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 mesquite 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 this fading woman still possessed — her hand still warm and living and grasping: like the autumn season, both beautiful and dying.
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 it 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.
She is no more, he thought.
He thought: death is serious and not a thing to treat lightly.
He rose from where he knelt on the floor and gazed down at her one last time. Her wine-colored lips, the turquoise veins so visible everywhere beneath her thin and pale skin. A small frown knitted into the fabric of her skin above the bridge of her nose. At length, he turned and slung his duffel bag over his shoulder, and then he left this small apartment home forever.
He’d come from the New Mexican village of Dulce, in the heart of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. His full name was Jonathon Silverthorne. He was a peculiar person. From the time he was a very young child, he existed in a kind of savage isolation, not involuntarily or unhappily, and not in a penitential way, but the opposite: serene and self-contained, who bore his father’s barehanded beatings with a stoicism unfathomable in one so young. He left school when he was fifteen and went to work in the uranium mines outside of Grants, and for three years he worked in these mines and saved up his money.
After this time, when he was still a teenager, he came back to his childhood home on the reservation. His father was still alive but infirm, and he helped his stepmother take care of him. Here also Jon bought tobacco seeds through the mail, and in the backyard of this home, under the glass panes of a ramshackle hothouse he himself had cobbled together, he grew twenty-five tobacco plants, from which he proceeded to manufacture cigarettes.
He purchased five-thousand empty cigarette tubes which had filters, and he bought also a small hand-powered device that loaded and packed the tubes with his homegrown tobacco. He packaged his cigarettes in small cardboard boxes and wrapped the boxes in cellophane and then sold them off-reservation on the black-market, for a low price and a significant profit, which he then buried deep in the ground, in a remote sector of the New Mexican desert — until he was caught.
Shortly after, at age nineteen, before his trial, he slipped away from the reservation in the dead of night. Under soft 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.
He 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 relaxed. There was an odd ease in all his movements and in his gait.
He read a lot. He read and he thought.
He lived alone now on the fringes of the desert, in a stone shotgun shack, at the end of a sandy road that fizzled out into a low rise of boulder-studded hills. He rented this house and fixed it up and kept it immaculately clean: neat as a pin. He worked sporadically in the copper mines, when they were open, and he saved his money, and then he bought this home and its small surrounding property. The house sat on a slight eminence of land above gullies of sand, east of which the low Sierritas stood raggedy against the sky.
Sometimes he’d meet a woman in Tucson, and she’d come home with him and stay for a few days in his dwelling among the cactus. These women were attracted by his calm and his silence, and they all thought him not like anyone they’d ever known — though when one day his half brother 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 a kindness came off him like radioactivity, and he understood what this visit implied.
He knew their mother had died.
Because Silverthorne was a private and independent person, he was therefore, by his distant desert neighbors, not beloved.
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 often suffices to make it so.
Even on city streets full of city-dwellers, you’ll meet 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 upon by the spiders.
These are haunted houses.
The Devil dwells in such places, especially at night, and superstitious populations are not at ease 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. He 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 he let people be.
Often he went out at night. He walked alone through the desert, sunk in thought, whistling unconsciously, softly: a lonely 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 sanctity of each individual life.
He also cultivated ladybugs. He farmed and grew them, so that their populations now teemed in the hyaline air outside around his clean home of stone: ladybugs which symbolized a colorful and vibrant life, a life of hope, happiness, good fortune and beauty, here on this earth, which he believed in.
Jon Silverthorne’s half brother, Kristopher Henley, lived with him for the next year, after which time something horribly unexpected occurred. But before that thing happened, in the weeks immediately following his arrival, he existed quietly in his half brother’s home and was often alone when Jon was away in the mines. They got along. Kristopher never asked for anything. He was not finical, ate whatever was put in front of him, was grateful. 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 capsized over his right eye. He was, from a very early age, a swimmer and a runner — not competitively but as an outlet for his bottomless energy — and his young heart was so strong that it had become overdeveloped and enlarged: athletic bradycardia, exercise-induced cardiomegaly, the doctors told his mother, his resting heartbeat thudding reptile-slow.
His mother had left him a small sum of money and a graphite-gray Mazda. 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 body, like an electrical current in the darkness: it galvanized him and at the same time filled him with a sense of longing and sadness he could not name, or erase.
Cars ghosted down the distant highway, and he thought of the people in these cars: who were they? what future were they driving toward?
Their headlights swept comet-like through the night.
He began running in the desert.
In school, he’d not been a poor student: he’d just not done much of anything. Toward the end, after his father (whose first and last name he shared and whom he dearly loved) had one day without warning or a word of explanation vanished like a ghost and then his mother got sick, he’d grown even more apathetic and disinterested in school: sitting day after day with his head down on the desk, in the back of the classroom, eyes closed, migrainous and nauseated.
Yet he was privately pleased when without prompting now, Jon undertook the task of teaching him things. He taught him Latin and Greek. Where Jon learned these, Kristopher never knew, but he thought that in a strange way, these things suited his brother’s personality: something venerable, elegant, rarified.
Jon had a fat and faded book of brown leather, full of strange neat Greek symbols in his own remarkable handwriting, and he wrote in this book daily.
Kristopher quickly came to love his brother’s slow, patient voice, his methodical methods and manner of teaching, the pure clarity of his explanations — and more: he came to love the sense of understanding and self-development this learning fostered within him.
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 very small almond trees he’d planted. In front were people-sized paloverde, a single saguaro cactus, and 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 hard 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 in 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 very good to meet you,” she said.
“It’s very good to meet you too,” he said.
A ladybug crash-landed into his hair. Very gently she reached over and removed it. He smelled the human scent of her skin. She watched the ladybug crawl across her fingers, until it took flight on diaphanous and intricately veined wings which turned crimson in the last rays of the sun.
She was from a small Arizona town called Saint Johns. She was twenty-seven. She’d studied zoology at the University of Arizona and had just recently graduated. She liked insects and bugs, and she told Jon and Kristopher that, in fact, ladybugs aren’t bugs at all but beetles. She said that in some places, lady bugs 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-matter 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, the symbolic sense, his name has something significant in common with the mother Mary.
He squinted at the ceiling in thought.
Justine then asked Jon about the open book at his elbow, the strange neat Greek characters in his own handwriting.
Jon answered her that it was a passage he’d written which he called “Symbols and Superstitions,” and he said it was in part about Baboquivari.
“What specifically?” she asked.
“Hindu historians have always claimed that in distant times, their East-Indian ancestors visited every part of the world and even accurately mapped the entire globe. They claim also that these ancient ancestors mined gold and silver and copper in such places as Michigan, Colorado, and Arizona, and they say also that these same Indo-European explorers often visited the Americas via large teakwood ships — six-masted, over two-hundred-fifty feet long — and did so up until 1200 AD. The gospel of their main deity Shiva is the world’s first religion, they say, and the progenitor of all religions coming after. I write about a man named Andres Perez de Ribas, a Spanish priest who traveled to America in the 1630’s and who wrote a book called My Life Among the Savage Nations of New Spain, and in this book, he describes a Northern Mexican tribe who worshiped two deities: Viriseva and a mother goddess named Vairubai. Viriseva means ‘Lord Siva’ in Sanskrit. It is speculated that Vairubai is perhaps a variation on Bhairava, which is another name of Siva’s consort, Goddess Durga. Also, the word ‘copper’ derives from the name Kuvera, who was a Phoenician philosopher-king, reportedly very brilliant, and who in 5000 BC learned how to smelt gold and copper and other metals.”
“Is this true?” she said.
“No,” Jon said. “It is myth and legend. But it possesses symbolic value. 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 — and what is true, I can personally attest, is that even today much of the gold and copper mined in this part of Arizona leaks ceaselessly out of the Baboquivari mountain range. And as the Hindus, the Jains and the Buddhists call Mount Kailash ‘the navel of the world,’ so do the O’Odhams give Baboquivari the same distinction: because they regard the earth as a mother egg, which contains all good and nourishing things in it.”
She stayed the weekend. Early Monday morning as Jon, who would be gone for next twenty days, returning to the copper mines, 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 turned into a few days. As it happened, they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. They had much to talk about. They went for long desert runs. They looked for animals together. He discovered that she was able to spot them 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, right in the jugular, and that evening she showed him how to dress and cook it — something she’d learned as a young girl, she said, from her mother.
While they were eating, she told him that Jon had helped her “negotiate” her oil-change.
“That’s how we met,” she said. “I think he’s the strangest, most fascinating person I’ve ever known.”
“Some people think he’s the Devil,” he said.
She smiled and then she laughed. But he did neither.
“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 lonesome.”
“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 sometimes 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 this, but he did not say anything.
The next day, while he was driving her back to her home in Tucson, he 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, and it could kill me, if I’m not careful.”
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 quite some time. Her name was Sophie. I cared for her very deeply, 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 Sophie was perhaps very ill too, and the more I thought about it, the more worried I grew. I started to think that she might even be dying, and so I went to her parents’ house.”
“I was turned away.”
“You never found out what happened?”
Justine came and went. And came. There were no patterns to her visits, no explanations. Often she stayed for days at a time. She had a car, but occasionally she asked Jon if she might borrow his truck and he said yes of course, and she toured the bumpy backroads of the desert alone. 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, but she didn’t reply. She smiled. The sky 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 highway went from ocotillo and saguaro to sycamore and maples, Ponderosa, and a warm rain softly fell, loosening the smell of the pine trees, casting him back to distant times: casting him back to his mother in 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 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 showed. 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, and he thought that his huge hammering heart might burst in the chambers of his chest with love for her.
Now in the misty rainfall of the Santa Ritas, the trees stood ghostly and soft. The road ran vaporous into the purple light. By and by, Justine pulled over and they got out to stretch their legs, and there, on the side of the road, they saw a horned toad, blinking in the warm rain.
“Look,” she said.
He came over. “What is it?” he said.
“It’s a horned toad — though in actuality they’re not toads or amphibians at all, but reptiles. They look heavily armored and fierce, but really they’re as gentle as doves.”
And then something else happened — something he would think about for a long time afterward and would never forget:
As they were watching it, another horned toad emerged from under a heart-shaped leaf off to their right — except this one was a mutant: it had two heads, its torso like a long neck.
Justine caught her breath.
Kristopher genuflected on the wet ground to observe it more closely. He saw calm and even wisdom in all four spherical eyes, and then he saw blood gather and issue from the corners of those eyes: a defense mechanism innate in this antediluvian beast who looked like a mutated and miniaturized dinosaur. He saw also the little gentle creature’s heartbeat pulsing beneath the slack skin of its neck. He saw the blood and the pumping pulse of the heart, and he watched it for a long moment. It touched him profoundly. The air smelled of rain and dust. He shut his eyes.
At length, he rose from where he knelt on the ground, and he looked at Justine. The misty rain was beaded in her brown hair, and silver beads of rainwater had stippled her thin dark arms. Her breast rose and fell with her breath, and he thought that he’d never in his life seen anyone more beautiful.
“There’s a superstition among the natives that when you see a two-headed animal, it’s a sign of bad luck to come,” she said.
He was about to say that he hated superstitions — he loathed them — but the instant before he spoke, before she was even quite finished with her sentence, it dawned on him all at once how much he’d come to care about her, and without meaning to, he said aloud:
“I’m terrified of losing you.”
They stood looking at each other in the rain.
“Why,” she said, “why do you think you’ll lose me?”
“Everyone I’ve ever given my heart to has vanished from my life.”
She brought the two-headed horned toad back with her, and that night, under the eggshell light of Jon’s kitchen, she sat down with a black pencil and her sketchbook, and at the kitchen table, with the quiescent two-headed creature perched philosophically before her in an open shoebox on a bed of sand, she drew this mutant reptile.
She worked with great speed, her motions deft, certain, the depiction hyper-realistic and astonishing in its detail: the distended middle, a leaf-like foot motionless, one round eye tilted toward her, the nostrils like needle-holes, the loose skin of its neck leathery and cataphracted and strange.
Kristopher watched her, fascinated.
When she was finished, he asked if he might look at her other sketches as well, and she said yes.
He flipped through her thick book.
The first thing to capture him was a series of intricately drawn ladybugs: depictions the size of dinner plates, all done in colored pencil. Some of the ladybugs were blood-red with black spots, others black with orange spots. Two were burnt-sienna and unspotted. Another was pinkish and oddly mottled, and there was even a light-purple ladybug. But the one he liked most was a creamy-colored beauty, wings splayed, with spots on her back patterned like a leopard’s pelt.
He slowly turned the pages of her sketchbook. His soft eyes did not miss anything.
She watched him in silence for some time. Then she spoke. She said that the thing she loved most about ladybugs was the thing she loved most about humans: their inexhaustible variety and versatility and loveliness. Next she extracted from its sheath the drawing of the cream-colored ladybug he liked most, and she gave it to him.
“It is yours to keep,” she said. “It represents the abundant and colorful and happy life I wish for you.”
She reached over and squeezed his left hand with her right. He dropped his eyes. Her skin smelled like apricot.
The next picture he saw was a picture of himself sitting between her and Jon. It was recently done. The three of them were outside on the porch, and in the picture, she’d 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 — his neck as she’d rendered it looked elongated between their two heads: elongated and somehow vulnerable beneath Jon’s capable and gentle human hand.
The thinker wills and the dreamer is passive. Jon was a little of both.
Solitude creates humans of talent.
The solitary life fosters thought.
Thought is the source of human ingenuity.
There was something of the gymnast about Jon as well. He could — and did — walk up and down stairs on his hands and was even once witnessed doing a handstand on a skateboard and riding this way, standing on his hands on a moving board, all the way down the main street of his small hometown: a quarter mile. He used his left hand and his right hand with equal facility. His twenty-ten eyesight was whispered about all through his youth, and even after poring over the pages of thousands and thousands of books, he’d still retained his pristine vision.
He was an excellent basketball player, who’d practiced obsessively every day for years when he was a teenager, who could shoot very well indeed 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, and he was a dead-eye: with this rifle 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 potions, in fact, that his reputation for sorcery grew.
It grew and grew.
If he wasn’t the Devil, he was certainly in league with the sable-skinned angel, everyone knew.
There was as well the persistent rumors of mummies — which rumors Justine one day heard.
A week later, she asked Jon about it. Jon, in turn, asked her precisely what she’d been told.
“That you keep mummified human remains hidden in caves at the foot of Baboquivari.”
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 southernmost 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 gently into the night.
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 and ease. The wind poured down through the stony ravines. At length, they came to the mouth of a cave which was more like a narrow hole in the ground at their feet. Jon now produced from his inside coat-pocket a small bright flashlight. He pointed its cyclopean eye into the dead-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 down a low offshoot corridor and then onto all fours and down another corridor and then another and yet another.
They crawled for a long time down these narrow stone shoots, nocturnal spelunkers, the ground cold beneath their hands and knees. Dog-like, Jon held the flashlight in his mouth as he led them deeper into the Baboquivari mountains. There came to them all, intermittently but distinct, an odd and alien sound, like a deep cathedral hush; like the whoosh of potato-shaped asteroids tumbling headlong through space.
The last corridor they crawled down finally sloped and widened, and 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 the cylindrical object open with a sharp snap and tossed it on the ground. It was a flare. It loudly hissed. The room blossomed suddenly in a wine and hellish light, and shadows leapt like dancers across the Mesozoic walls — and then they saw across from them a row of tiny and malformed humans, which lay like martyred saints on a 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, you see, 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 like a rattlesnake at his feet. He stared at the miniature mummies mutely and in wonder. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking.
When, two hours later, they 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 the front of the truck and opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the steering wheel. He paused for a moment in silence, as if he’d just remembered something, and then he started the truck and swung it around and drove back toward his home, and neither he nor Justine noticed the distant dark figure on horseback watching them drive away.
But Kristopher did.
Later that same night, Kristopher excused himself and went back outside, and when Jon and Justine were alone in Jon’s home, he poured her iced-water and a large measure of very dark tequila. They sat down at his kitchen table. He 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 murder 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. 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 basically still a child. He loved it — as most miners do.”
“Yes. Does this surprise you?”
“I guess I was under the impression that miners are little more than indentured servants working for The Man.”
“When in actuality nothing could be further from the truth. Mining is hard work which pays well, and nobody forces anybody into the mines — not in this country. That only happens under the authoritarian regimes our politicians here would have us emulate.”
“Please continue,” she said.
“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,” he 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 this man said about those sixty minutes before he would be put to death. He said 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 the final moment: he had several minutes.”
Jon paused. He took a sip of the water he’d poured Justine and then he took a sip of her tequila.
“Thus he laid his time out very precisely,” Jon continued, “saying goodbye to the neighboring prisoners with whom he’d become friends — about one minute for that — and then another two minutes to think about himself and his life and a woman he once deeply loved, and then another minute to look around one last time at this human existence on earth, even if it were only the inside of the prison he was seeing. He carried out his five-minute plan exactly as he mapped it. He was dying at age thirty-five, a healthy, vital human. He remembered that in saying goodbye to a certain fellow inmate, he’d asked this man a rather silly and pointless 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 also 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 be nothing there at all. What struck Frank the most about this was that the man was entirely convinced and certain that he could resolve this matter in two minutes because it was such a long time. He remembered looking at the concrete floor and the cinderblock walls and thinking about how vivid and even beautiful it all seemed. Finally, he said that the worst part about it all was the gnawing thought at the back of his brain: ‘What if I was not to die after all? What if my entire life was suddenly given back to me? What an eternity! I’d turn each minute into a decade, and I’d miss nothing — nothing. I’d hold precious each passing minute, and my life would be the least taken-for-granted life of any human who’s ever existed.’ He said that this thought filled him with such anger — infuriating him so much, Frank said, that he wanted the lethal injection inserted into him as soon as possible. And then …”
Jon fell silent for a full ten seconds.
“Yes?” Justine said.
“The governor pardoned him.”
Justine waited for Jon to continue, but he didn’t say anything more. She sipped her tequila.
“Are you finished?” she said.
“You leave me hanging, Silverthorne. What did he do after he’d been granted life anew? Did he reckon every minute, as he’d told himself he would?”
“No,” Jon said. “He did not. He didn’t live that way at all. In fact, Frank said that the man wasted and squandered away many, many, many minutes. Frank went on to say that there was nothing at all surprising in this, which there isn’t.”
Justine narrowed her eyes on Jon and then finished her tequila. Jon blinked slowly in thought. She continued to watch him. He rose from the table in the fluid, silent manner she’d come to love, and he refilled her glass with more tequila. The plash of the pouring liquid rang out. He took a sip and then passed it to her.
“What does it mean?” she said, “this strange and morbid tale you tell?”
“That death gives life meaning in the sense that death is what life constantly strives against — but only in this sense. And it does not work the other way around.”
“Please make that clearer.”
“From the perspective of the dead, life obviously does not carry any relevance whatsoever.”
Justine considered this. Unconsciously she nodded.
“In striving against death and the fact of death,” Jon said, “it is crucial also we not succumb to fatalism or anything of the sort, but just the opposite.”
“What is the opposite?”
“We pour ourselves completely into the things which foster and nourish life over our span of time — that we cultivate 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. This entails living in a certain way.”
“Narrow is the path,” she said.
“Which leads to life.”
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 formed a pair of dust devils, which sprung up from the ground and twisted across the desert floor like twin serpents engaged in a strange and antic dance. They spun themselves out in the night.
Justine rose from the table and went to him.
Thought is a projectile.
That human who does not possess his own thought does not possess his own deed, and the profound depths of any human life are treacherous.
By many of his desert neighbors, Jon was unbeloved, and there is no such thing as small hate: hatred is always enormous.
An intention and a hand-grenade are alike. The projectile of secret malice was aimed at Jon.
Where did this secret malice come from?
The unexpected spreads.
The unusual is suspicious.
To be private is to be peculiar.
To break away from the pack 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 reason, and to believe in reason is perforce to shun superstition, dogma, and the party-line.
To be solitary and self-contained is an affront to custom.
(to be continued…)