Here is a short story I wrote that takes place in Ghost Ranch, NM. We stayed there for a few weeks on Southwest Semester. It is not based on real events. Enjoy.
He kept his head at an angle in a way that enabled him to keep his eyes on the dusty gravel beneath his feet, not so much to watch his step as to confine his thoughts to the path. Breakfast drew nearer, and with each inch closing in on the cold array, his thoughts grew hideous and more luminescent, as if celebrating the disturbed happenings within. He emerged from between two junipers into the light of all eyes, most inward at this hour still but some surely scanning in their ever-aware way.
The cereal fell foul at his feet and spilling, jumping out across the red dust— he turned away, and as if forced through a repugnant retarding gel, strained his way over a few steps to one of the others who sat apart quietly eating.
“Can I talk with you right now?”
Urgency filled his throat to the brim, made him spit this in haste. The pains began effervescing up and down his forearms, the sensations ripe and seething within the bones. The other stopped and, forehead in contorted thought, responded “Of course.”
Steps took them a meager distance across the patches of cactus and tree and car path to a relatively level stand twenty meters only from the others. The air of the cold morning campground was as thin as it was dry. So much so that, taking one sucking breath in before revealing, he felt a distinct twinge of headache towards the front of face.
Pouring: “I saw a man standing in the bathroom last night, and I don’t think anyone was actually there and I don’t know what to do except this.” The last clauses shuddered from him, an animal disconnected from its usual patterns.
The other standing concerned, just looking. “You saw someone in the bathroom in the middle of the night last night?”
“I saw a man; he was wearing a coat made of burlap, and he ran towards me. But I don’t think anyone was actually there.” Terrible emotion threatened to strangle him. His body had started to fidget and the strange pains ached well to his shins and the core of his upper legs. Sweat ran cool down the middle of his back, seeped around the curvatures. His vision even swayed away from his objects of chosen focus, dreadful losses inflicted in the night taking their toll on all in his control.
The other tried, “Let’s sit down and go through this, because I don’t think you can communicate effectively right now.” It was meant not to jab, not to push over any edge of which there was yet little conception.
Their conversation led to no more revelations than those already related between the two, but rather attempted to reconcile the events with the affected. Before this though, indeed even before the accusation of flawed articulation, the tears crusted in their salts on his lashes. It was the desert.
The Night, I
Awareness dredged him up from a calm drifting channel of sleep. It had not been a torrent but rather a nearly dreamless, straight-flowing river, this time, his sleep— he noticed that the world he was lifted into shared this nonmeandering quality, as if his being was to be forced down one narrow, or perhaps wide, corridor. He noticed also immediately that his bladder was full.
There was a strange quality to the place he had woken up into that he could not place and it struck foreboding into him to a small degree. But he knew there was no purpose for such a feeling and thus got up swinging his limbs, which ached gently with nameless pains the likes of which he had not felt in years and which would swarm and bubble in one place for minutes before fleeing to the next making a dull thick log of the affected limb, across into foreign cold space over the blankets and space filled with the smell of sulfur he had noticed hauling his bags this room he could have traded for Corral Block number 2 or number 3 where surely the others slumbered their spaces not filled with the odd smell exactly now. But his thoughts dwelt not upon this fact, no, they were consumed instead by this stranger quality that permeated the place and his presence within it.
What mindset was this he had woken into? The air was yellow, yes, corners of the room smudged and edged out with grey save for the smear of red sitting on the circuit, a battery charger counting the storage in what it held. But these impressions were the well-familiar effect of middle night wakefulness, and the less familiar effect of the nose translating its impressions to the eyes in his running consciousness. What was entirely foreign was the fact that with each incoming sense of the room around him came an unwelcome envelopment of dread, so much so that the windows became harsh, stupid speaking animals to kick out of the mind. How long had it been since he had experienced these feelings?
And onto the rest of his path had he to go, for the bladder will not wait. His phone lay on the other bed and he took it in his hand and read 12:51. The floor cold unreactant tile. He put on his large, heavy Norwegian coat and sandals cut the chill of his feet.
Out of the room, the lights instantly careered away from him. A fleeting glance to the right, past the golf carts where there was no night. Round those corners untold dirt smeared the the edges of the building and dust cobwebs pillars full of splinters, wretched to the lid with tourism and modern neglect. The bathroom lay to the left and so to the left he walked, hands shoved into pockets as if to protect from anything outside meaning to include not comprehensively the cold. He edged past the wall and freak fear ran over him in a few violent bursts just before he rounded the corner where the bathroom lay. It was as inexplicable to him as it was real and serrated, digging into the back of his neck, the fear. Something about the brown black horrific night and this foreign mindset and these foreign pains and this dusty path (wrong clods of dirt, loose and crumbling, intruded) set all the awful traps to spring in the adrenaline centers of his mind.
It was this fuel, now, that drove his shaking hot foremost limbs to cross the threshold of the bathroom and proceed. There was an entrance room on the way to the bathroom itself, a longish hallway of a room perhaps constructed, he thought, to offset the intrusion of the other sex’s space directly next door. It was this stretch he illuminated now with an awful click of switch, far too loud and ghastly therefore in this yellowed corridor, in this heightened state. The creak of the shutter door to the bathroom itself within reverberated and grew and evolved, was perpetuated in endless mutations of the sense inside his head to the benefit of his flight if needed and to the detriment of the peace inside the rattled pinkish tangles of nerve and pulp therein, therein, therein. Through the flapping and eyes flicker mirror glass smudged shadow no more amorphous on account of the mad click twice would shatter his yet flat plane inside with any more of those. All straight lines electric squiggles now, harbor marks of departure oh the tepid blacks and grays of the floor don’t hurt me buzzing charged fluid soaks the back of his neck as horrifying as the assurance of death timid steps even going impresses the carrier of courage, everything glowing and shrinking at once at odds with no possible wavering of the light which screams from dirty bulbs cracked tinsel at the edges and blue spit where none should be into and out of his coat cool air swells making a hollowed husk of the human being, ripping towards this corner boundary white wall revealed in sickly contrast nearly purple and luminous orange jumps to meld with rusted scum tin sinks this angled wall an unutterable monstrosity for the void that it conceals just space but all the more horrific for it….
He rounded the corner with quaking feet and a beheld a man standing four meters away from him next to gently waving shower curtains. Fizzles of fear ran up around the whole top half of his body, quivering, paralyzed, shuddering nearly reeling in place he stood. The man’s head was slightly cocked. Around his torso and arms was a coat of burlap, woven course fibers shouting louder in some places, smoother in others. Dark deep brown, greasy and smudged with ancient dehydrated dirt. A subtle stupid smile played its way across the man’s lips; the eyes bright and burning in blue as bursts of stove flame. A phosphorescent tear of a glow rent the air around this figure and played with the pastels of the shower curtains all in a split series of horrific vibrations, contesting the solemn torpor of the floor tile.
His sense of vision cracked and faulted with the glowing air that his vision reported. The combusting eyes across drew something deep and horrible from within him. Locked on their subject, the twin blue burning lances of the man flickered on their path to the other’s eyes, screaming themselves no phrases in any tongue nor that there ever was the faculty to retain or interpret but their being enough, the thing, terrible despicable loathings of syllables in no lingual form enough to make the receiver doubt the legitimacy of their own existence if it must parallel evanescences so horrendous.
Fear scalped him. Gripping clawed grainy gloves of sheer terror crawled the length of his spine, spun the blood in the back of his head like dismembered limbs of Halloween ghouls having taken their aspect of fright to its extreme and solidified their place out of myth and into the turning orb of the world. Frozen, his body obeyed nothing, rigid with the sickness of fear. The man, in his glowing, vibrating niche amongst the bathroom, reached out both of his arms with hands turned upright and shaking distinctly. The head above the burlap lifted its chin and narrowed the stove-flame eyes still not diminishing the lances’ penetrating transmission. Without warning the man, still with arms outstretched, ran headlong towards him. It was a blur of movement too swift to register.
He felt a delicate push of air just slight enough to make him question its having happened. The thing was gone, into or past him. Shower curtains rustled one last wave and began to grow still. Dizzy, sick from the fear and not collected or to take true action of his own accord for some hours, he turned around past urinals stacked pitiless against the walls and shuffled steps to the corner still heavy with contrast from softer white light that chattered towards each angle carelessly now. Gripping each center of his mind was a brutal chokehold paralysis from the initiation of the bloom of non-understood, alien qualities that allowed for no reasonable fight there inside.
Not having peed, he made it, the path back to room 1 and collapsed indoors, mind still scraping hideously over the details of the unclean counter and sinks in the bathroom as if trying to dredge up some of he fouler filth humankind carries with it as a concrete comfort from the otherly atrocities that had infiltrated his mind and vision in the same space just moments before. He made an attempt to move his mind to music, searched for some semblance of hope, an entire piece, a fragment, a note…. But the churning stirred moat of his consciousness would permit little, scarred as it was by the sharp instruments of fear. Sleep would not arrive for a further scarring length of time which had become a thing whose very ordered nature had begun to disintegrate for him.
Onward whirred clocks of daylight and night on the orb, regardless of the happenings on the sloshing dregs of its surface. The light of the battery charger on the wall, hiding now in the edged black of the room into which his eyes dipped yet wide and blank, unseeing, turned soon its red to green and softened the air around, calming, changing any dreams that were to come in the early morning. To the north and east an hour’s walk, countless searching, individual, lawful strings of wet pinpointed an exit from the face of a rock that curved around to close off a canyon downcut by similar agents any number of centuries before, and less lawful lines took a cut of decayed-purple prickly pear back from the top of the gouge in the earth to smear it down through spiraling, quaking roots who sought asylum in saturated dirt and finally through incalculably many stone fragments, purpler still, down in the bottom of the stream bed.
Late Afternoon, III
The sun drifted in an overcast haze above the camp. The others milled and yawned about the gravel, putting together this or that on some surface or in their heads to paper. He peered around the area attempting to decide between hanging on to the melancholy silence of the consolidating camp or escape to the rises in every direction, mesas and cliffs and higher ground. He had been wont to avoid solitude though since the night that had occurred now several nights before, as it was important, he had read, to maintain the bridges typical of human to human interaction when one was not sure of the course of one’s mind.
After a time he came upon the decision to brave aloneness up above. With this came a sort of lightening in his forehead, a decreasing of the furrows there sometimes quite buried but always visible the past days. Packing his backpack came easily, searching around the tent for paper, always, to enhance countless practiced categories of articulation should the urge arise out there in the desert, sun protections water and footwear. Skipping the others whose eyes flickered to and away gauging since that night, threading a route round the structure of camp and notice. To the trailhead.
And up. He jumped the path in pieces, eager to make communion with sky and stretching wastes in the valleys and floodplains below which were graced by a significant erosional event but once in five hundred or a thousand years. Expectations of more and more to view climbed with him, were handed to his thirst for a vista as he hydrated every several hundred steps. The landscape in front gave way to landslides which the path was stubborn to incorporate, pounding rocks and wood steps into the earth as if they would last for an eon and as if they were not a part of the great melt of photosynthesizers, soil and bedrock on nearly every quadrant of every continent. Boiling clouds gasped and stretched in giant’s rhythm a mile up.
The trail made a gradual turn to the left but he realized he wanted to make his own way continuing up across and to the right instead. This he did and began skirting clumps of cryptobiotics and the bounty they supported. Juniper twisted their wise way out of the ground already knowing their trunks would grow gnarled, gray, and split to sedentary driftwood. He made his way along and along past balloons of gypsum that curdled up out of the grit in fading white fists and came soon to a quasi path that went downward between fallen blocks of lithified orange-muddy sandstone. He stopped.
Between the crumbled orange monoliths, he stood peering at his right forearm as if it did not belong to him. It seemed, in this moment, that its length exceeded that of the arm that he was used to. This effect was so slight that anyone besides himself surely would not have noticed a change, but being as the arm was his, he could not ignore the detection of its lengthening. He continued onward only slightly bothered by this revelation, with his usual stride swinging the arm now in sub-natural movement due surely to his awareness of his own mind having marked the change.
At the end of a gracious passage between the blocks he came to a mess of crumbling cliffs borne of the same events as the orangish sandstone and proceeded straight up to it to climb. But his eyes caught a glimpse of something odd and speaking down to his left that made him halt.
Shade of two pinyons, large and puffy with needles’ display. Surface disturbance of the dirt, tucked away in the half-light against a boulder. He dropped from his hand holds and questioned up to the spot, hesitant steps repacking soils moved not by the rain or wind, secret space here chosen to conceal something precious to the form to have won it some nights before.
Sticking up, a flap of burlap proclaimed its presence out of the pawed dirt against the orange stone which veritably glowed now with the intensifying of shade and the intensifying of patches of sun both whose enhancement was owed to the shifting of those clouds up in another world from the surface. Though he scarcely believed it, he accepted the reports of the dirt to have correctly conveyed their contrast in composition from the flap of material. Motionless, rough and woven.
He stepped back and collected the close surroundings with astonishment, came to a conclusion that this was some feline, or other, cache, a happening upon the secrecy of some now absent force of animal having obtained this and buried it, hidden for later attention— untold scenes in the night of struggle, locked furies, ancient flaws in the set course that ended one way or the other and howling screaming shifts of color whirled in the blackness of that great upward plane to tell some of logic some of anecdotes some of possibilities that ranged around on still another plane until at some juncture they might meld into each other as the legacy of beings that walked and spoke.
He backed away and paced out of the passage between the fallen sandstone blocks to explore another route, quite turned in his mind to other, better options of the present and the future that, he felt (lightly, almost joyously), it may be possible for him to pursue. And still, two hours walk to the east, the seeps on their way to the bottom of the cliff face spoke slowly of a time when their emergence from the great bulk of sediments would amplify their words into the sweet riffle of the stream, fall, cascade, drift in shallow pools in the depths of which sleep unreckonable fragments of slabs and boulders past, slip and jump into tanks and sinks for the order and compromise of men and women, slip and rush and deviate, slide over smooth expanses of rock mellowed into curvature by ages of wet, rush and flow and heat, rise, fall again to enable wild pigments of the habitants of the rim of such cliffs and canyons to mesh and tangle with lines drawn not arbitrarily down to the sunk brown bed of the stream, the vital red convulsing center of the Earth, and colorless, lesser known pits which turn the eyes away lest the thing behind them grow into disorder.
by Austin Schmalz