Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition
  • Baboquivari Mountains, southwest of Tucson. “Baboquivari” is a Tohono O’Odham word that means “neck between two heads.”

    CHAPTER 1

    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 hard and started to gag. She half sat up. Her eyes remained closed. She had not spoken since the day before, but now in a loud voice filled with finality and utter authenticity she called out his name:

    “Kristopher,” she said.

    “I am here, ” he said. “I’m right here.”

    He squeezed her hand more tightly, and she responded to his grip by squeezing his hand with a strength he didn’t know his fading mother still possessed — her hand still warm and living and grasping: like the autumn season, both beautiful and dying.

    She lay back on the bed. Soon she stopped gagging and her raggedy breath stopped as well. He could still see her heartbeat in her neck — her neck between her head and his head, where he knelt 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 skin above the bridge of her nose.

    At last he covered her face with the sheet and called the coroner. When he was finished speaking to the man, he stood for a long moment with the dead phone to his ear. Beyond the rippled sway of the curtains, he glimpsed the watery day where the sun growing 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.

     

    CHAPTER 2

    He’d come from the New Mexican village of Dulce, in the heart of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. His full name was Jonathon Silverthorne. He was a peculiar person. From the time he was a very young child, he existed in a kind of savage isolation, not involuntarily or unhappily, and not in a penitential way, but the opposite: serene and self-contained, who bore his father’s barehanded beatings with a stoicism unfathomable in one so young. He left school when he was fifteen and went to work in the uranium mines outside of Grants, and for three years he worked 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 into the ground, in a remote sector of the New Mexican desert — until he was caught.

    Shortly after, at age nineteen, before his trial, he slipped away from the reservation in the dead of night. Under blue starlight, he retrieved his money from the desert ground, and he saw neither his father nor the reservation ever again. Only his mother, who lived four-hundred miles away, in Flagstaff, knew of his whereabouts now, and this was because he went to her after he’d fled, and he told her where he was going and why, because he loved her very much. That was eight years ago.

    His resourcefulness and crime caught the attention of more than a few government officials, and one in particular: an FBI agent, who did not like profit or the accumulation of money, and who himself had grown up along the crooked backbone of the Comanche reservation, in north Texas, and who’d briefly crossed paths with Jon Silverthorne, some years before, in the uranium mines near Grants, where on a handful of occasions, they’d even played chess against each other. Near the narrow hole Jon had dug in the desert ground and within which he’d hid his money, this FBI agent found a small obsidian chess piece — a black knight — and for the explosive flash of an instant which as quickly passed, this 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, the only one home was Jon.

    They shook hands in the desert twilight. It was early autumn. Ladybugs swarmed the greenish air. Gathering swallows twittered in the sky.

    Jon didn’t say anything, but kindness came off him like radioactivity, and he understood what this visit implied.

    He knew their mother had died.

    CHAPTER 3

    Because Jon Silverthorne was a private person, and independent, he was therefore by his distant desert neighbors unbeloved.

    He was looked upon suspiciously. He was even sometimes treated maliciously.

    There were other reasons for this as well: The house he called home was a demon-haunted home. Everybody knew this. Everybody except Jon.

    Such places exist all throughout the world — in city or in country — because a building, like a human, can become a cadaver.

    Houses senesce.

    Superstition often suffices to make it so.

    Even on city streets full of city-dwellers, you’ll 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. The ruined garden is all crabgrass and pigweed, all hemlock. Peculiar insects prowl these precincts. Often there’s a thick tangle of spiderwebs, loaded with dead or dying flies, which discloses the deep serenity drawn in by the spiders.

    The devil thrives among such haunted habitats, visiting mostly at night.

    Superstitious populations are not easy on the subject of satan.

    The house in which Jon lived had for many years been haunted, but it was so no longer. He had civilized it.

    Jon was a civilizing force.

    Both he and the house were therefore all the more suspicious.

    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 or heard walking alone through strange sectors of the desert, sunk in thought, whistling softly: a lone piper in the oceanic dark. He liked the desert. He liked the warm air. He was also fond of mountains and the sea and of the earth as a whole. He had hundreds of books stacked floor-to-ceiling in his home. He was an encyclopedic reader. He seemed never to sleep. His light burned late into the night, glowing cream-colored in his black Apache eyes, and it was even rumored that he was working on something monumental, something perhaps containing sorcery, sacrilege — and worse: a defense of the individual life, its inviolate sanctity.

    He also cultivated ladybugs.

    He farmed and grew them, so that their populations now teemed in the hyaline air around his home of stone: ladybugs which symbolized a colorful and vibrant life, a life of hope and happiness, good fortune and beauty, here on this earth, which Silverthorne believed in.

    CHAPTER 4

    His half brother Kristopher Henley lived with him for the next year, after which time a series of shattering events occurred, but before those things began, in the weeks immediately following his arrival, he dwelt quietly in his half brother’s home and was often alone when Jon was away in the mines. They got along well. Kristopher never asked for anything. He was not difficult. He ate whatever was put in front of him and was grateful, well-mannered, quiet. He was just over average height and slender. His features were soft and handsome. He had brown eyes and wheat-light hair, which he wore cut high-and-tight, with a thick forelock that hung over his right eye. He was, from a very early age, a swimmer and a runner — not doing either competitively but as an outlet for his great energy, his young heart so strong that it had become dangerously overdeveloped and enlarged, his resting heartbeat thudding reptile-slow.

    His mother had left him a small sum of money and a graphite-gray Mazda, and now and then he drove into Tucson to take in a movie, or to just walk around. It almost seemed as though he were waiting for something to happen, and yet in actuality he was not waiting. He was thinking. He remained mostly in the desert.

    He watched for hours, day after day, the late-September butterfly migration, their jinking flight, the bull bats of twilight.

    Lovely little ladybugs, like miniature chopper fleets, banged into his body by mistake.

    Sometimes, completely alone, he walked out into the inky black night and stood atop the sand gullies, beneath the desert sky. Here he’d listen to the migrating Sandhill Cranes pounding blackly by. They flew high overhead, unseen, rocketing southward. He could feel the great hum of their unisonic wingbeat vibrating throughout his whole body, like an immense electrical current in the darkness. It galvanized him and at the same time filled him with a sense of longing he could not name, or erase.

    Cars ghosted down the distant highway, and he thought of the people in these cars and wondered who they were. Into what futures were they driving?

    Their headlights swept lunar-like through the night.

    He began running in the desert.

    In school, he’d not been a poor student: he’d just not done much of anything. Toward the end, after his father (whose first and last name he shared and whom he dearly loved) had one day without warning or a word of explanation vanished like a ghost and then his mother got sick, he’d grown even more apathetic and disinterested in school: sitting day after day with his head down on the desk, in the back of the classroom, eyes closed, migrainous and nauseated.

    Yet he was privately pleased when without prompting now, Jon undertook the task of teaching him things. He taught him Latin and Greek. Where Jon learned these, Kristopher never knew, but he thought that in a strange way, these things suited his brother’s personality: something venerable, elegant, rarified.

    Jon had a fat and faded book of brown leather, full of strange neat Greek symbols in his own remarkable script, and he wrote in this book daily.

    Kristopher quickly came to love his brother’s slow, patient voice, his methodical methods and manner of teaching, the pure clarity of his explanations, no matter how complex the subject-matter — and more: 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 complex ideas so that they became instantly comprehensible and clear, and Kristopher recognized this as a rare skill.

    Outside, beyond the kitchen table where they sat, behind the stone house, there was a once-dead water-well which Jon had revivified, and through the kitchen window, they could see the bright ribbon of crystal water that twisted through the rocky ravine, beside a stand of sunflowers and very small almond trees he’d planted. In front were people-sized paloverde, a single saguaro cactus.

    Above, at the end of the sandy road, the Baboquivari Mountains stood dry and purple and rather unreal, fold after fold, floating monolithic against the vast and distant blue of the desert sky, like an isthmus between two heads of water.

    CHAPTER 5

    In the late autumn, on a Friday, a change blew in with the shifting wind. A woman came.

    It was early evening. Kristopher was outside, sitting on a rock shelf a quarter-mile from the house, his back against a flat slab of stone, which was warm with the stored heat of the day. Low overhead, a golden eagle drifted on the updrafts that poured down from the Baboquivari ravines. He heard his brother’s truck approaching. He stood and walked ten paces to the ridge above, where he could see to the house. The truck kicked up a pall of desert dust which glowed blood-red in the long horizontal rays of the evening sun. The lavender mountains shimmered. The truck stopped in the small driveway. The engine went silent. A dark-skinned woman in a half-shirt emerged from the passenger’s side. She was rather full-figured yet also rather willowy, with a curvy torso that was perfectly proportionate with the rest of her body. A golden star of sunlight winked from a hoop pierced through the thin 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 too,” he said.

    A ladybug crash-landed into his hair. Very gently she reached over and removed it. He saw a long and seam-like scar that ran down the pinky side of her right hand, and he smelled the human scent of her skin. She watched the ladybug crawl across her fingers, until it took flight on diaphanous wings which, intricately veined, turned crimson in the last rays of the sun.

    CHAPTER 6

    She was from a small Arizona town called Saint Johns. She was twenty-seven. She’d studied zoology at the University of Arizona and had just recently received her Masters Degree. She liked insects and bugs, 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 and piebald, she said. She said that in several other languages as well they are known as the “little cow.”

    She asked Kristopher if he knew that these little feminine creatures play dead when they’re threatened, and he shook his head and said no.

    She grew animated and lively as she spoke, and they both watched her, and they both became captivated by her passion for this subject and by her articulate and authentic manner of speaking.

    In the end, she turned to Kristopher and told him that the “lady” in “ladybug” refers to Mary the mother of Christ, much as his name — Kristopher — means “bearer of Christ” and that in this sense, she said, the symbolic sense, his name had something significant in common with the ladybugs and the sacred sect of motherhood.

    He considered this.

    Justine asked Jon about the open book at his elbow, the strange neat Greek characters in his own handwriting.

    Jon answered her that it was a passage he’d written which he called “Symbols and Superstitions,” and he said it was about Baboquivari.

    “What specifically?”

    “Hindu historians have always claimed that in distant times, their East-Indian ancestors visited every part of the world and even accurately mapped the entire globe. They claim, as well, that these ancient ancestors mined gold and silver and copper in such places as Michigan, Colorado, and Arizona, and they say also that these same Indo-European explorers often visited the Americas via large teakwood ships — six-masted, over two-hundred-fifty feet long — and did so up until 1200 AD. The gospel of their main deity Shiva is the world’s first religion and, according to some of these Hindu historians, the progenitor of all religions after. I write about a man named Andres Perez de Ribas, a Spanish priest who traveled to America in the 1630’s and who wrote a book called My Life Among the Savage Nations of New Spain, and in this book, he describes a Northern Mexican tribe who worshiped two deities: Viriseva and a mother goddess named Vairubai. Viriseva means ‘Lord Siva’ in Sanskrit. It is speculated that Vairubai is perhaps a variation on Bhairava, which is another name of Siva’s consort, Goddess Durga. Also, the word ‘copper’ derives from the name Kuvera, who was a Phoenician philosopher-king, reportedly very brilliant, and who in 5000 BC learned how to smelt gold and copper and other metals.”

    “Is it true?” Justine said.

    Jon shook his head. “It’s a combination of myth, legend, and superstition. Hindu mythology reports that the philosopher-king Kuvera and the God Shiva once lived for a long time in a barren, mineral-poor, and bitter-cold pyramidical peak called Kailash, which resembles Baboquivari Peak — which is also known to the Arizona O’Odhams as Babo-Kheeveri. The superstition to this day is that Babo-Kheeveri and the Afghan Kheeveri mountains are filled with unlimited gold, copper, and precious stones. What is definitely true,” Jon said, “I can personally attest, is that even today much of the gold and copper mined in this part of Arizona leaks ceaselessly out of the Baboquivari mountain range. And as the Hindus, the Jains and the Buddhists call Mount Kailash ‘the navel of the world,’ so do the O’Odhams give Baboquivari the same distinction: because they regard the earth as a mother egg, which contains all good things in it, and Baboquivari is the omphalos of the universe.”

    Justine stayed the weekend. Early Monday morning, as Jon, who would be gone for next twenty days, was preparing to drive Justine back to Tucson, Kristopher awoke and came outside and stood with them.

    She extended her hand in a gesture of farewell, and Kristopher asked her if she would like to stay.

    He told her that he’d take her back, and she looked at Jon, who smiled. She kissed Jon’s cheek and said okay.

    CHAPTER 7

    She stayed for a few hours which became a few days. As it turned out, they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. They had commonality and much to talk about. They went for desert runs together, and they looked for animals together, and he quickly saw that she was able to spot these critters much more rapidly than he was: desert kangaroo rats, javelinas, thrasher and quail perched upon the rocks with a rock background, a motionless mountain lion far away on the lion-colored hillside.

    He took her up to the ledge where he liked to sit and read. Here he showed her how to shoot his twenty-two rifle, and she even killed a rabbit with it, hitting the rabbit right in the jugular, and that evening she showed him how to dress and cook it — something she’d learned as a young girl, she said, from her mother, who was no longer alive.

    While they were eating, she told him that Jon had helped her “negotiate” her oil-change.

    “That’s how we met,” she said.

    She was silent for a moment.

    “I think he is the strangest, most fascinating person I’ve ever known,” she said.

    “Some people think he’s the devil,” Kristopher said.

    “Jon?”

    “Yes.”

    She smiled and then she laughed, but he did neither, and she noted this: noted the serious expression upon his face.

    She watched him.

    “What is it?” she said.

    “I don’t think it’s funny. I’m not sure why, but it worries me.”

    “There is no God or devil,” she said, “as there is no super-nature. There’s only the universe, and the level verdict in your eyes, and the beauty of your nomenclature.”

    “What is that?”

    “It’s something I once heard,” she said.

    He looked thoughtful but didn’t reply.

    “You’re here all alone when Jon is working?” she said.

    He nodded.

    “Do you get lonely?”

    “No,” he said. “I’m alone, but I’m not lonely.”

    “Then you are in that regard much like Jon.”

    “How so?”

    “In your love of being alone. He’s the most genuinely solitary person I’ve ever known.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I mean that he loves being alone more than any person I’ve ever come across — not occasionally, as many people do, or even often, but almost always. I’ve thought that there’s something timeless and eternal in this — in Jon. Not that he won’t ever die, of course, but you can see his life flowing serenely, 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.”

    “Really?”

    He nodded. He opened the collar of his shirt a little and stretched it down and showed her the long silver scar on his chest, where he’d once been operated on, and she, in turn, showed him her scar, which ran the length of her pinky and down the side of her hand: a cut her mother the nurse had stitched.

    They were both silent for some time.

    “I had a girlfriend once,” he 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.”

    “What happened?”

    “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. It gets away from me — I am aware of this. I started to think that Sophia might even be dying, and so I went to her parents’ house.”

    “And?”

    “I was turned away.”

    “You never found out what happened?”

    “No.”

    CHAPTER 8

    Two months passed.

    Justine came and went. And came. There were no patterns to her visits, no explanations. Often she stayed for days at a time. She had a car — a small black stick-shift — but occasionally she asked Jon if she might borrow his truck and always he said yes, and in his truck she toured alone the bumpy backroads of the desert. 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 asked Kristopher if he’d ride along with her. He asked where they were going. She smiled. She didn’t reply. She had a candid way of looking directly at people when she spoke, and he liked this about her very much. The sky that day was purple, the color of storms, low-hanging clouds banking into Baboquivari peak and oozing into the basin.

    She drove them into the Santa Rita mountains. The landscape went from ocotillo and saguaro to sycamore and maples, ponderosa. A warm rain softly fell, loosening the smell of the pine trees, casting him back to distant times: casting him back to his mother and Flagstaff. He recalled a time after his father had disappeared, when his mother had met a man whom she liked. He remembered how on a rainy misty evening much like this she’d made dinner for this man — for the three of them, Kristopher included — and had even gotten a manicure and had her hair sleekly done, and she wore a dark dress and heels and she looked very beautiful, and the man never came. They waited for over an hour, and then she smiled at her son Kristopher and gave him a sip of wine and said “That just means more for us.”

    But in the glow of the creamy candlelight, he saw the gleaming moisture in her eyes. He hugged her for minutes, and with his chin on her shoulder, squeezing her tightly, he watched raindrops weep down the windowpane, and he thought then that his hammering heart which was overdeveloped might burst open in the chambers of his chest with his overwhelming love for her.

    Now in the misty rainfall of the Santa Ritas, the trees stood ghostly and soft. The road ran vaporous into the purple light. By and by, Justine pulled over and they both got out to stretch their legs, and there, on the side of the road, they saw a horned toad, blinking in the warm rain.

    “Look,” she whispered.

    He came over. “What is it?” he said.

    “It’s a horned toad — though in actuality they’re not toads or amphibians at all, but reptiles. They look heavily armored and fierce, but really they’re as gentle as doves.”

    At that moment, something else happened — something he would think about for a long time afterward and would never forget:

    As they were watching this gentle 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 mutated and miniaturized dinosaur.

    He saw also the gentle creature’s heartbeat pulsing beneath the slack skin of its neck. He saw the blood and the pumping pulse of the heart, and he watched it for a long moment. The air smelled of rain and dust. He shut his eyes.

    At length, he rose from where he knelt on the ground, and he looked at Justine. The misty rain was beaded in her brown hair — 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 weary of superstitions, the he did not like them, but the instant before he spoke, before she was even quite finished with her sentence, it dawned on him all at once how much he’d come to care about her. And without meaning to, he said aloud:

    “I’m terrified of losing you.”

    They stood looking at each other in the rain.

    “Why,” she said, “why do you think you’ll lose me?”

    “Everyone I’ve ever given my heart to has vanished from my life.”

    CHAPTER 9

    She brought the two-headed horned toad back with her, and that night, under the eggshell light of Jon’s kitchen, she sat down with a black pencil and her sketchbook, and at the kitchen table, with the quiescent two-headed creature perched philosophically before her in an open shoebox on a bed of sand, she drew this mutant reptile.

    She worked with great speed, her motions deft, certain, the depiction hyper-realistic and astonishing in its detail: the distended middle, a leaf-like foot motionless, one round eye tilted toward her, the nostrils like needle-holes, the loose skin of its neck leathery — skin cataphracted and strange.

    Kristopher watched her, fascinated.

    When she was finished, he asked if he might look at her other sketches as well, and she said yes.

    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. Another was pinkish and oddly mottled, and there was even a light-purple ladybug. But the one he liked most was a creamy-colored beauty, wings splayed, with spots on her back patterned like a leopard’s pelt.

    He slowly turned the pages of her sketchbook. His soft eyes did not miss anything.

    She watched him in silence. 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 and loveliness. Next 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 squeezed his left hand with her right. He dropped his eyes. Her skin smelled like apricots.

    The next picture he saw was a picture of himself sitting between her and Jon. It was recently done. The three of them were outside on the porch, and in the picture, Justine had drawn herself sketching at her sketchbook, Jon cutting Kristopher’s hair, and in this picture also, Kristopher was shirtless and leaning forward, so that only his back and neck were visible. The thing 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 she’d rendered it looked elongated between their two heads: elongated and somehow vulnerable beneath Jon’s capable human hand.

    CHAPTER 10

    The thinker wills. The dreamer is contemplative.

    Jon Silverthorne was much of the first and some of the second: he was thinker and dreamer.

    Solitude fosters talent, as the solitary life fosters thought. Thought is the source of human ingenuity.

    There was an acrobat in Jon as well. He could — and did — walk up and down stairs on his hands and was even once witnessed doing a handstand on a skateboard and riding this way, standing on his hands on a moving board, all the way down the main street of his small hometown: a quarter mile.

    He used his left hand and his right hand with equal grace. His 20-10 eyesight had been whispered about all throughout his youth, and even after poring over the pages of thousands and thousands of books, he’d still retained his pristine vision.

    He was an excellent basketball player, who, for years when he was a teenager, practiced obsessively every day, who could shoot very well with either hand, 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 which 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.

    CHAPTER 11

    There were as well the persistent rumors of mummies.

    One day Justine asked Jon about it. Jon, in turn, asked her what she’d been told.

    “That you keep mummified human remains hidden in caves, deep beneath Baboquivari,” she said.

    Jon smiled.

    He said nothing.

    That night, however, without explanation and scarcely any words at all, Jon had Justine and Kristopher get into his truck. He then drove them down a long lonesome road of sand and gravel. The night was dark, sultry. Phantoms of thermal mist hung over the desert ground. A quarter mile from the base of Baboquivari, on the northernmost side, the road terminated, and they all three got out. There was no moon. The stars above gleamed like thumbtacks spilled across the firmament. A soft wind seethed through the grass. It went warmly about their clothes and hair. Saguaro stood mute and dimensionless all around them, pigmy owls among the cactus-arms hooting with watery coos.

    Jon led Justine and Kristopher into the very foothills of Baboquivari, and he spoke not at all. Even in such darkness, he walked with great assurance. The wind poured down through the stony ravines. At length, they came to the mouth of a cave which was more like a narrow triangular hole in the ground. Jon now produced from his front pocket a small bright light the beam of which shone lemon-lime and was oddly illuminated. He pointed its cyclopean eye into the black maw of the cave and then he climbed down into it. He beckoned them to follow.

    Once they were all three inside, he led them stooped through a low offshoot corridor and then onto all fours and down another corridor and then another and yet another.

    They crawled for a long time down these narrow stone shoots, nocturnal spelunkers, the ground cold beneath their hands and knees. Dog-like Jon held the small laser-light gently between his front teeth and in this way led them deeper into the Baboquivari mountains. There came to them all, intermittently but distinct, an odd and alien sound, like a 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, with a soft breeze like bat’s breath passing over them and lifting their hair as with tiny talons. Directly, Jon halted them and then they dropped, one by one, off a short and mudded ledge.

    They came into an open room of Mesozoic rock.

    They stood up straight at last. Slowly, Jon swept the 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 entered through the alimentary canal the innards of some mythic creature, the ceiling above hung with thin limestone spires that glistened and dripped like icicles, and then, from a metal box which sat on the ground across from them, Jon extracted a small cylindrical object.

    He extinguished the light.

    For a brief moment, the room in which they all stood went utterly black, and wands of green and yellow light produced by the retina in places of plenary dark passed before them. 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.

    CHAPTER 12

    “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 and also the Pedro Mountain Mummy, both of which were found in the caves of east Wyoming and studied in depth by the forensic anthropologist Doctor George Gil? These tiny people are the same. They are preserved in a manner which is unprecedented — from any population. Even war chiefs and very special burials are not preserved like these little ones. But there’s nothing supernatural or morbid or remotely strange about it,” Jon said. “On the contrary, it’s perfectly human — all-too-human, the impulse to mourn the dead and the desire of the living to remember the dead and preserve that memory — as it’s also perfectly natural.” Jon fell briefly silent. “And perfectly beautiful,” he said.

    “And you found them?” Justine said.

    “Yes.”

    “How?”

    “Prospecting Baboquivari, mining it. I uncovered them.”

    Kristopher alone was silent. The flare hissed snake-like at his feet. He stared at the miniature mummies mutely and in wonder. Their minute scrunched faces like little cow faces.

    It was impossible to tell what Kristopher was thinking.

    When, two hours later, they all three emerged back out into the desert night, the wind had increased. It poured like water down the steep Baboquivari slopes, and it pushed at their backs, ferrying them forward toward Jon’s truck. Jon opened the passenger’s side door for Justine and Kristopher. Then he shut the door and went around and opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the steering wheel. He paused for a moment in silence, as if he’d just remembered something, and then he started the truck and swung it around and drove back toward his home.

    Neither he nor Justine glimpsed the distant dark figure on horseback watching them drive away.

    But Kristopher did.

    CHAPTER 13

    Later that same night, Kristopher excused himself and went back outside. He wanted to walk in the wind. When Jon and Justine were alone in his home, Jon poured her iced-water and a large measure of very dark tequila. They sat down at his kitchen table. They were silent for 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 said 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, Frank had been wrongfully imprisoned.

    “He did twenty-two years for a crime he didn’t commit,” Jon said. “The man who hunted him down was an FBI detective 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 give in to 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 Grants, New Mexico. Frank had begun mining when he was essentially still a child. He loved it — as most miners do love it.”

    “Oh?”

    “Yes. Does this surprise you?”

    “A little.”

    “Why?”

    “I was under the impression that miners are little more than indentured servants slaving away in caves.”

    “When in actuality nothing could be further from the truth. Mining is difficult work. It is also skilled work. It accordingly pays well. And nobody forces anybody to work in mines — not in this country, at least: miners voluntarily choose to mine, 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, “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 Dostoevsky book, but which really happened, and it made a deep impression upon him — ‘a very strange incident,’ he described it to me as — concerning a man he knew in prison who’d been sentenced to death, but who was pardoned at the last possible moment. The man was still serving a life-term, which was when Frank met him, but he’d been given his life back mere moments before he was to die. Nevertheless, there was a period of time — an hour or so — when this man lived absolutely certain that he was shortly to perish. Frank told me that he listened with ‘extraordinary interest’ to this man’s story and asked the condemned man many questions, and he said that he remembered with perfect clarity everything this man told him. 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 had told Frank that those five minutes suddenly seemed a great span of time stretched out before him: so that in those five minutes, he felt he could 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 this 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 limitlessly fascinating. After that, he came to the vast two-minute period he’d portioned to himself to think about his own life and his own person. 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, slit thin as dagger slices.

    “According to Frank,” Jon said, “this man had already resolved that in that protracted period of time — one-hundred-twenty seconds — he would sincerely try to get his mind around the mystery of how he could be alive in this moment right now and fully aware of it, with that awareness perfectly active and healthy inside his head, but that in three minutes, 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 second because it was such a long time. He remembered looking at the concrete floor and the cinderblock walls and thinking about how vivid and even beautiful it all seemed. But something disrupted his thoughts.”

    “What was it?” Justine said.

    “A gnawing thought at the back of his brain: ‘What if I was not to die after all, and my entire life was given back to me? I’d turn each minute into a decade, and I’d miss nothing — nothing. I’d hold precious each passing moment, and my life would be the least taken-for-granted life of any human who’s ever existed.'”

    Jon paused again.

    “This is what Frank told me,” he 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.

    “The governor pardoned him.”

    Justine waited for Jon to continue, but he didn’t say anything more. She sipped her tequila and did not take her narrowed eyes from him.

    “Are you finished?” she said.

    “Yes.”

    “You leave me hanging, Silverthorne. What did he do after he’d been granted life anew? Did he reckon every minute, as he’d told himself he would?”

    “No,” Jon said. “He did not. He didn’t live that way at all. In fact, Frank said that the man wasted and squandered away many, many, many minutes. Frank also went on to say that there was nothing at all surprising in this, and he’s 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 refilled her glass with more tequila. The plash of the pouring liquid rang out in the silence of his tidy 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. And it does not work the other way around.”

    “Please make that clearer.”

    “From the perspective of the dead, life obviously does not carry any relevance whatsoever.”

    Justine considered this.

    “In striving against death and the fact of death,” Jon said, “it is crucial we not succumb to fatalism or nihilism or anything of the sort, but just the opposite.”

    “What is the opposite?”

    “We cultivate the things which foster and nourish life over our span of time — we develop the values which bestow life most abundantly — not dwelling on death any more than we dwell on range-of-the-moment gratification, which is slow-death. It means that we strive to get as much out of life as we possibly can while we have it, which entails living in a certain way.”

    “Narrow is the path?” she said.

    “Which leads to life,” he said.

    A momentary silence ensued.

    “Emotions are only a barometer,” Jon said, “not a means but an ends. This is what’s meant when one says happiness must ensue.”

    She looked away.

    Beyond the kitchen window, beyond the 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 a strange and antic dance. They spun themselves out in the night.

    The kitchen glowed with a soothing light.

    Justine rose from the table and went to him.

    PART II

    Thought is a loaded missile.

    That human who does not possess her own thought does not possess her own deed and so does not, in turn, possess her own soul. The profound depths of human life are in this way rendered treacherous.

    By many of his desert neighbors, Jon was unbeloved — this much was true.

    Equally true: there is no such thing as a small hate. Hatred is always huge.

    An intention and a missile are alike. And the missile of secret malice was aimed at Jon.

    Whence this hatred?

    Where did this secret malice come from?

    To be private is to be thought peculiar.

    The unusual is always suspicious. The suspicious spreads and often turns malicious.

    To break away from the pack is to declare independence, which is to declare that you can think for yourself. To think for yourself is an act of individuality. Individuality is often 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 reason is to perforce shun superstition, dogma, the mainstream, the party-line.

    To worship at no alter — neither the alter of God nor government nor devils nor dogma — is a sacrilege of the highest order. Why? Because humanity has always worshipped at one or all such alters.

    To be solitary and serene is to be self-contained.

    To be self-contained is an affront to the consensus, the custom, the killing crowd.

    On the fringes of the desert, a stone-throw from Route 89 and circumscribed by a barbed-wire fence, there stood an acreage that comprised, among other things, a dark wooden house which looked like a compound. In its fenced-off nature and forbidding facade, this house cut a rather gloomy and isolated shape, the people who populated it a kind of upper-middle-class family of hooligans — the father of which, one James-Vincent Felts, had, after retiring from the police force, become a swindler, pure and simple.

    There were two children, a boy and girl, and the girl, whose name was Morgan and who was the youngest, had been born prematurely and suffered many maladies, including severe dyslexia and fits of frustrated rage. Morgan was deemed “touched” by her parents and teachers alike, though many who knew her believed she was a witch or possessed by devils or both.

    Her older brother Baron, upon the other hand, was different.

    There exists a certain type of youth who, without necessarily appearing overly athletic or outstanding in intellectual range — often, in fact, to all appearance listless and dull, with a thin and even unhealthy-looking build — nevertheless excels phenomenally in athletics and school, who seems to acquire with utter ease and grace any kind of skill or sport. Baron Felts was one such. And his desire to excel was powerful indeed, precariously so.

    From the beginning, he took a strange interest in Jon Silverthorne, who was approximately his own age.

    Baron was cautious, circumspect. He was also a master knife-thrower. He rode horses, and he 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 held a Masters Degree in physics, and he worked in a hospital laboratory, applying material physics to multiphase technological media, 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 somehow malign.

    His little sister Morgan — whom he did not care for but of whom against outsiders he was oddly protective — also took an interest in Jon Silverthorne.

    That summer when Jon had first moved into his haunted house among the cactus, he frequently went out at early twilight for long runs across the sun-baked desert ground. Often his runs took him behind the gloomy, compound-like house, past a certain shed on the southern end of the acreage, a shed glowing like white gold in the low slow setting sun, and in the open doorway of which Morgan Felts sometimes stood.

    She was a few years younger than Jon, and always when he saw her, she’d be leaning against the wooden doorjamb, her bare arms folded across her breast in a casual manner.

    She’d watch Jon approach.

    With his strong eyes, he saw from a distance a bright and welcoming radiance on her face, but as he got nearer, he’d see this glow gradually fade into a sort of half-smile and then, as he got closer still, diminish to a barely discernible lambency at the corners of her strange pursed lips, and, finally, as he was very near, this now-dim radiance too would fade, so that when Jon went directly past her, no light shone there at all, and only an expressionless look appeared on Morgan’s round attractive face.

    Yet once or twice, after he passed, he turned his head for just a moment before churning up a hill, and he saw that she was still watching after him: the crescentic dimples back upon her smiling face, and the mysterious light once more flickering across her pale 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 ophthalmic interaction was from time to time renewed — when, for instance, he’d catch sight of her at the gas-station, among the cupcakes and the candybars. This gas station was two miles distant from where she lived.

    She had an almost otherworldly way, it seemed to him, of appearing from out of nowhere, and always she was standing slightly removed, 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 dwelt 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 challenge — something perhaps even slightly sardonic and mocking. More than once, however, without her knowledge, he’d from a distance witnessed her enraged, and two of those times, it was a rage directed at her brother: shrieking rows in which blows were exchanged and Morgan had been knocked down flat by Baron’s fist. On one such occasion, Baron busted out her right eyetooth, so that now Morgan had a gleaming golden fang in its place.

    One dark desert night when Jon was driving along an empty two-lane highway, returning home after a fourteen-day stint in the mines, he came up over a hill, around a tight corner and now upon the smoking wreckage of a bad motorcycle accident. He quickly pulled over.

    There was only 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 night air hung hot. Nothing moved: only mute phantoms of steam coming off the motorcycle wreckage. Then, from the outer darkness beyond, a young woman in a torn white dress suddenly appeared. She was drenched in blood. Her left breast was bared and bloody. She 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, she said. Jon did not know what she was talking about, and he doubted that she did either, or that she was even speaking directly to him. She was bleeding from her head and from her neck, more than half her face masked in gore, a golden eyetooth flashing once among the blood, and it was only then that Jon realized who the young woman was.

    He went to her — or, rather, he started to. But the moment before she collapsed and died, he heard a sinister hissing.

    He looked over to his left, where this sound seemed sourced.

    Farther beyond in the desert dark, he saw a young man — the driver of the motorcycle — lying dead in the sand. This young man was not anyone he knew. The eerie hissing sound continued. There was also something liquid-like streaming through the air just beyond the dead body: something pure-white and spraying thinly through the night.

    Jon leapt to the young man, whose neck was broken, his head completely split in two, brains and blood pooling in the sand, and then Jon saw the source of the spraying arc of pure-white: it was a can of shaving cream that had been in a grocery bag within the saddle of the motorcycle. It had gotten 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 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.

    CHAPTER 15

    Jon brought her back to life.

    With cardiopulmonary resuscitation and with great presence of mind, he restored her. Very carefully and very rapidly, he carried her breathing to his truck and laid her gently across the seat. Then he rocketed to the nearest emergency room, and her life was saved.

    Those who knew her best said that after she recovered, she was even stranger than before — a farouche and faraway look now lurking in her gray eyes, something thoughtful to the point of dreamy distraction — brain-damage, perhaps, people said, or perhaps in resuscitating her, Jon Silverthorne had insufflated more demons yet inside her.

    Jon did not know that she knew it was him who’d done this and who’d driven her to the hospital — until 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 missive readable in every way.

    Almost a full year after he received this letter — a-year-and-a-half before his half brother Kristopher came to live with him — while Jon was out on the desert alone, shooting his 30-30 rifle, taking aim at a peanut around which he’d tied a noose-like thread and which he then hung from a saguaro cactus needle, when he was about to squeeze the trigger, there erupted a thunderous gunshot from off to Jon’s right, and the hanging peanut exploded into smithereens.

    He looked to his right.

    It was Baron Felts on a big black bay horse.

    Baron was re-holstering a huge 44-44 magnum pistol, which had a long silver barrel that flashed in the sunlight.

    He smiled and doffed his hat to Jon, and then he turned the horse on two legs and galloped away.

    Forty days after this, in south Tucson, on a mellow 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 hightop sneakers and white shorts, an ecru t-shirt. Her long legs were deeply tanned from the summer sun. She didn’t speak. Jon was lackadaisically dribbling his faded-leather basketball, when, rather quickly and with a sudden smile, she stole the ball from him and in the same motion attempted a jumpshot. She missed by a meter.

    “Teach me,” she said. “Will you?”

    It was the first time she’d ever directly spoken to him.

    “How to shoot?” he said.

    She nodded. “And how to read,” she said.

    CHAPTER 16

    Jon did.

    He taught her how to play basketball, how to shoot — and how to shoot his rifle, as well — and after learning how serious her dyslexia was, he told her that reading is a complex process requiring our brains to connect letters with sounds and then to put those sounds into the correct order to form sentences and paragraphs. He told her that humans grasp and comprehend things by means of words, and that communication is not the primary but secondary function of words.

    He told her that the clearer and sharper your vocabulary, the clearer and sharper your thinking.

    He then showed her a more efficient manner by means of which she might attach sounds to letters. Soon, also, he taught her to absorb words in a block-like fashion, her eyes sliding like water down the page. He told her that her dyslexia entails that she interpret concepts a little differently from those who are not dyslexic, and it was for this reason, he said, that she was able to spot hidden connections which others missed.

    She listened with 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 means of living and prospering, and only a counterforce, he said, which is ultimately anti-life can halt or nullify this natural human curiosity. He said also that any time something new and true is learned, however large, however little, even a single new word, the living circuitry within us grows, whereas the false and untrue festers and chokes and damages the brain.

    She looked off in the dreamy faraway manner she’d developed, and then she blinked slowly and looked back into his hooded eyes, which she thought liquid with life and lovely.

    Bit by bit, 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 crossed over into complete lunacy.

    Others said she was for certain possessed by at least one devil — probably six.

    Yet gradually but inexorably, she grew calmer, less wild, more civilized and at peace.

    Then she went missing.

    CHAPTER 17

    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 shooting. Baron was thin and dressed in knee-length black basketball 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, the Jon and Baron had not spoken to each other more than a handful of times — and then purely in passing — and Jon, who did not say anything now in response to the friendly challenge, did not, however, miss a single shot. Indeed, it almost appeared as though Jon was not really playing the game at all but merely taking turns shooting baskets, practicing even, while Baron, who was an excellent shooter himself, with textbook form, was merely mimicking Jon — except, unlike Jon, he occasionally missed. In this way, Jon won the game of horse, which lasted almost an hour, and Baron was privately astonished at Jon’s sinistral accuracy — astonished and privately infuriated.

    He smiled with a closed mouth and shook Jon’s hand.

    “You’re one hell of a shot,” Baron said. “I don’t think anyone but the Devil himself could play an entire game of horse against me and not miss once.”

    “I am the Devil.”

    Morgan smiled, her golden fang winking once in the sharp western sunlight.

    CHAPTER 18

    There exists a certain type of human, often well-educated and even thoughtful, within 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. In minds of this cast, there is no fundamental contradiction — because the fundamentals, it is thought, are themselves, by nature, contradictory.

    Such a mind had Baron Felts, who believed in God and government with a near-equal faith, who with near-equal fervor believed in the mystical and the practical, the outrageously speculative and the strictly scientific — and who while religious cared a great deal about material wealth and never had enough money.

    His investigations into the atom and quantum mechanics went deep, and in these investigations he soon found, rather to his surprise, that “physics encountered consciousness head-on” — as he put it in two of his recently published papers — and this, corollarily, led him into endless wormholes of conjecture that quickly crossed over into cosmic superstition.

    Jon Silverthorne having read some of Baron’s literature was well aware of these conjectures — and 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. “But this game I propose we play for high stakes.”

    Baron looked into Jon’s eyes, but he did not reply. He was at least six inches taller than Jon.

    “If I lose,” Jon said, “I pay you ten-thousand dollars in cash today. If you lose, you agree to publicly debate the Devil.”

    Baron cocked his head. He did not reply for several seconds. “And what would the subject of this debate be?” Baron said.

    “God.”

    Baron was silent.

    “And quantum mechanics,” Jon said, “which in many minds of many has become the same thing.”

    Baron smiled and unconsciously nodded his head. His eyes were emerald-green. His lips were carmine-red. “I agree,” he said.

    “We play to nine.”

    “Make it take it?” Baron said.

    “Yes.”

    “Your ball first, since I lost at horse?”

    “No. Your ball,” Jon said, and he bounce-passed to Baron his faded-leather basketball.

    A soft breeze blew.

    The sun in the sky was sinister and sere, with an iridescent cirrus cloud nearby scorched to a crisp around the edges.

    Morgan sat down cross-legged on the grass. She watched them with her inscrutable eyes.

    The two men went to the top of the key, Jon on defense. Baron checked the ball, and with one hand Jon bounced it back to him.

    Baron began to dribble — but no sooner did he start dribbling than Jon, with rattlesnake quickness, lunged-in low and stole the ball.

    Baron was not expecting this — not two dribbles in and not so fast.

    In fact, Jon stole the ball so rapidly and so cleanly that Baron scarcely had any time to react: he’d underestimated his opponent’s quickness, and he realized this too — realized it as it was still happening. In the same motion, without slowing down, Jon dribbled behind his back and drove toward the basket. Baron was fast, but Jon had the drop on him, which left Baron a half-step behind, so that Jon went in for an unchallenged lay-up on his right-hand side.

    He made the shot off the backboard.

    It was now Jon’s ball until he missed or turned the ball over.

    Morgan watched.

    Baron was an experienced basketball player who’d gone up against some of the very best players in the country. Nevertheless, he was surprised — surprised by Jon’s agility and quickness, his fluidity and ease of motion — yet he did not show his surprise. He was also an experienced enough player to have occasionally come up against such people before: people who had never played in school or anywhere else outside of playgrounds or city leagues, but who loved the game with such passion and purity that they practiced it to the point of monomania until they had become great.

    Jon checked the ball. He was two feet back from the top of the key. He paused. He did not dribble. He leaned forward. He held the ball with both hands at his chest. He then faked a little to his left, which sent Baron back — just a half-step. It was enough. Jon then dribbled back one step and pulled up for an uncontested longshot.

    Jon was a longshot.

    The ball arced backspinning, slowly, through the clean desert air and then fell directly through the hoop, without touching the rim.

    Baron nodded once but said nothing.

    He retrieved the ball and checked it back to Jon and then crouched low and dangerous-looking in his defense: like a wolverine poised to strike. Jon held the ball at his chest again. There was a 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, he spoke:

    “Not an atom of data exists,” Jon said, “not an atom, which shows that conscious observation collapses the wave function of the electron. In fact, it’s the exact opposite that’s true.”

    Baron appeared not to hear him. He was watching the ball that Jon held at his chest.

    Jon began to dribble.

    Baron faked a lunge as if to steal the ball. Jon was not duped. On the contrary, it seemed as though he was expecting just such a maneuver. Thus, as Baron went forward in his fake, Jon, with incredible speed, cross-over dribbled and blew by Baron. He went in for another easy lay-up, this time straight over the top of the rim and in, no backboard.

    Baron checked the ball to him again, and again Jon stared at Baron’s feet. He was perfectly motionless for a moment. Then he rapidly stutter-stepped to the right, but he did not dribble. Baron didn’t fall for it. He was again watching the ball in Jon’s hands.

    “You must concede,” Jon said, still holding the ball, “that the experiments can be set up, with the measurement devices running, and that the results are the exact same whether anyone — scientist or non-scientist — observes the experiment or leaves the room. 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.

    He had a quick release.

    The shot went in.

    Morgan watched the ball pass through the hoop and blinked slowly.

    “Good shot,” Baron said. He checked the ball back to Jon.

    “Thank you,” Jon said, “considering we don’t actually touch anything, yes? 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 basketball Jon held.

    “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 phenomenal. He drove hard for the basket. Baron went with him.

    Very abruptly, then, as if on a dime, in the middle of the key, Jon stopped and in the same motion pulled up for an eight-foot jumpshot. Baron’s macro-movements were still taking him backward.

    The faded-orange ball swished through the net.

    Jon grabbed the ball quickly and quickly trotted back to the top of the key. 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, 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 fast.”

    Retrieving the ball, Jon did not jog but ran back to the top of the key.

    It was to all three of them now very clear that Jon was in total command, and this realization dawned upon Morgan and Baron at the exact same time.

    Jon checked the ball and, catching it with one hand, immediately began to dribble left.

    “We did not used to understand gravitational theory,” Jon said. “Now we do. When we didn’t understand it, it would have been foolish to label that unknown force of gravity as ‘Gods hand’ or the ‘Devil’s hand’ or to ascribe to it any random brand of mysticism, which 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, 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 his atoms contained in order to block the shot, Jon, at the last possible moment, cut back and went under the hoop for a reverse lay-up, which banked delicately off the backboard and dropped through the hoop.

    Jon once again ran back to the top of the key. He seemed to be amping-up, perhaps now at a sub-atomic level.

    Both men were perspiring.

    “God, 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.”

    “That’s called 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.” He stepped back two paces, so that he was now five feet from the top of the key: way out.

    Morgan narrowed her eyes. She understood that Jon was a longshot. Secretly she loved him for it.

    “Next, I suppose you trot out Pilot Wave theory?” Baron said.

    “To explain the double-slit experiment without indeterminism?” Jon said. “I could. Yes, I could. Pass me the ball, please. I’m ready to play.”

    Baron 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.

    “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’.”

    Jon paused.

    “Reality is firm and comprehensible,” Jon said, “but I apologize: I 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 free-throw line, 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 a remarkable shot.

    “It is time,” Jon said. “Time to admit the obvious.”

    “What?”

    “The devices used to measure quantum phenomena in the double-slit experiment are what interfere with the results. It is not existence itself. There is existence and there is the awareness of existence. There is reality and there is consciousness. These two things are harmonious and symbiotic, and they work in tandem, but they are separate. Consciousness is awareness. Consciousness in many ways is quantification and measurement. Math is quantification and measurement. ‘We do not eat what has been eaten,'” Jon said. “‘We eat bread.’ To separate object from thing is to violate the nature of intellect.”

    “That 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.

    CHAPTER 20

    On a bright blue-and-copper morning, two days after Jon beat Baron Felts in their basketball games, when Morgan came to Jon’s home and then 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 — a finger run softly through the orange dust upon the rear windshield of Jon’s truck.

    The word she saw reflected was this:

    LIVED

    Morgan assumed 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 it implied.

    In that moment, Morgan grasped in full what the written word actually denoted.

    She swiveled around and saw scrawled in the dust on the glass of Jon’s truck the word DEVIL.

    The ensuing horrors, which Jon knew nothing of and never would, began the night of the following day, when Jon was away in the Morenci mines and Morgan arrived home from her work in moon-blanched darkness.

    The figures waiting for her inside her tidy room were people she knew — all save one — yet they were strangely garbed, who bound her and burned incense and swung the incense from a golden censer, who chanted and wept and prayed, and then came the gracile and mysterious priest-like figure, whom she did not know, his white collar and pallid skin glowing blue in the moonlight, who strode seven-feet-tall into the room bringing behind him a tiny two-headed calf with a long neck and small cloven hoofs that clopped lightly across the wooden floor, leading the mutant animal before Morgan’s bound body. Presently, 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 mayhem of moaning noise and fanaticism, the calf bawled and screeched and then died, and these humans all smeared the dead animal’s hot blood over Morgan’s bound and naked body, and the humpbacked moon rode the sky and poured down its pale light which flickered silver upon the sacrificial blood of the calf, the husks of ladybugs with their little cow faces everywhere outside, strewn beneath the midnight heavens like raisins in the dust.

    One week later, while the Felts family slept as if drugged by witch’s brew, the entire compound burned to the ground.

    Morgan’s was the only body not found.

    PART III

    It was a quaking desert night, not to be gainsaid — a sweltering night, a night, perhaps, of wild insight and heightened apprehension.

    An indigo light filled the sky, and several times he thought he heard voices in the distance. Yet in every direction he looked, he saw no one: no one and no thing save the desert and the neck-shape of Baboquivari silhouetted blackly against the indigo sky, two-headed, stretching above him like the membrane of an eye.

    In darkness, he arrived back at the womb-like entrance of the cave.

    In darkness, he reentered the small triangular maw.

    He ignited his small headlamp which shone on the cave walls with a bluish beam, and he crawled on his hands and knees for what seemed hours through the maze-like corridors of stone.

    At several points he thought he saw, quite separate from the beam of his headlamp, a purple light burning somewhere down the distance. Two or three times, he even extinguished his headlamp, the better to determine if the purple light was real, and indeed its glow intensified.

    Was there a different feeling about this purple light pulsing deep in the throat of the caves? Was there because of it a less deathly stillness in the air?

    Without at first consciously realizing it, he began using that purple glow as both a reference point and also a guide.

    The deeper in he went, the brighter grew the purple glow.

    At last, Kristopher came to a mudded ledge — dropping off of which, he found himself, for the second time, inside the open room of Mesozoic rock. Here it was confirmed what he already deep-down knew:

    This room comprised the purple light, and yet it was what he saw after, upon the ground under the glow of that light, that astounded him most of all — beyond anything he’d seen in his life. It was a ghoulish and yet strangely touching sight.

    He saw a young woman curled on a blanket, asleep among the little mummies with their malformed faces minute and cow-like in the purple pall of her pulsing light.

    CHAPTER 21

    She was sick and feverish and sweating on her stony bed. Her face just under her cheekbones had a slightly famished look. Her hair hung damp and short. The light consisted of long lilac glow-ropes and glow-sticks of plasma light, all hung and draped along the cave walls. The cave was as soundless as a crypt. He stood for a full five minutes, motionless and watching her — watching her in silent surmise. Her face was not familiar to him. When at last he moved, he woke her by accident, gently, with the scuffing sound of his shoes.

    She did not start but opened her eyes in quiet and in peace and gazed at him in a far-off and fevered way, and she spoke immediately, telling him that sleeping among the mummies brought her comfort because like her, she said, these humans were born prematurely and were defective as a result, and she said also that she loved them. She said that they contained mysteries. She told him that Jon Silverthorne had once brought her here, over a year ago. He showed her these mummies, she said, and he explained to her also what the mummies were, believing they’d specifically been buried here for a reason — because, she said, Baboquivari is regarded by natives as the navel of the universe and the center of the universe.

    When Kristopher told her that Jon Silverthorne was his brother, she did something even more unexpected:

    She smiled.

    She smiled with a brightness that far outshone her hanging lights of lilac-purple hue, two dimples like tiny crescent moons suddenly appearing in her famished-looking cheeks of ghostly blue. She smiled from where she lay upon her adamantine bed.

    “My name is Morgan,” she said.

    Neither of them saw watching from the shadows the spindly figure with the insect head.

    CHAPTER 22

    On unsteady legs, Morgan led him from this room, through a dark corridor and then another and then another. She held a purple glow-light 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 — and when, at long length, the two of them came into an enormous open room through which a cool wind poured, she told Kristopher to watch his step. There were bones glowing greenly phosphorescent along the ground, and she said that these bones were the remains of sacrifices once made to the Maze Man. She told him that the Tohono O’Odham believe 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 to be the very portal to hell,” she said.

    He turned to her.

    “Jon told me this,” she said.

    “What else did he say?”

    “He said that the navel of the universe also contains the portal to hell, and he smiled at me when he said it, and I don’t know why.”

    They regarded each other in silence for some time.

    They regarded each other in the swarming purple darkness of her light.

    “Will you come with me?” she said at last.

    “Where?”

    “Through the portal, to hell.”

    Chapter 23

    In the depths of the human eye is revealed the quality of the person contained within. If nothing shines forth from behind the eyes, it is because nothing in that brain thinks, nothing in that soul contemplates, and the heart inside has grown cold — the life-force diminished or dead.

    Small souls blink and dart their eyes. Large souls possess eyes that radiate and flash with bolts of brightness.

    The mystery of great souls is disclosed in this one word: doggedness.

    Whatever the goal may be, the entire secret lies in ceaselessly proceeding toward that goal — and to fall does not preclude soaring.

    All of Jon’s existence seemed somehow yoked to the impossible, even while he himself, no matter the impossibility, seemed simultaneously unstoppable.

    What was he aiming for? And what the object of his sinistral aim?

    None knew.

    Yet the fiery light that burned hotly inside his eyes left no doubt that something specific was in his brain.

    When part of his peculiar manuscript appeared in print, it went completely unnoticed — at first.

    The circumstances surrounding the meteoric blast it eventually created, and which resulted in the famous violence, began shortly after a mysterious personage whom nobody knew somehow got hold of Jon’s pages. This person’s name was Ash.

    Ash: Scientist, satanist, sorcerer, prospector, poet, priest, doctor, witchdoctor, Wiccan, woman, man, miner — it was difficult to say anything for certain. The only thing generally agreed upon was that Ash possessed a certain power.

    Chapter 24

    A certain power and a certain thoughtfulness, and the passages in Jon’s pages that most captured Ash were passages describing nature as the sum total of reality, which, Jon wrote, is another way of saying the universe entire:

    “Nature in the broadest sense is the universe — the universe being everything which is.”

    This and its elaboration are what Ash chiefly noted.

    There can therefore be no possibility of many universes or of things outside the universe, Jon wrote, because if it exists, it is by definition a part of the universe.

    Existence is the universe.

    The opposite of existence does not exist.

    Nothing is not something.

    “There is no nothing,” Victor Hugo wrote.

    This is why there can be no super-nature: nothing that exists can transcend nature, because if it exists, it is part of nature by definition.

    Everything that exists is part of reality. Nature is reality. If it doesn’t exist, it does not exist.

    There cannot be a realm of existence beyond existence. It is a contradiction in terms. If it exists, it is an element of the natural, not the supernatural. This is why superstition is the necessary counterpart to supernaturalism: the two must go together because they cannot exist without each other.

    The word “superstition” comes from the Latin “super” meaning “over” — to over-stand, to stand in awe of things the mind does not yet comprehend, which does not mean that the mind isn’t capable of comprehending the thing, but only that the mind hasn’t yet comprehended it. This is a principle which woman and men must learn and never let go of:

    Because a thing is not yet known doesn’t mean that the only possible explanation is something supernatural.

    Lightning bolts, once thought to be the supernatural weapons of Thor, are a perfectly natural phenomena — though much about lightning is still poorly understood — just as the Northern Lights are natural and not the supernatural breath of gods.

    Super-nature not only does not exist — it cannot exist: it could in no way touch, alter, or affect reality — not by hex or by vex, not by miracle or curse — unless it were in some way a part of nature.

    Even a god must perceive by some means.

    How could something beyond nature ever be called upon from nature — by prayer or by curse or by anything else? How if it is beyond nature could it be invoked in any way that would connect it to the natural world? How could these two realms in any manner whatsoever coincide, crossover, or touch? And how could human consciousness, which is entirely natural, discover it or know about it in any way, even by mystical means, if this other realm is beyond nature?

    Where is one end of the bridge anchored, and where does the other end touch down? And what becomes of that bridge the moment it passes from the realm of nature and into super-nature?

    How could such a bridge be crossed or built through the natural world and into the other realm, which is beyond nature?

    And if super-nature is not totally beyond nature, why isn’t this realm subject to observation and inquiry?

    How can a hex or a spell or a miracle or a curse subvert certain laws of reality but not others? How is it, for instance, that the putative workers of such hexes, spells, curses, invocations, and miracles must still abide by the most elementary laws of economics, gravity, traffic-jams?

    Why can some quotidian laws be transcended, while so many others cannot?

    Why do the casters of spells and the callers of curses and the workers of miracles and the practitioners of voodoo, who purport the ability to call forth powers beyond nature to do such magnificent things as heal or harm, why do they nevertheless sit in rush-hour traffic or wait in lines?

    Why do they who collaborate with the otherworldly work in any number of worldly industries — and perform the character-building value that this worldly work entails — for something as worldly as money with which they might buy such worldly things as clothing, shelter, drinks, food, fuel?

    Why not mystically call forth pure gold from the soil and wealth from the branches of trees, rather than work in the bar or restaurant?

    What need of money for those who have power to heal or hex or call forth things beyond nature?

    I propose this:

    Let she or he who claims supernatural powers, no matter the specific creed or dogma or set of beliefs involved, let this person drive across the country with both eyes shut tight the entire time — without any regard for refueling, roads, pedestrians, oncoming traffic, or any other basic facts of reality, which can be transcended by this thing called super-nature, via its superstitious mediums, and let the true-believer also sit without seatbelt and without fear in the passenger-side of the blindly moving car.

    In actuality, since no one can truly exist outside the natural world, the people who haunt the half-hidden precincts of the supernatural are at constant war with the natural world in which they, as all of us, must live. They are double-minded, two-headed, because how can you live in reality if you’re at war with reality?

    All claims, whether God, green men, Grendel, the Great Spirit, or anything else, can only be put forth in a serious way with the accompaniment of data — not mere belief or whimsy or data which is weak and flimsy.

    It is always the job of the claimant to bring good data with the claim so that she or he might demonstrate its truth. That billions or even trillions believe is irrelevant, as it always has been, as it always will be.

    It is not the job of everyone else to constantly disprove whimsical notions and notions of pure fancy, while the creators of these endless notions continue to spin claim after claim and expect the rest of the world to either disprove negative claims or simply take the claims on faith — to believe in spite of independent thought. And if that were the case, why choose this belief over that one? By what criteria of cardinal judgement? Why little green men instead of Grendel? Why reject the Judeo-Christian God in favor of Pagan Goddesses, or vice-versa? Why priestcraft instead of witchcraft? What is the accurate measure for claims that cannot be measured — claims and propositions that cannot be proven or disproven or properly studied or known because by definition they are beyond nature?

    And how if reality is jettisoned does one rightly gauge the measure?

    By what legitimate standard or test?

    And what, meanwhile, of our minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day existence in the natural universe, the realm of existence, the non-supernatural realm, where a momentary lapse in judgement, based upon real criteria, can result in harm or death — for instance, by car or motorcycle accident?

    As the term a-theist means without belief in God or gods, so a-boogeyman means without belief in boogeymen.

    I repeat: without belief.

    Not “I-do-not-know.” But without belief.

    Superstition, whether pagan, neo-pagan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Haitian, Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, or anything else or any cross-combination — they are united by one ineluctable, overwhelming, insurmountable denominator which they all have in common:

    They are superstitions.

    They therefore float forever in the murky realm of the unverifiable, the unprovable, the unknowable, the hexed and demon-haunted Gondwanaland of uncertainty and the arbitrary, where new offshoots and denominations and rules and permutations and doctrines and quasi-doctrines spring up and mushroom endlessly, and where uncertainty, anxiety,  fear, trembling, and even loathing of the knowable universe — which is everything real — rear heads from that one single neck of superstition and mock the meat they feed upon: the value of human effort and human creativity and ingenuity in the real and remarkable realm of the natural universe.

    Chapter 25

    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.”

    Chapter 26

    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 enslave.

    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 shine with light and life.

    Chapter 27

    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.

     

     

    Chapter 28

    The Superstition Mountains are a range of volcanic peaks located approximately fifty miles east of Phoenix, along the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert. To the natives, they’re known as The Superstitions — an extraordinarily deceptive and inimical terrain filled with abrupt drop-offs, strange sounds, enigmatic disappearances, unexplained deaths — and it is perhaps for this reason that more people reportedly perish each year in The Superstitions than in any other North American mountain range.

    Toward the close of a melancholy afternoon, some seven years before — before the two-headed horned toad was found cleft on Jon Silverthorne’s doorstep — in the autumn of 2006, a strong-looking young man in faded blue jeans and a white tee-shirt entered The Superstitions by way of the Apache trail.

    The young man was perhaps twenty-two-years-old. His hair hung long and jet-black. His skin was satanically dark. He wore tennis shoes and he carried a large duffel bag over his shoulder, nothing else. He walked in a purposeful yet relaxed way. A handful of people that day saw the young man entering The Superstitions alone, each of whom reported later, independently of one another, that there was something peculiar about him.

    None could pinpoint precisely what it was about him that was peculiar. None witnessed him coming out.

    One said she’d seen him here before.

    Around this same time, a remarkable incident took place which may or may not have been connected with the young man’s presence in The Superstitions.

    Among the locals, there has long been a belief that the Devil has from time-to-time chosen the Superstition Wilderness as a hiding place for his various treasures. Many people who live in the vicinity say that it is not at all uncommon or unusual to meet at twilight, in certain secluded areas along the fringes of the wilderness, a stern-looking man, possibly a hunter, with soot-colored skin and scarlet eyes and bare feet that seem perhaps cloven. This man is often observed, with a bag over his shoulder, entering caves, which appear to open up before him in the earth, as if he and he alone creates them. Sometimes he has dead rattlesnakes hanging from his belt.

    It is generally agreed that there are two ways of handling an encounter with him:

    The first is to approach and speak to the man — at which point it becomes immediately apparent that he’s just a wandered hermit, a poor man with only half his faculties intact, and that his skin only looks soot-colored because he is weather-beaten and it is sundown, that his scarlet eyes are in fact light brown, that his feet, which are indeed bare, are not, however, cloven at all but simply scarred and filthy, and that the caves he enters are not created by him but merely hidden in the gloaming, and he uses these caves as a shelter in which to sleep. The snakes are his supper. You go home then, after which you may or may not die within the year.

    The second method is to watch him closely, and when he’s vanished into a cave, you scrupulously mark that spot. Next day, you return to this spot. You dig and dig, and you then loot the treasure which the stern and swarthy man has stashed there.

    You may or may not die within the week.

    And what is the Devil’s treasure?

    Is it gold? Wealth and riches beyond all human imagination? Food and drink and sexual glut?

    Or is it some ancient relic wrapped in rags?

    A thin black book, perhaps — a book of shadows and light — containing deep dark knowledge?

    A few days after the solitary and strong-looking youth was seen entering The Superstitions, a small boy, no more than twelve-years-old, walked alone down the Apache Trail. It was a warm and windless autumn night. A deep stillness hung over the desert. The moon wobbled up and stood quaking on the eastern horizon: membraneous and full, laving the cooling land in gales of sulphur-colored moonlight.

    The small boy was an orphan. He was a remarkably resolute little lad, and also a wanderer, an explorer.

    He’d heard that treasures were hidden in these mountains — treasures men had died in trying to find — and he was drawn by the mystery and the challenge, far more than he was drawn by the allure of riches.

    He was an apprentice to a stonemason — one of these little boys who through a combination of circumstance and necessity are in many ways already men. He carried hod. He worked indefatigably. He earned his own living. He watched closely how his boss laid stone. He liked to climb things. And he liked to swim. He also practiced handstands, pushups, pull-ups. At the park, among the old savants and autodidacts, he learned to play chess, at which he rapidly excelled. A child of chance, a happy orphan, a solitary soul by choice, a little boy of mixed pedigree, half-black, half-white, who thought nothing of giving money to a poor woman on the street, he haunted bookstores and libraries, and he found that the more he read, the more he wanted to read. He frequently went alone to movies, late at night. He loved the magic of the cinema screen.

    Often mischievous but never malicious, who felt no rancor toward any race or station in life, he was bold to the point of precociousness — bold and bright — and he frequently engaged adults in conversation, yet he thought incomprehensible those humans who past a certain age could not be alone for more than twenty-four hours. When the impulse struck, he allowed himself little holidays like this and went exploring.

    Such was this resolute little lad.

    That night, the silence and solitude of the desert had something unearthly about it, something mysterious and strange. There was not the ghost of a wind. The saguaro cactus stood sentry-like everywhere around the Apache Trail. The boy had chosen this night for the fullness of the moon, the light it cast. On his back, he carried a small pack inside of which was a tightly rolled tent. He was sticking to the trail. His plan was to pitch the tent any moment now, and then sleep and rise early and then in the light of the new day make his way alone into The Superstitions, where so many had perished in pursuit of unbelievable treasures and riches. Suddenly, though, in the dark desert wild far off to his left, he thought he saw the pulse of a golden light.

    This light came and went. And came again. And vanished. For a split second, the light almost looked mushroom-shaped — like a miniature mushroom cloud.

    The little lad could not resist.

    He went off-trail.

    The ground rapidly grew rocky and thorny and difficult to traverse. He walked for a long time — he was surprised how long. He moved slowly and with great caution. There were dense patches of Moon Cactus and Star Cactus and Candlewood, which is also called Jacob’s Staff, and there were small yucca with sword-shaped leaves standing motionless in the wind-lorn night. He did not see the golden light again, but he’d taken careful note of the landscape surrounding the area from which the light had emanated, and he moved slowly but steadfastly toward it.

    At length he came into a sandy draw which soon gave way to a narrow canyon surrounded by spiky stone jags. He felt he’d entered here a sort of nighttime palace — a fantastical palace stumbled upon in this vast western wasteland. The nocturnal air grew warmer and more breathless still, so that walking these windless canyons, the boy began to sweat.

    He had a vague, uneasy sense that someone was observing him.

    The moon, meanwhile, rolled above like a ball of marble across the sloped firmament and cast a ghostly light all along the ground. He wandered the sandy paths beneath the spikes of stone, which glowed like sepulchers in the lunar light, and he wandered for a long time and was even on the brink of turning back, for fear of having lost his direction — when, out of the moon-blanched dark, away to his right, he thought he heard a sound, like a low growl.

    He turned.

    He saw no one and nothing out of the ordinary.

    He was already beginning to have strange thoughts — thoughts he’d never had before — and these thoughts intensified now. Apprehension crept over him in a hot and peristaltic way which made him shutter.

    He paused for a moment.

    He looked behind him.

    He saw his footprints in the sand which the moon was fantastically silvering. He stared at his footprints for a full minute, as though they contained secrets: those steps he’d taken which had led him to this precise spot, this precise moment in time, steps which could have been different had he decided at any point to go in another direction.

    But this was the way and the path he had willed.

    He understood this.

    He faced forward again and went deeper inside The Superstitions.

    Chapter 29

    The stones around him loomed like pyramids. The moon was so bright that it cast geometrically sharp shadows, tilting the canyon walls in a disorienting fashion, the silver sandy ground inlaid everywhere with points of black shadow. Now the only sound was the sound of the shadow-strewn earth crushing gently beneath each of his steps.

    One hour later, within the silvery light-and-shade of this marvelous rock palace, he felt for the first time that night a breeze pass over him. The breeze blew small yet steadily down a narrow stone corridor. It came like a soft spirit upon him. It smelled vaguely of … what?

    He considered the question.

    Rain and dust, and something else he couldn’t quite pinpoint — a nick of astringency: metal or vinegar, perhaps, or perhaps fresh blood, he was not sure.

    The smell was subtle yet sharp and not entirely unpleasant.

    He turned into it and walked against the gentle breeze — the breeze which blew over him with a sound like a whisper of souls and blood-like odor. It was then that he heard the low growl again.

    He did not know it, but it was the growl of the monolithically shifting sand across unseen dunes.

    With a sense of impending dread, the resolute boy continued on his path — not fearlessly, but with the knowledge and conviction that this was the way he’d decided upon: the way of solitude and discovery. Searching for the golden light, alone.

    Chapter 30

    He was well inside The Superstitions now. By now his thoughts were running wild with surmise, his eyes dilated with conjecture.

    He continued walking into the cool and strange-smelling breeze, which was constant and spiced at this point with something like smoke. He continued deeper into night.

    At last, passing near the open mouth of a cavern, where the breeze blew stronger, he found evidence of another creature: a white tee-shirt hanging from a rock. It was swaying and snapping lightly, like a phantom in the breeze.

    The boy approached.

    The astringent odor grew stronger.

    As the boy approached, he saw something like a muffled light beyond. It was furred and vague, this light, like one of those dark-lantern effects said to be common in the illumination of witch covens and devil’s meetings.

    For a moment, he imagined that the vast vacant darkness had sprouted eyes, the intermissions of light caused by a vent-hole in the doorway of hell, the opening and shuttering of hell’s iron grate — human flesh roasting slowly within, he thought, and perhaps this accounted for the smell of smoke and blood.

    The boy went deeper in.

    His way turned and twisted, and the light grew clearer and less muffled.

    Finally, far down a stone chute, he saw at last the figure’s back — human, alien, angel, devil, he did not know.

    The boy’s heart paused, then released a thunderous beat. Beads of sweat appeared all along his forehead and stood there like stemmed eyeballs. He closed and opened his eyes slowly. He inhaled through his nose. He felt himself inwardly trembling. He gathered his courage and advanced toward the figure.

    The figure was a man about whom golden-yellow light all about shone.

    The man was shirtless and swarthy. He was clearly at work — though at work upon what (cauldron, coffin, pitchfork) the boy could not tell. The man was turned and leaning forward in such a way that all the boy could see was his lean back lumpy with muscle.

    The light came from three small but strong battery-powered bulbs, strategically positioned. There was no sound. There was a large duffel bag upon the ground.

    The boy advanced closer.

    Abruptly, as if he heard or otherwise sensed something, the man stopped working and turned.

    He was a young man.

    His hair was black, his eyes dark and hooded and unafraid. His bare torso was exceptionally lean and muscular, his skin so dark as to appear almost black. It gleamed with perspiration. He wore clear-latex gloves, which went up almost to his elbows, and which he removed now and dropped soundlessly to the ground. He faced the boy and stared directly into the boy’s wild gaze.

    His eyes radiated warmth and kindness.

    He smiled.

    This man was deep inside The Superstitions. He had penetrated them. He was investigating them. He was studying The Superstitions.

    He was understanding them.

    “Am I dreaming?” said the little lad.

    “No,” the young man said.

    “What have you found here?”

    “Water.”

    The boy was silent.

    “I’ve found a large underground water aquifer,” the young man said.

    “How?”

    “Through geographical survey, while looking for uranium.”

    “Why uranium?”

    “Because I know somebody — a medical researcher — who buys it from me and uses it for medicine.”

    “What is all this golden powder and dark stone around us?”

    “It’s called Yellowcake. Yellowcake is the end product from the extraction of uranium prior to purification. It is an intermediate stage in the processing, and it contains eighty percent Uraninite. The yellow comes from the color of the concentrates used to leach and process uranium ores.”

    “I thought it was gold,” the boy said.

    The young man smiled wider now. His teeth shone very white. He stepped right up to the boy and spoke again:

    “You possess a great deal of courage and strength,” the young man said.

    “Why do you say?” the boy replied.

    “You’ve come all this way alone, in The Superstition Wilderness, in the dark of night. Many, many people enter The Superstitions and never again find their way out.”

    The boy didn’t immediately respond. “I was afraid,” he said. “Very afraid.”

    “But you faced it alone and you overcame it.”

    “Are you? Are you afraid?”

    Slowly, the young man shook his head. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. There never was. It was all a trick, a lie.”

    The young man then took something from the front pocket of his faded blue jeans, and he told the boy to open his hand.

    The boy did.

    The young man placed into the open palm a rough heavy stone, the size of a walnut and very warm, and he told the boy not to look at it but to keep it safe inside his pocket. He said that he’d found this stone here as well. Then he gave the boy a large cup of cold water to drink, and when the boy was finished drinking it, the young man told him now to go back.

    The boy — who had noticed something overhead when he’d tipped the water-cup and guzzled — cast his eyes upward.

    High above in the domed ceiling of the cavern was a large hole that gave to the night sky. The fantastically silver shiny moon shone through.

    Lowering his eyes now, it seemed to him for a protracted moment that behind the young man he saw a slow and mushroom-shaped pulse of light, almost but not quite invisible, coming off the Yellowcake and then throbbing out through the ceiling-hole and into the night, obscuring the moon thinly, like gauze: a gauzy golden veil.

    The next morning, when the boy removed the heavy stone from his pocket and scrutinized it in the full light of day, he knew instantly what it was — had, in fact, already guessed:

    It was a large nugget of pure gold.

    But the young man, so deeply investigating The Superstitions, would never know the real gift he’d given the boy:

    He’d given an explicit confirmation of what was already implicit inside the boy’s brain and body — the full sanction of youth and the gay and courageous spirit of youth, which the young boy already contained, and the knowledge and understanding that the magical energy and joy and curiosity and purity of youth can and should be kept for a lifetime.

    Thereafter, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a wry and knowing smile — an ironic smile — the boy told anyone who asked that it was the Devil himself who, late one autumn night in The Superstitions, had given him this solid gold nugget, and then, said the boy, the diabolical two-horned beast went right back to work, with his pitchfork stamped 666 in hot smoking scrawl, poking at his strange yellow fire, while over his swart shoulder, beyond the handsome curve of his aquiline nose, a mushroom-shaped dome of atoms rose.

    PART IV

    On the topmost floor of the sixty-six story skyscraper, the tall thin figure stood obscured by shadows. It was night. The sky hung black and bilious. The half-hidden face appeared ashen in the dim room, a shock of high hair moon-colored and floating against the dark sky behind.

    The figure stood in the corner where wall and window met: a calm and cockeyed creature with a curious yet glowing gaze which, cockeyed or not, burned blue and bright, this figure somehow vampiric and even God-like looming here so high and so near the plate-glass slab of window that gave to the vast unspooling night.

    The city like an intricate necklace spread out across the plain below shimmered with lucency and electric light, all the darkness alive with sparkling jewels of apricot and ice-pink.

    The figure lifted a glass filled with icy water and then, drinking deeply until the glass was drained and the ice rattled dryly, spoke to the man with hooded eyes, who stood halfway across this high hall-like room:

    “What have you been thinking of?”

    “Shadows.”

    “To think of shadows is a serious thing.”

    Jon Silverthorne did not reply.

    “And to think is to act,” the figure said.

    “Yes,” Jon said.

    “All thought is an act of labor: it is the strain of attention — of keeping the attention focused — and this act, the effort of attention, I believe is the seat of human will the existence of which is the fundamental thing that sets apart the human species, who have become as gods. To choose to put forth the effort of attention — or not — this is the fundamental choice we each make, all day every day, and it is this choice that determines all our other choices and decisions. It shapes every idea we each hold.”

    Jon did not reply.

    The figure turned and looked out again at the night city that fell away far below. Both of their shapes stood reflected in a disembodied fashion on the slab-like windowpane, so that in their reflections they both appeared to be hovering ghostly against the sky, high above the glittering sprawl of city light.

    “I have something for you,” Jon said.

    “What is it?”

    “It is a gift.”

    “What gift do you have?”

    “Water.”

    “For me you have the gift of water?”

    “Yes.”

    “How much? How much water?”

    “A great deal. Enough to last centuries.”

    “Where is it?”

    “It is in a dry and dangerous place.”

    “Where you found uranium and made my Yellowcake?”

    “Yes.”

    “Can the water can be cultivated?”

    “Yes. And channeled. It will bring you a great deal more wealth.”

    “How much do you want in exchange for it?”

    “I don’t want money.”

    “What do you want?”

    “This: I want you with your wealth and your resolve and your resources to civilize The Superstitions with the water I found underneath that uncultivated wilderness.”

    A silence ensued.

    “It will make you enemies,” the figure said.

    “Yes.”

    “It will make you infamous.”

    “Yes.”

    “This is what you want?”

    “Yes.”

    “Why? Why infamous?”

    “I have reasons,” Jon said.

    They were both silent. They stood staring out the window. Inside the chambers of the black billowing sky came the spasmodic flicker of heat lightning, and for a flash, the figure’s sexless face lit up: a face sharp and angular, the color of ash.

    “The word city is etymologically related to the word civilization,” the figure said. “Did you know?”

    “No.”

    “Yes. Civilization and the city are the same. Both are a testament, as well, to the spontaneous order which arises naturally among human beings when human beings are left free. Civilization and cities are the product of free association and free exchange among humans, because humanity possesses within itself the capacity for arranging its own path of development. Civilization — true civilization, the advance toward personal autonomy — is not the product of force. This is historical fact. Civilization and all that it entails is the product of one thing and one thing only: free association and voluntary exchange.”

    Jon remained mute.

    From the shadows, the figure watched Jon for a long and thoughtful moment, narrowing on him the bright blue eyes like two laser-beams: crosseyes burning with brainpower.

    “You’re a very peculiar man,” the figure said, and fell silent for several seconds more. “You’ll have what you ask for: your civilization and your infamy.”

    Chapter 32

     

    Not long after this, a large underground aquifer was discovered deep below the Superstition Wilderness. When this massive water source was subsequently tapped and brought to the surface, bringing clean water which, in turn, brought crops and other agriculture, which then brought work and workers and free-exchange and a thriving economy that followed, it was somehow learned and then circulated among purists that in this heretofore economically depressed desert, someone named Silverthorne was the person ultimately responsible: he’d discovered the water, and by unleashing it — by freeing this civilizing force of clean water — Jon Silverthorne had thereby destroyed the untouched and rugged beauty of The Superstitions.

    This was the phrase used: he had destroyed The Superstitions.

    It came to light next that he was a fugitive — a fugitive from justice — who had once been caught selling cigarettes on the black market, cigarettes he himself had manufactured, and he had fled: fled the long arm of the law.

    It was then revealed that Silverthorne was also suspected in a case of arson: the burning down of a property owned and lived in by a man named Felts and his family, in which burning the entire Felts family had died — all save one, a girl named Morgan, who was missing.

     

    Chapter 33

     
     

     

    Deep within the belly of the intestinal caves which honeycombed Baboquivari like a maze, on the seventh level of hell, Morgan walked with Kristopher back into a cone-shaped corridor burning with strange and dream-like bioluminescence — down a crimson nightworld incandescent with scarves of living lucency, under which enormous calcite stalagmites rose dripping toward stalactites overhead: a wild profusion of limestone tongues and teeth, long wet spires mucronate and gleaming the color of blood in an irradiated wonderscape. The photonic light pulsed and slid over the misshapen speleothems, so that in the ebb and flow of bloody light, these bicarbonate masses looked somehow grotesque and living, like living bodies but mutated, malformed, neck-shaped, two-headed, half-writhing in an underground land that was as silent and as alien as the surface of the moon, a subterranean stone world where teeming larvae all around them throbbed with enzymes and surged with Luciferin and with life.

    Down this darkly burning labyrinth, the Maze-Man came.

    He came quietly at first, and then with a seething hiss like the long whisper of wind through a sere and sinister grass, and he pursued them deep down the adamantine corridors and down the labyrinthian ways, his strong Maze-Man feet and unhurried tread following after — down titanic glooms and chasmed fears. Suddenly, when Morgan in her febrile state looked to her right, Kristopher was no longer there.

    She spun around.

    Kristopher was not anywhere.

    She called for him, but there was no response. Hollowly her voice reverberated throughout the mute crimson corridors of stone.

    All at once, then, she heard the seething hiss and the unhurried tread. It was coming closer now, though from which direction, she could not tell.

    She pivoted wildly, to the right and to the left and then behind, and still she could not see the Maze-Man. Yet she felt him very near. She cast her eyes back once more, over both shoulders, and then up. And in that low gaudy vault over her head, she saw intricate scarves of incarnadine light ribbon off brightly down another long shaft, and all at once the blood-red glow grew more intense yet, illuminating her face in a hellish light, and the ceiling seemed to her to pulse and breathe with the world’s turning.

    When the Maze-Man reached her at last, she knew without looking that he was upon her.

    When he stood behind her, she felt the heat of his presence.

    She did not turn around now but genuflected down onto one knee. She closed and opened her eyes slowly, as one who in a fearless way would be executed from behind: the swift swing of the heavy sword slicing cleanly through the slender stalk of her neck, her round pretty head with its boyish hair rolling across the rock floor, pebbles and dust sticking to her famished cheeks, two ropes of blood spurting from the stump of her neck, the ball-like head on the floor of the cave with clear gray eyes gazing spellbound one final time at this phenomenal world around her now, a world of such breathtaking heartbreaking lucency, beauty.

    But the strong swift sword-stroke never came.

    Instead, she felt a warm and gentle hand touch her shoulder, and when she finally turned, she saw two faces and two heads — one on either side of her neck.

    The first was Kristopher, who stood one pace back, on her right-hand side, partially sunk in shadow.

    But he was not the one who’d reached out, who now gripped her shoulder gently.

    That hand, the one on her left, came from Kristopher’s half brother.

    Chapter 34

    Her pale lips broke open into a smile.

    Jon stepped around to the front of her, where she still genuflected on the ground, and he smiled in return. He then held his hand outstretched, and she gripped it in her own. Kristopher, still one pace back, stood silent, and he was sunk even deeper now in shadows.

    Jon pulled against Morgan’s counter-tug, and instantly she came to her feet. She did not let go of Jon’s hand but squeezed it more tightly yet. Her palms were clammy and damp. The two stood facing each other in the crimson light which slid soundlessly across both their faces and bodies. Jon’s black eyes brimmed as with hot blood — a hot bloodred liquid light.

    “You were the Maze-Man all along, weren’t you?” Morgan said to Jon. She was still holding his hand. “I always suspected so — ever since you first told me about him, when you showed me the baby mummies.”

    Jon looked on the verge of replying, when off to her left, there came again the awful sound of the seething hiss.

    They all three turned in unison.

    They saw a liquid-like arc of blinding silver-white.

    It was shooting in a steady yet finite stream across the cave, beneath the blood-colored light, a miniature geyser of cream or milk: a white so pure and so pristine that it seemed to all three of them to be the very essence of whiteness. And to Morgan that finite arc of white all at once became the flowing arc of her life.

    She turned back to Jon. “I knew the whole time it was you,” she whispered. She was looking directly into Jon’s glowing eyes. “Right up to the moment I died that night. And because you were there, I was not afraid.”

    She leaned into Jon and kissed him on his lips. She kissed him long and deep and then she drew back, and only now did she release Jon’s hand. She then dug into her front pocket and produced an iridescent object about the size of an egg. She handed it to Jon.

    It was a mother-of-pearl ladybug.

    Chapter 35

    A gentle hand shook her shoulder. She heard her name repeated as from a great distance — Morgan, Morgana, Morcant: composed of the elements, the sea, brightness and whiteness. She became aware that someone was calling out to her. Yet she felt herself unable to move at all. She felt herself paralyzed from head-to-toe, and no matter the colossal effort she put forth, no matter the gigantic will exerted, she was unable to twitch a single muscle.

    Everything all at once went quiet.

    Her eyes flipped open.

    She could move again.

    The blood-red light throbbed all around her, yet the first thing she saw was not this light but Kristopher’s kind face floating above her. He was kneeling on the ground at her side. His right hand was upon her shoulder, his left hand cupping the back of her head, cushioning it, protecting it from the cold stone floor upon which she lay. An oceanic silence filled the cave.

    “You passed out,” he said.

    She blinked, only half comprehending.

    “You fainted,” he said.

    “How long have I been gone?”

    “A long time.”

    “I dreamt of you,” she said. “I dreamt of you and Jon and the Maze-Man. I dreamt that Jon and the Maze-Man were one and the same person.”

    Kristopher did not reply.

    The crimson light noiselessly pulsed.

    “Jon has gone very deep inside Baboquivari,” she said. “Deeper than anyone, maybe. He’s discovered profound and hidden connections. Did you know?”

    Kristopher listened but was silent. He shook his head. For a long moment, he gazed into her far-off eyes: eyes incandesced under the swarming bioluminescence. He saw in those eyes a titanium strength, an unbreakable glint flashing deep down inside her pupils, inside the flowing circuitry of her mind.

    “We’ve got to get you out of here,” he said.

    Upon his warm hand which cupped the back of her head, she lolled a little to the left. She stared up at him and smiled, her round face splotched with red light and black shadow, like a ladybug.

    Her golden fang glinted scarlet.

    “There’s no way I have the arm-strength to climb that rope back out of here,” she said. She paused. “And I don’t know that I want to.”

    He stared at her. Then he took off his jacket and wrapped it around her tightly, so that she was swaddled like a little mummy. Then he stripped off his shirt and folded it and put it pillow-like under her head.

    “I must leave you alone here for a while and get help,” he said. “I’ll get Jon. I will be back. I promise you.”

    She nodded. Her glowing eyes contained a profound sense of peace. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t arrive in time,” she said. She was not looking at him as she spoke, but staring with her slow-moving eyeballs at all the beautiful lucency around her. “I am not afraid,” she said. “And I love it here.”

    Her voice was dreamy and soft and also, he thought, unutterably authentic.

    Kristopher squeezed her hand, and then he vanished back up the winding levels of hell. He climbed the rope swiftly and with deft strong movements, like a monkey gliding up jungle vines.

    Morgan meanwhile closed her eyes and drifted back into fevered sleep.

    The last thing she heard before she drifted off was the burble of deep underground streams, flowing away beneath her, like time.

     

    Chapter 36

     

    When, shirtless and sweating, Kristopher emerged from the cave and back out into the desert, it was nearing twilight. He did not have any idea how much time had elapsed — hours or even days.

    Over the open desert hung a slate-blue sky in which one star drifted alone. This star was the evening star which is also the star of dawn. It was green and glittering. The air blew warm down the Baboquivari ravines and passed over him.

    He knew before he got to Jon’s house that something was wrong.

    The first thing he saw was the cluster of people-sized sunflowers that Jon had planted — in a small patch fifty meters before the driveway, bright faces as big as human heads — all broken-necked now and scorched, the enormous Ethiopian eyes, which were serried with seeds, torched and violated.

    All Jon’s little almond trees had been hacked down.

    Kristopher stomped the gas pedal of his graphite-grey Mazda and flew down the driveway.

    Fishtailing and then with a spray of sand and gravel, he came to a stop in front of Jon’s home. He leapt from the car.

    The front door of the house stood half open. The door was broken on its hinges. There were satanic symbols, painted in animal blood, upon the door and upon the outer walls. Windows starred through with stones.

    In a single bound, Kristopher jumped all five steps which led up to the porch.

    He burst through the broken door.

    “Jon!” he said. “Jon!”

    But these rooms were barren, and this house was left to him desolate, the only reply the whisper of the wind.

    He ran to the back of the house, where Jon kept his ladybugs.

    The door of this room was smeared with animal blood as well. It stood hacked open, and so did all the large aquarium-like cases, in which Jon fed and bred his beautiful lady-beetles: thousands and thousands, Kristopher saw, enough to fill pillowcases, now incinerated and now blowing ashlike across the wooden floors of these desolate rooms. The light airy corpses blew swirling through the house and then out into the vastness of the desert, across the killing fields of cactus and mesquite and dust — blew like slaughtered little cows beneath a slate sky now collapsing into night.

    He did not hear the other car coming.

    He did not hear the footsteps that walked through the front door and move with unhurried tread to the back of the house.

    He did not hear any of this.

    He did not hear anything at all — until a voice spoke his name:

    “Kristopher.”

    It was a voice he recognized instantly.

    He stood motionless.

    “He’s gone,” the voice said behind him.

    Kristopher turned.

    In the vandalized doorway of the haunted home his half brother had civilized, there stood a willowy woman with cyanic eyes and a tall full figure.

    “Justine,” he said.

    PART V

     

    On a gauzy evening forty thousand years ago, a young and prehistoric woman with pensive eyes watched a bolt of blue lightning strike a mountaintop. This bolt of lightning ignited a crooked conifer tree, and the young woman stood gazing at it for a long time. Then she went off alone into the mountains.

    Days later, when she returned, she brought back with her the gift of fire, which, solitary in the wilds, she’d painstakingly discovered how to make.

    Her fire beat back the darkness. It brought light and warmth and civilization, and she taught her fellow women and men how through natural means they could also harness and create fire.

    Her fellow women and men deemed her a sorcerer, a spawn of the devil, and they burned her down to the ground — burned her dead — using the very thing she’d taught them how to make.

    Centuries after this, the gift of fire, which the young woman had discovered and brought to them, was appropriated by mages and mystics, priests and witches.

    For centuries thereafter, fire was deemed a supernatural force which came from a supernatural source.

    Fire, it was taught, came from something beyond human apprehension and thought.

    Yet, in spite of all the superstitions and the lies, fire continued to blaze and light the way.

    It continued to create warmth and brightness and it continued to civilize, so that gradually, after centuries, the light of her fire drove out this particular ring of darkness.

    Sanitary water and the source of sanitary water came next. It was the next suspicious superstitious thing.

    Clean water, created through boiling and purifying by fire — killing microbes so tiny that they were invisible to the naked eye, microbes which would one day be known as “germs” — was demonized, anathematized, and supernaturalized, even while it brought longer, healthier lives. Even while it civilized.

    The injection bore made of sleek galvanized steel, with a cement seal, penetrated the flakey piecrust earth, driving down one thousand feet through the permeable surface rock below The Superstition Wilderness. At one thousand feet, the permeable rock gave to a hundred billion cubic meters of a freshwater aquifer: cold black subsurface reservoirs that had stood dormant for millennia, surging silently on a long bed of impermeable rock.

    More precious than gold, more valuable than oil, this water was replenished at a rate of roughly three billion cubic meters per year, and now, tapped and harnessed by means of the injection bore and the cement and the pumps and all the other metal and glass and plastic infrastructure — it brought growth and greenness to a dry dead sector of the Sonoran Desert.

    It brought abundance and life.

    It was promptly destroyed in an act of ecotage and unequivocal rage, and, with the sanction and strength of the populous which in turn drove the government, the land was seized by the authorities and governmental decree.

    Chapter 37

    Morgan’s eyes flew open once again.

    There was no sound at all save the sound of deep subterranean streams flowing through the earth beneath her.

    She did not know how long she’d lain in this dreamless chamber. She knew only that she’d been asleep, and that now she was awake, and that upon waking, trepidation was inside her. Yet almost instantly the terror-edged moment of her trepidation gave way to something else — something more powerful and profound which burned within her head:

    Above her famished-looking cheeks, beneath the heaving cave of blood-red lucency, the glinting of strength flashed in her open eyes, so that now, totally alone and deep in this cave pulsing with Luciferin and life, her golden tooth agleam in the blood-colored glow, she rose up relumed, recharged, and began walking.

    She thought of Jon and smiled like a chthonic woman with a dim intent, glancing back from a pitch-black threshold, as if loth to leave the light, the hulking shapes behind her mutely mocking.

    She thought again and again of Jon, and she continued walking through the stone corridors beyond.

    Chapter 39

    What is it threads the inflamed brain of the violent and the obsessed?

    Destruction?

    Hatred?

    Duplicity and deception?

    Or is it blind loyalty that fills her up — loyalty to that scabby-kneed child who, long ago, ripped the legs off spiders, the wings off butterflies, who raped the antenna from the soft moth-head? Or loyalty to her own lies and deception, which twist like spiral steps down the gloomy darkness and into the basements of hell?

    Coming back into the Mesozoic cave wherein he’d first found Morgan asleep under the purple pall of her plasma lights, Kristopher, with Justine beside him, saw first that all the little mummies were gone.

    He passed the beam of his high-powered flashlight across the rock which glistened in the cone of his creamy light. He scanned every inch of the room, but there was no trace of them. Justine caught her breath. They did not say a word to each other. Like children lost in the chasmic labyrinth of an alien wood, among long avenues of dusk and silence, so the two of them stood in this pythonic plexus beneath Baboquivari.

    The silence throbbed.

    Kristopher gripped her fingers and led Justine down the same passageway that Morgan had recently led him — or so he thought. In the darkness of this granite maze, however, he made a wrong turn. Here, as well, the glowing bones of once-living things lay strewn all about the floor of the cave — the remains of sacrifices long-ago made to the Maze Man: brittle pieces popping beneath the slow steps of their feet.

    Entering an open room out of which a cool wind poured, Kristopher only now began to suspect that he’d led them down the wrong corridor. He swept the cone of his flashlight across the interior.

    What they saw was hideous.

    In places of plenary darkness, all things become formless and uncanny, and during their dark wandering of the subterranean landscape within Baboquivari, they’d stumbled upon unknown and mutilated-looking shapes which the earth contained deep inside her body. So that standing side-by-side among these interstitial stone gorges, they perceived things that inspired within them a kind of horror: the oxides of the rock, moist and slurred as with clotted blood, like the bloody leak of a slaughterhouse cellar. Speleothems in a wild array ejaculating slowly from a deep continual source a blood-tainted sperm. A venereal leprosy forever recrudescing. The smooth damp underground stone, bizarrely colored by the decomposition of metallic accretions and mold of strange purple splotches, awakened within them both the idea of homicide and extermination: the bloody chamber walls where an entire life devoted to flesh and power had run amok and taken over, and mass assassination had resulted.

    A spectacle of murder presented itself all around them.

    Rivulets of water everywhere ran soundlessly down the underground cliffs. These rivulets resembled long viscera, as if the innards of prehistoric giants had been dumped here, disemboweled: fresh lungs and watermelon-sized kidneys, huge slabs of liver stacked up in such a way that it seemed impossible for Justine and Kristopher to touch them without drawing back bloody-handed, bloody-fingered. Here, in the navel of the universe, long scarlet umbilical cords striated the walls as though ripped violently and flung, innards piled on the floor like sepulchral exudations pumped out through an enormous orifice tapered tightly at its tip.

    Such sights as these are more common than is perhaps supposed, down in the dank grottoes and hidden bowels of the earth, outside of which, upon the surface, there is often a surgically bright and deceptively clean-looking glow, like a glister of whitened sepulchers.

    With lead in their hearts, they backtracked down the tunnel, until at last they found the thick rope that dropped partway down toward bioluminescent heaven, or the portal to hell, and in teeming darkness, they descended — descended and found Morgan vanished without any trace.

    Chapter 40

    Gone now the lucent labyrinth that had nourished her Maze-Man dream.

    Gone the glowing lights of living larvae.

    Snuffed the scarlet lambency which had turned her eyes demonic-red.

    She ate the last of her food, drank the last of her water, and she ate hungrily and drank thirstily.

    In pitch-blackness now, she wandered alone the barren basements beneath Baboquivari.

    She could not see anything. There was no movement and no growth around her. There was only stillness and stone: no sound at all save the sound of her own shuffling footsteps, her own breath, her hammering heartbeat.

    And would nothing ever stir again?

    Was there not some faint living pulse in these rock walls?

    Through the flinty corridors of her mind, these questions passed and repassed and more questions sprung up, and she thought:

    Emerge from the shadows, Maze-Man, and stand naked on the hot brink of my brain. I am not afraid.

    She pressed her hot cheek against the granite that she could not see. The stone was craggy and cool. It smelled of iron and dust. She turned and fully faced the wall and in the absolute darkness pressed her entire torso up against it, mashing her snowball-sized breasts softly into the cold hard wall. She put her hands upon the rock, all over it, like a lover; like a blind person learning the features of a gigantic face, memorizing the contours and by touch alone searching the body for signs of familiarity, life.

    She felt only the subterranean earth ungiving, immovable against her person, and she felt her heart behind her breastbone thumping powerfully against the stone.

    She felt no growth and no life in response to the pounding of her heartbeat and the life-force inside her. She felt nothing of the sort. She was aware now that she was perhaps not in her right mind. She brushed her parched lips against the rock, as if she would kiss it dryly, and then she stepped back one pace and passed her hand three inches in front of her eyes, moving her fingers back and forth, wiggling them. She wanted to see them, but she could not. She could not see a thing — not even a shadow of motion. She touched her fingertips to her face, and it brought her small comfort. But comfort nonetheless. 

    She faced forward again and, dragging her fingers over the ragged cavern walls, she felt her way along. Her progress was painstaking. She gnashed her teeth in the darkness, and in the darkness, with each beat of her heart, her head hammered behind her eyes.

    At long length, groping through these claustrophobic corridors, she thought she detected the flow of a breeze. It passed like water over her feverish face. It smelled of minerals. She turned into the airy flow, and finally, hours or days later — she had lost here any gauge by which she might reckon time — moving long-lost through the immemorial darkness inside these immemorial stone keeps, much of her time spent crawling on hands and knees, pushing herself painfully through narrow openings, the flowing current of air her only guide, she saw ahead in the distance a shimmering bar of lemon light.

    It was falling in from above.

    It poured down through a circular hole and splashed mutely into a large and open room. Yet, as she got closer, Morgan for a moment wondered if perhaps this slab of lemony light were sourced below, in a deep underground chamber of the earth similar to the one out of which she’d just clawed her way — or coming from the very core of the planet, perhaps, and now shooting up like a thick laserbeam through a chink in the rocks and toward the surface, toward the biblical blue sky beyond which lay only blackness and more blackness.

    Still on her hands and knees like a feral creature, she stared motionless at the lucency.

    She rose to her feet.

    She moved toward the light, half staggering now, and entered the open abstraction of outspread stone.

    Scratched and stinging, famished-looking and filthy — filthy with her own blood, and with dirt and mud — she clambered up and then stood on a pile of stony rubble. She stood directly inside the yellow light, which poured down and lit her from head to toe. The light was filled with dustmotes like silt seen underwater. She stood for a long moment, without moving, inside the vasiform field of radiance, stood as one who would be transported into a spacecraft above.

    Her boyish hair glowed in a penumbra of light.

    Against the light, she squinted like a cat.

    Then, catlike, she leapt and in the same motion slithered out through the maw of the cave and came at last into the open world, beneath the breathing bell of the blue desert sky — where, zigzagging from exhaustion and dehydration, sometimes running and sometimes walking, she could never have foreseen that with every one of her weary steps, she was moving not nearer to safety and greater light but farther away, into a deeper darkness that was shortly to come: farther and farther away.

    But first she found her little star-faced pony, drinking well-water and blinking white-eyelashes, alone in the bright light of that strange day.

     

    Chapter 41

    The task Jon had chosen for himself was to all appearance beyond the capacity of human endeavor: requiring an almost supernatural strength and exertion of will. In fact, achieving what he sought seemed so improbable that the very notion of attempting it felt even to him a kind of lunacy.

    In order to do what Jon had set out to do — in order to attempt such a thing, at such a time, in such a place, under such sunlight and such circumstances — an army of men were necessary. Jon was by himself. A team of geologists and geological surveyors and satellite imagery was required. Jon had his internal sense of direction and time, as well as a crude map, which he himself had made.

    Heavy equipment and dynamite were necessary. Jon had a pocketknife, a flashlight, a small pick and shovel, rope, his rifle.

    Stores and provisions were needed. Jon, a fugitive from the law, had not even milk or bread.

    He existed entirely in the real world, and yet he was at the same moment totally removed from that world.

    Were anyone at this time observing Jon — and there was nobody (save perhaps one lone figure) — that person would not have been able to make out what Jon was aiming for. He seemed preoccupied with the subtle undulations of the desert ground. He appeared absorbed in something far-off — faroff and to the northeast.

    He moved cautiously and even secretively. He slept hidden in the caves, and he made nighttime missions deep into these caves, where he spent all night studying unexplored cavities, caverns, anfractuous corridors like living circuitry which went winding into the earth, toward the molten midsection, and then back up. His energy of labor was astounding. His activity of work frightening. He was as phenomenally focused as he was dogged.

    Thus, piecemeal, over a period of weeks that stretched into months, he accomplished everything he set out to do.

    To coax nature’s obstacles into human service, to finesse these obstacles by apprehending their nature and then to act in accordance with that nature, is to succeed. To beat against the wind is to declare the wind your enemy. To move with the wind — to move your sail with the wind’s invisible flowing currents and to tilt your wings with its swirling updrafts — this is to make the wind an ally, a handmaiden, a partner.

    If a watcher watching Jon were patient and observant, that watcher would have noticed that in this arcane labor he was each day moving gradually northeast.

    He knew exactly what he was doing, and yet the sort of abstracted mindset in which he now existed was enhanced rather than diminished by the concrete nature of his work.

    Work in the real and material world with all its minute repetitions minimized not one jot Jon’s incredulity at suddenly finding himself engaged in such work.

    Normal fatigue and exhaustion of the body is a line that moors the laborer to the land or sea. Yet the remarkable nature of the task Jon had undertaken created in him an almost dreamlike experience wherein each day his mooring mysteriously drifted away. It even seemed to him at times that though he was below earth, in the deep conduits of earth’s internal circuitry, he were as if moving and working among cauliflower clouds high up in the ether, that his work was a sort of warfare, that his pick, shovel, pocketknife, and flashlight were more weaponry now than tools.

    He half came to believe that what he ultimately sought here in his subterranean labor was something more like a staving off — a staving off of attacks from a nameless enemy, an amorphous force of hostility enraged by a basic policy he held: a policy of non-force and voluntary exchange.

    Or perhaps it was as though in his mapping and surveying and digging, he was not so much working as taking precautions against sentient and even intelligent aggressors who, intelligent or no, were not, however, thinking or thoughtful or intelligent now.

    The more Jon worked, therefore, the more he felt himself drawn irrevocably into a kind of battle.

    The more he worked also, the more abstracted he grew, and thus the more he thought.

    The more he thought, the more he developed a vocabulary which by the very act of naming these things rendered clear and concrete the ideas that his faceless enemies held.

    There was, moreover, everywhere around him, above ground or below, the immensity of another monolithic and ceaseless labor taking place: forces of the natural world — wind and air, sunlight and fire, the sheer force of flowing water, the unstoppable growth of foliage, the peristaltic movement of earthworms, the colossal clash of tectonic plates, the sleeplessness of rust and rock and minerality; viral mutation, necklaces of chromosomes, shifting, replicating, the breathing bell of the intricate atmosphere and her endlessly dissolving and reforming cloud-monsters — a diffusion of forces working in the realms of the indefatigable, the limitless, the awesome.

    Jon sought to know the object of these forces, their common denominator.

    It occurred to him again and again that order and disorder, like time, do not exist in nature apart from the consciousness that puts them there as a kind of measuring device, and that nature simply is: neither orderly nor disorderly but absolute, necessary. All the ceaseless, tireless, wondrous labor of nature is, therefore, merely an imperative fact of the phenomenal world, to which there is no alternative.

    Jon came out of the earth now and stood atop an eminence of land in the desert. He stood upon scorched rock in the sun. His face and arms were weathered and cut. His ragged shirt, threadbare, clung in saturated swaths to his torso and to his back, his black hair wet and dusty.

    The desert lay ringed about him like a cirque — a violent and volcanic place, vacant, vast, grassless, and Jon stood a living force among it. He surveyed the land at large — a sun-slaked district of living geometry. 

    Each day he dug and clawed and pounded his way through the earth below. Every hammer strike was now a force that shot electrically through each of his nerves. He felt as though it might shatter his bones. But he took pleasure in the work. He felt it almost a contest between his sinews and muscles and the igneous rock he hammered through. At night he felt drained and exhausted, and he liked to feel the drained fatigue of his body, which he thought to be the vehicle of his soul. 

     

    Chapter 43

    The man’s name was Willowmarsh. He was tall and rangy, with glassy eyes of brownish-yellow, and a toughness about him like pure sinew.

    Willowmarsh: the man with the small round head.

    He believed in total equalization — by force, when necessary.

    One night he slew a woman in cold blood as though she were so much a poundage of lard and pork.

    The woman was wealthy, a pop singer, who had earned her money through hard work and ambition and her own ingenuity, who created songs for which people voluntarily paid their money. Crouched and sweating in the lee of her statuary — five stone figures abstract in the concrete outside her home — Willowmarsh, the man with the ball-like head,  stole her cash and all her jewels, and then he distributed it evenly among the poor: people he knew, people he did not know. It didn’t matter.

    That was years ago.

    Years of semi-darkness.

    He’d committed other homicides since.

    Something of the absolute, the incontestable, moved inside him.

    His conscience was clear.

    Anthropology, the study of human beings, and archeology, the study of prehistoric human beings, interested him greatly.

    He’d once taught both these subjects at the University of Arizona and was a full professor at that. This is where he’d met Justine Strickland.

    He had in recent years grown fanatically obsessed by rumors and certain stories he’d heard: stories of mummified fetuses, which a young Apache man named Silverthorne was said to have discovered inside the caves of Baboquivari.

    He’d never broached this subject with Justine — had never had reason to — until one day he learned that she was acquainted with the one named Jon Silverthorne. At which point, he asked her if she knew about the little mummies.

    It was the first time she’d ever heard any mention of it — from anyone — and she narrowed her eyes and slowly shook her head.

    “No,” she said.

    More rumors came to her.

    There are almost no good secret-keepers in the world, but Justine was one — one of the few and one of the best — so that even after she did ask Jon about these rumors and he then led her and his half brother into the caves and she’d seen the mummies with her own eyes, she told neither Willowmarsh nor anyone else a single thing, not a word, despite the interrogations, despite Willowmarsh watching her so closely with his eyes like small brownish-green beads of glass; despite his smiling face and his strong, razorous, nicotine-stained teeth gleaming inside his mouth.

    Chapter 44

    Yet Willowmarsh was a patient man.

    He lived out of his motorhome now, semi-nomadically, in the desert. He’d been watching Baboquivari for many months — often through high-powered binoculars. He’d grown gaunter and more rangy yet: a mantis-like figure, with leathern lips.

    The first person ever to speak to him of Jon’s mummy discovery was a retired chemist and pharmacy-owner named Keith Abeyta, who lived in Nogales, and who had thrice bought copper and silver from Jon. Jon had talked to this man Abeyta at length, on two separate occasions, about something he was working on: silver nanoparticles for biomedical devices — which nanoparticles continuously release low levels of silver ions to provide protection against bacteria. Jon had then invited this man to come with him back to Baboquivari, so that he might see for himself how certain minerals leak continuously out of the Baboquivari mountain range.

    At this time, the Pedro Mountain Mummy was much in the news, for having disappeared. Bouncing along the bumpy backroads in Jon’s truck and hearing a mention of that story on the radio, this man named Abeyta offhandedly asked Jon if he was familiar with Chiquita, the Pedro Mountain mummy, which had been found in East-Central Wyoming, south of Casper. Jon did not immediately answer. The ghost of a smile played across his lips. He wore rectangular sunglasses, drove with only his left hand, wrist draped over the steering wheel. He then told the man that perhaps the thief had hid the mummy deep inside the caves of Baboquivari, and perhaps there were others there as well.

    Something cryptic in his voice, Keith Abeyta thought, and he cast Jon a long steady stare.

    This story, as such stories do, spread.

    Among the very first to hear it was the man with the small round head.

    Obsession grew like mushrooms inside him.

    Months passed.

    On a warm early-winter night while camped outside in the foothills of Baboquivari, Willowmarsh witnessed a silent conflagration on the eastern horizon.

    He walked out onto a small stone bluff and stood alone in the desert night. He rolled a cigarette. He smoked. The stars above him burned like gimlet eyes. He watched the mute and distant fire for a long time. He smoked another cigarette. Northward, there were dry flickers of heat lightning. After an hour or more, he saw far below him, coming ghostly through the pyroelectric night, a slender figure on a small pony. He watched this figure dismount and hobble the horse and then move swiftly into Baboquivari.

    He mounted his own horse and attempted to follow.

    But the figure had vanished.

    He had a strange feeling about this figure, and he decided then and there that no matter how long it took, he would wait for this figure to reemerge from the cave.

    He sat his horse and waited.

    So it was now that a new sort of obsession took hold of him.

    It rooted itself profoundly inside his mind almost without his noticing, and quickly it bloomed like madness in the dark depths of his brain.

    Chapter 45

    The man with the ball-like head did not now see the shadow watching him from the shades.

    With his insect-like fingers and his spindly arms, Willowmarsh carefully wrapped the little mummified fetuses. He swaddled each one, encasing them around and around, in a soft gauzy cloth as if re-mummifying them, and then he placed them delicately, one by one, into thick leather bags. He handled them with utmost care and finesse. He worked by the light of his two lanterns. He was in a different cave — a deep hidden cave he sometimes inhabited and slept in. His lanterns glowed with a vaporous and mushroom-colored light. There was a mephitic odor in the caves, a stench of death.

    The shadow was a young woman. She watched him, motionless, perfectly silent. Her gigantic eyes, burning with a strange lucency, suggested illness. Eyes that seemed to be making connections nobody else was able to make.

    When, at last, Willowmarsh was finished and the little mummies were swaddled and placed securely in a large canvas duffel bag, the shadow stepped forth from the shades.

    “They are not yours,” the shadow said.

    Willowmarsh — who in amazement had watched this shadow appear before him as from nothingness — leapt in terror, his heart pounding into his throat.

    Then he recognized her. It was Morgan Felts.

    Her golden eyetooth caught the brownish-yellow light. She held in her left hand some object which also flashed.

    “You scared the living daylights out of me,” he said weakly. He had begun to perspire, though not from heat.

    She stepped two paces closer to him. “They are not yours,” she said again.

    Etched across her young features was something not young at all: something as intransigent and as ancient as the stones among which she stood. All pretense of politeness and civility had been ripped from her features, as soft enshrouding flesh can be ripped from the bone, often taking thin slabs of bone with it. Her huge eyes, all pupil now, shone like twin wells of cold black water, gigantic, brimming. Each time she blinked, she blinked slowly, and the instant before her lids shut, a kind of phantom appeared to hover for a fraction in her eyes. This was no reflection of the darkling cave pulsing with misty mushroom-colored light, but a more awful thing: it was the phantom of unbearable disillusionment and deception, for this man had once pretended goodwill toward her.

    “They are artifacts,” he said. “They belong to everyone. Humanity is an organic whole, and at the root of it all, there is no individual.”

    She unconsciously shook her head. “They were potential human beings,” she said, “individual beings, born prematurely, but containing beautiful human potential, each individually.”

    “You cannot pray to them. They’re dead.”

    “I do not,” she said. “I do not pray to them.”

    “You keep them in a shrine.”

    “You do not know anything.”

    Instantaneously, then, and with surprising speed and before she was even fully finished with this last sentence, the man with the small round head coiled back and in the same motion struck her with his fist — a tremendously powerful punch — sinking the bony balled-up knuckles deep into her stomach and knocking the air completely out of her. She hee-hawed once, loudly, a sickening sound, and then she doubled-over, gasping for a breath that did not come.

    He kicked her to the ground and spit on her.

    She was still trying to breathe. She could not. She gasped fruitlessly. He watched her. “Well, that was easy,” he thought.

    With something like disgust and contempt gathering in his beadlike eyes, he gazed down at her. He watched her convulse for breath upon the ground. She had not dropped the object in her hand, but he didn’t notice this. Her eyes were shut and still she gasped in vain.

    Abruptly, then, her eyes flipped open, and she stared directly at him, and he saw in them at once a fearlessness even now, flashing like axe-blades inside her retinas, inside her mind.

    It took him aback and frightened him, and this in turn enraged him. It felt like a challenge, which in a very fundamental way it was: a challenge to everything he thought and believed.

    She was beginning to breathe a little by now: a tiny current of air sliding into her, flowing with a swirl, bringing her life.

    The rangy round-skulled man threw his head back and unconsciously ran his wet tongue to and fro along his leather lips. Then he took two mantis-steps toward her. His small razor teeth shone in the slug-colored light. He raised his boot to stomp on her neck — but the instant before he slammed that boot down, Morgan did something unexpected:

    She spun toward him, rapidly rolling across the stony ground so that she lay now directly underneath him, her shoulder touching his planted leg — and just as he stomped down the boot which had been intended for her neck and her destruction, Morgan’s hand that held the object swept up toward his groin.

    The object she held was a small sharp dagger.

    She thrust it through the denim of his pants and deep into the damp flesh of his perineum, just missing his testicles which she was aiming for.

    She thrust and shoved with all her might, the little dagger going past its hilt. She twisted her wrist simultaneously, with the dagger still inside him, the handle of the dagger like a little neck between the two small round heads of his testes.

    The mantis-man screamed.

    He crumpled to the ground.

    She rolled further away from him, unsheathing the dagger from the deep slit wherein she’d invaginated it, still clutching the dagger tightly, and there was blood all over the blade and the handle and on her hand. Her breath was coming easier, and yet it was with some difficulty still that she raised herself up on her hands and knees, her short sandy hair hanging sweaty and mane-like, this wild little fearless creature panting so madly for breath: a ferocious lioness protecting her little ones.

    The man with the small round head was agonizing on the floor of the cave — squirming, writhing, like a living insect pinned against the wall. He moaned in pain. His eyes were squished shut. Morgan rose to her feet. She stood over him and stared down.

    “They aren’t yours,” she whispered, not for the last time.

    She picked up the large canvas duffel bag which held the little fetuses he’d so carefully swaddled and tucked inside, and swiftly she left the cave.

    She did not realize that one of the mummies he’d wrapped and placed in leather was left behind.

    The vaporous light meanwhile slithered and pulsed over the rock walls, so that the rock itself appeared to be inhaling and exhaling: a melancholy mimic of life and death.

    Chapter 46

    Lying on his back still, in the murky light on the floor of the cave, Willowmarsh at length stripped off his shirt and squirmed over to a slope in the ground. He lay himself back upon this slope, his small head pointed downward. Then he planted both boots up against the cave wall, so that his puncture wound was slightly elevated above his heart. He squealed in pain — a strange almost chirping-gurgling sound, like the soft stridulations of teeming insects.

    With great struggle and agony, he unbuttoned his pants and slithered partway out of them. He pulled his drawers down past his hips and then he held his shirt between his legs and pressed the cloth of it firmly into the wound. It was excruciating.

    Yet in this way, he was able to stanch the bleeding.

    At length, he fell into a sweat-drenched state of unconsciousness filled with stormy dreams he could not decode, and then, just before he came awake, he dreamt of whole lakes and rivers being poured down his throat.

    When he woke, his punctured perineum pulsed madly with pain, and he was crazed with thirst. The lanterns had grown dim. He lay there for a long time, half-naked, staring at the ceiling of the cave, his beadlike eyes glassy and crazy in the vaporous light.

    By and by, the man with the small round head rose from the floor of the cave.

    Shirtless and with his pants and underwear still halfway down his legs and he still holding his blood-drenched shirt pressed against the wound, he hobbled to his canteen of water. With the fingers of one hand, he unscrewed the threaded metal cap. The skirling sound rang out loudly in the dead silence of the cave. Deeply he guzzled. Deeply he drank. The water was cold. It sloshed in his stomach like milk in a cow’s udder. His chest was sunken, his skin as pale as a slug. Beads of perspiration oozed out along the hairline of his round head, which was tipped far back as he gulped, wisps of thin hair like antennas, his other hand still holding his bloody shirt up against the wound.

    When at last he’d slaked his thirst, he dropped the canteen down to his side, and then he wiped his mouth with his shoulder. A long avenue of flies swarmed past him. He followed them in their flight.

    It was then that he caught sight of something peculiar on the marge of his vision.

    He turned.

    Motionless in the misty mushroom-colored light was his thick leather bag containing the mummified fetus. It was the one he’d put aside — the prized one — to package last.

    Willowmarsh, haggard, gazed at it in disbelief.

    Slowly, then, his leathern lips broke open into an awful smile, disclosing his mouthful of small razorous teeth, and then standing there shirtless and gleaming with perspiration, one hand held between his legs and his shrunken dong like a mushroom flecked with blood, the man with the small round head loudly laughed.

    That hideous sound reverberated all around the concavities of the cave.

    He hobbled over to the bag, which was half-hidden in the shades, and only then did he drop the bloody shirt that he’d been holding all this time against his wound. He was still laughing. Ten feet beyond where he now stood was a vertical artery of stone, an old mining shaft, which dropped precipitously one-hundred feet down, and he was not aware of the cairn of bones in the darkness beyond. Side-stepping one pace, skirting the rocks carefully, Willowmarsh reached for the bag which contained the treasure he obsessively coveted.

    At that moment, he felt himself seized by the throat — claws, fangs, or fingers, he would never know.

    PART VI

    Jon passed from one labor to the next and then to the next, and as he did so, he did not appear to notice the change in work. After one task was completed, another presented itself, and he simply went to it.

    In his multifarious toil, through privation and solitude, he’d grown lean and more wiry still.

    His back and arms were not necessarily stronger than those of other men, but his will and his desire were. The strength of his body, he mixed with something more potent: his energy, which was chiefly mental.

    Day-after-day in his work now, he expended his physical strength so completely that his slumber at night was not able to fully renew it. Thus at the end of each day, the reservoir of his physical strength drained away a little more and was not replenished. But this exhaustion of his vitality did not exhaust his will: Jon was fully conscious of the depths of his fatigue, but he wouldn’t succumb to it — and this refusal of his soul to succumb was a gargantuan force, as fixed and as intransigent as something which, under the right circumstances, could, it seemed, move heaven and earth.

    When he realized how much progress he had made and that he was getting closer to his first goal, his will redoubled.

    In this way, the overwhelming majority of his work was channeled to and through his brain.

    His hair grew longer, his clothes more tattered, his body more attenuated. His jeans hung slack about his hips and his waist. His lips were crazed with cracks. He ate wild rabbits, quail, the rich buttery flesh of rattlesnakes, all of which he cooked at night over small cave fires. He ate nopal, drank cactus-juice and deep artesian well-water. Yet no matter how much he drank, he was always thirsty. Little by little, the eternal rock appeared to be sapping life out of him.

    He continued on.

    He’d not spoken to another soul for weeks.

    He existed in a wild solitude and isolation.

    His black hooded eyes burned like hot coals under the eaves of his brow.

    One day while exploring deep inside the caves, far underground — far into the arteries of the earth’s mysterious circulation, where, half-lost, he’d nonetheless grown increasingly certain that his initial hunch was correct and all this labor was not in vain — Jon came to a very narrow fissure which, turning laterally, wiggling and writhing, he somehow, at last, managed to squish himself through.

    Without expecting it, he fell some five feet onto soft sandy ground.

    This ground was the shore of a vast body of water: the water of a subterranean lake.

    Jon stood up from where he’d fallen.

    He dusted off his arms.

    He found himself inside an extraordinary cavern: a spherical and vault-like room that comprised an underground lake.

    The water was strangely lucent — lit from a source he couldn’t ascertain — so that the whole vaulted chamber shimmered with a chrysoprase glow. All about him was silence. Far away across the still liquid, the lake terminated in dark-green shadows. The eternal granite overhead looked primitively painted in earth’s purple-and-burgundy blood: reproductions of butchershop shreds and slaughterhouse force, scenes of vore and gore, nature’s frightening frescos, as when lust and desire go crazy.

    Under the bell-like vault of the ceiling, in the center of the lake, the tops of rock shone in the water like the fins of prehistoric fish.

    Jon stood upon these ancient shores and gazed through the lattice work of his bangs across the icy water.

    The cavern walls trembled and dished in an aqueous apple-green shimmer.

    The intermittent drip from the vaulted ceiling rang out like submarine pings.

    Staring out across the water, Jon in his exhaustion and thirst and hunger thought he saw, far away, red eyes appear like jewels from among the shadows.

    These eyes were watching him.

    Chapter 47

    What does it mean to dissemble, to deceive, to behave duplicitously?

    It means to fake reality.

    And how can one live in reality if one is faking reality?

    To dissemble is to pretend. It is to dissimulate. It is to behave untruthfully.

    It is not good. It is not healthy. It is not sexy.

    It never has been. It never will be.

    It is staged. It is phony. It is ugly.

    Is cruelty the counterpart to duplicity? Yes. So is anger and hostility.

    To know a lie, you must also know truth.

    What is truth?

    Truth is the apprehension of what is. It is the accurate identification of reality.

    Truth is knowledge. It is light. It is that which is accurate and right.

    Newly discovered truth does not falsify the previously discovered: it elaborates it. It expands the context. It in this way makes the interconnected network of knowledge bigger and greater — as when, for instance, the child, seeking the defining characteristic that distinguishes humans from all the other animals, begins, perhaps, by observing bipedal locomotion and then, perhaps, the relative hairlessness of humans compared to the bipedal apes, and then the use of tools and then the use of language, and so on, one notes that all these observations are true indeed, and that the newly discovered rational capacity (for instance) does not falsify the fact that humans are bipedal and we do use tools and we are relatively hairless and we do speak languages, and so on. These observations because they are accurate remain true.

    Accurate equals true.

    If the newly discovered does falsify the previously known, the previously known was never true to begin with but false. It was inaccurate: an inaccurate identification, an untrue measurement.

    To discover a truth means to correctly apprehend and accurately grasp.

    Truth is epistemological: it does not exist absent consciousness.

    Reality is that which is. Consciousness is the awareness of that which is.

    Supernaturalism is that which is not.

    Superstition is a pretense of truth. It is playing truth.

    Superstition is pretend, it is phony: the superficially spurious gasps of pleasure, the metaphysical phony moans of bliss.

    It is a lie, a forked-tongue hiss. It is frivolousness, a bottle in one hand, a wad of cash in the other, a Judas kiss.

    To discover truth requires only this: accurate observation.

    The so-called supernatural, on the other hand, virtually by definition, cannot be fully observed: it requires blind belief, an act of faith.

    Which is precisely why it is the negation of knowledge and light — the negation of what’s true and accurate and right.

    Chapter 48

    Jon felt the floor of the cave buckle beneath his feet. Then came an explosive roar as the whole cavern heaved and leapt into itself, and the ground surged and buckled again and again, and Jon went careening into the wall. His flashlight shattered. Rock flakes rained down onto him.

    For a moment, he wasn’t able to move. An icy coldness seized his body.

    The burning cold lapped over him in small waves, and he understood then that he was on his back in rising water.

    He was half buried in rock.

    The first thing he thought of was the intricate map that he’d painstakingly penned in permanent ink. This map was in his pack, which was on his back.

    With difficulty, Jon sloughed the rock off him.

    With difficulty, he came to his feet.

    He staggered under the weight of the ancient stone.

    The darkness around him was absolute.

    The small pack on his back was only partially dry. He still held his pick in his hand, but it was a long time before he realized this.

    He was buried in a cave-in, and he scarcely knew now which way was up and which way was down.

    He was dazed, bleeding.

    Standing there in the total blackness, up to his ankles in cold black water, he breathed deeply. He closed his eyes in the darkness and strove to gain his bearings. He stood there for a very long time, perhaps two hours. In silence he fought dizziness and disorientation. He inhaled through his nose. The air smelled simultaneously of mineral and dust and water.

    All at once, then, as if he and he alone had thrown a tremendous switch located somewhere deep within him, Jon began hammering with his pick. He hammered like Thor — like thunder. He swung with all his might. He sloshed through the water and then out of it, climbing higher. He struck madly at the rock which had buried him. He swung his weapon at the dumb stone which had consumed him. The gash of his pick-tip shot sparks. The rock gave only slightly. But it did give.

    He hammered on.

    Jon hammered harder.

    The rock busted beneath the force of his energy. Stone chips flew. He squinted against them in the dark. Dust poured into his mouth. He felt himself growing wild with thirst. He hammered faster, more profoundly. He switched hands. And switched again. And again. His arms went numb. His shoulders and his biceps burned. He swung at the dumb and lifeless rock. He swung as one enraged. He swung with sinistral force. At last a pinprick of light broke like a laserbeam through the pitch-black.

    He paused a moment, heaving, staring at this tiny morningstar of light. Then he resumed. He fought for it. He struck harder. He swung for the light as if he would abolish the darkness for all time. He dropped the pick and began digging with his hands. He clawed. His fingers bled. Jon poured sweat. He reached down and lifted the pick again and swung it with renewed vigor. His heart hammering inside the chambers of his chest mimicked his hammering at the adamantine world which had swallowed him whole. His energy was gigantic, his will.

    From above, you could hear distantly his movements, his footsteps, like the clop of small cloven hooves underground. Jon was covered in sweat and blood and dust and rock flakes, which had mingled and turned to mud in his streaming sweat and blood.

    He fought for the light — he fought as one who would move heaven and earth — and broke through at last.

    He emerged from the underworld shaking rock off his shoulders, and he came full-blown as from chaos and into the living world.

    He recognized instantly where he was: His suspicions were at once confirmed, his theory proven true.

    He blinked in the bewildering light of day.

    His chest and shoulders rose and fell with his pneumonic heave, and gradually his breathing normalized. Covered in rock and dust that had turned to mud in his sweat and blood, Jon gazed about him.

    What he saw was the Superstition Mountains looming directly before his eyes, in every direction, and he knew now for certain that the portal to hell, located deep beneath Baboquivari, led, through a vast circuitous plexus of underworld tunnels, one-hundred-fifty miles into the very heart of the Superstition Wilderness.

    He’d mapped it, but still had much more yet to do.

    Chapter 49

    She stood alone inside the tunnels beneath Baboquivari, under her purple glowing lights, and carefully she unwrapped each one of the little mummies that Willowmarsh had remummified in gauze. She was in the same room of Mesozoic rock where Jon had first shown her these mummies.

    Here, to her horror, she, who knew their numbers and their features so intimately, discovered that one of the mummies was missing.

    She did not hesitate.

    Even in her weakened and febrile state, she did not hesitate:

    She turned and she went rapidly back to the place where she’d stuck the knife into Willowmarsh’s underside.

    Nothing could have prepared her for what she found there.

    His twin lanterns still burned, but barely so.

    Within the dim perimeter of his dirty-looking light, she saw first a small S-shaped scorpion, the color of jet, clamber over the rocks. Her dreamy eyes then went from the scorpion to the cave entire. Down a long avenue of flies, she scanned the room for the missing mummy. The odor of fresh blood entered her through the nose.

    She found the mummy directly.

    It was at the back of the cave, in a leather bag still loosely clutched by the cold fingers of what had once been Walter Willowmarsh, who lay dead in a welter of his own gore and intestines, split wide open from the thrapple to the groin and then eaten raw as by some unslakable appetite of cannibalistic lust and violence, like the Wendigo of ancient Algonquin lore.

    Morgan stared long at this husk of a human no more, and she stared in febrile confusion and perplexity.

    She stood perfectly motionless, and, moving only her eyeballs, she scanned the cave for present signs of threat.

    An eerie calm pulsed through the room, and all was mute save for the whine of flies.

    The smell of raw death and blood was outrageous.

    She knelt at length and reached over and gently lifted from the dead fingers the leather bag containing the mummified fetus. With her other hand, she scooped up a palmful of cave dust. She stood and stared down one final time at the violated corpse of this deceased and violent man. Gallons and gallons of blood, blood everywhere, armloads of rubbery intestines, the concavity of the ribcage like a shipwreck.

    She blinked slowly in the flickering light.

    Her huge eyes above her famished-looking cheeks went down to the satchel she held at her side, and then they went back to Willowmarsh.

    “They are not yours,” she whispered to the corpse. “They don’t belong to you. They never did. They are too good for you.”

    Then she tossed the palmful of dust onto the dead face below her and left this bloody cave forever.

    Chapter 50

    In rapid fashion, Morgan restored to its proper place the strangest and most ancient of these little mummies. When she was finished at last, she curled up and slept like a pup among them all.

    She slept for a long time, and in her sleep she dreamt of wild humans who leered at her with exophthalmic eyes, who bared their teeth which were filed to sharp points, and who encircled her, and in a rising crescendo of jeers and threats, they told her that they would kill her, and in the name of pleasure, they would sexualize and violate her corpse, one by one and in groups, and then also in the name of pleasure they would cannibalize her lifeless flesh and eat her organs raw. They told her that this was normal human behavior, and they said that life was too short to not indulge in every whim or pleasure, and they would therefore normalize this behavior completely or die trying, because life and the whole purpose of life was not self-mastery or self-development or anything like that but whatever one deemed immediately pleasurable and gratifying apart from wisdom and learning and apart from longterm outcomes or consequences, and that she was to be shamed for not believing this was true — since all human behavior was exactly equal, neither moral nor immoral but amoral, and nothing was either good or bad but that thinking makes it so.

    She awoke with a gasp in the purple light.

    She lay listening closely, as if these dream-humans might actually be near her, but they were not. A funereal silence filled the room. The tiny peaceful mummies lay mutely around her, preserved, uncannibalized, with their malformed faces and their screwed-up eyes so pinched and alien and comforting to her.

    Her empty stomach churned. It throbbed where she’d been violently struck. She felt chilled and dizzy, and she felt more chills sifting like snow down into her guts, which heaved borborygmus, and it was with great difficulty that she negotiated the narrow caves beneath Baboquivari. But negotiate them she did.

    When she came out again into the open world, a warm rain sizzled softly across the desert, and the sweet breeze blew. The air smelled of dust and rainwater. It carried with it the smell of space and promise and freedom. The sky was tumultuous and silvery-white.

    She went to her little pony who stood blinking in the rain near the water-well. She ran her fingers through the wet and tangled forelock of his mane. She patted his muscular neck. She stroked the veiny cheek and brushed her own cheek against it. The pony nuzzled her face gently in return, his long whiskers passing so lightly across the skin of her cheek. His pink nostrils, delicately freckled, were the size of dimes. He smelled to her of wild sage and cactus and cumin, and she loved with all her heart the smell of his wildness. The intricate equine body warm and humming with life. The forehead splotched with a ragged star of pristine white, huge deep eyes brown and bottomless — and to Morgan the entirely beautiful. She saw herself minutely mirrored in both eyes: like twin humans imprisoned inside those chocolate wells of brimming light.

    Suddenly, in that same reflection, floating up now as from profound depths sourced somewhere in the underworld and appearing all at once on the wet surface of the gentle pony’s eyes, she saw a horde of humans hulking behind her own mirrored image, and an authoritative voice she instantly recognized boomed out:

    “Morgan Felts!”

    A burning cigarette stub, flicked by the man who’d spoken, appeared on the sandy ground six feet away from where she stood, ribbons of smoke unfurling bluish-gray.

    Her pony looked at the smoldering cigarette where it lay.

    Morgan didn’t move or immediately answer. Her left hand was still touching her pony’s cheek. Her far-off eyes wandered the walls of the Baboquivari rock before her. Ungiving inscrutable rock, she thought, and human excellence is also such and does not give up its secrets easily.

    The rain fell softly around her.

    In the ensuing silence which was so short-lived, she could hear raindrops tapping upon the sandy ground. Then she heard a small sput, which came from the burning cigarette when a cold drop of rain fell upon it. The cigarette was extinguished.

    The menacing voice of authority yelled at her again:

    “Morgan Felts! Where in the name of all that’s orthodox have you been?”

    She turned.

    The man who had spoken this way to her was a police sheriff — a man who had worked a long time for her father, a man whom her father had deputized. He was surrounded by many other men and women, police and civilian alike, and her huge eyes hung motionless for a long moment when she descried among this horde of ragged gapers a priest-like figure, inordinately tall, with a gaunted face and icy-green eyes.

    She thought:

    Quivering spaces of the desert, where superstitious people submit to their deeds of violence. 

    “I repeat,” the sheriff roared. “Where in God’s name have you been?”

    His was a ruddy and hostile presence.

    With his right hand, he yanked his aviator sunglasses from his face.

    “Goddammit, girl, you by-God better answer me.”

    Morgan returned his fierce and fevered gaze, looking him squarely in his eyes — and in that tumultuous desert light flaring in the fanning fire of a setting sun, her own eyes flashed bloody red.

    “I’ve been to hell and back,” she said.

    Upon hearing which, the sheriff spat upon the ground and drew his pistol. He shot her little pony dead.

    Chapter 51

    Expired now the statute of limitations for selling cigarettes illegally as a minor, yet a different warrant had been issued for his arrest, and Jon knew this.

    Thus, in the small village of Green Valley, Arizona, Jon Silverthorne, after having mapped the caves from Baboquivari to the Superstition Mountains and back, and after having retrieved his truck from a storage unit he’d rented in Phoenix, turned himself in to the authorities.

    He was subsequently charged with First Degree Arson.

    He did not ask for a lawyer.

    He spoke no words at all.

    He sat alone in his small jail cell.

    On the day of his arraignment, the small-town courtroom uncommonly full, something remarkable happened:

    Immediately after all charges against him had been read, a young women with huge hot eyes and famished-looking cheeks burst into the courtroom wearing a cornflower sundress, and in a clear yet slightly frantic voice, this young woman, approaching the bench, spoke to the judge.

    She told the judge that her name was Morgan Elizabeth Felts, the youngest child of Sarah and James-Vincent Felts. She said first and foremost that Jon Silverthorne was an innocent man. She said next that she knew this to be one hundred percent true because it was her and her alone who’d burned her family to the ground — house and person alike.

    She told the judge that she was both heartsick and also mortified that Jon had been implicated in a crime which she herself had planned and committed in total isolation and without accomplice, and that Jon was away in the copper mines of Morenci when this arson took place.

    She said moreover that she’d done this deed without any compunction or trace of remorse, and she said as well that she would without hesitation do the entire thing over again because all her life she’d been abused and violated by every single one of her family members, her mother included — abused, violated, demeaned, and degraded — beginning when she was just a little girl.

    “A mere child,” she said, “who had bones broken and who had been raped repeatedly before I was thirteen-years-old. This superstitious lot of criminals then had the gall to tell me that I — I — was the one possessed of demons.”

    She went on to say that the rationalizations and equivocations which had led them gradually into such behavior, far from exonerating or mitigating their deeds, implicated them deeper. She said that in actuality these subhumans deserved far worse than what they’d gotten from her, and that Jon Silverthorne, who alone among anyone had taught her how to properly understand and learn, was the only person in the world ever truly good to her, and that he was a light-bearer, a life-giving force.

    She said in the end that she could prove beyond any standard of reasonable doubt that it was her and no one else who had committed this act, and as she began enumerating specific details — details concerning the four propane tanks her father had had strategically situated all across his acreage, details about the gas piping and the main gas-line, details about the intricate but precarious electrical wiring which ran off-grid through the Felts compound — the courtroom mob started murmuring and then, feeding off one another, they started shouting, calling her a witch and a whore and a devil’s child, and then the judge hammered the gavel and yelled for order, and, in short, the court was recessed.

    During this recess, it was determined by the prosecution that in light of these extraordinary claims, charges against Jon Silverthorne were dropped for the time being, with the admonishment that they might very well be refiled again.

    Morgan Elizabeth Felts, meanwhile, was remanded into custody as a person of interest, and she was immediately detained for further questioning.

    What happened after that was even more astonishing.

    Chapter 52

    Who were they?

    They were everyone.

    They were no one.

    They were a teeming mass, a mob, an organic whole.

    They were force.

    They were the people of the lie.

    They fed off one another.

    They could not long exist alone because their existence depended upon the echo atmosphere they themselves created and the venomous air they breathed inside this chamber.

    Collectively, they were the masters of the wild hogs, the breeders of hell’s dogs. They amused themselves with death.

    They were united by one overwhelming thing: hatred — which came from something even more foundational: mindless adherence.

    Adherence to what?

    To the outside forces that shaped them: ideas whose underpinnings they’d never sought to know.

    Human intelligence, a property of the individual, disquieted them.

    Why?

    Because human intelligence is not only individual: it is also invincible.

    Human intelligence is unconquerable. Even God cannot conquer it. Even Satan is subordinated to it.

    When coupled with the disciplined will of a reasoning brain, intelligence grows stronger still.

    In the predawn darkness of her jail cell, while Morgan Felts fitfully slept, this horde of ragged gapers came in and abducted her.

    They were legion.

    They wore faceless black masks, which were identical, and black robes. They bound her and gagged her, and they put a thick hood over her entire head so that she could not see. Then they stuffed her into the trunk of a long black car and drove her far away, into the White Mountains.

    Chapter 53

    The Black River gleamed coldly in the creamy-white early morning light. Reflecting the dawn sky, like a narrow gap through which a nether sky was visible, like a riverbed filled to the brim with pure sloshing mercury, it was a deep and slow-churning river located in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, the bridge crossing it, where the car caravan stopped, an old railroad bridge.

    Away in the western sky, the morning star steadfastly flickered. Its reflection shone on the white face of the water. It trembled and dished with a pristine light.

    They led her hooded from the trunk into which they’d stuffed her, and they brought her to the center of the bridge, where a very tall man in a black mask was tying a hangman’s noose. The other end of this rope he’d fastened securely around the highest rung of the bridge. The hangman was gracile and snaky, surely over seven feet tall, sleeves rolled up high, and as he rigged this knot, his wiry forearms squirmed with muscle-striations.

    They removed her hood and the gag, and Morgan with mussed hair, blinking wide-eyed in the white morning light, her hands still bound behind her back, saw this entire mass of cultic gapers all cloaked in the same black robes and masks, as if interchangeable, and a great calm descended over her — she did not know precisely why.

    When the hangman was finished tying the noose, he slipped it around her delicate neck. The rope felt coarse and splintery upon her skin. He slid the noose against her jugular notch. Then, displaying his great strength, the hangman encircled her narrow waist with his hands and lifted her straight-armed from the ground to the topmost rung of the bridge. He set her down as on a perch.

    She stood now directly next to the tied-off end of the rope, the noose secure around her neck, her hands bound behind her at the small of her back. She wore khaki canvas jail shoes with thin flat soles, an orange jumpsuit. The sun was not yet risen. Her boyish hair blew in the morning breeze. The water reflecting the milky sky glistered pure white, as if this whiteness were coming from a light emanating somewhere deep within the water itself, beyond the surface and shot all the way through, very pure and very beautiful.

    Now the horde began to call out to her, feeding off one another in an escalating and echo-like fashion which increased the courage of their conviction, saying she was a devil and a whore and a witch, and the tall hangman shouted at her violently, over and over, barking and snarling, ridiculing, and then loudest of all he commanded her to jump. But Morgan, who’d not spoken a word until now, said clearly and calmly that she would not.

    She turned with the thick noose around her neck and her hands almost prim behind her back, and, defiant-eyed, she gazed at the hangman in his mask. Then she turned back to the pure liquid whiteness churning like a river of cream far below her. She thought of her name — Morcant — and how Jon Silverthorne had taught her the meaning of her name.

    A pair of kingfishers veered through the pewter air, free and wild, hunting the riverbanks like lightning bolts. She watched them.

    Still facing this direction, her back to the horde, Morgan spoke again — almost, it appeared, mouthing the words to herself — saying that she was not afraid of them, and that they could kill her body, but they could never kill the thing inside her that was most fundamental, and as she spoke, there seemed to her in that moment a bright and silvery-white thread, like a current composed of all elements, the quintessence of brightness, undulating through the air and then through her, a mounting charge of electricity which she thought she felt now in every fiber of her living nerves that ran throughout her living body, galvanizing her here at this moment of her death — galvanizing her with new life and strength, and she repeated these words again:

    They could never.

    Scarcely was she finished speaking when with infernal quickness the tall strong hangman drew back infuriated and then unleashed: he bashed her in the small of her back with the butt of his palm, sending her off the bridge, so that Morgan with the noose around her neck sailed sedately into the pure creamy whiteness of the Black River reflected heavens below her.

    Chapter 54

    The masked and mindless horde mutely watched. The eyes of every single one lay fixed upon her slender neck which under the force of this rope, mixed with the weight of her fall, would snap like the dry stalk of a flower.

    Yet at the precise moment the hangman’s rope went taut with the brutal jerk of her bodyweight, a tremendous gunshot rang out and then echoed through the silent valley, and the hangman’s rope was cleanly torn in two by a bullet-slug, fired with sinistral accuracy. Morgan thus dropped feet-first, unhindered, unhung, unhurt, straight down into the calm and creamy ribbon of bright water below. She barely made any splash.

    The mob above her, unsure what they’d just seen or heard, stood masked and mute and dumb.

    They stared stupidly into that slow-churning river of buttermilk.

    They did not see her rise to the surface and drift on her back around the river’s bight. They did not see this because one among them pointed and called for the rest to look — and in the spot where he pointed, they all perceived a phantom-like puff of gunsmoke drifting violet-blue from the evergreens beyond the bridge.

    The hangman, meanwhile, looked at his hands which were abraded and dirty. None among them knew that the gun-report had come from a 30-30.

    PART VII

    Justine was one of these people with an internal whisper to which she paid special attention. Like most such people, she often appeared distant and even distrait, when in actuality just the opposite was the case: she was keenly aware and hyper-vigilant.

    So it was that Justine, wonderstruck and wading profoundly beneath Baboquivari through soundless tides of bioluminescence, the likes of which she’d never conceived, and, with Kristopher, looking fruitlessly for Morgan Felts, heard the familiar voice whispering inside her.

    That voice came from the depths of her subconscious.

    She grew inwardly very still. She listened.

    Just perceptibly, she cocked her head.

    Kristopher, beside her, sensed a change, and then turning, he saw that she wore an abstract and complicated look. But he didn’t know she was thinking of Jon’s fat and faded leatherbound book.

    She left the following evening. They faced each other in the half-light. The west wind blew. It poured down the Baboquivari ravines and then swept out across the dusty desert land. The sky was dark save for a sector of milky white in the north, and huge cumulonimbus stood flame-like on the horizon, Baboquivari peak looming silhouetted and dimensionless, and they said goodbye in the wind and in the shadow of Baboquivari, and when Justine embraced Kristopher and said farewell into his ear, he squeezed her very tightly and pressed his dry lips to her cheek and held them against her warm face for a long moment. There was a sense of exigency in his embrace and in his movements, as if he may never see her again, and she felt it. They spoke no more. She kissed him twice on the cheek in return. And then again. She gripped his cool fingers and squeezed them more tightly and looked directly into his eyes, and he returned her serious and silent stare.

    Then they parted.

    Full darkness came like a thunderclap.

    She drove that entire night, John Coltrane wailing through her radio, the wind battering her little stick-shift as with big soft paws.

    The headlights of faraway cars swept like comets across the distance.

    She passed refineries disgorging immense steam-phantoms into the night, the industry supporting her life and millions of others. The radio stations went and came, and went — corrupted by the hiss of static, ghosts of music like the whisper of souls coming through in patches, overlapping, cannibalizing one another. She reached down and snapped the radio off. Her face glowed greenly in her dashboard lights. She drove without stopping. The westward horizon pulsed with the tangerine lights of cities unseen, and then she was far away. The road emptied, and there were no more cars and no moon, and she drove alone into desert darkness and across: the darkness of an ancient land, windswept, desiccated, vast vacant fields of clay where wooly mammoth and dinosaur and a billion bison had once knelt in depths of mud to die.

    She passed dreamlike into the mysterious quadrants of deep night, and driving she thought of Kristopher and Jon, and she thought of Luciferin and Lucifrase and of bioluminescence and of what she had seen, and she felt also that some change was beginning inside her, something large taking shaping in her brain and heart, something growing, something important she couldn’t yet name, and this something, she felt, wouldn’t fundamentally alter her view of existence but elaborate it, so that life and life’s aim and its meaning would develop a more sweeping perspective, her understanding grown richer already, and then she thought of the place to which she was returning.

    She watched through her windshield this dark and distant land, the clover farms beginning to appear, recalling now, as she invariably did along this stretch of road, the terrible tornado, uncommon but not unheard of, which she’d once witnessed here as a young child: the funnel dropping suddenly, like the snout of some alien beast who perhaps lived among the clouds, tumbling down out of the lumpy cabbage-colored mammatus and then zigzagging across eastern Arizona, swallowing bulls and cows whole, snuffing up horses, detonating cars and trees and homes, exploding the calm and quiet creeks.

    Justine knew well the uncertain but hopeful sense of beginning long journeys — journeys she’d taken many times before — yet this one was clearly different: more arcane, graver, the outcome far less certain.

    Billboards near her hometown told her the price of farms and acreage, the cost of slaughtered lambs. The sight of old familiar houses struck her heart with a sense of gothic ruin. All was silent, occupants still asleep. Handpainted signs, small garden plots, churches, a black steeple-cross, like a sword hilt, toppling forever backward into a cancelled sky. The single Masonic lodge with its pillars and plinths. To her right, the slow green canal wandered thickly beneath a bridge of steel and concrete, and a pair of bottlenecked ducks with blaze-orange webfeet splattered up from the water, flapping madly their dripping wings.

    She saw humpbacked dirt roads in the distance — roads down which for track practice she’d run daily in junior high school.

    A single car came toward her, a solitary Mexican man driving, who raised his hand to her in a gesture of good morning and goodwill. She waved and smiled in return and then watched in her rearview mirror his car drift into the brimming light.

    The baldheaded man with a wizened face was awake and waiting for her when she arrived. He met her at the door. His round eyeglasses were filled with the silver light of morning.

    “Hello, Justine.”

    “Hello, father.”

    He led her into the kitchen and poured her a large glass of milk. She drank. He disappeared for a moment and then returned. With a soft thump, he set down next to her elbow the faded leatherbound book, which only a few months before she’d put into his safekeeping.

    “Where did you get this book?” he said.

    “A man named Jon Silverthorne.”

    “Did he write it?”

    “Yes.”

    “Where did he learn Greek and Latin?”

    “I don’t know. He taught himself.”

    “Is he your friend?”

    “Yes.”

    “Distance yourself from him immediately.”

    She didn’t say anything.

    “It is dangerous,” he said, “a dangerous book.”

    Still, she didn’t reply.

    “It’s downright wicked, in fact.”

    She was silent.

    “A blaspheme and a sacrilege,” he said, “a systematic attack and an affront to all known custom, consensus, religion, and everything else — a total indignity to left, right, and middle, a slap in the face, taking no prisoners but slaying them all.”

    She remained mute.

    “This book should be burned alongside the man who wrote it.”

    She spoke:

    “It is hard to imagine a higher compliment coming from you,” she said.

    “Hard?” he said. “No, not hard. It is impossible.”

    “Then you like it?”

    “No,” her father said, “I love it. It requires a deep grasp and an even deeper genius to bring complicated subjects like this into the realm of complete comprehensibility. That he does it so well and with such seeming effortlessness tells me one thing beyond any doubt.”

    “What is that?”

    “He’s doomed. They’ll never let him live.”

    “Will you help me?”

    “You’re beyond help.”

    Chapter 56

    The door upon which Justine rapped was festooned with little bluish lights, and in the center of these lights a big brass knocker hung from the jaws of an ambiguous creature.

    She lifted the knocker twice and twice let it fall. It resounded with a sharp crack.

    The door was opened by a lean and mohawked man in his middle-age and in shirtsleeves and with a small and stellate nugget of pure gold on a silver chain around his neck. The gold was encircled by smaller planets of bright turquoise, orbiting bluely around the star-shaped nugget like a microcosmic solar system: a pendant of great lapidary precision and wondrous craftsmanship.

    The man had toffee-colored skin and prasine eyes. His mohawk was thick and graying. In his left hand, he held a chess piece — a black knight — and in his right hand was a gleaming key.

    Justine said hello and introduced herself.

    “Come in, come in,” the man said cheerfully. “Your father told me you might pay a visit.”

    “Thank you,” Justine said.

    “My name is Paul Pascoe.” Upon saying which, he chuckled merrily, as if his name had suddenly struck him as a very fine joke indeed.

    He gestured with the black knight through the door he held open for her.

    Justine was then ushered into a modest but uncluttered room with a glowing walnut floor and, in the far corner, a stereo system winking with tigerish lights of orange and red. There was a faint smell of apples and lemons in the air. A little boy of perhaps five or six knelt on the floor in the center of the room. His skin was pure mocha-and-cream. He was surrounded by miniature heavy-equipment vehicles — bulldozers, dump-trucks, big-rigs — and also a fleet of shiny tiny motorcars. At a little cherrywood desk next to where the boy knelt was a large marble chessboard, game in progress.

    “Sit down, please,” said Paul Pascoe. “This is my son Manuel.” He pointed with the black knight to his little boy, who out of politeness had stood up the moment she’d come into the room. “He usually goes by Manny, though. Isn’t that right, Manny-buh-Danny?”

    “Nice to meet you, Manny,” said Justine.

    The swarthy little child bowed to her sweetly but didn’t speak. His hair was shiny black and his eyes were emerald.

    There were three chairs in the room — two of which stood on either side of the cherrywood chess-table, one of those chairs sized for a child. Justine lowered herself into the seat removed. She crossed her legs scissor-like, right-over-left. The child came up to her and silently showed her a new black-and-purple race car with tiny rubber wheels. The smell of apples and lemons surged.

    “I could take your other knight now,” said Paul Pascoe darkly. He was leaning over the chessboard, not sitting but deeply hunched, the beautiful gold pendant swinging in space from its long silver chain, catching the light, and he spoke to his son while scowling at the board. “But I have a much better move.”

    He chuckled diabolically. Then he plowed his rook into a cluster of black pawns, one of which was represented by a small piece of cactus quartz.

    The little boy stared for a moment at the chessboard and then made a lightning swoop and took his father’s white queen with his bishop. He went back to his miniature cars and trucks and bulldozers.

    “Bloody hell!” said Paul Pascoe to his son. “Now I’m really in the soup, my little dove.”

    Chapter 57

    When the chess match was over and Paul Pascoe had tipped his white king, he shook his son’s hand and told him excellent game. He told his son that he was becoming dangerous. Then he disappeared briefly. He came back into the room with two large glasses of water, both chocked full of ice. He gave one to his son, and he set the other on a cork coaster upon the little octagonal end-table next to Justine.

    “Thank you,” she said.

    For a moment, the object of her coming here struck her as almost madly absurd.

    She watched the little child play with his miniature vehicles.

    “Would you like anything else to drink?” Paul Pascoe said. “Beer, wine, whiskey, tea, coffee?”

    “No, thank you,” Justine said.

    She took a long guzzle of the water. It tasted unusually refreshing and delicious.

    “God,” she said, “this may be the best water I’ve ever tasted. I’m not kidding, either.”

    “It’s the best water in the world!” he said. “We’re lucky to have it. It comes from an artesian well that’s located deep beneath my backyard.” He gestured vaguely with his chin toward a window on the left, where the backyard was ostensibly located, and then he turned the chair away from the cherrywood table, so that he was facing her.

    He sat.

    On the end-table beside the coaster, where she placed the waterglass, was an open notebook with a pencil beside it.

    “I am at your service,” Paul Pascoe said to her.

    He looked directly at her as he spoke. His green eyes twinkled. She returned his focused but gentle gaze. She thought suddenly that there was an ageless quality in his face: a boyish sort of energy and an arresting intelligence — not, it also occurred to her, entirely unlike his son’s. Who, meanwhile, was putting the chess pieces back in the old cardboard box — all except the pawn-sized piece of dark cactus quartz, which he pushed down into the pointy tip of his front pocket.

    “I understand you used to work in the mines with a man named Jon Silverthorne,” Justine said. “Is that right?”

    For a moment’s fraction, Paul Prascoe’s gaze took on a different quality — as though a strange and even troubling thought had just passed through him.

    “Yes,” he said. “Jon and I were friends.”

    “Were?”

    “Still are. But we haven’t seen each other or spoken in years. He moved on when the mines closed, and so did I. Lives drift apart, even when you don’t think they will. I mean, you know?”

    “Yes,” she said. “I do know.”

    “Are you well-acquainted with Jon?”

    “Yes,” she said. “Fairly well-acquainted.”

    Paul Prascoe lifted the necklace that was around his neck, and using his left hand and draping over the back of the first two fingers the pendent of gold-and-turquoise, he leaned forward and presented it to her. “I bought this gold nugget from Jon,” he said. “He used to prospect and mine a great deal on his own, and that’s when he found it.”

    “I noticed that necklace immediately. To be candid, it may be the most unique piece of jewelry I’ve ever seen. May I ask if you made it?”

    “Yes, I did. This is what I do for a living.”

    “Jewelry?”

    “I’m a goldsmith and a silversmith.”

    Justine nodded.

    “Actually,” said Paul Prascoe, “though I’m significantly older than him, Jon once exerted a strong influence on me, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that that influence partly shaped who I am today.”

    “How so?”

    He raked his fingers through his ash-colored mohawk. He smiled, as if to himself. His teeth were strong and slightly coffee-stained, his tea-colored front tooth jutting forward slightly, like a busted slat. “It is a good question,” he said, “and one I’ve asked myself many times over the years.”

    “And?”

    “I don’t know that I’ve ever formulated a satisfying answer. Nothing monumental. He found and helped me cultivate the previously mentioned artesian well, the water of which you’re now drinking. It’s mostly in the way he is, the way he lives. There’s nothing particularly flashy about it, as I’m sure you know, and in fact that’s part of it. The word ‘honesty’ doesn’t quite capture it — though that, I believe, is also a component. In my opinion, whether Jon knew it then or not, I think he had only one fundamental criteria for how he measured human life, beginning and ending with his own, and that was human ability — more specifically, the cultivation of human ability. Jon brought out the best in people simply by virtue of his own way of living.”

    Justine considered this for a long silent moment.

    “When you worked with Jon,” she said, “did he ever mention a discovery he’d made — perhaps an invention he’d created — which was later taken from him?”

    Paul Prascoe looked at her carefully. He did not speak. His gaze was steady: a steady flame. “No,” he said at last, “he didn’t — or, at any rate, not that I recall. And I believe I would recall such a thing.”

    “Did he ever speak to you of a person who’d come to him with an offer of money — perhaps a great deal of money?”

    Again, Paul Prascoe looked at her for a long and thoughtful moment. At length, he shook his head — shook it slowly. “No,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

    “Something Jon wrote,” she said. “Which I first read many months ago and at the time didn’t really think twice about it. But now …”

    Justine paused a moment.

    “Yes?”

    “What he wrote strikes me now almost like a cryptogram.”

    “Is Jon okay?”

    She looked at the child playing with his little toys. “I don’t know,” she said. She was still looking at the child as she spoke these words. “Jon is gone. He’s missing.”

    “Manny, my boy,” Paul Prascoe said. “Would you please do me a big favor? Go to the garden and pick the lady here a small cup of the ripest raspberries you can find. Please-please.”

    The little child did not speak but rose up and marched with giant steps through the sliding side-door and out into the garden.

    When he was gone, Justine told Paul Prascoe what she’d prepared beforehand: how Jon had been sent photographs containing graphic depictions of suicide and other ghastly forms of death, horrific acts of violence and violation mixed with sex and satanic symbols, how Jon’s tidy home in the desert had been vandalized and how all the creatures he kept and cared for there were destroyed, the two-headed horned toad cleft down the middle with a hatchet. She told Paul Prascoe about the crimes Jon had been accused of and what had happened that day in the courtroom, which she herself had learned of only after the fact, and she told him also that no one now knew where Jon was.

    She started to say something more, but at that moment, the child came back inside. They heard him in the kitchen rinsing the raspberries under cold water.

    Manny reentered the room and, in a china dish hand-painted with bright cornflowers, presented the fruit to Justine: twenty-two fat purple raspberries, which were degged with artesian water. The child did not speak. Justine thanked him, and then while he watched her, she ate three raspberries at the same time, and then another, and with her mouth closed, she used her tongue to burst the raspberries gently against her palate. The raspberries were cold and sweet, and she told the child how delicious they tasted to her, and she told him again how much she appreciated his doing this thing for her.

    With great attention, the child watched her the whole time, pleased, though in total silence, and so did Paul Prascoe.

    Justine set the dish on the octagonal end-table beside the glass of water, and then she lifted the pencil and the notebook, which sat there as well.

    “May I?” she said to Paul Pascoe.

    “Absolutely,” he said.

    Justine proceeded to draw, with incredible quickness and fluidity and very wondrously, a racing car just like the black-and-purple one Manny had shown her. The silent child watched her with his intelligent eyes, and those eyes grew huge and transfixed as he saw the car taking shape on the page beneath her deft movements.

    “Look at that, Manny-buh-danny!” Paul Prascoe said, when she was finished. “The lady is a real artist.”

    “And she drives a stick-shift,” said the child.

    They both looked at Manny. Slowly, Justine smiled and then she laughed. Her mouth and tongue were raspberry-red.

    “Very observant,” she said. “Oh, I like that in a fellow.”

    Chapter 58

    Toward evening of that same day, while Justine in the bedroom of her childhood home stood at a dust-streaked second-story window watching the ruins of the western sky go from fire to ashes, she received a phone call. She had just showered, and she was dressed now only in her bra and underwear. Her dark skin glowed in the copper-colored rays of the dying sun.

    She picked up the phone. “Hello?” she said.

    “Hello,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “This is Paul Prascoe. Forgive me for ringing you up out of the blue. I thought of something. I believe I can give you a lead.”

    “What is it?” Justine said. The sun was streaming over half her face, gilding her skin with gold.

    “It’s an odd story. I better tell you.”

    “Yes,” she said. “Please tell me.”

    “Long ago, after I’d been working with Jon for about a year-and-a-half, when I was driving to the mine for my shift one day, I saw Jon standing outside the assayers office, which was about a quarter mile from the lot where all the miners parked. Do you know what a metallurgical assayer is?”

    “No, I don’t.”

    “Metallurgical assayers are scientists who work in a mining laboratory. These laboratories are almost always onsite. Assayers analyze ore and minerals and metals to determine the value of these things — and often the value of the mine itself. They’re an eccentric folk, frequently brilliant: a mixture, many of them, of chemist, geologist, engineer, and metallurgist. For this sort of work, a very patient and precise disposition is required, and also an absolute love of new technology. Assayers are a quirky lot, make no mistake.”

    “I see,” Justine said.

    She sat down on the edge of her childhood bed and crossed her bare legs at the ankles.

    Twilight flickered across the wooden floor. She watched it.

    “On this particular day,” Paul Prascoe said, “Jon was standing out in front of the assayers office talking to two people, neither of whom I recognized, but both of whom I got a long look at, and I knew then that I would absolutely recognize them anywhere if I again saw either one.”

    “Why? Why so absolutely?”

    “Because, though they looked nothing much alike, one considerably older than the other, they each had a very distinguished quality about them, and that quality is something you don’t often find — or easily forget. They were both thin and tall — much taller than Jon — and yet, strange as this may sound, I couldn’t tell if they were male or female. ‘Strange,’ I say, because there was something decidedly feminine about both of them, and yet not.”

    Paul Prascoe fell momentarily silent.

    Justine waited. She did not speak.

    “Jon waved as I drove past,” Paul Prascoe said, “and when I later asked Jon about them specifically, he told me that he didn’t know their sex or gender. He told me also, with a peculiar smile, that those two figures were ‘as strange as angels.’ I asked him if they were assayers and Jon said yes and also no. He said they were many things — ‘biomedical researchers among those,’ as he put it, who were cultivating and developing nuclear medicine, which, as you know, requires uranium. But here’s the really interesting thing: Jon said also that they were ‘extraordinarily curious’ to know more about an idea he’d put forth to them about ‘light-activated nanoparticles’ for lowering and combating antibiotic resistance.”

    “Light-activated?” Justine said.

    “Yes.”

    “Are you certain?”

    “Yes.”

    “Did Jon ever say anything more about it?”

    “No. He said nothing more about it.”

    “Where did he learn about that?”

    “I don’t know. Where did he learn about anything?”

    “Yes,” she said.

    “That was over six years ago. Last fall I went to visit my younger sister, who lives in Tempe. One night she took me out for drinks. We went to a number of different places, but the most memorable of them was a jazz lounge atop a skyscraper.”

    Paul Prascoe pregnantly paused.

    Justine waited.

    Shadows streamed into her room like water and ran in rivulets down the hollow of her bare ensellure, and the room was now very quiet. She stared at her peanut-shaped toes, wiggled them once. She suddenly felt a rising apprehension building inside her, as though something important were about to occur.

    “It may sound outrageous,” Paul Prascoe continued, “but the bartender in that jazz lounge was a tall thin figure, very distinguished-looking, with platinum-silver hair, and I am absolutely certain that this bartender was the younger of the two figures I saw that day standing with Jon, out in front of the assayers laboratory.”

    Chapter 59

    It was a dimly lit lounge, clean and unadorned to the point of minimalism, with mirrors angled all about the room. It lay stretched across the topmost floor of a spear-shaped skyscraper the walls of which were composed of massive glass plates that gave to the shimmering night. The sky beyond was dark, but the city below sparkled with such lucency that it cast a pall of apricot light upon the low-hanging cloud-base. The bartop, long and S-shaped, was made of solid mahogany which glowed oxblood in the dim and creamy candleflames. The mellow notes of a jazz piano tinkled like ice through hidden speakers.

    Justine sat alone at the far end of the bar and sipped her tequila cocktail. It was a drink she’d never had or heard of before — El Chupacabra. She thought it perhaps the best-built drink she’d ever tasted: a cocktail consisting of only three or four ingredients, none of which were overly extravagant but all of which had been chosen for their quality and also prepared and poured with such precision and skill that this cocktail took on for her a delicate sense of balance and flavor, with a subtle yet unmistakable scent and flavor of thyme.

    Justine wore a white dress striped with diagonals of deep dark blue. It was Sunday night. The lady piano player had left an hour ago. Near the entrance, at the opposite end of the bar from where she sat, there slouched a middle-aged man in charcoal suit and red necktie. A group of four were at a spacious table beside the southernmost window, near the sliding door that led to a rooftop patio which was empty. Apart from these five, there were no other patrons. Justine, a patient lady, sat relaxed and waiting.

    She studied the bartender, who was thin and tall, with the distinguished yet anachronistic air of a patrician. It struck her that this quality was made all the more anachronistic — and all the more emphatic — by the very fact that, without trying, the bartender made this patrician’s air appear perfectly natural and apposite to someone pouring stiff alcoholic beverages behind a mahogany slab.

    The bartender wore almost all black — black slacks, which accentuated the long elegant line of the legs, and a button-down black shirt — with a burgundy bowtie. The shirt-sleeves were folded to the crook of the elbow, the forearms exposed and webbed with tubular turquoise veins. There was a heightened sense of competence in this bartender’s manner of moving, of working: relaxed yet simultaneously swift in an unmannered and unselfconscious way, and with such a fluid economy of motion that it disclosed a clear and deep experience, but also, to the shrewd observer (and Justine was one such), something more — a more powerful and fundamental thing, which was perhaps at the source of it: an activity of brain and body, wherein this strange ease of motion originated and found its strength constantly refreshed.

    The bartender had thin fingers and thoughtful gray eyes, a skeletal face and long straight hair pinned back, not gray or white, this hair, but platinum, and try as she might, Justine could not determine the bartender’s age or sex. Lurking somewhere behind the bartender’s gray eyes and their unabashed gaze, which shone with so much courtesy and brightness, was a knowing look of something she thought playful. Yet it was so faint as to be almost indiscernible.

    The four patrons near the window rose up at last and departed, leaving cash on the table, and then, immediately after, the slouched man at the bar followed suit. She watched the bartender clear and clean with a kind of dangerous efficiency all the glassware and then, with that same dangerous efficiency, wipe down the bartop and the table. Then the bartender turned and looked at her. It was a candid look — a look too candid to be anything but an invitation — and Justine at that moment felt certain that this entire time the bartender had been inordinately aware of her presence, even inordinately curious.

    “Quiet night,” Justine said.

    “Sundays,” the bartender said: ramrod posture, hands held casually behind the back, a calm contralto voice composed of sexless notes and a thrumming richness. “Bad for business, but I like them. They are soft and peaceful.”

    “I like them too,” Justine said. The piano notes leaked beautifully into the room and then wandered like a river through the labyrinthian channels of her ears. She looked momentarily reflective. “When I was a child, I disliked Sundays,” she said.

    “Why?” The bartender moved two steps toward her, standing directly in front of her now, four feet across the mahogany plank, and held her eyes in a way that made her feel at ease.

    “They gave me a lonely feeling,” Justine said, “a feeling of desolation and sadness.”

    “And do they still?”

    “No, not as much.”

    The bartender watched her in silence for a moment and then spoke:

    “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

    “No,” Justine said, scowling slightly, “I don’t believe so. Where is it you think we may have crossed paths?”

    “I don’t know,” the bartender said. There was a faint lift at the corner of the mouth — an almost crooked smile — and then the look of playfulness surged in the bartender’s eyes. “Perhaps in my dreams. How is your cocktail?”

    “It’s delicate and delicious. You’re very good at what you do.”

    “Thank you. Bartending — true bartending — is a demanding trade. Most people have no idea. It’s physical, the hours grueling — too grueling for most — often 3:00pm to 3:00am, around the clock, no breaks. It requires speed, stamina, agility, dexterity, precision, cleanliness, and yet it’s also cerebral and calls for a great deal of memory — memory especially — but also patience, powers of observation, friendliness, the ability to think on your feet and talk to a wide variety of people even when you have very many things going on. I often marvel at the yin-and-the-yang of it. I regard it as a challenge. It keeps me sharp. The truth is, I believe in work. Work is healthy, jobs are good for the soul. Work provides an outlet not only for energy and expression but also for aggression. I honestly believe that you can tell a great deal about a person just by the way in which that person works — especially if it’s entry-level work.”

    “Why that especially?”

    “Because one who’s good at smaller and more menial jobs, so-called, is even better at larger and more exacting jobs. One faithful in a little is faithful in a lot. But that formula doesn’t work the other way around. It’s the principle of work that’s at issue here — and whether that principle has not only been grasped but also embraced. I’m really quite opinionated on the subject.”

    “I like it that you are,” Justine said. “I like that you’re opinionated on this subject. Tell me what else you think.”

    “About work?”

    “Yes.”

    “I think that what we often call rising in life is really leaving the safe and the comfortable — the things we’ve always been told and taught — for the more exalted path, which I believe is what it means to truly rise. Money, which is strictly a medium, is always secondary, at most. The higher we rise, the greater the strain. As we ascend, we feel increased pressure on what amounts to our virtue. The more deeply we immerse ourselves in worldly pleasure, the less we actually grasp and enjoy the true nature of life: its essence, its full importance. We come to many crossways, phantom roads perchance, and which direction will we go? Will we advance, even knowing that there will be increased pressure? Or remain where we are? Change direction? Go back? That there should be crossways at all is strange enough, and everyone would recognize it as exactly such, had the oddness of it not already been bled out long ago. Responsibility may be a labyrinth. And it is a deep and lasting labor to map and negotiate that subterranean maze, which is completely interconnected and so vast that it may as well be endless, apart from whether you believe in the infinite or not.”

    Justine looked down into the infinite depths of her gold cocktail and then back into the bartender’s complicated eyes of dove-colored gray.

    “What brings you in this evening?” the bartender said.

    “You.”

    The bartender’s thin eyebrows lifted, the forehead wrinkling in a vermicular way. “Oh?”

    “Yes.” Justine leaned forward, both forearms pressed against the round edge of the bartop. Her bosom rose and fell with a sea-like rhythm. “Did you know, perhaps six or seven years ago, a young miner who found something deep beneath the earth — who perhaps figured out a new method by which to harness and use light-activated nanoparticles?”

    Justine unconsciously measured the length of the ensuing pause by the soft beat of the upright bass coming through the speakers. Her cyanic eyes did not waver from the unwavering gaze of the bartender. Yet she was unable to pinpoint the precise nature of the way this bartender now regarded her. She knew only that it was a look of deeper measurement, a heightened attentiveness, a sort of retriangulation, perhaps. Justine suddenly sensed a formidable opponent.

    “Why do you ask me that?”

    “Do you know anything of what I’m referring to?”

    “Yes, I do.”

    “Can you give me any information at all?”

    “I cannot.”

    “I implore you.”

    “I’m sorry.”

    “It is of the utmost importance.”

    “Why?” the bartender said.

    “Do you know the nature of the work?”

    “Yes, I know something of it.”

    Here Justine looked deeper into the bartender’s eyes. She was silent for perhaps three seconds — and in that time she decided to act upon a suspicion which in the last two minutes had been growing rapidly inside her: a kind of bluff.

    “Did you know that in addition to what he found,” Justine said, “he came upon an idea, the ramifications of which are enormous?”

    “May I ask your name?” the bartender said. He gazed with equal depth into her dark blue eyes.

    “My name is Justine Strickland.”

    “And may I also ask how you know about this work?”

    Here she recognized instantaneously that her suspicion was a suspicion no more: it had just been proved.

    “I deduced it,” Justine said. “I’ve followed a circuitous path to get here — don’t even ask — and I’ve come a very long way. Will you please tell me the name of one who knows?”

    The bartender listened to her with absolute attention and did not so much as flicker or blink. Indeed, the hyper-awareness in the bartender’s eyes seemed to swallow her words as they were coming out of her mouth and then stuff each of those words down into profound hidden compartments within — though to what end or purpose, there was no indication or clue.

    Then the bartender spoke:

    “Stop looking, Justine Strickland. Throw in the towel. I strongly recommend it — for your own sake and sanity. Quit searching for the answers to this particular thing.” Upon saying these words, the bartender tossed onto the mahogany plank a bar-towel so immaculate that it appeared as though someone here must have access to a special sort of whitener. “You will not find what you’re looking for.”

    “Why? Why do you say?”

    “Because it’s much bigger and more intricate than you realize — or perhaps could ever conceive.”

    For a full fifteen seconds, Justine remained motionless, looking straight back at the bartender. Then she blinked slowly and averted her eyes to the golden cocktail before her. She did not say anything. She lifted the glass and took a silent sip.

    “Your search is made all the more futile,” the bartender said, “because you couldn’t possibly have any conception of the actual futility of the task you’ve chosen to undertake. The mystery you’re trying to uncover is far more mysterious — and far bigger — than light-activated nanoparticles. You must simply take my word for this. I’ll give you one piece of information, which may be of some help: by the very nature of what it is, knowledge is not only altogether interwoven and contextual but also hierarchical, and the chain of knowledge is irrevocably so because reality is intricately linked, and at root knowledge is really nothing more — or less — than a measurement and quantification of reality, which we do by means of language.”

    Justine was silent for several beats. “May I ask you one final question, one only indirectly related to what we’ve just discussed?” she said.

    “You may.”

    “Have you ever been to a mine called the Yellowjacket mine or to the assayers laboratory of that same mine?”

    “I have not,” the bartender said, and smiled in a way that revealed perfect teeth, immaculate and bright.

    Then the bartender turned slightly, as if to check for someone or something away to the left — and Justine in that moment saw or thought she saw, in the angled mirror to her right, the bartender’s fingers crossed superstitiously behind the back.  

    Then she saw the reflected profile, which in turn was reflected in yet another mirror to her left, so that for an instant, it suddenly seemed to her as though there were three or even four bartenders, and then, in other reflections which appeared before her, even more. As if they were legion.

    The bartender, still smiling, turned back to her and spoke:

    “The illusions these mirrors create can be disorienting, n’est-ce pas?” Breaking in on the drift of her thoughts.

    The tequila, she felt, had mainlined into her and was beginning rapidly to spread.

    “Very,” Justine said.

    At that moment, a half-forgotten line also swam on currents of tequila into her head:

    “Yet the blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, having nothing to hide.”

    This is what she thought, but never said.

    She put a one-hundred-dollar bill on the bar. Then she rose and went outside.

    Chapter 60

    She drove the southwest alone.

    With the help of her father and his translations — translations of  Silverthorne’s Greek and Latin into English — Justine searched for days which turned into weeks. The western sunlight glanced heliotropically off her windshield, helmut-headed insects splattering against the windshield-glass like paintballs.

    Over and across the ghost-towns and all the mining claims she visited, the winds of early autumn swirled and blew. She felt that they threatened to blow right through her.

    Every lead turned into a dead-end.

    Everywhere she went, there was nothing but rumor and report.

    Above the door of a tiny tilted church composed of crude masonry, just north of Dulce, New Mexico, where Jon Silverthorne had been born and raised, she read a quote someone had long ago chiseled into the white limestone:

    Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.

    The more she searched and the more time she spent alone and in thought, the more she felt herself transmuting internally — for good or ill, she was not certain. She grew quiescent and calmer yet. She came increasingly to crave the serenity and cleanliness of this solitude.

    Early one Sunday morning, north of the Albuquerque Basin in the Rio Grande rift, on the edge of the wild Jimez mountains, after having slept the night in her car, she came on foot into a red forest grove. Incarnadine woods, trees shot through with murky light. The intricate network of veins visible within each individual leaf. She passed through.

    Tall swaying grass gave way to stony ground. Rims of pink-champagne light stood out upon the high western hills, the hills just tipped with sunlight, and as Justine walked, the final shadows of dawn receded and were swept away, and all the serene land pressed in around as, little by little, the whole valley gave way to light.

    She stopped for a moment and extracted a folded map from the back pocket of her blue jeans. She wore a kidney-colored tee-shirt and no jacket, dark-blue sneakers. She consulted the map for a full minute, and then she looked about her, as if she would quantify and measure her surroundings by the natural landmarks she stood among. She looked.

    From her small pack, she retrieved a water bottle and took a long pull. Then she walked on.

    The sun rose like a ball of pollen and brooded over the eastern world, and soon she began to sweat. She gathered her hair and lifted it off the back of her neck and then yanked it into a ponytail.

    Below her, a broken heap of rocks lay along the dry floor of an old quarry.

    She descended a natural limestone staircase and then walked across the floor of the quarry. On the other side, around a high outcropping, she came to an oblong pool, deep and emerald, with chalky cliffs inverted on the still waters. Justine did not stop walking but turned her head to stare at the pond as she passed. The stones all around were purplish and covered in a thin layer of silica dust. A small breeze sprung up. There were dusty smells in the air, a mineral tang. The sweat on her skin began to cool. Mats of algae wheeled imperceptibly across the surface of the water, discharging a saffron light more brilliant than the water itself. A thick cable, powdered with rust, hung from high up on the rock walls and came slanting down into the pool, impaling it.

    The breeze sifted through the dust.

    The wooden door of a decrepit quarry shack blew open and slapped shut. Justine paused and looked around. Was there someone here? And was this someone watching her? All of a sudden, she felt sure there was. Yet she saw no sign of life — human, animal, or otherwise. The delicate hairs all along the nape of her neck stood up.

    She continued through the quarry and came out onto a derelict mining road, which led her briefly back into a grove of blood-colored trees. Then, at last, she arrived at an abandoned mineshaft immediately beyond which lay stretched the ghost-town which this mine had once given rise to.

    The mineshaft consisted of a ramshackle tin building and through the building, at the back, a hole blasted into a black mountain. To the right and to the left, small cones of tailings stood like lunar volcanos, extinct, and a deep floodwater shimmered just inside the cave. Justine could hear within a steady echo-drip, and she saw a small railbed vanish into the floodwater, only one-and-a-half of its ties visible. Gray tanagers with sesame eyes peeked out at her from the little shrubs but made no sound.

    Justine approached the cave.

    A dead bat slept at the mouth. It was folded like an umbrella, the small eyes shut, pointy ears, a pug nose — the sour face almost human-looking, Justine thought, or hobbit. The tiny paws clutched in death at the magnificent cape which this creature wore. She walked away from the mineshaft and into the ghost-town that was populated with cogwheels and huge rusted axles, dilapidated wooden shacks sun-bleached and gray.

    The wind poured through, this waxing sabbath day.

    There were no signs of life.

    Yet on the northernmost purlieus of this ghost-town, there existed a purportedly inhabited home about which Justine had heard rumors.

    At this time, it was just after eight o’clock in the morning, the soaring sun as white as bone, and Justine walked toward that rumored house made of metal and stone.

    Chapter 61

    All the lights inside were off. No one appeared to be here. Justine knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again. The door was made of a thin metal that resounded clangorously under the rap of her knuckles.

    She waited.

    No one answered. No one came.

    She knocked again. Still nothing.

    She waited further. She looked around. A deep stillness hung over the entire property. There was a high-altitude haze in the air. Justine continued looking. To her left, a thin dirt path like sprinkled cocoa curved around the house. Justine followed this path where it led, and suddenly, somewhat to her surprise, she came into a lush garden-plot, where, on a wooden picnic table, beneath a pulsing green-apple tree, its limbs bent low with the lunar globes, a thin book lay spread-eagle. It was held open by a volcanic bowl of small fruit. Above the archway of a stone shed beyond was a hand-chiseled cross of granite.

    Yet the first thing she noticed was not this cross but rather a long and fish-colored snake slithering out of the tree and dropping soundlessly into the grass.

    She watched the thick serpent move through the deep and strange-scented shade of the dark-barked tree, and she watched it trail its fish-gray slackness soft-bellied down to a stone trough where a pool of water bubbled up from a fracture in the earth.

    In silence Justine saw the snake rest its level throat upon the snake-colored stone, and she watched the snake sip upon the small clearness of water: drinking and nourishing itself through its paper-slit mouth, taking the cool clean water into the long body, silently.

    From a distance of ten feet, she then saw the snake pause a moment and lift its triangular head, as drinking cattle sometimes do, philosophically, and the orange forked-tongue flickering — as if licking its chops — and then she watched it dip its arrow-head and stoop back and drink a little more in the dark-gray shadows of the garden air, which smelled so strangely of apples and something else she couldn’t identify.

    At last, having satisfied its thirst, the snake lifted its head and looked around again, though longer this time, like a demon or a god, and then slowly, very slowly, drawing its long slow curving length away from the gurgling fracture in the ancient stones of the earth, and when Justine shifted the weight of her stance, one foot to the other, making only a tiny sound, the snake, with sloppy haste, snapped and then twisted like a whip and vanished in an instant into a black earthen hole, an earth-lipped fissure.

    Narrow-eyed and thoughtful, Justine the zoologist, observer of nature, watched this creature of the underworld disappear like an uncrowned king into the chartless caves of the earth.

    Chapter 62

    Justine with her pretty ponytail walked silently to the open book beneath the apple tree, the book held open by the weight of the porous fruitbowl. She held her hands behind her back. She did not touch anything. She looked down and read the first thing her eyes fell upon:

    If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
    Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
    Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
    With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
    A secret system of caves and conduits

    She raised her eyes and looked off into the distance. She unconsciously squinted. Then her eyes went back to the book.

    I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing

    The fruit in the bowl was a mixture of purple grapes, which were still on-the-vine; medium-sized green apples brushed with blood; three small stone fruit she did not recognize — perhaps a hybrid of plum and apricot, or perhaps peach, she thought. Indeed, she felt for a moment that in addition to apples, she could smell all three fruits individually — individually and discretely and in succession. She had not eaten a single thing in over forty-eight hours, and her hunger, like the hunger of Persephone in hell, gnawed with rat’s teeth at her stomach and heart.

    She stood motionless with her hands still clasped behind her back, and she stood as one on the verge of recollecting an elusive memory.

    Moving only her eyeballs now, she scanned her surroundings yet again. She looked all about her.

    Justine looked.

    At last, her eyes dropped one more time to the open book.

    Dear, I know nothing of
    Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
    Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
    Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape

    Reading this silently to herself, she was struck by the sound of these words inside her head — almost as if some voice other than her own were reading the words to her: a soft and sexless voice that lulled and soothed.

    At that moment, Justine very consciously decided something — and the instant she decided it, she did not hesitate.

    She reached for the ripest and largest of the mysterious stone fruit, and she sunk her strong teeth into its flesh.

    She ate it to satisfy her deep hunger.

    The thick torn muscle of the fruit tasted so cool and so sweet — beyond anything she’d imagined — and she ate it with total satisfaction.

    Chapter 63

    There was a backdoor to this house, which gave to the garden, and when Justine turned from where she now stood and when she went to the door and knocked upon it, the door came open with a gentle snick.

    A thin current of cool air passed over her.

    With her elbow, she nudged the door open a little wider.

    “Hello?” she said. “Is there anybody home?”

    Her voice rang hollow through the bare rooms of the house.

    There was no answer.

    A thin doormat beneath her feet said BIENVENIDOS.

    She stepped inside.

    The room was clean but dusty. The walls were the color of egg shells. The house seem deserted and yet not quite.

    Before her there sat a wooden table with two wooden chairs on either end. A very elegant and heavy-looking silver candlestick stood in the center of the table, a white-porcelain coffee cup on the far edge. Other than this there were no furnishings or furniture that she could see. Light streamed into the room through the lancet window on her left, and beyond this window she saw in the southern sky, in the middle-distance, a huge circular cloud — punctured clean through, like a donut.

    A great tide of light slanted down through this pastry-hole above.

    Justine stared at it.

    It was at this time that she noticed her senses beginning to perplex.

    She went to one of the two chairs and sat down. Then she started to get up, but suddenly there seemed no real reason to. She reseated herself.

    She looked into the coffee cup. It was empty. Yet as she stared down into it, it blossomed with a golden glow and came alive, and she then noticed, as if only now, the slanting sun and a thick cone of sunlight coming in through the window and prowling the room with soft puma paws and illuminating the beautiful silver candlestick completely.

    Dustmotes wheeled and orbited inside this light like planets and moons in a microcosmic solar system.

    She saw through the window a solitary mountain flower standing as stiff as a cornstalk. It was purple and sun-leached and half-hidden among the brush, and Justine only noticed it because she’d caught a flicker on the marge of her vision and then, from nowhere, a spiky-headed swallowtail alighted upon that sun-leached purple flower, bending the stalk nearly to the ground.

    As Justine watched, the bird did something then which struck her as inordinately strange: it appeared to impale its own beak repeatedly into the downy breast, stabbing at it rapidly, as if it would pierce and pulverize its own tiny tender heart.

    When the bird lighted off, the flower-stalk sprung back to attention.

    Justine watched for a long time, amazed, dreamy.

    After a while, she turned and leaned forward in her chair, so that she might see into another room of this house, and in this other room she saw a female figure staring directly at her.

    Her heart went into her throat.

    The figure sat next to a mantle beneath a mounted great-horned owl, who also watched her with jeweled eyes, and there sat upon the mantle a slender pink vase containing a single crepe flower, blue-black and sorrowful.

    It was with even greater astonishment that Justine realized that the female figure watching her also looked much like her.

    Justine stared in wild surmise, and so did the figure in the room beyond.

    The two of them eyeing each other wildly, warily.

    It was a protracted span of time — within which all movement stretched slowly away from her and then went wobbling off into a jellied blackness somewhere just beyond her periphery — before she grasped that this figure watching her was her own reflection, and that the sunlit glass of the mirror in which she lay doubled was the color of white-burgundy wine.

    The mirror-glass that rebated her was also striped with silver and metal-gray, with flakes of shimmering refraction framed by ornate brass, a sinuous ripple like a giant cobra, a two-headed cobra swaying hypnotically on an enormous neck, and it was now as well that Justine realized that the fruit she’d eaten was in some way she couldn’t fully define a fruit cool and sweet, yet forbidden.

    All at once she understood that the moment she was thinking about had passed and then that moment too and then that one, and she was looking at this forever fading reality of the present, a recursive regression of movement which was both eternal and also central, and then suddenly she felt she was watching the watcher, which was her.

    She saw herself as from above and slightly off to one side.

    Everything seemed far away, almost as though she were viewing existence now through the wrong end of a telescope. She seemed somewhere else. The sunlit air was electric, bristling, green sea-worms of electric light squirming on the marge of her vision. She sat motionless. Her profile was like that of an antique coin. Her nose straight and long, the zygomatic arch crisply etched. A planet or star lit her cheek and revealed the shiny bone beneath the skin, a somehow futuristic face with that sharp glinting bone.

    She felt a lonesome wind blast through her, and then a huge and heavy curtain fell over everything that had been, and she sat motionless in the chair, like a butterfly held softly in a spider’s web.

    She thought she could hear inside her own body the tidal gush of her bloodbeat and the gentle crackle of her dying cells, the silent warfare of germs, the popping of her tendons and tissues, the metal-rending of ligaments, her teeth dragging dryly in their sockets, the double-helix of her DNA spiraling into infinity, the creaking roll of eyeballs inside her skull.

    Running jagged down the pinky side of her right hand, the old childhood scar, stitched by her mother the nurse, now flickered lilac and gray in the prowling light. Justine had no conception how long she’d been sitting here. She stared at her scar as one who would apprehend some awful homicide, a ghastly murder committed beneath the hot and grinding blade, the robbing of an individual human life which is more than the sum of pleasures accrued, the nervous system and the circulatory system within each and every single human being a hidden network of underground aqueducts and rivers so vast that it would stretch end-to-end around the earth four times and more, over one-hundred thousand miles of deep threading conduits in every individual, and does each incomprehensibly vast and intricate individual human have substance and identity apart from the race or tribe with whom it most closely associates? And are there deceptions too big to fully see over, vices too conspicuous, too pronounced to ever completely talk around, themes too overwhelming to ever be fully subordinate to other themes and which lace like worms the inflamed brain of the violent and the obsessed and hold that brain forever hostage and fogged and forever susceptible to the cultic?

    The day was dying and the late-afternoon bloomed like milk and roses upon the wall. Justine watched with uncanny clarity scraps of a dream that unspooled down the back of her brain, and at the same time she felt herself drifting apart from everything that was, or would be.

    The shrubs beyond the window seemed to her suddenly populated with small sapient creatures watching her. Foliage filled with frog-like figurines waiting for whom? For she.

    She saw sandhill cranes flying over the desert, immense shapes gliding darkly over her head like stingrays or phantoms of such breathtaking levity that, immobile in this chair, she felt herself almost weep. She saw ravens soaring over dark spruce forests in a wild high-country, slopes falling away in every direction, all heather and moss, and the purple clouds beneath these blackbirds with their wind-hushed croaks.

    She saw a solitary falcon quarter and then deploy downwind, an armadillo far below moving like a windup toy across the sand, its tiny tail twisting back and forth like a little whip.

    She saw orange-and-black butterflies flop sloppily over hot autumn fields, and she heard the rattle of cornstalks in a wind that seemed made of glass.

    She saw piebald calves of inexpressible winsomeness leaping and playing in lime-green fields of alfalfa, and she saw swarms of lady beetles with little cow faces teeming sweetly in the clover.

    She saw a pair of brook trout anchored side by side in a vodka-clear creek, their fat midsections stippled with blue-and-pink polkadots so vibrant and so bright that they looked to her dabbed there with fresh paint, the gray velvet fins winnowing the gunpowder sand, gills kneading, slits opening and closing like dampers, and she saw anadromous salmon-hens knifing against the current, making for the sea. A finger-sized salamander, dark and mottled, dipped a webbed foot into a pool of bubbled green, as if testing the waters there.

    She saw a two-headed horned toad with a single neck, four tilted eyes, distended midsection, leaf-like feet, and she saw the heartbeat pulsing so delicately within the slack skin of the neck between two heads, and Justine in her chair thought this mutant creature as lovely as anything she’d ever beheld.

    Unreeling rapidly down the sloping nightscape of her mind, schools of multicolored fish flew by like bright ribbons of silk, and through the misted surface of this dream-sea, the late-autumn sunset pulsed like a lozenge on the very edge of the earth, the sun coral-colored and fiery-orange and casting long horizontal bars across all the wheeling world, and she heard the whispering of wind over wine-dark waters, and the rattle of pebbles in the eternal wash of the waves, and Justine alone among the observers said that this time there are ears and eyes and there are witnesses.

    She stood abruptly from the chair and walked with haste from this rose and dusky room and stepped outside.

    The sun was down, yet the sky was still alight and strangely lucent, glowing around the edges with a cabbage-hued radioactivity. Away to the east, the crescent moon like a honing stone lay cocked over the horizon. The air hung grainy and green. The silence was absolute. A faint scent of thyme touched her nose. Justine went to the fissure in the earth where the snake had sipped, and she stared long at the black bubbling water, and then she stood above the earth-lipped limestone fracture that opened on the underworld into which the snake had slid, and that limestone fracture was a narrow rift indeed.

    When Justine knelt and reached into the gap, as if to quantify and measure it for the width of her willowy body, and as though she’d all but decided to follow the snake down inside, she felt herself seized by the wrist and yanked with great force.

    Chapter 64

    Yanked and fallen with something more than velleity into this chamber of the underworld, she lay on her back upon the ancient stone and she could not quite tell where her being ended and where the underworld began. She seemed further removed, without boundary to herself. She felt the very core of the earth sucking at her bones, the tilt of the pinioned planet on its axis, an immense gravitational pull, and then, with a faint feeling of nausea, there came over her an almost deep-sea sensation of vertigo — the oceanic swell of titanic underwater currents, the sheer force of water, the deep sea heaving with all the world’s tuneful turning.

    She lolled her head. The heat was as oppressive as the stillness. The blood within sluiced throughout her. Her body felt gashed and broken from being yanked so violently through the narrow earthen fissure and down. A small fire burned nearby, though she couldn’t quite locate it. Yet she thought she heard murmur from that fire the specter whose everlasting quiddity whispers among its own ashes, with a soft and sibilant rapidity.

    The hand which still gripped her forearm was strong and bony. She could not at first make out a face, but she saw ash-colored hair floating high and moonlike above her, and then strange effects and features began gradually to accrue out of the semi-darkness like something from a vision which was more than a vision.

    The hand released.

    There passed before her eyes a black shadow, and then, directly in front of her, she saw emerge the face of a witchdoctor, a visage that looked like something carved from cold dark wax, and glowing eyes wherein lay nothing and everything simultaneously.

    On the ends of all the bony fingers were spear-shaped fingernails so thick that they appeared to her like agates.

    This witchdoctor with a small puzzle-box now knelt beside her — knelt like a priest who with a deathbed kit would administer the last rights.

    The figure unrolled and spread out on the floor next to her a black-velvet cloth and placed assorted things upon this cloth: a sabertooth tusk bored through with a small hole, a stone marble next to a stone cross pattée, purple crystals, milky quartz, a wicked pack of cards, and then a voodoo dummy, two feet tall, which suddenly looked to her like Jon Silverthorne.

    The witchdoctor in the gloom appeared to study the apposition of these effects for secret systems and while it did so, it spoke to her in a soft voice that was neither male nor female but like the murmur of underground streams, saying to her that it was eight-thousand miles from the surface of the earth to earth’s core, and yet the deepest any human had ever penetrated was a mere seven miles, and did she know this?

    Did she know that the inside of the earth was still in this present day largely unmeasured and mysterious, because humans had not yet invented instruments by means of which they might measure the inner-earth precisely?

    Justine replied neither yes or no.

    The figure continued to lay out and study purple crystals and other arcana from the puzzle-box, and as the fingers moved and worked and the agate-like fingernails glinted, the figure told her, as if, she thought, trying to somehow overwhelm or intimidate her, of the earth’s lower mantle and spoke also of a ferromagnesian silicate mineral called perovskite, and the figure spoke as well of diamond-anvil cells and then of a new mineral altogether, something largely theorized and for which there was not yet a name — something iron-rich, the figure said, and hexagonal and more stable than iron-bearing perovskite.

    The figure spoke of the immeasurably huge and hidden circulatory system that runs beneath the earth and which is as enigmatic and as alien and as untapped as the inside of the moon but more vital and intricate than anything lunar because the terrestrial is alive and burning, the figure said, and yet it is no more vast than the living circuitry that runs through each and every human individual, no matter the individual’s size, sex, shape, strength, or color, and that the conduits and corridors of each human brain and body beneath the skin and with which the earth finds its perfect metaphor are, as well, every bit as profound as the things that exist beneath the surface of the world.

    Justine, supine upon the stone floor of the underworld, lolled her head the other way and was half surprised to see a small fire burning only a few feet from her face.

    She stared into the pulsating coals, which were split in two and perfectly mirrored in her cyanic eyes.

    With dilated pupils, she watched the curious lucency contained inside that fire, like a small incandescent world of sparks and embers, tiny scarlet grottoes and eerie orange caverns interspersed with shapes of black, like diminutive jack-o-lanterns — like a sprawling cityscape seen from high above. She studied the way the burning wood appeared molten and gooey and almost translucent, and as she stared into the breathing chambers of fire, the inside of her mind which was her life all at once seemed to her endless, unexplored.

    In silence, the witchdoctor watched her watch and then took something else from its deathbed kit, and Justine, hearing the movements of the witchdoctor, turned from the fire and looked back into the unblinking eyes, which in that moment recalled the eyes of the dangerous adversary atop the skyscraper.

    The witchdoctor now told her that for all its sheer size and scope and even majesty, nature is nevertheless not enough.

    “There is for this reason a nature beyond nature,” the witchdoctor said, “which, however, cannot at all be measured or quantified — or even fully apprehended — even though it is through nature that we ultimately know of this other nature’s existence.”

    The witchdoctor then told her that it was by ritualistic esoteric means alone that this nature-beyond-nature can be tapped into.

    The witchdoctor said furthermore that any contradiction here is only apparent and not actual, and that it only takes a willingness to believe and a special sort of sensibility to understand — a sensibility not everyone possesses — and that when, at last, this super-nature is tapped, there are no longer any laws or boundaries fixed or firm, and therefore anything goes.

    “Anything,” the witchdoctor said. “The cultic is the key in such a context because in a universe where laws and boundaries are unfixed and ultimately unknowable, it is through sheer numbers — and through sheer numbers alone — that truth is shaped and that true power accumulates.”

    The witchdoctor then held up before her a syringe-like needle of astonishing length and pointedness and in the other hand lifted by the black hair the voodoo doll which Justine had at first thought resembled Jon Silverthorne.

    Kneeling over her with these items in each hand, the sweating witchdoctor, in a subtle but unequivocally hostile way, grinned.

    At that moment and with a sharp intake of breath, Justine understood.

    She turned back to the embers of living lucency that burned so hotly beside her head, and she spoke aloud but as if to herself or to the light of the fire:

    “If super-nature didn’t exist,” Justine said, “humans would surely have invented it.” She blinked with thick eyelids and turned back to the witchdoctor. “Stick all the pins and needles you want into that voodoo doll,” she said in a strong voice. “It will never matter. And it doesn’t even look like him at all.”

    PART VIII

    It was a moon-eyed night. But those eyes were bloodshot and gritty — a night with a heifer’s mouth and a goat’s neck. But the mouth was gagged, the neck hacked and bled. The only sound Morgan heard was the hammer of her heartbeat. Behind shut eyes the only thing she saw was coral-red.

    “They’ve been taught to seek themselves in the supernatural and in others,” said the voice inside her head. “They can’t conceive a different way.”

    She was feverish and unwell. She turned and partially opened her eyes but didn’t speak.

    “You’re a rebuke to them,” the voice said.

    “How?” Her fevered speech sounded even to her soft and weak.

    “In your independence and your love of solitude. Because the person who stands alone is the one and only thing they’ll never allow — because they themselves can’t exist alone. They would have us believe that all human behavior is equal — except that: the one who stands apart and upon her own. It is the one behavior humanity will always crucify.”

    “Why?”

    “When one halts the process of independent thought and judgement — when one kinks this natural flow — one stops the natural function of consciousness. To halt consciousness is to halt life. What then is left? What to replace it with?”

    Morgan didn’t reply.

    The voice continued:

    “Superstitious people are a fundamentally fearful and insecure lot. It is in the very nature of superstition. If any one of them were to stop and ask whether a truly personal desire had ever been held and ever followed through with, this person would find an answer — an answer honest and true. Such a person would see that their dreams and desires and ambitions are driven almost entirely by others: what others think, what others approve of and like, what others have told them to believe in and do. These are the people not even primarily motivated by material wealth — which is one thing — but attention, approval, approbation. From whom? From others. From whomever. It is not fueled by their own independent judgment — their own thoughts and ambitions. It is not sourced in their own dreams. They can find no lasting passion in the pursuit, no fulfillment in the work — as they find no lasting happiness in the attainment — and why do they not? Because such a person cannot say about a thing: this is what I wanted because I grasped it with my own volitional thought, and I wanted it with my whole soul — I the individual. I wanted it because it came from within me — self-driven, self-generated, self-maintaining — not because it made others approve of me and not because it made me less afraid and made me feel more self-worth for a few fleeting moments. They wonder then why life is ridden with uncertainty and anxiety, internal strife, depression, unhappiness. Why so much alcohol, drugs, glut? Why the constant need of attention and outside validation, the constant quest for pleasures, which as constantly progress? Their sense of worth and beauty and efficacy is in the hands of others — others they don’t even really know, and yet who nevertheless control them. The truth is that the world for each is peculiar and private to that individual, and every form of real happiness — lasting happiness — is personal. It is individual and profoundly personal. The truth is that our greatest heights are altogether private, and properly so. They are private and self-driven, not to be indiscriminately put out there and pawed over — they are too excellent for that. They are not to be cheapened in such a promiscuous manner. They are not to be touched by others, nor generated by others.”

    Now, as the thunder spoke and the rain began, the voice ceased, and Morgan awoke.

    She knew at once that the voice was Jon’s, and that, chilled and only half-conscious as she was, she’d not been entirely dreaming.

    She knew at once as well that they were coming again — and that this time they’d seek to take not just her but also Jon.

    Chapter 66

    There are water-wells, often very deep, dug into certain human hearts, and over these wells rare birds of insight sometimes fly.

    “Jon?” Morgan said.

    He turned from the wet slishing highway down which he now drove, and he looked at her. The rain clicked upon the windows, and windshield wipers slapped the water away.

    Morgan lay flat across the seat of his pick-up truck, her head propped upon an ice-pack beneath Jon’s rolled jacket, against the passenger-side door, her sock-feet across his knees below the steering wheel. He’d given her aspirin an hour before. He reached over with one hand and felt her fingers, which were folded prayer-like at her neck.

    Her skin was burning hot, but she was shivering.

    Her eyes were only partially open, her eyelids thin and webbed with spidery veins.

    Jon looked back to the road. He drove with one hand now, the other still upon her fingers. At his shoulder, thin arteries of rainwater streamed down the driver’s-side glass.

    “We grow up being told that the Devil tempts us to do forbidden things,” Morgan said, “the things we deep-down want. But this is backwards, isn’t it?”

    “What are you thinking about?” Jon said.

    “I’m thinking that the hardest thing in human life is to pursue the things we do most fundamentally desire — and I’m not talking about money or alcohol or drugs or sex or parties, and I don’t mean prestige or getting in newspapers and magazines, or anything like that. None of those things are real desires, are they? They’re an escape.”

    Jon looked at her. “What are they an escape from?” he said.

    “From wanting — from the deep and difficult responsibility of actually wanting something important and true and whole, and wanting that thing passionately with your entire heart and soul.”

    Chapter 67

    She awoke again to the trundle of thunder and knew immediately she was in one of those carnival-like corridors when for anything ordinary to happen would be unordinary. The watery air was too electric for any standard occurrence to survive uncollapsed. She sat up. She was still in Jon’s truck, but she was all alone now. The truck was not running. Her head pounded, a fishook-yank of pain behind her left eyeball, yet her vision and her thoughts felt inordinately clear.

    Through the rain-dappled windshield, she saw the lights of a filling-station — lunar globes hanging beyond as though caught in suspended flight. Then, turning her head, she also saw Jon off to her right, near the rear of his truck. He was filling the gas tank. He was looking toward Baboquivari, which loomed westward and was partially obscured by the low sky.

    From this vantage, Morgan could see only his profile — the curve of his nose, his longish hair pulled off his face in such a way that his forehead was completely exposed — and then something happened which was for her very curious:

    Cherry-bright taillights, coming from the car three feet behind where Jon stood, abruptly illuminated so that Jon’s profile all at once bloomed blood-red in the electric air of the dying day, and the first thing to come into Morgan’s head, without her even initially realizing it, was that standing there in profile, in that hellish glow of light, Jon indeed looked like the Devil.

    In the very next instant and with crushing clarity, the total weight and context of her situation came crashing down upon her — the dire hopelessness of it all, the risk to his own life which Jon had taken in order to save her, and the danger from which risk would now never go away.

    Morgan shut her eyes, and in a wild grimace of despair and grief, she unconsciously bared her teeth and gripped her fists tightly, until her fingers turned white.

    Her golden fang caught the electric-blue of the draining light.

    At that moment, Jon opened the driver’s-side door and slid behind the steering wheel, and Morgan, who was looking away, relaxed her face and fists and opened her eyes. She turned to him.

    He stared at her in silence.

    He stared at her for a long moment, studying her, her faraway eyes that saw things and made connections nobody else did — bright yet sad dreamy eyes of gray and lilac-blue, above famished-looking cheeks of a purplish hue.

    The limpid quality in her gaze suggested that her fever had perhaps broken. Yet she also looked sorrowful and even frightened.

    He smiled.

    “Try as you will,” Jon said, “you’ll never annihilate the eternal relic of the human heart: love.”

    Morgan was mute for a full thirty seconds. Then she quoted something — something from a book she’d read and then reread to pieces:

    “All of my life I did not want it to be only words,” she said. “This is why I lived, because I kept not wanting it. And now, too, every day, I want it not to be only words.”

    Jon watched her but said nothing. Red taillights streamed by, receding into the rainy blue air.

    “To truly accept death — truly and truly without fear,” Morgan said, “is to become God. Because if there is no God, then I must become God.”

    Across the highway, the pink neon sign of a cafe flickered at roughly the same rate as the hammer of her heartbeat. Morgan spoke again:

    “Jon, I need you to do something for me,” she said.

    Chapter 68

    Jon drove through the soft drizzle of that dying day, and sensing the magnitude of Morgan’s despair, he told her that she need not worry.

    “I have friends in very high places,” he said.

    He was staring straight ahead.

    Morgan, still sitting up and watching him, didn’t reply.

    After a while, she told Jon that the little mummies were and always would be in her eyes stillborn life-forms representing stillborn dreams. She told him as well that she was eternally grateful to him for showing these dreams to her, and for teaching her what they were. “They are stillborn human potential,” she said. “They are the individual human life, and they are the vastness and uniqueness that each individual life contains — but unformed, strangled, through no fault of their own.”

    Jon looked at her in a contemplative way. He did not speak.

    Morgan held his stare for a moment and then looked away.

    “What is it, Morgan?”

    She was looking out the passenger-side window. She told Jon that what she needed him to do was go this night inside Baboquivari and make sure that the mummies were still safe.

    She turned to him.

    “Tonight,” she repeated.

    Without hesitation, Jon said that he would, and then continued driving westward — westward and onward, through the drizzle of that dying day.

    It was in this way that Morgan (who knew exactly what she was doing) led Jon far astray.

    Chapter 69

    Just after nightfall, the sky began to disintegrate and then a southerly wind blew in and swept the sky of clouds, scouring the heavens as with a stiff broom. The rain went away with the clouds, another storm gathering in the north.

    The stars shone like sprinkled dust above — sprinkled dust and desert rust — and there was an indescribable atmosphere of expectancy running through the desert now, the air tense and charged, as if obscure forces were gathering like armies, moving toward some unknown yet unspeakable climax.

    The old saguaro cactus steamed imperceptibly. Owls among their vaporous arms hooting with soft watery coos.

    The neck-shape of Baboquivari stood draped in a thin shawl of mist, and when the orange moon rose, humpbacked and huge, a gibbous moon in the shape of an oyster, this mist glowed like milk and peaches, and there were bats tacking and sliding through the night air.

    Alone Jon entered the crypt-like caves beneath Baboquivari, and alone he crept down them in the darkness.

    He navigated the maze-like tunnels once again.

    Rock hung everywhere, dripping and sweating, exhaling, a sense of closing-in, of pressing around, and the sound of absolute silence like the spinning cry of far forgotten planets flooded his ears with rushes of solitude and quiet.

    When Jon entered once more the open room of Mesozoic rock — wherein had slept for so long the mummified fetuses of ancient humans, stillborn: stillborn humans he had uncovered — he’d already begun to suspect that something was amiss. So that when he swept the cyclopean eye of his powerful flashlight beam across the room and found that room completely bereft, he was not shocked or surprised. He stood for a long time in thought. As he stood in thought, he felt rise within him a swelling tide of sorrow mixed with a sense of dread like a pitch-black cloud. Then he knew.

    He pronounced her serious name aloud.

    Chapter 70

    Morgan had time, but she nonetheless understood — even in her half-delirious state, she understood — that not a single moment could be wasted or lost.

    Thus, after Jon had left her alone in his truck and then entered the caves of Baboquivari, Morgan slid behind the steering wheel and turned over the ignition.

    She drove for thirty minutes down the sandy dirt road, and she drove with great deliberateness and great care. At last she parked in front of a certain desert house.

    For nearly five minutes, she sat here in Jon’s truck with the engine idling and the bright headlights beaming blatantly into the thinly draped windows. She sat here until she detected furtive movements within. Then she drove off. She drove slowly toward the incinerated home wherein she’d been raised: the Felts compound, which she herself had burned to the ground. She parked a quarter-mile away and then walked alone through the burned-out wreckage that she’d wrought — past the scorched carcass of a giant saguaro cactus which lay split open from roots to tip, its tubular inner-circuitry charred and fully exposed like plumbing, and then down a flight of concrete steps and into a stone cellar that still smelled faintly of methane.

    With every step, she grew more acutely aware that she was closing the distance between herself and something both horrible and awesome at the same time.

    With every step, metal skeletons leapt toward her, bristling electrical wires brushing her arms stiffly. Her pulse raced. Creased in concentration the soft fold of flesh between her eyes.

    She strode on — strode as one imbued now with a strange authority and sense of purpose.

    Around her the walls of stone moldered in the moonlight.

    Quickly she set about her tasks, and when she was finished, there came the sound of a gentle hissing — a sound so soft that it could scarcely be heard, as of desert wind sifting through the sand — and the lobe-shaped moon hung directly overhead, so that the room was dappled with blotches of black and a pure pearly white, and there, lined like a cast of characters against the back wall of the cellar, bathed in the pools of creamy moonlight, stood all the stillborn mummies, seven-inches tall, with pinched cow faces, in whom she saw herself mirrored and in whom she took so much comfort.

    Morgan sat down among them and waited.

    There was a look of triumph but also an extreme loneliness in her face.

    When the others came, she was prepared.

    The horde was led by the tall and gracile figure of the mysterious man with the mien of a priest or executioner who, while the horde halted behind him, stepped toward her now, his moon-cast shadow elongated and thin.

    Without fear, Morgan rose up to meet him.

    Chapter 71

    The night came down. The final piece in the great jigsaw puzzle of the violent and the superstitious life fell into place before her eyes, and the atmosphere grew more galvanic yet, charged with invisible currents of white-hot electricity, like the vibrations of life that pulse through every fiber of every living nervous system, and for the second time in her life, Morgan said out loud that to truly accept death — truly and truly without fear — is to become God.

    She said that if there were a God, the human will would be found entirely here and nowhere else, and there would be no way to escape God’s will.

    “But there is no God or gods,” she said, “as there is no supernatural demons or Devil. And so the will is all mine.”

    She spoke in a way that convinced each one of them that she’d lost her mind entirely, and she said also that it was therefore her responsibility to exert her self-will — to proclaim it, she said, because the will is individual, and self-inflicted death is the fullest and the ultimate proclamation of the human will, because death is the ultimate alternative.

    She was drenched in a creamy-white bath of moonlight, and her short sandy hair shone in the pearly glow of that oyster light. Her eyes smoldered unnaturally — not with their normal bluish-gray but with something more terrifying: as though the red blood that ran through her was sloshing just behind the lenses of both her eyes, like incarnadine seas seen through two foggy portholes.

    “Jon Silverthorne saved my life twice,” Morgan said. “He is the only person I’ve ever loved, and I love him with total sincerity of heart and with the entirety of my soul, because he brought light into my life.”

    At the precise moment she spoke these words, she stepped out of the moonlight and vanished into a shadow.

    She vanished into a shadow as black as a shade from hell — as if she’d suddenly entered a place of deception and darkness whose very existence depended upon its enemy: the light.

    With a snarl, the tall priestlike figure lunged for her.

    He swung his long arm to club and then clutch her slender swaying neck, but with the quickness and ferocity of a wildcat, Morgan spun from out of the shadows and, striated with moonlight, swatted his reaching hand and simultaneously gripped that hand, and then in wrathful silence she sunk her teeth into his huge finger, nearly biting clean through it.

    The tall man screamed and jerked back into the electrically charged room.

    What happened next happened in an instant — yet to everyone in the room it seemed to unreel slowly, as it was happening, in warped and wobbled time.

    Morgan struck a matchstick the flame of which bloomed into a small orange flower of light, which as suddenly transformed into a thin flume of acetylene-blue. The soft hissing sound all at once grew louder and more awful as she bent down, and with a horrifying whoosh, the match flame was sucked into a pipeline of natural gas, and then the whole cellar room exploded in a blinding flash: a flash of pure-white light, a light which seemed composed of all elements and which incinerated every last one of them, including Morgan Elizabeth Felts and the mummified fetuses of stillborn human potential — incinerated them all to ash, the living and the dead.

    Chapter 72

    Jon was just coming out of the caves when the explosion hit. He both heard and felt its concussive detonation: a thuggish boom and a reverberation that rattled through his entire body and brought with it the brutal aftershock of force mixed with great tragedy.

    When he emerged into the open world, he saw immediately to the east an inferno of white-light twisting in a desert darkness intensely rich and velvety, the oyster-shaped moon partially obscured now by a long thin racing cloud, which made it appear as though the moon were being dragged through the cloud-vapors.

    With his back to the small triangular cave-mouth from which he’d just extracted himself, Jon stood watching.

    The great shadow of Baboquivari shrouded him and occluded the gargantuan shape of a new darkness now moving down from the northwest.

    The cloud passed over the moon and drifted away to the south, and the light of the moon glowed lividly upon the desert. It cast its light down onto the big boulders at the base of Baboquivari, so that the rocks there looked like a shire of ghouls. Where warts of blue lichen clung to the stone around him, moonlight shone.

    Jon made his way swiftly down through mesquite and greasewood and tangles of Christmas cactus and Teddy-Bear cholla, and then he began to run. He ran with all his might. But less than a hundred meters in, he heard something which brought him up short: an indistinct yet ominous sound coming from somewhere deep within the desert distance.

    At certain times, the desert belches out a deep-throated roar.

    Jon stopped moving and listened more closely.

    The distant noise sounded again.

    He closed and opened his eyes slowly.

    He understood what was coming.

    Chapter 72

    Who knows the Haboob?

    It is a dust-storm like a tidal wave: an immense and moving mountain of blue-black clay and silty sediment that sweeps in on huge pinions and galvanized currents of atmospheric gravity.

    The word comes from the Arabic habūb, which means “blasting.”

    Sometimes the sky wears a wicked visage — something terrifying, a countenance not merely sentient but volitional, and whose choice is evil.

    The Haboob is a gathering of sinister clouds and sinister winds — both saturated with electricity which is a fundamental element of life.

    Earth’s air possesses total unity — it is one — whereas the wind is manifold.

    All storms are an admixture.

    This law results from the indivisibility of air.

    What is air?

    It is not the breath of God or gods or witches or demons.

    Air is of the elements. Like life itself, it is natural.

    Air is gas and water.

    Wind is the air in motion.

    What causes the air to move?

    Differences in air pressure occurring within the whirling earth’s atmosphere, which is electrified and ceaseless in its labor.

    The greater the difference in pressure, the greater the flow of air — and thus the faster the wind.

    When thunderstorms form, air stirs and the winds begin to swirl: it swirls through the atmosphere like water.

    The winds oppose the direction of the thunderstorm, moving contrariwise the direction in which the storm is traveling — that is to say, the wind moves into the thunderstorm, beating its wings against it.

    But when the gathering storm breaks and the skies begin to sob, the swirling winds with the advent of rain can double-back and then, in a phenomena called a downburst, explode outward from the storm.

    When such downbursts occur, the wind shifts, and then the wind moves with the storm.

    In dry regions, downbursts also blow dust and often strike without warning.

    When the air pressure is great enough, the downbursting desert wind can construct walls of dust sixty miles wide and six miles high.

    These dust-walls billow.

    They wear a malevolent aspect.

    They are pocky, greenish-blue, violet-purple, blue-black. They flash electric. The howl. They rush. They surge over the land like a tidal-wall of water.

    Such is the Haboob.

    Often the rain within evaporates very high up in the hot dry air, so that the Haboob brings no moisture to the land. This phenomena is called the virga shaft.

    The virga shaft cools the temperature of the gusting air even more profoundly, thereby changing air pressure, thereby increasing the speed of the wind.

    When high in this electric wall of wind and water and dust the precipitation persists, the moisture can turn the high dust into mud.

    Hence the mud-storm.

    Mud-storms are uncommon but real.

    As ubiquity is in the air, so ubiquity is also in the wind — and for the same reasons.

    If Legion lives — if, indeed, that horde of demons lives on after the drowning of the suicidal swine into whose living bodies Christ himself cast them — then Legion certainly moves by means of the howling demonic magic-carpet wind.

    Chapter 73

    Tonight before Jon’s very eyes some apocalyptic shape took wing. It came flying across the desert toward him, passing through pitch-black shadows: something vast and imponderable and equestrian, which needed the immensity of desert spaces and desert solitude to fully to flight — humongous spaces where maleficent forces submit to deeds of violence.

    Jon — one of those rare souls not easily disconcerted, who in fact appear to grab as if from thin air the means of safety and survival and lift it fishlike and silvery from the danger itself — now, with the nimbleness that was peculiar to him and stronger than force by far, turned back toward Baboquivari and in a twinkling moved spiderwise up a sheer cliff and then out onto a stone ledge, a wall of rock behind him. He was very near the summit of Baboquivari. His movements were not the movements of one who would escape the legion wind and storm, but of one who would face it — who would perhaps wage war against it.

    He stood.

    His eyes were dark and they looked different now — his gaze strange and somehow dangerous — and with those eyes Jon watched the oyster moon gulped down whole by that galloping equine shape of apocalyptic dimensions.

    He watched it snuff the white-light of Morgan’s murderous explosion.

    He saw the desert and the sky in dark collusion gather into one.

    Now towered up before him the skyscraper of wind and dust. It had strata. For a brief moment, it lay sketched across the horizon like ancient flood-marks on a cave wall — swathes of musty darkness, a hanging tapestry of scalloped shadows — and then, the instant it hit its apogee, the sky and the desert crumpled together horizontally, and the darkness grew profound, fulgurations like camera-flashes igniting continuously within those deep chambers of dreadful darkness.

    The wind boomed. It beat upon the stone doors against which Jon now braced himself, and Jon with his eyes open listened to the thunderous knocks of violence that sought to enter. He planted himself — his feet, his legs, his back — firmly against the stone of the earth that was both behind and also under him, and inside of which lay an endless wilderness of hollow hallways.

    He let the storm heave over his unprotected body: wind and dust and rain and then more wind, swirling everywhere around, under and over him like water, the whole world shaking, seething, above ground and below, the immensity of another monolithic labor taking place around him, and he stood now in the center of it:

    The forces of the natural world whose labor is eternal and never spent — wind and air, lightning and electricity, fire, guttural glottal thunder emanating from the darkness and the light, the galactic whirl of the wobbled world’s toplike turning, the unstoppable movement and colossal clashes, the tireless tide and the eternal surf, great rivers flowing into the sea, the sleeplessness of rust and dust and minerality, viral mutation, necklaces of chromosomes replicating, dissolving, reforming, the breathing body of the intricate atmosphere and its ceaselessly shifting activity, a diffusion of forces working in the realms of the indefatigable, the limitless, the entirely natural. And when the mud-storm dumped at last, and the legion wind howled with greater ferocity yet, Jon, who all his adult life had sought to know the common denominator uniting phenomenal forces, turned his back to the storm and the wind, and he let it completely come down upon him, as if he would absorb it all.

    Chapter 74

    Human eyes past a certain age can never truly see dispassionately — and what haunts the hallways of the human heart will, when at last it’s discovered, sometimes flash so brightly that it blinds the eyes, leaving the rest of life in darkness.

    On the grassy desert plains southwest of the Santa Rita mountains, some thirty miles east of Baboquivari, there lay an abandoned property consisting of eight cob-and-adobe structures.

    These structures had been built by a motley group of schismatic satanists who — across an acreage which one among them, a man named Lugat, had inherited from his grandfather — cultivated and grew a cactus called the San Pedro Cactus, from which they extracted and sold a very pure and potent form of mescaline.

    They also ritualistically consumed the blood and flesh of one another, believing that they were descended from an ancient race of Babylonian vampires, the mother of whom was a demon-sorceress named Lilitu.

    Here as well this group of fifty had elevated to the status of a religion the immemorial practice of human disfigurement.

    They thus modified their faces and their bodies surgically and intricately, in ways which made them look more canine or feline or vampiric than human. Not infrequently, one among them would consent to a ritualistic dismemberment, and on the night that this dismemberment took place, the community of self-stylized vampires would in celebration dine upon the lopped limb or limbs, washing down the human flesh with the captured blood that had issued from the dismemberment.

    This community lasted here for approximately three years and then, in a piecemeal and gradual fashion, its mutilated membership deserted, disappeared, dispersed, died — until there were only three, and then two, and then one.

    That remaining one was the founder and leader: the man who’d been named Lugat at birth.

    The adobe structures, meanwhile, stood adrift among the oceanic waves of grass, sinking back into the desert earth.

    Chapter 75

    The cavern seemed to Jon a deserted place.

    It was located on the other side of Baboquivari — a deep and hidden cavern from which there now emanated a wet and fetid effluvium — and Jon, staggering past it in the aftermath of the blasting storm, was stopped short by the odor, and by the unnatural silence also pouring out of the cave.

    He stood for a long moment, like a life-sized mud effigy, upon the threshold. He scanned the room. It was early morning. Always there is a melancholy sensation in the solitude of the desert at dawn, yet today that sense of sorrow hung even heavier. The sky had cleared, the heavens from horizon-to-horizon voided and gray.

    By and by, when his eyes had more fully acclimated, Jon saw something which struck him as unusual: a long avenue of flies swarming down into the back of the cave.

    He entered deeper.

    The buzzing sound of the flies intensified.

    He then noticed something else: on the opposite side, around a small outcropping, a long-handled spade, still new-looking, lying on the ground approximately fifteen feet from the entrance, different-sized footprints everywhere. He moved cautiously. He was weary and half-dazed — dazed with thirst and hunger, and with exhaustion from the wind’s exorcism. The floor of the cave was damp, and the loamy earth crushed gently under his steps.

    Jon genuflected.

    He did not touch the spade, but he scrutinized it closely in the half light. He scrutinized the ground roundabout him as well.

    He saw old coins of blood on the blade of the spade and upon the ground.

    Two dead lanterns and a canteen with the cap off lay just beyond it.

    Jon raised his eyes in thought. He squinted. He did not touch anything. His hair hung muddy-wet and ropey. His clothes were also soaked and heavy with mud. There was still in his gaze something strange and imponderable and dangerous-looking.

    Just then, he heard a faint rustling sound, like a dry wing-flap coming from the darkness beyond.

    He immediately leaned forward — as if to partially cover himself — so that he was now crouched deeply where he knelt upon one knee, and at the same time, he turned his head and looked to the right and behind him, into the gloom of the cave.

    For a fraction, Jon thought he glimpsed a pair of dull-red eyes in the dark distance, but he didn’t have time to process this because a more immediate threat emerged: a dark mass which took shape suddenly and came flying toward him — a huge and predatory creature, like a bearded vulture or some other carnivorous bird of prey, something trained to attack. It flew swiftly, rocketing toward him like a premonition, and for an instant Jon thought he felt wind from its wingbeat of madness.

    With the dexterity and quickness that was a reflexive part of him, Jon, still genuflected and hunched over the blood-flecked spade, clutched with both hands the long handle of the spade, and in a single motion he came upright and simultaneously swung the spade like a baseball bat.

    He swung with tremendous force.

    The moment before the dark flying shape with its hooked beak and talons veered into him, Jon squarely connected.

    The flat back of the blade struck with a loud crack the bird of prey, and Jon, his hands slick with moisture and mud, heard somewhere to his right the creature thud against the wall of the cave — and as he swung also, the spade from the sheer momentum of his swing slipped from his hands and went sailing through the dark air and landed with a clatter.

    Less than a second after that, Jon saw the pair of red eyes moving toward him. They came with astonishing speed, a force of pure predation, and then the red-eyed creature leapt.

    It leapt at Jon like a hellhound — so swiftly that Jon scarcely had time to turn away.

    Chapter 76

    At certain moments of depredation, there hovers before human eyes shapes and forms, not quite visible, which ghost and hover like waking nightmares across the vision, and from these dim fixations of living dreams, actual beasts will sometimes spring forth — because the human mind has at its essence the power of conceptualization, which gives rise to imagination, and this in turn makes possible everything marvelous, as well as monstrous.

    Every evil thing, like every warped intelligence, is an enigma, and there is no such thing as a partial hatred: all hatred is absolute.

    To believe in a hellhound, one must experience it.

    On the final page of Jon’s fat and faded leatherbound book, there was a drawing that Jon himself had inked in — his rendering of a passage he’d once come across in an obscure book. It depicted a written fragment of ancient vellum which he’d long ago read about and which bore the image of a bear devouring a wolf, which is devouring a lynx, which is devouring a crow, which is devouring a snake, which is devouring a frog, which is devouring a fly: all nature preying and simultaneously preyed upon. Watching it from above is a human being, in whom, alone among these earthen creatures, full volition resides — a being who prospers by means of thought, which is a chosen activity, and the product of which is notions, ideas, apprehension.

    The creature that leapt at Jon from out of the darkness was a sort of somber vampire of these dank black grottoes — a doglike demon who had once, many years ago, possessed a rational mind as well as a name: Lugat.

    Bit by bit, choice by choice, Lugat, gradually relinquishing his name and his rationality, had decided upon this life — so that were one to view only the beginning, in round gold-rimmed specs and with a freckled face, and then the end product here in the intestines of the earth, without any reference to the countless intermediate incremental steps and stages and thoughts and decisions that had accrued, one would not have imagined any link or connection possible.

    The face, which had been surgically modified to resemble a demon-hound, was made most hideous not by the surgeries but by hatred; most malevolent by mindlessness; most vicious by violence.

    This creature was naked save for a tattered leather girding about the loins.

    From neck to ankle were disc-shaped scars, self-inflicted and precisely placed, which resembled scales. These scale-like scars had been put here with this level of precision in order to mimic the reputed scales of Satan, the chest and bony clavicle bedight with beads of mirror-glass that had been embedded into the living flesh like bone or muscle.

    The teeth were filed to points, yet they were more than halfway rotted out their sockets.

    On the fingertips of the right hand were suction-cup skin-grafts the size of silver dollars. On the fingertips of the other hand were dagger-like claws.

    There was in this etiolated body a raw and feral power — a power that came purely from predatory hunger — and the red eyes made red by artificial irises burned not with sapience or thought but with something more like lust.

    This is the creature that pounced at Jon with a rapist tackle, and Jon, who the moment the creature had leapt swung his head away and pivoted to his left, felt his shoulder struck with a jarring impact. Yet he had turned quickly enough to avoid the full brunt of the strike.

    Lugat, slightly off-balance from the leaping velocity of his momentum in collaboration with the speed of Jon’s pivot, gripped with his suction-cup fingers Jon’s bare forearm still caked with mud. He squeezed like a boa.

    Jon, in turn, knew that the momentum from the missed leap had taken Lugat off-balance — he felt it in the grasp, felt that the momentum was still for just an instant carrying Lugat away from him — and in a blink of that instant, Jon, athlete that he was, did something unexpected:

    Rather than pulling his arm back or away from Lugat’s grip, as instinct would call for, Jon pushed his arm forward and simultaneously lunged with his whole body, so that he went with the back-reeling momentum. This surging push, coupled with the momentum, made Lugat, who with the claws of his other hand was going for Jon’s throat, stumble backward and fall. Jon then came down onto Lugat’s chest with his knee. The next instant, Jon, with equal parts cunning and quickness, reached about his person and grabbed hold of a small object:

    In a flash, there ignited from Jon’s fingertips a diode-pumped laser-light, which had been made from minerals Jon himself had mined. The blinding beam shot out in a thin stream of lemon-lime light.

    Jon shined the light in Lugat’s eyes, the pupils of which were huge and dilated from the darkness he dwelt among, and then in a wildly disorienting flash, this light began to pulse in rapid strobic flickers, which was accompanied by a shrieking whistle.

    The reaction this produced was indescribable:

    The blast of light followed by the machine-gun speed of the strobe-flash seared the retinas and created a type of flash-blindness, which was temporary, but Lugat didn’t know this. The decibels of the high-pitched whistle tore through the doglike eardrums.

    With all the violence and strength that disfigured body contained, Lugat howled.

    He thrashed and bucked on the ground as if electrocuted, and he howled and screamed continuously and louder, and then, twisting himself free at last from beneath Jon’s knee, he bound blindly back into the darkness, crashing through the bones of Walter Willowmarsh, whom he had killed and eaten raw, and, gulping for breath and more breath, the hellhound vampire plunged unseeing down a vertical artery of morning stone, and headlong into death.

    Chapter 77

    It was high-time the hellhound died.

    It was time a wooden stake was driven deep inside the parasitic breast, time silver bullets were lodged in the werewolf’s chest: time, at last, the false and the faddish and the predatory were put to rest.

    Jon abolished his laser-light with its high-pitched whistle and rose to his feet.

    He stood motionless for a long while in the half-light of the cave.

    He stood drenched and dripping.

    He stood in thought and as if thinking of something or seeing something new that he could not quite place.

    He stared into the darkness beyond. At length, drenched and exhausted, he made a decision.

    He followed another long avenue of flies which went swarming past him and deeper into the cave.

    His eyesight could not fully penetrate the rank and gloomy darkness, but, nocturnal man that he was, and keen-eyed, he thought he’d perhaps glimpsed something far back and to the right.

    He again shined his laser-light.

    He was not wrong — and what he saw now didn’t surprise him.

    It was a pile of death.

    Several feet beyond the strewn wreckage of Willowmarsh there stood a cairn of bones like an open-pit graveyard — bones of all shapes and sizes, from many different creatures but primarily human, skeletons some of which still had leprous patches of flesh peeling back from the bones like rotted fruit, skulls ludic, leering, laughing, chatter-teeth loose in their sockets.

    One skeleton, which lay slightly apart and almost perfectly intact, was the skeleton of what appeared to be conjoined twins: two heads branching treelike from the trunk of a single neck, bones everywhere nicked and chipped and chamfered with the gnaw-marks of human teeth.

    Here the flies and maggots teemed and fed — the flies and the maggots and the worms which consumed the remains of rotting flesh, which were then consumed by fowl or fish or viper or mammal, which were then consumed by other living creatures, or which died and fertilized the soil that grew the wheat from which humans made flour and bread — all nature transmuting, devouring, simultaneously devoured, the universality of decay and life, and the eternal labor of nature and the indestructibility of matter, which cannot cease to exist but only changes elements, and none of which is or ever will be supernatural.

    Jon was on the verge of turning away to exit this hollow dumb necropolis, when there, among the bones of all these piled dead, a dull glint on the ground caught his eye, and also made his knees buckle for what it implied.

    He shined his laser-light directly upon the glinting object.

    He recognized it instantly because he knew it well.

    It was a small piece of peacock copper, nothing precious or rare but nonetheless vibrant and very beautiful and important to him — the same one Jon himself had long ago found and had given to his mother, who, in turn, just before her death, had given it to Jon’s half brother.

    What was it doing here?

    In the lemon-lime ray of Jon’s laser-light, it flickered like a shattered mirror.

    PART IX

    A shot exploder — also known as a blasting machine — is a device used mainly in mining and construction demolition.

    It’s a relatively lightweight and portable power source producing electric currents by means of which blasting caps may be reliably fired, and this in turn triggers a main explosive, like dynamite or trinitrotoluene.

    A shot exploder works by charging a capacitor — which is an electronic device that stores electrical energy in an electric field. It charges the capacitor from a battery source, which then discharges the capacitor through an external circuit, called the firing line, in order to ignite the blasting cap.

    The first reliable magnetic-induction shot exploder was built in 1878 by a man named Henry Julius Smith, who proposed it in a tract he wrote called “The Art of Blasting.”

    Henry Julius Smith used a T-handle plunger which was forcefully pushed down into a kind of box, and which in so doing drove a high-voltage magneto. A magneto is a generator that uses permanent magnets to produce pulses of alternating electricity currents. Henry Julius Smith’s procedure created the high-voltage electricity needed to ignite the blasting cap, which then triggered the main explosive — usually dynamite.

    Today’s shot exploders are almost all battery-powered, and so they operate no longer by means of the old T-shaped plungers, which you might still see in certain coyote cartoons, but rather with push-buttons or key switches.

    Jon had learned much in the mines about the bastard art of blasting.

    Chapter 79

    One-hundred-fifty miles to the northeast of Baboquivari, in the Superstition Wilderness, the injection bore which had penetrated the dry and flaky piecrust earth, and which had brought clean water from deep-down reservoirs that Jon Silverthorne had once discovered — clean water and therefore civilization and life to this dead sector of desert, and which had therefore been destroyed for destroying The Superstitions — was completely removed.

    The injection bore — inserted into The Superstition grounds but not of The Superstitions — was, in short order, summarily extricated and dismantled, the opening to the well of living water shut and sealed, the site cleaned and swept.

    The land here, which some time ago had been legally purchased by a mysterious personage who sought to cultivate the dormant water-source, was now seized by government, who rapidly made plans to replace the injection bore with something undisclosed — something somewhat secret and which was being kept secret, until the grand unveiling.

    One month before this unveiling took place, an article appeared in the Arizona Sun, a Phoenix newspaper.

    This article was titled “The Art of Blasting: how technology solved humankind’s water crisis.” It read, in part:

    Right now on planet earth, water is among the most abundant resources that exists.

    There are currently two and a half million liters of water available each year for every human on the planet.

    This translates to about 19,000 liters per day, per person, which is an astronomically large amount — far more water than any one person could consume in an entire month, let alone one day.

    The world uses only 8 percent of the total water that exists on the earth.

    Two-thirds of the earth is water.

    The vast majority of that is either salt water or frozen water.

    Salt water evaporates and comes back to the earth in the form of fresh water. Water is in this way a renewable resource — an actual renewable resource.

    The amount of water on the planet is essentially static. Which means: all the water that exists on earth has, for the most part, always existed on earth. The amount remains the same because water recycles itself through evaporation and precipitation.

    Water can be desalinated (i.e. converted from salt water into fresh water) relatively easily and inexpensively — thanks to industrialization and the technology that industrialization has brought, which is a product of the unshackled human mind.

    Where does clean water ultimately come from?

    It comes from energy. More specifically, it comes from affordable, reliable energy.

    Energy is life.

    Water is life.

    If you were to turn on your shower and your sink right now, you’d be able to bathe in clean water and you’d have before you a glass of clean drinking water — all in an instant.

    I ask you to think for a moment about how this miracle of clean water so easily got to you.

    It traveled into your home through a plexus of plastic (which comes from oil) or through copper piping (which comes from mining), before which it was stored in a tank composed of (mined) metal and plastic.

    Yet before it made it into this storage tank, the water you and I enjoy was run through a huge and high-energy water-treatment facility, wherein toxic agents were removed — agents like arsenic or lead or mercury.

    Prior to this, water was disinfected of harmful biological organisms — disinfected via ozone or ultraviolet light or chlorine.

    And to make all this operate correctly and quickly, the pH level of the water had to be adjusted, and this was most likely done by means of sodium hydroxide or lime.

    It is a fact that up until industrialization, unsafe water was a plague upon humankind for all of humankind’s history — and it still is in much of the developing world today:

    Safe drinking water systems and the infrastructure that provides safe clean water are still far beyond the reach of many poor Indian and African villages, where dysentery often spreads because the simple preventative measure of installing concrete rims around the communal drinking wells are made impossible by a combination of internecine disagreements, first-world environmental groups, who believe it’s their responsibility to keep developing places from developing, and (most of all) poverty?

    Do you know where wealth ultimately derives?

    It is also a fact that natural water is rarely so usable as what we have when we turn on our shower faucet. Most of the undeveloped world has to make do with natural water, and the results are often catastrophic:

    Millions of people daily, who must sometimes walk miles carrying cumbersome water-buckets, use water that often contains high concentrations of (naturally occurring) heavy metals, dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas, and countless numbers of waterborne pathogens, which still claim millions of lives each year.

    It is an achievement of astronomical proportions that we have access to the kind of water we indeed have in the developed world today, all with a slight twist of the wrist.

    It is also an achievement entirely taken for granted — and more:

    This achievement was made possible by mining, and by fossil fuel, and by countless other private industries, all of which are now completely vilified and the dismantlement of which is routinely demanded by people who don’t have any idea at all what they’re demanding:

    The destruction of civilization and a return to a world ruled by force and its handmaiden: superstition.

    Chapter 80

    Two days later another article appeared in this same newspaper. It was titled “The Art of Blasting, Part 2: blind to the prosperity around as — and to the things that give rise to this prosperity.”

    This article began with a recent quote from a prominent politician, who was the latest in an endless line of political cult-personalities, and behind whom the masses in lockstep had lined up, and that quote was this:

    “An entire generation, which is now becoming one of the largest electorates in America, came of age and never saw American prosperity.”

    The article then systematically laid out in great detail the appalling lie behind this quote, the sheer blindness of it, and the article then went on to say that it was a testament to how spoiled people in the first-world had become, and how in fact the diametric opposite was true:

    There has never in the history of the world been greater prosperity — and this in spite of the forces which work tirelessly against it: because as long as the human mind is left free or even relatively free, knowledge progresses, and knowledge is invincible.

    The article explained the root cause of prosperity, as well as poverty, saying among other things that “Destroying free and voluntary exchange and the right to engage in free and voluntary exchange — including the corollary right to the fruits of that freedom of exchange — will undo the unprecedented prosperity we have today, and which millions died to create: the prosperity which, not coincidentally, also purchases any goods and services you and others may offer. It is a hypocrisy of the highest order to say anything otherwise — and saying it, moreover, from the comfort and prosperity of what millions died in creating, including the platforms from which you lecture us with first-world problems, and which the destroyers, with superstitious blindness, entirely take for granted.”

    The article listed in exhaustive detail everything from computers and cameras, to televisions and phones and microphones, to jumbo jets and cars and ease of transportation, to ships and railways, to helicopters and satellites, to books and movies, to air conditioning and heating, to refrigeration and freezers, to all manner of machines and machinery, to coffee-makers and stoves, to medicine and light, to clean food and clean water.

    This article then went on to say that fundamentally there is one and only one political question, and all the jargon and platitudes and zeitgeists which freeze into dogma as fast as they’re formed, as they always have and always will, no matter the century, no matter the generation — whether “monarchy,” “royalty,” “patriarchy,” “working-class,” “proletariat,” “labor,” “democracy,” “equality,” “inequality,” “privilege,” “intersectionality,” et cetera — are and will forever be subordinate to this one thing:

    One’s stance on the issue of property.

    “This is all one needs to know and all one will ever need to know about any person’s political-economic views: what is the stance on property? Because in addressing that one thing, the entire political philosophy is disclosed. And fundamentally there are only two possible answers to the question: there are either full and fully protected private-property rights, or there aren’t. There is no ‘third way.’ There is no middle-ground. And do we each have a property in our person, or not? If you answer not — and if you therefore answer that property is not an extension of person — you will never be able to properly defend the sanctity of each individual, body and brain, and the fruits of each person’s labor and learning, which includes the right to grow wealthy.”

    The article said in closing that any compromise on the issue of property is a compromise on human freedom, which, however, cannot be compromised without killing it, and that fundamentally the only alternative to human freedom is coercion, which is force.

    Chapter 81

    The day following this, in the same newspaper, the last and longest article appeared:

    “The Art of Blasting, Part 3: inexhaustible resource.”

    This article said that the earth is like a giant egg packed full of living resources which humans must use and work with and work in accordance with or humans will perish, that far from exhausting the earth’s resources, these resources had barely been tapped, and that furthermore nothing can be considered a resource at all until human ingenuity, mixed with human labor, first creates a use for it.

    The article discussed oil — and cited the fact that only up until about one-hundred-fifty years ago, oil was not a resource but a nuisance.

    The article also discussed the many uses of mining in each person’s day-to-day life, and it included a detailed description of the sheer amount of mining and minerals and industry required to produce “clean and renewable energy, which in actuality is neither clean nor renewable.”

    It was noted here as well that for most of human history, the majority of minerals and ore we now use were, like oil, not a resource until humans had found a way to use them as such.

    There was an in-depth description of the intricate and highly industrial process required in producing a single mono-thin crystalline silicon wafer a number of which, along with metal, glass, plexiglass, plastic, rubber, and wire, go into each and every solar panel.

    There was, as well, a description of how much mining and energy it takes to make concrete, twenty million tons of which are necessary to anchor each individual wind-turbine. The article also discussed the rare-earth mineral called neodymium, which is used for the magnets in each wind turbine, and the ten kilos of lanthanum, another rare earth element, which is used in every single wind turbine battery.

    The article spoke as well of transportation and how all transportation requires mining — all of it: aircraft, boat, car, bus, train, motorcycle, bicycle, subway, scooter, skateboard, and everything else, explaining, moreover, that this does not even take into account the fuels that power, nor the machines that construct, nor the surfaces upon which these vehicles travel, including foot travel:

    Roads, rails, asphalt, tartan, concrete — they are only possible because miners mined the minerals used to make these surfaces, and this very same principle applies to all the other machinery and equipment used to control the flow of traffic, just as it applies also to homes and apartments and other buildings, the foundations of which, in cities across the entire developed world, are made largely of concrete and steel.

    In most homes, the basic services — water, electricity, gas — are conducted through copper and steel wires and plastic pipes, much as bathrooms and kitchens contain innumerable items (pots, pans, plates, cups, knives, as well as all electronic gadgetry and most beauty products) composed of many different minerals which are made possible by mining. 

    Minerals and more minerals, which are mined — the article said — and which are nowhere near exhausted, and most of which for the overwhelming majority of human history were not resources at all because humans had not yet created uses for them.

    The article also talked about past centuries and millennia in comparison with the current one: specifically, years of lifespan and quality of life compared with now, stomachs full of clean food and clean water, means of traveling faster and more efficiently, methods of communicating, hours of privacy.

    “Even when we factor in the billion who still live in dire poverty, humanity now, in this present generation, has access to more healthy calories and books, more watts of electricity, more megahertz, gigabytes, nanometers, bushels-per-acre, miles-per-gallon, food miles, air miles, musical instruments, vitamins, shoes, stereos, slicers, entertainment, and more lumen hours than ever before in the history of the world — by light years.”

    The article closed by discussing the over-romanticized image of the not-so-distant past — approximately one-hundred-fifty years ago — when, for instance, a bucolic people gathered around the fire in a simple adobe or log cabin, and father read to the family aloud, while mother poured pristine water from a handmade clay pitcher and then dished out hearty soups made with vegetables the family had grown, serving bread-rolls made with wheat they’d also grown, the eldest son still outside just finishing the feeding of the horses, in a world with no noise pollution or air pollution or traffic or mounting CO2 levels, and no dioxins or radioactive fallout in the milk of their cows.

    But in actuality the father’s reading is non-existent because he’s never been taught to read, and even if he could, his reading would be constantly punctuated by a wracking cough caused by chronic bronchitis or tuberculosis, which is a foreshadow of the pneumonia that will kill him at age fifty (longer, at least, than the average life-expectancy of age forty, in that year of 1800), and which is greatly exacerbated by the woodsmoke pollution of the hearth-fire. The baby will die of smallpox or whooping cough, one or both of which is causing this same baby to cry all the time right now. The eldest daughter, whose twin sister died of a strep-throat infection the year before, will, if she’s lucky, become the wife of a drunk husband who also lives in abject poverty. The water which mother is pouring tastes suspiciously of the cattle who drink from the same brook that the family drinks from, and where the women also do the laundry, and mother’s teeth, which are by now rotting thoroughly, ache every moment of the day and night, so that her minute-by-minute existence, most especially when she’s pregnant — contraception also, of course, being a technological achievement requiring a vast technological sophistication and infrastructure — is continual pain and drudgery, as laundry is complete drudgery. Reliable sanitation, even hand-washing, does not really exist. The neighbor’s lodger, meanwhile, herpetic and syphilitic, is currently impregnating other young girls, just as he’s impregnated the second daughter of this family, and all these babies, if they live at all, will be sent to hellish orphanages. The soup contains a tough meat, yet this tough tasteless meat is a slight improvement upon the normal gruel — there being no fruit or salad this season because unforeseen storms wiped crops completely out, and only by sheer chance missed destroying the house and barn too. Candles cannot be afforded, so that after the sun goes down, the only light comes from the light of the smoky fire. None of the children are taught how to read. None among them has ever seen a play, or painted a picture, or heard a piano or violin. The only schooling in the area comes from a distantly located schoolmaster. None but the father has ever visited a city — and that one city trip cost him a week’s worth of wages and many days of difficult travel. If any in the family have jackets, those jackets are lice-infested. If any have shoes, the shoes are old and uncomfortable. The children sleep three-to-a-bed on straw mats upon the floor. 

    Since the year 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life-expectancy has more than doubled. Real income has risen ten times. 

    Since 1950, the average human earned three times as much money and ate one-third more calories of cleaner food.

    This same human buried less of her children by one-third, while she herself lived one-third longer.

    She was also less likely to die as a result of pestilence, murder, childbirth, syphilis, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, famines, whooping cough, malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy, polio, plague, dysentery, influenza, cannibalism, or any number of other things. 

    She is vastly more likely to be literate.

    She is vastly more likely also to have a telephone, running water, including a flush toilet, electric light, refrigeration, a bicycle.

    She is far less likely now to die or be hurt by climate — any climate, hot or cold — than at any other point in human history.

    And as the population has more than doubled, the goods and services and standard of living has, by any imaginable standard, expanded and improved, and the world has become increasingly better-off: more autonomous, more private, safer, more civilized.

    Chapter 82

    These three articles were picked up by two nationally syndicated radio stations.

    They were then reprinted in a number of other newspapers.

    The writer of these articles was Jon Silverthorne.

    The reaction was overwhelming.

    Almost overnight a tidal-wave of rage swelled against him.

    Virtually no one would have felt a desire to campaign or crusade against a more-or-less anonymous young man born into poverty on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, who then wrote articles railing against poverty. But something else here had been touched: a conviction so deeply held and so thoroughly inculcated into the minds of people across the globe — taught from the cradle and then reinforced all throughout the years of formal schooling and into adulthood — that in a very real and fundamental sense, it was as though a kind of universal religion had been attacked.

    Accordingly, pastors, priests, politicians, pundits, poets, and journalists alike damned these articles as heresy — in sermons and in print.

    Feminist groups passed formal resolutions of protest.

    Environmental groups amassed petitions.

    Student protests everywhere sprung up, demanding that such articles containing such reckless speech not be allowed — anywhere — because they were a form of violence.

    It was repeatedly said also, primarily on college campuses, that “freedom of speech is overrated — especially in comparison with the health of the planet.”

    More and more of these colleges erected more and more protected-zones and safe-spaces.

    The building that housed the newspaper was vandalized.

    A famous actress of mixed ethnicity, who had three homes, including a Bel-Air mansion, wrote a long article about the nature of inequality, describing in detail how America had given her nothing but hatred and racism and patriarchy, saying also how uncomfortable it surely is for certain people, like this man Jon Silverthorne, to confront their positions of privilege.

    Her article was reprinted thousands of times, and it was praised by a Nobel-Prize winning economist and by two Nobel Peace-Prize winners, among others.

    A professor emeritus from M.I.T. — regarded worldwide as something of a sage — demonstrated in no uncertain terms that “climate change and the current condition of our natural environment show precisely why property is not inalienable,” stating furthermore that Jon Silverthorne’s logic was “not merely misbegotten but pathetic — too pathetic to bother acknowledging, let alone debating. Besides which, everyone knows that Marx drew a clear distinction between personal property and bourgeois property.”

    A famous economist, who wrote a weekly newspaper column that was regarded by millions as holy writ, said that such laissez-faire notions may at one time have been tenable, when the world was less sophisticated and complicated, but society now had become far too complex to leave to such simplistic ideas, and that only government was equipped with the resources to deal with modern-day societal complexity, and as an example, the famous economist wrote, just look at any city, which could not exist without government and bureaucracy. In this column, the famous economist did not bother addressing the fact that government cannot spend a single penny unless it first either borrows, taxes, or prints, and that property and production are the very source of the wealth from which government borrows and against which it levies taxes; nor did it address the fact that printed money must be backed by production, or inflation will result.

    A venerable movie director, no longer young, came out of retirement to make a short documentary in which many scientists and policy experts were interviewed, and who thereby proved the “absolute dangerousness” of Jon Silverthorne’s notions.

    A television minister with half-a-billion worldwide followers gave a televised sermon of great eloquence which called for solidarity on this issue of all issues:

    “Surely,” said the minister, “the planet is the one thing we can all agree upon, regardless of political or religious leanings.”

    When a young and ambitious reporter got hold of Jon Silverthorne and requested a statement, Jon, in response, asked only that people consider the issues not with dogmas and platitudes but with their own thoughts, and with words formulated by their own brains. In the draft of this article, the young reporter accurately quoted Jon, but his editors changed it — so that the final article, which appeared the following day, quoted Jon Silverthorne as having said that he regarded his own thoughts and words as more important than the state of the environment.

    Chapter 83

    Still, a counter-intention seemed also at work here — something calculated, perhaps by Jon, all of whose existence seemed somehow yoked to the impossible, even while he himself, no matter the impossibility, seemed simultaneously unstoppable.

    And what was he aiming for? And what the object of his sinistral aim?

    None knew.

    Yet the fiery light that blazed inside his eyes left no doubt that something specific was in his mind.

    The dedication and the unveiling of the mysterious object which had been built to replace the injection bore which had brought to the desert clean water from profound reservoirs, was scheduled for the first day of the month. And so it was on the evening of the dedication, a great many people and press gathered together in The Superstitions.

    There was much fanfare and pomp, and the governor had prepared a speech, and there was a buzzing anticipation and mounting curiosity over what the mysterious unveiling would finally reveal, this warm and windless desert night.

    Here among The Superstitions, a sort of science-fictional-looking amphitheater had been rapidly built — a permanent venue now, yet conceived and constructed for just this occasion — the ground blasted and cleared, the semi-circular seating half-carved into the rocks in the center of which now hulked an enormous object cloaked in a flowing white sheet that glowed bluely in florescent stadium-lighting.

    These electric lights had as well been installed for the occasion.

    A little off to the side of the amphitheater, a small adobe structure had been built here too.

    This adobe structure was a museum, and this museum also contained electric light, as it contained restrooms and clean running water which came from the very same deep-down reservoirs Jon had discovered, and which reservoirs had quietly been tapped into, by government hydrologists, at a point only two-hundred meters west of the spot where the original injection bore had penetrated the earth, and where now in its stead stood the high cloaked object about to be unmasked.

    The cog of drear ritual turned.

    It turned even as, out here in the desert wilderness, the bubbling ferment of near-universal heart’s conviction was mocked by the milky bowl of fluorescent light, which lay upcast over this newly constructed amphitheater, and by the thing the crowd had assembled to commemorate and dedicate. The night hung heavy with a kind of dark-purple weight within the sky — and yet not precisely within the sky, since it was as though no sky existed but only a dry grainy air sedated with the weight of its own heat and hugeness.

    The governor stepped up to the podium directly behind which, some fifty feet removed, stood the massive object covered in the glowing and rippled sheet. She was a youngish woman, dressed in dark blue, with a slender build and straight blonde hair that hung to her shoulders.

    The crowd fell silent.

    The governor at the microphone spoke of social planning and democracy, and she spoke of justice and justice for the earth, and she spoke at length. Her manner was confident, and she presented herself well. Her voice came clear and crisp through hidden speakers.

    “For this project,” she said at the end, “we mobilized the very best brains in the country — people whose skill and swiftness of execution stands as a testament to the power of social planning, and to the necessity of unanimous support for our planners, in this big, great, messy democracy we call America.”

    The crowd erupted.

    “My good people,” the governor said, “my good people. I am proud to present to you this: the tallest totem ever built.”

    Upon saying this, she turned with an outspread palm and an expansive sweep of her arm, and the rippled sheet dropped soundlessly and as if in slow motion, and there in the electrically lit desert night, a huge object appeared — looming two hundred feet tall and modern-surreal.

    It was a totem pole constructed of concrete and steel.

    Yet this moment was interrupted in the very next instant when all the fluorescent lights flickered and then went completely out, and silence and darkness descended over everything, like a shout.

    Chapter 84

    There was a stunned hush, and then a murmur mounted among the crowd. This murmur grew rapidly, in a rising crescendo, sweeping across the dark desert night like something alive and climbing, and in the heavy darkness, a charge coursed through the air.

    From within this charged darkness, a powerful voice emerged and pounded through the speakers.

    “Energy is limitless,” the voice said. “It is energetic order that’s scarce. Energy begets energy. The more energy we use, the better we become at finding and refining and purifying energy, so that the more energy we use, the more energy we have, and the cleaner and more efficient that energy is: more energy use creates cleaner, better, more abundant energy.”

    These words had not been fully uttered when a new light ignited.

    It was a deeper and stranger light.

    It came slanting across the amphitheater at a near-horizontal angle — a long thick cone of pure silvery-white swarming with galaxies of vital dust — and this light streamed over the podium, beyond the steel-and-concrete totem, and at the end of the light, upon a stone ledge, there stood a swarthy figure like a dark knight who held in his left hand a large and gleaming key. Beside him was a big black box.

    Every eye in the amphitheater followed the light to the spot at which it terminated — to the figure whom this light was illuminating — and then the moment before that light leapt, a voice, which was neither male nor female, called out from among the crowd:

    “It is a detonator.”

    At that precise instant, the strange light began pulsating in rapid strobic flashes, and through those throbs of silent silvery light, the crowd watched agoggle as the figure, moving in fast yet now robotic-looking spasms, inserted the key into the detonation box and turned that key with a loud click.

    Nothing happened.

    No explosive force. No ominous diagonal with melting shadow falling across the amphitheater — neither the flash-blinded man of Nagasaki lurching through the horror, nor the ghastly Pompeian silence forever caught in frozen negative, nor any bomb-burst splintering every silvered smoke-and-mirror and crystal prism, every satanic screed of magick glass, every witch-bowl and bottle and beaming bulb of a trillion electric watts, nor any hot darts of blasting light to lance the eye with shards of incandescent white.

    There was only the loud click of the key as it turned, and then, after five beats, came a soft and subterranean thud, like a faulty firecracker, a dud.

    After which, the silver strobic light went entirely out, so that for nearly a full minute, the immense desert darkness was restored.

    Yet this darkness now was of even greater complexity — a more profound depth — and in that complicated darkness, some among the crowd thought they saw crawl across the black of space, faintly and fast-fading, two green sea-worms of light, almost like the aftereffect of a brilliant firework with its diminishing tarantulas of greenish-white. Then came a slight seismic shift, as of knees buckling, and of which almost none among the crowd was aware, and after that, fifteen seconds before the creamy bowl of fluorescent lights bloomed back, an unmistakable odor of thyme laced the xeric air.

    PART X

    Northeast of Los Alamos, in the remote New Mexican countryside, there was one who lived alone.

    Nobody really seemed to know this one, yet there nonetheless circulated here a great many rumors and speculations, so that in a curious way, the infamy of this one had spread: an atheist who prayed, a sorcerer-pariah, a raptor among ducklings.

    But was this one really a raptor?

    Yes — if one is measured by the sheer savageness of one’s isolation.

    It was middle morning. On the outside of a stone shed, directly across the picnic table from where this one now sat, there hung over the dark and doorless archway a small hand-chiseled cross of gray granite, and the figure appeared in the morning light to be contemplating the cross.

    The honeyed light fell thickly over the picnic table and oozed over the figure’s black-clad body.

    The table sat under a green-apple tree whose boughs were bent low with the lunar globes of fruit.

    “Have you been here the entire time?” a woman’s voice suddenly said behind the seated and solitary figure — who did not, however, turn or seemed surprised, but only nodded once.

    The woman approached the table and stood seven feet to the side.

    The figure wore a black-felt hat with a broad floppy brim, the skeletal face half-enshadowed and dividing that face diagonally into two hemispheres of light and shade. The woman turned from the seated figure and followed the line of the figure’s sight, so that she too found herself looking at the small granite cross.

    For a long moment the two of them together regarded the stone cross in silence.

    “Are you devout?” the woman said.

    “No.”

    “Are you religious or superstitious?” the woman said. “Are you a believer?”

    “No.”

    “Why do you have hung there the cross?”

    “Because it represents the just man crucified.”

    Her eyes unconsciously narrowed. She considered these words without speaking.

    “And because I prefer Christ to satan,” the figure said, “by which I mean, self-mastery and self-control to self-indulgence and glut; kindness and patience to power and preening. Please sit.”

    The woman did. She wore faded blue jeans and a kidney-colored tee-shirt. Her skin was dusty and streaked here-and-there with burnt-sienna mud, her beauty thrown into sharper relief by a sense of fatigue combined with a tirelessness of will.

    A bright-silver coffee thermos stood upon the table, and two white-porcelain mugs were on either side of it. Next to this, atop a closed book, sat a porous volcanic fruit-bowl, which was now empty.

    “Is that what satan represents?” the woman said. “Power and preening?”

    The figure lifted the coffee thermos and tilted it. The scalding black fluid arced into one of the porcelain mugs and then the other. The figure’s fingers, passing to her one of the coffee mugs, were long and thin and elegant.

    Gently the coffee steamed its thin gray wraiths into the morning air.

    “Yes, in my experience,” the figure said. “But it largely depends upon whom you ask — or which religion or quasi-religion you choose to consult. Zoroaster was perhaps the first to famously devise two opposing entities: God and Devil — which is to say, the creative versus the destructive, good versus evil. Satan never had much place in Judaism, contrary to popular belief — more of a minor or even throwaway character, I’ve always thought, enough to swell a scene sometimes, the tempter in Job, for instance. In Genesis, the serpent in the garden is not, also contrary to popular belief, satan or the devil — for the simple reason that Judaism hadn’t yet come up with or come across this figure. In Hebrew, the word satan, first used as a verb (‘to oppose’), translates to ‘stumbling-block’ or ‘adversary,’ and it appears exactly nine times in the Old Testament — and five of those nine are not in reference to any sort of divine being but to political opponents or military forces. The Hasids, an old Jewish sect, were the first of any influence to take the idea of satan seriously, and they were surely influenced by Zoroaster and the Zoroastrians, and this satan is without question preening and powerful. But what does any of it really matter, in the final analysis? Goodness has nothing to do with myths, legends, or the superstitions. Goodness is chosen, as it is timeless.”

    The woman sipped her coffee: strong blackhearted coffee, and almost immediately she felt it restoring her.

    She took another sip and looked at the figure across from her. Even from among the deep shadows cast down by the floppy hat-brim, she could see two gray-blue eyes burning brightly with brainpower. Perhaps a slight strabismus as well.

    A hank of hair hung from under the hat, behind the left ear. This hair was long and platinum-white.

    “Have you ever read the so-called Satanic Bible?” the figure said.

    “No.”

    “Do not waste your time, if I may presume a recommendation. Embarrassingly overwritten and uninsightful — to say nothing of the obvious and sloppy rehash of Nietzsche that pervades it, without, however, a vestige of Nietzsche’s philosophical scope or depth. No supernatural satan or devil is explicitly espoused — though there are more than a few ambiguous passages on that point — yet in this church Aleister Crowley’s superstitious quackery and magick are enthusiastically embraced, as well as any number of other ritualistic theatrics.”

    “I am sick of ritualistic theatrics,” the woman said with surprising suddenness. “I’m sick of rites and rituals and magick and religions and quasi-religions and groups and gangs and clubs and cults and covens and churches and all the rest of it. I’m sick to death of it all.”

    The figure did not reply, but she thought she saw the laserbeam eyes narrow in a way that conveyed heightened attention.

    “My name is Justine Strickland. May I know your name?”

    “My name is Ash.”

    There fell a long pause during which time Justine felt herself striving to integrate and apprehend the meaning of what the figure had just said to her — almost, she later reflected, as though a wave of migraine-like dizziness had struck her all at once, thereby rendering her brain unable to process thoughts correctly. In the next instant, she considered the possibility that this moment was perhaps not real.

    “I’ve been seeking you for a long time,” Justine said at length. “I’d almost given up.”

    “Yet you didn’t. You kept looking.”

    Justine did not immediately respond.

    “I want to know the truth,” she said.

    The figure rose from the table — tall and thin and somehow sexless and very graceful.

    “Come with me, then.”

    Chapter 85

    Justine followed Ash through the dark archway beneath the little cross, which Ash had chiseled from a slab of thin granite — and when they crossed the threshold of this stone room, the darkness grew fur, and the rocks that composed the walls exhaled huge fields of cool.

    Suddenly, as if from nothing or from Ash’s fingertips alone, an orange flower of firelight blossomed on the ground before her, and Justine saw Ash genuflecting over the fire, adding fuel to it, building the fire higher.

    From this half-kneeling position on the ground, Ash spoke to her, saying that fire is energy, and that, though fire occurs commonly in nature, it is nonetheless difficult to manufacture from bare elements, yet humans had mastered this skill so thoroughly and so long ago that most people now take fire entirely for granted.

    Ash said that human thought and human intelligence are the source of such learning and such mastery, and that this is the one thing above all others that must never be forgotten.

    Ash said also that in learning how to make and control fire, which is an act of creating energetic order, our human ancestors were able to descend from the trees and live in relative safety upon the ground — that in harnessing fire, cooking with fire came next, and therefore, because of cooking, many more calories were absorbed by the bodies of these early humans, as large and tough and stringy yet protein-packed game-meat now became consumable through cooking-by-fire, so that early humans grew smaller guts and bigger brains on their high-energy diets of cooked food, all of which the harnessing of fire made possible.

    Still genuflecting over the twisting flames, Ash said as well that the capturing of fire surely had a profound hormonal influence upon early humans — insofar as certain hormones are suppressed in response to light exposure, while others are released, thereby affecting sleep cycles and the maturation process and reproductions cycles, and many other fundamental characteristics which shape human development.

    “Most of all,” Ash said, now rising from the ground and now standing across from her, the warm bright tongues of firelight licking and flicking between them, “the harnessing of fire facilitated and helped create barter among humans, beginning with the cooked food that made early humans healthier, as it made survival easier. It is a fact that no other earthen creature besides the human creature engages in barter and indirect exchange. Plenty of creatures use tools and share food and so on, but no other creature barters and trucks. Only humans. Only humankind engages in free-exchange. Trade is a fundamental and defining characteristic of the human species, and free-trade is the antithesis of conflict and war: it is peaceful, non-coerced, mutually beneficial, and it promotes kinship and goodwill among humans. Money is merely a medium that facilitates the process further. Yet perhaps the most extraordinary thing about free-trade is that, like energy itself, it reciprocates, and through this reciprocation it grows in an exponential way and is inexhaustible: the more we use it, the more we have, and thus, by intrinsically fostering innovation, the better and more streamlined it becomes. This process — the process of trade among people — created, in turn, and still creates, the two things most responsible for human progress and civilization: specialization, which some call the division-of-labor, so that we are not all spending all of our time food-gathering or food-growing, and, as a corollary of that, easier and more reliable methods by means of which humans transfer knowledge. This enables humans to build upon previously discovered knowledge, and to advance. Free-exchange, specialization, the transference of knowledge, civilization — they are the same.”

    Justine was silent. She stared down into the fire. Ash watched Justine for some time and then turned and went across the stone room, where stood a small water-well. From a creaking iron pump, Ash drew a bucket of cold water, the sluicing sound of which ran soothingly through the channels of her ears. Ash dipped into the bucket with a small tin cup and then passed this cup to Justine.

    She drank. The living water numbed the back of her throat and was very satisfying.

    Ash watched her.

    Shadow and firelight swarmed over their faces and their bodies.

    “Shall I tell you the real satan?” Ash said, when she was finished with her water.

    She nodded, half breathless from drinking.

    “It is compulsion, internal or external. It is coercion and compulsion, and it is the people of force: the people of the lie, who are legion.”

    These last words were scarcely uttered when, abruptly and with great quickness, Ash, still holding the bucket, threw from the bucket the remaining well-water onto the living fire, lashing the coals which seethed and hissed and fumed, and this space again grew dark, and the fumes from the extinguished fire spread violet-blue throughout the lightless little room.

    Ash took Justine by the hand and led her back through the smoke and purplish gloom.

    Chapter 86

    Ash walked with her through the backdoor, into the kitchen, and asked her to sit and told her also to make herself comfortable. Then Ash briefly disappeared.

    Sixty seconds later, Ash returned with six raw eggs rolling audibly around the floor of a metal pail, a small bag of cold brown rice there as well. From a drawer beneath the stove, Ash brought forth a cast-iron skillet into which the deft elegant fingers forked a small measure of lard kept in a coffee can beside the stove.

    Ash heated the skillet and watched the wax-colored lard melt and then tilted the skillet forward and back and to the right and left, so that the entire bottom of the skillet was coated, and at last broke all six eggs sizzling into the small-bubbling liquid lard and stirred the eggs with a fork. Soon, Ash added to the eggs the bag of cold rice and stirred until the eggs and brown rice were finished cooking. Then Ash poured for her more coffee and more water and served her upon a porcelain plate the half-dozen eggs and rice scrambled together, and while Justine ate using the very fork with which Ash had stirred and cooked, Ash again disappeared.

    Letting her eat in privacy and silence.

    She could see the entire time through the window outside, in the middle-distance of the garden, the floppy shape of the hat-brim, the untouchable body motionless and silent and silhouetted in its seated position, the slender back turned to her.

    When Justine was finished eating and drinking, she went back outside and stood before Ash and looked once again at the gaunt sexless features glinting beneath the hat brim. A somehow intellectual face, she thought, with the bone gleaming sharply within. She again thanked Ash — who bowed and then, not quite wordlessly, stood up and led her around a thin trail like sprinkled cocoa, down a grassy slope, and along another trail some distance to a small clear brook, which ran across the eastern fringes of the ghost-town.

    Here, when they came to a small pine bench a forgotten miner had once built, they both stopped walking, and they sat.

    The running water rattled softly by, and Ash told her that this water poured very deep into the earth. Ash told her furthermore that this water went through a vast underground network which led at last to a profound reservoir, far away, under the Superstition Wilderness, and this was ultimately the reason Ash had brought her here, to this spot, along the edge of the old mining town:

    “Fire and water,” Ash said.

    Ash then plucked a long blade of lime-green grass and began fashioning from it a miniature noose. Justine watched the fast feminine fingers move, and then she spoke:

    “Why are you here,” she said, “in this place?”

    “I’m here because of a certain one, the steps of whom I sought to retrace,” Ash said.

    “Why did you seek to retrace them?”

    “To see if perhaps there were not another possible course — or if perhaps something had been missed.”

    “In what way do you mean?”

    “I mean that the one whose steps I sought to retrace were the steps of a youth looking for definitive evidence of God’s presence upon the earth. This young one had come to believe that in the ghost-towns of the American west, where mining had once flourished and yet where it flourished no more, there would perhaps be incontrovertible proof of God: evidence that had been overlooked. This young one actually believed it possible that God would not bother to dust off every single fingerprint or sweep away every single footprint, and even considered the notion that God might deliberately leave something behind — a clue: a clue into the supernatural.”

    Justine was silent.

    “Nor had this young one developed anything like a modern or progressive view of God,” Ash said. “If there was God, there was God — a sentient being: female, male, or otherwise, it made no difference — and then there was the universe. The universe was insentient and indifferent, but God could not be indifferent. God could not be insentient. So this searcher believed.”

    The entire time Ash spoke, the thin graceful fingers fashioned the miniature noose, and watching these fingers move and work, it suddenly seemed to Justine as if the fingers were disembodied things, with a will of their own.

    “What precipitated this young person’s search?” Justine said. She was transfixed by Ash’s fingers and spoke while exclusively looking at those fingers, as if addressing them and not Ash.

    “It was precipitated by a great deception and an act of great cruelty committed against the young searcher — and a great wrong,” Ash said, “and then a preoccupation with what one might call tribalism.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “For some time this person had observed that when likeminded people, on any place of any spectrum, talk to one another, face-to-face or otherwise, they invariably come out thinking a more extreme version of what they’d originally thought before the conversation ever began. Their original views are not only reinforced but amplified. Thus groups, in every and any form, but especially those whose members are inclined to deception and even violence, will move more sharply in that direction after internal deliberation and immersion within that group. This one came to believe also that confirmation from others within a given group emboldens and strengthens confidence even to the point of vile deeds — and that this is among other things the crucible of mobs. The issue came more and more to weigh upon this young one, in the context of cults and religion, justice and retribution especially, and in this way, the question of God grew into something like an obsession for the young searcher.”

    Justine watched in silence as Ash finished fashioning the little grassy noose and then tossed it into the brook. She watched the loop swirl away into the deeps, and she stared until it disappeared from her sight. When she looked back to Ash’s fingers, she was surprised to see that at some point — Justine did not know when — Ash as if by legerdemain had created another limey grass-stalk, but this one was in the shape of a cross, which Ash now held between thumb and index finger.

    Just then, she caught reflected movement on the surface of the water and cast her eyes upward. Justine watched a skein of geese move like migraine across the sky.

    “Our deeds follow us,” Ash said, as though following the flight of her thoughts, “because our deeds are us: because we are what we do.”

    Justine processed these words, but she did not say anything. The whole time, she watched the slow-shifting skein of geese float blackly by, and Ash watched her in contemplative silence and then finally spoke.

    “A curious thing then happened to this young one,” Ash said.

    Justine turned and looked back into the strange shadows beneath the hat-brim, the youthful energy of the shade-slashed face, no longer young, which looked neither female nor male and was, Justine realized only now, good-looking. Why this inexplicable anxiousness growing within her?

    “Tell me what happened?” she said. Her voice was quiet.

    “That initial desire did not diminish but just the opposite: it grew stronger over the years. So that in the solitary search for evidence of God’s presence upon the earth, mixed with the ruminative nature of this one’s brain, a certain learning accumulated. A certain knowledge. It developed and accumulated alongside a growing erudition of geology and mineralogy, and in this way, after many years, this one almost inadvertently became something of a prospector, a miner. Thus, when one day this young searcher saw a sort of God-like shimmer among the rock and mud — something many other miners and prospectors had missed, and which, after much deeper searching and digging, turned out to be a rich vein of gold — a great deal of wealth came. And this young one was young no longer.”

    Chapter 87

    Ash, still lightly holding the small grass cross as if it were a four-leaf clover, rolling it back and forth between the thumb and index finger, now paused and peered out from under the floppy hat-brim and gazed across the purling water. Justine studied the profile, the bright blue cross-eye almost facing her. The reflected sun shone greenish on the rippled surface of the brook.

    “Tell me,” Ash said, “do you know what rock is?”

    Justine shook her head.

    “It is the fundamental elements of the earth. It is minerals and minerality — sometimes it is even glass. Rock is coherent and aggregate, and the specific identity of every rock is determined by the way in which it is formed, by the specific minerals it contains, ultimately by its chemical composition. If you think about this for any length of time, it will take you profoundly inside the earth and down to the very nature of the elements that form existence itself, which is matter. Rock is joined particulates — particulates often interlocking and held together like a jigsaw puzzle, or welded by heat which has long since cooled, or cemented after water seeps in and fills the spaces between the grains which make up the rock.”

    Ash stopped speaking and looked directly at her. Justine was silent.

    “The ancient Aztecs believed gold to be ‘the sweat of the sun,'” Ash said,  “whereas geologists today have all but established the opposite: that gold ‘comes to the earth’s surface from the deepest regions of the planet,’ where its chemical elements are forged at earth’s mantle, almost eight thousand miles deep. There are trace amounts of gold in all igneous rock, as there are trace amounts of gold in each human body, and metaphorically one could say that, as gold comes to the surface of the earth from the deepest depths of the planet, so the gold of each human comes from the deepest regions of each person’s being.”

    “I like that,” Justine said, but she spoke so softly that her voice could scarcely be heard.

    “Gold is valuable to humans because its universal qualities are functional and remarkable, and because gold is sufficiently rare. The gold deposit this young one found, which others had overlooked, is what’s known as a hydrothermal vein.”

    “What does that mean?”

    “It means it was formed by the precipitation of solids from a molten-hot and mineral-rich water, which, in turn, comes from water that circulates very, very deep beneath the surface of the earth and is heated by magma or radioactive decay.”

    Justine was closely watching Ash, who continued looking across the water. Justine remained silent. The sense of apprehension swelled inside her, pregnantly.

    “True wealth is not arbitrary,” Ash said. “It is what humans need not only to survive but also to prosper and flourish. Wealth comes from production. At the foundation of it all, nothing more fundamental than work is required for the production of wealth.”

    It was in this moment that something new and dace-like swam into Justine’s head.

    “Please tell me what happened to the young searcher,” she said with urgency, “after youth had gone.”

    Ash, still facing the brook, nodded but was silent for several beats.

    “The discovery of so much gold,” Ash said, “and the wealth it brought — combined with an idea whose formulation had been many years in the making — conferred onto this one a new sort of deference. People came — visitors who would be students, acolytes even. Others who sought only disputation and argumentation.”

    “Disputation over what?”

    “Over what the young searcher had come to learn.”

    Justine did not know that she was holding her breath, nor in this state of mind would she have grasped why.

    “Please say more,” she whispered.

    “In the search for evidence of God’s presence upon the earth,” Ash said, “the searcher was eventually pushed back to investigating the very nature of reality itself and of the senses that perceive it — sight, smell, touch, sound, taste — which form the base of all knowledge, including all things constituting evidence. Even pure introspection, this searcher came to understand, ultimately derives from sensory perception, insofar as the things we introspect upon find their provenance in the external world, beginning at birth when, piecemeal through the senses, reality is discovered. This fact has long been used to disqualify the validity of all human knowledge — and to subsequently justify superstitious faith and force — on the grounds that the senses necessarily distort true reality, because the senses perceive in a certain way: how a straight plastic straw appears bent or broken through a glass of water, for instance, or how color does not indwell in the thing itself but is rather light perceived through the lens of an eye, with all its rods and cones. Or sound vibrations which only truly become sound when they impinge upon an inner ear, or something like it. It is therefore concluded that because humans, as other animals, perceive by some means, true reality is therefore fundamentally unknowable. This opens to portal to all manner of superstition, supernaturalism, faith, force — whether secular or non-secular, it doesn’t really matter. In the quest for God’s fingerprint, the young searcher was at last pushed all the way back to this, and systematically the young searcher sought to overcome it. And succeeded.”

    “How?” Justine said.

    “By pointing out first that there is no alternative to perception — it’s part of what it means to be aware, and even a God would need to be aware by some means. And by pointing out next that the senses are also a part of reality: Rods and cones, like straws and water, are also real. Eardrums are real. They exist. As such, the senses reveal reality in an accurate way, though that way is reality as it’s viewed through things — which things are equally real. A hypothetical being who does not perceive through these same means would be ignorant in ways we are not, and vice-versa. By definition, all sensory perception, even surmised or hypothetical, interacts with reality and perceives and quantifies reality through some apparatus. It is the final result — the effect in reality — that is the ultimate test and measure: the ability to construct an airplane or spaceship which can fly, for instance, or a Brooklyn bridge which can successfully stand and support traffic, or the result of smashing your head or hand through glass compared to water, or a lion getting its meal, or the results that ensue when you attempt to drive the interstate with your eyes closed. This is what proves the truth of the senses in relation to the facts of reality. Life or death. The senses perceive by specific means and methods — yes, they do — and even these means and methods, just as the elements and components that compose them, are also able to be perceived and studied and learned. Which is why we can understand the reasons that the eye sees color, as we can also observe and understand color-blindness. As we can understand why an unbroken plastic straw appears to the human eye broken through a glass of water, or a tree-branch in a pond. True reality is perceived through true senses which are also components of that same true reality, and the senses interact with reality just as all other facets of reality interact with one another. A thing is defined by its identity, which is defined by what it does.”

    Ash paused, subjoined:

    “There are, I know, any number of doctrines and dogmas which say that at a certain level of attained enlightenment, the boundaries and borders which separate, for instance, water and glass, air and metal, and so on — they all magically dissolve after a certain level of enlightenment. Meanwhile, the child must eat. Before that esoteric height of enlightenment, this child’s hunger is real, and she must eat real food and receive real nourishment to live and flourish. The mother must provide real milk. The father must provide real clothing and shelter. The snow and wind and sun are real elements. The claims amount to nothing more than the purely arbitrary.”

    For some time, Justine did not say anything.

    She looked down at the tiny grass cross which Ash still held between thumb and index finger. She seemed all at once to study the cross with heightened interest, almost as though a new thought had just entered her head.

    “Will you tell me next that this young searcher was crucified?” she said.

    Ash, still looking across the water, turned to her at last and blinked slowly: eyes like little pools of quicksilver. 

    “Not exactly,” Ash said. “I’m sure that by now a part of you has already begun to suspect who the young searcher was.”

    Justine didn’t speak for a long moment. The two of them regarded each other in the swarming silence.

    “It was you,” Justine whispered.

    Ash looked back to the water.

    “You kept looking,” Justine said.

    “Yes.”

    “Did you find God’s fingerprints or footprints?”

    “No,” Ash said. “I did not. Nor the devil’s. But I found something else.”

    Chapter 88

    A soft gust of wind came off the water and blew through the tall grass, and the blades of the grass, like a city of serpents, seethed and spoke in tongues, hissing with heresy. In the wind were small seeds which the wind was sowing.

    “Excellence does not give up her secrets easily,” Ash said. “I have a test for you.”

    Reflected now upon the surface of the brook were three grape-colored cloudlets, riding the riffles in the same spots, same spots, same spots. The water was glowing — the living water of this vodka-clear creek, forever flowing.

    “Test?” Justine said.

    “Yes.”

    Ash rose from the bench and held up both hands before her, palms outward. The hands were empty. Ash then quickly closed and opened the left hand — and suddenly the little cross made of grass was there, pinched lightly between the thumb and index finger.

    Ash tossed it into the brook of flowing water.

    Justine, still sitting, watched the cross swirl away into the eddies.

    When she looked back to Ash, she saw that, resurrection-like, Ash still held the cross and was rolling it between the slender thumb and index finger.

    Justine blinked. When she opened her eyes, the cross was gone and both hands were empty.

    Ash then balled both hands into fists and held these fists before her, blue prominent veins standing out along the backs of the hands, the wrists thin and elegant, with bird-like bones embedded inside each.

    “Which hand do you think the cross is in?” Ash said.

    Justine did not hesitate:

    “It is in both,” she said. “You have one in each hand now.”

    Under the floppy hat-brim, the cross-eyes twinkled.

    Ash unfolded both fists.

    In the open palms, right and left alike, there lay a miniature hangman’s noose made of grass.

    Justine did not appear astonished. “Was that the test?” she said.

    “Only the beginning,” Ash said. “Please come.”

    Chapter 89

    The sun sunk swiftly and as it did, a kind of lull crept over the land, the low sky knifed and gutted and left to perish above the peeling planet — vast, vacant, bleeding. The conifers stood like pipe-cleaners against the drained sky. Inside the house, Justine sat across from Ash while a stuffed owl above the mantel watched them with jeweled eyes. The room was tilted with shadows.

    “Have you ever considered what it’s really like to be burned alive?” Ash said.

    Justine did not reply.

    “Most people haven’t,” Ash said. “Be assured, it is among the most excruciating of ways to die: a slow-roasting death during which you hear the entire time your own flesh sizzling, as you smell it scorching, as you smell your hair burning, as you feel your hot flesh blistering. And because you do not go numb, the pain doesn’t diminish but intensifies.”

    Justine remained mute.

    A long silence ensued.

    “I was taken by force,” Ash said, “in the dead of night.”

    “By whom?”

    “By envious people — people who coveted what I alone, through the power of my mind and my observation, had found and what I worked very hard to get: the gold they’d all wanted — and overlooked. People who, in one way or another, believe humans are fated, and who because of this postmodern yet ancient superstition do not understand the nature of reason, as they do not understand the meaning and the importance of human freedom — as they do not understand that the gradual but inexorable dismantling of segregation, apartheid, racism, sexism, sexual-political liberation, and so on drew its ultimate strength from the great economic migration brought about by conditions of freedom and the right to property — in short, human progress, technology, and the labor-saving electrical machinery that liberated men and women from the fields and from the kitchen.” Ash paused. “Superstitious people,” Ash said, “who, deeply cocooned and safe in their dogmas, did not like things I’d stated, convictions I held and still hold, and the wealth which through my knowledge and work I’d accumulated. It was a privilege no one deserved above another. So they believed.”

    Justine listened.

    “First, they beat and bound me and took me deep into the shafts of my own mine,” Ash said, “to which they felt they had equal ownership, and where they believed vampires dwelt — and I was perhaps one. Under the bright battery-powered lights that I’d installed there, they stripped me naked. Then one among them, a large and bearded man, with a dark complexion and big jumbled teeth, tied me naked to a timber post. The rope he used was thin and strong. It was bitter-cold inside this mineshaft, and my jaw shivered uncontrollably. This horde of ragged gapers stood around me for a long time in silence. They smoked cigarettes and stared at me me naked and freezing. I was then offered a cigarette. I did not reply, and I was backhanded across the face. At last, the large bearded man brought forth a huge gray blade. It was a blade the likes of which I’d never seen before: long yet thin and perfectly straight — rectangular, with no handle that I could see — almost like a giant razorblade. He held it up before his own eyes, as if inspecting it, and while he did so, the leader of this group, a man, I later learned, who was part Comanche, said to me that this man was a butcher: ‘a professional butcher,’ he said, ‘and a skinner of game animals.’ He said furthermore that this one’s technical precision and skill were unmatched. ‘He can take the skin off an animal or a human as delicately as a farm-girl can peel an apricot: perfectly,’ the man said, ‘leaving the skin entirely intact, without cut, gouge, or scratch, yet with the living muscle, like fruit-flesh, still throbbing on the bone. Do you understand what I’m saying?’ this man said to me. Still, I did not reply. ‘But for all his technical skill,’ the man continued, ‘he must work slowly and methodically in order to keep the skin all-of-a-piece and clean, and I would be remiss if I did not tell you ahead of time that his slow precise work can — you know — sting a little.'”

    Ash fell momentarily silent and then said to Justine:

    “Here, that man smiled at me. I will never forget his smile.”

    “Why?” Justine said. “Why, specifically?”

    “Because that smile encapsulated the essence of it all: duplicity and deception, and the magnitude of it all.”

    Justine blinked and was silent.

    The stuffed owl watched down with lidless fixity.

    “The instant after flashing me this deceitful smile,” Ash said, “the leader nodded to the large bearded man, who then went to work. This man began with my lower half, starting at the top of my right foot, slowly flaying my skin with the giant razorblade. He sliced with utmost care and focus: flaying with incredible delicacy the skin of my human fruit — to see if I was flesh-and-blood, or perhaps demon-vampire after all. I deliberately forced myself to watch my own body being skinned alive. I made myself watch it because I would not give these ex-people the satisfaction of shutting my eyes. I bore in silence the unspeakable pain — until at some moment I heard myself scream, which surprised even me. I didn’t expect it, or see it coming. It was an outerspace scream, otherworldly. Yet still I watched. I watched this huge violent man do his expert work in a way which, to judge by the expression on his face, seemed almost caring. Only my screams told of the ghastliness of what was being done — every one of them watching on in a sort of silent awe and fascination. The leader, meanwhile, tall and thin and silver-haired, came and stood behind the timber to which I was tied, and, with an iron bar through the rope, he twisted and yanked the rope tighter so that it cut into my neck and torso, granting me breath and then taking it away with sadistic pleasure. At last, the skin of my right leg, from the top of the toe to my kneecap, came off in one translucently thin sheet, and the silent bearish skinner held up this sheet of my human flesh directly in front of my eyes. He grinned.”

    Ash fell silent for several seconds.

    Justine watched. She did not so much as breathe.

    “At which point,” Ash said, “tied naked to the wooden stake in the freezing-cold mine that I had discovered and built, my right leg now partially skinned and the living muscles underneath completely visible, I began vomiting. I vomited uncontrollably, and I vomited all over the man who’d begun skinning me alive. It was then that the leader showed me a sliver of mercy and compassion: he told his expert skinner to stop — to spare my skin and do no more — and he then proferred to me a cup of cold water.”

    “What did you do?”

    “I rejected the water and I told him to go straight to hell.”

    “Why?”

    “Because his was a tactic,” Ash said, “a manipulation with which I was familiar — and so I understood that to accept any pretense or semblance of kindness, compassion, or anything like it would be to capitulate to these ex-people. I understood that under no circumstances must I ever let the sun go down on my rage. And I did not. I spit bile into his face, and I’d do the exact same thing again, were I to relive it, but I would do it more forcefully.”

    Abruptly, Ash rose from the chair and in the disgorging liquid shadow-and-light of the room did something which Justine was entirely unprepared for — something which shook her to her very core, and which she’d never forget.

    “Do you still want to know the truth, Justine Strickland?” said Ash.

    “Yes.”

    Ash, standing directly before her, an arm’s length away, removed the floppy-brimmed hat — tossing it onto the floor, so that the flowing platinum hair came loose and glowed moon-colored in the shade-slashed room. And then Ash disrobed entirely and stood naked in her presence, revealing a strong and vital human body, yet a human body badly burned: burned, skinned, and scarified white, like a patchwork doll, with genitalia that had been savagely mutilated out of existence by violent and superstitious people who thought Ash a supernatural sorcerer: Ash, a searcher and a prospector of planet earth, now stood perfectly motionless before Justine so that she could fully perceive the mutilated body that cast a long shadow over her and which was completely human, and which human body many surgeries had sought to repair, with only partial success, and Ash stood before her in this way so that she might better perceive the ramifications of rejecting reality in any measure.

    They were both silent for some time.

    “After this,” Ash finally said, “they set fire to the wooden stake they’d tied me to, and they left me there to burn. To die. To return to ash — the energetic order of fire now used for disorder and destruction. That is satan,” Ash said.

    Justine only now bowed her head.

    “But there was something these ex-people didn’t reckon on,” Ash said.

    “What?” Justine whispered.

    “The strength of my will to live.”

    Chapter 90

    “By the time the fire that was roasting me alive had burned through the ropes with which they’d tied me,” Ash said, “the horde had already left — alone, partially flayed and burned and left for dead. Perhaps they thought I was already dead, I really do not know. Yet I emerged from those hot ashes, on the edge of which I’d glimpsed something.”

    “What?”

    “A marble chess piece. It was a white knight. I clutched it, and I rolled my body into a stream of clean cold-running water — an underground limestone aqueduct, the water of which you saw earlier today, in the clear stream we sat beside — and, falling in and out of dreams and delirium, I lay here for a long time. Days. Days and nights dreaming of angels and demons. The cold water sustained me. Until at last the real angels came.”

    Justine cocked her head.

    “Strange creatures,” Ash said, “with dove-colored eyes whom I watched float like phantoms out of the darkness of the mineshaft, who pulled me gently from the living water and bandaged me and cared for me and who helped restore my health.”

    Ash fell silent.

    The stuffed owl stared mutely down.

    “Who were they?” Justine said. The words, however, were not yet fully from her mouth when she thought she heard a sound: something creature-like coming from outside.

    She turned to the open window.

    The moon like a rind sat tipped on its tailbone over the eastern horizon.

    A cool wind blew in through the window and passed over her and over Ash’s naked body, and at first Justine saw nothing — nothing but hip-high grass swaying in the wind and, farther beyond, the flash of aspen trees glowing like skeletons in the dim moonlight.

    Justine looked back into the room.

    Across from her and to the left of Ash stood a glass-paned cabinet. In this glass was reflected the mirror behind. She saw also, slightly to her right and above, the reflected image of the stuffed owl watching down from the wall.

    “In truth,” Ash said, “they were not angels but two men — men who were also miners. Miners and good Samaritans.”

    A profound silence fell. Justine closed her eyes and for a long span kept them closed, and then she opened them. Something, she felt, was waiting.

    Ash watched her closely.

    For thirty seconds, the only sound was the sound of crickets panting like pumas in the trees.

    With greater apprehension now, Justine shifted in her seat and stared at the relucent pane of glass before her. Then, suddenly, in its dark and ghostly reflection, she saw appear a kind of double or perhaps triple reflection — though so disoriented had she become that she was not entirely sure:

    First, as she shifted her position in the chair, the warped reflection of Ash wobbled into view on the mirror behind Justine and also rebated back, so that it was at the same time reflected on the glass-pane behind Ash, in front of her. This glass, in turn, was translucently mirroring Ash’s long and naked back. One moment later, the reflection of the moon mounting the sky also appeared in the room and shone all at once upon the mirror as well, and this reflection too rebated from the mirror to the glass-pane. Finally, then, beneath the twice-reflected moon, from among the glowing aspen trees, there emerged or seemed to emerge a gathering of strange and slender figures, whose ghostly shapes went from the mirror to the glass and back — coming to rest at last in front of her human eyes: superimposed over the double-reflected image of Ash’s back, as well as the mutilated front.

    This whole time, Ash’s glittering cross-eyes, burning with insight and strangeness, were watching her — watching her both in reflection and also real life.

    The blessed will not care what angle they’re regarded from, having nothing to hide, she thought.

    Ash, seemingly in response, put a long index finger up to pursed lips, as if beseeching her secrecy. Yet when Justine turned from the reflection to the window, so that she might perceive the thing itself and not merely the mirrored image it cast, she saw nothing but the glowing aspen trees and the invisible wind flowing like water through the grass.

    Piecemeal but rapidly, a new thought gathered in her mind.

    “Jon was onto them from the beginning, wasn’t he?” Justine said.

    She was still looking out the window as she spoke — almost, it seemed, speaking to her own reflection — and yet upon hearing no answer, she turned back to Ash, who was now reclothed and who stood across the room, some thirty feet beyond, in an open doorway, the floppy hat-brim reshadowing the face. Ash beckoned her to follow.

    She did.

    Justine followed Ash, and together they walked outside into the deep blue gloaming.

    Chapter 91

    When Justine was a young child, her father — barrister, boxer, book-publisher, sportsman, scholar — took her to a marble quarry far inside the mountains of southwestern Colorado. It was a quarry no longer active, and a half-mile beyond it ran a small crystal river. Huge slabs of broken marble lay strewn everywhere about, like the playthings of giants who once roamed the earth.

    Her father stood with her upon the riverbanks and told her that there were native fish in this river. But he said also that these fish were skittish and wild, and he told her that because of this, they were fish difficult to catch but not impossible.

    He then retrieved from his backpack a small fishing pole which he assembled and then handed to her.

    On the end of the line was a soft dark wooly-worm which he himself had tied.

    Soundlessly, her father pointed to a deep crystal pool slightly downstream in the river’s flow.

    Justine, observant little child, stared in complete silence. Black silt lay all along the riverbed, and the sound of the clear-running water came softly to her ears. Watery smells mixed with marble-dust entered her through the nose.

    Staring pensively at the flow, she suddenly saw the blurry wobble of wild fish bursting beneath leaves fallen onto the face of the stream and then slipping like butter down the throat of the river: living volleys of cold blood smashing through the currents.

    After the water settled, a dark torpedo-shape appeared hovering just over the gunpowder sand, as if moored there. The velvet fins swaying like feathers, bulbous midsection with black leopard spots like flecks of fresh ink. The fish stood in three-quarters profile. She watched the gills knead, slit cheeks opening and closing like dampers, the burgundy flare of living gill-flesh beneath.

    Her father helped her cast the line, and when the wooly-worm struck the surface of the pool and then slowly sank, the big fish instantly turned one way and then the other, and then it hung motionless again. Her father told her to remain perfectly still, no matter how long it took, and he stood beside her the entire time.

    Together they waited on the banks of the flowing crystal river.

    They waited and waited. The anchored fish did not move, and neither did Justine nor her father. The wooly-worm swayed in the water.

    Twilight fell.

    The world went gauzy and blue, and Justine watched in silence the clear water darken. She watched how the topwater seemed to skate in an almost oily way over the thicker water beneath. After a full hour, the big anchored fish flickered and was gone.

    Before Justine had time to process it, this same fish had inhaled the wooly-worm and was thrashing about on the end of her line. She felt the indescribable thrill of the gigantic yank, the heady rush. She jerked her line in response, as her father had taught her, and then the little five-year-old girl brought the fish dripping and silvery out of the twilit water and landed it onto the river-rocks. The fish she’d caught was twenty inches or more. It snapped back and forth. The wedge-shaped tail slapped at its own torpedo head. Justine’s hands were shaking with excitement. Her father reached down and held the fish by its lower jaw, paralyzing the fish, extracting the wooly-worm, small razorous fish teeth piercing his thumb.

    They ate this fish later that same night — Justine’s mother breading it in cornmeal and cooking it in coriander and hot-bubbling butter, the flesh of the fish coral-colored, not white — so sweet and rich and nourishing.

    One week later, Justine had a dream which would become for her a kind of recurring dream:

    She dreamt that she and her father were standing once again upon the same riverbank, yet this time it was her father and not she who held the fishing pole. In her dream, the water was black and endlessly deep, almost stagnant-looking, and always in her dream she stared down into the sluggish flow half-frightened. All at once, on the dark reflection, she saw the tip of her father’s fishing pole bow hugely, and then, after a mighty struggle, her father lifted from the water a now-inert and gigantic and hideous-looking fish, with scaly dead-pale skin and tumors sprouting out of the head  like cauliflower: a misshapen thing struggling under the weight of hideousness. Her father, holding the heavy fish carefully and with difficulty on the end of the line, turned to her and, keeping the inert fish far removed from her, he told her in a strange hissing whisper that this fish was called a Devil-Fish, and he lifted it higher from deep down in the black water and into the light, and with dread and nausea rising in her stomach, she watched him lift it still higher into the light, and she watched the deformed fish grotesquely struggle for breath and life as it came into the light, and finally, unable to survive full exposure to the light, the Devil-Fish died. 

    Then she awoke.

    Chapter 92

    Justine followed Ash outside into a forest grove filled with silence and a curious quivering light. They walked single-file down a grassy path carpeted with heartshaped leaves. Ash led.

    Small bats tacked and swerved above the gnarled conifer trees.

    Mutilated statuary, masked with moss and grey lichen, stood on either side of the path, and these dismembered stone creations watched mutely from within the depths of foliage. Upon their left, a narrow stream of black water, one foot wide but six feet deep, flowed past with a soothing seethe.

    Now profoundly inside this forest grove, they came at last to a kidney-shaped fishpond, and here, on the surface of the pond, the silent crescent-moon dished and quaked, and huge goldfish knifed noiselessly through the glowing water beneath. Ash stopped walking and looked back at Justine with something like concern, the bright cock-eyes glittering like mercury.

    “There will always be suffering,” Ash said. “It flows through life like water.”

    “But also goodness,” Justine said.

    “Yes,” Ash said. “More goodness than suffering is the total goal. And human progress mitigates suffering and increases goodness. Progress is light. It is civilization.”

    For several seconds, Justine held Ash’s gaze. Then she looked away.

    A heavy silence hung between them.

    “Do you know what Jon found?” Ash said at last, the sexless voice soft and sibilant. “Have you figured it out?”

    Among the vines, in a long sharp segment of silver light, small fruit shone like currants or capers or yewberries.

    “Yes,” Justine said.

    “Put it into words,” Ash said.

    “He found a system,” Justine said, “a vast underground system of interconnected tunnels and hidden conduits.”

    Ash nodded once.

    “He found a system of philosophical circuitry,” Justine said, “a system that is elegant and profound and true.”

    Ash did not reply, and yet the bright piercing gaze said much, and it did not waver from her face. Justine returned the diamond-sharp gaze with a slashing look of her own.

    For a full minute, the two of them stared at each other in the curious light and detonating silence of the forest grove.

    “The vines and the trees here all look the same,” Ash said. “But they are not the same. Some are dangerous and deceptive. How can you tell them apart, Justine Strickland? How, even in this falling darkness, can you distinguish them?”

    Twenty feet beyond, in the still water of the fishpond and submerged to the waist, stood another granite statue: an armless woman, life-sized, who stared at them with blind stony eyes. Before her a sort of liquescent stage lay stretched, and other mutilated figures populated this watery stage as well — ancient statuary half-sunk and girdled with mats of algae that glowed greenly phosphorescent in the coming night: shoulders and heads held like fallen gods, abstracted, inscrutable. Suddenly, a fat silver serpent six feet long entered the fishpond from its small western shore, and Justine, hearing the gentle slosh of water, turned and watched the serpent sidewind across the pond, passing through the moon’s watery ghost, chin lifted, the mouth a level slit. Justine’s shrewd eyes, large and perfectly ovular, were pulsing cobalt, and when she raised her head a little higher, the better to watch the sliding snake, her eyes shone with a newer, deeper level of apprehension.

    In that instant, Justine knew without any doubt the answer to Ash’s question, as she knew also that this was the real and final test.

    She watched gradually fade the V-shaped wake left by the gliding snake, and she watched the reflection of the pared moon bobbing in the tiny ripples.

    She watched until the snake reached the far shore, beneath the nocturnal berries, and then she watched it disappear like an uncrowned king down into a small earthen mudhole.

    She looked back into Ash’s bright glittering eyes.

    “By their fruits,” Justine said. “You can know them infallibly by their fruits.”

    “Are you certain?”

    “Yes,” Justine said.

    All around Justine and Ash now, twilight poured profoundly down, coming in from every direction — a billion cubic miles of deepening night.

    “Prove it to me,” Ash said.

    Justine without any hesitation or fear went deeper in among these identical-looking trees, and she plucked a strange fruit, shaped like an oblate little ball.

    She sunk her teeth into the torn muscle of the sweet fruit-flesh.

    She ate it all.

    PART XI

    The human brain contains approximately one-hundred billion neuron cells.

    Each neuron has branches, called dendrites, which connect to several thousand other neurons.

    Each dendrite also contains synapses, which serve as connectors and which signal one another in a sequential way.

    There are some one-hundred-and-fifty trillion synapses in each human brain.

    Signaling in the brain is done by means of chemicals and electricity. The brain — like light — is electric.

    The act of thinking directly affects the strength of the electric synapses, just as each individual human experience also affects synaptic power.

    There are contained in each human brain ten-times-one-hundred billion glial cells, which among other functions support the neurons and help insure brain health, and which sleep deprivation, oxygen deprivation, head trauma or other injury, chronic anxiety, diet, and many other factors can damage or destroy.

    Each individual brain is active twenty-four hours a day — even, and in some ways most especially, during sleep.

    If brain activity ever stops, it effectively means death.

    The individual human brain — whose volume in adults runs at about fourteen-hundred cc, consuming fully twenty percent of each body’s metabolic energy use — is the organ that regulates the functioning of the entire body.

    It is also the organ that makes consciousness possible.

    What is consciousness?

    It is awareness. It is not supernatural. It is the opposite:

    Consciousness is a natural faculty of certain living organisms.

    Each human brain comprises a subterranean system of chartless depth and unreckonable complexity — the human brain being the most complex entity yet known — and knowledge of the self begins with the knowledge that one is conscious.

    Ultimately, free-will is the choice to think or not, which in turn rests upon the choice of attention or inattention.

    All doctrines of determinism, superstitious or otherwise, refute themselves at the outset because they are self-contradictory: since human reason is by definition the faculty of volition, determinism also by definition makes impossible all knowledge — by virtue of what knowledge is: a volitional thing. This includes any knowledge of determinism.

    Rising ceaselessly to the surface of each individual human is the mental activity and flow-of-thoughts that run through the depths of each human brain and burst forth, spring-like or geyser-like, in the expressions and movements and in the words and deeds of each individual.

    The day following the dedication of the world’s tallest totem pole, in the denouement of those remarkable events which had interrupted the ceremony, officials investigating the ostensibly faulty blasting-machine found only that the wires coming out the box led to essentially nothing — nothing but the empty space of a profound and mysterious tunnel, anfractuous and very narrow, beneath the Superstition Wilderness: long thin wires dangling darkly into the blackness of gargantuan subterranean geo-circuitry.

    One of those investigating officials was a tall thin older man with silver hair and a dark complexion — a Vietnam veteran and war hero, once almost killed by a bullet to the head, who had long ago suffered post-traumatic amnesia and a certain sort of peculiar shell-shock, who wore now a navy-blue windbreaker on the back of which, in big yellow block letters, was this:

    F.B.I.

    This man stood staring long into the strange narrow tunnel, brows knitted in thought and perhaps also something like dread. Even after everyone had gone and the site became deserted and twilight fell, the man continued to stand and stare, as if gazing down an entryway into hell.

    Chapter 93 

    His name was Backbone. Jarmin Backbone. He was born and raised in the north Texas town of Victoria, on the Comanche Reservation — a boy who, like Jon Silverthorne, had run away when he was just a teenager, never to return.

    A bastard child — one side of his pedigree coming crookedly down from the great slave-revolt of 1842, when twenty African-American slaves owned by the Cherokee attempted escape and sought to reach Mexico — Jarmin Backbone was, like many Americans, a mongrel man, part black, part white, part Cherokee, part Comanche. Yet for his great love of horses and his great skill in riding horses, this latter strain was the only strain he’d ever consciously cultivated. That was long ago, and it included, as well, a trench-like strain of sadism.

    He’d grown up poor, and all his young life he was told and taught to resent the rich and wealthy, and his resentment turned into antipathy, which as he grew older festered within him, because he allowed it to, wanted it to.

    When he was ten-years-old and there were still wild mustangs on the plains of northern Texas, his grandfather one day rode with Jarmin out among these pounding herds. While they rode, his grandfather told him that the Comanche were the greatest horseman the world had ever known, and he then showed Jarmin the way in which the Comanches of old broke their wild horses. Jarmin would never forget what he saw his grandfather do after that.

    Sitting his little chestnut colt under the slate-blue Texas sky, Jarmin watched as, with a whoop and a war-cry, the old man galloped into the thundering mustangs and then, spinning his long lariat like a web, lassoed a wild horse and tightened the noose, choking the horse without remorse and driving it to the ground.

    Moments before the horse was strangled to death, Jarmin’s grandfather loosened the rope and gave the horse its air back. After that, the old man dismounted and knelt beside the gasping horse and began gently caressing the horse along the neck and head — all the while breathing softly into the horse’s nostrils.

    Then the old man tied a thong around the mustang’s lower jaw and mounted it and rode away on this broken horse, now forever his.

    Even at the young age of ten, Jarmin Backbone grasped the principle at work behind this method of breaking, which, as his grandfather told him, was the fastest and the most effective method by far.

    Jarmin went on to break many horses and later humans in exactly this way.

    It was this same principle he later saw used again and again in the military; later still, it was a principle he himself used to great effectiveness in police interrogations: the remorseless torturer showing the thinnest sliver of compassion and mercy after hours or days of relentless punishment, so that the exhausted and tortured human feels all at once grateful — a flood of gratitude — and even beholden.

    It was a principle which as he grew older took on greater metaphorical significance in his mind, and when, just recently, he read about a man who during the Spanish Inquisition was taken and tortured by inquisitors — stretched brutally on the rack for days turning into weeks, who never renounced, recanted, or surrendered, and who yet lived, forever crippled but whole in heart and soul — when Jarmin Backbone, aged sixty-six, recently read how this man said he knew the one thing he must never at any time or under any circumstances lose, not even for a fraction of a moment, was his total rage directed toward his torturers, Jarmin felt himself much moved. Yet in spite of the great swell of admiration he felt go through him, he believed deep inside himself that he would have been able to break even this one, having learned from mistakes made long ago.

    A solitary man with a dark countenance only occasionally lit-up by a smile — long, lean, dusty, dreamy, Jarmin Backbone was not well-educated formally but nevertheless possessed a deep and methodical sort of brilliance and an all-consuming thoughtfulness that made everyone whom he’d ever worked with feel, at one time or another, they would never have come up with the things he came up with, not in a thousand years. His was a canniness you sometimes see in people who are raised in lonesome, sparsely populated spaces and for whom self-reliance is a way-of-life without alternative: a blending of the theoretical and the practical perforce, whose powers of observation are therefore hyper-developed and admixed with an abstract restlessness and a hyper-acuity of thought.

    Only partially concealed was his contempt for academia and academics and intellectuals, the theories of whom, postmodern, puny, pusillanimous, platitudinous, went lame under the weight of real deeds and real crime.

    His forehead was high and broad, and to the perceptive person, it revealed an important and even dangerous quality about his character.

    At the peak of the Vietnam war, in a lone act of a daring and valor which he and he alone had conceived and carried out, he late one moonless night went behind enemy lines and singlehandedly took out a large nest of Vietnamese soldiers — though not before receiving, from a dying Viet Cong soldier he’d mortally wounded, a bullet through the back-left of his skull, which quickly transmuted into profound post-traumatic brain injury and amnesia. Yet, apart from the gaps it left in parts of his memory — a sort of psychogenic fugue — he made a full recovery, and age had not withered him but the opposite: he was a mature man, robust and strong, with the presence of one about to enter upon an adventure, the outcome of which, however, was far from certain.

    He had an abrupt way of speaking, which was simultaneously passionate and yet also subdued, and some quality of the inexorable came through in his voice as well: the power of the implacable blended with the certainty and confidence that can only come from a true grasp.

    This was a man who thought and studied incessantly, which helped him bear the burden of the isolated life he’d chosen for himself. He sought always to trace every one of his ideas down to concrete reality. Logic had long ago annihilated his faith in any sort of dogma or dogmatic God. He replaced it with an unwavering devotion to order and blood. Without quite realizing it, he’d come gradually to elevate order and law to the stature of a religion, authority the necessary counterpart for maintaining order and enforcing the law. In his jagged inaccessibility, he believed everything in the service of truth was justice.

    He believed also that if the deception and the lie went deep enough, it was his duty to bring the falsehood into the light.

    After thirty-five years as an F.B.I. profiler, having read thousands upon thousands of studies and papers and books on the subject — having consulted and questioned hundreds of psychologists, priests, politicians, colleagues, counselors, criminals, doctors, and lawyers — he was now fully convinced that the root of evil is vanity.

    “I know that a distinguishing characteristic of evil is the desire to confuse,” he once testified to congress, and added:

    “The work of the wise is one thing. The work of the able is another. Vanity, laziness, the sybaritic — these are the roots of The Bad. They are the drivers of eventual evil. Not all vain people are evil, but all evil seeks fullfillment in something outside, something false and fleeting. I do believe this. I believe it because I’ve seen it over and over.”

    “And in your opinion what is The Bad?” a senator asked in response.

    The answer was swift and unequivocal:

    “It is that which is untrue,” Jarmin Backbone said. “It is the people of prevarication and manipulation. It is an erasure of creation, the study of an obliteration. Evil confuses life, which is logic. It is, I say again, deception. It is the people of the lie.”

    The senator did not reply.

    Chapter 94

    Yet for all his powers of observation — or perhaps because of these powers — Jarmin Backbone looked queerly upon nature.

    The illimitable scope of the universe operates in different ways upon different sorts and different souls, and the mystery of everything had long ago instilled within him a kind of cosmic awe and horror — cosmic and sacred, and also peculiar to him and unbearably private.

    He thus prayed to the power of the infinite.

    He believed that, like the sea, the air was not a vacuum but a plenum: that as germs and virus and molecules and atoms are invisible, so also there are an infinite variety and number of other invisible entities swarming through the atmosphere.

    Beginning long ago, when he was still a child, and continuing throughout the rest of his life, he asked himself this:

    Is there an infinity outside of us which matches the one inside? Is this infinite permanent, though invisible? Is it immanent and intelligent? Does it will? And if this infinity is not intelligent and if it does not will, does this automatically make it finite?

    Does the infinite awaken in each of us the idea of identity — of essence — while we are each able to attribute to ourselves the idea of existence exclusively?

    At every age and stage of his life, no matter how many times he revisited these questions, after deep and careful consideration, his answer to all of them was yes.

    He was as convinced of the infinite without as he was of the infinite within — and the infinite within, he believed, was the essential “me,” which is the soul.

    To merge, by a process of thought, and to unite by an act of reason, the infinite within with the infinite without — this is what he called prayer.

    In the places and spaces where human eyes cannot penetrate, the human mind can glide. So it is for this reason that the thoughtful person speculates, whereas the ignorant person ignores, pursues pleasure.

    The thoughtful human wonders and questions. The ignorant human evades and consents to the prevailing, whether consciously or by default.

    However homespun his ideas, however odd, however speculative and perhaps even misguided his notions, Jarmin Backbone, who believed contemplation the highest purpose of human life and who thought cogitation the highest act of the human species, was one of the thoughtful.

    Sometimes late at night, he walked out into the mountain wilderness and stood gazing up into the darkness of the nighttime sky.

    He felt himself moved in a melancholy way.

    Billions of sparks without illumination. Minute punctures in the black fabric everywhere letting in flickers of light, but this was a light so small and so distant that it only made the blackness deeper, more obscure.

    To look into the pin-pricked fabric of the night sky is not precisely to look but to wonder.

    It is to listen to the hush and purity of plenary silence.

    The shadow of night, like obscurity itself, is an indivisible thing. It possesses unity. At the same time, it is compounded and multiplex — a vast and darkly burning keep, thought Jarmin Backbone, with its deepest secrets tightly locked away: an awesome and infinite stillness brooding above, among the heavens — perhaps, indeed, composing those very heavens.

    Thus out of his cosmic sacred horror in collaboration with his notions of things unseen, he came to believe in an invisible hand scraping the bottom of the universe and sifting the chosen from the unchosen.

    In this roundabout way, without concern for love or hate, he’d come to embrace a sort of supernatural fate.

    Meanwhile, the oblate earth wobbles on.

    The night-blooming cereus opens its flowers after dark.

    The water-droplet becomes a universe through which, in microcosm, the wide world weeps and the salty seas sob.

    Endless cyclic fertility flowing from earth and animalcule, the secret labor of universal germination.

    The antithesis of the macro discloses itself in the infinitesimal: the mind-spinning tininess of neural pathways, with their microscopic explosions of electricity, constant and silently booming within every sentient thing, creating the ineffably enigmatic thing called consciousness.

    Staring down into the strange narrow tunnel among the Superstition Wilderness, the long thin wires from the blasting-machine dangling darkly into immense geo-circuitry, Jarmin Backbone suddenly felt leap upon him, with a greater intensity than ever before, his old cosmic sacred horror.

    Yet it was with more melancholy than fear that he lowered himself into the long sinuous tunnel — down, down, down past the thin dangling wires, dropping deeper into the hot earthen funnel.

    Chapter 95

    “Truth takes hold,” Ash said.

    Justine did not reply but inclined her head.

    They sat across from each other now at Ash’s kitchen table — inside the only inhabited house in this southwestern ghost-town. The silver candlestick with its wax-weeping candle burned between them, and in that moment Justine felt herself inordinately, inexplicably drawn to the bare and simple beauty of that silver candlestick.

    The yellow flame swayed slightly. She saw it reflected and duplicated in Ash’s gleaming cross-eyes.

    “Truth takes hold,” Ash said again. “It emerges. Deception is brought into light. It can take time, but truth will emerge — often when you least expect it. And it can uplift you, or ruin you.”

    Justine remained mute.

    “More than once,” Ash said to her, “through basic sleight-of-hand and trickery — what I call stage-magic mentalism — I’ve convinced entire auditoriums, consisting of thousands, that I possess psychic powers, that I communicate with the supernatural world, and that I’m a sorcerer. People to this day believe that I am a sorcerer, in close contact with the paranormal. Nothing I can do or say will shake their belief or sway their conviction.”

    Still, Justine did not respond. She listened.

    “I also know a man,” Ash said, “who through these identical methods convinced an entire country of the same thing. It was a scandalous hoax. But do you know the most scandalous part, the most incredible aspect of the whole thing?”

    “No,” Justine said.

    “Even after the trickery is revealed and the sleight-of-hand disclosed — the mentalism fully explained — people still believe and will even tell you that you do possess supernatural and paranormal powers: you just don’t know it. Do you know why they believe this?”

    “Because they want to,” Justine said.

    “Yes,” Ash said. “They want to believe it.”

    A long silence fell. In the soft swaying glow of the candle-flame, Ash’s eyes glittered like quicksilver pools of living light. The candleflame moved minutely within them.

    “In each era and generation,” Ash said, “people are transformed and molded without even realizing it. It has always been so, it will always be so. One century plagiarizes another. The shadow that sweeps over the dial also sweeps over the human soul — people molded by the prevailing ideas and ideology and movements of the time. The hatred and the horror of human progress; superstition; force; humans tying other humans to the stake and incinerating them, or skinning them alive, or crucifying them — and for what? For the crime of discovering a truth? For bringing knowledge into the light? Yes, for precisely that. For discovering fire and revealing its nature and its components to the world.”

    Ash paused.

    “Superstition,” Ash said, “mobs, force, hatred, violence, lies — they will invariably sow confusion and they will cause harm and they will slow the progress of truth, but they will never stop the relentless advance of it, of truth, the inexorable flow of it. They cannot. Truth takes hold. Truth emerges. It springs up everywhere. It exists in pools and pockets, and it grows deeper and it spreads; as it spreads, it advances civilization. Like light itself, it is unstoppable. It overtakes the darkness, and the real measure of humankind is and always will be this: the lucent and the dark.”

    “Yet even in the light, there’s suffering,” Justine said. “A lucency that perhaps blinds.”

    “To be blinded and burned — and yet to soar,” Ash said, “this is the true mark and measure of brilliance. Yes: when you know and when you love, you’ll suffer nonetheless. Passion means suffering: and it will always exist. It churns through life like water. Children of the light do also weep, be it only over those cloaked in darkness, but please have no illusions: light decreases suffering, and to increase the light and to drive out the darkness — this is and forever will be the total goal.”

    Chapter 96

    The subterranean darkness engulfed him.

    The smell of rock and iron swept like water through his nostrils and into the cavities of his skull.

    Now snuffed the slate sky with its solitary star pulsing pinkly above, through the opening of the tunnel. Gone that narrowing circular window which gave to the wide-open world of desert twilight and the dry flickering air of purplish-blue.

    The deeper down he went, the deeper grew the darkness — until all at once, to his astonishment and even his terror, he felt himself crawling and clambering not only into the earth beneath the Superstition Wilderness, but also into the darkness of his past, through the tangled antlers of adventure, where, lined fleet-like across the horizon of his brain, he was met with an armada of anguish and madness and sadism.

    Suddenly, then, within that pure and absolute blackness, dim sparks of orange-and-yellow light began blinking around him, intermittently, like synaptic explosions — yet he was not sure if these sparks were real or if rather they were produced by his brain and retina among this pitch-black, rich-black profundity of stone circuitry, which twisted below, which narrowed around, which constricted all about his head and body, until he felt himself growing crazed with the pure panic of claustrophobia.

    He screamed.

    With his bottom lip pressed against the hot rock that held him, he cried out and screamed as loud as he was able into the absolute blackness — a howl of such primal panic as to stitch a tear in the very fabric of the universe.

    He thrashed and writhed, and he continued screaming and writhing, through the adamantine mazes of rock which rebated his yells back into his face, even while they simultaneously throbbed out huge exhalations of heat. Dimly it occurred to him that he was perhaps losing all his sanity now, that in a matter of moments it might well be that he’d no longer have even this crazed insight into his own state-of-mind, that the sweltering stone would swiftly suck out his faculties of reason and rationality, draining him of his human essence — still physically alive, but psychologically-epistemologically stripped and husked.

    He did not know precisely what happened next, nor how much time had elapsed.

    He knew only that at some point he was opening his eyes, and that the arrant darkness was no more.

    He lay in a molten wash of silver-blue light.

    Facedown and saturated in this light, he found himself sweating on what he took to be the burned-out floor of hell. The smoldering heat felt as though it would smother him.

    He was not sure if he dreamt or woke and he felt himself suddenly accompanied — though by what or whom, he had no good idea.

    He rose at length and staggered to his feet and then stood motionless in the wild heat and the pulsing light of silvery-blue. He was surprised to find himself haunted by the memory of an ancient odor which he’d not thought about in decades, and which all at once now poured through him: the smell of his mother’s soft silk shirt combined with the human scent of her skin. Hugging her tightly when he was a very young child, he’d come deeply to crave and love this smell — the smell of her human warmth mixed with a sweet deep odor of thyme, and the feel of cool silk upon his skin.

    Then, in the next instant, swaying on his feet upon the scorched-out floor of hell, he saw in the silver light his father strangling his mother in front of him — strangling her not to death and not out of rage but in a sadistic fit for his own sexual pleasure — and then his father beating his mother into a state of complete disorientation, her precious brain gradually over the years becoming irrevocably damaged.

    His stomach retched and churned — it churned up nothing. His knees buckled, and for the first time he could remember in all his adult life, Jarmin Backbone uncontrollably wept.

    By and by, a young and kindly sergeant from his infantry unit came to him in the context of crime and lawlessness. This sergeant was a young soldier raised on the streets by his homeless mother, a tubercular woman who died when the boy was a teenager — a teenager who had never fully learned to read or write but who nonetheless carried with him like a bible a thick tattered book of rules and etiquette, which perhaps symbolized for him the civility and refinement and the good life this young man, this child, never had: a kind of Corpus Iuris Civilis which he considered worthy of daily thought and meditation.

    Backbone, seeker of order in an orderless society, suddenly watched unreel before him a wartime scene he’d blotted from his mind, yet one which had actually happened: this young strange sergeant who during wartime was so concerned with manners and civility, in his rain-beaded combat boots and soaked camouflaged pants, taking off his helmet, holding it at his side, and refusing in the pouring, steaming jungle rain to gun down a Vietnamese woman and her child, and instantaneously now Backbone remembered with total precision how, in a violent rage, he’d unhesitatingly shaved off with his machine-gun this young American soldier’s cranium — one of his own — as though the boy’s skull were made of so much boiled egg, the young soldier genuflected before him in defiant refusal of a direct order, his razed head and the razed brains within splashed rainwater-wet and steaming inside the open egg-cup of his cranium.

    Chapter 97

    Immured in both the tiny attic tower of his study room and also in Jon Silverthorne’s handwritten book, alone with his whiskey and smoke, his blood at rest and the body far below, Justine’s father translated this from Jon Silverthorne’s handwritten Greek:

    Cities exist for the purpose of exchange.

    Cities exist for trade and they exist because of trade.

    What is the city but the people — people who produce and exchange?

    The rise of cities reveals a great many things of political and anthropological significance — most of all that cities first emerged because production had at last become specialized, and consumption therefore more diversified. 

    Production comes first.

    Rather than hunting or gathering, rather than farming for survival, sheep farmers sell their wool for money, and then they use this money to buy bread from a baker, who in turn buys her flour from a miller, who in turn buys his grain from a different sort of farmer — one who perhaps specializes in wheat and barley — who in turn buys tools from a smithy, who in turn buys wool from the sheep farmer.

    Instead of crofting, instead of yeoman economics or survival farming, a market has been brought into existence.

    These markets are and always have been the foundations of the city — the most ancient of which that we know of emerged in southern Mesopotamia, which we now call Iraq.

    These were places where people came together to divide their labor — to specialize and exchange.

    To this day, cities flourish and prosper only when trade expands — in the very way that Hong Kong’s population grew by nearly forty times in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the people who composed this exploding population, on this resource-bare rock, simultaneously grew astronomically wealthier and better off.

    Corollarily, cities diminish when trade is halted.

    Only one thing can fundamentally halt trade: force or the threat of force.

    Approximately 8,000 years ago, in the southern Euphrates valley, after a season of inordinately high rainfall, the Ubaid farmers there flourished.

    They flourished enough to produce a surplus, which in turn enabled them to exchange their agriculture for precious stones and timber from the hill people to the north. This began a process of wealth-building through trade.

    The Ubaid pottery and clay tools and architecture, which followed as a direct result, spread throughout the entire East, across the Mediterranean and along the coastline of the Arabian peninsula, where fisherman traded fish to Ubaid merchants in exchange for grains and nets and other such things. 

    This was not yet a trading mecca. But it was a trading diaspora — and it preceded governments.

    Yet it was precisely because of this process of free-exchange and trade that the Ubaids grew large enough and wealthy enough to support the first known governments: superstitious chiefs and priests, who by the very nature of their position and station (i.e. the monopolistic rule over production and exchange) quashed the very thing that had made them possible: creation and production and the freedom to grow wealthy through exchanging the things they produced.

    Throughout human history, every great city was the result of trading production, which is wealth.

    Trading wealth is a process of production and exchange.

    To say that cities exist because government creates and facilitates free-exchange is to get it precisely backwards.

    Human intelligence created the surplus of wealth that in turn made possible the urban revolution. After which, through government rule and government sanction and government decree, slavery and taxation then — and only then — emerged.

    In this way, the following pattern developed and grew, and, in one form or another, it endures to this very day: 

    Producers produce and creators create — they produce prosperity, and they create human flourishing.

    Chiefs and priests nationalize it.

    Government rule was and is the eventual cause of all wealth destruction. 

    This pattern is as ancient as it is familiar — because it is also thoroughly modern.

    Miners, merchants, farmers, artists, artisans, and all other producers — they and they alone create prosperity. They make happen human flourishing.

    Rulers and other thieves annihilate it. 

    Chapter 98

    Jon, disrupter of the dedication ceremony, who all along knew he would be pursued, fled now across the desert and was not wrong:

    They chased him on horseback and on foot.

    They put dogs on his trail — bloodhounds or hellhounds — and they searched for him by helicopter.

    None of these could keep up or follow him through the caves, where he lay quiescent and waited in the wild darkness, beneath The Superstitions.

    The night after the day that the search was called off, Jon emerged.

    He stood alone and gazed about him. The night was gentle. The mountains loomed darkly against the sky. Soon, he began to run.

    He ran up the Apache Trail and through.

    He entered deeper into The Superstitions.

    The air was spiced with the smell of sage and cactus, and his feet pounded through the dust. His legs churned, driving him forward, upward. Jon ran as one detached from the rest of the world: sweating, exalted, overwhelmingly alone — almost, at times, as though he were afloat on the warm windless air and melting from one moment into the next. He had a look of focus fierce enough to argue a kind of derangement — or hyper-sanity.

    The night, sober-suited matron all in black, became animated and alive with insects and other nocturnal creatures, and the Pleiades wheeled up out of the east, and the red eye of Aldebaran stared down.

    Jon did not slacken his pace but increased it, and he did not look back. If he had looked back, perhaps he would’ve seen a small and ghostly shape in the faraway distance.

    On all sides, the saguaro stood like sentries, somber-armed silhouettes saluting him in sad gestures of farewell.

    He ran on.

    He did not rest.

    He ran through sliding time.

    The sky glittered brilliantly with a billion stars. He ran and ran and came at last to a place where before him yawned the mouth of yet another cavern, which tore maze-like in zoneless depths of splendor beneath the earth. He disappeared within.

    Chapter 99

    Gently his horse nuzzled him awake.

    He opened his eyes to the ashen light of dawn.

    For a long moment, he did not know where he was. All he knew was that he was somewhere. Below that knowledge, in some substratum of his consciousness, there was the gaining sense — a sense which felt somehow more like a premonition — that he’d travelled through profound regions to get here.

    He shifted on the ground. His backbone felt bruised. Instinctively he felt for the pistol holstered at his right hip. It was there, secure. His white horse glowed near him in the half-light. He gazed up into the heavens, and he lay watching the silvery light of dawn seep like milk across the desert sky. He thought of Jon Silverthorne — and then all at once, without quite knowing why, this thought transmuted, and he said to himself silently:

    You will not come out of this unscathed, Jarmin Backbone.

    The Superstition Wilderness loomed around him. The land was perfectly quiet and obscured by the vestigial shadows of night.

    He rose to his feet.

    Twenty meters to his right and half-hidden in morning shadows was the narrow opening which twisted so mysteriously into the living earth.

    He seemed to consciously avoid looking in that direction.

    He went to his horse. He combed his fingers carefully through her tangled mane. Then he reached into the side-pouch of the saddle and got out an old-fashioned canteen and unstoppered it and drank warm water, and after he was finished drinking, he hammered the stopper back with the heel of his palm and tucked the canteen deep down inside the pouch.

    Moments later, searching the dusty earth for prints and clues, he indeed found something.

    It was a chess piece: a black knight.

    It was made of polished obsidian, and it stood upright on the ground. He did not think it here before this morning, yet he had no way of knowing that for sure. He was already aware that gaps of time were missing in his mind.

    Still, he was near-certain now that his initial suspicion — which had begun on the night of the dedication ceremony, when it was interrupted, the totem pole just revealed and abruptly the lights going dark and at the end the slight seismic shift — he was near-certain his initial suspicion was correct.

    He saw now, as well, something else on the ground, something half-concealed beneath the black knight — something which at this particular angle, in this particular cast of light, lay glinting in the dust.

    Alone in the developing light, his silent horse the only living witness, he reached down and lifted the chess piece as if he would move this black knight in its leaping and unorthodox way, perhaps over some small chessboard contained in the depths of his mind.

    The smooth obsidian between his thumb and index finger was still warm with stored heat.

    He held the piece for a long time and scrutinized the black knight, almost as if contemplating its nature. At last, he cast his eyes back to the ground.

    Partially covered in dust was the bright silver key that had been inserted into the detonation box.

    The Superstitions gradually took shape around him — carving themselves out of the dawn.

    He knelt on one knee upon the scorched earth and looked closer at the key where it lay in the dust.

    His horse came over and stood next to him. She had small brown spots like chocolate chips speckling her white body. She blinked philosophically. She snuffed and touched his shoulder with her nose. He leaned his cheek lightly against her face and inhaled her beast-smelling scent, which he loved and never tired of, and then she too gazed down alongside the man and stared with her huge horse eyes at the gleaming key.

    The sky was fully alight now, but the sun had not yet risen.

    A soft breeze came up and went warmly about his white hair. It passed through the horses mane.

    Northward in the sky, three lavender clouds hung like smoke signals over the horizon.

    At length he picked up the key and blew dust from its grooves and then stood and put the key into his front pocket.

    He still held the warm dark knight in his left hand, and once more he gazed down at it. Then he looked back to the dust, and with his sharp eyes he followed a pair of footprints made by a pair of tennis shoes.

    These footprints, which he’d already noticed and which he even thought he recognized, moved away to the north — traveling, Jarmin Backbone grasped at once, at a rapid clip.

    The thing he found next confirmed all that he already suspected — or so he believed.

    The eastern edge of the earth stood rippled now with the jellied heat of the coming sun, like water nearing a boiling-point.

    He did not notice the totem pole behind and slightly to his right, the tip of it at that moment flashing in the first rays of the rising sun — and yet he did notice the flash of something else: approximately twenty-five feet in front of him, a strange shimmer issuing near the print of the rapidly moving tennis-shoe track.

    He went to that shimmer with a certain trepidation and haste.

    It was an astroid-shaped nugget of solid gold, no bigger than a cherry pit.

    Backbone lifted the nugget from where it lay among crumbly earthen cracks and nodded unconsciously as he gripped it.

    Then he mounted his horse and followed the tracks.

    Chapter 100

    Toward evening, the wind fell, but it did not completely die. Justine stood alone in the darkling room and stared through the open window, a small cool breeze passing over her and beyond.

    Outside, there was still enough light for her to see across the garden, where a wall of vegetation lay sunk in a sea of shade and above which, in an eastern sky of pellucid green, Venus rising.

    She quoted to herself, in a hissing whisper:

    Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

    A current of air passed over her. The breeze carried with it a watery smell.

    She turned and looked at the silver candlestick standing in the center of the table. It was unlit. She strode over to it now and struck a match and touched the matchtip to the charred wick.

    The room came alive with light and shadow.

    Beneath the candlestick, on the wooden table, was an open book. Her eyes fell upon six lines that had been underscored:

    The mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who never hung there. Nor does long our small
    Endurance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
    Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
    Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
     
     

    She looked up from the book and squinted at the ceiling in thought. Then her eyes dropped back to the page.

    Beneath the underscored lines, penciled-in in a very small and very meticulous designer-print, was this:

    It’s in ourselves that we are thus or thus.
    Our bodies are our gardens to the which our will are gardeners.

    Time’s glory is to calm contending kings,
    To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light.

    Truth makes all things plain.

    She was not quite finished reading these lines when footsteps came almost noiselessly into the room. The candleflame swayed.

    Justine turned.

    Ash bowed to her but remained silent.

    “An explosion would cause a dawn,” Justine said.

    “Yet why not wait for the break of day?” Ash said. “A bomb-blast illuminates, but morning enlightens in a far purer way.”

    “You prefer the pure radiance of the true and the beautiful to the explosive force of the conflagration,” Justine said.

    It was not quite a question.

    “As you do,” Ash said.

    Upon saying which, Ash drew in a loud deep breath and then, from ten feet away, blew a sibilant stream toward the candleflame. The cheeks were not puffed but the opposite: the skeletal face gaunter yet and utterly intense with concentration.

    The flame twisted and bent, and still Ash blew in a laser-like stream, until the big intake of breath was spent. At the end of it, just as Justine was beginning to doubt, the candleflame winked — and went out. For a protracted span of time, they both stood motionless and silent in the dark.

    At last, Ash went across the room and snapped on a switch. The room ignited in electric light.

    Ash handed her the silver candlestick.

    “This is my gift to you, Justine. This was made with silver that Jon mined and I smelted.”

    She lowered her eyes. Then she looked back into Ash’s queer shadowy face, which smiled at her, and without words, Justine accepted the gift of the candlestick.

    “Now go,” Ash said. “And what you would do, do it well and do it quick.”

    Chapter 101

    He rode through a wilderness of nopal and cholla, a place of thorned and spiky things, over thin pathways and then through a narrow cleft in the hills and down among spider-milkweed and aloe and hedgehog-cactus in fiery bloom. The backbone of his horse rolled beneath him like a ship. He had a pistol holstered at his right hip.

    He followed the footprints which turned and twisted and slowed but which did not stop, and periodically all along the way, he found like a trail of breadcrumbs, here and there, sometimes miles apart, pea-sized nuggets of dark solid gold, and always these nuggets were near the tennis-shoe prints.

    The sun in the sky resounded above him like a gong of brass. Cirrus clouds hung sizzling, and iridescent around the edges these clouds, scorched to a crisp at great heights. He drank the last of his water, and he sweated through his white shirt which stuck to his back in long soggy patches, and he rode on. He rode opposite the silent sun in its sliding descent, and at length as he rode, strange thoughts began to take hold of him.

    The daylight diminished. He dismounted frequently and studied the tracks in the waning light — tracks which at some point had grown more complicated in their course, more difficult to follow: doubling and tripling back and then moving into a series of long and complex loops, all of which ultimately returned near the point at which they’d begun.

    His sense of direction, which was normally near-infallible, faltered. He felt himself increasingly turned-around and disoriented.

    At one point the tracks entirely disappeared, and it was some time before he found them again. It was as though the feet had leapt in a long and L-shaped fashion up to or perhaps over an outcropping of rocks, and then, on the other side of the rocks, the footprints resumed — but farther off to the left, almost like the macroscopic movements of a life-sized chess knight.

    He scowled and rode on.

    His gentle white horse shuffled through the ash-like dust, and the dust rose up into the dry air and glowed blood-red in the last rays of desert sun, and he looked across the land at large as though surveying a phantom massacre.

    He extracted from his saddlebag an old folded map, and he consulted this map in the twilight.

    After a moment, it occurred to him as he was staring at the map that he was seeing this map as a chessboard — and more than that: the logic of this chessboard-map became suddenly in his mind the execution of all the ideas that humans had ever held, mathematically absolute — ideas predicting precisely the actions each human will take.

    His face as he consulted the map was dispassionate and sedate, as though no other emotion were appropriate when observing this kind of distilled logic.

    In the deep dusk of that same day, just before the fall of night, he found the thing he was most immediately seeking: a small stream, which was more like a rill of water running down from the hill country to the east and now between the desert stones, and from which rill he and his horse did drink, until they both, man and beast alike, were slaked.

    They rested and drank more.

    They drank to surfeit and fell asleep.

    In the silver light of following dawn, his horse nuzzled him awake.

    Chapter 102 

    It was very early when Jon emerged from the caves.

    Coming up out of the subterranean depths and into the iron dawn like some primeval creature sloughing rubble — dark and muddy and scuffed — he stood for a long moment and regained his bearings.

    His black Apache eyes, hunted and haunted-looking now, burned deep inside the sunken caverns of his face. Yet they glowed with an inextinguishable light — the light of the spirit that drove him, mixed with something more: the discipline of his reasoning brain combined with a passion for something like reprisal.

    He felt a dry voltaic charge moving through the desert air, juiced magnetic currents invisible but swirling everywhere and then funneling together and moving toward some colossal culmination — the explosive climax of events which he himself had set in motion.

    Eastward, light from the coming sun seeped through greenish-silver cloud-reefs, and these clouds grew faintly flushed and then, while Jon watched, became stained with blood-like slices of pink and coral, and then the clouds began moving and pulling apart like taffy. To the north, in a small distant quadrant of sky, a pool of pristine blue hung inlaid like a jewel.

    From atop this low desert hill, Jon scanned his surroundings.

    Below him, over the level land, the smallest stones cast deep pencil-shadows, while he himself threw a thin shade that streamed out one-hundred meters behind.

    He turned a slow three-hundred-sixty degrees.

    The emptiness about him was total. He saw no living thing. In every direction, there was only the segmented circle of the earth that ringed the desert in Euclidian perfection, the sky above a silver shield stained with blood.

    Jon stood there for a long moment and surveyed the desert. His arms were streaked with mud.

    There was no atmospheric haze, no slate-blue or wooly-gray horizon-line.

    At length, he set off at a trot, lynx-like in his fluid litheness, down the hill and across a dry ancient floodplain of gravel and sand. He passed through the empty land, a lone dark figure with a fast-running gait that looked effortless and almost leaping.

    On the other side of the floodplain, beyond a cluster of small volcanic cones which had gone extinct five-hundred-thousand years before, he mounted an incline of caky dirt and, still running, moved in short zig-zags — self-made switchbacks higher up to another hilltop, which he soon crested.

    He was on the verge of continuing over this hilltop and down the other side — when a far-off raptor cry cut through the air like a blade.

    He stopped and looked back.

    Motionless but for the movement of his eyeballs, he looked across the immense landscape. His gaze swept up the faraway hill he’d less than ninety minutes ago run down, and he narrowed his eyes and peered through the lattice-work of sweat-damp eyelashes to the small triangular cave-mouth out of which he had just crawled.

    There, in the cloud-muted explosion of the lurid sunrise, he watched a figure emerge from the cave and shake the dust from its hair and then look toward Jon, who had outrun them all — all save this one.

    Simultaneously over the arc of the eastern world, malignant-looking through a gap in the silver clouds, there arose the desert sun.

    Chapter 103

    Backbone left his horse tied to the ironwood tree under which he’d slept, and he scouted the surrounding area for footprints and other clues. The sun had not yet risen. He was out for approximately ten minutes before finding another astroid-shaped nugget of gold, which he held like a pebble between his thumb and index finger and then stuffed into his front pocket, among the other small gold nuggets he’d put there.

    When he returned, he went to the clean clear rill of running water and knelt in the sand and then got down on all fours, and like a beast, he drank the living water that ran through this dry land.

    The water gurgled quietly and felt silken and sweet upon his lips and tongue.

    He drank for a long time.

    The dawn sky shone pewter on the stream’s surface.

    By and by, he stood and went to his white horse and walked with her back to the water. While she drank, he filled his canteen seven feet upstream, and while he filled it, he watched her drink.

    After two minutes, she raised her head and she looked at him, her white muzzle dripping clear beads of water which shone silvery in the early light and made him think of his childhood and winter thorn and the Christmas-cookie decorations his mother had placed for him upon her creamy icings of pinkish-white.

    He led the horse down through talons of cactus and tangles of desert willow and into a grass grove, beneath velvet mesquite and more willow. Here he ate dehydrated apples and venison jerky, and he watched his horse while she grazed upon the blades of grass. Then he led her back to the running water, and they both drank again. Finally he mounted her and rode her forward — up out of a rocky cleft to the top of a rise. He halted briefly at the summit, and in his flowing white shirt he sat his horse like a cavalryman, shielding his eyes with the visor of his hand, assessing the surrounding land and studying the ground for footprints.

    He continued on.

    The mountains to his right went from purple to rose in the rising sun, and as the sun grew rounder, the mountains grew more reticulated and morphologically complex, their stoney infolds profounder.

    He rode his horse up through greasewood and ocotillo, the rocks rippled and slurred-looking all around him, as though melting waxlike in the developing heat of the day. The sky above brooded, more white than blue, and the flesh of his face and forearms cooked black under the assaulting fury of the sun.

    He gleamed with perspiration. The hammer of his pistol in the holster at his hip flashed in the spears of light. He followed a dusty trace of prints. From his canteen, he drank water sparingly. He rode on.

    Just after midday, cresting a craggy mountain spine, he watched a body of blue water take shape upon the desert plain below him. He halted his horse and sat looking at this enormous sea of pure and true tranquility. He watched the indigo ocean flash against a backdrop of shady green hills, and he saw above the hills two golden eagles, very high, describing slow parabolas around a clay-colored sun.

    When he came down off the ridge and onto the desert plain where the ocean of dark-blue water shimmered and sloshed, the water as he got closer gradually but inevitably dissolved: it dissolved into the parched earth like a liquid phantom, a mirage, an indigo deception never actually there at all, nothing real and nothing true, and perhaps only something he wanted to see. In its place hung only the heat and malice and the huge white sunlight and the ashen dust of the desert plain.

    Shortly after that, he lost the trace of prints. All the rest of that afternoon he rode this quadrant of the desert looking for them, and as he rode, strange thoughts once more began to take hold of him, strange things happening internally. For the second time in his life, he began feeling himself accompanied — though by whom or what, he still did not know — and what was this sense that he was haunted by a relentless invisible force? Whence this simmering uneasiness?

    For many hours he remained lost.

    Just as he felt his mind giving way to a kind of despair, he found, at last, the footprints in the dust.

    They resumed slightly to the left of an igneous outcropping, next to another nugget of gold, a nugget much larger this time: roughly the size of an walnut.

    He pocketed this gold as well and then followed the tracks for approximately one mile — up to the lip of a deep earthen fissure, which ran across the desert like a fault-line, or a narrow canyon.

    This fissure was perhaps ten feet across, yet it was hundreds of feet deep, and it stretched crookedly in either direction as far as he could see.

    At the lip of the fissure, he saw that the tracks he’d followed to get here now doubled-back in a wide loop and then came in again at a longer stride — a running leaping stride.

    He lifted his eyes and stared across the abyss.

    He saw the tennis-shoe prints in the dust on the other side of the fissure, and he could also see that these tracks were moving away, toward a stone escarpment at the base of which, not far beyond the other side of the gap, there yawned the mouth of a limestone cave.

    In his flowing white shirt, Jarmin Backbone, curiously majestic-looking, rode his white horse a great distance up and down the fault-like fissure — to quantify its width at different points — and he studied it with a look of seriousness and concern, almost as though it were a crack that ran throughout his own body. Finally, he halted his horse and dismounted.

    He stood for a long moment leaning over and looking into the abyss.

    He could not see the bottom.

    He fancied there were perhaps invisible eyes gazing back up at him.

    He retrieved his canteen and unstoppered it and drank. He wiped his mouth with his shoulder. He drank again.

    After he was finished, he held his horse gently by her muzzle and lifted her chin and moved the canteen toward her. She watched him with her infinitely deep eyes that shone with a kind of gratitude and familiarity. She opened her mouth. He poured water slowly over her dry tongue and into her mouth, and he watched her while she swallowed with the slight but intricate twisting motion of her windpipe which he found so beautiful and so fascinating.

    He paused and let her rest.

    She stared sedately at the ground.

    He lifted her chin again and gave her more water, some of which spilled onto the desert dust.

    Almost immediately, a brown lizard, four inches long, arrowed out from under a loose pile of stones and leaned on its leaf-like fingers and, crouching, leathery elbows akimbo, lapped long-tongued at the life-giving water that had beaded upon these particles of dust, and then the creature retreated back into the shade of the stones.

    Backbone watched.

    By and by, he removed from the saddlebag the last of his dried apples, and he fed these apples to his horse, who licked them roughly from the palm of his hand, hot tongue as coarse as pumice, her long whiskers like cactus thorns growing from the delicate pink flesh of her nose, and while she ate from his hand, he looked long into her imponderable eyes.

    In the sunset, after they had both rested and drank more water and the land slowly began to cool, he mounted her again, and now, decisively, in a calculatedly reckless and gutsy move, a chancy chess-match move, he galloped away from the fissure, some three-hundred meters back. He circled her around, dancing her, warming her up anew, and then with a loud whoop and a war-cry, he spurred her forward — charging at a pounding pace toward the earthen cleft.

    He leaned over her as she ran, streamlining himself, tucking down and pressing his torso tightly against her sleek pumping neck, and as she ran, he whispered into her ear, and faster still she ran.

    She ran like a stupendous machine, yet a machine of living matter, flesh and tissue and blood and bone, and the warmth of her heaving body pulsed through him electrically, through the press of his fingertips and coursing down into his cells, and he felt the beat of her blood, the thunderous hammer of her huge heart, this intricate organism exploding with power and life, the piston-like pump and fluidity of her stride and the movement of her muscularity beneath him, and he rode her as a man completely at one with his beast.

    The moment they came to the lip of the crooked abyss, he leaned into her closer still, hugging her even more tightly, embracing her, until he was sure that she felt how much he loved her and admired her, and he once again whispered into her ear something arcane and private — something unbearably private — and then she leapt.

    She leapt with all her great strength and tucked up her legs, and together they sailed as one across the deep blue void below, hot air flowing over his face and hers, and she floated him like a magic-carpet across the abyss — and came down safely upon the other side.

    In the next instant, something horrible and horribly unexpected happened:

    A fraction of a second after she’d landed, Jarmin Backbone in a rare lapse of attention failed to keep pace with her — failed to match her pace precisely, as he always had matched it, though they’d never made a leap like this together — so that she whom he had long ago broken Comanche-style and who thereafter obeyed his every command and movement was now inadvertently brought up short by him, thereby snapping her own back.

    Instantaneously her legs crumpled.

    She dropped to her delicate fetlocks, and for a moment, from sheer momentum, she plowed headlong through the desert dust.

    She screeched a wild hellish screech, and she did not cease but only screeched louder and in a more urgent way, and Jarmin Backbone, who’d been thrown violently from her in the fall, end over end through the dust, and who had his breast punctured by a diamond-shaped rock, immediately and with the presence of mind that was second-nature to him after all his years of experience, bounced up and ran to her.

    Her piercing shrieks tore through his eardrums and through his heart, ripping them both asunder.

    She could not much move, yet her head quivered and shook, and, screaming and screaming, she rolled her huge eyes in agony.

    Jarmin was disoriented from the fall and more than a little dizzy — but he did not hesitate.

    With amazing swiftness, he extricated his pistol from his side holster, and he looked one last time into her wild beautiful eyes, the whites of which were now clouding with a film of milky-red, and as still she screeched, he lifted his left hand and with utmost softness cupped her brow — to comfort her and to still her head and also to occlude her vision for his own sake, so that she would not eye him nor he her as with his other hand he cocked the pistol and put the round barrel to the temple of her head.

    He squeezed the trigger.

    Her screaming instantly ceased.

    The outrageous explosion filled up all that sad section of the desert, and then it trundled away like thunder.

    The blue-gray gunsmoke drifted ghostly, and on the ground below him, his lovely horse lay dead.

    Her ear was creased and folded under.

    He reached over now and unfolded it, and with infinite tenderness he passed his hand across her face and shut her eyes.

    He watched her cooling blood leak burgundy into the desert dust and spread.

    He knelt for a long moment, and he thought of infinity and her invisible soul, and he imagined he glimpsed her soul exit the husk of her body and rise.

    Then, holstering his pistol, he stood and turned away. In this manner, Jarmin Backbone, nausea rolling through him in long ocean waves, sacrificed his white horse and followed the tennis-shoe prints into the black uncivilized caves.

    Chapter 104

    In addition to puncturing the aquifer — the aquifer he himself had discovered — Jon Silverthorne’s blast beneath the Superstition Wilderness sent a small seismic tremor throughout that sector of the subterranean earth, but the tremor did not stop there.

    The tunnel, into whose zoneless depths the detonation wires zapped and dangled like dendrites, branched off into a thousand other tunnels, which in turn branched off into still others, which also branched off into others — forming, in the end, an incomprehensibly intricate nervous-system of hidden caves and conduits. Jon — who had deliberately calculated it, orchestrated it, and detonated it — thereby created in his underground blast a sort of peristaltic ripple:

    It was a ripple that traveled like an electrical impulse down living nerves, and which, though small, was nonetheless concentrated and profound — a ripple which moved in a manner that accumulated both speed and also strength, building, churning, the longer and deeper it went. It had the force of the water it also released, but never spent, swelling like deep sea currents that surge and heave with the wide world’s turning.

    Thus Jon Silverthorne’s blast rippled down the mysterious tunnel that twisted below The Superstitions, and then, in a peculiar way, that initial ripple developed a gradual yet gaining power, and subtly it spread into something greater, the ramifications farther reaching than the mantle at the planet’s core.

    Chapter 105

    Against the tidal-wave of indignation which had arisen in response to Jon Silverthorne and his written condemnation of superstition and his intransigent defense of the sanctity of each individual — person and property alike (and, alike, both sacrosanct) — one voice simultaneously emerged: it was a voice which in a certain sense seemed at first to take his side.

    This voice spoke tirelessly, both in print and also publicly, on radio stations and in magazines and newspapers, at luncheons and lectures and in meeting halls.

    It spoke of Jon Silverthorne and his handwritten book — “a philosophical tome,” the voice said, “which, in its brazenness and naiveté, is nothing less than the systematization of a philosophy, a codification which also, to support its premise historically, chronicles in exhaustive detail the entire known history of human civilization, and the thrust and thesis of which is this: that it’s the full recognition and protection of each individual’s right to her own life and property — and only her own life and property — as well as the corollary freedom to exchange property, that alone is the source of human progress and civilization, whereas superstition and force are its antithesis.”

    Over a period of days and weeks, this lone voice quoted at length and also paraphrased at length Jon Silverthorne’s book, saying, among many other things, that in 1807, as not quite coincidentally the London Parliament was on the brink of at last abolishing the slave trade, via William Wilburforce’s bill and the abolition of which is predicated not on economic but rather on absolute moral grounds — because no human being has the right to the life or labor of any other human being — two brothers, Adam and George Murray, opened in Manchester, England, the largest factory-complex the world had yet seen: Murray’s Mill.

    This mill was powered by steam and illuminated by gas, both of which were powered by coal, and it was this fossil-fuel energy — the discovery and creation of an energetic order — that made whale-oil, animal-power, wood-power, wind-power, water-power, muscle-power all uneconomic, and in doing so, it thereby liberated women from the kitchens and clothes-laundering, just as it liberated men from the fields.

    The voice also spoke of the entire history of energetic order, how, for millennia, human work was done by human muscle alone — and purely for subsistence and survival, until the injustice of force enslaved people and made the enslaved do the work of the elite few: building their pyramids and creating their leisure devices. Until, next, human ingenuity replaced the energy of human muscle-power: first by domesticating animals and then by discovering water-power and then wind-power and then fossil-fuel energy and then nuclear energy: the cleanest and greatest by light years.

    Quoting Jon Silverthorne’s book, the voice said this:

    Energy — which is the capacity for motion and work — amplifies human effort.

    Fundamentally, energy and the tools and machinery powered by energy are nothing more (or less) than that: the amplification of human effort.

    Since 1820, the population of the industrialized world has more than quadrupled, yet because of tools and machines and the energy which powers these tools and machines, the total productivity of the industrialized world has increased by seventy-fold.

    Annual working hours went from 3,000 to less than 1,600, which means that labor productivity increased over twenty-fold.

    Life-expectancy more than doubled, from about thirty-five years of age to seventy-five years of age.

    Energetic order, which is the result of human intelligence mixed with human labor, is the driving engine of human progress and growth.

    It is also singlehandedly responsible for the acceleration of technical progress and knowledge, with wealth accumulation and capital formation as the primary instrument by means of which human technology and human progress happen.

    The discovery of energetic order is cumulative and progressive and never-ending, and it comes about through conditions of freedom: the freedom to produce and trade, and the freedom to keep the fruits which you create and gain from that process of producing and trading.

    Humanity contains within itself the capacity for ordering and managing and maintaining its own path of development, and humanity primarily does this not through governments or force but through production and trade, which is voluntary, peaceful, mutually beneficial.

    In the history of humankind, nothing has advanced civilization more and nothing has eased human suffering more than this one thing: freedom, which is the right to create and produce and to trade, and to keep the things you reap from such voluntary transactions. Nothing else has even come close. Concerning civilization, there is nothing else.

    Trade is unique to the human species.

    In no other animal do individuals become more specialized as the population increases, nor less specialized as populations fall.

    This voice spoke clearly, articulately, tirelessly.

    It also spoke with increasing authority, a developing grasp.

    This tireless voice belonged to Justine.

    Chapter 106

    Now in the diminishing light he swore he would never rest; he swore he would never stop.

    He promised himself he would continue, no matter the potential outcome or the cost.

    Now in the deepest corridors of his mind, he made a private pact with himself that he would catch up to Jon or die trying, and he told himself that no one knew Jon better than he did. Yet that very knowledge, which was almost certainly true, cut the other way as well: because he also knew better than anyone how quick and how canny Jon was, how dogged, how unstoppable.

    Nonetheless, it was only him now — him alone — who was Jon’s sole rival, the only one who was still on Jon’s trail.

    This knowledge heartened him.

    Days passed.

    Days of running, chasing, following after.

    He’d grown weary.

    Still he followed, striving to catch up.

    Still he labored to reach him.

    The moon meanwhile waxed yellow in a purple sky, the sky aswarm with a trillion pinheads of silvery stars. And his hanging heart hammered hugely inside the chambers of his chest, beneath his silver scars.

    Chapter 107

    It was some time before he realized that the diamond-shaped rock was still embedded in his pectoral muscle.

    He tried to extract it with his fingers, but it was buried too deeply inside his bleeding flesh.

    The rock, which had been pounded into him by the force of his fall, looked like the back of a bolt.

    He got out his pocketknife, and with the tip of the blade he dug into his torn and ragged muscle. Finally, in the half-light of the cave, twenty feet from the entrance, he pried the rock loose.

    He held it up directly in front of his eyes. It was small, but the point of it was sharp and fairly long.

    The wound throbbed with each thud of his heart, and immediately after dislodging the rock from the living tissue and the meat of his body, he began to bleed.

    A circular stain of crimson spread over his snow-white shirt. He stanched the blood with the pressure of his palm, and he kept it pressed there, hand-over-heart. Outside, the desert turned blue, and dusk swept like wind over all the cooling land. Weary and heartsick, he lay down like a dog on the sandy floor of the cave and fell asleep.

    He was awakened in the dead of night by the sensation of something leaning against his chest and a dry wing-flap that brushed his cheek, small teeth carving deeper into his blood-weeping puncture.

    The hideous little face glowed ashen in the dark.

    The spindly legs with their sharp talons tread across his torso. Cheiropteran creature crouched over him, umbrella cape half unfolded, and while Jarmin Backbone slept in sorrow and then woke in horror, it gnawed a groove deeper into his wound and sunk miniature vampire fangs into him and quaffed his blood.

    Backbone gasped and yelled out.

    He leapt up from the floor of the cave and wildly swung his hands and then his fists and then his whole body in a blind panic at this purblind bloodsucker who had come unbidden and violated him, who squeaked and hissed and whispered at him with the voice of poisonous black waters seething faroff through desert sand, or like some earthless hellcat, sprung up from duplicity itself, destructive little liar, sucking in its own breath through bared teeth, and then the parasite flapped sloppily away into the bat-black desert night.

    Chapter 108

    No matter how fast or how hard or how long he ran, Jon was still unable to outdistance himself. He covered uncounted kilometers. Still, his pursuer pursued.

    He followed a dry riverbed which wound among scorched hills, and in the distance before him, the peaks of a higher mountain glowed soft-pink in the fluctuating light and released heat into the twilit sky — that sky empty now and sun-seared white.

    Far away to the east were herds of half-feral cattle browsing the cactus scrub.

    Jon cut left, through a leafy forest glade, where the ground was soft and loamy and bore no deep trace of his passage, and herein he ran for a distance of miles: over and down an eerie little hollow, among this silent wood. Rainclouds moved in from the north.

    On the other side of the forest glade, when he felt the first drops of rain, he came to a steep game-trail, and, lifting his eyes for a moment to assess and measure the distance and degree of the gradient, he mounted at a dead run the trail and drove himself up the incline.

    Halfway there, the path grew steeper still, and the ground became moist and slick.

    He clambered up.

    When, at last, three-quarters of an hour later, he came to the top, still running, though only just, he was drenched in rain and sweat, and his legs were wobbly with exhaustion.

    Here, two-thousand feet above the glade, the rain had fallen quickly and as quickly passed, yet there were still intermittent drops sailing down from high out of the troposphere. The moist air smelled of juniper and thyme. Before him, the hemorrhaging sunset lay spread across the entire west, and the myriad drops of rain among the pine-needles gleamed crimson and gold in the flat bars of the sinking sun.

    Jon stopped running and looked back.

    The light was poor, but he could still see the land below.

    With his farsighted eyes, he scanned the leafy glade through which he’d just run.

    His sweat dripped warmly onto the rocky ground. The conifers darkened around him. He appeared half expectant.

    It was a full five minutes, and yet surely and steadily the figure appeared — far-off but moving in a relentless and driven way, through the leafy lane: taking shape like something carved from the melancholy dusk, which smelled so deeply of juniper and thyme and rain.

    Chapter 109

    He thought of rabies and death.

    Now through the twisting phosphorescent night, he came staggering down the stone corridor in whose depths he saw or thought he saw housed a silver-white lucency.

    In the darkness of this cave, he felt himself more closely accompanied than at any other point — yet at the same time he felt himself also more profoundly alone.

    The air hung heavy with an oppressive weight, and what movement of air there was came hotly over him, like the breath of some great beast lurking in the darkness beyond. His flowing white shirt was circularly stained with blood. His chest boomed with every step. It boomed with pain, and still it bled — as though his heart had burst through his breast-sac and now beat upon an exposed nest of nerves — and by the dying glow of his penlight, he followed the indefatigable footprints.

    He found gold more and more frequently along the way, an incorruptible trail of bread crumbs, which, for reasons he wasn’t fully able to decode, did not now strike him as peculiar.

    His light grew dimmer, his state-of-mind simultaneously darker and more introspective.

    Among other things, as the light dimmed, Jarmin Backbone’s disdain for wealth, which had always nibbled and gnawed upon his heart, consumed him completely in the dark. It was a feeling that threatened to swallow him, half-masticated, and now, walking down the dark corridor, the intensity of this feeling made him seethe, in spite of his weariness, with something far deeper than rage — something green-eyed and mocking: mocking the meat it fed upon.

    Suddenly, with the abrupt brutality of a bone-crack, a more intense stab of pain pierced him from the interior of his wound.

    His knees buckled.

    He sat suddenly in the gloom of the cave.

    He was exhausted and in pain and very thirsty.

    The black air washed over him in heavy waves, as if gathering filth from the hot grottoes of hell. Clammy yet perspiring, Backbone shut his eyes.

    After some time — he did not know how long — he thought he heard a whispering in the distance, soft voices such as he sometimes heard in bed, when he was a boy, moments before falling asleep. But now when he opened his eyes, into a cavern unnaturally lustrated, he saw no one and no thing, and then the only sound he heard was the sound of an underground water-source purling down through some hidden conduit, beneath the rock far below him, where perhaps it emptied into an unknown ocean at the planet’s core.

    His sense of loneliness had never felt deeper or more poignant.

    He slept.

    He dreamt that he rode his white horse through an autumnal wood where a rainstorm had recently passed. In the aftermath of the storm, the sun fell warmly across the glade. There were calves grazing in the sunlight. The grass of the glade was high and wet with rainwater, and the sweet-faced calves stood in it up to their shoulders. He could feel the strength of his horse beneath him, the ship-like roll of her backbone, the vertebrae articulating distinctly against his rump, and the two of them rode together calmly, and as one. A slow-creeping sorrow began inside him. It welled up gradually. Each tree-bough and each autumn leaf and each blade of grass that brushed over horse and rider intensified his sorrow. The farther in they rode, the higher grew the grass, until soon it was brushing his knees and then his hands where they rested upon the pommel, his horse now almost totally submerged. Cream-colored butterflies went by, battling the breeze. Each blade of grass they passed, they would never pass again, and as he rode her deeper into this bleeding autumn glade, the changing foliage grew thicker about them, a smell of mulch and mushrooms and soft decay, and overhead the veined leaves like ladybug wings were shot through with the angular light of the yellow sun, and in his dream, he thought of his violent father, his father’s sex-obsessions, alcoholism, and his sadism, and he knew with certainty that he and his horse could never turn back, and that he was riding her through this lovely autumn forest, to her death.

    Chapter 110

    Justine stood alone in the middle of her hotel room, cyanic eyes alert and narrowed, her head thrown back. She felt so very thrilled to be among the living, and this moment right now was as alive as she’d ever felt — more wonderfully alive and more vibrant even than when she was a young child and every day had dawned for her like a promise.

    She felt herself now invested with a purpose, but not only that:

    It was a purpose that went beyond pleasure or pain or the quotidian routine of day-to-day existence — a purpose pointed now toward something deeper: something true and important and real.

    She sat down at a glass-topped desk. The silver candlestick Ash had given her sat unlit next to her laptop computer. Next to this was a book her father had just translated and published. On the floor behind the desk, a large box stood open upon the floor, and this box contained one-hundred copies of that same book:

    Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition

    by Jon Silverthorne.

    She snapped on her computer and she wrote:

    Three billion people alive today have never turned on a light switch.

    She paused and squinted at the ceiling.

    She wrote:

    Consider this fact for a moment. Consider the modern world from the perspective of a person who’s never known the magic of electricity.

    Try to imagine how such a person would view this invisible power — a power which can be transmitted miles and miles through a thin wire; which can do everything from heat your home and your food and your water, to cool your home and your food and your water; which can generate astronomical amounts of automated propulsion, via land, water, and air; which can enable mind-spinning amounts of computing and photography and videography and music; which can and does illuminate your entire world — instantaneously.

    For a moment, consider, please, the natural wonder of electrified lucency.

    Here she stopped writing. But only for a moment. She opened Jon Silverthorne’s book to a page she had marked, and she quoted it:

    For the developed world, the brilliance and the beauty of electricity has become a dull and commonplace thing, completely taken-for-granted, as ubiquitous as water, with power-plants serving as Frankensteinian symbols of an irrevocably ruined climate: nothing but symphonies of destruction and hurricanes of ecological wrath swirling forth from these monstrous power-stacks.

    In actuality the world has never been more climate-proof:

    The non-partisan International Disaster Database, which tracks all climate-related deaths from such things as cold, heat, drought, floods, and other storms, reports in no uncertain terms that climate-related deaths have not just fallen but plummeted, even as C02 levels of the earth have risen — from .02 percent to .03 percent — levels, incidentally, which in earth’s history have been as much as ten-times higher, with temperatures twenty-times hotter.

    Justine would also write:

    Here is the reason climate-related deaths are at their all-time lowest:

    The electrical energy that powers the developed world and keeps us warm in winter and cool in summer; the mass irrigation for agriculture that this energy generates; the better, stronger, sturdier, more technologically advanced buildings and other structures that this energy has erected; the technologically advanced weather-warning systems which this energy, in combination with human ingenuity, makes possible: this — this technological progress — is why the world has never seen fewer climate-related deaths.

    Electricity’s contribution to human welfare and human civilization cannot be overstated. 

    In coming days, Justine, quoting Jon Silverthorne further, would write:

    In the history of the entire world, there is not a single example of a country opening its borders to (non-coercive) trade and free-exchange of goods and services and ideas, and ending up poorer — not a single solitary one. Even those countries completely surrounded by superstitious, xenophobic, closed-border neighbors — even these countries prosper when they open themselves up to freedom and exchange.

    The so-called locavore economy may be in current fad-and-fashion right now, but in actuality it’s as old as humanity herself. It’s also deadly.

    The facts are so blatantly clear that it’s a phenomena that anybody could think otherwise:

    Freedom and free-exchange create prosperity — always.

    Whereas the opposite — force and protectionism — always create poverty.

    She would say on-air:

    Is the world overpopulated?

    She would answer by citing another passage from Jon Silverthorne’s book:

    The population of the entire world could fit shoulder-to-shoulder in a space about the size of Jacksonville, Florida.

    If you allotted to each person 1,250 square feet — which is a lot — all the people in the world today would fit into the state of Texas.

    Ninety-seven percent of the earth’s land surface is empty.

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, world food supplies exceed requirements in all world areas, amounting to a surplus approaching fifty percent in the developed countries, and seventeen percent in developing countries.

    Africa, beset with problems invariably blamed on overpopulation, has only one-fifth the population density of Europe.

    Africa also has a vast unexploited food-raising potential that could feed twice the present population of the entire world.

    Economists writing for the International Monetary Fund report — and accurately so — that Africa’s endless economic problems result from excessive government spending, high taxes on farmers, inflation (which comes from manufacturing fiat money), restrictions on trade, and especially the lack of private property rights and the over-regulation of private economic activity.

    The truth is that the rate of population increase across the entire planet has been steadily falling since the early 1960’s.

    It is a peculiarity of great proportions that virtually nobody knows this.

    It is perhaps also a testament to the power of doomsday propaganda and the superstitious thinking which breeds such propaganda and which simultaneously keeps such propaganda alive.

    Still, the facts remain:

    On every part of every continent, in every culture — including Mormon, Muslim, and Catholic — birthrates are and have long-been in worldwide free-fall, having reached what demographers call replacement level: 

    Human beings are a species that stops its own population expansion once the division of labor reaches the point at which individuals are all trading goods and services with each other, rather than trying to subsist in a deadly and insular state of so-called self-sufficiency.

    In no species but the human species do individuals become more specialized as populations rise, nor less specialized as populations fall.

    The ramifications of this principle are enormous and extraordinary.

    Chapter 111

    He did not know what kept him going that night. He did not take the time to measure or quantify it. He imagined vaguely that it was equal parts drive and anger, combined with something like admiration — a complex admiration — and also love. And yet in this precise moment his overriding emotion was fear: fear mixed with fatigue — fear that he would never catch up to Jon Silverthorne because he wasn’t strong enough.

    The surge of panic drove him forward, rabidly.

    He pounded down the dusty desert.

    The half moon came up over the eastern horizon.

    He’d been breathing so ferociously for so long that his lungs felt chemically seared, saliva like foam at the corners of his mouth.

    Overhead, the milkyway lay in a molten wash from horizon-to-horizon, and the earth on the edge of it hurled through space. Falling stars criss-crossing like fireworks.

    The desert in the moonlight lay overhung with a faint pall of dust, the land about him glowing in a gray unearthly way, like a river under a mantle of mist. He could see Jon’s tennis-shoe tracks here and there in the moonlight, the difficult and narrow path Jon had chosen and the sure and steady movement of his steps.

    Presently he followed these steps into a final cave.

    But this cave was different — and the moment he realized this, he realized as well, through the marshlight of accumulated thought, that Jon knew precisely what he was doing.

    In the next instant, he realized also that to turn back now would be to turn away from a climate of sharp and dangerous breath — and this, he saw only now as well, was something he did not want.

    Chapter 112

    There was still time.

    Time enough.

    Jon faced west.

    There are alary natures, self-made and soaring, which seem built to battle the wind — winged souls of the hurricane:

    Such souls and spirits do exist.

    Jon’s sense of supreme justice, rather than distracting him or retarding his progress, sparked him, gave him impetus. He could feel the hot wind of it ferrying him forward.

    He was soaked in perspiration — the heat like an enemy to be fought and vanquished — and in the darkness of this predawn desert, he rested. Yet his mind did not rest. The intensity of his thoughts and the will inside him — the will to follow every idea down to its subterranean roots — ran forward at a dizzying pace, in spite of his body’s exhaustion.

    An expansion of thought, peculiar to extreme fatigue, sometimes comes when a person is in ominous propinquity to death: a view of the imminent — the irrevocable act — no longer lamentable but spectacular and brilliant, and in Jon’s mind now, the culmination of the events that he’d long ago put into motion transmuted before his very eyes: clarifying and deepening as though by some strange inner workings of his soul.

    He thought:

    War is modified only by its aim — there is neither civil war nor foreign war but only just war and unjust war.

    That war is unjust which abolishes the light — which assassinates reason, civilization, truth.

    The war which is the fight against darkness is necessary.

    Now in the silver gleam of this breaking dawn, he came to the purlieus of the city, where the desert stillness hung precarious and plenary.

    Chapter 113

    The engine that powers civilization is not science or technology or money — all of which are side-effects — and neither is it government nor God nor devils nor superstition.

    The engine that powers civilization is free-exchange.

    The engine that power human progress is freedom and it is the elaboration of freedom, which is free-trade.

    Trade is rooted in the human mind: it is sourced in the brain’s capacity to reason. The freedom to trade creates human progress and human flourishing — just as it is the ever-increasing exchange of ideas that creates endless innovation.

    Truth, which is knowledge, is one of the few things you can give away and yet still keep, thereby enriching all who partake.

    Justine worked without surcease — she worked to promulgate Jon Silverthorne’s ideas — and for her work she, like Jon, was misquoted, mischaracterized, misrepresented, maligned, smeared, ridiculed, harassed, threatened.

    Yet this blowback did not put out her light or even dim it but just the opposite: it fanned a fire within her. She worked harder, longer, more ferociously, felt as though with the razorblade of Jon’s systematizations she’d barely scraped the surface beneath which lay eight-thousand miles of layered thought. Toward her, meanwhile, the hostility intensified. But she had one thing on her side that her detractors did not:

    Truth.

    In an AM radio interview she gave, Justine spoke of the astonishing range of labor-amplifying and labor-saving devices invented between 1750 and 1900 — inventions which enabled humans to produce more, earn more, spend more, save more, and live longer and better lives because of these inventions, their children far more likely to survive into adulthood. She spoke of how, through human ingenuity, together with freedom and free-trade and the right to keep what you earn, undreamed of innovations were brought into existence, the class-system simultaneously abolished, so that soon even the poor were living at levels unobtainable by royalty and the rich a mere fifty years previous.

    To an antagonistic caller, who chastised Justine for promoting pollution and other externalities, Justine said that one must never lose sight of the fact that pre-enlightenment eras had not the philosophy nor the practical knowledge nor the wealth to concern themselves with sanitation or water purification or hygiene or working conditions — that it was only technological knowledge, which unshackled the human mind, and technological progress, which brought these problems into human consciousness, as it was only the advance of civilization which created the wealth necessary to alleviate the vast swaths of filth and death and disease and famine that overwhelmed the world, as it still overwhelms much of the developing world today, that so long as the capital base of a society remains low, the means of dealing with societal issues remains proportionally low.

    The following week, in a magazine article she wrote, citing Jon Silverthorne’s book and quoting it at length concerning that same period of time between 1750 and 1900, Justine documented and detailed the extraordinary outpouring of genius and creation that came from the world’s newfound industry, which the enlightenment knowledge and exchange of ideas precipitated and fostered.

    She wrote of Emilie du Châtelet, an all-but-forgotten genius whom Jon Silverthorne admired, who demonstrated that the kinetic energy of an object was proportional to its mass and the square of its velocity, who postulated a conservation law for the total energy of a system, who singlehandedly translated Issac Newton’s exceptionally complex and erudite Principia Mathematica from Latin to French.

    Justine wrote of antibiotics, how they have been used for millennia to treat infections — but it wasn’t until the late-nineteenth century that medical-scientific ideas culminated to the point of identifying bacteria as the source of infections.

    She wrote of a doctor named Ehrlich who in 1909 discovered that a chemical called arsphenamine was an effective treatment for syphilis, and this, she wrote, is considered the first antibiotic — though the word “antibiotic” was not used until over thirty years later by the Ukrainian-American inventor and microbiologist Selman Waksman, who in his lifetime discovered over twenty antibiotics, after Alexander Fleming rather haphazardly discovered penicillin, the medical importance of which cannot be exaggerated.

    She wrote of Charles Darwin.

    She wrote of Thomas Telford, “the father of civil engineering,” who forever revolutionized travel — who, without government intervention, made canals and built roads all across Great Britain.

    John McAdam who invented the first asphalt, which is still known as “macadam.”

    James Watt who made steam engines.

    Trevithick who made locomotives.

    Congreve who made rockets.

    Bramah who made hydraulic presses.

    Cartwright who made the power loom.

    Maudslay who invented machine tools.

    Davy who invented the miners lamp.

    Jenner who created the smallpox vaccine.

    Marion Donovan who invented the first disposable diaper.

    She wrote of Inge Lehmann, a Dutch seismologist who discovered the earth’s inner-core.

    In a different article, for a nationally syndicated newspaper, Justine, quoting from Jon’s book regarding this same era, wrote of Americans like Samuel Morse and his telegraph, which forever changed human communication, and she wrote as well of Thomas Edison and his quadruplex telegraph, which improved upon Samuel Morse’s invention, which itself owed much to a forgotten man named Joseph Henry — as Edison’s lightbulb owed much to the ideas and prototypes of Joseph Swan, in England, and a Russian named Alexander Lodygin.

    She wrote of Edison’s invention of the first microphone, as well as the phonograph, which was his favorite of all his inventions — including waxpaper, of which, she wrote, Edison was also inordinately fond.

    She wrote of Marie Curie and her discoveries on Polonium and Radium.

    She wrote as well of the invention of the skyscraper, in Chicago, city of the big shoulders, and she wrote of the little-known problem these early engineers faced with elevators, which was solved by the innovative ideas of one Elisha Graves.

    She wrote about an ingenious engineer named William Lebaron Jenney, who erected “the first building of true skyscraper design or cage-construction,” and she wrote of the renowned architect Louis Sullivan, who worked for Jenney, and who took the skyscraper to the next level — and who perhaps best represents Chicago rising phoenix-like from the ashes of her great destructive fire.

    She wrote of the once-penniless Andrew Carnegie, a rags-to-riches story if ever there was one, who solved the problem of creating affordable steel in mass quantities, and who was a great philanthropist with a heart as big as America herself — his philanthropy and generosity only made possible by the wealth he created through his ideas, his intelligence, his industry, and his sheer hard-work, for which he is still today often criminally vilified.

    She wrote of suspension bridges, their invention and perfection — which, as she wrote, was an enormous human achievement — and she wrote of John Roebling and his eternal masterpiece that will take its place among the greatest of human structures ever built: the Brooklyn Bridge.

    She wrote of how before the Brooklyn Bridge, this same man, truly one of the great creators in all human history, had built bridges and aqueducts all across the northeast, how he fought interminable wars against local governments to have his traffic-expediting ideas and inventions constructed, how his ideas and the inventions that came out of them forever changed the world, how tirelessly he worked, how blindingly bright his genius, in spite of internal sickness and external forces hammering away at him constantly.

    She wrote of Josephine Cochrane, who developed the first commercially successful dishwasher.

    She wrote of Cyrus McCormick and his invention, in Virginia, which he called the “reaping machine” — a device that yielded, in a way the world had never seen, higher food production at much lower costs, for all humans.

    She wrote of Elias Howe and the sewing machine, and she wrote also of Issac Singer’s improvement upon Howe’s early invention.

    She wrote of Margaret Knight who invented a machine that folded and glued the flat-bottomed brown paper bags which we still use today.

    She wrote of Charles Goodyear who pioneered the process of vulcanization, which made rubber useful.

    She wrote of a man named Hymen Lipman, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who, shortly after Charles Goodyear perfected the process of curing rubber through vulcanization, attached the first rubber eraser to the back end of a pencil.

    She wrote of Jane Cooke Wright, an oncologist of great thoughtfulness and intelligence, who trailblazed the use of chemotherapy with a drug called methotrexate to treat breast cancer and skin cancer.

    She wrote of George Westinghouse and his invention of the “railroad frog” —  who also went on to develop hundreds of other innovations, acquiring over the arc of his life more than four-hundred patents, and who, in collaboration with a brilliant Croatian immigrant named Nikolai Tesla, pioneered the use of the alternating current — while Tesla alone invented the AC induction generator, which was the first practical motor-power by alternating current.

    Justine, scrupulously citing Jon, described how Tesla had sold this invention to Westinghouse, and how together these men demonstrated that alternating current was able to generate electrical power over great distances much more economically than Thomas Edison’s direct current, and which, through free-enterprise and competition and the process of creative-destruction, won out, even over Edison’s established name and great reputation, and she said that this was one of the many, many beautiful things about true freedom and free-enterprise and the free exchange of ideas.

    She wrote of George Eastman, who revolutionized photography and the camera and who, along with an entrepreneur named Henry Strong, founded a company called Eastman Kodak, whose use of roll-film was also the basis for the invention of motion pictures, in 1888, by the world’s first filmmakers Eadweard Muybridge and Louis Le Prince — both of whom were much admired by Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, among many others.

    She wrote of Alice Parker who first conceived the system of gas-powered central heating.

    She wrote of Charles and Frank Duryea who built the first car, though German and French engineers had been experimenting with gas-powered locomotion for years.

    She wrote of Henry Ford, who made this “automobile-invention” commercially tenable.

    She wrote of two bicycle mechanics from Ohio, who were self-taught in the principles of aeronautical engineering — Wilbur and Orville Wright — and who accomplished the first human-powered flight of a vehicle that “weighed more than the air,” and in so accomplishing this, the Wright brothers drastically altered human travel forever and for the better.

    She spoke of an articulate young man who worked as an assistant bookkeeper and who was a great lover of music, who, along with his brother William and an investor named Henry Flagler, became one of the greatest creators and philanthropists and businessmen in the history of the world, whose name was John Davison Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, the energetic order that went on to power virtually every other industry.

    She wrote of Willis Carrier, who invented air-conditioning, and Robert Goddard, who launched the first liquid-fueled rocket.

    Edwin Armstrong, who created FM radio, and Philo Farnsworth, who invented the image dissector tube, which made possible the first all-electronic television technology, and whose chief rival was a young man named David Sarnoff, who understood that “content was as important as equipment” — and went on to found a television broadcasting company called NBC.

    She wrote of an utterly brilliant boy named George Washington Carver, born into slavery and dire poverty, and of a weak and sickly constitution, and yet an indefatigable worker with an indomitable will, who eschewed and fought mightily against the idea of victimhood — and won — who was employed for forty-seven years by the equally indomitable and brilliant Booker T. Washington, and who completely altered agricultural science by developing a new hybrid of cotton, as well as pioneering peanuts and sweet potatoes, among a great many other things, and who, through his discoveries and his profound understanding of soil improvement, persuaded southern farmers to grow other crops besides cotton: George Washington Carver who, as Justine quoted, “was among the first to understand that in everything which grew was locked the chemical magic that humans could forge to their use, not for food alone but for industrial progress as well.”

    In the end, Justine wrote not just of these inventions but of the independent thinking that produced the ideas, the sheer hours and amplitude for work all these humans and so many others had performed in order to achieve such stupendous accomplishments — to provide better lives for themselves and their families — the unimaginable days and weeks and months and the poverty and anonymous years of study, the solitary toil, the incessant thinking, the turmoil, the discouragement and frustration — and the successes:

    “Successes,” she wrote, “from which we each to this day benefit immeasurably, and to which we are all indebted, because of the civilization and prosperity these individual human beings created through their ideas and the exchange of those ideas, and which are the direct and demonstrable result of the freedom and the right to keep the fruits of what their intelligence and ingenuity created, which people voluntarily paid for.”

    She asked:

    “And what thing, unique in history, gave rise to such a spectacular wellspring of ideas, which in turn gave rise to such a spectacular outpouring of human creativity the likes of which the world has never seen, before or since? And why is it invariably taken-for-granted? Why was it forsaken in the first place, and why supplanted by the idea of government-or-worker-control of property and wealth-redistribution for the sake of equality — surely among the greatest incentive-destroyers ever conceived — and the deadly philosophy of egalitarianism-by-force? Why the constant drumbeat of pessimism and catastrophe which history has proven false over and over, and yet which nevertheless drowns out the overwhelming triumph of human progress, which comes from the free and unfettered exchange of ideas?”

    Chapter 114

    Rapidly, the backlash built. Rapidly, it burst.

    Protests sprung up, small riots.

    Justine smiled and then laughed.

    The rioting and resistance fed her, fortified her, infused her with strength — a different strength than any she’d known: so that she felt herself weaponized with a sort of intellectual firepower.

    One afternoon, just before she was to speak at a college campus, it occurred to her that she’d been granted the opportunity to fight a war with all the passion of youth, but armed with the ideas that come from the wisdom of experience.

    It felt to her like a first act and a climactic conclusion combined.

    Ninety minutes later, resplendent in an off-white dress with mussel-blue stripes, long copper hair yanked back into a sleek ponytail, cheekbones glinting, her talk that day was interrupted by a throng of student protesters — “anti-fascist protesters,” their signs said — who bombed into the auditorium wherein Justine had just begun speaking, and who chanted mantra-like and in unison:

    “Fuck free speech, fuck free speech, fuck free speech …” 

    She was given no time or opportunity to respond, shouts hurled at her like thunderbolts. Then she held up her hand, and after a brief but brutal outerspace shriek of the sound equipment, her voiced boomed through the microphone mounted upon the podium before her:

    “I agree with you,” she said, “I agree with you all: Jon Silverthorne’s book is a clear and present danger.”

    The chanting quieted, though only just.

    Justine continued:

    “His book is a threat to us all, without any doubt. In the pages of this book” (she held up a copy before them) “Jon Silverthorne presents a comprehensible, intelligible, knowable universe — and a vision of the human soul which is rational, intelligent, honest, clean, and, perhaps most of all, individual.”

    The chanting diminished a little more.

    “He presents an individual,” Justine said, “who can see and grasp truth and live by the truth, and attain it. He envisions a human not fundamentally defined by gang, group, race, subculture, color, class, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender, beauty, blood, brawn, brute strength, or any other non-essential measure, but rather by the thing which distinguishes each and every human individual: a reasoning brain. He extols the rational faculty that unites us all. More unforgivable yet, Jon Silverthorne presents a human being that need not live a life of uncertainty, insecurity, lies. Nor a phony fear-ridden life nor a guilt-ridden existence — guilt-ridden over the planet humans have destroyed, with the end of the world always a few years away, no matter how many decades and centuries and millennia have passed without the world’s ending but which, on the contrary, has only improved — a human-being for whom authentic joy and fulfillment and even wisdom are possible.”

    Justine paused.

    The chanting grew softer still.

    “Yes,” Justine said, “if Jon Silverthorne’s vision were true — if it was taken seriously or in any way permitted to exist — nobody could face herself or her world or worldview, which was accumulated only passively. No one could look at himself in the mirror. And that is an unforgivable thing to do. You may ask anything of people. Ask them to glorify dogma. Ask them to worship at the alter of death. Ask them to enshrine vice, vanity, silliness, stupidity, superstition, sex, suicide, frivolity, fame, money, murder, rape, lies, cruelty, duplicity, bestiality, abuse and pedophilia and the porn that pushes and pedals it incessantly. But do not ask them to believe in individual human intelligence and the ability to think for oneself, nor the freedom of the individual, nor the individual’s freedom of will and her reasoning brain. For this, they will crucify you. For this, they will loathe your soul. About this, the world knows best.”

    Justine stopped speaking.

    A curious silence descended over the auditorium.

    “Here is what I propose,” Justine said into the microphone.

    She stepped down from the podium.

    A small murmur began among the audience.

    She approached a tow-headed young man, seated in the front row, who’d helped her carry into the auditorium the four boxes of Jon Silverthorne’s books which now stood next to the podium.

    The murmuring intensified.

    Justine spoke to the young man, who listened and nodded. Then he stood and together they carried the four boxes of books through the back exit and outside — to a wide slab of cracked concrete, along a southern sector of this university quad, where another group of anti-fascist protesters were also gathered.

    One of these protesters had spread upon the cement, over a large mat made of dark-purple velvet, an elaborate witch-kit, which this protester had got at a store in the mall, in exchange for money.

    Justine, some seventy feet removed from the witch-kit and its owner, emptied the boxes and piled all Jon’s books onto the cement — forming a loose pyramid of paperbacks.

    Next Justine propped open the backdoor of the auditorium, so that the audience members within could see what she was doing without — and what she did next surprised every single one of them:

    First, extracting a squeeze-bottle from her purse, Justine doused these books in lighter fluid. Then she produced from her front pocket a zebra-striped lighter, within which was contained a mini miracle of energetic order called fire.

    Justine sparked this energetic order with a slight movement of her thumb and wrist.

    She set all Jon’s books aflame and watched the flames lick higher.

    “It is a pleasure to watch them burn, yes,” she hissed.

     

    Chapter 115

    Even in his dizziness, Jarmin Backbone could not help but wonder what Jon Silverthorne was doing.

    Even in his sickness, he could not help puzzling over Jon’s next play, his countermove.

    And what was the source of the strange light that seeped in a dull haze down the caverns through which he now slogged, like a creature cast sulking through endless depths?

    Who was Jon Silverthorne? A Satan but no Lucifer? Or perhaps — and this was the first time he allowed himself to think this — a Lucifer but no Satan.

    The wound in Backbone’s chest prickled and itched, his white shirt soaked and stained with his crimson blood. From toe-to-head the muscles and bones in his bony body ached horribly, his head itself as heavy as a cannonball.

    He felt as though he were watching himself from above — and watching himself only so that he would not miss a single act or movement his body made.

    He was at the same time fully aware that he was thinking and behaving oddly — a sense of hydrophobia, totally foreign to him, sloshing at the boundaries of his being — and a part of him felt that he could have at any moment, through his own strength of will, stopped his movement and changed his thinking, even now. But he felt also now that to do so would be to kink a hose of gushing blood or water: something rushing toward ultimate release. So that his relentless movement forward felt to him all at once as nothing more or less than an outlet for whatever his blood now dictated — the blood he was born with ultimately determining him:

    He was the vessel through which the primordial gods of blood and power moved, and in his flesh, the flowing motions of his blood, which were aroused by the law, did work to bring forth fruit unto life or death.

    Forward, one step at a time — one space at a time — he pushed himself like a pawn, knew he could not deviate or move back, not so much as one step or square.

    Even before he was fully inside the room so strangely and unnaturally lustrated and even before he saw what that room contained, he realized, in a blinding flash, the magnitude of his miscalculation — grasped the countergambit that had been played so expertly against him — this entire time, this entire life, following someone whom he thought was someone else.

    He saw with horror the Mortimer trap he’d been lured into.

    Chapter 116

    In the sewers of the world an important record of human history is written.

    The word sewer comes from the Latin exaquaria, from which comes the shortened form of the Anglo-French sewiere: ex in Latin meaning “out” and aquaria meaning “water.”

    The sewer: something that makes water flow out — the outflow of water to flush the waste of the world.

    At one time or another, in one place or another, the sewers of the world have housed all things human — from the terrible to the sublime:

    Conspiracy, enlightenment, lawlessness, rage, tranquility, punishment, refuge, murder, banishment, brain-power, brain-damage, protest, all these things and much more have hid themselves in the human grottoes of the cloaca.

    Which is why every deathless banshee blows down these dark districts, why the ghosts of all humanity whisper through these hidden hallways, where the mephitic mists of human history hover and drift.

    All sewers in the developed world today lead to water treatment, the history of which dates to at least 2000 BC:

    Even that far back, humans understood that water could be purified by heat and boiling and also by gravel filtration, though they did this not primarily for sanitation, which they didn’t yet fully grasp, but more for quality of taste.

    Five hundred years later, in 1500 BC, the Ancient Egyptians discovered the principle of coagulation, using alum to create what’s now known as suspended particle settlement.

    Hippocrates, among the first to discover the healing properties of water, invented the Hippocratic sleeve — a filter which was able to remove sediment from water, as well as much of its foul smell and taste.

    Around 300 BC, Archimedes built the first water screw — an invention of great genius which forces water upwards, above ground, from a subterranean body of water. Archimedes basic design still serves today as a basis for industrial pumps and irrigation.

    At approximately the same time that Archimedes invented the water screw, Rome began constructing its mighty sewage aqueducts: building, over a span of five centuries, two-hundred-fifty miles of these mazes — Cloaca Maxima — mostly underground, and a number of which are still in use.

    Then the Dark Ages came and next the Middle Ages, when superstition took greater hold of the world, and water treatment subsequently declined.

    It was not until 1627 that Sir Francis Bacon, who believed in the power of human intelligence, reintroduced water treatment, and, though he himself never fully succeeded in the task of desalinating seawater, his efforts and his work laid the foundation for later successful saltwater treatment.

    It was a Dutch glass-grinder who, in the 1670’s, while making spectacles for enhanced vision and magnification, first invented the technological device we now know as a microscope, through which this same Dutchman was also the first known human to observe aquatic microorganisms. This man’s name was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.

    The first large-scale water filters followed shortly after the invention of the microscope, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

    In Scotland, where in many ways the Industrial Revolution was born, a man named Robert Thom designed the first water treatment plant, in 1804.

    In 1854, an English physician named John Snow — who’d learned that areas using water sand-filters also had less intense cholera outbreaks — discovered that cholera was spread through sewer-water contaminating a waterpump. Doctor Snow successfully treated this contaminated water with an earlier discovery — one first made by a Swedish pharmacist named  Carl Wilhem Scheele and then later developed by the English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy — called chlorine.

    In the late 1800’s, America, with her vast promise and freedom and the unprecedented wealth and technological innovation and progress that this wealth generated, at last began wiping out waterborne illnesses, like cholera and typhoid, en masse.

    Better methods of water-purification quickly followed: carbon absorption, aeration, flocculation.

    In the 1980’s, the first membranes for reverse osmosis systems were developed to treat and purify water, and these systems were perfected and patented by an American filtration chemist named John Cadotte, whose methods are still in use today.

    Not quite two years before Justine Strickland publicly burned a large pile of Jon Silverthorne’s paperback books — books her father had translated and published — in the late afternoon of Christmas Day, a solitary man was seen walking along a certain deserted city street.

    This man, darkly complexioned and young, with jet-black hair, had the appearance of a person searching for something specific.

    Presently he hopped down into a dry canal and then he stopped walking and knelt on one knee and inspected a half-hidden manhole cover.

    He blew the desert dust from its surface.

    Tumbleweeds ferried by.

    He studied the manhole cover as though it were an artifact: like a Mayan calendar-slab or a huge medallion struck by some barbaric hun, yet notched and whelked and pocked and smashed and stamped with its timeless American, its enduring beauty: Asher Metal.

    He lifted his head and gazed about him.

    He surveyed the land at large, this dry canal that had not been used in a very long time.

    By and by, the young man produced from his backpocket a small crowbar. He pried the manhole cover out of the macadam, until it was sidewise in its slot of this iron-age world, bitten and chewed at the edges. Then he lifted it completely and climbed down into the hole.

    Before disappearing within, he slid with some effort the heavy manhole cover back into its slotted spot.

    Chapter 117

    He was speeding through a new world now — a world only faintly illuminated by some aqueous light that shook and shimmered across the walls around him, and the source of which he did not know.

    It was obvious to him that he was in a deserted place — an eerily silent province wherein the air smelled sulphuric and strange yet not entirely unpleasant, like an ancient sewer, with a redolent undertone of something like thyme — and though the light about him burned extraordinarily dim, it was nonetheless strong enough for him to see that he was adrift. Indeed, were it not for the intermittent clop of Jon’s footfalls in the dark distance ahead, like the clop of cloven hooves beneath the earth, he felt sure he’d have lost his bearings completely.

    The masonry that rose about him, the sinuous passageways, the shallow flights of stairs, it all seemed to him an alien land — more alien than the surface of the moon, the floor beneath him at times a half-foot deep in plaster or moondust.

    He fought his way forward. He felt a mounting apprehension swelling inside his chest — something physical and ominous, like the nervy sluicing of his blood building all throughout his thorax, accompanied by a vague but persistent ache between his shoulder blades.

    The wan silvery light shimmered around him.

    All at once something gave way profoundly inside his chest as his interior collapsed.

    Simultaneously the sound of Jon’s footsteps grew louder — nearer — as though he had caught up to Jon at last. This jolted him with renewed energy. He increased his pace — and the moment he saw or thought he saw the shape of Jon swimming into his ken through the half light before him, he was ripped all through his inner-chest with tearing talons of pain, as though his overdeveloped heart had malfunctioned at last.

    He dropped to his knees in the ash-like dust. His eyes slammed shut of their own accord. From within the skyscraper-wave of blackness which was in that instant on the brink of collapsing over him, Kristopher, who had striven for so long to catch up to his half brother Jon, cried out.

    “Jon!” he said. “Jon!”

    But Jon was already there.

    Chapter 118

    In the room that Backbone entered, a solid gold nugget, bigger than any he’d ever seen, either in pictures or in real life, glowed dully beneath a LED light of silver-blue.

    There were two small wooden benches on either side of the gold nugget.

    With a kind of ill resignation, Jarmin Backbone seated himself upon the nearest one. He perspired, yet he felt himself chilled and shivering and was unsure of his precise state, an icy sensation passing over him like a distant recollection — one he’d perhaps blotted from his mind, or perhaps a reminder of something tormenting him for a very long time, something which was at long last in the same room with him.

    He seemed only now, in the pewter light of the sweltering cave, to grasp the significance of the huge stain of sticky wet blood still spreading across the whiteness of his shirt.

    He sat in silence and stared at it.

    His skin prickled and itched, and he thought of fiberglass and old razorblades and needle-like shards coating his entire body. He felt dizzy and strengthless, perhaps even delirious. He shifted his gaze from his bloodstain and back to the colossal nugget of gold — knee-high and two feet wide — and he stared at it fixedly, and yet even as he stared and even as his eyes did not waver from the dull-golden gleam, he was well aware of a thin figure seated across from him, on the other side of the gold nugget. At the same time, he seemed nervous and even afraid to look directly at this figure, who, in return, regarded him with hyper-attention.

    The figure was slender and somehow elegant-looking, though in an unorthodox way, with ash-colored hair.

    The figure spoke to him now in a voice that was soft and sexless:

    “The depth of the deception determines the depth and the degree of the proportionality,” the figure said. The pale lips seemed scarcely to move, yet the voice came inordinately loud in the silence of the cave, the sharp-featured face slashed with shadows-and-light, cross-eyes beaming with brain-power.

    “Yes,” Jarmin Backbone said. “That is true.”

    Still, he did not directly look at the figure, even as he spoke, but stared the whole time at the meteor-like nugget of gold just beyond his feet, yet even as he steadfastly stared, he could feel on the periphery of his vision the glittering eyes across from him. Those eyes were trained like steady laser-lights precisely upon his face. Neither malice nor kindness in that gaze. There was only an acute level of observation — as a perceptive passenger on a passenger-train might observe a passing landscape. But this was no ordinary passenger. This was one who would see through the landscape, down to its very nature, into its essence.

    Under such magnified scrutiny, Jarmin Backbone grew uncomfortable and anxious — felt increasingly aware of his sickness and his weeping wound — but even more than that: he felt profoundly conscious of his fleshly imperfections.

    He thought of infection, death.

    As if sensing the drift of these thoughts, the figure across from him dropped both eyes, down to the nugget of gold as well, so that they were both staring at it. Instantaneously Backbone felt all power drain out of the figure’s gaze, as though a wellspring of gushing water or blood had been abruptly kinked.

    “There are certain things that can be perceived better in the world of subterranean darkness,” the figure said, “as every experienced miner will testify: secret things and even mysteries which one can only perceive in the black tunnels and the mineshafts of the earth. Yet the longer one spends underground, the harder it is to return to the world aboveground, where the light shines down.”

    Jarmin Backbone nodded, as if this made sense. He did not speak.

    “Introspection is a valid form of reasoning and the scientific method,” the figure said, “and it matters not at all if every psychologist, philosopher, scientist, intellectual, or academic rejects it as such. The realities of the soul, though invisible and intangible, are realities nonetheless.”

    Jarmin Backbone again just perceptibly nodded yet still did not speak. His ancient antipathies surged inside him, bringing the bitter taste of bile to his tongue. He lifted his eyes from the huge nugget of gold which transfixed him. He blinked and swallowed slowly, painfully. His silver hair hung moon-like beneath the LED light, which flickered all about the room. And now, for the first time since he’d entered this room, he glanced very briefly at the queer figure seated across from him.

    This was clearly a person tested by life, Backbone thought, and he glimpsed also in the figure’s hyper-awareness, the authoritative speech, the muscular movements of the shoulders, that there was within the body and brain a strength and healthiness big enough to disconcert even death.

    It was only at this moment Jarmin Backbone noticed the black tennis-shoes that the figure wore — lightweight running shoes whose unorthodox and leaping tracks Backbone had followed, even across a deep and fault-like earthen fissure, to get to this precise spot, this precise point in time, in space, upon the tessellated board of existence.

    “I congratulate you,” the figure said, once again breaking in on the drift of Jarmin Backbone’s thoughts. “You have made it all the way.”

    “I thought I was tracking someone else.”

    “It was a deliberate misdirection — one I calculated and orchestrated.”

    “You’ve been playing this game with me for a long time,” Backbone said, not quite interrogatively. “Very long.”

    “Yes.”

    “If you knew my motive in pursuing, I don’t believe you’d be so quick to congratulate me.”

    “No? What was your motive?”

    “The annihilation of a monster,” Jarmin Backbone said.

    “What do you mean?”

    “I mean that there is one despot upon the earth, and it is unchecked ambition and wealth and the greed and inequality that unchecked ambition and wealth fosters.”

    “No,” the figure said. “The true despot upon the earth is ignorance, which breeds falsehood, whereas reason breeds truth. We should all be led by the light of reason.”

    “And the light of conscience which is written across the human heart.”

    “They are indistinguishable — conscience and reason. The one is an elaboration of the other, and they do not abide in genetics or in blood.”

    In spite of his rising nausea and the iron band tightening slowly around his skull, Jarmin Backbone listened with total concentration and even a certain fascination — fascination over this language, which struck him as completely new.

    “You believe that unchecked wealth is the source of all things monstrous and despotic,” the figure said, “and yet you of all people covet it very, very deeply.”

    Jarmin Backbone did not respond.

    “Have you ever asked yourself what the source of wealth is?” the figure said.

    “It is exploitation and plunder.”

    “No. It is work and production, which come from the focus of a goal-directed mind, which is a property of the individual. There is a direct and demonstrable link between choice and ambition, between knowledge and drive, between wealth and production. Any political system or system of ethics that propounds privilege and forced charity breeds dependence and disharmony among humans. It also crushes the creative force. It stultifies human intelligence and motivation, as it fosters force and undercuts human efficacy and human ability and inculcates a mentality of victimhood, which is undoubtedly its most insidious side-effect — and one need look no farther than the American Indian Reservations for proof of this. It convinces people — all people — that since they are not defined by their rational faculty but by their body or blood, they are thus, in one way or another, victims, and they therefore cannot help themselves, because they are helplessly predetermined. It creates, in short, poverty, misery, suffering, stagnation. This is why Jon Silverthorne affronts you and outrages you so: because he is the source of his own life and his own happiness, and because he is his own cause and his own goal and his own soul.”

    Jarmin Backbone shook his splitting head. His eyeballs pulsed with pain. “No,” he said. “One cannot be the cause of oneself. Each person’s blood is fixed at birth, or even before.”

    “You wish that this were totally so. If it were, perhaps your life would be justified.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “No person can choose his or her brain or blood or body — this much is true. But each person can and should shape his or her own soul.”

    “How do you presume?”

    “By a process of thought — by forming ideas, by shaping knowledge and by sharpening skills and by choosing values, which come from ideas.”

    “Choice in the final analysis is a figment,” Backbone said. “Blood ultimately determines it all.”

    “Determinism is the real figment. Yours is another form of superstition.”

    “What causes you to think and reason?”

    “I do. I cause it. As you cause yourself to think and reason. As each individual human is their own ultimate cause. Which is why certain psychologists, the good ones, uncorrupted still by an adversary ethic or corrosive epistemology, have accurately described commonplace evil as a mixture of laziness and vanity.”

    Jarmin Backbone appeared to perpend. He thought of his dead white horse, and he thought of rabies and death, and as he thought of these things, his chest thundered against his breastbone. He felt he might even accidentally drool, if he were not vigilant.

    “The choice to think is self-caused,” the figure said. “It is a volitional primary. This is no denial of causality but rather a specific form of it: a form found only in human beings, who alone among the creatures of the earth possess the rational faculty, which is activated through a conscious choice. It is a choice that must be continually activated, all throughout life. Conceptual consciousness is not a material but an emergent property of the human brain. And make no mistake: the faculty of volition also makes the human capacity for rationalization limitless — which is why the most egregious lie is the lie you tell yourself. And you, who with every ounce of your great intelligence have loathed lies and prevarication, have lied to yourself so very deeply, for so very long.”

    A silence ensued.

    “How do you know?” Jarmin Backbone whispered.

    “I know more about you than you could ever guess.”

    Jarmin Backbone stared at the solid gold astroid before him.

    “But all the rationalizations and self-justifications in the universe,” said the figure, “will never justify poor behavior, cruel behavior, deceptive behavior. Nor will they ever change this basic fact of human nature: we are each individuated beings of a self-created soul because the continual choice to reason — or not — is an individual act. And as every virtue and good deed is rewarded, so every crime and misdeed will be paid for — to a precisely proportionate extent — no matter how much time or cost is required. Do you know what that is called?”

    “Yes,” Jarmin Backbone said. “It’s called revenge.”

    “No. It’s called equity.”

    Jarmin Backbone did not say anything. He thought suddenly, for reasons he did not quite fathom, about a mine he’d once heard of, in southwestern Colorado, called the Equity Mine, where rumors once swirled of the largest gold nugget ever found.

    “If there is no actual choice but only blood, why have you pursued a despot so doggedly?” the figure said. “And why has law and order obsessed you all your adult life?”

    “I do not know what you mean,” Jarmin Backbone said. His voice was barely audible.

    “I mean that if there’s no choice, there’s no crime or misdeed. There cannot be. The panther who preys upon the innocent child is not evil. The woman who preys upon the innocent child is.”

    Backbone was silent. He shut his eyes for almost a full minute.

    The silence and darkness within him was absolute. He opened his eyes at length. He found himself staring again at the immense nugget of gold.

    The figure opposed to him watched his every move and did not waver or make any sound.

    “Do you know who I am?” the figure said at last.

    “Of course I do,” Jarmin Backbone said. “How could I not?” Only when he was finished speaking did he lift his gaze and directly meet, after all these years and decades, the cross-eyes opposite him, which still glittered like quicksilver.

    “Who am I?” the figure said.

    Jarmin Backbone was mute.

    “Speak!”

    “Your name is Asher. But you go by Ash, and you have for a very long time.”

    Ash nodded once, crisply. “Yes,” Ash said, “I am. I am the one you and you alone took by force and tied to a stake deep in my own mine and sadistically strangled and then let breathe, strangled and then let breathe, again and again. I am the one you had flayed alive. The one you mutilated and then set on fire. The one you left for dead. And why? Why did you do these things? Do you know?”

    Jarmin Backbone did not reply. He stared at the nugget of gold flickering before him, under the silver-blue light.

    “Then I will tell you,” Ash said. “You did them because I alone among everyone found and cultivated the gold that you and everyone else had missed: the gold that you most of all, Jarmin Backbone, loathe and simultaneously covet with all your heart and soul — in the way of all egalitarian thinkers, in the way of all envious humans. Do not shake your white head at me, man. Envy is unquestionably at the heart of it all.”

    Another silence fell.

    The silver light throbbed about them.

    Suddenly Jarmin Backbone’s ears began ringing with a piercing dog-whistle shriek, reminding him of his broken horse and her hellish shrieks of agony.

    “You’ve come a long way seeking someone who, as we speak, is located in the opposite direction,” Ash said. “Jon Silverthorne.”

    “Yes,” Jarmin Backbone said. “You fooled me completely. I am beat. You’ve won.” His voice was weak. With each fleshy thud of his heart, his wound pumped out Comanche blood, Cherokee blood, Caucasian blood, black blood, red blood. He felt his flesh now devouring itself. He thought of playing chess with his grandfather when he was a child, his grandfather tipping his white king the first time Jarmin had him cornered and beat.

    They were both silent for some time.

    Ash, watching him with those hyper-acute eyes of quicksilver blue, perceived that Jarmin Backbone was on the brink of an insight.

    Finally, Backbone — who indeed realized now with devastating clarity that all acts of good and bad, all acts of deception and honesty, all acts of compassion and cruelty, all suicide and forgiveness, all crime and all virtue, even his mental vigilance moments ago in paying attention not to drool, they are by very definition chosen — spoke to Ash authoritatively, in the silent confines of this cave: 

    “A doubleminded man is unstable in all his ways,” he said. And here, quite unexpectedly, the image of Baboquivari came unbidden into his brain. He contemplated it in his mind’s eye, the neck-like shape of Baboquivari Peak floating against a beautiful backdrop of cornflower-blue.

    For thirty seconds, neither spoke.

    Backbone blinked slowly.

    “I wish to ask you for one thing and one thing only,” Jarmin Backbone said. He looked with authenticity into Ash’s eyes.

    “What do you ask for?” Ash said.

    “Your forgiveness.”

    Instantly upon saying this, Jarmin Backbone unholstered the loaded pistol at his hip and in the same motion brought the round barrel up to the temple of his own head. Once again he did not hesitate:

    He squeezed the trigger.

    Ash did not blink or flinch as the gunshot roared and the golden bullet tore Backbone’s head asunder, two lobes still standing between the slender stalk of his neck, and double-handfuls of brain with a gush of purple-red poured from the far side of Jarmin Backbone’s blasted skull — and Jarmin Backbone tipped like a chess piece, dead.

    Chapter 119

    What goes into the Molotov-like mixing of a riot?

    A drifting force, like the tide, complicated by a thousand ebbs and flows, whereby a singular combination of ideas is formed — singular in specific, but identical in principle: identical to that which has already come before, no matter the tide or time or era.

    The shadow that sweeps the dial also sweeps over the human soul — people molded by the prevailing ideas and ideology and movements and zeitgeists of their generation. And each generation plagiarizes some other generation.

    Most, even among those who have studied specific periods and people, do not grasp the total ramifications of history, its maze-like connections, its causes, the almost necessary myopia of each generation. 

    Even fewer, perhaps, think in terms of principle.

    These two things are not unrelated.

    Thus the Red Shirts and the Brown Shirts battle bitterly for years, even unto death, in the streets of Germany, despite both being united by the over-arcing ideology of socialism.

    Thus the veneration by people on today’s left and right, who both in their own way believe in a live-and-let-live philosophy and yet who believe also in gigantic bureaus at the same time.

    Thus the politicians, left or right, who in one form or another would breach consent and also crush the non-aggression principle, while simultaneously embracing non-aggression and consent — depending, one assumes, upon whose particular ox is being gored.

    Opinions pass through phases and fashions. People are swept along with the force of the drifting dolorous unstoppable flow, which, though it cannot be stopped, can be retrenched — diverted into less circuitous and truer pathways. Nothing new under the sun exists — which is to say, the principles do not change, though the concretes do.

    And try as you will, you’ll never annihilate that eternal relic of the human heart: love. 

    Yet is there anything like dogma to shatter the dream?

    Justine had taken a gamble.

    She knew precisely what she was doing, yet she was far from sure what the outcome would be. Her mind played tricks with her, and always it returned to the task of discovering the hive of heresy — and to puncturing the heart of it.

    Inwardly, she told herself this always: remember.

    Somehow it helped.

    The police had come, and she was ticketed and fined but not initially arrested for book-burning.

    What, then, did she do next?

    She burned more of Jon’s books. She burned them in public, among an ever-growing and increasingly restless throng, which gathered daily and flowed across campus and seeped into all four corners of the city.

    That year also, there was drought, and each day the heat intensified, the drought worsened, and soon the ferment began to boil.

    Justine wore the alternately fearless and aggrieved look of one who believed herself an instrument of permanent change. She even told the police, with a gleam in her cyanic eyes, that she was the Devil’s minister. Then, in an ostensibly unrelated maneuver, she quoted and read at length from a typewritten bundle of pages, which she clutched in her sweat-soaked left hand, listing before cameras and microphones a litany of past predictions:

    “I take this opportunity to express my opinion in the strongest terms, that the amazing exhibition of oil which has characterized the last twenty, and will probably characterize the next ten or twenty years, is nevertheless, not only geologically but historically, a temporary and vanishing phenomenon – one which young men will live to see come to its natural end” (1886, J.P. Lesley, state geologist of Pennsylvania).

    “There is little or no chance for more oil in California” (1886, U.S. Geological Survey).

    “There is little or no chance for more oil in Kansas and Texas” (1891, U.S. Geological Survey).

    “Total future production limit of 5.7 billion barrels of oil, perhaps a ten-year supply” (1914, U.S. Bureau of Mines).

    “Oil reserves to last only thirteen years” (1939, Department of the Interior).

    “Oil reserves to last thirteen years” (1951, Department of the Interior, Oil and Gas Division).

    “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade” (President Jimmy Carter speaking in 1978 to the entire world).

    “At the present rate of use, it is estimated that coal reserves will last 200 more years. Petroleum may run out in 20 to 30 years, and natural gas may last only another 70 years” (Ralph M. Feather, Merrill textbook Science Connections Annotated Teacher’s Version, 1990, p. 493).

    “At the current rate of consumption, some scientists estimate that the world’s known supplies of oil … will be used up within your lifetime” (1993, The United States and its People).

    “The supply of fossil fuels is being used up at an alarming rate. Governments must help save our fossil fuel supply by passing laws limiting their use” (Merrill-Glenco textbook, Biology, An Everyday Experience, 1992).

    She was scrupulous in citing dates, books, Jon Silverthorne.

    She spoke also of the craze for eugenics which had swept the world after 1900 — a craze once so vogue and embraced with equal fervor by left-wingers and right-wingers alike and driven almost exclusively by the overwhelming intellectual-scientific consensus of the era, which, like today, she said, believed at the time that humankind was only a few years away from total catastrophe. This scientific consensus, therefore, caused the passage of horrible laws in America, as well as in other parts of the world.

    “I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is scientifically flagrant, this is to be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring,” said President Theodore Roosevelt.

    “Like the advocates of Birth Control, the eugenists, for instance, are seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit… Birth control of itself, by freeing the reproductive instinct from its present chains, will make a better race… Eugenics without birth control seems to us a house built upon the sands.  It is at the mercy of the rising stream of the unfit,” said Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, who also said: “We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” And: “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”

    Justine quoted also, from around that same era, the once-famous writer of doom Henry Adams, from his popular 1918 book, which foresaw within a few short years “the ultimate, colossal, cosmic collapse of all human civilization.”

    Justine spoke of the post-world-war-II prosperity which much of Europe and also Japan created by following America down its path of free-enterprise — and she spoke also of the new glut of pessimism that came with this newfound prosperity, doom after doom foretold and promised: overpopulation, famine, disease, horrifying technology, unchecked lawlessness and violence, culminating in the ineluctable chaos which would ensue in the year 2000, if humanity made it that far.

    “Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities within and between nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health, illiteracy, and the continued deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being,” Justine said, quoting word-for-word the opening lines of Agenda 21, a six-hundred-page pile of propaganda signed by world leaders at the United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro, 1992.

    “Isn’t the only hope for civilization that the industrialized world collapse? And isn’t it our responsibility to help bring this about?” said environmental leader Maurice Strong, at this same conference.

    But no matter the pessimism, Justine said, and no matter the unlikely alliances forged far-back by religious conservatives, eco-fundamentalists, nostalgic aristocrats, and dispossessed anarchists — all of whom were united around the noble cause of persuading the world that we should all be scared to death, guilt-ridden, and ready at any moment for the end — the following decades did not cooperate: and in actuality humanity saw the sharpest decrease in poverty, hunger, ill-health, and illiteracy in all of human history. She also pointed out that in the 1990s, numbers in poverty fell in absolute as well as relative terms.

    She quoted precisely and at length from Jon Silverthorne’s book — many of which books she’d publicly burned. She then called for others to burn his books as well.

    She behaved like a human unhinged — saying furthermore that these books were sacrilegious and blasphemous.

    She explained into the microphones that any generation born in 1990 or after has experienced more leisure time, more wealth, education, cleanliness, including clean food and water, better health, medicine, travel, music, movies, games, computing, light, warmth, and much more — as well as fewer climate-related sicknesses, injuries, and death — than any other generation in human history. In spite of this, she said, the articles and books abound all year every year — by everyone from Rachel Carson to Noam Chomsky to Naomi Klein to Michael Moore to Al Gore to Al Franken to George Moonbiot to Barbara Ehrenreich to many, many, many more — “an endless flow of literature,” she said, “which seeks to persuade us that humans left free are horrible by nature, and that because of this, the world we inhabit has been made into a terrible place to live, on the very brink of collapse, the world getting worse and worse, and that this is primarily the fault of commerce and ‘excessive freedom and choice,’ a ‘turning point’ reached, and about this, the debate is over.”

    She quoted lamentations going clear back to the golden age itself: the eight century BC and the poet Hesoid bemoaning a world humans had destroyed — a world where “people once dwelt in ease and peace upon the land with many good things.”

    She cited The End of Nature, Bill McKibben’s bestselling doomsday dithyrambic, which absolutely insisted that the turning point had been reached and that “without recognizing it, we have already stepped over the threshold of change: we are at the end of nature.”

    This was written in 1988 — at which time, Justine said, McKibben gave humans a decade or two, at most.

    The Coming Anarchy by Robert Kaplan, which appeared in 1994, also, she said, spoke of the “turning point” humans had reached:

    “Scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.” Robert Kaplan’s evidence for all this was entirely fabricated.

    “In 1995,” she said, “the scientist Jared Diamond also fell under the witchcraft-spell of pessimism — which is to say, manipulation and outright lies, which is what so-called witchcraft is and always will be.”

    She quoted Doctor Diamond’s exact words:

    “‘By the time my young sons reach adulthood, half the world’s species will be extinct, the air radioactive and the seas polluted with oil.’

    “Close-quote,” she said.

    She then pointed out that every one of Doctor Diamond’s so-named things, and many others besides, have gotten better, not worse, and, again citing Silverthorne and his book by name — who, in turn, was citing a geologist named Greg Easterbrook — Justine described it as “a collective refusal to believe that life is getting better.”

    “In 2009,” she said, “when The New York Times accurately noted that world temperatures had not risen as the ‘scientific consensus of the world’ (i.e. the scaremongers) had predicted, and the Times extrapolated from that only the following bizarre fact:

    “‘Plateau in temperature adds difficulty to the task of reaching a solution.’

    “Unquote,” Justine said. “Which means that if there’s not a problem, invent one.”

    She reminded people that in 1974, the prominent environmentalist and prophet of doom Lester Brown warned the whole world that “a turning point had been reached” and farmers could “no longer keep up with rising demand.” Famine and death, he said, were imminent and inevitable.

    He was flatly wrong, Justine said.

    In 1981, this same Lester Brown warned the world that “global food insecurity is increasing.”

    He was flatly wrong, she said.

    In 1984, this same Lester Brown — who to this day still has a great many disciples — told the world that “the slim margin between food production and population growth continues to narrow.”

    He was flatly wrong.

    In 1989, this same Lester Brown warned the world that “population growth is exceeding farmers’ ability to keep up.”

    He was flatly wrong.

    In 1994, this same Lester Brown wrote the following:

    “Seldom has the world faced an unfolding emergency whose dimensions are as clear as the growing imbalance between food and people…. After forty years of record food production gains, output per person has reversed…. A turning point has been reached.”

    “He was flatly wrong,” Justine said. “In fact,” she continued, “a series of record-setting harvests immediately followed, and the price of wheat fell to record lows and remained there for a full decade. Then, in 2007, after the horribly misbegotten push by environmental groups for subsidized biofuels — which require extraordinary amounts of land for little yield — this same Lester Brown told the world ‘cheap food may now be history: a turning point has been reached.’ Can you guess what happened in reality? Another record harvest followed his gloomy prognostications, and the price of wheat,” she said, “halved like a sandwich.”

    She quoted from the 1967 book Famine, 1975!:

    “Population and food collision is inevitable; it is foredoomed.”

    The authors of this popular book, William and Paul Paddock, even went so far as to say that countries such as India and Egypt were then — in 1967 — “beyond saving” and “should be left to starve.” Justine went on to say that this “compassionate strategy” was based upon the Verdun principle of triage, in wartime medicine and surgery, which in emergencies focuses limited time and labor on the less desperate cases. For essentially this same reason — and incidentally foreshadowing present-day mainstream environmentalists, who believe in the so-called Precautionary Principle, which says that “technology should be presumed guilty until proven innocent” — these authors also called for a complete cessation of programs and technologies designed to increase food production in places with high population growth-rates.

    This, Justine said, was not merely wrongheaded but also, in her sincere opinion, criminal.

    She discussed an incredibly influential book, the effects of which, she said, are still felt, despite its outrageous claims and failed predictions, called Limits to Growth, by the preposterously named Club of Rome.

    “This book came out in the early 1972,” she said, “and enjoyed several reprints and editions, and is still cited in some school textbooks today.”

    She discussed specifically how time has proven wrong again and again every significant claim and prediction made in this book — such as: “the world will exhaust supplies of zinc, gold, copper, oil, and natural gas by 1992 and cause a collapse of civilization.”

    She talked of how, around this same time, a relatively unknown lepidopterist named Paul Ehrlich would butterfly into high-priest of the environmental movement — by writing a book called The Population Bomb whose multifarious predictions have also wildly missed the mark.

    “This book opens with the following sentence: ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over.’ It continues: ‘Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death [and] nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.’ Despite its utter inaccuracies,” Justine said, “and its mind-spinning falsehoods, this book has sold millions — also, incidentally, spawning countless individual rights violations around the world, all of which predicated on this books false premise. Despite the falsehoods and flat-out lies, Paul Ehrlich was nevertheless granted a MacArthur Genius Award, which includes a very generous monetary grant, and into the present day he’s still regarded as a guru and prophet of preternatural proportions, all of the incalculable errors, failed predictions, and outright prevarications to the contrary notwithstanding.

    “‘In the 1970s and 1980s,'” Justine said, quoting promises he made in his book, “‘hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any program embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.'”

    Paul Ehrlich and his friend John Holdren, who would later become Barack Obama’s science advisor, also advocated forced sterilization and eugenics, among other atrocity exhibitions.

    They argued as well that mass death was not only inevitable but also that human numbers would fall to two billion worldwide, and the poor would get poorer — all before the year 2000.

    “They were flatly, unequivocally wrong,” she said.

    In later editions, she continued, Paul Ehrlich, who was a favorite on the Johnny Carson show for his frightening vision of the world — a vision which millions of people took seriously, as she herself did — Ehrlich would incorrectly argue in his later book-editions that the green revolution which transformed Asian agriculture “would at very best buy only a decade or two.”

    “Still,” Justine said, “four decades later, even after time has again and again and again torpedoed all predictions made by eugenists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, they have still not learned anything — not even the most basic logic concerning human intelligence and resource extraction:

    “Thus, in The Dominant Animal (2008), Ehrlich writes of ‘an unhappy increase in death rates.’

    “He never, of course, mentions a single thing about all his failed predictions — cancer rates declining, for instance, while he was busy predicting ‘mass cancer-rates skyrocketing,’ nor does he mention the fact that decades have passed without the ‘mass starvation’ which, in no uncertain terms, he predicted would long ago come to pass, nor the longer lifespans and greater health and cleaner air and water and energy we all in the developed world enjoy — because of development — while he predicted the diametric opposite.

    “Nor does he ever mention the infamous bet he lost to the economist Julian Simon over resources and resource-scarcity, nor does he ever mention the fact that all the resources which he, like the Club of Rome and so many others, said would decline and deplete, from coal, to gas, to oil, to iron, to copper, to uranium, to nickel, to lead, to silver, to stone, to silicon, and many more, not only have not run out, as he and all the others (e.g. The Party’s Over and The Long Emergency, both from the early 2000s) predicted: 

    “The reserves of them,” Justine said, “have increased. And if you don’t know the principle behind why this is, it is your responsibility to discover it. Your understanding of humanity and human prosperity depends upon this principle.”

    Justine said finally that instead of admitting error or in simply being silent, Paul Ehrlich, like John Holdren and many others as well, remain confident in telling all of us that we’ve indeed reached the limit of human flourishing:

    “‘The world in general seems to be gradually awakening to a realization,'” Paul Ehrlich regrets to inform us, circa 2010, “‘that our evolutionary story is, through our actions, coming to a turning point.’ But like Thomas Malthus,” Justine said, “and for the same reasons, they’ve all drastically underestimated human ingenuity and the speed and magnitude of technological change — every single one of them,” she said, “Noble-Prize-winners included.”

    She fell silent.

    Everybody watched her.

    “I burned the books of one who had the nerve to go up against all this,” she said.

    The reaction this produced was twofold.

    The first of the two things, Justine more or less expected.

    The second, however, a soft sort of explosion, was something for which she secretly yearned — and yet dared not allow herself hope would ever come to pass.

    Chapter 120

    He was going out by way of a narrow system attended by whispering voices that seemed sourceless and a static hiss growing louder and angular shapes on the periphery of his vision which broke apart and rejoined in giant jigsaw pieces. These puzzle pieces snapped and clicked about him. Down this gun-barrel corridor that opened up continually before him and folded back after, swallowing itself in an ocean of darkness, while the faces of the dead flew by — moving eternally toward the edge of all. Lastly came the caved and wasted face of his mother whose blade-like bones sliced the paper death-mask she wore. Light bloomed peach-colored, star-blue. The delicate scent of thyme poured into the narrow cavities of his head, and then there was sudden silence.

    A crescent moon hung far down the void.

    All around the moon were intermittent sparks of synaptic light.

    When he came to the end at last, he stood and looked across from where he stood and saw the rock and soil of human society everywhere mined, some for excellence, some for evil: as though the planet had been cracked cleanly in half, a tunneled and venous stratification like a crosscut containing a top layer and a bottom layer, all of which lay sunk beneath civilization, pressed underfoot, crushed and packed. Yet he saw also in the darkness a sort of sacred shadow breathing with latent light.

    All gold and all magma, he thought, begins at the mantle, at midnight.

    These dark caves spread out before him like gloomy incubators of superstition and primitivism awaiting a tidal flood: a flood of water and light to come gushing through like an unstoppable current. It was shot through with shafts and circuits and excavations of every kind — here the mathematical mine, there the artistic excavation, here the revolutionary dig, and there the profound mine of philosophy connecting in manifold tunnelings to the science of the subconscious, which is psychology.

    He thought:

    And what strange things travel underground by means of these hidden conduits that branch in every direction and underpin the entire world, with human society above hardly catching any hint of this webbed work, this limestone labor, this undergirding, which without touching the surface nonetheless changes the very substance of that surface?

    So many subterranean shafts and strata, so many corridors, so many veins and clusters, so many crystals and minerals and gems, and so much work required to excavate and uncover it all.

    And what ultimately comes from this profound digging?

    Progress, civilization, the future.

    The deeper the dig, the more mysterious the work, until, at last, a room of clarity opens up — a place where confusion and manipulation no longer exist, though beneath it, at a certain terrifying depth, there is plainly the existence of a pit with creatures who inhabit it unseen.

    His apprehension grew. Then, abruptly, out of this apprehension something slender and spider-like sidled across his innards and crept up. It clutched at his windpipe with vice-grip fingers. The searing of it radiated into separate tumblings. It went through him with an icy heat and twisted down his loins — only to sidle up again, no fraction of his being left unaffected. Neither was there any penultimate stage of gagging, nor a visible fight for breath or composure. It came instead with exceptional suddenness, under a wan and murky light, and then a bulbous pod broke open before him, some great and terrible flower, blooming satanic, whose roots drew nutrients from a pit of piled meat and slime, and whose vile scent overwhelmed the delicacy of thyme.

    He felt his chest being hammered upon repeatedly, like ferrier blows to a wincing anvil. They were strikes to his breastbone that seemed endless and not without pain. His body bucked. He felt himself gasping for a breath that would not come. At last there fell one final blow like a tremendous sledge to his sternum — and all went tranquil and quiet.

    Moments passed.

    Then, like a pebble dropped into a pool and pinging across the silence, the electrical signal in those mysterious upper chambers of his heart pulsed once and now spread through his atria and into the ventricles, the voltic connection most critical to the major thumping chambers of his heart — the electrical pumpers with the greatest throb, which then coursed into an immense network and crossed the ventricles into another bundle of electric tissue called the Bundle-of-His. From the Bundle-of-His into his infinitesimally thin electric fibers that signaled the ventricle muscles to contract and pump a gushing flow of red life to the arteries — this pump-and-flow sparked by electricity, which is the zap and the essence of physical life … A singular circulatory warmth spread flowing throughout his body.

    He saw himself now from very high above, as from the ceiling of a cathedral: stretched supine upon a dusty bed like a patient anesthetized upon a table. From this height, he also saw a figure administering to him below, and this figure was his half brother Jon.

    Kristopher next saw his body shift upon the floor, and he saw Jon reach over and put his hand on his forehead, and then he saw himself close his eyes, and Kristopher was gone again: sliding like butter down a corkscrew dreamflow, navigating with slippery ease the eye of a neural pathway that flashed with more sparks of synaptic light, no brakes, rocketing down, cutting a helical course — down, down, down the spiral winding of a rollercoaster at speeds so incredible that it stretched his face taut and drained it of color.

    Processes appeared around him — processes of movement, flow, in water the same as air, both fluid, circularly swirling and no differentiation between the elements of air and water, neither in nature outside, nor the fluids inside each living organism, no matter their chemical composition, but all gathered in one eternal circulatory flow; the element of water the fundamental element of all fluid things and all moving systems from which every other subsequent liquid originates: rising from oceans and lakes and rivers and swamps, water circulating with the stream of the air in vast atmospheric currents around the whirling world.

    He saw this from his vantage high above the ancient sewer — saw water in cooler quadrants contract into clouds and fall back to the earth as rain or snow or sleet or hail, yet only a third finding its way into the ocean by means of this particular circulatory system, the rest dissolving into mist and phantoms, completing the cyclic distillation from liquid to vapor and back to liquid again, forty times a year, and he saw also, woven within, the ceaseless flow and passage of time which is the marking of movement.

    Lightly tinted the lucency in the room, and Jon’s face hovering over his body glowed silver-blue. Almost telescopically from his great height, he saw ghostly images, face and figure alike whose willowy shapes, like water angels on the edges of his vision, drifted in the shadows beyond the spot where Jon knelt over and administered to him, their long platinum hair flowing. These shapes accrued from the outlying darkness like images of the undead captured on film: now taking form out of darkroom liquids which sloshed under a hellish-glowing light. They hovered like superstitions. 

    Jon, crouched over Kristopher, seemed not to notice their liquid-swaying forms.

    Meanwhile, there grew around this room, brighter yet, the aqueous shimmer and sound of water-in-motion — somewhere flowing within a larger system. Kristopher could not make sense of it. Yet he heard Jon’s voice from long ago telling him that the human body is sixty percent water, seventy-three percent water the human brain, and eighty-three percent water each bronchial tree-of-life. And in each living organ within each living body, there flows microcosmically countless other circulatory systems, said Jon, which have their own specific tasks, their appointed rounds: all that meandering flow, within the body and without, within the earth and without, an indescribably intricate web woven with an even deeper system of finer movements and flows — multiplex inner-currents and multitudinous seas which capture the essence and the rhythm of all streams and all rivers and all other energetic flows.

    Jon said as well that what is true of this principle is also true of all moving drifting things — from the infinitesimal aqueducts that run through the minutest animal and animalcule, to the mightiest Nile or Amazonian surge; to the highest atmospheric eddies and swirls, to the profoundest loops in the deepest ocean currents — and now Kristopher saw everywhere that fluid things move in rhythms which permeate the processes of the natural world and the universe, which is everything: a sort of circulatory dance-and-spiraling, like the hypnotic twirl of a turning screw.

    He then saw, with a clarity more pronounced and perfect than any he’d yet known, this universal principle of nature precisely at work in the myriad flows within his own body — and deep within the circuits of his skull came his half brother’s words once again.

    Every living entity in bringing forth its visible and individuated form passes through a purely liquid state. Some of those entities remain in this state. Others solidify only slightly. Others densify under the dominion and rearrangement of other natural elements. Yet all, no matter their density or liquid degree, all retain within them something of their liquid life-phase.

    Do the forms of the living merely disclose the character of the watery state — or is it the water itself, with its sheer creative force, that is the visible stamping of the form?

    He saw the velveteen flow of fish fins, whose motion is so intimately related and so at one with the ubiquitous veil of flowing water within which all fish dwell.

    He saw the propulsion of infusoria, with their corkscrew shapes drifting like spores in a chlorine sea, the helical gill-filaments of the spirographic which makes their locomotion possible like densified veils of water — making also visible the flow of the water itself. And motion, he thought, is the antithesis of death, which is a halt in the movement and flow of the thing.

    And is it this principle which comes to expression in all circulatory systems?

    As it is within living creatures, so is it also in the organs of each living creature’s vessel — as it is, as well, in the organs and entrails of the earth: a spinning circulation and eddying in the innards and in the arterial and venal bloodflow, in the Gulf Stream and the Jet Stream, in the synchronized flow of fish-schools, the murmuration of birds-in-flight, the flow of wood around a woodknot.

    He saw that it is the primal imperative of liquid to mold itself into spheres, which, when combined with a directional force like gravity — the pull of goal-direction — results in a helix, and he saw that this is why everywhere across the flesh-and-bone of living things there is imprinted the shape of swirls and ringlets, which comes from the flowing movement of liquid at the liquid stage of life — liquid streaming through the veins and sinews — the bone recording a tapestry-like image of the movement from which it originated: the water that expresses itself in the very matter of the bone.

    Seeing this now in a flood of new insight, Kristopher suddenly watched before him faces of the living warp and bend and then melt into pure liquid, and it was only at this time that he realized there was actual water now gushing through the tunnel of this room wherein he lay half dead. He saw simultaneously, in the outer darkness beyond Jon where Jon crouched, the fluid and willowy forms densify and grow stronger, even while everything else liquified.

    And now, like an army, these superstitious shapes advanced toward Jon, who rose up carrying Kristopher in his arms, as though he would battle these shapes with his half brother’s husk. In the next instant, another surging flow of water swept into the room — this one larger than the one before. Kristopher from above watched the case of himself — he perceived it with the consciousness the gave him his awareness, processed it by means of the spirit that animated his flesh — as he processed also that this same faculty was dropping all at once and with a whoosh, back into the enfleshment of himself, making him whole. And for a moment’s fraction, Jon Silverthorne seemed to almost stagger under the flood of rising water mixed with his half brother’s rejoining of body and soul.

    Chapter 121

    The desert was brilliant but baked as white as bone, and for over six months, drought had gripped the Arizona land. Ferment was on the brink of boil. Beyond the city, the cantaloupe clusters died of thirst, the honeydew. The farms of alfalfa — sweet nutty alfalfa, and some of the very best in the entire world — perished under the pitiless sun. The red durum wheat and the pecans and pistachio crops all shriveled inside the dry soil.

    On the surface of the earth, above the forsaken room of an erstwhile sewer-system where Jon Silverthorne resuscitated his half brother, a swarm of protesters gathered and fumed. They’d been gathering here for days, accumulating, pooling.

    Gripped by a force of yearning mixed with ideological rage — the long drought acting as a kind of inflammatory agent upon the fire — this crowd, composed of individuals, had now become a single unit: a teeming mass like a collective brain which fed off itself.

    Each hour of each day, more and more individuals came flowing into this collective confluence, this churning river of humans. They folded into the flow and then spilled over — down into the empty space of a dry and dusty canal abandoned long ago for lack of water.

    The limpid burning sky seemed part of some organism functioning unconnected to the throng it brooded over, the sun immaculate, with a vast and otherworldly clarity, unchanging, resounding above the city.

    The young human-beings who make up like molecules the molecular flowing mob all feel the same — inoculated among one another against the language of thought and self. They stand and chant, fortified by the blood of numbers, shielded from the banes of daily existence, the pressure of independent thought. Their ideology, which could be left or right, is largely irrelevant. These humans veer in perfect unison, like schools of fish. They eddy and flow through the dry canal, wending toward a bonfire of books and the young woman who presides over it.

    Nothing is more charged than the initial swarming of a riot. Nothing matches the building electricity. Everything explodes everywhere simultaneously.

    Where does the initial explosion originate?

    The streets.

    The streets and sidewalks which lead to and from the ivory towers where ideas, in the form of words, flow into the ears of the young and then wander like a river through the whorled channels of the ear and empty at last into the brain.

    Here, within the brain, the ideas often harden with superstitious certitude, transmuting into a frozen dogma — at which point, the likeminded insurrection takes on the characteristics of a plotted narrative and stream-of-consciousness narrative at the same time: a tremor of intent and even terror, combined with a sort of frightening fervency and improvisational enthusiasm.

    First there is shouting. Then there is busted glass, small fires. Merchants, looking out their windows, turn OPEN signs to CLOSED.

    The initial cause now officially becomes secondary.

    Nihilism surges.

    Soon the first taker grabs hold and channels the current and bends the multitude wherever it will.

    The totality rises up and the perceived vindication of its right may go so far as violent conflict. The great throng, like a sloshing vat of nitroglycerin in which the final jostle is enough to ignite it all, becomes strengthened and justified by sheer numbers alone — and then the blast detonates.

    Chapter 122

    The water aquifer Jon had years before discovered beneath The Superstitions — the aquifer cultivated by the wealth of the one who admired and loved Jon — was subsequently punctured by Jon’s subterranean blast; so that now water from this aquifer secretly, steadily flowed, and it had been flowing for some time, through a vast maze of underground tunnels that Jon himself had mapped: the complex underground infrastructure, inlaid at significant cost, all without anyone upon the surface suspecting anything about this labor.

    Surely it was the work of mage or maze-man or both.

    Thus this water-flow, unleashed by Jon’s deep-earth detonation, passed through a plexus of profound limestone circuits, much of which had been repurposed and reconstructed from an old sewage-system, long abandoned and rank with stagnant water and waste, and yet all of which water was now flowing and emptying into an immense underground reservoir. Like the tunnels and the labor that had mapped and made them, this reservoir, too, was newly constructed and hidden beneath the earth, the water treated by means of an intensive ultra-violet light, which shimmered and shook. This ultra-violet light was part of a water-purification system — though not just any system: it was something newer and more sophisticated, a method developed through the work and wealth and knowledge of the one who cared deeply for Jon.

    The reservoir sloshed now, precariously full, spilling over and rising inside the maze which this maze-man had himself designed for purposes hidden and obscure.

    The instant Jon came upright from where he knelt — upright and shin-deep in black-flowing water and carrying his half brother in his arms — he in the same motion deliberately swung leftward with his entire body, pivoting forcefully around, and smashed with his elbow a metal box mounted upon the wall. The box cracked open and Jon, using that same elbow, hammered down a long lever.

    Immediately all the shimmering light went dark.

    The room was engulfed in purling pitch-blackness. The willowy figures vanished. Still, at no point had Jon appeared aware of them. For a brief moment, the only sound was the sluice of rising water. Then a flashlight ignited in the dark distance behind, and a shout simultaneously resounded from that same spot:

    “Stop!”

    But Jon did not stop, nor did he turn around. He already knew who it was — and he was not wrong.

    It was the authorities, who’d learned of clean water seeping up to the surface of the dead dry desert.

    Meanwhile, Kristopher, inert weight in Jon’s arms, lolled his head a little but did not open his eyes. The water had risen to Jon’s knees.

    Jon waded through it now, moving against the current, still carrying his brother.

    In the watery dark, Jon mounted a short flight of steps at the top of which, along a side-wall, he now leaned against while he walked, the better to guide him in the dark, and Jon carefully set Kristopher down in the flow and then propped Kristopher’s back against a crease in the wall where it met another wall. From here, Jon did not waste a second.

    He brought forth his laser-light and shined its small bright beam around the room of this great sewer, the lemon-lime laser bouncing off the black water. The moment he found what he was looking for, the crack of a gunshot exploded behind him and the brick wall burst five feet away.

    Jon abolished his light and bound thigh-deep through the water over to a large and looming apparatus contained within a padlocked cage. He removed a long chain from around his neck, and with one of three keys hanging upon this chain, he snapped open the padlock and in a twinkling flipped up the lid atop the large black apparatus — at which point, another blind gunshot burst from behind, the zinging bullet whacking the black water six feet to his left.

    Jon with wet fingers removed the other two keys from the chain. For perhaps two seconds, he again flashed the yellow-green beam of his laser upon the box. Then he inserted one of the two keys into a top-slot and turned the key decisively. Next he inserted the second key in the bottom-slot and turned this key as well. At that instant, another gunshot burst, but its report wasn’t heard. It was drowned out by the sound of an enormous industrial clang and then a boom and a mechanical whirring, which was followed by a tremendous jolt that jostled the earth like a seismic shift.

    Chapter 123

    Aboveground a counterforce had sprung up. The first shots were fired and they rang out through the vibrating desert air. More gunshots followed, whether squeezed-off by riot police or by members of the maddened mobs or by both. Then there were more.

    Gray smoke rolled with the billowing dust. Justine felt a shard of broken glass lance her face, and she felt blood run down the side of her cheek. She touched her face with her first two fingers and then looked at her fingertips, red blood blotting them.

    She appeared to contemplate her blood.

    Then there were more gun-pops, and the lilac-gray smoke blew wildly, and now, in the far distance, canisters of tear-gas exploded. The rippled heat from the fire mixed with the heat from the sun all at once felt smothering, the orange flames translucent in the sharp western light. Justine thought of blood. She could hear shouts and screams and wailing sirens, police and ambulance. She could hear the bloodbeat in her ears. Another bottle burst beside her, against the concrete wall of the dry canal, glass raining down around her, but no pieces this time pierced her skin. Crews with cameras had gathered around Justine and her bonfire of burning books, and among these crews mayhem now erupted. One camera upon a tripod got bashed to smithereens by a billy club. There was howling and shrieking and unintelligible chants. “Shut the fuck up! You are disgusting!” somebody yelled at Justine, who did not appear to hear.

    She watched Jon’s books burn. Her eyes watered.

    Cars were set aflame.

    Everywhere there were humans flowing around her, around the fire, swarming, some scrambling, some down on all fours, and Justine watched through the quivering heat of the fire a woman who knelt as though she would claw her own shadow where it streamed across the dusty ground, blood flowing like red rivers out of this woman’s ears. A helicopter passed overhead, at some distance: jet-black and insect-like against the huge white sun. Justine felt inside her chest the thumping drone of the chopper blades that thwopped the electric air, and suddenly in all the pandemonium and noise, she felt alone and even at peace, and she thought of Jon … Jon untouchable and always alone.

    The disassembled and the fallen were meanwhile trampled as by stampeding war horses, and she watched as a white-faced dog with a black star over its right eye leaned out from the smoky gloom and barked and popped its teeth and then drew back and was gone. Justine wondered an instant later if she’d imagined this snapping cur altogether, or if it was real after all.

    Among the throng, some seemed giddy with excitement and some seemed bereft of all reason and some were drenched in dust through the veils of smoke and some had stripped themselves naked and some mounted their counterparts like catamites amid this bedlam of rioting, and they coupled in acts of defiant unrestraint. And now pouring down in a frenzied mass of berserk humans, the flash of blades glinting through the dust, a flood of headlong humanity came moving like life-forms driven to bizarre methods of locomotion and behavior — a sea of subjectivity pounding in like a tidal wave, surging over the towering monuments. Tribal war is written on the unwritten faces, who have captured the media centers, the cell-phones, the microphones, the social-media streams, the headquarters of communication — all conceived and created and sustained by the very things this hagridden horde hates most. People like primitives coming with ropes as though to lasso and lynch and string-up, and Justine thought she heard from somewhere in the near-distance the staccato burst of machine-gun fire, while still more people poured into the dry and dusty canal, humans with blood-painted bodies, nightmare visages slathered in gore, bodies shoulder-to-shoulder surging through, full-throated howls, bursting bottles, more cars set afire, brandished blades, clubbing, hacking, chopping the air, as though they would rip off limbs and tear out viscera, behead. And now one large and shirtless man like a revenant rose out of the smoky murk — inked and bearded and with a big slab of alcohol-gut — and he held the tip of his long knife-blade against Justine’s glass-punctured cheek. He spoke.

    “Shut the fuck up, and do not move, bitch!” he said.

    Around him, his fellows jeered and cried out, and one among the mob hocked and spit on her.

    “Fascist, white-supremist, war-pig, transphobe, queerphobe, classist, ignorant of all the interlocking systems of domination that have created these lethal conditions under which we oppressed peoples are forced to live!”

    Even while these words were being uttered, Justine turned her cheek not away from but into the blade at her face, and simultaneously she reached up. To the astonishment of all — and most especially to the large and looming man by whom she’d been accosted — she gripped the big blade firmly with her entire hand, slicing her fingers, and then she took the large sharp blade-tip and slit her own cheek, moving it slowly, deeply, opening up a wide gash down the left side of her face. Her blood flowed freely from the self-inflicted slice.

    “Do you think you could ever do anything to hurt me?” she said with strange softness and solemnity — or, rather, she started to say: but she was interrupted by the dull solid thwack of a wooden baseball bat, which struck the head of the huge human holding the knife to her.

    This human’s head opened up and blood poured out. He crumpled instantly to the ground — alive but concussed.

    The jeering crowd around Justine fell momentarily silent.

    The man who had swung the baseball bat appeared before her through the smoky air. His bald head was bleeding, and he wore round eyeglasses, which were filled with the white sunlight and which hung awry upon his face. He was sweat-streaked and blood-streaked and powdered with dust.

    “Father,” Justine said.

    The word was scarcely out of her mouth when the ground beneath jostled and shook with a profound tremor. Then a dull boom resounded from deep below, like the clash of tectonic plates.

    Chapter 124

    Jon leapt like a grasshopper to a locked door near the spot where his half brother sat propped among the currents of clean black water. This water now came faster and higher.

    The sound of the mechanical whirring rose to an almost deafening pitch.

    Jon passed his wet fingers over a keypad mounted upon the wall, and instantly in the darkness there bloomed a saffron-yellow light.

    Jon tapped in six numbers whose electric chirps were drowned out by the roaring of hydraulic machinery mixed with the rush of sluicing water.

    The door clicked open inwardly.

    Water flooded through the open door into this outer room.

    Fluidly, rapidly, yet with great care, Jon leaned down and lifted his brother from the loose clutching paws of flowing liquid which smelled strangely of thyme, and now Jon carried his brother through the door he’d just opened. With difficulty against the force of the gushing flow, Jon, still holding Kristopher in both arms, shouldered the door shut behind him.

    Deeper silence and deeper darkness descended.

    A foul odor spiked the air.

    The ground was soft but comparatively dry, save for the water which had come in through the open door. Jon stood for a moment, holding his brother and as if to gather his bearings. Then he walked forward into the malodorous darkness. He moved with great caution, the sponge-like subsurface squelching and slurping and sucking at his tennis shoes.

    Ten meters in, the ground dropped abruptly, and Jon before he could properly react stood sunk to his chest in a cesspool of liquid. He was still holding his brother in both arms.

    He stood inside an old and stagnant pool — an ancient vestige of this great quondam sewer. Even if he’d wanted to turn back, he would not have been able to: the ground was too slippery and the gradient too sloped. Thus Jon continued wading forward, deeper into the thick watery slimepit.

    The smell was noxious, nidorous, near to overwhelming.

    The filthy water rose higher up his chest and then to his neck. Jon hefted his half brother as high as he was able. The foul thickness of the water helped buoy him up, even while Jon’s footing grew more and more precarious. Jon lifted his chin, neck stretched, and he tiptoed. His strength was incredible, his will. He continued forward.

    “Hold tightly to my neck,” Jon whispered into Kristopher’s ear — and Kristopher, still not fully conscious, responded by doing exactly that: he held tighter to Jon’s neck. He felt the warmth of Jon’s living body.

    Jon slogged forward slowly, carefully, implacably, one slippery step at a time, the foul-smelling slime engulfing him and his brother both, and Jon, focused and strange, healthy even in his fatigue, clean even immersed in filth, unstoppable, fascinating — a complicated integrated fusion of body and brain, unbelievably strong — worked now with every tendon, every fiber of his every muscle, every milligram of his will to keep his head and the head of his half brother above the sickening pulling counterforce he sought to overcome: the reeking cesspool which with every step drew more of his strength, his arms and legs and his back and the bones within him burning with the pain of exhaustion, slowing his progress to a near-lethal pace. At the very moment that Jon felt a small wave of slime slap against his chin, coming nearer and nearer his mouth, and his strength slipped slightly under the weight of his brother, he glimpsed a sliver of light like a retinal illusion in the darkness ahead, and then the filthy water receded an inch and then two and then three, and, at last, his knee bumped the step of an ascending flight of stairs, and Jon, holding his brother in both his arms, came inexorably up out of the pit and toward the light, like a swamp creature shaking, but bearing precious life which he’d found far beneath the earth.

    Jon knelt in the muddy clay and with great care laid his brother down before him.

    “Everything comes from light, and everything returns to it,” he whispered, to his half brother or to himself.

    Chapter 125

    Simultaneously now, after the first tectonic jolt, two young men among the motley mob who’d accosted Justine — one man on the right, the other on the left — lunged at Justine’s father, who with incredible quickness and presence of mind, lifted and held straight out the bloody baseball bat, like a stiff-arm, and poked it, so that the rushing man to his right ran directly into the solid wood with his solar plexus, knocking the wind completely out of him.

    This man doubled-over and shrieked for breath and went to his knees in the dust.

    Justine, who was fully aware of her father’s strength and his pugilistic skill, stood watching.

    She stood there bleeding and watching in a kind of dreamy amazement.

    In virtually the same instant, Justine’s father, a trained boxer from his Navy days, dropped his left foot back, almost pivoting, and then raised the shoulder of his left arm and, again moving incredibly fast and powerfully, struck with a lightning-bolt left jab and an iron-fist the other man rushing him. His big knuckles connected to the tip of the man’s chin — sending this man reeling backward and then down onto his rear. In the next motion, Justine’s father, still holding the baseball bat in his right hand, swung one-armed and without pity or hesitation this baseball bat, at the doubled-over human still gasping for breath — the man who had spit upon his daughter. He shattered this man’s ribs.

    Justine’s father strode with his bat toward the jabbed human who sat silently stunned in the dirt. One-armed still, her father again cocked the bat back, preparing to club the man across the shoulder, but the moment before he swung, a metal projectile like a small hatchet came cartwheeling toward him through the air. He saw it on the periphery of his vision. Instinctively he ducked and lifted his arm. The projectile glanced off his wrist, cutting him, though not deeply. The one whose chin he’d busted staggered up dizzily and ran away weaving into the dust and smoke and pandemonium.

    A woman who wore a holographic cat mask with at least two faces, one of which was vicious-looking and the other vain, depending upon the angle it was regarded from — two faces flashing upon the stalk of a single neck — hissed and spoke vulgar lies aimed directly at Justine and then ran away. At which point, there was another sustained jolt as from some profound subterranean source, and then came a sweeping sound like the swirling rush of wind in the trees — wind and air flowing in a circular course.

    Chapter 126

    On a peaceful morning around this same time, over a thousand miles northwest, in Eugene, Oregon, a young woman, who lived alone in a small flat, rose from her slumber and went into her kitchen and prepared coffee. While the coffee-maker asthmatically wheezed, this young woman sat down at her kitchen table and opened yesterday’s newspaper.

    Honeyed sunlight streamed in through the windows of her apartment, and the sky was blue and gold. In the distance, the Willamette River churned sluggishly through the city.

    On the third page of the newspaper, an article caught her eye: it was about a woman in Arizona who, the article said, “had helped fuel a riot by burning books — in response to students protesting her campus speech.”

    The article went on to say that the details were still unclear, and that the story was very unusual, given that the books she’d burned were the books she’d ostensibly come to promote, with several specifics not yet known.

    This woman, the article said, was subsequently shot through the neck.

    There was, in addition, a small photo of the gunned-down book-burner — rippled-looking through the heat of her fire — and the young woman in Eugene stared for a long and thoughtful moment at this photo of the Arizona woman, who appeared somewhat wild and yet passionate and beautiful. The young woman in Eugene guessed herself approximately the same age.

    Presently she rose from her kitchen table and poured herself a steaming cup.

    She went to the refrigerator and got out a small carton of heavy cream and added a dash to her coffee. She watched the cream roil from below and then erupt like a mini mushroom-cloud upon the surface of the smoking liquid. She stirred the coffee and sat back down.

    In her sunlit kitchen, she read the full article.

    When she was finished reading, she went to her computer and ordered a copy of the book the woman had burned.

    Two days later, after receiving this book in the mail, the young woman took it with her to a teashop she frequented, and here she began reading this book, which was written by a man she’d never heard of named Jon Silverthorne.

    She found herself immediately engrossed in this book written by the man she’d never heard of.

    Over the course of the next two days, she would read the entire book, and when she was finished, she would start reading it again, from the beginning.

    She underlined, dogeared, bookmarked, made marginalia.

    She saw a deep and inherent sensibility in the words of this book, and she found herself unable to stop thinking about it. It made sense to her.

    She began recommending it to every one of her friends and acquaintances, many of whom bought and read it as well, and some of whom felt the same way she did: there was a profound and yet in a way difficult to define also an elementary logic to it.

    At around this same time, approximately eighteen-hundred miles southeast of Eugene, on a humpbacked highway between Kansas City, Kansas, and Wichita, a early-middle-aged man cruised the backroads in his 67 Mercury Cougar. He had his driver-side window rolled all the way down, his left arm hanging out to catch the breeze. He wore black slacks and a white T-shirt. His hair was sandy and thinning. He sucked a peppermint. There had been thunderstorms day and night lately, but now the sky was clear, and the air smelled rinsed and clean.

    The man, who was an auto-mechanic and who loved to drive this excellent car he’d bought and restored and repainted a metallic deep-purple, cruised along now at a smooth sixty-five miles-per-hour. Wind swirled like water through the car. He felt glad to be alive.

    He reached over and snapped on the radio and turned it up loud.

    A radio host named Easy Earl finished playing Wayne Newton’s version of “Summer Wind,” and when the song was over, Easy Earl mentioned a news item which had recently come across his wire: it was about rioting in Arizona and a young woman who had burned many books — either in response to the rioting or in protest to it, or for some other reason, Easy Earl said. Easy Earl said also that the woman had been shot.

    One hour later, in Wichita, the man parked his Mercury Cougar in the parking lot of his favorite bookstore. He went inside and looked for a copy of the book the woman had burned — the author of which book, he’d made special note of: Jon Silverthorne. The bookstore didn’t currently carry this book, but they ordered a copy for him.

    When, three days later, the book arrived, this man went to the bookstore to pick it up, and, after reading the first paragraph, he sat down inside the cafe of the bookstore and began reading in earnest.

    After five chapters, he was so enthralled that he interrupted his reading to call the radio station, and he told the producers to please pass along his gratitude to Easy Earl — for bringing this story to his attention.

    Over the course of the next four weeks, this man would read and reread the book cover-to-cover, three consecutive times. He felt as though the words he read captured with perfect clarity truths he’d always suspected — and perhaps even implicitly knew — but which he’d never explicitly named or codified. The book inspired him in a way that was both joyful and uplifting and yet serious and somehow, in a way he couldn’t quite articulate, sacred. It felt to him light and important at the same time.

    He bought twenty copies and passed them out to friends and family. When these twenty copies were exhausted, he bought fifty more. He even sent one to Easy Earl, with a handwritten note that told of how much this book meant to him, how it had suddenly solidified and concretized his fundamental view of existence, without which concretization, in remaining implicit and uncodified, he said, was vulnerable to attacks and their never-ending permutations.

    He said he saw this only retrospectively, after having read the book, which articulated this very principle and opened his eyes and his mind to it even wider:

    Thoughts and ideas must be formally systematized and codified, or they’re vulnerable to attack, even if the thoughts and ideas are implicitly correct.

    Among those to whom he’d given this book was his niece, a young bookworm, who read it and who also loved it — so much so that she wrote, for her high-school Law-and-Government class, an essay inspired by a chapter from Jon Silverthorne’s book.

    She wrote that for all the many flaws and injustices of which America is guilty, it is nonetheless a country unique and great among every other civilization in human history for this one bedrock principle: the principle of independence, which includes the freedom and the right to keep what you earn.

    She wrote that this principle is so powerful that it’s held up and won out even after repeated and horrific violations, like slavery; like the treatment of Native Americans.

    She wrote that even after such atrocities — and even after a Civil War fought largely for this principle and which tore the United States apart — independence and the legally recognized right and the freedom to make of yourself what you will are still America’s essence.

    But she said also that this principle cannot withstand philosophical erosion — and once the principle is lost, it can’t be gotten back, because it’s a cultural view-of-existence, a worldview and an attitude toward life, which when bred away and replaced with a philosophy of dependence and so-called privilege, becomes entrenched, after which it’s gone forever.

    Once the culture-of-independence is forsaken, she wrote, in favor of a culture-of-dependence and a mentality-of-victimhood — as well as the corollary reliance upon massive government-welfare which such mentalities necessarily entail — a threshold is crossed, and after the threshold is crossed, there’s no way to return.

    Her essay created a significant controversy — first in her high-school and then in her hometown of Columbus, Missouri.

    More people read Jon’s book as a result.

    In West Texas, a seventeen-year-old Mexican boy and in Memphis, Tennessee, a fifteen-year-old black girl — unknown to each other and totally independent of each other, and yet both of whom had been brought up under similar conditions of abuse and poverty — concurrently heard on the same television-station the story of the woman burning books, who was subsequently shot through the neck.

    These young people both read Jon Silverthorne’s book as well.

    They would never meet nor would they ever know of the other’s existence. But for both of them — and in an identical way for both of them — Jon’s words would change their work-ethic and their vision of life forever and for the better. It would do so by giving them each a new and different perspective upon themselves and upon their fellow humans and upon the nature of work: every individual a being who could and should shape its own future and its own soul — each individual a rational creature packed with pure and living potential, no matter the advantages or disadvantages born into — efficacious, strong, self-driven, self-motivated, not chained to a status of victimhood and misery, not fated or determined by poverty or minority status or any other non-essential thing, possessed of a soul not fundamentally defined by anything other than the words of her own mind which are thoughts, which stem from the human faculty of reason, and which ultimately determine human action.

    In this same manner, a great many other people, all across the country, came to read Jon Silverthorne’s words, and to be captured by them: whether young people in jeans, in small towns attending high-school or college; whether blue-collar people on farms or in mines, mills, or factories; whether white-collar workers in cities; whether businesswomen and businessmen in suits; whether raised in the north, south, east, west, midwest; whether black, yellow, brown, white, or anything else, irrespective of sex or gender — and the one and only thing they all fundamentally possessed in common was this:

    They were, in some small but essential way, private people who undertook the responsibility of thinking for themselves.

    In the beginning, the story of each one of these people was similar: I heard about a woman burning books who was then shot through the neck, and it captured my attention. After that, it was as though some secret system had been tapped into: a system of subterranean circuitry, like neural circuitry, which flowed all throughout the country and even the world, at varying depths beneath the surface — limestone aqueducts consisting of pools and pockets, flows and stores, streams and rivers of cool clean water, which burst up in bright geysers, in unexpected places, at unpredictable times, like flows of truth.

    In this way, through the heterodox, tireless, fiery work of Justine and her father translating, transcribing, and ultimately publishing Jon, word of Jon’s book spread like the enlightenment of day in a burst of dawn.

    Chapter 127

    The herculean effort had exhausted Jon.

    Saturated with foul water, he knelt in depths of clay in the fetid black room, and with two fingers lightly touching Kristopher’s neck, he checked his half brother’s pulse.

    Kristopher was still unconscious, but his heartbeat was regular.

    A dripping silence filled the room.

    Gently Jon cradled and then pillowed the back of Kristopher’s head against the black earth beneath them. Jon knelt like this for some time. He was tired and very thirsty. But his physical exhaustion had not exhausted the strength of his spirit. A light shone within his eyes, almost as though his soul were filling with a kind of bioluminescent glow. He knew, however, that time for both of them was running short. Thus still upon his knees, Jon gathered his half brother in his arms and then rose to his feet.

    He started on his way once again.

    He moved toward the sliver of bluish light gleaming somewhere down the dark distance — a light so faint and of such a hovering illusory quality that at many points Jon was unsure if he was actually seeing it at all.

    His progress became more and more laborious.

    The slimy ground seemed to shift beneath him, tilting one way and then the other, the ooze of the wet clay sucking at his shoes like porridge. Yet he continued forward, almost urgently, and then suddenly the sliver of light was upon him, and his foot bumped against a wall.

    Once more he laid Kristopher down and then passed his hand over a keypad, which came alive with saffron-yellow light.

    Jon tapped in six numbers that technologically chirped.

    The door sprung open, and a tide of aqueous light came flooding in with the rush of water, the door forced open wider.

    Swiftly now, Jon gathered Kristopher in both his arms and lifted him and waded into the gushing room that shimmered with light. He slogged over to another black box behind another metal cage.

    “Kristopher,” Jon said.

    Kristopher’s head was cradled in the crook of Jon’s left elbow, and Jon spoke directly into his brother’s ear.

    “Kristopher,” Jon said again. He spoke over the seething hiss of running water, and he stood in this water up to his knees. He waited a long moment. “Kristopher,” Jon said, “wake up. Please, wake up.”

    At last, from somewhere deep within the biochemical compounds and processes of Kristopher’s body, within the infinitesimal churn and flow of his electrons enzymatically aided, those electrons grew warm and excited, and then leapt forth in a swirling frenzy, expelling a soft photon of light. Kristopher stirred.

    “Listen to me,” Jon said. “I’m going to place you on your feet, and I want you to hug me as tightly as you’re able. I want you to squeeze me with every ounce of your energy. Do you understand?”

    There was a momentary pause, and then Kristopher nodded, and Jon felt him nod.

    Jon carefully placed his half brother upright in the shin-deep shimmering water, and while Kristopher, with surprising strength, hugged Jon from the side, Jon snapped open the padlocked cage and then flipped up the lid of the black box.

    He inserted the first key and then the second key.

    Sure-fingered and with great deliberateness and care — and yet lightening-fast — Jon turned each key in sequence: the top and then the bottom.

    Almost instantaneously there came another tremendous jolt, followed by a great industrial clang, as a second hydraulic water-screw, the size of half a basketball gymnasium, began rotating upward from deep below the earth — below the immense reservoir of clean living water. It drew and pulled that living water to the surface.

    Jon from where he hunched came upright like a shot, and in the faster gushing water now, he faced his brother and turned Kristopher toward him, so that they stood face-to-face only inches apart. Jon then put both his arms around his brother and drew him close, and Kristopher responded likewise.

    Jon hugged Kristopher.

    He hugged Kristopher in an embrace so powerful and so heartfelt that it seemed as though nothing but death could break them asunder.

    “Hug me with every ounce of your energy,” Jon whispered, his lips touching Kristopher’s ear, “and do not let go, no matter what. Even if I let go of you, do not let go fo me. And no matter what,” Jon said, “do not let the darkness overtake you. Do you understand?”

    Kristopher nodded and continued nodding against Jon’s shoulder, and Jon felt his affirmative movement — even as a wall of washing water pounded into the room and knocked them both off their feet in a cowlick-slippery gush of animal-black liquid, the moving waters at their priestly task of pure ablution around earth’s human shores. It swept them off their feet and purified them like lovers — so that, willed by swirling water, they were both born up together to the surface of the earth between silken jaws and watery teeth, among the loose guts of living liquid that tangled them toward the blinding desert sky in an erupting geyser of water and light.

    Chapter 128

    Many among the maddened mob thought it a small earthquake.

    There was a collective shudder, and for approximately thirty seconds all movement stopped. The only sound was the strange reverberation of some subterranean clash and the distant doppler wail of sirens — and then somewhere in the background, the soft rush as of mounting wind or water.

    Soundlessly the fires spread.

    Particles of ash floated down like snowflakes.

    The sky hung white and blue, melting blue, and malignant the sun and vile. Then the barrage of bottles came anew: bottles and rocks flying through the air, glass shattering, and in unison the throng of people began moving again — wending like a river down the dry canal.

    A bullet whined past Justine’s father, missing him by millimeters. He dropped to the ground.

    Justine ran to him.

    Another bullet whizzed by.

    Get her! That one right there! came the command.

    At that moment, the muscular edge of the crowd burst forward, sweat-glistening bodies laved in gore, faces charged with hatred, screams like the cries of dangerous birds — and just as the third bullet blew through Justine’s neck, stopping in her esophagus, the great wall of water came.

    For a brief moment, there was so much blood and liquid-force in the air that a star changed color under Venus’s shadow.

    Justine did not fall. She did not even stagger or wobble.

    She looked about her.

    Her face and her neck pumped out jets of red, one side of her visage half-masked in blood, transfiguring her into something that might have been discovered among the blood-colored ruins of a forgotten civilization, or a Baboquivarian cave of bioluminescence. She wore a curious quizzical expression. The wall of water hurtled down with the speed of a freight-train. It pounded through the dry canal.

    Justine’s father sprung like a cheetah from the ground where he’d taken cover and in two steps bound over to Justine.

    He swept her up in his arms and ran.

    Powered by the force of pure adrenaline and rage mixed with his love for her, he leapt with all his might: leapt with Justine out of the canal — just in time.

    Chapter 129

    Among the dark violence of water that nourishes and drowns, Jon’s heart like a shark muscle beat huge. He smashed through fathomless veils of watery black, up these chambers and clean cold keeps which he himself had unleashed.

    With his right arm only, he hugged his half brother Kristopher against his swimming body — hugged him in a passionate embrace. And, in turn, Kristopher with both arms clung just as passionately to Jon, who, one-handed, scooped madly and swept upward through the engulfing water and did so with a knifing sinistral stroke-and-sweep, his legs simultaneously flipper-kicking, churning in a sharklike self-propulsion which moved the same direction as the pounding flow of the current, so that the two of them, locked in tight embrace, shot up as one unit, a single body with two heads, like a sheer shaft from dark depths launched.

    They exploded through the snow-soft water into the brightness of a desert day that was dying.

    Upon the water’s surface Jon — still holding his brother with his right arm and slashing the gushing flow with his left — turned immediately onto his side, so that Kristopher was above him: Kristopher’s nose and mouth fully exposed to the open air. Breaking the surface and for a fraction motionless, Jon, as if to pause for breath, like life in death, love of soul and body for the darkling delight of the surging sea and the seething speed of a dream too living to live for a mere thought’s space, each limb and pulse of body rejoiced, radiated, each nerve of spirit, like the deluge of an idea — and how would you sink him? How would you keep submerged such buoyancy and strength of spirit-made-flesh?

    The round-and-round of a thousand eddies boiling, the churning roil, Jon breasted the raving waves where the black water slid out of the sand like a snake, white-foamed, brown-crested with the russet dust, and Jon pulled them both to the burning sand of the desert land. Overhead, the ruins of the western sky lay fanned out in a gigantic wash of light: a purple-and-scarlet sunset slaughter.

    Drenched and dripping clean, Jon pulled Kristopher from the freighted force of living water.

    The converging flow, now fully unleashed, swept out across all the desiccated dehydrated earth, nourishing it, dousing the drought-stricken soil — even as it swept over and through the maddened mob, dispersing these humans in a bright flash, flooding the white-hot hatred, their Godlike rage, sinking this solipsistic sea of subjectivity, snuffing the superstitious fires and satanic furnaces belching and burning with supernatural brimstone and flame, bursting the bottles and witch-bowls of magick material made, submerging the shards of dark devil glass — while the ones who make up this mob, each individual among them, swiftly drift with this moving current, this historic wash of water flowing away like time.

    Chapter 130

    First, there was the scent of thyme.

    It seeped through her body in the form of fevers — an invisible emanation, soft and swirling, like a drift of water.

    The imperceptible scent of a thing, she thought, like an essence, a soul continually released — but by what or whom? Of what chemistry composed? What matter?

    Entering like a phantom into the channels of her nose, the delicate fumes of thyme, born by currents of air, now surged more strongly inside her: flooding the cavities of her head, touching her olfactory’s enigmatical apparatus of cellular circuitry, complicated and living like a universal nexus of underground rivers — she thought of limestone landscapes and fragmented pieces of reflected light, sunlight in the shape of tapered jade, thin slabs of silver. She wanted to watch the city burning from high up here, fireworks detonating, bombardments of boom, cascading Niagaras of brightness, rockets streaking like roman candles across a daytime sky hung with a daytime moon — a city aflame in a myriad torches of light.

    “Do you recall the thyme-and-tequila drink you made me last time I visited?” Justine said.

    “Yes,” the bartender said, “of course I do. I am memory.”

    For the second time in her life, she saw in that skeletal face, flashing from somewhere behind the bartender’s dove-gray eyes, a twinkling — a playfulness which was perhaps mischievous.

    “You drank a drink called El Chupacabra,” the bartender said.

    “Yes,” she said.

    “I’m afraid it doesn’t actually exist.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I mean that there is no such thing. I mean it’s all figment — all totem and tattoo.”

    “The creature or the drink?”

    “The drink and the creature alike.”

    Justine cocked her head and narrowed her eyes.

    “May I recommend whiskey instead?” the bartender said.

    Justine did not reply.

    “Do you know, incidentally, what that word means?” the bartender said.

    “Which word? Whiskey?”

    “Yes.”

    “No,” Justine said. “No, I don’t.”

    “It’s a shortened version of a now-obsolete word: whiskybae. Which, in turn, is a variation of usquebaugh (pronounced: ASQUA-bah) from the Irish-Scottish Gaelic uisge-beatha, meaning ‘water of life’ — beatha meaning ‘breath.’ ‘Breath’ and ‘life’ are in some languages synonymous.”

    “Whiskey means water-of-life,” Justine said. But it was not a question.

    “As does the Polish word wodka,” the bartender said, “and the Russian vodka and the Scandinavian aquavit.

    Justine was silent for a long moment: silent and staring from high up across this illuminated desert city. She imagined she saw Baboquivari in the far distance, dry purple hills, fold upon fold, floating monolithic and unreal against the distant blue of the desert sky — like an isthmus between two heads of water: two heads merging into one mind.

    How long did she remain thus? And how many times had the screaming hawk wheeled around the screaming sun?

    To have said that her stillness and her soundlessness melted into a higher form of concentration would’ve been to cheapen the pristine quality of the experience — to shroud it in shabby words — as when the supernaturally stupefying suddenly sets in, and a miniature masterpiece is thereby launched through a medium of unspoken cues and facial ticks.

    Time meanwhile crawled on insect legs, carrying upon its back a despair of its own. Justine watched in the windowpane the ghostly reflection of the bartender, the posterior of whom she could see translucently, in reflection: sleek long hair platinum-colored and pinned back.

    The moments and even the years ahead seemed to hang on this bartender’s every move.

    All at once, then, in another flash-flood of thyme-flavored fume followed by a febrile flash of deeper insight, she realized something which struck her as obvious and yet not.

    She realized that all thought is a profoundly private and personal act, and she realized as an elaboration of this that all thoughtful souls to some extent exist forever in a state of solitude. And at that precise instant, something else occurred to her — something tragic — and she sat for several seconds staring at the glowing bartop, almost, it seemed, afraid to investigate or to disturb this new and horrifying thing, which had come unbidden to her brain.

    Her wristwatch ticked insect-like.

    Finally she spoke:

    “I’m dead, aren’t I?” she said.

    Gently the bartender smiled.

    “Always remember this,” the bartender said. “There is no super-nature. The word should not even exist. There is only nature. There is only one reality, and there is only one nature, and it is everything. Non-existence is not something. There is no nothing. Sensory perception is valid, and so is the brain.”

    All at once, a door slammed shut inside her skull, and everything went black.

    And black it remained for an indescribable time.

    Internally and in total solitude, Justine fought the blackness.

    She fought it singlehandedly, and she fought it with all her might, and she fought it not completely without fear but completely without cowardice — fought it so that it would not overtake her — until at last, very far off, in the formless emptiness which lay over the surface of the deep and over the arrant darkness which enveloped the face of that deep, something gleamed: it was a light.

    Infinitesimal, like an atom of silver moving upon the face of the waters, this light soon grew into a pinprick.

    The light continued to grow, and she nourished it internally, silently; and as the light grew, Justine heard a long lonesome wind howling on rollercoaster-rails down the swirling corridors of the hemisphere that is death’s district, and all around her yet only glimpsed, there now hovered like angels odd mercurial shapes made of multicolored vapor and gas. They pulled slowly apart, like taffy, khaki-colored, pink-ice, lightning-blue, soft animals of the eternal night, gamboling soundlessly beside her as if they would accompany her up to the gates of it all.

    She felt herself in some kind of distress.

    When at last the small silver light had grown bigger and then bloomed open in full, she discovered herself alone upon a windy northern shore which stood heaving in the dawn. There was mist and smoke and the reek of sulphur and pulsing through this sulphuric misty smoke a neptunian glow, where perhaps the first waters had just broke open. Wild vapors swirled and blew. Vast rivers of pink magma meandered like enormous serpents silent and creeping beneath the oceans, and from where she stood upon this rocky shore she could see their multi-pronged wanderings, as she could see also and all at once in the emerging dawn skyscraper-high eruptions of candyapple lava and colossal chunks of heaved-up earth exploding all about her, all about the raggedy edges of the ocean: a great hailstorm of rocks and iron slag and deep-earthen spalls of hot mud and other matter which fell back hissing into the cold and salty waters that lapped at her feet.

    Far away, then, as though disgorged from deep within the belly of primordial earth, coughed up from terrestrial lungs, there came a delicate shell shape, as of bones that were coral-made. This shape slurred before her eyes and became a stream of liquid silver, like a geyser of mercury, and she saw that out of the chaos, life does not come easily, but come it does, and once it does come, it is unstoppable. No sooner did she see this than a tremendous knocking resounded from the rocks behind her, as though some great sapient beast were hammering upon the doors of her soul.

    She half turned.

    A cowled and shadowy figure stood some distance away, behind the bars of Gehenna’s gates, and this figure held a skeleton key the size of which appeared to her preposterous, so large and looming was it. She watched this figure with the king-sized key now unlock the scalding gates, and out flowed a nation of horribles accompanied by the odor of death: evildoers impenitent and clamoring to leap back into the stew of their vice and pleasure — marauders and murderers, robbers and rapists, the violent and vainglorious, the dictator and the dispossessed, the wicked and the wanton, the deceptive and duplicitous, filicides and senicides and pedicides, miscreants, manipulators, prevaricators, pedophiles, arsonists, gluttons, cannibals, debauchees … they gushed one and all into the world and with such speed and size that the world wobbled slightly under their sheer flowing mass. And still they came. She watched them pour forth from the Sheol, and she watched them disperse through the byways and highways, the lanes and streets of the whole wide world — pursued every step of the way by the whisper of Wisdom herself with her pure logos and her absolute science which she invariably brought to bear upon the matter of all things human and healthy and good.

    A cool gust of wind blew over Justine. The smell of rainwater was inside this wind, mixed with the sweetly sour odor of dust: a dust of desolation. Small broken-necked flowers, Sweet William, nodded nearby her. They were bloody and brilliant and very beautiful even in death, somehow sentient, she saw now, and as the broken-necked flowers beside her bowed their heads in soft pastels and in resignation, she all at once felt herself flooded by grief for the sweetness and beauty of these flowers, and for their soul’s trouble.

    Gradually the light turned chrome-colored. Foreign constellations winking in the slate-blue vault above. She heard the wince of an anvil, and she turned. In the distance, she saw an artisan of some sort, perhaps a goldsmith or silversmith, and though she could not see this man’s face, she saw in his human mold how powerful he was, and she watched him crouched in concentration at his chosen task and trade, hammering out from cold metal slag some form of legal-tender for human marketplaces wherein the human species trucks, barters, and exchanges. She saw also that this was good.

    She found herself consulting an old-fashioned pocketwatch, which she’d just discovered about her person, and the hands of which were in that instant coming to rest.

    She lifted her eyes.

    Timepieces of all varieties hung everywhere about her — all of them winding down, running out of sand, overtaken by shadows, ceasing. Ceasing to mark and measure. A small cacophony of ticking coming to a stop, one clock at a time, the amplified seethe of sand running out through an enormous hourglass.

    Time, she thought, which is the quantification of movement, does not exist if there’s no quantifier. Only movement exists. But what moves? Things, she answered. Things move. Existing things. Entities. The movement of a thing is governed by its essence, its identity. To be is to be some thing. Timepieces need maintenance and people to maintain them.

    Someone should say something, she thought.

    She blinked slowly. When she opened her eyes, she felt the bartender was somewhere near, but she could not see precisely where. She felt the dove-gray eyes, playful and perceptive, zeroing in upon her like laserbeams.

    “You are superstition,” Justine whispered, though she still could not see anyone. “You are legion.”

    “It depends upon how you interpret it,” the bartender said. “Symbols and metaphors are separate from fact and truth. They are a tool, a method of quantifying and understanding. They make the abstract concrete.”

    She did not reply.

    The bartender appeared before her then: a calm and friendly presence.

    “You give me heart, Ms. Justine Strickland,” the bartender said. “By all that relumes, you do. You give me heart.”

    Chapter 131

    “Bullets often behave in an almost supernatural way,” the doctor said.

    “What do you mean?” Justine’s father said.

    “In the military,” the doctor said, “I used to tell young infantry soldiers that bullets are magic.”

    Justine’s father shook his head and scowled in incomprehension.

    “It’s not remotely as movies portray it,” the doctor explained. “Blood loss and massive internal hemorrhaging are by far the primary cause of death from bullet wounds. Heroes in movies often continue fighting valiantly through external injuries and wounds to the extremities, and so on. In actual armed conflict, however, it is disruption and damage to the vast internal peripheral and junctional artery-network which can cause death in minutes or even seconds. You, my good man, saved your daughter’s life by getting her to the ambulance so fast and stopping her bleeding. Your presence of mind and your speed saved her life.”

    Justine’s father did not say anything.

    “Penetrating bullet-trauma and tissue damage can cut through the arteries and large veins without alerting the body of problems,” the doctor said. “This is called ‘delayed exsanguination.’ With bullets in particular, it always comes down to placement and passage, which means that in bullet wounds, there’s always an element of chance and luck — insofar as the keenest sniper imaginable could not place a bullet with that level of precision into the immense underground network of human vessels, veins, arteries, nerves. These internal human systems are far, far too complex. I often tell recruits the story of an Israeli soldier I treated who not only survived six bullet-shots but wasn’t even seriously injured. You can look this up. All but two of those bullets went into his chest and throat — and one of the bullets in his throat lodged inside his esophagus, just as happened to your daughter. And do you know what?”

    Justine’s father shook his head.

    “He did exactly what your daughter did: he swallowed that silver-bullet. I swear to God. Look it up.”

    “He absorbed it.”

    “Yes,” the doctor said, “that’s exactly right: he absorbed it. And so did she. She swallowed the magic silver-bullet and absorbed it.”

    Chapter 132

    Before Justine opened her eyes, she heard the flat detonation of footsteps upon the tiles. Then shapes moved within the light and passed across her thin eyelids like flickers across a moviescreen. Her neck throbbed. Her tongue felt huge and swollen, like a live but beached fish insider her mouth, her dry chalky mouth. Her head felt as heavy as a medicine ball. At some point, she saw ranged before her several people, and yet even when she saw them, she was unsure if her eyes were open or closed, if she woke or dreamt.

    She first saw her father, in a chair to her right, the scarred and wisened face watching her with total love and concern and now relief.

    She next saw two male nurses in sea-colored scrubs, a lady doctor in a white lab-coat, and beside these three were two tall thin figures who looked alike, elegant and angular, and one of whom was Ash, who wore a floppy brimmed hat that cast deep shadows across the scarred face, who bowed to her and then introduced the other:

    “My sibling,” Ash said.

    This sibling likewise bowed, playful eyes glittering like mercury pools. It was the bartender.

    At her left, in a wheelchair, sat Kristopher Henley. Her insides liquefied.

    Kristopher was begowned exactly as she was in hospital garb. He held tightly to her hand, his thin and pale face injured-looking and yet clean — charged with a mix of suffering and kindness. Justine felt herself silently weep. She watched Kristopher for a long time — sweet Kristopher, she thought, sweet beautiful Kristopher — and she did not know if he was real, even as she gripped his living flesh in return, which, real or not, brought her succor.

    Then she heard other footsteps.

    Immediately her heart inserted an extra beat. For in hearing those footsteps, she heard as well, and then she saw — saw in the inclination of the head and in his every subsequent movement when he came in from the hall — that the whole aim of life was to be happy … and it was Jon, the one who had outsmarted them all.

    Chapter 133

    On an evening in early July, during a desert festival in honor of Independence Day, a number of people near Baboquivari witnessed a strange happening — something that each and every one, children included, would never forget or misremember in any detail.

    They watched a solitary and swarthy young man trot rapidly across the winding trails and up the lower and middle part of Baboquivari Mountain, a small pack about his waist, and then in the twilight they saw this same man scale with the speed and fluidity of a spider the sheer rock wall that led to the apex of Baboquivari peak.

    From below, they watched his arcane movements upon the summit. Some even viewed him through binoculars, yet none could tell what he was doing. By and by, his movement ceased, and for a long time, no one could see him, as though he’d cloaked himself.

    Darkness fell.

    A certain restlessness and apprehension grew among the onlookers, and though they didn’t say it, none believed that this incident was trivial, or accidental. They called friends and family, all of whom, moving in a current that flowed, also gathered below — below Baboquivari to watch above them the hulking neck between two heads.

    Midsummer when primeval darkness comes across the desert. Presently in this rich primeval darkness, they saw the shadowy figure reemerge. This figure now crouched down as though in genuflection, and then there was more movement, and at last from atop the neck-shape of Baboquivari, a light sputtered and a silvertailed rocket like sperm swerved toward Canis Major.

    High, high above — above their upturned gazes and their goggle eyes and mouths agape — in a blast of energetic order and then a spray of hot glycerin, an enormous firework flared across the night.

    It was a firework unlike any they’d ever beheld. It kept detonating, bursting forth, like a profound well of light.

    It lit the land in gales of silver-white.

    Its egg of astral brightness grew bigger and bigger, swiftly, unstoppably, like a quicksilver stream and then a mercury flower opening wider and wider, a chrysanthemum shedding petals, and finally came the deep sonic boom, a man-made boom that exploded out and vibrated deeply through each neural system of each person among them.

    Long after the light and sound faded, the onlookers saw creep across the blackness of space, in a strangely luminous aura, green seaworms of light like jungle vines, seeds growing into stalks and then pops from a pod, hairy tarantulas crawling through space. Then, drifting invisibly and in a way so gradual and so subtle that almost no one among them was aware, the soft scent of thyme spiked the xeric air.

    The clean gentle wind poured down.

    It poured like water through the Baboquivari ravines. It quivered the grass, and it swept across the desert and continued blowing. In the wind were small seeds that the wind was sowing — wind like a current of truth, a river unleashed, a vodka-clear stream, forever flowing.

    The End


    November 5th, 2018 | journalpulp | 74 Comments | Tags:

About The Author

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning as the constant in my life.

74 Responses and Counting...

  • Ms. Jeffry 11.05.2018

    Should I read this yet? J

  • I would love for you to read it.

  • I wish I could highlight!! Loving the flow so far.
    “The bones in her face lay like blades, threatening at any moment to slice through her papery skin”…. painfully beautiful, visual.

  • Ms.

    ‘the eudaemonia of entelechy’…..this is brilliant!

    What a trippy ride I’m immersed in here…hanging on for the next turn of events…

  • Neck Between Two Heads. Very discriptive from motorcycle accident to mountain range layout and ending with the head roll. Enjoyed reading yet another piece wondering where do you come up with this stuff?

  • Fucking acid trip bro.

  • I’ve read all of your novels (with varying enthusiasm), and this so far is my favorite.

  • “(with varying enthusiasm)”

    HAHA!

    But you keep coming back for more! A man can’t ask more than that.

    For your backhanded compliment, Ms. Mallory, and for your readership, I bless you, wish you life, thank you for dropping by.

  • Yes, I keep coming back for more and sometimes I ask myself why. But you know what it is?

    Even if I don’t always agree with your position, your characters live and breathe and make me think.

  • This is one the strangest stories I’ve ever read.

  • Bri

    It’s fascinating to watch your process and how it comes together — what you take out and what you change and what you leave in. I’ve learned so much about writing from reading your stories as you put them up here and seeing how you go about it, with all of your books. Gap-Toothed Girl and this one are my favorites. I LOVE Dusty May, and the ending of that book made me cry. You’re an amazing writer and an amazing bartender and an amazing person, and I feel so fortunate to have met you. Thank you for always remembering us and what we drink and what we like, and for making us feel so welcome wherever you worked, even when you don’t see us for two or three years, yet you still always remember exactly what we like. (Cava, Clos du Val, water with no ice! That blew my mind, Ray!)

  • Brianna, my dear, how could I ever forget you?

    Thank you for reading my literature, and thank you for dropping by.

  • Ray Harvey —

    Second attempt to comment here. My first one disappeared.

    I have played jazz in boo koo bars around the world, and your hospitality and bartending are second to no one. I had no clue you wrote books. Thank you for getting me in the know and telling me. I read all the time and I love it. Like Smokey said above “Fucking acid trip bro.”

    You da best bruda!

  • My friend, you-da-best
    from NYC to Athens to Budapest.

    Thank you very much for reading and commenting.

    And thank you for dropping by.

  • LB

    You send me to the dictionary too much, Ray-Ray. But it’s hella inspiring to watch you crank out whole fucking novels on journal pulp. I remember when you first started this website back in 2012 or whenever it was. Thank you for the invite to
    read, old friend. I’ll by the first in line to buy the hard copy!

  • It was 2011, LB! I can hardly believe it myself.

    Thank you for reading, old friend, and thank you for going to the dictionary — and thank you for dropping by.

  • Thank you, Ray. This is definitely some of your best writing to date, but my favorite is still Reservation Trash (I’m a runner, what can I say? 🙂

    Interesting strategy putting up the whole book. The writer in me is curious to know how it works in terms of sales. Care to share? I could imagine it going either way.

    You’re awesome and I hope to drink one of your Old Fashions again soon!

  • “The writer in me is curious to know how it works in terms of sales. Care to share?”

    Hiya Jaimie! It works well. The majority of people, if they like the story, will buy the finished book — a phenomena for which I’m eternally grateful.

    More than anything, though, I believe it helps promulgate my literature — all of it cumulatively, I mean. Reservation Trash, for instance, which is my bestselling book so far, has been surging the last several weeks on Kindle, and I know that at least two very kind readers, who have large followings on their “platforms,” found Reservation Trash initially through the Journal Pulp and went on to buy the eBook and write about it. A popular graphic-novel writer found Gap-Toothed Girl through this website as well, and he wrote me a kind letter about how much he enjoyed it.

    Fundamentally, though, apart from everything else, it’s never primarily been about the sales but the literature itself, and the whole thing is a process I’ve long been doggedly pursuing: trying to create and capture something true and beautiful on the page. That is the fundamental thing here. I am aware how pseudo and silly and highbrow that sounds, and call me a stupid sentimental fuck — which I am. Yet I’m not exaggerating. And I don’t pretend that I succeed. Still, I’ve found that, in spite of the many mistakes, missteps, and new ideas that invariably come with doing it this way, getting the basic story and characters set down in concrete form — not an outline but the actual story with the characters who populate it — getting it on the page is the the most important step, my excellent readers keeping me honest, and the driving force in my doing this is my desire to create and capture in words something real and beautiful within the body of the human experience, which I hope my characters show.

    Thank you for reading, Jaimie. Thank you so much. And thank you for dropping by.

    Come for an Old Fashion soon, before I’m gone.

  • Gav

    Do you even play basketball, mother f*cker?

  • Haha! All-State, motherfucker! Don’t believe me? Just ask your fucking mother. She had a great time.

    (Only kidding. Or am I?)

    I must say, ol’ chap, of all people, you’re among the very last I’d expect to not have the cajones to write out the entire word “motherfucker” but put an asterisk there instead. I literally laughed my head off when I saw that.

    Literally — yes — I laughed my head off.

  • Sam

    Ray!

    This story is AMAZING and crazy. And You have been prolific, sir.

  • Thank you, Samantha.

    Isn’t it remarkable how much other work one can get done when one is not bartending 50-plus hours per week.

    I appreciate your reading, and I thank you for dropping by!

  • Jesus, Ray! Great literature.

    ‘the eudaemonia of entelechy’…..this is brilliant! *Indeed!*

    “Come for an Old Fashion soon, before I’m gone.”

    Rut-row.

  • Hiya Scott!

    I had a feeling you’d hook into this particular story — given its theme, I mean; heretic that you are, I mean. (Which is one of the many things we love about you.)

    Thank you for reading.

    Thank you for dropping by.

    Thank you for knowing Scooby-Dooby-Doo.

    Thank you.

  • Sam

    PS. We did “The Woman Who Made A Pact With The Devil” for book club and it gave us alot to talk about. Everybody really liked it, the erotic scenes most of all! 😉 Seriously though they”re sexy but not too raunchy, and also you don’t often read such scenes from the woman’s POV, especially when the author is male.

  • DIggin’ this! Snek does a glug, glug (and then looks around – LOL): https://www.reddit.com/r/Sneks/comments/5zu4nw/snek_does_a_glug_glug/

  • That’s awesome footage, Scott. Thank you.

  • ~There are wells, often very deep, dug into certain human hearts, and over which wells rare birds of insight fly. ~

  • ~There are wells, often very deep, dug into the human heart, and over these wells, rare birds of insight occasionally fly.~

    ~There are wells, often very deep, dug into certain human hearts, and over these wells rare birds of insight sometimes fly. ~

    Typo of mine in previous response …

    … really like this sentence, Ray!

    See that you are tweaking this and other parts of this work. Fun to witness!

  • End of 72 …. what is it? What is it? What is it? : )

  • ME

    I had a feeling it was something like a dust storm that Jon saw coming….
    But a Haboob! Wow! How terrifying!

  • DD

    “No human eye may see dispassionately — and what haunts the human heart will, when at last it’s found, sometimes flash so brightly that it blinds the eye, leaving the rest of life in darkness.”

    Mr Harvey,

    This is one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read.

  • You!

    The one whose sense for beauty is profound and wild and starlike.

  • Hard for me to know which is more horrifying – Lugat or that 161-word sentence. : )

  • Hard for me to know which is more horrifying – Lugat or that 161-word sentence. : )

    Come on, now!

  • DD

    I decided to read this from the beginning but still hoping to catch up.
    Chapter 1 and this is so real, heartbreakingly beautiful
    “The bones in her face lay like blades, threatening at any moment to slice through her papery skin”
    “The curtains swayed like ghosts”
    “her hand still warm and living and grasping: like the autumn season, both beautiful and dying”
    “her neck between her head and his head”
    “death is not a thing to treat lightly”
    Your talent…I can’t get over it. Writer, poet at heart, a rare gift.
    Anyhow, you should know I’m not predisposed to complimenting writers but your work is exceptional.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • I simply cannot tell you how much I appreciate your comments and your readership.

  • Ditto. Chapter 1 hooked me, hard.
    A poet at heart, indeed: https://journalpulp.com/2013/10/12/autumnal

  • DD

    Agreed, Scott.
    Autumnal is a poem I will never forget.

  • DD

    “I mean that he loves being alone more than any person I’ve ever come across — not occasionally, as many people do, or even often, but almost always. I’ve thought that there’s something timeless and eternal in this — in Jon. Not that he won’t ever die, of course, but that you can imagine him existing just like this forever.”

    Love the food for thought here. I’d never thought of it this way but it rings so true, I wonder why I hadn’t. Again, thank you.

  • You!

    Thank you.

  • DD

    Chapter 14 is excellent. Excellent!

  • You and your comment are excellente.

  • DD

    “In the depths of the human eye is revealed the quality of the person contained within. If nothing shines forth from behind the eyes, it is because nothing in that brain thinks, nothing in that soul contemplates, and the heart inside has grown cold — the life-force diminished or dead.

    Small souls blink and dart their eyes. Large souls possess eyes that radiate and flash with bolts of brightness.”

    “nature in the broadest sense is the universe — the universe being everything which is.”

    “Nothing that exists can transcend nature, because if it exists, it is part of nature by definition.”

    “How could something beyond nature ever be called upon from nature — by prayer or by curse or by anything else? How if it is beyond nature could it be invoked in any way that would connect it to the natural world? How could these two realms in any manner whatsoever coincide, crossover, or touch? And how could human consciousness, which is entirely natural, discover it or know about it in any way, even by mystical means, if this other realm is beyond nature?”

    “They are superstitions.

    They therefore float forever in the murky realm of the unverifiable, the unprovable, the unknowable, the hexed and demon-haunted Gondwanaland of uncertainty and the arbitrary, where new offshoots and denominations and rules and permutations and doctrines and quasi-doctrines spring up and mushroom endlessly, and where uncertainty, anxiety, fear, trembling, and even loathing of the knowable universe — which is everything real — rear heads from that one single neck of superstition and mock the meat they feed upon: the value of human effort and human creativity and ingenuity in the real and remarkable realm of the natural universe.”

    I mean, look at that.

  • I don’t know how to thank you.

  • Awaiting 88 …

    So enjoying this tantalizingly released evermore seamless ride of existence, potential, reality, human perception, and imagination … as well as the education you have been known to afford the reader in many of your other works as it is yet another example of a well-executed synthesis of two (or more wtfdik) of your many approaches to the written word.

    https://twitter.com/Rainmaker1973/status/1132662895555350528

    http://bfy.tw/NvHM

  • Thank you very much, friend.

    Those links are awesome.

  • Dan

    No clue where this story is going but I’m hanging on every word.

  • Dan

    And whatever drugs you’re on, why aren’t you sharing!

  • Drugs, Dan? It is trippy. As, Ms. and Terre have also observed : )

    At places for me, reading NBTH is sort of like imbibing out of a glass* like this: https://www.reddit.com/r/SweatyPalms/comments/c41ei0/i_cant_handle_this/

    * “Borosilicate glass is a type of glass that contains boron trioxide which allows for a very low coefficient of thermal expansion.” (Sound like anyone we know?)

    Lots of fun re-reaching and re-reading! 🙂 And discovering something I missed the first time and while still not knowing I am missing other things in those subsequent readings.

    What is our author on? … thinking also a lion’s share of blood, sweat, and tears, among other things we’ll never be privy to.

    Can’t wait to re-read this all over again once it is “in the can.” WTF is going to happen next? (I think after every “tune in next week” ending of many of the chapters. LOL. It has been SO FUN to read this in installment form, and to catch glimpses of revisions as it continues to be released.

    These months have felt like being invited to the other side of the velvet ropes – best back stage pass, ever.

    Well-stated, Dan. I, too, am hanging on every word of this piece.

  • I so appreciate your readership and your comments.

    Dan, my friend, the reason — the only reason — I’m not sharing is that I do not think you could hang with the drugs I’m ingesting.

  • P.S. Scott, that video is wild.

  • Folks,

    If you haven’t been doing a Save As on this piece from time to time … missing out. But as other readers here could also attest – the act of revisiting this site multiple times a week these past months has been as much of a trip as the story itself.

    From this perspective, attentive readers have been bestowed the sensation of looking over the author’s shoulder and witnessing genuine evolution of chapters. Among many other things, this continues to be an honor and joy to experience. Thanks, Ray.

  • Ms.

    Chapter 94!!!!!! Illuminating and sensuous…

  • Ch. 105
    8:10 PM
    Tuesday, July 30, 2019
    Mountain Time (MT)

    Great literature helps us unmask ourselves.

    Morgan, now horsey w no name … someone needs to cheer me the fuck up.

    Seldom such knifing drama, as it has so few, yet so effective words, hard not to imagine being on that horse or the author allowing us to dare envision a gifted director tackling that short intense scene, who shares a similarly spelled middle name as some cat once lived in Balto. Once I read The End, I gotta go back and start Carrie from Homeland-ing this whole story/thing on a wall.

  • “who once lived in Balto” … Morgan’s lips on the cold, hard, invisible, vertical earth kind of put in the wine celler of the Cask of Amontillado. : )

  • …hid themselves in the human grottoes of the cloaca.

    Which is why every banshee blows down these dark and hidden hallways, where the mephitic mists of human history hover and drift.

    The ghosts of all humanity who whisper through the underworld corridors of human civilization.

    damn

  • Ms.

    “Nothing new under the sun exists — which is to say, the principles do not change, though the concretes do. And try as you will, you’ll never annihilate that eternal relic of the human heart: love. The depth of truth, the quality of communication, the level of maturity, the time required to build authentic intimacy — emotional intimacy, which is what love consists of — is even more demanding when trying to build and maintain multiple intimate relationships, whether sexual or no”

    Beautiful!

  • Whoa.

  • Be like water.

  • Be like water.

    Thank you for your amazing readership, and your even more amazing friendship.

  • Phew! Fuckin’ A, Ray! What a ride! Thank you for allowing us to read this as you wrote it for over the past near year! It was a great deal of more fun than simply reading a book one weekend. The rewrites alone were amazing to witness. I know I have missed many and now look forward to reading the piece as one – for the first time.

    Not many authors share work in this manner. The installations that were added throughout the year were joys of fun each week. What were/are your motivations for letting us in in this way?

  • Sam

    YAY!!!

    I didn’t know if you would pull it off, but you did it!

  • what a life taker

  • it’s over?
    say it aint so

  • Ray, my young brother, I’m so proud of you! So original and SO good!

  • I’ve feel like I’ve been immersed for 10 months in an alternate reality. And, honestly, I’m sad to see it end. Beautiful.

  • Ms.

    I ditto Mallory and Scott’s sentiments above. Say it isn’t over, I’m sad to see it come to an end. Although admittedly I thought 126 was The End as it left me with comfort , like the burst of dawn. This has been an incredible piece, as always, and I am transformed, transfixed and tantalized through your words. I too, look forward to reading it again from the beginning. Bravo!

  • I could never fully express how grateful I am — for your readership and sweetness.

    My thanks to you all.

  • What a story, what an ending! Stilll trying to figure it all out, You are one of kind, sir.

  • This is as much poetry as it is prose, chap 63 blew my mind. AMAZING writing Ray Harvey!

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