All Hallows Eve, 2008
A cowboy walks the littered shores of Mars. He collects a wintry porridge of sand and shale on the soles of his shoes and listens to the pounding of the October wind at sunset. A pair of mallards beats against the west with all their might. Geese muster their ranks and plow the air in noisy fleets looking for quiet sand from which to scrounge the desperate and vivacious grubs. A blue heron, a living dinosaur, cocks his muscular neck into a crossbow before giving up the ghost as the telltale American footsteps clamor down the beachhead and break the meditation of his hunt.
This winter, like all winters here since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, will be one of leanness on the lakes. The Tennessee Valley Authority itself seems to bloom and die in reciprocation to the turning of the earth, as the lakes are lowered like great tubs in autumn to ease the burden on the coal plants, brought on by an armada of heating units and electric blankets, which flourish into life at the knelling of the equinox. Now the endless murmur of tiny waves that dance along with the planet’s do-si-do laps against a boneyard left by summer’s storms and celebrations. Driftwood lies along the distended beach like the skeletons of long-forgotten wars, and wolf-spiders scuttle among its serpentine shadows, with wary eyes driven by thin arachnid bellies. Only they and the browning moths are left to flit through the crevices in the cold.
Can these dry bones live again? O Sovereign Lord, you alone know. For now, we live with the planetary exiles by the water, hoping against the laws of vision that the bloodlines of resurrection are still written into the fabric of this dead land. It is still beautiful here, in a ruddy heathen way, like the face of Esau. And tiny, brittle scrub and bushes doggedly grip onto the barren and crumbled parcels of rocky dirt whence the waters receded. There is yet hope.
I’ve come down here to escape the happy ferocity of the Hallowe’en party at my relatives’ lakeside house. I donned the uniform of a cowboy only because it was the nearest incarnation to my standard mode of dress. I would have been content to spend the evening as a stoplight or some other famous yet obscure character, but I refuse to be an uncomfortably dressed stoplight or obscure character. Other folks at the party do not have such reservations. There were a few more cowboys among the crowd, but they seemed descended more from the Las Vegas or Nashville variety, as opposed to the variety that herds cattle. There were a couple of Indians – Native Americans, to be specific – and a hippie and a go-go girl, not to mention the creepier attendees with horrific latex masks and plastic-smelling fake hair. I wonder what toddlers think as they are dressed as bumblebees and train engineers and paraded among their role models, who now resemble the occupants of a five-and-dime store toy bin. Is it scrawled into their bones, is it still scrawled into ours, that this is a day to remember the lessons from the lives of our fallen forbearers? Can we face the pointed recollection of our own storied mortality? Can these dry bones live again?
The overweight yet strangely sagacious retriever comes down to the marooned wooden dock with me and inquires of my attention. I throw a few sticks for him and watch him fling his girth after them into the forgiving buoyancy of the chilly lake water. In the softer parts of the sand, I can see our footprints – mine, squarish and smeared with deep heel impressions, and his, chubby and familiar. Even more lightly, the trails of inquisitive raccoons and the trim footsteps of thespian killdeer are scattered in the mud. After three throws and the ensuing games of tug-of-war for a big limb, the dog walks away up the bank with his prize clamped in his jaws. He spent all summer swimming the breadth of the inlet and wandering the neighborhoods on the other side, until residents there threatened to shoot him when they couldn’t stave off his overzealous greetings. I’m not certain that I’ve got it in me to shoot a dog. That doesn’t make me a very good cowboy, but like the lake bed in summer, I am in costume. The romantically dressed waters of Hallowe’en recede, and I am revealed – nothing but a barren and muddy boneyard where spiders and skeletal birds haunt the wan light. This one day, we each don the image of something else, not usually caring too much what that something else is, as long as it’s not us. The rest of the year, we struggle a bit more valiantly to keep from being who we are, because we know who it is under that cowboy suit. We recognize dry bones at a glance.
But I’ve seen dry bones dance.