shadows

The sandy wash started out wide and open but the further we traveled along it, it began to narrow, with thick brush pressing in from all sides. I move through it slowly and cautiously. We are quiet in the desert, as if we are trying not to draw notice but of what we aren’t sure. Or maybe it is because the entire landscape feels like a cathedral, like a holy place. We have been hunting for a petroglyph site using a roughly hand sketched topographic map with an X marking the spot. Each unassuming and seemingly insignificant line represents mountains, precipices, and formidable rock faces. As I press through a clump of willowy shrubs I find myself staring at the most hauntingly beautiful tree I have ever seen. The brush is so thick that I have to crouch beneath it. The trunk is curved and flows like water toward the sky. Its bark is black like the charred remains of a wildfire with swirls of deepest red that look like paint in water. She is on the other side of the thick brush standing on top of a towering sun-bleached boulder, beckoning to me. She is urging me to crawl through the brush to join her on her perch. I study what lays between us from my crouched position. In another setting, I might not hesitate but as I peer into the long, draping branches and piles of dead leaves and debris, all I can see are coiled vipers, shining, armored scorpions, and monstrous, inky black tarantulas. I tentatively poke my stick into a heap of crunchy leaves, then another, but nothing happens: No explosion of scales and needle-point fangs. Even so, I stand as if stuck in quick sand; my feet are stone that no amount of will can set into motion. We have crossed dozens of spots like this, tackled canyons full of the aptly-named Cat’s Claw with boulders the size of studio apartments that we had to crawl beneath, sometimes dropping into dark holes with only a vague idea and a shining hope of how we would get out. I swallow and slam the door on the voice that is begging me not to take one more step. As I start towards her, my leg raised, foot poised to come down onto the first crunch of dried leaves, a loud “Caw! Caw! Caw!” breaks the pristine silence. I freeze instantly, sweat beading on my forehead in the blazing desert sun. We are silent for several moments as we both look up to see the dark shadows pass overhead. Two glossy black ravens. The silence stretches on with neither of us moving a muscle. We are frozen, watching the shadows bounce off the boulders and canyon walls as they circle us. My voice breaks the silence, “Jade?”. After a long silent moment, she responds, “Yea, we need to turn around.” I nod, already trudging back the way that I had entered the brush, giving one last glance over my shoulder at the unusual red and black tree. We had taken separate paths into the canyon. She had opted for the side, sticking to the rocks and I had opted for the sand and brush. I don’t know why but we followed them; they seemed so sure of where we were going. When we emerged from the thick canyon brush, we looked up to see the dark wings above, circling as if in wait. They glanced down at us meaningfully before banking against the wind and flowing up the mountain of smooth white stone and off to the far end from where we had come. We set off immediately without speaking, our steps labored in the deep sand scorching in the sun. Their shadows were cast against the white stone and for a moment it was as if we followed a flock of ravens; their dark forms leapt across stone walls, racing on the wind, showing us the way. The sand was hot and deep, each step felt like four. In the desert, you feel as if you aren’t sweating because the dry air jealously steals all moisture, as if sapping the water from your skin and dragging it from your lips. The shadows are just out of sight but we hear a faint caw sent to us on the breeze as we enter the canyon from the other side. At first, we fight a wide swath of sage and Cat’s Claw, before dropping back into the sandy wash. Every now and again there is rustling in the brush that makes our hearts stutter. The wide-open wash narrows until we are weaving through towering boulders scattered randomly as if dropped from the sky long ago. We are as insignificant as ants in this canyon.  The sun glows in layers, spreading through and across all that it touches in a way that reminds me of golden water. The time passes in layers of lush gilded waves of sunlight as if the desert tracks the ebb and flow of the sea-tide. As we round an imposing boulder, Jade points to its face and I turn to behold red handprints. “Bloody hands”, some call it. Was it a warning? An accident? I hold my hand up and without touching the stone I cover a print with my fingers drifting in the air trying to imagine the person who created them. Suddenly, the ebony glint of wings catches my eye once more and I hear their feathery whisper in my ear, drawing goosebumps on a hot desert day. We look at each other with a hope and desperate curiosity before creeping into the brush, approaching the stone wall of the canyon. The rock is cool to the touch and I press my body against it, chest heaving with relief for a brief moment before seeking a route leading up to the cliff’s face. We pause before ascending, stepping reverently onto the first boulders. A short climb is all it takes before we are in an impossibly cool cave, that glows in the afternoon sunlight, illuminating walls of pictographs. They crisscross the ceiling and walls in a variety of earthy colors; white, black, red. We sit, enjoying the peace and calm tucked into the rock wall of a mountain of white stone. I imagine that this is exactly what the artists were doing when they created these murals; just sitting with a friend, escaping the heat and the blazing sun. When it is time to go, we both rise replenished and elated, scrambling down the entry to the cave and into the brush. We sail back through the canyon, chasing our dark wings like shadows.

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