Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/Fm3ZlPW2gp0) 08.07.2023.
The Desert in Autumn
You crossed the desert when you moved to California with your mother as a kid, and you were knocked out by how it wasn’t the cliches you’d seen on television about being a barren place of death, sand dunes and vast open tracks of nothing, at least not here. Now, that you’re crossing it back as an adult, you realize that the desert in autumn is a place of life. It’s rolling hills full of coyotes and distant thunder clouds. It’s kangaroo rats jumping through the underbrush.
Not that you can see kangaroo rats at 65 miles an hour, but you’ve learned about them and you dream about one finding a culvert full of water and some seeds and a safe, cool hole for himself and his family.
Ellen is lost somewhere in her daydream beside you, and you ask her if she ever spent any time in the desert. She snaps out of it and smiles. “Sure. My dad used to take me out. He liked to go into mine shafts.”
“Yeah, I guess. It was like spelunking or something, but he didn’t use ropes. If you get far back enough in the desert they weren’t locked up, and you could just go in. I’d go sometimes too. It was nice. It was always cool inside the shafts, and we’d see bats nesting upside down.”
You daydream a moment of Ellen climbing down into the earth and watching her bats, but missing the kangaroo rats nesting down there too. It’s a strange little thought. You imagine the shafts full of life and memory that she didn’t know, full of creatures searching for peace in the abandoned place. You imagine snakes in there as well, hunting the rats. You imagine the snake striking at the kangaroo rats, but the one thing you’ve always loved about the little creatures is their ability to dodge snakebite. They’re faster and will kick their way out of danger. You imagine all of that happening with her in the mineshaft not knowing what was going on just beyond her line of sight.
This was the time before she knew you, and she was unaware of you of course as you dodged your own attackers. She asks, “What about you?”
“Did you ever spend time in the desert?”
The moment that comes to mind of course was when you were dating a biologist who studied kangaroo rats when she wasn’t teaching. She’d bring you out into some arid place and explain how much life there was hidden to you. You’d make love on a thick blanket on hot evenings after the sun had gone down.
“Yeah, I guess,” you say. “I used to come out here with friends, and we’d hike and look around.”
Your ex-girlfriend had dumped you eventually. She said that you were too distant, that you kept things from her. She was probably correct. There are spaces inside yourself that you keep hidden. Eventually, she moved on, and you moved on, and here you are now with Ellen, dreaming of making love to that woman in the heat of a summer night and not telling Ellen about it.
Ellen says, “I like to think of you out here hiking up to the top of a mesa.”
You say, “I like to imagine us climbing down deep into the earth.”
About the Author: John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines. He has twenty-one books of poetry, memoir, and fiction includinghis latest, Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press) and Kitkitdizzi (Bamboo Dart Press). He lives in Jamestown, New York.