She said that she had looked up to the sky in the dark wasteland to the shimmering lights of energies distant and ineffable and what she imagined was the very sum of all the things her mind could render. I spoke to her years later amid fragrant seaside discourse during an evening of food and wine and the amiable company of friends and intellectual neighbors and I asked her what had been the most cherished moment of her adult life and she tried to explain it to me vividly: that night long ago and her standing beneath the stars painted on blackness everlasting somewhere in the vast American desert, hands in her pockets and no sounds but those she conjured and felt in her toes through the vibration of the dusted earth. I asked her what was so seminal about the moment and she was silent for a long time staring off into some candle flame or inner reflection and then she broke from her reverie and regarded me with an expression of total indifference and said, I’ll always be incapable of explaining the significant moments in my life, however small and seemingly trivial they are to others, and that was one of those moments. Then she drained her glass of wine and leaned back against the wrought-iron chair and looked away from me to the dark cresting hills at the island’s elbow with the sound of night waves crashing upon the moon-paled beach behind her, dark eyes shadowed but glistening with tears. She refrained from looking at me or uttering any word in my direction for the rest of the evening, even when the oculoid moon crawled from one end of the sodden navy sky to the other and when the waves of the sea failed to rest upon the hour of their programmed repose and when our friends dispersed drunk and flaccid to their own nests and the dreams therein, and even when I walked her back to her room at the villa in our shared silence, my head oscillating from the flickering lights of town to the restless black water foaming at our feet. I wanted to tell her I understood but I knew that a woman enraptured by the sentiments of certain memories is an impenetrable emotive force. I stopped at her door and she passed through it without regard for me or my considerations or the steady rhythmic clock of the universe rolling its omniscient eyes at such petty human ruminations.
The next morning I awoke tremulous and sweating from some dream I couldn’t recall and there were sounds of rain and people scurrying about in the square. I stepped into some clean clothes and opened my door to see what was happening, the rain falling heavily like a translucent screen, boiling sore of the world opened up and electric gray throughout. There were three men carrying the woman out of her room supine and motionless with a white sheet draped over her while other women huddled about trying to keep the sheet dry. People bowed their heads in prayer and a lone dirge echoed throughout the square in the rain and I looked down to them transfixed as the men placed the woman in a van and drove her away, mud slinging from the tires like the bloody pigment of the earth, the deep wounds left by the tires quickly flooded again by the torrent. I closed the door and my room fell dark and cold and so I called the woman’s room and listened for hours to the empty line ring until the rain ceased its barrage in the square, and the people came out of their rooms at dusk with candles aloft and flickering in the gray mist, water dripping from the rooftops. I stood from my window and watched them and tried to remember what the woman looked like or even her name but I could remember nothing other than her long and bitter silence the night before. And standing there gazing down upon the darkening world and the people of the square hovering about somnolent and wraithlike I understood the woman’s last words with a clarity proportionate to the white moon hanging dry and sagacious behind thinning silvery wisps of rainclouds.
I parked the van in the alley behind the building and went in the back door. The bar smelled like hickory and smoke, rich autumn sunlight flooding the place. There was no one there, or at least that’s what I thought. I walked around the bar and poured myself a glass of orange juice and stood there drinking in the morning silence, languid dust particles shoaling in the sunbeams.
“Where’s the stuff?” I heard someone say. I looked toward the end of the room on the right and saw Sal leaning forward on the bar, smiling, his bald head gleaming and slick and tracked by veins.
“The place looks good, Sally,” I said, and drained the juice. “You ought to lock it.”
Sal came back behind the bar and we shook hands and hugged. We stood there for a while holding each other at the elbow, two old friends frozen in the aging light of morning and studying one another’s age spots, the wrinkles and other flaws fashioned by gravity and time. He was much older and he didn’t look well. I tried to put his appearance into context, weigh it against my memories of him as a young man, flamboyant and indestructible. To stare into his eyes long bereft of their luster and see the irrefutable residue of his strain, the effects of life’s bitter charm, his youthful gloss wiped clear away and replaced with irony, it made me wonder how bad I looked.
“How long you been here?”
“You’re the first person I come to see, Sally.”
“They’re listening now, I guarantee.”
Sal grunted and picked up the bar phone and dialed a number. He muttered a few words into the receiver and hung up and said, “Let’s go.”
We walked out to the alley awash in fluid morning hues and I swung open the back doors of the van. Sal looked up and down the alley and shuffled his feet and neither of us said anything. I climbed in and pulled the two suitcases toward the rear of the van and got back out, stealing a cigarette from my jacket pocket and lighting it and then snapping open the suitcases one after the other, the objects inside coming to life as if illumined from within, deep reds and browns and stark blacks of exotic hides with the names of men and women stamped in glittering gold and silver upon the handcrafted spines. Sal inhaled audibly and climbed in the van, leaning over the suitcases.
“I can’t tell you how beautiful,” he said, one hand reaching and hovering over the titles. “They’ll torture us, they catch us with these.”
“First editions,” I said, and sucked on the cigarette. “Each and every one.”
“Reminds me of the old days,” he said, and climbed back out of the van, his eyes wet and large and rendered frozen upon the books. Another van peeled into the alley and I had a brief moment of panic, my hand at my hip and the steel waiting there. Sal waved for the driver to park behind my van and a young man of maybe twenty got out and walked quickly towards me, his hand stretched out before him.
“Mr. Guy, holy shit, it’s an honor,” he said, and I took his hand. “How long it’s been, I’ve followed your career.”
“What’s your name?”
“His name is Billy,” Sal said. “And he’d better get on.”
“Good to meet you Billy,” I said, and loaded the suitcases into his van. “But Sal’s right.”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “I’d better get on.” He reached out for my hand again and I shook it, feeling the coarse strength and energy in his skin, thinking back to when I was his age and wondering where the virtue had died between the people of my generation and our own shadow-leaders. None of us are safe, I thought. Not then, certainly not now.
I watched Billy drive out of the alley into the radiant unknown and I could have worried about our precious delivery but I pacified myself in knowing that some day in the future there will be large hallowed libraries again and there will be books lining their shelves protected from the destructive clutch of tyranny and those books will forever provide testimony to man’s most sacred ideas so long as courageous young minds like Billy and his peers continued our honored struggle of liberating them to the grueling end.
The young man dismounted his horse in the mad clatter of battle and forgot about his life, the unwritten codes and reverence of the land and deep honored traditions. He forgot about his young wife and the lump in her belly and he moved swiftly through the fog of rifle smoke trailed by his own long braids and the mad shrieks of wounded men. He approached the white man with red hair lying supine and staring at him from the mud. There were men upon wild horses weaving incoherently through the smoke with their guns or war clubs raised and there were fleeting visions of other men riding boldly and bareback but long ago killed on the battlefield and a small white sun directly overhead trembled each time the white men in blue coats fired their wagon-gun.
The young man stepped over the men strewn across the sodden prairie field and unsheathed his bowie and crouched down next to the white man. He took a handful of the man’s red hair and looked into his eyes. A bullet whistled over the young man’s head and another screamed by his left ear and he sliced the white man’s forehead from temple to temple and said to him quietly in Lakota, “The wind does not cry for you.”
Then he stood and tore the scalp from the white man’s skull and held it up to the sky and screamed while the white man in his final moments of life watched his own blood drip down the young man’s arm, his torso, lean and brown and heaving muscle in the gray light.
That night the young man sat alone in his tipi and thought about the mystery of battle, the subtle violent leanings of men and the power to forget one’s self amid the jolts of heightened awareness. Outside, the red fire glowed bestial and the hypnotic throb of victory drums brought to life the dancing ghosts of many dead men both white and red and the young man agreed with the ageless wisdom of his ancestors that warfare was indeed more spiritual than physical, that courage was an extension of the self but that acting upon that courage according to honor and principle was integrally selfless.
The young man reclined onto his blankets and listened to the chanting of his people and breathed deeply to remove the walls of his mind. He remembered what he had said to the white man with red hair and he reminded himself that the wind cried for no man, especially not the man who honored and defended it with his own life.
And then the dust rose, sweeping upward into the pink light of dusk, and men clad in black armor and carrying guns chased the voices in their earpieces up the stairs, shouting commands, and a mile away thousands upon thousands coalesced to hear the words of one man in the dawn of their lives, a crowd amassed and awed into rapture on a crystalline summer night. The helicopter continued to hover before him, thick whapping blades carrying mechanical wind and the chaotic heat of the day, roaring intimidation unlike anything he’d experienced. He stared up through the glass to the faces of the two pilots and he could see their mouths moving and he could see their eyes frozen upon him but he could not discern their message. He half-expected gunfire to rip him apart at the seams of his being, his own blood spraying before him in plumed mists the color of sunset. Death by chopper. He wondered if the men running up the stairs would tackle him to the ground and press their knees into his back and he grimaced with the imagined pain and he could feel the small jutting coarseness of the concrete digging into the side of his face. He stared up at the helicopter and froze. Should he wave, try to convince them he was not a terrorist? Or should he get back in the van, drive it down the ramp? Feet frozen into place by fear, the fragmented buzz in his head distorting his thoughts, bending his mind into patterned confusion and suspicion. He felt like an actor in a film and no one was watching. Already he was trying to figure out how to explain this to someone else.
He thought of time as a snagged thread. The air he breathed. Dust whipping about him in the eye of the chopper storm. He thought of Vietnamese children dug deep in some Mekong trench where they told stories about alien aircraft and giant men with white and black skin from a place called America and he felt the vigor of their dread but nothing of their courage. He looked through the open window of the van to his book lying on the seat, face-down and spread open-winged, the interrupted message, potent talisman of knowledge, and he thought they were going to kill him or arrest him for his thoughts. That’s what this is all about. Incendiary mind, cultivator of dangerous ideas, collector of conflagrant titles. Banned on thirty-three lists worldwide. Because this is the power of ideas, the power of books. They retain the most practical and innocuous guise, glue and folded paper, lines of words on pages. Colors and privation of colors. Patterns and pattern-less. This is their danger. Because hidden inside that trite and compact geometry, books are the most resplendent of weapons. They carry and transmit the ideas of men and women and urge others toward momentous things.
He stood before the chopper and watched the pilots talking into their headsets, he imagined them saying, Suspect is armed. Alpha-three, two-niner. Copy. Looks to be a title from a reclusive American author inside the vehicle. Proceed with caution. Use force. Shoot to kill, they say. He imagines leaden trajectories in the tens of thousands, so many bullets flying in the air they create their own cosmic roar and erase him from the planet entirely.
He looked from the copter to the vacant roof of the parking garage about him. The sky was bleeding pink and red and orange gashes across the expanse of blue. He tried to block out the sound of the helicopter to listen for his cellular phone. Maybe they were trying to call him, the cops, the government. Let’s work something out, they say. Surrender. Negotiate with us. We know what you’re trying to do, rogue operative. Tell us who you’re not working for and what you’ve been thinking. Put your hands in the air. Hand over the book. Lie on your stomach, arms stretched out at your sides. Drop the paperback. He wished the pilots would give him some sort of message. Vacate the roof immediately. Put your hands in the air. Lie on your back, play dead. Prepare for death. Draw a target on your abdomen. Give us another reason to machine-gun you. He wanted them to either shoot him or fly off into the sun or maybe he just hoped for something else to happen because there was a helicopter whirling mad and threatening right on top of him and it was kind of freaking him out.
He himself was a writer. His own formulated plots, the stories, the characters, assassins and provocateurs. The subversive themes. His own ideas, the ebbing flow of lonely and violent delirium. And there were always the innate checks and balances of artists, of writers in particular. The men in the helicopter were trying to read his mind. They’d been following him all these years, since before he acknowledged the value of his own thoughts. The story he wrote about Dylan García, the philosopher-revolutionary, champion of satirical American transformation, government target and agent of sedition. Or the story he wrote about the woman with the prosthetic mind, a government experiment gone awry. The story was a revelation about the power of the human intellect and the dangers inherent in meddling with it. Both stories had been written before but these were his versions, taut and reasoned experiments, both fundamentally charged by the incompetence and tyranny of government officials, and both were slung out there on the Web somewhere with all the others he’d written, messages floating into space and back, carrying their truths out to the cosmos and returning unscathed, unbroken but absorbed by government computers set to intercept dissident communication in all tongues and dialects. The data of the rebel writer. The liberated dreamer and embattled artist. The dangerous, the followed, the hunted, hijacked by the dollar, quoted and exalted in underground communiqués. Recently someone had asked him what was the most difficult thing about being a writer and he answered without thinking, The loneliness.
He was alone now on the roof, or maybe he wasn’t completely alone but he felt alone, staring into the cockpit, two faces staring back. Patriotic sky of red and blue and violet. Frightened beyond words, panic-heightened consciousness. He raised his arms, spread them wide, a formal display to the pilots that he was not carrying any weapons, he was not a threat. He wanted nothing to do with the historic event a mile away. He was not plotting to kill or disrupt the charismatic speaker and he was not concerned with the thousands of followers, their faces glimmering, their eyes melted into a believer’s ecstasy. Our writer waved at the pilots, trying to smile, his face bent into a crooked visage of dishonesty. The buzzing in his head increased. He got back into the van and drove it down the ramp to the level below. He parked and waited for the group of officers to coagulate about him, silent footfalls, their hands on the weapons at their hips, secret tactical formations of duty, his likeness thrust out to the world through the digitized drone of the police scanner. A voice echoed for him to put his hands on the hood of the van and he complied and turned toward the stadium a mile away where the crowd was assembled and waiting to hear one man’s words, promises and declarations of grandeur in the twilight of our writer’s innocence.
I pulled the car through the winding hillside streets in the evening stillness and I thought it both strange and affecting how in that town one could scarcely peer through the thick shrouding gray to the setting sun beyond. Crooked rows of small one-story frame houses in light pastel colors, the yards manicured into taut pristine statements and the black bay water forever looming immense and threatening in the background. Anonymous joggers of dusk puffing the saline air beneath the watchful eye of antique streetlamps not yet ignited to life there in the grayest of twilight.
I parked in front of a modest green house enclosed by a painted wrought-iron gate with RENNAY engraved into its steel nameplate. The sky sunk from gray to charcoal and I walked through the creaking gate to the house and rapped quietly on the front door and waited for the old woman to answer. It took her several minutes but she finally opened the door and the front room smelled of wilted lilac and dust and candle wax. She didn’t speak but led me to the right through a long hallway and I entered a dark room near the far end of the house where there was no indication of the neighborhood outside nor the secular bay at dusk nor the concept of space or even time as contingent upon men to decipher such things. It was dark in the room and there were jagged shadows dancing on the walls behind the molten arrhythmia of candle flames licking the air.
“Finally you show up in this town and I can’t offer you a drink,” the old man said. He sat staring at me from a rocking chair in the corner of the room, heavy patched blankets covering his body. “I drank the last of the scotch,” he said, holding up an empty tumbler, rolling it slowly around in his thin fingers. “Eighty-four years old.”
I stood and looked from the old man to the candles spread in divine geometric petition throughout the room.
“Come over here and sit,” he said. “What I have isn’t contagious.”
“I’m fine,” I said calmly. “Listen. Some men are on their way here. They’ll be here just before dawn. They have guns. They’ll threaten you and they might even kill you. They’re coming here looking for a box of papers. I believe you know which one.”
The old man looked away from me to a candle at his left, the flame rolling and thrashing in shades of orange and red, his face illumined by the throbbing vigorous glow that had not truly come from within in many years.
“These men,” I said. “I’m the one who sent them.”
I turned my face to the flickering lights and the mad swaying shadows born from them and I told the man to give me the box of papers so that it would not fall into the hands of the men who were coming for it.
The old man was silent for a long time. He looked from the candles to me and then back to the candles, forty or fifty wavering truths whipping loose and radiant about him, little eyes of fire sustaining his brooding contemplations and force-feeding his old heart.
“I spend a lot of time in here staring at these candles,” he said. “Just thinking. Little flames swirling in the air. It comforts me. Colors and privation of colors. All the answers I’ll ever need. One of the things I often think of while sitting here is the queer relationship between time and light.”
He looked up at me again, his dark eyes afire with strands of pooled light, pale and intractable and omniscient.
“We were taught as children that the human brain receives visual information as the cornea intercepts it from the light spectrum. As if the light wasn’t there before. As if it needed the human brain’s sanction to exist at all. We were also taught that the mind assimilates this visual data into assorted modes of scientific and psychological assertion. Cause and effect. Theory. Association. Illusion. The mind thrusts upon itself certain varieties of light as time’s witness, as specific and inalienable proofs of time. Our vision, more than any of our other senses, acts as a placeholder for all the things we experience in this world. It is the supreme catalog of the human condition. Of course, light is synonymous with many things in the human lexicon, but the most pervasive of associations is light with the pairing of our concept of time. For those of us who are not blind, and I imagine even for some of us who are, the visible world is permanently wed to history. We cannot think of the past without trying to see it, trying to visualize it. We can’t possibly comprehend a future without looking for it, trying to see what our world will look like. But light is not time, my friend. Nor does it exist in time. Light creates its own time, it carries its own dimensions, all of which far exceed and outperform our frail human understanding. Time is a human machination, a device of logic and pragmatic substance. But light is meta-human. It operates as an instrument of the gods, as a divine right of privilege, the sole witness of soul transit and multi-dimensional communion in this, an omnisensory universe of mere human speculation.”
He sat silent for a while and then he pointed with a long bony finger to the closet at my right where the box of papers sat small and dusty on the carpet. I looked at the man and picked up the box and began to walk out the door.
“The light of this world does not create shadows,” the old man said to my back.
I sat on the pier and watched the gulls float high above the lapping bay tongue, darkened ghosts circling slow and listless in the gray dawn. I checked my watch and turned around just in time to see the clock tower behind me strike the top of the hour and I heard the brawny bell echo throughout the bay town and when I turned back to face the water the gulls were gone. Something was moving about in my pocket and so I pulled out the vibrating cellular phone to answer it.
“What is it?”
“Looks like records. There’s a dimple in the carpet where a box, maybe a pile of boxes used to be.”
I sat silent, listening to the cold water slap the wood pier at my feet, looking into the murk for some vestige of life in that bleak and dark cold mystery. I watched the foam froth against the wood and fizzle away and then repeat itself again and again as it has for a hundred years, and for another hundred years before that.
“Maybe it means something,” I said. “Maybe it doesn’t.”
“Let them go.”
I put the little phone in my pocket and saw a steamship crawl across the water way out on the horizon. It was big and black and rumbling in ill spirit of augury and I stood up and listened to my bones creak and I felt the muscles begin their little dance of mutiny and then I turned and walked back to town, the opening of shops and emergence of sleepy-eyed buskers and myriad invisible homeless advancing from the margins of town with their ragged blankets and empty bottles and I walked beneath that old clock tower that had endured windstorm and pestilence and centuries of starless night with nothing to display but its consistent pulsing record of history and its rote totalitarian demands.
Deep in the gut of the earth a man and woman moved together through the cold darkness, wandering without diagram or any semblance of light to guide them. They staggered panting through the endless tunnel of mud and rock scratched and badly bruised and with nothing for the eye to uphold nor nourish the want of the godlike human mind.
“Whatever you do,” the man said. “Never let go of this hand.”
They walked and walked and there was nothing in that dark narrow world but their invisible breaths and their movement and their delicate thoughts and the understanding that they had nothing but each other, colorless and blind and hungry and frightened. The world continued to revolve about them and the hardened planet shifted in deep turbulent scars high above and the smell of earth was like cordite in that enclosed cavernous place. There was silence and there was blackness and they trudged on continuous through the tunnel, their hearts like two small bellies of fire or signals of life in an alien world reduced to its rudiments.
The man was terrified and he often thought of stopping and holding the woman in his arms and surrendering to the giant void because he foresaw one of them dying in that dark place and the other alone and cold and hopeless. He imagined the two of them webbed together by their arms as the darkness unfolded its timeless maxim upon them and they would not speak but only sleep and dream of a consciousness with light and sight and the promise of tomorrow. The eyes make their own vision, he thought. For I am seeing things that I cannot possibly see. There are walls about me and a flat muddy ground and there are small beings with round gray eyes shrinking away from my probing hands. I can see the future in its rote black agony and I can see the errors of my past and their influence on my conscience like a nimbus of heavy gray fog hanging about my head. I can see deeply into the dark and smell my own fear and I can feel the woman’s hand though I want nothing more than to look into her eyes for I’ve long forgotten their color and shape.
They walked clutching tiredly at the hand of the other and feeling their breath in the dampened air and they knew their world was one of cold and lightless uncertainty and that somewhere ahead the tunnel would have to end and the sudden seepage of light would overwhelm and embolden them. Somewhere behind them they heard an echoed scream neither human nor living and they froze in the darkness, clinging to each other and shivering. After a while they moved on again and they could smell flowers growing in the tunnel and they could hear water somewhere about them, a steady rushing flow like the open vein of the very earth and each of them thought in private how they could be dreaming the whole thing but which one was dreaming neither knew nor cared.
The woman thought to speak and then refrained, for under what domain does the decree of language have in such a place? All we have is the tangible communication between us, the communion of flesh and heat, our bodies tied together by the noblest of bonds and axioms of trust. Dirt frozen still in the deep leathery ridges of our fingers. Nails and ashen skin and thin jutting hairs. This is our language, this is our life. These are our words. This link of flesh could fail us at any moment. She pictured the myriad of ways they would die, a gaping hole up ahead in the darkness swallowing them one after the other, their hands broken apart by the force of one body falling, stumbling down weightless and alone to that other unknown darkness of similar breath and sound. She imagined a creature looming up ahead in the darkness, human in proportion but lacking the probity which distinguishes humanity from other mundane life. A six-legged likeness of nightmarish wonder, viscous body mass and thin spine-like legs and throbbing cold heart and they would see it in that last flashing moment before it struck them totally blind, glimmering eyes of diamond light in the only thing they’d seen in so very long, the last light of the world known to them, and there would be a knowing in those eyes and also a familiar form of understanding for the creature had lived in the darkness all of her life and was accustomed to surviving on the flawed wanderings of others. The woman imagined the creature devouring them and slinking silently onward through the tunnel of mud with her former body in that creature’s jellied womb until the next stumbling and condemned soul strolled blind and unknowing into the nest of a frightened somnambulist’s reckoning.
“Wait,” the woman said. “I need to catch my breath.”
“Are you all right.”
“Yes. I just need to stop. For a moment, is all.”
The man was quiet. He thought he could see the woman bent at the waist, her head down and blonde hair dirty and matted and clinging to her temples. He saw her there in the dark, a shadow of light, body heaving with warm breath, angel of soft white incandescence drawn in the framework of a beating human heart. There is a light within her. There is a light within us both.
“I can see you,” he said, and smiled. “You’re magnificent.”