No Guarantees, by Anna Badkhen

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From “Dark Matter,” an essay that appears in Bright Unbearable Reality, which will be published this month by New York Review Books.

There are no cattle on the ranch, though my landlady does have several cats. Beyond the wire fence is wilderness, high desert; wilderness inside the ranch, too. There are mule deer and white-tailed deer with translucent ears at dawn, a fox in the carport, a woodpecker metronoming the mesquite tree all day, mourning doves, owls by night. One morning, I leave open the door of my rental casita and a javelina walks in, walks out.

Outside the ranch fence, pronghorn sometimes pass in the light. Pronghorn are the world’s fastest mammals over long distances. They can sustain a speed of sixty miles per hour for hours on end; their eyes can see three hundred degrees; they can detect movement four miles away. Pronghorn, Antilocapra americana, are the only surviving species of the Antilocapridae family—and barely. Pronghorn, of which there were roughly thirty-five million in the early nineteenth century, were largely hunted out of existence to feed the European settlers and construction crews that facilitated the westward takeover of the continent. Their habitats were ransacked, their migration routes disarranged, truncated, cut off. By the late twentieth century, only twelve thousand remained: those that outran the extinction, or outsaw it. I believe them to be a miracle.

Anglo settlers took up residence here in the 1880s, and that’s when official historical records say the town was established, but people have lived here for at least ten thousand years. An archaeologist shows a group of us a place on someone else’s ranch that he says is one of the oldest episodically inhabited sites in the area. He explains how to date a tepee circle, an ancient fire pit, an arrowhead. The first people hunted; then they ranched; then came a train; then a small university named after a Confederate general. Now there is also a movie theater and a laundromat with an adjacent coffee shop; the coffee shop is overpriced but where else would you wait out the spin cycle—in the desert?

Down the road from the ranch, a neighbor has spray-painted on the wall of one shed in case of zombies and on another jesus is lord. The Jesus line is written in loose, white block letters; the one about zombies is stenciled neatly onto pale zinc. Read consecutively, the way I do when I ride past on my bicycle, the words seem to offer a warning (zombies may happen) and a solution (turn to Jesus, somehow). Or they may be a kind of declaration of faith: Never mind the zombies, we’ll be saved. Or, possibly, there is no connection between the messages, only a spatial continuity; that would make the Jesus part a garden-variety tagline, the zombie part a joke.

The inscriptions become an idée fixe after a community organization asks me to write about words I see every day for a summer literary initiative. “By encouraging people to pay closer attention to their surroundings,” reads the email, this initiative “invites an exchange of stories about who we are and where we come from.” I like the assignment: The project seems to enjoin communality in a world where so many of us, like me, come from elsewhere, and where so much fences us apart. Besides, I like puzzling out the meanings of things, imagining what else is there. Maybe the words are instructions to what the sheds contain? I imagine the inside of the Jesus shed, cobbled out of patches of corrugated rust and painted haint blue: crucifixes, candle-wax stalagmites, bottles of communion wine, maybe a small chapel. And in the other, a newish zinc prefab, anti-zombie weapons—let’s see, what would those be? I google it: assault rifles, the kind people use to kill one another in wars, the kind that, the month after I first move to town, Omar Mateen uses to murder forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Thanks to conservation efforts, the pronghorn population in the United States now exceeds one million, and the Texas herds are densest on the Marfa Plateau, where I am renting my casita. Now you can hunt pronghorn again, and several companies in the area will assist you. One has an online brochure that features photographs of people sitting and kneeling next to dead pronghorn bucks. In most of the photographs, people are holding up the animals’ heads by the horns in such a way that the pronghorn look alive, as if they had decided to lie down there for a minute, to pose next to these humans, why not, look, the humans are smiling. In the background: high desert, a mesquite tree. For $4,300, the brochure says, the outfit will provide you with lodging, three freshly cooked meals a day, and guides who will help you track the pronghorn and then skin, cape, and quarter the carcass. The brochure warns that you might leave empty-handed. “No guarantees,” it says. “Due to the nature of hunting.” This preserves an element of the ineffable. Texas law prohibits hunting with fully automatic weapons, but you can hunt pronghorn with an assault rifle as long as you use a suppressor.

There is a smaller herd north of here, toward El Paso; I see it by the highway when I drive that way. When Patrick Crusius takes that highway to shoot dead twenty-three people at an El Paso Walmart with a Romanian-built Kalashnikov assault rifle, is the herd there, does he notice it?

Among the things I have learned about violence is that it requires no imagination or evolutionary advancement: it is basically effective. It is as if we are under-evolved somehow, as if violence is a fence that has only just been erected in our path, not a condition we have sustained since prehistory. As if we are living in a foreign language: Individual words make sense, but we still strain to coalesce meaning.

Water here comes from a minor aquifer trapped in a volcanic rock hollow: a thirty-five-million-year-old stilled lava capsule. The aquifer recharges, but slowly: Rain is rare and getting rarer, and what does not evaporate right off takes its time to seep through all the layers of dirt and volcanic ash and limestone and granite and rhyolite and basalt. This bolson is the sole source of water for three sizable towns set on a nearly equilateral triangle about twenty-five miles apart. I cook and bathe with water from this underground freshwater sea, which my landlady’s windmill pump lifts from a well two hundred and fifty feet deep. On windy days the ungreased pump on the ranch bellows rusty ballads. My landlady has christened it the Elephant. I can see the Elephant from the kitchen window when I prepare meals.

My landlady and my neighbors worry about water. Oil and gas companies are poking the desert for fossil fuels, boring it with pipelines to transport what they dig up. Some of what they dig up is what I cook with, on a three-burner gas stove pilfered from a Fifties trailer. The gas line for the stove runs through a hole in the kitchen wall to a propane can that stands on an antique wooden chair outside the kitchen window. I tell myself that this setup is perfectly safe, just as the oil and gas companies tell us their pipelines are perfectly safe.

Those of us who join the archaeologist at the prehistoric site are the last people to see the ten-thousand-year-old ashpits and tepee circles. The next morning mulchers and bulldozers trench the ancestral grounds to make way for a gas pipeline.

Full moon in May. Night. Screeching like bloodshed. Under my writing window. Behind the casita. On the other side of the casita. Then comes a thump on the front door—or maybe I dream it and wake up.

In the morning, putting on my running shoes, I hear a kind of rasping. What sort of bird could that be? I step outside and look up into the ash tree that grows to the north side of the door. Two raccoons, tetchy postcoitus, glare down at me.

Over drinks at sunset my landlady tells me one of her cats is having an affair with the fox.

For the most part, surface water in the desert comes as condensation. On summer mornings I watch the sun burn dew off nopal spines. There were nopal thickets in Senegal, too, trafficked there on ships sailing triangle trade winds, cargoed collaterally, like haint blue, or zombies. The general after whom the town university was named, one of the youngest in the Confederacy, fought one hundred and thirty-five battles and skirmishes in the name of such debasement. Look how violence connects us, fences us in, prisms in angled morning light.

The world speaks to us in symbols: bluebirds, nopal plants, pronghorn, zombies. There are no bad symbols just as there are no bad words, there are merely the billion hurts we inflict on one another, the billion comforts we bestow. I begin to think that the words on my neighbor’s shed are a kind of prayer, an elegy for the world we are so carelessly debasing, a thanksgiving for the world that still confers wonder. I stand by the stove, I listen to the Elephant, I scan the desert for movement. There, that shadow just beyond the ranch fence—pronghorn.

Pronghorn are the only animal in the world with horns that branch, shaped like an upturned cowboy boot with an extra tapered heel, and the only horned animal that sheds its horns every year. Because of their forked nature, the horns can be a good or a bad omen. A pronghorn carcass on the doorstep will grant a questing hero the support of a helper. A Diné pronghorn kachina will make the rains come and the grass grow. In one Blackfoot tradition, when Old Man created the world, he first placed pronghorn in the mountains, but the pronghorn stumbled and fell down on the rocks, so Old Man moved pronghorn to the prairie, where it could run far and fast; that was before the fences. An Apache story says that a beautiful young woman once became a pronghorn, and her descendants still roam the earth, so if you eat a pronghorn you may be eating a relative.

The last night of December brings lightning and thunder and rain to the desert, the sky disgorging the remnants of the year. Some of this rain will help refill the bolson, sod the ranch road, rinse the fences, flood the street with the sheds so it becomes impassible by bicycle. Think of the world as at once tunneled and pierced by water yet held together by it. Think of the sea as ever-present even in the driest of times and places: through the salinity of our own bodies, our blood, tears, sperm. Think of ecotones not only horizontally but vertically: the ecotone of cloud, the ecotone of rain. Where it hits the ground, the puzzle.

On the ranch, before bedtime, as rain pelts the rooftop, I check the news. Across the ocean, in Istanbul, an hour after midnight, a man dressed as Santa Claus walks into a nightclub. He is carrying an assault rifle. He kills thirty-nine people.

By the first dawn of the new year, all the stars shine in the squeegeed sky over the ranch and the morning is pale blue and golden, and pronghorn run in wet wilted grass.

Dark matter is what scientists believe holds galaxies together, keeps them from ripping out of our universe, grants the universe the gravity to stay intact. Dark matter is invisible; it does not interact with electromagnetic force; scientists have not yet been able to detect it. It is, put simply, beyond our ken, the way the meaning and value of life and the loss of it are ultimately beyond our ken; or the cosmic consequence of despoiling civilizations, living or premodern; or animals extirpated by our recklessness; or animals that miraculously survive it. What is the universal gravity of what we cannot see, or of what we cannot ever see again? Look, the evening desert exhales wetly into the indigo dark—and in the distance, a hint of starward motion, something ascending.


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