The Way Back
by Owen Zabel
Did you ever return from a vacation and wonder if you should have just stayed there?
I don’t need to tell you any of this. I’m telling it to myself, really. Don’t need to do that either. And I don’t have to explain. Don’t waste your time trying to find a reason.
Tuesday was cold and windy. A perfect winter day to go out by myself with my beer and cigarettes. Gray sky always makes me want to do those same old hikes. The same steep, rocky paths around cactus and piñon trees, past the abandoned campsites in the junipers. To sit on the same rocks, staring down at the same views. I never get tired of it, the slow release, putting distance between myself and other people. I want to live without another soul around for a thousand miles.
I’ve always lived by myself, but that’s not enough. There’s always a voice somewhere, “bla bla bla”. There’s always a car engine, a rattling trash can. Like rats in the ceiling, sure, they’re not right next to you but they’re still too close. Only by going out on foot, out beyond the roads, out beyond the last rich peoples’ houses, out beyond the last row of telephone poles, only then can you feel like you’re not surrounded. Mental elbow room. No bipeds. Peer in every direction. Startle a pair of coyotes. Sit on a rock.
On this day I drove to the big fields by the weedy tennis courts, up by the abandoned school on the hill. I parked my crumbling Plymouth Valiant by the crumbly curb. I was going to set out on a hike right away, but the steady, gusting wind made me think of the kite I had in the trunk. Why not? Why not fly a kite? I got it out and put it together. It was one of those cheap kites, the triangular plastic ones. Its yellow wings had been bundled up for so long that thick grime now clung in the folds and creases. The trunk of my car is not a clean place.
“You are one sorry looking kite,” I said. Don’t worry, I always talk to inanimate objects. Keeps me from talking to myself. “Let’s see how long you can fly before you fall to pieces.” I walked over to the splintery, listing picnic table and put down my beer-laden backpack. The beer in my hand was ice cold. My fingers were freezing. I pulled my shirt cuffs down to cover my hands.
The kite string was not in much better shape than the kite. It was a fat, sickly bundle, festooned with knots and twigs, lint and little chunks of gunk, all wrapped around a wooden surveyor’s stake. I tied it on and started letting the kite out. Immediately it began to take off. It veered from side to side at first, almost diving into the ground, but as I let out more string it straightened up and began to soar. I was surprised. It had looked so dilapidated. The kite string was comically knotted and ratty looking. As I let it out there were occasional tangles dangling from it, and even a sizable twig.
The wind was strong. I could hear the plastic wings rippling against the stiff breeze. It looked magical, a crummy yellow kite against a slate gray winter sky. I swallowed some more cheap, metallic beer and lit a cigarette, standing on the kite string while I shielded my lighter from the wind. I added a few puffs from a stinky, half smoked joint as well, just to put the edge of paranoia on my chemical stew. Naturally I had to drink some more beer to take the edge off again.
I let more string out. And more. There was lots of it. I let the bundled stake dance on the ground as the string whizzed through my fingers. The wind was so strong that the kite just kept going up. Finally I was at the end, which luckily was tied to the stake. I held it loosely and let my arm go limp. The wind gently lifted my dead arm and let it fall again. The line went out almost horizontal to the ground before it gradually curved upward toward the kite, which was now just a tiny triangle above the hills.
The sky grew darker and the wind picked up. Pellets of light, dry snow began to shoot down. I wondered if the old string would hold- amazing that it hadn’t broken yet.
The snow abruptly ceased, and the wind died, as if someone had thrown a switch. The line began to sag. Soon it was draped over a fence at the edge of the field, and I could see that the kite was losing altitude. With a curse I began reeling in the string, wrapping it around the stick as fast as I could. I tried holding my beer in the crook of my arm but it kept sloshing on my jacket, so I placed it gently on the ground. The kite kept falling. I started winding the string around my forearm, in big loops, but before I could make any progress a snag got caught in the fence at the edge of the field. When I tried to tug it free the string broke and fell limply out of sight into the dry sandy bed of the arroyo. I watched as the kite sank feebly beyond the foothills.
“Bye bye, kite.” I finished my beer, popped another and stared into the sky, not really thinking. The clouds were stretched out, a gray watercolor palette washing down into the horizon. I stood like a pole, planted in the ground, idly wondering which trail I should set out on. Or maybe I should try to retrieve the kite. It wouldn’t be that hard to find, if I wanted to. It was just an old piece of junk, but I had nothing better to do. I zipped up my backpack and headed down into the arroyo.
It took some looking, but I finally found the string. It was kind of fun, following it through the thick undergrowth down in the arroyo, over a couple of rusty barbed wire fences, as it draped from one piñon tree to another. It was tangled in the salt cedar rushes in the few places where water sometimes flowed. I decided not to save the string, just to follow it.
Soon I had company. A scraggly little black dog was galloping up behind me. I could see she was friendly, and had recently been nursing a litter. She wagged her tail as I knelt to pet her ears. Then she suddenly leaned in and licked my face, her tongue slapping between my lips.
“Bleah!” I spit on the ground. “I Frenched a strange dog.” I washed out my mouth with beer. She grinned and kept wiggling her rear end, whipping her flea-bitten tail back and forth. “Okay, Frenchy, you keep a lookout for rabbits.” I resumed following the line as the dog trotted merrily ahead.
The string kept going and going. I hadn’t thought it was so far. Frenchie led the way, as if she were following the string too. I just kept plodding along, drinking my beer. Finally I stopped and sat on a rock to smoke a cigarette. Frenchie lay at my feet and eyed me piteously. I wished I had something she could eat. She didn’t want any beer. I smoked some more stinky pot, until a big blob of resin stuck to my lip. A few pellets of very dry snow began falling again, then stopped just as abruptly.
I looked around, trying to get my bearings. The terrain was getting rougher. The kite had landed somewhere in the hills, up in the rocky pinnacles and cacti. There were steep gullies to cross, often where you’d least expect them. This was nowhere near any of the trails I’d hiked so many times before.
I got up and resumed my trek. Man, I was buzzed. I was slack-jawed, drooling, dizzy, stumbling along. “String… follow… string…” When the string went into a cave I didn’t even hesitate. I just shuffled on in, tripping out on the acoustics. It wasn’t very dark in there, and I could soon see that it wasn’t really a cave but a tunnel. The light at the other end was bright and beckoning. My mind was in neutral. I just kept follering that ol’ string.
Only when I emerged from the tunnel did I begin to think something strange was going on. How did the string… Why would the kite… How did the wind… I looked around, blinking. It was a bright, sunny day. And the sky- it was brilliantly colored, shining like an upside-down sea of rainbow crystals. I stared upward. Was it already sunset? High, narrow clouds stretched to the horizon, fanned out like palm fronds edged with silver. Frenchy ran ahead, barking and twisting in circles. She ran back briefly to me as if to say “Come on!”
The string went down a hillside into an area I was completely unfamiliar with. It couldn’t be- I knew all these hills like the back of my hand. I was off the trail, sure, but still… I tried to get my bearings. Where was I? Where was I supposed to be? It was like a dream where you’re sure you’ve forgotten something important. I stumbled down the rocky slope, following the string in a daze.
Finally I came across a good sitting rock, and sat. I popped open a beer and drank. It was still cold, and it tasted especially good, not the usual cheap, tinny flavor. I looked at the can. The brand seemed vaguely unfamiliar. I couldn’t quite read what it said.
A little horny toad was staring at me. It sat perfectly still, on a red rock, regarding me with those curiously knowing eyes. I reached out and gently stroked its back. It squinted at me. It was incredibly beautiful: the pebbled colors on its back were so vibrant, yet they blended in perfectly with the rocky soil. Then I turned around saw a much bigger horny toad.
This one was the size of a manhole cover. It had the most hypnotic dark gaze… For a long time I cold only stare at those eyes, without thinking, which is just as well because if I could have I would have thought that this was an absurdly huge horny toad. And then it spoke.
“I would appreciate it, sir, if you would not fondle my children.” Her mouth didn’t move. Telepathy? The voice was like the eyes- soft, deep, mesmerizing.
I stuttered something. The little horny toad scampered up onto its mother’s back and she crawled off into the trees. I stared at the spot where she’d been.
I stood up. How long had I been sitting there? I felt dizzy. I stared at the sky. It was a churning mixture of jewel-like colors. I knew I wasn’t dreaming, but somehow I didn’t care. I continued to follow the string.
After a while I began to find things tied to it: a toy boat with a disturbingly lifelike figurehead of a naked woman, a little orange biplane that vibrated in my hand and flew away when I untied it, a metallic green plastic soldier whose eyes followed me… The string continued on and on, from bush to tree to rock.
The sky grew gold and crimson as different patches of shard-like clouds shimmered in the fading light. A full moon rose behind me and lit half of everything with a lustrous blue glow. Stars swirled and danced like a million shiny minnows. Planets waltzed across the heavens, looping each other, racing and flirting.
Frenchy was the only thing that remained pretty much the same. She kept by my side or slightly ahead of me. I patted her for reassurance every once in a while, more for my sake than hers. The line now looked like a blue thread of light under the enormous, staring moon. I followed it, for how long I don’t know, until suddenly it split and went in two directions. There was no knot or tangle, just a perfect split. I shrugged and followed one, but Frenchy insisted I follow the other. After that, when the line split several more times, I let Frenchy lead the way. “Mush”. She barked and ran ahead. “Go, dog, go.”
Eventually we came to a field of bright flowers that appeared to be made of crystal. They sparkled in every color imaginable, which was odd since everything else in the landscape was blue in the moonlight. Then I heard the familiar sound of the kite, rippling in the wind.
I peered into the sky and there it was, about fifty yards up. It ducked and curled in the breeze, although I couldn’t feel any wind at all. The line was tangled in some flowers and thorny, dark brambles that held it firmly as the kite tugged and swooped back and forth.
As I began to pull on the line I thought I heard a voice. I looked down at Frenchy. “You hear something?” She looked at me expectantly. I continued to reel in the string.
I stopped. The voice had come from the kite. I drew it in more slowly.
It was a tiny child’s voice. I could see the faint outline of a baby against the kite, its eyes sparkling as it regarded me. Why was a baby attached to the kite? I pulled it a little closer, and stopped.
I let go of the string and ran back the way I’d come. I heard the baby crying as the kite drifted back up into the stars. Its little sobs were like a nail being pulled from a stubborn plank.
The cries faded as I ran and stumbled through the trees, their branches swiping at my face, wrists and ankles. I ran slower and slower, my momentum decreasing. I pushed my legs to move faster, but they felt heavy as cement. I tried to lean forward, but it was as if I were slogging through knee-deep peanut butter. Finally I was almost at a dead stop, just trying to push one foot forward, a few inches at a time.
I gave up, exhausted, and slowly fell to the ground, collapsing in surrender. I pulled my knees up and closed my eyes. Maybe I would wake up in the real world again.
I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there, tucked up like an egg. The grass tickled my face. Dancing water sounds played in my ears. Colors flashed in front of my eyes, in the sparkly dew drops. Then Frenchy started licking me under the chin. I had to get up.
The night was still and cool. I sat on a flat, black rock and drank another beer. Then I shuffled off to the bushes for a long overdue pee. Clouds of mist rose from the golden arch. A little green snake writhed out from under the warm stream, stuck its tongue out at me, and slithered off somewhere.
Frenchy began going out toward the kite again, obviously hoping I would follow. I turned and began to walk the other way. I thought maybe if I just walked slowly and casually I wouldn’t meet that wall of resistance. I was wrong. Right away I felt as if I were wading in tar. I sighed, turned, and followed Frenchy. Now I could walk normally again.
Soon we were back in the impossibly colorful flowers, and I could hear the kite fluttering. I began to reel it in.
I saw the baby’s silhouette against the plastic kite wings and I felt a chill, but I kept pulling. I ignored the voice as I methodically piled up the string at my feet. Soon I held the kite in front of me.
It was a big, hollow plastic baby, tied loosely to the kite with loops of string. The kite line was attached to a little chain that went into the doll’s chest. I pulled the chain.
It appeared for the most part to be a normal toy doll, with a round area of little holes in its chest from which the recorded voice came. But its eyes were some kind of crystal that sparkled so brightly I had to squint to look at them. Another odd thing was the teeth. I touched them with my finger- they appeared to be real teeth. They felt like they were in a real mouth, with real gums. While I probed in the baby’s tiny mouth I could have sworn that its eyes were regarding me, like a teacher waiting for an answer from a pupil.
I looked at Frenchy. “Now what?”
An impossibly deep and vibrant sunrise was approaching. Apricot clouds writhed and tumbled on the horizon. I dropped the doll in the grass. I picked up the kite, collapsed it and rolled it up. “That’s it. I’ve got my kite.”
I headed off along the string, fearful that I would hit the invisible wall again. I really wanted to go back now. I still felt woozy, and I had no idea where I was. The brightening landscape did not look any more familiar in the approaching dawn. I hiked at a brisk pace.
The string went along like I’d remembered it, except that there were a few different things tied to it that I hadn’t seen before. I hurried on, not even pausing to look. I climbed the hill and entered the cave. I pushed into the darkness until I could see the light of the other side. I felt a cold breeze. I paused and looked back.
Frenchy had stopped at the entrance, silhouetted against that dazzling, jeweled sky. The doll sat astride her, its eyes sparkling.
I turned and pushed on further into the tunnel. I felt a grittiness under my shoes, a heaviness in the air, the banal, cold atmosphere… Where was I? It felt real again. Was I just waking up?
I looked back and could barely make out a small speck of light. Frenchie hadn’t followed me. I turned away and pushed toward the cold, gray opening in front of me, until I emerged into a blustery snowfall. I shuffled down the steep hillside, slipping a little here and there, holding on to tree branches when I could. I went up one hill and down another. I pulled my collar up against the icy wind.
Then I stopped and stood motionless. What was I doing? Why had I returned? I looked back the way I’d come, but the snow stung my eyes. I turned and tried to go back to the cave. I hurried, following the string, my boots slipping on the snow-dusted rocks. It was further than I thought. I scrambled along as fast as I could. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I was going to stay longer this time.
But the string just went between two boulders and then ended abruptly. I stumbled around the mountainside, trying to find the way back, trying to find the cave, trying to find where the string continued. And yet I knew right away, I’d already known in that first moment when I’d stopped and turned around, that I’d never find the cave again.
But that didn’t keep me from trying. For months afterward, I was up there every week or two, calling for Frenchie. I tried the kite too, on snowy, blustery days. When people passed by, they looked at me funny.
Sometimes it’s a mistake to come back.