Sunset in the Mojave. Next to their battered Wagoneer, my friends Barry and Marta squat on their hams finishing the dinner dishes – scraping the remains of my notorious pineapple venison chili onto a sun-burnished rock. Tomorrow the ants will have a feast. Marta’s friend Wendy, a woman I’d never met until this morning, kneels near our small fire a few yards away, alternately pouring boiling water through a little Melitta coffee filter, then brushing a stray lock of dark hair from her temple.

The four of us, tired from the day’s drive out from Bishop in the heat, have gradually begun to relax into the desert harmony of one another’s company. Economy of movement, economy of speech. Freedom.

Barry and I are old desert hands; have done plant research together, hiked the fierce canyons of the Panamint Range, shared a last bottle of warm Schlitz, and have slept out many a night under the desert sky’s glittering canopy. Once in a bar in Bishop (or Lone Pine, I was too drunk to really know) I saved him from a beating by three equally drunken gold prospectors; the only time I have ever pointed a firearm at another human.

I think we both know that he was actually trying to get ME killed, but his fucked-up little plan backfired. A year before this trip to the desert, I once found myself in bed with Marta, his wife, on a quiet spring afternoon. It was an accident, and we never repeated it, nor ourselves ever spoke of it again but one time. I never particularly regretted it, either; it had nothing to do with my friendship with either of them, and I’d had sex, or “made love with” Marta several times before she and Barry married; once or twice in the university herbarium on the prep table near Dr Stenholm’s world-renowned collection of Cypripredium, the lady’s-slipper orchids. A few days after my encounter with the married Marta, though, (and it was a very pleasurable encounter, too), she told him about it during an argument. Barry cried, got drunk, and threatened to kill me, but he never did. Ultimately, I made amends to each of them privately, but that’s another long story, with no end in sight even now.

We know each other pretty well, Barry and I, and I don’t guess we’d have a real falling-out over something as trivial as my having sex/love with his wife accidentally. I don’t think Marta takes either of us terribly seriously, anyway. Her husband she occasionally treats as though he were a demented but essentially harmless adolescent, and me like a somewhat devious and delinquent half-grown tomcat, or young raccoon.

Barry has listened to his share of my miseries over the years, God knows. And I’ve put up with his shitty jokes and bizarre impulses – sometimes dangerous impulses – far longer and more patiently than anyone but a true friend would.

Anyway, I’d been out in the Saline Valley working on Yucca brevifolia, the Joshua Tree, alone for a month and a half, studying its pollination by an elusive species of the moth Pronuba. Until a week or so ago, a young couple was camped about fifty yards away; he a graduate geology student, and his spouse or equivalent a poet or writer. They never wore clothes, and almost never seemed to speak to each other. Or to me. I saw them often though; naked, making their meals and puttering around their camp. One day when he was off from camp working, naked except for a pair of heavy boots and his map board, she came over – naked but for a pair of sandals, and very beautiful – to borrow some iodine and a bandage, which she applied to a blister on her heel while sitting totally unselfconsciously on a rock about four feet from me. I glanced surreptitiously and nervously at her dusky tan breasts, lean-muscled belly, and the cleft below the little strip of her downy chestnut pubic fur, and was speechless – literally faint – with desire. For one awful moment, I battled a powerful and near-irresistible impulse to slide my index finger in along her slightly parted, and I feverishly imagined, dewey, labia. I actually began to lift that finger to my mouth to wet it; then she caught me staring at her, and stared back insolently. She then scratched herself lightly where my finger wanted to be (please Dear God! Look after your brainless and impulsive servant Nikko), and carelessly and I now think with deliberate cruelty brushed a fingertip at a persistent fly over a reddish nipple as we were making what passed for small talk. She – Sylvie, I think she said her name was – asked me if I didn’t become lonely out here by myself; didn’t I have someone? I said yes; yes I was lonely, but was recently divorced from my wife, and not in a suitable condition for a relationship. She said she understood; was herself in an uncertain situation; not sure she wanted to continue being with a man who communicated in monosyllables. An intimate conversation for two people who had just met. Sylvie said that she – she didn’t mention her friend or husband – enjoyed my guitar playing in the evening. She offered to share some of her current writing with me; I said I would enjoy that.

At lunchtime, her rockhead husband or husband-equivalent came back and they ate lunch together. He was uncharacteris-tically demonstrative to Sylvie, and I guiltily imagined him glancing over my way disapprovingly, as though he was disappointed in me in some way. I tried to appear heartily innocent and really, really cheerful. That’s the kind of dizzy shit your brain starts to play off of when you’ve been alone for an extended period in a landscape that all but laughs at you.

In my loneliness, my mind began to wander into erotic back-alleys: Marta beneath me, breathing hard, her flushed face a lovely mask of orgasmic tension and torment as I touch the wet, swollen little sheath of her clitoris; she and I locked together; her hot, slick vagina gripping me as we rock together slowly, postponing the moment of our climax.

My ex-wife’s lesbian friend (our longtime roommate) standing with her back hard to me; one foot up on our (my wife’s and my!!!) bed, her legs parted. I’m kissing her neck and ears; with one hand, I am firmly holding her rigid, trembling lower abdomen. The fingers of my other hand are inside her swollen, juicy folds; I’m touching her; teasing her clitoris, circling the opening of her vagina; sliding my finger up into her to stroke the place where her smooth wet insides are thickened and sensitive; her g-spot. As I massage both her clit and g-spot, she groans from somewhere deep in her chest; her body strains forward and her legs begin to collapse. She sobs my name as her genital nerve endings ignite her entire body; her head rolls back against my shoulder, then she is coming and coming and coming; pressing my hands hard against herself; trying to mount herself onto me.

God, PLEASE: I am SO sick of these recycled memories, and there isn’t a cold shower for a hundred miles. Get me out of here!

The Nakeds left soon after; I didn’t get to read any of Sylvie’s writing, and although she had given me their address in Santa Cruz, I never saw them again. It wasn’t much of a friendship, but at least they were there, and she was wonderful to look at. As they drove away, and their little moving dust cloud followed them for at least twenty miles that I could see (with my binoculars!!), I tried to imagine them naked, filling their older Volvo station wagon with gas in Bishop – the stares they would draw from the local rednecks – but I couldn’t make them fit any way I knew of into a society that transacted everyday things like filling up a car with gasoline, or going into a Safeway store to pick up some milk and avocados. I just had never seen them with clothes on.

So, back to the present evening. After that much of solitary desert life, alone with my research, my guitar, and the skinny kangaroo rats and even skinnier coyotes, I am lonely for companionship. Brown shoulders and legs, sun-bleached hair, and a chronically blistered nose; I look and feel more lizard than human. It’s a wonder that I haven’t forgotten how to speak the English language. Alone two days ago in my camp, I experimented with a few lines of song aloud. The sound of my own voice shocked me: hoarse, and lower in pitch than what I hear in my own head.

With Barry, Marta, and the quiet Wendy here tonight, companionship beckons. Tonight there will be wine, talk, music of guitar and harmonica. Perhaps a little smoke. Not too sure about the peyote that Barry brought.

Dusk. Shadows lengthen, the valley light thickens into a viscous golden liquid. What is a harsh scene by daylight softens and metamorphoses into a Parrish-like, slightly hallucinatory mural of truly epic proportions; decidedly surreal, contrasting pastel colors; the immense scale of the mountains, the sheer size, and the enormous distances nearly incomprehensible.

To the west, the creosote bush-carpeted valley slopes up sharply to the craggy, forbidding crest of the Paiute Range. Joshua Trees dot the lower slopes, and a few scraggly pinon pine and junipers are scattered over the upper flanks. Sun-blasted cliffs and spires of rock. Then nothing. Just sky, deepening in color as the swelling orange sun slips down. A few stars begin to wink against the deepening velvet of the arid night. Away in the distance, up some lonely canyon, an owl hoots mournfully. Time for its dinner; a meal to be caught and consumed in solitude. A kangaroo rat perhaps, or a small reptile.

We four sit on the desert floor around the small fire of juniper sticks, the pleasing scented smoke curling upward in blue wisps in the still air. There’s a little communal tension as Barry takes peyote buttons one by one from a rumpled bread sack, and trims off the most nauseous parts with his old broken pocketknife. Veterans of many an impromptu chuckwalla butchering are they, he and his old Buck. This is not the first time they’ve teamed up to perform field surgery on peyote buttons, either. I don’t know how he managed it, but Barry earned a gilt-edged and acclaimed PhD degree from the University of California, mostly by harvesting peyote buttons in spectacular but godforsaken deserts across the southwest, and eating them “for the vitamins and minerals”, he says in a wry way. He never brags about his education the way lots of science doctors do. Marta and I pretend that he’s boring, but we both love him.

We’d talked about this peyote orgy a month ago on the telephone long-distance. Joked about the phony drug-mysticism. Although at the time I’d maintained I wouldn’t, I now know that I will eat some of those nauseous wrinkled buttons. It’s been years and years, the company is good, it feels right….why not? I’m as relaxed as I’ve ever been, and it seems so safe out here; what could possibly go wrong in this place? We could go mad and run off shrieking through the creosote bush until exhausted and fall down to be eaten by jackrabbits, I guess. So what?

So what?

Tense little jokes as we all wash down the fragments of vile-tasting cactus with warm red Inglenook. Barry, like a high priest administering communion, urges us to eat. He belches hugely, which nets a rather faint laugh from me; I’m not feeling too good in the stomach right at the moment. Marta hoots a low tune on her dented Hohner to divert her own attention from the inevitable nausea. I join her on my cracked Gibson, also fighting an unpleasant revolt taking place in my stomach….is it the vision-laden vegetable, or that wretched chili we ate earlier?

After a while, as dusk eases into night, Wendy lights some votive candles and places them around us on nearby rocks. The little flames rise straight and unwavering in the stillness.

Our tiny fire, fed from a carefully hoarded stack of small juniper sticks, adds its magical fragrance to the light, warm air. We sit in a pool of soothing yellow light; the only such for miles and ages around, it strikes me suddenly. We could be the only humans on earth. Might as well be.

I have to laugh a little bit at the silliness of our being out here for no real reason except to get high. I do laugh – out loud – and am surprised at how rich and knowing my laughter sounds in this enormous emptiness. The last people on earth! And then I’m laughing, and it’s all very funny and deeply, sweetly poignant, and suddenly I’m laughing and crying and in love with this spot of parched mystical earth in the desert, in love with my friends, and with the hoot of my blood brother the owl.

Deep, ringing, resonant notes spring ecstatically from my fingers and the bronze strings of the old flattop guitar.

The guitar is breathing, I swear it; breathing its music to the meaningful stars so close. And the stars are singing back, of course. Their ancient, timeless song fills the universe and my soul, and they are one; the universe and my soul.

Barry and Marta and Wendy move closer, their dark loving eyes filled with sweet candlelight, peyote, and innocent awe at the sparks of music and truth flowing from the ancient thin wood and taut bronze in my hands. Only they’re not my hands; the hands with bone and tan skin and pulsing warm blood, they are the hands of mankind. Of God. So perfect, so inevitable; this song has waited patiently through the eons to be discovered, liberated. Beauty fills this enchanted circle of warmth and love, and gently saturates the earth and the waiting night. A waterfall, a cascade of clear, ringing beauty pours from my brown fingers and the breathing guitar, and into the soft light air.

The song ends, and I watch sadly as the last notes float over Barry’s shoulder and into the waiting void. The music – truth – goes its own way now as I set the guitar down, its work of first discovery and liberation accomplished. Marta, in a thea-trical, significant voice that cracks us up into hysterics drawls luridly: “There, THAT oughtta hold ‘em for a while!”. We know exactly what she means, too: the vanguard truth of pure music finally bringing some peace to the exhausted but still-vicious world. We chuckle, knowing we’re just high on peyote, and yet, and yet…..

And Wendy. I hadn’t really looked at Wendy before, or maybe seen her; not in this way. She is exquisitely beautiful by the soft flickering light of the candles and the fire. Dark, thick wild hair and dark eyebrows, long dark eyelashes, luminous deep eyes, and a finely molded face. A hint of knowing sadness, or the rich, reticent empathy of the truly wise is about her. Her movements are graceful; simple but elegant, like a deer or an antelope. There is something knowing, yet trusting about her.

She is seeming more and more to me like a benevolent witch, or something between a witch and a lovely, innocent child.

I can’t stop looking into her eyes, nor apparently she into mine. A thin shaft of paranoia lances through me: perhaps she is a witch of some sort, and has put a spell on me…….and at that exact moment, and without a word, she smiiiles at me with warmth and friendship; then gets up, leans over me briefly to take my cup, and goes to the jug to pour me some wine. Her hands are brown, slender, and look soft. I watch her step off lightly, candlelight flickering on her long smooth tan legs and arms. Her scent, musky and feminine, lingers until she returns to put the cup gently into my hands.

The wine she has brought me I didn’t really want; I need nothing more now in this perfect moment. The desert, my home, is around and in me, and I am in it, at peace. I belong here, with the billions of brilliant godlike stars distantly wheeling their precise way over us; regally, majestically, yet benevolently. For a moment again, I feel alone. Not lonely, exactly, but wanting an affirmation of my humanity. The dark woman who has seated herself next to me I barely know; yet we are brother and sister, together in a way that is not defined, but is nonetheless archaically deep, and now utterly empathetic.

She is looking quietly into the fire and smoothing with her palm a small mound of fine sand between her brown feet. The skin of her bare arm is so satiny-looking, I wonder what it would feel like to touch?……and before the question is half-formed in my mind, my fingertips as if drawn by an invisible wire or a magnetic field, are lightly stroking her silky forearm. She does not turn to look at me, but I see a tiny upturn at the corner of her mouth, and her soft, slender hand takes mine and holds it a moment.

I look away, at Marta and Barry; she sitting with her head resting on Barry’s shoulder. His arm is around her back. My heart fills with love for these dear and special friends. Do I speak the words I Love You aloud? Or is it only a ripple which passes between us? Barry smiles at me yeeeessss, I love you too my brother, and closes his eyes.

My head turns again to look at Wendy, also with her eyes closed now, and looking childlike and trusting. Her breasts against the thin fabric of her sleeveless shirt are rising and falling with her breathing; slowly, but in perfect cadence with the deep expectant breathing of the night around us, which I notice with surprise. And again unbidden by the brain or the shoulder or the arm to which it is nominally attached, my hand reaches out to unbutton Wendy’s shirt. I am looking into her eyes as I do this, and her eyes are looking back, asking what?; and saying yes. The skin of her shoulder and warm breast are so incredibly…….so velvety soft. Both of us make a small gasp of surprise and pleasure as her nipple stiffens against my gently stroking fingers.

Her hair brushes my shoulder as she leans her head against me. Her face turns to mine, and we are kissing deeply, and her shirt is open and her warmth and softness are in my hands and her taut nipples against my fingertips. No words pass between us: it is skin speaking to skin, and hands asking, and our bodies saying yes, yes please, I want you.

Ages – eons – pass, and the night is now breathing hard; panting. Somehow we have become naked in the candlelight upon a blanket, our bodies and our desire forming a vector which we both know and want, yet of which we are both a little afraid. Her slim body is so beautiful, so mysterious; her head turned aside and her eyes closed; her thighs apart. I kiss her everywhere, and when my lips touch the sweet, silky warmth and softness between her legs she sighs and her body arches; a warning, or an offering. Please, Please. My fingertips trace her nipples, the tension in her stomach and thighs. She trembles, then whimpers once as my mouth touches her again. Please….

I come to her, and we are looking into one another’s eyes; hers filled with tears. Unwilling to stay and afraid to go on.

I am high; SO high: higher than I have ever been in my life.

The universe is poised, waiting, tensed expectantly, trembling upon the brink of some cataclysmic convulsion. We are together here, and alone, at the end of all worlds; the edge of time and space, where matter ends and pure love begins.

And then I enter her slowly and her heat and her life and soul are gripping; holding me, and for eternal moments we are clinging to one another; utterly helpless now, and frightened.

I don’t know how much time passes…. seconds or hours. The tug of our bodies is now beyond volition, we have become one being, with no division between our skins, senses, or souls. I feel in my own body the hot throb in her silky swollen genitals, the tense agony in her abdomen and thigh muscles; her limbs trembling, the clench of her teeth and jewellike scatter of tears on her cheekbones. Her fright and longing are mine, and my blind desperate yearning are hers.

We see one another momentarily again through hot tears; hear one another through our own gasps, as if through a kaleidoscope. Hurtling in upon one another; falling; burning in a white heat; dissolving; too late now to stop or pause or go back to pray or regret.

September 2018
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