About 4:30 last night I woke to the sound of coyotes yapping and howling. It was an eerie sound, much less soothing than the sound of rain on the roof or the calls of owls, both of which I have heard while here in southeastern Arizona. Their revelry lasted only thirty seconds or so, and while it sounded like a pack of maybe twelve ravenous canines right outside our door, it was probably only two or three who could have been a thousand or more feet away in an adjacent wash that snakes down from the Santa Catalina Mountains. They are ventriloquists, throwing their voices in ways that make them seem more proximate and numerous than they really are, which is another way of saying they are deceivers. But whatever they were doing out there, my slumber was over. I lay there.
The coyotes went silent, the owls took up the song, their questions lingering, repeated for emphasis, perhaps, or sociability. I'm full of questions too. When you awake in the night and lie there questions seem to come easily, ones that lay beneath the surface of the rattle and rub of life. They percolate up to consciousness. I turn them into prayers, some sensible, some inchoate. I'm a little out of my head, semi-conscious, and yet the Spirit takes my sometimes unintelligible scribbling and translates it into a final draft, so I don't worry about it. I ramble on.
But that was last night, and this afternoon I am sitting on the veranda talking with my son about orbital dynamics, or astrophysics, or some little subject like that, punctuated by chips and guacamole, a subject we can both understand. He is like a wise owl on these subjects and I am a coyote, saying little, but dangerous. I make a lot of racket for maybe 15 seconds, yet he holds forth longer, owlish, with less bluster, more nuance. He just explained something to me that I do not understand. I need an explanation of the explanation. But my mind is lazy. I ate a chip. He went back to typing. Heat rises from the top of his head. I know it is there because from the time he was a little boy his head would get hot when he thought real hard. And he's thinking pretty hard. Me, not so much. He's telling me about a spaceship passing by Jupiter, ejecting a cube-sat (that's a baby satellite, a swaddled bundle of. . . instruments) which is thrown out to crash on the surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa, how a door opens and it being spring-mounted is cast out. Like a jack-in-the-box, I say. And he agrees. That's my contribution. And I'm sure I bungled that explanation, but await his dissertation for the real stuff.
Just before dawn, as I lay there working on world issues interspersed with meandering prayers, the birds woke. At home I never hear the birds as I do here, where there is a cacophony of tweets and chirps and flutterings that signal sunrise. Excitement, expectation, joy. Before long, light tinges the curtain pulled over the patio window, and it glows. The owls sleep. My family sleeps. I lay there looking at the ceiling.
A few days ago, I remember, I was riding a horse in the foothills of the Catalinas. I was first up, on Susio, right behind our Sixties-ish guide, Frank, who has lived here all his adult life. I am a tentative rider, lacking temerity, and the horse knows it. And unfortunately for me, Susio has a habit of wandering to the edge of the trail, threatening to brush against cholla cactus, falling into a small ravine, or God forbid falling off the edge of the trail and rolling down the mountain, crushing me or filling me with cactus needles. In theory I know Susio knows this trail better than me, and yet I don't fully trust him. I'm watching him. An owl watches me. Along about dark, I hear a mockingbird, running through his Top 40, and I suspect that I am the subject of his derision.
I tell Frank that we are fresh back from the Desert Museum, and after a pause, he says his favorite animal is the otter. He says that when you see the otter "you just gotta smile." I give assent. You somehow can't imagine a bad day for an otter. I remember the otter that we saw earlier in the week, how he surfaced and rolled over on his back and smiled a whiskered grin at us, how we smiled back. But Susio is going off-road again, and my reverie is ended.
My son is still tapping away on the keyboard. A breeze lifts my hair and I look out to the city, east to the Rincon Mountains, covered by a fuzzy haze which I know is dust, swept up by the winds. I'm on vacation, I remind myself. It's like elementary school recess: the bell rang, and I ran out, free, where I can think about anything I want, light out on a whim, and spend time with friends, which are, and always will be, family --- my wife, my son, my daughter. If this sounds disjointed, if the transitions are blurred, if the transmission crackles like a radio transmission from Europa, it's a testimony to a mind unhinged, at recess. Let me stay a little longer, please, under the moon and stars and satellite sky of this desert. I'll be in soon.