As the black crow flies, so too does the luck of anyone brazen enough to steal from the Painted Desert for the sake of a vainglorious because I can. Such a creature of inordinate vanity cannot, by the laws of moonlight and the writs of sunshine, remain unpunished for very long.
He (let us use “he” because our story is about a foolish man though victims hail from all shapes and sizes) will be destined to live the rest of his earthly time with a burden not easily lifted. This heaviness will be the forever state of things unless true repentance befalls that sorry soul until he knows no other choice but to cease living or else return the object to exactly the place where it was found and not one quarter inch farther.
Not one quarter inch.
Here now we have Jason Burton, a character melancholy and slight, who learned over twelve terrible years the fury of Mother Nature scorned.
It began with a honeymoon to the Painted Desert, a spot that grows in the wilder parts of the Arizona badlands. Jason’s new wife, Mathilde Thomine Burton, had wanted to “see what the fuss could possibly be about a few striped boulders and unbearable heat.”
On a mission for Mathilde to ease her mind, off to Arizona they went.
Mathilde was red-headed and pale in a slightly off-putting way, with skin almost translucent so as to reveal her humanly innards. But who was acne-scarred Jason to prejudice poor complexion? She loved him when no one else would, even after she discovered he was a recovering 30-ish-year-old alcoholic with untouchable student debt and a minimum-wage job at the local car wash gift shop; he quickly made her his bride.
We might do best to skip right along to the part when Mathilde, in a fit of hapless passion, first set her eyes upon a pile of petrified wood—“Jason, look! They’re like little, rock rainbows!”—and asked her faithful bridegroom to pick up a piece or two.
“What a perfect display this will make in the foyer,” she cooed. “It’ll be an ideal fit right next to the handcrafted table we saw at that tiny store run by the long-haired Indian fellow. I can’t pronounce his name but what does that matter! With these rocks we’ll be the envy of our entire town! Take a few for me, would you, honey?”
Yes, of course Jason would … and did.
That night, as the newlyweds slept below a dash of glossy desert stars, a hungry rattlesnake found its way inside their tent and in no time at all, its fangs found their way inside the pallid flesh of Mathilde’s neck. Soon after the unhappy encounter, Mathilde Thomine Burton died.
Just before the park ranger came to remove the body, Jason slid into his pocket the three pieces of petrified wood that he had found sitting in the middle of the makeshift cot where Mathilde took her final sleep.
Almost every paper in Arizona and beyond declared the affair an utter tragedy, sympathizing with poor, wifeless Jason who, as one eloquent reporter explained, “traveled into the Painted Desert a man rich with love and left a loveless pauper.”
Other publications—and even some local nightly news programs—expressed similar notes of sympathy: What a twisted tale! What a horror! What a truly, undeniably, devastatingly awful way to go!
Only one newspaper, The Arizonian Art Collective, seemed to take the snake’s side. “Marriage on the Rocks,” read its headline, and the short write-up that followed clipped along with the same mood of casual indifference:
There should be no surprise to the educated desert-goer that Mr. Burton’s young wife saw her existence slip into the jowls of a ravenous rattlesnake. In the hours before the late Mrs. Burton ceased to be, our staff recently learned that Mr. Burton, urged by his no-longer wife, had removed several pieces of petrified wood from their rightful resting place on the sand. One intimately acquainted with the curse of those who rob from the Painted Desert can only say, “of course the so-called ‘tragic’ episode occurred” and then one would also do good to warn Mr. Burton that he’s looking down the barrel of a long (or short) life marred by horrific luck. Let this article serve as an official plea that he replace each rock the very moment this sentence ends. Or, Mr. Burton, we assure you with every artistic fiber of our Arizonian Collective being that you’ll surely see in the years unfolding broken bones, flat tires, lightning strikes to the head or far, far worse.
Sincerely and with feeling,
The Arizonian Art Collective
We’ll hop ahead again in the story to a time twelve years later when Jason—two divorces, a sister’s death, six lay-offs and as predicted, a flat tire later—had reached a kind of crossroad in his mind: repent or … something darker. (Your imagination, fair reader, might describe to you what could replace the last phrase and spare this storyteller the gruel of bloody writing.)
So forward march to Jason at present, whose car has just broken down on the road to the Painted Desert and who now travels on foot across miles of rippling sand, wretched rocks in tow.
On this day, the sun dangles low in a cloudless sky, its light casting shadows jagged like a bad haircut.
“Oh, Mathilde,” Jason thinks in a fit of hysteria (or heat stroke), “Why did I ever listen to you and take these rocks? What is the purpose of envy if it means lives are on the stake?”
He might be referring to the life of Mathilde or more likely, to the life of his dear, departed sister but there’s also a chance he means his own life, which may appear perilously close to its end.
Finally, he arrives at the park ranger station and checks in by signing his name “Bason Jurton” because it seems as if a certain level of anonymity might be required for the deed ahead.
It isn’t long before he’s back at the pile of petrified wood, although the day is already thawing to night and the honied early-evening light makes it harder to tell one small rock collection from another.
Yet this one looks just right and Jason kneels beside it, with a quick and quiet plea to Mother Nature that she release him in peace and kindness from the curse she cast.
“I’ve returned your missing gems,” he says aloud. “Arrogance made me take them and ruination has forced me to bring them back. Please forgive.”
The prayer was nice enough and Jason, satisfied Mother Nature would exonerate his sins, left the rocks behind and walked in the direction of the main road, hoping to hitchhike a ride to the airport with new luck by his side.
Except luck can be a fickle friend, often subject to the capricious whims of fate, because as Jason stepped onto the more solidly paved roadway far beyond the mystical rocks of the Painted Desert, he heard a clop-clop-clop from his left shoe. And when he knelt down to investigate the noise, Jason Burton found nothing less than a small, iridescent piece of petrified wood stuck to the very bottom of his sole.