The Desert Is the Country of Madness

The glittering towns that spring up overnight in the desert are no longer images of the City of God…They are brilliant and sordid smiles of the devil on the face of the wilderness, cities of secrecy where each man spies on his brother, cities through whose veins money runs like artificial blood, and from whose womb will come the last and greatest instrument of destruction.

Father Thomas Merton

Blood red dust settles around me. I engage the emergency brake and step out of the truck. The first order of business for anyone intending to survive in the wilderness is to make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain. Everything after that, at least for the faithful, is in the hands of the Almighty.

I’ve parked the truck in the shade of what has to be the most gnarled mesquite tree that I have ever seen. It stands alone against the thorn scrub a few hundred yards off the canyon trail. When I’d spotted the tree, driving fast along the primitive dirt road, I veered so sharply off into the desert that I nearly lost control. I knew right then in my heart that this was the place that God had prepared for me. Up close now, it’s obvious that the tree has been dead a long time. Its twisted black trunk is as thick as my leg and turns a hard ninety-degrees a few inches above the ground before bending back at a height just about even with my mouth. Fifteen feet above my head, dozens of long, spindly branches reach out in every direction like arthritic fingers, curling inward and back toward the desert floor. I think of God’s words when I take the hatchet out from the back of the truck. Holding the handle with both hands, I swing it as hard as I can. The dead wood is as hard as iron. With every blow, searing pains shoot up into my arms and down my back. I don’t stop. I’m panting. After I while, I can’t help but notice that the warped tree has vanished and so I drop the axe.

+ + +

For more than two decades I worked at a supermarket distribution centre in South Tucson, near Ajo Way and South Sixth. In that time, my eventual title as Packaging Team Lead came to mean everything to me. Slowly but surely, I’d built a little kingdom for myself. My throne room was a closet of an office located above the packing floor and there I sat proudly, watching over my subjects. I was aware of how much they all despised me. Even though I don’t understand Spanish, it was no secret that they huddled together in the break room spreading ugly rumours about me. Every time I had to drag some poor-performing fuck up into my office to remind them that apples don’t just fucking magically appear on the supermarket shelves and to do their fucking job faster, I saw the hate in their eyes. It wasn’t long after my promotion that I discovered two unsettling things about myself. First: having the ability to decide exactly how another human being spends eight hours of their daily life filled me with a pleasure that radiated up my legs and into my genitals, which meant that at least once a day, I needed to gratify myself sitting behind my desk. Second: that it was more pleasurable for me knowing that I controlled the lives of people who hated me.

It was the Lord who intervened to save me on the day word came down. The distribution centre would need to relocate to a less developed country if it wanted to survive in today’s competitive global marketplace. Pink slips were issued to myself and my entire kingdom and we were promptly escorted from the premises. Half of us were in tears as we were marched through the doors, myself included. While everyone else had driven home and worry about how they were going to pay the rent, I stayed behind to stand in the middle of the street and shriek obscenities at the chain-link and razor wire gates of my stolen kingdom. The police were eventually called and I was dragged away in handcuffs. Writhing in the back seat of that squad car, I had never felt so powerless, and that only made me scream louder. I couldn’t get the rage out of my body fast enough. It felt like my eyes were going to burst. I bit at the upholstery and pissed myself. I didn’t know it at the time, but an exorcism was taking place in me that would last the entire nine months I would remain in police custody.

+ + +

It takes me a while, but I finally catch my breath again. Now that the tree is gone, it feels as if I’ve shrugged off an enormous weight. I’ve done what Adam should have done that day in the Garden and took away the serpent’s hiding place. The point where the tree had stood, I decide, will mark the centre of this paradise. All that remains now is to make the rough places smooth. I cough and turn a few quick circles to regain my bearings, nearly tripping over my own feet with hope. Starting from this zero, I walk in as straight a line as I can manage and make my way northwest toward the cliffs overlooking the canyon. It’s difficult, considering how dizzy I feel. One foot in front of the other, I tell myself, and count each step. Ten paces. Twenty. Forty. Sixty. Seventy-one. The tip of my left boot is less than an inch from the edge of the cliff. I think on it, trying to find some meaning in it, and remember that 1971 was the year I was born.

The jagged mountains below seem to stretch out forever, the entire vista warbled by the searing summer heat, radiating outward in distorted waves. About a mile out, the desolation begins to blend into the hard white sky. I need water badly but I know that only when my work is done will God provide for me. I brought no supplies with me except my faith. Sweat stings my eyes and when I close them the sun burns its silhouette straight through my lids. In the extreme distance, off on the horizon, the city of Tucson shimmers, a man-made Hell of police and psychiatrists and judges. Sinking down onto my haunches, I snatch up a large piece of gold that I find near my feet and hurl it toward the city. The stone arcs out and stalls for a moment before gravity brings it down into the boiling mirage below. I take one step back and pick up another sparkling piece, throwing it as hard as I can at civilization. Take your money, I scream. I repeat this process with every backward step, flattening the wasteland of this sin. Sixty, Forty, Twenty, Ten. Zero. Rock after rock glides through the air until I’ve created an immaculate strip of land. It shines in the sun like a perfect mirror, nearly blinding me. I will not be tempted, I tell the devil on the horizon. I turn slightly to the left and begin again, walking another radius to throw gold at fools, working with the meticulousness that the Lord demands of the truly faithful.

+ + +

The men, they locked me in a cage and enjoyed beating me. Still furious at the loss of my throne, I tried to fight back, but this only made them beat me harder. The other prisoners would get me alone and order me to perform horrors for them and with them. If I tried to say no, they would beat me again. I had to say yes. I had to say please. A few days later, a prison psychiatrist asked me questions about my life as a child and my life as Packaging Team Lead and when a Pima County Court Judge reviewed the doctor’s findings, he ordered me to return to my cell and remain with the men who beat me, declaring that I was a danger to myself and others. When I spit in the judge’s fat white face, a man wearing a badge standing in the corner heaved a sigh of resignation and beat me without even changing the passive expression on his face, beat me with an efficiency that any of my cellmates could only even dream of possessing. Then they threw me back into their Hell. Months passed and one day I woke up in the infirmary. God, working through these men in His mysterious way, had finished the exorcism and beaten the devil out of me. I felt like a different person, with fractured skull and broken hands. A peace I’d never know had taken over me. Lying in the hospital bed, God urged me to find the paradise waiting for me outside. Escape this hateful city and enter into the wilderness and there you will find happiness, God commanded. After that, I was careful to speak quietly to the psychiatrist, slowly and distinctly. I detailed how my body and mind were healing, improving, and I was soon released back into society, homeless and penniless. Walking down the no longer familiar streets of Tucson, God whispered to me, I am the desert. I shoplifted an axe from the hardware store and stole a truck from the street and drove toward the mountains.

+ + +

The sun has just about set behind the mountains when I collapse. Please, I say to God, please. Have mercy on me. A chill numbs my palms and, as if by instinct, I form my blistered hands into a cup. Clear water fills the empty space, trickling past my trembling fingers and onto the ground. I bring my hands to my cracked lips and drink deeply, drink until I need to gasp for air. My hands are still filled with water. My legs eventually find their strength again and I’m up, returning to God’s work. The smoothed mirror perfection of the transformed desert expands, but the circle is only halfway complete. The stars are coming out and they are also collecting beneath me, reflecting back up into Heaven. I hear a soft rustle as I hurl another piece of gold over the edge. Then a hard snap. I turn and see a broken man crawling toward me through the desert, one hand in front of the other, dragging his limp legs behind him. His knees have been bent backwards at terrible angles. Ayúdame, he croaks. Terrified, I wonder where I dropped the hatchet. God forgive me. Ayúdame. He can’t be more than twenty years old, just a boy. In the half-darkness I can see that his skin is covered in dried blood. All that he wears is the tattered remains of a T-shirt collar around his neck. Welts and burns pockmark his back. Help me, he says in English this time. Do you have water? The smugglers lied to us. They take my wife and my baby. To sell them away. I need water, he begs. I only step away, nearly slipping on the mirror’s perfect surface. I have to find them, he says, reaching out to drag his body closer. Please help. Water. I think of my hands but say nothing. I help you, he gasps, with work, I help you for water. The broken man picks up a rock and throws it. I can work for water, he offers again, weakly picking up rocks and throwing them, though they all land only a foot or two away. One stone nearly cracks the mirror and I flinch. He looks back at me. Please, I need water, he says. I am helping you. But I only shake my head and tell him to work faster. The injured man continues to debase himself and, knowing that he hates me, the old pleasure returns. I feel it in my legs as it moves toward my groin. I forget God’s name. My hand is down my pants and it’s like I’ve never left my lost kingdom. The moon is only a sliver overhead and I can barely see the hurt man anymore. I move closer so that I can see his face. I’m failing but I don’t care. I am alive again. The moon rises out of the canyon and then the broken man is gone, replaced with the blurred shape of an enormous figure that towers over me, blocking out the stars and exploding with fury across the desert. Eight broken arms crane outwards like insect wings. I can feel the edge of the bluff behind me. Bending down onto its haunches, the figure brings its face close to mine. There is nothing distinct. It’s there and not there. I will help you, the figure says, its voice like the fighting of dogs. One of its arms comes down and lifts me out of the dirt. I’m hurled through the air like a piece of gold and as I tumble through the starlight, I see the city lights on the horizon and hear the figure’s laughter. I plunge downward into the canyon and the molten river of fire that cuts through it and into forever.