Kyle made his way through a predawn glow that revealed brutal, ancient scars. Volcanic remnants of water-scoured rock, long raised ribs, upwellings against eternity. The landscape had leveled off some time ago, giving intense relief to bone-jarred ankles. There must be roads criss-crossing the area, given its mining provenance––but from which direction and where to he had no idea. Having traversed scrub and narrow canyon, 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 truck.
Kyle continued on a level path for several minutes before realizing that open terrain was not his friend. Too exposed, without shade. Turning in the direction from which he had come, he worked out the shadows of ridge line against fading stars. His gaze settling on what seemed a familiar contour––the one place he knew would have water. If it also took him dangerously close to his pursuers… well, that was a chance he’d have to take.
Keeping to a fixed course, Kyle’s progress was slower than expected––his adrenalin-fueled path out had been anything but straight. Reaching a rise in elevation where boulders and small plants appeared, he scanned the ridge. An incremental lightening revealing the grade as more steep and jagged than the place from which he had come. Not ideal from a water replenishment standpoint, it did ensure he was a good distance from his pursuers. Kyle turned and looked out at an unbroken landscape––a sense of deja vu entering that for a time masked 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. 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 paddling out, a feeling of elemental heave within heavy surf, of the bottom dropping off the coast. Odd that the bone dry landscape Kyle had found so comforting in his youth, eloquent in its emptiness, would turn out to be the most hungry for his bones.
The sun crept into easy embrace with the horizon, giving faint hint of its role as cruel enforcer. Now brushing the rocks, its rays would only intensify and lengthen, transforming myriad shades of red and orange into washed out desert. The hard surfaces becoming radiant forces of their own, trapping the sun's heat––earth turned to ovenware. Kyle headed back onto the flat, the sun now steady above the horizon, unblinking. The few clouds that passed just wisps and fragments. What he needed was distance from the ridge, enough to gain daytime perspective of its contours––pick out Cowachunga, or a sun-protected traverse.
Kyle kept parallel to the ridge line, moving toward what he hoped would reveal itself as familiar territory. There was no recognizable sign of a spring, no hint of verdure. Instead, a unified bristle of rock in shades of beige and oblivion. A jumble of ridges and valleys that extended like saw teeth––there were hundreds of possibilities, folds that might just harbor underwater springs, or reveal themselves as repositories of wrong-turn victims' bones.
The parch in Kyle’s throat increased to sandpaper fineness, a dry cough erupting every few minutes to reveal the ash inside him. It was intense effort putting one foot in front of the other, 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 turn to phantom ache. Kyle cracked a smile through the pain––the fact that he was experiencing this in a sentient way, capable of coherent thought, was enough.
Vultures encroached as Kyle made his way across the unfamiliar landscape. They had picked him out some time ago, the first one circling in broad arcs before sweeping down. After several minutes the pattern repeated, then again. The 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 birds. Their eyes not unaware of his gaze on them, of the zero-sum nature of their relationship. 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 sweat 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 subtle turn of the beak––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 shifted his path in half-minute increments, subtly tacking, 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.
One hour, two. An asynchronous veering between coherence and disorientation. Kyle's feet scraping 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 jerky that would satiate these leather-skinned scavengers’ 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.
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 coasted from a familiar point on the ridge, spreading wings and slowly circling before descending––another vulture intent on waiting him out. Kyle’s course was now firmly set toward that three-quarters crescent––if life was emanating from that particular ridge, he was going to expend his remaining energy to get there. If he was wrong, if the vulture had returned from an endless circling, an unsuccessful forage.... no choice, there was exactly one way open. Kyle made visible progress against a cloudless sky––a rugged upwelling of rocks and shadows that hinted 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 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 a thousand-headed hydra of tribes not wanting to be controlled from above––adhering to the fundamental belief that hidden routes through wasteland pointed the best pathway to survival. Kyle saw himself one of those tiny dots, inhabiting a hopeless immensity of desert. Reality a cosmic shrug. And yet as the physical ebbed, his desire 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 to existence than consciousness allows us to consider.
Life did not end, despite these moments verging on madness. On the other side of the extremities of thirst and exhaustion, new levels of hell. Kyle continued through a shadowless desert that shifted to steeper angle, the beginning of significant climb. Subtle though the change was, the effect was jarring on 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 flatten 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 with his body in some recognizable pattern of forward movement could he continue. Now. Kyle directed his disjointed limbs from pocket of half-shade to pocket of half-shade, tacking between boulders strewn through a widening canyon, gaining hard-fought elevation. The sun lowering fast, Kyle traversed lengthening shadows, braving sunlight as more substantial pockets of shade appeared.
Sitting up, Kyle channeled ancient synaptic impulses, trying to reignite movement. Finally, through the rabbit hole.. a spark took and he generated movement against gravity, up the steepest part of the ridge. 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 carefully toned at the gym, now stripped to the purest elements of willpower, guiding him doggedly up rock face.
And then somehow Kyle was there––at a vantage where everything spread out. Scanning endless ribbons of rock, unwilling to believe that what lay ahead was as uniformly desolate as that behind. The vultures kept him in sight as they rode the currents, looking for new remains to scavenge. Kyle wondered what they could see in their elevated traverse––a road, a cabin, remnants of a mining claim––even a mirage…. Some sign that earth was not all rock and sky, futile repetition. We’re all connected, surely all connected––or else we are completely, unavoidably alone.
Kyle closed his eyes, confronting irrefutable evidence that he was alone. Ready to drift off… no… opening his eyes again, picking out minute features against the rock face, as stars appeared one by one. If nothing else, he would depart surrounded by this. Sit looking out at night, dawn, and––when he could no longer support his own weight––lay down, his vision connected in an unspooling of creation.
Then out of the corner of his eyes, from a hidden spot––a thin trickle of smoke. There was nothing to cause smoke to rise in this 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 level spot harboring some lone mountain man, comfortable in his own skin and centuries removed from others’ reality…. It was far but not too far… he could make it, Kyle thought––let gravity do the work. There was still a faint glow on the horizon, last ember of sun… hours and hours left in the embrace of stars.
Kyle took in thousands of stars, space-time artifacts of past realities, as he picked his way down the uneven grade. Following his own movements as if through a long tunnel. The life force weak and diminishing, the chances of finding replenishment almost nil. 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 specific senses 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 viscous warmth… 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 ribbons of pain… it came back and then and 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. Stretched across rock, frozen against sun-bleached stone, his skin, bones, and brain matter a part of this new reality––prepared to become what in essence was only matter.
Return from darkness, swimming in the inky pool of his body, its broken linkages. Sensation emerging as a result of actively seeking out pain––the places where perception came into contact with what had actually occurred. Kyle willed himself to connect with the 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 reawakened nerves, Kyle focused on the exact place where the pain stopped. Despite its intensity, the pain 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 the opposite intended effect. The largest vulture stepped to the foreground, flanked by two others, giving him an appraising look. The talons prodded 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 instant he should have taken it.
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 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 fresh pain erupted from an endless layering of wounds. The condor came eye to eye with Kyle, the beak prodding, as if ascertaining whether he posed a 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––
At the very moment when life should have run out, Kyle sensed a vibration behind him, from a direction he could not see–a frantic scattering of heavy wings. The one-two pattern was unmistakable––the reverberation came to ear level, fast hard, and stopped, and he was turned over, his head falling back into cradling hands. Through heavy eyes that could not quite focus, he took in boots that extended through jeans, upward to the breadth of a woman’s hips.