IF YOU GOT out your binoculars in the late fall, you could always make out the trash in the gaps between the rusty trees over there on Qaf Mountain: a plum-crazy Dodge Challenger gone a chalky lavender beside an old Chevy on blocks, and the same rusted-out milk delivery box on the porch bearing a long-defunct company’s name in faded olive print. The Victorian manor at the peak was set in a flat knoll just near the summit, each fall revealing itself and each spring taken back behind the oaks and ash. Come waning November, with your binoculars you could once again see the warped porch boarding, the film-darkened windows showing sills lined with long-necked greenglass cola bottles and drawn tanned curtains. Every year the further colonization of nature was apparent: enormous robins’ nests and leaves and twigs dripping from the eaves. Each fall revealed the same decay but for a few minor departures from the human world, a drift to soil and gravity. One side of the house began to sag. An eave crumbled, as did the ridge courses on the saddle. A window went spider-webbed on the upper floor.
But a rusted watering can has changed its position on the porch. And overnight you discern circular wreaths hanging from the porch eaves that weren’t there before, in chromatic continuity with the autumn palette. Day after day (or as often as you pick up the binoculars to look) you think they are the same objects, but notice that sometimes they seem to get larger, or at least have changed their disposition on the eaves….
THIS HAPPENS EVERY autumn. When you see the three strange umbrellas or parasols appear in the tall paling grass before the porch, you know that the time has come for the arrival of the guests when, some night soon, a lightless caravan of six to eight cars enters the valley and crackles up the steep shattered asphalt up to the mansion and parks near the unlit house. With the binoculars—if the wind is right and you’re lucky enough to hear their ascent and grab the binoculars—you can see the drivers, shadows, really, quickly enter the house, one after the other.
You could stay up and wait for the dawn to break and give you some more details of what’s going on over there, but you’re never able to; you have a working life, a job, and by morning the vehicles have gone, and so have the parasols.
YOU’VE ASKED YOUR neighbors about this midnight caravan. They claim it doesn’t happen anymore. They tell you that on a November night back in the early 1980s a few teenagers, after seeing the train of cars wend its way into the valley, ventured to climb the mountain to spy. Returning, they’d reported nothing but silence around the manor, and not even a single candle’s light within. They said that some of the visitors’ cars, which had no license plates, had been unlocked but in the moonlight pouring down it was plain to see there was nothing to steal on their gnarled vinyl upholstery. They did note that none of the cars had been manufactured later than 1965 and all in appalling condition like the dead Challenger and Chevy that sat forever on the property—as if each vehicle had come here from equally forlorn estates across the country.
SO PEOPLE LIVE there, although you have never actually seen them, nor has anyone else in the area around Cough Mountain. It is an unnerving thought.
It went without saying that no one knew their phone numbers; everyone doubted they ever had one.
But there are stories. You have never seen the old man and his daughter who came here from some country in the Middle East. It was said the girl, who was small, had suffered from a rare disease that necessitated her wearing several layers of clothing at all times, covering every inch of her body, that she wore gloves and her kept her head swaddled and wearing sunglasses.
No—she was just a Muslim, in one of those burqa things…
No, she had been burned in a fire when a child…
What is affirmed is that this girl had never appeared outside the house but for a few weeks to attend elementary school in the early 1970s then abruptly disappeared…A neighbor recalled another resident (who’d long since moved) who had supposedly attended a wild party there in the late 1970s, a singular blowout whose legend in Whisper County died with the transplantation of new people into the area. There was talk of the use of mind-bending drugs at the bash, and that the aging Muslim man had shown his collection of the rarest stamps in the world, and that he was making some kind of machine—and that they saw the girl again that night, swaddled in her robes and scarf.
They said she was tiny. She had not grown at all, the size of a five-year-old, and you hear stories thrice removed that someone had thrown acid in her face in some distant barbaric Muslim country, and had been cowed for all these years by her strict father.
Not true, counters another resident. The father is a reclusive writer. He had driven around in the ’56 Chevy collecting books, visiting libraries and filling it until the tires were half-flat from all the weight and he’d wanted to start his own library out of his car.
No, that wasn’t right, says a third: he is a doctor of some kind. A physician.
No, the guy’s just an old acidhead hippie who foundered on the property, owned by his family for generations.
You hear of the Halloweens in those early years, when groups of children with their parents braved the 20-minute hike up the cracked asphalt to the manor and knocked to no answer in the weakened light of the single fly-dirt covered bare bulb on the long porch. That last time, 1977, when the autumn came, even the porch light had gone dark and only the occasional light of a candle could be seen up in the cupola…A neighbor asked the local meter reader if the electricity on Qaf Mountain was active anymore, and he replied with a firm no—it had been cut off in the late summer with no protest (not that the bills could even be delivered any more, seeing as the mailbox had disappeared and no known PO box in town was being used by the residents). This in turn evinced a trip to examine the county plat books, which revealed ownership of the estate by a company called Jabulqa and Jabulsa, based in Switzerland. A sally to the county courthouse yielded more facts: during the first decades the property tax had been paid promptly every year by a disheveled man in a black suit with bills from the 1930s, cash he claimed had once been gold but since the recent abandoning of the gold standard would one day become near worthless. Then the black-garbed man’s visits had ceased, replaced by mailed checks from a bank account owned by that Swiss law firm.
YOU LEARN THAT neighbors in parties of two or three would hike up there every few years when the motivation of another fall-winter overcame them. Simple curiosity. They had to see, up close, the house that loomed up there above their valley. Knocking on the door yielded nothing. No sound stirred within the house, but a buzzing from time to time. Instead, they took photos and called the county health people, who never seemed to show up. A few considered making a 911 fire call, just to have the experience of rushing up there with the firemen, to see them kick in that peeled green white red purple door (which looks like a tiny wafer through your binoculars) and find the inhabitant engaged in some depravity with that sickly Muslim girl, or she long-dead, an embalmed corpse. In the early 1980s, when the interest in the spooky place was at its peak, the neighbors had nightmares occasionally of entering to find some primitive crime beyond the pale of humanity. They came to expect that one day they would read an item in the local paper detailing the arrest of the inhabitants, for something that would shamefully put their venerable county into the history books.
Year after year these expectations were defeated. The decrepit mansion where the girl and her father lived has languished on the mountaintop for some 40 years without the glow of electric light in any window—always the pinpoint flicker of orange candlelight high in the structure at times, near the cupola.
UPON A BLANK slate such as this only bad things could be written. Yes, people lived in that house. They not just kept to themselves and bothered no one, but further they never left the place, not even for groceries, that you’ve ever seen. Such a-sociality always has a price. Thus stories circulated over the years, overelaborated to the point of absurdity and overtaken by alternative explanations no less fantastic. Some involved strange lights and unbelievably fragrant smells. Some involved sounds that came from the mansion, sounds approaching that of music but never quite breaching meter and melody. That the residents were to blame for unusual fluctuations in the neighborhood’s power grid over the years, and the sometime routine freezing of the cable transmissions. Sometimes when the wind was right a strong smell of burnt ozone down came off the mountain, on clear days without a cloud in the sky. Dogs would bark in neighborhood all at once in synchronization with the orb-light up there, at other times all running up to the mansion as if to be fed.
Just to see the inside of it, for God’s sake. Just to cast your eyes upon its residents, the house with no mailbox and no address but Qaf Mountain…Your neighbors have been watching a personal failure take place over there, for decades, and thank God it’s up isolated upon the mountaintop, far away enough and covered with greenery eight months out of the year. Thank God they’re not your next door neighbors, or live down here, on these streets, depressing the home values because of some foreign system of ethics or the isolation or a quirk in genetics which came to fruition in that old man (to think that something which happened in a mother’s womb long ago could ripen to take thousands of dollars off home values!).
You’d normally conjecture that someone had died, or become debilitated over a long period if it weren’t for the candlelight and winter hearth and eave decorations and parasols and perennial visitors in the leafy autumn.
You get the feeling they’re people whispered of for a generation, terrible things will explode on the 6 o’clock news. They kept to themselves.
Why didn’t anyone do something about them?
NOW RECENTLY, DURING a certain period, the neighbors living closest to the old house developed odd beliefs regarding their mailboxes—people on opposite sides of the mountain who had not spoken to each other in years.
One resident, then two, painted their box posts some bright color, polishing or even replacing the box itself, then elaborating the red flag.
But one man had been particularly touched.
The images came to him at night, at the edge of sleep. They were more than the passing neuronal murals and fragmented memories that accompany one’s descent to slumber. They lingered so realistically behind his eyelids that it compelled a throwing-off the covers and a groggy pencil sketch that gradually grew in detail as the night gave way to dawn. What he’d drawn was like a birdhouse, but not exactly—no, it was a mailbox? But why would a mailbox need eleven slots within slots, and at these odd angles? Why would the tripod posts holding it up resemble odd, twisting representations of a flaming column?
The touched man quietly feared for his sanity and didn’t tell his wife but nonetheless knew that if he didn’t buy the five kinds of recommended wood and begin work on it, then he would need to go see someone about his mental state. So he retired to his woodshop amongst nasal saws and their dust and angles and lathes, turning the drawing piece-by-piece and slot-by-slot into a three-dimensional reality.
When finished, it had 27 chambers. As he stared at it, unpainted but finished, he thought: looks like something he’d seen before.
He chuckled to himself, then was filled with alarm.
Without regard to any function it might have as a mailbox or birdhouse or whatever he would christen it with, it had to be a part of his landscape, on his property, it had to have the sunlight on its surface—that was unquestionably necessary, and the final touch: sunlight.
A birdhouse it would be.
He raised it. And as they used it, he became obsessed with the idea that the birds were actually spies in service to a supernatural race of beings who lived invisibly upon this planet—like they were a physical emanation of these beings’ minds, and that in building this house he had somehow appeased them. He had been chosen…Other times he was convinced that many people surely knew that this ancient wise race and their pact with the avian species existed, but had wisely held their tongues about it.
He had simply intuited the truth by building his birdhouse. The dream had done it.
These strange disobedient thoughts were especially difficult for him during the winter months of shortened light and his moods naturally shrank to a numb murmuring presence in his heart. But he did believe them. He stared at the enormous birdhouse in his backyard he’d fashioned from non-existence to reality with his own hands through the spring as the intended creatures found use for it and he thought maybe it would better have—or had meant to all along—be a mailbox after all. And maybe he’d been wrong: maybe mail deliverers were the physical agents of that superhuman yet Terran intelligence invisible somewhere within the fold of the earth’s magnetosphere…
AS THE POOR confused man suffered, three miles to the northwest of Qaf Mountain, a mother of four dreamt of a mailbox for birds or a birdhouse for letters and woke up confused from her nap and began to draw—just as a child to the southwest of the mountain doodled with a ruler and crayons something which astounded his parents and made them demand he reveal who had actually drawn it, for it couldn’t possibly have been the imaginary friend named Why or Yoni who had pushed his ruler at precise angles and guided his Crayolas into this finely stippled…thing which would capture birdsong and translate it if built, and be the method of envois between the people who lived below the earth and the people above, the messengers as he, or she, this imaginary friend Why, had said, and further that a war had been going on between these two races for centuries, unseen and unknown to people, and that the Moon was a spaceship, or more properly a device which had been made to keep human beings from seeing another earth altogether everything that had ever existed in the Universe, not least being the truth that they had been made in the Image of God….
THEN COMES THE night of the three lights.
There is not a cloud in the sky as the area lights up like mid-day, the illuminations hanging for a full double-second each time.
Like God was finishing up a roll of film.
The next morning you hear a commotion going on down there on Flanders Street—screaming and wails. The voice cracks several times, and is repeating the same phrase: “She’s gone. She’s gone.”
You pick up the phone and call the police station.
THE PEACE OFFICERS trudge the shattered driveway to investigate the disturbance. The final stretch of slope that rises to the mansion is difficult, as if the eons of earth, wind and rain pushing one another had leant a maliciousness in sculpting the final passage upward, giving adventurers one last argument to abort their attempt. One of the officers falls behind, gasping with the difficulty of his surplus poundage. He stops, panting. The path levels off into an inclining steppe. The huge decrepit Victorian manor comes into view—and there’s still a wild football field’s length of lawn to go.
Beyond the cars, three strange patio umbrellas have been erected that lean a few yards apart from each other. Their canopies are milky translucence, and their ribbing triply jointed in exquisitely curved white and silver material. The canopy material seems to fade as the officers pass. This draws their attention. They trudge closer, and the dissolve continues. But for a slight distortion to the tree trunks fifty yards away through them, the material with which their canopies are made has gone entirely invisible. One of the officers, then the other, reach out to touch what they know is substantial. Their fingers hope to make it real. What their fingers touch is like a ghostly excrescence of the air itself, taut, air, less than cellophane. They can see a shimmer as their fingers disturb it, like it is refracting the light.
They pace backwards. The canopies gain opacity with each retreating step, like a series of spider webs superimposing upon one another. Three times they repeat the experiment. This is something an expert should take a look at because damned if it isn’t one of the neatest things they’ve ever seen—especially the pearly iridescence of the pole and the runner that rings it where the ribbing and cleats are connected when you’re up close, all of which are rigid to the touch but too warm for the surrounding mountain air—as if they are generating power of some kind.
The officers drift back from the objects and regain their purpose. Their boots send the porch creaking, glancing back at the umbrellas that now stir like sheets of milk in the wind. They pound upon the door. Its steel-reinforced frame presents a line of deadbolt locks. The windows, boarded over from within, show cracked prisms hanging from sun-dyed blinds.
A milk delivery box lays there against the house’s warped boarding. It is decades old and says GREEN SPRING DAIRY. Officer John Adams V had grown up three miles from here and suddenly recalls that his family had an identical box when he was a toddler. He hasn’t thought about milk delivery—the very idea of it—in four decades. Another sensation overtakes the reverie. “Smell that?” he says. “Easter lilies or somethin.”
They continue pounding upon the door. The tall officer Adams puts his hand flat against the firearm at his hip and tells his corpulent partner Benjamin Franklin V he’s going around the back.
An emerald wave of ivy has crashed upon the side of the house and adhered its pattern there. The waist-high grass offers resistance and he resorts to a sort of treading motion with the lower half of his body. The old house is enormous and its surface dappled and spotted, the sun and rain having beaten at least a dozen successive layers of paint off in haphazard descent to its original oak and pine surface, wood whose provenance was in the trees cleared upon from this very slope over a century ago. The ivy that has wended its way up the boards is unlike any he’s ever seen: there’s a purple translucence to it. The effect against the exposed paint-hues beneath is something he might describe as a modern art masterpiece. He makes his way through the green ocean to the rear. Two more rusting hulks come into view, one of them a Model T or A. There are a few outbuildings: a shed near the forest line fifty yards away where Qaf Mountain comes to its peak, and some wrecked trellises and arbor, an attempted pergola around the property’s edge.
The wind tousles the grass.
Most prominent is an enormous, smoke-blackened pagoda. Adams comes closer and sees that it has been constructed around what looks like a pile of dirt or ash, shiny as coal. He raises his sunglasses. Its texture is powdery, and he receives the unsettling impression of looking into something.
He wades back to the house. The rear porch screens have been devastated by an air force of birds. Here has come to rest a cherrywood television seven decades old. Its screen is gone and inside it roosts a smaller TV in identical condition. There is a radio, and an old Victrola.
He folds back the screen and knocks upon the back door. More deadbolts and a steel frame. The windows are as sealed as the front’s and look as brittle as spun sugar.
He loops around the house and retakes the long wraparound porch and again stares at the three bizarre umbrellas. Officer Benjamin Franklin V is examining what could charitably be called ‘wreaths’ that hang from the eaves at yard intervals, great whirling shapes composed of long twigs and dried grass artfully intertwined, with seeming microscopic precision, into circularity. Some are made of intricately looped thread-bows that compose larger looped bows that finally enter the form of the wreath itself—a looped bow. It is similar to itself at any level of inspection. And some of them are not circular in form—some are ovals and ellipses, tapered bottom and top. They rotate in the breeze. The weavings, knitted in uniform inward-spiraling flows, are identical whether you look at them from the front or back. Each individual twig is itself curved and precise duplicated, as if the person who’d made it had spent days—hell, weeks—gathering twigs and separating them into individual gradations of arc and texture, thickness and length, amassing thousands in each the right element before fitting them together to achieve such a blossoming effect.
These latter look vaguely labial, and Officer Franklin is disturbed at the association in his mind: they look for all the world like disembodied vulvas. As his eyes locked upon it he finds blood flowing purposefully into his loins. The longer he stares, the harder he gets. He averts his gaze in confused embarrassment when a voice sounds behind them.
An old man stands on the porch— a man with a hanging tired face and long white beard to his sternum. Officer Adams squints at the door. The old man closes it with his gnarled left fist, and Adams notes a greenish glow that seems to undulate in the final peek of interior as wood meets wood.
“Sir, good morning,” Franklin says, and introduces them. “And your name is?”
The old man tells them, his violet eyes shining beneath tufted brows. Adams says: “First thing.” He points at the umbrellas. “Where did you get those things?”
He curses and lunges unsteadily but Adams halts him with a gentle palm. The man is dressed in beaten dungarees and shoes that are negligible shards of rubber and blackened canvas that once, perhaps, were sneakers. The smell of sweat risen and dried countless times meets their nostrils. A rich, human smell.
“Later,” Adams says, “you can move them later, sir.”
His age-spotted hands spasm upon the frozen waterfall of grey whiskers and pulls on them in agitation. “Yessiqqah, my daughter, made em.”
Franklin asks, “She made the frames, too?”
“They’re paralunas—for stoppin the goddam moon transmissions.”
Franklin and Adams look at each other and let the comment pass. “What kind of fabric is that they’re made of?” Franklin asks.
A filthy green flannel shirt hangs opened to the sternum, the threadbare tee-shirt beneath it showing silver chest hairs and time-bled tattoos gone to shapeless bruises. Franklin replies, “She must be talented, to make something like that…Well, that’s why we’re here. Your daughter. A neighbor spotted a girl wrapped in sheets walking up Flanders Street down here early yesterday morning.”
“Mm-hm.” He whimpers.
“Was that her?
Adams confesses: “Never been up here before. I don’t know anyone who has, ever…Why you got the place boarded up? It’s been like this a long time, hasn’t it.”
“Man’s got his ways. Keeps to hisself.”
Franklin’s right arm crooks upward to the transceiver clipped to his shoulder and reduces the static’s volume. “Neighbors, the Colberts down there, reported seeing you down on Flanders this morning. Heard you yelling about ‘she’s gone.’”
His eyes lower regretfully but is silent.
Franklin adjusts his mirrored aviators. “Sir, we’ll ask you to be straight with us. If you insist on messin around, we can continue this discussion elsewhere. That was you, was it not?”
Adams’s handset too crackles with distortion. It seems to have lost its connection.
“Colberts reported lights flashing up here in the middle of the night, too.”
He waves dismissively.
“How old’s your daughter?”
He jams a cheroot into his moustache and strikes a blue-tip against the wall and lights it and begins to speak rapidly in a voice keyed high: “She’s my Midon, she’s my heart. She prays for us all…Taught me that the dusk is the blessed time. Taught me there’r moments of the day, in the gloamin, mostly, where the door to the Other Side swings wide. We’ll never come back to them moments again, an that’s why we celebrate em…”
He sniffles and shuffles and crosses his arms and clutches at his sides and is sweating in the cool mountain breeze.
Franklin hooks a thumb on his belt. “Let’s talk about it inside your house.”
He shakes his head, his white hair winging outward. “I guess she’s gone in search of him,” he mutters.
Franklin, sharply: “What was that?”
Near-whisper: “She might’ve gone off searchin’ for him. This pen pal of hers.” He chuckles. “She drew her own stamps onna env’lopes, fooled ever’one.”
Adams and Franklin exchange looks. Franklin gets out his pad and pen.
“Who’s this pen pal?”
“Think’s name’s John Priester.”
Franklin writes. Adams asks, “Do you know where does this Priester live?”
Old man shrugs, arms out wide. “California, I think.”
Franklin repeats, “John Priester, you say. Spelled like it sounds?”
“Do you have envelopes or letters she received from him?”
“No, she got em,” he replies, seeming to draw satisfaction from this. “She took em with her. Took the maps he drew, too. Every letter, an every projection.”
“So this Priester drew maps for her?”
“Yeahp. She took em letters, and her holy book.”
“Her Korun-Bible-Dharma-dust. Her holy book. Those tablets we was decipherin—”
Franklin points with his pen. “Wait, sir, just a second. Concentrate. Her pen pal, this John Priester, he drew maps for her? For how to get to his house?”
“Not ‘zactly. S’a map of the Other Place. And how to get there. Through the moments I’s tellin you bout—through the dusk, to the Other World.”
Franklin’s patience is running out. He turns away and paces along the porch with his face down, careful to keep his eyes from those bizarre wreaths, examining the nailed-in windows and lifting old oil cans and foggy beer bottles and shapeless pieces of metal with his boot, going unchallenged. It is a part of his job that he fully inhabits. Franklin has two daughters, and this decrepit house is the kind of squalor and insanity he would give his life protecting his two young angels against—with the help of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He hears Adams say, “Now, if she’s missing and you don’t report it formally to us, there are things we have to do. Understand? You describe her to us.”
“She’s the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Adams chuckles. “Not helpful…What’s her height? Let’s start with that.”
He thrusts out an arm at chest level, turning his palm upward in deprecation. Franklin writes an arbitrary figure of 4’6” down in his notebook.
“Blue? Blue takes over, when she’s happy.”
“Hair color and type?”
“Hair took a long time.”
“Took her a long time. To grow it. When it come out it was white, silver, fine, fine white hair.”
“She has white hair?” Franklin pops a piece of gum in his mouth. “Distinguishing marks?”
He brightens at this. “She wadn’t in reg’lar school but a month. But she did good.”
Franklin chuckles, wags his head. “I mean ‘marks’ as in ‘marks on her body,’ sir.”
Franklin gently taps his baton against the window as if testing it for the necessary force.
Could be a harmless old fool.
But then again, maybe not. No-one in the entire county knew these two people or had ever even seen them. The more Officer John Adams thinks about it, the more miraculous this seems, what is happening—that this old inhabitant was here talking to them in the flesh. The bizarre things he’d heard, long ago, about this mansion up here. It suddenly feels as if he and Franklin are privileged—like an edict has been lifted to allow them to meet the inhabitant. “Does she have any distinguishing birthmarks or moles or scars or any unusual features?”
“No. Got a kinda big head, though. Bigger’n usual.” The old man squints. His forehead gathers its wrinkles and tears squeeze from his eyes.
Franklin can’t discern what’s depicted on the ancient iron-on decal on the man’s tee shirt and it is beginning to irk him—that and the smell of the lilies, and the stench of sweat radiating the old man’s clothes. He is nearing the end of his tolerance. “What exactly is wrong with your daughter?”
The old man glares at Adams’s nose, then Franklin’s eyebrow. He does not reply but seems to lapse into a trance, wavering on some inner wind, rocking on the balls of his feet.
“Talking to you, sir. Does she need help to dress and feed herself?”
“No, no,” he scowls, eyes shut. “She’d manage…She’s fast. Faster than a bird. It’s the rest of the world’s gotta worry. Mark it. Things could become more different than they’ll ever’ve been. I gotta get her tiara to her.” He pulls a flask from his back pocket and takes a long draught of whiskey.
“What’s her tiara got to do with it?”
“She made it for her weddin day.”
Franklin, disgusted, waves his partner off the porch into the long grass. “You stay right there sir, and don’t go back inside. You understand me?”
The old man remains motionless. They retreat from his earshot into the grass beside the chalky plum Challenger. Adams shakes his head in pity. “Have you ever in your life.”
“Be sad if it weren’t so off—the whole thing’s off.”
“Should we run him in?”
Franklin, adamant: “If he doesn’t file the report then we’ll do it.”
“Did you see inside the house?”
“Looks like he’s got electricity. I saw lights in there.”
They return to the porch and Adams asks brightly, “You got a generator, sir?”
“Hail no. Those things ‘splode.”
“Neighbors, the Colberts, seen lights up here last night, s’why I ask. And you have no electricity, that right?”
He shakes his white head. “No good for her mind or body, that ‘lectromagnetic pollutin. No good for any our minds.”
Adams can smell the cloud of whiskey surrounding him, and with it a sudden memory. He quells it with a quick serenity prayer.
Franklin goes all business again. “What is your exact name? Your name and sosal security number.”
He frowns viciously. “I don’t pick up that Roosevelt thing.”
Franklin snorts. “Every citizen’s got a sosal security number. Hell, even illegals got ‘em now…That’s okay, we can find you in the database. Right. The plat books say —” he consulted his note pad “—a law company named Jabulqa and Jabulsa own this property?”
The old man shrugs.
“So what’s your relation to them?”
Again he tightens his shoulders upward.
“That would make you squatters, wouldn’t it, if you had no relation to them.”
“I ain’t a squatter. The rest of you are. We humans are the latecomers. Yessiqqah’ll show you that.”
Franklin tightens his face. “How long have you lived up here?”
His brow is furrowed as if he is counting. Then again for a third time he ends it with a shrug. Adams is spinning one of the circular sculptures. The old man rises to his feet and points angrily. “Don’t touch that! S’one of her shields.”
The wind picks up for a moment and rushes the mountaintop, scattering the smoke needling from the old man’s dying cheroot. He smiles at them and both cops register mild surprise at the perfectly white, straight set of teeth, or more likely dentures, which present themselves between his whiskers, but for which Adams notices (for Smiler Marno would not smile at them again) a front incisor that glitters with gauzy orange and blue and green, like an opal. Adams says, “How do you live up here, sir? How do you all eat? You’ve got well water. I saw a pump in the back.”
The old man takes another draw at his flask. “Got rivers of water in this mountain—the finest, purest in the world. Unmucked about with fluoride and other contaminitzes. Agartthan water. Pure, non-lunar water.”
Again Adams smells the homemade liquor and it is like a physical blow to him. He clears his throat. He hasn’t smelled whiskey in almost two years and he’s amazed at the warm comfort, the instant familiar blush of memory the scent brings. Evil, to him—pure evil.
The sunlight throws a strange blue iridescence across the grass.
Adams: “What’d you do for a living?”
He lights the dead cheroot again with a trembling hand, the smoking object agitating upon his lips. He replies: “I was a surfer. Then I’s a cartog’pher. Yessiqqah helped me make maps of invisible places we can’t see yet. She can see em, but none of us’ve earned the right to see em yet. The Other World. So she made maps of it for me.”
Again the old man lifts the flask.
“Slow down with that stuff,” Franklin counsels evenly, “or you might end up telling us the truth.”
He puffs, takes another tight swig, wipes at his mouth. “Yessiqqah looked in all the old writin of her peoples, an the typewriters told me stories of those dead places an their postal systems an the stamps an all their sussequent collectors…So my brother out there,” he gestured a hand, “an his family gets the stamps an bring em to me. An I give em the Agartthan water in return for their help.”
At this incoherent outburst Adams recalls something. A legend. A story. “Would this family of yours—would they be the people who come up here to your house in the fall? Like at night?”
He leans back against the wall and the bench squeaks harshly and he makes a perfunctory zippering motion across his lips, then mutters, “They collectin star locations for me, too. I’m astronomerizin. Astrologizin, too. Got a telescope up in the cupola.” He points skyward, a flowing motion of the arms.
Adams chokes down a laugh. Franklin too cannot contain a chuckle and says, “That’s the third time you’ve changed your occupation.”
The whiskers twist into a scowl somewhere beneath. “’Occupation,’” he spits. “Sound like somethin we do to while away the time. Man’s gotta have more’n one occupation to find the truth about the life he livin.” The expression in his eyes takes no part in what he is saying, as if the uncontrollable momentum of the outburst had thrown his mind into a further level of disorientation. He seems confused now. “I…I been takin dictation from her on how to live an how to build this thing to allay the Moonery an get the goods on the future.”
Franklin asks, “Read the future, you mean?”
“No, the typewriters I got do. Comes out in code—from the Moon. Yessiqqah’s got the decipherin key.”
Moon. Lunacy. A lunatic is about right, Franklin thinks—the guy needs subtitles. Franklin’s viscera has edged into nausea at the disintegration of the world that occurred on this hilltop, the normal measures of consciousness and civilization and purpose gone meaningless. He looks with disgust at the old man’s weathered hands, the long grey pitted fingernails and stained with a blue cast and suddenly he remembers that this place was the sort of decayed old houses of which he was mortally afraid as a child, the isolated and desolate islands untouched by society, so terrifying him with their voided windows and peeled exteriors. He feels a tingling across his scalp and at the back of his neck—an old reflex, the prelude to violence which has gotten him in trouble once before—and he knows what it means and needs to control it, because he’s seeing himself cuff the old man to the buckled porch railing and just searching kicking in that door and searching the place straight up.
And pulling down the hideous twig hangings behind him.
Yet he also senses, with even more certainty, that he not only would not enter the manor, but could not enter it. Even with his scattergun, he would not be able surmount that warped doorstep—for there were truths and horrible things behind the grimy windows to which he never wanted to subject his memory.
The things we have to put up with, the nonsense in this job.
Lord Jesus, help me.
His gloved hand finds his hat and lifts it and replaces it. The thought chills him that this seemingly abandoned house has been inhabited all this time by two people on the edge of humanity. He jerks his head and says, “H-hey, John, let’s go…Y-you gotta declare her missing, sir, if your daughter hasn’t returned in forty-eight hours. We’re letting you know that if you do not declare her missing, there are things w-we have to do.”
Adams senses his partner’s impatience and asks him to spell his daughter’s name. The man complies admirably then says, “I don’t know her other name. Her secret name, that one her people gave her.”
Franklin has gingerly taken a few paces back towards the slanting porch steps.
“Tell me something and we’ll go,” Adams asks, “do you know who the current President of the United States is?”
“Don’t care who Pres’dent is. He ain’t my Pres’dent, whoever hell he is.”
Adams is glad to escape the old man’s whiskeyfied orbit. He tries for a paternal note. “Okay, then, that’s fair enough. Can you tell me what year it is, then.”
“You want local, or galactic reckonin?”
Adams chuckles and tightens his mouth. “Oh, give us—local time.”
Franklin is thinking, in spite of himself: Probable cause. Anything. Just to look around you. Probable cause.
The whole house gives probable cause.
“Last galactic moonami was bout twenty-six million years ago.” The old man blows a raspberry and makes an elaborate dismissive wave and says, “Astromauts said the moon reverberatated like a gong when they landed that tin can upon it. You two know that? It went on vibratin for hours. Did you know that? Like a gong. Strue. Goddamn infernal thing’s hollow, ‘s’all. It’s a machine. It’s our prison warder.”
Franklin puts his hand on his Glock and the feel of its plastic comforts him. “That is some weird, wild stuff!” he replies, mocking. “I did not know that!”
Smiler Marno puffs philosophically. “Fillin a tin can up with fuel an sendin men up there’s nothin. Nothin! A real man who conquers one twist in his psyche is ten times a thing to marvel o’er than launchin men up to that goddamn sent’nel up there…The Moon takes our soul energy when we die, an you better believe it! People think they go to heaven when they pass on. Well they don’t. They spirit get taken right up there to it. Without some spir’tual work of yisself down here, while you livin, you done for. Food for it. Tell you nother thing: Nicky Copernicus was a flea who never saw nothin in his life. Hubble, too. An that Sagan son of a bitch might’ve come from star-stuff, but not me. Not me.”
The two officers chuckle. His voice cracks, tears balanced there on the rims, creeping down the crevices of his face. “Oh, she’s gone…I will die.”
“No,” Adams comments, “that smoke and booze’ll kill you, that’s what’ll kill you. Last thing: How old are you, sir?”
He drags elaborately on the cheroot and tilts the last of the flask and pulls another one from his ragged jeans’ back pocket, one that looks made of brass and plain, a hundred years old. He doesn’t answer and Adams refrains from asking again. The two officers step off the porch onto the earth and begin the long slog down. Adams has an idea and turns and shouts, “Hey, mister—any interest in getting those cars off the property?”
“You want to get those cars off the property, sell them?”
“Hail no. Made a baby in that Chevy. And another in the Dodge.”
Adams chuckles and nods at the Challenger. “Boy, that’d be a beaut, fixed up. Tires still look full, too.”
“John—” Franklin breathes. “Look.”
John Adams turns and looks. He is mildly perplexed at what he sees there plainly before him, but not so Officer Ben Franklin, who stills the sudden quivering in his hands by jamming them down into his trouser pockets—the sight of birds upon the porch roof, the birds in the sills, the eaves, hundreds of them. They are silent and motionless, sitting as if at attention, as the old man places his hand on the door handle and shouts in a cracking voice, “Now git the hell off our property, you Ahrimen!” and is gone.
SMILER MARNO’S RUSE has worked.
Later, towards the dusk, he shambles to the front of his house, where the blue shadows have deepened. He pulls each paraluna from the ground, carefully folding them, and returns inside, descending to the sub-basement. The paralunas have been fully charged by the sun the past weeks and gently glow. He ascends, hobbles outside to pray. He prostrates himself before the spectrum-banded horizon, thanking the sun for its latest resurrections in the earth. When he finishes he stands before the pagoda and the black ash pile behind the manor, a cinder hill of burned pages and the aborted coke from a thousand experiments, now gone to Black Earth, that he long ago positioned at the apex of the energy field within the mountain.
He lights a match and tosses it at his feet. In seconds a glow works through the black mound’s edge. Steam rises. Soon the tumulus billows fragrant smoke which will fill the county. Winds will spiral outward from the mountain, alerting dim memories of purpose in his compatriots scattered throughout the land—and triggering in other people of Whisper, he hopes, visions of a future not yet their own. But soon.
In three days, the Moon’s energy will peak. In six, a vortex will appear.
The King was returning from his exile in the Other World—and Yessiqqah is to join with him….She has her duties as the Ambassador, after all, of the Good People.
He reenters the house and unhooks his old three-piece suit from the closet. The cellophane has gone insubstantial. He cradles it upstairs and undresses and puts it on and there’s ample waistband and shoulder room, his mineral body having shrunk somewhat over the past four decades. Its polyester weave wheezes and crackles as he climbs to his cupola observatory and fixes his gaze on the ancient machine that hangs in the dusk sky.
He smiles, his incisor catching a glint off its reflected sunlight.
He says, Challenge accepted.
TWO POLICEMEN NAMED Franklin and Adams—just as she’d prophesied. And he had told them the truth about the Moon, as she’d instructed him to do. It had the intended effect. The big, heavy one, Franklin—oh, he’s the conduit; it’s from him that the future troubles will all come…Franklin been chosen, and he didn’t even know it. What the officers thought was booze he’d been guzzling had been made with Agartthan water, and from its unveiling powers he had been able to visibly discern Franklin’s astral body there trailing just beside him, desiring its freedom from his mineral corpse and limited imagination, straining upon its silver cord, and how the poor man’s thought-forms had constrained the ghost.
A dim memory come to confluence.
“Awf, God!” he cries, pawing at the polyester lapels, diving hands into the suit pockets. The support cabal—it was his duty to roust them. He’d made a promise decades ago. He had written their names and addresses upon a piece of paper or some kind, a receipt or something, and stuck it in this suit?
The wrinkled bit of paper meets his dulled fingertips in his left breast pocket and after ten tries he pulled out a yellowed triple-folded strip of cash register roll, his faded writing in ballpoint chunky upon it and sectioning it off into names and addresses.
RED STAR BOOKS
Theophilus Smith, proprietor
Bleecker Street, New York, New York
Theophilus Smith! Now there was a name he hadn’t thought about in decades—nearly gone neurologically inert. A near-victim of Hoover’s FBI, wasn’t he?
He had to physically visit Smith. It would have to be a mineral-body trip to New York to tell Theophilus—to physically drive himself there. Having lived without any public record of his existence all these decades, he would have a head start on the Moonie Bastards. The Tribe that Marno’s twin had spent decades gathering would hopefully get word through Theophilus that the final time is here—the King is finally returning from the Other World, and Yessiqqah has begun her pilgrimage, her haj, to a marriage prophesied.
After abandoning the house, Yessiqqah had said, Qaf Mountain would disappear and a fountain would take its place. Members of the Tribe had come here once a year, in the fall, to drink from the temple’s subterranean Agartthan river and bring some for the rest of them. They came here to Qaf Mountain to receive their orders but, now that he was leaving, they would no longer have access to the water. Its properties would dissipate in their mineral bodies in thirteen lunar cycles, and once again they would fall prey to the veil of transmissions, regressing to the delusions the human race—with exceptions—had suffered for the past 20,000 years, causing such strife as fear, hatred, and unnecessary death.
HE METICULOUSLY FOLDS Yessiqqah’s tiara and gathers his flasks of water and places them in his burlap gunnysack, then retrieves the Agartthan paraluna she had specially made for him. Lastly, the diamonds and gold he’d spent thirty-three years making: forty-seven pounds of the stuff.
He secures the eleven locks on the front door and totters out with his to the Dodge Challenger. When he’d last driven it, he can’t remember. He forces its door open and places the sack inside, then eases onto the sun-wrinkled vinyl seat. He sits quite a while gathering energy, then sings aloud the vowels she’d taught him.
Frequencies harmonize. He inserts the key and turns.
The engine starts.
He guns it and skids off with a pebble explosion in his wake, navigating with heaves the cracked and overgrown driveway to the smooth paved surface of Flanders Street and is gone.
MIDNIGHT HAS FALLEN over Lafayette Square Park before the White House. It is empty now but for a few benched homeless people and the Secret Service agents, sitting alert in their vehicles and deployed on foot about the area…And here at the edge of the Pennsylvania Avenue asphalt sits Concepcion Picciotto, the lone stalwart protester, lounging in her anti-nuclear peace shrine that faces the ever-lit White House.
Three times Concepcion has seen something—a blur, or a wiping of the light in her line of sight.
It passes with the swiftness of a bird. But it is a small, human shape.
She even felt a breeze as it passed her the last time.
The Secret Service seems to have noticed it, too—and this spooks her. They have gone on a higher alert than usual.
ON A WORN BENCH not far away, a homeless man named Joseph Hubbins stirs uneasily. A hypnagogic fit has locked itself in his limbs. He cannot move; his head feels like a block of lead. It now weighs more than the earth itself.
He strains to lift his neck and gurgles, gasping.
Within his chest, a thick nodule of congealed blood half the size of a pea has finally peeled itself from the aorta in his heart. A cold sensation shocks his torso. Then a sharp pain. His eyelids flutter but he cannot move.
There is a presence whistling over him. A tiny frail being who places a warm hand upon his chest. It brings its long fingers together into a tent shape. It pulls upward and a column of light from its fingertips has extracted something from his chest. The being has taken a little something from his and dissolved it upon the air and he comes sputtering awake as a high voice sounds in his head:
Open your heart wider than your mouth, be quiet, and listen to her…
Then it vanishes. He sleeps.
“WHAT THE HELL is that?”
The two Secret Service operatives keep seeing the signature warmth there on the screens, of a human figure, once here in the park’s southern end, then in seconds at the northern end, then a third time in the center. It winks in and out on the monitor.
The scanners are working properly. They call the foot patrol for a visual confirmation and agents are sent out into the Park.
A technician in a nearby van mutters, “There’s something going on…Two of us have seen it. Looks like a child, a little kid.”
They sample footage of the past minutes from the live streaming video and see a blur that winks in and out.
Then something like a flock of birds has arced over the fence and the motion detectors go crazy.
FIVE HOURS LATER, Joseph Hubbins rouses himself from his bench and casts off the tattered blankets that have kept him warm these weeks. He blinks sluggishly in the silver morning light that edges into the leaves and grass and considers the strange dream that had awoken him last night.
Open that heart of yours wider than your mouth, fool, shut the hell up, and listen to her.
The phrase seems to have been lodged in his mind since the dream. He feels something in his chest and the sensation is one that flows through his blood to his head. It is a wonderful feeling. It is old, it is archaeological, almost—if that’s the right word for it. Something had been exhumed from inside him, his past. He hasn’t felt this sensation in years.
He has no home, yes, but this is a circumstance to which he has become accustomed.
Tears well in his brown eyes.
It was no way for a father to have acted.
He wipes at his bloodshot eyes and picks at the crust upon his eyelids. It seems she had come to him last night, his daughter’s spirit, and touched him somehow. The feeling is not unmixed with fear that something has happened to her. Poor girl. His chest aches with trepidation: that perhaps she has just died.
To do what he has done: An exile from her life. Exiled his dumbass loser life from his own flesh and blood, from his loins.
He moves around slowly in his blankets. Another damn day on a bench, like the preceding hundreds. The urine soaked into his trousers waft up meet his nostrils. A half-dozen other smells. His smells. In a few hours the soup truck would groan into McPherson Square. This bench is practically his, and the Secret Service do not bother him. He sighs and thinks of his daughter Tabitha. He hasn’t spoken with her in six years. She has given up on him. Or he her. He can’t even now rightly recall the terrible chain of events, what exactly happened when. Maybe his mind is confused by this aching hunger in his stomach.
He pulls the blanket tight and something falls to the ground and his eyes follow it. It looks like a purple seed, half the size of a pea. It transfixes him for no reason with its odd shape. He slowly reaches for it, his back straining, and picks it up and squeezes it and some thickened red juice pops from it and stains his fingers like blood.
He can’t shake the thought that it is somehow connected to him.
He has some quarters. The payphone at the McPherson Square subway station, grimy as it is, still works. Today is the day, and a hope arises in his heart.
LATER, HE WOBBLES before the telephone with its gnarled bitten handset and sooty metal cable. He experimentally inserts the edge of the first quarter to see if some idiot hasn’t blocked it with gum or a slug. But it’s clear. Then he waits. He loiters as commuters pour from the escalators before him, on to jobs keeping the machine going for another day.
He waits. Just hearing Tabitha’s voice might be enough for him to just hang up. His hand might do it on its own, just close the connection. And he would be out three precious quarters then.
He cannot do it.
There is the soup truck in the distance.
THE DAY AFTER their encounter on Qaf Mountain, the two police officers alerted Sheriff Thomas Jefferson V and the county judge that, in all likelihood, the senile old man would not report his daughter’s disappearance.
Franklin, thinking back on the exchange, has difficulty believing she even exists. It wouldn’t be impossible, he said, that she’d died long ago and the old man, in his advanced state of mental senescence, had only imagined her living there ever since. Right?
Adams countered that this would require asking himself why old man imagined her gone now, and so thoroughly believed her gone…And two witnesses had reported the veiled figure walking along Route 7.
“The old coot coulda done it,” Franklin tried.
Unlikely, given his permanent state of disorientation. The reports were of a small figure. Tiny. It would be too much of a coincidence.
Franklin could not stop talking about their hour up there; it had thoroughly rattled him, especially the birds roosting on the roof. He’d looked up Jabulqa & Jabulsa on the Internet. The law firm that supposedly owned the property was located in Switzerland, but he found nothing more about them. He’d spoken with Pat Henry over at the county records and Matheson at the comptroller’s and confirmed that they received tax payments every year from Jabulqa & Jabulsa; he’d asked what the checks looked like, but Matheson said he’d get back to him.
Adams then found Franklin at his desk studying satellite pictures on the Net of the area around Qaf Mountain—but the mountain itself was a glitchy, grey blur. He’d seemed particularly spooked by those twig sculptures hanging on the porch, cursing their almost inhuman craftsmanship and supernatural insinuation, and marveled with loathing at the birds as they’d departed in a single sighing surge just as he and Adams made the halfway point down the mountain’s vestigial driveway.
Franklin almost didn’t care if this “Yessica’s” disappearance was reported or not. So what, he’d complained. He muttered about just wanting the old man gone off the property. He couldn’t believe an abomination such as that house was allowed to happen, not in his world, certainly not in Whisper County.
THE NEXT DAY, Cpl. Alexander Hamilton V recalled taking a disjointed call several weeks ago from an employee at Whisper’s Verizon hub station. The rep had gone up with a colleague to Qaf Mountain.
For ten minutes the official had ranted incoherently about encountering a “rogue wind” up there.
Franklin was all over it, and convinced Adams to immediately accompany him to the Verizon office. Adams sighed and went along to humor his partner.
The rep stammered, his eyes widening. “Oh, that…place. We, uh, tried talking to the tenant and, uh…that was that.”
“No go, I take it?”
“No, no go.” The mountain was a sweet spot for a tower, and Verizon had been chosen to take the lead for all the big four cellular carriers and interview the tenants for a generous contract to build on the property, which would have stretched the hexagonal cell a bit but have given sterling reception to all of the northwest section of Whisper County.
“And you talked to the old guy who lived there?”
Ross made an ambiguous motion with his head that could have been a nod.
“Well?” Franklin snapped. “What happened?”
“It was—I gotta say, you know…Jeez.”
Franklin’s gaze bounced between the two employees. “You were there too, right? What happened?”
“It’s…You gotta understand…I’ll be honest. It was the strangest thing’s ever happened to me—personally, you know.”
Adams watched Franklin regain some patience as he waited for the two employees to stop exchanging stricken looks.
“The old guy answers the door. And then—”
Franklin listening in amazement as Ross claimed there had been an interval that would have confounded a hopeless drunk’s most delirious day—a period of missing time, or scrambled experience, or muddled memory.
In seconds, while talking to the old man, in mid-sentence, he was somehow back down on Flanders Street standing next to the company SUV.
“I can’t remember anything either,” the other rep said. “Suddenly I was sitting in the truck and starting the engine.”
Ross’s brows scrunched. “All I remember’s the wind.”
“It felt like a hurricane.” He slapped the desk before him. “Just like that. Heard it in the trees. Across my face. My skin? Then it felt like it was inside me…Wind picked up for about ten seconds, and I’m asking him a question and then I’m down at the bottom of the valley getting in the car.”
“I remember the damn geezer was spinning these like wreaths that were on the porch?”
Franklin’s bulbous blue eyes widened and he shook his head with disgust at Adams.
Ross said, “There had been others before us. A team from AT&T who…Well…That house’d been on their canvassing route that day, certainly…”
FRANKLIN MUTTERED TO himself all the way back to the station, agitated, straightening himself every few seconds and checking his Glock and patting down his shirt. Adams thought he’d heard him murmur as they pulled into the station:
Blow that place up.
THE OLD MAN failed to appear at the police station, nor did he call the station to report his daughter missing. This negligence made Officer John Adams very angry. The missing person report and search warrants weren’t long in being issued. Adams had already been imagining what the big key would feel like in his hands as it cracked that peeled calico door, weakening it with each blow until splinters went flying and he’d perhaps, in venerable law enforcement style, finish their entry with a boot heel.
AND IT HAPPENS just like that a few hours later, after knocks and shouts of warrant and imminent breach at the front door, and no answer this time. Adams and Sheriff Jefferson give it three blows with the ram, the frame giving way.
First they hear the air—then they see it.
They retreat from the porch with thoughts of biohazard. They return to their SUV and retrieve cheap filtration masks. Jefferson calls the hazardous materials unit and they stand on the grass before the porch looking at what’s behind that doorway.
It is insectoid in there.
“Shit,” Adams gasps, “s’what I was talking about, Ben—the light I saw in there the other day? That’s it.”
The four men stand on the threshold debating about how accumulated static electricity might produce such a startling effect, the glowing motes they’re looking at that might have led a rational mind to believe the old man had spent 40 years breeding a hundred million fireflies within his house…Yellow-green galaxies upon galaxies fade before their astonished eyes as the overwhelming smell of lilies pours out as to oversaturate the oxygen.
The interior begins to retake the mundaneness of planking and balusters and woodwork.
“Something’s ripe in there,” Sheriff Jefferson says.
They step forward. First they notice the doorframe: around the cloudy steel reinforcing they see how the veining of the wood has a fine geometrical precision about its graining. Looking closer they see that it has been carved with a stylus or exacto knife into arabesques and paisley shapes. Their flashlights follow it down to the parquetry of the floor and the planking of the wainscot and walls, everywhere this intricate tiny tracery has been carved into everything their four diamond coronas of light fall upon, bringing astonishment—that, and the cabling, the filaments of all sizes, from rubber tubing to string, that run along the ceiling and through holes bashed in the walls, past the two cobwebbed chandeliers—in this, only the foyer.
They call out to the old man. Jefferson commands the party to stay still. “Feel that?” he says.
The place is vibrating. Whether through something in the earth beneath or something inside the house, its frame is quivering in high-oscillation waves. They hear no hum, nothing but occasional tinkling notes off a distant chandelier but can sense it through their legs.
“What are you waitin for, Ben?”
Franklin has taken a step backwards and is shifting his weight from foot to foot like a kid needing a trip to the bathroom as he stands on the threshold.
“Just, just felt woozy a second,” he breathes.
The house seems smaller inside than its exterior would lead one to believe and the buckling of its weakened wood has taken its toll: the right angles and joints are skewed, the dark walls leaning, and there is a sense that the first floor has been compressed by forces both above and below. They look at it and debate their safety. Then they shout again for the old man.
Parlor to passage to kitchen: carvings in the wood on an almost microscopic scale and finely painted, traceried like illuminations from a medieval book.
The kitchen—my God, food is the last thing you’d consider: From ceiling to floor a vast Manhattan of racked crystal beakers and Pyrex-ware and rusty stands from one end to the other. It has murky skyscrapers and dull glassy neighborhoods. They have to limbo sideways and duck and weave to avoid disturbing it for it looks like a single bump could send the whole thing crashing. They are grateful for their masks as they note viscous substances within the cloudy Pyrexware, in a rainbow of hues.
Sheriff Jefferson and Franklin and Cpl. Davis find a path to a basement door on the far side of the glass city, just across from the house’s boarded-up back entrance. The basement passage is steel-reinforced. Davis with a gloved hand tries it and it is locked.
Jefferson says, “This’ll take hazmat a week, easy.”
“Let’s go upstairs.”
They shimmy their way back and creak up the wide staircase. Despite the bizarre carved traceries, there’s no dust collected on any of the surfaces but the carpeting, and no spider webs.
But the bedrooms are for Ripley’s, for the Inquirer: They step from room to room counting and when they’re finished they’ve summed 108 typewriters and adding machines, ancient models on shelves with their casings removed and works exposed, all linked with cabling and wires which come together into bundles the size of an elephant’s trunk in the three rooms’ centers and pass through roughly-cut apertures in the unplastered ceilings. The thinner of the roped bundles pass through holes from one room to the next and into two closets in which they find rusted oil drums—and all the cables connected to a 19th Century velocipede. The antique bike is bolted to the floor and there is a small stool to mount it.
The rusted drums contain a dull greenish substance. It glows, and it is the color of the mist they’d earlier witnessed.
The pages stuck in each typewriter are fresh onionskin.
The vibration is almost undetectable up here.
Here’s a lily growing out of a hole in the wall. Adams digs at the exposed wood around it, careful not to tear his surgical glove. A layer of soil lies jammed behind the walls—and a layer of wood, and metal, alternating. He looks closer at the holes through which the primitive cabling flows and sees the same components: wood, metal, earth, metal, wood.
The old man has spent years placing dirt into the spaces behind the walls. Adams feels an overwhelming pity for him—and how he must have mentally suffered in here.
A bare bedroom contains a creaking spiral staircase that leads to the cupola. They discover three convex dishes of smooth aluminum and a telescope aimed directly at the milky gibbous moon that hangs in the eastern sky over the County. It is attached by way of a jungle of levers and pulleys and springs to a camera that would have been obsolete a century ago. Pictures of the moon are everywhere: Tables and charts showing its phases and moonrise and blown-up pictures four feet wide of the lunar surface and dissections of it with scrawled notes.
The old man’s notes lay in rough stacks and push-pinned to the walls.
He has found and marked cities upon the moon’s surface, devices, transmitters. Weapons.
“Remember how he said the moon was hollow?” Adams says to Franklin.
Franklin grunts. He has been silent, pale the entire time, not a single word, and his hands are unsteady.
They descend the staircase and Adams sees that velocipede again and without a word gets on the old stationery bicycle. He mounts it carefully. The crude speedometer attached to its small handlebars has a tiny deliberate silver nick at its 35mph mark. He pedals and the metal frame creaks beneath him; he weighs a lot more than the frail old man. He compensates. He switches gear up and transitions effortlessly and the old plutonium tip of the needle surges past the silver dot.
A sudden awful clatter and groan sounds throughout the house.
The typewriters are chattering, the adding machines clicking. A surge of energy is passing through the machines by his kinetic energy and amplified somehow from the beaten aluminum dishes, through the cabling to the adding machines and then finally the typewriters.
The sound becomes deafening. He’s hit 41 on the dial and the rattling continues. Jefferson has plugged his ears and is grimacing with a look of wonder. Franklin’s got his ears cupped as he comes charging into the room. He’s yelling and waving. They gesture at him to stop, it’s too much, but Adams wants the thing to finish its cycle—he has leaned back enough to see into the adjoining rooms and can see the near-translucent pages in the typewriters flutter and return very quickly, the pages advancing as he keeps pumping. He locks his fingers together at the back of his head and whistles casually. The two cops look like they’re in pain but the factory-floor racket isn’t bothering him that much when with a great whomp it ceases and sends a shudder through the house. Adams applies the brakes and dismounts.
They walk through the rooms. Each page has been printed with ten single-spaced lines of symbols, like fragments of cuneiform characters. Adams gets out his penlight and pulls forward one of the typebars in a machine, then another, and can see each one had been sawed off and soldered back with one bearing a symbol-stroke, tiny wires lead from each bar and bundle together, twist-tied, to rope off into an adding machine.
“Guy remade each one of these keys…Look at that!”
“Gibberish,” Franklin attests.
Adams rips each out and pages them in the order of the numbers the old man had carved into each machine. There are 95 pages.
AN HOUR LATER, after the team from hazardous materials have arrived, the police officers had still discovered no documentation that anyone has lived here: No bills, deeds, wills—nothing.
And there is no food. No televisions. No amenities.
And now the basement door in the kitchen. A propane torch is brought in to melt the locks and melt the frames and they bash out the back door and there’s enough room to use the battering ram upon it. They lurch down steep creaking steps to where the walls become cement blocks and mortar but are gouged and carved nevertheless in that endless repeated paisley pattern which little varies, the wood rafters embroidered as well. Their gauzy flashlight coronas show that the floor down here is a scatter of worn Persian carpets laid across each other, dozens of them, the sweet smell almost unbearable and requiring a retreat, their eyes watering—it is the smell of death, no doubt. The strange vibration is noticeably more intense. Their lights flit across the space. The chamber has been recently inhabited, as there is another room full of the twig sculptures like those bedecking the eaves outside, these showing countless permutations on a bivalent fork motif, like the letter Y, tied together with string and twine and grass shoots still green.
Jefferson and Adams engage their lithium lamps. Here’s a bed covered with a Mickey Mouse sleeping bag, and a hammock tied between two carved wooden posts about six feet tall. The hammock is intricately woven from stalks, of grass and twigs, like the porch sculptures. One of the pillars depicts flames and scowling faces with distended tongues and violence, the other resplendent with beautiful faces and angelic figures. Adams’s light lingers on the left-sided post. Those flames remind him of something his brother made a few months back—some frippery Mayor Adams spent literally days without sleep making in his woodshop. He cannot bring himself to vocalize the feeling of astonishment that overtakes him. The correspondence is too close. He pulls out his cell phone and tries to switch it over to its photo function but its screen is clouded with distorting rainbows like oily water and its home-screen even looks scrambled. He asks Jefferson and Franklin if their cellphones are working and each note the same interference.
“Shoot. Ben—you remember that birdhouse I told you Mayor made?”
“Yeah, I remember,” Franklin murmurs.
“That column there? Looks just like it. I mean, exactly…Ben, it has the same…You know…He was having dreams…Remember I was telling you—”
“I—I don’t want to hear it,” Franklin snaps. “Okay? Can you do that? Just stop it.”
Adams, taken aback. “Sure, Ben, whatever.”
He looks over at his partner and Franklin is squeezing the silver cross that hangs around his neck and praying.
An open door yawns on the room’s far side, and the wall over there seems provisional. They step into a musty room that stretches off fifteen yards. In the middle of the room sits a large, wide tapering cone, made of what looks like dirtied marble. They circle it in bafflement. Its tip comes to within a few inches of the ceiling rafters. Then Adams notices that its perimeter has been excavated down a yard. Paralleling the ground is a deep straight groove on its surface—as if it is a capstone. Adams steps into this shallow trench and pushes some clay and loose dirt.
It could be the tip of a buried object.
Jefferson’s light rakes the room. Planking, an old pile carpet with a circle worn into it. Paintings depicting impossible geometries, a table full of stamps and what look like coupons, all drawn by hand, a few chairs arranged in a circle, two old guitars, a hammer dulcimer, a pedal harmonium, a pump-organ, a piano that after plucking Cs is found to be in perfect tune. Paintings everywhere, canvasses of equal 10×12 size all showing the same subject: a being whose enormous eyes take up nearly half the upper portion of her face, a chin coming to a point above a rosebud mouth and small nose—profiles, three-quarter depictions all, over a hundred of them, easily.
Jefferson comments, “Looks like that painter—you used to see the paintings in dentists’ offices—Keane, I think it was?”
Franklin’s cottony voice breaks. “Is that—is that her? The daughter?”
A single pile of mildewed newspapers dated 1973.
Adams can sense Franklin’s unease, his reaction to the idealized expression depicted on the faces, representations of the girl’s self-image, denied by the squalor of her actual “life” with the insane old man—for a girl could actually look that way, right?
Against the far wall is yet another carved wood door. Adams opens it and cold air rushes him. It is another, and very steep, staircase. The walls encasing it are rough skeletal frame showing stone in the gaps. Without a word he descends three landings until the staircase becomes a trivial gesture at stability but the stone surroundings are taking over, like it was built over a natural spiral that preceded it. The woodwork around him even more elaborately carved, fractals of paisley on any scale of examination. The sub-basement should be appearing but doesn’t. He stops. The temperature is ten degrees cooler and the air is pushing across his face from below. The lily-like effluvium is stronger. He retreats back up the stairs and stares through the dimness at the dirty cream cone barely visible in the room.
“Hey, something’s up with this,” he says. The two men come close.
“Sub-basement…Look at this.”
“Goes down?” Jefferson says, incredulous. “That makes no sense.”
Franklin now has a look of hatred and disgust on his face as he calls out to old man Marno. His voice echoes far down there.
They descend three, four, five landings and the angle of the whole structure becomes apparent—it is built within a sloping shaft that steadily drifts to one side. It’s getting colder, the carvings upon the curved wall grow thicker in stroke and at once the crude woodwork of stairs ends on bare stone steps which continue down with no break in continuity to the carvings, the markings advance onward in chisel rather than knife. A breeze is palpable and continuous. The mineral scent overtakes the sweet upper air but still no-one considers removing their filters.
Impossible, that sound.
It’s not dripping, nor a trickle. It’s the roar of a waterfall—or a river, down here, inside the mountain. Their three beams swing across walls that are widening out. The air buzzes. Two passages branch off the chamber. The sound of water is crashing from both. A distinct humming sound, which they all at once became aware of. And its source, before them….
Adams had once seen a fantastic movie about the ancient subterranean chambers of Chauvet. He’d marveled over the fact that a bear’s skull could have rested on an altar in a cave for 18,000 years…The spelunker who’d seen it for the first time must have fallen to their knees, overcome with the oceanic feeling, the timeless. The Cosmic. Like meeting an extraterrestrial, or an angel—an effortless dissolving of the membrane of time and self.
Adams feels it now, as it dawns upon him that the humming is emerging from what resembles a glassy bird nest two yards across, a saucer made of spun filament, within which a dull whitish egg rests, cracked into two halves and coated with an iridescent dust.
It is covered with a film of mineral deposits and looks like it is a million years old.
Three sconce-like cones in the wall are emitting a dull greenish light, like that of fireflies.
Jefferson is whispering a continuous stream of epithets and the beam of Franklin’s flashlight bounces as he trembles. Adams steps toward a sconce, and it too is fashioned of the same spun glass and filled with a green brackish liquid that glows.
“That pyramid up there must be the capstone,” Jefferson keeps saying. “I think we’re inside a goddamn pyramid. Mountain’s a goddamn buried pyramid, John.”
Adams pictures the three rivers in Whisper and Chanson counties. None of them could possibly be connected to this wonder.
He’s over here—in this passageway, where he has wandered in a daze. He is compelled to lean a hand on the cool mineral wall to keep his balance but recoils at the inhuman furrows etched there. His skin feels like a detached organ, receiving pure galvanization. The flashlight gives him glimpses of the tunnel ahead—but it seems it is almost raping the darkness not meant for him. He fumbles to turn it off. He feels like an invader. He grasps for the switch. He doesn’t belong here. Then what the light falls upon at that last second has no comfortable mundane dimensions to it; it is a thing that human eyes should never alight upon. The object rushes him and his light beam is visible with mist—but something more than the mist is animating the light beam and this is enough—those great black eyes, and the thinness of the thing’s limbs as it flashes into the dark passage….
ADAMS HAS NEVER heard mangled braying and gasping sounds like this issue from anyone, much less his partner, as Franklin runs up the stone passageway. Adams and Jefferson shout after him. He is gone and they must follow. Franklin’s boots pound up the fragile staircase ahead. They wait for him to clear the old wood planking before following him up—too much force and the whole structure will surely come down.
When they regain the basement proper they find Franklin leaning his ample weight into one of the hammock posts, trying to topple it. He is babbling incoherently. Then he drops to the ground. They are upon him and after a half-minute the man seems to come around. They hustle him up the stairs from the basement and he becomes agitated and picks up speed. They warn him of the kitchen’s crystalline metropolis, but Foster and Shoemaker have thankfully already opened the rear porch door with ram and crowbar. Franklin breaks into a run as they top the stairs. He dashes across the porch into the sunshine and grass. Adams is back to shouting his name as his partner stumbles around the side of the manor. He sees Franklin make the front lawn and start down the shattered driveway and then trips and goes down hard on both knees in a way Adams can feel.
He overtakes his partner and finds him weeping and moaning, his eyelids pinched and strobing as sweat crawls down his brow.