A Damned Riojasaurus
If you follow the path I wore down over the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, you’ll eventually reach Saint Hyacinth sleeping in the desert. He’s been there since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, those poor guys. It’s not Chicxulub, but it might as well be. Something plummeted down from space here, too, everting ash into the air until the children cried, “I’m a baby dinosaur and I can’t see,” words my sweet micropachycephalosaurus once said.
As a fragment of shocked quartz, I am drawn to this crater: it’s my home desert. We make the pilgrimage to see Saint Hyacinth on Saint Stephen’s Day, the only time he wakes and speaks. Of course, he doesn’t speak to us; he speaks to someone beyond. This year, on my twenty-first visit, he said, “In the seventh verse of the third chapter of his second letter, Saint Peter wrote that ‘the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire,’ but has this not already taken place? A seven-mile body broke and ignited the Earth sixty-six million years ago. Nearly all creatures went to bed under their blankets of ash and rock that night. Even the plesiosaurs boiled in their homes. God has already destroyed the Earth by fire. You see, the Bible was written for them. That is why we fail to understand so much of it. It is the gospel of the dinosaurs.
“Have you never seen an arachnid, an insect? You should’ve known by the Jurassicity of the mantis—mantises eating mantises eating mantises. We are still in the age of the dinosaurs: they shrank to survive, and they are the bugs that surround us.
“There is one place where they live in their quondam deinos.” He pointed northwest. “The air museum. At least, it looks like an air museum—planes and helicopters perched in the desert; in fact it is the dinosaurs lying in state on bottlebrush catafalques, though they live.”
Then the saint laid his head down on the rocks and said, “Now I will go on forgetting my nightmare of Trajan,” and he slept.
After the sermon, I fell in with a dinosaur that made me squirm. Disguised as an anise swallowtail caterpillar, the Riojasaurus was everting her osmeteria in Saint Hyacinth’s neighborhood by the community college. I’m not afraid of being devoured by Upper Triassic teeth—the little sauropodomorph is an herbivore of sweet fennel. It’s the dinosaur’s eruciform body that bothers me, though I can’t say why. My sugar scansoriopteryx saw me crying in frustration, so he said, “I’m a big tall dinosaur and I’m going to hug you.”
My precious compsognathus had himself cried when I told him about the death of the dinosaurs. I thought he was mourning for them, but after visiting the saint, I realized he was mourning for all of us who’d been fooled. My little minmi already knew the truth about
dinosaurs: he’d been quoting them to me every day. When I’d heard only cicadas chanting and ants working, he’d heard their words and had wanted to share them with me, the gospel of the dinosaurs—their eternal life.
It should not have taken me twenty-one desert pilgrimages to face the Riojasaurus. But the sermon and the dust under my sandals have instructed me: there’s a family resemblance I can’t deny. When I saw the sauropodomorph prolegging around, I recognized myself. I wasn’t a fragment of shocked quartz at all—I’m a damned Riojasaurus. Skeptics will ask whether we’re from Argentina—all Riojasauruses are, you know—and I’ll answer, “You’re asking the wrong question.” I’ll tell them that La Rioja is named for El Río Oja, a three-word sermon of juniper leaves melting down into hyacinth petals in the worldwide fire the saint preached about. I’ll tell them that La Rioja shares four sacral vertebrae with my Chicxulubmente womb-crater Álava, a Norian bosque I’ve never seen. I’ll tell them that La Rioja lies in state on the bottlebrush catafalques of my pale skin and straight brown hair, close enough to Artziniega to make me uncomfortable. Isn’t that prueba enough?
I feel fairly certain that Saint Hyacinth is a giant, though he’s only twelve. He wears a jeweled laurel wreath—and if you go and see him in the desert, you will know what I mean about all this—but in heaven he wears none. Was it right for me to tell you all these things about him? He was just a child.
If you don’t believe me, remember: this is California.
Or maybe none of this is true. Maybe these are just the stories I tell myself so I can forget going home.
Author’s note: One day, my brother-in-law Nate wondered out loud what it would be like if dinosaurs had shrunk down and lived on as bugs, and that, along with other ideas, led to this story.
The quotation “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire” is from 2 Peter 3:7, from the Lexham English Bible.
When I began, there was a four-story saguaro to my left. Nothing else—no rock, no dune, no tun—troubled the landscape. I walked across the sand toward the sun, swollen and red on the horizon. I would say that the saguaro was north or south of me, but I didn’t know if the sun was rising or setting. I didn’t know where I was going. ‘Soon,’ I thought, ‘I’ll see the sun move, and then I’ll know.’
I began to think about my life. I thought about my many joys and griefs, my accomplishments and regrets. I thought about all the people I knew, my friends, my enemies, my family, my acquaintances. I thought about all the places I had lived and all the things I had seen, the generous wealth of the life I had been given. I thought of all the books I had read, and all the books I had started to read. I thought of all the wasted time.
Then I noticed that the sun had not moved. I had walked for hours and could no longer see the saguaro, but no time seemed to have passed. I looked up at the sky; I hadn’t noticed before, but it felt make-believe. I thought of crying out just to hear my voice echo, but I was afraid that it would feel make-believe, too.
I wanted to stop walking, but what would I do instead? I went on. To pass the time, I thought about all the languages I had learned and all the languages I had forgotten, paradigms and voices and moods on moods on moods. I thought about all the words my hand had draggled, every letter I ever drew, every paper that remained blank no matter how much ink I painted on it. I thought of all the things that had sustained me and I longed for just a bite of them now. I thought about my home and I longed to be back in my bed, watching the hands of the clock float by. I thought of you.
I was startled out of myself when a speck appeared on the horizon. My heart palpitated with wild hope and I began to run. I must have run for hours, but I never sweat, I never tired. When I finally reached the speck, it was a lonely cristate spear piercing the make-believe sky. The creature was two feet in diameter and visibly growing. I pressed my hands onto its spines. They pierced me, too, but no blood appeared.
It was a four-story saguaro. I had walked over the sphere of the Earth back to where I began.
As I stood there wishing to die, I felt the slightest tremor under my feet, which I realized had been there the whole time. It felt like an infinitesimal moving down. I looked at the sun, I looked at the make-believe sky, and then I knew that time had passed. I hadn’t been able to witness it because I was passing at the same speed. I was in a glass. A sandglass.
But it couldn’t be so simple. I hadn’t always been in a sandglass—I’d had a life. Or maybe I hadn’t? Maybe someone had just written me a life. I tried to remember something idiosyncratic about myself. I found that I couldn’t remember my own name. Then I knew: I was in Borges’ book, the Book of Sand.
I stood there crying for hours—or minutes or months or millennia—who knows? Now I begin to walk again. I have no choice. I know that the next time I see the saguaro, it will be eight stories tall, and the time after that, it will be just a wooden skeleton. But suddenly, all is dark.
Laura closed the book. It grieved her to read it over and over again because she suspected that it tormented the narrator ad infinitum, but she couldn’t resist taking it off the shelf whenever she happened to be on Calle México.
Dominic put the paper down. “This is too weird. I don’t think it’s going to get published,” he said.
Laura Arciniega holds an MDiv from Beeson Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Rascal Journal, Saint Katherine Review, is this up, Eastern Iowa Review, and elsewhere.
Laura lives in Southern California with her husband and son. You can find her online at lauraaliciaarciniega.wordpress.com and on Twitter @LauraAArciniega.