The Temptation of Saint Anthony – Part Six

desertnightThat night, Gray paces the forecourt at the front of the motel. A concert is playing somewhere on the outskirts of town. Gray can hear the thud of the bass along the highway, lights are flickering in the sky. It is dusk, a dark blue light. The heat from the day still remains in the ground beneath him. He can hear two men arguing in one of the rooms, about a man called Donnie. The lights of a television flicker in the office. The shadows stretch across the plain, long, solid fingers pointing him out. He feels mollified by the evening. He enjoys the calm of desert nights. This is what he will take with him. His authentic experience, which will survive his irritation, his boredom and fear. I enjoyed the calm of desert nights.

As he is about to make his way back to his room, when he sees a figure walking out in the ground beyond the road. It appears on the very edge of the lights from the motel. Although he cannot be sure, it seems to Gray that it is the old woman he met on his walk to the town. She wears light colours, a white top and trousers which could almost be of a lemon shade; he thinks that he recognises her awkward, lumpy shape. Is she gesturing towards him? She raises her arm, and stands still, although Gray can’t be sure if she is facing him or looking away. He has walked to the edge of the road. The strip of tarmac appears to him now as a forbidding barrier. Down the road, he can see the light from an approaching car.

As he crosses the road, he almost slips into a ditch that runs on the blind side of the tarmac. His footsteps are unsteady, he walks tentatively as he makes his way through the gorse. His shadow dances ahead of him, a long figure, oddly tilted within the halo of light cast from the motel. Once he steps beyond the limits of this light, Gray’s eyes go into a kind of shock. As it passes, the shapes of rock formations appear, a cactus, the spread of the gorse over the earth. Desert coral: he corrects himself. Under the moonlight it resembles fur over a claw. Gray walks onwards. There is no sign of the woman. He calls out to get her attention, his voice echoing wildly across the plain, reporting back to him emptily. He removes his mobile phone from his pocket, and handles it. It has always struck him as an telling habit, expressing as it does his innate neediness. But here there is no one to see; there is no one to call.

He slips the phone back into his pocket. The moon is very bright, the landscape possesses a silvery unreal quality. These are dreams, all of it is a dream. His eyes are fully adjusted to the dark now. He catalogues the stars, the constellations he learned when he was a child. The Plough, Orion’s belt, Gemini, all tilted at an unreal angle for Gray, as though the natural balance of things has shifted; he dwells upon this indicator of his dislocation. The sky seems to open itself over him, raining downwards in diffusive particles of light. He feels something stir inside, a natural ecstasy separating from the chemistry of his brain. The music seems closer now and the pulse of the bass questions the inevitable answer of his heart. He runs his hand over a blade of rock, the seams and subtle changes of their geology. The latent heat still present in the stone. He feels, of all things, connected.

The animal comes upon him quickly. He hears the footfall first of all. Breathing. The shuffle of claws.  Gray feels a jolt of genuine fear. He feels the tail brush his legs as the creature drifts past him; he can hardly bear to look. And when he does look, he sees nothing. As he stands, wondering if he has imagined the visitation, whether his time alone and the whole fury of this episode of his life – the job, the lover, the expedition to the desert – has pushed him to the brink of insanity, out from behind an outcrop of rocks comes the dog from the motel. The pattern of its fur monochrome under the moon. Its eyes show up as glazed disks of silver, like thin pennies of quartz. It approaches Gray and rubs itself between his legs. Gray bends down to greet it. He is laughing, absurdly relieved, delighted at the companionship in this great lunar desolation. The dog lets out a satisfied little woof; it licks at his hands.

The old woman has gone. That is, if she were ever there. Gray returns to the motel, the dog panting at his heels. He is surprised at how far he has walked. The motel stands beyond the highway, looming and iridescent. The light from the forecourt expands and disperses, reflecting off motes and particles of moisture in the sky. As he waits by the road, the dog patient beside him, Gray can see the headlights of cars in the distance, moving onwards through the night. Gray stands away from the roadside watching the lights. But they are miles away, lost over the country, separated from him by perhaps hundreds of miles. They could be moving along a different highway. He has no idea if they will ever arrive.

Words © Daniel Bennett

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