I blew crust and what felt like rocks from my nose and inhaled, tasting the lungful of air for clues. The desert rarely gave off scents, save for the occasional waft of artemesia growing from lifeless ground. Despite my attempt, no trace of burned cedar or sage bundles remained to be smelled.
Did I not feast the night before? Did not those starry beings sit me at their table fires, and dance me proud around? The odor of that sweet flame remained only in my memory, but what had it meant? Had I been welcomed by the half-remembered folk, or had I fled in fear? It was plain that my mind had been knocked loose of its moorings and was not yet held fast; it recalled many possibilities and refused to take sides.
The war-dancers had been frightful in their beauty. Not wholly benign, they gracefully mixed swooping and whirling with motions of clawing, slashing. Even in recollection I was simultaneously drawn towards and repelled from these powerful figures. What had their dance meant?
How could it have happened at all, in the midst of this vast desert, miles from any road? Surely it must have been a lucid dream, provoked by heat, exhaustion, and fear. My hand was swelled near the base of my thumb, turning a dark purple. Surely the venom had done its work, altering my state of mind by poisoning my blood. The fever that still burned at my skin was proof of that. Was that it, then? Had I reached that plane of visions visited only by the spirits of a dead land? Was my journey over or was I still within the outlines inscribed by some wicked insect?
I remained in the area for the better part of morning, watching the sun as it crept slow and spiteful into the sky. Had it not stopped completely the day before, refusing to move at all? Like a fading dream teases the memory, I couldn’t quite recall. I no longer knew how long I had been lost.
I made a thorough search of the area, on hands and knees, until it was evident that I would find no remains. At what I judged was noon, I set out towards what I believed was north.
Behind me my footprints snaked back away to the wrinkled horizon. I had traveled through the afternoon and out of the day, which seemed to never pass. The sun scraped its way reluctantly across the sky, heavy and dragging through a deep blue sea. The desert haze above brought out unseen richness in the sunset, a mass of molten fire sat gold and fat on the edge of the world. Mesas and other formations stood like shattered teeth in silhouette.
My stomach rolled and heaved, reminding me that while my brain might be drifting into strange spaces, my body still functioned in its most basic and biological way. I had not eaten in days, and while the poisonous bite was causing most of my delusions, it was certain that my unintentional fast was gobbling up my reserved energy and playing its own tricks on my mind.
I was walking towards the broken teeth of mesas in the dying ember of sun when the world turned suddenly and my insides knotted. I dropped gagging to my knees, heaving air in deep, shuddering grunts. A cold sweat broke on my forehead, defying my needs and shedding my last bit of moisture through my pores. My kneeling limbs were trembling, and my hands had begun to shake.
After choking up a lot more air and shuddering against a feverish chill, I sprawled in the dirt and made up my mind to eat. This decision came with the knowledge that desert plants were few, and those that proved edible were fewer. I couldn’t see myself hunting; I had not eaten meat for over ten years and had no desire to begin again by eating some wiry desert mouse. My stomach churned again, and I found myself drooling at the thought of it.
When I found the strength to walk again, I stood and dusted off. There was grit in my mouth, sand in my nose and rimming my eyes. Slowly but deliberately I started off in the night for the distant black hoodoos. There must be outcroppings there, possibly canyons. In the wrinkled landscape of tight passages like those I had come through before, rainwater collected in occasional waterpockets and was held year-round in these folds. Around these natural tanks plants could grow, and the thought of finding something succulent and edible made my feet stumble swifter.
The stars emerged, whirling slow and soundless above me. I was certain that an enormous time had passed, double or triple the length of a normal night. I was still half-under the effects of the venom and delirious from hunger, my vision fading intermittently in and out of focus. My mind had the same frequent blurring, reducing even recent events to another half-finished scene in a dirty, disconnected tapestry. I found a rock with a man-sized hollow and crawled in to collect my thoughts. It wasn’t warmer in the tiny cave, but the close proximity of the walls kept the chill from my skin, and for the moment I was somewhat comfortable. I felt I could almost sleep. Only the tang of metal in my mouth and the flutter of my feathered heart, both artifacts of the unknown poison in my veins, kept me awake. My body had completely exhausted itself and refused to move. Slowly my breathing slowed, and the nervous prickling of fear subsided. I guessed that the venom was not going to kill me, regardless of the hallucinations caused by it. I had been stung long ago, what I considered at least twelve hours but maybe a day or more. While the furious scenes no longer burned across my vision, I could feel their presence at my periphery, ready to charge back in and take over. Even here in the relative safety of the cave, I saw flashes of fire in the corners of my eyes, eruptions that never happened, yet lit the cave nonetheless in patches of liquid strobe.
After a length of time the chill faded and I drifted into the darkness of dreamless sleep.
I awoke to screaming stiffness in my back and neck, my limbs ached and my head felt tight and glassy. The taste of metal was still in my mouth, reflexively I tried to spit it out. In those first moments of waking I dealt with my own discomfort, ignoring my surroundings until I had rubbed the circulation back into my arms and legs. My clothing was damp, or rather drenched, in a cold sweat that smelled like a mineral spring. This odor rose from me like steam, almost visible in the weird light. I noticed the deep blue shadows and looked from the cave’s mouth.
The moon loomed enormous and close, filling the width of the sky visible through the broad canyon I was in. I had never seen it appear so large and near, but somehow it’s features looked unfamiliar. The face we have all seen, the ‘man in the moon’, was gone. In it’s place, formed from mountains and valleys thousands of miles distant, was the vague shape of a bird. It was made of deep shadow, its eroded lines striking chords within what the toxin had left of my memory. I had seen this bird-shape before, in a photograph somewhere.
It had been large then, drawn on a scale a mile or more wide. It was in a book on Earth’s mysteries, one of those big, unwieldy picture books. The ideogram of the bird had been carved in Peru, so large that it could not be seen from the ground, only from the air. The obvious question was of its origin, of what primitive engineers had manifested such an artwork and what purpose it might serve to a community that had never- and could never- view it.
Yet what did this mean- some strange moon in a sky not mine? I reeled at the sheer immensity of what lay exposed above me. Alien sky.
Stellar maps of unimagined brightness and exploding floral mass spread across the fat black back of the universe behind it. The thickness of space was accentuated by the mountainous rim of this new, strange moon.
As the shadows of a setting star moved down from the moon’s mountains, they became an invading force running full speed down from the peaks to the over-bright flats. Again, it seemed that whatever I gave focus to was literally taken from time, cut apart from the meter of moments and stretched at will. In this instance of that odd effect, the speed that the shadows overtook the sand was both stretched and sped: it took longer to complete but was spreading faster than life.
As I turned these memories around in my mind, I got a sense of cohesion. The pieces of the puzzle did not yet fit, but at least I was conscious enough to know that there was a puzzle, and that it needed solving. With that my stomach rolled over, empty and loud, and I dry heaved twice, expelling nothing but a string of saliva into the sand.
I was not only hungry, I was empty. Had it been days since I had eaten?