Jeremy had hiked in desert, but this blasted landscape stunned him. Heat-scoured rock, gritty dust that filled his mouth and eyes and nostrils. Jangling cries of ravens, black as obsidian. Cholla cactus spines glittering like splinters of glass. The only softness, green feathers of stunted mesquite. Here, his boy had sought the Divine?
They’d named him for his great-grandfather, to please Leah’s grandmother, but also because Isaac meant “one who laughs.” And he was a sunny child, his laughter burbling like water through dappled woods. But with adolescence, darkness ambushed him. They tried various meds and psychotherapies, exercise, diet, acupuncture, Chinese herbs. An unobservant family, they returned to synagogue. Nothing helped. Isaac wrestled the black beast with street drugs and alcohol; dropped out of college; disappeared for long, long months.
One night, Jeremy grabbed his buzzing phone before it woke Leah, and there was Isaac, his voice bright, clear. They hadn’t heard from him in a year. “I’m good, Dad. Living with friends. In the desert, Death Valley. It’s–I can’t explain it–but the air, the light–everything makes sense here. I’m good.” Isaac didn’t want Jeremy to wake Leah, said he’d forgotten the time difference, he’d call again soon. “Tell Mom I love her. Love you both.” He hung up and Jeremy worried he wouldn’t call again, but he did, soon after, in the early evening when they were both home from work. He sounded good. Strong. Himself. They knew to temper their hope. He called a few more times, told them the desert was a “holy place,” where “God’s presence was palpable,” where he could “almost hear His voice.” He said he understood why the prophets went into the desert. “All the noise burns away.”
He stopped calling. They heard nothing for several months. Then, a hiker found some of Isaac’s gear in a box canyon; Park Service Search and Rescue were combing surrounding areas. And now, in the week Jeremy and Leah had been here, they’d learned that Isaac had long left his stoner friends to live alone. The friends didn’t know where. The desert heat, its sear and light, the evasive faces of Park officers who had “no new information” hit Leah with a massive migraine. Jeremy left her sleeping in their darkened motel room, set out again in the dust-coated rental car.
He drove past towering piles of umber rocks that looked vomited up, the earth trying to rid itself of some thick poison. At a splintered sign, he turned, his heart juddering with each bone-jolting rock he hit. After thirty minutes and three miles, he feared a blown tire and parked. He remembered his water bottle and hat, started towards the slot canyon looming.
He didn’t know what he expected to find, he didn’t know how long he walked up the twisting chute, its smooth undulating walls slick and close. Ahead, the trail ended in a high, steep dryfall and he could go no further.
He found himself sitting under a lip of rock, gulping down water that seemed to evaporate as he swallowed. A slight wind rose and fell, and then there was only his keening, and then, finally, the sound of his shredded breath. He watched the upper reaches of pale dolomite turn gold. Slowly, his breathing calmed, the clenching in his chest eased. At last, he stood. He gazed up at the sky, unutterably blue, implacable, and gave up his son to the God of Abraham.
Mary Rohrer-Dann is author of Taking the Long Way Home, (Kelsay Books 2021), and La Scaffetta: Poems from the Foundling Drawer (Tempest Productions, Inc., 2011). Recent work appears in Orca, Clackamas Review, Philadelphia Stories, Ekphrastic Review, Panoply, Third Wednesday, South Shore Review, and Vestal Review. A “graduated” educator, she paints, hikes, and volunteers with Rising Hope Therapeutic Stables, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Ridgelines Language Arts. She hates trying to write a sexy bio.