The Ancient Modern
The Eighth Step Is the Water / Joshua Alan Sturgill
I descend into the hot springs at La Paloma, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
At the first step down, I think about the step. Maybe ten by fourteen, unsquare. They tell me these little rooms were constructed in the 1930’s. The step is rough under my naked feet—a concrete projection from the concrete wall. I see the wall: supported by bedrock, supported by the viscous Mantle, all afloat on the churning magnet of Earth’s iron core. I think that everything is made of condensed light. I think of the step, descending by way of itself.
At the second step, I think of anxiety. It’s why I’ve come to the hot springs. To let it release. How much anxiety have I hauled along within me? I think of it as a pustule, a swelling caused by an allergy to what can’t be known. Or, like a shard of debris blown back from the future, caught in my brain. Anxiety is a kind of faith—a faith in Nothing, an allegiance to abandonment. Anxiety says, “I will be helpless then, as now.” My bones are too thin to bear the tension of being. Exposed in the dark; afraid of any sudden touch of light.
At the third step, I think of age. My age. Which is only a moment in the life of water. I think of the age of water: this thousands-of-years-old water, pressed out of Earth like wine, carrying all its elements into the air. I smell sulphur and limestone, granite and garnet and olivine. This is the sweat of stones in the dim humidity, rare and living. Earth’s brown skin, with scarlet surging below—still somehow blue with invisible fire.
At the fourth step, I wonder where we learned music. First from birds, I surmise, who learned it from the fish, who learned it directly from the water on the Fifth Day—when birds and fish were fluid and alone. The Navajo Flute plays outside, in the hallway, very softly, strangely so like and unlike the simple song of a mourning dove. What was that music like, when birds and fish apportioned the world? When questions were flying and unhindered by the answers swimming below?
At the fifth step, I think of suicide. Of Macy and David, Alex and Rae. It draws anger out of me like a geyser—ahelpless, parental anger. I think how I knew these former someones, how we were co-sojourners. We agreed that Earth was hard place to live. But, we said this hand in hand and recognized the broken beauty around us. Scattered shells on a lonely beach. My friends, how did death find a way to whisper to you, so low that I couldn’t hear? And why did you listen, and not tell me? Poison death with patience, I would have said. I am so angry with grief that I lose the words.
At the sixth step, I think of Eros. Desire as a burning god. I think of the body I long to enter, and Earth herself—so strangely like and unlike peace. Eros, a harbor—truly! A harbor of deep terror. Eros, the alchemist—calling perfection up from leaden loneliness. Did Eros create or merely reveal the beauty I see in your face? Marked with such elegant simplicity. I see the straying point of the Yin, to the left and above your pale mouth. I call out to your skin, which is the skin of aspens, to have eyes and to look at me with unbearable calm.
At the seventh step, I know my ignorance. The sting of a solitary life, the water’s blade. I am near the water now; I forget everything but my feet, alive with the heat of the spring. Suddenly all the masks by which ignorance disguises itself are removed, and I wonder how they ever could have fooled me. Imagination is one. We never have what we imagine. Memory, too, dissolving in the acid of new experience. And, Reason—the most pernicious—is oblivion in a cocktail dress.
But, there is a real, an honest Ignorance: an emptiness readied for the coming Known: a beggar’s bowl: a body longing for the conflagration and the flood.