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February 26, 2024

I Can't Believe We Weren't Turned to Dust

By Jon Herring

Beneath the stars, loud in their color and shine, where cacti grow tall and the eyes of snake-eaters and wolf alike glow in the periphery of man's light, sits a group of living fossils. A wood fire burns for five, gathered in a ring around the flames.

Of the five, four are young boys who respond to the names Skin Walker, Dances Blindly, Laughing Tree and Moonflower. The other is an old longhaired grey called Flow of the River.

While tonight the boys are simply children, they will one day be blessed with a burden, filled with magic, adventure, and tragic hilarity. Wide-eyed and curious, they have not yet foreseen the quest that will take them through valleys laden with fire whirls and sinkholes, underwater tunnels leading to volcanic hearts, the temptations of the power gardens, or the dangerous wit of the Light Growers beneath the sun.

This night is a celebration of enchantment and mythology -- a time for the imagination to unfurl and expand. Denuded clay, gifted for molding, trustfully bestowed upon the evening's weaver of tales.

Flow of the River shakes his staff over the flames, the dried eyes of a jackal rattling inside the petrified egg sack of a demon birth. The boys lean forward in the sand; frayed blue jeans brown with dust, leather vests rippling in the breeze. The fire's light reflects in their eyes and warms their painted cheeks.

Flow of the River rises and commences the sermon.

"Since the beginning of life, before meaning had yet to confer such simplicities as separateness, purpose, or origin, the Star Wolf People were chosen of the rest. We were not chosen without care. We were bred. Aided by ancient creatures of nobler times, the Star Wolf People evolved into a tribe of pure-spirited beings -- lovers of mystery, living in harmony with the world and spreading the wisdom we were so blessedly delivered.

"But, like all mortals, we faced trials and persuasions, which at times showed us a reflection of ourselves not worthy of our duty. Many a tribesman, swollen with the overwhelming significance of our task, succumbed to spiritual pollution, causing us to mistrust and claim the innocent as enemy."

Flow of the River lets these last words linger, the echo of his message resonating amongst the sounds of crackling wood and popping sparks.

"Tonight children, I will recite a tale of two strangers who were also chosen to walk the path. Strangers unlike us in every way. A lesson for you not to judge others too hastily...

"This is the story of two whites -- the descendants of our ancestor's annihilation, who scribe false recollections, and carry the blood of their genocidal forebears.

"Their story begins on a road, not far from here ..."


David scans the radio from behind the wheel of an aging Volkswagen hatchback. Mary sits next to him, smoking a cigarette. The descending sun splinters through the half-cracked window, a sharp-edged shadow slicing across her face. Her hair flutters about in the temperate breath of the Redland.

David finds a familiar song and sings to Mary with a faux sincerity.

Poor old deciduous me
The California sun is drying
All the life from leaves

Mary smiles, her eyes hidden behind a pair of black sunglasses. David continues to sing. On the side of the road, a group of vultures feed on the carcass of a wild dog. Mary's eyes cling to the event until it fades out of sight -- bloody feathers, mouths full of tendrils, twisting their necks to snap meat off the bone. Beads of sweat run down her face, seeping out of her skin in tempo with her pulsing heart.

My laughter summons clouds to snow leafs

Mary lowers the radio and leans forward in her seat. "Do you want to play a game?" she asks.

"Sure, after this song. I love the ending."

Only the laughing survive
Only the laughing are alive

Mary impatiently taps her foot. Her eyebrows visibly raised above the rim of her glasses. The song finishes. David notices her staring and smiles.

"All right sweetheart, what do you have in mind?"

"Let's play the question game," she says.

David sighs. He knows what the game entails. Mary has an ulterior motive. "But what could it be?" he wonders. Nothing comes to mind. And although he is pretty sure she has nothing on him, experience has taught him that the question game means trouble. But he is bored and attracted to fire.

"Sure, let's play," he says.

Mary shifts from gloom to excitement. "Okay! I go first ... What is your favorite state we've seen so far?"

This is typical female strategy in the question game -- ask a few innocuous questions before going in for the kill. Something of the sort: If you could have sex with any of my friends, who would it be? Which one of your ex-girlfriends do you find the most attractive?

"I guess Pennsylvania maybe," says David, "Philadelphia was definitely my favorite city, and the Poconos were beautiful. But Arizona has prettier landscapes all around ... It's between those two."

"Your turn," she says, cross-legged in her seat.

David softly hums as he thinks of a question. "Got one. What is your favorite book that you've read this year?"

"Well ..." Mary rests her chin on her pointer finger and looks up as she pretends to ponder. "What a good question ..." She removes her glasses and rubs her forehead. "I'm not sure ... I'd say it's between Norwegian Wood, Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, or The Decline."

"I don't know if a three-way tie is an acceptable answer," replies David, smirking, "But ... I guess I'll accept it. Your turn."

The shadow across her face shifts sides as the road bends between two rocky dunes. She doesn't respond.

"We still playing?" he asks.

Her body jolts, as if waking from a falling dream. "Sorry. I have one ... What would you do ... if you knew the world would be destroyed in fifty years?"

David comes to life. "Interesting question ... Are we talking total destruction of the world here, or just the end of humanity?"

"Does it make a difference?" asks Mary.

"Of course! I mean, if its total destruction of the planet, that's one thing. But if it's just the end of humanity, then certain driving forces such as a desire for legacy still retain their promise."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, if the planet is still here, then there is always the possibility that another species could come along and see what mankind has created. So we would still have a reason to live and create. But if the whole world were destroyed, then there would be no reason to do anything at all."

"You've thought about this before haven't you?"

"You haven't?"

"What if you don't care about aliens ... only about humans? What if the faint hope that some alien might see what we've done is not enough?" asks Mary.

"I don't know. Then I guess you could just be a hedonist until the world ends and try to enjoy yourself a bit before complete annihilation."

"Your turn to ask a question," she says flatly.

"Do you believe in aliens?" asks David.

"I don't know. I don't like to think about it."

"What do you mean? How do you not think about it? Knowing if there is other life would change everything! So many religions and philosophies would cease to be relevant. We could learn so much, we could ..."

"What do aliens have to do with religion?"

"Nothing, directly ... But if aliens arrived on Earth, don't you think that it would suddenly seem absurd to pretend that a book written by humans contained all of the answers?"

"I don't know ... I guess. Can I ask my next question?"

David knows that this will be the question she's wanted to ask the whole time, the source of the entire charade. He sees it in her eyes. All the excitement drains from his body.

"Go ahead," he mutters.

Mary looks out the window. "I want you to answer me honestly."

"Oh boy," David thinks. "Okay," he says.

"What do you think is the purpose of life? And I don't mean just human life either. I mean, why are there living things at all? I see how life is important to other life, like with the food chain and stuff ... but my question is why is there life at all? What is its purpose in the grand scheme of things?"

David looks at Mary. Her face is deathly serious, awaiting his response.

"You're awfully philosophical today," he says.

Mary doesn't move a muscle.

"That question is impossible, there's no way I could know."

"I know that David, I asked what you think."

He keeps his eyes on the road ahead and nods.

"Well ... I think we can rule out that life is here to serve the planet in some way. Otherwise, human beings would have never come into existence." David laughs. Mary stares at him, waiting for more.

"If we assume there is no creator of life ... and that life serves no specific function for planets themselves ... then I guess we are left with the conclusion that there is no purpose ... that life is just the random product of chaos. Which is a pretty lame story, I admit."

"But, if we assume there is a creator ..." Mary presses.

David exhales, collecting his thoughts.

"The only purpose for life that I can think of, that would make any sense at all, granted that there is a creator of some kind, is that life is here as some form of entertainment for the creator. If so, then the function of life would be to live as interestingly as possible I suppose."

Mary slumps in her seat, pondering David's words.

"I like that idea better than being a random product of chaos," she eventually says.

"Me too."

They drive in quiet for a while. The rickety clinks of the aging hatchback are the only soundtrack to the barren landscape. The approaching sky grows dark. Tumbleweeds and cacti blow in rising winds.

"Looks like we might hit a storm," says David.

Mary groans in reply.

Ahead, intricate rock formations and plateaus stab upwards into the firmament. They pierce through the clouds like the fists of Titans.

"Pretty," says Mary.

"I don't know if pretty is the word I'd choose."

"Should we stop?"

"No, it's coming this way anyway. There's no avoiding it. Might as well barrel through."

As they approach the hazy black cloud, their visibility diminishes to a few feet in distance.

"David, this doesn't look good at all. I think we should stop."

"We'll be okay. The only thing we can crash into is a cactus. I'll take it slow."

Sand begins to sift in through the vents of the car. David coughs and closes the plastic vent flaps.

"Stop driving!" yells Mary. "We can't see anything!"

They are encompassed in a churning cyclone of sand. David steps on the brakes. The car shakes violently in the storm. Mary's knuckles curl around the grab handle overhead.

"It will pass," says David. The tremors in his voice reveal uncertainty.

The front tires lift off the ground and drop with a bang.

Mary clenches the armrests. David places a hand on her knee. Forceful beats of power strike every inch of the hatchback. Rivers of sand burst through the closed vents. The car is snatched from the Earth and whipped around in the air like a yo-yo. Sand whirls about inside the vehicle, scraping away the interior plastic and cloth. The coarse air disintegrates everything it touches, turning everything to dust. The seats disappear, the dash disappears, the frame fades to grain. David reaches for Mary and pulls her into his chest as they are carried off into great heights by the winds -- their fate, the will of the tempest.

David opens his eyes. His entire body trembles. He touches Mary's quivering cheek. Her skin feels cold. The sky is a perfect blue. There is not a trace of the storm in the air around them.

"It's okay," he says. "Open your eyes."

Mary's face is white. She opens her eyes and falls to her knees on the ground.

Staring out into the vastness of the desert, David is overtaken by a strong calmness. They are standing atop a giant mesa. The landing of the mesa is narrow, like a pedestal. Feeling on display, he lifts his arms above his head and howls.

"Everything is fine," he says to Mary laughing. He jumps into the air like a madman. "We're alive!" he yells. He clutches Mary's face between his hands and plants an effervescent kiss upon her forehead.

She rises to her feet and looks about her surroundings.

"I can't believe we weren't turned to dust," she says. "Where are we?"

"The wind has lifted us and placed us on top of this mesa ... or is it a plateau? It doesn't matter! The entire car disappeared around us and here we stand!"

"What's that?" asks Mary, pointing to a wide stone cylinder jutting out of the center of the mesa top.

"I don't know ... It looks like a well."

The cylinder is three feet off the ground. It is composed of solid rock with another slab of equal dimensions placed on top of it, acting as a covering. On top of the covering sits a woven basket containing a few loaves of bread, a clay jar filled with dark purple wine, and two golden chalices.

"Who put this here?" asks Mary, "What is this?"

David yells into the void, "Hello! Is anybody here? You forgot your lunch!"

David tries to lift the basket off the wellhead, but it refuses to budge. "Curious," he says. The jug of wine lifts with ease and sloshes over the spout onto his hand.

"Careful," says Mary.

"I expected it to stick."

He pours the wine into the chalices and hands her a glass and they cheer.

"To sandstorms and wine!" he says.

"To sandstorms and wine!"

Mary takes a lap around the perimeter of the mesa's edge. She cranes her neck over the side and spits a drop of wine, watching it fall.

"There is no way down," she says, after her tour. "It's too steep to climb." She says all of this without fear or worry.

"Everything will be fine. Look at where we are!"

"I know," she says, slumping. "But we can't survive up her forever."

"We have food ..."

David takes a loaf of bread from the basket and lifts it towards Mary who grabs the other end and breaks off her share.

"More wine?" he asks.

They pass the jug back and forth as they break bread. They finish the last piece and the basket blows off the wellhead, whatever magic held it in place dissolving with the final bite. Together they watch the basket drift off the side and teeter-totter back and forth through the air on its journey to the ground, far below.

They lie on their backs, feeling revitalized, healthy and alive. They stare at the clouds -- full puffy white monsters floating against a crystal blue backdrop.

"Look David, it's a bear," says Mary.

"And there's a fox," he says, "Except that cloud is a little dark, and its face looks strange, like it's from another world ..."

"It's a super-hero fox!" says Mary.

"The Night Fox!" yells David. "Dun Duh Duh Dun! Have no fear, the Night Fox is here!"

They roll on the ground laughing until exhausted.

"What are we even doing here?" Mary finally says. She stands and moves over to the well, examining the stone lid.

"Help me push this off. It's not connected."

They manage to budge the cover-stone a few inches, exposing a crack into the open well. A blast of white light shoots through the crack, piercing upward into the heavens. David waves his hand over the light.

"It's okay," he says. "It doesn't hurt."

They finish the job. With their final push, the wellhead falls onto its side and rolls off the mesa.

A giant beam of unceasing brightness extends without blemish from the well into the cosmos. Mary sticks her head into the light and peers down. "I can't see anything," she says. "It's too bright."

"What is this place?" asks David. "Maybe we are we dead?"

"I don't feel dead." Mary touches her cheek. "In fact, I can't recall ever feeling more alive."

He takes her in his arms and they kiss. "I'm so happy we were able to break bread and drink that wine together."

"Me too," she says. "I've never more satisfied."

"This is simple. We can figure this out."

He surveys the perimeter of the mesa as Mary had done and returns to her side. She is standing in front of the well gazing into the light.

"There's no way down," he says, reiterating what she already knew.

"We could jump into the well," she says. "There must be water at the bottom."

David picks up the wine jug and drops it down the hole. They hear nothing.

Purples and pinks smear across the sky as the sun sinks below the horizon. The newborn moon gleams a luminous melody, humming the softest song either of them has ever heard.

"I can't explain it," says Mary. "But I know everything is going to be fine. We have to go into the well. Staying here forever like this would be the death of us both. Can't you feel it?"

"Of course I do," he says. "I've never felt anything more clearly. I've never been so full ..."

He pulls himself up onto the rim of the well. The light shines upon him, basking him in a holy glow. Mary reaches and takes his hand.

"You look so different," she says. "I don't think I've ever seen you before."

"I love you," he says.

"I love you," she replies.

They embrace. David places a hand behind her head and draws her in for what could be their final kiss.

"Are you ready?" he asks.

"I am."

"I can't believe we are here," he says laughing. "I can't believe we are alive!"

"This couldn't be more interesting!" she replies.

David leans back, holding Mary firmly in his arms. They fall into the well consumed by the beam of light, laughing all the way.


Flow of the River looks around the fire, studying the faces of the boys. "Do you understand?" he asks.

"No," say the boys.

"Would you have done as they did?" he asks.

"Yes," say the boys.

"Good. Now off to bed," says Flow of the River. "It is time to dream."

Article © Jon Herring. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-05-25
Image(s) are public domain.
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