Suicide in
The Desert

All this time I had thought that the land was something other than me, something I sensed as if I had feelers dancing across it. Now I could see. We had the same command, driven by the same fundamental longing. I had never been a separate creature from it, not once. All this time I believed that, I had my own desires, my own hands. Laughable, now. I have always been the land.

My pen hovered above the paper and I could not remember my thoughts. It was hunger and thirst, I figured, stealing what was left of my mind. The words I'd written seemed vain and fleeting now that they were in black ink. Perhaps this was what people who once lived here understood: there can be nothing but desire, otherwise a person might sit in this black infinity and never move again.

Enough clever thinking. I felt angry for trying to capture the sensation of this illimitable desert. It was as if I were suspicious, trying to detect words where there were none. This sense of longing that I tried to write about, even using the word desire, tore it from me, rendering its power, turning it into a thought, a weapon, something other than what it is. There is a greater sense in this desert that I could never write. It is the very root of existence, the thing that is beyond beauty and safety, beyond need.

I closed the notebook and set it on the ground, pen marking the spot where I had left off. Then I pulled the pen out, losing my place, withdrawing the temptation to write. I tossed it and it landed ten feet away, clattering mechanically among the rocks. That is how a pen should write, I thought, with no fingers touching it.

I stared at where it had landed, rubbing the smooth, hard callus from the pen on my middle-right finger.

Closer to me I saw a lighter. It was within reach. I should use it, I thought, and set fire to this useless notebook. It would ignite easily, starting at its flimsy cardboard cover, burning through 150 pages, leaving only the tight metal spiral discolored from the heat. Then my words would no longer be bound and inadequate. Thousands of verbs and adjectives would finally be free, flying away with the smoke.

When I looked at the ground even nearer, I saw the knife I had used on the coconut. I picked it up, studying its blade. I brought it flat to my lips. The steel was not cold.

Fire could free the words in my notebook just like this knife could free me. If I were to cut my tongue, I thought, sever it completely, then I would silence the weaknesses of my voice. Without my tongue I would never speak, never try to reduce this landscape to something conceivable. I would close off this avenue of escape from the desert, becoming even more a creature of the land.

A warning signal fired from within my head. I would claw the ground in pain if I did this. I would bleed to death. But even that seemed acceptable in these dazzling stages of thirst and hunger. I would no longer be mortal, I thought. I would lie dead, a feast for the wind. This must be the madness that overtakes people who die in the desert, the strange final acts of suicides, the last precious water poured deliriously onto the ground. I touched the edge of the blade with my tongue. My fatigue will act as anesthesia, I thought.

The sharpness of the knife slid to the base of my tongue, still curious, not yet cutting flesh. I should take one more step, I thought. The land pulled on me, a magnet to steel, the poison of a snake entering the blood of a small animal. Come, it said. Yes, come.

A woman came to mind, a friend who once, under the tutelage of a shaman, ate a poisonous peyote cactus and saw through the eyes of a raven. In a trance of sensations, she found that her arms were draped neatly with black feathers. Later, after vomiting and scratching at the air, she saw herself in a wolf 's body, her four legs striking ground.

Instead of the blinding heat of her hallucinogenic cactus, I now had rocks and sky in my blood. Is this what she had experienced, I wondered. She was a scientist who studied animals, who examined their organs and bones in the lab, bloodying herself with their beauty. Animals were her fascination. If she became an animal, I thought, will I become the land?

I studied the soft flesh under my tongue with the knife. Still curious. Not yet ...

I remembered again the desire I had written about in my notebook, the thing that I had wanted to free, the pages I had wanted to burn. Desire means nothing without a body, I told myself, holding back just enough so that the blade would not draw blood.

I thought that words must be formed by a voice, by a pen on paper. Wilderness must take a form. What is it that the land has taught me? To be bound and unbound at once. To be seamlessly mortal and infinite. To live.

Slowly, I withdrew the knife, staring over this darkening country. As the knife came down, the desert changed. It spread around me the way circles of water ripple outward when a stone has dropped into the center. I fanned into the land, rippling across the surface in all directions. I could smell the ground, its dark volcanic dust driven into crannies and protected beneath mats of stone. I felt the shape of every crag. At that moment I realized that I had fed my life to the land. But I was not dead. I was still here, amazed as I took in a breath, the air as palpable as water through my lungs.

I had no sense of size, sitting here. No distance or time. Not one thing could be separated or compared to another to give me a vantage. The stones, the horizon, my body, these could not be broken down any farther. My life had given me moments here and there, flashes of awareness upon the sudden passing of birds, upon an enchanting quality of light, or the up-close stare of a mountain lion, but never such sustained awakening as this. I no longer felt my body or my bones. Like an animal finally dead, I stopped scratching and fighting. The last of my muscles gave way. I felt my hand falling under the weight of the knife.

After a while ... how many hours? ... a thought came to me, up from far-off memory. Regan. Her name formed into my mind. There was a love letter from her in my pocket, the paper as folded and soft as an old map. I became aware of this letter, the exact words on it, the cursive of her signature. She would be here in only two days. She would bring water and food. Her hair would be smooth and her skin would smell of freshness and life.

The first thought of another person seemed to clear a space in front of me. I saw in my right hand the knife. I hefted it slowly, testing its weight as if it had just been placed there. On the ground was my notebook and some of my gear. The notebook was unharmed. A pen rested among rocks farther out. Then the long, black tapestry of desert pavement, a rise and fall to the terrain. I saw the dry night sky, the stars not even trembling. It was as if I was coming out of a sound sleep, which caused the moon to be strangely crisp, burning its way through the darkness.

--- From Soul of Nowhere
Craig Childs
©2002, Sasquatch Books

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