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The Ritual

Michael walked over to the clearing in the white rocks and kneeled down in the dust. He could feel the sun on the back of his neck as he squinted in the heat. There was no wind, no trace of air coming down the arroyo. The sagebrush was scorched. He leaned forward, putting both hands on the ground, allowing the chalky dirt to press up between his fingers. The dirt was hot, and he could feel solid rock just beneath its thin layer.

He clenched his fingers and brought the dust up in front of his face, watching the particles coat the sweat on his forearms. He prayed, "Father, I belong to you." He opened his palms and wiped the dust on his cheeks and forehead. He wiped his forearms in the same way. Then he smeared dust on his jeans. He looked up at the mountains and to the sky beyond them, and he said, "But if you lift me up, you have to lift up the whole world with me." He felt the hot rock under his knees. He felt the mixture of sweat and dust cake upon his arms and face. "I am alive," he thought.

Michael looked behind him at the city in the distance, at the contrails in the sky, and the gray smudge of smog on the horizon. Then he looked down at his hands and forearms, and saw how the veins beneath the dirt on the backs of his hands swelled with the pressure of his heartbeat. In this arid space, he was an ocean of moist skin, bone, and muscle. He stood up and turned slowly, taking in the surrounding rock and sage, the dirt road, his truck, and the shimmering heat rising up from the earth. "God, you know I don’t want to leave this place. Don’t take me to a paradise and leave all this behind. I promise to be good. I promise to never leave you. Just don’t take me from here."

He proceeded with the ritual. Standing with his arms at his side, he relaxed his hands and let his shoulders drop. He breathed deeply in through his nostrils and felt the dry desert air fill his lungs, bringing with it the smell of the rocks, the sage, and the pinion pines from farther up the slope. Slowly, he let the air out, but the smells remained. "This is the air of the Earth," he thought. Extending his right arm toward the sun, he said, "And this is the fire that gives it life." Without moving or bending his back, he stretched his left hand toward the center of the Earth and made a fist, as though to grab the planet core. It was the same feeling he had felt as a rider in the rodeo, strapping his hand to the harness on the enormous, angry back of a Brahma bull. This moment was just as intense and just as sure. He let the sunlight flow down through the nerves in his arm and spine and felt it form a ball in the pit of his stomach. Then he lifted up on the Earth’s iron center. It did not budge. "This is solid," he thought. "This is the rock upon which I have built my church. This is the foundation where I stand." Then the Earth, and the hand and forearm that grasped it, became perfectly still. And the air, the mountains, the city in the background, the oceans, the continents, and all the stars of the universe swirled around him as he stood in his immovable spot. "This is what you made me for," he said, "and this I will do. I will occupy this place, and I will not leave it. And this I will do for you."

Then Michael walked back to his truck, took out a towel and wiped his face and arms. His thick, black hair looked dull in the dusty heat, and there were sweat stains under the arms of his shirt and down the back. He got in, leaning forward slightly, so that the hot vinyl wouldn’t burn his skin through the cotton. He looked around once more surveying the horizon, amazed at the fact of his existence.

As the pickup rolled down the dirt road of the arroyo, silence swept in and settled on the place of his ritual. It was as though nothing had happened. The ground was the same, except for a few marks in the dirt, the air still weighed on the rocks with its hot heaviness, and the mountains went on ignoring everything but the sky above them. Nothing had changed. It was all just the same as it was before Michael and his ritual flickered by. But the universe had changed. The stars now knew where their pivot point was. And the Earth, silent and deep, breathed its satisfaction out through the pores of the sagebrush and the pinion pines. All was exactly as it should be—safe, secure, and solid—here, at the center of the universe.