The woman appeared with the first light, struggling across the dunes, a figure from the Revelation. Fahey saw her from the beach. There was a pack of feral dogs loose in the valley and Fahey had been hunting them for the better part of three days, without success. To complicate matters, he'd attempted to work behind a little crystal meth and it had left him in a bad place. He supposed that buying in the parking lot of the Palm Avenue 7-Eleven from a kid with a head shaped like a peanut and a hoop through his nose had not been the best of ideas. He watched as the figure crested a dune then disappeared from sight, still too distant to be properly identified as a woman. From the beach she appeared as little more than a hole in the dawn, a spidery black cutout in the faint yellow light just now beginning to seep from the summit of Cerro Colorado on the Mexican side of the fence that cut the valley into halves, and Fahey took her for one more clueless pilgrim stumbling toward the river that would most likely mark the end of the road. She might weep in bewilderment upon its banks or drown in its toxic waters. In either case there was little he could do, for he'd accepted as his charge the protection of certain migratory birds, most notably the western snowy plover and light-footed clapper rail, and within this jurisdiction the ubiquitous pilgrim was hardly a concern. Still, on the morning in question, Fahey found his obduracy mitigated by a kind of relief. It was, he believed, helpful to share the dawn with someone whose prospects were at least as fucked up as his own.
As if on cue, Fahey's heart resumed hammering at an absurd rate. Earlier, at about that point when it was becoming clear the bargain-basement chemical intended to do him wrong, he'd considered seeking help. The thought, however, of actually presenting himself in the emergency room in San Ysidro, along with such theaters of humiliation as were bound to follow, was so appalling he'd abandoned the idea almost at once. One might, after all, have expected more from a man of Fahey's age. But then one would have been disappointed.
Fahey put the pilgrim from his mind and knelt to examine the tracks. To his great disappointment, the prints were diamond-shaped and spaced to suggest the short, even gait of coyotes as opposed to dogs. The dogs' tracks would be rounder and farther apart. There would also be more of them. There were four dogs in the pack Fahey was hunting. He guessed the impressions before him to have been made by no more than two animals. He rose unsteadily in the soft sand. He'd glimpsed the tracks in his headlights from the opposite bank, then driven around for a closer look, slow going in the old valley's predawn Stygian gloom, his clutch beginning to smoke as the truck churned through the long beach in approach to the mouth of the river. He stared after the tracks as they veered into the dunes before losing themselves in shadow. Fahey considered himself a competent tracker. That he had been chasing the same four dogs for the better part of a week did not speak positively for his state of mind or, by extension of that logic, portend well for the future.
He walked the short distance to his truck, a battered 1981 Toyota, nearly half as old as Fahey himself, of indiscernible color. The bed was a jumble of poorly maintained tools, a variety of traps, nets, and poles, remnants of a time when these sorts of outings had been what he'd done to earn a living. His preferred method of dealing with feral animals had always been to trap them and he'd hoped to catch one or more of the dogs in the same way. He had accordingly run two dozen cages and another half dozen leg holds. The leg hold traps were, strictly speaking, illegal in the state of California but Fahey was not anticipating complaints. The dogs were an unusually bad lot and Fahey could not remember any quite like them. Already they had mauled a border patrolman and wiped out a dozen of the least-tern nests. They had also killed an old female coyote that had managed to snare herself in one of the illegal traps.
Fahey took a bottle of water from the cooler near the tailgate in the bed of his truck. The drug had left his mouth dry as cotton. He uncapped the bottle and drank. At his back the lights of Imperial Beach still flickered above the grasses of the great saltwater estuary that formed the northwest corner of the valley. Before him, across a wide swath of land known as Border Field State Park, were the dark cliffs of the Mexican mesas, the lights of Las Playas de Tijuana, and the great rounded edge of the Tijuana bullring, which might, he thought, in the aqueous coastal airs, have passed for the mother ship of some extraterrestrial and conquering race, settled there to survey its holdings. East lay the bulk of the valley, still dark with shadow. To the west, however, a thundering Pacific had begun to catch fire in the early light as Fahey looked to the sea. He had begun to think about the coyote he had trapped and was trying not to. He studied glassy swell lines beyond crackling shore break and churning lines of white water, sweeping south toward the fence and the beaches beyond. The animal had tried unsuccessfully to chew off its own foot in an effort to escape its fate. Seeking to drive the image from his mind, Fahey called forth the admonition of Mother Maybelle Carter, to keep on the sunny side of life. Unhappily, his gaze swung south, toward the mesas and their blood-soaked canyons.
Fucking Mexico. For some it was still a slice of the Old West, all whores and cowboys. For Fahey it remained an unfathomable din of fear and corruption, the wellspring of barbarous histories, none more iniquitous than his own. Of course Fahey's perception of the place ran to his youth, high school and the Island Express, when it had been his experience that only bad things happened south of the border. Subsequent experience had led to the revised conviction that only bad things happened pretty much everywhere. Still, the shit was always creepier in a foreign tongue, and he kept to his side of the valley, as familiar now as the face of a lover, though in point of fact Fahey had been without lovers for some time. Lovers, he had concluded, were like Mexico herself, little more than instruments of grief. Better to go it alone, on one's own side of the fence, where at the very least, Fahey reasoned, one might hear them coming.
Returning the water bottle to the cooler in the bed of his truck, he took in a coloring sky, thick scrim of smog going crimson above the Mexican hills. The dogs he tracked were from over there, out of the canyons. He had glimpsed them just once, on the first day, running single file across the top of Spooner's Mesa, three pit bull mixes and a border collie. He ran his traps that evening, found the coyote the next day. He had not seen the dogs since, nothing more than tracks in the sand, and for the last twenty-four hours even those had eluded him. Earlier in the week, when Bill Daniels from Fish and Game had come around to his trailer wanting to know if he would be willing to hunt some bad dogs for them, a one-time gig, like what he used to do before the job became federal, ruling out known drug runners and convicted felons, he had accepted for want of scratch, but in the last four days something had turned. Maybe it was the old coyote, half eaten, trapped by the leg hold Fahey himself had run. The hunt had gotten personal.
He was about to get into the Toyota and drive away when several birds -- too small to be anything but snowy plovers -- rose suddenly from the sand near the base of the dunes, beating the air in frantic circles. He hadn't known of any scrapings this far north on the beach and he went down to the wet sand, then walked along its edge, hoping for a better view of the birds' nesting place, wondering at what might have spooked them when, to his great consternation, the clueless pilgrim he had all but forgotten about reappeared once more, not fifty yards from where he stood.
He could see now that she was a woman. A mane of black hair held aloft by offshore winds flew like a pennant in the direction of the sea. To his horror, Fahey watched as she raised a hand and started toward him, setting a path that would lead directly into that part of the beach from which the birds had risen. Fahey raised both hands and pushed them toward her in what he imagined as some internationally recognizable signal to stop and go back. The woman came on. Fahey shouted into the wind, repeating the signal several times. Still the pilgrim stumbled toward him, toward the delicate nests that would house the even more delicate eggs. The plovers rose high above the dunes then dropped in unison, swooping toward the woman. It was the bird's nature to defecate upon approaching predators. The woman threw up her arms and began to run, still in Fahey's direction. Fahey cursed, ran to his truck and reached inside, going for that narrow space between the seat and the rear wall of the cab, banging his hand against the door jamb with enough force to peel a strip of skin from his knuckles, but managing to extract the short-barreled shotgun he housed there, pointed the weapon toward that place where the sky met the sea and discharged a round.
The blast seemed to get the woman's attention. She sank to her knees, her hands upon her ears, then rose and stumbled back the way she had come, vanishing among the dunes. Fahey stood wheezing on the beach. He had not fired a weapon in some time and he found that doing so just now seemed to have aggravated his condition. His heart thundered erratically in the hollow of his chest, as meanwhile, the plovers, driven to even greater levels of panic at the sound of his gun, widened their circles above the beach, the morning made horrible with their cries.
Fahey wiped at his brow with the sleeve of his shirt, bent forward to retrieve the spent casing, and was surprised to find it dancing away upon an eddy of swirling white water. He splashed after it, snatched it from the sea, stuffed it dripping into the pocket of his shirt, then stood to gaze upon the crashing waves, remembering the phase of the moon and the tide it would engender, only to be reminded in turn of a time when such prompts would have been wholly unnecessary for he would have known the tide and the swell with it, as a matter of course. And for just that instant, sea water seeping into his socks, gun held loosely in the crook of an arm, was thoroughly transported...and beheld the boy, not yet sixteen, hunkered at the foot of these selfsame dunes, and the old Dakota Badlander right there beside him, surfboards like graven images of wood and fiberglass set before them, tail blocks sunk into the very sand upon which Fahey now stood, and the boy watching, as the old man waves toward the sea with a stick held at the end of one long arm corded with muscle, burnt by the sun, then uses the stick to trace in the sand the route they will follow and the lineups they will use to find their way among the shifting peaks that stretch into the ocean for as far as the eye can see, wave crests capped by tongues of flame as the mist of feathering lips flies before the light of an approaching sunrise...and this when the light was still pure, before the smog, before the fence at the heart of the valley, before the shit had hit the fan.
At which point a faint cry issued from the dunes in which the pilgrim had vanished -- the present visited upon Fahey once more, in all its fine clarity. Raising the gun, he slogged onto the dry sand to stand looking into the folds of a dune. It was Fahey's philosophy, in a general sort of way, to leave what pilgrims he happened to cross paths with to their own devices and he was inclined to do so now. He took it as something like the Prime Directive from those early episodes of Star Trek he'd watched as a boy. Alien life forms were simply too foreign to be adequately known. Interfering was to invite consequences that were sure to be unforeseen, possibly dire. The Prime Directive now called for him to go to his truck and drive away. Fahey remained where he was. He could not have said why. An image presented itself to his mind's eye -- that of a slender young woman, his figure of the Revelation, a shapely arm raised above ragged clothes in what could only be interpreted as a gesture of supplication. Pilgrims generally ran at the approach of Americans, particularly those in uniform. This one had actually tried to get Fahey's attention and he saw once more that mane of hair, held fluttering upon the wind, black as the wing of a bird. His eyes searched the dunes into which she had fled and which, along this particular two-mile stretch of sand separating Las Playas de Tijuana from the town of Imperial Beach, were quite shallow. But there was no further sign of the pilgrim. The beach was silent, save for the crack of the shore break and the cries of the birds that continued to circle.
Odd, he thought, that the birds had not yet returned to their nests, as if they now sensed some new danger. He scanned the beach in both directions but found nothing. Perhaps it was his presence to which the creatures objected. "I'm here to help," Fahey told them. But the plovers maintained their frantic patterns.
He continued to stand facing the dunes. It was of course quite possible that the woman would return to the beach, that she still posed some threat to the nesting birds. The plovers were tiny creatures, no larger than a child's fist. Their method of self-defense, as the woman had discovered, was to take to the sky, then dive bomb the offending predator, most often a coyote or fox, shitting in unison till the enemy fled in what Fahey could only imagine as some state of profound disgust. The strategy had apparently worked well enough when the birds numbered into the hundreds. For the last few years, however, the plover had occupied a place on California's endangered species list. To date -- and they were already well into the mating season -- no more than a dozen of the small egg-bearing nests, little more than shallow scrapings in the sand, had been found and half of those already lost to the dogs Fahey tracked. But now, here at the mouth of the river, he had found a few more of the birds, clearly protecting what might at least be two, possibly three, nests, and it was incumbent upon him to defend them as best he could, be it from marauding animals or clueless pilgrims, hence Fahey's indecision. Or at least that was what he told himself, moving now in what he deemed to be a wide enough circle to avoid the nests, but angling toward the fold in the dunes through which the young woman had vanished. He was either looking out for the birds or violating his own Prime Directive. Fahey took it as one of life's little lessons that people were rarely doing what they claimed to be doing, even when that claim was made to none but themselves.
He climbed a dune then worked his way along the top, its summit crested with a sparse covering of ice plant, till he had come to that place where her footprints were plainly visible in the sandy hollow below. The prints led from the beach to the valley, sunk deep across a narrow salt pan still damp in the early light before vanishing into a small stand of mule fat and sandbar willow that grew near the bank of the river, where it curved away to the south.
A second decision was now called for. Finding her among the dunes would have been one thing. To follow her beneath the trees was another. The thicket into which she'd vanished was something of an aberration, as the greater part of these riparian woodlands lay farther east at the heart of the floodplain. Between this thicket and the bulk of the forest was cordgrass and brackish marsh and all of it, both woods and marshland alike, cut by such footpaths as the uncounted feet of migrants and smugglers had worn there over decades of use. And though he knew the valley, and the trails with it, he was loath to go where he could not see what waited. Or perhaps his very knowing was what brought him up short, that and the dubious nature of his enterprise. For who could say with certainty that the woman was not the bait in some elaborate and malevolent scheme?
A plover rose high into the air above Fahey's head before falling away toward the sea. At almost the same instant a naval helicopter broke from the training field at the edge of Imperial Beach in the northeast corner of the valley, rising above the marshes in gross mimicry of its tiny counterpart, then chugging northward, the length of the town, whose residents were encouraged to think of such disturbances as the sounds of freedom. He watched as the huge ship beat lazily at the sky then veered seaward before reaching the more affluent homes of Coronado Island, a community in which the sounds of freedom were less than welcome. He waited till the helicopter was gone, heard in its absence the frantic cry of a bird, the distant thunder of big surf, the rattle of his own heart. He was reminded of a father's lamentations, a man he had scarcely known: "Foolishness is tied up in the heart of a boy. The rod of discipline is what will drive it from him." He came off the dune in the direction of the valley -- the direction taken by the woman, moving laterally so as to control the speed of his descent, skirting the salt pan so as to save his boots, entering at last among the trees, where he had not gone twenty feet before finding her...huddled near the base of a metal sign posted to warn potential bathers of polluted water, as if the reek of raw sewage rising from the river itself would not have been enough.
"Please," she said. And her English was quite perfect. "I need your help."
It was not the greeting he had expected and Fahey, days at a time without human intercourse, was still considering a response when he saw the woman's eyes tick to a spot somewhere beyond his left shoulder, even as the cry of one more plover split the morning, and he felt it then, knew without seeing what had frightened the birds, beyond the approach of the woman or the report of the gun, and turned, and saw the dogs -- three pit bull mixes and a border collie, the pack of murderers he'd glimpsed on Spooner's Mesa, the same that had eluded him now for the better part of a week, all four of them, hunkered like gargoyles in the slatted shadows of the trees, the river at their backs.
Copyright © 2004 by Kem Nunn