The high desert playa is the place that Gerald and his family have always called home. It also happens to be a place where nearly everything but the dust had blown away a very long time ago.
A strange and almost charming obsession with “living off the land” is what keeps the Geralds and Geraldines of the world anchored down in such an inhospitable terrain—but you might not be wrong to say that a stubborn tendency to “stick with the devil you know” would explain their situation just as well.
Our brave and most excellent Gerald does not possess any sort of special powers—nor does he have any deep insights into the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. His friends are unremarkable, his family is unremarkable, and everything about his entire existence is approximately as interesting as a large pile of dust that is made up of many smaller clumps of dust which in turn are made up of individual specks of dust.
Gerald is a clay pot, disintegrated. But he is still a hero in his own way. Or rather, he will become one soon enough. The interesting question, dear reader, is how will he do it?
As the ever-powerful, infinitely omniscient narrator, I can tell you how Gerald won’t become a hero. He will not become a hero by moving out of the barren desert that he and his family have lived in for seven generations. He will not become a hero by saying brilliant and inspiring things, and he will not become a hero through some transformative journey with the aide of some mysterious Guru who shows him the path to greatness.
In fact, Gerald himself will never become great. Not in any sense of the word that you’d recognize. But what Gerald will do—which I very much hope you’ll enjoy—is use hard work and patience to do something absolutely unreasonable yet unspeakably beautiful.
That is the kind of hero to expect from this book, and the one you’ll meet as soon as you flip to the next page.
The Great Gerald floats on a sea of clay and gravel. Next to him, a dusty little pile of rocks serves as a faithful yet Stoic companion. There is no one else around for miles, and nothing particularly interesting to see from here to the horizon.
Gerald’s fingers gently guide themselves to the stone that sits at the top of the pile, pause for a moment, and then snatch it up with a single swift motion. His wrist flicks, and then the stone sails into the abyss that surrounds him on all sides. A brief moment of silence followed by an unremarkable thud signals that it is time to reach out for the next stone, and then the next one, and then the next, until his pile is reduced to a single lonely pebble.
Gerald looks down at sad bean-sized bit of nothing, and speaks to it.
“All you are is a little clump of dust that has been subject to enormous pressure. You are nothing; hardly worth being considered at at all, let alone worthy of the gift of flight. Why should I, the Great Gerald, give you my precious time and attention?”
It takes a moment, but then Gerald realizes that speaking to rocks is not very healthy. He dusts himself off, stands up, and tosses the little pebble into a dry patch of brush. Where he expects a thud, he instead meets with a yelp.
Some sort of creature scurries out of the brush and dashes out into the clay sea. It looks as if it’s trying to find a place to hide, but the farther it runs, the more exposed it becomes. Gerald, in a state of shock over the sudden commotion, runs after it without giving much thought to why.
“Must be some sort of Coyote,” he thinks to himself.
“Hey, Coyote! Get over here!!! I want to talk to you!!!” he shouts as he begins to run out of breath and stumble across the playa.
“Hey!!! Hey!!! Coyote! Stop! I won’t hurt you, I promise!” he pleads.
The creature stops in its tracks, and then turns to look Gerald straight in the eye. And then, as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do, it speaks.
“Ah, but the so-called Great Gerald has already hurt me with his carelessly tossed stone. And also, the Great Gerald apparently is not very bright, because he cannot tell the difference between coyotes and foxes. So one must wonder, what makes this Gerald so great after all? And why should a fox stop to talk to him? But no matter, I have stopped, and I am here before you. Let us have a chat, shall we?”
* * *
And so Gerald and the Fox do talk. And it goes something like this…
Gerald: You… you… you… can speak? I’m not just hearing things???
Fox: Is that strange to you? I thought I saw you talking to a rock just a moment ago, right before you pelted me with it.
Gerald: Well, sometimes I do talk to the things I find laying about, but I never really expect them to talk back to me. It’s just a game to pass the time, you know?
Fox: Seems a bit silly to me, to be honest. And who do you think you are calling me a thing? I’m no thing, but a wild animal–and a quite clever and beautiful one if I do say so myself.
Gerald: Ah, you like to boast as well? I guess we have that in common…
Fox: I assure you, so-called Great Gerald, you and I have nothing in common. You are a human, and a boring one at that. And all humans care about is keeping themselves entertained, no matter what the cost may be.
Gerald: Why do you say that? Humans care about all sorts of important things. Serious things, silly things, and everything in between!
Fox: Maybe so, maybe not. But if humans are so great, why have they not turned this barren desert into a better sort of place? Both for themselves, and for all the other creatures who live around here?
Gerald: What do you mean? This place is just fine as it is, as far as I’m concerned. A bit desolate, to be sure. But the people who live here are strong, and need very little to get by. And we like it that way.
Fox: I suppose for someone who lives inside of a nice temperature-controlled house, who can buy bottled water at the store, and who can spend their time doing whatever it is you humans do on all those shiny blinking little boxes of yours, this place might not be the most inhospitable. But what about the rest of us creatures?
Gerald: Well, I wouldn’t want to be a coyote, if that’s what you mean.
Fox: Or a desert fox? Right you are! While I’m out here searching for just a few old twigs that might have caught a bit of moisture from the last rain, you’re sitting there throwing little pebbles as if there isn’t anything in the world that could be a better use of your time. You disgust me Gerald.
Gerald: I disgust you? But you don’t even know me! That’s hardly fair, you sandy little tumbleweed. What gives you the right to talk to the Great Gerald that way?
The desert fox swishes her tail and then darts all the way back to the brush that Gerald had first found her in. It’s the only cover for miles, and so this is as strong of a statement she can make that she’d like to be left alone.
Gerald fails to get the message. He hops and skips across the clay, kicking up clouds of dust, until he reaches the brush. He tries to pull back some of the branches, to peer inside. He is met with a scratch across the cheek, and a nip on the nose.
This significantly amplified signal is heard loud and clear, and so Gerald stumbles backward a few paces, and slowly regains his wits. Feeling defeated, he sets out on his three mile slog back to the homestead.
Usually the Great Gerald sleeps like a rock. But now he is tossing and turning, and cannot stop ruminating about the events of the day.
Why did he chase after the desert fox? And did she talk to him, or was that just heat exhaustion working its magic? Maybe it all was a dream…
He touches his nose, and then his cheek. The searing pain radiating from both make it quite clear to him that at the very least, it was no dream.
Whether he remembered the details of the events accurately or not is a different story, and a mystery that we’ll never get to the bottom of.
* * *
Giving up on the hope of a good night’s sleep, Gerald wipes the dust from his eyes and from his upper lip, and drags himself out to the front porch where he collapses into his favorite rocking chair.
The nights of the high desert are its only redeeming quality. They are utterly silent and cool, and the air is crisp and clean. The stars look as if they were painted by Van Gogh himself, and the endless empty lands spread outward like a soft blanket, covering the earth.
Gerald sits there, all alone under the dark of night. He feels the urge to weep. But he resists the temptation, because it does not fit the dismal pattern of a “Real Man” that has been stamped upon him by every person he has ever met on the playa. Even when he is alone, Gerald feels like a carbon copy of the rugged character everyone told him he ought to be, rather than a real thinking and feeling person of his own.
He sits there, letting the self-loathing wash over him, until he finds himself in a full-on existential crisis. His thoughts get darker, his resentment grows deeper, and he gets swept away in a current of discursive thoughts.
For a while, it seems like there will be no end to this pit of despair, and so he doesn’t even try to climb out. But then he hears an unmistakable sound which breaks him out of his trance.
Hoo-hoo-hooot. Hoo-hoo-hoot! Hoo-hoo-hooot. Hoo-hoo-hoot!
It’s an owl! And not just any owl, but the most beautiful and elegant owl that Gerald has ever seen. Coincidentally, it is also the only owl that Gerald has ever seen, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable.
The owl is perched upon a bale of hay, in the back of Gerald’s busted up pickup truck. As it rakes its talons through that hay, it hoots and hollers in a curious but also somewhat eerie sort of way. It looks like it’s doing some sort of strange ritual, as a way of showing respect to its Ancient Owl Elders.
The Great Gerald is perplexed by this sight, and his first temptation is to rush over and try to see whether it is the sort of animal who can talk, too. But then he remembers exactly how his interactions with the fox ended up, and decides it would be better to keep his distance.
He cannot help but stare though, as it’s not every day that you see such a peculiar scene. The owl notices that he is being watched, and then responds in the way that any ordinary owl would… by shouting out “Hello!” and promptly flying up unto Gerald’s porch.
And so Gerald once again indulges his impulses. He asks, “You can talk, too?”
And the Owl responds. “Who… who… who can talk too?”
(( Sorry about the pun, dear reader. I promise that won’t happen again. Turn the page to see what the Owl and Gerald really had to say to one another. ))
Gerald: I cannot believe this, I simply cannot. I go my whole life never hearing an animal speak, barely even seeing animals around these parts, and now today I’ve found two that do? I must be going absolutely bonkers.
Owl: Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. Does that really even matter?
Gerald: Of course it matters! If I’m mad, I’m not in control. If I’m not in control, then how can I ever be happy?
Owl: So to you, being in control of things makes you happy?
Gerald: Well, no… not really I suppose. But being out of control is certainly scary.
Owl: Why is that scary? Us wild animals are not in control of anything, we only fight to survive. And for the most part, we seem to do OK.
Gerald: Yes, but I am no wild animal. I am a human being.
Owl: Are you? That’s interesting. To me you sound like any other wild animal I’ve encountered out here in the forest. I guess I was mistaken.
Gerald: Wait, what do you mean forest? This is the high desert. How could you think it was the forest?
Owl: Well I guess I just assumed it was a forest. Because that’s where us owls are meant to live. And just today I met a fox that… hmm… that explains something.
Gerald: I bet that was the same fox I met today! I hope she didn’t attack you like she attacked me.
Owl: Attacked? Heavens no. And don’t forget, I’m an owl. So at the first sign of a threat, I could always just fly into the sky unharmed.
Gerald: Right, I guess that’s one benefit of being an owl. But isn’t the other one spectacularly good eyesight? And if so, how in the world do you not see that you are in the middle of what may be the most barren desert in five thousand miles?
Owl: Oh, I’m sorry my friend. I thought you could see it straight away, but I guess you can’t. I am completely blind. See how cloudy my eyes are?
Gerald: Forgive me, but I’ve been avoiding looking directly at you, friendly Owl. The run-in I had with the fox earlier today has made me quite fearful of wild animals, and so I didn’t want to alarm you by meeting your gaze.
Owl: Go ahead and look now then, I promise I won’t harm you.
Gerald peeks at the owl, and finds pearly clouds where he’d expect to see bright yellow and black circles. It is unsettling, but also beautiful in its own way.
Gerald and the owl end up staying out on the porch all night, talking as if they were old friends who had not seen each other for years. It is through this conversation that Gerald learns about the owl’s encounter with the fox, and how it left the owl feeling confused and disoriented.
It is impossible to describe where the owl was at the time of the encounter, although he gives a very detailed account of the temperature and wind conditions and the texture of the sand his feet were planted in, just to help Gerald get a feel for overall mood of the moment. It is largely uninteresting and of no account to you as a reader, so I’ve left it out of the story.
All you need to know is that their particular place of meeting was much like the rest of the high desert: dusty and barren and very much a place that most people and animals would not want to be. And if you feel a bit bored with me constantly reminding you of this detail, then perhaps you have never been to a desert and cannot understand just how significant and interesting the lack of detailed features of a desert truly can be. But I digress…
The owl did meet the fox, and the fox told the owl that she was running away from this miserable desert. The owl was at that moment absolutely sure he was in the middle of a lush and varied forest that he simply had never found the good parts of, on account of his blindness. So when he first heard the word desert, the owl assumed that the fox had said dessert, and began to think about how wonderful any sort of dessert might be, given how hard food is to come by around these parts.
That misconception was quickly cleared up, and soon after that they were on their way to a painful but poignant conversation that the owl seems to have remembered with remarkable (if dubious) clarity.
Owl: I know that foxes can be sly, but I cannot for the life of me think of what sort of trick begins with fooling an owl into believing a forest is a desert. So I accept, at the very least, that you cannot see the place we are in for what it is, and are either exaggerating for effect or are so filled with rage that your eyes have become as cloudy as my own. In any case, I accept you as you are, though.
Fox: How funny. The blind-yet-kind owl wishes to accept a wild beast he does not even now. You know I can eat you up right now if I wanted to? After all, a blind owl is just as vulnerable as a hen.
Owl: Oh, that is where you are wrong my friend. My eyes may not work but these wings are perfectly serviceable, and through some divine providence I seem to be able to float wherever I wish without crashing into the trees. Whoever said “flying blind” was a bad thing has never met an owl such as me.
Fox: I will take you at your word, I suppose. And I’m tired of fighting anyway, I just had to deal with a miserable hunter earlier today who lobbed a stone at me and then chased me around until I finally had no choice but to fight back.
Owl: That sounds terrible. I hope that I never meet such a brute myself. So far in the worst problem I’ve hand in my own life are a handful of rough landings–but those have been entirely my own fault.
Fox: How can you say that? Your useless cloudy eyes were not something that you chose, are they?
Owl: No, I was born with them.
Fox: So then why not blame nature? It seems futile to blame yourself for something beyond your own control.
Owl: Fox, you don’t understand. I don’t mind being blind, because I’ve never known anything else. I don’t mind being where I am, even if it’s not quite as good of a forest as I thought it was before meeting you. This is where I live, and this is who I am, and I accept these things about myself. And this too, is why I can accept you.
Fox: Well my friend, if you are content to live here, in this desolate place, and call it a forest and be comfortable with your blindness and not get mad each time you crash into piles of dust and stone, I admire your grit. But as for me, I am off to find the forest. The real forest. The one that has many great places to hide, many beautiful scenes to explore, and none of the emptiness that surrounds us here.
Owl: Well then fox, if you must be on your way, I won’t keep you. Be well dear friend, and goodbye!
Fox: We are not friends, owl. Maybe in another life, we could have been. But I am still glad we crossed paths. Before you, I never knew that blind owls could be happy.
Back on the porch, the owl ends his oddly detailed monologue, and then looks in the direction of where he assumes Gerald is sitting. This leaves him staring out at the horizon, which is the completely wrong way to face but also is where the sun is starting to peek out over the hills far off on the horizon.
Gerald gently brushes the owl’s head, trying to give it a hint as to where he ought to be looking, but this startles the magnificent bird. And so the owl does what real owls do when threatened: dig his talons into Gerald’s arm, sink his sharp beak into the nearest finger with the precision of a wirecutter, and then fly off into the distance–where it could be safe from the fiendish bird hunters of the world.
Writhing in pain and feeling deeply ashamed, Gerald drags himself back into his home, back into his bed, and sleeps for two days straight.
When Gerald finally comes to, he is immediately dragged back into reality. His brothers and sisters are all milling about the homestead, relieved that he had regained his consciousness but also angry and confused at him for disappearing, coming back badly beaten up, and then drifting in and out of consciousness for days.
They are gentle at first, asking him to remember what he could about how he ended up this way–trying to find a plausible and hopefully redeeming answer. But as Gerald resists their demands for an explanation and contends with the fuzzy nature of the few scraps of memories he has managed to hang on to, he lashes out. He tells his brothers and sisters to sod off, and then pretends to fall back to sleep.
He waits until it is dark and quiet around him, until he can no longer hear voices and footsteps and the usual sounds of an occupied house. And then, when he is nearly certain that all have come and gone and are fast asleep in their own homes–he opens his eyes and looks out at the world.
He exits his room and sprints for the toolshed. He picks up a spade and large metal bucket and haphazardly throws both into a wheelbarrow. He runs over to the homestead’s central well, fills his bucket with water, and then tightly fastens a lid over it.
From there he does not stop to think, he does not consider what else he might need, he just starts running. Pushing his wheelbarrow with its spade and bucket at a breakneck pace across the playa, backlit by starlight, with an explosive fire within him that just tells him to never slow down until he gets to where he needs to be.
It is at this point in the story that Gerald retreats so far within himself that even your humble narrator cannot know what is going on within his head. All that can be said about him is what could be seen if a camera had followed along beside him.
As a reader, you may find this unfair. What good is a story if not to examine the innermost core of its characters? And to be honest, I’m fairly upset with Gerald as well. Here he was, just a moment ago, a plaything for me to set loose in an imaginary universe that I designed… and I had full control over what he did and thought and said. But now he’s gone and shut me out, and taken on a life of his own.
Don’t worry though… even if I can’t control Gerald, I’ve got the entire rest of this story at my disposal: the setting, the plot, the mood, and everything else. And I already told you from the beginning that Gerald is a dull and ordinary character anyway… it’s what he does that ends up being quite fantastic.
Anyway, sorry for the interruption. Let’s get back to the show.
We find poor Gerald hunched over on the dusty ground, lapping water out of his iron bucket as if he were neglected livestock. He apparently had the foresight to bring something to drink along with him in his feverish dash through the desert, but left all the cups and mugs at home.
The sun rose just about an hour ago, and as it inches its way into the sky it begins to feel as if someone had just turned on the oven. The air gets warmer and warmer, and Gerald begins to sweat. Eventually recognizing the threat of being left exposed during the heat of the day, Gerald begins to dig a hole.
Fortunately for Gerald, the clay-rich ground is not terribly difficult to work with. Within a short while, he has dug just a deep enough and wide enough hole to fit his body into. Fortunately for the narrator, Gerald is not attempting to dig his own grave, but instead building a sort of makeshift shelter to get him through the day.
Gerald takes his wheelbarrow and inverts it. He then carefully coats it with whatever clumps of clay and sand he can find. As he does this, he uses his hands to drip small splashes of water from his bucket over the entire surface, and then kneads it together to make a sloppy mud that dries solid within minutes.
Gerald crawls into his hole, and slowly tugs at the wheelbarrow until it forms a crude roof over his head. If it were summer, he would probably still be cooked by the time mid-day came around. But being wintertime, he settles in for a profoundly uncomfortable but mostly harmless rest, while he waits for the sun to finish its days work.
Gerald awakes to find himself face to face with a friendly neighborhood Camel spider. It being the size of a grapefruit, a loud and clear directive from The Plot seems to reach him just fine:
Do not attempt to communicate with the spider, Gerald. Get out of your hole, and run.
And so Gerald does run. Not before banging his head on his wheelbarrow-roof, knocking over his bucket of water, and nearly being bitten by the spider which he ends up squashing underfoot as he makes his escape–but just before the moment that would have allowed him to notice that last little detail.
You might think that as frightened as he was, Gerald would have run towards home. But that is not what he ends up doing.
It’s not clear at this exact moment if Gerald has chosen his current path because he’s stubbornly in pursuit of some other destination, or if he’s just plain scared and not thinking at all. It could also be that he happens to be particularly bad at navigating by starlight, but who is to say for certain? All we know is that he’s back on the run, and seems to be very much in a hurry.
The wheelbarrow rumbles across the cracked clay as his spade and bucket clank around in a jarring cacophony. Occasionally he stumbles, and the wheelbarrow sails out in front of him in attempt to escape the madman who keeps pushing it relentlessly across the sea of sand. But he always gets back on his feet, and each time he does he runs faster and more confidently in an extraordinary sort of way that defies words.
He runs. And he runs. And he runs.
And he runs.
And he runs.
And he runs, runs, runs, runs, runs.
And then he runs some more.
And then he curls up on the ground.
Where he drifts to sleep (on the banks of a roaring river)
Gerald wakes up just about an hour before noon, and finds himself badly sunburned and incredibly thirsty. These two pain points combined lead him to rush directly into the fast flowing river without the slightest bit of advanced preparation.
Although he keeps one foot firmly planted to avoid being swept away by the current, Gerald seems to be mostly safe where he is, at a bend in the stream where the water has pooled up deep and slowed to the point where the nearest rapids are a few hundred yards away. He alternates between frantically splashing his beet-red face and chest, and drinking more than his fair share of unprocessed river water.
Fully saturated, Gerald returns the shore and walks along the riverbank until he finds a pair of desert willows that cast just enough shade to keep the sun from roasting him. He collapses under them, and rests for a bit.
With hours left before nightfall, Gerald is in his shady spot with plenty of water, but not much else to do. So he takes his wheelbarrow, drags it into the tiny circle of shade beneath the willows, and begins to bang on it like a drum.
At first, he produces nothing but noise. Just a thud here and a thwack there and the occasionally dun-dun-dun.
But then that noise begins to take on a bit of a rhythm, and accompanied by the gentle roar of the river behind him, works its way into a song.
Thud duh-dun-dun. Thud duh-dun-dun. Thud duh-dun-dun. Thwack!
Thud duh-dun-dun. Thud duh-dun-dun. Thud duh-dun-dun. Thwack!
It’s the water, we need. It’s the water, we need.
No water, no trees. No water, no trees.
Thud duh-dun-dun. Thud duh-dun-dun. Thud duh-dun-dun. Thwack!
No trees, no birds. No birds, no bees.
No bees, no honey. No honey, no money!
It’s the water, we need. It’s the water, we need.
Thud duh-dun-dun. Thud duh-dun-dun. Thud duh-dun-dun. Thwack!
( Now as to why Gerald assumed that birds were a necessary prerequisite for the safekeeping of bees, that is another mystery that we will leave unsolved. Remember right at the outset when I had said that Gerald is altogether unremarkable at pretty much everything? Well, poetry and beekeeping are no exceptions to that rule. )
As the sky turns from cornflower blue to tangerine, Gerald gets to work.
He starts by snapping as many branches from the willow trees as he can, specifically hunting down the ones with the most leaves on them. The smallest ones he snaps with his fingers, and then he awkwardly chops away at the thicker branches with his spade. This would be so much easier with proper tooling, but he gets the job done nonetheless.
Once his wheelbarrow is overstuffed with greenery, he heads down to the river with his bucket and fills it to the brim. He covers the bucket tightly and plops it down on top of the branch pile, serving to weight them down just enough to prevent them all from flying out as he walks his strange cargo across the cracked clay grounds.
All packed up and ready to go, he begins his trek back out into the playa. As he walks, he drags his spade across the ground–cutting a narrow but sharp line that is unmistakably human in origin. He calls out the count of his steps as he walks, and every time he hits 500, he stops for a moment to anchor a willow branch into the clay as if it were a tiny and lonesome little tree.
He continues this ritual all the way until daybreak, working a steady but strenuous pace. Then he digs another Gerald-sized ditch to crawl into, and once again crafts a mud-caked wheelbarrow roof for it.
Once he gets himself into position, he fills the empty space between the wheelbarrow and the ground with some of the remaining willow branches; presumably to keep the Camel spiders out.
Gerald then sleeps a deep and uneventful sleep as another day comes and goes. By the time he emerges from his hole, the sun is already setting and so he’s able to quickly get back to work.
The line he has cut across the playa extends all the way out to the horizon, and beyond. Now what remains to be done is to continue that cut all the way to the homestead.
And so that is what Gerald does. Five hundred paces at a time, he cuts his line and works his way closer and closer to home. At each checkpoint along the way, he drives in a willow branch–just as he did the night before. After “planting” branch number 57, he finally sees the lights from his homestead off in the distance.
He spikes his spade deep into the earth, and then once again begins to sprint. In his haste, he leaves his wheelbarrow out in the middle of nowhere–a lonely monument to his bizarre journey.
As Gerald runs, dust kicks up behind him and fills the air. This is easy to spot even from a great distance underneath the moonlight, and so someone out in the common areas of the homestead does spot it, and within moments the alarm bells start ringing.
Twenty homesteaders emerge from their comfortable little houses, and together they charge outwards into the darkness to meet their handsome yet batshit crazy prince who they thought had been lost forever.
At long last, the Great Gerald had returned home. And he was starving.
“To celebrate the triumphant return of Prince Gerald, tonight we shall dine on whole-roasted hog!” says an elder.
“Tonight we shall stack the pyres high, and let the flames kiss the sky,” says another.
“Tonight we shall beat the drum, to let all in the kingdom know that Gerald has come home!” says a small boy, acting older than his age.
“O, What a Glorious Day!” says one.
“O, What a Glorious Day!” all respond.
(( Oh… I never properly introduced you to the homesteaders before! Sorry about that. I don’t like to talk about them much, because frankly, they’re weird. And not that fascinating sort of weird, but more like the totally irritating sort of weird that just gets under your skin. But they’re part of this story, because this is Gerald’s story. And Gerald is a homesteader himself. ))
The entire homesteader community has gathered in the vast common space that is situated right in the center of their settlement. And at the center of the center sits Gerald… wearing an awkward crown made of dirty bits of tumbleweed, and a robe of burlap.
Although it appears ridiculous to an outsider, this ceremony is a tradition that goes back generations among the homesteaders. Whenever someone does something that is perceived as an insult to the group, rather than resolving conflicts in the usual way, the homesteaders “celebrate” the indiscretion by putting on an eerie little festival.
This isn’t Gerald’s first time as a Guest of Honor at the Feast of Ceremonious Encouragement, but it is the first time he has been through the whole ordeal as an adult. Most children actually enjoy the ritual, because they are unable to recognize the bitter subtext. Adults however, know what the feast is really all about.
The homesteaders have a culture which is built on a deep sense of responsibility to one another, as well as a not-so-healthy level of codependence. So when someone breaks away from those norms and attempts to “do their own thing”–it is always perceived as an insult. Their perspective can be summed up as follows: in a world of Us vs. Them, there is no room for Me and You.
And so they consider independent expression to be synonymous with royalty, and so whenever a new “prince” or “princess” is discovered, they quickly seek to correct the course by projecting an exaggerated sense of reverence and subservience. It’s a harsh form of punishment, because it swiftly forces the target to feel alienated from their own community in the worst possible way.
(( We can’t see inside Gerald’s head any more, but the expression on his face implies that he’s just waiting for this all to blow over. I suppose that after all I’ve put him through, this is hardly the worst experience he has had in the last few days… and they actually do roast a pig for the feast. ))
The homesteaders continue with their ritual, spouting a seemingly endless amount of cliched catchphrases that you might hear in a movie about an ancient war. After each person in the community has paid appropriate “tribute” to their Prince, they all sit in a giant circle at their drums, and begin to knock out a beat.
Bum-da-da bum-da-da bum-da-da bum!
Bum-da-da bum-da-da bum-da-da bum!
A single drum is left without a drummer. This is Gerald’s drum, and it is meant to symbolize his metaphorical and physical absence from the group. It’s the broken link in the chain, and it must be repaired.
Gerald does as he has seen countless others do before, and what he had done twice himself as a child. He walks to the center of the drum circle, and uses a single match to light a primitive but gasoline soaked torch. He then swings that torch in a full circle around himself, first in a counter-clockwise direction, and then spins clockwise to complete a second full circle.
Then he stands straight as an arrow, and tosses his torch into the center of the pyre that stands before him. It instantly ignites, and the flames do kiss the sky, as one of the elders had promised. As he watches it all burn: his bed, his favorite rocking chair, all the boxes of blinking lights he owned, he tosses in the final and most important item of all: his tumbleweed crown. He bows down and prostrates three times in front of the bonfire, then returns to his rightful place in the drum circle. A homesteader once more, Gerald and all of the others beat a sad and somber rhythm until the fire burns down to nothing but coals.
An elder uses a spade to gather the coals in an organized pile. The hog–bought at the farmer’s market pre-butchered and neatly cleaned–is roasted over the glowing embers. Everyone enjoys some pork and Mountain Dew, and then the ceremony is over.
Gerald returns to his home, and is shocked when he walks in to find not a vast emptiness, but nearly identical furnishings to what he had before. He must have forgotten about this part of the ritual!
The homesteaders, to add insult to injury, had not just made Gerald burn his own belongings. They had also gone out and replaced each item with their own “donations”–with every member of the group contributing at least one significant “gift”. It is meant to remind the repented that their material comfort depends entirely on the good graces of the group, and it’s a particularly nasty thing to do.
(( See what I mean about the homesteaders? They’re a miserable bunch. ))
For a few days, it appears as if everything had gone back to normal at the homestead, everyone milling about carrying out their ordinary and dull routines, having their ordinary and dull conversations, eating their ordinary and dull food, and just getting on with their lives.
But then at the stroke of midnight one night–for no apparent reason–Gerald starts running again. As he passes the south side fence of the homestead, the alarm bells start ringing and a small band of overseers spring into action and chase after him. They keep their flashlights trained on him as he zig zags out into the open expanses of the playa.
He seems to be looking for something, and circles around a bit before finally stopping and falling to his knees. He can’t outrun the overseers even if he tried, and even if he could he’d be out in the middle of the desert with no supplies once again. So he freezes in place, like a wild animal caught in the headlights of oncoming traffic, and just waits for whatever happens next.
The overseers approach him with caution, not knowing themselves what to expect. This sort of situation is uncharted territory for the homestead, where a sleepy sort of orderly conduct is the norm.
“Hello there Gerald! Out for a jog, are you?” says one overseer.
“Isn’t it a little late in the evening for exercise?” says another.
“And it’s dreadfully dark out here, wouldn’t want to see you trip over a tumbleweed now, would we?” says a third.
Gerald can’t take it anymore. He shouts at them, “JUST SHUT UP! SHUT UP! ALL OF YOU!!! Aren’t you the least bit curious about why I’m really out here? Or is that so frightening for you that you rather pretend like I’m some sort of lost kitten in need of rescue?”
This response throws the six overseers who had chased after Gerald into a deep sense of disarray. He had gone off-script, had broken the entire social contract of oversight, and they didn’t know what to do about it.
This is not the way things are supposed to work at the homestead. When someone or something falls out of line, a bit of social grooming is usually all that is needed to bring things back into a harmonious state. But here they were dealing with this feral desert fox, this blind owl… and they had no clue what to do about it.
They get together in a huddle. The three overseers that spoke to Gerald directly, seem to disagree with the other three who were just along for the ride. Disagreement is not something that is typical on the homestead, because it too, is another form of disharmony. All of the overseers know this, and it is plain to see just how badly each of them wants to come to some sort of consensus, but for whatever reason they just can’t make up their minds.
Gerald begins to laugh uncontrollably. After one overseer tells him kindly a few times to please remain calm without any discernable effect, he finally lets out another outburst.
“Haven’t any of you had an original thought in your life? Or is this the first time, and you don’t know how to handle it? Here… I’ll help you. Any of you that want nothing to do with whatever it is you think I’m doing out here, head back to the homestead. Pretend like this never happened. And for anyone who is actually CURIOUS about something for a change, you stay here… and I’ll tell you what I’ve been up to.”
The overseers stare at Gerald in silence. The idea of being given a choice is once again, not something that usually happens at the homestead. Then one of them finally asks, “What if all six of us want nothing to do with this?”
Gerald calls their bluff by suggesting that he’ll go straight back to his home if no one is curious, and not put up a fight. He also promises to accept whatever consequences would come along with that.
An uncomfortable silence follows. It only lasts a few moments, but the tension in the air makes it feel like hours. One overseer makes his way back to the homestead. The other five remain.
Row, row, row your boat
Watch the water flow,
Rowing’s fun but rowing’s hard
That is what I know.
Row, row, row your boat.
Gently down the stream.
Merrily merrily, merrily, merrily.
Life is but a dream.
We arrive at some point in the not-so-distant future to find the Great Gerald paddling a small wooden barge through a narrow but perfectly serviceable little canal.
He is dressed sensibly for the desert climate, with loose fitting clothing covering his body and a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off of his chest and neck. This the opposite of the last time we saw him visit the river: where before we saw a desperate soul at wits end, we now see a man who is well-equipped, well-rested, and in excellent spirits.
A combination of it being the dead of winter and better preparation has made it possible for Gerald to work during daylight hours now, with the only exception being the two hour periods before and after high noon.
As he paddles his barge, stacked high with timber and leafy branches, it is almost easy to forget that all that surrounds him is a flat and barren desert: an endless tabletop of dust and clay.
It isn’t until he is within a hundred yards or so of his pit house that it can even be distinguished from the rest of the landscape; but keeping a low profile seems to be a wise choice, anyway.
As Gerald arrives at the place he calls “home for now”, he sees a cloud of dust on the horizon. With great haste, he leaps down into his pit, grabs a small hand drum and then scrambles up a rickety ladder back to the surface. He stays low to the ground, resting against the small adobe dome that covers his pit. And then he waits.
Off in the distance, another drum sounds.
Gerald smiles, but waits just a little longer before responding.
Brat-brat-tippa-tat. Brat-brat-tippa-tipa. Tippa-tippa-tat!
Elated, he takes his own drum and makes it sing.
Bum-tata-tum! Bum-tata-tum! Bum-tata, Bum-tata. Bum-tata-tum!
He runs straight out into the open, waving a brilliant red and green banner. He dances with it, spiraling around the playa like a whirling dervish. The cloud of dust on the horizon becomes a river of dust, and then finally they come into view.
Three overseers on horseback, dragging a cart behind them. They make their way down the breadcrumb trail of willow branches, and Gerald counts down out loud as he peers at them through his spyglass.
“2000 paces. 1500 pace. 1000 paces. 500 paces. Yeah!”
Despite his excitement, Gerald knows that time is of the essence. So he regains composure, and begins to prepare for his visitors.
Gerald grabs two long wooden rods that are propped up against the dome of his pit house. He takes one of them and a slips it through a pair of hoops that line the backside of his barge, and then inserts the other at the frontside. He then jumps onboard and inspects his cargo one last time to make sure everything is neat and orderly.
Immediately after he completes his routine, the overseers arrive and immediately dismount from their horses. Before anyone says a word to one another, Gerald and his three guests grab the wooden rods and lift the barge straight out of the water, walking it up a small ramp and then setting it down just a few feet away from the cart the overseers had brought along with them. On top of that cart sits another barge, filled with straw.
In a neatly choreographed series of motions, Gerald and the overseers remove the wooden poles from the timber-filled barge, insert them into the hoops of the straw-filled barge, walk the straw-filled barge over to the ramp, and then let it slide backwards down into the canal.
They then do another pole swap so that they can lift the timber-filled barge onto the base of the horse-drawn cart, and remove the poles so that they can once again be propped up against Gerald’s pit house.
Two overseers climb up to the upper deck of the cart and untie a pair of ropes that is holding a large wooden chest. As they lift the chest over the edge of the cart, Gerald and the third overseer are already in position to grab ahold of it and carry it over to the small storage area on the back side of the house. Finally, they pick up an identical but much lighter wooden chest and walk that to the cart so that it can be loaded into the spot that they heavy chest used to be.
This signifies the end of the transfer of goods, and so they begin to speak to one another. They exchange minimal pleasantries, and then get down to business.
Gerald: So what’s in the care package this time?
First Overseer: Two butane lighters, twelve cans of baked beans, eight cans of chili, two jars of peanut butter, four boxes of crackers, 20 gallons of potable water, two new spades, a pitchfork, some clean clothing, and various other bits and bobs we thought you might need.
Gerald: Excellent! And how are things on the home front?
Second Overseer: We shouldn’t really get into that. But we need to tell you something Gerald… this is the last time we can come out this far. We don’t mind running supplies, and we’re getting pretty good at covering our tracks, but the problem is that when we’re out here, we’re out of earshot of the alarm bells.
Third Overseer: And if those bells ever ring and we don’t respond quickly enough, then people are going to start wondering where we were. And that’s the last thing we want.
Gerald: Okay, I hear you. But the canal still isn’t long enough to get my barges anywhere close to where you’re talking about.
First Overseer: How about this? Hurry up and get your second pit house built, and build it right on the line of where we can still safely wander without putting ourselves at risk. We’ll drop the timber right where you need it to be, and that way you’ll know where to dig.
Gerald: I guess I can do that, but how will I get supplies from there to here before the canal is finished? Moving straw one bale at a time would take three hours on foot, we need to move hundreds of them in the next couple months.
Second Overseer: We were thinking that you must be awful lonely out here anyway, and might appreciate some company. So we were going to lend you a pack mule and a cart of your own to carry things from the new transfer point to where you are now.
Gerald: Hmm… that’s mighty generous of you, but isn’t that too much to ask for? I feel a little uneasy accepting all these gifts.
Third Overseer: Without getting into the details, let’s just say that things have been pretty rough back at the homestead. So we see this not so much as a gift, but more like an investment in a better future for all of us.
Gerald: Come on now, don’t give me that much credit. There’s no guarantee that any of this will work you know.
First Overseer: We know. But all we can do is hope for best.
Gerald: Alright then, meet me at the second pit house location in a week. I’ll have it built by then, if this desert doesn’t kill me first.
Gotta find somebody to pack that clay
Pack that clay all night and all day.
Gotta find somebody to pack that clay.
A world made from mud is the only way.
Gotta find somebody to move that water
Move that water, my sisters and brothers
Gotta find somebody to move that water
Because if we ain’t got water, we ain’t got clay.
* * *
Gerald wipes the sweat from his brow, then plunges his spade back into the ground. About 500 paces in front of him is a respectable pile of timber that stands out conspicuously against the barren sands. Directly behind him there is a two-shovel-wide ditch with muddy water flowing through it, extending back several thousand paces.
He digs and digs and digs some more. The slow and steady pace that got him this far eventually falls away and a more frantic rhythm takes its place. From a distance he looks almost like a cartoon coyote, chasing after a road runner.
As soon as the pit itself comes into view, he begins moving even faster. A steam train relentlessly pushing on towards its destination, powered by some sort of internal fire seems to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once.
When Gerald finally connects his ditch to the pit, a tiny waterfall springs to life in celebration of his accomplishment. He leaps into the depths of what will soon become Pit House #2, and then lets the water flow over his hands and face as it gurgles and trickles and begins to form a shallow pool of mud beneath his feet.
For a few sweet moments, Gerald is the picture-perfect representation of the relief and joy that comes with the completion of a difficult job done well. But it does not last.
Without warning he begins to kick at the mud puddles and scratch at the wall. He shouts at the top of his lungs, throws himself to the ground like a rag doll, then picks himself up to do the same thing all over again.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me! No no no no no no no no.”
He climbs out of the pit, and then sets off full speed out into the playa, racing alongside his ditch as if he were a runaway train about to derail. Way off the distance, there is the faint ringing sound of alarm bells. But he pays them no mind, and just keeps running.
* * *
((As a reader, you be wondering at this point… what is Gerald broken up about this time? Well, imagine that you had just worked overnight digging a ditch, so that you could bring water to the location of a new home you were trying to build, and that your home’s roof would be made of a combination of long pieces of timber, with an adobe mixture to fill in the cracks and form a crude but watertight dome. And to make the adobe, all you needed was some mud, and some straw.
Gerald had forgotten to bring the straw. And his supply (back at Pithouse #1) was a four hours away at a brisk jogging pace. And it’d be noontime in two hours. And there was less than 24 hours to go before the overseers would attempt to deliver supplies to what is currently nothing more than a muddy hole in the ground and a giant woodpile.
Don’t kid yourself. If you were in this situation, you’d panic too.))
High noon comes. Sunset comes. Sunrise comes.
Then our fiery little Icarus-like friend emerges on the horizon, dragging behind him a canvas sheet that contains an improbably large quantity of straw. He is sunburned, he is running on vapors, and yet he still manages to run with an intensity and determination that defies any logic or reason.
He gets within about 100 paces of the timber pile before stopping dead in his tracks. He drops to his knees, plants his face in the sand, and then just remains motionless for a while. A good long while. An uncomfortably long while.
((And at this point your humble narrator wonders, what have I done? Did I fry his brain? Break his heart? Crush his soul? What??? ))
But then a sound is heard far off in the distance, the unmistakable rumbling of a wooden cart rolling across uneven ground. Gerald lifts his head just enough to see the cloud of dust rise up into the sky, and then he immediately sets it back down.
Everything goes silent, but only for a moment. Then there is a drumbeat:
Gerald responds by lifting his leg a few inches off the ground, and then giving the earth a miserable little kick.
Gerald runs his hands through the sand, and then tosses a small quantity of it up into the air. Much of it lands on the wide brim of his hat, the rest spreads down his back.
Clearly distraught but not yet defeated, Gerald uses what little strength he can muster up to get back up onto his knees. He waves his hands frantically, as if he were trying to flag down a rescue plane.
Alarm bells begin to ring. They’re faint at first, and then gradually get louder. Gerald watches as five overseers ride off on horseback, leaving a wooden cart and what is presumably his new pack mule just laying out in the middle of nowhere–nearly 1000 paces away from where he has planted himself in the ground.
And then he looks over at his irrigation ditch, and the pit that less than a day ago he had finally managed to connect it to. Or at least, the spot where the pit used to be. In its place, there is now a four foot deep, 8 foot wide miniature pond.
It would have taken thirty seconds to have walled off the irrigation ditch before he had ran off to get the hay, but in his haste he had simply forgotten to take care of this tiny but essential chore. And because of that, he ended up with a swimming pool instead of a shelter.
Completely overcome with grief, he weeps. He buries his face in his hands and wails. He falls to the ground like a rag doll, and then picks himself up only to do the same thing all over again.
Clearly no longer the “Real Man” that the homesteaders had taught him to be, Gerald lets himself go completely. He cries and he cries as if he has never shed a tear before and is making up for decades of lost time.
Then the tears dry up, and he goes to collect his goddamn mule.
It is not well known just how much mules can remember past events. But if Peaches could remember her first encounter with Gerald, she would likely have a very mixed impression of him.
On the one hand, he was the reason why she was dragged out into the playa and left to stand around with no shade or shelter for hours in the heat of the day.
On the other hand, he was also the one who immediately walked her over to his newly (albeit accidentally) constructed watering hole, and encouraged her to drink. And then from there, he spent hours cutting and binding together various pieces of timber to build her a makeshift stable to rest in.
Gerald did all of this before attempting to build out his own shelter. As the temperature continued to rise, he finally gave up on doing more work for the day, and his first thought was to share the stable with Peaches…
(Work abandoned at this point. Maybe to be continued in the future)