NOTE: This is the original version of a story that was many years in the making. It is a prototype. The theme and characters remain the same, but a more polished and significantly altered version can be found here. If you read along with the story and enjoyed it, please consider purchasing the paperback and leaving me a review, and you will have made me eternally grateful.
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 but whom he never knew, and he asked her also about the things she had hoped for in her life. She answered 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. The room was filled with a silver-blue light. 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 drifted like ghosts.
After an hour, she coughed 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 his head and her own, where he knelt down 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 visible everywhere beneath her thin and pale skin. A small frown knitted into the fabric of her flesh above the bridge of her nose.
At last he covered her face with the sheet and called the coroner. When he was finished speaking, he stood for a long moment with the silent phone still pressed to his ear. Beyond the rippled sway of the curtains, he glimpsed the watery world outside where the sun that day grew as bright as it was going to get: a muted and melancholy light of silvery-gray.
Finally 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 man. 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 consecutive years he worked doggedly 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 inside the earth, in a remote and cavern-laced 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 earth, and he saw neither his father nor the Jicarilla Apache 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.
The resourcefulness of his crime had caught the attention of more than a few government officials, and one FBI agent in particular, a man who harbored a horrendous hatred of profits and the accumulation of money — who himself had grown up along the crooked backbone of the Comanche reservation, in north Texas, and who some years before had briefly crossed paths with Jon Silverthorne, in the uranium mines near Grants, and on two occasions they’d even played chess against each other — Jon, decades younger, winning one of those two games. Near the narrow hole Jon had dug in the desert ground and within which he’d hid his money, this FBI agent found an obsidian chess piece — a black knight — and for the explosive flash of an instant which as quickly passed, this chess-knight nearly dislodged a memory trapped deep inside the FBI agent’s mind.
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, there was nobody else there besides 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, he was therefore by his distant desert neighbors unbeloved. He was looked upon suspiciously. He was often treated with hostility. There were perhaps other reasons for this as well: For one thing, the house he called home was a possessed and demon-haunted place — and everybody knew this. Everybody except Jon.
Such localities exist all throughout the world — in city or in country — because a dwelling, like a human being, can become a cadaver.
Sometimes superstitious thinking alone will suffice to make it so.
Even on city streets full of city-dwellers, you come upon such haunted districts: windows 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. Frequently there is a ruined garden around the back — a garden all crabgrass and pigweed now, hemlock, yewberry. Peculiar insects prowl these deserted precincts. Birds almost never frequent them. Often there’s a thick tangle of spiderwebs, loaded with dead or dying flies, all of which discloses the deep serenity drawn in by the spiders.
The devil thrives among such haunted habitats, and superstitiously minded populations are not at all at ease upon the subject of satan.
The house in which Jon lived had been for many years haunted, but it was so no longer. Jon had civilized it.
He was a civilizing force.
Both he and the house were therefore all the more suspect.
Further, Jon 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, sunk in thought, walking alone through strange sectors of the desert. He was sometimes heard whistling softly: a lone piper in the oceanic dark. Jon liked the desert. He liked the warm air and the hard clean skies. 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 in his home. He was an encyclopedic reader who seemed never to sleep. His light burned late into the night, glowing cream-colored in his black Apache eyes like a bioluminescent source pulsing from somewhere deep within him, and it was even rumored that he was working on something monumental, something perhaps containing sorcery, sacrilege — and worse: a defense of the individual life, its inviolate sanctity.
Jon 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 for him a colorful and vibrant life, a life of hope and happiness, good fortune and beauty, here on this earth, which Jon Silverthorne believed in.
His half brother Kristopher Henley lived with him for the next year, after which time a sequence of shocking events began. But before any of that, in the weeks and months following his arrival, he dwelt quietly in his half brother’s home and was often alone when Jon was away in the mines. The two of them got along. Kristopher never asked for anything. He was well-mannered and polite. He never complained or disapproved. He ate whatever was put in front of him and was grateful for it.
Kristopher 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, both swimmer and runner — not doing either competitively but as an outlet for his explosive energy, his young heart so strong that it had become 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 at all. 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.
Little ladybugs, like miniature chopper fleets, banged into his body by mistake.
Sometimes, completely alone, he walked out into the inky black night and stood atop the sand gullies, beneath the desert sky. Here he’d listen to the Sandhill Cranes pounding blackly by. They flew high overhead, unseen, rocketing southward. He could feel the great hum of their unisonic wingbeat vibrating throughout his whole body, like an immense voltaic current coursing through the darkness. It galvanized him and at the same time filled him with a sense of longing he could not name, or expunge.
Cars ghosted down the distant highway, and he thought of the people in these cars and wondered who they were. Passing by, into what future?
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’d 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. Jon taught him Latin and Greek. Where Jon learned these, Kristopher never knew, but he thought that in a strange way, these things suited Jon’s personality: something venerable, elegant, rarified.
Jon had a fat and faded book of brown leather, and Jon had filled this book with strange neat Greek symbols in his own remarkable script, and Jon wrote daily in this book.
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 — but even more than that: Kristopher 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 complicated ideas so that they became instantly comprehensible and clear, and Kristopher recognized this as a rare skill, a gift — a gift to him and perhaps to the world. Kristopher quickly came to look up to Jon, and with his overdeveloped heart had already grown to admire Jon — to love him even — and profoundly so.
Outside, beyond the kitchen table where they sat, off to their left and just behind the stone home upon their left-hand side, there was a once-dead water-well which Jon had revivified, and through the kitchen window, they could see the bright ribbon of clean water that twisted through the rocky ravine, beside a stand of sunflowers and the small almond tree Jon had planted. Around the front of the house were people-sized paloverde, a single saguaro cactus.
Above, at the end of the sandy road, the Baboquivari Mountains stood dry and purple and 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 stone 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. 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 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, Kristopher,” she said.
“It’s a great pleasure to meet you,” he said.
A ladybug crash-landed into his hair. Very gently Justine reached over and removed it, and as she did so, Kristopher glimpsed a long and seam-like scar that ran down the pinky side of her right hand. He smelled the human scent of her skin. She watched the ladybug crawl across her fingers, until it took flight on diaphanous wings which, intricately veined, turned crimson in the last long rays of the horizontal sunlight.
She was from a small Arizona town called Saint Johns. She was twenty-seven-years-old. She’d studied zoology at the University of Arizona and had just recently received her Masters Degree. She liked insects and arachnids, and she told Jon and Kristopher that 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, she said, and piebald. She said also that in several other languages as well they’re known as the “little cow.”
She asked Kristopher if he knew that these little feminine creatures play dead when they feel threatened, and he shook his head and said no.
She grew animated and lively as she spoke, and Kristopher and Jon 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 ladybugs and the sacred sect of motherhood.
Kristopher considered this.
Justine stayed the weekend, and early Monday morning, as Jon, who would be gone the next twenty days, was preparing to drive her back to Tucson, Kristopher awoke and came outside and stood with them in the early desert light. Justine extended her hand in a gesture of farewell, and Kristopher took her hand and then asked her if she would like to stay. He said that he’d take her back to Tucson whenever she’d like. Justine 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 enjoyed each other’s company. They had commonality and much to talk about. They went for desert runs. They looked for animals together, and Kristopher quickly discovered that she was able to spot these skittish desert critters much more rapidly than he was: kangaroo rats, javelinas, thrasher and quail perched upon the rocks against a rocky background, a motionless mountain lion against the lion-colored hillside.
He led her along a limestone ledge where he liked to sit alone and read. He showed her how to shoot his twenty-two rifle, and she even killed a rabbit with it, and that evening she showed him how to dress and cook it — something she’d learned as a young girl, she told him, from her mother, who was no longer living.
While they were eating, she told him that Jon had helped her “negotiate” her oil-change.
“That’s how we met,” she said.
She was silent for a moment.
“Jon is the strangest, most fascinating person I’ve ever known,” she said.
“Some people think he’s the devil,” he said.
She smiled and then she laughed, but Kristopher did neither, and she saw the look of seriousness upon his face. “What is it?” she said.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “It worries me.”
“There is no God or devil,” she said, “and 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. “Something I liked.”
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’re in that regard much like Jon.”
“In your love of being alone. He’s the most 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 in this — in Jon. Something eternal. Not that death won’t ever claim him, of course, but that you can picture his life flowing immutably 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 doctor called it, which can mask hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. I was also born with a large hole in my heart, which they sewed a patch over when I was an infant.”
He nodded. He opened the collar of his shirt and stretched it down and showed her the long silver scar on his chest, the remains of an incision from where he’d once been operated upon. Justine, in turn, showed him her scar, which ran the length of her pinky and down the side of her hand: a horrible wound from an accident involving a broken mirror, her mother the nurse stitching it up.
They were both silent for some time.
“I had a girlfriend once,” Kristopher said, “over a year ago, in Flagstaff. We were together for two years. 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. 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?”
“That is a very cruel a thing,” Justine said, “a very cruel and unnecessary thing to have done to you.”
Time 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 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. She scouted rare animals. Once, in a single long day, she drove by herself through the Papago Reservation and then down into Mexico and back.
Another time, she suggested Kristopher ride along with her. Kristopher 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 fell, loosening the smell of the pine trees, casting him back to distant times: back to his mother and Flagstaff. He recalled a time ten months 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 in the glow of the creamy candlelight, he saw the gleaming moisture of sadness in her eyes. He hugged her for minutes, with his chin pressed hard upon her shoulder, his arms squeezing her tightly, and as he hugged her, he watched raindrops weep down the windowpane. He thought in that moment that his hammering heart which was overdeveloped might burst open in the chambers of his chest because of his oceanic 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 both got out to stretch their legs, and there, on the side of the road, they saw a horned toad, blinking in the desert rain.
“Look,” she whispered.
Kristopher 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.”
At that moment, something else happened — something he would think about for a long time afterward and would never forget:
As they were watching the serene little creature, 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 miniaturized and mutated 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 — small silver diamonds of rainwater stippling her thin dark arms. Her breasts rose and fell with her breath.
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 tired of superstitions, that he did not like them, but the instant before he spoke, before she was even finished with her sentence, it dawned on him all at once how much she’d come to mean to him. And without intending 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 before her in an open shoebox, on a bed of sand, she drew the 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 — skin strange, fascinating, cataphracted.
Kristopher watched her, rapt.
When she was finished, he asked if he might look at her other sketches as well, and she said yes.
Carefully 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 entirely. 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 turned the pages of her sketchbook slowly. His soft eyes did not miss anything.
She watched him in silence.
By and by she spoke, saying that the thing she liked most about ladybugs was the thing she liked most about humans: their inexhaustible variety and versatility. Then she extracted from its sheath the drawing of the cream-colored ladybug he most admired, 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 with great warmth and strength and affection, she 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, whom Kristopher admired so. The picture had only recently been done. The three of them were outside on the porch, and in the picture, Justine had drawn herself sketching at her sketchbook, 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. Yet the thing which 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 Justine had rendered it looked elongated between their two heads: elongated and somehow disproportionately vulnerable beneath Jon’s capable human hand.
The thinker wills.
The dreamer is contemplative.
Jon was much of the first and some of the second.
There was, as well, something of the acrobat about Jon. As the solitary life fosters thought, so it also fosters talent. Jon 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 dexterity. His 20-10 eyesight had been whispered about all throughout his youth, and now, 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 when he was a teenager, practiced obsessively every day, who could shoot very well with either hand, yet who 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 and salves 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 the persistent rumors of mummies.
One day Justine asked Jon about it, and Jon, in turn, asked her what she’d been told.
“That you keep mummified human remains hidden in caves, deep beneath Baboquivari,” Justine said.
Jon smiled. He replied 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 desert night was dark, sultry. Phantoms of thermal mist hung over the 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 heavens. 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 foothills of Baboquivari, and he spoke no words. Even in such darkness, he walked with 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 front pocket a small bright light the beam of which shone lemon-lime and was oddly illuminating. He pointed its cyclopean eye into the black maw of the cave and then he climbed down into it. He beckoned them both 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 cool beneath their hands and knees. Dog-like Jon held the small laser-light between his front teeth and in this way led them deeper inside the Baboquivari mountains. There came to them all, intermittently but distinct, an odd and alien sound, like a cathedral hush — like the whoosh of potato-shaped asteroids tumbling headlong through space.
The last corridor they crawled down sloped gradually and as gradually it widened. The air grew gelid and moist, 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 yellow-green beam of his light over the cavern walls, which were wet-looking and slurred with a blood-colored secretion, as though they’d all entered through the alimentary canal into the innards of some mythic 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 his light.
For a brief moment, the room in which they all stood went utterly black, and wands of green and yellow lucency produced by the retina in places of plenary dark passed before them. Jon 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 in a wine and hellish light, and shadows leapt like dancers across the Mesozoic walls — and there 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. Occasionally, even before a woman knows she’s pregnant, something within her 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 or the Pedro Mountain Mummy, both of which were found in the caves of east Wyoming and studied by the anthropologist Doctor George Gil? These tiny stillborns 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 morbid or 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 their stillborn potential and to preserve that memory — as it’s also perfectly natural.” Jon fell briefly silent. “And perfectly beautiful,” he said.
“And you found them?” Justine said.
“Prospecting Baboquivari, mining it. I uncovered them. They were deep — deep beneath the surface, deeply hidden.”
Kristopher alone was silent. The flare hissed snake-like at his feet. He stared at the miniature mummies in wonder and awe. Their tiny scrunched faces like little cow faces. It was impossible to tell precisely what he was thinking.
When, two hours later, they all three emerged from Baboquivari and 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 thought of something, and then he started the truck and swung it around and drove back toward his home.
Neither he nor Justine glimpsed the distant dark figure on horseback watching them drive away.
But Kristopher did.
Kristopher had glimpsed her.
Later that same night, Kristopher excused himself and went back outside. He went to walk in the wind. When Jon and Justine were alone, Jon poured her iced-water and a large measure of very dark tequila. They sat down at his kitchen table. They were silent for several minutes. 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. Jon told her that Frank’s father had risen from the gutters and grown wealthy through tireless work in conjunction with a small mining claim that had yielded copper and silver and gold, and Jon said also that at a young age — twenty-three — Frank had been wrongfully imprisoned.
“He served twenty-two years for a crime he didn’t commit,” Jon said. “The man who hunted him down was an FBI agent with whom Frank had served in the military. The entire time Frank was in prison, he worked tirelessly to have his case retried, and he didn’t allow himself to give into despair or hopelessness. After twenty-two years, newly discovered DNA evidence, incontrovertible and absolute, 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 of Grants, New Mexico. Frank had begun mining when he was essentially still a child. He loved it — as most miners do love it.”
“Yes. Does this surprise you?”
“A little, I suppose.”
“I think I was under the impression that, as you often hear, 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’s also skilled work. It accordingly pays well. Nobody forces anybody to work in mines — not in this country, at least: miners choose to mine, voluntarily, as I have. As Frank did. What you describe only happens under the authoritarian regimes our politicians here would have us emulate.”
“Please continue,” she said. “Continue about Frank.”
“He was an incredibly hard-worker and incredibly knowledgable,” Jon said, “and I learned a great deal from him about mining.”
“Why are you thinking of him now?”
Jon did not immediately answer.
“He spoke to me once of an incident in his prison life,” Jon said, “something that seems torn from the pages of a Russian novel, 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. This man’s still serving a life-term, which is the reason Frank knew 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. Frank said also that he would never forget any of the things the man told him 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 told Frank that those five minutes suddenly seemed a long span of time stretched out before him: so that in those five minutes, he felt he had eons 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. Justine watched him with narrowed eyes.
Jon 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. Then there was another minute to look around one last time at his human existence on earth, even if it was only the walls of a prison. 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 an absurd question, and yet, absurd or not, the man’s answer had struck him as fascinating. After that, came the vast two-minute period he’d portioned to himself to think about his own life and soul. He thought about the woman he loved and how it had abruptly ended.”
Jon paused and sipped more of Justine’s tequila. She watched him with her glittering blue eyes, now slit thin as saber slashes.
“According to Frank,” Jon said, “this man had already resolved that in that protracted span of time — one-hundred-twenty seconds — he would try to get his mind around the mystery of how he could be alive in this moment right now, fully aware of it, with that awareness perfectly active and healthy inside his head, but that in three minutes, this selfsame faculty — the thing which apprehended and knew — would no longer be, and there would not be anything there at all. What struck Frank the most about this was that the man was entirely certain that he could resolve this matter in one-hundred-twenty seconds because it was such a long time. Frank told me that the man remembered looking at the concrete floor and the cinderblock walls and thinking about how vivid and even beautiful it all seemed. But then his thoughts were disrupted.”
“What was it?” Justine said.
“A gnawing question at the back of his brain: ‘What if I was not to die after all, and my entire life was given back to me?’ The man swore that were this by some miracle to happen, he’d miss nothing — absolutely nothing. He’d hold precious each passing moment, and his life would be the least taken-for-granted life of any human life that’s ever existed.”
Jon paused again.
“This is what Frank told me,” Jon said. “He said that that thought filled the condemned man with such rage — infuriating him so much, Frank said, that a part of him wanted the lethal injection immediately. And then …”
Jon fell silent for a full ten seconds.
“Yes?” Justine said.
“A miracle did happen: The governor pardoned him.”
Justine waited for Jon to continue, but Jon said nothing more. She sipped her tequila and did not take her eyes from him.
“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 surprising in this, and he is right: there isn’t.”
Justine continued watching Jon and then finished her tequila. Jon’s brows were knitted in thought. Presently, he rose from the table in the fluid, silent manner she’d come to love, and he replenished her glass with more tequila. The plash of the pouring liquid rang out in the silence of his home.
“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. It doesn’t work the other way around.”
“Explain that more.”
“From the perspective of the dead, life obviously doesn’t carry any relevance whatsoever.”
Justine did not reply.
“In striving against death and the fact of death,” Jon said, “it’s important 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 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 immediate 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 a certain way.”
“Narrow is the path?” she said.
“Which leads to life.”
A momentary silence ensued.
“Emotions are 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 scope of her vision and his, the wind gusted and brought up a pair of dust devils, which sprung from the ground and twisted across the desert floor like twin serpents engaged in an 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.
The freethinker is a loose cannon. Thought is a loaded missile. That human who does not possess her own thought does not possess her own deed and so does not possess her own soul. The profound depths of the human psyche are rendered treacherous thereby.
By many of his desert neighbors, Jon was unbeloved — this much was true. True also that there is no such thing as a small antipathy or slight hatred. Hatred is always humongous.
A motive and a missile are much alike — and the missiles of malice were aimed at Jon.
Whence did they advene? Where did this secret malice come from?
To be private is to be thought peculiar — and the peculiar is always suspicious. Suspicion spreads and often turns malicious. To stand alone is to declare your independence, which is to declare that you can think for yourself. To think for yourself is an act of individuality, and individuality is always, on some level, an act of rebellion.
To believe in the power of your independent mind is to believe in your own power to reason. To believe in your power to reason is to shun superstition, dogma, 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 so? 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 lay stretched an acreage that comprised a dark wooden home which looked like a compound. In its fenced-off nature and forbidding facade, this house cut a gloomy shape, the people who lived there a kind of upper-middle-class family of hooligans — the father of whom, one James-Vincent Felts, had, after retiring from the police force, become a swindler and a conman.
There were two children, a boy and girl, and the girl, whose name was Morgan and who was the youngest of the two, had been born prematurely and suffered many maladies, including severe dyslexia and fits of frustrated rage. She 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.
Yet her older brother Baron 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, with a thin and even unhealthy-looking build — nevertheless excels phenomenally in athletics and school, who seems to acquire with utter facility 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 own age.
Baron was cautious, circumspect. He was also a master knife-thrower. He rode horses and rode them well. 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 injuring his ankle in a fall. He now held a Masters Degree in physics, and he worked in a hospital laboratory, applying material physics to multiphase technological media, and he sought to describe materials in ways such as force, heat, light and mechanics.
He 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.
Such was Baron Felts.
He seemed capable of everything and more: something malign.
His little sister Morgan — whom he did not care for but of whom against outsiders he was jealously protective — also took an interest in Jon Silverthorne.
The summer that Jon had first moved into his haunted house among the cactus, he often went out at early twilight for long runs across the desert. Sometimes these runs took him behind the gloomy, compound-like house, past a certain shed on the southern end of the acreage, a shed glowing like gold in the low slow setting sun, and in the open doorway of which Morgan Felts frequently 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.
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, this glow gradually faded into a sort of half-smile and then, as he got closer still, diminish to a barely discernible lambency at the corners of her lips, and, finally, as he was very near, this now-dim radiance would also 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 pretty 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 back and the mysterious light once more flickering across her features.
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 relationship 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, thinly 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 winsome hair, which in color approximated the desert sand she existed among.
Once when he was scouting the caves of Baboquivari, he saw her pass nearby. She was 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 challenge — something perhaps even slightly sardonic. 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 was ultimately knocked flat by Baron’s fist. On one such occasion, Baron busted out her right eyetooth, so that now Morgan had a gleaming golden fang in its place.
Then one dark desert night when Jon was driving along an empty two-lane highway, returning home after a fourteen-day stint in the mines, coming up over a hill, around a tight corner and now upon the smoking wreckage of a bad motorcycle accident. He pulled over.
There was only one vehicle involved — the motorcycle — and it sat horrifyingly mangled and silent in the sand, not far beyond the shoulder of the highway, its single headlight still bluely beaming. At first Jon saw no one. The nighttime air hung hot. Nothing moved, except 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 came moving toward Jon 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 she 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. Jon didn’t understand what she was talking about, and he doubted that she understood either. He doubted also 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 the 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 sinister 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 that had been in a grocery bag within the saddle of the motorcycle. It had been punctured in the accident, so that the pressurized cream was now spewing fountain-like from a hole in the side of the can and mingling with the dead man’s blood.
Red-and-white, Jon thought, like Christmas colors.
For a split second, Jon stood watching the immaculate spray of cream shoot into the burgundy blood and brains of the dead: 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 great presence of mind, he restored her. Very carefully and very rapidly, he carried her breathing to his truck and laid her across the seat. Then he rocketed to the nearest emergency room, and in this way 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 haunting her gray eyes, something thoughtful to the point of abnormal 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 one day, some months after she’d recovered, he 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 message readable in every way.
Almost a full year after he received this missive — 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, when he was about to squeeze the trigger, there erupted a thunderous gunshot from off to Jon’s right. The hanging peanut exploded into smithereens.
Jon looked to his right.
It was Baron Felts on a big black bay horse.
Baron was re-holstering a huge .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 whinnying horse on two legs and galloped away.
Forty days after this, in south Tucson, on a late-summer evening at an outdoor basketball court, she once again appeared before him without warning.
Jon was shooting baskets by himself. Morgan wore black canvas hightops and white shorts, an ecru t-shirt. Her long legs were deeply tanned from the summer sun. She didn’t speak. Jon was staring at her and lackadaisically dribbling his faded-leather basketball, when, 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?” Jon 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 and how confused by it she was, Jon 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 this process of ordering is a type of syntax and grammar — the word grammar from gram meaning “letters,” he said — and that while in any given language, the specifics may initially be arbitrary, the fact and necessity of it isn’t arbitrary at all but the opposite: it is the power of conceptualization, which is the uniquely human method of survival.
He told her that humans grasp and comprehend things by means of words, and that communication is for this reason not the primary but secondary function of words. He told her that the clearer and sharper your vocabulary, the clearer and sharper your thinking, and he explained to her as well that this is why dictators and cult-leaders and the like always seek to confuse the vocabulary first: because it is a type of mind-control. He told her that if there is no language processing, there is no thought.
He then showed her a more efficient manner by means of which she might attach sounds to letters — a method he himself had devised — and 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 maximum interest. She liked his patient manner, his voice, his dark and capable-looking fingers spiderlike among his books. She practiced what he taught her.
Jon 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 method of living and prospering, and only a counterforce, he said, which is ultimately anti-life can halt or nullify our 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 chokes and damages the brain.
She listened to him and considered his words and looked off in the dreamy faraway manner that had deepened inside her, and then she blinked slowly and looked back into his hooded eyes, which she thought liquid with life and lovely.
Bit by bit over the course of weeks, 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 descended into complete lunacy.
Others said she was for certain possessed by at least one devil — probably six.
Yet gradually but inexorably as her powers of apprehension expanded, she grew calmer, less wild, more civilized, her mind becoming quieter and quieter.
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 Morgan and Jon were playing. Baron, thin and wiry-strong, was dressed in knee-length black shorts and black hightop sneakers. With a bright smile, Baron challenged Jon to a friendly game of horse. He used those words — “friendly game of horse” — and then he 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, Jon and Baron had not spoken to each other more than a handful of times — and only 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 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,” Jon said.
Morgan on the grassy sidelines smiled, her golden fang winking once in the sharp western sunlight.
There is a certain type of person, well-educated and even thoughtful, within the depths of whom exists a curious combination of the secular and the non-secular, the religious and the humanist. Indeed, this curious combination occurs with more frequency than is commonly supposed, and among whom, in the privacy of their own minds, there is no fundamental contradiction at issue here — 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 of it.
His investigations into the atom and quantum mechanics went deep, and in these investigations he soon found, rather to his surprise, that “physics encountered consciousness head-on” — as he put it in two of his recently published papers — and this, corollarily, led him into endless wormholes of conjecture that quickly crossed over into a kind of cosmic superstition.
Jon Silverthorne having read some of Baron’s literature was well aware of these conjectures — as Jon was aware also that bad principles drive out good.
Baron, however, 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.
“Let’s 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 five 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. The money had piqued his interest. He did not reply for several seconds. “And what would the subject of this devilish debate be?” Baron said.
Baron was silent.
“And quantum mechanics,” Jon said, “which in the minds of many has become the same thing.”
Baron smiled and unconsciously nodded his head. His eyes were emerald-green, and his lips were carmine-red.
“I agree,” Baron said.
“We play to nine.”
“Make it take it?”
“Your ball first, since I lost at horse?”
“No. Your ball,” Jon said, and one-handed he bounce-passed to Baron his faded-leather basketball.
A soft breeze blew. The sun in the sky was white and sere, with an iridescent cirrus cloud scorched to a crisp around the edges at a great height.
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.
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.
Morgan watched and was rapt.
Baron was an experienced basketball player who’d gone up against some of the very best 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’d 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 lunge. Jon held the ball at his chest again. There was about him a relaxed ease and grace, a clear kinesthetic awareness not only in his movements but in his eyes as well. It was a part of Jon: unselfconscious, unmannered. Staring at Baron’s sneakers, Jon 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 this time didn’t fall for it. He was again watching the ball in Jon’s hands.
“You must concede,” Jon said, still holding the ball and not dribbling, “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. Therefore you will surely admit 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.
Jon had a quick release.
His shot went in.
Morgan watched the ball pass through the hoop and blinked slowly.
“Good shot,” Baron said, “good touch.” He checked the ball back to Jon.
“Thank you,” Jon said, “considering we don’t actually touch anything, yes? No? The ball or anything?”
Baron frowned and shook his head but didn’t speak.
“Of course,” Jon said, “it all depends upon how one defines ‘touch,’ doesn’t it?” Jon paused.
Baron did not say anything. He watched with fierce focus the faded leather basketball Jon held or didn’t hold.
“Let me propose a straightforward hypothesis,” Jon said.
Jon now began dribbling casually with his left hand, 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 all at once lower now, Jon juked right, left, right again, dribbled right-to-left between his legs and then spun the other direction. His quickness was absolutely eye-popping. 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 now, quicker after the shot than he had yet, and quickly trotted back to the top of the key. Pure energy came off him in an atomic way.
“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, I ask you to 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.
“You’re fucking fast,” Baron said.
Retrieving the ball, Jon now 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, though there was no communication or eye-contact between them.
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 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. He watched the ball. Jon now dribbled somewhat recklessly, without guarding the ball, almost as though mocking his opponent’s skill. 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 way, a non-probabilistic way, Baron hit the ball solidly with his fingertips, but it wasn’t quite enough. Jon regained his dribble, and now having Baron completely off-balance, almost behind him because of Baron’s gamble for the steal, Jon went to the left and with Baron gunning for him, ready to leap with all the desperate energy the atoms in his body 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 now at a sub-atomic level.
Both men were perspiring.
“Goddamn, I love basketball,” Jon said. “I love it. You know why?”
Baron didn’t reply. He beckoned with both hands for the ball.
“Because it’s fun,” Jon said.
Jon bounced the ball to Baron for a check and spoke:
“Once we find and apprehend the yet unknown variables and links in quantum theory,” Jon said, “classical and quantum mechanics will be fused and seamlessly integrated. You may quote me wildly on that.”
“That’s a rehash of the ‘hidden variable’ theory,” Baron said. Tired and resting, he held the ball a moment before checking it back.
“No rest,” Jon said. “I’m ready to go.” Jon 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, and she secretly loved him for it — loved him deeply, because she saw herself inside it too.
“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 trot it out. Pass me the ball, please. I’m ready to play.”
Baron finally 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 stood seven feet beyond the top of the key, near half-court.
“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 apologize: I’m afraid I’ve lost track. Is this game point?”
But before Baron could even think of answering, Jon, without dribbling and now nearer to halfcourt than to the top of the key, 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 ever-expanding universe behind it. Then the ball dropped straight through the hoop.
It was an incredible long shot, a phenomenal long 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 isawareness. It does not create reality but apprehends it. Consciousness in many ways is quantification and measurement. Math is quantification. ‘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 wasn’t game-point,” Morgan said suddenly. “There’s still more to go.”
She spoke 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 soundly skunked Baron Felts in their basketball games, when Morgan came to Jon’s home and lifted 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 — an index finger run softly through the orange dust upon the rear windshield of Jon’s truck.
The word she saw reflected was this:
Morgan at first thought Jon had 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 that implied. In that instant, Morgan grasped in full what the written word actually denoted. She spun around and saw scrawled in the dust on the glass of Jon’s truck the word DEVIL.
The ensuing horrors, about which Jon would never know a thing, began the night of the following day, when Jon was away in the Morenci mines and Morgan arrived home from her work in moon-blanched darkness.
The figures waiting for her inside her clean little room were people she knew — all save one — yet they were all strangely garbed, in ways she’d never seen: figures 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, his white collar and pallid skin glowing bluish 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 Morgan’s bound body. Then extracting from the folds of his black robe a long gleaming saber, he slaughtered the two-headed calf on the floor of Morgan’s room: slitting the little living neck between the two heads and simultaneously crying, in a loud wailing voice, for the devils to be gone from this girl, exorcising her demons into the desert night, while her family chanted and wept and prayed and swung the censer with its violet-blue smoke, and amid a mounting crescendo of moaning, the calf bawled and screamed with square teeth bared and wild wet eyes then died, and these humans smeared the hot calf blood over Morgan’s bound and naked body, and the humpbacked moon rode the sky above 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 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 wind-lorn night, a night 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 saw no one: no one and no thing save the quaking night and the neck-shape of Baboquivari dimensionless against the sky — the sky stretched like the membrane of an eye.
He arrived in darkness — back to the womb-like entrance of the cave — and in darkness reentered the small triangular maw. He snapped on 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.
At several points he thought he saw, separate from the beam of his headlamp, a purple light burning somewhere down the distance. Two or three times, he even snapped off his headlamp, the better to determine if the purple light was real. Each time he did, the purple glow faintly yet unmistakably intensified. And 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 light.
At last, he came to a mudded ledge — dropping off of which, he found himself, for the second time, inside the open room of Mesozoic rock, and here it was confirmed what he already deep-down knew:
This room indeed housed the purple light, and yet it was what he saw after, upon the ground under the glow of the purple light, that astounded him most of all: a ghoulish but strangely touching sight.
He saw a young woman curled on a blanket, asleep among the little mummies, with their malformed faces so cow-like, as pliable-looking as putty in the pall of her purple 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. Her lights were long lilac glow-sticks of plasma luminescence, and they festooned the cave walls, the cave itself as soundless as a crypt. He stood for a full five minutes, motionless and 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 a somehow peaceful manner. She gazed at him with a far-off and fevered gleam in her eyes, and she spoke immediately, explaining to him as if to justify herself 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 they meant a great deal to her. She said that they contained mysteries. She told him that Jon Silverthorne had once brought her here, over a year ago, and showed her these mummies and explained to her also what the mummies were — believing they’d specifically been buried here for a reason, she said, because, as Jon had told her, Baboquivari is regarded by natives as the navel of the universe: the center of the universe.
When Kristopher told her that Jon Silverthorne was his brother, she did something even more unexpected then:
She smiled with a brightness that far outshone her hanging lights of lilac-purple hue, and two dimples like tiny crescent moons suddenly appeared in her famished-looking cheeks of ghostly blue. She gazed up and spoke from where she lay upon her adamantine bed:
“My name is Morgan.”
But neither of them saw the spindly mantis shadow watching them with its 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-stick 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 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 — but she believed Jon had perhaps come closest, 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 ancient remains of sacrifices once made to the Maze Man. She told him that the Tohono O’Odham believe the 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 here to be the very portal to hell,” she said.
He turned to her.
“Jon told me this,” she said, “when he took me here.”
“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 and into hell.”
In the depths of the human eye is disclosed the quality of the consciousness contained within. If nothing shines forth from behind the eye, it is because nothing in that brain contemplates, nothing in the soul speculates, the heart inside grown cold, the life-force diminished or dying or already dead.
Small souls shift and dart their eyes.
Large souls shine forth with perception.
To be conscious is to be aware.
The secret of great souls is contained in one word: doggedness.
Whatever the goal may be, the key lies in ceaselessly proceeding toward the 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 light that shone inside his eyes left no doubt that something specific was in his mind. His dark Apache skin was overhung continually now with a subtle scent that smelled faintly of fresh rainwater.
The sequence of events, which resulted in the famous violence, was set in motion shortly after a mysterious personage, whom nobody knew, came upon a single page of something that Jon had, long ago, once transcribed onto paper. The mysterious personage was called Ash.
Scientist, satanist, seeker, sorcerer, prospector, poet, priest, doctor, witchdoctor, woman, man, medicine-man, mage, miner — nobody seemed to know anything for certain, though it was generally agreed that Ash possessed a certain power.
* * *
Approximately one hour before sunset on a soft September day some six years previous, a shadowy figure moved soundlessly through an abandoned village named Lind, in the northern New Mexican mountains. As soundlessly, the figure passed through.
Two small mountain chains traversed this area, roughly northeast to southwest, forming between them a series of valleys and hills, atop one of which, distinctly removed from the abandoned village and situated several hundred feet higher up, there stretched a lofty ridge overlooking the valley down below. To the north, in the hazy distance, a pair of extinct volcanos loomed.
The summit of this ridge was a lonesome landscape, made even more so by the single house that stood visible there. The house brought a sense of horror to the solitude — the horror of some unspeakable tragedy.
It stood in the center of a sea of house-high grass, one story tall and composed of glowing limestone. The walls were wide and the roof was well-constructed, and not a single stone lay out of place. The wind blew through the tall grass around it, caressing the limestone walls all summer and fall, blasting them in the winter and springtime. Yet year after year the walls endured and were beautiful still. A faint odor of wild thyme, like a surface fragrance, laced the lonesome air.
Around the back of the house, there arose a large and lovely linden tree and, near it, a green-apple tree, both of which were now very withered but not yet dead. Beyond these trees, along the edge of the grassy property, sat a small stone shed.
The house on the ridge was an empty husk through which moved only silence.
Often the wind that swirled around it made it also appear as though animals were squirming deep beneath the high grass.
The house had no windows, and in the doorway was no door and no barrier of any kind, the door busted off its hinges long ago and never replaced. Thus the entrance to the house stood perennially open to the emptiness within, and this emptiness was never breached or broken, save for at night, when the starlight and the light of the melancholy moon poured inside.
The house stood upon an eminence of land, its situation spectacular, and for this reason, it cut a more desolate sight yet. The natural beauty surrounding the place had become an enigma. The land was beautiful, and the house was sturdy and well-built — why, then, did no human inhabit it? Or was there, after all, still someone or something awake within? Had a great atrocity been committed here, and did the house, sentient and watching yet tongueless, remain silent throughout the entirety of the act? Does this house, even now, cry out for help in the loneliest hours of the night, but at a frequency pitched too high for human hearing?
Did whispers emanate from deep within the soul of this bereft and empty habitat?
A sacred terror seemed to slumber among the masonry — a sepulchral gloom brooding over secret chambers hidden within: a gloom which was more than gloom because it belonged to the unknown. After twilight, when the wind sprung up and the night came down and the reptiles of darkness slithered forth, the black mouth of the open doorway stood agape: gaping.
Above the doorway, in meticulous lettering which couldn’t be discerned without a close-up examination, the following words had been carved into the limestone:
HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER
Nobody knew who was responsible for this small, cryptic, meticulous engraving, nor for the lovely linden tree carved into the stone above it.
The shadowy figure that swept through the abandoned village was enveloped in a long cloak, which covered the figure’s entire body from throat to foot. The face was sunk in shadows cast down by the broad hat the figure wore, the cloak, fastened about the figure’s neck, thrown back to leave both arms unencumbered.
Swiftly the figure disappeared into the house of stone and for some time remained inside, seeking access to the cellar beneath the house. But the cellar door was bricked over and impenetrably sealed.
When the figure reemerged from the house and back outside, darkness had overtaken all the valley below, yet there was still light upon the ledge, where now the figure stood peering, in a searching way, at the engraving over the open doorway. At last the figure turned and looked out across the valley over which, silhouetted against the coming night, the two exhausted volcanos stood hulking in the distance. The western sky was a band of greenish-yellow light. This light looked as though some sort of vegetable matter were being slowly compressed out of existence. It had been warm all day, but the cool winds of twilight rose up now and blew about the figure’s ample cloak.
Slightly to the east and down below, below the lonely limestone home atop the ridge, on the outskirts of the abandoned village called Lind, there lay a half-crumbled resort which, many years ago, hummed and thrived with travelers. Palatial even in ruin, an air of empty opulence still pervaded the entire property. As the figure on the ledge stood looking out, a man emerged from the old entryway of the dilapidated resort below. This man held in his hand a flashlight with a powerful bluish beam and he stood sweeping the beam in slow arcs, back and forth, across the ledge above him, where now the cloaked figure stood.
Almost at once upon seeing the light, the figure on the ledge called out to the man down below — a strange-sounding voice which was clear and loud, neither male nor female.
The figure’s voice was carried by the wind.
“Do you stop here?” said the man with the flashlight.
“What business do you have?”
“I’m in search of something within this house.”
“In that case go back to wherever it is you came from.”
“Because there is nothing in that house but stillness and shadows.”
A long silence fell.
The wind swirled and blew.
Sure-footed, then, the figure upon the ledge pivoted left and began striding down the rocky slope, coming at length, some six-hundred meters later, to the ancient resort and to the man who held the flashlight still bluely beaming from his hand.
This man turned the light toward the face of the figure before him, the better to make out the features beneath the broad hat brim. But the figure immediately turned away and at the same shielded the light-beam left-handed.
The man lowered the light.
The figure turned back to him.
Their conversation resumed.
“Are you the caretaker of this property?” the figure said. The voice even up close sounded queer — soft yet sure, contralto yet sexless.
“I wish to purchase it.”
“This property. This town.”
“It is a ghost town.”
“It is not for sale.”
“It is not mine to sell.”
“It belongs to my employer.”
“Who is your employer?”
“I work for the state.”
“Well, how much?”
“Stranger, what are you seeking here? There is no more gold or silver left. The mines were mined-out long ago.”
“No,” the figure said. “And even if that were true, which it’s not, I seek something of much greater value.”
“What do you seek?”
“A library of lost books.”
“Ah!” the man said, and only now snapped off the beam of his flashlight, which he’d been holding at his side, so that the blue cone of light illuminated his black boots and also the rocky ground around his feet. On the outermost perimeter of the light, he could just make out the figure’s tennis shoes.
The two of them stood facing each other in nocturnal darkness.
“Where is your vehicle?” the caretaker said.
“I didn’t drive,” the figure said.
“You’ve walked or ridden all day?”
“You are the second person to come here in as many years.”
“Who was the first?”
“A young man.”
“When was he here?”
“Nearly two years ago.”
“What was his name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who was he?”
“I don’t know.”
“What was his occupation?”
“He was a miner, I think.”
“Was he looking for gold?”
“What did he seek?”
“He sought the source of the water which once nourished the entire region here.”
This was information the figure appeared to find interesting.
“You spoke to him?” the figure said.
“Where did he come from?”
“I don’t know — not for certain.”
“Why ‘not for certain’?”
“I know that he came in from a different angle — a different direction. He said he’d caught the scent of something while searching underground — a long way from here.” Unconsciously now the caretaker glanced at his wrist, as if to check the time. His wrist, however, was bare.
The figure watched him.
“Did he find anything?”
“No, he did not. Would you like to know why?”
“Yes,” the figure said.
“Because the water dried up a long time ago — and with it, this village. The water is gone.”
“I do not think so.”
“Then it was shut off by someone very clever.”
“Who?” the figure said. “Who might be that clever?”
The caretaker, holding the extinguished flashlight like a club, shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. He paused. “Hypatia, perhaps.”
Now the cloaked figure leaned closer, a certain savageness all at once appearing in the glittering eyes. “Tell me about Hypatia,” the figure said. “Please.”
“Have you heard of her?”
“Mentioned in an old book I found. Very obscure.”
“Hypatia was the daughter of the man who made this town: a geologist called Milo and a lady mathematician whose name was Lindsay, whom Milo loved, and who died after giving birth to the daughter they named Hypatia.”
“Did Milo also name the town of Lind?”
“Yes. He named it after his beloved who was named after the linden tree, as he also planted the linden trees in memory of her, and as he cultivated these linden trees with the living water from the aquifer he found.”
“What happened to Milo?”
“He died of old age.”
“What happened to Hypatia?”
The caretaker looked away.
“Please tell me,” the figure whispered with a kind of passion.
“Why do you insist?”
“Hypatia is ultimately whom I seek.”
The caretaker now looked back into the figure’s shrewd searching eyes, and then he looked away. He was still looking away when he spoke again:
* * *
In the hall of records the hiss of silk sounded out softly as the young clerk, upon seeing the cloaked figure enter the room, uncrossed her slender legs and in the same motion stood to greet the shadowy shape.
“How may I help you?” said the clerk.
“I’m searching for any surviving records you might have for the ghost town of Lind.”
The clerk looked more closely at her unknown visitor, in this echoey hall where visitors so seldom came. She smiled. “Certainly,” she said.
She led the figure down a darkened hallway, her heels clacking somehow cosmically across the marble floor. The figure moved next to her without any sound at all. The clerk spoke while she walked:
“The township of Lind once boasted over thirty hot-springs swimming pools,” she said, “both public and private. These pools were filled with a mixture of scalding water that bubbled up, odorless, from a fault-line below the mountains, and was cooled by freshwater that poured ceaselessly down from the mountains above.”
“I’m a student of history,” the clerk said. “My Master’s thesis was related to the history of this area. I have read repeatedly that many geologists once believed this water to be among the purest water in the world, and my understanding is that the aquifer wherein the water once ‘percolated,’ as they called it, was itself a thing of some mystery.”
“Who was the first to discover the aquifer?” the figure said.
“There is record that the Utes and the Apaches and the Navajo all knew about it, though not necessarily the whereabouts of its source. I’ve read this as well. My understanding is that Milo James, the man who founded the township of Lind, was the first to find the precise place where the aquifer was located, and to harness the water it contained. I’ve read also that Milo James believed this water-source was so vast as to be virtually bottomless. It turns out he was incorrect on that particular point.”
“Who was he?”
“A man who loved rocks, and who understood them. Architecture evolved with the human mind,” the clerk quoted. “And the human-being who makes a home from leaves and sticks or a shelter from animal skins and reeds is in this regard not substantially different from the beasts of the earth and will likewise evaporate back into dust without trace or memory. But the one who constructs with stone seeks to alter the architecture of the universe.”
Upon saying which, she stopped walking and faced the thin cloaked figure striding soundlessly beside her.
“Milo James was a stonemason and a geologist,” she said. “The truth is that not a great deal is known about him, but what we do know is that he was well-educated, self-made, largely self-taught, and passionate about geology: the science of the earth. The only things he loved more were the two women in his life: Lindsay and Hypatia.”
The clerk turned away from the figure and opened the door on her left.
With an open palm, she gestured to the small windowless room before her.
“In here,” she said to her shadowy visitor, “you will find all surviving records of Lind.”
* * *
The old woman’s blind eyes were different colors: the right one green, the left one gray. Her face, darkly complexioned, deeply creased, glowed in the candlelight with a soft saffron sheen and her silvery hair was yanked back into a ponytail. She did not look one-hundred-six-years-old, yet she was.
“Yes,” the blind woman said, “I knew Hypatia. And loved her.”
The cloaked figure, deferential, listened in silence. The candlelight, from a triple brass candlestick, flickered between them. The blind woman continued:
“Hypatia, who was not blind, learned braille, and do you know why?”
“To teach you,” the figure said.
“Yes. To teach me. Hypatia read to me when I was a very small child, and a little later, when I was still a small child, she taught me how to read with my fingers. She and she alone took it upon herself to cultivate the potentiality contained inside my young and living mind, and in so doing she bequeathed me with the gift of comprehension, which is learning, which is life. Hypatia believed that knowledge and not superstition emancipates the human mind, and she was right.”
The figure did not reply.
“Hypatia’s mother and father named their child after an Alexandrian woman and, like her namesake, my Hypatia — my teacher — was as immensely learned as she was beautiful, who, while still a young woman, had become known for her attainments in languages, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy.” Briefly the blind woman paused. “Philosophy most of all,” she said.
“Why that? Why that most of all?”
“Because it is the most fundamental of them all — the most fundamental science — and my Hypatia loved it the most. Students came from great distances to study the works of Epicurus and Aristotle under her tutelage, and such was her self-possession and ease of manner, arising from the cultivation of her mind, that many sought out her presence. Just as the rediscovery of Lucretius, in his verses of unparalleled excellence and lyricism, lifted the world out of darkness — almost singlehandedly, as Hypatia believed — and ushered in the light of knowledge and life, which brought the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, so similarly sought my teacher Hypatia.”
Intently the shadowy figure listened.
The blind woman rose from where she sat and shuffled across the room to a desk in the corner of the room. She rummaged among the topmost drawer and then brought forth a large sheet of thick paper, upon which were embossed a great many words in braille. The blind woman reseated herself and, with her gnarled arthritic fingers gliding delicately over the stippled alphabet, whose communicative power was contained in the arrangement of these palpable dots, she began reading aloud to the cloaked figure seated across from her:
My dear Cecilia,
Did you know that there was a time in the ancient world, long before the invention of paper, long before Christ, when the central problem scholars faced was how to keep and organize the inexhaustible outpouring of books being written? Where to put them all?
Alexandria was the intellectual inheritance of Egyptian, Babylonian, Jewish, Greek, and Latin cultures, all of which had been assembled there.
The intellectual standards of Alexandria were stupendous.
Euclid developed Euclidian geometry in Alexandria.
Archimedes discovered pi there, which set the foundation for many other mathematical inventions and discoveries, including calculus.
In Alexandria, Eratosthenes theorized that the earth was a sphere and calculated the earth’s circumference to within one percent.
Alexandrian astronomers hypothesized heliocentricity, and there were other Alexandrian geometers besides Euclid, who reasoned out the length of the year at 365 1/4 days and who proposed adding what they termed a ‘leap day’ every fourth year.
Alexandrian engineers advanced hydraulics and pneumatics, and Alexandrian anatomists were the first known humans to grasp that the nervous system and the brain are so fundamentally connected as to be one single unit, as they also learned a great many other functions of the body human, the cardiovascular and digestive systems perhaps most of all.
So much was the world of Alexandria a world of open inquiry — devoid of censorship, devoid of prohibitions against the written and the spoken word, devoid of dogma — that the Alexandrian ruler Philoadelphus commissioned seventy scholars to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek, and the result of which was the Septuagint — and all of this, I remind you, dear one, long before the invention of paper.
The level of intellectual achievement in Alexandria was inhuman, unimaginable, until one remembers that knowledge begets knowledge, as life begets life.
The blind woman stopped reading and folded her hands atop the thick paper upon which the braille lay embossed.
“That was the one and only letter I ever received from Hypatia,” the blind woman said, “written to me after I’d moved a long way away from her.”
The figure didn’t speak.
“I remember everything,” she said. “I remember everything Hypatia taught me. She read widely, as she also thought deeply, and she spent a great deal of time imagining and reimagining the library which was known as The Museum in ancient Alexandria, where her namesake had lived.”
“I want to hear more.”
“The intellectual standards of Alexandria — they fascinated my Hypatia beyond measure. The Alexandrian library fascinated her. And this is why after the death of her father Milo — who loved her profoundly, who was the first to show her the power of the written word — after he died and Hypatia was left alone in the world, she sought to assemble precisely such a library here, in the American southwest. Such was her ambition. Such was her erudition. Such was her single-mindedness, her doggedness. She sought to establish such an accumulation of knowledge and learning in the place where she grew up. This, as well, is why she was so concerned with clarity and textual accuracy — stylistic clarity and clarity of handwriting, both.”
The blind woman fell silent.
The triple brass candlestick was duplicated minutely in each of her blind and different-colored eyes: three small flames burning in each iris and pulsating with light and life. Her creased face was grave. The shadowy figure watched her from among the shadows cast down by the broad hat brim.
The room was as soundless as a cave.
“Hypatia never ceased reminding me,” the blind woman said, “that the Alexandrian library was never in any way associated with one particular school or doctrine. They anathematized groupthink. Herein lay the total secret, she said. She told me that the scope of the Alexandrian library was, as she put it, ‘the entire range of intellectual inquiry.’ For her the library of Alexandria represented humankind’s attempt to gather, systematize, and organize all the knowledge that humans had up to that point gathered — and to further contribute to the attempt by continually adding to that knowledge, synthesizing it, as she phrased it, integrating it.”
“Cicero thought the free-exchange of ideas to be the whole purpose of learning and life,” the figure said. “This, he wrote, was the spirit which drove generation after generation to pursue knowledge — knowledge which often lay beyond the boundaries of the Greek-speaking world — and that this is in large measure what it meant for human beings to live.”
The blind woman blinked slowly. “At its apex, the Museum of Alexandria, with its elegant lecture halls and vast courtyards filled with ‘almost breathing statues,’ contained at minimum a half-million papyrus rolls, all systematized, labeled and shelved according to a new system invented by the library’s first director: a scholar named Zenodotus. The system he created is what we now call alphabetical order.”
A long silence ensued.
“This is what the rigid forces of dogma finally destroyed,” the blind woman said, “as it will always endeavor to destroy. The beauty of learning and this pursuit of learning obsessed my teacher Hypatia in the way that it did, as much as it did, because she believed above everything in human prosperity and human flourishing, as she believed in the power of the written word to most fully foster such prosperity and flourishing, because the real gift and power of the written word is found in its power to transmit knowledge, across any distance, any generation, any span of time.”
“I seek this,” the figure said but spoke so softly now that the blind woman didn’t fully hear.
“Her assembly of books. This is what I seek.”
Now the blind woman shook her head, though only just. The candle flames twisted in the currents of air she created, and then the flames again grew still.
“The library of Alexandria was destroyed by the gradual, steady erosion of free and open inquiry — because such inquiry was made illegal. People newly coming into power outlawed free inquiry, and in so doing unleashed a campaign of misinformation and falsehoods which sought to paint in complete negativity any thinker whose ideas were in any way opposed to these newly enforced doctrines. Thinkers like Epicurus, Lucretius — all smeared and maligned and to such an extent that even now most of the world knows very little that’s true about either one of these thinkers, these poets. Hypatia described these forces of censorship in Alexandria as ‘the fear of a sparrow upon seeing the angle Legion unfold its ten million wings’.”
The blind woman turned her head away.
The figure waited.
“The pulpit and the manuscript,” the blind woman said. She was still looking away, even as she resumed: “The spoken and the written word and those who propound from the pulpit.”
Her voice broke but still she continued, and still she was looking away:
“Armed with life-or-death dogmas and their own brand of justice, yet growing more and more terror-struck by the spread of the printed word. The cry of rulers and priests upon feeling the electric vibration of the restless surge of humankind emancipated not by edicts, not by authoritarian decree, not by superstitious proclamation, but by the light of learning and knowledge — who from the bully pulpit see, however briefly, a future time when human intelligence obliterates superstition and the rule-by-force it requires — who hear the serious pronouncements of the philosopher understanding the human mind, volatilized by the printed word and the books containing it, and who in hearing these serious pronouncements evaporate, as their crucible of control evaporates.”
Only now did the blind woman look back with her sightless burning eyes to the shadowy figure before her.
“The only option open to the purveyors of force is to burn it all down,” the blind woman said. “For this reason — in this way — my Hypatia was murdered, after her tongue was cut out while she was still alive. And then she was buried with her beloved books.”
* * *
The boardinghouse, where Mario Vang lived, stood on the outskirts of town, near the banks of the Green River. There were high honeysuckles along the edges of the lawn, and a small cluster of cottonwoods cast shade over the house. The slosh of the river came softly across the air. It was early evening. Distant thunderheads hung static curtains of rain, and gas flares from a refinery shone pale in the dying day.
Detective DeSoto came languorously up the lawn.
The air’s so gentle, he thought, so serene.
He was a New Mexican man in his early middle-age, part Navajo, part Caucasian, above average height, slender, with thick black hair combed over to the side. He wore a black goatee. His features were fine. He stood a moment and turned to look across the land around him. The raw red-rock hills shadowed in the sun and to the north the dry air shimmered.
DeSoto went to the front door and with the tips of his knuckles knocked.
Mario Vang answered. He was perhaps Mexican or perhaps not. He looked to be about sixty-years-old. He had thinning gray hair and his eyes were light-brown. He wore a white tank-top and blue jeans. He greeted the detective, who had called earlier that day, and the two men shook hands on his front porch. He then invited DeSoto inside — down an L-shaped hallway that opened to a living room. In the other direction, a steep staircase descended into eerie blackness. Vaguely and with a half-cupped palm, Mario Vang directed DeSoto to a nearby chair and asked him to please sit. He snapped on a light and offered DeSoto a drink, which DeSoto declined.
Vang sat down opposite, a walnut coffee table between them.
“Are you with the FBI?” Mario Vang asked.
“No, sir. I’m a private detective.”
“You asked me on the phone about Jon Silverthorne,” Mario Vang said.
“I knew him fairly well.”
“I understand he boarded here.”
“About two years. But we also worked together.”
“In the uranium mines outside Moab.”
“What can you tell me about him?”
Mario Vang looked up at the ceiling and appeared to consider this question with some gravity. “Jon had a way of finding things,” he said at last.
“What things?” DeSoto said.
“Anything he was looking for, it seemed to me: silver, copper, crystals. Even gold. But especially …” He fell silent.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” Vang said. “It was no sixth sense, or any such thing.”
“What was it?” DeSoto said.
“It was that he paid attention. He saw a lot of little things, which others missed.”
“Do you know where he is now?”
“Where he was before, I’d guess.”
“Mining copper near Globe.” Mario Vang paused. “He did leave something behind here. Would you like to see it?”
Mario Vang disappeared for three minutes, down the stairway that descended into cryptic blackness, and then came back upstairs and into the room. He handed Detective DeSoto a brittle-looking piece of notebook paper, folded in half.
“It’s a page of something he’d copied from somewhere,” Mario Vang said.
“I don’t know.”
“Why did he leave it here?”
“He was finished with it. He copied that page which you have in your hands down into a leather book of his. A big book.”
“He recopied his copy?”
“But you don’t know where what he copied originally came from?”
They were both silent.
“One more question,” DeSoto said.
“Why did you ask if I was with the FBI?”
“Because the last person asking me about Jon Silverthorne was.”
* * *
It was nighttime. They had a view over the skyline of the city, and DeSoto stared through the plate-glass window and watched the winking lights burning below. A sheet of brittle-looking notebook paper, folded in half, lay on the table before him. He turned and faced the one who sat across from him — the one who’d hired him.
DeSoto slid the folded paper forward, and the figure, moving only the two glittering eyes, glanced down at it. They sat at a small corner table, in a dimly lit lounge.
The bartender came out from behind the bar to serve them and then as quickly vanished.
DeSoto took a swallow of his icy gin, on the surface of which a lemon twist floated like a modeled DNA ringlet.
“What does it say?” the figure asked.
“Would you like me to read it?”
“Yes, if you don’t mind.”
The fresh tumbler of vodka at the figure’s fingertips remained untouched. Even over jaggedy rocks, the vodka appeared inordinately clear in the soft light of the lounge.
DeSoto unfolded the paper and read aloud from Jon Silverthorne’s fluid handwriting — arcane words which Jon had once copied down, from an unknown source. This is what DeSoto read:
Nature is the sum total of reality, which is another way of saying the universe entire. Nature in the widest sense is the universe, and the universe is the totality of existence. It is everything which is. There can be no possibility of many universes or of things outside the universe, because if it exists, it is part of the universe.
Existence is the universe.
The opposite of existence does not exist.
There is no nothing.
Nothing is not something.
This is why there can be no super-nature: nothing which exists can transcend nature since if it exists, it is by definition part of nature.
Nature is reality.
Reality is existence.
If it doesn’t exist, it does not exist.
There can’t be a realm of existence beyond existence. If it exists, it is an element of the natural, not the supernatural.
Superstition is the necessary counterpart to supernaturalism: the two can only go together because they cannot exist without each other.
As the term a-theist means without belief in God or gods, so a-devil means without belief in devils.
Not “I-do-not-know.” Not “I reserve judgment.” Not “perhaps.”
Whether pagan, neo-pagan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Haitian, Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, or anything else or any cross-combination — all superstitions are united by one overwhelming thing: they are superstitions. That is their common-denominator
Superstition is inescapably, irreparably wed to force — force over thought, force over reason, force over voluntary human action, force over consensual interaction: force over human creativity and ingenuity.
When DeSoto was finished reading this, he refolded, with delicacy, the notebook paper and set it back onto the table. The figure reached for it. Long thin fingers, narrow wristbone.
“Was there anything else?” the figure said.
“Yes. There’s one other thing which might interest you.”
“What is it?”
“He observed something that struck him as a clue.”
“What did he observe?”
“Rain running down the flanks of a volcano.”
The cloaked figure in the broad hat sat motionless, thinking, as one on the verge of a colossal insight, and then all at once saw great rivers of rainwater flowing, over the course of eons the sheer slopes of which transported the freshwater into oceanic reservoirs, which ran deep below the earth’s surface.
Months later, working alone beneath the newly bought home of stone, which stood upon the lofty ledge amid a sea of grass tinged with the odor of wild thyme, the figure broke through at last: on the other side of the bricked-up cellar door, the figure found an underground necropolis — a buried cemetery of lost books.
Beneath the house were labyrinthian corridors, like a subterranean maze, which seemed to go on for miles. And carved into the limestone walls of these corridors were the remains of a once-living library hewn with great care, painstakingly, even lovingly, years and years of work digging and blasting and shaping from stone this cemetery of lost books, carved into the living flesh of the earth, tunnel after tunnel after tunnel, beneath dripping speleothems, and the figure saw also that all the books which had once lived and breathed here, every single one, had been incinerated to ash.
In the days following, the figure found other things as well — things housed among the intricate network of rock tunnels beneath the earth: a vast system of underground pipes, six feet in diameter, immense pipeline circuitry, all of which had once carried water but did so no more: water still plentiful but deliberately shut off.
The figure saw also a great many words that a women alone had painstakingly carved into the walls of stone: words which Silverthorne, following the eternal flow of water, had come upon and copied down onto notebook paper.
Last of all, a skeleton was found.
It was the skeleton of one who’d been buried here alive, murdered with her books. Above the undisturbed skull that had once housed a living brain, carved in small, meticulous letters identical to the letters above the doorway outside, so that this one might never be forgotten, was the following name:
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 stone hallway within this cave, which led down in a spiral-like fashion. The farther down they spiraled, the more the blood-colored 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: 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. This enzyme 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 lucency.
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 the 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. Morgan 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 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 — 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 development and growth and the human happiness and intimacy and the energy of life and the light 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 dance and 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 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 black 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 was the color of dove.
Suddenly the insight struck — it hit him in full — and he understood.
Jon’s eyes opened and he smiled. He smiled and turned away. Under the darkening sky, Baboquivari looked strange and wild.
Nightfall overtook the day.
Read the rest here, please.