Heath's old bones ache as he takes a too-long step down from the banks of the wash. Early spring in the desert means creaky joints and cold, dry mornings.
The winter rains have spilled their guts already, but the sun hasn't decided to make a proper appearance just yet. In the meantime, the world holds its breath. A few opportunistic phacelias hazard sprouting in the chill for a headstart on spring. Heath thinks their gamble just might pay off; his bones hurt, but they don't hurt quite so much this morning. It must be getting warmer.
He follows the wash down to the streambed. The boughs of the palo verdes nod silently overhead, tiny leaflets shaking in the breeze. A few overhanging mesquites catch the clouds with their black fingers. The clay beneath his paws is wrinkled into smooth channels, imprints of the rivulets that ran earlier that winter. It still smells sweet, like water.
The trees grow in size and density as he wanders down into the bosque proper. The canopy daubs blue and purple splotches of shade onto the earth below. Up on the banks of the wash, the desert scrub gives way to an amber mat of dry grasses and twigs; it's just too wet, too dark for less competitive plants who have never had to cope with a shortage of sun.
'Competitive,' Heath thinks, with a snort. He's starting to sound like the university botanists who visit in fall. It's an awfully funny word to choose for a plant. But if the bosque is a place for them to bump shoulders and step on each other's toes, then he has to agree that the open desert is more congenial. Some plants keep their distance, while others choose to huddle and face the elements together like a family of quail. Either way, Heath thinks it's some kind of thoughtful that they make room for him to walk. They even clear places for smaller creatures to rest in the shade.
The bosque is walkable too, but it won't stay that way for long. Soon Spring will raise yesterday's sprouts up, up, up from the soil– not from the cold, but the rain dumped a few weeks before. He'll have to tiptoe through the undergrowth again.
But for now, he can walk. So he will.
The fingers of the mesquites tremble in the wind. The breeze brings with it a little noise, like the deet deet deet of a bird call. But it’s more rigid, more deadpan, and the note is maintained for much longer than even a songbird can manage. Heath’s ears– or the memory thereof– prick under his mane. The deet deet deet becomes more like a long and drawn-out deeeeet deeeeeet deeeeeet… And there comes a great rumbling over the mesa tops, the sound of mechanical jaws scraping at the earth.
‘Construction,’ he thinks. And this far outside of the city. He hardly believed it when Senna had told him what was coming for their humble mesa, until he traveled out to the highway and saw it with his own two eyes. Men in safety vests with clinometers and tape measures, cordoning off bits of the desert. It was all a little blasphemous.
Deet deet deet deeeeeeet… Deet deet deet deeeeet…
Dee dee dee deeee… Kiii kii kii kiiiiii…
Heath steps into the riverbed earnest, and looks up. The bosque forms one big thatched roof over the place where the wash meets the river– or would meet the river, had it been running. Water trickles through the streambed, a ghost of the screaming current that tore through here not two weeks back. Signs of its former glory are written everywhere in the banks and the trunks of the mesquites; mats of leaf litter and twigs wrap around the trees, where the river rose three feet or more up its shores. Few plants survived the torrent, but even now, little sprouts dig their toes into the soft loam deposited in its wake. Heath recognizes willow, mule fat, and yerba mansa, with a twinkle in his eye.
He follows the rows of sprouts with his eyes, tracing them to the opposite riverbank. The mesquites are thicker there, forming a black wall against the shoulder of the canyon. They tangle together like mats of hair, or maybe a woven basket.
Heath squints. A little shape darts between the boughs. The trees part marginally over a shaded clearing, and a tiny rivulet flows through the gap. Heath drops down on his heavy limbs, peering through the mouth of the wash and up at the canyon slopes, searching for the water's source. No luck. The thicket is impenetrable.
He has walked this river for 100-odd years and somehow, even now, it finds ways to surprise him. Heath's nostrils flare with the scent of new water.
The little shadow swoops overhead. It lands on an overhanging branch, scrabbling clumsily to dig its talons in and get a foothold. Heath pretends not to look up at it. It looks down on him through inky black eyes.
'Very well,' Heath thinks. He lopes across the riverbed, following new water.
As soon as he steps foot in the clearing, Heath's shadow makes itself scarce. It's dark, to be fair, and a few degrees cooler than even the riverbed. His joints protest the spring chill as he takes a wrong step, and his foot sinks into the mud. He dabs water off his paw and carries on.
Heath senses it now more than he hears it– the mechanical breath of an excavator as it ambles over the mesa. It feels awfully far away, from down here. The stream trickles over smooth river stones, dampening the silence.
The excavator's siren screams in his ears. Mesquite boughs shake overhead, their leaflets fluttering like ash over the streambed. The little shadow bounces up and down on one of the overhanging branches, watching Heath through enormous eyes.
Heath shakes out his mane nonchalantly. He pretends that didn't give him a heart attack.
"I can hear you just fine," Heath calls out.
"Kikikiki!" The shadow drops down to a lower branch, wrapping its talons around a too-small twig and leaning precariously over the edge. "You're lying. You had no idea I was here! Kikikiki…"
The little thing laughs its clattering laugh, like twigs drumming against one another. Heath's eyes crinkle under his moppy bangs. His friend the shadow is as subtle as ever, it seems. It lets go of its perch, plummeting to the forest floor below. At the last second, its wings billow out– carrying it effortlessly to rest at a felled log.
The shadow takes the shape of a burrowing owl, all gangly stilt legs and sharp eyes. Its wings flare out. "Death! Death! Death!"
"Someone told me owls are a sign of death, once," Heath muses.
The owl-shadow pauses, closing its wings. "Kikiki… Death's come for your neck of the woods, Mr. Reverend. At last!"
"Has it?" Heath asks, innocently.
The owl looks befuddled. It bobs its head at him, crescent moon eyes fixing him with a scrutinizing stare. It sing-songs at him:
"Come to clear your woods it has, the animal without. With tools that cut and hands that kill, the man-made myth that mounts the hill!"
Heath thinks about that. "You're saying they're going to clear the bosque?”
“Ki! Ki! Ki!” The owl rasp-laughs at him.
He watches the little shadow for a moment, and his heart softens. He shakes his head. “Oh, no. You have it wrong, Mr. Owl.”
“Wrong?” The shadow chirps back at him, parroting his voice.
“Senna was telling me about it. They’re building an ‘interpretive center and cultural conservancy.’ What did you think they were doing?”
The owl-shadow tilts its head the other way. "... Stucco luxury apartments."
Heath barks out a laugh. The shadow shrinks at the noise, blinking its huge black eyes at him. It ruffles its feathers and leans back and forth on its legs, unsure what to make of his outburst.
Heath slumps down on his haunches. He sobers. "That's an awfully naive assumption to make, don't you think?"
"Naive to think anything else," the shadow chirps. "How do you know?"
"It says it on the construction sign. I can read."
"... Ki ki ki." The owl's features are impossible to make out, but Heath gets the sense that it's making a face at him. Maybe that was going too far. English literacy was a source of grief for him, too, back in his day. It still is. He of all people should be more empathetic, but his little friend hardly shows him the same kindness, so…
"You're not mad?" The owl asks, instead.
Heath thinks about that. “I was surprised, yes. And anxious, and maybe a little bit afraid. But no, I’m not mad.”
“Afraid?” The owl narrows its lethal eyes at him.
“Can’t blame an old man for hating change.” Heath snorts. He gets up and plods along the side of the stream.
“They’re making a whole production out of it. Those bird people, the Audubon, they caught the Bureau red-handed. Made a big fuss for letting ranchers run their cattle up and down the river. So this is their way of making it up to the public, I guess–doing more community outreach, being more attentive. Means we might be seeing more people.”
The owl hopskips to the edge of the log, and takes off. It weaves through the branches to keep up with him. “More weeds. More trash.”
“And more hands to pick it up.”
“Ki ki ki…” The owl stops to ogle at him from a high branch. “That’s mighty optimistic of you, Mr. Reverend.”
Heath laughs dryly. “What? You don’t think I’m an optimist?”
“They bring a shovel to your door. You trust them to stop digging where they say they’ll stop digging? Ki ki ki… They didn’t even ask first.”
Heath hesitates. “They did, actually.”
The shadow flickers mid-flight. It flies into a mesquite trunk and is dashed to pieces, scattering into blotches of shade on the forest floor. His friend falls silent. Heath does, too. The only sounds of conversation are the water negotiating with the streambed.
“Who?” The shadow’s voice calls out from somewhere in the understory. Heath can’t pinpoint a direction, the voice bounces all around him like wind whipping through the branches.
“Well, they didn’t ask you or me. It’s true, they went over our heads.” Heath says.
The shadow makes a noise like nails on bark. If Heath had to guess, it’s probably scoffing at him.
“They took it up with the Tribe, first. Reckon that went as well as you can imagine– they’re asking for something that you can’t really give. So they went back on their original idea and workshopped it for a while.“
The shadow snickers. “Alone?”
Heath’s eyes crinkle with delight. “I think someone’s been pushing really hard to do it right. Probably a few someones. You know how hard it is to do something like that from within the Bureau? At first they wanted to build a ranger station, come down on us with better enforcement, but now…”
“An ‘interpretive center and cultural conservancy,’” the shadow parrots his own voice back at him.
“Aye. And everyone’s got their hands on it. The Tribe, the bird people, the Bureau, the City, and some other folk I’m forgetting. Think they even got some of the ranchers to give their blessing.”
“Kikikikikiki! Kiiikikikikiki!” The shadow cackles at him. “You’re lying!”
“Hardly believed it myself. But it’s true.”
Something changes in the air between Heath and the dusky mesquites. The wind turns up with the slopes of the canyon, and the shadow’s laughter trails off. The dark fingers of the trees become still in the air. Silence falls over the bosque.
At first it’s friendly. But as Heath lopes along the muddy banks of the stream, the absence of chittering laughter becomes pointed. Heath watches the trees. Had he said something wrong? He only told the story as he understood it. Perhaps the idea of cattle ranchers finding common ground with the Audubon was so comical, so outlandish, his friend just assumed Heath was lying through his teeth. Perhaps it all sounded too good to be true. Perhaps his little shadow has run off to learn the truth for himself.
Heath hauls himself up over a basalt boulder. His joints scream, but in his old age he’s only become more stubborn. This ghost-body can take more of a beating than meets the eye.
The whisper of the streambed is replaced by the chatter of water and rock. The rivulet is small but mighty, tumbling down through the scree and into a young wash like a pronghorn. Here, the mesquites band together and form a single file line on either side of the wash. The bosque can go no further; the canyon slopes are too steep, too dry.
Heath looks up at the walls. The water disappears from view in many places, hiding behind boulders and weaving between coarse, unweathered stones. ‘New water’ indeed– he has never seen anything quite like it. It seems to have a mind of its own as it rolls through the canyon, path of least resistance be damned.
If Heath was a younger man, he’d probably follow it all the way up to the mesa tops. But as he reaches the fringe of the bosque, he hesitates. Great stones rise up around him, like men brought to council. The rivulet coils up at his feet. It’s stopped up by a few large rocks, forming a shallow, glassy pool at the edge of the forest.
Heath knows a sign when he sees it. He’ll happily take sunlight and water over a miles-long hike through perilous cliffs, ghost or not.
He circles the pool to its source, where the water trickles through a crack between two huge stones. The basalt is warm to the touch and pockmarked with golden-green lichens. Heath noses around at the base of the spring for the right rock– smooth and level. He takes a deep breath, sinks down on his haunches, and collapses. He lets out a sigh so great, it blows his bangs out of his face.
He watches the treeline through heavy eyes. The sun feels good on his fur, warming his bones and achy tendons. Meanwhile the stream trickles down the rockface and flecks cool water on his muzzle. The clear lids of his eyes droop lower and lower.
The effort it takes to raise his head is almost too much for Heath, so he doesn’t. He scans the treeline from his bed on the rocks, blearily searching for that old shadow.
The shape that leaps out at him is not that of a burrowing owl. It’s about four times bigger, with talons the size of his paws. The great shadow takes flight, cresting the ring of boulders and landing atop one of the satellite stones with dangerous precision. It flaps its mighty black wings against the wind, steadying itself on its perch.
Heath lifts his head up at the shadow. This one takes the shape of a great horned owl.
“They didn’t ask the rock squirrels,” The owl announces, triumphantly.
Heath blinks at it, slowly.
“Or the globemallow. Or the stones. Or the–”
“They asked the stones,” Heath says, without thinking.
The shadow looks down at him impassively.
“They asked the stones before moving them. Senna said so.” Heath rises.
The owl continues, undeterred. “They still didn’t ask the squirrels.”
“Oh, leave it alone.” Heath groan-laughs. “They trapped and released them. That’s more than most construction projects bother doing.”
“They didn’t ask everyone.”
Heath furrows his brow. “Do wolves have to ask before hunting elk? We’re allowed to live on this planet, too.”
“You’re the one who said everyone’s hands were on it.”
“Maybe I was wrong,” He says. “But you have to admit they asked damn near everyone they could think of.”
“Except us.” The shadow narrows its eyes.
“Good!” Heath snorts. “If everyone had to ask for our approval before doing anything, this land would not be a very pleasant place to live.”
“You don't see yourself as its keeper?”
"God, no. I just live here. What gave you that impression?"
“Nothing.” The owl squints at Heath with a spark of mischief in its eye. "Kikiki… What does that make me, then?"
Heath blinks. "What do you mean?"
The owl stands at full height, digging its tremendous claws into the stone. "Who do you think I am, Mr. Reverend?"
Heath gazes at the shadow of the owl for a long, long time. It watches him back. His chest tightens– it's not just one set of eyes that are in him, now, but the whole gallery of mesquites. hundreds of pinprick stares needling him from every angle. The weight of the moment balances on the edge of a knife… Or maybe a razor-sharp beak. What was the shadow hoping to hear? And what did he think, really? Was the owl watching him this whole time? Reading him? Was this his last chance to redeem himself in its eyes, or had he just passed some kind of test? Had this all been some kind of elaborate hazing ritual?
"I don't know," Heath says, and that's the honest truth.
The owl leaps off of its perch. It descends on the streambed like nightfall, dagger talons outstretched, reaching for the ground below– reaching for Heath.
Heath barrels backwards with the force of impact. It sends him sprawling flat on the ground.
Kikikikiki! Ikkikikiki! Ikki ikki ikki ikki!
"Get off me, you devil!" Heath wheezes. The shadow crawls up and down his spine, a blur of black and green. Its slender claws poke through his thick fur, less like talons and more like prickly yucca blades, now.
"Ikkittikkittikkitt! Devil! Devil! I'm the devil! Ikkikikikikikhaaakhaakhaakhaaa!" The shadow cackles.
"You're a nuisance is what you are." Heath pulls himself up on his legs, unsteady.
"I'm the devil! The devil devil devil pagan DEVIL!" The shadow balls its fists around his hair and yanks, like a toddler having a tantrum.
"Ngh–!" Heath plants his feet firmly on the stone and shakes out his mane. The shadow squeaks. It braces itself to the nape of his neck, but loses its footing, flailing about with the force of his momentum.
"You put 'ol scratch to shame." Heath spits.
"Old scratch, old SCRATCH," The shadow parrots in his ear, digging its claws in.
Heath grunts. "Bar's not very high, given the man's a fairy tale."
The shadow blinks. "What?"
Heath sees his chance. He throws all his weight down on his front feet, and shakes the shadow loose with a mighty toss of his head. It goes flying.
The shadow tumbles over the rocks, before coming to rest a few meters away. it lays on its back with its stubby limbs stretched out in the air.
"... Oof," It chirps.
Heath blanches. He lopes over to the figure’s tiny body, paws trembling, slightly. This shadow is no shadow– he’s a ghost, like Heath. But smaller. The stranger is impish and owlish in equal measures, wearing a cloak of ferns and a bone-white mask.
Heath noses the ghost’s shoulder. "Are you alright?"
The little ghost is on his feet again instantly. "What kind of holy man are you? You don't believe in the devil?"
Heath blinks. The ghost grabs Heath’s muzzle with his tiny claws and pinches his cheeks this way and that, getting a good look at him. Heath can’t hold it in any longer– he laughs. The ghost makes a face.
“I know what evil looks like, and this isn’t it.” Heath says, a little breathlessly.
“How long’d it take you to come up with that?” The ghost wrinkles his nose. He launches himself up on Heath’s back with his rabbit legs, crawling up and down his mane. “Where’s all the energy? The hellfire and brimstone? Piss poor pastor, if you ask me.”
“You’re not the only one who thought that,” Heath manages, under the ghost’s weight. “Watch the lower back, please.”
To his surprise, the ghost does as he asks. “What does that mean?”
"I was unpopular with the Church. They got rid of me."
"Oh." The ghost pauses. He sits up on Heath's back, balancing on his hindlegs like a ground squirrel. "... Ikki ikki ikki."
"What's so funny?"
"Ikki ikkikki...You're aaaalright, Mr. Reverend." The ghost drawls, screwing up his face in delight. "We can be pals after all!"
Heath cranes his head to see the little scamp. "Excuse me?"
"Enemy of my enemy is my frienemy," the ghost chirps. He grabs a handful of Heath's hair and tugs it, indicating him. "And a friend of the woods's a friend of mine."
Heath lets out a startled laugh. "I didn't realize I was in the presence of an enemy of the Church."
"Yeah, well, Mr. Reverend, I got all kindsa enemies in high places. Even the ones that don't know it yet!" The ghost cackles, throwing himself backwards on Heath's rump. He rolls off his side like an unbalanced cat, and lands about as gracefully as one, too.
"’Heath,’ please. I don’t think they were supposed to call me Reverend, even when I was still employed."
He looks down at the ghost, who blinks back up at him. If he had a mouth with which to do it, the ghost would be grinning ear to ear right now. He makes a big show of bowing his head. "Nawwww, Mr. Reverend Heath, it's my pleasure."
Heath's eyes crease with amusement. "Then to who do I owe the honor?"
The ghost looks thoughtful. He sits up on his hindlegs, claws balling and unballing in his lap.
Ki ki ki ikki ikki ikkitikkitikkitikki ki ki…
The sound of laughter echoes through the canyon.
Heath's brow furrows. “Yes…?”
"You already know who I am." The ghost flares the ferns on his back, wiggling his hind end playfully. "Kikikiki...When you figure it out, you're gonna feel really stupid."
Heath's eyes soften. 'So that's how it is,' he thinks. One more trick, one more test. If he managed to make it this far, surely he could stick the landing.
The ghost squints at him. Heath stares back. The ghost squints harder and harder, beady black eyes almost screwed shut with the force of his scrutiny. His claws dig into the leaf litter.
The ghost whirls around, nearly whipping Heath in the face with his ferns. He takes off into the underbrush.
“Hey,” Heath barks. “Hey, wait!”
“Ikkikkikkikkkikikiki!” The ghost vanishes into the bosque. Shadows rise up in his footsteps, rippling through the woods like a wake from a boat. He laughs the whole way through. “Keep up keep up! Ikki ikki ikkiikikikiki!”
“Hey– Hey!” Heath calls out after him. His mind wraps around the shape of a sound that he can’t quite place– Laughter in the woods, teeth on bark, the rattling of senna in a cool spring breeze. It clatters around uselessly in his brain while he bounds after the ghost. He opens his mind and calls out again.
“Hey… Ikki… Ikki–!
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