The Hundredth Meridianrnby Chilton Williamson, Jr.rnYear’s EndrnThe house key on its leather thong hadrnnearly worn through the corner of thernmailing envelope in which it had arrived.rnThe gate latch was a loose affair operatedrnby another thong, of a piece with thernfirst, running through a circular hole inrnone of the upright planks that made thernwooden gate. I drew back on the latchrnand pulled the gate toward me, crossedrnthe patio behind the adobe wall, and fittedrnthe key to the lock. The door openedrnsmoothly inward and I entered the housernwith the north wind at my back, pushingrnhard against the door to press it shut.rn”We made it,” I said aloud.rnThe house looked the same as when Irnhad last visited it in September exceptrnfor the framed bullfight posters on thernwest wall of the big room. I crossed therntile floor to the kitchen, lifted the telephonernfrom its recessed shelf, and dialedrnJim Catron in Contreras.rn”I made it,” I said when he picked up.rn”Welcome to New Mexico. Can yournget over here in 30 minutes?”rn”No.”rn”Come tomorrow night then. Lyle isrnmaking chicken enchiladas with greenrnchile. It’s traditional with the Catrons.”rn”I need to unpack.”rn”You can’t spend New Year’s Evernalone “rn”Yes I can.”rnThe western sky was electric bluernstreaked with flaming pink and orangernclouds above the violet outline of thernSan Mateo Mountains and the blackrnberg called Ladrone Peak. In the 36rnhours and 768 miles coming down fromrnWyoming three feet of snow had meltedrnor evaporated from the bed of the pickuprntruck, leaving the spare tire resting oncernmore on the steel floor. I took the parrotsrnin their travel cages from the cab, carriedrnthem indoors, and put them in the guestrnbedroom away from the cat who presentlyrndescended from the loft, waving herrntail graciously, to welcome me. When Irnhad brought in the suitcases and thernbook boxes wrapped in plastic trash bagsrnI built a fire in the wood stove, put therncat out, and fixed a drink. Outside thernsunset colors faded, blending with thernscent of cedar smoke from the hearth. Itrnwas warm enough still to sit out on thernportal for a single drink.rnI carried the glass outside and satrnagainst the wall of the house facing therneastern mountains turning rose-coloredrnbeneath the pine-forested peaks wherernthe shining snow lingered from the lastrnstorm. While I sat drinking with my feetrnon the low wall of the portal a covey ofrnquail emerged from the grama grass torndrink from the pond and scratch in thernsurrounding dirt while the sentinel birdrnwatched from a wooden bench. Thernsummer before Jim Rauen, having arnhighball on the portal, saw a turtle breakrnfrom the desert bushes, paddle rapidlyrnacross the bare ground, and dive into thernwater among the lily pads on the far sidernof the pond. Ignoring the schools of panickedrnminnows, the turtle surfaced thernnext morning and demanded food, acceptablernin the form of hamburger meatrnrolled into pellets and fed to him by handrnat the water’s edge. Now he slept in thernmud at the bottom of the pond, slowlyrnprocessing hamburger and working up arnprodigious appetite to emerge with himrnin the spring. I finished the drink andrnwent indoors, fixed a fresh one, andrndrank it while the water boiled for beansrnand rice. I ate them with chipotle saucernand a glass of red wine. Then I let the catrnback in and went to bed, leaving therndishes in the sink and the fire to burnrnitself out with the penultimate day ofrnthe year. Before retiring I took from onernof the suitcases the old Confederate pistolrnI had brought with me from the northrnand placed it on the table beside the bed.rnFollowing Second Manassas, the verificationrnby an officer on McClellan’s staffrnwho had attended West Point with R.H.rnChilton, an adjutant general to RobertrnE. Lee, of Chilton’s handwriting on arncritical battle order allowed the Unionrncommander to move against Lee, on hisrnway to attack Harper’s Ferry, at SouthrnMountain. Surrounded in the darknessrnby roosting birds in a silent house thatrnwas not my house but was home anyway,rnI fell asleep. My body is not my house,rneither.rnAll things draw to water on the desert.rnBoiling coffee next morning I sawrnthrough the window a redtailed hawkrnstanding in water above his leggings,rnwatching the house with a round yellowrneye that never blinked. He stayed forrnmore than an hour, and left without myrnseeing him go. After his departure thernquail reappeared at a run across the gravelrntoward the pond, wobbly and ridiculous,rnas if their flightedness were lost inrnabsence of mind. Individuals survive forrna year and a half or two years, barely longrnenough to grow to maturity, hatch arnbrood, and raise it. In the middle of winterrnwhen the pond freezes over they skaternon the ice, sliding and falling on theirrnbeaks, not thinking to spread their wings.rnTheir globular bodies supported by twiggyrnlegs, each one of the overlapping gray,rnwhite, and brown feathers placed preciselyrnwithin the overall pattern, lookrnperfectly made above their perfect reflectionsrnin the still water. I let the parrotsrnout to play and fed them, then tookrna walk along the Santa Fe track crossingrnthe east mesa from the railroad yard atrnBelen to Blue Springs Canyon in therneastern mountains.rnWalking on the crossties between thernrails I watched the signal light turn greenrnahead and listened for the locomotivernblowing at the Burris ranch crossing beyondrnthe long cut. Each began as a liquidrnglow beyond the perspective point,rnrefined itself into three lights arrangedrntriangulariy, and acquired a train behindrnit as the engine approached. The bluntrnred nose with its yellow emblemrnemerged from the diesel hum and thernwhine of the transmission, and then thernfour locomotive units went by in a blastrnof bittersweet exhaust. The rails flexed,rnfalling and rising beneath a mile of passingrnfreight cars, and when the train wasrngone the emptiness on the desert felt asrncomplete as before the Spanish madernAPRIL 1997/49rnrnrn