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The Dead Man in Palen Pass
I am the one who watches, I am the one who sees. Just a pair of eyes floating over the desert; eyes narrowed on the world that is, the world that shines in the light of our own -- our only star. Hawk in the air, dunes of glowing sand.
I'm talking to myself again.
There is a great light that made this world -- the light that lifts mountains into the sky at daybreak, the light that pours dawn into all the blue canyons, the light that sweeps night off the dunes with the roar of enormous morning.
In the beginning there was the world some people say. Wrong. In the beginning there was light, and no human eyes will ever see that light fail.
If it helps you sleep at night you can imagine the end of time -- no heat no light, no voice forever; lead and ice. Nothing moving ever not a spider not an ant, galaxies burned down to slag with dead worlds drifting through the emptiness the stars once fired.
But none of our kind will have the knowing of that -- we'll disappear into darkness ages and ages before the stars burn out.
We're all as crazy as hoot owls, the whole bunch of us, believe me. We made a bargain with the devil, sold our souls, ate the fruit off of the tree of forbidden knowing; one story's as good as another.
There is a great light that made this world but be careful what you name it. Not the light of truth not the light of love not the light divine, forget every word. Bedtime stories. You're not a child anymore.
Starlight -- the light of our one particular star -- I already told you that, aren't you listening?
The same light came howling out of the sun five hundred million years before we came and the sun will fill this earth with that same wild noise five hundred million years after we vanish forever.
Don’t go hiding in poetry. I know all those old poems too. All those old poets, all those old priests and shamans and seekers, yearning for the high unchanging perfection of a light not of this world. Crazy as hoot owls, I'm telling you.
What other world could there be? A more real world that uses the real world as a mask to hide behind? What kind of lunacy is that? They were fine poets sure enough, but purely deranged.
Poetry feels good, but so what? Out here a drink of water feels pretty good too. In the end, you'll find the taste of water a lot more useful than the odd surge of joy a poem sends up the back of your head.
And there's one thing I’ll never let you forget -- this desert saved your life.
Remember that time out there by the Palen Mountains when it seemed like you were sunk beneath an ocean of sunlight ten thousand years deep? Well, this is another time like that. The winds are blowing again out of the geographies of forever.
But you, you’re sleepwalking through the heat of noon. You think you’ve been awake for hours, ever since you crawled out of your greasy old sleeping bag, yet truth is you’ve been sleepwalking all your life. Now the sun’s at meridian and the light hammers its world until the smitten dunes glow white.
Now look out -- all of a sudden the white sand will clang like a gong, jerking you awake at last on the seabed of an ocean of blazing light, years and years down beneath a seamless sky. And the minute you open your eyes, the aching lunar purity of that light will pierce you through the heart with a shaft of longing and pin you up on the sky's dome like a butterfly stuck in some child's collection.
Because this desert saved your life.
The wind is blowing again out of the final landscape, carrying the smell of rain. When the rain falls the mountains will melt away like piles of sugar and fetch up, in utter black silence, on the bottom of the ocean.
So what makes you think you deserve to live forever? I’ve told you plenty of times that this haunted land is all that's left of a green country that dried out when the ice age ended. That saltpan out there, gleaming like ivory, that was once a lake of never-failing water where mammoths, men, and sabercats came down to drink.
Disappeared, dried up and blown away. The hunters and the hunted gone off past the horizon where the blue peaks curve into unknowing, leaving behind mountains scraped down to bone.
Just before dark the hills are washed in colors that have no names. You might see the red of corals that grew in the first seas. You might see the stubborn orange of a clay pot filled with maize and buried in an ancient grave. You might see five-thousand-foot towers of broken rock, lighted from within by their own brilliance; by stars hidden inside them.
So look, look! This is your only chance, this is the time to fix in your mind; the sight of the mountains shining with that freezing blue glow, like the desert had gone and carved a glacier into a range of sawtooth peaks.
You got to look now because you'll never see that light again, in minutes it'll pass over into a deeper kind of luminous violet. Or maybe a different color altogether. How should I know?
I'm no fortune teller.
But I can tell what's coming now. I really wish you wouldn't get started on all that old stuff again. I’m so sick of your questions. Why do I have to suffer? Will this pain ever go away? Will I always be alone? Then you’ll start thinking that your life could have been different, that you could have been happy. You think of someone who once loved you and you mourn the past. There are no words to say how useless your grief is.
I suppose it could be true, that right now she's sitting in a room where three daffodils in a glass of water continue to be yellow.
And maybe a shaft of blonde sunlight slips through the window and climbs into her lap like a baby.
But so what? What does she have to do with you now? The past is not real. These wind-combed dunes signify a past of rock broken into sand and all that the past can ever be are such fragments as may tumble into this moment.
But you go on thinking that if she had loved you enough to stay till you got stronger -- and you sure did get stronger -- then your life would never have carried you into this place at all.
Never this house of light, never this nation of silence. You think we wouldn’t be lying here now, side by side on these boneyard sands, face up to a sky of wonder, arms thrown out like we’d been crucified on a soft tomb of shattered quartz. But that's another of your mistakes.
This place was always waiting for you--this loneliness, this beauty, this empty desert, your empty heart. You never had a prayer of escaping a night all bejeweled with mysteries, all studded with signs and spangles.
You know I’m right. I can tell you everything you need to know. I just wish you could puzzle out the wise one’s ancient riddle. Simple question. What’s the difference between being and nothingness? I can’t tell you. Doesn’t work unless you figure it out for yourself.
Do you know that if I could, I’d give you all the comfort I own, even if it was my only last peace? But I can still tell you everything you need to know. To start with, things are tough all over. You aren't the only one with problems. Just the other day I saw this dead guy lying out under a creosote bush. Maybe you'd like to trade places with him?
Sunset was beginning to kindle the dunes when I came on the dead man lying beside an old jeep trail running through Palen Pass. He'd been dead a while. Face down, arms out in front of him.
First I thought he was wearing jeans and a leather vest, but when I got closer I could see he was only wearing jeans, he had taken off his shirt and the leather I'd seen was really his back, burned almost black by the sun, cooked from inside by bacterial fires. A sugary stink rode out on the wind, bad manners with no apologies.
A big guy, grey hair, balding, maybe fifty, fifty-five. He was wearing a cheap wristwatch and you could see the white elastic waistband of his underwear sticking up above the top of his jeans; homely little details. He must have been crawling on his hands and knees to leave such a track to his final creosote bush. In its meager shade he lay down to rest.
He was still lying there when I went on my way again, down from the pass and south into a nameless valley where stands of ironwood and mesquite and desert willow grow thick along the dry washes.
I felt like sleeping on sand, or at least not up in the wind scoured bleakness of the pass. Didn't fancy dreaming in that chewed-over landscape of relict mines and ruined cabins and all of Patton’s old armored warfare training grounds. Besides, there was the dead man.
Just before he reached the final creosote bush, he’d emptied out his pockets -- two sets of keys, one to a Dodge truck, and a handful of change. Why do you suppose he did that? Looking for something? Out of his head? Hard to crawl with stuff in your pockets? Why'd he take off his shirt, where was his truck, what was he doing out here without water, without a hat? You'd have to ask him I guess.
Me, I went south in a hurry, down a track that soon lost itself in a big dry wash; swept clean by sun and wind, rinsed silver by the moon, guarded all night by constellations of towering mercy.
Down that wash flowed the sandy ghost of a river generous with the promise of water, next year or maybe the year after. I went on down it, I had places to go, the way living men do.
The man in the pass, he had joined the majority, as the old timers used to say, so he stayed behind, the way dead men do.
It was a hot day and I felt like his smell was painted on the inside of my face.
The wash was a wide one with channels braiding back and forth through low sand islands and clumps of trees; dividing, scouting a better way down to the dead sea sink at the bottom of the valley, twisting back, joining up again.
In a place that looks as dry as Mars, floods you cannot imagine had stuck tangles of flotsam up in the trees as high as a man can reach. And where the phantom river slowed and eddied, the waters had laid down sand deep enough to grab at the truck. My heart would rise big and cold to the top of my chest and I'd gun the engine and fight the wheel.
Soon enough I picked up a set of tracks heading west towards the far range. As the truck bounced up out of the wash, the sun fired one last red signal in my mirror and went down behind McCoy Peak.
As long as the light lasted I kept a lookout for the Dodge truck that waited in the willows for the one who would never come, to steer it down the dry washes that meet old jeep trails bladed across the creosote flats.
From there you can see the city lights hundreds of miles out, bruising the bottom of the night with a silvery gleam. You know as well as I do that someday only darkness will live in this place again. For now though the fossil lights flare against the night like matchheads, brief and bright, dazzling away the stars.
But here in our desert, above the dunes above the hills above our sleeping heads, the stars soar all night long, so near, so bright, the sky's brilliant rulers, filling our dreams with promises as we lie on these sweet sands, beside the dry washes where the willows wait for rain.