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Richard Plant

A Face, A Foot, A Woman on a Bicycle

Chain of Spires Along the Gila River by John Mix Stanley

After all the take-for-granted years of plenty, you haven’t settled in this wilderness by choice. So how? In some locales the desert creeps up gradually. The sound of water fades away: the river doesn’t roar, the trickle of the creeks is growing faint. And after weeks of hard dry silence, suddenly you wake to find the flora has evolved to prickly scrub. The ground is hard-baked here. Or sandy. Where have the shade trees gone? The flower beds and bowers?

Or maybe it was more dramatic. Perhaps you struggled through a great divide. And on the lee side of the mountain, a sandy wasteland greets you like a customs agent: implacable, intemperate. Step out onto the barren plain and catch your breath. Squint hard against the unfamiliar glare. Try to get a fix on something solid in the distance, even as it wavers in the rising vapors of heat.

Complacency is dangerous. Maybe now you spend your nights in some green forest, waking to warm wetness and the screech of the macaw. Maybe now you’re lulled by ocean’s shush of in and out. But take it from a man who’s traveled in these parts: walk far enough in any one direction and you’re bound to hit the desert.

Once here it’s hard to gauge your whereabouts. At dawn the sun shakes off its ocher blanket. Deflated, it collapses every night. Even from the highest sand dune’s peak the land’s true lay eludes you. The wasteland seems to run forever. So tap your compass just to see the needle’s reassuring wobble. It’s time to summon your survival skills. What’s in your pockets? What resources do you carry? Don’t let your perspiration ruin whatever matches you have left. Tie a handkerchief around your forehead, take it off and suckle it at night.

Have I mentioned you should take a good, slow look around you? Curse your fate? Exclaim, Alas! and How the blazes did I ever come to this?

The desert night falls down upon you while the heat is still a live sensation on your skin. It can feel like suffocation, loss of love, a cold brutality. At first you’ll want to travel in the cool night hours. Later you will feel the urge to hunker down against the chill. Your midnight thoughts will wander farther than your sunburned legs could carry you. Cross-legged on the sand, you stare into the campfire’s yellow hiss and try to conjure memories of waterfalls and meadows. You gnaw a piece of sun-dried lizard jerky, summoning abandoned tastes: buttered lobster, cantaloupe, crème brulee, iced anything. You scramble constellations overhead, realigning them in shapes that bring you solace: a face, a foot, a woman on a bicycle.

Are you prepared to deal with ghosts? Some nights in your aloneness you can hear a woman’s murmur. You see the rounded shadow of her arms extending skyward in a gesture signifying welcome and delight. Drunk on the tang of possibility, you rouse stiff limbs, you lurch and stumble to her side. Sighing moans of gladness you embrace her. Pay attention, pilgrim. The desert moon plays tricks. Her murmur is the wind across the sand. Instead of arms, you have embraced the cacti’s thorny crooks. She isn’t here for you. So lick your sticky cuts. Stay curled inside your bedroll’s womb. When will you come to recognize you’re stranded, boy? If you want friends, best make them now among the gila monsters and tarantulas.

A lone coyote crying in the desert. If no one answers, has it made a sound?

Endless nights, cold feet, and gritty darkness. What thoughts can bring you comfort now? The buzzards will not peck until you’re fully prostrate. Tell yourself that somewhere in the distance there are still green valleys, purple hummocks of the Promised Land. Ask whatever God you have for strength. Remember even Jesus suffered forty days and nights of torture here. Look deprivation squarely in the eye.

Do you intend to get through this alive? Then listen closely. Learn to live on juices from the rattlesnake, the locust, and jerboa. Drill for water in the barrel cactus. Close your eyes and focus as you catch each tender bead upon your parched and swollen tongue.

Has hope become a cruel mirage? Do memory and loss sting sharper than the scorpion? I wish I had a map for you. Recite a poem or a psalm. Croon a Robert Johnson tune. The simple truth is that your lonely days are numbered, friend. So shut your eyes against the sand and bow your sunburned head. Accept contrition as the only balm that’s left. If no words of your own form on those parched, cracked lips, take mine:

My Belovedcan’t you see I’ll never cut it in the foreign legion? Can’t you see I’m still in love with you? My bleached and brittle bones I leave for you to gather up and haul back home to your lush valley. You may keep whatever remnant makes a likely trophy, nail it to your lintel for the conversation of your friends. Whatever’s left, dear, you should bury deep beneath your pomegranate tree. Think of me when warm winds bring the smell of blossoms. Put on your pretty wide-brimmed hat. Slip on your Mexican sandals. Take your book and parasol and open up a roadside stand, close to the desert’s border, that place where last you saw me upright as I bravely strode into my gold abandonment. Gather up whatever fruit our pomegranate tree presents, and sell it cheap to other souls about to cross the burning sands alone.

About the writer:
A native of Oklahoma, Richard Plant is a professor emeritus at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues, including New Orleans Review, Antietam Review, Weber Journal, U.S. Catholic, storySouth, and elsewhere, with reprints in Best Stories From New Writers, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and Sudden Fiction Continued.

Image: Chain of Spires Along the Gila River by John Mix Stanley (1814-1872). Oil on canvas. No size specified. 1855. Public domain.

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