Listen to the Music
How they made any profit, I never knew; standing on the edge of Death Valley next to the road like some cartoon house perched just on the edge of a heart-in-your-throat-drop-off cliff. The sign was clear enough, even if it looked like someone's home: STUNNING SOUVENIRS. I slammed on the brakes at the sight of it, ignoring the harsh whiplash of the seatbelt as my car lurched to a surprised and bewildered halt. A stop? Here? On a road to nowhere in the middle of nowhere? Now, why would I have done a thing like that? No, I answered, I have a better question: how do they get souvenirs to sell in a place like Death Valley?
Car left where it was, the thought of anyone coming and accidentally crashing into it as absurd as my stopping there in the first place, I listened to the familiar chime of the little bell that alerted the employees inside to the arrival of customers and sighed gratefully at the blast of air conditioning that hit my face… just like I would have done in any other convenience store or gas station I had passed on this trip. It was normal. Against all instincts and odds, it was perfectly normal. Shelves lined the walls like any other place, one with refrigerated drinks and another with snack things and another with stuffed animals and postcards and, under obligation of course, one with mugs and magnets and keychains proclaiming the beauty of Death Valley. Some were very convincingly done, but there were a few that were indistinguishable from jokes. Did they really mean that the hunting was good in a place where life was scarce and well-hidden, or were they simply being ironic? For the life of me, I honestly couldn't tell.
"Well, hello there!" a cheery, spindly-limbed, balding blond-haired man in a black and navy blue pin-stripe suit called cheerily from behind the counter where lighters and gum packets and little keychain baubles were piled haphazardly around as if to drown him in their cheap marketability.
"Hello," I answered back as happily as I could manage, though I only barely tried to disguise the confusion in my voice, "How's business?"
The man's mouth broke into a smile so wide that it looked more like I had complimented his shop than asked him a question, "Wonderful, lately! You wouldn't believe how lively it is around here in the summer time! And how are you today, Sir? Looking for some souvenirs?" I swiftly looked away from him, out the window to my car waiting lonely on the road. Wonderful? Lively? An inside joke, surely. I laughed it off quickly and moved over to a shelf I hadn't scanned over yet.
There, in the most beautifully organized tower I'd ever seen and covered in intricate natural designs created by erosion, were rocks. The sign below them read: $49.99 DEATH VALLEY 'MOVING' PET ROCKS. TAKE THEM HOME AND WATCH THEM MOVE! NO FEEDING NECESSARY! My mouth fell open in disbelief: pet rocks! Allegedly moving pet rocks! It was… absurd! My hand reached to brush across the rough and unpolished surface of a blue-grey stone with vivid black veins crawling across in little indentations created by the wind. I was marveling at its beauty and asking myself whether it could actually move or not when I saw her.
As tall as the man behind the counter, she skipped down the stairs that undoubtedly lead to the living quarters of the little shop. Her lavender hair was pulled up into a high, swinging ponytail to match the attitude of the dark violet shirt she wore with a little orange-yellow sun up near her left shoulder and the words "Be Happy!" in glaring yellow font. From the light red book-bag filled to bursting with books and who-knows-what-else strung across her shoulder and the bell-bottom jeans with constellations of rhinestones decorating their legs to her good-as-new red tennis shoes and the neon pink over-ear headphones that sat joyfully on top of her head, even to her sparkling sky blue eyes and the softly, gently pulling corners of her mouth that seemed always just about to break into a huge overjoyed grin, every inch of her communicated happiness and peace. For a teenager, this was something strange. Something was off. She was no less than six years younger than me; she had to have been sixteen at the oldest! Still, she seemed completely accepting of everything. Not biased, not cynical, not over-dramatic. I wandered slowly over as she hop-skipped to the snacks and drinks section.
"Hello. Do… um, do you live… here?" My words came slowly, hesitantly, as if they were afraid to leave the comfort of my mind. A teenager living in Death Valley in a shop that could never have gotten more than a customer a year (who, if they were lucky, would buy a few of the ridiculously absurd $50 pet rocks), who was as happy as a child on a playground. She was even more impossible than the shop itself. She was a creature of myth, a fairy of the desert that only showed itself to those in need of guidance. Was I, then, on this quest to see if blue has unknown shades locked somewhere deep within its many manifestations, in need of some sort of guidance?
Even the way she looked to me was strange, as if she had only just noticed that there was another living creature in her domain and yet also like she had known I was coming many years before I had even considered the possibility of leaving my Oceanside home… like she was an old friend who was meeting me for the first time. Her eyes gazed into my soul, and I fidgeted slightly beneath her all-seeing gaze. Did she know that I had cheated on that test in high school? Did she know that I had done things a little more unsavory than just drinking on my twenty-first birthday? Did she know the wrongs I had done? Did she know the good I had done, as well? Saving stray cats and giving money to charities and counseling my friends in times of need and trying to fix what I had done to harm others in the past? Did she know that? Or was she just a girl in a shop in Death Valley who had never heard a word of me of and of my life?
She nodded to me, as if to say "hello" back, and then she walked quietly up to me and stared deep, deep into my eyes. I saw in them a waterfall spilling into the mouth of a creek that fed into the ocean so many miles away, a body of swiftly moving water—of purpose and kindness and love and joy—and I saw the many fish within the ocean who filtered this water through their gills and found themselves a little happier for it and the dull-colored little fish that had been swept up in the taste of it and carried away through the vast expanse of the seas to try and find its source. In those eyes, I saw my own story alongside the stories of every other soul in the universe; even those she had never met and never would be able to meet. I saw what she did, simply by existing, and my breath came short a moment in amazement as I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it all. Existing! Existing did all this? That was all it took?
Then the girl, smiling as if amused by my reaction (though with her, did she really need a reason to smile?), tapped three times on the right side of her headphones. She stayed completely still as the sight sunk into my mind and embedded itself in my memory for years and years to come, then swept past to the counter and laid down a bag of chips for the owner to scan. I followed her like a ghost in my own body, like a dog who doesn't know if he's allowed to walk at his master's feet or turn around to guard the living room fire instead. My legs moved against my will, and I barely noticed as I bumped into the counter and blinked away my ghostly possession at the sound of the owner's voice.
"Been travelling a long time, then? What for?" he asked, making simple conversation as store clerks will.
"Ah… not more than a few days, actually. I'm coming from the sunny beaches of California, and I see the ocean every day. I'm looking… for a different shade of blue. I'm trying to get to the other side," I leaned my elbow next to the keychains and stared into space, the blue of the horizon as I opened my eyes to morning light playing itself in the corner of the shop in front of the case of cigarettes behind the clerk.
"Ah, the Atlantic! Fine goal, fine goal indeed. A long way, though."
"I know. I've planned for it. Say… is she…?"
"My daughter, you mean? Yes, she's just always that happy. Brings a smile to my own face, too."
"Well, yes, but is she… you know…" I tried to ask politely, not even sure it was the right question to ask or not, but he seemed to think it wasn't and insisted on interrupting me. As if he didn't want to say whether or not she could hear me, whether or not she was deaf or mute or just that strange. He praised her without even breaking for breath, and I was forced to give up. With one quietly exasperated breath, I settled myself to pretend to listen. It wasn't as if I was going to be buying anything, anyway, might as well give him my time if I wasn't going to be helping his business.
It was hardly a minute later, though, that I felt a presence in front of me. There stood the girl, smile still gentle on her face. I started, pulling my arm from the counter and standing tall as if it was somehow important that I make a good impression on her this time. Her smile pulled a little wider and again she tapped her headphones three times. Then, with a jolt of static electricity and water and vivid, cascading, cart-wheeling, singing emotions more pure than I had ever felt under any other circumstances, she tapped my own ear three times and with the ever-present smile still playing on her face she mouthed one word that I will not forget even if I lose all other memory, "Listen."
So I listened, and the spark of her touch lingered on my skin as I began to hear it: music. In lilting grace and elegant beauty, the sound carried on it every hope and dream and desire and childhood happiness I had ever stored away in my memory and in my heart. It wove in the air around me a story of humans and creatures who saw, in the harshness of a desert long abandoned by the gracious attentions of plant life and flowing water, a benefit in working together; and who, upon trying, found that the methods of living beings from other climates never did yield quite the cooperative results that their alliance had. It told tales of good, of bad, of philosophical quandaries and ethical solutions. It showed me the world and pushed me to go see it in all its real life glory. It told to me the truth: there are more shades of blue in your own ocean than you could ever see, and still more in the ocean away; go, see them all, and hold your breath close in case it is taken away by the sight.
I looked at her then, curiously; had she been the one to play this song? She shook her head as if reading my thoughts, the smile now knowing and filled with a mischief that only made her joy that much greater, and skipped off to the stairway. She left my sight, far out of earshot, and still the music played. Still it told me grand legends of souls who had done far greater things than I would even be capable of. Still my mind filled with sound incomprehensible, with words impossible to misunderstand, with colors bright and ideas idealistic and hopes so high. Still I felt that, in following the current of the sea, I had found that creek where joy flowed most freely and most near to its source.
Away from the counter where the girl's father still talked on about his business booming in the economic activity of summer time, out the door where the chiming of the bell melded with my own song for only the briefest instant, thanking me for coming and telling me that it had, by its very nature, enjoyed my company even for the few minutes I had been there. Across the desert line, the drop-down cliff drop-off, onto the road, into my car. Then I closed the door, put the key in the ignition, and froze. The music had stopped. I looked around me frantically, as if it could be found in the glove compartment of my car. I checked under seats, on the dash, in my hands, under my shirt, in my pockets… and in one pocket, where it hadn't been before, was small and smooth and indefinable in its almost-oval shape.
I drew it out slowly, the black leaping out at me as if to insist that yes, it did exist and there was nothing I could do to change that no matter how I might have tried. A smile, finally, crept onto my own face as I shook my head.
"A pet rock…" I chuckled under my breath as I set it on the dash of my car and stepped on the gas pedal to leave Death Valley, "A moving, living pet rock…!" With those words, the music began again; more beautiful than ever. And I listened.