"She is up there," they tell us. "Up in them hills."
They file on past, eyes averted, some making religious gestures, clasping tokens, intoning auguries, chanting maledictions, the superstitious fools.
A red-tailed hawk catches a thermal and whistles a falling oath, while rising. Pretends to give a shit.
We set to climbing the red hills, breathing the sun's furnace and its diffuse issue from the world's parched surface, the sounds of the ferrous rocks we dislodge like a pool hall absent the cool and the echo. Same essential hush, though this one's hot, flat, and indifferent.
Guess we're all behind the eight ball now.
What do we expect to find? The polished bone of a cue ball? A shiny solid red?
I question my own damn self halfway to hell and back on that trek up the steep incline, with its loose rusted shrapnel like someone blew up some great adobe hut, with its tufts of vegetation too hardscrabble to ever be thought of as food by any living critter worth its salt. Like ancient green leather stuffed between the shattered brick-rubble lots of war-torn Europe.
What do I expect to find?
Likely nothing comforting. All I know is she's bad news on legs, and I'm weary, and not much good will come of any of this. And that's the optimist part of me.
Some bar in Tuscaloosa or maybe even Memphis, a drunk plain ran out of patience with my jaundiced talk, squinted at me and asked, "What's the difference 'tween ignorance and apathy?" I shrugged, and he answered his own self. "Don't know and I don't care." Only damn words he didn't slur all night. Truth is, I wanted to laugh, but I felt more like crying. So I did the next best thing and ordered another shot of bourbon. Better that than ripping out his throat.
I'm tired, tired like the damned. Been walking trails and riding rails and stealing horses a half century or more. By horses I mean four legs or four wheels, it don't really matter; hot-wire or hackamore, it's all the same. Part of me hopes I won't ever come back down from these hills.
But we're pilgrims of sorts, and this is what pilgrims do; we keep on moving even in a headwind of doubt, push onward so's we can find some succor in an artifact, grab ahold of a ragged sleeve or a loose page caught in a dry storm, hungry for its message, and if it ain't got no message we'll write our own, because there's plenty that's worse than death and one of them is the fear that all this has no meaning, which the red-tailed hawk knows, and the coyote knows, and the raven knows, and the red hills know, and I only partly suspect, despite all the scribbling I ever done in a score of ledgers I since burned for warmth.
I'm the first that gets here. She stands, inside a horseshoe of striated rock like the rough hull of a dugout, naked as the first day of man, or woman, her bright auburn hair like the radiated halo of a Celtic saint, like hair can shriek, like the lunatic prophets were right, her body in an X pose, impaled and glorious on a stake, skeins of watery blood spilling from the many wounds in her torn scalp, a crimson Tigris and Euphrates over her shoulders and breasts, down over her clenched midriff, merging like a bloodtide with the dry, sandy delta of her sex, congealing there in slow, pendulous drips.
A twisted umbilicus hangs from that arcane gap and I shut down all thought, pledge not to wonder what such an organ might have been appended to, and where such a thing might now draw breath.
Before the others arrive, she looks at me and whispers, "They took it all, my love. They took everything."