Thin clouds blow in from the ocean to the west. The desert air bears a tang of distant rain. Dark clouds swirl from the sea to the south. Sage and datura strain thirsty leaves toward the sky.
Soon the rain will come, will slick these canyon walls with wet, quench the lichen and the moss. The rock will darken. Fifteen thousand years of rain and the rocks turn black as blood.
You grasp a rock chisel, your callused hands hard as hooves. Place the chisel against the rock. Strike it with the hammer. A fleck of desert varnish falls away, pale granite underneath.
Sweat beads your forehead. It runs into your eyes. Below you and miles away is the river, blue and tempting in this heat, but you are not fooled.
When you dreamed of the beginning of all things, your mother knew it. Your father argued. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” he said.
“She has the headaches.”
“It wasn’t that kind of dream.”
“It has to be. She has to be. Look what’s become of us.”
When the dream came again your father understood. He cut off your hair. He bought you boy’s clothes.
Clouds blow in from the west, from the south. A deep bass whisper comes from across the river. Dry lightning strikes the far mountains. You watch smoke curl from a distant peak. The remembered taste of tobacco smoke flits across your tongue.
The desert burns piece by piece. The others brought strange grasses with them, weeds that spread as quickly as the very fires they fed, and what had once been clean bare soil between the creosote bushes now lies choked with fuel. One spark eats an entire mountain. Flame piles on flame, smoke on smoke, and nothing escapes. The desert dies. Centuries-old piñons die, and junipers. Each fire roasts jackrabbits alive, and coyotes. All that remains is ash and char. You try to chase the image from your mind.
There comes above you a scrabbling of claw on rock: spiny lizards contend for territory, doing pushups. The vanquished one dives for cover in a crack, disappears into the other world.
How many times have you died of fire? How many times has the smoke filled you, brought the haloes, the headache, how many times have you died and gone to him? He met you there the first time, the man with the spiral horns, he came to you and he folded himself into you and you became him, and you flew out over the desert and fell wet onto its greedy soil. It all made sense then. Who better to bring rain than a man who bleeds? The others were like the river below: stopped up, plugged up, unable to come up out of their concrete tombs. How many times have you come back from death, puking, longing for the permanence of the deaths the others die? Girl become man, become ram, become rain: how many trips through that crack in the rock, split hooves clinging to the thinnest flake?
Too many such deaths to remember, and after each one another bighorn carved into the rock.
Too many such deaths to remember, and after this one there will be just one more to come.
You try to chase the image from your mind. You were not there but you see it plain. The desert dies. A wall of flame, a cliff of flame, and it blocked the canyon mouth. There was no escape. There was nothing to be done. All bones; all bones. All char and ash. The sky turned black as blood.
Still, she was lucky: she only had to die that once.
Hammer hits chisel, and again. You free another fleck of rock. The new bighorn takes shape, forefeet raised, standing like a man. Another hour, perhaps two, and then all will be finished. Sweat beads your forehead, falls upon the soil.
Soon the rain will come, will quench the fires. The river will swell, will burst. The dams upstream will pop out one by one, teeth on a zipper. The sky will darken. Loud cataracts in every canyon will scour the desert clean; will sweep away the fetid river cities as dead, dried leaves on a sudden wind. Cattails and tules will sprout where once the jet skis fumed. You feel a raindrop, fat and cold, hitting your shoulder. Then comes another. Your children will plant beans on the graves of old casinos, soil marled with the ashes of those you loved.
You grasp the chisel, your callused hands hard as hooves. Fifteen thousand years and these rocks themselves will dance. Place the chisel against the rock. Strike it with the hammer. Distant thunder comes from across the river. A fleck of desert varnish falls away, pale granite underneath.
by Chris Clarke