The condor soared for hours on its nine-and-a-half-foot wing. The great vulture had drifted one hundred miles without a single flap floating on plumes of heat blowing skyward, the radiant land shimmering under the sun far below like a skillet in a broiler.
The condor spotted a body near a creek. A prostrate figure in the mottled shade of sycamore and cottonwood trees.
The giant bird banked a fluid turn grabbing the sky with wingtip flight feathers eighteen inches long and trailing them through the hot air for stability like a surfer dragging fingers across a wave.
The man sprawled on the ground to cool beside the creek. Water-worn gravel in the shade of trees held the chill of night into late morning and the cold stones pressed like ice cubes against his hot cheek skin and the tender undersides of his soft forearms.
An intermittent breeze ebbed and flowed through the canyon and whooshed through the trees rattling the leaves in sudden eruptive bursts of applause from those thousands of tiny paper palms.
Then stillness and the bloom of quiet again but for the susurrant riffle of water through creek stones.
The man opened his eyes, resting on belly and face, bare palms pressed against the cold gravel. The world lay sideways. A riparian tangle of branches and leaves and vines and bushes and towering columns of wood jutting from the sandstone riprap of the creek bed.
The air smelled alive, muddy and green. A thick and heavy organic fragrance, rich and full-bodied, like the black mud of a lake bottom or a rocky beach at low tide.
The man bathed in the fertile backcountry air as if soaking in a hot spring.
He sucked in mouthfuls, chomping his jaws and smacking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, tasting of the forest, the air laden and thick through his nose and mouth.
If only he could jar the air, take it home, and once in awhile crack the lid for a whiff to remind him of what that other world out there smelled like, beyond the end of the road and free of the fences, outside the urban cage, in the way out.
Vapid city air was dead by comparison. When the city didn’t reek of exhaust or some varietal of industrial effluent the air smelled of nothing at all.
On occasion Santa Ana winds swept the interior scrublands and blew the herbal aroma of chaparral into town. Sometimes the sweet gassy fragrance of natural seep bitumen from Coal Oil Point wafted in on the Pacific sea breeze and could be smelled all the way across the littoral plain to the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Three or four rainstorms a year moistened things enough in town to tease out some trace of natural fragrance on occasion, from the creek corridors and other green cracks where that bit of wild remained between the city hardscape and the buildings and homes and roads and parking lots and sidewalks.
But otherwise the city air smelled of nothing, nothing at all.
The man rolled onto his back to see the sky and wallowed himself into the cold stones, laying spread-eagle with lips cracked and eyes locked in a distant gaze.
A tiny dark smudge materialized out of nowhere appearing on the otherwise spotless blue dome overhead. The man blinked his eyes thinking the fuzzy spot was an eye floater.
The smudge solidified into a definite black dot. The man watched the dot slide through the depthless blue sea and grow into the form of a bird that settled into a circular orbit directly above him. The man laid still as a plank watching the condor watch him.
The anthropoid sprawled on the canyon floor near tall trees. The still body was obscured in broken and shifting indigo shadows that fluttered with tremulous splotches of honey-hued sunlight shot through the breeze-blown leaves.
The great vulture circled steady and stable with wings locked, riding a thermal, a solar glider, always falling toward earth but descending at a slower rate than the hot air was rising, and so held aloft indefinitely with minimal effort.
The condor cast its inspective gaze upon the man far below and the forested earth and cloudless sky reflected as an entire world in miniature in the glassy sphere of the great vulture’s beady eye, as if all that ever was in the world and all that ever might be were found therein, the story of all life itself held in that glistening crystal ball.
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