Buried Alive in the Desert
Episode 12 from Must Not Sleep, a new novel which takes place in shamanic space, a realm of shapeshifting and trance. Check out episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. A free download of Michael Brownstein reading from the novel is available on Podiobooks.com.
Dick and I faced each other, the barrel of the shotgun pointing at my chest. He balanced it against his right hip while in his left hand he held a shovel. He was panting heavily.
We stood in silence until he regained his breath.
"It's a miracle I kept up with you carrying all this hardware and me just an old, pot-bellied guy with a heart condition. I'm plumb wore out. But I swore to myself I wasn't gonna let you get away, not after you denied me in my hour of need. I formed that as an intention in my mind and never wavered."
He couldn't help gloating as he added, "I guess you hesitated and I didn't. You doubted your spirit guide. Maybe that's why he didn't show up."
"Kiss my ass, you fucking bastard," I whispered, tears forming in my eyes.
He pursed his lips and said crisply, "Enough jabbering. We have work to do. Or rather, you do. I'm sure you won't mind if I just watch."
Raising the barrel of the gun to my face he said, "But first we're going for a little stroll. Take this shovel and head back out toward the mountains. I'll be right behind you. Don't stop until I say the word."
The smells of sage and creosote bush were overpowering as we made our way through the cold, moonless desert night. The sky was filled with so many stars that once my eyes adjusted I could see the landscape ahead of me. My mind quieted down somewhat and I began to sense life around me, although all I saw were two jackrabbits, their long ears pointing up through the sagebrush, their eyes perfectly motionless.
We passed within inches of them but they made no move to scamper away. I remembered that animals in the lower realm had no reason to be frightened. We were all spirit forms here. But if we were all spirit forms, why did I feel so much like meat and bone? Why had the barrel of the gun felt so cold in the small of my back? Because I had doubted? Or was this not the lower realm at all but simply a dark, dry desert where I'd lost my way?
"Hold up," Dick said. "This'll do."
I plunged the shovel into the sand and looked around. We stood on a slight rise in an otherwise uniform display of desert vastness. Clumps of juniper and pinyon, more like large bushes than trees, receded into the distance. Here and there a huge saguaro cactus stood watch, its arms reaching up into the night. And far away, sensed more than seen, the mountains spread out from left to right. In fact, I was only aware of them because the stars, as thick as seeds in the sky, began just above an opaque, irregular ridgeline.
"From here you'll have a nice view," he added. "I wouldn't want you to get bored."
We turned and I caught his eye.
"You can't be serious."
He smiled. "The seriousness of this situation is entirely up to you, partner. Now get busy."
He looked at my naked body appraisingly.
"I wish I was in a partying mood right now, but I'm not. Instead I feel as sober as a judge. I need you to dig a hole five and a half feet deep, three feet wide, and say two feet from front to back, although if that's too difficult you can make it larger. Give you some elbow room while you're down there shoveling."
"No," I said.
His mouth set in a firm line, one side lower than the other.
"No? That word doesn't compute. We're in a positive frame of mind out here in the wilderness. Like in Genesis. Or the Song of Songs. Or how about the end of Ulysses, remember? Yes. That's the word we want. Yes..."
"Shut up!" he shouted, his voice breaking in a paroxysm of rage. He raised the shotgun and shoved its muzzle against my neck. "I'm clean out of patience. Get busy, baby boy, or the vultures will find you strewn all over the lot tomorrow morning. I'm freezing and exhausted and it's a long hike back to the cabin. I need to be asleep before the sun comes up."
I started digging. I expected the sand to keep caving in on itself but a foot or so below the surface the earth became quite firm.
Calming himself, Dick said, "Don't worry. Appearances are deceiving. You may think it's just sand, but if you dig deep enough you'll eventually hit the aquifer. Used to be an inland sea millions of years ago. There's enough water down there to quench the thirst of all of creation!"
"Why are you doing this to me?"
"I told you already, you denied me in my hour of need. Besides, I'm not doing anything to you. You're doing it all by yourself. It felt quite biblical, actually. It was very black and white. Without a second thought you ran out of that apartment and up the stairs. Heart attack, stroke, paralysis, death, what difference did what I was going through make to you? Hyperventilating, my chest bursting with blackest pain, I lay there on the floor in a pile of trash and made a bargain with myself. If I survived you were gonna pay. You were gonna pay up the ass for leaving me there to die."
"But, Dick, after I'd had time to think about it, I realized that I'd abandoned you. I tried to find out what had happened to you but when I came looking for you the apartment was cleaned out and you were gone. I'm sorry. I really am. Doesn't regret mean anything? Can't you find it in your heart to forgive me?"
"Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do," he warbled sarcastically. "Actually, what you don't understand, Mr. Cosmic Christ, is that I'm doing you a big favor. Forgiveness doesn't enter into the picture. Remember what I told you about how the universe operates? It's a question of action and reaction. Just like Iraq and the US of A. Saddam pushes and we push back, only harder. Much harder. Otherwise the lesson's never learned. All this is for your own good. You need to go on a vision quest, baby boy. You need to firm up, become a man. You've been coddled for too long. I'm surprised that power animal of yours hasn't put you through your paces yet. He's abandoned you, don't you see? Left you on my doorstep like an orphan. Suddenly your lack of backbone is my responsibility."
He yawned. "Well, I don't have the time to hold your hand, teach you how to make a fire, lead you on walks through the forest pointing out the herbs and such. I've got other things to do, as I'm sure you've noticed."
He looked up into the sky where the faintest sign of first light was showing itself against a line of speckled clouds.
"Damn it, hurry up, will you?"
As soon as I stopped digging he leaned over and snatched the shovel out of my hands. Breathing hard, covered with perspiration which immediately felt cold in the night air of the desert, I was standing in a kind of trench which came up above my shoulders.
"Lower your arms to your sides," he said. "Stand at attention, soldier. That's it."
He began furiously pushing the sand and gravel back into the hole around me. I tried to scramble out but he raised the shovel over my head.
"I'll flatten your brainpan, buster, I'm not kidding. I've got to be gone before sunrise. Don't worry, you'll be fine. Spirit will provide. In fact, plenty of folks, once they get over the fear and all, they don't want to ever come back. And I can't say I blame them. Why rejoin the endless human parade of bullshit and prevarication, the two-faced lies and dreary stratagems? Here it's very peaceful. Nobody'll be coming around to disturb you. Although that doesn't mean you'll want for company."
When he was finished only my head emerged from the sand. As he stood there eyeing his work he looked impossibly huge to me.
"Back in the arms of the Mother you keep going on about," he said. "Wonder what she'll do for you now. Although actually Gaia will keep you nice and warm, you won't have to worry about hypothermia. At least your body won't. You're head's another story, though. That famous head stuffed with all kinds of fancy ideas it doesn't need. Like how there's no body/mind separation!" He laughed. "Nothing like a little shamanic dismemberment to clear up any lingering misunderstandings."
"Don't worry," he said, grunting as he gathered the shotgun and shovel under his right arm and turned to leave. "I'll be back now and then to check on you. Wouldn't want you to come to any harm. Although by the time you see my face again it may be a full-on hallucination. The desert does that to people. They start seeing all kinds of things: secret cabins, black horses, the Vice-President of the United States cavorting with our nation's arch-enemy. That's gonna be your challenge, isn't it? Distinguishing what's real from what's not. In fact, maybe you're making all this up. Maybe you're safe at home right now in the arms of Mary Magdalene. Or maybe you're not the Cosmic Christ after all. Maybe you're just young Isaac -- and I'm your Papa. Abraham, right? Sacrificing you at the whim of the Big Dude in the sky. Because what's writ down in the Holy Book is also taking place today. Past, present, and future mixed up together. Prehistoric America filled with dinosaurs and saber-tooth tigers, the end of this civilization in a blaze of cellphone chatter, the beginning of the next -- it's all happening in the same split second. You think I don't know what's going on? You keep underestimating me, baby boy. Now it's payback time. Let's see what you're made of."
And then he was gone.
From my vantage point on this rising ground I watched as the cold grey landscape spread out before me began to brighten imperceptibly and come to life. Then, in one dramatic moment, the sun emerged over the tops of the mountains and sent laser fingers of light across the desert floor. Soon its rays were striking me in the face as one thing after another exploded into color. Glorious blue sky with its single stripe of pebbly clouds, glorious boulders and rocks and gullies, glorious sagebrush covered with furry silver-green leaves and clusters of tiny white flowers, glorious juniper and pinyon trees with their prickly, vivid green needles shivering in the light wind. The closest trees, two four-foot tall junipers, showed bunches of their berries to me, bluish-grey and aromatic.
An endless smile opened up my face as I inhaled.
"It's springtime," I cried out. "Look, Isaac, everything's in bloom. How wonderful!"
Inhaling deeply, I became aware of the most complex smell, musky and sweet as a melon. Turning my head to the right, I saw five or six saguaro cactus, their massive spiny trunks erect, their long arms covered with golden funnel-shaped flowers. Even at this early hour bees were already at work, tumbling over one another inside the rich, grainy centers of the flowers.
"Amazing. It's amazing."
Forgetting myself, my arms tugging at the earth which held me securely in place, I tried to climb out of my hole. I wanted to bury my face in those beautiful flowers. I struggled for a few moments and then gave up. Best to preserve my strength.
My ears stung from the cold which turned my breath to steam as it escaped from my mouth. Inside the earth, though, my body felt surprisingly warm and snug. Out of nowhere a red-throated hummingbird appeared and hovered inches from my face, its emerald-green wings vibrating rapidly, its narrow beak trembling. We stared at each other and then another one appeared, and another. Instantly changing direction, they presented their profiles to me and shot off through the cactus.
As daylight spilled across the desert, the air came alive with song. Black-faced chickadees, grey-brown sparrows, two kinds of blue jays, bluebirds, and many other birds I couldn't identify, all checking me out in one way or another. They glanced in my direction as they flew by or landed momentarily on the earth in front of my face.
I had a lump in my throat as I watched them come and go. Although my body was warm, my feet already felt numb and damp. It was impossible for me to move more than a fraction of an inch. Whenever I made the least attempt to shift my position the earth pressed in on me with sobering finality. I breathed deeply, trying to control the panic which was building up inside me. What would happen when the vultures spotted me? Then I peed and felt the urge to move my bowels. But how could I possibly let myself do that? Tears started coursing down my cheeks as I summoned all my strength and made a last attempt to free myself from the earth. Grunting with the effort, I tried to force my arms upward. Nothing.
"My guide, my guide," I called out, "why have you forsaken me?"
The sun rose further into the sky and before I knew it I was burning up, my scalp and forehead covered with perspiration, my mouth parched. I shuddered at the thought of being exposed to the sun all day long. And tomorrow too. And the day after that. And then what? I was weeping unrestrainedly now, my head snapping back and forth in the sand.
That's when I heard my power animal's imperious voice. "Don't expect the your spirit guides to do your work for you. One step from you alone, then they take a step. But you must go first."
"One step from me alone? What does that mean?"
I looked around but the bald eagle was nowhere to be seen. Drowning out the birdsong which enveloped me, I couldn't stop crying.
As the morning heated up, lizards with blue bellies and orange spots behind their forelegs streaked across the sand, eyeing me quizzically. Insects -- ants and flies, spiders and beetles, so many of them, so many different kinds, red and black and grey and green -- came and went, crawling over my face, landing on my nose, nesting in my hair. But except for that one motionless, thin stripe of pebbled clouds the sky was absolutely clear and eventually all the insects took refuge from the sun. Burrowing into the sand, disappearing under dead twigs and branches, climbing between the leaves of the sage and creosote bushes, anything to escape the heat.
The sun beat down on my head without mercy. I couldn't stand it anymore and it was only high noon: my head, dripping with perspiration, cast the merest shadow. Nauseous, I started puking, but nothing came up.
Just the first day out here and already I'm dying of thirst. Or maybe this isn't the first day. It's the fourth day! Of course! How could I forget those freezing nights that came and went, came and went. Because I know how to count--one, two, three, four -- and for sure the second day and the third day are long gone. They got mistaken for water and swallowed right up. Because "sand" and "water," "today" and "tomorrow," they're labels. Nothing more. But nothing less either. Which is fine. Perfectly fine. Except for one thing: I can't drink labels. Or maybe I can. How do I know if I don't try? But how do I try? That's the question. Because obviously it's only my mind that's keeping me from drinking labels. It's only my mind that's keeping me from surviving on thin air. Only my mind. Only which mind? That's the second question. And the third question is how can I tell if I've gone insane? Because that's a label too. All of which I know already. And yet I'm stuck here. Why? That's the final question. Why?
Wasn't there anyone in the world with the human decency to come and open an umbrella above my head? Wasn't there anyone in the world with the human decency to bring me a pitcher of water with ice cubes floating in it and sprigs of mint too? And wasn't there anyone in the world with the human decency to bring me a tray of tuna salad sandwiches? Tuna salad -- normally I don't eat meat but I wouldn't turn up my nose at a nice tuna salad sandwich on fresh white bread with mayonnaise and delicate slices of cucumber and maybe even some tomato. And wasn't there anyone in the whole wide world with the human decency to bring a golden shovel to this heavenly place and dig me out? I won't complain. I won't worship that person or even feel indebted to him or her. It'll simply be what is. Because I can handle being buried up to my neck here for as long as necessary, even forever. I'm well aware of the fact that "necessary" and "forever" are no more than labels. I'm an expert in that area. It's just that I have something to contribute to the world. My gift of healing. I long to be of service to humanity, even if humanity is stupid and uncaring and refuses to come to my aid. Don't get me wrong, I'm not passing judgment. But how can I heal anyone stuck in a hole in the ground?
Salt-encrusted tears drying on my eyelashes interfered with my vision, but I did make out the lovely, tall coconut palms in the distance, waving in tangy ocean breezes.
"Waving in breezes from the inland sea," I sang out. "The prehistoric ocean that's engulfing us all."
But aside from the coconut palms, every tree and bush in this desert was drained of color by the crushing heat. I knew it was just a question of time before my hair caught fire and I went up in flames. Spontaneous combustion. Is that what my big fancy power animal had meant by me taking the first step? Going up in fucking flames? I spit at the ground in disgust.
That's when I noticed a little bird with a red face and a bright yellow breast -- a western meadowlark? a scarlet tanager? He landed in the sand in front of me and gazed fixedly into my eyes. I knew he could communicate with me if he chose to. Why wasn't he saying anything? Why wasn't he telling me how to free myself?
He opened his beak and, tilting his head back, effortlessly released a long string of notes of startling beauty. Abruptly stopping, he eyed me for several moments and then raised his head again. This time a different series of notes filled the air, although easily as complex and thrilling as before. He repeated this procedure several times until finally I got it: he was signalling to me. But signalling what? He took a few steps away and stared at me, his black eyes fierce and indomitable. Those black eyes...
I flashed on Manuel and Rosa, the Mexican couple in whose restaurant I'd taken refuge that frigid evening in Manhattan. I remembered Rosa giving me a braid of red yarn which I'd tied around my ankle. She said it would protect me from evil. I was still wearing that braid now. Why hadn't I bent down and touched it when I was standing in front of the elevator? Maybe I'd be safe at home now. But where was home? That's when I heard Manuel's voice.
"Quetszalcoatl, you know what it means?"
He and Rosa had laughed when I'd thought he was referring to their parakeet in its cage.
"Not the bird, Isaac. The song. Watch the song. Even inside his cage, the bird flies to freedom."
I looked at my little red and yellow friend. Eyeing me for a split second longer, he flew off.
"Not the bird, Isaac. The song!" I sang these words at the top of my lungs.
"Quetszalcoatl! Of course! Even inside my cage I fly to freedom."
Once I began singing I couldn't stop. Over and over I sang, "I have a body but I'm not my body, I have emotions but I'm not my emotions, I have thoughts but I'm not my thoughts..."
I have a mind but I'm not my mind. I'm clear outta my mind. What a kick in the head.
I sang and sang, adding this: "I have no history, it's all been burned away. No private history, no public history..." And this: "I AM the Universe, I AM the Cosmic Christ." And this: "Before Abraham came to be, I am." And this: "I forgive you, Father, for you know not what you do." And this: "I sleep but my heart is awake, longing for the embrace of my beloved. I sleep but my cock is stiff, longing for the embrace of my beloved." And this: "Don't sit under the bodhi tree with anyone else but me, anyone else but me, anyone else but me."
Georgia joined me then, her naked body gleaming in the sun as she came straight toward me across the desert. I bit her nipples until she moaned. I kissed her sweet breasts and her stomach shiny with sweat, her powerful legs gripping the sand. I put my arms around her, holding her tight.
"Where are you, my beauty? Here and gone, here and gone..."
I sang my heart out like the red and yellow bird, like Quetszalcoatl, like Christ on the cross. Because Jesus also appeared on this earth to serve. He wasn't at all happy about losing his chance to heal those who were suffering, those poor souls lost in the wilderness and crying for help.
He sang, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Not once but many times.
Photo by perfect_hexagon, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet