Curses and Clues
Compiled by Hunter MacKenzie
A collection of lesser-known but interesting quotes from Aleister Crowley, gleaned from various things he wrote…
“Life is a sacrament; in other words, all our acts are magickal acts.”
“We are the poets! We are the children of wood and stream, of mist and mountain, of sun and wind! and to us the rites of Eleusis should open the door of Heaven, and we shall enter and see God face to face.”
“Logic is responsible for most of the absurd and abominable deeds which have disgraced history.”
“Monogyny is nonsense for anyone with a grain of imagination. The more sides he has to his natures, the more women he needs to satisfy it. The same is, of course, true, mutates mutandis, of women.”
“Magick had fallen into desuetude chiefly because people would follow the prescribed course of action and get no results. If one does not understand anything about electricity, one cannot construct a dynamo; and having so failed, one cannot get oneself electrocuted.”
“Shallow critics argue that because the average untrained man cannot evoke a spirit, the ritual which purports to enable him to do so must be at fault. He does not reflect that an electroscope would be useless in the hands of a savage.”
“The mind is a mechanism for dealing symbolically with impressions; its construction is such that one is tempted to take these symbols for reality. Conscious thought, therefore, prevents one from perceiving reality.”
“Almost all religious tyranny springs from intellectual narrowness. The spiritual energy derived from the high trances makes the seer a formidable force, and unless he be aware that his interpretation is due only to the exaggeration of his own tendencies of thought, he will seek to impose it on others, and so delude his disciples, pervert their minds and prevent their development. He can do good only in one way, that is, by publishing the methods by which he attained illumination: in other words, by adding his experience to the sum of scientific knowledge.”
“I had not realized that Magick was the practical side of spiritual progress.”
“The essential identity of all religions… is the same mountain seen from different sides and named by different people.”
“What we call ultimate truth is in reality no more than a statement of the internal relations of the universe which we perceive.”
“It is one of the most frightful consequences of increasing age that one finds fewer and fewer of one’s contemporaries worth talking to.”
“A poem is a series of words so arranged that the combination of meaning, rhythm and rime produces the definitely magical effect of exalting the soul to divine ecstasy.”
“We already know that certain spiritual or mental conditions may be induced by acting on physico- and chemico-physiological conditions. Morphine makes men holy and happy in a negative way; why should there not be some drug which will produce the positive equivalent?”
“When one is working in the eye of God, when one cares nothing for the opinion of men… when one has surrendered forever one’s personal interests and become lost in one’s work, it is merely waste of time and derogatory to one’s dignity to pay attention to irrelevant interruptions about one’s individual affairs. One keeps one’s powder and shot for people who attack one’s work itself.”
“When Freud says, quite correctly, that dreams are phantasms of suppressed sexual desire, the question remains, of what is sexual desire the phantasm?”
“I have myself constructed numerous ceremonies where it is frankly admitted that religious enthusiasm is primarily sexual in character. I have merely refused to stop there. I have insisted that sexual excitement is merely a degraded form of divine ecstasy.”
“There is, of course, extreme danger in coming into contact with a demon of malignant or unintelligent nature. It should, however, be said that such demons exist only for imperfectly initiated Magicians.”
“Facts are judged by their fertility. When a discovery remains sterile, the evidence of its truth is weakened. The indication is that it is not a stone in the temple of truth.”
“Disappointment arises from the fear that every joy is transient.”
“The Abyss being crossed… I understood that sorrow had no substance; that only my ignorance and lack of intelligence had made me imagine the existence of evil.”
“Intolerance is evidence of impotence.”
“Just as extreme hunger makes a man shovel down anything that looks like food, so the ache of the soul for truth makes it swallow whatever promises.”
“Imagine listening to Beethoven with the prepossession that C is a good note and F a bad one; yet this is exactly the standpoint from which all uninitiates contemplate the universe. Obviously, they miss the music.”
“The only love worth having or indeed worthy of the name is the spontaneous sympathy of a free soul.”
“Whatever is not ultimately useful is a source of distraction and anxiety. It gets in one’s way.”
“I fail to understand why it should be considered excusable to seduce a woman and leave her to shift for herself, while if one receives her as a permanent friend and cares for her well-being long after the liaison had lapsed, one should be considered a scoundrel.”
“We all do so many stupid things, for bad reason or no reason at all. ‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do’ applies to nine-tenths of our actions.”
“A very strange theory, that about death… I wonder if there’s anything in it. It would really be too easy if we could get out of our troubles in so simple a fashion.”
“Just as soon as you start seriously to prepare a place for magickal Work, the world goes more cockeyed than it is already.”
“Fear is the source of all false perception.”
© Copyright 2004 by Hunter MacKenzie. Republished 2011, 2015.
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The Day Mamie’s Heart Stopped
by Rowan McConnell
The day Mamie’s heart stopped,
she’d just got her hair done.
She always had it done for special occasions –
church, birthdays, funerals –
and she’d been refusing to see her doctor about that
nauseous, gassy feeling in her chest,
because she hadn’t been to the beauty shop in a couple of weeks,
and her hair was just a mess –
like an old worn-out scouring brush.
You can’t go to the doctor looking like that,
especially when you’re over seventy.
They already treat you like a child.
They’ll think you can’t take care of yourself,
and put you in a Home,
and that just won’t do.
They don’t get the good cable channels at the rest home.
So she kept eating Tabasco on her eggs,
and munching on Rolaids,
and scrunching up her face like a constipated baby,
and canceled her next hair appointment because she
didn’t feel well.
On Thursday, it was her birthday,
(usually such a surly girl)
had offered to come over and
do up her hair for her.
Teenagers don’t know what
their grandparents want –
and who needs more hankies
and bracelets and pins?
A hairdo – that’s the ticket.
Cutting-edge cosmetology, plus
the joy of spending time
with the favorite granddaughter
(even if she is the black sheep
emo Goth-child of the family,
she’s still the only one who cares
about your pictures from Japan in the ’40s).
Having done her own hair
in three cuts and sixteen colors already,
Haley felt the urge
to make someone else
Her teacher at beauty school
had just taught them cornrows,
and this wasn’t easy to do
with your own hair.
They had a nice visit.
They talked about TV,
and how Drew Carey was no Bob Barker,
and Jay Leno was certainly no Johnny Carson.
They talked about steampunk
and compared Sherlock Holmeses.
They ate chocolate Ho-Hos
and drank Dr Peppers.
It was the best birthday ever
until it wasn’t.
picked the color
Grandma Mamie was always
a huge Tennessee fan
and orange would be
a nice change
from the old-lady blue
that Miss Birch
rinse and set.
Haley will probably never have another customer
gasp in amazement, hands fluttering to her chest,
the way Grandma Mamie did that day
when she looked in the mirror,
but if anyone else ever falls to the floor
with a bloodcurdling shriek,
she’ll remember to call 911 right away.
She’ll know they probably aren’t just excited
about their new ’do.
She’ll remember that the med techs would rather you didn’t
paint an unconscious person’s nails with Blue Rapture #162,
no matter how nervous you feel while you wait
twenty minutes for the ambulance to show up.
Maybe she won’t be such a wreck the next time.
Maybe she’ll be psychopathically calm,
cool and collected, the next time she finds herself
putting the finishing touches on a dead person.
She’ll certainly remember to tell the family
about the radical new hairstyle,
the next time that happens.
But not this time.
No, this time there’ll be
a seventy-four-year-old woman
tarted up like a punk whore,
her close family stunned
to see her laid out like this,
in her sedate pink-lined casket
with the doves and the Bible verse –
something about going home with Jesus,
taking on a whole different slant
with Mamie’s face frozen in a smirk
the mortician couldn’t rearrange.
Maybe next time they’ll find
a verse about not judging.
Then the funeral:
How quickly they turn
from raging on Haley,
the medics, the death staff,
each person involved with
Miss Mamie’s demise;
how swiftly their anger
disperses into branches
of family less treasured:
the out-of-town relatives,
nieces and nephews,
long distant cousins –
how could they not recognize Grandma Mamie
just because she had orange braids in the casket?
Oh, the thrill of self-righteousness,
the vindictive snark of
griefstricken, worn-down, put-upon family:
“Maybe if you’d visited,
helped out more often,
she wouldn’t look like a stranger
© Copyright 2015 by Rowan McConnell
Header photo via Morguefile.
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by Patrick Redding
I think I was lying in the floor of my friend Callie’s living room when the shift happened. Something vital was taken away, to be replaced by something spectacular.
We’d been fooling around with our guitars earlier, and now we were stoned. We were listening to Heart; Ann Wilson was belting out “I’ve Got the Music in Me” – not a particularly profound song, I know, but I believe that’s when it happened. The music took over my brain.
I didn’t notice the change at first. It was getting late, and I wanted to get something to eat before I headed home, so I said my goodbyes and went out to my car. I laid my guitar case very carefully in the back seat, poked a CD into the player, and started the car.
Then I was in a boat on a river, and Lucille Ball was decked out in a diamond bracelet and earrings, flying an airplane in the orange sky overhead. I didn’t remember Callie having landscaping quite like this in her yard – and she didn’t live near the river, for that matter – but I figured it was the weed skewing my perception, making me see the flowers as being much taller and stranger than they actually were.
“This is some wicked stuff,” I thought. “Really creeps up on you, though. You think you’ve straightened out but then off you go again. Weird. Like… extended-release weed. Are they growing that now? I haven’t heard anything about it. Wow. Look at those little plastic dudes over there with the mirror neckties. They’re like some freaky new set of Lego guys. Wow.”
I sat there in la-la land, watching the parade of nonsensical visuals for several minutes before a sharp rapping on the car window got my attention. For a minute, I thought Callie’s eyes were spinning, speckled – like what you’d see in a kaleidoscope – but then that faded and I was able to focus.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I assured her. “No. What was in that stuff? Did you lace it with something else?”
“No,” she laughed. “Why?”
“It’s just some kind of Afghani stuff. It’s good, but it doesn’t cause hallucinations,” she said.
Then she was gone and I was sitting in school, and the teacher was yelling at me. That wasn’t cool. I was confused and getting really uncomfortable, and then Callie was back, leaning across me and popping my Sergeant Pepper’s CD out of the player. “You didn’t hear anything I just said, did you?”
“No,” I admitted. “I don’t think I should drive.”
“No. It’s probably where you came out into the night air. It just hit you again,” she suggested. “Come on. You can crash here tonight.”
So I went back in with her, and we ordered pizza and listened to more music, and over the course of the evening we managed to figure out that something in my brain was making me actually experience the music that I was hearing as a sort of hallucination. It started when a song came on; it went away when the song did. It was most noticeable on songs with weird lyrics. Like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” And it completely overrode any contradictory input from my other senses.
It was the weed. Had to be. Callie wasn’t experiencing anything like this (and was heartily laughing her ass off at me, cuing up every bizarre song in her varied collection). But it had to be the weed. Right?
Well… not really.
I ran my car into a ditch the next afternoon. I was driving home, totally straight and sober, having had a good night’s sleep on Callie’s couch, and without thinking, I clicked on the radio. The local classic rock station was playing “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, and the hammer of the gods drove my Toyota to new lands to fight the horde, only instead of singing, I was crying, because I hit the ditch with a crash, and found that rather than ice and snow or soft, green fields, my car was mired in mud and rocks.
When the cop showed up, he gave me a sobriety test (since there were no other vehicles involved) and a ticket for reckless driving (since I passed his sobriety test). I didn’t want to sound like a smart-ass or anything, so when he asked me what happened, I told him a bee flew into my car and startled me. I figured that would sound better than what really happened, and it did, I’m sure, but I still got a ticket and had to pay a tow truck to come and get my car out of the ditch.
The tailpipe was dangling and scraping the ground, so I had to have the car taken to a garage. I rode in the truck with the driver, and it was really unfortunate that he was an old-school country music lover. He blasted George Jones and Tammy Wynette songs all the way there. I became convinced that my wife had left me and I’d become an alcoholic with nothing to live for, and when the tow driver shoved me out of his truck at the garage, I was bawling like a drunken moose.
The mechanic was looking at me funny, so I asked to use the restroom, and spent a few minutes cleaning myself up and trying to pull it together. When I could act like a normal human being again, I asked the mechanic to take the radio and CD player out of the car when he fixed the tailpipe. He looked at me funny again and set a grimy-looking telephone on the counter and told me I could call someone to come and get me.
I didn’t want to bother Callie again, but I couldn’t get my brother on the phone, and I really didn’t want to try explaining things to him. He’s kind of a snot and I knew he’d say it was the weed even though it was perfectly obvious to me that this was something bigger than that. So I called Callie, and she came to fetch me, and very kindly didn’t play any music in her car on the way home. She suggested that I get some rest, and if this continued, I should probably see a doctor about it. “I’ll take you,” she promised. “It’ll be OK.”
The thought of having a doctor examine me wasn’t very appealing, but when it persisted for several more days, I realized she was right. I needed help. I’d been mostly all right at home, but when music triggers a bizarre, uncontrollable reaction in your brain, you begin to notice just how ubiquitous music is in public places. I guess it’s supposed to make things relaxing and pleasant, but the grocery store, for one, was a nightmare. After spending half an hour with their “Soft Sounds of the ’80s” in my head, which prompted me to fall in love with the produce manager and later propose marriage to a cashier, I was escorted out of the store. I’m not sure I’m allowed to go back there again.
Noise-canceling headphones, strictly speaking, don’t cancel all noise, but they did prove helpful. They muted the music sufficiently to allow me to ignore it when I had to go to Wal-Mart to purchase socks and underwear. I was doing just fine until the cashier got huffy with me. I removed one earpiece long enough to see what she wanted, and inadvertently caught a snippet of Lynyrd Skynyrd on their sound system. Then I was standing on the register area’s conveyor belt, flapping my arms and trying to fly away just as the lyrics insisted I should. I certainly wanted to fly away, but I wasn’t quite as free as a bird, and I still needed to pay for my socks. Being Wal-Mart, this behavior went more or less unnoticed, with the cashier merely sighing and muttering, “I’m gonna have to ask you to get down from there. Your total is $27.92.” I adjusted my headphones so the world became silent again, climbed down, and swiped my card so I could get out of there.
When Callie took me to the doctor, a guy in the elevator was listening to Aerosmith on his iPod, loudly enough that I could hear it. Callie had to whack me in the jaw to get me to stop humping her leg, but there were no hard feelings. Fortunately, the waiting room was devoid of music. There was a TV set in the corner, but Callie clamped her hands over my ears when the peppy little jingle for the erectile dysfunction drug came on the screen, and we avoided any further embarrassment.
The doctor, as expected, ran a bunch of tests (including drug screening, I’m sure), and couldn’t figure out what was going on, which clearly annoyed him. He seemed to think I was making it up, and when no simple answers came from the test results, I was pretty sure he didn’t believe me at all. There was some shouting when Callie overheard him drop the word “hypochondriac” to his assistant.
He referred me to a neurologist named Dr. Baggett, who did some more exams and scans, and also couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but rather than get testy about it, he seemed curious and fascinated. He had me come back a few times, and he did some research, and had me try some different medications (which didn’t help and made me depressed) and tried some meditation exercises (which didn’t help either but made me feel like it was all going to be OK).
It stumped Dr. Baggett, which I think is probably pretty hard to do. His best guess was that it might have been a very unique combination of head injury, neurochemistry, and drug use. He cautioned me that because we didn’t know exactly what set it off, I should avoid recreational drugs for the time being. “Some people really shouldn’t take drugs,” he shrugged. “Everything’s fine and then one day they get a batch of something just slightly different, and their neurotransmitters go wacko. You may be one of them.”
I wore my headphones everywhere I went, trying to prevent further incidents. I declined offers to go out for drinks, regretfully sidestepped my cousin’s wedding invitation (earphones would’ve been frowned upon, and I was sure that wedding music would be a disaster, in light of my condition), and tried to get used to a quiet life.
I did occasionally listen to Yes or the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. If I couldn’t enjoy a joint now and then, I could get stoned without the aid of chemical assistance just by listening to Dark Side of the Moon.
Needless to say, my musical aspirations were pretty much over. My guitar sat in the closet until I gave it to Callie so it wouldn’t feel unloved. She gave it a good home.
Gradually, through experimentation in the safety of my home, I learned that I could listen to certain specific kinds of non-lyrical music without incident. I’d never been a fan of classical music, but I grew to enjoy Bach and Schumann, although Liszt and Beethoven were too unpredictable and dramatic and I didn’t trust myself to have that sort of thing going on in my brain.
I tried checking out some music with non-English lyrics, but it seemed to have a similar effect. Even if I didn’t understand what they were singing about, my emotions ran amok. My mother was convinced that I’d miraculously found religion when I accompanied her to a Christmas cantata by a German choir and had to leave because tears were streaming down my face.
One day Dr. Baggett’s office phoned and asked me to come in for an appointment. When I arrived, he was very excited, and said he’d read about something that he thought could help. “It’s a drug that’s been used to control seizures,” he explained. “There are some off-label uses, but it’s mainly an anticonvulsant. That’s not why I think it could help. We don’t need the effect that the drug is used for; we want a particular side effect. It’s not a common one, but it’s significant enough among certain patient populations – and I think it might help.”
“You want me to take a drug just to get one of the side effects?”
“Yes! That’s it, exactly,” he beamed.
“What kind of side effect?” I asked.
“It seems to cause loss of perfect pitch in people who had perfect pitch before they started on the medication. I’m thinking it might disrupt the effect you get from music.”
I thought about it, listened to him explain the potential issues and benefits, and finally agreed to give it a try. I was pretty sure I’d never had perfect pitch, so I really didn’t have much to lose. The other possible side effects – nausea, headaches – somehow didn’t seem as worrisome as the possibility of having something much more than a feeling if I accidentally heard an old Boston song on someone’s car radio.
Did it work? Oddly enough, yes, it did. As Dr. Baggett had suspected it might, it disrupted the harmonics of the music enough to stop the strange hallucinatory effects.
And it had an unforeseen plus. You’d think that if everything sounds off-key, it would make horribly discordant noise out of whatever you listen to, but it doesn’t.
Everything just sounds like jazz.
© Copyright 2015 by Patrick Redding.
Header art via Pixabay.
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Springtime at the Speedway
Photo via MorgueFile.
by Erin Abernethy
Welcome to “Race Week,” y’all!
Bring us your hicks, your drunks,
your gas-guzzling RVs,
your big-ass campers and overgrown pup-tents,
jockeying to park in a nearby churchyard.
That’ll be $20, son.
Bless y’all. Jesus loves ya.
Bring us all your bad habits –
we don’t have enough of our own –
all your trash and your spit,
your sweaty sun-stink,
your potbellied, yellow-toothed,
your brassy blonde women
overflowing their shorts,
your children more monstrous
than all of your trucks.
Come and jam up the traffic
bring it all to a standstill
while cousins with roadside stands
make a few bucks
from selling you tickets and
t-shirts and caps sporting
Earnhardt and Petty;
pocket the cash and
don’t tell the tax-man.
That’s the American Way
Never mind all the locals,
so lucky to live here with all this
Excitement. Oh yes,
it’s a great big adventure,
trying to get out to work
when the cops fix the stop-lights
to let trailers through.
Watch the race car parade:
look, it’s Bobby!
Is that Greg’s Ford?
We may die of amazement,
so impressed by these strangers
you call by first names.
Like a biblical plague,
this infestation, this
visitation of fools;
smell the diesel, the smoke,
as the cars run in circles,
the dinosaur roar
scaring dogs miles away.
How much gas do you think
will be wasted this weekend?
This is what our troops fought for:
more American horsepower!
So welcome to Race Week, y’all!
Get to the grandstand,
grab a beer and sit back.
If you pay close attention,
some driver might wreck;
you could be there, ringside,
see some cars crash and burn!
Oh, sweet Jesus!
It’s the American Way!
blood and brains on the track.
Welcome to Race Week.
© Copyright 2015 by Erin Abernethy.
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The Rites of Spring
Photo: “Spring Catkins” by P.L. Miller
Compiled by Erin Abernethy & Hunter MacKenzie
The Spring Equinox is also called the Vernal Equinox. The word “vernal” comes from the Latin word “verno” which means “to burgeon, break into bloom” or “to be young.” Accordingly, spring traditions and rituals have historically emphasized fertility, cleansing, renewal and regeneration; many revolve around the “dying god” legends. The following are some of the more interesting ones we have found in our research.
In some of the villages of Germany, it was the custom for young people to gather and make a straw man. This was then carried out into the open fields; during the procession, they would sing a song about carrying Death away. Upon reaching the chosen spot, they would dance in a circle around the straw man, then tear it to pieces with much shouting. When torn apart, the straw man was then burned in a bonfire as the young people danced around it. After this, the young people would then return to the village and go from house to house begging for eggs, explaining that they had just carried Death away from the village to make way for Spring.
(Sort of a mixing of the modern traditions of Easter eggs and Halloween trick-or-treating.)
The ancient Romans celebrated the spring equinox on the 25th of March rather than on the 21st as is customary now. Part of their celebration centered around the resurrection of Attis, a god of vegetation who was considered to be dead or sleeping during the winter. Interestingly, when Christianity as a religion was still in its early stages, the widespread belief was that Christ’s crucifixion had been on the 25th of March, and accordingly, Easter was initially celebrated on this date.
March 25 was also at one time considered to be the date upon which the world was created.
(One wonders what was going on from January 1st through March 24th of that year… planning, perhaps? Waiting for project approval? Supplies on backorder?)
The word “Easter” comes from Eostre, the name of an Old German dawn goddess.
April Fools’ Day has its roots in the tradition of the Norse god Loki, a notorious trickster. The trickster archetype is not exclusive to Norse culture and mythology, of course. Many societies have had specific allotted times when it was permissible to engage in behaviors that were usually frowned upon.
In certain areas of France, bonfires are lit on the first Sunday of Lent. When the fires have died down, the young people take turns and compete in jumping over the embers; those who can do this without getting their clothes singed are supposed to be married within the year.
(Perhaps this is the origin of that phrase “better to marry than to burn.” Or perhaps not.)
Among some of the early tribes in China, an annual celebration was held to destroy all the evils of the past twelve months. It was carried out by burying a large clay vessel filled with gunpowder, stones, bits of iron, and so on; a match was set to a trail of gunpowder and the clay pot was blown up. Doing so was supposed to disperse all the ills of the previous year.
(Don’t try this one at home without safety glasses.)
Human sacrifice was reportedly not uncommon among the Aztecs of ancient Mexico, but it was also an annual spring event occurring around the last week of April. For this purpose, a person was chosen to symbolize a god for an entire year; he was treated as the embodiment of the god for that year, receiving all due attention and reverence. At the time of the festival, he was then killed and eaten by the people.
Parilia was a Roman festival held in April to honor the deity Pales. It included decorating sheepfolds with green branches, offering milk and cakes to the divinity, and driving farm animals through the smoke of fires in the belief that this would protect them from illness during the coming year.
(Smoke inhalation was evidently of no concern.)
April 24th is a traditional night of divination in regard to romance. A young woman who wished to see a vision of a future lover was supposed to fast from sunset, making a barley cake during the night. If she left her door open, her future lover was supposed to come inside for the cake. Floralia was a Roman festival to honor Flora, goddess of flowers and youth. Beginning on April 28th, it was known for its encouragement of sexual license. Medallions depicting various sexual acts were handed out, and seeds were thrown into the crowds as a symbol of fertility. In many places this time began the May festivals which featured the phallic Maypole and other fertility symbols; the traditions corresponded closely to the Roman Saturnalia (in December) and still survive in some form in many parts of Europe.
(Today we just have the annual Spring Break beer bashes on the beaches.)
© Copyright 1999 by Erin Abernethy & Hunter MacKenzie. Republished 2013, 2014, 2015.
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by Patrick Redding
What I’m about to tell you may seem a matter of no importance, but it’s filled with great portents (and possibly some pretense). It happened one night not very long ago. Just happened. Past tense. In the past: gone but always with us. In all ways. I fell asleep under the stars – or in a tent, if you like, I could tell it that way but it wouldn’t be true. I wouldn’t mean it. Intent is a very important factor here. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, you know. Portents, oh yes, there were lots of them. I suppose you might find it easier to understand if you’d ever found yourself living with a whore in a tent. Not that I have, but just suppose. Just suppose. Juxtapose my brain on drugs alongside my brain without drugs (yes, they call them meds, preferable to reds, they say, they say, these educated shite-coats, I mean white-coats). The two halves, the hemispheres (hymns-of-fears) make a whole where once there was but a hole, and now I may tell a story. (And about time, get on with it, you say.)
I say that night began with a lot of standing around in the parking lot after work, a most useless operation, the work, I mean, not the standing around afterward. I was watching the moths annihilate themselves in the streetlights and wondering if they had near-death experiences of being sucked into great white tunnels of light or whether they merely sizzled for a moment and passed through to the other side and immediately began looking for the next streetlight. I am not a streetwalker, you know. I merely walk the streets to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk, to prevent mothers around the world from breaking their backs. They have no appreciation, of course, of the service I perform for them. They don’t make it easy, either, with all that bending-over-backward-for-you talk and what-not.
I was joined by Hutchins. Hutchins was a musician, a keyboardist, in a local band who rented rehearsal space in an empty office building near where I worked, or pretended to work. Counting tokens was not my real work, you know, it was only what they paid me to do. I do not know what my real work was supposed to be, only that it was not this, and that it was probably not avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, but these I did and did them both passably well, which is really of no importance. Of no portent. Let us not pretend it was. He was reminiscing, Hutchins was, in that coolly brain-fried way people on unforced medications have of meandering between inconsequential topics. We were talking about the lake where several of us used to go and get stoned before the state had it fenced off and gated. We were speaking of a holy place where we took communion and learned of sacraments before the First Amendment got out of line and found itself no longer First but somewhere down there among the other ones such as the Fourth. There is no privacy in public baptism, you know. There is no privacy in having unconsecrated wafers placed upon one’s tongue by white-coats bearing paper-cup goblets and pine-scented incense in mop buckets of unholy water.
“The lake isn’t fenced anymore,” he said. “You can drive right down to the water. We should go.” It was late by now, and the moon was out. I wondered if any misguided moths ever saw the moon and thought that it must be the streetlight to end all streetlights and set off to fly into it only to become lost forever in the cold blackness of space. Then I wondered if that was much different from what happened to the ones that went to their deaths with a snap-crackle-pop in the streetlights; maybe they just experienced a fantastic flash of fire and then an infinite cold darkness. My doctor called this “excessive existential anxiety” and gave me more meds for having too many X’s. I should probably take one now but no, I will wait. We are going to the holy place and the moon is out and perhaps I might be healed of my afflictions and affections if I touch the hem of someone else’s garment. I touched my doctor’s coat and all I got was four-point restraints. Whose coat must I touch to rid myself of all these X’s?
When we got there we saw that someone had cut down a lot of the trees, leaving the shoreline open so that it could be easily seen from the road. Hutchins said they’d probably done that after the fence came down, so people wouldn’t be as likely to go there and hang out after dark. A park is a park, but not after dark. The water level was low and Hutchins drove onto the hard-packed sand, pulling the van around sideways. We got out and smoked a joint, and then walked down the beach, smoking some more and drinking. I meditated upon the names of musicians I knew, and reflected that Hutchins’ name was very fitting; something about the way his nose twitched when he lit a cigarette made me think of rabbits. Perhaps his ancestors kept rabbits many years ago and that’s where their family name came from, as well as the resemblance of mannerisms. People come to resemble the animals they live with, or so I’ve heard. I didn’t mention this aloud; they can’t say I didn’t learn anything at all in there. I learned not to say out loud when people remind me of animals, despite how many X’s and Y’s we have in common with other species.
I didn’t notice how far we’d walked or how drunk I was getting until I sat down after awhile. I must have passed out. I might have flown and cracked my head on the moon. It definitely felt like I might have. I wondered if that’s where all the craters came from, drunken fools trying to fly into the master streetlight and banging their heads on the surface, trying to get in, looking for the light that so mysteriously disappears when you get up close. I woke up lying in some weedy, sandy area by myself, not quite sure where I was. It seemed to be just before dawn; there was starting to be a little light in the sky.
I didn’t see the van anywhere. In fact, I didn’t recognize this part of the shoreline, and guessed I must have wandered off in the dark. You look for the light, you know, but you never really catch up to it; it’s always over there somewhere, and you wouldn’t even notice it was there if it wasn’t so dark where you are. I heard an animal-like noise I couldn’t place, and it alarmed me just a little, not knowing what it was, exactly, so I got up and walked toward a shed I saw, which I hoped might be some sort of information station with a phone or something.
Then I noticed the birds – many, many birds – ducks and hawks and such – lying scattered on the ground. Some of them were flapping a little, making feeble squawks. They were covered with black gunk – as was most of the ground near the water. Looking down, I saw that my shoes were caked with the stuff too, and now that I thought about it, I could feel that the back side of my clothes was wet. I’d probably been lying in the stuff. I looked at the low water level, saw the shiny iridescent stuff on the top, and realized that the black stuff was oil. Sometimes shedding a little light on something isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Iridescent rainbows aside – a sheen of erstwhile beauty may cover an ugly oilslick. I’d been perfectly content to wallow around in the blackened mud until the sun came up enough to let me see what it was. A bird croaked hoarsely as I looked at the nasty water, and I felt sick.
My stomach twisted and threatened to empty itself; I crouched on the ground for a moment, trying to let it pass while I racked my brain for ideas about what to do. Those damned doctors with all their nice, neat answers were never around when you could really use a little help. Maybe there were some rags or something in the shed, I thought hopefully; maybe I could clean up the birds, wash the gunk out of their feathers, and they’d recover. Maybe there’d be a phone in the information station, and I could call someone – an animal shelter or a vet or something… maybe… I felt my throat close up as one of the birds near me convulsed, flapping madly in the sandy dirt for a brief few seconds, and then was still. Maybe everything would end – the birds, the water, time, even my oil-soaked mind – dying a torturous and brutal death, while I stood around trying to think what to do.
I’d started toward the shed again when I heard another noise that seemed to be coming from up in the bushes; it sounded like someone groaning. Shoving my way through the underbrush, I found a man lying in the leaves, grimacing and clutching at his chest. He wasn’t exactly dressed for the lake; he was wearing a dark three-piece suit and tie, and an overcoat. A hat had fallen to the side of his head. He saw me and began trying to pull some papers out of his jacket. It was difficult for him to talk and I had trouble making out what he was trying to say. “Let me help you,” I said, grabbing his arm and trying to haul him to his feet. He gasped as I realized, too late, that moving him probably wasn’t a good idea.
“Leave me alone,” he moaned, sinking back into a heap on the ground. “You can’t help me.”
“I can call someone for you,” I offered. “I’m sure there must be a phone around here somewhere…”
“You fool,” he hacked, “there’s no phone service out here. This is sacred ground. You don’t put a hotline to civilization in a place like this. Do you want to ruin everything?”
I thought it wasn’t looking too good anyway, but I didn’t want to argue with a dying man.
“I wanted to stop it – what was happening to the lake and the birds,” he coughed, “but I couldn’t…” He rolled onto his back, choking, and I tried to help him sit up but it was useless, just useless. Still, he persisted with a good ten minutes’ worth of plot exposition, so I left off trying to get him up and instead hunkered down on the ground near enough to listen.
Through his wheezing, I managed to grasp that someone had bought the land from the state. They were using tanks buried underground to store oil; some of the tanks were leaking, sending oil and sludge into the lake and saturating the shoreline. Complaints had been lodged, and ignored; apparently they were within tolerance levels, and couldn’t be forced to remedy the situation. The man had even approached them with an offer to buy the land from them, intending to take care of the clean-up himself, but they were unwilling to sell. He suspected there were illegalities involved, bribes and trafficking and the sorts of things that make people want to hold onto property which has no ostensible value to them, but he’d gotten nowhere with trying to persuade anyone to investigate this. “They’re all in each other’s pockets,” he hissed in disgust. “A nest of vipers, and heaven help the one who steps in it and doesn’t kill them all. That’s the only thing to be done, you know.”
Since he’d exhausted every legal avenue to get something done, he’d contacted someone to take care of the situation by other means. However, en route to pay the man and make the necessary arrangements, he discovered he’d been found out. Someone had tried to kill him, and he’d barely managed to make it here, deciding to make one last desperate effort to call attention to the situation by leaving his corpse to be found on the beach. Beached whales made the news. Surely a beached environmentalist was entitled to the same lack of dignity.
“If the man gets the money by noon, then our deal is on and he’ll take care of things,” he told me, but he was obviously not going to make it. I offered to help, and he agreed; as long as I knew the code words he’d arranged with the man, it wouldn’t matter who brought the money – he’d never even seen the man himself. The words I needed to know, he said, were “Beethoven’s coat.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he sank back to the ground. Was he dead? I shook him, patted his face, did all the things you think you should do if you find yourself with a possibly-dead person in the woods in the middle of nowhere. He was definitely dead. I was freaked out, but thought I’d better try to keep my head together and get out of there. I went through the papers he’d been trying to get out of his pocket and found a hand-sketched map with directions noted in the margin. I turned it one way and another until I thought I knew where he was going. Looking back at the shore, I saw another bird thrash the sand violently for a few seconds before dying. Sizing up the man on the ground, I took off his suit and tie and put it on myself, wrapped him up in his overcoat, and rolled him back under the bushes out of sight.
His car was parked beside the road with the keys still in it. Following the cryptic map on the seat beside me, I found the house.
It was nearly full daylight by now. There were a lot of cars outside, and several big nasty-looking guys standing by the door. I felt conspicuous suddenly because although I’d donned the man’s nice coat and tie, I was still carrying my old green army-surplus coat. To my surprise, though, the goons just nodded and let me pass. Apparently there’s no dress code for going to pay off someone to “fix things.” I wandered uncertainly down the hallway, wondering if someone was just going to approach me and strike up a conversation about classical music or how this sort of thing worked.
The place was a huge old mansion, well-tended, lavishly furnished with antiques and deep, deep carpet. A nice change, I thought, from institutional floorwax, cracked sidewalks, and black sand. I recalled that I was supposed to be back at my token-counting job sometime today, but it didn’t seem real. In light of waking up on a beach full of dying birds, miles from anywhere, tokens seemed no more real than any of my other hallucinations the white-coats had attempted to banish for me. Was this real? I stopped and looked down at my grimy shoes on the nice clean carpet. I turned and saw sandy footprints leading from the door to where I stood. OK, yeah, this was probably real. I continued down the hallway.
From the sound of it, a loud party was going on even at this early hour. I followed the noise until I found the gathering in a large sitting room – a “parlor,” I guessed it might have been called, when more genteel people lived here. The guys around this door looked at me more closely when I entered but let me pass. There were maybe ten or so people, all well-dressed, sitting around an oversized coffee table, drinking and laughing and such. One was younger – my age or maybe even less – and she seemed very out of place and ill at ease. A man who seemed to be the host turned to greet me and I knew that he was the one I was supposed to see. He made grandiose gestures over my entrance, introducing me briefly (using the dead man’s name), then murmured, “That’s an unusual coat, isn’t it?”
“It’s Beethoven’s coat,” I said quietly. He nodded and indicated that we’d make the exchange later and that I should act natural and join the party. I took a chair by the window, putting the coat on the floor behind me. I noticed him looking at it again. Suddenly I realized that the money must have been in the dead man’s overcoat – how could I have been so stupid? Now here I was in this psychopath’s parlor with no money for him. What could I do?
Fortunately for me, he was enjoying his party and in no hurry to do business. I tried to stay calm, hoping I’d get an opportunity to slip out. Passing for the dead man to gain entry to this guy’s house was one thing; I couldn’t very well carry on the dead man’s business without having some money in hand.
I noticed the girl watching me. She had cropped blond hair and looked decidedly uncomfortable. My uncle always said that women cut their hair short when they’re unhappy. She had a wistful look, as though she’d rather be almost anyplace else. She also appeared to be the host’s girlfriend. I avoided her gaze; I was in this too deep already without misunderstandings over an unhappy girlfriend. An older woman beside me leaned over and told me with whiskey-breath whispers that I’d arrived just in time – our host always had his girlfriend to entertain at his parties, she explained, giggling.
Just as she’d said, in a few minutes he stood up and clapped for attention and announced that we would now be entertained. He put on some different music and nodded at the blond girl, smiling but giving her a threatening look to make her comply. She stood up on the coffee table and began to gyrate to the music.
The host disappeared into another room with a couple of other guys. The whiskey woman leaned over and commented about our host’s habit – a very heavy addiction, she gossiped; there were those who thought it was beginning to affect his ability to take care of business, she added, although it had done nothing to take the edge off his temper. Frequently, I learned, this need resulted in his disappearing from the party for good; the girlfriend would latch onto some guest she found interesting, and the party would continue without him. This sounded promising – maybe I could slip out unnoticed. Well, I had to, didn’t I? If I had no money, there was no business to be done, and even if I had the money, from the sound of things, there was no guarantee that he’d do the job properly.
I looked up; our host was still gone and the blond girl was now stripping down to her slip, still dancing on the table. Shortly, she had undressed completely.
Someone laughed and threw her a man’s shirt. She put it on, leaving it unbuttoned, and began to touch herself, to applause and cheers. She seemed lost, in a daze, then embarrassed when she caught my eye. She looked away abruptly and got up, strutting around the tabletop, moving around the circle of guests, giving everyone a closer look. The music pounded at a deafening volume.
She kept working her way around the circle, eventually getting to me. Latching onto my sleeve, she pulled me up and began dancing with me in a very sexual way. People shrieked and howled over this, laughing and whistling. I realized that she didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be entertaining this godawful collection of degenerates, but she didn’t know how to get out of it. I began to kiss her; she was grinding against me, clutching my hips, then hanging onto my shoulders.
“You hate this, don’t you?” I remarked.
Her eyes rolled, they might have rolled back into her head for all the life left; she may as well have been dead, she was already dead inside. Dead eyes. She probably heard this at least once a night, this attempt at connection, protection – enticements to defect from men in love with her moral defects. I said it anyway.
“Why don’t you leave?”
“It’s complicated. Just dance with me.”
I tried. I don’t dance very well, even with a gifted partner who could do it in her sleep. Sleepwalking. Sleepdancing. Sleep…. I thought for a moment, the gears in my head groaning into motion above the grinding of the bodies. “I think I can get you out.”
“What – ‘save’ me?” She laughed. “You can’t even save yourself. If you could, you wouldn’t be here.”
I stopped. She grabbed my waist and pulled me into the motions again. No dance, no talk. There were rules. Heaven forbid the man should come out of his back room and find her conversing with someone; why, he might think she had a mind of her own. Couldn’t have that.
“People who can take matters into their own hands don’t come here,” she told me, her mouth close to my ear. “I can’t. Neither can you – or you wouldn’t be here… would you?”
We danced; no one was paying any attention anymore. More guests had arrived and the crowd filled the room now, the music blared and glasses were filled and drained, filled and drained. She was right. I could see right through all of them, now that she’d said it: no one here could help themselves. Not one person in the room knew how to take matters in hand and fix anything. Not one. They all just milled around, drinking themselves into a stupor, and waiting for the man to decide whose problem he might fix next – if he was up to it, if he wasn’t too wasted. She was right. She was absolutely right. And now she was pulling the jacket down around my waist, dancing hot and heavy, relieved that no one was watching her now.
Something hard pressed into the flesh between us and I looked down curiously as she pulled me closer. No one was watching, no one at all. I felt her hand slip under the jacket, and she leaned in tight. “Take care of your own problems,” she said, shoving my hand into the pocket of the jacket. “You’ve got everything you need. Do it yourself.” Confused, I pulled back slightly and looked to see what my hand had closed around. A gun. I stared at her, not quite believing, again, what seemed to be happening. Where were those guys in the white coats when things seemed to be happening that shouldn’t reasonably be happening?
She stepped back and gave me a shove. “Go on. Get out of here.”
I didn’t stop to think about it. I took her by the arm, pulled her off the table and got my coat. This would have created only a minor ripple in the crowd, but she started to raise a fuss, saying she couldn’t leave. What could I do? I pulled out the gun and pointed it at her. “Put this on,” I told her, tossing the coat in her direction. Now people were starting to take notice. Now it was going to get interesting. Now we’d really have some fun. Now was a good time to go. I gestured impatiently while she slipped on my coat to cover herself somewhat. “Does this window open?”
The whiskey woman, apparently delighted at the prospect of a departure from the usual “entertainment,” helpfully staggered over and unlatched the large floor-to-ceiling window, letting it swing open. By the time word filtered out to the heavies at the door, I had a firm hold on the young blond and the gun pointed squarely at her head as we stepped out the window.
She yelled at me all the way back to the lake, bawled me out all the way through the woods and down to the shoreline. I don’t know why I took her there, really, I just wanted her to see the mess I was trying to clean up. I’d explained it all to her, as much as I understood, and she got it but she couldn’t get past the idea that the guy was probably going to track her down and drag her back to the house. We were arguing like fiends when we emerged from the woods just above the shoreline. I stopped short, feeling a wave of disorientation.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, realizing something must be amiss. I waved her off, needing a moment to sort out things for myself.
There were no dead birds. No black sand. No oily rainbows on the water. I turned around and around, slowly examining the details and configuration, the shape of the shore, the thickness of the woods. Yes, this was the spot. This was where I’d woken up this morning. There was the shed. This was definitely the place.
“I didn’t imagine it,” I insisted. “I couldn’t have. Well, I could have, but I didn’t.”
“Do you think someone came and cleaned up?” she suggested.
“They could’ve cleaned up the birds – but there’s no way they could’ve cleaned up the water and the shoreline this quickly,” I pointed out. I retraced my thoughts, my mental deductions; yes, this was the spot, no, they couldn’t have cleaned up this quickly, I couldn’t have imagined it because I did use the man’s map to find the house, where I met the girl, who was clearly here, so that much was obviously not a hallucination – wait, what about the man’s body? I struck off through the underbrush, looking for it, looking for familiar twigs. The girl, still wrapped in my coat, followed me. Where was he? Sure, I’d hidden him, but not this well. I couldn’t have hidden him even from myself, could I? I stomped around through the brush, searching every square foot – nothing. I couldn’t have imagined that. I was wearing his clothes; I drove his car, I used his map. I pulled out a wallet from the inside of the jacket and showed it to the girl. “This is not me,” I said, waving his driver’s license at her.
“No,” she agreed. “This is some old guy.”
I looked around, bewildered. Could he have gotten to the shed, maybe? Surely not; he’d been dead when I left him. Still, I had no other ideas, so I wandered back down to the shed. As I did, it occurred to me that I’d meant to check it out several times when I was here earlier, but I’d never gotten around to it, what with the oil-soaked birds and the guy dying and all that. Where on earth could his body have gone? Dead guys didn’t just get up and wander away, and even if he had, I’d taken his car. He couldn’t have gotten far. If I’d known he was going to come to life and need his car, I certainly wouldn’t have taken it, or the map, for that matter, and that train of thought led me back to the girl and the gun. It always comes back to the girl and the gun, doesn’t it? Yes.
I saw her watching me from a safe distance. She’d taken off my coat and was carrying it, looking around at the deserted lakeshore and probably wondering if I was completely out of my mind or just using a story about dead birds as a poorly-thought-out excuse to get her alone in the middle of nowhere. Now that she wasn’t doing the bump-and-grind on a coffee table in front of a dozen drunken fools, she was rather attractive. “Are you going back to him?” I called.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I think he’s a lunatic and dangerous as hell, but hey, I only just met him.” I do know about lunatics, however, I’ve a considerable amount of experience with that. I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I said, “It’s up to you. Your choice.”
“Yeah. It is,” she agreed. “So what about you? What are you going to do now?”
I was going to have a look in that shed, that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t need to find anything to clean up birds, or a phone to call an ambulance, but all the same, I wanted to check it out. It seemed like a good idea. It seemed like the right thing to do.
I expected it to be locked but the door swung open easily and I stepped inside. “Come in,” said a lilting voice from the depths. I walked in hesitantly, blinking to let my eyes adjust. The room spread out in front of me, filling my vision with bookshelves and comfortable furniture and fluorescent light.
The light’s always over there, you know; we keep it over there, keep our distance so we won’t bang our heads into it and annihilate our minds. You have to be ready to destroy yourself in order to go toward the light. You have to not mind the tearing apart and putting back together to make a better whole.
“How are we doing today?” Dr. Hawks inquired hopefully, tucking a stray blond hair behind her ear and straightening her nice white coat.
“Um… OK. Not bad, actually,” I said, settling into a chair as she reached to turn down the volume of the classical station playing on the radio. “You could leave that on,” I suggested.
“I thought you didn’t like music,” she smiled quizzically.
I shrugged. “It’s Beethoven. Number 9, I think.”
“That’s right,” she nodded, obviously pleased. She took up her pen and a folder of notes, and I took silent note of the ghostly pale band on her finger where her wedding ring had lately been and now was not. Past tense.
Intent is everything. It all comes back to the girl and the gun. I pulled my coat over my lap, to be less conspicuous, sat back and looked at the light, the brilliant white sunlight illuminating a halo around the edge of her hair. It was beginning to grow out since I’d seen her last, I noticed. She referred to her notes and reminded me where we’d left off from last time, and we began the dance.
Today, I decided, I might save myself.
© Copyright 2005 by Patrick Redding. Republished 2011, 2015.
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