by Frank Thayer ©2003
Summer lightning punctuates the New Mexico night, and sometimes it flickers blood-red behind the three peaks of the Tres Hermanes across the border in old Mexico. This night it gave a flickering intermittent illumination to two figures with flashlights who picked their way unsteadily along a rocky path at the base of a towering bluff.
Between the stumbling figures and the distant lightning was the suffused glow from the copper mill and smelter where the never-ending mastication of ore in the great crusher seldom allowed the night to be silent, and every hour the sky was lighted when a sudden gash of reddish orange magma was poured from rail cars out onto the slag dump north of the plant, its glow reflected in the smoke plume from the tall stacks.
Fear was a third figure skulking unseen between the two men as a sometimes moon turned their set faces to wax. They had walked this path before, and the fear animal had always slunk along the path with them. Behind them, at the bottom of the hill was their brand new 1976 company pickup truck. They were sent to do a job that should have waited until morning.
Ed Alvarado snorted into his bristly black mustache, his eyes focused on the narrow, stooped back of his working companion Martin Simms. This was the second time this month that the environmental monitoring system had malfunctioned, and both times it happened in the middle of the night.
Alvarado felt the prickles at the back of his neck, remembering the same walk in darkness two weeks ago. In his mind, he replayed their mutual, unconcerned laughter against the muffled rumble of the thunder, the sound of small rocks slipping from the path and down the steep hill under the bluff.
He tried to discount what had happened that night. It was just that the powerful 6 volt flashlight flickered out and, as it died With a sudden intake of breath he tried to remember the irrational panic that had sent both of them yelling, falling, scrambling down the hillside in the dark to claw at the doors of the truck. The vehicle wouldn't start, and something-something was there. It had seemed foolish once they got the truck started and headed back to the plant, but tonight the memories returned, and Alvarado could sense the centuries of feet who had walked these hills.
The copper mines of southwestern New Mexico have a history beyond the Anglo and the Spaniard. When the Spanish explored the territory in the 16th century, they found Indian-wrought items of native copper, and the Spanish were known to have dug copper and silver from the Santa Rita mines from 1800 until their Apache slave laborers turned terrorists, causing the Spanish to abandon the foothills by 1873 while Anglo interlopers began then to exploit the ore bodies. After WWI, the open pit mine became one of the largest producers of copper in the United States. So it was, 103 years later that the Santa Rita open pit was one of the world's largest. Alvarado was youngest of three generations who had labored for the copper company, and his forebears had passed Apache lore down to him. It could have been those traditions that made him one with the land and created the panic in him that night, and which still troubled him tonight.
During his childhood, Alvarado's great grandmother had told him how the depredations of the Apaches were the result of Spanish brutality, and she told him of Cochise, Geronimo, and Mangus Colorado who became the scourge of the Southwest. The Chiricahua Apache roamed the forested mountains, the foothills where the mines were located, and then they ventured south onto the arid plains that stretched into Mexico 50 miles to the south.
The Apaches had their own spirits and legends, and they hated witchcraft almost as much as they hated the white eyes. Alvarado's great grandmother told him a cryptic story about an invisible walker on the wind, a force even the Apaches did not understand.
The desert night is mostly comforting and benign, but at certain times and at certain places there are manifestations beyond description. At those times, the Apaches who camped on the high ground above the cliffs of the hill named Mount Geronimo slept not. They kept the fires blazing throughout the night and they drummed and danced to keep the thing away, sinking into sleep only when the gray of dawn paled the crushed velvet of the night sky.
As far back as he could remember, Alvarado had lived in the shadow of Mount Geronimo, whose cruel bluffs watched over the mining district. Every day he drove the blacktop to his job at the reduction plant, always aware of the changing face of the mountain, gray and impassive in the morning, reddish in the late afternoon. No wonder it had once been a hunting camp for the restless Apaches, with a commanding view of the other hills and the plains that fanned out to the south. On a clear day, sharp eyes could see a hundred miles to the south.
Suddenly, stupidly, Alvarado collided with Simms in the darkness. For some reason, Simms had stopped in the path, his muted curse angered Alvarado, but anything was better than being out here alone tonight.
Alvarado would not have minded that Martin Simms
was an ignorant, classic gringo but for the regularity with which their
supervisor threw him together with the man when it came their turn to
do graveyard shift.
"Sorry." Alvarado's voice was deep, without any trace of accent. He said the word without any intonation of regret. He was busy trying to understand the spitball of dread in his own stomach. Only about 200 yards to go. A month ago, they had been able to drive to within 30 yards of the trailer to collect the data printouts showing temperature, wind velocity, barometric pressure, and the ever-fluctuating amounts of pollutants, especially sulfur dioxide SO2, carbon monoxide, and other gases that belched from the smelter stacks, those stacks that had been on Alvarado's immediate horizon for his entire life.
The environmental engineering department was the newest branch of the company, a response to six years of pressure from Washington's new Environmental Protection Agency that had been initiated in July 1970. There were four monitoring stations now, with this one the most difficult to reach.
This station near Mount Geronimo was also the least dependable of the monitoring stations, even though the components had been checked again and again. The checking, however, was done in the daylight. The inexplicable malfunctions happened only at night.
The night was oblivious to them both. The squatting mesa brutes, grinning from their rocky dragon's mouths, were a faintly outlined pressure in the dark. The two puny humans, walking among the boulders, came upon the new arroyo that had been part of the road to the station. Now it was an impassable crevice, razor-cut by flashflood in the summer rains a few weeks before.
No, Alvarado thought, Simms was not a bad man, just a very noisy, weak one who lived in New Mexico but could not hear the voice of the land. He had not been born here, and one had to live in the area at least a full generation before becoming part of it.
On the other hand, Alvarado's face belonged to the desert; coarse black hair grew thickly under the hard hat. His deeply tanned face was clean shaven but for the brushy mustache. He normally feared nothing in the New Mexico night, and he fought against admitting the panic that was so real in him right now.
They made their way carefully into the arroyo, clambering up the far side, flashlight beams bobbing and weaving with the uncertain footing. The towering bluff of Mount Geronimo was just over their shoulders, the sheer southern rock face an opaque wall hiding Apache secrets. When the Apache war chief roamed this land, what must his eyes have seen?
The Indian blood was strong in Alvarado and visible in the width of his nose, and the fullness of his mouth. He knew there were things more real than the rocks and the desert creatures-things apprehended only the world of rituals. Alvarado accepted that there were beings wreathed in the smoke of mesquite and juniper campfires, voices that raced with the dust devils, the living creatures of the air that Simms did not believe in, and thus could never sense.
"Hey!" Simms' aggravating voice awakened Alvarado from his strange reverie, and he found himself reacting with the flush of hot anger, reminiscent of his younger days.
"What is it?" Alvarado almost whispered, suppressing the urge to spit out a string of filthy names, his fists balled. He was trying to ignore Simms. He was aware of something else-soft, downy things touching his cheeks and receding into the darkness.
The brilliant glare of Simms' flashbeam made
a bright, wavering circle on the page of night. "Look at this."
"Kinda interesting, huh?" Simms grinned vacantly and lit a cigarette with his free hand. The flashlight was not steady, though.
Alvarado had always found Simms to be obnoxious, disgusting, tasteless, and dull, but until tonight he hadn't felt himself going beyond common loathing into hatred. The New Mexico native knew immediately that this dead creature was not the victim of a coyote or a bobcat, and the reeking freshness of the kill in the air was horrifying to him.
Simms walked ahead, stepping gingerly around the carnage, and Alvarado was sure the man was afraid but not wise enough to turn back. As for himself, he was no better. His pride was stronger than his fear, and he wouldn't show his fear to someone as contemptible as Simms.
Their footsteps in the dark were heavy and unsure as they began the last hundred yards to the monitoring station. Alvarado heard Simms raspy, tobacco-impaired breathing ahead of him. The dead rabbit was behind them, and Alvarado could still sense some fragments of something in the air, still fluffy and unidentifiable.
Fingering the copper amulet about his neck, Alvarado thought of the secret, invisible world around them, the world Simms was too dense to perceive. He thought of the common legend of La Llorona, that weeping soul who walked the night wherever running water was found. Alvarado had met several Hispanic women who had seen this shrouded figure and heard her wailing, yet few Anglos knew the legend and none of them had ever seen the ghostly figure who sought her dead child. What of the darker legends that nobody but his great grandmother had ever spoken of? Whose reality would they be part of?
Alvarado began to lag, looking for an excuse to turn back as they both had been smart enough to do that other night. Now Simms was a murky figure, just barely outlined by the bouncing flashlight, getting smaller. Suddenly, Simms' light went-out. Had he reached the trailer and gone inside? Alvarado chided himself and picked up his pace when the wind gust struck his face. Something was stampeding toward him in the dark.
Alvarado pointed his flashlight, stabbing with it like a sword, gasping like a winded runner. Rocks skittered down the slope. Was it a deer? Some rancher's errant steer? The light couldn't find it, and in a rush it was past him, the running noise fading. Now, all Alvarado could think of was to catch up with Simms and get the job done. He tried to ignore the pounding of the blood in his ears. For some reason he thought of his wife and two sons at home in their beds.
Even though he kept in good shape, Alvarado could feel the strain of the climb, and he breathed heavily as he approached the windowless trailer that housed the instrumentation. There was a lull in the blustery wind, and he could hear the almost-asthmatic wheeze of Simms' breathing ahead of him, probably inside the trailer. Behind them was the dead rabbit, and the unseen animal. Ahead was the station. The lightning flickered, oh so far to the south in another world.
Alvarado found it impossible to control the shakiness of his breathing.
The white trailer squatted ahead, a pallid hunchback only dimly discernible in the reflection of the distant lights of the copper plant. The bank of thunderheads slowly advanced from the southwest and the night air was oppressive, unnaturally humid in its bubble of stillness.
For no good reason, Alvarado was thinking of a discussion between himself and Simms when the man had first come from Utah to work at the New Mexico Division. He couldn't even remember the words, the subjects. He only recalled how he had danced along the thin line that separates words from impending violence. Did Simms know how thin the veneer of cooperation was between them?
Alvarado pointed his flashlight ahead, looking for Simms. He didn't see anybody, but the door to the trailer seemed to be open. A massive flash of lightning almost blinded him with its brightness.
Miles down the canyon the grumble of the plant concentrator mixed with the digestive sounds of the approaching storm. Alvarado felt alone and isolated. The idea of Simms' companionship was no comfort. It was just a few more steps to the trailer.
Alvarado cursed himself under his breath. He sensed something in the air, and blood pressure pounded in his temples. What had the century-gone Apache drums kept at bay in the New Mexico night? What was it, unnamed and indescribable, that had hidden from the pale-skinned invaders and their half-sighted eyes? Yet something still lurked in the hills, in the very air.
Taut in every nerve and sinew, Alvarado kept
his frightened breath veiled behind clenched teeth. He thought of Simms'
noisy gasps as those of a wounded animal-perhaps like a wounded rabbit.
Pointing his flashlight at the ground, Alvarado suddenly knew what he had felt in the air, that softness brushing his cheek, the tickling fragments in his nose. He could see at least 200 dead birds, perhaps many more. It was as though they had exploded in flight, dropping in their fragments around the white trailer. Feather wisps still drifted in the air.
It was impossible to step without treading on the massed, spongy bodies. Alvarado took another glance down the slope they had fled from once before. Simms was in the trailer and, if Simms did not run, then Alvarado himself could not retreat-but Simms was ignorant, a savage in the true sense of being unaware. He thought of Simms-let him die!
Alvarado's legs yearned to send him plummeting back to safety. The rabbit, those birds death wrapping around him like a choking garment. He wanted to think of warmth and light of daytime, the things of life, but he could find nothing in his mind but here and now. He called Simms name, but he knew that words could stop nothing, and his mind was screaming to know what had drawn the birds to their destruction in the middle of the night. It was only for an instant that he tried to seek a "logical, scientific solution" to it, but he knew better. It was just there, large as the mountain, as inexorable as time and shaped with the minds of all those it had possessed since the beginning of time.
"Madre de Dios, Holy Mother of God." The words were his own, pumped from his throat as a tremendous burst of wind shrieked through the rocks, insane with roaring, tearing at hair and clothes. Alvarado heard his hard hat skittering down the hillside making faint, hollow plastic sounds until it was gone. He crouched, spittle slobbering his lips. The sand scoured him, its needles digging at his face. He gagged as feathers clotted in his mouth. The sound was a natural cataclysm, blinding him, deafening him.
The light! Of course, he still had the flashlight. Alvarado's fingers were almost useless sausages as he stabbed at the switch. The light came on. His eyes stung with the pain of the grit in them. Simms had to be inside the trailer, but the howling river of dust turned the light beam gray and mottled.
The figure was standing in the open door of the trailer, his face grinning without a smile, eyes empty. This was not Alvarado coiled in self defense, his primal scream torn away from him by the nightwind.
That sallow face-the misshapen, jagged brown teeth and sagging skin. Hands like talons and clothes hiding a mockery of human form. The blank eyes were looking at Alvarado and the flashbeam was fading, dimming, irretrievably lost like the lives of the birds and the rabbit. With the whip of his right arm, Alvarado threw the useless flashlight in Simms' direction. A hard rain came slashing in on him, stinging like the dust. Footsteps were running toward him.
Like an animal, Alvarado fought the thing grabbing at him. His hands clutched flesh and tore. The wetness, dirt, and terror formed a glutinous mass, suffocating, killing. He rolled upon the ground, kicking, biting, vomiting at the foetor of an unholy smell.
Alvarado did not know which were his screams and which was the other. And the open door of that white trailer banged hollowly in the wind while hard-driven rain created a din on the aluminum shell of the station. He called for help in the ancestral network of his racial memory and redoubled his desperate fight for life. The rain was now a hammering bombardment, turning the soil into wriggling watercourses down the hillside, its intensity welling, its hideous pinkness hidden by the dark.
Alvarado's hands gripped a leathery throat. There was a gurgling, a crack of bone, and then Alvarado rolled away from a twitching, dying lump. His only thought was that Mount Geronimo was glistening with blood but, when he regained some sense of composure, the blackness still surrounded him. He had won. His fingernails were broken, and he throbbed with the pain of bruises, abrasions, and cuts. His clothes were sodden and sloppy with dirt, the rain, and other wetness.
The rain softened, the wind abating to a cool
breeze. Alvarado's eyes were clogged with debris, and this was probably
the only reason that he sobbed. The whole world was black, and he sought
only to escape.
Water was running ankle deep in the arroyo, and he leaned against the muddy, crumbling bank. He had left Simms dead up there, but it wasn't Simms at all, was it? Alvarado's stomach retched with the memory of flesh yielding to his raking fingers.
It seemed almost beyond his ability, but he clambered
out of the arroyo. Twice he stumbled against large rocks in the dark.
Somehow he could still hear the banging of the trailer door in the night,
like the distorted tolling of a miscast bell high on the hill, still flailing
in rhythm with the thing that walked on the wind.
Alvarado's next scream was just a croak.
Sitting the passenger seat was Simms, motionless and noiseless. Simms' lips were pulled back into an empty grin, his clothes completely dry. Alvarado screamed again from the bottom of his soul.
* * *
Today, 27 years later, Ed Alvarado's black hair and bristling mustache have gone silver. He retired from the copper company four years ago, and his boys are grown and pursuing careers of their own. Alvarado and his wife still live in town, just out of sight of Mount Geronimo. He still wears the copper charm his great grandmother gave him when he was a child, and he never talks about the past, or what happened that night so many years ago. He did tell his boys the stories of Apache lore his great grandmother had passed to him, but they probably do not believe him. His family says that he sometimes talks too much when the beer flows on the 4th of July or Memorial Day, and his wife has more than once had to comfort him when he wakes up screaming in the night.
The smelter furnaces are long since frozen, and the excavation in the great open pit has stopped after at least two centuries of continuous work. Nobody goes to those rocky hillsides behind the plant. Some say it is because the security goons of the copper company arrest interlopers and sometimes assault them, but others say there are secret reasons why people have been barred from the hills near Mount Geronimo for almost 20 years now.
There were no charges against Alvarado in 1976, even though he delivered Martin Simms back home in a near-catatonic state. There was no physical damage or cause for Simms' malady, but within a week, the man's condition changed without him ever regaining consciousness-the deterioration of Simms' body was said to be "startling" to the doctors at the regional medical center who looked after the empty shell. It was only a matter of two more weeks before the febrile life processes stopped abruptly, and the Simms' body collapsed in on itself as though there was nothing inside.
Alvarado knew, though. The sanguine
color of the late afternoon rock bluff of Mount Geronimo told him where
Simms had gone, and no words would ever explain it. He is content in his
retirement to look toward that stone mountain from a distance, and he
always stays indoors on stormy summer nights when the lightning flickers
blood-red behind the three peaks of the Tres Hermanes in Mexico across