by Carol Holland March
Startled awake from dreams ripped with explosions, I look up at the ceiling in alarm. Of course there’s nothing, only a hazy memory of a guy in grad school who slept under a dangling sword slowly circling his head. I start my day, but startle at every sound filtering through the open window. A cat howls. Children chatter past on their way to school. A girl yells, “Stop that,” and then giggles. I breathe in. Jennifer looks up from her new watercolor and knits her brows, a move that reminds me of her mother.
“We’re getting out of the city,” she says. “On Sunday. We’ll drive to Tomales Bay.”
I’m behind schedule editing an academic study of Navajo skinwalkers, but Jennifer looks pretty fierce, so I mutter, “Sure. Great idea.”
She comes over and hugs me. “You’re working too hard, Nilda. Nobody would care if you’re a few days late. They know the quality of your work.”
She’s probably right, but I never miss a deadline. It’s a point of pride, and she knows it. Jennifer and I have been together for six years, my longest relationship, and I love her dearly, but as she kisses the top of my head, I shrink down. To dispel my unease, I say, “I love you.”
“Back at you.” She kisses me again and returns to her easel.
Tomales Bay is perfect. Clear and bright, not warm enough in April for tourists. We hike to Heart’s Desire beach—wide, scenic, almost deserted. After lunch, Jennifer sets up her easel to sketch the wooded cliffs. I set off to explore the beach.
I find a trail barely wide enough for my foot. It twists around a hill to a narrow promontory where I step up on a ledge and stand against the cliff’s edge. Eyes closed to wind and salt spray, my lungs fill with molecules of sea water from the ocean beyond, diluted but still potent. My spine aligns with indentations in the rock. I press hard against them as if an extra skeleton will keep me upright. Here the San Andreas fault comes ashore. From the hill above this bay, I’ve seen the scar where the earth cracked open in the 1906 earthquake and sucked in a herd of cows. Now, this is a calm place, just water, sky, and the California hills. Above my head, a passing heron croaks.
I look up to watch it pass—a few seconds, no more—and that’s when she appears, not ten feet away, standing on a flat rock protruding from the water, wind-whipped waves lapping at her long skirt. My head pounds. She must be a projection, some fancy of light that will dissolve when I blink. But blinking changes nothing. She looks more solid than I feel.
My mind goes silent as I face a tiny woman in shapeless black, her skin so wrinkled I cringe at how old she must be. Turquoise and silver rings grace every finger; a coral brooch shines at her neck. When she raises both arms in a gesture of supplication, sunlight bounces off the silver. She points a bony finger at me. Encased in folds of sun-browned flesh, her eyes widen, black as obsidian, mesmerizing me as if I were prey. She commands me in a voice too big for her size.
I want to run, but my legs won’t budge. Time whirls around me like a gathering wind. Her eyes grow so large they fill my vision.
“Come!” she says again.
Part of me wants to obey, but I squeeze it down. “Where are you going?” I squeak out.
Louder, she rasps, “Home. It’s time. Your time.”
My chest heaves, needing more air, drowning in heat. I wonder if this is what a stroke feels like. From the beach, Jennifer’s voice breaks the spell. “Nilda! Where are you?”
I step down onto the trail and wave. “I’m coming.” When I look back, there’s only shallow water, dark blue, ruffled by wind. From where the old woman stood there was nowhere to go but through the water toward the beach. Impossible in those few seconds.
Eager to plant my feet on solid ground, I stride back to Jennifer who would never believe I hallucinated a jewelry-strewn hag. While she packs the remnants of our picnic, I stuff my blanket and book into my backpack and shoulder it, muttering that clouds are gathering and we should hurry. As we climb the path to the parking lot, she asks if I noticed an old woman in a long dress walking along the beach.
“No.” I pick up the pace.
“She had a dog. Big black one, looked like a wolf.”
“Didn’t see them.” My heart shrivels in the heat of the lie.
The crone lives in the shadows at the back of my mind. When I’m working, she recedes, but at night as moonlight glimmers through clouds of fog and my muscles relax after a long run, she saunters forward to taunt me. Her presence is so palpable, I convince myself she is real, that I must find her. Never have I felt such an irrational urge. It claws at my edges, destroys my sleep. I question my sanity, but under all the mental thrashing, calm reigns. Her call is real. She knows what I’ve lost even though I’ve forgotten.
Her jewelry is a clue. The elaborate turquoise rings she wore are produced by indigenous people in Arizona and New Mexico. To find her, I must leave overwrought San Francisco and search the desert of the southwest. The thought is so absurd I laugh aloud. I’m happy here. Comfortable. We live in the house Jennifer’s grandmother left her free and clear. I know how lucky I am. Still, the crone beckons.
Jennifer worries about my inattention. When I tell her the story, she looks at me as if I had spoken in Romanian. “You want to live somewhere else?”
“For a while.”
“Don’t patronize me.” Her voice is hoarse with rage. Tears sparkle on her cheeks. “If you want to break up, say so, Nilda.”
“I love you.” The words sound hollow. Of course I love her. Of course I should stay here. Still, my inchoate longing tugs. “Come with me. We’ll have an adventure.”
“I love it here. So do you. You always said that escaping Ohio was the last move you wanted to make. And I’m just getting traction in the galleries. I can’t do graphic design forever.”
My feeble words cannot explain what happened at Heart’s Desire Beach. “We could try Phoenix,” I say. “Big city. Jobs for both of us.”
“When did you become a crank who chases ghosts? You plan everything. How many times have I asked you to jump in the car for a road trip?”
“I have a plan.” Which is a lie. I’m desperate to fill the chasm that opened in my chest when the crone pointed her jeweled finger at me. “Think about it.”
“You found someone else, didn’t you?”
“No. I swear.” Only a phantom crone with an offer I can’t refuse. I’m searching for more civilized words when Jennifer’s wine glass hits a ceramic pot of spindly geraniums. The shards scatter on the concrete patio in our tiny backyard, frightening a dove resting on the weathered wooden fence. The dove flies off. In the end, I choose Tucson and leave alone, breaking both our hearts.
The sky looms big and blue as the sea I left behind for this alien place. Heat shimmers in waves I could ride to shore if I knew which way to go. Beneath my cotton shirt, sand burns my shoulders. I sit up, dizzy from too much light.
The Saguaros stand at perpetual attention. Sometimes they whisper as I walk by, but today the human-looking cactus plants are silent. While I dreamed of ocean spray cooling my face, the Saguaros crept closer. Four big ones surround me, so old they’ve grown multiple arms, angled up to beseech the nourishing sun.
I pull a water bottle from my pack and drink half, warm but welcome. “Are you trying to crowd me?” I’m careful to address them as a group. Beneath the sand, they are members of one family, roots nestled against each other.
Sweat leaks through the band in my hat and trickles down my neck. This desert is too hot, too big. People die here. Stupid people. From the group, a whisper rises and falls, like chittering sea birds outrunning the tide.
“What should I do?” I whisper back.
Silence. I rise and pull on my pack to leave before the vastness swamps me. “Thank you,” I say, figuring something transpired.
A hundred yards across the packed sand on my left, a shadow jumps behind a Saguaro. I stop and stare, then stand there sweating, waiting out the mysterious stranger. Minutes tick by before I snap back to myself. Even these huge plants cannot conceal a person. I walk on.
The cars at the trailhead appear as distant squares of color when the figure from the Saguaro re-appears. I stop to confront it, and laugh when a coyote as big as a German Shepherd trots off between two mesquite bushes. Terrified that my life is tracking out of control, I run the rest of the way to the car and tear out of there, the tires of my CR-V throwing up a wave of gravel. I reach my rented townhouse in record time and lock myself in.
Why did I move to Tucson on a whim? Collapsed in my oversized leather chair, I pull up my knees and listen to the lava bubbling around my internal organs. Unchecked, it will burn through my veins and arteries and spill out my orifices, ruining the sheen on the polished hardwood floors.
I’m fine, I tell myself.
I roll down the car window to inhale a whiff of pine. Here in the Catalina Mountains, the desert is far below and out of sight. The twisting forest road up Mount Lemmon toward the campground I chose at random winds through groves of pine and oak.
The campground is almost deserted: only one couple and a family with kids near a stucco building that houses the restrooms. I choose the campsite farthest from the entrance. Unloading the car, I see no one. The distant splashing of Peppersauce Creek beckons. Eager to explore the area, I pitch my tent but unpack nothing else. With water, protein bars, and a flashlight in my pack, I take off on a gravel path marked “Peppersauce Creek Trail.”
Walking in shade near water thrills my parched soul. Sycamores and walnut trees line the creek, tall and solid and familiar, their foliage sprinkled with a few yellow and orange leaves to herald the changing season. Ferns brush my legs and grasshoppers stare up from patches of moss as the frenetic energy electrifying my muscles slides away.
The trail branches into a Y, the center point marked by a cairn with a pile of cornmeal on the top rock, maybe for the birds. One trail crosses the creek and vanishes into thicker woods. The second bends in the other direction, likely winding back to the campground. I munch a protein bar and consider. Nothing moves except a black dog sitting on a boulder across the creek. It unfolds long, thin legs and stands at attention. A pointed nose, short fur, and wide chest. A big guy.
“Hey, boy,” I call. “Are you lost?”
The tail wags once.
I search for a place to ford the shallow creek and find a little beach with flat stones spanning its width. As I step from one stone to the next, a heaviness in the air presses on my head and chest, an invisible barrier. Humidity, I decide, and push on. When I place my feet on the opposite bank, the heaviness parts like a curtain.
The dog leaps from its boulder and trots up a narrow trail among the trees. He stops and looks back. I won’t get lost if I stick to the trail. I finger the swiss-army knife in my back pocket. Cell phone in another pocket. Keys in the pack. Flashlight, check. Matches. Water. Why not? I’ve worked nonstop since moving to Tucson. A little adventure is in order.
The dog bounds around granite boulders and disappears. The trail is clear, so I keep on, enjoying the damp-leaf odor, cool shade, and the rustling of squirrels and rabbits. After an hour, my stomach signals time for lunch. I should have brought more food, but another protein bar will hold me. After a snack, I consider retracing my steps. A meal of homemade stew, thawing in the cooler, beckons, but so does the trail, now lined with taller pines and the native cypress. Based on the angle of the hill and the sky, I could reach the top in another hour. Still, I’m hungry. I’ll try again tomorrow, I tell myself as I start back.
Ten minutes later, the dog appears on my right, standing under a huge pine. He must have circled around. “Hey, boy,” I call.
Another single wag.
Convinced he wants me to catch him, I leave the trail and walk toward him. He sits and cocks his head. Fixed on the dog, I miss the hole, hidden under a layer of leaves and brush. My right foot plunges in as far as my knee. A sharp pain lances my ankle. I try to extricate myself, but my boot sticks. I sit, brush away the leaves, and rock my leg to loosen it. With a sudden jolt, it’s free.
I unlace my boot and inspect the purplish swelling at my ankle. Sprains and breaks are hard to distinguish, but the dizziness that makes me reel when I push against the ground convinces me that walking back will be a challenge.
It’s only early afternoon, but the light is fading. I pull out my phone. No bars, the charge almost gone. The dog has vanished. Even unlaced, the boot is too tight, so I slice open the sides with my knife. A nearby branch is sturdy enough for a crutch. With its help and clinging to the nearest tree trunk, I pull myself up and hobble back toward the trail. Rhythmic pain pounds through me, as if my leg has turned into a huge beating heart. Sweat pours down my neck. I grit my teeth. Gotta make it to another tree. Then another. Darkness swirls, but I keep going, a few feet at a time.
Dusk descends. The trail should be right there. Clutching a cypress trunk with both arms, I turn in a slow circle. Thickets with vicious-looking thorns surround me. I slide down the tree trunk and stretch out on the ground. Stars appear. No one knows where I am. In a hurry to leave, I didn’t think to call my neighbor. I’ve made no friends in Tucson and now I wonder why. Maybe because it’s hard to explain why I left my lover and a rent-free house to follow a ghost to the desert. As a cold gray mist penetrates my organs, I remember Jennifer’s warmth. The last thing I see is the waning crescent moon floating in blackness.
A trumpeting sound interrupts my dream of an ocean wave cresting over my head. Awake, my throbbing leg overwhelms the sound. With the help of a tree trunk I haul myself up and dig in my pack for water. Two full bottles and one half-bottle which I drain along with a stray pack of peanuts.
The trumpeting again. Louder this time—so not a dream. Bears live in these mountains, and elk and mountain lions. The sound comes closer. An ominous thrashing. Something heavy is moving through brush. The locals tell stories of wild boar, to scare newcomers, I assumed. Now I wonder.
The sounds stop. My leg burns so hot I check to see if it’s erupted into flame. My right foot is numb. I’m in a small clearing, surrounded by thick hedge with a single opening I must have stumbled through. Beyond are low bushes and trees that seemed closer last night. Okay, I can do this.
Then I stop breathing. Beyond the clearing, under a pair of cypress trees, stands an animal, wide and way too tall, with a trunk like an elephant and long, curving tusks. It raises a massive head and emits a sound that could melt flesh. I clap one hand over my mouth.
The monster turns in my direction. Its legs are thicker than tree trunks. An immense round foot stomps down. The vibration travels through the ground into my injured leg. This is no animal I’ve ever seen. Only an elephant could approach its size, but this is Arizona, and elephants do not have tusks with spiral curls.
I stare, willing it to vanish, to turn into a harmless deer. Instead, it emits another deafening roar, stretches out one front leg, then the other, and lowers itself to its belly, facing me. The sheer size of the thing, the long, matted fur, the curved tusks, remind me of low-grade horror movies, where blonde women flee from fake monsters. But I’m not blonde, and this creature is real. Then another impossible thing happens. It speaks into my mind.
I have come.
The beast stares from under its thick brow ridge. From the back of my mind, the crone from Tomales Bay saunters forth. For the first time, she smiles. I want to scream but only a moan comes out. I could be delirious. Or dead. I’d heard a dead person sometimes doesn’t realize when the spirit leaves the body. I glance around, just in case. Only bare ground. As the sun rises, a shaft of light falls on the monster, revealing dried blood from a wound on its neck. A word drops into my mind.
Without thinking, I answer. “You’ll smash me flat.” Its size horrifies me. It’s wild, primitive, probably vicious. I imagined its voice. I have to get out of its sight and pray it doesn’t follow.
My body shakes so hard I fall to my knees, bury my face in leaves and pretend none of this is happening. I curl into a ball and sob, stuffing a fist against my mouth. The scent of pine oil and wet dirt reassures me. If I’m quiet, nothing will happen. I force myself still. Unbidden images crowd my mind. How I face trouble by going stiff. Rigid. Silent. Sometimes it works. I am congratulated for being stoic. Good in a pinch.
I look up. The impossible animal stares at me. Something in my chest jolts free, unleashing a raging current. Roiling waves quench the fire inside. The water floods me, enters every crevice, and carries out detritus from all my years. Water pours out my eyes, my pores—so much water I fear I’ll drown in the sediment leached from my atoms. I surrender to the water, let it wash me clean, and when the flood stops, I’m bathed in acrid sweat. It soaks into the ground, leaving a white residue like salt after a flood.
I huddle in the aftermath, lighter now, more curious than afraid. As if I’m someone else, I watch myself stand and set out, one halting step at a time, leaning on my branch. I inch through the hedge, never taking my eyes off the animal. It holds my gaze. The closer I come, the larger it looms. Its sloping back, even sitting, is twice my height. Blood drips from its wound onto the ground. A few yards away, its musk overpowers the scent of molding leaves. I creep closer. Close enough to touch. It’s sides heave like bellows. My hand reaches toward a furred leg. I fear making contact, but my hand moves anyway. I stroke thick, matted fur.
Of course. It’s hurt. I fish out the last water bottle and uncap it. A dark eye at least three inches across follows my movements. When I extend the bottle toward its mouth, the creature lifts its trunk. A slab of flesh that turns out to be a bright pink tongue appears. I pour half the water onto the tongue that shapes itself into a funnel and slurps it up.
I soak a handkerchief in water and wipe clotted blood from the animal’s wound. It’s several inches long, but not deep. I wonder if another animal gored it, and then, which one won the fight. My leg gives out and I sink to the ground, leaning against the furry chest.
“What will happen?” I’m talking to a creature that can’t exist, but that no longer seems odd.
My brain urges me to flee. The only sane thing is save myself, but I’ve gained the ability to hear thoughts, so my brain may not be the best source of information. I will myself quiet. My breath synchronizes with the animal’s guttural pants. The creature’s breathing is hypnotic. I force my attention away from it and my throbbing leg.
What should I do? I ask.
I doze. We share the last of the water. The creature grunts in what I take to be pleasure when I stroke its damp tongue.
The sun is setting when the first whiff of smoke alarms me. I grab a handful of mammoth fur and stand. To the west, orange smudges the sky.
The mammoth raises its trunk like a periscope. Fire surrounds.
I see another patch of orange. “We’re in trouble,” I say.
It swings its head. Must go.
I think of Jennifer. My conviction that it was time to live in the desert. The Saguaro plants murmuring their wisdom. I grab my branch and test my injured foot. It’s better, I can keep going. A deer with its fawn race past, followed by rabbits, squirrels, a pair of coyotes running full out. Distant sirens blare followed by a whir of helicopter blades. All too late.
The beast hoists itself and stands there, testing the air with its trunk.
“Where are we going?” The question sounds silly, but habits die hard.
Leaning on my cane, I do as I am told.
The beast sets a course away from the flames. As we walk through barren fields, then a meadow, and finally a pine forest, nothing looks familiar. We find no trails. The fire recedes behind us, although animals continue to race past. We walk for hours and when I’m about to drop, we reach a meadow of thick grass, bounded on three sides by forested hills. In one hill yawns the dark mouth of a cave.
“Is that it?”
The mammoth answers with a warmth that flows through my mind, depositing an image of wildflowers in bloom, water plunging over granite cliffs. The entrance to the cave is wide and high enough for the mammoth to enter. It lumbers into the blackness. Shaking with fatigue, I hesitate, then scold myself. Just because I didn’t notice the line separating my previous life from this moment, is no reason to deny its existence. I follow the mammoth into the cave.
It’s too dark to see, so I grasp the tuft of coarse hair at the end of his tail. After a time, light appears. We walk through shadowy rooms with pools of water and passages with markings etched on the walls. Geometries and stick figures of people dancing.
I breathe deeply, inhaling moss and water, old bones, salt, and lime. Stalagmites appear, lining the passage, marking our way like beacons, like stars lit from within. The passage angles down, narrows, and leads us into the largest room so far, many times my height, the walls alive with green crystals, from tiny gems that would fit on a ring to enormous, shining slabs. The mammoth stops. I step up and stand beside his left front leg. The crone from Tomales Bay faces me. Her left hand grasps a hooked staff, her right the neck of the black dog who coaxed me off the trail.
“That’s your dog,” I say, marveling at my stupidity.
She bangs the staff against a rock. “It was hard to get your attention, but when you saw us, you knew. Me and now him.” She points the staff at the mammoth.
He trumpets a reply.
I want to pepper her with questions, but all I say is, “Who are you?”
“Only a guide.” She turns and aims the hook toward the left. I look and see a door, dark green and pulsing like a living thing. “There lies your fate.”
I’m tired and hungry and I haven’t come this far to accept her choice. “I don’t know about fate. Why did you bring me here? And what’s behind that door?”
She laughs. “What every woman wants. Safety. Your bridegroom. Your king, if you like.”
This is ridiculous. I didn’t follow a mammoth through wilderness and escape a forest fire to genuflect before some self-appointed king. “Not on your life. I’m not every woman, and I don’t do that.”
The mammoth makes a sound that causes the dog to fall on its belly and cower. The crone steps back and inclines her head. “From the center, there is choice.”
I look down. We stand on the intersection of three paths. In the center. We could turn around and make our way back to the meadow, but that’s no longer an option. I stretch my right hand toward the beast. His trunk grasps my fingers. I feel his wordless message, but he tells me nothing I don’t already know.
The crone and her dog step aside. I choose the right-hand path and move forward. The footfalls of the mammoth echo behind me. We come to a wall with a door tucked in a corner, shimmering green and blue like veils of transparent fabric. I push through ripples of light that caress my face and arms. He follows.
We enter a room lit with indigo light, long and narrow, a ceiling so high it melts into darkness. People watch us from the shadows, but I can make out only vague shapes outlined in pale aqua. Behind us, the door has disappeared. The mammoth nudges me with his trunk, but I don’t need encouragement.
At the far end of the room, a green ball of vibrating plasma appears. It bounces as if on a string. I walk faster. The green ball expands, acquires shades of gold and pink, and then explodes, throwing light in all directions. A chair appears, with a high back and elaborate arm rests that resemble lion heads. Glimmering strands of green and gold light form into the shape of a woman with dark hair wearing a gown the color of a fine emerald. She laughs, a joyous sound that changes me. I shake myself, draining the last vestige of fear from my cells.
I take off running. With each step, more of my body melts into indigo light. Sparks of aqua shoot out my palms. My head lightens. Heat travels through my chest and belly and down my legs. Still flesh, but pulsing light, I run faster. When I approach a chasm in the floor separating me from the dark-haired woman, I push off with my toes and spring into the air.
My momentum increases as I remember how to fly. Airborne over the chasm, I fix my gaze on the woman in green. I know you, I tell her. I remember.
Her laughter is the last thing I hear before the rest of my body metamorphoses into light and the whole room opens to my vision.
Carol Holland March lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with a fairy cat and a demanding dog who gives her ideas for stories in exchange for long bike rides and occasional treats. Her stories have appeared in numerous online and print publications and her fantasy trilogy, The Dreamwalkers of Larreta, explores love and longing in the worlds beyond the veil. She teaches writing and creativity at the University of New Mexico and blogs at AWritersHeart.com