Baboquivari Mountains, southwest of Tucson. “Baboquivari” is a Tohono O’odham word that means “neck between two heads.”
This happened shortly after his mother died, when he was seventeen-years-old, and the real violence had not yet begun. The day after her death, he dropped out of high school and went to live with his half brother, whom he’d only met once, eight years before.
His half brother’s name was Jon. He lived in a shotgun shack between Nogales and Tucson, at the end of a sandy road immediately beyond which rose the Baboquivari Mountains. In the opposite direction, in the middle distance, there was saguaro and Candlewood and a desert as wide and windy as the sea. Beyond that, very far away, slate-blue hills floated ghostly above the earth.
His mother had been sick for many months, but she refused to have herself treated. She was ready to die, she said. He could see in her eyes that this was true. Too much heartbreak and hardship in her life. She was still young — not yet fifty-five.
The sickness had started in her womb and then it spread throughout her whole body. She was at home the entire time she was sick, and he took care of her as best he could. In those final weeks, he asked her questions about her early years, the places she’d lived, her long-dead mother, her father, who was a decorated soldier and who was still alive, and whom he never knew, and he asked her also about the things she had hoped for in her life. She answered him thoughtfully. Then she drifted off into heartbreaking silence and stillness.
The day before she died, she told him he was to go live with his half brother. She told him that he could find his address in the little book she kept in her desk drawer.
The next day, when he went to her in the morning, she was unconscious though still alive. It was raining outside. His mother’s eyes were closed. A small breeze blew in through the window. The bones in her face lay like blades, threatening at any moment to slice through her papery skin. Her breath was rattled. Her veins shone prominently, and he could see her heart beating in her neck.
He went to the window and opened it wider to receive more of the cool autumn air, and then he knelt on the floor beside her and held her hand, which was so dry and thin and bird-like. He stared long into her caved and wasted face, the veins on her eyelids like rivers on a map, and he was too tired to feel much of anything beyond resignation. The heavy blankets did not rise or fall beneath her tiny breath.
He thought of death.
He stared at the heartbeat in her neck. The breeze blew into the room billowing the thin cloth curtains and bringing with it the smell of dying leaves and foggy moisture. The curtains swayed like ghosts.
After an hour, she coughed hard and started to gag. She half sat up. Her eyes remained closed. She had not spoken since the day before, but now in a loud voice filled with finality and utter authenticity she called out his name:
“Kristopher,” she said.
“I am here, ” he said. “I’m right here.”
He squeezed her hand more tightly, and she responded to his grip by squeezing his hand with a strength he didn’t know his fading mother still possessed — her hand still warm and living and grasping: like the autumn season, both beautiful and dying.
Soon she stopped gagging and her raggedy breath stopped as well. He could still see her heartbeat in her neck — her neck between her head and his head, where he knelt beside her. He watched her heartbeat for a long time. He watched it pulse. The pulse grew slower and slower. Her grip eased gradually, and gradually her body went slack, and then her pulse stopped altogether and she died.
He thought: death is not a thing to treat lightly.
He rose from where he knelt on the floor and gazed down at her one last time. Her wine-colored lips, the turquoise veins so visible everywhere beneath her thin and pale skin. A small frown knitted into the fabric of her skin above the bridge of her nose. At length, he turned and slung his duffel bag over his shoulder, and then he left this small apartment home forever.
He’d come from the New Mexican village of Dulce, in the heart of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. His full name was Jonathon Silverthorne. He was a peculiar person. From the time he was a very young child, he existed in a kind of savage isolation, not involuntarily or unhappily, and not in a penitential way, but the opposite: serene and self-contained, who bore his father’s barehanded beatings with a stoicism unfathomable in one so young. He left school when he was fifteen and went to work in the uranium mines outside of Grants, and for three years he worked in these mines and saved up his money.
After this time, when he was still a teenager, he came back to his childhood home on the reservation. His father was still alive but infirm, and he helped his stepmother take care of him. Here also Jon bought tobacco seeds through the mail, and in the backyard of this home, under the glass panes of a ramshackle hothouse he himself had cobbled together, he grew twenty-five tobacco plants, from which he proceeded to manufacture cigarettes.
He purchased five-thousand empty cigarette tubes which had filters, and he bought also a small hand-powered device that loaded and packed the tubes with his homegrown tobacco. He packaged his cigarettes in small cardboard boxes and wrapped the boxes in cellophane and then sold them off-reservation on the black-market, for a low price and a significant profit, which he then buried deep in the ground, in a remote sector of the New Mexican desert — until he was caught.
Shortly after, at age nineteen, before his trial, he slipped away from the reservation in the dead of night. Under blue starlight, he retrieved his money from the desert ground, and he saw neither his father nor the reservation ever again. Only his mother, who lived four-hundred miles away, in Flagstaff, knew of his whereabouts now, and this was because he went to her after he’d fled, and he told her where he was going and why, because he loved her very much. That was eight years ago.
Jon had good hands and dark hooded eyes and a slow articulate way of talking — a contemplative cast of mind with a disposition inclined toward silent observation. He spoke very little and was calm. Women were drawn to him. He was wiry-strong and agile, but he was also relaxed. There was an odd ease in all his movements and in his gait.
He read a lot. He read and he thought.
He lived alone now on the fringes of the desert, in a stone shotgun shack, at the end of a sandy road that fizzled out into a low rise of boulder-studded hills. He rented this house and fixed it up and kept it immaculately clean: neat as a pin.
He worked sporadically in the copper mines, when they were open, and he saved his money, and then he bought this home and its small surrounding property. The house sat on a slight eminence of land above gullies of sand, east of which the low Sierritas stood raggedy against the sky.
Sometimes he’d meet a woman in Tucson, and she’d come home with him and stay for a few days in his dwelling among the cactus. These women were attracted by his calm and his silence. They all thought him not like anyone they’d ever known — though when one day his half brother Kristopher arrived unannounced, the only one home was Jon.
They shook hands in the desert twilight. It was early autumn. Ladybugs swarmed the greenish air. Gathering swallows twittered in the sky.
Jon didn’t say anything, but kindness came off him like radioactivity, and he understood what this visit implied.
He knew their mother had died.
Because Jon Silverthorne was a private and independent person, he was therefore by his distant desert neighbors unbeloved.
He was looked upon suspiciously.
There were other reasons for this as well: The house he lived in was a haunted house. Everybody knew this. Everybody except Jon.
Such places exist all throughout the world — in city or in country — because a house, like a human, can become a cadaver.
Superstition alone often suffices to make it so.
Even on city streets full of city-dwellers, you’ll come upon such haunted homes: these are places where the windows are busted out or boarded up, where ivy or honeysuckle chokes and occludes the doorways, where the grass in winter is gray, not brown, and where the steps, if there are any, have long since crumbled into desuetude, the roofs half caved in. If there’s a garden, it’s all weeds and hemlock. Peculiar insects prowl these precincts. Often there’s a thick tangle of spiderwebs, loaded with dead or dying flies, which discloses the deep serenity drawn in by the spiders.
The Devil dwells in such haunted places, coming mostly at night, and superstitious populations are not at all easy on the subject of the Devil.
The house in which Jon lived had for many years been haunted, but it was so no longer. He had civilized it. He was a civilizing force. Both he and the house were therefore all the more suspect.
Further, he himself did not believe in God or gods or devils.
He was cordial to people, but he was not talkative. He was polite, yet not familiar. He let people be.
Often he went out at night.
He was sometimes seen or heard walking alone through the desert, sunk in thought, whistling softly: a lone piper in the oceanic dark. He liked the desert. He liked the warm air. He was also fond of mountains and the sea and of the earth as a whole. He had hundreds of books stacked floor to ceiling. He was a lucubrator and an encyclopedic reader. His light burned late into the night, glowing cream-colored in his black Apache eyes, and it was even rumored that he was working on something monumental, something perhaps containing sorcery, sacrilege — and worse: a defense of the absolute sanctity of each individual life.
He also cultivated ladybugs. He farmed and grew them, so that their populations now teemed in the hyaline air outside around his clean home of stone: ladybugs which symbolized a colorful and vibrant life, a life of hope, happiness, good fortune and beauty, here on this earth, which Silverthorne believed in.
Jon Silverthorne’s half brother, Kristopher Henley, lived with him for the next year, after which time something horribly unexpected occurred. But before that thing happened, in the weeks immediately following his arrival, he dwelt quietly in his half brother’s home and was often alone when Jon was away in the mines. They got along. Kristopher never asked for anything. He was not finical, ate whatever was put in front of him and was grateful. He was just over average height and slender. His features were soft and handsome. He had brown eyes and wheat-light hair, which he wore cut high-and-tight, with a thick forelock that hung over his right eye. He was, from a very early age, a swimmer and a runner — not doing either competitively but as an outlet for his energy — and his young heart was so strong that it had become dangerously overdeveloped and enlarged, his resting heartbeat thudding reptile-slow.
His mother had left him a small sum of money and a graphite-gray Mazda, and now and then he drove into Tucson to take in a movie, or to just walk around. It almost seemed as though he were waiting for something to happen, and yet in actuality he was not waiting. He was thinking. He remained mostly in the desert.
He watched for hours, day after day, the late-September butterfly migration, their jinking flight, the bull bats of twilight.
Lovely little ladybugs, like miniature chopper fleets, banged into his body by mistake.
Sometimes, completely alone, he walked out into the bat-black moonless night and stood atop the sand gullies, beneath the desert sky. Here he’d listen to the migrating Sandhill Cranes pounding blackly by. They flew high overhead, unseen, rocketing southward. He could feel the great hum of their unisonic wingbeat throughout his whole body, like an electrical current in the darkness: it galvanized him and at the same time filled him with a sense of longing and sadness he could not name, or erase.
Cars ghosted down the distant highway, and he thought of the people in these cars and wondered who they were. What futures were they driving toward?
Their headlights swept lunar-like through the night.
He began running in the desert.
In school, he’d not been a poor student: he’d just not done much of anything. Toward the end, after his father (whose first and last name he shared and whom he dearly loved) had one day without warning or a word of explanation vanished like a ghost and then his mother got sick, he’d grown even more apathetic and disinterested in school: sitting day after day with his head down on the desk, in the back of the classroom, eyes closed, migrainous and nauseated.
Yet he was privately pleased when without prompting now, Jon undertook the task of teaching him things. He taught him Latin and Greek. Where Jon learned these, Kristopher never knew, but he thought that in a strange way, these things suited his brother’s personality: something venerable, elegant, rarified.
Jon had a fat and faded book of brown leather, full of strange neat Greek symbols in his own remarkable handwriting, and he wrote in this book daily.
Kristopher quickly came to love his brother’s slow, patient voice, his methodical methods and manner of teaching, the pure clarity of his explanations — and more: he came to love the sense of understanding and self-development this learning fostered within him.
Outside, beyond the kitchen table where they sat, behind the stone house, there was a once-dead water-well which Jon had revivified, and through the kitchen window, they could see the bright ribbon of crystal water that twisted through the rocky ravine, beside a stand of very small almond trees he’d planted. In front were people-sized paloverde, a single saguaro cactus. Above, at the end of the sandy road, the Baboquivari Mountains stood dry and purple and rather unreal, fold after fold, floating monolithic against the vast and distant blue of the desert sky, like an isthmus between two heads of water.
In the late autumn, on a Friday, a change blew in with the shifting wind. A woman came.
It was early evening. Kristopher was outside, sitting on a rock shelf a quarter-mile from the house, his back against a flat slab of stone, which was warm with the stored heat of the day. Low overhead, a golden eagle drifted on the updrafts that poured down from the Baboquivari ravines. He heard his brother’s truck approaching. He stood and walked ten paces to the ridge above, where he could see to the house. The truck kicked up a pall of desert dust which glowed blood-red in the long horizontal rays of the evening sun. The lavender mountains shimmered. The truck stopped in the small driveway, and then the engine went silent. A dark-skinned woman in a half-shirt emerged from the passenger’s side. She was rather full-figured yet also rather willowy, with a curvy torso that was perfectly proportionate with the rest of her body. A golden star of sunlight winked from a hoop in her navel.
Jon saw Kristopher standing above, and he waved from behind his steering wheel. Kristopher came down. His brother and the woman appeared on the trail, and here, amid ocotillo and cholla, he was introduced to a beautiful blue-eyed woman, whose name was Justine.
“This is my brother Kristopher,” Jon said. “Kristopher, this is my friend Justine.”
She extended her hand and they shook.
“It’s very good to meet you,” she said.
“It’s very good to meet you too,” he said.
A ladybug crash-landed into his hair. Very gently she reached over and removed it. He smelled the human scent of her skin. She watched the ladybug crawl across her fingers, until it took flight on diaphanous and intricately veined wings which turned crimson in the last rays of the sun.
She was from a small Arizona town called Saint Johns. She was twenty-seven. She’d studied zoology at the University of Arizona and had just recently graduated. She liked insects and bugs, and she told Jon and Kristopher that, in fact, ladybugs aren’t bugs at all but beetles. She said that in some places, ladybugs are actually called lady beetles or even ladybirds, and that in Russian they’re known as bozhya korovka, which means “God’s little cow,” perhaps because they’re gentle and piebald, she said. She said that in several other languages as well they are known as the “little cow.”
She asked Kristopher if he knew that these little feminine creatures play dead when they’re threatened, and he shook his head and said no, he did not.
She grew animated and lively as she spoke, and they both watched her, and they both became captivated by her passion for this subject and by her articulate and authentic manner of speaking.
In the end, she turned to Kristopher and told him that the “lady” in “ladybug” refers to Mary the mother of Christ, much as his name — Kristopher — means “bearer of Christ” and that in this sense, she said, the symbolic sense, his name had something significant in common with the mother.
He squinted at the ceiling in thought and considered that word.
Justine asked Jon about the open book at his elbow, the strange neat Greek characters in his own handwriting.
Jon answered her that it was a passage he’d written which he called “Symbols and Superstitions,” and he said it was in part about Baboquivari.
“What specifically?” she asked.
“Hindu historians have always claimed that in distant times, their East-Indian ancestors visited every part of the world and even accurately mapped the entire globe. They claim also that these ancient ancestors mined gold and silver and copper in such places as Michigan, Colorado, and Arizona, and they say also that these same Indo-European explorers often visited the Americas via large teakwood ships — six-masted, over two-hundred-fifty feet long — and did so up until 1200 AD. The gospel of their main deity Shiva is the world’s first religion, they say, and the progenitor of all religions coming after. I write about a man named Andres Perez de Ribas, a Spanish priest who traveled to America in the 1630’s and who wrote a book called My Life Among the Savage Nations of New Spain, and in this book, he describes a Northern Mexican tribe who worshiped two deities: Viriseva and a mother goddess named Vairubai. Viriseva means ‘Lord Siva’ in Sanskrit. It is speculated that Vairubai is perhaps a variation on Bhairava, which is another name of Siva’s consort, Goddess Durga. Also, the word ‘copper’ derives from the name Kuvera, who was a Phoenician philosopher-king, reportedly very brilliant, and who in 5000 BC learned how to smelt gold and copper and other metals.”
“Is this true?” she said.
“No,” Jon said. “It’s a combination of myth, legend, and superstition. Hindu mythology states that the philosopher-king Kuvera and the God Shiva lived in a barren, mineral-poor, and bitter-cold pyramidical peak called Kailash, which resembles Baboquivari Peak — which is also known to the Arizona O’Odhams as Babo-Kheeveri. The superstition to this day is that Babo-Kheeveri and the Afghan Kheeveri mountains are filled with unlimited gold, copper, and precious stones. What is true, I can personally attest, is that even today much of the gold and copper mined in this part of Arizona leaks ceaselessly out of the Baboquivari mountain range. And as the Hindus, the Jains and the Buddhists call Mount Kailash ‘the navel of the world,’ so do the O’Odhams give Baboquivari the same distinction: because they regard the earth as a mother egg, which contains all good and nourishing things in it.”
Justine stayed the weekend. Early Monday morning, as Jon, who would be gone for next twenty days, was preparing to drive Justine back to Tucson, Kristopher awoke and came outside and stood with them.
She extended her hand in a gesture of farewell, and Kristopher asked her if she would like to stay.
He told her that he’d take her back, and she looked at Jon, who smiled. She kissed Jon’s cheek and said okay.
She stayed for a few hours which became a few days. As it turned out, they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. They had much to talk about. They went for desert runs together, and they also looked for animals together, and he discovered that she was able to spot these creatures more rapidly than he was: desert kangaroo rats, javelinas, thrasher and quail perched upon the rocks with a rock background, a motionless mountain lion far away on the lion-colored hillside.
He took her up to the ledge where he liked to sit and read. Here he showed her how to shoot his twenty-two rifle, and she even killed a rabbit with it, hitting the rabbit right in the jugular, and that evening she showed him how to dress and cook it — something she’d learned as a young girl, she said, from her mother.
While they were eating, she told him that Jon had helped her “negotiate” her oil-change.
“That’s how we met,” she said. “I think he’s the strangest, most fascinating person I’ve ever known.”
“Some people think he’s the Devil,” Kristopher said.
She smiled and then she laughed, but he did neither.
“I’m not exactly why, but I don’t think it’s funny,” he said. “It worries me.”
“There is no God or devil,” she said, “as there is no super-nature. There’s only the universe, and the level verdict in your eyes, and the beauty of your nomenclature.”
“What is that?”
“It’s something I once heard,” she said.
He looked thoughtful but didn’t reply.
“You’re here all alone when Jon is working?” she said.
“Do you get lonely?”
“No,” he said. “I’m alone, but I’m not lonely.”
“Then you are in that regard much like Jon.”
“In your love of being alone. He’s the most genuinely solitary person I’ve ever known.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that he loves being alone more than any person I’ve ever come across — not occasionally, as many people do, or even often, but almost always. I’ve thought that there’s something timeless and eternal in this — in Jon. Not that he won’t ever die, of course, but that you can imagine him existing just like this forever.”
Kristopher considered this, but he did not say anything.
The next day, while he was driving her back to her home in Tucson, Kristopher spoke:
“I have an over-developed heart,” he said, “from swimming and running. ‘Exercise-induced cardiomegaly,’ the doctors call it. They say it’s rare in someone my age, but it does happen. It could kill me.”
He nodded. He was silent for a full five minutes, and so was she.
“I had a girlfriend once,” he said, “over a year ago, in Flagstaff. We were together for some time. Her name was Sophia. I cared for her very much, and I was happy with her — and I believed she was happy with me.”
“I don’t know. She disappeared. At that time, my mother had just become sick, and I suddenly got it in my head that Sophia was perhaps very ill too, and the more I thought about it, the more worried I grew. I started to think that she might even be dying, and so I went to her parents’ house.”
“I was turned away.”
“You never found out what happened?”
Justine came and went. And came. There were no patterns to her visits, no explanations. Often she stayed for days at a time. She had a car, but occasionally she asked Jon if she might borrow his truck and always he said yes, and in his truck she toured alone the bumpy backroads of the desert. Once, in a single long day, she drove by herself through the Papago Reservation and then down into Mexico and back.
Another time, she asked Kristopher if he’d ride along with her. He asked where they were going. She smiled. She didn’t reply. She had a candid way of looking directly at people when she spoke, and he liked this. The sky that day was purple, the color of storms, low-hanging clouds banking into Baboquivari peak and oozing into the basin.
She drove them into the Santa Rita mountains. The landscape went from ocotillo and saguaro to sycamore and maples, Ponderosa, and a warm rain softly fell, loosening the smell of the pine trees, casting him back to distant times: casting him back to his mother and Flagstaff. He recalled a time after his father had disappeared, when his mother had met a man whom she liked. He remembered how on a rainy misty evening much like this she’d made dinner for this man — for the three of them, Kristopher included — and had even gotten a manicure and had her hair sleekly done, and she wore a dark dress and heels and she looked very beautiful, and the man never came. They waited for over an hour, and then she smiled at her son Kristopher and gave him a sip of wine and said “That just means more for us.”
But he saw in the creamy candlelight the gleaming moisture in her eyes. He hugged her for minutes, and with his chin on her shoulder, squeezing her tightly, he watched raindrops weep down the windowpane, and he thought then that his hammering heart which was overdeveloped might truly burst open in the chambers of his chest with his overwhelming love for her.
Now in the misty rainfall of the Santa Ritas, the trees stood ghostly and soft. The road ran vaporous into the purple light. By and by, Justine pulled over and they got out to stretch their legs, and there, on the side of the road, they saw a horned toad, blinking in the warm rain.
“Look,” she said.
He came over. “What is it?” he said.
“It’s a horned toad — though in actuality they’re not toads or amphibians at all, but reptiles. They look heavily armored and fierce, but really they’re as gentle as doves.”
And then something else happened — something he would think about for a long time afterward and would never forget:
As they were watching it, another horned toad emerged from under a heart-shaped leaf off to their right — except this one was a mutant: it had two heads, its torso like a long neck.
Justine caught her breath.
Kristopher genuflected on the wet ground to observe it more closely. He saw calm and even wisdom in all four spherical eyes, and then he saw blood gather and issue from the corners of those eyes: a defense mechanism innate in this antediluvian beast who looked like a mutated and miniaturized dinosaur.
He saw also the little gentle creature’s heartbeat pulsing beneath the slack skin of its neck. He saw the blood and the pumping pulse of the heart, and he watched it for a long moment. The air smelled of rain and dust. He shut his eyes.
At length, he rose from where he knelt on the ground, and he looked at Justine. The misty rain was beaded in her brown hair, and silver beads of rainwater had stippled her thin dark arms. Her breasts rose and fell with her breath, and he thought that he’d never in his life seen anyone more lovely.
“There’s a superstition among the natives that when you come upon a two-headed animal, it’s a sign of ensuing bad luck,” she said.
He was about to say that he’d grown very weary of superstitions, but the instant before he spoke, before she was even quite finished with her sentence, it dawned on him all at once how much he’d come to care about her, and without meaning to, he said aloud:
“I’m terrified of losing you.”
They stood looking at each other in the rain.
“Why,” she said, “why do you think you’ll lose me?”
“Everyone I’ve ever given my heart to has vanished from my life.”
She brought the two-headed horned toad back with her, and that night, under the eggshell light of Jon’s kitchen, she sat down with a black pencil and her sketchbook, and at the kitchen table, with the quiescent two-headed creature perched philosophically before her in an open shoebox on a bed of sand, she drew this mutant reptile.
She worked with great speed, her motions deft, certain, the depiction hyper-realistic and astonishing in its detail: the distended middle, a leaf-like foot motionless, one round eye tilted toward her, the nostrils like needle-holes, the loose skin of its neck leathery and cataphracted and strange.
Kristopher watched her, fascinated.
When she was finished, he asked if he might look at her other sketches as well, and she said yes.
He flipped through her thick book.
The first thing to capture him was a series of intricately drawn ladybugs: depictions the size of dinner plates, all done in colored pencil. Some of the ladybugs were blood-red with black spots, others black with orange spots. Two were burnt-sienna and unspotted. Another was pinkish and oddly mottled, and there was even a light-purple ladybug. But the one he liked most was a creamy-colored beauty, wings splayed, with spots on her back patterned like a leopard’s pelt.
He slowly turned the pages of her sketchbook. His soft eyes did not miss anything.
She watched him in silence for some time. Then she spoke. She said that the thing she loved most about ladybugs was the thing she loved most about humans: their inexhaustible variety and versatility and loveliness. Next she extracted from its sheath the drawing of the cream-colored ladybug he liked most, and she gave it to him.
“It is yours to keep,” she said. “It represents the abundant and colorful and happy life I wish for you.”
She reached over and squeezed his left hand with her right. He dropped his eyes. Her skin smelled like apricot.
The next picture he saw was a picture of himself sitting between her and Jon. It was recently done. The three of them were outside on the porch, and in the picture, Justine had drawn herself sketching at her sketchbook, and Jon cutting Kristopher’s hair, and in this picture also, Kristopher was shirtless and leaning forward, so that only his back and neck were visible. The thing that struck him now was not the exactitude of her drawing but the fact that because Jon had asked him to lean forward — the better to clipper the nape of his neck — Kristopher’s neck as she’d rendered it looked elongated between their two heads: elongated and somehow vulnerable beneath Jon’s gentle human hand.
The thinker is active and the dreamer passive. Jon was a little of both.
Solitude fosters talent, as the solitary life fosters thought.
Thought is the source of human ingenuity.
There was something of the acrobat about Jon as well. He could — and did — walk up and down stairs on his hands and was even once witnessed doing a handstand on a skateboard and riding this way, standing on his hands on a moving board, all the way down the main street of his small hometown: a quarter mile.
He used his left hand and his right hand with equal facility. His 20-10 eyesight was whispered about all through his youth, and even after poring over the pages of thousands and thousands of books, he still retained his pristine vision.
He was an excellent basketball player, who, for years, practiced obsessively every day when he was a teenager, who could shoot very well with either hand, though in this particular game he preferred his left. He had the curious coordination which certain left-handers have. The word “sinister,” of course, comes from the word “sinistral,” which means left-handed.
He owned an old lever-action 30-30 rifle, with a bead-sight, which he kept in immaculate condition, and with this rifle he was a dead-eye: he could pick the tips off matchsticks from over a hundred feet away.
He grew strange plants and he mined strange minerals and he foraged strange fungi and he was something of an alchemist and an apothecary. With a kind of resentment, therefore, people came to him for psoriasis salves, eczema remedies, ulcer treatments, other maladies. So effective were his brews and potions, in fact, that his reputation for sorcery grew.
It grew and grew.
If he wasn’t the Devil, he was certainly in league with the sable-skinned angel, everyone knew.
There was as well persistent rumors of mummies, and one day Justine asked Jon about it. Jon, in turn, asked her precisely what she’d been told.
“That you keep mummified human remains hidden in caves inside Baboquivari,” she said.
He said nothing.
That night, however, without explanation and scarcely any words at all, Jon had Justine and Kristopher get into his truck. He then drove them down a long lonesome road of sand and gravel. The night was dark and sultry. Phantoms of thermal mist hung over the desert ground. A quarter mile from the base of Baboquivari, on the northernmost side, the road terminated, and they all three got out. There was no moon. The stars above gleamed like thumbtacks spilled across the firmament. A soft wind seethed through the grass. It went warmly about their clothes and hair. Saguaro stood mute and dimensionless all around them, pigmy owls among the cactus-arms hooting with watery coos.
Jon led Justine and Kristopher into the very foothills of Baboquivari, and he spoke not at all. Even in such darkness, he walked with great assurance. The wind poured down through the stony ravines. At length, they came to the mouth of a cave which was more like a narrow triangular hole in the stony ground. Jon now produced from his inside coat-pocket a small bright flashlight. He pointed its cyclopean eye into the black maw of the cave and then he climbed down into it. He beckoned them to follow.
Once they were all three inside, he led them stooped through a low offshoot corridor and then onto all fours and down another corridor and then another and yet another.
They crawled for a long time down these narrow stone shoots, nocturnal spelunkers, the ground cold beneath their hands and knees. Dog-like, Jon held the flashlight in his mouth as he led them deeper into the Baboquivari mountains. There came to them all, intermittently but distinct, an odd and alien sound, like a deep cathedral hush: like the whoosh of potato-shaped asteroids tumbling headlong through space.
The last corridor they crawled down sloped gradually and gradually widened, and the air grew gelid and moist, with a soft breeze like bat’s breath passing over them and lifting their hair, as with tiny talons. Directly, Jon halted them and then they dropped, one by one, off a short and mudded ledge. They came into an open room of Mesozoic rock. They stood up straight at last. Slowly, Jon swept the beam of his flashlight across the cavern walls, which were wet-looking and slurred with a blood-colored secretion, as though they’d entered through the alimentary canal the innards of some great beast, the ceiling above hung with thin limestone spires that glistened and dripped like icicles, and then, from a metal box which sat on the ground across from them, Jon extracted a small cylindrical object. He extinguished the flashlight, so that for a moment, the room in which they all stood went utterly black, and wands of green and yellow light produced by the retina in places of plenary dark passed before them. He broke open the cylindrical object with a sharp snap and tossed it on the ground. It was a flare. It loudly hissed. The room blossomed suddenly in a wine and hellish light, and shadows leapt like dancers across the Mesozoic walls — and then they saw across from them a row of tiny and malformed humans, which lay like martyred saints on a pocked slab of stone.
“These seven-inch humans you perceive before you,” Jon said, “are the stillborn fetuses of O’Odham natives. Their defect is called anencephaly. Sometimes even before a woman knows she’s pregnant, something is triggered that nearly guarantees her child will be born dead. Such are these little beings. Have you heard of the miniature mummy they named Chiquita and also the Pedro Mountain Mummy, both of which were found in the caves of Wyoming and studied in depth by the forensic anthropologist Doctor George Gil? These tiny people are the same. They are preserved in a manner which is unprecedented — from any population. Even war chiefs and very special burials are not preserved like these little ones. But there’s nothing supernatural or even strange about it,” Jon said. “On the contrary, it’s perfectly human — all-too-human, the impulse to mourn the dead and the desire of the living to remember the dead and preserve that memory — as it’s also perfectly natural. And perfectly beautiful.”
“And you found them?” Justine said.
“Mining Baboquivari. I uncovered them.”
Kristopher alone was silent. The flare hissed snake-like at his feet. He stared at the miniature mummies mutely and in wonder. Their minute scrunched faces like little cow faces. It was impossible to tell what Kristopher was thinking.
When, two hours later, they all three emerged back out into the desert night, the wind had increased. It poured like water down the steep Baboquivari slopes, and it pushed at their backs, ferrying them forward toward Jon’s truck. Jon opened the passenger’s side door for Justine and Kristopher. Then he shut the door and went around and opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the steering wheel. He paused for a moment in silence, as if he’d just remembered something, and then he started the truck and swung it around and drove back toward his home, and neither he nor Justine noticed the distant dark figure on horseback watching them drive away.
But Kristopher did.
Later that same night, Kristopher excused himself and went back outside, and when Jon and Justine were alone in his home, Jon poured her iced-water and a large measure of very dark tequila. They sat down at his kitchen table. They were silent for some time. By and by, Jon spoke to her about a man he’d once worked with — a man named Frank, who was of Scot-Irish stock and who, at a young age, had been wrongfully imprisoned.
“He served twenty-two years for a crime he didn’t commit,” Jon said. “The entire time he was in prison, he worked tirelessly to have his case retried, and he didn’t give in to despair or hopelessness. After twenty-two years, newly discovered DNA evidence, found by his lawyer and a private investigator, exonerated Frank once and for all, and he was set free at last. He was a calm and quiet person, not bitter or angry, and I admired him for this and for many other things.”
“Where did you work with him?”
“In the uranium mines outside Grants, New Mexico. Frank was from a mining family and began mining when he was essentially still a child. He loved it — as most miners do love it.”
“Yes. Does this surprise you?”
“I guess I was under the impression that miners are little more than indentured servants slaving away in caves.”
“When in actuality nothing could be further from the truth. Mining is difficult work. It is also skilled work. It accordingly pays well. And nobody forces anybody to work in the mines — not in this country, at least: miners voluntarily choose to mine, as I have. What you describe only happens under the authoritarian regimes our politicians here would have us emulate.”
“Please continue,” she said, “about Frank.”
“Frank was an incredibly hard-worker and incredibly knowledgable, and I learned a great deal from him about mining.”
“Why are you thinking of him now?”
Jon was briefly silent.
“He spoke to me once of an incident in his prison life,” Jon said, “something that seems torn from the pages of a Dostoevsky book, but which really happened, and it made a deep impression upon him — ‘a very strange incident,’ he described it to me as — concerning a man he knew in prison who’d been sentenced to death, but who was pardoned at the last possible moment. The man was still serving a life-term, which was when Frank met him, but he’d been given his life back mere moments before he was to die. Nevertheless, there was a period of time — an hour or so — when this man lived absolutely certain that he was shortly to perish. Frank told me that he listened with extraordinary interest to this man’s story and asked the condemned man many questions, and he said that he remembered with perfect clarity everything this man told him, and he would never forget any of the things the man said about those sixty minutes before he would be put to death. He said the description of the last five minutes in particular made a profound impression upon him.”
“Why those five minutes in particular?”
“Because the condemned man said those five minutes suddenly seemed a great span of time stretching out before him. So that in those five minutes, the man felt he could live many lifetimes, and that he need not think at all about his final moments yet, because he had such an abundance of time before his final moment came: he had several minutes.”
Jon paused. He took a sip of the water he’d poured Justine and then he took a sip of her tequila.
“Thus he laid his time out very precisely,” Jon continued, “saying goodbye to the neighboring prisoners with whom he’d become friends — about one minute for that — and then another two minutes to think about himself and his life and a woman he once deeply loved, and then another minute to look around one last time at this human existence on earth, even if it were only the inside of the prison he was seeing. He carried out his five-minute plan exactly as he mapped it. He was dying at age thirty-five, a healthy, vital human. He remembered that in saying goodbye to a certain fellow inmate, he’d asked this man a rather silly question, and that the man’s answer had struck him as limitlessly fascinating. After that, he came to the lengthy two-minute period he’d allotted to himself to think about his own life and his own person. He thought about the woman he loved and how it had ended. And he’d already resolved that in that protracted period of time — one-hundred-twenty seconds — he would sincerely try to get his mind around the mystery of how he could be alive in this moment right now and fully aware of it, with that awareness perfectly active and healthy inside his head, but that in three minutes, that faculty — that thing which apprehended and knew — would no longer be there, and there would not be anything there at all. What struck Frank the most about this was that the man was entirely convinced and certain that he could resolve this matter in two minutes because it was such a long time. He remembered looking at the concrete floor and the cinderblock walls and thinking about how vivid and even beautiful it all seemed. Finally, he said that the worst part about it all was the gnawing thought at the back of his brain: ‘What if I was not to die after all? What if my entire life was suddenly given back to me? What an eternity! I’d turn each minute into a decade, and I’d miss nothing — nothing. I’d hold precious each passing minute, and my life would be the least taken-for-granted life of any human who’s ever existed.’ He said that this thought filled him with such anger — infuriating him so much, Frank said, that he wanted the lethal injection inserted into him as soon as possible. And then …”
Jon fell silent for a full ten seconds.
“Yes?” Justine said.
“The governor pardoned him.”
Justine waited for Jon to continue, but he didn’t say anything more. She sipped her tequila.
“Are you finished?” she said.
“You leave me hanging, Silverthorne. What did he do after he’d been granted life anew? Did he reckon every minute, as he’d told himself he would?”
“No,” Jon said. “He did not. He didn’t live that way at all. In fact, Frank said that the man wasted and squandered away many, many, many minutes. Frank also went on to say that there was nothing at all surprising in this, which there isn’t.”
Justine narrowed her eyes on Jon and then finished her tequila. Jon blinked slowly in thought. She continued to watch him. He rose from the table in the fluid, silent manner she’d come to love, and he refilled her glass with more tequila. The plash of the pouring liquid rang out. He took a sip and then passed it to her.
“What does it mean?” she said, “this strange and morbid tale you tell?”
“That death gives life meaning in the sense that death is what life constantly strives against — but only in this sense. And it does not work the other way around.”
“Please make that clearer.”
“From the perspective of the dead, life obviously does not carry any relevance whatsoever.”
Justine considered this.
“In striving against death and the fact of death,” Jon said, “it is crucial we not succumb to fatalism or nihilism or anything of the sort, but just the opposite.”
“What is the opposite?”
“We cultivate the things which foster and nourish life over our span of time — we develop the values which bestow life most abundantly — not dwelling on death any more than we dwell on range-of-the-moment gratification, which is slow-death. It means that we strive to get as much out of life as we possibly can while we have it, which entails living in a certain way.”
“Narrow is the path?” she said.
“Which leads to life,” he said.
A momentary silence ensued.
“Emotions are only a barometer,” Jon said, “not a means but an ends. This is what’s meant when one says happiness must ensue.”
She looked away. Beyond the kitchen window, beyond the range of her vision and his, the wind gusted and brought up a pair of dust devils, which sprung from the ground as from chaos and twisted across the desert floor like twin serpents engaged in a strange and antic dance. They spun themselves out in the night.
The kitchen glowed with a soothing light.
Justine rose from the table and went to him.
Thought is a loaded missile.
That human who does not possess his own thought does not possess his own deed and so does not in turn possess his own soul. The profound depths of human life are in this way rendered treacherous.
By many of his desert neighbors, Jon was unbeloved — this much was true.
Equally true: there is no such thing as small hate. Hatred is always huge.
An intention and a missile are alike. The missile of secret malice was aimed at Jon.
Whence this hatred?
Where did this secret malice come from?
To be private is to be thought peculiar.
The unusual is always suspicious, and the unexpected spreads and often turns malicious.
To break away from the pack is to declare independence, which is to declare that you can think for yourself. To think for yourself is an act of rebellion.
To believe in the power of your independent mind is to believe in your reason. To believe in your reason is to perforce shun superstition, dogma, the mainstream, the party-line.
To worship at no alter — neither the alter of God nor government nor devils nor dogma — is a sacrilege of the highest order. Why? Because humanity has always worshipped at one or all such alters.
To be solitary and serene is to be self-contained.
To be self-contained is an affront to the consensus, the custom, the killing crowd.
On the fringes of the desert, a stone-throw from Route 89 and circumscribed by a barbed-wire fence, there stood an acreage which comprised, among other things, a dark wooden house that looked like a compound. In its fenced-off nature and forbidding facade, this house cut a rather gloomy and isolated figure, the people who populated it a kind of upper-middle-class family of hooligans — the father of which, one James-Vincent Felts, had, after retiring from the police force, become a swindler, outright and unequivocally.
There were two children, a boy and girl, and the girl, whose name was Morgan and who was the youngest, had been born prematurely and suffered many maladies, including severe dyslexia and fits of frustrated rage. Morgan was deemed “touched” by her parents and teachers alike, though many who knew her believed she was a witch or possessed by devils or both.
Her older brother Baron, upon the other hand, was different.
There exists a certain type of youth who, without necessarily appearing overly athletic or outstanding in intellectual range — often, in fact, to all appearance listless and dull, with a thin and even unhealthy-looking build — nevertheless excels phenomenally in athletics and school, and who seems to acquire with utter ease and grace any kind of skill or sport. Baron Felts was one such. And his desire to excel was powerful indeed, precariously so.
From the beginning, he took a strange interest in Jon Silverthorne, who was approximately his same age: twenty-seven.
Baron was cautious, circumspect. He was a master knife-thrower. He rode horses. He played the fiddle like a fiend. With bullets from his pistol, he snuffed out candles at thirty paces. His fists were fast and loose, and they dealt tremendous blows. In college, at Arizona State University, he was an All-American basketball player, scouted by the pros before breaking his ankle in a fall. He held a Masters Degree in physics, recited from memory long passages from Rabelais, and knew by heart the entirety of Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece.
He drank rum. He was tall and somewhat sallow — haggard-looking yet handsome, with green eyes and blonde flowing locks. He often wore a black cowboy hat which became him. He was gregarious and well-mannered rather than otherwise, laughed and scowled simultaneously, his nostrils flaring like the nostrils of a camel before it spits.
He contained, in short, a thin, switchblade-like strength which served to envelop a subterfuge. This was Baron Felts.
He seemed capable of everything and more: something malign.
His little sister Morgan — whom he did not really care for but of whom against outsiders he was strangely protective — she as well took an interest in Jon Silverthorne.
That summer when Jon had first moved into his haunted house among the cactus, he’d frequently go out at twilight for long runs across the sun-baked desert ground. Often his runs would take him behind the gloomy, compound-like house, past a certain shed on the southern end of the acreage, a shed glowing golden in the low slow setting sun, and in the open doorway of which Morgan Felts sometimes stood.
She was a few years younger than Jon, and always when he saw her, she’d be leaning against the wooden doorjamb, her bare arms folded across her breast in a casual manner.
She’d watch Jon approach.
With his strong eyes, he saw from a distance a bright and welcoming radiance on her face, but as he got nearer, he’d see this glow gradually fade into a sort of half-smile and then, as he got closer still, diminish to a barely discernible lambency at the corners of her strange pursed lips, and, finally, as he was very near, this now-dim radiance too would fade, so that when Jon went directly past her, no light shone there at all, and only an expressionless look appeared on Morgan’s round rather attractive face.
Yet once or twice, after he passed, he turned his head for just a moment before churning up a hill, and he saw that she was still watching after him: the crescentic dimples had reappeared back on her face, and the mysterious light was flickering brightly across her pale features once more.
He never spoke to her, but he always waved, and once or twice he thought he detected in return a slight lift of her chin.
Even after he stopped running this particular route, their ocular interaction was from time to time renewed — when, for instance, he’d catch sight of her at the gas-station, among the cupcakes and the candybars. This gas station was two miles distant from where she lived.
She had an almost otherworldly way, it seemed to him, of appearing from out of nowhere, and always she was standing slightly removed, often barely clad — shorts and a low-cut tank-top, desert dusty, with sun-dusted skin, and often rubbing the instep of her right foot against her left ankle, or raking her fingers through her short and boyish and winsome hair, which was the color of the desert sand she dwelt among.
Once when he was scouting the caves of Babiquovari, he saw her pass nearby, riding a white pony with a rust-colored star on its face. He saw her see him in return.
As the years went by, the top of her forearms always appeared to him a little more striated and strong, her maturing bosom a little softer, and there also seemed to have developed upon her face and within her gray eyes, a glint of gentle challenge — something perhaps even slightly sardonic and mocking. More than once, however, without her knowledge, he’d from a distance witnessed her enraged, and two of those times, it was a rage directed at her brother: shrieking rows in which blows were exchanged, and Morgan had been knocked down flat by Baron’s fist, which on one occasion busted out her right eyetooth, so that now she had a gleaming golden fang in its place.
Then, on a dark desert night when Jon was driving along an empty two-lane highway, returning home after a fourteen-day stint in the mines, he came up over a hill, around a tight corner and now upon the smoking wreckage of a bad motorcycle accident. He quickly pulled over.
There was only the one vehicle involved — the motorcycle — and it sat horrifyingly mangled and silent in the sand off the shoulder of the highway, its single headlight still bluely beaming. At first Jon saw no one. Nothing moved: only mute phantoms of steam coming off the motorcycle wreckage. Then, from the outer darkness beyond, a young woman in a torn white dress suddenly appeared. She was drenched in blood. She was moving toward him with ghostly speed.
He did not recognize her at first.
Nor did she seem entirely aware of him. Yet, just as he was about to call out to her, she looked directly at him and asked him if he’d seen her ladybug. She began scanning the shoulder of the road and in a manic manner continued speaking, telling him that her ladybug must be here somewhere and that she must find it — she must, she said — it had bright mother-of-pearl eyes and was very precious to her, and she loved this ladybug, and she was sorry for her hair, she said, sticky mess that it was. Jon did not know what she was talking about, and he doubted that she did either, or that she was even speaking directly to him. She was bleeding from her head and from her neck, more than half her face masked in gore, a golden eyetooth flashing once among the blood, and it was only now 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 soft hissing. He looked over to his left, where this sound seemed sourced.
Farther beyond in the desert dark, he saw a young man — the driver of the motorcycle — lying dead in the sand. This young man was not anyone he knew. The eerie hissing sound continued. There was also something liquid-like streaming through the air just beyond the dead body: something pure-white and spraying thinly through the night.
Jon leapt to the young man, whose neck was broken, his head completely split in two, brains and blood pooling in the sand, and then Jon saw the source of the spraying arc of pure-white: it was a can of whipped cream, which had been in a grocery bag within the saddle of the motorcycle, and it had gotten punctured in the accident, so that the pressurized cream was now spewing fountain-like from the hole in the can and mingling with the dead man’s burgundy blood.
Red-and-white, Jon automatically thought, like Christmas colors.
He stood for a split second watching as if transfixed the immaculate spray of cream shoot into the blood and brains and draining away into the night.
Then, slightly to his left and a little behind him, behind the creamy arc of white, Morgan Felts gagged once, and then her heart stopped.
She collapsed and died, as if in fright.
Jon brought her back to life.
With cardiopulmonary resuscitation and with great presence of mind, he restored her. Very carefully, then, and rapidly, he carried her to his truck and laid her gently across the seat. Then he rocketed to the nearest emergency room, and her life was saved.
Those who knew her best said that after she recovered, she was even stranger than before — a farouche and faraway look now lurking in her gray eyes, something thoughtful to the point of dreamy distraction — brain-damage, perhaps, people said, or perhaps in resuscitating her, Jon Silverthorne had insufflated more demons yet inside her.
Jon did not know that she knew it was him who’d done this and who’d driven her to the hospital — until he one day, some months after she’d recovered, received a handwritten missive from her, which, in hard-pressed erratically thrusting letters, two of which were flip-flopped, said this:
You are a life-giving force. You always have been.
He would never know the pains she took to make her missive readable in every way.
Almost a full year after he received this letter — a-year-and-a-half before his half brother Kristopher came to live with him — while Jon was out on the desert alone, shooting his 30-30 rifle, taking aim at a peanut he’d impaled on a saguaro cactus needle, about to squeeze the trigger, there erupted a thunderous gunshot from off to his right, and the peanut at which he was aiming exploded into smithereens.
He looked to his right.
It was Baron Felts on a big black bay horse.
He was re-holstering a huge 44-44 magnum pistol, which had a long silver barrel that flashed in the sunlight.
He smiled and doffed his hat, and then he turned the horse on two legs and galloped away.
Forty days after this, on a mellow late-summer evening at an outdoor basketball court in southern Tucson, she appeared before him.
Jon was shooting baskets by himself. Morgan wore black canvas hightop sneakers and white shorts, an ecru t-shirt. Her legs were long and deeply tanned from the summer sun. She didn’t speak. He was lackadaisically dribbling his faded-leather basketball, when, rather quickly and with a sudden smile, she stole the ball from him and in the same motion attempted a jumpshot. She missed by a meter.
“Teach me,” she said. “Will you?”
It was the first time she’d ever directly spoken to him.
“How to shoot?” he said.
She nodded. “And how to read,” she said.
He taught her how to play basketball, how to shoot — how to shoot his rifle, as well — and after learning how serious her dyslexia was, he told her that reading is a complex process requiring our brains to connect letters with sounds and then to put those sounds into the correct order to form sentences and paragraphs. He told her that humans grasp and comprehend things by means of words, and that communication is not the primary but secondary function of words. He then showed her a more efficient manner by means of which she might attach sounds to letters. Soon, also, he taught her to take in words in a block-like fashion, her eyes sliding like water down the page. He told her that her dyslexia entails that she interpret concepts a little differently from those who are not dyslexic, and it was for this reason, he said, that she was able to spot hidden connections which others missed.
She liked his patient manner, his voice, his dark and capable-looking fingers spider-like among his books.
She practiced what he taught her.
He told her that all humans by their very nature are curious and all humans by their very nature desire to know, because this is the essence of our unique means of living, and only a counterforce, he said, which is ultimately anti-life can halt or nullify this natural human curiosity.
She looked off in the dreamy faraway manner she’d developed, and then she blinked slowly and looked back into his hooded eyes, which she thought lovely and liquid with life.
She began confiding in him — personal and even terrible things — and she confided also that she secretly loved his ladybugs and always had: the ladybugs, she said, which brought vibrance and color and beauty to this small sector of the desert.
Some who knew her said by now she’d gone completely crazy.
Others said she was for certain possessed by at least one devil — probably six.
Yet gradually but inexorably, she grew calmer, less wild, more civilized and at peace.
Then she went missing.
It came about shortly after a small but rather remarkable incident, which in turn led to another incident, both of which involved Morgan’s brother Baron, who one afternoon showed up unexpectedly at the basketball courts where they were shooting and, with a bright smile, challenged Jon to a friendly game of horse. He was thin and wore knee-length black shorts and black hightop sneakers, and he used those words — “friendly game of horse” — and then glanced balefully at his sister.
Morgan moved off to the side, onto the grass. She narrowed her eyes. She watched. Her fingers balled themselves into little fists as if of their own accord, and she held them this way at her sides.
Over the years, the two men had not spoken to each other more than a handful of times — and then purely in passing — and Jon, who did not say anything now in response to the friendly challenge, did not, however, miss a single shot. Indeed, it almost appeared as though Jon was not really playing the game at all but merely taking turns shooting baskets, practicing even, while Baron, who was an excellent shooter himself, with textbook form, was merely mimicking Jon — except, unlike Jon, he occasionally missed. In this way, Jon won the game of horse, which lasted for almost an hour, and Baron was privately astonished at Jon’s sinistral accuracy — privately astonished and privately infuriated.
He smiled with a closed mouth and shook Jon’s hand.
“You’re one hell of a shot,” Baron said. “I don’t think anyone but the Devil himself could play an entire game of horse against me and not miss once.”
“I am the Devil.”
Morgan smiled, her golden fang winking once in the sharp western sunlight.
There is a certain type of person, often very educated and even thoughtful, within whom exists a curious combination of the secular and the non-secular, the religious and the humanist, and this curious combination perhaps occurs with more frequency than is commonly supposed. In these minds, there’s no fundamental contradiction — because the fundamentals, it is thought, are themselves by nature contradictory.
Such a mind had Baron Felts, who believed in God and government with a near-equal faith, who with near-equal fervor believed in the mystical and the practical, the outrageously speculative and the strictly scientific — and who while religious cared a great deal about money and never had enough of it.
His investigations into the atom and quantum mechanics went deep, and in these investigations he soon found, rather to his surprise, that “physics encountered consciousness head-on” — as he often put it in his published papers — and this, corollarily, led him into endless wormholes of chartless conjecture, to the point of a sort of cosmic superstition.
Jon Silverthorne was aware of these conjectures, aware also that bad principles drive out good.
Baron was not aware that Jon was aware.
Thus that day on the basketball court, after challenging Jon Silverthorne to a friendly game of horse and after losing that game, Jon, in turn, challenged Baron.
“I want to play one-on-one next,” Jon said. “Except this game I propose we play for high stakes.”
Baron looked into Jon’s eyes, but he did not reply. He was at least six inches taller than Jon.
“If I lose,” Jon said, “I pay you ten-thousand dollars in cash today. If you lose, you agree to publicly debate the Devil.”
Baron cocked his head. He did not reply for several seconds. “What would the subject of this debate be?” he said.
Baron was silent.
“And quantum mechanics,” Jon said, “which is in many ways and many minds the same thing.”
Baron smiled and unconsciously nodded his head. His lips were very red. “I agree,” he said.
“We play to nine.”
“Make it take it?” Baron said.
“Your ball first, since I lost at horse?”
“No. Your ball,” Jon said, and he bounce-passed to Baron his faded-leather basketball.
A soft breeze blew.
The sere sun in the sinister sky was as white as clay, with an iridescent cirrus cloud at some great height scorched to a crisp around the edges.
Morgan sat down cross-legged on the grass. She watched them with her inscrutable eyes.
The two men went to the top of the key, Jon on defense. Baron checked the ball, and with one hand — his left — Jon bounced it back to him. Baron began to dribble — but no sooner did he start dribbling than Jon, with rattlesnake quickness, lunged-in low and stole the ball.
Baron was not expecting this — not two dribbles in and not so fast.
In fact, Jon stole the ball so rapidly and so cleanly that Baron scarcely had any time to react: he’d underestimated his opponent’s quickness, and he realized this too — realized it as it was still happening. In the same motion, without slowing down, Jon dribbled behind his back and drove toward the basket. Baron was fast, but Jon had the drop on him, which left Baron a half-step behind, so that Jon went in for an unchallenged lay-up on his right-hand side. He made the shot off the backboard.
It was now Jon’s ball until he missed or turned the ball over.
Baron was an experienced basketball player who’d gone up against some of the very best players in the country. Nevertheless, he was surprised — surprised by Jon’s agility and quickness, his fluidity and ease of motion — yet he did not show his surprise. He was also an experienced enough player to have occasionally come up against such people before: people who had never played in school or anywhere else outside of playgrounds or city leagues, but who loved the game with such passion and purity that they practiced it to the point of monomania until they had become great.
Jon checked the ball. He was two feet back from the top of the key. He paused. He did not dribble. He leaned forward. He held the ball with both hands at his chest. He then faked a little to his left, which sent Baron back — just a half-step. It was enough. Jon then dribbled back one step and pulled up for an uncontested longshot.
Jon was a longshot.
The ball arced backspinning, slowly, through the air and then fell directly through the hoop without touching the rim.
Baron nodded once but said nothing.
He retrieved the ball and checked it back to Jon and then crouched low and dangerous-looking in his defense: like a venomous viper coiled to strike. Jon held the ball at his chest again. There was a facile quality and clear kinesthetic awareness not only in his movements but in his eyes as well. It was a part of him: unselfconscious, unmannered. Staring at Baron’s sneakers, he spoke:
“Not an atom of data exists,” Jon said, “not an atom, which shows that conscious observation collapses the wave function of the electron. In fact, it’s the exact opposite that’s true.”
Baron appeared not to hear him. He was watching the ball that Jon held at his chest.
Jon began to dribble.
Baron faked a lunge as if to steal the ball. Jon was not duped. On the contrary, it seemed as though he was expecting just such a maneuver: as Baron went forward in his fake, Jon, with incredible speed, cross-over dribbled and blew by Baron. He went in for another easy lay-up, this time straight over the top of the rim and in, no backboard.
Baron checked the ball to him again, and again Jon stared at Baron’s feet. He was perfectly motionless for a moment. Then he rapidly stutter-stepped to the right, but he did not dribble. Baron didn’t fall for it. He was again watching the ball in Jon’s hands.
“You must concede,” Jon said, still holding the ball, “that the experiments can be set up, with the measurement devices running, and that the results are the exact same whether anyone — scientist or non-scientist — observes the experiment or leaves the room. You will surely admit, therefore, that the universe doesn’t ‘know’ whether it’s being consciously watched, and therefore you’ll be forced to concede to me that the universe doesn’t switch back and forth between particle and wave because of shifts in human awareness.”
Jon was not quite finished with the last words of this last sentence when he pulled up for another longshot.
He had a quick release.
The shot went in.
Morgan watched the ball pass through the hoop and blinked slowly.
“Good shot,” Baron said. He checked the ball back to Jon.
“Thank you,” Jon said. “Let me propose a straightforward hypothesis.”
Jon dribbled casually with his left hand now, not guarding the ball, and with lidless fixity, Baron once again crouched dangerously and watched the bouncing ball.
“We simply don’t know all the variables involved in micro-micro-scale phenomena,” Jon said. Upon saying which, blur-like and still dribbling but lower now, Jon juked right, left, right again, dribbled right-to-left between his legs and then spun the other direction. His quickness was phenomenal. He drove hard for the basket. Baron went with him.
Very abruptly, then, as if on a dime, in the middle of the key, Jon stopped and in the same motion pulled up for an eight-foot jumpshot. Baron’s macro-movements were still taking him backward.
The faded-orange ball swished through the net.
Jon grabbed the ball quickly and quickly trotted back to the top of the key.
“Rather than think we must be omniscient for our knowledge to be valid,” Jon said, “and rather than thinking that we must possess a perfect understanding of all theories, or that our experiments must prove reality is entirely probabilistic, consider this: we simply don’t have all the data yet.”
Jon checked the ball — and instantaneously, as soon as Baron bounced the ball back to him and it touched Jon’s fingers — touched them at the micro level — Jon burst by Baron like a blast of lightning and went in for another unchallenged lay-up.
“Consider that we’re missing a theoretical puzzle-piece,” Jon said.
Retrieving the ball, Jon did not jog but ran back to the top of the key.
It was to all three of them now as clear as gin that Jon was in total command, and this realization dawned upon Morgan and Baron at the exact same time.
Jon checked the ball and, catching it with one hand, immediately began to dribble left.
“We did not used to understand gravitational theory,” Jon said. “Now we do. When we didn’t understand it, it would have been foolish to label that unknown force of gravity as ‘Gods hand’ or the ‘Devil’s hand’ or to ascribe to it any random brand of mysticism, which, in fact, is precisely what people did. And it’s precisely what many today — scientist and non-scientist alike — are doing with quantum mechanics.”
Baron appeared not to hear. Jon dribbled rather recklessly, without guarding the ball. Baron once again faked a lunge, as if to steal the ball, and then immediately after that fake, he lunged-in gracefully for an actual steal.
And got it — almost.
In an actual and non-probabilistic way, Baron hit the ball solidly, but it wasn’t quite enough. Jon regained his dribble, and now having Baron completely off-balance, almost behind him because of his gamble for the steal, Jon went to the left and with Baron gunning for him, ready to leap with all the desperate energy his atoms contained in order to block the shot, Jon, at the last possible moment, cut back and went under the hoop for a reverse lay-up, which banked delicately off the backboard and dropped through the hoop.
Jon once again ran back to the top of the key. He seemed to be amping-up, perhaps at the sub-atomic level.
Both men were perspiring.
“God, I love basketball,” Jon said. “I love it. You know why? Because it’s fun.”
He bounced the ball to Baron for a check and spoke more: “Once we find and apprehend the yet unknown variables and links in quantum theory, classical and quantum mechanics will be fused and seamlessly integrated.”
“That’s called the ‘hidden variable’ theory,” Baron said. He held the ball a moment before checking it back.
“No rest,” Jon said. “I’m ready to go.” He stepped back two paces, so that he was now five feet from the top of the key: way out.
Morgan narrowed her eyes. She understood that Jon was a longshot. She secretly loved him for it.
“Next, I suppose you trot out Pilot Wave theory?” Baron said.
“To explain the double-slit experiment without indeterminism?” Jon said. “I could. Yes, I could. Pass me the ball, please. I’m ready to play.”
Baron checked the ball back to Jon, who was so far away from the basket that Baron did not step closer but remained inside the arc of the key, two steps above the free-throw line, while Jon was seven feet beyond the top of the key.
“The Copenhagen interpretation is dead,” Jon said. He held the ball with one hand at his sinistral side. “The truth is, it was never alive to begin with, but quantum mystics like Neils Bohr tried to turn science into a priestcraft — and partially succeeded. Enough so, at any rate, to give the Copenhagen interpretation the appearance of life. I know you know that there are modifications to the double-slit experiment that show results that directly contradict the Copenhagen interpretation, and I know you know that as technology has improved and knowledge has grown, physicists have discovered a technique of recording the path of photons using so-called ‘weak measurement,’ which, as you also know, allows for measurements of quantum phenomena without necessarily disturbing them. This hints at avoiding the observer-effect altogether.”
“How so?” Baron almost whispered.
“By being able to passively observe the double-slit experiment, one can perceive the interference and the path of the individual photon at the same time — which means that the wave-function and particle-function are being observed at the same time, supposedly impossible, I don’t need to tell you, because of the poorly named ‘uncertainty principle’.”
“Reality is firm and comprehensible,” Jon said, “but I lost track: Is this game point?”
But before Baron could even think of answering, Jon, without dribbling and now from very far away indeed, came up suddenly and released the ball in a perfectly arcing jumpshot, which, against all known laws of gravity, appeared for a moment’s fraction to hang motionless at its apogee — like a black-seamed planet against the expanding universe behind it. Then the ball dropped straight through the hoop.
It was a remarkable shot.
“It is time,” Jon said. “Time to admit the obvious.”
“The devices used to measure quantum phenomena in the double-slit experiment are what interfere with the results. It is not existence itself. There is existence and there is the awareness of existence. There is reality and there is consciousness. These two things are harmonious and symbiotic, and they work in tandem, but they are separate. Consciousness is awareness. Consciousness in many ways is quantification and measurement. Math is quantification and measurement. ‘We do not eat what has been eaten,'” Jon said. “‘We eat bread.’ To separate object from thing is to violate the nature of intellect.”
“That was not game-point,” Morgan said. “There’s still more to go.”
As if she did not want this moment to end — and Jon winked at her, but so subtly and so rapidly that, thinking about it later, she wasn’t sure she’d seen it after all, or merely hoped.
On a bright blue-and-copper morning two days after Jon beat Baron Felts in their basketball games, when Morgan came to Jon’s home and raised her hand to rap upon his front entrance — as she had many times over the past several weeks — she was brought up short by the reflected image she saw in the triangular pane of glass inset into his door.
The reflected image was a word.
This word had been written by an index finger — a finger run softly through the orange dust upon the rear windshield of Jon’s truck.
The word she saw reflected in the glass of his front door was this:
She assumed he’d written it, and for a moment, she even smiled. Then she realized something else.
She realized she was reading this word in mirrored form — and the instant she realized it, she realized as well what it implied.
Morgan in that moment grasped in full what the written word actually denoted.
She swiveled around and faced it.
Scrawled in the dust on the glass of Jon’s truck was this:
The ensuing horrors, which Jon knew nothing of and never would, began the night of the following day, when Jon was away in the mines and Morgan arrived home from work in moon-blanched darkness.
The figures waiting for her inside her tidy room were people she knew — all save one — yet they were strangely garbed, who bound her and burned incense and swung the incense from a golden censer, who chanted and wept and prayed, and then came the gracile and mysterious priest-like figure, whom she did not know, with his white collar and pallid skin both blue in the moonlight, who strode into the room bringing behind him a tiny two-headed calf with a long neck and small cloven hoofs that clopped lightly across the wooden floor, leading the mutant animal before her bound body, and then, extracting from the folds of his black robe a long gleaming saber, he slaughtered the two-headed calf on the floor of her room — slitting the little living neck between the two heads and calling simultaneously for the devils to be gone from the girl, exorcising her demons into the desert night, while her family chanted and prayed and swung the censer with its violet-blue smoke, and the calf bawled and screeched and then died, and the humpbacked moon rode the sky and poured down its pale light which flickered silver upon the sacrificial blood of the calf, and the husks of ladybugs with their little cow faces were everywhere outside, strewn beneath the midnight heavens like raisins in the dust.
One week later, while the Felts family slept as if drugged by witch’s brew, the entire compound burned to the ground.
Morgan’s was the only body not found.
It was a quaking desert night, not to be gainsaid — a febrile night, a night, perhaps, of wild insight and heightened apprehension.
An indigo light filled the sky, and several times he thought he heard voices in the distance. Yet in every direction he looked, he saw no one: no one and no thing save the desert and the neck-shape of Baboquivari silhouetted blackly against the indigo sky that stretched above him like the membrane of an eye.
In darkness, he arrived back at the womb-like entrance of the cave.
In darkness, he reentered the small triangular maw.
He ignited his small headlamp which shone on the cave walls with a bluish beam, and he crawled on his hands and knees for what seemed hours through the maze-like corridors of stone.
Several times he thought he saw, quite separate from the beam of his headlamp, a purple light burning somewhere down the distance. Two or three times, he even extinguished his headlamp, the better to determine if the purple light was real, and indeed its glow intensified. Was there a different feeling about this purple light pulsing deep in the throat of the caves? Was there because of it a less deathly stillness in the air?
Without at first consciously realizing it, he began using the purple glow as both a reference point and also a guide.
The deeper in he went, the brighter grew the purple glow.
At last, Kristopher came to a mudded ledge — dropping off of which, he found himself, for the second time, inside the open room of Mesozoic rock. Here it was confirmed what he already deep-down knew:
This room comprised the purple light, and yet it was what he saw after, upon the ground under the glow of that light, it was this that astounded him most of all — beyond anything he’d seen in his life. It was a ghoulish and yet strangely touching sight.
He saw a young woman curled on a blanket, asleep among the little mummies with their malformed faces minute and cow-like in the purple pall of her pulsing light.
She was sick and feverish and sweating on her stony bed. Her face just under her cheekbones had a slightly famished look. Her hair hung damp and short. The light consisted of long lilac glow-ropes and glow-sticks festooning the cave walls. The cave was as soundless as a crypt. He stood for a full five minutes motionless and watching her. He watched her in silent surmise. Her face was not familiar to him. When at last he moved, he woke her by accident, gently, with the scuffing sound of his shoes.
She did not start but opened her eyes in quiet and in peace and gazed at him in a far-off and fevered way, and she spoke immediately, telling him that sleeping among the mummies brought her comfort because like her, she said, these humans were born prematurely and were defective as a result, and she said also that she loved them. She said that they contained secrets. She told him that Jon Silverthorne had once brought her here, over a year ago. He showed her these mummies, she said, and he explained to her also what the mummies were, believing they were specifically buried here for a reason — because Baboquivari is regarded by natives as the navel of the world.
When Kristopher told her that Jon Silverthorne was his brother, she did something then even more unexpected:
She smiled with a brightness that far outshone her hanging lights of lilac-purple hue, two dimples like tiny crescent moons suddenly appearing in her famished-looking cheeks of ghostly blue. She smiled from where she lay upon her adamantine bed.
“My name is Morgan,” she said.
On unsteady legs, she led him from this room, through a dark corridor, the purple glow-light of plasma which she held dimly lighting 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.
Morgan said also that nobody has ever mapped these caves completely — so intricate they are and so dark — and when, at length, the two of them came into an enormous open room through which a cool wind poured, she told Kristopher to watch his step. There were moon-colored bones glowing everywhere along the ground, and she said that these bones were the remains of sacrifices once made to the Maze Man.
Side-by-side with her and peering carefully down into a huge hollow that dropped away at their feet, Kristopher gradually saw swim into his ken a distant but distinct glow of red: like a fiery kiln burning away at the core of the earth.
Morgan watched with him and then she turned from the distant glow and looked at Kristopher and spoke:
“The Tohono O’Odham believe this to be the very portal to hell,” she said.
He turned to her.
“Jon told me this,” she said.
“What else did he tell you?”
“He told me that the navel of the universe also contains the portal to hell, and he smiled when he said it, and I don’t know why.”
They regarded each other in silence for some time. They regarded each other in the swarming purple darkness of her light.
“Will you come with me?” she said.
“Through the portal, to hell. I want to see it.”
In the depths of the human eyes is revealed the quality of the person contained within. If nothing shines forth from behind the eyes, it is because nothing in that brain thinks, nothing in that soul contemplates, and the heart inside has grown cold — the life-force diminished or dead.
Small souls blink and dart their eyes. Large souls radiate and flash with bolts of lightning.
The mystery of great hearts is disclosed in this one word: persevere.
Whatever the goal may be, the entire secret lies in ceaselessly proceeding toward that goal — and to fall does not preclude soaring.
All of Jon’s existence seemed somehow yoked to the impossible, even while he himself, no matter the impossibility, seemed simultaneously unstoppable.
What was he aiming for? And what the object of his sinistral aim?
Yet the fiery light that burned hotly inside his eyes left no doubt that something specific was in his brain.
When part of his peculiar manuscript appeared in print, it went completely unnoticed — at first.
The circumstances surrounding the meteoric blast it created, and which resulted in the famous violence, began shortly after a mysterious personage whom nobody knew somehow got hold of Jon’s pages. This person’s name was Ash.
Ash: Scientist, satanist, sorcerer, poet, priest, doctor, witchdoctor, Wiccan, woman, man — it was difficult to say for certain. The only thing generally agreed upon was that Ash possessed a certain power.
A certain power and a certain thoughtfulness, and the passages in Jon’s pages that most captured Ash were passages describing nature as the sum total of reality, which, Jon wrote, is another way of saying the universe entire:
Nature in the broadest sense is the universe — the universe being everything which is.
This and its elaboration are what Ash chiefly noted.
There can therefore be no possibility of many universes or of things outside the universe, Jon wrote, because if it exists, it is by definition a part of the universe.
Existence is the universe. Non-existence does not exist. Nothing is not something.
“There is no nothing,” Victor Hugo wrote.
This is why there can be no super-nature:
Nothing that exists can transcend nature, because if it exists, it is part of nature by definition.
Everything that exists is part of reality. Nature is reality. If it doesn’t exist, it does not exist.
There cannot be a realm of existence beyond existence. It is a contradiction in terms. If it exists, it is an element of the natural, not the supernatural. This is why superstition is the necessary counterpart to supernaturalism: the two must walk hand-in-hand because they cannot exist without each other.
The word “superstition” comes from the Latin “super” meaning “over” — to over-stand, to stand in awe of things the mind does not yet comprehend, which does not mean that the mind isn’t capable of comprehending it, but only that the mind hasn’t yet comprehended it. This is a principle which woman and men must all come to grasp:
Because a thing is not yet known doesn’t mean that the only possible explanation is something supernatural.
Lightning bolts, once thought to be the supernatural weapons of Thor, are, as it turns out, perfectly natural — just as the Northern Lights are natural and not the supernatural breath of gods.
Super-nature not only does not exist — it cannot exist: it could in no way touch, alter, or affect reality — not by hex or by vex, not by miracle or curse — unless it were in some way a part of nature.
Even a god must perceive by some means.
How could something beyond nature ever be called upon from nature — by prayer or by curse or by anything else?
How if it is beyond nature could it be invoked in any way that would connect it to the natural world? How could these two realms in any manner whatsoever 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 don’t 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 natural things as clothing, shelter, drinks, food, fuel, so on?
Why not bring forth pure gold from the soil and wealth from the branches of trees, rather than work in the bar-and-restaurant?
What need of money at all for the ones who have power to heal or hex or call forth things beyond nature?
I propose this test:
Let she or he who claims supernatural powers, no matter the specific creed, dogma, or set of beliefs involved, let this person drive across the country with eyes shut tight the entire time — without any regard for refueling, roads, pedestrians, oncoming traffic, or any other basic facts of reality, which they say can be transcended by this thing called super-nature, via its mediums, and let the true-believer sit without seatbelt and without fear in the passenger-side of the blindly moving car.
The truth is that since no one can actually exist outside the natural world, the people who haunt the half-hidden precincts of the supernatural are at war with the natural world in which they, as all of us, must live. In this way, they are double-minded — by necessity: there are two-headed, like a neck between two heads.
The claim of something — anything — whether it’s 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 that is weak and flimsy.
It is always the job of the claimant to bring that data with the claim in order to demonstrate its truth or falsehood. That billions or even trillions blindly believe is irrelevant, as it always has been, as it always will be.
It is not the job of everyone else to constantly disprove whimsical notions and notions of pure fancy, while the creators of these endless notions continue to spin claim after claim and expect the rest of the world to either disprove negative claims or simply take the claims on faith — to believe in spite of independent thought. And if that were the case, why choose this belief over that one? By what criteria of cardinal judgement? Why little green men instead of Grendel? Why reject the Judeo-Christian God in favor of Pagan Goddesses, or vice-versa? Why priestcraft instead of witchcraft? What is the accurate measure for claims that cannot be proven or disproven or properly studied or known because by definition they are beyond nature?
And how if reality is jettisoned does one rightly gauge the measure?
By what legitimate standard or test?
And what, meanwhile, of our minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day existence in the natural universe, the realm of existence, the non-supernatural realm, where a momentary lapse in judgement, based upon real-world criteria, can result in harm or death — for instance, by car or motorcycle accident?
As the term a-theist means without belief in God or gods, so a-boogeyman means without belief in boogeymen.
I repeat: without belief.
Not “I-do-not-know.” But without belief.
Superstition, whether pagan, Neo-pagan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Haitian, Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, or anything else or any cross-combination — they are united by one ineluctable and overwhelming denominator which they all have in common:
They are superstitions. Which means:
They float forever in the murky realm of the unverifiable, the unprovable, the unknowable, the hexed and demon-haunted Gondwanaland of uncertainty and the arbitrary, where new offshoots and denominations and rules and permutations and doctrines and quasi-doctrines spring up and mushroom endlessly, and where uncertainty, anxiety, fear, trembling, and even loathing of the knowable universe — which is everything real — rear heads from that one single neck of superstition and mock the meat they feed upon: the value of human work and human effort and human creativity and ingenuity in the real and remarkable realm of the natural universe.
An odor of iron blew down the cave, a tang in the mouth like old pennies. The rock creaked. They descended by means of a long thick rope which she already had fastened: clipped securely with a carabiner around an enormous slab of stone that sat propped at an angle against the cave wall.
Neither Morgan nor Kristopher were harnessed or tied in. They did not slide down the rope but with great care descended hand-over-hand, feet walking the black wall. Morgan led. They dropped three levels deep into the infundibular mouth of the cave at the bottom of which burned a blurry glow of scarlet.
At the third level, the rope near its end, they came to a rock precipice that cantilevered narrowly. From here they walked back into a cave within this cave, which led down in a spiral-like fashion. The farther down they wound, the more that light clarified — clarified and took form, until at length the light ceased to glow as a single mass, but now as they drew nearer particulated in discrete and isolate shapes, individuated and winking, cat-eyed, like noctivigant lifeforms who watched hidden among the rocks, who could not, however, keep the life-force that burned inside from showing forth from the eye, which is the light of the body.
When they came to the bottom and stood beside each other at the seventh level of the cave, they gazed about wonderstruck and in arrant silence, both of them turning a slow three-hundred-sixty degrees, the crimson lights now shimmering immediately around them, everywhere, above and below and back into a long stone corridor which also shook and shifted in a billion spangles of gold-red and gashed vermillion.
The glittering lights rebated hotly off the skin of their faces.
“What is this light?” Morgan whispered.
Now — only now — 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, and that there’s a specific chemical that living things contain, with which when oxygen binds to it creates a chemical reaction. This chemical reaction is sometimes helped by an enzyme, which forms a compound of high energy and which then breaks down and in so doing emits enough energy to excite electrons in the atoms of the entity, so that these electrons jump further away from the nucleus. When they relax back to where they were, a photon is expelled and energy in the form of light is pumped out.
He remembered as well how in reference to this passage Justine, with a smile, had told him something more, and he repeated that something now:
“The chemical is called Luciferin,” Kristopher said, “and it’s aided by an enzyme called Luciferase.”
“Luciferin is beautiful,” Morgan said.
The scarlet glow danced across the liquid membrane of her lambent eyes, reddening each eye completely, as with blood, so that she suddenly looked to him demonic in the cave that was said to be the gateway to hell, and he thought of blood issuing from the tilted eyes of the mutant horned toad. She was still gazing slowly around when she spoke again, and he did not know she was quoting something his half brother had once read to her from an old and esoteric book.
“Light is energy,” she said. “Light is luminescence and lambency. But it is something more as well: Light is metaphor. Light is knowledge. Light is wisdom and learning. Light is lucent. Light is life. Light is light.”
What does it mean to be a slave?
To live in darkness.
It means to be under the governance of someone or something other than your own will.
It means to be owned.
Obsessions, whether developed in pursuit of pleasure or purely in the service of neurosis or any cross-combination, whether motivated by superstitious thinking — broken-mirrors, black cats, and sidewalk cracks — or whether motivated by alcohol, drugs, food, cigarettes, sex, gambling, or anything else, they own the obsessed.
They lay claim.
Thereby, to the degree and depth they have taken root, they prevent the bud of each from fully flowering.
They are not bad because they are deemed so by divine decree or by religious or dogmatic edict. They are bad, rather, because they stunt intellectual development and emotional growth and maturity and the human happiness and intimacy and energy of life which flows forth from this natural path of development.
Good and bad are in an ethical sense gauged by a standard of each individual soul’s freedom to fully flower and flourish, and the deeds that this entails: the eudaemonia of entelechy, which is light and life.
What was it but an 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, ripping the hooked beak through the sweet meat of the brain?
First, there was the two-headed horned toad, which Justine had taken care of and kept in Jon’s home, and which upon returning from work one evening Jon found dead on his doorstep: the gentle little creature cleft down the center with an axe, its two heads now separated from the single neck, bifurcated, the small guts spilled colorfully onto the wood like little fruit from a cornucopia.
Next came a photograph depicting a satanic scene of ritualized sex mixed with great violence and violation, sexual obsession, cultic gore, death.
Beside the blue paloverde in front of his home, Jon stood staring at this photo. The light fell around him cold and unnaturally sharp: the kind of light by which vile deeds are done.
He looked off to the dry hills of Baboquivari.
He stared long and pensively at the purple folds, the thalassic sky draining away behind like a reef of green, his dark eyes slit thin as saber slashes. He looked as one on the verge of a powerful insight. The desert wind lifted his hair and moved sluggishly through the leafy boughs above.
The warm wind and slow gentle clash of leaves washed over him.
Suddenly the insight struck — it hit him in full — and he understood.
His eyes opened and he smiled.
He smiled and turned away.
Under the darkening sky, Baboquivari looked strange and wild.
Nightfall overtook the day.
The Superstition Mountains are a range of volcanic peaks located approximately fifty miles east of Phoenix, along the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert. To the natives, they’re known as The Superstitions — an extraordinarily deceptive and inimical terrain filled with abrupt drop-offs, strange sounds, enigmatic disappearances, unexplained deaths — and it is perhaps for this reason that more people perish each year in The Superstitions than in any other North American mountain range.
Toward the close of a melancholy afternoon, some seven years before — before the two-headed horned toad was found cleft on Jon Silverthorne’s doorstep — in the autumn of 2006, a strong-looking young man in faded blue jeans and a white tee-shirt entered The Superstitions by way of the Apache trail.
The young man was perhaps twenty-two-years-old. His hair was long and jet-black, his skin satanically dark. He wore tennis shoes and he carried a large duffel bag over his shoulder, nothing else. A handful of people that day saw the young man entering The Superstitions alone, each of whom reported later, independently of one another, that there was something peculiar about him.
No one witnessed him coming out. One said she’d seen him here before.
Around this same time, a remarkable incident took place which may or may not have been connected with the young man’s presence in The Superstitions.
Among the locals, there has long been a belief that the Devil has from time-to-time chosen the Superstition Wilderness as a hiding place for his various treasures. Many people who live in the vicinity say that it is not at all uncommon or unusual to meet, at twilight, in certain secluded areas along the fringes of the wilderness, a stern-looking man, possibly a hunter, with soot-colored skin and scarlet eyes and bare feet that seem perhaps cloven. This man is often observed, with a bag over his shoulder, entering caves, which appear to open up before him in the earth, as if he and he alone creates them. Sometimes he has dead rattlesnakes hanging from his belt.
It is generally agreed that there are two ways of handling an encounter with him:
The first is to approach and speak to the man — at which point it becomes immediately apparent that he’s just a wandered hermit, a poor man with only half his faculties intact, and that his skin only looks soot-colored because he is weather-beaten and it is sundown, that his scarlet eyes are in fact light brown, that his feet, which are indeed bare, are not, however, cloven at all but simply scarred and filthy, and that the caves he enters are not created by him but merely hidden in the gloaming, and he uses these caves as a shelter in which to sleep. The snakes are his supper. You go home then, after which you may or may not die within the year.
The second method is to watch him closely, and when he’s vanished into a cave, you scrupulously mark that spot. Next day, you return to this spot. You dig and dig, and you then loot the treasure which the stern and swarthy man has stashed there.
You may or may not die within the week.
And what is the Devil’s treasure?
Is it gold? Wealth and riches beyond all human imagination? Food and drink and sexual glut to surfeit?
Or is it some ancient relic wrapped in rags?
A thin black book, perhaps — a book of shadows and light — containing deep dark knowledge?
A few days after the strong-looking youth was seen entering The Superstitions, a small boy, no more than twelve-years-old, walked alone down the Apache Trail. It was a warm and windless autumn night. A deep stillness hung over the desert. The moon wobbled up and stood quaking on the eastern horizon: Membraneous and full, she laved the cooling land in gales of sulphur-colored moonlight.
The small boy was an orphan. He was a remarkably resolute little lad, and also a wanderer, an explorer.
He’d heard that treasures were hidden in these mountains — treasures men had died in trying to find — and he was drawn by the mystery and the challenge, far more than he was drawn by the allure of riches.
He was an apprentice to a stonemason — one of these little boys who through a combination of circumstance and necessity are in many ways already men. He carried hod. He worked indefatigably. He earned his own living. He watched closely how his boss laid stone. He liked to climb things. He liked to swim. He practiced handstands, pushups, pull-ups. At the park, he learned to play chess, and he rapidly excelled. A child of chance, a happy orphan, a solitary soul by choice, a little boy of mixed pedigree, half-black, half-white, who thought nothing of giving money to a poor woman on the street, he haunted bookstores and libraries, and he found that the more he read, the more he wanted to read. He frequently went alone to movies, late at night. He loved the magic of the cinema screen.
Often mischievous but never malicious, who felt no rancor toward any race or station in life, he was bold to the point of precociousness — bold and bright — and he frequently engaged adults in conversation, yet he thought incomprehensible those humans who past a certain age could not be alone for more than twenty-four hours. When the impulse struck, he allowed himself little holidays and went exploring.
Such was this resolute little lad.
That night, the silence and solitude of the desert had something unearthly about it, something mysterious and strange. There was not the ghost of a wind. The saguaro cactus stood sentry-like everywhere around the Apache Trail. The boy had chosen this night for the fullness of the moon, the light it cast. On his back, he carried a small pack inside of which was a tightly rolled tent. He was sticking to the trail. His plan was to pitch the tent at any moment now, and then sleep and rise early and then in the light of the new day make his way alone into The Superstitions, where so many had perished in pursuit of unbelievable treasures and riches. Suddenly, though, in the dark desert wild far off to his left, he thought he saw the pulse of a golden light.
This light came and went. And came again. And vanished.
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 unseen.
The moon above rolled like a ball of marble across the sloped firmament and cast a ghostly light all along the ground. He wandered the sandy paths beneath the spikes of stone, which glowed like sepulchers in the lunar light, and he wandered for a long time and was even on the brink of turning back, for fear of having lost his direction — when, out of the moon-blanched dark, away to his right, he thought he heard a sound, like a low growl.
He saw no one and nothing out of the ordinary.
He was already beginning to have strange thoughts — thoughts he’d never had before — and these thoughts intensified now. Apprehension crept over him in a hot and peristaltic way that made him shutter.
He paused for a moment.
He looked behind him.
He saw his footprints in the sand which the moon was fantastically silvering. He stared at his footprints for a full minute, as though they contained secrets — those steps he’d taken which had led him to this precise spot, this precise moment in time: steps which could have been different had he decided at any point to go in another direction.
But this was the way and the path he had willed.
He understood this.
He faced forward again and went deeper inside The Superstitions.
The stones around him loomed like pyramids. The moon was so bright that it cast geometrically sharp shadows, tilting the canyon walls in a disorienting fashion, so that the silver sandy ground now looked inlaid 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, and it came like a soft spirit. It smelled vaguely of … what?
He considered the question.
Rain and dust, he thought, and something else he couldn’t quite pinpoint — a nick of astringency: metal or vinegar, perhaps, or perhaps fresh blood, he was not sure.
The smell was subtle yet sharp, and not entirely unpleasant.
He turned into it and walked against the gentle breeze — the breeze which blew over him with a sound like the murmur of ghosts, like a whisper of souls. It was then that he heard the low growl again. It was the growl of the monolithically shifting sand across unseen dunes.
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, discovery.
Searching for the golden light, alone.
He was well inside The Superstitions, and 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 now with something like smoke, and he continued deeper into night.
At last, passing near the open mouth of a cavern, where the breeze blew stronger, he found evidence of another person: a white tee-shirt hung from the rock. It was swaying and snapping lightly, like a phantom in the breeze.
The boy approached.
As he approached, he saw something like a muffled light beyond. It was furred and vague, this light, like one of those dark-lantern effects said to be common in the illumination of witch covens and devil’s meetings.
For a moment, he imagined the vast vacant darkness had sprouted eyeballs, the intermissions of light caused by a vent-hole in the doorway of hell, the opening and shuttering hell’s iron vent.
The boy went deeper in. His way turned and twisted, and the light grew clearer and less muffled.
Finally, far down a stone chute, he saw at last the figure’s back — human, alien, angel, devil, he did not know.
The boy’s heart paused, then released a thunderous beat. Beads of sweat appeared all along his forehead and stood there like blisters. He closed and opened his eyes slowly. He inhaled through his nose. He felt himself inwardly trembling. He gathered his courage and advanced toward the figure.
The figure was a man.
A golden-yellow light shone all around him.
The man was shirtless and swarthy. He was at work, though at work upon what — cauldron, coffin, pitchfork — the boy couldn’t tell: the man was turned and leaning forward in such a way that all the boy could see was his lean lumped back.
The light came from three small but strong battery-powered bulbs, strategically positioned. There was no sound.
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 gloves, which he removed now and dropped soundlessly to the ground. He faced the boy and stared directly into the boy’s wild gaze. The young man blinked slowly. His eyes radiated warmth and kindness.
This man was deep inside The Superstitions.
He had penetrated them. He was investigating. He was studying them.
He was understanding them.
“Am I dreaming?” said the little lad.
“No,” the young man said.
“What have you found here?”
The boy was silent.
“I’ve found a large underground water aquifer,” the young man said.
“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 overcame it.”
“Are you? Are you afraid?”
Slowly, the young man shook his head. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. There never was.”
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 golden moon shone through.
Lowering his eyes now, it seemed to him for a protracted moment that behind the young man he saw a slow and mushroom-shaped pulse of light, almost but not quite invisible, coming off the Yellowcake and then throbbing out through the ceiling-hole and into the night, obscuring the moon thinly, like gauze: a gauzy golden veil.
The next morning, when the boy removed the heavy stone from his pocket and scrutinized it in the full light of day, he knew instantly what it was — had, in fact, already guessed:
It was a large nugget of pure gold.
The young man, so deeply investigating The Superstitions, would never know the real gift he’d given the boy:
He’d given an explicit confirmation of what was already implicit inside the boy’s brain and body — the full sanction of youth and the gay and courageous spirit of youth, which the young boy already contained, and the knowledge and understanding that the magical energy and joy and curiosity and purity of youth can and should be kept for a lifetime.
Thereafter, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a wry and knowing smile — an ironic smile — the boy told people that it was the Devil himself who, late one autumn night in The Superstitions, had given him this solid gold nugget, and then, said the boy, the diabolical two-horned rascal went right back to work, with his pitchfork stamped 666 in hot smoking scrawl, poking at his strange yellow fire, while over his swart shoulder, beyond the handsome curve of his aquiline nose, a mystical, mushroom-shaped, supernatural dome of atoms rose.
On the topmost floor of the sixty-six story skyscraper, the tall thin figure stood obscured by shadows. It was nighttime. The sky hung black and low. The enshadowed face looked ashen in the darkling room, the shock of high hair moonlike, moon-colored, floating through the sky.
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 God-like looming here so high and so near the plate-glass slab of window that gave to the low sky and the vast unspooling night.
The city like an intricate necklace spread out across the plain below shimmered with lucency and electric light, and all the darkness looked alive with sparkling jewels of apricot and white.
The figure lifted a glass filled with icy water and then, drinking deeply until the glass was drained and the iced rattled dryly, spoke to the man with hooded eyes, who stood halfway across this high hall-like room:
“What have you been thinking of?”
“To think of shadows is a serious thing.”
Jon did not reply.
“To think is to act,” the figure said. “All thought is an act of labor: it is the strain of attention — of keeping the attention focused — and this act, the effort of attention, is the seat of human will, the existence of which is the fundamental thing that sets this species apart from the other creatures. To choose to put forth the effort of attention — or not — this is the fundamental choice we each make, all day every day, and it is this choice that determines all our other choices and decisions. It shapes every idea we each hold.”
The figure turned and looked out again at the night city that fell away far below. Both of their shapes stood reflected in a disembodied fashion on the slab-like windowpane, so that in their reflections they both appeared to be hovering ghostly against the sky, high above the glittering sprawl of city light.
“I have something for you,” Jon said.
“What is it?”
“It is a gift.”
“What gift do you have?”
“For me you have the gift of water?”
“How much? How much water?”
“A great deal. Enough to last more than a century.”
“Where is it?”
“It is in a dry and dangerous place.”
“Where you found uranium and made my Yellowcake?”
“It can be cultivated?”
“Yes. And it will bring you a great deal more wealth.”
“How much do you want in exchange for it?”
“I don’t want money.”
“What do you want?”
“This: I want you with your wealth and your resolve and your resources to civilize The Superstitions with the water I found underneath, and I want you to print pages I wrote.”
“It will probably make you enemies.”
“It will probably make you infamous.”
“This is what you want?”
“Why? Why infamous?”
“I have reasons,” Jon said.
They were both silent. They stood staring out the window. Deep within the belly of the black sky came the spasmodic flicker of heat lightning. For a flash, the figure’s sexless face lit up. The face was sharp and angular, the color of ashes.
“The word city is etymologically related to the word civilization,” the figure said. “Did you know?”
“Yes,” the figure said. “Civilization and the city are the same, and they are also a testament to the spontaneous order which arises naturally among human beings when human beings are left free. Civilization and cities are the product of free association and free exchange among humans, because humanity possesses within itself the capacity for arranging its own path of development. Civilization — true civilization, the advance toward personal autonomy — is not the product of force. This is historical fact. Civilization and all that it entails is the product of free association and voluntary exchange.”
Jon remained mute.
From the shadows, the figure watched Jon for a long and thoughtful moment, narrowing on him the bright blue eyes like two laser-beams: cross-eyes burning with brainpower.
“You’re a very peculiar man,” the figure said. He fell silent for several beats. “You’ll have what you ask for,” the figure said, “your civilization and your infamy.”
Shortly after this, a slim book appeared, a book of shadows and light:
The Thin Black Book of Deep Dark Knowledge
by Jon Silverthorne
It went unnoticed, at first.
Several months later, a large underground aquifer was discovered deep below the Superstition Wilderness, and when this massive water source was subsequently tapped and brought to the surface, bringing clean drinking water and crops and other agriculture, and then workers and free-exchange and a thriving economy followed, it was somehow learned and then circulated among purists that in this heretofore economically depressed desert, someone named Silverthorne was ultimately the person responsible: he’d discovered the water, and by unleashing this civilizing force — clean water — he had thereby destroyed The Superstitions.
This was the phrase used: he destroyed The Superstitions.
It came to light next that he was a fugitive — a fugitive from justice — who had once been caught manufacturing and selling cigarettes on the black market, 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, who was missing.
Deep within the belly of the intestinal caves, which honeycombed Baboquivari like a maze, on the seventh level of hell, Morgan walked with Kristopher back into a cone-shaped corridor burning with strange and dream-like bioluminescence: down a crimson nightworld incandescent with scarves of living lucency, under which enormous calcite stalagmites rose columnar toward dripping stalactites overhead — a wild profusion of limestone stalks and teeth, long thin spires mucronate and wet and gleaming blood-colored in an irradiated wonderscape. The photonic light pulsed and slid over the misshapen masses of bicarbonate, so that in this ebb and flow of bloody light, these calcite masses looked grotesque and living, like living bodies, mutant, malformed, neck-shaped, two-headed and half-writhing in an underground land that was as silent and as alien as the surface of the moon, a subterranean stone world where teeming larvae all around them throbbed with enzymes and surged with Luciferin and with life.
Down this darkly burning labyrinth, the Maze-Man came.
He came quietly at first, and then with a seething hiss like the long whisper of wind through sere and sinister grass, and he pursued them deep down the adamantine corridors and down the labyrinthian ways, his strong Maze-Man feet and unhurried tread following after, ever-after, down titanic glooms and chasmed fears.
Suddenly, then, when Morgan in her febrile state looked to her right, Kristopher was no longer there.
She spun around.
Kristopher was not anywhere.
She called for him, but there was no response. Her voice boomed and reverberated through the mute crimson corridors of stone.
Then, once again, she heard the seething hiss and the unhurried tread. It was growing closer, 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 shoals of incarnadine light which ribboned off brightly down another long shaft, and all at once the blood-red glow grew more intense yet, illuminating her face in a hellish light, and the ceiling seemed to her to breathe and heave with the world’s turning.
When Maze-Man reached her at last, she knew without looking that he was upon her.
When he stood behind her, she felt his presence.
She did not turn around now but genuflected down onto her knee. She closed and opened her eyes slowly, as one who in a fearless way would be executed from behind: the swift swing of the heavy sword slicing silently all the way through the slender stalk of her neck, her round pretty head with its boyish hair rolling across the rock floor, pebbles and dust sticking to her famished cheeks, two ropes of blood spurting from the stump of her neck, the ball-like head on the floor of the cave with clear gray eyes gazing spellbound one final time at this phenomenal world all around her now, a world of such breathtaking, heartbreaking lucency.
But the strong swift sword-stroke never came.
Instead, she felt a warm and gentle hand touch her shoulder, and when she finally turned, she saw two faces and two heads — one on either side of her slender swaying neck.
The first was Kristopher, who stood one pace back, on her right-hand side, partially sunk in shadow. But he was not the one who’d reached out, who now gripped her shoulder gently.
That hand, the one on her left, came from the other.
It came from Kristopher’s half brother.
Her pale lips broke open into a soft smile.
Jon stepped around to the front of her, where she still genuflected on the ground, and he smiled in return. He then held his hand outstretched, and she gripped it in her own. Kristopher, still one pace back, stood silent. He was sunk even deeper in the shadows.
Jon pulled gently against Morgan’s counter-tug, and instantly she came to her feet. She did not let go of Jon’s hand. Her palms were clammy and damp. They stood facing each other in the crimson light which slid soundlessly across their faces and their bodies. Jon’s black eyes brimmed as with hot blood — a hot bloodred liquid light.
“You were the Maze-Man all along, weren’t you?” Morgan said to Jon. She was still holding his hand. “I always thought so — ever since you first told me about him, when you showed me the baby mummies.”
Jon looked on the verge of replying, when off to her left, there came again the awful sound of the seething hiss.
They all three turned in unison.
They saw a liquid-like arc of blinding white. It was shooting in a steady yet finite stream across the cave, beneath the blood-colored luminous 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. To Morgan that finite arc of white all at once became the 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.”
Only now did she release Jon’s hand. She then reached into her front pocket and produced an iridescent object about the size of an egg. She handed it to Jon.
It was a mother-of-pearl ladybug.
A gentle hand shook her shoulder. She heard her name repeated as from a great distance — Morgan, Morgana, Morcant: composed of the elements, the sea, brightness and whiteness — and she was aware now that someone was calling out to her. Yet she felt herself unable to move at all. She felt herself paralyzed from head-to-toe, and no matter the herculean effort she put forth, no matter the gigantic will exerted, she was unable to stir a single muscle.
Suddenly everything went quiet.
Her eyes flipped open.
She could move again.
The blood-red light throbbed all around her, yet the first thing she saw was not this light but Kristopher’s kind face floating above her. He was kneeling on the ground at her side. His right hand was upon her shoulder, his left hand cupping the back of her head, cushioning it, protecting it from the cold stone floor on which she lay. An oceanic silence filled the cave.
“You passed out,” he said.
She blinked, only half comprehending.
“You fainted,” he said.
“How long was I out?”
“A long time.”
“I dreamt of Jon,” she said, “and the Maze-Man. I dreamt they were one and the same person.”
Kristopher did not reply.
The crimson light noiselessly pulsed.
“Jon has gone deep inside Baboquivari,” she said. “Deeper than anyone, maybe. Did you know?”
He listened but was silent. He shook his head. For a long moment, he gazed into her far-off eyes: eyes incandescent under all the swarming bioluminescence. He saw in them and in her face a titanium strength, an unbreakable glint flashing deep down inside her eyes, inside her mind.
“We’ve got to get you out of here,” he said.
Upon his warm hand which cupped the back of her head, she lolled her head a little to the left. She stared up at him and smiled, her round pretty face splotched with red light and black shadow, like a ladybug.
Her golden tooth glinted scarlet.
“There’s no way I have the arm-strength to climb that rope back out of here,” she said, and paused. “And I don’t know that I want to,” she said.
He stared at her. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her tightly, so that she was swaddled like a little mummy. Then he stripped off his shirt and folded it and put it pillow-like under her head.
“I must leave you alone here for a while and get help,” he said. “I’ll get Jon. I will be back. I promise.”
She nodded. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t arrive in time,” she said. She was not looking at him as she spoke these last words, but staring with her slow-moving eyeballs at all the beautiful lucency around her. “I am not afraid,” she said.
Her voice was dreamy and soft and also, he thought, unutterably authentic.
When 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. It was the evening star. It was green and glittering. The air blew warm down the Baboquivari ravines and passed over him.
He knew before he got to Jon’s house that something was very wrong.
The first thing he saw was the cluster of people-sized sunflowers that Jon had planted — in a small patch fifty meters before the driveway, bright faces as big as human heads — all broken-necked now and scorched, the enormous Ethiopian eyes which were serried with seeds torched and violated.
Kristopher hammered 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 his car.
The front door of the house stood half open. It was broken on its hinges, the windows starred through with stones.
In a single bound, Kristopher jumped all five steps which led up to the porch.
He burst through the broken door.
“Jon!” he said. “Jon! Jon!”
But the rooms were barren, and this house was left to him desolate, and the only reply was the whisper of the wind.
He ran to the back of the house, where Jon kept his ladybugs.
The door of this room was also hacked open, and so were the large aquarium-like cases, in which Jon fed and bred all his beautiful lady-beetles: thousands and thousands, Kristopher saw, heaps upon heaps, enough to fill pillow cases, 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 cyanic sky collapsing into night.
He did not hear the other car pull up. He did not hear the footsteps that came through the front door and walk with unhurried tread to the back of the house. He did not hear any of this, and he did not hear anything at all — until a voice spoke to him. It was a voice he recognized instantly.
He stood motionless.
“He’s gone,” the voice said behind him.
In the vandalized doorway of the haunted home his half brother had civilized, there stood a willowy woman with cyanic eyes and a tall full figure.
“Justine,” he said.