I saw you by the wrecking post
I saw you by the wrecking post, where gaps in the crease of the desert mountain are soaked in latewinter’s slushy light and the sparse windbowed sage leans in benediction to a quiet force lately departed. I saw you smiling by the wrecking post, you were standing with a winter cap and with the old knit gloves whose holes revealed the pattern of a Sneed’s pincushion cactus tattoo on your thin wrist. Its single flower was blown back as if weathering a tempest. Your aspect so pale yet so dusky, holographic in the latening light.
But you’d said, cupping my hand with yours, that you knew this cactus, that this was no cactus in the abstract. This was a shade of a cactus that stood in the Franklin Mountains as they touched the Doña Ana County Line and it stood in a place where no cactus was known to grow. That was not wind whipping its flower, you said, that is just the face of the cactus at all times and in the stillness of a desert night.
Many miles have you traveled with me, knowing my destination no better than me. I kept looking for it, in every city across America I thought I saw its emblem. In the Caja Del Rio plains outside Santa Fe where the coyotes cried at night like childhood rediscovered. I lay listening, wrapped on the winter mesa floor in six blankets and shivering until the sound vanished into that elusive kingdom.
Easterly they call it when it blows to the west, norther when it gusts to the south. I should have known then that you are but your origin. But
but when I thought I saw you smiling I remembered how the crystal of your eyes refracted light that was gentle and terrifying all at once. I remembered you are always the sleeping lion rising and you are always that lion suddenly meeting the eyes of its watchers. You held both at once, guileless in old knit gloved palms. You thought you merely played at it, childlike master. I remember you saying the words
softness and ferocity
to hold both at once like my mother
and that you belonged to a departed tribe and so did I.
That is the face of the cactus you said and that is not just a cactus but a great and ancient gorgon who comes from nowhere and who speaks for creation
Totemic you bore your cactus, and standing there at the wrecking post I smelled the sun and sweat and sand and faint vanilla from the day you ran this wrist along my jawline like you are carving an answer. And that morning you asked me how I wanted to die (because you knew I wanted you to ask me) and I told you in the jaws of a bear and I thought how I’d probably like to watch you pull on your sweater.
This sad mountain country two thousand miles from anyone’s home is a cursed and sad and majestic country and it is tragic the way lust is tragic. In the land is the tragedy of lust. Both its essence and its cause. For all lust is heavylidded and all vows are solemn. Joy is for the lighter moments and it is with tragedy I cup the nape of your neck. Is it foreknowledge that demands this be rite and hushed ceremony? That the world of our shut eyes and our laced fingers is one of hallows and a cavern with wet whispering walls and funereal halflight?
Perhaps this is why there is scarce any difference if I know you but a moment or a lifetime. It is all tied up with the first mistake which is to think we are other from the universe. The problem of the afterlife as popularly conceived is its strange splintering. That forms should persist ceaselessly and static is a contradiction of the bedrock principle. To think a branch should live on some plane to which the tree has no access. To think that decay could be ceased without also ceasing growth.
I saw you by the wrecking post reaching back your dusky arms like a flower unfurling to knot your hair in a tight button. Once as a child you sat in your mother’s garden for seventy-five minutes waiting for datura or moonflower to open at dusk. Once you said the sound was like the memory of lips parting. The memory of. I watched your swift knuckles knotting and unknotting and reknotting. Rearranging each strand like the harp of my nerve endings played with restraint.
It would require so much less. A bobcat scratched its ear with a back paw and a pronghorn split across a piece of open prairie through the barn doors of memory. A swallow playing with a sprig of hay, turning the earth for seeds feet away. So much less would suffice, I would tell you. Yet you would not understand. It is just the biology of men, you would say, plus you have such a lovely imagination.
But that’s it? I would ask, disagreeing. That’s it, you would say.
We didn’t speak that dusk. You vanished from the wrecking post. I climbed into the night quiet out of the scrubland and into the bare and stony mountainside and by and by you appeared ahead on the trail and your faded jeans were rolled up just above your old sneakers. I climbed into the night until biomes changed and I walked up a ponderosa forest and the alien spiraling cones adorned the heady duff like seedlings of the Chihuahuan floral regent emblazoned on your wrist. I lay there pilgrimwise and alone in the thin air, so close to the galaxies. Hunter on the path of a storm to its genesis, I had found at the center exactly nothing.
If not muse or medium, still I see you as turnkey, I said to her.
Not it at all, you said. I am your Frankenstein, you said, and you laughed when I said no and you said Frankenstein is a looking glass.
There is evidence of you as muse. Together in Philadelphia we created verse like Wolfshimmer by Spring Garden which went something like
The shadow of my first ancestor
Who confronted such things frankly
Who had no anesthetic mist
To steer benumbed about
These questions of blood and desire
Of taste and final imperative
Were fogged into a faraway
Just barely does the snout of a gray wolf
Rifle in translucent memory
On the banks of the Delaware
As was the wolf that morning so would you become.
You laughed, you lay your head in my lap and tried to sing it. Wolfshimmmmmmer, you sang. You liked plainer words. You were all voice, you kurtzied about my ventricles and left a mussolini of my gut. That morning I pulled my flannel tighter around your shoulders as from the rusty pier bench Camden was suffused in a cold gray dawn.
From where I stood by the dry arroyo in a stand of cutbreak and sage and brown stone I reached out into the thin air for the edge of the dream serape of this desert with which to clothe you and I came away with a handful of dust. My fingerprints left a sourceless lupine track in the dirt of my palm where they hit.
Because now I write things to myself like
When you see a bramble of hair
Do you see her hair
And are those her eyes caught in a dusklight sunbeam of the falling oakleaf
Is her hair the dark crown of a greenless willow in autumn
Is that her is that her is that her scent there
on a sprig of sage
where another woman passed an hour ago, ghostly imposter, vicious
Or is she only in that other duskworld
Breathing in the dark like a blacked out city in the dust
Its bones lit through by a flash of cold lightning
One hot El Paso night I woke and I ran over bridges of moloch at play until I hit a wall of traffic and tangled rails and the dogs ran me from pole to pole of every estancia and a westerly wind caught the slaughterhouses and the cookfires of Juarez down the hot dark streets. I ran to El Segundo Barrio and Madero spoke from the street art at me in your tongue. I looked up to where you had been on the black of the slope of the Franklins where the angled city lights drifted away and you were not there.
In the morning I was alone and you were back again and you said again what you’d said that first night in the lush lateautumn grove on Kelly Drive.
I don’t know why I’m in Philadelphia.
You made it melodic, you colored it with the mourning beauty of your eyes slowly opening to mine
And you stood naked in an old blanket at my window and said: oh the glowy light. The marmalade morning on your face, the rubicon in your mouth (a gasp).
But above the smoky haze of Juarez the morning was medical white and searing and I could not square, can not square.
I go out into the hot white canyon. I look for life in this hot white canyon as if whatever creature was to be found antic and fleetfoot in these faustian hollows could peel back for me the first veil of the place. Could direct me to the ineluctable in the south of the pass where light met shadow. As if the liminal laid plain what was always suspirant there beneath it.
We strolled the Wissahickon woods of Philadelphia that morning. I walked you to the bus. Our eyes met in the dark pane of the bus above a square of commercial intrusion. Othereyes across which in a broken moment rained the colorless elm leaves, the trees beyond bowed by breeze in attitudes of genuflection. The haze of the ages that had lifted and closed in again.
The features of your jawline that were like the final riddle or an ultimate calculus solved began to cede to the day from which I’d unearthed them. This was as I felt your fingers slip from mine, as I saw your dirty white sneaker mount the linoleum step, as I brushed your knuckles with my lips like the unwitting sealing of an envelope dispatched to the dark of the country and on which is written no return address.
At the wrecking post I blinked, and there was a cold wind and the first of dusk was a mauve curtain slipping over the desert and in that freckled light where I thought I’d seen you, wrist bared, lips parted, singing, querulous, there was only shadow.
Justin Heinze writes: I am a journalist, fiction writer, prose-poet, aspiring naturalist, and mountain runner. I'm from Philadelphia but have called the deserts and mountains along the Mexico-American border home for the past several years. I'm working on a novel inspired by the borderlands, endangered species, and the spiritual ennui left in the wake of the loss of wilderness. My hero is my father, who taught me how to dream.