Stay Gold, Pony Boy
It’s hard to sleep up on the salt flats. At 4000m above sea level the air is too thin, the land too cold. My brain is on constant low level alert and won’t shut down. It doesn’t knows what might happen if it did.
I get up quietly and turn on my torch. I lay it on my bed and pull on more clothes. The dorm is full. Other backpackers moan in their bunks, mounds of shadow in the fuzzy grey glow. Like Henry Moore’s sketches of civilians sleeping in Tube stations during the Blitz.
The torch guides me outside the lonely hostel, its pencil beam revealing only a few metres of dirt beyond which there is nothing but oblivion. I’m only wearing a couple of layers so I’m soon cold and shivering. I rub my arms and stamp my feet and breathe on my gloved hands. My breath hangs in the air in front of me. Thick, frozen clouds.
I look up and gasp. I’ve been stargazing before, but this is something else – a velvet sheet of blazing pinpricks all dusted in the platinum grit of the Milky Way. It’s beautiful. It’s shocking. The light from these stars has taken so long to reach Earth that some of them are now dead. Below the stars the flats, and their dead landscape of salt and sand, lie in darkness. I feel very small.
A dog appears – black, unkempt, sad-eyed. This isn’t out of the ordinary. Most streets in this country have at least one random canine that will be friendly to anyone if they think there’s food in it. But it’s unusual out here, miles from anywhere. I bend to pat the dog’s head then kneel down and stroke him.
‘Hey, doggy-dog. Where’d you come from, eh?’ He sniffs me and licks my hand, then my face. I push him away. ‘OK, mister, enough of that, thank you very much.’
I sit on the coarse sand and he does too, trying to cosy up to me. At first I move away – What if he has fleas? – keeping my distance. But I’m freezing and shuffle closer to soak up his body heat. I stop shivering quite so much and watch the dog’s tongue loll across his ragged lower lip. I notice that no steam comes from his mouth when he exhales, even though his fur rises and falls as if he’s breathing. It’s odd.
I look up again, at the mess of stars overhead. ‘It’s quite something,’ I say.
The dog lets out a whine and his head jerks forward. Has he spotted something? He’s on his feet, bounding away, disappearing into the night. He barks and I jump up – Border guards? Rabid dogs? Bandits? – and follow him, pointing my torch this way and that, its tiny bulb all but irrelevant in the blackness, my heart faster, my breath quicker.
Then, out of nowhere, he’s standing next to me again, looking around, barking sternly. He quietens down, happy that whatever the danger was it has passed, that he has sent it on its way.
‘Bit on edge are we?’ I’ve never projected my feelings on to a dog before.
We sit on the sand and I put my arm round him and feel the warm blood pulse below his skin. He slips a paw on to my thigh. The stars are of no interest to him – he just stares at the darkness, not worried or scared, just watchful, attentive, the fur between his eyes pinched ever so slightly.
I follow his gaze and feel the solitude the darkness brings and another black dog appears – or should I say “descends”? I wonder what would happen if I walked off across the flats. How far could I get? How far before the dark has me disorientated, stumbling, wandering in ever-decreasing circles? How far before the freezing cold forces me to my knees? Before I die of exposure? Oates comes to mind – the man who committed suicide by walking out into a blizzard on Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. Feelings I keep hidden force their way out.
Anger and hurt. Disturbed and anxious. Head in hands. I fume. My face contorts and my mouth buckles into a sob. It takes everything I have to stop the tears, but now I’m weighed down and overwhelmed, isolated and afraid. The terrors I’d imagined during the dog’s outburst return and teem around me – corrupt officials, vicious animals, violent criminals. They’re just beyond my torch’s pale beam. Out there. Coming for me.
The fear passes. But I’m left drained. I contemplate walking off across the salt flats again. Then the dog licks my face and this time I don’t stop him. I’m glad of the distraction. He gets up and takes a few steps and looks back over his shoulder, his dark body outlined greyish white in the light of my torch. He looks into the night and then at me again. He’s off on an adventure and wants me to go with him. I swear he jerks his head to one side as if to say, “Come on!” I lean over to slap him on the rear, but can’t reach. ‘Shoo, shoo,’ I say and slump back. He gives me one last look and pads away.
I’m alone with my heartbeat and breath. I’m freezing again and can’t feel my fingers or toes, the rest of my limbs all pins and needles. I stand and rub and stamp until the pins and needles go, but most of me is still lost to the cold. My heartbeat is quiet, distant. My frozen breath only comes out weak puffs. Maybe I should go back inside. Back to bed. Get warm.
The hostel looms above me, tepid squares marking out its windows. I am about to head inside, beckoned by sleeping bags, four wheel drives, hot food, civilisation. But instead I turn back to the salt flats and the dog. Questions hurry through my mind. Where’s he gone? Who owns him? What’s he doing out here? Then he barks, off somewhere in the night. Not far. Calling. He barks again and I walk towards the sound, my pace quickening.
A splash of light up ahead makes me accelerate, fills me with hope. I picture the dog bouncing across the gravelly sand, his coal fur awash with silver from the stars above. My torch slips from my fingers as I jog but I don’t go back and it is! It’s him! The dog! Picked out in starlight just as I’d imagined, careering through the blackness. He looks back over his shoulder and shoots me a wink.
I catch up with him and he barks, delighted, and we take turns to play follow the leader, him wildly outstripping me, pounding across the salty earth, vanishing, appearing again and slacking off, letting me to overtake. I play around – changing direction without warning, twisting this was and that and stopping in my tracks, feeling the coarse ground shift beneath my feet, letting him accelerate off into the darkness. He always finds me again. Eventually, we stop the games and run together, side by side, in a straight line, as fast as we can. My heartbeat slows. I gasp for breath.
Rising into a sprint, I see us taking off, ascending, the world falling away below as we move up into the sky, towards the starscape. We turn mineral and metallic as we climb – sapphire then platinum, diamond then gold. We are crystals, cubes, crescents and pentagons, thrusting out through space, cosmic dust flung out across the Milky Way. Pulverised. Weightless.
I wrap the void around myself as I lie down in desert sand.
Bruno Diaz was born in Zurich and brought up in the north of England. He studied English at King’s College London and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He writes short stories and poetry, and blogs about travel, culture and cocktails: medium.com/@brunodiazwriter.