Fantasy Horror Historical mythology desert running

A Real Myth in an Imaginary Time

By James Van Pelt
Feb 10, 2021 · 2,196 words · 8 minutes

Hiking in the Canyon

Photo by Dyaa Eldin Moustafa via Unsplash.

From the author: Nothing compares to a solo hike or run into the wilderness by yourself. You feel alone with nature, alone with your thoughts. But you may not be as alone as you think.


Percy should have seen the woman long before he did, but instead he admired the huge mounds of sandstone in front and above him. After a half mile of jogging, his lungs burned hard; the burn he imagined a heart attack would give him, exactly the burn he wanted from a run up the Serpent's Trail, a steep two-mile long climb with fifty-two switchbacks that few people even hiked in this direction. To die on the trail wouldn't be that bad, he thought. If they'd just leave him there, push him to the side against some stone so that he was out of the way would be okay. But, of course, they'd take his body and bury it far from the stones and cliffs and startling ravines. He could never stay. The run always ended.

Shadows from the setting sun outlined the path above him; a canyon breeze that smelled of juniper and dust cooled his face. The mounds swelled from the red dust at their bases. He scanned the cliff above and saw corresponding formations, great deflated balloons of stone bigger than box-cars. Cactus, juniper and scrub oak grew around them. Automobiles could hide in the shadows. He breathed deeply of the evening air, the dust and juniper and solitude. No one hiked the Serpent's Trail at sunset. On every turn he surprised lizards soaking in the warmth on flat rocks beside the path. They slipped into cracks or dashed five feet and then did a dozen pushups, their heads cocked to one side to watch him with pencil-point eyes. But he didn't see the woman.

The trail hair-pinned to his left and for a moment his shadow ran beside him on the dirt and rocks. He glanced down often checking for holes or fist sized chunks of sandstone that could sprain his ankle. This close to sunset, no one would find him until morning and his nylon shorts and sleeveless shirt would be poor insulation for the below freezing temperatures the spring time night would bring. He turned again, his thighs aching pleasantly, the backs of his calves above the Achilles tendons tight from the constant uphill course. The mounds of sandstone loomed above him, the sun just touching their tops, another handful of turns on the crooked trail away.

As he ran closer to them, and his angle changed, he imagined as he habitually did that they were petrified heads of giants buried in stone so just their crowns showed. That long stretch of rock, a scattering of Mormon Tea growing from nearly indiscernible crevices, could be a leviathan's back, his scapula protruding from the effort of a million ton push-up. He saw in the shadows of a ten-foot cliff, a whole knee stuck from the ground, weathered and dusty, but still attached to some awesome creature struck down and tied to the earth. Prometheus tacked to the ground, waiting for an eagle to pluck out his innards.

Percy knew that this was his runner's high, this free-floating imagining, but he loved the Serpent's Trail, the smooth expanses of sandstone, cool in the shade, blazing hot in the sun; layered, cracked, shaped by wind and sand into deep hollows and impossible slopes. The stone figures like gods, the two-hundred foot drops into dark pre-Cambrian canyons, the sudden glitter of quartz or mica from intruding igneous veins delighted him and made him forget the classrooms at Mesa State where he taught three sections of Mythology to freshmen more eager to explore the mysteries of a six-pack than the archetypal stories he'd been hired to teach fifteen years ago when he thought books were important and classrooms vital.

He turned again on the trail. Now the sun rested on the horizon to his left. In the distance, the entire Colorado River valley opened out into fields and fences. The distant Bookcliffs reflected the setting sun redly, a huge length of glowing bacon laid on its side, and as he turned again, he noticed something that seldom surprised him, a new rock. Or to be more accurate, he decided, a rock he hadn't noted before on his many runs on the trail. He grinned and tasted sweat on his lips. The Serpent's Trail is always new, he thought, every visit is a surprise.

What might this rock's story be? he wondered. He stopped, put his hands on his knees and sucked in the cool air. After a moment he straightened, clicked off his stopwatch. "No records tonight," he said. The rock, like most loose rocks near the trail, was longer and wider than it was thick, like a slab of meat frozen in a meat locker. Six feet long, a couple of feet wide, ten inches thick, it probably weighed a thousand pounds. Percy pushed his foot against it, but it didn't shift like some would. He looked around. There was no cliff for it to have fallen from since his last run, no truck tracks to show that some human had moved it here. It was, he concluded, just another boulder he hadn't seen before. No lichen grew on it, though, which was unusual. In the shadow now, its gritty surface felt no warmer than body temperature. He sat and emptied the sand from one of his shoes. Every time he ran it seemed the trail had grown new formations, added a boulder or two, shifted its lines like a living organism.

With a weary sigh, he started to plan his next day's lecture. Maybe he'd dump the unit on Arabic folk tales. He'd told the adventure of Abdullah Bin Fazil and his brothers till he was sick. Maybe the class would seem livelier to him if he added something new, perhaps something North American Indian. The mountains were sacred to them; they were gods. He could even take his classes up Serpent's trail.

The woman spoke when he took off his other shoe.

"Nice night," she said.

Percy almost fumbled the shoe. She sat on ground only ten feet away, her back to a mound of rock directly in front of him across the trail. Sunburned and peeling, her neck molted like a snake's. Her nose had that raw appearance that came only to careless hikers in the spring.

"I'm sorry," Percy said, "I didn't notice you. Thought I was by myself." He tied his shoe, suddenly embarrassed to be seen in his socks.

"One is never alone up here," she said.

Percy smiled to himself. A kindred spirit, he thought. Someone who sees metaphorical possibilities. Not one of the despairingly literal like his students. He lectured for hours on the meaning of myth, how the stories represented psychological realities; why the stories repeated themselves in different cultures and different times; why folklorists numbered the motifs and classified them. The students generally stared, grumbled because he didn't give them lists of gods and heroes in alphabetical order so they could be memorized easily. Occasionally he'd catch a glimmer of understanding, often from a student in the back of the room, one who would look out the window dreamily, seeing, perhaps, Icarus against the sun. The good ones usually dropped out. He'd run into them months later in the student union, a copy of Edith Hamilton or Joseph Campbell sticking out of their backpacks, or they'd come to his office and after a half hour of inarticulate mumbling about what they were thinking, they'd leave, and he would see in them for the moment the same inexpressible longing for the infinite that drove him to Serpent's Trail.

"I understand what you mean," he said.

She stood and brushed the back of her shorts. She was younger than he first thought. Her face seemed old, maybe the burn put the crow's feet around her eyes, but her legs looked firm, like runner's legs. He guessed she was twenty-five or so.

"We know each other," she said.

He looked at her again. For a teacher, everybody looks familiar. Her hair was pale, almost white. The breeze slithered a strand across her eyes and she brushed it away. Her eyes were light brown, almost golden in the sun.

"Were you a student of mine?" He laughed, a kind of throat clearing to cover his tension. Something about her bothered him. She was familiar. In this light the peeling skin looked almost like scales, as if her neck was reptilian. "I have a terrible memory for names," he said.

She walked past him and gazed out on the sandstone formations jutting up and casting long shadows. "You've thought before how the stones looked like people, haven't you?" Percy strained to catch her words. The breeze had stiffened and she had a slight speech impediment that drew out her s's into hisses. She continued. "Many of them were, you know."

He was in his medium now, the world of metaphorical and metaphysical speculation. "They do seem to have a life of their own, don't they?"

"No more than you do," she said. "Stones don't sense, they don't feel or think, but they exist and are real. They connect deep down in ways you don't. Stone's contact is firm, solid. You're mostly water, you know. There isn't enough stone in you to fill a tea cup."

"Yes, but mythically speaking . . ."

"You're a myth man. That's good."

Percy squeezed his fists. "Myth man," indeed, he thought. To dismiss a lifetime of study and contemplation to "myth man" irritated him. "I am a scholar of myths."

She didn't turn her head. Her hair squirmed in the wind. The last diamond of sun rested on an outcrop on the horizon above him and the evening shade half filled the valley below. She said, "Have you ever considered what it is that you do. You take real stories told by real people and then make them mean whatever you want them to mean."

Relieved, Percy relaxed his fists. She obviously was a former disgruntled student. He'd heard this argument a thousand times, that interpreting the stories somehow "ruined" them. Only the intellectually lazy made it. He began, gently, "Well, part of the fun of a story is to determine what appeals in it. Some stories are told over and over because they contain emotional truths. People who spend their lives, like I do, thinking deeply about the stories can find the meaning in them that a less attentive reader might miss."

She looked at him. "You are arrogant. The gods punish the arrogant."

Percy decided to play her game. "So, are you an emissary of the gods come here to punish me?"

She sat cross-legged on the rock, facing Percy. "Actually, no. They got my story all wrong. My role was never to punish; at least I've never seen it that way. But I'm just making conversation because, as I said, we know each other."

"What do you mean?" The breeze chilled Percy. He rubbed the goose-bumps on his legs.

"Generally I don't talk to people. What needs to be said after thousands of years? But you, at least, know things, even if they are twisted."

Percy stood and rubbed his arms. Whoever she was, he didn't need to waste his time with her. The mood he'd established, the communion with nature, had been broken. She was just a student and a loony one at that.

She said, "My story is really about making connections with the earth. I've seen what is going on. Humans are missing the earth. In the race to make meaning, to make metaphors, they forget that there are no "stones" in the word "stone." Earth and stone are actual. You can sit on them and touch them and remind yourself that you too are a part of the real world. But you hide behind your metaphors. So that is why I do what I do, to remind you to make connections to the earth."

Percy backed away from her. She seemed to have grown, standing on the stone, so she was ten feet tall. "What . . .what do you do?"

"Your name, you know, is ironic."

"What?"

"Your name, Percy, Perseus."

Percy stepped back again. Her neck was clearly snake-like and growing longer. Her hair waved madly in the wind. He understood the allusion. Perseus slew Medusa by cutting off her head. Her glance turned men to stone.

"Perseus was not a hero, but telling his story made him so. And, of course, they got it all wrong. I didn't die."

She reached out, her arm longer than possible, the hands like claws, and grabbed his shoulder. "I know what you want. It's not a bad wish. You can stay up here with me and the others. You won't be alone. And when they tell the story again, maybe they'll get it right. Someone needs to know Medusa was no monster."

The cold started in his feet. He felt it rising, but he sensed something else, too, in the last moment before earth became his head, he felt a sense of unity, a joining, and with complete conjoining he knew the only heaven there ever is, by connecting with all things, he ceased to feel himself.

This story originally appeared in On Spec.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."