“Do you believe?”
“I’m not convinced. Do you BELIEVE?!”
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
We are camped just downstream from Slickhorn Gulch on the San Juan River. I’ve gone to bed early, pleasantly sunburnt from a day at the oars, and am nestled in a sandy hollow surrounded by tussocks of wheatgrass, the air warm and silky turning cool. I’ve laid my head on the pillow, book set aside, and am floating in a blissful somnambulistic limbo, stars wheeling, a feather-light in-between world where you float away, truly all alone, and no one else may follow.
I can’t see what’s going on, but hearing is no problem; the proceedings are growing louder. Everyone is still hanging out by the fire and things are actually getting kind of rowdy. Every party needs a pooper; that’s why they invited me.
“I don’t believe that you believe! DO YOU BELIEVE?!”
The adults: “YES! YES! YES!”
The kids: “We said yes, fer cryin’ out loud. Y-E-E-E-S! Jeez.”
The Milky Way is a translucent band bisecting the sky, disappearing at either end behind the red sandstone cliffs that define the river corridor. Tilting my head I can see the light from our fire dancing on the sheer wall across the river. In the wavering glow a shadow coalesces in the shape of a man, a giant, a moving, colossal Kokapelli petroglyph come to life. Is this a dream?
Looking from the other side of sleep through the hazy curtain separating the two worlds I realize slowly that it is real, that is to say of the real world of Earth, this sixty-foot tall shadow-being: it is the High Priest. The High Priest of Grease Bombs. His real name is Pete.
“OK! I believe that you believe. I think it’s ready. Let’s try it!”
An expectant hush. A drawn-out silence. Then, a little “poof,” a burp from a sparrow, a little fart of an explosion, and widespread groans of disappointment. Expressions of disgust.
“He said it was gonna be huge.”
“I ain’t buyin’ any swampland in Florida from that guy.”
“That sucked, Dad.”
Like a Mayan priest from centuries past facing down an unruly mob of drought-stricken subjects, the High Priest of Grease Bombs has the situation well in hand.
“There is among you … someone who DOESN’T BELIEVE!”
Had Captain Bligh handled the mutiny on the Bounty with equal aplomb, he wouldn’t have had to escape in a cockleshell across the southern oceans fearing for his life.
“You! Do you believe?!”
“And you there! Do you believe?!”
And around the circle he goes in a fever pitch, ratcheting up the passion of his tribe until near the end each adherent is ready to take from their life jackets their otherwise useless – aside from spreading peanut butter – guide knives and draw them across their palms in a blood oath.
It starts slowly then, spontaneously, a chant – from one of the children, I believe – a small quavering voice; it could be Cindy Lu from Whoville: “Grease bomb. Grease bomb. Grease bomb! Grease BOMB!” More voices join in by two’s and threes, and it grows in speed and volume: “GREASE BOMB! GREASE BOMB! GREASE BOMB! GREASE BOMB!” until it is a semi with smoking brakes, this energy; a runaway train, this keening; an asteroid streaking to Earth to kill all the dinosaurs, this desire for fire; unstoppable, irresistible.
In my mumbling state, from behind the veil of slumber my lips move involuntarily, imperfectly, until a garbled groan emerges, in synch with the syncopated echo of the crowd bouncing from the walls of the gorge: “BREASE GOMB! BREASE GOMB! BREA –” What? Hunh?
They are speaking in tongues! Possessed by the spirit they are– I imagine them frothing at the mouth and convulsing on the ground in rapture – these mortal puppets of the High Priest, who is now in his full raging glory, grown yet larger on the canyon wall across the river, his arms spread wide like the concrete Jesus over Rio, like Godzilla over Tokyo with flames coming out of his mouth, his power terrible to behold.
Waterbirds and bighorn sheep cock their heads and wait, aware of impending cataclysm, the wind holds its breath and the ancient rock walls of the canyon threaten to burst with anticipation, which would dam the river and cause a flash flood that would ripple across Lake Powell and wipe out the Glen Canyon Dam and there goes Vegas, baby, and baby, there goes Elvis. The end of the world as we know it.
It is the High Priest of Grease Bombs who at this moment has this world in the palm of his hand, I know, in the form of a scalding, bubbling vat, nearly vaporized, of hot bacon grease.
There is a moment of silence, then we all see it and feel it before we hear it: a flash, a great release of energy and a noble, uplifting, roiling mushroom cloud that would make the nuclear scientists at the White Sands Missile Range giggle and blush with pleasure, the silhouette of which somehow, amazingly, aligns with Pete’s head on the Great Wall Across the River, forming a shimmering halo, the holiest and most radiant halo ever.
Then comes a “whoompf” that sounds like the fighter jets that boom over the river corridor every afternoon. A vacuum like a black hole, then the bighorns return to their graze, grebes to their fishing, and the wind once again whispers.
Complete, the river party collectively coos, believers to the end, scatters to sleeping bags in the shadows, and a reverent hush, as soft as the down of a nearby gaggle of geese, settles over the desert night…