Burning end of days
She rides slouched, languid, perspiring into the sheepskin seat cover. Thin ropes of wet hair cling to her temples. She is wilted, sodden.
Burning end of days
By Steven Bird
Their gray tabby is a smart little guy, usually cool, and a remarkably good traveler. He knew they were leaving, as soon as they started breaking camp and loading stuff into the SUV. Most cats would disappear at that point, necessitating a frenetic, cursing, last-minute search–but this one jumped into the rig two hours before they left, made himself comfortable.
The glaring blacktop approaches a molten state. The northern forest far behind them, the travelers speed on hot rubber toward the edge of a vast sensuous roll of wheat fields and sagebrush. The sun, turned from white to red, hangs low over the mountains far to the edge of a long, long sky. The temperature still hovers around 100 degrees. There isn’t much to cast a shadow of shade on the hot dreaming, brown plateau. A thought crosses his mind, he’s trying to remember, something about the burning end of days…. The ribbon of highway floats over skeletal land, glides imperceptibly down the long, gradual decline toward the mercury expanse of Columbia River. There is a promise of relief on the horizon, about 30 miles away on the Oregon side of the river, where a bank of gray clouds assemble, advancing like dust under distant war chariots. Dark cloud formations torn from the bank gallop ahead like angry black horses–thin curtains of rain fall from their hooves, evaporate in the furnace air, never make it to the ground. He can’t remember where the thought came from.
She rides slouched, languid, perspiring into the sheepskin seat cover. Thin ropes of wet hair cling to her temples. She is wilted, sodden. She suffers quietly. She’d removed the oppressive underwear miles ago, her light cotton summer dress clings to her, she’s rolled the bottom of it up to her waist and sits with her legs slightly parted, the lush triangle glistens with humidity. He resists the impulse to reach over and caress the spot. Slide his hand to it. Claim the heat. But his hand is strange these days–the tender secret held from him. A silent storm has been building all summer. Longer, maybe. Separated by only a tiny expanse of car seat, only a touch away, the distance is too great to breech, the gulf too perilous. Horse-cloud hoofs strike flint and lightning streaks to the ground in the distance. The cat emits a yowl from the back seat.
“Subtropical front out of the South…maybe we’ll run into some rain down the road…cool us off,” he says.
She doesn’t reply, makes a kissing sound to the cat while patting her bare lap–the cat hops from the back seat, accepts the privileged spot, circles politely before curling himself between the soft raising of her thighs. The far ridges slowly consume the burning cherry sun.
Ripped towers of lightning begin to appear with regularity out of the approaching weather front. The atmosphere smells of metal and hot water. The relentless SUV tracks the yellow line, a hot grease and steel hound to the hunt, no matter what, straight toward the bruised and bleeding storm.
The Columbia in the rearview mirror, they face an inconceivable horizon as they wind up the bluffs at Umatilla, on the Oregon side of the Columbia Plateau. Wide open basin country stretches lasciviously between the great mountain ranges—closest, to the west, the volcanic spine of the Cascades, and far to the east, mountain ranges that belong to the Rockies–the burgeoning electric storm fills the entire expanse. Cloudbanks push and rise like clusters of purple grapes stacked to regrettable heights.
Thick, deliberate, pulsing columns of lightning pour straight down from the clouds with rhythmic frequency, as if hurled from unimaginably powerful weapons operated by malignant angels hidden inside the black clouds–mad angels rain desolation, bang away at the hapless world, the planted fields, the car lots, mini-malls, RV trailer parks, the ancillary sprawl of new dream homes, the highway…Fingers of cloud glow bloody.
A few warm raindrops dot the traveler’s windshield, not enough to cool the stifling air, just enough to raise the humidity to an even more uncomfortable level. He slows down to 60 and a semi truck hauling doubles roars up on their ass then grinds past them like a mad war elephant broke from the ranks and rushing berserk to the fray. It’s almost all the way dark. Continuous lightning ahead of them ignites the cloud bottoms with a dangerous blue glow. Charged ions cling to forlorn particles. The cat yowls again–he knows–and within the moment they plunge through the enfolding velvet curtains—then slam into the hot heart of the storm’s rampaging trouble.
The rain sounds like rocks pelting the roof and windshield, he turns the wipers up to FULL; they clip back and forth at an irritating rate.
She rolls up her window. The cat on her lap jounces like a crazy plush-toy, panting in the heat, making a strange demonic face, an imp with his pointed ears flattened straight out from the sides of his head; static electricity stands his short fur on end, and every few seconds his already gaping mouth opens wider to emit a loud, plaintive yowl. She strokes the cat absently with one hand while keeping a tight grasp on the safety handle over the door with her other. She looks straight ahead, a short section of her lower lip sucked between her teeth.
He backs off on the gas pedal some, then a sudden sheet of heavier rain forces him to slow a little more.
She turns to him, stares askance, vulnerable, concerned.
“Why don’t you put on some music,” he says. “The Doors…?”
She is temporarily relieved to have a normal task to do while lightning erupts everywhere around them. Fiery temple columns of dismaying height flash and rise with spastic majesty on either side of the road. They are so close the lightning looks red–red blood veins straining from the black forearms of a furious god punching his fists into the imperfect clay of a botched creation. The acrid smell of burning grass makes their throats constrict. The disc clicks in and the Organist of the Apocalypse begins softly, builds slowly to the music’s strident intonations. The foreboding coyote howl of the dead poet starts from the speakers, honey-thick with sex, hoarse with drink–
Strange days have found us…
Poets dangle enticing sweet carrots before us, promise strange pleasures. And what surging pleasure inside the burning temple! What extravagant pain, prostrated before the altar of annihilation!
Now music is your special friend
Da-ance on fire as it intends…
It is all too much for the cat who leaps from her lap, scurries to the back seat to hide, keeping up the pathetic yowling with more volume and intensity.
She squirms in her seat, rolls her dress back down to her knees.
…until the end, until the end…
The wipers barely keep up with the rain enough to offer any visibility. He’s in the slow lane, barely creeping along, straining to cipher the yellow line. A semi hurtles by them blasting a wave of wind and water–they buffet sideways–a silver sheet of spray blacks out the windshield–the wipers slamming at a manic pace are useless against it—black sky and roadbed become one and all boundaries of safety dissolve–the sensation is like falling–he applies the brakes praying they don’t get rear-ended by a semi–wonders how the truckers can even see to drive so fast in this–barely starts to get some visibility, gets moving–and another truck plows by them sending out another wave to black them out. They fall again. A lightning strobe flashes inside the cab. He can’t tell the lightning from the headlights of speeding trucks bearing down on them.
What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister…?
She presses her body into the seat back. “Why don’t you pull off the road!?” She is at the edge of panic. A tear leaves a silvery course on her cheek. But he can’t pull over–can’t see what’s there or how wide the shoulder is, and he’s afraid that other cars might follow, thinking they’re still on the road, and plow into them. His fingers dig the steering wheel….
“Fuck! I can’t!” He immediately regrets the tone of despair in his voice.
The rain makes the decision for them, lets up some, allowing him to see more of the road. He accelerates. Something appears in the headlights. They bump over an object in the road–swerve to avoid something particularly disturbing standing out in the flashing blue darkness like a nightmare entity who compels the dreamer to gaze upon its hideous visage–his eyes fasten on the long, bloody slick leading to the kill, the ripped white fascia spewed and strung from obliterated flesh that had recently been something alive. Semi must’ve hit it. Bigger than a deer… Cow…? Overweight motorist caught wandering on the side of the road after pulling off…?
At the sight of it she cups her hands before her face, gasps, calls his name out loud.
When the music’s over
Turn out the lights
Turn out the lights.
It is only habit, the collected and accumulated assortment of weights and hooks of shared past that holds the travelers together, set on the same destination. Ghost man.
Ghost woman. Real cat. He turns the wipers off, rolls the window down. Good air fills the interior bringing the incense of washed sage and wet earth to them. A few stars beam cool between torn, straggling clouds. The cat has finally settled down and gone to sleep.
They speed south toward California through clean darkness.
She offers him a feint smile. “My hero,” she says dryly. Her hands lay like petrified doves on her lap. She amends the statement in a whisper he can barely hear over the low thunder of road noise. “ My ambiguous hero.” She turns her head and repeats it to the stars over the black silhouette hills outside the window. “My ambiguous hero. You are a hero in the end…aren’t you?”
He wishes he could foretell the future. He wishes a lot of things were different.
Wishes he could answer the question. But the question must remain unanswered because the ambiguous hero has no answer. The only thing he knows for certain is that they can’t go back. Can never turn back. Everything behind them is on fire.
Steven Bird is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay and is working on a book, Lost River (Amato Publications), due out next year. © 2007 by Steven Bird.