Baboquivari Mountains, southwest of Tucson. “Baboquivari” is a Tohono O’odham word that means “neck between two heads.”
This happened shortly after his mother died, when he was seventeen-years-old, and the real violence had not yet begun. The day after her death, he dropped out of high school and went to live with his half brother, whom he’d only met once, eight years before.
His half brother’s name was Jon. He lived in a shotgun shack between Nogales and Tucson, at the end of a sandy road immediately beyond which rose the Baboquivari Mountains. In the opposite direction, in the middle distance, there was saguaro and candlewood and a desert as wide and windy as the sea. Beyond that, very far away, slate-blue hills floated ghostly above the earth.
His mother had been sick for many months, but she refused to have herself treated. She was ready to die, she said. He could see in her eyes that this was true. Too much heartbreak and hardship in her life. She was still young — not yet fifty-five.
The sickness had started in her womb and then it spread throughout her whole body. She was at home the entire time she was sick, and he took care of her as best he could. In those final weeks, he asked her questions about her early years, the places she’d lived, her long-dead mother, her father, who was a decorated soldier and who was still alive, and whom he never knew, and he asked her also about the things she had hoped for in her life. She answered him thoughtfully. Then she drifted off into heartbreaking silence and stillness.
The day before she died, she told him he was to go live with his half brother. She told him that he could find his address in the little book she kept in her desk drawer.
The next day, when he went to her in the morning, she was unconscious though still alive. It was raining outside. His mother’s eyes were closed. A small breeze blew in through the window. The bones in her face lay like blades, threatening at any moment to slice through her papery skin. Her breath was rattled. Her veins shone prominently, and he could see her heart beating in her neck.
He went to the window and opened it wider to receive more of the cool autumn air, and then he knelt on the floor beside her and held her hand, which was so dry and thin and bird-like. He stared long into her caved and wasted face, the veins on her eyelids like rivers on a map, and he was too tired to feel much of anything beyond resignation. The heavy blankets did not rise or fall beneath her tiny breath.
He thought of death.
He stared at the heartbeat in her neck. The breeze blew into the room billowing the thin cloth curtains and bringing with it the smell of dying leaves and foggy moisture. The curtains swayed like ghosts.
After an hour, she coughed hard and started to gag. She half sat up. Her eyes remained closed. She had not spoken since the day before, but now in a loud voice filled with finality and utter authenticity she called out his name:
“Kristopher,” she said.
“I am here, ” he said. “I’m right here.”
He squeezed her hand more tightly, and she responded to his grip by squeezing his hand with a strength he didn’t know his fading mother still possessed — her hand still warm and living and grasping: like the autumn season, both beautiful and dying.
She lay back on the bed. Soon she stopped gagging and her raggedy breath stopped as well. He could still see her heartbeat in her neck — her neck between her head and his head, where he knelt beside her. He watched her heartbeat for a long time. He watched it pulse. The pulse grew slower and slower. Her grip eased gradually, and gradually her body went slack, and then her pulse stopped altogether and she died.
He thought: death is not a thing to treat lightly.
He rose from where he knelt on the floor and gazed down at her one last time. Her wine-colored lips, the turquoise veins so visible everywhere beneath her thin and pale skin. A small frown knitted into the fabric of her skin above the bridge of her nose. At length, he turned and slung his duffel bag over his shoulder, and then he left this small apartment home forever.
He’d come from the New Mexican village of Dulce, in the heart of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. His full name was Jonathon Silverthorne. He was a peculiar person. From the time he was a very young child, he existed in a kind of savage isolation, not involuntarily or unhappily, and not in a penitential way, but the opposite: serene and self-contained, who bore his father’s barehanded beatings with a stoicism unfathomable in one so young. He left school when he was fifteen and went to work in the uranium mines outside of Grants, and for three years he worked in these mines and saved up his money.
After this time, when he was still a teenager, he came back to his childhood home on the reservation. His father was still alive but infirm, and he helped his stepmother take care of him. Here also Jon bought tobacco seeds through the mail, and in the backyard of this home, under the glass panes of a ramshackle hothouse he himself had cobbled together, he grew twenty-five tobacco plants, from which he proceeded to manufacture cigarettes.
He purchased five-thousand empty cigarette tubes which had filters, and he bought also a small hand-powered device that loaded and packed the tubes with his homegrown tobacco. He packaged his cigarettes in small cardboard boxes and wrapped the boxes in cellophane and then sold them off-reservation on the black-market, for a low price and a significant profit, which he then buried deep in the ground, in a remote sector of the New Mexican desert — until he was caught.
Shortly after, at age nineteen, before his trial, he slipped away from the reservation in the dead of night. Under blue starlight, he retrieved his money from the desert ground, and he saw neither his father nor the reservation ever again. Only his mother, who lived four-hundred miles away, in Flagstaff, knew of his whereabouts now, and this was because he went to her after he’d fled, and he told her where he was going and why, because he loved her very much. That was eight years ago.
Jon had good hands and dark hooded eyes and a slow articulate way of talking — a contemplative cast of mind with a disposition inclined toward silent observation. He spoke very little and was calm. Women were drawn to him. He was wiry-strong and agile, but he was also relaxed. There was an odd ease in all his movements and in his gait.
He read a lot. He read and he thought.
He lived alone now on the fringes of the desert, in a stone shotgun shack, at the end of a sandy road that fizzled out into a low rise of boulder-studded hills. He rented this house and fixed it up and kept it immaculately clean: neat as a pin.
He worked sporadically in the copper mines, when they were open, and he saved his money, and then he bought this home and its small surrounding property. The house sat on a slight eminence of land above gullies of sand, east of which the low Sierritas stood raggedy against the sky.
Sometimes he’d meet a woman in Tucson, and she’d come home with him and stay for a few days in his dwelling among the cactus. These women were attracted by his calm and his silence. They all thought him not like anyone they’d ever known — though when one day his half brother Kristopher arrived unannounced, the only one home was Jon.
They shook hands in the desert twilight. It was early autumn. Ladybugs swarmed the greenish air. Gathering swallows twittered in the sky.
Jon didn’t say anything, but kindness came off him like radioactivity, and he understood what this visit implied.
He knew their mother had died.
Because Jon Silverthorne was a private and independent person, he was therefore by his distant desert neighbors unbeloved.
He was looked upon suspiciously.
There were other reasons for this as well: The house he lived in was a haunted house. Everybody knew this. Everybody except Jon.
Such places exist all throughout the world — in city or in country — because a house, like a human, can become a cadaver.
Superstition alone often suffices to make it so.
Even on city streets full of city-dwellers, you’ll come upon such haunted homes: these are places where the windows are busted out or boarded up, where ivy or honeysuckle chokes and occludes the doorways, where the grass in winter is gray, not brown, and where the steps, if there are any, have long since crumbled into desuetude, the roofs half caved in. If there’s a garden, it’s all weeds and hemlock. Peculiar insects prowl these precincts. Often there’s a thick tangle of spiderwebs, loaded with dead or dying flies, which discloses the deep serenity drawn in by the spiders.
The Devil dwells in such haunted places, coming mostly at night, and superstitious populations are not at all easy on the subject of the Devil.
The house in which Jon lived had for many years been haunted, but it was so no longer. He had civilized it.
Jon was a civilizing force.
Both he and the house were therefore all the more suspect.
Further, he himself did not believe in God or gods or devils.
He was cordial to people, but he was not talkative. He was polite, yet not familiar. He let people be.
Often he went out at night.
He was sometimes seen or heard walking alone through the desert, sunk in thought, whistling softly: a lone piper in the oceanic dark. He liked the desert. He liked the warm air. He was also fond of mountains and the sea and of the earth as a whole. He had hundreds of books stacked floor to ceiling. He was a lucubrator and an encyclopedic reader. His light burned late into the night, glowing cream-colored in his black Apache eyes, and it was even rumored that he was working on something monumental, something perhaps containing sorcery, sacrilege — and worse: a defense of the absolute sanctity of each individual life.
He also cultivated ladybugs. He farmed and grew them, so that their populations now teemed in the hyaline air around his clean home of stone: ladybugs which symbolized a colorful and vibrant life, a life of hope, happiness, good fortune and beauty, here on this earth, which Silverthorne believed in.
His half brother Kristopher Henley lived with him for the next year, after which time a series of horrible events occurred. But before those things happened, in the weeks immediately following his arrival, he dwelt quietly in his half brother’s home and was often alone when Jon was away in the mines. They got along well. Kristopher never asked for anything. He was not difficult, ate whatever was put in front of him and was grateful, well mannered, quiet. He was just over average height and slender. His features were soft and handsome. He had brown eyes and wheat-light hair, which he wore cut high-and-tight, with a thick forelock that hung over his right eye. He was, from a very early age, a swimmer and a runner — not doing either competitively but as an outlet for his energy — and his young heart was so strong that it had become dangerously overdeveloped and enlarged, his resting heartbeat thudding reptile-slow.
His mother had left him a small sum of money and a graphite-gray Mazda, and now and then he drove into Tucson to take in a movie, or to just walk around. It almost seemed as though he were waiting for something to happen, and yet in actuality he was not waiting. He was thinking. He remained mostly in the desert.
He watched for hours, day after day, the late-September butterfly migration, their jinking flight, the bull bats of twilight.
Lovely little ladybugs, like miniature chopper fleets, banged into his body by mistake.
Sometimes, completely alone, he walked out into the bat-black moonless night and stood atop the sand gullies, beneath the desert sky. Here he’d listen to the migrating Sandhill Cranes pounding blackly by. They flew high overhead, unseen, rocketing southward. He could feel the great hum of their unisonic wingbeat throughout his whole body, like an immense electrical current in the darkness: it galvanized him and at the same time filled him with a sense of longing and sadness he could not name, or erase.
Cars ghosted down the distant highway, and he thought of the people in these cars and wondered who they were. What futures were they driving toward?
Their headlights swept lunar-like through the night.
He began running in the desert.
In school, he’d not been a poor student: he’d just not done much of anything. Toward the end, after his father (whose first and last name he shared and whom he dearly loved) had one day without warning or a word of explanation vanished like a ghost and then his mother got sick, he’d grown even more apathetic and disinterested in school: sitting day after day with his head down on the desk, in the back of the classroom, eyes closed, migrainous and nauseated.
Yet he was privately pleased when without prompting now, Jon undertook the task of teaching him things. He taught him Latin and Greek. Where Jon learned these, Kristopher never knew, but he thought that in a strange way, these things suited his brother’s personality: something venerable, elegant, rarified.
Jon had a fat and faded book of brown leather, full of strange neat Greek symbols in his own remarkable handwriting, and he wrote in this book daily.
Kristopher quickly came to love his brother’s slow, patient voice, his methodical methods and manner of teaching, the pure clarity of his explanations — and more: he came to love the sense of understanding and self-development this learning fostered within him.
Jon had an uncanny way of explaining even the most abstruse ideas so that they became instantly comprehensible and clear, and Kristopher was quick to recognize this as a rare skill.
Outside, beyond the kitchen table where they sat, behind the stone house, there was a once-dead water-well which Jon had revivified, and through the kitchen window, they could see the bright ribbon of crystal water that twisted through the rocky ravine, beside a stand of sunflowers and very small almond trees he’d planted. In front were people-sized paloverde, a single saguaro cactus. Above, at the end of the sandy road, the Baboquivari Mountains stood dry and purple and rather unreal, fold after fold, floating monolithic against the vast and distant blue of the desert sky, like an isthmus between two heads of water.
In the late autumn, on a Friday, a change blew in with the shifting wind. A woman came.
It was early evening. Kristopher was outside, sitting on a rock shelf a quarter-mile from the house, his back against a flat slab of stone, which was warm with the stored heat of the day. Low overhead, a golden eagle drifted on the updrafts that poured down from the Baboquivari ravines. He heard his brother’s truck approaching. He stood and walked ten paces to the ridge above, where he could see to the house. The truck kicked up a pall of desert dust which glowed blood-red in the long horizontal rays of the evening sun. The lavender mountains shimmered. The truck stopped in the small driveway, and then the engine went silent. A dark-skinned woman in a half-shirt emerged from the passenger’s side. She was rather full-figured yet also rather willowy, with a curvy torso that was perfectly proportionate with the rest of her body. A golden star of sunlight winked from a hoop pierced through the delicate skin of her navel.
Jon saw Kristopher standing above, and he waved from behind his steering wheel. Kristopher came down. His brother and the woman appeared on the trail, and here, amid ocotillo and cholla, he was introduced to a beautiful blue-eyed woman, whose name was Justine.
“This is my brother Kristopher,” Jon said. “Kristopher, this is my friend Justine.”
She extended her hand and they shook.
“It’s a great pleasure to meet you,” she said.
“It’s a great pleasure to meet you too,” he said.
A ladybug crash-landed into his hair. Very gently she reached over and removed it. He smelled the human scent of her skin. She watched the ladybug crawl across her fingers, until it took flight on diaphanous and intricately veined wings which turned crimson in the last rays of the sun.
She was from a small Arizona town called Saint Johns. She was twenty-seven. She’d studied zoology at the University of Arizona and had just recently graduated. She liked insects and bugs, and she told Jon and Kristopher that, in fact, ladybugs aren’t bugs at all but beetles. She said that in some places, ladybugs are actually called lady beetles or even ladybirds, and that in Russian they’re known as bozhya korovka, which means “God’s little cow,” perhaps because they’re gentle and piebald, she said. She said that in several other languages as well they are known as the “little cow.”
She asked Kristopher if he knew that these little feminine creatures play dead when they’re threatened, and he shook his head and said no, he did not.
She grew animated and lively as she spoke, and they both watched her, and they both became captivated by her passion for this subject and by her articulate and authentic manner of speaking.
In the end, she turned to Kristopher and told him that the “lady” in “ladybug” refers to Mary the mother of Christ, much as his name — Kristopher — means “bearer of Christ” and that in this sense, she said, the symbolic sense, his name had something significant in common with the mother.
He squinted at the ceiling and considered that word.
Justine asked Jon about the open book at his elbow, the strange neat Greek characters in his own handwriting.
Jon answered her that it was a passage he’d written which he called “Symbols and Superstitions,” and he said it was in part about Baboquivari.
“What specifically?” said Justine.
“Hindu historians have always claimed that in distant times, their East-Indian ancestors visited every part of the world and even accurately mapped the entire globe. They claim also that these ancient ancestors mined gold and silver and copper in such places as Michigan, Colorado, and Arizona, and they say also that these same Indo-European explorers often visited the Americas via large teakwood ships — six-masted, over two-hundred-fifty feet long — and did so up until 1200 AD. The gospel of their main deity Shiva is the world’s first religion, they say, and the progenitor of all religions coming after. I write about a man named Andres Perez de Ribas, a Spanish priest who traveled to America in the 1630’s and who wrote a book called My Life Among the Savage Nations of New Spain, and in this book, he describes a Northern Mexican tribe who worshiped two deities: Viriseva and a mother goddess named Vairubai. Viriseva means ‘Lord Siva’ in Sanskrit. It is speculated that Vairubai is perhaps a variation on Bhairava, which is another name of Siva’s consort, Goddess Durga. Also, the word ‘copper’ derives from the name Kuvera, who was a Phoenician philosopher-king, reportedly very brilliant, and who in 5000 BC learned how to smelt gold and copper and other metals.”
“Is this true?” she said.
“No,” Jon said. “It’s a combination of myth, legend, and superstition. Hindu mythology states that the philosopher-king Kuvera and the God Shiva lived in a barren, mineral-poor, and bitter-cold pyramidical peak called Kailash, which resembles Baboquivari Peak — which is also known to the Arizona O’Odhams as Babo-Kheeveri. The superstition to this day is that Babo-Kheeveri and the Afghan Kheeveri mountains are filled with unlimited gold, copper, and precious stones. What is true, I can personally attest, is that even today much of the gold and copper mined in this part of Arizona leaks ceaselessly out of the Baboquivari mountain range. And as the Hindus, the Jains and the Buddhists call Mount Kailash ‘the navel of the world,’ so do the O’Odhams give Baboquivari the same distinction: because they regard the earth as a mother egg, which contains all good and nourishing things in it.”
Justine stayed the weekend. Early Monday morning, as Jon, who would be gone for next twenty days, was preparing to drive Justine back to Tucson, Kristopher awoke and came outside and stood with them.
She extended her hand in a gesture of farewell, and Kristopher asked her if she would like to stay.
He told her that he’d take her back, and she looked at Jon, who smiled. She kissed Jon’s cheek and said okay.
She stayed for a few hours which became a few days. As it turned out, they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. They had much to talk about. They went for desert runs together, and they also looked for animals together, and he discovered that she was able to spot these creatures much more rapidly than he was: desert kangaroo rats, javelinas, thrasher and quail perched upon the rocks with a rock background, a motionless mountain lion far away on the lion-colored hillside.
He took her up to the ledge where he liked to sit and read. Here he showed her how to shoot his twenty-two rifle, and she even killed a rabbit with it, hitting the rabbit right in the jugular, and that evening she showed him how to dress and cook it — something she’d learned as a young girl, she said, from her mother.
While they were eating, she told him that Jon had helped her “negotiate” her oil-change.
“That’s how we met,” she said. “I think he’s the strangest, most fascinating person I’ve ever known.”
“Some people think he’s the Devil,” Kristopher said.
She smiled and then she laughed, but he did neither.
“I’m not sure why, but I don’t think it’s funny,” he said. “It worries me.”
“There is no God or devil,” she said, “as there is no super-nature. There’s only the universe, and the level verdict in your eyes, and the beauty of your nomenclature.”
“What is that?”
“It’s something I once heard,” she said.
He looked thoughtful but didn’t reply.
“You’re here all alone when Jon is working?” she said.
“Do you get lonely?”
“No,” he said. “I’m alone, but I’m not lonely.”
“Then you are in that regard much like Jon.”
“In your love of being alone. He’s the most genuinely solitary person I’ve ever known.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that he loves being alone more than any person I’ve ever come across — not occasionally, as many people do, or even often, but almost always. I’ve thought that there’s something timeless and eternal in this — in Jon. Not that he won’t ever die, of course, but that you can imagine him existing just like this forever.”
Kristopher considered her words, but he did not say anything.
The next day, while he was driving her back to her home in Tucson, Kristopher spoke:
“I have an over-developed heart,” he said, “from swimming and running. ‘Exercise-induced cardiomegaly,’ the doctors call it. They say it’s rare in someone my age, but it does happen. It could kill me.”
He nodded. He was silent for a full five minutes, and so was she.
“I had a girlfriend once,” he said, “over a year ago, in Flagstaff. We were together for some time. Her name was Sophia. I cared for her very much, and I was happy with her — and I believed she was happy with me.”
“I don’t know. She disappeared. At that time, my mother had just become sick, and I suddenly got it in my head that Sophia was perhaps very ill too, and the more I thought about it, the more worried I grew. I started to think that she might even be dying, and so I went to her parents’ house.”
“I was turned away.”
“You never found out what happened?”
Justine came and went. And came. There were no patterns to her visits, no explanations. Often she stayed for days at a time. She had a car — a small black stick-shift — but occasionally she asked Jon if she might borrow his truck and always he said yes, and in his truck she toured alone the bumpy backroads of the desert. Once, in a single long day, she drove by herself through the Papago Reservation and then down into Mexico and back.
Another time, she asked Kristopher if he’d ride along with her. He asked where they were going. She smiled. She didn’t reply. She had a candid way of looking directly at people when she spoke, and he liked this. The sky that day was purple, the color of storms, low-hanging clouds banking into Baboquivari peak and oozing into the basin.
She drove them into the Santa Rita mountains. The landscape went from ocotillo and saguaro to sycamore and maples, Ponderosa, and a warm rain softly fell, loosening the smell of the pine trees, casting him back to distant times: casting him back to his mother and Flagstaff. He recalled a time after his father had disappeared, when his mother had met a man whom she liked. He remembered how on a rainy misty evening much like this she’d made dinner for this man — for the three of them, Kristopher included — and had even gotten a manicure and had her hair sleekly done, and she wore a dark dress and heels and she looked very beautiful, and the man never came. They waited for over an hour, and then she smiled at her son Kristopher and gave him a sip of wine and said “That just means more for us.”
But he saw in the creamy candlelight the gleaming moisture in her eyes. He hugged her for minutes, and with his chin on her shoulder, squeezing her tightly, he watched raindrops weep down the windowpane behind her, and he thought then that his hammering heart which was overdeveloped might truly burst open in the chambers of his chest with his overwhelming love for her.
Now in the misty rainfall of the Santa Ritas, the trees stood ghostly and soft. The road ran vaporous into the purple light. By and by, Justine pulled over and they got out to stretch their legs, and there, on the side of the road, they saw a horned toad, blinking in the warm rain.
“Look,” she said.
He came over. “What is it?” he said.
“It’s a horned toad — though in actuality they’re not toads or amphibians at all, but reptiles. They look heavily armored and fierce, but really they’re as gentle as doves.”
And then something else happened — something he would think about for a long time afterward and would never forget:
As they were watching it, another horned toad emerged from under a heart-shaped leaf off to their right — except this one was a mutant: it had two heads, its torso like a long neck.
Justine caught her breath.
Kristopher genuflected on the wet ground to observe it more closely. He saw calm and even wisdom in all four spherical eyes, and then he saw blood gather and issue from the corners of those eyes: a defense mechanism innate in this antediluvian beast who looked like a mutated and miniaturized dinosaur.
He saw also the little gentle creature’s heartbeat pulsing beneath the slack skin of its neck. He saw the blood and the pumping pulse of the heart, and he watched it for a long moment. The air smelled of rain and dust. He shut his eyes.
At length, he rose from where he knelt on the ground, and he looked at Justine. The misty rain was beaded in her brown hair, and silver beads of rainwater had stippled her thin dark arms. Her breasts rose and fell with her breath, and he thought that he’d never in his life seen anyone more lovely.
“There’s a superstition among the natives that when you come upon a two-headed animal, it’s a sign of ensuing bad luck,” she said.
He was about to say that he’d grown weary of superstitions, but the instant before he spoke, before she was even quite finished with her sentence, it dawned on him all at once how much he’d come to care about her, and without meaning to, he said aloud:
“I’m terrified of losing you.”
They stood looking at each other in the rain.
“Why,” she said, “why do you think you’ll lose me?”
“Everyone I’ve ever given my heart to has vanished from my life.”
She brought the two-headed horned toad back with her, and that night, under the eggshell light of Jon’s kitchen, she sat down with a black pencil and her sketchbook, and at the kitchen table, with the quiescent two-headed creature perched philosophically before her in an open shoebox on a bed of sand, she drew this mutant reptile.
She worked with great speed, her motions deft, certain, the depiction hyper-realistic and astonishing in its detail: the distended middle, a leaf-like foot motionless, one round eye tilted toward her, the nostrils like needle-holes, the loose skin of its neck leathery and cataphracted and strange.
Kristopher watched her, fascinated.
When she was finished, he asked if he might look at her other sketches as well, and she said yes.
He flipped through her thick book.
The first thing to capture him was a series of intricately drawn ladybugs: depictions the size of dinner plates, all done in colored pencil. Some of the ladybugs were blood-red with black spots, others black with orange spots. Two were burnt-sienna and unspotted. Another was pinkish and oddly mottled, and there was even a light-purple ladybug. But the one he liked most was a creamy-colored beauty, wings splayed, with spots on her back patterned like a leopard’s pelt.
He slowly turned the pages of her sketchbook. His soft eyes did not miss anything.
She watched him in silence for some time. Then she spoke. She said that the thing she loved most about ladybugs was the thing she loved most about humans: their inexhaustible variety and versatility and loveliness. Next she extracted from its sheath the drawing of the cream-colored ladybug he liked most, and she gave it to him.
“It is yours to keep,” she said. “It represents the abundant and colorful and happy life I wish for you.”
She reached over and squeezed his left hand with her right. He dropped his eyes. Her skin smelled like apricot.
The next picture he saw was a picture of himself sitting between her and Jon. It was recently done. The three of them were outside on the porch, and in the picture, Justine had drawn herself sketching at her sketchbook, and Jon cutting Kristopher’s hair, and in this picture also, Kristopher was shirtless and leaning forward, so that only his back and neck were visible. The thing that struck him now was not the exactitude of her drawing but the fact that because Jon had asked him to lean forward — the better to clipper the nape of his neck — Kristopher’s neck as she’d rendered it looked elongated between their two heads: elongated and somehow vulnerable beneath Jon’s gentle human hand.
The thinker is active and the dreamer passive. Jon was a little of both.
Solitude fosters talent, as the solitary life fosters thought.
Thought is the source of human ingenuity.
There was something of the acrobat about Jon as well. He could — and did — walk up and down stairs on his hands and was even once witnessed doing a handstand on a skateboard and riding this way, standing on his hands on a moving board, all the way down the main street of his small hometown: a quarter mile.
He used his left hand and his right hand with equal facility. His 20-10 eyesight was whispered about all through his youth, and even after poring over the pages of thousands and thousands of books, he still retained his pristine vision.
He was an excellent basketball player, who, for years, practiced obsessively every day when he was a teenager, who could shoot very well with either hand, though in this particular game he preferred his left. He had the curious coordination which certain left-handers have. The word “sinister,” of course, comes from the word “sinistral,” which means left-handed.
He owned an old lever-action 30-30 rifle, with a bead-sight, which he kept in immaculate condition, and with this rifle he was a dead-eye: he could pick the tips off matchsticks from over a hundred feet away.
He grew strange plants and he mined strange minerals and he foraged strange fungi and he was something of an alchemist and an apothecary. With a kind of resentment, therefore, people came to him for psoriasis salves, eczema remedies, ulcer treatments, other maladies. So effective were his brews and potions, in fact, that his reputation for sorcery grew.
It grew and grew.
If he wasn’t the Devil, he was certainly in league with the sable-skinned angel, everyone knew.
There was as well persistent rumors of mummies, and one day Justine asked Jon about it. Jon, in turn, asked her precisely what she’d been told.
“That you keep mummified human remains hidden in caves inside Baboquivari,” she said.
He said nothing.
That night, however, without explanation and scarcely any words at all, Jon had Justine and Kristopher get into his truck. He then drove them down a long lonesome road of sand and gravel. The night was dark and sultry. Phantoms of thermal mist hung over the desert ground. A quarter mile from the base of Baboquivari, on the northernmost side, the road terminated, and they all three got out. There was no moon. The stars above gleamed like thumbtacks spilled across the firmament. A soft wind seethed through the grass. It went warmly about their clothes and hair. Saguaro stood mute and dimensionless all around them, pigmy owls among the cactus-arms hooting with watery coos.
Jon led Justine and Kristopher into the very foothills of Baboquivari, and he spoke not at all. Even in such darkness, he walked with great assurance. The wind poured down through the stony ravines. At length, they came to the mouth of a cave which was more like a narrow triangular hole in the ground. Jon now produced from his inside coat-pocket a small bright flashlight. He pointed its cyclopean eye into the black maw of the cave and then he climbed down into it. He beckoned them to follow.
Once they were all three inside, he led them stooped through a low offshoot corridor and then onto all fours and down another corridor and then another and yet another.
They crawled for a long time down these narrow stone shoots, nocturnal spelunkers, the ground cold beneath their hands and knees. Dog-like, Jon held the flashlight in his mouth as he led them deeper into the Baboquivari mountains. There came to them all, intermittently but distinct, an odd and alien sound, like a deep cathedral hush: like the whoosh of potato-shaped asteroids tumbling headlong through space.
The last corridor they crawled down sloped gradually and as gradually widened. The air grew gelid and moist, with a soft breeze like bat’s breath passing over them and lifting their hair, as with tiny talons. Directly, Jon halted them and then they dropped, one by one, off a short and mudded ledge.
They came into an open room of Mesozoic rock.
They stood up straight at last. Slowly, Jon swept the beam of his flashlight across the cavern walls, which were wet-looking and slurred with a blood-colored secretion, as though they’d entered through the alimentary canal the innards of some great beast, the ceiling above hung with thin limestone spires that glistened and dripped like icicles, and then, from a metal box which sat on the ground across from them, Jon extracted a small cylindrical object. He extinguished the flashlight, so that for a moment, the room in which they all stood went utterly black, and wands of green and yellow light produced by the retina in places of plenary dark passed before them. He broke open the cylindrical object with a sharp snap and tossed it on the ground. It was a flare. It loudly hissed. The room blossomed suddenly in a wine and hellish light, and shadows leapt like dancers across the Mesozoic walls — and then they saw across from them a row of tiny and malformed humans, which lay like martyred saints on a pocked slab of stone.
“These seven-inch humans you perceive before you,” Jon said, “are the stillborn fetuses of O’Odham natives. Their defect is called anencephaly. Sometimes even before a woman knows she’s pregnant, something is triggered that nearly guarantees her child will be born dead. Such are these little beings. Have you heard of the miniature mummy they named Chiquita and also the Pedro Mountain Mummy, both of which were found in the caves of Wyoming and studied in depth by the forensic anthropologist Doctor George Gil? These tiny people are the same. They are preserved in a manner which is unprecedented — from any population. Even war chiefs and very special burials are not preserved like these little ones. But there’s nothing supernatural or even strange about it,” Jon said. “On the contrary, it’s perfectly human — all-too-human, the impulse to mourn the dead and the desire of the living to remember the dead and preserve that memory — as it’s also perfectly natural. And perfectly beautiful.”
“And you found them?” Justine said.
“Mining Baboquivari. I uncovered them.”
Kristopher alone was silent. The flare hissed snake-like at his feet. He stared at the miniature mummies mutely and in wonder. Their minute scrunched faces like little cow faces. It was impossible to tell what Kristopher was thinking.
When, two hours later, they all three emerged back out into the desert night, the wind had increased. It poured like water down the steep Baboquivari slopes, and it pushed at their backs, ferrying them forward toward Jon’s truck. Jon opened the passenger’s side door for Justine and Kristopher. Then he shut the door and went around and opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the steering wheel. He paused for a moment in silence, as if he’d just remembered something, and then he started the truck and swung it around and drove back toward his home, and neither he nor Justine noticed the distant dark figure on horseback watching them drive away.
But Kristopher did.
Later that same night, Kristopher excused himself and went back outside, and when Jon and Justine were alone in his home, Jon poured her iced-water and a large measure of very dark tequila. They sat down at his kitchen table. They were silent for some time. By and by, Jon spoke to her about a man he’d once worked with — a man named Frank, who was of Scot-Irish stock and who, at a young age, had been wrongfully imprisoned.
“He served twenty-two years for a crime he didn’t commit,” Jon said. “The entire time he was in prison, he worked tirelessly to have his case retried, and he didn’t give in to despair or hopelessness. After twenty-two years, newly discovered DNA evidence, found by his lawyer and a private investigator, exonerated Frank once and for all, and he was set free at last. He was a calm and quiet person, not bitter or angry, and I admired him for this and for many other things.”
“Where did you work with him?”
“In the uranium mines outside Grants, New Mexico. Frank was from a mining family and began mining when he was essentially still a child. He loved it — as most miners do love it.”
“Yes. Does this surprise you?”
“I guess I was under the impression that miners are little more than indentured servants slaving away in caves.”
“When in actuality nothing could be further from the truth. Mining is difficult work. It is also skilled work. It accordingly pays well. And nobody forces anybody to work in the mines — not in this country, at least: miners voluntarily choose to mine, as I have. What you describe only happens under the authoritarian regimes our politicians here would have us emulate.”
“Please continue,” she said, “about Frank.”
“Frank was an incredibly hard-worker and incredibly knowledgable, and I learned a great deal from him about mining.”
“Why are you thinking of him now?”
Jon was briefly silent.
“He spoke to me once of an incident in his prison life,” Jon said, “something that seems torn from the pages of a Dostoevsky book, but which really happened, and it made a deep impression upon him — ‘a very strange incident,’ he described it to me as — concerning a man he knew in prison who’d been sentenced to death, but who was pardoned at the last possible moment. The man was still serving a life-term, which was when Frank met him, but he’d been given his life back mere moments before he was to die. Nevertheless, there was a period of time — an hour or so — when this man lived absolutely certain that he was shortly to perish. Frank told me that he listened with extraordinary interest to this man’s story and asked the condemned man many questions, and he said that he remembered with perfect clarity everything this man told him, and he would never forget any of the things the man said about those sixty minutes before he would be put to death. He said the description of the last five minutes in particular made a profound impression upon him.”
“Why those five minutes in particular?”
“Because the condemned man said those five minutes suddenly seemed a great span of time stretching out before him. So that in those five minutes, the man felt he could live many lifetimes, and that he need not think at all about his final moments yet, because he had such an abundance of time before his final moment came: he had several minutes.”
Jon paused. He took a sip of the water he’d poured Justine and then he took a sip of her tequila.
“Thus he laid his time out very precisely,” Jon continued, “saying goodbye to the neighboring prisoners with whom he’d become friends — about one minute for that — and then another two minutes to think about himself and his life and a woman he once deeply loved, and then another minute to look around one last time at this human existence on earth, even if it were only the inside of the prison he was seeing. He carried out his five-minute plan exactly as he mapped it. He was dying at age thirty-five, a healthy, vital human. He remembered that in saying goodbye to a certain fellow inmate, he’d asked this man a rather silly question, and that the man’s answer had struck him as limitlessly fascinating. After that, he came to the lengthy two-minute period he’d allotted to himself to think about his own life and his own person. He thought about the woman he loved and how it had ended. And he’d already resolved that in that protracted period of time — one-hundred-twenty seconds — he would sincerely try to get his mind around the mystery of how he could be alive in this moment right now and fully aware of it, with that awareness perfectly active and healthy inside his head, but that in three minutes, that faculty — that thing which apprehended and knew — would no longer be there, and there would not be anything there at all. What struck Frank the most about this was that the man was entirely convinced and certain that he could resolve this matter in two minutes because it was such a long time. He remembered looking at the concrete floor and the cinderblock walls and thinking about how vivid and even beautiful it all seemed. Finally, he said that the worst part about it all was the gnawing thought at the back of his brain: ‘What if I was not to die after all? What if my entire life was suddenly given back to me? What an eternity! I’d turn each minute into a decade, and I’d miss nothing — nothing. I’d hold precious each passing minute, and my life would be the least taken-for-granted life of any human who’s ever existed.’ He said that this thought filled him with such anger — infuriating him so much, Frank said, that he wanted the lethal injection inserted into him as soon as possible. And then …”
Jon fell silent for a full ten seconds.
“Yes?” Justine said.
“The governor pardoned him.”
Justine waited for Jon to continue, but he didn’t say anything more. She sipped her tequila.
“Are you finished?” she said.
“You leave me hanging, Silverthorne. What did he do after he’d been granted life anew? Did he reckon every minute, as he’d told himself he would?”
“No,” Jon said. “He did not. He didn’t live that way at all. In fact, Frank said that the man wasted and squandered away many, many, many minutes. Frank also went on to say that there was nothing at all surprising in this, which there isn’t.”
Justine narrowed her eyes on Jon and then finished her tequila. Jon blinked slowly in thought. She continued to watch him. He rose from the table in the fluid, silent manner she’d come to love, and he refilled her glass with more tequila. The plash of the pouring liquid rang out. He took a sip and then passed it to her.
“What does it mean?” she said, “this strange and morbid tale you tell?”
“That death gives life meaning in the sense that death is what life constantly strives against — but only in this sense. And it does not work the other way around.”
“Please make that clearer.”
“From the perspective of the dead, life obviously does not carry any relevance whatsoever.”
Justine considered this.
“In striving against death and the fact of death,” Jon said, “it is crucial we not succumb to fatalism or nihilism or anything of the sort, but just the opposite.”
“What is the opposite?”
“We cultivate the things which foster and nourish life over our span of time — we develop the values which bestow life most abundantly — not dwelling on death any more than we dwell on range-of-the-moment gratification, which is slow-death. It means that we strive to get as much out of life as we possibly can while we have it, which entails living in a certain way.”
“Narrow is the path?” she said.
“Which leads to life,” he said.
A momentary silence ensued.
“Emotions are only a barometer,” Jon said, “not a means but an ends. This is what’s meant when one says happiness must ensue.”
She looked away.
Beyond the kitchen window, beyond the range of her vision and his, the wind gusted and brought up a pair of dust devils, which sprung from the ground as from chaos and twisted across the desert floor like twin serpents engaged in a strange and antic dance. They spun themselves out in the night.
The kitchen glowed with a soothing light.
Justine rose from the table and went to him.
Thought is a loaded missile.
That human who does not possess his own thought does not possess his own deed and so does not in turn possess his own soul. The profound depths of human life are in this way rendered treacherous.
By many of his desert neighbors, Jon was unbeloved — this much was true.
Equally true: there is no such thing as small hate. Hatred is always huge.
An intention and a missile are alike. The missile of secret malice was aimed at Jon.
Whence this hatred?
Where did this secret malice come from?
To be private is to be thought peculiar.
The unusual is always suspicious, and the unexpected spreads and often turns malicious.
To break away from the pack is to declare independence, which is to declare that you can think for yourself. To think for yourself is an act of rebellion.
To believe in the power of your independent mind is to believe in your reason. To believe in your reason is to perforce shun superstition, dogma, the mainstream, the party-line.
To worship at no alter — neither the alter of God nor government nor devils nor dogma — is a sacrilege of the highest order. Why? Because humanity has always worshipped at one or all such alters.
To be solitary and serene is to be self-contained.
To be self-contained is an affront to the consensus, the custom, the killing crowd.
On the fringes of the desert, a stone-throw from Route 89 and circumscribed by a barbed-wire fence, there stood an acreage which comprised, among other things, a dark wooden house that looked like a compound. In its fenced-off nature and forbidding facade, this house cut a rather gloomy and isolated figure, the people who populated it a kind of upper-middle-class family of hooligans — the father of which, one James-Vincent Felts, had, after retiring from the police force, become a swindler, outright.
There were two children, a boy and girl, and the girl, whose name was Morgan and who was the youngest, had been born prematurely and suffered many maladies, including severe dyslexia and fits of frustrated rage. Morgan was deemed “touched” by her parents and teachers alike, though many who knew her believed she was a witch or possessed by devils or both.
Her older brother Baron, upon the other hand, was different.
There exists a certain type of youth who, without necessarily appearing overly athletic or outstanding in intellectual range — often, in fact, to all appearance listless and dull, with a thin and even unhealthy-looking build — nevertheless excels phenomenally in athletics and school, and who seems to acquire with utter ease and grace any kind of skill or sport. Baron Felts was one such. And his desire to excel was powerful indeed, precariously so.
From the beginning, he took a strange interest in Jon Silverthorne, who was approximately his same age.
Baron was cautious, circumspect. He was a master knife-thrower. He rode horses. He played the fiddle like a fiend. With bullets from his pistol, he snuffed out candles at thirty paces. His fists were fast and loose, and they dealt tremendous blows. In college, at Arizona State University, he was an All-American basketball player, scouted by the pros before breaking his ankle in a fall. He held a Masters Degree in physics, recited from memory long passages from Rabelais, and knew by heart the entirety of Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece.
He drank rum. He was tall and somewhat sallow — haggard-looking yet handsome, with green eyes and blonde flowing locks. He often wore a black cowboy hat which became him. He was gregarious and well-mannered rather than otherwise, laughed and scowled simultaneously, his nostrils flaring like the nostrils of a camel before it spits.
He contained, in short, a thin, switchblade-like strength which served to envelop a subterfuge. This was Baron Felts.
He seemed capable of everything and more: something malign.
His little sister Morgan — whom he did not really care for but of whom against outsiders he was strangely protective — she as well took an interest in Jon Silverthorne.
That summer when Jon had first moved into his haunted house among the cactus, he’d frequently go out at twilight for long runs across the sun-baked desert ground. Often his runs would take him behind the gloomy, compound-like house, past a certain shed on the southern end of the acreage, a shed glowing like pure-white gold in the low slow setting sun, and in the open doorway of which Morgan Felts sometimes stood.
She was a few years younger than Jon, and always when he saw her, she’d be leaning against the wooden doorjamb, her bare arms folded across her breast in a casual manner.
She’d watch Jon approach.
With his strong eyes, he saw from a distance a bright and welcoming radiance on her face, but as he got nearer, he’d see this glow gradually fade into a sort of half-smile and then, as he got closer still, diminish to a barely discernible lambency at the corners of her strange pursed lips, and, finally, as he was very near, this now-dim radiance too would fade, so that when Jon went directly past her, no light shone there at all, and only an expressionless look appeared on Morgan’s round rather attractive face.
Yet once or twice, after he passed, he turned his head for just a moment before churning up a hill, and he saw that she was still watching after him: the crescentic dimples had reappeared back on her face, and the mysterious light was flickering brightly across her pale features once more.
He never spoke to her, but he always waved, and once or twice he thought he detected in return a slight lift of her chin.
Even after he stopped running this particular route, their ocular interaction was from time to time renewed — when, for instance, he’d catch sight of her at the gas-station, among the cupcakes and the candybars. This gas station was two miles distant from where she lived.
She had an almost otherworldly way, it seemed to him, of appearing from out of nowhere, and always she was standing slightly removed, often barely clad — shorts and a low-cut tank-top, desert dusty, with sun-dusted skin, and often rubbing the instep of her right foot against her left ankle, or raking her fingers through her short and boyish and winsome hair, which was the color of the desert sand she dwelt among.
Once when he was scouting the caves of Baboquivari, he saw her pass nearby, riding a rust-colored pony with a snow-white star on its face. He saw her see him in return.
As the years went by, the top of her forearms always appeared to him a little more striated and strong, her maturing bosom a little softer, and there also seemed to have developed upon her face and within her gray eyes, a glint of gentle challenge — something perhaps even slightly sardonic and mocking. More than once, however, without her knowledge, he’d from a distance witnessed her enraged, and two of those times, it was a rage directed at her brother: shrieking rows in which blows were exchanged, and Morgan had been knocked down flat by Baron’s fist, which on one occasion busted out her right eyetooth, so that now she had a gleaming golden fang in its place.
Then, on a dark desert night when Jon was driving along an empty two-lane highway, returning home after a fourteen-day stint in the mines, he came up over a hill, around a tight corner and now upon the smoking wreckage of a bad motorcycle accident. He quickly pulled over.
There was only the one vehicle involved — the motorcycle — and it sat horrifyingly mangled and silent in the sand off the shoulder of the highway, its single headlight still bluely beaming. At first Jon saw no one. Nothing moved: only mute phantoms of steam coming off the motorcycle wreckage. Then, from the outer darkness beyond, a young woman in a torn white dress suddenly appeared. She was drenched in blood. Her left breast was bared and bloody. She was moving toward him with ghostly speed.
He did not recognize her at first.
Nor did she seem entirely aware of him. Yet, just as he was about to call out to her, she looked directly at him and asked him if he’d seen her ladybug. She began scanning the shoulder of the road and in a manic manner continued speaking, telling him that her ladybug must be here somewhere and that she must find it — she must, she said — it had bright mother-of-pearl eyes and was very precious to her, and she loved this ladybug, and she was sorry for her hair, she said, sticky mess that it was. Jon did not know what she was talking about, and he doubted that she did either, or that she was even speaking directly to him. She was bleeding from her head and from her neck, more than half her face masked in gore, a golden eyetooth flashing once among the blood, and it was only then that Jon realized who the young woman was.
He went to her — or, rather, he started to.
But the moment before she collapsed and died, he heard a sinister hissing. He looked over to his left, where this sound seemed sourced.
Farther beyond in the desert dark, he saw a young man — the driver of the motorcycle — lying dead in the sand. This young man was not anyone he knew. The eerie hissing sound continued. There was also something liquid-like streaming through the air just beyond the dead body: something pure-white and spraying thinly through the night.
Jon leapt to the young man, whose neck was broken, his head completely split in two, brains and blood pooling in the sand, and then Jon saw the source of the spraying arc of pure-white: it was a can of whipped cream, which had been in a grocery bag within the saddle of the motorcycle, and it had gotten punctured in the accident, so that the pressurized cream was now spewing fountain-like from the hole in the can and mingling with the dead man’s burgundy blood.
Red-and-white, Jon automatically thought, like Christmas colors.
He stood for a split second watching as if transfixed the immaculate spray of cream shoot into the blood and brains and draining away into the night.
Then, slightly to his left and a little behind him, behind the creamy arc of white, Morgan Felts gagged once, and then her heart stopped.
She collapsed and died, as if in fright.
Jon brought her back to life.
With cardiopulmonary resuscitation and with great presence of mind, he restored her. Very carefully, then, and rapidly, he carried her to his truck and laid her gently across the seat. Then he rocketed to the nearest emergency room, and her life was saved.
Those who knew her best said that after she recovered, she was even stranger than before — a farouche and faraway look now lurking in her gray eyes, something thoughtful to the point of dreamy distraction — brain-damage, perhaps, people said, or perhaps in resuscitating her, Jon Silverthorne had insufflated more demons yet inside her.
Jon did not know that she knew it was him who’d done this and who’d driven her to the hospital — until he one day, some months after she’d recovered, received a handwritten missive from her, which, in hard-pressed erratically thrusting letters, two of which were flip-flopped, said this:
You are a life-giving force. You always have been.
He would never know the pains she took to make her missive readable in every way.
Almost a full year after he received this letter — a-year-and-a-half before his half brother Kristopher came to live with him — while Jon was out on the desert alone, shooting his 30-30 rifle, taking aim at a peanut he’d impaled on a saguaro cactus needle, about to squeeze the trigger, there erupted a thunderous gunshot from off to his right, and the peanut at which he was aiming exploded into smithereens.
He looked to his right.
It was Baron Felts on a big black bay horse.
He was re-holstering a huge 44-44 magnum pistol, which had a long silver barrel that flashed in the sunlight.
He smiled and doffed his hat, and then he turned the horse on two legs and galloped away.
Forty days after this, on a mellow late-summer evening at an outdoor basketball court in southern Tucson, she once again without warning appeared before him.
Jon was shooting baskets by himself. Morgan wore black canvas hightop sneakers and white shorts, an ecru t-shirt. Her legs were long and deeply tanned from the summer sun. She didn’t speak. He was lackadaisically dribbling his faded-leather basketball, when, rather quickly and with a sudden smile, she stole the ball from him and in the same motion attempted a jumpshot. She missed by a meter.
“Teach me,” she said. “Will you?”
It was the first time she’d ever directly spoken to him.
“How to shoot?” he said.
She nodded. “And how to read,” she said.
He taught her how to play basketball, how to shoot — how to shoot his rifle, as well — and after learning how serious her dyslexia was, he told her that reading is a complex process requiring our brains to connect letters with sounds and then to put those sounds into the correct order to form sentences and paragraphs. He told her that humans grasp and comprehend things by means of words, and that communication is not the primary but secondary function of words. He then showed her a more efficient manner by means of which she might attach sounds to letters. Soon, also, he taught her to take in words in a block-like fashion, her eyes sliding like water down the page. He told her that her dyslexia entails that she interpret concepts a little differently from those who are not dyslexic, and it was for this reason, he said, that she was able to spot hidden connections which others missed.
She listened with total attention.
She liked his patient manner, his voice, his dark and capable-looking fingers spiderlike among his books.
She practiced what he taught her.
He told her that all humans by their very nature are curious and all humans by their very nature desire to know, because this is the essence of our unique means of living, and only a counterforce, he said, which is ultimately anti-life can halt or nullify this natural human curiosity.
She looked off in the dreamy faraway manner she’d developed, and then she blinked slowly and looked back into his hooded eyes, which she thought lovely and liquid with life.
She began confiding in him — personal and even terrible things — and she confided also that she secretly loved his ladybugs and always had: the ladybugs, she said, which brought vibrance and color and beauty to this small sector of the desert.
Some who knew her said by now she’d gone completely crazy.
Others said she was for certain possessed by at least one devil — probably six.
Yet gradually but inexorably, she grew calmer, less wild, more civilized and at peace.
Then she went missing.
It came about shortly after a small but rather remarkable incident, which in turn led to another incident, both of which involved Morgan’s brother Baron, who one afternoon showed up unexpectedly at the basketball courts where they were shooting and, with a bright smile, challenged Jon to a friendly game of horse. He was thin and wore knee-length black shorts and black hightop sneakers, and he used those words — “friendly game of horse” — and then glanced balefully at his sister.
Morgan moved off to the side, onto the grass. She narrowed her eyes. She watched. Her fingers balled themselves into little fists as if of their own accord, and she held them this way at her sides.
Over the years, the two men had not spoken to each other more than a handful of times — and then purely in passing — and Jon, who did not say anything now in response to the friendly challenge, did not, however, miss a single shot. Indeed, it almost appeared as though Jon was not really playing the game at all but merely taking turns shooting baskets, practicing even, while Baron, who was an excellent shooter himself, with textbook form, was merely mimicking Jon — except, unlike Jon, he occasionally missed. In this way, Jon won the game of horse, which lasted for almost an hour, and Baron was privately astonished at Jon’s sinistral accuracy — privately astonished and privately infuriated.
He smiled with a closed mouth and shook Jon’s hand.
“You’re one hell of a shot,” Baron said. “I don’t think anyone but the Devil himself could play an entire game of horse against me and not miss once.”
“I am the Devil.”
Morgan smiled, her golden fang winking once in the sharp western sunlight.
There is a certain type of person, often very educated and even thoughtful, within whom exists a curious combination of the secular and the non-secular, the religious and the humanist, and this curious combination perhaps occurs with more frequency than is commonly supposed. In these minds, there’s no fundamental contradiction — because the fundamentals, it is thought, are themselves by nature contradictory.
Such a mind had Baron Felts, who believed in God and government with a near-equal faith, who with near-equal fervor believed in the mystical and the practical, the outrageously speculative and the strictly scientific — and who while religious cared a great deal about money and never had enough of it.
His investigations into the atom and quantum mechanics went deep, and in these investigations he soon found, rather to his surprise, that “physics encountered consciousness head-on” — as he often put it in his published papers — and this, corollarily, led him into endless wormholes of chartless conjecture, to the point of a sort of cosmic superstition.
Jon Silverthorne was aware of these conjectures, and aware also that bad principles drive out good.
Baron was not aware that Jon was aware.
Thus that day on the basketball court, after challenging Jon Silverthorne to a friendly game of horse and after losing that game, Jon, in turn, challenged Baron.
“I want to play one-on-one next,” Jon said. “Except this game I propose we play for high stakes.”
Baron looked into Jon’s eyes, but he did not reply. He was at least six inches taller than Jon.
“If I lose,” Jon said, “I pay you ten-thousand dollars in cash today. If you lose, you agree to publicly debate the Devil.”
Baron cocked his head. He did not reply for several seconds. “What would the subject of this debate be?” he said.
Baron was silent.
“And quantum mechanics,” Jon said, “which is in many ways and many minds the same thing.”
Baron smiled and unconsciously nodded his head. His lips were very red. “I agree,” he said.
“We play to nine.”
“Make it take it?” Baron said.
“Your ball first, since I lost at horse?”
“No. Your ball,” Jon said, and he bounce-passed to Baron his faded-leather basketball.
A soft breeze blew.
The sere sun in the sinister sky was as white as clay, with an iridescent cirrus cloud at some great height scorched to a crisp around the edges.
Morgan sat down cross-legged on the grass. She watched them with her inscrutable eyes.
The two men went to the top of the key, Jon on defense. Baron checked the ball, and with one hand — his left — Jon bounced it back to him.
Baron began to dribble — but no sooner did he start dribbling than Jon, with rattlesnake quickness, lunged-in low and stole the ball.
Baron was not expecting this — not two dribbles in and not so fast.
In fact, Jon stole the ball so rapidly and so cleanly that Baron scarcely had any time to react: he’d underestimated his opponent’s quickness, and he realized this too — realized it as it was still happening. In the same motion, without slowing down, Jon dribbled behind his back and drove toward the basket. Baron was fast, but Jon had the drop on him, which left Baron a half-step behind, so that Jon went in for an unchallenged lay-up on his right-hand side. He made the shot off the backboard.
It was now Jon’s ball until he missed or turned the ball over.
Baron was an experienced basketball player who’d gone up against some of the very best players in the country. Nevertheless, he was surprised — surprised by Jon’s agility and quickness, his fluidity and ease of motion — yet he did not show his surprise. He was also an experienced enough player to have occasionally come up against such people before: people who had never played in school or anywhere else outside of playgrounds or city leagues, but who loved the game with such passion and purity that they practiced it to the point of monomania until they had become great.
Jon checked the ball. He was two feet back from the top of the key. He paused. He did not dribble. He leaned forward. He held the ball with both hands at his chest. He then faked a little to his left, which sent Baron back — just a half-step. It was enough. Jon then dribbled back one step and pulled up for an uncontested longshot.
Jon was a longshot.
The ball arced backspinning, slowly, through the air and then fell directly through the hoop without touching the rim.
Baron nodded once but said nothing.
He retrieved the ball and checked it back to Jon and then crouched low and dangerous-looking in his defense: like a venomous viper coiled to strike. Jon held the ball at his chest again. There was a facile quality and clear kinesthetic awareness not only in his movements but in his eyes as well. It was a part of him: unselfconscious, unmannered. Staring at Baron’s sneakers, he spoke:
“Not an atom of data exists,” Jon said, “not an atom, which shows that conscious observation collapses the wave function of the electron. In fact, it’s the exact opposite that’s true.”
Baron appeared not to hear him. He was watching the ball that Jon held at his chest.
Jon began to dribble.
Baron faked a lunge as if to steal the ball. Jon was not duped. On the contrary, it seemed as though he was expecting just such a maneuver: as Baron went forward in his fake, Jon, with incredible speed, cross-over dribbled and blew by Baron. He went in for another easy lay-up, this time straight over the top of the rim and in, no backboard.
Baron checked the ball to him again, and again Jon stared at Baron’s feet. He was perfectly motionless for a moment. Then he rapidly stutter-stepped to the right, but he did not dribble. Baron didn’t fall for it. He was again watching the ball in Jon’s hands.
“You must concede,” Jon said, still holding the ball, “that the experiments can be set up, with the measurement devices running, and that the results are the exact same whether anyone — scientist or non-scientist — observes the experiment or leaves the room. You will surely admit, therefore, that the universe doesn’t ‘know’ whether it’s being consciously watched, and therefore you’ll be forced to concede to me that the universe doesn’t switch back and forth between particle and wave because of shifts in human awareness.”
Jon was not quite finished with the last words of this last sentence when he pulled up for another longshot.
He had a quick release.
The shot went in.
Morgan watched the ball pass through the hoop and blinked slowly.
“Good shot,” Baron said. He checked the ball back to Jon.
“Thank you,” Jon said. “Let me propose a straightforward hypothesis.”
Jon dribbled casually with his left hand now, not guarding the ball, and with lidless fixity, Baron once again crouched dangerously and watched the bouncing ball.
“We simply don’t know all the variables involved in micro-micro-scale phenomena,” Jon said. Upon saying which, blur-like and still dribbling but lower now, Jon juked right, left, right again, dribbled right-to-left between his legs and then spun the other direction. His quickness was phenomenal. He drove hard for the basket. Baron went with him.
Very abruptly, then, as if on a dime, in the middle of the key, Jon stopped and in the same motion pulled up for an eight-foot jumpshot. Baron’s macro-movements were still taking him backward.
The faded-orange ball swished through the net.
Jon grabbed the ball quickly and quickly trotted back to the top of the key.
“Rather than think we must be omniscient for our knowledge to be valid,” Jon said, “and rather than thinking that we must possess a perfect understanding of all theories, or that our experiments must prove reality is entirely probabilistic, consider this: we simply don’t have all the data yet.”
Jon checked the ball — and instantaneously, as soon as Baron bounced the ball back to him and it touched Jon’s fingers — touched them at the micro level — Jon burst by Baron like a blast of lightning and went in for another unchallenged lay-up.
“Consider that we’re missing a theoretical puzzle-piece,” Jon said.
Retrieving the ball, Jon did not jog but ran back to the top of the key.
It was to all three of them now as clear as gin that Jon was in total command, and this realization dawned upon Morgan and Baron at the exact same time.
Jon checked the ball and, catching it with one hand, immediately began to dribble left.
“We did not used to understand gravitational theory,” Jon said. “Now we do. When we didn’t understand it, it would have been foolish to label that unknown force of gravity as ‘Gods hand’ or the ‘Devil’s hand’ or to ascribe to it any random brand of mysticism, which, in fact, is precisely what people did. And it’s precisely what many today — scientist and non-scientist alike — are doing with quantum mechanics.”
Baron appeared not to hear. Jon dribbled rather recklessly, without guarding the ball. Baron once again faked a lunge, as if to steal the ball, and then immediately after that fake, he lunged-in gracefully for an actual steal.
And got it — almost.
In an actual and non-probabilistic way, Baron hit the ball solidly, but it wasn’t quite enough. Jon regained his dribble, and now having Baron completely off-balance, almost behind him because of his gamble for the steal, Jon went to the left and with Baron gunning for him, ready to leap with all the desperate energy his atoms contained in order to block the shot, Jon, at the last possible moment, cut back and went under the hoop for a reverse lay-up, which banked delicately off the backboard and dropped through the hoop.
Jon once again ran back to the top of the key. He seemed to be amping-up, perhaps at the sub-atomic level.
Both men were perspiring.
“God, I love basketball,” Jon said. “I love it. You know why? Because it’s fun.”
He bounced the ball to Baron for a check and spoke more: “Once we find and apprehend the yet unknown variables and links in quantum theory, classical and quantum mechanics will be fused and seamlessly integrated.”
“That’s called the ‘hidden variable’ theory,” Baron said. He held the ball a moment before checking it back.
“No rest,” Jon said. “I’m ready to go.” He stepped back two paces, so that he was now five feet from the top of the key: way out.
Morgan narrowed her eyes. She understood that Jon was a longshot. She secretly loved him for it.
“Next, I suppose you trot out Pilot Wave theory?” Baron said.
“To explain the double-slit experiment without indeterminism?” Jon said. “I could. Yes, I could. Pass me the ball, please. I’m ready to play.”
Baron checked the ball back to Jon, who was so far away from the basket that Baron did not step closer but remained inside the arc of the key, two steps above the free-throw line, while Jon was seven feet beyond the top of the key.
“The Copenhagen interpretation is dead,” Jon said. He held the ball with one hand at his sinistral side. “The truth is, it was never alive to begin with, but quantum mystics like Neils Bohr tried to turn science into a priestcraft — and partially succeeded. Enough so, at any rate, to give the Copenhagen interpretation the appearance of life. I know you know that there are modifications to the double-slit experiment that show results that directly contradict the Copenhagen interpretation, and I know you know that as technology has improved and knowledge has grown, physicists have discovered a technique of recording the path of photons using so-called ‘weak measurement,’ which, as you also know, allows for measurements of quantum phenomena without necessarily disturbing them. This hints at avoiding the observer-effect altogether.”
“How so?” Baron almost whispered.
“By being able to passively observe the double-slit experiment, one can perceive the interference and the path of the individual photon at the same time — which means that the wave-function and particle-function are being observed at the same time, supposedly impossible, I don’t need to tell you, because of the poorly named ‘uncertainty principle’.”
“Reality is firm and comprehensible,” Jon said, “but I lost track: Is this game point?”
But before Baron could even think of answering, Jon, without dribbling and now from very far away indeed, came up suddenly and released the ball in a perfectly arcing jumpshot, which, against all known laws of gravity, appeared for a moment’s fraction to hang motionless at its apogee — like a black-seamed planet against the expanding universe behind it. Then the ball dropped straight through the hoop.
It was a remarkable shot.
“It is time,” Jon said. “Time to admit the obvious.”
“The devices used to measure quantum phenomena in the double-slit experiment are what interfere with the results. It is not existence itself. There is existence and there is the awareness of existence. There is reality and there is consciousness. These two things are harmonious and symbiotic, and they work in tandem, but they are separate. Consciousness is awareness. Consciousness in many ways is quantification and measurement. Math is quantification and measurement. ‘We do not eat what has been eaten,'” Jon said. “‘We eat bread.’ To separate object from thing is to violate the nature of intellect.”
“That was not game-point,” Morgan said. “There’s still more to go.”
As if she did not want this moment to end — and Jon winked at her, but so subtly and so rapidly that, thinking about it later, she wasn’t sure she’d seen it after all, or merely hoped.
On a bright blue-and-copper morning two days after Jon beat Baron Felts in their basketball games, when Morgan came to Jon’s home and raised her hand to rap upon his front entrance — as she had many times over the past several weeks — she was brought up short by the reflected image she saw in the triangular pane of glass inset into his door.
The reflected image was a word.
This word had been written by an index finger — a finger run softly through the orange dust upon the rear windshield of Jon’s truck.
The word she saw reflected in the glass of his front door was this:
She assumed he’d written it, and for a moment, she even smiled. Then she realized something else.
She realized she was reading this word in mirrored form — and the instant she realized it, she realized as well what it implied.
Morgan in that moment grasped in full what the written word actually denoted.
She swiveled around and faced it.
Scrawled in the dust on the glass of Jon’s truck was this:
The ensuing horrors, which Jon knew nothing of and never would, began the night of the following day, when Jon was away in the Morenci mines and Morgan arrived home from work in moon-blanched darkness.
The figures waiting for her inside her tidy room were people she knew — all save one — yet they were strangely garbed, who bound her and burned incense and swung the incense from a golden censer, who chanted and wept and prayed, and then came the gracile and mysterious priest-like figure, whom she did not know, with his white collar and pallid skin both blue in the moonlight, who strode seven-feet-tall into the room bringing behind him a tiny two-headed calf with a long neck and small cloven hoofs that clopped lightly across the wooden floor, leading the mutant animal before her bound body, and then, extracting from the folds of his black robe a long gleaming saber, he slaughtered the two-headed calf on the floor of her room — slitting the little living neck between the two heads and calling simultaneously for the devils to be gone from the girl, exorcising her demons into the desert night, while her family chanted and prayed and swung the censer with its violet-blue smoke, and the calf bawled and screeched and then died, and the humpbacked moon rode the sky and poured down its pale light which flickered silver upon the sacrificial blood of the calf, the husks of ladybugs with their little cow faces everywhere outside, strewn beneath the midnight heavens like raisins in the dust.
One week later, while the Felts family slept as if drugged by witch’s brew, the entire compound burned to the ground.
Morgan’s was the only body not found.
It was a quaking desert night, not to be gainsaid — a febrile night, a night, perhaps, of wild insight and heightened apprehension.
An indigo light filled the sky, and several times he thought he heard voices in the distance. Yet in every direction he looked, he saw no one: no one and no thing save the desert and the neck-shape of Baboquivari silhouetted blackly against the indigo sky that stretched above him like the membrane of an eye.
In darkness, he arrived back at the womb-like entrance of the cave.
In darkness, he reentered the small triangular maw.
He ignited his small headlamp which shone on the cave walls with a bluish beam, and he crawled on his hands and knees for what seemed hours through the maze-like corridors of stone.
Several times he thought he saw, quite separate from the beam of his headlamp, a purple light burning somewhere down the distance. Two or three times, he even extinguished his headlamp, the better to determine if the purple light was real, and indeed its glow intensified. Was there a different feeling about this purple light pulsing deep in the throat of the caves? Was there because of it a less deathly stillness in the air?
Without at first consciously realizing it, he began using the purple glow as both a reference point and also a guide.
The deeper in he went, the brighter grew the purple glow.
At last, Kristopher came to a mudded ledge — dropping off of which, he found himself, for the second time, inside the open room of Mesozoic rock. Here it was confirmed what he already deep-down knew:
This room comprised the purple light, and yet it was what he saw after, upon the ground under the glow of that light, it was this that astounded him most of all — beyond anything he’d seen in his life. It was a ghoulish and yet strangely touching sight.
He saw a young woman curled on a blanket, asleep among the little mummies with their malformed faces minute and cow-like in the purple pall of her pulsing light.
She was sick and feverish and sweating on her stony bed. Her face just under her cheekbones had a slightly famished look. Her hair hung damp and short. The light consisted of long lilac glow-ropes and glow-sticks draped along the cave walls. The cave was as soundless as a crypt. He stood for a full five minutes motionless and watching her. He watched her in silent surmise. Her face was not familiar to him. When at last he moved, he woke her by accident, gently, with the scuffing sound of his shoes.
She did not start but opened her eyes in quiet and in peace and gazed at him in a far-off and fevered way, and she spoke immediately, telling him that sleeping among the mummies brought her comfort because like her, she said, these humans were born prematurely and were defective as a result, and she said also that she loved them. She said that they contained mysteries. She told him that Jon Silverthorne had once brought her here, over a year ago. He showed her these mummies, she said, and he explained to her also what the mummies were, believing they were specifically buried here for a reason — because Baboquivari is regarded by natives as the navel of the world.
When Kristopher told her that Jon Silverthorne was his brother, she did something then even more unexpected:
She smiled with a brightness that far outshone her hanging lights of lilac-purple hue, two dimples like tiny crescent moons suddenly appearing in her famished-looking cheeks of ghostly blue. She smiled from where she lay upon her adamantine bed.
“My name is Morgan,” she said.
Neither saw, watching them from the shadows, the spindly figure with the insect head.
On unsteady legs, she led him from this room, through a dark corridor, the purple glow-light of plasma which she held lighting their way dimly. As they walked, she told him that the Tohono O’Odham believe their stone god — whose name is I’itoli — lives deep inside these rocky caverns which web Baboquivari, and she said that for this reason they call him The Maze Man.
Morgan said also that nobody has ever mapped these caves completely — so intricate they are and so dark — and when, at length, the two of them came into an enormous open room through which a cool wind poured, she told Kristopher to watch his step. There were moon-colored bones glowing everywhere along the ground, and she said that these bones were the remains of sacrifices once made to the Maze Man.
Side-by-side with her and peering carefully down into a huge hollow that dropped away at their feet, Kristopher gradually saw swim into his ken a distant but distinct glow of red: like a fiery kiln burning away at the core of the earth.
Morgan watched with him and then she turned from the distant glow and looked at Kristopher and spoke:
“The Tohono O’Odham believe this to be the very portal to hell,” she said.
He turned to her.
“Jon told me this,” she said.
“What else did he tell you?”
“He told me that the navel of the universe also contains the portal to hell, and he smiled when he said it, and I don’t know why.”
They regarded each other in silence for some time. They regarded each other in the swarming purple darkness of her light.
“Will you come with me?” she said.
“Through the portal, to hell.”
In the depths of the human eyes is revealed the quality of the person contained within. If nothing shines forth from behind the eyes, it is because nothing in that brain thinks, nothing in that soul contemplates, and the heart inside has grown cold — the life-force diminished or dead.
Small souls blink and dart their eyes. Large souls radiate and flash with bolts of lightning.
The mystery of great hearts is disclosed in this one phrase: carry on.
Whatever the goal may be, the entire secret lies in ceaselessly proceeding toward that goal — and to fall does not preclude soaring.
All of Jon’s existence seemed somehow yoked to the impossible, even while he himself, no matter the impossibility, seemed simultaneously unstoppable.
What was he aiming for? And what the object of his sinistral aim?
Yet the fiery light that burned hotly inside his eyes left no doubt that something specific was in his brain.
When part of his peculiar manuscript appeared in print, it went completely unnoticed — at first.
The circumstances surrounding the meteoric blast it created, and which resulted in the famous violence, began shortly after a mysterious personage whom nobody knew somehow got hold of Jon’s pages. This person’s name was Ash.
Ash: Scientist, satanist, sorcerer, poet, priest, doctor, witchdoctor, Wiccan, woman, man — it was difficult to say for certain. The only thing generally agreed upon was that Ash possessed a certain power.
A certain power and a certain thoughtfulness, and the passages in Jon’s pages that most captured Ash were passages describing nature as the sum total of reality, which, Jon wrote, is another way of saying the universe entire:
Nature in the broadest sense is the universe — the universe being everything which is.
This and its elaboration are what Ash chiefly noted.
There can therefore be no possibility of many universes or of things outside the universe, Jon wrote, because if it exists, it is by definition a part of the universe.
Existence is the universe. Non-existence does not exist. Nothing is not something.
“There is no nothing,” Victor Hugo wrote.
This is why there can be no super-nature:
Nothing that exists can transcend nature, because if it exists, it is part of nature by definition.
Everything that exists is part of reality. Nature is reality. If it doesn’t exist, it does not exist.
There cannot be a realm of existence beyond existence. It is a contradiction in terms. If it exists, it is an element of the natural, not the supernatural. This is why superstition is the necessary counterpart to supernaturalism: the two must walk hand-in-hand because they cannot exist without each other.
The word “superstition” comes from the Latin “super” meaning “over” — to over-stand, to stand in awe of things the mind does not yet comprehend, which does not mean that the mind isn’t capable of comprehending it, but only that the mind hasn’t yet comprehended it. This is a principle which woman and men must all come to grasp:
Because a thing is not yet known doesn’t mean that the only possible explanation is something supernatural.
Lightning bolts, once thought to be the supernatural weapons of Thor, are, as it turns out, perfectly natural — just as the Northern Lights are natural and not the supernatural breath of gods.
Super-nature not only does not exist — it cannot exist: it could in no way touch, alter, or affect reality — not by hex or by vex, not by miracle or curse — unless it were in some way a part of nature.
Even a god must perceive by some means.
How could something beyond nature ever be called upon from nature — by prayer or by curse or by anything else?
How if it is beyond nature could it be invoked in any way that would connect it to the natural world? How could these two realms in any manner whatsoever coincide, crossover, or touch? And how could human consciousness, which is entirely natural, discover it or know about it in any way, even by mystical means, if this other realm is beyond nature?
Where is one end of the bridge anchored, and where does the other end touch down? And what becomes of that bridge the moment it passes from the realm of nature and into super-nature?
How could such a bridge be crossed or built through the natural world and into the other realm, which is beyond nature?
And if super-nature is not totally beyond nature, why isn’t this realm subject to observation and inquiry?
How can a hex or a spell or a miracle or a curse subvert certain laws of reality but not others? How is it, for instance, that the putative workers of such hexes, spells, curses, invocations, and miracles must still abide by the most elementary laws of economics, gravity, traffic-jams?
Why can some quotidian laws be transcended, while so many others cannot?
Why do the casters of spells and the callers of curses and the workers of miracles and the practitioners of voodoo, who purport the ability to call forth powers beyond nature to do such magnificent things as heal or harm, why do they nevertheless sit in rush-hour traffic or wait in lines?
Why do they who collaborate with the otherworldly work in any number of worldly industries — and perform the character-building value that this worldly work entails — for something as worldly as money with which they might buy such worldly things as clothing, shelter, drinks, food, fuel, so on?
Why not bring forth pure gold from the soil and wealth from the branches of trees, rather than work in the bar-and-restaurant?
What need of money at all for the ones who have power to heal or hex or call forth things beyond nature?
I propose this test:
Let she or he who claims supernatural powers, no matter the specific creed, dogma, or set of beliefs involved, let this person drive across the country with eyes shut tight the entire time — without any regard for refueling, roads, pedestrians, oncoming traffic, or any other basic facts of reality, which they say can be transcended by this thing called super-nature, via its mediums, and let the true-believer sit without seatbelt and without fear in the passenger-side of the blindly moving car.
The truth is that since no one can actually exist outside the natural world, the people who haunt the half-hidden precincts of the supernatural are at war with the natural world in which they, as all of us, must live. In this way, they are double-minded — by necessity: there are two-headed, like a neck between two heads.
All claims — whether God, green men, Grendel, the Great Spirit, or anything else — can only be put forth in a serious way with the accompaniment of data, not mere belief or whimsy or data weak and flimsy.
It is always the job of the claimant to bring good data with the claim in order to demonstrate its truth. That billions or even trillions blindly believe is irrelevant, as it always has been, as it always will be.
It is not the job of everyone else to constantly disprove whimsical notions and notions of pure fancy, while the creators of these endless notions continue to spin claim after claim and expect the rest of the world to either disprove negative claims or simply take the claims on faith — to believe in spite of independent thought. And if that were the case, why choose this belief over that one? By what criteria of cardinal judgement? Why little green men instead of Grendel? Why reject the Judeo-Christian God in favor of Pagan Goddesses, or vice-versa? Why priestcraft instead of witchcraft? What is the accurate measure for claims that cannot be proven or disproven or properly studied or known because by definition they are beyond nature?
And how if reality is jettisoned does one rightly gauge the measure?
By what legitimate standard or test?
And what, meanwhile, of our minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day existence in the natural universe, the realm of existence, the non-supernatural realm, where a momentary lapse in judgement, based upon real-world criteria, can result in harm or death — for instance, by car or motorcycle accident?
As the term a-theist means without belief in God or gods, so a-boogeyman means without belief in boogeymen.
I repeat: without belief.
Not “I-do-not-know.” But without belief.
Superstition, whether pagan, Neo-pagan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Haitian, Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, or anything else or any cross-combination — they are united by one ineluctable and overwhelming denominator which they all have in common:
They are superstitions. Which means:
They float forever in the murky realm of the unverifiable, the unprovable, the unknowable, the hexed and demon-haunted Gondwanaland of uncertainty and the arbitrary, where new offshoots and denominations and rules and permutations and doctrines and quasi-doctrines spring up and mushroom endlessly, and where uncertainty, anxiety, fear, trembling, and even loathing of the knowable universe — which is everything real — rear heads from that one single neck of superstition and mock the meat they feed upon: the value of human work and human effort and human creativity and ingenuity in the real and remarkable realm of the natural universe.
An odor of iron blew down the cave, a tang in the mouth like old pennies. The rock creaked. They descended by means of a long thick rope which she already had fastened: clipped securely with a carabiner around an enormous slab of stone that sat propped at an angle against the cave wall.
Neither Morgan nor Kristopher were harnessed or tied in. They did not slide down the rope but with great care descended hand-over-hand, feet walking the black wall. Morgan led.
They dropped three levels deep into the infundibular mouth of the cave at the bottom of which burned a blurry glow of scarlet.
At the third level, the rope near its end, they came to a rock precipice that cantilevered narrowly. From here they let go the rope and walked back into a kind of hallway within this cave, which led down in a spiral-like fashion. The farther down they wound, the more that light clarified below them — clarified and took form — until at length the light ceased glowing as a single mass, but now as they drew nearer particulated in discrete and isolate shapes, individuated and winking cat-eyed, like noctivigant lifeforms who watched hidden among the rocks, who could not, however, keep the life-force that burned inside from showing forth from the eye, which is the light of the body.
When they came to the bottom and stood beside each other at the seventh level of the cave, they both gazed about wonderstruck and in arrant silence, both of them turning a slow three-hundred-sixty degrees, the crimson lights now shimmering immediately around them, everywhere, above and below and back into a long stone corridor which also shook and shifted in a billion spangles of gold-red and gashed vermillion.
The glittering lights rebated hotly off the skin of their faces.
“What is this light?” Morgan whispered, half to Kristopher, half to herself.
Now — only now — Kristopher grasped the meaning of a passage he’d some time ago read in Jon’s leather-bound book about the phenomena of bioluminescence within Baboquivari and how living things — bacteria, plankton, worm, insect, fungi — seek to take advantage of the reactive nature of oxygen, which by its nature wants to combine with other elements in the process of oxidization, and that there’s a specific chemical that living things contain, with which when oxygen binds to it creates a chemical reaction. This chemical reaction is sometimes helped by an enzyme, which forms a compound of high energy and which then breaks down and in so doing emits enough energy to excite electrons in the atoms of the entity, so that these electrons jump further away from the nucleus. When they relax back to where they were, a photon is expelled and energy in the form of light is pumped out.
He remembered as well how in reference to this passage Justine, with a smile, had told him something more; he repeated that something now:
“The chemical is called Luciferin,” Kristopher said, “and it’s aided by an enzyme called Luciferase.”
“Luciferin,” Morgan said. “Luciferase. It is beautiful.”
The scarlet glow danced across the liquid membrane of her eyes, reddening each eye completely, as with blood, so that she suddenly looked to him demonic in the cave that was said to be the gateway to hell, and he thought of blood issuing from the tilted eyes of the mutant horned toad. She was still gazing slowly around when she spoke again, and he did not know she was quoting something his half brother had once read to her from an old and esoteric book.
“Light is energy,” she said. “Light is radiance, luminescence, lambency. But it is something more as well: Light is metaphor. Light is knowledge. Light is wisdom and learning. Light is lucent. Light is life. Light is light.”
What does it mean to be a slave?
To live in darkness.
It means to be under the governance of someone or something other than your own will.
It means to be owned.
Obsessions, whether developed in pursuit of pleasure or purely in the service of neurosis or any cross-combination, whether motivated by superstitious thinking — broken-mirrors, black cats, and sidewalk cracks — or whether motivated by alcohol, drugs, food, cigarettes, sex, gambling, or anything else, they own the obsessed.
They lay claim.
Thereby, to the degree and depth they have taken root, they prevent the bud of each from fully flowering.
They dampen the light that burns within.
They are not bad because they are deemed so by divine decree or by religious or dogmatic edict. They are bad, rather, because they stunt intellectual development and emotional growth and maturity and the human happiness and intimacy and the energy of life which flows forth from this natural path of development.
Good and bad are in an ethical sense gauged by a standard of each individual soul’s freedom to fully shine with light, to flower and flourish, and the deeds that this entails: the eudaemonia of entelechy, which is light and life.
What was it but apprehension like a black-winged bird — a great Pondicherry vulture flapping on the horizon of the mind, advancing slowly but surely, and then landing with a stomp, dragging its talons and ripping the hooked beak through the sweet meat of the brain?
First, there was the two-headed horned toad, which Justine had taken care of and kept in Jon’s home, and which upon returning from work one evening Jon found dead on his doorstep: the gentle little creature cleft down the center with an axe, its two heads now separated from the single neck, bifurcated, the small guts spilled colorfully onto the wood like little fruit from a little cornucopia, blood everywhere around it.
Next came a photograph depicting a satanic scene of ritualized sex mixed with great violence and violation, sexual obsession, cultic gore, death.
Beside the blue paloverde in front of his home, Jon stood staring at this photo. The light fell around him cold and unnaturally sharp: the kind of light by which vile deeds are done.
He looked off to the dry hills of Baboquivari.
He stared long and pensively at the purple folds, the thalassic sky draining away behind like a reef of green, his dark eyes slit thin as saber slashes. He looked as one on the verge of a powerful insight. The desert wind lifted his hair and moved sluggishly through the leafy boughs above.
The warm wind and slow gentle clash of the leaves washed over him.
Suddenly the insight struck — it hit him in full — and he understood.
His eyes opened and he smiled.
He smiled and turned away.
Under the darkening sky, Baboquivari looked strange and wild.
Nightfall overtook the day.
The Superstition Mountains are a range of volcanic peaks located approximately fifty miles east of Phoenix, along the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert. To the natives, they’re known as The Superstitions — an extraordinarily deceptive and inimical terrain filled with abrupt drop-offs, strange sounds, enigmatic disappearances, unexplained deaths — and it is perhaps for this reason that more people perish each year in The Superstitions than in any other North American mountain range.
Toward the close of a melancholy afternoon, some seven years before — before the two-headed horned toad was found cleft on Jon Silverthorne’s doorstep — in the autumn of 2006, a strong-looking young man in faded blue jeans and a white tee-shirt entered The Superstitions by way of the Apache trail.
The young man was perhaps twenty-two-years-old. His hair was long and jet-black, his skin satanically dark. He wore tennis shoes and he carried a large duffel bag over his shoulder, nothing else. He walked in a purposeful yet relaxed way. A handful of people that day saw the young man entering The Superstitions alone, each of whom reported later, independently of one another, that there was something peculiar about him.
No one witnessed him coming out.
One said she’d seen him here before.
Around this same time, a remarkable incident took place which may or may not have been connected with the young man’s presence in The Superstitions.
Among the locals, there has long been a belief that the Devil has from time-to-time chosen the Superstition Wilderness as a hiding place for his various treasures. Many people who live in the vicinity say that it is not at all uncommon or unusual to meet at twilight, in certain secluded areas along the fringes of the wilderness, a stern-looking man, possibly a hunter, with soot-colored skin and scarlet eyes and bare feet that seem perhaps cloven. This man is often observed, with a bag over his shoulder, entering caves, which appear to open up before him in the earth, as if he and he alone creates them. Sometimes he has dead rattlesnakes hanging from his belt.
It is generally agreed that there are two ways of handling an encounter with him:
The first is to approach and speak to the man — at which point it becomes immediately apparent that he’s just a wandered hermit, a poor man with only half his faculties intact, and that his skin only looks soot-colored because he is weather-beaten and it is sundown, that his scarlet eyes are in fact light brown, that his feet, which are indeed bare, are not, however, cloven at all but simply scarred and filthy, and that the caves he enters are not created by him but merely hidden in the gloaming, and he uses these caves as a shelter in which to sleep. The snakes are his supper. You go home then, after which you may or may not die within the year.
The second method is to watch him closely, and when he’s vanished into a cave, you scrupulously mark that spot. Next day, you return to this spot. You dig and dig, and you then loot the treasure which the stern and swarthy man has stashed there.
You may or may not die within the week.
And what is the Devil’s treasure?
Is it gold? Wealth and riches beyond all human imagination? Food and drink and sexual glut?
Or is it some ancient relic wrapped in rags?
A thin black book, perhaps — a book of shadows and light — containing deep dark knowledge?
A few days after the strong-looking youth was seen entering The Superstitions, a small boy, no more than twelve-years-old, walked alone down the Apache Trail. It was a warm and windless autumn night. A deep stillness hung over the desert. The moon wobbled up and stood quaking on the eastern horizon: membraneous and full, she laved the cooling land in gales of sulphur-colored moonlight.
The small boy was an orphan. He was a remarkably resolute little lad, and also a wanderer, an explorer.
He’d heard that treasures were hidden in these mountains — treasures men had died in trying to find — and he was drawn by the mystery and the challenge, far more than he was drawn by the allure of riches.
He was an apprentice to a stonemason — one of these little boys who through a combination of circumstance and necessity are in many ways already men. He carried hod. He worked indefatigably. He earned his own living. He watched closely how his boss laid stone. He liked to climb things. He liked to swim. He practiced handstands, pushups, pull-ups. At the park, among the old savants and autodidacts, he learned to play chess, and he rapidly excelled. A child of chance, a happy orphan, a solitary soul by choice, a little boy of mixed pedigree, half-black, half-white, who thought nothing of giving money to a poor woman on the street, he haunted bookstores and libraries, and he found that the more he read, the more he wanted to read. He frequently went alone to movies, late at night. He loved the magic of the cinema screen.
Often mischievous but never malicious, who felt no rancor toward any race or station in life, he was bold to the point of precociousness — bold and bright — and he frequently engaged adults in conversation, yet he thought incomprehensible those humans who past a certain age could not be alone for more than twenty-four hours. When the impulse struck, he allowed himself little holidays like this and went exploring.
Such was this resolute little lad.
That night, the silence and solitude of the desert had something unearthly about it, something mysterious and strange. There was not the ghost of a wind. The saguaro cactus stood sentry-like everywhere around the Apache Trail. The boy had chosen this night for the fullness of the moon, the light it cast. On his back, he carried a small pack inside of which was a tightly rolled tent. He was sticking to the trail. His plan was to pitch the tent at any moment now, and then sleep and rise early and then in the light of the new day make his way alone into The Superstitions, where so many had perished in pursuit of unbelievable treasures and riches. Suddenly, though, in the dark desert wild far off to his left, he thought he saw the pulse of a golden light.
This light came and went. And came again. And vanished. For a split second, the light had almost looked mushroom-shaped: like a miniature mushroom cloud.
The little lad could not resist.
He went off-trail.
The ground rapidly grew rocky and thorny and difficult to traverse. He walked for a long time — he was surprised how long. He moved slowly and with great caution. There were dense patches of Moon Cactus and Star Cactus and Candlewood, which is also called Jacob’s Staff, and there were small yucca with sword-shaped leaves standing motionless in the wind-lorn night. He did not see the golden light again, but he’d taken careful note of the landscape surrounding the area from which the light had emanated, and he moved slowly but steadfastly toward it.
At length he came into a sandy draw which soon gave way to a narrow canyon surrounded by spiky stone jags. He felt he’d entered here a sort of nighttime palace — a fantastical palace stumbled upon in this vast western wasteland. The nocturnal air grew warmer and more breathless still, so that walking these windless canyons, the boy began to sweat.
He had a vague, uneasy sense that someone was observing him.
The moon above rolled like a ball of marble across the sloped firmament and cast a ghostly light all along the ground. He wandered the sandy paths beneath the spikes of stone, which glowed like sepulchers in the lunar light, and he wandered for a long time and was even on the brink of turning back, for fear of having lost his direction — when, out of the moon-blanched dark, away to his right, he thought he heard a sound, like a low growl.
He saw no one and nothing out of the ordinary.
He was already beginning to have strange thoughts — thoughts he’d never had before — and these thoughts intensified now. Apprehension crept over him in a hot and peristaltic way that made him shutter.
He paused for a moment.
He looked behind him.
He saw his footprints in the sand which the moon was fantastically silvering. He stared at his footprints for a full minute, as though they contained secrets: those steps he’d taken which had led him to this precise spot, this precise moment in time, steps which could have been different had he decided at any point to go in another direction.
But this was the way and the path he had willed.
He understood this.
He faced forward again and went deeper inside The Superstitions.
The stones around him loomed like pyramids. The moon was so bright that it cast geometrically sharp shadows, tilting the canyon walls in a disorienting fashion, so that the silver sandy ground now looked inlaid everywhere with points of black shadow. Now the only sound was the sound of the shadow-strewn earth crushing gently beneath each of his steps.
One hour later, within the silvery light-and-shade of this marvelous rock palace, he felt for the first time that night a breeze pass over him. The breeze blew small yet steadily down a narrow stone corridor. It came like a soft spirit upon him. It smelled vaguely of … what?
He considered the question.
Rain and dust, and something else he couldn’t quite pinpoint — a nick of astringency: metal or vinegar, perhaps, or perhaps fresh blood, he was not sure.
The smell was subtle yet sharp and not entirely unpleasant.
He turned into it and walked against the gentle breeze — the breeze which blew over him with a sound like the murmur of ghosts, like a whisper of souls. It was then that he heard the low growl again.
It was the growl of the monolithically shifting sand across unseen dunes, but he did not know this.
With a sense of impending dread, the resolute boy continued on his path — not fearlessly, but with the knowledge and conviction that this was the way he’d decided upon: the way of solitude and discovery.
Searching for the golden light, alone.
He was well inside The Superstitions now. By now his thoughts were running wild with surmise, his eyes dilated with conjecture.
He continued walking into the cool and strange-smelling breeze, which was constant and spiced at this point with something like smoke. He continued deeper into night.
At last, passing near the open mouth of a cavern, where the breeze blew stronger, he found evidence of another person: a white tee-shirt hung from the rock. It was swaying and snapping lightly, like a phantom in the breeze.
The boy approached.
The astringent odor grew stronger.
As the boy approached, he saw something like a muffled light beyond. It was furred and vague, this light, like one of those dark-lantern effects said to be common in the illumination of witch covens and devil’s meetings.
For a moment, he imagined the vast vacant darkness had sprouted eyeballs, the intermissions of light caused by a vent-hole in the doorway of hell, the opening and shuttering of hell’s iron vent. Human flesh roasting slowly within, and perhaps this accounted for the smell of smoke and blood.
The boy went deeper in.
His way turned and twisted, and the light grew clearer and less muffled.
Finally, far down a stone chute, he saw at last the figure’s back — human, alien, angel, devil, he did not know.
The boy’s heart paused, then released a thunderous beat. Beads of sweat appeared all along his forehead and stood there like blisters. He closed and opened his eyes slowly. He inhaled through his nose. He felt himself inwardly trembling. He gathered his courage and advanced toward the figure.
The figure was a man.
A golden-yellow light shone all around him.
The man was shirtless and swarthy. He was at work — though at work upon what (cauldron, coffin, pitchfork) the boy could not tell. The man was turned and leaning forward in such a way that all the boy could see was his lean lumped back.
The light came from three small but strong battery-powered bulbs, strategically positioned. There was no sound. There was a large duffel bag upon the ground.
The boy advanced closer.
Abruptly, as if he heard or otherwise sensed something, the man stopped working and turned.
He was a young man, Apache.
His hair was black, his eyes dark and hooded and unafraid. His bare torso was exceptionally lean and muscular, his skin so dark as to appear almost black. It gleamed with perspiration. He wore clear-latex gloves, which went up almost to his elbows, and which he removed now and dropped soundlessly to the ground. He faced the boy and stared directly into the boy’s wild gaze. The young man blinked slowly.
His eyes radiated warmth and kindness. And bolts of lightning.
This man was deep inside The Superstitions.
He had penetrated them. He was investigating. He was studying them.
He was understanding them.
“Am I dreaming?” said the little lad.
“No,” the young man said.
“What have you found here?”
The boy was silent.
“I’ve found a large underground water aquifer,” the young man said.
“Through geographical survey, while looking for uranium.”
“Because I know somebody — a smart doctor and medical researcher — who buys it from me and uses it for medicine. He calls it nuclear medicine.”
“What is all this golden powder and dark stone around us?”
“This is Yellowcake. Yellowcake is the end product from the extraction of uranium prior to purification. It is an intermediate stage in the processing, and it contains eighty percent Uraninite. The yellow comes from the color of the concentrates used to leach and process uranium ores.”
“I thought it was gold,” the boy said.
The young man smiled wider now. His teeth shone very white. He stepped right up to the boy and spoke again:
“You possess a great deal of courage and strength,” the young man said.
“Why do you say?” the boy replied.
“You’ve come all this way alone, in The Superstition Wilderness, in the dark of night. Many, many people enter The Superstitions and never again find their way out.”
The boy didn’t immediately respond. “I was afraid,” he said. “Very afraid.”
“But you faced it alone and you overcame it.”
“Are you? Are you afraid?”
Slowly, the young man shook his head. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. There never was. It was all a trick, a lie.”
The young man then took something from the front pocket of his faded blue jeans, and he told the boy to open his hand.
The boy did.
The young man placed into the open palm a rough heavy stone, the size of a walnut and very warm, and he told the boy not to look at it but to keep it safe inside his pocket. He said that he’d found this stone here as well. Then he gave the boy a large cup of cold water to drink, and when the boy was finished drinking it, the young man told him now to go back.
The boy — who had noticed something overhead when he’d tipped the water-cup and guzzled — cast his eyes upward.
High above in the domed ceiling of the cavern was a large hole that gave to the night sky. The fantastically silver shiny moon shone through.
Lowering his eyes now, it seemed to him for a protracted moment that behind the young man he saw a slow and mushroom-shaped pulse of light, almost but not quite invisible, coming off the Yellowcake and then throbbing out through the ceiling-hole and into the night, obscuring the moon thinly, like gauze: a gauzy golden veil.
The next morning, when the boy removed the heavy stone from his pocket and scrutinized it in the full light of day, he knew instantly what it was — had, in fact, already guessed:
It was a large nugget of pure gold.
The young man, so deeply investigating The Superstitions, would never know the real gift he’d given the boy:
He’d given an explicit confirmation of what was already implicit inside the boy’s brain and body — the full sanction of youth and the gay and courageous spirit of youth, which the young boy already contained, and the knowledge and understanding that the magical energy and joy and curiosity and purity of youth can and should be kept for a lifetime.
Thereafter, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a wry and knowing smile — an ironic smile — the boy told anyone who asked that it was the Devil himself who, late one autumn night in The Superstitions, had given him this solid gold nugget, and then, said the boy, the diabolical two-horned rascal went right back to work, with his pitchfork stamped 666 in hot smoking scrawl, poking at his strange yellow fire, while over his swart shoulder, beyond the handsome curve of his aquiline nose, a mystical, mushroom-shaped, supernatural dome of atoms rose.
On the topmost floor of the sixty-six story skyscraper, the tall thin figure stood obscured by shadows. It was night. The sky hung black and low. The half-hidden face looked ashen in the dim room, a shock of high hair moon-colored and floating against the dark sky behind.
The figure stood in the corner where wall and window met: a calm and cockeyed creature with a curious yet glowing gaze which, cockeyed or not, burned blue and bright, this figure somehow vampiric and perhaps even God-like looming here so high and so near the plate-glass slab of window that gave to the vast unspooling night.
The city like an intricate necklace spread out across the plain below shimmered with lucency and electric light, and all the darkness looked alive with sparkling jewels of apricot and white.
The figure lifted a glass filled with icy water and then, drinking deeply until the glass was drained and the iced rattled dryly, spoke to the man with hooded eyes, who stood halfway across this high hall-like room:
“What have you been thinking of?”
“To think of shadows is a serious thing.”
Jon Silverthorne did not reply.
“To think is to act,” the figure said. “All thought is an act of labor: it is the strain of attention — of keeping the attention focused — and this act, the effort of attention, is the seat of human will, the existence of which is the fundamental thing that sets this species apart from the other creatures. To choose to put forth the effort of attention — or not — this is the fundamental choice we each make, all day every day, and it is this choice that determines all our other choices and decisions. It shapes every idea we each hold.”
The figure turned and looked out again at the night city that fell away far below. Both of their shapes stood reflected in a disembodied fashion on the slab-like windowpane, so that in their reflections they both appeared to be hovering ghostly against the sky, high above the glittering sprawl of city light.
“I have something for you,” Jon said.
“What is it?”
“It is a gift.”
“What gift do you have?”
“For me you have the gift of water?”
“How much? How much water?”
“A great deal. Enough to last centuries.”
“Where is it?”
“It is in a dry and dangerous place.”
“Where you found uranium and made my Yellowcake?”
“It can be cultivated?”
“Yes. It will bring you a great deal more wealth.”
“How much do you want in exchange for it?”
“I don’t want money.”
“What do you want?”
“This: I want you with your wealth and your resolve and your resources to civilize The Superstitions with the water I found underneath, and I want you to print and promulgate pages I’ve written.”
“It will make you enemies.”
“It will make you infamous.”
“This is what you want?”
“Why? Why infamous?”
“I have reasons,” Jon said.
They were both silent.
They stood staring out the window. Inside the chambers of the black billowing sky came the spasmodic flicker of heat lightning. For a flash, the figure’s sexless face lit up. The face was sharp and angular, the color of ashes.
“The word city is etymologically related to the word civilization,” the figure said. “Did you know?”
“Yes,” the figure said. “Civilization and the city are the same, and they are also a testament to the spontaneous order which arises naturally among human beings when human beings are left free. Civilization and cities are the product of free association and free exchange among humans, because humanity possesses within itself the capacity for arranging its own path of development. Civilization — true civilization, the advance toward personal autonomy — is not the product of force. This is historical fact. Civilization and all that it entails is the product of free association and voluntary exchange.”
Jon remained mute.
From the shadows, the figure watched Jon for a long and thoughtful moment, narrowing on him the bright blue vampire eyes like two laser-beams: cross-eyes burning with brainpower.
“You’re a very peculiar man,” the figure said, and fell silent for several beats. “You’ll have what you ask for,” the figure said, “your civilization and your infamy.”
Shortly after this, a slim book appeared, a book of shadows and light:
The Thin Black Book of Deep Dark Knowledge
by Jon Silverthorne
It went unnoticed, at first.
Several months later, a large underground aquifer was discovered deep below the Superstition Wilderness, and when this massive water source was subsequently tapped and brought to the surface, bringing clean drinking water and crops and other agriculture, and then workers and free-exchange and a thriving economy followed, it was somehow learned and then circulated among purists that in this heretofore economically depressed desert, someone named Silverthorne was ultimately the person responsible: he’d discovered the water, and by unleashing this civilizing force — clean water — he had thereby destroyed The Superstitions.
This was the phrase used: Silverthorne had destroyed The Superstitions.
It came to light next that he was a fugitive — a fugitive from justice — who had once been caught selling cigarettes on the black market, cigarettes he himself had manufactured, and he had fled: fled the long arm of the law.
It was then revealed that Silverthorne was also suspected in a case of arson: the burning down of a property owned and lived in by a man named Felts and his family, in which burning the entire Felts family had died — all save one, a girl named Morgan, who was missing.
Deep within the belly of the intestinal caves which honeycombed Baboquivari like a maze, on the seventh level of hell, Morgan walked with Kristopher back into a cone-shaped corridor burning with strange and dream-like bioluminescence: down a crimson nightworld incandescent with scarves of living lucency, under which enormous calcite stalagmites rose columnar toward dripping stalactites overhead — a wild profusion of limestone stalks and teeth, long thin spires mucronate and wet and gleaming blood-colored in this irradiated wonderscape. The photonic light pulsed and slid over the misshapen speleothems, so that in the ebb and flow of bloody light, these bicarbonate masses looked grotesque and living, like living bodies, mutant, malformed, neck-shaped, two-headed and half-writhing in an underground land that was as silent and as alien as the surface of the moon, a subterranean stone world where teeming larvae all around them throbbed with enzymes and surged with Luciferin and with life.
Down this darkly burning labyrinth, the Maze-Man came.
He came quietly at first, and then with a seething hiss like the long whisper of wind through sere and sinister grass, and he pursued them deep down the adamantine corridors and down the labyrinthian ways, his strong Maze-Man feet and unhurried tread following after, down titanic glooms and chasmed fears.
Suddenly, then, when Morgan in her febrile state looked to her right, Kristopher was no longer there.
She spun around.
Kristopher was not anywhere.
She called for him, but there was no response. Her voice boomed and reverberated throughout the mute crimson corridors of stone.
Then, once again, she heard the seething hiss and the unhurried tread. It was coming closer, though from which precise direction, she could not tell.
She pivoted wildly, to the right and to the left and then behind, and still she could not see the Maze-Man. Yet she felt him very near. She cast her eyes back once more, over both shoulders, and then up — and in that low gaudy vault over her head, she saw intricate ribbons of incarnadine light stream off brightly down another long shaft, and all at once the blood-red glow grew more intense yet, illuminating her face in a hellish light, and the ceiling seemed to her to breathe and heave with the world’s turning.
When the Maze-Man reached her at last, she knew without looking that he was upon her.
When he stood behind her, she felt his presence.
She did not turn around now but genuflected down onto her knee. She closed and opened her eyes slowly, as one who in a fearless way would be executed from behind: the swift swing of the heavy sword slicing silently all the way through the slender stalk of her neck, her round pretty head with its boyish hair rolling across the rock floor, pebbles and dust sticking to her famished cheeks, two ropes of blood spurting from the stump of her neck, the ball-like head on the floor of the cave with clear gray eyes gazing spellbound one final time at this phenomenal world all around her now, a world of such breathtaking, heartbreaking lucency.
But the strong swift sword-stroke never came.
Instead, she felt a warm and gentle hand touch her shoulder, and when she finally turned, she saw two faces and two heads — one on either side of her long neck.
The first was Kristopher, who stood one pace back, on her right-hand side, partially sunk in shadow. But he was not the one who’d reached out, who now gripped her shoulder gently.
That hand, the one on her left, came from the other.
It came from Kristopher’s half brother.
Her pale lips broke open into a smile.
Jon stepped around to the front of her, where she still genuflected on the ground, and he smiled in return. He then held his hand outstretched, and she gripped it in her own. Kristopher, still one pace back, stood silent. He was sunk even deeper now in the shadows.
Jon pulled gently against Morgan’s counter-tug, and instantly she came to her feet. She did not let go of Jon’s hand. Her palms were clammy and damp. They stood facing each other in the crimson light which slid soundlessly across their faces and their bodies. Jon’s black eyes brimmed as with hot blood — a hot bloodred liquid light.
“You were the Maze-Man all along, weren’t you?” Morgan said to Jon. She was still holding his hand. “I always thought so — ever since you first told me about him, when you showed me the baby mummies.”
Jon looked on the verge of replying, when off to her left, there came again the awful sound of the seething hiss.
They all three turned in unison.
They saw a liquid-like arc of blinding white.
It was shooting in a steady yet finite stream across the cave, beneath the blood-colored light, a miniature geyser of cream or milk: a white so pure and so pristine that it seemed to all three of them to be the very essence of whiteness. And to Morgan that finite arc of white all at once became the finite arc of her life.
She turned back to Jon. “I knew the whole time it was you,” she whispered. She was looking directly into Jon’s glowing eyes. “Right up to the moment I died that night. And because you were there, I was not afraid.”
Here she leaned into Jon and kissed him on his lips. She kissed him long and deep and then she drew back. Only now did she release Jon’s hand. She then reached into her front pocket and produced an iridescent object about the size of an egg. She handed it to Jon.
It was a mother-of-pearl ladybug.
A gentle hand shook her shoulder. She heard her name repeated as from a great distance — Morgan, Morgana, Morcant: composed of the elements, the sea, brightness and whiteness — and she was aware now as well that someone was calling out to her. Yet she felt herself unable to move at all. She felt herself paralyzed from head-to-toe, and no matter the herculean effort she put forth, no matter the gigantic will exerted, she was unable to twitch a single muscle.
Suddenly everything went quiet.
Her eyes flipped open.
She could move again.
The blood-red light throbbed all around her, yet the first thing she saw was not this light but Kristopher’s kind face floating above her. He was kneeling on the ground at her side. His right hand was upon her shoulder, his left hand cupping the back of her head, cushioning it, protecting it from the cold stone floor on which she lay. An oceanic silence filled the cave.
“You passed out,” he said.
She blinked, only half comprehending.
“You fainted,” he said.
“How long was I out?”
“A long time.”
“I dreamt of you and Jon,” she said, “and the Maze-Man. I dreamt that Jon and the Maze-Man were one and the same person.”
Kristopher did not reply.
The crimson light noiselessly pulsed.
“Jon has gone deep inside Baboquivari,” she said. “Deeper than anyone, maybe. He’s discovered profound hidden connections. Did you know?”
He listened but was silent. He shook his head. For a long moment, he gazed into her far-off eyes: eyes incandesced under all the swarming bioluminescence. He saw in them and in her face a titanium strength, an unbreakable glint flashing deep down inside her eyes, inside her mind.
“We’ve got to get you out of here,” he said.
Upon his warm hand which cupped the back of her head, she lolled a little to the left. She stared up at him and smiled, her round pretty face splotched with red light and black shadow, like a ladybug.
Her golden fang glinted scarlet.
“There’s no way I have the arm-strength to climb that rope back out of here,” she said. She paused. “And I don’t know that I want to,” she said.
He stared at her. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her tightly, so that she was swaddled like a little mummy. Then he stripped off his shirt and folded it and put it pillow-like under her head.
“I must leave you alone here for a while and get help,” he said. “I’ll get Jon. I will be back. I promise.”
She nodded. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t arrive in time,” she said. She was not looking at him as she spoke these last words, but staring with her slow-moving eyeballs at all the beautiful lucency around her. “I am not afraid,” she said.
Her voice was dreamy and soft and also, he thought, unutterably authentic.
Kristopher squeezed her hand and then vanished back up the winding levels of hell, and he climbed the rope swiftly and with deft strong movements, like a monkey sliding up a jungle vine.
Morgan meanwhile closed her eyes and drifted once more into febrile sleep.
The last thing she heard before she drifted off was the burble of underground streams, flowing away deep beneath her, like time.
When, shirtless and sweating, Kristopher emerged from the cave and back out into the desert, it was nearing twilight. He did not have any idea how much time had elapsed — hours or even days.
Over the open desert hung a slate-blue sky in which one star drifted alone. This star was the evening star which is also the star of dawn. It was green and glittering. The air blew warm down the Baboquivari ravines and passed over him.
He knew before he got to Jon’s house that something was very wrong.
The first thing he saw was the cluster of people-sized sunflowers that Jon had planted — in a small patch fifty meters before the driveway, bright faces as big as human heads — all broken-necked now and scorched, the enormous Ethiopian eyes, which were serried with seeds, torched and violated.
All Jon’s little almond trees had been hacked down.
Kristopher stomped the gas pedal of his graphite-grey Mazda and flew down the driveway.
Fishtailing and then with a spray of sand and gravel, he came to a stop in front of Jon’s home. He leapt from the car.
The front door of the house stood half open. The door was broken on its hinges. There were satanic symbols, painted in animal blood, upon the door and upon the outer walls. Windows starred through with stones.
In a single bound, Kristopher jumped all five steps which led up to the porch.
He burst through the broken door.
“Jon!” he said. “Jon! Jon!”
But the rooms were barren, and this house was left to him desolate, and the only reply was the whisper of the wind.
He ran to the back of the house, where Jon kept his ladybugs.
The door of this room was painted with animal blood as well. It stood hacked open, and so did all the large aquarium-like cases, in which Jon fed and bred his beautiful lady-beetles: thousands and thousands, Kristopher saw, enough to fill pillowcases, now incinerated and now blowing ashlike across the wooden floors of these desolate rooms.
The light airy corpses blew swirling through the house and then out into the vastness of the desert, across the killing fields of cactus and mesquite and dust — blew like slaughtered little cows beneath a slate sky collapsing into night.
He did not hear the other car coming.
He did not hear the footsteps that walked through the front door and move with unhurried tread to the back of the house.
He did not hear any of this.
He did not hear anything at all — until a voice spoke his name: “Kristopher.”
It was a voice he recognized instantly.
He stood motionless.
“He is gone,” the voice said behind him.
In the vandalized doorway of the haunted home his half brother had civilized, there stood a willowy woman with cyanic eyes and a tall full figure.
“Justine,” he said.
On a gauzy evening forty thousand years ago, a prehistoric woman with pensive eyes watched a bolt of blue lightning strike a mountaintop. This bolt of lightning ignited a crooked conifer tree, and the young woman stood gazing at it for a long time.
She went alone into the mountains.
Days later, when she returned, she brought back with her the gift of fire, which, solitary in the wilds, she’d painstakingly discovered how to make.
Her fire drove back the darkness.
Her fire brought light and warmth and civilization, and she taught her fellow women and men how through natural means they could also harness and create fire.
Her fellow women and men promptly deemed her a sorcerer, a witch, a spawn of the devil, and they burned her down to the ground — burned her dead — using the very fire she’d taught them how to make.
For hundreds of years after this, the gift of fire that the woman had discovered and brought to them was appropriated by mages and mystics and witchdoctors.
For centuries thereafter, fire was deemed a supernatural force which came from a supernatural source.
Fire, it was taught, came from something beyond human apprehension and thought.
Yet, in spite of all the superstitions and the lies, fire continued to blaze and light the way.
It continued to create warmth and brightness and it continued to civilize, so that gradually, after centuries, the light of her fire drove out this particular ring of darkness.
Sanitary water and the source of sanitary water came next. It was the next suspicious and superstitious thing.
Clean water, created through boiling and purifying by fire — killing microbes so tiny that they were invisible to the naked eye, microbes which would one day be known as “germs” — it was demonized, anathematized, and supernaturalized, even while it brought longer, healthier lives: even while it civilized.
The injection bore made of sleek galvanized steel, with a cement seal, penetrated the flakey piecrust earth, driving down one thousand feet through the permeable surface rock below The Superstition Wilderness. At one thousand feet, the permeable rock gave to a hundred billion cubic meters of a freshwater aquifer: cold blue subsurface reservoirs which had lain dormant for millennia, surging silently on a long bed of impermeable rock.
More precious than gold, more valuable than oil, this water was replenished at a rate of roughly three billion cubic meters per year, and now, tapped and harnessed by means of the injection bore and the cement and the pumps and all the other metal and glass and plastic infrastructure — it brought incalculable growth and greenness to a dry dead sector of the Sonoran Desert.
It brought abundance and life.
It was promptly destroyed in an act of unequivocal ecotage and rage.
Her eyes flew open once again.
There was no sound at all save the sound of deep subterranean streams burbling in the earth beneath her.
She did not know how long she’d lain in this dreamless chamber. She knew only that she’d been asleep, and that now she was awake, and that upon waking, trepidation was inside her.
Yet almost instantly the terror-edged moment of her trepidation gave way to something else — something more powerful and profound which burned within her head: above her famished-looking cheeks, beneath the pulsing ceiling of blood-red lucency, the titanium glint of strength flashed in her open eyes, so that now, totally alone and deep in this cave pulsing with Luciferin and life, her golden tooth agleam in the blood-colored light, she rose up recharged and began walking.
She thought of Jon.
She smiled — chthonic woman with a dim intent glancing back from a pitch-black threshold, as if loth to leave the light — the hulking shapes behind her mutely mocking.
She thought again of Jon.
She carried on.
What is it threads the inflamed brain of the violent and the obsessed?
Duplicity and deception?
Or is it blind loyalty that fills her up — loyalty to that scabby-kneed child who, long ago, ripped the legs off spiders, the wings off butterflies, who raped the antenna from the soft moth-head?
Or is it loyalty to her lies and deception, which twist like spiral steps down the gloomy darkness and into the webbed basements of hell?
Coming back into the Mesozoic cave wherein he’d first found Morgan asleep under the purple pall of her plasma lights, Kristopher saw, before anything else, that all the little mummies were now gone.
He passed the beam of his high-powered flashlight slowly across the rock which glistened in the cone of his creamy light. He scanned every inch of the room.
The room was barren and swept clean.
There was no trace of them.
Justine, standing beside Kristopher, caught her breath. They did not say a word to each other.
Like children lost in the chasmic labyrinth of an alien wood, among long avenues of dusk and silence, so the two of them in this pythonic plexus beneath Baboquivari.
The silence boomed.
Kristopher gripped her fingers and led Justine down the same passageway that Morgan had recently led him. In the darkness of this granite maze, however, he made a wrong turn. The glowing bones of once-living things lay strewn all about the floor of the cave — the remains of sacrifices long-ago made to the Maze Man: brittle pieces popping beneath the slow steps of their feet.
Entering an open room through which a cool wind poured, Kristopher began now to suspect that he’d led them down the wrong corridor. He swept the cone of his flashlight slowly across the interior.
What they saw was hideous.
In places of plenary darkness, all things become formless and uncanny, and during their dark lost wandering of the subterranean desert within Baboquivari, they’d stumbled here upon unknown and mutilated-looking shapes which the earth contained deep inside her body and brain. So that standing side-by-side among these interstitial stone gorges, they perceived things that inspired a kind of horror: the oxides of the rock, moist and slurred as with clotted blood, like the bloody leak of a slaughterhouse cellar. Speleothems in a wild array, ejaculating slowly from a deep continual source a blood-tainted sperm. A venereal leprosy forever recrudescing. The smooth damp underground stone, bizarrely colored by the decomposition and decay of metallic amalgams and mold of strange purple and vermillion splashes, it awakened within them both the idea of homicide and extermination: the bloody chamber walls where an entire life devoted to pleasures of the flesh and to power had run amok and taken over and mass assassination had resulted.
A spectacle of murder presented itself all around them.
Rivulets of water everywhere ran soundlessly down the underground cliffs. They resembled long viscera, as if the innards of prehistoric giants had been spilled and dumped here, disemboweled: fresh lungs and watermelon-sized kidneys and huge slabs of liver stacked up, so that it seemed impossible for Justine and Kristopher to touch them without drawing back bloody-handed, bloody-fingered. Here, in the navel of the universe, long scarlet umbilical cords striated the walls as if ripped violently — flung — and more innards lay piled on the floor like funereal exudations pumped out through an enormous orifice tapered tightly at its tip.
Such sights as these are more common than is perhaps supposed, down in the eerie grottoes and hidden bowels of the earth, outside of which, upon the surface — on only on the surface — there is often a surgically bright, clean-looking, superficially beautiful glow: like the radiant glister of whitened sepulchers.
With leaden hearts, they backtracked slowly until at last they found the thick rope that dropped partway down toward bioluminescent heaven — or into the portal of hell.
In swarming darkness, they descended.
Gone now the lucent labyrinth that nourished her Maze-Man dream. Gone the glowing lights of living larvae. Snuffed the scarlet lambency which had turned her eyes demonic-red.
She ate the last of her food, and she drank the last of her water, and she ate hungrily and she drank deeply.
In pitch-blackness now, she wandered alone the barren basements beneath Baboquivari.
She could not see anything. There was no movement and no growth around her. There was only stillness and stone: no sound at all save the sound of her own shuffling footsteps, her own breath, her hammering heartbeat.
And would nothing ever stir again?
Was there not some faint living pulse in these rock walls?
Through the flinty corridors of her mind, these questions passed and more questions sprung up, and she thought:
“Emerge from the shadows, Maze-Man, and stand naked on the hot brink of my brain. I am not afraid.”
She pressed her febrile cheek against the granite that she could not see. The stone was craggy and cool. It smelled of iron and dust. She turned and fully faced the wall and in absolute darkness pressed her entire torso up against it, mashing her snowball-sized breasts softly into the cold hardness. She put her hands upon the rock, all over it, like a blind person learning the features of an alien face, memorizing the contours and by touch alone searching the body for signs of familiarity and life.
She felt only the subterranean earth ungiving, immovable against her person, and she felt her heart behind her breastbone thumping powerfully against the stone.
She felt no growth and no life in response to the pounding of her heartbeat and the life-force inside her. She felt nothing of the sort. She was aware now that she was perhaps not in her right mind. She brushed her parched lips against the rock, as if she would kiss it dryly, and then she stepped back one pace and passed her hand three inches in front of her eyes, moving her fingers back and forth, wiggling them. She could not see a thing — not even a shadow of motion.
She faced forward again and, dragging her fingers over the ragged cavern walls, she blindly felt her way along. Her progress was slow. She gnashed her teeth in the darkness.
In the darkness, with each beat of her heart, her head hammered behind her eyes.
At long length, groping through these claustrophobic corridors, she thought she detected a breeze. It passed like water over her hot face. It smelled vaguely of minerals. She turned into it, and finally, hours or days later — she had lost here any gauge by which she might reckon time — moving lost through the immemorial darkness inside these immemorial stone keeps, much of her time spent crawling on hands and knees, pushing herself painfully through narrow openings, the breeze her only guide, she saw ahead in the distance a shimmering slab of lemon light.
It was falling in from above.
It poured down through a circular hole and splashed mutely into a large and open room. And yet, as she got closer, Morgan for a moment wondered if perhaps this lemony bar of light were sourced deep below, in the underground earth out of which she’d just clawed her way, coming from the very core of the planet, perhaps, and now shooting up like a thick laserbeam through a chink in the rocks toward the surface, toward the biblical blue sky beyond which lay only blackness and more blackness.
Still on her hands and knees, like a feral creature, she stared at the lucency.
She rose to her feet.
She moved toward the light, half staggering now, and entered the open abstraction of outspread stone.
Scratched and stinging, famished-looking and filthy — filthy with her own blood, and with dirt and mud — she clambered up and then stood on a pile of stony rubble. She stood directly inside the yellow light that poured down. It lit her from head to toe. It was filled with dustmotes, like silt seen underwater. She stood for a long moment, without moving, inside the vasiform field of radiance, stood as one who would be transported into a spaceship above.
Her boyish hair glowed in a penumbra of light.
Against the light, she squinted like a cat.
Catlike, then, she leapt and in the same motion slithered out through the maw of the cave and came at last into the open world, beneath the breathing bell of the blue sky — where, zigzagging from exhaustion and dehydration, sometimes running now and sometimes walking, she could never have foreseen that with every one of her weary steps, she was moving not nearer to safety and greater light but further away, into a deeper darkness that was shortly to come: farther and farther away.
But first she found her little star-faced pony, drinking well-water and blinking alone in the bright light of that peculiar day.
The task Jon had chosen for himself was to all appearance beyond the capacity of human power. It required a superhuman strength and exertion of will. Achieving what he sought was so improbable, in fact, that the very notion of attempting it seemed even to him a kind of lunacy.
There is nothing like starting a thing for learning how hard it will be to complete.
In order to do what Jon had set out to do — in order to attempt such a thing, at such a time, in such a place, under such hot white sunlight and such circumstances — an army of men were necessary. Jon was by himself. A team of geologists and geological surveyors and satellite imagery were required. Jon had a crude map, which he himself had made. He had also his internal sense of direction and time.
Heavy equipment and dynamite were necessary. Jon had a pocketknife, a flashlight, a small pick and shovel, his rifle and some rope.
Stores and provisions were needed. Jon, a fugitive from the law, had not even milk or bread.
He existed entirely in the real world, and yet he was at the same moment totally removed from that world.
Were anyone at this time observing Jon — and there was nobody (save perhaps one lone figure) — that person would not at all have been able to make out what Jon was aiming for. He seemed preoccupied with the subtle undulations of the desert ground. He appeared utterly absorbed in something far-off to the northeast.
He moved cautiously and even secretively. He slept hidden in the caves, and he made nighttime missions deep into these caves, where he spent all night studying the cavities and caverns and the anfractuous corridors, which went winding down toward the molten center of the earth and back.
Jon’s energy of labor was astounding. His activity of work was frightening. He was as phenomenally focused as he was dogged.
Piecemeal, he accomplished everything he set out to do.
To coax nature’s obstacles into your service, to finesse these obstacles by apprehending their nature and then to act in accordance with that nature, this is to succeed. To beat against the wind is to declare the wind your enemy. But to move with the wind — to move your sail with its currents and to tilt your wings with its updrafts — this is to make the wind your handmaiden, your friend.
If a watcher watching Jon were patient and observant, that watcher would have noticed that in his arcane labor Jon was each day moving gradually northeast.
Jon knew exactly what he was doing, and yet the sort of abstracted mindset in which he now existed was enhanced rather than diminished by the concrete nature of his labor.
Work in the real and material world, with all its minute repetitions, minimized not one jot Jon’s incredulity at suddenly finding himself engaged in such work.
Normal fatigue and exhaustion of the body is a tether that moors the laborer to sea and land.
Yet the remarkable nature of the task Jon had undertaken created in him an almost twilit and dreamlike experience wherein this tether mysteriously drifted away. It even seemed to him at times that, though he was below earth in the caves, he were as if moving and working among cauliflower clouds high up in the ether, that his work was a sort of warfare, that his pick, shovel, pocketknife, and flashlight were more weaponry now than tools.
He half came to believe that what he ultimately sought here in his subterranean labor was something more like a staving off — a staving off of attacks from a nameless enemy: an amorphous force of hostility enraged by a policy he held — a policy of non-force and voluntary exchange.
Or perhaps it was as though in his mapping and surveying and digging, he was not so much working as taking precautions against sentient and even intelligent aggressors who, intelligent or no, were not, however, thinking or thoughtful or intelligent now.
Thus, the more Jon worked, the more he felt himself drawn irrevocably into a kind of battle.
The more he worked also, the more abstracted he grew, and thus the more he thought.
The more he thought, the more he came to develop a vocabulary which by the very act of naming it rendered clear and more concrete the ideas that his faceless enemies held.
There was, moreover, everywhere around him, above ground or below, the immensity of another monolithic and ceaseless labor taking place: forces of the natural world — wind and air, sunlight and fire, the sheer force of water, the unstoppable growth of foliage, the peristaltic movement of earthworms, the colossal clash of tectonic plates, the sleeplessness of rust and rock and minerality, viral mutation, necklaces of chromosome, shifting, replicating, the breathing bell of the intricate atmosphere and her endlessly dissolving and reforming cloud-monsters — a diffusion of forces working in the realms of the indefatigable, the limitless, the awesome.
Jon sought to know the object of these forces, their common denominator.
It occurred to him again that order and disorder, like time, do not exist in nature apart from the consciousness that puts them there, as a kind of measuring device, and that nature simply is: neither orderly nor disorderly but absolute, necessary, and that all the ceaseless, tireless, wondrous labor of nature is merely an imperative fact of the phenomenal world, to which there is no alternative.
The man’s name was Willowmarsh. He was tall and rangy, with glassy bead-eyes of brownish-yellow, and a toughness about him like pure sinew.
Willowmarsh: the man with the small round head.
He believed in total equalization — by force, when necessary.
One night he slew a woman in cold blood as though she were so much a poundage of lard and pork.
She was a wealthy woman, a pop singer, who had earned her money through hard work and ambition and her own ingenuity, who created songs for which people voluntarily paid their money. The man with the small round head, crouched and sweating in the lee of her statuary (five adamantine figures abstract in the concrete outside her home), stole her cash and all her jewels and stones, and then he distributed it evenly among the poor people he both knew and did not know.
That was years ago.
Years of semi-darkness.
He’d committed other homicides since.
Something of the absolute, the incontestable, moved inside him.
His conscience was clear.
Anthropology, the study of human beings, and archeology, the study of prehistoric human beings, interested him greatly.
He’d once taught both these subjects at the University of Arizona and was a full professor at that. This is where he’d met Justine.
He had in recent years grown fanatically obsessed by rumors and certain stories he’d heard: stories of mummified fetuses, which an young Apache man named Silverthorne was said to have discovered inside the caves of Baboquivari.
He’d never broached this subject with Justine — had never had reason to — until one day he learned that she was acquainted with a man named Jon Silverthorne. At which point, he asked her if she knew about the little mummies.
It was the first time she’d ever heard any mention of it — from anyone — and she narrowed her eyes and slowly shook her head.
“No,” she said.
More rumors came to her.
There are almost no good secret-keepers in the world, but Justine was one — one of the few and one of the best — so that even after she did ask Jon about these rumors and he then led her and his half brother into the caves and she’d seen the mummies with her own eyes, she told neither Willowmarsh nor anyone else a single thing, not a word, despite the interrogations, despite Willowmarsh watching her so closely with his eyes like small brownish-green beads of glass; despite his smiling face.
Justine blinked philosophically and looked away to the south.
His teeth strong, razorous, little nicotine-stained things gleamed inside his mouth.
Willowmarsh was a patient man.
He lived out of his motorhome now, semi-nomadically, in the desert. He’d been watching Baboquivari for many months — often through high-powered binoculars. He’d grown gaunter and more rangy yet: a mantis-like figure, with leathern lips.
The first person to have ever spoken to him of Jon’s mummy discovery was a retired chemist and pharmacy-owner named Keith Abeyta, who lived in Nogales, and who had thrice bought copper and silver from Jon. Jon had talked to this man Abeyta at length, on two separate occasions, about something he was working on: silver nanoparticles for biomedical devices — which nanoparticles continuously release low levels of silver ions to provide protection against bacteria. Jon had then invited this man to come with him back to Baboquivari, so that he might see for himself how certain minerals leak continuously out of the Baboquivari mountain range.
At this time, the Pedro Mountain Mummy was much in the news, for having disappeared. Bouncing along the bumpy backroads in Jon’s truck and hearing a mention of that story on the radio, this man named Abeyta offhandedly asked Jon if he was familiar with Chiquita, the Pedro Mountain mummy, which had been found in East-Central Wyoming, south of Casper. Jon did not immediately answer. The ghost of a smile played across his lips. He wore rectangular sunglasses, drove with only his left hand, wrist draped over the steering wheel. He then told the man that perhaps the thief had hid the mummy deep inside the caves of Baboquivari, and perhaps there were others there as well.
Something cryptic in his voice, Keith Abeyta thought.
He cast Jon a long steady stare.
This story, as such stories do, spread.
Among the very first to hear it was the man with the small round head.
Obsession grew like mushrooms inside him.
On a warm early-winter night while camped outside in the foothills of Baboquivari, Willowmarsh witnessed a silent conflagration on the eastern horizon.
He walked out onto a small stone bluff and stood alone in the desert night. He rolled a cigarette. He smoked. The stars above him burned like gimlet eyes. He watched the mute and distant fire for a long time. He smoked another cigarette. Northward, there were dry flickers of heat lightning. After an hour or more, he saw far below him, coming ghostly through the pyroelectric night, a slim figure on a small pony. He watched this figure dismount and hobble the horse and then move swiftly into Baboquivari.
He mounted his own horse and attempted to follow.
But the figure had vanished.
He had a strange feeling about this figure, and he decided then and there that no matter how long it took, he would wait for this figure to reemerge from the cave.
He sat his horse and waited.
So it was now that a new sort of obsession took hold of him.
It rooted itself profoundly inside his mind almost without his noticing, and quickly it bloomed like madness in the dark depths of his brain.
The man with the small round head did not see the shadow watching him from the shades.
With his insect-like fingers and his spindly arms, Willowmarsh carefully wrapped the little mummified fetuses. He swaddled each one, encasing them each, around and around, in a soft gauzy cloth as if re-mummifying them, and then he placed them delicately, one by one, into thick leather bags. He handled them with utmost care and finesse. He worked by the light of his two lanterns. He was in a different cave — a deep hidden cave he sometimes inhabited and slept in. His lanterns glowed with a vaporous and mushroom-colored light.
The shadow was a young woman. She watched him, motionless, perfectly silent. Her gigantic eyes, burning with a strange lucency, suggested illness. Eyes that seemed to be making connections nobody else was able to make.
When, at last, Willowmarsh was finished and the little mummies were swaddled and placed securely in a large canvas duffel bag, the shadow stepped forth from the shades.
“They are not yours,” the shadow said.
Willowmarsh — who in amazement had watched this shadow appear before him as from nothingness — leapt in terror, his heart pounding into his throat.
Then he recognized her. It was Morgan Felts.
Her golden eyetooth caught the brownish-yellow light. She held in her left hand some object which also flashed.
“You scared the living daylights out of me,” he whispered. He had begun to perspire, though not from heat.
She stepped two paces closer to him. “They are not yours,” she said again.
Etched across her young features was something not young at all: something as intransigent and as ancient as the stones among which she stood. All pretense of politeness and civility had been ripped from her features, as soft enshrouding flesh can be ripped from the bone, often taking thin slabs of bone with it. Her huge eyes, all pupil now, shone like twin wells of cold black water, gigantic, brimming. Each time she blinked, she blinked slowly, and the instant before her lids shut, a kind of phantom appeared to hover for a fraction in her eyes. This was no reflection of the darkling cave pulsing with misty mushroom-colored light, but a more awful thing: it was the phantom of unbearable disillusionment and deception. Deception and disillusionment.
“They are artifacts,” he said. “They belong to everyone. Humanity is an organic whole, and there is no individual.”
She unconsciously shook her head. “They were potential human beings,” she said, “individual beings, born prematurely, but containing beautiful human potential, each individually.”
“You cannot pray to them. They’re dead.”
“I do not,” she said. “I do not pray to them.”
Instantaneously, then, and with surprising speed and before she was even fully finished with this last sentence, the man with the small round head coiled back and in the same motion struck her with his fist — a tremendously powerful punch — sinking the bony balled-up knuckles deep into her stomach and knocking the air completely out of her. She hee-hawed once, loudly, a sickening sound, and then she doubled-over, gasping for a breath that did not come.
He kicked her to the ground and spit on her.
She was still trying to breathe. She could not. She gasped fruitlessly. He watched her. “Well, that was easy,” he thought.
With something like disgust and contempt combined in his beadlike eyes, he gazed down at her. He watched her convulse for breath upon the ground. She had not dropped the object in her hand, but he didn’t notice this. Her eyes were shut and still she gasped in vain. Abruptly, though, her eyes flipped open and were staring directly at him, and he saw in them at once, even now, an absolute fearlessness flashing like butcher knives inside her retinas, inside her mind.
It took him aback and frightened him, and this in turn enraged him. It felt like a challenge, which in a very fundamental way it was: a challenge to everything he thought and believed.
She was beginning to breathe a little by now: a tiny thin current of air coming into her, bringing her life.
The rangy round-skulled man threw his head back and unconsciously ran his wet tongue to and fro along his leather lips. Then he took two mantis-steps toward her. His small razor teeth shone in the slug-colored light. He raised his boot to stomp on her neck — but the instant before he slammed that boot down, Morgan did something unexpected:
She spun toward him, rapidly rolling across the stony ground so that she lay now directly underneath him, her shoulder touching his planted leg — and just as he stomped down the boot which had been intended for her neck and her destruction, Morgan’s hand that held the object swept up toward his groin.
The object she held was a small sharp dagger.
She thrust it through the denim of his pants and deep into the damp flesh of his perineum, just missing his testicles which she was aiming for.
She thrust and shoved with all her might, the little dagger going past its hilt. She twisted her wrist simultaneously, with the dagger still inside him, the handle of the dagger like a little neck between the two small round heads of his testes.
The mantis-man screamed.
He crumpled to the ground.
She rolled further away from him, unsheathing the dagger from the deep slit wherein she’d invaginated it, still clutching the dagger tightly, and there was blood all over the blade and the handle and on her hand. Her breath was coming easier, and yet it was with some difficulty still that she raised herself up on her hands and knees, her short sandy hair hanging sweaty and mane-like, this wild little fearless creature panting so madly for breath: a ferocious lioness protecting her little ones.
The man with the small round head was agonizing on the floor of the cave — squirming, writhing, like a living insect pinned against the wall. He moaned in pain. His eyes were squished shut. Morgan rose to her feet. She stood over him and stared down.
“They aren’t yours,” she whispered, not for the last time.
She picked up the large canvas duffel bag which held the little fetuses he’d so carefully swaddled and tucked inside.
Swiftly, she left the cave.
She did not realize that one of the mummies he’d wrapped and placed in leather was left behind.
The vaporous light meanwhile slithered and pulsed over the rock walls, so that the rock itself appeared to be inhaling and exhaling: a melancholy mimic of life and death.
Lying on his back still, in the murky light on the floor of the cave, Willowmarsh at length stripped off his shirt and squirmed over to a slope in the ground. He lay himself back upon this slope, his small head pointed downward. Then he planted both boots up against the cave wall, so that his puncture wound was slightly elevated above his heart. He squealed in pain — a strange almost chirping-gurgling sound, like the soft stridulations of teeming insects.
With great struggle and agony, he unbuttoned his pants and slithered partway out of them. He pulled his drawers down past his hips and then he held his shirt between his legs and pressed the cloth of it firmly into the wound. It was excruciating.
Yet in this way, he was able to stanch the bleeding.
At length, he fell into a sweat-drenched sleep filled with stormy dreams he could not decode, and then, before he came awake, he dreamt of whole lakes and rivers being poured down his throat.
When he woke, his punctured perineum pulsed madly with pain, and he was crazed with thirst. The lanterns had grown dim. He lay there for a long time, half-naked, staring at the ceiling of the cave, his beadlike eyes glassy and wild-looking in the vaporous light.
By and by, the man with the small round head rose from the floor of the cave.
Shirtless and with his pants and underwear still halfway down his legs and he still holding his blood-drenched shirt pressed against the wound, he hobbled to his canteen of water. With the fingers of one hand, he unscrewed the threaded metal cap. The skirling sound rang out loudly in the dead silence of the cave. Deeply he guzzled. Deeply he drank. The water was cold. It sloshed in his stomach like milk in a cow’s udder. His chest was sunken, his skin as pale as a slug. Beads of perspiration oozed out along the hairline of his round head which was tipped far back as he gulped, wisps of thin hair like antennas, his other hand still holding his bloody shirt up against the wound.
When at last he’d slaked his thirst, he dropped the canteen down to his side, and then he wiped his face with his shoulder.
It was then that he caught sight of something peculiar on the marge of his vision.
Motionless in the misty mushroom-colored light was his thick leather bag containing the mummified fetus. It was the one he’d put aside — the prized one — to package last.
Willowmarsh, haggard, gazed at it.
Slowly, then, his leathern lips broke open into an awful smile, disclosing his mouthful of small razorous teeth, and then standing there shirtless and gleaming with perspiration, one hand held between his legs and his shrunken dong like a mushroom flecked with blood, the man with the small round head loudly laughed.
That hideous sound reverberated all around the concavities of the cave.
He hobbled over to the bag, which was half-hidden in the shades, and only then did he drop the bloody shirt that he’d been holding all this time against his wound. He was still laughing. Side-stepping one pace, skirting the rocks, he reached for the bag which contained the treasure he so obsessively coveted.
At that moment, he felt himself seized by the throat — claws, fangs, or fingers, he would never know.
Jon passed from one labor to the next and then to the next. He did not appear to notice the change in work. After one task was completed, a second arose, and he simply went to it.
In his multifarious toil, through privation and solitude, he’d grown lean and more wiry still.
His back and arms were not necessarily stronger than those of other men, but his will and his desire were. The strength of his body, he mixed with something more potent: his energy, which was chiefly mental.
Day-after-day in his work, he expended his physical strength so completely that his slumber at night was not able to fully renew it. Thus at the end of each day, the reservoir of his physical strength drained away a little more and was not replenished. But this exhaustion of his vitality did not exhaust his will: Jon was fully conscious of the depths of his fatigue, but he wouldn’t succumb to it — and this refusal of his soul to succumb was a gargantuan force, as fixed and as intransigent as something which, under the right circumstances, could, it seemed, move heaven and earth.
When he realized how much progress he had made and that he was getting closer to his goal, his will redoubled.
In this way, the overwhelming majority of his work was channeled to and through his brain.
His hair grew longer, his clothes more tattered, his body more attenuated. His jeans hung slack about his hips and his waist. His lips were crazed with cracks. He ate wild rabbits, quail, the rich buttery flesh of rattlesnakes, all of which he cooked at night over small cave fires. He ate nopal, drank cactus-juice and deep artesian well-water. Yet no matter how much he drank, he was always thirsty. Little by little, the eternal rock appeared to be sapping life out of him.
He continued on.
He’d not spoken to another soul for weeks.
He existed in a savage solitude and isolation.
His black hooded eyes burned like hot coals under the eaves of his brow.
One day while exploring deep inside the caves, far underground — far into the arteries of the earth’s mysterious circulation, where, half-lost, he’d nonetheless grown increasingly certain that his initial hunch was correct and all this labor was not in vain — Jon came to a very narrow fissure which, turning laterally, wiggling and writhing, he somehow, at last, managed to squish himself through.
Without expecting it, he fell some five feet onto soft sandy ground.
This ground was the shore of a vast body of water: the water of a subterranean lake.
Jon stood up from where he’d fallen.
He dusted off his arms.
He found himself inside an extraordinary cavern: a spherical and vault-like room that comprised an underground lake.
The water was strangely lucent — lit from a source he couldn’t ascertain — so that the whole vaulted chamber shimmered with a chrysoprase glow. All about him was silence. Far away across the still liquid, the lake terminated in dark-green shadows. The eternal granite overhead looked primitively painted in earth’s purple-and-burgundy blood: reproductions of butchershop shreds and slaughterhouse force, scenes of vore and gore, a venereal leprosy forever recrudescing, nature’s frightening frescos, as when lust and desire go crazy.
Under the bell-like vault of the ceiling, in the center of the lake, the tops of rock shone in the water like the fins of prehistoric fish.
Jon stood upon these ancient shores and gazed through the lattice work of his bangs across the icy water.
The cavern walls trembled and dished in an aqueous apple-green shimmer.
The intermittent drip from the vaulted ceiling rang out like submarine pings.
Suddenly, staring out across the water, Jon in his exhaustion and thirst and hunger thought he saw, far away, red eyes appear like jewels from among the shadows.
These eyes were watching him.
And what does it mean to dissemble, to deceive, to behave duplicitously?
It means to fake reality.
And how can one live in reality if one is faking reality?
To dissemble is to pretend. It is to dissimulate. It is to behave untruthfully.
It is not good. It is not healthy. It is not sexy.
It never has been. It never will be.
It is staged. It is phony. It is ugly.
Is cruelty the counterpart to duplicity? Yes. So is anger and hostility.
To know a lie, you must also know truth.
What is truth?
Truth is the apprehension of what is. It is the accurate identification of reality.
Truth is knowledge. It is light. It is that which is accurate and right.
Newly discovered truth does not falsify the previously discovered: it elaborates it. It expands the context. It in this way makes the interconnected web of knowledge bigger and greater — as when, for instance, the child, seeking the defining characteristic that distinguishes humans from all the other animals, begins, perhaps, by observing bipedal locomotion and then, perhaps, the relative hairlessness of humans compared to the bipedal apes, and then the use of tools and then the use of language, and so on, we note that all these observations are true indeed, and that the newly discovered rational capacity (for instance) does not falsify the fact that humans are bipedal and we do use tools and we are relatively hairless and we do speak languages, and so on. These observations, because they are accurate, remain true.
Accurate equals true.
If the newly discovered does falsify the previously known, the previously known was never true to begin with but false. It was inaccurate: an inaccurate identification, an untrue measurement.
To discover a truth means to correctly apprehend and accurately grasp.
Truth is epistemological: it does not exist absent consciousness.
Reality is that which is. Consciousness is the awareness of that which is.
Supernaturalism is that which is not.
Superstition is a pretense of truth. It is playing truth.
Superstition is pretend, it is phony: the superficially spurious gasps of pleasure, the metaphysical phony moans of bliss.
It is a lie, a forked-tongue hiss. It is frivolousness, a bottle in one hand, a wad of cash in the other, a Judas kiss.
To discover truth requires only this: accurate observation.
The so-called supernatural, on the other hand, virtually by definition, cannot be fully observed: it requires blind belief, an act of faith.
Which is precisely why it is the negation of knowledge and light — the negation of what’s true and accurate and right.
Jon felt the floor of the cave buckle beneath his feet. Then came an explosive roar as the whole cavern heaved and leapt into itself, and the ground surged and buckled again and again, and Jon went careening into the wall. His flashlight shattered. Rock flakes rained down onto him.
For a moment, he wasn’t able to move. An icy coldness seized his body.
The burning cold lapped over him in small waves, and he understood then that he was on his back in rising water.
He was half buried in rock.
The first thing he thought of was the intricate map that he’d painstakingly penned in permanent ink. This map was in his pack, which was on his back.
With difficulty, Jon sloughed the rock off him.
With difficulty, he came to his feet.
He staggered under the weight of the ancient stone.
The darkness around him was absolute.
The small pack on his back was only partially dry. He still held his pick in his hand, but it was a long time before he realized this.
He was buried in a cave-in, and he scarcely knew now which way was up and which way was down.
He was dazed, bleeding.
Standing there in the total blackness, up to his ankles in cold black water, he breathed deeply. He closed his eyes in the darkness and strove to gain his bearings. He stood there for a very long time — perhaps two hours. In silence he fought dizziness and disorientation. He inhaled through his nose. The air smelled simultaneously of mineral and dust and water.
All at once, then, as if he and he alone had thrown a tremendous switch located somewhere deep within him, Jon began hammering with his pick. He hammered like Thor — like thunder. He swung with all his might. He sloshed through the water and then out of it, climbing higher. He struck madly at the rock which had buried him. He swung his weapon at the dumb stone which had consumed him. The gash of his pick-tip shot sparks. The rock gave only slightly. But it did give.
He hammered on.
Jon hammered harder.
The rock busted beneath the force of his energy. Stone chips flew. He squinted against them in the dark. Dust poured into his mouth. He felt himself growing wild with thirst. He hammered faster, more forcefully. He switched hands. And switched again. And again. His arms went numb. His shoulders and his biceps burned. He swung at the dumb and lifeless rock. He swung as one enraged. He swung with sinistral force. At last a pinprick of light broke like a laserbeam through the pitch-black.
He paused a moment, heaving, staring at this tiny morningstar of light. Then he resumed. He fought for it. He struck harder. He swung for the light as if he would abolish the darkness for all time. He dropped the pick and began digging with his hands. He clawed. His fingers bled. Jon poured sweat. He reached down and lifted the pick again and swung it with renewed vigor. His heart hammering inside the chambers of his chest mimicked his hammering at the adamantine world which had swallowed him whole. His energy was gigantic, his will.
From above, you could hear distantly his movements, his footsteps, like the clop of small cloven hooves underground. Jon was covered in sweat and blood and dust and rock flakes, which had mingled and turned to mud in his streaming sweat and blood.
He fought for the light.
He fought as one who would move heaven and earth.
He broke through at last.
He emerged from the underworld shaking rock off his shoulders, and he came full-blown as from chaos and into the living world.
He recognized instantly where he was.
His conjectures were at once confirmed, his theory proven true.
He blinked in the bewildering light of day.
His chest and shoulders rose and fell with his pneumonic heave, and gradually his breathing normalized. Covered in rock and dust that had turned to mud in his sweat and blood, Jon gazed about him.
What he saw was the Superstition Mountains looming directly before his eyes, in every direction, and he now knew for certain that the portal to hell, located deep beneath Baboquivari, led, through a vast circuitous plexus of underworld tunnels, one-hundred-fifty miles into the very heart of the Superstition Wilderness.
He’d mapped it.
He’d linked them at last — a colossal achievement, which the rest of the world would never recognize, or believe.
She stood alone inside the tunnels beneath Baboquivari, under her purple glowing lights, and carefully she unwrapped each one of the little mummies that Willowmarsh had remummified in gauze. She was in the same room of Mesozoic rock where Jon had first shown her these mummies.
Here, to her absolute horror, she discovered that one of the mummies was missing.
She did not hesitate. Even in her weakened and febrile state, she did not hesitate.
She turned and she went rapidly back to the place where she’d stuck the knife into Willowmarsh’s underside.
Nothing could have prepared her for what she found there.
His twin lanterns still burned, but barely so.
Within the dim perimeter of his dirty-looking light, she saw first a small S-shaped scorpion, the color of jet, clamber over the rocks. Her dreamy eyes then went from the scorpion to the cave entire. She scanned the room for the missing mummy. The odor of fresh blood entered her through the nose.
She found the mummy directly.
It was at the back of the cave, in a leather bag still loosely clutched by the cold fingers of what had once been Walter Willowmarsh, who lay dead in a welter of his own gore and intestines, split wide open from the thrapple to the groin and then eaten raw as by some unslakable appetite of cannibalistic lust and violence, like the Wendigo of ancient Algonquin lore.
Morgan stared long at this husk of a human no more.
She stood perfectly motionless, and, moving only her eyeballs, she scanned the cave for present signs of threat.
An eerie calm pulsed through the room, and all was mute.
The smell of raw flesh and blood was outrageous.
She knelt at length and reached over and gently lifted from the dead fingers the leather bag containing the mummified fetus. With her other hand, she scooped up a palmful of cave dust. She stood and stared down one final time at the violated corpse of this deceased and violent man. Gallons and gallons of blood, blood everywhere, armloads of rubbery intestines, the concavity of the ribcage like a shipwreck.
She blinked slowly in the flickering light.
Her huge eyes above her famished-looking cheeks went down to the leather bag she held at her side, and then they went back to Willowmarsh.
She squinted in a thoughtful, philosophical way.
“They are not yours,” she whispered to the corpse. “They don’t belong to you. They never did. They are too good for you. They are not yours.”
Then she tossed the palmful of dust onto the dead face below her and left this bloody cave forever.
In rapid fashion, Morgan restored to its proper place the strangest and most ancient of these little mummies. When she was finished at last, she curled up and slept like a pup among them all. She slept for a long time, and in her sleep she dreamt of wild humans who leered at her with exophthalmic eyes, who bared their teeth which were filed to sharp points, and who encircled her, and in a rising crescendo of jeers and threats, they told her that they would kill her, and in the name of pleasure, they would sexualize and violate her corpse, one by one and in groups, and then also in the name of lust and pleasure they would cannibalize her lifeless flesh and eat her organs raw. They told her that this was normal human behavior and they would normalize it completely or die trying, because life and the whole purpose of life was not self-development or anything like that but whatever one deemed immediately pleasurable and gratifying apart from wisdom and learning and apart from longterm outcomes or consequences, and that she was to be shamed for not believing this was true, since all human behavior was exactly equal, neither moral nor immoral but amoral, and nothing was either good or bad but that thinking makes it so.
She awoke with a gasp in the purple light.
She lay listening closely, as if these humans might actually be near her, but they were not. A sepulchral silence filled the room. The tiny peaceful mummies lay mutely around her, preserved, uncannibalized, with their malformed faces and their screwed-up eyes so pinched and alien.
Her empty stomach churned. It throbbed where she’d been violently struck. She felt chilled and dizzy, and she felt more chills sifting like snow down into her guts, which heaved borborygmus, and it was with great difficulty that she negotiated the narrow caves beneath Baboquivari. But negotiate them she did.
When she came out again into the open world, a warm rain sizzled softly across the desert, and the breeze blew. The air smelled of dust and rainwater. It carried with it the smell of distance and promise and freedom. The sky was tumultuous and silvery-white.
She went to her little pony who stood blinking in the rain near the water-well. She patted his muscular neck. She stroked the veiny cheek and brushed her own cheek against it. The pony nuzzled her face gently in return, his long whiskers passing so lightly across the skin of her cheek. His pink nostrils, delicately freckled, were the size of dimes. He smelled to her of wild sage and cactus and cumin, and she loved with all her heart the smell of his wildness. The intricate equine body warm and humming with life. The forehead splotched with a ragged star of pristine white, huge deep eyes brown and bottomless — and to Morgan the entirely beautiful. She saw herself minutely mirrored in both eyes: like twin humans imprisoned inside those chocolate wells of brimming light.
Suddenly, in that same reflection, floating up now as from profound depths sourced somewhere in the underworld and appearing all at once on the wet surface of the gentle pony’s eyes, she saw a horde of humans hulking behind her own mirrored image, and an authoritative voice she instantly recognized boomed out:
A burning cigarette stub, flicked by the man who’d spoken, appeared on the sandy ground six feet away from where she stood, ribbons of smoke unfurling bluish-gray.
Her pony looked at the smoldering cigarette where it lay.
Morgan didn’t move or immediately answer. Her left hand was still touching her pony’s cheek. Her far-off eyes wandered the walls of the Baboquivari rock before her. Ungiving inscrutable rock, she thought, and human excellence is also such and does not give up its secrets easily.
She knew as well that one cannot be a dreamer in such solitary places and expect to come out unscathed.
The rain fell softly around her.
In the ensuing silence that was so short-lived, she could hear raindrops tapping upon the sandy ground and then a small sput, which came from the burning cigarette when a cold drop of rain fell upon it. The cigarette was extinguished.
The menacing voice of authority yelled at her again:
“Morgan Felts! Girl! Where in God’s name have you been?”
The man who had spoken thus was a police sheriff — a man who had worked a long time for her father, a man whom her father had deputized. He was surrounded by many other men and women, police and civilian alike, and her huge eyes hung motionless for a long moment when she descried among this horde of ragged gapers a gracile and priest-like figure, inordinately tall, with a gaunted face and icy-green eyes.
Quivering spaces of the desert, where superstitious people submit to their deeds of violence.
“I repeat,” the sheriff said. “Where the hell have you been?”
His was a ruddy and hostile presence.
With his right hand, he yanked his aviator sunglasses from his face.
“Goddammit, girl, you by-God better answer me!”
Morgan returned his fierce and fevered gaze, looking him squarely in his eyes — and in that tumultuous desert light, flaring in the fanning fire of a setting sun, her own eyes flashed bloody red.
“I’ve been to hell and back,” she said.
Upon hearing which, the sheriff spat and drew his pistol. He shot her little pony dead.
Expired now the statute of limitations for selling cigarettes illegally as a minor, yet a different warrant had been issued for his arrest, and Jon knew this.
Thus, in the small village of Green Valley, Arizona, Jon Silverthorne, after having mapped the caves from Baboquivari to the Superstition Mountains and back, turned himself in to the authorities.
He was subsequently charged with First Degree Arson.
He did not ask for a lawyer.
He spoke no word at all.
He sat alone in his small jail cell.
Then, on the day of his arraignment, the small-town courtroom uncommonly full, something quite remarkable happened:
Immediately after all charges against him had been read, a young women with large hot eyes and famished-looking cheeks burst into the courtroom wearing a maize-yellow and wrinkled sundress, and in a clear yet slightly frantic-sounding voice, this young woman approached the bench and spoke to the judge.
She told the judge that her name was Morgan Elizabeth Felts, the youngest child of Sarah and James-Vincent Felts. She said first and foremost that Jon Silverthorne was an innocent man. She said she knew this to be one hundred percent true because she said it was her and her alone who’d burned her family to the ground — house and person alike.
She told the judge that she was both heartsick and also mortified that Jon had been implicated in a crime which she herself had planned and committed in total isolation and without accomplice, and that Jon was away in the copper mines of Morenci when this arson took place.
She said moreover that she’d done this deed without any compunction or trace of remorse, and she said as well that she would without hesitation do the entire thing over again because all her life she’d been abused and violated by every single one of her family members, her mother included — abused, violated, demeaned, and degraded — beginning when she was just a little girl.
“A mere child,” she said, “who had bones broken and who had been raped repeatedly before I was thirteen-years-old. This superstitious lot of criminals then had the gall to tell me that I — I — was the one possessed of demons.”
She went on to say that the rationalizations and equivocations which had led them gradually into such behavior, far from exonerating or mitigating their deeds, implicated them deeper. She said that in actuality these subhumans deserved far worse than what they’d gotten from her, and that Jon Silverthorne, who alone among anyone had taught her how to properly read and understand, was the only person in the world ever truly good to her, and that he was a light-bearer, a life-giving force, a civilizing force.
She said in the end that she could prove beyond any standard of reasonable doubt that it was her and no one else who had committed this act, and as she began enumerating specific details — details concerning the four propane tanks her father had had strategically situated all across his acreage, details about the gas piping and the main gas-line, details about the intricate but precarious electrical wiring which ran off-grid through the Felts compound — the courtroom mob started murmuring and then, feeding off one another, they started shouting, calling her a witch and a whore and a devil’s child, and then the judge hammered the gavel and yelled for order, and, in short, the court was recessed.
During this recess, it was determined by the prosecution that in light of these extraordinary claims, charges against Jon Silverthorne were dropped for the time being, with the admonishment that they might very well be refiled again.
Morgan Elizabeth Felts, meanwhile, was remanded into custody as a person of interest, and she was immediately detained for further questioning.
What happened after that was even more unexpected.
Who were they?
They were everyone.
They were no one.
They were a teeming mass, a mob, an organic whole.
They were the people of the lie.
They were force.
They fed off one another.
They could not long exist alone because their existence depended upon the echo atmosphere they themselves created and the acid air they therein breathed.
Collectively they were the masters of the wild hogs, the breeders of hell’s dogs. They amused themselves with death.
They were united by one overwhelming thing: hatred — which came from something even more foundational: mindless adherence.
Adherence to what?
To the outside forces that shaped them: ideas whose underpinnings they’d never sought to know.
Human intelligence, a property of the individual, disquieted them.
Because human intelligence is not only individual: it is also invincible.
Human intelligence is unconquerable. Even God cannot conquer it. Even Satan is subordinated to it.
When coupled with the disciplined will of a reasoning brain, intelligence grows stronger still.
In the predawn darkness of her jail cell, while Morgan Felts fitfully slept, this horde of mindless gapers came in and abducted her.
They were legion.
They wore faceless black masks, which were identical, and black robes. They bound her and gagged her, and they put a thick hood over her entire head so that she could not see. Then they stuffed her into the trunk of a long black car and drove her far away, into the White Mountains.
The Black River gleamed a cold creamy-white in the early morning light. Reflecting the dawn sky like a spatulate rift through which a nether sky was visible, or like a riverbed filled to the brim with pure sloshing mercury, it was a deep and slow-churning river located in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, the bridge crossing it, where the car caravan stopped, an old railroad bridge.
Away in the western sky, the Morning Star steadfastly flickered. Its reflection shone on the silvery-white face of the water. It trembled and gleamed with a pristine light.
They led her hooded from the trunk into which they’d stuffed her, and they brought her to the center of the bridge, where a very tall and shirtless man in a black mask was tying a hangman’s noose. The other end of this rope he’d fastened securely around the highest rung of the bridge. The hangman was gracile and snaky, surely over seven feet tall, and as he rigged this knot, his wiry muscles squirmed with striations.
They removed her hood and the gag, and Morgan with mussed hair, blinking wide-eyed in the white morning light, her hands still bound behind her back, saw this entire mass of cultic gapers all cloaked in the same black robes and masks, as if interchangeable, and she was not surprised.
When the hangman was finished tying the noose, he slipped it around her delicate neck. The rope felt coarse and splintery upon her skin. He slid the noose tightly against her jugular notch, and then, displaying his great strength, the hangman encircled her narrow waist with his hands and lifted her straight-armed from the ground to the topmost rung of the bridge. He set her down as on a perch.
She stood now directly next to the tied-off end of the rope, the noose secure around her neck, her hands bound behind her at the small of her back. She wore khaki canvas jail shoes with thin flat soles, an orange jumpsuit. The sun was not yet risen. Her boyish hair blew in the morning breeze. The water reflecting the milky sky glistered pure white, as if this whiteness were coming from a light emanating somewhere deep within the water itself, beyond the surface and shot all the way through. It was very pure and very beautiful.
Now the horde began to call out to her, feeding off one another in an escalating and echo-like fashion which increased the courage of their conviction, saying she was a devil and a whore and a witch, and the tall hangman shouted at her violently, over and over, barking and snarling, ridiculing, and then loudest of all he commanded her to jump. But Morgan, who’d not spoken a word until now, said clearly and calmly that she would not.
She turned with the noose around her neck and her hands almost prim behind her back, and, defiant-eyed, she gazed at the hangman in his mask. Then she turned back to the pure liquid whiteness churning like a river of cream far below her. She thought of her name — Morcat — and how Jon Silverthorne had taught her the meaning of her name.
A pair of kingfishers veered through the pewter air, free and wild, hunting the riverbanks like lightning bolts. She watched them.
Still facing this direction, her back to the horde, Morgan spoke again — almost, it appeared, mouthing the words to herself — saying that she was not afraid of them, and that they could kill her body, but they could never kill the thing inside her that was most fundamental, and as she spoke, there seemed to her in that moment a bright and silvery-white thread, like a current composed of all elements, the quintessence of brightness, undulating through the air and then through her, a mounting charge of electricity which she thought she felt now in every fiber of her living nerves that ran throughout her living body, galvanizing her now, at the moment just before her death, with new life and strength, and she repeated these words again:
They could never.
Scarcely was she finished speaking the words when with infernal quickness the tall strong hangman drew back infuriated and then unleashed: he bashed her in the small of her back with the butt of his palm, sending her off the bridge, so that Morgan with the noose around her neck sailed sedately into the pure creamy whiteness of the reflected heavens below her.
The masked and mindless horde mutely watched. The eyes of every single one lay fixed upon her slender neck — which under the force of this rope, mixed with the weight of her fall, would snap like the dry stalk of a flower.
Yet at the precise moment the hangman’s rope went taut with the brutal jerk of her bodyweight, a tremendous gunshot rang out and then echoed through the silent valley, and the hangman’s rope was cleanly torn in two by a bullet-slug, fired with sinistral accuracy. Morgan thus dropped feet-first, unhindered, unhung, unhurt, straight down into the calm and creamy ribbon of bright water below. She barely made any splash.
The mob above her, unsure what they’d just seen or heard, stood masked and mute and dumb.
They stared stupidly into that slow-churning river of buttermilk.
They did not see her rise to the surface and drift paddling around the river’s bight. They did not see this because one among them pointed and called for the rest to look — and in the spot where he pointed, they all perceived a phantom-like puff of gunsmoke drifting violet-blue from the evergreens beyond the bridge.
The hangman, meanwhile, looked at his hands which were abraded and dirty. None among them knew that the thunderous gun-report had come from a 30-30.
Justine was one of these people with an internal voice to which she paid special heed.
Like most such people, she often appeared distant and even distrait, when in actuality just the opposite was the case: she was keenly aware and hyper-vigilant.
So it was that Justine, wonderstruck, wading profoundly beneath Babiquovari through soundless tides of bioluminescence, the likes of which she’d never conceived, heard the familiar voice whispering inside her.
That voice came from the depths of her subconscious.
She grew inwardly very still. She listened.
Just perceptibly, she cocked her head.
Kristopher, beside her, sensed a change and then turning to her saw that she wore an abstract and complicated look, but he didn’t know she was thinking of Jon’s fat and faded leatherbound book.
She left the following evening. They faced each other in the half-light. The west wind blew. It poured down the Baboquivari ravines and then swept out across the cactus-studded land. The sky was dark save for a sector of jellied white in the north, and huge cumulonimbus stood flame-like on the horizon, Baboquivari peak looming silhouetted and dimensionless, and they said goodbye in the wind and in the shadow of Baboquivari, and when Justine embraced Kristopher and said goodbye in his ear, he squeezed her very tightly and pressed his dry lips to her cheek and held them against her warm face for a long moment. There was a sense of exigency in his embrace and in his movements, as if he may never see her again, and she felt it. They spoke no more. She kissed him twice on the cheek in return. And then again. She gripped tightly his cool fingers and looked directly into his eyes, and he returned her serious and silent stare.
Then they parted.
Full darkness came like a thunderclap.
She drove the entire night, Coltrane wailing through her radio, the wind battering her little stick-shift as with big soft paws.
The headlights of faraway cars swept like comets across the distance.
She passed refineries disgorging immense steam-phantoms into the night, the industry supporting her life and millions of others. The radio stations went and came, and went — corrupted by the hiss of static, ghosts of music like the whisper of souls coming through in patches, overlapping, cannibalizing one another. She reached down and snapped the radio off. Her face glowed greenly in her dashboard lights. She drove without stopping. The westward horizon pulsed with the tangerine lights of cities unseen, and then she was far away to the east. The road emptied, and there were no more cars and no moon, and she drove alone into desert darkness and across: the darkness of an ancient land, windswept, desiccated, vast vacant fields of clay where wooly mammoth and dinosaur and a billion bison had once knelt in depths of mud to die.
She passed dreamlike into the mysterious quadrants of deep night, and driving she thought of Kristopher and Jon, and she thought of Luciferin and Lucifrase and of bioluminescence and of what she had seen, and she felt also that some change was beginning inside her, something large taking shaping in her brain and heart, something growing, something important she couldn’t yet name, and this something, she felt, wouldn’t fundamentally change her view of existence but elaborate it, so that life and life’s aim and its meaning would develop a more sweeping perspective, her understanding grown richer already and more profound, and then she thought of the place to which she was returning.
She watched through her windshield this dark and distant land, the clover farms beginning to appear, recalling now, as she invariably did along this stretch of road, the terrible tornado, uncommon but not unheard of, which she’d once witnessed here as a young child: the funnel dropping suddenly, like the snout of some alien beast, down out of the lumpy cabbage-colored mammatus and then zigzagging and leaping across eastern Arizona, swallowing bulls and cows whole, snuffing up horses, detonating cars and trees and homes, exploding the calm and quiet creeks.
Justine knew well the uncertain but hopeful sense of beginning long journeys — journeys she’d taken many times before — yet this one was clearly different: more arcane, graver, the outcome far less certain.
Billboards near her hometown told her the price of farms and acreage, the cost of slaughtered lambs. The sight of old familiar houses struck her heart with a sense of gothic ruin. All was silent, occupants still asleep. Handpainted signs, small garden plots, churches, a black steeple-cross, like a sword hilt, toppling forever backward into a cancelled sky. The single Masonic lodge with its pillars and plinths. To her right, the slow green canal wandered thickly beneath a bridge of steel and concrete, a pair of bottlenecked ducks with blaze-orange webfeet splattering up from the water, flapping madly their dripping wings. She saw humpbacked dirt roads in the distance, roads which for track practice she’d run down daily in junior high school.
A single car came toward her, a solitary Mexican man driving, who raised his hand to her in a gesture of good morning and goodwill. She waved and smiled in return and then watched in her rearview mirror his car drift into the brimming light.
The baldheaded man with wizened face was awake and waiting for her when she arrived. He met her at the door. His round eyeglasses were filled with the silver light of morning.
He led her into the kitchen and poured her a large glass of milk. She drank. He disappeared for a moment and then returned. With a soft thump, he set down next to her elbow the faded leatherbound book, which only a few months before she’d put into his safekeeping.
“Where did you get this book?” he said.
“A man named Jon Silverthorne.”
“Did he write it?”
“Where did he learn Greek and Latin?”
“I don’t know. He taught himself.”
“Is he your friend?”
“Distance yourself from him immediately.”
She didn’t say anything.
“It is dangerous — a dangerous book.”
Still, she didn’t reply.
“It’s downright wicked, in fact, this book.”
She was silent.
“A blaspheme and a sacrilege: a systematic attack and an affront to all known custom, consensus, religion, and everything else — a total indignity to left, right, and middle, a slap in the face, taking no prisoners but slaying them all.”
She remained mute.
“This book should be burned alongside the man who wrote it.”
“It is hard to imagine a higher compliment coming from you,” she said.
“Hard?” he said. “No, not hard. It is impossible.”
“Then you like it?”
“No,” her father said, “I love it. It requires a deep grasp and an even deeper genius to bring complicated subjects like this into the realm of universal comprehensibility. That he does it so well and with such seeming effortlessness tells me one thing beyond any doubt: he’s doomed. They’ll never let him live.”
“Will you help me?”
“You’re beyond help.”
The door upon which Justine rapped was festooned with little bluish lights, and in the center of these lights a big brass knocker hung from the jaws of an ambiguous creature.
She lifted the knocker twice and twice let it fall. It resounded with a sharp crack.
The door was opened by a lean and mohawked man in his middle-age and in shirtsleeves and with a small and stellate nugget of pure gold on a silver chain around his neck. The gold was encircled by smaller planets of pure turquoise, orbiting bluely around the star-shaped nugget like a microcosmic solar system: a pendant of lapidary elegance and wondrous craftsmanship.
The man had toffee-colored skin and prasine eyes. His mohawk was thick and graying. In his left hand, he held a chess piece: a black knight.
Justine said hello and introduced herself.
“Come in, come in,” the man said cheerfully. “Your father told me you might pay a visit.”
“Thank you,” Justine said.
“My name is Paul Pascoe.” Upon saying which, he chuckled merrily, as if his name had suddenly struck him as a very fine joke indeed.
He gestured with the black knight through the door he held open for her.
Justine was then ushered into a modest but uncluttered room with a glowing walnut floor and, in the far corner, a stereo system winking with tigerish lights of orange and red. There was a faint smell of apples and lemons in the air. A little boy of perhaps five or six knelt on the floor in the center of the room. His skin was pure cream and mocha. He was surrounded by miniature heavy-equipment vehicles — bulldozers, dump-trucks, big-rigs — and also a fleet of shiny tiny motorcars. At a little cherrywood desk next to where the boy knelt was a large marble chessboard, game in progress.
“Sit down, please,” said Paul Pascoe. “This is my son Manuel.” He pointed with the black knight to his little boy, who out of politeness had stood up the moment she’d come into the room. “He usually goes by Manny, though. Isn’t that right, Manny-buh-Danny?”
“Nice to meet you, Manny,” said Justine.
The swarthy little child bowed to her sweetly but didn’t speak. His hair was shiny black and his eyes were emerald.
There were three chairs in the room — two of which stood on either side of the cherrywood chess-table, one of those chairs sized for a child. Justine lowered herself into the seat removed. She crossed her legs swiftly and scissor-like, right-over-left. The child came up to her and silently showed her a new black-and-purple race car with tiny rubber wheels. The smell of apples and lemons surged.
“I could take your other knight now,” said Paul Pascoe darkly. He was leaning over the chessboard, not sitting but deeply hunched, the beautiful gold pendant swinging in space from its long silver chain, catching the light, and he spoke to his son while scowling at the board. “But I have a much better move.”
He chuckled diabolically. Then he plowed his rook into a cluster of black pawns, one of which was represented by a small piece of cactus quartz.
The little boy stared for a moment at the chessboard and then made a lightning swoop and took his father’s white queen with his bishop. He went back to his miniature cars and trucks and bulldozers.
“Bloody hell!” said Paul Pascoe to his son. “Now I’m really in the soup, my little dove.”
When the chess match was over and Paul Pascoe had tipped his white king, he shook his son’s hand and told him good game. He told his son that he was becoming dangerous. Then he disappeared briefly. He came back into the room with two large glasses of water, both chocked full of ice. He gave one to his son, and he set the other on a cork coaster upon the little octagonal end-table next to Justine.
“Thank you,” she said.
For a moment, the object of her coming here struck her as almost madly absurd.
She watched the little child play with his miniature vehicles.
“Would you like anything else to drink?” Paul Pascoe said. “Beer, wine, whiskey, tea, coffee?”
“No, thank you,” Justine said.
She took a long guzzle of the water. It tasted unusually good.
“God,” she said, “that may be the best water I’ve ever tasted. I’m not kidding, either.”
“It’s the best water in the world!” he said. “We’re lucky to have it. It comes from an artesian well that’s located deep beneath my backyard.” He gestured vaguely with his chin toward a window on the left, where the backyard was ostensibly located, and then he turned the chair away from the cherrywood table, so that he was facing her.
On the end-table beside the coaster where she placed the waterglass was an open notebook with a pencil beside it.
“I am at your service,” Paul Pascoe said to her.
He looked directly at her as he spoke, and his green eyes twinkled. She returned his focused but gentle gaze. She thought suddenly that there was an ageless quality in his face: a boyish sort of energy and an arresting intelligence — not, it also occurred to her, entirely unlike his son’s.
His son, meanwhile, was putting the chess pieces back in the old cardboard box — all except the pawn-sized piece of dark cactus quartz, which he pushed down into the pointy tip of his front pocket.
“I understand you used to work in the mines with a man named Jon Silverthorne,” Justine said. “Is that right?”
For a moment’s fraction, Paul Prascoe’s gaze took on a different quality — as though a strange and even troubling thought had just passed through him.
“Yes,” he said. “Jon and I were friends.”
“Still are. But we haven’t seen each other or spoken in years. He moved on when the mines closed, and so did I. Lives drift apart, even when you don’t think they will. I mean, you know?”
“Yes,” she said. “I do know.”
“Are you well-acquainted with Jon?”
“Yes,” she said. “Fairly well-acquainted.”
Paul Prascoe lifted the necklace while it was still around his neck, using his left hand and draping over the back of the first two fingers the pendent of gold-and-turquoise. He leaned forward and presented it to her. “I bought this gold nugget from Jon,” he said. “He used to prospect and mine a great deal on his own, and that’s when he found it.”
“I noticed that necklace immediately. To be candid, it may be the most unique piece of jewelry I’ve ever seen. May I ask if you made it?”
“Yes. This is what I do for a living.”
“I’m a goldsmith and a silversmith. I’m also a certified gemologist.”
Justine nodded, as if this made sense.
“Actually,” said Paul Prascoe, “though I’m significantly older than him, Jon once exerted a rather strong influence on me, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that that influence partly shaped who I am today.”
He raked his fingers through his ash-colored mohawk. He smiled, as if to himself. His teeth were strong and coffee-stained, his tea-colored front tooth jutting forward slightly, like a busted slat. “It’s a good question,” he said, “and one I’ve asked myself many times over the years.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever formulated a satisfying answer. Nothing monumental. He found and helped dig the aforementioned artesian well, the water of which you’re now drinking. It’s mostly in the way he is, the way he lives. There’s nothing particularly flashy about it, as I’m sure you know, and in fact that’s part of it. The word ‘honesty’ doesn’t quite capture it — though that, I believe, is also a component. In my opinion, whether Jon knew it then or not, I think he had only one fundamental criteria for how he measured human life, beginning and ending with his own, and that was human ability — more specifically, the cultivation of human ability. What’s the expression? Hight tides raise all the ships. Jon brought out the best in people simply by virtue of his way of living.”
Justine considered this for a long silent moment. “When you worked with Jon,” she said, “did he ever mention a discovery he’d made — perhaps an invention he’d created — which was later stolen from him?”
Paul Prascoe looked at her carefully. He did not speak. His gaze was steady: a steady flame. “No,” he said at last, “he didn’t — or, at any rate, not that I recall. And I believe I would recall such a thing.”
“Did he ever speak to you of a person who’d come to him with an offer of money — perhaps a great deal of money?”
Again, Paul Prascoe looked at her for a long and thoughtful moment. At length, he shook his head — shook it slowly. “No,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Something Jon wrote,” she said. “Which I first read many months ago and at the time didn’t really think twice about it. But now …”
Justine paused for a long moment.
“What he wrote strikes me now almost like a cryptogram.”
“Is Jon okay?”
She looked at the child playing with his little toys. “I don’t know,” she said. She was still looking at the child as she spoke these words. “Jon is gone. He’s missing.”
“Manny, my boy,” Paul Prascoe said. “Would you please do me a big favor? Go to the garden and pick the lady here a small cup of the ripest raspberries you can find. Please-please.”
The little child did not speak but rose up and marched with giant steps through the sliding side-door and out into the garden.
When he was gone, Justine told Paul Prascoe what she’d prepared beforehand: how Jon had been sent photographs containing graphic depictions of suicide and other ghastly forms of death, horrific acts of violence and violation mixed with sex and satanic symbols, how Jon’s tidy home in the desert had been vandalized and how all the creatures he kept and cared for there were destroyed, the two-headed horned toad cleft down the middle with a hatchet. She told Paul Prascoe about the crimes Jon had been accused of and what had happened that day in the courtroom, which she herself had learned of only after the fact, and she told him also that no one now knew where Jon was.
She started to say something more, but at that moment, the child came back inside. They heard him in the kitchen rinsing the raspberries under cold water.
He reentered the room and presented them to Justine, in a china dish hand-painted with bright cornflowers: twenty-two fat purple raspberries, which were degged with artesian water like dew. The child did not speak. Justine thanked him, and then while he watched her, she ate three raspberries at the same time, and then another, and with her mouth closed, she used her tongue to burst the raspberries gently against her palate. The raspberries were very cold and sweet and delicious, and she told the child how delicious they tasted to her, and she told him again how much she appreciated his doing this thing for her.
The child watched her the whole time with great attention and in silence, and so did Paul Prascoe.
She set the dish on the octagonal end-table beside the glass of water, and then she lifted the pencil and the notebook, which sat there as well.
“May I?” she said to Paul Pascoe.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Justine proceeded to draw, with incredible quickness and fluidity and very beautifully, a racing car just like the black-and-purple one Manny had shown her. The silent child watched her with his intelligent eyes, and those eyes grew huge and transfixed as he saw the car taking shape on the page beneath her movements — and so did his father’s.
“Look at that, Manny-buh-danny!” Paul Prascoe said, when she was finished. “The lady is a real artist.”
“And she drives a stick-shift,” said the child.
They both looked at Manny. Slowly, Justine smiled and then she laughed. Her mouth and tongue were raspberry-red.
“Very observant,” she said. “Oh, I like that in a fellow.”
Toward evening of that same day, while Justine in the bedroom of her childhood home stood at a dust-streaked second-story window watching the ruins of the western sky go from fire to ashes, she received a phone call. She had just showered, and she was dressed now only in her bra and underwear. Her dark skin glowed in the honey-colored rays of the dying sun.
She picked up the phone. “Hello?” she said.
“Hello,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “This is Paul Prascoe. Forgive me for ringing you up out of the blue, but I thought of something. I believe I can give you a lead.”
“What is it?” Justine said.
“It’s an odd story. I better tell you.”
“Yes,” she said. “Please tell me.”
“Long ago, after I’d been working with Jon for about a year-and-a-half, when I was driving to the mine for my shift one day, I saw Jon standing outside the assayers office, which was about a quarter mile from the lot where the miners parked. Do you know what a metallurgical assayer is?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Metallurgical assayers are scientists who work in a mining laboratory, which laboratory is almost always onsite. They analyze ore and minerals and metals to determine the value of these things — and often the value of the mine itself. They’re an eccentric folk, frequently brilliant: a mixture, many of them, of chemist, geologist, engineer, and metallurgist. For this sort of work, a very patient and precise disposition is required, and also an absolute love of new technology. Assayers are a quirky lot, make no mistake.”
“I see,” Justine said.
She sat down on the edge of her childhood bed and crossed her bare legs at the ankles.
Twilight flickered across the wooden floor. She watched it.
“On this particular day,” Paul Prascoe said, “Jon was standing out in front of the assayers office talking to two figures, neither of whom I recognized, but both of whom I got a long look at, and I knew then that I would absolutely recognize them anywhere if I again saw either one.”
“Why? Why so absolutely?”
“Because, though they looked nothing much alike, one considerably older than the other, they each had a very distinguished quality about them, and that quality is something you don’t often find — or easily forget. They were both thin and tall — much taller than Jon — and yet, strange as this may sound, I couldn’t tell if they were male or female. ‘Strange,’ I say, because there was something decidedly feminine about both of them, and yet not.”
Paul Prascoe fell momentarily silent.
Justine waited. She did not speak.
“Jon waved as I drove past,” he said, “and when I later asked Jon about them specifically, he told me that he didn’t know their gender. He told me also, with a peculiar smile, that those two figures were ‘as strange as angels,’ as he put it. I asked him if they were assayers and Jon said yes and also no. He said they were many things — primarily doctors — ‘biomedical researchers,’ as he put it, who were cultivating and developing nuclear medicine, which, as you know, requires uranium. But here’s the really interesting thing: Jon said also that they were ‘extraordinarily curious’ to know more about an idea he’d put forth to them about ‘light-activated nanoparticles’ for lowering and combating antibiotic resistance.”
“Light-activated?” Justine said.
“Are you certain?”
“Did Jon ever say anything more about it?”
“No. He said nothing more about it.”
“Where did he learn about that?”
“I don’t know. Where did he learn about anything? That was over six years ago. Last fall I went to visit my younger sister, who lives Tempe. One night she took me out for drinks. We went to a number of different places, but the most memorable of them was a jazz lounge atop a skyscraper.”
Paul Prascoe pregnantly paused.
Shadows streamed into her room like water and ran in rivulets down the hollow of her bare ensellure, and the room was now very quiet. She stared at her peanut-shaped toes, wiggled them once. She suddenly felt a rising apprehension building inside her, as though something important were about to occur.
“It may sound outrageous,” Paul Prascoe continued, “but the bartender in that jazz lounge was a tall thin figure, very distinguished-looking, with platinum-silver hair, and I am absolutely certain that this bartender was one of the two figures I saw that day standing with Jon, out in front of the assayers laboratory.”
It was a dimly lit lounge, clean and unadorned to the point of minimalism, with mirrors angled all about the room. It lay stretched across the topmost floor of a spear-shaped skyscraper the walls of which were composed of massive glass plates that gave to the quivering night. The sky beyond was dark, but the city below shimmered and sparkled with such lucency that it cast a pall of apricot light upon the low-hanging cloud-base. The bartop, long and S-shaped, was made of solid mahogany which glowed oxblood in the dim and creamy candleflames. The mellow notes of a jazz piano tinkled like ice through hidden speakers.
Justine sat alone at the far end of the bar and sipped her tequila cocktail. It was a drink she’d never had or heard of before — El Chupacabra. She thought it perhaps the best-built drink she’d ever tasted: a cocktail consisting of only three or four ingredients, none of which were overly extravagant or expensive but all of which had been chosen for their quality and also poured and concocted with a rare skill, so that this cocktail took on for her a delicate sense of balance and flavor.
Justine wore a white dress striped with diagonals of deep dark blue. It was Sunday night. The lady piano player had left an hour ago. Near the entrance, at the opposite end of the bar from where she sat, there slouched a middle-aged man in charcoal suit and red necktie. A group of four were at a spacious table beside the southernmost window, near the sliding door that led to a rooftop patio which was empty. Apart from these five, there were no other patrons. Justine, a patient lady, sat relaxed and waiting.
She studied the bartender, who was thin and tall, with the distinguished yet anachronistic air of a patrician. It struck her that this quality was made all the more anachronistic — and all the more unusual — by the very fact that, without trying, the bartender made this patrician’s air appear perfectly natural and apposite to someone pouring stiff alcoholic beverages behind a mahogany slab.
The bartender wore almost all black — black slacks, which accentuated the long elegant line of the legs, and a button-down black shirt — with a burgundy bowtie. The shirt-sleeves were folded to the crook of the elbow, the forearms exposed and webbed with tubular turquoise veins. There was a heightened sense of competence in this bartender’s manner of moving, of working: relaxed yet simultaneously swift in an unmannered and unselfconscious way, and with such a fluid economy of motion that it disclosed a clear and deep experience, but also, to the shrewd observer (and Justine was one such), something more — a more powerful and fundamental thing, which was perhaps at the source of it: an activity of brain and body, wherein this strange ease of motion originated and found its strength constantly renewed.
The bartender had thin spider-like fingers and thoughtful gray eyes, a skeletal face and long straight hair pinned back, not gray or white, this hair, but platinum, and try as she might, Justine could not determine the bartender’s age or sex. Lurking somewhere behind the bartender’s gray eyes and their unabashed gaze, which shone with so much courtesy and brightness, was a knowing look of something she thought playful. Yet it was so faint as to be almost indiscernible.
The four patrons near the window rose up at last and departed, leaving cash on the table — overtipping — and then, immediately after, the slouched man at the bar followed suit. She watched the bartender clear and clean with a kind of dangerous efficiency all the glassware and again, with that same dangerous efficiency, wipe down the bartop and the table. Then the bartender turned and looked at her. It was a candid look — a look too candid to be anything but an invitation — and Justine at that moment felt certain that this entire time the bartender had been inordinately aware of her presence, even inordinately curious.
“Quiet night,” Justine said.
“Sundays,” the bartender said: ramrod posture, hands held casually behind the back, a calm contralto voice composed of sexless notes and a thrumming richness. “Bad for business, but I like them. They are soft and peaceful.”
“I like them too,” Justine said. The piano notes leaked beautifully into the room and then wandered like a river through the labyrinthian channels of her ears. She looked momentarily reflective. “When I was a child, I disliked Sundays,” she said.
“Why?” The bartender moved two steps toward her, standing directly in front of her now, four feet across the mahogany plank, and held her eyes in a way that made her feel at ease.
“They gave me a lonely feeling,” Justine said, “a feeling of desolation and sadness.'”
“And do they still?”
“No, not as much.”
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
“No,” Justine said, scowling slightly, “I don’t believe so. Where is it you think we may have crossed paths?”
“I don’t know,” the bartender said. There was a faint lift at the corner of the mouth — an almost crooked smile — and then the look of playfulness surged in the bartender’s eyes. “Perhaps in my dreams. How is your cocktail?”
“It’s delicate and delicious. You’re very good at what you do.”
“Thank you. Bartending — true bartending — is a demanding trade. Most people have no idea. It’s physical, the hours grueling — too grueling for most — often 3:00pm to 3:00am, around the clock, no breaks. It requires speed, stamina, agility, dexterity, precision, cleanliness, and yet it’s also cerebral and calls for a great deal of memory — memory especially — but also endurance, patience, powers of observation, friendliness, the ability to think on your feet and talk to a wide variety of people even when you have very many things going on. I marvel at the yin-and-the-yang of it. I regard it as a challenge. It keeps me sharp. The truth is, I believe in work. Work is healthy, jobs are good for the soul. Work provides an outlet not only for energy and expression but also for aggression. I honestly believe that you can tell a great deal about a person just by the way in which that person works — especially if it’s entry-level work.”
“Why that especially?”
“Because one who’s good at smaller and more menial jobs, so-called, is even better at larger and more exacting jobs. One faithful in a little is faithful in a lot. But that formula doesn’t work the other way around. It’s the principle of work that’s at issue here — and whether that principle has not only been grasped but also embraced. I’m really quite opinionated on the subject.”
“I like it that you are,” Justine said. “I like that you’re opinionated on this subject. Tell me what else do you think.”
“I think that what we often call rising in life is really leaving the safe and the comfortable — the things we’ve always been told and taught — for the more exalted path, which is what it means to truly rise. Money, strictly a medium, is always secondary at most. The higher we rise, the greater the strain. As we ascend, we feel increased pressure on what amounts to our virtue. The more deeply we immerse ourselves in worldly pleasure, the less we actually grasp and enjoy the true nature of life: its essence, its full importance. We come to many crossways, phantom roads perchance, and which direction will we go? Will we advance, even knowing that there will be increased pressure? Or remain where we are? Change direction? Go back? That there should be crossways at all is strange enough, and everyone would recognize it as exactly such, had the oddness of it not already been bled out long ago. Responsibility may be a labyrinth. And it is a deep and lasting labor to map and negotiate that subterranean maze, which is completely interconnected and so vast that it may as well be endless, whether you believe in the infinite or not.”
Justine looked down into the infinite depths of her gold cocktail and then back into the bartender’s complicated eyes of dove-colored gray.
“What brings you in this evening?” the bartender said.
The bartender’s thin eyebrows lifted, the forehead wrinkling in a vermicular way. “Oh?”
“Yes.” Justine leaned forward, both forearms pressed against the round edge of the bartop. Her bosom rose and fell with a sea-like rhythm. “Did you know, perhaps six or seven years ago, a young miner who found something deep beneath the earth — who perhaps figured out a new method by which to harness and use light-activated nanoparticles?”
Justine unconsciously measured the length of the ensuing pause by the soft beat of the upright bass coming through the speakers. Her cyanic eyes did not waver from the unwavering gaze of the bartender. Yet she was unable to pinpoint the precise nature of the way this bartender now regarded her. She knew only that it was a look of deeper measurement, a heightened attentiveness, a sort of retriangulation, perhaps. Justine suddenly sensed a formidable opponent.
“No, I didn’t,” the bartender said, “not personally.”
“Do you know anything of what I’m referring to?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Can you give me any information at all?”
“I implore you.”
“It is of the utmost importance.”
“Why?” the bartender said.
“Do you know the nature of the work?”
“Yes, I know something of it.”
Here Justine looked deeper into the bartender’s eyes. She was silent for perhaps three seconds — and in that time she decided to act upon a suspicion which in the last two minutes had been growing rather rapidly inside her.
“Did you know that in addition to what he found,” Justine said, “he came upon an idea, the ramifications of which are enormous?”
“May I ask your name?” the bartender said. He gazed with equal depth into her dark blue eyes.
“My name is Justine Strickland.”
“And may I also ask how you know about this work?”
Here she recognized instantaneously that her suspicion was a suspicion no more: it had just been proved.
“I deduced it,” Justine said. “I’ve followed a circuitous path to get here — don’t even ask — and I’ve come a very long way. Will you please tell me the name of one who knows?”
The bartender listened to her with absolute attention and did not so much as flicker or blink. Indeed, the hyper-awareness in the bartender’s eyes seemed to swallow her words as they were coming out of her mouth and then stuff each of those words down into profound hidden compartments within — though to what end or purpose, there was no indication or clue.
Then the bartender spoke:
“Stop looking, Ms. Strickland. Throw in the towel. I strongly recommend it — for your own sake. Quit searching for the answers to this particular thing.” Upon saying which, the bartender tossed onto the mahogany plank a bar-towel so immaculate that it appeared as though someone here must have access to a special sort of whitener. “You will not find what you’re looking for.”
“Why? Why do you say?”
“Because it’s much bigger and more intricate than you realize — or perhaps could ever conceive.”
For a full fifteen seconds, Justine remained motionless, looking straight back at the bartender. Then she blinked slowly and averted her eyes to the golden cocktail before her. She did not say anything. She lifted the glass and took a silent sip.
“Your search is made all the more futile,” the bartender said, “because you couldn’t possibly have any conception of the futility of the task you’ve chosen to undertake. The mystery you’re trying to uncover is far more mysterious — and far bigger — than light-activated nanoparticles. You must simply take my word for it. I’ll give you one thing, which may be of some help: by the very nature of what it is, knowledge is not only altogether interwoven and contextual but also hierarchical, and the chain of knowledge is irrevocably so because reality is intricately linked.”
Justine was silent for several beats. “May I ask you one final question, only indirectly related to what we’ve just discussed?” she said.
“Have you ever been to a mine called the Yellowjacket mine or to the assayers laboratory of that same mine?”
“I have not,” the bartender said, and smiled in a way that revealed perfect teeth, immaculate and bright.
Then the bartender turned slightly, as if to check for someone or something away to the left — and Justine in that moment saw, in the angled mirror to her right, the bartender’s reflected profile, which in turn was reflected in yet another mirror to her left, so that for an instant, it suddenly seemed to her as though there were three or even four bartenders, and then, in other reflections which appeared before her, even more.
The bartender, still smiling, turned back to her and spoke:
“The illusions these mirror create can be disorienting, n’est-ce pas?” Breaking in on the drift of her thoughts.
The tequila, she felt, had mainlined into her head.
“Very,” Justine said.
At that moment, a half-forgotten line also swam on currents of tequila into her head:
“Yet the blessed don’t care what angle they’re regarded from, having nothing to hide.”
This is what she thought, but never said.
She put a one-hundred-dollar bill on the bar. Then she rose and went outside.
What are dreams?
A surreal sequence of scenes, viatic or static?
A carnival-mirror in which each individual’s hopes and fears are reflected in a warped replica?
A defragmentation of reality?
A recasting of the dead and the vanished into fantastical new settings?
What are dreams and what does it mean to dream perchance?