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A Desolate Land

By Hayden TrullPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 13 min read
Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

When I return to the spot I left behind Gabriel had been dead for more than thirty years.

It is a small place, unremarkable and unlooked for, in the Mojave: a shack with a large Joshua tree growing out front, where its gnarled branches cast shadows in the shape of a grasping hand upon the walls. This is where Gabriel died. It is where I have come to die.

The sun is setting when I finally step out of the jeep. Red, purple, and yellow saturate the few clouds that crawl lazily across the canvas. For hours I had simply sat with the windows down, for some reluctance had captured and held me. But I cannot wait forever, and so the echo of the closing door fills the emptiness around me, for I haven’t heard a sound since I killed the engine. I am alone.

Soon, the calls of the coyotes and the crawlers - horrible things that I will not name - will cry out in the darkness; hunting, and gnashing upon flesh. There was a time when I was frightened of them, but they are only a passing thought now. I will be carrion soon, and they will feast if they want.

Still, my legs resist to take me where my mind commands. I fling the cigarette that I was smoking upon the rocky ground. Dry earth crackles beneath as I stamp out the ashes and the smell of tobacco and nicotine drifts away with a new wind, upon which brings a floral scent and the smell of rain. I am suddenly nostalgic, though I have no right to be. My remembrance of this place is a horror and a plague, yet the nostalgia overpowers at the present. There is no scent like the desert when the creosote bush is in bloom; that though no rain-cloud is in the sky, and the parched earth proves that rain is a distant memory, the nose catches a hint of the aftermath of a summer shower. It has a cleansing effect. But I am not clean.

The desert stretches out around me. Everything I see is as it is. In the distance I can see cinder cones rise like small mountains, closing me in. Golden primrose and purple wildflowers dot about in little patches of color amongst brownness. The shack is rotting. The Joshua tree is solitary and taller than normal; it has to be thirty feet, maybe more. It is all beautiful, in its own way, real and tangible.

Then I close my eyes.

When I open them again, the real has been replaced with revelation, like a great sheet has fallen down - I see beyond the curtain into the world that overlaps our own. The sky is red, but unlike the red of sunset; it is ominous, and thunder rolls somewhere out in beyond the horizon. Nearby, I hear the sound of running water, a swift current that cascades down rocks into a gully. But when I look down it is not water. It is a river of blood, and its copper smell washes out the sweet-rain of the creosote and fills my nostrils with the scent of pennies so strong that I can taste it, bitter upon my tongue.

But the tree holds the true power of the vision. A gravitas of evil surrounds it and I am drawn to it like debris to a black hole. Its roots dig deep and drink in the blood of the river, swellings until it is bloated and a red slime oozes out of cracks along the bark.

The roots go even deeper than that. Through the open door of the shack it throws an arm that falls into a chasm of shadow. In the depths glows a green light, pale and dim. Distant moans of the dead escape from the bottom; they are wails of pain, loss, and betrayal. But the roots take in the light and grow fat, as if they are siphoning the souls of the damned in order to sustain its own life. The tree is alive - sentient. I must reach it.

I step into the river, the Nile of my exodus. My boots are submerged and the bottom of my pants are stained. The white of my shirt seems brighter now, it will be ruined if I go further, but I do. I wade until the river reaches my waist; then my chest; and, finally, my shoulders. I am at the bank now and my whole body except my head is covered in blood; a dripping ant at the feet of the giant. It has grown taller than a Joshua tree should; I have shrunken. But this tree is not truly evil, I can see through the mirage of my mind. If I can see it through, it shall be the source of my sanctification.

Then a voice calls from within the tree. It is faint, empty even, words upon the wind. I recognize that voice, and it’s my name it calls. I am frozen now, completely still, suddenly I do not want to be seen.

Why?’ it asks warily. ‘Why have you returned, after having been gone for so long?’

I don’t answer. I don’t know how to do so. My tongue has stopped working. I see a memory, then. I am digging a grave by this very tree and a limp body is propped against it, the head is covered with a sheet. Still, I say nothing. The voice takes offense of that.

WHY HAVE YOU COME?’ it screams, getting progressively louder. ‘WHY HAVE YOU COME? WHY HAVE YOU COME? YOU NEED TO LEAVE!’

My tongue is loosed. ‘But leaving was my first sin,’ I answer weakly. ‘I’ve come to join you, like I should have long ago.’

All that waits for you here is nothingness and a watery grave,’ the voice in the tree answers.

‘I know,’ I say, but I close my eyes. The sounds of the otherworld around me cease, and the voice in the tree recedes, and I can smell rain once more.

When I open them again the sheet has come back up. My clothes are not covered in blood, but dust, and sweat has soaked so through the fabric that the sediment has become muddy, slick against my hand when I go to brush it off. I take a gasp for breath. My heart is throbbing painfully. The heat is not the culprit for this, the desert is quite cool come nightfall, the fault lies with memory.

It is dark now and the first stars glimmer into sight. There is supposed to be a full moon tonight, but it has yet to rise. Until then, there will not be much to see.

I find the tree as I reach out and slowly lower myself until I am sitting with my back against it. Gabriel’s body lies near, though I cannot remember the exact location anymore. Thirty years of erosion have hidden any sign of tampered earth, I would not be able to see it even in the light. My mind wanders to that night. There is so much that I cannot remember. The memory comes in pictures; blurry, fragmented even. Truthfully, I can only remember my emotions after the fact: mostly numbed shock, with bouts of anger and hysteria. Most powerful of all, however, was the complete revulsion I felt for myself, a feeling that has never left.

It was in the aftermath that my visions first began. I attribute their continuance to trauma and decades of substance abuse. Funny that the attempt to numb brings everything flooding back. But the genesis of the visions was birthed through a different matter, of which Gabriel and I both entered but only one escaped, the infestation of what we had called the ‘Deific Draught’.

But I cannot think of the these things for long; resting against the tree has revealed the fatigue that my body, mind, and soul possesses. In the darkness I hear the first call of the coyote, but I drift into a dreamless sleep before I can hear the answering cry.

When I awake everything lays under a silver sheen; the moon has risen and is aggressively bright, reflecting like some great star off the hubcaps of my vehicle. My breath is a mist, argent as the lunar light, and fades into the ether. I am still sweating, but it is freezing, and my skin has broken out in gooseflesh. The desire for water has never been so strong as my last foray in the desert, but I will withhold drink until the end.

A howl resonates to the east, far away but hair-raising, nonetheless. Towards the hills and black cinder cones the moon hangs like an ominous saucer, an encroaching neighbor, and silhouetted against its face is the lone shape of a coyote, though it may be shape and no coyote at all. It stands still, fully erect, but I can see the green light of its nocturnal eyes upon me. I wipe the sweat from my brow, but I cannot take my sight away from it, for it has bewitched me.

I do not know what the time is, nor how long we watch each other from across a sea of sand; whether it was hours, minutes, or seconds, time has lost its meaning until the coyote turns with foxlike agility and disappears over the hill. Still, I sit motionless.

When I begin to look around me I notice the tracks of a beast that have walked up to the shack and circled the tree where I sit before its course leads towards the hills. And the visitor has left a gift, and my blood runs colder than the air about me. At my feet lies the root of a plant that I recognize all too well.

I give Time the slip and I am twenty-two years old again. The year is 1993. Gabriel and I are backpacking through the Mojave in our last summer of freedom, that twilight between graduating university and the world of adulthood. We are out of our element - us East Coast kids, dressed in our crewnecks and cargo pants - unused to the dry heat of the Southern California sun; fearful, though never voicing it, of just how empty the desert is. I thought I knew what rural was growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina, much was the same in the New England countryside, but the utter vacuum of the Mojave was a shock. Between Los Angeles and Las Vegas lay a boneyard; nothing. I was in awe and excited, for good reason

From a young age, even before I had the vocabulary for such a yearning, I had desired to experience the transcendent; and the desert was the place I believed to find it. It is true, I suppose, that thought is not unique to me, but I did not realize it at the time. When I was finally able to put words towards my aim of transcendency I believed myself a lone, holy, crusader; though not critical enough to realize that religion was itself a journey into the metaphysical. Of course, I had taken my own experience with the South’s Judeo-Christian religion at face value in my adolescence: a timeless truth of aphorisms, a mixed-message on personal ethics, and the smell of mothballs. It was a staple in my life, the routine of my weekend, but I had never consciously thought about it very hard.

But, still, elements slipped through the cracks. There are certain texts in the scripture readings that escaped the tight grasp of the interpretation of the orator and implanted themselves into my subconscious imagination; those of the journeys into the wilderness, or the ascent up the mountain. In short, though I would not have put it in this way, I desired to see the face of god! If only I had lent a closer eye to the reading, took to heart that to see god is to know fear, then I would have known the true horror that would come to pass. But I am getting ahead of myself - if I have not, already.

I had not known others who thought like I had in high school. There was something romantic, poetic, even, in that. It was fun to wallow in the self-indulgence of feeling misunderstood, as if everyone I encountered was in some way beneath me. I took to writing, and dead authors became my best friends; I even had some talent, or I at least impressed people who did not truly know what they were looking at. It was my writing that landed a scholarship to the Willowmere Institute. This took me where I wanted to go at the time, which was as far as I could possibly go from home. It was there that I met Gabriel.

Even before I was haunted by his memory there was a ghostlike quality to him. He was sitting on his bed when I first entered room 312 of the Holtzhouser Dorm. A midmorning sunbeam fell, unfiltered, through the open window and rested upon him like a spotlight. His face was clear and pale with eyes of steel. A strand of raven hair had wandered from his middle-part and covered one of his eyes. In his hands was a copy of Goethe’s Faust. So enraptured with the text was he, that he did not look up when I entered. Outside I can hear a soccer ball being kicked between friends on the green, and notes upon a guitar where some junior was already serenading the freshman girls. I cleared my throat to catch his attention.

He looked up at me absently; he smiled, but his face was difficult to read.

Everything transitory is but an image,’ he said, a quote from his reading, though I guessed it was more to himself than directed towards me. His voice was low, dreamlike, and he never quite met my eye.

‘Yes, it is,’ I answered, and offered him my hand.

The time is now and I have consumed the powder ground from the root. This coyote’s gift has left me in a trance. The drug has begun to work. I go to the world of dreams voluntarily now; one last time.

But the effects are slow. Inside my head is the sensation of static, and I lose sense of myself. I wander thoughtlessly towards the shack, pry the rusted door open, and enter it.

Emptiness waits inside. There is no furniture and the paint has completely vanished from the walls. There is a void in a literal sense as well, for there is a well in the middle of the place. The silver light from outside fills the room, and my shadow is large against the back wall, but the depths of the pit I cannot see. I will go no further. It is from this pit that I will brush shoulders with the supernatural; it will not come from the heavens.

The waiting is difficult. I fear that I will not have the strength to leave. That I will lose heart and leave the desert once more, and leave behind a piece of myself that I cannot get back. Yet, I am drifting, ever-so-slowly, and at last I lapse.

It starts with a groan - that of pain and torment - that rises out of the well. I snap out of sleep in alarm. Had I been asleep? I must have been, though I did not feel it take me. Silence follows the groan, but it is jilted. I dare not move.

The groans return, but louder now; Gabriel’s, I am sure. He is in pain! But alive. I crawl towards the pit and peer in. Blackness is all that I can see. I call, but nothing returns that call. The screams are not to me. They are screams in the void.

Louder do the groans ever grow and no matter how much I call I get no answer. The world around me is silent to my cries. Heaven and hell are silent alike.

Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.

MysteryShort StoryPsychologicalHorror

About the Creator

Hayden Trull

Aspiring novelist. Just excercising the craft here.

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  • Naveed 3 months ago

    Well done! Keep pushing forward with your excellent work

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