The morning sun sneaked its first peek over the serrated ridgeline of the Gila Mountains. One hundred-foot long shadows stretched out behind the giant Saguaro cacti which stood like sentries across the plain, each watching over its own square quarter-mile of sand and rock and a host of threatening plants and creatures that prick, scratch, bite or sting. The atmosphere was aflutter with birds and buzzing things; chirps and cackles, caws and coos came slightly muffled from every point of the compass. It had rained heavily just a few days ago, and the early springtime Yuma Desert was exploding with music and life.
Carl Harrison was there to witness the miracle. It was a custom of his and his girlfriend, Laura, to celebrate the end of the long, drizzly, Seattle winter with a two-week vacation from their dot com, mid-management jobs. They would fly south to spend the time in a small trailer on his parent’s lot, in a sprawling, middle-class motor home park, a few miles east of Yuma, Arizona. From there they would take short jaunts into the Mexican border towns, or explore the nearby open desert which called to them both like sparkling crags to an old prospector.
This time was different, to be sure. He was alone, but happily so. His parents were on a ship somewhere in the Caribbean, and he had no clue as to Laura’s whereabouts, nor did he care. She flipped out on him, big time. In the space of a few weeks, she cut her hair into a butch do, bought horn-rimmed, black eyeglasses (with the tiniest of rhinestones) and started hanging out with a local coven of sandal-wearing, dirty-haired eco-freaks.
Carl ended the relationship early one morning with the discovery of Laura and two of the hippy-looking bastards all curled up like wolverines on his living room floor. As they slumbered, Carl lifted the men’s wallets and discovered over $27,000 in cash. Reasoning that it was probably ill-gotten, and designated for some nefarious, eco-terrorist activity, he pocketed the goods, sugared their gas tank, and left the ugly past behind him.
He shouldered his pack and locked the car. This was one of his favorite hikes: From the road, he would make his way up the meandering Fortuna Wash – a stream bed cut into the desert floor by the infrequent runoff from the Gila Mountains. Most of the year it was dry as a bone. And even now, just a few days after the last of the heavy rains turned this gully into a raging river, there was but a mere scattering of puddles, most of which would be gone by the noonday sun.
He planned to follow the wash up to the foot of the mountains, about a mile from the road as the crow flies, but actually a winding, two mile walk. He would hike a ways up one of the many valleys, until the narrowing footpath, through increasingly large stones would force a re-designation of the journey – no longer a walk, but a climb. Cuddling the base of a rock slab the size of a trailer house, he would build a small fire and heat up a foil pouch of frozen shrimp; maybe toss a small potato onto the coals. He might snap some photos, jot a few notes in his journal, have a couple of smokes. Freedom was the emotion of the moment, and he was wading in it up to his teeth.
A gentle breeze moved off of the mountains and down the wash, which was good; it increased the likelihood of surprising some form of wildlife: a covey of unsuspecting quail, a coyote stalking a mouse, or the backside of a jackrabbit as it shoots across the plain. He walked briskly through the first third of the hike, which was nearly flat, and with little shade, less interesting than farther up, where the gash in the earth is deeper, and the overhanging trees and brush that line the wash create cool, sandy microcosms.
As he neared the first oasis, he dug a cigarette from his shirt pocket and stuck it in the side of his mouth, anticipating a rest break. It was a customary stop in this hike, and he knew exactly what he would find: a series of flat stones forming a comfortable seat beneath a group of ancient Mesquite and Ironwood trees, a patch of fine sand befitting a beach, and a circle of stones that once contained a cooking fire.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he entered the shade beneath the trees. It was twenty degrees cooler, maybe more. Right away, though, he noticed that something was amiss. It took him a long while to realize what it was – which was odd, considering the obviousness of the disturbance: the stone circle had been moved. He could see where it formerly resided, up on the bank, far enough away so not to pester with smoke whoever inhabited the stone seat. He was here just a few days ago, the afternoon after the final rain; yet, since then, someone had disassembled the circle, moved the stones ten feet away, and reassembled them on the bed of the wash, directly in front of the seat.
A closer investigation revealed something even stranger. Within the circle, someone had assembled another circle, made from a handful of cigarette butts – his brand, perhaps even his own trash that he discarded on past trips – stuck one by one into the sand. Not a perfect circle, it was more like a bloated Valentine’s Day heart, though not enough to convince him it was meant to be so. The interior of the heart was pierced by forty or so two-inch long, perfectly straight, thin twigs. The end of each twig had been set afire and quickly extinguished like a birthday cake.
He sat on the stone seat, lit his cigarette, and speculated on the motivation behind the odd construction. As usual, he let his thoughts run wild: perhaps it was an element of some secret ritual; or possibly an attempt to fool someone into thinking it was a secret ritual; or, more likely, it was merely the result of teenage boredom. He finished his smoke and flicked the butt out into the brush.
He had seen many strange things in the desert, but they were most often some peculiarity of nature. Once, on a similar hike, a few miles to the south, he and Laura came upon a freshly killed rabbit, still warm and wet with blood. There was no sign of its killer. Carl studied the victim with pokes and prods from a stick.
And then the buzzing began.
It arose from the surrounding desert, seemingly from all directions at once, continually gathering in intensity from the growing numbers of the unknown creatures and/or their nearness. Carl and Laura got spooked and ran. When they returned a few hours later, the rabbit’s flesh was pecked and shredded and creeping with bugs.
He stood and crushed the twigs in the stone circle, leaving a perfect footprint.
He continued on, but didn’t walk far when he got a whiff of something horrible in the air. It was not unusual to detect a few molecules that escaped from the settling ponds at the edge of the residential developments; but, considering the direction of the wind, this could not be the case. He even considered that it might be his very own shit, having succumbed to the call of nature, just a little ways up the wash, on his last trip.
His ponderings were disturbed by the sight of something moving up ahead, in front of the next patch of trees, but still nearly obscured by brush. He crouched down and approached cautiously from the shadowed side of the bank. The stench grew worse as he neared what appeared to be a four-legged creature of some sort, larger than a large dog.
A chill shot up his spine and thumped the back of his skull like a brass bell. The beast was goat-like and horribly emaciated. Its head rocked back and forth in a creepy, almost mechanical way. It was obviously the source of the smell. Flies swarmed it like a ghostly fleece.
Carl advanced toward the top of the bank, so to gain an advantage in case he had to defend himself, or to gain a head start in case he had to run like hell. Watching the creature instead of his footing, he slipped as he reached the top of the bank and tumbled backwards, striking his head on a rock. He sat up quickly, expecting to see, through blurred vision, the beast running off toward the mountains, or worse, the beast charging him. But it had not advanced nor retreated. He tossed a stone. Still, there was no movement, except for the strange nodding of its skull-like head.
He had stalked enough wild animals to know that all was not as it seemed. He stood and stepped forward, his apprehensions nearly vanquished. He shook his head in a confused awe when he finally realized the clever ingenuity of what in fact was a morbid prank: A sawhorse-like construction had been assembled with twine and branches. The top bar, untied in the cradle, was also a branch, but with a small sheet of rusted tin attached for the tail, which caught the wind and gave the disturbing motion to a darkened dog skull attached to the other end. The entire assemblage was smeared with feces.
He retrieved his pack and hurried along, so to get upwind of the stench. He considered ending his trek, not wanting to be the butt of any further jokes. And, he had to admit to himself, he was a bit freaked out – normal folks don’t usually take the time to create such objects. But, at the end of his reasoning, he determined to continue on; otherwise, he would have forever wondered what mysteries lay ahead (though he felt the poo monster would certainly be hard to top).
He didn’t go far before the next oddity appeared: a one-level house of cards, evidently glued to keep its shape, so small and unthreatening that he nearly walked by it. He was a bit disappointed, until he realized that it was not made of playing cards at all, but of food wrappers and cartons, what he recognized as the waste from his own lunch, which he had stuffed behind a rock on his last trip.
He stepped closer and bent over for a better look and the tiny house suddenly blew apart with a snap, filling the air with a yellowish, pollen-like powder that sucked up his nostrils as he gasped from the surprise. He fell to his hand and knees, spitting and coughing violently. When his wits and breath finally returned, he discovered a stick – bowed, with an elaborately carved hinge and weight in the middle, so the bow remained upright, and could easily pivot. The device had been buried just below the surface of the sand. His footstep on one end caused the other end to launch the trash house and yellow powder toward his face.
A joke’s a joke, he thought, but now somebody had gone too far. Carl was pissed, and rightly so. His eyes burned and his lungs felt like he had huffed flames. The pounding of his heart quickly overpowered the sounds of nature. He stumbled to his feet, expecting to find a giggling teenager hiding behind a distant cactus, whose face Carl would justifiably pummel.
Through blurry eyes he noticed something up ahead, where the wash veered sharply to the right, and ran along a ten-foot high wall of packed dirt and small rounded stones. Atop and at the edge of the high bank was a bulging cardboard box that was darkened, apparently soaked with some kind of fluid. On the box was printed a symbol of some sort, and below the symbol some kind of strange, alien writing. He could not shake his first impression that the symbol was that of a hand offering a sacrifice to a statue of some god. Twenty yards to the right of the box were three rusted lawn chairs, parts of their nylon webbing flapping in the breeze.
Was this the prankster’s vantage point, Carl wondered. Had they watched the whole cruel show? Had they run off snickering when they saw him approach? He felt very dizzy and the entire surface of his skin became ultra-sensitive, as if pricked by thousands of needles. He found it increasingly difficult to focus his thoughts. He staggered over to the base of the high bank.
Suddenly, there was a sparkle – a brilliant, glorious flash in which he saw every color in the spectrum, all lingering in his visual field much longer than Nature had ever ordained that colors should sparkle, as if an angel parted a curtain between dimensions and briefly peeked through. He shook his head and the light bounced around inside his skull like pebbles in a gourd. He stepped closer. The sparkling came from about three-quarters of the way up the side of the bank, directly below the cardboard box, where a narrow, wooden board protruded from the bank like a sword. Fastened with a wire at the exposed end of the sword was a ring, a delicate golden ring, with a single, tiny diamond setting.
He reached up and grasped the sword, which came out with an easy tug, but which also dislodged a rock, which in turn dislodged others, causing the collapse of a half-ton of rubble that swiftly engulfed and imprisoned him, burying him up to his teeth, and restricting him of any movement except the blinking of his eyes.
As the dust settled, he saw that the box had upset during the collapse and spilled a brownish goo that oozed slowly down the slope toward his face. As it reached his lips, he identified it as honey. He then saw that the symbol on the box was not the scene of an offering at all, but was in fact a hand dropping trash into a barrel; the words below read PLEASE RECYCLE.
The three rusty chairs were now occupied – two dirty-haired, sandal-wearing, hippie-looking bastards on either side, and in the middle, a young woman with a short-cropped hairdo and black, horn-rimmed eyeglasses, smiling widely and holding up a cool drink, as if offering Carl a toast.
And then the buzzing began.