Yucca Valley, California 1990
Upon birth, he had been given one of the ninety-nine names of God. This meant that in addition to being Godly, he was also intended to be especially servile. For Azeez meant ‘the almighty’, and Abdul ‘servant’. And it was the impracticality of this disjuncture that may have given rise to the ongoing uncertainty of Abdul Azeez’s life.
Somewhere between the middle and the end of his days, he stood surveying a plot of land, undulating, barren. Between the earth and the sky, with the few short trees, there was little else. Here, he did not say his prayers, for the presence of God filled up the emptiness of the country. Sometimes this new world seemed very different to him, and at other times, quite the same. It was in this in-betweenness that he now existed. The in-betweenness of being from one country, but living in another. Of speaking two languages. Of being a family man, but always feeling some part of him was alone. Of being a man of war, but wanting to be a man of peace. And of wanting to make his way in the world, but still never understanding his true purpose. These were the opposing forces perhaps of every man. He felt this tension acutely. Still, he had become used to it.
In the desert there is no body of water to hold the sky, so they live inside the ground; the air and the water, hidden away like a precious metal, where creatures burrow deeper and deeper in search of it. Though it was not always the case. He knew this, standing in the valley with the San Gabriel to one side and the San Bernardino Mountains to the other. The Salton Sea he knew to be behind him, its name some kind of misnomer, passing from myth to fact. His mind receded back to that time when the distance between this place and what lay beyond hardly mattered. When it was one continual mass of water, or a dry basin, or alternating between the two as it was known to do, even in the last one hundred years.
Abdul Azeez lit a cigarette and inhaled, feeling the dryness welling up in his chest just as it permeated his skin, the dust, and the air. He was surveying the land — a quaint idea, but it seemed appropriate even now in the Mojave, where there was empty land as far as the eye could see. Surveying the land could involve tools for measuring acreage and figuring out how far above sea level this plot sat, or even sewage considerations. But today he was not interested in that kind of specificity. He just wanted to walk about with a shovel in his hand, enjoying that the land was his, and he its steward.
A hawk flew overhead, its dark feathers a small blot against the colourless sky. It screeched, and its voice carried, echoing briefly through the valley. How many thousands of years would that screech travel until it reached the outer edges of the galaxy and finally faded away? Its screech would live on long after it died. Maybe even longer than the Joshua trees dotting the horizon, named by the Mormons for the biblical hero, raising outstretched arms toward the heavens.
He dropped his spade to the ground and flipped open the cover of the Polaroid camera hanging across his chest, and looked through the viewfinder. His eye bumped too far up against the glass so that he could only make out his own eyelash at first. He moved the camera away from his head and took a photo. He wanted to always remember this place, its untouched plainness, as it now stood before him. The mechanical sound, which came in three waves as the film moved through the camera, was louder and echoed farther than even the hawk. He looked at the milky grey image as it streaked, transforming into something not yet recognizable.
He thought of a mirage, though the ground was not flat enough and the air was not still enough to render one. But the entire place was a mirage, with dry lakes and rivers that had one time held animals now foreign to the basin. Still their bones were found from time to time; fossilised, ancient, reaching back to a past that had been stretched and pulled into a new shape.
He walked on, along a well-worn track. There was a dip in the ground ahead. He adjusted the camera, pushing it to his side and out of the way, shifting his spade from one hand to the other, continuing on to investigate. Sometimes these dips were washes generated by a flash flood or at other times man made demarcations of the land, left behind by prospectors. The unexplored spaces of America were so few and far between he could not resist the urge to seek out a new hollow, insignificant as it may be. He jumped into a gully and picked his way through the dry river bed, towards the dip, stopping from time to time to extract the round cacti attaching to the heel of his boot. He heard it before he saw it — the rattling.
And then, from the corner of his eye, he saw movement. Without breaking stride he retreated, and retracing his last few steps, stepped back onto the bank of the dry bed. He moved quickly, the snake was not his prey and he had not intended to trespass. If he managed to convey that, then he and the snake could go about their own business. But the crunching of small twigs and shifting gravel indicated a rapid pursuit behind him.
Abdul Azeez turned once more without warning and brought the flat side of the spade down hard against the snake’s head. The curve of its body went slack. Then almost immediately it began contracting, coiling its tail into a spiral, lifting its ugly triangle-shaped head. The rattling, its signature sound. The back of its body moved fast, the head slower. Abdul Azeez stepped towards it, poised for the briefest moment. The rattler was well within striking distance, its body as thick as Abdul Azeez’s leg.
They had startled each other. They paused now, exchanging a long glance. He looked at the snake with a kind of resistance, a refusal at first to accept its existence, which was not only natural but fitting. For contrariness, the ability to do or not do the thing that was expected of him, was also a hallmark of his life.
The snake was as long as Abdul Azeez was tall, its scales coloured like desert camo. The end of its tail was rigid, pointing up as if receiving a signal. Its glistening black eyes were the only indication of moisture in its brittle exterior. It was lifting its head, bringing itself up to his height.
All the things that were great and terrible came to him then. The things he had not thought of for so long that were both ancient and present in his mind. Every degree of the earth, all its strata, collapsed and spread out before him in infinite individual pieces. The blood and bones of the small animals that filled the snake’s belly — perhaps days or weeks old — they too lifted up in front of him. He reached back. The moment he was born. The first light hitting his eyes. The shape of the world. As it was then, it was now. He saw the snake and the snake saw him. Then he was smashing the side of its head once more with the full force of his weight.
The snaked coiled, winding itself, doubling, rearing up. Abdul Azeez pounded it, not with dispassion. Even after the thing had stopped moving, he brought the spade down again and again. So that by the time he reached up and brought it down again, delivering the last blow, the shape of the snake’s head was no longer discernible. He became aware of its inactivity. Still, he stood above it for several more moments, his hand tense on the spade, the snake limp, red flesh exposed beneath its skull.
He picked it up, gathering his breath. Counted its ten rattles which still moved in tiny spastic jerks, as newly dead snakes do, and walked back to his jeep. One hand gripping the spade, the other carrying the rattler, limp and dragging against the ground. He walked away from the photographs which had fallen from his hands during the struggle. They lay in the dirt, fully developed, blistering in the sun.