waga2 [november 10 21]
the grey highway sloped gently downward on its way to meet the river. ancient disused truss bridges passed overhead and red radio spires stood in formation all along the ridge south of us. antelope brush grew large and bright with little pink blossoms, their roots grasping at red rock strewn across the desert floor in clusters like music notes. val and i passed her dark cigarettes back and forth. hector sipped old beers he found tucked under his seat. we rolled on.
the river appeared to us as we crested a small slope. it flowed gentle, wide, shallow, and blue. its waves glittered white with countless tiny suns reflected back to the sky. on the opposite side of the river was the Jasper Wall, the west face of the plateau. it rose up a thousand feet in stripes of ivory and grey metallic weldstone. tiny silhouettes of trucks and cars glided along its edge. hector and i stared out our windows as we curved with the highway along the river bank.
val: “we're gonna take the little river crossing before the bridge. it'll take like fifteen minutes to get across but you know” she swept her arm to the view of the plateau wall, “worth it”
we came to a orange tower standing at the edge of the water. it was surrounded by a blanket of gravel, and a concrete pier jutted out of its side a ways into the river. there were two craft bobbing at the end of the pier. the first was a largish ferry with a squat white bridge and a red stripe wrapped around the hull. the second was a tiny transport skiff with bright yellow railing on all sides and a operator booth like a pay phone.
val coasted into the lot and stopped before the pier. we stepped out of the car and onto the gravel. a rusted metal door shrieked open on the side of the tower and a squat man came out smiling. he wore a blue reflective utility vest and a bucket hat with the logo for river transport services. he waved as we got out of the car. i leaned on the door next to val and hector set two beers on the roof.
boatman: “howdy, you looking to get across now?”
he crunched his way across the gravel and val called back
val: “aye yeah you got a way over for us?”
boatman: “a couple. looks like you're a small enough crew for the skiff yeah”
val dug in her pocket and pulled out a wad of bills.
boatman: “you just daytrippin?”
we nodded and val said we'd be back to get across again in a few hours. “betiful day for it, hows you tuck your money back and toss me a can, guy” he looked to hector.
they both grinned.
we pulled onto the pier and the boatman waved us onto the skiff. it slouched into the water as the car trundled onto it. the boatman hopped aboard and unhooked a large chain from a metal loop on the deck. he stepped into the booth and hit several buttons and a gate swung up behind the car and the engine below us rumbled and hummed. we leaned against the railing and lit our cigarettes. the craft lurched forward and we pulled away from the pier into the glittering gentle water. hector and val stood at the side of the car and chatted with the boatman, sipping his beer. i stood at the railing and watched Jasper Wall float silently toward us.
the wall is a near vertical face rising straight up against the river. there's no bank to build a road on so the highway is way up on the plateau's edge. to get from the water up to the highway, there is a steel causeway riveted into the face of the wall. wide enough for two trucks to pass, it slopes at a steep diagonal up from another orange tower with another pier. its all held up by a dense webbing of black I-beams jutting at angles out from the stone and up from below the water.
the boatman explained that this crossing was established long before the bridge was put in further north. back then the next closest crossing wasn't for another fifty miles.
boatman: “water runs dark and fast up there. cold from the mountains”
Jasper Wall drifted closer and gigantic. the skiff crossed into its shadow and the air suddenly cooled. i looked back at the pier we left from, so bright in the sun and so tiny on the far bank. the river stretched out far in every direction, and the rock wall blocked the sun in cyclopean hugeness. the scale of natural form in the steppes felt made for things of a different scale than human.
i looked back to the wall and black steel causeway. i began to make out the details of the steel chaos holding it up. a hundred black I-beams were woven together like a nest or a funnel web. the driving surface was set on top, a smooth roof for the entanglement supporting it. little white patches dotted each of the beams.
the boatman geared down the skiff and we slowed gentle up to the end of the pier. servos sang a tenor note as the gate behind the car swung back down. the boatman called for one of us to hop onto the pier and toss a chain over. hector handed val his can and nimbly leapt off the skiff as it moved. he landed on the concrete and keeping momentum he jogged alongside us. the skiff slowed to a halt. hector bent and scooped an armful of chain laying next to a concrete anchor and heaved it over the railing. the boatman hooked the chain onto a metal loop on the edge of the deck.
boatman: “great legs, good son, pull us tight now”
hector grappled with the loose chain hand over hand and pulled it taught. the skiff swayed and bumped up against the pier. the boatman looked to me and gestured that i step off. i stepped wide over the gap between land and the skiff and planted my foot firmly on the pier. the ground pushed upward against my foot, catching it, holding it. the skiff bobbed up and released my other foot, i planted it next to the other on the concrete. the land was quiet beneath me, alien for a moment. i felt the sudden absence of the vibrations and shallow rolling motion under me.
val and hector and the boatman worked to disembark the car and i stood smoking and staring at the I- beams under the causeway. the patches caught sun from the water and shone in thin streaks. i walked off the pier and into the gravel parking lot looking intently at the patches on the beams nearest the pier. i got closer and the patches got larger. from the boat they seemed small but up close each was about the size of my torso. the patches were membranes. i reached the far end of the lot where the gravel met the steel ramp of the causeway. the causeways surface was grated steel, and i stared through the holes to the beams below my feet covered in white. it was webbing. i squatted down. the beams under the causeway were covered in colonies of spiders.
i gazed at the patch only inches beneath me. my eyes focused deeper and i saw tiny dots of red within the dense webbing. dozens of little red bodies moving slowly within, reaching and grasping with limbs as thin as the threads woven around them. small and pointed arms all reaching and grasping and pulling at the threads. i thought about what it would feel like for one of the tiny red specks to reach with its slow and sharp legs and pry between my closed lips and crawl into my mouth. val honked the horn.
we waved to the boatman as we pulled out of the lot and onto the causeway. we were pressed back against our seats by its mad tilt. the grated surface vibrated and the car resonated sympathetically, harmonizing with the hum of its own engine. i looked out my window back across the river to the red rock and the dark grey strand of highway we rode to get here, all of it dropping away from us. i turned to look out the front window. val's knuckles were white with control over the wheel, resolute facing the empty grey blue sky.
we summited the causeway and turned away from the river, back onto the solid silent earth. the car faced east again and we accelerated down another grey ribbon to the mineral lake.
relics of billboards counted down the miles to the lake as we passed them. ruinous preludes to a ghost town laid alongside the highway; clusters of wood shacks and well pumps all the same grey, the color burned and eroded away by the sun and the wind. one final billboard commanded we Exit Now to see the Beautiful Medicinal Brinewater of B’Thanguel’s Hidden Lake. we obliged and turned onto a dirt road. it wound downward into a large depression in the surface of the plateau. it was filled with huge and densely packed rock structures. we entered a shaded path that twisted between the natural architecture, fitted together like the mosaic of drought soil. wooden signs with faded red arrows mounted on the rock walls guided us through the winding dirt path. one final turn and the lake was revealed to us.
it was smallish and oblong, contained at sharp angles by low rock walls on all sides but one, where the dirt road became a sloping gravel shore. the water was nearly still. it was protected in the center of a stone labyrinth where idle wind did not agitate its surface. val pulled the car close to the water and coasted to a halt. she yanked the parking brake and let out a sigh.
val: “that took way longer than i remembered”
hector: “let’s get into there”
i stepped out of the car and stretched and stared around. the late afternoon sun fatigued into a hazy yellow. all around us the rock was streaked like Jasper Wall, blonde veins set in steely grey. we were alone here. hector was already ankle deep in the water when i looked back to the shore. val was sitting in the gravel taking her shoes off. i followed after them.
hector: “it’s all muddy in there”
hector stepped gingerly back onto the shore and started pulling his shirt over his head. the muscles in his back twisted and coiled as he fought his shirt off and tossed it behind him without looking. val stood up and loosed her belt. her olive green shorts fell away from her waist. i sat down next to her and quickly pulled my boots off and unbuttoned my jeans. val crossed her arms and grabbed the edge of her t shirt. hector was up to his knees when he stopped and held his arms straight out like a T. he leaned forward and splashed into the water like a wooden power pole. he kicked and swam and beneath the surface his orange boxers looked like fat koi swerving after him. valerie turned to me and smiled. i admired her matching underwear. copper, like the rings in her eyes.
val: “there's a surprise for you in the water”
she made her eyebrows dance as she said it, and then she turned away from me, sloshing into the lake. hector's head bobbed a ways out
hector: “it’s still muddy out here too!”
i slid out of my jeans and pulled myself out of my shirt. i felt like i was made entirely of knuckles, all knobbly and bent as i picked my way across the gravel. i stepped into the cool water and felt softness under my feet. i looked down as i took another step and saw plumes of sediment erupt slowly from my footfall. with every step there was softness that became less and less firm as i made my way out into the lake. i stood for a moment, with the water at my waist. i began to sink very slowly into the softness. i looked out to val and hector. val called to me
val: “did you see yet?”
i looked down again into the water. my pale legs ended at the ankle, my feet were buried in the brown. i looked at my hands just beneath the surface. and then i saw. little pink specks swirled around my palm. i cupped my hands together and brought them out of the water. i held a small pool and in it swam scores of things. creatures. i looked closer. brine shrimp. i looked down at the water again. there they were, all around me, tiny and looping, gliding and everywhere. the lake was filled with billions of brine shrimp. i looked out to val.
val: “you're standing in it!”
i was sinking slowly still. into shrimp shit.
hector: “this is nasty!”
val: “no it's very cool. i like it everyone likes it”
“i like it”
i kicked my feet out from under me and laid on my back. i closed my eyes. i tried to feel the tiny creatures dancing across my skin. i saw orange from behind my eyelids. the sun glared its hotness on my wet face.
gently, i felt val place her hand in the middle of my chest. her fingers were splayed and warm. i kept my eyes closed. her other hand gripped my thigh. the water around me warmed with the new hotness of my skin.
val: “hold your breath”
i inhaled through flared nostrils and locked my throat
i felt her fingers stiffen, and in one motion she pushed me below the surface of the water.
the orange behind my eyelids went to darkness, the cool weight of water rushed over my face. i held my body still, laying like a stage girl under the hands of a magician. val held me firm. i felt her fingertips digging gently into my skin and finding purchase on the topography of my shallow set bones. she felt like the sun where she held me.
and in a moment there was stillness. and i felt them all around me. across my forehead and over my stomach and in the arch of my feet and at the small of my back and in the divots of my shoulders. the touch of a thousand tiny ancient things meeting my porous interface in benign indifference. their touch carried the force of a whisper in the space of a pin of static electricity. in hundreds of instants they brushed my surface over every part of me. in the darkness behind my eyelids i saw dancing stars.
fifty miles away was my unlit apartment where i would return later that night, wrapped in my blankets in my dark room, warm in the quiet, the lake would still be laid within the rock maze and teeming with all its life. it was here before i was born and would be here after. it would gently ripple in the cool dark and the hot light and through the ices and storms of every year. it was all here. and we were here, for just an instant the lake’s long remaining, val submerging me in the time held within it.
val held me with her firmness and the little many with all their history flowed across me. gentle and soft was everything in this water.
i felt val's fingers relax. she released me and i rose up to the surface. i opened my eyes to just val against the bright empty sky. she smiled and i stopped myself from telling her she was beautiful.