The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.
–W. B. Yeats
"It's the largest ever recorded, and no it's not a hoax."
"OK, so it's the largest beached whale ever found. But why is that so earth-shattering?"
"No, not just the largest beached one. I mean the thing is a hundred and twelve feet long. That makes it the longest ever recorded period. And it's not a whale."
Professor Astiro paused a moment to take that in, thinking about what the voice on the phone had just told him. The longest blue whale ever recorded was one hundred and ten feet long, and even that was thought to have been an overestimation by the whalers who caught her. And the blue whale was the largest animal that ever lived, dinosaurs included.
"But if it's not a whale, than what is it?"
"Can't tell, too much decay. It's too massive to move, so the dissection starts tomorrow on the beach."
"I'll be on a plane tonight."
* * *
Twelve hours and twenty seven hundred miles later, Professor Astiro stood bleary-eyed on a beach just north of San Francisco staring at the damndest thing he'd ever laid eyes on.
It wasn't long before his friend and fellow oceanographer Doctor Charlie Nestler spotted him and ambled up with the kind of tanned and sunglasses swagger that you just didn't find on the East Coast.
Professor Astiro, not one to waste time on trivialities, pointed to one end of the creature and asked, "Charlie, what are those protrusions?"
"Good to see you too Ray," said Charlie. "You need to borrow some sun block or a hat or something?"
Professor Ray Astiro was tall with bony limbs, lanky dark hair, and wan, pale skin that all together made him look more like a creature from the bottom of the ocean than someone who studied it. He also had a laser-like focus that made him the best mystery solver in the field, and he did not countenance distractions.
"I'm fine. What are those protrusions on the end there?"
"Actually I don't have a clue," replied Charlie. He turned to look with the Professor at the leviathan laid out on the beach in front of them. Decay had left it a mess long before it landed on shore, and bloating from the sun was making things worse fast. A team of twenty or so people swarmed over it, a mirror image of the scavengers that had clearly feasted on it in the ocean.
Charlie didn't have to guess that the Professor was referring to the five trunk-like things coming out of one end of the thing. They were about thirty feet long and five feet thick each.
"I'll tell you this though," continued Charlie. "I think they're articulated. The X-rays show joints in those things. I think they could maybe open for feeding. Which I guess would make that end the mouth..."
It wasn't an easy guess to make, observed the Professor silently. The thing didn't taper off at one end, as you would expect of something with a giant tail. No clear surface features such as a face or flippers remained. The skin itself was a pale, translucent white, with hints of green blotches that might at one point have been bioluminescent. It was, as a whole, so large that it was like a trick of perspective, looking closer than it was. The people near it seemed like tiny birds in comparison. Three school buses could have parked end-to-end on its back. It was an impossible monster, bloating in the sun right in front of him.
"So what we have here Professor, is basically a completely new species unimagined in the history of the Earth. And the most exciting find in the history of oceanography. I don't suppose you'd like to help us dissect it," asked Charlie coyly.
"Desperately," said the Professor without taking his eyes off it. "But I'm not going to. Get me maps of the ocean currents and a ship, Charlie. Wherever that thing floated in from, there might be more of them out there. But they won't stay put for long. I'm going after a live one."
* * *
Charlie spared no resource from his lifetime of useful contacts and had a well-outfitted ship ready to depart that very night. This led directly to a tremendous stroke of luck that would not have existed the next morning, for the ship was only an hour’s travel away from the city lights when one of the crew spotted it. An unusual green phosphorescence was in the water. Looking, at first, like the simple yet bewitching glow of jellyfish or plankton, soon they realized it left a trail going straight from the shore off into the distance as far as the eye could see.
"I've never seen the like," said the Captain, a short, gruff, black bearded man that looked every bit the part. "Witchlights are usually localized pools, sometimes giant ones, but still localized."
"I suspect," said the Professor, "that after the creature had been dead some time, gasses from decay made it buoyant. It floated close enough to the surface for phosphorescent bacteria from its skin to leak out and leave us this amazing trail. One which we can only pray lasts long enough for us to catch up to its point of origin."
"Just what is this beast we're chasing anyway, Professor? One of the crew said they saw it on the beach, and it was as big as a whale."
"Bigger. Actually, for a while I was still telling myself it somehow was a whale," said the Professor, mystified. "Perhaps a mutant suffering from gigantism, like you sometimes see in humans over eight feet tall. But no mutation could have given a whale phosphorescence. What's more, judging from what we were seeing, this thing must have shined brilliantly while alive."
"So how is it something larger than a whale, that glows brightly in the dark, has never been seen in thousands of years of sea exploration?"
"That's the right question, Captain. One of many. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to radio Charlie and tell him about this."
* * *
Charlie turned out to be unsurprised by the news.
"Yeah, I figured that out a little after nightfall when the moon went behind some clouds. It's faint but we can see it, glowing there on the beach."
Professor Astiro had to listen closely to make out what Charlie was saying due to a combination of noise from the rest of the bridge and a poor radio signal. Not broken or static exactly, more like Charlie was very, very far away.
"What's the nature of the phosphorescence, Charlie? Does it look like it was for mating, communication, camouflage?" asked the Professor. He didn't bother going into how to tell the differences between one or the other. Professor Astiro wasn't the type of man to trust any data he hadn't double checked himself, but he also wasn't socially inept enough to belittle a fellow expert in the field. Whatever conclusions Charlie came to would almost certainly match his own.
"I hate to keep saying this," returned Charlie's distant voice, "but I've never seen anything like them. They're patterns, but not the kind that could help hide against any background I can think of. Circular and sharp. Like...well...well just to give you something to compare them to mentally, they look like symbols of some kind."
"Must be the decay," returned the Professor after a moment’s thought. "Eating away at the edges of them. You should watch to see how it progresses through the night."
"No can do. Studying this thing has become a lot harder since you left."
"Is the city objecting to you setting up lights on the beach?"
"Oh Jesus, I wish it were that simple. No, it's the crabs. Come up out of the water to eat the thing."
The Professor was flustered by this, momentarily questioning what faith he had in Charlie Nestler. "Charlie, we've all suffered the occasional crab pinch in this job. You just have to push through. It's normal to have to fight scavengers to study a corpse."
"There is nothing normal about this Ray. They're coming up in swarms for the thing. They may be tiny, but if they didn't have brains too tiny for emotion I'd almost say the fucking things are angry. As if they would gladly kill us for their share of the feast. You know my graduate student Tina Ellis? She tripped and fell in amongst them. Before we could pull her out they chewed her up pretty good. One lucky fucker got at her eye..."
Even with the bad reception, the Professor could hear a choked rage in Charlie's voice as he said that last part. He sat in stunned silence for moment. He'd seen worse in his time. Working on the sea was dangerous, and always had been. But an accident like this...
"Horrible...That's horrible Charlie. Just do what you can, we'll keep you informed."
"Can do," said Charlie, sounding suddenly tired. "Over and out."
"Over and out," the Professor returned.
* * *
The next morning the Professor, Captain, and first mate stood on the cramped bridge looking out over the glassy smooth surface of the ocean. The ship was motionless, but not because of lack of wind. The powerful engines could take them any direction they willed, if only they could make the decision to move.
"Based on our GPS route from last night, we're almost certainly following this current here," said the first mate as he pointed to a map on the table in front of them. His complexion was dark black, his accent an odd half-Caribbean and half-Californian.
"Yes, and if we're wrong we'll likely not get a second chance," said the Captain.
The discussion had started going in circles, and Professor Astiro knew it was because they were waiting for him to make the decision, without wanting to make it obvious that they were waiting. The power struggle between Captain and financier was always a complicated one, but that wasn't what caused the Professor's reluctance to say anything.
After all the data was analyzed, the decision was a mad gamble either way. The phosphorescent glow of their trail was invisible during the day. If they waited and followed it only at night, it may well have faded to invisibility before they found the end of it. If they guessed at its course during the day, they might veer off it never to find it again.
Ultimately, the Professor made his decision on gut instinct alone. An uncanny sense of urgency had gripped him, something beyond the pure excitement of the chase.
"Let’s set engines full ahead Captain," said the Professor. "We'll take our chances with the charts."
The Captain gave a curt nod followed by a glance at the first mate that relayed some message the Professor couldn't quite guess at. He walked out onto the deck, trying to let the sun burn the cobwebs from his head. He'd slept poorly, with nightmares of crabs and swarms amidst symbols.
The ship itself doubled as a fishing trawler, like many vessels he had chartered. The on-board sonar worked well in both fields, and the netting gear was easily retrofitted for bringing on board specimens. Being around a hundred feet, four crew plus the captain were enough to man her.
The Professor leaned on the railing and thought back to the radio conversation he'd had with Charlie first thing in the morning. Charlie had said things had gotten worse, with seagulls by the hundreds arriving to hunt the crabs, leaving the scientists in the middle of a battle zone of rabid pinchers and kamikaze beaks. Even with the increasingly bad reception, the Professor could remember perfectly how Charlie described it.
"It's as if Heaven, Earth, and the sea are all locked in a pitched battle for the prize. And I'm not sure we're winning."
Nevertheless, Charlie's team had made some progress, taking DNA samples and bringing in industrial-strength ultrasound equipment to supplement the X-rays of the beast's insides. Using a crane, they were able to determine that the tree-sized protrusions on the end of it did not in fact conceal a mouth. So it had to be assumed they were used to swim somehow, and the other end was the head before the features were eaten away.
Charlie had ended the call with a comment about how he was going out to look for a flamethrower to defend the prize. The Professor didn't know whether he was joking or not, but decided to get some rest until nightfall. He suspected he would be up all night.
* * *
Professor Astiro woke in the dark, drenched in sweat from a nightmare of a crying baby. But after a few moments he realized it wasn't a nightmare, he was really hearing it.
His thoughts raced through possible explanations. Who the hell would sneak a baby onto this ship? Or maybe the nightmare is crowding my thoughts and it's dolphins. Or perhaps we picked up a boat of refugees...
Throwing on his clothes, he headed out on deck. What he found there chilled him in a way that could not be fully blamed on the now freezing sweat that still covered him. All four of the crew, plus the Captain, were standing at the rail looking out so intently that not one turned at his approach, though all surely heard him.
They were dead silent.
Soon the Professor knew why.
The gambit had obviously worked. The ship was still on the path of the green glow. But at the moment the engines were off, all the better to hear the crying. Up here it sounded even more like a human infant, somewhere out off the port side of the ship.
The Professor walked to stand beside them, knowing that they would be searching for the source already. The glow would have made a raft easy to spot, but the sea was empty of all except the sound.
"There," whispered the first mate, pointing urgently off into the night. It took the Professor a few moments to spot it, but he could see a tiny spot somewhat brighter off in the distance.
The Captain moved up to the bridge and started the engines on a low hum. Ever so carefully, he piloted the ship off to the side of the glowing spot, which was indeed about the size of a baby. But the witchglow of the water confused their eyes, made it hard to focus. The crying had stopped, and it seemed that perhaps only the infant’s head poked above the waves.
The men wasted no time, throwing a fishing net over the side and dragging the small form in with their bare hands. The Professor crowded in, anticipating a need for emergency CPR on the child. But when he saw the pale squirming form before him, he cringed at its monstrosity.
He recovered his composure almost immediately though, for the form was only monstrous in comparison to what he had been expecting, not because it was in any way alien.
"A squid," said one of the crew in bafflement. A little larger than surface squid usually were, indeed about the size of a baby. Still, not so different than the sort they had all seen many times. A white, arrow-like narrowing on the head, and at the other end tentacles writhing and clutching around the deck, the animal slowly suffocating.
Yet, there was one way in which it was not simple. It glowed faintly green in the starlight, a bioluminescence creeping into its skin not unlike what floated on the water.
The Captain gave a significant look at the first mate, and this time the Professor was able to interpret it.
So where's the baby?
The unspoken question was answered immediately, and appallingly. The baby’s wail came again, this time much more loudly, from directly at their feet. They all jumped back in shock, as one looked around for another possible source, a source that would provide a saner explanation.
But no sane explanation was possible. The sound was coming from the squid itself, squirming at their feet. The Professor himself broke the spell first, having spent a lifetime dissecting monsters and building an internal scientific detachment. He pulled back the tentacles of the thing, exposing the beak beneath, carefully so as not to have his fingers bitten off.
In defiance of all reason the beak opened again, issuing forth the cry of a human infant.
And worse, far worse, the cry was answered. A thousand beaks in the sea surrounding the ship opened together to issue their weeping in return. The five men on the deck stared out, picking out the pale glowing forms of thousands of squid now skimming the surface. For all the world sounding like babies crying to be fed, a nursery conceived in an unimaginable fever dream.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, the ship was well away from the pod of creatures, moving at full speed along the trail of light. After only a few moments of huddled panic, the men had wasted no time in gunning the engines to flee the scene. One of the crew had seemed nearly mutinous in his insistence to "Give them back their brother," but the Professor had refused. Instead he had dropped the squid into a sample tank in the hold of the ship, where he now stood staring at it with dimmed lights.
"The men are throwing around a lot of ideas up there," said the Captain as he walked in. He had the stride of a man both amped up and suddenly weary. "Most of them involving the words 'radioactive waste dumping.'"
The Professor shook his head slowly. "The glowing is easy to explain, this school of squid obviously ate some of the decayed carcass of the leviathan as it floated by. Whatever causes the glow obviously does not die easy outside of its native environment of the creature’s flesh..."
The Captain heard the "but" at the end of the sentence even though the Professor had left it unsaid. After a few moments he sounded annoyed to have to say it himself. "And the sound?! Some rare species? A mutation?"
"A mutation?!" answered the Professor, his composure slipping for the first time. "Captain, dolphins and whales can make noises because they have lungs. There is nomutation sequence that could give a squid both lungs and vocal chords in under ten million years of adaptations. I don't care if you dropped the entirety of Chernobyl into the ocean and fed them a steady diet of runoff from the Hudson river."
"So what then? What?"
"I don't know," said the Professor, his calm and steady will returning. "It's going to take a lot of study to answer that. In the meantime, we have a job to do."
"I know," said the Captain, repeating it again for lack of anything to add. "I know."
* * *
Trying to raise Charlie on the radio was no easy task. He sounded like he was talking from the dark side of the moon, something which shouldn't be happening in a radio this powerful outside of severe storms. It made the Professor feel somehow more lonely and isolated, as if he were years away from shore instead of days.
"Did you hear me, Charlie? I said it produces actual vocalizations."
"I heard you, Ray. Actually, I'm not that surprised, believe it or not. Fisherman all along the coast are finding incredible things. Sharks with an extra set of eyes on their dorsal fins, clams that when pried open reveal double rows of molars, shrimp with acidic blood causing third degree burns in people who eat them. Everything that had a bite of the leviathan seems to have suffered incredible mutations. I'm worried about my people who've been handling the thing with their bare hands."
"How about that process, Charlie? Have you been able to deal with the difficulties?"
"Actually, yes. It's amazing how many regular Craigslist readers in the California area both have homemade flamethrowers, and are chomping at the bit for an excuse to use them. The beach now looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now, but at least we're driving back the scavenger army."
"Anything new to report on the research?" asked the Professor somewhat absentmindedly. As interested as he was in hearing what Charlie was saying, he couldn't help keeping an ear out for any more cries from the sea, jumping at any imagined sight or sound.
"Genetic analysis is under way," said Charlie. "Full sequencing will take a long time of course, but I can already tell you it isn't a fish. We're checking mammal types next. With the ultrasound and x-ray images we are starting to put together a picture of how this thing might work. I really can't explain the skeletal structure yet, so I'm going to run it through some pattern comparison before I hazard any guesses."
"Excellent, good work Charlie. Anything else?"
"Yessssss, but I am hesitant to mention it..."
"Anything helps at this point, go on."
"Some of the other professors at the college came to the beach to look at the thing, including a professor of dead languages. He claimed to recognize the luminescent markings on the skin of the creature Ray. He said they were a type of ancient lettering. Something called Malachim."
"Well come on, Charlie. You know academia. You stare at hammers your whole life and all the world starts to look like a nail. He's just seeing what he's used to seeing. What's Malachim anyway?"
"I didn't think to ask. He copied down the symbols and went off to translate it...You know I'd almost think the whole thing smacks of genetic engineering, if genetic engineering was about three hundred years more advanced than it is."
"Agreed," said the Professor thoughtfully. "OK, keep me appraised of the situation."
"Can do, Ray. Over and out."
"Over and out."
* * *
The next morning it was the youngest crew member who heard it first. The Captain had cut the engines while they plotted their course by current charts, and the ocean was dead calm. The bright sun was shining down in a way that left the crew squinting, evidence of a sleepless night for everyone.
It was a high pitched noise, but not piercingly so. A kind of humming whoosh, not unlike the sound a sword made when swinging through the air. It was faint, drifting to them intermittently from a direction impossible to tell.
"Don't look at me," said the Professor, noticing that everyone was doing precisely that.
"Even if we wanted to look for the source of it, we can't hear it over the engines," said the first mate in a kind of verbal preemptive strike. "We'd be left going in circles, chasing our own tail."
"Agreed," said the Captain, not needing anything more than the simplest excuse not to go looking for any more strange sounds in the ocean. "We'll continue on the job we were hired for."
This time, both the Captain and the first mate very deliberately did not look at the Professor for any sign of objection to the plan. The Professor, for his part, very deliberately didn't offer any. Time was still against them, and as fascinating as the mutations were, they were nothing compared to the prize he sought.
As day waxed into evening, he sat in the sample room, staring at the squid in its tank. Like most squid, it had very large eyes. This one seemed to be staring right back at him. He tried to tell himself that they couldn't focus on things past the wall of the tank, but he couldn't shake the feeling that this thing was staring at him accusingly. The faint cries that managed to escape the walls of the aquarium certainly added to the impression. Half of him wanted to toss it to freedom over the side; the other half wanted to bash its brains in as an abomination in the eyes of God.
But the heart of him was a scientist and didn't intend to let this little monstrosity go anywhere. He grew faintly hypnotized by the luminescent skin of the squid as it drifted languidly back and forth, and without knowing it he drifted off to sleep, immediately slipping into dark dreams of searching for a lost infant amongst the rusted hulk of a shipwrecked tanker.
* * *
He didn't open his eyes again until the middle of the night, when for the second time in as many days he was startled awake by a sound that, at first, seemed a part of the dream. His first sight was the squid, still staring at him with first one eye, then the other. For a moment the Professor had the crazy post-dream feeling that the squid knew the source of the scraping noise that had awoken him, but was keeping quiet about it through pure spite.
Then the sound came again, and this time he felt the scraping through the deck floor.
Jesus, we hit something, he thought.
As he ran up the stairs he mentally forced himself to remain calm and remember the storage location of the life vests. The moment before he arrived on the deck, he had an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu, as if he would find the crew once again at the railing staring off into the sea.
They were all there, all right, but hardly standing around. They ran to and fro, the first mate barking orders to the crew while the Captain checked gauges at the bridge. The Professor elected to start with him.
"What is it, Captain?"
"We felt it too, but don't know what it was. We're checking for hull breaches now, but don't have any indication yet..."
It came again, this time hitting hard enough to tilt the ship slightly to starboard. The Captain responded by running to the sonar screen.
"Is it the leviathan, Captain?" asked the Professor with a tightly restrained mix of terror and excitement.
"No...no, something much smaller, maybe the size of a dolphin," the Captain replied thoughtfully, gazing at the sonar intently. "Smaller, but perfectly willing to try its luck against something the size of this ship apparently..."
As if on cue the Professor felt the impact on the ship again, and again a moment after that. Not near enough to tip the ship over, but more than enough to be disconcerting.
"Whatever it is, it apparently has friends who also don't like us," the Professor said. For the first time since coming on the bridge, he looked out at the sea for the green luminescent path, making sure they hadn't lost it in the day. Miraculously it remained, as bright as ever, despite days of decay. And what's more, with the engines off to check for hull breaches, he still heard the sound.
It was the hum in the air, the same one from earlier that day, coming and going every few moments.
And louder, he thought. Definitely louder.
His first instinct was to think of another mutated animal, given rise to another impossible set of vocal cords. But that didn't seem right, the sound just didn't seem...organic. He couldn't tell what it seemed like, sometimes metal, sometimes a machine. But not a throat of flesh and blood.
"Lots of friends," said the Captain, replying to what the Professor had said before his reverie. The Professor looked over his shoulder at the sonar. It was a mess of forms.
"Do you have underwater lighting on this rig?"
"In fact we do." The Captain flipped a couple of switches and the sea lit up around them, as sub-surface lights powered on. Silhouetted in the waters they could see a swarm of forms circling the ship, a clear and common hunting technique in the sea, isolating the prey in the middle. As they watched, another two peeled off from the group, ramming the ship again.
"Sharks, maybe," said the Professor. "I guess I don't need to tell you that this would be almost unheard of behavior for a school of sharks."
The Captain merely shook his head slowly from side to side. The Professor was gratified to see that, although he was clearly unnerved, no trace of panic shone in his eyes. They both knew that although the shark might be the perfect killing machine in the water, they couldn't do a thing to a rig this size, only bash their brains in on the hull.
"Well...," said the Professor after a few moments of staring, "moonlight’s burning."
The Captain took the hint and nodded. Speaking into the ship’s loudspeaker he said, "All crew stand away from engines’ moving parts, we're going back underway."
* * *
The rammings continued through the night, scraping the nerves of the crew as raw as the hull of the ship and stopping just around dawn. By then the humming sound had become loud enough to be heard even over the engines. It would hum, then there would be a sort of clashing pinging noise, then a few moments of silence before it started again. There was a majestic beauty to the sound, but the unnerving mystery of it was maddening.
The Professor had spent enough time with sailors to know the superstitions of the sea, and was certain he'd have a showdown with the Captain and crew when they finally broke and insisted on turning off their mad path. He even had his speech prepared, along with threats to reputation and paycheck alike. It was a credit to the Captain and his first mate that they had yet to even broach the subject. Certainly few crews had ever had better cause for retreat.
Or maybe, like himself, the crew felt something drawing them on beyond all power to resist. The Professor had reason enough to hunt the leviathan; it was the scientific find of a lifetime. It would change everything. But the more he thought about it, the more he felt there was something more, some feeling that there was something to witness. You could see it in the very blue of the sky somehow, reflected in the exhausted eyes of the crew who wandered about their duties silently.
The Professor walked onto the bridge and raised Charlie on the radio transmitter, not bothering to interrupt the Captain who silently steered the ship behind him. It took several attempts, and when he finally did, the reception was worse than ever, as if he were transmitting from the afterlife, rather than only a few days from shore.
"Ray, is that you, Ray? I can barely....you," said Charlie, words fading in and out of the ether.
"Yes, Charlie. We're still on the bioluminescent path. What have you discovered on your end? Have the people who touched the skin of the creature suffered any mutagenic affects?"
"Ray...so many things...don't know...visions."
"What was that, Charlie? What was that last part?"
"Visions, the people who touched it...bare hands are suffering from visions!"
"Visions? You mean hallucinations?"
"Listen...translated the Malachim symbols...writing on the beast...oldest form of writing known...reads as...Revelations."
It was getting harder and harder to hear Charlie over the background noise, despite the fact that the Captain had killed the engines and walked out on deck without a word, probably to get a bearing on the source of the humming noise, which had been growing louder by the minute. The Professor didn't spare him a glance, gaze intent on the radio.
"Revelations, Charlie, you're not making any sense! Did you touch the thing, are you hallucinating too?"
"...not important right now! Listen, Ray, you've got...turn around...got to run for it! We found...pattern match...the leviathan's bone structure...It's not a creature Ray, it's an ar..."
The Professor couldn't hear the rest over the whooshing, humming sound. He realized that, not only had it gotten incredibly loud, it also sounded incredibly close.
As he turned and walked out on deck, he saw with his own eyes what Charlie had been trying to warn him about.
A warning that had come much, much too late.
For, the body of the greatest beast the world had ever seen had not been a body at all, but only an arm–an arm chopped off by a flaming sword twenty stories long, swung by a being whose head reached heaven itself.
He stared at them transfixed, his once disciplined mind obliterated by the wonder and horrible majesty of the two beings before him. Their six rows of wings shone brighter than the sun. Their skin of pearl burned with the symbols he'd seen upon the arm on the beach, still burning though long decayed. Their flaming swords hummed as they swung arcs miles long at each other. The first with bearing of terrible hate, locked in combat with another of righteous fury, both faces too beautiful to gaze upon. The first had clearly gained the advantage days ago with a blow that severed the other’s arm, which had floated all those days through the sea towards the land where they found it.
And now their battle was witnessed by undeserving humans brought forth from the dust of the Earth. Some small thought in the Professor's mind told him that their battle had just begun, though it was surely their last.
The voice on the radio spoke on, though there was no part of the Professor which could still listen.
"Malachim is the writing used by angels, Ray. It says it's the end of the world."
In Northern California, there is a scenic highway known as the Avenue of the Giants. It curves through Rockefeller Forest, containing some of the largest, oldest trees in the entire world. The tallest, Hyperion, has been growing for over sixteen hundred years. Its brothers and sisters are not far behind. There are one hundred thirty-seven giants in the forest that have grown over three hundred feet tall. For a thousand years, they have been inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. They have been breathing, these giants. They are anchored to the earth by bases so immense you could carve a cave and crawl inside. This is where I will come to die.
By the time I was nineteen, I began to crave a chaos that I knew could never be satisfied by human interaction. I rejected all normal human relationships–dating, prom, any sort of emotional intimacy–and turned instead to explorations of the wilderness to soothe my discontent. The youngest of two sons born to hardworking, strikingly normal parents, I rejected my older brother’s tendencies to be obedient, blatantly disobeying rules whenever possible. Growing up in a town with a population of 288, this quickly earned me a reputation as a troublemaker. Weott, California is a rainy, tiny town situated directly on the edges of the massive Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Within Humboldt, there is Rockefeller Forest, and within Rockefeller live the world’s oldest trees. Outside the forest, however, Weott is neither massive nor remarkable. My childhood was spent largely divided between the times I rarely spent inside school, and the majority of time when I ditched, running through the forest barefoot, howling like one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys.
Given that it was nearly always raining in Weott, my predisposition to bare-footedness meant that I frequently ended up sick. Instead of keeping me home and nursing me back to health, my mother insisted I drag my sneezing self into school as punishment for all the days I missed. Even while in the claustrophobic confines of the school building, I still managed to evade the classes I didn’t like, spending nearly eight hours a day in the biology lab, reading scientific journals, textbooks, anything I could get my hands on. I was intoxicated, sitting in this lab alone, alternating between absorbing as much information as I could and staring out the window at the rain, at the trees. It was during these moments of binge learning that the first signs of what would later become a Paranoid Schizophrenia diagnosis began to show themselves. I was slightly shy of manic, reading hundreds of pages at a time and then spending hours staring at the trees–their bark, their sinewy branches and wet leaves, their blankets of moss and how even on the sunniest days, it was darker than night in the center of the forest. My teachers noted this obsession, but also my above-average intelligence. I excelled in every class I took. My brother was superior in his accounting and math classes, but I preferred the study of life and growth to numbers and figures. By the time I graduated Weott High, I had attended barely half of my classes and still passed them all with top grades. I was brilliant, and I knew it. My brother graduated a year ahead of me and immediately entered UCLA on scholarships to study business. He was smart too, my brother. But while he channeled his energies into stock portfolios and making other people money, I pursued a different type of wealth.
The day I graduated, I walked across the stage, barefoot, and didn’t stop walking until I reached home, where I packed a backpack, wrote a note for my mother, stole a beer from my father, and began to hitchhike down the Avenue of Giants. The state park has over 100 miles of hiking trails, and I intended to walk every single inch of them. I had long considered the forest my real home, spending more time within the darkness of its deepest sections than inside the walls of my own house. Since I was no longer weighed down by the pressures of graduation, I was drawn to the trees even more fiercely. I felt an attraction to these Giants that was nothing short of erotic. I was nineteen, barefoot, and free.
The trucker that I hitched a ride with dropped me off at the start of the longest trail within the park, Bull Creek Flats Loop. It was ten miles long and usually took hikers two days to complete, with several scenic camping spots along the way. At this point, I had begun to experience stronger symptoms but was too stubborn and too narcissistic to acknowledge them. I was hyperactive, alarmingly thin, and entirely convinced of my ability to complete the trail in one day. Though I had been growing increasingly distant from my family, they had noticed these changes. My mother would tell me later she chalked them up to my teenage indifference and that “I was always a little different.” As I took my first steps on the trail that day, my heart was beating harder than I had ever felt before. I was electrified.
Though I had begun to feel the crushing embrace that comes with mental illness, I still had the good sense to bring cold weather gear, food, water, and shoes with me. Also tucked safely in my backpack was every Jack Kerouac book I owned and a worn leather journal, soft from years of use and the progressively more incoherent ramblings from the past few months of my life. It was the first day of September, and the first day of what would notoriously become the rainiest season Weott had seen in over a hundred years. I felt the dirt turn to mud beneath my feet, felt the heavy rains and the shake of the thunder and the hairs stand up on my arms from the lightning in the air, and for the second time that day, I was electrified.
I do not know if it was the rain, or the release of all responsibility after graduation, the insatiable desire I felt to lose myself in that forest, or the chemical miscommunication happening in my brain, but as I walked further into the Rockefeller and the heavens fully opened up, all hell broke loose. I would learn later that I had experienced my first hallucinatory episode. It has been ten years since the park rangers found my body, naked, nearly dead from exposure, and severely malnourished lying at the base of Hyperion. They discovered me six days after I had initially set out. Ten years later, successfully in therapy, medicated, and lucid, I cannot remember a single moment from those six days. I do, however, have the journal entries I wrote while lost. Or, possibly, not lost but exactly where I felt I most belonged.
When the trees were calling me and when my mother was calling me, I would always listen to the trees. This is why I was always lost and this is perhaps why I am lost now. But, when you walk barefoot through a city of trees and feel the earth beneath your feet and stare three hundred feet towards the sky and still cannot see the head of a Giant, how could you possibly return to a city of brick and metal where you look three hundred feet towards the sky and see nothing at all? I have answered their call. I am home.
I was initially hesitant to take medication. I knew that this addiction I had to the forest, this entirely untamed wildness I felt, would be numbed. I did not want to be dull. Lucidity, at that time, seemed like a nightmare. I reveled in the uncertainty, the chaos I felt when out in the middle of nowhere. When I first stumbled naked and raw out of the forest, supported by a bewildered ranger, I did not immediately get treatment. My parents, and the entire sleepy town of Weott, were unequipped to deal with the insanity that had begun to fully envelop me. I developed a social anxiety so intense I would retreat for days at a time to the darkest corners of my mind. In the dead center of the Rockefeller there is a corner just as dark, and this is where I felt most safe.
Inside the forest there is a phenomenon called Darkness at Noon. This is the most beautiful time of day. While the rest of the world celebrates noon as the point when the sun is at its highest, halfway through its journey, burning its brightest, this is a time within the forest when it is entirely dark. The Giants are too tall, their arms are too long, reaching out in all directions, saluting the sun. They reach towards the sun everyday, growing just a little bit. But I lay exposed, down at their roots, and do not feel the sun. They protect me. I am raw. I am stripped naked of bark and blood and lie here exposed and they protect me. We are one.
One of the classes I actually attended in high school was anatomy. I became incredibly fascinated with every facet of the human body. I know how many bones are in the hands, the feet, the different muscle groups, and what veins keep what alive. I know how long it takes for a person to bleed out and what arteries are the most dangerous to sever. I know what bones hold us up and what joints allow us to lie down. This fascination paralleled the knowledge I was accumulating about my friends inside the Rockefeller. I should note here that I had no actual human friends. When I was 19, I attributed this to the fact that they were intimidated by my obviously superior intellect, but I think perhaps it is more realistic to attribute this to the fact that no one wants to hang around the skinny, pale kid who looks like he’s never seen the sun, who never wears shoes and only talks about trees and says things like “if I slice your carotid artery you’ll bleed out in less than six minutes, you know.”
I am lying on my back on the dirt floor of the forest. There is a rock cutting into the remaining skin between vertebrae Th6 and Th7. I am naked. I stare up at my hand. The skin is peeled back, all the layers stripped away like bark and exposing the raw insides. My blood has long since drained and soaked into the earth. I twist my arm and examine the sinewy tendons stretching the length of my arm, the muscles, the skinny branches of my fingers, with knobby knuckles and exposed nail beds where I have torn off my fingernails so that something else might grow there. My whole body is like this, stripped down so that you can see what holds me up. If you cut into a Giant and take out a piece of their insides you can count their birthdays, find out how long they have been growing. When you look inside me you can do the same thing. See these bones? They have held me up all these years. I look through the space between the bones in my arm and think of Hyperion, the king of Giants. Hello, old friend, will you miss me when I’m gone?
All of the trees in the Redwoods State Park are touching–every single one of them. There is not one that stands alone. Their roots reach deep into the ground, where they divide into many smaller fingers and gently overlap with the fingers of their siblings. They feed off each other. This is actually what helps them grow. Each finger digs nutrients out of the earth and feeds it to the others. These roots eventually grow strong enough and thick enough that they sometimes grow up and out of the earth, where they remain intertwined like the legs of lovers. I was sixteen the first time I slept with a girl. Despite my social ineptness and inability to have a conversation with anything that could actually talk back to me, I know I had a weird sort of sex appeal. I stood outside the school and smoked cigarettes and stared intently back at the girls who giggled at my skinny frame and shaggy hair. On the last day of school every year, there was a bonfire just outside of town. I was uninvited but went anyways. I drank Jack Daniels and sat in silence, watching wood in the fire crack and explode, and worrying about the sparks lighting the forest on fire. I somehow ended up in the woods with a girl from my literature class, whose name I still do not know. I wrapped my long fingers around her legs and could think only of the roots, growing high into the air. She pulled my hair and I thought back to the first time I got my long hair stuck as I was exploring. I scratched my nails against her skin, and thought instead of the sweet sensuality of peeling back a piece of bark. She drew her breath sharply when I drew blood, an accident, but equally as enticing as watching rain pool inside a dip in the wood. I wrapped my arms around her and was disappointed to find that her thin frame fit easily within my embrace. Try as you might, you will never be able to wrap your arms all the way around a Giant. I pushed down on her hips, dug my nails into the bones. I remember rolling off of her when it was over, and inspecting my fingernails, expecting to find dirt and moss, dissatisfied by their cleanliness.
When I was seventeen, I stood outside the only grocery store in Weott, smoking a cigarette. I should have been in school. A woman who was a member of the church across the street obviously recognized I was a soul in need, or some such shit, because she came over and proceeded to talk to me about God. I indulged her for a little while, explaining my faith belonged not to an entity in the sky but to an entirely different entity, a group of gods growing out of the ground, whom I went and worshipped every afternoon. She then asked what I believed would happen to me after I died. I told her I would die buried at the feet of my gods, and whether there was a heaven or a hell I would be close to both.
I am decomposing. It was my blood that went first, soaking into the ground for Hyperion to drink. Then my skin, all the separate layers turning into dust and falling off. Then the muscles, the tendons, the hair, my eyes. The bones will take awhile. While I am sitting here feeling my bones turn into dirt, I am at peace. I know that I will be sucked into the ground by thousands of roots. I will be drawn so deep into the earth that if there is a hell, surely I will be able to see it. And then I will be drawn up, towards the highest part of the Giants, to feed the leaves and the arms that salute the sun and I will be high enough to touch the heavens, if they really are there.
I lay here dying. I know that a tourist will wander by with his family and see my bones and I hope he will not be afraid. I hope he will see my skinny fingers dug into the dirt and know that I was holding the hand of a root underneath. I hope he will see my skull tilted back towards the sky and know that I was looking towards the canopy during the Darkness at Noon. I hope he will see my jaw open wide and know that I was laughing because I knew that I would not see any sunlight peeking through. If my tear ducts were not dry and my eyes not already claimed by the elements, he would see that I was crying. Because I am being drawn into the dirt and I am home. I am Hyperion. I am Hyperion. I am Hyperion.
She remembered every moment of the first time they met. The images flitted constantly across her mind like an age-old newsreel, broadcasting tame comic book versions of the too-real world. It wasn’t a spectacular date–no slow-playing orchestra, no moonlit kisses. But something he said at the end of it burrowed itself deeply into her. When he walked her to her door that night he said simply what a wonderful time he had. He complimented her eyes, something poetic about whirlpools, but expressed his wish to see them more. Her hair was in the way, he said.
She couldn’t let it go. His comment sat with her patiently for a few days, and while it did, a tempest was gaining momentum inside of her.
Finally, on the third day, she faced herself in the mirror, trying in vain to see her navy eyes through that quiet, dark curtain of bangs. Suddenly they were ugly. Girlish. Retro. He may have been more right than she thought. Maybe she should cut her hair.
She pinned back her bangs almost violently, enjoying the struggle between the bobby pins and the skin of her forehead. And then she went to the hair salon down the street, and requested the closest cut they could manage while salvaging her femininity. The dark clumps of hair were like regret on the butter-colored wood floor that was in desperate need of waxing.
They saw each other again, and he noticed immediately that there was something different about her, more open and raw. He told her that her eyes were tragically beautiful, roiling like turbulent water.
Suddenly, the pull of gravity was only a minor inconvenience, really optional if you got down to it, and her feet barely touched the ground. They held hands, and she could have sworn that hot white sparks were making a home between their slightly damp palms. He kissed her goodbye, but something that he said tore apart the fairy tale façade of the night and restored gravity back to its former power. He told her much too kindly that he wanted to see her face more, without the consumerist cosmetics. She nodded mutely and smiled, a thin and lukewarm attempt at happiness. He kissed her once more, businesslike, and was gone.
It festered inside of her, growing more prominent every day. The next day she faced an all-too-honest reflection out of the corner of her eye in the starkly lit bathroom mirror. Simple, she thought, easy. And in minutes she had scrubbed away the product of decades of commercials stocked with flawless women that lied and said she could be just as beautiful as them… If only she could scrape together the pennies from the bottom of her piggy bank.
Her skin was bright pink and fairly raw afterwards, but she didn’t mind. The need to see him again was so powerful that it was like a fire in the deep hollowness of her belly, fueling everything with a fierce and burning monopoly. So she called him and they met again, and this time the balance favored closeness over polite trivialities. He teased her. He called her pet names.
But he still couldn’t see who she really was inside, or so he said. She racked her brains, trying to think up ways to change.
When he showed up at her door, she was wearing absolutely nothing. He was stunned, and aroused. No, she said clearly and firmly. This is me. I stand before you with nothing to hide. This is me.
Yes, he nodded. But it was a mere product of his momentary desire for her. He was beginning to love her in his own way. After a long night in, he still felt the same. There was something missing, or something in the way. He told her how he felt, because he wanted to be honest and open if he expected honesty and openness.
Angry with herself, she stalked into her foyer without bothering to flip the lights on, letting the twin demons of self-loathing and despair nibble at her heels. What am I doing wrong? she thought in frustration. What could I do to make him see me? For a long time she stood in front of her mirror in the dark, hating the decisive dark outline of her body. Then, suddenly, it came to her in a white-light flashbulb of inspiration.
She peeled off her skin. It took all night, and it was certainly not pleasant. The sensation was not unlike ripping a Band-Aid off an exposed wound, but there was something sharp and deep about it. Each strip was like hot lemon juice in a paper cut, stinging with exhilaration. She was left with a mountainous pile of what she had realized was the final barrier between him and her.
Less than 24 hours passed before she rushed to see him again, alight with pride in her new discovery. It just had to be the final solution. His smile was enchanting, if oddly shark-like, but his lips did not reassure her in the least. He still couldn’t see her, they said.
Only hot tears accompanied her home. She stayed far away from anything reflective, focusing only on what could possibly be done to improve herself. It came finally to her, but the epiphany did not give her joy as the first did.
In a mood of somber determination she began to tear away her muscles. They were resistant, clinging to her bones like lost children, but with enough tugging they loosened themselves. The fat was easy; it melted off without any coaxing on her part. Her bones were lily white underneath the wreck of her former self, and a tentative smile found its way to her lack of lips.
Without looking in the mirror, taking directions only from her wetly beating heart, she ran to show him how far she had come, how much she had changed.
The sound of his doorbell in the night was music, and her open heart responded immediately to the clapping of footsteps on hard wood.
His expression said it all. They had triumphed over the barriers that the natural world creates. She had taken away the walls that prevented him from seeing who she really was. There she stood, her soul bared. They had finally achieved the closeness that their unique bond demanded. He leaned in to kiss her, overcome with passion.
But she had no lips. No problem, he cried, frenzied, I can just hold you for right now. But when his arm encircled her skeletal waist, they could not ignore the crumbling dust of her bones. They were pure but brittle.
Robinson sat over his cup of coffee. His eyes moved in time to the jazz playing over the stereo, flicking back and forth in his paunchy face. He was thinking about his wife's nose.
He had just been brought two eggs over-easy, wheat toast, and strawberry jam, the same breakfast as always. The waitresses at the restaurant knew him by name. When he came in he sat down at the counter and waved and they brought him his breakfast and a cup of coffee.
“Hey, Robinson, what song is this?” said a waitress.
“‘In a Sentimental Mood.’ John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, 1963. Come on, I thought you’d know that one.”
“Oh—it’s just Pandora,” she said. “I don’t know all the songs that come up on it yet.” To change the subject, she said, “How’s your music stuff coming, anyway? How’re your students?”
“My students are good. The composition is going lousy.”
“Well, keep pluggin’ away. You’ll get it someday.”
“Thanks. Hey, what’re you doing on the fourth? You should come by and hear the band play.”
“Oh, sorry… we were planning a girls’ night. I probably shouldn’t mention this to such an upstanding member of the community, but we plan to drink until we’re unconscious.”
Discomfort flared up in Robinson. He didn't know why and he ignored it. “Hey, I wasn’t always a teacher, you know.”
“Is that so?”
He smiled. “It is. I was a rogue once.”
“You?” she arched her eyebrows. “There’s no way. I picture you being someone who’s always on top of their shit. I bet you always get your lesson plans together on time.”
“Nah, I could see it,” said another waitress. “He’s got that look in his eyes. That look that real romantics have. Real artists. They’re always wild and self-destructive.”
Robinson’s discomfort grew as he wondered to what extent she was joking, but he kept the same half-smile on his face. He left a good tip on the table and tried not to think about it, but by the time he turned the keys in his car he found that he was furious.
He worked on lesson plans from twelve until three, and then went back to his house to scribble angrily on sheets of staff paper–his composition–until his wife got home at six. He welcomed her with a kiss; she asked how it had gone that day and he said, “Oh, not so bad. I think the horns are almost ready on the third movement.” He reheated dinner for her and they watched How I Met Your Mother until she fell asleep on the couch.
Watching Emma sleeping gave him butterflies. She wasn’t that much to look at–objectively, he knew that. She had a crooked nose. It was the way she used to play that harp, back at Juilliard, where he had fallen in love with her in the first place.
Even asleep, it looked like she had a smile on her face. How could she be so happy all the time? It was a miracle. He wasn’t that great.
Lying to Emma about his work always came with a twinge of guilt. He lied to his students, too, and his colleagues. He constantly held fast that jazz and big band music was “the only great American art form that’s left,” even though he hadn’t felt that way for years. “But even that pales in comparison to the work of the great European composers,” he would say. “Mahler’s Ninth Symphony–the most sublimely organized sound a human mind has ever produced.” He had always dreamed of writing his own great American suite of equal value, but in truth a new melody hadn’t come to him in years.
At first, he had been so shocked at his colleagues’ lack of appreciation for Mahler that he had bullheadedly forced the maestro’s Ninth Symphony into the curriculum. They still played it every year.
But he felt that Emma, too, was part of the problem. Every weekend they took to go skiing together, every concert he put on with his earnest but untalented students, to the extent that it made him happy, was a failure, keeping him from the life he was supposed to have.
Late that night, Robinson went out to buy milk. He drove home past the reservoir where the Fourth of July concert would be the next day. He could see the lights of Lincoln below the steel barricade. The night was unusually dark, and the town looked tiny and isolated down below.
Suddenly, something veered out into Robinson’s headlights: a cyclist. He almost ran straight into him. He rolled down his window and shouted at the cyclist, and to his surprise he saw the figure slow down.
Robinson pulled up beside him. “What the hell are you doing?” he said. “I could’ve run you off the road. The lane here is for you, you know!”
When the form of the cyclist emerged into the cone of his headlights, he recognized the unkempt hair and slouch of one of his students. Jared Blecher, alto saxophone, second chair, a student who obviously had talent but steadfastly refused to apply himself. In the glare of the headlights, he looked completely dazed.
“Damnit, Blecher, is that you?” said Robinson.
“Are you drunk?”
“Mr. Robinson? Nothing, no–I was just.”
“What were you doing in the road?”
“I was just riding home.”
“After you were drinking? And you left your lights at home?”
He didn’t have an answer. Robinson sighed.
“Anyway, kid, let me give you a ride home?”
He let the kid put his bike in the trunk and they took the road that led back into town.
“Listen, Blecher,” Robinson began. “You’ve got your whole life to have fun, but these are important years. A lot of my friends… a lot of them fucked them up, and now they’re paying the price. Kids that were really promising, like yourself, and now they’re insurance salesmen or waiters or dishwashers. You keep hanging around with that crowd you’re in with and who’s to say where you’re going to end up, no matter how talented you are. And I’m not telling you this to scare you, I just think you’re alright and I don’t want you to fuck up.”
Neither of them said anything for a long time. Robinson put on a CD to break the silence.
“What is this?” said Blecher.
“You don’t know it?” said Robinson.
Jared shook his head.
“Nothing,” said Robinson.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Robinson turned up the heat in the car. He took these roads at a fast clip, feeling the pull of the embankments on the wheel, pulling the same way they had the thousand other times he had taken this road at night.
They pulled onto the road leading back into town. They passed the football field, the drive-in, the old houses of the west side of town.
They arrived at Blecher’s house.
“Listen, I want you to get some sleep,” Robinson said. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Driving home, Robinson thought about what he’d said to the kid. It brought him back to music school and his lofty ambitions. He had watched the demise of all aspirations of his friends from back then. A composer he'd thought was a genius now worked as an analyst at a tech firm; a brilliant pianist moved back to her hometown and played in a church. No one had reached their potential. And here he was, a public school teacher, conducting this ramshackle band.
At eight o’clock on July Fourth, Jared looked out at the lake, far from the crowded subdivision where he lived. He wished he didn't have to practice the trumpet part to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony any more. What kind of song was that for July Fourth, anyway? He was young, and this was one of his last summers before he had to become an adult; he ought to be enjoying every last moment he had.
The song sounded like absolute ass every time he played it, anyway. He was pretty confident that some people were made to get good at an instrument and some were not, and that he, Jared Blecher, assuredly was not. Was he put on this earth to struggle and toil with something he was destined never to master? Was he not allowed to enjoy himself?
There was a party going on that night at Aaron Brown's lake house. It didn’t officially start until ten and he was supposed to report for duty at the promenade at nine o’clock sharp. But there was no way the performance would go on for more than half an hour. If he went over there for a little while now, he could at least pregame, hang out for a while, hop back over to City Park at ten for the performance, and then go back. It wasn’t like Robinson had any real authority to punish him if he showed up late. Hell, it was the summer. He’d put his dress clothes in his backpack and change in the bushes behind the promenade. There shouldn’t be any problem at all.
He put the horn back in its case and set off on his bike for the party. He wasn't going to waste any more time.
As he had done every year since he could drive, Robinson parked his car at the elementary school and threaded his way through big groups of teenagers to the lake. Law and order were suspended within the radius of the Fourth of July celebration.
Robinson had been to the fireworks display in Lincoln every Fourth of July since he was little, first growing up and then summers back from school, and he still looked forward to it all year. Barring his composition, it was the most important thing to him in the world–those kids all coming together to make something unified and whole.
He began his customary walk along the lake that he did every year, before everything was set up. Two kids walked by.
“I heard there’s going to be ten tons of fireworks this year,” said one.
“No way,” said the other. “They keep decreasing the budget every year.”
“Yeah, they decrease it every year so they can spend more money on cops. See, every year they bring in thousands of dollars from MIPs. It’s the only reason they can keep it going without selling tickets.”
The sun had just gone down and the sky was a dreamy swirl of colors. He thought back to the night before and looked back at his students, starting to set up their instruments. Where was Blecher?
He liked the kid because he was honest. He knew about students ditching band to smoke weed and his attitude about it was generally that boys will be boys, but what really got him about it was the dishonesty. It seemed that they not only went out of their way to create elaborate lies, but also that they were deliberately careless about clearing up the evidence–they actually left burnt-out joint ends all over the ground in the unused loading bay under the band room.
It was nothing like him. In high school, he had spent hours practicing the trumpet. When other kids went out, he stayed in and practiced. Other kids liked Prince and Duran Duran; he liked Beethoven. He would sometimes dream in music, and then he was filled with despair when he sat down at the piano and discovered that he couldn’t recreate what he’d heard.
Where was Jared? It was about all Robinson could take. He threw down his baton bitterly and decided he wasn’t going back to the bandstand.
The teenagers stood on the shore of the lake outside Aaron Brown's house, across the water from where everything was being set up. It was almost dark; the sky was dark blue, the clouds were grey, and all the people on the shore were bathed in shadows. Jared couldn’t see anyone’s face; he felt like he was moving through some kind of underworld.
They took shots out of little white Dixie cups. Someone brought out weed, and Jared thought, well, it is summer.
Jared glanced across the lake to where they were setting up. He couldn’t get Robinson’s words out of his head for some reason. A drunk bike ride home in the summer. He was seventeen years old–who was Robinson to criticize? Had he never had fun when he was younger? It was bad enough having to think about applying to colleges, and then in four years having to find a job–how was he supposed to do any of that?
He forced those thoughts to be silent. This moment was what mattered. Looking at the dark shapes around him–he couldn’t see them but he could hear their voices–he felt free from everything that waited for him across the lake. He felt free.
He met eyes with Andrea Reid. She had a boyfriend who wasn’t here. He played tennis, and he always wore his headband around, even in class, which always struck Blecher as disgusting.
She was drunk. There was something in the way that she looked at him… he felt like she didn't want him to break free of her gaze.
Some guy from his calculus class–Andy something–suggested that they go for a walk with Andrea and another girl he hadn’t seen before. Andy Something offered him a cigarette.
Blecher met eyes with Andrea. She was looking at him like she wanted to pull his clothes off. She had a boyfriend. This is what Jared would ordinarily have been thinking. But he had a cigarette and he took huge drags on it and blew them out without inhaling. He didn't care. He felt like a man.
They locked eyes. Her face was very close to his and her eyes were filled with energy. Andy Noname and the other girl had gone off somewhere else.
They kissed. He let it linger a long time, feeling a strange dissolving feeling, overwhelming all the objections in his brain.
Robinson surveyed the scene around him. He was in the middle of a festival; he felt as if festivals like this had occurred the same way since the beginning of time, and would keep occurring forever. A group of students he didn’t recognize were sprawled across the curb with bottles of beer in their hands and he stood watching them for a while. Their faces were sublimely smooth and unconcerned. They joked and jostled around, flirted, put their arms around each other, all with ease. It was something he had never understood; everything to him was cerebral and thought-out. Even his students, perpetually late to class, unconcerned with practicing or technique, were incredible to him. The ease and lack of concern with which they existed in the world–it was like watching the gods lounging at Mount Olympus.
The fireworks started up. A barrage of them exploded in a burst of golden rain. He was surrounded by unwashed faces, children suddenly screaming, children running around, chasing lit-up electric toys around on the ground. A breeze started up, rustling the leaves in the trees, and he was cold.
Suddenly two memories hit him as strongly as the wind and the cold. The first was of a day, any day, in high school band–the crashing of the cymbals, the horrible roar of the tubas. Playing the alto. It was before his composition, before any of his talk of his “great American art form”; he had just liked playing music every day. The second was of his wife’s crooked nose.
Their first date had gone badly, he had thought, all those years ago. He had debated for what felt like hours over whether to lean in and kiss her, and then when he had gone ahead and done it she had tensed up and turned her head to the side. He was mortified; he didn’t make any attempt to get back in touch with her. He kept thinking about her, but he had a terrible memory for faces, and whenever he recalled her in his mind he had to start with her nose and work from there.
One day he saw her name on a poster for a recital on campus, and in a melancholy mood he bought a ticket, thinking he would sit in the back row.
The night of the performance was a Friday night in the fall of his sophomore year. He was becoming nearsighted and from the back, she was little more than a blur. He sat back there, thinking about the things she’d said to him, trying to rebuild her image in her mind, hardly paying attention to the music at all. He tried to picture going up to her after the concert and saying hello, but he couldn’t. He decided he wouldn’t do it.
Afterwards, tramping through the piles of red leaves on the way back to his dorm, he ran into her lugging her harp back across the quad. He had called to her and offered to help, just like that. It hadn’t been so difficult after all. She asked him why he hadn’t called her back, apologized if she’d been weird. His heart was beating like a rabbit’s.
He told people afterwards, and later on started to tell himself, that it had been that performance on the harp that made him fall in love with her, but that wasn’t it at all. The wind was very cold and it was starting to rain.
He wanted to stay out for a little while longer to watch the fireworks.
After the fireworks, both Andrea and Jared were still there–she with her shirt off and her dress pulled up above her hips, he with his shirt still on and his jeans off. Jared was covered with sand. It was cold. Andrea wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
She didn’t answer.
“Wasn’t it good?”
She laughed softly.
Suddenly he heard music coming across the lake.
But it wasn’t Mahler. It was something else–a saxophone playing by itself. A tune he had heard before.
He pulled on his jeans. Said goodbye to Andrea. His request for her number got another laugh.
He wandered over to where the sound was coming from. He found Robinson playing his alto, sitting on the curb.
“Hey, kid,” he said.
“Things didn’t go as planned, did they?”
Blecher shook his head.
“It’s alright,” said Robinson.
Suddenly Blecher recognized the tune. It was “Body and Soul.”
Robinson had played it at the end of class the first day of his senior year. They were starting with a unit on jazz.
It was the last class of the day, September first, and nobody really wanted to be inside at that very moment. The music sounded strange–sour and acrid and littered with wrong notes. Backpacks were zipped up, papers put away noisily, conversations flared up. But something about the music held Jared's attention.
When it was over, Blecher noticed that Robinson had teared up. A few kids giggled. He pulled himself together and said a few words to wrap up.
“You want to know what jazz is?” he said, trying to keep his voice above the commotion of twenty eighteen-year-olds who wanted to be outside.
“I can’t explain it any better than that.”