The desert is quiet at night, but busy with the diligent existence of its nocturnal residents.
The saguaros, which stand like monumental specters against the grey-black-blue landscape, scratch at the sky and are pock-marked by hundreds of little homes. Bats, birds, and rodents all take shelter in the mighty cactus and venture out into the dark world of their secret day. Yes, the saguaros are a sight to be seen, and their skeletal frames used to haunt my nighttime drives through the backcountry of Arizona, out where the highway passes by hundred-year-old Mexican churches and rest-stops in equal measure. Sitting in the backseat of my parents’ red
Volvo Station Wagon, I would press my nose to the smudged glass and run my eyes along the graveyard of cacti, not quite sure what I was looking at, but knowing in some way that I was intruding on something much older than me. Gradually, I would fall asleep and dream of being left out in the desert, burrowing deep into the cactus forest like the woodpeckers do.
That was back when my parents would have carried me, sleeping, from the car and into the house, still dreaming my cactus dreams. It wasn’t our own home they would have carried me into, but my Uncle’s. We didn’t live in Arizona we were only visiting my mother’s family, who were sprawled out across the city of Tucson, little tribes beating back the ever-encroaching desert sand. No, we lived in Texas, then Oregon, but my mother always insisted that we were from Arizona. In response to the question, “Where are you from?” my mother would answer, as if misunderstanding the intent, “Arizona!” Always Arizona.
My mother mourned the mountains most of all. Texas was a flat-land of manicured trees and suburbs and Portland’s horizon is obscured, year round, by evergreen forests. But Arizona is ringed by mountains. The Catalina’s loom ominously over the landscape, but their presence is loving and gentle as though they were the keepers of the city and whatever had come before. . They imbued my mother’s childhood with a sense of wonder and largeness that I don’t think flat-lands people can really understand. The statement of the mountains was everywhere the earth had risen up and commanded its own place in every household, school, and place of worship.
In the desert, the night air is warm. It seems obvious, but it is, on the contrary, astonishing. In the Pacific Northwest the best time for a party is the end of the day, before the sun sets and after it has reached its zenith. But in Arizona, where the days scorch the very ground you walk on and are caught in the slant of an insistent sun, nighttime is a brief escape. My family gathers at night. Uncle Mike has a backyard porch and at least two dogs at a time (the dogs are all that can draw my Papa to the gathering), and so we eat in a darkness broken by Christmas lights and mosquito-repellent candles. There is a real game being played here: the gamble of monsoon season. The calm of a warm night is broken by a single strand of lighting tracing its way down the sky, and then a crash of thunder unlike any you’ll hear in any other corner of the world, and then it’s raining like the world is ending. A monsoon starts within the span of about thirty seconds, and, to the child I am when I visit Arizona, it seems as though it will last forever.
But nothing, least of all a summer monsoon, lasts forever. Soon, my family leaves the company of uncles, aunts, cousins, sisters, and brothers for the necessity of a home that is truly our own. Every time, my mother weeps for the mountains, and I’ve learned to do the same. When we leave Arizona, at first it was for Texas and now it’s for Portland, we leave at night. The desert seems a different place entirely, lit around the edges by moonlight, and perhaps it’s easier to leave this way. We pull out of my Uncle’s driveway. He flicks the porch lights on and off — a testament to years of saying goodbye — and we race, headlong, into the desert night, surrounded by a ring of mountains and a forest of cactus bones.
Mia Burcham is a college freshman studying English at Portland State University. She lives in rainy Portland, Oregon with her family and Walter the dog. In her free time, Mia enjoys fencing, dancing, baking, and, of course, writing. Mia’s favorite writers are Stephen King and Barbara Kingsolver and, because of them, she hopes to write professionally someday.