Vultures encroached as Kyle made his way across an unfamiliar landscape. They had picked him out some time before, the first one swooping down in a predawn glow that revealed brutal, ancient scars. Volcanic remnants of water-scoured rock, long raised ribs, upwellings against eternity. He had a sense of deja vu that for a time hid the gnawing in his stomach––vivid memories of visits to aunts, uncles, and cousins on the outback, a small mining town far removed from life-giving rains. It was a place that would not have existed but for the cold imperatives of commerce.
On the Gold Coast Kyle’s primary fears had related to watery predation. Shark attacks on the upswing in recent months, as sources of food were depleted offshore––the year-in, year-out reality of scorched earth trawling having its effect. The sense of danger that hit him at times paddling out, a feeling of elemental heave within heavy surf, of the bottom dropping off the coast––this was now as far removed as the memory of water itself. Odd that the bone dry landscape Kyle had found so comforting in his youth, eloquent in its very emptiness, would turn out to be the most hungry for his bones.
The sun crept from its casual embrace with rock, giving intimation of its role as cruel enforcer. One thing was certain––the relief Kyle had felt last night to have broken somehow free was no longer remotely present. In its place a realization that, unless he found some sort of shelter, he wouldn’t last long––a cave, a spring, some lone hermit's habitation containing the scarcest of all commodities: a trickle of water. Given this area's mining provenance, there must be roads criss-crossing the area––but from which direction and where to, he had not a clue. Having taken off at an undetermined angle, following the grim imperative of eluding those intent on extinguishing his life, there were no familiar landmarks. His pursuers had fanned out in a single line––in retrospect, the direction in which he had escaped had been coordinated––they were prepared to lose him, so long as he retreated to a place where there was no risk of him stumbling onto a highway, flagging down a diesel truck.
Kyle grasped for memories of basic survival techniques as the sun crept toward him in gradations––orange rays giving flickering life to pockets and crevices that would soon turn into washed out, chalky desert. The hard surfaces taking hold of light and becoming radiant forces of their own, intensifying the sun's heat––earth transformed into ovenware. Considering how much he'd exerted himself last night he'd be dead soon, if not today, early tomorrow. The sun now well above the horizon and bearing down with unrelenting intensity. The few clouds that passed just wisps and fragments.
As far as Kyle could see there was nothing to the west, just blanket sameness. To the east, a jumble of ridges and valleys that extended like saw teeth. Folds that might just harbor underwater springs, caves. He remembered stopping at a visitor's center in the outback with his parents years before, pushing a large button that lit up tiny blue points on a topographic model, indicating places where early settlers had found water. Carefully marked replenishing points in their search for gold, precious minerals. Clustered among the hills and ridges, he imagined pioneers trading stories beside stumpy trees too rare and valuable to have ever been used for campfires. Friends of necessity on a harsh, barren landscape where the stars opened out each night in infinite understanding.
As the morning progressed, the parch in Kyle's throat increased to a sandpaper fineness, a dry cough that erupted every few minutes to reveal the ash inside him. It was intense effort putting one foot in front of another, as thirst hedged in on basic functioning in its constant, gnawing way. Eventually willpower would break against the limitations of what was possible without lubrication, movement turning to phantom ache. He cracked a smile through the pain––the fact that he was experiencing this in a sentient way, still capable of coherent thought, was enough.
The three vultures stood at a distance, not wanting to expend any more energy than necessary. Knowing that they could not yet take him, these scavengers were not going anywhere. The sharp movement of their eyes, the economical slant of their beaks, indicated relentless attention. They would not be wasting their time here unless they thought there was a good chance they would be feasting on something that could sustain them for a week, longer. To them he was no human overlord––he was a meal far more substantial than their usual diet of rodent, coyote, and rattlesnake.
Minutes passed and Kyle began to sense a subtle communication between the vultures. Their eyes not unaware of his gaze on them, of his fear of an event that would temporarily fill their bellies. He was meat, nothing more, to be torn apart sinew by sinew, his bones left to bleach and dry in the desert. Life he thought, blinking through a sting of dust and salt in the eyes. What message did these creatures, comfortably alive though well beyond the crease of civilization, have to impart?
More steps, more watching of birds and their not-quite-alien movements, trying to understand.... What if they were in subtle ways guiding him in an intended direction, just as his pursuers had last evening? They had to have come from the ridges––be willing him in a direction in which a trickle of water would be mere impossibility. Kyle took a few steps toward an open plain he knew could have no water and gauged the vultures' reaction. He noticed the flash of a nod from one to the other, a turned smile under the beak––like a child on the edge of his seat, awaiting the lunch bell. All life was connected, you just needed to be.… Kyle turned toward the nearest ridge and the vultures fell back, ruffling wings and muttering with abortive squawks. Not quite perturbed, but…. He subtly shifted his path in half-minute increments, tacking in minutely changing directions, trying to gauge exactly which plane of movement upset their balance the most. It was there––a momentary break in certainty, a series of darting glances, as he moved toward a point on the ridge that rose like a hook, three-quarters crescent. As Kyle picked up speed, the vultures lifted their wings, scattering at some distance––still skeptical, still not believing he had any chance of leaving alive.
Kyle's feet scraped the surface, planting themselves one in front of the other. He was a clutter of bones, only that, moving forward along an ultra-hard pitch. His body, like so many other wrong-turn victims, would soon be jerky to satiate some leather-skinned scavenger’s hunger. The bones picked clean and carried by coyotes, desert rats to turn into den lining for mothers to bear children in––protection against rock and sky, rock and sky.
One hour, two. An asynchronous veering between coherence and disorientation. A growing certainty that death was not the worst fate possible. To die on his own, given time to make peace with whatever lay beyond––that was freedom of sorts. No chance of survival on this parchment bake… A dark speck coasting from a familiar point on the ridge, spreading wings and slowly circling before descending––another vulture intent on waiting him out.
As insignificant as this conformation seemed, it had all the meaning in the world. Kyle’s course was now firmly set toward that three-quarters crescent––if life was emanating from that particular point, he was going to aim for it with all his remaining energy. If he was wrong, if the vulture had returned from an endless circling, an unsuccessful forage.... no choice, there was exactly one route open. Kyle made visible progress against a cloudless sky––a rugged upwelling of rocks and shadows hinting at fractured multiplicity. Doubt out of the equation, he had one urgent mission: find shelter and ride out the hottest part of the day without movement or exertion.
As he stumbled toward a jumble of boulders that marked significant change in elevation, Kyle heard, then saw as a tiny streak, a high-pitched, reverberating rumble, sign of human life in its most inhuman form. A photon burst of shrieking titanium and advanced composites. He waved, a little kid hoping against hope––surely these sleek military planes could identify him, though buzzing at accelerated pace, with technologies designed to identify Bin Laden on a similarly desolate moonscape––the UFO technologies that had created Isis and the thousand-headed hydra of humans not wanting to be controlled from above––adhering to the fundamental belief that hidden routes through desert rock pointed the best pathway to survival. It was all incoherence now, reality a cosmic shrug. And yet as life ebbed, the pulse in his heart had never been more insistent. Drumroll of inertia, calibrated signals like a remote beacon, the body’s will to live when coherence is lost. Lizard brain awareness: there is something more profound than that which consciousness allows us to consider….
Life did not end, despite these moments verging on madness. On the other side of the perceived extremities of thirst and exhaustion, still new levels of hell. Kyle continued through a shadowless desert that shifted to a slightly steeper angle. Subtle though the change was, the effect was jarring on already unstable limbs. Slowly, achingly, he picked his way up a broad wash toward a juncture where crags rose and loosely spaced boulders became a jumble. Small spiky plants dotting the crevasses between boulders that were now substantial enough to provide thin patches of shade. Pausing for just a moment, Kyle managed to curve his face and arms completely within shadow.
Fifteen minutes stretched to an hour before Kyle was able to convince himself that he had the will to move again. The alliance between brain and sinews seemed irreparably broken, the strain of enacting movement a battle beyond comprehension. No choice... only if his body kicked into some kind of recognizable pattern of forward movement, now, could he continue.
Now. Kyle directed his disjointed limbs from pocket of half-shade to pocket of half-shade, tacking between boulders strewn in the dead river bed, gaining hard-fought elevation. The sun lowering fast, Kyle traversed lengthening shadows, braving sunlight as more substantial pockets of shade appeared. There was no stopping, inertia was everything. Finally, as his energy reserves neared empty, he scanned for a spot to take him through the evening hours, build up some sort of reservoir––marshal one last attempt for the ridge. Deep shade appeared under a thin, long rock lodged diagonally between two massive boulders. Lying flat in the quasi-darkness, nose inches away from rock face, he tried not to breathe any more than absolutely necessary. Through a sleepless sleep, the realization that all life hung at the edges––a lizard’s rapid pushup, flicker of tail. When he woke it was dusk and the air was bearable.
Kyle lay for ages before channeling the same synaptic impulses as before, reigniting movement. Somehow he started up the steepest part, half crawling now, golem-like, grasping hard edges, twisting between the rocks, determined to gain possession of a vantage point from which to survey what lay beyond. Foot, rock, foot, rock––stretching of tendons, muscles that had been toned at the gym, now stripped to the purest elements of willpower, guiding him doggedly up rock face.
And then somehow he was there––at the top. Scanning endless ribbons of ridges, each alike in its utter desolation, unwilling to believe that what lay ahead was as uniformly desolate as that behind. There was no sign of life beyond a few sparse trees at the upper elevations and the vultures, now coasting high above, kept him in sight as they rode the currents. Kyle did not have a clear idea of what he was looking for––a road, a cabin, remnants of a mining claim––even a mirage…. Some sign that earth was not all rock and sky, futile repetition. No longer aware of his body, stripped down to a base level of willpower. We’re all connected, surely all connected––or else we are completely, unavoidably alone.
Kyle closed his eyes, confronting clear evidence that his life was insignificant. Ready to drift off… opening his eyes again, he scanned the cruel, stark tableau as stars appeared one by one. If nothing else he would depart the earth surrounded by this––would sit there cross-legged looking out and, when he could no longer support his own weight, lay down, his vision connected to an endless unspooling, creation.
Then at last from a location below, hidden by rocks––a thin trickle of smoke. There was nothing that should be causing smoke in an almost treeless landscape, nothing…. he could almost smell the charred meat, visualize the hole bored into hard rock that drew water from a hidden aquifer. A desolate ravine harboring some lone mountain man, comfortable in his own skin and centuries from others’ reality…. It was far but not too far… he could make it, Kyle thought, letting gravity do the work. There was still a faint purple glow on the horizon, last ember of the sun… he had hours and hours in the embrace of stars.
Waking an indeterminate amount of time later, Kyle opened his eyes to thousands of stars, space-time artifacts of past realities. He picked his way down the rocky slope, lost in a thicket of dehydration, following his own movements as if through a long tunnel. The life force weak and diminishing, the chances of finding replenishment almost nil. And yet…
An unexpected groove, ancient water channel––Kyle welcomed the slide down smooth rock at first, then grasped out at side rocks as he experienced dizzying acceleration. The channel took a steep drop and there was a sensation of flying, of being lifted by spirits. Nothing to fixate on but stars, there was nothing––pure numbness, a jolt of eternity wrapped in a shroud….
Waves of meaning not tied to a specific sense emanated from a very deep bottom. Kyle didn’t know how long he had been there. He laid back and his eyes were the only thing moving––for brief moments he caught sight of stars and then there was warm, thick blackness… eternities later, another tug of the now. Second reemergence into consciousness. A remembrance of his body crushed against something harder than hardness. His arms and legs streaking with endless ribbons of pain… it came back and then it was too much and his body shut down again. Only this time he did not stop seeing––his existence had metamorphosed into pure vision. This must be what they meant by seeing God––no movement, no awareness of the body. His reality as stark and laid out as the gradations of rock and sky. He lay aching on the rock, nestled against sun-flecked stone, his skin a part of this new reality––preparing to become a part of that which in essence was only matter.
Return from blackness. Sensation emerging as a result of actively seeking out pain––the places where perception latched onto what had occurred. Kyle willed himself to connect with the dull ache of broken bones, the jagged flare where rock incised chest and forearm. Having been given a chance to embrace the light, reach a state of nonexistence, he’d turned away. Earthly suffering his only reward. Samsara.
As he took stock through a fury of nerves, Kyle focused on the exact place where the pain stopped. Despite its intensity, it was not centered in his neck or head. Through protective instinct or sheer luck, he had hit the bottom in a defensive pose, his extremities buffering the skull. Kyle willed movement. The pain was everywhere as neural pathways reconnected with muscles and sinews, damaged nerve impulses, and mapped the true extent of his injuries. It was an act of utter bravado, this connecting with his physical self in the face of deeply embedded pain. The tortuous process of achieving phantom movement, when even full mobility would not save him.
The vultures took unblinking perches in his peripheral vision. They waited him out as they did rabbits, coyotes, the injured and infirm. Standing sentinel, edging closer, no longer so patient––arched necks and beaks poised for the exact moment they could.… Kyle blinked and raised his head in protest, hand shooting out in a shaky simulacrum of defense. His feeble movement, a display of diminished capacities, had exactly the opposite intended effect. The largest vulture stepped to the foreground, flanked by two others, giving an appraising look. The talons tentatively prodding his wrist, the beak tugging gently at first at Kyle’s forearm and then into flesh with surprising force. There was a ripping inside him, a sensation of scissors digging into the skin and scraping through veins and tendons to reach bone. That light through the tunnel, the easy way out… he knew in that momentt he should have taken it.
The bald head lurched between preened feathers as his flesh went down in a gulp––throat cleared, beak poised for a second bite. A turn and a shriek, as the vultures dispersed in the air. A condor, spread full wing, was beating, beating the earth. The vultures and condor took to the sky, a startling commotion in this place of finality. The lightening-fast melee left the largest vulture sprawled on the ground, nursing a broken foot. The other vultures settled on the ground and turned sideways, falling back.
Kyle’s gaze lifted to a sun that seemed to give message of the end of life and of its intricate seasons of suffering, reprieve. The thought occurring that there was one remnant of hope, a reason not to simply slip away. However brief, the commotion in the sky might just have caught the attention of whoever had set out that thin trickle of smoke last night. It was just possible that….
The condor now took its rightful place over Kyle’s body. Nudging the wrist with its beak, it examined his chest––returning to the wrist and tearing off a small flap of skin, tasting. A thin trail of skin hanging off its beak as pain erupted as never before. The condor came eye to eye with Kyle, the beak prodding, as if ascertaining whether he posed any threat. Determining that he did not, the condor took a step back and pointed with his beak at the throat, where Kyle would bleed out the quickest. As if to say this is what I will do for you, so that you no longer suffer. The condor was a god of mercy and Kyle gave himself to the void.
At the very moment when life should have run out, Kyle sensed a vibration behind him, from a direction he could not see, and felt a liftoff and scattering of heavy wings. The one-two pattern was unmistakable, the sound of running feet. They came to ear level and stopped, he was turned over, his head falling back into cradling hands. Through heavy eyes that could not quite focus, he took in jeans that extended upward to the breadth of a woman’s hips.