Confluence – A short story by Kathleen Bishop

Here is a draft excerpt from a novel I’m writing –

He’s a gnarled man of no great height, with lank gray braids and skin as dark as the hardened cowhide of his boots but his eyes still shone with uncanny light as they had when he was a child. It was the morning of the vernal equinox. Jesús stood beside a carefully shaped stone on the eastern rim of a volcanic butte. Had a bleary drizzle not obscured the sky at dawn, he would have witnessed the sun blaze a passageway through a notch in the mountains, infusing the marker stone with light. The stone would have cast an elongated shadow falling precisely within the measured quadrant of a spiral carved into the boulder behind it.

He stepped to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Tawny water slapped high against the scree. It had stopped drizzling but a low, dreary pall still shrouded the sky. Days of heavy rain in the northeast had poured off the mountains and channeled into the Gila Valley. Now the mile-wide plain was engulfed in a crush of roiling, fetid water. Crimson wings streaked by inches from his cheek and he stumbled back. The brilliant cardinal struck a discordant note against the browns and grays of the sere desert.

Ragged whips of cat’s claw were being torn from their moorings. They rolled together and snagged on submerged palo verdes like tumbleweed against a fence. The creosote and mesquite that carpeted the basin were buried beneath a gritty sludge of loess stripped from bajadas flanking the mountains. A human skull was dislodged from a submerged midden. Jesús watched it bob and whirl in the backwash as frothy brown water poured from its jaws. It was swept into the current and vaulted out of the water when it ramped up the gaping hood of a ’46 coupe that had lodged axle-deep in the sand decades ago. The skull snagged on the tip of a skeletonized ocotillo whose roots plunged deep below the flood. The transmorphed ocotillo man gyred in a macabre tarantella. The water was still rising, bucking more reluctant riders on its back. Chollas, stripped of their thorny flesh, spun and tangled in Tantric postures like lovers in extremis, frantic to achieve climax before they drowned.

Sentinel saguaros stood belly deep, thrusting budded fists at the sky. A snowy egret adorned the shoulder of the tallest saguaro like an epaulet on an officer. The bird stared impassively as a trio of white pelicans skimmed the surface on their journey east. Jesús saw the bloated corpse of a javelina careen into the saguaro and watched the egret lift on elegant wings.

He looked to the north and saw an animal cutting across the current toward the butte. It was a coyote bitch struggling to keep her nose high as she swam. Jesús watched her draw near. Her sodden coat was weighing her down but she was very close to land and unwilling to let the water take her. She gathered the last of her strength for the final push but the current spun her past the talus and into a drift along the shore. She clawed at a jam of palo verde trunks to gain purchase but they whirled like logs in a millpond. The animal disappeared beneath the water and a thrashing of bubbles rose to the surface, releasing the tang of primordial decay. Jesús traced the sign of the cross on his chest. A moment later the bitch crawled onto shore, belly distended. She rested briefly then slouched away, trailing a spiny branch snared in her tail.

Brittle with age, Jesús began to pick his way along the prehistoric trackway that looped the rim of the butte. In places, the trail was worn calf-deep into the basalt. Jesús needed to rest often, supporting his thin frame on a staff of knobby greasewood. Volcanic flows capped the butte, affording little anchorage for sparse tufts of chamisa and brittle bush sprouting from pockets of windblown sand. No breeze ruffled their stiff stalks this morning. A broad sweep across the top revealed a moonscape devoid of shadows or movement but Jesús felt the air begin to vibrate. There was a fine buzzing inside his skull that began to escalate in pitch and volume, like a colony of wild bees on the move. Muffled booms issued from deep within the butte, then Jesús felt the pounding of running feet drawing close and soon they were upon him. Naked runners passed through Jesús like swords of white heat and continued on, oblivious of his corporeal body blocking their path. He staggered back and sat down hard on an angular outcropping. When his heart settled, he retrieved a small packet of tobacco bound with red cloth from a pocket inside his denim jacket and sprinkled a little of it on the trail.

The path continued along the western rim through a jumble of shoulder-high boulders seared black by the desert air. On the face of one was a glyph depicting a pair of rattlesnakes intertwined along a vertical stanchion. The image was nearly two feet high and finely detailed. A white man would say it looked just like a physician’s caduceus but unlike a caduceus, one of the serpents was winding downward on the staff while the other wove its way up. An ancient lightning strike had blazed a jagged white streak across the rock face. The scar of the strike terminated at the base of the staff. Jesús stood before the image, feet splayed to balance his weight evenly between his legs and the walking stick. He pulled a roughened hand from his pocket and placed his palm close to the glyph, without touching the stone. He slowly moved his hand up and down along the staff. The hair on his forearm rose as the flux leapt from the stone and passed through his body.

As he stood before the image, a slight metallic scraping drew his attention. It was rhythmic and persistent. His skin prickled. Jesús moved past the boulders toward the direction of the sound but it had stopped. He stood on the outer lip of an anomaly. It was a circular pock in the bedrock, perhaps 23 paces wide, marking the impact of a sky boulder. The meteor had hit the top of the butte at an angle and with such force that it splintered the cliff wall, leaving a towering spar leaning dangerously away from the mother rock. Jesús knew this place. Many serpents dwelled in the chasm between the wall and the spar. More than once he had seen tangles of rattlers driven from that den when the sun’s heat forced them out. Jesús peered below into the darkness and heard nothing, but he could feel them gazing up at him.

With their skins patterned in shades that mimic the dark mottling of the basalt, the pair of rattlers who shared the capstone with Jesús had remained invisible to his old eyes until they twined their muscular bodies together and rose beside him. Thrusting up on powerful tails they were mere inches shorter than Jesús, thicker than his arms, and well within striking range. Jesús cursed his carelessness. He remained motionless, drawing shallow breaths and willing his legs not to tremble, but the serpents were unmindful of the old man. Jesús remembered a song from his childhood and now he sang it softly, as his grandmother had done all those years ago. The serpents loomed above the flood waters, new skins gleaming as the first faltering waves of sunlight found them through a breach in the sky. It cast their shadows on a slab of stone behind them and Jesús watched the shadow puppets on the rock like a voyeur peering at silhouettes through a sheer curtain. The male’s rattles scraped softly against the bedrock as he pumped his mate. Jesús continued to chant the words that would invoke new life. After a time, the serpents disentangled and slid into the blackness of the fissure.

Jesús stayed, drawing in the chill air that carried a musky mélange of ferment and mud. He could discern an elusive note of honeyed pollen, whispering of resurrection in the midst of death. He raised his head to the sky and closed his eyes, savoring the fragment of sweetness that lingered more in his memory than on the air. He was grateful to be here on this dove-gray morning, grateful to have passed so many seasons but he knew the natural order of things was rapidly changing. The signs were everywhere for those who knew how to see. Jesús allowed himself a moment of relief, knowing he would not be here when it all unraveled.

Confluence
©All Rights Reserved – Kathleen Bishop

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