Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Promise of Rain

They drive in silence to the mountain. There is too much to say after so many years apart. It has been like this since she met him at the gate. He emerged smaller, tarnished, humble. She stepped out of the car and took the passenger side to let him drive. Even a hug seemed too much. That was an hour ago, late, still hot.

Beneath the silence is a log jam of words and time and needs.

The headlight illuminates a smooth, black highway that slices the saguaro forest. Ocotillo branches etch the rose colored sky like upside down spiders, spindly legs reaching for something solid in the air. The road cuts an angled line onto the naked ridges that spread out at the base of the range. It rises relentlessly, a perfect incision along the contours of the front slope before turning into the defile of Molino Canyon.

Lights of city fade behind the shadow of the ridge, and the road tilts up, now between sheer granite walls. Cacti surrender to dwellers of higher country. Scrub oaks replace the saguaro along the murmuring stream down in the gorge. The car passes a sign saying they have climbed a thousand feet. Water plunges over a ledge of banded gneiss into a pool where tiny frogs have gathered to mate and feed on the abundant bloom of fireflies.

Still the road climbs. It is the fruit of  blood, the labor of prisoners who wielded hand tools to carve this lifeline between the heat of the valley and the heights of the mountains; it is the gateway to alpine forests, islands of shade and cool air surrounded by the ocean of desert below. It is perfect. It is refuge, sanctuary, the counterpart to confinement. They believe the desert can heal old wounds and have come here first. All of the rest, those mountains of details can wait. There will be time, finally. There will be time enough.

Thoughts fail to find words as they pass through Molino Basin. The road and the towering slopes speak instead. A fire scoured this valley and left scars of ash, bony skeletons of Manzanita. The moon lights a bleak and haunted landscape, harsh reminders of the decade-long drought. She rests her hand on his thigh as the little car surges up the slope, straining against the grade. They cross a saddle and enter Bear Canyon, the first taste of the high mountain. The road levels briefly before it cuts through a portal of granite spires and enters another canyon, this one deeper than the last, with sheer vertical walls that squeeze the narrow road. A stream whispers as it cascades over boulders and down spillways. Water runs onto the roads off the walls of the canyon and showers the pavement. A curtain of mist chills them, rinsing the heat of the low desert off their foreheads. He feels drunk on the thrill of air moving over him, cold mist on his skin. The canyon opens, and Ponderosa pines block the fading sunset. They drive now through a tunnel of them, deep in the ravine.

He is tempted to stop, to soak in the smell, the touch of trees, of living breath, but proceeds upward. His pulse rises as he takes the tight hairpin that leads up again, out of the canyon onto the contour up to Windy Point. Hoodoos stand like sentinels against the sky, the watercourse now far below them. A sky full of with moon and stars deepens above them while shadowy silhouettes of stone stand on either side of the highway.
His head surges with his pulse and he is flush with a desire that is almost more than he can stand. Best to warm his hands at the fire rather than to quell the stirring urge. He grips the wheel. She sits quietly beside him, following his lead, expectant, silent, full herself with a hunger she has not felt for a long time.

They round the curve at Windy Point and pull up to a parking spot. They grab a small pack that contains sleeping pads, some water, and a blanket. They head away from the road under the moon down a path he knows to an overlook. Her eyes widen in wonder at the sight below; the city shines a million tiny lights beneath them like a bed of diamonds. There is a stream beneath them and a pool. It catches the moonlight and is completely still, a perfect mirror. He lays down the pads while she admires the light. She joins him. He touches her arm and she lies down. He reaches for her as distant lightning illuminates a thunderhead a hundred miles away, in Mexico.

“How long has it been?” he asks after they have lain against each other for a long time. He feels her pulse against his chest. He cannot be tender enough when he runs his finger along her cheek.

He wants to hear the words “since before you went to prison,” but braces himself for whatever the truth might be. He couldn’t blame her after all. It was his fault, his stupidity for getting caught that was to blame for the long separation.

For a second he slips back, back to the yard and the long years of biding his time, playing the game as much as he had to. But he pushes it out of his mind. This is here, his dreams come to life. He turns to her, waiting.

Before she can answer, they both hear voices, then see a light scanning the rocks behind them
“Rangers,” he says. “They saw the car and are looking for us. They’ll ask us to leave if they don’t get nasty about fines or arrest.” What he didn’t say was what might happen if they called in his name, got his record. That could get ugly.

She sits up and wraps herself in a blanket against the chill of the evening. So much heat, she thinks, radiating up and away so fast on these clear nights.

The voices are louder now and he stands, ready to meet them. Then they are there.

Two young guys in starchy uniforms look embarrassed and pumped up with authority.

“You can’t be here. The area is closed. Didn’t you see the signs?”

“Sorry officer,” he says. “We were just taking in some of the moon and the cool air. Been so hot.”

The two men nod and then look over at her, and she can feel their gaze. She pulls the blanket tighter. They look at him, size him up.

One of the men spreads his legs. His stance tries to say he is in charge.

“This area is closed,” he says. “You’re in violation of laws, trespassing.”

“Look officer, we were just looking for a quiet spot to relax.”

“There are campgrounds for that this time of day.”

“But we’re heading higher up the road, to town. We have a reservation there.”

The bossy ranger softens a bit. “Reservations huh? Well you better pack up your things and get back on the road. No telling what you might run into here. We’ve had some robberies, even a rape a few months back. You better be careful, and don’t stop in any fee areas as you head up.”

The rangers watch them start up the car, back out, and turn up the highway. His face burns with humility and rage. “Who did those guys think they were, anyway?”

“You don’t have to let it bother you,” she says, hand on his arm.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” he says, bristling. “That kind of crap gets under your skin after a while. I want to blow up… but I know that’s gotta change.”

“You’ll get there. I can help,” she says, voice low. “Let’s just say it has been a long time. Too long.”


Seventy miles to the south, a young man considers the rusted steel of the border fence. It’s at least twenty feet high and lined with barbed wire at the top. He has a way up to the wire ad some tools the sever and spread the wire, but no way down the other side.

The coyote, his guide, sets the tall plank with cleats nailed to it against the fence. He signals that it’s time to scale the board.

“The night is good. A storm is coming. The gabachos don’t like to drive in the rain and wind. You’re lucky cabron.”

The board is skittish and affords no hand grips, but the man holds where he can.

“Here’s the tool. You’ll have to cut the wire and spread it. Don’t touch those dientes, they’ll rip through you like Jello.”

The man takes the tool, puts it in his back pocket and climbs while the coyote steadies the board.

It’s impossible, and he slips, but hangs on somehow. He has to get across, to finish business. That’s all that matters. He has a score to settle with some pinche gringo plug, a middle man dealer. His sneakers are almost worthless for gripping the tiny cleats nailed to the board.

He climbs. Soon he is almost to the top and then he can see the other side.

He scrabbles for purchase on the board as pulls out the ancient tool with blades that can break the wire. He squeezes until his hands scream with pain, and he twists to get the edge to bite into the wire. Then it snaps and pops open.

He is careful to grab it in the space between the razors. With some help from the cutters he opens a cavity just big enough to crawl through, but there is nothing to crawl on. He drops the tool and looks down.

“You have to just go over,” the coyote whispers, impatient. “Once you lift off the board, you’re on your own.”

The man checks the layers of cardboard under his shirt. He hopes it will protect him from the rusted, jagged top edge of the fence.

Then he is on it, scrambling like a fish just caught. He wriggles his way through the hole, spins around, and catches only a pant leg on a razor.

Somehow he gets through and ends up hanging by his hands to the top edge of the fence. The coyote is gone, and it’s a long drop, but he has no choice.

He pushes off with his feet and lets go. His drop is off balance and he hits the ground hard with one foot. Before the other makes it to earth, he hears the crack and feels his tibia jam upward into his knee. The break is bad and complete.

Wind kicks up out of nowhere. The sky boils, and fingers of lightning play on the ridges on both sides of the border. No rain falls. The dry lightning ignites dry creosote in the distance. A fire should keep them busy he thinks to himself as pain replaces his musings of good fortune.

He lies there, on fire with shock and pain and fear. But he doesn’t panic. He knows he has to wait for the others, the ones on this side, the ones who might help. He crawls to a bush on the other side of the fence road and hides himself beneath it. He doesn’t want to be seen by the copters if they come by. They may have spotted the coyote with one of their videos or may just be bored sitting in front of the lit dash of their shining SUVs.

He would do that if they would let him, would pay him. Hell, he’d do anything now. He knows this place better than almost anyone. He has hunted here for decades, with nothing more than a single shot .22. He knows the canyons on the other side, all the places to hide. But here he is a stranger.

His leg pounds with the dull frequency of a hammer blow, but he listens. Then he hears it, a faint whistle. He whistles back. The sibilance grows as it closes in. When they find him, he gives in to the pain. They carry him a long ways to a road, a waiting truck. It will be a long night over dusty and rutted mining road, but they will get around the migra, will get him to help, just a bit to the north.

He grimaces when they splint his leg, but it feels good in a way. He’s closing in. It won’t be long now.

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