Roadkill Snake

The northeast was dominated by the Catalina Mountains, an imposing wall of high, irregular cliffs, whose peaks impaled a thunderhead legacy from yesterday’s storm, whose fractured canyons were stained blue-gray by rain-soaked shadows, the whole mass seeming to brood like some misanthropic ogre.Roadkill Racoon As Brandy and Simon drew near, both felt hostage to the same anonymous dread. Then, as if to curdle their foreboding, the highway suddenly was littered with a slew of rotting carcasses—this road-kill thickest under the darkest overcast (a section all the more macabre because the desert, elsewhere, was gloriously sunny).Roadkill Fox Until they left said carnage behind, Brandy did not speak; Simon neither wrote nor gestured.

Roadkill Woodchuck

"What on earth was all that about? How creepy; all those poor squashed animals! I’ve never seen so many. What do you suppose happened?"

Simon had no clue.

"If we didn’t have to drive back through there, I’d turn around this second. It’s a bad omen."

The scene struck Simon powerfully (and negatively) as well. He rolled down the window. Fresh Spring air helped flush their mutual apprehensions. Each took deep, slow breaths that served to renew their sense of mutual wellbeing.

"It is gorgeous out here; isn’t it!"

The light gave things a surrealistic clarity. Cacti, scrub trees, outcrops were almost bizarrely defined. Even the shadows had hard edges—background and foreground equally in focus. Brandy, as she drove, kept glancing sideways at Simon's androgynous features; like the landscape’s his were aglow with remarkable lucidity:

the whiskers of his wispy beard…
each individual eyelash…
furrows over the bridge of his aristocratic nose…
hair like windblown corn silk…

skin buff-brown as suede...

every attribute illumined
by an otherworldly radiance.

Simon's subtle smile appeared to acknowledge Brandy's fond appraisal.

Soon they came to a junction where the road sign read:

Oracle

"There’s an address book in my purse; would you take it out? I couldn’t find the map Jodi sent me. We’ll have to ask around when we arrive."

They were getting close. Mile-post markers had reached the nineties already. Tucson, well out of sight, was blocked by the mountains’ leeward side. A cardinal flew across the road into the arms of a dead saguaro, alighting like a danger flag snagged by rigid spines.Cardinal

They drove on... 97... 98... 99. Towering pinnacles loomed as they made their final turn.

"Here we go again."

The road they now confronted was rough and only partially graded, without so much as a distinguishable shoulder or reassuring sign. With their former unpaved enterprise jarring back into memory, they proceeded. A coyote crossed in front of them. Brandy slowed to a stop as the animal disappeared. Then, beyond some sagebrush, it trotted back into view… pausing, come to a complete standstill. Brandy, almost in Simon's lap, leaned toward his open window.Coyote

"I’ve never seen one this close before! In the wild, I mean."

The coyote fixed its stare in a manner that sent a shock through Brandy's carnal core. Then it turned indifferently and bounded away.

"Jeezus, what a look! I feel like I've been—I don't know—raped or something. Was it rabid, do you think?"

Simon maintained focus where the animal once had stood, rapt, as if he still perceived its penetrating leer. Then, catching Brandy off guard, he kissed her—full on the mouth—his teeth compressing her unprepared lips… Not a romantic kiss in the least; it was rough, almost primitive, as if inspired by a fierce, uncivilized source, that built, then crested, then broke like surf against a seawall. His grip then relaxed; Brandy managed to pull herself free, angry, shaken, yet oddly overwhelmed by raw reverberations.

Unsure what to do, she braced herself against the steering wheel, struggling for self-control, then, turning to reprimand her 'assailant,' sensed that Simon was oblivious to what had just occurred.

A cattle guard lay before them, bounded on either side by an iron gate that had a bovine pelvic bone loosely wired to its propped-open bars. On the right was a wooden sign, hand-painted, that read:

WELCOME TO ESPERANTO

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC ON WEEKENDS ONLY

GALLERY HOURS: 10 AM TO 5 PM

Then, barely legible under a faint green star:

KURACILO POR LA TRAGEDIO CE BABEL

Bordering this were naive symbols and designs that appeared to have been added more recently—reminiscent, to Simon, of paintings by Jean Miro. Brandy also found them vaguely familiar, if somewhat upsetting; everything at the moment, to her, seemed out-of-sorts: these cryptic symbols and faded letters, the rusted iron gate with its sun-bleached bone, the coyote, the scarlet bird, not to mention that roadside litter of carrion, and, most disturbing of all, Simon's impetuous kiss.

‘What on earth possessed him? Why now, why here, in front of this weirdo gate?’

Brandy felt caught up in some indecipherable riddle, one far too complex for her to solve. Again she glanced at Simon; again his calm demeanor belied what had transpired.

‘Is he pretending? Doesn’t he think that any of this is strange? Or is it me? Maybe I'm overreacting. It is a beautiful day, after all, and a man, to whom I’m attracted, gave me a… ’

The car stalled. Brandy re-started it.

"We can’t be too far now. Should we press on?"

Simon failed to answer. In fact he sat immobile until Brandy touched his arm—causing him to flinch as if released from a trance.

"Should we go through?"

Had he been daydreaming? His only clear impression was of the coyote’s sallow eyes—Anubis, he had conjectured, before recalled by Brandy. In answer to her question, he simply gave a nod.

They moved ahead, dipped into an arroyo, then climbed another hill before coasting, rather joltingly, to the rough road’s end—where they entered a large dirt lot in a stand of paloverde trees. Nailed to one of the trunks was another hand-painted sign:

VISITORS PARK HERE

They did. Theirs was the only vehicle in sight. A number of narrow footpaths led from the parking area in diverse directions. A signpost labeled GALLERY pointed up one on the right. They followed it… finding themselves, eventually, in a courtyard studded with sculpture pieces, surrounded by a weather-beaten complex of wooden and adobe shops, everything carefully arranged to affect a rustic-style hominess. Apparently this was the place where residents sold their wares—though access from the main road was so poorly indicated that business could not be too brisk. Perhaps word-of-mouth was what led potential customers to the humble workshops and kiosks; ceramics, jewelry, leather goods, hand-blown glass, and sundry other crafts were on display therein… each artist’s studio facing the center… every last one of them deserted… a virtual ghost town.

Simon wandered around examining the sculptures. Most were mediocre, he decided, amorphous shapes derived from works by Arp or Henry Moore—Hepworth-like perforations, here and there, suggesting imitativeness. There was, however, one piece that stood out from the rest, isolated both stylistically and physically, set, as it was, alone in a shady cul-de-sac, a priapic sort of figure that emerged from an egg-shaped base… representational… an element of dramatic distortion contributing to its overall power. Its muscular torso appeared to erupt from the underpinning stone, while its thighs and lower extremities remained embedded in blue-veined marble. A haughty grin invigorated the figure's face. A huge erection jutted from its groin—roughly at eye-level.

Brandy, having done a quick tour of the shops, rejoined Simon.

"My, my; virginity beware. Seen anybody around?"

Simon shook his head without shifting his gaze.

"Me neither. I tried some of the doors; they’re all locked—except for the gallery’s. Shall we look inside?"

Brandy followed his eyes to those of the statue.

"Funny, isn’t it, the way those hollow sockets make it seem like he’s staring right at us?"

She took Simon by the hand.

"Come on; let’s explore."

They walked to the gallery. It was small inside, with a high-beamed ceiling, skylights, natural wood walls, and a crumbly cobblestone floor. By the door was a guest register, a metal donation box, and printed sheets with biographical blurbs on each contributing artist—three, in all, two painters and a sculptor. The exhibit was tastefully arranged around a quartet of cylindrical pedestals at room’s center, each supporting a sculpture facing a wall—each wall displaying a pair of oil paintings. Simon had expected cowboys and Indians at best (doe-eyed Mexican children, typically done on black velvet, at the very worst). This work, to the contrary, was both original and contemporary. Mounted on the four pedestals were plaster casts of half faces, male alternating with female (tinker-toy parts forming the linkage), every pair comprising one complete head. Their color scheme corresponded to that of an Indian Medicine Wheel: white, yellow, green, and black, representing North, South, East, and West—the directions toward which each respectively was turned. WISDOM, VISION, INNOCENCE, and INTROSPECTION were their individual titles. Inset, naturalistic eyes made their expressions remarkably surreal.

CHESHIRE CAT SERIES 1 THROUGH 4 represented full-length portraits, on elongated canvases, done in white acrylic on jet-black backgrounds. Subtitled HARLEQUIN, COURT JESTER, TOWN IDIOT, and FOOL, the paintings dealt with ambiguous spatial relationships, with figures appearing and disappearing in and out of their given contexts, foregrounds confused with backgrounds, positive and negative images bizarrely interchangeable. Each enigmatic character wore its own variation of an I-know-something-you-don’t-know expression, thereby complimenting the sculptures (albeit indirectly).

The third artist’s work was the most naturalistic, again a series, this one called SEASONS OF BILITIS, all four paintings depicting the same interior with the same mature couple, both women, lovers, evidently—though not in physical contact despite their being nude. Each scene appeared to intercept a moment in their ongoing relationship, a moment in which some reciprocal thought or emotion hovered in the space they shared, linking them, forever, indissolubly. Brandy stood as if spellbound in front of ‘Winter.’ It bore no such title; the windows in it looked, in fact, toward a nondescript desert. But the light and mood it evoked were unmistakably wintry. Simon joined her.

"It’s lovely, isn’t it?"

As in each of the other three paintings the women were isolated in different parts of the room, one on a sofa, the other in a chair beside the window. Neither looked at the other, yet intimate communication, most definitely, was there.

"Have you ever felt that way about anybody, Simon?"

He shook his head, sensing a certain wistfulness in Brandy's appreciation.

"Maybe it’s a closeness only women can feel."

He flashed on the Priapus outside, its blunt, male dominion leagues away from this feminine rapport—giving Simon pause; why compare them at all? Perhaps he felt excluded by the couple’s Sapphic allegiance (by any allegiance to someone other than self). He studied Brandy’s calm receptivity to the work at hand.

"You probably have a more critical eye than I do, but wouldn’t you say this stuff is really good?"

Simon, by way of agreeing, dropped a ten dollar bill in the donations box as they strolled back outside.

The courtyard was still abandoned. They decided to backtrack, taking a different path from the parking lot in hopes of finding someone who might direct them. It was a hilly area, with houses scattered deferentially, an intricate network of trails providing links to each, the homes differing widely: some modern, some traditional adobe, others renovated trailers and converted school buses, plus a small community of tents surrounding one conspicuous teepee. Some of the larger dwellings looked to be equipped with their own power generators. Windmills were also in evidence, as were one or two rooftops sporting solar cell panels. It was obvious, however, that electricity was a luxury not enjoyed by all… ditto indoor plumbing; from the rise where Brandy and Simon stood, at least two outhouses were visible—one of them cleverly painted to look like a British telephone booth.

Beyond a wall girding the property on an adjacent knoll came the report of a hammer, its percussion shattering the siesta-time hush like an amplified woodpecker. Brandy and Simon tried to follow the sound as they clamored into then out of a dry gulch. Passing through an open archway, shaded by a stand of mesquite, they entered an enclosure, its acreage multi-tiered and lavishly landscaped. A semicircular patio dominated its uppermost level, an arbor of full-bloom bougainvillea casting its shade over gaily-colored tile. Rattan chairs were arranged around an ameba-shaped Plexiglas table—replete with hand-thrown tea service—two huge philodendron standing like sentries on either side. Other plants hung in elaborate hemp slings and wicker baskets from beams overhead, with wind chimes of glass, wood, and iron softly tinkling in the intermittent breeze.

The next tier down reminded Brandy of Pasadena’s Huntington Library grounds. Native Arizona cacti were intermixed with varieties from Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, and Australia—their concentrated effect truly exotic.

Pathways of fine gravel radiated from the patio like sun rays, ending far below in a vegetable garden buttressed by oleander hedges. Carrots, broccoli, cucumbers, squash… a revolving crop for year-round harvesting grew green and prosperous under the maternal watch of a bronze Protectress—a fertility Goddess enthroned at the garden’s southern wall. She, with her mammoth bosom, might well have been a mate for the sculpture court’s Priapus, and, no doubt, owed creation to the same bold hand.

The hammering recommenced. It came from above. Since the arbor vines were too dense to see through, Simon and Brandy stepped from beneath and looked toward the main building’s roof where an old man, naked as a jay, was affixing an elaborate structure. The job of getting it hoisted, if done by the man alone, would have been no small feat, especially for someone well past sixty, his reddish-brown, unclad body looking remarkably fit and well-preserved. Finally, he noticed them.

"Oh, I didn’t realize I had company. Bonvenon! Please, make yourselves at home. I’ll be down directly."

Not the least bit embarrassed about his nudity, the man, a moment later, came onto the patio.

"You’ll have to excuse my informal attire, or lack thereof; I won’t be a minute. Of course you two will join me for a spot of tea?"

He slid open the patio’s screen doors and disappeared… reappearing almost immediately in a loosely fitted oriental robe, a pair of extra teacups with matching saucers in his hands.

"How nice; visitors! I hope the tea is still warm. I made it just a wee bit ago, then got to thinking that a few more nails might be expedient; that bird house has to withstand the wind’s indulgence. I erected it just this morning. And now I have new friends with whom to share its christening."

He poured the tea.

"I thought I’d name it ‘Icarian Roost,’ mostly because I nearly melted while putting the silly thing it up there; gets hot as sunspots on that roof. Precisely why I built the unit on stilts—keeps it off those shingles so air can circulate. Oh, pardon me for going on and on. I haven’t even asked you why you’re here. Cu vi parolas Esparante?"

Their blank expressions seemed to disappoint him.

"Well, what’s it to be? Classical or contemporary literature? Poetry? Philosophy? Mathematics? The social sciences? Or maybe you’d prefer—many do—simply to browse."

"Actually, we’re trying to find a friend of mine who lives here. Jodi Dawns?"

Ah, Jodi. Interesting young lady. Yes, yes; I can show you were Jodi lives. You haven’t come for a book, then?"

"No. We’ve never even seen this place before. We were looking around, trying to find somebody to ask; you’re the first soul we’ve met."

"Forgive me. I’ve made all the wrong assumptions. Let me introduce myself. My name is Oscar Lavalieré."

"I’m Brandy; this is my friend Simon."

"Delighted to meet you both! You see, I ruled out the possibility of your being total strangers because it’s a week day, and the entrance gate, Monday through Friday, is always locked. How did you manage to get in?"

"The gate was open when we got there. So was the door to the gallery. And your door, too."

"My door is always open. As for the others, I suspect a bit of carelessness. Not that any of us would suffer much from security being somewhat eased. There are always those who cling to privacy like a full suit of armor. The Turtle-Shell Clan, I call them. They’d keep that gate locked seven days a week if it were up to them. Fortunately, their lobby is no stronger than anybody else’s. We have a four-member town council here, comprised of one liberal, one conservative, one radical, and one reactionary. They’re so perfectly balanced they function like off-setting penalties. The result is practical autonomy for a very divergent group of folks, who, when left to their own devices, choose to get along with one another. That’s actually what the founders had in mind, I believe—though I’m sure they’d be surprised at our population’s present-day state. No one speaks the language anymore, I’m sorry to report. Pity. I don’t think they quite realize what they’re missing. Kiam la mondo ridas, ili povas ridi, kiam la mondo ploras, ili povas plori, sed kiam la mondo parolas, ili ne komprenas.

"What’s that?"

"It’s Esperanto, the world’s inter-language. Perhaps you noticed the inscription out by our gate? It’s faded, now—difficult to make out the words—but they read: KURACILO POR LA TRAGEDIO CE BABEL, or, A REMEDY FOR THE TRAGEDY AT BABEL, referring, of course, to the biblical city where Jehovah confused men’s tongues as punishment for their erecting a tower toward Heaven. We don’t want to build such a tower, necessarily, but we would like to see the world establish, or re-establish, a common form of speech. At its inception, this community was dedicated to realizing that goal. Esperanto was the official language. Everyone spoke it. We had active programs of cross-cultural exchange, foreign guests, international conferences and seminars. But for some reason—the proliferation of English, I suspect—Esperanto lost momentum… here and elsewhere… but here, in particular. New people came who didn’t want to bother learning it themselves, or even have it taught to their children. Unless some tangible economic advantage could be achieved, people just weren’t interested. Some of our resident-linguists moved to Tucson, to be nearer the University—which left some stamp collectors, an ornithologist, and one or two ham radio operators still conversant. But time and apathy eventually took their toll. By the late 1950s, there were only a dozen or so of us left. Today there are only three. The community has retained the name ‘Esperanto,’ but much of the original spirit is nowhere to be found. I manage to keep up with things as best I can through correspondence. I also do my level best to ensure that the library is as well-stocked as possible. That’s what I thought you’d come for; books. Would you care to see the collection, anyway?"

Oscar ushered them into a spacious living room with Santa Fe fireplace, hardwood floors, free-form tables, and innumerable cushions of varying shape and size. It seemed the ideal environment for settling down with a good old-fashioned book. And books were everywhere; on one wall opposite the patio, volumes extended from floorboards clear to the ceiling—with breaks only for the twin doorways that led to other, similarly jam-packed rooms. There was even a stepladder on casters for reaching the uppermost shelves. Elsewhere, every end table, mantelpiece, and stand overflowed with hardcover editions.

"This is the main Reading Room… mostly literature… arranged alphabetically by author. I won’t bore you with the classification system—though it's quite informal. Whenever someone needs something special, he or she need only ask; my catalog's right up here."

Oscar tapped his forehead.

"I didn’t want the library to become too depersonalized. Over on that dais is a request ledger. When I go on buying expeditions I try to pick up titles to meet solicitations."

"Do you own all these yourself?"

"Most, yes. Some have been donated and some are on loan from residents who keep them here for others to use. But the rest I’ve bought myself… in one place or another… over the years. Come, I’ll show you the rest of the house."

Although the predominance of books was a bit peculiar, their presence failed to eclipse the rather innovative architecture. Every room retained its functional integrity so that even the kitchen (stacked high with cooking and nutrition publications) was first and foremost a place for preparing food.

Oscar showed them into a pair of bathrooms, one with wall-to-wall poetry.

"Not an editorial comment. I merely think it’s pleasant having access to something one can finish in a relatively short span of time."

The other was crammed with books on the occult.

"Your friend Jodi borrows frequently from here. I’m not much interested myself. Disturbing trend; it’s not the right path at all, you know."

They followed him into the bedroom where numerous shelves were stocked with a massive collection of art books. Henri Rousseau’s "The Sleeping Gypsy" (a full-size replica) hung above the headboard of a king-size bed. Brandy, unfamiliar with the painting, found it mesmerizing.

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau

"Ah, you like the Post-Impressionists? Normally I wouldn’t house a reproduction—but MOMA isn’t likely to part with the original. And this is such an excellent copy, my making an exception, perhaps, is excusable. I’ve thought of replacing it with a work from one our fine local artists, but I can't quite bring myself to take it down. I wish sometimes I had more wall space. You said our gallery door was open? Did you venture in?"

"Yes. We both were very impressed."

"There is some outstanding work being done here. It doesn’t sell, of course. But that hasn’t discouraged the genuine artists. Occasionally, I’ll take one or two pieces with me to New York or San Francisco to see what I can do. The sculptor whose work you saw had a show last year in Berkeley through a gallery-owner friend of mine. Did rather well—well enough for him to keep on sculpting, at least."

Oscar led them back into the living room.

"You say you were impressed. Could you pick a favorite?"

"Winter."

"Winter? I don’t recall… Oh, one of Sharon’s pieces. You have excellent taste, my dear; it’s certainly the best among those four—though I quite enjoy them all. She’s a close friend of Jodi’s, come to think of it. Perhaps you'll get to meet her. Are you staying long?"

"No, we just came for the day. And even Jodi doesn’t know we’re here."

"Well, if you’d like to stay over, remember I have plenty of room. You can pop in any time. These beanbag chairs and pillows make comfy-cozy beds. And, as I said before, ‘my door is always open.’"

"That’s very sweet of you."

"Make sure you tell Jodi I’ve offered. She’s rather cramped over there since her young friend arrived."

They walked out onto the patio.

"Thank you."

"You must come again."

"And thank you for the tea."

"You’re most welcome. Here, let me point out the way."

He escorted them to the property’s opposite side, pausing at an archway identical to that through which they first had entered.

"Follow this trail to the hill’s bottom, then go along until you come to some steps made from old railroad ties. They’ll be on your left. They lead right up to Jodi’s front-porch door. She may be working, but I’m sure she’s home. If I’m mistaken, please feel free to come on back."

Brandy thanked him again—for them both—then, single file, she and Simon wound their way along the footpath.

"What a dear old man! Wasn’t he charming? I wonder if he’s read all those books himself. I bet he has."

She talked while glancing, now and again, over her shoulder.

"You know that painting; the one I was staring at? The lion in it sort of reminds me of you… because of the way you watch when people sleep."

She stopped and turned to face him.

"Yesterday morning, before I picked you up, you came and stood by my car where I’d pulled over. True?"

He nodded.

"You even reached inside and rolled down the window."

He nodded again.

Brandy turned her back and proceeded along the trail.

Had this been a reprimand, Simon wondered, or simply a deduction? It was the first ambiguous statement Brandy had made. His own thoughts now returned to the image of Rousseau’s lion… stalking… tracking… savoring the perfumed night… savoring her from whom exotic incense seeped:

as she lay on her side
hair and gown spread limply
over a tranquil dune
the sand indented beneath her
moonlit skin emitting eucalyptus essences
a Negress(?)
a Bedouin princess(?)
the lyre beside her strummed by a timeless
desert sirocco
drafting a ballad
strangely privy
to the sleeper’s unsung dream
animating her mellow lips
—sweet and lush as a pair of vine-ripe olives—
murmuring
in a foreign tongue
words more soft than whispers cloaked by veils
the speaker suddenly awake
arisen
climbing
tar-stained steps of a staircase
higher and higher
hips set a-sway
round as mating bubbles floating upward
hovering

pricked by sound-wave shocks from
knocks on wooden door…

… releasing Simon abruptly from his amatory reverie.

*

*
"Yes? Who is it?"

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