The constant din of cicadas filled the air as towering cloud formations drifted high above. The desert was alive with anticipation as the scent of creosotes foreshadowed rain. Saguaros, several hundred years old, reached their many arms towards the sky, eager for the coming storms. I had been out in the Sonoran for a week with Clement, my research assistant. We’d seen all manner of wildlife – rattlesnakes, scorpions, gila monsters – but we weren’t here for them. In my line of work, ‘strange weather occurrences’ was synonymous with spiritual activity, and the region had been rife with unusually potent monsoons.
We set up a handful of shrines, made from wash stones and mesquite branches. Local spirits found them irresistible, a token reminder of the respect they once commanded. At each shrine we buried an array of silver plaques to bind whatever spirit might come to inspect them. After days of failure, we finally caught something.
Calling what we found in our trap a ‘thunder lizard’ would be cliche, but no one had ever documented a monsoon spirit before. Clement and I carefully made our way down into the dry wash where we’d set the shrine.
“Light the sage.” I whispered.
“Right away, ma’am.” Clement set to work.
The smell of burning sage was used to put spirits into a docile state, and the smoking bundles hissed and crackled in the light drizzle that seemed to follow the creature. It was big. Larger than a buffalo. I wiped a strand of wet hair from my face as I documented every aspect of its physiology that I could safely observe. Like cold steam, each of its heavy breathes seemed to secrete condensation from its skin. The scent of petrichor hung heavy and the air brimmed with static. It made the hair on my skin stand at end. When the spirit opened its mouth to yawn I could see the arcs of electricity crawling between its jaws. I dictated notes to Clement in a hushed tone as I tried to sketch the texture of its leathery scales onto a notepad, sheltering the pages from the rain with my body.
“Twelve feet from snout to tail. Quadrupedal. Predominantly brown coloration with cyan patterning along the dorsal ridge. Semi-porous skin used in production of localized cloud systems. Electricity produced in oral cavity – unknown wattage. Estimated weight, two to two and a half thousand pounds. By all indication, solitary.”
Most of the world would never hear of our discovery, classified to all but a select few. Never the less, I grinned thinking of the handful of other academics in New York who would be begrudgingly buying me drinks when I returned with my findings.
As the wind picked up around us, the sage fires began to dance and dwindle. Clement cast a worried glance my way as the spirit let out a low, reverberating bellow. There was a clap of thunder in the distance. Then another, closer this time. Heavy rain sprinted across the landscape, pelting us like stones. Rain like this doesn’t exist back east. It came on with purpose, like the desert was taunting it. The wind began to roar and my notebook was ripped from my hands. Dirt and water stung my eyes as the gusts thrashed the wash. The sun was gone, replaced by the deep blue darkness of a storm. The creature breyed towards the sky, it’s resonant cry vibrating the air.
Everything went white. A spear of hot lightning lanced from above, obliterating a nearby palo verde tree. The clap of thunder knocked me from my feet. My ears rang as everything came back into focus. I looked up into that howling tempest. I saw it then, a great behemoth, like a mountain looming in the fury. It’s heavy footfalls shook the ground, rocks tumbling into the wash as water poured in from all sides. It opened its cavelike mouth and another fork of electricity rattled through the sky. A crescendo of thunder shook the desert. Panic set in as the realization dawned. The spirit we had snared was only a hatchling; now we were meeting its mother.