Desert Pyre: Winifred Mumbles

It’s burning again. Look out across this river valley at the old volcano warts and there doesn’t seem to be enough to keep a churro fed, never mind an inferno. What’s it eating when there’s nothing but grit and gravel and black rock? I don’t go over that way enough to puzzle out that riddle. But there has to be something growing to fuel the first flames, feeding the fire until it’s hot enough to burn through adobe walls. It’s smokey, for all that. Looks like the volcanoes are huffing out Stygian sighs through an endless rusty sunset. But surely it should all be turned to ash by now. Never much to burn over there to begin with.

Decades ago, I decided to see what the western mesa looked like up close. Took the better part of four days, there and back, but it was February. Not a lot to do in February before the churros drop their lambs. One can waste the short days exploring the remnants of time. If one has the stamina and the stomach. And maybe the knowing makes the time well spent. You can’t see the ghosts from here in the foothills. Have to make that trek to understand.

Though I still don’t. Understand, that is. There’s nothing out there. Craggy basalt and sand and six million ways to break open your skin. Cholla skeletons and blackened creosote bush. Goat-heads in every footprint. Never could ride a cargo bike over there, even where the roads aren’t pitted and covered in rubble. Can only imagine the hell that place would make of any body with fur. Churros would just stick fast to the landscape.

Of course, no water. Not even a memory of water. Aside from the arroyos, that is. Which don’t signify water in place as much as water trying like mad to get away from a place and ripping out canyons of everything in its rushing path. Arroyos mark land where water fears to tread. A land of hydro phobias. 

Yet all those houses over there. Pressed right up against each other with barely a hummingbird breath between them. Did nobody think to question the assumptions? Or the logistics! Did nobody notice that the neighbors were largely rocks and the sporadic spiny lizard? Not exactly a going concern. But let’s build thousands of houses for tens of thousands of people. All of whom need water. At a minimum. Insanity. 

Oh, I suppose there were people through those parts. Well before the houses. Well before the wells. People came through. Collecting volcanic glass and clay. Painting sheep on the cliff faces to greet the morning. Slyly scattering potsherds to thoroughly confuse the issue. They came through, all right, but nobody stayed. No foundations or hearth fires or post holes. Nobody felt the need to argue with the desert. Until the time of boxes and insanity.

I suppose they drilled their wells right down to the river bed, hundreds of meters beneath their feet. But even so, looks like the water resolutely stayed away. Hard to tell now, after generations of gleaning, but quite a few of the boxes, whole clots of them, in fact, don’t seem to have ever been finished. Whatever drove those people to build out there could not compel them to stay. Certainly couldn’t convince the water anyway. Because no one ever can do that.

There weren’t many tree stumps. Hard to understand how they could have endured the blue skies of summer. Can’t imagine they had any gardens over there. Not even where there aren’t houses piled on top of each other. Gardens follow the water, of course. But even the green bodies can’t endure that much harsh sunlight. And imagine planting. Or cutting grain. Or even tying up tomatoes. 

Things to be grateful for: shade.

But there’s ghastly shade over the volcanoes this week. Black clouds on black rock. A grim horizon when the wind dies. And then orange tongues licking the starless void at night. Strangely beautiful, how the flames seem to leap and bow, dancing on the rooftops of abandoned lives and then vanishing into curling smoke. Almost seductive from this vantage. But still worrisome in the way that most seducers can be. Like an echo of a toothache. There’s still that deep memory of burning days. Those years of plentiful fire, driving us all from lands where water flowed more freely and grew fuel for the hungry flames. 

Couldn’t win with water. Too little and no food, no fuel, no relief from the searing sun. Too much and nothing could remain dependably solid. Fire and flood carried off whatever was carefully tended. Until there weren’t people left to tend to any of it. 

We live in the margins now. Those razor thin places between surfeit and scarcity. Leaning toward the scarce side because the box people did make a mess of their abundance. I don’t even know what makes smoke that thick, almost glutinous. And the hints of poison on the breeze when the wind is flowing across the valley. I guess it’s no mystery why nothing lives there now. The edges are safer. 

I brought back a few oddments from my trek, thinking to trade them for hardware down in the valley market. (Now that is a going concern.) But I ended up keeping most of them just for the inexplicability. That and a noted lack of interest in what I found interesting enough to carry away. No accounting for taste, I suppose. 

Funny things: impulse gatherings.

There is a doll with blue skin. It’s an ugly thing, all lumpy and rubbery, nearly faceless now, but for a prodigious nose. There are uglier things from those days, but this one baffles and mesmerizes me. Was it a joke? If so, for whom? On whom? Was it a child’s toy? But what child would love such a misshapen troll? Still, there were uglier things. Raging pink plastic and anatomically explicit homunculi. Toy guns so true to form they probably could shoot bullets into soft flesh. Made for a barren childhood landscape, I imagine. Because what would those poor children imagine?

It’s foul even in flames.

I haven’t been back. No reason to make the trip. No time for it, in any case. But mostly… to be forthright… it’s terrifying over there. The ghosts are unhappy. The memories are as dark as the smoke. The smell of pain and privation hangs around the scavenged bones of the past. All that aching hope and no solid remnant of fulfillment. It’s all dry wells and empty rooms, gaping roofless at the indifferent sky.

I can still hear the whispering howls in my head. 

I haven’t been back. Not even to see what is burning. Maybe the chamisa is reclaiming the worst of it, though chamisa doesn’t burn well. Not much in the desert burns well, for all the lack of water. Or, I suppose, it is for all the lack of water. Any water is sucked into succulent flesh and jealously hoarded against the best efforts of sun and wind and sand to steal it all away again. 

But what is left over the river and under the volcanoes to burn? Blue and pink plastic dolls? I’m not even sure what plastic is — besides the embodiment of insanity — but if I had to guess I’d say that smoke comes from nothing else. And nothing else is so worthless as to be abandoned through all the decades of impulse gathering and foraging for anything that might be made useful again. 

A desert pyre of false flesh and doomed dreams and toxic imagination.

That’s why I’ve never been back. And partly why I kept the blue doll. Sometimes it’s good to remember what we’ve run from.

That and the dry wells, of course. Which are, I’m sure, kissing cousins to the insanity.

It’s burning again. Maybe fire is the only way to cleanse the desert of those days. I wonder for how long… The churros don’t particularly trust the smell…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022