Bits of dried up sage scrub, dust, and the screams of dying men all come swirling together in the evening breeze. Sarah Lee is on her way home from fifth grade. As she passes by the Western Gold Real Authentic Western Saloon she sees old Mr. Jaspers die. The bullet takes him square in the chest as he keels over backwards and crumples into the dirt of Main Street, a glorious plume of sloshy crimson blood fountaining from his chest. The Saloon Girls gasp with perfect surprise, making the bright red feathers pinned into their hair wiggle suggestively. The shooter casually blows away the wisps of smoke coiling out of the barrel before holstering his revolver and turning to face the crowd with a manly grimace plastered onto his face.
“An’ he had it a comin’ to him, I tell ya. One less varmint in town, an’ good riddance too.”
Wild applause from the crowd as sunburnt tourists rush forward to get their pictures taken with the hero. Some teenage boys slink towards the window to get a better glimpse of the Saloon Girls, but unfortunately for them this is not Nevada.
It’s just another normal day in Tombstone, Arizona.
Tombstone is a town built on the bones of dead men and the legends they left behind. Men in their grave a hundred years stalk the streets, calling out challenges to their gun-slinging rivals to meet them at the town hall at high noon or be called a yellow-bellied milk-drinker. Tourist money keeps the storytelling alive, keeps Mr. Jaspers rolling in the dust day after day. And Mr. Jaspers’ stories are what draw Sarah Lee to the Saloon.
Now let me tell you a bit about this young lady.
You see, Sarah Lee knows something. She knows something way down inside her stomach. It’s an idea like a tapeworm: it gets into you real quick and quiet like, and then it grows and starts eating out your guts from the inside until you just can’t ignore it no more. Except ideas won’t kill you. Most of the time.
Sarah Lee has a tapeworm idea eating at her from the inside out and this is what it is: Magic is real. None of this rabbit in a hat bullshit. None of this Harry Potter namby pamby wandy-wavey crap. No. Sarah Lee knows, with the unshakeable certainty only someone who hasn’t been on the planet longer than eleven years can have, that Real Deal Magic (with a capital M) is totally real. Really.
Sarah Lee can see things other people can’t, things that have no explanation but Magic, things like dew drops turning to gold as the sun rises behind a spider’s web, or boulders carved into shapes fit for some museum of modern art by nothing but wind and rain. Thing is, most people just look at these things. Only some of us see them (lucky bastards). And boy does Sarah Lee have her eyes full.
Sarah Lee goes over to Mr. Jaspers, who has dutifully stayed dead for the last minute or so. No one comes and asks him for a picture as he stands up and dusts himself off. He winces a bit as he stretches out his back, and when he takes off his Stetson to punch it back into shape his poorly fitted toupee goes all slant wise and crooked.
“What d’ya want today Sarah Lee?”
“Aw you remember Mr. Jaspers, I know you do.”
“I didn’t make no promises about nothin’ and I don’t feel like tellin’ no stories right now so you just go and get yourself back to yer ma and pa.”
Sarah Lee looks up at Mr. Jaspers with big glisteny fifth grader eyes and pouts something royal. Mr. Jaspers, stretched out to his full height, scowls down at her. Sarah Lee’s eyes keep getting bigger and more glisteny until they just about meet at the bridge of her nose.
“Goddamit girl how you do that with those eyes of yours! You quit that now.”
“Only if you tell me my story.”
Mr. Jaspers gave an assortment of under-the-breath mumblings and grumblings.
“Thank you Mr. Jaspers,” said Sarah Lee with an innocent and syrupy smile.
“You go on and get yerself in the bar and I’ll be in in a minute.”
Sarah Lee walks into the Western Gold Real Authentic Western Saloon. The Saloon Girls coo and flap over to their favorite and only eleven year old patron, moving en masse like a flock of slightly over the hill pigeons. Except these pigeons wear fishnet stockings with runs in them. Sarah Lee dutifully endures the attention.
“Hi Sarah darlin’! How was school?”
“Hi Henrietta, Louisa, Regina, Angelica, Leanna, Brian. School was just fine ‘cept I had to punch Robby Jenkins in the mouth on account of he tried to steal Betty’s cookies at lunch.”
“Oh I hope you didn’t hurt him too bad Sarah Lee. That ain’t no way for a young lady to behave and you oughta know that,” the Saloon Pigeons coo in unison.
“Well I ain’t no young lady, I haven’t even hit puberty yet and everyone knows I ain’t gonna be bigger and stronger than the boys for long so I might as well take advantage of it while I’m a few inches taller than ‘em.”
I guess you could call Sarah Lee the precocious type.
Mr. Jaspers walks back into the bar and goes behind the counter. He whips up a Shirley Temple, on the rocks, extra grenadine and not one, not two, but three maraschino cherries on top. As Sarah Lee scrambles up onto a bar stool that leaves her legs dangling two feet above the ground Mr. Jaspers slams the drink down onto the grimy oak countertop. Sarah Lee grasps it and takes a long swig.
“Ahhh… you do know how I like my liquor Mr. Jaspers.”
“Child, we both know there ain’t nothing but ginger ale in that.”
“Whatever. Tell me my story.”
Mr. Jaspers looks Sarah Lee dead in the eye.
“Alright, you asked for it and you gonna get it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. This here is the story of Chief Cochise, one of the greatest Apache warriors ever to roam hereabouts. And one of the only men to go to the Tombstone and come back alive.”
Once upon a time in the Dragoon Mountains lived Cochise, chief of the Apache, and his band of warriors. It was a hard time for the Apache. The white men had driven them from their homes, slaughtered their families, taken their lands. Now they lived in the mountains, hiding, making forays to raid and harry the settlers, soldiers, and cowboys who were trying to take Apache lands. The Dragoons are just a couple of miles outside of Tombstone, but back in those days there wasn’t any sorta road and a man could wander in there ‘til he lay down and died for thirst. If something else didn’t get him first, that is.
Cochise and his men were hard pressed. They were brave, and strong, and knew the country better than any white man did, but still they were losing. Cochise needed something to turn the tide. He needed a weapon, a power, something big. What he found was the Tombstone.
You ever wonder why we call this town Tombstone? It ain’t on account of all the dead men though Lord knows we got plenty of them. Deep in the Dragoons lies the Tombstone: a massive slab of granite shaped like something you’d see in a cemetery, soaring up into the sky with roots planted deep in the Arizona soil. Some say its God’s own work, the headstone he done put over the entrance to Hell after sealing off Satan. Others say it was from the hand of Satan instead, a gate to his kingdom of damnation and fire. Still others say its just there and who gives a damn where it came from. But everyone agreed on this much: surely there was something right uncanny about that big ol’ rock.
Cochise was desperate. Supplies were running out, he was losing warriors by the day, and the white men kept surging on like locusts. One day he held a war council, and by that time all of his men were desperate enough that when he proposed to go the Tombstone and see if he could make some sorta deal with whatever it was that dwelt there, no one objected.
“Wait a second Mr. Jaspers. What sort of Magic are we talkin’ about here? It could be something all God-y, like divine, you know? Or like some sorta Elemental stuff, like, from the stone, or maybe it’s just a bunch of spir… “
“WILL YOU SHUT UP GIRL IMA TELLIN’ MY STORY!”
Anyway, where was I… Oh yes, Cochise done and went up to the Tombstone itself. And what he found there, well girl… it’s a mystery to this day.
The Dragoons are like a maze but Cochise knew every twist and turn in the granite. He scrambled over boulders, through scrub and brush, climbed up the domes and back down the other side and before long he was standing at the base of the Tombstone. My, how it soared up in front of him! Straight as a ruler and smooth as glass, so different from the knobby, rough granite that makes up most of the Dragoons. Cochise walked up to the base and put his palms flat on the rock, feeling the texture, the grain of the stone. He put his forehead down onto the wall and whispered:
“I don’t know what this place is, or if all the rumors are just old wives’ tales, but I sorely need aid right now. My people are being killed, cut down every day, and I have not the power to stop it. Help me!”
Nothing happened. The rock was as still as a pond. Cochise stepped back and stared upwards. Giving out a strangled yell of rage and frustration he slammed his fists down onto the Tombstone, beating it once, twice, three times… and suddenly his hands were stuck on the stone, glued fast by some force he couldn’t fathom. And then something began sucking him in. His hands disappeared up to the wrists, the elbows, the shoulders. Cochise arched backwards, trying desperately to keep his head from the stone but it could not be helped. Cochise was gone, sucked right into the belly of the Tombstone, and weren’t nothin’ left but some scrabbly footprints in the sandy soil.
Mr. Jaspers paused to light a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and then blew the smoke out in a plume above Sarah Lee’s head. She began to cough. Mr. Jaspers looked down at her and a smile crinkled the lines around his eyes as took in the sight of Sarah Lee trying oh so hard to sit patiently for the rest of the story.
Anyway, Cochise did make it out. No one knows how, or what happened inside there, but everyone knows what happened next. For a year and a day it seemed like the Apache just couldn’t be touched. Bullets flying true went all awry, tracks that seemed to lead straight to some hideout disappeared in a sudden wind, dogs that had the scent a moment before rounded on their handlers and refused to go a step further… yessir, for a year and a day Cochise was winning the war.
And then, all of a sudden, the blessed days came to an end. Once again Cochise was beaten back and after years of struggle he had no choice but to surrender. Poor old Cochise, proud and mighty though he was he lived out the rest of his days on a rez just like so many of his kin. And to this day, no one knows what happened deep in the heart of the Tombstone…
“And that’s the end.”
“Mr. Jaspers you gotta be kiddin’ me! You done spun all that long yarn and you won’t even tell me what the damned hell happened in there?!?”
“Now child you know better than to curse or those Pigeons gonna be a’ cooin’ all over you any moment now. You asked for a story and I done told you one, ain’t my fault if no one knows what happened in the Tombstone, old Cochise never said nothin’ and he took that secret to his grave. Maybe it was that nothin’ ever happened and Cochise was just spinnin’ lies, maybe someone else made it up, I just heard it one night here at the bar and so I told it to you again.”
Sarah Lee revved up her death glare (and trust me, you do not want to be on the receiving end of it).
“Well how am I supposed to be satisfied with that! Ain’t no one believe me when I tell ‘em all the Magic I see everyday, they say science this and logical explanation that and they just don’t see Mr. Jaspers and now you go here gettin’ my hopes up on some Real Proper MAGIC and now you say there ain’t nothin’ to it at all?”
“Aw come now child, maybe something’s out there after all. The Tombstone ain’t gone nowhere, it’s still the same as ever, uncanny straight and smooth as a chalkboard, that at least is God’s own truth.”
Sarah Lee’s look was sharp enough to cut supper with. The Saloon Pigeons fluttered over and cooed and preened at her hair until she calmed down a bit.
“Mr. Jaspers, why you made Sarah Lee so angry now?” they warbled.
“Oh she’s all right, just wants there to be a bit of Magic in the world and Lord knows I felt that way when I was her age too…”
All of a sudden Sarah Lee hopped up off the stool and stomped over to the door.
“If that’s the way you’re gonna end your stories, Mr. Jaspers, I think I’ll find somewhere else to have my Shirley Temples. I’m going home.”
With much gusto Sarah Lee pushed open the swinging double doors and strode out into the street. And it would’ve been a right dignified exit too, if she hadn’t tripped on the lintel on the way out. Mr. Jaspers stroked his greying moustache and chuckled.
“Don’t you know I got a soft spot for that child.”
“You say that, but I don’t see her lookin’ none too happy right now.”
“Aw, I’ll make it up to her. Maybe it’s time I took another trip out to the Tombstone.”
Magic. What a thought in this day and age. Everything has to be so real now, and serious like. Our lives must have productive value, our time must be efficiently spent. Our stories must be mature and subtle, our humor intellectual. Everything has to have a point, has to be explained and rationalized. Wide-eyed, unquestioning wonder, laughter or wackiness for its own sake – these things are out of fashion. We turn on some doohickey that beeps and buzzes and hops around and gives us everything we need in our well-ordered little lives and all of a sudden its like nothing else is there and we don’t even notice when the first flowers come up in Spring, like a big, beautiful Fuck You to Winter.
I knew a man once who told it to me straight: “Everything is Magic.” That’s what he said. He was a scientist, a research director for a big chemical corporation. He had split bonds and synthesized catalysts, made wonders with science. One day as we talked about his work he lit up a pocket lighter, put the flame to dancing in front of my eyes and said:
“You know what this is. A simple combustion reaction. Fire. You’ve got some carbon, some hydrogen, some oxygen, we’ve got chemical equations and numbers and books that explain exactly how this little bit of chemistry happens just so. We can count it in joules and calories, in lumens, in Celsius and Fahrenheit and Kelvin, we can harness it and use it, we can understand every little detail of how it works. But do you know what the truth is?”
I shook my head no, though deep down inside I’d always known the answer.
Sarah Lee tried to stay indignant the whole way over to the Dragoons, but it didn’t help that Mr. Jaspers chuckled every time he looked over at her riding shotgun in his battered old truck.
“You got on a look that could curdle milk. You really still so sore?”
Sarah Lee just stared out of the dusty window.
“Aw well, you’ll liven up soon enough.”
He was right, of course. Sarah Lee pretended to be in a stink but goddamnit who wouldn’t be excited! Mountains! Legends! Adventure! Etc., etc.
The truck pulled off onto an unmarked, unnamed dirt road at mile marker 135. Looming ahead in the morning light were the Dragoons, scores and scores of granite domes, some with awful, sheep-based pun names like the Ewephoria dome, or the Sheep Thrills dome (seriously – look it up). The granite was a soft beige color, gold or amber in the right light, with splashes of feisty neon-green lichen splattered about Pollack-esque. Scrub and sage crawled up the flanks of the domes until the bare rock beat them back, and here and there were drainages and runnels that came alive in the sudden Spring rains. The truck rumbled, jolting its riders every now and then as the road grew rocky and rutted. After another half hour or so Mr. Jaspers pulled into a patch of dirt below one of the domes.
“It’s a couple of miles in to the Tombstone. Ain’t too bad of a hike but we best get goin’, I don’t wanna miss my dinner on account of your short little legs slowing us up.”
Sarah Lee would’ve fired back some witty and age-inappropriate rebuke but she was way too stoked to begin the adventure. Vaulting out of the truck she dashed off into the desert with Mr. Jaspers striding long and easy behind her. They followed dried-up stream beds where hardy cottonwoods clung to life, navigated jumbled fields of house sized boulders perched precariously on narrow pedestals, squeezed their way through little slot canyons, scrambled up and down the rough granite domes and after a couple of hours made it to the base of the Tombstone.
Sarah Lee and Mr. Jaspers dropped their packs and went over to the rock face. Sarah Lee put out a hand and felt the surface. It was uncanny smooth, and straight as a born-again evangelical preacher. Sarah Lee pressed her cheek up against it and followed the line of the stone up to the sky three hundred feet above the base. It felt like something unnatural, like something made, shaped, placed where it would be out of place. It was beautiful though, there was no doubt about that, the creamy gold-beige color, the curvature and symmetry of the soaring face, the quiet and solitude of the desert.
“So, what d’you think?”
“I dunno Mr. Jaspers. It’s a mighty strange rock, and beautiful, no doubt. But I don’t feel nothin’ particularly Magical about it, ya know?”
Mr. Jaspers chuckled and ran his hand over the rock face again. Sarah Lee went on.
“I dunno how to describe it quite right. It’s like, right here, this is somethin’ special, and big and beautiful and outta the ordinary, but at the same time I feel like it don’t care about me none and it don’t care about much anything else neither. It’s just here. Just a rock. I don’t think no rock like this could’ve given Cochise any help at all…”
“ ‘Just here,’ you say… well ain’t we all. Mmm hmmm… well girl I’m going to the bushes for a minute, nature calls, you don’t move none and I’ll be right back.”
Before Sarah Lee could say anything Mr. Jaspers had disappeared into the cottonwoods. Sarah Lee stood alone at the base of the Tombstone and stared up at the face.
“I guess… it can’t hurt to just try.”
Going over to the Tombstone she put her palms down flat on it and placed her forehead on the rock.
“Um… if anyone, or, uh, anything is in there… could you uh, come out? Ain’t no one believe me when I say Magic is real and I would sore love to prove them wrong and show ‘em all how wonderful it really is…”
Nothing happened. Sarah Lee stepped away again and then all of a sudden slammed her little fists down once, twice, three times on the stone. And on the third time… nothing happened. Sarah Lee kicked the stone, hugged the stone, made nasty faces at the stone, promised the stone her first born child (not really), made threats, made offers, glared, grimaced, simpered… it didn’t matter. The rock was just a rock and there wasn’t a damn thing Sarah Lee could do about it. She sat down, closed her eyes, and put her head in her hands.
“I knew there was nothing to it… I knew it I knew it I knew it…”
Sarah Lee looked up again. And suddenly, amazingly… she was transported to a Magical World… Just kidding, actually nothing had changed. The rock was still the rock, the sky the sky, the trees green and dusty in the desert light. It was all the same.
And it was all Magic. Every little bit of it. The trees pumping up untold gallons of water, sucked out of the unforgiving desert dirt just to keep on living, the rock, forged in a furnace of lava and pressure, roiled and boiled and hammered into shape for eons, a work so mighty Hephaestus should weep at its feet, the sky, now blue, now grey, now purple orange pink and flamboyantly red in the sunset, a million atoms of air catching on fire… everything was Magic. The heart and lungs and organs, the blood, bones, muscles, everything working in perfect harmony to keep Sarah Lee alive, the mice with little glinting eyes, the insects, the proud hawks, the bacteria and protozoa, all the living things – just think for a second, living things. Not an empty, cold, vacuum of a planet, but a place flush with Life, with Magic, with wonder, joy, tragedy, with amazing little things that happen everyday and that only people like Sarah Lee can see… it was all there, right in front of her, right in front of all of us.
And so Sarah Lee understands: this is her – our – Magic world.
“See, it ain’t so bad after all.”
Mr. Jaspers had come back.
“How’d you know what I was thinking?”
“Magic,” said Mr. Jaspers with a wink. He went on:
“You were lookin’ to find Magic just so here at the Tombstone, something you could bottle up and take back to ma and pa and all your school friends. Tell me child, would that be worth much? If you could stick Magic in a box and squash it all up and show it off?”
Sarah Lee looked at Mr. Jaspers suspiciously.
“Who’re you really?”
“Aw, I’d say you wouldn’t believe me but you, Sarah Lee, might just… I think I’ll keep that to myself for now.”
Mr. Jaspers chuckled as he saw Sarah Lee rev up her death glare.
“Hush now child. We best be gettin’ back to the car or its gonna be dark soon.”
Sarah Lee stayed silent as they tramped back through the scrub and boulders and drainages. She stared out the window as they drove back down the bumpy road until finally the truck pulled up in front of the Western Gold Real Authentic Western Saloon. She gave perfunctory hugs as the Pigeons flocked around her. She let them herd her over to her customary bar stool and didn’t look up when Mr. Jaspers plopped down a Shirley Temple with not three but five maraschino cherries on top.
“Why’re you so down Sarah Lee?”
“You tricked me,” she said quietly.
“Maybe just a little.”
“Ain’t no one gonna believe me now.”
“Believe what Sarah Lee. Child, look at me.”
Sarah Lee slowly raised her head to look at Mr. Jaspers.
Listen: You believe. You see it, Sarah Lee, and that’s somethin’ grand. You see the Magic in every little thing and you’re gonna spread that truth all your days. Whatever you thought you were gonna find at the Tombstone, you got it all right here, you had it all before I ever told you that story.
None of this was said out loud, but Sarah Lee could hear Mr. Jaspers’ words in her head clear as a bell ringing in still air. She was quiet for a moment. She watched as a drop of water, clear as a gemstone, slid its way down her drink. She saw the afternoon sun slant in through the window, catching the dust motes suspended in the air, bringing twinkling stars into the grimy bar. She tasted the sweetness of the sugar as she sipped, savored the carbonation as it scoured her tongue. And out in the street she could hear the low wind, crooning, making the dust dance, sighing its song for those with ears to hear.
Sarah Lee hopped off her stool and went around the bar. She got over to Mr. Jaspers and hugged him. Pulling apart, Mr. Jaspers smiled at her, lines crinkling in the corners of his eyes, grey moustache rippling. He ruffled her hair, and taking the Stetson off his head he perched it on Sarah Lee’s, where it promptly fell down over her eyes.
“Get on home now child. You’re a special girl Sarah Lee. You take care of yourself.”
Sarah Lee took the hat off. Mr. Jaspers was gone, the bar as empty and silent as if he had never been there. She walked home in the twilight and when she slept she dreamed of granite domes, of ravines filled with cottonwood trees. She dreamed of blades of grass bowing and swaying in a breeze, of coals in a dying campfire glowing more brilliantly than any ruby ever could. She dreamed that the stars had disobeyed the Gods and descended from their celestial perches to come light up her bedroom, and when she woke up she saw that it was true: a million motes of dust, twinkling, brilliant in the morning light.
Image Source: Ben Rea “Mountains: Bridge and Rainbow Mountains at Red Rock Canyon” https://www.flickr.com/photos/ben_rea/