandfather broke in, “You must be tired, very tired.”
“Sí,” the caballero said.
“Are you hungry? We brought you food,” the old man said and handed a few tortillas to the caballero.
“Me estoy muriendo de hambre. I can’t remember the last time I ate,” he said as he bit into the warm masa. “I just want to see my mother and then sleep.”
“Sí, she has been waiting for you. You can give us the papers and then go on and rest. We’ll take them to your father.”
“Muchas gracias,” Israel said, digging out the small wooden box from the worn leather saddlebag. He handed the papers to Tamayo who held them with uneasy hands.
The old man broke in and asked, “Did you see any others out there, also returning? A woman, lost amongst the border, searching for her son?”
“No, there were no others. The desert is a lonely place,” the rider said, then he walked away. Dark splotches littered his torn poncho and the gold buttons of his pants shifted like reptilian scales. He lay a hand upon his horse’s thick neck and led her off, the two of them, a lost son and a crippled horse, disappeared into the night.
Tamayo peered up at his abuelo but the old man kept gazing into the darkness as though his eyes gathered those things that one only sees in old age. The box of papers within Tamayo’s hands seemed to yawn alongside the cool air.
“I saw things, Papa. Strange things,” Tamayo said.
“Yes, you’ve seen the delicate tragedy that christened out blood. It’s our collective memory, our collective fate. We become lost, Tamayo, always.”
Tamayo opened the box and the brittle wood exhaled, but inside were no papers, no documents, only a pile of sand that sifted between Israel’s fingers, warm somehow, reminiscent of a mother’s caress. Images cascaded through his mind and he thought of her, her voice, her hands, her hair that flowed like a riverbed, her body and flesh the consistency of sand, her eyes the consistency of gravel. She was still out there, across the sea of stones, that ocean devoid of water. He could still hear whispered traces carried over by the warm winds.
They waited a long time upon that vista, two men, one old and one young, one searching for a mother, one waiting for a daughter.
“I don’t think she’s coming, Papa,” Tamayo finally said.
The old man shook his head. “No. We’ll pray for next year.”
Tamayo followed his abuelo. The rusted pickup gurgled to life and they began their descent back downhill.
Frank Strong takes his inspiration in equal measure from his philosophical studies and the almost ceaseless sunshine of Southern California/Northern Mexico