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Let Me See

“Searching for renewal, Zoe is swept--gradually at first, then suddenly--into a modern American version of Hades, where life and death intersect. This American Hades is sometimes bureaucratic, sometimes high-tech, but it transforms her as surely as though she’d fallen through time into the ancient myth.”

--Robert Gover, author of The 100-Dollar Misunderstanding

EXCERPT: Let Me See, from Part I, The Mountain

Before I lose the light I start back to the cabin without having found what I came for, feeling more alone than ever, hiking without a dog. Iris is right, we need a dog. Not a puppy, but a grown dog. At dusk the light shifts to an aching purple, a psychedelic bruise. The smells leach out of the earth and scrub to hang in the air like a presence. I fall out of myself and into nature, into this place, with no past and no future, just the mountain shade and the Texas sun, still hot and close even at this time of day. Rather than growing dark, it's like the light is getting denser, drawing my eye to the tremendous dome of sky, punctuated with clouds close enough to grab. I slow up, sniffing the air. Snake smell reaches a primitive receptor in the brain, raising the hackles, no matter how glad you might be to share the earth with them. But that's not it. Two steps further I recoil from the ripe smell of another person.

Pitching my ears for sound, I pivot around to walk with the wind, away from the smell. If whoever it is of the pungent odor doesn't know I'm aware of him, he won't have to declare himself. Too late. A man rears up on the uphill horizon, as big as a bear against the sky, his head uncovered, his arms wide against the setting sun, his hands empty. Heart pounding, I swivel my neck around to keep my eye on him while the rest of me keeps on heading downhill at a deliberate pace.

"Howdy, ma'am. I didn't mean to startle you," he calls out, a forlorn sound to his voice.

I plant my feet and turn back to him.

"Can I trouble you for some help?" he asks.

I dig in my heels. He's no more than twenty feet away from me in the gloom. Scared. I can hear it in his voice.

"I don't believe I know you," I say, drawing a breath, annoyed with his plea.

"Not likely you would."

He's sure to have been watching me longer than I have been aware of him. "Who're you visiting?" My voice sounds querulous.

"Well, I was over with some folks just outside of town,” the man says. He sounds sorrowful. His big face is half obscured by a soft dark beard.

"I'm from over yonder," I say with a vague nod toward the cabin. The West Texas accent coming out of my comforts me like a shot of whiskey.

He drops down to his haunches—a big man, used to being outdoors. He gestures to my gun: "You out hunting?"

"Just hunting for a native plant, something like a medicinal herb. It has a strong citrus smell, like limes or lemons." I stretch out my words while my mind speeds ahead. "You see any?" I'm breathing fast. Blowing smoke, really, while I recall the black helicopters hovering overhead. No doubt I an looking right at the man they were hunting for. "Run across anything smells like lemons?"

"Not since leaving California," the man says in a sing-song. He stands upright and takes a step downhill towards me.

"Hold it!" I say, tracking him with the barrel of the rifle, slipping off the safety. He stops at once, teetering a little for balance. I don't feel afraid, just cold and unmoved. "Tell me what it is you want. Maybe I can help you."

The man exhales loudly. Moment by moment more light leaches from the air. I'm beginning to hear more acutely than I can see. The stranger sounds as if he's out of shape.

"I guess you're not too crazy about talking to me this evening," he says. Then he laughs like he's just heard something really funny. "I understand that."

"My husband's waiting for me back at the campsite. What do you need?"

"I need water and some good directions."

"I can fix you up." I pat the water bottle hanging from my belt in its nylon sleeve. Again he takes a step towards me. "Wait, Mister." Again he stops, again I play the barrel of the gun at him, my knuckles steadying its weight and balance against my hipbone.

"Michael. Call me Michael," he says with the sound of a man calming a skittish horse.

"OK, Mike, but please stay put."

"Not Mike. Michael. Like the Archangel."

"Fine, Michael. You stay put and let me come to you. Maybe sit back down so we can visit more comfortably." "That'll work. I thank you." He sits all the way down on the dirt, all at once, his legs sprawled out in front of him like a little kid.

"You're welcome to the water." I unhitch the bottle from my belt with my left hand and toss it to him. He catches it, twists off the top, takes a couple of swallows, and then recaps the bottle in a precise way, like a mechanic torquing down a bolt.

"Do you belong with the secessionists causing all the commotion over by Fort Davis?" I ask him like I'm just shooting the breeze, but my heart is racing.

"The people over at the compound don't call themselves secessionists."

"Well, whatever they call themselves, do you stay out there?" "Used to," he grunts. "Not for long, and not anymore. Now I don't belong anywhere."

"Why is that?"

"Now there's a question I have given a great deal of thought to." He stops. I don't rush him. He still sits in the dirt. "You ever hear of Utopia?"

"Yes. It's an idea of the perfectibility of humanity."

"I think of it as a place. At least the possibility of where people can be free. Not interfere with each other Texas used to stand for, but now it don't."

"Human beings being what they are, perfection's quite likely nowhere to be found." My mind's busy on several tracks. The man's obviously at a breaking point, in need of help. "But it’s the treasure we keep hunting for."

"I hear you. I came to Texas to satisfy myself there, such perfect place this side of the hereafter. Do you mind if I stand up?"

"No. You go right ahead." I take a step back. He is to get himself up without turning over on all fours and some help from the hill.

"You won't make it far on foot. Not in these mountains on your own."

"I appreciate that." He peers intently across the short distance between us.

"Maybe we need the idea of Utopia," I say across the distance, "even when no particular place pans out."

He laughs a long guttural laugh. "I used to think so. But I was a fool."

"There's more than one kind of foolishness. You think of going on back to town," I offer without conviction.

"I've made up my mind to walk away from here. Fn mood to go back," he says, turning slowly around, hi spinning wide, the fool on the hill.

"What happened?"

He shakes his head back and forth, stopping his spin. "At first I thought I'd found people who stood for thing. Turned out I was wrong. So I walked away."

"Walking away could be misinterpreted," I say. "It look like running."

"No matter. I've suffered bitter disappointments."

"I know just what you mean," I reply, surprising myself with the vehemence of my assent.

"Maybe you'd better be careful about going around helping people yourself." He's lifting his bearded chin in my direction. The moment's charged with a lumpy energy, like the feel in the air foretelling a tornado.

I take another step back, and hold my gun with both hands. He laughs. "I had a hankering to help those folks back there. I was ready to stand by them." His voice has the keening sound of a hurt dog. The sound grabs at my heart. But not for a minute do I forget that hurt animals are dangerous.

"I told them I'd help them," he goes on in a thin thread of a voice. "Then they do something beyond foolish. No point to it. No sooner have they done it, they back down!"

"I haven't been paying attention to the doings in Fort Davis," I say.

"I told them not to do what they did. They said they would never back down on their principles, every one of 'em based on using the law. But they scuppered their principles. Nothing for it but for me to walk away." He shakes his head back and forth. He looks older than I first thought. Past his prime.

On the verge of asking him to come back to the cabin with me, I bite it off. He's heading into trouble. "I'm surprised you made it this far, to tell you the truth."

"How far have I come?"

"About twenty miles. Where are you trying to get to?" "I've got a brother up north." He takes a sideways step, staggering.

"Did you hurt yourself?"

"I took a tumble earlier," he says. He looks around wildly as if he's forgotten something important.

"Let me see," I say, taking a step towards him. He backs away from me and I stop.

"I've got to be going. That's what I'm doing, keeping on going. Can you tell me which way to head out of here, staying off the roads?"

"Van Horn's on the way north, ninety-five miles or so." He obviously can't show up in any of the tiny towns in the county. "But you're in no shape to travel there on foot, with the mountains between here and there. Mexico's seventy miles west." Moving back away from him some, I pull out the scrip pad and a stub of pencil from my pocket. Squatting down with the rifle across my knees, I hold the paper against the wood stock to draw a map.

"Look at what you're up against. Jeff Davis County marks the northern limit of the Big Bend region. Not many people, but not much cover, either. Just mountains and gullies and desert. Some springs here in the mountains, but you need to know where to find them. See here? The westernmost tip of the county touches Mexico. You have no business traveling even that far on foot." I look up. The man hasn't budged. I beckon him to come closer. "Here's the Rio Grande; Mexico; and the Pecos River over here. We're here." I turn the emerging map upside down. He squints at it in the fading light.

I draw a map of the immediate vicinity, tracing in pencil my mental image of the draw, Elbow Creek, the major ring of roads, and Limpia Creek to the east, identifying them as I go along. I make a dotted line along a possible route out of the immediate area, beginning just to the west of us before angling north towards El Paso.

"The dotted line follows the original San Antonio-El Paso Road-long abandoned. Not hard to make out in the daylight, or even in moonlight. Once you're on it you can see a trace, like a shadow.

"We're between the Baldy and the Blue mountains, at the base of Mt. Livermore, twenty-some miles from Fort Davis. McDonald Observatory's over there," I say, pointing. "You can see it from here if you're not behind a peak. Sawtooth Mountain's south of us," I go on like a tour guide. I can hear his breath, rasping. He smells rank. "Northwest on the old road you eventually come to El Paso, but that's two hundred miles away. I guess I don't need to point out how far that is to go on one bottle of water."

"I hear you. I've traveled by night before," he says, looking around. "I've been a soldier." He sputters a laugh, and then keeps on laughing, picking up the tempo, like being a soldier is the funniest thing you could imagine.

Maybe he's right. Nothing funnier than this unmoored solitary having been a soldier, a citizen protector. "You doing OK?" I ask. Stupid question. We're both playing the fool here.

"Yeah, fine," he says, cutting off the laugh abruptly. "The terrain's unfamiliar; lucky to run into a friendly."

"Evenings get chilly, but in the springtime in Texas you're not likely to suffer from hypothermia if you stay dry. It's still not too late to walk back into town." I take a deep breath. "If you like, I'll go with you."

"That's mighty kind of you, ma'am. But I don't think that will be necessary. Things get pretty simple once you've made up your mind. I've made up my mind."

I stay quiet, waiting to see if he's going to tell me more, afraid to hear any more from this man, whether lies or truth. I wait without hope.

EXCERPT: Let Me See, from Part II, The River

We come around the left-hand bend of the river to a roar of sound that assaults me, stopping my heart and freezing the motion of my paddle. The river disappears in front of us. Merla is yelling instructions, but already I’m back paddling furiously. The river drops off to nowhere in front of us, flowing over the edge of the world. Pulling against the river for all I’m worth, my heart beating fit to burst, the river inches us closer to the edge, tugging at my loins like desire. My brain mutters to my will, commanding my muscles to hold the bloody canoe in place by paddling still more strenuously. But it can’t be done. The river hooks into my navel, tugging us closer to the drop-off. Merla’s useless shrieking enflames me. I can’t distinguish her words over the roar of the water and can’t afford to twist my head to see her. I watch the line between water and thin air coming closer.

The rear of the canoe kicks up like a bucking bronco. My head snaps around and I take in Merla ditching the canoe, flinging her body away and up in a swan dive, stunningly free of gravity. Unencumbered of her weight, the canoe begins to dive. I face down towards the water, my paddle gone, crammed up close to the bow clutching both sides of the metal prow. I crab-walk backwards at the moment the canoe begins to slide over the edge to hover suspended over nothing, held motionless by cartoon physics.

Time halts long enough for me to take in everything around me, the panoramic view like a concert hall for the force and sound of the river beating into my body. I’ve got time to wonder if this is the last thing I’ll see in this lifetime and then all at once the canoe lets go of the edge and plunges down into the falls. Something tells me to let loose of my hold before hitting the water. I use the entire force of my will to undo my grip and kick off from the canoe, losing the sky and aiming my body down towards the whirling water, waiting until the last instant to draw breath, only to be whacked in the side of the head just as I enter the water with less than a lungful of air.

The momentum of my launch from the canoe plummets me deep into the river. I keep going down, farther than imagination, deeper than thought, before I lose the first force of my fall. When my plunge seems to slow enough I begin to fight my way back to the surface, pulling strongly with my arms and paddling hard with my feet. Nothing happens. I don’t start to go up. I continue to go down, and then for a moment I go nowhere. Increasing my efforts to get up to the light has no effect. I absolutely cannot go up, but instead find myself moving laterally.

Fear lets go of my mind enough for an inner voice to instruct me: You can’t go up. Let the river take you down--a voice as commanding as the earlier whack in the head. I quit fighting. Holding my breath takes all I’ve got.

As I give myself up to the whirlpool I’m somersaulted over and over, swept around and around and down. Looking up, my head lolling back, my arms wrapped around my body, I see the sun hitting the surface of the water, filtering down like substance, real gold falling, glints and speckles and debris of light. Whirling away from the light, I find myself suspended, released from ordinary measures of time, my body drawn still deeper into dark water. Oxygen, the computer function of my brain registers, is in finite supply, but there’s no pain or fear to accompany this bulletin. Part of me yearns to be back up there with that sunshine, but the dark holds its own allure. Nothing can be done but submit to the fall.

Nature’s picked me up and slammed me down. One more time I return to the shallow depths in a lateral spiral, already under water longer than a land animal was ever meant to be, but the current of the river pulsates through me and carries me back down long enough to despair of ever reaching the sun-lit surface and the membrane separating me from oxygen and the world of everyday life and all my past and all my future. In my mind’s eye I see Al and Iris coming along the riverbank, portaging all the way. I know my husband. Gratitude for Al’s sanity acts like an extra shot of adrenalyn. As my breath pries against my lips to relieve my lungs I clamp my mouth shut, filled with euphoric knowing--for this moment it’s only me who struggles, only me who needs saving.

For a fraction of eternity I’m held in suspense, ready to die here in the river. I stare up to the sun and air, leagues away, an opening not to the real world but to a stage setting filled with the props of my former life. Everything I thought was real seems a comical illusion that fills me with mirth. A tiny bubble of air escapes my lips before I can summon enough will power to button my mouth closed, still enjoying the joke.

With this last effort to trap life and air I hit the river bottom and thrust against the rock with all my might, scraping my toes, yanking my elbow away from something dragging at it, digging in and pulling ahead with more force than I knew I possessed. I swim one, two, three strong breaststrokes and powerful frog kicks, not up towards the surface but along the bottom of the river, going downstream with the current, away from the whirlpool. I was a diver, not a swimmer. Now I’m a star.

Clear of the sucking power of the vortex, I claw the rest of my way to the surface, my throat and lungs searing. The used-up air explodes from my lungs in an exultant shout, a sound like giving birth. I take in the fresh air, gulping a ton before my head goes back and I’m tumbled further down the river in a flurry of white water. I have all I can do to flip on my back and prop my feet in front of me, stubbing my bare toes against rocks. A laugh rumbles up from my belly, glee bubbling along with the oxygen soaking into my lungs. The river’s stripped me of my shorts and cheap river shoes. I’m practically naked.