by Cathy Kodra
It’s a long stretch of desert at the base of a mountain. Cacti, scrub brush, and miles and miles of sand. The mountain seems closer than it really is, which is always the case, isn’t it? It crouches in the early evening light like a furry beast, and pines line its top, scraping cloudless, blue sky. Hawks circle near the base of the mountain. There is no water visible in any direction. This is something I have forgotten, that there might not be water. I carry a half-empty canteen with contents I will need to ration more carefully from now on.
The sand is not easy to navigate, and my shoes—sturdy sneakers meant for nothing more than groomed nature trails—sink at every step. I move toward the mountain, not knowing why. I think in every life I have moved toward a mountain.
Other than the hawks and one albino lizard that startled me on the last rise, I am alone. I move for hours across the desert floor. The sun has not yet set behind the mountain. But the steep, sharply angled shadow in the foreground has lengthened, casting urgency in the sun’s descent. I cannot sleep here, unsheltered.
A movement catches my eye, a speck that, viewed with squinted eyes under the brim of my canvas hat, becomes a human form, still far off but approaching. By the stride and posture, I surmise this upright blur is an old man. Wrapped in white cloth, he stoops over as he walks, as though each step is a trial. I cannot tell if he has seen me yet. He is a vision in white except for the slight movement of deeply tanned arms at each side of the bone-white fabric. As we draw closer to each other, I see the walking stick in his left hand, helping to steady his plodding pace. A white hood covers his hair and shadows his face, protecting him in this brazen light.
He pushes back the hood and lifts his face toward mine. I am amazed. He is not so old, I see, and his step now seems not so much plodding as intentional. His skin is leathery from days of sun, his lean body and mien that of a man in his forties or early fifties. But his eyes! His eyes are blank disks floating under sun-bleached brows. He stares in my direction but does not see me. Nevertheless, I lift my hand in greeting, in welcome of any human presence. Closer, closer until we are only steps apart. I try to speak, but my parched throat has closed in revolt against the sparse meting out of water from my canteen. He passes by without as much as a nod.
* * *
It will soon be morning, and we have walked through the night, the desert sliding steadily under a vast blanket of stars. After convincing him to turn toward the mountain and walk with me, the man and I have reached an uneasy, though welcome, companionship. He tells me that over the next rise a small barn waits where we can take shelter, a loft with hay where we can rest. Beyond the barn, a spring gushes out at the base of the mountain, and we can drink all the sweet, cold water we desire. I don’t remember ever hearing water described as “sweet” before, but I know he must be right, that its cool, secret flow up through dark earth and buried stone will carry a faintly honeyed essence when it rushes over my gritty tongue and down the raspy canal of my throat. He says he lost his sense of direction in the merciless heat of the day and walked away from the mountain and his home.
“Your home?” I ask.
“Yes, for now. Home for now,” he says, waving a dark hand to indicate here, everywhere—everything the desert encompasses. But an edge to his voice does not invite further inquiry, and so we walk in silence for a time. After he files my small transgression in the sandy wake behind us, he tells me he has no eyesight left from years of desert life and blinding sun. I search his face and blush, thinking he knows I am hazarding stares at the sightless, milky orbs. My gaze falls to his nose, strong with a slight hooked curve, and the lips—surprisingly full and sensual. His beardless chin is sharply defined, and I wonder how he shaves, where he would find a razor and blades, a mirror. Or perhaps he uses a knife, a straight blade of some sort. He senses my eyes traveling over him—I know this—but he says nothing. Instead he stops, plants the walking stick in the sand, and takes my elbow.
“There,” he indicates with a thrust of his jaw. “It should be straight ahead.”
We start toward a dark shape in the distance. I see one particularly bright star above and to the right of the blur—maybe it is Polaris. I don’t know anything about astronomy, and I didn’t learn much in school. A science teacher told us about constellations, but I paid no attention. I was never observant enough, my head always in the clouds.
At daybreak, we reach the barn. A few stars fading above its peaked roof usher in the morning. The barn is a weathered gray but in fine repair. Its wooden beams are sturdy, and a large, clean window shines in the early light. The man lifts a wide board from two roughly sawn pockets nailed to each side of heavy double doors. He places the board against the wall, out of the way. The doors swing open, soundless. I stand in the opening as my eyes struggle and fail to adjust to the dimness. My nasal passages sting with the pungent spice of fresh hay. And I smell something else, something familiar and welcome—a musky, animal scent, but I can’t think what it is. I am dizzy with thirst and exhaustion from the past day and not as sharp witted as I need to be.
The man goes inside, rattling an object against the far wall. He has the advantage, being used to the inside of the barn and the locations of whatever it houses. And he doesn’t depend on eyesight. Gradually my weary eyes adjust, and I peer into the space. There are two deep stalls, a large wooden bin for hay, and an open area for moving about, maybe once used for grooming a horse, rubbing saddle soap into the tooled-leather saddle slung over a sawhorse near the side window. Above us a loft covers approximately half the lower barn, and a ladder nailed to the wall climbs to its jutting lip. Bales of hay crowd the suspended maw. Next to the ladder hangs an oil lantern, wick trimmed and ready. My stomach lurches, and I don’t know if my sudden unease is the chronic hunger I have almost forgotten, or if it is the idea of a lantern in the lodging of a blind man.
I sense movement in the left stall and stand straighter. I move forward into the cool interior and hear a blowing sound, a soft whinny. My heart pounds with dubious joy as I stride across the concrete floor toward the stalls. But it is true! Here in the stall nearest the window is a chestnut mare. She is beautiful, coat clean and glossy, eyes alert and shining. She steps forward through fresh straw and offers her head over the stall door, her heavy breath sweeping my face and outstretched hand. I remove my hat slowly and place it on the sawhorse. I stroke the silky nose and lay my cheek against her lowered forehead. She emits a friendly whicker, and my eyes flood with tears.
The man, who has disappeared out the side door, which is next to three barrels placed under another, smaller window, comes back in now and stands beside me. He props the axe he’s carrying against the wall and strokes the horse’s neck, humming a soothing non-song.
“She’s real! A real horse!” I prattle. “Who takes care of her?”
“I do,” he replies. He moves back one pace and strikes a match, lighting a cigarette drawn deftly from a tin on the wall. The smoke wafts from its glowing tip and the horse snorts. “I care for her in return for her keeping me.”
I study his face, but the serious expression does not change. There is a finality to his words as before, in the desert, and I don’t question his odd statement. Early morning light now bleeds through the barn’s windows and open doors, and I see the interior clearly. I note the three barrels more carefully now, spying padlocks on the two smaller ones.
As if he can see where my gaze falls, the man says, “There is fresh water in the largest one. The barrels have thermal liners. There’s a dipper hanging next to them. Drink.”
I move across the floor, take the dipper from a large nail, and lift the barrel’s wooden cover. The water is almost to the rim, and I scoop the dipper and place it against my lips. The cold liquid makes me happier than I could have imagined. Almost as happy as the horse has made me. I drink and refill the dipper, drink again. The sweetness sliding down my throat is unnamable.
“There’s plenty more where that came from,” he says. “The spring is only a mile away. I take the horse and two buckets on a rope, and we fill the barrel as often as we want.”
I see no signs of food except hay for the horse, but the two barrels to the right of the water may hold provisions. I find I no longer care; hunger has diminished with the long days of ignoring it. The man moves closer to drink, and I hand him the ladle and go to the open barn doors. I lean against rough wood and look out at the desert. The stars have faded completely now, and a rising sun stabs the pale eastern horizon with streaks of vermillion. I think of the horse and all it must take to care for her, to fetch hay (from where?—tufts of coarse grass are few in the sandy mix around the barn) and water to keep her healthy and strong.
I sense movement. The man has come toward the open door, but he remains behind me, close. Now closer. It will be awkward if I turn to face him; I can feel his breath on my neck, exposed where I’ve swept my long, dark hair up in a silver barrette. I don’t move away from this. I wait.
And then, as if a barn, a horse, and a guiding star were not unexpected enough, I feel his cool, dry fingers on my neck. I close my eyes as his hands reach and encircle my throat, stroking it lightly, caressing the hollow at the base. I lean back, letting his body hold the weight of mine. He lays his cheek against my ear, the warmth of his breath arousing a different kind of hunger.
His fingertips continue to massage my collarbones, my throat. And then they tighten. And tighten more. My breathing becomes first ragged and desperate, and then shallow as I struggle to pull away and my vision starts to fade.
So this will be the ending—this time, again, like all the other times that float into hazy recognition as I let go. Again, just when I find something to love.