Copyright (C) 2008 by George Mendoza and James Nathan Post
PostPubCo Inc, ABQ NM 87108
To the Universe, and its Creator, for providing me with a complicated, funny, crazy, difficult, and rewarding life to write about;
To my mother Cindi, the best mom and dad a son could ever have;
To my friends and family (in no special order) who have encouraged me to pursue my dreams: Bobby Cook, Judy Fein, Hal Fore, Emroy Shannon, Dave Harris, Paul Vachal, Alan Sachs, Estella Mayorga, Bill Buchanan, James McConnell, Neal Hidalgo, Felix Serna, Clyde Montoya, Pancho Castillo, Ernie Barge, Sonny Irizzarry, Dennis G. Carmen, Mark Medoff, Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner, Dick Guttman, and Jane Seymour;
To my children Michael and Lou. Let the Spirit shine in you always;
To Bethany Ball, and to John Prats, for their creative contributions to the original story concept;
And for his unending encouragement, years of creative collaboration, and magical enhancement of each visit to "the other side of the gate," my long-time conspirator and word wizard, James Nathan Post.
When I first met Olympic blind runner George Mendoza in 1983 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was amazed with his unbreakable spirit. His determination and persistence are inspirational to me and to many others who know him.
I had the honor to host "The George Mendoza Story" which was aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS-TV). I also enjoyed reading his biography, "Running Toward The Light," by award winning author William J. Buchanan.
George told me years ago of his plan to write a novel based on a strange experience he had while on a long-distance run in the desert of southern New Mexico. He described running through a gate in the air into a strange magical world. That run and the incredible events that followed played a big part in the creation of this delightful book.
SPIRIT MAN is George's unique vision, and I personally found it filled with vivid imagery and concepts I have never thought of before, told with the lyric intensity of the best work of novelist James Nathan Post.
This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. I could not put it down.
"Speed is power! Speed is power! Mine, mine, mine, mine!" Michael Seymour chanted as he drove himself up the path. He leapt and pranced, the power of his youth making him feel invincible. As he reached the crest, he hooted and crowed, "Top of the world! Mine!"
Behind him a few yards, his friend Mark Serna pressed to sprint the last few steps to catch up. "Come on, hurry up. It's great up here," Michael called.
Sweat dripped down Mark's deep tanned face, and matted the thick black hair hanging long on his forehead. At the top of the path, the runners rested against a boulder overlooking the Mesilla Valley. From their vantage high in the granite crags of New Mexico's Organ Mountains, they looked out over a desert landscape of stunning beauty. Below them to the west lay the green band of the great river valley, the Rio Grande, and to the north the sweeping rust-red panorama of the Jornada del Muerte, the journey of death, where so many pioneers had died trying to reach the life-saving water of the river. Ninety miles away, the forested massifs of the Gila Wilderness lay heavy and dark on the horizon. A storm rose high above the distant mountain peaks, and the late afternoon sun pierced the towering piles of cumulus clouds with shafts of light that glowed crimson and gold on the valley below. The river wandered south, weaving its thread of green through the strange lunar blackness of lava flows, toward mysterious distant peaks in Mexico.
"Know what I feel like?" Michael asked. "Like this moment is the frontier of creation, and everything is beginning from right here. All that world down there, and all those people, are suspended in time, just waiting for me to come back down from the mountain."
Above them in the jagged dogtooth crags of the ridge, a single column of thunderclouds boiled up, and began to grumble. As the runners felt the first drops of the afternoon rain falling from it, Michael began to prance again on his toes. "I'll race you back," he challenged.
"How about we just run back?" Mark suggested. "I don't want to make you feel bad."
"Oh, that's funny," Michael scoffed. "Maybe there's something you haven't noticed. I have always been faster than you, and that's the way it will always be. It doesn't take a prophet to tell you where I'm going. I'm the best this school has ever seen, and you're looking at solid Gold in the next Olympics."
Without another word, Michael turned and set a driving pace down the path. With a sigh at his friend's hubris, Mark started after him. He knew Michael was not without some justification in his boast. Over six feet tall, the fleet young athlete looked like a wild creature of the plains, sunset glowing in warm colors from his fair complexion, emerald fire in his bright green eyes, thin but muscular limbs giving him a bounding grace -- a perfect running machine.
The storm hovered over the runners, and a gust of wind blew down the trail behind them, carrying with it the fresh smell of rain. When Mark came around a bend in the winding pathway, he found Michael waiting for him, a taunting grin on his face. "That's funny, I don't feel bad at all," Michael said sarcastically. "You look like you are about ready to die."
"OK, hotshot," Mark said with a friendly but wry smile, "you just keep looking over your left shoulder, you hear?"
A short drive from the end of the runners' trail was Michael's house, which had once been some distance out of Las Cruces, but was now along its outskirts. It was a lovely old adobe hacienda, surrounded by giant cottonwood trees. Their ancient branches spread from gnarled trunks five feet thick, creating a sheltering space like a thousand hands webbed and cupped.
The two-story house featured a vaulted living room with a large stone fireplace. On the ceiling, a sunroof allowed light to spread throughout the house. The thick adobe walls kept it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The runners ducked into the house just in time to escape the pursuing storm. Michael headed into the kitchen, then reappeared with two cans of beer. "Ah!" agreed Mark, popping one open.
"Don't you guys have a race tomorrow?" asked Michael's mother Linda Seymour, as she stepped into the room.
Michael jumped back startled. "Mom! You scared the hell out of me."
"I was just wondering if that was going to affect your performance," she said.
"One beer isn't going to kill us," he scoffed. "That's tomorrow, and I'm not going to lose. This is the best I've ever felt before a race."
In her late forties, she carried herself as if twenty. Her delicate features and slim figure still provided her with admiring glances. She was devoted to her work as a surgical nurse, and spent countless hours giving the best care possible to her patients, her family, friends, and often as not, their pets, lost desert tortoises, and busted-wing birds.
"Lock the house if you leave before your Dad gets home," she said. Then she stopped, as though surprised. "Oh, how could I have forgotten? Your coach called and said there has been a change. Buddy Dunlap fell off his horse, and he won't be able to run tomorrow. Mark, he said you are going to replace him in the 1500 meter race."
Michael looked more astonished than Mark did. "What, is he crazy?" he blurted. "Mark is only a sophomore. Buddy was our best shot at taking second place."
Mark frowned, but held his tongue, and Linda gave him an apologetic little shrug. "Well, you wanted me to race," he said to Michael. "I guess you got your wish."
When she left for work, there was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Then they toasted with their beers, and made their way upstairs to Michael's room. It was immaculate, as though kept clean by a professional. Actually, it was. A large new stereo sound system rested on a built-in shelf, and like everything else in the room it was the best that money could buy.
"My man, I just can't help envying the life you've got," said Mark.
"Only the best for the best," said Michael.
"It must be nice to have rich parents."
"You mean like winning all those races for me, or just the wealth and social station?" Michael asked, sucking beer.
"No, but I just think, if my father was a lawyer and my mother was a nurse, I just think I wouldn't be like you. I'll tell you that," said Mark.
Michael chuckled and said, "You got that right. If you had what I have, you still wouldn't be like me. The reason why you are what you are is because you don't see yourself worth any more than what you've got."
"You don't know how it is in my life," Mark objected. "You have it easy, a free-ride, and you don't even know it."
"Hey, I'm sorry, but yeah, winning does come easy for me," said Michael.
Pressing their friendship as Michael had pressed him running, Mark went on, "You know, you are the most egotistical individual I have ever known. I don't know how
what is her name? Does that girl thing you hang on your arm have a name? Wendy, isn't it? I don't know how Wendy can put up with you. You keep her around like one of your trophies, to take down and polish up when you want to show off."
"Hey, what kind of crap is this?" asked Michael. "You get a chance to even get into a race with me, and you're giving me a bad time now?"
"Think, Dumb B'nee! How many friends do you have?" Mark pointed to his own chest. "One, right? And I still don't know why."
"Are you kidding? Everybody wants to be my friend, Marcus. I just don't have the time to put up with them," said Michael.
"They are not your friends," Mark persisted. "When your glory is gone, they are gone, and you know it. The truth hurts, and if it doesn't hurt now, it will hurt later, you hear me?"
"Well, passing glory is one thing I don't have to worry about. I'm the greatest ever, remember?" said Michael.
"Only a man with no spirit can go around acting as if he were the best thing that has ever happened to this earth," Mark told him. "You're so busy appreciating yourself, you don't even see the important things in life."
"Right, and what might those be? I think you're just so jealous you've started peeing green," said Michael.
"Jealous of you? Hey, you've got a lot of nice stuff, but I'm sure not jealous of somebody who has no friends, who treats people like dirt. You're all attitude and no spirit, Michael. Me jealous? Give me a break."
"What are you talking about, spirit?" asked Michael. "Are you recruiting for some kind of church thing?"
"Naw, I mean spirit, knowing who you are, not having to feel superior to someone to feel good about yourself. Come on, Michael, it's not just about sharing what you have, the material things, but what you are, all of you."
"They don't give the glory to losers, Mark, and I win the races. You can respect that, or you can envy it, but you can't share it. There is only enough room at the top for one, and I've got the trophies to prove that belongs to me."
Mark shook his head, feeling more sorry for his friend than envious or angry. He looked into Michael's eyes and said, "The top is a lonely place, if you think it means you're better than the rest of us."
There was a long moment of silence as Michael thought back on his experiences as though to see if his friend could possibly be right, and not merely expressing his own pique. For as long as he could remember, in everything he did, he had been better than all those around him. "No, Mark," he said. "People are not born equal. I really am better than all of you suckers. That has not been an easy fact to face, but I have faced it, and sooner or later, all of you will have to face it too. I was the one who brought victory to our high school again and again," Michael persisted. "You were there. You saw it. How can you say I have no spirit?"
"Just because you're the star, that doesn't mean you have spirit. OK, you were born good at sports. Is that supposed to mean something?" Mark crushed the beer can and tossed it in a wastebasket.
"It isn't just sports," said Michael, uncomprehending. "It's everything we've done together. I have always done it better, school, girls, everything. If that isn't spirit, what would it take?"
Mark spread his hands. "OK, pal," he said, "you're right. You win
"Things comes easy for me because I have spirit," said Michael, as though in simple summation of a self-evident case.
Mark looked at his watch and said, "It's time to work. I have to make a living. I don't know what you'd think if you ever had a real job."
"A year from now people will be throwing money at me just to hear me say the name of the shoes they sell," Michael said. "All you mean by 'a real job' is mindless work for no pay. That's why you will always be a nobody, and I will always be somebody."
"Whatever you say, Spirit Man," said Mark. He picked up his shirt and left.
Michael opened the balcony doors and stepped outside. The fresh air was brisk on his face, and he inhaled deeply, taking in the earthy smell of rain on the desert. From the second story bedroom, he could see water running down the driveway. He watched Mark hurry to his car, skipping over puddles and then ducking quickly into the little VW bug. In a minute the ancient machine crawled down the driveway, spitting smoke from its exhaust, and was soon out of sight.
He stared at the trophy case on his bedroom wall, a glass monument filled with the memories of countless victories, engraved in brass and silver. On top of that, his academic success had been exceptional as well. He planned to receive degrees in Civil Engineering and Political Science. After an illustrious career as an athlete, he reasoned, he would move into government, and become a man of influence. His dreams were coming true and all he wished for was almost a reality, just one little moment away.
"Spirit Man, huh," he scoffed. "All right, I'll show him. I'll show them all."
The tournament was a set-up for glory. The right pro scouts were there, and the big media from the city. A dedicated crowd cheered with fervent school spirit, and the name of Michael Seymour was on everyone's lips. As the underdog school, they were ready for a miracle, and ready for him to bring it to them. The team had come through, and held the line on points. Then as his main event came up, the coach told him, "Michael, we're down to the wire. You are our shot at the championship. It all depends on you!" Sure, that's how it was supposed to be. Then there'd be no question about it -- they all would see.
Michael was breathing deep, stretching, prancing, trying to focus all of himself on the race, while at the same time putting on a good show for the fans and their cameras. He looked around the track, and in his mind he pictured how he would win. He would fall in the middle and keep a steady stride, letting those go who wanted to try getting an early lead on him. He would pace himself to conserve energy, then at the right moment he would give it all and speed past the tiring quick-starters. Then he would take the advice he sometimes gave not quite jokingly to other runners: "Get out in front, and stay there until the crowd starts screaming." Michael focused his mind on seeing his fans cheering in admiration as he brought his school to glory. There were his Mother and Father, with tears of pride in their eyes. There was the coach, cheering, "You're the one, champ!" There were the girls, the cheerleaders, the new sorority pledges, every one of them wanting him more than any other, even if only for one night.
"Oh, Michael!" called a voice from across the track. Wendy ran toward him, arms wide and a smile of rapture on her face. She threw her arms around his neck and kicked up her feet. For a moment he was caught off-guard, and the thought struck him that she was embarrassing him by making a big show of him being her possession. Then Michael could feel her warm body press against his. Her golden blonde hair carried a wonderful fragrance, making her all the more beautiful. Her blue eyes sparkled in the sunlight, and he wanted her, and in the confusion of emotions for a few seconds Michael forgot about the race.
Trying to hold both of those reactions at the same time, and a bit frightened of both, he abruptly jumped back, pushing Wendy away. "Wendy, come on," he said. "I'm trying to concentrate here."
"I just wanted to wish you luck," she said, crestfallen. "I love you."
"I don't need luck, and I don't need this now!"
Wendy's eyes widened. "Michael, what do you mean?" she cried. "What are you talking about?"
"Will you get off the track!" he snapped at her. "This is no time for some kind of big relationship thing. I'm supposed to look like a hero here, not your pet horse. This is important!"
Devastated by his incomprehensible attack, she broke into tears and fled the track.
"What the hell was that about?" Mark asked him as they took their places to enter the track. "What the hell did you say to her?"
"Don't worry about it," Michael said sternly. "You just get yourself in my draft, and try to stay close enough to take second place. We need the points, even with my win."
The loudspeaker announced the 1500-meter race. "Let's go, you two," called the coach. "Let's see something out there, all right?"
Michael positioned himself on the line, set his feet on the starting blocks, and waited for the starting gun. The sound seemed to drop to nothing as his mind focused on the moment, and he knew that he was going to win this race.
His body tingled with the rush of adrenalin as the gun fired and his legs hurled him forward like the elastic tendons of a slingshot. In two steps the wind was rushing by him, and he could feel the cool bite of it against his sweat-glistening skin. Other runners took the lead in front of him as he positioned himself in the pack. He calculated each breath, reserving his strength to give it his all on the last lap. His body felt great, as though each muscle were inflated with some pulsating form of vibrant energy. Absolute confidence swept over him, and he began to laugh, and to stalk each of the runners ahead, planning the moments he would overtake each of them, and then taking them, one after another, until there was no one in front of him, and only one lap to go. The crowds were on their feet, cheering, "Michael! Michael!"
An instant from abandoning himself already to victory, something caught his attention. A part of his mental training he sometimes thought of as his "tail gunner" was a habit he had developed, to be very conscious of the sounds coming up behind him. To his surprise, he heard someone close behind him, closing on him. He pressed a little harder, and realized he was running flat out, and still he could hear the crisp aggressive chop of the runner's feet on the track, not thumping, but grabbing at the cinder. He could hear the runner breathing, not the gasping of someone's last try, but the strident hiss of someone pumping up a head of new steam, an instant from letting it loose to accelerate like a locomotive into the last sprint.
He knew better than to look back, of course. He couldn't afford even the tenth of a second it might cost him to snap his head around, much less the half second he could lose by breaking stride. But his astonishment that someone might actually be passing him got the best of him. He had to look. When he did, his astonishment turned to shock. It was Mark Serna.
For an instant, they were eye to eye, and what Michael saw in Mark's eyes sent a jolt through him that seemed to stop time. For an instant, his body moved while his mind did not. Then he felt a hot stab up his leg, and he felt his knee collapse, his ankle turn, and his toe catch his heel. In a horrid instant, he saw his arm swing out as he wrenched around and tumbled toward the lane beside him.
His knee scraped against the asphalt of the track, and then his elbows and his palms, and then his face, and his shoulder. He saw Mark's alarm as he tried to leap over him. Then Mark's foot caught him in the stomach, and Mark tumbled through the sky, it seemed like over and over before crashing to the ground.
The roar of the crowd was suddenly distant, like the ringing of your ears in the bottom of a cave. The runners dashed past, and then he just lay there. "Michael! Michael, are you all right? Can you hear me?" he heard the coach calling to him.
"Get me up, coach, I can still make it," he tried to say, but he felt unable to move.
"Get the medics over here," he heard the coach yell. He was hanging on the edge as the realization flooded his mind that he had lost. He had lost the race. He had lost the tournament. He had lost the Olympics. He had lost everything.
The crowd was stunned, and began to mutter. "There went our championship," he heard someone grumble. "What the hell was he thinking about out there? What a putz."
He wanted to block out the horrible things he was hearing, and thinking, but he couldn't. He felt nausea wave over him as he realized he agreed with the things he heard coming from the disappointed fans. He would forever be the one who could have given them the championship, but did not. He was the loser who had cost them everything. He could hear Mark's words coming back to him. "When your glory is gone, they are gone."
"What happened to you out there?" asked the Coach. "You were steaming, and then..."
"My leg just gave out, and I tripped," said Michael, putting his hands over his face, and then taking them away when he remembered the fans in the stands.
"Oh, you'll be all right," said Mark darkly, as he limped by nursing a skinned and bruised knee.
The paramedics checked Michael over and decided everything seemed normal, and with his parents close by they helped Michael off the track. There was a polite wave of the traditional applause for an injured athlete, but he could tell it was only half-hearted.
"That isn't normal," said the coach. "I want you to go to the campus hospital and get yourself checked. It could have been just a cramp, but lets not take any chances." He put his hand on Michael's shoulder. "And Michael, don't let this blow your mind, OK? There are still other races to win."
It was not until he was in the car with his family that he remembered something else that had happened. His own voice came back to him. "Who do you think you are, Wendy? I don't need luck, and I don't need you." His own words stunned him. What could possibly have made him say that to her? He loved Wendy, didn't he? "I don't need you! Get off the track!"
"I've got to find Wendy," he mumbled.
It was almost evening when Michael drove up to Wendy's driveway, jumped out of the Jeep and started walking toward the door. He saw a window curtain move to reveal a peeking eye, then to his surprise Wendy's mother opened the door and met him outside the house, wearing an angry and very determined look.
"Hi, is Wendy here?" he asked, trying to sound youthful and polite. "I'd sure like to talk to her."
"She doesn't want to see you right now, Michael," the woman said.
"Look, I just want to talk to her," he began to plead.
"Would you just leave?" she demanded, raising her voice.
He started to protest, then found himself embarrassed living out a cliché scene he had seen so many times in kid-romance movies. He shook his head and turned away, and started to walk back to his Jeep when she spoke again. Michael stopped to listen, but didn't turn around.
"Who do you think you are, Michael?" she said to his back. "You hurt the people that love you the most. You have no heart."
He hesitated a moment, then turned to face her, ready to apologize, repent, to promise anything. But she had already gone, leaving him on the walkway alone.
Night fell on the little town as a harsh wind blew across the valley. A haze of dust filled the air, making the sunset dark and ruddy, not like live fire, but like old blood. The dust settled on the surroundings, making them seem even drearier, and making him feel desolate and barren.
He started toward his favorite bar, El Patio, in the old-town part of the valley known as Old Mesilla, the little Mexican village that had been the capital of the entire territory back in the time of Billy The Kid. Then he winced at the thought of having to face the usual crowd from campus out there, and he decided to go down the valley toward Mexico to find a bar where he would not be recognized. That took him a block past Mark's house.
Mark would be mad at him. He knew that was for sure. He would probably even blame him for costing him second place, and costing the school the win. Michael shook his head, knowing it would be no fun to put himself through that, but if he didn't go over and talk to him, Mark would think he was avoiding him because he was feeling guilty. If Mark was so small as to want to make a big show of being mad at him, well, Michael was big enough to forgive him. So he made the turn, and pulled up into Mark's driveway.
It was a small house in an older part of town, but a pleasant neighborhood. Mark had once pointed out to him when he referred to the area as "low-rent" that it was more accurately "low-buy." Many of the residents were owners, proud they could own their own homes even if at the bottom of the economic scale.
Answering the man's call to come on in when he rang the bell, he found Mark's father sitting on his favorite recliner, watching television, working on getting drunk on beer and old movies. "Hey, Mikey, how you been? I haven't seen you in a while," he said.
"It's been a day from hell," Michael admitted.
"I heard what happened. I'm really sorry."
"I guess shit happens," said Michael with a philosophical shrug and a brave grin.
He found Mark in his bedroom, a cinderblock cell decorated in early Thrift Store motif. An acoustic guitar on the bed gave it a comfortable touch, and an old but functional stereo set rested on a bookshelf of boards and patio blocks.
"I don't want to talk about it," was the first thing Mark said.
"Me neither," said Michael. "I just want to go out and get shitfaced drunk and forget about it."
"You sure?" asked Mark. "I don't know if that's such a good idea, if you've got some kind of rare nerve disease or something
"Hey, come on, I'm not sick. The coach was just covering his ass," Michael protested. "I just tripped, that's all. Come on, let's go down the valley to Fat Manny's."
"I don't want to go out tonight, Michael. Let's just stay here and watch the tube and drink my dad's beer, OK?" Mark suggested. "I just don't want something else to go wrong today."
"Don't give me that," Michael said, taking the offensive. "If we start living like we were afraid of everything that might go wrong, we're already beaten. Come on, we've got a life to get on with."
They took a back road to reach Fat Manny's Cantina, a small bar in San Manuel, one of the tiny old Mexican villages in the valley south of Las Cruces. The route took them past the huge orchards of America's largest pecan farm, long rows of ghostly trees, perfectly aligned like the identical tombstones of a vast cemetery. The moon's reflection glimmered eerily in the puddles of irrigation water, and between the branches of the trees, as though it were bounding along through the trees beside them. The cool evening wind blew leaves across the road, and Mark shuddered to note they looked like thousands of insects scuttling along the ground in the baleful light.
When Michael turned off the Jeep in front of Fat Manny's, they could hear the jukebox playing The Doors. Though they had been there before, both felt out of place. No one actually turned to look at them, or changed what they were doing, but the attention in the bar seemed to shift. They took two seats in a corner of the room.
"Let's get started, Mark. I'll buy the first round," said Michael.
"Get what you want, Michael," Mark said. "I don't really want to drink tonight."
"Don't give me that shit either. We didn't drive out here for a Shirley Temple." Michael ordered a pitcher of beer and two shots of tequila, and when Mark refused to drink the potent agave whiskey, Michael shrugged and tossed down both shots, following them with a chunk of lime. He poured two mugs of beer, sucked the foam off the top of one, then sat back and surveyed the room.
Through the haze of cigarette smoke they could see four men playing at the pool table, which stood in the center of the bar. Michael sipped his beer and watched them a few minutes, then said, "I can beat any of those guys."
"Yeah, you probably can," Mark conceded, knowing all too well that the game of pool was another of those things for which Michael just seemed to have a knack, "but I think they'd rather be left alone."
"'Zat right?" said Michael, as though just challenged. He stood up making his chair scrape noisily, then sauntered over and put two quarters down on the table.
"Don't get us in trouble, Michael," Mark said when he returned. "Give it a break."
"Will you lighten up?" Michael said, slicking back his hair with his hands. "I'll just win a couple of bucks from these bozos, and we'll leave...just enough for the drinks."
"Those guys don't look like the type to hustle," Mark warned him. "Let's just have a beer and get the hell out of here, OK?"
When his turn came up, Michael strolled to the table, making a show of trying to look cool. "Hey, what's happening, man?" he asked. "What are we playing?"
"Cost you five to find out," said the player. The man was a few years older than Michael, with tattoos on his arms. His pocked face was clean-shaven, and he wore his hair in a long ponytail. He powdered his stick and waited for an answer.
Michael pulled a wad of bills from his pocket, peeled out a five, and smoothed it on the edge of the table. "Let's do it."
The man made the break, sinking two, then missed the next. Michael positioned himself, shot and missed. "Man, I thought I had that one cold," he complained. The man shot again, and made four before he missed. Looking agitated, Michael scratched, and the men in the bar laughed.
Ponytail quickly finished the game. Michael handed over the five dollars and turned to leave when the man stopped him. "You can stay in for ten, college boy."
"Oh, the big money now, huh?" Michael said sarcastically with a too-cocky grin. "Ok, you got it."
Michael put a ten on the table, racked the balls, and walked back to drink his beer with Mark.
"Michael, don't try to hustle these guys," said Mark again.
"Have another beer," said Michael with a chuckle. "This isn't going to take long."
The second game, Michael played the same swaggering role, and he was furious when he lost. "Damn. I need another tequila to get focused. Another ten?"
"Cost you fifty bucks this time," he said.
Michael looked surprised. "Fifty bucks?" he asked.
"Come on, hot dog," the player taunted him. "You know you're just having a bad run. What you afraid of?" One of his pals began to chuckle and sneer.
"Not afraid of you. It's just a lot of money," said Michael. "You sure you can afford it?" Michael rolled his stick on the pool table to check its straightness. "I'll tell you what," he said, pulling out the cash, "I'll play you for the fifty if you let me break." With his eyes on Michael's money, the man agreed. On Michael's break he sank two stripes in the corner pockets. "Oh, wow!" he cheered, as though he had never done that before. He lined up an inferior shot, then changed his mind and set up another. The target ball dropped, and the cue rolled smoothly to a stop in front of another. "Hey, it's a duck, but we take what we get, right?" he said as he dunked it with a crisp click. He positioned each ball perfectly and never missed until the last one was gone. "Wow, my first perfect game!" he crowed.
"You hustled me, Slick," said the man, as he handed Michael a fifty dollar bill.
"I'm working my way through college," said Michael with a sneer. He plucked the money from the big player's hand and walked back to the corner where Mark was sitting rigid, nervously watching.
"Are you happy now?" Mark asked. "Let's get out of here before those guys decide not to let us go."
When they got outside the wind was blowing in chilly gusts. The sky was dark and murky, though almost clear except for a few high tattered cirrus clouds like ghostly fingers glowing in the moonlight, clawing at the moon through the murky dust.
"I can't believe what you just did," Mark said.
"At least something went right for me today," said Michael with grim satisfaction.
As they reached the Jeep, another man suddenly confronted them, one they did not recognize from the bar. The stranger flourished a weapon and said, "Give me the money you took inside."
Michael stood astonished and just stared at him, mouth agape. He was large, with scraggly hair, a dark, thick-featured, mean-looking man, difficult to tell what races he might have been mixed of. His weapon was a two-foot hunk of heavyweight rebar, the corrugated iron rod used in concrete construction, its jagged end making it a lethal combination of club and sword. The assailant stepped up close to him, quickly, and put the point of it under Michael's chin. Nose to nose, he stared madly into Michael's eyes.
Suddenly more frightened than he had ever been before, Michael couldn't move. He was astonished to see the hate, and the rage, and also, perhaps most frightening, a kind of predatory hunger in the man's eyes. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the money.
"Calm down, man. Just take the money," said Mark. "It's all right."
"Who asked you?" snarled the stranger with the blazing eyes. He snatched the wad of folded bills, stuffed them into his pocket, and then held Michael away and raised his rebar club to strike him on the head. "Think you're something, do you?" he hissed.
Explosively, with a cry like a Kung Fu movie warrior, Mark leaped forward and tried to grab the man's arm. Like it was nothing, the dark grisly man turned and snapped his jagged weapon back and forth across Mark's face. Each swing made a kind of sodden whopping crunch, nothing like the heroic clash of manly armor so familiar to the fans of matinee swordplay. If he had been one half inch closer, the end of the bar would have struck Mark directly in the temples, first on one side, and then the other, and he would surely have died instantly. With each swing, the jagged bar tore chunks of flesh and bone from the front of Mark's face. With no more than a gasp, he collapsed to the ground, where he lay unmoving, blood gushing from his eyes.
The attacker turned back gripping his deadly weapon to hit Michael. Then he saw some people coming out of the little bar, and he turned and disappeared into the shadows between the old adobe buildings of the dark little village.
Someone called 911, and a small crowd from the bar gathered around and stared as Michael sat beside his stricken friend. "Don't give up on me!" he cried.
Someone in the crowd laughed. "Give him a kiss," a voice jeered.
It took twenty minutes for the ambulance to arrive, and the police cars beat them by ten. Mark lay quiet as though lifeless, and the police stood around looking until the medics announced he was still alive, and put him on a stretcher and drove away.
Among the last to arrive was a stocky shock-haired Hispanic man about forty-five, wearing a baggy brown suit. "I'm Detective Steve Hinojosa," he told Michael. "We'd like to get this guy, if you'll help us. Nobody else saw him."
Michael gave as good a description of the man as he could recall. The officer wrote down the details, gave Michael his card, and said, "We'll get your whole deposition a little later, Michael. Go home to your family. There is nothing else you can do."
"What about Mark's family? Who's going to tell them?" asked Michael, his voice choking up and tears burning his eyes.
"I guess that's my job," Hinojosa replied. "In any case I don't think it would be wise for you to go over there right now." He placed a reassuring hand on Michael's shoulder. "We'll take care of all that can be done," he said.
The wind had come up again, and the streetlamps became glowing brownish globs of light, filled with whirling dust and trash. The wind tossed the Jeep from side to side, making the headlight beams dance crazily back and forth across the street, as though the weather were reflecting the storm in hell going on inside him.
When he arrived at his house, he knocked on his parents' bedroom door. "Mom! Dad!" he bawled. When his mother opened the door, clutching her robe and wearing an expression of deep concern, he reached out to touch her and said, "Mom... it's Mark."
Cecil Seymour got up and turned on his night lamp. In its light they could see the horror in Michael's face, in the tangled hair, the eyes hot, red, and staring haunted from a face as pale as death. "Mark's hurt, he might be dead!" he wailed, and fell weeping onto her shoulder.
"It was all my fault. I took him out and got him killed!" Michael cried.
"What happened?" asked Michael's father.
Michael slumped and shrugged. "I took a little money from a guy, you know, playing a little pool. I just...I just needed to win something, you understand? Well, we got jumped, and this guy with the... like a sword thing
told me to give him the money, and I gave it to him. I gave it to him! But Mark thought he was going to hit me anyway, so he...he tried to take it away, and...and..."
Linda Seymour's throat constricted, and tears sprang to her eyes, and she wished she could hold her boy in the safety of her arms forever and just cry with him.
After a minute, Michael held back his tears. "I guess I ought to go to bed," he said, leaving the warmth of his mother's arms.
His father hugged him and said, "If you need us to help you, just call us."
Michael stumbled upstairs to his bedroom, locked the door and fell onto his bed. His head rang like a man beaten hard, and the room reeled, and his sides ached from crying. He sat up again, and found himself noting the silence and the stillness of the night, the simple reality of his room and his things. He sat staring into the space in his room, as though waiting for something to happen any second, for the movie to end, for the lights to come back up, and his friend to be at his side. But cutting through it all like a ghostly echo, he could hear Mark's voice saying over and over, "Whatever you say, Spirit Man."
Days went by in a blur of numbness for Michael Seymour. He was given some sedatives which helped him to fall asleep, but he slept only fitfully, and found himself startled awake sweating, as though from some dreadful unremembered dream. He spent his time alone as much as possible, seeking dark places and silence.
One day his father Cecil brought him the news that Mark had fully regained his consciousness, and could have visitors. Mark's mother had called to request that Michael and his family should not go to visit. Michael knew he had to go anyway, if he was ever to be able to speak to Mark again.
He found him sitting up in his bed, with bandages across his face.
"What are you here for?" Mark asked him.
"Well," he stammered, "I just wanted to thank you for trying to stop that guy, and to, well, get the truth all straightened out between us."
"The truth?" Mark snorted in disgust. "That part is easy. You know the truth, Michael. You saw it, and so did I, eye to eye. You were running flat out, all you had, and you knew it, and you knew I knew it. I had you, buddy. I'd have flamed your ass."
"Hey, I was surprised you were there, I admit that," Michael protested, "but I tripped. I tripped, and I blew it for everybody, OK? I'm sorry, all right?"
"No, you didn't trip, you son of a bitch," Mark said bitterly. "You took a dive. You took a dive, and you took me out with you, and you took the whole team out with you, because you would rather see everybody lose, than to come in second place to me. And that is exactly what was going to happen, and you knew it."
"Aw come on
" Michael began.
"No, you come on," Mark spat. "Then you had to come over with this big lets-go-get-a-beer-buddy bullshit trying to suck up to me anyway so I'd tell you I forgave you, and you could slink off feeling like you got away with it. Then you had to go jerk yourself off with those guys at the bar, still trying to make yourself feel like a winner. Let me tell you something, Michael See-more. You see less than anybody else I know. Even less than me!"
"What do you mean by that?" Michael asked, sensing a terrible bitterness.
"Oh, didn't they tell you?" Mark said, acid sarcasm, anguish, and rage bubbling up madly in his voice. "I'm blind, Michael, totally and permanently blind. He tore my eyes out. I'll never see anything again, never, thanks to you. With friends like you, who needs enemies? Who needs bad luck? Who needs curses and crossed stars? You've got all the strikes against you, mister, in spades! The one consolation I have is I'm never going to have to see you again. Now get the hell out of here."
The words struck Michael with the breath-stopping shock of jumping into ice water. He rose up as though to spit out angry words, or pleading words, or reasonable words, but he had nothing to say, no point to make, no disarming bit of wit, no cutting trump line. There was nothing to do but leave. He walked numbly out of the hospital. It was beautiful outside. The sky sparkled above him, a balmy breeze stroked him, birds twittered and sang, a roadrunner scurried through the yucca plants, people laughed, and music played. It was as though the whole world had become some kind of surreal dream created just to mock him. He numbly drove toward the mountains to his beautiful family home. He numbly staggered to the kitchen, looked into the refrigerator, saw nothing he wanted, and numbly climbed the stairs to his room.
He caught sight of his own reflection in the glass of his trophy case -- a man humiliated, hunched over in shame, eyes red and staring, the eyes of a haunted man. Behind the glass, the glory of his most wonderful moments enshrined before his eyes: faster than Mark, higher than Mark, stronger, farther, better, better, better than Mark! All he could not find a way to say burst up from deep within him like vomiting magma. He howled his frustration like a tortured man, then lunged to snatch up his ivory-and-silver inlaid pool cue. Grabbing it by the narrow end, he swung it against the case, shattering the glass. "God damn you!" he cried, not just as angry words, but a bitter prayer, a curse. "God damn you!"
"Michael, stop!" Linda Seymour cried out. Michael looked up to see his mother standing in the door crying in horror, and he was stricken to see she was afraid of him. His shame doubled, he pushed past her, ran down the stairs and out of the house, and took the path that led out into the desert, and toward the mountains.
Michael ran across the sands of the desert. He ran until his sides hurt, until his vision lost its color, until his spit was so thick he couldn't spit at all, and he prayed he would run himself into exhaustion, into oblivion. But his flesh began to burn itself, and its power drove him so he could not stop. The mountains rose up higher and higher over him as he approached them, and he began to hear voices coming from them like echoes.
"You have no spirit!"
"You can't run from your problems. "
"Wishing never helps."
"The truth hurts doesn't it?"
"You hurt the people that love you the most!"
The slope steepened as he drove himself onward, and he reached the first high outcropping of free rock. He had climbed the face a hundred times, and he hurled himself up the rock forty feet before pausing. He looked up at the sky, where a small hawk circled overhead, gliding over the tree tops and stony crags, waiting for its prey to emerge from hiding. "It is a death bird," he thought, horrified to think he believed it. "It has come for me." Suddenly he was afraid. He matched his hands and feet to the rock and started to climb, but it was an alien stone he found, like hostile flesh that recoiled from his touch and gave him neither foothold nor grasp. With sickening inevitability, his body slid, scraped down the side of the rock, then fell. There was a shock of impact, and then a metal-tasting ball of light exploded in the back of his head, and he found the unconsciousness he had been seeking.
When Michael awoke, he was already sitting up with his feet crossed in front of him and his arms resting on his knees. His eyes were open, and he was watching blood trickle from his head into a pool between his legs.
Jolted by a wave of nausea, he jerked his head up, and began to recoil from the ringing pain in his head, but was so surprised by what he saw that he forgot himself for a moment. There on the mountainside before him was an ancient gate. Michael forced himself to get to his feet. It was heavy and thick, and deeply carved. With massive wrought-iron hinges it was fastened to a white-plastered adobe wall-which extended only six feet from each side. It was weathered by centuries, and Michael was absolutely certain it had never been there before. He took a step toward it, limping as he discovered new injuries, and then slowly raised the hand-wrought latch. When he gave the old door a push, it creaked, but swung smoothly open.
When he looked through it, the door led to the other side of the mountain path. Michael laughed, as though he had for a moment let himself believe he had expected to see something different. With a bit of his old boyhood bravado, he took three swaggering steps through the door, then turned around and looked back. His legs went to water, and he staggered and fell to his knees. The door was gone. With a cry of renewed anguish, he scrabbled on his torn hands and bruised knees to turn again and look at the place he had come into.
He was standing in a desert, a barren, desolate, and waterless land, strangely unreal. It bore no resemblance at all to the place where he had last stood. The sky was a blaze of flashing colors, in swirling motion as though hurtling through a rush of atmospheric mood swings. The sun was not a warm yellow-gold, but crystal blue-white.
Michael looked around to see if he might spot the gate, but he knew he wouldn't find it. In all directions he could see only rolling hills and dunes, with nothing in particular to give him any reference point. Whenever he looked back at a place, he had the uncanny feeling the hills had all moved, like slow swells in a sea of sand. The glaring sun beat down on the reddish dunes, and Michael began to notice the heat. He reached up to pull off his tie, and was surprised to notice for the first time that he was still wearing the clothes he had put on for the funeral. The sea of dunes stretched in every direction, and he decided since his coming through the gate was...well, somewhat unusual, he could probably expect something was already in store for him, so he might as well just sit down and wait for it. Michael took his tie off and buried it halfway in the sand, as a marker. He sat beside it for a long time, and eventually the sun settled toward the horizon. Feeling like a lost soul in Limbo, he stood and started walking toward the setting sun. Eventually there seemed to be a path, and then a trail. With no idea of where he was going, he began to follow it, looking ahead to pick it up in the fading light.
The rocky dunes rolled like an endless red ocean. The sand was loosely packed, and walking was difficult. A harsh wind came up and blew sand into Michael's eyes, and into his ears, and down the collar of his dirty white shirt. The spray showered against his face like tiny needles not quite piercing his skin. Through the dunes he could see that the path remained curiously intact, as though the shifting flow of the sand chose to avoid it. Shadows played in the canyons and valleys as the brilliant colors in the swirling sky changed from crimson and chartreuse to purple and deep murky green. The temperature was dropping quickly and at first it felt good to get a break from the heat.
Darkness came, and stars lit up the sky, along with a glowing corona of shifting bands of color, a pulsing nebula extending out into the depths of space as though to embrace the brilliant arc-light jewels of the stars.
The temperature dropped even lower, and Michael began to feel the cold. Realizing he had drunk nothing since leaving the world he knew, he noticed his mouth was as dry as sand and grit grated his teeth. His feet ached, and when he sat down in the twilight and took off his shoes to rub them, he noticed that he had almost destroyed his dress shoes walking through the sand, climbing in the rocks, and running...how many miles had it been? He shook his head and wished he had his good running shoes. How many miles. How many miles was he away from the place on the other side of the adobe gate? Was "here" any place at all?
As he walked, he began to picture the blowing sand slowly carving away his body, like eroding a statue. If he fell, he feared, the sand would simply drain away his life like water, and his bones would crumble into sand and nothing would be left. He was suddenly afraid that he would die alone in this unknown place. Then another thought jarred him. He put his hand to his head and it was still sore to the touch, though he had not felt it for some time. Had he been killed in the fall? Was this his life after death?
Though an alien landscape, the trail and the dunes seemed as real as any other reality he had ever known. The sand was real as he kicked it with his shoes, and so were the outcroppings of rock which he began to notice around him. Then he was surprised to find a strange vegetation blocking the path. When he brushed up against it in the sky lit gloom, he jumped back in pain. The plants had thick thorns, coarse and vicious, which stuck to his legs like hooks. Sitting down on a rock, Michael closed his eyes and pulled out the thorns one by one. "If this is death," he thought, "it sure isn't freedom from pain."
As he walked through the night, he began to stagger from side to side, wanting to embrace the sand and fall asleep. "Poison in the thorns?" he wondered groggily. He worried that when (if?) the sun came out in the morning, it would bring a scorching, searing heat. If he didn't find water tonight, would he die?
As though summoned by his desire, a pond appeared in front of him, the baleful firefly-green light of the night sky reflecting from its surface. As he approached it, he could see the dark needle-bearing shrubbery surrounded it. It took a long time, perhaps an hour or so, for him to carefully pick his way through the clumps of thistles to reach the water. He dropped to his knees and reached out his cupped hands to the water, then recoiled from the fetid stench. Moss and slime lay on the surface of the stagnant puddle, and bubbles belched up occasionally to release dank swamp gas. Even so, he filled his hands and made himself drink. The water made him gag, but he forced it down.
Michael stood, surveyed his surroundings in the murky half-light, and was suddenly alarmed to see footprints around the waterhole. He sank to a half-crouch and looked around quickly as though expecting to be pounced upon any second. Then feeling totally foolish-but still not standing up straight-he followed the footprints through a gap in the thorn bushes and discovered they led in two directions. One trail of prints led toward the path he had just traveled, and the other led up the nearest hillside. He followed them, and when he crested the hill, he was astonished to discover a city in the distance. In the same manner as the pond-as though it wanted to protect itself against intruders-it was walled with the thorn bushes, surrounded by a forest of the greasy-green tangled limbs with the steel-hard needles. The city appeared to be made of high mud-brick walls, like an ancient pueblo.
He sat down with his hands tight against his sides, trying to warm them. On the horizon, the dark mud-wall structures of the city seemed forbidding. The cold was numbing and he wished he could make a fire. He sat down and waited for something to happen.
A falling star streaked across the ebony sky, and he made a wish. He wanted to go home. He wondered what his parents were doing right then. Were they searching for him, worried? Or was he still lying at the foot of the rock face, having fallen only a second ago?
The silence was intense. He could hear his own breathing, and his heart pounding in his temples. Cold and exhausted, Michael lay down on the ground and pulled himself into a ball and tried to drift off to sleep. He curled down into the sand, trying to hold a little warmth, and he prayed he would dream of home.
He awoke to the sound of horses and men screaming in the distance. A cloud of dust rose in the air, and he saw a group of riders on horseback heading toward him. In sudden fear, he ran toward the brambles and worked his way under them, ignoring the spines poking into him as he squirmed.
The riders came into the center of the basin. It was hard for Michael to make out what was happening in the dark, but he watched as one of the riders dismounted. He looked around the area cautiously, then led his horse around the thickets. He stopped, knelt on the ground, and caressed the sand with his hands. He motioned the other riders to come to where he was standing. Michael could see they were dressed in metal body armor, and carried long swords, like Bedouin conquistadors.
Then suddenly one of the riders spotted him. "There!" he shouted, pointing to the thicket where Michael hid. With the needles tearing at him, catching his clothes, trying to hold him, he rolled and scrabbled along the ground until he could get to his feet. He started to run, a hunted animal with nowhere to hide, hoping his speed would save him from the hunter.
"Get him!" yelled the rider, as he unsheathed his sword.
Michael staggered and fell on the sandy ground, crawling on all fours, trying desperately to get away. Five horses surrounded him, rearing and neighing, their riders laughing and hooting with savage glee. He felt a net fall on top of him, and he fell to the ground and rolled into a ball, expecting any second to be speared or clubbed to death.
"Look what we have here! This will bring us a handsome reward," Michael heard one of them say, with the excited hungry laughter of a successful hunter. He cringed in fear as the rider dismounted and approached him. In the gloomy light, he couldn't see his face as he stepped purposefully over to Michael, spit copiously on his head, then pulled out his sword and put the point of it against Michael's neck.
"Please don't!" Michael cried out, to the amusement of the group. Then even through the numbness of his fear, he was astonished at the stench of the men, as though they were already corpses, or raptors crusted with the rotting flesh of their prey.
"Take him to Gahenna!" commanded the dismounted one, who seemed to be the leader. He stomped on Michael, then again, and kicked him in the back. The other riders dismounted, hooting and cheering. They removed the net that restrained him, then joined together to kick and beat him. He was both relieved and horrified to observe through the shock of the blows that they were all holding back their power to avoid damaging him, but were enjoying striking him hard enough to hurt and bruise. After the beating, a rider held him down, his knee pressing on the back of Michael's neck while he tied his hands behind his back. Another rider roughly tied a rope around his neck, got onto his horse, looped the other end around the saddle horn, and began to drag him. Michael struggled to get up and run behind the horse, the rope chafing and choking him.
As they approached the city, he could see it was ringed with fire, and smoke was spewing from buildings along its perimeter. He wondered if the city might be at war. The path changed to cobblestones. They walked over a wooden drawbridge, and through an arched opening in a crumbling stone wall. It seemed to Michael that the city had the elements of a great ancient civilization that had fallen into decay. There was little evidence of industrial technology, and people seemed to live in a kind of farm-town squalor. Stagnant fingers of wispy fog oppressed the air, doing nothing to clean the stink of sewage and animal filth. The streets were wet, and gutters and alleys were fouled with piles of human waste and garbage.
Great statues of warriors lay toppled over. Water fountains, once beautiful and masterful in their artistry, stood as shallow puddles of fetid sludge. Beautiful buildings, geometric marvels, architectural wonders now lay in ruins, burned, vandalized, or razed.
The soldiers led him past a courtyard, and to new horrors. The smell of slaughter assaulted his nostrils. Bodies hung from the walls, and dead men, women, and children lay covered in black-crusted blood. Swarms of flies and their maggots buzzed and wriggled, eating death.
Then they pulled him down a dark alley where people scurried about like rats, peering from the darkness. In their eyes he could see only the mindless hollow blackness of the devil's soul, full of hate, and hunger. One of the scurrying wretches burst from the shadows and attacked one of the riders, trying to grab the reins. The soldier swung his sword at the man, clipping cleanly through the front half of his neck. He fell to ground, a hideous gurgling gasping coming from his throat as he drowned in his own blood.
They came upon a courtyard that seemed to be the center of the city, stopped, dismounted, untied the rope around his neck, and led him by kicking him through a long corridor to a dank chamber where only the light of torches broke the all-encompassing darkness.
He could hear screams echoing. The stench of rotting bodies nauseated him. Sweat poured down his forehead, and he trembled with shame when he could not keep his own urine from running down his leg. He held on to the bars of a cell, and vomited, horrified by the waves of weakness which swept over his body with each wretched heave.
A skeleton of a man with pus-scabbed grimy cheeks and rotten teeth pushed his face through the bars and screamed, "Maggot! You're dead, maggot!"
Another man growled and hissed at Michael, then stuck out his tongue and chewed it grunting savagely, until a piece fell off. His captors pulled him down the hallway, opened a cell door, and threw Michael in. They slammed the door shut and closed him in darkness. "Back for you later!" a soldier called to him, laughing.
The smell of urine filled his nostrils. He could hear the sounds of something scampering along the sides of the walls, looking for someone's remains to prey on. Groping in the dark, he could hear the sounds of his movements echoing. He trembled, and though he tried to cry out, or to speak into the darkness, he could not make himself utter a sound.
In his silence, Michael could hear other sounds, some muffled, others distant, as though amplified by some strange acoustic quirk of this hellish, subterranean world. The sounds he could hear were the shrieks and moans of pain, as though he were in the burial ground of the living.
The soldiers came again. They dragged Michael out of the cell, and pulled him along roughly, remaining silent. As he was being led, he could hear the screams of a crowd, an angry crowd, loud and boisterous.
They threw him into another cell where three other men cowered in the corners. Then he heard where the noise was coming from. He could see two gates leading to an arena, and from behind them came waves of curses and cheers. He walked slowly to one of the gates, and peered through the iron bars, astonished. He could see thousands of spectators sitting in rows, filling a great stone structure. It was a huge coliseum, like Rome's greatest, and seemed to be the only building in Gahenna that was not in ruins.
A balcony projected out over the arena, where sat what looked to Michael like a judge and a jury. In the center of the arena stood a large cross. Chains hung down, swinging slowly from each end of the cross pole. Two guards dragged a screaming man out through a gateway on the opposite side of the arena. They shackled him to the cross, striking and kicking him as he strained and pulled at the chains, trying to break free.
Guards came to Michael's cell and seized one of the men, then took him to stand before the jury, who screamed and made gestures at the man. Michael couldn't hear what they were saying, but it appeared to be a trial. At one point the jurors all sat back as though in silent expectation while the man at the podium shouted some orders. One of the guards gave him a large knife, which he threw in a long arc to stick in the sandy floor of the arena at the foot of the cross. The man who had been taken from Michael's cell walked to the knife and picked it up. He lifted the blade into the air, and then presented it to the crowd, as though in salute. The crowd went wild, cheering hoarsely in deep-throated approval. He walked around the trapped victim, taunting him with the blade. The one in chains thrashed wildly as the man with the knife lunged at him. Astonished, Michael watched the bloody knife slash and mutilate. When the man could no longer raise the knife for another thrust, he walked to face the judge and the crowd, who cheered. He was brought a cape to put around his shoulders, and led up to become one of the crowd.
Then the guards opened the prison door and grabbed Michael by the arms. He cringed as he was led toward the cross where the ragged body of the last victim was being cut down from the chains. He feared they were going to put him in the shackles, but instead he was led to stand before the jury. The crowd waited.
The judge, a huge man dressed in black and wearing a tall pointed hat, signaled the crowd to become silent. "Michael!" the judge called down to him in a deep voice. "It's time for your revenge! Behold!"
He pointed toward a door, which swung open to reveal a man being dragged out. The guards led him to the cross, and clamped the shackles to him. Michael looked into the man's eyes, and a cry of rage choked his throat. He remembered those eyes, so full of hate, and with the hunger of one who kills for the lust of blood. It was Mark's killer.
The memory suddenly flooded upon him, clear as morning, of that same man wearing a sombrero, and holding a flashing scimitar, and then striking Mark right through the heart with it.
"Kill him! Kill him! He murdered your friend!" screamed a juror.
The judge spoke, his voice a taunting roar. "Remember what he said to you? 'Come here and try it, rich boy!' This is your chance, Michael. This is your day!"
"Kill him! Kill him!" chanted the jury, and the mob took up the chant, screaming, "Kill him! Kill him!"
Michael looked at the killer hanging like a sacrifice before him, and his anger swelled within him, and he knew the answer to all he had suffered. Revenge! The crowd sensed his mood, and they began to roar, bull-throated, a sound that he could feel deep in his gut. He wanted to revel in it, to rage! To hate! To destroy!
The judge threw him a sword, which swished through the air to stick with a thud into the sand in front of the chained killer. He lunged for it. The rage and hatred rose up in his throat like vomit, and he lifted the sword to chop and stab. He was ready and the crowd knew it, and his victim hung in his chains, trembling, a meaningless plea for his life babbling inanely from his drooling lips.
Then in the corner of Michael's eye, something caught his attention. In the gateway from which the victims had come, he noticed another prisoner being readied for the shackled cross. In his mindless abandonment to the killing thrill, it might seem nothing could have shocked him, but he saw it was Mark! His sword hand dropped to his side, and he turned in sudden new anger to face the judge. "What is he doing here?" he demanded.
"Who made you a defender?" the judge roared back. "This place is for revenge. Somebody hates him, and has come here to strike for revenge, like you."
"He is a Jew," yelled someone in the crowd in the costume of a Nazi. "He is a long-hair, a faggot, a hippie freak. Kill him!"
"He Whitey," yelled another. "We gonna kill that honky white devil!"
Michael turned back and looked at the man who had killed his friend, a dark-skinned, rheumy-eyed wretch, body ruined from years of bad food, booze, drugs, and violence.
"Michael! Michael!" the crowd roared. "Kill the dirty nigger! Kill the murdering gutter scum!"
"No! I won't!" His voice rang out loud and clear, absolutely astounding himself. Every watcher drew in a gasp, and in an instant the huge coliseum fell into breathless silence.
The judge snatched the hood from his head and stared down at Michael. "What?" he howled. When Michael threw the sword on the ground, the crowd leaped to their feet, and in one voice roared out their loathing. "No revenge, no justice!"
"Coward! Appeaser!" they howled, and they began to throw handfuls of refuse at him.
"Get this abomination out of my sight!" yelled the judge, ripping his cloak apart. The ground beneath him trembled and lurched, and Michael staggered to keep his balance. He turned around and saw the cross and its prisoner had vanished, and so had Mark. At the back of the coliseum, a huge gate began to creak open, making a sound that cut through the rumbling waves of hate and rage made by the crowd. The coliseum which had seemed so Roman to him he now saw had the thick adobe walls of a Spanish mission, and as the heavy carved doors of the gate swung open, he saw it led to the path through the dunes.
"Get out! Get out!" screamed the crowd, hurling animal dung and rotten fruit at him. Without a second of hesitation, he turned and strode purposefully out of the arena. With a ponderous booming sound, the huge doors slammed shut behind him.
The sun was rising and he could still hear the angry crowd in the coliseum, their mumble of dissatisfaction. He sighed deeply, and felt a wave of sadness pass over him. He recognized he did not cry for himself or for Mark, but for the vengeful, trapped in their bitter self-justifying cycles of hate and violence.
As the sun broke over the horizon, it was not the icy blue-white he had last seen, but an electric pink. He looked ahead and could see only the rust-red dunes and rocks, and the thinning fields of thistles leading out into the nowhere of the desert. It was still the same barren and lost place he had entered the day before, but somehow he felt much better about being there.
The city of Gahenna was now behind Michael and he trudged along resolutely, casting a grim eye from time to time toward the gathering flock of vultures which circled overhead, waiting for that moment when he no longer showed a sign of life, and could fairly be claimed.
He still had not eaten. The water from the stagnant pool had been his only nourishment, and his body was letting him know of its distress. Trusting that his being there was for some purpose, he kept moving, waiting for whatever was going to answer his prayer before he collapsed to answer the buzzards' prayers.
Across the dunes, five men on camels appeared, wearing robes that covered their bodies from the desert sun. They were dusty, and they clopped and flapped along as though driven by the dry wind, but in his mind Michael could see only sparkling clearness, and he could taste only cool wetness, and hear gurgling and lapping. "Water!" he croaked. Suddenly filled with energy, he began to run toward them, running as he had never run before. But the camels were moving too fast. As though the sand were clutching his feet, Michael ran slower and slower through the desert screaming, "Wait! Wait!"
Just as Michael thought he had been abandoned, one rider in the rear of the Caravan looked back and then stopped. The other riders continued, as Michael fell to the ground exhausted. In a moment, he looked up to see the rider standing over him. The man appeared to be an Arab, with his face dark and burned from the sun.
"What are you doing out here without water?" the man asked him. "Why are you walking across the desert?"
"Water?" begged Michael, with his hands cupped in supplication.
The nomad dug into his pack and pulled out a leather pouch, which he tossed to Michael. Michael removed the cork and drank the water in big gulps.
"Don't drink too fast. It will make you sick," said the man.
"Thank you. I thought I was going to die," Michael said, making himself take the water in little sips.
"It was a good thing we were passing through here or you would have," the man said, taking the pouch from Michael's hand. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm just trying to get out of this desert," said Michael, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hands.
"Where are you coming from?"
Michael hesitated a second, then said, "Gahenna."
"Gahenna?" the man repeated, astonished. "That is a forbidden place. I have never known anyone to return from there. You must be an uncommon man."
"All I want is to go home," said Michael. He tried to wipe the sweat from his neck, and found it covered with a gritty plaster.
"Where is your home?" asked the nomad.
" America," answered Michael, and then in reply to his blank look, added, "You know, where never is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day."
"I have never heard of that place," said the man, trying to sound sympathetic. The camel on which he sat gave a whuffling snuffle that sounded all too much like mocking laughter to Michael.
Michael nodded silently, and took a fresh look around. He looked up and noticed that the vultures were gone.
The man on the camel chuckled and said, "You will not be their meal today. Come with me. I am on a pilgrimage to a very sacred place. Perhaps you may find what you seek there."
"Thank you," said Michael. "Where do we go? And who are you, sir, to whom I owe my life?"
"I am Ahmed Yamani, and we are going to the Holy Mountain that holds the Cup of All Good Things. We are half a day's ride away." The man looked toward the horizon and saw that the other riders were out of sight. "I am on a pilgrimage to wish for the Cup of All Good Things to be righted," he told Michael. As though invited to prayer, the camel dropped to its knees. With a swing of his leg, the rider jumped down from the high camel saddle. "What happened to you?" he asked. "How did your clothes get so torn?"
Ahmed dug into his pack and took out a clean cloth and a corked ceramic bottle of ointment. He told Michael to take off his clothing so he could clean his wounds. Michael was hesitant, but he had decided he had no option other than trusting Ahmed, so he dropped his ragged clothing and stood as Ahmed gently cleaned his sores with the salve. Then he took out a long robe and a pair of sandals, which Michael put on, leaving his old clothing on the sand. "I don't know how I can repay you for your kindness," Michael said.
Ahmed swung himself back up onto the camel and extended his hand to Michael. "Living is its own reward," he said. "Come with me, and if you wish, you can continue on your journey after we get to the Holy Mountain."
Michael climbed onto the camel's back awkwardly and with obvious apprehension, to Ahmed's delight. "You have never ridden a camel before, I see!""
"I have never even met one before," said Michael, struggling for balance. The camel grunted, stood up, and started to move, its long lumbering stride causing Michael to lurch and sway. "I don't know how I can thank you," said Michael as he began to learn to sway to the camel's walk.
"There is no need to thank me," Ahmed reassured him. "I welcome anyone who comes to wish for a better world."
Michael thought any place would be better than where he was, but he didn't say anything.
"What do they call you?" asked Ahmed.
"Michael. Michael Seymour."
"Mikelseemore," Ahmed repeated, trying the unfamiliar sounds on his tongue. "Strange. Of the many people that come to this land to wish, I have never heard such a name." With a bemused expression, he rode along stroking his beard.
They rode for long hours until the sun began to settle ponderously on the horizon. In the distance ahead of them, a range of high mountains touched the sky, a dark purple band against the red of the sunset. Michael imagined they were forested mountains, and he wished he could be there, so he could relax under cool sighing pines, bathe in a cold mountain stream, and remove forever the crust of desert sand from his body. Then as they crested a small hill, Michael was astonished to look down on a valley where long lines and masses of men and women could be seen walking across the desert in the glow of sunset. With a sweeping motion of his arm Ahmed spoke, "See these people. They come from every part of this great land to visit the Altar."
"What is the Altar," asked Michael "and why is it so important?"
"In the days of my forefathers there was great prosperity," Ahmed told him. "The Cup of All Good Things was the center of our lives. Our fields were lush and fertile and gave us all we needed. Then a great wind came, and The Cup of All Good Things fell. Its contents spilled and our land became unproductive. Droughts, floods, and famine tormented our lives. All of these people come here to wish for it to be righted, so things will return to the way they used to be."
"How can a cup be the center of all good things?" asked Michael.
"Because the falling of the Cup is a curse upon us. When the cup is righted again, all the problems that are plaguing our people will be no more."
Michael was quite certain he believed that curses can only hurt people if they believe in their power, but he had already seen that things were not quite normal in this strange world, so again he said nothing.
As they made their way down into the valley, Michael could see a large hill that thrust up out of the plains. Masses of people were gathered at its base, all moving slowly. And at the very top he could see there was a great stone altar. A long procession of people was climbing up the path, which zigzagged across the mountain to where the altar stood. "That is the Holy Mountain," Ahmed told him. Then he began to hear the noise coming from the hill. The thousands of pilgrims kneeling at the bottom of the hill were chanting, their voices rising to a crescendo and then falling off like a receding wave as they repeated the chant over and over. The volume of the sound alone was awesome to Michael, and the physical effect of it against his body was thrilling, like being close to a huge waterfall. What could be so important about the Cup, he wondered, to create such a huge and moving reaction in all these people.
Half a mile or so from the great altar, Ahmed reined his Camel to a grumbling stop, ordered it to its knees, and then helped Michael down. As though the throngs around them did not even exist, he went through the moves of setting up his simple camp. At the foot of the Holy Mountain itself, he lay out a carpet, set up a goat-hide lean-to, and started a small fire with some dried camel dung he carried in a leather bag. Though he was not asked to help, Michael tried to make himself useful to Ahmed, and was very grateful when the smiling nomad finally invited him to sit beside him on the carpet by the fire. Ahmed produced yet another pouch from his camel pack, and took from it half a loaf of dark rich bread. Chuckling to see how Michael could not take his eyes from the hearty food, he tore off a fist-sized chunk and handed it to the hungry young man. Though he had to swallow twice just so he could speak, Michael controlled his ravenousness and waited until Ahmed had torn a chunk for himself. "Thank you, Ahmed," he said humbly.
"Thank the One who feeds us all," said Ahmed, bowing and touching his forehead. Then they both addressed their meals with great eagerness, chewing and savoring every bite of the heavy many-grain bread, and washing it down with great draughts of the sweet water from Ahmed's leather flask.
After they finished, Ahmed gazed at the Holy Mountain, and Michael could not help but notice the way the man's eyes seemed to glaze over, and to burn with a fervent hope. It seemed as though he were watching intently, waiting every instant for the Mountain to speak to him. "I have traveled for days," he said, not so much to Michael as to the Mountain. "I am ready." Then he turned to Michael and took hold of his robe, and pleaded with an intensity that surprised Michael, "Follow me to the Altar. Come and wish with me!"
Michael looked at the throngs, seeing them differently in the light of their torches. These were people who had come from everywhere, from different lands, from every region and valley, to wish for the curse to be lifted, and for the Cup to be righted once again. In the glare and the dust of the day, they had been pilgrims. In the mystical glow of a thousand smoking torches, they became supplicants, dedicated souls.
Though the throngs pressed around them, Michael and Ahmed were able to proceed as quickly as they could climb the lava stone steps that led to the summit. As Michael got closer to the top, he found the view more and more breathtaking. Looking down at the valley below, he could see processions coming from all directions, looking like strings of glowing golden beads thrown across a black velvet desert. Michael could hear the people chanting as they approached the Temple in the Sky.
When Michael and Ahmed arrived at the Altar, they found people on their knees wishing with all their hearts for the Cup to be righted, tears coursing from their eyes, pleading for their souls to became one with the Mountain so its spirit would move the earth to right the Cup and end the curse. Some brought offerings, in the form of flowers, fruit, the carcasses of small animals, symbols engraved in gold, stone, and wood, carvings of various body parts, and a nose-wrenching variety of smoldering incense. Some read aloud from ancient scrolls, and others ate strange seeds and leaped and howled madly, wishing, pleading, cajoling, entreating, begging and promising all if only the Cup would be righted.
The Cup, which looked to Michael exactly like a big teacup from an amusement park ride, seemed to be made of solid gold. It appeared to reflect the wealth and prosperity of a bygone time, a relic from a world long past. It lay on its side, resting against its ornately curved handle.
Michael looked around at the supplicants, and was at first moved by their passion, but the more they seemed to him to be utterly sincere in their wishes for the Cup to be righted, the more he was irritated by their apparent ignoring of the obvious. Beside him, Ahmed dropped to his knees and began to wish with emotions so intense that Michael could feel them like heat. "For the people," he wished, tears springing to his eyes. "For the land, and the forest, oh, how I wish the Cup were righted!"
The hair stood up on the back of Michael's neck and his breath caught in a gasp in his throat as he realized what he was going to do. Without a word, he walked straight up to the Cup. When he grasped the rim and squatted down to get his legs beneath him, the noise of the congregation suddenly dropped to nothing. He drew in a deep breath, then pulled upward on the rim with all his strength. The people stood frozen as they watched Michael slowly raise the rim until he could push it over to land with a thud, once again sitting upright.
There was a numbed silence for a long, long moment, until one man fell to his knees and cried out, "The Great Prophet has come!"
"The Messiah!" proclaimed another, falling prostrate before Michael.
The word spread down through the masses, which responded with a cheer that rose to a roar that rose to a thunder that made the Holy Mountain itself tremble. Michael did not know what to do or say. He stood there frozen like an idol, helplessly watching as the people began to worship him fervently.
"He was a stranger lost in the desert," Ahmed cried out to them. "I gave him water, and shared my bread with him, and now he has fulfilled all our wishes!"
The crowd lifted Michael up and carried him, passing him from hand to hand so he seemed like a man riding on the seas of the masses to the bottom of the hill. They sat him down on pillows and began to serve him, bringing rich carpets and clothing, and all kinds of fine food. Big fires were built, and in the tents and temples where rituals of wishing had been conducted, rituals of gratitude were being written. As the piles of food grew, people began to bring long tables, and soon a great feast was laid out for all, and everywhere men and woman danced in celebration. The sounds of bleating and bawling cut through the din of the people as animals were sacrificed and skewered on roasting spits. The aroma of spice-basted meat cooking over pungent, smoking fires made Michael's mouth water and his stomach growl with anticipation. The people rejoiced and sang songs that had been all but forgotten, and Michael let himself go with the festive mood and began to laugh with them.
With Ahmed sitting on a pillow beside him, he let himself be served, and fussed over, and fed, and entertained. He ate until he couldn't even open his mouth, and he laughed until his face hurt. It was clear the people had all immediately accepted Ahmed as his first disciple, and they knelt before him as well. Michael tried to accept without distress the astonishing notion that just hours before he had been walking alone in the wilderness near death, and now he was being worshiped as a prophet.
As the hour grew late, and everyone had eaten all he could, and danced and sung, they began to gather around Michael's fire-thousands of them.
"Mikelseemore, they want you to speak to them," said Ahmed. "They desire to hear your words of wisdom. They want you to prophesy and to lead them!"
"Ahmed, I don't know what to tell them," Michael protested. "I can't lead them."
"What are you saying?" Ahmed said, astonished. "The people need a leader. You have righted the Cup. You have restored their hope. Do you want to take that away from them?"
Michael pressed his hands to his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to make himself remember where he had come from, and who he was...or had been. "I...I have a curse of my own, Ahmed," he confessed. "I tried to wish it away. Maybe I'm still trying to wish it away, but I know wishing won't work, no matter how much you wish it would."
"What are you saying?" asked Ahmed again.
"I can't give them hope, Ahmed. All I did was raise the Cup. They must find their hope within themselves." He looked into the perplexed face of his new friend. "Do you understand?"
Ahmed stood and looked at the people around him, who all had been laughing and singing, and who now stood waiting anxiously. It seemed to him that hope filled the air for the first time in years. "I couldn't bear to watch my people fall again," he said resolutely. "Look at them, Mikelseemore. They are not afraid of life anymore. They are free of their curse. They have been saved, and now they need direction. They need a leader!"
"I am no leader, believe me," Michael told him. "I can hardly keep myself together!"
"Then what do you plan to do?" Ahmed demanded. "Abandon them? Destroy the hopes of thousands of people?"
"You have to understand, please. You're the only one here I can talk to," begged Michael. When Ahmed turned his back on him, Michael retreated into the privacy of a tent which had been set up for him, to try to think out what he was going to do. When the people saw he was not going to speak to them, they went back to celebrating for a short while, then soon all went to their own fires and quiet settled over the camped throngs.
After a while Ahmed Yamani came to his side again and asked, "What are we going to do, Mikelseemore?"
Michael drew a deep breath, and told him, "Tonight I will fix the mistake I made. I must go back to the Holy Mountain alone."
Ahmed said nothing, but nodded, and Michael stood and began to walk up the path to the altar. When he got to the top of the mountain, he looked down at people below him and he was even more certain what he had to do. He walked up to the Altar and held the great golden chalice by the rim, then with a single resolute heave, he pulled the Cup back over onto its side. As it fell, it made a deep booming sound like a bell, and for a moment Michael feared that the people would awaken, rise up and see what he had done, and decide to call him a false prophet and crucify him, or skewer him on one of the sacrificial roasting spits.
The first light of morning was beginning to tint the sky, and he could see just the outlines of the high mountains beyond the valley. The path from the altar on the Holy Mountain led up into the higher hills, and then on to the lofty crags, and ice-chiseled canyons. He set out walking and did not stop until he reached the first rocky ledge that overlooked the Holy Mountain. It was still close enough for him to see what was happening, and to hear what the reaction of the people would be.
In the subtle light, he could see people gathering around their morning fires, and beginning to move up the paths to the altar. Then a cry began to rise and to swell as the word was passed, "The Cup has fallen! The Cup has fallen!"
The valley came to life and he could see people swarming up the Holy Mountain, falling on their faces before the Altar, wailing and praying for the Cup to be lifted. He shook his head and tch-tched to see them right back where they had been the day before. Then to his surprise, he saw the crowds part to make way for a man slowly climbing up the stairs to the altar. Without hesitation, the man lifted the cup and once again it stood upright. Instead of cheering, however, there was only silence. Then someone began to clap, and another picked up the rhythm, and soon the whole mass was applauding together. Michael could not see who it was that had lifted the Cup, but he knew that man was Ahmed Yamani.
He smiled to himself, knowing in his heart that Ahmed would treat his people well, and would lead them to create their own salvation. Ahmed, and with him, his people, had begun to learn that misfortune should never be looked upon as an end, but as a beginning, and the road to inner strength. Then the grin turned wry as he found himself wondering if it was a lesson he was learning as well.
Michael turned away from the Holy Mountain and looked toward the peaks, which were glowing pink and gold as the sunrise struck their icy crests. As though they had moved miles closer since last time he looked at them, they dominated and surpassed all other sights, timeless creations filled with mystery, which drew him like the sirens' call to a fate he dared not even imagine.
As Michael made his way up the winding path toward the high peaks, the barrenness of the desert lay almost forgotten behind him. The artistry of nature seemed most brilliantly expressed in the exquisite lushness of the life that rose to embrace him as he walked. So fluid was the change that it seemed the flowers actually sprouted up and bloomed at his feet as he walked, and the stones and trees parted before him to make a path that was effortless to walk. Michael gazed at a wondrous new valley, where the land laughed with waves of flowers in full bloom. The mountain held in its cradling embrace an expanse of green meadows, where colored birds flew in shimmering clouds over seas of waving grass that trilled like a thousand violins in the wind. He gasped, and then cheered out loud as he was struck by the fragrances greeting him on the cool refreshing breeze. "Wow! Yes, sir, this is more like it!" he cheered, and he began to run.
On the sides of the path, enormous hickory trees soon marked the way, bold statements of the enduring strength of an ancient land. Huge gnarled branches, shaped and intertwined by decades, perhaps centuries of growth, lent a feeling of deep wisdom and serenity to the place. As Michael climbed higher, wisps of mist began to gather in the hollow places, and streams of light cut down through the tousled masses of cloud above to give a cool and moist glow to the scene. With the sun behind him, he marveled at the huge rainbow arched above the valley in a swirling kaleidoscope of colors. He followed the path around a grove of dark green tamarisks and found a grotto among the rocks where a waterfall tumbled down to splash joyfully into a crystal pool.
He was filled with a sense of awe he had never before known as he looked wide-eyed around the grotto. At a glance he could see grapes and fat boysenberries ripening in the morning sun, and limbs bent down under the weight of succulent fruit he could not even identify. "Whoo!" he hooted, and laughed as his voice came back to him in echoes, "Whowoowooo!" He leaped into the air and capered around in a circle, then raised his arms to the waterfall and began to applaud. "Author! Author!" he cheered, as though expecting The Creator Himself to appear any second to take a bow. Then like a rock singer casting himself into his audience from the stage, he ran to the edge of the pool, scampered up to an overhanging ledge and dived into the swirling, bubbling water. Chilled to perfect crystal keenness by its descent from the snow-capped peaks, the water filled him with energy, and he splashed and plunged like an otter.
He drank not just gratefully, not just greedily, but passionately, and seemed to be refreshed as he had never been before. He swam to the side and climbed out onto a smooth expanse of polished rock to bask in the sun. When he was dry and enjoying the cool breeze against his sun-warmed skin, he stood and saw his reflection in the water. He had several days' growth of beard, and his tousled hair seemed much longer than it had been. Michael picked up the robe he had dropped-the robe Ahmed Yamani had given him-and washed it in the water. He laughed to himself, wondering if those people would really change, or just go on endlessly wishing for something that was already theirs. For a moment, Michael forgot that he was lost. Naked in the sun, he ran his fingers through his hair, and he wished he could stay there forever.
A sunset of crimson and gold marked the end of the day, and as the evening began to cool, he put on his robe and sandals. After a meal of berries and fruit, he walked around the grotto looking for some shelter for the night. A little way from the waterfall he found a place shielded from the night mountain breeze by several large boulders, which seemed like stone faces frozen forever in time. As the stars began to fill the sky, he heard an owl begin to sing its lonely chant. Then as a huge golden moon rose up over the valley below, other night voices joined the stealth-winged hunter. Michael slipped into a dry little cleft beneath the stone-faced boulders and listened in delight to the nocturnal chorus. He was warm and secure there, but even so he wished he could start a little fire, just for the cheerfulness of the light.
As he drifted off to sleep he thought he heard a bell. It was a sweet tone, but he was unable to tell where the sound came from or if it was real at all. Dawn came and he was awakened by the sound of birds celebrating the new day. Michael rubbed his eyes to clear away the sleep, and then stretched slowly to loosen the knots in his neck and back from sleeping on the ground. He drank from the sweet crystal pool again, and tried a new kind of fruit he found, then took a look around to see what he might do next. He was curious to notice that the path he had come on looked as though it had not been walked upon for weeks, and was silently fading back into the native landscape. On the other hand, the path that led up around the boulders toward the hilltop above the waterfall seemed to be well traveled and well kept. With a laugh, he turned his back on the pool and started up the path.
When Michael got closer to the summit of the trail, he gasped in wonder. Nestled among the tall tamarisks and firs was a splendid little pavilion, like a miniature castle. The closer he drew to it, the more the land seemed to take on an aura of magic, as though everything were just a little more real than reality. The perfectly random artistry of nature gave way to the subtle enhancement of meticulous tending, and then to the surreal perfection of the most gifted landscapist.
As he approached the Chateau, it seemed to grow in size, and its salt-white marble walls shone so brightly in the morning glow that he was sure he could almost hear them. Though the gardens approaching the building were laid out like a maze, he found himself led, rather than obstructed, by their patterns. A giant clock tower dominated the grounds, a four-sided monolith six stories high, like the main building cut from what seemed to be a single piece of white polished marble. The hands and numbers were made of black wrought iron, in an ornate style reminiscent of the age of Faberge. Under each one of the clock faces, the word "Paradisa" had been carved deeply into the stone. Though the words were carved in a style much more like old Roman, the incongruous juxtaposition seemed particularly artful to Michael. Everywhere he looked as he wandered the vast grounds, he saw marvels: hedges cut into skillful designs from animals to abstractions; beds of bulb flowers, tulips, irises; carpets of crocuses blossoming in patterns like Persian rugs; and bowers of roses surrounding the Chateau.
Strong lofty walls, ingeniously engineered in stone, reflected the work of superb masons. Arched doorways, domed ceilings, and galleried patios were interconnected by halls decorated with extravagant plasterwork ornamented in gold leaf and inlaid silver. Then he heard the sound of splashing water, and women laughing and giggling on the other side of one of the gardens. Peering through one of the sculptured hedges, he saw a group of women swimming in a pool cut into the marble of a patio. Like the other things he saw, these were certainly the most beautiful women he had ever seen, not just healthy and well-proportioned young women, but utterly flawless, and perfectly graceful.
He saw they all seemed to be rapturously devoted to serving one man, one hideous, grotesquely fat man who was sitting on a throne overlooking the pool. He was smacking up the gobbets of food they held to his great slobbering lips, slurping and slopping wine, which dribbled down his chins and stained the fine satin of his tunic. They massaged the hairy pallid mounds of his blubber-laden back and shoulders, and they laughed delightedly when he belched copiously and lecherously clutched at their flesh with his fat and greasy hands. They giggled and capered like children when he flatulated with a sound like a thunderclap echoing from the marble walls. He greeted their laughter with obscene wagging of his huge hips, which made his thick thighs slop back and forth and slap together as he sat in his throne.
When the fat man saw Michael, he stared at him for a few seconds with a perplexed expression, then struggled to his feet, pushing himself up with his arms. "Out of here!" he snapped, and the women instantly scattered and ran to depart the courtyard, their tanned athletic naked bodies looking like deer scampering for cover in the woods. He motioned Michael forward, and watched him suspiciously as he walked around the swimming pool. The closer he got, the more Michael was astonished to see how the grotesque flaccid body, on the downside of middle age, was decorated in every possible place with elaborate jewelry. "What is this place?" Michael asked him. "Who are you?"
The man slowly sat back down, shaking his head and smiling. He put out his arms and pointed in all directions and said, "Welcome to Paradisa, my fair friend. My name is H. Mortimer Snodgroot-Ralph-Mort to my friends. So what was the best your mama could do?"
"What?" It took Michael a moment to register what he had been asked. "Oh, right. She named me Michael Seymour, Sir."
"Sir? I like that!" said Mortimer, laughing. "And you not even one of mine. So where the hell did you come from?"
Michael had to stop and think a moment. "The Altar of the Cup?" he said, making it a question. To Mortimer's blank look, he added, "The Holy Mountain in the Sky?"
"The Holy Mountain in the Sky? The Altar of the Cup? That sounds like a joke." The fat man laughed, then started popping grapes into his mouth and trying to laugh around them, making the juice squish out of the corners of his mouth. "Have some grapes?" he asked, extending a dripping fat hand. When Michael accepted them and upon tasting a few realized how hungry he was, Mortimer clapped his hands and bellowed like a bull walrus, "Fooood!" In seconds, the group of young women came running back (or was it a new group just as lovely), and they set up a huge spread of food across a long row of tables. "Eat!" said his host.
Michael had no trouble getting into the mood of the place. He pulled a leg off a turkey that was still steaming as though only seconds from the oven. By it were mounds of mashed potatoes, fresh and cooked veggies, pies, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas breakfast, a Hawaiian luau, enchiladas, a Polish wedding feast-anything he could think of seemed to be right there on the next table. "What, no kidney pie?" he joked around a mouthful of the turkey.
"Right there behind the leg of lamb," one of the women pointed out.
As though he had not eaten in days, he capered from table to table, stuffing his mouth with one delicacy after another. When he finally could hold no more, he waddled over to plop himself down onto a thick pillow beside Mortimer. The fat man snapped his fingers and one of the women came at his command with a small golden box full of fresh cigars. She pulled one out, put it in his mouth, and lit it. White smoke puffed upward as the man exhaled. "Had enough already? Anything you could possibly want is here," Mortimer declared.
"I think I made a pig of myself and I apologize," said Michael wiping his face with an embroidered napkin.
"Michael, my man, you don't have to apologize about anything here!" Mortimer informed him grandly. "You will find Paradisa will fulfill your every wish. This place is mine, created to my order. I can give you a few pointers on how to get your own thing going."
"Actually, Mort, I was just looking for a way to get back home," Michael told him. "Can you tell me how to get out of here?"
"Out? Look around you. Why would you ever want to leave Paradisa?" Mortimer took another drag of his cigar and held up his hand. "Wait," he said. "Come let me show you my beautiful home. Do you like my women? There are as many as you want." Again he hooted a loud command, "Riiide!" and immediately a sedan chair appeared from around the side of the building, carried by four huge rippling-muscled bald-headed identical black quadruplets dressed in leather loincloths and rubbed to gleaming with oil. "Meet the Cadillac brothers," he said. He snapped his fingers again and the four silent giants lifted him off the ground and placed him into the chair.
As Michael followed, jogging along beside the sedan chair, Mortimer led him on an endlessly-bragging tour of the palace. "Do you see all these rooms? Each one will see to your every wish!"
"What do you mean, my every wish?"
"Your. Every. Wish! Which word don't you understand? Look in here." Michael's eyes widened even more to see a room where precious stones and jewelry encrusted all the furniture and walls. A single window made of hundreds of panels of crystal glass brought in the sunlight to make every stone shine as though with a light of its own.
In another room he found sculptures, each one like a live woman plated in gold, or turned to sugar crystal.
"This is fantastic!" exclaimed Michael.
"This is nothing," answered Mortimer nonchalantly.
It began to occur to Michael that he had seen a surprising number of clocks in the palace and on the grounds. In one hallway, a remarkable grandfather clock-some nine feet high, with a massive pendulum swinging slowly-caught Michael's eye. It seemed incredibly old, as though it had been taken from an ancient Egyptian tomb. He reached out a hand to touch it.
"Don't touch the clocks!" Mortimer snapped at him with a sudden intensity and anxiety that surprised Michael. "That's the only thing I ask," he added, much softer.
Michael backed away and said, "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"I told you there is no need for apologies here. Just look around and make yourself at home. By tomorrow, I'm sure you'll figure out what you are going to do."
A gong sounded somewhere, and the four coachmen opened another door and stood at attention by the chair, then quickly moved to pick up Mortimer when he signaled he was ready. "Wait," said Michael. "Where are you going?"
"Not your concern," Mortimer grunted. "Meet me back at the pool in the morning." Without a further word, he pulled a short whip out from beneath his cushions and began to beat the two men on the front of his chair. Moving at a fast trot, they quickly disappeared.
The chamber was silent. Michael looked around in wonder, staring at the beauty of the white Chateau. From where he stood, hallways beckoned and staircases wound upward to the second and third floors. The largest hallway seemed to lead to a hundred different rooms. With a shrug, he opened the first door he came to. He turned the golden knob and walked into a gallery filled with exquisite paintings.
There were stunning original works which he was sure must have been painted by the greats themselves. He recognized the styles of Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rockwell, Parrish, Picasso, and Pollock, the engineered grotesques of Giger and Escher, and even a matte painting on glass which no one could have done but master Harryhausen himself. Hundreds of other painters all had their spot on the walls.
Strangely, three clocks of different kinds were placed through the room, each clock exactly synchronized to the others, all ticking softly at exactly the same time, in exactly the same rhythm. An easel holding an empty canvas stood in the middle of the room. A palette had been freshly loaded with paints, and brushes were lying on a little table just waiting to be used. He picked one up and dipped it into a small container of paint, then almost absently started to stroke the empty canvas. The painting quickly took him away, as in his mind he found he had a perfect vision of an idea that came to life as he brushed the colors against the white surface. He laughed to see the image appear as if by magic at his touch, a portrait of a man gazing at a landscape. As he viewed the painting, it was as if he were looking though a three dimensional window. It was alive! It was obvious to him that his own work was far greater and far more deeply inspired than all the other paintings in the room. He marveled to imagine if Dali or Michelangelo had been able to touch the fountain of creativity he was experiencing what they might have created.
He had never painted before at all, yet in that place it was possible. He left the gallery and studio actually feeling proud of himself and swaggered to the next door of the hallway. Inside he found a giant library, where the greatest words ever put to paper were shelved along the walls, with the cover of each volume named in gold leaf: Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Heinlein, Defoe, Kozinski, Rand, Zelazny, Poe. He picked up a volume of Dante and found he could read it as fast as he could turn the pages. He sped with delight through volume after volume, until the chiming of a dozen clocks distracted him. He glanced at his wrist for a watch that wasn't there, then saw all the other clocks were reading six o'clock.
On a table in the middle of the room an elegant new computer sat humming softly, as though just waiting to be used. Still flushed with excitement by the power of the painting he had just created, Michael sat down before the computer, set his fingers gently on the keys, and started to type. A tantalizing first line laid itself across the screen so casually, but when he read it, his breath caught in the back of his throat. Already it was a story no one could put down. As Michael wrote, the hours passed swiftly. Each paragraph was so eloquently designed, the drama so intense, that he found himself in tears again and again. As though he had entered yet another world, he was obsessed with an intensity he was sure no drug could match. His own adrenalin flowed through his veins like high-voltage power as he typed madly on, unable to free himself from the compelling story.
At last he fell back exhausted, finished, and he realized he had created a literary masterpiece above all other writers! Not the scholars of Oxford, the masters of Rome, nor the scribes of Osiris had ever created such a work. As though he knew he would find it, and exactly where, he ran through the stacks to the shelf where he pulled out a handsome volume, bound in fine leather and gold: "Spirit Man" by Michael Seymour. He had never written an original word before, but then and there in Paradisa, he was immortalized. In a daze, he walked to the next room down the hallway.
The giant gymnasium was prepared for an Olympiad, with trampoline, vaulting horse, parallel bars, rings, and all the other equipment necessary for world class competition. Though literary creation was new to him, he had long been an athlete, and knew all the events well. He stepped eagerly to the parallel bars, stood between the bars and lifted himself up. At first his body felt stiff, then as he swung back and forth he started to loosen up until every muscle in his body felt agile. Coordination and complete control developed, as strength poured through him. He felt indestructible, able to do acrobatic feats as if he had been practicing for years. His body was able to endure the most extreme stress as he flew back and forth on the bar. He performed a crisp double-twisting-fliffus dismount and landed precisely on the pad. Vowing he would return to defy the laws of gravity and the limits of art in motion, he left the room, filled with energy and strength.
He opened the door and found a bright sunlit conservatory. Under its high glass panes, an array of musical instruments lay on tables and stands. Though something about the ornately-carved harpsichord strangely drew him, Michael picked up a gleaming white Gibson electric-acoustic guitar. He had long wished he knew how to play the instrument, and when he sat down on the floor and placed the guitar on his lap, it seemed naturally familiar. His hands fit easily, and he quickly found he could intuitively feel just where he should put his fingers to form the chords. He softly stroked the strings, and then plucked them with increasing confidence, and the sound of music filled the chamber, reverberating with the classical touch of a professional. As he played Michael laughed to recall Mortimer's words, "Each room will see to your every wish."
The music took him away. He knew what it meant to be a genius and a master, able to evoke from the instrument any song he could hear in his mind. His hands simply coaxed or struck the most sublime of voices from the strings. Tears rolled down his cheeks and for the first time he felt he really knew what music was and he was emotionally overwhelmed by his perfect understanding of its profound depth. The music seemed to come from heaven, as though it was not his body's senses that heard it, but the senses of his very soul.
On sudden impulse, he put down the guitar and actually ran the ten steps to the huge grand piano, which dominated the room. His hands leapt to the keys and he started to play. The piano came alive at his touch and his mind and his heart fell deeper into the music. Then, when he thought there could be no greater sound, a curtain swept back from one entire wall, revealing a high proscenium behind which sat a full symphonic orchestra. Its full chords filled the room with sounds of acoustic perfection as the musicians picked up the theme he had created, and wove a rhapsody around his brilliant statements, his eloquent counterpoint. Like a man in the throes of deepest passion he played, and then after a crescendo to a coda like the rising of Asgard from the flames, he collapsed onto the keyboard, exhausted. Then he heard the roar of an audience, the deep-throated cheering and screaming of people taken to heights beyond themselves. "Bravo! Bravo!" they cried out their approval, tears streaming down their cheeks.
Their presence startled him, and suddenly embarrassed, he held up his hands and called out to them, "Look, I really don't know how to do this. I've never touched a piano before." In an instant, the curtains swept across the wall, and the crowd and the orchestra disappeared and Michael was alone in the silent chamber. He sat a moment catching his breath, then thought he heard someone moving close by. "Is anybody there?" he called out softly. He heard no reply, nothing but the soft ticking of a lonely clock. "Hello?" he called again.
"Yes, Michael?" asked a sweet voice behind him. He turned to see a lovely young woman standing at the doorway. She was dressed, to his surprise and amusement, in a college cheerleader's outfit. "We girls would sure like to relax you, Michael," she said sincerely, and though his mind tried to remind him she was probably just like the paints and the piano, he was attracted. Seeing his interest, she brightened eagerly and said, "We've got this really nice hot tub, and a steam room, and you won't believe what we've been learning to do in massage classes."
"OK," he nodded with a grin. "All right, I guess I'm up for this too. Lead me to it."
As daybreak's light filtered into his bed chamber, Michael rubbed his face to wipe off the morning. He was alone. He got up from bed and gazed out a window that looked upon the high mountain range. He ran his fingers through his cleaned and stylishly cut hair, stroked his smoothly shaven face, then asked himself, "All right, Spirit Man, what wonders are you going to perform today?" He was a bit disturbed to hear the sarcasm in his own voice. "Well, I can perform wonders here. Doesn't that count for something?" he retorted.
Then he heard a chime, and bells, and then from everywhere the sound of clocks chiming the hour, and he began to suspect there was an unwelcome truth awaiting him. New clothes hung on a bedside valet, and a pair of tennis shoes stood beside the bed, waiting to be worn. They were exactly the kind he liked best.
He walked down the hallway to a central court, where he found Mortimer sitting on his throne, smoking a cigar. As the corpulent glutton saw him approaching, he leered and asked, "What would your mommy say this morning, you naughty boy? Or are you a man now?"
Ignoring Mortimer's lewd insinuations, he sat down on a small stool beside him and helped himself to a Bavarian-cream-loaded Bismark. "It was incredible! I have just finished making love to the most beautiful women I have ever seen, just played the guitar and piano better than the pros, wrote a masterpiece, and a dozen other things I had only dreamed of." He turned to look squarely at the fat man. "I only have one question for you. What are you doing here, Mortimer?"
The corpulent hedonist frowned in disappointment and said, "Have a cup of coffee." Michael nodded, and accepted a porcelain cup of the finest and freshest coffee he had ever tasted. "Paradisa is here to satisfy me, to take care of me," said Mortimer, lighting another cigar.
Michael shook his head and said, "What good is a place where everything you want can be easily attained? Where every wish and every thought can come true simply by thinking about it?"
"Isn't that what everybody says they live their lives for? So they can die and come here? There is no disease, no pain, no suffering," said Mortimer, taking a sip of his coffee.
"No goals, no hope, no success," Michael countered. "How can you stay here?"
"How can you think of leaving?" asked Mortimer.
"Your world is without substance, without striving, without meaning!"
"I am a god here!" Mortimer declared. "I am the meaning. I am the substance. I rule this world."
Michael blew on his coffee, took a small sip. " A god of what, Mort?" he asked. "An imperfect man ruling artificial perfection? You're just a slave who is entertained instead of beaten."
Mortimer said nothing for a moment, and when Michael glanced up and looked into his eyes, he saw the man's pain. "People have made fun of me, abused me, tried to cheat me, ignored me, thought I was stupid. No matter how I have tried to be a good man, women have never been able to see beyond their disgust at my appearance. I started hating everyone, including myself." He shook his head sadly, swinging his flabby jowls back and forth. "Don't you see? Here no one makes fun of me. No one abuses me. No one ignores me and my women love me!"
Michael nodded. "Yeah," he said, "but you are still alone." When Mortimer did not answer, Michael went on, "Thanks for the coffee, Mort. I've got to try to find my way back home."
"Wait!" said Mortimer, reaching out to grasp Michael's arm. "There is still one thing that I want to show you. It's the best part of Paradisa."
"I really need to get going," Michael protested.
"Just one more thing," Mortimer whined. "Come on, you've got to see this."
Michael looked towards the mountain and took a deep sigh. "Ok. Show me what you want to show me," he said.
Mortimer got up from the table and Michael followed him to an arched doorway, which led into the base of the tall marble clock tower. He pulled the doors open wide, revealing a winding staircase leading upward.
"What are you going to show me?" asked Michael.
"The truth, Michael-what this place is really all about," said Mortimer in a voice that ran a chill down Michael's spine. As they slowly made their way up the stair case, hundreds of pigeons flew from perches around the inside of the tower, as though frightened by the echoing footsteps. Fluttering and screeching, they flung themselves along the walls, struggling to escape through a small opening at the very top of the building.
When Michael and the wheezing Mortimer finally reached the top, they entered the clock room through a large door barred by a heavy beam. Michael was immediately delighted and impressed by the antique timepiece. It seemed as though it might have been the oldest mechanical clock in the world, each piece, each cogwheel, ratchet, and lever bearing the marks of hand filing, preening, and polishing. Each cogwheel from the largest to the tiniest turned rhythmically second by second, driven by chained weights and a long pendulum tipped with a polished sphere a foot across.
Mortimer stood by the door watching him, and then said, "You are right, Michael. Even in my own paradise I am alone. The longing for real companionship here, someone real to share this wonderful place, has always evaded me. That's why I can't let you go!"
"What do you mean, can't let me go? Why don't you come with me?" said Michael.
"Oh, dear, I hoped you would understand," cried Mortimer plaintively. "This place is everything to me, and it could be everything to you too. But everyone else who has ever come here has ended up leaving-and why? Why, to seek dissatisfaction when they could have fulfillment, to pursue things they cannot have when they could have everything. But me? I can never leave!" With a surprisingly fast movement, Mortimer stepped back, swung the heavy door shut, and dropped the bar into place with a booming thud. "You'll change your mind after you think about it a while," came his voice through the thick panel of the door.
"Mortimer, wait!" Michael called after him. After a few minutes, the heavy footsteps were gone, and Michael sat in the quiet room, listening to the cooing of the pigeons as they found their way back to their perches, and to the interminable, implacable chik-kachung, chik-kachung of the clock. Unstoppable! Michael stared at the relentless mechanism and he understood Mortimer's misery. If there is such a place as Heaven, he thought, it must surely be eternal, but there, even in the illusion of paradise, time was still running out. And even though every form of human accomplishment seemed to be possible there, it was still in some very important sense, wasted time.
He then heard Mortimer Snodgroot-Ralph's voice calling from far below. "Michael! Michael!" Though he had not noticed them from below, there were several slit windows in the stone tower, and when he looked out through one, he could see the fat man pulling a woman by the arm.
"Look Michael! Can you do this in your world and still be loved?" yelled Mortimer. With the back of his ham like hand, he struck her across the face, splattering blood from her nose. Recovering her balance, she turned to him, apologizing for his anger, begging to make him feel better. "Do you see? She still loves me! What do you say about your world now, Michael?" he raged. He slapped her again, laughing, and ordered, "Kiss my feet!"
"Oh, thank you, Mortie," she wept gratefully, falling on her face before him.
"It's Paradisa, that's all!" Mortimer yelled to Michael, and started walking back to the chateau, leaving the woman behind. She got up and stepped lightly away, disappearing like a genie whose task was finished.
Michael turned his attention back into the building, to the clock mechanism. Michael remembered Mortimer's anxiety when he had said, "Don't touch the clocks! That's all I ask."
Small gears and cogwheels turned to the seconds, medium sprockets turned to the minutes, and the ponderous pendulum slowly swung back and forth, measuring each chik-kachung of the escape wheel. Michael found a length of heavy iron bar lying near one wall, and he tried to pry it into the teeth of the sprockets, but no matter how he levered the bar, he could not stop or even slow down the clock.
Then he noticed that the pendulum had an adjustment device on it, a screw-like thread on which the sphere could be turned to move it up and down on its long shaft. Michael remembered learning that a pendulum's period, the time it takes to swing back and forth, is not determined by how far back and forth it swings, but by how long the pendulum is. This one had been turned all the way down to the bottom, so it was measuring time as slowly as it could. By twirling the sphere as it swung back and forth, he could make it move up the shaft, and the clock began to run faster and faster.
He twirled the ball again and again, and the clock tower came alive. The large cogwheel spun and the giant apparatus started to churn like a metallic monster. It was quickly apparent that, as he had suspected, every clock in Paradisa was linked to every other. Hours began to chime almost constantly, and he was sure he could smell lubricating oil heating up as the gears moved faster and faster.
He looked out the window, and laughed like a manic child to see that everything was moving forward faster. The sun traveled across the sky in a great fluid arc, followed shortly by the moon. He stepped to the slit window and shouted out into the flickering light of day-night-day-night, "How much time do you have left, Mortimer?"
Then he heard the man's anguished voice cry back, "Put it back! Please, put the clock back!" In a few short minute-hours, the fat man flung open the tower door, his face pale and white. "Please! Stop!" pleaded Mortimer, shuddering to catch his breath.
Michael stood glaring at him a moment, then turned to the clock and spun the pendulum's weight back down to the bottom. "You are the only one here, because that's how you want it to be, Mort," Michael told him.
"You are free to leave," said Mortimer, resigned. "It was a desperate move, I admit it."
"Why do you stay in this place? Look at what you have become."
He nodded in resignation. "Everybody else has left, but I can't. I hate being lonely, but I would rather be lonely than face the humiliation of my life." Mortimer sank to the floor, covering his face with his hands, and he began to blubber and bawl.
"Let me tell you something," Michael said. "Lots of people who happen to be fat are very happy and loved by many friends and family. And so do people who are skinny, or disfigured with scars, or have weird names, or... or who have diseases nobody can cure." He put his hand on Mortimer's shoulder as he stepped around him to get to the door. "I hope you find the courage to get out of this candy-covered hell," he said.
He walked down the staircase to the bottom of the tower, flung open the door, and looked around to find the path. As he expected, he discovered he could see it leading into the woods away from the white marble chateau. He didn't look back, as the bells of the Clock Tower chimed. "I would rather have one more day of honest challenge, than a hundred years in Paradisa," he said to no one in particular, and he laughed to hear the forest rustle as though the mountain were applauding him. Then he was struck by a memory he had not remembered for a long time. Was it not his fleeing from the anguish of losing his High School "paradisa" which had brought him to this world? He looked around himself, then shook his head and muttered, "I'm still here, so I guess I haven't finished the course. What's next?"
Before him, the path beckoned.
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