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Harsh Mistress

There were heat lines all along the straight highway. It must be near 120 degrees, I thought. In the desert riding my Harley, I knew a freedom I had never dreamed of.

The sand dunes, tumbleweeds, shrubs, and in the distance, tan and brown rock formations, remnants of plateaus, each carved by rivers long gone. The bright desert sun, implacable, shone overhead, as it had for billions of years. I felt the power of the wind on my burnished skin, reminding me that I was just a passenger on earth, a simple man. Years had been a struggle until at last I had understood the power of the desert. Lifetimes are shaped by the harsh desert wind, and I, on my Harley, hoped the young woman behind me could feel even a little bit of this natural rawness.

My leather boots, near the front wheel, saw the passing pebbles of the highway. My hands, dark and leathery, gripped the handle of the powerful motorcycle. I trusted this bike. I knew we would die if the Harley died.

The desert is a harsh mistress.

As I trusted the metal of the Harley, I knew the young woman behind me trusted the leather of my vest. I felt both slender hands together on my stomach, holding, trusting. I saw the lines in the distance, and they were reflected by those on my face.

I tilted my head sideways and felt her face get closer "Elizabeth, can you feel the power of the desert?"

I felt her hands tighten around my waist and her sultry voice, lips touching my ear “I feel your power, my love.”

Later, in the evening, I stopped the motorcycle on the side of the road. Elizabeth and I stepped off the Harley and walked around to stretch.

I looked at her graceful body. The youth and vitality of her being, the slenderness of her limbs, the softness of her skin, her flowing blond hair... All these reasons for my love, for my adoration of this magical woman.

She turned to me and smiled. The sparkle of her eye and the whiteness of her teeth melted my heart. I muttered, feeling dumb, ugly and slow, a mere supplicant in the presence of a goddess. I opened my arms, begging to be touched, to be held, by this gorgeous creature, thinking that when God made Eve for Adam, he really knew what he had done.

She reached out to me, wrapped her arms behind my back, pressed her body against mine, and cradled her head on my shoulder, against my neck.

The feel of her body overwhelmed me. I shuddered inside. My arms naturally covered her back, her neck. I looked in the distance, to the blueish horizon where the last rays of the sun battled the shadows below. I felt the chill of the desert wind, smelled the scent of pure, clean air, and shuddered again. I kissed her forehead, feeling warmth build in my breast. She held me tighter.

“I love you,” I whispered, my mouth in her hair.

“I love you too,” she replied, echoing the warmth in my voice.

My gaze travelled along the lonely horizon. Everywhere I looked, my eyes touched something cold, something dead. Everything around us was silent, lifeless. I held on to Elizabeth a long time, until at last the sun was but a memory and the chilly air sparkled with billions of stars. In my desperation, my humanness had sought the refuge of a woman's hold.

“Let's go, I'm cold.” She said.

“Of course.”

We got back on the bike, back on the highway, back to civilization and its line of glittering lights on the horizon ahead.

As we rode, I thought about all the changes I had undergone in the deserts of the world. In the African Sahara, the sheer beauty of the dunes had taken my breath away. In the Gobi, north of Tibet, I had seen the violence of nature in the fight for food, man included, for survival in an arid, dead place. In central Australia, I had come to know true brotherhood with the native men of the land. They had shown me that a man alone dies, but that a man among his brothers prospers. I had seen the spirit of the team. I had learned, in hard lessons, what makes man man.

The desert is a harsh mistress.

I wondered whether Elizabeth had the same thoughts. I wondered if she had felt her humanness, contrasted as it was against the inhumanity of this dead place. I reminded myself that she was young yet, just twenty-one. I remembered how simple the world had seemed when I was twenty-one, so many years ago.

I parked the Harley in front of the motel. The lights were on in the diner. Next door, a large gas station. In between the two, several dozen tractor trailors were parked. In the reflected light, I could read the names of trucking companies.

We ate silently at the diner, both tired from the long ride in the desert. After, in the motel room, after a long shower, Elizabeth and I shared each other's bodies, feeling the ecstasy of each other's pleasure.

When at last the fire subsided and our skins grew cold again, we slid under the sheets and held each other, legs tangled, breathing slowing.

"You really like the desert, don't you Chris?"

“Yes Elizabeth, I do”

“So do I.” She said, closing her eyes.

I looked at her face while she slept, her cheek against my chest. I knew I loved this woman at least as much as I had ever loved any woman, and I felt a certainty in my heart that if I ever was without her, without her touch, without her smile, my heart would grow cold, my mind would become dull, and my body would whither and die.

The desert is a harsh mistress.

© 1998 Christopher Mahan

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