By Katherine Forrister
I nested my dusty boots within the footprint of ancient ruins, while dark blips of live ammunition racketed off rows of neatly homogenized housing. The metal hailstorm’s echoes bounced with the crisp staccato of regimented marching. Airplanes roared overhead.
It truly ruined the effect.
Still, I felt like I had stepped back in time, squatting in the same place an ancient Native American had squatted—or sat—or stood—near the center hearth of this hardy dwelling. The square foundation was one of precisely one hundred rooms of the partially excavated Hot Well Pueblo. The ruins had once been a large, muddled adobe and thatch structure, built and used around 1,200 A.D.
This particular room had a different function than the ninety-nine others surrounding it, one that intrigued me more than the simple living spaces. Its use was, perhaps, even more crucial than the others to the livelihood of the Jornada Mogollon people, who had been experimenting with the possibilities of agriculture in a village of peace.
Now, it resided on Fort Bliss Army Base in a far different era in time.
The desert sun was a hot iron pressing upon a white—or what had once been white—handkerchief that now slipped down my neck, sweat steaming from my skin like hot cakes in the hundred-degree oven of west Texas. I wiped a dusty hand on my khakis and used it to readjust the fabric and the collar of my sticky green t-shirt so my neck was protected again. Luckily, I wasn’t as prone to burning as the red-headed Hollywood starlet of an archaeologist nearby, who had lathered on the same amount of sunscreen as I had, but was still becoming pretty in pink.
I finished my attempt to fix my handkerchief, only to have its twin on my head shift to the side, knocking a few dark brown locks out of place. I sighed and shoved them back in, and then tightened the kerchief for the upteenthed time that day. Satisfied, for now, I returned my attention to the sandy, square foundation below me, only to be interrupted again.
“O’Dwyer,” said a deep, rich voice from behind me. I turned and saw a sideways smile on my fellow curatorial assistant and co-adventurer’s face. After three years, Crispin still delighted in calling me by my decidedly Irish surname, amused that it did not match my appearance, or even my first name, in the least.
“Amanda says she’s got to return the jeep to the curatorial facility,” he said, sending his thumb backwards over his shoulder in the increasingly red archaeologist’s direction. Crispin, on the other hand, had lucked out in the draw of the gene pool; his dark skin was even more averse to sunburn than mine.
“We were thinking of hitting up Delaney’s tonight,” he continued. “What odds, there being an Irish pub in the thick of El Paso! You should feel right at home. Or maybe you’d prefer Cazadores?”
I rolled my eyes and waved him off. For a fellow anthropologist, he had always had an unexpected sense of humor for less than politically correct jibes.
“There are lots of options,” jumped in Amanda placatingly, her big blue eyes full of melodramatic worry. The newest archaeologist of the local Cultural Resources Management Team of Fort Bliss had been our personal guru for the past two days, and yet was still completely unaware that Crispin and I had long engaged in silly banter such as this.
Crispin laughed in response, his straight, white teeth flashing in the late afternoon sun. “As long as it’s got tequila,” he said. “Right, O’Dwyer?”
I let out a huff of a laugh. Tequila and I had long been embroiled in a tumultuous love affair, and Crispin enjoyed both the fiery temper and flamboyant dancing that usually accompanied my thirst in alternating spikes of passion with every shot.
“If you’re buying,” I countered, pulling myself upwards against the tight, resistant string that held me to the ruins, not quite ready to switch from an ancient mindset to a present watered with agave liquor.
But the present further jolted into my immersion when my cell rang with its pragmatic phone service provider jingle. I fumbled in the deep pocket on the side of my cargo pants for the boxy phone case. By the third ring, it was at my ear.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, having glimpsed a photo on the screen of a wide-smiled, slightly balding man.
“Bad time?” my father asked in response. I wasn’t in a particularly bad mood, but clipped irritability tended to be my voice’s go-to inflection. Dad knew that, but still asked about my troubles every time he heard it. It was a sweet gesture, but tiresome.
“No, no,” I answered. “Just at a site, but we’re about to leave.”
“Ah, I see,” he said jovially, a tone that was his own default, followed by a knowing lilt. “Crispin there with you?”
I hmphed. That was nosy.
I held up a finger to Crispin and Amanda and stepped a few feet away, requesting a moment. Still, despite my distance...
“Sí, pero no te metas en lo que no te incumbe,” I chastised him in Spanish.
He burst out into his hearty laugh after I told him it was none of his business. “Well, that answers my question.”
“¿Hay una razón que me llamaste?” I griped, growing truly irritable now as I asked the reason for his call
“Come on, Carmen, I’m just giving you a hard time,” he wheedled. “Besides, I promised your grandma I’d keep her updated on your progress of finding a mah-yan.” he imitated his mother’s loose Alabama accent.
“If it were up to me,” he added hurriedly, “I’d say take your time,” he used the same tone embraced by most fathers faced with the prospect of their only daughter’s marriage, “but she insists you bring someone home for Christmas, and I figure since Crispin’s the only guy who gets to spend more than five minutes with you...”
“OK, OK,” he said, “but you know your abuela is going to say the same thing next summer. She especially thinks twenty-eight is too old to still be traveling the world with no hope of marriage in sight.”
“You just want me closer to home,” I responded tiredly.
“I’m only saying there are plenty of museums in Colorado that need local employees,” he answered.
“And I’d get wanderlust as soon as I got there,” I countered, “and you know it.”
He sighed, and I could picture his freckled face, freckles I had inherited, fall in resignation. It was never his intention to guilt-trip me, but I knew his loneliness after my mother’s death, still fresh even after seventeen years, was only amplified by my absence.
I had begun my globetrotting as an undergrad, culminating into a master’s in sociocultural anthropology. My subsequent job with the One Earth Heritage and Natural History Museum had kept me away from any stable location for nearly half of every year for the past four years. When not in either domestic or exotic locations, my stomping grounds were Seattle, still a plane ride away from my childhood home in Denver.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. I allowed it, assuming Dad was wading through memories, but when he spoke again, his voice sounded taut, yet came slowly, and I began to suspect a blush might be forming on his already oft-flushed face.
“You know,” he said, “it might help if you bring someone home. That way, uh, all the attention won’t be on me. You see, um... I’ve met someone.”
I blinked. Maybe he wasn’t so swept up in loneliness after all.
“She’s really great... Her name is Claire. I—I mean, I know she’s not... No one can ever replace Lucia. You know—I hope you know, I—”
“Dad,” I said firmly, “stop. You deserve to be happy.” I swallowed. “Es lo que mamá hubiera querido.” It’s what Mom would have wanted. “She would have yelled at you for waiting so long.”
I smiled, wishing Dad could see the confidence in my face. Then, I was glad he couldn’t as it drooped while I waded through my own emotions on the matter, but I had prepared myself for this conversation for years. I had begun to think we’d never have it by now.
Dad chuckled, breathy as he expressed his relief. “Well, we don’t have to go on about it now. I would have waited till you were more relaxed, but it’s hard to get ahold of you, so...”
“It’s fine; I know it is.” Many of the places I visited were too remote for good cell service. “I can’t wait to meet her—Claire,” I added, testing out the name. Whether I ended up meshing with her or not, Dad deserved some company. Besides, a new woman in his life might assuage my speck of guilt about leaving him alone so often.
“Thanks, Carmen,” he said, a thickness to his voice. “Te quiero.”
“Te quiero, Dad,” I said fondly, all irritability gone. “Te llamará mañana.”
“Yes, we’ll speak tomorrow,” he agreed. “Say hi to Crispin for me.”
I gave an exasperated sigh and wished him goodbye to the sound of another hearty laugh.
“Sorry about that,” I apologized as I returned my phone to my pocket and strode back to my waiting coworkers.
“We’ve decided on Coyote Grill,” Crispin said, “good ol’ tex-mex. So, go put on that one dress of yours and we’ll head to what I hear,” he sent Amanda a rakish smile that made her blush, “is a very rowdy dance floor.”
“I think that dress has got a hole in it,” I replied acridly.
“Even better,” he said with a wink.
I ignored his casual flirtation; it didn’t faze me by now.
“Go on without me,” I said, staring again at the square foundation beside my worn-in hiking boots. “I want to stay here a little longer. If that’s alright,” I added, nearly forgetting mild Amanda was really the one in charge here. Simple tourists weren’t allowed to visit this site unaccompanied; its location on an army base prevented easy access, and I suspected that Amanda, like so many local archaeologists, was protective over the treasures within her territory of care and preservation.
True to form, the woman hesitated, but Crispin jumped to my defense.
“Believe me,” he assured, “Carmen is quicker to respect sites and artifacts than she is living people. She just wants to experience it.” His emphasis on the word contained a mixture of jest and respect, and despite his teasing, I felt a small surge of pride.
Amanda seemed pacified, accepting she had found a kindred spirit.
“Yes, that should be alright,” she said sweetly, her small flare of protectiveness fading as smoothly and mildly as it had come. “Though, I really shouldn’t be letting you stay here without me, so don’t take long.”
I nodded. “I’ll make it a quickie,” I said, hardly noticing my own innuendo, but Crispin laughed at the cliché. Amanda seemed oblivious and simply reminded me to take advantage of the best positions to make the most out of the space, eliciting a guffaw from Crispin that brought a bemused expression to Amanda’s face. I nodded very seriously and told the both of them I was quite knowledgeable of the many positions I could use to thoroughly and efficiently enjoy the experience.
They headed off towards Amanda’s jeep with Crispin’s last remark, “Just save some of that energy for tonight!”
I waved him off and chuckled to myself as I finally saw an open mouth and fluttering lashes appear on Amanda’s face as the jokes dawned on her delicate sensibilities.
I listened to the rumble of the engine as the open-topped jeep jumped into being and drummed up sand, far enough away from the ruins at my feet to leave them swept clean, at least for now. I waited until the rumble faded into a distant purr, and then pushed the white noise of airplanes out of my ears and let my consciousness shift backwards through time.
Crispin was more than right when he said I desired to experience the site. Seeing, hearing, even touching were never enough, not for me. My research, my inspection of artifacts, of architecture, of people, either living or dead, were all cultivated so my imagination could travel to every conceivable place, time, and culture of our Earth’s existence.
It was to my good fortune, bordering on the cusp of fate, that I had been hired for a job that not only catered to, but required, my specific talents for grasping cultures other than my own. Four years ago, the One Earth Heritage and Natural History Museum had been declining, as so many small or midsize museums were, as the digital age took over the delivery of information. The larger, better funded museums had all begun to avidly adapt to society’s changing needs. What information their website could not provide—or would not, instead teasing guests with hints of delightful in-person knowledge to come—they delivered to the masses through interactive screens beside elaborate exhibits. The actual artifacts became only a portion of the focus as prerecorded audio tours fed neatly into earbuds.
Occasionally, guided tours were offered, but most visitors opted out of the option, impatient and, truly, not aware of what they were missing. Or what they would be missing, if any of the teched-out museum tour guides were worth a damn.
That’s where I came in. One Earth didn’t have the funds to adapt to the public’s thirst for interactive, fast delivery of facts they would forget in a day’s time. Faced with bankruptcy, the loving owner had poured all remaining funds into the potentially disastrous advice of the head curator, a man named Elias Smith—my boss—who insisted that good, real people, administering good, real facts backed by good, real experiences, were the only ways to make a good, real difference in this world. His life’s mission was to not only inform museum-goers, or entertain them, but to inspire them.
Apparently, I was both good and real, because as soon as I had seen an opening and applied for the position, one that seemed too good to be true for a person right out of grad school, I was hired. Crispin and two others were taken on not long after, and between us all, we had brought the museum out of its valley of death to rise like a phoenix from the ashes—to mix metaphors.
Every time a new exhibit was queued to arrive for the next season, we would take turns being shipped off, usually in pairs, to experience the culture, if currently viable, and to view any architecture too big to transport to a museum. We also often viewed additional artifacts that were not going to be a part of our exhibit, but were, instead, part of “the world’s exhibit”, as Smith always put it.
So here I was, ready to experience the Jornada Mogollon culture, squatting in the dirt in El Paso.
If someone were to watch me, which was entirely possible considering my current existence in a military base, they would probably think I was crazy. Closed eyes, perfectly still, as my mind wandered.
I imagined the noises of daily living, nearly the same across all cultures. The sizzle of food cooking, regardless of method, so long as it was hot. The swish or squeak of cleaning a space designated for human habitation. I heard voices haggling for trade over objects, money, or ideas. I listened to babies’ cries, and the laughter of children and parents alike.
In this particular culture, the sizzles of steam would have accompanied the pop of dripping venison or bighorn mutton grease over a crackling fire. The haggling would have been over harvested beans or squash, beaded jewelry, or handcrafted stone arrowheads, all a part of the extensive trade relationship among the peoples of west Texas, New Mexico, and the Mexican border during that time.
A broom of lechuguilla fibers would have swept adobe and woven mat floors, its raw sap converted into detergent for scrubbing. The babies would have been carried in woven yucca fiber cradles, and adults would have laughed to the words of a storyteller.
But this room, designated simply as “Room One”, would have contained none of those sounds. I opened my eyes, trying to imagine what this space looked like when it had been cloistered by walls, when the carved stone sun, so faded now, had gleamed with bright paint on the raised hearth. I imagined, and knew it was so if the suspected reason behind the construction of this room was true, that directly in front of me, across the raised stone of the center hearth, had been a window.
A wistful frown twitched at my lips. I was disappointed that today wasn’t one of those magic days, the days beloved by astronomers, astrologists, religious leaders, and everyday farmers alike. Four special days of every year had long been the anchors of all people who clung to the Earth, searching to understand our place in the universe.
Whether Earth was flat or round, whether it revolved around the sun, or the sun round it, or was carried on the back of a turtle or the back of a trout, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices told humans their position in the greater world—when it was safe to travel through the changing weather of the seasons, when it was a fruitful time to plant their crops. Further analyzed, they served as methods to calculate sophisticated calendars and perform complex alchemy. They inspired sacred worship and all the astrological prophecies, big and small, that these magical days could bring.
The Jornada Mogollon people had been no different. Solidly within the regional era of human experimentation with sedentary agriculture, these people’s lives had depended on the accurate timing of the seasons; to ignore or mistake such timing could lead to a wilted or frozen crop, hungry bellies, and fresh dug graves. In the end, despite all efforts, it was suspected a severe drought had forced the people to abandon not only this pueblo, but the entire region, regressing to hunting and gathering, or moving on to join—or make war—with nearby peoples.
But during their stay in this location, they had built this room—the observatory. While a simple space, it was a testament to their necessity for astronomical studies in that its design was perfect.
I fought a smile as I remembered the specific positions Amanda had instructed I take to enjoy the room. I stood and stepped carefully over eroded adobe to reach the closest corner of the structure. I backed up against the imaginary wall and looked above the center hearth. A flat desert expanse was visible between squat army compound buildings with little desert scrub to block the view.
Had it been a bitterly cold, December morning, with a fire in the hearth attempting to warm the observer within as they prepared for the longest night ahead, I would have witnessed the sun rising precisely opposite my place in the corner.
The heat of the summer returned as, after a moment, I shifted respectfully to a second corner. From this position, a sunrise through wiggling heatwaves would have been visible, perfectly aligned with my waiting eyes, on the longest day of the year in late June.
But it was nowhere near sunrise; the orange light was behind me, waiting to be accompanied by Jupiter and Mars as little powerful preludes to the stars that would soon follow. And in the middle of July, both spring and autumn equinoxes were far off.
Still, I stepped again to the center of the room, and, with as much dignity as I could muster, sat directly behind the raised hearth.
My eyes found the place I looked for with ease, no need to wander to discover the notch in the distant Huecos Mountains. The slopes of two peaks touched the horizon, emerging from, or perhaps returning to, the earth from which they were made. Pale, lavender-touched sky illuminated the range.
On each equinox, the sun would rise, without fail, between those two great mountains. Some ancient human had made note of that phenomenon and had waited each year for confirmation their prediction was viable. They had finally constructed this observatory and temple, whether a place of religious or academic nature, I couldn’t say, but when it came down to deep ponderings of the universe, really, what was the difference?
Following in the ancient sunwatcher’s footsteps, I sat, and I waited. But, of course, no sun would come, not this day, not for me.
But something else did.
* * *
I scrambled into my all-terrain, rented vehicle that I knew would cause a raised lip of politely curtailed disgust, and less curtailed judgment, when it was returned to its establishment covered in dust. I started the engine and heaved shut the door.
My mind was a sputtering sparkplug as it tried to decide what I should do. I eyed my visitor access pass in the passenger’s seat and combusted into action, pealing the SUV’s tires to the right to follow the road that would take me east.
It didn’t matter to me, at that moment, that Crispin and Amanda had taken a western gate to exit the base. It didn’t matter that they would be waiting for me at the motel. Right now, all that mattered was my own damned curiosity.
A light had twinkled through the notch in the Huecos, not a star, not the blink of a cell tower or airplane lights. It was small, and a strange, beautiful shade of blue, and though it was light, it wasn’t really a light at all. You couldn’t touch light, but this looked ethereally solid.
I had no idea what it was, or why the inhabitants of Fort Bliss were not rallying to find out, as I was, what was causing the light-not-light. It had pulsed three times in my vision as I sat by the ancient hearth, wondering if the Jornada Mogollon observer had ever witnessed something like this.
Whether the army housed and trained here had noticed it or not, I didn’t want to wait for them to get as excited as I was before I had a chance to investigate. The Jornada Mogollons may have been a generally peaceful people, with no need for a military, but in an increasingly global, violent world, the United States, unfortunately, did not have that luxury. I was grateful for the protection the military provided—there had been a crucial moment in my life, frozen in memory, in which I had desperately needed their assistance—but they also had a way of taking control over situations that possibly contained danger.
Something about that light, which was truly something more, though I could not put my finger on how, did not strike me as dangerous at all. I hoped they would agree, but more so, I hoped they wouldn’t notice. It was beautiful, and I inexplicably, sorely, fervently wished I was the only person to have seen it.
Upon reaching the Old Ironsides gate, I impatiently waited for my turn in a short line of cars, watching the camo-wearing soldiers amble about threateningly with their guns in case their machismo was needed. I finally achieved the temporary shade of the overhang. I grabbed my visitor’s pass and practically shoved it in the attending soldier’s face. He looked startled, and then slipped into an easy, amused smile as his eyes flickered over my appearance; he gave me a wink, which I heartily ignored. I stamped my foot down on the gas pedal, screeching off past the uniformed guards to haul ass towards Highway 62.
I growled in annoyance as my mind flickered back to the young attendant’s leering expression. Despite how disheveled and sweaty as I often was while out on field studies such as this one, I still tended to attract unwanted attention; it was rare I decided I did want attention—that I found someone worth taking time away from my work to take to bed. Crispin usually filled that need when it arose, but our relationship was purely, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. Neither of us cared for anything more.
I adjusted my rear-view mirror after making a left turn, realizing I had been driving with a blind eye since starting the car; Crispin, taller than my 5’6”, had been driving on the way to the base. I caught some of my reflection as I did so and huffed. As I had suspected when confronted with the gate attendant, I looked a mess. But my light brown skin, with a subtle speckling of freckles across my nose, and my green eyes and long, thick dark hair had never failed in catching people’s interests.
I was attractive; even I enjoyed my reflection from time to time, trying on dresses and applying makeup for the nicer museum fundraisers. I thought I was pretty—other people saw me as a uniquely fascinating blend of features.
“What is your heritage?” they would often ask, even random strangers. “Where are you from?”
“Here,” would be my grudging answer, at least while growing up in Denver. I was a born and raised American, the same as any of my friends. But sometimes I would give a more loquacious answer.
My father, Kevin Joel O’Dwyer, was a white computer engineer who had managed to relocate from Alabama to Colorado, only to have his mother follow him, a point of fact we both used as reference in our many debates over my constant traveling. I would say that he left home, so why couldn’t I, and he would counter that my grandma went with him because family should remain close.
My mother, Lucia del Carmen Pérez, worked in the same field as my father. She had obtained a work visa to move from her home in Mexico to transfer to Denver into his department. Still learning English, Mom had often joked that the languages she understood best were the ones used to program computers, which, knowing her, was probably true. My father had taken it upon himself to help perfect her English and make sure she had a friend in the U.S., which inevitably led to marriage.
Some people said the timing of Dad’s proposal, right when her work visa was about to expire, meant it was a marriage of convenience. I knew better. Every day Mom was alive, I could see the love they shared with each other, which they poured into me. I witnessed—and experienced—the ache Dad felt as we watched her succumb to breast cancer when I was eleven, and every day since. Yes, we had more than enough proof of the love our family shared.
I swallowed and focused on the road ahead. It was easy to submerge one’s consciousness on a road like Highway 62—a long, straight stretch of asphalt—and once past Homestead Meadows, it shot through practically nothing but a vast desert expanse. Rounded prickly pear cacti and short spiky tufts of shin daggers and desert spoons littered the landscape, which I had always vaguely thought bore a resemblance to the stiff corals of an ocean shelf, particularly now, in the silhouettes of twilight, but the deep, dark swells were long gone.
As I pressed my luck with the speed limit, lumpy mounds of earth grumbled into existence on their way to the distant, eastern panorama of the Huecos Mountains. They were joined by power lines, a dusty cafe, a couple of junkyards—or squares of cleared shrubbery and old cars on bricks that may as well have been—and a few squat businesses and homes. Some were lit by solitary streetlamps that complained of their early awakening with erratic flickers as I raced by.
I strained my eyes, trying to make out that beautiful twinkle I had seen from the observatory. Heading straight east, the notch in the mountains was still ahead, but nothing out of the ordinary greeted my eyes. There weren’t even any planes droning anymore, parting the sky with tiny lines of engine smoke.
I breathed a sigh of relief at that. The guards at the gates had seemed bored and uncomfortable in the heat. No army troops were mobilizing; no helicopters were circling the spot in the mountains for aerial surveillance. I was alone on the open road. I was the only one speeding towards the mystery.
My hands tightened around the feaux leather of the steering wheel. There it was—that shimmer of light, like glancing sunlight on water. Then it shifted as if through fog, dulling the glow, but it tingled in my senses as something else, taking on that tangible quality again. It seemed as a spectrum outside of physics, triggering a sense that was similar to vision, as the glow was similar to light, but in truth was neither. What was it?
I drove my foot into the gas pedal. I had to know.
* * *
My tires squealed against the pavement as I nearly ran myself off the road, ending up perpendicular to the straight highway, my SUV’s blunt nose stuffed with thorny mesquite shrubs and burro grass. I was still in the foothills, hadn’t yet reached the sudden jutting uprising of the mountains, but I didn’t need to—the beacon was closer than I thought; or had it moved, trying to reach me as I did it?
I hardly had time to acknowledge the delusion of that thought before I jumped from the car. I knew if any passerby were to come down the road, they would have plenty of time to see the obstacle in their path down the unswerving line to drive around it, so I didn’t bother moving it and started off on foot. The light blinked again ahead. It wasn’t far off the road; it couldn’t be much further than fifty feet north.
But distances in deserts were often misleading, especially when interrupted by mounds of earth and rock that blocked all sight and muffled all sound to create eerie deceptions of time and a growing sense of isolation. Or perhaps I was just impatient. Either way, it took a lot longer than I had anticipated to reach the object that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
The crunch of my boots on gravel and dropped cactus needles stopped.
“There you are,” I whispered.
I stared down at what must have been the source of the powerful, unnatural and tangible light. It was a sphere, no bigger than a soccer ball, and, vacant as it was, I had the urge to kick it to see if it would again emit the signal I felt was calling something, calling me. But I refrained from that instinctual urge, brought on by my many years on the school soccer field as a means to channel my angry and impatient childhood temperament, an activity that had wound up leading me to national championships in high school. Instead, I squatted down and cocked my head, using my refined, studious eye to inspect the strange object before me.
It was black, no, blue. Then, I decided I didn’t know what color it was. Its surface was sleek and smooth. I could see no obvious opening, although I felt that it should open, that it should contain all the world’s secrets. I was overcome by curiosity as if I had no ability to feel anything else and carefully, I stretched my hand towards it.
I was thrust back with the force of an explosion.