ARIEL’S CROSSING, selections
by Bradford Morrow
Ariel’s Crossing will be published by Viking on June 10, 2002. Reprinted by permission of Viking, Penguin.
A lifetime before Ariel wended her way north between the Rio Grande and the Jornada del Muerto, just east of the Oscura Mountains, which ranged out the passenger window of her car, a dusty and limping jackbottom had stood staring down the length of dry ditch into which it had stumbled, appearing for all the world to be the foreigner it was there. A salamander and Delfino Montoya watched this forlorn ass, which shook its loaflong head with the magnificent obtuseness and ponderousness available to this singular beast and no other, or so it would have seemed on that overwarm midday. The salamander had stretched itself under the sun on the far side of this same acequia, and for this part Delfino sat on the tan grass some hundred feet back behind his bungalow, under a shattered, shedding cottonwood, leaning against the hard trunk of the tree, his feet splayed before him like unearthed roots. What sweltering shade this cottonwood cast, Delfino occupied; the heavy sun produced dark pockets in every hollow, chink, and cove in view, whether natural or fashioned by the hands of those few people who had bothered to try to make a go of it in this tough valley in recent centuries.
At hand, on the scrabbly dirt floor beneath the shade tree, were a pencil and a paper tablet on which Delfino had tried without success to shape his ideas, his profound resentments, into words. Instead, now, he stared at this wild mule that had wandered off the cantankerous plain, maybe thirsty or out to pillage somebody’s garden. It scowled with a forager’s dullish eye and gave short shrift to the salamander’s sharper gaze, as well as Delfino’s own, as it hobbled and slumped toward both in search of a way to higher ground. Delfino, without moving, looked about for a stone to throw at it. The jackbottom did not take this in, nor did the salamander bestir itself. In the distance a freight train ran across the valley floor and a delicate clattering along the tracks could be heard. A dog barked, then another barked back without enthusiasm into the dead hot breath of the desert day. The ass continued to gimp along the trench, raising trivial puffs of dust with each fall of its dull grayblue hooves.
Finding no pebble without reach, Delfino chucked his pencil stub at the beast. Neither the jackbottom nor the long-tailed salamander noticed, nor for that matter did Delfino know what possessed him to throw his pencil at the trapped animal. The pencil, which he’d sharpened with his pocketknife, lay on the bottom of the waterditch, in the dust, bright yellow against dun brown, and the jack trod on it without ado and without knowing it had done so.
No damn pencil was doing him any good anyhow, and so what did it matter? Delfino reasoned.
Then he thought, There you are, Montoya. There you are, old man. You’re no smarter than that goddamn jackybottom stuck in that gully. No wonder you’re throwing things at it. You’re no better than some thickhead jack yourself.
The salamander had meanwhile disappeared.
When the jack passed directly in front of Delfino, like some four-footed storm cloud before a frowning moon, it paused and turned its massive laggard head in the seated man’s direction, taking him in where he still sat, unmoving. A marginal breeze stirred the paper beside Delfino, and the jackbottom—not ten feet from the man who watched him under this heavy weather of pale blue and fierce sun—bared its yellowed tombstone teeth in a nasty smile of feigned threat, very feigned, very exhausted, and eccentrically pacific.
—You numbskull tub of shit, Delfino said.
It breathed dryly. The ribs on its sides stood up in the day like long curved mummified barrel bands stretching its speckled and putrid and dust-shellacked hide. Cataracts made its eyes, each the size of a rotted-to-black patio tomato, evocatively clouded: pearl eyes. Delfino clapped his hands, but the jackbottom did not flinch. He clapped a couple of times more, harder, and the animal only continued to look at him.
—You deaf? he shouted at the ass, which then turned its large head to study the rock where the salamander had been lounging not three minutes before. —Well, are you?
Agnes had come out from the back of the bungalow, having heard her husband shouting these words. —What’s that you’re saying?
—Look at this, Delfino said, climbing to his feet and slapping the dirt off the butt of his work trousers.
—Must’ve wandered off the valley and got himself stuck in the trough, I guess.
—Poor thing. Let’s get some rope.
—All right, Delfino said, and he crossed to the small shed he’d built in their yard and fetched down a length of white rope that hung in a coil on the nail.
Together, Agnes and Delfino got the rope around the animal’s neck and led the docile, cooperative beast a quarter mile down the acequia, to a place where they could walk it up an angled ledge. From there they doubled back across a couple of fields and roads to their bungalow where they kept it tethered in their backyard for the following month. They fed and watered the animal until it seemed strong enough that they felt comfortable about loading it into a borrowed horse trailer and driving it back to the edge of White Sands Range. There they parked, opened the swinging trailer doors, backed it down the clamorous metal ramp, and released it to the parched wilds where it had been conceived and had survived without incident before wandering down into Tularosa proper and getting itself gnarl-kneed, stuck, and salvaged.
The jackbottom stood in the morning, still homely but fatter, kind of weirdly lilac in the dawn light.
—Go on, get, said Delfino.
Agnes watched. She resisted the reluctance she was beginning to feel about returning it to the wasteland, though this had been her idea all along. It was Agnes who’d said that day the month before, —We’ll nurse him back to health, then we’ll take him where he belongs.
—Go on now, Delfino shouted again. —Maybe it’d be easier for all of us if you let me just shoot him, he joked, turning to Agnes for some counsel as to their next move.
Agnes didn’t dignify his humor with any response. She struck the side of the horse trailer with her open palm, shouting, —Go on, now, get.
None of the three of them moved. The jackbottom stood facing the Montoyas, favoring its right foreleg to elicit sympathy.
—Maybe we ought to take him back home, Delfino said.
—He is home.
The ass looked at her, glaucous and unhearing and stubborn with all the stubborness that inhabits the innermost heart of every beast, whether sentient or idiot, and with the basic recalcitrance it had regained precisely because she and this man had succored it. The ass looked her in the eye and defied her. Surely she was not going to abandon it here in the middle of nowhere? The beast, in all its fear and audacity, even showed its benefactors those squarish rows of agate teeth once more, combining a sneer with a primordial grin. Agnes waved her arms and beseeched, —Go on, go. Yet the jack merely ventured forward a bit, limpingly—both surly and pleading—confused maybe by how alien a human voice sounded in the void of the desert. Unfamiliar, small. Agnes quietly said, —Damn.
Had his wife decided she couldn’t go through with her plan to reintroduce the derelict jackbottom to its habitat, Delfino wouldn’t have argued. But she surprised him that day, just as she surprised him other days. She turned her back on the jacky, climbed into the driver’s side of the pickup, started the engine. Delfino got aboard, saying nothing, and they drove away in a mayhem of dust. Sunlight made her face flow as might an angel’s, he remembered thinking as he looked across at his wife, then in the rearview mirror at the lone powder-cloaked figure of the doubly lost bray standing along the dirt track flanked by ocotilla.
That was back in ‘seventy-seven. They’d received right around that time a note from some man in the Ford administration—or was it Carter’s? —who said he’d passed their letter and their problem along to another department. Maybe the State Department or the Defense, who could recall? Not that it mattered much anyway, since that was the last they heard of it. Delfino, who now sat alone in their bungalow, remembered that odd morning and his reluctant friendship with the lost jackbottom and the glowing face of his aging wife.
As Agnes had followed through with her conception of the right and proper response to finding some abstracted savage mule in the acequia, and as Agnes had so resolutely left it there on the valley floor to fend for itself, so Delfino resolved to try one last time, with pencil and paper, yes, but also with his hands and his feet, to bring to pass what he’d told his wife he someday wanted to do, told her more than once, told her often, told her ad nauseam. One or two things to do, then in he would go. After that, it wouldn’t matter.
This was a story Delfino Montoya would soon tell his brother and sister-in-law’s salvage, that fellow Sarah kept mentioning whenever they spoke on the phone. Fellow with the peculiar name, Kip. It would thereafter become one of Calder’s favorite stories because he felt a deep empathy for that jackbottom and wondered whether their fates might not one day be the same.
In every creature’s death is the promise of your own. Kip hadn’t thought of that for decades. It was a truth back in the midfifties, when his father uttered the tenet, and it was still truth today. That the thought, simple enough in its wisdom, had been spoken by a man deeply involved in the production of apparatus that promised death didn’t preclude its veracity. To the contrary: Mr. Calder had known whereof he spoke. Walking along this hot sandy road, blinded by the light, his son remembered what had prompted those words.
The buck was already dead. Young Kip and Brice had found him down in Bayo Canyon, big muledeer with an eight-point rack, as Kip recalled, which made him about half their age at the time.
—What do you suppose got him? I don’t see any wound.
The beast had bled from its nostrils, and a thick dusty tongue protruded inelegantly over its teeth. Flies walked it and hovered in a feverish cloud above the carcass. Late morning.
—Heart attack, maybe, answered Kip.
—Deer don’t get heart attacks.
—You know nothing, boy.
Brice countered, —Do too, boy.
—Anything that’s got a heart can get a heart attack, okay?
—Maybe there’s something on the other side.
Together they rolled the deer over from left to right, Brice wrenching its hind legs and Kip the forelegs. The animal must not have been dead all that long, since there was still some flex and play in its limbs. The flies rose and scattered, then returned. No sign of any injury, though the boys noticed a bald patch along its tawny flank.
—Maybe it ate something, a rotten buffalo gourd or something.
—Buffalo gourd wouldn’t kill a buck and it won’t make one bald, either.
The two boys stood sentinel over the body, silent for a time. A lone hawk voyaged a broad thermal some thousand feet overhead. Kip remembered it had been one drought of a day, hot and mute but for the nazzing of flies, summer’s end then as it was now. He’d walked away into the shade of a squat black ponderosa whose top had been lobbed off by a lightning strike, then returned, breaking the silence.
—I got an idea.
—Count me out, said Brice.
—You don’t even know what it is.
—Whenever you get ideas about things like this, they never turn out good.
—Like I say, count me out.
—Listen, it’s already dead, isn’t it? So there’s nothing we can do to change that, am I right?
—So then what?
Kip lowered his voice. —You know how they have those trophy heads up in Fuller Lodge?
—Well, why not? Look how handsome he is.
—I don’t think dead deer heads should be on people’s walls.
—Where should they be? Out here where coydogs and buzzards and flies eat them?
—We ought to bury him, is what we ought to do.
Kip laughed. —You know how long it’d take us to dig a hole big enough to bury this guy? Forget that. My dad’s got a hacksaw. We’ll come back down before dinner and cut off the head about here. Bleed it in that tree a couple days, scoop out the guts and stuff. We get us a piece of ply over where they’re building that addition on the middle school and saw out an oval for the mount—
—You got it all figured out.
—You with me?
—I already told you.
Without glancing at the corpse again, they began walking west up the canyon trail toward the Hill. After lunch, Brice accompanied Kip to the construction site, where they rummaged a piece of wood from the scrap pile, then returned to the spot where they’d discovered the deer. Several black crows winged away downcanyon from perches on the buck’s cadaver, and the cloud of flies had thickened.
—Get, go on! Kip shouted, running ahead of Brice.
Kip’s friend remained reluctant to participate. Over a peanut butter and chokeberry jam sandwich, he’d asked his mother about those heads over at the lodge, and how they stuffed them.
—Why do you ask?
—What’re you boys up to? she’d answered before going on to explain that taxidermy was a science, even an art. It was something for people who’d gone to school to study how to do it. Preemptive strike, she thought.
He more or less repeated these words now to Kip, who stood over the buck, having thrown a length of rope and the scavenged plywood on the ground beside it.
—You told your mother, didn’t you. Kip said.
An endless quarter of an hour passed from the time Kip took the hacksaw to a point midway down the length of the neck—Brice held up the buck’s heavy head while staring away at the canyon cliffs, at clouds, at anything that might distract him from Kip’s dissection—to a moment when the head separated from the body. Kip tied a knot around the base of the antler rack and hung it as high as he could in the scorched ponderosa. Once they’d finished, Kip asked Brice, —You sick? You’re white as dried spit.
Brice said, —And you’re soaked red with blood.
After Kip got caught climbing through his bedroom window that night, he found himself marching down into Bayo Canyon for a third time, though now with flashlights and accompanied not by Brice but his father, who was livid. The apparition of the buck head swaying helplessly in the warm nocturnal breezes was startling even to Kip. Its eyes were blanker than before, if that was possible; the poor thing looked deader than when he’d decapitated it. His father made him bury the buck in the sandy canyon. Kip dug for most of the night to make the hole. After he finished, as father and son were hiking back out of the canyon in light morning rain, his old man uncorked that line about every animal’s death bearing the promise of one’s own. A week passed before he and Brice were allowed to see each other again, and when they finally did, Kip offered up the saying as if it were his own formulation. They were sitting on the front stoop of Brice’s house.
—I’d have helped you dig the grave if my parents let me, you know. I guess your dad wanted you to do it yourself.
—Well, I didn’t need nobody’s help. I got it done on my own.
—It wasn’t a very good idea in the first place.
—You’re wrong. It was a great idea.
—What was so great about it? I still think people shouldn’t have dead animals hung on their walls.
—They should. Everybody should.
—I don’t get you, boy.
—I guess it’s over your head.
—What’s over my head?
—Besides the sky?
Brice laughed, but Kip didn’t, so Brice stopped.
It was then that Kip intoned, in a voice more or less replicating the pastor’s at Los Alamos’s interdenominational chapel, —The death of every creature is the promise of your own. That’s why I wanted to put that buck on the wall, boy. To help us remember.
—Don’t call me boy, shouted Brice.
—Remember it, boy, Kip said, though now he himself remembered the thought and its narrative, as he sat under a scorching white sun that dazzled and punished all beneath it save for this gemsbok, dead on the desert floor, which reminded him of the buck they’d once found in Bayo. Kip had repeated his father’s words then as a kind of threat, but today they returned to him with their original import.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the present carcass, and perhaps to the one upon which he’d visited such indignity way back. Wagner always liked that story, commended his father for both his method of atonement and the plainspoken philosophy of coda.
What Brice and Kip had discovered, though they hadn’t had the knowledge to discern it then, was far more sinister than a hairless patch on a buck’s haunch, down there in the canyon where Project waste was laid to rest in thousands of unmarked shallow sepulchers, and where its authors’ wilder children played their private games. This oryx gazella was half bald itself, but surely any connection between it and that dead buck lay exclusively in Kip’s imagination, as he, like them, was little more than a footnote in the history of restricted-entry installations.
Kip didn’t really want to touch the hollowed shell of this antelopelike creature, but he found it impossible not to. He laid his hand, palm open and quaking before it settled on the smooth hide so beautiful as to be otherworldly and uttered a helpless petition for all those who find themselves in a place where they do not belong. For Kip knew that he—like this descendant of the original herd shipped by the government out here in the late sixties, from the Kalahari in Africa for the eventual enjoyment of servicemen who liked to hunt exotics—did not belong. Nor did he want to belong, though like the gemsbok he’d tried, with notable success. He got out the compass he’d borrowed, or rather stolen, from Delfino, and took a reading. The gemsbok’s foreleg happened to be pointed toward magnetic north, and Kip put this small serendipity to use, spreading his map of Tularosa Basin and the Jornado del Muerto—of White Sands Missile Range, Whiz-mer, the locals called it—on a patch of splintered bedrock between them. He’d not come as far as he might have hoped. His sense of position was primitive, as he didn’t know the area, but from what he could glean, keying off what must be North Oscura Peak due west, peering over the sunken barrel of furred ribs, his hike would take at least another long day. Sickness came in waves, but he knew he could do it. He’d been in tough places before and got the job done. Besides, he did belong here. He was right where he belonged.