There are bones in this place, but there are also flowers. Brown-eyed primrose, lilac sunbonnet, and California poppies speckle this desert. These are my grave blooms, scattered amid the succulents, the joshua trees, the honey mesquites, and coyote willows.
My skeleton is a pile of sun bleached bones discarded outside an abandoned mine in the foothills of the Funeral Mountains. This name was long ago bestowed upon the jagged range whose peaks form the rain shadow that forever parch the Mojave. Fitting, then, that this is where my last ragged breaths escaped, that this would be my final resting place. Of course, there are more bones than my own buried amid the sandstone bluffs and jagged canyons.
With all of these bones come the other restless spirits. We have all escaped the embrace of our mortal coil, yet still cannot be free from the arid earthly place where our bones all lay. I have seen all variety of the walking dead trolling the Mojave dunes since I died. Most are even farther gone than I; pale wailing shadows shifting listlessly around the vast lands and scattering themselves into to dust as soon as I catch their eye. I have grown to loathe these shifting evasive things. If I, too, am to be trapped here, what is it that they have to fear from me? Why is it that they all disappear or flee?
Time is hard to keep grasp of in my spirit state. Have I been wandering, myself alone amongst the Mojave bones having retained any sense of self after death, for months, or centuries, or perhaps it’s only been days? I do not know I cannot say. It is time that has preoccupied my mind. It is eternity that I am contemplating when I first hear the throbbing of the drum. Wandering through the sage brush and yucca, it comes to me like the memory of my own heartbeat. It permeates every aspect of me, pounding out across the steep chiseled peeks and the vast golden expanse of the hillcrests of sand. At the sound, pinyon jays and warblers silence their songs. A kit fox freezes, twitches his ears once, and then remains motionless. Even the side-winder suddenly ceases his sleek serpentine motion at the sound of this drum.
All but hypnotized, I find myself following the sound, drawn as if by Kokopelli, as if bitten by a desert robber fly, my spirit becomes engorged with a single desire. I yearn, I burn inside, sensations I haven’t felt since I died. Whatever is left of my soul is drawn to this oasis, there is nothing that can deter me from finding this drum that sounds like a heart that beats in tandem with one that was once mine. I follow its unerring rhythm down along a cavernous gorge carved out by a long extinct river. After a long while, the gorge widens, opening up to a broad plateau dusted with arrowweed and rabbitbrush shrubs.
The drum beat is stronger. It is arterial rush, it is lifeblood pulsing to a heart, it is intoxicating and maddening. Wild eyed and desperate my eyes ply the landscape and finally locate the source. It is a man, tall with sleek plated chestnut hair streaming over one of his broad shoulders. He stands alone, beneath the rugged boughs of a blooming Joshua tree; his eyes the earnest gold of first light, his skin the hue of burnished bronze touched by ruddy sunrise. Around his neck hangs a talisman of wrought of turquoise and prairie falcon feathers dangling from a leather thong across his muscular chest.
“You have my heartbeat,” I say. My voice sounds strange to myself. How long has it been since I’ve spoken the words that whisper inside my mind? I flinch, startled by this sound that is wholly mine. He cocks his head quizzically, as if assessing me.
“You have no heartbeat, for you have died.” His angular face is somber in expression, his voice is deep, but his tone is surprisingly kind. He does not stop pounding on the wood and hide drum resting on his thigh. While I recognize that, indeed I am dead, so clearly he must be right, I still can’t help but feel that this drum beat is distinctly mine.
“I play all of the sounds that throb throughout the desert, dead or alive, in the deep of star splashed night and the soft whispers uttered during the rose and amber of dawn’s light. If it is your heartbeat that you hear, it is because the memory of your gone life is one you must hold dear.”
I try to conjure memories of my gone life and am met with a flash of disjointed, irrational images involving tears, knives, breaking glass and shattered teeth, a final glimpse of familiar wild blue eyes.
“I don’t want to think about that. Who are you and how is it you can speak to me when I am met with only silence from the others who I see?”
A smile spreads across his finely chiseled face, golden lips curling to reveal perfectly aligned white teeth, then moving upwards across his high cheekbones to crinkle the smooth skin around his eyes.
“I am called Mastamaho. I am one who walks the very fine, invisible line. One foot rests in your spirit world, the other in the world life. Some call me a shapeshifter, some call me divine. I have been thus so long that I am probably older than time.”
I might have found this odd and improbable, if I wasn’t a dead woman, my bones at the body of an abandoned mine shaft, my spirit wandering around the Mojave Desert for reasons unknown. Instead, I decide I have no reason not to believe this majestic being who can play all the lost longings of my hearts blood upon his drum. I open my mouth to say something but Mastamaho silences me with a broad sweep of a long fingered hand.
“You are here because the time to decide draws nigh. I can send you on, to whatever lay beyond, but I cannot tell you what that is, if it’s better or worse than this – the in between, which is choice number three. You can wander in limbo eternal, discovering all the secrets that only the desert itself is old enough to know. Each choice has risks that even I do not know.”
I know I must now make a choice… but which path leads to bones and which path leads to flowers?