I.

The boy sat bow-legged on the saddle. Young and headstrong. The freewheeling age of thirteen. He rode past matchstick saguaros and sandstone towers that cut through the cracked earth like compound fractures. His sombrero was dusty, his saddlebags were loaded with a child’s imaginings of the bare necessities. His old vaquero papá said a real man could live out in the desert for “cien días”, living off nothing but the land. He would do it for “doscientos días.” Two hundred days. As the desert sun bled at the boy’s back, he clicked his tongue, telling the horse to head west.

II.

The desert was flat, empty, and infinite. Oceans worth of sweat seeped into the boy’s poncho. His stomach roiled. His papá said you could eat the cactus that grew in the desert; he had done it many times. All it took was patience and keen eyes. Yet the boy searched and found none. He cursed his father and turned to his own stores. The food was good, though meager. Little was left over. Chapa nickered sadly. He would find food for the horse tomorrow. The desert always provides, his papá would have said. The boy believed it, and continued on.

III.

Now the boy walked. Chapa was whining. The weight and hunger was too much for her. He wasn’t listening, but looked ahead to a black blot on the sand-blasted horizon. He thought it was fool’s gold. A trick of the light. He raised a blistered hand to his forehead. A hut? Who was capable of living out in this wasteland? He drew near and saw a row of white tombstones pummeled into the stubborn desert ground like a set of jagged teeth. A cut of wilting yellow petunias sat in a pot on the windowsill. The boy heard humming inside.

IV.

“Hello?” the boy asked.

“Strange to see someone out here,” said a rusty voice. An old man looked out from behind a crooked doorpost without a door. His beard was dry bristle bush. He had wildfire eyebrows that curled back like rib bones. His skin was baked adobe brick. His eyes were wild blue and reminded him of papá.

“Is this your home?”

“The desert is my home,” the old man answered. “And the desert always provides.” He walked inside, each step magnified by loud creaking floorboards. The boy stood there a while, until an arthritic hand beckoned him in.

V.

The old man watched the boy drink soup in loud gulps and wipe his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Why do you live here?” the boy asked.

The old man didn’t answer. “Where is your papá?”

The boy looked down at zapatos so worn that his toes stuck out. He watched them wiggle rather than answer.

“The desert is no place for a boy.”

“I’m not a boy,” the boy said. “I’m a man! A real man can live in the desert. That’s what I’m doing!”

“You’re not in the desert,” said the old man. “You’re drinking soup.”

VI.

The boy stayed the night at the old man’s request. It was safer there. As the boy slept, the old man sat on the porch. He looked up. The speckled mass of a spiral galaxy arced in the desert sky, like the arms of a parent wrapped around a child. Eventually, the boy joined him outside. The old man pointed to a cluster of stars.

La ballena,” the old man said. The whale. “She swims in the sky, and watches over us all. She is mother.”

The boy knew the story well. His papá had told him many times before.

VII.

The boy packed his things in the morning. The old man watched from the porch.

“Will you not stay longer?” The old man asked.

“No,” the boy answered. “I must go into the desert.”

“Your papá. Do you hate him?”

The boy stopped and looked at him. There were tears in the old man’s eyes. The boy felt his own eyes begin to water.

“No,” the boy said. “But he hates me.”

“Go to him,” the old man pleaded. “Return home.”

The boy pulled Chapa’s reigns. “Once I’ve proven I’m a man.”

The old man said nothing. The boy left.

VIII.

Chapa died. She kicked, neighed, and begged for water the boy didn’t have. He sat with the body awhile, as wind and dust slowly buried her. His tears were brittle flakes of salt caked to his eyelids. The boy’s stomach growled, and a haunting thought crept into the back of his mind, a thought he cursed himself for thinking. He stopped himself. The boy could not do it. He was weeping. He took what he could from the saddlebags and went on, leaving the body of the horse for lower creatures that did not feel pain or loss or remorse.

IX.

Though Chapa was gone, he wasn’t alone. He was surrounded by armies of bleached white, half buried skeletons. They were near, far, speckling the flat lands in the distance like cold stars. The bones cracked under his step and turned to dust. His papá told him the desert would turn a boy into a man. It was only now that he understood. Fear, shame, and pain swirled inside him like desert winds. If pain made him a man, he did not want it.

He looked out and glimpsed a shape in the distance. What he saw was unmistakable. The hut.

X.

How did he go in a circle? Had he not been following the sun since setting off? The same row of tombstones stood in the back. The petunias had died, their remains were withered snake skins hanging from the pot.

“Hello?” the boy called. “Old man?”

No answer. He entered and found the old man lying in bed. There was an echo of a smile on his face. He seemed at peace.

He searched outside for a stone to mark the grave. He found a chalk slab that seemed like it was made to do so. The boy started digging.

XI.

The old man’s tombstone joined the other nameless markers behind the hut. The sun dipped beyond the horizon and turned the sky to blood. The boy sat on the unforgiving ground and watched as the stars appeared. He searched for la ballena. He found himself thinking of his papá, the old man, and Chapa. He missed them all. His heart ached for closeness, for company, and for forgiveness. Perhaps he would return home tomorrow. Or perhaps he would stay a few nights. The boy wanted to know what it was the old man saw in this strange place. He slept.

XII.

Years passed. The boy learned to live off the desert, to eat the cactus, and call the ramshackle hut his home. He woke one morning and felt his joints creak like the boards of a rundown ship. They were old, but they worked well enough. He hummed to himself a tune his papá taught him. He heard the clop of hooves. A boy and his horse were on the horizon. He smiled at the sight, though he didn’t know why. He would feed the boy. With what, the old man was unsure. But he wasn’t worried.

The Desert always provides.

Zetetic separator

—Richard Ferro is a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado, Denver. Sporting a biology degree, he has his eyes set on medical school and a future career as a doctor. He also plans to publish a book or two along the way, and is always looking for a chance to hone his skills as a writer. His favorite books are Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, both of which heavily influenced the feel of this story.
Check out more by Richard at Stories Worth a Hundred Words.

 

One Response

  1. Anne Lawrence Bradshaw
    at · Reply

    There’s a quiet dignity and strength to this which is very effective, and I love how the idea of the boy and his father resonates through it all. It is like myth, or poem, in the way it speaks of underlying truths. Great piece of writing!