“No... No. No!”
Heath descends on the intruder with all the force of a wet blanket. He can’t be sure, in the murk, but he thinks it’s a gray fox squirming underneath his paws.
Two white eyes flash up at him like headlights. Shrieking erupts inside of his head. His limbs lock up, and he crumples under the acoustic assault. The interloper wriggles out from underneath his paws and skitters along the edge of the mesa.
She stops only when she’s sure she can outpace Heath, and only to look back at him. This is no fox. The nape of her neck is ragged and raw, tangled up in a dessicated tumbleweed. She has no mouth, no ears, no nose. Featureless, but for two unblinking eyes.
‘Ah,’ Heath thinks. That explains a few things. He stands to full height, his shadow stretching out before him.
“What are you doing?”
The ghost just glares back at him. Bundles of crucifixion thorn seedlings lay uprooted among the grass. Scattered mud, like droplets of blood, form a single-file line behind her. She hardly shifts on her soiled paws. She’s no fox now, but Heath can’t help but wonder if she was one, once.
Heath takes a heavy step forward. She takes a healthy six steps back. He’s almost twice her size, and he’s not above swinging his weight around when it comes to the mesa.
“Well, go on.”
The ghost sways on her legs, considering him. Studying him. Those lamplight eyes are almost palpable as they comb every inch of his face for a reason to call his bluff.
Heath bounds after her. She scrambles, and disappears into the brush.
The second time Heath feels those eyes scraping over him, it’s in the church.
He thinks it’s the sun training her steady eye on him through the stained glass windows, sunlight dappling his ruddy coat. Then he hears scratching at the tile. He jolts out of his midday nap, and blinks.
The ghost is a pale outline in the shade of the chapel facade. She has about six or seven shards of stained glass covetously squirreled away in the boughs of her tumbleweed.
Heath is up on his feet just as quickly as she makes herself scarce. It’s almost comical-- her eyes are the last thing to disappear as she backs into the inky black. The stained glass clatters to the ground. She’s gone.
Heath snorts. He stretches his legs out in front of him, and settles in to keep watch.
He doesn’t see those bright whites again for quite some time.
It’s past midnight. The early morning hours, even, just before the world is colored blue with the promise of sun. He sits atop a rolling embankment, overlooking the braided confluence where tributary meets river. A cairn is stacked, there, yellow lichen making a home out of its more favorable nooks and crannies.
It’s autumn. The year’s grown almost as old as the century. He’s come to watch the sun rise, and greet the new day.
Laying at his feet is a long, flat shank of phyllite that tottered off a boulder and struck him between the eyes while he was napping. He is not like other ghosts. He doesn’t know how to listen to rivers, how to hold an audience with pronghorn, or how to walk where spirits walk. But he doesn’t have to speak Rock to understand the language of a sharp blow to the head.
He thought the new decade might be something like that, so he took the stone with him. Thought it might be happier when stacked on the cairn.
He waits for the sun to peek through the Mazatzals, through Pine mountain. He sees the faint flicker of light crest over the horizon. One dancing spark becomes two.
‘Oh.’ Heath realizes. ‘It’s you.’
Two shining eyes weave through the dark. Heath sighs. They fade out of focus. Heath sighs harder. Like Jack’s lantern they bob in and out of view. At this rate, he’s never going to be able to tell when the sun rises.
“... Hey,” Heath calls out.
The bobbing stops. He can make out the ghost’s frame, now, through the twisting mesquites. It flickers with uncertainty.
“I’m not going to run you off,” Heath says. “Unless you’re up to something, and I just can’t see it.”
“You should really stop that. You could get hurt. Not everyone’s as patient as I am.”
“You’re kind of a dick?”
Heath recoils. The ghost’s voice rings in his head, much deeper than he expected. It’s cracked rosin, like a frayed cello. He didn’t think she could even speak. “...Pardon?”
The ghost negotiates her way through a thick stand of arrowweed. Their tall necks make her out to be laughably small. Nevertheless, she persists.
“And you have a guilty conscience, too. Like you did something awful. I saw you sticking all those weeds in the ground.”
“Those weeds…” Heath knits his brow together in thought. ”The… Crucifixion thorn?”
Heath blinks. He’s at a loss. He doesn’t know what to say. If he had a mouth with which to gape at her, he would. “They’re endemic.”
The ghost just stares at him.
He tries again. “They live here. This is their house.”
The ghost gets really quiet. He can hear her birdlike claws kneading against the loam.
“...Oh,” she says, under her breath.
Heath snorts, blowing the bangs out of his eyes. He props himself up on his haunches. The ghost shrinks away. He hesitates, mid-rise.
“C’mere,” Heath says.
The hackles on the nape of the ghost’s neck bristle. She pulls back further.
He tries again. “It’s a new year. Humor an old man and watch the sun rise with me.”
The ghost narrows her enormous eyes at him. She climbs over the recumbent trunk of a mesquite and onto the embankment, but stops short of the cairn. She settles in at the foot of the tree, giving Heath a comfortable 10-foot berth.
“It’s October,” the ghost says.
“I’m not talking about the Gregorian calendar.“
“I’m not either?”
Heath blinks. He lets out a thoughtful ‘hmph,’ and sinks back down on his forelegs. “When do you celebrate, then?”
The ghost becomes very quiet. She isn’t looking at him anymore.
Heath does, too. The truth of the matter is there was a time he didn’t remember when he celebrated. The busy years sped by, and he selfishly resented the desert for not fitting into his narrow notions of what seasons should look and act like. Even then, his clock was set by the rise and fall of the sun over a verdant hunk of rock sitting in the middle of the Atlantic.
“Do you remember?” Heath asks.
“I’m not sure.”
Heath doesn’t push it. He sinks fully down on his stomach, crossing his paws and laying his head down to greet the sun. The ghost watches him do this, and something about it must bother her very much, because she starts fidgeting underneath the boughs of the mesquite.
Heath blows air out of his nose, gazing at his bangs as they flutter with his breath. “You’ll miss it, if you go on like that.”
“The sun, I mean.”
The ghost shuffles on her feet. “What’s on your back?”
Heath lifts his heavy head up. The ghost looks him in the eye, and then quirks her chin up at his rump. Heath cranes to look.
There isn’t anything that wasn’t there before. Maybe a little mud from the garden-- his fur is thick and shaggy, and easily picks up dirt, burrs, and just about anything else that wants to hitch a ride. Lizardtail sprouts from his flank, trailing down his thick tail in verdant, leafy bundles. Heath looks back at her.
She tries again. “The plant. Crucifixion thorn?”
Heath’s eyes crinkle underneath his bangs with a smile that she can’t see. “No, no. Lizardtail. Yerba mansa. There’s some under your feet, look.”
The ghost pulls her paw up from a frumpled bundle of leaves.
“They like to have their feet wet. You’ll see them ‘round rivers and nowhere else. Crucifixion thorn doesn’t even have leaves... and they can’t stand being around this much water, anyway.”
The ghost is up on her feet. The intensity of her gaze is startling, shining so bright that Heath has to squint. She takes a step forward. “Where did you get them?”
Heath is disarmed. ‘Where did I get them?’ He has to think about that. That’s like asking where God plucked the green Earth from. Or what hole the Devil crawled out of.
“I think I always had them,” he says. He considers that. ‘Or maybe they had me.’
“They’re from here?” The ghost asks. She’s brazen, now, closing the gap between them like a coyote advancing on an unsupervised bag of bagels. Heath doesn’t know what to make of it. He uncrosses his legs and pushes himself up a bit. The ghost hesitates-- but not much.
“Yes,” Heath says.
“But you’re not.”
He props himself up on his forelegs. The ghost bows her head, nosing around low to the ground like a fox about to test her luck.
And she does. She plants her nose firmly in a rosette of yerba mansa leaves at the base of his tail. Heath chokes. He shoots up to his feet. The ghost darts away-- scaling the mesquite trunk and dipping out of view. Heath almost thinks he’s lost her again. But she stops, just at the foot of the embankment.
“It’s a little bit--” Heath catches his breath. “It’s a little bit rude to touch those without warning.”
The ghost stares up at him from the riverbank through those bright white eyes. “Can I?”
Somehow Heath didn’t expect her to ask. He blinks. He circles in his place by the cairn, and slowly sinks back down to the ground. The ghost cautiously climbs back over the trunk and onto the outcropping.
“... Knock yourself out,” Heath says. He crosses his paws and lays his head back down.
The ghost draws close with timid steps. She puts him in the mind of the college interns that fumble around the mesas during fall, on what may very well be their first extended stay in the field. He is not sure why she needs to see these yerba mansa specifically-- he and the river are up to their knees in them-- but if it helps her tell the proverbial willow from the orchid, so be it.
To his surprise, she has the grace to be polite about it. She circles Heath, bobbing her head up and down, craning high and low to take the plants in from as many angles as she can. Only when she exhausts everything she can learn at a distance does she try to nose around them, studying their veins, roots, and the undersides of their bracts.
Heath finds himself eyeing the ghost’s tumbleweed, too. It’s bone dry, but that doesn’t mean much when the seeds in its boughs are now ripe to disperse.
“Where did you get yours?” Heath asks. ”Your tumbleweed.”
The ghost was so involved in what she was doing that she jumps at the sound of his voice. She looks at him very strangely, until something seems to click behind her eyes.
“Came with the flaxseed.”
Heath startle-laughs. The ghost starts too, holding herself low to the ground as Heath puffs up three sizes with mirth. He struggles to sober, to make himself small again. “You know that one, do you?”
“I saw it happen. Saw it crop up in the fields and roads, as a boy. We grew up together.” Heath crinkles his eyes in equal parts sadness and delight. “You’re wearing a right banjax around your neck, you know that?”
The ghost falls silent. Heath gets the strangest sense that he’s said something wrong.
“I thought we were all like that,” she says, very quietly. She indicates Heath’s yerba mansa with a listless tilt of her head. “Weedy.”
‘Ah,’ he thinks. His heart sinks low in his chest, low enough to seep back into the Earth and maybe join that piece of himself that he lost all those years ago. The one he can’t recover. He thinks he’s starting to see the full picture.
Heath wracks his brain for something to say, some perfect word that will soothe her. But he has none. How is it that her every step came to be shadowed by noxious weeds? How is it that only medicinals follow in his tracks? He has no answer for her. Small wonder she dug up all his seedlings-- She must have thought he was a ghost of the worst kind, a hateful weed himself.
He opens his mind to say something, but he’s cut off.
The sun greets the new day. She opens her eye over the peaks, stretching long, blue shadows over the mesas that spill down into the river canyons. The breath stills in Heath’s chest. He senses the ghost drawing back into herself, too, holding her frame deathly still to watch the fingers of morning light touch the hills and valleys.
Heath gingerly places the phyllite stone atop the cairn. The motion draws the ghost out of her thoughts. She looks at him questioningly.
“Happy new year,” Heath says, softly.
The ghost turns her gaze back at the sun. She doesn’t respond.
Heath takes the easy route home. His bones aren’t that old, yet, but had he known this body would be aching with memories older than it, he might have taken better care of himself. He thinks he sees the ghost peel off, slinking through the low-hanging mesquite boughs. His heart twinges. He tries not to think about it.
He makes it about ten steps down the embankment, when he hears a rustling behind him.
“What do you call that?” The ghost asks.
Heath knits his brow together. He casts a backward glance in the direction of the ghost’s voice. She’s dallying at the foot of a thick stand of arrowweed.
“The shorter, leafier ones with white flowers are horseweed. Those tall ones-- straight as an arrow, with purple flowers-- those are arrowweed. Both native. Not that you’d figure it, from the way folks talk about horseweed.”
The ghost gazes up at them for a moment, those white eyes committing every inch of the stand to memory.
Like a switch, her gaze flickers from the wall of weeds to the tiny tangerine heads of Arizona poppies, cresting the hill ahead of them. “Can you tell me what those are?”
Heath slows to a stop. The ghost trots up beside him. His eyes crinkle underneath his bangs.