She drove the southwest alone.
With the help of her father and his translations — translations of Silverthorne’s Greek and Latin into English — Justine searched for days that turned into weeks. The western sunlight glanced heliotropically off her car, helmut-headed insects splattering against the windshield-glass like paintballs.
Over and across the ghost-towns and all the mining claims she visited, the winds of early autumn swirled and blew. She felt that they might blow right through her.
Every lead turned into a dead-end.
Everywhere she went, there was nothing but rumor and report.
Above the door of a tiny tilted church composed of crude masonry, just north of Dulce, New Mexico, where Jon Silverthorne was born and raised, she read a quote someone had long ago chiseled into the white limestone:
Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.
The more she searched and the more time she spent alone and in thought, the more she felt herself transmuting internally — for good or ill, she was not certain. She grew quiescent and calmer yet. She came increasingly to crave the serenity and cleanliness of this solitude.
Early one Sunday morning, north of the Albuquerque Basin in the Rio Grande rift, on the edge of the wild Jimez mountains, after having slept the night in her car, she came on foot into a red forest grove. Incarnadine woods, trees shot through with murky light. The intricate network of veins visible within each individual leaf. She passed through.
Tall swaying grass gave way to stony ground. Rims of pink-champagne light stood out upon the high western hills, the hills just tipped with sunlight, and as Justine walked, the final shadows of dawn receded and were swept away, and all the serene land pressed in around as, little by little, the whole valley gave way to light.
She stopped for a moment and extracted a folded map from the back pocket of her blue jeans. She wore a kidney-colored tee-shirt and no jacket, dark-blue sneakers. She consulted the map for a full minute, and she looked about her, as if she would quantify and measure her surroundings by the natural landmarks she stood among.
From her small pack, she retrieved a water bottle and took a long pull.
She walked on.
The sun rose like a ball of pollen and brooded over the eastern world, and soon Justine began to sweat. She gathered her hair and lifted it off the back of her neck and then yanked it into a ponytail.
Below her, a broken heap of rocks lay along the dry floor of an old quarry.
She descended a natural limestone staircase and then walked across the floor of the quarry. On the other side, around a high outcropping, she came to an oblong pool, deep and emerald, with chalky cliffs inverted on the still waters. Justine did not stop walking but turned her head to stare at the pond as she passed. The stones all around were purplish and covered in a thin layer of silica dust. A small breeze sprung up. There were dusty smells in the air, a mineral tang. The sweat on her skin began to cool. Mats of algae wheeled imperceptibly across the surface of the water, discharging a saffron light more brilliant than the water itself. A thick cable, powdered with rust, hung from high up on the rock walls and came slanting down into the pool, impaling it.
The breeze sifted through the dust.
The wooden door of a decrepit quarry shack blew open and slapped shut. Justine paused and looked around. Was there someone here? And was this someone watching her? All of a sudden, she felt sure there was. Yet she saw no sign of life — human, animal, or otherwise. The delicate hairs all along the nape of her neck stood up.
She continued through the quarry and came out onto a derelict mining road, which led her briefly back into a grove of blood-colored trees. At last, she arrived at an abandoned mineshaft immediately beyond which lay stretched the ghost-town that this mine had once given rise to.
The mineshaft consisted of a ramshackle tin building and through the building, at the back, a hole blasted into a black mountain. To the right and to the left, small cones of tailings stood like lunar volcanos, extinct, and a deep floodwater shimmered just inside the cave. Justine could hear within a steady echo-drip, and she saw a small railbed vanish into the floodwater, only one-and-a-half of its ties visible. Gray tanagers with sesame eyes peeked out at her from the little shrubs, but they made no sound.
Justine approached the cave.
A dead bat slept at the mouth. It was folded like an umbrella, the small eyes shut, pointy ears, a pug nose — the sour face almost human-looking, Justine thought, or hobbit. The tiny paws clutched in death at the magnificent cape which this creature wore. She walked away from the mineshaft and into the ghost-town that was populated with cogwheels and huge rusted axles, dilapidated wooden shacks sun-bleached and gray.
The wind poured through, this waxing sabbath day.
There were no signs of life.
Yet on the northernmost purlieus of this ghost-town, there existed a home about which Justine had heard rumors.
At this time, it was just after eight o’clock in the morning, the soaring sun as white as bone. Justine walked swiftly toward the rumored house of metal and stone.
All the lights inside were off. No one appeared to be here. Justine knocked. There was not an answer. She knocked again. The door was made of a thin metal that resounded clangorously under the rap of her knuckles.
No one answered. No one came.
She knocked again. Still, there was no response.
She waited further. She looked around. A deep stillness hung over the entire property. There was a high-altitude haze in the air. To her left, a thin dirt path like sprinkled cocoa curved around the house. Justine followed this path where it led, and suddenly, somewhat to her surprise, she came into a lush garden-plot, where, on a wooden picnic table, beneath a pulsing green-apple tree, its limbs bent low with lunar globes, a thin book lay spread-eagle. It was held open by a volcanic bowl of small fruit. Across the garden, above the archway of a stone shed on the other side of the garden was a hand-chiseled cross of granite.
Yet the first thing she noticed was not this cross but rather a long and fish-colored snake slithering out of the tree and dropping soundlessly into the grass.
She watched the thick serpent move through the deep and strange-scented shade of the dark-barked tree, and she watched it trail its fish-gray slackness soft-bellied down to a stone trough where a pool of water bubbled up from a fracture in the earth.
In silence Justine saw the snake rest its level throat upon the snake-colored stone, and she watched the snake sip upon the small clearness of water: drinking and nourishing itself through its paper-slit mouth, taking the cool clean water into the long body.
From a distance of ten feet, she then saw the snake pause a moment and lift its triangular head philosophically, as drinking cattle sometimes do, the orange forked snake tongue flickering — as if licking its chops — and then she watched it dip its arrow-head and stoop back and drink a little more in the dark-gray shadows of the garden air, which smelled so strangely of apples and something else she couldn’t identify.
At length, having satisfied its thirst, the snake looked around again, like a demon or a god, and then slowly, very slowly, drew its long slow curving body away from the gurgling fracture in the ancient stones of the earth, and when Justine shifted the weight of her stance, one foot to the other, making only a tiny sound, the snake snapped and then twisted like a whip and vanished in an instant into a black earthen hole, an earth-lipped fissure.
Narrow-eyed and thoughtful, Justine the zoologist, observer of nature, watched this creature of darkness disappear like an underworld king into the chartless caves of the earth.
Justine with her pretty ponytail walked silently to the open book beneath the apple tree, the book held open by the weight of the porous fruitbowl. She held her hands behind her back. She did not touch anything. She looked down and read the first thing her eyes fell upon:
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits
She raised her eyes and looked off into the distance. She unconsciously squinted. Then her eyes went back to the book.
I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing
The fruit in the bowl was a mixture of purple grapes, which were still on-the-vine; medium-sized green apples brushed with blood; three small stone fruit she did not recognize — perhaps a hybrid of plum and apricot, or perhaps peach, she thought. Indeed, she felt for a moment that in addition to apples, she could smell all three fruits individually — individually and discretely and in succession. She had not eaten a single thing in over forty-eight hours, and her hunger, like the hunger of Persephone in hell, gnawed with rat’s teeth at her stomach and heart.
She stood motionless with her hands still clasped behind her back, and she stood as one on the verge of recollecting an elusive memory.
Moving only her eyeballs now, she scanned her surroundings yet again. She looked all about her.
At last, her eyes dropped one more time to the open book.
Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape
Reading this silently to herself, she was struck by the sound of these words inside her head — almost as if some voice other than her own were reading the words aloud to her: a soft and sexless voice that lulled and soothed.
At that moment, Justine very consciously decided something — and the instant she decided it, she did not hesitate.
She reached for the ripest and largest of the mysterious stone fruit, and she sunk her strong teeth into its flesh.
She ate it to satisfy her deep hunger.
The thick torn muscle of the fruit tasted so cool and so sweet — beyond anything she’d imagined — and she ate it with total satisfaction.
There was a backdoor to this house, which gave to the garden, and when Justine turned from where she now stood and went to the door and knocked upon it, this door came open with a gentle snick.
A thin current of cool air passed over her.
With her elbow, she nudged the door open a little wider.
“Hello?” she said. “Is there anybody home?”
Her voice rang hollow through the bare rooms of the house.
There was no answer.
A thin doormat beneath her feet said BIENVENIDOS.
She stepped inside.
The room was clean but dusty. The walls were the color of egg shells. The house seemed deserted and yet not quite.
Before her there sat a wooden table with two wooden chairs on either end. A very elegant and heavy-looking silver candlestick stood in the center of the table, a white-porcelain coffee cup on the far edge. Other than this there were no furnishings or furniture that she could see. Light streamed into the room through the lancet window on her left, and beyond this window she saw in the southern sky, in the middle-distance, a huge circular cloud — punctured clean through, like a donut.
A great tide of light slanted down through this pastry-hole above.
Justine stared at it.
It was at this time that she noticed her senses beginning to perplex.
She went to one of the two chairs and sat down. Then she started to get up, but suddenly there seemed no real reason to. She reseated herself.
She looked into the coffee cup. It was empty. Yet as she stared down into it, the inside of the cup blossomed with a golden glow and came alive, and she then noticed, as if only now, the slanting sun and a thick cone of sunlight coming in through the window and prowling the room with soft puma paws and illuminating the beautiful silver candlestick and the coffee-cup completely.
Dustmotes wheeled and orbited inside this light like planets and moons in a microcosmic solar system.
She saw through the window a solitary mountain flower standing as stiff as a cornstalk. It was purple and sun-leached and half-hidden among the brush, and Justine only noticed it because she’d caught a flicker on the marge of her vision and then, from nowhere, a spiky-headed swallowtail alighted upon that sun-leached purple flower, bending the stalk nearly to the ground.
As Justine watched, the bird did something then which struck her as inordinately strange: it appeared to impale its own beak repeatedly into the downy breast, stabbing at it rapidly, as if it would pierce and pulverize its own tiny tender heart.
When the bird lighted off, the flower-stalk sprung back to attention.
Justine watched for a long time, amazed, dreamy.
After a while, she turned and leaned forward in her chair, so that she might see into another room of this house, and in this other room she suddenly glimpsed a female figure staring directly at her.
Her heart went into her throat.
The figure sat next to a mantle beneath a mounted great-horned owl, who also watched her with jeweled eyes, and there sat upon the mantle, underneath the mounted owl, a slender pink vase containing a single crepe flower, blue-black and mournful.
It was with even greater astonishment that Justine realized that the female figure watching her also looked much like her.
Justine stared in wild surmise, and so did the figure in the room beyond.
The two of them eyeing each other wildly, warily.
It was a protracted span of time — within which all movement stretched slowly away from her and then went wobbling off into a jellied blackness somewhere just beyond her periphery — before she grasped that this figure watching her was her own reflection, and that the sunlit glass of the mirror in which she lay doubled was the color of white-burgundy wine.
The mirror-glass that reflected her was also striped with silver and metal-gray, flakes of shimmering refraction framed by ornate brass, a sinuous ripple like a giant cobra, a two-headed cobra swaying hypnotically on an enormous singular neck, and it was now as well that Justine realized that the fruit she’d eaten was in some way she couldn’t fully define a fruit cool and sweet, yet forbidden.
All at once she understood that the moment she was thinking about had passed and then that moment too and then that one, and she was looking at this forever fading reality of the present, a recursive regression of movement which was both eternal and also central, and then she felt she was watching the watcher, which was her.
She saw herself as from above and slightly off to one side.
Everything seemed far away, almost as though she were viewing existence now through the wrong end of a telescope. She seemed somewhere else. The sunlit air was electric, bristling, green sea-worms of electric light squirming on the edges of her vision. She sat motionless. Her profile was like that of an antique coin. Her nose straight and long, the zygomatic arch crisply etched. A planet or star lit her cheek and revealed the shiny bone beneath the skin, a somehow futuristic face with that sharp glinting bone.
She felt a lonesome wind blast through her, and then a huge and heavy curtain fell over everything that had been, and she sat motionless in the chair, like a butterfly held softly in a spider’s web.
She thought she could hear inside her own body the tidal gush of her bloodbeat and the gentle crackle of her dying cells, the silent warfare of germs, the popping of her tendons and tissues, the metal-rending of ligaments, her teeth dragging dryly in their sockets, the double-helix of her DNA spiraling into infinity, the creaking roll of eyeballs inside her skull.
Running jagged down the pinky side of her right hand, the old childhood scar, stitched by her mother the nurse, now flickered lilac and gray in the prowling light. Justine had no conception how long she’d been sitting here. She stared at her scar as one who would apprehend some awful homicide, a ghastly murder committed beneath the hot and grinding blade, the robbing of an individual human life which is more than the sum of pleasures accrued, the nervous system and the circulatory system within each and every single human being a hidden network of underground aqueducts and rivers so vast that it would stretch end-to-end around the earth four times and more, over one-hundred thousand miles of deep threading conduits in every individual, and does each incomprehensibly vast and intricate individual human have substance and identity apart from the race or tribe with whom it most closely associates? And are there deceptions too big to fully see over, vices too conspicuous, too pronounced to ever completely talk around, themes too overwhelming to ever be fully subordinate to other themes and which lace like worms the inflamed brain of the violent and the obsessed and hold that brain forever hostage and fogged and forever susceptible to the cultic?
The day was dying and the late-afternoon bloomed like milk and roses upon the wall. Justine watched with uncanny clarity scraps of a dream that unspooled down the back of her brain, and at the same time she felt herself drifting apart from everything that was, or would be.
The shrubs beyond the window seemed to her suddenly populated with small sapient creatures watching her. Foliage filled with frog-like figurines waiting for whom? For she.
She saw sandhill cranes flying over the desert, immense shapes gliding darkly over her head like stingrays or phantoms and of such breathtaking levity that, immobile in this chair, she felt herself almost weep. She saw ravens soaring over dark spruce forests in a wild high-country, slopes falling away in every direction, all heather and moss and with creamy purple clouds beneath.
She saw a solitary falcon quarter and then deploy downwind, an armadillo far below moving like a windup toy across the sand, its tiny tail twisting back and forth like a little whip.
She saw orange-and-black butterflies flop sloppily over hot autumn fields, and she heard the clack of cornstalks in a wind that seemed made of glass.
She saw piebald calves of inexpressible winsomeness playing in lime-green fields of alfalfa, and she saw swarms of lady beetles with little cow faces teeming sweetly in the clover.
She saw a pair of brook trout anchored side by side in a vodka-clear creek, their fat midsections stippled with blue-and-pink polkadots so vibrant and so bright that they looked to her dabbed there with fresh paint, the gray velvet fins winnowing the gunpowder sand, gills kneading, slits opening and closing like dampers, and she saw anadromous salmon-hens knifing against the current, making for the sea. A finger-sized salamander, olive dark and mottled, dipped a webbed foot into a pool of bubbled green, as if testing the waters there.
She saw a two-headed horned toad with a single neck, four tilted eyes, distended midsection, leaf-like feet, and she saw the heartbeat pulsing so delicately within the slack skin of the neck between two heads, and Justine in her chair thought this mutant creature as lovely as anything she’d ever beheld.
Unreeling rapidly down the sloping nightscape of her mind, schools of multicolored fish flew by like bright ribbons of silk, and through the misted surface of this dream-sea, the late-autumn sunset pulsed like a lozenge on the very edge of the earth, the sun coral-colored and fiery-orange and casting long horizontal bars across all the wheeling world, and she heard the whispering of wind over wine-dark waters, and the rattle of pebbles in the eternal wash of the waves, and Justine alone among the observers said that this time there are ears and eyes and there are witnesses.
She stood abruptly from the chair and walked with haste from this rose and dusky room and stepped outside.
The sun was down, yet the sky was still alight and strangely lucent, glowing around the edges with a cabbage-hued radioactivity. Away to the east, the crescent moon like a honing stone lay cocked over the horizon. The air hung grainy and green. The silence was absolute. A faint scent of thyme touched her nose. Justine went to the fissure in the earth where the snake had sipped, and she stared long at the black bubbling water, and then she stood above the earth-lipped limestone fracture that opened on the underworld into which the snake had slid, and that limestone fracture was a narrow rift indeed.
When Justine knelt and reached into the gap, as if to quantify and measure it for the width of her willowy body, and as though she’d all but decided to follow the snake down inside, she felt herself seized by the wrist and yanked with great force.