by: Anca Segall
Lars’ baby blue VW bug, rusty and dented, came to a stop in the rutted parking lot at the trailhead into Dark Canyon. Covered in nearly as much dust as the car, we both tumbled out into the scrub desert, already parched in May. Fable Valley had enough flash floods to make leaving our names at the BLM box prudent, though it was still early in the season. Eager to stretch our legs, we shouldered our backpacks and started down the steep trail into the valley.
We had driven down from Logan and stopped in Provo for a Saturday fair in the city park, where Lars did a brisk business drawing portraits of fair-going kids. He’d kept them captivated with stories on a rickety stool as he rendered their character in strokes of charcoal and Conte crayon. At midday, while families lunched and the kids trickled in more slowly, Lars had me pose for him, to pass the time and entice paying customers.
“Would you stop moving? You’re worse than the kids,” he pleaded.
I tried to get comfortable paging through my Tony Hillerman novel under Lars’ blue-brown speckled stare, but felt like a specimen in a dissecting scope. At last he showed me the portrait.
“I think you’ve got my chin too short,” I suggested.
We compared proportions (tip of the nose to the hairline, to mouth and chin). “You’re right,” he said. I liked that about Lars – he didn’t mind criticism. He spent a bit more time on corrections, then handed me the portrait.
By mid-afternoon the fair wound down and we repacked the VW bug and continued south, Lars a few hundred dollars richer.
We’d met a few months back at a party where, unusually, biology students mixed with art students. Fueled by beer and cheap wine, we first got lively, then loud, especially when the talk drifted to financial support for art versus science. I couldn’t fault the art students for their envy: we received stipends to pay us for our lab work, while the artists waited tables and painted houses to put themselves through school. On a lark, I invited him back to the house I shared with a couple of chemistry students. Among us, he was like a visitor from a parallel universe.
I followed Lars down the rocky trail, carefully picking out where I placed my feet. Scrub brush reached up with thorny branches and grabbed at our hiking boots. I was scared of rattlers and half expected to step on one. Finger-long lizards zigzagged here and there, hiding under the rocks, stubby trees, and sagebrush that bordered the trail. We stopped now and then to sip some water, careful not to drain our supply. At the bottom we crossed the sandy gully towards the western wall of the canyon, looking for a campsite.
This trip was supposed to give us time together. It was as if we spoke different dialects of the same language—we needed time to learn each other. We found a flat and fairly clear area sheltered in the mouth of a side canyon.
“We can put the tent up later,” Lars said.
I watched the shadows crawl across the valley as the sun dipped behind the canyon rim. “Gorgeous. And so quiet.”
We meandered out from the campsite, holding hands, towards a rock that angled upwards a hundred feet. I dragged my fingers along the sandstone, red layered with darker, purple strata. I was fascinated by the shapes I could just make out in the rocks beneath my feet and in the wall of the canyon.
I ran my fingertips again across the tiny bivalve shells and the segmented tubes with tiny fringed fans coming out of one end; the sensation radiated pinpricks across my skin. I felt the texture of the tiny creatures ossified and immortalized, their last gasp of life lost to the sun and the receding waters. Hundreds of microscopic rakes scratched across all my nerve endings.
We scooted up onto a ledge. A light breeze flitted across our sweaty, salty skin. In the merciful shade, the sweat evaporated and left a layer of cool air. He hummed into the crevice between my chin and my throat. We fused into each other in this moment, in this place, in geologic time.
By now the shadows stretched across the entire canyon bottom, all dusky purples and blue-grays. We put up our tent but left the sleeping mats outside. The stars sparkled against the black sky, as if someone had started to paste them up there one by one, then given up and sprayed them on with a water gun.
When our goosebumps rose with the chilling night air, we crawled into the tent, spooned, and drifted to sleep.
We woke to the chatter of birds and rustling of the wind through the brush.
“I heard there’s a waterhole a bit farther down; if we’re lucky, it will still be filled from the last rain,” said Lars, leading the way.
Water moved in the bottom of the wash without much conviction, the sheerest hint of white foam lapping at the boulders in its path. It didn’t even touch the banks.
“Those worms in the rock—my cells must have been just like those cells once,” I mused. “They eat and drink, they suck up simple chemicals and turn them into complicated molecules that do the work cells need to do. Make more cells, mostly. We’re just insignificant cogs in the continuum of evolution.”
“Are you ready for kids?” he asked, out of the blue.
I looked at him, trying to read his face; it seemed way to early for that conversation.
“You did say ‘reproduce’,” he said, answering my confusion. “I love kids. I always wanted a few running around.”
“Not ready for that yet. I want to finish school, get a job. Travel more. Besides, I’m not sure I ever want kids.” I noticed his expression sag a little. “But I do like practicing,” I added, reaching for his hand.
“So do I, babe,” was all Lars said, his eyes a bit unfocused.
We walked south between the small stream and the side of the canyon till we reached the waterhole, scooped out as if by a giant Roto-Rooter, its walls forming deep swirls that morphed into shallow steps. Lars cannonballed into the pool, then bobbed up, smoothing the hair out of his eyes.
“Whoa! Cold!” I squealed as water splattered all over me. “How’d you know it would be deep enough?”
He shrugged. “I just assumed.”
The clear water, a dark aquamarine, reflected the sky streaked with a few wispy clouds and the red rock overhanging the hole.
“It’s not cold once you’re in it a bit. It must be fed both from above and below, otherwise the water would be a lot lower.”
I dipped my toes tentatively, but his hand snaked up around my calf and pulled me in. He caught me in mid-fall, smothering my scream with a kiss, then wrapped his arms around me to warm me a bit.
“May I take some pictures of you? I want to do some paintings later, you here in this place,” he said.
I’d spent some time in his studio and had liked his new painting series—figures rendered in broad slashes of raw blues, burnt oranges, and greens. One of my favorites was of an African woman with her hip cocked, holding a flexible longbow, a biplane buzzing over her shoulder. The incongruence fascinated me.
I agreed to the photos.
He crawled out of the pool and fished an SLR camera from his satchel. I leaned my head back and focused, squinting, on the sky and the rock walls looming above. The sandstone sparkled with bits of mica or quartz, contrasting the washed-out green of the trees and shrubs that grew denser near the stream. An occasional vulture floated on air currents high above our heads, scanning the canyon and mesas for tidbits worth a dive.
“Don’t you want to be up there, soaring with them?” Lars asked. “They look free. Food must be scarce, though.”
“They’re great scavengers.”
He took what seemed like hundreds of pictures, close-ups and vista shots of the canyon as well as of me.
“I’ve been thinking about the conversation at that party, where we met. Do you think science really is more important than art? More deserving of support?” he asked.
“That’s not really a valid question. There are a lot of similarities between them. Both demand intelligence and creativity. And anyway, does it have to be science or art? Why not and?”
“I think art is so much more… instinctual. Fed by intuition, by vision. Not logic.”
“Are you saying art is illogical?” I teased him. “A scientist with good intuition for what the data mean is better off than one who just plods along.”
He smiled. “A scientist who admits they’re guided by instinct! That’s a new one… I was trying to say in art there’s no set process, no right or wrong way.”
“What about rules of composition, of proportionality? Guidelines for mixing colors and paints? Writing’s full of rules: grammar, characters, plot. Having a hook. Perhaps you have more leeway in art than we have in science.”
He set his camera on his pile of clothes on the ledge and pushed off, propelling himself to my side of the rock pool.
I was still on my soapbox. “Don’t artists have common threads, experiences that they learn from one another and pass on? Aren’t those a kind of protocol?” I said, tipping my head at him.
“But people don’t do science for the hell of it—it has to be useful. Art doesn’t have to have a function. Maybe it has to entertain, or make people think, even startle them. Get up our noses, sometimes,” he said. “Like…Robert Mapplethorpe.”
“Both of them educate, in their own way,” I said, defending my ground. “Okay, so the main function of science is to be useful. But basic science is all about figuring out how things work, with no immediate purpose beyond that. That’s a bit like art for art’s sake.”
“Art that entertains is a hell of a lot easier to sell. Like my art fair portraits compared to my studio paintings.” He propped his head on his arms, like a little boy. “Its main function is to take people out of themselves, to psychic places where they wouldn’t otherwise go,” he insisted, then smiled, looking less boyish. “Like sex: transporting you out of yourself.”
I ran my fingers along his jaw, traced the artery along the column of his neck. “True enough.” I leaned back once more against the rock ledge and closed my eyes, floating in the now-warm water as if on liquid silk.
We didn’t notice the noise until it reverberated against the canyon walls, a loud humming still some way off, but moving closer. My eyes focused, scanning up and down the canyon. It seemed to come from the north, where dark grey clouds had gathered.
“We’d better get to higher ground, fast!” He pushed himself out of the waterhole and helped pull me up. “I don’t want to be caught in its path when it comes.”
We grabbed our stuff and ran along the ledges, reaching for handholds and footholds. The roar got loud enough that we could no longer tell which direction it came from. I panted hard, trying to keep up with his strides.
I stopped to catch my breath, then looked back at the clouds. They didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but I could see streaks reaching the ground. “Think that’s rain over there?”
Lars tugged on me. “Come on! We gotta go!”
Just then a thin, dark shape appeared high above the rim of the canyon, moving southeast, dragging a white contrail behind it. Seconds later, two more shapes appeared on either side of the first one, in the tight triangular formation only military planes could hold. They crossed the sky, the roar quieting to a hum, then dissipating altogether.
Back in Logan a couple of weeks later, I walked into Lars’ studio in the Art building. “Ready for your show?”
Between my work and his, we hadn’t seen much of each other since the camping trip. He had been focusing day and night on the paintings for his graduation exhibit, and I had come to keep him company. Many more canvases lined the studio walls, but I still had not seen his portrait of me from Dark Canyon. He’d wanted to surprise me.
The show opened on a Friday evening with a wine and cheese and strawberries reception. All his artist friends had come, and even a few of mine. He liked showing me off, like a curio.
And there it was: a black and white painting in high contrast, almost a photographic silver print. My face huge on the canvas as I floated in the waterhole, breasts breaking the surface, the canyon wall a gray backdrop. A toddler crawled near the edge of the pool. Above were the three planes, white condensation streaking like kite tails behind them.
Something roiled and swirled rancid in my throat. I put my wine glass down and left the gallery, receding like water out of the canyon.
Anca Segall, Ph.D., is on the faculty of San Diego State University, teaching and doing research in microbiology, while also working toward her MFA in Creative Writing. Born and raised in Bucharest, Romania during the Communist dictatorship, she immigrated to the U.S. just in time for Watergate, and is still optimistic about the resilience of the American democracy. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Bookends Review and Open Thought Vortex, her flash fiction in The Riggwelter Press, and her poems in The Coachella Review, Streetlight Magazine, and others. Connect on Twitter: @AncaMaraScribes