Portal Canyon

Mary Sojourner

I am in the heart of the earth, a delicate canyon holding dried grapevines, petroglyphs, cigarette butts, bottle caps and a trickle of water no wider than my hand. I won't tell you how to find this place. Know that it is within range of the vampire havens of Vegas and Laughlin. Know that from the opening of the canyon, you can watch a three-quarter moon fall slowly to a lilac horizon and count the countless red stars and black holes of Casino Row. 

I set my bundle on a dark boulder. My night-sky bandana holds sage from Butler Wash, a crystal egg, a chunk of garnet, a chert scraper, bottle of snow melt from Red Mountain and four obsidian pebbles from the same place. Some of this will go home with me; some will not. I prepare to light the sage, turn to the West, to the home of She Who Eats That Which is No Longer Necessary, and see a woman walking toward me. She is pale, dark-haired and slender. She wears stone-washed jeans, expensive leather boots, a faded jacket, and she carries a bundle of silver sage. 

Bear with me. This is not about Two White Chicks Sitting Around Talking Crystals. 

We look at each other. "Oh," she says, "we both have sage." I am pissed. I want to be here alone. Her eyes are hugely sad. "Is there water up there?" 

The words leave my mouth. "Do you want to come in here?" 

"But, you got here first." 

"It's o.k." I wonder what pushy Casper-the-friendly-spirit is making me say these things. 

She climbs into the boulder chamber. "I don't know if I should be here, but it must be o.k. if you invited me." She looks at me with those friggin' Seeker eyes. 


She tells me her name, that she lives in California, that she is so happy to finally be here, though she is always afraid when she knows it is time to come here and she had to make herself get up from the slots to come here and she didn't want to, but now... 

I know exactly what she means. 

We light our sage, give each other smoke, give smoke to the rock and silence and light. I tell her I am grateful there is water here because a month ago there wasn't. 

"What could have happened to it?" she says vaguely. She is used to asking questions for which she doesn't hear answers. 

"You know." She shakes her head. 

"All the development, the building, the houses...this is desert. The water has to come from somewhere." 

Her eyes don't meet mine. "Did you come here so you could stop gambling?" she asks. 

"No," I say. And, I wonder if she knows something I don't.

She tells me she has worked with an Indian shaman, is looking for her roots, is happy to find holy places. 

"How," I say, "do you take care of the earth?" 

"You mean these holy places? I give tobacco, my prayers, my thoughts..." 

"Where you live," I say, "are there holy places there?" 

"I keep looking," she says sadly, "but I can't find them." 

"What's around your house?" My voice is harsh. 

"What do you mean?" 

"Is there a lawn, a garden, flowers? How do you take care of them?" 

"Not enough," she says sadly. 

"What's under your house?" 

"I don't know." She looks at me as though I have the big mystical answer that is going to change her life. There is a long silence. I want to cry. "Dirt," she says. "There's dirt under my house. It's just a sub-division." "What about rock?" I wave at the glowing rocks around us. "What do you think it was before it was a sub-division?" 

"Yes," she says tentatively, "rock and maybe water and maybe animals..." "All of that," I say, feeling like a grouchy cross between John Muir and Shirley Maclaine, "is no more or less holy than this place we're standing in." "Yes," she says, "I see what you're saying." She tells me she knows she can do something for the lawn. She waits, as a child with new knowledge waits to be asked a question. 

"What?" I say gently. 

"I can let it grow." 

We both laugh, a sound as soft as the light going gold around us. As suddenly as we have begun, we are finished. I hand her my sage. She hands me hers. She turns and is gone. 

A day later I am driving toward the mountains of my home, the sun's last copper burning in the rear-view mirror. I am thinking about the gifts she gave me: silver sage and questions and the knowledge that at least one woman exists who loves the earth and did not know she lives on it. 

Mary Sojourner's short stories, essays and environmental columns have been published in Story, Off Our Backs, Heresies, Writers on the Range, Sierra magazine, and previously in Brevity Three. She loves the Mojave, Black Rhino nickel slots, rain in Grapevine Canyon, wherever the tacky and glorious intersect.


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