In the City that Never Sleeps

An illustration of a mouse howling at Grand Canyon.
©George Jacobi 2017

She has been on the run now since long before the dawn. By ducking into alleys and darkened doorways she has managed to stay out of sight, as well as avoid the merciless sun. Sitting still would be best, just hide, because she hobbles on a broken foot, but to do so would invite the ants. Here on the ground floor of the city, the ants are always scavenging for free food. They hurry back and forth on the scent streets, and if they detect anything that is both inactive and made of protein, they quickly call in reinforcements.

Her nose twitches. Something is coming. Thunderous steps echo, then a huge shadow passes overhead as she cowers silently in a stone alcove. It’s only a Big-Horned Sheep. Her fur-covered body is shaking and overheated, and there is still a long wait until dusk cools this parched landscape. She is nocturnal, a Northern Grasshopper Mouse, and she is out of her element here. The outskirts of town, the grassland, is her preferred territory. Above the rim. In this city they call Grand Canyon, the avenues are mostly empty at mid-day. During dusk and dawn the commercial centers will fill with traffic, but now hardly anything moves but the ants. Big ants, little ants, black ants, red ants. Garbagemen and street gangs, cops and robbers, their numbers dwarf any of the myriad races that also inhabit this arid environment. The ants are invincible.
Mouse on sandstone.
Grasshopper Mouse will howl like a wolf. She is a member of the toughest mouse family that lives. She is a carnivorous creature, fast and sure enough to kill and eat giant centipedes and scorpions, immune to their terrible venom. The few who have seen one of these battles know that it resembles a cross between a lion attacking a full-grown Wildebeest and a Jackie Chan fight scene. Only faster.

There was a coyote. This was before the hurt paw. He would never have caught her anyway, but she had made the awful choice to jump from a rock. Who knew you could fall so far?
Wooden structures are swaying in a gale, their branches rattling against each other. It is monsoon season; great storms pass by, hover and tease, leaving behind the smell of rain and nothing more. In this dry ravine, a pair of Townsend Solitaires flies from Juniper to Pinyon Pine discussing future construction. Maybe they should excrete a few seeds here, to become new high-rise apartments in a century or two. The skyscrapers grow ever so slowly, branch by branch, twig by twig, needles praying for the rain that will briefly fatten them with life, drawn up through their shallow roots clinging to the Hermit Shale.
Underground view with root systems and rattlesnake.
Below ground level, in the root basements of these buildings, are stores and nurseries, cool and quiet rooms where most folks wait out the Arizona summer days. Nocturnal citizens doze while waiting for night to come. Many of them will go out later for a meal. Some will go out looking for trouble. In one chamber a Grand Canyon Pink Rattlesnake tosses and turns. The vertical slits of his Sauron eyes glow in the darkness. The rest of his length of scales is patterned like a meticulously designed Hopi pot, with colors of salmon and saffron. The coils gently breathe in and out as Crotalus Abyssus dreams of dinner. He hasn’t eaten for two weeks, normal behavior for his kind, but there is a hollow place in his stomach now that he feels. Last night there was a baby Cottontail who got lucky, and he’s going to make sure that doesn’t happen two nights in a row. The next sucker that crosses his path is going to pay – with its life.

To live in the Grand Canyon demands alertness, respect, and patience. Grasshopper Mouse is losing all three. She lifts her body off the burning stone, brazenly limps across an open square, and ducks into a crevasse beneath a creosote bush. Here a pile of broken sandstone, fallen (like her) from above the Coconino wall, has become the condo of a Chuckwalla. The fat lizard hisses loudly, protecting its front door, and inflates itself until it takes up the whole lobby. It looks like Jabba the Hutt – you would never know it eats mostly plants.

The startled mouse leaps high on three legs. Though infinitesimal in the scope of empty canyon, the brief movement of her shadow across sand is an anomaly. High above, the black shapes of Turkey Vultures notice activity, and wings tilt to fly a circular pattern. Night comes on ever so slowly, the sun resisting the whole way. Temple roofs glow, and slate blue inches up from the river until a ring of gold is
all that is left on their distant stone parapets. Pink now, the sun slides across the horizon, dark grey shadows chasing it like a pack of wolves.

Evening has finally arrived. After their long siesta, residents begin to venture out from high-rise tree apartments and from burrows beneath street level. Squares and parks begin to fill with hungry and aggressive inhabitants of all kinds. The afternoon updraft has died, and without wind, an unsettling stillness comes on. Silent scavengers wheel in the sky like the hands of a clock that ticks toward midnight.


Grasshopper mouse curled up.
Rattlesnake is on the move. He flows around and through the tumbled rocks like water. As the stones lose their heat he too cools, and his internal motor shifts into overdrive. He has become Supersnake. There is nothing to dispute his status as top predator here; even the rival Gopher Snakes have lit out on summer vacation, working their way up into cooler climes. His tongue flicks continually, the pits on his diamond shaped head sensing heat from everyone who has passed by here today. Vision is irrelevant. The world is made of motion and odor and temperature; who needs eyes?

Grasshopper Mouse’s black eyes reveal nothing. Nervous ears, though, give away her stress. When you are wounded, compromised, you become like a naïve tourist in the pitiless city. You need cover from evildoers. Where do you go? Where do you hide? She stumbles into the home of a Rock Pocket Mouse. Half her size, the herbivorous mouse darts away in abject fear. The unprotected larder is a feast of seeds, acorns, and pinyon nuts and she settles in to eat and recover her strength.

Outside on the corner, Rattlesnake crosses an invisible path, pauses, and begins to follow the delicious warm scent of mammalian life. His impatient tongue darts in and out. All across this Grand Canyon summer night, life is going on: there are career successes and personal failures. Families eat out. Marriages break up, children go bad, old folks watch it go all by. Opportunistic ants scurry around like ambulance chasers – looking for accidents. Rattlesnake glides a bit faster. In this particular little urban locale the destinies of two creatures are about to intersect.

If this was a movie, the twangy guitars of a spaghetti western would echo across the fragrant night air to announce the
final scene. It’s not. The only sounds now are the scratchy song of one lone cricket, and the soft dry scrape of scales on stone.
Showdown at night.