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 into 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.
His resourcefulness and his crime, as well as his flight from justice, caught the attention of several government officials — in particular an F.B.I agent, who himself had grown up on the backbone of the Comanche reservation, in north Texas, and who’d also briefly crossed paths with Jon Silverthorne, in the uranium mines near Grants, while investigating an unrelated incident.
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, southeast 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 person, and independent, 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 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 home of stone: ladybugs which symbolized a colorful and vibrant life, a life of hope and 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 horribly unexpected 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. He 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, his young heart 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 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. Into what futures were they driving?
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, no matter how complex the subject-matter — 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 the rare skill it was.
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 saw a long and seam-like scar that ran down the pinky side of her right hand, and 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 ladybugs and the sacred sect of motherhood.
He squinted at the ceiling and considered this.
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 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 it 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 things in it, and that it is the center of the universe.”
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 critters and 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, who was no longer alive.
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 is 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 don’t think it’s funny,” he said. “I’m not sure why, but 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 worry a lot, you see. It gets away from me — I am aware of this. I started to think that Sophia might even be dying, and so I went to her parents’ house.”
“I was turned away.”
“You never found out what happened?”
Two months passed.
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 about her very much. 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. 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 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 small 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, with something like terror, 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 apricots.
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 capable human hand.
Thought is the source of human ingenuity.
Thinking is an active process. Dreaming is passive. Jon contained a little of both — he was both thinker and dreamer.
Solitude fosters talent, as the solitary life fosters thought.
Yet there was something of the acrobat in 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 throughout 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 actual Devil, he was certainly in league with the sable-skinned angel, everyone knew.
There were 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 and in this way 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, with a sharp snap, the cylindrical object 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. 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 ridiculous 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 a part of him wanted the lethal injection inserted 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 in the silence of his tidy home. He took a sip and then passed it to her.
“What does it mean?” she said, “this strange and morbid tale you tell me?”
“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 a small hate. Hatred is always huge.
An intention and a missile are alike. And 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. The suspicious 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 shape, 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, pure and simple.
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 badly 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 — and 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 curiously 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 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 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.
All at once, then, slightly to his left and a little behind him, behind the creamy arc of white, Morgan Felts gagged twice, 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 very 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 around which he’d tied a noose-like thread and which he then hung from a saguaro cactus needle, about to squeeze the trigger, there erupted a thunderous gunshot from off to Jon’s 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.
Baron 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 to Jon, 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 appeared before him without warning.
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 absorb 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 prospering, and only a counterforce, he said, which is ultimately anti-life can halt or nullify this natural human curiosity. He said also that any time something new and true is learned, however large, however little, even a single new word, the living circuitry within us grows, whereas the false and untrue festers and chokes and damages the brain.
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 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 material wealth and never had enough money.
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 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. “And what would the subject of this debate be?” he said.
Baron was silent.
“And quantum mechanics,” Jon said, “which is in 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 clean desert 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 wolverine poised 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. Thus, 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, “considering we don’t actually touch anything, yes? The ball or anything? Of course, that all depends upon how one defines ‘touch,’ doesn’t it?” Jon paused. “Let me propose a straightforward hypothesis,” he said.
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 very clear 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 they smeared its blood all over her naked body, 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 sweltering 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 moments 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 that 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, 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 — watching 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 universe and the center of the universe.
When Kristopher told her that Jon Silverthorne was his brother, she did something 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 of them saw watching from the shadows the spindly figure with the insect head.
On unsteady legs, Morgan led him from this room, through a dark corridor and then another and then another. She held a purple glow-light of plasma which dimly lit their way. 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.
“Maze Man,” she repeated. She was perhaps speaking more to herself than to Kristopher.
Morgan said also that nobody has ever mapped these caves completely — so intricate they are and so dark — and when, at long 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 bones glowing greenly phosphorescent along the ground, and she said that these bones were the remains of sacrifices once made to the Maze Man. She told him that the Tohono O’Odham believe Maze Man led them through hell and then into this place and the world of earth.
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.
“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 say?”
“He said that the navel of the universe also contains the portal to hell, and he smiled at me 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 at last.
“Through the portal, to hell.”
In the depths of the human eye 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 possess eyes that radiate and flash with bolts of brightness.
The mystery of great souls is disclosed in this one word: doggedness.
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 eventually 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 go together 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, but only that the mind hasn’t yet comprehended it. This is a principle which woman and men must learn and never let go of:
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 a perfectly natural phenomena — though much about lightning is still poorly understood — 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?
Why not mystically call forth pure gold from the soil and wealth from the branches of trees, rather than work in the bar or restaurant?
What need of money for those who have power to heal or hex or call forth things beyond nature?
I propose this:
Let she or he who claims supernatural powers, no matter the specific creed or dogma or set of beliefs involved, let this person drive across the country with both eyes shut tight the entire time — without any regard for refueling, roads, pedestrians, oncoming traffic, or any other basic facts of reality, which can be transcended by this thing called super-nature, via its mediums, and let the true-believer also sit without seatbelt and without fear in the passenger-side of the blindly moving car.
In actuality, since no one can truly exist outside the natural world, the people who haunt the half-hidden precincts of the supernatural are at constant war with the natural world in which they, as all of us, must live. They are double-minded, two-headed, because how can you live in reality if you’re at war with reality?
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 which is weak and flimsy.
It is always the job of the claimant to bring good data with the claim so that she or he might demonstrate its truth. That billions or even trillions 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 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 measured? 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, overwhelming, insurmountable denominator which they all have in common:
They are superstitions.
They therefore 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 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 before them. 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 spiraled, the more that light clarified below them — clarified and took form — until soon 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 them half-hidden among the rocks, who could not, however, keep the life-force that burned inside from showing forth from the eyes, which is the light of the body.
When Morgan and Kristopher came to the bottom and stood beside each other at the seventh level of the cave, they gazed wonderstruck and in silence, both of them turning a slow three-hundred-sixty degrees, the crimson lights now shimmering directly around them, everywhere, above and below and back into a long stone corridor which also shook and shifted in a billion spangles of golden-red and gashed vermillion.
The glittering lights rebated hotly off the skin of their faces.
“What is this light?” Morgan whispered.
It was now — only now — that Kristopher understood 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, that there is a specific chemical all 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: a pulse of living light.
He remembered as well how in reference to this passage Justine had told him something more — and he repeated that something now:
“The chemical is called Luciferin,” Kristopher said, “and it’s aided by an enzyme called Luciferase.”
“It is beautiful,” Morgan said.
The scarlet glow danced across the liquid membrane of her eyes, reddening each eye completely, as with blood, so that in this moment she appeared demonic in this cave, which was the reputed gateway to hell, and watching her, Kristopher suddenly recalled the 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 aloud to her from an old book.
“Light is energy,” she said. “Light is radiance. It is luminescence and lambency. But it is something more: 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, 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 the natural path of healthy human 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 — the eudaemonia of entelechy, which means to shine with 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 cornucopia, blood splashed everywhere.
Next came a photograph depicting a satanic scene of ritualized sex mixed with great violence and violation, sexual obsession, cultic gore, death.
Under 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, the sky the color of dove.
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.
None 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, laving 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. And he liked to swim. He also 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 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 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, meanwhile, rolled above 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 which 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 a whisper of souls. It was then that he heard the low growl again.
He did not know it, but it was the growl of the monolithically shifting sand across unseen dunes.
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 hanging from a 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 that the vast vacant darkness had sprouted eyes, the intermissions of light caused by a vent-hole in the doorway of hell, the opening and shuttering of hell’s iron grate — human flesh roasting slowly within, he thought, 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 stemmed eyeballs. 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 clearly 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 back lumpy with muscle.
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.
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.
This man was deep inside The Superstitions. He had penetrated them. He was investigating them. He was studying The Superstitions.
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.”
“What is all this golden powder and dark stone around us?”
“It’s called 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.
But 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 beast 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 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 bilious. The half-hidden face appeared 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 ice 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 who have become as gods. 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 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: 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: he 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 and tongues, long thin spires mucronate and wet and gleaming the color of blood 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, 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, 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.
All at once, then, she heard the seething hiss and the unhurried tread. It was coming closer now, 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 very 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 the heat of his presence.
She did not turn around now but genuflected down onto one 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 but squeezed it more tightly yet. 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 suspected 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 for her 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 dug 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. She became aware 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 dead-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 have I been gone?”
“A long time.”
“I dreamt of you,” she said. “I dreamt of you and Jon 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 very deep inside Baboquivari,” she said. “Deeper than anyone, maybe. He’s discovered profound and hidden connections. Did you know?”
Kristopher listened but was silent. He shook his head. For a long moment, he gazed into her far-off eyes: eyes incandesced under the swarming bioluminescence. He saw in those eyes 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 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 you.”
She nodded. Her glowing eyes contained a profound sense of peacefulness. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t arrive in time,” she said. She was not looking at him as she spoke, 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. 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 back into febrile sleep.
The last thing she heard before she drifted off was the burble of underground streams, flowing away 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!”
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 smeared 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 that was 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:
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. The she went off 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 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” — 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 black 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 ecotage and unequivocal rage, and, with the sanction of the populous and then the government, the land was seized by the government.
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 glow, she rose up recharged and began walking.
She thought of Jon.
She smiled like a 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, and then 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 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 throbbed.
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. Here as well 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 mutely beneath the slow steps of their feet.
Entering an open room through which a cool wind poured, Kristopher only now began 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 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 of metallic accretions and mold of strange purple splotches, 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 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 and then were flung, innards piled on the floor like sepulchral 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 dank grottoes and hidden bowels of the earth, outside of which, upon the surface — and only upon the surface — there is often a surgically bright, clean-looking, superficially beautiful glow: like the glister of whitened sepulchers.
With lead in their 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 teeming darkness, they descended, and here at they found Morgan had vanished.
Gone now the lucent labyrinth that had 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, and 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 long-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 bar 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 slab of lemony 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 strange day.
The task Jon had chosen for himself was to all appearance beyond the capacity of human power — requiring, rather, 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 beginning a thing for learning how hard it will be to finish.
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, and this was no small thing.
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 line 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 mooring 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 these things rendered clear and 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 chromosomes, 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 mantis 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 Strickland.
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.
Yet 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 ever to speak 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 slender 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 ball-like head did not now 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 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. There was a mephitic odor in the caves, a stench of death.
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, for this man had more than once pretended goodwill toward her.
“They are artifacts,” he said. “They belong to everyone. Humanity is an organic whole, and at the root of it all, 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.”
“You keep them in a shrine.”
“You do not know anything.”
Instantaneously, then, and with surprising speed and before she was even fully finished with this last sentence, the man with the small ball-like 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 gathering 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, then, her eyes flipped open, and she stared directly at him, and he saw in them at once a fearlessness even now, flashing like axe-blades 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 current of air sliding 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, and 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 state of unconsciousness filled with stormy dreams he could not decode, and then, just 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 crazy 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 mouth with his shoulder. A long avenue of flies swarmed past him. He followed them in their flight.
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 in disbelief.
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. Ten feet beyond where he now stood was a vertical artery of stone, an old mining shaft, which dropped precipitously one-hundred feet down, and he was not aware of the cairn of bones in the darkness beyond. Side-stepping one pace, skirting the rocks carefully, Willowmarsh 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, and as he did so, he did not appear to notice the change in work. After one task was completed, another presented itself, 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 first 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 wild 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, 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 — and 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 suspicions 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, but still had much more yet to do.
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 horror, she, who knew their numbers and their features so intimately, 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. Down a long avenue of flies, 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 save for the whine of flies.
The smell of raw death 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.
“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 said that life was too short to not indulge in every whim or pleasure, and they would normalize this behavior completely or die trying, because life and the whole purpose of life was not self-mastery or 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 funereal 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 and comforting to her.
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 space 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 ran her fingers through the wet and tangled forelock of his mane. 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.
The rain fell softly around her.
In the ensuing silence which was so short-lived, she could hear raindrops tapping upon the sandy ground. Then she heard 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! Where in the name of all that’s orthodox 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 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 roared. “Where in God’s name 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, and after having retrieved his truck from a storage unit he’d rented in Phoenix, turned himself in to the authorities.
He was subsequently charged with First Degree Arson.
He did not ask for a lawyer.
He spoke no words at all.
He sat alone in his small jail cell.
On the day of his arraignment, the small-town courtroom uncommonly full, something remarkable happened:
Immediately after all charges against him had been read, a young women with huge hot eyes and famished-looking cheeks burst into the courtroom wearing a cornflower sundress, and in a clear yet slightly frantic voice, this young woman, approaching the bench, 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 understand and learn, was the only person in the world ever truly good to her, and that he was a light-bearer, a life-giving 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 astonishing.
Who were they?
They were everyone.
They were no one.
They were a teeming mass, a mob, an organic whole.
They were force.
They were the people of the lie.
They fed off one another.
They could not long exist alone because their existence depended upon the echo atmosphere they themselves created and the venomous air they breathed inside this chamber.
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 ragged 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 coldly in the creamy-white early morning light. Reflecting the dawn sky, like a narrow gap through which a nether sky was visible, 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 white face of the water. It trembled and dished 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 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, sleeves rolled up high, and as he rigged this knot, his wiry forearms squirmed with muscle-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 a great calm descended over her, she did not know precisely why.
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. 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, 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 thick 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 — Morcant — 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 here at this moment of her death — galvanizing her with new life and strength, and she repeated these words again:
They could never.
Scarcely was she finished speaking 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 on her back 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 gun-report had come from a 30-30.
Justine was one of these people with an internal whisper to which she paid special attention.
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 and wading profoundly beneath Babiquovari through soundless tides of bioluminescence, the likes of which she’d never conceived, and, with Kristopher, looking fruitlessly for Morgan Felts, 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, he 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 dusty desert land. The sky was dark save for a sector of milky 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 his cool fingers and squeezed them more tightly 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 that entire night, John 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. 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 alter 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 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 who perhaps lived among the clouds, tumbling down out of the lumpy cabbage-colored mammatus and then zigzagging 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, and a pair of bottlenecked ducks with blaze-orange webfeet splattered up from the water, flapping madly their dripping wings.
She saw humpbacked dirt roads in the distance — roads down which for track practice she’d run 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.”
She was silent.
“A blaspheme and a sacrilege,” he said, “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 complete comprehensibility. That he does it so well and with such seeming effortlessness tells me one thing beyond any doubt.”
“What is that?”
“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 bright turquoise, orbiting bluely around the star-shaped nugget like a microcosmic solar system: a pendant of great lapidary precision 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 — and in his right hand was a gleaming key.
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 mocha-and-cream. 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 refreshing and delicious.
“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. 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. Who, 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 that was around his neck, and 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.”
“Actually,” said Paul Prascoe, “though I’m significantly older than him, Jon once exerted a 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 slightly coffee-stained, his tea-colored front tooth jutting forward slightly, like a busted slat. “It is 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 me cultivate the previously mentioned 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. Jon brought out the best in people simply by virtue of his own manner 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 a 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.
Little Manny reentered the room and, in a china dish hand-painted with bright cornflowers, presented the fruit to Justine: twenty-two fat purple raspberries, which were degged with artesian water. 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 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, pleased, though in total silence, and so did Paul Prascoe.
Justine 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 deft movements.
“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 copper-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. I thought of something. I believe I can give you a lead.”
“What is it?” Justine said. The sun was streaming over half her face, gilding her skin with gold.
“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 all 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. These laboratories are almost always onsite. Assayers 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 people, 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,” Paul Prascoe said, “and when I later asked Jon about them specifically, he told me that he didn’t know their sex or 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?”
“Yes,” she said.
“That was over six years ago. Last fall I went to visit my younger sister, who lives in 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 but all of which had been chosen for their quality and also prepared and poured with such precision and skill 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 emphatic — 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 refreshed.
The bartender had thin 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, 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 then, 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.”
The bartender watched her in silence for a moment and then spoke:
“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 often 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 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 I believe is what it means to truly rise. Money, which is 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 rapidly inside her: a kind of bluff.
“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, Justine Strickland. Throw in the towel. I strongly recommend it — for your own sake and sanity. Quit searching for the answers to this particular thing.” Upon saying these words, 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 actual 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 this. I’ll give you one piece of information, 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, and at root knowledge is really nothing more — or less — than a measurement and quantification of reality, which we do by means of language.”
Justine was silent for several beats. “May I ask you one final question, one 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. As if they were legion.
The bartender, still smiling, turned back to her and spoke:
“The illusions these mirrors create can be disorienting, n’est-ce pas?” Breaking in on the drift of her thoughts.
The tequila, she felt, had mainlined into her and was beginning rapidly to spread.
“Very,” Justine said.
At that moment, a half-forgotten line also swam on currents of tequila into her head:
“Yet the blessed will not care what angle they are 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.
She drove the southwest alone.
With the help of her father and his translations — translations of Silverthorne’s Greek and Latin into English — Justine searched for days which turned into weeks. The sharp western sunlight glanced heliotropically off her windshield, helmut-headed insects splattering against the windshield-glass like paintballs.
Over and across the ghost-towns and all the mining claims she visited, the winds of early autumn swirled and blew. She felt that they threatened to blow right through her.
Every lead turned into a dead-end.
Everywhere she went, there was nothing but rumor and report.
Above the door of a tiny tilted church composed of crude masonry, just north of Dulce, New Mexico, where Jon Silverthorne had been born and raised, she read a quote someone had long ago chiseled into the white limestone:
Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.
The more she searched and the more time she spent alone and in thought, the more she felt herself transmuting internally — for good or ill, she was not certain. She grew quiescent and calmer yet. She came increasingly to crave the serenity and cleanliness of this solitude.
Early one Sunday morning, north of the Albuquerque Basin in the Rio Grande rift, on the edge of the wild Jimez mountains, after having slept the night in her car, she came on foot into a red forest grove. Incarnadine woods, trees shot through with murky light. The intricate network of veins visible within each individual leaf. She passed through.
Tall swaying grass gave way to stony ground. Rims of pink-champagne light stood out upon the high western hills, the hills just tipped with sunlight, and as Justine walked, the final shadows of dawn receded and were swept away, and all the serene land pressed in around as, little by little, the whole valley gave way to light.
She stopped for a moment and extracted a folded map from the back pocket of her blue jeans. She wore a kidney-colored tee-shirt and no jacket, dark-blue sneakers. She consulted the map for a full minute, and then she looked about her, as if she would quantify and measure her surroundings by the natural landmarks she stood among. She looked. From her small pack, she retrieved a water bottle and took a long drink. Then she walked on.
The sun rose like a ball of pollen and brooded over the eastern world, and soon she began to sweat. She gathered her hair and lifted it off the back of her neck and then yanked it into a ponytail.
Below her, a broken heap of rocks lay along the dry floor of an old quarry.
She descended a natural limestone staircase and then walked across the floor of the quarry. On the other side, around a high outcropping, she came to an oblong pool, deep and emerald, with chalky cliffs inverted on the still waters. Justine did not stop walking but turned her head to stare at the pond as she passed. The stones all around were purplish and covered in a thin layer of silica dust. A small breeze sprung up. There were dusty smells in the air, a mineral tang. The sweat on her skin began to cool. Mats of algae wheeled imperceptibly across the surface of the water, discharging a saffron light more brilliant than the water itself. A thick cable, powdered with rust, hung from high up on the rock walls and came slanting down into the pool, impaling it.
The breeze sifted through the dust.
The wooden door of a decrepit quarry shack blew open and slapped shut. Justine paused and looked around. Was there someone here? And was this someone watching her? All of a sudden, she felt sure there was. Yet she saw no sign of life — human, animal, or otherwise. The delicate hairs all along the nape of her neck stood up.
She continued through the quarry and came out onto a derelict mining road, which led her briefly back into a grove of blood-colored trees. Then, at last, she arrived at an abandoned mineshaft immediately beyond which lay stretched the ghost-town which this mine had once given rise to.
The mineshaft consisted of a ramshackle tin building and through the building, at the back, a hole blasted into a black mountain. To the right and to the left, small cones of tailings stood like lunar volcanos, extinct, and a deep floodwater shimmered just inside the cave. Justine could hear within a steady echo-drip, and she saw a small railbed vanish into the floodwater, only one-and-a-half of its ties visible. Gray tanagers with sesame eyes peeked out at her from the little shrubs but made no sound.
Justine approached the cave.
A dead bat slept at the mouth. It was folded like an umbrella, the small eyes shut, pointy ears, a pug nose — the sour face almost human-looking, Justine thought, or hobbit. The tiny paws clutched in death at the magnificent cape which this creature wore. She walked away from the mineshaft and into the ghost-town that was populated with cogwheels and huge rusted axles, dilapidated wooden shacks sun-bleached and gray.
The wind poured through, this waxing sabbath day.
There were no signs of life.
Yet on the northernmost purlieus of this ghost-town, there was a purportedly inhabited home about which Justine had heard rumors.
At this time, it was just after eight o’clock in the morning, the soaring sun as white as bone.
Justine walked toward that rumored house made of metal and stone.
All the lights inside were off. No one appeared to be here. Justine knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again. The door was made of a thin metal that resounded clangorously under the rap of her knuckles.
No one answered. No one came.
She knocked again. Still nothing.
She waited further. She looked around. A deep stillness hung over the entire property. There was a high-altitude haze in the air. Justine continued looking. To her left, a thin dirt path like sprinkled cocoa curved around the house. Justine followed this path where it led, and suddenly, somewhat to her surprise, she came into a lush garden-plot, where, on a wooden picnic table, beneath a pulsing green-apple tree, its limbs bent low with the lunar globes, a thin book lay spread-eagle. It was held open by a volcanic bowl of small fruit. Above the doorway of a stone shed beyond was a hand-chiseled cross of granite.
Yet the first thing she noticed was not this but rather a long and fish-colored snake slithering out of the tree and dropping soundlessly into the grass.
She watched the thick serpent move through the deep and strange-scented shade of the dark-barked tree, and she watched it trail its fish-gray slackness soft-bellied down to a stone trough where a pool of water bubbled up from a fracture in the earth.
Justine watched in silence the snake rest its level throat upon the snake-colored stone, and she watched the snake sip upon the small clearness of water: drinking and nourishing itself through its paper-slit mouth, taking the cool clean water into the long body, silently.
From a distance of ten feet, she then saw the snake pause a moment and lift its triangular head, as drinking cattle sometimes do, philosophically, and the orange forked-tongue flickering — as if licking its chops — and then she watched it dip its arrow-head and stoop back and drink a little more in the dark-gray shadows of the garden air, which smelled so strangely of apples and something else she couldn’t identify.
At last, having satisfied its thirst, the snake lifted its head and looked around again, though longer this time, like a demon or a god, and then slowly, very slowly, drawing its long slow curving length away from the gurgling fracture in the ancient stones of the earth, and when Justine shifted the weight of her stance, one foot to the other, making only a tiny sound, the snake, with undignified haste, snapped and then twisted like a whip and vanished in an instant into a black earthen hole, an earth-lipped fissure.
Narrow-eyed and thoughtful, Justine the zoologist, observer of nature, watched this creature of the underworld disappear like an uncrowned king into the chartless caves of the earth.
Justine with her pretty ponytail walked silently to the open book beneath the apple tree, the book held open by the weight of the porous fruitbowl. She held her hands behind her back. She did not touch anything. She looked down and read the first thing her eyes fell upon:
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits
She raised her eyes and looked off into the distance. She unconsciously squinted. Then her eyes went briefly back to the book.
I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing
The fruit in the bowl was a mixture of purple grapes, which were still on-the-vine; medium-sized green apples brushed with blood; three small stone fruit she did not recognize — perhaps a hybrid of plum and apricot, or perhaps peach, she thought. Indeed, she felt for a moment that in addition to apples, she could smell all three fruits individually — individually and discretely and in succession. She had not eaten a single thing in over forty-eight hours, and her hunger, like the hunger of Persephone in hell, gnawed with rat’s teeth at her stomach and heart.
She stood motionless with her hands still clasped behind her back, and she stood as one on the verge of recollecting an elusive memory.
Moving only her eyeballs now, she scanned her surroundings yet again. She looked all about her.
At last, her eyes dropped one more time to the open book.
Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape
Reading this silently to herself, she was abruptly struck by the sound of the words inside her head — almost as if some voice other than her own were reading the words to her: a soft and sexless voice that lulled and soothed.
At that moment, Justine very consciously decided something — and the instant she decided it, she did not hesitate.
She reached for the ripest and largest of the mysterious stone fruit, and she sunk her strong teeth into its flesh.
She ate it to satisfy her deep hunger.
The thick torn muscle of the fruit tasted so cool and so sweet — beyond anything she’d imagined — and she ate it with total satisfaction.
There was a backdoor to this house, which gave to the garden, and when Justine turned from where she now stood and went to the door and knocked upon it, the door came open with a gentle snick.
A thin current of cool air passed over her.
With her elbow, she nudged the door open a little wider.
“Hello?” she said. “Is there anybody home?”
Her voice rang hollow through the bare rooms of the house.
There was no answer.
A thin doormat beneath her feet said BIENVENIDOS.
She stepped inside.
The room was clean but dusty. The walls were the color of cream. The house seem deserted and yet not quite. Before her there sat a wooden table with two wooden chairs on either end. A very elegant and heavy-looking silver candlestick stood in the center of the table, a white-porcelain coffee cup on the far edge. Other than this there was no furnishings or furniture that she could see. Light streamed into the room through the lancet window on her left, and beyond this window she saw in the southern sky, in the middle-distance, a huge circular cloud — punctured clean through, like a donut.
A great tide of light slanted down through this pastry-hole above.
Justine stared at it.
It was at this time that she noticed her senses beginning to perplex.
She went to one of the two chairs and sat down. Then she started to get up, but suddenly there seemed no real reason to. She reseated herself.
She looked into the coffee cup. It was empty. Yet as she stared down into it, it blossomed with a golden glow and came alive, and she then noticed, as if only now, the slanting sun and a thick cone of sunlight coming in through the window and prowling the room with soft puma paws.
Dustmotes wheeled and orbited inside this light like planets and moons in a microcosmic solar system.
She saw through the window a solitary mountain flower standing as stiff as a cornstalk. It was purple and sun-leached and half-hidden among the brush, and Justine only noticed it because she’d caught a flicker on the marge of her vision and then, from nowhere, a spiky-headed swallowtail alighted upon that sun-leached purple flower, bending the stalk nearly to the ground.
As Justine watched, the bird did something then which struck her as inordinately strange: it appeared to impale its own beak repeatedly into the downy breast, stabbing at it rapidly, as if it would pierce and pulverize its own tiny tender heart.
When the bird lighted off, the flower-stalk sprung back to attention.
Justine watched for a long time, amazed, dreamy.
After a while, she turned and leaned forward in her chair, so that she might see into another room of this house, and in this other room there was a female figure staring directly at her.
Her heart went into her throat.
The figure sat next to a mantle beneath a mounted great-horned owl, who also watched her with jeweled eyes, and there sat upon the mantle a slender pink vase containing a single crepe flower, blue-black and sorrowful.
It was with even greater astonishment that Justine realized that the female figure watching her also looked much like her.
Justine stared in wild surmise, and so did the figure in the room beyond.
The two of them eyeing each other wildly, warily.
It was a protracted span of time — within which all movement stretched slowly away from her and then went wobbling off into a jellied blackness somewhere just beyond her periphery — before she grasped that this figure watching her was her own reflection, and that the sunlit glass of the mirror in which she lay doubled was the color of white-burgundy wine; it was also striped with silver and metal-gray, with flakes of shimmering refraction framed by ornate brass, a sinuous ripple like a giant cobra, a two-headed cobra swaying hypnotically on an enormous neck, and it was now as well that Justine realized that the fruit she’d eaten was in some way she couldn’t fully define a fruit cool and sweet, yet forbidden.
All at once she understood that the moment she was thinking about had passed and then that moment too and then that one, and she was looking at this forever fading reality of the present, a recursive regression of movement which was both eternal and also central, and then suddenly she felt she was watching the watcher, which was her.
She saw herself as from above and slightly off to one side.
Everything seemed far away, almost as though she were viewing existence now through the wrong end of a telescope. She seemed somewhere else. The sunlit air was electric, bristling, green sea-worms of electric light squirming on the marge of her vision. She sat motionless. Her profile was like that of an antique coin. Her nose straight and long, the zygomatic arch crisply etched. A planet or star lit her cheek and revealed the shiny bone beneath the skin, a somehow futuristic face with that sharp glinting bone.
She felt a lonesome wind blast through her, and then a huge and heavy curtain fell over everything that had been, and she sat motionless in the chair, like a butterfly held softly in a spider’s web.
She thought she could hear inside her own body the tidal gush of her bloodbeat and the gentle crackle of her dying cells, the silent warfare of germs, the popping of her tendons and tissues, the metal-rending of ligaments, her teeth dragging dryly in their sockets, the double-helix of her DNA spiraling into infinity, the creak of rolling eyeballs inside her skull.
Running jagged down the pinky side of her right hand, the old childhood scar, stitched by her mother the nurse, now flickered lilac and gray in the prowling light. Justine had no conception how long she’d been sitting here. She stared at her scar as one who would apprehend some awful homicide, a ghastly murder committed beneath the hot and grinding blade, the robbing of an individual human life which is more than the sum of pleasures accrued, the nervous system and the circulatory system within each and every single human being a hidden network of underground rivers so vast that it would stretch end-to-end around the earth four times and more, over one-hundred thousand miles of deep threading conduits in every individual, and does each incomprehensibly vast and intricate individual human have substance and identity apart from the race or tribe with whom it most closely associates? And are there deceptions too big to fully see over, vices too conspicuous, too pronounced to ever completely talk around, themes too overwhelming to ever be fully subordinate to other themes and which lace like worms the inflamed brain of the violent and the obsessed and hold that brain forever hostage and fogged and forever susceptible to the cultic?
The day was dying and the late-afternoon bloomed like milk and roses upon the wall. Justine watched with uncanny clarity scraps of a dream that unspooled down the back of her brain, and at the same time she felt herself drifting apart from everything that was, or would be.
The shrubs beyond the window seemed to her suddenly populated with small sapient creatures watching her. Foliage filled with frog-like figurines waiting for whom? For she.
She saw sandhill cranes flying over the desert, immense shapes gliding darkly over her head like stingrays or phantoms of such breathtaking levity that, immobile in this chair, she felt herself almost weep. She saw ravens soaring over dark spruce forests in a wild high-country, slopes falling away in every direction, all heather and moss, and the purple clouds beneath these blackbirds with their wind-hushed croaks.
She saw a solitary falcon quarter and then deploy downwind, an armadillo far below moving like a windup toy across the sand, its tiny tail twisting back and forth like a little whip.
She saw orange-and-black butterflies flop sloppily over hot autumn fields, and she heard the rattle of cornstalks in a wind that seemed made of glass.
She saw piebald calves of inexpressible winsomeness leaping and playing in lime-green fields of alfalfa, and she saw swarms of lady beetles with little cow faces teeming sweetly in the clover.
She saw a pair of brook trout anchored side by side in a vodka-clear creek, their fat midsections stippled with blue-and-pink polkadots so vibrant and so bright that they looked to her dabbed there with fresh paint, the gray velvet fins winnowing the gunpowder sand, gills kneading, slits opening and closing like dampers, and she saw anadromous salmon-hens knifing against the current, making for the sea. A finger-sized salamander, dark and mottled, dipped a webbed foot into a pool of bubbled green, as if testing the waters there.
She saw a two-headed horned toad with a single neck, four tilted eyes, distended midsection, leaf-like feet, and she saw the heartbeat pulsing so delicately within the slack skin of the neck between two heads, and Justine in her chair thought this mutant creature as lovely as anything she’d ever beheld.
Unreeling rapidly down the sloping nightscape of her mind, schools of multicolored fish flew by like bright ribbons of silk, and through the misted surface of this dream-sea, the late-autumn sunset pulsed like a lozenge on the very edge of the earth, the sun coral-colored and fiery-orange and casting long horizontal bars across all the wheeling world, and she heard the whispering of wind over wine-dark waters, and the rattle of pebbles in the eternal wash of the waves, and Justine alone among the observers said that this time there are ears and eyes and there are witnesses.
She stood abruptly from the chair and walked with haste from this rose and dusky room and stepped outside.
The sun was down, yet the sky was still alight and strangely lucent, glowing around the edges with a cabbage-hued radioactivity, and away to the east, the crescent moon like a honing stone lay cocked over the horizon. The air hung grainy and green. The silence was absolute. A faint scent of thyme touched her nose. Justine went to the fissure in the earth where the snake had sipped, and she stared long at the black bubbling water, and then she stood above the earth-lipped limestone fracture that opened on the underworld into which the snake had slid, and that limestone fracture was a narrow rift indeed.
When Justine knelt and reached into the gap, as if to quantify and measure it for the width of her willowy body, and as though she’d all but decided to follow the snake down inside, she felt herself seized by the wrist and yanked with great force.
Yanked and fallen with something more than velleity into this chamber of the underworld, she lay on her back upon the ancient stone and she could not quite tell where her being ended and where the underworld began. She seemed further removed, without boundary to herself. She felt the very core of the earth sucking at her bones, the tilt of the pinioned planet on its axis, an immense gravitational pull, and then, with a faint feeling of nausea, there came over her an almost deep-sea sensation of vertigo — the oceanic swell of titanic underwater currents, the sheer force of water, the deep sea heaving with all the world’s tuneful turning.
She lolled her head. The heat was as oppressive as the stillness. The blood within sluiced throughout her. Her body felt gashed and broken from being yanked so violently through the narrow earthen fissure and down. A small fire burned nearby, though she couldn’t quite locate it. Yet she thought she heard murmur from that fire the specter whose everlasting quiddity whispers among its own ashes, with a soft and sibilant rapidity.
The hand that gripped her forearm was strong and bony. She could not at first make out a face, but she saw ash-colored hair floating high and moonlike above her, and then strange effects and features began gradually to accrue out of the semi-darkness like something from a vision which was more than a vision.
The hand released.
There passed before her eyes a black shadow, and then, directly before her, she saw take shape the face of a witchdoctor, a visage that looked like something carved from cold dark wax, and glowing eyes wherein lay nothing and everything simultaneously.
On the ends of all the bony fingers were spear-shaped fingernails so thick that they appeared to her like agates.
This witchdoctor with a small puzzle-box now knelt beside her — knelt like a priest who with a deathbed kit would administer the last rights.
The figure unrolled and spread out on the floor next to her a black-velvet cloth and placed assorted things upon this cloth: a sabertooth tusk bored through with a small hole, a stone marble next to a stone cross pattée, purple crystals, milky quartz, a wicked pack of cards, and then a voodoo dummy, two feet tall, which looked to her like Jon Silverthorne.
The witchdoctor in the gloom appeared to study the apposition of these effects for secret systems and while it did so, it spoke to her in a soft voice that was neither male nor female but like a murmur of underground streams, saying to her that it was eight-thousand miles from the surface of the earth to earth’s core, and yet the deepest any human had ever penetrated was a mere seven miles, and did she know this?
Did she know that the inside of the earth was still in this present day largely unmeasured and mysterious, because humans had not yet invented instruments by means of which they might measure the inner-earth precisely?
Justine replied neither yes or no.
The figure continued to lay out and study purple crystals and other arcana from the puzzle-box, and as it worked, the figure told her, as if, she thought, trying to somehow overwhelm or intimidate her, of the earth’s lower mantle and spoke also of a ferromagnesian silicate mineral called perovskite, and the figure spoke as well of diamond-anvil cells and then of a new mineral altogether, something largely theorized and for which there was not yet a name — something iron-rich, the figure said, and hexagonal and more stable than iron-bearing perovskite.
The figure spoke of the immeasurably huge and hidden circulatory system that runs beneath the earth and which is as enigmatic and as alien and as untapped as the inside of the moon but more vital and intricate than anything lunar because the terrestrial is burning and alive, the figure said, and yet which is no more vast than the living circuitry that runs through each and every human individual, no matter the individual’s size, sex, shape, gender, color, class, or creed, and that the corridors of each human brain and body beneath the skin and with which the earth finds its perfect metaphor are, as well, every bit as profound as the things that exist beneath the surface of the world.
Justine, supine upon the stone floor of the underworld, lolled her head the other way and was half surprised to see a small fire burning only a few feet from her face. She stared into the pulsating coals, which were split in two and perfectly mirrored in her cyanic eyes. With dilated pupils, she watched the curious lucency contained inside that fire, like a small incandescent world of sparks and embers, tiny scarlet grottoes and eerie orange caverns interspersed with shapes of black, like diminutive jack-o-lanterns — like a sprawling cityscape seen from high above. She studied the way the burning wood appeared molten and gooey and almost translucent, and as she stared into the breathing chambers of fire, the inside of her mind which was her life all at once seemed to her endless, unexplored.
In silence, the witchdoctor watched her watch and then took something else from its deathbed kit, and Justine, hearing the movements of the witchdoctor, turned from the fire and looked back into the unblinking eyes, which in that moment recalled the eyes of the dangerous adversary atop the skyscraper. The witchdoctor now told her that for all its sheer size and scope and even majesty, nature is nevertheless not enough, and there is for this reason a nature beyond nature which, however, cannot at all be measured or quantified — or even fully apprehended — even though it is through nature that we ultimately know of this other nature’s existence. The witchdoctor then told her that it was by ritualistic esoteric means alone that this nature-beyond-nature can be tapped into.
The witchdoctor said furthermore that any contradiction here is only apparent and not actual, and that it only takes a willingness to believe and a special sort of sensibility to understand, and that when, at last, this super-nature is tapped, there are no longer any laws or boundaries fixed or firm, and therefore anything goes.
“Anything,” the witchdoctor said. “The cultic is the key here because in a universe where laws and boundaries are unfixed and ultimately unknowable, it is through sheer numbers — and through sheer numbers alone — that truth is shaped and that true power accumulates.”
The witchdoctor then held up before her a syringe-like needle of astonishing length and sharpness and in the other hand lifted by the black hair the voodoo doll which Justine had at first thought resembled Jon Silverthorne.
Kneeling over her with these items in each hand, the sweating witchdoctor, in a subtle but unequivocally hostile way, grinned.
At that moment and with a fast intake of breath, Justine understood.
She understood at last.
She turned back to the embers of living lucency that burned so hotly beside her head, and she spoke aloud but almost as if to herself or to the light of the fire:
“If super-nature didn’t exist,” Justine said, “humans would surely have invented it.” She blinked heavily. “Stick all the pins and needles you want into that voodoo doll,” she said. “It will never matter. And it doesn’t even look like him at all.”
It was a moon-eyed night. But those eyes were bloodshot and gritty — a night with a heifer’s mouth and a goat’s neck. But the mouth was gagged, the neck hacked and bled. The only sound Morgan heard was the hammer of her heartbeat. Behind shut eyes the only thing she saw was coral-red.
“They’ve been taught to seek themselves in the supernatural and in others,” said the voice inside her head. “They can’t conceive a different way.”
She was feverish and unwell. She turned and partially opened her eyes but didn’t speak.
“You’re a rebuke to them,” the voice said.
“How?” Her fevered speech sounded even to her soft and weak.
“In your independence and your love of solitude. Because the person who stands alone is the one and only thing they’ll never allow — because they themselves can’t exist alone. They would have us believe that all human behavior is equal — except that: the one who stands apart and upon her own. It is the one behavior they won’t accept.”
“When one halts independent thought and judgement, one halts the natural function of consciousness. To halt consciousness is to halt life. What then is left? What to replace it with?”
Morgan didn’t reply.
The voice continued:
“Superstitious people are a fundamentally fearful and insecure lot. It is in the very nature of superstition. If any one of them were to stop and ask whether a truly personal desire had ever been held and ever followed through with, this person would find an answer — an answer honest and true. Such a person would see that their dreams and desires and ambitions are driven almost entirely by others: what others think, what others approve of and like, what others have told them to believe in and do. These are those not even primarily motivated by material wealth — which is one thing — but approval, approbation. From whom? From others. From whomever. It is not fueled by their own independent judgment — their own thoughts and ambitions. It is not sourced in their own dreams. They can find no lasting passion in the pursuit, no fulfillment in the work — as they find no lasting happiness in the attainment — and why do they not? Because such a person cannot say about a thing: this is what I wanted because I grasped it with my own volitional thought, and I wanted it with my whole soul — I the individual. I wanted it because it came from within me — self-driven, self-generated, self-maintaining — not because it made others approve of me and not because it made me less afraid and made me feel more self-worth for a few fleeting moments. They wonder then why life is ridden with uncertainty and anxiety, internal strife, depression, unhappiness. Why so much alcohol, drugs, glut? Why the constant need of attention and outside validation, the constant quest for pleasures, which as constantly progress? Their sense of worth and beauty and efficacy is in the hands of others — others they don’t even really know, and yet who nevertheless control them. The truth is that the world for each is peculiar and private to that individual, and every form of happiness — real and lasting happiness — is personal. It is individual and profoundly personal. The truth is that our greatest heights are altogether private, and properly so. They are private and self-driven, not to be indiscriminately put out there and pawed over — they are far too good for that. They are not to be cheapened in such a promiscuous manner. They are not to be touched by others, nor granted by others.”
Now, as the thunder spoke and the rain began, the voice ceased, and Morgan awoke.
She knew at once that the voice was Jon’s, and that, chilled and only half-conscious as she was, she’d not been entirely dreaming.
She knew at once as well that they were coming again — and that this time they’d seek to take not just her but also Jon.
There are wells, often very deep, dug into certain human hearts, and over these wells rare birds of insight sometimes fly.
“Jon?” Morgan said.
He turned from the wet slishing highway down which he now drove, and he looked at her. The windshield wipers slapped the water away.
Morgan lay flat across the seat of his pick-up truck, her head propped upon an ice-pack beneath Jon’s rolled jacket, against the passenger-side door, her sock-feet across his knees directly below the steering wheel. He’d given her aspirin an hour before. He reached over with one hand and felt her fingers, which were folded prayer-like at her neck.
Her skin was burning hot, but she was shivering.
Her eyes were only partially open, her eyelids thin and webbed with spidery veins.
Jon looked back to the road. He drove with one hand now, the other still upon her fingers. At his shoulder, thin arteries of rainwater streamed down the driver’s-side glass.
“We grow up being told that the Devil tempts us to do forbidden things,” Morgan said, “the things we deep-down want. But this is backwards, isn’t it?”
“What are you thinking about?” Jon said.
“I’m thinking that the hardest thing in human life is to pursue the things we do most fundamentally want — and I’m not talking about alcohol or drugs or sex or parties, and I don’t mean prestige or getting in newspapers and magazines, or anything like that. None of those things are real desires, are they? They’re an escape from desiring — from self-mastery — from the deep and difficult responsibility of actually wanting something important and true and whole, and wanting that thing passionately with your entire heart and soul.”
She awoke again to the trundle of thunder and knew immediately she was in one of those corridors of time when for anything to happen normally would be abnormal. The watery air was too electric for any standard occurrence to survive uncollapsed. She sat up. She was still in Jon’s truck, but she was all alone now. The truck was not running. Her head pounded, a fishook-yank of pain behind her left eyeball, yet her vision and her thoughts felt inordinately clear.
Through the rain-dappled windshield, she saw the lights of a filling-station — lunar globes hanging beyond as though caught in suspended flight. Then, turning her head, she also saw Jon off to her right, near the rear of his truck. He was filling his gas tank. He was looking toward Baboquivari, which loomed westward and was partially obscured by the low sky.
From this vantage, Morgan could see only his profile — the curve of his nose, his longish hair pulled off his face in such a way that his forehead was completely exposed — and then something happened which was for her very curious:
Cherry-bright taillights, coming from the car three feet behind where Jon stood, abruptly illuminated so that Jon’s profile all at once bloomed blood-red in the electric air of the dying day, and the first thing to come into Morgan’s head, without her even initially realizing it, was that standing there in profile, in that hellish glow of light, Jon indeed looked like the Devil.
In the very next instant and with crushing clarity, the total weight and context of her situation came crashing down upon her — the dire hopelessness of it all, the risk to his own life which Jon had taken in order to save her, and the danger from which risk would now never go away.
Morgan shut her eyes, and in a wild grimace of despair and grief, she unconsciously bared her teeth and gripped her fists tightly, until her fingers turned white.
Her golden fang caught the electric-blue of the draining light.
At that moment, Jon opened the driver’s-side door and slid behind the steering wheel, and Morgan, who was looking away, relaxed her face and fists and opened her eyes. She turned to him.
He stared at her in silence.
He stared at her for a long moment, studying her, her faraway eyes that saw things and made connections nobody else did — bright yet sad dreamy eyes of gray and lilac-blue, above famished-looking cheeks of a purplish hue.
The limpid quality in her gaze suggested that her fever had perhaps broken. Yet she also looked sorrowful and even frightened.
“Try as you will,” Jon said, “you’ll never annihilate the eternal relic of the human heart: love.”
Morgan was mute for a full thirty seconds. Then she quoted something — something from a book she’d read and then reread to pieces:
“All of my life I did not want it to be only words,” she said. “This is why I lived, because I kept not wanting it. And now, too, every day, I want it not to be only words.”
Jon watched her but said nothing. Red taillights streamed by, receding into the rainy blue air.
“To truly accept death — truly and truly without fear,” Morgan said, “is to become God. Because if there is no God, then I must become God.”
Across the highway, the pink neon sign of a cafe flickered at roughly the same rate as the hammer of her heartbeat. Morgan spoke again:
“Jon, I need you to do something for me,” she said.
Jon drove through the soft drizzle of that dying day, and sensing the magnitude of Morgan’s despair, he told her that she need not worry.
“I have friends in very high places,” he said.
He was staring straight ahead.
Morgan, still sitting up and watching him, didn’t reply.
After a while, she told Jon that the little mummies were and always would be in her eyes stillborn life-forms representing stillborn dreams, and she told him as well that she was eternally grateful to him for showing these dreams to her, and for teaching her what they were. “They are stillborn human potential,” she said. “They are the individual human life and the vastness and uniqueness that each individual life contains — but unformed, strangled, through no fault of their own.”
She then told Jon that what she needed him to do was go this night inside Baboquivari and make sure that the mummies were still safe.
“Tonight,” she repeated.
Without hesitation, Jon said that he would, and then continued driving westward — westward and onward, through the drizzle of that dying day.
It was in this way that Morgan, who knew exactly what she was doing, led Jon far astray.
Just after nightfall, the sky began to disintegrate and then a westerly wind blew in and swept the sky of clouds, scouring the heavens as with a stiff broom. The rain went away with the clouds, another storm gathering in the north.
The stars shone like sprinkled dust above — sprinkled stardust and desert rust — and there was an indescribable atmosphere of expectancy running through the desert now, the air tense and charged, as if obscure forces were gathering like armies, moving toward some unknown yet unspeakable climax.
The old saguaro cactus steamed imperceptibly. Owls among their vaporous arms hooting with soft watery coos.
The neck-shape of Baboquivari stood draped in a thin shawl of mist, and when the orange moon rose, humpbacked and huge, a gibbous moon in the shape of an oyster, this mist glowed like milk and peaches, and there were bats tacking and sliding through the night air.
Alone Jon entered the crypt-like caves beneath Baboquivari, and alone he crept down them once again in the darkness.
Rock hung everywhere, dripping and sweating, exhaling, a sense of closing-in, of pressing around, and the sound of absolute silence like the spinning cry of far forgotten planets flooding his ears with rushes of solitude and quiet.
When Jon entered once more the open room of Mesozoic rock — wherein had slept for so long the mummified fetuses of ancient humans, stillborn — he’d already begun to suspect that something was amiss. So that when he swept the cyclopean eye of his powerful flashlight beam across the room and found that room completely bereft, he was not shocked or surprised. He stood for a long time in thought. As he stood in thought, he felt rise within him a swelling tide of sorrow mixed with a sense of dread like a pitch-black cloud. Then he knew.
He pronounced her serious name aloud.
Morgan had time, but she nonetheless understood — even in her half-delirious state, she understood — that not a single moment could be wasted or lost.
Thus, after Jon had left her alone in his truck and then entered the caves of Baboquivari, Morgan slid behind the steering wheel and turned over the ignition.
She drove for thirty minutes down the sandy dirt road, and she drove with great deliberateness and great care. At last she parked in front of a certain desert house.
For nearly five minutes, she sat here in Jon’s truck with the engine idling and the bright headlights beaming blatantly into the thinly draped windows. She sat here until she detected furtive movements within. Then she drove off. She drove slowly toward the incinerated home wherein she’d been raised: the Felts compound, which she herself had burned to the ground. She parked a quarter-mile away and then walked alone through the burned-out wreckage that she’d wrought — past the scorched carcass of a giant saguaro cactus which lay split open from roots to tip, its tubular inner-circuitry charred and fully exposed like plumbing, and then down a flight of concrete steps and into a stone cellar that still smelled faintly of methane gas.
With every step, she grew more acutely aware that she was closing the distance between herself and something both horrible and awesome at the same time.
With every step, metal skeletons leapt toward her, bristling electrical wires brushing her arms stiffly. Her pulse raced. Creased in concentration the soft fold of flesh between her eyes.
She strode on — strode as one imbued now with a strange authority and sense of purpose.
Around her the walls of stone moldered in the moonlight.
Quickly she set about her tasks, and when she was finished, there came the sound of a gentle hissing — a sound so soft that it could scarcely be heard — and the lobe-shaped moon hung directly overhead, so that the room was dappled with blotches of black and a pure pearly white, and there, lined like a cast of characters against the back wall of the cellar, bathed in the pools of creamy moonlight, stood all the stillborn mummies, seven-inches tall, with pinched cow faces, in whom she saw herself mirrored and in whom she took so much comfort.
Morgan sat down among them and waited.
There was a look of triumph but also an extreme loneliness in her face.
When they came, she was prepared.
The horde was led by the tall and gracile figure of the mysterious man with the mien of a priest or executioner who, while the horde halted behind him, stepped toward her now.
Morgan rose up to meet him.
The night came down. The final piece in the great jigsaw puzzle of the violent and the superstitious life fell into place before her eyes, and the atmosphere grew more galvanic yet, charged with invisible currents of white-hot electricity, like the throbs of life that pulse through every fiber of every living nervous system, and for the second time in her life, Morgan said out loud that to truly accept death — truly and truly without fear — is to become God.
She said that if there were a God, the human will would be found entirely here and nowhere else, and there would be no way to escape God’s will.
“But there is no God or gods,” she said, “as there is no supernatural demons or Devil. And so the will is all mine.”
She spoke in a way that convinced each one of them that she’d lost her mind entirely, and she said also that it was therefore her responsibility to exert her self-will — to proclaim it, she said, because the will is individual, and self-inflicted death is the fullest and the ultimate proclamation of the human will, because death is the ultimate alternative.
She was drenched in a creamy-white bath of moonlight, and her short sandy hair shone in the pearly glow of that oyster light. Her eyes smoldered unnaturally — not with their normal bluish-gray but with something more terrifying: as though the red blood that ran through her was sloshing just behind the lenses of both her eyes, like incarnadine seas seen through two fogged portholes.
“Jon Silverthorne saved my life twice,” Morgan said. “He is the only person I’ve ever loved, and I love him with total sincerity of heart and with the entirety of my soul, because he brought light into my life.”
At the precise moment she spoke these words, she stepped out of the moonlight and vanished into a shadow.
She vanished into a shadow as black as a shade from hell — as if she’d suddenly entered a place of deception and darkness whose very existence depended upon its enemy: the light.
With a snarl, the tall priestlike figure lunged for her.
He swung his long arm to club and then clutch her slender swaying neck, but with the quickness and ferocity of a wildcat, Morgan spun from out of the shadows and, striated with moonlight, swatted his reaching hand and simultaneously gripped that hand, and then in wrathful silence she sunk her teeth into his huge finger, nearly biting clean through it.
The tall man screamed and jerked back into the electrically charged room. What happened next happened in an instant — yet to everyone in the room it seemed to unreel slowly, in warped and wobbled time.
Morgan struck a matchstick the flame of which bloomed into a small creamy flower of light, which as suddenly transformed into a thin flume of acetylene-blue. The soft hissing sound all at once grew louder and more awful as she bent down, and with a horrifying whoosh, the match flame was sucked into a pipeline of natural gas, and then the whole cellar room exploded in a blinding flash: a flash of pure-white light, a light which seemed composed of all elements and which incinerated every last one of them, including Morgan Elizabeth Felts and the mummified fetuses of stillborn human potential — incinerated them all to ash, the living and the dead.
Jon was just coming out of the caves when the explosion hit. He both heard and felt its concussive detonation: a thuggish boom and a reverberation that rattled through his entire body and brought with it a brutal aftershock of great tragedy.
When he emerged into the open world, he saw immediately to the east an inferno of white-light twisting in a desert darkness intensely rich and velvety, the oyster-shaped moon partially obscured now by a long thin racing cloud, which made it appear as though the moon were being dragged through the cloud-vapors.
With his back to the small triangular cave-mouth from which he’d just extracted himself, Jon stood watching.
The great shadow of Baboquivari shrouded him and occluded the gargantuan shape of a new darkness now moving down from the northwest.
The cloud passed over the moon and drifted away to the south, and the light of the moon glowed lividly upon the desert. It cast its light down onto the big boulders at the base of Baboquivari, so that the rocks there looked like a shire of ghouls. Where warts of blue lichen clung to the stone around him, moonlight shone.
Jon made his way swiftly down through mesquite and greasewood and tangles of Christmas cactus and Teddy-Bear cholla, and then he began to run. But less than a hundred meters in, he heard something which brought him up short: an indistinct sound coming from somewhere deep within the desert distance.
At certain times, the desert emits a deep-throated roar.
Jon stopped moving and listened more closely.
The distant noise sounded again.
He closed and opened his eyes slowly.
He understood what was coming.
Who knows the Haboob?
It is a dust-storm like a tidal wave: an immense and moving mountain of blue-black clay and silty sediment that sweeps in on huge pinions and galvanized currents of atmospheric gravity.
The word comes from the Arabic habūb, which means “blasting.”
Sometimes the sky wears a wicked countenance — something terrifying, a countenance not merely sentient but volitional, and whose choice is evil.
The Haboob is a gathering of sinister clouds and sinister winds — both saturated with electricity which is a fundamental element of life.
Earth’s air possesses total unity — it is one — whereas the wind is manifold.
All storms are an admixture.
This law results from the indivisibility of air.
What is air?
It is not the breath of God or gods or witches or demons.
Air is of the elements. Like life itself, it is natural.
Air is gas and water.
Wind is the air in motion.
What causes the air to move?
Differences in air pressure occurring within the whirling earth’s atmosphere, which is electric and ceaseless in its labor.
The greater the difference in pressure, the greater the flow of air — and thus the faster the wind.
When thunderstorms form, air stirs and the winds begin to swirl. It swirls through the atmosphere like water.
The winds oppose the direction of the thunderstorm, moving contrariwise the direction in which the storm is traveling — that is to say, the wind moves into the thunderstorm, beating its wings against it.
But when the gathering storm breaks and the skies begin to sob, the swirling winds with the advent of rain can double-back and then, in a phenomena called a downburst, explode outward from the storm.
When such downbursts occur, the wind shifts, and then the wind moves with the storm.
In dry regions, downbursts also blow dust and often strike without warning.
When the air pressure is great enough, the downbursting desert wind can construct walls of dust sixty miles wide and six miles high.
These dust-walls billow.
They wear a malevolent aspect.
They are pocky, greenish-blue, violet-purple, blue-black. They flash electric. The howl. They rush. They surge over the land like a tidal-wall of water.
Such is the Haboob.
Often the rain within evaporates very high up in the hot dry air, so that the Haboob brings no moisture to the land. This phenomena is called the virga shaft.
The virga shaft cools the temperature of the gusting air even more profoundly, thereby changing air pressure, thereby increasing the speed of the wind.
When high in this electric wall of wind and water and dust the precipitation persists, the moisture can turn the high dust into mud.
Hence the mud-storm.
Mud-storms are uncommon but real.
As ubiquity is in the air, so ubiquity is also in the wind — and for the same reasons.
If Legion lives — if, indeed, that horde of demons lives on after the drowning of the suicidal swine into whose living bodies Christ himself cast them — then Legion certainly moves by means of the howling demonic magic-carpet wind.
Tonight before Jon’s very eyes some apocalyptic shape took wing. It came flying across the desert toward him, passing through shadows: something vast and imponderable and equestrian, which needed the immensity of desert spaces and desert solitude to fully spread its wings — humongous spaces where maleficent forces submit to deeds of violence.
Jon — one of those rare souls not easily disconcerted, who in fact appear to grab as if from thin air the means of safety and survival and lift it fishlike and silvery from the danger itself — now, with the nimbleness that was peculiar to him and stronger than force by far, turned back toward Baboquivari and in a twinkling moved spiderwise up a sheer cliff and then out onto a stone ledge, a wall of rock behind him. He was very near the summit of Baboquivari. His movements were not the movements of one who would escape the legion wind and storm, but of one who would face it — who would perhaps wage war against it. He stood thoughtfully. His eyes were dark and they looked different now — his gaze strange and somehow dangerous — and with those eyes Jon watched the oyster moon gulped down whole by that moving equine shape of apocalyptic dimensions.
He watched it snuff the white-light of Morgan’s murderous explosion.
Then he saw in dark connivance the desert and the sky merge into one, and now towered up before him the tidal-force of wind and dust. It had strata. For a brief moment, it lay sketched across the horizon like ancient flood-marks on a cave wall — swathes of musty darkness, a hanging tapestry of scalloped shadows — and then, the instant it hit its apogee, the sky and the desert crumpled together horizontally, and the darkness grew profound, fulgurations like camera-flashes igniting continuously within those deep chambers of heavy darkness.
The wind boomed. It beat upon the stone doors against which Jon now braced himself, and Jon with his eyes open listened to the thunderous knocks of violence that sought to enter. He planted himself — his feet, his legs, his back — firmly against the stone of the earth that was both behind and also under him, and inside of which lay an endless wilderness of hollow hallways.
He let the storm heave over his unprotected body: wind and dust and rain and then more wind, swirling everywhere around, under and over him like water, the whole world shaking, seething, above ground and below, the immensity of another monolithic labor taking place around him, and he stood now in the center of it: the forces of the natural world whose labor is eternal and never spent — wind and air, lightning and electricity, fire, guttural glottal thunder emanating from the darkness and the light, the galactic whirl of the wobbled world’s toplike turning, the unstoppable movement and colossal clashes, the tireless tide and the eternal surf, great rivers flowing into the sea, the sleeplessness of rust and dust and minerality, viral mutation, necklaces of chromosomes replicating, dissolving, reforming, the breathing body of the intricate atmosphere and its ceaselessly shifting activity, a diffusion of forces working in the realms of the indefatigable, the limitless, the entirely natural. And when the mud-storm dumped at last, and the legion wind howled with greater ferocity yet, Jon, who all his adult life had sought to know the common denominator uniting phenomenal forces, turned his back to the storm and the wind, and he let it completely come down upon him, as if he would absorb it all.
No human eye may see dispassionately — and what haunts the human heart will, when at last it’s found, sometimes flash so brightly that it blinds the eye, leaving the rest of life in darkness.
On the grassy desert plains southwest of the Santa Rita mountains, some thirty miles east of Baboquivari, there lay an abandoned property consisting of eight cob-and-adobe structures.
These structures had been built by a motley group of schismatic satanists who — across an acreage which one among them, a man named Lugat, had inherited from his grandfather — cultivated and grew a cactus called the San Pedro Cactus, from which they extracted and sold a very pure and potent form of mescaline.
They also ritualistically consumed the blood and flesh of one another, believing that they were descended from an ancient race of Babylonian vampires, the mother of whom was a demon-sorceress named Lilitu.
Here as well this group of fifty had elevated to the status of a religion the immemorial practice of human disfigurement.
They thus modified their faces and their bodies surgically and intricately, in ways which made them look more canine or feline or vampiric than human. Not infrequently, one among them would consent to a ritualistic dismemberment, and on the night that this dismemberment took place, the community of self-stylized vampires would in celebration dine upon the lopped limb or limbs, washing down the human flesh with the captured blood that had issued from the dismemberment.
This community lasted here for approximately three years and then, in a piecemeal and gradual fashion, its mutilated membership deserted, disappeared, dispersed, died — until there were only three, and then two, and then one.
That remaining one was the founder and leader: the man who’d been named Lugat at birth.
The adobe structures, meanwhile, stood adrift among the oceanic waves of grass, sinking slowly back into the desert earth.
The cavern seemed to Jon a deserted place.
It was located on the other side of Baboquivari — a deep and hidden cavern from which there now emanated a wet and fetid effluvium — and Jon, staggering past it in the aftermath of the blasting storm, was stopped short by the odor, and by the unnatural silence also pouring out of the cave.
He stood for a long moment, like a life-sized mud effigy, upon the threshold. He scanned the room. It was early morning. Always there is a melancholy sensation in the solitude of the desert at dawn, yet today that sense of sorrow hung even heavier. The sky had cleared, the heavens from horizon-to-horizon voided and gray.
By and by, when his eyes had more fully acclimated, Jon saw something which struck him as unusual: a long avenue of flies swarming down into the back of the cave.
He entered deeper.
The buzzing sound of the flies intensified.
He then noticed something else: on the opposite side, around a small outcropping, a long-handled spade, still new-looking, lying on the ground approximately fifteen feet from the entrance, different-sized footprints everywhere. He moved cautiously. He was weary and half-dazed with thirst and hunger, and with exhaustion from the wind’s exorcism. The floor of the cave was damp, and the loamy earth crushed gently under his steps.
He did not touch the spade, but he scrutinized it closely in the half light. He scrutinized the ground roundabout him as well.
He saw old coins of blood on the blade of the spade and upon the ground.
Two dead lanterns and a canteen with the cap off lay just beyond it.
Jon raised his eyes in thought. He squinted. He did not touch anything. His hair hung muddy-wet and ropey. His clothes were also soaked and heavy with mud. There was still in his gaze something strange and imponderable and dangerous-looking.
Just then, he heard a faint rustling sound, like a dry wing-flap coming from the darkness beyond.
He immediately leaned forward — as if to partially cover himself — so that he was now crouched deeply where he knelt upon one knee, and at the same time, he turned his head and looked to the right and behind him, into the mephitic gloom of the cave.
For a fraction, Jon thought he glimpsed a pair of dull-red eyes in the dark distance, but he didn’t have time to process this because a more immediate threat emerged: a dark mass which took shape suddenly and came flying toward him — a huge and predatory creature, like a bearded vulture or some other carnivorous bird of prey, something trained to attack. It flew swiftly, rocketing toward him like a premonition, and for an instant Jon thought he felt wind from its wingbeat of madness.
With the dexterity and quickness that was a reflexive part of him, Jon, still genuflected and hunched over the blood-flecked spade, clutched with both hands the long handle of the spade, and in a single motion he came upright and simultaneously swung the spade like a baseball bat.
He swung with tremendous force.
The moment before the dark flying shape with its hooked beak and talons veered into him, Jon squarely connected.
The flat back of the blade struck with a loud crack the bird of prey, and Jon, his hands slick with moisture and mud, heard somewhere to his right the creature thud against the wall of the cave — and as he swung also, the spade from the sheer momentum of his swing slipped from his hands and went sailing through the dark air and landed with a clatter.
Less than a second after that, Jon saw the pair of red eyes moving toward him. They came with astonishing speed, a force of pure predation, and then the red-eyed creature leapt.
It leapt at Jon like a hellhound — so swiftly that Jon scarcely had time to turn away.
At certain moments of depredation, there moves before the eyes forms only half visible and which drift like living nightmares across the human vision, and from these obscure fixations of living dreams, actual creatures will often spring forth — because the human mind has at its disposal the power of conceptualization, which gives rise to imagination, and this in turn makes possible everything marvelous, as well as monstrous.
Every evil thing, like every warped intelligence, is an enigma, and there is no such thing as a partial hatred: all hatred is absolute.
To believe in a hellhound, one must experience it.
On the final page of Jon’s fat and faded leatherbound book, there was a drawing that Jon himself had inked in — his rendering of a passage he’d once come across in an obscure book. It depicted a fragment of ancient Japanese silk which he’d long ago read about and which bore the image of a bear devouring a wolf, which is devouring a lynx, which is devouring a crow, which is devouring a snake, which is devouring a frog, which is devouring a fly: all nature preying and simultaneously preyed upon. Watching it from above is a human being, in whom, alone among these earthen creatures, full volition resides — a being who prospers by means of thought, which is a chosen activity, and the product of which is notions, ideas, apprehension.
The creature that leapt at Jon from out of the darkness was a sort of somber vampire of these dank black grottoes — a doglike demon who had once, many years ago, possessed a rational mind as well as a name: Lugat.
Bit by bit, choice by choice, Lugat, gradually relinquishing his name and his rationality, had decided upon this life — so that were one to view only the beginning, in round gold-rimmed specs and with a freckled face, and then the end product here in the intestines of the earth, without any reference to the countless intermediate incremental steps and stages and thoughts and decisions that had accrued, one would not have imagined any link or connection possible.
The face, which had been surgically modified to resemble a demon-hound, was made most hideous not by the surgeries but by hatred; most malevolent by mindlessness; most vicious by violence.
This creature was naked save for a tattered leather girding about the loins.
From neck to ankle were disc-shaped scars, self-inflicted and precisely placed, which resembled scales. These scale-like scars had been put here with this level of precision in order to mimic the reputed scales of Satan, the chest and bony clavicle bedight with beads of mirror-glass that had been embedded into the living flesh like bone or muscle.
The teeth were filed to points, yet they were more than halfway rotted out of their sockets.
On the fingertips of the right hand were suction-cup skin-grafts the size of silver dollars. On the fingertips of the other hand were dagger-like claws.
There was in this etiolated body a raw and feral power — a power that came from predatory hunger — and the red eyes made red by artificial irises burned not with sapience or thought but with something more like lust.
This is the creature that pounced at Jon with a rapist tackle, and Jon, who the moment the creature had leapt swung his head away and pivoted to his left, felt his shoulder struck with a jarring impact. Yet he had turned quickly enough to avoid the full brunt of the strike.
Lugat, slightly off-balance from the leaping velocity of his momentum in collaboration with the speed of Jon’s pivot, gripped with his suction-cup fingers Jon’s bare forearm still caked with mud. He squeezed like a boa.
Jon, in turn, knew that the momentum from the missed leap had taken Lugat off-balance — he felt it in the grasp, felt that the momentum was still for just an instant carrying Lugat away from him — and in a blink of that instant, Jon did something unexpected:
Rather than pulling his arm back or away from Lugat’s grip, as instinct would call for, Jon pushed his arm forward and simultaneously lunged with his whole body, so that he went with the back-reeling momentum. This surging push, coupled with the momentum, made Lugat, who with the claws of his other hand was going for Jon’s throat, stumble backward and fall. Jon then came down onto Lugat’s chest with his knee. The next instant, Jon, with equal parts cunning and quickness, reached about his person and grabbed hold of a small object:
In a flash, there ignited from Jon’s fingertips a diode-pumped laser-light, which had been partially made from minerals Jon himself had mined. The blinding beam shot out in a thin stream of lemon-lime light.
Jon shined the light in Lugat’s eyes, the pupils of which were huge and dilated from the darkness he dwelt among, and then in a wildly disorienting flash, this light began to pulse in rapid strobic flickers, which was accompanied by a shrieking whistle.
The reaction this produced was indescribable:
The blast of light followed by the machine-gun speed of the strobe-flash seared the retinas and created a type of flash-blindness, which was temporary, but Lugat didn’t know this. The decibels of the high-pitched whistle tore through the doglike eardrums.
With all the violence and strength that disfigured body contained, Lugat howled.
He thrashed and bucked on the ground as if electrocuted, and he howled and screamed continuously, and then, twisting himself free at last from beneath Jon’s knee, he bound blindly back into the darkness, crashing through the bones of Walter Willowmarsh, whom he had killed and eaten raw, and, gulping for breath and more breath, the hellhound vampire plunged unseeing down a vertical artery of morning stone, and headlong into death.
It was high-time the hellhound died.
It was time a wooden stake was driven deep inside the parasitic breast, time silver bullets were lodged in the werewolf’s chest: time, at last, the false and the faddish and the predatory were permanently put to rest.
Jon abolished his laser-light with its high-pitched whistle and rose to his feet.
He stood motionless for a long while in the half-light of the cave.
He stood drenched and dripping.
He stood in thought and as if thinking of something or seeing something new that he couldn’t quite place.
He stared into the darkness beyond. At length, completely exhausted, he made a decision.
He followed another long avenue of flies which went swarming past him and deeper into the cave.
His eyesight could not fully penetrate the rank and gloomy darkness, but, nocturnal man that he was, and keen-eyed, he thought he’d perhaps glimpsed something far back and to the right.
He again shined his laser-light.
He was not wrong — and what he saw now didn’t surprise him.
It was a pile of death.
Several feet beyond the strewn wreckage of Willowmarsh there stood a cairn of bones like an open-pit graveyard — bones of all shapes and sizes, from many different creatures but primarily human, skeletons some of which still had leprous patches of flesh peeling back from the bones like rotted fruit, skulls ludic, leering, laughing, chatter-teeth loose in their sockets.
One skeleton, which lay slightly apart and almost perfectly intact, was the skeleton of what appeared to be conjoined twins: two heads branching treelike from the trunk of a single neck, bones everywhere nicked and chipped and chamfered with the gnaw-marks of human teeth.
Here the flies and maggots teemed and fed — the flies and the maggots and the worms which consumed the remains of rotting flesh, which were then consumed by fowl or fish or viper or mammal, which were then consumed by other living creatures, or which died and fertilized the soil that grew the wheat from which humans made flour and bread — all nature transmuting, devouring, simultaneously devoured, the universality of decay and life, and the eternal labor of nature and the indestructibility of matter, which cannot cease to exist but only changes elements, and none of which is or ever will be supernatural.
Jon was on the verge of turning away to exit this hollow dumb necropolis, when there, among the bones of all these piled dead, a dull glint on the ground caught his eye, and also made his knees buckle for what it implied.
He shined his laser-light directly upon the glinting object.
He recognized it instantly because he knew it well.
It was a small piece of peacock copper, nothing precious or rare but nonetheless vibrant and very beautiful and important to him — the same one Jon himself had long ago found and had given to his mother, who, in turn, just before her death, had given it to Jon’s half brother.
What was it doing here?
In the lemon-lime ray of Jon’s laser-light, it flickered like a fading mirror.
A shot exploder — also known as a blasting machine — is a device used mainly in mining and construction demolition.
It’s a relatively lightweight and portable power source producing electric currents by means of which blasting caps may be reliably fired, and this in turn triggers a main explosive, like dynamite or trinitrotoluene.
A shot exploder works by charging a capacitor — which is an electronic device that stores electrical energy in an electric field. It charges the capacitor from a battery source, which then discharges the capacitor through an external circuit, called the firing line, in order to ignite the blasting cap.
The first reliable magnetic-induction shot exploder was built in 1878 by a man named Henry Julius Smith, who proposed it in a tract he wrote called “The Art of Blasting.”
Henry Julius Smith used a T-handle plunger which was forcefully pushed down into a kind of box, and which in so doing drove a high-voltage magneto. A magneto is a generator that uses permanent magnets to produce pulses of alternating electricity currents. Henry Julius Smith’s procedure created the high-voltage electricity needed to ignite the blasting cap, which then triggered the main explosive — usually dynamite.
Today’s shot exploders are almost all battery-powered, and so they operate no longer by means of the old T-shaped plungers, which you might still see in certain coyote cartoons, but rather with push-buttons or key switches.
Jon had learned much in the mines about the bastard art of blasting.
One-hundred-fifty miles to the northeast of Baboquivari, in the Superstition Wilderness, the injection bore which had penetrated the dry and flaky piecrust earth, and which had brought clean water from deep-down reservoirs that Jon Silverthorne had once discovered — clean water and therefore civilization and life to this dead sector of desert, and which had therefore been destroyed for destroying The Superstitions — was completely removed.
The injection bore — inserted into The Superstition grounds but not of The Superstitions — was, in short order, summarily extricated and dismantled, the opening to the well of living water shut and sealed, the site cleaned and swept.
The land here, which some time ago had been legally purchased by an mysterious personage who sought to cultivate the dormant water-source, was now seized by government, who rapidly made plans to replace the injection bore with something undisclosed — something somewhat secret and which was being kept secret, until the grand unveiling.
One month before this unveiling took place, an article appeared in a Phoenix newspaper called the Arizona Sun. The article was titled “The Art of Blasting: how technology solved humankind’s water crisis.” It read, in part:
Right now on planet earth, water is one of the most abundant resources that exists.
There are currently two and a half million liters of water available each year for every human on the planet.
This translates to about 19,000 liters per day, per person, which is an astronomically large amount — far more water than any one person could consume in an entire month, let alone one day.
The world uses only 8 percent of the total water that exists on the earth.
Two-thirds of the earth is water.
The vast majority of that is either salt water or frozen water.
Salt water evaporates and comes back to the earth in the form of fresh water. Water is in this way a renewable resource — an actual renewable resource.
The amount of water on the planet is essentially static. Which means: all the water that exists on earth has, for the most part, always existed on earth. The amount remains the same because water recycles itself through evaporation and precipitation.
Water can be desalinated (i.e. converted from salt water into fresh water) relatively easily and inexpensively — thanks to industrialization and the technology that industrialization has brought, which is a product of the unshackled human mind.
Where does clean water ultimately come from?
It comes from energy. More specifically, it comes from affordable, reliable energy.
Energy is life.
Water is life.
If you were to turn on your shower and your sink right now, you’d be able to bathe in clean water and you’d have before you a glass of clean drinking water — all in an instant.
I ask you to think for a moment about how this miracle of clean water so easily got to you.
It traveled into your home through a plexus of plastic (which comes from oil) or through copper piping (which comes from mining), before which it was stored in a tank composed of (mined) metal and plastic.
Yet before it made it into this storage tank, the water you and I enjoy was run through a huge and high-energy water-treatment facility, wherein toxic agents were removed — agents like arsenic or lead or mercury.
Prior to this, water was disinfected of harmful biological organisms — disinfected via ozone or ultraviolet light or chlorine.
And to make all this operate correctly and quickly, the pH level of the water had to be adjusted, and this was most likely done by means of sodium hydroxide or lime.
It is a fact that up until industrialization, unsafe water was a plague upon humankind for all of humankind’s history — and it still is in much of the developing world today:
Safe drinking water systems and the infrastructure that provides safe clean water are still far beyond the reach of many poor Indian and African villages, where dysentery often spreads because the simple preventative measure of installing concrete rims around the communal drinking wells are made impossible by a combination of internecine disagreements, first-world environmental groups, who believe it’s their responsibility to keep developing places from developing, and (most of all) poverty?
Do you know where wealth ultimately derives?
It is also a fact that natural water is rarely so usable as what we have when we turn on our shower faucet. Most of the undeveloped world has to make do with natural water, and the results are often catastrophic:
Millions of people daily, who must sometimes walk miles carrying cumbersome water-buckets, use water that often contains high concentrations of (naturally occurring) heavy metals, dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas, and countless numbers of waterborne pathogens, which still claim millions of lives each year.
It is an achievement of astronomical proportions that we have access to the kind of water we indeed have in the developed world today, all with a slight twist of the wrist.
It is also an achievement entirely taken for granted — and more:
This achievement was made possible by mining, and by fossil fuel, and by countless other private industries, all of which are now completely vilified and the dismantlement of which is routinely demanded by people who don’t have any idea at all what they’re demanding:
The destruction of civilization and a return to a world ruled by force and its handmaiden: superstition.
Two days later another article appeared in this same newspaper. It was titled “The Art of Blasting, Part 2: blind to the prosperity around as — and to the things that give rise to this prosperity.”
This article began with a recent quote from a prominent politician, who was the latest in an endless line of political cult-personalities, and behind whom the masses in lockstep had lined up, and that quote was this:
“An entire generation, which is now becoming one of the largest electorates in America, came of age and never saw American prosperity.”
The article then systematically laid out in great detail the appalling lie behind this quote, the sheer blindness of it, and the article then went on to say that in fact the diametric opposite was true:
There has never in the history of the world been greater prosperity — and this in spite of the forces which work tirelessly against it: because as long as the human mind is left free or even relatively free, knowledge progresses, and knowledge is invincible.
The article also explained the root cause of prosperity, as well as poverty, saying among other things that “Destroying free and voluntary exchange and the right to engage in free and voluntary exchange — including the corollary right to the fruits of that freedom of exchange — will undo the unprecedented prosperity we have today, and which millions died to create: the prosperity which, not coincidentally, also purchases any goods and services you and others may offer. It is a hypocrisy of the highest order to say anything otherwise — and saying it, moreover, from the comfort and prosperity of what millions died in creating, including the platforms from which you lecture us with first-world problems, and which the destroyers, with superstitious blindness, entirely take for granted.”
The article listed in exhaustive detail everything from computers and cameras, to televisions and phones and microphones, to jumbo jets and cars and ease of transportation, to ships and railways, to helicopters and satellites, to books and movies, to air conditioning and heating, to refrigeration and freezers, to all manner of machines and machinery, to coffee-makers and stoves, to medicine and light, to clean food and clean water.
This article then went on to say that fundamentally there is one and only one political question, and all the jargon and platitudes and zeitgeists which freeze into dogma as fast as they’re formed, as they always have and always will, no matter the century, no matter the generation — whether “monarchy,” “royalty,” “patriarchy,” “working-class,” “proletariat,” “labor,” “democracy,” “equality,” “inequality,” “freedom,” “privilege,” et cetera — are and will forever be subordinate to this one thing:
One’s stance on the issue of property.
“This is all one needs to know and all one will ever need to know about any person’s political-economic views: what is the stance on property? Because in addressing that one thing, the entire political philosophy is disclosed. And fundamentally there are only two possible answers to the question: there are either full and fully protected private-property rights, or there aren’t. There is no ‘third way.’ There is no middle-ground. And do we each have a property in our person, or not? If you answer not — and if you therefore answer that property is not an extension of person — you will never be able to properly defend the sanctity of each individual, body and brain, and the fruits of each person’s labor and learning, which includes the right to grow wealthy.”
The article said in closing that any compromise on the issue of property is a compromise on human freedom, which, however, cannot be compromised without killing it, and that fundamentally the only alternative to human freedom is coercion, which is force.
The day following this, in the same newspaper, the final article appeared:
“The Art of Blasting, Part 3: inexhaustible resource.”
This article said that the earth is like a giant egg packed full of living resources which humans must use and work with and work in accordance with or humans will perish, and that far from exhausting the earth’s resources, these resources had barely been tapped, and that furthermore nothing can be considered a resource at all until human ingenuity, mixed with human labor, first creates a use for it.
The article discussed oil — citing the fact that only up until about one-hundred-fifty years ago, oil was not a resource but a nuisance.
The article also discussed the many uses of mining in each person’s day-to-day life, and it included a detailed description of the sheer amount of mining and minerals and industry required to produce “clean and renewable energy, which in actuality is neither clean nor renewable.”
It was noted here as well that for most of human history, the majority of minerals and ore we now use were, like oil, not a resource until humans had found a way to use them as such.
There was an in-depth description of the intricate and highly industrial process required in producing a single mono-thin crystalline silicon wafer a number of which, along with metal, glass, plexiglass, and wire, go into each and every solar panel.
There was, as well, a description of how much mining and energy it takes to make concrete, twenty million tons of which are necessary to anchor each individual wind-turbine. The article also discussed the rare-earth mineral called neodymium, which is used for the magnets in each wind turbine, and the ten kilos of lanthanum, another rare earth element, which is used in every single wind turbine battery.
The article spoke as well of transportation and how all transportation requires mining — all of it: aircraft, boat, car, bus, train, motorcycle, bicycle, subway, scooter, skateboard, and everything else, explaining, moreover, that this does not even take into account the fuels that power, nor the machines that construct, nor the surfaces upon which these vehicles travel, including foot travel:
Roads, rails, asphalt, tartan, concrete — they are only possible because miners mined the minerals used to make these surfaces, and this very same principle applies to all the other machinery and equipment used to control the flow of traffic, just as it applies also to homes and apartments and other buildings, the foundations of which, in most cities across the entire developed world, are made largely of concrete and steel.
In most homes, the basic services — water, electricity, gas — are conducted through copper and steel wires and plastic pipes, much as bathrooms and kitchens contain innumerable items (pots, pans, plates, cups, knives, as well as all electronic gadgetry and most beauty products) composed of many different minerals which are made possible by mining.
Minerals and more minerals, which are mined — the article said — and which are nowhere near exhausted, and most of which for the overwhelming majority of human history were not resources at all because humans had not yet created uses for them.
The article also talked about past centuries and millennia in comparison with the current one: specifically, years of lifespan and quality of life compared with now, mouthfuls of clean food and clean water, means of traveling faster and more efficiently, methods of communicating, hours of privacy.
“Even allowing for the near-billion people who still live in dire poverty, the current generation has access to more healthy calories and book, more watts, gigabytes, megahertz, nanometers, bushels-per-acre, miles-per-gallon, food miles, air miles, musical instruments, vitamins, shoes, stereos, slicers, entertainment, and more lumen hours than ever before in the history of the world — by light years.”
The article closed by discussing the over-romanticized image of the not-so-distant past — when, for instance, a rural family gathered around the hearth in a simple adobe or timber house, and father read to the family aloud, while mother poured pristine water from a handmade clay pitcher and then dished out hearty soups made with vegetables the family had grown, serving bread-rolls made with wheat they’d also grown, the eldest son still outside just finishing the feeding of the horses, in a world with no noise pollution or air pollution or traffic or mounting CO2 levels, and no dioxins or radioactive fallout in the milk of their cows.
But in actuality the father’s reading is non-existent because he’s never been taught to read, and even if he could, his reading would be constantly punctuated by a wracking cough caused by chronic bronchitis or tuberculosis, which is a foreshadow of the pneumonia that will kill him at age fifty (longer, at least, than the average life-expectancy of age forty, in that year of 1800), and which is greatly exacerbated by the woodsmoke pollution of the hearth-fire. The baby will die of smallpox or whooping cough, one or both of which is causing this same baby to cry all the time right now. The eldest daughter, whose twin sister died of a strep-throat infection the year before, will, if she’s lucky, become the wife of a drunk husband who also lives in abject poverty. The water which mother is pouring tastes suspiciously of the cattle who drink from the same brook that the family drinks from, and where the women also do the laundry, and mother’s teeth, which are by now rotting thoroughly, ache every moment of the day and night, so that her minute-by-minute existence, most especially when she’s pregnant — contraception also, of course, being a technological achievement requiring a vast technological sophistication and infrastructure — is continual pain and drudgery, as laundry is complete drudgery. Reliable sanitation, even hand-washing, does not really exist. The neighbor’s lodger, meanwhile, herpetic and syphilitic, is currently impregnating other young girls, just as he’s impregnated the second daughter of this family, and all these babies, if they live at all, will be sent to hellish orphanages. The soup contains a tough meat, yet this tough tasteless meat is a slight improvement upon the normal gruel — there being no fruit or salad this season because unforeseen storms wiped crops completely out, and only by sheer chance missed destroying the house and barn too. Candles cannot be afforded, so that after the sun goes down, the only light comes from the light of the smoky fire. None of the children are taught how to read. None among them has ever seen a play, or painted a picture, or heard a piano or violin. The only schooling in the area comes from a distantly located schoolmaster. None but the father has ever visited a city — and that one city trip cost him a week’s worth of wages and many days of difficult travel. If any in the family have jackets, those jackets are lice-infested. If any have shoes, the shoes are old and uncomfortable. The children sleep three-to-a-bed on straw mats upon the floor.
Since the year 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life-expectancy has more than doubled. Real income has risen ten times.
Since 1950, the average human earned three times as much money and ate one-third more calories of cleaner food.
This same human buried less of her children by one-third, while she herself lived one-third longer.
She was also less likely to die as a result of pestilence, murder, childbirth, syphilis, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, famines, whooping cough, malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy, polio, plague, dysentery, influenza, cannibalism, or any number of other things.
She is vastly more likely to be literate.
She is vastly more likely also to have a telephone, running water, including a flush toilet, electric light, refrigeration, a bicycle.
She is far less likely now to die or be hurt by climate — any climate, hot or cold — than at any other point in human history.
And as the population has more than doubled, the goods and services and standard of living has, by any imaginable standard, expanded and improved, and the world has become increasingly better-off: more autonomous, more private, safer, more civilized.
These three articles were picked up by two nationally syndicated AM radio stations.
They were then reprinted in a number of other newspapers.
The writer of these articles was Jon Silverthorne.
The reaction was overwhelming.
Almost overnight a tidal-wave of rage swelled against him.
Virtually no one would have felt a desire to campaign or crusade against a more-or-less anonymous young man born into poverty on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, who then wrote articles railing against poverty. But something else here had been touched: a conviction so deeply held and so thoroughly inculcated and engrained into the minds of people across the globe — taught from the cradle and then reinforced all throughout the years of formal schooling — that in a very real and fundamental sense, it was as though a kind of universal religion had been attacked.
Accordingly, pastors, priests, politicians, pundits, poets, and journalists alike damned these articles as heresy — in sermons and in print.
Feminist groups passed formal resolutions of protest.
Environmental groups amassed petitions.
Student protests everywhere sprung up, demanding that such articles containing such reckless speech not be allowed — anywhere — because they were a form of violence.
It was repeatedly said also, primarily on college campuses, that “freedom of speech is overrated — especially in comparison with the health of the planet.”
More and more of these colleges erected more and more protected-zones and safe-spaces.
The building that housed the newspaper was vandalized.
A famous actress of mixed ethnicity, who had three homes, including a Bel-Air mansion, wrote a long article about the nature of inequality, describing in detail how America had given her nothing but hatred and racism and patriarchy, saying also how uncomfortable it surely is for certain people, like this man Jon Silverthorne, to confront their positions of privilege.
Her article was reprinted thousands of times, and it was praised by a Nobel-Prize winning economist and by two Nobel Peace-Prize winners, among others.
A professor emeritus from M.I.T. — regarded worldwide as something of a sage — demonstrated in no uncertain terms that “climate change and the current condition of our natural environment show precisely why property is not inalienable,” stating furthermore that Jon Silverthorne’s logic was “not merely misbegotten but pathetic — too pathetic to bother acknowledging, let alone debating. Besides which, everyone knows that Marx drew a clear distinction between personal property and bourgeois property.”
A famous economist, who wrote a weekly newspaper column that was regarded by millions as holy writ, said that such laissez-faire notions may at one time have been tenable, when the world was less sophisticated and complicated, but society now had become far too complex to leave to such simplistic ideas, and that only government was equipped with the resources to deal with modern-day societal complexity, and as an example, the famous economist wrote, just look at any city, which could not exist without government and bureaucracy. In this column, the famous economist did not bother addressing the fact that government cannot spend a single penny unless it first either borrows, taxes, or prints, and that property and production are the very source of the wealth from which government borrows and against which it levies taxes; nor did it address the fact that printed money must be backed by production, or inflation will be the result.
A venerable movie director, no longer young, came out of retirement to make a short documentary in which many scientists and policy experts were interviewed, and who thereby proved the “absolute dangerousness” of Jon Silverthorne’s notions.
A television minister with half-a-billion worldwide followers gave a televised sermon of great eloquence which called for solidarity on this issue of all issues:
“Surely,” said the minister, “the planet is the one thing we can all agree upon, regardless of political or religious leanings.”
When a young and ambitious reporter got hold of Jon Silverthorne and requested a statement, Jon, in response, asked only that people consider the issues not with dogmas and platitudes but with their own thoughts, and with words formulated by their own minds. In the draft of this article, the young reporter accurately quoted Jon, but his editors changed it — so that the final article, which appeared the following day, quoted Jon Silverthorne as having said that he regarded his own thoughts and words as more important than the environment.
Still, a counter-intention seemed also at work here — something calculated, perhaps by Jon, all of whose existence seemed somehow yoked to the impossible, even while he himself, no matter the impossibility, seemed simultaneously unstoppable.
And what was he aiming for? And what the object of his sinistral aim?
Yet the fiery light that blazed hotly inside his eyes left no doubt that something specific was in his brain.
The dedication and the unveiling of the mysterious object which had been built to replace the injection bore which had brought to the desert clean water from profound reservoirs was scheduled for the first day of the month. And so it was on the evening of the dedication, a great many people and press gathered together in The Superstitions.
There was much fanfare and pomp, and the governor had prepared a speech, and there was a buzzing anticipation and mounting curiosity over what the mysterious unveiling would finally reveal, this warm and windless desert night.
Here among The Superstitions, a sort of science-fictional-looking amphitheater had been rapidly built — a permanent venue now, yet conceived and constructed for just this occasion — the ground blasted and cleared, the semi-circular seating half-carved into the rocks in the center of which now hulked an enormous object cloaked in a flowing white sheet that glowed bluely in florescent stadium-lighting.
These electric lights had as well been installed for the occasion.
A little off to the side of the amphitheater, a small adobe structure had been built here too.
This adobe structure was a museum, and this museum also contained electric light, as it contained restrooms and clean running water which came from the very same deep-down reservoirs Jon had discovered, and which reservoirs had quietly been tapped into, by government hydrologists, at a point only two-hundred meters west of the spot where the original injection bore had penetrated the earth, and where now in its stead stood the high cloaked object about to be unmasked.
The cog of drear ritual turned — it turned even as, out here in the desert wilderness, the bubbling ferment of near-universal heart’s conviction was mocked by the creamy bowl of fluorescent light, which lay upcast over this newly constructed amphitheater, and by the thing the crowd had assembled to commemorate and dedicate. The night hung heavy with a kind of dark-purple weight within the sky — and yet not precisely within the sky, since it was as though no sky existed but only a dry grainy air sedated with the weight of its own heat and hugeness.
The governor stepped up to the podium directly behind which, some fifty feet removed, stood the massive object covered in the glowing and rippled sheet. She was a youngish woman, dressed in dark blue, with a slender build and straight blonde hair that hung to her shoulders.
The crowd fell silent.
The governor at the microphone spoke of social planning and democracy, and she spoke of justice and justice for the earth, and she spoke at some length. Her manner was confident, and she presented herself well. Her voice boomed clear and crisp through hidden speakers.
“For this project,” she said at the end, “we mobilized the very best brains in the country — people whose skill and swiftness of execution stands as a testament to the power of social planning, and to the necessity of unanimous support for our planners, in this big, great, messy democracy we call America.”
The crowd erupted.
“My good people,” the governor said, “my good people. I am proud to present to you this: the tallest totem ever built.”
Upon saying which, she turned with an outspread palm and an expansive sweep of her arm, and the rippled sheet dropped soundlessly and as if in slow motion, and there in the electrically lit desert night, a huge object appeared — looming two hundred feet tall and modern-surreal.
It was a totem pole constructed of concrete and steel.
Yet this moment was interrupted in the very next instant when all the fluorescent lights flickered and then went completely out, and silence and darkness descended over everything, like a shout.
There was a stunned hush, and then a murmur mounted among the crowd. This murmur grew rapidly, in a rising crescendo, sweeping across the dark desert night like something alive and climbing, and in the heavy darkness, a charge coursed through the air.
From within this charged darkness, a powerful voice emerged and pounded through the speakers.
“Energy is limitless,” the voice said. “It is energetic order that’s scarce. Energy begets energy. The more energy we use, the better we become at finding and refining and purifying energy, so that the more energy we use, the more energy we have, and the cleaner and more efficient that energy is: more energy use creates cleaner, better, more abundant energy.”
These words had not been fully uttered when a new light ignited.
It was a deeper and stranger light.
It came slanting across the amphitheater at a near-horizontal angle — a long thick cone of pure silvery-white swirling with galaxies of vital dust — and this light streamed over the podium, beyond the steel-and-concrete totem, and at the end of the light, upon a stone ledge, there stood a swarthy figure like a dark knight who held in his left hand a large and gleaming key. Beside him was a big black box.
Every eye in the amphitheater followed the light to the spot at which it terminated — to the figure whom this light was illuminating — and then the moment before that light leapt, a voice, which was neither male nor female, called out from among the crowd:
“It is a detonator.”
At that precise instant, the strange light began pulsating in rapid strobic flashes, and through those throbs of silent silvery light, the crowd watched agoggle as the figure, moving in fast yet now robotic-looking spasms, inserted the key into the detonation box and turned that key with a loud click.
No explosive force. No ominous diagonal with melting shadow falling across the amphitheater — neither the flash-blinded man of Nagasaki lurching through the horror, nor the ghastly Pompeian silence forever caught in frozen negative, nor any bomb-burst splintering every silvered smoke-and-mirror and crystal prism, every satanic screed of magick glass, every witch-bowl and bottle and beaming bulb of a trillion electric watts, nor any hot darts of detonating light to lance the eye with shards of incandescent white.
There was only the loud click of the key as it turned, and then, after five beats, came a soft and subterranean thud, like a faulty firecracker: a dud.
After which, the silver strobic light went entirely out, so that for nearly a full minute, the immense desert darkness was restored.
Yet this darkness now was of even greater complexity — a more profound depth — and in that complicated darkness, some among the crowd thought they saw crawl across the black of space, faintly and fast-fading, two green sea-worms of light, almost like the aftereffect of a brilliant firework with its diminishing tarantulas of greenish-white. Then came a slight seismic shift, as of knees buckling, and of which almost none among the crowd was aware, and after that, fifteen seconds before the creamy bowl of fluorescent lights bloomed back, an unmistakable odor of thyme laced the xeric air.
Northeast of Los Alamos, in the remote New Mexican countryside, there was one who lived alone.
Nobody really seemed to know this one, yet there nonetheless circulated here a great many rumors and speculations, so that in a curious way, the infamy of this one had spread: an atheist who perhaps prayed, a sorcerer-pariah, a raptor among ducklings.
But was this one really a raptor?
Yes — if one is measured by the sheer savageness of one’s isolation.
It was middle morning. On the outside of a stone shed, directly across the picnic table from where this one now sat, there hung over the dark and doorless archway a small hand-chiseled cross of gray granite, and the figure appeared in the morning light to be contemplating the cross.
The honeyed light fell thickly over the picnic table and oozed over the figure’s black-clad body.
The table sat under a green-apple tree the boughs of which were bent low with the lunar globes of fruit.
“Have you been here the entire time?” a woman’s voice suddenly said behind the seated and solitary figure — who did not, however, turn or seemed surprised, but only nodded once.
The woman approached the table and stood seven feet to the side.
The figure wore a black-felt hat with a broad floppy brim, the skeletal face half-enshadowed and dividing that face diagonally into two hemispheres of light and shade. The woman turned from the seated figure and followed the line of the figure’s sight, so that she too found herself looking at the small granite cross.
For a long moment the two of them regarded the stone cross in silence.
“Are you devout?” the woman said.
“Are you religious or superstitious?” the woman said. “Are you a believer?”
“Why do you have hung there the cross?”
“Because it represents the just man crucified.”
Her eyes unconsciously narrowed. She considered these words without speaking.
“And because I prefer Christ to satan,” the figure said, “by which I mean, self-mastery and self-control to self-indulgence and glut; calmness to vanity; kindness and patience to power and preening. Please sit.”
The woman did. She wore faded blue jeans and a kidney-colored tee-shirt. Her skin was dusty and streaked here-and-there with burnt-sienna mud, her beauty thrown into sharper relief by a sense of fatigue combined with a tirelessness of will.
A bright-silver coffee thermos stood upon the table, and two white-porcelain mugs were on either side of it. Next to this, atop a closed book, sat a porous volcanic fruit-bowl, which was now empty.
“Is that what satan represents?” the woman said. “Power and preening?”
The figure lifted the coffee thermos and tilted it. The scalding black fluid arced into one of the porcelain mugs and then the other. The figure’s fingers, passing to her one of the coffee mugs, were long and thin and elegant.
Gently the coffee steamed its thin gray wraiths into the morning air.
“Yes, in my experience,” the figure said. “But it largely depends upon whom you ask — or which religion or quasi-religion you choose to consult. Zoroaster was the first to famously devise two opposing entities: God and Devil — which is to say, the creative versus the destructive, good versus evil. Satan never had much place in Judaism, contrary to popular belief — more of a minor or even throwaway character, I’ve always thought, enough to swell a scene sometimes, the tempter in Job, for instance. In Genesis, the serpent in the garden is not, also contrary to popular belief, satan or the devil — for the simple reason that Judaism hadn’t yet come up with or come across this figure. In Hebrew, the word satan, first used as a verb (‘to oppose’), translates to ‘stumbling-block’ or ‘adversary,’ and it appears exactly nine times in the Old Testament — and five of those nine are not in reference to any sort of divine being but to political opponents or military forces. The Hasids, an old Jewish sect, were the first of any influence to take the idea of satan seriously, and they were surely influenced by Zoroaster and the Zoroastrians, and this satan is without question preening and powerful. But what does any of it really matter, in the final analysis? Goodness is chosen, as it is timeless.”
The woman sipped her coffee: strong blackhearted coffee, and almost immediately she felt it restoring her.
She took another sip and looked at the figure across from her. Even from among the deep shadows cast down by the floppy hat-brim, she could see two gray-blue eyes burning brightly with brainpower. Perhaps a slight strabismus as well.
A hank of hair hung from under the hat, behind the left ear. This hair was long and platinum-white.
“Have you ever read the so-called Satanic Bible?” the figure said.
“Do not waste your time, if I may presume a recommendation. Embarrassingly overwritten and uninsightful — to say nothing of the obvious and sloppy rehash of Nietzsche that pervades it, without, however, a vestige of Nietzsche’s philosophical scope or depth. No supernatural satan or devil is explicitly espoused — though there are more than a few ambiguous passages on that point — yet Aleister Crowley’s superstitious quackery and magick are enthusiastically embraced in this church, as well as any number of other ritualistic theatrics.”
“I am sick of ritualistic theatrics,” the woman said with surprising suddenness. “I’m sick of rites and rituals and magick and religions and quasi-religions and groups and gangs and clubs and cults and covens and churches and all the rest of it. I’m sick to death of it all.”
The figure did not reply, but she thought she saw the laser-beam eyes narrow in a way that conveyed a heightened sense of interest.
“My name is Justine Strickland. May I know your name?”
“My name is Ash.”
There fell a long pause during which time Justine felt herself striving to integrate and apprehend the meaning of what the figure had just said to her — almost, she later reflected, as though a wave of migraine-like dizziness had struck her all at once, thereby rendering her brain unable to process thoughts correctly. In the next instant, she considered the possibility that this moment was perhaps not real.
“I’ve been seeking you for a long time,” Justine said at length. “I’d almost given up.”
“Yet you didn’t. You kept looking.”
Justine did not immediately respond.
“I want to know the truth,” she said.
The figure rose from the table — tall and thin and somehow sexless and very graceful.
“Come with me, then.”
Justine followed Ash through the dark archway beneath the little cross, which Ash had chiseled from a slab of thin granite — and when they crossed the threshold of this stone room, the darkness grew fur, and the rocks that composed the walls exhaled huge fields of cool.
Suddenly, as if from nothing or from Ash’s fingertips alone, an orange flower of firelight blossomed on the ground before her, and Justine saw Ash genuflecting over the fire, adding fuel to it, building the fire higher.
From this half-kneeling position on the ground, Ash spoke to her, saying that fire is energy, and that, though fire occurs commonly in nature, it is nonetheless difficult to manufacture from bare elements, yet humans had mastered this skill so thoroughly and so long ago that most people now take fire entirely for granted.
Ash said that human thought and human intelligence are the source of such learning and such mastery, and that this is the one thing above all others that must never be forgotten.
Ash said also that in learning how to make and control fire, which is an act of creating energetic order, our human ancestors were able to descend from the trees and live in relative safety upon the ground — that in harnessing fire, cooking with fire came next, and therefore, because of cooking, many more calories were absorbed by the bodies of these early humans, as large and tough and stringy yet protein-packed game-meat now became consumable through cooking-by-fire, so that early humans grew smaller guts and bigger brains on their high-energy diets of cooked food, all of which the harnessing of fire made possible.
Still genuflecting over the twisting flames, Ash said as well that the capturing of fire surely had a profound hormonal influence upon early humans — insofar as certain hormones are suppressed in response to light exposure, while others are released, thereby affecting sleep cycles and the maturation process and reproductions cycles, and many other fundamental characteristics which shape human development.
“Most of all,” Ash said, now rising from the ground and now standing across from her, the warm bright tongues of firelight licking and flicking between them, “the harnessing of fire facilitated and helped create barter among humans, beginning with the cooked food that made early humans healthier, as it made survival easier. It is a fact that no other earthen creature besides the human creature engages in barter and indirect exchange. Plenty of creatures use tools and share food and so on, but no other creature barters and trucks. Only humans. Only humankind engages in free-exchange. Trade is a fundamental and defining characteristic of the human species, and free-trade is the antithesis of conflict and war: it is peaceful, non-coerced, mutually beneficial, and it promotes kinship and goodwill among humans. Money is merely a medium that facilitates the process further. Yet perhaps the most extraordinary thing about free-trade is that, like energy itself, it reciprocates, and through this reciprocation it grows in an exponential way and is inexhaustible: the more we use it, the more we have, and thus, by intrinsically fostering innovation, the better and more streamlined it becomes. This process — the process of trade among people — created, in turn, and still creates, the two things most responsible for human progress and civilization: specialization, which some call the division-of-labor, so that we are not all spending all of our time food-gathering or food-growing, and, as a corollary of that, easier and more reliable methods by means of which humans transfer knowledge. This enables humans to build upon previously discovered knowledge, and to advance. Free-exchange, specialization, the transference of knowledge, civilization — they are the same.”
Justine was silent. She stared down into the fire. Ash watched Justine for some time and then turned and went across the stone room, where stood a small water-well. From a creaking iron pump, Ash drew a bucket of cold water, the sluicing sound of which ran soothingly through the channels of her ears. Ash dipped into the bucket with a small tin cup and then passed this cup to Justine.
She drank. The living water numbed the back of her throat and was very satisfying.
Ash watched her.
Shadow and firelight swarmed over their faces and their bodies.
“Shall I tell you the real satan?” Ash said, when she was finished with her water.
She nodded, half breathless from drinking.
“It is compulsion, internal or external. It is coercion and compulsion, and it is the people of force: the people of the lie, who are legion.”
These last words were scarcely uttered when, abruptly and with great quickness, Ash, still holding the bucket, threw from the bucket the remaining well-water onto the living fire, lashing the coals which seethed and hissed and fumed, and this space again grew dark, and the fumes from the extinguished fire spread violet-blue throughout the lightless little room.
Ash took Justine by the hand and led her back through the smoke and through the purplish gloom.
Ash walked with her through the backdoor, into the kitchen, and asked her to sit and told her also to make herself comfortable, and then Ash briefly disappeared.
Sixty seconds later, Ash returned with six raw eggs rolling audibly around the floor of a metal pail, a small bag of cold brown rice there as well. From a drawer beneath the stove, Ash brought forth a cast-iron skillet into which the deft elegant fingers forked a small measure of lard kept in a coffee can beside the stove.
Ash heated the skillet and watched the wax-colored lard melt and then tilted the skillet forward and back and to the right and left, so that the entire bottom of the skillet was coated, and at last broke all six eggs sizzling into the small-bubbling liquid lard and stirred the eggs with a fork. Soon, Ash added to the eggs the bag of cold rice and stirred until the eggs and brown rice were finished cooking. Then Ash poured for her more coffee and more water and served her upon a porcelain plate the half-dozen eggs and rice scrambled together, and while Justine ate using the very fork with which Ash had stirred and cooked, Ash again disappeared.
Letting her eat in privacy and silence, and perhaps Ash wanted a time of silence and privacy now, as well.
She could see the entire time through the window outside, in the middle-distance of the garden, the floppy shape of the hat-brim, the untouchable body motionless and silent and silhouetted in its seated position, the slender back turned to her.
When Justine was finished eating and drinking, she went back outside and stood before Ash and looked once again at the gaunt sexless features glinting beneath the hat brim. A somehow intellectual face, she thought, with the bone gleaming sharply within. She again thanked Ash — who bowed and then, not quite wordlessly, stood up and led her around a thin trail like sprinkled cocoa, down a grassy slope, and along another trail some distance to a small clear brook, which ran across the eastern fringes of the ghost-town.
Here, when they came to a small pine bench a forgotten miner had once built, they both stopped walking, and they sat.
The running water rattled softly by.
Ash plucked a long blade of lime-green grass and began fashioning from it a miniature noose. Justine watched the fast feminine fingers move, and then she spoke:
“Why are you here, in this place?”
“I’m here because of a certain one, the steps of whom I sought to retrace,” Ash said.
“Why did you seek to retrace them?”
“To see if perhaps there were not another possible course — or if perhaps something had been missed.”
“In what way do you mean?”
“I mean that the one whose steps I sought to retrace were the steps of a youth looking for definitive evidence of God’s presence upon the earth. This young one had come to believe that in the ghost-towns of the American west, where mining had once flourished and yet where it flourished no more, there would perhaps be incontrovertible proof of God: evidence that had been overlooked. This young one actually believed it possible that God would not bother to dust off every single fingerprint or sweep away every single footprint, and even considered the notion that it might amuse God to deliberately leave something behind — a clue: a clue into the supernatural.”
Justine was silent.
“Nor had this young one developed anything like a modern or progressive view of God,” Ash said. “If there was God, there was God — a sentient being: female, male, or otherwise, it made no difference — and there was the universe. The universe was insentient and indifferent, but God could not be indifferent. God could not be insentient. So this searcher believed.”
The entire time Ash spoke, the thin graceful feminine fingers fashioned the miniature noose, and watching these fingers move and work, it suddenly seemed to Justine as though the fingers were disembodied things, with a will of their own.
“What precipitated this young person’s search?” Justine said. She was transfixed by Ash’s fingers and spoke while exclusively looking at those fingers, as if addressing them and not Ash.
“It was precipitated by a great deception and an act of great cruelty committed against the young searcher, and a great wrong,” Ash said, “and then a preoccupation with what one might call tribalism. For some time this person had observed that when likeminded people, on any place of any spectrum, talk to one another, face-to-face or otherwise, they invariably come out thinking a more extreme version of what they’d originally thought before the conversation ever began. Their original views are not only reinforced but amplified. Thus groups, in every and any form, but especially those whose members are inclined to deception and even violence, will move more sharply in that direction after internal deliberation and immersion within the group. This one came to believe also that confirmation from others within a given group emboldens and strengthens confidence even to the point of vile deeds — and that this is among other things the crucible of mobs. The issue came more and more to weigh upon this young one, in the context of cults and religion, justice and retribution especially, and in this way, the question of God grew into something like an obsession for the young searcher.”
Justine watched in silence as Ash finished fashioning the little grassy noose and then tossed it into the brook. She watched the loop swirl away into the deeps, and she stared until it disappeared from her sight. When she looked back to Ash’s fingers, she was surprised to see that at some point — Justine did not know when — Ash as if by legerdemain had created another limey grass-stalk, but this one was in the shape of a cross, which Ash now held between thumb and index finger.
Justine caught reflected movement on the surface of the water and cast her eyes upward. She watched a skein of geese move like migraine across the sky.
“Our deeds follow us because our deeds are us,” Ash said, “because we are what we do.”
Justine processed these words, but she did not say anything. And still she watched the slow-shifting skein of geese float blackly by.
“A curious thing then happened to this young one,” Ash said.
Justine turned and looked back into the strange shadows beneath the hat-brim, the youthful energy of the shade-slashed face, no longer young, which looked neither female nor male and was, Justine realized only now, good-looking.
But why this inexplicable anxiousness growing within her?
“What happened?” she said. Her voice was quiet.
“That initial desire did not diminish but just the opposite: it grew stronger over the years. So that in the solitary search for evidence of God’s presence upon the earth, mixed with the ruminative nature of this one’s brain, a certain learning accumulated. A certain knowledge. It developed and accumulated alongside a growing erudition of geology and mineralogy, so that after many years, this one almost inadvertently became something of a prospector, a miner. Thus, when one day this young searcher saw a sort of God-like shimmer among the rock and mud — something many other miners and prospectors had missed — and which, after much deeper searching and digging, turned out to be a rich vein of gold, a great deal of wealth came. And then this young one was young no longer.”
Ash, still lightly holding the small grass cross as if it were a four-leaf clover, rolling it back and forth between the thumb and index finger, now paused and peered out from under the floppy hat-brim and gazed across the purling water. Justine studied the profile, the bright blue cross-eye almost facing her. The reflected sun shone greenish on the rippled surface of the brook.
“Tell me,” Ash said, “do you know what rock is?”
Justine shook her head.
“It is the fundamental elements of the earth. It is minerals and minerality — sometimes it is even glass. Rock is coherent and aggregate, and the specific identity of every rock is determined by the way in which it is formed, by the specific minerals it contains, ultimately by its chemical composition. If you think about this for any length of time, it will take you very deep inside the earth and down into the very nature of the elements that form existence. Rock is joined particulates — particulates often interlocking and held together like a jigsaw puzzle, or welded by heat which has long since cooled, or cemented after water seeps in and fills the spaces between the grains which make up the rock.”
Ash briefly stopped speaking and looked directly at her. Justine was silent.
“The ancient Aztecs believed gold to be ‘the sweat of the sun,'” Ash said, “whereas geologists today have all but established the opposite: that gold ‘comes to the earth’s surface from the deepest regions of the planet,’ where its chemical elements are forged at earth’s mantle, almost eight thousand miles deep. There are trace amounts of gold in all igneous rock, as there are trace amounts of gold in each human body, and metaphorically one could say that, as gold comes to the surface of the earth from the deepest depths of the planet, so the gold of each human comes from the deepest regions of each person’s being.”
“I like that,” Justine said, but she spoke so softly that her voice could scarcely be heard.
“Gold is valuable to humans because its universal qualities are functional and remarkable, and because gold is sufficiently rare. The gold deposit this young one found, which others had overlooked, is what’s known as a hydrothermal vein — which means it was formed by the precipitation of solids from a molten-hot and mineral-rich water, which, in turn, comes from water that circulates very, very deep beneath the surface of the earth and is heated by magma or radioactive decay.”
Justine was closely watching Ash, who continued looking across the water. Justine remained silent. The sense of apprehension swelled pregnantly inside her.
“True wealth is not arbitrary,” Ash said. “It is what humans need not only to survive but also to prosper and flourish. Wealth comes from production, and at the foundation of it all, nothing more fundamental than labor is required for the production of wealth.”
It was in this moment that something new and dace-like swam into Justine’s head.
“Please tell me what happened to the young searcher,” she said, with a certain urgency, “after youth had gone.”
Ash, still facing the brook, nodded but was silent for several beats.
“The discovery of so much gold,” Ash said, “and the wealth it brought — combined with an idea whose formulation had been many years in the making — conferred onto this one a new sort of deference and respect. People came — visitors who would be students, acolytes even. Others who sought only disputation and argumentation.”
“Disputation over what?”
“Over what the young searcher had come to understand.”
“Please say more.”
Justine did not know that she was holding her breath, nor in this state of mind would she have grasped why.
“In the search for evidence of God’s presence upon the earth,” Ash said, “the searcher was eventually pushed back to investigating the very nature of reality itself and of the senses that perceive it — sight, smell, touch, sound, taste — which form the base of all knowledge, including all things constituting evidence. Even pure introspection, this searcher came to understand, ultimately derives from sensory perception, insofar as the things we introspect upon find their provenance in the external world, beginning at birth when, piecemeal through the senses, reality is discovered. This fact has long been used to disqualify the validity of all human knowledge — and to subsequently justify superstitious faith and force — on the grounds that the senses necessarily distort true reality, because the senses perceive in a certain way: how a straight plastic straw appears bent or broken through a glass of water, for instance, or how color does not indwell in the thing itself, but is rather light perceived through the lens of an eye, with all its rods and cones. Or sound vibrations which only truly become sound when they impinge upon an inner ear, or something like it. It is therefore concluded that because humans, as other animals, perceive by some means, true reality is therefore fundamentally unknowable. In the quest for God’s fingerprint, the young searcher was at last pushed all the way back to this, and systematically the young searcher sought to overcome it. And succeeded.”
“How?” Justine said.
“By pointing out first that there is no alternative to perception — it’s part of what it means to be aware, and even a God would need to be aware by some means — and by pointing out next that the senses are also a part of reality: Rods and cones, like straws and water, are also real. Eardrums are real. As such, the senses reveal reality in a completely accurate way, though that way is reality as it’s viewed through things — which things, however, are equally real. A hypothetical being who does not perceive through these same means would be ignorant in ways we are not, and vice-versa. By definition, all sensory perception, even surmised or hypothetical, interacts with reality and measures reality through some apparatus. It is the final result — the effect in reality — that is the ultimate test and measure: the ability to construct an airplane or spaceship which can fly, for instance, or a Brooklyn bridge which can successfully stand and support traffic, or the result of smashing your head or hand through glass compared to water, or a lion getting its meal, or the result of driving down the highway with your eyes closed. This is what proves the truth of the senses in relation to the facts of reality. Life or death. The senses perceive by specific means and methods — and even these means and methods, just as the elements and components that compose them, are also able to be perceived and studied and learned. Which is why we can understand the reasons that the eye sees color, as we can also observe and understand color-blindness. As we can understand why an unbroken plastic straw appears to the human eye broken through a glass of water. True reality is perceived through true senses which are also components of that same true reality, and the senses interact with reality just as all other facets of reality interact with one another. A thing is defined by its identity, which is defined by what it does.”
For some time, Justine did not say anything.
She looked down at the tiny grass cross which Ash still held between the thumb and index finger.
“Will you tell me next that this young searcher was crucified?” she said.
Ash was still looking across the water.
“Not exactly.” Ash turned to her at last and blinked slowly. “In fact, I’m sure that by now a part of you has already begun to suspect who the young searcher was.”
Justine was silent for a long moment. “It was you,” she whispered.
Ash looked back to the water.
“You kept looking,” Justine said.
“Did you find God’s fingerprints or footprints?”
“No. I did not. Nor the devil’s.”
A soft gust of wind came off the water and blew through the tall grass, and the blades of the grass, like a city of serpents, seethed and spoke in tongues, hissing with heresy. In the wind were small seeds which the wind was sowing.
“Excellence does not give up her secrets easily,” Ash said. “I have a test for you.”
Reflected now upon the surface of the brook were three grape-colored cloudlets, riding the riffles in the same spots, same spots, same spots. The water was glowing — the living water of this vodka-clear creek, forever flowing.
“Test?” Justine said.
Ash rose from the bench and held up both hands before her, palms outward. The hands were empty. Ash then quickly closed and opened the left hand — and suddenly the little cross made of grass was there, pinched lightly between the thumb and index finger.
Ash tossed it into the brook of flowing water.
Justine, still sitting, watched the cross swirl away into the eddies.
When she looked back to Ash, she saw that, resurrection-like, Ash still held the cross and was rolling it between the slender thumb and index finger.
Justine blinked slowly. When she opened her eyes, the cross was gone and both hands were empty.
Ash then balled both hands into fists and held these fists before her, blue prominent veins standing out along the backs of the hands, the wrists thin and elegant, with bird-like bones embedded in each.
“Which hand do you think the cross is in?” Ash said.
Justine did not hesitate:
“It is in both,” she said. “You have one in each hand now.”
Under the floppy hat-brim, the cross-eyes twinkled.
Ash unfolded both fists.
In the open palms there lay a miniature hangman’s noose made of grass.
Justine did not appear astonished. “Was that the test?” she said.
“Only the beginning,” Ash said. “Please come.”
The sun sunk swiftly and as it did, a kind of lull crept over the land, the low sky knifed and gutted and left to perish above the peeling planet — vast, vacant, bleeding.
The conifers stood like pipe-cleaners against the drained sky.
Justine sat across from Ash while a stuffed owl above the mantel watched them with jeweled eyes. The room was tilted with shadows.
“Have you ever considered what it’s really like to be burned alive?” Ash said.
Just perceptibly, Justine shook her head.
“Most people haven’t,” Ash said. “Be assured, it is among the most excruciating of ways to die: a very, very slow roasting death during which you hear the entire time your own flesh sizzling, as you smell it scorching, as you smell your hair burning, as you feel your hot flesh blistering. And because you do not go numb, the pain doesn’t diminish but intensifies.”
Justine remained mute.
A long silence ensued.
“I was taken by force,” Ash said, “in the dead of night.”
“By people envious of what I found and what I worked so hard to get: the gold they’d all overlooked. People who believe humans are fated and determined, and who because they are superstitious do not understand the nature of reason, as they do not understand the meaning and the importance of human freedom — as they do not understand that the gradual but inexorable dismantling of segregation, apartheid, racism, sexism, sexual-political liberation, and so on, it drew its ultimate strength from the great economic migration brought about by conditions of freedom and the right to property — in short, human progress, technology, and the labor-saving electrical machinery that liberated men and women from the fields and women from the kitchens.” Ash paused. “Superstitious people,” Ash said, “who deeply cocooned and safe in their dogmas did not like things I’d stated, convictions I held and still hold, the wealth which through my knowledge and work I’d accumulated.”
Justine intently listened.
“First, they beat and bound me and took me deep into the shafts of my own mine,” Ash said, “to which they felt they had equal ownership, and where they believed vampires dwelt — and I was perhaps one. Under the bright battery-powered lights that I’d installed there, they stripped me naked. Then one among them, a large and bearded man, with a dark complexion and big jumbled teeth, tied me naked to a timber post. The rope he used was thin and strong. It was bitter-cold inside this mineshaft, and my jaw shivered uncontrollably. The horde of ragged gapers stood around me for a long time in silence. They smoked cigarettes and stared at me me naked and freezing. I was then offered a cigarette. I did not reply, and I was backhanded across the face. At last, the large bearded man brought forth a huge gray blade. It was a blade the likes of which I’d never seen before: long yet thin and perfectly straight — rectangular, with no handle that I could see — almost like a giant razorblade. He held it up before his own eyes, as if inspecting it, and while he did so, the leader of this group, a man, I later learned, who was part Comanche, said to me that this man was a butcher: ‘a professional butcher,’ he said, ‘and a skinner of game animals.’ He said furthermore that this one’s technical precision and skill were unmatched. ‘He can take the skin off an animal or a human as delicately as a farm-girl can peel an apricot — perfectly,’ the man said, ‘leaving the skin entirely intact, without cut, gouge, or scratch, yet with the living muscle, like fruit-flesh, still throbbing on the bone. Do you understand what I’m saying?’ this man said to me. Still, I did not reply. ‘But for all his technical skill,’ the man continued, ‘he must work slowly and methodically in order to keep the skin all-of-a-piece and clean, and I would be remiss if I did not tell you ahead of time that his slow precise work can somewhat — you know — sting.'”
Ash fell momentarily silent and then said to Justine:
“Here, that man smiled at me. I will never forget his smile.”
“Why?” Justine said with a kind of urgency. “Why, specifically?”
“Because that smile encapsulated the essence of it all: duplicity and deception, and the magnitude of it all.”
Justine blinked and was silent.
The stuffed owl watched down with lidless fixity.
“The instant after flashing me this deceitful smile,” Ash said, “the leader nodded to the large bearded man, who then went to work. This man began with my lower half, starting at the top of my right foot, slowly flaying my skin with the giant razorblade. He sliced with utmost care and focus: flaying with incredible delicacy the skin of my human fruit — to see if I was flesh-and-blood, or perhaps demon-vampire after all. I deliberately forced myself to watch my own body being skinned alive. I made myself watch it because I would not give these ex-people the satisfaction of shutting my eyes. I bore in silence the unspeakable pain — until at some moment I heard myself scream, which surprised even me. I didn’t expect it, or see it coming. It was an outerspace scream, otherworldly. Yet still I watched. I watched this huge violent man do his expert work in a way which, to judge by the expression on his face, seemed almost caring. Only my screams told of the ghastliness of what was being done — every one of them watching on in a sort of silent awe and fascination. The leader, meanwhile, came and stood behind the timber to which I was tied, and, with an iron bar through the rope, he twisted and yanked the rope tighter so that it cut into my neck and torso, granting me breath and then taking it away with great sadistic pleasure. At last, the skin of my right leg, from the top of the toe to my kneecap, came off in one translucently thin sheet, and the silent bearish man held up this sheet of my human skin directly in front of my eyes. And grinned.”
Ash fell silent for several seconds.
Justine watched. She did not so much as breathe.
“At which point,” Ash said, “tied naked to the wooden stake in the freezing-cold mine that I had discovered and built, my right leg now partially skinned and the living muscles underneath completely visible, I began vomiting. I vomited uncontrollably, and I vomited all over the man who’d begun skinning me alive. It was then that the leader showed me a sliver of mercy and compassion: he told his expert skinner to stop — to spare my skin and do no more — and he then proferred to me a cup of cold water.”
“What did you do?”
“I rejected the water and I told him to go straight to hell.”
“Because his was a tactic,” Ash said, “a manipulation with which I was familiar — and so I understood that to accept any pretense or semblance of kindness, compassion, or anything like it, would be to capitulate to these ex-people. I understood that under no circumstances must I ever let the sun go down on my rage. And I did not. I spit bile into his face, and I would do the exact same thing again now were I to relive it.”
Abruptly, now, Ash rose from the chair and in the disgorging liquid light-and-shadow of that room did something which Justine was entirely unprepared for — something which shook her to her very core, and which she’d never forget.
“Do you still want to know the truth, Justine Strickland?” said Ash.
Ash, standing directly before her, an arm’s length away, removed the floppy-brimmed hat — tossing it onto the floor, so that the flowing platinum hair came loose and glowed moon-colored in the shadowy room — and then Ash disrobed entirely and stood naked in her presence, revealing a strong and vital human body, yet a human body badly burned: burned, skinned, and scarified white, like a patchwork doll, with genitalia that had been savagely mutilated out of existence by violent superstitious people who, unable to think beyond the range-of-the-moment, thought Ash, in actuality a searcher and a prospector of the earth, some sort of supernatural sorcerer.
Ash stood perfectly motionless so that Justine could fully perceive the mutilated body that cast a shadow over her and which was completely human, and which human body many surgeries had sought to repair, with only partial success.
“After this,” Ash said, “they set fire to the wooden stake they’d tied me to, and they left me there to burn. To die. To return to ash; the energetic order of fire now used for disorder and destruction. That is satan,” Ash said. “But there was something these ex-people didn’t reckon on.”
“What?” Justine whispered.
“The strength of my will to live.”
“By the time the fire that was roasting me alive had burned through the ropes with which they’d tied me,” Ash said, “the horde had already left — left me alone, partially flayed, for dead. Perhaps they thought I was already dead, I really do not know. Yet I emerged from those hot ashes. I emerged like truth and rolled my body into a stream of clean cold-running water — an underground limestone aqueduct, the same waters I brought you to earlier — and, falling in and out of dreams and delirium, I lay here for a long time. Days. Days and nights dreaming of angels and demons. The cold water sustained me. Until at last the real angels came.”
Justine cocked her head.
“Strange creatures,” Ash said, “with dove-colored eyes whom I watched float like phantoms out of the darkness of the mineshaft, who pulled me gently from the living water and bandaged me and cared for me and who helped restore my health.”
Ash fell silent.
The stuffed owl stared mutely down.
“Who were they?” Justine said. The words, however, were not yet fully from her mouth when she thought she heard a sound: something creature-like coming from outside.
She turned to the open window.
The moon like a rind sat tipped on its tailbone over the eastern horizon. A cool wind blew in through the window and passed over her and over Ash’s naked body, and at first Justine saw nothing — nothing but hip-high grass swaying in the wind and, farther beyond, the flash of aspen trees glowing like skeletons in the dim moonlight.
Justine looked back into the room.
Across from her and to the left of Ash stood a glass-paned cabinet, and in this glass was reflected the mirror behind. She saw also, slightly to her right and above, the reflected image of the stuffed owl watching down from the wall.
“In truth,” Ash said, “they were not angels but one man — a man who was also a miner. A miner and a good Samaritan. His name was Jon Silverthorne.”
A momentary silence fell. Justine closed her eyes for a long span and then opened them. Something, she felt, was waiting.
Ash watched her closely.
For thirty seconds, the only sound was the sound of crickets screaming like leopards in the trees.
With a curiously mounting apprehension now, Justine shifted in her seat and stared steadfastly at the relucent pane of glass before her — and then suddenly, in its dark and ghostly reflection, she saw appear a kind of double or perhaps triple reflection, though so disoriented had she become that she was not entirely sure:
First, as she shifted her position in the chair, the warped reflection of Ash wobbled into view on the mirror behind Justine and then rebated back, so that it was also reflected on the glass-pane behind Ash and in front of her. This glass, in turn, was reflecting translucently Ash’s long and naked back. One moment later, the reflection of the rind-like moon mounting the sky appeared in the room and shone all at once upon the mirror as well, and this reflection too rebated from the mirror to the glass-pane. Finally, then, beneath the twice-reflected moon, from among the glowing aspen trees, there emerged or seemed to emerge a gathering of strange and slender figures, whose ghostly shapes went from the mirror to the glass and back, and at last came to rest in front of her human eyes — superimposed over the double-reflected image of Ash’s back, as well as the mutilated front-side. This whole time, Ash’s bright cross-eyes, burning with wild insight, were watching her — watching her both in reflection and also in real life.
The blessed will not care what angle they’re regarded from, having nothing to hide.
And Ash, seemingly in response, put a long index finger up to pursed lips, as if beseeching her silence — or her secrecy. Yet when Justine turned from the reflection to the window, so that she might perceive the thing itself and not merely the mirrored image it cast, she saw nothing but the glowing aspen trees and the invisible wind moving through the grass.
Piecemeal but rapidly, a new thought gathered on the horizon of her mind.
“Jon was onto them from the beginning, wasn’t he?” Justine said.
She was still looking out the window as she spoke, and upon hearing no answer, she turned to look back to Ash, who was now reclothed and across the room, some thirty feet beyond, standing in an open doorway, the floppy hat-brim pulled down over the forehead. Ash beckoned her with a slow and sinistral gesture.
And together they walked outside into the deep blue gloaming.
When she was a young child, Justine’s father took her to a marble quarry far inside the mountains of southwestern Colorado. It was a quarry no longer in operation, and a half-mile beyond it ran a small crystal river. Huge slabs of broken marble lay strewn everywhere about, like the playthings of giants who in certain superstitious stories once roamed the earth.
Her father stood with her upon the riverbanks. He told her that there were native fish in this river, but he said also that these fish were skittish and wild, and he told her that because of this, they were fish difficult to catch.
He then retrieved from his backpack a small fishing pole which he assembled and then handed to her.
On the end of the line was a soft dark wooly-worm that he himself had tied.
Soundlessly, her father pointed to a deep crystal pool slightly downstream in the river’s flow.
Justine, observant little girl, stared in complete silence. Black silt lay all along the riverbed, and the sound of the clear-running water came very softly to her ears, and watery smells mixed with marble-dust entered her through the nose.
Staring pensively into the water, she suddenly saw the blurry wobble of wild fish bursting beneath leaves fallen onto the face of the stream and then slipping like butter down the throat of the river: living volleys of cold blood smashing through the currents.
After the water settled, a dark torpedo-shape appeared hovering just over the gunpowder sand, as if moored there. The velvet fins swaying like feathers, bulbous midsection with black leopard spots like flecks of fresh ink. The fish stood in three-quarters profile. She watched the gills knead, slit cheeks opening and closing like dampers, the burgundy flare of living gill-flesh beneath.
Her father helped her cast the line, and when the wooly-worm struck the surface of the pool and then slowly sank, the big fish instantly turned one way and then the other, and then it hung motionless again. Her father told her to remain perfectly still, no matter how long it took, and he stood beside her the entire time.
Together they waited on the banks of the crystal river.
They waited and waited. The anchored fish did not move, and neither did Justine nor her father. The wooly-worm swayed in the water.
The world went gauzy and blue, and Justine watched the clear water darken. She watched how the topwater seemed to skate in an almost oily way over the thicker water beneath. After a full hour, the big anchored fish flickered and was gone.
Before Justine had time to process it, this same fish had inhaled the wooly-worm and was thrashing about on the end of her line. She felt the indescribably heady thrill of the gigantic yank, and she jerked her line in response, and then the little five-year-old girl brought the fish dripping and silvery out of the twilit water and landed it onto the river-rocks. The fish she’d caught was twenty inches or more. It snapped back and forth. The wedge-shaped tail slapped at its own torpedo head. Justine’s hands were shaking with excitement. Her father reached down and held the fish by its lower jaw, paralyzing the fish, extracting the wooly-worm, small razorous fish teeth piercing his thumb.
They ate this fish later that same night — Justine’s mother breading it in cornmeal and cooking it in coriander and hot-bubbling butter, the flesh of the fish coral-colored, not white, and so sweet and delicious and nourishing.
One week later, Justine had a dream which would become for her a kind of recurring dream:
She dreamt that she and her father were standing once again upon the same riverbank, yet this time it was her father and not she who held the fishing pole. In her dream, the water was black and endlessly deep, and she stared down into it, half-frightened. All at once, on the dark reflection, she saw the tip of her father’s fishing pole bow hugely, and then, after a mighty struggle, her father lifted from the water a now-inert and gigantic and hideous-looking fish, with scaly dead-pale skin and cauliflower tumors sprouting out of the head. Her father, holding the heavy fish carefully and with difficulty on the end of the line, turned to her and, keeping the inert fish far removed, he told her in a strange hissing whisper that this fish was called a Devil-Fish, and he lifted it higher from deep down in the black water and into the light, and with dread and nausea rising in her stomach, she watched him lift it still higher into the light, and she watched the deformed fish grotesquely struggle for breath and life, and finally it died.
Then she awoke.
Justine followed Ash outside into a forest grove filled with silence and a curious quivering light. They walked single-file and they walked swiftly, down a grassy path carpeted with heartshaped leaves the color of banana. Ash led.
Small bats tacked and swerved above the dark conifer trees.
Mutilated statuary, masked with moss and grey lichen, stood on either side of the path, and these dismembered stone re-creations watched mutely from within the dark foliage.
Upon their left, a narrow stream of black water, one foot wide but six feet deep, flowed soundlessly past.
Now profoundly inside this forest grove, they came at last to a kidney-shaped fishpond, and here, on the surface of the pond, the silent silvery crescent-moon dished and quaked, and huge goldfish knifed noiselessly through the black water beneath. Ash stopped walking and looked back at Justine with something like concern, the bright uneven eyes glittering like quicksilver.
“There will always be suffering,” Ash said. “It flows through life like water.”
“But also goodness,” Justine said.
For several seconds, Justine held Ash’s gaze. Then she looked away.
“And human progress dramatically mitigates suffering,” Ash said. “It increases goodness.”
A heavy silence hung between them.
“Do you know what Jon found?” Ash said at last, the sexless voice soft and quiet. “Have you figured it out?”
Among the vines, in a long sharp segment of silver light, small fruit shone like currants or capers or yewberries.
“Yes,” Justine said.
“Put it into words,” Ash said.
“He found a system,” Justine said, “a vast underground system of interconnected tunnels and hidden conduits.”
Ash nodded once.
“He found a universal system of philosophy,” Justine said, “a system that is intricate and elegant and true.”
Ash did not speak, and yet the bright piercing gaze did not waver from her face, and Justine returned this diamond-sharp gaze with a slashing look of her own.
For a full minute, the two of them stared at each other in the curious light and in the silence of the forest grove.
“The vines and the trees here all look the same,” Ash said. “But they are not the same. Some are dangerous and deceptive. How can you tell them apart, Justine Strickland? How, even in this falling darkness, can you distinguish them?”
Twenty feet beyond, in the still water of the fishpond and submerged to the waist, was another granite statue: an armless woman, life-sized, who stared at them with blind stony eyes. Before her a sort of liquescent stage lay stretched, and other mutilated figures stood on this watery stage as well — ancient statuary half-sunk and girdled with mats of algae that glowed greenly phosphorescent in the coming night; shoulders and heads held like fallen gods, abstracted, inscrutable. Suddenly, a fat silver serpent six feet long entered the fishpond from its small western shore, and Justine, hearing the gentle slosh of water, turned and watched the serpent sidewind across the pond, passing through the moon’s watery ghost, chin lifted, the mouth a level slit. Justine’s shrewd eyes, large and perfectly ovular, were pulsing bluely, and when she raised her head a little higher, the better to watch the sliding snake, her eyes shone with a newer, deeper level of understanding.
In that instant, Justine knew without any doubt the answer to Ash’s question, as she knew also that this was the real test.
She watched gradually fade the V-shaped wake left by the gliding snake, and she watched the reflection of the pared moon bobbing in the tiny ripples.
She watched until the snake reached the far shore, beneath the nocturnal berries, and then she watched it disappear like an uncrowned king down into a small earthen hole.
She looked back into Ash’s bright glittering eyes.
“By their fruits,” Justine said. “You can know them infallibly by their fruits.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes,” Justine said.
All around Justine and Ash now, twilight poured profoundly down, coming in from every direction — a billion cubic miles of deepening night.
“Prove it to me,” Ash said.
Justine without any hesitation or fear went deeper in among these identical-looking trees, and she plucked a strange fruit, shaped like an oblate little ball, and she sunk her teeth into the torn muscle of the sweet fruit-flesh.
She ate it all.
The human brain contains approximately one-hundred billion neuron cells.
Each neuron has branches, called dendrites, which connect to several thousand other neurons.
Each dendrite also contains synapses, which serve as connectors and which signal one another in a sequential way.
There are some one-hundred-and-fifty trillion synapses in each human brain.
Signaling in the brain is done by means of chemicals and electricity. The brain — like light — is electric.
The act of thinking directly affects the strength of the electric synapses, just as each individual human experience also affects synaptic power.
There are contained in each human brain ten-times-one-hundred billion glial cells, which among other functions support the neurons and help insure brain health, and which sleep deprivation, oxygen deprivation, head trauma or other injury, chronic anxiety, diet, and many other factors can damage or destroy.
Each individual brain is active twenty-four hours a day — even, and in some ways most especially, during sleep.
If brain activity ever stops, it effectively means death.
The individual human brain — whose volume in adults runs at about fourteen-hundred cc, consuming fully twenty percent of each body’s metabolic energy use — is the organ that regulates the functioning of the entire body.
It is also the organ that makes consciousness possible.
What is consciousness?
It is awareness. It is not supernatural. It is the opposite:
Consciousness is a natural faculty of certain living organisms.
Each human brain comprises a subterranean system of chartless depth and unreckonable complexity — the human brain being the most complex entity yet known — and knowledge of the self begins with the knowledge that one is conscious.
Ultimately, free-will is the choice to think or not, which in turn rests upon the choice of attention or inattention.
All doctrines of determinism, superstitious or otherwise, refute themselves at the outset because they are self-contradictory: since human reason is by definition the faculty of volition, determinism also by definition makes impossible all knowledge — by virtue of what knowledge is: a volitional thing. This includes any knowledge of determinism.
Rising ceaselessly to the surface of each individual human is the mental activity and flow-of-thoughts that run through the depths of each human brain and burst forth, spring-like or geyser-like, in the expressions and movements and in the words and deeds of each individual.
The day following the dedication of the world’s tallest totem pole, in the denouement of those remarkable events which had interrupted the ceremony, officials investigating the ostensibly faulty blasting-machine found only that the wires coming out the box led to essentially nothing — nothing but the empty space of a profound and mysterious tunnel, anfractuous and very narrow, beneath the Superstition Wilderness: long thin wires dangling darkly into the blackness of gargantuan subterranean geo-circuitry.
One of those investigating officials was a tall thin older man with silver hair and a dark complexion — a Vietnam veteran and war hero, almost killed by a bullet to the head, who had long ago suffered post-traumatic amnesia and a certain sort of peculiar shell-shock, who wore now a navy-blue windbreaker on the back of which, in big yellow block letters, was this:
This man stood staring long into the strange narrow tunnel, brows knitted in thought and perhaps also something like dread. Even after everyone had gone and the site became deserted and twilight fell, the man continued to stand and stare, as if gazing down an entryway into hell.
His name was Backbone. Jarmin Backbone. He was born and raised in the north Texas town of Victoria, on the Comanche Reservation — a boy who, like Jon Silverthorne, had run away when he was just a teenager, never to return.
A bastard child — one side of his pedigree coming crookedly down from the great slave-revolt of 1842, when twenty African-American slaves owned by the Cherokee attempted escape and sought to reach Mexico — Jarmin Backbone was, like many Americans, a mongrel man, part black, part white, part Cherokee, part Comanche. Yet for his great love of horses and his great skill in riding horses, this latter strain was the only strain he’d ever consciously cultivated. That was long ago, and it included, as well, a trench-like strain of sadism.
When he was ten-years-old and there were still wild mustangs on the plains of northern Texas, his grandfather one day rode with Jarmin out among these pounding herds. While they rode, his grandfather told him that the Comanche were the greatest horseman the world had ever known — and he then showed Jarmin the way in which the Comanches of old broke their wild horses. He would never forget what he saw his grandfather do after that.
Sitting his little chestnut colt under the slate-blue Texas sky, Jarmin watched as, with a whoop and a war-cry, the old man galloped into the thundering mustangs and then, spinning his long lariat like a web, lassoed a wild horse and tightened the noose, choking the horse without remorse and driving it to the ground.
Moments before the horse was nearly strangled to death, Jarmin’s grandfather slackened the rope and gave the horse its air back. After that, the old man dismounted and knelt beside the gasping horse and began gently caressing the horse along the neck and head — all the while breathing softly into the horse’s nostrils.
Then the old man tied a thong around the mustang’s lower jaw and mounted it and rode away on this broken horse, now forever his.
Even at the young age of ten, Jarmin Backbone grasped the principle at work behind this method of breaking, which, as his grandfather told him, was the fastest and the most effective method by far. Jarmin went on to break many horses in exactly this way.
It was this same principle he later saw used again and again in the military; later still, it was a principle he himself used to great effectiveness in police interrogations: the remorseless torturer showing the thinnest sliver of compassion and mercy after hours or days of relentless punishment, so that the exhausted and tortured human feels all at once grateful — a flood of gratitude — and sometimes even beholden.
It was a principle which as he grew older took on greater metaphorical significance in his mind, and when, just recently, he read about a man who during the Spanish Inquisition was taken and tortured by inquisitors — stretched brutally on the rack for days turning into weeks, who never renounced, recanted, or surrendered, and who yet lived, forever crippled but whole in heart and soul — when Jarmin Backbone, aged seventy, recently read how this man said he knew the one thing he must never at any time or under any circumstances lose, not even for a fraction of a moment, was his total rage directed toward his torturers, Jarmin felt himself much moved. Yet in spite of the great swell of admiration he felt surge through him, he believed deep inside himself that he would have been able to break even this one, having learned from mistakes made long ago.
A solitary man with a dark countenance only occasionally lit-up by a smile — long, lean, dusty, dreamy, Jarmin Backbone was not well-educated formally but nevertheless possessed a deep and methodical sort of brilliance and an all-consuming thoughtfulness that made everyone whom he’d ever worked with feel, at one time or another, they would never have come up with the things he came up with, not in a thousand years. His was a canniness you sometimes see in people who are raised in lonesome, sparsely populated spaces and for whom self-reliance is a way-of-life without alternative: a blending of the theoretical and the practical perforce, whose powers of observation are therefore hyper-developed and admixed with an abstract restlessness and a hyper-acuity of thought.
His forehead was high and broad, and to the perceptive person, it revealed an important and even dangerous quality about his character.
At the peak of the Vietnam war, in a lone act of a daring and valor which he and he alone had conceived and carried out, he late one moonless night went behind enemy lines and singlehandedly took out a large nest of Vietnamese soldiers — though not before receiving, from a dying Viet Cong soldier he’d mortally wounded, a bullet through the back-left of his skull, which quickly transmuted into profound post-traumatic brain injury and amnesia. Yet, apart from the gaps it left in parts of his memory — a sort of psychogenic fugue — he made a full recovery, and age had not withered him but the opposite: he was a mature man, robust and strong, with the presence of one about to enter upon an adventure, the outcome of which, however, was far from certain.
He had an abrupt way of speaking, which was simultaneously passionate and yet also subdued, and some quality of the inexorable came through in his voice as well: the power of the implacable blended with the certainty and confidence that can only come from a true grasp.
Only partially concealed was his contempt for academia and academics and intellectuals, the theories of whom, postmodern, puny, pusillanimous, platitudinous, went lame under the weight of real deeds and real crime.
This was a man who thought and studied incessantly, which helped him bear the burden of the isolated life he’d chosen for himself. He sought always to trace every one of his ideas down to concrete reality. Logic had long ago annihilated his faith in any sort of dogma or dogmatic God. He replaced it with an unwavering devotion to order. Without quite realizing it, he’d come gradually to elevate order and law to the stature of a religion, authority the necessary counterpart for maintaining order and enforcing the law. In his jagged inaccessibility, he believed everything that served truth was justice.
He believed also that if the deception and the lie went deep enough, it was his duty to bring the falsehood into the light.
After thirty-five years as an F.B.I. profiler, having read thousands upon thousands of studies and papers and books on the subject — having consulted and questioned hundreds of psychologists, priests, politicians, colleagues, counselors, criminals, doctors, and lawyers — he was now fully convinced that the root of evil is not money or greed or power, but vanity.
“I know that a distinguishing characteristic of evil is the desire to confuse,” he once testified to congress, and added:
“The work of the wise is one thing. The work of the able is another. Vanity, laziness, the sybaritic — these are the roots of The Bad. They are the drivers of eventual evil. Not all vain people are evil, but all evil seeks fullfillment in something outside, something false and fleeting. I do believe this. I believe it because I’ve seen it over and over.”
“And in your opinion what is The Bad?” a senator said in response.
The answer was swift and unequivocal:
“It is that which is untrue,” Jarmin Backbone said. “It is the people of prevarication and manipulation. It is an erasure of creation, the study of an obliteration. Evil confuses life, which is logic. It is, I say again, deception. It is the people of the lie.”
The senator did not reply.
Yet for all his powers of observation — or perhaps because of these powers — Jarmin Backbone looked more than a little queerly upon nature.
The illimitable scope of the universe operates in different ways upon different sorts and different souls, and the mystery of everything had long ago instilled within him a kind of cosmic awe and horror — cosmic and sacred, and also peculiar to him and unbearably private.
He thus prayed to the power of the infinite.
He believed that, like the sea, the air was not a vacuum but a plenum: that as germs and virus and molecules and atoms are invisible, so also there are an infinite variety and number of other invisible entities swarming through the atmosphere.
Beginning long ago, when he was still a child, and continuing throughout the rest of his life, he asked himself this:
Is there an infinity outside of us which matches the one inside? Is this infinite permanent, though invisible? Is it immanent and intelligent? Does it will? And if this infinity is not intelligent and if it does not will, does this automatically make it finite?
Does the infinite awaken in each of us the idea of identity — of essence — while we are each able to attribute to ourselves the idea of existence exclusively?
At every age and stage of his life, no matter how many times he revisited these questions, after deep and careful consideration, his answer to all of them was yes.
He was as convinced of the infinite without as he was of the infinite within — and the infinite within, he believed, was the essential “I,” which is the soul.
To merge, by a process of thought, and to unite by an act of reason, the infinite within with the infinite without — this is what he called prayer.
In the places and spaces where human eyes cannot penetrate, the human mind can fly — and for this reason, the thoughtful person speculates, whereas the ignorant person ignores.
The thoughtful human wonders and questions. The ignorant human evades and consents to the prevailing, whether consciously or by default.
However homespun his ideas and however odd, however speculative and even misguided his notions, Jarmin Backbone, who believed contemplation the highest purpose of human life and who thought cogitation the highest act of the human species, was incontrovertibly one of the thoughtful.
Sometimes late at night, he walked out into the mountain wilderness and stood gazing up into the darkness of the nighttime sky.
He felt himself moved in a melancholy way.
Billions of lanterns without illumination. Minute punctures in the nighttime-fabric everywhere letting in flickers of light, but this was a light so small and so distant that it only made the blackness deeper, more obscure.
To look into the pin-pricked fabric of the night sky is not precisely to look but to wonder.
It is to listen to the hush and purity of plenary silence.
The shadow of night, like obscurity itself, is an indivisible thing. It possesses unity. At the same time, it is intricate and complex — a vast and darkly burning keep, thought Jarmin Backbone, with its deepest secrets tightly locked away: an awesome and infinite stillness brooding above, among the heavens — perhaps, indeed, composing those very heavens.
Thus out of his cosmic sacred horror in collaboration with his notions of things unseen, he came to believe in an invisible hand scraping the bottom of the universe and sifting the chosen from the unchosen.
In this roundabout way, without concern for love or hate, he’d come to embrace a sort of supernatural fate.
Meanwhile, the oblate earth wobbles on.
The night-blooming cereus opens its flowers after dark.
The water-droplet becomes a universe through which, in microcosm, the wide world weeps. The salt seas sob.
Endless cyclic fertility flowing from earth and animalcule.
The antithesis of enormity discloses itself in the infinitesimal: the mind-spinning tininess of neural pathways, with their microscopic explosions of electricity, constant and silently booming within every sentient thing, creating the ineffably enigmatic thing called consciousness.
Staring into the strange narrow tunnel among the Superstition Wilderness, the long thin wires from the blasting-machine dangling darkly into immense geo-circuitry, Jarmin Backbone suddenly felt leap upon him, with a greater intensity than ever before, his old cosmic sacred horror.
Yet it was with more melancholy than fear that he lowered himself down into the long sinuous tunnel — down, down, down past the thin dangling wires, dropping deeper into the hot earthen funnel.
“Truth takes hold,” Ash said.
Justine did not reply but inclined her head.
They sat across from each other now at Ash’s kitchen table — inside the only inhabited house in this southwestern ghost-town. The silver candlestick with its wax-weeping candle burning between them, and Justine felt herself inordinately, inexplicably drawn to the bare and simple beauty of that heavy silver candlestick.
The small yellow flame swayed slightly. She saw it reflected and duplicated in Ash’s quicksilver eyes.
“Truth takes hold,” Ash said again. “It emerges. Deception is brought to light. It can take time, but truth will emerge — often when you least expect it. It can uplift you, or ruin you.”
Justine remained mute.
“More than once,” Ash said to her, “through basic sleight-of-hand and trickery — what I call stage-magic mentalism — I’ve convinced entire auditoriums consisting of thousands that I possess psychic powers, that I communicate with the supernatural world, and that I’m a sorcerer: a sorcerer in close contact with the paranormal.”
Still, Justine did not respond. She listened.
“I also know a man,” Ash said, “who through these identical methods convinced an entire country of the same thing. It was a scandalous hoax. But do you know the most scandalous part, the most incredible aspect of the whole thing?”
“No,” Justine said.
“Even after the trickery is revealed and the sleight-of-hand disclosed — the mentalism fully explained — people still believe and will even tell you that you do possess supernatural and paranormal powers: you just don’t know it. Do you know why they believe this?”
“Because they want to,” Justine said.
“Yes,” Ash said. “They want to believe it.”
A long silence fell.
In the soft swaying glow of the candle-flame, Ash’s eyes glittered like quicksilver pools of living light, and the candleflame moved minutely within them.
“In each era and generation,” Ash said, “people are transformed and molded without even realizing it. It has always been so, it will always be so. The shadow that sweeps over the dial also sweeps over the human soul — people molded by the prevailing ideas and ideology and movements of the time. The hatred and the horror of human progress; superstition; force; tying people to the stake and incinerating them, or skinning them alive, or crucifying them — and for what? For the crime of discovering a truth? For bringing knowledge into the light? Yes, precisely that. For discovering fire and revealing its nature and its components to the world.”
Ash paused for perhaps three beats.
“Superstition,” Ash said, “mobs, force, hatred, violence, lies — they will invariably sow confusion and they will cause harm and they will slow the progress of truth, but they will never stop the relentless progress of it, of truth, the flow of it. They cannot. Truth takes hold. Truth emerges. It springs up everywhere. It exists in pools and pockets, and it grows deeper and it spreads, and it advances civilization. Like light itself, it is unstoppable and overtakes the darkness, and the real measure of humankind is and always will be this: the lucent and the dark.”
“Yet even in the light, there’s suffering,” Justine said. “A lucency that blinds.”
“To be blinded and burned, and yet to soar,” Ash said, “this is the true mark and measure of brilliance. Yes: when you know and when you love, you’ll nonetheless suffer. Passion means suffering: It will always exist. It churns through life like water. Children of the light do also weep, be it only over those cloaked in darkness, but please have no illusions: light decreases suffering, and to increase the light and to drive out the darkness — this is and forever will be the total goal.”
The subterranean darkness engulfed him.
The smell of rock and iron swept like water through his nostrils and into the cavities of his skull.
Now snuffed the slate sky with its solitary star pulsing pinkly above, through the opening of the tunnel. Gone that narrowing circular window which gave to the wide-open world of desert twilight and the dry flickering air of purplish-blue.
The deeper down he went, the deeper grew the darkness — until all at once, to his astonishment and even his terror, he felt himself crawling and clambering not only into the earth beneath the Superstition Wilderness, but also into the darkness of his past, through the tangled antlers of adventure, where, lined fleet-like across the horizon of his brain, he was met with an armada of grief and madness and sadism.
Suddenly, then, within that pure and absolute blackness, dim sparks of orange-and-yellow light began around him, intermittently blinking, like synaptic explosions — yet he was not sure if these sparks were real or if rather they were produced by his brain and retina among this pitch-black, rich-black profundity of stone circuitry, which twisted below, which narrowed around, which constricted all about his head and body, until he felt himself growing crazed with the pure and primal panic of claustrophobia.
With his bottom lip pressed against the hot rock that held him, he yelled as loud as he was able into the absolute blackness. He thrashed and writhed, and he continued screaming and writhing through the adamantine mazes of rock which rebated his yells back into his face, even while they simultaneously throbbed out huge exhalations of heat. Dimly it occurred to him that he was perhaps losing all his sanity now, that in a matter of moments it might well be that he’d no longer have even this crazed insight into his own state-of-mind, that the sweltering stone would swiftly suck out his faculties of reason and rationality entirely, draining him of his human essence — still physically alive, but psychologically, epistemologically stripped and husked.
He did not know precisely what happened next, nor how much time had elapsed.
He knew only that at some point he was opening his eyes, and that the arrant darkness was no more.
He lay in a molten wash of silver-blue light.
Facedown and saturated in his own sweat, he found himself on what he took to be the burned-out floor of hell. The smoldering heat felt as though it would smother him.
He was not sure if he dreamt or woke and he felt himself accompanied now — though by what or whom, he had no good idea.
He rose at length and staggered to his feet and then stood motionless in the wild heat of the silver light. He was half surprised to find himself haunted by the memory of an ancient odor which he’d not thought about in decades, and which all at once now poured through him: the smell of his mother’s soft silk shirt combined with the human scent of her skin. Hugging her tightly when he was a very young child, he’d come deeply to crave and love this smell — the smell of her human warmth mixed with a sweet deep odor of thyme, and the feel of cool soft silk upon his skin.
Then, in the next instant, swaying on his feet upon the scorched-out floor of hell, he saw in the silver-blue light his father strangling his mother in front of him — strangling her not to death and not out of rage but in a sadistic fit for his own pleasure — and then his father beating his mother into a state of complete disorientation, her precious brain gradually over the years becoming irrevocably damaged.
His stomach retched and churned — it churned up nothing. His knees buckled, and for the first time he could remember in all his adult life, Jarmin Backbone uncontrollably wept.
By and by, a young and kindly sergeant from his infantry unit came to him in the context of crime and lawlessness. This sergeant was a young soldier who had been raised on the streets by his homeless mother, a tubercular woman who died when the boy was a teenager — a teenager who had never fully learned to read or write but who nonetheless carried with him like a bible a thick tattered book of rules and etiquette, which perhaps symbolized for him the civility and refinement and the good life this young man, this child, never had: a kind of Corpus Iuris Civilis which he thought worthy of continual contemplation.
Backbone, seeker of order in an orderless society, suddenly watched unreel before him a wartime scene that had been blotted from his mind, yet one which had actually happened: this young strange sergeant so concerned with manners and civility, in his rain-beaded combat boots and soaked camouflaged pants, taking off his helmet, holding it at his side, and refusing in the pouring, steaming jungle rain to gun down a Vietnamese woman and her child, and instantaneously now he remembered with total precision how, in a violent rage, he’d unhesitatingly shaved off with his machine-gun this young American soldier’s cranium — one of his own — as though the boy’s skull were made of so much boiled egg, the young soldier genuflected before him in defiant refusal of a direct order, his razed head and the razed brains within splashed rainwater wet and steaming inside the open egg-cup of his cranium.
Self immured now in the tiny attic tower of his study room and also in Jon Silverthorne’s handwritten book, alone with his whiskey and smoke, the blood at rest and the body far below, Justine’s father translated this from Jon Silverthorne’s handwritten Greek:
Cities exist for the purpose of exchange.
Cities exist for trade and they exist because of trade.
The rise of cities reveal many things of historical and also anthropological significance — most of all that cities emerged because production had at last become specialized, and consumption therefore more diversified.
Production comes first.
The most ancient cities emerged in southern Mesopotamia, which we now know as Iraq.
These were places where people came together to divide their labor — to specialize and exchange.
To this day, cities flourish and prosper only when trade expands — as Hong Kong’s population grew by nearly forty times in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the people of which, on a resource-bare rock, simultaneously grew astronomically wealthier and better off.
Corollarily, cities diminish when trade is halted. Only one thing can fundamentally halt trade: force or the threat of force.
Approximately 8,000 years ago, in the southern Euphrates valley, after a season of inordinately high rainfall, the Ubaid farmers flourished.
They flourished enough to produce a surplus, which in turn enabled them to exchange their agriculture for precious stones and timber from the hill people to the north. This began a process of wealth-building through trade.
The Ubaid pottery and clay tools and architecture which came quickly afterward spread throughout the entire East, all across the Mediterranean and along the coastline of the Arabian peninsula, where fisherman traded fish to Ubaid merchants in exchange for grains and nets.
This was not yet a trading mecca but a trading diaspora — and it preceded governments.
Yet it was precisely because of this process of free-exchange and trade that the Ubaids grew wealthy enough to support the first known governments: superstitious chiefs and priests, who by the very nature of their position and station — i.e. the monopolistic rule over production and exchange — quashed the very thing that had made them possible: creation and production and the freedom to exchange the things produced and to grow wealthy.
Throughout human history, every great city was the result of trading wealth.
Trading wealth is a process of production and exchange.
To say that cities exist because government creates and facilitates free-exchange is to get it precisely backwards.
Human intelligence and human ingenuity — this and this alone created the surplus of wealth that in turn made possible the urban revolution. After which, through government rule and government sanction and government decree, slavery and taxation emerged.
In this way, the following pattern developed and grew, and it endures to this very day:
Producers produce and creators create — they produce prosperity, and they create human flourishing.
Chiefs and priests nationalize it.
Government rule was and is the eventual cause of all wealth destruction.
This pattern is as ancient as it is familiar — because it is also thoroughly modern.
Miners, merchants, farmers, artists, artisans, and all other producers — they and they alone create prosperity. They make happen human flourishing.
Rulers and other thieves annihilate it.
Gently his horse nuzzled him awake into the gray light of dawn.
He opened his eyes. For a long moment, he did not know where he was. All he knew was that he was somewhere.
Below that knowledge, in some substratum of his consciousness, there was the gaining sense within — a sense which felt somehow more like a premonition — that he’d travelled through profound regions to get here.
He shifted on the ground. His backbone felt bruised. He gazed up into the heavens and lay watching the light spread like milk across the desert sky, and, without quite knowing why, he thought:
You will not come out of this one unscathed.
Thirty minutes later, searching the dusty desert ground for prints and clues, he indeed found something: a chess piece.
It was a black knight.
Beside it were a clutter of tennis-shoe prints. They were pointed northward — moving, Jarmin Backbone grasped at once, at a fast-running clip.
He mounted his white horse and followed them.