The last triumph possible for a man who can no longer hope, is beauty.
It is hot. The dry sun is hot. It makes the arid desert hot. It makes the salty sand hot. The vastness of the dry heat makes you think that there is no wet heat anywhere, that there is no such thing as water, wetness, satisfaction, salvation. Miles and miles above the ground, all you can see is rolling hills of sand, like a soft blanket. It’s kind of pretty. The hills are formed by currents of wind spinning through small dips, whipping the tiny pebbles about, slashing the air as they move to places where the wind is want. Look, down there, in the heat, in the open sun (ha, he hasn’t learned yet) there is a man, a raisin on the landscape, baking. To him that sand is not a soft blanket, it’s a composite of tiny grains of empty pain. Each one burns into his flesh. They’re sharp, hot, and uncomfortable: agonizing. When the torrents of wind come, they tear through more than the air, they tear through his flesh. They whip his body – his back, his face, his legs, his arms, his soul – like iron needles on the ends of whips. He crawls. It’s hard. It’s hot.
The muscles of his hands tighten around a fistful of sand as he tries to pull himself forward. The granules pour between his fingers. They burn. The muscles of his face tighten in agony, tighter than the muscles of his hand. He would cry, but he can’t: his body won’t let him. No matter how hard he squeezes his tear ducts (as tight as his hand, as tight as his face), his body won’t let him give up the precious fluid. But he wants to. He wants to let the moist fluid run over his dry face – his dirt caked, chapped, cracked face. He wants to be saturated back into a grape. His legs spin out behind him as he scrambles for movement, distance – to what? he doesn’t know; he just wants to keep moving, wants to get somewhere, wants to get out of this heat. Each grain of sand feels like the head of a needle as his stomach is rubbed raw. He sits on his feat, defeated, throws his head back, reaches his hands toward the sky, and screams, screams at me. The dryness of the air and the sand rub against him like sandpaper. He can’t take it. Is he going to break? Let’s watch and see:
Based on the bags under his eyes, I would say he’s been here about four days. There’s no telling how he got here. There never is. It’s always a random, meandering series of events that no one except the stranded person can really understand. I’d say I’d give him two more days, but I’ve decided to stop guessing: it’s too hard. You would think it would become easy after a while, that I would have some kind of idea about the type of people that will make it or not, but I don’t. Surely there are some basic things that need to be learned – like you don’t try to move in the heat of the day – and figuring these things out has to do mostly with intelligence, so you could say a more intelligent person has a better chance. But even that’s not consistently true. Sometimes intelligence stops people from going on: they think rationally – I’ll never make it out, the desert is too big, I have no water, etc., etc – and they just give up. But you definitely need to learn not to move during the heat of the day. When the sun rises, you should dig a hole on the west side of a hill and hide in it until noon, switch sides and wait for the sun to set, then travel at night. If you have no idea where you are, you make a compass by taking one of those small sticks, wedging it in the sand, and using the shadow to show you east-west. It’s pretty simple, really. We’ll see if he figures it out:
It’s the things they think about that really interest me. That’s what makes them who they are, and what makes them human – what makes them so much more interesting than the animals out here. Animals always think the same things: water, water, water. It’s never different and it never changes. People grow and learn. You find out what’s really important to them, and why. Just look at what he’s thinking now, still with his eyes squinting, looking up for me:
“Why me? Why me?…”
They always think that. Look at him still squeezing his tear ducts, stretching his chapped face ‘till it bleeds. He needs to learn to look outside the situation. If he stays at this much longer, he wont make it through this dry, hot day.
“What did I do? What did I do to deserve this? This pain, this loneliness?” He rolls onto his side, slightly submerging himself in the hot, dry sand. It burns, but instead of getting up, he just writhes in it, squirms. “Where are the people I love? Why am I all alone?” Even he doesn’t know. Some think they do. Some blame themselves, think of every little thing they could’ve done differently. He’ll probably go through that eventually. “I tried so hard, and I just got thrown into this.” He’s still blaming the world. He grinds his teeth and rubs his hands together, they make the same sounds, “grind, grind, scrape, scrape.” He’s shaking. He’s scared. Poor bastard. When will he learn? Get up, get up man! Make this a little more interesting!
The top half of his body is fried red. This is like no sunburn you’ve ever seen. The lines of chapped scars are cauterized together. The red is so intense that you cannot see the huge pussing blisters, but they’re there. Oh, make no mistake, they’re there. He will regret having lain there all day long in the morning. Now, he’s not worried; he does not see the sun setting, as his eyes are blinded from staring at the reflective sand all day, but he feels it. The night grows cooler, the intense light fades away, revealing calming darkness. The sun explodes on the horizon: a fireworks show of such grandeur only I can produce it. As the fireworks fade, the stars sparkle on. He feels the air cool; he feels the stars’ light; he feels the moon; he just wishes that the sand would feel differently. It doesn’t. It’s still dry and painful, so he ignores the night, and focuses on the sand as he falls asleep. Stupid fool! He should be getting up now, pressing on. Anyway, this should make for interesting dreams:
It begins with water, of course. He sees a falling stream of water, absent of background or place, it just falls through space: falling, pouring off the edge of sight. His vision moves toward it, watching it fall. It slows. He watches every drop. He observes the properties of water: droplets pulling toward one another, splashing into each other’s arms, dancing in little jiggles. His hand reaches out into his field of view, reaching for the water – he stops it, slowly turns it over, and examines it. He closes it and opens it, slowly, watching all the muscles, bones and tendons working in perfect harmony as the water falls behind it. He opens it widely, palm upward, and reaches for the water: it splashes over the hand, runs through the fingers, moves down his arm, but it’s not real, he can’t feel it. He’s angry. He retreats, turns to a house – his grandmother’s house. It just sits in space as well, but he walks through this space to the familiar blue door. He notices the little sign that his grandpa made, the same sign he noticed every other time he walked to that door: a wooden cutout of a crow and chick; written on its base, in his grandfather’s handwriting: “A hot chick and an old crow live here.” He smiles at the unprofessional but cute craftsmanship, turns away from it, and opens the door. He enters the room happily, noticing all of the old, familiar decorations: the gray carpet, the wall of pictures, pictures of himself and his most recent girlfriend, the old grandfather clock – he’d loved that grandfather clock. He’s loved it since the day he was born: its massive form, graceful lines, and delicate craftwork with spindles of gold. And oh the sound! – it held the faint memories of all his family before him in one deep sound, resonating – Bong! He stops for a moment and stares, moving over its hard lines with his eyes; then moving over its subtle lines with his eyes. “The small swirls look like they turn, look like they dance inside of the wood. But they can’t move, their limits are inside the larger frame,” he thinks. “Why’s the house so silent? It’s never silent here. Where is everybody? Grandma’s place is always full of kids running around, adults lounging on the couch, and grandma’s always in the kitchen, cooking for all of us. Oh my, the food.” He runs to the kitchen and opens the fridge, forgetting about his missing grandma, forgetting about the click of her heals and the way he used to bend over to hug her, commenting on her new apron. Pies. The fridge is filled with pies: cream pies, pumpkin pies, every kind of pie you can imagine, every kind of pie he’s ever had. He pulls out a giant, fluffy cream pie, scoops his hand into it, unfazed by the fact the he can’t feel it, and shoves it into his mouth. It turns to sand. He grimaces, shutters and falls to the floor, holding his stomach in pain.
He wakes. No, he did not fill his mouth with sand, the inside of his mouth just feels like sand. It’s dry, and each cell is so dry and coarse that it feels like sand when he moves his dry tongue across it: like sandpaper against sandpaper. He wallows as he thinks about the dream:
“Oh grandma!” he screams. He shouldn’t’ve done that, he shouldn’t’ve wasted the moisture. He pouts now, with no tears of course, just a tight face. “Oh god, I miss you,” just thinking now, not shouting like a damn fool, “I miss you so much. Thanksgiving dinner. Sitting on your couch watching movies all day. Going to the kitchen for another glass of water every hour. Oh man, the water. So free, so flowing and beautiful. Oh how I took it for granted!” He falls on his burnt side. “Fuck!” he screams. Screaming again – foolish. “Ahhhhh!” still screaming. Finally, he rolls over and sucks it in. His body probably told him to do that. Whether he realizes it or not, his body made him do that. But his body can’t make him go on. It’s still cool and dark out. He should move.
“Oh grandma. Click, Click. I wish I could hear the tapping of your shoes now, consciously moving about the kitchen, never wasting a step. That’s the way you were: perfectly precise with you life, perfectly precise with my life. Click, Click. The high heels you wore around the house, three inches, you wore them everywhere you went to make up for your height – four-foot, eleven. We all laughed and joked about it, but in our hearts you were bigger than the tallest woman. I gave you Owen Meany on your birthday, once. Owen always reminded me of you: you always thought there was a plan – you said there was a reason why my mother died, why grandpa left when you took Caitlin and me in. God, I loved you grandma.
“‘Grandma, I don’t want to go back to school.’ I’ll never forget that. Ten years old. My friends started making fun of me. I didn’t know why. I still don’t. They all just turned on me and stopped hanging out with me. I was so sad.
“‘Come here, honey.’ You wrapped me in your plump arms and pulled me against your warm body. Oh the way your hands felt as you ran them through my hair! Straightening out my hair as you straightened out my life. ‘You’ll make new friends. They come and go. Some people are just mean, and everyone is mean once in a while. You never know what to expect. But whatever happens, keep your head up. Life is unpredictable. You can’t get down because someone doesn’t like you, you’ll never get up. And I know you love school. I know you love it because I see and hear how well you do. You’re going to make something of yourself some day. Don’t you want to go back?’
“‘Yes grandma, I do!’ And I sobbed. I didn’t get it until I felt a tear from your eyes, your heart, your soul, rub between your fingers and my scalp. I love you, grandma.”
He sobs without tears for a moment. His chest swells. He pounds his fist into the sand; it gives a bit, but the pressure is enough to thrust him upward so his foot can slip between the sand and his torso. He’s crouched, breathing deeply. The sun is yet to rise, the sand looks cobalt and the sky looks black. He rises powerfully, and begins to walk. Maybe he is beginning to learn. Perhaps he will learn this lesson (moving after the sun has set) by chance. Yet he has no direction; he’s just walking.
He pushes on with powerful steps, but each one slips in the sand. When you walk through the sand with normal steps it adds ten upward degrees to the difficulty of your journey: if you’re walking on flat sand, it’s like you’re walking up a ten degree grade; if you’re walking down a sandy hill, it’s like you’re walking on flat ground; if you’re walking uphill, well, it’s fucking hard. One must learn to walk with a different sort of step. We’ll see if he learns. As it is, he’s headed in the right direction, but he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t know it because he doesn’t pay attention to the little things. To learn to make it through the desert you must focus on the smallest details of the things that move you, and understand them deeply. If you don’t, you end up like him, wasting effort. You dry up. His sheer drive is getting him across the flat ground. Now, as he’s walking down a hill he feels like he’s floating. But let’s see what happens when he has to climb up a hill:
“I can do it. I can make it out of here. I must, I must, I must. I must push on and persevere.” All reasons, no rhyme. “Oh grandma, the way you held me. My friends and school. I went on. I did it. And that was the start. I overcame that. I will overcome this. I will keep on. There’s a reason.” But what is it? Oh, now comes the uphill. His first uphill step is totally lost to back-slide. His thoughts go blank. “God damn it! C’mon, push.” He grits his teeth and pushes harder. His steps sink farther into the ground; his thoughts sink further into the subconscious. “Agh.” He falls to his knees, pulling up with his fists. He is relentless, but his fists sink and his face is planted into the face of the hill. Fool, pull it out, don’t drown now! Give me a show! His breath is stopped. His muscles loosen. He’s going to give up. He’s going to breathe it in. “Phew.” No! he blows out! blows sand into his eyes and rolls to one side, rubbing them. “God damn it,” he screams and flings his hands from his eyes, banging them against his thighs. He kicks and writhes on the ground, stirring sand about, accomplishing nothing. He stops. Paralyzed, he breaths deeply, thinking nothing, just listening to his breath. He will rest now, just as the sun is rising. And he on the other side of the hill – the lucky bastard. Perhaps he will learn two lessons by chance. No, he begins to rise. No, he settles again. And sleeps. Will he learn? Will he wake? Will his dream help? Let’s see:
He’s remembering his first year out of college. Oh, that degree from Princeton landed him a fine job at the newspaper, but he wanted to write novels, he wanted to be D.H. Lawrence. He’s seeing himself at his bare kitchen table in the middle of the night, punching keys on his laptop. This went on for years, every night. He was dedicated. He did all the things his writing teachers and the books on writing told him to do: he worked every day, he wrote stories that had no clichés, deep meaning, and many characters, and showed, didn’t tell, every detail. He created some great characters, he’s dreaming of some of them now. “Oh, Anthony, the poor barber who cared about objects not people. He was always focused on those damn scissors when he should’ve looked at the co-worker who was wielding them. She was beautiful; her long blonde hair made every customer want to keep coming back. She let it grow long, never cutting it, only trimming the split ends. It was free, as she was with her rosy smile, greeting all her regulars by their first names. She was a true beautician. Anthony couldn’t keep his eyes off her scissors. They represented her beauty to him, instead of her beauty being something on its own. Those sleek, long, designer scissors, next to his rusty hand-me-down pair. Just because of that contrast he thought he could never be with her. The only reason he even noticed her beautiful hair was because a long piece once became entangled with her scissors at the end of a hair cut, and she laid them on the communal counter where he saw them. Why did I make you, Anthony? Why did I become obsessed with you and your type? Why did I send you into the publishers? Your lack of shimmer is why I was never published despite years of work. I had all the motivation to write, but I was never on the right track. I didn’t know what real creation was. Why didn’t I focus on Jane, and her long blonde hair? It moved the way freedom does: gliding over every obstacle, never tangling.” He sees the hair, floating about, circling and swirling like heat waves. It consumes his whole view. It radiates in spirals as it grows brighter and brighter – it becomes glowing, burning, it bursts through his eyelids – “Ahhh!” he screams as he opens his eyes, staring directly at the sun. He’s temporarily blinded. He quickly folds into a crouched position again, this time rubbing his eyes. It’s amazing how quickly they forget about everything else when they can’t see: he’s not thinking about the fact that hours went by as he was thinking about two of his fictional characters, he’s not thinking about how the sun has come out to antagonize him for another day, he’s not thinking about how hot and dry he is, he’s not thinking about water, his dry mouth, his sandpaper skin, his cracked face, or the miles of desert in every direction. He’s focused on rubbing his eyes until he can force his body to waste some water on them that they may be moisturized. It’s scary for him to think that he may not be able to see again, even if the only thing he will ever see is the empty, hot, dry dessert. It scares him so much that he cries. Tears of fear, tears of pain, tears of joy: they tear themselves from his ducts with pain at first, then begin to flow, then pour like they haven’t since his grandmother’s funeral. They bathe his eyes. He is elated, painfully elated. They trickle down his chapped face, stinging with wonderful pain. They cross his lips. He licks them with his sandpaper tongue – “Oh, salty heaven.” He falls to his elbows, bowing like a good saint paying homage. Really, he is praising the rain that his face has given him. It has renewed his sight. Hands in the air now, blessing the heavens. “Oh,” he speaks inaudibly: face tight, lips moving; “Thank you.” He looks down at the sand, chuckling for a moment -great chuckles of hearty joy. “Oh-ho-ho…. Huh.” He relaxes now. His breathing is regular, but conscientious. He’s looking at the sand through new eyes. He sees something in it that he has never seen before. He sees Jane’s hair. He sees Jan’s hair – oh, of course, the essence of every character of fiction has been taken from someone in the author’s life: Jane is the clever stand-in for Jan, a girl he loved and never approached; Anthony is, of course, a clever stand-in for himself, as is every other character that was rejected by the publishing companies for lacking luster. He doesn’t think about that now. Good. He’s thinking about Jan’s hair, and he’s no longer thinking of her as Jane. Her hair runs through the sand, the golden, woven sand. He picks up a handful of it with a new intention, to learn. He pours it through his fingers, watching it pile on itself, watching it interact with itself in its uniform ways. “It has properties. It slides and moves with direction. It gives and pushes. It’s dry, but it’s beautiful.” He drops the rest of his handful onto his pile and presses his palm onto it, feeling the way it squishes. He slowly rises upon his hand, feeling the give of pressure, the balance of retribution. He does not think of the burning or scraping. He rises to his feet, and walks gently up the mountain, serenely ignoring the pain and following the woven path of gold before him, golden hair, a golden pattern. He reaches the top and sees black at the bottom – “Cool.” He wades down the hill, and lies in the shade, sleeping until night. That’s a rational thing for him to do; most would’ve taken their new-found power and walked all day. They would’ve then died. He is patient. Maybe he’ll be interesting, yet.
Asleep again, dreaming of Jan – fantasy, good fantasy: silent, she’s in space, floating and spinning, her blonde hair perpendicular to where the ground would be. He notices it. His view moves toward her. She is oblivious to him, her eyes are closed, she’s spinning as if on a pedestal, the pedestals he creates for everybody by defining them by their physicality. “The physical doesn’t matter.” He reaches to her with the hand he focused on so intently before and puts it to her hair. Her hair flows through his hand as the water did before. This time he’s not frustrated. He’s glad. He moves his fingers up and down, moving them as if he were moving them between strands of hair. “Heaven. Why did I never try to reach this before? Why could I not just reach out and learn this? Learn that you were as accessible as the water in my grandmother’s faucet?” She slowly stops spinning. She comes to a stop, looking directly at him. Her hair falls to her shoulders, naturally. He took her off the pedestal, “You’re alive.” Her eyes open, she looks directly at him. He moves toward her and extends his arms to embrace her. She is solid now, she reacts tenderly to his grasp, winding her body in his arms: ecstasy. They hold each other and kiss. Every tactile nerve in his body is stimulated. He wants to pull her closer and closer. He wants to pull her inside of himself, make them one. He runs his fingers through her hair. The scene slowly fades. He wakes.
The sun is setting over the hill. He walks back up it, slowly. Wow, a brave move. He is ascending a difficult hill that he has already crossed just to see my sunset. He will have to descend it again to continue on his way, but he does not think of that as he makes his way up with careful steps. He watches the sunset in a way few people ever do: silently – not just vocally silent, but silent in thought as well. He sees it, feels it. The colors recede across the sky, then move in front of him like a giant reel of film rolling over his head. He sees it all by focusing on the horizon. When the colors fade to deep blue, he turns and begins to move. He knows why this time, because Jan’s hair is leading him somewhere, he sees it in the sand, woven like a soft path. He walks carefully. It’s good that he now has will and a reason, but he will be tested more than this; he is yet to know the meaning of parched. He will know by the end of the night. His serenity will fade; he will have to conjure more memories than these. He will have to culminate everything he has. That is always a dangerous move. It makes or brakes you.
It’s a beautiful sight, these first few hours. He looks like a true pilgrim: slowly walking across the sand in the night, the blue sky behind him, a sternly vertical speck against the hills of sand. This sight is often a symbol of power and endurance to man, but he will fade. He is already hunching over. Look, he’s stumbling now. His serenity is already fading. “Oh, night, you are my one escape from the pain of day. You give me time to move and realign my thoughts. Thank you. It is getting difficult to walk even with your help, though. The sand is deep – The woods are lovely, dark and deep – oh how many of us have been through this. It takes strength. I don’t know if I can make it. ‘Click, click. Click, click.’ Grandma. Is that you? Your small figure against the sky? Two hills down, is that you?” He falls to his knees and peers across the sand. He sees something, but cannot make out what it is. It’s amazing he can see it from this great of a distance. “Surely it’s not you, but I hear you, I hear you calling me from it.” He pushes on, harder. He pushes harder – his feet into the sand – wasting steps again, staring straight ahead, not looking at the path before him. He falls to his hands and knees. He breathes for a second. “Focus, focus, focus. Focus on the path and walk it with purpose.” He slowly rises. He sees his path again. He walks it now, thinking of the object in the distance, but looking at the ground and keeping his mind moving. He remembers:
“Oh grandma, calling me from that hill – calling me from the backyard of our house as the rain begins to fall through the blue sky. I had taken Caitlin with me to the swings at the edge of the field, across grass so tall that it arched over at the top. I look over at her and she smiles that ridiculous grin. She smiles so big her whole face looks mischievous – that devilish child’s grin. I jump off the swing at the top of my arch – she mimics me – we run through the grass – I can barely see her blonde hair over the top of the tall grass, barely see her grin through it, but I can hear her laugh. Her laughter rings in my heart. We pass through the unkempt field to grandma’s mown yard – she’s standing there on the back porch, her stature huge on the horizon. (You’re too big to be that dot.) I stop and look at her – Caitlin runs ahead, up the porch – she grabs your waist, spins around your body and looks out at me with that mischievous grin – you run your fingers through Caitlin’s hair, look out at me, and smile.
“That was my last summer there. Caitlin was six. I still came back every year for the holidays and the tulip festival, but that was the last sight of the family.” Marching, marching, marching. He persists, steadily.
“Off to college and I pursued my dreams. My advisor was a great writer. He had a way about him that tested the incredibility of all young artists and their art. I had to get good to work with him, I had to be conscious of my art. It was hard, but worth it. Dan. Our weekly meeting. He sat back in his chair with his legs crossed, picking at his giant beard. He was a fan of the great Russian authors – Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov – and so he wore a beard in that fashion. I’ll never forget it. I remember his first and foremost piece of advice: ‘Write your ass off.’ That was the only way to write. That was the only way to write well, and that was the only way to write something that mattered – you have to fucking write. I didn’t get it at first – how it connected to life. Now I do. Oh that gleam in his eyes as he critiqued my stories. ‘This character is pursuing a more meaningful life than what is available to him, but when he looks at these women he sees only physicality and becomes happy. What is that?’ What he was teaching me about writing he was teaching me about life. Every piece was a piece of me, and he knew it. To live you’ve got to fucking live, you’ve got to push on. You’ve got to live to write.” Instead of stamping down with this memory, he sets his next foot down even more carefully, careful not to sink. He floats now across the dessert.
“That’s what you meant with all that reading, all that stuff about Plath and Thomas. You saw me slipping. You saw where I was going. You saw my friends. Oh they were beautiful, but where were they getting me? I’ll never forget those guys: the artists of an artsy school. We had wild nights together, but they were truly childish: Brian and his poems that we would’ve laughed at in the morning if we hadn’t’ve helped compose them the night before. I’ll never forget his first published book – he was the one – his bright red hair flaming across the cover, and that T.V. grin. John and his verbosity. He was a frat boy with a conscience. His antics. So crude, yet let to slid for his nature. He was always one for a party, his long hair shaking as he danced to the music – the music of the party, the music in his head – he was always shaking his head. He wrote fiction too; he’s still writing. Like me. Then Chris, the one none of us ever worried about. He was the mellow one – “Yeah, whatever man” – sitting with us, drinking, failing out of classes unlike the rest of us. We always said it would be amazing if he made it through four years. He did. Maybe it would’ve been better for all of us if he hadn’t. It was the one we worried about the least that we should’ve worried about the most. Along with those four years, he got addicted to every drug we tried, and killed his body. All of us took breaks, he was there with whichever one of us was drowning our art for the month. Maybe if he would’ve left it would’ve been better for us all – we would’ve all taken it a little easier. We all had our hard times, but Brian made it seem okay – the real fucking artist – he still bar crawls every day, writing poetry on napkins – but he’ll die young like Dylan, and it will be even more tragic. Living with them made me an alcoholic, a problem I only beat my senior year. It was Kate. Her composure and her beauty drew me away. That long, curly black hair in a tight bun – it really represented who she was: a free spirit held together by her good judgment. We worked things out together. I helped her see the beauty of art as she taught me the reason of life through science. I’ll never forget you.” He stops. There is one valley between the object and he. The sun is rising, casting a halo around the erect figure – “What is it?” He stares, mad that the sun is rising. “Maybe I can get there really quickly.” He runs down the hill, skiing through the sand. The sun rises as fast as he descends. “Shit.” In the valley of the hill he can no longer see the object, but he can see the light of the sun taunting him. “God damn it!” Natural order is really bothering him. He pushes his fist into the face of the hill and begins to make his way up – “No! I’ll wait.” Wow, a wise one. He lies down, slowly, burrows into the hill and rests.
He wakes as the sun rises overhead and slowly ascends the hill. “What could it be?” he wonders. He does not hurry. He gently places his deliberate steps upon the sand and glides upward. He’s mastering this tactic. To him, the hill is but flat ground, even in the midst of the dessert. This is the tallest hill he has yet climbed, a product of heavily drifting currents of air. This also means that he is about to see the largest valley he has yet seen, and then an even larger hill. He thinks nothing, his mind is clear. The landscape is changing. This is good for his movement. But, knowing that he is going to experience something new and possibly frightening, it may be better for him to be preparing with life. Oh, it’s too late, he’s cresting the hill. The tip of the object of his admiration is becoming clear. It’s green, and smaller than he thought. White rays glisten out from every side of it. They’re points, needles. It’s a cactus – it’s flowering. “Oh my.” His chapped face quivers. His jaw shakes so violently that his weak teeth chip. “Oh my god!” he screams out. “Oh my god!” He runs to it, not in a foolish way, but with soft, weak steps. His run shows just how weak he’s become. His legs are so skinny that they don’t lift properly. His knees bend inward to the point that his heels are outturned and it looks like he could fall at any moment. But he moves swiftly. He’s almost crying, but he can’t. He falls on the sand at the foot of the cactus. “Oh my. It’s beautiful.” He stares at the single flowering bud on one side of the cactus. He slowly reaches out to it with shaking hands and gently fingers its petals. “Oh my, oh my.” His face is tight, dry, chapping. He wants to cry, but not for pain or sadness – for joy. He plucks the flower and lays it on the dry sand, then stares at the cactus. He puts his hand against its needles. He can’t feel a thing. He presses his hand against the needles until they break – nothing. He rips the cactus from the ground and tears it open with his hard hands. He licks up the milky water and bites into the rind, chewing furiously. It’s a gross sight – a starving man feasting. The oils are sticking to his face, the needles tear at his chapped skin, he is bleeding, breathing deeply, snorting and sucking up filth with food. Disgusting. It was about the size of a football, now it’s gone. The small bits of the skin at the base of the needles are too hard to eat, they lie scattered on the sand. He breathes deeply. Shame fills his heart. “What have I done?” He looks down at the mess at his feet, realizes his ravaging, feels the sticky mixture of blood and syrup on his face, and cries. He falls to his knees and sits on his feet, his face in his hands. “Oh god, Oh god. what have I done?” Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees the flower. He slowly peers over his hands, and looks at it. Its petals flutter with a slight, hot breeze. It captivates him. He reaches to it and picks it up. His face begins to soften. He brings it to his lips, smells it – sweet, soft, fragrant. His hunger tightens his jaw, he grinds his chipped teeth, then relaxes. He kisses it, gently, and puts it behind his ear. “Time to go.” He slowly rises, his dignity and poise regained. “Time to go.”
He walks across the summit of sand. He sees the hill slip down in front of him. He’s not close enough to the edge to see the valley yet. Across the valley he can see the crest of the next hill, higher then the one he’s on. He moves across the summit gracefully. His mind is clear – moving, moving. He feels a bit of shame. He feels a bit of remorse – moving, moving.
To the edge of his summit, he sees the great chasm that is the next valley on his course. “Oh god it’s big. I can do this one today. By the time I get to the bottom it will already be dark. No rest for this half of the day. I will reach the summit of that hill and go to the next valley for the morning.” He begins down the hill. His movements are effortless.
At the bottom, he looks around: he imagines that this is what it must look like at the bottom of huge swells at sea. He can’t see out of the hole of sand. “Oh how I wish this were a hole of water.” He looks up the hill: not only is it larger than any he has climbed, it’s also steeper. Plus, the hot sun is beating straight down upon him. This is a true test. It’s a stupid move, but it’s a strong one. It’s a true test, a make or break risk. He is conjuring all his ideas. I love it when it’s tense like this. He begins, one foot in front of the other, gently pressing against the tiny grains that hold him up.
It will take more than that to hold him up. Look – his steps weaken. “C’mon, c’mon. ‘Click, click. Click, click.’ Yes.” He presses on. “You always pressed on. After the accident, after they were gone. Oh, what that must’ve been like, losing your only daughter in an accident.” The thorns of the flower begin to dig into his temple, mixing memory and desire. “The dry sand. – you were driving. Oh how many what-ifs? And I’m out here what-ifing myself. The hill is large and steep. You atoned though, you took us in. Grandpa left, who knows. I have to make it to the top. if it was really because of us. Maybe it was because of your scars or reproductive damage. But you pressed on, you dealt. You always kept moving. Click, Click. with the time of the grandfather clock – Bong! And what have I been through compared to you – Kate. And Chris. And. The rough sand. you. Oh Kate, why couldn’t you’ve been there for me at her funeral? Grandma was the last to go. Just a month ago, oh god. Oh my face. She was the last one keeping me there. Bong. This fucking job pending and her sitting there in the hospital. Bong. I was always talking about. The hill. it. It’s my fault you’re gone. Bong. I’ve got to make it. I killed you with those words. Bong. I can make it. You thought it was better for me to be free of you, to be able to go. You could be helping me. All you ever wanted was for me to be happy. For us to be. God it’s hot. happy. Oh Caitlin, why did you have to be so. So, so far to go. far away. You couldn’t even make it to her funeral. All she did she did for us. I can make it now, with your help. Chris’ funeral was. Hard. my first hard moment. I couldn’t believe it when. Oh the dryness. it happened. I had you all then: Grandma running her fingers through my scalp, you smiling that smile you retained to your adulthood, and Kate, Kate holding. This hill will never end. my hand. Brian came up to us, bleak and bleary-eyed, clearly hung over on the money from his third book of poems. Bong. John and I sober. Oh, so fucking sober. Unpublished. I wanted that. Big hill. release too much. It was too much to see you, to see John, with a still head – no longer bobbing his fucking head. What happened. So dry. to the music? I wanted. How do I walk? to go to the bar right then. Oh god, Kate. The way you. How? held my hand, gentle and rational. You were so kind, it always seemed like you had it together. Together. What happened? We had been together. Together. for so long, we had worked. C’mon. out our life together. Was it my fault? C’mon. Was it all wrong? To the top. Did I ignore your needs? Bong. To the edge. Was I too needy? Dan plucking his beard, mocking me, mocking me now. That big fucking beard. I can make it. I don’t. Big. understand it. At the top. ’Write your ass off.’ I can – I know it was hard. Big. after Chris died. I can – My relapse was hard. Hot. on all of us, but we. So, so hot – bad move in heat of day, stop with your beard! worked through it. I can – It was a month. Hot! clean again when you jumped. Dong. I can jump – And that’s it,. Hot. that’s the. Hot. thing, the. Pain. ambiguity, the never. Too hot. knowing. Dong. Oh god take me! Dong. The empty dryness of it all!” He takes one hard fall, riling in the sand in the middle of his flailing. He knocks the flower from his ear, its thorns pull from his flesh and it falls in the sand, in front of his face. He freezes and stares at it, wonderingly, the stare of a mad man. Can he pull out? He breathes deeply, slowly, stares deeply. “You must live to write.”
“The tulip festival with my family. Every year. Oh, the most glorious festival. On one warm May weekend, over 100 acres of the most fertile farm lands of this rich earth are cultivated to produce multitudes of god’s greatest beauties.
“May weekends in the Pacific Northwest are lush and clear. The heavy water that has saturated the soil all winter is warmed by the lustrous sun, making the air thick and sweet as the clouds melt away. Families dress in their Sunday clothes and walk through the vast fields of myriad colors and taste the scents and feel the sun. Strolling men in pressed white shirts and khaki pants lace arms with straight backed lovers who follow in
calculated strides, sashaying their thin gowns. Kids wrestle on the ground, giggling; and the warm air holds their gleeful laughter just a little bit longer than the scent of the flowers.
“The most beautiful spot at the festival is a place with a maze of trees, between which the tulips roam free. My last year there, under one of those trees: a mound of grass holds Kate and me. I lean against the tree, her head in my lap, twisting her black curls. She sleeps and I stare through the low green needles of that tree, at the couples walking against the background of blue sky with the myriad colors at their feet. A Nymph! – my little sister jumps before me, holding one yellow tulip in her hand – she stole heaven. Her huge, childishly mischievous smile makes me laugh. She darts around a hedge of trees. I lay my sleeping lover’s head on the ground, her long locks weave with the grass, and I follow my sister. When I turn the corner, I see the back of her little, frilly white dress. She is stopped at the base of a hill, looking between two tall oak trees. I walk up behind her, slowly. She does not move, only stares ahead. I walk closer, solemnly. I kneel behind her and look over her shoulder, from her childish point of view: above two tulips, one red and one yellow, between two oak trees, through thick, lush grass there’s a large, white wooden house, with a steep roof-line, a large-windowed portico on the front, and a wrap-around porch. I can feel the boards of that porch creek with memories. We sit in silence.
“I put my hand on her shoulder and kiss her head.
“‘Beauty,’ I said.” He crests the hill and sees something:
An oasis: an island of lushness upon the dry desert. There is a river flowing through the valleys into a pool enclosed by large palm trees. The fruit weighs down the branches. Through the trees – a pool: crystal clear. Animals roam around, large and peaceful, meandering. The grasses are flowering and the air, the air around it has heat waves – heat waves – wet, wet, heat!