Islands in the Sky


The two men perched on the ledge, now in silence, as long sharp lines of shadows cut through the red Wingate sandstone. A pair of vultures lazily circled nearby in silence and the mountains, uncaring, rose against the sky to the south. On their peaks snow reflected the late morning sun. A bird song rose from the canyon below that moments before had been the echo chamber of a din of explosion and profanities and mumbling. But now it was silent again and only the two of them on the ledge.

“She’s kinda a bitch,” a voice, tinged with a southern drawl, cut the silence. The tall, skinny man grappled with his thoughts as his long hair, matted with sweat, lofted in the breeze.

“What the hell man? Fuck you too, Aaron,” a voice spat back with a wheeze. What’s that about anyway?” it managed.

“You said you missed her. Said you always feel a longing when something shitty happens,” Aaron rambled, a cigarette tacked to his lip moved along with and flung bits of ash.

“Oh…,right,” he lifted his head again returning from a daze. “What you mean, she’s a bitch?”

“Ah man…” Aaron’s left arm only moving slightly, returning the cigarette to his stubbly face. He pulled long and hard at the cigarette. “Fuck…went out. No more lighter either, dammit,” he weakly flung the thing from his long scrawny arm into the abyss. He knew he’d need a bit of a rest now if he wasn’t able to finish the smoke.

“Hey, Aaron…Liza’s not a bitch…Why you think she’s a bitch?” he responded to silence.

Aaron rested his head now on the sandstone and although it wasn’t comfortable it was better, and cooled his head where it touched. He watched the sweat move off his face and, as it percolated into the stone, it released the smell of iron on the wet rock. He remembered missing that most when after moved away. The smell of the stone after rain. Really, just the smell of the desert after rain when the creosote and stone and sand, all like potpourri, filled the air. He remembered first coming back and, after it did rain, laying in the sand, rolling around. Then sticking his nose on different plants and surfaces and taking long breaths. He had missed it for too long.

“I had a hard time with her at first is all, Matt,” he returned from dazed silence. “She’s a bit of a food Nazi. I made homemade biscuits and gravy one morning…” He started to trail off.

“I don’t know what the hell you are talking about,” returned Matt in a raspy voice.

“I made biscuits and gravy from scratch,” continued Aaron in his drawl. One morning after we’d all been up late drinking. You know what she said? Before even taking a second bite? She didn’t say thanks. No pleasantries…No gesture of gratitude…She said, ‘the biscuits are too dry.’ That was it. What the fuck. Biscuits are too dry. That’s what the gravy is for,” he started trailing off into silence once again.

“Jesus, man. That’s your problem?” heavily breathing. “You know she went to school to be a cook. She can’t help but be critical, dude. She had to learn all that shit in school. You’re a real fucking baby, you know. I don’t even remember…When was that?” He wheezed once again.

“Hell if I remember exactly when it was. Maybe five years ago. Remember, it was the night we all ended up at your parents’ house cuz they were out of town. Ethan was there too, and then you got Samantha to come over. It was a big deal cuz he finally got laid that night. Remember that?”

“Oh yeah, he was all smiles and giddy that morning,” he smiled.

“Yeah, well, we were all pretty ripped that night but somehow I managed to get up around 6 the next morning. I felt like shit, but I was also feeling ambitious so I made biscuits and gravy for everyone.”

“Haha…yeah, I remember that now. Oh man…” Matt attempted a laugh and winced instead. “So she said the biscuits were dry, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I like her now, though. I don’t think she’s a bitch. Haven’t for a long time. Maybe at first, but she’s cool. OK,” Aaron said.

“Well, why’d you say it? Huh?” Matt wheezed again. His lips were white with sweat and his body and biceps were wet too.  His hair was short, but even it looked matted down with sweat. He would have slouched if he could, but he couldn’t. He lay instead. His chest heaved up and down and the hairs on it beaded sweat. His eyes were still circled in tan lines from the winter.

“I was trying to evoke some kind of inner fire; I guess…” Aaron responded. “Buddy! We got two legs and maybe two good arms between us to move this fucking piece of shit rock off. But, we’re gonna have to fight for it. I was trying to engage your inner hulk. You been pretty dedicated to making all those muscles. As good a time now as ever to put them to use,” he summoned whatever euphoria he had left.

“Well, Liza’s not a bitch,” Matt assured once more trying to muster energy.

“Yeah, well, I still think she’s a food Nazi,” he grinned back.

“I guess I’ll let you have that, you son of a bitch,” He grimaced as he tried for a smile.

“OK. You ready for a try here. You’ve got brawn, but you’re also pretty fucked and looks like pinned pretty well against that slab. How much of your arm you got?” Aaron thrashed to free up his leg.

“Uh, let me just…” Matt fussed around and twisted his body a bit. “Ouch, dammit.”

“I heard a pop, what the hell was it? You OK?” Aaron now had a bit of his leg free.

“Shit. I think I dislocated my shoulder,” Matt shook his head and let it hang down. He continued, “What’s the point anyway? My harness is fucked dude. The rope is ripped in half.” The frayed end of rope dangled limply over the ledge. He stared blankly at the useless piece of cord then turned his gaze slowly out over the edge. They were only a couple hundred feet from the ground, but the talus cone stretched on for several hundred feet beyond into the desert floor below so it felt like being one thousand feet up. The sagebrush below looked happy, he thought. It all looked ideal. The red sand stretched out for miles, punctuated by only sagebrush and ribbons of green where washes still released what water was left from winter snowmelt. Even the snow, trapped in isolated nooks of north facing drainages looked copacetic. The breeze was just enough to cool, but not too much and the vultures continued to ride lazy circles higher into the sky.

Matt continued from his horizontal position after a pause. The boulder had him pinned into a soft corner at the base of the slab rising from the ledge. Only a few more inches and he would have been sliced in two.

“Even if we get out from under this we can’t get off the fuckin route. Plus, we’re probably screwed anyway. I think I’m bleeding inside. Do you feel that way?” he mumbled.

“I feel OK,” Aaron lied. “Don’t think too much. Let’s just get out of this problem one step at a time. All we need to worry about now is getting this off us. OK. Now listen. You’re much stronger than me, but you’ve maybe only one leg to use now.  I’ve got the advantage of a good arm and one leg, even with my puny ass. I think this boulder is balancing somewhat so we may be able to roll it off. It looks like your right leg is somewhat mobile, yeah?”

“A little,” said Matt. “My other leg is stuck under the boulder. Luckily it didn’t smash but it’s pinned down too tight to move.”

“Alright. So can you manage a knee bar with your good leg? If you can get a knee bar, you may be able to push out on it.”

Matt struggled to lift his leg into position. He wasn’t sweating now…Too dehydrated. He could feel the soft sandstone under his back and he could smell it and he knew it was still wet from when he was sweating. He grunted and managed to get his leg wedged into the small space between the boulder and wall. He could feel his temples beating now. It reminded him of when he was a little kid running around outside in the summer before dinner. When he had to come in, he’d stick his head in cold water in the sink then look at the mirror. His face all beat red and sweat dripping and he could hear his heart beating inside.

“That’s my boy!” Aaron attempted a holler as he watched a few feet away. “How’d that feel?”

“Aaron…”

“Yeah”

… …

… …

“Matt… MATT!”

“Huh,” he flinched up. “What.”

“Shit, you scared me. Thought I lost you there. You feel alright?” Aaron’s voice shook.

Matt looked over, glazed eyes, “Hey, Aaron.”

“What?”

“You think we can have a beer when we’re done here.” He let out a pathetic chuckle.

“Yeah buddy. Hell yeah! Let’s get his thing off us. Alright, I’ve got a leg and an arm free. On the count of three I’m gonna push with them against this load of shit like a fuckin tweaker. You have to do the same too. OK. With your knee bar,” Aaron said, returning some confidence in his voice.

“OK, Aaron,” he wheezed again but this time without any sound of strength left. “You’re a real piece of work. A beer…I think I have a beer in my bag…” He trailed off again as his head dropped.

“Matt.”

…. ….

“Hey, Matt!”

.. .. ..

“MATT!”

“Matt! Buddy…Hey Fuck-tard, wake up! I don’t think she’s a bitch…The biscuits probably were dry,” his voice now faltering. “Wake up. We just need to get this fucker off us is all. Then we’ll go get a beer.”

The sun had passed over noon now. Shadows short but still sharp along the red sandstone. The desert fanned out below and scarce water revealed itself in narrow strips of green that either dissipated or joined larger veins of verdant desert life. Across the valley the desert slowly rose again and slowly turned from red to green where it climbed into the foothills. Beyond, the La Sal Mountains rose into the sky like islands. And they all had snow above a certain point, but Mount Peale, being highest, had the most.

Aaron remembered discovering Ed Abbey in college before he’d been to Moab for the first time. He read Desert Solitaire one spring break and remembered Abbey’s lone ascents in the La Sals and glissading down. He remembered how he’d imagined the scenery before he had ever been there. The mountains didn’t seem as high in his imagination. The red desert against the azure sky too. He always thought the imagination would overestimate reality. But he remembered the first time he rolled into Castle Valley in his parents’ old van that he had borrowed one summer after classes. He remembered the mountains seemed to rise out of another land far away, and went all the way to the clouds. And the blue sky pierced between the lofty clouds and where the clouds were low on the mountains the mountains looked even bigger still. And all this. All of this was beyond the valley itself. Cast beyond the towering pinnacles of Castleton Tower, Sister Superior, The Rectory. All these sitting atop a talus cone that climbed hundreds of feet sharply from the deep red sands of the desert below.

A canyon wren was singing somewhere below and he could hear it. He always liked that bird’s song. Like a waterfall, its whistle cascaded down from the canyon walls. It sang again. He liked the way they would announce themselves. He remembered exploring canyons alone and the only sound for hours was the silence throbbing in his head. Then, he’d hear the buzz of the canyon wren warming up. Somewhere up the canyon walls out of sight. He’d hear it again. Then it would let loose with its cascading whistle and it would echo down the canyon walls bouncing off the smooth red sandstone. Then again. It would continue for a few minutes before the silence resumed and he could only hear the throbbing of his heart in his head.

The canyon wren carried on for several minutes. Each cascade of notes bouncing around the rocks below and Aaron kept listening for it. He looked out toward the low ridge at the end of the short slot canyon they had hiked through that morning when the sun was just rising. And though he couldn’t see it, he looked to where the car was parked.

“Hey Matt… Let’s go… Let’s get that beer,” he tried again for a response.

“Matt….matt…” his voice quivered into silence.

He leaned back again. His body cooled by the rock wet from his sweat and he rested his head against it, breathing in the smell of the wet rock again. He rubbed his face in it and where it made his face wet, the breeze cooled. He looked at the boulder. Like a small car it sat heavily. He remembered his geology class in school. Geological processes play out on a time scale far beyond the scope of a mere human life. Fuck if that wasn’t the case, he thought. He’d remembered reading about this chockstone in a guidebook when he was planning his first trip to the desert. Large chock stone, third pitch up is solid. Would require earthquake or other geologic calamity to remove. He laughed a little and then winced. Geology is a prick, he thought. Like a slow giant, moping about. It stays put for years. People build homes, cities, highways off its dependability. Then when some sudden event occurs, they write it off as some slow moving geologic event and it doesn’t seem so bad because usually it just destroys a landmark. Or a lonely road. Or something nobody ever cared about but maybe a geologist. But that’s the real bitch of it, he thought. Geology doesn’t care where someone or place may be. It doesn’t care what time it is. It just happens suddenly and nothing anyone does can stop it.

He kept breathing in the smell and it gave him some comfort. He blinked his eyes and they readjusted on the sky above and he saw the vultures again as they circled higher on the afternoon heat. Another breath of the wet sandstone by his face. His heart throbbed now in his head and his temples pulsed with its rhythm as he breathed in again.

The canyon wren sang again in the canyon below. He didn’t remember hearing it when they passed through that morning. But it pierced the silence now with its cascading trill. And again. Then silence. Then one more cascading, tumbling whistle.

Then the silence again.  He felt it in his head. He tried to remember if it sang that morning but he couldn’t. The silence pounded. It throbbed in his temples and he could feel the heat in his face. The heat and the silence throbbed and he rested once again on the wet stone and felt the coolness flow into his body.

 

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