Conjuring Love

an excerpt



2010



Peter Farragut had been prepared to turn back but then, thought he may have spotted the faintest tinge of green in a far distant narrow crack, in one of the many cliff faces of the barren terrain. He had become pretty much convinced, finally, that the organizers hadn't been bluffing when they'd warned that this particular stretch of included landscape was probably best avoided as a prime example of the shortest distance between points A and B or, in this case, points G and H, and not always the best or quickest way to go. The surroundings were a labyrinth of deep gullies and ravines, wandering through jagged outcrops of sterile stone. It was helter-skelter appearing masterminded by some malevolent giant's child; thus, its map designation of Titan's Playpen. If, during the briefing, Peter and his fellow participants had been warned off, Peter had thought that it was merely a means of keeping all but the cleverest competitors unwilling to take a chance of a successful short-cut traverse -- lopping off crucial time from a total run-through.

From what he had seen so far, no one, besides him, had taken the chance. He'd spotted no signs of others in his direction, and he was sure he would have spotted anyone by now. There'd been nothing to even hint he was anything but alone, separated from his fellow men, women, beasts, even vegetation -- until that one possible, now so deceptive, hint of green.

He sat a convenient small boulder, squinting against the glare of sunlight to better focus and get a positive identification of what he thought he'd seen.

He located his monocular in his backpack, next to his assigned Global Positioning System (GPS) that was calibrated specifically not to tell him where he was -- he had a traditional compass he was required to use for that -- but to let others know where he was if and when he got into a predicament, easy in this neck of the wilderness, that would require rescue. Retrieval, though, came with the monetary consequences of forfeiting the substantial deposit that had been levied at the outset, quite aside from surrender of the sizable entrance fee. Although aviation turbine fuel was cheaper these days than it had been, a helicopter could still burn a lot of it, and rescuers warranted satisfactory recompense for rectifying any game-player's own incompetence.

He did a slow and steady scan of the distance. He did the same in the opposite direction. Nothing resulted but a magnification of dust, dirt, and stone.

It's rugged territory and dangerous, everyone had been briefed. It'll be hot as hell in the heat of the day. There's not a drop of water within those crisscrossing gullies and gulches that'll go in every direction but the one you want. The risk is yours to take if you think you can make it work to your advantage. However, we fully recommend, no shit, against it!

There! Quickly come; again, as quickly gone. However, Peter was now convinced it wasn't imagined.

Either the organizers had provided an excellent bluff, or Peter had come across something not even they knew existed within this stretch of seemingly bone-dry terrain.

Slowly, he moved his head to bring focus back to the point on a landscape he'd just scanned. Now, completely convinced of what he saw, he put the monocular back where he'd found it, grabbed his backpack then pushed himself off the boulder upon which he'd sat, and headed off, keeping his attention not only on the distant shadowy vertical cut in the rock face but on his immediate surroundings which could trip him up in an instant, if ignored. Although he prided himself on always knowing exactly where he was, wherever he was, he wouldn't be able to walk out if he suddenly broke a leg, or even badly sprained an ankle. Besides which, he was already counting his winnings from having successfully risked a path his pussy competition hadn't dared.

What he finally reached, though, was a far cry from an oasis: one bit of stunted vegetation with spindly trunk and branches, a scattering of thin and ragged leaves. All a dirty green hardly distinguishable from the dusty stone into which it was wedged on two sides more securely than a bloated corpse within what had initially been a too-small coffin. The narrow fissure, which Peter had spotted from a distance, and now viewed closer-up, was so vice-like he couldn't insert a whole hand, let alone follow-through with the thickness of a wrist.

His gaze traveled the compressed vertical plane of what he found hard-pressed even to call a tree. Its scraggly top hadn't yet managed freedom through the crack aperture far above. Its root base seemed not to have sprouted from the rock but to have been welded to it. There was no visible evidence of the moisture which had allowed this scraggly grotesque to germinate, let alone grow to its present size. None of the surrounding stone indicated any signs of dampness or lichen-growth, past or present.

Did it warrant viewing from above which would require a steep climb? -- Careful, buddy; it would be a bloody shame to break a leg at this stage of the game even if filling your water-depleted canteen, here and now, might yet see you checked in first at the finish line.

Risking the climb to the top, he found no sign of moisture, or any signs there had ever been some. If the occasional rainfall had ever offered any sustenance, there likely would have been runnel channels eroded into the rock somewhere along the lip of the crack. There were none. It looked, from Peter's present angle, as if the fissure had sprung open just yesterday.

He followed the ground-split to its far side, knelt down, and peered over the edge into a deep trough not as snug as the cleavage that cupped the bit of vegetation but narrow enough that any slide of Peter into it would likely see his shoulders touch both sides. Would his descent see him suddenly wedged there, like a cork into the neck of a bottle? Providing him what kind of comfortable and convenient leverage to extract himself and climb back up?

A short distance farther on, the cut through the rock made a sharp turn in a direction Peter definitely didn't want to go--even if it got him where he wanted to end up within the shortest possible timeframe.

He took a chance, bracing with his hands and arms, his feet and legs. He brought along with him a lot of detritus shed by gully sides like dandruff from a cadaver's scalp. He was pleasantly surprised to be rewarded with more room -- but not much more -- than he'd expected.

Once squatted, he noticed how a portion of the root system, obviously connected to the stunted tree, meandered in his direction, like a weather-beaten snake on the loose. In fact, dust wiped away, at his feet, better revealed how he stood on part of the root before it veered into the seemingly solid stone to the right. All efforts to follow after it would be unsuccessful unless he was prepared to excavate the entire rock formation, preferably with dynamite.

Since the direction of the root disappearance was the same as the existing nearby gully turn, Peter took the few steps necessary to reach the bend and step around it.

He spotted a deep depression in one side of the existing rock wall. It didn't seem all that large, but it did become bigger as he approached to look inside. In the final analysis, it turned out to be a good and spacious hidey-hole for some desert critter to take shelter during the heat of the day. Just because Peter hadn't come across any snakes, during his trek so far, didn't mean there wasn't a nest of them, right there, in the darkness, just waiting for him foolishly to slide right on in and join them. A snake bite would be just as debilitating as a broken leg. Being swallowed in the hole, unable to activate a flare easily seen by a rescue team might see Peter a loser of this game, in more ways than one.

The beam of his flashlight didn't eliminate nearly enough of the darkness within the hole to assure him the total cavity, however long and deep, was empty. No fool in survival, he might well have retreated, then and there, making the same decision he'd just about made earlier, to turn back and take whatever extra time required to circumvent the whole of Titan's Playpen, except he was sure he suddenly heard … water.

He stuck his head and shoulders deeper into the hole, and his beam of light revealed a sharp but narrow veer to the left.

He laid his flashlight momentarily aside, and slipped off his backpack. Flashlight again in hand, he squeezed through the rock as far as the bend and slowly edged around it.

He was disoriented by the intensity of the totally unexpected blast of cool air that hit him, head-on, at one and the same time as the ground gave way directly beneath his feet.

***

Peter had been unconscious enough times in his life to recognize the aftermath. He made a conscious effort to stay calm and cool, make no sudden moves while he slowly and methodically began, one by one, a mental run-down of his body parts to assess any physical damage. Finally, he deemed it safe to roll to one side, having judged himself presently face-down in darkness, his flashlight having escaped him. His maneuver confirmed for him the distinct sound of distant water. His flashlight beam, still on, and only a few feet away, provided enough illumination for him finally to see that he was laid out on a deep and expansive heap of what seemed, apparently, to be human bones.