Two Stories for Christmas

The Sharks Are Circling



Scene:The breathing space between first and second world wars. New York City. 11:15 p.m. Christmas Eve. The police sergeant leaves precinct headquarters, feeling decades older than his actual 48 years. He self-consciously clutches an armload of illustrated storybooks. The book facing outwards is titled, “Detective Mole’s Journey to Crow Valley, And How He Solved the Mystery Murder There”

A woman approaches him in the hall. A small dark-eyed beauty. Too late, he recognizes her as Lucy, his cousin’s wife. He furtively attempts to tuck the books beneath his overcoat, but it doesn’t cover them. A grin twists upon her face as she sees his failed attempt to hide them. She jabs her elbow in his ribs. “What’s the matter, Tom? Tryin’ to hide your dirty books? No need to hide them from me! I’ve seen it all before!” The sergeant chuckles politely. She walks on, laughing down the hallway at her own joke.

He hopes she didn’t notice how deeply he blushed. “If word gets home that I was carrying kids books I’ll say I was doing charity work, teaching an illiterate child to read…”

The assertion isn’t far off the truth. He is in fact, feeling very charitable. He’s on his way to the theater next door to visit his mistress, Merrienne, a wide eyed, healthy blond. Merrienne is certainly young enough to be his child. She grew up on a farm and never learned to read. This inability so far, has not hampered her career as a showgirl. The sergeant pleasantly anticipates indulging his Samaritan urges. He envisions her at the dressing table, wearing only a feather boa. He imagines sitting close beside her, helping her to better herself with the power of phonetics, guiding her as she sounds out the words. “De-tec-tive M-ole ques-tion-ed the c-rows wh-who had wit-nes-sed the ak-sid-dent?”

As he enters the theater’s backstage door, his warm reverie is interrupted. Unsure why, he hesitates mid-step. The small hairs on his neck prickle. Was someone calling his name? “Tom! Don’t go in that building. The sharks are circling.” Was he being followed? He glances down the alley. Only wind rustling around overturned ashcans. A cold shiver rattles his spine. He consciously decides he heard nothing, and ducks through the door, shutting out the darkness behind him. “Don’t go in the building. the sharks are circling, Tom.”

Twenty-seven minutes later flames engulf the lower floors of the theater. It will later be theorized that the blaze was ignited by the confluence of defective stage light and a velvet curtain. Smelling smoke, the sergeant, becomes aware of the fire. His first concern is not that he might perish. His first concern is how to explain to rescuers, the public, and his wife, that there’s a perfectly innocent reason he and three scandalously clad dancers are accidentally locked in a large supply closet on the eleventh floor of the theater.

For twelve minutes prior to his realization of the building’s fiery status, the sergeant, (amidst gradually fading giggles from the girls) has unsuccessfully tried to force open the closet door. The door is solid oak with metal reinforcements. It’s hinged to open into the closet. From outside the closet, with a running start, he might have stood a chance of knocking it in. But the sergeant is inside the closet, and from that inopportune position, even a younger, stronger man would stand little chance of budging the massive door.

No item in the closet lends itself to prying the door open. Other than the man and the three girls, the closet contains only champagne bottles that the foursome had recently emptied, a red cardboard “wet floor” sign, and for reasons not readily apparent, a thirty-five pound carton of cornstarch.

The sergeant still hasn’t removed his wool overcoat. Two of the girls are strikingly similar in appearance. They stand close together intermittently holding each other or the sergeant. They wear identical silk slippers and a purple gauzy wraps ornamented with feathers and sparkly bangles. The abdomens of both girls are fetchingly exposed. One of these girls is Merrienne. The other girl, (as the sergeant has been repeatedly informed, by Merrienne) is Merrienne’s “most very bestest friend for the last 93 and a half days”.

The third girl, slender, taller even than the sergeant, stands off to one side, her position perhaps indicating a certain emotional distance from the others.

The physical distance is also a prerequisite of her unwieldy costume.

In the performance earlier that night, she had performed the uncoveted role of dancing Christmas tree.

The tree costume, prior to its current paint job, had been a dancing tee-pee worn by a Swedish man in a western variety show. It is magnificently designed piece of engineering, worthy of the combined genius of Eiffel and Ferris.

A cone nearly three feet tall, (with the shimmering star at the top), is strapped securely atop her head, fastened under her chin. Her glitter-striped face stoically peers out from gap between the wide brim of the cone and the lower portion of the costume.

Beneath the painted canvas of the costume, are a series of bamboo hoops to hold it rigid. The uppermost hoop rest at shoulder level. It is three feet in diameter. Each consecutive ring is progressively larger. The lowermost ring, at ankle level, is seven feet in diameter. The rings are interconnected by a series of vertical struts, tethered about her muscular body by braces and guy-wires. The entire contraption is anchored to her torso and hips via an network of leather straps and latches. It’s because of these elaborate straps and latches, combined with the dancer’s innate personal modestly, that she remains bound in her costume. The costume forces her arms straight out to the sides, rendering her incapable of releasing the latches herself. Furthermore, the release pins on the exterior and interior of the costume need to be pulled simultaneously, necessitating that one assistant climb entirely inside the hoops of the costume to access the pin. A person in that position would be granted a most intimate view: The dancer wore no underclothes beneath the tree costume, for she’d heeded the warning of the elderly dwarf woman who managed the costume department. “Don’t even try wearin’ undergarments under that harness-brace! The cloth’l bunch up and’ the creases’ll draw blood afore you’ve danced five minutes”

Through a small window in the wall opposite the locked door, the sergeant sees crowds of spectators and fire engines gathering in the street below. Public embarrassment be damned, if he and the girls are to be rescued, he must notify the firefighters of their location. The window is painted shut. Hasn’t been opened in years. He forces it open and sticks his head out shouting “Halloooo, We are trapped!!! We require assistance!!!”

Heat and smoke hit him in the face. Coughing, he withdraws his head to the relatively clearer air of the closet and closes the window. The fire is more serious than he’d initially supposed. Flames stream out the windows of the lower floors. The three girls stand silent. There is nothing to say. The sergeant draws a deep breath, opens the window again, and shouts but his voice is carried away by the wind and attracts no notice from people on the ground. He soon realizes his window is not the only one vying for the spectator attention.

Below him are other windows with other people crying out for help. Waves of heat roll up the wall of the building. In the rippling air it’s difficult to make out what’s happening. Only at moments when the wind shifts, can he clearly see what’s taking place on the ground.

In one moment of clarity he observes the firemen wrestling their equipment through the thickening crowd. In another clear moment he sees them approach the building and then pause, as if unsure of what to do next.

Suddenly an authoritative voice rings out from the crowd. The firemen, halted in mid-motion, turn toward the voice. From their reaction, he expects the voice originated from the fire chief. The sergeant can’t make out the words, but the tone of the voice is strangely familiar, like hearing his own voice reflected back at him.

The next moment the heat clears, he searches the crowd for the source of the voice. The voice sounds its command again. This time Tom spots the source; a filthy vagabond in tattered brown rags. The vagabond raises his face slowly, deliberately, staring up… staring directly through the window, through the sergeant… The vagabond shouts again; “DON’T GO INTO THAT BUILDING. THE SHARKS ARE CIRCLING….”

The sergeant’s knees threaten to give way. No wonder the voice was familiar. The man in rags is none other than his own brother Henry. But how could it be? Henry who’d always been such a dapper dresser when he was young… Henry, who’d gone to Europe and joined the British army to fight in the great war… Brave, heroic, Henry who’d quickly risen in rank until he commanded his own battalion…

Last heard of Henry, he and his men had been entrenched, holding a vital outpost. They’d been hopelessly outnumbered. All of Henry’s men died or deserted. Henry alone remained to the end. Without sleep or food, he held the post against the enemy. For three dark days, and three hellish nights, he launched round after round of mortar shells, until the last launcher exploded.

His body had never been found, of course, but they’d given him a grand funeral with full honors and an empty casket.

The sergeant rubs his eyes. The ragged man below continues to stare up at him. Despite the distance, there can be no mistaking that face. “But, Oh, my brother, what has happened to you? What did they do to you to bring you to this? Those unblinking eyes. So deep and empty, such a dark, dark gleam. On a young deer, a trout… some wild creature… such eyes would speak of innocence. But such eyes on a human being are like gazing into deepest pits of Hell.”

Another wave of heat rises and the scene below ripples. When the heat passes, Tom searches the crowd but spies no trace of his prodigal brother.

The firemen, still in disorder, seem to have ruled out entering the burning theater. They begin erecting ladders against the building, tut the fire department’s tallest ladder scarcely reaches the fifth floor. They succeed in rescuing two or three people. Then flames from the lower floors intensifies. The ladders become too hot to touch and catch fire. The firemen retreat. One rips off his burning clothes and runs to be doused with water.

The sergeant hears stifled cries of the people still stranded on the lower floors of the building. The fire climbs higher. Below the fifth floor of the building people no longer call from the windows. There is only flame. The firemen set up large nets in front of the building to break the falls of the desperate people jumping and falling from the windows. But the nets are quickly set afire by falling, flaming debris. It’s difficult to differentiate between the burning debris and the burning people.

The firemen with hoses turn their efforts to wetting down the buildings abutting the theater. It is then the sergeant finally understands that he’s about to die.

He closes the window, standing tall and straight in his wool overcoat. He feels the heat of the floor through his leather-soled shoes. The smoke in the room is thicker now. The Christmas-tree-girl has fainted in the corner but her outlandish costume prevents her from falling over. The two girls in purple cling to Tom, their faces buried in his broad chest, as though his wool lapels might possess miraculous air filtering properties.

Silence, except for the roar of the fire below and an occasional whimper.

The sergeant glances around the room again, his mind frantically racing. The brick walls. The oak door. The window. The wet floor sign. The empty bottles. The box of starch. If only he were the hero of a radio serial, he could bring it all together. With his hands, his wits, and these simple elements he could save himself and the three girls…”Daring Sergeant Saves Beauties”… “Fantasy” He curses himself: pure bunk…

He feels a lump rise in his throat and turns sharply away from the girls.

It’s inescapable: They will die in this room… Roasted or asphyxiated.

Better to end it quickly. He moves to the window. He opens it… Swaying, looking down… Could a man his size even fit through such a small window? As he hesitates something soft brushes passed him. The girl in purple who isn’t Merrienne has sprung to the windowsill like a cat. For an instant the smoke clears. She teeters on her perch, then with a sharp cry she hurls herself out, away from the building. Two burly men in the crowd see her leap. Instinctively, they both lunge forward to catch her. As she passes the windows of the second floor both men realize she’s falling much faster than they’d expected. Suddenly afraid of being maimed by her plunging body, both men jump back…

She crashes into the pavement.

Each of the burly men will later claim he jumped back not out fear, but because he was sure the other burly man would catch the falling dancer. Cursing each other’s cowardice, the two men, once friends, become bitter adversaries.

From the eleventh floor window, the sergeant observes the dancer’s fall with static clarity. Her head strikes the pavement first. The rest of her body, politely following, delicately folds into itself like a cunning toy…. Some patent device or novelty item…furniture of the future… Weighs mere ounces…. Never be without a chair again…. Folds or unfolds in an instant…. Always carry one in your vest pocket… great on the train or at the races….

Resolve shaken, the sergeant closes the window and turns back. The air is nearly unbreathable now. The room is hot as an oven, yet still he wears his wool overcoat. He and Merrienne gaze at each other. She’s trembling. The room vibrates with the roar of flames. They hold each other for a moment.

Oh… unmanly futility… Radio serial madness fills the sergeant’s head… a rambling call to action…. Lurching, he grabs the thirty-five pound box of starch and hoists it into the air. He holds the box raised over their heads. “Tom!” Merrienne has time to scream his name. Then with a rumble, some vital support beneath them gives way. The entire building shrugs. A beam falls from the ceiling, striking the box of starch from the sergeant’s grasp. The cardboard carton ruptures. And the room is still again. Soft light streams through the window…

From floor to ceiling… illuminated, floating, starch.

Tom and Merrienne stare at each other in the otherworldly haze. Starch white on their clothes, heads, and eyelashes….a white tear trails slowly down Merrienne’s face. The air clouded white with silent possibility… Magic permeates… like fairy snow settling in the ballroom of some enchanted palace. And there is love…

And in that moment of love they are miraculously saved. And only in that moment of love are they miraculously saved. Time restarts with a jolt. The building shrugs again. The door frame buckles and fire enters. Tom and Merrienne open their mouths in shock. The flame touches a floating starch particle, and instantaneously, twelve hundred thousand million starch particles suspended in the air ignite.

Explosive combustion. A flash of searing white heat yanks the very air from the lungs of the unfortunate lovers. They are dead even before the roof falls and crushes their skulls.

The outer wall of the closet bulges and bursts outwards over the street. With an audible pop, like a cork from a bottle, something is expelled.

The crowd below scurry to avoid falling bricks. Someone screams, “They shot off a rocket!!! From the top of the building!!!! They shot off a rocket!!!!!”

Sure enough a glittering cone-shaped projectile is traveling skyward at tremendous velocity. Higher and higher…then losing momentum, it stalls, and falls towards the frantic crowd.

Much Screaming and yelling. It’s midnight and Church bells are ringing.

The cone stops falling straight down and begins instead to waft back and forth. The cone is now small end up, wide end down. Its motion is like a church bell ringing.

The cone’s descent slows. The rising, superheated updrafts of the burning building buffet first one way, then another, wafting the cone to and fro. The crowd in utter panic, dashes left and right, trying to avoid the spot where the cone will crash. In the swarming street, a wide circle empties of people… Emptied of people that is, except for a lone Frenchman who stands at the dead center of the circle. Perhaps the man is disoriented by the tumult and hubbub in this strange country. Perhaps he is drawn to that point by some greater power. Perhaps, because the Frenchman is a dancer in the Paris Ballet he is quick to recognize the outline of a tall, well built girl dressed as a conifer.

And perhaps, gazing straight up beneath the descending cone, he becomes rooted to the spot, transfixed by the loveliness of what he witnesses within.

They are the talk of the town for weeks.

The Frenchman and the showgirl.

A Christmas miracle.

The tale is told again and again. How eight firemen, an ironworker and a locksmith labored for hours to extricate the two of them from the mangled tree rigging, How they sustained only minor injuries. How they fell in love during the days they spent recuperating in the hospital. How their faces beamed with joy as they were married, propped up in their hospital beds. How on New Year’s Eve they were back on their toes again, joyously dancing together at all the very best, most exclusive parties.

A young staff cartoonist (who, incidentally, had stayed home with a tooth-ache on Christmas eve) doodles a caricature of the couple. This picture is reproduced in countless papers and magazines. Perhaps you are familiar with the it? Executed in bold swooping curves of india ink, it portrays a fanciful vision of the French ballet dancer halting the fall of the showgirl in her tree costume. The caricature is not entirely fair to either of them. The Frenchman is drawn looking effete, sporting a ridiculously large pompadour, a lace-front buccaneer shirt with ruffled sleeves, and billowing Turkish trousers. The height of the showgirl is greatly exaggerated and her lovely features are drawn looking somewhat “horsey”.

Still, one cannot deny the dynamism of the pose. The Frenchman standing one leg forward, one leg back, knees gently bent, his chin confidently raised, The girl in the Christmas tree at a slight angle above him, her body gracefully extended, toes pointed, hands above her head, fingers clasped. She appears self-possessed and focused, as if making a grand entrance from the wings of the stage. The Frenchman’s arms are outstretched, poised, seemingly ready to fling her spinning into the air once more.

Somehow, in simplicity, this line drawing transcends itself, and becomes a symbol of the indefinable spirit of the age.

The newlywed dancers take it all with humor and aplomb. They are happy in the spotlight, and even happier when the spotlight moves off them.

They travel the world, Always dancing, always on the move, they thrive. No tragedy can catch them.

By way of luck and careful planning they accumulate a sizable nest egg, and retire early. They remain happy. Childless themselves, they devote their resources to secular children’s charities.

In their silver years, they visit New York again to attend a charity banquet in their honor. The newspaper caricaturist, now elderly himself, is there. Self-effacingly apologetic, he presents them with his original drawing. The paper is yellowed, the edges dog-eared, but the ink is unfaded. The couple is delighted. They embrace the awkward caricaturist and the drawing is soon tastefully matted and framed. The aging former dancers cherish the picture and proudly display it in their living quarters for the rest of their days.

. . .

A chilly march night in the breathing space between the first and second world wars. 3:17a.m.

The charred remains of the theater remain in the cellar hole. Soon the rubble will be hauled away and a new building built. But for now it is the time of quiet and moist creosote.

A lone figure in brown rags sits at the center of the wreckage. He sifts through the reeking debris with tattered gloves. He pushes a fragment of brick to the side… He reaches, pawing in the ash and withdraws his hand, clutching a chunk of black matter. Smiling, he rolls it between his hands until it crumbles. He extracts a small gray cylinder from the crumbs. He brushes it off and threads it onto a long, rusty wire already beaded with similar trophies. Henry is constructing a necklace of human finger bones.

Above the remains of the theater, high in the indigo sky, beneath the gibbous moon, smooth, oblique angular masses hover and glide… A hunger immense and silent… the sharks continue to circle.





The Christmas Cave

It’s all here as best as I can remember. This used to be mining country, but the coal was used up, the water was poison and the jobs was gone. Now it was a county of impassable dirt roads, and collapsing farmsteads; yards filled with broke down machinery overgrown prickerbush, possums and crows… Folks with any anticipation of something better elsewhere took the last bus out of town with whatever they could haul in their suitcases. They left the rest behind. Some elder folks, possessed by pioneer individualism stayed by choice, so they said, but the fact is, when there’s no one to notice if you’re alive or dead, there’s no one to notice if you’re alive or dead, if you take my meaning. It got real quiet. Hardly no cars. All the hum went gone from the electric lines. I always runned my own generator so it weren’t no difference to me. But when it’s quiet, faint sounds get piercingly noticeable. Even little faraway sounds were like splinters in the underbritches of silence. In the dogdays of summer, I’d sit on my porch and watch purple heat flash lightning crackling around the old civil defense telegraph tower up on the hill. It was the only hill the coal company had left us. All the rest of the hills had been blowed up and the rubble plowed into the valleys. But the feds made them leave the hill with tower. In the silence with the lightning sizzling around the tower, I swear I could hear every person left within twenty miles “Ooohing” and “Aaahhhhing” like they was watching a fourth of July firework show. I stayed because this is where my machine shop is. No chance in hell of selling it for more than a dollar, and I got nowhere else to go. I can fix damn near anything, but I got no credentials and I’ve always worked alone. From time to time, one or another of my old customers trucks in some work for me. They know I’ll work cheaper than dirt. On other occasions I’ll fix something for one or another of the locals, and they’ll barter me some diesel, or some critter they killed. One interesting development in the past year: A few dozen of the younger men who still had some remaining strength of self persuasion, got together and decided it weren’t right to live in houses anymore. They called themselves “the Mountain Boys” and took to living outside all year round. They had a point about not living in the houses. Lot of houses were contaminated with the stink of death, and if they ever aired out it was only cause the roofs finally come off. The Mountain Boys weren’t too superstitious to come down and pick through the remains of empty houses for useful things, but living in houses… that was against their creed. So that brings us to the beginning this story. It was mid December. No snow of course. Just dull grey fog all the time, and early night fall. As usual I was working in my shop night and day. Day and night. Sleeping whenever the mood struck me. As usual some damned fool had got the idea into their head that it would be a bargain to leave me with a whole big pile of small broken rusty things and hope I’d mend them all together into one BIG damned rusty thing. And I, being the damn fool that I am, was doing it. As long as I was in my shop, pounding metal together and running the generator, all I could hear was my own cacophony, but when I took a breather and stopped my commotion, I’d hear whooping and hollering from miles away at all kinds of hours. The rumor was the Mountain Boys had taken to living deep in a network of caves they’d found. These caves was supposedly full of more bats than there are heathens in the sinful world. All them bats residing there for who knows how long, had filled the cave with incomprehensible quantities of guano. Even after every other resource had been stripped out of the ground, Mother Nature had a final consolation prize waiting for the Mountain Boys… a little reward for their tenacity. Story was, every damn inch of guano inside the cave was blooming with a never ending crop of lush hallucinogenic mushrooms the likes of which nobody’d ever seen before, and those mushrooms had become the Mountain Boys’ sole source of nourishment. It’s not surprising their conduct got a might unusual. After a week or so, the nightly whooting and whomping tapered off. At first I don’t notice because I was busy working, but maybe three days before Christmas the silence started weighing heavy on my mind… got a funny feeling about it deep in my bones… a feeling like I was gonna have some company sometime soon. I got in the habit of looking out my window from time to time.. One day, I can’t say what time it was… no distinguishing between noon and evening… I got the strong feeling that someone’s on their way. I look down beyond the old road and I think I see something moving, pushing through the bushes. I blinked and lost sight of it. But I waited, and soon enough I saw it again: A figure in huge overalls, wading boots and a big old surplus canvas back pack. As he got closer he shifted the brim of his hat and I got a look at his face. It was Joe. He was one of the more prominent Mountain Boys. Probbly the biggest darn somnufabitch I ever did see. He had wide shoulders and a square jaw… Kind of a blank face like a G.I. Joe… His kind of looks would’ve naturally disposed folks to look to him as a leader… if anyone was going anyplace, that is. He walked through my yard and stepped right up onto my porch like he owned the place. When he saw me standing at the window, he took off his hat, and nodded to me real polite. The joker just stood there on the stoop, in his bib overalls, hat in hand, like he’s waiting to go to church… I expected him to knock but he doesn’t, so after a minute, I opened the door and says “Well Joe, what can I do for you? You got something broke that needs fixin?” He just looks at me with those pale glassy eyes of his, and says “No… nothing like that…” “So what does bring you all the way down here, Joe?” Still looking at me without blinking, Joe indicated there was something important he had to inform me of. His eyes did seem unusually lit up, (though his eyeballs were the kind as always gived the impression he were thinking about something momentous even when he obviously weren’t thinking bout nothing.) I told him I expected he’d best step inside, and tell me what his business was. “No” says Joe. “It ain’t like that at all. I expect YOU best step outside.” Joe told me he had to show me the single most significant thing I’d ever see in my life. I weren’t quite sure what to make of the situation, but I mulled it over. I sure could use a respite from working in my shop and I figure one thing’s likely no worse than any other. Might as well as go along and see what Joe’s all het up about. So I stepped outside. As I closed the door behind me, Joe nodded his head like he’d made a preliminary victory on proving whatever it was. He says “We’ll need to walk a quite a ways. As we walk, I will try and explain you the story as articulate as I can, so you can understand when we gets there.” And so we both trod out into the gloom. For a while I walked along side of him. He didn’t say nothing, but I could see he was thinking hard, chawing words around inside his mouth trying to feel out the exact right shapes for what he needed to tell. We were trudging through rough country. There was no path, just shale, bogs and brambles. There hadn’t been enough cold snap to knock the foliage back lately. Green leaves was still up, overgrown, and unhealthy looking. It was getting darker now. We’d walked beyond terrain I was familiar on, so I dropped back to following behind. Joe still hadn’t said a word. Words can make time go by faster or slower, but when there’s no words at all, there ain’t no measure of anything. The sky was almost completely black now. Joe rummaged round his backpack for a minute. There was a little flash of light and I saw he’d lit up a candle. It was a right gaudy candle, all painted with glittery candycane stripes and nail polish pearls. The kind you’d buy for your Granma at a Christmas shop. Joe must have requisitioned it out of them empty houses. It barely made light to see, beyond Joe’s outline. I endeavored to place my feet directly in his tracks. There could be all kinds of sinkholes or mineshafts out this way, and a gentleman my age needs to take some carefulness with himself. And so we walked on. It wasn’t till we was on the second or third candle out of Joe’s bag that he commenced his story. He spoke slowly, with long deliberate pauses, while he organized his thoughts together: “I can’t take no credit for being the first one to try it, but I wasn’t the last one neither… The first fella, was named Larry I think, but his name don’t matter none, You wouldn’t have knowed him. He had himself an old shovel..Kept himself busy in the back of the cave, digging away in the guano like he was trying to get to China.” (Personally, I suspected Larry was probably hoping for to find more mushrooms, but I didn’t say so to Joe) “So Larry kept on digging straight down into the bat-shite. He keeps shoveling till eventually he’s standing at the bottom of a hole 6 feet deep and big enough to lie down in and still no sign of solid ground, like its shit all the way down. He’s feeling tired from all that digging. The air in the cave is chilly, but he notices the guano around him is warm as compost in the sun. It’s about then he gets a compulsion like he’s right on the edge of finally discovering THE most important thing in his whole life, like he’s within arm’s reach of knowing the answer of what he’s put here for! So he follows his fixation and he sketches out some letters on a scrap of paper and carefully buries that paper at the bottom of the hole.” Joe Paused to light another candle. “What did he write on the paper?” I asked. “I ain’t reached that part yet… So once Larry covered the paper under a few feet of guano, he buried himself in that warm hole too, right on top of where the paper’s buried, and goes to sleep just as cozy and snug as if he was wrapped up in his mother’s arms. We thought he might have left us, but round three days later he wakes up and clambers out of the hole. Then he goes back in again and pokes around till he locates the piece of paper and he takes the paper, and kept it close to himself and don’t tell no one what’s writ on it. Larry mighta seemed different after that, but the rest of us didn’t notice much cause pretty soon we each, got a hankering to find THE answer ourselves, and each of us went through the same routine of digging and writing on paper and burying and sleeping. None of us talked about it beforehand you understand. We just did what we did. When we’d all woke up again, it seemed like we all felt the world a little differently. After a few days when we’d had time to think about things, I started talking it over with the other fellas and they all mentioned they’d had some serious dreaming while they was underground. Dreaming that weren’t like regular dreaming. These dreams had got some magnitude to them. So as we’re all comparing observations, we ascertained we’d all scribbled the same exact thing on them paper squares we’d buried.” “So… What DID you all write?” Joe reached into his pocket and unfolded a little scrap of paper about 3 inches square. He held the candle so I could see. There, written in black, was four letters: “M A M E” “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “I mean there’s “m a i m” meaning cripple or mutilate, but “M A M E” doesn’t spell any word at all. ” Joe shrugged it off like I was acting childish… He said “Maybe it ain’t MEANT as a word. Maybe it’s the shapes, or the number of black lines in them that’s important.” I was hankering to question more, but I held my tongue. We were still walking all this time in darkness, slogging over rocks and scrub, scrambling over decrepit fences…. Joe continued… “It was discovering we’d all writ the same letters made me realize this was something bigger than all of us. But no one was volunteering to say just what they dreamed, so I volunteered to tell mine. Some of the details was a might intimate, but I figured when something’s this important, is no time to get bashful. And so I told my dream, and as I told it, all the others was nodding their heads, and filling in words and confirming details I hadn’t even spoke out yet. There weren’t no denying it. Every man among us had had the same dream, and what’s more, we’d all dreamed about being with the self same woman… The dream went something like this: It was back in the old times when everything was good, and the sun was yellow in the sky, and the town was thriving on the land, and all our families were living and filled with health. It was springtime and there was a big festival with farm cooking and dancing and games, and happy children running everywhere… Everybody all dressed up in their Sunday best… A band of fiddlers was playing, and across the wooden plank dance floor I saw the girl. I’d never caught sight of her previously, There was something special about her, and I felt my heart start beating fast like I was suddenly more alive than I ever felt before. She had a shy look about her. She was wearing an old fashioned blue dress that looked like it been washed too many times and her hair was pulled back neat, but I detected that there was something free and wild in her. As I crossed the dance floor towards her, I thought for an instant she looked old, but I looked again and she looked as young as me and I guessed I only thought she looked old because of the unspeakable sadness in her eyes, and I swore to myself, I would make her happy one day. I asked her to dance, and when she took my hand I felt like I could do no wrong. And so I danced the days and nights away with that girl. Through spring, and into summer. And she seemed happy with me, but her smile never quite reached her eyes. Come autumn I knew I never wanted this girl to leave my side and I asked her to be my bride. And she agreed, and so it was arranged our wedding would occur during the harvest festival. The marriage alter was hauled out onto the same wooden dance floor where we’d met. And as we stood at the altar I looked at her again and she looked just as beautiful as ever, but looking into her eyes I got a shivery feeling like I was staring into something older and more tired than the world. And I noticed instead of a wedding gown, she’s wearing the same worn out blue dress she’d had on every day since I met her. And I began thinking bout how she’d never spoke of her family, or her past or where she’s from, and I realize I don’t even know her right name, which ain’t nothing major because I love her so strong, but I need to know how I should properly call her so as I can say the questions right during the wedding vows….” Here Joe stopped in his tracks, and turned to face me, both our faces lit by the candle. “Do you know about the battle of the blue and the gold?” I shook my head, “no” , and waited for Joe to go on. “Before everything got all used up,- I’m talking real life now- back when I had a regular job with the coal company. The company once sent me to make a delivery down at their laboratories, and I had look-see around the place. I guess the chemist there had some time on his hands too. He starts explaining me what all his different machines and glass tubes was for. He told me his job was to test samples of all different things that was dug from the ground to find out what they was made of. He said sometimes you could identify a thing’s true nature by shining different colored lights on it. He put on a demonstration for me, just like show-and-tell. He opened up a locked box and took out a gold nugget, all polished and gleaming. He told me PURE blue light and PURE gold light is natural adversaries and would fight to opposite each other out. He closed the window shades of the lab, and put the gold under a contraption with a pure white light that made the gold shine so yellow it hurt to look at. Then he snaps a blue lens down in front of the light, And the light was still bright except it was blue now, but when I looked at that gold nugget I saw all the yellow color been extinguished right out of it. I wouldn’t have known it was gold. It was like a strange lump of glossy black glass. It looked foreign, if you take my meaning.” Joe wiped his brow. “That memory always stuck with me. I suspect the science of opposites to be connected with what happened next in the dream. The girl and I was standing at the altar, and the marriage is ready to commence, and there’s a big gold wedding ring just waiting to go on her finger, and I asked her to tell me her proper name. And She told me her name was Mary. And for the first time I see she’s smiling the sweetest smile I ever saw, and I’m ready to bust with love. And she says ‘Yes, they call me Mary. My name is Mary Ghrey’ And the grin spreads across her face like cracking ice on the river, and the grin turns into a giggle, and she reaches out and grabs the gold ring. And when she touches it, like in the chemist’s lab, the gold ring goes pitch black, just like that. And there was a high wind rising, and her giggle turns into laughing, and laughing turns to shrieking, and she’s screaming; ‘Yes they call me Mary. My name is Mary Ghrey, AND I WAS PUT ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH TO CARRY YOU TO YOUR GRAVE!’ And Mary was spinning like a dynamo, dress whirlin around, and everything was horrible and beautiful and filled with joy and all the townsfolk was clapping hands and stomping feet in perfect time, and through it all I knowed that Mary was my perfect destiny, And I felt happier than I ever felt in my life, relieved like a great stone were lifted off my chest, and everything is spinning and stomping and shrieking into blackness, and fate flows easy as a marble down a ramp… And after the impulsion passed, I gradually woked up, and once I was sure I was awake, I rose up and dug my way out of the bat shit.” We’d been walking most of the night when Joe stopped talking. He gestured we should sit down… And so we sat in silence. I’d almost dozed off, when Joe started talking again; “The other fellas and I talked it over and over, trying to glean some sense out of it. I’m still thinking on it now, trying to ravel down the meaning. The only conclusion I got is something like this: There’s no reward can be offered more tempting than certainty… From the moment we’re born, the thing every man lusts for most, is what’s waiting to claim him at the end of the track. No matter what a man’s done, or what fates have crossed him, he hopes and craves he’ll be joyfully desired when death comes to greet him… Man needs a purpose and it gives him serious comfort knowing that when he’s done he’ll be wanted” Joe lifted the candle and I saw before us a hole in the darkness blacker than the dark around it. Joe stepped into it and I followed. We were in the cave. We walked on. The cave air had a thick smell…of old attic and damp graveyard… How far we walked in the cave, I cannot guess. I lost all count of the candles we’d burnt through, our tiny circle of candle light bobbing along like a bubble in black water, our footsteps quiet on the guano… Finally we reached a spot in the darkness that seemed to me exactly the same as any other spot of darkness, but to Joe it was clearly a destination. He placed the candle on the floor and reached into the shadows. He stood again. His callused hand offered me a shovel . “Are you ready to start digging?”


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