I’ve always done my best work in the kitchen. I don’t know why. Cooking stuff up. Maybe that’s it. Now I’ve got my own kitchen deep in the country with a big round table smack in the middle. But I am surrounded. I’m not sure who put all this stuff in here. Who jumbled all this up on my white brick walls as though it told some story, made some sense; some whole world out of floating fractured bits and pieces. Pencil drawing of Seattle Slew, long after retirement—bloated pasture-belly, glazed far-off stare in his eye as though looking back to the glory days of the Triple Crown. And, wedged between the glass and flat black frame, snapshots of different sons in different shirts doing different things like fishing, riding mules and tractors; leaning up against their different mothers at radical angles. Postcards of nineteenth-century Lakota warriors like Gaul, adopted son of Sitting Bull, price on his head; left for dead only to come back and seek his perfect vengeance at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Henry Miller with a walking stick, black beret, sitting on a rock wall gesticulating to the camera, some quote about morality and why don’t we just give ourselves over completely and unabashedly to the present, since we’re all up against the same grim prospect anyway; same sinking ship. Slaves in sepia tone, harvesting bluegrass seed and whistling “Dixie.” Wedged between the tile and brick, more pix of hawks and galloping horses out near where we used to chase skinny coyotes back into the tangled mesquite and ocotillo. Then Beckett’s sorrowful bespectacled hawk-face, gazing into oblivion with no trace of self-pity, resigned, hands clasped between his knees. Underneath in neat black scrawl: “There is no return game between a man and his stars.”
Who scrambled all this stuff in here with no seeming regard for associative order, shape, or color? Without the slightest care for where it might all wind up. Just randomly pinned to cupboards and door frames, slipping sideways; gathering spotted stove grease and fly shit. El Santuario de Chimayó, for instance, caked in Christmas snow, but what’s it doing right next door to a business card for my horseshoer with an anvil and hammer logo? Then, working up the wall, there’s the little bay in Lubec, Maine, where another set of rum-running ancestors lay long buried, then magic stones from Bernalillo, Wounded Knee, the painted stick, guts of the dream catcher, antelope, prairie dog, old speckled racing greyhounds flying off the tailgates; rusted spurs on the back of the black walnut door. What’s all this shit for? Some display for who? For me? What for? Some guest or other? I have no guests. You know that. I’m no host. Never have been. Maybe the old Sonoran man who drops off split oak but no real visitors, that’s for sure. Everyone knows to stay far away. Especially now with the tiger-brindled pit bull out front. The screaming burro kicking buckets down the hill. The fighting gallo in attack mode. I’m in this bunker all my own, surrounded by mysterious stuff. It may be time to take a break and walk back out into the dripping black woods where I know the hollowed-out Grandaddy Sycamore sits and waits for you to climb inside and breathe up into its bone-white aching arms.
Sunday, midday. Not many cars. Man’s out for a stroll. He comes across a head in a ditch by the side of the road; walks right past it, thinking he hasn’t seen what he’s just seen; thinking it’s not possible. He stops. His heart starts picking up a little. His breath gets choppy. He’s shaking now and he’s never understood why his body always takes over in moments of panic like this; why his body refuses to listen to his head. He turns and goes back. He stops again and stares down into the ditch. There it is. Big as life. He’s staring straight at it. A severed head in a wicker basket. He picks up a stick and pokes it like he’s done before with dead dogs or deer. The skin puffy and blue and the eyes shut tight, squinting as though frozen in the moment of amputation. The head sporting a Pancho Villa–style moustache; two buckteeth slightly visible; a single spot of blood on the lower lip. No other signs of gore. No dangling arteries or purple mess. It’s a cleanly decapitated head resting flat in the bottom of a basket with what looks like burlap tucked neatly around the abbreviated neck. Black locks of matted hair dangle in snaky coils down both ears. The body is nowhere in sight. The man is relieved about that. In fact, he hopes he doesn’t stumble across it in the same way he came across the head. That might be more than he could handle at this point.
Suddenly, the head starts to speak to the man in a soft, lilting voice. The eyes of the head don’t open; the lips don’t move. The voice just seems to be floating out the top of the skull. It’s a humble, quiet kind of voice with no accent that the man can make out. Maybe the islands. The head asks the man if he’ll kindly pick up the basket and carry it to a place it would prefer to be. A tranquil place not too far from here, away from the pounding sun and the roar of traffic. The head tells the man it’s been hard for him to think straight in this miserable ditch. Panic takes hold of the man and he runs. He runs so fast and desperately that he quickly exhausts himself and falls down flat on his face. He hasn’t fallen so completely flat as this since he was a little kid running away from his father; running for his life. With his teeth in the dirt the man hears the head calling out to him in the most forlorn and melancholy voice the man has ever heard. It makes his whole heart ache. The man pulls himself up off the ground, spitting little grains of sand. He turns and returns to the head. He can’t help himself. His heart is pounding wildly. He tells the head he doesn’t want to be involved; this was purely accidental, this meeting between the two of them, and he wants to just continue on his way as though the whole thing never happened. The head pleads with the man and the voice of the head is so full of yearning that the man remains rooted to the ground. The head tells him he’s been calling out for days to the passing cars but no one hears him, no one stops. The man is the first one to stop. This makes the man feel important somehow; the idea that he might be some kind of hero. He likes that idea and his heart begins to relax and return to normal. The man asks the head, very tentatively, where it is he might want to be taken and the head answers, “A lake, not too far from here. It won’t take very long. You can just throw me into the flat water and then be on your way.” The man considers for a moment then agrees to carry the head on one condition and that is that the head will please not speak to him anymore other than to give him simple clear directions on how to get to the lake and, above all, he should never again make that mournful, melancholy sound. The head agrees eagerly to all this and immediately goes silent.
When the man bends over to pick up the head in the basket he discovers it’s much heavier than he would have imagined. It must weigh fifty pounds or more. Dead weight. The head laughs then quickly stops itself, not wanting to anger the man; not wanting the man to think he’s being made fun of. The man hoists the basket up to his waist and carries the head a few yards on his hip, like a mother would carry an infant, then sets it down, panting and gasping. The head laughs in spite of itself and the man becomes angry, just as the head had anticipated. “What’s so funny?” demands the man but the head won’t answer. The man immediately storms off feeling that he’s been the brunt of some joke. The head calls out again in the most heartbreaking, plangent voice the man has ever heard. It stops him cold in his tracks. “You promised me you wouldn’t make that awful sound again!” the man screams.
“I’m sorry,” says the head, “but it’s the only way to get your attention.” The man walks reluctantly back to the head and stops in front of it. He feels now that he’s hooked on this head. He stares down at it. The head is silent again. The eyes remain closed and squinting tight. There seems to be no life in the head at all. The man knows different. “How did you get separated from your body?” asks the man point-blank. This is the question that’s been haunting him.
“I was beheaded,” says the head.
“How?” asks the man.
“By a gleaming silver saber,” says the head.
“But who held the saber? Who brought it down on your neck?”
“I never saw it coming,” says the head.
“But you must have known it was coming,” says the man.
“Yes, but it didn’t help.”
“What?” says the man.
“Knowing. Knowing didn’t help.”
“So, you have no idea who it might have been?” asks the man.
“I have many ideas but it doesn’t matter now.”
“Don’t you want to seek your vengeance?” asks the man. The head starts laughing and can’t stop. “Don’t laugh at me!” screams the man. The head stops. “I can’t stand that,” says the man. “All my life I’ve been laughed at.”
“I’m sorry,” says the head.
“I can’t carry you, that’s for sure. You’re way too heavy,” says the man and the head begins to weep. Tears roll out of the squinting eyes.
“Don’t do that,” says the man. “I can’t stand it if you do that.”
“You’re my only chance,” says the head, trying to control itself.
“You’re way heavier than I expected,” insists the man.
“Just try lifting the basket up to your shoulder. It’s much easier that way.”
“I can’t,” says the man.
“You can’t or you won’t?” asks the head.
“You must,” says the head.
“Why must I? I don’t even know you! You can’t just start ordering me around. I’m doing you a favor!”
“You owe it to yourself,” says the head.
“What!” exclaims the man, turning his back on the head altogether. “I’m just walking along here on Highway 70, minding my own business, like I do every Sunday afternoon about this time, and I happen to stumble across a head in a basket and now you’re telling me what I owe myself! You don’t even know me!”
“All the more reason,” says the head.
“All the more reason, what!” shouts the man.
“All the more reason you should take it upon yourself.”
“I’m not following you,” says the man.
“You owe me your life,” says the head and the man freezes.
“What?” says the man.
“You heard me,” says the head. “If you walk away and abandon me, you will pay the price,” and now the voice of the head has dropped several octaves and taken on a gravity that is truly shocking to the man’s central nervous system. He can feel the highway tremble beneath him. His breath quickens and his mouth goes dry.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asks the man, his voice quavering like grass in the wind.
“Turn your back on me and you will find out,” says the head. The man stands there staring up and down the nearly empty highway. He feels as though his knees are about to buckle. Far off, in the village he can hear the chimes of the Episcopal church playing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” He knows the tune well. He remembers being a choirboy in that same church. A lime-green Camaro goes flashing by. Bald teenagers with snakes tattooed around their mouths are yelling insults at him out the windows. A bottle of Coors Light goes whizzing past his cheekbone. The man now begins to feel as though he is the abandoned one and not the head. He feels as though he could make the same terrible mournful moan that the head was making but nothing comes out. No sound at all, just a terrified rasping like a lost animal. The man wonders how he could be so suddenly separated from his former life, his former self. And then an even deeper terror wells up that he can’t remember ever having a former life. Who was he, first thing this morning after coffee, stepping out the door on the way toward this Sunday stroll?
“All right!” says the man abruptly, as though to shake himself out of this terrible doubt. “I’ll try it, I’ll try carrying you, just for a while,” and he hoists the head in the basket up to his hip again and then with a tremendous grunt heaves the basket up to his shoulder where he teeters precariously like an Olympic weight lifter. The head mimics the sound of a gigantic crowd roaring approval. It sounds absolutely realistic. The man has the impression again that the head is making fun of him but proceeds nevertheless, weaving with the weight of it; basket on his shoulder going in the direction the head has proclaimed.
“You’re doing very well,” the head says sincerely. “I’m proud of you.”
“Don’t try to butter me up,” says the man. “You don’t even know me.”
“I know you better than you know yourself,” says the head.
“Who are you!” demands the man.
“Never mind about that. Just keep following the road.” The man is wobbling badly. The cords in his neck are burning from the weight. His sides are heaving. He’s not used to this kind of labor. He’s grown accustomed to a soft, passive existence where nothing happens, nothing counts; where no single day ever stands out more than any other single day; where dreaming and waking all run together; where all the people in his life have disappeared and his main pursuits are napping and watching Mexican soap operas cast with dark-haired weeping beauties and the fantasies they evoke. He suddenly collapses under a concrete viaduct and drops the basket beside him. The head rolls out and comes to rest with the black gaping hole of the severed neck sticking straight up. The man stares into the hole, gasping for air, and listens to the voice of the head speaking very calmly: “We just need to make a right turn here, after the bridge, and then follow the irrigation ditch. It’s not very far.”
“I can’t,” protests the man. “I’ve had enough now! I’m going to leave you here.” The head screams and begins to weep again and the sound of it makes the man’s whole body quake. He feels as though he’s been struck by lightning.
“Don’t do that, please,” says the man. “I’m begging you. I can’t take it. I’ve told you that. The sound of your weeping and moaning reminds me of everything I want to forget. Everything I’ve put to death in order to go on.”
“Then, finish carrying me to the lake,” says the head.
“I don’t think I’m physically capable,” says the man. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that— I can’t.”
“Then, turn me over at least,” says the head.
“Turn me right side up.”
“I’m not going to touch you,” says the man.
“Just nudge me with your knee.”
“Nudge me with your knee. I’ll roll right over.” The man musters his courage and nudges the black neck of the head with his knee and the head rolls over, right side up, just as the head implied. “Now put me back in the basket, please.”
“I’m not going to touch you!” repeats the man. “You keep talking me into these things against my will.”
“Are you afraid that if you touch me you might disappear?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asks the man.
“You might cross the line? Pass out and never return to your body?”
“You’re the one with no body,” says the man.
“Exactly,” says the head. “Now, just grab me by the hair and drop me back in the basket, please.”
“No!” shouts the man. “I’m not grabbing you by the hair! It would be like taking hold of a handful of snakes.” Again, the head releases his doleful wail and, before the man even realizes what he’s doing, he’s snatched the head up by the hair and plopped it back in the basket.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” says the head. “I’m deeply grateful.”
“You’re like a spoiled child,” says the man indignantly.
“I’m like nothing you’ve ever come across,” says the head.
“Well, it’s nothing to be proud of,” says the man.
“Pick me up once more,” says the head. “And this time lift me all the way up to the top of your head and carry me up there.”
“Are you crazy?” says the man. “I can’t possibly lift you all the way up to the top of my head. I could barely carry you on my hip.”
“Yes, you can,” says the head. “Just make one tremendous effort. Make an effort like you’ve never made before in your entire life. As though it were a matter of life and death.”
“I don’t have it in me,” says the man. “Those days are long gone.”
“Stand up and give it a whirl,” says the head. “Be a man.”
“Are you intentionally insulting me?” asks the man.
“I’m offering you a chance to be.”
“I’ve got nothing to prove,” says the man.
“Then go away and leave me alone,” says the head abruptly.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do all along,” says the man. “Since the moment I met you.”
“Do it,” says the head. “See if you can. Just walk away.”
“You threatened me before. You said I would pay the price if I turned my back on you.”
“There’ll be no repercussions,” says the head. “Believe me. Just walk away.”
And now the man feels more alone than he’s ever felt in his life. A deep, crushing aloneness that presses down through his chest. It’s the very same feeling he’s been trying to avoid since he was a little boy. The feeling he shakes off every morning when he stumbles toward his toothbrush and every night when he clicks off the light. Without thinking, he reaches down and grabs the handles of the wicker basket and with a mighty heave swings the head up to his shoulder and then, with a final grunt, manages to place the basket on top of his head. He has no idea how he’s accomplished this all at once but feels suddenly all right about himself; as though the sun has just popped out from behind the clouds.
“Now we’re going to look like a man with two heads staggering down the highway,” says the man to the head. “One on top of the other.”
“We are a man with two heads,” says the head brightly from his lofty perch.
“No,” says the man. “We’re two separate things. You don’t belong to me. I just found you by the side of the road. Don’t forget that.”
“Whatever you like,” says the head. “Keep straight ahead. I can see the lake from here.”
“What’s it look like?” asks the man.
“Flat. Green. Absolutely peaceful.”
“Is it what you were hoping for?” says the man.
“We’ll see when we get there,” answers the head.
Copyright © 2010 by Sam Shepard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.