by Dan Becker
I went northwest to high country flat and unbounded to the sky, devoid of all plant life save the barest of shrubs and tufts of grass, and seemingly unoccupied by any other living forms for as far as I could see. It was land cut with trickles of ravines laced into gullies, and off in the distance presumedly swallowed by canyons. I camped.
I wandered aimlessly through this land, without direction or decision. Over a gentle rise, I lifted my head enough for my eyes to see it — fixed upon bedrock, welded to the planet — a heart-shaped rock. Not a heart shape like you would get from Valentine’s Day with its point and cleavage mounds but an anatomical heart of stone with petrified muscle and sinew, an aorta, and of a color only slightly varnished by time. It had no real defined boundaries; as if air-brushed, the vessels just seemed to fade away. The bottom tip of the heart seemed fixed to a swell of bedrock arched from the sandy soil. From several paces away, I circled the organ, feeling uninvited to come any closer. Although I thought briefly about reducing this curious artifact to my possession, I could see and sense that it could not – and should not – be removed. Nor was I convinced it was even tangible, couldn’t truly picture grasping and feeling its cool polished presence in my hand. It was beautiful but seemed about to disappear. It was bafflingly out of place, although I know not what place it would ever really belong.
Driven by thirst and hunger, I circled back to camp, my thoughts in a whirl. I knew I would go back to the heart, for I was drawn to return before the sun set and the moon rose. As a habitual wanderer, I have generally found my way in and out of the wild without need of rescue, but in truth, I did not know exactly where the heart was, I did not know how I had arrived there or found my way back. Yet, I knew with a confidence that was not mine, that I would return at the ordained time. Nothing else could be.
When the sun was low in the western sky, I once again stood before the heart. The moon would be full tonight, rising slightly north of due east. The sun would set slightly north of due west. I felt compelled to build a fire and set about to find a spot. The heart stood on its bedrock perch, in the dry tracings of ravines pointing without commitment to the ethereal canyons to the northwest. The soil here was no different than all that lay around — not bare but covered by ubiquitous wisps of ankle high shrubs and grass. On the southern slope of this dry headwater was a small sandy depression shaped not unlike the inside of a saucer sled you would have used back in the day, or a very shallow but large ant lion trap. In this cathedral, this was the place of the fire. There was no real fuel to be found, so I set about gathering the smallest of twigs and dry grass stems, for that was all there was. It was a bundle more akin to tea leaves and bore nothing in resemblance to a bundle of firewood. I placed the handful in the dish of sand and cast about for more. When I placed the second bundle on top of the first, I swore the first had grown in size. Not in number, but in each individual twig and stem having added girth. I went for more and found myself aiming for a group of small junipers just visible to the north in the dying light — surely there would be wood there. There was, but all of it was living. The three small trees stood in a semi circle before a gathering of attentive sage, all minute, all without a single dead branch. I searched under and within their gowns and returned once again with just a handful of twigs and stems. I placed it on the pyre, now more noticeably grown in stature.
The sun was on the horizon in an orange ball of glory and the moon was opposite, peeking in blazing white. I stood like the eyes between outstretched hands, bent and lit the twigs with the flick of a lighter. The flame caught and quickly engulfed the cone of debris. It would be a short fire. But as the flames rose into the tepee shaped bundle, they held, the twigs and wisps of bark and grass burned but were not consumed. It was a small fire, but a comfort no less.
The heart was now sunlit from the west, making it glow warmly orange across the curve of the chambers and the arch of the aorta; and from the east, white moonlight backlit the vena cava and pulmonary branches. The flickering of the fire animated the scene in pulsating light and the crackle of life. I was transfixed, staring at this collision of light and life. Small tendrils of smoke danced in the air encircling the heart. In the swirls a shape began to emerge, of a being bound to the heart. Slowly the anatomical nature of the heart faded to a pulsating glow as the nature of the woman possessing it emerged. I dared not breathe and became a statue myself. Although she held all the beautiful and alluring qualities of a woman, she appeared nonetheless, to be solely light, combined in impossible impermanence and strength. I have never seen the faintest stars of Ursa Minor except on the darkest of nights… yet here in this spell between twilight and night, they shone bright in an embrace of her.
I don’t know why I was the one who stood before her. Not having expected the moment, I had nothing to say, no thought to complete. I don’t remember fear, although I felt my own heart percussing against my ears.
She was half sitting half reclining and had the look of someone who has just woken from dreaming and was trying to place herself in her surroundings. Did she ask for, or did I just offer (stupidly, no doubt) a handful of earth? Did I step forward to give it to her? It seems it was cast like holy water into her light and she breathed it in, smiling with immense contentment thru closed eyes discerning all the aromas and every origin of every grain of sand and other living element in that cascade. And her knowing transcended the plume of dust and for a moment I was there, immersed as well.
She knew me in an instant, better than I knew myself. She neither examined the actions of my life nor cast any judgement, she simply saw who I was — what I knew and what I possessed. She saw my humanness, my potential, realized and not — and beyond, to my ancestors that have gone before me. Almost as a practiced ritual, she had a need for four of them to stand in the circle of the fire. Immediately, there were four: my father (with gentle righteous integrity), my grandmother (small but large in quiet determination), Emily (with boundless enthusiasm and openness), and Aaron (with wry humor and youthful longing). She smiled in quiet satisfaction and appreciation.
Everything was so connected as to make a mockery of time, erasing beginnings and ends. Every atom of every molecule of every grain of sand moved from one iteration to the next, animated with every thought and feeling, so much so that I was inseparable from that handful of dry soil, from my ancestors, from Ursa Minor, from her. Although this didn’t appear novel for her, I could see she was as enthralled and as endlessly surprised by this knowing as I was.
I would have stayed there forever, with her. And maybe I did. Time slipped from my grasp as the sun went dark and the moon rose full. The fire flickered and went out, the smoke swirling its embrace around me. The place of the fire once again held tea leaves of twigs and grass, untouched by flame. Where she was, where the heart was, ash drifted away in the moonlight. A star down the handle from Polaris pulsed bright, held for a moment, and surrendered to the moon.
Dan Becker is a Colorado builder, explorer, occasional poet.