When he moved to Arizona and set up home amongst the giant saguaros of the Sonoran Desert, Theobald Moon developed the habit of getting up early in the morning, peeing in a glass, and knocking it back in a few quick gulps while it was still warm and fresh. He felt it running sharply over the back of his throat, spiralling the length of his oesophagus, and flushing out the ducts and cavities of his small intestine like a jet of scouring fluid. He emitted any gases with a small and perfectly rounded burp.
He had heard it said that people shrink when confined to small places and expand when let out in the wilds. Out in the vastness of the desert, with nothing between him and the horizon but the thin wands of ocotillo stranded in the motionless air like seaweed held up by the sea, there was certainly room to fill. Never one to ignore the slightest rumble or whine of his sizeable belly, Theobald indulged his every whim and fancy.
He listened for the plaintive cries at night, scrambling out of bed at the slightest hint that somewhere, somehow, in the dark deep red caverns of his stomach, a hollow corner had not been adequately filled. He was a master of snack concoction, of putting together unlikely sandwiches at midnight. Sugary, salty, peppery, pickled. He matched and mismatched, let his imagination go. There was no one else to see, after all.
This is not to say that he was without vanity. Discarding the tanktops and t-shirts and corduroys he’d brought in a peeling leather suitcase from England, he took to dressing in voluminous white drawstring trousers and shirts that gave him the appearance, despite his size, of something that could be wafted by the breeze. Rolled along like a ball of tumbleweed. Twenty-two stone and counting, he glided up and down the wooden steps of his mobile home as if he were royalty, balancing a crown on his head.
The piece of land on which he settled was set back from the main road down a rutted dirt track bordered by mesquite trees and clumps of cholla cacti. Before him was the flat desert floor, the tall, stately stems of the saguaro cacti standing erect and motionless on its surface. At dawn the saguaros appeared to Theobald Moon to be facing east, patiently waiting for the first sharp blade of morning light to reach out from behind the house and slice their tops off like breakfast eggs, surprising them from their grey-green sleep and causing a band of thick golden yolk to slip extravagantly down their sides. But by early evening, without anyone noticing, they had swivelled round to face west, in order, perhaps, to watch the kaleidoscopic performance staged by the setting sun as it streaked the sky with yellows and oranges and fiery blood-reds from behind the uneven line of the mountains.
After the initial hypothesising about why he had come and whether or not he was mad or just typically English, the locals thought of him only when they drove past in their battered pickups and happened to catch a glimpse of what looked like a cloud or the sail of a yacht drifting behind the tall mast of a saguaro. He remained in their minds simply an oddity, an overly large Englishman whose pale, almost hairless skin gleamed like a buttered bird plucked and trussed for the oven and then turned a juicy pink as soon as he exposed himself to the sun.
He had brought with him a number of books. A Manual for Living Comfortably in the Cosmos, Culpeper’s Herbal Remedies, Awaken Healing Energy through the Tao, Yoga for Beginners and Meditation for Great Minds. He was still a little shy of their titles, and took off the jackets to use them as bookmarks – fearful, even here, of someone catching him reading them. He kept them on a shelf above his bed.
In a second-hand book warehouse on E. Speedway Blvd he picked up copies of Discover the Sonoran Desert and Make the Desert Bloom! and immediately set about digging his one-acre plot. Lured by a vision of himself surrounded by swathes of brightly coloured flowers, perhaps even with a Hawaiian-style necklace around his neck, he ordered seeds from an English garden catalogue which promised delivery anywhere in the world. Geraniums, rambling roses, hollyhocks. It would be a real cottage garden, a couple of beds each side of his front door so that the taller plants could climb up around the windows. Michaelmas daisies, red-hot pokers. Sunflowers.
Around the back of his house, he would leave the natural flora and fauna to its own devices – the sharp-edged clumps of sagebrush and lacy-leaved creosote which, after all, had been here longer than him. In the front, he’d develop a proper cactus garden, filled with different varieties. At Pleasant Desert on Tanque Verde he picked out the prickly pears with the most appealing names – Porcupine, Long-spined, Pancake – and sunk them into the ground wearing a pair of washing-up gloves to avoid getting into an unpleasant scrap with their spines. He bought a Strawberry Hedgehog and a Claretcup Hedgehog, a Creeping Devil Chirinola and a Beavertail cactus. He bought two young desert willows in five-gallon containers to provide shade each side of the house, realising as he did so that he appeared to be planting with an eye to the future. So what? he retorted brusquely to himself. Who says I won’t stay here for ever? And to prove to himself that he wasn’t afraid of the thought he asked the attendant to uproot a sizeable century plant which, according to the label, would send up one magnificent long-stemmed flower in approximately forty-five years’ time and then, majestically, expire. We’ll see who goes first, he thought.
He asked Jersey to help him uproot a group of jumping cholla he had seen from Highway 10, the evening light ensnared on their spines like goldfish in a net, but Jersey would have none of it.
“I ain’t taking on no cholla, no sir, not me. Get cut to shreds. And in any case they’re the property of the Federal Government, and it would be cactus rustlin”.
“We’ll do it at night. No one will see.” Theo was impressed to find himself taking such a devil-may-care stance.
“I said I ain’t taking on no cholla.”
Rubbing his hand over the blond bristles on his chin, Jersey leant forward and told the Englishman about a local Tucson man who had dared to mess with a saguaro after an evening of propping up the bars. –Used it for rifle practice, he did, sir, three bullets in its trunk, and the saguaro keeled over and squashed the life clean out his lungs. Jersey let out a low, sobering whistle. –I tell you, Mr Moon, them cactus ain’t as stupid as they look.
At least Theo was fortunate enough to have two saguaros on his lot already–beautiful, ancient specimens some thirty foot high, their hollow trunks laced with holes pecked out by gila woodpeckers, turning them into whistling flutes whenever the wind rushed down. It was an eerie sound – more like the music of the spheres, thought Theo, than anything you’d expect to hear on Earth. He liked to join in as he tended his garden, his off-key, meandering warbling blending with the natural accompaniment in a way that made him feel part of things.
Sooner or later, a maddened woodpecker would poke its head out of a hole and pierce the air with a sharp hee-hee-hee and a sudden red flash of its wings.
The hollyhocks, winter jasmine and red-hot pokers never made it beyond the seedling stage. But his cacti flourished. By the time his first spring came round, Theobald Moon walked out amidst a mass of brazen, squabbling pinks and purples and yellows, the petals thick and waxy as if they were made of plastic. He had to watch his ankles as he stepped between the low-growing spikes, and it took all his willpower to resist stroking the furry-looking down on the pincushion cacti. Within a month the husks of large, half-eaten fruits lay rotting on the ground, heady with the smell of fermenting nectar and crawling with alarmingly big, drunken black ants.
Only one part of his plot was left unplanted. A little area in the middle of the cactus garden, which he cleared of stones and tufts of prickly grass until there was enough space to stretch out his arms and spin without snagging the tips of his fingers. Taking off his shirt and hitching up his trousers, retying the drawstring above the swell of his stomach, Theobald Moon walked out here every morning before breakfast, spread out his sticky mat, and soaked up the night’s coolness from the hard, dusty ground, solid as concrete beneath his back. Closing his eyes, he allowed the first milky rays of sun to play spiders on his face. He breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out. He was like a chuckwalla, heating itself up for the day.
In the space of a year he developed a considerable repertoire. He could do the Sun Salute, the Spinal Twist, the Crescent Moon and the Crow, the Foetus and the Forward Bend, the Alternate Nostril Breath and the Shining Head Breath. His favourite was the Lion: heels tucked under buttocks and hands on knees with fingers splayed out like claws, mouth stretched wide baring glistening bubbles around his teeth, tongue reaching for the dimple on his chin, eyes bulging and glowering at the sky. He braced himself, tensed arms and jaw and fingers, then shot the air from his lungs with a fearful Ha! that split the silence of the early morning, slammed up against the mountains to the west and somersaulted into the air like an acrobat.
Sometimes he snatched a quick look at the book to check he was doing it right, then dashed back into position.