BEN MITTEN

A Song Unto the Land

 

            The window had been open, and the sound of them came running in. The wind had been still, quiet, but now under the soles of their feet it precipitated them in whispers of premonition. The boy knew it was them, and when he ran to the window he saw the men who had been shouting. Following them were the women and in their arms the children placed haphazardly, but behind them all hung the dust suspended tentatively and fractured in the air. A few men held the guns tight against their chest, but others hoisted them up over their heads against a backdrop of fists and knives, all in the repetitive patterns of convulsion. The boy ran to his father and when he saw him asleep in his chair he ran to the back door and followed them down the road.

     He was playing the guitar when he saw him come up to John Jackson. John Jackson was sitting next to his wife and the boy was playing his guitar behind them, and when he finally reached them he stood tall, looking down at them. Even when he stopped playing there were only the slight whispers, the vague generality of comprehension surrounding them. He was talking to him, and he would plead to John Jackson but he would shake his head and they would continue talking. He had on a straw hat and both John Jackson and his wife were dwarfed under it. The blue bandana wrapped around his neck blew in the wind. The boy saw him bite his tongue when John Jackson stopped talking and then he left. The boy played the guitar.

     The dust rose and flanked the boy on all sides. He did not go into the crowd; it was held too close together. He jogged at a fair trot behind them. Dirt filled the top of his mouth.

     The crowd was loud and fluid, like the running channel of a river. Those with a weapon of some kind swung them as in a maelstrom, while those with empty hands would grab on to the person nearest them and shake them like a doll. A man punched another man and he fell into a ditch.

     Alongside the road there came a footpath, and the crowd filtered into it. First the hill trickled down and narrow, but then as it wound its way to the bottom it twisted, so that they found themselves traveling along the base of a hill. On the other side of the hill the path led down once more and now they were in a small plain at the base of another hill. Like steps in a staircase the largest hill in front of them dodged and curved up and down, so that the plateau jutted perpendicularly from the wall of the mountain above them.

     The crowd joined the others already there, many of which were empty handed, and now it became louder. The boy was still at some distance but he could hear the talk of the townspeople.

     “. . .holed up on there.”

     “. . .goddamned monster.”

     “. . .no mercy.”

     “And there’s been no sign of him?”

     Paul Minston shook his head, leaning against the wall. “They’ve been looking for him for days but they’ve got nothing. Just a dead body and a lot of questions.” He looked down at the boy. “I’m hoping he never taught you that trick. It’s a wonder your father let you spend a day with that man.” 

     His father shook his head. He pulled the boy toward him. “Thank you, Paul.” The door shut and the boy could feel it, the hot concentrated gaze of his father, even from his chair across the room. He sat still, looking at the ground.

     The boy saw a dry riverbed that cleared a path up the hill, covered with walls of brush and boulders. He stepped away from the crowd and ran over to it. Every so often he would slip under a loose rock and lose his balance, then he would pick himself up and grab the next rock with his hands and continue on.

     At the top of the hill he could see everyone down below. They shifted around like ants, restless, sustained in the circumambient pattern of their motion. He turned and continued on.

     The brow became softer. At the very edge of the crest the bush and cacti began fading away as though dragged back down toward the plain.

     When he made it onto the crest itself there was almost nothing, only the terse blanket of the flat dust gently situated on the sparse dry earth, the thin film settled as a finish on the polished surface so that the light from the sun refracted in terms of yellow and red. There was only the crowd of the saguaros towering into the sky, pressed deeply against the mountain wall, crossing over and in front of each other in frozen concordance, and underneath them was John Jackson, sitting cross-legged in the fine red dust of the summit.

     He was playing a guitar. His fingers moved swift and nimble across the fret board, his face focused straight ahead. He did not seem to notice the boy.

     The boy came up and sat down beside him. He did not stop playing but turned his head ever so slightly and gave out a faint smile. He put the guitar down and faced the boy.

     “I’ve never heard you play that song before, papi.”

     “I didn’t want to intimidate you, mijo.”

     “You can’t intimidate me,” the boy laughed. “I’m getting better every day.”

     “Oh really? How about where we last left off?”

     “I’ve tried my bit, papi. But it’s difficult for me to change the chords that fast. And then my picking hand begins to bleed sometimes. But I can try.” The boy reached for the guitar. John Jackson held up his hand, and put the guitar back.

     “Perhaps another time.”

     The boy held his hands outstretched when John Jackson held the guitar, and even as he put it back inside his closet he still smiled at him, as if to coax him back from his decision. John Jackson smiled and said, “It’s behind bars now.” The boy laughed and ran to the bed and, seeing it lodged between the drawer and the bed, picked it up and held it back from the man. “You aren’t going to get your bandana back, then!” John Jackson did not come over to take it. He stood there, silent for a moment. His eyes were as blue as the bandana.

     The boy stood at John Jackson’s hand awhile, then turned back towards the mouth of the hill.

     “There’s a lot of people down there,” he said.

     John Jackson looked ahead of him and stared.

     “The whole town’s been abuzz about you this whole week. I saw them today running for you. I saw one of them crying, and another one shouting. They’re making a big rustle down there. It hurts my ears.” The boy turned back and walked up in front of him. He broke his stare and looked up at the boy’s face. “Why are they mad at you?”

     He looked ahead again. The boy continued to look down.

     “Here,” John Jackson said, and he reached out for the guitar again. “Listen to this. I have been developing this one for a year now. It’s a special tune.”

     “What makes it special?”

     “What makes it special,” he said, “is that it is not just meant to be sung to the living, but to the land as well. There are many who forget the land itself often needs a song to listen to.” He patted the ground next to him. “Come here, mijo.” The boy sat to his side, cross-legged, just like John Jackson. He began to play.

     First the notes were faint and sustained, controlled. His fingers rolled off the notes almost as if they had lost their own grip, but they continued on, unfaltering and undisturbed by their own fluidity.

     At first the music hovered about the guitar; then the boy found that it had made its way to him as well and contained the both of them. When it reached the wall it sprang back and then encircled the entire hilltop, eventually drifting off the edge, rushing down so that the animals and cacti and things of the desert heard it, flowing down so that even amongst the talk of the people it impressed its mark.

     It is beautiful, thought the boy. It is better than when he played for his wife. Which was better than when he had played in the bars. But the men had very much enjoyed him playing in the bars. They liked it so that they sat closer, to hear. But it was not as good as it was for his wife. But she was not the wife then. They were sad when it was empty and quiet and wanted him to play again. But he played for his wife and did not need to play for them anymore, because it was better. But this is better than when he played for his wife.

     They sat like that for some time, John Jackson playing and the boy listening, and he had not yet stopped until suddenly his head straightened and the music cut off. He looked at the mouth of the summit.

     “Mijo, leave--now.” Without getting up, he pushed the boy back and the boy fell backward. “Get down the hill.” His gaze was fixed at the lip of the hill.

     From where he lay the boy saw how behind him the saguaros rose downward into the sky. He looked at them silently, and then he began to feel his heart pound quicker than before. He got up and saw him still staring ahead. The boy took a few steps to the side, then ran to the saguaros and dodged between them, going in so that he was hidden among the outstretched arms. He could see thinly between the thick limbs.

     It was silent for some time. Then they came up: heads first, vague, all distinctions being vested of them from the encircling sun; then their bodies appeared as though from the dust itself and similarly composed--rough and disheveled and all the while threatening dissolution. There were four of them. The one in front was Manuel de Vargas, his straw hat shadowing his face and his blue bandana concealing his neck. He was a sharp, thin man and John Jackson and him always used to accompany each other to the bars. They always went together, and Manuel de Vargas would prepare the drinks while John Jackson would prepare his guitar. They would down their drinks together and carouse together. They would always drink a lot, being thirsty, as they would come straight from a day of shooting. Manuel de Vargas was new to the pistol and it was John Jackson that had offered to teach him its proper use; it was John Jackson that had often stood behind him as he aimed and steadied the shaking hand with his own; and so guiding Manuel de Vargas he would put his heart against his so as to show him how slow it must be to shoot, so that each became simultaneous in time, waiting, sitting still under the gaze of the perched sun of noontime, sitting and waiting until finally the rabbit would emerge out of his hole, until they would see the beginnings of the ears slowly rise up, twitching, then the head and all the while still waiting for the body to appear and take its place on the plain ahead of them, all the while attaining a steady patience, and now with the whole rabbit under Manuel de Vargas’ aim he leaned in closer and whispered in his ear to release, and listening he held his breath one last time, then released, and he watched as the rabbit looked straight ahead against the peremptory pull of the trigger.

     The other men followed Manuel de Vargas and did as he did. They had always followed him, but never when he was with John Jackson; but now behind him they guffawed and motioned to one another.

     He had not moved as they had walked toward him. For now it was only the heavy breathing of Manuel de Vargas that carried the air. He looked down at him, his face caught in the look of confused curiosity.

     “You killed her.”

     He let the guitar rest on his lap, one hand on the neck.

     “You son of a bitch. You killed her. You actually killed her.”

     He stared ahead.

     “She would have followed you to the ends of the earth. Do you even realize what you’ve done?”

     “She was already dead to me,” he said.

     “Shut your damn mouth,” said one of the other men.

     John Jackson turned back the other man’s gaze. “Although there was a time when I truly did love her. That’s the truth.”

     “That’s a lie,” said Manuel de Vargas. One of the other men guffawed and cheered him on. Manuel de Vargas did not react. He looked deep into his eyes. “How could you have ever loved her?”

     “You know I loved her. I gave up everything for her. Could I have done that for someone I hated? I loved her above everyone else.”

     Beads of sweat glistened off Manuel de Vargas’ forehead. His hand twitched as it reached for his holster, and then the gun shone brighter in the sun than his forehead.

     “You got a lot of angry people down there. A lot of people who wouldn’t mind making sure you got a lot of pain for all the pain that you’ve given.”

     “Are you going to shoot me?”

     “It’ll be quick. I’m merciful, and I’ve become a nice aim with the--“

     “Stop your damn shaking, then, and get it over with.”

     Manuel de Vargas felt the gun in his hand. His fingers drummed the hilt of the gun.

     “You’re not scared?”

     “You should know I stopped caring a long time ago.”

     Manuel de Vargas licked his lips. With both hands he raised the gun to his chest, cocked skyward, rubbing the hilt.

     “Alright, then.”

     “I’ll give you a hand if you need it,” one of the men came forward.

     “Don’t you dare!” He pushed the man back. “He’s mine. Let me do what I came here to do.”

     “Then why don’t you just get it over with?”

     “You shut up!” Specks of spit jeweled the ends of his lips. “I’d throw you to the crowd myself if I didn’t hate you so much, if I wasn’t so ready to be the one to put the bullet through your heart.”    

     “Do it, then.”

     Manuel de Vargas tightened his grip on the gun. Still shaking he raised it with both hands so that it extended straight in front of him, taking aim at his heart. He still sat cross-legged, his hair twitching in the wind.

     “You’re dead to me.”

     “And then what happened?”

     The cup of water had come for the boy, and he had stopped to drink from it. While he did so the man adjusted the jacket he had wrapped around the boy. The boy looked up, meeting the crowd of eyes that were waiting for what he would say next. Above them all was the plateau.

     “I ran out from behind the saguaros.”

     “Why’d you do that?”

     The boy looked up at the man, watching as his mustache wavered in the wind.

     “He was about to shoot him. And when I saw that I yelled for him to stop, and ran out from behind the saguaros.”

     “And then he shot him?”

     “Yes. Five times.”

     “What happened next?”

     “I ran.”

     “No. To the man?”

     “I didn’t see anything else.”

     “My boy,” he said, patting his back, “you’re in good company now. No need to lie. What’d they do to him?”

     “I didn’t see anything.”

     “But what happened after they shot him?”

     But the boy didn’t hear what he had said. He was thinking, the image of his mind like it was then, straining with the tears and the dizziness in his head, the floor reeling, everything else undefined and confused but that of Manuel de Vargas’ figure; once again seeing the perverse shock of his face, his mouth open like a storybook illustration drawn out of all proportion, his mouth still open as he turned to John Jackson, saying, “God damn you”; and before he was even able to get on his feet, before the mouth had closed its outrage, the five explosions rang through the air, so that even his own screams were drowned out in their aftermath. Then he was on the ground, face down in the pool spreading across the barren plateau, still cross-legged. Then the explosions faded away, and there were only his own screams, but the four other screams soon overtook his, all joined together as the four of them descended upon the man in the pool and overcame him, assaulting him, their pistols lurching in and out, Manuel de Vargas at the head of them all and leading by example. The shredded remains of the man’s clothes flew into the air, a stunning carnival of confetti raining down from above, covering them all and gaining color from the pool on the ground.

     The boy saw it all, the scene before him as clear as a picture, as silent.

     “My boy,” he said. “Speak to me. What happened? What’d they do to John Jackson, my boy?”

     The boy put down his water and stared ahead.

     “You’re in a safe place now. You don’t need to worry. But I need to know what happened. You can tell me that, right?”

     The boy stared ahead. The man looked from the boy to the crowd, then back again.

     “Please cooperate with me, my boy. We heard noises. We know something happened. But there’s no more need for you to worry. You’re in a safe place now, my boy,” but the boy continued to stare ahead. “Please talk to me, my boy; it’s alright now. What happened? Look at me when I talk to you. Talk to me, boy. Boy. Boy!”

     When John Jackson stopped playing the guitar he wanted to try it and show him what he had learned on his own. But the bar was closing and now the guitar was already back in its case. Suddenly it became quiet, and he felt as he always did when the music ended, when the night was over and John Jackson would take the guitar with him so that there would be no more music that night. But then he thought to himself that there was always the next day, and he smiled. There was tomorrow, he was not gone forever, and perhaps, if he was lucky enough, he would even let him play the guitar. Yes, he thought to himself, smiling, he is not gone yet--there is always tomorrow. 

Benjamin Mitten lives in the state of Arizona. He has had his work appear in Black Heart Magazine, The Rusty Nail, and Clapboard House. He devotes his spare time to writing and reading, enjoying all varieties of the written word.