The pass peaked at six-thousand feet, an old two-lane highway over jagged desert mountains. That morning, underneath a blaring sun, four officers in neon vests directed traffic into the overlook pullout. A nearby plaque commemorated an obscure Civil War-era skirmish in the mountains, several Union men who ambushed a squadron of Confederates lugging howitzers by mule. The motorists emerged from their cars to survey the peaks, imagining those harsh times. Those in the know, the regular enthusiasts, withdrew binoculars and studied a point to the east in the basin far below. Questioned by curious travelers—What’s out there, what’s happening?—the enthusiasts reply, There’s going to be a test.
The black swathe across the landscape, shimmering with heat, is where one of those practice bombs went off, an enthusiast says, the what’s-it-called, the epicenter, a blast so massive it inverted the world, turned white to black, sand to glass—that black out there is a window. To what? a traveler asks and the enthusiast, lowering binoculars, replies, Another dimension.
Along the horizon are dunes white as snow, gypsum sand sifted up from the earth like the mouth of a river. Park rangers swear on windless nights you can hear it spilling forth.
Just as those travelers park atop the pass, SUVs carrying rangers and emergency response personnel blaze down a paved interdune road in the park. The sky is big and blue and scissored with clouds, a surreally peaceful setting for the manhunt that follows: a family from another country failed to return from a hike the evening prior, their rental Chevy Cruise discovered at dawn down a narrow sand-caked road, the mother and father and young son all missing.
Although the park’s entrance is gated each night, and the main roads checked prior to closing, visitors never cease to shock rangers with the places they access thanks to the constantly mutating sands. They wander too far, become disoriented; the sand, while cool to the touch even when temps hit one-hundred, radiates back blistering sunlight. Dehydration and heatstroke are near-daily emergencies at the modest adobe-style medical center.
Inside one SUV, two rangers swap thoughts. Families with small children are best off, says the burly male ranger, for children complain early about thirst or hunger or heat. Then again, responds his female companion, there have only been a handful of deaths in the park during the past few decades, a small sample size surely to warp any theories or speculations we rangers might have. In back, a younger male ranger sits without speaking; his wide-eyed, skittish silence unsettles them both.
The burly male ranger, who spends his days off duty shooting hoops on the tilting rim beside the rangers’ quarters, says, Maybe this’ll be one where we don’t even need to get out of the car. He and the female ranger often work together, and when they aren’t running the cash register or collecting litter from parking lots deep in the dunes (the sand cleared once a week using snowplows), they’re tasked with counting kangaroo rats and kit foxes out near the gypsum vents. The man is crotchety towards visitors, particularly those whose English is poor. Once, when he griped about a rescued visitor’s heavily accented English, the female ranger said, But didn’t you visit Switzerland or France, somewhere like that? He nodded and narrowed his eyes, detecting a trap. And did you speak French over there? she asked, to which he, scowling, replied, The difference is, I didn’t get lost.
He’d become a ranger relatively late in life, early forties; she alone knew he’d changed careers after his wife died of cancer and he quit some cushy job in Minneapolis. (When other rangers asked, he merely shrugged and said, Your typical midlife crisis.) She knew he’d been on the last s-and-r to recover a body in the park, a middle-aged woman found in the Cottonwood Graveyard, a portion of the park where giant trees smothered by sand still continue growing, creating a surreal forest. Also around this time, she knew, he’d taken a leave of absence to visit his ailing mother up in Minnesota. On that trip, he’d arrived at her place and, receiving no answer after several knocks, jimmied open the door. There in the living room was his mother, dead in her recliner. Everywhere I go, he told the female ranger upon his return, women are dying. For a moment she thought he might say Please, don’t leave me too but felt immediately foolish, for once their shifts ended he rarely spoke to her, retreating to his basketball hoop or driving his old pickup into town, where he got up to God knows what.
His mother’s hair, he’d told the female ranger, his voice fearful, had turned from comely white to a shocking yellow-brown, as though nicotine-stained, and yet the autopsy pathologist, when the ranger inquired, insisted it hadn’t been dyed.
The mirrors and multiplicities found in the desert, one enthusiast atop the pass says to another, two men who are regulars at the testing observation overlook, old military buffs or veterans or former employees for one of the several ballistics or aerospace startup firms littering the distant desert town. They peer through binoculars and mutter to one another while waiting for the flashes and blasts in the basin. When one, his beard shot through with grey, says this, The mirrors and multiplicities found in the desert, the other grunts and adds, There’s always things happening in the desert. As though to confirm this, a thump resounds and echoes off the canyons behind them. The assembled travelers, previously annoyed, now ooh and ahh and even applaud. One of the men, without lowering his binoculars, reminds the other of that time when a WWII Spitfire that took off over some city in Eastern Europe—Budapest or Bucharest or Bratislava— was found mysteriously, inexplicably crashed here, in the white dunes, several decades after the fact. It is as though the earth beneath this desert, says one man, has a pull to it, a sort of magnet. How else to explain, replies the other, that plane? Simple, says the first man, the pilots entered some portal or hole outside their takeoff city, transporting them here. The airplane’s tail number was traced back to a European flight field more than half a century ago; no corpses were found and the plane was in fine shape, partway buried in white sand but intact—impossible.
Just then, across the desert, reaching them up on the pass, came the faint bleating of a countdown horn, and in the moments before the second detonation, one of the men, watching the distant sands like a hawk, said, For every action or event one witnesses on the surface, in this waking life, there is another equal event taking place elsewhere, some other point in time, hidden from view. To which the other man replies, Things tugged from two different places, smashed down in the desert. A nearby traveler, ruddy with sun, cries, What are you crackpots talking about—you’re scaring the kids! Then a thump, a shuddering crack, the echo, applause.
The missing foreign family was last seen in the visitor center packed with screaming adults and children—such a need to express their anger and impatience, these Americans! At the registration counter a large, once-muscular ranger scowled and crossed his arms. The family’s father spoke a slow, clumsy English and the ranger’s face crumpled as though at a bad smell.
Would his family be able to reach the ruins of a certain historic cabin out in the dunes before nightfall? asked the father. The ranger looked him up and down, smirking at the pack cinched around his waist. Then the ranger thunked a map and said, I’d stick to this particular swathe. When the father leaned in and apologized—swathe?—the ranger growled and said, Makes no difference to me whether you listen, before ringing up their admission.
Earlier, at a roadside diner, a table of baseball-capped men snickered at the family, and when the father asked for a key to the restroom outside—another American phenomenon, all these outdoor lavatories under lock and key—the waitress said there was a bathroom across the street, at the gas station. What about the one outside? he insisted. Employees only, she replied. The gas station restroom likewise was locked, so the father helped the boy pee into some bushes. Then they turned to find a station employee watching. The flesh around the man’s mouth was purple and swollen as though he’d been punched; he spat something dark onto the sand and, sounding drunk, said, You people don’t belong here. He flung a bulging sack of trash into the dumpster. What’s wrong with his face? the boy whispered. Maybe he ate something bad, the father answered, or he tried to kiss a snake. The boy giggled until the father softly shushed him.
As the crowd gawked and applauded at the distant blasts, an old van latched down with house-painting supplies attempted a u-turn at the road-block traffic cones, the ladders strapped onto its roof clacking, music spilling from the windows. Although other motorists had already completed this maneuver, two of the traffic-stop officers hopped into their cruiser and peeled after. Bystanders watched as, up the road, the police ordered two dark-skinned men in paint-splotched uniforms out of the van, before they set to tearing through equipment in back. The painters sat on the curb, whispering dejectedly. Soon, white smoke or dust from the succession of blasts oozed across the basin towards the pass, like storm clouds. Some bystanders snapped photos; others eyed the haze nervously. Down the road, policemen tossed brushes and buckets and pans onto the road. Can the smoke hurt us? people asked. Won’t they open the road?
Long ago, in that town to the east across the desert basin, Union soldiers were stationed along the narrow fertile rio. No one could really say why, least of all the soldiers: by that point—1861 or 1862—the regiment, with little else to do, had fallen to romancing local women and lazing by the rio and drinking whiskey at the cantina. When word spread that a Confederate regiment was traveling across the basin, these cocky Union men filled canteens with whiskey instead of water and rode out to the mountain pass. Townspeople laughed at the distant howitzer blasts, those clumsy Confederate guns no match for the Unioners who knew the canyons well. But the next day they all screamed in horror when the Confederates rode into town with corpses stacked atop their horses, canteens of whiskey still dangling from necks. Gather in the plaza! a Confederate bellowed. The townspeople wailed.
There are things in this desert, the male ranger said to his companion, that ought not be here: man, in his never-ending hubris, discovers wide-open space, inhospitable terrain, and desires to see what strange forces he can bring to life.
He glanced at the female ranger as she drove. On the one hand, he continued, I’m talking about the introduction of foreign species: gemsbok brought in from the Kalahari, spotted owls from Chihuahua, gazelle from South Sudan, all these conservationist vanity projects meant to lure more tourists, but also the varieties of grass and ornamental trees and fruits and vegetables sustained by water siphoned from the water table, from distant rivers—all this work, gasped the ranger, to maintain unnatural life.
The female ranger, turning down a narrow service road, said, What you really mean is the people, isn’t it? Certain people you believe belong here and others who don’t, am I right? The male ranger waved his hand, said this was preposterous, he empathized with displaced people seeking better lives. It was a view, he told the female ranger, he’d cultivated growing up in his tiny Minnesota town, where a meatpacking plant treated its foreign employees as poorly as the livestock, animals and employees all drenched in fear. It’s what humans love most of all, said the ranger. Drenching others in fear.
Up ahead, at the end of the narrow road, sat the family’s Chevy Cruise. The third ranger, the young man in the back, made a noise. I’d wager, said the older, burly male ranger, we’ll find the family less than one mile out. The female ranger asked, Dead? and the man replied, One adult deceased, maybe two, but the child still alive. It’s cold out here at night. Heat-stroked adults can’t handle the shock. But youngsters often can. It’s the way it goes; there’s a pattern to these things.
That same day, the day they find the family in the dunes, there’s another desert tragedy an hour to the southwest, along the border. There police discover a burned-out minivan bearing Mexican plates but on the American side, at the base of an old quarry. Inside, to the officers’ horror, are several charred bodies: two large corpses up front, one in the middle row, three smaller ones in back—a family identified as belonging to the Mennonite farming community south beyond Palomas. On their farms across the border, an article in the newspaper will read, these Mennonites live a tenuous existence, targeted for assumed wealth given their considerable land. They face threats and violence, kidnappings and theft—and yet, claims the article, some say they aren’t entirely innocent, having chosen this region and its small, conservative populations as targets for evangelizing. Like missionaries the world over, a socio-religious scholar is quoted, one enters the calling with an understanding of the hazards of the trade. It doesn’t help matters, claimed the article, doesn’t ease tensions in the area, that these farmers snatched up ancient pueblo land when townships went bankrupt, their fields and buildings and machinery and, most valuably, their water rights all put up for auction. People argued the government ought to have intervened, prevented the sale. Then again, claimed others, many adult Mennonites had lived south of the border for years, for generations, rearing children who were, technically, Mexican citizens despite their appearance and tendency to speak English or German over Spanish.
The corpses inside the van were gingerly removed following forensic photography. Then the detectives and evidence-collection crew departed without calling a tow service, so that the van was left abandoned in the pit, blackened and flaking away with each gust of wind.
The male ranger, as they huffed up and over a dune, said the discovery of his mother in her condo, as though a link in the chain of some curse, kicked off a spate of discoveries of elderly dead women that would haunt him during the subsequent months. First, a search-and-rescue in the mountains, an elderly hiker who’d slipped down a canyon ridge—at least, he said, I wasn’t alone for that one. Then, weeks later, that gruesome discovery while out on solo patrol to the Cottonwood Graveyard, an old woman slumped against a tree, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, her face purple-black like the skin of a plum. The smell knocked him to his knees, said the ranger. For several moments, there on the ground with the sky reeling overhead, he’d gawked at that otherworldly face, the blood-blackened maw where her mouth had been, the bruise-blue rivulets down her neck. I stared and stared, he told the female ranger, and couldn’t believe it: this woman looked just like my mother, down to the bouffant and cardigan. I found myself whispering her name. Then I heard a soft sound—I swear—coming from the wound, not unlike laughter. My heart nearly burst with fear. I glanced up to see a big black bird perched upon a cottonwood branch, looking like a miniature priest or judge in his robes. For a ridiculous moment, said the ranger, I thought the bird was an ape crouched up there, another creature transported to our desert via some inter-dimensional tube. But, thankfully, it cawed and flew off.
A couple months after that, he continued as they climbed, I was returning from a grocery run into town one night when I spotted something in the ditch alongside the highway: sure enough, it was a very old woman who’d wandered off from her assisted living complex, your typical hit-and-run. This one, I realized while waiting for the police, looked the same as the one underneath the cottonwood tree, maybe a bit older. Which is to say, said the ranger, she was nearly identical to my dear departed mother. Everywhere, he sighed, I was seeing old, dead women who looked just like my mother, until—thank God—I didn’t see any more.
The haze has drifted into the foothills, reached the pass, so thick the travelers can’t make out the basin, although they still hear thumps from the testing site, more missiles, more smoke. One enthusiast, sharing his binoculars with a woman with out-of-state plates, says, It seems an inhospitable place, but underneath that sand, all that harsh, cruel desert, there’s an aquifer big as a city, deep as a lake, miraculous water keeping everything alive. But also there is oil: black, awful oil that companies in Texas will drill into once the current environmental restrictions expire. Then, says the man, the earth will be raped by diggers, the air poisoned by fumes, something will inevitably go wrong and hands and arms and legs will be crushed in machinery accidents, or a hastily trained driller will leak crude into the water table. To which the woman, passing back the binoculars, wrinkling her nose, asks, Is the smoke supposed to smell like that?
The Confederates in their newly requisitioned village were, the indigenous residents soon realized, no different than the Union men: they guzzled whiskey at the cantina, pursued unwed women, lazed by the rio, disregarded all but the most vociferous of their commander’s demands. Some helped construct adobes or haul water in exchange for hare or chicken meat. Each day a few rode into the desert, returning with no news save for occasional run-ins with Mescalero or Tiwa peoples from the south. And yet, despite no major conflicts on these expeditions, they returned somehow different: slight adjustments to their faces—more emaciated or rheumy about the eyes, the skin sun-darkened or wind-beaten—or sometimes with hands or legs swollen and bruised. Their personalities changed too: the surly now smiling, the happy-go-lucky now skittish or hostile. Was it possible, they whispered, the enemy now inhabited their bodies, infiltrated their flesh? But whenever this theory came up, usually late at night at the cantina, the one thing they could all agree upon was that they had no conception of who the enemy actually was.
Most days they were unsupervised, their commander out at Fort Filmore or Pinos Altos or all the way up in Placito, a massive and nonsensical swathe of land officials could only pretend to control. The commander, returning filthy and stinking and always foul-tempered, joined his men at the cantina, fielding updates from esteemed locals: the priest, the doctor, the water manager, the cattle rancher. Usually he fell asleep right there at the bar. Then, once, he returned stricken with concern, announcing that higher-ups were displeased with rumors pouring from a pueblo to the southeast, a clandestine cultural cradle where five or six different dialects were spoken, where music was played at night, where multiple churches were gaining members, where indigenous young men were most certainly planning something… It’s a goddamn rebellion! said the commander, demanding his men take action to quash it. The men, nauseous at these orders, dreaded leaving their cantina. Pueblos, they whispered, ain’t part of our assignment. Nevertheless, they mounted horses at dawn as townsfolk gathered to bid them safe riding. The men had lied, said they were striking out to dig wells.
When they returned from their campaign two days later, at dusk, the townspeople gathered again and, as the squadron drew close, they gasped and began whispering, for these men rode the same horses and wore the same clothes, but could hardly be said to be the same men: these were shriveled and sullen, dead-eyed and withered, with faces like rotten gourds— they look like espantapájaros, a woman hissed, like scarecrows tied onto horses!
A century later, the people of that ill-fated pueblo will instigate a ceremony to mourn the horror visited upon their ancestors, the death and destruction and torture committed by those reluctant but terrible scarecrow-men. Nowadays, people pilgrimage on foot from the pueblo to a foothill overlooking the valley (the elderly and infirm and handicapped driven by ATVs), and from that summit at five-thousand feet they face west to their pueblo; those who still speak the indigenous dialects murmur prayers, then scarecrows dressed in burlap are set on fire as musicians beat drums. News crews and townspeople attend. Last year, more than one-hundred scarecrows were lit, with five-hundred spectators packed atop the hill. A local militia showed up too, or some approximation of a militia coalesced in covert online forums, men dressed in replica Confederate garb—to make sure, said one costumed man to a reporter, the mourners were behaving the right way.
A whiteness is spilling across the basin, a woman shouts into her phone, filling the desert! White sand in the distance! Stinking white smoke from the missile tests! No, I said missiles! she shouts. A test, to make sure those weapons can still wipe shit out! I said wipe shit out!
Haze envelops the pass. Travelers panic, bury faces inside shirts. Some dash children towards cars. Others shout at the policemen to stop hassling the painters, their supplies all piled in the road. People bemoan headaches, sore throats, blurred vision. They debate: can’t they just drive over the cones in the road? What’s to stop them? As if in response, more thumps from the basin. People scream. One man, clutching a child, shouts, We’re under attack! The regular spectators, the enthusiasts, don’t lower their binoculars, surveying the smoggy desert, giggling when one of them whispers that the best is yet to come.