Like her slowing breaths, a cool breeze begins to approach, tickling the back of your neck, making you suddenly aware of your cold extremities. Tall peaks all around turn from a rusty brown to a golden red, their colors never more true than in those final moments of daylight. Small birds sing and chirp to each other as they fly to their nests, finding shelter for the impending cold and darkness. In the distance, dogs bark their final goodbyes to far off neighbors, their broad chests sending a hollow echo through the canyons.
It is here where the desert and the woman spill their secrets, fatigue making the rough, hot appearance suddenly vulnerable, penetrable. The haze disappears, and if you’re not looking directly at the sun, directly into those bright eyes, there is a sudden clarity to her, the desert. Trails and cacti are illuminated. Hawks wheel around in tall circles in hunt of their final snack. A star glistens. She makes a confession while staring at the ceiling.
In those final moments of daylight, desert greens and blues and pinks and reds and browns and yellows all meet. The woman’s laugh is introduced to her tears, her moments of utter solitude and privacy are shown a partner, body and mind stripped naked. As her breaths come at longer intervals, so too is the desert’s song of life broken apart by elongated silences. Dry brush rustling in the wind reminds me of her closed eyes, her lips parting as her jaw relaxes, her face still like the top of a plateau, the valley of a canyon, the peak of a mountain.
Desert insects begin their steady chirp, and she purrs herself to sleep. Fading yellow light on the horizon seeps through the last of the day's clouds, coming out red, as she slips into a dream, half the sky now orange or pink, tucked in behind mountains, the other half a blue quickly running towards black.
It always seems that in an instant she goes from half awake to dead asleep, gone in a dream, walking the paths of a world you can’t access. The desert night too goes quickly from a navy blue to black, from the first glimmers of stars peeking out to a sky like you’ve never seen. Suddenly there are 5, 10, 50, 100 stars shining above your head, flickering like candles, daring you to believe that you’re somehow special. Like the freckles on her face, the longer you look the more there are, the more to count, the more impossible it seems to understand the depth of the woman, the sky, the desert.
Those stars and her dreams are the real grand finale. Uncountable now, the galaxies millions of light years away demand your awe, laughing at the feeling that you're somehow the center of it all. With a moment of thought, they are totally incomprehensible. She may murmur a word inaudibly in her sleep while the desert night sky whispers its wonder. Her, the sky, the desert, making you feel incomplete and whole and curious and desperate to know all at once. I peer at the sky like I look at her when she isn’t looking at me, wanting to know what’s behind the stars, the freckles, what the darkness really holds or how long those stars on her face will shine the bright lights of their fire onto me.
Slowly, as with the woman, I’ll fall asleep to the desert. Counting the sky’s stars and her freckles again, because the exercise is so impossible to resist, impossible to complete. I trace her nose, the milky way of her face, stare off at venus, the brightest planet in the night sky. My eyes are heavy and I’ll drift off into my own wonder, walk the paths of my own dream, and slowly she, the desert, will wrap herself around me, a cool comfort until the bright morning comes again, until the closest star of them all pokes its head up to say hello.
10 years ago, during my first summer in West Texas, I made a companionship with Heidi when she was four and I was 14. It was a companionship I’d never forget.
For hours on end we’d walk the desert together, both by foot or her chasing me on a dirt bike. She’d crouch and throw her hackles up when a rattlesnake or coyote was nearby. Once, during my first week or two here, after she’d follow me from room to room and everywhere I walked, I tried to shake her by getting on my bike and flying out through dirt trails at top speed, taking random turns at forks in the road and blasting over ridges, kicking up dust on the way. After five minutes, six or seven turns and seemingly losing her, I turned the bike over on a tall embankment and — once I managed to stand it back up — couldn’t get it started. The sun was setting and panic slowly began to set in with every failed attempt. The desert’s cool, still darkness approached. Suddenly, over the ridge, I saw Heidi’s bouncing head looking up, sniffing the ground, looking up, sniffing the ground, advancing towards me. I was so happy to see her that when she approached I got on my knees and hugged her, asked her feverishly to show me the way home before walking my bike behind her and following her the rest of the way. Today, 10 years later, Heidi now 14, with cloudy eyes and a white face, the same age I was when I met her, we went for a walk in the desert again. She had been looking at me with that begging look of a dog as I sat at my computer writing, and after five or six minutes I finally succumbed and enthusiastically said, “Ok! lets go!”
She jumped onto her hind quarters, the most I’ve seen her move since I arrived on Thursday, and then spun away and broke into a slow jog. But it was the slowest we had ever walked together, and I followed behind her patiently. We moved through the rain as I listened to the earth break apart underneath my boots. Every twenty or thirty yards, Heidi stopped and looked over her shoulder to make sure I was there, the same way she did 10 years ago when I had little experience with the land or knowledge of where we were, when I really needed her.
After about 15 minutes of walking I froze in thought; left out of the driveway onto the dirt path, left at the first fork in the path, right at the second fork in the path, over the ridge, around the first boulder, down into the valley and up and to the left at the third fork. I knew this way, this route, it was the same path Heidi followed me on that first week of knowing her when I was trying to disappear. I looked up and she was staring back at me knowingly, waiting for me to keep walking so she could keep walking.
We carried on this way for another 15 minutes until we arrived at the steep embankment where I had turned that bike over so many years ago. She stuck her nose up into the wind and stood staunchly, taking in the desert, the memory, maybe even catching the scent of a coyote or mountain lion in the distance. I felt tears well in my own eyes at the way she knew, or even the coincidence, because either explanation was magnificent.
“C’mon Heidi, lets go home,” I said to her deaf ears.
She put her nose to the ground and began retracing our steps, and then she broke into a sprint, almost looking four years old again, like the dog I first met that would jump a good eight feet from one bed of a pick up truck to another just to chase a stick. She looked back at me and jumped, her paws hitting my thighs and her nose buried into my stomach as I rubbed her ears. I swear she smiled. And I smiled too, just watching this old dog with her white face and her cloudy eyes and now her muddy feet and wet fur be happy, feeling young again, just a desert dog in love with her domain.
Back at the house, she’s standing on the short wall of the porch, holding guard, looking over me and the valley and the mountains. And maybe she’s even remembering the way we used to sit out here together so many years ago as I guzzled down the first beers of my life and looked at a horizon I didn’t know, taking in the rocky scent of a cactus-ridden land I never guessed would call me back again all this time later.