Desert Electra



"She finds a large rock and sits down for a sip of water. A small gray and brown lizard scurries up the slope a few feet away and stops. She would never have noticed it if it hadn’t moved. Its head swivels and stops like a miniature Gila Monster’s, its dark eyes inspecting her. It seems to ask who she is and what she is doing here. 

Her mind wanders. When did she feel most unconnected and weightless in her life? Was it after her mother died? Rootless, adrift, all her bearings gone? Anders was a different person after he recovered from the accident. He and she could look at each other and think You’re not my daughter…you’re not my father. And of course she wasn’t his daughter. But why did he have to be so thoughtless? Like the afternoon she and Thomas, back from school early, walked in on Anders doing something confusing to Soledad, the housekeeper, on the living room rug. Soledad, her dress pulled up over her head, her underpants wrapped around one ankle…what was Anders doing to her that she was groaning so? Why was he punishing Soledad who was teaching her and Thomas how to make quesadillas and tacos and tamales, the woman who had become like their new mother? Anna was nine, and it occurred to her within seconds that this was sex, not murder. But the brutality of it tolled a bell. Something was settled. Men will prey on you and are not to be trusted. Anders even claimed, when she confronted him so many years later in Tucson, that it wasn’t Soledad, but a faculty wife. As if she and Thomas hadn’t eyes to see.

            Anna takes another sip of water. The lizard seems to be playing a waiting game. He lies as still as the pebbles around him, all but invisible. A black beetle is now skittering down the slope. As it nears the lizard it veers away. The lizard is unperturbed, still studying the human being sitting on the rock. Anna replaces her water bottle in its case and rises. The beetle, now near her foot, stops and raises its rear end almost vertically. Is it threatening her? Didn’t she read that stinkbugs do that? Anna laughs and begins walking uphill.

            She traverses one eroded hill after another, but the far-off peak she had set her course by seems no closer, as if receding as she advances. The landscape is beginning to give the appearance of ocean waves caught at mid-crest. Out of the corner of her eye she can almost catch their swing and sway. It is eerie. By the time she covers the distance to the base of the peak, she is breathing hard. She begins the few hundred foot climb to the top but it is steep, and she begins to slip and slide as the pebbles and sand give way under her boots. She falls forward to break the slide, bruising and cutting her hands.

            After finally clawing her way to the top, Anna stands and surveys all around her. To her surprise she finds she has reached the highest point of a long ridgeline that runs further off to the north and out of sight. For hundreds of yards in all directions Anna sees greater and lesser eroded ridges and hills like the one she’s climbed, with nothing to differentiate them. Their monotony is disturbing.   What is it about this lava land that keeps it sterile, that keeps trees and bushes from even trying to grow? She stares west at the mountains of the Jemez. There is where the thirteen-mile-wide caldera lies, invisible from where she stands. She imagines the multiple eruptions reshaping the land, blasting rock and ash as far as what are now Oklahoma and Kansas.

            The sun, with a new faint nimbus of clouds, has dropped further toward the distant skyline. A screech startles Anna, sending the hair up on the back of her neck. She whirls, but sees no one, near or distant. She squints again at the sky. Far above wheel two hawks, painted orange by the late sun’s rays, calling to each other. They are being blown by the high winds from one patch of sky to another, first appearing small, then large. Anna feels a pang. This mated pair…hadn’t she once hoped her marriage might be like that? Two people, soaring and free, living lives connected by an invisible love? How naïve, she thinks. The stuff of fairy tales. Should such ideas be put into children’s heads, setting them up for disappointment? Navajo tales don’t end with happily ever after. Are Katey and Tommy being read stories right now in Ohio? She checks her watch to calculate Ohio time, but her wrist is bare. She left it—the one gift from Sanderson she values—on the table at home.

            She swings the pack off her back and rummages for her cell phone, with its digital clock. Her fresh socks are there, a pack of Kleenex, the zip-lock bag of trail mix, even a flashlight. But no cell phone. She feels prickly all over: she must have left it in her purse. How could she have done that? She always keeps her phone with her. Was she determined to leave everything of the world behind on this hike? She shivers and scans the stark sand hills around her. They look more identical than ever. Which direction did she come from? The sun is being slowly hidden by a blanket of clouds moving in over the horizon. She can tell its location by the glow, but she won’t be able to see it from the bottoms of the ravines. She must get moving. Without a phone she will need to make it back before dark. She wriggles into her backpack and sets off.

            After what may be half an hour Anna feels the first tendrils of panic. She chokes it back. When she is on the high ground the darkening hills ripple away in all directions; when she slithers down their steep flanks, the angles and folds of the ridges and ravines seem to shift also, disorienting her and making the slope she just descended new and unfamiliar. How could she have forgotten her compass?

            The air has begun to cool, and when she stops to get her breath she finds her sweat chilling her. Her mouth is dry, but not from thirst. From nerves. Still, she stops for a sip of water. Putting away the bottle, she notices her bootlaces have come loose. Bending over to retie them, she feels the thump-thump pounding of her heart. She must stay calm, she tells herself as she double-knots her laces. Straightening, she notices that the light has faded a notch in the past few minutes, as if her eyes have closed down an F-stop, like a camera lens.

            Moments later Anna hears the piercing cries she heard the other night outside her guesthouse—like hyenas laughing in a PBS nature film. Coyotes are hunting somewhere beyond the edge of the barrancas, perhaps a quarter mile away. They may have come upon a rabbit that’s crept out from under its cover of juniper or piñon to nibble hummocks of grass. The coyotes’ yips are like the cries of lost spirits. She stops and listens. Might coyotes, detecting her presence and emboldened by their numbers, be hungry enough to attack her? Might they go for an Achilles tendon to try to take her down? She has never heard of their attacking humans, but she’s been in the West less than a year and knows little about such things. Except that their teeth are razor sharp. A Tucson neighbor’s Jack Russell terrier was lured away by a coyote last winter. It was gone only a moment. The coyote girdled the terrier’s throat 360 degrees as if with a straight razor, severing the dog’s carotid artery.

            As she hurries in the fading light it becomes harder to watch her footing. Her cleats keep slipping on the rock-like sand. She must move faster. She breaks into a jog, the kind of lope she employed years ago around the high school track. But she is no teenager. She is a woman going on forty trying to conserve her strength while escaping a strange wasteland. The coyote yips sound closer. She must not panic. She needs the energy panic might steal.

            Breaking into a downhill run, dodging the rocks that appear out of nowhere, their gray shapes blending into the ash and sandstone surface, she suddenly trips. She catches herself, trips again, loses her balance and falls in a near cartwheel, her right shoulder hitting first as she tumbles over and over, feeling the sharp pain of rocks hitting her ribs, her back, her knee…

            Anna lies, stunned, trying to focus on her right knee, which hurts and worries her most. But did she just hear a low laugh? A man’s laugh? Is she hallucinating? She props herself on one elbow and squints into the gloom. Nobody. Did something move behind a pile of rocks halfway up the hill? Nothing is moving. She begins to shake. Is it an Ildefonsan, furious at her trespassing? Why would he laugh? What would he do to her?      


The gallery door suddenly opens. It is the old man. Tall and forbidding, the fiery eyes in his craggy face scrutinize her.

            Anna steps back, terrified.  

            “No, no,” he croaks, shaking his head and waving his hand at her. “I won’t hurt you,” he says in a thick accent. “But tell me. What do you think of all this?” He sweeps his arm as if to include the whole of the gallery’s art in his arc.

            “Well it depends,” she murmurs, trying to think. He doesn’t seem a homeless person. His clothes are clean, not ragged. There may be a touch of mental disorganization, though nothing obviously dangerous. A European eccentric? Should she humor him until Sharpe returns? “Some visitors like the landscapes, and others like the difficult work. Whereas if you were to ask me…”

            “Stop your wishy-washy.” He stares at her. “Do you know the Beethoven string quartets?”

            Anna blinks. If he were dangerous, would he be talking about string quartets? “I…I know some of his piano music, the sonatas for instance, but the quartets…”

            “When the B-flat Quartet premiered in Vienna, all seven movements…” He stops and coughs. “The seventh is the famous Grosse Fugue if you do not know, which Beethoven did not attend. Why? He was by that time almost totally deaf.” He stares into her eyes as if searching for a glimmer of understanding. “Some who had heard the performance told him—or maybe handed him a note since he couldn’t hear—that the serene fifth movement was adored and had to be repeated as an encore, such was the enthusiasm.” The old man’s eyes are wide and he is breathing heavily, nostrils flared, as if even now he hears the soaring strings.

            Anna is moved by his intensity. “That must have been gratifying for Beethoven.”

            “Gratifying!” The old man coughs again, almost shaking. “Beethoven was furious. He shouted, ‘Of course…the Cavatina, that delicacy. Why not the Fugue? Cattle! Asses.'”

            Anna tries to make out the old fellow’s meaning. “Well, Beethoven was famous for being a little cranky, wasn’t he?”

            “Bah! The Fugue, with its supreme counterpoint, its dark struggle—that was the masterpiece. The fourth and fifth movements were little Viennese pastries—sweet gems as far as they went, especially the Cavatina. So,” he asks gruffly, waving at the painting nearest them, a desertscape brightly colored with cactus flowers, “What do you see here on these walls?”

            Anna does not know what to say. There is something almost violent about the man’s intensity. She feels like a small child in a schoolroom, afraid of giving a wrong answer. “I guess I see a well-executed desert landscape, probably New Mexican…”

            “Exactly! A delicacy! A cream-puff!” He points now to the rear of the room, where Man With Glasses hangs, centered, in the open alcove. “And what of that acrylic wash?” His eyes seem to bulge as he stares at it. “Come!” They approach and stop a few feet from the painting. To Anna the old man seems almost to recreate the terror of the subject sitting at his desk, the startled eyes furtive behind the darkened lenses.

            “This one fascinates me,” Anna answers truthfully. “The pain in the man’s expression…I wonder if the artist himself might have suffered…”

            “Yes, the artist,” the old man’s voice breaks in, suddenly soft, almost tender. “This is his thorny…difficult…Grosse Fugue work.”

            Anna is struck by a thought. “Do you happen to know the artist? A David Kunstler?”

            He gives her a sidelong glance. “I know of him,” he mutters in his thick accent. Once again he is staring at her, as if trying to place her. “And who are you? You remind me of someone. Someone from long ago.”

            “My name is Anna,” she says. “I’ve just begun working here.”

            “Anna,” he murmurs, as if tasting the name. “Thank-you, Anna,” he says, nodding politely to her suddenly with the demeanor of a gentleman. “You have been very helpful.”

            “Have I?” she says, doubtfully. “I hope so.” She suddenly does not want him to leave. Why? “If you would like to know more about Mr. Kunstler,” she says, stepping towards the desk, “here are some biography sheets with small reproductions of his work…”

            But the old man is already past her. Then he is out the door. Gone.

            Anna is still holding the Kunstler bio sheet. The way he stared at her, as if he knew her. That accent…obsessed with Beethoven, with Viennese pastries. Her breath catches. She does have her mother’s eyes, and her mother’s facial features. Could it be? But why would Sharpe say he didn’t know him? Why would he disown one of his own artists?"