It was 63 degrees and sunny and so dry that every five minutes I had to take a sip of water. My lips and throat were moist for only seconds at a time and then my tongue would begin to beg with its ritual dust cloud. Before it hit my tonsils, I made sure I drank. It was urgent that every five minutes like actual clockwork, I took a sip. I became a machine.
When I wasn’t holding the canteen, there was nothing in my hands: no straw, no crystal, no phone, no paper, no unfinished plot. I thought nothing of ceremony. I reminded myself to drink every five minutes. The canteen was always placed next to my hip: cool and pressing and getting lighter with each swallow. I had nothing to celebrate. I let my body breathe without consumption. I felt my lungs expand without restriction, without analysis, without thinking about the mystery of breath, the mystery of atmosphere, condensation, the way each part works to form the cloud, and what started all of this swinging back and forth in my brain like a pendulum. I accepted my body as a perfect instrument that needed no extra interference. She would be rested and fed in a timely manner. My palms faced down on the cooling ground so I could feel the buzz of the knoll run up my arms through my elbows and stop between my shoulder blades. My fingers dug past the sparse patches of grass surrounding the exposed roots in the dirt. I smiled without provocation and for no one. My feet were bare; my toenails were unpainted and resting on the dry earth. There was no cathartic weeping. There was no unnamed longing. There was no burial or elation. There was no show about any of it. I shivered.
I could feel the tiniest shift in the wind’s direction, the tiniest gust through my hair. These winds froze the land at night but I had been here before and was prepared. I had a sweater on and a hat somewhere nearby for when the sun finally went down and the desert dropped thirty degrees without warning. The land will teach you once with mercy and again without it. She is gracious in that way but sometimes she gets you alone and takes her time with you. It was four pm and I had several more hours before I had to consider the night. I opened my mouth and tilted my head back to relax my jaw which had been clenched shut again. It popped in and out of place all day as I ground my teeth into my gums but now it breathed with me; open and grateful for the change in pace. Mouth gaping, I leaned against the trunk slowly letting my spine adjust to the slightly uneven support; the little extra digs from where the bark protruded. I folded my hands in my lap.
I was alone with my mind and there was no preoccupation with occupying it. My head was spacious: no racing delusions, no hourglass turning, no second thought, second guess, second regret. I could feel my whole body. I was my whole body. I was me without anguish. I was me without self -flagellation. I was with me without expectation and subsequent disappointment. I was me sitting in awe in front of an endless grove of turquoise and pine with a spackle of sorrel and burnt orange. The sky was bright blue. It was an opulent blue. The southwest had the kind of sky that inspired nurseries painted by eager, over-indulgent parents who wouldn’t dream of anything less than predictable for their male newborn. They show him who he is and who he will be immediately in a sky blue coffin. They choke the sunset out of him and give him a navy blue room to die in. Any shade of blue will do as long as it dulled; as long as it is not neon or electric. I was surrounded by untainted opulence and not trying to name a swatch after it, buy it, consume it, or prove that it is was here. The clouds were scattered, thin and snow white, not a rain droplet up there. The sun was bright and coming from a direction I was not facing. It was 63 degrees and I felt it. I didn’t hear any animals. As far as I could see, there were no roads or people or even brooks running through this small sanctuary. There were only trees and small breezes, a small boulder in the short distance that something could perch on; a bird or a small ground animal for a rest but that was it. I imagined nothing.
My mind relaxed with my jaw. My jaw relaxed with my elbows that were folded at each side. My arms relaxed with my toes that were resting on top of the ground. The only movement was the shifting wind. My stomach did not rumble. My tongue was set in place; no lolling, and only slightly sandy. My body was not on display for anyone. There was not a single unsatiated need in my life at the moment. How soon would it be, how long did I have before the budding inquisition began? Before I distorted this into a story of us or me or ways we lose, ways we gain? Before I would submit to each distortion? How long did I have here before I lost my eyesigh and could not see the trees for what they were; indifferent, yet supportive of my every move? Before I tried to pick out the perfect song about it, tried to pick out the perfect word for this fleeting inception of nothing coming together at once? I knew I would dissect every intersection I had crossed to get here today at the foot of the only yellow cottonwood on the hill at the beginning of autumn in the middle of the high desert at the first sharp cold breeze of the day. My heart jumped. The temperature dropped a degree.
“God, what do I owe you for my liberty?” I spoke out loud.
I felt my body swell, uncaged, and grasping what I could never say, what I could never hear, what I could never embody. I conflated freedom with perfect living amends. I conflated happiness with exaggerated euphoria. I conflated trust with control. I agreed with these distortions and stayed stagnant and caged. The air was still. My jaw began to clench. My fingers began to wander to my bag to pull out a straw. My toes began to wiggle. I knew what was next—the story would soon begin. But God provides obstruction for the self obsessed; obstacles to keep us present, keep us moving forward. It provides problems to solve so you can use that investigative piece of your brain as needed. You sit and mend nothing as solutions naturally evolve, but you feel involved. You feel good about it. And perhaps God just wanted to show me that I am always beholden, always handcuffed to my own desire for divination. I am always trying to dehumanize myself for the sake of relaxation, for the sake of “rising above.” God wanted to humanize me; teach me that existence is divine. No matter who you are and what hand you have in it, you are divine. You are the perfect child of chaos. You were born of destruction. You are made of destruction. You are the destruction of the world. I think God just wanted me to understand grace in creation which sometimes involves the elimination of something else.
God replied as God does; suddenly and without warning. I heard a snap of a twig or a scratch on an object or something that made noise with its appearance and turned my head just as soon as I heard it. Standing on top of that boulder where only a bird or small animal could perch, I saw a full grown coyote. He was watching me. Bated, I watched him back. We held each other’s gaze before he hopped off the rock without effort and sauntered west. He stopped after a few feet. He turned around to watch me with complete assurance as killers always do, slowly and calmly. I watched the defeated reptile in his jaws swing lifelessly with him. I didn’t move. I inhaled and held it. He sensed my subordination from the distance and turned back to enjoy his meal under the cover of trees. I watched him until he disappeared. There was a sudden call from another direction. Near, but not too close, I heard a howl that was long and billowing and announcing. Within seconds, I heard the return howl; loud and just as urgent, and within half a second another return howl. Soon I was surrounded by a victorious choir: dozens of howls and nothing but howls. There was no sound of a highway or a phone going off or a song blaring from a radio. There was not a bird in the sky. Does pulsing blood smell sweeter than still blood?
Sarah… ticking time whispered, stay a wild animal.
If I had anything left besides a dry tongue and no love of want, it was instinct. I leaned back against the tree and listened to the last dog’s response subside and the woods quickly return to dead silence. No animal would move right now. No bird would chirp. No bird would dare be that mocking. I didn’t shuffle. It was sometime after four, I guessed, and 62 degrees and I felt it. The sky was bright blue. The clouds had shifted so none were in sight. The sun was bright and coming from behind me. My feet were bare and on the ground. My hands were clutching blades of grass. My heart was racing with presumption. My breathing was paced. My jaw was clenched. I should head back, I thought. God makes pacts with predators. God provides the prey. If there is no prey to be found, God makes way for the long hunt, and we, in complete unison with its’ will, make way for the hunters and for the hunted to be caught. What we do in between and where we fall on that spectrum is entirely up to us. That is liberty. We will each have a death, yes, that is inevitable.We will also be responsible for a death. One, at the very least, which is our own. Some of us will be responsible for many. We owe God only that.
As I faced the woods, I began to sense the coming night around me. I was prepared. I put on my hat. I put back on my socks and boots. I took out my buck knife and my locket with my brother’s ashes. Carefully pulling the necklace over my neck so as not to scratch my glasses or break eye contact with the forest, I arched my back hard. I exhaled loudly. I looked to the sky that some would kill for. They like it so much they paint their whole house when they are done with the nursery. Do you like green-winged teal or blue-winged teal? they ask their unresponsive partners. Aware of his cutting disinterest, his biding time, she suddenly comes down with macabre so the whole house is cased in burgundy. They redo the awning, the siding, the trim. Their baby grows as the house does: sterile, color-coordinated, locked away to be untouched by the sun, and always at the whim of the mood of the couple. They consider themselves to be lucky. They were lucky they weren’t barren or stranded by their parents or didn’t without things. They think they plotted it. They think they are innocent. They think they owe God nothing but good intent.They feel sorry for me even at this distance. I stood up with the knife in my hand and began my recitations.
“Dear God, thank you for my freedom,” I started as I walked forward.