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Man of the Cactus

The old man has flickering, milky eyes- like those of a desert adder in heat. Feebly shifting his frame on the cot, he strokes the tissue of his gown between withered brown fingers. I wonder idly if the texture is lost to him, muffled so by the callouses pillowing those arthritic instruments. The old man's face is puckered and bristling with stubble; not for the first time do I internally liken him to one of the cacti so ubiquitous here.

I can tell the sterile nature of his environment agitates him, he is out of his element. As the desert man's nostrils dilate in distaste at the omnipresent whiff of antiseptic, I marvel at the cruel tenacity of that olfactory sense. Would it not be kinder to acclimate to the stale air? Allow it to slowly expand his lungs and filter through his body with the same mortal acceptance of my family; knowing that every asbestos-ridden breath in our tenement condemns us? But he is of the arid desert winds, smelling of ancient cities long-crumbled to the same sand coating throats and lashes.

Almost catatonic, he gazes at the bland wallpaper adjacent; the yellowing florals smudged at the level of one rounding the corner in a wheelchair. I know it to be the signature of a neighboring resident, whose ritual it is to stroke the wall as she is wheeled passed to the dining hall.

Weeks have rendered me sensitive to the most minute expression on that wistfully vacant countenance. The leathery dips and dunes of bones jutting proudly, the hollowed temples and fossil teeth- this is the landscape of my musing. In my knowledge of his sentience, however vacant his demeanor, I have suppressed the urge to touch him. To trace the varicose veins like water in that parched expanse of neck; to caress cuticles gnawed in what the nurses call 'fever dreams'. I yearn to intimate myself with this relic of a man, as decrepit and enduring as that plant of the desert.

I realize I am clutching his hand in my own, heaving sobs that hitch sharply in my chest under the sudden, all-consuming gaze of those bleached, primordial eyes. I know then what I must do.

I will steal this man of the cactus.



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