The traveler sat down weakly on a rock, letting the empty water bottle slip from his chafed fingers into the dust. It was morning. The night had been dull and uncomfortably silent, and the left side of his neck was sore from the awkward discomfort of sleeping on the ground. His head ached. He crossed his arms over his knees, using them as a resting place for his forehead as he twisted his neck from side to side, attempting to stretch out the tension. There was a rock between his feet, about the size and shape of a slice of bread. He stared at the rock. If only…! But that was his stomach speaking. The trail leading back to convenience stores and gas stations was lost, and after a day of wandering and a night in this impossible land, he was beginning to realize his predicament. The trail was lost. He recalled no sudden moment of naïve departure from the path, no celebrated expedition into the wilderness—rather, he had felt in such communion with nature around him that he had failed to make note of his progress and gradually lost himself. It was like one of those special times when you fall into deep conversation with a close friend and die to the immediate world. The wilderness is not a friend, of course, even though it sometimes seemed to speak. But I could sit here on this rock all day, he mused, and it wouldn’t say a single word to me.
He thought of these things as he stared at the rock between his feet. The skin of his arms felt rough against his forehead. It was all dried out, and lotion, of course, was not one of the bare necessities he had stored in his small pack. He had a pocketknife, a small first aid kit, and a pencil and notepad for any of those observations or ideas that often came to him at random. His wallet and car keys. The cell phone he had left in the car because he generally didn’t like that feeling of being tied to outside communication while he was on one of his hikes. There had been a sandwich, and of course his water, but these he had consumed yesterday morning as he hiked with no thought of spending the night in a wilderness.
Staring at the bread-slice rock only served to remind him of the insipid bareness of his surroundings. He lifted his head and looked around with hollow eyes. A few trees—or rather, shaggy bushes—gasped up from between stones and patches of brownish drooping grass, and the rising sun glorified their vapid existence with exaggerated shadows. A small lizard wandered around in the dirt next to him and sprinted away noiselessly when he tossed a twig at it. He straightened up and listened. Silence. No tell-tale sounds to give him a clue of direction, of anything civilized. Not even a bird flying above him in the cloudless sky. All was still and quiet, and as he sat quite alone in wordless rumination he felt ill at ease.
The traveler sighed to himself and licked his dry lips. Even his tongue felt strange this morning. He unscrewed the cap on his water bottle and tilted it way back, tapping it insistently, watching one little droplet slither its way down the inside till it reached the mouth and dripped onto his tongue. It failed, unsurprisingly, to provide any sensation of relief. In all likelihood, he thought to himself, I am worse off now than I was before I tasted that annoying droplet. Listlessly he replaced the cap and stashed the bottle away in his pack. For awhile he continued to squat upon his rock, forcing his mind to make a plan, to formulate some sort of activity, but it was difficult. He couldn’t concentrate. Something was missing. He didn’t remember having trouble focusing yesterday. Yesterday he was simply carried along by a special intercourse with nature that insisted he follow. He followed because it seemed innocent.
Again he glanced down at the rock. Nothing too special about its actual physical properties, but the traveler had associated it with something of more immediate value, and so the rock lost its innocence and was transformed into an object of wrath. He picked it up and heaved it with all his might at a shrub not too far away, but it fell slightly short of the target and shattered into pieces. He was surprised at his weakness. I must go on, he thought, but only sat still on his rock. From here he could survey the world around him, but conclusions were hard to draw. His mind faltered as it once again attempted to urge him of some apparently necessary activity. Assess the situation! But I already did. Again! Why? I am aware of the problem. No water, no food, lost in a desert. What else is there to contemplate?
It was then that he perceived a break in the silence. Rock against rock, behind him. He turned, noticing a light dizziness in his head. There, leaning on a walking stick, and shuffling hesitatingly toward him, was a man in a pair of raggy jeans, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt that said Hard Rock Café. Although he was wearing a wide-rimmed hat, the skin of his face and neck had a reddish sunburnt appearance where it was not obscured by a dark brown, neatly trimmed beard. The man approached the traveler and stood beside him for awhile, staring at his pack. He did not immediately speak. The traveler said nothing but only looked at the ground in silence.
After awhile, the newcomer bent over, set his walking stick on the ground, and sat down cross-legged next to the traveler. He removed his hat, took out a handkerchief that was stuffed halfway into his front pocket, and wiped his face. There were little lines of dirt gathered up in the sweaty creases of his neck—but he did not wipe his neck. He replaced both handkerchief and hat, and then picked up a pebble and started fiddling with it, tossing it back and forth between his hands. After a short time, he held the pebble between his thumb and middle finger in the flicking position, aimed at a branch a few yards away, and sent the pebble whizzing toward it. It missed by three inches.
The traveler observed this activity and sighed. He felt a pressure between his eyes. The headache was worsening.
“Excuse me, but what is your name?”
The traveler grunted, but did not turn toward the newcomer. He reached up to rub some dust out of his left eye and shifted his position to counteract the feeling of numbness that was climbing up his right leg. He swallowed with some difficulty because of the dryness of his mouth. The newcomer fidgeted a little and spat on the ground, turning his head to stare straight forward in the same fashion as the other man.
For a time, the two men sat unmoving, staring straight ahead, each mind charging through propositions and assumptions, wrestling with results. The traveler closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. The flesh around his nostrils, where usually a little oily to the touch, was now dry and flaky. He sighed and licked his lips again. He cleared his throat of mucus and, without turning to face the newcomer, spoke as if annoyed.
“Simon.” Which was really his middle name—he never gave his first name to strangers until they had been upgraded by instinctive feeling to the level of acquaintance. This practice gave him a greater sense of control.
Released now from his tension, the newcomer smiled through cracked lips. “Pleased to meet you, Simon,” he said, and extended his right hand.
Simon stared at the man’s hand but made no movement at first. Then, automatically, he slowly reached across and shook the man’s hand. “I’m Clark,” said the man. “You don’t happen to have any water, do you?”
Simon shook his head. His face was an iron mask.
“I had to ask,” Clark apologized. “I got lost out here yesterday and haven’t had anything to drink since about noon.”
“Well, I don’t have any water.”
“It’s okay.” Clark picked up another pebble and chewed on his tongue. Was he embarrassed? He was visibly uneasy, at least.
Simon relaxed through his headache and dizziness. He felt disoriented and short of breath, but Clark’s words made him consider smiling. There was something refreshing about this situation. Perhaps, he thought, two can die more successfully than one. “I spent the night out here as well,” he muttered with as little expression as possible.
“Mind if I join you? Perhaps together we could figure out how to get back, or at least find some water.”
“Get back where?”
“To the park, I guess. At least I’m assuming you drove in for a day of hiking, same as me?”
Simon cleared his throat and glanced around. The sun was rising rapidly, melting shadows and making its presence a more piercing reality. He cracked his knuckles and looked at Clark.
“Anyone know you’re out here?” Clark asked.
“Maybe. They’ll just figure I’m off on some adventure. I play hard-to-get on the weekends.”
Clark grinned. “Yeah? I’m a little mysterious myself! So what do you do?”
Simon tilted his head. “Eh?”
“What’s your job, man?”
“Writer. Got a lot of free time.”
“Not your typical journalist, I presume,” ventured Clark.
“Freelancer. Whatever people need. Editing, copywriting, proofing, whatever.”
“You’re a man of precious few words for one whose business is such!”
It was a playful tease, but Simon decided not to answer. Some men have a bitter sense of that tired tension which asphyxiates every anxious conversation, of that restless wrath which scorches every printed page, melting words and phrases into mirages that rise like heat waves from asphalt blistered by the sun’s rigid attention. Clark was not one of these men; he cheerfully continued:
“Think we should get moving before the sun gets as fucking hot as yesterday?”
“Probably a good idea.”
“Feel weak at all?”
“A little. Got a headache and my mouth is dry as hell.”
“Same here,” laughed Clark. “They say you start seeing things!”
Simon remained silent to this revelation. It’s only the second day, he thought. The beginning of the second day. Melancholy has not yet given way to the great black monster. But it will, simply because it always does.
“Not like we’re gonna die, friend,” said Clark. “See that, way off over there? Looks like a group of shrubs or trees? Think there might be some water over there. What say?”
Simon breathed in slowly and felt his heart race. Exhaling, he shifted his feet, scratched at a persistent spot of dandruff on his scalp, and stretched his arms behind his head. Here now was something to be done. Now I can traverse the rocky nothingness instead of simply contemplating it. I can add misery to misery.
“Let’s go,” said Simon.
The mess of shrubbery proved to be of no encouragement. When they finally arrived, they found only sticks and stones and a few scattered bushes. The shrubs themselves were no different than any of the other sparse plant life populating this wilderness, with roots that searched deep into the ground for small pockets of moisture, and leaves and branches adapted to survival in a climate that offered little or no rainfall. There was a slight rise in terrain and a large outcropping of rock, which, from their original vantage point earlier that day, had lined up directly with what shrubs had been visible, giving a deceptive impression of an oasis. Against this outcropping Simon and Clark now leaned back, sitting forlornly in the dust, grateful only for the very small portion of shade they were allotted due to the current position of the sun.
“What now?” Simon spoke. “Any more great ideas?” Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
“It was worth a shot,” Clark answered, peeved. “What were you going to do, perch on that rock all day?”
Sticks and stones, sticks and stones, words will never hurt me. Simon looked away. His head was still pounding from the exertion of stumbling across this desert. At one point, he had tripped and scuffed up his right elbow, and a tiny trickle of blood had run down his arm and dried, a vein painted on thirsty flesh. He wondered if drinking blood was poisonous. He sighed and glanced around dumbly at the scenery. A paradigm shift: now I see the past with a present eye, but it is the same stuff—the same haughtily-alive trees, the same incumbent rocks, the desert in and of itself, and I am the only variable.
Turning to Clark, he grumbled: “You made it sound like you knew what you were doing.”
“Don’t accuse me, man, I’m in the same fix you are. We have to keep trying. There has to be water around here somewhere. And I’m pretty sure we’ll die if we just sit around.”
Simon stared at Clark. He could see that Clark was suffering as well—skin dried out, lips chapped and cracking open, and he most likely had that same sticky feeling in his mouth and that swollen tongue. But his eyes were still sparkling. There was something about his eyes that captivated Simon and even motivated him. Movement, soul, feeling—an illumination there that despised the very desert that might kill them both. Simon closed his eyes tightly and tried to think. Concentration was even harder than it had been this morning. He felt like taking a nice long nap.
Clark stood up and walked a short distance away, stopping at a shabby bush whose leaves had apparently been seared off by the sun’s heat. He urinated on the bush, and even from the distance Simon could see that his urine was a dark yellow. Barely enough sprinkled out to moisten the branches of the shrub, and Simon realized that he hadn’t felt the need to relieve himself for many hours now.
Clark returned. “We should go,” he almost commanded. Simon struggled to his feet, and a sudden dizziness clouded his vision and forced him to bend over, hands on knees, until he felt he could safely stand up.
“We can get out of here, Simon. We just have to keep moving.”
“Then let’s go.”
This time with no particular goal in sight, a direction selected at random, with as much hope as can be shared by two men who are feeling for the first time what it is like to be truly thirsty, Simon and Clark lurched on through the desert. In one man, the pleasure of the gods; in the other, awareness of the confrontation with an indifference that is at the same time majestic and banal.
That night the silence was broken only by tempers gone sour. Men can always tolerate one another when their needs have been fully met. But let one necessity be made unavailable, and we have an insight to man’s true nature. Let the most basic needs be unprovided, and we understand more clearly why men so cheerfully appeal to hell.
“I’m so thirsty.” Clark’s voice was raspy.
“Thanks for the reminder,” mumbled Simon. His voice was shaky, but the bitterness it carried crackled out in acrid clarity.
“Look,” said Clark. “I am no more in the know than you when it comes to this goddamn desert. You think I know how to get out of here any more than you? We’re lost. We haven’t had water or food for almost two days. Tomorrow is likely our last chance, if we don’t pass out permanently during the night, of course.”
Clark turned away from Simon and stared at nothing in particular. In the darkness, his eyes glittered.
“Did you hear me? I said, Fuck you! Fuck you and your fucking brainless optimism! We’re done for.”
Clark still made no answer.
Simon turned. “Bastard,” he whispered. “I can’t believe I wanted you to come with me.”
“Look,” said Clark. “I never gave you any indication that I could get us out of here for sure. I only offered companionship. If that makes you unhappy, I’ll leave. But I still think we can get out, and we can do it better if we stay together. Let’s take turns sleeping, just to be sure one of us doesn’t pass out. You can sleep first if you want.”
Simon was motionless. His head hurt, his eyes hurt, everywhere he felt dry, dry, dry—and how weak he was! He was tempted to give in, to just lie down and let his consciousness wither away into blank nothingness.
“You’ll wake me up?”
“I’ll wake you up sometime in the night and we can trade off. Just to be safe.”
Simon found a relatively flat place nearby that could serve as a bed. He knelt down slowly and brushed aside some rocks and pebbles, scraping painfully with his fingers. As his hands moved across the ground, he caught a small sliver of wood underneath a fingernail. He swore quietly and pinched it out, squeezing off the blood and sucking it with his mouth. He gazed up at the sky, studying the star-scattered blackness. For want of nourishment he felt incapable of appreciating this eternal ensemble. To comprehend its vast illumination had never been fully possible, but its nature had always been inspiring. Tonight—another place, another time—it twisted into a mysterious judgment. Thousands of tiny eyes sparkled down at him in damning laughter. The heavens were split wide open before him and all former associations were rendered null. As he was drifting to sleep, he wondered: does Clark draw his inspiration from this great mocking void?
Simon twitched awake just as a screaming naked man riding an emaciated horse was about to impale him with a spear. The man, the horse, and the jabbering yells of the dream-world quickly faded away and lost their meaning. He moaned and shut his eyes against the morning brightness. Where am I? he thought. Clark…where is he…I’m so weak. He rolled onto his side and slowly accustomed his eyes to the light. His whole body felt powerless and numb. Clark?
Nothing. Why is it morning? There, a hat…where have I seen that hat before? Haven’t I seen it before?
Using all his strength, he pushed himself up and managed to get into a sitting position. His mind was running wild with strange ideas that puzzled him. Oh—is this death already? Am I dead already? he wondered. I don’t understand.
He tried to shout. Nothing came out except a gargling sound for which English words have no real use. Clark, he whispered. Clark! Where are you? He kept chanting this name to himself as he struggled to stand up. Clark, Clark, Clark…
He stood up and looked around. He was alone in a desert. His pack was lying on the ground a few feet away, and a hat—Clark’s hat—lay next to it, flung down rudely. There was a walking stick, too.
Clark’s gone, he realized. I wonder why he left…but this was as much as his clouded mind could process. He started walking. He had no direction and no real intention. There was a tree on the horizon, and he focused his eyes on it, stumbling over rocks and scraping across the dried-up landscape. Water…I need water.
He wandered until he finally ran out of energy and collapsed, still murmuring to himself. Oh my God, where the hell am I? Clark! Clark, come on over here, help me get up. I need to go home now. I’m going to be late, Clark, I need to get back soon, they won’t believe me when I try to explain all of this.
He laid panting on the ground. To his left there was a jumbled group of smooth stones, and he stared at them, his attention riveted to the image before his burning eyes. Straining his arm, he reached toward the stones, yearning to grasp them in his hand, to take them as loaves of bread into his mouth and suck their fresh sweetness into his soul as the sustenance he so very much needed. But exhaustion overcame him, and his arm dropped to the ground. He sighed. There was nothing left to say now, nothing in particular to think about, and his mind came to that primal silence. He laid there quietly, staring at the loaves of bread.