PRELUDE CHORUS JOURNAL
The Society Shots
from the upcoming Second Edition of
THROUGH THE EYES of GOD
The Battlefront Journal of VASSAL SQUEEZESHOT
by Vassal Squeezeshot
with Victory Tree and
The Reverend Professor Henrietta A.
( * )
by The Reverend Professor Henrietta A.
Vassal first published his famous journal decades ago, to describe how he invented his all-seeing little drones. Now, he has given that invention to the world, come what may.
To accompany that gift, he and I have published PRELUDE and CHORUS—a big work and a short postscript. We have also begun to create a second edition of his journal, adding details and clarifications. We hope that, along with PRELUDE and CHORUS, it will help people deal with the gift of his drone. We expect to complete and publish the new edition soon. Meanwhile, we are providing the excerpts that follow below. We will keep adding to them here until we are done.
(i.e., excerpts so far)
Preface to the Second Edition
To the Murderer
A Saving Grace: The Eternal Present
A Mad Moose
Preface to the Second Edition
by Vassal Squeezeshot
Most everyone knows that years ago, in the 1970s, I invented a tiny marvel that could have turned our civilization inside out. I refused to allow that change to happen. The time wasn’t right, I believed, and might never be right. I kept my invention to myself.
I kept a journal in those days. My entries in it were sketchy; I am not much of a writer. Fortunately, I was living with the playwright Victory Tree, who helped me with it. After she was murdered, I decided that I must complete and publish it. I enlisted The Reverend Professor Henrietta A. to continue Victory’s editorial role. Her assistance, like Victory’s before her, proved invaluable. We published it to predictable acclaim.
Now, several generations later, I have given my tiny marvel to everyone, for free. To accompany it, as The Reverend Professor has mentioned in her EDITOR’S NOTE, above, she and I have published PRELUDE and CHORUS, both of which she authored with my cooperation. They comprise the most up-to-date installments of what she calls my saga. In them, she describes my experiences and my thinking far better than I can. Both on the page and through her art, she speaks for me more truly than I can for myself.
She also speaks for herself. I am delighted that our project has given her a platform from which to share her perspectives as well as mine. That’s not to say that we don’t see many things similarly. Our perspectives tend to coincide, and she is generous toward me when they do not.
As she reports above, we have also been revising my journal, and expect to finish it soon. We have also written more of my saga—a series of volumes—which we will also revise, and publish if our circumstances allow.
To the Murderer
Two years ago, down by my dock, you aimed a rifle at my beloved Victory and pulled the trigger. Your bullet went into her forehead and out the back of her skull, killing her. I was in the house, and heard your shot. After the controversy, threats, and attacks brought on by news of my invention, I knew what might have happened. I sprinted down the path to the dock, and arrived in ten or twenty seconds. I didn’t see Victory until I reached the top of the ramp. She was lying in the water on her back, slightly submerged, a few feet from the dock. Her eyes were closed. She appeared to be unconscious, or worse.
The tide was going out. She was drifting away. I ran down the ramp, jumped into the water, and pulled her to the muddy shore. She was not breathing, and had no pulse. Blood poured from the wound in her forehead, onto her face and chest. I knew that she was dead. Nonetheless, I sat astride her and for several minutes pumped her heart and breathed into her lungs. A few times, I paused to clear blood from her closed eyes. Soon, it covered my hands, cheeks, nose, and mouth. I could feel it, smell it, taste it. Some of it trickled down my throat, still warm.
I couldn’t revive her. I didn’t accept that; maybe there was something that someone else could—. I looked for our guards offshore in their launch. They were there as usual, in the river’s main current a few hundred yards out. Hadn’t they heard the shot? Hadn’t they noticed? Why weren’t they here? I leapt up, waved my arms, and hollered. Apparently, they didn’t see or hear me. Leaving Victory on the mudbank, I ran back toward the house to get the guards at the end of our driveway. I knew it was too late, but I ran as fast as I could, my arms churning, my feet pounding the uneven ground.
* * *
You shot her in the forehead. She must have been looking in your direction. She may have been looking right at you. She may have seen you pull the trigger. I thought of that as I ran for the guards. I have thought about it often since.
For you, those moments were different. For you, they included how you held your aim, breathing softly; and how you gently squeezed the trigger until your rifle fired. Then the sound of your shot, the kick of your rifle against your shoulder, the sharp whiff of gunpowder, and seeing her drop from the dock into the water. And within that were whatever other thoughts and feelings you were having: your desire for my invention; your rage at her and at me for keeping it from everyone; your concern that your shot land where you aimed it, and your satisfaction when it did. And whatever else.
Your bullet ended her life and ruined mine. As the world knew, probably including you, she and I loved each other. We were so attuned to each other that we could think each other’s thoughts, feel each other’s emotions, and share each other’s perceptions. Saying that doesn’t even begin to describe how we were, however. Our love was more than words can say.
* * *
One day, despite the protection of a battalion of government guards—or with their complicity (the thought saddens me)—you may kill me, as well. Or you may want to kill me, but find that you can’t get to me. Or you may feel content with killing Victory, and wish to do no more harm.
You are alive. I wish you weren’t. I wish you had never been born. Maybe if your parents had known what you would do one day to Victory, they would have acted differently at the time of your conception; given a different sperm and egg a chance. Too late for that now, of course. All I can do is direct these remarks to you, which you may never read. Which is fine. What difference can it make whether you read them or not?
I also have something else for you that you may never read: the journal I have kept in recent years. It begins on the next page, and covers the time from my invention’s inception to Victory’s death. During the last months of her life, she and I were preparing to publish it. If you read it, you will pay attention to it as only you can. But again, I don’t care if you read it. Millions of other people will, and they’re the ones who matter. Many of them will understand, as I’m sure you cannot, why it and not my invention is all I wish to share with everyone. That has been an easy choice for me to make, made easier when you murdered Victory.
The bullet flies
blunted by the wind
the true report of war
Use the earth
Burn it and live
A Saving Grace: The Eternal Present
—the sere schoon of the deep while the was—
In search of my beginnings, I have traveled centuries. My journey began in my 20s. One summer, I took a month’s vacation from my engineering job in Boston and set out to visit my ancestors. I drove north to Maine, where I had grown up on a farm. Earlier generations of the Squeezeshot family had lived nearby.
On the morning of the first day, I waded through a tangle of raspberry vines, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s Lace, and clambered onto the granite foundation stones of my great-grandparents’ 19th century farmstead. An hour later, I did the same at the rough ridgetop farms of their parents, a few miles away. The next day, I drove to the coast and rode a ferry to the island fishing village where my great-great-great-grandparents came to live a few years after the Revolution.
I returned briefly to Massachusetts. At Plimoth Plantation, I visited a replica of the seaside hut built in the 1620s by the first Squeezeshots to arrive in North America. The family patriarch then was a rum-swilling adventurer who brought his wife and their two teenaged children, plus a baby born en route, on the perilous voyage across the Atlantic.
From there, I flew to England, where I traipsed around Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and East London, the homelands of earlier Squeezeshots. I managed to follow my roots as far back as the early 1500s. Some reports pointed further, to the 1200s, but were unreliable, so I spent a week in libraries and pubs and on park benches, reading histories of medieval Britain and earlier. Those carried my imagination and understanding back as far as pagan times before the birth of Christ.
* * *
I crossed the Channel to Brittany. There, I came one sundown to the mouth of a cave-like barrow built by people of the Neolithic era. It was set into a grassy rise overlooking the sea. As the daylight faded, I sat on the ground facing it. Birds hopped and fluttered, weaving through brush and tall grass on its back. Beside its entrance loomed a tall rectangular stone, a menhir.
I stood up, turned on my flashlight, and ducked inside. Stale, damp air tickled my nose and sinuses. I sneezed, blinked, and looked ahead. A low hallway led deeper in. Massive oblong stones formed the walls and roof. I twisted up the brim of my cap so I could see, and shuffled ahead. I am six-and-a-half feet tall. The ceiling forced me to bend so far forward that even with my elbows bent, my knuckles brushed the dirt floor—suitably simian, I thought. The dirt was dry and cool to my touch, packed firm by the tread of earlier visitors.
I turned a corner and passed out of sight of the entrance. My flashlight’s beam settled on a stone beside me. A spiral appeared. I leaned closer. It was four inches across, etched into the rock, and veered toward its center as spirals do. I felt that not a moment had passed since the hour five thousand years ago when someone carved it there.
I proceeded through several small chambers, where I found more spirals, and images of animals, eyes, and, I thought, women’s breasts. I came to the final chamber: round, ten feet across, five feet high. More carvings covered the wall. I sat down on the floor and studied them. Then I turned off my flashlight and sat in darkness.
There are many such barrows in northern Europe. No one knows their purpose; their builders left no records, and no tales survive. Scholars speculate that shamans or priests built them as homes for the dead; perhaps as portals to an afterlife, where the living conducted ceremonies to encourage the departed to guide and protect loved ones who would follow. Or, they may have served as places for holy teaching, vision quests, or other exercises of the spirit, unrelated to death.
Eventually, some of those ancient people migrated from Brittany to southern England. The builders of that barrow may have been my ancestors. I chose to believe so. I also believed that whatever other purposes the barrow may have served, those people also built it, decorated it, and gathered together in it—or came singly, as I was doing—to take comfort in the miraculous.
So it was that on that day, as I sat with my eyes open, blind in the darkness, and as I smelled the dirt floor and damp stones and felt the cool air on my face and hands, I looked for what I realized I had come there to see: angels, my familiars.
As soon as I looked, the darkness stirred and there they were. Ever since my first encounter with them several years before, they had appeared whenever and wherever I wanted. As they still do. And as they will, I expect, for as long as I live, for they are present within me and—to me—within everything. As I must now attempt to describe.
* * *
I first met the angels three summers before that. I had completed postgraduate studies in electrical engineering and molecular biology, with related studies in other engineering fields, as well as in chemistry, physics, philosophy, and literature. In the course of those studies, my curiosity had led me in many directions, which I had pursued voraciously.
When I graduated, however, I suffered a letdown. I lacked goals and ambition. I hadn’t looked for a job, or thought much about it. I didn’t want to think about it. My mind held too much baggage, to no purpose. I felt restless, unable to move forward, becalmed without peace of mind.
into a pool without end
—no journey ahead.
I spent the summer alone. I loved to fish. Often in those years, I drove deep into the Maine woods to fly-fish for brook trout. Day after day, I forced my beat-up car down a half-mile of overgrown logging road, then lugged my canoe and fishing gear over several hundred yards of tangled game trail, to the shore of my favorite pond.
The best time to fish was late afternoon and evening, when hatching insects attracted trout to the surface. I usually went in midafternoon, however, to arrive early. At the shore, I would put down my load, and make my way to a ridge that rose a few hundred feet above the north side. At the top, I sat on a moss-covered promontory I had found, leaned back on my hands, stretched my legs in front of me, and for an hour or two looked out over the pond and the miles of forest beyond it. Most days, clouds drifted across the sky, their shadows playing on the treetops below me. Waves marched across the pond’s surface, and lapped the shore. Gusts of wind rippled the water, and breezes twirled. Fish ducks, mergansers, fished in the coves. Often, a beaver would be swimming near the marshes.
In the shallows, great blue herons fished among the aquatic grasses. Sometimes, a mink darted from the shore to pull mussels and crawfish from the rocks and mud on the bottom. A white-tailed deer might stroll from the forest to drink. Often, a moose stood shoulder deep, feeding on underwater plants. Some days, a fox trotted along, hunting for squirrels, snakes, frogs, toads, grasshoppers, and the like. Almost always, a few kingfishers would be diving into the pond from overhanging trees and emerging with minnows clutched in their beaks. Small birds and larger—warblers, nuthatches, chickadees, jays, woodpeckers, thrushes—fluttered through the bushes and trees. Crows and ravens flew above. Gulls—herring gulls and big, bullying black-backs—circled higher, scavenging. Red-tailed hawks, osprey, and sometimes a bald eagle, soared highest. The birds’ songs and cries (ravens can sound human), accompanied by breezes purring through the forest, spoke to my reverie.
* * *
In prior summers, observing all of that had been sublime pleasure for me. As that summer began, however, it no longer was. My aimlessness possessed me. I couldn’t enjoy anything. I wanted to be elsewhere, doing something else, but I didn’t know where or what. My discontent pained me, angered me, and depressed me. I couldn’t resolve it, couldn’t moderate, escape, or avoid it. I suffered it, and had no patience for my suffering.
On the afternoon when I first saw the angels, I was sitting on the ridge, waggling my foot, fidgeting. Behind me a red squirrel chattered, scolding me for being there. A jay swooped to a tree branch a few feet above me, screeched at me, and flew off. In the woods behind me, a vireo sung its exultant song—cheerful little bastard. A few yards to the side, a pair of beady-eyed chickadees chittered and buzzed, exhibiting purpose such as I did not possess. A small spider climbed onto my jeans and scurried halfway across before I flicked it away.
I looked at the sky. It was cloudless, a dome of blue. To the west, the sun shone above distant hills, where in a few hours it would set. I should return to the pond and get ready to fish. I was about to stand up and do that when something about the sky caught my eye. At first it was raw perception, something before you know it. Then I saw that the entire sky shone with golden light. The light was soft, otherworldly. It shone as if nothing else existed. Its radiance filled my vision, my mind, and my spirit.
Something else caught my eye. To my left, eastward, a cloud was drifting into view. It was as luminous as the sky, tinged with the same gold. And upon it, I suddenly realized, reclined a large being. It emanated the same light as the cloud and the sky, as if it was part of its surroundings. It seemed to be made of that light, without other substance; I could see through it to the sky beyond. But its appearance was more defined than the cloud’s. It was human in form, but bulbous, like a child’s toy, as if you could squeeze it and make it squeak. It had a pudgy torso, arms, and legs, and a round head with two eyes and maybe a nose and mouth. It was larger than human, however, much larger, large enough for me to see on the distant cloud. It lay there at a slight incline, its feet forward and head and shoulders raised, and gazed in the direction of the cloud’s drift. I sensed that it was alive and aware, but I could determine no more than that. It didn’t move. It just lay there, riding the cloud, emanating the golden light. I had never seen anything like it. I was stunned. It’s an angel, I thought. It is gigantic and pudgy, and has no feathered wings, but…it’s an angel!
The cloud and the angel continued their drift. Soon they passed in front of me, halfway across the sky. The angel hadn’t moved. Then, abruptly, it did move. It turned its head toward me and looked right at me—at me and into me, to greater depths than I had ever known or imagined. The look lasted only a moment, a glance, but that was enough, for it conveyed a message.
The message electrified me, and changed my life. As well as I can translate it from angelic radiance into words, it was this: “Relax, Vassal. Everything is fine.” The angel’s look embodied that message, and evoked it from everything around and within me. It struck me body and soul, rang me like a bell, sang to and from every fiber of my being. And it transformed me, putting an end to my unhappiness. I had been a typically overwrought young adult. Now, the burdens that I had been bearing—my torpor, confusion, and the rest of my plagued inwit—disappeared. My anxious interior chatter ceased, replaced by a blessed silence.
Its message delivered, the angel turned away and resumed facing forward, continuing its journey. The radiance of the sky, cloud, and angel held deeper meaning for me now. It pervaded everything. Everything emanated it, including the pond below me, the forest near and far, the creatures of the woods and water, and I myself. Its source was everything everywhere, and it shone upon everything everywhere, at once cause and effect. It brought everything to life and it was everything’s life. The universe, every universe, was made of nothing else. All things were one and the same, identical, while at the same time lacking none of the differences by which we distinguish one from another.
The radiance illuminated for me a reality that I believe all people sense, but that usually abides beyond our consciousness. I began to think of it as “the more real than real”, a truth of truths, than which there is no other. On that afternoon, as I sat on my ridgetop perch and watched the angel and cloud drift toward the western horizon, that reality was tangible to me. I basked in it. My every thought thought it, and every feeling felt it. I felt fortunate to be experiencing it so directly.
When the angel and the cloud passed out of sight beyond the hills, I turned my head and looked the other way, toward the east. More angels were approaching, a host of them, each on a separate cloud. They sailed in front of me in ragged parade, some higher in the sky, some lower, some ahead or behind. Like the first angel, they seemed alive and aware, but this time none looked at me or acknowledged me. There was no need for that. By their nature, by all nature, they saw and acknowledged everything at once, including me and my bit of light. I watched them until they drifted out of sight.
Afterward, alone again, I felt boundless bliss. The angels were gone, but they were with me, too. And so they have remained. Despite difficulties that I, like anyone, have encountered, they and their universal light have remained present to me. Whenever and wherever I look for them, I see them and am strengthened by them. Always, seeing them puts a kind of end to any unease, discomfort, want, or suffering I might be experiencing. On that day by the pond, when they showed themselves to me for the first time and gave their light to me, they changed me, saved me, with saving grace.
* * *
At my seat on the floor of the Stone Age cave, the angels were with me and not, as usual. I struggled to my feet, feeling stiff in my knees. I wanted to make my way in darkness, so I left my flashlight turned off. I crouched again to avoid the stone ceiling, and shuffled back the way I had come, guided by my memory of the passageway, the feel of the walls beside me, and the sound of open space ahead of me. A few minutes later I came to the entrance. I paused just inside. Outside it was dark; the sun had set. I felt a breeze on my face, coming from the sea, and I heard the slow rhythm of waves pushing onto the shore. I turned on my flashlight and aimed it ahead. In its beam I saw the dirt path leading away. I leaned forward to step out. As I did, I felt a heavy blow on the top of my head. I staggered, almost knocked over. My legs quivered. I fell to my knees.
The pain subsided. I pointed my flashlight upward. The stone across the top of the entrance was set lower than the others. I had not bowed low enough to pass beneath it. Had the ancient builders placed it lower for structural reasons? Or to serve as a threshold whose purpose was to encourage humility—to beat unwary heads like mine against it, to clobber anyone foolish enough to walk too tall?
I knelt there, angry and sorry for myself. My injury cast doubt on my belief that I had insight into this place or, angels or not, into anything. I imagined some of the ancient people, my forebears, grinning at me across the centuries, their faces as creviced as the worn stones around me. Their grins twisted into me, provoking demons within me that I could not escape.
Shriveled, dizzy, my head aching, I reached to the stone above me to steady myself, and rose again to a crouch. My legs resumed shaking. I bent as low as I could and stepped outside. Clear of the entry, I stood up, took off my hat, and looked inside it with my flashlight. A blot of my blood and hair stuck to the crown. The sea breeze made the gash on my head feel cold. I touched the spot and stared at the red smear on my fingertip. I shuddered. My teeth chattered. I took my hat in both hands, raised it over my head, and lowered it gently.
At summer’s end, I found an engineering job in a research lab near Boston. There, I met the Indian. At first, he was just one of dozens of engineers who worked there. Someone said his wife worked in another part of the corporate campus, in Administration. Aside from that, I knew nothing about him. We encountered each other now and then, and nodded to each other, friendly, but I never took much notice.
Then one day, he sat down across from me in the company cafeteria.
“Parmacheene Belle?” he asked.
He was looking at a tiepin I wore, a little silver disc with a trout fly carved into it. A Parmacheene Belle is a traditional Maine fly pattern, used since the 1800s for catching brook trout.
“Could be,” I said. “The shape is right, isn’t it? But it’s hard to tell, since this one is silver and the real thing is red, white, and gold.”
“Must be you’re a fisherman,” I said.
We talked. We found that we had much in common. Both of us had been born and raised on farms near the Maine woods, less than an hour’s drive from each other. Both of us had inherited our parents’ homes, and often spent time there on weekends and vacations. And we both loved the woods and fly-fishing.
Fly-fishing can involve much technology and applied science. That makes it appealing to people in our line of work. Fly-fishers are often knowledgeable about fishes’ ecosystems and food chains, freshwater limnology, the intricacies of fly-tying, the mechanics of fly-casting, the design and manufacture of fly rods and lines and other equipment, the effects of weather, the history and literature of the sport, and more.
After that first conversation, we often met over lunch, and sometimes in the course of company projects. We talked about the arcana of fly-fishing, and the woods that we knew: trout ponds and streams, salmon rivers, swamps and beaver flowages, mountains and valleys, remote roads and trails, backwoods towns and the people who lived there. We became friends.
His Native American ancestors lived up that way beginning after the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. At first, they lived a semi-nomadic life of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Later, they took up agriculture, and their villages became more permanent. During the 1500s and1600s, as colonists from Europe arrived, they suffered ravages of disease and armed conflict—with other tribes, as usual, and with colonists. They also became objects of Jesuit proselytizing. As a consequence of those and other developments—colonial expansion, agriculture, livestock, and lumbering—they endured a gradual elimination of their traditional lifestyles. When the Indian Wars ended in defeat in the 1700s, most of his tribe moved north to Canada. His ancestors, however, wanted to stay, and settled on a piece of riverside land where the tribe had grown corn. They survived by growing vegetables, catching fish, shooting game, and working at nearby farms and on lumbering crews.
It was there, shortly before World War II, that the Indian was born and raised. From childhood on, he studied the lives of his native forebears. He found remnants of their villages and encampments: fire rings, stone tools, arrowheads, spear points. He followed their ancient canoe routes, and their paths through the woods. He observed the wildlife they had depended upon. Some of the forests, many of the rivers and lakes, and much of the wildlife, had changed little since after the glaciers had receded, when the natives first came. He learned to see the land and its creatures as they had done. He taught himself their skills: hunting, fishing, gathering (herbs, roots, berries), cooking, canoeing, campcraft, basket-weaving, and more. He acquired some of their understandings, as well. He experienced some of their mysteries, and adopted some of their beliefs.
Every few years, first with his parents and later on his own, he went to Quebec to visit the tribe. He learned more there, from its members, and shared with them what he had learned in Maine. On one trip, when he was in his early twenties, he met his future wife. They fell in love and married. He brought her home to Maine.
* * *
In addition to meeting each other at the company, the Indian and I met after hours. With his wife, we shared dinners at their apartment, at my town house, and at restaurants. Up north, we visited each other’s inherited homes, and spent time together in the woods.
At first, I didn’t tell them about my private inventing, except to say that I fiddled with electromechanical devices at home as well as at work. I described that as a pastime, like my fishing, though it was more than that. Not that I felt guilty about it. It didn’t compete with my work, or use the company’s property, intellectual or otherwise. But my interest in certain devices, materials, and technologies had become an obsession. I had no girlfriend or other buddies to hang out with, so I devoted most weekday evenings and early mornings, as well as weekends in the city and in Maine, to my tinkering. My process was in part deliberate and analytical, carefully experimental. But it was also immersive, intuitive, and often confusing to me. It progressed in fits and starts. I had no desire to talk about it; I wanted to find my own way with it, free of anyone’s characterization or suggestion.
Now and then, the Indians asked how that was coming. I replied briefly, offering no details. Once, at my townhouse, the Indian asked if he could see my workshop. He wasn’t prying, just being a friendly fellow engineer.
“I’d like to show you,” I said, “but it’s a mess.”
Liar. They could tell I was up to something interesting. A time would come, I knew, when I would tell them about it. They were my good friends, and should know about such an important part of my life. Also, the Indian’s skills would be useful to me, and I knew he would be glad to apply them. He would help me with experiments, and make suggestions that would save me time, money, and effort. And I could use him as a sounding board. That would be wonderful. But not yet.
A Mad Moose
One fall afternoon, I sat at the edge of a clearing in the woods, writing in my journal. I heard a thrashing in the brush across from me. A bull moose loped into the clearing, saw me, and stopped. He stood for a minute, then reached one leg forward and scraped the ground. Then he lowered his head and began to swing it from side to side, brandishing his antlers.
I was sitting with my legs crossed, my back to a thick spruce tree. I assessed my situation. He had me cornered. Whether his behavior was rutting rascality (it was mating season) or game-trail road rage, he was mad at me. At a thousand pounds, hundreds of them muscle, and standing six feet tall at the shoulders, with antlers six feet across and with hooves like war clubs, he could do me a lot of harm. He might charge, toss me around, kick and stomp me, bust my gut. I didn’t want to risk trying to escape; he could run me down. And I couldn’t climb the tree behind me; it was too tangled. I decided to make some noise, thinking maybe that would frighten him away.
“Alright, moose!” I shouted.
I spread my arms and began to sway. And I began to pray aloud, vehemently. I’m not normally a praying person. I never have been. I didn’t know what to say, and I wouldn’t have meant it if I did. But I figured any theatrics would do, so I improvised.
“Please God, godammit!” I cried, “I know I’ve done wrong! But please, I’m sorry! I really am! It’s true that I deserve this. Everything about me deserves this, and I know it, but please—!”
The moose stopped scraping the ground and waving his antlers. He raised his head and stood looking at me again, his brown eyes unblinking. I stopped yelling and returned his gaze. He didn’t move, didn’t leave. A standoff.
I was wearing a headset, testing a wireless communication system I had devised. The Indian and his wife were helping me, wearing headsets that I had given them so we could talk to each other. They were sitting in their pickup truck a mile away, listening to me; calmly, no doubt, amused by what I was experiencing.
I had sprayed spit when I was hollering. Now, inches in front of my mouth, some of it dripped from the headset’s microphone.
I spoke to the Indians.
“You heard all that, right? A big bull moose has got me cornered. He’s been scraping with his feet and shaking his rack. He’s too close for me to get up and run for it. I think I need your big guy in the sky to call this Bullwinkle off. I thought that a little false humility and a show of guilt on my part might do the trick, since the god that’s supposed to be in charge in our Judeo-Christian nation is the forgiveness-of-sins type. But apparently, if he’s listening, he is unmoved. Maybe he can tell I’m a nonbeliever, faking it. So I think maybe I’ve been beseeching the wrong god. Maybe out here in the woods I should be talking to your people’s guy. What do you think?”
The Indians said nothing.
“You call him Glooskap, right?” I said. “Think I should try him? Would he, or she, be offended that a few minutes ago I started out by talking to the god of the dominant culture that has given your people such a hard time?”
I waited for a reply. The Indian spoke: “Mmp.”
He was playing along. He likes to grunt, to parody his ethnicity.
“I doubt he’d care,” the Indian said, “since he doesn’t exist and never did.”
“Not a believer, are you?” I said. “But unless you have a better idea, I’m going to talk to him or her anyway. Yelling seems to be keeping the moose away from me, at least for the moment. So I’ll do more of it.”
Once again, I raised my voice. I addressed the sky above the moose.
“Look, Your Honor, Great Spirit that some people believe in—this moose, this creature of yours, is angry with me. Or he is focusing his anger on me, whether it’s about me or not. I don’t know why he is behaving this way, do you? I’ve done nothing to hurt him. He is a big, strong, noble beast, which I respect. Well, maybe not noble; could call him dumb and confused. He’s certainly acting more threatening than he has to. I’d be glad to leave here quietly and let him continue on his way. I assume that’s what he wants to do. I’d be glad to allow that. I’ve no desire to see his antlers and hooves pound my face and poke into my guts.”
The moose glared at me, then lowered his head again and stamped a hoof. His shoulders shook. The mane on the back of his neck stood at angles.
“Look, Glooskap, if that’s really your name, this moose is thinking of doing violence to my mortal shell. That would do him no good. He is wasting his energy. I know that, and you know that, but he, apparently, does not. Whatever light of awareness burns within him doesn’t burn bright enough for him to see that. So, would you mind calling him off? Isn’t it within your power to do that?
“I think you have some responsibility here, don’t you? If you don’t help me, I’ll have to seize my fate and act on my own, a god unto myself. You wouldn’t want that, would you, especially here in the woods, where your people have been at home since the Ice Age? Wouldn’t you rather have me defer to your power and glory, rather than figure my way out of this situation on my own? Have you no pride? Do your bit!”
The moose resumed waving his antlers from side to side. Then he began to hop from one foot to another, in a ponderous dance, really working himself up. He began to snort. His breath poured from his muzzle.
I couldn’t believe it. Moose are not normally this aggressive. They’re the least aggressive members of the deer family. But there are times. I was still afraid that he would charge me if I stood and ran, or even if I tried to crawl away. I remained stuck, with no way to escape.
Then my memory dredged up a tired joke I knew about a bull moose.
“Hey, moose, I’ve got a joke for you. Listen. A bull moose like you walks into a barroom and up to the bar. His hooves clonk across the floor. At the bar, he shifts his forelegs, accidentally knocking over a stool. Then he just stands there. His neck and head and rack of antlers lean far across, almost to the bottles lined up on the wall beyond. Down the bar a ways, the bartender is holding a glass, polishing it with a cloth. He approaches the moose, stops, and looks up at its face.
“ ‘Hey,’ he says, ‘good to see you again, buddy. How are you?’
“ The moose says nothing, doesn’t move.
“ The bartender squints at him. ‘You don’t look too good,’ he says. ‘You look like you could use a drink, maybe two. Shall I get one for you?’
“ ‘Tell you what,’ the bartender says.
“ He steps away, gets a bottle of whiskey, fills a glass, brings it back, and sets it down in front of the moose. The moose doesn’t move.
“The bartender shakes his head. ‘Hey,’ he says, ‘not thirsty?’
“ ‘Listen,’ says the bartender, ‘want to tell me what’s been going on with you? I’d like to hear. We bartenders do that kind of thing, you know. If you’ve got troubles to talk about, we listen.’
“ Still nothing.
“ ‘C’mon,’ says the bartender, ‘open up.’ He points to the moose’s muzzle. ‘Tell me. Why the long face?’ ”
Ba-da-dum, a lame joke. Across the clearing, my moose didn’t find it funny. Not that I expected him to; language and cultural barriers, you know. I was hoping he would, but there he stood, unamused, still looking like he was ready to charge.
Our standoff continued. I looked at the moose’s hooves. They looked bigger than I’d thought, a giant’s war club, ready to swing against me. The Indian told me later that at that point he and his wife were finding my predicament hilarious. Beside him on the truck’s seat, his wife shook with silent laughter. Tears poured down her cheeks.
“Vassal is in a pickle,” I heard him tell her. “His god, such as it is, is marinating his ass. That’ll be good for him.”
The moose took a step toward me.
I screamed: “Whoa! Stop right there!”
He took another step. I uncrossed my legs, and raised my feet in front of me, to protect myself.
“Indians!” I hollered, “I hear you talking. Listen to me, please. I think he’s about to come at me. I don’t dare move. It’s rutting season, isn’t it? He’s as blinded by his hormones as any horny teenager ever was, and with that rack on his head, his horny is hard in more ways than one. Know what I mean?
“I think he’s gonna charge me and rip me up. Isn’t there anything you can do? Come running over here screaming your people’s war cries, maybe? And scalp him, how about, or skin him; he’d make a nice wall hanging, some traditional décor for your home.
“Or if not that, since you probably wouldn’t get here in time, have you got any useful advice to offer from your fund of native wisdom? You’re woods people, after all, more than I am. You’re children of the forest, right? Been here for thousands of years, haven’t you? This beast is your brother, right? You’ve been dealing with his family since before the Stone Age. He’s your old friend, right? Come on, got any ideas?”
Nothing. Then the Indian replied, with his usual calm.
“Vassal,” he said, “we all make our luck. Play yours out. Believe it or not, you should consider yourself fortunate. You have a chance of surviving. It could have been otherwise. I’ll tell you a story. According to my people’s legend, Glooskap, who made all the animals, almost made that one in front of you a lot tougher to deal with. When he first created Moose, he made Moose huge, as high as the clouds or the tallest pine trees. Then he asked Moose what Moose would do if he saw an Indian coming. ‘I would tear down the trees on him,’ said Moose. When Glooskap heard that, he changed Moose; he made Moose small enough for Indians to kill. Much better for them, and for you.
“Maybe you can see if Glooskap made Moose small enough for you to kill; with your bare hands, maybe, or using your headset. Can’t you strangle him with it, a big strong guy like you? Maybe jump on his back and ride him around, through the trees, until you squeeze the life out of him? Then we can all eat him. We know how to cook moose meat. It’s great.
“Or if you don’t do that, maybe you can figure out how to talk to Glooskap, like you’ve been trying to, as if there really is such a being. Maybe you can conjure him up and get him to step in and make Moose the size of a small dog, or a bird, or a bug. You’d have no trouble escaping those. Or try something else. Anything. You’re a resourceful fellow. Try something.”
The Indian burst into laughter, bellowing. The sound overloaded the headset’s electronics, sending me a blast of distortion. I snatched the headset from my head. When I did, the moose snorted again, stomped on the ground, lowered his head and antlers, and lunged at me.
I rolled sideways. He missed me. I yelled again to the moose—“Whoa!”—and jumped up onto my feet. He backed away a few yards and faced me again. I leaned toward him, swung my arm back, and tossed the headset at him. It caught in his antlers and hung there. He lunged at me again. I leapt to the side. He missed me.
“Hey, Indians!” I yelled. “He’s attacking me! I threw my headset at him, and it’s hanging from his antlers, near one of his ears. Talk to him! With your ancestry, you must know his language. Tell him to back off!”
The Indian grunted and looked at his wife. A moment passed, then she brayed with laughter. He laughed, too, bellowing again. The moose snorted, whirled away from me, and stood still. One ear and then the other turned. The headset still dangled. I heard tiny sounds coming from it. My breath came in gasps. My heart pounded. I felt faint. The moose stood in front of me, his back to me now. Absurdly, I thought that I might raise a hand, walk up to him, touch him on his flank, and calm him down: “Easy there, buddy.”
He seemed to be listening to the Indians’ laughter in the headset. Maybe it triggered memories of his infancy, mewing sounds he made curled up next to his mother. Or maybe it mystified him, or confused him, or frightened him, or simply distracted him.
I decided that I must try to escape. I reached behind me and felt for the spruce tree. It was a yard behind me. I slowly raised one of my feet and set it down a few inches farther from the moose. Then my other foot. After a few short steps, the back of my trouser legs brushed the branches of the tree. I began to sidestep around it, watching the moose all the while. He continued to face away from me, listening to the Indians laugh.
A minute later, I was beside the tree, then behind it. I breathed more easily. I moved away with longer steps, still looking back at the moose. He stayed as he was. Soon, I was far enough away that I couldn’t see him.
Nearby, a small bird chirped, warning his neighbors that I was there. I began to walk fast. Several times, I tripped over tree roots, which normally I never do. I circled far from the moose, to the trail that led to the logging road where I had parked my jeep and the Indians had parked their truck.
When I reached the road, the Indians were gone. I opened the door of my jeep and slid behind the wheel, banging my knee on the steering column. I slammed the door shut, and tilted the seat back as far as it would go. I felt weak as a marionette, my body slack. I closed my eyes. Sleep came over me in a wave.
When I awakened, it was dark. I reached overhead and turned on the jeep’s interior light. I pulled my daypack from the floor, and took out my pen and notebook. Earlier, in the clearing, talking with the Indians, testing the headset, I’d begun to dream up other uses for its technology. Now, I sat in my jeep and resumed those thoughts, making notes and diagrams.
Soon after I began working at the company, I bought a military-style jeep. The dirt roads I traveled to my fishing spots were too rough for the old sedans I’d owned during high school and college. Their ground clearance was too low. The roads’ rocks and ruts banged up their underbodies, destroyed their mufflers, bent their tie rods, and sliced and punctured the cheap retread tires I put on them. I frequently had to replace parts. To make matters worse, my cars’ two-wheel drivetrains made it hard to get unstuck when a rut or mud puddle proved too deep, or when I got hung up on a boulder. I was glad to finally have enough money to buy an appropriate vehicle.
The jeep was red with a brown canvas top and a black roll bar. I loved it. Even when I wasn’t going fishing, I sought out bad roads, just for the pleasure of driving on them. In the spring, after the ground thawed and mud season began, the roads were at their worst. I spent hours driving around looking for challenging conditions.
I particularly enjoyed churning through deep mud. When I saw a patch of mud ahead, I stopped short, looked it over, charted the most exciting course through it, gunned the jeep’s engine, and blasted forward into the swim. Sometimes the muck was several feet deep. As my tires searched for traction, the jeep yawed and side-slipped like a motorboat rushing downriver through whitewater. Sometimes it slid off the road. If I couldn’t drive it back on, I climbed out, fastened a cable to a tree on the other side, and winched it back. To do that, I often had to clamber on foot through the mud, sometimes knee-deep. I sweated and strained, and sometimes fell in the mud. Even that was fun. Sometimes I wondered how such foolishness could amuse me, but it was harmless.
* * *
One day, that sport led me far from home, to an unfamiliar road. I came upon a long stretch of rutted mud. I stopped to look. The ruts appeared to be two to three feet deep. No jeep, truck, or wagon could have produced them, and no vehicle that wasn’t an Army tank could have driven through them.
I got out of my jeep and looked more closely. None of the ruts were tire tracks. In each, I saw scrapes and smoothing that could only have been done with a shovel. The ruts had been dug by hand. I looked at the road near my jeep. All vehicle tracks turned around there. No one had dared to drive on.
The strange ruts continued to where the road passed over a rise and out of sight. A hundred yards ahead of me, on the right, the road passed a clearing. I heard laughter coming from that direction. Curious, I walked along the side of the road to the clearing. As I approached, I heard the laughter again, howls of it. Some of it was pitched high, and some lower, like it came from a mixed group of young and older children. It was getting louder, and seemed to be getting closer.
Eight or ten children came running from the clearing, toward the road. There were eight or ten of them, laughing as I had heard. They seemed to be wearing loose shifts that reached to their knees, but it was hard to tell for sure because thick mud covered each of them from head to foot.
They carried shovels, which they held in front of them like two-handed swords. Without looking toward me, they ran to the road and leapt across several ruts, to the middle. There, I saw what looked like a red plastic tube, about a half-inch thick, protruding several inches above the mud. Giggling, the children began to dig near the tube. As I watched, I noticed that all of them had unusually large heads.
They dug a hole a foot or two deep. Then several of them threw aside their shovels, reached down, and pulled another child from the bottom of the hole. He—or she; I couldn’t tell which—was covered with fresh mud. Drips and clots of it fell from him. He was wearing a swim mask, also covered with mud. He removed it from his face, revealing a pale oval of eyes and nose. Blinking, he reached to the red tube and pulled it from the road. It was two feet long, muddy except for the upper end. He put that end to his mouth and sang a toodling sound through it, as if it were a kazoo. The other children laughed.
Then they saw me. They snatched up their shovels and ran off the road toward the clearing.
“Wait!” I said.
They stopped. I spoke to the one with the tube.
“What were you doing buried in the road?”
“It’s something we do for fun. We take turns being buried with a breathing tube. Usually we do it for hours at a time; sometimes all day.”
“We think it’s interesting what our minds do down there.”
“What if somebody drives down the road?”
They glanced at each other. Then, five or six of them answered me, one after another, smoothly taking turns, one phrase per person. Their sentences came as if from one mind.
“Nobody drives down this road this time of year, and if they do they have to turn around before they get here. Nobody lives farther down this road than us, and most people around here know you can’t get through here in mud season. We dig the ruts deep, to make sure nobody tries. No one can drive into this mess without getting stuck. Everyone around here knows that. We’ve done it for years. The small chance that some stranger would actually try to drive through, and somehow get this far . . . . Well, that’s one of the things you think about while you’re lying down there.”
They all laughed. The last speaker turned and rushed out of sight. The others followed in a row.
I walked after them, into the clearing. It was a hundred yards wide, and ran several hundred yards back from the road, up a gradual slope, into the forest. Old piles of stones lay along the edges, probably from when the lot was cleared years ago.
Twelve or fifteen cabins sat scattered across the lot. Paved paths wound between them. One path, broader, cut straight through the lot diagonally, from the road to a back corner, where it passed through an opening into the woods. Mature maple trees spread high above the paths and cabins. In the center of the lot was what appeared to be a gathering place: a dozen wooden benches facing a large fire pit.
The cabins looked nearly identical. Each was two stories high, with weathered grey shingles on the outer walls, a tin roof slanting from front to back, a couple of skylights cut into the roof, and a stovepipe chimney that ran up one of the end walls. I supposed that each cabin had a room or two on the main floor—living room, kitchen—and a bedroom or two upstairs. Some of the cabins had open porches without railings.
One cabin, with no porch, stood nearest to me, in front of the others. A foot-high stone, a perfect cube, the color of slate and smooth as marble, rested in front of the door—a stepping stone, evidently. Beside it, along the front of the cabin, were three large stainless steel dog bowls. Behind the cabin, a satellite dish perched atop a high wooden pole that had totemic figures carved into it.
The settlement seemed well-constructed and maintained, not the picture of rural poverty that many houses up that way present. I judged it to have been built sometime before World War II, maybe as early as the 1920s.
I looked around. The children I’d met were nowhere to be seen. The only signs of life were columns of smoke that rose from the chimneys. I walked to the first cabin, stepped onto the stone, and knocked on the door.
From inside came a sound I knew well, of fingers tapping the keyboard of a computer. That surprised me. This was a few years before people commonly used PC’s. I used an IBM prototype of a fifty-pound “portable” in my work, and mainframes as well, but they were expensive in those days, and rare. Few people had one at home, and this was the boondocks.
The tapping ceased. I heard a chair move. Footsteps approached across the floor, and stopped behind the door. A voice called out.
“My name is Vassal Squeezeshot. I was driving along the road….” I told what I was doing, and said I was curious to know more about children who play by burying each other in muddy roads.
The door opened. In the doorway stood a person no more than three feet tall, who wore a brief white crinoline dress, perhaps an antique, whose stiff petticoats puffed out from waist to knee. The person was adult and male, which I realized when I saw that his face showed a few days’ growth of beard. His body and face were flat and wide, and his head as oversized as the children’s, but more grotesque for the lack of obscuring mud. His eyes shone big and brown, his lips protruded, and an immaculate, blonde, shoulder-length, Prince Valiant hairdo—a wig, perhaps—framed his face. As he stood in front of me in the doorway, he held his naked, pudgy arms out sideways like a baby—a normal attitude, perhaps; he certainly wasn’t about to embrace me. His feet and legs were bare up to his knees, where they disappeared into his dress. His lower legs were covered with dark, curly hair. I stared at his bare toes.
“They weren’t all children,” he said. “Some were adults.” His eyes twinkled. “They’re my relatives. We’re all relatives here. They call me Jimmy, Queen of the Fairies, for reasons that you see.”
He curtsied, and touched the hem of his dress with his fingertips.
“In case you’re wondering about my name and my appearance, I should add that I don’t own a magic wand. So don’t be afraid of me; and don’t get your hopes up, either. I’ve no such powers.”
He gestured toward a muddy patch of floor inside the door.
“Would you like to take off your boots and come in?”
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Watch your head,” he said. “We built these places full-size, for when we have visitors, but you’re pretty tall.”
I ducked through the doorway, into the cabin. “You and your family surprise me,” I said. “I didn’t expect to meet a queen of the fairies this afternoon, or the rest of you.”
“No doubt,” he said. He watched me struggle out of my boots. “Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?”
“Yes, thank you. Coffee, please.”
He crossed the room and put a kettle on a wood-burning cook stove. Next to it, a stone sink and an old-fashioned hand pump sat in a stone counter. Next to them stood an old four-legged refrigerator. Shelves of books covered the walls. In the middle of the room, a long wooden table held a radio, a television, a multiline telephone, piles of books and paper, and an up-to-date computer terminal with a small monitor full of text, which he had evidently been working on when I knocked. Under the table slept three wirehaired dogs so large that I supposed they must stand as tall as Jimmy.
When I saw the computer and the books, a suspicion arose in me.
“Are you the Jimmy who—?”
“Yes, I am.”
As most of the world’s academics, book and music lovers, educated newshounds, art mavens, and other culturati, eggheads, and members of the chattering classes know, our country’s premier cultural critic, commentator, and all-purpose public intellectual was and is known by only one name: Jimmy. This was he. I had known he was a short person, but had no idea he lived in Maine, much less that he lived in the backwoods, or that he was the leader (I now supposed) of a clan of short people. I had seen him many times on television, and noticed his dwarfism, but there he had always worn a suit, and never the big, blonde hairdo.
“Sit down,” he said.
He pointed to some cushions on the floor near the table. I sat. He brought me the coffee, and set a milk pitcher and sugar pot on the floor next to me. The only chair in the cabin was at the computer terminal. He turned the chair toward me, vaulted up onto it, crossed his legs, and sat. The skin on his legs was pale between the coils of hair.
“I hope you don’t find us too strange,” he said.
“I’ve seen a few things in my time,” I replied. “Nothing like this, but—. You look acceptable to me. And at this point, I realize that I know who you are, as a lot of people do. I know and admire your media persona. I certainly didn’t know that you live here. Until I walked in here and saw all those books and your computer, I had no idea. Those made me suspect.”
“I try to stay isolated, and let my words do my talking—in my books, newspaper columns, magazine articles, conference papers, and so on, as I guess you’ve seen. I keep out of public view except when I’m on TV news and talk shows, or when I’m paid a lot of money to talk to groups in various parts of the world. Then I bundle up my hair, to get it out of the way, and I put on a very expensive suit—my costume for public viewing; nothing like what I wear around here, as you can see. It covers me as elegantly as a stubby guy like me can manage. Elegant by outside standards, that is. Around here, dressed as I am, I’m the height of fashion.”
(There is much about the Bigheads in Prelude, and more coming, perhaps, in other volumes of the SQUEEZESHOT saga. — H.A.)
That August, I flew to Paris for a break. I stayed a few days, strolling the streets, recalling my first visit, with my parents when I was twelve. I found familiar sights and sounds. And familiar smells, of the streets, sidewalks, and buildings; the fountains, flowerbeds, and gravel walkways of the parks; the exhaust from cars and trucks; the cigarette smoke (Gauloises!), perfumes of passing strangers, and aromas of food, wine, and coffee wafting from cafés, restaurants, and the open windows of people’s apartments. I was footloose, idle, a flâneur—a welcome change for me.
Days later, it is 3AM in my hotel room on the coast of Normandy. I am sitting in bed, writing in my journal for the first time since leaving the States. I am dwelling on matters I cannot describe. The ones that write easily come with momentum, like barges in canals: Heavy ropes slant ahead, from their decks to the towpaths, where mule teams pull them towards commerce’s handsome destinations. Markets await them. Their value is easy to define, their buyers ready with cash—a healthy exchange of goods for money. But my metaphor strains, no refuge for me tonight. There is nothing like that here for me tonight; nothing moves, nothing comes, no freight anywhere that I desire. Something needs saying, I know, but I don’t know what. I am no writer.
I hear a sound through the window beside my bed. And again, a rattling in the alley outside. The window is open, the air warm. A breeze gusts across Normandy from the west, stirring the curtains. Whatever is out there worries me. I am often fearful these days, sluggish with fear, but tonight my thoughts turn more heavily and slowly than usual. They slip, fail to engage, their mechanism malfunctioning. This condition began hours ago. I awoke into it. It hasn’t diminished. I keep regarding it, forcing perspectives, but can make no progress. I am unable either to escape it or rest from it.
Again the rattle. This time I recognize it: an empty metal trash can, fallen, rolling back and forth in the fitful wind. I hear it again, and again, percussion for my turgid symphony. I can do nothing about it. I put down my pen and listen. An hour passes, and then another. I want to sleep. Several times I close my eyes. My belly rises and falls with my breath. Finally, the wind outside dies and the rolling stops. A glow of daylight starts through the window, to where I lie.
The next night, my life changed. After Last Call, my hotel bartender told me he knew a nightclub I should visit.
“You are sober enough, mon ami?”
“Mais oui! Of course!” My head was full of brandy. I heard my voice as if from a distance, as if it wasn’t mine.
The bartender called a cab. When it arrived, I sailed out the hotel’s revolving door and down the carpeted steps. Those days, when I traveled, I, the eccentric American engineer, wore the same silly cap I wore in the States. On my way out the door, I noticed I wasn’t wearing it. I must have knocked it off my head somewhere, back in the bar maybe. No matter. I bent low into the cab and, leaning back, sank into the springs of the seat.
The cab drove me toward the beach, then along the two-lane road out of town. The headlights projected into the darkness. We rode straight and fast through the countryside, behind the bluffs and cliffs that hang high over the shore. The driver said the club he was taking me to was popular. Every night of the summer, he said, fancy people, regulars, came in fancy cars: Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Rolls Royces, top-of-the-line Porsches, and a few old gull-winged Mercedes 300SL’s and restored Facel Vegas. “I love seeing those cars, monsieur.” And proletarian cars too, of course, he said—Renaults, Citroens, Peugeots, Simcas—but not so many. The club was popular among certain people, he said, the kinds who drove those fancy cars. They came from Deauville, Trouville, and other nearby resort towns, and even from Paris, hours away.
No signs announced the club. It had no name. It didn’t advertise. It didn’t need such things, he said. As he drove us through the darkness, he talked on and on, gesturing to me across the back of his seat. I stopped listening, lulled by the brandy in my head and the swaying of the car.
Finally, the car slowed down and pulled off the road. I looked out the window beside me and, dimly, saw a field full of the cars the driver had described. No attendant, no illumination. The light of stars and a three-quarter moon glinted off the metal and glass.
The driver pointed to the other side, toward an oceanside bluff.
“Walk to the light.”
I got out of the cab and he drove away.
It was past midnight. Rather than walking toward the light, I circled left around it, up a low bluff. The ground was sandy. I plodded along, my legs pushing through grass up to my knees. I stumbled on rises in the ground.
A warm mist hung in the air. As I came to the top of the bluff, the ocean rose into view. The moon shone above it, lighting the waves. The sky full of stars rested on the horizon. I looked up at the moon, then at the sea. A row of rough bushes stood dark a few feet in front of me. I found a gap between them, walked through, and stopped on the other side.
I was at the top of a cliff, ten feet from the edge. I took a few steps forward, crouched, and peered downward. A hundred feet below me, a broad beach stretched for a quarter mile, to the sea. I watched white lines of waves break, and listened to them hit the sand.
I felt an urge to pee. I stood up, fumbled with my pants, and leaned back, sending my stream of piss arcing over the edge. It sparkled as it fell. As my bladder emptied, I sighed with relief. A distant sigh. You’re a bit drunk, big guy, and pleasantly high.
I turned and walked back down the bluff, toward the light. As I approached, I felt what seemed like pulverized concrete crunching beneath my feet. More than thirty years before, in the early 1940’s, the Nazis had built concrete bunkers into that bluff and others like it along the coast of France, to defend against Allied invasion. They armed the bunkers with artillery and machine guns they hoped would repel any attack. But as everyone knows, the invasion came. In Normandy, early on D-Day in June 1944, the 16-inch guns of American battleships threw tons of steel and explosives against the fortifications on the bluffs. The explosions flung storms of concrete through the air, spreading chunks and bits of it across the ground.
Behind the bluff, I came around the side of the bunker—the nightclub—to the entrance. A single light bulb burned in a rusted cage beside a heavy metal door. On the wall around the light, remnants of camouflage paint faded into stains of mildew and mold. Machine gun pockmarks scarred the wall and door.
In contrast with the World War II decay, a scarlet carpet ran straight away from where I stood. It ran for a hundred feet or so across the ground, sheltered by a black-and-white striped awning. A few feet from me, it passed through beside a barbed wire fence rusting on the ground. The carpet must end at the road, I figured, probably where the cab had dropped me off. I hadn’t seen it. That brandy. Lucky I hadn’t walked off the cliff.
I stared into the darkness beyond the carpet, across the road, to the field where I’d seen the cars. A set of headlights came on, then another and another. I saw the cars better than before. There were dozens, perched at angles, gleaming on the undulating ground.
I turned to the door and leaned into it. It didn’t open. A heavy metal ring hung in lieu of a doorknob. I twisted it. The door opened inward. I entered.
* * *
In front of me, down a step, lay a crowded barroom. The walls and ceiling were bare concrete. The floor was concrete, too, no doubt, but I couldn’t see it; it was swarming with people standing, walking, sitting at tables, talking and laughing.
I stepped down into the room. The ceiling hung low, about seven feet up. I walked a few feet. People slipped past me, brushing against me. I reached up to the ceiling to steady myself, and felt the cool concrete and a tickle of peeling paint. A thick, cloth-covered electrical wire ran along it. Every ten feet or so along the wire, a light bulb hung inside a small cage like the one I’d seen at the front door. The bulbs glowed dim, yellow, casting dull shadows everywhere.
The wire disappeared into a second big room. I heard a pulse of music. Tall as I am, I could see over people’s heads. It looked like people were dancing in there. I still couldn’t see the floor—the low light, the crowd—but as I started to walk across it, it felt thinly carpeted, as if by a layer of felt.
People sat and stood everywhere. The tables and chairs were square, heavy, wooden, no shine to them. Every seat seemed to be taken. People inched along aisles that led between the bar room and dancing room. The light from overhead was so faint that every face was in shadow. Here and there I could make out the glint of someone’s eyes, the turn of a mouth.
The bar ran alongside the room. I veered over to it. Miraculously, I found an empty stool, and sat. A bartender ambled up to me. I ordered the oldest Calvados they had, a tumbler of it.
“That much?” the bartender asked. I think that’s what he said; it was noisy in there. I nodded.
The bartenders worked by the light of kerosene lanterns, one to each of their workstations. My bartender’s was just to the left of me. There were no waiters or waitresses out on the floor, so customers from the tables thronged to the bar to get drinks.
I listened to the talk around me. I heard talk of war. Somewhere in the world, U.S. soldiers were lined up at a hostile border, getting tough with an enemy. Some people spoke in French, giving opinions pro and con my country’s actions. Then, rising from a table behind me, a woman’s voice spoke fiercely in American English.
“At the root of these antiwar people’s sentiment is naïveté, a child’s daydream of doom. It’s a silly dream is born of ignorance, bound to be dispelled if they ever realize that all this present militancy—sharp talk, threats, jostling, violence, pain, killing—is part of the Paradise we live in. These people are wimps, adults who aren’t at peace with themselves or their world, who took a wrong turn somewhere around kindergarten and now wander around disconnected. They missed the sign that would have guided them to happiness, and they know it. They struggle with their memories, trying to recall what it said. They hope it will come their way again, but they know they can’t count on it.
“They dream of a glory that they fear they will never know; of a contented life that many other people, beknownst and unbeknownst to them, live every day. They aren’t lost souls, not entirely, but they are incomplete. In their feeble rages and semi-rational rants they say they want to save humanity from as much misery as possible, even from extinction. In fact, they’re just battling their own unhappiness and their own mortality. They fear their own deaths; and their own shadows, almost. They haven’t yet learned what everyone knows in their bones, that death is not fundamentally different from life. They don’t know that what we are when we are dead, not yet born, or never to be born, is as good as the present miracle of being alive.
“So why not be happy now? The poor dears are as futile and powerless as they deserve. They’re a whole lot of nothing, and they know that, same as we all do. But unlike happier people, they don’t like that. So, may the roar of cannons and people’s cries of agony continue to shock them. Go, America! Pull your triggers once again! Blow things up!”
Her voice broke into a rich laughter. Male laughter rippled behind. I swung part way around on my stool, to look. Three men sat at the table. A fourth chair was empty.
“Bartender!” The woman’s voice barked from the other side of me, beside the bar.
“There she is,” I muttered.
I swung around toward her, too fast. My knees bumped hard into the backs of her legs.
“Whoa!” she said.
I spun back around the other way, to the bar. I grabbed at it with my forearms and hands, stopping my spin. You’re drunker than you thought, Vassal. My head lolled forward. My vision swerved, then settled on the bar in front of me. I felt too flustered to look at her. Out of the corners of my eyes, I saw her face turn to me and look at my glass. It was nearly empty.
“That’s a lot of firewater you’ve drunk, mister. Had enough, have you?”
“Sorry to bump into you like that,” I said. “But about the firewater, no, not enough, not yet. Up to a point, the more I drink the more my interest grows, even if it does wreck my co-ordination.”
“Poor boy, crippled by fine spirits.”
She turned away.
Down the bar, a bartender turned to her.
“A margarita this time, friend. Straight up, salt on the rim, with your best teh-kee-la!”
I straightened on my stool, and, holding the edge of the bar, turned my head to her.
“I heard you talking,” I said. “I like what you said about Paradise. It’s here, isn’t it, and on every battlefront? On top of which, it’s time our boys had some live targets to shoot at. Good practice for the real thing, in case the real thing ever comes along. We mustn’t let our war machine get rusty. It’s the guardian of our prosperity, fueled by our capitalist greed and our natural wish to live comfortably. We’ve gotta keep in fighting trim. It’s human nature. And it’s not just selfish. Sometimes waging war is the nicest thing anyone can do.”
She threw back her head and laughed, as she had done at the table. Then she looked down at the bar, her face deadpan, and gave her head a shake. Her hair swung forward, obscuring her face except the tip of her nose.
“Hmm,” she said, seemingly to herself. “I must’ve drunk too much, like this guy.” Then, toward me: “Yeah, you said it, buster. Sometimes it’s best. Or it might as well be, since we do it anyway and always will. You know what they say; or what I say, anyway:
All rage alike
borrows all other;
“As you say, the army needs a training ground with human bulls-eyes. How else can we the people maintain enough nerve to do what we must? Sometimes it’s for the good of others, sure, but it’s mostly for ourselves, for our countrymen and their hungry ways. If we don’t eat, we don’t survive. That’s reason enough to give our soldier boys and girls what we give them: a small wage, some lifetime benefits, a flag to wave, and some weapons; plus a lie: a simple-minded piece of brainwash with which they and we justify using our weapons, and pretend, sincerely, that our cause is just.
“We have to do that, for the self-respect of us and of those poor young suckers. Then, of course, they get to feel the guilt that comes of harming people, sometimes killing them; all the psychological trauma that the military does such a pathetic job of preparing them for and helping them recover from. That’s their tough luck, the dears, an unfortunate consequence of their sacrifice for the common weal. Ah, the lives of heroes! The world is a battlefield, isn’t it, among other things? And it’s not a funny one, either, in case you’re joking, as I might, about our need to use real people for target practice. There’s serious truth in what you say. In this jungle of ours, aggressive beasts that we are, we’ve got to maintain our edge.”
Uh, what? I couldn’t keep up with her reply; my mind was too sluggish. I felt like I was improvising a scene in a movie, but without being ready. I had no clear sense of what was happening. Cut, Mr. Director! I need to look at the script.
She leaned across the bar beside me. Looking down behind her, I saw that she wore high heels and a black satin dress that hung to her ankles. Its side was slit up to her thigh, showing flashes of a pale leg. Her neck was unadorned, her bare shoulders white, and her shoulder blades delicate. The back of her dress was open to her waist. In the dim light, I stared at the top of her rump where it curved out of sight beneath the fabric. I tried to see if she was wearing underpants, but couldn’t tell. Dresses like that can make a guy curious about such things, especially when he’s drunk. I wanted to slide my hand down along her back and beneath her dress, but was sober enough to keep my hands off.
I looked back toward the bar. She was reaching for her drink. Her arms were bare and slender, with a black band or bracelet around one wrist. The front of her dress was open to between her breasts. Staring down from high above (like most women, she was almost a foot shorter than me), I wanted to dive in.
I leaned farther forward and looked back at her face. It was beautiful. I knew that in my condition I would find great beauty in any female, the nearer to me the better, but that didn’t discourage me. I was entranced.
She was young—in her mid-20’s, I supposed, five years or so younger than me. Red lipstick covered her lips. Her brows and lashes were dark. Her eye color I couldn’t tell; in the low light I could barely distinguish the whites from the irises and pupil. She didn’t seem to be wearing eyeliner, but I couldn’t be sure. Her face looked pale and luminous, flawless in the darkness except for a mole above her upper lip and a few small concentric wrinkles at the ends of her mouth. A touch of rouge colored each cheek, though maybe it was a natural flush from the close air and heat of the room. Her nose was small and rounded, and turned up slightly.
As I looked, she tilted her chin upward, swinging her hair back. She must have known I was looking at her, as I’m sure men often did. Her hair caught the light. It was brown, and hung in a short curve halfway to her shoulders. She looked more girlish than she sounded when she spoke.
I looked back at my drink. Without another word to me, her drink in hand, she turned away from me, walked back to her table, and sat down. She started talking to the men, too quietly for me to hear over the barroom din. I felt that I was at the end of a scene, amid a crush of scene makers. It seemed silly.
I spoke aloud to myself. “Why did you come here, Vassal? Why are you sitting at this crazy bar?”
* * *
I stood and made my way toward the dance floor.
“This joint is nothing special,” I said to nobody. “The location is cute, that’s all, and happens to have drawn all this attention.”
In the next room, at the dance floor, I stood at the edge and tried to move with the music. I couldn’t get in sync with it; I was too drunk. I felt dull. I thought I might leave. Then I began to warm to the music. A new song began. Its rhythm caught me, and took hold.
The music was loud. It swept, banged, and boomed through the room like electric wires blowing in a hurricane. Some people in front of me danced face-to-face, shouting to each other, barely able to hear. But most of the dancers leapt and spun, pointing this way and that. Some jumped up and pushed off of the ceiling with their hands, in time with the music. They jumped and pushed again and again, like pistons.
One, who must have been a professional dancer, held his partner’s shoulders and jumped way up, repeatedly. Each time, he bent far forward and, when his body reached the ceiling, banged his butt decisively against it, and kicked his legs and feet straight out behind him. He looked as if he was reversing gravity, falling flat up against the ceiling. Then, after suspending himself up there for a moment, he curled down and dropped lightly to his feet, like a cat. An ecstatic smile transfixed his face, and sweat poured into his shirt.
I whooped, raised my arms, and began dancing by myself. I plunged onto the dance floor, joining the crowd. As I danced, I glimpsed other people’s faces, clothes, and limbs, all in motion. Those visions became my partners, part of the music. After a while, I closed my eyes and just bounced in place, one particle among many. Occasionally, my eyes still closed, I drifted a few steps one way or another, somehow without colliding with other dancers.
* * *
Some time later, I reached the far side of the dance floor. I was breathing hard, feeling heavy, slowing down. I stopped dancing and stood by a wall. People were passing into a wide hallway to my left. When my breath returned to normal, I followed.
I found myself walking through an arched passageway made of the same unadorned concrete as the rest of the bunker. A string of light bulbs ran overhead. Twenty or thirty feet along, I passed doors to restrooms. Beyond them, the string of lights ended. The passageway opened in front of me onto the floor of an old gun emplacement. A ring of rusted tracks stood in its center, where a big artillery piece once pivoted. A kerosene lantern sputtered from the middle of the ceiling, above the ring. At the far side, people gazed outward, into darkness, over a wall of concrete chunks. I walked over and reached out to lean on the wall, then pulled back awkwardly—it didn’t look safe. Mangled steel rods bound the chunks together. Several chunks lay loose on the floor.
A cool breeze touched my face. Beyond the wall, the floor fell away. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was that I was standing in the middle of the cliff, looking out again at the sea, which stretched from a hundred feet below me to the western horizon. The moon still hung above, but closer now to the horizon, where it would soon set.
I felt dizzy. I sat down, facing into the emplacement. I leaned back against a chunk of the wall and closed my eyes.
People came and went, talking. I sat for a long time, eyes closed, listening. Suddenly, a finger brushed my cheek.
“Hi there, firewater. I was wondering where you went. Would you like to dance?”
I opened my eyes, and saw the woman from the barroom.
I struggled to my feet. We walked back down the tunnel.
“Where do you work?” I asked. A spy? I was wondering.
“I’m a government worker.”
Then we were on the dance floor, starting to dance. Her dancing was fluid, a succession of postures and gestures such as I had never seen except in sculptures of hundred-limbed goddesses. She angled her chin, head, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers; raised one leg to the side and then the other, pointing each knee, toes up; then raised each leg again and straightened, pointing each foot. As she arrived at each posture, she paused, her gaze distant. Her belly seemed always to be still, a center around which she revolved.
The music pounded. We orbited each other slowly, as if in a trance. Every moment felt new. As well as I could, clumsy as I was, I danced in a way that suited hers; like a dancing bear, maybe, or a dog on its hind feet. But I didn’t care, and she didn’t seem to care either. No judgment.
We danced on and on. I lost track of time, not that I had had much idea of it to begin with. Finally, we were at the edge of the barroom. The music stopped for a few minutes. We walked to an empty table and sat across from each other. Half the tables were empty now. People had left, or were dancing. It was much quieter, too. Both of us put our elbows on the table, leaned low, and propped our heads on our hands. Usually, I’d be talking by then, but I was feeling passive. She looked idly around the room. What a beauty, I thought, or near enough. Am I really here? The wacko engineer, on vacation far from home, has come to this?
Her look around the room stopped at me.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Vassal Squeezeshot. What’s yours?”
“Victory. Victory Tree. Listen, I want to rewind you a bit. You were saying that our boys need practice on living targets. Do they really?”
“Yes, now and then. It’s a pity for the enemy soldiers, of course, but I suppose they need practice too. Watching death approach, other soldiers’ and possibly one’s own, teaches vigilance. ‘Here it comes, maybe,’ and all that.”
“Here it comes, eh? Are you a soldier?”
“Yes, but I try to fight for all sides at once.”
“I see. That’s decent of you.”
All sides at once—silly thing for me to have said, too heavy for the moment. A minute passed.
“Where did you learn to dance like that?” I asked. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“In New York, from some actors. It’s something they studied, to help them perform. Before that I took ballet lessons for years; never quite got over it.”
“Ah. Where are you from in the States?” I asked.
“The mountains. Colorado. But New York City is where I live.”
“You live in New York and work for the State Department?”
She smiled. “No, I don’t work for the State Department. I said that to you on a whim. I’m a playwright with an adolescent taste for stirring things up. I’m working in Paris on an exchange that the State Department had a minor role in arranging. I talk to students at the Sorbonne, and stage a few plays with them.”
“In English? I mean, do you speak to them in English, or do you speak French?”
“Both—whatever suits the moment. All the kids speak a little English, and like to use it. They are dears. And wild, which I like. I needed the change.”
“What do you say to them?”
“I try to provoke them, to turn their imaginations loose. They’re scared little bunnies, many of them.”
She spoke animatedly, her eyes darting around the room.
“I tell them that our classroom is a stage, and that not long after they exit it they will be dead, so they’d better get down to their playwriting while they have the chance. I make them bring their wits. I encourage them, but also make them defend themselves, slash away at themselves and each other, cut and shape their artistry. They come ravenous but undeveloped. I try to make them merciless with themselves, with how they see and do things. They seem to like that. They come to class with great energy and willingness. It’s wonderful. Often I lead the mayhem. Occasionally, I’m its object, which is only fair; we all need plenty of that, and most of us don’t get it. Always, I watch for signs of progress. And at the end of each class, no matter what we’ve talked about, we put ourselves back together. We learn to appreciate.”
“Dramatic, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes; often on the edge of crazy. Which is fine. Like everyone, they’ll develop smoother edges as they get older.”
“I bet they like you, except for when you frighten them.”
“There’s some of that. It comes with the territory. Some of them are kids who don’t know what they’re doing there. The high heat does them good, maybe like that benevolent war-making we were talking about. They should go get jobs in other fields.” She smiled. “Or classes with other teachers.”
I looked around the room.
“I hope I haven’t bored you with all that, about me,” she said.
“Not in the least. But I have a question: Who are you with tonight?”
“Three men colleagues. Friends, but nobody special. One of them owns an apartment in town where I stay when I visit the coast. They—”
She stopped. We were both still leaning down on the table, our heads in our hands. Her face hung a foot from mine. She squinted at me as if she were seeing me for the first time. Or maybe she wasn’t seeing anything. Her mouth was half open, relaxed, the world-weary chanteuse. Was she more drunk than I was?
One corner of her mouth crept upward, into a smile.
“So, who the hell are you? What do you do, soldier? What bull’s-eyes do you shoot at?”
I sat up straight, as if awakened.
“I’m an engineer, madam.”
“Where are you from?”
“What do you engineer?”
“What do you mean? What kind of creatures?”
I didn’t want to say, but I decided what the heck.
“Little mechanical ones. There are two kinds. One kind swims; the other kind flies. You can control where they go, and they have eyes and ears that you can see and hear through.”
“Really? I never heard of such things. What do you do with them?”
“Nothing much, so far.”
“Who has them?”
“ Just me.”
“Who pays for your work? Are they devices for spying?”
“I pay. And no, they’re not for spying. And I’ve become pretty tired of them.”
I was about to prattle on more about them. I opened my mouth to speak.
“Wait,” she said. “I’ve been here long enough tonight. How about you? Are you staying in town, too?”
“Let’s take a cab back to my apartment. Just a change of scene—don’t get the wrong idea. I can see we have some things to talk about. I’ll make some coffee there, bring the night to a close. Is that OK by you?”
She went to find her friends, to tell them we would be taking a cab back to town. I watched her cross the room—her hips, her shape, her swing. I felt charmed by her attention, and happy to be talking with anyone, particularly an attractive woman. She could be spying on me for the government, but I doubted it. And I figured I could avoid harm even if she was.
A few minutes later, on our way out the door, she said, “You know, I don’t drink much usually, and I almost never go to clubs these days.”
“Well, you certainly seemed at home.”
“I loved it. I was in the mood.”
. . . the rest of The Journal (Second Edition)
Below are the section titles from
the first edition. Most will
migrate to the second.
A Saving Grace
A Mad Moose
Glories of War
Eyes and Ears of God
Telling the Indians
Standing and Flushing
To the Ranch
On the Lookout
Join the Bugs
With the Bigheads
An Idea Grows
Naked on the Battlefront
The Fly Lands
Between Shows, ctd
Show of Shows
The JOURNAL and its authors are
fictional creations of Marcus Parsons.
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