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The last post on Creek Running North

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He has populated this blog as much as anyone with fewer than four feet, but I’ve written little of depth about him here. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps I’ve merely practiced the same circumspection toward him here that I really ought to have practiced regarding the other people in my life. And on Sunday, June 1, he’ll be the last person I see before I formally move out of the Bay Area.

He’ll also be the first person I see afterwards. My friend Matthew is the kind of person who’d volunteer to help you load the U-Haul, then drive with you to Barstow to help you unload at the other end. “Hey, you know me,” he said on the phone. “I’m always up for a U-Haul trip.” We did this in 1987, cross-country. My ex, Elissa, and I had moved to DC for a couple years so that she could go to law school, and when we moved back she flew to Berkeley with the cats, leaving me to pack and clean and dismantle the household in Arlington.  Matthew used the other half of her round-trip ticket, showed up at Dulles, and we meandered west for five days in a severely underpowered U-Haul pickup.

This weekend will be a much shorter trip, and the kinds of stories that accreted themselves to our mutual experience on that trip will not likely be involved in this one. There is no world’s largest cement prairie dog along I-5, nor will we wake in a Kansas campground to watch bass the size of U-Boats hurling themselves at the sky. We will load everything as fast as we can, then roll on down the hill past the California buckeyes I’ve watched grow for six years — they’re flowering this week, brilliantly — and we will be in Barstow somewhere around dark, I hope. And then unloading and back the next day to drop him off.

I fetched up against the Bay Area’s shores 26 years ago almost by accident, insubstantial as spindrift sand. I met Matthew within a month of arriving, introduced to me by Elissa, who I’d just started seeing, as her high school sweetheart. He’d just seen Blade Runner, and held forth on the merits of the movie at some length, late at night. I was a bit befuddled at the guy. His enthusiastic geekery neatly outstripped my own. Before long he and I were annoying the crap out of Elissa with our animated and apparently impenetrable conversations, rarely using a word like “spider” when “chelicerate” would do. Matthew was studying fisheries at UC Berkeley. (The fish were far more suited to schooling than he was, and he graduated with a sigh of relief and commenced to learning in earnest.) It was Matthew who re-awakened my interest in the wild world, merely by asking me on stray hikes what I thought a particular conifer, or flowering herb, or vein of mineral might be. It took a few years before I was any likelier than he to ever have the correct answer.

Our friendship has affected me profoundly, and I chasten when I try to recall any times I’ve attempted to repay his immense kindnesses. I have offered him the profound gift of my company. He has flown across the country to help me move. I gave him a t-shirt once with a wombat on it. He came over in February 2007 to help me bury my dog. I have hired him once or twice, but he’s done the same about as often. And we’ve had dry spells. There have been a couple stretches since 1982 where we didn’t speak to each other for months at a time, perhaps years, too distracted by our lives to stay in touch.

We may be facing more times like that after this weekend. It’s one thing to keep up with a friendship when you eat lunch three times a week, like we did at Earth Island. It’s another to keep up with several hundred miles between you.

On Sunday I will roll in that truck down the hill and away from my life here, away from the hole in the diatomite where my dog’s remains dissolve gently, away from the garden I nurtured and then abandoned, away from this community of readers I have cherished these last five years, away from Becky, away from the Bay and Berkeley and the place I have lived my entire adult life but when you look at it objectively, when you take the true measure of effect and value and persistence in this all-too-short a life, my moving away from the Bay Area is moving away from Matthew. He has bracketed my life here.

California buckeyes drop their leaves in summer, then grow them again in the winter. Counterintuitive-seeming to some, the habit is a defense against drought. Set flowers when there is water in the soil and let the seeds that grow therefrom ripen slowly hard and brown in the summer heat, and those seeds will be ready to sprout with the first touch of moist October. I walked past them for years without seeing them, the soul of California’s inner coast ranges, the expression of the California seasons made treeflesh. Buckeyes and redwoods and Joshua trees, Darlingtonia bogs and Mono Lake’s tufa towers, receding Sierra glaciers and fell-fields ablaze in mule-ears and sky pilot and salt flats 282 feet below sea level and 120 degrees above zero, sliding down snow-covered slopes in winter at 8000 feet and digging for red tide phosphorescence by the ocean, my life in California has been conducted with Matthew near at hand, and I wonder how it will be to go on without him right there.

But I don’t have to worry about that until Tuesday.

Epilobium

“Tell me one true thing,” she said.

Up above was sky, and breezes. Up above was light cascading off the sun. It ricocheted down to them, absorbed in dank and smooth red walls. He thought for a while, silent.

A canyon wren sang, a languid glissade of notes upturned at the ends. 

“You see? You can’t do it.” She sighed, her boot heels kicking up sand behind them as she walked. “The wren can, you can’t. It’s sad.”

“I was thinking.” Said to the back of her head as they hiked.

“Not falsifiable, thus unverifiable. Only possibly true at best. Try again.”

He smirked. “We’re a mile into a slot canyon and we can’t climb out the way we came.”

She turned to face him, her brown eyes mantled, her eyelids pretending at severity.

“I ask for truth and you offer me mere fact.”

“You’re playing games,” he said. “It’s the single most important truth there is. Two miles from the truck, and it might as well be twenty. Once we slid down the chute we were committed. No way out except to go through it. No way to know if we’ll get cliffed out before the end.”

“Cheap metaphor isn’t truth either.”

Boots on sand, boots on smooth gravel. Dark stains on the rock, ten centuries of groundwater seeped slowly in to quietly sublime, leave darkening salts upon the rock, the surface slowly penetrated grain by grain into the depths. They found themselves again in silence, walked deeper into the earth in silence, had only the rhythmic crunch of boot soles to break the silence, tracing bend after sinuous bend as the walls converged, until one rounded bend revealed a flood-carved alcove. A shaft of yellow light illuminated it.

She shivered, walked into the light, sat on the sand. She pulled an apple from her pack.

“You may regret not having that later,” he said. She sniffed. “I regret not having it now.” She took a bite, and then another, and offered him the remainder.

“Not really hungry. You go ahead.”

“Come on, come on. Eat. You know: ‘The woman tempted me.’”

“I’m fine. You finish it.” She looked at him long and pointedly, shook her head a little. The light kept moving, slanting up away from the canyon floor. A gloriole of sun around her hair, he thought. She arched her back against the rock and shivered. “You’re cold,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“Not exactly,” she said.

“Why so opaque?”

“What do you mean?”

He shook his head.

In a few minutes the light had left her. He stood. “No way out except to go through it.” He walked to her, offered his hand to help her rise. She pulled herself up unaided.

Another hour walking, then two, skating over soft sloping sand and clambering up impossibly teetering slabs of sandstone fallen from the walls, tree trunk wrack and sheer falls to hang from with fingertips, trusting that the sand six feet below their boots was dry and sound. The fear rose in him. She seemed surprised. “You’re the one who keeps bringing us down here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We spend all our time together in these depths. I’d be up top right now if not for you.”

“You can’t be serious. You’re the one that drove us here.”

Her voice grew an edge of exasperation. “Because this is where you need to be.”

He was bewildered. “I didn’t want to come down here.”

“And yet here we are.”

The air grew abruptly dark and he tasted moisture. He looked up. Past walls that seemed almost to touch above their heads, dark clouds passed low and menacing. He saw a flash of lightning, then another, and a low rumbling came, whether from up-canyon or down or above he could not tell. A gust swirled around their ankles, a few wind-blown leaves racing past them on their way toward the canyon’s mouth.

“I think…” he said.

“I think you need the flood to come,” she said. “Each time our conversation veers toward truth, then down it comes.”

“This is crazy.”

“Yes, it is. Here you are in the desert’s heart, your womb, your refuge, and you see nothing but the storm.”

“You’re wrong. You’re wrong! I see the desert varnish in draped waves across the walls, the polished quartz and carnelian on the floor. I watch the adiantum fern make green crowns for moss-bearded seeps, the cholla stems lodged ten feet above our heads by past floods. I see the black-chinned hummingbirds drinking from scarlet blossoms of Zauschneria.”

“It’s Epilobium now.”

“You’re sorry you came.”

“If this is what it takes…”

“You’re disappointed in me.”

“I lost the capacity for disappointment in you a while ago.”

“Oh.”

They said nothing for a time. They walked.

Blood-warm water came in a sudden wave from up-canyon. It stung as it surged past their ankles.

Her shoulders slumped. “Are you satisfied?”

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“I know you weren’t.”

He felt the walls press closer. A dozen floods a day across this plateau, a thousand years, ten thousand, and pain as soft as water carves slick, impenetrable channels in the rock. Two hundred lifetimes of disasters wear pathways smooth to the touch. Whole boulders tumble in the flood, pine snags and skeletons of sheep, their ravage one mere tooth on long time’s rasp. He sat once by a pretty little snowmelt stream and listened, rocks the size of barrels crushing one another in its flow. Downstream the water ran red with boulder sand.

“Tell me one true thing,” she said. The flood reached their knees, their thighs. “Just one.”

“You loved me once.”

“I loved you once.”

“That’s one true thing.”

“It used to be.”

“You’re here with me now.”

“I am?” she asked, and then the wall of ruddy water took him.

They shape the deer

Walking the desert he eyes me, makes the hair stand up upon my neck. His breath a low purr, his footpads small silent temblors. I have heard that he walks on two legs sometimes, unseen he walks the streets of Laughlin, of Kingman, but I have not seen him. Only his tracks in wet sand, only the neck-snapped carcass of the deer. The bighorn sheep have turned to stone: their tears a dry lake the people scrape for salt.

Scrape the land a little and the dreams show through.

The dreams command the people turn rocks over, rake lines in the desert.

The first-born of earth and sky, they dreamed, shamed himself and his daughter Frog killed him. She poisoned him. It took him days to die. He called them all to him and asked to be cremated, but they had no fire. This was before they knew fire. Hanye, a little frog, walked west to the ocean, came back with a smouldering stick borne in his gummy mouth.

The sand fleas dug a hole for him, and Hanye lit a fire beneath him. Coyote stole his heart and fled east. At the mourning party, the lion Numeta and his brother Hatakulya sank into the wet sand.

Coyote wrenches out my heart and flees, his mouth dripping red. He makes trails of my blood on the desert stones, my arteries the Joshua trees’ red-cored roots. Hatakulya stalks me. I stood once at his head, his legs twenty feet long, his body of upturned stone, and he stalked me then. He wore a green crown of broken glass, a tire track necklace: a mantle of indignity laid on him. His breath on my neck. His eyes gauging my spine’s strength. I will fall before him, it is certain: my bones will make his hunter’s necklace.

Mastamho thrust a willow wand into the sand beside his father’s pyre, and the Colorado flowed from it.

Numeta and Hatakulya came up from the ground far to the north. They looked around. They went back down into the earth.

I dreamed Mastamho sank his wand into the sandbar at the mouth of White Rock Canyon, near where the hellish cold water swirls up from the bottom of Lake Mead, and the river started to flow again. It was a flood to end an age and start an age. Those who lived crawled out of the wrack and earth, and all the valley was scraped clean. The stacks that billowed black coal smoke were gone from Laughlin, and the casinos gone and houses on stilts above the river, the gas turbines swept off the old Maze. The dams downstream burst like sutures and the heart of the desert flowed out over them.

Hatakulya and Numeta came to the head of the Mojave River and emerged from the earth. They took clay and shaped it, washed it in the rain, and the clay deer ran into the desert. The lions followed them. In the Hualapai Mountains were trees and water, and the deer were mated and grew fat, and then Numeta made a path for them, his younger brother Hatakulya made a path for them. The doe shunned the path, escaping to the south, but the buck had dreamed badly. He knew he must follow the path to its end.

The lions quarreled over their kill.

Mastamho sings the Pleiades in Grapevine Canyon, a rope of feathered rabbit skin across his shoulder.

Walking the desert Hatakulya eyes me. Scrape the land a little and the dreams show through. He took the buck’s heart in his mouth and left Numeta, walked out into the White Hills among the Joshua trees.

On rape, and privilege, and being seen

I had an argument with a friend not long ago in which she told me she felt I was not seeing her. It was a sobering charge, and an accurate one besides. I had missed, or at least seemed not to heed, some rather clear statements she’d made about what she needed from me.
The specifics are irrelevant here. On the level of our friendship, I was upset to have hurt her, of course. But the reason I mention it here is that it was one more object lesson handed to me in the way that privilege and blindness work hand in hand.
On second thought, let’s not call it blindness. People who are literally blind don’t need one more disparaging use of the term floating around, and besides, there were certain things I was seeing just fine. They all just happened to be closely connected to me. Call it myopia, then, both for greater accuracy and in the hopes that those with the literal affliction will be less likely to take offense.

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Haven

Later, there were a few who claimed they had felt something in the wind at first, an odd pale scent as if of rain and ozone, thinned past sensibility in the summer heat. Hindsight shows what the seer desires. Still we had no reason to doubt them, nor the inclination. A man in free fall might desperately grasp the air as if it could provide a hold, and who would we be to argue logic with him? 

No one spoke of anything untoward until the birds were gone.

Some fowl remained in dooryards fussing after their garden snails, but the woods fell mute. One evening flickers trilled into a deepening sky, killdeer keened in darkness, and then the sun rose silent. Not a quill, not a fleck of down remained. The hunters’ dogs could flush no teal.

We talked about it quietly, struck by the air’s odd hush. We spoke in whispers as if afraid to miss the last thrush’s last note. We heard nothing but the whine of flies.

A month passed, and we became almost accustomed to the empty skies. A draught horse balked in mid-field one day, near noon, and would not calm even when freed from the plow. Her keeper fretted, brought a few of us from town to make what we could of her. She had not moved more than a few yards in the minutes since he’d left her, but reared and circled us at speed,  whinnied at some terror we could not see. By that evening all our horses were so afflicted. They would not rest. Even those we dragged bodily into their barns stared east in vivid fear, as though a second red sun was rising beyond the plank walls, stirring storms.

The next morning they were gone. Paddock fences were broken down, stable doors splintered, and the dust they’d raised in fleeing was a thin pall on the orchard.

Hair stood on end on our napes that month. Old, sweet dogs turned sour, snarled at offered scraps of meat. Lovers screamed insults at each other. The Seated Queen of Stars glowered from her northern throne. The goats’ teats went dry.

When it came, the flood swept half our town away.

There was no rain, nor any dam in the mountains to have burst, but the flood came nonetheless, and fast. It was as if no one had ever lived in the half-mile swath it scoured. No wrack of houses stood above the flood. The apple trees were broken from their rows and cast downstream. The flood was odd. Clear enough for trout, it flowed beneath our rainless sky for days.

At length we drank of it and it was sweet, as water from a rill shaded by oaks. It effervesced, a little. It had no source but still it flowed, and in time we built small boats to launch upon it, a dozen boats the size of ducks with small dry boxes on their decks. We wrote to those who perished in the flood, long aching letters meant for no eyes still living, and told them of our grief for them, our longing to be reunited with them on the other shore. We secured the letters in their boxes, and pushed the little boats into the flow to bear our sorrows downstream and away.

Seven nights passed, and the boats rode downstream past our town once more. They passed again seven nights after that.

There were two of our men who built a pirogue, determined to sail the length of this strange round river, and they set out with a week’s supply of bread and meat. We did not see them again.

In time children were born, and they brought forth children in turn, and their children found it odd to think of rivers that never flowed back to their source. We told them that once all rivers had head and mouth far separated, and they laughed at our deception. They tossed bright toys into the river, shining balls and little boats of applewood, and waited confidently for their treasures to return to them.

Quemado

I dreamed last night that I was in my old truck, out in the saguaros south of Burro Creek. The dog was with me, talking to me from the passenger seat of his hatred for deserts. “Turn left,” he said. “There are forests higher on the Rim.” I did not turn except to follow the turning of the road.

The road clung to the precipice for a mile and then descended. We pulled over to the edge. A mile below us the desert was burning. Smoke rose to us; the cloying scent of Joshua trees ablaze, charred earth and flesh attenuated on the rising air. For a hundred miles to the south there was nothing but fire, and towering plumes, and a sky burnt hell-orange. Phoenix was out there burning, and Tucson, and I watched Baboquivari melt on the horizon.

I turned to Zeke, alarmed for him, but he was already ablaze. Bright torrid flames sprouted from him like fur. His eyes undimmed he watched me, calm but curious, concerned, and then he fell to ash before me. “There are forests higher on the Rim,” he said again, and then the wind dispersed him.

River of fire, river of stone

Did they look up, fox-wolves drinking the sudden
warm water? Did they even have the time
to look up at the odd glow to the east,
a second hellish sunrise, red as fire
incinerating forests? Broadleaved oaks
and ash, the lurid-leaved persimmon trees
whose fruit fattened the horses, fed the short
faced bears, leaf litter of magnolia trees
ablaze at once? The sky would have been dark
for days, the eddied stratosphere pregnant
with dust, and thin plumes of it blowing west
against the usual ocean wind, the storm
of fire stoked by a scouring blast
across the plains. Did the Eucyons flee,
or drawn by terror-stricken, injured prey
would they have chased the fire along its edge
coyote-like? (The opportunist dog
as old as Hesperocyon, 40 million
years ago.) Guile doomed Eucyon’s whelps
to leg-hold traps, to tar pits, to the leash,
so as the peccaries, pronghorn, the sloths
and rabbits ran wild-eyed and westerly,
the fox-wolves might have headed toward the fire.
No matter. They were drinking. Did the banks
glow ruddy? Did the wretched stream run dry?
The earth had opened up, and lava bled
into the Miocene Sierran streams,
ran toward the Fresno Sea. Did they look up?
That old, steep-sided river canyon might
have taken a few moments to escape.
Fish would have been turning belly up
as river water warmed, the main stem blocked
and shrinking pools filled gills with caustic ash.
They may have been distracted. When the wall
of seething rock, molten and fast, came down
the river canyon, sandbar pools in steam
subliming at its front, air crackling and the screams
of animals unable to escape
to herald it, they may have stood, eyes wide
reflecting fatal red, transfixed, and then
even the water in their veins would burn.
Who knows? The red brim-filled the rill,
burned every tree, each fish, each sprig of moss
and raptor’s nest, melted the top few feet
of gold-flaked cobble, scoured the soft rock walls
the river had incised, flowed swift until
the earth’s anger subsided, cooled, a strange
traumatic calm descended slow after
burn-out, and other fox-wolves came to eat
what meat there was, charred by the pallid fire
of trees, cool by comparison, and the new rock’s
red glow subsided over days. Rain came
and then the river, ousted from its bed
worked on the softer rock. Eucyon whelped
the wolves. The sloths died off. The salmon lost
its fangs. The land grew cold and mountainous,
ice shrouded the peaks, and fed the streams
to quarry out the rock. That river now
a long mountain, the lava all that still
remains of those old days, the canyon walls
long gone, the sea the river fed now plowed
for cotton, its flow frozen fine-grained rock,
wild oat awns nodding from its crevices,
and travelers intent on granite domes
pass by the mountain, never seeing it.