The sound filled the little canyon, resounding off the walls like a drum. Instinctively, I turned toward the stone cliff, over the crest, from where it originated. Taught like a canvas tent, I waited one, two, three seconds for another sound. Pema, in the sand at my feet, gleaned onto the seriousness of my awareness. “What is it?” she asked.
“Shhh,” I demanded, “Quiet.”
We waited four, five, six more seconds; then ten; fifteen. Meanwhile, my eyes scanned the edge of the cliff, some twenty feet above where we stood, waiting, watching for movement. Nothing. Finally I relaxed, took a deep breath, and turned to face Pema, my body chemistry rebalancing into a garment of loose fitting joy. “Did you hear that?” I asked, eyes wide and smiling.
“What do you think it was?”
Pema looked blank for a second, then answered, “What do you think?” She knew the question was loaded. She is used to her father finding motions and sounds and animals, but the seriousness in my attentiveness may have seemed a little embellished. After all, it was only a woodpecker, right?
I turned to Silke, who sat high on a boulder above our shoulders. With a tilt of my head, I indicated the same question: What do you think? I already knew what I thought, a fact that hung obviously on my face despite all my attempts at neutrality. I didn’t want to convince these two with the power of suggestion. And, of course, I was a little pleased with the sensitivity of my apparatus. That was no woodpecker.
“A woodpecker?” Silke answered casually.
Earlier that day, after school with the Earth Children, Pema and I had come home to a couple quiet hours. Francis was away visiting his grandparents, and Ruby, who had been with us in Bone Canyon that morning with the Earth Children, had since gone home with her mom. That left Pema and me with a rare evening to ourselves and nothing in particular to do. I had been rubbing my hands greedily at the thought all day. As I loaded the girls into the car at the end of the school day, I pulled Silke aside and said, “I think I’m going to take Pema to that side canyon, you know, with the platform. There’s a big pile of sand at the bottom. I think it will be fun to play there. Plus, I have a secret. Want to come?”
When Silke arrived later that afternoon we talked briefly about our day over a bowl of mung bean soup. “Ugh, mung bean soup. Gross,” Pema said, snarling her lips into a predictable expression. I offered her plain kidney beans instead, which she gobbled up contentedly. Then, holding up two swimsuits to Silke, Pema invited her to choose one. Silke chose the navy blue one with the frilly waistline and pink flowers. Pema happily agreed. As she changed into her new outfit, I said, “Hey pup, I’m not sure we’re going to have time to go to the river.”
“I know. I know.” Pema said confidently. “But maybe we can go after.”
“Yeah, we’ll see.”
I grabbed a jar of muesli from the fridge and a few other snacks. Then I hefted a five-gallon jug of water into my hands. “I’m bringing this,” I said, beaming. “Can you guess why?”
“Because you like challenges,” Silke answered, rolling her eyes.
Humping over the terrain, weighed down by the awkward volume of water in my hands, I was about as pleased as a caterpillar on milkweed. We walked along the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge, not quite at the top, but a good five hundred feet from the river below.
“Dad, look!” Pema shouted.
“What is it, pup?”
A turkey vulture, rising from the depths below, leveled off on our left hand side as we ambled over the path. Facing into the wind, it appeared almost motionless. Then another drifted into view, its broad wings stretched out like a silent, sentient kite. A raven, speeding in from the other direction, wings bent like a W, began cawing loudly, and the vultures veered off.
“Hey, look over there!” Pema said, eyeing two people down at the river on an old tree trunk. Towering above them, we could make out their general forms, one of them evidently naked, stretched out in the sun. “I see some naked floaters,” Silke said. Pema laughed, repeating the phrase in the same sing-song voice Silke had used, “I see some naked floaters.”
After lugging the water over boulders and loose dirt, I was happy to set it down as we approached our destination. It was around five o’clock. The sun was still high and hot. To the south lay a little side canyon. I had visited, alone, just a week ago, Silke having mentioned it to me once. “See down there,” I said to Pema, pointing to a big pile of sand that stood at the bottom. “I think we’ll have fun.” Pema’s eyes took it all in, the canyon, the gorge, the river, the sand. She squeezed her body excitedly, clenching her teeth, arms shaking with anxious joy. “Yeah, Dad. Let’s play in there.”
“Exactly,” I said, purposefully keeping my secret. “But first, can we eat some muesli? I’m hungry.”
Silke eyed me and indicated the platform, a question in her eye. She had been here many times before. A small island of rock that protrudes into the open air above the river, the platform overlooks both the side canyon and the gorge itself. Like an isthmus, it has only one entrance, from the northeast, all other directions a precipitous drop fifty to a hundred feet below. I smiled and nodded. “Let’s eat out here,” I said, “and then maybe we can head down.”
We held hands as we stepped over the rocks and cracks, approaching the edge carefully. The wind was strong, so we sat down near the ledge and looked down at the huge expanse below. The world often seems so vast in New Mexico’s landscapes. Pema, whose confidence was bolstered in my presence, sat casually a foot or two from the edge, pleased to have two loving adults to share the experience with. Spotting the sun bathers, she pointed and shouted, “I see the naked floaters.” She thrust her finger over the ledge and leaned forward. I had no real fear, Pema being a slow and cautious child, but I was poised to grab her at a second’s notice. I trust encounters like this, but only because I have great respect for gravity, and my own limbs.
“Look Dad!” Pema shouted, as two ravens, twisting and diving beneath our feet, competed with the wind. Their purple-black feathers ruffled like our own wind-tossed hair. “They have a nest nearby,” Silke said. “I’ll show it to you later.” Then a sudden gust blew Pema’s sunhat off, launching it instantly over the edge of the little rock island. She didn’t lunge for it, but I grabbed her anyway and leaned back. “Let it go, pup,” I said, holding her safely in my arms. “It’s not worth it.”
I expected to watch the hat, purple and floppy, drift playfully to the bottom of the gorge, a fleeting compensation for the loss of the hat. We could get another one. But I saw nothing. Peering over the ledge, I saw, to my surprise, that the hat, purple with a small embroidered flower, had landed only a few feet below in a small contour rock. Though the wind blew fiercely at our backs, it must have formed some kind of eddy and the hat now lay there as motionless as if on a dusty shelf. My brain, instantly, almost unwantedly, rifled through the handholds and distances in proportion to my body. I tapped Pema softly on the chest with my open palm. “Can you stay here with Silke for a second?” I asked. She nodded, climbing over to Silke’s lap, knowing that if she had said no, I would not go.
“Are you going to get the hat?” Silke asked, incredulously.
“It’s actually not that far,” I answered, unfolding my limbs to their full height.
“And you say you don’t like risks,” Silke laughed.
“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk.” The sound filled the little canyon once again. I stopped and stared, waiting for a second call. Silke, who had been singing a gentle song, stopped to listen, while Pema, climbing a rock on all fours, craned her head in my direction. I smiled. Now I was sure of it.
After carefully plodding our way down the steep embankment off to the side of the rock island, occasionally lowering Pema down over large boulders and ledges, we had nearly surfaced on the bottom of the little canyon. High above us, the rock island loomed like a tower in our midst. As we stepped from the sage and dirt onto solid rock my feet relaxed and a small pool of water came into view. This was what I had really come for. “Water!” Pema shouted, excited to share the news of her discovery.
On top of the rock island, with its panoramic views of the gorge and distant mountains, the world may have felt vast, but here, only a few hundred feet away, within the steep walls of the side canyon, silence and intimacy prevailed. The change in geography has a tremendous effect on minds and hearts. The world becomes small. Senses dilate and sharpen.
The pool of water at our feet was perched at the very edge of the little canyon, where it drops into the gorge below. If it was raining hard enough to feed a small trickle of a stream, after filling the pools and gaps of the upper canyon, this would have been a splendid waterfall. During the brief, but torrential, rains that sometimes accompany the violent thunderstorms that wander the mesa during hot summer days, there would be enough water to knock me over. Now, bone dry, this tiny little pool was all that remained.
“Look, pup!” I said, “Mung bean soup.” Hardly more than a few algae-filled gallons, the viscous green water was, I knew, the source of much life in this little canyon. No doubt the ravens and vultures that we had seen earlier, and their diminutive cousins, perched themselves here for an occasional sip. Deer and big-horned sheep came through, evidenced by the hoof prints we later found in the sand. But the real reason I brought Pema here was, when I had come last week, putting my own hand to the precious cavity of water to wet my face and neck, I was shocked to discover, of all things, tadpoles. There was not a source of water for miles in any direction, except straight down, and it hadn’t rained since then. As the lengthening days grew more hot and summery, the sun, I knew, would dry out this little pool in no time. That’s what the jug was for.
“Okay, pup,” I said, “You explore the water with Silke. I’m going back for the water jug. Sound good?” I waited, feeling for any signs of hesitation in her, but Pema had already flung her hat on the ground and set about pulling her shoes and pants off. She’d be in the water momentarily. I looked at Silke, who gave a silent nod, and climbed back toward the rock island.
“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk.” There it was again. Though the sound never repeated in short intervals, this had been at least the fifth or sixth time we’d heard it, and by now I was almost certain. Each time I paused and listened, hoping to hear a second call with my full attention, but, eventually disappointed, turned back to whatever activity we had going. We had spent the last hour exploring the little canyon, the sand and rocks and old, weathered trees.
Though the exact same rhythm and tone of a woodpecker knocking on a hollow tree, the sound had a slightly different timbre. Something struck me as rounder, purer. The frequency of each note was somehow more concentrated, less scattered, as if the vibration filled a more uniform cavity, like a drum, as opposed to the irregular protrusions of a hollow tree. But the main thing was, a woodpecker would repeat itself. I couldn’t say for sure, but I was guessing it was a toad.
After visiting the algal waters a week ago, I had climbed up the canyon several miles, following it all the way until it eased indistinguishably into the flat expanse of the mesa high above. Along the way, and not far from where we now stood, I had seen a horny toad. At least, I thought I had. Catching the movement in my periphery, I instinctively turned to shine the light of focus on the place where it had stirred.
A couple weeks prior, while out on the mesa with Silke and the Earth Children, we had stumbled across a horny toad and, Griffin being Griffin, he had snatched it in his hands before most of us even knew it was there. We spent a good twenty minutes looking at the tiny creature, each child getting a chance to hold its crusty skin and slivered toes. “Is it really a toad?” one child asked. “No,” Griffin stated confidently. “It’s a lizard.”
So I was surprised when, looking more closely, my eyes began to dissolve the squat lizard under my focused gaze and reform it, plainly, into a desert toad. This was no lizard. It was an honest to goodness amphibian, here, among the rocks and sand of an endless desert. I was familiar with the chorus frogs that inhabit the Hondo Valley where I live, where water trails down from the mountains high above, as well as the leopard frogs and bullfrogs Pema and I sometimes visit at the muddy waters of a local park. But I had never seen a creature like this, squat and fat and dry. It was about the size of small sandwich, and it was nervous. Scrambling between the nearly invisible stillness of its camouflage skin and quick, short hops, it made its way under a safe rock.
“Dad! There’s tadpoles!” Pema shouted as I returned with the jug. She was belly deep in the water.
“Yeah,” Pema shook her head vigorously. “I saw them.”
Duong. I set the water jug down on the rock, Silke eyeing me humorously. I tried not to strut too openly, but, after all, I had just carried forty awkward pounds of water half a mile or so into the wilderness and down a steep canyon with no trail.
“Dad! You should pour the water in here!” Pema’s eyes lit up at the thought.
“Exactly,” I said, unscrewing the cap.
Sheltered in the little canyon on the west side of the gorge, though the sun would be up for some time yet, we had already been bathed in shadow for an hour or so, shortly after Pema got out of the water. The heat of the day, reminiscent of New Mexico’s hot, dry summers, was now cooling into the magic of a desert evening. The whitewash of midday’s light was softening into blues, purples and magentas. Pema, now playing in the sand pile, was pressed against the bottom of a small vertical cliff, quietly engaged in her own world. About twenty feet above her, over the crest of that cliff, the sound had intermittently poured down on us, just as water would have in heavy rain.
I paused. Silke, who had been playing percussively on the boulder underneath her feet, grew silent. Pema, her back against the cliff wall, slowly arched her neck backward and up. We all waited, just as we had many times before. Then I heard something totally unexpected, a static froth of a sound, as if whoever was making it was clearing their throat.
“Dawka-dawka-dawka-dawka-dawk,” came the first call again, ringing clearly through the little canyon. And again the frothy little response, quieter, less precise, but unmistakable. I smiled. Then again, the call and response.
While the sun set on us, Pema, Silke and I sat in the cooling canyon, watching the light of day fade into the color and shape of an early summer’s evening. The sand at my feet was still warm from the sun. Ravens circled in the distance of the gorge. Cliff swallows would soon be out. Above our heads, a desert toad called for his mate. She had answered. Sheltered in the only pool of water around for miles, save for the precipitous drop to the river below, were the tiny signs of their new life.
It was a lullaby.