by Mather Schneider
The Casa Grande ruins were abandoned by the Hohokum Indians a thousand years ago. Admission is free today because the air conditioning in the visitor center is broken, and so there is no relief from the 108 degree heat. Just like the old days.
Sweating amber beads the walls that take us back in time. We look at the floor-to-ceiling mural of the Indians going about their daily lives, pounding plants into flour, playing games, making pottery. The artist seems to have made the nearly naked women a little unbelievably well-endowed. My wife Ara looks just like them. She’s from Mexico and just as beautiful: same long dark hair, bronze skin, passionate eyes. I wonder if those Indians got jealous like she does.
‘That’s enough chi-chis,’ Ara says and pulls my hand to the artefacts behind the glass show case: the clay pots, rock grinders, gourd containers, old photographs and diary accounts from the first white men who found this place. It chokes us up to think of it, all gone, all those people who loved and struggled. No one knows exactly why they left their home after working so hard for so long, but the world swings its indifferent scythe and we stumble on, out the back doors of the visitor center, to be confronted by it: the big house, the Casa Grande: four stories of dried caliche mud crumbling like a dead God’s wedding cake.
Another white tourist about our age, 40ish, follows us with his wife, scowling at us, scowling at the desert, scowling at everything. We turn away from them and the mud house gets bigger and bigger as we approach it. The rooms are larger than many apartments I’ve lived in, the walls four feet thick, a hundred tons of mud erupting from the flat desert floor. Somehow it seems more alive than all of our modern world put together, more alive than all the gas stations and crop fields and grain silos and ugly towns we passed on our drive here.
A plaque tells us in the Indians’ day the water table was twelve feet below the earth’s surface, and now because of our greed and insatiable throats it’s a hundred feet down. I want to step inside this big ruined clay house, escape our dying world forever, but the sign says DO NOT ENTER. There are ropes and barricades. We get as close as we can. Everything inside the Casa Grande is covered in pigeon shit, and a million ants make a living black carpet. The ants have wings and flit and flutter, they get on our feet and legs and clothes, they crawl on us.
I smile at Araceli in the sun.
I ask the tourist to take our picture, to prove that we existed. He does, as his wife stands back and complains, ‘Let’s GO, Fred, I’m HUNGRY!’
They leave us there. What did the Indians eat? Mesquite, jackrabbits, spiny cholla buds.
We circle the ruins in a trance.
At the back of the big house there is a round hole high up that aligns with the sun on the summer solstice, a broken-toothed mouth that vomits flying ants. The clumsy amulets of our cameras dangle from our necks as we stand there. There is no escape, our love will not save us. We say nothing. It is as if we are planted in the dirt, two small silent figures from some ancient past, holding hands, stunned at the vision of our future.