A rose flowered from the desert and, wearing nothing but a felt lavender bolero and a baize-green bikini, weaved her way across the sand toward the quiet blacktop. Shadows, long and low, leaned into the west; pointing to the distant sierras reminiscent of jaw bones in the early morning sun. She appeared dizzy and confused; a stranger there. The bird watched her from high above, sketching great, silent circles in the blue. And, beyond the bird, higher still, hung the vast clouds, like unreachable islands, diminished.
Clothes – roadkill silks and cottons – and ephemera – magazines (breezed) and items of loose make-up – were strewn along the sticky tarmac for some distance and the rose headed that way, snatching these things up with hot little whoops that bubbled from her. She hopped from one foot to the other, assigning the gathered articles to an eventual battered brown vinyl suitcase that lay splayed on the roadside. She sat on the suitcase, drew her legs loosely to her chest and looked back toward the upturned car on the sand among the wind-bent desert greasewoods. There was blood in her mouth and she wondered a pulpy gap there and tongued the shards of unfamiliar teeth. The car looked like an insect on its back. Nothing stirred now but an occasional winged shadow passing over the sand.
This scene produced in the bird a curiosity and it drew closer, circling the beetled car, the scrub bushes, the sand, the black strip, the rose, the sand, the scrub bushes, the black strip, the sand, the scrub bushes, the beetled car, and the morning began to churn to a butter coloured glaze.
They had driven the tan and beige Beetle, the bug man and the rose, from Plymouth Falls, that precisely laboured and hopeless whitewash town (pop: 2005), where dream dramas played out on TV screens and billboards advertised, on a series of roadside hoardings spaced every 100 yards, prompts and promise for a new life elsewhere. They made easy travel mates, he and she; west through the dark desert night, passing back and forth the jar and singing snatches of the rock n roll that blasted from the radio but saying very little, until, shortly before dawn, the car had struck the sudden blurred hind of some creature that appeared briefly in the headlights, causing, first the suitcase to leave the vehicle’s roof rack (an inadequate knot in a length of blue tow rope) and then the vehicle and occupants themselves, to leave the road, too. She remembered very little, except, perhaps, the late night news that Elvis had died at home in Memphis, aged 42. She wondered the truth, the impossibility of such a thing. A bright bruise the shape of Spain had begun to mauve one of her shins and her left arm made a clicking sound every time she tried to straighten it. Click. Her head sang like jugged sangria. The rose shivered despite the rising heat and she tasted iron in her mouth, and rubber, petroleum and chamise in her nostrils.
An ancient cedar, once-pale and tall (one of several that had grown, anomalously, over a dozen decades, from an old owl-shat seed, out of the blue mountain soil), had been downed during an electrical storm that had swept the jagged mountain the previous winter. It had split open at its foot, uprooted and rolled the crevice of scree, tumbled – over weeks, maybe months, who knows – and had become wedged eventually between two giant dice-shaped boulders at the edge of the vast space that emptied the mountain into the sky above the white Hudson and the desert. The tree had become black and hollow over time; with rain-rot, with melt-snow, with heat; but it had, of late, transformed into a home; a nest for the bird and two pale eggs.
The rose sat on the battered suitcase at the silent roadside and waited. She sat on the battered suitcase at the silent roadside and waited. She sat on the battered suitcase at the silent roadside and she felt that she must have been sleeping because the sun had risen higher into the blue and the shadows had shortened. The blue and distant sierras shone and there were now loose and drunken boot prints in the sand leading from the beetled car out across the sand that hadn’t been there before. A shudder at her side; a shadow. A black and white cloaked bird landed on the opposite side of the road, coughed, and said,
“How are you?”
“Still here,” said the rose.
“Evidently. Evidently.” The bird spoke like a ratchet.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said the bird, stepping forward with dipped bows. “You should sleep, sleep.”
Tap of talons on tarmac. She pointed toward the car and the footprints in the sand. Click.
“The man has left. I sent him away,” said the bird. “Sent him.”
“I imagined him long gone.”
“Not so long. Not so.”
The rose looked back at the bird who had come closer. “Why didn’t he take the road?”
“The road’s been unlucky for the both of you, don’t you think, think?” The bird cackled. “I showed him a quicker way. Quicker.” It nodded vaguely across the desert. “But the sun is hot now, hot. And walking’ll do you no good. No good. Rest beneath these sweet smelling bushes. I’ll stay with you. Sleep. Sleep.”
The rose knew that sleep was probably not such a great idea with head injuries, but she was very tired. So she crawled beneath a greasewood and slept.
The bug man lay on his back in the sand, covered in ants. His buckled legs could carry him no further and he resigned himself to his fate in this hell. A jet liner, white and distant, skeletal, far above the high clouds, slowly passed across the morning. It trailed a twin stream that seemed to bridge some of the islands. The plane and the jet-streams stretched out and disappeared beyond the distant sierras. The bug man smiled and in his mind he went there, too.
The nest was layered with collections of dry twigs and mosses, shed feathers, cattail and chamise, dry grasses, leaves and laid with shiny treasures that had caught the bird’s eye; knuckle nuggets of amber sap, a smooth tooth of glass extracted from the shallows of the Hudson, a coin dated 1894, and a small, silvered and cracked compact mirror. The first egg hatched as the sun lowered over the sierras and the new bird, all white and sticky, blinking and crying, looked up out of the hollowed tree and into the blue.
The second egg hatched and so the bird flew back down from the mountain over the desert and cast its shadow over the still flower found beneath the chamise.