ISOLATION WARD – By the Desert Moon

By the Desert Moon

Author: Brett Heitshusen, brett.heitshusen@gmail.com

All was black.  I tried to find myself in the inky thickness, not sure if I was awake or dreaming.  My neck felt stiff and my mouth had faint irony flavor of bile in my mouth.  For a moment it felt as if I was falling and my body jerked as it became aware of the dusty and cool ground.  My gut lurched and I quickly rolled to my side feeling the contractions that preceded vomiting taking control of my body.  I broke into a cold sweat as the caustic smell burned my tongue and nose.  “I am definitely awake,” I though, nodding my head in reassurance while spitting the acidic flavor out of my mouth.  My legs were stiff and heavy, and something stuck to my skin in a sickly manner.  Crawling around in the dark my hand brushed against a body.  The ground around them felt sticky.  “Zeb… Zeb, is that you?” I said as I shook the leg. “Zeb…”  There was a headlamp in the pocket.  Pulling it out I hit the button and its flash blinded me, filling my vision with red and purple sparks and blobs.  The battery was almost dead and it only created a sort of faint ambient light.

Blood!  I was covered in blood, and the ground around me was stained red, and my vomit smelled like rotting flesh.  “There must have been a cave in,” I said.  My voice felt small in the infinite darkness.  Zeb’s body lay next to me, his clothes torn and bloody and his body crushed and mutilated.  I could barely make out some more bodies further down the tunnel.

The mountains were brown, baked and sharp.  Water, like a terrible phantom hand had clawed at the land, leaving it cragged and broken.  The plains expanded out in an endless mass of harsh bushes and cacti.  Our campsite was nestled amongst great piles of melted boulders, the remnants of an ancient mountain range. The rocks, angered by the diminishing hand of time demanded blood.  Off amongst the wandering Joshua Trees, the coyotes yipped and cried.

I sat next to the fire absorbed in a boiling pot of rice and throwing slices of canned meat over the flames.  My attention shifted to voices behind me in the dark.

“Hey!” a woman’s voice said.

“Oh, Hey!” I heard Simon’s voice reply. “What are you doing out here?”

“I’m just visiting campsites and seeing who’s out here.”

“Would you like some food?  We are cooking canned meat and rice,”  Zeb said.

“Haha, I like how the first thing you assume is I’m looking for food.”

“Well, come sit by the fire.  We got plenty,” Simon said.

They came over by the fire and sat down.

“Hey, I’m Paul.” I said.

“Hi, I’m Christina.”

Christina had dark brown hair that was about shoulder length and eyes that were just as dark.  She was dressed warm for the cool desert night and drew close to the fire.  She was in good climbing shape and had an air of dirt-bagginess about her that made me not worry about the smell of the road and desert that had saturated our skin and clothes.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“I’m from Canada.”

“Oh, what are you doing all the way down here?” Zeb asked.  He had sat on a camping chair across the fire.  The shadows of the fire played on the angles of his face and tan skin.  His short black hair melted into the dark making him look more like a floating mask than a person

“I’m on a road trip to all the major climbing places in America.  Originally I’m from Vancouver.”

“That’s a sweet trip,” Simon said.

Simon was the youngest of the three and carried himself with a mixed air of practicality and tension.  He had fair skin and messy brown hair that he usually hid under a skullcap.

“Yeah, it would be, except I was in a skiing accident at my going away party and tore my knee so I can’t climb.  I have to wear this huge brace whenever I walk anywhere for a substantial distance.”

“That’s a bummer,” I said, “The meat and rice is done.  Who wants some?”

I dished out the meat and rice to everyone.  I made a plate of just rice for me.  I wasn’t a huge fan of canned meat, I preferred the fresher cuts.

“I’ve never had canned meat before.”  Christina said, “It’s not too bad, I mean its edible.”

“Yes!” Simon shouted.  He was a huge fan of canned meat and was excited that he had found another person that enjoyed it.

“You guys want some liquor to go with your meal?” Christina asked.

“Hell yeah!” said Zeb, leaning forward in his chair.

“Oh, I’ll be right back.  I’ll grab my brace to show you guys too.”

Christina left into the dark to go back to her van parked somewhere in the camping area.

“Dude! She totally digs us,” Zeb said.

“Yeah, man,” Simon replied.

“Let’s figure out who’s got dibbs, so we don’t fight over her.”

“I don’t know man.”

“Let’s do rock paper scissors.  Best two out of three.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

“C’mon, man.  Let’s go,” Zeb said as he sat next to Simon his hand in a fist, ready to duel.

“No, no man.  I’m really against that,” Simon said. “I’m really against that.”

“All right fine…”

“And you’re going to go back and sit where you were, and not take this seat.”

“Alright, alright,” Zeb said as he moved back to his chair, opening up the spot where Christina had sat between them.

“I’m going to go and answer the call of the wild,” I said walking off into the night.  It was almost a full moon and the bathroom was about a hundred yards from the fire.

When I returned Christina was back, and sitting in my seat on some crash pads, so I sat down next to her.

“Hey!”  Want a drink?” She asked as she held out a bottle of Fireball.

“Haha, that stuff is dangerous.” I said grabbing the bottle from her and taking a long gulp, “I don’t think get us through the night though.”

“Yes it is, that’s why it knocks you on your ass.”

“I like your brace, it looks pretty future.  Is it carbon fiber?” I asked.

“Yeah, it’s huge isn’t it?  I’m trying to cover it with stickers so it doesn’t look so ugly,” Christina said.

“It’s like a bionic leg.  You could be the best climber in the world with that,” Simon jived

Christina smiled, and we passed the bottle around talking about where we were all from and different adventures that we had been on.  The bottle only lasted for about an hour before the lasts drops flowed down someone’s throat and we were all a little sad that we had no more.

“Let’s go climb up the back of Cyclops Rock and look out over the desert,” I said.

The moon was nearly full, only a day or two away, and the pale rocks and desert floor cast the blue light back into the clear sky, making a perpetual twilight.  Cyclops Rock was about a quarter mile away.  The front was a two-hundred-foot overhanging cliff with a large cave in the center, giving it its name.  Up the back side it was an easy scramble over boulders and up some slab to the top.  As we approached the rock, Christina suddenly became nervous and said that she didn’t feel up to the climb.  She stopped to let us pass by and then said, “See you guys tomorrow,” before vanishing into the desert night.

We continued on up the back side of the massive rock, and as we crested the top we could hear the coyotes howling in the night.  We looked out onto the desert, the earth, alien to us.  We could see the camping area below us to the west and all the other buttes towering above the bushes that hid the shadows lurking in the illuminated night.

The yipping, and crying, and barking, and howling were all around us now. Below us in the long shadows of the moon they were on the hunt.  I turned, and facing the moon in the east, I took a deep breath and let out a howl.  I did not realize how loud it was until I heard the echo reverberating off the distant mountain cliffs.  I stopped.  Simon and Zeb stared at me with open mouths, and we realized that the entire desert had grown silent.

On our way back to camp, the moon had reached its peak and the desert was lit with ivory fire.  Simon turned to Zeb and I and said, “Look how bright it is tonight.  You know, I was walking back to camp from the bathroom when I met Christina, but I didn’t see her till I was right in front of camp.  There’s no way she could have snuck up on me.  I can see just as good as day in this.”

“Maybe she’s a ghost, man.  She just disappeared when she left us too.  We never saw her walking back from the top of the rock. This place is weird,”  Zeb said.

“Lots of climbers have died out here.  Maybe she’s one of those… she did have a broken knee…” I said.

“Don’t say that man, now I’m freaked out,” Simon said.

“I guess we’ll know for sure if we see her tomorrow.  I hope we do, or I won’t be able to sleep out here anymore,” Zeb said.

            We spent the next day hiking around finding new boulders to climb, and hiking up an easy slap we found our way to the top of a high butte.  Once on top we followed the ridge line until we found a cave formed by collapsed boulders.  As we climbed into it, it turned into a covered slot canyon that came out of a narrow opening behind a campsite.

“Think about how many of these tunnels must exist out here.  There must be at least one in every butte,” I said.

“Yeah, legend has it that there are hundreds of miles of these tunnels all over the Mojave Desert.  Charles Manson started his cult out here, and there are a ton of ancient Indian petroglyphs hidden in these rocks,” Zeb said.

“Dude, we should explore the rest of the buttes around here and see if we can find any more,” I said.

We spent the rest of the day climbing up chimneys and other slabs exploring the other buttes around the camping area.

“Dude, have you noticed the crows?” Simon asked.

“Yeah, man, they have been circling us all day,” Paul said.

“I think they’re magicians, man,” I said.

“What!?” Simon balked.

“Haha, yeah, man.  They’re magicians,” Zeb said going along with the joke.

Zeb climbed up a boulder field onto a large flake.  We had started free soloing easy-looking routes because most routes were slabbed out and there weren’t many places to place protection, and many routes had had their anchors cut.  Some people believed that anchors, and climbers, were taking away from the natural beauty of the rock and so cut bolts and anchors off routs to discourage climbing.  I followed Zeb up the flake and waited for him to finish a section of crack on a ledge behind a small pinnacle.

“Don’t follow me up that.  It was pretty awkward,” Zeb grunted as he struggled over the top.

“Do you see another way up?” I shouted in the breeze.

“No, I think you better down climb,” Zeb shouted back.

“Should I go get a rope?” Simon yelled from the top of the boulders.

“No, just try and down climb first.” Zeb replied.

“No, Paul it’s too dangerous.  I could throw a rope up to you and you could rap down.” Simon said.

“I’m gonna try and see how it feels,” I said, “I don’t think you could throw a rope up here.”

“Don’t! I can hook a bineer to it and swing it up there.”

“No, it feels pretty good,” I said as I started to down climb.

“No! This is bullshit.  Zeb just doesn’t want to take the time for us to go get a rope,” Simon shouted up at me.  In the meantime, Zeb had climbed down the back and was at the bottom of the boulders.

As I was hanging onto the ledge trying to decide what to do, two crows flew by, riding the thermals, barely flapping their wings.  They were so close I could hear the air rushing through their feathers.  They sounded like two jets as they circled the rock.  Looking one of the crows in the eye, it cocked its head and let out a hoarse caw.

“I’m gonna climb down, Simon”, I said, “I need you to spot me and when I’m close enough grab my feet and guide them to the good foot holds.”

“I really think this is a bad idea.  All the foot holds down here are rotten, and if you fall there is no way I can prevent you from falling down into a crevasse.”

“I’m going.  If I fall just do your best to push me into the wall.”

“This is dumb.  You guys are assholes.”

I climbed down the flake, jamming my hands between the rocks and stretching my feet down as far as I could reach.  When my feet felt solid on some crimps I slid my hands slowly down the flake and got another good jam.  The crows circled close, their feather tipped wings buzzing in the wind.  I was about eight feet off the ground now.

“Ok Simon, I’m going to lower my feet down and I want you to grab them and put them of the best chips.”

“This is dumb.  This is so stupid.” Simon said as he guided my feet onto some toe holds and put his hands up to catch me.

“Good job, man, I’m safe now,” I said as I dropped onto the top of the boulder.

“Zeb, you’re an asshole,” Simon said, “We could have gotten a rope and thrown it up there, but you made Paul climb down.”

“I don’t think you could have gotten a rope up to me,” I said.

“I knew he could down climb anyway.  He made it down safe,” Zeb said.

We walked back down the road to the campsite.  The crows seemed to follow us, passing overhead then turning off to fly behind a butte and out of sight.

That evening Christina came back.  She said that she had been in town all day doing her taxes.  Since we had a parking spot open at our site we invited her to spend the night.

“That works great!” She said, “The camp ground is filled over capacity, and I can’t find anywhere to park my van.  Is it ok if I pay you guys with booze?”

“That might be a higher price than just splitting the camping fee.” I said.

“Oh, I don’t mind.  Besides, how much can you guys drink?”

She had bought two more bottles of Fireball while she was in town, and we had half a bottle of Honey Liquor left.  With that we started a fire, and I quickly finished the bottle of Liquor by chugging the last quarter of the bottle.

“No! Stop! Stop! You’re so greedy.  I can’t believe you just drank all that!” Simon cried.

“That was awesome!” Christina said, “You’re gone be gone in a few minutes.”

“No, I will let it pass through me,” I said.

“Haha, shut up, Paul,”  Zeb said.

We sat around the fire and soon everyone else caught up to me.  We only had a half a bottle of Fireball left and the full moon was almost at its zenith.

“Have you guys ever heard of the Chasm of Doom?” Christina asked.

“We heard some locals talking about it the other day, but we don’t know where it’s at,” Simon said.

“Ahh, a friend of mine said it is super cool, and that I had to do it during a full moon.  She said there is one spot where you are hanging onto this under cling and sliding on your back.  If you fall off you just fall into oblivion.”

“It’s a full moon tonight.  We should try and find it,” Simon said.

After a few more minutes of drinking we heard someone in another campsite yell at the top of their lungs, “Chaaasm of Dooooooom!”

“Dude, let’s go!” Zeb said to me, “Let’s do it!”

“Alright!” I said, “You guys down?”

“Nah, I better not with my knee.  I’ve heard it gets pretty tight in some spots, and it would suck to get my brace caught somewhere,” Christina said.

“I’ll stay back too,” said Simon, “I’ll keep Christina company.  I feel bad leaving her here all alone.”

“Alright, we’ll see you guys later.” I said.

We headed over to the campsite where the people were still shouting, and joined the growing group.  As we walked down the trail more and more people joined us from their campsites.  A group of guys were carrying a bottle of whiskey and were more than glad to share with everyone else.  The local campers stopped in front of an isolated campsite and said, “Alright everybody, you need to take off any extra clothing that you have on.  We are going to be squeezing through some tight spots, so you don’t want to wear anything that might get caught.”

“Dude, I feel really drunk all of the sudden,” I said to Zeb.

“I know man, it just hit me too.”

“Also, everyone, throw your head lamps on the table as well.  We will be going through this in the dark.  It’s a very spiritual experience,” The local woman who seemed to be the spokeswoman said.

“Fuck that,” Zeb said as he stuffed his head lamp in his pocket, “If I get stuck in there, there is no way I’m not having a light.”

“Okay, is everyone ready?… Let’s go,” the woman said.

We started to scramble up some boulders until we got to a large overhang.

“Okay, the entrance is kind of a squeeze, so you will have to get on your hands and knees to get in.  Watch your heads,” she said as she disappeared into a hole.

“Oh man! Are you ready for this?” I asked Zeb.

We traveled for some distance, sometimes squatting or crawling, and other times shimmying up over boulders that had fallen down into the wash-out.

“For this next part, you are going to have to slide in backwards about three feet and then lie on your back and pull yourself under a boulder.  After about a body’s length you can sit up.  Then climb up to the moonlight,” The woman instructed.

I slid under the boulder with no problems, and came out onto a balcony a couple hundred feet above the desert floor.  After a few people came up out of the chimney, and I didn’t see Zeb, I realized Zeb lost track of me in the darkness.

“Zeb! Zeb, where are you at man?” I yelled down the chimney.

“I’m over here…” Zebs voice echoed up from somewhere under the pile of rocks.

“You’re supposed to climb up man.  Climb up!”

“I’m okay…”

“No, climb up, you drunk monkey.”

“I’m okay,” Zeb said as he crawled out of another hole on the other side of the balcony.

“Alright, do we have everybody?” The woman asked.

“Yeah, we’re good,” I said.

“Okay, everybody, this next part we are going to drop about thirty feet, but it feels like three so don’t worry.”

We entered into another slot canyon that had collapsed in on itself.  There were massive boulders that dropped off every few feet or so and soon the ground seemed to level out.

“Alright, everybody put your backs against the right wall and lean all your weight into it.  Trust the ledge.”

“Ledge…?” I asked.

My foot slipped and I was weightless in the dark.  I landed hard on my back.  The back of my head cracked against the rock and I slid for some time before rolling to a stop.  I looked around and in the dark I could see a faint glow.  I stumbled through the darkness towards the light and walked into an open cavern.  There was a fire in the middle of the room, and a human figure covered in black feathers danced around it.  I tripped on a rock and fell onto the uneven ground.  The figure stopped, and looking at me started chanting something and pointing toward the wall with its staff.  I looked over my shoulder and saw a huge statue of a wolf carved out of the living rock.  As I looked at it its eyes began to glow red.  Suddenly I felt like I was on fire and my bones were bursting from the inside out.  I screamed until everything went black.

            Falling out of the darkness through jagged teeth and hot breath, that’s what I felt.  A man sat on his knees, his hands clenching the dirt, his stomach sucked tight as he screamed at the sky.  All in deafening silence.

High above the desert, flying over the buttes, the wind pulled at my hair, my skin numb with over-sensitization.  I hear growling and yelping tearing at something in the dark.  Below me I circled some climbers.

A painted face whispers into an ear as dark shapes chant in tonal rhythm.  The soft grains of fine sand brush against my feet, paws running in the dark.  I could feel my heart beating in my ears.  A toothy smile on a pointed face.

A man stood in the middle of the fire, staring at me, holding a spear.  I saw Zeb, Simon, and Christina in the dark.  Their faces lit by pools of light.

Blood splashed against the wall.  Something was breathing deep and heavy behind me.  The hair on my neck stood on end; my skin tightened.

A man with a wolf mask stood holding a spear in the middle of the fire.  Figures in black feathered cloaks with bird masks danced around him.

I saw Zeb, Simon, and Christina covered in blood.  I stood in the middle of the fire while the bird men danced around me.  There was screaming in the dark and the chanting continued.  Their chanting filled my ears.  I could see them everywhere.  Iron filled my nose and mouth as the bird men covered me in warm paint.  Their hands covered my body and face.

I was running under the full moon, panting fast, traveling with a pack.  A raven cawed above, silhouetted in the moon shine.  A fresh kill, they howled.  The chanting stopped.

The wolf man pointed his spear at me.  The bird men started toning, “Paul,” in long deep waves as they closed in around me.  My name had turned into a loud growl and as they closed in around me it grew into a earthshattering roar.  Cowering against the cave wall with black wings engulfing me, I looked up.  The statue of the wolf glared back at me as I fell into its eyes.

            Simon and Christina sat around the fire as Zeb came stumbling back in the dark.

“Dude!” Zeb moaned.

“Where’s Paul?” Simon asked.

“I don’t know what happened to him.  He was behind me when we entered the second part of the Chasm of Doom and when we came out he was nowhere to be found.”

“We’ve got to find him!  Why did you just leave him?”

“Dude, I don’t know where he went!”

“Grab your lights, we’ve got to find him.”

Christina, Simon, and Zeb ran back to the picnic table.

“The entrance is just up from here,” Zeb said.

“Let’s go. I hope he’s ok,” Simon said.

Simon started to scramble up the rocks when some large animal jumped out of the bushes and tackled him off of the rocks holding on the ground by the neck.

“Oh my God!” Christina screamed.

The animal turned toward Zeb and Christina pinning its ears back it let out a paralyzing howl, arching its back and lifting its head silhouetted by the moon. It barred its teeth, dripping with blood.  Lunging toward them it grabbed Christina and pulled her to the ground, shaking her limp body in its jaws.  Zeb turned to run, stumbled and fell on his hands.  He turned around to see a clawed hand coming at him.  His face burned as he suddenly felt weak.  He could feel the warm blood pooling in his eye as he was drug over the rocks and into the Chasm of Doom.

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