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THE CHOPPING BLOCK: When darkness falls


It's just past midnight when I see the end approach. The cold hangs onto my body, onto everything, while I walk home along Pacific Avenue. I’m not sure what the exact temperature is, and too frightened by an unusual encounter to care, but it’s low enough to numb my face and freeze everything it touches too long.

A decade has passed since the final date on the Mayan calendar predicted the apocalypse. Ten years too long. A slow death. This year, the Winter Solstice is Dec. 21, annually the longest, darkest night on record, when the Earth tilts furthest from the warmth of the sun. Strange things happen when darkness falls. Humans treat it like a sacred beast that should not be disturbed or violated. For us, it’s a vulnerable time to rest, to recover. My attempts to be quiet, to not arouse the night, are ruined by the sounds of snow and ice crushing under my boots. The night hears me approaching.

I finished my bar shift early. My coworkers and I chatted about Mars before going our separate ways. The Telluride Star starred down at us from its hillside perch. The mystery surrounding the manmade North Star makes this quirky local landmark seem a bit sinister, a bit out of place, like a dead deer head hanging over a dinner table full of fresh food. Turn it upside down and it’d tell a different story.

Like the light of the star, Mars is also visible this night, but distance renders it a glimmering speck, barely noticeable, as our planet’s nextdoor neighbor only slightly outshines everything else above us. The Red Planet has been in the news lately. The NASA rover InSight captured the first sounds of a dust devil from the alien landscape when debris blew over it during a particularly furious gust. Days after that sound was received, the Mars lander fell silent after four years of service.

“It’s unknown what prompted the change in its energy,” NASA said in a statement.

A recent undated satellite image may have captured a four-legged Martian creature as well. People who are interested in such things have called it some type of gigantic lion, wolf or coyote. An intergalactic monster, or god.

We talked about the Martian tornado and possibility of someone, or something, staring back at us as we heaved our heads toward the heavens. Looking into the night sky is disorienting, especially if you ponder its sheer size and how much we’ll never truly know about it. People who study and explore space know there are at least 200 Earth-like planets out there. To think life hasn’t found a way to thrive elsewhere is ignorant, I shared.

The conversation ended, and we walked off in different directions, toward our beds, toward tomorrow. The winter weather reminds me that with the flick of God’s finger we could be sent soaring off our precious axis into a crypt of ice.

At the corner of Oak Street, the streetlights create an orb of visibility, a false sense of security, which is when I notice something trotting down the middle of the road toward me. At first, I believe it’s a lost dog. It’s not uncommon to see pets off-leash wandering around town, but it’s too late for such wayward strolls. Even domesticated animals sleep at night. As it approaches, I realize it’s a coyote. It’s not the first time I crossed paths with a coyote at this hour, but I’m close enough to see its breath form small smoke signals. Its tongue hangs just below its chin. Its eyes glisten like onyx.

I have a primordial premonition of a hopeful sentry venturing into the winter wilderness to face the Great Wolf. A test of courage and combat. If the young soldier returns to the city wearing the wolf’s pelt, he’ll officially become a Spartan. But I know I don’t have that type of warrior strength in me. My bloodstream urges me to run, but I freeze. A stalagmite with a heartbeat among the icy landscape. I flip the collar of my leather jacket up to cover my neck. I'm wearing a Goatwhore T-shirt with a graphic of a horn-headed Cain butchering his younger brother Abel with an axe.

I brace for an attack, the end. Doubt continuously dripping into my mind. How the horrors of the night seem to revel in revealing themselves to the downtrodden and disassociated. The unbelievable brushed off as nighttime terrors or dreams. The snowplows may find me a twisted mess of viscera, a candy cane pattern of red and white, thawing under the morning sun, crystalized eyes fixed on heaven, on Mars, on nothing.

The coyote crosses my gaze and heads down Oak Street toward the gondola plaza. We hold one another’s stare. It’s tender, it’s calm, it’s scared. My fists unclench. I nod my head as I watch the coyote disappear into the blackness beyond the end of the street.

Two drunks walk past me oblivious to the animal’s presence. Not everyone has night vision. The chatter of their meaningless conversation breaks the tension. I don’t say a word. Better them than me.

I find my front door, step inside, and leave the dark, the cold, the coyote behind. My two black cats great me with meows for food, water and attention. I fall to the floor and let them jump onto my chest. Feeling slowly returns to my face, but my tired eyes have seen enough.

The Chopping Block is Rev. Justin Criado's monthly column for the Telluride Daily Planet newspaper. It also appears in the monthly Four Corners Free Press print edition. This piece was originally published on Thursday, Dec. 22.

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