For years I kept a length of salt-encrusted driftwood from landlocked Mono Lake.
The crust was as thick as a thumb. That salt skin had split. Inside was the heartwood, fibrous and fresh, as if from a living tree though this tufa was centuries old.
don’t know when I last held it. It’s been years since I held it.
I was twelve when I put my tongue to it, tasting ammonia and salt. Today I remembered, and wanted to touch it again, the brailled crust, the alkaline knobs and edges.
As a boy, I rarely let anything go. I held lizards by their tails and kept the tails. I pinned butterflies to cotton batten. When blood relatives died childless, their photos and scrapbooks ended up on my shelves. I’ve got most of the shells and stones and shards and snake skulls found while I stooped over my childhood looking for something to make mine.
I’m possessed lately by an unfamiliar spirit, one who resists possession, whose salt slips willingly from wood.
How could I be so careless?
I am ten. I walk slow, head bent, scanning dirt for cut black glass. The guide says Here Coso Indians made obsidian tools. I find my obsidian, a discarded arrowhead, fluke broken, small point for small game.
I imagine all this but don’t know anything about Coso tools or black glass or small game or China Lake. North of here is China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, fenced and bombarded, desert as gunnery range. Somebody said that, maybe my dad, so I stop to hear the explosions. There’s nothing. Maybe they’re not bombing today.
Desert and deserted, two words knapped from the same core, says the guide, voice guttural as a school bus engine. He means that the two words are brethren. They’re dark and reflective, these words. Turning them over in my head, each deepens the other’s shadow.
Deserted. North of Mojave, south of Ridgecrest, does anybody live here? No one lives here now, says the guide. Petroglyphs. No people. I already know this can’t be true.
Red Rock Canyon is cool at noon, cold by four p.m. The guide hands us each a snack. We compare our shards. In the Marble Mountains, not far, some scarps go back to the Cambrian. Near Amboy, trilobite heads turn up, common as obsidian flakes.
Later I learn that bodies petrify, meaning they turn to stone. They’re embedded in rock like the Latin petra at the core of petrify and petroglyph. Once it was liquid, a molten black glass. Now rock is a word for solid earth. Now it holds its own shape.
Later I learn that my own body is mostly liquid, a salt ocean in a pillowcase of skin. At ten, my mind is at high tide. I separate pebbles from boulders. I sort fictions from truths. I flow and I settle like silt.
Back then, in China Lake, missiles soared among condors.
Tom Laichas’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Stand, Ambit, Spillway, Rappahannock Review, Masque & Spectacle, and elsewhere. He is the author of Empire of Eden (High Window Press, 2019) and Sixty-Three Photographs from the End of a War (3.1 Press, forthcoming).