Photo: Miguel Vigil
I see nothing but darkness. It is stiff, poking and jabbing me at all sides. From above, cold liquid begins to seep in and surround me. The cool is refreshing, invigorating even, yet the way it wraps around me brings forth a small knot of anxiety. The liquid continues to flow, with no soon signs of stopping. The knot grows. In fear, I cry, “Brother! Help me! It is dark and I cannot see! There is liquid surrounding me and it will not stop!”
A voice calls down to me. It is calm, soothing; a spreading warmth. “Peace, Sister. Look! The liquid you feel is water, and the water is falling from the sky. Water is good. It will help you grow. If you let the water in, then you will be able to reach the edge of the ground and the beginning of the sky.”
My knot of fear begins to loosen, yet some tension remains. “But I don’t know how to let water in so that I can grow and reach the sky!” He answers, “If you think, you will not get any water. If you feel, then you will be able to receive all the water your heart desires.”
For three days and three nights, I try to do as he says. What if the water kills me? Why is it so cold? What if it doesn’t work, and I never reach the beginning of the sky? The questions of fear are ever-present; the more I try to feel, the more I end up thinking. The more I try to let go of my thoughts, the faster they come running back.
Yet, on the morning of the third day, I manage to let a single droplet of water in. The water is cool and, as soon as it enters, I feel a surge of energy run through me, as if my being has finally seen the beginnings of a sky all its own. I begin to grow, taller and taller, until I breach the end of the ground and see the light at the beginning of the sky.
On a day when the sun appears to be in a particularly bad mood, content on seeing me shrivel until I am as thin as air, I look up at Brother, and notice for the first time just how tall he really is. So, I say, “Brother, why are you so tall? I have now reached the beginning of the sky and have escaped the end of the ground, but I cannot see past those rocks to the east or those brambles to the west. I do not like being this short! How can I reach the clouds in the sky like you?”
Brother looks down at me and replies, “What is wrong with being short?”
“I cannot see everything you can see!” I snap.
With a warm sigh, he answers, “And yet I cannot see everything that you can see. Enjoy the view from where you are. You will never be able to closely examine each ant as they walk by or stare a packrat in the eye when you are tall like me. The day will come when you too can reach the clouds up above.”
I hear these words, but my yearning to reach the clouds up above grows even stronger. Every day, I see the same ants walk by and the same packrats that sit and stare me in the eye. I see nothing but the rocks to the east and the brambles to the west.
However, one day, as I watch the ants walk by, I see a tarantula out for a stroll, and a rattlesnake soaking in the sun, and family of quails bickering over the last morsel. All these things I notice for the first time.
Fifty years come and go, until the day comes when I am too tall to see the ants walk by or the tarantula out for a stroll. I miss them.
After a cool winter comes and goes, spring arrives with the blooming of desert wildflowers that grow up the rocks and in the washes. While the morning is still young, I look beside me and see big, bright flowers of white and gold blooming on top of Brother’s head. They are beautiful and elegant, seeming to reflect the sunlight off their pearl petals. Mourning doves and bees flutter and buzz around them, drinking the sweet nectar that grows within.
“Brother, how is it that you have white flowers on your head? I have never seen anything as beautiful as those flowers! How did you come to have them?” I ask, mildly jealous yet whimsically curious.
In a voice as soft as the spring breeze, he replies, “Both you and I have reached the clouds up above, but only I have truly contemplated them, truly tried to understand them. You can now see the hill we sit upon, the running wash that weaves below, the mountains to the north, and yet none of these things have you taken the time to comprehend. Only when you do this will you be able to properly give the world what it needs. You will give it flowers and, eventually, red fruit, when you have seen and known these things and have taken them into your heart.”
I look in amazement at Brother’s flowers once more. I had not known that there was a way for one meager saguaro like me to give something to the world, even if it was something as small as a flower petal or a red fruit. With this amazement in me, I try, for ten years, to contemplate the clouds in the sky, and to understand the hill, the wash, and the mountain. What else is there to understand? What else is there to contemplate? A mountain is a mountain. A cloud is a cloud. A hill is a hill.
However, as I look at the mountains to the north, I begin to see how they push the clouds toward the top of the sky so that they float right over our heads without giving us rain. I gaze upon the wash, and notice how it swells after the monsoons come, filling the desert with its life-giving water. I ponder the hill on which I stand, and see how it is covered with saguaros, many of whom have flowers of their own, but some that have none as I do.
One spring, as I contemplate the clouds up above and mountains to the north, I notice for the first time the buzzing of bees and the flapping of mourning doves around my head, as they flutter from flower to flower, drinking the sweet nectar from within.
I contemplate the hill one summer, a year after my first bloom, and notice that many of my fellow saguaros have great arms that stretch past the sky and toward the heavens. I see that Brother has these as well, four to be exact, and become curious as to why I had never paid much attention to them before.
“Brother, I see that many saguaros on the hill have arms just as you do. Some have only one arm, while others have many. How is it that you and the rest have arms? I am quite happy with the flowers upon my head and the long stem which I have now achieved. It had not occurred to me before now that there was more.”
Brother replies, deeply and slowly, “You are not the first. Many become complacent in the world of the visible, for they know not the deeper fulfillment in the contemplation of the unseen world.” I look at him with an expression of curious puzzlement. His voice, heavier and more laborious than it used to be, continues: “You have borne the white flowers on top of your head and have reached the clouds up above, but you have not looked past what you can see around you. You have contemplated and attempted to understand everything in the world that you can see, but not that of what you can’t see. Have you tried to understand the wind that blows, or the songs of the birds in the morning? Have you pondered the darkness of night, and why it turns to day? Have you the knowledge of how we come to stand on this hill and why we are here? When you have attempted to answer these questions, you will grow arms that stretch up past the sky and toward the heavens,”
I reply in confusion, “How can I understand fully that which I cannot see?”
“You can’t. But you can try as best you can, and in your pure pursuit of deeper knowledge and wisdom, you will be given the gift of arms, with which you can bare more flowers and fruit, and where you can cradle the owl and her nest, or the woodpecker and her young.”
Longing to know what this deeper fulfillment felt like, yearning to know what made the saguaros with arms different from those without them, I attempt to focus deeply on the wind that blows on my face, and the songs of the birds in the morning. I watch as the darkness of night comes and turns to morning when the stars disappear. Yet I see nothing that causes the wind, nor a way for the sounds of birds to be created. I see no reason for light to exist, nor a reason for the sun to disappear into the ground only to come back again.
Perhaps? The wind is the breath of the mountains that we feel as they inhale and exhale, just as the animals do. Or perhaps it is the warning call of the clouds as they roll by, their signal to let us know they are coming before they arrive. Is the song of the birds coming from inside their throat or their stomach? Perhaps one or the other, both or neither.
“Brother, I think I know why the darkness of night comes and gives way to morning!” I say with much enthusiasm one autumn afternoon.
Brother chuckles and says, “Oh? And why is it?”
“The Sun is angry and thoroughly dislikes us. He works to make our lives miserable by throwing down many rays of sunlight so that we are always too hot. But the Moon is happy and kind and thinks we do not deserve to be hot all the time, so she battles the Sun with her swarm of stars and brings us the dark. Then, once the Sun has regained his strength from the battle, he comes back with a vengeance and scares away all of the stars before proceeding to chase the Moon back underground until the next night.”
Brother is silent for a moment, the wind whistling between the thorns on his arms. He then replies, “Perhaps that is what happens. Indeed, there is no way to know if you are right or wrong. Yet it is clear; you are now worthy of arms, for you have just discovered your imagination.”
As I watch the battles in the sky twilight after twilight, I begin to feel the flesh of my stem give way, and an arm begins to extend and raise itself toward the heavens.
One hundred and twenty years after the day I breached the end of the ground and the beginning of the sky, a roaring storm sweeps over the hill, throwing rain and wind about so wildly that the owl and her nest are nearly tossed from my arms. The sky bellows and causes the earth to quake and is shortly followed by the splitting of the air with cracks of light. I become concerned as the storm grows in intensity, with each sky split occurring ever closer to the hill where Brother and I stand.
The darkest clouds hang above us, the angriest of them roaring and howling with such veracity that my stem begins to bend and shake under their wails. A crack of light extends from the sky in a deafening clap. The crack recedes into the sky as quickly as it came, and the fiercest of the growling ceases, but my fear only grows as I hear a strange groan emanate from Brother. I look over to see his green skin charred to a crisp grey and crackling brown. His majestic arms, all seven of them, glow orange. Terrified, I yell, “Brother! Brother! Your arms! They glow! How is it that they glow, Brother?”
Instead of his calm, heavy voice, there is another deep groan, followed by silence. The rain continues to fall, and the sky continues to yell, yet I hear nothing but the deep quiet of Brother. I wait, then meekly say, “…Brother? …Can you hear me?” Nothing. Then a creak. A snap. Another snap. He tilts slowly, then all at once falls over in a loud crash that echoes over the hill.
“Brother?…….Brother?…….How is it that you can fall, and I stay standing?”
The air is thin and steaming, and the woodpeckers burrow deeper into my many arms to escape the anger of the Sun. The washes are dry, as there has not been any water for the past few months. Yet, in the west, grey clouds have collected, promising the rain of the monsoons.
As the rain begins to fall, I look over to my side and see the brown ribs of Brother, the skin of the stem entirely gone and the roots absent. I ponder the ribs of Brother, and notice that to the other side of the ribs, which I had never been able to see before Brother fell, was an even older set of ribs. They had been broken in half by many an animal foot, and now house many insects and small animals.
Suddenly, I hear a small sound, a voice slightly muffled and calling in distress. I look down and hear that it comes from the ground. Puzzled, I listen harder, and am able to make out these words: “Mother! Help me! It is dark and I cannot see! There is liquid surrounding me and it will not stop!”
This short story was written by Arizona -Sonora Desert Museum Education Intern, Zia Leigh. Zia graduated from the University of Arkansas in the Spring of 2019 with a B.S. in Biology and a minor in English. Her goal is to become a Park Ranger and she hopes to one day publish a fantasy novel.