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BOOK ONE - THE DESERT

PURITY


The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God's plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself--that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.

This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the "wilderness of upper Egypt" to "wander in dry places." Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence--lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.

So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage.

- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude




***


CHAPTER ONE (Searching)


And so it was I entered the broken world… 

- Hart Crane



On a blue bright day in the Fall of 1962, Charles Jones was walking through the desert singing a song about Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante. 

He had left the House of Sor Juana on the outskirts of the small village of Abiquiu and walked the Cottonwood path along the Rio Chama, then followed the narrow strip of highway up, past the Red Rocks and into the stark beauty of the Piedra Lumbre. He walked for 13 miles along the side of the road. A few trucks passed him by, the drivers staring him down. A woman in a yellow station wagon waved. All were headed south. No one passed behind him. No chance of a rode.

Just past the Ghost Ranch, he turned west onto a dirt road that led into the Chama River Canyon. 13 further miles that road came to a dead end at the Monastery. 

[Vivid description of canyon goes here.]

Jones calculated along the arc of the sun. He figured he would arrive at the Monastery late afternoon, well before evening.  He reckoned he had about an hour or so more to go. As he walked along, he sang improvised songs to pass the time, such as his current song about Rocinante:

I wish I had a horse, of course
To keep me on my steady course
I’d sing and talk ’til I was hoarse
If my horse was Rocinante

I’d never think my life a curse
Even if my way was worse
If I were riding in a hearse
Being drawn by Rocinante

A windmill turns up in the sky
And all my wonder turns to why
Don Quixote ignores my cry
O where is my Rocinante!

Jones sang this at top of his lungs as he walked deeper into the canyon. Every manner of creature heard him coming, 

The vulture shuddered black wings in the juniper, coyote paused his panting under the sage, the golden bee adjusted his dancing. 

And under the fiery leaf of the Cottonwood, Demos arranged his crucifixion. 


***


Jones heard the whistling, a sound like nothing else in all the desert. It was not a natural sound, not a song throated by bird or an epiphenomenon rising out of the bush. It took dominion everywhere. It was a melody, plaintive, evocative, replete with mystery, a supremely human invention. 

He stood stock still in the middle of the road, slowing breath and attending to the silence surrounding it. It came from a distance, not far, up ahead. He walked on entranced, Odysseus Unbound stepping lightly over the waves, until he came to the crossroads. To the right, leading up towards the shining canyon cliffs, the way lead on to the Monastery. To the left, descending towards the Chama, the path led to a solitary cottonwood in the full flush of fall, its leaves turned so luminously yellow that when it fluttered, it seemed to have caught fire. It was surely an ancient tree, larger than any of its species he had yet seen. It's thick black gnarled trunk rose out of the earth as the uppermost segments of the vertebrae of an enormous spine and curiously split into two massive branching, dividing the appearance of the tree into two elongated hemispheres. It seemed a creature rooted deep down into the very heart of the world. 

And there just upon the great Y division in the tree was a crucified man. And this man was the source of the mysterious whistling. Jones looked towards the right path for a moment. The Monastery was not much further. Then he turned and walked down the path to the crucified man. 

The man did not cease in his whistling song. Jones saw the man's eyes regarding him closely as he approached. The ground beneath the tree had been raked clean except for small middens of bones, skulls and stones constructed in a regular but un-divined pattern. From the lower branches of the tree, bones were depended from twine and woven braids of hair. In the faint breeze, they clacked gossiping against each other. Amongst these were many skins and hides. 

Jones looked at the crucified man. He was old and might have been mistaken for a scarecrow as his animation was slight and seemed not internally derived, his skin, black as aged leather, was stretched tightly over his bones. If it were not for the great jaundiced orbs of his eyes and the eerie whistling, he might have been mistaken for one of those desiccated mummies of Holy Men found in high mountain caves in the Himalayas, naked before the ruins of a fossilized fire. 

The man was not truly crucified for he hung in leather bindings that wrapped around his wrists, upper arms and chest. He did not appear to be suffering in any way. He actually seemed quite relaxed, as if where merely passing the time hanging upon the tree. 

Jones un-shouldered his pack, removed his canteen and drank down the last of his water. 

The whistling stopped. 

- Por favor, Peregrino, I thirst. 

The voice was cracked and odd, highly pitched but made as if from a ventriloquist, or a clever crow mimicking human sounds. 

Jones shook his canteen. 

- I'm afraid I'm out. 

As much as a man crucified upon a tree can, the man shrugged his shoulders and closed his eyes and reopened them in a gesture of weary resignation.

Jones walked closer, studying the apparatus that held the man to the tree. 

- Someone put you up there? he asked. 

- You might say that, answered the man. He watched Jones as a cat would with a mouse. 

- Are you stuck? asked Jones.

The man made a cackling cracking crowlike series of sounds that Jones figured as laughter. 

- Yes, Peregrino, I am stuck. He placed a punchline emphasis on the work stuck 

- Need some help to get down?

The hanging man's mouth split apart like a wound revealing the bone white teeth beneath. An unsettling smile. 

- No, Peregrino. I must remain until I have mortified my flesh and my bones burn to be finally freed from this sorrowful sack of my skin. 


***


The day shone like shook foil. The yellow plumage of the cottonwood ruffled in a light breeze, dappling the sun’s light. Jones caught the sweet sickly odor of decaying bones, the carapace of cicada, pinon smoke and sagebrush, snakeskin, and earthy rain and the distinctive musk of an ox.

Jones sat down. 

Mind if I ask what you are called? asked Jones

My name or what I am called?

Jones considered. 

Whichever you prefer, then. 

I am called Demos. My name is Nicodemus. 

Well, Demos. I am Charles Jones, my friends call me Bonesy.

Bonesy Bonesy Bonesy Jones, said Demos quickly, strangely, like the laughter of an upstart crow. 

His name voiced out of the mechanisms of Demos’ throat sounded strange and seemed to refer to someone other than himself. 

What’s that song you were whistling? asked Jones.

Demos took a long time answering. He appeared to be having an internal debate, humming and nodding, then listening, shaking his head. Jones wondered if he’d offended the man in some manner. 

It is an old old song, Demos finally replied. I first heard it when… when I was… no, not young, but long ago. Long ago… you won’t believe where I first heard it, with my own ears, standing there in the midst of it, the charged electric air, the horror and terror of the world, darkness and thunder, lightning pounding and cracking the hills like hammers of light, every hair on every head waving like snakes, all of us there witnessing shocked into stoney stillness and this impossible scarlet ribbon, this whistling, this unfurling invention of melody, weaves itself around us. At first it was an affront, an offense. I searched and saw the source. The young boy, a shepherd. Who would have ever imagined the capacity for this incredible melody ever resided within him? And I could see the boy’s eyes were not distracted. He was looking unwaveringly into the eyes of the Christ while he whistled. 

Demos voice had become lilting and hypnotic. The story was a well worn organon in his memory but he lent it an immediacy and startling vitality. 

Where was this? asked Jones. Were you at a Penitente crucifixion? 

Penitente, said Demos, the word struggling in his mouth. Penitente? No this was not one of their re-enactments. This was the one and only true crucifixion of the Jesus Christ. 

You were present at crucifixion of Jesus 2000 years ago? asked Jones with doubt. 

Demos tightened in the apparatus of his own crucifixion. 

I was present, he replied, conviction ringing in his world. That was where I first heard the melody I was whistling earlier. 

Jones said nothing. 

- It matters nothing if you believe me or not, said Demos. 

Are you a Penitente? asked Jones. 

I am familiar with the Brotherhood and their practices. This tree is one of their sacred places. Many brothers have been crucified here. But, no, I am not a Penitente. 

Jones looked to the skulls and bones arranged underneath the tree, the bones and skins hanging from its branches. 

If you don’t mind my asking, why are you hanging on that cross?

Demos showed his unpleasant smile again. 

I am mortifying my Flesh, he replied. 

Mortifying?

I am putting it to death. 

As in killing yourself? asked Jones. 

No, nothing like that. My Flesh will never die. It is like the lizard’s tail, cut it off and it grows right back. Mortification on the cross merely subdues it for a time. Gives my bones some peach, freedom from the dream. The Flesh is the dream, Peregrino. The Flesh is the dream. 

Jones could make no sense of the man who claimed to be over 2000 years old. 

How much longer do you expect to be up there? he asked. 

Demos mulled this over, as a chess player studies the game positioned on the board. His desiccated features relaxed in an effort to look pleasant.  

- Perhaps not much longer, Peregrino. But I must ask you to get me some water. I thirst terribly, Peregrino. 

The tone was ominous to Jones. No asking to it. 

I can go to the Monastery, he said. 

No, the Monastery would take too long. Rio Chama is just there, down the path over there. 

Demos directed Jones’ to the left where he saw a thin path leading through a grove of cedars. 

Jones debated. He glanced to his pack. 

- Your pack will be safe, added Demos. I will watch over it. Por favor, Peregrino, even Jesus was given a sponge to appease his thirst.