We spent the day in a desert snowstorm. During the leg of the trip where you see signs like: LAST GAS FOR 126 MILES. At times it was like the old Windows ‘Starfield’ screensaver was laid over the windshield and we couldn’t see the center line of the road because so much snow was sticking, then a half-mile it would clear so much that you wonder if the snow was a hallucination –dry roads, flurry-free air…the only evidence that you weren’t crazy being flung away by the windshield wipers.
We saw a sheep with the head of a tortoise. It was chewing small stones by the side of the road. We pulled off onto the shoulder –the show was barely falling at this point, and approached it. It didn’t run. It turned its head away to look back up the road as we got closer. Its head was inordinately small for its body and covered in opalescent black scales. When we were about five feet away it suddenly swung its head back toward our party and looked directly into each of our eyes, continuing to rhythmically chew the stones it dug out of the furrow directly in front of it.
We looked at each other, silent, baffled, and when we looked back at the beast we saw that now there was bright red blood running from its beak. It was splashing in the cold, dry dirt below it. I looked back up from the dirt and when I met its eyes it stopped chewing and craned its head to look at something behind it. There was only one thing there besides the scrubby vegetation, a thick old tree branch –burned on one end and partway up one side by some long forgotten brush fire. The tortoisheep looked back at me, stretching its neck up slightly. As it did, a rivulet of blood ran, not from its mouth, but from the place where its sheep’s body met it’s turtle head. I took a small step backward, revolted but insatiably curious. It stretched toward me again and I noticed that its neck was growing longer –the scaly black length slick with blood. I took another step backward as its head reached my eye-level, it was bobbing slightly on its python-like neckstalk, but its eyes never left mine. It opened its maw and yarked -a convulsion traveling up its neck like a pulse through a cartoon power line. I felt my gorge rise as I watched its fluid muscularity, but before I could do more than contemplate being sick my face and head were engulfed by a glut of dark particles. Shocked, I gasped, pulling part of the cloud into my body. I immediately began to choke on the bitterness of whatever it was on my tongue. I stumbled backward coughing, retching, desperately trying to rid my body of the alien substance. The rest of the guys were a good twenty feet away from me bunched together and watching, slack-jawed. I looked back toward the creature and saw that it was looking down at me –almost imperious from its newly attained height while I was bent double choking with my hands on my knees. The cloud of particles was still hanging in the air where my head had been, vibrating like a patch of gnats on a hot summer day. The thing, which I was now sure was neither tortoise or sheep snapped its beak shut with the sound of a thick glass rod snapping in half and as it did, the cloud stopped moving and fell to the dirt.
The creature looked from me to the burnt branch again and I understood. I stood up, wiping thick saliva from around my mouth with my wrist and noted that the guys stepped back, startled, as I straightened. I walked over to the burnt stick and hefted it, and the turtle head swiveled away to look out at the road and then dipped to scoop up another maw-ful of dirt and rocks. I could feel the steady tempo of its jaw in my bones, gelling the marrow with each grinding crunch. I raised the branch over my shoulder like a major-league batter, the dry splinters digging into my palms, and swung with all I was worth. I connected directly with its head which swung low but didn’t hit the earth. I swung again –another direct hit which buckled its forelegs, which in turn puffed up road dust and sent small stones flying into the pool of blood in front of it. I was transformed –an amalgamation of John Henry and Casey Jones. I beat its head (and its body, but mostly the head) with a fury that I couldn’t have imagined was inside me. When I dropped the branch, panting, I noticed that the snow was picking up again, the flakes disappearing into the red wetness at my feet.