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Falling



Mom peeled herself off of the rock and grew to her full height as we backed away from the edge. The leafy valley disappeared behind the rim and suddenly nothing was familiar. I don't just mean that we'd never been there before, but it was like we were on another planet. The basketball-grey color was straight outta Mars, but the rocky layers were more like something off of Jupiter.


"Now what?" I asked.


Mom checked to make sure the cliff wasn't coming after her before turning to the Marsscape behind us. "Let's look around a bit before we go back down."


We didn't hike so much as follow Mom's curiosity from photo to photo. The ground swooped and curled as if it were moving around us and not the other way around. It pinched so close at times that I could only see a few steps in front of me. Other times it opened so wide that I could see all the way to the end of the earth. Mom took a picture of me in front of every ripple of it.


"You're supposed to be paying attention, remember?" I said.


"I am paying attention. Sit. Lookit me." She snapped her fingers over her head. "I'm noticing all of these places to take pictures, aren't — Over here! Sit. Lookit me."


Mom was so busy paying attention that she didn't notice how there was less and less rock ahead. Until she couldn't help but notice.


"Oscar! Get behind me!" she practically screamed.



Mom tip-toed toward where the rock disappeared, and hung there for a moment, frozen in place. She ulped like a coyote who's just realized that he's run a few steps too far. Instead of a whistling fall, Mom backed away ungrandly toward ground she could trust.


"Nope. Cliff. Nope, nope, nope," she said as she scuttled by.


"It's not going to chase you," I said.


"Oh look! A cairn." Mom veered toward a little stack of rocks like that was her plan the whole time. "Let's see where that goes."


I sniffed the pile. "Hello, Karen. My name is Oscar. Do you know how we get down from here?"


"Come see," the Karen whispered. "Yes, come away with us," whispered the next Karen. "Follow me, follow me..." murmured the chorus of Karens as they led us over the rock.


And Mom says that my imagination gets me into trouble. I'm not the one who followed a line of rock sprites to another cliff.


The Karens gathered in front of the spot where all the rock in the world broke off to nothing. "Aren't you curious?" they urged. "Don't you want to see what it looks like down below?"


"No, Mom! Don't listen to them!" I said. "It's a trap! You know what happens to you at the top of cliffs. They're trying to turn you into stone, just like them!"



Mom stopped short and punched the air beside her hips in floppy-armed frustration. "What, does everything turn to cliffs around here?"


"Seriously, though. Have you learned nothing from Wile E. Coyote?" I asked in disbelief. "His stories always, always end with a cliff."


By the time we got back to the first Karen, everything looked different. The stripey rocks on one side looked just like the rocks on the other, and telling them apart was like trying to remember a shape in a lava lamp.


"Which way did we come from?" Mom asked. "Do you remember?"


"I remember there were stripes," I helped.


"Ah! Here it is!" Mom walked toward a white painted stripe half-hanging off of a miniature cliff like a blanket hangs off the bed.


This cliff was big enough to stop Mom, but too small to turn her into a statue. It was the first time Mom had let me get close enough to peek over the edge. We stood side-by-side and looked down a drop about as deep as an empty swimming pool.


Unlike the cliffs on TV, this one didn't go down all at once, but in bumps like stairs that hadn't grown out yet. Each stair was too small to hold one of Mom's paws or all four of mine.


Mom held her hand in my face. "Stay," she ordered right before she slipped off the cliff.



Unlike Coyotes on TV, Mom fell down the cliff in scoots. She hung by her front paws and dragged her butt like she had a dingleberry as her shoe probed for a place to land.


"So that's why you walk on your back paws," I said, fascinated. "I'd land on my face if I tried something so silly."


Near the bottom, the cliff flattened into a sort of ramp. Mom let go of the rock, lifted her butt, and ran out the rest of the fall. She smacked her butt to knock off the sand or congratulate herself for surviving and climbed back up the ramp to get me.


When her face was level with mine, she reached up and tapped the jumping off place. "C'mere, Spud."


"Dogs go everywhere nose-first." I stepped closer to demomstrate how a dog always leads with his nose.


"Good boy," she cooed, tapping a notch a little farther down.


"If all the painted lines on earth jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?" I whined.


"C'mon, Spud, you can do it," Mom encouraged in the phony voice of someone trying to trick you into something unpleasant.


"If you say so." I aimed my front legs at the spot. "Geronimo!"



When my back legs caught up, they knocked my front legs out of the way to make room. Just in the nick of time, my front legs caught an even smaller nobble a short leap below, but my butt already had too much momentum to balance. I launched myself the rest of the way to the landing ramp and let my legs spin beneath me like the Road Runner to roll out the momentum.


"Good boy!" Mom squealed as I tap-danced into her arms.


"Falling off a cliff isn't half as bad as you made it out to be," I said, running in circles to smear her pats all over. "It's actually a lot of fun!"


Like the conspiracy of Karens, the paint stripe didn't work alone. Its accomplices led us across the stony ripples, never quite close together enough to relieve that lost feeling. But with some searching, there was always another one to be found.


"Over here, over here," they beckoned. "Not that way, this way," the next one steered. Until a line pointed right off a cliff — a real cliff this time. "Sucker!" It taunted.


Mom halted long before the height turned her to stone. "Dad gummit! These rocks are so disorienting," she whined. "How does every path end in an cliff?"


"No, really. Have you never seen a Wile E. Coyote cartoon?" I asked.



When we turned around, I caught the smell of peanuts on the air. "Follow me!" I called over my shoulder.


My nose led me to a shady notch in the rock. A man sat inside enjoying a snack. "Oh! Heavens me! What a surprise!" I said convincingly. "Why, it's a man eating snacks. Let's go introduce ourselves and see if he needs help finishing his meal." I didn't wait for Mom to tell me what a brilliant idea it was. "Hullo! Hello there! I'm Oscar. I see that you have snacks. Did you know that I'm an expert at—"


"Hey! We're eatin' over here!" A chihuahua poked his head from behind the picnicker's back. "This notch ain't big enough for the both of us."


"Shut up! I'm not talking to you!" I barked and turned to his companion. "About those peanuts..."


I wasn't going to let the chihuahua off that easy, but then Mom patted her leg. "Come on, Spud," she pleaded, obviously terrified and desperate to get away.


"Come on, Mom. Let's get outta here," I said haughtily. "I bet there's more where that came from. Oh look! The next paint line. Oh, and here's the next one."


"Good boy, Oscar. You found the trail again!"


Something was off. Mom never gives me credit for the good decisions. But then I smelled peanuts and my doubts were forgotten. "Follow me!" I called.


"Hi again," said a man that looked exactly like the last man with the peanuts.


"Hey!" shrieked the chihuahua, jumping off the rock to hide behind the man's legs. "I thought I told you to scram! Back off or I'm gonna—"


The man picked up the chihuahua by his harness and cuddled him like a baby. "Don't let him bother you. He's not aggressive."


"Don't you give me that look," I shouted at the aggressive side-eye coming from the chihuahua's cradle. "No your family's stupid!"


"Okay, that's it. I'm using the map," Mom announced, unholstering the Witch.


"No, Mom! Loony Tunes is very, very clear about what happens when you use gizmos in the desert," I warned.


Mom paid me no nevermind and held the Witch out in front of her, following the screen into the desert.



Empty air filled more and more of the view as we walked. It leaking from the sky into cracks in the earth, which split into ravines and then cliffs under the pressure of all that sky. And still Mom followed the Witch faithfully toward catastrophe.


"Hey. Hey, Mom." I zigged in front of her to get her attention. "The car-house is down there with the trees and stuff, right?"


Mom gave me a funny look. "You know that."


"And we're up here surrounded by cliffs, right?"


"Yeah, they're everywhere we go."


"If we're up here, and the car-house is down there... And we've spent all day trying not to fall off of cliffs... How do you expect to get back to the car-house?"


"The same trail we came up, of course. I'll be fine as long as I don't look down. I only freeze up when I look down."


"But how will you see where you're going if you don't look down?"


"How about you lead the way?" She put on the leash and held up one finger in front of my nose. "But don't you dare pull."


The horizon pushed down until it tipped the whole earth under our paws. Mom's steps shortened as the cliff took hold. I waited for her to turn to stone, but she kept flopping as loose as a Muppet. At times she even leaned into the fall and let the momentum pull her for a couple of steps.


"I don't know what you were so afraid of," I said. "Falling off a cliff isn't so bad."


"It's not falling when you can do it at your own pace," Mom said. "I just don't like the feeling when the world pulls at you and there's nothing you can do to stop it. We do put a lot of trust into trails when you think about it."


"And cliffs do sneak up on you..." I agreed.

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