All three of us were 21 years old--four months from graduating from St. Anthony’s, a tiny Catholic liberal arts college with a campus that spread like graceful angels’ wings over the gently rolling hills of northern Indiana. Towering elms, oaks, and maples graced the quads, which floated like clouds of platonic idealism on the outskirts of the city of Fort Wayne. It was the tumultuous, insane year of 1969, but no protesters tore apart St. Anthony’s well-manicured quads; no sit-ins interrupted all of the valuable learning unfolding in the classrooms.
We were sitting—sprawling, really--in Len Pulaski’s dorm room, which exuded all the charm of a prison cell. I looked at my two buddies. Danny Riley was short and wiry and intense and fronted a bulldog face with a pug nose and eyes that sagged slightly and a fleshy mouth. Pulaski was yin to Riley’s yang--tall and phlegmatic and reflective. He sprouted a goatee and swung his arms back and forth as if too much oil lubricated the joints attaching his arms to his shoulders.
I was tall and believed with all my heart that I was too skinny, what with my pipe cleaner arms and nonexistent biceps. I wore black glasses that I was certain made my eyebrows look even thicker than they already were. When I looked in the mirror, I thought of Lurch. I swore that the first thing I’d do after graduating and getting a teaching job would be to buy new glasses and throw those clunky old ones into the trash heap.
We tipped our heads back and sucked beers from the cans that we clutched like dead trout. We swallowed. Silence followed, like that moment before tiny slivers of dawn appear on the horizon. Then, out of the silence, words uttered by Pulaski: “Hey! You guys! Let’s go to the bloody game tomorrow night!” A note of desperation swam beneath his words.
“Bloody!” Riley exploded. “What the hell—are you a Brit all of a sudden? Nobody says bloody in America, which is where we just happen to live.”
I piped in, “Oh, Pulaski’s just being pretentious. Bloody! They don’t even say bloody in bloody old England any more. Never heard John Lennon say bloody, for God’s sake. That’s for all the old guys in England—the Oliviers and all those guys.”
“You guys shut up!” Pulaski roared. “Just shut up! That’s not the point. The point is, do you want to go to the basketball game tomorrow night at old St. Greg’s in Lansing? It’ll be like our own little odyssey.” Pulaski took another long sip of beer.
“We’ll have to hitch there,” I pointed out. “To Lansing. To lovely Lansing, Michigan.”
“Tell me something I don’t know, O’Toole,” Riley said. “Of course we’ll have to hitch!”
“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s winter outside.”
“But it’s 60 degrees out there!” Pulaski screamed. “We’re breaking weather records all over the Midwest!” From his wallet he snaked out a laminated card with St. Anthony’s basketball schedule on it. “Yeah, game starts at seven tomorrow. So if we leave around noon after morning classes, we’ll get there in plenty of time. It’ll be exciting! It’ll be a thrill! We need a thrill.”
“All right!” Riley said. “We have a plan!” He took another gorilla guzzle of beer. “Let’s drink to us!”
Another silence followed, like a heavy blanket. During that stillness, I suddenly felt something . . . something without words. I looked at my buddies, and I knew that they felt it, too. Some anxiety. Some feeling of being 21 years old and who knew what was going to happen to us. I looked at my buddies, and a subterranean sense of loss whispered in my ears.
The feeling crawled back where it had been hiding, and each of us popped open fresh cans of beer. “Pabst Blue Ribbon!” Riley shouted, holding up his beer. “The greatest! Goes down smooth!”
“The beer that made Milwaukee famous!” Pulaski yelled.
“That isn’t PBR!” Riley groaned. “That’s Old Milwaukee. For God’s sake, Pulaski, get your slogans straight!”
“Well,” Pulaski said with slightly hurt feelings. “What’s Pabst’s slogan?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Pulaski!” Riley moaned. “Pabst doesn’t have a slogan, and it doesn’t need one. It won the Blue Ribbon back in 1292 or whenever and ever since it’s been Pabst Blue Ribbon and nothing more. The best beer out of Milwaukee!”
I said, “Both of you bastards are wrong. Schlitz is the beer that made Milwaukee famous!”
“Oh, my God, O’Toole!” Riley roared. “You are a genius! How could both of us be so desperately wrong about the beer that made Milwaukee famous?!” We all laughed.
All this talk, all this beer—it strengthened our armor—the armor of young men. We put on the armor in the morning and rode off to confront the world and suffered its slings and arrows, and then we took off the armor at night and sank into our little dreams. We were knights in shining armor—self-sufficient and impregnable. I looked at Danny, across the room, five feet away from me. What about him? What secrets did he have? He had a girlfriend—Renee. But Danny never talked about her—not really. Did he love her, I wondered. He’d never said so. Was he going to stay with her? He’d never said so. I’d been his buddy for three and a half years, but I had no idea about him. Pulaski, Riley—my buddies, my friends—they were strangers. The realization—it hit me like a bullet, right between the eyes.
Then I thought about the thing—the thing that had happened to me the week before. I couldn’t help it. The thing I didn’t want to think about. It had all come crashing down. It was like a mine collapsing. She’d given no reason. She hadn’t returned my phone calls. What had I done? Was I too ugly or stupid or boring for her? Ugly. Stupid. Boring. It had to be one of the three. I’d failed. I was inadequate, and it had punctured me like an arrow, penetrated me until I felt like all the blood draining out of me until I was nothing. Zero. Zilch. A whole pathetic pile of nothing. But I hadn’t whispered a word of any of this to Pulaski or Riley. It had scratched something open. A wound. Her unreturned phone calls, piercing like a syringe. I never let on to my good buddies, never let on about any of it. Why bother them with my crap? The beer smothered everything. It kept the armor intact.
The night finally ended, a restless sleep followed, morning arrived. Danny and I were roommates, and after our classes, we sidled to Len’s dorm room to pick him up—the first step in our great odyssey to lovely Lansing for the epic basketball game. Len opened the door. His eyes bled red, and his skin resembled the paste that children use in elementary school. “Ready, buddy?” Danny asked.
We were dumb. It was laughable, as I look back on it now, lo these many years later. We naturally and stupidly assumed that the weather would stay warm even though it was January, and we wore our spring jackets. We planned to hitchhike back to St. Anthony’s after the game that same night. I know, I know--great plan. We shuffled to the entrance to I-69, the great highway to the great state of Michigan. We stuck out our thumbs.
Soon we flagged down a ride. The driver leaned over and opened the passenger door. I herky-jerkied into the front and Danny and Len into the back. He was a heavy-set middle-aged guy in a beige Olds 88—a salesman—sold fertilizer and farm feed to the farmers of Indiana and Michigan. Yes, he was driving toward Lansing and yes, he could take us just about all the way. The man asked us if we were students, and we told him we were seniors at St. Anthony’s. We described the college—how it was a very traditional place--how it was all male, how we had to study stuff like metaphysics to prove the existence of God. He listened and nodded and drove.
The driver transported us farther and farther away from our campus—the safe, secure campus, our sanctuary for the past four years. I felt as if we were entering some unknown world, even though I’d traveled through the Midwestern landscape a million times before. I looked out the window. Despite the recent warm days, snow heaped like dirty blankets on the ground, and the winter trees stood like naked soldiers against the sky, and lonely leafless bushes popped through the snow.
The salesman dropped us off a few miles outside Lansing, and we easily hitched another ride the rest of the way. By the time we reached St. Gregory’s campus, the day had long since faded into night. The basketball arena, though, was brightly lit and felt safe and comfortable, and the game shook me out of the melancholy that had descended on me as we’d ridden in the car with the salesman. We cheered like normal college guys.
When we walked outside, the time was about 10:30. And now we faced the utter and cold reality--hitching back to Fort Wayne in the middle of the night. “We’re stupid,” I remember saying. My buddies ignored me. At that moment, the drawback in our plans flashed into abundant clarity.
“Maybe we should get a room,” Len said. We each had a few lonely dollars buried deep in our wallets--not enough for even a cheapo motel room. The temperature was plummeting. Old Man Winter was returning with a vengeance, chasing away the fake spring that had fooled us three young knights in shining armor. Our skimpy jackets felt like pajamas. The wind cut through them like shards of glass.
We stuck out our thumbs once again. Soon enough we scored a ride. But the anonymous man who picked us up was going only a short distance. He said, “I’ll drop you off at I-69. There’s a lot of traffic going south. You’ll get a ride right away. Right away.” He said it with great confidence—great bravado. He abandoned us at the entrance to the interstate and raced off into the night to his cozy home with the fireplace and the wife and the children and the two fingers of Scotch.
“Damn, we’re stupid,” Danny said. His voice itched with irritation. Len and I nodded. We watched the traffic—all the traffic coming south on the interstate, the traffic that whizzed by us, the traffic that didn’t even think about picking us up. The headlights glistened like jewels as the cars slid along the interstate. Beyond the lights of the speeding cars sprawled a colossal, empty darkness. “I’m worried,” Len said.
“We’d better get a ride pretty damn soon,” Danny said.
I didn’t say a word.
A half-hour passed. Another half-hour. Now it was 11:30. The temperature continued to crater, falling toward zero. We jumped up and down faster and faster to pump some splinter of warmth into their bodies. “This is ridiculous,” Len said.
“Shut up, Pulaski,” Danny said.
“Just cool it, Riley,” I said.
“You shut up, too,” Danny said. “Get your damn thumb out there.”
I glared at Riley. The darkness surrounded us. It was suffocating. The passing cars whispered lonely dreams—whoosh, whoosh, rubber against dead concrete. By now, none of us were looking at or talking to one another. Each of us blamed the other two for this fiasco.
Finally, finally, a car pulled onto the shoulder. Our savior! We clambered into the back. In front was a couple, around 25 or 26. She--what a beauty, with raven tempestuous black hair and sequin eyes. He, with Elvis-style hair that swooped back into a perfect pompadour. I immediately, inevitably started to think of them as Elvis and Priscilla. Couldn’t help myself. They’d been anonymous, and now they were Elvis and Priscilla. He swung his head around and asked with infinite politeness, “Where are you fellas going?” His baritone voice floated to us on the waves of the fierce night that was trying to claw its way into the car.
“Fort Wayne,” Danny said.
Elvis drawled, “Well, we’re headin’ to Jackson.” Jackson was east, toward Detroit, and we three lost young men needed to go southwest. But the car felt so warm, like the sides of toasted bread that reminded me of childish mornings. It was becoming clear, oh-so-clear, that we had no chance whatsoever, no how, no way, no chance in a million, to reach Fort Wayne that night. “There’s a Greyhound Bus station in Jackson,” Elvis said in a mellifluous voice that curled its way to us like cigarette smoke. “We can drop you fellas off there.”
“OK,” Danny said.
“What the hell are you guys doing out here hitching this late at night?” he asked.
We explained to him about the whole basketball gambit.
“Not such great planning, fellas,” he said.
Danny snarled, “Yeah, we know.”
Elvis asked us what we did. We told him we were students at St. Anthony’s. He’d never heard of it. Danny explained that it was an all-male bastion of higher learning. Silence smothered the car, separating us into four isolated souls.
Priscilla came to the rescue. In all her glorious and dark beauty, she turned around and shot us with her royal purple eyes. “So, how do you young men meet young women?” she asked, her voice teasing us with silken grace.
Len answered, “There’s a branch of Indiana and Purdue universities in Fort Wayne. Women attend school there. Sometimes we meet girls there. It’s possible to meet them there. Sometimes.”
The silence returned--thick, enveloping, like an impenetrable fog. The insistent glare of the headlights lit up the pavement in front of the speeding car. Everything else was black. I’d never felt the night so thick, so opaque. I looked at Len and realized that I had no idea about him--no idea who he was or what he was all about or what he felt beneath his young-man armor.
Priscilla fractured the silence. “So,” she said, “Do you young handsome guys have girlfriends?” She stared with radiant shining eyes that made us want to tell her about themselves . . . to tell her our secrets.
Len was the first to venture an answer. “No,” he said, his voice falling to the murmur of the confessional. “I’ve never had a girlfriend.” He stopped. “It’s true. I’ve never ever had one. I would like to have a girlfriend, but I’ve never had one. Never.” Another pause. “I almost had one, my freshman year. We went out three times, but then she never returned my phone calls.” He stopped talking. “I’m a virgin,” he confessed. Then he retreated--behind the castle wall that he’d built around his heart. I stared at him in the dark. I’d never heard Len utter such words before—such utter naked defenseless honest shocking sad words—words that circled around me and corralled me into his world.
Priscilla blinked her shining diadem eyes. She, too, stared at Len. I could see Len’s eyes limned with a deep and unutterable aloneness. The night clawed at the car like a vicious polecat.
Empty minutes passed. Priscilla took a deep breath. She looked at Danny, and her voice floated to us, naked and seductive. “How about you?” she whispered. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Danny was slow to answer, as if he were still lingering on Len’s words. He said, “I do have a girlfriend.” His voice was distant, reflective. “Renee, her name is. Like in the song, ‘Just walk away, Renee’.” He sang a few lines from the song, which lit the night for a brief but deceptive instant.
“Very nice,” Priscilla said. “Very pretty. And do you love this Renee?” She said it teasingly, seductively.
“I don’t know,” he said. His voice was forlorn. “I find that question both sad and unanswerable.”
Priscilla was quiet. Then she said in a near-whisper, “Why?”
“It is sad because I do not know what love feels like. Not really. It is unanswerable because I am not really sure, deep down, how I feel about Renee.” His voice sounded like the rumble of a train passing through a town when all the residents are asleep or have died. I had never heard Danny talk like this before. First Len, now Danny. What was going on? What the hell was going on?
In a soft voice that drifted through the air and wrapped itself around Danny, Priscilla said, “Love will find you. I feel certain of it.”
These were astonishing words to me, yet I did not believe them. In the near dark, I saw Danny turn his head away in embarrassment and look out the window and into the dead of night and the surrounding black landscape. “Perhaps,” he murmured. I kept staring at him, just as I had stared at Len. “Perhaps,” Danny said again.
Minutes passed. The darkness continued trying to invade the car. Priscilla turned her royal purple eyes to me. Something sank inside me. “How about you? Do you have a girlfriend?”
I looked at her, and I felt a surge of feeling that I’d never felt before--that I wanted to confess, to spill out words to embrace Priscilla. I opened my mouth. I spoke. I vomited words. “My girlfriend dropped me. Just last week. Her name is Sherry, and now she’s gone, and I’m sad and I feel like shit. I feel like a total piece of shit. I don’t know why she dropped me, but it makes me feel like the biggest loser ever. I feel like a worthless piece of shit, and I feel like nobody is ever going to love me. I don’t know what I said or did to make her drop me. I have no idea what I did wrong. But I know I did something wrong. I wish she’d told me what I did wrong, but she didn’t.”
In the darkness, I felt flies enter my eyes. I blinked them away. I had gone farther than I wanted to. I was embarrassed—by my own words, by my own feelings. The car was a morgue, a cemetery. My buddies were staring at me. Len and Danny—trying to see me in the onyx night. Priscilla with her purple-hued eyes of mountainous magnificence had no words to console me. She turned around to face the front of the car and moved closer to Elvis and pulled his right arm around her. Elvis sighed a leaden sigh. Len and Danny said not a word. I could feel their embarrassment. They moved slightly away from me, as if I had a disease. I felt loneliness like a needle piercing my skin. There was nothing they could do for me. The needle plunged deeper.
As we careened through the blackness, I was suddenly seized by a feeling that clutched like a fist around my throat—a feeling of utter isolation like nothing I had ever felt before. The feeling grew out of everything: Pulaski’s loneliness—Riley’s struggle with the very idea of love—my own loss of someone with whom I could share a dark night in the middle of January and feel her skin so tender and alive against mine. The loneliness left me quietly clasping my hands in the back seat, smothered by the certainty that I would never, ever experience such a thing as an embrace. I leaned my head to the side and sank deeper into the night.
Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, we reached the outskirts of Jackson, and light once again became visible. Elvis drawled, “We’ll drop you guys off at the bus station.” He added, “Do you have enough dough? Let me give you some so you can get the bus back to Fort Wayne.”
Danny asked, “Is there a Western Union station in Jackson?”
Elvis nodded. “I’m pretty sure there is. Right downtown.”
“Then we’re OK. I’ll have my old man wire us some money.”
Elvis dropped us off at the station. We stumbled out of the car. Priscilla stepped out and stood on the curb. She reached out her arms in the most elegant and graceful motion that I’d ever seen, and she gave each of us a hug as if she’d known us all our lives. I felt her hug, and it only sharpened the longing that gnawed at me. Then, just before she loosened her arms around me, she whispered in my ear, “I would love you.” Very softly, very tenderly. The flies flew back into my eyes. I felt her soft breath on my ear, and it perched there like a cloud of memory.
They drove off, Elvis and Priscilla, out of our lives. The station was dark, but when we tried the door, it was unlocked. We walked inside. The room was black—not a single solitary light. Gradually our eyes grew accustomed to the dark. There was no attendant. Danny flicked on his lighter, and we saw a schedule hanging on a bulletin board, informing us that a bus would leave for Indiana, including Fort Wayne, at nine in the morning. Now it was three a.m.
We each chose a bench on which we would try to get some sleep. We sat on our benches, removed our jackets, and rolled them up to use as pillows. I was exhausted, the bench was hard, it was like lying on bricks, and I could feel my bones pressed against the wood, pressing against that hard, hard wood. Pain started to radiate from my hip.
Soon Danny and Len were snoring, but I couldn’t even begin to fall asleep. I was caught in the fevered circle of loneliness chewing my soul like a vicious bulldog, and I felt my bones and muscles pushing against the wood. I felt Priscilla’s breath still on my ear, and I heard her last words to me: “I would love you.” And then in the darkness, I felt the wet scorching my cheeks, and I turned toward the back of the bench on which I was lying so that there was no chance, no chance at all, that my good buddies would see or hear me wetting my eyes childlike in the darkness. At last I caught a few snatches of sleep.
Eventually the sun peeked through the dilapidated Venetian blinds that lined the interior of the bus station. All three of us woke up at about the same time. By now an attendant had come in through the door to the station and was very surprised to see us because the door should have been locked. He walked over to look at us—a small man with graying hair and a two-day growth of beard and weary eyes and a wrinkled Greyhound Bus Company uniform. He looked at us and wagged his head back and forth, saying, “You young fellers shouldn’t be in here!”
We explained the whole thing to him—how we ended up here--and he just shook his head back and forth. Danny toggled over to the Western Union station and came back with a wad of dough in his hand. He said, “My old man was pissed, but he sent the dough.” He had a couple hundred bucks.
We were standing in a small circle, the three of us, all staring at the money in Danny’s tight grasp. He had a day’s growth of beard, and his hair was askew, and his eyes had sunk to half-mast, as if he’d been drugged. Len’s hair had scrambled into a mess, too, and his mouth was crooked with tiredness, and the tail of his shirt hung out, and the color of his skin had faded into vampire whiteness. We were standing in our little circle, staring at the money in Danny’s hand. All of a sudden, Danny looked at us. He scrutinized us more closely. “Hey! he said. “You guys look like crap!”
Then Len looked at Danny and me. “Well, you guys look even worse than I do!”
And with that, they started laughing, howling with unrestrained glee, hooting as if they’d just struck gold. Slowly, bit by bit, I caught the laughter like a bug, and it started to shake the vicious dog loose from my soul.
Danny looked at me and said, “O’Toole, I had no idea you were so goddam, so completely, so thoroughly screwed up!”
I howled. “Are you kidding me?” I roared. “You are way, way more screwed up than I am!” We both exploded with laughter, which careened off the ceiling and nearly broke the fluorescent lights.
Len yelped with laughter that roared from his open mouth like a runaway train. “We are all screwed up!” he said with jubilation. “All of us. Totally, completely, and absolutely screwed up. More screwed up than anyone has ever been in the whole history of the world!” We laughed louder than ever. We assaulted the world with our loud, rude, boisterous, disrespectful, nihilistic, in-your-face, no-holds-barred, lock-the-door-Katie, insane, crazy, delirious laughter. God, it felt so great to laugh from the bottom of our poor, benighted souls!
“Man, we’re going home—back into the arms of St. Anthony’s!” I yelled, feeling a burst of exuberance and hilarity, and I opened my mouth and felt the laughter burst from far far far inside me.
Danny danced an absurd jig and hooted, and Len punched each of us in the arm and shouted, “By God! That’s right! We’re going home!”
The bus station attendant stared at us as if we were out of their minds. We screamed with laughter, shrieking so hard that we had to lean against the benches to keep from doing belly flops onto the dirty linoleum floor of the bus station.
I said, “Hey, you know who gave us that ride last night?”
They looked at me. “Who?” Pulaski said.
“Elvis and Priscilla!” They looked at me, thought for a second, pictured the young man with the pompadour and the young woman with the beautiful purple eyes, and we laughed harder than ever, a laughing fit that bounced everywhere in that crazy gray nondescript Greyhound Bus Station that was devoid of any other passengers. There we were, laughing—and that was when the three of us were forever linked in absurdity, co-conspirators of the ridiculous, collaborators in a new and strange kind of faith.
The bus came, it picked us up, it stretched along the golden highway, it sped through the snow-encrusted countryside. The bus shepherded us back toward St. Anthony’s, and together Riley and Pulaski and I traveled through the blazing sunlight of the torrid day, knowing that we would be connected forever after peeking without blinders into the monstrous, empty night.
The canyon stretched out before the two of them and reached all the way to the horizon, like an enormous birth canal connecting two worlds—this world of the past and the everyday world that they just had left behind. On the floor of the canyon, the khaki-brown soil and the scattered clumps of brown grass and sagebrush were burned dry by the sun, which blazed like a medallion on fire. The two long and perfectly vertical sides of the canyon rose 300 feet to meet the high desert, which spread its desolation for miles in all directions.
Throughout the canyon stood the ruins of primordial buildings. The ancient ones, who had lived in the canyon a thousand years before, had built the structures with painstaking precision. From the sandstone cliffs they had cut bricks baked gold by the sun, had made mortar from mud, had carefully laid the bricks in long, exact rows to form the walls of the structures. With these simple materials, they had built an enormous and complex city in which thousands of people had lived and eaten and procreated and worshiped and died. Then, for reasons that remain a mystery, they had abandoned their beautiful city, had abandoned it to the sun and the wind. But they had not abandoned the canyon entirely, for their spirits continued to dwell in these ruins. The canyon was alive with the wind of the spirits, which swirled perpetually into and through the ruins. There was no blocking this wind, no interfering with it; it was as much a part of the canyon as the ancient ruins or the primitive dirt road that led from one set of ruins to another.
As soon as Ariana stepped into the canyon, she knew that she had found her spirit-home. In the normal world, the everyday world, she had felt her intuition slowly dying, to the point that she could no longer sense anything beyond the numbness of daily life, and what had started as a vague dissatisfaction had hardened inexorably into despair. But when she had first read about the canyon, she had felt a stir of old feelings and had insisted to Peter that they journey here. And now that she stood on the threshold of the canyon, she could feel herself awakening from her long dormancy. She was drawn immediately to the ruins, she walked among them, she studied them with a concentration that grew gradually in intensity until it blocked out awareness of all else. With her eyes closed, she ran her fingers slowly over the bricks, feeling something in them that was just beyond the reach of the ordinary senses.
She walked to the base of the golden cliffs and scrutinized the petroglyphs that the ancient ones had carved into the sandstone surface. Many of the petroglyphs represented the familiar creatures of the canyon—the snakes, the eagles, the hawks. But then there were spirals, circling endlessly until they culminated in long tails. She leaned closer to them, careful out of respect not to touch them, and sought to unlock some secret of existence that she felt was embedded in their circular shape. After she and Peter had walked for an hour into the canyon, she clasped his hand and turned to him and said, “I feel as if I have been here before.”
“But we’ve never been here.”
“I know that. But I feel as if I have been.”
He looked uncomprehendingly at her, but she could think of no other words to describe the feelings that the canyon had aroused in her, and she looked away from him, frustrated by his inability to understand her meaning. As they walked, she fell into a silence so deep that it allowed the canyon to completely consume her. She had prepared herself for this journey with intense and almost painful anticipation, had immersed herself in study of the ancient culture of the canyon, in its myths and legends, in the customs of the people’s everyday lives and in their spirituality. But she had never expected that the canyon would take hold of her so physically, seize her and pull her ever further into its magical light. The feeling overwhelmed her, crowded out awareness of every other aspect of her life, unnerved her, laid bare her emotions.
They came to a great kiva, and she stood at the edge and stared into it. The wall of the kiva was built of bricks, and square windows appeared at regular intervals around the circumference of the structure. On the ground near the center were two rectangular platforms, and at the head of each one was a circle; together, rectangle and circle formed a key. The kiva was remarkably well-preserved, as if it had continued to serve as a chamber for the ancient people’s sacred ceremonies and as their entryway into the spirit world. She stood at the edge, and suddenly she could hear the prayers and incantations that had lived on in the kiva for the thousand years since the ancient ones had departed from the canyon. She heard the prayers that rose from the kiva and was overwhelmed by emotion, by the warm and embracing music of the prayers. “I hear them!” she whispered fiercely to him.
“Hear what?” he asked.
“You don’t hear them? Listen!”
He listened and shook his head. “Nothing.”
She felt a keen disappointment, for she desperately wanted him to accompany her on this journey. She said to him, “This is the most sacred place I have ever been.” But she could see that he did not understand her words, had no understanding of what was going on inside her. She knew now that even though he could see and admire the primal physical beauty of the canyon, he could see no further. The canyon was not alive for him the way it was for her. And she realized that the journey into the canyon would be hers alone, and the realization filled her with an intense sadness.
As they walked away from the kiva, she spotted something half-buried in the ground at her feet. She knelt down and began to dig slowly and carefully, gently brushing the dirt aside to free the object from the earth. After five minutes of digging, she was able to remove the object by moving it carefully back and forth until the earth released its grip. It was the shard of an ancient clay pot, its edges worn from centuries of being buried in the earth, its pattern nearly obliterated by the passage of time but still faintly visible. She clasped the piece in her trembling fingers and then raised it to her breast, and as she cradled the shard, she could see in front of her the face of the man who had created the pot. His eyes burned like the sun, and his skin was creased with lines like the threads of a spider web. Tears glistened in her eyes as she held the shard up for Peter to see, and he took it in his hands. It was warm from her touch. “Why are you crying?” he asked. She could not answer, could not put the vision into words. The vision faded, and she bent over and slowly placed the shard back onto the earth and reburied it by moving the dirt over the shard. She did this deliberately, as in a ritual.
They continued to walk, and she began to sway as if she were hearing music. Then, murmuring at first, she began to sing softly and spontaneously in a voice that merged with the incessant wind to form an eerie, ethereal harmony. Her song took flight with the wind and rose to the wafer-thin clouds that floated far above the canyon. A hawk heard the seductive sound of her voice, and it circled in a gradually widening spiral as it followed the rhythms of her voice. Never before had she sung so strongly and without shame or inhibition. The song rose from somewhere deep inside her, somewhere that she had never known existed. It welled up in her without conscious thought or effort. She ended the song—or rather, the song came to an end of its own accord, for it had its own life, separate from her will.
He looked at her in astonishment. He knew from her face and her body that something extraordinary was transforming her. He felt as if he had been abandoned outside a mysterious building that she had entered, but even so, he was willing, for the time being, to remain apart from her and let this thing happen, let it unfold for her. He explored the ancient ruins in his own way and marveled at their beauty, analyzed how the structures had been built and took carefully framed photographs, but still he examined the canyon from the outside because that was his way.
The path led to the ruins of an enormous pueblo at the remote western reaches of the canyon. The pueblo was an enormous semi-circle containing hundreds of rooms that had been used for purposes that remain a mystery—perhaps as residences, perhaps as sites for the ancient ones’ rituals. They entered the maze of rooms, and she led him by the hand as they crouched through the low doorways that led from one chamber to another. The rooms were remarkably well-preserved. She saw everything, heard even the slightest of sounds, smelled the ancient odors of the pueblo. In one of the rooms, she sat down on the floor and with a simple motion gently pulled him down. They sat facing each other, and he looked at her as if he had never ever seen her before. There was a shade of desperation in his voice as he said, “What is happening to you?”
“I don’t know.” She paused for a moment. “I can only tell you how this canyon makes me feel. It’s as if I have been searching for this place . . . as if I have been here before and have needed to return here. For years I haven’t known what I wanted—what I truly wanted—but now I do.”
“And what is that?”
“To be here.”
He looked at her, and his love for her shot through him like an electric charge. “But what is here?” he asked. “This place has a power over you, it’s pulling you away from me. I can feel it. Why? What is it?”
She leaned closer to him and lightly placed her hand on his wrist as if to soothe him. “I can feel a wound in my spirit,” she said slowly, searching for the right words, “and there is something in this canyon that can heal that wound. Something here, which I don’t understand, makes my spirit feel as if it is at home. It’s as if I am finally at one with the world.” She paused. “This is the only way I can explain it.”
“And what is going to happen?” he asked, with a trace of fear in his voice.
She looked at him in sorrow, for she had a premonition about the two of them, but she could not put it into words. “I don’t know,” she said. She leaned closer to him and whispered, “Close your eyes.”
He started to protest, but she said, “Please?” He nodded reluctantly, and they closed their eyes simultaneously and sat silently and did not move, except for the slow rise and fall of their chests as they breathed in unison. As she sat there in silence with him, her premonition ripened into a vision that she would remain here in this canyon. She felt the spirits of the canyon telling her that sometime in the distant past, this had been her home and here she must return to stay, for the canyon was her true spirit-home. The forces of the canyon were pulling her here and away from the empty routines of her everyday life—the routines that had starved her soul. Yet she knew also that remaining here would mean parting from Peter. She opened her eyes and looked at him as he sat quietly in front her, and she felt a pain, as sharp as a syringe, that brought her to the verge of tears. She loved him, yet she knew that she could not continue in the life they had been leading.
They sat near enough to one of the brick walls that she could easily reach it. She gave herself over to the spiritual forces of the canyon, allowed them to guide her, and commenced a ritual that she knew was the first step in their parting. Reaching to the wall with her hand, she began to scrape her wrist hard against the rough surface of the bricks until her skin was raw. She continued rubbing through the pain until blood seeped from the wound that she had given herself. He did not see her do this, for his eyes remained closed. But then he felt her wrist warm and moist against his cheek. He opened his eyes, and as if he were in a dream, he watched as she slowly wiped her wrist across his cheek, leaving a swath of her blood on his skin. She stared at him with fierce passion, and she raised her wrist to her own cheek and drew it across and left a swath of blood that matched the one across his cheek. He watched her perform this strange ritual as if he were in a trance and were powerless to stop her, but his heart raced with fear, and he felt as if a mad creature had broken loose in the canyon and had snatched her in its jaws.
The wind coming off the high desert swept into the room and moaned as it raced in a circle around them and stirred the spirits that inhabited the pueblo. She shivered and suddenly moved beside him and embraced him tightly and whispered, “What is going to happen must happen, and I want it to happen,” she said. She embraced him even more tightly. “But I love you so much, and I will always love you.” The wind stirred the spirits hiding in the deep shadows of the pueblo, and she saw the spirits emerge from the shadows and murmur in voices that echoed throughout the pueblo. Suddenly Peter pulled out of her embrace and grasped her arms in his hands and said angrily, “This is ridiculous! We’re getting out of here!”
He jumped up, pulled her up after him, and, still grasping her arm, led her roughly out of the pueblo and onto the floor of the canyon. Suddenly the wind threw its full force against them with such power that it lifted the dust from the floor of the canyon and swirled it in clouds around them. He bent over, coughing, and put his hands to his eyes to keep the stinging dust from blinding him.
But she was not blinded. In the dervishes of dust she could suddenly see hundreds of faces, the faces of the ancient ones—women with long black hair and sturdy bodies, men with vigilant eyes and nut-brown skin, children running through the canyon. Her heart leaped as she saw the hundreds of faces, and they beckoned her, welcomed her, and the children brushed against her with their hands. The people’s eyes were electric with energy as they carried on their lives before her, as they transported water, cooked, planted seeds, molded clay pots, hunted, skinned animals. Her heart raced as she saw the civilization of the ancients in all its fullness and vibrancy. Just as quickly, the vision faded, but the dust continued to swirl around them, draining his anger and disorienting him until he felt so dizzy that he nearly fell. She grasped him with a strength that surprised him and held him until he was steady. “Are you all right?” she asked, and he nodded uncertainly. “Then come with me,” she said. She felt keen anticipation as the spirit-forces of the canyon continued to lead her toward her destiny, and she gave herself over freely to those forces and followed where they were leading her.
Leading him by the hand, she ran to the trail that led to the top of the sandstone cliffs. The trail was lined with boulders that resembled human heads; the eyes, noses, and mouths had been worn into the rocks by centuries of weather. The trail was steep, but her intuition told her that they must climb to the top of the cliff. She led him up quickly until they came to a passageway so narrow that they had to turn sideways and draw in their breath to squeeze through. Finally they emerged from the passage. With growing anticipation, she led him the rest of the way to the top.
The cliff stretched for miles along the side of the canyon. Guided by the spirit-forces of the canyon, she pulled him along with her as she half-ran and looked into the distance for the right place, the magic place where she would return home to the canyon. Her eyes were filled with expectation and joy. Finally she came to a stop, near the edge of the cliff and directly above the large pueblo in which they had been sitting only minutes before. The pueblo lay three hundred feet below, and from this height, they could see its geometric perfection, its hundreds of rooms fitted together perfectly to create an enormous organism in which each room was a living and breathing cell. The blinding rays of the sun slanted through the air and struck the pueblo like arrows.
More than ever she felt the pull of the canyon, felt more intensely with each moment her desire to remain here and to become part of the life of the canyon. Yet at the same time she looked at Peter, and now that she knew there was no turning back, she felt a stabbing sorrow that she must take leave of him. “Give me your hand,” she said to him, and she looked more beautiful than ever, her skin darkened by the sun, her hair blowing wildly in the wind, her eyes fierce with the premonition of what was about to happen. She grasped his hand and said, “I am going to miss you so much. But I will be here, waiting for you, and every year, you must come to me here.” She embraced him and kissed him passionately on the mouth. He was certain by now that she was mad, and his heart pounded in his chest as he tried to think what he should do with her.
They both heard the rattling behind them at the same instant. He wheeled around and was terrified to see that a snake had slid quietly toward them and had pinned them against the edge of the cliff. It was a magnificent diamondback, its scales tawny to match the color of the high desert, its lithe body enormous. It coiled between them and the trail and waited. It was in no hurry. For centuries it had lived in these rocks overlooking the canyon. It had slid through the years and glided through her dreams many times, eyeing her with its triangular head and flicking its tongue at her and inviting her to follow it. In her dreams, she had always resisted. But now, faced with the reality of the snake, she knew what to expect—she knew that the snake was the one chosen by the spirits to lead her to her transformation, to her new life in the canyon.
But Peter was horrified and grasped her arm. When he did so, he could feel her calmness and he looked wonderingly at her. The creature slid toward her and, to his astonishment, began to wind itself slowly around her feet and her ankles. She did not move, remained infinitely calm as the snake wound itself slowly over her and caressed her. She closed her eyes and felt the snake’s skin, cool and sensuous, against her own. She knew what was coming now, and she was completely prepared. The snake lifted its head and with unspeakable speed opened its mouth, made its fangs erect, and thrust its head at her ankle. The fangs pierced her skin and found their target, and the creature twisted its neck to drive its fangs as far into her as it could. The amber venom traveled through the fangs and into her blood and began to course through her body, to attack her heart and other vital organs. The pain that she felt was intense, appalling, and she let out a cry that rattled the far walls of the canyon.
Peter grabbed a nearby rock and raised it above his head to smash the creature, but Ariana cried, “No!” and pushed his arm so that the rock missed its mark. “You mustn’t!”
His features were distorted with fear, and he looked at her face and saw that the life was already draining from her. But he saw also that an immense calm had enveloped her. She embraced him tightly and whispered, “I love you” and then, “I will wait for you here.” Tears streamed down his face as he returned her embrace, and his voice rose ferociously as he shouted, “No! No!”
“Yes,” she said. She felt calm, a deep calm throughout her entire body, and she knew now that she was on the verge of a wondrous transformation that was necessary, that was absolutely essential, that would lead to her new life in the canyon. With complete trust in the spirit-forces of the canyon, she pushed away from him, pushed herself over the cliff, pushed herself into the transformation, and let herself fall toward the floor of the canyon. He reached for her, shouting, “No!” so loudly that his cry echoed through the canyon. He looked away, could not bear to watch her falling body. There was no scream from her as she plunged through the air.
Moments passed, and the tears continued to stream down his face. Trembling, he looked over the cliff, expecting to see her smashed body far below in the canyon. But he could not see her. His eyes scoured the rocks, but still he could not find her body. “Where is she?” he thought wildly. He scanned the rocks more slowly yet saw nothing. Nor could he see any crevasse in the floor of the canyon into which her body might have fallen. He raced down the trail to the bottom of the cliff, squeezing through the dark and narrow passageway so recklessly that he scraped his leg. He limped to the spot where she should have landed but could see no signs of her body, no signs of blood, no cracks in the surface of the earth into which her body might have fallen. The sun retreated and shadows fell across the canyon and the air turned chill, and still he continued to search frantically for her. He searched from the base of the cliff to the top to see whether a protruding branch might have snagged her body. Nothing.
Finally he collapsed to the ground and buried his face in his hands and wept until his face was stained with tears that blended with the blood from her wrist to form a gruesome streak across his face. As he sat weeping, he did not notice the hawk that swept through the sky and watched him closely. With its powerful wings spread wide, it circled slowly, riding the upcurrents of warm air that rose from the canyon as the day came to a close. The hawk barely moved its magnificent wings to stay aloft. Slowly Peter rose to his feet, but the grief had so broken him that he had to fight to keep his balance. The leg that he had scraped stung with pain, and his eyes burned from the tears that had streamed down his face. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the hawk as it circled slowly and majestically above him. Maybe, he thought deliriously, the hawk will point to her body. He watched the bird, then fell to the ground in a dead faint.
When he awoke, the sun, which hovered just above the western side of the canyon, streamed into his eyes and the ranger held up his head and forced water to his lips and down his throat. He told his story, and for the entire next day, the ranger and several volunteers scoured the canyon for Ariana’s body. They looked into every crevasse and searched in gradually widening circles on the chance that she had miraculously survived the fall and had been able to crawl some slight distance. They examined the cliff itself carefully to see if her body could have somehow have been caught on a slight protuberance in the wall of the cliff. But they never found her.
He returned home, and the shock of what had happened hardened into a scar that reached far inside of him, paralyzing him, numbing him with a loneliness that he wore like a shroud. She had been his conduit to the outside world, their friends had been her friends, and at first they called him to attempt to bring him out of his grief. But the calls became rarer and rarer, until they ceased altogether. He sank into a routine of despair. He worked long, meaningless hours. He spent the weekends alone, calling no one, being called by no one.
But he had dreams of the canyon. They were memory-dreams of the journey that they had taken together into the canyon, and in these dreams he relived every detail as if he were there physically once again. Always he awoke from these terrible dreams with a violent start, and his sorrow came washing over him once again. After the dreams, he remembered vividly her final words: “I will wait for you here.” A tiny voice, very deep inside him, told him that her words were true. The tiny voice told him that she was at the canyon now, using her powerful wings to circle high above the canyon. The voice told him this, yet he did not listen to it. He told himself that she could not be there, that this would defy all the rules of reality, that he could not possibly face a return to the canyon and survive the grief that he knew would be re-ignited there. The dreams continued, the inner voice continued, but in vain.
At the canyon, she circled high above, glorying in the feeling that here, the wound in her spirit had been healed, she had found the place on earth where she truly belonged. Yet she also felt her love for him as intensely as ever, and as she circled, she waited expectantly for him, certain that he would, one day, heed her final words to him. Weeks turned into months, months into a year. But never did she see him, and slowly she began to realize that he would not heed her words, that he did not believe, that he would not return. The years passed, and she became a talisman of the canyon, a magnificent sight that visitors would point to as she circled majestically above them. Her happiness was great, for this was her true spirit-home. Yet always there was the dark speck, and on certain days, she would circle over the great pueblo and remember being in its rooms with him, and darkness would fill her heart. And at those times, she would ache with the realization that her happiness was less than complete, and she would withdraw to a narrow ledge in the side of the canyon, and there she would wait for the darkness to pass slowly—as slowly as the agonizing minutes of a solar eclipse.