Castiel stood with his feet in a puddle on the largest salt flat in the world. The ground there is usually gasping for water, earth cupping the chapped broken hands of a hard laborer. The sky is so blue it looks like an oily smear of thick paint. The air reeks of salt. He could also smell ammonia – bird shit. Colonies of pink flamingos in the Laguna Colorada south of the salar.
Before Bolivia, or flamingos, or the hordes of SUVs scuttling across the horizon like beetles, before the centuries old island of cacti cropped out of nowhere, it was a pluvial lake. A dredged, unglamorous, glacial footprint filled with drained rain.
Under his feet, under the white snowy-crush crust of salt, the water was still and old and dreaming teary dreams of splashing Litopterna caravans and bathing herds of Cuvieronius . Vultures gossiped along its shores with the balding heads of old men, waiting for their turn at the frayed carcass of a Hippidion - a saber toothed tiger hunched over the body, goring it with sickled teeth.
The salt knew death was coming for them back then and would be there again soon. It had tasted it before - it remembered the tiger’s tongue lolling into the water to lap and clean its jaws of blood. As far as it was concerned 46,000 years without any trouble seemed like a good time for it to start.
The world is always ending , Incahuasi whispered to him as he stood there, feet wet in the 21st century. It has ended at least six times already and we are all still here .
Not all of us , Castiel thought, thinking of the poor suckers. Litopterna , the Cuvieronius , the bones of the Hippidion picked over, the tiger with a spear coring its rib cage. In the end, Death found the shape of men most pleasing; catastrophe was so last epoch. It would suffer through the ill-fitted animal pelts for a few more millenia, when they invented tailoring.
You are still here, Incahuasi murmured. I’ve seen you before .
Castiel looked down at the shallow water and saw his baggy coat and wilting collar, tie askew. His sensible black dress shoes were wet now.
He remembered Incahuasi, too. It drew quite a crowd.
Look, they whistled. There is a great mirror on the Earth.
A sister used her lion’s paw to slash slits in the veil and he pressed one of his great eyes to it - rolled it over the blue marble spinning in the dark. They knelt at the edge of the plane, like children spying through a keyhole.
Their million eyes cast a wet gleam; they flickered and blinked, indiscernible from the stars against the black.
I want to know what I look like , Castiel thought.
You look as Father does, someone said. We all do.
I have never seen Father , he replied, which wasn’t a lie.
But you have seen us, haven’t you? they chorused.
It isn’t the same thing, Castiel insisted, ignoring their brittle annoyance.
One to another, they sang, their voices warbling and shifting between frequencies. What’s the difference? You sing like us, you fight like us. You know what you look like.
Let him go, an older brother rumbled, his jetting magnetic voice rippling across the ether. Let him know the sin of vanity if he wishes. He gave a nebulous laugh, a plume of fertile particles.
Castiel felt for the seam and slipped underneath the curtain of heaven. He nearly broke his back from the weight of it, but soon he wriggled free, popping out from between the stitches.
He stooped, looked down at Incahuasi, at the blur of himself shining back. As far as his kind was concerned it was not anything to write home about.
He bore down at his reflection, trying to make something of it that was more than what it was.
My Father isn’t here , Castiel thought tiredly, salt water seeping into his socks. He knew, of course, that he wouldn’t be here. He wasn’t there the first time. He was beginning to understand that his Father was probably not anywhere at all and that this journey he was taking was becoming less of a directive and more of a distraction.
He looked past himself, this self, the Jimmy Novak self. The plain clothes white man, completely irrelevant in a crowd of faces. The reflection he saw in department store windows and gas station bathrooms and rear view mirrors. It wasn’t dissimilar to his other form - run of the mill. The compact version of a sedan. His brothers and sisters were mostly correct.
No, Incahuasi murmured. But, like I said, you are here. I didn’t recognize you at first, but that’s still something. Most things strike out before then.
Castiel didn’t really want to get into the definition of making it with a natural formation.
He could see the sky spread out over the ground - purple and white clouds and hot yellow sun and the same oily blue sky. It hadn’t changed much either in 46,000 years.
Sorry, Incahuasi said sheepishly. I haven’t had anyone to talk to in a while.
No problem, Castiel grumbled, which was something Dean and Sam said when it was sort of a problem but one they didn’t feel like dealing with.
I will be out of this place soon, the salt said. I don’t think I’ll last right here for much longer if these people have anything to do with it.
We’ll all be gone , Castiel replied, feeling the threat of fate glaring down on him. He knew he was frowning, but what else could you do when all of it was trying to squeeze him into nothing more than a slough of atoms.
Nothing goes away, Incahuasi reminded him. Isn’t that a law or something?
It’s more of a … guideline, Castiel said awkwardly, doing his best to summarize the omnipotent rules of the endless cosmic chess game into a measurable word. Humans were - as usual - close, but not quite.
Six times already, I told you, Incahuasi interrupted . I lived through every one of them.
I’ve heard about horses, Incahuasi said. Sometimes I see them, when I’m a salt lick. I’ve heard about elephants too. Did you know some elephants travel into caves to find salt? Sometimes others go into the jungle to find it. There are camels now too - I’ve seen them passing outside stalls in the bazarre. I’m in big piles there. They stack me in pyramids. People used to be very impressed by that. I’ve been around the world a few times. Right now some of me is waiting for winter in Chicago in a big warehouse.
I have no idea what I’m doing, Castiel said, having far lost track of the conversation. I’m running out of time.
There isn’t anything but time, Incahuasi whispered, a trembling ripple dancing over the water in infinite directions. Castiel could tell that it was growing sluggish, impatient with the complaining and talked-out.
He didn’t blame it; it was hard for old things to stay awake.
You’re lucky to evolve , it continued with a yawn. He only does that with the ones he really likes. Better to adapt, anyway. Rough drafts never work out. Now, if you’ll excuse me...I believe I’ll sleep this one off...and leave the work to you…
It isn’t a draft if you set fire to it, Castiel replied, remembered when his Father scrapped the old plan.
The salt slipped back into its coma. Its eyes rolled up into its head, unseeing. It wondered what it would be like when it awoke with a last exhale of excited ions; it was getting bored staring at the sky.
Castiel stood there, feet still in the puddle. He saw a truck in the far distance, just a dark dot spraying wake like the prow of a ship over a still, flat, sea.
One time Death swung his bat and sent an asteroid careening towards the lizards, but he missed the little things poking between the hollows of the earth, the places nobody would have bothered to look. They got bigger. Turned into horses and camels and elephants and tigers and peacocks and people.
Most of the time the angels watched and thought they were imbeciles - products of a lucky break.
Look at them scurry, they whispered, so the Father would not hear them, a clutch of cowards afraid of even the idea of his wrath. Little rats in the maze .
If they were only rats in a maze , Castiel thought, feeling the wind - the sandpapery cat-tongue lick of the air on every molecule, the UV rays carving canyons in Jimmy Novak’s cells - then these were rather industrious rats.
They got thumbs, and object permanence, and sentience. They could think, and dream, and paint with oils, and make graffiti, and use electric sanders and table salt. They spun their fur into rope and climbed out of the cage.
He remembered the first time he saw a raft - sticks and wood and leaves thrashed together. Voyagers setting off on oceans full of salt and full of waves that came one after the other. Rafts that broke apart, obliterated, in the fist of the water, swirled into oblivion.
Humans built new rafts. Improved on the design.
Up and down, they went, dauntless and stupid, over the churn, against the current.
Some of them made it to this place, stooped and looked at their faces in the watery mirror for the first time in their lives. Others saw what they already knew because it belonged to their ancestors - the chins and noses of mothers and brothers and aunts.
They hunted. They fought off saber toothed tigers. They named it Salar de Uyuni . They called the country Bolivia . They built SUVs with air conditioning to drive across it.
Eventually they would discover that Incahuasi used to be a pluvial lake full of fossils.
Litopterna caravans and bathing herds of Cuvieronius. Hippopidion. Camels, and elephants, and horses. Enough salt to fill an ocean. Enough salt to spread on slushed city streets. To fill bullet cartridges with.
They tasted the water and tasted their own tears - the ones they cried when people died. When they were born. When things changed.
But look, some of them said, pointing. It isn’t exactly the same thing .
Good, the others laughed, like mobbing gulls, greedy for crumbs - sandwiches and garbage.
Good , they sighed in relief, like when wind shook boughs, when Castiel saw whirlpools of blossoms fall about his human head in beautiful mathematical symphonies. He looked out with his great blue eye at them, motes of flowers, and dust, and spinning schools of sardines, and pillars of whales hunting them, and murmurations of starlings, and funneling clouds, and the whirling columns of flamingos in the Laguna Colorada who were the offspring of raptors, and were born gray and turned pink, and Peacocks with perfectly spaced feathers.
Thank God for that, the humans said, Dean and Sam said, with seashell spiral eardrums, and mouths with approximately 32 teeth, and eyes that often came out blue before turning brown.
They picked the spear back up, the oar, touched the hand of the one they love (oh, love, the good and greatest work, the singular speechless species of joy) asleep in the bed, brought them flowers, told them of trips to the Salar de Uyuni - the greatest mirror on the earth, the largest salt flat in the world that was once a pluvial lake full of megafauna.
He thought of his Father, who made the blue of this sky - a reflection of water and atmosphere. The same startling blue of these eyes now rolling around in this head, of newborn babies.
He looked out into the shimmering mirage, the splicing of dimensions over one another, slippery and flaking like mica, and saw that it wasn’t a match in God’s hand, but a baseball. He wound up to make the pitch.
Castiel looked in fascination at his human hand. Not exactly the same thing as it was even a millisecond ago, shedding cells by the millions.
It was made to easily fit a catcher’s mitt (no, the reverse- the mitt to fit the fingers).
Or, perhaps, designed from humble paw to this sophisticated thing, made to knit itself so perfectly within another’s.
To find a substitute for prayer.
To discover how to say the words
you truly mean. Words like "Here I am,
I'll try not to betray you.
Forgive me when I do."
To extend the list of words -
catamaran, peacock, miracle -
that you'd want to hear if awakening,
bewildered, in a room
ominously full of flowers.
To find someone you love
to say them, who knows their music,
someone who could intuit
on what sargasso the comatose are feeding,
and the unrisen wishes, the depth charges,
inside you. To find that person,
to risk reviving the dead reflex
of reverence. To therefore, and thereafter
learn how to live with disappointment.
To find the words for it, and rhythm
To give succor, and to give solace.
“Work” | Stephen Dunn