Ebb

Days 40-50

And the water came up from the earth, funneling itself down the sandy wash. I looked for the source and found it among a patch of reeds, swaying evenly in the hot spring breeze. The plants moved against each other and let out a woodwind drawl, as if conducted by the movement of the air. I pressed against them, feeling their music scratch against my face and I let out a low hum, baritone, until we struck something of a harmony. I sang and the plants sang and from our small orchestral pit I looked closer at the water, which seemed to grow from a small damp patch of gravel, unexplained. Why or how are questions we teach schoolchildren. There are no use for those words here.

The water came from the earth–M.O. might call it the “dark seed”–as plainly as language. It spilled forth in clauses and phrases–never pausing, never punctuating, Joycean by its very nature. Any stab at comprehension was quickly swept away as the words–the water–rushed over themselves and carried their muffled meaning downstream.

Water came from the earth and I followed its course, pulling a liter here and there to drink. I watched as it wound its way along the canyon the floor, bouncing from one wall to the other, gathering magnitude from springs and seeps, many of which were invisible. In vain, I tried to spy each of them out and have the scuffed knees and wretched eyeballs to show for it. Often I stepped across the water’s course, or waded through it, or sat down and put my face on its surface to see what it would be like to breathe through water. We became acquainted, our appearance easy and common to each other. I might say “good day” to the water and receive my answer in a series of bubbling utterances. The water and I became friends.

One morning I turned a corner–I remember it well because the cliffs were a stack of red rock with green sage and juniper for decoration–and it was gone. At first I looked around in disbelief, sure it was only a mirage, but a few moments of searching confirmed it. Water had left.

“I’ve taken a wrong turn then,” I said to myself. “I’m lost, is all.” For hours I wandered up and down side canyons, retreating to the original watercourse each time, searching for some mystical outlet, a westward passage, a canal through the desert. All my searching led back to the same corner, the same rocky graveyard, which was nothing more than a patch of damp sand and a few skeletal cottonwoods. There was no giant hole, no whirlpool, nothing I could even take for an omen.

I’m embarrassed to admit, but I even suspected the water had collected underground in some giant mystical cistern. I began to dig. Grit filled the space behind my fingernails. My hands turned a chalky white as the ground gave way to nothing more than dry, dusty sand. The water was inexplicably gone without an answer, without a reason why. I looked at the small mounds piled next to me and took a breath of resignation. The search was over.

I had no choice but to keep going, push on, continue my journey. The land above was hot and dry and sometimes a vulture circled overhead–a word of caution to those who linger. Move on, move on. The Hayduke isn’t for sleepers. As I went, I thought about my companion–my water–and considered my barrenness. “I have nothing,” I said aloud. “Nothing.” My footsteps echoed in a steady state of disbelief. I realized I was sad–sad because I had had something and then it was gone. I’d made my feet wet hundreds of times on its shifty surface, torn the side of my shoe in its steady current, drank from its well. Now, there was only dry mud on the side of my feet, which I swatted away as if it were a pest. I could imagine the water in my body, I could think back on how it felt, but even these were beginning to fade. What is sustenance? Memory? How can you tell a thirsty man that once, there was water?

Again the canyon turned, and again I followed. My direction shifted with the rock walls–east, west, north–until I came to a small bank in the earth, from which a handful of small trees grew. The pines were framed by patches of dirt and needles. One lone tree had collected a halo of driftwood, brought to it by floodwaters from years past. Cacti and cottonwoods grew next to each other, right up to the canyon wall which rose above them and opened up to a plateau I’d never see. As I crossed over the small beach I saw a dark a glimpse of movement and walked up to it. Springwater. The desert is so full of surprises. This source had no tributaries, no flummoxing headwaters, and no doubt about its origin. It just simply existed, here.

Movement seems so easy. It’s always seemed easy. The water in this new canyon moved away and I picked up my pack and followed along. At first the trickle was so slight it seemed mute. But gravity and time make a thing grow loud, and so as we continued on together–me and this new path–a new kind of music sprang up. I hummed along, and as I did the whole landscape around me changed. Canyons were replaced by pine forest, mountains, plateaus and ridges. Water and I crossed meadow and field until I rested my pack on its shore one day and said, “Alright, then.”

Without a shrug or glance it carried itself away, content to leave me to my own business. Soundlessly, we parted.


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