This Spring Texas was on fire: Big Bend and San Angelo in the West while the pastures of North Texas were crippled, threatening a summer dustbowl. Even green Austin saw swaths of land consumed. In a circle that seemed intent on encompassing the entire state, small icons of flames flared on the weather man’s map and his arm emphasized the vast acreage, waving in circles as if he would fan the conflagrations or blow them out.
This Spring the sky was clear of clouds but full of smoke; columns of it marching wide, pushed by the ever present wind.
Then Summer opened like a furnace door and baked the land.
At the funeral, as we stood frying under the June sun (too few trees and none of any great height) the preacher with the hectic grin – the same one who claimed with a lunatic fever, over and over, that “Heaven is Real” – assured everyone that we need not bother to diet or exercise, it would do us no good; we all, at our birth, had a date prescribed for our death that no action might thwart or avoid.
But Jesus waited to save us, he promised, if we would only come to our faith with the guileless belief of a child.
Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I thought, while the funeral home director (a man equally wide and tall) tried to sell Larry a casket before he had properly died.
You can’t be prepared too soon, he lectured, indicating as evidence Todd, only thirty-six, soon to be lowered into the dry ground.
This summer I attended a wedding and a funeral, one of the heels of the other, while Texas withered and burned.
Drought is a ravenous thing; it pulls moisture from the air and the soil. Indiscriminate in consumption, it desiccates skin, tans it still attached to the bones of animals and humans alike. It blisters the shimmering land, curls the leaves of stunted plants that would normally shoot skyward under a persistent sun.
Isolated at the old ranch house, I was paralyzed by mid-morning from the heat. The house faces a dusty gravel road and is surrounded by pastures of thicket: scrub cedar and mesquite that thrive in a desert atmosphere and the shaggy burred Live Oaks that flourish in the thin gullies where the scarce water gathers. But the land seems suspiciously flat, as if pressed from above by the steady heat. The sun, unfettered by clouds, painted a sky still stained with smoke from the great Spring burning.
The pastures around me had been spared but they were bleached. Even the twisted, resilient mesquite trees could muster only a dull green. The stock tanks shrank daily and the land withdrew into itself. There was no relief; the night wind remained hot and dawn simmered the air, signaled daylight to boil the atmosphere.
Everything suffers a drought.
The rabbits grew bold on the lawn in the early morning. They ranged wide of the protective thicket to sip what little dew might form on the blades of the grass overnight. In their carelessness, they seemed to welcome a visit from owl or hawk.
The Bobwhites were less vigorous, chirping thinly from the wide cedar tree in the front yard, their hopeful call a question answered only by another question; the insects were meager and the Bobwhites asked for a plague of locusts to fatten their Fall.
The keen of the coyotes didn’t carry, even at night. The thick air would not yield to that playful noise and you could tell their heart wasn’t in it.
Everything was stifled under the heat. I wore minimal clothing as I reclined on the bed and let ceiling fans force a breeze across skin wet by sweat. The respite was short; I dried too quickly.
The night of the bridal supper there was the suggestion of a storm. On the lawn under the big tent, the tables with their red-checked cloths were deserted as people moved cautiously out to view a sky that was yellow-green and low. The wind billowed the flaps of the tent’s sides; they inflated like the lungs of some huge creature that exhaled hot breath at the slit skirt edges of the tent, which swirled and were flipped but not lifted, the wind not big enough but promising.
A group of us braved the rooftop patio to witness heat lightening radiate horizontally across the sky, fingers of light seeking each other instead of the ground. There was no thunder or rain, just a teasing show of white bolts illuminating clouds.
We knew the potential of fire in that sky and a tunneled destruction by the wind on the ground. We had an ear cocked for sirens as we stood on the rooftop and watched the display.
We did not know about Todd and how he’d set out from Wichita Falls for the dinner but balked in the face of that same storm we watched with the mixed fear and wonder of people peering into the abyss: the caveman before the burning tree, the cliff diver perched on the edge of the world.
He turned for home rather than risk the weather on his motorcycle and it was there his heart seized. He must have realized some distress; he was able to dial 911 and when the ambulance arrived the paramedics found the Dr. Pepper he’d removed from the fridge unopened yet still cold, sweating in the heat. But Todd was gone.
They worked on him a while; he was young and they hoped to call him back. But he was gone before they got there, into the abyss.
The sun punishes the innocent and guilty alike.
At the lip of the grave we were silent. Some prayed earnestly, their heads bent, necks exposed to the glare. I did not pray – to lie seems the greater insult – though out of respect I bowed my head until I heard the woman standing next to me whisper “Amen” and assumed it was acceptable to look up. People shuffled in a receiving line, everyone red and sweating, offering platitudes to a family stunned at a sudden loss.
Even in a drought we exude water: sweat from the heat and tears for Todd, whose failed heart was posthumously opened to salvation with words and hope and perhaps a desperate abduction of the truth. Why should I resent that? We need some comfort as the life leaks out of us. We need to shed our grief and be emptied of our loss.
But before the trip to the cemetery, we endured a sneering and entitled recitation of the 23rd Psalm.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” claimed a Methodist minister with a hard face that suggested she had never been told she was in any way pretty – not even a little, not even by her mother.
She tapped a finger to her collarbone in assurance and proclaimed the Lord’s love and protection as hers and hers alone.
“His rod and his staff comfort me,” she announced, her dark eyes grimly satisfied.
The rest of us were apparently out of luck. She seemed to suggest that, like water, there is only so much salvation to go around.
Who was the essayist who chirped that he was a “just-in-case Christian”?
I laughed when I read that, but then thought: aren’t they all?
Who was the man who suggested that everyone could be a little more like Jesus?
Two days earlier, in creased jeans and crisp white shirts, three hired cowboys had roamed the wedding party. Their sun-cured skin could no longer burn. They ranged in age from early twenties to late forties but age was numbers in years to them and meant nothing to the weathering of elements that daily seek to turn a man to petrified stone.
Replete with hats and spurs, the cowboys posed for pictures with remote patience. Those coastal women, eyes bright and covetous, flushed to be centered in that simple shot of masculinity.
Larry explained they were there for a purpose: like the bison and the bookseller, they were a soon-to-be extinct species – and two of the three sighted at his wedding was his curious gift for those who had made the trip to North Texas at the burning Summer Solstice.
The day was solemn with the news of Todd but a wedding reception and a catered lunch had been arranged and there were industrial air conditioners cooling the big tent and it is never more evident that life goes on than at times just like these. The living eat and laugh to remember that they still live.
How long must one stand in the sun to prove grief? The little graveyard trees only provided shelter if you stepped inside them.
Charlie, Todd’s father, looked stricken as he smiled and thanked people for coming. And everyone said, generously, of course, of course.
I watched James with his people. He had helped carry the casket with five others all, like Larry’s cowboys, dressed in jeans and white shirts but for James, standing stern in a new coat – wool, for God’s sake, but it was his cousin, and his uncle’s son deserved that much at least. The ways we punish ourselves sometimes for living on: a father past a son, a cousin guilty with thirteen extra years.
The men gathered in loose pockets and talked about work and the women fanned themselves and clustered by the trees, and everyone talked about the heat and the drought, past and present, and the struggle to survive. Guilty again.
The ride back to town was short – not enough time in that air-conditioned comfort before being deposited again on the seared street. People fled indoors and wandered the church meeting room sipping iced tea and eating sandwiches.
So young – that was the consensus on Todd, a hint of how we kept considering his age and mentally subtracting it from our own, aware of mortality, finality, and the implacable sureness that of each year added one would eventually become a permanent number referencing our own lives.
The previous day a bobcat had investigated the land around the ranch house, searching for a drink. He was as tawny as a two-year buck, padding softly across the patchy yard, his tongue tasting the air for water. He pressed his nose to the pump house door, tail twitching at what he smelled but couldn’t reach; the spoiled well was useless for humans though I’m sure he could have made do. But the pump had long since seized and the dirty water remained deep underground. The bobcat searched for any leak beneath the air conditioner too, unflustered by the way it rattled the window glass with a steady hum.
I watched him from where I stood on the porch, my cell phone adequate for recording his movements around the yard until he finally saw me, startled, and then crept away, still thirsty.
I returned inside. Though it was only eight in the morning, the sun was already booming through the windows and knocking off the walls. I could sense the tar loosening on the roof. Ceiling fans pushed the hot air faster and I wondered when, in this heat, it was reasonably too soon for a beer.
Maybe a Bobwhite, a bobcat, or a coyote can get by with less and endure more because they are used to it, but for how long? The pastures of North Texas were a hard life before the drought consumed what little water the ground had managed to capture.
I thought of the bobcat slipping through the pastures, panting. Mesquite and cedar seem incapable of giving true shade. Some light always slips through their warped branches.
I set a pan out for him but I don’t think he retraced his steps. He knew what wasn’t behind him.
The stock tanks are all dry and ranchers have begun to cull their cows. The bobcat wasn’t alone searching for a drink.
– Kellie Salome