First, there was the scent of thyme. It seeped through her body in the form of fevers — an invisible emanation, soft and swirling, like a gentle drift of water.
The imperceptible scent of a thing, she thought, like an essence or a soul continually released — but by what or whom? Of what chemistry composed? What matter? Entering like a phantom into the channels of her nose, the delicate fumes of thyme, born by currents of air, now surged more strongly inside her: flooding the cavities of her head, touching her olfactory’s enigmatical apparatus of cellular circuitry, complicated and living like a nexus of underground rivers. She thought of limestone landscapes and fragmented pieces of reflected light, sunlight in the shape of tapered jade, thin slabs of silver. She wanted to watch the city burning from high up here, fireworks detonating, bombardments of boom, cascading Niagaras of brightness, rockets streaking like roman candles across a daytime sky hung with a daytime moon — a city aflame in a myriad torches of light.
“Do you recall the thyme-and-tequila drink you made me last time I visited?” Justine said.
“Yes,” the bartender said, “of course I do. I am memory.”
For the second time in her life, she saw in that skeletal face, flashing from somewhere behind the bartender’s dove-gray eyes, a twinkling — a playfulness which was perhaps mischievous.
“You drank a drink called El Chupacabra,” the bartender said.
“Yes,” she said.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t actually exist.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that there is no such thing. I mean it’s all figment — all totem and tattoo.”
“The creature or the drink?”
“The drink and the creature alike.”
Justine cocked her head and narrowed her eyes.
“May I recommend whiskey instead?” the bartender said.
Justine did not reply.
“Do you know, incidentally, what that word means?” the bartender said.
“Which word? Whiskey?”
“No,” Justine said. “No, I don’t.”
“It’s a shortened version of a now-obsolete word: whiskybae. Which, in turn, is a variation of usquebaugh (pronounced: ASQUA-bah) from the Irish-Scottish Gaelic uisge-beatha, meaning ‘water-of-life’ — beatha meaning ‘breath.’ ‘Breath’ and ‘life’ are in some languages synonymous.”
“Whiskey means water-of-life,” Justine said. But it was not a question.
“Yes — as does the Polish word wodka,” the bartender said, “and the Russian vodka and the Scandinavian aquavit.“
Justine was silent for a long moment: silent and staring from high up across this illuminated desert city.
She imagined she saw Baboquivari in the far distance, dry purple hills, fold upon fold, floating monolithic and unreal against the distant blue of the desert sky — like an isthmus between two heads of water: two heads merging into one mind.
How long did she remain thus? And how many times did the screaming hawk wheel around the screaming sun?
To have said that her stillness and her soundlessness melted into a higher form of concentration would’ve been to cheapen the pristine quality of the experience — to shroud it in shabby words — as when the supernaturally stupefying suddenly sets in, and a miniature masterpiece is thereby launched through a medium of unspoken cues and facial ticks.
Time meanwhile crawled on insect legs, carrying upon its back a despair of its own. Justine watched in the windowpane the ghostly reflection of the bartender, the posterior of whom she could see translucently, in reflection: sleek long hair platinum-colored and pinned back. The bartender’s fingers, clasped behind, were not, she noted, currently crossed.
All at once, then, in another flash-flood of thyme-flavored fume followed by a febrile flash of deeper insight, she realized something which struck her as obvious and yet not.
She realized that all thought is a profoundly private and personal act, and she realized as an elaboration of this that all thoughtful souls to some extent exist forever in a state of solitude. And at that precise instant, something else occurred to her — something tragic — and she sat for several seconds staring at the glowing bartop, almost, it seemed, afraid to investigate or to disturb this new and horrifying thing, which had come unbidden to her brain.
Insect-like her wristwatch ticked.
Finally she spoke:
“I’m dead, aren’t I?” she said.
Gently the bartender smiled.
“Always remember this,” the bartender said. “There is no super-nature. The word should not even exist. There is only nature. There is only one reality, and there is only one nature, and it is everything. Non-existence is not something. There is no nothing. Sensory perception is valid, and so is the brain.”
Then a door slammed shut inside her skull, and everything went black.
And black it remained for an indescribable time. Internally and in total solitude, Justine fought the blackness. She fought it singlehandedly, and she fought it with all her might, and she fought it not completely without fear but completely without cowardice. She fought it so that it would not overtake her — until at last, very far off, in the formless emptiness which lay over the surface of the deep and over the arrant darkness which enveloped the face of that deep, something gleamed: it was a light.
Infinitesimal, like an atom of silver moving upon the face of the waters, this light soon grew into a pinprick. The light continued to grow. She nourished it internally, silently, and as the light grew, Justine heard a long lonesome wind howling on rollercoaster-rails down the swirling corridors of the hemisphere that is death’s district, and all around her yet only glimpsed, there now hovered like angels odd phantom shapes made of multicolored gas. They pulled slowly apart, like taffy, khaki-colored, pink-ice, lightning-blue, soft animals of the eternal night, gamboling soundlessly beside her as if they would accompany her up to the gates of it all.
She felt herself in some kind of distress.
When at length the small silver light had grown bigger and then bloomed open in full, she discovered herself alone upon a windy northern shore which stood heaving in the dawn. There was mist and smoke and the reek of sulphur and pulsing through this sulphuric misty smoke a neptunian glow, where perhaps the first waters had just burst. Wild vapors swirled and blew. Vast rivers of pink magma meandered like enormous serpents silent and creeping beneath the oceans, and from where she stood upon this rocky shore she could see their multi-pronged wanderings, as she could see also now in the emerging dawn skyscraper-high eruptions of candyapple lava and colossal chunks of heaved-up earth exploding all about her, all about the raggedy edges of the ocean: a great hailstorm of rocks and iron slag and deep-earthen spalls of hot mud and other matter which fell back hissing into the cold and salty waters that lapped at her feet.
Far away, then, as though disgorged from deep within the belly of primordial earth, coughed up from terrestrial lungs, there came a delicate shell shape, as of bones that were coral-made. This shape slurred before her eyes and became a stream of liquid silver, like a geyser of mercury, and she saw that out of the chaos, life does not come easily, but come it does, and once it does come, it is unstoppable. No sooner did she see this than a tremendous knocking resounded from the rocks behind her, as though some great sapient beast were hammering upon the stone doors of her soul.
She half turned.
A cowled and shadowy figure stood some distance away, behind the bars of Gehenna’s gates, and this figure held a skeleton key the size of which appeared to her preposterous, so large and looming was it. She watched this figure with the king-sized key now unlock the scalding gates, and out flowed a nation of horribles accompanied by the odor of death: evildoers impenitent and clamoring to leap back into the stew of their vice — marauders and murderers, robbers and rapists, the violent and vainglorious, the dictator and the dispossessed, the wicked and the wanton, the deceptive and duplicitous, filicides and senicides and pedicides, miscreants, manipulators, prevaricators, pedophiles, arsonists, gluttons, cannibals, debauchees … they gushed one and all into the world and with such speed and size that the world wobbled slightly under their sheer flowing mass. And still they came. She watched them pour forth from the sheol, and she watched them disperse through the byways and highways, the lanes and streets of the whole wide world — pursued every step of the way by the whisper of Wisdom herself with her pure and absolute logos and the science she invariably brought to bear upon the matter of all things human and healthy and intelligent and good.
A cool gust of wind blew over Justine. The smell of rainwater was inside this wind, mixed with the sweetly sour odor of dust: a dust of desolation. Small broken-necked flowers, Sweet William, nodded nearby her. They were bloody and brilliant and very beautiful even in death, somehow sentient, she saw now, and as the broken-necked flowers beside her bowed their heads in soft pastels and in resignation, she all at once felt herself flooded by grief for the sweetness and beauty of these flowers, and for their soul’s trouble.
Gradually the light turned chrome-colored. Foreign constellations winking in the slate-blue vault above. She heard the wince of an anvil, and she turned. In the distance, she saw an artisan of some sort, perhaps a goldsmith or silversmith like Paul Pascoe, and though she could not see this man’s face, she saw in his human mold how powerful he was, and she watched him crouched in concentration at his chosen task and trade, hammering out with brute strength from cold metal slag some form of legal-tender for the human marketplaces wherein the human species trucks, barters, and exchanges. She saw also that this was good.
She found herself consulting an old-fashioned pocketwatch, which she’d just discovered about her person, and the hands of which were in that instant coming to rest.
She lifted her eyes. Timepieces of all varieties, hourglasses, sundials, clocks, and watches, hung everywhere about her — all of them winding down, running out of sand, overtaken by shadows, ceasing. Ceasing to mark and measure. A small cacophony of ticking coming to a stop, one clock at a time, the amplified seethe of sand running out through one enormous hourglass.
Time, she thought, which is the quantification of movement, does not exist if there’s no quantifier. Only movement exists. But what moves? Things, she answered. Things move. Existing things. Entities. The movement of a thing is governed by its essence, which is its identity. To be is to be some thing. Timepieces need maintenance and people to maintain them.
Someone should say something, she thought.
She blinked slowly. When she opened her eyes, she felt the bartender was somewhere near, but she could not see precisely where. Yet she felt the dove-gray eyes, playful and perceptive, zeroing in upon her like laserbeams.
“You are superstition,” Justine whispered, though she still could not see anyone. “You are legion.”
“It depends upon what angle you regard it from — and how you interpret it,” the bartender said. “Metaphors and symbols are separate from fact and truth. They’re a tool, a method of connecting, of quantifying, of grasping. They make the abstract concrete.”
She did not reply.
The bartender appeared before her then: a calm and friendly presence.
“You give me heart, Ms. Justine Strickland,” the bartender said. “By all that relumes, you do. You give me heart.”