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I am a desert ecologist. I study the relationship between living and nonliving, more on how the living interacts with surrounding systems in a desert. I research on how life adapts to the severity of dangerous elements of arid environment. The dry moisture less vastness which occupies a fifth of the land fascinates me. As I wonder at the expansiveness of deserts, I scorn at majestic mountains surrounding it and block the rains to reach this the land mass.
I am in my third year of research in the prestigious national desert research center. Dave is the post doc in our lab. As soon as he joined the group we hit it on. Two like minded researchers working on same topic and in same lab, we soon became thick friends. And the two grad students Ted and Jay with whom I share the apartment were a funny duo. They are the students at Arizona state university and work in our lab. They have a funny bone and they are very open minded and friendly creatures.
Adrenalin driven we are always on lookout for adventure. Almost all weekends we are on some sort of expedition. Everybody in the lab call us crazy quarto.
Last summer four of us, the best buddies, were on desert expedition in Arizona’s Sonoran desert. Looking out for thrill and adventure we started on a voyage which turned out to be a life changing experience.
We told our folks at home that we were going on vacation to LA.
Our plan was to go to the desert on foot. An out and about outdoorsy adventure! To go off the road through the uninhibited, dangerous part of the desert and then take a turn and join the road to the rest area where water and shelter were available. We checked the maps and estimated it would be about ten miles before we hit any human habitat.
I took care of supplies; Dave was in charge of the route as he had been the best planner for all our past expeditions. Jay and Tom were taking care of the little things like keeping dairy and other logistics, car renting to and from, and the rooms before expedition etc. If not anything they were there to give moral support and to have a good time. We chose to start very early at Tucson, walk towards Mexico border and we were expecting that we would return back by mid night.
“Did you call your folks before leaving?” I asked Dave.
“Yep, I told them I cannot call them for the whole weekend and told them not to expect any from me.”
“I too” said Tom, But have you guys charged your phones fully? That was ever cautious Tom.
“Sure we did. But there won’t be any signal in that part of desert guys.” Mr ‘knows all’ smarty pants Jay was laughing.
“Wow what beautiful scenery, the stretch of golden sandy desert punctuated here and there by little gem like cactus.” I was being poetic.
It seemed like the Sunlight was reflecting from the tiny sand particles and looked cool from the sunglasses even as it was getting warmer and hotter by minutes.
“You know every year thousands of illegal migrants die in this area. I won’t be surprised if we come across a dead body or a skeleton.” Dave is always up to date with current news. There was a lot of talk on the immigration issue by politicians and general public.
“Yep, all that hardship they go through to get into the country. “ I felt sorry for them.
“What might be the temperature now?” I asked Jay.
He checked. “it is just nearing 95. Not that bad”
“Oh wait another half an hour it will soar up to 110”
“I bet it will.” I agreed.
As we walked we came across many odd things like a pair of jeans, a belt, plastic bag, and a comb: maybe it belonged to some unfortunate illegal who tried to sneak into US. We thought maybe we will see the corpse too. We all felt sorry for the unknown human.
I tried to distract everybody’s mind from being sad and to lighten up the conversation,
“So how is your hotty Davy?” I asked him.
Dave smiled, “Megan? She is doing great. She is submitting her thesis in August and she will be done.”
“What next, you guys have any future plans?”
“What plans? We have not thought of a date for the marriage. I am just evading that question. It is fun to remain a fiancée. Commitment without commitment. I am having lot of fun now. Why spoil it?” Dave laughed
“You dog. I am so jealous of you.” I punched him in shoulder.
“How about we take a small break?” Tom looked tired already.
“Sure.” We put down the gear we were carrying and took out the water carrier.
Though I was not thirsty in particular I took out my 2 liter coke bottle hanging from my backpack.
“Why is It is so light?” “NO water! I shook it. Nothing! I remember I filled it with ice-cold water. May be it was leaking. Yes it was broken at the bottom. All the water was gone. Not a single drop!
“Guys, did you see I have no water in my water canteen. Not a drop. Everything leaked out. How stupid of me” “I am going to share yours.”
Dave got up packed his things and closed his camel skin water canteen without saying a word.
“I don’t think so. I can’t share my water. I need it and it is rationed. “He started walking.
“Common guys,” I looked at Jay and Tom.
Everyone closed their canteens and started walking.
“Hey guys, I am thirsty. Give me some water. What is the matter with you?” I was demanding them.
“No buddy, we can’t share water. We have just enough for one person. We can’t give it to you.”
“You guys are kidding right? Four of us can share three people’s supply. That will be fine. Common, it is no big deal.” I was trying to rationalize.
“No, three will be enough for three. It is a big deal.” Jay said flatly.
I could not believe it.
My best buddies, the easy going, funny, broad minded friends denying to give a gulp of water to me?
They will change their mind in a minute.
We walked another fifteen minutes.
“Hey Tommy give me some water man. I just need a gulp.”
“Sorry buddy” Tom did not even turn towards me.
“Jay how about you my man, I need to drink some water please.”
“No, I need my water.” He answered curtly.
“Davy, Common please.”
“Mat, listen buddy. I don’t want to be rude. You are our best friend, but we just have enough for each of us for this journey. If we run out we cannot get water anywhere. We don’t want to die thirsty. Instead of all of us getting shortage we will let you go without water. “
“We are not selfish we are just cautious,” Tom added.
“What? You want to let me go without water? I will die guys, without water I will die.”
No one replied.
What’s happening? They would leave me to die? I could not believe it.
It was getting harder and harder. Sun was scorching and my lips and mouth were getting dry
I wetted my lips with my tongue.
“Hey Tom listen, you are always short on cash I will give you 100 bucks for a cup of water. I promise”
“Not a chance.”
“OK. A thousand bucks, guys anyone? Thousand bucks for a cup of water?” I was desperate
“Nope we don’t want to die for a thousand bucks. You cannot buy it.”
“You won’t die if you are short of a little water. I assure you. We will reach the rest area even before we run out of it. Please?”
“No we cannot take that chance.”
“Not even for your best friend’s life?” Now I was begging them.
“No not even for that.” Dave moved on.
“Guys, Think of you in my position.” I was pleading with them.
“We cannot be in your position we are not that stupid to go on desert expedition with no water.” Jay and Tom both laughed.
We were walking in silence. I had low energy and others were angry, as I was weighing them down.
“You want to rest Mat?” suddenly Dave asked me.
“Yes Sure. Give me some water.”
“You may rest. But we cannot give water and we also don’t want to get slow. You stay here and we will go ahead.” That was Dave’s plan: the expert planner he was.
“What? You guys want to leave me without water. Abandoning me in the desert, deserting me? Are you insane? “
“I don’t want to stay alone. I will come with you.”
“Whatever Suits you. Hey we will bring water for you in our return trip.” Jay was joking.
And Tom added “if you have not turned into a skeleton by that time.” Both laughed.
I was following them now at a distance.
I was far far behind.
“Guys” I shouted or tried to shout. I was not sure if my frantic call reached them or they acted as if they did not hear me.
They were gone.
Now my task at hand was to retain whatever moisture I had inside me.
I opened my shirt sleeves, covered myself fully, put on the broad brimmed hat, and closed my eyes, my fists.
“Now focus. You don’t need any water. You are OK.” Seconds passed. “I am OK.”
No, it was not OK. My tongue was getting dry and becoming thick.
I tried to get some moisture onto the tongue by pressing it against my jaws.
I laid my head on my backpack.
I felt my tongue going deep into my throat.
I closed my eyes.
My body, my skin, tissues, cells getting dried up, were crying for moisture.
It was as if all my blood turned into thick sticky gum unable to reach the cells.
Everything was switching off. I didn’t feel much. My mind was delusional, and eventually dried up, no pain, no want, no want of water.
I tore off my shirt, shoes, and hat. That was the last drop of energy I had. I didn’t sense anything. I was floating. I was like dead.
I do not know from where I got energy. I got up, “never say die,”
I ransacked my backpack. Took out all the food. Oh raisins, they have some moisture even if they were dry I put some into my mouth. I think the mouth and tongue need a bit of moisture to gulp the food. Raisins were struck in the throat. I made a big effort to push them in. Could not, I spat them out.
I took out the tent and other contents from the bag. I had to pitch the tent. To conserve the moisture from body from the killer heat. I fumbled and with much effort could pitch the tent. Got inside, having spent last droplet of energy I passed out again.
I was awake, then not, drifting on and off. I needed water. My brain was functioning. Sharp as a cactus needle. “Drink water, you have water.”
I peed into the cup; it was dark yellow, almost orange and was a burning liquid. I drank it. My senses were back. I felt the hot liquid and smell of urine.
Still it was water. I drank and again I was out. No brain, No pain. I passed out.
I was sure my friends would be back in few minutes. After all they are human. They were playing a prank. They won’t leave me there to die. I was looking and waiting. And waiting.
What all I did for these three. Professionally and privately. Helped them settle down in the lab, in new country, I took these two to all the places. Taught them driving. Drove to get driving license.
Dave? I thought he was my best buddy, helped him so much in his experiments in lab, I gave him so much support when he broke up with his girlfriend and was devastated. He could not handle it. I brought him out of depression. It was hurting me the most, like hell that he was not sharing a gulp of water in desert and left me to die.
I closed my eyes. I remembered their cunning faces. I laid there unconscious.
In my dream I saw three beasts with a face of rattlesnake and human body,
I shuddered and opened my eyes.
Then I felt something. Someone was pelting rocks at me. Why? What have I done?
But they were cold. My sense of touch was back. Cold and hard. Slowly in the beginning, faster and faster.
All around me, cold and hard. It was cold, I open my eyes. It was white everywhere. I lifted myself up. And took a rock and looked at it. It was melting away.
I put it in my sandy mouth, it melted away,
It was the water! The elixir of my life!
“Hail the lord!”
It was the hail as big as my fists all over the sandy desert around me.
I held it, ate it, drank it, the life liquid was reaching all the crevices of my body, wherever it could seep into. My blood was getting thinner and was flowing to all parts. I was fully awake and functioning. I held the ice, kissed it, drank it and rubbed my skin with it.
Now I theorized the relationship between ‘I’ the living thing with life giving nonliving water in the life taking desert. It was a perfect solution, fitted like a jigsaw into my hypothesis.
Before all melted and disintegrated into the desert sand, I ate it to my fill, filled my water bottle. Took out a plastic bag wrapped around the canteen tight.
Took out another plastic bag filled it with ice. Took out another and filled it. Ate some more.
I was on my way back to the uncivilized civilization.
Life was back to normal. All of us went on with our lives. Of course, needless to say every one sincerely apologized me for what happened in the desert.
And they were really happy that I was alive and I thanked the hailstorm.
Come fall, the much awaited international conference in Seattle was on, where all the big heads in the field of desert ecology meet and present papers and posters. I had a paper and Dave was presenting a poster. Jay and Tom talked the professor into approving for funding for them to tag along.
It was a festival for the brightest minds in the field. Exchange of knowledge and experience punctuated with lunches fit for kings, and we thoroughly enjoyed our trip.
Our presentations went well and overall the trip was superb. Dave’s poster was on how the flora and fauna survive in desert: on the lines of” Survival of the fittest.”
My paper was more on “adaptation” how animals and plants develop mechanisms and evolve: Like sharp thorns on the cactus and the ossified, scaled skins of the animal.
Something else also was ossified: it was in my soul. Frozen and dormant, invisible to the outer world.
We were leaving the next day early in the morning and we had a few hours in the evening for sightseeing.
“Hey fellows, let’s go boating?” Jay suggested.
“Of course yes, being in Seattle and not going for boat ride? It will be a shame if we don’t go.”
“Boys, we are going fishing.” Dave was whistling.
We rented the motor boat; it came with life jackets and floats. We picked some fish bait on the way just in case we find some fish.
On the boat we were chatting and caught a couple of fish.
“Hey are we going too far and too fast? I think we are not allowed into this part of lake. It is too dangerous. The water current is too high here.” I was being cautious.
Dave would not listen. “Sure we can go faster. Feel the thrill my boy.”
The boat was slicing the water as it moved with enormous speed. Wind and water was hitting our faces. “Watch out,” Suddenly we heard the “boom” the boat hit something big, a rock I think, and split into two.
I was where I was sitting on the stool on my half of the boat, and all three of them were in water.
I looked at them bewildered.
I saw that the floats and life jackets were hanging on my side of the boat.
I saw that Dave was struggling to swim; Jay and Tom were already drifting in the current unable to swim. The force of the water current was so high.
I felt my piece of boat shaking. I took a life jacket and put it on.
All I need to do was throw the floats and life jackets to my friends so that they can float.
But NO. I could not. I was incapable of doing it. I would not move.
My head was telling. “Toss the life jackets to them fast, or they will drown.”
My heart, Cold heart was shouting “NO, Not a chance.”
I was shivering with happiness and contentment.
Seeing them drowning in the water was giving me immense pleasure. The pathetic weasels, selfish rogues.
MY blood was boiling and the ugly flame of vengeance was dancing naked with outstretched arms of anger and tongue of violent mirth.
“Hey throw the float at us. Please fast, Jay was fumbling and trying to stand steady.”
“NO I am not throwing the floats. Because you are thirsty and you have to drink a lot of water.”
I wanted to jump out of the boat and swim to the shore in ice cold blissful water.
I don’t know if I heard them shouting “help please Matty, I am drowning, and I cannot swim. It is too hard, too deep.“ They were getting sucked into water.
I thought I did not hear them.
I stood on the boat laughing. Water, water, water everywhere. “Drink it to your fill.” I shouted.
I saw them going under water: almost drowning
Thank you god! Thank you! I shouted.
Then I was seeing the human beasts I saw in my desert dream.
”wait, I see four of them now.” The fourth was wearing my clothes I looked at it closely. It was I the ugly rattlesnake faced human.
“It cannot be, should not be. Won’t be.”
I woke up from trance as though born from dead. I felt water all around me. Water on My cheeks, they were wet. Tears streaming down my cheeks.
My tears were washing away the hatred and vengeance and were melting away the frozen anger, like ice melted away in that desert.
The embers covered in ashes were cold. The flame was put out, peace all over the place; I wiped my tears, pulled the floats and life-jackets and plunged into water. One by one I lifted their heads and slipped the life jacket and pulled them with the help if floats on to the broken piece of boat.
They looked at me with their eyes full of water. And they all looked so human.