The first time I met a god, a real one, was in Utah. That seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Mormon promised land, archaic and restrictive blue laws, all that. I was hiking outside of Price, looking for that special kind of quiet that you can only find among the geology, when I turned up a dry creek bed and almost ran right into him.
He was the size of a van, and similarly shaped, long and low and stocky. His shell was a broad, sturdy spire, etched and pitted but with flashes of opal glowing between the dull stoniness of encrusting barnacles. His back was to me, but I could see a blue riot of jointed legs emerging from under the heavy shell, scattering stones as he struggled up the trail.
“Oh my God,” I said.
“No, not really,” he sighed, “but I appreciate the thought.” His legs scrambled for purchase as he turned to face me. A rough but mostly human trunk emerged from the front of the shell, studded with several pairs of feathery, gilled arms that waved in the hot, still air of the canyon. Eyes, as green and murky as a bay after a storm, regarded me. “Poseidon will do,” he said, bowing stiffly in the middle. “That was the last thing you people called me, if I recall correctly.”
“Poseidon?” I said. “God of the sea? Earthquakes? Gave horses to the Greeks?”
“You’re familiar with my work?” he beamed, lights swimming in his eyes. “How gratifying!” He wiped the dust from his chest with studied nonchalance. “Where, ah, if I may, did you hear of me?” he asked.
Telling the truth, that I had up to that point only encountered gods in books on mythology, seemed rude at best– possibly dangerous – so I took a safer route.
“Well,” I said, “I mean, you’re famous. Homer and the Iliad and all that, you know.”
“Foundational works of literature, aren’t they?”
“The very core of the Western canon,” I quickly agreed.
“Bit lurid, though,” he mused. “Sensationalistic, some might say.” Literary criticism seemed to threaten controversy too, so I changed the subject.
“Rather warm today,” I said, fishing a water bottle from my pack and taking a sip. “Can I offer you some?”
“Water?” he said, one nacreous eyebrow cocked. I nodded, and he shook his head. I suppose I should have expected as much from a Greek god.
“Would you like a beer?” I said with, perhaps, divine inspiration. I dug deeper into my pack.
“Ah, well now!” he said with a broad smile. “When in Rome!” I skipped the cheap cans I’d brought, hunting for the two carefully stowed bottles of microbrew I’d wrapped in a sweater. I’d packed them as an end of the hike treat, but it isn’t every day that one meets a god. “Much obliged,” he said, reaching a jointed arm out to take the offered bottle. The stiff claws of his four-fingered hand clacked against the glass as he took it and poured a tiny bit onto the dry earth. He then lifted it to his mouth and drank deeply. “You people have done wonderful things with fermentation. Very nice, thank you.”
“Quite a surprise for me seeing you here,” I said. “Where did you come from, if I may?”
“Oh, I walked here from the coast,” he said, antennae waving airily. “A rather pleasant stroll, some lovely rivers I hadn’t seen in a while, though a few I’d remembered seemed to have vanished. But that’s to be expected. Rivers,” he said, conspiratorially, “are fickle.”
“Proverbially so,” I agreed.
“Just their nature, really,” he said. “Can’t be helped. I did have some rather nice hikes through the mountains, too.”
“So you walked in from the west?”
“Yes, I’d been wintering in the Pacific. Nice bit of water, though to tell the truth, a bit too placid for my tastes. Sometimes,” he said, leaning in to elbow me, “you just want to cut loose with a nice typhoon, you know what I mean?”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continued, “it’s nice country for earthquakes. Some lovely faults down there, top drawer faults really, but still…” he shrugged.
“So what brought you to Utah?” I asked, sipping my own beer. “Sir?” I added. All the necessary politeness reminded me of visiting my grandmother’s house, where the threat of accidental offense always hung in the air.
“Oh, I left an ocean here once, a long time ago,” he said, stooping to pick up a piece of black shale at his feet. “I thought I’d come check on it, though I seem to have misplaced it now.” Poseidon leaned back against his shell and stroked his chin. His black beard was wiry, like the threads of a mussel. “I remember it being quite lovely, briny and warm and full of the most interesting little lives. Seemed to recall it being quite big, too, which is why I’m a little surprised at how much trouble I’m having in locating it.”
I looked around at the walls of the canyon. We were surrounded by sands that had been churned by burrowing worms and clams and shrimp living in a delta seventy million years ago, by mud that had settled out of the deeper waters of a Cretaceous seaway, forming thin-bedded shale dark with preserved organic debris. We stood in the fossil of a long dead shoreline, exhumed and exposed beneath the Utah sun.
I wasn’t sure how a geology lecture would be received, though, so I just drank my beer.
“And,” he continued after a moment, buffing the carapace of an arm against his chest as he spoke, “honestly, I was finding it a bit uncomfortable back in the Pacific. The currents coming south seemed awfully warm for this time of year. Water was starting to get a bit caustic too.” He reached over his shoulder to pat the ridged edge of his shell. “I’m afraid it was a doing a real number on the old shell, you know?”
“Hardly noticeable, really,” I said, embarrassed.
“Kind of you to say,” he said. “A lie, of course, but a kind one. Anyway, I was trying to think of someplace more amenable, for a while at least, when I remembered the seaway I’d put out here. Thought I’d take a peek, maybe move back in until things settled down a bit. Got a bit more looking to do, though, I suppose.” He sighed, and looked around the canyon. “How about yourself?” he asked. “What brings you out into the wilderness?”
“Oh, I’m just out camping,” I answered. “Enjoying the fresh air and all that.” He nodded thoughtfully, and looked up into the sky.
“There is truth in nature,” he said. “I read that somewhere, though I can’t seem to recall the author. Still, there you are.” He finished his beer with a satisfied sigh and saluted me with the bottle. “Where are you heading?” he asked, handing me his empty. I pointed up towards the ridgeline. “Well then,” he said, his legs digging deeply into loose stone as he dragged himself to one side of the dry creek bed, “don’t let me keep you. Thank you for the beer, it was most refreshing.”
“Good luck with finding your ocean,” I said, bobbing my head and trying to wave politely as I scooted by, but he was staring hard at the sandstone wall of the canyon and didn’t pay me anymore attention. I hustled up the wash and went on my way.
By late afternoon I was up among the stunted pines of the ridge. I had a good view of the stream-cut canyons that formed the labyrinth below. I looked for a while, but didn’t catch a glimpse of Poseidon again.
Over to the west, beyond the canyons and outcrops I’d walked through, I could just make out the coal-fired power plant on the outskirts of Price. Its stacks, two of them, towering a hundred feet over the long, low buildings below, fumed in the evening sun. Train tracks leading north and south hugged the highway through the narrows beneath the cliffs, eventually branching off on their way to the coal mines that dotted the Utah landscape.
Would he have recognized the shoreline of his long lost sea from a map of the mines? The coal had been born in vast Everglades that had flanked the Cretaceous coastline, and the miners traced the old shoreline swamps in their diggings. Millions of years’ worth of coal burned in the furnaces, just past the entrance to the canyon. I’d parked my truck right across from it.
There were still a few hours of daylight left, and my camp wouldn’t take long to set up, so I sat down on a boulder and had a beer.
I was in a shallow scarp, a spot where erosion had done a good day’s work not so long ago, shifting rocks in a little landslide that left a jumble of freshly exposed and broken sandstone. I picked up a piece about the size of my head, and looked it over, first with my naked eye and then with the hand lens around my neck.
If I closed my eyes and really focused, I could just hear the waves, almost smell the sea.