You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend:
those with loaded guns and those who dig.
-The Man with No Name
They had just got the opening shot—what would have been the penultimate moment of the film, chronologically—when they found the dead. The film opened with a long, wide angle of the Sonoran desert—scrub brush and distant cacti, ironwood trees and sifted-fine white earth, the Tucson sun bleaching the sky to a thin film, a sort of visual dry heat—a couple beats of empty desert, the light abstracting the color into a screen-size Rothko, and then entering the frame from the left below center a man, a medium shot of him running, barefoot and with his unbuttoned shirt flailing behind him, shoes in hand, running intensely but not fluidly, his strides struggling periodically against the uneven earth and the desert detritus, and as he runs the camera pulls out wider until he disappears out of the frame to the right; there are three more beats and then a blue Bronco with a white top comes bounding after, spraying clouds of sand in its wake, speeding across the frame with a wild bounce over something solid midway, and then it, too, disappears and the still shot remains while the dust cloud settles. The desert’s light intensifies, until the shot is overexposed then fades out to a radiant white.
In the finished film, Cash’s “Ring of Fire” would have played over it, the trumpet blaring in as the man entered the frame, through to the first chorus, which would have played over the empty desert and then the bright white void, before the film proper began.
Josh had made the run three times before they wrapped; the first time he fell—twice—which Ezra thought might work (he wasn’t supposed to make it across easily, the chase meant to be wild and fraught) but wasn’t happy with. The second time Josh hadn’t made it all the way (he insisted on actually running the desert barefoot—carrying the all-black retro Air Jordans he was in love with—which meant several practice attempts before they began filming, slow jogging through to find a path, to test the dirt’s texture, and an assistant had raked a slim trail for him to try avoiding anything more than momentarily sharp, since the desert was strafed with cholla barbs and skeletal ironwoods and who knew what insects or buried snakes or whatever). But the third time, he ran and his struggle was consonant with the sort of visual grace Ezra wanted for the scene, and they all felt they’d got it and it was thus time to move on, to shoot the film’s final scene before they had to pack it all up and head back to Tucson.
Despite a supposedly sacred purpose, Cortés does not think ‘god’ as his ships approach the shore as much as ‘gold,’ but that latter word is to him a wish, a hope beyond hope, that this land—overhung with verdure and visibly swampy in the thick, humid air—will offer the riches he and his men have come for, have traveled, have armed themselves for. He is certain this will be the way to Moctezuma’s citadel, Tenochtitlan; in fact Hernán Cortés, conquistador, businessman, is hoping that just beyond these thick green walls lay the city itself. He hopes that as much as he does to be underwhelmed at the site of the natives’ world. Not at their gold, or at their temples, or at their women. He wishes to be underwhelmed at their power, their weaponry, their intelligence, their architecture, their wiliness.
This was not just the opening shot of the film, it was also the first shoot they’d done. It was the first time the older brother had directed the younger, the first time Josh, the younger, had had his writing translated to film, to acting, to life.
The plan was to get a short ready while they were lining up possible producers and investors and then they could use the short to bolster the support for the feature by entering it into festivals. Josh’s script took the story of the character he’d created—a seducer, a ladies man—much farther along the Don Giovanni path; the short would open with a glimpse at his end, and show a few of his conquests before the final, fateful tryst with its coitus interruptus. It wouldn’t be until they’d shot the opening and ending of the short, along with a single scene of seduction, that the economy would collapse and what funding they’d put together would disappear. Later, Ezra would shelve the project since it had always seemed more Josh’s than his own and by then he’d moved on, was back working in LA, directing the successful web series The Searchers, a sort of Western-homage zombie drama.
That night, after they’d finally gotten out of the desert, left the dead behind, at a party at a house in the foothills Josh would describe his script and the story’s core to a UA professor named Gabriela something, who was working on a sort of pop-history of Cortés’ conquest. Josh was drinking but not yet drunk. “It’s the story of a seducer,” he described to Gabriela, “hopping beds from LA to Mexico. I mean, he goes to Mexico because things aren’t going so well in LA. He’s an out of work actor, a wannabe—he’s done a few episodes of Days of Our Lives, as a character brought back from the dead who then got killed off again,” which was autobiographical; Josh had managed this himself two years into his attempted acclimation to LA, after he’d finished his BFA in acting in Tucson, “and as things are going with his love life he needs to get out of LA, it’s becoming too small, his lack of money means he’s borrowing and he owes—to the women he’s also slept with, mostly—and it’s catching up with him,” which was not autobiographical; Josh hadn’t had sex in two years, since Heather left, though his financial situation was not far from his character’s. “So he heads for Mexico, crosses the border and has a few flings on his way east toward Nogales where he brings an underage girl to a hotel but as soon as they get there he gets jumped by her boyfriend, who takes all his stuff.” This wasn’t autobiographical either, not yet, not until a week later—at a (flat, dull) reading at the Poetry Center, which he would be invited to by Gabriela herself the morning after the party—that Josh would meet April, who called herself a poet (he had assumed that meant grad student) and quoted Creeley, “And so it was I entered the broken world,” who Josh would later plead was aggressively flirtatious, pursued him, was the initiator, all this after it came out she was only 17. She insisted they couldn’t go to her place—she said roommates—so he said no problem and took her to his room at Hotel Congress. “So the ladies man wakes up, alone in the lobby with no money and no ID. He tries to report it, but ultimately decides to cross back over illegally. Because of things he’s done, he figures he can’t just seek help for fear of getting arrested, so he’s going to hook up with a group crossing into Arizona, crossing through the desert. A coyote and the whole deal.”
Ezra tried to talk up a Tucsonan realtor with an artistic self-image; he didn’t mention the dead to the realtor but instead described his plan to take Josh and a skeletal crew to Mexico to participate in the Caminata Nocturna, a fake illegal crossing put on for tourists. A relatively cheap and easy way to get what he thought would be authentic-looking footage of a crossing, led by “coyotes” played by guys who’d really crossed, many times, who knew the reality of the crossing. What Ezra didn’t know was the filmic quality of parts of the Caminata, like the man dressed as an Indian, like a Hollywood Indian—headdress and everything—who’d greet the tourists on their staged illegal crossing like a scene out of a John Ford film, or the men playing cartel members playing la migra, one of whom would actually deliver The Treasure of the Sierra Madre line “We don’t need no badges.”
The woman Josh was talking up, Gabriela, the UA prof, was moviestar beautiful, her dark eyes dangerous, in Josh’s retelling the next day. In his version of this conversation, she wasn’t really listening to his narrative of the film’s plot, but was accurately understanding it as code, a type of speech about seduction that allowed them to stand a little nearer, to discuss each other’s work, only, but in such a way that the possibility of their own involvement was contextualized. He described her as an oasis in this desert.
“Isn’t an oasis just a figment, imagined,” Ezra laughed at him, “an unreal salvation seen in the desert by those dying of dehydration?”
“I thought that was a mirage.”
“Yeah, but what are mirages mirages of?”
Cortés’ courtship with Catalina started out more or less the same as his other affairs: she was virginal, pure, and weighted the reputation of these virtues. Many, like Shakespeare’s poor Collatinus, suggested she could not be tainted by even a conquistador so studied and powerful as the young Cortés. This one could see as a challenge, which of course is how Cortés took it. As Kierkegaard wrote, “Show her to me, show me a possibility which seems an impossibility; show her to me among the shades of the underworld, I shall fetch her up; let her hate me, despise me, be indifferent to me, love another, I am not afraid; only let the waters be troubled, the silence be broken.” But conquering her impenetrable virtue was all he had come for. When he refused to marry Catalina, a scandal broke out: he was sued by Governor Diego Vasquez, and a litany of others. Cortés was briefly imprisoned, but escaped and fled.
But Diego Velasquez tracked him down, finding Cortés taking sanctuary in a church, and endeavored to persuade Cortés to come back and fulfill his duty to the fair Catalina.
The conversation that ensued, in which Velasquez believed himself to have the upper hand and Cortés was just as certain Velasquez would break before he would, was not altogether unlike that the two would have some time later, in Velasquez’s office suite, while Cortés and his supporters petitioned for the lead of the next expedition to Mexico. The difference was, of course, that in the former instance, Cortés had to be promised that he would be able to continue doing as he pleased with total impunity and that his marriage to Catalina would actually cement his position with not only Velasquez and his governorship but also with King Charles V, who would look more favorably on a representative of Spain being a married man than a bachelor; where in the latter instance, Velasquez had to be persuaded that Cortés, like Catalina, would make Diego look good to Charles V by running a tight and competent expedition and returning with many fine goods, gold, slaves, women and so on. Of course, this was never really Cortés’ intention, to return to Cuba, for he had far bigger quarry in sight: to raise an army and capture the heart of the Aztec empire, burning and pillaging all the way there, and taking the glory of the conquest for himself, rather than seeing it split between such bunglers and fools as Grijalva, Cordoba and the rest waiting to follow in the illustrious footsteps of those foolhardy, incompetent and now largely dead men. These intentions were not learned by Velasquez until shortly before the third expedition to Mexico was set to launch. Cortés, learning some of his enemies had leaked his intentions to Velasquez sagaciously repeated his previous flight, only rather than to a church where he could be easily tracked, he fled to Mexico.
Josh touched Gabriela’s elbow after he’d gotten her a glass of wine and asked about her research; he managed to mention the charitable organization that had helped them find locations to shoot, whose mission was to place and fill water stations where migrants could stop along the way north and refill water bottles or just drink from the spigot.
“Don’t you think there’s kind of a problem, making your movie about a white Hollywood player who runs to the border? It seems like the movie maybe appropriates or exploits the setting.”
“The character’s not totally supposed to be sympathetic though.”
“It’s not just the character. Your film uses these issues for its own ends, not to tell the story of the border or the migrants, not for their sake. You’re using the place, taking its identity for your own. Your movie uses the border as backdrop.”
“Ezra’s whole thing is westerns,” Josh said. “He’s almost a Tarantino-level obsessive. So the film’s not as much about the real west as that movie west, the Sergio Leone west.”
“Ah, that’s your hero. John Wayne. The myth of the man against the wild, the untamed frontier.”
“The idea is to like play with those stock movie figures, kind of fitting with while also defying the trope. He’s supposed to be this flat character, but it doesn’t quite work. He fails at being the seducer, because real life isn’t so two-dimensional.”
“It’s not just movies; history has a way of flattening people out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, take Cortés. He was also kind of a ladies man, like your movie. A womanizer.”
“Conquistador as the ultimate seducer?”
“His conquest is not really about seduction. More like the rape of Mexico. But the history is about him conquering Mexico, but what about how he treated women? Or how he spent money he didn’t have. We flatten him out and forget he was a real person.”
“Doesn’t it depend on who tells the history, though? Aren’t some histories more about Cortés the man than Cortés the Conquistador, an actor in the larger history of conquest and colonization?”
“When Cortés first got to Mexico, the Aztecs thought he was their god, Quetzalcoatl, finally returned. He’d sailed away and promised to come back during a certain year and Cortés arrived in that year. Have you ever heard that story?”
He shook his head while taking a drink.
“It’s a good story. The important thing is it’s not true. That’s the history as told by the conquerors, the Spanish version.”
There was a brief silence.
“It’s kind of true, isn’t it? I mean, figuratively.”
“That Cortés was their God.”
“No, just that these strangers showed up and like you said it seemed like part of the myth. Myth is just a way of telling the story of the past, right? It’s a version of history.”
“The fiction is that the Spanish told this version of their invasion, that the natives were so primitive they thought the men in armor were gods. That they were in awe at the might and majesty of the invading force.”
“I don’t know. I mean, I get that. But I think maybe we do that kind of thing all the time, see things the way we want to instead of how they really are. We make them fit our story.”
Gabriela’s eyes shone. “But we can’t make life fit our stories. It’s too complicated, too layered. The present is haunted. Time is not a line. The past slipping away from us as the future appears to meet us: it’s bullshit. An illusion. History is not distant and past but is continuing, it influences the present and the future in an active way.”
“So, the Aztecs meet Cortés, see his ships on the shore, and it’s like they’re experiencing two totally separate realities: one where their god comes back; one where their conqueror takes a step on their land. One is welcome, one unwelcome. One is the symbol of their salvation, one is the symbol of their death.”
Francisco Lopez de Gomara, in his History of the Conquest of Mexico, wrote, “They said of the ships that the god Quetzalcoatl had come, bearing his temples on his shoulders, for he was the god of the air who had gone away and whose return they were expecting.” To give context to this claim that Moctezuma mistook Cortés for the returning Quetzalcoatl, it is perhaps worth noting Gomara’s history of the Conquest also includes these further putative confusions of real and religious:
- this description of Cortés’ pre-Conquest vanity, which does bring to mind a certain feathered serpent: “he began to adorn himself and be more careful of his appearance than before, and he wore a plume of feathers with a medal, and a gold chain…;”
- the story of the Spanish exploration of Popocatepetl in which “many Indians came up to kiss [the safely-returned explorers’] garments and stare at them, as if they were miraculous beings, or gods…for those simple people believe it [the volcano] is the mouth of hell;”
- that the Spaniards feared the temple of Quetzalcoatl in Tenochtitlan, because “Its entrance was through a door carved in the form of a serpent’s mouth, diabolically painted, with fangs and teeth exposed, which frightened those who entered, especially the Christians, to whom it looked like the mouth of hell;”
- a speech against idolatry in which Cortés tells the Aztecs “it is only your souls that we seek,” etc.
It was Josh’s script and Josh played the ladies man, the seducer. Ezra understood this was a version of autobiography for his brother, the film’s arc a sort of prophetic vision Josh had for how his own affairs would have to end, the belief in the tragic gravity that would drag the rising arc of his conquests parabolically back down. During their time together this summer, Ezra saw that Josh lived his life like a film, treated others like they were merely actors, characters in his script—women especially, but everyone, including Ezra. Josh had an invented history of his own love life, and he had rendered it epic in his script and now had come to believe in it. All he wanted to do in Tucson was meet women and fuck them—not for enjoyment as much as glory, as if he were racking up numbers, taking trophies, carving notches in his belt. Making this film had somehow allowed him to become the character he wanted to be, to see himself and his life and all those around him as part of his personal myth.
In the dawning of the day, as Cortés was readying his men, a band of three messengers from Moctezuma came into the center of the village, and approached Cortés directly.
“The lord Moctezuma wishes to send you his greetings,” the tallest of the messengers began, “and to offer you this.”
He held out his hands, and in them lay a necklace of gold and bone, bearing in its center a figure representing the lord of the dawn, Quetzalcoatl, overlaid with rubies and emeralds and stones of various colors. Cortés took it; the necklace was as heavy as the pauldron of his armor. He handed it with a nod to Gomara, who in turn passed it on, with instructions to place it onboard ship in Cortés’ chest.
“Please tell your lord Don Cortés thanks him,” Cortés said through La Malinche, “and wishes him well.”
“The lord Moctezuma asks why you have come, and wishes to give you what you would like, as long as you do not trouble his people.”
Cortés smiled, twisting the right tip of his mustache unconsciously with his fingers as he did so. So, it was to be that easy, he thought. Only here a day and already the emperor of the Aztecs was bowing, offering up ransom for Cortés to leave his people unmolested. Ha!
“Give your lord our thanks for the gift,” Cortés repeated through La Malinche.
“Moctezuma wishes to know if you intend to come overland to Tenochtitlan,” the messenger said, now in a voice that was clearly agitated. “Our lord would like to know why you have come.”
Convinced he had the upper hand, Cortés simply nodded and smiled, taking his leave of the messengers. He continued preparing himself and his men.
Earlier that morning, before the temperature rose above 100, before the sun was even up, before the crew had driven out into the Ironwood National Forest, where the vast emptiness of the landscape was punctured by the cruciform poles the power lines were strung along, an accidental marker for those who walked north, Alma held her mother’s hand in the terror of the endless desert night. She couldn’t feel her body anymore, or at least she’d lost touch with its pain; her thoughts were untranslatable—to action, to herself. She knew, and had to sit with knowing, her death was almost here, that she was at the end of her history. There was something in this desert worse than the myths, cabeza prieta, chupacabra: it was the people, and worse it was their desperation, their hunger, those willing to prey on the weak and those who mistook the literal for metaphorical: coyotes, pollos.
It was true that Ezra had storyboarded Josh’s script with several homages to westerns. One of Ezra’s favorite film endings was that to Once Upon a Time in the West, not only for the flashback in the midst of the duel, after the two men have circled each other and been brought together, the distant shots showing their vast landscape and the close-ups focusing on the characters as if detached from the dead, wide setting, but the lead up to the duel is operatic, the characters—one in all white, the other all black—become archetypes, become forces instead of simply men (vengeance, evil, justice, death), and the music soars—the Morricone score adds an emotional quotient not present in the images alone. Leone had a keen awareness for opera’s heightened representation, its coloratura relationship to the real. (Ezra would argue it was not merely coincidence that the Man with No Name says “Bravo” after the duel in For a Few Dollars More.) So the ladies man’s end had been planned out with these classic duel endings in mind—Eastwood, Bronson, the good and the bad entangled, circling each other like yin and yang, parts of a whole, each needing the other. He’d wanted to include a leitmotif like the little harmonica phrase, but they couldn’t yet decide what it would be.
Ezra would later recall his experience of discovering the dead as follows:
- The unique quality of light that exists in the deserts of the American southwest (an intensity, a proximity) was raw and real and visible before him.
- The first black figure that presented its enshrouded form to his view seemed suddenly to appear, seemed to arise from the dead earth itself.
- The first thing he saw was the man’s figure, and the upturned outlines of his feet.
- The man’s body was laid very carefully, very rigidly in its place. The feet were bare. Each toe showed layers of peeled skin, and ants streamed all along his feet. His hands were laid calmly each to its respective side, the fingers curled delicately as though perhaps the man had dreamt of holding something.
- A patch of marbled meat, exposed muscle almost petrified, looking like jamon iberico—Jesus Christ it did—on the man’s upper arm, just above the elbow. Scratches on his exposed skin. The tiny corpuscular ants across his blistered feet, over his ashen arms, over his eyes (closed, thank God). His bloated stomach swelling out from under his dirtied shirt. Dried blood in twin trails on his face from either nostril.
- The clouds had advanced in the sky above and now the blue was a central strip amid a cottony field of rippled cirrus. Directly above, the pattern was roughly that of something woven, big loopy sprawls of clouds in awkward rows; a fingerprint pressed whitely upon the sky.
- He did not belong out here; he was invading this man’s, these people’s, most private landscape, “discovering” what was not his to find, taking from them even the dignity of an authentic death, unseen, uninflected, not crafted for tourists, not part of any film.
- The sun’s heat had dried the sweat on Ezra’s shirt, which now hung stiffly against the still sticky section of his lower back.
- After seeing the others, Ezra scanned the landscape, knowing that somewhere out here still others walked, crouched in shade; that others would yet come, had come before, and that somewhere, somewhere all around and yet far, their tracks, the signs of their passage, also lay, and that all of it—those who walked, those who crouched, those who would and those who had, the pieces left behind, the marks and the footprints and the trails and the scratches they’d left upon the face of this earth—that all would be gone, was disappearing, was even now seeping into nothingness as he stood there.
It was Ben, the dp, who asked, “Should we use this?”
Ezra leaned his head back and for a moment closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun upon the backs of his eyelids and letting his blank interior vision go from black to white to eggplant to red to orange.
They found thirteen of them, the migrants, their bodies, arrayed in an imperfect circle as if they had been placed intentionally. The evident oldest looked maybe thirtysomething. The youngest was a child, perhaps ten. They called the man from the water organization who told them to call the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, gave them the number. It was clear that this news caused him real, personal pain.
A few days later, Josh and Ezra met Michelle at a coffee shop. Ezra had called the Pima County Morgue to ask about the dead they’d found, whether they’d been identified, whether there was any explanation, and had talked to Michelle, the graduate student interning there. She couldn’t answer his questions, but suggested new ones. The morgue was overfull and struggled, and sometimes failed, to fit identities of missing migrants to the remains that were brought in; she referred to the area where they’d found the dead as the “path of fire;” to his question about what they do with bodies they cannot identify she said, “Ultimately, cremation,” which shocked him though he was not sure why. She’d agreed to meet him to talk in detail about her job, about the deaths, about what happens after. Ezra wanted only to ask the obvious: who were these people? She understood what she assumed was his angst at their namelessness, the very real possibilty they would never be named, and that even if this were a crime it would likely not be solved. She assumed he would want to know, to glimpse, to be consoled about the private or personal or family story that he had accidentally become a part of, albeit unbenknownst to the dead and those who’d mourn them.
Josh tagged along, but was much more interested in her, in what her work entailed, in the psychic burden it would seem to represent. They sat outside at a metal table so Josh could smoke. Sounds of traffic passing. Her iced coffee was sweating.
“But what do you do?” Ezra had asked. “Like, if you don’t have space for the remains?”
“We’ve got a refrigerated truck for temporary storage now. Some of the remains are pretty old, too. Like skeletal. Not like the migrants you found. So it’s even harder, because we have to try tracking missing persons reports from ten, fifteen years ago. There’s usually not much we can connect, in terms of what we can know about the bodies and what people say in the missing persons report. If there even is a missing persons report.”
“Do you know if anyone filed a report for the people we found?”
“Not yet. But that’s the thing: we don’t have any kind of database that connects the missing persons with the discovered remains. Basically that’s what I spend my time doing: looking at reports we’ve collected or from immigrants’ rights organizations. We really need a better system to connect the lost with the found.”
Gradually, their conversation moved on to her grad student life in Tucson, which allowed Josh to talk about his own experience there. Ezra asked if there was anyway she could let him know if they did ever discover who those people were, if they ever found their families. He gave her his contact info. Josh gave her his, too, and mentioned he and his brother were in town working on a film and had lots of down time, if she ever knew of anything going on.
The next night she texted him that she and some friends were going to The Shelter, a bar-as-time-capsule meant to feel like it was frozen in the 1960s against a nuclear threat, portraits of JFK all over. Good martinis. Josh held court at a round table with two couples and three single friends, including Michelle, asking them all about their graduate research, their classes, annotating their answers with his own imagined expertise; he talked about his film, with the mission to convince them all to convert completely to his vision of the project, a still nameless short film that would hopefully one day become the next Bottle Rocket or Hard Eight.
They drank, there was music, he started talking to a slim brunette named Diana whose boyfriend got increasingly jealous and drunk until the point where he confronted her, took her aside while Josh ordered a fresh martini and another Bell’s Two Hearted for her, which confrontation Josh could see from down by the bar where he talked to Michelle whose responses were curt and whose whole personality seemed to have changed, and by the time he got back to the table Diana was obviously upset but he didn’t mention it. Eventually she said the boyfriend had left and that he was her ride. Josh offered to drive her home, and it seemed the rest of the group of friends was headed out or already gone, so he drove while Diana talked about the way her relationship had become stale. At her house, she invited him in—her roommate was out of town, she mentioned, because the roommate’s fiancé was home on leave from Iraq, and they were both in Prescott. They took glasses of wine and climbed onto the roof. In Tucson, at night, the stars were impossibly close, like Josh and Diana were looking up at or down onto the lights of some city, some other world across the void. They started kissing there, his arm around her shoulders under the woven Native American blanket they’d brought up and pulled on like a shawl.
Before the sun was up, the street bathed in blue light, an artificial haze, Josh gathered his clothes from her floor, half dressed in her living room, and slipped the door into the jam behind him so carefully he didn’t make a sound. The city was silent. The street, in the blue light of predawn felt timeless, out of time, as if he were between moments, neither past nor future, hovering in an endless present like a hummingbird—its static frantic unmoving motion. His shirt still unbuttoned, holding his black Jordans, he lit a cigarette at the curb and held this moment close.
The film’s ending began with a closeup on Josh’s face, which gradually pulled back (they used the crane to raise the camera as they widened its angle, a la Once Upon a Time in the West’s final duel) to show his body—shirt still unbuttoned, his feet still bare—set in the center of this circle of death. The camera panned high and out until the ring of the real dead, now part of the film, was clearly visible, as if it were a landmark carved into the desert. This static shot, at the crane’s full height, lasted a full minute. Ezra would build up to this single shot with its slow movement from Josh out to the vast setting that he was now forever lost in with the closeups Ben shot, ala Leone, of each of the migrants’ faces, all the men and women with no names. It was exploitative and yet elegiac, something like death masks for these otherwise soon-to-be-incinerated bodies, preserving them, recording them for history, the fiction and the reality overlapping.
The moon and stars are in their heaven and all the motions of the earth are as they’ve always been and always will be and the night arises slowly, peaking like a lit stage across the world as seen from the top of the tower, and the moon’s cold light illumines the edges and outlines of stone; Cortés stands here, and not far from him, Moctezuma. Right now, there is no one else. Cortés must know as he stands here that he is situated on an almost unnamable border, the intersection of so many things it is impossible to say.
When Moctezuma awakes in the morning, the sky is red and the heat wafting up out of the earth at his feet does not shake the shroud of cold.
The world for weeks has not been right. The world is a ball of facts and beliefs all spun together and hung from some unachievable height, and these facts and beliefs are no longer coherent. Moctezuma’s feet are unusually coarse, as he sits, looking down at the iron-rich red soil—his right foot has a cruel blister on the heel, his left foot is red and raw and sore. He has been walking this small room for days, walking and walking, moving around in the space left to him, since what else has he left? Some part of him may believe that staying in motion like this is the way to prevent atrophy; he may move from fear, or from anger; he walks, whatever the reason, and does not stop.
The coming of night cannot be prevented, the darkness a part of the cycle of the day. The movement of time from one day to the next, the movement of time from year to year, these things are not for men to stop. Moctezuma knows there is something moving here in this small cell besides his poor feet; he knows that the world is at this very moment moving and that it is doing so no matter what he does. He rules the greatest nation in the world, a people whose empire spreads across an area so vast it would take years, whole histories to touch every part of it, to put one’s feet heel-to-toe across every inch of it. But, as he walks back and forth endlessly in his cage, he knows no matter how big or how small a man’s empire, all succumbs to time, in time. There is nothing to stop the coming of the future, the disappearance of the past. He walks another turn. What is there left to do? There is nothing left to do. He cannot change time, he cannot stop the passage of this Cortés, the changing fortunes of his people, his history, his empire, his Mexico. Soon, he knows, he will have to choose how to meet his own end. Will he try to escape, to fight against time itself and the coming of the future? Should he let himself be quietly buried in the past, as the new world is born? He is strong, his people are strong. Is there any greater honor in dying in battle, really, than in living in quiet peace, even if under the sway of whatever the future brings? If he is powerless to change the future, to control his own fortunes, shouldn’t he be willing to accept what comes, to survive by being adaptable to the vicissitudes, the constant change, the endless motions of time? Time moves, still, but he is already forgotten, forgetting himself.
The house in the foothills was built into a high bluff like tiered gardens, rectangles stacked on rectangles: an open room with a high bar and pool table, the wide hallway, the sunken living room beneath that, and beyond it the stone balcony, its castellated parapet calling to mind a medieval fortress. Josh found Ezra there, leaning on the low stone wall. Josh clapped him on the back, then lit a cigarette. They stood in silence for a time, looking down at the distant grid of lights and the dark impressions of the distant mountains on the indigo sky.
“Any luck?” Josh asked.
“No.” Ezra continued to stare straight ahead. “You?”
They were silent again. “Do you think, out there today. Do you think that was like cartel killing?”
“The deputy said there were no signs of trauma.”
“But what the fuck, the way they were laid there.”
The rhythmic lights of a Southwest redeye rose across the sky from right to left.
“It’s fucking with me. It’s fucking with you, too, right?”
Ezra’s face tightened but he didn’t answer. From this high ledge, Tucson looked much farther away than it had seemed driving up here. Far off to the south, large dark clouds hung low to the ground; it was a dust storm. Soon, a mile-high wall of churning dirt would sweep over the city and block out the lights below, coating everything with a thin gray film.
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Michael Sheehan teaches creative writing at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is a former Editor-in-Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His work has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, and elsewhere.
This story is related to my MFA thesis, a novel set in part in the Sonoran Desert. Researching that novel, I volunteered filling water stations in the desert. At this location, along with two other volunteers I found a man who had died of hyperthermia. We found nothing to identify him, but I've since learned his name and age. This story does not explore or at all convey his life, his experiences, his death—although it might touch upon my own fear of taking rather than telling someone else’s story. But I dedicate the effort to him.