Sagebrush crunches under Ellis Bodie’s feet as he crosses the chaparral. He moves in darkness toward the hollow. A town crouches there. The outlines of its buildings break crooked across a patch of sky squeezed into frame between the hills. An abandoned mining town. A failed rancho. He can’t tell.
The moon hasn’t changed its position in hours. Bodie stops. Sniffs. The wind off the bajada carries the scent of stale weed and wormy earth. The smell is sour with age. He hears nothing but the breeze rustling branches, whistling as it goes, and his heart throbbing in his throat. Bodie calculates his direction. West, if the stars aren’t lying to him. He pivots and starts east. He walks a good piece and stops again. He fixes his gaze on the peaks of the range ahead. Still there. Everything the same. No matter which direction he veers, everything the same.
Bodie turns up the ends of his collar. He unsnaps the flap covering his inner coat pocket and slides out a cigarette and pushes it unlit between his lips. He sucks at the filter, breathing in desert air that’s too dry for the season. His mouth fills with the flavors of bitter leaves and acetate fibers and the dying ironwood that wallows across the scrub. He palms the lighter in his pants pocket, inches it out, runs his thumb over the smooth plating. In a single motion, he snaps open the lid and flicks his thumb over the wheel, pushing down on each crenellation. The flint squeaks and the wick sparks to life. He watches the flame twitch in the breeze. Epileptic. Helpless. Saint Vitus boiling in molten lead.
As butane teases Bodie’s nose, his throat constricts and his pulse jumps and saliva sluices across his tongue. He swallows hard and exhales the way women are told to by Lamaze coaches. He brings the lid down and clenches his fist around the lighter. He pulls the cigarette from his mouth and settles it back in his coat pocket and licks his lips.
The hills rise before him now. Shadows play near the talus at the foot of the hollow nestled between the slopes. He sees shapes moving there, hears the dice roll of loose gravel. Antelope, most likely. Tricky beasts. He recalls the time his pa took him to the caldera in the autumn of his fourteenth year to hunt them. The sting of cold steel against the fleshy underside of his index finger. Digging in his heels as the rifle bucked and the stock burrowed into his underarm. How he winced, eyes streaming, when the shell casing grazed his wrist, furrowing the skin with no more trouble than an iron branding a pat of butter. The locust buzz of the shot when it caromed off the slate and caught a buck in the left flank. His pa rushing him down off the ridge toward the animal before it could drag itself into a brake.
“That’s careless shootin’, boy,” the old man said, breathing no heavier as he ran than if he’d come from a bath. “You wanna kill natural, you go for the heart. Only fools and angry men shoot elsewhere. You got respect for a creature, then you stop the heart so it don’t suffer or scare. Now you got to go over there and put one in his skull. Direct. Finish him with some sort of dignity. No suffering. It ain’t right, and that meat’s already foul. You hearing me, Ellis?”
“Yessir.” Kill natural. Stop the heart. Respect. Dignity. No suffering.
“I ain’t mad, son. But you got to remember this. One day you and your boy’ll be out here.”
That day came nineteen years later when Bodie took Wyatt out on his fourteenth birthday, following the family tradition, with a new .30-06 Remington. It was about that time Wyatt’s coughing started getting bad. Suffered a terrible spell of it right before pulling the trigger. Missed the deer entirely, but managed to nail a crow when the barrel jerked. “Better’n my first time,” Bodie said to his boy, laughing.
Bodie took Wyatt hunting once more before the coughing got worse. Before he had to take those extra jobs to pay the doctors and the hospitals and the insurance people and the folks who made those goddamned machines.
Nearer now. Bodie closes in on the hollow. He watches another shape clamber up the slope. His breaths come in hot staccato spurts. His temples tighten. A cigarette would taste good.
When he reaches the talus, Bodie picks up a handful of rubble. Freshly displaced. Dust still settling. He peers over his shoulder. Pitch. Same wind off the bajada, singing the same tune. Moon anchored in the same position.
Bodie digs the toe of his boot into the rock, makes a foothold. He begins to push himself up when the scree gives way and rolls apart under his soles. The gravel rains down over his shoulders as he falls. He grunts and pulls off his boots and shakes out the sediment and puts them back on and draws his socks tight. He touches his pockets. Trousers and coat. Pushes his hat back on his head. Unfurls the bandanna he keeps in his rear pocket. Wipes his brow. Checks for blood. Tucks the bandanna back in his pocket without folding it.
The slide’s exposed the roots of a Joshua tree. Bodie wipes his palms on his jeans and grabs hold of the roots and scales the talus.
When he emerges from the backcountry, he skirts the main road and follows a roundpole fence to the edge of town. He passes outbuildings and a granary and a couple of silos and a water tower. All unfinished. Not ruined, but incomplete. He walks beside materials and equipment for railroad work, but he sees no tracks running through the region. The tools rust against sealed crates
Bodie enters town from behind the livery. “Calavera” is stenciled above the doors of the stable. He comes across a buckboard with the same word painted on its side.
The construction of Calavera looks hurried to him. The buildings slapped together with slats of knotted pine. Their roofs, all gambrel, shingled in wedges of bark hand-split from a slapdash cluster of logs. Posts splintering under the sagging eaves of verandas. The ends of nails jutting out, bent.
No two pieces of lumber in Calavera are the same. There’s no sense to their arrangement. But there’s a sterility and a sheen to the structures, as though somebody built them in decline. As though they’d never been new.
A series of unpaved streets riot across the town like cracks in porcelain. They spread out from the murk of Calavera’s alleyways and intersect at a zócalo. A handful of other travelers have gathered in this plaza.
When Bodie notices them, instinct takes over and he jumps back and wedges himself between the sides of two buildings – a mercantile and an assayer’s office, he reckons by the furnishings inside. It’s hard to tell. Nothing’s marked.
He moves in the breezeway to the rear of the buildings and crouches in the shadows, looking for anything he can use as a weapon. He snaps a piece of glass from a window pane above his head. This’ll have to do, he thinks.
He creeps back toward the street, flat against the wall of the assayer’s place, clutching the glass, brushing his other palm along the rough wood as he goes.
When he reaches the opening at the front of the buildings, he cranes his neck past the edge of the store and tries to bring the others into view without being noticed himself. He spies a few of them, sizes them up, assesses the potential threat. A college student and a couple of yuppies, by the looks of it. A machinist, maybe. An older, exotic looking woman. Bodie inhales and holds the air in his lungs and then blows it out. He pulls his hat off. Wipes his brow with his sleeve. Puts the hat back. Lets his muscles relax.
They ain’t waiting for me, he thinks, but they likely ain’t looking for a scrap either.
He scoots a rock toward him with his boot, holds the glass over it. He drops the shard. It shatters, loud enough to draw attention. He looks back toward the plaza. None of the others react. They loiter near the cenotaph, undisturbed by anything happening in his direction.
“Let’s see if any of these fish is hungry enough to go for some bait,” Bodie says, loud enough for anyone in earshot to hear. He takes to the street and exposes his position.
Some of the people stir, but they won’t face him. Bodie figures that if there’s a predator among them, it’s him alone. This assortment’s too milquetoast, too consumed, too self absorbed. There’s a sense of grave purpose in their abeyance, and Bodie’s pretty sure he doesn’t factor into it. He decides to meet them at the zócalo and deal with the situation head on.
There are no addresses or signs anywhere in this part of town. The cenotaph bears no plaque. It remembers no one.
“Good evening,” Bodie says when he reaches the group. “Name’s Ellis.”
The others don’t acknowledge his arrival. They don’t speak at all. They pace and rock on their heels and kick at the dirt and check their watches. But Bodie knows they see him. He can sense their agitation, the way he can tell when a buck’s about to bolt during a hunt. Their chests heave and their bodies go rigid and their faces flush when he comes close.
Bodie positions himself in front of a young man wearing a polo shirt and khakis, leans in close to his face and barks. The young man flinches, then looks at the sky and checks his watch again in silence.
“So you’re gonna put on that I don’t exist, huh?” Bodie asks. “That’s okay by me. I’m just gonna have a look around, if no one else has anything to say about it. No? Good.”
Bodie cruises the length of the zócalo, checks the shape of the town from different vantage points in the square. He pokes around the base of a bandstand. Runs his hand along a flagpole, the frayed banner at the top of the mast flying colors he’s never seen on any flag. He kicks at a broken bench. His curiosity draws cleared throats and groans. These sounds turn to heavy gulps when he comes upon a cistern moldering at the base of the cenotaph. About as high as his calf. The other people pretend not to look at it. They glance around Calavera’s wrecked skyline. They fret over their watches. But they always make certain to include the well in their sweep. In the periphery of their vision, in the periphery of their thoughts, the well occupies its own corner. No one seems to want to stand too close to it, but no one seems to want to stray too far from it either. Bodie can’t tell what purpose it has. He thinks he saw something like it in a horror movie once, a little reflecting pool or wishing well inside a mausoleum. Still can’t figure out what the point of it is.
The mouth of the cistern is rimmed by crumbling stone. Moonbeams seep into its crevices. Liquid slurps at the brim. It reflects nothing even though starlight soaks the sky above. Bodie dips his hand in the well. The surface breaks into a gossamer haze, and he finds himself grasping at hair and cobwebs and miasma. Trails of black smoke uncoil in all directions around his wrist, radiating out on slender fingers to scratch the shadowed walls with thin, sharp, vaporous nails.
The people near him stiffen. A chorus of gasps. The college girl covers her face. A hand seizes Bodie’s shoulder and jerks him back. The hand is calloused. A laborer’s hand. It belongs to a burly man dressed in flannel and denim, streaked with grease. Hair turned gray too early and only in spots. Skin welted, notched by the tools of his trade. Eyes red and moist.
“Ain’t nothing,” Bodie says, “‘cept mist.”
“You don’t understand,” the man whispers. “Get back. It’s almost time.”
Another voice interrupts: “No more talking now. I think I hear him.” It comes from a woman across the way, standing on the porch of what might have been a saloon.
Bodie brushes the man’s hand from his shoulder and heads toward the woman. He’s smitten by how delicately time has treated her. Bronze polishes her skin. Beads of jade loop her neck and her wrists. A wizened mane curtains her back, the locks bundled in crocheted bands like cords of pale wheat. She stands with the poise of a doe, watching the main road. Her hand cupped around her ear.
“Yes. He’s coming,” she announces.
She climbs off the boards and joins the group. They huddle around the well. And now Bodie can hear it too, the motor hiccupping from the still throat of the desert. Then he sees it in the distance, where the main road slips behind the range. A cloud bouncing toward Calavera, kicking up dirt and crying lightning and wheezing as it comes. Bodie can just make out its dimensions from this distance. A van. Can’t guess at the color, though.
The van stops short of the zócalo. A single headlamp flickers within the dust that engulfs the vehicle. It’s a rusted Dodge. No windows on the sides or the rear. May have been white or pale blue in its day. Bodie hears the door hinge whine and then boot heels scuffing the ground.
The driver who emerges from the storm wears black velvet. Faded. Moth-ravaged. Jacket cropped to the waist. Torn sombrero. Holes along the sides of his trousers where gold studs were once set. A boutonnière of sere marigolds. The scars of a Glasgow smile cleave his lips, the fissures snaking up into the skeletal mask that covers his eyes and nose. A living calaca.
He nods to the group and walks to the van’s rear doors and opens them. Bodie stays put near the saloon. The calaca returns with a bicycle frame and an armful of parts. He sets them on the ground beside the well. The burly man rushes over, nearly knocking down the others as he stomps past. The calaca gives him a birthday candle and lights it. As he does, a hollow wind yawns from Calavera’s alleys. A shock of warm air jolts Bodie, and then he becomes aware of a different noise taking shape. It reminds him of a cauldron bubbling. It comes from the well where he now sees two small hands grappling the edges from inside, illuminated by the sudden spasms of light that flash within the brume foaming over the rim. A boy of about eight years pulls himself out. Right arm shattered. Legs hobbled. Face horribly mangled.
The burly man embraces the child and strokes his matted hair and calls him “buddy” and tells him over and over again how much he loves him. The child can’t speak with his throat crushed the way it is. Still, he moves his lips and strains to produce a low warbling, like a dove’s coo, and hugs his father’s leg. “That’s my boy,” the man says.
They begin to assemble the bike, picking up where they must have left off. The man guides the boy through washers and bolts and ratchets, all the while cupping the candle to prevent the flame from blowing out. He offers the boy suggestions and encouragement. He talks of simple joys, family, the difficult stretches between visits. He pulls out a photo. “The mayor had them build a park there,” he explains. “See that sign? That’s right, it’s your name, buddy. They diverted all the through traffic back out onto the highway.”
The boy claps when he sees the picture of the park and the dedication displaying his name. The man turns away and sniffs. “Bastards,” he mumbles. He’s looking straight at Bodie now. He mumbles the word again, a single tear floating on the crest of his lower eyelid. Bodie feels his own lips squeezing together to form a consonant, then hears the same word escape from his mouth. The man closes his eyes and shakes his head.
When the candle burns down, the man kisses his son’s forehead. The boy returns to the well. He vanishes into the vapor as the flame expires. The spent paraffin falls to the ground. The silhouette of the man’s hand crosses over it like a pendulum.
The man leaves the bicycle parts for the calaca and quits the plaza. He disappears down one of Calavera’s side streets, trailed by the sounds of sobbing between each thud of his leaden footsteps.
The calaca repeats a similar process with each person in the group. The artifacts and the candles are always unique. Most of the dead remind Bodie of zombies, with their gaping wounds and exposed tissue. Accident victims, he thinks. Hospitals. Violent deaths. Suffering.
The college girl’s visitation reinforces Bodie’s hunch. The calaca sets out fifteen whiskey bottles with tapers melted into the necks. Fourteen children in tattered school uniforms appear with an elderly bus driver. Many of the children are charred beyond recognition. Their shriveled organs dangle from tendons and strands of shredded muscle. The ones without limbs are helped from the well by peers with bodies less devastated. The bus driver is missing the left side of his jaw. A metal rod, too scorched to reveal its origins, impales the old man’s rib cage. Bodie looks away and chokes back the vomit rising from his gut. His tongue scours the roof of his mouth and the backs of his teeth, searching for a cigarette. His tonsils burn from the rush of acid in his throat.
It lasts hours, this cortege of pom-poms and mutilation and backpacks. It ends with the girl stumbling away in tears and apologies.
Behind the girl is lined up a procession of grief and regret so many people deep, Bodie can’t calculate an end to the night. He returns his attention to the plaza where a withered veteran of the Second World War pulls himself toward the calaca with a walker. Bodie knows the uniform, which the old man has squeezed himself into for the occasion. Fifth Infantry, same as Bodie’s grandfather. The unit went by the handle “Red Diamond.” Nazis called them the “Red Devils.” Slugged it out across France, taking Angers and Chartres and Fontainebleau, losing thousands along the way. Bodie smiles for the first time tonight when he glimpses the Bronze Star on the old warrior’s lapel.
The calaca rests unhurried by the cistern. When the old man makes it to the edge, almost collapsing on the handles of his walker from the strain, the calaca reaches into his coat and pulls out some kind of tribal candle. Engraved in the wax are the images of idols and lions and African symbols. He lights the wick. He takes the old man’s fingers, shivering and arthritic, and lodges the candle within them. The well stirs.
Bodie plops down on the steps of the saloon. He buries his face in his hands. “How the devil did I end up here?” he says to the night. “I gotta get my bearings. Think this through. I left the funeral, me and Janey had words, terrible words, then I got in the truck and started driving and ended up here. But I don’t rightly know where here is. It ain’t nowhere. Can’t be. It’s just a nightmare. That’s all. Janey, wake me up, honey. Janey. Make this stop. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, babe. I just wanna come to. We can start over. We can get through this. Janey, help me wake up.”
Bodie lifts his head and slaps himself across the side of the face. Hard. Hard enough to blur his vision. When he regains clarity, he sees a gaunt man about forty dropping a rag doll at the calaca’s feet. The man shuffles away, pulling his hair, begging his maker to unravel his mortal coil. Bodie stares up at the moon. “You ain’t letting me off that easy, are You, Lord? Can’t say I blame You.”
He returns his attention to the plaza. All the others, save one, have cleared out. The final participant in this gruesome séance tarries by the cistern. “Thank God,” Bodie says. “I can’t endure anymore.”
It’s the woman with the flowing hair who goes last. Where the well has stoked desperation in the others, it seems to soothe her. She sways and hums to herself in rhythm with the swish of its white noise and the faint throb of its glow, which beats like a heart within its stone belly. She’s followed each visitation intently, nodding or frowning or wiping small tears away. As an observer, she’s made these moments hers too. But now her time has dawned. This moment is hers alone. She unclasps her hands before her and brightens her eyes and opens her arms. In her, thinks Bodie, is the end of sorrow.
The calaca comes to her. He produces a clay pot and fills it with oil and lights the wick in its spout. Within moments, the woman is reunited with a chiseled and striking Native American. Vital. No marks on his body. He strides from the cistern and takes the woman’s hands in his. He speaks softly to her and runs his fingertips through her hair. She strokes his bare chest. Their lips part and meet. Her clothes fall away in a single, elegant motion. His fingers explore the canvas of her flesh and knead tenderly. She hovers over her man as he reclines, the length of her love casting long swaths of shade across the peaks and valleys of his being. Tongues caress thighs. Nipples press together. And under the stars of Calavera, they make love until the pot’s flame sputters.
When the oil runs out, the woman and her man embrace at the edge of the cistern. The man steps back into the mist. The woman rubs her eyes.
The man says, “No regrets, my love. May the stars carry your sadness away, may the flowers fill your heart with beauty, may hope forever wipe away your tears, and above all, may silence make you strong.”
“May you always walk in beauty,” the woman sighs as the image of her man disintegrates.
The calaca begins packing after the lovers part. The woman turns and stands with her back to the cenotaph. She clutches her arms across her chest, trembling as a sudden chill drifts over the town. The calaca walks up behind her and bends down and lifts the clay pot from the ground. She turns. He rises. She smiles and lowers her head. He tips his sombrero and leans forward in a small bow. The woman says something to the calaca, but Bodie can’t pick out the words. The calaca looks over his shoulder toward the hills and gestures to one of the buildings on the outskirts of town. The woman nods. She unties one of her necklaces. It’s a small patch of hide with symbols burned into it, suspended from a leather strap. She gives this to the calaca. He exchanges it for the clay pot.
Bodie keeps his eyes trained on the woman as the calaca returns to the van. Again, Bodie hears the scuffing of boot heels and the whine of a door hinge before the engine rattles to life.
The woman watches the stranger in the skeleton mask and the odd mariachi costume drive away. When the vehicle merges onto the main road and diminishes into the expanse of the land, she raises the pot to her lips and kisses it. Then she breaks it against the cenotaph. Only the handle remains, circling her finger like a ring of adobe. She flexes her hand and lets this final piece slip onto the ground below.
The woman gathers her things and readies herself for the journey home. Bodie stops her as she passes: “Pardon my intrusion, ma’am, but I gotta ask.”
The woman yields but says nothing. Bodie continues. “Your man. He looked untouched by death. No scars. No disease. The others was ruined. But not him. Not your man. How?”
She smiles and pats his arm and steps away. Bodie’s gaze follows her across the zócalo and toward an alley by a one-room structure topped with the remnants of a steeple. Before fading from view she hesitates and calls out, “That’s how I remember him.”
“Come again? I don’t understand.”
“Certain things catch your eye. Pursue only those that capture your heart.”
She waits. Bodie chalks it up to good manners, thinking she’s giving him a chance to respond. But he’s got nothing to say. What can be said? The woman pulls her wrap close around her neck and holds up her hand and continues into the gloom that leads to a desert whose boundaries Bodie can’t chart.
Ellis Bodie lingers alone now in the ghost town, a phantom haunting the land of the haunted, waiting for something he can’t put a name to. An event, a reaction, a sign. He doesn’t know. He pulls a cigarette from his pocket and sticks the end into his lips. He allows himself a moment to absorb its flavor, to absorb all that has happened this night. He feels the lighter in his palm. Hears the lid click and the flint scratch. He raises the flame to his face and pauses and closes his eyes. The heat tickles his chin. He opens his eyes and lights the cigarette. Embers bloom. Paper crackles. He inhales, turning back toward the cenotaph.
“I got no idea why You called me here, Lord. If it was You. But this ain’t where I want to be. Show me the way back home. Back to the hills and the caldera and the smoky days before harvest, when me and Wyatt was chasin’ bucks on horseback.”
He stays still and silent for a while, half expecting a low rumble of thunder over the hills, a door to open in one of the abandoned structures, an antelope to appear. But nothing happens.
Bodie takes a long drag off the cigarette and pockets the lighter and prepares himself for the trek out of Calavera, down through the hollow and over the endless plain. He wends his way to the rear of the saloon and tries to locate the path to the livery. From this angle, all the buildings in the main district strike him as being arranged in a circle, the hindmost corners of each abutting the others. The only route home, Bodie guesses, is through the plaza and into the alleyways. He returns to the front of the saloon and proceeds in the direction of the cenotaph.
As he nears the zócalo, shapes flicker in the night and the wind picks up, bellowing over the cold chimneys that gird the town. The cistern pulses back to life with its spectral glow. And then he sees it. Another figure rising from the mist. Small. Thin. Familiar.
Bodie’s throat dries up and his legs freeze and all the blood in his body swells inside his brain, hammering at the backs of his eyes. He reels, recovers quickly. The figure staggers from the well. Bodie shields his cigarette from the wind. He understands. He understands everything now.
Then he begins, “No hospitals, no Peter Pan wards. You wrap the rein taut around your fist. No radiation. We’re riding to the ridge, your first hunt. No pain. Everything like it was before. No machines. You smile at me. No suffering. No more suffering.”