I woke to the soft slide of wet grass under my legs as my mother pulled me up by the arm, dragging me across the open field where we’d spent the night. The sky was dark, a fragile pre-dawn light just beginning to pierce the fog. Struggling to focus my eyes, I could make out hulking shapes nearby. Cows. Behind us, my mother’s friend Violet was quickly gathering the blankets. And something else was there too, a shadow or presence that my disoriented mind tried to comprehend. If I had actually seen it, the looming kachina, I would have believed all the wild stories I’d ever been told. I would have believed that I lived in a world filled with strange magic and living gods.
But the field was too dark, my head too fumbled with sleep. We got in the car and I knew I had missed it.
The day before, as we crossed Nebraska, our ugly old car had started to seize and stall. Pulling off the highway, we stopped beside a gas station in a small town. Traces of early October snow spun across the parking lot in tiny cyclones. Violet had joined us on this trip from Wisconsin to Tucson, where my mother and I were going to spend the winter, or the year, or the rest of our lives. Violet, as usual, thought everything would be fine with the car, that it was just overheated, that it would start after a few minutes, that the world would unfold helpfully before us. But the engine wouldn’t turn over.
“Shit!” My mother tried again as the car produced only helpless grinding noises.
I ignored both of them. I had experience with these things and knew when it was time to start counting signs, looking for clues of what might come next. I categorized and tallied the vehicles parked near the gas station and adjoining restaurant. Three semis. Seven pick-up trucks, all shiningly new. Two cars, including our own. No Harleys. No motorcycles of any kind.
In Madison we lived in a teepee next to Violet and Richard’s cycle shop. We hadn’t lived there long, but it was as much home as any other place. In that neighborhood where the bikers kept things working I’d never know anyone who drove trucks like those big shiny pick-ups.
Now this parking lot of vehicles, all those trucks with no motorcycles, this was the first bad sign. The second was the new cannibalistic tendencies of the snowy cyclones. I watched as their tone shifted. They no longer danced into and out of orbits, but were violently colliding, consuming each other until there was no whirling shape left, just a mutual destruction and a sad pile of dirty blue-gray snow.
Inside the restaurant Violet and I took a table beside a group of deeply-wrinkled men who glared at us over their coffees. Through the window I watched my mother and an old man who looked like a farmer peer under the car hood. The wind tangled my mother’s copper hair as she and the farmer got into his truck and disappeared into the blowing snow.
When they returned, she’d found a car at a used car lot. It was the third sign: something far too good to be true, a car that ran OK and only cost the few hundred dollars she had left. The car was an old maroon Dodge with an outer layer of paint faded soft and whitish, as if the solid shell were covered with a dust of downy feathers. As I repacked my stuffed animals and books into the wide backseat, I considered that the car might be haunted.
Crossing the Colorado Rockies that evening, I knew I had been right about the car being a bad sign. We drove for hours through a storm of solid snow. Usually when my mother drove she rolled down the window, even in winter, and smoked one Camel after another while talking to Violet or listening to the radio. But both her hands were on the wheel now, the radio off. Semis plowed past us, honking at our slowness and obliterating any trace of the road.
The car leaned into the shoulder, heading us toward the ditches where it wanted to tuck us under cold blankets of snow.
My mother blindly steered us through the dark until we descended from the mountains and the snow suddenly cleared. The headlights flashed on green grasslands and we rolled down the windows, filling the car with warm, humid air.
Turning off the highway, we drove along empty roads to a large field and parked on a patch of grass. My mother got out to smoke and Violet tiredly told me to grab a blanket as she headed into the field. I considered staying in the car to sleep alone in the wide backseat, but the grass was soft under my feet and I wasn’t ready to trust the car. Lying beside my mother, the night air felt like safety and I fell into an easy sleep against the warm, breathing earth.
Then, half-awake, I was suddenly being dragged away from sleep and the damp grass. Something had changed, and I missed it.
We hurried to the car and began driving south, Violet and my mother nervous and watchful. No one spoke until the sky began to lighten.
“You saw it,” my mother said to Violet.
Violet nodded in agreement. “It was a kachina,” she said.
“A doll?” I asked, picturing the square-headed figures I’d seen in gift shops.
But it was real to them; they both agreed that a towering deity had woken them. It was not human, not an idol. But some kind of god.
I didn’t know if I believed them. They were tired, but I hadn’t smelled any traces of beer or pot. They were certain that a monstrous god had appeared. It was large and threatening and had told them, somehow speaking without words, that they did not belong there.
Of course I didn’t need an ancient desert god to know we didn’t belong. But still, I had missed it, that moment or encounter that would tell me what to believe. If I had seen the kachina I could have accepted everything I’d ever heard about the world being filled with incomprehensible mysteries. But if I had woken when they had, and seen only an oddly-cast tree-shadow or a silent farmer, even a wild horse, I would have known that those stories and the adults that told them weren’t to be trusted.
The sun rose and the long shadows shrank into dim pockets, revealing an unremarkable landscape of billboards and telephone poles. I followed the rhythmic sweep of the telephone wires with my eyes. One billboard advertising Pueblo souvenirs depicted a broad-faced kachina with square eyes. The eyes were blank, holding nothing of that otherworldly sense I’d experienced briefly in the early morning fog.
We crossed into Arizona and kept driving until we reached Tucson. There, far out in the desert, we would live with my mother’s boyfriend for the next few years. During the day I attended kindergarten, busing to a sprawling school in the middle of Avra valley where I followed a schedule of bells. At night I slept beside my mother in a teepee or school bus, falling asleep to the sounds of coyotes, jackrabbits, and javelinas. The howls of the desert often sounded unearthly, as if the land, the animals, the stars were tipping us into the unknown. But I wasn’t afraid. Only watchful as I waited for the mountains to roll the earth back toward the early morning sunlight, knowing that I might be awakened by some strange god or demon that would reveal the full shimmering and indecipherable nature of the world to me.
fiction poetry "fact" photography