Mountain Pass

It was a strange day when the man rode in. He wore leather boots of a make we hadn’t seen before. His hat too: there was something indefinite about the hat. Altogether the impression he made was unworldly; perhaps it was a man from another time who dismounted then before us.

Easy, confident steps disturbed the gravel as he walked. He was nearing us. We stood abreast on the saloon porch, eyeing him, but he continued to advance. Could he not feel the weight of our stare?

At the middle of the road he turned and headed for the Inn. He never looked back, or even seemed conscious of our presence. Any one of us could have struck him from that distance, but we dared not. We were too intrigued.

His bravado, however, was not what impressed us. He might be brave, but so is a man who puts his own gun to his head. What captured us was the strangeness of it all, and his firm, even tread. That was the oddest thing of all.

I turned back to the saloon. On the face of my compadres I saw the same puzzled look: not, “Who is this stranger with his queer intentions?” but, “Why?” Strangeness in itself is the charm of the desert; it is the motive that harbors the mystery.

The people in the saloon began asking questions immediately:

“Where was he from?”

“What did he want here?”

But to all the questions I remained silent. Intrigue had overcome me. Something about the man was familiar, something dark in the black of a moonless night. Where were the words I needed?

I stood and nodded to my compadres. I decided to retreat to the peace of the mountains, to gather my thoughts. Perhaps the coyote would lend me his solitude, or the twilight her clarity, or the silence its penetrating depth.

I loaded my burro and kicked him on the sides gently. He complained, but submitted.

We entered a grass field leading to the mountains. The sun was strong, but low in the sky. It struck the tall grasses so that the tops were bright but the stalks were cloaked in shadow. The burro was nervous, but not stubborn.

We soon came to a clearing of shorter grass. A small creek from the mountains flowed by and the burro stopped to drink. This time I let him stop.

I dismounted and squatted by the creek. The heat of the sun made me conscious of my skin as if it were a thing I could cast off – an accessory, later to be shed in the way of a snake.

My attention turned to the sun. Once there had been a kinship between him and my people. It was he who had turned the skins brown and scorched the earth, making it a hard place to live. His rays had chastened us like the blows of a master’s whip. It was our heritage. It had fed our souls when times were lean. It had made us a proud and noble people.

The white man does not understand this bond. He hides in buildings so that his skin is always white, even here in Mexico. They are a strange people. Since their arrival, life has become too easy; when the pain of living returns we run too quickly to alcohol and diversion.

I felt a lonely pain run through my body, stealing away life as it penetrated the bone. With effort I pushed myself up from the ground. The burro was grazing lazily.

I concentrated, and willed Indian blood into my muscles – blood that feeds on hardship and grows stronger by it. Slowly life returned. I mounted the burro and led him back into the tall grass.

Now the sun was changing color. As it neared the horizon, I felt the unusual clarity of twilight settling into the air. The burro pricked his ears at the sound of a rabbit. Both our senses intensified.

Ahead the mountains were tall, only a few minutes away. It was then I felt a presence emanating from the pass ahead. I recognized the same feeling from before. Again an odd familiarity came over me.

The beating of my heart slowed. I heard nothing, but was acutely aware of a man waiting for me in the pass. It seemed something ancient in me was awakening, replacing my senses with foreign accents of power. My head throbbed and the eyes in my Toltec skull darkened. Something remote from my modern awareness was taking possession of me. I left the burro without tying him and walked upward toward the pass.

With each footstep my transformation progressed. Soon I was older than the pass, older than the stones, standing nearby a lake that had once stood there before. I looked across the broad plain in front of me and saw the stranger again from town. He was painted red and black, as I was, covered only by a loin cloth. He nodded to me as I drew nearer.

Behind me a flock of geese lifted up into the sky. The burro was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the lake had swallowed him up or the mountains had buried him when they had sunk into the ground.

As I approached the man it became clear to me that he was also Toltec. Perhaps we had descended from the same tribe, but it was too far away to be sure. He waited patiently for me to come closer.

Between the footsteps, a strange feeling began entering my body at the navel. It filled me with a heavy sweetness and cooled the burning that had been there before. It also cleared away the fog in my mind that had obscured my vision until then.

At that moment I realized whom I was facing. The realization broke through me in a sudden fever, burning away the lake, the plains and the stranger. It was long moments, under the full moon illuminating the pass, before I could recall his face without trembling.

The man whose face I saw was my own.