Thank you for reading The Gone Rhinoceri

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Thank you for reading The Gone Rhinoceri and the Battle of Cancun. You may have surmised as you read, occasional references to other works of literature…some borrowing here and there, some parody, some outright, well, borrowing. As the demon Zoellick would say, mediocre bankers borrow, but great bankers steal. And so, a particular nod is due the following works of literature (in no particular order…)

Gilgamesh, Trans. Stephen Mitchell

Beowulf, Trans. Seamus Heaney

Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival

Dante Alighieri, The Inferno

Hermann Melville, Moby Dick, or The Whale

Friedrich Neitzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories

James Joyce, Ulysses; Finnegan’s Wake

Andre Malraux, Man’s Fate

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Gentleman from Cracow

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon

Antoine de St. Exupery, The Little Prince

Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach

Eugene Ionesco, Rhinoceros

Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism

Leo Leonni, It’s Mine

Jean Merrill, The Pushcart War

Julio Cortazar, Fantomas contra los vampiros multinacionales

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

John Barth, Chimera

Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; Darkness

William Wordsworth, The Prelude

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Arthur Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat

Charles Baudelaire, Correspondences

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat

Martín Prechtel, Collected Works

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

Jagger/Richards, Sympathy for the Devil

Ecclesiastes

All those oral tales of Coyote and Oshun and everyone that no one takes credit for, and which …still… make us human

Book Eight: Where have all the rhinos gone?

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“…and the almond tree shall not flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail in time…

and ever the silver chord be loosed,

and the golden bowl be broken,

and the pitcher be broken at the fountain,

and the wheel broken at the cistern.

and in time all persons will go to his long home.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was,

toute chose detuit…”

            Or not.

I

I woke curled on a sandspit, my body curved around my sleeping little girl. The reflection of dawn was turning rosy red at the tideline below. I rubbed my eyes and stretched and lifted my body to look around.

I was sitting at the edge of a tidal salt estuary, a low grubby lagoon. Wavelets pushed shoreward carrying bits of flotsam – seacress and feathers and eroded fish parts and crab chitin mixed in random sets with degraded six-pack rings and glass bottles and twisted piles of industrial waste.

Low clouds heavily massed, torn in places, left the last stars visible now only in the blue-black rifts of dark matter that shredded the blank sky. The movement of the clouds animated the darkness, now lighter and more intense as if immense shadows had come in a fit to intensify the night. The moon emerged from a tattered bank of dead clouds and was slowly drifting into an immense, dark, transparent hole like an ocean with its depths full of winking, gleaming animal eyes. Its light, growing more intense, gave to the completely deserted surroundings the appearance of extra-terrestrial life, as if the moon’s atmosphere had come and settled in the great sudden silence of the world.

Behind us, a black basalt cliff rose toward the sky, and for a halting moment its double appeared in the dark water of a nearby tidal pool like the black rectangles of Cancún hotels. But as the light inhaled large segments of the night, the cliff’s shadow grew shorter and became mere earth again. It was a mass of trees standing in the distance. A jungle.

What was this place?

What did it matter? It was earth. Somewhere, it hardly mattered where, on the ever loving surface of the Holy earth.

My eyes fell on Natasha. Her body was limp as a rag, her little chest rising and falling with the slow breaths of sleep. Her dark hair hung in bangs across her face and crescent pools of shadow gathered beneath her olive eyes. Her Jag-jag was captured in her arms and her rucksack still on her back, as she lay like a renaissance pietá in my arms. She was so beautiful. So peaceful.

I fell back into a deep sleep.

                                    *

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars

Wandered darkling in eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Morning came and went and came and brought no day

And everyone forgot their passions in the dread

Of this, their desolation; and all hearts

Were chilled into a selfish prayer for light:

And they all lived by watch fires—and the thrones,

The palaces of kings—the huts and

habitations of all things that dwell,

Were burnt as beacons; cities were consumed,

And men were gathered round their blazing homes

To look once more into each other’s face;

Happiest were those who dwelt within the eye

Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:

A fearful hope was all the world contained;

Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour

They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks

Extinguished with a crash—and all was black.

Peoples’ faces in the despairing light

Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits

The flashes fell upon them; some lay down

And hid their eyes and wept; while some would rest

Their chins on their clenched hands, and smile;

And others hurried here and there, and fed

Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up

With mad disquietude at the dull sky,

The pall of a past world; and then again

With curses cast them down upon the dust,

And gnashed their teeth and howled: the wild birds shrieked

And, terrified, they fluttered on the ground,

And flapped their useless wings; the wildest beasts

Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawled

And twined themselves among the multitude,

Hissing, but stingless— and they were slain for food.

And War, which for a moment was no more,

Came to glut himself again: a meal was bought

With blood, and each sat sullenly apart

Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;

All earth was but one thought—and that was death

Immediate and inglorious; and the pang

Of famine fed upon all entrails—people

Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;

The meager by the humble were devoured,

Even dogs assailed their masters, all but one,

And he was faithful to the last and kept

The birds and beasts and zombie’d men at bay,

Till hunger stung them, or their dropping dead

Lured their lank jaws; this pet sought out no food,

But with a piteous and perpetual moan,

And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand

Which answered with no caress—he died.

The crowd was famished by degrees; but two

Of an enormous city did survive,

And they were enemies: they met beside

The dying embers of an altar-place

Where a mass of holy things was heaped

For some unholy usage; they raked up,

And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands

The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath

Blew for a little life, and made a flame

Which was a mockery; then they lifted up

Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld

Each other’s aspects—saw, and shrieked, and died—

Even of their mutual hideousness they died,

Unknowing who he was upon whose brow

Famine had written “Fiend!” The world was void,

The populous and the powerful was a lump,

Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—

A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.

The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,

And nothing stirred within their silent depths;

Ships lay sailorless, rotting on the sea,

And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropped

They slept on the abyss without a surge—

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The moon, their mistress, had expired before;

The winds were withered in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perished; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

                                    *

While Natasha slept, I stood and saw below me on the beach a tangle of timber wrapped in seaweed and bright shreds of plastic. I walked to it and searched among it for something to tell me where I was, where we were, what was happening. In the unspooled mass of fishing line and scraps of bottles and rags and bent metal and nylon waste I found no particular clue – but I thought of something.

I collected a sea-bleached stick and sharpened its end on a stone, and I tore off some shreds of fishing line, and then I collected two stones as big as I could carry in my open hands. I walked back and checked on Natasha, still asleep and quietly breathing in the sand. I walked further down the beach toward the sea, which was calm now in the dawn, and I put down the stones and the line, and with the stick I began digging a pit on the shore, just where the waves lick the sand.

I dug and dug, downward, throwing the wet sand out with my hands as I dug. I dug downward into the floor of the sea-edge, and I determined to keep digging until I’d got under the water, until I’d dug an entrance to the great deep. I didn’t know my own strength, and before I knew it, I’d left only a thick wall of earth between the waters and myself.

I then collected up the two heavy stones and sat in the sand and tied them to my feet with plastic twine, and I sat myself in the pit, and with the stick I broke the wall of earth. When the water rushed in it took hold of me, and pulled me swiftly and strongly down into its depths. The stones took me feet-first, to the bottom.

The water was murky, but soon cleared, and looking about I saw at first only the sea around me. I held my breath, and the water felt good. And then I saw it – the only living thing in sight on the seafloor, just an arm’s length away. It was a small stub of a plant, iridescent green, waving in the undersea current, a spiny, orphaned bush. I approached it waving my arms through the water and dragging my weighted feet, and I reached through the water and grasped it.

The plant’s barbs tore through my fingers and an electric pain scorched my body. In the warm seawater my nerves flared like bulbs on a wire, and my fingers bled, sending clouds of red into the air of the great deep around me. The barbs were like hot iron but I held onto the plant with bleeding fingers. With my free hand I loosed the twine holding the stones to my feet and my body shot up to the surface, and I plunged my head above water and drew a hearty breath. Then the waves grasped me and cast me back, gasping, onto the beach.

                                                            *

Natasha was sitting up when I returned, and smiling.

“Dadda!”

“Sweetie, you’re awake.”

“Dadda…Look around! We’re at the beach!”

“Yes we are lovebug. The beach. I think we may be in Sumatra.”

“Sumatra,” she said thoughtfully. “Where’s that?”

“Well, it’s right here,” I said. “And that’s about all we need to know for now. It’s where Childe Harold said we’d end up.”

“Childe Harold,” she said, her face falling into wistfulness. “Do you think he…”

The poor kid. What can it be like for a five year-old to know death?

“Sweetie,” I said. “I do think he…I do think we lost him.”

Natasha stood up and looked at the sea and looked back at me and kicked the sand. “That motherfucking devil,” she hissed. “We gotta get him. I mean REALLY get him.”

Then she noticed the barbed and drooping plant I cradled in my bleeding hand.

“What’s that?”

“It’s the plant, the one that Beatrix told us to get.”

“DAD, you got it!” she hollered.

“I did, sweetie. What we’re supposed to do with it, that’s a whole other kettle of frogs.”

“Here, put her in the sand,” Natasha suggested. I set the plant down and it drooped toward the dry earth, no roots to set it straight.

Natasha had used her rucksack for a pillow, and now she righted it and unbuckled it and took out the queen canteen. The daylight was solid now, a white sheen across the sand and sky and distant trees, and the opalescent container gleamed in abalone rainbows in her hands. She shook the canteen, said a few words under her breath, blew on it, and unscrewed the lid. A cool breeze seemed to rise from the bottle, and she put it to her lips and drank.

“Ahhhh. Now, dad, pour some on your hand…”

She handed it to me and I did as she said. Instantly, the blood washed off and the sparks of pain that moments before tingled up my arm faded to a memory. Then I took a drink – what good water! A few small sips and we both seemed to feel utterly refreshed.

Natasha poured a capful of the cooling water onto the spiky little plant. In an instant it perked up, and in another instant shot forth a set of white rhizomes, little fibers that reached out and poked into the sand, loosely rooting it to the earth.

Natasha looked satisfied.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“About the rhinos.”

“What?”

“Listen, dad, think for a minute.”

She’d never called me dad before, always dadda.

“In James and the Giant Peach,” she said, “what happened to James’ parents?”

I shrugged. I’d read her the story once, when Ophelia was away for a long rainy weekend, but I hardly remembered it. And Natasha being barely three at the time, I didn’t expect that she’d gotten much of the story either.

“According to Mister Roald Dahl, James’s parents were killed by rhinos escaped from the zoo.”

She shook her head and gave me a stern look, her lips pursed together as if slurping milk.

“Allegedly,” she added.

“And Durer’s rhino,” she said matter of factly. “The animal, not the image of the animal that exerted such influence on the arts? Do you know what became of it?”

I wore my ignorance on my face.

“It was given, as a gift,” Natasha said.

“In 1515, the King of Portugal purchased the rhino and sent it sent to Pope Leo X as a present. But its ship was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Italy, and it died. Durer had drawn it and pulled prints of his drawing, and he continued earning income from his prints for decades after. But the animal itself, the real flesh and blood beast? Condemned to an undignified drowning death. An utter oblivion.”

“It was the first rhino ever traded,” Natasha pointed out. “That’s significant.”

“And what was it traded for, dad? For status. That’s just messed up.”

Natasha wagged her head seriously. She was on a roll.

“And, In Ionesco’s justly famous play,” Natasha demanded, “what do the rhinos represent?”

Again, I pled ignorance. I’d read the play once, in high school and I hardly recalled what Mister Bennett, my seventh grade drama teacher, would have called “the potent symbolism.”

“Nazis, dadda, Nazis. Don’t you see? Rhinos have been given a bad name. They’ve been essentially ridiculed into the dustbin of history and then eliminated altogether by savage capitalism. By that demon banker and his sorry ilk.”

Natasha took another sip from the canteen, offered me a drink, screwed the lid on lefty-tighty and tucked it back into her rucksack. Her mouse-brown hair was wild as seaweed in the wind. She shouldered her rucksack and looked toward the jungle that sat like a mirage on the horizon.

“Come on dad,” she said. “Let’s go.”

“Go? Where?”

“To get that demon banker. That’s what we’re here for, right?”

                                                *

I took my blue batik-colored suit jacket and wrapped the barbed plant in it, with a plug of soil clinging to it at the roots, and carried it in front of me in my two hands as we started walking. The sun rose high above us and we tried to make sense of things.

“Dad?” Natasha said as we moved over the sand. “Are we in a story?”

“Are we in a story? Now that’s a really fine question,” I said. “I’d say, we are and we aren’t. What is a story anyway? Story making is a craft, like cobbling, or caning, or weaving, and a story is, well, it’s a shoe, or a chair, or a shawl. It’s something you live in, live with, wear around, and maybe wear out. It’s a piece of hard work, with a beginning and an end, and a long middle.”

Natasha had taken out her clay whistle and put it to her mouth and played a little whistling tune as we walked.

“But a story is also a service to your tribe,” I said. “The old Irish bards and the Persians and the Occitanian joglars invented tales that, while they may have been mere fantasy, persuaded their listeners that they were moral beings; tales of their long heroic lineages, tales of grief and praise and grace and want. The idea was to make people believe you by giving them something worth believing in, something that mattered.”

“Then we must be in a story,” said Natasha. “Because I feel like this thing we’re doing really matters.”

“That, plus the fact that there are orcs and iffrits and talking frogs,” I said.

The shifting sand had turned to a strange soil of packed down vegetation that crunched with dryness as we walked on it, and then to overgrown pasture thick with head-high grass and then, before too long, Natasha and I found ourselves at the edge of a bright forest, a steep woody place under fierce sunlight broken by trees thrusting at odd angles toward the sky.

There was something about the trees, the way they were arranged. And then I realized: this was not a tropical forest, spiny and tough with lianas and vines and big buttress-rooted trunks and thick drops raining from the overhanging leaves. Instead, it was a mix of trees of all species clustered together in arbitrary formations: here a patch of aspens twinkling in the sharp blades of the sun, there a tawny mahogany thick as a bison bursting out of the humus, next to it a Lebanon cedar, a royal palm slim as a rubber band, a grey-black elm patched with pitch, a western hemlock towering over them all.

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This was not only not a tropical forest, it was not a natural forest at all, not a logical forest where like-minded species intermingle, where maples grow with oaks and beeches as in New England, or palmettos grow with cecropia and jacaranda as in coastal Mexico, or laurels with pines and pepper trees as in the foothills of the Himalaya. No, this was some monstrous forest, and it spooked me.

There were tropical trees too, mixed in. Natasha and I walked guardedly at the edge of the treeline and up into the shade of the jungle for moments before stepping back out into the sun and sky. There were the angular buttress root of a silver ceiba tree pressing its spiked trunk against an elephantine baobab, next to it a giant sequoia whose fibrous sherry-red trunk was strangely strangled by the grasping aerial roots of a strangler fig, and then a lone mangrove spread spiderlike into a sudden pond of mud and bracken.

The impression was of an unplanned city where makeshift cardboard shacks abutted steel and glass towers and the lichen-encrusted marble colonnades of colonial monuments: here a blue spruce, there a gingko with its fan-like leaves and putrid fruits, and here a larch accompanied by magnolia, tulip trees, a valley oak, a chestnut, an ash, an alder, a guanacaste.

“This is…unnatural,” Natasha said.

“It is that,” I said. “That and more.”

“It’s nice to see some trees, though, isn’t it dad?”

This whole time Natasha seemed as if she’d been getting older. In fact, she had grown taller, her hair had lengthened, her body had stretched and thinned.

“Indeed,” I said. “It is indeed.”

Mystified, we sat down at the base of one of those trees – a royal palm – and Natasha dug in her rucksack for her opaline queen canteen. I put the plant down beside me and she quivered slightly and perked up, and immediately started pushing out her white rhizomes toward the loamy soil.

Natasha looked up at me quizzically.

She was a big girl.

                                    *

And then we heard something startling, both of us at once: a distant rumbling as of thunder, but more persistent, a sound of a stampede, of charging footfalls, multitudes of them, a heaving and groaning accompanied by a higher sound, a shrill cry like animals in panic, and getting louder by the second. The sound was muffled somehow, loud but distant, close by but somehow remote.

“It’s like it’s…on the other side of the veil,” Natasha said. “But what, what is it? And where?”

Suddenly the sound grew deafening, and the earth rumbled beneath and around us. The strange barbed plant shot its feelers into the earth.

Cartoon sequence:

1)    Natasha sees out of a corner of her eye: a spark.

2)    A flame bursts in the open air and catches: Whoosh!

3)    Suddenly it’s as of the very air is aflame.

4)    “Fire!!!” Natasha screams.

5)    She grips her queen canteen, twists the lid, opens it. “Water, water everywhere!” she hollers, and a cold wind rushes out.

6)    She grabs Irving with her free hand. “Irving, down!”

7)    The barbed plant quivers, roots itself, and starts to grow, sending tendrils upward like ganglion antennae, forming a cage over Natasha and Irving.

8)    The two hunker down into the sand, as an enormous torrent of flame bursts over them like an ocean wave. The fire is monstrous, unrelenting, a wild sea of flame that seems almost animal, almost vindictive in its ferocity. But the plant surrounds them with its wiry stalks and casts the flames away from their bodies. Thanks to the magic of the Queen Canteen they are protected in a bubble of water vapor.

End cartoon sequence

                                    *

The sand is charred and air is still and hot and filled with a thick haze. The motley stand of trees has turned into a forest of blackened toothpicks.

                                    *

 Natasha and I opened our eyes onto a scorched earth. The plant had withdrawn its cage from over us, but had grown tall and covered with whiplike shoots that trembled in the hot air.

“What the….? What happened?”

Natasha took a drink from her queen canteen and wiped her mouth on her sleeve and passed the bottle to me and I drank.

“Wow. That was something.”

Natasha periscoped her head to look around at the trees, charred to sticks under the eggshell blue sky. The plant, chlorophyll green, thick with thorns, had grown to the size of a man.

“This plant, dad. What is it?”

“I don’t know. But it saved us. She saved us.”

“Dad, this plant. I think it’s the last green thing.”

“Do you remember the sound, just before the fire?” Natasha said.

“It was horrific,” I said. “Like some kind of blitzkrieg. But what was it?”

“A stampede,” Natasha said firmly. Animals fleeing a conflagration. But in the beyond.”

“ ………….. ”

“It was a clue, dad. A clue to what’s been under our noses all along.”

“What? That an evil genie is out to destroy the world?”

Natasha tugged at the straps of her rucksack, still tightly bound to her, and mused, “Yes and no.”

“Yes it does appear that a powerful djinn or iffrit is … manipulating events in a bad way. But not evil, dadda. I don’t think so. Bad, yes. But evil, I don’t believe it.”

“The struggle between good and evil, my little Natasha, is the fundamental axis of the world. And we are now at ground zero of that struggle.”

“No, dad, you’re mistaken. The struggle between good and evil is the primal disease of the mind. It’s nothing but an illness. A pathology. It’s not real.”

Natasha’d gotten older alright. Her back talk was more reasoned, less…childlike.

“Perhaps, dad, it is only polarity that’s evil –the binary either-or – the measuring of one’s light versus another’s dark, one’s day versus another’s night, the men and the girls and no room for le diferénce,” she said, with a little French accent.

Vive le diferénce!” I declared, inspired.

“The future is binary,” she continued. “In fact,” she added as an afterthought, “so is the past!”

“Touché,” I replied.

 “Anyway…the plant…Do you think she knows good from evil? Or do you think she just…is?”

Was the fire and the desolation getting to her?

“Anyway, dad, that wasn’t my point. My point is, what happened to the animals. To the rhinos, and then all the others. Don’t you see, dad? They were bought. And by being bought, not just bought in their material bodies but bought in their essences, they were emptied of meaning.”

“Emptied of…?”

“Remember the speeches in Cancún? Jane Goodall, trapped and tortured like an Arab at Abu Ghraib?”

“ ………” I did remember. The frightening algal glow, the echo in the cavern of Chicxulub: “We at the World Bank are here with our partners at the World Wildlife Fund to announce the creation of a Wildlife Premium Market Initiative, to firmly establish a price for all living things….”

The words put a pain in my heart.

“Remember, dad: ‘Our dominance! Their misery!’ The orcs?

I shivered as if I’d been stabbed.

                                    *

The plant waved and its tendrils lifted and dropped and it seemed to let off a high piercing note.

Natasha changed her tone.

“Dad, in the Wizard Oz, the lion, the tin man and the scarecrow are all on a quest, correct?”

 “Yes…”

“And, for what?”

“For courage.”

“Right, and what else?”

“Well, for a heart, and for a brain.”

“Oh dad. You’re so literal. What else?”

“Uhm. A sense of wholeness?”

“That’s better, and, yes, true, but not the whole truth. Their quest, like all of our quests, was for meaning.”

“Mmmmm.”

“And, animals need meaning too. It may be true – may – that what separates us from the animals, as the animal scientists say, is alternatively an opposable thumb, laughter, tears, self-consciousness, the Will to Power, or the tendency to destroy for destruction’s sake.”

“Or dramatic fakery, as the toad pointed out,” I observed.

“That’s right, dad,” Natasha said. “Animals have none of this. What unites us with the animals is that animals, all animals, need a sense of meaning as deeply as they need air.”

Natasha suddenly broke into rhyme:

“Why does Rilke’s panther pace? Meaning!
What put the smile on the jackal’s face? Meaning!
Who put the Or in Orangatan? Meaning!
Why does the cave bear stick to her clan?”

“Meaning,” I said. “I get it.” Even as my body panicked in the blasted moonscape, I was charmed by my daughter’s genius.

“So, when the Djinn and his evil army sought to put a price on all beings, it caused the animals to vanish. Why?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

She went on: “The economists say that when you give something a price, it gives it value – but in fact, dad, it does the opposite! It empties it of value. It drains it of meaning – evacuates it of its primordial spirit.

“Even in the zoo, the animals are okay – not great, but not entirely alienated. They continue being animals, even if only a shadow of their wild selves. Because even in a zoo, like a kid at boarding school, or an inmate in a prison each animal finds its place – and its meaning – in the community. And in the ecosystem: ruminants browse the grasses to replenish earth’s fertility; lions maintain enough antelopes that the antelopes don’t eat themselves out of house and home; deer eat the manzanita fruit and their digestion germinates the seeds. All of this generates meaning. Without it, well, why go on?”

As the prophet says, there it was.

                                    *

And then a strange sprinkling began from the sky: a flurry of green flakes, like snow but with the color of St Patrick’s Day confetti drifted down from the listless clouds in the china blue sky. It whirled and eddied in currents of air and we watched the strange emerald flakes cover the land like ash at Pompeii.

“But truth is always a matter of reconciling opposites, too, isn’t it dadda?” Natasha said, holding out her hands to catch the green sprinkling snow. “A dialectic: first, thesis; then, anti-thesis; then the conjoining of the two: synthesis. This is where we find ourselves. At the crux of dichotomy, wending toward resolution.”

I looked around at the wasted landscape. At best we were lost and alone in Sumatra with not a soul around to help us get home. At worst, it was the end of the world. Wending toward resolution.

“You’re awfully chipper about it all, aren’t you sweetie?”

“Dad…We’ve been through a lot, haven’t we? I miss mama like crazy, and I know we’re a long way from home…. But I don’t know how else to be. This plant, this strange barbed plant that saved us from the fire…she seems to have the key to our survival…It’s the simplest thing isn’t it?…. The simple fact that life begets life…. That life doesn’t know how else to be, but to be.”

“… the last of life that hasn’t been bought and paid for by the demon banker… “ I said. “The last green thing. As if the key to the treasure, is the treasure itself…”

I uncurled my body and stood up, and Natasha stood up beside me and we admired the green personlike barbed and tendril’d succulent that stood over us both.

“That’s right,” Natasha agreed. “The key to the treasure is the treasure.”

                                    *

The air, already pungent with charcoal, became infused with sulfur…

                                    *

The sultry air coagulated and turned elastic and wove itself into molten pearly shapes: a tree with anthropoid limbs, a hunched black beast, the solid form of a man, seven feet tall with narrow shoulders, and terribly thin. Rather than a business suit, he now appeared wrapped in a sort of toga, but black and vinyl and shimmering with petroleum rainbows. His copper hair, trimmed short, was bristly and thinning and his mouth was hidden beneath his wiry red moustache, and his pale mousy face was the same one that I’d first seen in that casino in Cancún.

The plant shook her tendrils wildly and curled her barbs as that thick smoky voice began to rasp:

“I am King Solomon, returned at last,” said the djinn, smiling menacingly down at us, without appearing to care that we were huddled there. “I am the Prophet Elijah. I am Ephraim, Ezekiel, Tiresius, Tyrannosaurus, Rex…”

He tilted his head and looked about him but his eyes looked right through us.

“I was a Prince of Peace, a Prince of Justice. I served an angry God, and served Him well. But my greed overcame me, and I am as the angel Lucifer, cast into Hell. I am reduced to nothing.”

He paused, and turned his eyes to us. For the first time I noticed that his eyes were two different colors: his left eye was green and appeared completely loose in its socket, as if unhinged; and his right eye was black, expressionless, and dead. He locked us in his gaze.

“Is this the sort of speech you expect of me, Irving? Natasha, dear little one…is this the devil as you have conceived of Him? Or are you puzzled? Perhaps you thought you’d figured out the nature of my game. Or perhaps you realize you are at the end of the road.”

He spread his arms and threw his gaze into the distance and continued his mad ranting: “Now the cities over which I ruled are dead! Now the Kingdom that was given unto me is deserted. Only a blue shimmering wilderness remains. And somewhere round a small, yellow, nameless star there circles, pointlessly, everlastingly, this radioactive earth…”

“You, Natasha, you take me for a vampire, setting my fangs into every being and draining it of meaning, all through the simple act of buying and selling….Well, you may be right. Yesss,” he hissed. “You may be right….”

He took a step toward us and the air rippled around him. The plant whined. Natasha unstrapped her rucksack and brought it around to her front.

“For like a vampire, my dominance is …. your misery.”

The hot air turned ice cold.

In the next instant, space coagulated elastic again and shivered over the demon banker’s form, and some kind of war spasm seized him, seized it, and made him into a hideous and shapeless unheard-of monster of a thing. He stretched tall and wide, and his shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot shook like a tree in a flood. His body made a furious twist in his skin so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front… On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked the dead black eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn’t probe out of the depths; the green eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth became weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat and fiery flames large as a filing cabinet reached his mouth from his throat… His hair burned and twisted like a tangle of red thornbush; if a royal apple tree with all its fruit were shaken above him, each apple would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp.

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And in another moment the horrible demonic form shook and the almost-man-sized Zoellick reappeared, now in the business suit.

“Yes, yes,” the demon explained, “I bought these animals, Irving. Just as your little Natasha says I did. I began, slowly, as anyone would, by killing them off, one by one: the moa, the stag-moose, the saber-toothed salmon, the mastodon, the passenger pigeon, the auk. But they reproduced, the vermin. Just like the humans, they kept at it. And so I determined to do away with the animals the same way we do away with the humans – not by the brute means of killing them with blade and axe, but by the most sophisticated means we have yet designed… One by one, what I could not kill, I purchased.”

“My dominance, your misery,” he said.

He took a step toward us.

“But every so often, my friends, you come upon a creature that, for reasons as complex as history itself, cannot be bought.”

The air phased in and out around him, his face suddenly distorted into a mask with the sunken black eye and the electronic green eye twitching like a bulb on a socket, then back to the face of a banker, pale and normal.

“And when something, or someone, cannot be bought outright,” he said, “It must be dealt with in other ways.”

                                    *

The plant quivered and let off a high-pitched, keening note. Zoellick moved his hand through the air and in it there suddenly appeared a cutlass, black as cast iron and mottled with rust, but with a gleaming edge of white steel. He drew back his arm to slash at the plant but before he could, its tendrils jetted out and wrapped his arm, now his entire body, in its green fuse, and held him still. The demon banker howled in fury.

Natasha reached into her rucksack and pulled out her stuffed baby jaguar. In one hand she raised it above her head and hollered, “Jag-jag! Your hour has come ‘round at last!”

“Natasha, what – ?”

Natasha cast a beatific smile at me and said, “Dad. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. The moment baby jaguar and all the others have been waiting for. Remember Beatrix? ‘The seed of your devotion will blossom in the flames of the desert?’ That’s the plant! And, ‘always remember that life does not begin with tears of grief and rage, but with the sweetly melodious cry, a slight whistle of wind through the dry reeds at the water’s edge…”

“I see, but, I….”

“Watch, dadda – it’s only when there’s a portal opened between the dimensions that we can do this…The demon’s shape-shifting has opened the portal…And with him pinned down like this…It’s our only chance!”

With her right hand, Natasha grasped the clay ocarina on its leather cord around her neck and, with the stuffed jaguar raised high in her left hand, she put the instrument to her lips and blew…. Out of it came a high, piercing note, a trill and then a whooping sound like a crane warbling on the wind. The notes were echoed by the keening of the plant, whose arms were wrapped in vegetal blood-lust around the demon, yowling under its barbs.

And then a curious thing happened.

Natasha tossed the jaguar, and in mid flight it transformed – its body lengthened and its head grew and its limbs slashed at the air, and its mouth grew gleaming white fangs and from its belly issued forth a blood-curdling roar. Cast loose, the newly incarnated beast landed with all four paws on the demon’s vine-wrapped body pushing the demon to the earth where he landed with a coughing thud. His face became a contorted mask of terror as Natasha’s Jag-jag bared her fangs and snarled, inches from the demon’s face. The demon closed its eyes

                                    *

And then a second curious thing happened.

Natasha blew on the ocarina for a second time –

“Summer is a-comin’ in,” and said, “Jag-jag, return!”

In an instant, the jaguar’s motion ceased and it shrank to the size of a stuffed toy.

The demon Zoellick, prone on the ground, opened his eyes and saw on his chest a pint-sized synthetic toy jaguar. He looked up at Natasha, dazed.

                                    *

And then a third curious thing happened.

Natasha knelt and took the demon’s hand in hers and smiled at him with her eyes, and said, “Uncle, what is it that troubles you?”

The green hail from the sky fell harder now, as if a burst of it had been unleashed when Natasha expressed sympathy for the iffrit.

The words floated a moment on the air, and the demon Zoellick craned his neck to look Natasha in the eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. His eyes moved from Natasha’s to Irving’s, to the sky and the hail of green that fell to the diminutive plush stuffed animal balanced on his chest, and back to Natasha.

“Uncle…”

                                    *

The vine held tight drilling its barbs into his flesh, but even so the demon’s suffering seemed to ease.

“It was myself I had vanquished, wasn’t it?” the demon asked in a pained voice.

“No, Zoellick,” Natasha answered. “You had vanquished all of us. You surely had. You vanquished, yourself, yes, but the rest of us too. Including the two-leggeds, including the four-leggeds, including those that crawl, swim, and fly. You may recover, old demon, but you must not lose the memory. You must never lose the memory.”

The demon looked at the burnt earth where the ashes of an entire forest swirled and eddied in dust devils drawn on an updraft into the humid air.

“I remember,” he said, seeing into some faraway place. “First tragedy, then farce, then tragedy, then farce, then more tragedy…”

His voice drifted off.

“You very nearly did us all in this time,” Natasha said. “Didn’t he, dad?”

I looked at Natasha – her dark hair long and tangled in a rat’s nest, her freckles drawn like constellations on her ruddy cheeks, the sparkle in her eyes as she spoke.

“Yes,” I said. “He did.”

I laid my eyes on the demon, wrapped in the vine, the stuffed Jag-jag balanced on his breast.

The Iffrit’s one eye fell on me, and the cheek that had been puckered into a dark black eyehole seemed to swell and grow full and vital, while the neon green eye that had blinked like a thousand calculators now faded to a more human color. Then the demon banker fell into a profound silence and the taught ivory skin of his face seemed to grow less clammy. A luster of flowers came over his skin.

The sensation was of a man, a mortal man, who had been ill but now was being made well again. A river kindling dead roots; blooms of scented jasmine from the blank mud.

                                    *

In the sky low over Sumatra, the world’s beauty was now a mere breath, and Ophelia’s, and Queequeg’s and Childe Harold’s and Virgil’s and mine and Natasha’s. It was a beauty such as had been in all beings since birth, since before birth. But no beauty was equal to that which settled around the banker demon Zoellick as he emerged from sickness.

Natasha and I watched in wonder as the hot air around the demon quivered and seemed to swell and contract in waves. Around us the sky seemed suddenly infested with all kinds of bats and flying reptiles and feathered birds. Natasha put her ocarina urgently to her lips and played a tune that tamed the strange flocks and calmed the air even as it tamed my pounding blood.

I felt that somewhere off in the sea dragons and monsters were slouching by, and around us on the earth serpents and wild things lashed themselves to the springing surface of the world.

As space convulsed, the Iffrit spoke:

“It’s such a wonder,” he said, in a voice now calm as glass, “how the great green world in all her fiery brilliance has shone such favor on your sorry race of humans. Some days you reward the world’s animus with wit and wisdom. Other days you throw a bad joke back against the birthright you were given, squandering it like so much single-use plastic.”

“Is he talking to us?” I wondered, his eyes now full and vital but tuned into some other channel. “Or to himself?”

Natasha played her pipe as creatures seemed to swirl around us. He went on:

“How does She allow those of privileged birth to follow their bent, how grant them fulfillment and a feast of riches to command in every country on earth? How does She let him lord it over so many until, in his unthinkingness he forgets that his wealth and title could ever end? How does She let him indulge his desires, his mind untroubled by the thought of all he has destroyed. The whole world conforms to his will while the soul’s sentry drowses, grown numb and distracted? How?”

He looked at Natasha, laying like a drugged philosopher on the earth. “Darling Natasha, all you need to do is return me to the bottle and ten thousand years of stony sleep will be mine again. I go willingly.”

“The bottle?” Natasha said, holding down her ocarina.

“The queen canteen,” said the demon. “Don’t you know? It’s where I live, where I have always lived, until summoned. They let me out when they gave it to you.”

That bottle, mirror-bright and bathed in shifting vapors, lay in the sand at Natasha’s feet.

“Well that was a mistake,” Natasha said.

“Yes,” said the demon banker, now become almost a charming little man in a dark draped toga that covered him like blankets. “Yes it was.”

                                    *

From the sky of Sumatra, green stones rained down. Where they landed blossoms jumped up.

“When you, Natasha, bid me return to that soundless gallery, you will be released from your enchantment. You shall be a normal girl – albeit a tad neuro-divergent. If you only wish it so, Natasha, before long, my spirit will spin free from this body to rest a bit. And yours will do the same. That is, your body will be returned to the spirit of an ordinary little human.”

Natasha cocked her head and peered up at me, her eyes alight. She considered, and then decided with a nod.

The demon smiled and his body began to grow translucent, to glow and fade and turn to vapor all at once. The prickly vine relaxed her grip, and what there was to grip grew suddenly intangible. From a funny smiling man with red hair and a squirrely mustache and a drapery about his body, Zoellick became a gaseous cloud pulsing with light, and then a winding dust devil of cloud, and soon was spinning toward the Queen Canteen. The green she-vine danced herself into a question mark.

Natasha picked up the bottle and unscrewed the lid, and as soon as she had the lid off, the vaporous cloud was sucked into the bottle as if by a vacuum. As the last wisp of cloud crawled over the lip of the bottle, the demon’s voice boomed out, filling the air in surround-sound.

“I almost forgot…!” it said. “Let the wild rumpus start!”

                                    *

No sooner had the queen canteen been sealed with the djinn inside than the blossoms that formed as each green stone hit the earth began to explode in bright incendiary bursts. All around us flowers burst from the soil, and from the flowers burst powdery forms that crackled in the air. Each blossoming explosion formed into a cloudy shape, grew solid, and spun off away from us. The first ones were tiny flea-sized fathomless shapes that left a trail of smoke as they whizzed off. But they quickly grew larger until we could make out with each powdery burst the shape of an insect or an animal or a bird.

Natasha and I stood and watched the spectacle. She cradled the pearly queen canteen in one arm and held the stuffed jaguar squeezed in the other. The rucksack was on her back and her hair was wild and dirty in the powdered, smoky air. Beside us the she-plant danced wildly, throwing her spiked, gangly limbs about in furious celebration.

The blossoms threw up cloudy shapes of birds that grew recognizable before they flapped their wings and flew off: a meadowlark, a turtledove, a whole flock of sparrows, a crane, a peahen, a pelican, a golden eagle throwing its wingspan wide and wider and launching itself into the open Sumatran sky. Then animals appeared, reptiles at first, serpents and sea snakes, and then terrestrial mammals born out of the blossoming clouds, and as each one burst into the air it hit the ground and scampered or trotted or ambled off: a long parade of rodents, voles, muskrats, marmots, and they grew larger as if evolutionary millennia were passing before us in moments, a civet cat and a peccary, dogs and goats and deer and then horses, elk, the animals bursting out of nowhere and the air thick with strange vapors that began to smell like…well, to be honest, began to smell like the Bronx zoo.

Natasha and I sat in the dirt and watched, overcome, overawed, our eyes peeled raw as onions as the great beasts of the African savannah emerged, the strange wild baboons and bonobo apes and the gorillas, so human in their apish ambling, forepaws knuckling the ground as they scampered off into the fog-bound distance, and the white Asian elephant and the camels of Arabia and the great cats, leaping forth from some dimensionless place onto their haunches on this dusty earth that wordlessly welcomed them home.

At the end of the line, came the rhino.

The horn emerged first, as if chipping its way out of an egg of air. I could feel Natasha’s body, grown long and lean, lighting up with glee as the head appeared, and then its body, plated in slate-gray impregnable knobby carbuncled armor: the rhino, that unimaginable beast. Without a glance at us from his stony little eyes that sat deep in his horny head, he stomped off after the others and quickly disappeared.

                                    *

And then the blossoms went quiet and the air began to clear.

Natasha sat down in the sand, threw her arms around her knees, buried her head, and whimpered, then wept, and then started to bawl uncontrollably.

I sat by her side and pressed her head and touched her shoulder. Around us, the last green thing had begun to spread juicy tendrils over the ground.

“Sweetie,” I said. “You must be so tired.”

She lifted her head and glared at me.

“I’m not tired!” she screeched.

Well, I’d never heard that tone of voice from her before and I was, effectively silenced. She dropped her head again and whimpered.

Then she lifted her head and looked up at me with big round moist komiku eyes.

“Dad, can we go home now? I miss my mama.”

                                    ***

FIN

Book Seven: The Waters of Hell

Standard

Natasha and I leaped into the boxcar. As soon as we hit the deck, we began scrambling about looking for the way out. We looked up, at the rusted sides of the container, toward the blank, remote sky, but there was no ladder, just corroded metal walls and empty space. Then we looked down, and just as Childe Harold had said: on the floor there was a mat, aged and shredding, hand woven of, maybe, agave fibers? Natasha pushed away the mat with her foot – she still wore the shredded magenta ballerina shoes her mother had bought for her when she was four – and where the mat had been, in the floor of the boxcar, there was steel trapdoor.

I yanked at the handle and it opened. A purple cloud of musty vapor blasted skyward from the pit.

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As the sky above seemed to tear asunder with howling winds and flashes of green lightning, Natasha climbed onto my back.

“Let’s go, dadda!” she sang into my ear.

                                    *

And so it happened that we found ourselves half falling and half cavorting down through a sudden tunnel into the earth. First, it was dark, too dark to see. Then, as we rappelled from the walls and bounded from the earthen shelves, from the granitic brackets and cliffs and outcroppings, the dark gave way to a strange phosphorescence. You could see. I don’t know why you could see, but you could.

And either the hole was very deep, or we fell very slowly, for we had plenty of time as we went down to look around, and to wonder what would happen next.

When my vision grew accustomed to the half-dark, the view within the tunnel was suddenly magnificent. I saw flowers – flowers lit up and swirling, with trailing shreds of light full in flux like roman candles, airbrushing clouds of color… We walked on some sort of sliding steps and fell through some sort of thick watery air, as if we were traveling through algae, as if the flowers were bacteria and stars at once, a swarm of warm brilliance isolated in space and drifting through the tunnel like clusters of tiny bees drifting in summer air.

                                    *

Natasha look downward to see what was coming, but it was too dark; then she looked at the walls of the tunnel and began to reach out, like a cat pawing at mice, to swat at the luminescent blossomings around us as we fell. She almost grabbed one: her hand clasped for a moment an orange flower, a flaming marigold, but the flower burst into a thousand loose petals and scattered upward, fanned by our fall.

“I wonder how many miles we’ve fallen by now!” Natasha said aloud.

Her voice rang in my ears as if she spoke from inside my own head. “We must be heading toward the center of the earth…Let me see, that would be four thousand miles down, I think.”

I could see she was beginning to lose her senses.

                                    *

Down, down, down we fell as if the fall would never end, and as we descended, Natasha chattered strange silly things, “How funny it will be to come out among people that walk with their heads upright, the Antipathies, I think they call the place…. I’ll have to ask if this is the same cave Plato spoke of…”

Falling and falling further, Natasha seemed to grow sleepy, and she went on chattering in a dreamy sort of manner, “Cats are rats that live in flats,” “Mean old mouses, flipping houses,” “If birds used words like us today, they’d dine on curds and sup on whey…”  “The governments banksters marketers mobsters rockstars and pollsters want to swab your cheeks and sell the ground from underneath your unborn feet.”

And down, down, down we fell, Natasha chirping streams of childish phrases:

“At the edge of the world,” she said, “I wait for the travelers-who-will-not-come, give me some milk of childhood some loaves of rain some meal of midnight, my hands pricked in thickets of stars but lately gathered from the foam… Give us some poor demon to chase, some lantern in the mealy hours, in the very tough star thicket, where the wind leaps and pulses, where the rain dies in the mountains, where the volcano sucks in the sky like a funnel cake.”

                                                *

Down, down, down we fell. But somehow, too, as dark day swapped places with dark night, we sometimes slept, sprawled in our descent, or sometimes cuddled, spooning in the long tumbling collapse. Like any parent, I’d sometimes lie awake admiring her molasses lashes or puffy lips, the one dimple in her cheek, the curved cheekbone and squat nose, her tangled, flapping hair, and, in the cold wind of our descent, her warm air.

For a warm air came off of her. Lost in the forest of middle age as I was, it was Natasha’s warm air that kept me okay as we plummeted toward the center of the earth.

                                    *

The wind blew up from below suspending the two swimmers in an endless fit of dropsy, and Irving the dreamingman as he slupped down the mudhole with his flailing, gibbering daughter, became instantly and powerfully aware that he was, in the most awful sense, responsible for Natasha – if not for her coming into the world, at least for her continuing on in it – and that their flailing helplessly downward into the bottomless gullet of the earth’s core represented a vast and at-this-point-irredeemable parental failure.

Irving’s reflections grew on the walls of the cavernous tube like reflections in a curved glass: the simplest expression or gesture becoame monstrous, as if the entrails of the earth had become a funhouse mirror, enlarging and engorging his physical body, and with it, too, his naked human soul. Irving had been a failure all his life, and even if no one else knew, or cared enough to recognize the fact, he knew. Projected onto the walls of the earthen pit he saw visions of accumulated regret, his life’s monumental chain of missed opportunities and dropped balls and half-extinguished effervescences.

In the light of day, the human soul appears vast and undifferentiated, like a single-celled amoeba or bright oceanic plain. But in the dim subterranean light of the earth’s insides it becomes a warren of dens more like a mole’s home or the honeycombed spongy flesh of a cow’s intestines, each compartment housing bits of undigested cud, bacterial knobs and other germy bits. This labyrinth of yuck is where Irving found himself, staring regret in the face.

First there was Ophelia – Oh had it been a mistake to marry her? What did they have in common after all, beyond their vague, misguided past? Or was his mistake that he left her, a lifetime of promise cast to the winds by following Queequeg’s crazy advice? Oh what a failure! And why Queequeg? What had Irving seen in him – some token of an imagined insurrectionary history, some exotic virgin continent of ancient beech forests and sparkling crystalline waters, some neo-primitive shamanic hallucination? Who was Queequeg but a big crazy caricature of an Indian out a 19th century novel? Even if he was real, wasn’t he too late for this world, anyway?

The drumbeat of his failures thrummed as the wall’s reflections melted into a painterly mess, as if some dark-humored God had spilled turpentine down the earth’s freshly pigmented gullet, the colors streamed together in bleeding gravy running down the walls…

“Hideous!” Irving yawped.

Suddenly, thump! thump! down they crashed onto a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over.

                                    *

The light was dark, but the dark was just a little light, and we cast our eyes about the thicket like two blind mice. The place, for it seemed very much a place, smelled of hay and mud and, was that the sweet tang of water?

Despite the fall, Natasha and I appeared to be unhurt. We stood and tested our legs, and Natasha shrugged off her rucksack and checked the contents: the baby jaguar was fine, and the safety flares, still unused, and the Queen Canteen in one piece. She unscrewed the cap of the opalescent bottle, handed it to me to drink, took a long draught herself, replaced the cap and dropped it into the bag. As soon as we’d drunk and begun to orient ourselves to the feeling of solid ground, a grey cloud of fog enshrouded us with the deeply musty scent of charcoal and tobacco, and just as it did, we were nearly deafened – so it seemed to me – by the sound of an enormous cough.

As the fog lifted I saw in front of me what appeared to be a tremendous toadstool, whose stem was as high as my body and whose cap drooped down as if melting. The thing glowed with a slimy bronze patina. But the mushroom, strange as it was, was a mere cushion, for on it, sucking from a vast water pipe and letting out bursts of sweet-and-sour smoke, sat a man-sized prickly yellow and green Caterpillar.

“Lord love a duck!” Natasha exclaimed.

The Caterpillar stretched and swayed, gazing down over us in a strange, kingly manner. Natasha grasped my hand.

“Demeaning!” the caterpillar suddenly shouted. And then, “Behavior!”

And then a wet and eerie silence.

“Well?!” The thing cast its eyes down toward us, which were like brass casters set upright on either side of its prickly slime-coated head. “How do you pleeead?”

“Uh…plead?” I said.

“Yes, plead! Demeaning behavior! Downtrodden existence! Smallish, wayward, silly, demeaning ways!”

Natasha let go of my hand and stepped toward the thing.

“Who are you, sir?” she asked.

“Who who who am IIIII? Botheritall!” it cried. “Demeaning the sky and the land and the waters, and demeaning the kingdoms of life! Kingdoms!” he spat.

“To even call them kingdoms is to demean them… Demeaning to life itself, to the mathematicalorganic depths of the infinite, the…the…” he stuttered “…the macrofiliousmicrofiliacbiotaplasmicjelatinobacteriumofitall!”

The caterpillar paused, put his wide plush mouth on the tip of the hookah, and drew in an enormous breath that caused his entire body to ripple and swell like a water balloon. Natasha took a step back and took my hand again.

After a few moments, he let the breath out and another cloud of sugary acrid smoke enveloped us.

“Who am I?” the beast retorted again. “I think you ought to tell me who you are first.”

“Well I hardly know who I am,” Natasha said.

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, sir, because I’m not myself. None of us is, don’t you see?”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Natasha replied very politely. “But – and maybe this is because I’m adopted, or perhaps because I am a member of la raza cosmica – but, I don’t know where my SELF ends, and the next one begins. My veins don’t end in me, you see. It’s very confusing.”

“No it isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.

“Well, you may not think so now,” said Natasha. “But when you have to melt into pus and seclude yourself inside a chrysalis – like a caterpillar soup, if you don’t mind me saying – you will someday, you know – and then after that into a butterfly, and then after that into the merest wormfood again, I’d expect you’ll end up feeling a little less yourself, won’t you?”

Natasha paused, looked around coquettishly, it seemed to me, and set her gaze back on the Caterpillar. “And won’t that feel queer?” she said.

“WHO ARE YOU!!?” the Caterpillar suddenly screamed.

Which brought us back to the beginning of the conversation. I looked around but I couldn’t make out much of anything, just shadows of shadows.

Natasha seemed irritated. “I’m Natasha the Exploradora,” she said. “And this is my Dad, Irving. We’re looking for the gone rhinoceri.”

                                    *

“The gone…rhinoceri?” said the Caterpillar, blowing a smoke ring.

“Yes,” Natasha said, blinking.

“Why?” the Caterpillar asked.

“Have you seen them?”

For some minutes the Caterpillar puffed away without speaking, but at last it unfolded its arms, took the hookah out of its mouth again, and said, “So you think you can find them, do you?”

“I do,” Natasha said.

“Well you can’t even find yourself,” said the Caterpillar. “How can you expect, then, to find rhinoceri that aren’t even there?”

“I’m afraid I have to, sir. Now what do you want from us?” she demanded.

“What do I want from you? I want you to recite a poem for me. I want you to recite, ‘You Are Old, Demon Zoellick,’” ordered the Caterpillar.

“Oh!” said Natasha, as if in a flurry of recognition. “You mean the whole thing, verse by verse?”

And then she blinked and looked up at me and back at the caterpillar and said, “Odd…that poem just entered my head, when? Maybe, in the fall?”

“Verse by verse,” said the Caterpillar sternly.

Natasha folded her hands, looked up at me, looked down at her feet, and began in a chirrupy voice:

“In my youth,” hissed the demon, and his voice let off sparks,
“I played in the dark bosky dells.
I rambled by rivers and piddled in parks,
And I ambled through heavens and hells.”
“You are old,” said the girl, “and your flesh has grown weak.
Your gaze has got thick as burnt honey.
You’ve finished the goose, with the bones and the beak
And you’ve traded your heavens for money!”
“In my youth,” said the djinn, “I studied the law,
and I pleaded my case with the gods…
They threw coins and tossed bones and I looked on in awe
As I tried to sort evens from odds.”
“You are old,” said the girl, “as I told you already,
and have grown most pathetically common.
You might’ve scored better if your hands weren’t so bloody
And you’d curbed your desire for mammon.”
“In my age,” said the beast, “I levied the taxes.
I shook down the peasants and fattened the banks.
I cut down the forests with chainsaws and axes
And not once did I stop to say ‘thanks’.”
“You are done,” said the girl. “One would hardly suppose
that a being so sick yet so clever
would believe that his rude and imperious ways
could keep the world hostage forever.”
“You have spoken enough,” screamed the demon, enraged,
“I will cook you like bacon and eat you like ham!
I’ll swallow and digest you and shit you back out
And THEN you will know who I am!”
“Begone!” said the girl, “I banish you hence!
Your troublesome theories and burdensome fights
Are turning my stomach and trying my patience –
I order you out of my sight!”
The demon looked down and spit fire on the ground –
“I will burn you to ashes,” he cried.
“You are young, I am old, is that how you see it?
Look again – You are dead, I’m alive!”
“You’re DONE,” said the girl, “and your life was a joke
– your legacy nothing but bones.”
She blew out his flames and she sloughed off the smoke
then turned ‘round and went galloping home…

“Hoorah!” said the Caterpillar, his fat body trembling with delight. “You’ve got it right, word for word. I didn’t believe it possible! Oh, its been so long… For your reward, my child, you may have a taste of my toadstool.”

Natasha hesitated. “Thank you, Mister Caterpillar,” she said. “But I don’t want a taste of your toadstool,” Natasha said.

The Caterpillar abruptly bowed its head and rounded its prickly shoulders, and a low sound came from it. Natasha and I looked at each other. It was weeping.

“Oh don’t cry, Mister Caterpillar,” Natasha said. “It’s not that I mean to be rude…It’s that, well, a girl like me – I mean, a girl who’s seen a few things –she knows better than to eat a toadstool. Some of them make your neck swell all up, and your head grow light and bubbly. And we’re in no position to let that happen.”

The Caterpillar sniffled. “It’s not the toadstool,” he snorted. “It’s that, well, no one’s ever recited poetry to me before. Not, ‘The Demon Zoellick,’ not ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,” not ‘I sing of Olaf glad and big’. Nothing. And now you’ve come along and done it.”

Natasha looked at me, her face suddenly lit up like a glowworm in the chiaroscuro darkness. “I get it!” she said. “Toadstool! Poetry! Remember all you owed to trut’!”

The caterpillar’s tears began to fall faster, and bigger, and they gathered into a pool at the base of the toadstool.

“Jes’ float away,” Natasha said to herself. “Mr. Caterpillar, sir! Its what Childe Harold said! Ode to Beauty, Ode to Truth…”

I was lost. But Natasha clearly wasn’t.

Natasha turned to the toadstool and said sharply, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty! That is all you shall know on earth, and all you need to know!”

And then she suddenly exclaimed, “Water is life!”

A flood of tears rained from the Caterpillar’s swollen eyes, pouring so fast and thick the water rose to my ankles, to my knees. The mushroom began to dissolve before the flood. The caterpillar hovered atop it, weeping and weeping, oblivious. Before the rising water, I quickly picked up Natasha and put her on my shoulders.

“What do we do?” Natasha hollered as the water rose to my hips. “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?”

There was nothing to do. The water kept rising.

I heard the water in my ears as if it were the very ocean and I tasted the salt of it. Just before my head went under, I heard Natasha’s tiny voice:

“What pipes and timbrels?” she called out. “What wild ecstasy?”

And then we were under.

The water was warm, and clear. Natasha floated from my shoulders, and darted through the water like a squid. She gestured to me, pointing toward the ground we’d stood on just moments before. Down below, where I’d been standing, there was a drain plug.

She dove down and in a single unhesitating gesture, pulled the plug.

II

The draining of the water through the hole drained me and Natasha too, and as we coursed swift as stones through the downward vaulting water, our selves spread and warped through the whole of the water, or so it felt to me. We passed through sluices and culverts and through pipes and waterworks and slipped like leaches through the earth’s internal sewerage.

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Somehow we held onto each other, and somehow we breathed, and after a while we found ourselves tumbling over a bright cascade at the foot of a cliff, with trees all about tumbling through our vision, and a wide vista letting onto a swamp of bracken ferns and horsetail and cycads. The waterfall spit us into a whirling choppy impenetrable pool where we were pushed up against a bank of wet lumpy stones that shifted in the water like loose teeth.

As the water poured over the cascade into the pool where we found ourselves, it became quickly apparent that there was no outlet. The water was rising. And since we’d been submerged and were only now above water, it took some time to realize that, on top of it all, it was raining.

Natasha and I clung to each other desperately, our fear rising with the flood, and desperately we clung to the slippery stones that rose above the wild, dark water. But soon these too began to disappear. There was only one rock left, and there we huddled, trembling, cold and frightened.

“At least we are together, dadda” Natasha said to me, “sharing the same fears and hopes.”

No sooner had she spoken than the rain began to fall more gently. Soon, it stopped altogether, and the water stopped rising.

                                    *

The rock we clung to was covered in discolored protrusions and lumps, and as we clung to it, it seemed to heave and sway in the rising tide. The water began to sink about us, or was it the rock that was growing higher, out of the flood? Whatever it was, some living force had got us in its grip and, for the moment at least, had kept us from drowning.

Suddenly the two bulbous bubbles atop the highest part of the rock popped open to reveal two bright green eyes gleaming at us in the dark phosphorescence.

And then we realized that the large rock that had saved us was no rock at all. It was a toad.

                                    *

Natasha smiled first, and then me. The toad’s eyes were green and clear and old, and it seemed to be frowning.

“You saved us!” Natasha shouted.

Sure enough, the water was sinking or the toad was rising, and the swirling whirling flood seemed to be subsiding.

“You saved us!” I repeated.

                                    *

The sun came out soon enough, and sunrays chased silver minnows on the sandy bottom of the pond. I suddenly felt so happy I wanted to chase the swarms of butterflies that filled the air.

I had seen a lot in my years as an investigator, but I had never yet met a giant talking toad. Coming on late middle age as I was, I thought, it’s good to have new experiences…

“Well, so what’s your name, Mister Toad?” Natasha asked the toad on whose back we sat.

His body shook all over, but in a relaxed and pleasant way.

“Virgil,” he said.

Natasha stroked his warts affectionately. “Were you always a, a toad, Mister Virgil?”

“Funny you should ask,” the toad said in a hoarse voice, as if speaking did not come naturally to him. “I was once a man,” he said. “My family is from, oh, Italy. Tuscany to be precise. But everyone’s from somewhere, isn’t she?”

“Why yes, she is, I suppose,” Natasha said. “Though some of us don’t know where we’re from.”

“And others of us don’t know where we’re going,” I added.

“Ah,” croaked Virgil. “Wise children you are indeed.”

Natasha giggled. “Children? My daddy’s not a child!” she declared proudly. “He’s a grown man.”

The toad eyed me sideways.

“Well then children, that brings me to my next question: what is it that brings you down this way? It seems such a very long time since we’ve had passers-by.”

Natasha beamed a smile at me. “Dadda and me didn’t mean to come this way, but well, you see, there was the battle on the beach, and the demon, and the rhinos, and then the orcs, and Childe Harold, and, well, when he died – oh, poor Harold, he did die, didn’t he? – he told us to go into the tunnel, and then the caterpillar, and then there was the Ode to Beauty, very strange indeed, and, well, here we are. But maybe, just maybe, you can tell us how to get out of here?”

                                                *

To our delight, the toad said, “To find your way out of this deep darkness, better to come with me than to go on your own. Yes yes, much better.”

“If you trust me,” he went on, “then let me guide you, and I’ll take you the rest of your way, to the other side. But be warned!” He tilted his warty head to and fro and batted his bulging, limpid eyes.

“I do not mean to frighten you any more than you have been, my little friends. But I must make you aware: here below ground there is horror the likes of which you have never imagined. Here there is an infernal boredom that maddens even the most hearty creatures. This is a place where spirits only come hoping one day to escape. But you have made it this far, haven’t you? You know, that caterpillar would have done you in, had you…” the toad raised the eyes under his strange bulbous lids and pointed them upwards at Natasha, “…had YOU not known better.”

“An ordinary child would have eaten from the toadstool,” he said, and then sighed, “Oh why do they have to call them toadstools? Such a vulgar name… In any case, you knew better, didn’t you? A sign, I say, a sign that you may be able to pass through this place.”

The toad by now had begun to move, slowly, through the subsiding water, with Natasha and me on its back. There was sky above, far above, afloat way up there in a kind of glassy aquamarine color. And in that distant sky shreds of crimson clouds floated in it as if it were a permanent dawn.

Then, his bulbous eyes darkened. “But,” he said, “there is one thing you may need, or well, that may come in, how do I say it, handy at a certain moment, and which, for my part, I would quite advise you to consider having at hand, that is, if it’s not too late, which I suppose, the three of us being deep in the bowels of the earth without a lot of resources nearby, it most likely is. Too late, that is.”

“And what would that be?” I asked, worried. “I mean, what’s the thing we need that will come in handy if it’s not too late?”

“Well, a little music may be nice at a certain moment,” he said, hesitatingly.

Natasha’s eyes twinkled, and she reached into her shirt and drew out the little clay whistle she’d kept tucked there. She put it to her lips and blew and out rang a melody high pitched and joyful as the trilling of the meadowlark. The toad’s long lipless mouth turned upwards in a wide smile.

“Ah, yes, yes. That’s precisely it,” he crooned.

I held Natasha close and straddled the toad’s warty humped back, and on we rode.

                                    *

The landscape around us, so lush at first, grew quickly dry as Virgil slid and walked and periodically hopped through the air almost taking flight. The watery swampland turned to a yellow grassy savannah, and the sky changed from dark crystal blue to pale ochre. It was astonishing how quickly a toad could move. Not a creature was in sight, and despite the changes in landscape, the entire place had the uncanny look of a movie set, as if it were constructed of foam and pressboard and paint. Natasha seemed delighted by the scenery and began to chatter away with our host.

“So, we told you what we are doing here…sort of…,” she said. “But what are you doing here, Mister Virgil?”

“Ohhh,” the toad sighed. “That is a long story….”

                                    *

“I am an exile here,” Virgil said as he carried us along beneath the pastel sky. “It began when the water, well, not the water, but the mists that lie above the earth, the misty mists I so love, when they grew itchy and then began to burn the skin. The very air became rank, and frankly poisonous. At the beginning we didn’t know what it was. Some thought it was a curse, and those ones set themselves to pray. Others believed it was a plague, and those ones went about seeking earthly remedy. Vaccines and masks and social distances and such like. Those who said it was a plague, or a curse, they were in some sense wrong, but indeed, indeed, they were in some sense more right than wrong. It was both a plague and a curse.”

“But, what sort of plague?” Natasha asked.

“Yes, yes,” I said, “and what sort of curse?”

“A chemical plague,” Virgil said, “and a curse of humankind. The worst of plagues. Atrazine, and 2-4-D, and glyphosate. Pesticides, and petrochemicals, and flame retardants – oh those flame retardants burn worse than any hellfire you can think of! PFAS!,” he croaked. “Humankind, in your ignorance – well, it wasn’t you so much, but it is so hard to avoid generalities – unleashed a chemical hell that just burned and burned. We couldn’t stand it anymore.”

“We?” I asked.

“The toads,” he said. “Actually, first the frogs: the pollywogs, the tadpoles, and then us, the toads. The salamanders too, and the newts, and the old axolotls. Some of us stopped being born, and some of us started to die…. Some of us were born with heads where our tails should be, or wih tails where our heads should be, and others with still more horrible deformities. Others of us simply gave up.”

“Gave up?” Natasha asked.

But Virgil fell silent, and merely kept moving through the strange scenery. Every so often he hopped through the air almost taking flight, and we held on with all our strength.

                                    *

After some time, Virgil revealed his story. It turned out he had been a scientist, in Italy, and he had been the one to discover that atrazine, an agricultural chemical, was wiping out amphibians. So the industry gave him a choice: keep his research quiet, or be banished from the human race.

“I’ll admit,” he croaked, “I was surprised when I published my paper in Nature and became a…well, this. But soon I found the pleasures of burrowing into the mud and somehow … well, somehow, I found my way here.”

                                    *

For a long time we passed through a cavern with wet walls, dripping with stalactites and erupting with stalagmites, the teeth of the underworld that at first glance seemed threatening as if they would grind us into gristle. But over time these same formations came to seem somehow peaceful, droplets of stone. It came to me preternaturally – same way, perhaps, that Natasha knew that peculiar poem about the demon, or how Queequeg had known that the path to seek the rhinos passed through the press offices of the UN Summit in Cancun…that the watery icicles of stone adorning these grottoes were nothing less than…time incarnate. On the walls of the cavern and up and down the stony features were drawings and prints in red ochre and white clay: pictographs of mammoths and horses and rhinos charging, and prints where some strange creatures had pressed their distorted hands against the gallery wall and blown pigment over them to form indelible shadows.

“What strange creature made those prints, Virgil?” I asked the toad as we hopped and slapped and scuttled through the half-light of the caverns.

For a while the toad said nothing and we walked to the sound of our footfalls in the dusty ground. When he spoke up at last he said, “Oh…that was us.”

                                    *

As we traveled, the sky changed from a lemony yellow to a fiery rose to an iridescent violet, and the land changed too, from the scrubby brushland we’d been moving through to a high plain of mesas and red rock escarpments. We seemed to be climbing upwards, the stony landscape dropping away from us below. The higher we climbed, the further the drop until we were surrounded on both sides by an indigo mist like the spume of a thousand waterfalls. Through the mist we could make out shapes, bulky, cloudy shapes at first, like stones or metamorphic vegetation; strange mineral spires and piles of cave popcorn and towers of broccoli and flutes of impossible condensed glass. But soon the shapes condensed into bodies, human bodies, and faces, and they were contorted into impossible positions.

“Who….what…who are those people?” Natasha asked. “And why did they appear all of the sudden?”

Virgil yawned and shivered, and in his long croaking voice he said, “Oh, oh, I was hoping we’d have you to the other side before you saw them. It is, oh, it is such a sad and awful sight. But I simply can’t…can’t move quickly enough anymore,” he lamented.

“But, who are they?” Natasha asked again.

“Oh, my friends, these people have been there all along, just that, now your eyes have adjusted to the light, to the strange, sad, shifting light of this subterranean place. These doomed figures, my friends, are criminals, the damned, those condemned to live a life of eternal…well, to continue to be, in a sense, to be incomplete. You might say they are frustrated souls. Those who, well, yes, I think that said it best. Frustrated souls who, for reasons of their own choosing, have committed crimes.”

“Crimes?” I asked. “Like looting and stealing jewelry and robbing banks?”

“No, not so much. Well, I mean the ones you mention are crimes, if they are crimes at all, of a lesser degree, driven more often than not by necessity, by want. Such crimes do not follow one beyond the grave. To purloin a purse in order to feed one’s family is no crime. Indeed, indeed, to the contrary, the greatest crimes feed nobody, the greatest crimes are crimes of gluttony. Among those of us who escaped the chemical plague, we have a saying: Which is the greater crime, to rob a bank, or to own one?”

“Mmmm, good one,” I said.

“To rob a bank is a crime against the bank, perhaps against the state,” Virgil croaked. “But to own a bank, to own a bank, my friends, is not merely to engage in usury – the crime of earning money through other peoples’ labor. It is, indeed, indeed, a crime against the very nature of nature. For to accumulate, to hoard, is to build a dam across the river of time, and to stop it in its flow. This is violence in its purest form. And this is the kind of crime we are concerned about here.”

“But where is here?” Natasha asked.

“Oh, names are of such little import,” the toad said. “But if you must, this place is called il settimo cerchio della violenza.”

“The seventh circle? of violence?” Natasha said. “That sounds so medieval.”

Virgil sat humped over and shrugged.

“And so esoteric,” I added.

Virgil stopped and cranked his head and rolled his eyes at me in a gesture that mimicked boredom. “Esoteric, yes, I suppose,” he croaked. “But do not forget, wherever you go, wherever you go, children…there you are.”

He let out a bullfrog’s belch that nearly sent us flying from his broad lumpy back. Then he started up again, moving first one foreleg, then a hind leg, then the other foreleg, then the other hind leg, making slow progress through these grim shadow lands.

“Is it not true,” Virgil asked, as he – as we – strode carefully between a basaltic cliff rising into infinity and an empty mist falling away towards eternity, “is it not true that all crimes, any crimes you can ever commit, any crime involving injury to someone else or to nature herself, that such crimes are carried out either by violence or by fakery?”

Natasha turned to me with a shrug.

“I suppose so, yes,” I said.

“Well, violence of course is bad, very bad indeed,” Virgil croaked. “Most certainly the violence of the chemical plague, let’s say, must be considered a crime of the vilest sort. But as far as offending nature is concerned, fakery, fakery, is worse. Fakery is worse because it is a form of violence itself, in disguise. Fakery, I tell you, is a crime that is purely human in essence. No other animal can do it so handily. That is to say, yes, we toads can camouflage to look like, for example, mud. And yes, the chameleon is famed for her ability to change color, and yes stickbugs and all those insects so good at, at blending in. But blending in, too, is the opposite of fakery…of…if you will, blending out. So the fakers get worse punishment than the rest. They’re lower in Hell, if you will.”

“Hell?” Natasha exclaimed. “Are we in Hell?”

She shivered against me, the truth of our situation breaking like a twilit dawn over us both.

“Well,” Virgil said, “the situation is not so…simple. We are, passing through Hell, yes. But we are not, technically speaking, in Hell. That would be bad.”

“Yes,” Natasha agreed. “That would be bad.”

“Honey,” I said. “Before we get too freaked out, let’s listen to what Virgil has to say.”

“Thank you, Irving,” the toad croaked.

“People who commit violence, and people who commit fakery, which is worse than violence, they get sent to this place. And, now, there are three forms of violence.”

“You said two,” Natasha said. “Regular violence and fakery.”

“No,” croaked Virgil, “three. Yes, you listen well, but what I mean to say is, there are three forms of violence and fakery, or better put, three ways that they are expressed. And so, as you will see, there are three, what shall we call them, three staging areas here where the criminals are condemned.”

                                    *

In the thick purplish-gray fog, figures teemed and writhed. Some were tied in knots, others splayed out as if strung to a wall, others curled in little balls of agony.

“And what are the three forms?” I asked.

“There’s violence against nature, violence against yourself, and violence against others,” Virgil hiccupped. “There’s also a violence against the rights of all, which I’ll explain in a moment.

“You see, people – and by people, I mean people: human beings – are constantly hurting each other, killing each other, stealing things, extorting money, destroying property that doesn’t belong to them – better yet, that isn’t really property, since nobody really owns anything – the list is endless.”

“So then, the first staging area is for people who intentionally hurt other people, who kill and maim and rape and abuse. Even soldiers, at least the malicious ones, are here, along with gangbangers and wife beaters and that sort.

“Now, in the next staging area you have people who hurt themselves or hurt the world’s things – those who committed suicide or gambled or burned down their own homes, or their neighbor’s – the ones who destroyed things and wasted their lives, the ones who failed to recognize the value of their lives and everything they touched. Depressed people come here, too, because they should get over it.”

“That’s pretty harsh,” I said. I mean, that’s pretty harsh.

“But now, compared to that, fraud and fakery, these, my friends, are the worst. But not all fraud is created equal,” Virgil croaked.

“There are two kinds – fraud against strangers, and fraud against your own kin. The ones that commit fraud against strangers, the Ponzi schemers like Bernie Madoff and Elon Musk and most of Silicon Valley, and the presidents like Richard Nixon, they burn forever from the inside, because there’s a universal bond between humans, and they’ve broken it.”

“And Donald Trump, well, his sort of fraud is…let us just say, as many have said, that there is a special place in Hell reserved for him.”

As Virgil spoke a cold scream seemed to rise from some smoky gallery far below.

“But nothing’s worse than deceiving your own kin and kind,” Virgil said. “That’s betraying sacred bonds of love. That’s why we’ll see in the center here, on that small island below: a permanent platform of torture.”

There, the path seemed to come to an end, and Virgil stopped at the edge of a bottomless, cavernous pit. In the middle of the pit was a spire of rock that stood in isolation, and you could see, at its very peak, like angels on the head of a pin, a crowd of creatures, human creatures, pressed together and howling away under what looked like a fountain of sand.

“Those,” Virgil croaked, “are the real fakers. The ones that would trick their own mother into buying Okeechobee swampland out from under a Seminole grandmother if it would get them a new x-box game. Not that swampland is so bad… Anyway, that place is a veritable pig-pile of crooks, thieves, liars, con-men, forgers, pimps, grifters, schmoozers, moochers, banksters, and creeps.”

As we gazed down on this island of suffering, time seemed to stand still. Why had we come to this place? And how would we get out?

                                                *

As we looked over the edge into pit, a frozen wind circled upward. What looked like steam, it became soon apparent, was ice vapor.

“You are almost free,” Virgil croaked. “We merely have to cross this crevice.”

Natasha and I looked at each other. “Cross this?” we said.

There was no way across, but a thin lip of rock circling the pit. The bottom was lost in violet fog. Then, Virgil gestured with his pale, lumpy chin to some dark spot across the void. Clinging like a lizard to the chasm’s lip, a thousand feet away in the smoke and haze, was some kind of creature.

                                    *

Before we’d sized it up, Virgil let out a shrill whistle, right in the creature’s direction.

Nothing happened. It didn’t move. Virgil rolled his heavy-lidded eyes upwards at Natasha.

“My darling girl,” he croaked. “Would you be so generous as to play a tune on your little ocarina? I do believe it will provide just the remedy we need.”

Natasha drew the clay whistle from beneath her shirt and put it to her lips. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath and blew a little melody: “Summer is a-comin’ in” – a crazy old ancient song about cuckoo birds, with a goofy chorus where all the singers go “Sing cuckoo! Sing cuckoo!”

The blank beast across the abyss lurched its featureless head in our direction. A slash of red tongue escaped its lips. It started scaling the earthen wall towards us.

It appeared to move slowly, but advanced quickly across the chasm, and soon the monster was approaching the edge of the rocky path where we stood. As it neared, we saw, the thing was huge, the size of three limousines one atop the other, and hideous. The monster’s body was like a huge snake. It had paws covered with thick, bristly fur up to the armpits. But it had an almost human face and wore a benign expression, and its lumbering movement made it appear peaceful. It’s chest and body were covered in beautifully colored effervescent nacreous rings and markings in designs more wild and colorful than a Moroccan rug – as intricate as an orb spider’s weaving in bells of morning fog. When it moved, the colors rippled hypnotically, like the rainbow ripples of oil on water. From its long serpentine tail a steady flow of shimmering black ooze appeared to drip into the impossible depths below.

The creature came toward us and gently set its enormous head and body on the edge of the bank with its spiked tail flapping in the air.

Virgil gestured to the monster’s torso.

“Lower yourselves from my back,” Virgil said.

One by one, Natasha and I each slid from Virgil’s back, where we’d traveled in such security through what turned out to be a harsh and unpleasant country.

“Climb aboard,” Virgil said.

                                    *

In a hop, Virgil sprung from the ledge and clung to the monster’s body. Looking closer, I saw that the body was covered with infinite scales, angled upwards. From under the scales issued a viscous liquid, black and iridescent. Repulsive as it was, the gooey substance seemed to be what held Virgil to the vast body of the thing, like glue.

Without a word, Natasha leapt too, imitating the toad, and clung onto the scales.

“Come on, dadda! It’s easy.”

As I stepped from the security of the ledge onto the monster’s body, the shifting oily colors seemed to capture and enthrall me, and eased my mind. I grasped the scales and found the oozing body sticky and warm. Virgil and Natasha clambered upward toward the monster’s armpits. The thing didn’t appear to register that we were hitching a ride.

Natasha was right: it was easy.

We clambered onto its back, just below its neck.

“This is the only way to get across the final reach,” Virgil called out. A wind had begun to howl about us.

And then Virgil called to the monster, “Take us across Lake Cocytus, to the end of the line, monstrosity! These two are friends from above. If you serve them well, they’re sure to bring about an end to your exile, and all of ours here below.”

It gave a bodily shrug that felt like an earth tremor, and then began to climb sideways, moving swiftly and keenly across the frigid pit. We clung on. Below, space fell away in gulps toward a black nub of nothingness that must have been Lake Cocytus, some hellish frozen depth so far from the surface of the earth that it was another world.

                                    *

I don’t know how long our transit was across that infinite gap, but it seemed like less than minutes, and in a blink of time we were across, and came level with a wide ledge. The air was warm as if a Santa Ana wind blew up from below and a strange light hovered. The monster stopped, and stood still.

One by one we climbed off the monster’s back, and we found ourselves on a ledge of rock at the entrance to a crevice that appeared to open beyond into a tunnel, upward. There was shimmering in the rock opening – a light, as it were, at the end of the tunnel. Behind and below us, the monster climbed away and was quickly gone into the purple distance.

                                    *

Virgil took a half step toward the opening, and halted there.

“This is as far as I can take you,” he said. “For the rest of the journey, you are on your own.”

“What? Virgil, you can’t!” Natasha said. “We’ll be lost!”

“No, my child,” our guide croaked. “You’ll be found, I’m quite sure. And, we will meet again, someday.”

I too was filled with sadness, I’ll admit, but I bit my lip, resolved to carry on. But I had one question.

“Mister Virgil,” I said, not quite knowing how to address the toad. “Shouldn’t the demon Zoellick be condemned to the icy fires of that…that place?”

A cloud crossed Virgil’s enormous mud-brown eyes, and he blinked.

“Yes, Irving,” Virgil croaked. “He should be. And if you are successful in your quest…he will be.”

“Is this why you showed us these visions, of thieves and fakers?” Natasha asked.

Virgil tilted his head from side to side, neither yes nor no.

“As I think of it,” the toad said, “There is one more thing before we part: you will notice when you leave this place that you have no hunger. Why is this? It is because hell is hunger. Above all what drives all beings here is the curse of appetite. You see, it is the insatiability of appetite that lures them here – the Neanderthals, the repressed Protestants, homo economicus europeus…. All of them.”

Suddenly, sweet as the nightingale, another voice emerged from the darkness. “Do you know the story of the boy who tried to kill hunger?”

“Beatrix!” Virgil exclaimed in a rough loud belch.

“Virgil,” the voice purred. From out of the darkness another huge toad appeared, camouflaged in the half-light. The toad had long eyelashes and kind eyes, which she laid on Natasha.

“There was a boy who lived in a very hungry village,” she purred, if a giant toad can be said to purr. “One morning, fed up with hunger, he gathered up his bow and arrow and started to set out. ‘Where are you going?’ asked his mother. ‘I’m going to kill this hunger that eats away at us like a vulture,’ the boy said. And so he set out. But at the end of the day he returned home empty handed, sad and dejected. ‘Did you kill hunger?’ his mother asked. ‘No!’ he stamped in frustration. ‘Well,’ said his mother, ‘all the better, because if it weren’t for hunger we’d have nothing to drive us out of bed in the morning, no reason to plant our gardens and go a-gathering in golden afternoons, no need to climb the pear trees or to fish in the winding rivers…’”

“But,” she went on, “as Virgil is trying to tell you, there is hunger, and there is hunger.” She swiveled her massive warty head towards Virgil, who sat smiling broadly.

“The two of you have shown by your devotion that you have surpassed the sort of appetite that drives the greedy spirits here,” Beatrix the toad said. “You have endured fire and flood, and gravity of all sorts. Natasha, how you crossed the sea; Irving, how you forsook all to divine the rhinos’ plight. Little do you know what dangers you might have encountered here – but the bowels of Hell did not see fit to swallow you.”

She looked demurely at Virgil and batted her eyes.

“In the remainder of your journey,” Virgil blurted, “you will find not only that you have no appetite, but that you have no food.”

The toads blinked.

“Scratch that,” Virgil said. “Reverse it: not only will you have no food – you will have no hunger.”

Natasha looked at me and back at the toads, agog.

“So our physiological state will be attuned to the material conditions in which we find ourselves?” Natasha asked.

Virgil blinked. “Indeed,” he said.

“And with that, we bid you adieu,” he croaked.

Natasha threw herself at the toad and spread her arms across his chest and gave him a farewell hug.

“Natasha, and Irving, allow me to give you something for your journey.”

The she-toad let out a cheerful, girlish belch.

“When you emerge into the light, you will be at the edge of the great waters,” she said. “You will find it strange, and remote, and lonely there. And you may find yourself without allies. But in the waters of the great deep, in the soft sediment, a small spiny bush grows. It has sharp spikes that will prick a man’s fingers like iron barbs. If you find this plant and bring it to the surface, you will have gained a great friend.”

I looked at Natasha, whose face was illuminated.

“I can get it!” she fairly hollered. Her squeal echoed vibrato in the damp hollow of the earth.

She dropped her voice a notch and said to Beatrix the toad, “I’ve sailed the ocean in a pea green boat. I’ve journeyed through the center of the earth…”

“No,” the girl-toad said, firmly. “It must be Irving who gathers the plant.”

She leveled her fluttering eyes at me, and said, “Irving: by embarking on this journey, you have allowed yourself to be touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world. Each of us,” she said, “is all the sums she has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in San Francisco. You shall bear in Ambergris Island the fruit that was sown twelve thousand years ago in Siberia.”

“Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home, and every moment is a window on all time.”

I was captivated.

Beatrix continued: “The seed of your devotion, Irving, will blossom in the flames of the desert. And Natasha: always remember that life does not begin with tears of grief and rage, but with the sweetly melodious cry, a slight whistle of wind through the dry reeds at the water’s edge…”

Her strange words hung a moment in the air, and her body faded, glowed, faded, faintly outlined against the earthen wall, her eyes aflutter for a moment beyond when her body had all but vanished, and then, one more instant passed, and poof! – Beatrix the toad was gone.

In our astonishment, we didn’t notice that Virgil, with perhaps a slight wet slap of his webbed feet that we most barely registered, had disappeared as well.

                                    *

Natasha and I peered into the lit crevice in front of us. The crack was vertical, like a slice of lightning parting the rock. Natasha looked up at me, and smiled and shrugged her little shoulders, and then climbed through and disappeared. A moment later, her little hand reached through. I took her hand and pressed my moderately overweight body against the cold stone and squeezed into the crevice and stepped through to the other side.

                                    *

It was nighttime out in the world, and the salt sea air was moving over the earth, and over us.

When we had clambered out of the pit, we stood in a warm zephyr wind, and we looked up and all around at a sky full of bristling, naked, brilliant, bursting stars. Under our feet, sand in warm heaps fell away toward dark patches of distance and then brightened into foam where an ocean curled in and crashed with a whooshing sound against the stillness of the night. On the other side of us, inland, the open beach rose gently into darkness. I looked down, and saw Natasha, curled up in the sand at my feet, fallen fast asleep.

With my feet I dug a shallow hole in the sand the length of my body, and I lay down and put my arms around Natasha and felt the wind across my face. As my eyelids drooped shut I saw stars raining down like the seeds of strange tropical fruits, and I fell fast asleep too.

Book Six: The Final Battle of Cancún

Standard

i.

Here let the Muse oblivions curtains draw

& let man think – for God hath often saw

Things here too dirty for the light of day

For in a madhouse there exists no law –

Now stagnant grows my too refined clay

I envy birds their wings to flye away

— John Clare, Child Harold

We picked our way over split stones and across fields of burnt stumps of failed tree plantations toward Childe Harold’s camp. We walked in silence, and though the odor of the salt-sea made fragrant clouds upon the breeze of our wake, the land we passed through was a desert.

It so happens that the world’s widening deserts are the terra incognita where gods have always offered up visions of apocalypse, from sheets of greasy flame to grey beasts with honeycombed entrails,to the cavernous solitude with which desert-dwellers have always, always dreamed on the End.

There may have been some of that at work here. But widen the frame a moment, and the scale of the problem is clear: This is not your great grandmother’s Apocalypse.

                                    *

Off in the South Pacific a bottle floated on the swells with the news mysteriously rolled up inside:

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines  — Rescuers searched for more than 800 people missing in the southern Philippines on Saturday after flash floods and landslides swept houses into rivers and out to sea, killing more than 650 people in areas ill-prepared to cope with storms.

Cagayan de Oro and nearby Iligan cities on Mindanao island were worst hit when Typhoon Washi slammed ashore while people slept late on Friday and early Saturday, sending torrents of water and mud through villages and stripping mountainsides bare.

Floods washed away entire houses with families inside in dozens of coastal villages, the Philippine Red Cross reported.

In just 12 hours, Washi dumped more than a month of average rain on Mindanao.

At virtually the same time, a Caribbean tsunami struck the eastern coast of Mexico, wiping the city of Cancún from the map. Not 800 people here, but 800,000.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States, a major ally of both the Philippines and Mexico, was unconcerned.

“This is how it is anymore,” the US official said. “Villages are washed away all the time. No one can do anything to stop it.”

Most of the dead were children and women, the Philippine Red Cross reported. In Mexico, no news was forthcoming. Cancún, born in the 1970’s, lived for less than half a century. Every short-lived memory of it was simply … gone.

                                                *

In the Indian Ocean, off the Andaman Islands, a bottled floated up with the news mysteriously rolled up inside:

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Around a third of Bangladesh is underwater due to recent catastrophic flooding and the climate crisis has played a role in the devastation, according to experts.

The widespread flooding, which has displaced millions of vulnerable people and caused thousands of deaths, follows the deadly super-cyclone Amphan which hit the region this week.

The catastrophes bear witness to the fundamental imbalance of the climate emergency: That developing countries like Bangladesh, which have historically contributed little to the pollution driving increased temperatures and rising sea levels, will suffer the greatest impacts.

Dr. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, told The Independent that the “fingerprint” of climate change could be seen in the magnitude of the recent disasters.

“This is a one in 20-year flood event that we are having now for the fifth time in the last 20 years,” Dr. Huq said.

Torrential monsoon rains have compounded the suffering, sending water rushing from hilly areas and causing dangerously high water levels in two of Bangladesh’s major rivers, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

                                                *

We picked our way over salt-scrabble and minced mangroves and through the small cactus deserts that remained like dioramas of an increasingly absent ecology. Ghosts of animals trotted by in hungry invisible vehicles passing through the air.

“It’s getting crowded in here,” Childe Harold said, absently eyeing the invisibles.

                                                *

Off in the Sargasso Sea, a bankshot away from the Bermuda Triangle, a bottled floated up with the news mysteriously rolled up inside:

San Juan, Puerto Rico…

Funafuti, Tuvalu…

Apia, Samoa…

Hamilton, Bermuda…

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana…

                                                *

Once upon a time, further south, in the high Amazon in Ecuador, the jungle mist flew fast and thick and the cascading mountains collapsed like the trade towers of nine-eleven and the earth coughed up a lung.

Once upon a time across the Western Ocean in the forest canopies and vast grasslands of Africa, the soil sucked up black smoke from the heaving, spitting factories of Europe and Asia and America, and the singing that gave birth to humanity 200,000 years ago grew into a croaking voiceless choking noise.

Across the Southern Sea in the peppered Orient, the trees themselves dried to powder and blew away in a burning spice cloud that floated off high over the Mekong and the Yangtze, over the Indus and the Ganga to the roof of the world.

On the Tibetan plateau, the nuclear salt sat still.

In the volcanic atolls of Micronesia, the sculpted black basaltic outcrops drew in a deep breath before a lifetime of exile under sea.

The sea herself encysted.

                                    *

In a bottle afloat on the retreating Caribbean last week’s news skidded and flotted like a spirit nine days dead:

Dateline, Cancún: Rafael Bolivar Sanchez Upankí, the president of an unnamed Latin American country, attended the climate change summit in Cancún to give an ultimatum to all the countries of the world: “Our peoples will be nobody’s bête noir. If the world will not take responsibility for protecting the vast natural riches that literally drip from the Andean shelf, falling away into the Amazon like gems, we will be forced to unplug from the global economy.”

Executives at Chevron called the idea “blackmail.”

“Some backwards third world petty dictator can’t hold our natural resources hostage,” said Chevron CEO John Watson, in a prepared statement.

                        ###

In a bottle of seaglass this shred of news floated and bobbed and sailed across the sea, last week’s news, the last news of the plugged-in world.

                                                *

As we approached Childe Harold’s camp, nothing appeared changed. From the distance of the road, it was a reassuring sight to see the railroad car still safely buried up to its brakeworks. But as we grew closer, the air smelled of sulfur and a frisson of electricity surged through it. Smoke rose slightly from Harold’s campfire, and as we approached, the coals erupted suddenly into a strange belch of smoke which rose into the air like a balloon and then whisped off into the bright air and was gone. The fire seemed almost to have seen us coming, and to have chosen the precise moment of our arrival to give up the ghost.

Harold knelt and put his hand to the embers.

“Col’ as de moon over de sea,” he said, looking mystified.

“Seems t’me that you and I and I, we got us some work ta do.”

Harold turned from the fire and set about cleaning up the camp for battle, swabbing out a bucket to collect fresh water, rolling bandages and herbal spliffs, scratching at the dirt for nightcrawlers to attach to a fishhook to try and catch some sustenance.

As for me, with a hunch in my heart as big as the devastation that surrounded us, I set myself up on the beach to scan the horizon. I had developed an uncanny feeling that Natasha was on her way…

                                                *

As I looked into the sea mist, trying to pierce the veil of distance with my bifocals, to see the forest for the trees, as it’s said, I squinted into the pale green haze, but was left with the impression that there was no there there. As if what I viewed was not a living ocean, but a mirage, a decoupage, a diorama del mar. I lay back on the sand, abandoning my view of the ocean for a vaguer view of sky. The blank moon was stuck against the blue, mid-sky, like a pin-pricked scrap of felt.

Suddenly I felt a weight in my chest – no, on my chest – as if a five-year-old were standing there.

“Don’t you see?” Natasha said. “It’s not an ocean, dadda. It’s an ocean of signs, the sort that the romantic poets spoke of two centuries ago.”

Without warning I was sprawled on the sand, flat on my back, bowled over by a force from the Beyond.

“What the…? Na…Na-TASHA?”

Standing on my chest and letting her little voice trill like a bonsai’d Ezra Pound, Natasha intoned:

“The pillars of Nature’s temple are alive and sometimes yield perplexing messages;

oceans of symbols between us and the shrine
remark our passing with strange, familiar eyes.”

                                    *

Natasha’s chirping stopped. The sea, and my sanguine heart, had been stoppered by her song.

“Baudelaire,” I said, “grinning a deep grin. “A strange choice for a toddler.”

She stayed standing on my chest, and her hair was a tangle of seaweed, the tint of her skin almost green, as if the very sea were in her.

“Only, now the eyes of these forests are no longer understanding,” Natasha said, continuing to proclaim. “For they are grown dumb!”

“Well, and hello to you too, my dear,” I said, trying to waylay her a bit in her precociousness.

 “No time for niceties, dadda. We’ve made these forests dumb – or rather, daddio, you and your whole generation of daddas, with your disenchantment of all that is, have done it. And all the generations before. It’s so … sad.”

“Natasha, how did you get here?”

“Dadda, even me, even me who augurs innocence but must tread where torturers have trod. We are all as guilty as the moon is marked with the boot prints of astronauts. Once that moon was touched, if you follow my metaphor, it was the beginning of the end. No, NOT the beginning of the end: the end. Game over for the world that was, and the final, long-awaited decline of innocence. Tyger tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night!”

“Natasha,” I insisted, “How did you get here?”

“Oh, dadda,” she sighed. “That’s not important now. What is important is this apocalypse we’re facing. I think we can beat it.”

“Dadda, if you take a step back, view the whole panorama, it’s nothing more than a repeat of the Victorian holocaust, when Europe sacked the entirety of the southern hemisphere. Only now it has a more….metaphysical character. And its global.”

“Natasha! I should wash your mouth out with shaving soap!, I fumed. “Where did you learn such a word?” (What stirred this fit, I don’t know. Looking back, my inner Parent must have been nonplussed at her strange affect, even as my inner child was hurt by her strange lack of affection.)

“What word?” she chirped. “Metaphysical?”

“No!” I rumbled. “Holocaust! What kind of word is that for a preschooler to use? We reserve that word for –”

“Oh dadda, please, how many times do I need to say it: don’t give me that ‘little lamb, who made thee?’ routine. Nobody’s innocent, not anymore. Not you. Not me.”

I softened. “But sweetie, I know you’re…gifted and talented. And I know these times are extreme… But you’ll always be me little babe-in-arms….”

“And arms may be what’s needed now, dadda. We need to stop this holocaust…okay, this apocalypse, whatever-it-is, by any means necessary!”

                                    *

The ocean cast about for yesterday’s news, but yesterday’s news was fading in its seagreen bottle, sinking to the bottom of the heavy grief-stricken sea.

                                    *

“Dadda, I have seen men of hideous aspect with terrible eyes set deep in their skulls, men who transcend the hardness of rock, the rigidity of cast steel, the mundane, animal cruelty of sharks, the insolence of youth, the insensate rage of criminals, the treachery of hypocrites, the most outlandish clowns, the force of character of priests, the most introverted beings, and creatures colder than earth or heaven. And having seen such ugliness, Dadda, I am up in arms. A babe maybe, but a babe up in arms.”

She crossed her arms over her tiny chest and glared. “And so should you be.”

“Which of us has known our mother’s face?” she continued. “Which of us is not forever cast out and alone? What do we know, really, of ourselves? And of other beings? What do we know, for example, of the rhinos? They are like distant cousins to us, and yet we might as well be aliens to them.”

Her tone changed, and the moon lolled in the sky like a dry lollipop.

“Dadda, have you ever noticed how, I don’t know, life has become not just a spectacle, but, almost like an anti-spectacle at the same time? Where you’re zooming along a freeway and suddenly you realize that you haven’t even been awake for the last fifteen minutes? Yet you’re awake now and somehow you didn’t crash. Was it always like that?”

                                    *

Beside us the waves whispered as they crashed and the clouds stood aglow like old parchment lampshades and the stones in the surf murmured and trembled as they always had.

*

“Mmm, was it always like that? That’s a good question, angel. I think, no, it wasn’t always like that. Some people say that happened in the ‘eighties. That’s what I used to think. Others say it began around the time of Plato, when the Aleph Bet of the Hebrew sign system became the more abstracted Greek alphabet, and western civilization began, with a capital W.C.”

I thought about the orcs in the grotto, and about twenty centuries – no, a hundred centuries! – of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I sensed the demon banker lurking in the ether somehow. From a corner of my eye I saw Childe Harold a ways off casting a line into the lapping sea.

“Well, either way, it’s pretty worrisome,” Natasha said, looking slightly older than I remembered. “Post-worrisome, I guess. It seems to me that, as our senses have been removed outside of us, Big Brother has gone inside. If we’re not constantly aware of the implications of this we’ll be overtaken by a tribal world of supernatural spirits and technological golems over which we have no control.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself, honey.”

Natasha’s rant seemed to be slowing to a fine chirp. I saw my chance.

“Honey?” I said.

“Yes, dadda?”

“Would you mind stepping off my chest?”

                                    *

And so it was that Natasha had arrived safely at Youcatan.

Childe Harold had stopped his work and stood by to watch our family welcome and embrace, and he now stepped up, aglow from cheek to cheek.

“An’ jest who might dis be?”

Natasha tweeted, “I’m Natasha. Natasha the Exploradora. I’m here to rescue my dadda and stuff!”

Harold’s smile doubled. “Are you some kine a fairy spirit, den? A sprite or elvin ting from beyon’ de curtain? From whence come ye, Exploradora?”

Natasha looked at Harold and back at me and back at Harold again.

“I’m my dadda’s little girl!” she announced in her biggest outside voice. My heart spilled over. “Who are YOU?”

                                    *

Childe Harold presented himself, a bit more than he had to me: “I and I,” he said in an almost formal tone of voice, “You might say I and I am one of the strange spirits dat hangs ‘roun dis strange place. Dem Mayans over dere,” and he pointed with his lips somewhere inland, “they say ol’ Childe Harold is the alux o’ dis place. You know what alux is, young fairy sprite?”

 Natasha for once didn’t have an answer. “Do tell,” she said.

“Da one ‘at lives here,” Harold said, simply. “Da one ‘at lives here.”

“I see, and I thank you for letting me, um, show up,” she said. “But why do they call you a Childe? I’m a… a real child, sort of, and, I don’t know… isn’t it, disrespectful? To call you a child? You’re a bit … old.”

“I and I am old enough,” Childe Harold said. “Dey call me childe because I was young when the world was young. And when the world come to be a certain age, I and I go. So, old as I am today – old as I am to you – I’m always a child.”

Natasha cocked her head and sparkled.

“But you, young lady, if ye want, you kin call me Hal. And before we go gettin’ in too deep on de rescue tip, you musta hadda long ocean-crossin, ne? You hungry, Natasha Exploradora?”

Natasha pressed her hands together and stretched onto her tiptoes. “Am I ever!” she squealed.

                                    *

From his low-slung sack, Childe Harolde produced three fish – huachinango – all strung together on a line.

“But I, I thought you said there were no fish anymore, Harold?” I blurted out.

He looked long over his nose at me, grinning that grin from beneath his black bristled mustache.

“If you’re gon’ ta make it ‘roun here, Irving,” he said, “you mus’ remember: sometimes the nex’ thing that happens is a good thing.”

My eyes fell on the fish, silver and slowly twirling, suspended from their line, their pink gills opening and closing as they spun and I noticed – and by her sudden rosy shout, Natasha seems to have noticed, too – something uncanny, something strange, about the fish.

“Dadda! Do you recognize these fishes’ faces?”

“I think I do, honey, but it, it couldn’t be.”

Childe Harold knotted his brow, curious.

“You don’t know these guys, Childe Harold,” Natasha said. “But your huachinango bear a strange resemblance to some frogs we used to know.”

“Milton, Rupert and Beatrix,” I said, and surprised myself hearing the names aloud.

Childe Harold looked at the fish, and at Natasha and me, and back at the fish.

“Well, I hope you won’t min’ eatin’ ‘em.” He paused, looking us up and down and then added, “Raw.”

“Raw,” I said. “Milton, Rupert and Beatrix?”

“See, it appears de fire’s gone out. An’ we got no fresh water, nohow, nowhere, no way. In udder words, even wit’ you, my honored guest, arrivin’, I got no way to cook dem fish.”

Natasha beamed. “Don’t worry Childe Harold. This is a job for Natasha and my magic Rucksack!”

She hastily pulled off the pink and purple vinyl bag strapped to her back, threw it in the sand, rummaged through, and came out with a knuckle-sized chunk of asphaltic rock.

She looked up at Harold holding the silvery spinning trio of huachinango that glinted like pewter in the lowering sun. “Sorry, Milton. Sorry, Rupert. Sorry, Beatrix. Thanks for feeding us!”

She threw her hands into the air and shouted, “Firestone to the RESCUE!”

                                    *

Natasha got the fire going and Childe Harold skewered the fish on a spit and laid it across the stones to cook over the low flame. The smell of sulfur seemed to have blown off, but the whiff of the demon djinn was still strong. Together, we three hunched around the fire and ate our huachinango down to the bone, and piled the bones neatly by to clean and put them to use later. With the animals disappearing and the flora likely soon to follow, we knew Milton, Rupert and Beatrix might be some of the last fish we’d have the good fortune to eat.

As afternoon darkened into evening, Natasha reported on the dolphins, and the state of the disappeared rhinos. I told her all I knew and had seen in Cancún, from the dark-green-the-color-of-money hue of the UN negotiations to the deeper eldritch mystery of the pin-striped orcs, the sycophant Sam Hasbin, and the World Bank President-turned fiery demon djinn Iffrit, Robert Zoellick. Childe Harold just listened and mumbled under his breath, “Tings getting’ hot.”

We agreed we needed a strategy. Queequeg and the Unsettled Indians might have made it, or they might have been wiped out in the flood; Ophelia might well be campaigning for office somewhere in the far-away United States, unmindful of our predicament. Childe Harold, having been a hermit all these years, and with the evidence of vanishing fauna all around, seemed to think there was no one left to help.

“As ‘a las’ chile’ of Africa,” he said, “—dem place from where human-itee stumbled up from de rift valley caves and down outta de trees – it seems to me, my historical insights an’ your magical items may be among the only tings ‘at kin save us now. You pass me one o’ dem firestones, an’ you trus’ me wid ‘im, an’ I go all night an’ pray. Inna mornin’ we see wot we gon’ hafta do.”

Natasha and I agreed. She cuddled into my lap and started telling tales of the sea: of waves like ice cream cones and vast circular swarms of eels, of islands where it was light for centuries, and islands where it was always dark; of continents made of plastic pellets and six-pack rings, of oil barges that burned for months across dead shipping lanes, of tropical beaches lined with automobiles stacked one-atop-the-other to form ramparts, fortresses where surly, self-isolated maroons insulated themselves from the wilderness of pathology that the world had somewhat suddenly become.

When the stories wound down, Childe Harold stood and bid goodnight.

“Sleep where you want,” he said. “De groun’ here is soft and good.”

Natasha collected one of the firestones, put a quiet breath on it, and handed it to him before he climbed into his boxcar.

The fire died to embers and its smoke settled like a warm, low mist over us. Natasha and I lay down into our sandy bed and slept.

                                    *

From inside Harold’s boxcar all night a shadowy glow was cast. Through my sleep I could hear his powerful soft murmur as he made low prayers or cast spells, speaking to the ocean in a strange, secret voice that only the ocean could have understood.

                                                *

Meanwhile, a few hundred nautical miles from Youcatan….

From inside Harold’s boxcar all night a shadowy glow was cast. Through my sleep I could hear his powerful soft murmur as he made low prayers or cast spells, speaking to the ocean in a strange, secret voice that only the ocean could have understood.

                                                *

Meanwhile, a few hundred nautical miles from Youcatan….

… the Iffrit burned, and paced, and burned.

Amid the dead and dying tortured Taliban, amidst the rotting infrastructure that had for many decades served the worst, the most despicable, the most base and militaristic human element, the demon Zoellick had found a refuge. A refuge from the slavering orcs, from the tiresome business elite, from the demands of his office in Washington DC; a place to recover from the failed coup at Cancún.

                                    *

The demon Zoellick needed to think.

“I am shoveling shadows into darkness,” he hissed to himself.

*

When I awoke, for once well rested, the sun was in the sky, a white crystal. I scratched myself, and swallowed the dry air, and sat up. And there was Natasha, sitting cross-legged, not a broom’s-length away, staring at me.

“Dadda,” she said. “I’ve been thinking… Why should it be a surprise, much less a shock, that the rhinos are gone?”

She was bright-eyed as ever, but with a wrinkle in her forehead. The sea beyond her was flat.

“The dinosaurs vanished and nobody laments their loss,” she said. “We only ogle their bones in museums. The phoenix is gone and no one knows or cares, and the same is true for so many others: the nagas, the centaur, the basilisk, the auk, the gryphon, the mastodon – all gone the way of the passenger pigeon, as the saying goes.”

“And us?”

“Us who?” Natasha said.

“Us humans,” I said. “Why are we still here? What keeps mankind alive?”

“Bestial acts, that’s what. Our will to power. When I say ‘our,’ I don’t mean you and me, dadda. I mean the bad guys. The guys whose will to power is not a will to govern, or even to command – but merely to do exactly as they please, when they please. To be more than human, in a world of humans – to escape le condition humaine. They dream of being gods – and such a dream is nothing less than a disease. And I’m afraid that, by now, this disease has consumed all humanity.”

“Natasha, I don’t disagree. Only let me refine the argument just a whit. What if the better part of humanity – the better part of us, of each of us, that is – is not the human part? What if it’s the part of us that traces our ancestry to the more-than-human world: the cave bears we once dwelt among; the micro-flora that inhabit our guts and allow us to digest the world; the mitochondria who power up the cells that make up our flesh. And what if, what if those bits of us, those more-than-human bits, are also what we share with the phoenix, and the gryphon, and centaur, and the auk?”

By our side the open ocean breathed and reflected back the silver sky. The sun skipped his light across her slow swells, a flat stone cast by a child skipping along the stillness of a creek. No birds sang.

“I like that, dadda,” Natasha said, gayly. She stood up and came over and lay her head in my lap. “You know, dadda, you continue to surprise me. You know a thing or two, don’t you?”

“I hope I do, honey,” I said. “We don’t have much time left, and its about we time we gathered our wits and learned a few things….”

“Its about time we learned to be human, right?” Natasha said. “After all, it is the Age of Consequence – there’s no room left for mistakes. And so, you and me, and mama, and, I dunno, other people who have an ounce of sense left – we no longer dream of being gods, Now, we dream of being human – and acting that way! – if even that is left us.”

                                    *

The sun had risen almost midway up the sky by now. We’d begun to wonder where Childe Harold had gone, when he collapsed out of his boxcar into the bright daylight and poured himself onto the sand, spent.

                                                *

Childe Harold leapt into the air and for a moment seemed to fly on the wind. I fell back in awe. But Natasha leapt to her feet and rushed toward the creature screaming, “Demon! Be gone!”

The smoke cleared and Zoellick stood still surveying the scene before him.

Something in his aspect was strange. His head was slightly bowed. Like a great turbine that had run out of steam, Zoellick seemed somehow… sorrowful. Still, a small ring of flames encircled the ground where he stood, occluding his feet as if he were levitating a few inches off the ground and letting off oily black strings of smoke.

“My child,” he said to Natasha, in a rasping voice. “My child. Have no fear. I am not the demon you take me for. I come to you in peace. To ask your forgiveness. To ask your pardon.”

Natasha sneered. “Pardon this!” she said, scooping up a handful of sand and throwing it at him in contempt.

He drew back from the cast sand as if burned. He really did look pale, and small, and weak.

“You, sorry little man!” Natasha spat. “In all your weakness, you are the destroyer of worlds.”

Zoellick fell to his knees and clasped his hands in a gesture of prayer.

“Please child, recognize my humanity! Bespeak mankind, forsooth my mind! I am human, listen to me weep! I cry like tiger cubs in the darkest night. Cruel toddler, infant of sorrows, offspring of dull propagandists, I beseech you: When you cut me do I not bleed?”

Natasha let fall a crocodile tear and then captured it in a locket. She wrapped the locket in a silk kerchief and slipped it in a pocket of her little pants (which were purple with yellow stars). She rebuilt her composure, blinked once and sliced the air with her hand as if with a cutlass. She threw a lion tamer’s gaze at the djinn and wrinkled her nose and roared, “Oh I hope you bleed!”

“Child!” the demon moaned. “When you slap me do I not sting?”

“Do tell!”

“When you disgrace me, do I not weep?”

Natasha eased her stance.

“Listen, Mister,” she said, glaring into the empty pits of his eyes. “You may be human, somewhere in there, and I may be human – all-too-human – but we are nothing alike. You are an asbestos firetrap and I am a nest of sky-blue songbirds’ eggs. You are an anvil and I am an egret. You are the slurry impoundment of a coalmine, acrid and toxic with blackwater, and I am a meadow blossoming in spring. I belong…among the wildflowers. But you…you belong among the shackled outcast ranks of evil demon powers!”

This was too much for the feigning Iffrit to take. He straightened his back and rasped, “I am your elder!”

“You are the bringer of pestilence!” Natasha fired back.

The flames died away and he planted his feet on terra firma and straightened his tie (which was yellow with purple stars). “I represent the establishment,” he said, with composure.

“You represent death!” Natasha sneered.

“Perhaps,” he said with a slight hiss. “But I am what you dream of being.”

“You are the world’s nightmare,” she spat poking a tiny finger at him.

His voice boomed in Dolby stereophonic surround-sound as if the very heavens were lined with acoustic tiles and the ocean were a resonating membrane: “I AM MANKIND’S FINAL HOPE!!”

Natasha rushed at him suddenly like a ferret charging at an ogre, her finger wagging in front of her and she leapt into the air in slow motion a pint-sized kamikaze, and she shouted, “YOU ARE A STORM IN A TEACUP.”

                                    *

And then something strange happened.

Natasha froze in mid-air. The demon banker blinked. A million tiny tornados of sand erupted into the air. A sound as of distant thunder shook the beach.

The demon banker blinked, and his eyes rolled back into his head, and he whispered under his breath, “The antidote to the poison is … the poison!” No sooner had the words passed his demonic lips than a vision out of animus mundi darkened my sight: behind the demon banker, stretched out along the pale crescent of the beach, an army appeared. An army of orcs, their green piggish faces and shambling armored bodies lurching toward us, screaming and clamoring for blood.

At the head of the army, grunting and charging full-bore toward us, its gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun, was an enormous armor-plated white rhino.

*

As the demon Zoellick goaded his army of disfigured creatures to attack, Natasha fell to earth and retreated into my arms. I merely shivered and gaped. Childe Harold had risen to his feet. Sweat beaded his brow but his face was set, determined. enclosed the firestone in one fist and opened his eyes wide and let loose a hollering bellowing prayer in some old language that sounded like the rolling crashing wild thundering ocean itself. With the other hand he poured the parched earth a drink from the opalescent canteen and then he breathed a breath on the firestone and with an Olympian throw he heaved it to the sea.

The ocean held its breath.

The demon army held its breath.

Natasha and I held our breath.

Childe Harold collapsed on the sand.

The ocean, of a sudden, turned dark, and swirled, and the waves began to stir and chop and bubble like hot broth. A wind picked up and swarms of fish began leaping from the foam. The surface of the sea turned green as a beech forest, then white as fine sand, and finally a blue, blue halcyon blue that joined sea and sky and erased the line of the horizon. And then the waters rose and kept rising, and the waves formed shapes, faces, presences…

Childe Harold, spent, lay at the edge of the roiling ocean. As the sea itself came to life, he called out, “Natasha! Exploradora! If you remember only one ting from Childe Harold, remember this: when life give you rotten toadstools, ‘tink of all you owe to beauty, all you owe to trut’. Den let dem tears fall like rain, and let dat great tru’full sorrow float you ‘way like on a cascade. Never forget: water … is … life…”

When the ocean’s breath let out, the wave crashed on the shore, and the shapes of the wave transformed into an army…An army of Black soldiers…Maroons…hundreds of them, led by Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglas, Aimé Césaire, Toussaint L’Overture, Frantz Fanon, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Jules Nyerere, Malcolm X, Peter Tosh….

Amid the mad melée Harold lay on the sand, too spent to move. As the demon army swarmed and waves of the African diaspora crashed down upon them, I ran to him where he lay, “Harold, get up, move my friend, we’ve got to get you out of here!” I held out my hand for him to pull himself to standing, but he just lay, staring wide-eyed at the sky.

“De time has come for I and I to move on,” he whispered, his breath as thick as the salt sea.

“No, it can’t be!”

With all my strength I lifted him onto my shoulders and ran to the boxcar. As battle swirled at the ocean’s edge, Natasha and I managed to haul him up the ladder to the top of the boxcar where we thought we might lay him down to rest. But just as we reached the top, the white rhino charged and slammed into the side of the boxcar. The impact threw me off balance and I lost hold of him. Harold fell…

Book Five: Natasha and the Pea Green Boat

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So much of the dust of living is in me, she thought as her tiny craft fled the safety of the shore, that only the magic of the sea can wash it away. Only the magic of the sea, its iridescent brine and faultless indifference, its eternal roar and its unwavering opaline swell, can cleanse me of the dust with which years of living – five such long years! – has caked my little body, my tender spirit.

O ocean!

                                    *

Natasha did grow frightened alone on the sea, and every night as she tightened the rigging and steadied the sail to stay on course she said out loud, watching out at the ocean’s wild expanse, “This is the best place. This place, you, ocean, you are the best place.” And then Natasha crossed her fingers for luck and lay down to sleep and slept. And while she slept the mist people made pictures, and went on making pictures. Gray pictures, blue and sometimes a little gold but more often silver, such were the pictures the mist people made while Natasha in the pea-green boat went on sleeping. And over everything and always last and highest of all were the stars.

                                    *

Natasha sailed and sailed, and the sea was all around her.

As she cast herself to sea, her body swaying like the body of a dog or a rabbit carried down a long river, she gave herself over to visions… During so many nights awash on the swelling bloody heaving feast of the ocean, Natasha saw somewhere ahead of her a solitary candle, its little flame trembling in the darkness like a flag tattered by the seawind.

She saw a blue bird, an ocean-going plover with purple bands at its throat bundled in a nest of uncoiled and mute electric cable, and shreds of plastic and barbs of rusted iron wire. The plover receded before her into the ocean’s distances and its heart beat outside its flattened chest, the raw, red organ tiny as a clover blossom, and as fragile. Then she saw a family, a whole brood of plovers with hearts hung on silver threads outside their chests in nests of wire, with chirruping nestlings, perched and glowing faintly in a violet industrial haze…She saw a forest of trees without roots, tenuous like dominoes, and she saw a black ladder all covered with water, reaching up from the soggy depths into the depthless purple clouds.

As she sailed the water curled up under her hull and slapped everything and shattered like dishes and came glued and unglued and glued and unglued again.

Like this Natasha sailed through nights, across days, and in and out of weeks. As she sailed, the ocean’s grief grew into her veins and salted her insides.

Riverrun, riverruning, these words susurrated in her tiny frame, her pea-green boat, her great escape: you shall not go down the same river twice, Natasha thought, no, history does not repeat itself, not for a five-year-old, for the same river run once is a different, distant river run again in time, and all rivers sooner or later reach the sea, all words sooner or later reach the sorrow of farewell, all children at one time or another see the world is coming to an end.

Sailing on against the tides, under moon or no moon, in days bright as gleaming fishscales, the peagreen boat rolled ever on, her stalwart, solid craft.

Her queen canteen provided her drinking water on request, and her Firestones provided light. By night, she’d set the Firestones in iron cages clamped to the bow and to the stern. She’d flame them on and ask that they give a modest light: enough, by stern, to see the rudder and the rigging and to keep an eye upon the pea-green wake; and on the bow, enough to illuminate any flotsam or sea life that happened in her path.

And mostly, she was not afraid. We came from water, she reasoned, evolved from cyanobacteria to zooplankton to fish to chimps to swimming, sailing little girls, and on water, in water, as water, we roll ever on.

Ever, ever on.

                                    *

While she floated slowly past vast swarms of migrant eels, the drowned went backwards dreaming, drifting by. Under the water she could see them like shreds of newspaper migrating toward some great papier-mâché sculpture in Atlantis or Erewhon. They were like long strands of licorice, black and spiced and wound around some metabolic block and tackle that pulled them unrelentingly toward their mysterious deep sea home. The great nomadic sea-serpents weaving their infinity sign around the antipodes were like shepherds of the drowned of all time.

And then the ocean was an ocean of ice cream, vanilla with blueberry swirl, or then blueberry with vanilla swirl, a soupy soup of ice cream like you want to play with in your bowl, and then it had rainbow sprinkles of cascading sunlight or chocolate sprinkles where a sudden school or flight of fish darted beneath the shimmering wake or deep creases of purple raspberry swirls in orange sherbet, cold and sweet and then the ocean was a wild patch of mud and you rolled in it like a piggy and then it was dusty and the distant light of the stars sat around on top of it like queen bees who are too good to play with the piggies in the dusty mud and so they fly away.

                                    *

She came to a place in the ocean where it was only light, for days and days it was light until the light hurt, and later to a place where it was only dark and then it was dark for days and weeks, for months. The howling of the wind was like dogs locked in a faraway room.

She saw a light clearing in a jungle, a place where ancient trees grew from soil mounded up in smallish hillocks, and between the trees, brick and stone temples carved with animals and reclining figures, stupas adorned in gold and mirrors, and the sound of birdsong rising above it all. She saw emerging from the temples young monks, thin and graceful, wearing sandals and draped in saffron robes, and they walked lightly, in silence, but each one carried in a breast pocket in his robe a clip of dollar bills, and between the thumb and forefinger each monk drew them out and counted them and then touched his fingers to his lips and then counted them again as if this gesture were in some way his prayer…

                                    *

She sailed and she sailed and as she sailed she told herself stories to stay awake.

She told herself short stories and long, tales of gods and of girls: how an old man with a lame left leg had invented fire, carrying it in a sack on his back from where it originated in a pyre of burning books before time was time; how the Persian chemist Jābir ibn Hayyān invented colorless glass and described it in his book The Color of the Hidden Pearl; how Saint Thomas traveled from the dawn lands of his kinsmen down into Egypt to pilfer a pearl from a serpent sleeping there – how he dressed in the robes of the Egyptians and ate of their food, how he became a slave to their king and slept for forty years, and how he woke to find himself still the son of free men, and how he took the pearl from the sleeping serpent and escaped.

And when the stories wore thin she told whole histories: How the Achaemeninds under Cyrus the Great of Persia joined the old nomad cultures of Central Asia to the imperial civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Rome and Babylon, writing on clay tablets the stories of their origin; how the Assyrians under King Ashurnasirpal II founded the city of Nimrud on an ancient mound and built a palace of boxwood, cedar, pistachio, mulberry, cypress, poplar and tamarisk…how these same people invented farming in the desert, invented writing before there was paper, pen and ink, had magical ways of capturing demons in sealed clay jars with inscriptions on the inside.

How did they manage to write inscriptions on the inside of clay jars? Well, how does a boat float on a sea of H2O?

Natasha hadn’t been to school, so she didn’t know that these stories didn’t matter, and she hadn’t studied navigation, so she didn’t know that sailing in a boat this size, from California to Cancún, was a near impossibility.

So she sailed and she sailed, and as she sailed she told herself stories to stay afloat.

                                    *

In the shadow of an oil tanker she floated unnoticed through the Panama Canal, tropical foliage burning green on either side of her, but she had no hunger for land and she sailed on. And there the sea of memories overtook her.

When she was very young someone had bundled her in a cloth and left her, where? His smell was sharp like metal shavings.

Why did she remember that?

Her father was not Irving, and her mother was not Ophelia.

In her life on land, her California life, she had been tied by steel cables to her mama and dadda. Now the strings were cut and they lay twisted and unspooling like the wires on the plovers.

When she was in her mama’s belly, she had battled with another soul.

What happens is that sometimes there is a confusion. A soul reincarnated sometimes enters a womb already occupied, and there are suddenly two souls in the same baby. Natasha’s mother had felt the thrashing, the tossing in her belly as if a school of herring were in there, or a pair of fighting cocks. When two souls are in the same baby, they fight for possession. The fight sometimes continues after birth, and is called colic. A colicky baby’s very body screams, its little ribcage stretches and heaves as it arches away from the pain, its guts twisted in struggle. Natasha had been like that.

                                                *

The soul she wrestled with was the 7th son of a man whose mother had been a serving maid to Tsar Nicholas during the last days of his reign. That woman had fled the winter palace in the pre-dawn hours of February, 1917, as rebels stormed the gates. She was full-bellied with the bastard child of the Tsar. She had been raped.

As the white army and the red battled for possession of Petrograd, St. Petersburg, she took refuge in the cathedral of St. Basil, whose domes some liken to the flames of religious ardor licking heavenward. She remained there until the child was born. Under difficult circumstances – the great Russian famine, the purges, the workcamps – the boy grew to manhood, and bore seven sons of his own. The second Great War came, and the man and the boys were separated, some to the Crimea, some to the Caucuses, some to the Balkans, some to the steppe. All seven, though, were taken by the War.

When Natasha was conceived by sheepherders in Dagestan on the Caspian Sea, her soul was forced into battle with the seventh son, trying to return to earth.

When two souls converge in the womb like this, sometimes one soul is strong enough to drive out the other, and the colic subsides and the baby grows up normal, as if nothing had happened. But in rare cases, the two souls merge, and the child grows up divided, erratic, prone to insanity or genius.

Such was Natasha’s case. The colic drove her parents crazy with grief and fear, and when the baby was six months old, they could take it no longer: they tied her to the belly of a sheep and ran the flock.

A traveling band of Romani found the sheep, and Natasha, and they took her, and when six more months had passed, they found that her wailing was too much: everywhere they went, the police arrived to chase them out due to the infant child’s angry, embattled sobbing. The child was a curse. They tied her in a bundle made of dogbane thread and labeled her “stranger” and left her. But because they knew she was the cursed child of a god, they left her with the best gifts they had in their possession: an ancient firestone and an opalescent, ever-bearing water jar.

With this act, Natasha’s entire lineage vanished from history, as did her physical memory of them. She became an unmoored boat.

                                                *

Away off where the sun was coming up, inching and pushing up far across the rim curve of the big booming rollers, along the whole line of the east sky, there were people and animals, all black or all so gray they were near black.        

There was a big horse with his mouth open, ears laid back, front legs thrown in two curves like harvest sickles.

There was a camel with two humps, moving slow and grand like he had all the time of all the years of all the world to go in.

There was an elephant without any head, with six short legs. There were many cows. There was a man with a club over his shoulder and a woman with a bundle on the back of her neck.

And they marched on, going nowhere, and Natasha sailed on, going somewhere.

                                    *

Natasha scarcely knew when she started crying or how many nights it went on. During those nights she lay her head in the bottom of the boat, her tears draining out the scuppers and feeding the ocean’s bottomless grief. The salt water made her sick, but the sails filled with the vast breathing of ancestral ghosts. Blasts of green algal water, sweeter than sour apples’ flesh to boys, cleansed her of her nausea and unburdened her spirit. It swept away her anchor in its swell. Natasha was in the ocean’s night and the ocean’s night was in her, fully and completely.

At dawn the whole sea changed. The sky, black as ink, looked as if a gigantic brush had spread strips of rosy gold over it. The ocean’s iron expanse was gripped by a first gleaming blaze of sunlight, and the spreading shadow of somber green turned to a bright and colorful ribbon of lights. The vapors of day rose up and every blossoming whitecap exuded an aroma, the whole ocean smoldering in fragrance. Here and there, airy transparent clouds shimmered in flashing clumps like dumplings, and the freshest breeze, seductive as the grass of the endless milky steppe to a nomad mare, barely swayed over the tips of the waves, brushing Natasha’s frayed and salt-flaked hair.

 All the music that sounded in the sea fell silent and then changed into another music.

The chirp of waking fish filled the water with its animal whisper.

A dark line of distant cormorants was suddenly illuminated in the sun’s rosy-silver light, as if shreds of fiery cloth were flying through the breaking day.

From her pea green boat she could hear their joyful skronk and squawk, and she knew that landfall was near.

Book Four: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

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In the time when He created all things,

He created the sun,

And the sun is born, and dies, and comes again.

He created the moon

And the moon is born, and dies, and comes again.

He created the stars,

And the stars are born, and die, and come again.

He created man,

And man is born, and dies, and does not come again.

– Old Dinka Song

Childe Harold lived in a boxcar at the edge of a snaking river that emerged in a sandflat in a tired briny estuary looking east across the deep toward Africa. When my eyes came open, he was standing over me, a man wiry and lean and wrapped in nothing but a cloth or skin, his own skin the color of mottled pig-iron, violet sun-bleached to café. He smelled hearty, like salt rubbed on bacon – and all around me, swimming in my flared senses, another smell, of smoking, dried herbs. His hair clung in tight bumps to his head like moss on knotty timber and his beard grew in tangled strings from his chin and he smiled widely down at me through broken, yellowed teeth.

“I don’ know if you know dis, mon…” His voice was deeper than his lean chest would have suggested. “But Youcaton has got a baaaad reputation for voodoo.”

                                    *

Suddenly all the pain in my body flamed through me like a blowtorch. I tried to shrug my shoulders but I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel my hands, and my feet felt bound by the grip of the whole earth.

Before me I could see open ocean, white and flat with long rough creases where it folded back into its infinite fertile depths. The sky was calm but thick with humid low clouds that reflected back the ocean’s folds, and there was no horizon.

And then I realized I was buried up to my neck in sand.

Childe Harold must have sensed my panic.

“Don’ worry, mon. You come in might’ banged up like fishkill. You wos barely breathin’, mon. I and I fixin’ you up.”

The smoke blew over acrid and sweet and I could see from a corner of my eyes a ceramic pot on an iron trivet steaming over a fire. I struggled to lift my body, but with no luck. I succeeded only in filling my head with blood as if it would burst.

“Relax, my fren’,” the man said. “You gon’ go bust a blood vein. Listen now, Childe Harold gon’ fix you up good. When you come rollin’ in on dat tide’ o’ shit, you damn near dead. I strip dat suit off you, I rub you down in med’cin, pack seagrass all ‘roun you, and I got you in the salt sand. You ‘gon get fixed up right. Looks like you got one hella fight lef to fight, eh?”

He smiled again from ear to ear, then turned to his cookpot. He picked up a broken oar that lay beside the fire, and stirred the broth. “Childe Harold gon’ cure you up real good,” he said.

A panic rose up in me and I struggled against the sand to raise myself up. No luck. My breathing grew shallow. Everything in me that was made of fear started to scream like a fire siren. Should I have known better after the life I had lived? Perhaps, yes. But somewhere deep in every white man’s body, like a hardened carbuncle forced in there by centuries of indoctrination, is a germ of a feeling that everyone and everything that is not white is out to eat you. So the lizard brain in me, conditioned by the supremacy of white body lizard brain trauma, could only come to one conclusion: I, Irving Maxim Malloy, was being cured like a hog by some crazy cannibal… to be eaten.

The sea rolled on in front of me, some rough beast. If I could manage to free my hands I’d dig myself out and make a run for the ocean. A seabird hung on the breeze there, orphaned against the white lusterless sky.

The fellow turned from his cookpot and he saw me forcing my chest against the sand that held me down, and his lips parted in a roaring laugh.

“Okay, mon, it’s okay. I free you up if you want freed up.” He came at me with the broken oar, as if to smash my skull, so it appeared to me in my panicked state.

I panicked. “DON’T KILL ME!” I suddenly blurted, the coward I’d been my whole life escaping like a rat from a cage.

He stopped his approach and looked at me, the crows’ feet growing shadows around his eyes as he squinted at me, smiling.

“But if you do,” I panted, “If you must kill me, please, I beg you, please…”

He tilted his head.

“I beg you…please…don’t eat me…”

                                    *

Childe Harold looked at the oar in his hand, and at the cookpot over his shoulder, and then he smiled. He shook his head, and the strands of his loose beard waggled.

He paused a moment and looked at me gravely and then looked off at the lone seagull riding an updraft over the rolling breakers, and looked back at me with a peculiar tilt of his baby-dreadlocked head and said, “Childe Harold don’t make no promises, mon.”

His face eclipsed.

“Dem ol’ ones, dem say if you kill a ting, if you kill it fresh, you gotta eat it. Simple as de sun in de sky. Dem’s de way she is, mon.”

Then his face brightened.

“But you know what, my fren’? I tell you sometin’. I and I not gwina eat you, mon. Childe Harold don’ eat no leftovers. You been eaten, and you been spat out!” His smile split open and burst like thunder before rain.

“Relax, mon, relax,” he said. “Don’ worry, be happy. You an’ me, we got bigger seabirds to boil.”

                                                *

Somehow Childe Harold calmed me down. I closed my eyes again and let the sounds of the ocean rock me back. He poured off the liquid from his steaming kettle, let it cool in a second hole he’d dug beside me, and then poured it over me in my pit of sand. It felt good.

He had wrapped me in seaweed, and the effect of the herbal bath was to make a kind of seaweed soup that somehow drew out the pain from my joints and the black shadow from my spirit.

As I lay there like a dumpling in broth, Harold began to dance around me in a circle, on one leg and then the other, unbalanced. In one hand he held a bunch of dried brown leaves that rattled as he danced, and in the other he held a smoking cigar. As he circled me, on each revolution he approached my unburied head, and he thwacked me on the crown with the leaves, then blew a gust of rancid cigar-smoke into my face and said some words in an alien tongue. He danced around some more as the salty air drove back my nausea, and then he circled around again and whacked me more with the dried leaves and cleansed my spirit with blue breaths of tobacco smoke.

                                    *

When I awoke I didn’t know where I was.

But then, I hadn’t known where I was before.

I passed out again.

                                    *

The sky was purple and the evening star was out – or was it the morning star? – and I found that I was no longer buried in sand. I was lying on a sun-bleached shred of colored Mexican poncho in a little camp, a fire smoking before me. Harold sat nearby, carving at something with a long bone-handled hunting knife. Behind him the sky and the shore were blocked from sight by an enormous weathered and rust-stained boxcar.

The railroad car, who knew how it had arrived there, was half-buried in sediment, its ancient sliding door rust-bolted shut. On its broad metal side the ghost words Union-Pacific shone through the sand-blasted surface like pale moonlight through a scrim of dark mist, and over the words a phrase was spray painted in purple in a loose cursive hand, as if it had been scrawled by a child with an enormous purple crayon: The great tragedy of being human is to dream of a utopia so far beyond the far horizon.

I felt my body floating like a kite over the sand, an almost unbearable lightness in me, and as I looked into the purple dusk, or dawn was it?, and the wine-dark sea murmuring against the shore and drawing back in a long quiet hush, I thought I was floating in the strange soup of a boundless firmament. Was it the words, or the medicine, or the fact that I’d just been drawn back to life from the knife-edge of annihilation?

                                    *

Childe Harold dug his left foot into the sand and gave his body a twist and struck flint on steel and tindered up some bleached driftwood into a quick fire and then spit-roasted the breast of a hungry seabird he’d snared. Once the bird was cooked, he uncorked an old green bottle and handed it to me. It smelled like seawater.

“At’s de spirit o’ de sea, distilled, yea?,” Childe Harold said. “I and I manufactur’d it, from de seaweeds. Dreenk eet, mon. Make you come to life like you never t’ought possible.”

His pidgin had a rhythm like the waves and his eyes gleamed and it seemed that he liked to laugh.

“You won’ believe me – I wouldn’ believe you if you tol’ me – but there’s some straaaange shit happens up an down ‘is coast. Stranger den where I and I from, mon.”

I was too hungry to refuse the food and drink: I tore stringy bits of brown flesh from the bird and chewed them, flossy and flavored of smoke, and drank the sea drink, which was seaweedy but strangely saltless and refreshing. I drank hungrily and the green juice ran down my chin.

“You’re not from here?” I said, chewing.

“Nooo, mon. I from down in ‘onduras. Trujillo town. Now dat, dat some strange bad business there, too, ne? Dem original banana republic, mon, ORIGINAL. Dat country seem some SHIT. Dem yanqui invade two dozen times, mon. Childe Harold canna stay dere, mon.”

                                    *

From inside the train car a hurricane lamp let off a faint oily glow and sent blue shreds of smoke into the still, strange night. The moon was high in the sky and stained white like a dead man’s skull, and as he talked, Childe Harold’s eyes showed the moon its light back.

“But before old Trujillo, in ‘onduras, mon, we de Garifunas, we come from Saint Vincent. Dem likely tell you dat Haiti, mon, dat Haiti is de dark heart o’ de vodun. But it aint true. Its Saint Vincent, mon, ancestral home of de Garifuna tribe.

                                    *

By the tidal pools smelling of algae and salt, Childe Harold told me about the zombies and ghosts and demons and devils that made this Caribbean basin tick.

“One time, mon, an’ dis for real, dere’s a boy who dies, you know, a Saint Vincent boy, native to dat place, and during he nine days dead dem have a party. Dem’ drinkin’ an’ celebratin’ and howlin and carryin’ on. Nine days later, dat boy rise up and walk on home.”

Childe Harold bulged his eyes in their sockets as if he were verging on a seizure. “Dem say he stop an take a drink fore he leave de party, too.”

He smiled wide and laughed.

“And dis boy jes’ a child too, ten years old if one day!”

“So dis boy nine days dead and dem all dancin’ and singin’ and playin’ ‘at drum, him dancin’ and movin’ and shakin’ and den him start TALKIN’, just talkin’. An’ his talk is da talk o’ da dead boy, mon, nine days dead an’ ‘is soul come back and start TALKIN tru dat body, all purpled up and floppy! Straaaange shit, mon.”

“But Youcaton, man, I tell you, Youcaton is da worse! Dem tink dis ol’ peninsula is a tourist paradise, mon,” he said. “Mayan Riviera. Costa del sol. Ba! Dis place ‘ave de stink of deat’, mon. Costa de la muerte, mon. Riviera of deat’, dat’s wot. Dat’s wot, mon.”

Suddently, for the first time since I’d awoken I remembered: the cavern and the shadows of ghastly creatures; the sucking tide and the smell of death and the sound of Natasha’s voice on the waves.

Natasha!

This coast, marauded by pirates and raided by slave ships, bombarded by cannons and broken by soldiers, enslaved by mercenaries and scoured by hurricanes. What was this place?

“Childe Harold, can I tell you something?” I said.

“Kin u tell me somethin’? I an’ I waitin’ on you to tell me somethin’,” Harold said.

“Well, just before I was…washed up here, I was…in a cave. A cavern. Under Cancún. And, I saw horrible things there. They had…they had Jane Goodall…shrunken like some kind of zombie…in a cage…screaming.”

Harold stopped smiling. “Dey? Which ones? Who?”

But when I looked into my memory to try to tell him, the shadows creeping on the cavern walls, the voices, the speeches…it was too strange.

Childe Harold blew a long chain of smoke rings from his wide nose, took the spliff from his blueish lips, and handed it to me.

“Smoke ‘dis, mon. Lemme take you for a walk.”

I pulled on the spliff and inhaled the thick perfumed smoke and lay back and looked up into the coconut palms swaying against the sky like the gangly legs of spirit animals. And then something in me stood up, my body exhausted and empty from surviving the flood, and we walked.

                                    *

Childe Harold collected his bottle of spirits and some strings of dried meat and his flint and his knife and put them in a henequen net bag over his shoulder, and picked up a walking stick carved of plain wood, and I followed him, walking inland away from his camp.

We passed through an oasis of coconut palms, their roots spiderous in the packed sand, and then climbed over a low berm of earth and through a tangle of laurel and magnolia and into the open sun, where a road paved in white limestone chalk ran from one horizon to the other.

We walked. South, I think.

The road kicked up clouds of white dust and after awhile there were few trees, and the expanse was wide and long, as if the earth were somehow lowered into a pit, and most of the world was sky, and you could see in all directions low dry scrubland. It looked like pictures I’d seen of Africa, and the smell of the land was like that, too, rich and deep like sweating, rotten fruit. There were no people, which seemed strange, and after we’d walked awhile it occurred to me even stranger that there was no sign of cars, or commerce, or civilization, in any form. On the far horizon from time to time sat an angular hill that may have been a pyramid, shimmering in the heat.

After a while of walking in silence, I asked, “Childe Harold? Where are the people?”

He just shrugged and said, “Dem gone. People gone, towns gone, cities gone, hotels gone. Who knows…?” he said.

I had a feeling, though, that Childe Harold wasn’t sharing all he knew.

“But, ‘man,” he said. “Dem demons been tryin to rid dis eart’ o people since back in Africa. You wan’ know wot happen to dem people, you got’ start back in Africa.”

When Childe Harold said Africa, he said “Ah-Free-Ka.”

He went on. “Africa been curse, mon. Dem slave trade, dem King Leopold, dem Portuguese, all dat, going back to de curse of Noah and dem Neandertals.”

I looked at him quizzically as flies came to land on his high dark cheeks.

“It was ‘dem Europeans, later, dem French, dem Cat’licks, dat invent de curse of Noah, you know. Noah get piss’ off at his third son, Ham, and him say, ‘You are cursed to give birth to a dark race.’

“’Ham,’ says ol’ Noah. ‘Your children gon’ be servants of servants.’ Dat’s wot him say. Hundreds years hence, ‘dem Cat’licks do God’s will: dem make de people of Ham servants of servants. Dem coward-actin’ Cat’licks jes follow de bad vice of dem ignorant God.

“Dem Romans nex’, dem put in ‘a Bible one, two, tree human races: race o’ Japheth make dem Your-opians, white and pale as death; race o’ Shem make de Semite race brown like the shiftin’ sands of Sumeria, an’ race o’ Ham make ‘dem Hammits, what they call ‘dem dark peoples’ race.

“Soon come dem scientists, talkin’ too ‘bout tree human races: caucasoid, mongoloid, negroid.

“But dem trut? Once ‘pon a time dey was two, two races, mon’. One was humans, and one was neandertals. Em whole problem start with dem neandertals. Because you know wot? No neandertals in Africa. None, not a one.”

                                    *

Childe Harold talked and I didn’t get it all because his pidgin lost me. We walked through the hot landscape and the dry trees rattled in the wind. The scrub burned. I was stripped to my shorts, my only protection from the sun my blue suit jacket that had been washed in sewage, rinsed in seawater and dried in the hot wind.

Childe Harold told me how the people of Africa had traveled, from the cradle of humanity in the south, north across the savannah and the jungle and through the Sahara to the sea. As we walked, he told me how, in those days, all of Africa was green, and the people could talk to the animals and the animals talked back.

When they reached the sea, they crossed over, and on the other side, in what is Europe now, they met another race of people. Neanderthals.

“And dem make war, mon.” Harold told me how the neanderthals relentlessly attacked the Africans. “Dem make war. Dem man’s always make war. Dem no stop.”

The neanderthals killed many of the Africans. But they also bred with them.

“Dat’s why dem peoples of Europe so confuse, mon!” he said. “Dem got old killer blood. OLD. But dem got Africa in ‘em too, mon. An’ ‘em got steppe nomads. Dem got Chinggis Han in dem blood, ‘mon.”

His smile split open into a laugh. “Chinggis Han!” he said again, laughing. “Original wolf man!”

“I don’ mean to soun’ racist, mon.’ Some dem Your-opians, dey’s okay. But some so mix up they mix up right an’ wrong.”

Harold stopped, and looked around. I stopped too.

“Whats yer name, my fren’?”

“My name, my name’s Irving,” I said.

“Where you from, mon?” he asked.

After a minute I said, “California.”

He sniffed at the wind.

“Le’s go, Irving from California.”

He started walking again, and I started walking again too.

                                    *

“Dis feud wit’ syphilis-zation,” he said after a while. “It go back long ways. Long ways. De problem wid dem Nordern races, mon’, is ‘ey come from neandertals. An’ neandertals? Dem not human, mon.”

                                    *

Childe Harold walked as fast as he talked, now and again taking swigs off his bottle of spirits.

“You know sometin’ ‘bout neandertals?” he asked me.

“I don’t actually know much about neanderthals,” I said. I was getting tired in the sun. The dry scrubland burned.

He snorted. “Neandertals worse dan monkeys, mon. Don’ get me wrong – I and I like monkeys – but one ting bout monkeys, mon, monkeys dirty. Anoder ting, dem mean. Too, dem always hungry. And what does bein always hungry get you?”

I shrugged. The truth is, I’ve never been hungry.

“It get you stupid,” he said.

His smile broke open into a laugh.

                                                *

The road split into three roads, or, rather, the road we were on met up with other roads going off toward other distant horizons. Abruptly Harold stopped walking and sniffed at the wind again.

“Dis de crossroads, mon’. Soon come we get to de market.”

“Siddown, Irving from California.”

I nodded.

“Siddown. Childe Harold ‘gon tell you sometin’,” he said.

                                    *

The sun was taking all the juice of the sea air and wringing it over me like a sponge. Harold sorted out a spot just at the crux of the crossroads, and motioned for me to sit down.

“Childe Harold ‘gon tell you sometin’,” he said, and he sat down, and then I sat down too, in the dust.

“Long time ‘go,” Childe Harold said, “Monkey come climbin’ ‘long ‘tru dem trees, and him gettin’ tired. Then him see Eshu down on the road below, walkin’ long an’ smoking him pipe. He watch Eshu goin’ long, an’ after time he see Eshu do dis crazy trick: dat man take his eyes out from his head, and him t’row dem up in a’ trees, up high in a Guanacaste tree. Him eyes, dem hang there, like two guavas on a stalk. Den Eshu, him call out, ‘Eyes, come back!’

“Well guess what but dat dem eyes go back to Eshu head ‘jes like they live there.

“Well, monkey, him want learn ‘is trick, an’ him jump down and him say, ‘Eshu, what it take to learn ‘is trick? Monkey tired o’ climbin’ day in an’ day out, me wan’ see from dem treetops, without me havta climb all day.’”

“Well, Eshu, he say ‘Monkey, I teach you de trick, but you mus’ promise one ting.’”

“’Anyting,’ Monkey say.”

“’Dat trick, you use it to see where you goin’ nex’, an’ only for dat.”

“Watchoo mean?” monkey say.

“’Use it to see dem road, where she goin’. But you don’ gotta use it for no evil selfish purpose, yea? You use dat trick to steal somethin’ or get some advantage, dat trick no good, you unnerstan’? Dat trick gon’ get broke.’”

“’Anyting,’ Monkey say. ‘Jes ‘gimme dat trick.’”

“So Eshu, he shows monkey dat trick. And monkey, he good wit dat trick. He trow dem eyes up, see off a good ways, call dem eyes back. He las’ a while wit dat trick. Dat trick, all good, little while.”

“Den one day it happen. Monkey trow dem eyes in a lemon tree and from up high him see some human childern walkin’ ‘long dat road wid a basket full o’ palm tree nuts. Monkey, he love palm tree nuts. Before he tink, he launch hisself from ‘at tree widout even callin’ him eyeballs back. He fly through de air and land smack into dem childern grabbin’ at dem palm tree nuts. Everytin’ go flying’, dem basket, dem boys, dem nuts, everytin’. And monkey got no eyes!”

“Monkey he can’t climb now, so he stumble ‘roun’ an’ bump into tings, cryin’ an cryin’. He really cryin’ now. After while, he lay down and cry himself to sleep.”

“Well, fore long, comes a mouse. An’ now mouse, him tink monkey’s dead, him start to chew at monkey’s fur, tryin to clip some off to make him mousy nest. Well, dat wake monkey up, and monkey, he smart, him have one big idea.”

“’’Ey hermanito mouse,’ monkey say. ‘You see my eyes up dere?’”

“Mouse, he say ‘yea, I sees ‘um. Dem all swoled up, wit flies on ‘em, dem eyes not look so good.’”

“Mouse say he gon’ get dem eyes, and monkey say, okay, you go.”

“’But I don’ trus’ you,’ monkey say. ‘You give me one o’ your eyes to use so I can see you get dem an’ make you bring dem eyes back.’”

“So mousy, he give monkey one eye, and he go climb. Monkey, he have to keep his head atilt like this” – Childe Harold tilted his head as if he were trying to keep one eye from rolling out of his head – “to keep ‘at mouse-eye from spillin’ out.”

“But wid ‘at mouse eye now monkey, he can see, an’ too quick he get craze ‘bout gettin’ more palm nuts. Monkey he forget to wait on mousy, and he pop one ‘dem palm tree nuts in dat eyeball socket, and he go on his way downna road.”

“Now to dis day you see dat monkey, he can only see half da picture. He see what jes happen yessaday. But he can’t see wot gon’ happen nex’ minute! An’ for ‘dat, he always makin’ bad mistakes…”

                                                *

Crosslegged on the ground, Childe Harold stopped talking and looked down the crossroads toward the haunted, dusty distance. He looked first one way, then another, then straight ahead, then behind, until he’d seen down all four paths.

I sat in the silence under the dry wind and listened. I couldn’t hear the ocean, but I could smell it. It was pungent, like a body, faraway.

“An at’s a story mon. Africans, we born human. We come out da eart’ human. Australopithecus afarensis, mon: African man: no relation to dem neandertals.

But neandertals, mon?” Harold shook his head and grimaced and let a long “mmmmmmm.”

Then Childe Harold stood up and said, “I and I done talkin’, mon. We gotta walk.”

 He started walking and I stood up and followed him, along the same branch of the white road we’d been on, through the sunken evacuated landscape of low trees and flat brown dusty ground and shimmering silhouettes of the ghosts of distant pyramids.

                                    *

Soon we came to a sort of marketplace. Where there had been nothing but dry scrub and palm trees, there were zinc lamina shacks, and bamboo thatch shelters and low tents, and tables set out in the sun, and oil drum grills almost still smoking from barbecue; all of the shacks and tents were filled with goods, with produce, batteries, pots and pans and pants and shirts and combs and brushes, leather wares and tools and pencils and things. It was a market full of goods to be bought and sold. But there were no people.

We stopped and looked around. I wasn’t able to tell if Childe Harold found this strange, or if he knew the marketplace would be deserted, or what the story was. I looked at him quizzically.

“There’s no one here,” I said. “Isn’t that strange?”

He looked straight on into the jumble of empty stalls. “Oh, dem here okay. Dem here. Dem spirits here. But, same time, dem plenty strange.”

I followed him into the maze of abandoned commerce. We walked through the stalls and the tables and the tents as if we were shopping.

“You see, my fren’,” Harold said, “even in ‘em marketplaces of de worl’, all over de worl’, dem not jes for peoples, yea? Dem spirits and ‘em other beings come there too, dem orisha, dem ahau, dem loa – all dem spirits, dem buy and sell and barter and negotiate an’ wander amongst de fruits of de eart’ and de sea, jus like you an’ me, yea?”

“They buy…these things?”

There were cheap plastic razors and key chains and knock-off vinyl Nike sneakers and fake vinyl Gucci bags with the stitching showing, all just piled on tarps or on tables, all bleaching and growing brittle in the Caribbean sun.

“I dunno, man. Good question, dat.” He pulled at his scraggly beard. “Maybe dese ‘tings, dey lef’ as some kin’ offerin’,” he conjectured.

I shook my head. “What do you mean, some kind of offering?”

I followed Child Harolde as we flipped through stalls of cheap China-made cotton socks and packages of batteries.

“Dem spirits, dem know da tru price a ‘tings, an’ dem get real mad if you sell false. When you go and you sell da air, da water, da lan’, da atmosphere, all dem spirit ‘tings….Dem get real mad when ‘em see dat. Dem pull de plug on you. You do dat, you gotta go down and talk to de devil himself.”

“In da marketplace o de spirit,” Childe Harold said, “It’s all happenin’ at de same time. I mean, from here, from here, you can see the past, AN you can see the future. An’ at’s how dem spirits meant it to be, from way back. But man, we gone and fucked ‘at up a long time ago.”

                                    *

Childe Harold had the scent of a snuffed out candle about him.

I asked him again, “Childe Harold? Where did all the people go?”

“Mon,” he said, drawing in a deep breath, “dey been disappearin slowly. Firs’ dem men, dem men moved nort’…Dem say dem movin’ nort’ for work, for jobs. But you know what? Dem prophecy say, in America, dem mans move from Nort’ to Sout’ and den, when dem time all used up, ‘dem go back nort again. Dem come walkin’ after dem animals, huntin’, dem come walkin’ and walkin’. And ‘en, dem’ animals been used up, dem go back nort’, but dis time, dem go like slaves, mon. Like slaves ‘em go.”

“Den, mon, den ‘em children disappear. Dem grow up enough to walk and ‘em walk off, to the cities. Man, in dem cities, whole enclaves of childrens jes waitin for dem turn. And ‘en, an ‘den, dem women walk away. Jes like dat, ‘em jes seem to walk away, up de river valleys. I conjecture ‘em went to da mountains to shelter up.”

“And the animals disappeared, too?”

He looked up into the sky, empty of sound, and around at the scrub and the sand. There were no insects, no reptiles, no crowing roosters.

“Animals too, yea. Animals too,” he said.

He kicked at the sand. “You know, dis place, it use to be crawlin wit dem. Iguanas, mon, big ol’ nauyaca snakes, mon, alligator, cuatimundi, tepescuintle, ‘dem monkeys, mon, sea turtles, everytin’. Now dem gone, mostly all gone. Seagulls all dat’s lef’, like ‘at one we ate. You tink Childe Harold like to eat seagulls, man? Naw, dat! But dem skinny birds is all dat’s lef.”

“Have you heard about the rhinos?” I asked him.

“Rhinos? No rhinos in Youcaton, mon. ‘Cept a’ one in Cancún.” He smiled and his teeth showed. “In ‘at nasty hotel, Casino, del Conejito.” Harold spat in the sand.

“Well,” I said, “That rhinoceros is gone. All the rhinos are gone. That’s what led me here.”

                                                *

“Well lookee dat, mon. ‘At soun like same same damn ‘ting. And you know,” he said, “dem rhinos, dem ol’. Dem been ‘roun’ 50 million year. Humans, we only been ‘roun’ 5 million years. And you know what? Dem animals, dem go and dem come back. Tink about horses, mon. Dem firs’ horses, dem grow in America, mon, way back when ‘is was all Pangaea, mon, Gonawandaland, you know, all one place. Long come, twelve tousan’ years back, ‘dem horses not in America no more, dem gone. But in Mongolia, in Khazakastan, in dem steppe, mon’, in dem great vast sea of milk. Dem horses go an’ dem come back. But man? When he goes dis time, he don’t come back.”

Child Harolde picked things up from the tables as we passed, cheap sets of screwdrivers and medical hemostats and badminton rackets and children’s roller skates, and he turned them in his hand as if contemplating a purchase, but then, invariably, he put them back, thing by thing.

“Why he don’t come back?” Harold asked. “He don’t come back dis time because he make dat mess too big. Lookee man, go spreadin dem plague over the eart’, and dam one big mess dey make. An’ now, dem spend centuries – centuries, mon! – pouring industrial shite over de whole eart’. An’ now, ‘cause Childe Harold been watchin’ mon, I been watching, now dey want spread some green plague everywhere. Dem spirit plague. But one ting they got to do, mon: pick up de trash, clean up dem watah, lif’ up dem poison footprints, an’ put out dem hellfiahs.”

Childe Harold was looking down the blade of a long machete he’d picked up from a table.

“What you tink, Irving?” he suddenly asked me. “Why dem rhinos disappear?”

I knew, or I thought I knew, if not why, at least I was beginning to puzzle together the things going on here. Natasha would be proud.

“Because it’s time for dessert,” I said.

Maybe it wasn’t the answer he expected.

“What you mean, dis-ert?”

“The end of history,” I said. “First there was the agricultural revolution. They tamed the plants, and the animals. That was breakfast. Then there was the industrial revolution. They learned to control fire and metal. That was lunch. Then came the modern age. They tamed the ether, and they replicated the building blocks of life. That was dinner. Now it’s time for dessert.”

Childe Harold, standing in a marketplace wholly owned and operated by spirits, looked as if he’d seen a ghost.

“You scarin’ me mon. Who in de flaming fires of hell tol’ you dat?” he said, putting the machete back in its sleeve.

“That’s what Robert Zoellick said, when I saw him in the cavern talking to the orcs. Just before the flood.”

Childe Harold cocked his head toward me, and turned pale.

“You seen ‘at demon banker, himself?”

I nodded.

Childe Harold sniffed the air, and looked at me like he was looking through me, and said, “I knew when you come in on ‘at tide o shite you bringin’ bad news.” He said. “But dis news, dis bad news. We got get back to camp, mon.”

Without another word, he turned back the way we’d come, and I followed him.

                                    *

The day had worn on and the sun was sinking into the West over the low dry land. Harold was walking fast, as if walking toward something, or away from something, and he mumbled to himself, “Dis worse den I tought. Dis much much worse.”

I tried to keep up and he stopped mumbling to himself, and started talking to me.

“Dem same creatures been a long time growin’, you know mon? Dem’ been growing under groun’ since some say two ‘tousand years back. An’ now somethin’ been come to wake ‘em up. Twenty centuries of stony sleep, vexed to nightmare, ‘mon!”

He fell into silence, looking at the ground as he hurried over it. And then after awhile he stopped and took an enormous rolled up herbal cigar from his sack and lit it with a match and drew a deep puff and blew it out in a cloud. He looked upward and shouted at the sky, “What rough beast, its hour come roun’ at last?”

He stopped and turned and threw his hands at the air as if battling it. “Bumbaclott mon! Dem come every age wit dem lies an’ ‘em guns an’ ‘em chains. An’ every time dem bring dem lies bigger an ‘em guns bigger and ‘em chains in some way you don’ see ‘um. You know dem’ dere but dem make you work for it, mon’. Dem make you work for it.”

“An’ ‘em come up whole-cloth wit sciences, wit arts, wit ‘em full spectrum, an ‘en dem wrap dem whole ting in one big lie, mon. One. Big. Lie. Say, dem go an’ call it Christianity and say dem save you, or dem call it syphilization and say dem syphilize you, or dem call it democracy and say dem lib’rate you, or dem call it development and say dem free you from backwardness. Dem FREE you! Jes’ imagine, mon.”

                                    *

We walked fast and he talked and talked, and it all made sense, every word of it. After a while we reached the same crossroads where he’d told me the monkey story.

“De way dem run history, mon, de way dem run dem syphilization, is as if,” Childe Harold explained to me, the spliff worn to a nub in his blueish-purple lips, “as if da selfsame med’cin dey force on you, is da very poison itself. An as if de poison all aroun’ you, dem sell it to you and call it med’cin.”

                                    *

Harold pulled his old green bottle of seawater from his henequen sack and pulled the cork from the bottle with his teeth, and when he did a blast of smoke exploded from the bottle and threw him stumbling backwards.

The smoke congealed like a pan full of bacon fat to become a cloud, and then the cloud congealed to become a man in a suit, fully formed and waving his arms in the smoke.

“Holy…!” I said.

“Holy NOTHING!” Harold said.

                                    *

The thing that appeared was in a pin-stripe suit, smoke rising from it, and it smelled bad, like burning hair. It was some kind of djinn, or iffrit, or demon.

“What is this?” said the thing. The suit was dark, the pinstripes faint but present, the lapels wide, the shoes shined shit-brown leather loafers.

“Where am I?” he said in a rasping, nasally voice that seemed to echo in the empty air.

The smell of sulfur lingered.

Harold spit into the breeze and stretched to his full height.

The djinn looked around at the desolate geography. “What is this place? Are we in Africa? It looks…underpolluted.”

Childe Harold’s smile grew like a bird puffing its feathers. “Who you are, den, mon?” he asked the djinn.

“Please allow me to introduce myself,” the djinn said. “My name’s Zoellick. Robert Zoellick.”

*

Chills ran marathon in my blood. But Childe Harold was cool.

“You walk wid us, mon? Come back to camp, Childe Harold feed you, yea? You mus’ be tired from all dat covetin’ of wealt’?”

The demon banker looked pleased by the offer. The cloud about him had vanished and he was here, a physical man, as sure as I was, as sure as Childe Harold.

“I’ll walk a ways,” he said, “If only to indulge your invitation. But don’t expect me to eat with you.”

*

Harold sniffed at the four directions that the crossroads offered, and then led us down the road on which we’d come, the one with our footprints, his and mine, still in the sand, as if in the sands of the moon.

The djinn looked around, and we walked in awkward silence. In some company, even those of us with a proclivity toward speech find it difficult to articulate a thought. The lifeless jungle streamed by. After some time, the djinn spoke, tentatively, but clearly.

“Gentlemen,” it said. “Would you wait here a minute while I step into the bush for a pee?”

We both nodded, and he walked off.

“Strange den strange,” Childe Harold said, when we were alone. He took the green bottle once more from his sack, but thought better of uncorking it, and dropped it back into the bag.

“Ee’s a strange duck, Irving,” Harold said looking over his shoulder. “But ee’s not totally unfamiliar. We seen his kine’ before. In fac’, we seen his kine all tru-out de ages.”

I was frantic. “He’s a killer,” I whispered, urgently.

“Yes, yes,” said Childe Harold. “Ee’s a killer sure ‘nough. But he not ‘gon kill us, leas’ not now.”

“How do you know that?” I said. I was admittedly uncomfortable in my new surroundings.

“Him not like mos’ men, yea? He’ not all appetite. But den neither was Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Kissinger.”

“In a sense, you know, der’s two kine of men – dere’s a man like Achilles, wat ee’s driven by de satisfactshun of de mos’ base needs – an ‘at define mos’ of us, even a pilgrim after glory like chil’ Harold ‘imself – an den dere’s de man ee’s like Odysseus, wot ee’s driven by a desire for fame beyond deat’, an’ some might say for bigger than fame, like a godhead. Is like, ‘is kind, dem believe dem de apotheosis of history.

“An’ what worries an old witchdoctor like myself, ‘mon, is dat he might be right. But jus’ because ee’s got da reason of ‘istory to prop up ‘is killin’ don’ mean ‘ee should get away clean an’ free, dat’s for sure.”

Suddenly the sky seemed to darken though there was not a cloud in it.

“Appetite and force and control are the tripartite agents of world domination, my friend,” the djinn suddenly said, having emerged from the bush and appeared without warning beside us.

His voice resonated in the empty, threatened landscape. “Had it not been for the greatness of our ability to maintain control, to apply force, and to sustain an insatiable appetite, we may not have achieved the colonization of your people, Mister Harold. But we did, didn’t we?”

Childe Harold, uncowed, looked the djinn in the eye and in his deep baritone said, “Da ting bout colonization is it desyphilize de colonizer too, Mistah Zoo-lick…It brutalizes ‘im, ya, inna truest sense o’ de word. It strip him of ever’tin divine and ever’tin human ‘at ‘e coulda had, and it leave ‘im no ting more den appetite.”

“Very fine theory, Mister Herald. Frantz Fanon, if I’m not mistaken? One of your more persistent black pretenders.”

“Pretenders?” Childe Harold said.

“To civilization. It is a most pleasant sort of comedy,” the djinn said.

“Syphilizashun,” Harold said, and spat. “We never wanted your syphilizashun, mon. A syphilizashun dat’s built on a foundation of murder is a syphilizashun dat’s boun’ for de fires of hell, Mistah Zoo-rag. An a syphilizashun dat’s incapable of solving de very problems it creates,” Childe Harolde drew a breath, “is a beast feedin’ on itself. A syphilizashun dat shuts its eyes to its own murderous predicament is stricken wid a disease. A syphilizashun dat uses its strengt only for deat’ and deceit…dis, my fren, is a dyin syphilizashun. An’ you one motherfucker of a dyin’ djinni!”

Harold suddenly leapt into the air and plucked the cigar from his mouth, landed on his back foot and launched himself at the djinn. The cigar’s cherry planted with a sickening hiss and a burning smell on the djinn’s right cheek, and the djinn screamed.

Harold landed on his feet and watched as the patch of burned flesh on the djinn’s face let off a gash of smoke and turned red and then black and then vanished. On the ground, the cigar vaporized to ash.

The djinn leveled his gaze at Childe Harold.

“Don’t you FUCK with me, Africa. You know not what I am.”

“Oh you wrong in dat Mistah Zo-lack. You mistah Babylon himself, dat’s wot, and its you been puttin’ a price on de head o de animals, an’ o’ de peoples…indeed, what you treaten is to put a price on de imagination, da very key to da kingdom of life…When you kill de animals, you kill a life, a particular manifestation of life, an’ its any bumbaclot fool dat kin kill a manifestation. But when you killin’ de imagination, you killin’ life itself.”

Childe Harold repeated the words with Capital letters: Life It Self.

“An’ Childe Harolde cain’t let dis go on no more.”

The djinn just laughed.

“You tink you have powah, Mistah Babylon, but you have no powah.”

The djinn said nothing.

“Any powah you had, you stole, Mistah Babylon. And stolen powah only live so long, yea?”

The djinn was not ruffled. “They have a saying on Wall Street, my friend,” he said. “Mediocre bankers borrow. Great bankers steal. Give up your childish pretenses, my friend.”

“I an’ I am not your friend, an’ I an’ I am not finished, Mista Zulig. You, Mistah Zulag, represent dehumanizing hunger plus dehumanizing violence. You and your syphilizashun, you are victims of a progressive dehumanization. An’ ‘at’s precisely why you so insatiable, like fattenin’ frogs for snakes. Only you de frog and de snake.”

The djinn smiled. “For all of history, we have created opportunity. We have protected you and your dark races. Have we used your services? Yes, we have, of course we have. This is our right. But surely you can understand that the criminal and the powerful man are not one and the same.”

“I tell you sumpin’ bout my darker races, Mistah Zoloft. Twas de Egyptians invented arithmetic, an’ geometry, yeah? Twas de Assyrians discover astronomy, dem laws in de stars. Twas de Arabs, ‘em same Arabs you torture at Abu Ghraib, an’ at Guantanamo” – Harold pointed out toward the sea sitting just over the horizon –  “twas dey invented chemistry. An’ you boojwah sittin’ up on top de heap like you invented dem whole ting, and down in your dungeons you be givin’ ‘em Arab brothers de waterboard. Dehumanize yourself Mistah Zoo-pig!”

The djinn looked about him at the sandy expanse and the long desolate road, and he smiled again, and pulled at the pleats of his pinstriped pants and sat down.

“This is an interesting discussion, my angry friend. But,” the djinn smugly said, “the question of the equality of races, peoples or cultures has meaning only if we are talking about an equality in law, not an equality in fact…In the same way, men who are blind, maimed, sick, feeble-minded, ignorant, or poor are not respectively equal, in the material sense of the word, to those who are strong, clear-sighted, whole, healthy, intelligent, cultured, or rich. Don’t you see? The latter have greater capacities which, it is worth noting, do not give them more rights, but indeed, more duties.”

My jaw had long ago dropped, and my fear at the demon’s sulfurous presence had given way to amazement at his arrogant speechifying. Childe Harold stood above him looking down.

“Similarly” the demon said, “whether for biological or historical reasons, there exist at present differences in level, power, and value among the various cultures. These differences entail an inequality in fact. They in no way justify an inequality of rights in favor of the so-called superior peoples. Rather, they confer upon them – upon us – additional tasks and an increased responsibility.”

“Ya,” said Childe Harolde. With a splinter of driftwood he teased a piece of seabird meat-gristle from his teeth, and the white wormlike thing flipped through the air to land like a tse-tse fly on the djinn’s reddening jowl. “You talking ‘bout de white man’s burden. Is a tough burden, ya. De white man’s burden, Mista Zoo-log? It’s a bitch’s burden.”

“Childe Harold,” the djinn said, standing again, “You are shoveling shadows into darkness. But I AM DARKNESS!”

As if in a cheap fantasy thriller, the Djinn’s eyes began to glow until they were lit like two chromium stoplights. Smoke curled from his flared nostrils and his mustache bristled and his body twitched and trembled and then rose above the sand to an unnatural height. The Djinn’s body stretched upward toward the empty sky, and he thrust his fist forward toward Childe Harold, who had fallen back in fear, and his voice roared with the force of a thousand amplifiers:

All around the fires of Hell

The monkey chased the weasel

The monkey turn’d round and fell on the ground…

God fears the weasel!

In an instant the djinn was engulfed in a greasy sheet of white flame. And where the flame rose, it split in two like a torn curtain, and from behind the curtain appeared an enormous, armor-plated white rhino. At its ear, just above where its eyes stared out like blank incandescent bulbs, sat an equally white, twitching weasel, its tail raised in a posture of attack.

And then, just as quickly as the djinn had appeared, the white rhino and the white weasel vanished in a question mark of pale fire, and were gone

Book Three: …And Then, the Dolphins Went….

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“And justice shall come down like a mighty water….” — Amos, 5:24

I

How did it happen that the present age came to be known as the Age of Consequences? That is to say, someone once called it that (and not, notably, the Age of Consequence, which has a ring of a different timbre.) The Age when the Dams Came Down; The Epoch of Hurricanes and Havoc; The Dog Days of Kali Yuga; the Anthropocene; The Great Comeuppance; The Unleashing of the Zoonotic Plagues; The Time of the Gone Rhinoceri.

Whatever you may call it, our age is an age when fear stalks the land.

[From behind the screeching hiss of data traffic Natasha chirps, “So what else is new, Pops?”]

*

Natasha, unbeknownst to me, had lit out from San Francisco, and was making her way to the edge of the Bay, from where she would alight for the open ocean in search of her pa.

*

But, before she set sail on a night as dark as any djinn might conjure, Natasha, like Perseus off to slay the Gorgon with the wing’d sandals of Mercury, the mirror’d shield of Athena, and the asbestos sack of Vulcan, could not confront the evil afoot in the world without a backpack full of hi-tech gadgetry to aid her. So before she let herself down from the apartment by a rope of sheets twisted and tied end to end, she collected her Magic Rucksack and, one-by-one, inventoried and safety-checked its magical contents:

First, she flipped on the satellite direction finder she’d been given by my brother Isaac, who worked for a start-up down in Silicon Valley. She checked the battery, calibrated the polarity, and, consulting a booklet that came packaged with the device, entered the coordinates for San Francisco Bay, for Cancún, and, oddly, for Sumatra (“one never knows…”, she thought, with a certain store of prescience at her disposal).

Next she unpacked the safety flares to make sure they were dry. She removed them from their orange vinyl holster, wrapped them in a black two-ply Hefty bag, taped the bag tightly with duct tape, packed them back into their orange vinyl holster, and wrapped that in another Hefty bag sealed with duct tape.

Then she reached into a side pocket of the Magic Rucksack and drew out of it her Firestones – two chunks of rough black stone with the looks of a meteorite.

Natasha placed one of the stones on the living room floor, set her eye-beads upon it, and said “Flame ON!” The jet-black chunk of earth began to glow, first pale moon yellow then amber, ochre, orange then a sudden cadmium red and then like a tadpole spitting flies it spat forth tiny sparks. As soon as the sparks began to blacken the floorboards, she hollered “Cool down!”, and just as abruptly as the Firestone had come to life, it blackened and cooled and made itself indistinguishable from a hunk of asphalt.

“Last but not least,” Natasha said, after she’d stowed the rocks back in their pouch, “the piece de resistance.”

From a netted sack within the Rucksack she pulled a bottle that, but for its milky, opalescent hue, as if the bottle were carved from abalone or, indeed, from opals, appeared quite ordinary.

“My precious Queen Canteen,” Natasha said as she touched the preternaturally cool exterior of the bottle.

She took the container in her diminutive mitts, closed her eyes, agitated it like a martini shaker and said, “Water, water everywhere!”

She removed the cap righty-loosy (counter to the ordinary jar-lid), and an earthen scent emerged, of Maidenhair fern, watercress and angelica growing out of the purest mountain spring. The air in her bedroom grew cool, and the bottle was replenished with fresh water. Without even drinking a draught, Natasha was refreshed.

She wrapped the bottle in its sack, clipped the Rucksack’s clasps, threw it across her back and looked around the apartment.

Her eyes came to rest on one last thing: her clay ocarina on its leather cord hanging from a thumbtack in the wall. She smiled and lifted it from its thumbtack and hung it about her neck.

“Ready nor not,” she said. “Here I come!” She almost launched herself out the window, her confidence stoked, when another thought crossed her brow.

“Baby jaguar!”

Natasha dropped the Rucksack, ran to her room and collected from the bed her little stuffed jaguar. It was just a token bought for her at Target by one of her mother’s aides when her parents adopted her – but she’d slept with it every night since, and for Natasha, the jaguar had power.

She snuggled the synthetic animal to her little chest, cooed, ‘Baby Jaguar!” with all the love in her five-year-old frame, shivered with delight, and then gathered up the Rucksack and leapt to the window, ready to go.

Suddenly, her Blackberry rang.

She reached into the pocket of her fuzzy purple pants and drew out the phone. There on the screen was the face of Ophelia.

Natasha pressed the receive button and put the phone to her ear. A night zephyr blew into the window bringing soothing accents of the briny sea. Somewhere a ball of lightning exploded against the ocean’s vast horizon.

“Ma!”

*

            “Natasha! Dear, what are you doing awake? Do you know what time it is?

            “I can’t tell time, Mama” Natasha said. “But I know it’s nighttime!”

            “Natasha, honey, let me talk to your father, please.”

            “Dadda’s gone away, Mama.”

            “Gone away? What do you mean, gone away? Gone away, where? Who’s taking care of you?”

            “Dadda went away to save the rhinos, Mama. I’m fine. I’m staying with dadda’s boring sister, Iphegenia.”

            “To save the, what?”

            “Rhinos, Mama.”

            “I heard you. Where, where, where is he?”

            “Um, I think he’s in the caverns of Chicxulub.”

Silence.

            “Okay, Natasha, I want you to listen to me. Your father has made a very poor decision. Another very poor decision. Very poor for himself, for our family, and, possibly for the rhinos. Are you okay?”

            “Yes, Mama. I was just…playing with my baby jaguar.” Natasha looked into the cool, plasticene eyes of baby jaguar and found some comfort there.

            “Listen, honey, hang on tight. I’m in Washington D.C., they’ve asked me to run for secretary of the Democratic Party. I can’t say no, honey, this is the chance of a lifetime.”

            Natasha yawned and squeezed her jaguar, looking out the window toward the purplish clouds that painted the distant sky.

            “So, I can’t come home right away, but I’ll call your Aunties Spiker and Sponge to take you away to their duplex in Orange County for the week.”

            “No Mama. I’m fine. I’m going to help dadda find the rhinos.”

            On the tiny screen, Ophelia’s eyes rolled.

            “Listen honey,” I’ve just come from a briefing on the rhino question, with the Department of the Interior. They heard from the National Security Council, who heard from the Department of Homeland Security, who heard from the Bureau of Inter-Species Afflictions, that the rhinos were kidnapped. If your dadda has gone to solve the mystery, well, he’s putting himself in great danger.”

            “Kidnapped, by who?”

            “We don’t know, honey. Terrorists of some sort – maybe Libyans, or Cubans, or, possibly, eco-terrorists.”

            “Eco-terrorists, Mama?”

            “Yes, honey. Tree-spiking dirt-loving hippies. Just like daddy and I used to be before we grew up and found you. But we just don’t know. It seems that a letter was found in a magnolia bush outside the White House yesterday morning; another letter, in the same hand, was found in a boxwood bush near the Pentagon, and a third in a dahlia tree outside the offices of the Trilateral Commission. The letters were ransom letters. They said that the rhinos … well … it’s complicated.

            “Mama, that’s terrible. But….”

            “So, listen honey, Homeland Security has issued an alert that we all must stay vigilant.”

            “It sounds fishy to me, Mama.”

            “Honey, you can’t possibly understand the dimensions of this crisis.”

            “But Mama, what about the books? How do they explain the books?”

            “Natasha, honey, you’re tired. Sweetie, listen, this is a matter for public policy to resolve, not little girls with wild imaginations.”

            “I don’t know Mama…”

            “Natasha, you must do what I say. You stay there, get in bed, and cover up. In the morning, Auntie Sponge and Auntie Spiker will take you to Orange County… And soon, I’ll be home, and we’ll straighten things out with your father.”

            Natasha drooped. “Okay, Mama.”

*

            Old sailors know that the sea is an accumulation of all the tears shed during the history of humankind, from long before before until well after after. No ocean of mere water, they say, but a sea of liquid grief.

            As if water could ever be any more or any less than the total ecstasy of time, of memory and of fate…How else explain that it grows lighter as it hardens, heavier as it melts? How else explain that, like the human person, it is more than the simple sum of its molecular parts? How else approach its Mystery?

            The old sailors tell of hummingbirds that swim under the sea singing whale songs, and of whales sighted in the sky, as light as hummingbirds, the fata morgana of the shipping lanes. They tell that when a young sailor, wreckless in his ignorance, once shot one with his crossbow, his shipmates flew into a frenzy, tied him up, ran him through, and tossed him overboard into the brine. But they tell that despite their act, the ship later foundered and ran aground, or broke apart in a storm and is seen from time to time, tossing, empty, in the doldrums, the crew vanished and the captain’s log trailed off to a horrified end: “they are coming for us now,” … “the men have gone mad as if with St. Elmo’s fire, they’ve tarred and torched the stores of food” … “the hands of the sea have gripped the ship, we can’t go on… we must go on… we can’t go on.”

            Old sailors know the sea is grief and grief is the sea.

            And thus, it must be navigated carefully.

But navigated it must be.

“If you want to build a ship,” Natasha thought as she shouldered her Rucksack, “don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

“So said Saint Exupery,” she thought, “the only Saint in whom faith is merited.” And so she said a prayer to the Little Prince and climbed out her bedroom window onto the dormer roof and descended the rope of sheets tied together and bound to a bedpost.

*

The night was thick with fog but Natasha felt no fear; just the tingling of the vast oceanic horizon that has goaded children into the unknown for millennia.

The streets were quiet and glowed sepia as if by the light of whale-oil lanterns, and Natasha’s footpads sounded like drops of water in a deep well, plink, plank, plunk.

She knew the streets, and she descended toward the Bay without hesitation. But as she walked, the light began to change, the rusty brownish wash of the lamp-lit night gave way to an inky black haze in which cloudy faces seemed to float.

A wind picked up, and then, of a sudden, the dark haze lifted and a dustdevil roared her way. It took up sand and glass and garbage and spun from lamppost to mailbox to fire hydrant spewing matter like an atomic accelerator.

Natasha felt no fear and she clung to her baby jaguar as if it were her very child.

An old woman stepped out of the mist, a bluish shawl draped over her like water. Her hair was matted and kelpy, her cheeks hollow from age, her mouth thin as a crack – but her eyes glowed with the luminescence of jellyfish.

Natasha moved through the fog as if on a conveyor belt and when she passed the old woman, their bodies brushed and Natasha heard a phrase muttered from the old crone’s lips:

            “Who shall teach the child to doubt, the rotting grave shall ne’er get out.”

            And the witchy apparition liquefied into a whirling waterspout and then a glowing golden cloud and then a fine purple mist and then an evanescent haze and evaporated into the night.

                                                *

That same night a swarm of tornadoes Blitzkreiged across the Blue Hills of Kentucky and demolished the warehouses of Amazon.com. In Nebraska a hailstorm sleeted the Interstates and hundreds of trucks shipping for Walmart jack-knifed into the ditch. At a gender-reveal party for the newborn son of the County Sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, a blue firebomb set off to celebrate the blessed event turned pink, sparked off into a chamisa bush and blossomed into a wildfire that consumed half the state. In the FreshKills Landfill on Staten Island a tiny clipping of poison ivy cleared from the hedge of a Westchester County hedge fund manager found root in a bolus of PCB-laden imported Texas sewage sludge and a tenacious weed began to grow…

*

When Natasha came to the edge of the water, she looked out and saw the wide world round. There, bobbing in the reeds, stood her little pea-green boat.

In the dark night without a thought to her safety, she stepped aboard.

The tiny yawl rocked and quaked as she set foot on deck, but she quickly knelt and under her calm footing the boat came to right and grew accustomed to her tiny weight. She jiggled the rigging and unwrapped the sheets; she unstuck the rudder and unbagged the jib; she checked the compass and stowed the lines and battened the hatches, and then, when all preparations had been made, she unfurled the mainsail, and hoisted it.

The stars shone through the lifting fog and the lights of the city were like the stars’ reflections in an oily puddle. The wind filled Natasha’s sail, and the current lifted and carried her seaward.

                                    *

Her little craft bobbed and flotted and skidded sideways over the enormous wakes of cargo ships and oil tankers in the San Francisco Bay. Strange lights flashed and moved through the moist and coldish air – green lights going thisaway and red lights going thataway and blinking lights on distant buoys in the sounded depths, and the webs of white lights flittering on the bridges high above with their blurred glare of traffic, and the sounds of muted foghorns and dull highways tucked away in the nearby urban shore.

Passing the rock island of Alcatraz she could see enormous letters blocked out on an abandoned prison tower: “Welcome Indians of all Nations.” She wondered, was it a sign?

Natasha giggled aloud and scrunched up her nose and cheeks and snorted. “Silly! Of course it was a sign!”

                                    *

The city floated past on one side and the darkened silhouette of mountains on the other. Lights bobbed. In this vast hollow of deep water between low peaks, the wind ricocheted off the hills and wove crazy patterns in the invisible air. When the sail luffed, Natasha hauled it in, and then adjusted the jib, tightening it like a drum to draw her on the wild breezes toward the Golden Gate, tacking toward one shore and then the other, letting the mainsail out in bits to keep a close reach to the wind.

As her little boat closed upon the bridge, the yawning ocean stood before her. Under the Golden Gate, the wide sky opened up and the choppy wake subsided, replaced by the ancient broad swells of Mother Ocean. Natasha steered into the wind and set her back to the city and eyed the flat horizon before her, and saw there nothing but the warm static of an empty backlit screen.

“Sea and sky,” she said. “Only sea and sky. How lovely.”

If you want to make a people laugh, she thought, don’t tickle them or tell them jokes, but rather teach them to flee toward the absurd immensity of their ancestral grief.

                                    *

Just then Natasha spied a silvery form racing beneath the surface, almost no more than a reflection of moonshine upon the water, and then another, and another, racing now behind the boat, and now alongside, coursing to the tune of Natasha’s dinghy.

Suddenly one sprinted over the bow…:

Dolphins!

*         

            One by one, the dolphins leapt from the wake and formed an arc over her bow, a silver necklace, a reeling display of aquatic megafauna, a daisy chain of maddening, beautiful, delicate, furious dolphins, spinning and arcing and weaving a rainbow of wild fish flesh before the gateway to the tireless, bottomless, thirsty, swallowing sea.

As the dolphins looped back into the depths, under the watery glow of her lime-colored craft, Natasha heeled the boat and steadied the sails and tied the rudder and leaned into the wake to witness the show.

And then the dolphins, one by one, pointed their slick, muscled bodies upward as if standing on their tails midwater, projected themselves upward from the depths, broke the surface with the timed fury of rockets, and shot upward toward the Milky Way like cannonades firing into the limitless everything and nothing of space.

                                                *

In a spray of phosphorescent foam, the dolphins lifted off into the stratosphere and disappeared.

The dolphins had gone ballistic.

                                    *

Natasha watched in awe and wonder.

                                    *

The night grew darker.

Natasha heard, or thought she heard, a little melody, like someone tinkling on a toy piano in a faraway room. And then a hush fell upon the sea, and she sailed on.

                                    *

 Now freed from the chaotic choppiness of enclosed waters and the maddening lights and traffic of the city, Natasha’s little pea-green boat climbed and dropped, climbed and dropped down the ocean’s broad swells, onward into the night, and she lifted her spyglass toward land and watched the continent recede until it had become no more than a dark paint smear on the construction paper blue sky.

                                    *

But soon there breathed a wind on she,

Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,

In ripple or in shade.

It raised her hair, it fanned her cheek

Like a meadow-gale of spring –

It mingled strangely with her fears,

Yet seemed a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,

Yet she sailed softly, too:

For sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze –

On she alone it blew.

II

In the storm and stench of the sewage, where I might’ve drowned or breathed in a lungful of hepatitis or been darted by a stray syringe, I became strangely lucid, verging on serene, and amid the belch that engulfed me, the being of Natasha, my darling, sweet, beautiful, little Natasha, projected in me, around me, through me.

                                    *

It was not her eyes that flashed in me as I rode the deluge of shit, but her voice, her little tiny voice, like a toddler siren’s wail lost and found in the vastness of the oceany world, as, faraway I heard Natasha’s siren-song seductively canting and chanting the things she would’ve said as a toddling two-year old, as a wobbling three-year old, as a sturdy, steadied four-year old – the things the little ones say:

Dadda, my bones are shining into the night like lanterns! Dadda, your hair is standing up on its own like wormies, standing up! Dadda, look, I can fly like a baby birdy. Dadda, let’s put soap on the roses and then we’ll eat the roses and be clean inside out! Dadda, let’s run away from home because we’re curious! Dadda, let’s see what’s there!

III

To those estranged from her boundless majesty, the sea seems like a monotonous plain, vast and undifferentiated, as if it were an enormous single-celled creature, an oceanic ameba.

But it’s not like that: the sea is endless and its ancient currents, like Roman roads, lead everywhere. On land, old roads checkerboard the landscape, remnants of an eternity of human journeys past. In the trackless sea, an eternity of journeys leaves no trace.

As she sailed through months and in and out of weeks and over a year, one road lead to a thousand others which in their turn fed into dirt tracks, which became streets, which ended in avenues and cul-de-sacs and off-ramps and overpasses and vast entwining clover-leaves. All around, as the old world of the land, somewhere out of sight, grew tired and fraught with toxic traps, the sea was a new world erected outside the frontiers of the old. Skyscrapers of brine stood high and inscrutable amid thatch huts and zinc shanties carved like dioramas in the foam. Bridges formed that could span continents, their steel trestles shooting through the sky; flyovers, half-constructed, were like passageways into the air. Heavy machinery bobbed on the wake, and glittering, infernal machines rose triumphantly in the meringue of the sea. In the towns and dusty settlements, night watchmen slept under the stars with dull lamps, their only earthly illumination; women traded fabrics and beads and seeds and dyes in fragrant marketplaces at the crossroads of the dim currents; cities rose up, fathomless and beguiling in their liquid asphalt madness; serengetis of salt and taigas of foam and high altiplanos of cascading icy swells arced by. The moon was round and big and illuminated with the face of some awesome inhuman balloon. Natasha was soothed by its presence and at the same time she hungered for her destination. At times she thought, if I could take a needle to the moon and burst it, the long night would end and the surf would carry me gently, like a lullaby, to the distant encompassing arms of my dadda.

                                    *

And then she thought, “Silly! Of course you can’t take a needle to the moon!”

                                                *

A thought is with her sometimes, and she says,

Should earth by inward throes be wrench’d throughout,

Or fire be sent from far to wither all

Her pleasant habitations and dry up

Old ocean in his bed left singed and bare,

Yet would the living Presence still subsist

Victorious; and composure would ensure,

And kindlings like morning’ presage sure

Though slow, perhaps, of a returning day.

Book Two: The (first) Battle of Cancún

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Chapter i.

I had to go to Cancún.

You may know something about Cancún, but what you know is the tourist resort, the business end of the Mayan Riviera, not the true Cancún but a fiction of concrete and steel hovering tenuously like a desert mirage above a swamp of mud and shit.

Little do you realize that Cancún, that nest of snakes, that benighted Las Vegas on the stinking Caribbean, however little it may be remembered, was briefly the site of one of the greatest metaphysical massacres in human history.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

                                    *

I had to go to Cancún to find the rhinos.

                                    *

I didn’t find the rhinos there, exactly. Well, not right away. But what unfolded there, on the floor of the plenary hall – a global summit convened at the site where previous murders had taken place – (“The wife of an American reality TV show producer was found dead in the laundry room of the hotel Thursday morning,” a Mexican police spokesman told the press just a week before) – appeared for all the world as nothing more than diplomatic pabulum, but once I was in its midst I could see it for what it was: a fierce battle for control of the earth’s last territories: the forests, the waters, the carboniferous subterranean depths, the vast and depthless sky itself. The very holes where long ago the gods crawled to shield themselves from the light of modernity; the ether and enveloping light that illuminates all things sacrosanct and sacred; from the pits where devils dwell to the very nose of G-D: “Everything, but everything,” they said, “must go.”

                                    *

How, you may ask, did I, Irving Maxim Malloy, come to know that Cancún held the key to the rhinos’ vanishing? I’ll tell you.

The man now known to you as Natasha’s dadda was once, in a past life, a star reporter, correspondent, and publisher-in-chief, for a little known but highly regarded investigative journal called the Ambergris Island Barb.

This was back when Ophelia and I’d lived there, on Ambergris Island, near Nantucket on the other coast. It was the 1970’s and we were what they called back-to-the-landers. Naïve, we were, but happy. I’d built us a cabin of driftwood on the leeward side of the island….

                                    *

…the days seemed endless, sifting through the brackish pools for curious jetsam and canoeing among the rushes with my binocs and my Golden Retriever, Jeb, spying on the mallards and the kittiwakes and the cormorants. Something by Elton John or Three-Dog-Night was always on the radio – “Jeremiah was a bulldog, uh uh uh!” … You could swim in the tidal basin, collect wild blackberries that edged the dusty roads in late summer, trawl for crayfish among the rocks.

When I wasn’t fingering through the beach glass for scrimshaw or shoring up the timbers on our raft-like domicile, I was reporting for the Barb. Truth is, much as I loved just laying in the warm mud with my music and my binoculars, I was never happier than when I was raking up muck and digging up dirt: I became a minor league hero by scuttling a liquid natural gas pipeline here, upturning an illegal waste dump there. When the Ambergris city council refused to allow transsexuals to run for local office, I broke a scandal involving the Police Chief’s grandmother that set the Mayor’s teeth on edge. The series of articles I wrote dispelling the fake, ugly rumors of a Muslim power grab on the Island eventually drove the city council, now run by a prominent drag queen, to give the whole Island a month off for Ramadan.

I enjoyed it. You could say it was a calling: comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

But, as the saying goes, many are called but few are chosen, and my ascendancy in the adrenaline-fueled arena of shock-jock journalism ended sometime in the early 1990s when the Internet appeared. Goddamn Al Gore and his whole hypertrophied generation! See, from where I sit, the damned internet not only appeared, out of whole cloth, as if DARPA and the CIA and the NSA and all of them’d been building it in florescent Fairfax County basements since the moment Eisenhower made his “military-industrial complex” speech, but Appeared, like an apparition. Or an aparatchik. Appeared like the ancient Greeks inventing alphabetic language and severing human communion with all things Natural, to rob us first of our primal animal culture and then of our primordial role among the Holy Beings, and, finally, of our secrets.

What use is reporting if there’s nothing covered up, nothing to expose, and nothing any longer at stake – everything under the sun just a click away, click away, click away? And yet all of it encoded… disguised… camouflaged in plain sight, to the point of….static. There were simply too many real facts and alternative facts and known unknowns and unknown unknowns – too much information, not enough truth – just gimme some truth, John Lennon said – and no amount of investigation, contact tracing or data analysis could help.

When I gave up reporting Ophelia, my wife, went into democratic party politics, and before I knew it we’d moved West where the pastures of politics – so it seemed then – were greener than a Humboldt County Hemp Fair. Ophelia launched her career as a municipal magistrate, and I grew weed in the neighboring National Forest for about, oh, two decades, and wrote children’s books, like this one, more or less. Believing that the conspiracies of the post Watergate years had been fully fleshed out under the hot florescence of the InterWeb, I pretty much turned on, tuned out and dropped off.

*

I didn’t suspect, for all those years, that the conspiracies would continue mounting like bodies at Buchenwald. But mount they did.

And now there is a new secret, one that has haunted me since that moment at the zoo:

“Where’s the rhino?” I asked the zookeeper, incredulously.

The news upended a void.

“It, seems, uh, seems to have, well, disappeared.”

            *

I once gave some credence to UFO’s, to the Chariots of the Gods, advanced aliens drawing the Nazca Lines and building the pyramid of Cheops – ancient mysteries somehow tied to more contemporary concerns like the government cover-up of Area 51, black-ops, chemtrails, fluoride in the drinking water to dull our cerebrums and erode our resistance … the sorts of things discussed on the rural remote radio shows of Art Bell. But as I matured, for the most part, for the most part, I’d somehow come to believe the world safe from secrets of such magnitude. These things weren’t true mysteries, I’d come to believe, merely fake news. But by dismissing any and all such conspiracies as fake news, I threw out the baby of truly majestic Mystery with the bathwater of bonafide bad ideas.

It turned out in my two-dimensional thinking I’d drastically over-simplified things. The intervening decades, it turned out, were neck-deep in muck, and as much as the InterWeb appeared to contain it all, not a hundredth part of the filth of government and industry is exposed there.

Thus, the calling of the journalist was, and is, not dead. Not at all.

                                    *

So: where have all the rhinos gone?

The question plagued me, and it was that question that got me to open my rolodex and call up my old shipmate, Queequeg.

Queequeg Caliban’son.

If anyone could put me in touch with the right people to get on the trail of the rhinos, Queequeg could.

                                    *

Old Queequeg was a friend from Ambergris who used to hang around the office of the Barb. He’d just shown up one day, a large yellowish purple man in a waist coat and a beaver hat and a face plastered with a checkerboard of red and black squares tattooed across his extraordinary features. He strode to my desk and doffed his hat to reveal a bald head with nothing but a small scalp knot of hair twisted up on his forehead, and he held up the latest edition of the Barb and said, in a rising baritone, “You wrote this?”

We’d been running a series on the end of the whale-oil boom, showing how the bust of the whaling economy in the 19th century had led to a period of peace on the island as labor shifted toward the Western frontier.

“Yes,” I’d said. “If you’d like to express your opinion on the content of the paper, I would urge you to submit a letter to the ed–”

“It’s good,” he said, cutting me off.

I couldn’t have been more surprised when he said he liked our coverage, though he had some amendments to offer.

“It didn’t occur to you to seek the whale’s perspective?,” he asked, and I’d just shrugged.

                                    *

Queequeg never wrote a word for the paper, but he played what the anthropologists call a key informant role, hanging around the office shedding insights and challenging our data and calling out our analysis. “What does the river say?” he would ask? “Have you considered tapping the voice of the ancestors to lend some color?” He had a bone through his nose, and carried a broken harpoon that he’d near stabbed me with a hundred times if it was once, and was tattooed from head to toe with scrimshaw etchings, and those checkerboard squares he wore across his face. Because he showed up so often in those days we set him up at his own desk with a little brass plaque that said Editor Aboriginal.

He was the real thing, there was no doubt about that. But for all my whiteness, Queequeg called me friend, and when it came time to answer the rhino question, Queequeg’s was the first number I called.

                                    *

With the gone rhinos plaguing me, I dialed Queequeg and asked if he knew anything.

“Come to Cancún,” Queequeg said.

“Cancún? Mexico? Like, the resort?”

“The last resort,” he’d said, in his cryptic Indian way. “Cancún is the site of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

“Climate change?” I’d said stupidly. “What has that got to do with rhinos? We don’t even know for sure if climate change is real.”

Click.

I waited a few minutes, and then rang Queequeg back. When he picked up, he said, “Believe me. Cancún, 2010. It’ll be bloodier than Waterloo. Hairier than Hastings. Grittier than Gallipoli. More awful than Appomattox. Badder than Bull Run. Messier than the Maginot line. Ickier than Iwo Jima. Stickier than Stalingrad. More fucked up than Fallujah.”

“Worse than Wounded Knee?” I asked, trying to be clever.

Click.

                                    *

As it turned out, Queequeg had left Ambergris for the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, got there just in time to watch the American Indian Movement blasted to hell and Leonard Peltier carted off to a permanent address at Leavenworth. He fled the country for El Salvador, where he fought the rebels on the side of the poet Roqué Dalton. When Roqué was killed by his comrades, he jumped the border and joined Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He claimed he’d spent the ‘eighties in the mountains of Nicaragua running a rebel radio station where he’d gotten to know Giaconda Belli and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Joan Didion and Susan Sontag as they passed through, one by one. In the ‘nineties, after Uncle Sam had successfully pulled the plug on the Central American revolutions, he’d found his way back to Indian Country – that’s what they called it back then, by which they meant anywhere Indians lived – and played the main character in a film version of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. But the project ended up in post-production hell (something about the tribe suing the film company for copyright infringement, or vice versa). He was hired as a researcher for the PBS version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and it was with the proceeds from that that he’d had helped found a Rolling Thunder Revue to advocate for Indian rights and generally raise some Red Cloud Crazy Horse Cain. First he’d called his gang The Group of Unsettled Native Savages (GUNS), but was denied consultative status at the United Nations, so he changed the name. By the time I’d tracked him down, it was a well-established vehicle that went by the name The Organ for the Rights of Unsettled Indian Nations – TO RUINs.

                                    *

I dialed back and Queequeg picked up before the first ring.

“But, Queequeg,” I begged. “The United Nations? Cancún? A conference? How can this possibly solve the problem of the rhinos?”

“Solve? No one said solve,” he said half solemnly and half mockingly. “At this point, there’s no solving anything. There never has been. This is about damage control, my friend.”

“Okay, fine. But still….I don’t understand.”

“Listen, Irving,” Queequeg said. “You have to trust me.”

                                    *

Suddenly I had some decisions to make.

On that phone call, Queequeg invited me to come to Cancún to work for TO RUINs. What exactly I was to do, he would explain upon my arrival.

                                    *

I called Ophelia, but my call went to voicemail: “I’ll be in council meetings until further notice, please leave a message. If you’d like to make a donation –” I tapped my toes and waited and left a message.

As for Natasha…this was going to be difficult. With Ophelia away my only choice was to leave Natasha with my sister Iphegenia in the outer Sunset District of the city. Ophelia couldn’t stand my sister, and Natasha wasn’t too fond of her either. But she was better than Ophelia’s sisters, and, well, there was no choice.

I went to her bedroom, where she was playing chase with her stuffed feline thing, Jag-Jag.

“Natasha, honey,” I began

She didn’t look away from her play, but nonchalantly said, “Dadda, you’re going…where?”

“How did you…? Nevermind. Yes, honey, I’m afraid duty calls. I’m going to have to go away for a little while.”

“Dadda, its written all over your body language. But, like I said, where?”

“Um, Cancún, Mexico. I’m going to meet up with my old friend Queequeg there at a, at a conference.”

“The United Nations thing? About climate change and stuff?”

I don’t ask anymore how it is that my five-year-old is so tuned in to global events. “Yes, honey, the United Nations thing, about climate change and stuff.”

“And you can’t bring me.”

“No, honey, I can’t bring you.”

“And you’re going to leave me with your sister Iphegenia.”

“Yes, honey, I think I have to leave you with Iphegenia.”

Natasha was silent a long moment, cantering her Jag-Jag across the blue plush carpet.

“Mom’s gonna kill you.”

“Mmmm, yes, I’m sure she is,” I said. “But…”

“But you have no choice. I know. And I understand.”

“You do?”

“I do,” Natasha said, finally looking up at me. “But I grant you your liberty on one condition.”

Well. This was new.

“What’s that, sweetie?”

“The condition is that you don’t treat me like a sad little girl that you’ve left at home with your, um, boring sister, and feel all guilty and worried and whatever it is dads feel when you go off on adventures, and…”

“Natasha, this isn’t an adventure,” I insisted. “This is my work.”

“Yes father,” she said. “Everyone goes to work in Cancún when someone named Queequeg who they haven’t seen for like a hundred years calls them out of the blue with some cryptic whatevers.”

“Natasha, sweetie, please…”

“Anyway, I wasn’t finished. The condition is that you don’t treat me like a sad little girl that you’ve left at home…But treat me instead like home base. Like, you, know, I’ve got your back, dadda, and I’ll be ready to come to the rescue should things get sticky.”

I was at a loss for words, so I just nodded. “Ok, honey. You are my home-base.”

She picked up the stuffed jaguar and plunged her hand into a hole under the creature’s neck, and pulled out a cell phone that her mother had gotten for her. I thought she was way too young to have her own phone, but Ophelia was more, well, pragmatic with that sort of thing.

Holding the phone up, Natasha said, “And one more thing.”

“What’s that, honey?”

“You have to swear on Jag-Jag’s spots that you’ll pick up the phone when I call.”

                                    *

And so, with history and destiny awaiting me, I dashed off a note to Ophelia, in the style of Rudyard Kipling:

Dearest Ophelia:

I burn like trees in the Amazon

Melt like a plant in Japan

Like Captain Morgan and Sir Walter Raleigh did

          I’m packing my bags and making my bid

Why? Because I can.

Weekly from old San Francisco

Great ships sail brash and bold

Go rolling down the ocean blue

Just like the pirates used to do

Rolling on like the ships of old

I’ve never courted a jaguar

Nor spent a uranium rod

In the afterglow of its fueling tower

Invisible as a god

I’ve never yet sailed on a sea of milk

Nor basked in a mescal sun

In a hammock woven of Swedish silk

Like a bandit on the run

So off I go to Mexico

Those wonders to behold

Roll down, roll down to Mexico

Roll really down to Mexico

Before I grow too old…

But I’ll be back to hold you

As sure as time is time

          From across the world

          To find my girls      

With my reason and my rhyme

                                    *

Ophelia was used to notes like this from me. She might not forgive me, but she’d understand.

On second thought, she’d neither understand nor forgive me. But well…for now I’m off to Mexico, rolling down to Mexico, before I grow too old…

II

            At the airport in Cancún Queequeg met me with a great bear hug. He was older, and a little weightier, his tattooed head adorned with long braided hair gone silver. I don’t know how he could have more tattoos, but he did, crisscrossing his tanned copper skin like spiderwebs. Under his arm he carried a white buckskin briefcase with horsehair tassles. I was glad to see him.

As we walked out of the terminal, the unvanquished Toltec sun stabbed at my eyes and I winced.

“You’ll get used to it, old man,” Queequeg said, laughing. “We’ll get you one of them giant sombreros and some big mirrored narco sunglasses and you’ll fit right in.”

He spoke as slowly and deliberately as ever, and it was clear from his ribbing that my coming meant a lot to him. You don’t always know with Indians, they don’t let on if they like you or not. But Queequeg was clearly relieved to have me here.

“So, what do you need?” I asked, getting down to business.

“You know Irving, you got a good heart, right?”

“You mean, am I healthy?”

“Healthy? Naw, that’s not what I mean. Ain’t one of us healthy, old man. I got diabetes so bad I piss maple syrup. I mean, you still got your heart in the right place?”

“I came here, didn’t I?” I said.

“I guess you did,” Queequeg said. “So, listen up. Us Indians, we been at this human rights game for a while now,” he said. “Like five hundred and eighteen years. But most of us never liked writin’ the damn press releases. They’re too much like treaties or something, in’it?”

“So, you want me to write your press releases?”

“We’re people of talkin’, not people of writin’,” he said.

“I came all the way to Cancún to write a bunch of press releases?” I said.

“Now, Irving, cool down a minute. You know there’s a lot more to it than that. If you care about finding the rhinos – and believe me, the rhinos are tangled up somewhere in this whole shenanigan – then you’re gonna have to read between the lines. And to read between the lines, you gotta write between the lines. You with us or you not with us?”

“So, hold on a minute Queequeg? The way to find the rhinos is to write a bunch of press releases? I’m going to be your volunteer secretary and the rhinos are going to, what, leap out from between the…?”

He smiled big and stopped walking.

“Secretary,” he said. “I like the sound of that. Nothing voluntary about it though. It’s solidarity. That makes it, what would you say, involuntary, in’it?”

I gave Queequeg a long look.

“Irving, Irving, Irving,” Queequeg said behind me. “Listen, it’s not like that. You still can’t take a joke can you? Gimme a chance… lemme paint you a picture.”

“Okay,” I said. “One chance, Queequeg. No jokes.”

“Okay,” he said. “Injun promise, no jokes.”

“So?”

“Listen, who are the people been warnin’ the world about desecratin’ the environment for five hunerd years?”

“That would be your people.”

“Right answer. And who are the people who been seein’ their lands and waters and customs and cultures stole out from under ‘em and poisoned and polluted and sacked and wrecked and ruined and robbed meanwhile the whole planet goes to shit?”

“Your people,” I said.

“And who been tryin’ to live gently on the land all this time, tryin’ to keep the forests standin’ and the rivers runnin’ and the sun comin’ up in the mornin’ with our ceremonies and our prayers and ways?”

“Your people.”

“Okay. Now, who do you think is runnin’ this show down here? Who’s the big decision makers on climate change?

“I’ll take a guess,” I said. “Not your people.”

“You know who it is? It’s not only not our people. It’s the United Nations. Now, our people, we got no nation. We had nations. Great nations. We even had united nations. We had the great Haudenosaunee nation, the great Cherokee nation, the great Aztec nation, the great Inca nation. But this United Nations, Irving? It don’t include us.”

                        *

I flashed back to an investigation I’d done with Queequeg in the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island in the 1980’s. We’d been up to our knees in sludge and trash when he told me he traced a quarter of his bloodline to Lenape people who’d called this island home for millennia and whose very bones were here beneath a century of cathode ray tubes and medical waste and chicken feet and cans of Spagettios. His other three-quarters were Wampanoag, Arawak and Irish –  the first sent as slaves to the Caribbean after King Phillip’s War, the second native to the islands but forced to flee to maroon settlements in the mangrove swamps and coral cayes. And the third, slaves also, in the decades when the Irish did the work later forced on Africans. My own Irish bloodline, I’d told him, ran through the early sugarcane fields of Jamaica and Barbados before they were spirited away by Jewish pirates and wound up in Brooklyn.

Queequeg had lifted his head as he sorted through a heap of mangled children’s bicycles and rusted boilers and said, “You know Irving, I think we mighta met back then.” He grinned like the fox that ate the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and dove back into the trash.

                        *

Here in Cancún, trailing him through the airport parking lot twenty years later, I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I’m here to help.”

“I’m not done,” Queequeg said. “And, I’m not trying to white guilt you into doing work you’re not prepared to do. I just need you on board, ok? So lemme tell you what this is about. You think one nation is bad?” he said. “Wait ‘til you see all the Nations of the world snarling like three-legged dogs over the last scraps of life we got left. Now that’s something to see, Irving. And they’re doin’ that over the dead bodies of our people, Irving. Over the silent snowy graves of our people.”

He quieted down a minute to let that sink in.

“So this is why we created our own vehicle,” he continued. “The Organ for the Rights of Unsettled Indian Nations – those nations who, precisely because we are not Nations in the U.N. sense, have no seat at the table. And we want you to be our secretary.”

                        *

I flashed back again: I was in some old grimy harbor, in pelting rain, wooden ships creaking and crashing in the salt sea air whipping from across a dark strait. It seemed to me I was there to sign up for a South Seas voyage, and I had just approached a ship called the Pequot when I was tackled and thrown to the ground by an oversized ogre – something like being trampled by a rhino, my face ground into the wet creosote of the pier. I lay there in a heap, giving myself up for dead, until I found I could open my eyes, and I did, and there before me stood this massive Samoan pulling a long puff from a tomahawk pipe and gazing down at me with utter solemnity, like a man who never cringed and never had a creditor.

“If ye want to live to fight another day – and to fight the divvil himself – you’d best not board this ship,” the stony looking savage said. For you be a man of writing, not a man of sailing, and you know it too. And as this ship is captained by a madman indentured to a banker and driving deep to Davy Jones to unflesh a holy phantom of a white whale, I warn you only once, this is an unholy mission and no place for the likes of you…”

I stayed put on the dock and watched as the doomed vessel hauled off into a shrieking, slanting storm….

                                    *

            The airport came back into focus, and Queequeg with it, talking, and I snapped back and said, “Queequeg, old friend, I’m honored to accept the mission,” I said. “It sounds truly righteous.”

“Truly righteous, shit!” Queequeg said. “It’s our fuckin’ nation and we can get as truly righteous as we wanna get. Lets start in a good way, Irving, and give you a truly righteous honorific. How ‘bout instead of secretary we call you ‘the scribe of the silenced?’ How you like that? Or ‘Stenographer for the Shut-out. Press Attaché for the Oppressed. News Desk for the Neglected, Editor for the Endangered. Your job is not only to write TO RUINs’ press bulletins. It’s to gadfly the powerful and interrogate the elite, to wake up the public. To change the story, Irving. To change the story.”

As he talked, Queequeg had flagged a cab and was putting my suitcase in the trunk. The heat was causing the Mexican asphalt to throb and quiver like black Jell-o.

                                    *

“What makes you think I can write press bulletins any better than you can?” I asked him.

“Like I said, we’re people of talkin’, not people of writin’.”

“Plus,” he said, gesturing to his watch. “We got five centuries of complaining to do. We take it too personal, you know. Makes it hard to write a one-pager. You? You speak Spanish, you don’t talk too much, you don’t give a shit, no one knows who you are, and you been around Indians enough that you know how to read the smoke signals. We like that.”

Queequeg kept talking in the cab. He told me what Cancún was about, what this United Nations business was about, who was who and what was what.

“I don’t get it. Isn’t this just an environmental summit?”

Environmental, sure. But you white guys, when you think of environment you think it means huggin’ trees and savin’ whales, and that’s where it ends. As it would happen, the word for environment in our language is the whole enchilada. Alpha to omega. Soup to nuts. One Living Universe – Multiverse, really, or Polyverse – in which it’s our role to maintain harmony in disharmony, to try to balance the dizzying vertigo we cause by shaking the world with our very steps, to heal the cracks and fissures with our songs and our makings the way the Holy Earth fills her cracks and fissures with turquoise, with emeralds, with opals. Our whole gig, to put it in plain English, is to be a diamond stud on the Ear of the Holy. I know you grock this Irving, I know you do, but can you confirm this for me? I mean, can we get straight on this from the get-go? I don’t wanna have to micro-manage you, you know. And I definitely don’t want to turn around and put you back on that plane after I gon’ and give you all them honorifics.”

I nodded. “I’m with you. Soup to nuts. Be a diamond stud on the Ear of the Holy. I never really thought of it like that but now that you say it –“

“And so what you got when you got the nations of the world and all their business elite throwin’ a jamboree on the environment, is you got a bargain basement warehouse for the whole enchilada, a fire sale for environmental products and services, the biggest shopping day of the year for All Things Great and Small: a little fresh water here, a little carbon there, sell you some pollution, trade you some genetic material, drop some green wool over your eyes, talk about the price of silver, the price of mercury, the price of a forest or a tree or even just what a tree does.”

“What do you mean, the price of what a tree does?”

“Okay, Irving, get this: you know the way a tree can breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen?”

“Sure. Photosynthesis.”

“Well, no that’s not exactly photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is when a tree takes sunlight and turns it into sugar. But I’m not bringing you on board to be a scientist, ok? Listen: the big bad chemical that’s causing the climate to change, it’s called carbon dioxide, right? And trees suck that up like vacuum cleaners. So, the ability of a tree to suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, that’s worth more than gold nowadays. And these cowboys at the United Nations, they just figured that out. We coulda told ‘em that five hundred years ago, but we been pretty careful about keeping some a these things to ourselves. So anyways, now they’re startin’ to think the world’s forests, the ones we got left, are like, a carwash for their toxic industry. You got a problem with pollution? Buy a forest.”

“For real?”

 “Hell yes, for real, Irving,” Queequeg said. “Would you like that rainforest for here or to go? You want that in paper or in plastic?”

Queequeg burst out laughing and his whole frame shook. He looked at the driver and up at the enclosing roof of the cab and then rolled down the window and shouted “Paper or fuckin’ plastic!” into the Mexican streets.

I got it.

“Cash or credit?” I said in a subtle riposte. Queequeg looked at me and said, “Yeah, you got it Irving. That’s why we’re making you the Foreign Correspondent for the First Nations. Now, let’s get to work.”

                                    *

As the cab banged over the rough streets, Queequeg whipped a laptop out of his buckskin briefcase and handed it to me. He wanted me to write a statement.

“No time to lose, Irving.” he said. “Gotta get those chops back.”

I took the laptop and opened it. Queequeg started talking and I started typing –

taking dictation, and watching the words grow on screen until they became a mean little press bulletin. When I was finished, I read it back:

“For Immediate Release, December 2010. Statement from the Organ for the Rights of Unsettled Indian Nations.

Cancún, Mexico – As representatives of the peoples and communities suffering the grossest impacts of climate change, we express our outrage and disgust at the very nature of the United Nationalists and their “talks” in Cancún.

“Nice start Irving,” Queequeg said.

I read on: “We can expect this conference to be dominated by corporate mafia Imperialists waging a diplomatic offensive of backroom deals, arm-twisting and bribery targeting those nations and those peoples whose future hangs most in the balance.”

“Excellent,” Queequeg said.

It finished with a flourish: “We will not be bought,” I said dramatically. “Nor will we be sold.”

“Bravo, Irving, Bravo. That’s pretty good,” Queequeg said. “You’re hired.”

I was proud that I’d impressed Queequeg, though we both knew it was all his words. I was on board – at this point how could I turn back? – but I harbored some doubts. I could understand big business buying everything up. But how was the United Nations, responsible for the vanishing rhinos? It made no sense.

                                    *

We pulled up to a Holiday Inn and paid the cab and went in, and Queequeg said, “Hey, before we get to work, we gotta do a ceremony. Follow me.”

I should’ve expected it, but I didn’t. I followed him through a heavy steel door that said “Pool,” and down some stairs and then through a sliding glass door into a cavernous blue tiled room with an Olympic sized swimming pool. In a ring that encircled the pool, men stood, brown and gold and copper-skinned and dark-eyed and solemn, of all the peoples that first rose out of the earth of our America. They wore nothing but swimsuits. At the deep end, almost under the diving board, stood an old woman, squat and wide and with long gray braids tied with blue and yellow ribbon, with creased lines in her face and a nose sharp as an obsidian blade. She wore a radiant huipil cascading with flowers and birds and fruits in all shades of crimson and violet and lavender and green and she held a terra cotta bowl in one hand containing a flickering smoking ember that blinked like an orange eye. In the other hand, she held an eagle feather and a sage bundle.

She held the sage to the ember until it smoked and caught fire, and as she did she chanted in an unfamiliar language. To her left and her right, the men bowed their heads and listened. Queequeg gestured me to join the circle, so I did, and bowed my head. When her sage bundle was consistently smoking, the old woman began to walk the circle, approaching each man and waving her holy fire over him. Each one cupped his hands and captured a bluish waft of smoke and raised it to his face and splashed it like wash water over his head, and rubbed his shoulders and chest and torso and legs as if spreading sun cream, and then put his arms back at his side and prayed silently as the old woman moved down the line.

My senses registered the scene as if looking through a soap bubble. Something bumped me and I looked up and it was Queequeg, sidling up next to me and looming tall.

He leaned down and whispered, “So, Irving, I know you seen some of our ceremonies before…Well, this one’s gonna be a little different. See we’re here by the ocean, and the plan was to make ceremony there by her waters, to let loose a whole raft of offerings, do this the right way, you know, according to the original instructions. But the fuckin’ federales are guarding the beaches and every time they see a bunch of Indians sauntering down there they start firing off teargas canisters…. So the original instructions are out the window….” He did that reverse nod that he’d always done, where he throws his head back and points at you with his chin, twice, three times, and then a punched me sharply on the shoulder, and sidled away.

After all had been smudged, the woman spoke some words, long and strange and filled with clicks and swooshes. Some of the men quietly nodded their bowed heads. I held myself as still as a schoolboy. When she was done she said, quietly, “All my relations,” and then loudly, “A-ho!” and we all repeated after her, “A-ho.” And then she withdrew, or disappeared, and Queequeg stepped into her place.

He gestured to me to disrobe, quickly, and I did, down to my underwear. Of course it felt silly, but what could I do? “Let’s get to it,” I thought, kicking myself.

When I was undressed, Queequeg nodded in approval, took in a breath, and said, “To the four directions, brothers! Swim!”

            All at once everyone leapt into the pool and I leapt in too and almost organically we fell into rows. And at Queequeg’s command we started swimming laps.

            “To the east, where our father reaches to us with his warm hands and invites us to feast with Him for another day!” he called out, and we swam in a line to the east.

            “To the north, where our ancestors collect stones to build houses where we may rest when we make our journey to meet them there!” and we swam to the north.

I swam as if my life depended on it, and as I swam I somehow took in the scene as if watching from above. It was like the synchronized swimming in a Busby Berklee movie, only instead of lank sequined girls with pale shoulders and long dangling limbs, they were Indians: Cherokees and Kiowas and Creeks and Mandans and Dakotas and Sioux and Haudenosaunee, Mohawks and Algonquins and Pomo and Osage and Anishinabe, and they were all men, in buckskin speedos and tanned armbands of twisted hide. Some were tattooed, like Queequeg, and some not, some big and rotund and others slender, but all were muscular, skin the color of iron oxide dust. And there I was among them, tearing through the water.

            “To the west, where the tail of the deer leaps into the jaws of the horizon!” Queequeg called out, and we swam to the west.

            “To the south, where the crane and the peregrine travel to summon back the rushing waters.” And we swam to the south.

            As we climbed out of the pool, Queequeg handed out towels, and one by one we dried off and one by one took our places again on the slick aquamarine tiles. Now, Queequeg addressed us, in a voice I’d not heard before.

“On the other side of town,” he said, “to the West, in the direction of Chichen Itz’a, our Mayan brothers are gathered, and they are sharpening their machetes. On the beaches to the South, the Africans are gathered, casting their coconut shells on the waters to pray to Oshun that obstacles be removed. To the North, the women are gathered, led by Champa Devi and Rasheeda Bee, two tiny ladies from Bhopal, the one a Muslim, the other a Hindu, and by Phoolan Devi, the bandit queen, the one with no religion, and there they are teaching the women in their battalion the martial arts of aiki-jiu-juitsu and capoeira and abir. And to the East…the endless sea, whose poor state of health reflects our own, and whose cleansing force, brothers, is also our own.”

“Throughout our long history, brothers, we have fought many battles. We have won some, but in the end, they have always cornered us, in the Greasy Grass and in the Fallen Timbers, at Plum Creek and Platte River Station, in the Revolt of the Pueblos and the Chaco Canyon massacre, in the Sand Creek massacre and the Seminole War and the Modoc War and the Battle of Sugar Creek, on Smoky Hill Trail and the Great Sioux Wars. But we have always fought on. Today brothers, begins another such.

“And if we are afraid, we are justly afraid,” Queequeg said, and the air vibrated with his words. “And if we are worried, and anxious, and faint of heart, we are justly so. But today, as in our battles of the past, we know what the stakes are, and we know who the enemy is, and we know that this is our last fight. Brothers…” the air smelled of chlorine and the dappled light skimmed off the pool casting rainbows across the men’s chests and legs as if the entire gallery were a prism. “…It’s a good day to die.”

III

On the pale spit of land that curved along the edge of the sea, day fell into evening, and evening vanished into night. Inland, in the hotel zone, lights began appearing, and the invisible current of underground waters was drawing into itself what little life remained in the city.

The bedrock of Cancún, of Yucatan, is a limestone shelf, almost a mere ceramic plate, below which saline streams of ancient water run. There, below the ground, forces were gathering. There, the ghosts of ancient battles stood in wait. In the greenish shadows of those cavernous rifts, amidst piles of bone and powdered shells, an army gathered, preparing to advance upon the slimy mist of the city of above. In the air, heat lightning strobed menacingly against the darkened sky.

                                    *

Queequeg took me to the casino next door for a steak dinner, and to brief me on what was to come. We sat at a table set with white tablecloth and fine fake silver cutlery beneath a cut glass chandelier, the clatter of the gaming room ringing beyond a partition, as Mexican waiters brought us cut after cut of meat: chorizo, butifarra, asado, costilla, churrasco.

Queequeg dug in with fork and knife and I followed. With his mouth dripping steak fat, he set in:

“Forget everything you learned in school about the United Nations,” he said to me. “The events you are about to witness will reveal to you the true nature of this beast. And beast, I’ll add, is too good a name for it.”

“I still don’t understand what it has to do with the rhinoceri,” I said.

Queequeg’s eyes cast about in the air for something to land on.

“Look, the truth is, I don’t know. Yet. At best, the rhinoceri give us a clue. There is a connection. There has to be, Irving. There always is,” Queequeg said. “You know this: if you want to unravel a conspiracy, you have to understand the relationships, the nodes, the networks. The web of life.”

He paused.

“Now forget about the rhinos. The only way to catch a wild rhino is, you don’t think about him, ok? Think about other stuff, but let the rhino do his own thinking and maybe he’ll decide to show up. That’s the way we’ve always done it, since way back.”

“As to the matter at hand: what they are doing here, what they are planning to do here, is to sell off everything, the water, the earth, the air, the animals. The plants. But sell if off isn’t right, I mean, that’s not the right way to put it,” he said. “They are going to turn it into money.”

“Isn’t that what they already do?”

“This is different. This is a whole ‘nother scale. They have made all the commodities they can make, they have produced all the products they can produce, they have consumed all the consumer goods they can consume. How much wood can a woodchuck chuck, after all? Well, a woodchuck can only chuck as much as its ecosystem will allow, which is de facto always less than ALL of it. But a fucking human being, Irving? He can chuck it all. And he just about has.”

A team of Mexican waiters in white starched suits brought a rolling cart piled high with steamed lobster, buckets of tiger prawns, clams and crab, a tray of oysters Rockefeller and bowls of butter and lemon and filled our plates.

“But this isn’t just about using everything up, Irving,” Queequeg continued, cracking a lobster claw in his fist. “Now they’re taking it up a few notches. They know they’re out of resources: the end of oil, the end of water, the end of soil, the end of 5 million years of sunlight captured and compressed in the fossil carbon underground. And they know that the people of the world will not tolerate their graft any longer. So they’re planning on taking everything that’s left, and in order to do that, they need to do away with resistance. And because life itself is resistance, they need to eliminate all life. And,” he said forebodingly, “they have the means to do it.”

Just then a racket went up from the casino and the waiters in the restaurant all stopped pushing their carts and turned to see. A group of men had entered the restaurant and evidently there was something about them. They were clearly here for the UN gathering, as there were dignified Africans in dashikis and skullcaps and South Asian men in embroidered caftans and Latin Americans in crisp tailored bankers’ suits, and leading them all, one hand waving in the air and the other gripping a gold-handled ivory cane, was an American in a white safari outfit, wearing a broad smile beneath his copper-blond moustache.

“Listen to me my friends – I have wonderful things to tell you,” he was saying to the entourage. “Gentlemen, it has been far too long that many of you, many of us, excuse me, have been overly concerned with money. Do we need money for the development of our countries? Of course we do. But more than this, more than this, my friends, we need life. LIFE!”

As he said the word he gripped his cane and waved it in the air with a flourish. Queequeg lifted his chin, indicating that I should observe closely, as he continued cracking shellfish and gobbling down bits of tenderloin.

“Gentlemen,” the man with the copper moustache said to his entourage, “Money is sand to me, rubies and diamonds, mere pebbles. My people come from the land of Ophir, where King Solomon found the gold for his temple. The Queen of Sheba was the matron of my lineage.”

“We have had money, and we have spent it, and we have earned more. Money, like water, like power, must flow, it must move or it grows rotten, and contagious, and it stinks. We are not here to talk about money…”

Why these men were having this boisterous conversation as they paraded through a public restaurant was unclear. But as they passed our table, the man with the gold-headed cane paused in his tracks for a moment and leveled his eyes at Queequeg.

“I see the Natives are here, restless as ever” he said. “Well, consider them, gentlemen. Contemplate, if you will, their wisdom.”

The group had come to a standstill, and though they were a cosmopolitan bunch, well-heeled brown-skinned denizens of the wide equatorial regions, the looks on their faces made them appear genuinely fascinated by Queequeg with his checkerboard of tattoos and his long silver braids and his determined frown.

“The Indian, my friends, was never interested in money. The Indian lived in service to the greater harmony of the world. And rightly so,” he said. “Up to a point.”

“It was an Indian who gave us that most noble of truths: we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but borrow it from our children.”

The men following along nodded in genuine admiration.

“What that Indian failed to add, of course, was that we must therefore pay back the debt to our children, with interest. In order to do this, we need a new economy. One that can generate capital out of thin air, as it were.”

The man in the white suit with the gold-headed cane was gazing down his nose at Queequeg and speaking about him as if he were a museum docent explaining a natural history display. But his words sent chills.

And then he turned his gaze on me.

“And, ah, the Jews are here as well,” he said. “I’m glad. They may have a tempering influence upon the Indians…And if anyone understands how to generate capital out of thin air, my friends, it is the Jews.”

At this the man, whose words had me transfixed, suddenly broke through the invisible wall his strange lecture had affected, and reached out his hand toward me.

“Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?”

He smiled as he said it, and without wanting to, I found myself reaching to meet his hand. When he grasped my hand it felt at first cold, but then suddenly warm, hot even, and then like nothing at all, by turns hot and cold, like gasoline or like holding a cable with an electric current moving through it.

He continued speaking as he held my hand.

“Is not the Jew fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?” he said.

His eyes were blue and his hair sandy and his aspect forbidding, and then he let go my hand and turned away from us without a nod and kept walking, the entourage moving along with him.

“In any case, gentlemen, let us not be distracted. This gathering is one for which we have waited for a long time. It is already late to turn the tide.”

When the men had moved on, I asked Queequeg, “Who was that?”

Queequeg shook his head. “That,” he said, “is the face of the problem you are here to investigate.”

                                    *

When we’d finished our surf n’ turf, it was well and truly nighttime, and Queequeg called a cab.

“We’re not staying at the Holiday Inn?”

“Uh, no,” he grinned. “We ain’t got money for hotels. The hotel was just for our ritual swim.”

I would sleep with rest of the delegation, he informed me, on the cement floor of a nearby sporting arena.

                                    *

All night, as I lay in my sleeping bag on the concrete floor of a dissolute Mexican basketball court, the klieg lights blinked on and off with the load-shedding from the power grid. In my restless dreams, my beautiful Natasha was piloting a boat through turbulent waves that mounded up around her like piles of ice cream.

Sometime in the night a rough shove woke me, and a voice in the dark.

“Irving? Irving. Wake up.”

It was Queequeg, a looming shadow at my side. As I raised myself up to sit, I saw he was wrapped in a Pendleton blanket, his hair tied in long braids with ribbons and feathers at the ends. Resting on his open palms was a long clay pipe.

“Irving,” he said in a low voice. “Do you know what happens when the world ends?”

I coughed and shook my head. “Everything stops? Lights out? Game over? No,” I said. “I have no idea. How could I?”

“Irving,” Queequeg said. “We need to have a smoke.” He held the mouthpiece of the pipe to his forehead, and then turned it to the four directions, saying words under his breath. Then, from somewhere beneath his blanket, Queequeg produced a cedarwood box, and opening it, a burning coal. He lifted the coal with his thick calloused fingers and touched it to the bowl of the pipe and drew in a long breath.

“All my relations,” he said. “O Mitakiya.”

He passed the pipe to me and I took a long draw and felt the smoke blanket my lungs, held it in my chest, and let it out into the dark humid night of the basketball stadium. I handed Queequeg the pipe, and he smoked, and then we passed it back and forth as he spoke.

“The world will end, perhaps soon,” he said. “And this time, it will be worse than the times before. It will not be an easy world ending. It will come with great suffering, and great violence. This is our prophecy.”

“The last time the world ended, it ended in ice, and cold, and darkness. The time between worlds was long, and many souls were shed. We were in a great void,” Qeequeg said. “ A great darkness that lasted for many eternities. We floated in this darkness, without light, without warmth, without the security of land, or of water, or even of air.”

He draw on the pipe and passed it to me and I smoked and passed it back.

“We made a circle,” he said. “We put the children in the middle, to protect them from the cold. And we put the women around the children, to protect them from the darkness. And the men were on the outside, in many circles, the smallest and weakest toward the middle, and the strongest and bravest on the outside. When one of us died, of cold, or of hunger, or of thirst, we collected the body up, and we passed it to the women, and they cut the body up, and they fed it to the children. At first there were no tools; they tore the body to pieces with their hands, and fed it to the children, the organs and the fat they gave to the children, and the muscle and meat they kept for themselves, and the bone and sinew they passed to the men. From the bone, we made knives, and from the sinew and the skin and the hair we made clothes, to keep the cold off. We did this for thousands of years, for millennia. For eternity.”

“When the light began to come back, we prayed and we gave thanks. We had no words yet, our mouths were frozen and our hearts were like closed fists and our eyes were unopened, like newborns, but we prayed in silence. We had survived, and we were stronger than the last time. We had bone tools, and human hides for clothes, and some of our children had survived, and we were prepared to start the world anew. We prayed and we prayed, and when we had prayed enough, a heron flew over, and it gave us words. We sang then, and when we had sung enough, Father Sun began to rise, and His rising struck a flame on the earth, and it gave us fire. And we kept the fire inside our circle, our great Elder, and we spoke to Him and we fed and nourished Him, and when we had nourished the Old Man enough, a deer came out of the darkness, and it gave us tobacco. We smoked and our smoking was an offering, like our smoking now, Irving. And little by little, the world came back. And we were ready for it. And it was good.”

Queequeg bowed his head and fell into silence, a long silence, and the darkness over Cancún began to lift and the basketball court grew visible, the bleachers empty around us in the pale, thin dawn, and the others began to stir in their sleeping bags.

When the light of the sun had grown less diffuse, and struck us with the warmth of its first morning rays, Queequeg finally spoke again. “This time, Irving, this time, the world will end in fire. And it will not be so easy as it was the last time.”

He stood up and threw his long braids over his shoulders, and wrapped the clay pipe in a hide, and rolled the hide tight and tied it with a piece of sinew and he snugged it into his Pendleton blanket wrapped around him.

“Be prepared, Irving,” he said, taking one last look at me before turning to start the day. “Be prepared.”

                                    *

I slept another minute, then woke and showered in the men’s locker room and dressed, in a business suit as Queequeg had advised. With Queequeg and his posse, I boarded a bus toward the conference center. The event was being held in a complex of limestone pyramids behind a high security perimeter south of the city, on the Caribbean shore. Somehow, TO RUIN had managed to register me as their press liaison. With my badge and press card, I slipped easily into the labyrinth of the United Nations conference center and found my way to the computer galley in the press room.

“Volleys of arrows!” Queequeg intoned when we parted there. “Fire ‘em off hard and fast! Let the bastards know we’re here. Make ‘em circle the wagons, and when they do, we set the arrows AFLAME and burn the motherfuckers to the ground before they do any more damage.”

The proceedings took place on an isolated stretch of coast some kilometers south of the city, in a set of finely appointed conference rooms – the Ixcan Suite, the Chixoy Lounge, the Teosinte Parlor, the Aztec Room – in an enclave of dramatic refinement and assurance.

            Here, behind closed doors, the world’s Power Holders would talk for days with the singular objective of forging a global agreement to negotiate a plan to develop a compromise to envision a scheme to identify an approach to agree as to whether or not to consider cooperating to dream up a way to deal with the climate crisis, which everyone could agree was possibly, or perhaps even probably, the greatest existential threat humanity had ever faced.

An eerie veil of silence hung like a sepia cloud over the proceedings – a luxury resort, palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze, the golf links deserted but for a stray child from the nearby barrios now and again darting out to swipe a golf-ball or a stale rind of tuna sandwich.

It was easy to speculate on the substance of the talks, easy to assume they consisted of the usual: buying and selling, property rights, trade obligations, borders, the glutinous membranes of embryonic business deals swimming suspended in gelatinous ooze as in a laboratory jar.

The silence of closed doors was punctuated each afternoon by terse press briefings in the Aztec Room. At the close of each briefing, the starched men in their blue worsted wool suits scuttle out like crabs to their dim pockets and fluorescent chambers.

But while the trappings were the same – the sepia cloud, the eerie cone of silence, the ooze – this was not your typical global power grab. This was different. The afternoon briefings, though they barely glanced the surface, were enough to make the difference clear.

                                                *

I attended a number of these lip service serenades, doing my best to decipher speeches about the pressing need to preserve the world’s vanishing species, about the revolutionary business practices that were incentivizing world-saving activities, about the emerging biotechnologies that would promise a livable future. The briefings, in a vast florescent room where men in dark suits sat facing a lectern and a large screen, were presided over by Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee scientist. She wasn’t there in person – she no longer cared to burn up the atmosphere by flying, she said – but in absentia on a huge screen where her skin glowed an otherworldly translucent blue as she hovered above the crowd.

Men in suits gazed upwards, transfixed by the presence of this frail elder-stateswoman of tropical forest ecology, a woman as comfortable among chimpanzees as among men in suits. Her upper-crusty British accent seemed to send a ripple of positive neuronal vibrations through the crowd.

                        *

“Warmest greetings to you all,” she began. “I regret that I cannot be present with you physically today,” she said, her image projected on a screen. “In keeping with my commitment to the global environment, I have opted to speak to you from my home.”

“At this crucial juncture, there is little need to explain the dire straits in which we find ourselves as a species and as a planet. We are losing biodiversity faster than we are able to discover unknown species, taking vast stocks of medicines off our shelves and vast stores of life from our world. Historic storm events have become common occurrences, rivers are drying up, the Arctic sea ice may be gone within a decade, and the oceans are growing too acidic – too sour, if you will – to support life.

“But of all the urgent matters at hand in this conference, perhaps the most urgent is the protection and conservation of the world’s forests.”

“We all know that deforestation around the world is contributing to the warming of our planet. If we protect our forests, we not only slow down climate change, we preserve biodiversity; by preserving biodiversity in all of its complex interrelations, we help to maintain the health of the forest as a whole.

People living in and around forests have always had a special knowledge of the plants and animals living there that often goes beyond that of science. Yet, in the face of poverty, such understanding may often go disregarded as people struggle to sustain themselves. Over time the old way of living in harmony with nature is forgotten, or may become impossible due to population growth. And so their forests get more and more degraded and the animals become increasingly endangered.”

“How do we protect the biodiversity of forests in places where poverty threatens the integrity of forests as people struggle for their very livelihoods? If forest protection programs worldwide can be developed with proper regulatory mechanisms, then we can indeed have hope for the future. Hope that our childrens’ children may one day live to see the wonders of these natural cathedrals.”

“Your task, my friends, is nothing short of restoring the temple of life to its original magnificence. And anything short of complete success means the entire biosphere is handed over to ruin.”

“In closing, and in homage to the world’s forests, let me leave you with the voice of one who cannot raise his voice to defend forests here at this global summit: the chimpanzee.”

            Dr. Goodall sucked in her cheeks and pouted her dry British lips, and proceeded to perform an imitation chimpanzee call: “Oo OOO oo OOo ooo Ooooo!” Her eyes bulged and her face flushed: “Oo OOO oo OOo ooo Ooooo!”

The crowd went wild.

                        *

And that was it. A brief set of platitudes about the urgent need to do something, and then the room was cleared. But what was it she said about handing the planet over to ruin? That was strange. A clue? Perhaps…

Each day for the next week of the Summit I would attend these talks, trying to glean a sense of what was being thought, and done, and undone, by the global elite pulling the strings. While I gathered intelligence, the delegation of Unsettled Indians would be engaging in a thousand tactics to delay, disrupt and derail the event. And each night I would report back to To Ruin, and write press statements, and arm up the Indians with gossip to fuel the trench warfare they were engaged in. Between the closed-door sessions of the governments and the empty words of the public briefings it was difficult to find ways to intervene…but strategic opportunities did present themselves, and a sort of plan of attack emerged.

During the days, we worked – lobbying delegates, holding strategy meetings, writing press bulletins, courting the media to tell some semblance of truth, some infinitesimal dram of the suffering that these power-brokers had unleashed, would unleash, were unleashing on the planet’s fragile crust of the vulnerable, the poor, and the ignored. At night, we encamped, a raft of Outcast Indians, and me, at the basketball court somewhere away from the lights and luxury of the hotel zone.

Months before, further south, Evo Morales the first indigenous President of Bolivia, had convened a gathering of the world’s most activated indigenous peoples, peasant farmers, fisherfolk and their co-conspirators in the social movements struggling to birth an Other World fit for the future to inherit, as against the unconscionable degradation wrought by the banksters in charge of this one. The result had been a signed charter, the People’s Accord on Climate Justice and the Dignity of Mother Earth and Humankind, which was to be put on the table here in Cancún, as the starting point for discussion.

But from the get-go there was little practical possibility of seeing that document gain the support of the Powers-That-Be. The fight was asymmetrical at best: on their side, the stone-faced captains of industry; on ours, the tender children of Tomorrow. On their side, the cruel arithmetic of capital; on ours, the oblique fist of Poetry. On their side, sealed fate; on ours, the trackless plains of breezy Possibility. On their side, the schooled crookedness of gangsterism; on ours, the multiple personalities of Hope.

                                                *

On Sunday night, immediately following Ms. Goodall’s speech, the UN announced that talks would proceed with no regard for the People’s Accord on Climate Justice and the Dignity of Mother Earth and Humankind, ratified in the high Andes months before by scores of thousands of popular movements and unsettled Natives. That night, anonymous agents littered the streets of Cancún with thorns: acacia, ceiba, nopal, saguaro, euphorbia, the unnamed spiny protuberances of Amazonian trees, the fangs of cobra, the spines of stingrays and the quills of porcupines.

By Monday morning, the streets were stalled with stranded taxis, their tires punctured and airless.

                                                *

Monday morning I woke and washed and polished my shoes and combed my hair over and straightened my tie and draped myself with lanyards of credentials and took a bus with dozens of delegates to the main conference center they called the Moon Palace. The buses, maybe due to heavy-duty steel-belted radial tires, were getting through.

Security at the Moon Palace was no small affair, and by the time I’d gone through several metal detectors, been scanned, frisked, questioned, and virtually plucked clean, I arrived just in time to hear the Prime Minister of Norway give a lengthy discourse, hardly worth repeating here, about his nation’s exemplary and robust agreement with the impoverished and almost entirely unknown nation of Guyana, which, from what he implied was somewhere between Africa and South America, and was in dire need of Norway’s help. The audience of eager journalists and civil society hangers-on applauded fervently, but the applause was broken when a man stood up from the third row, and raised a hand.

 The man, with café skin tone and wearing a blue blazer with a lemon-yellow sash, waved a hand in the air and said, “Please, please! If I may…I am the President of Guyana, and I would like a word.”

Jaws dropped.

“Please, yes, by all means, your excellency,” the Prime Minister of Norway said.

“Thank you, Mister Prime Minister,” the President of Guyana said. “But before I fall to bended knee in gratitude for your beneficent generosity, I must reveal a little…problem. To wit: I can’t get the money. If we were exporting rice or sugar we would get money for our development process. But in this case we have to jump through too many hoops.

The audience rustled. The Prime Minister of Norway smiled and brushed his cravat.

“I have been calling you about this matter for weeks,” the President of Guyana continued. “But you don’t seem to pick up your phone.”

He held up an old Nokia flip-phone and pressed a button and seconds later the Norwegian Minister’s own phone jingled in the pocket of his silk suit. The crowd stirred.

“SO,” asked the President of Guyana. “Where’s the money, Mister Minister? The money. M O N E Y, money, as in ‘can’t buy me love,’ Mister Minister, but perhaps could buy me grain? Perhaps could buy me roads? Perhaps could buy me electric transmission lines and malaria prevention and a national sanitation system. Hm? Can’t buy me love, can’t buy me forests, no sir, but perhaps, Mister Minister, could buy me into the architecture of power, I spell P O W E R.”

The Prime Minister of Norway looked dour. He raised his chin and opened his mouth to speak. But then his mouth closed again. Before another world was spoken, a security team moved in and had the President of Guayana removed.

                                                *

Tuesday morning, steel barriers went up at either end of the Zona Hotelera, the area of the city where most of us were lodged. Masked snipers appeared on the roofs of the Playboy Palace, the Copacabana and the Hotel Mickey Mouse. The network of barbed wire in front of the hotel zone drew fractures across the deadening scene like cracks spreading over the surface of a porcelain dish.

                                    *

Tuesday’s inspirational talk was hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

As I took my seat, Sam Hasbin, the President and CEO of Walmart took the podium.

“Thank you,” he said. “As the world’s largest retailer, it is incumbent on Walmart to become, as well, the world’s greenest retailer. I know, friends, that this may sound like a challenge, even a contradiction; after all, we are aware that the development of industry over the past hundred and fifty years has depended on savage depredation, on our willingness, that is, to appreciate that there is no production without destruction. But the hour is getting late, and such, dare I say, primitive means no longer serve us. Does this mean we must simply roll over and go out of business? Of course not! This is, as we know, unthinkable. [Applause] What it requires, to the contrary, is that we roll up our sleeves and get in bed with the environment. It is time to put into practice that slogan that is on so many of our lips: we must do well by doing good.

“In the next forty years, we will be adding 4 billion people to the planet. (Not Walmart, that is, humanity. Pardon, a little joke…) This means we’ll need to feed them, as well as feeding those billions who still don’t have enough food. To do this, I think we need to look at landscapes and ecosystems as the basis for meeting this growing need. Now, using the market approach, turning these landscapes and these ecosystems, essentially, into cash, is the single most lucrative approach, and the single most ethical approach. Indeed, it is the only approach.

“You know that over the past decade, Walmart has committed to selling organic food, and we quickly became the world’s largest retailer of same. We committed to putting solar panels on all our stores, and now we are selling solar electricity to the U.S. electric grid. We began composting our waste and became the biggest producer and retailer of topsoil in the world. We began purifying our wastewater and became the largest producer of fresh water since the Mississippi River. All of this has served us well, and has served our markets well. This, my friends, is doing well by going good.

“But the largest untapped market in the world, and the fastest growing market in the world, has yet to be exploited. The market I refer to is the poor. In our home country, we have served the poor by giving them jobs, and on a vast scale. More poor people now work at Walmart than have ever worked at any single company in the history of mankind. [Applause].

“But, as we know, the poor in the U.S. can hardly be considered poor by the index of global poverty. In order to truly make a difference, we must not only exploit the poor, we must exploit poverty itself.

“By putting forests into the market, by putting environmental services into the market, by putting air and water and soils and rocks and sand and lichens and grubs and moss and worms, and even germs, into the market, we create value for these things; we enhance their sale-ability, and thus regenerate their supply-chains. Similarly, by bringing the poor into the market, we ensure that they will not be abandoned, nor left behind, but will remain just as they are, only moreso; we give them comparative advantage; we make their poverty an asset.

“As we know, there can be no abundance without scarcity. There can be no wealth without poverty. There can be no getting ahead without leaving behind. Now, friends, it is time to serve those who have been left behind. By this I refer to the underdeveloped world – for, likewise, there can be no development without underdevelopment. By bringing the developing world into the market, we can step up the scale of buying and selling in order to meet the needs of both the world and the market. The market needs the poor; the market needs the earth; the market, like the environment, needs its own detritus. Just as we turn waste into topsoil at our Midwest retail outlets, and have restored the soils of the American heartland to a status and a depth they have not enjoyed since the days of the conastogas, we must now turn the poor, the marginalized, the left behind, the abandoned, into the greatest source of wealth since the Middle Passage.”

The crowd burst into sustained, rousing applause.

I fled post-haste to the safety of To Ruin’s compound to share what I’d heard.

                                    *

On Wednesday, courtesy the clandestine forces of To Ruin, the female delegates to the Summit woke to find mysterious runs in their panty hose, forcing them to wear pantsuits. The male delegates – to a one – woke to find that their neckties had been clipped short.

A chaos of fashion semiotics ensued: some delegates chose to forego the tie, showing their comfort with casual dress; but most donned the clipped accoutrement. By the end of the day’s meetings, the men had been separated from the boys: the gelded necktie became a sign of solidarity among the Power Holders. “Wear it with pride,” became the slogan, and “Some is better than none.”

(The London Guardian would later report that this division between formal and casual business attire signalled the moment of rupture between the so-called Annex One countries (the Power Holders) and the Small Island States, Less Developed Countries, and what some development professionals refer to in the literature as Least Habitable Human Habitats; ((that is to say, this is where the fissure opens between the First World and the Third World (((or, put another way, where the luxury cruise liner of civilization collides with the iceberg of Human History).).).

*

The delegate briefing that afternoon was given by Hinckle Hearst von Vampton, a scion of wealthy New York publishing magnates, and owner of the energy consortium Fire and Ice Enterprises. Von Vampton was a large man, in a three-piece suit with wide pinstripes and a stopwatch on a chain. Revealingly, he wore his necktie clipped, and emblazoned with the mysterious slogan, “Grow a New One.” Standing behind a podium before hundreds of UN delegates, von Vampton tamped the sweat beads from his wide pale forehead, knuckled a dram of saliva from his lower lip, and spoke to the crowd:

“I am honored and proud to speak following Mr. Hasbin’s talk of yesterday, as I believe what I have to share has much in common with what Walmart has done for the dirt of the world. Today we are proud, to announce a newly patented method of energy development. We call this method, ‘Fricking.’ While it is not, of course, simple – what is, in these times! – it is, as a procedure, more or less simple to explain, and so I will.”

“Let’s pretend you have a lawn. You see, beneath the grass in this lawn, but above the subsoil, is a layer we call the supersoil. The supersoil is a microfilament-thin layer, hair thin, thin as a razor, made up of the dew that slides down the leaves of grass and hardens into a sort of, a sort of sub-cebaceous cyst. And because it is made up of hardened dewdrops that accrete to one another, a sort of collection of droplets, we refer to it as dew-dew. And when our scientists discovered this layer of dew-dew – think of it as the crystal-thin layer of new ice on a puddle, or like the prima fascia between your muscle and your skin, a kind of organic tissue, really – they said, ‘What the frick is this?’”

“And then they noticed, because scientists are nosy like this, that the layer peels off, like Astroturf. It is this peeling off process we now call ‘Fricking’. And then, bringing it back to the lab, they noticed that the dew-dew separates easily into individual molecules of hydrogen and oxygen – it does this much more easily than water. And when they burned these molecules – because our scientists like to burn things – they discovered that they leave no emissions. And, so, our goal, in the Historic battle to save the climate, is to frick the dew-dew off of every square inch of lawn we can get our hands on.”

                                    *

By Thursday morning the smell of sulfur and saltpeter hung in the air like methane gas above Cancún’s fetid swamp.

Small craft were prohibited from entering shallow waters.

Only a few jet-skis and parasailing boats plied the beachfronts.

In the distance of the horizon, the U.S. Fourth fleet appeared in hazy silhouette like an armada of Flying Dutchmen, that nautical harbinger of doom.

                                    *

That afternoon’s briefing was given by R.J. Weasling, the biotech magnate. I’d heard of Weasling, the man known as the modern Mendel, who singlehandedly took plant-engineering from a single-gene-at-a-time soapbox derby to a robotic miracle of modern bio-industry. He was often in the news for creating unique organisms and engaging in frankensteinian experiments with human remains. In person, he resembled Buster Keaton – a dapper little man in round tortoise-shell glasses and – clever of him! – a red bowtie.

Weasling took a moment to survey the room before he spoke, and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are aware that some months ago my company, BioHeaven, celebrated the birth of Synthia, the first computer-generated virus. When we unleashed Synthia, we made it clear that, even as her inventors, we had only the most vague sense of her potential. Well, what better occasion than a United Nations-sponsored gathering to share the news that, in our estimation Synthia is the answer to the global energy crisis. Our team has proven her capable of producing fuel the way other viruses produce the common cold. Let me tell you how it’s done,” he said.

Weasling waxed into describing how this virus, when inoculated into a club-moss and stimulated with a cocktail of royal jelly and refined white sugar, gave the moss the fantastic ability to excrete a compound with all the properties of diesel fuel. Great Green Gold biofuel™ he called it.

The next phase was to bring the fuel to production.

“Let me tell you how it’s done,” he said, bringing the room along on his scientific journey.

“In order to display our market advantage, we will carry out the production in spectacular fashion. First,” he said, “we will propagate our patented club-moss on every face of the BioHeaven global operations building, in Cincinnati, Ohio. And then we will stimulate a flood of fuel, which we will collect, refine, process, and ship, ready to drop in to any diesel engine out there, from scooters to aircraft carriers.”

The scheme was ambitious, but achievable, Weasling told the rapt audience. First, a moat would be built around the base of the BioHeaven central lab. The building’s concrete facades would then be impregnated with spores of the Synthia-inoculated club-moss. When the moss reached maturity – a matter of mere weeks – the company would aerially detonate a device over the building composed of sugar, royal jelly, and surfactants to increase propulsion, adherence, and solubility, and then let nature – or, biogeophysics, Weasling said, work its magic. The excreted green gold precursor liquid would collect in the moat, be siphoned off into underground vats, tested thoroughly for safety and stability, and refined into market-ready drop-in biofuel.”

As Weasling spoke, you could practically hear the cash registers ch-chinging in the heads bobbing above the room’s dark-suited men.

                                    *

As the room cleared, I felt a familiar slight vibration in my shirt pocket: my Blackberry Phone. There was a message on the screen, from Queequeg, that said simply: “The tide is rising.”

                                    *

            On Friday morning, early, I joined Queequeg and a busload of Unsettled Indians to arrive at the Conference Center before the talks began. Queequeg was stretched to breaking from the tension, and his focus seemed off…. His broad chest seemed slightly thin, and the marble-shine was off his eyes. His talk beaver hat was crumpled and even his tattoos had lost their luster. He seemed tired.

            Queequeg briefed me on the day: “Today’s the day they push through their Green Climate Fund and their Biodiversity Premiums and their Oxygen Speculation and their Ocean Shock Therapy. All of it. If we don’t win the battle of history today – if we don’t come out of this with our ontological foot rammed up their tender Sphinx of Giza,” Queequeg paused and put his large hand on my padded shoulder. But just as he opened his mouth to put the finale on his pep-talk, my phone rang.

                                                *

As if the planet were orbited by electronic ears and eyes, floating circuit boards that could pass messages between hemispheres, or between estranged family, between a remote father and his abandoned Little One.

As if it were Sunday morning (but it was only just Friday), and just as battle is to be joined…

A call came in on my Blackberry phone…

“Natasha!”

“Dadda, listen!” The phoneline crackled. “I’ve received a strange call. You have to know about this…”

“Do tell, honey.” I gestured to Queequeg with a scrunched face and stage-whispered, “gotta take this call…”and walked a little ways away, toward the Men’s room.

“The call was from a man who said his name was Green Goblin,” Natasha’s voice peeped through the phone. “A strange man. He had a voice like nails on a chalkboard. He said, ‘Go to your bookshelf, look after your books…’ and he hung up. So I did, I looked, and I saw It’s Mine was gone. The Lorax was gone. Where the Wild Things Are was gone. Goodnight Moon was gone.”

Goodnight Moon?”

Goodnight Moon. Then, he called back, and he said, ‘Tell your dadda, the great books will all be disappeared, if he does not leave Cancún, today.”

“What the…?”

“And it’s true, dadda, what he said is true. The great books are disappearing.”

“The great books? What do you mean the great books?”

“From the libraries. Vanishing. I began doing research. First in Baltimore, then in some place called Hermosillo, and now, we hear, at the University of Islamabad.”

“Which books? Shakespeare, Spencer, Milton?”

“Ha, no! The other great books. bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Rabindranath Tagore, the haikus of Mao tse Tung, the haikus of Langston Hughes, the haikus of Simon Ortiz! Tariq Ali, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ishmael Reed…Julio Cortazar, for God’s sake. Salman Rushdie!”

“What, again?”

“It’s happened before?”

I flipped through my mental clippings file. “Fantomas salutes you,” I said.

“What, dadda?”

“Nevermind,” I said. “This has happened before. In the 1970’s, between the 1972 Olympics in Munich and the Fall of Saigon…. Only, then it was the great white books, Chesterton, Thackeray, Victor Hugo, Goethe, Dickens. No one remembers the affair, it was wiped out by Watergate, and LSD, and mass torture, and Reagan and structural adjustment programs. A man named Fantomas, no, not a man, a kind of superhero, came to the rescue. It turned out…”

My voice trailed off.

“What Dadda, what?”

“It turned out the World Bank was involved. Operation Condor. The Pentagon. Honey, look, I’ve gotta go. Thanks for the news.”

I hung up, and ran to find Queequeg.

                                                *

It was 1975, and I was on the train from Brussels to Paris. I was just returning from the Russell Tribunal, a week of testimonies of people who had endured torture by the brutal dictatorships of Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia. I was on assignment for the Barb.

“Tickets!” bellowed the conductor.

It was an exceptional moment… The culture of the world was aflame, and I was on my way to interview Fantomas, the superhero, about another mystery that was afoot: the disappearance of the world’s great books.

The mystery began when the Director of the Library of London made a terrible discovery: In the section of rare, antique books and original manuscripts, 200 were suddenly gone. They’d been there the day before… What could have happened? Eight days later, the scene was repeated in Paris. Victor Hugo, Gautier, and Proust, to name just the most famous – their manuscripts, gone.

                        *

Across from me in the cabin sat a considerably attractive woman, a platinum blonde in a tight leotard, not exactly my type… I believed she was Italian…On my lap a worn copy of Ulysses.

“Who could this be?” I wondered. But I kept my focus: I was taking advantage of the leisure of train travel to systematically work through each and every book by the great writers I kept in my traveling valise until some clue came to light, and I had just managed to read the first sentence: “STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed,” when the Italian blonde glanced up at me.

Her long knees touched mine, and a hint of garter was displayed below a pale thigh. Ophelia was home at Ambergris minding the shop and, well, I was a fox treed by the hounds of destiny…

It was a question of how to make conversation.

I was on the verge of making a clever comment about Joyce, but her eyes were glued to an issue of Vedettes Intimes, an Italian gossip magazine the details of which don’t matter here.

 “Will it bother you if I smoke?” I asked, in my bad Italian.

Au contraire, I was working up my nerve to ask you for a light,” the blonde said in a mix of continental languages, tearing herself away from the divorce columns.

“Am I correct that you are Italian?” I asked her. “Something in your accent, or perhaps your hair….”

“From Rome,” she said, and gave a radiant, ecumenical smile.

“Rome? Precisely in Rome, terrible things are happening,” I told her. “Have a look.”

I showed her the newspaper I’d been reading. Front page, above the fold: the Vatican library had been sacked.

Non e possible!” she said and contorted her body to read the news.

“And they destroyed the entire library?”

“A very ancient edifice,” I said. “Besides which, just imagine: Dante, Petrarch and Petronius…! Not to mention Chaucer, Chesterton, H.G. Wells…”

At just that moment, when I had paddled halfway across the vast cultural lagoon between us and had startled her with the news, suddenly a slim young man with long dark hair and a thin black tie passed through the train car singing, in English, a song from The Three-Penny Opera:

Oh the shark has…pretty teeth dear,

And he shows them…pearly white

Just a jack-knife…has Macheath dear

And he keeps it…out of sight.

The man passed into the next car, but not before your astute narrator understood that this man was Fantomas himself. Before things got stranger, I decided to fold up the newspaper and close my eyes (the Italian girl, ignoring me again, returned to the grave financial problems of Aristotle Onassis) and I let myself slide slowly downhill in the toboggan of my exhaustion.

Eight days of work in the Tribunal, and the final meeting had lasted into the wee hours that morning: hour after hour listening to witnesses and rapporteurs offering verbal proof of the repression that snuffed out the lives of so many in Latin America, and the role of the multinationals in pillaging the economies and dominating the public policies of these countries, because economic domination demands other dominations, with many accomplices and many victims, and the repetition ad nauseum of murder, torture, persecution, the filthy hell of prisons, and no end to it, no end at all in sight. I can still hear the echo, decades later, of the cries in the Santiago Stadium, of the young musician, Victor Jara, who watched his culture broken along with his fingers, the screams, and the ringing demand for accountability, the cry for reparations for the incessant violations of human rights and the rights of each and every people to self-determination and economic sovereignty. Every so often, as a sort of obstinate recurrence, someone would take the stand to testify of his torture. A Chilean would share the techniques used by the military, an Argentine, a Uruguayan, a repetition of successive hells, the same electric cables, the same bucket of excrement, the same file under the cuticles, the same kick in the balls. And so, to escape from all of this (from the psychic reproduction of all of this violence!), I took on a different assignment, like a curtain of smoke: the comfortable train from Brussels to Paris, a Fantomas comic book, a platinum blonde Italian girl whose ankle had just ever-so-slightly brushed my own….

Fantomas – the man who must have been him, dressed, though, in street clothes, passed through the traincar again, singing:

There are some who… live in darkness

And the others… live in light

And you see the… ones in brightness

Those in darkness… drop from sight.

                                                *

I stopped and shook myself. I’d forgotten something important. I stared into the indigo obsidian face of my Blackberry phone for an instant, and then I knew what had to be done. I dialed back. 

“Natasha, honey, how are you?

We talked a little. “Dadda, I wanna come see you!” she said.

“No honey, non e posible. I’ll be home with you and your mama soon, sweeties. Now go to bed.”

“But dadda, it’s only morning!”

“Okay, honey, thanks for the news,” I said to Natasha. “Time to go night-night.”

“Okay, dadda,” she said, her voice tiny as a goldfinch in a pet-shop window…

                                    *

I shook off the reverie and walked into the fluorescent briefing room, entering just in time to hear the speaker who would nail the proverbial coffin shut – the President of the World Bank.

The screen crackled into focus and Jane Goodall’s slim withered head appeared. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard from some of our greatest global leaders – leaders of business, leaders of government, the voices of those who can make the decisions that will determine our success or failure as a species. And now, without further ado, a man who knows more about poverty, more about environmental destruction, more about what lies ahead than perhaps anyone else. I give you, Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank.

                                    *

A roar went up from the crowd as a man walked onstage. In a white linen suit with sandy hair, a moment passed before I saw…the gold-handled cane. It was none other than the man from the casino. A chill ran through me.

Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, the man with the gold-handled cane, his moustache bristling like a brass scouring brush, mounted the podium, that is, the stage, and cleared his throat to speak.

Thank you for your applause,” he began. “But there is no need. Just throw money.” (Laughter.)

“I will be brief,” he said, “and to the point, for the times call for brevity, and the times call for putting a fine point on some very dull issues.” (Laughter again – this guy knows how to work the crowd!)

“I think if there’s any lesson we can draw from the climate crisis,” he went on, his claws grasping the podium, “it’s that we don’t have time to wait. And if there’s any issue that’s ripe for the plucking, it’s the world’s rich biodiversity.

“It is absolutely clear,” he continued, “that our plan to save the world’s forests by building a market for fresh air enjoys broad support all around the world. And its pretty easy to see why: it offers some very significant opportunities to achieve multiple goals, as Doctor Goodall said – for mitigating climate change, of course, but also for protecting species, protecting biodiversity and ecosystems, and, lest I fail to mention it, improving local livelihoods. The foot soldiers of forest protection are expecting our new programs to not only preserve species, but to open a new era of opportunity for global development as well. So we really need to see an agreement here in Cancún.

“We have 192 economies in the UN system. If we have 150 countries or 160 countries on board, lets get going. The others can join us later. I hope that the voices here can go to the delegates of the countries, and say, okay, lets close the deal. All of the multilateral development banks, among them the World Bank, have invested significant resources into making this work. We know that this is one of the best chances we have – maybe one of the last chances we have – to really save our rich animal and vegetable heritage.

“At the risk of sounding technical,” he said, “biodiversity is severely undervalued in the international system, and the sad result is that funding for conservation in tropical forests is paltry. We at the World Bank are here with our partners at the World Wildlife Fund, to announce the creation of the World Wildlife Premium Market Initiative, to firmly establish a price for all living things.

“We need to recognize the value of forests standing, rather than dead. This means placing a price on the trees, the soils, the wildlife, even the bacteria present in forests. These bugs are worth something! Lets get real, and recognize their real value. Buyers and investors can buy wildlife certificates for charismatic species that require large expanses of forest: tigers, jaguars, forest elephants, great apes, macaws, lemurs, all of these iconic species range over vast areas, and sadly, many of them are endangered. Moreover, if you map the ranges of the species, they cover most of the remaining tropical forest, and the most important areas for biodiversity. Protecting these species will protect the other flora and fauna that live under their umbrella. By valuing forests for their carbon capture potential, poor countries can earn much-needed income…and by introducing wildlife premium credits, these same countries will be paid for the number of species they protect.”

He surveyed the crowd.

“So, let’s get to it.”

The audience applauded wildly, and then Zoellick, the sandy-haired man with the gold-handled cane, opened his mouth wide, and wider, and to the great surprise of all, so it seemed to me, he let out a loud roar: “Raaaaahhhaaaaarrrr!”

                                                *

((That very night, they say, the tigers began to walk away.))

                                    *

A long and loud chorus of applause arose from the suit-and-tie wearing brigades of capital gathered there, as the screens that hovered over the stage like alien spacecraft flickered with scenes of forest-dwelling critters, four-leggeds, two-leggeds, and those that swim, creep, crawl, and fly. The thank you’s resonated through the theatre and the animal imitations began to fade, and just then, when naught but hunky-dory permeated the ether of that august gathering, a fish – a dead fish – flopped on stage, landing with a slimy SLAP! precisely and provocatively at the feet of Mister Zoellick.

“Yo! Mistah BANK!,” a young woman from Detroit hollered from the gallery, having grabbed the mob’s attention.

“I don’ know ‘bout you, but where I come from we don’ have the luxury to spend 1 dollar twice the way you people do, an’ its only the gris gris man from back in the Yoruba storybook that could speak to the animals the way you claim you do, Doctor DoLittle.”

At her side a man shook his fist in the air and belted out, “Who do you think, you’re the economic hoodoo man or some shit? You and Jungle Jane the Chimpanzee girl all actin’ like you Doctor and Missus Saint Francis, an then sellin’ off our flora and fauna right before our very eyes. That’s some kind of bitch-ass voodoo is what that is, Mister Zoo-log.”

At which the young woman took up again, screaming, “Why don’t you step on down from that stage and put a price tag on this, bitch!” – and she flipped a proud middle finger erect as a dancing cobra from its basket, and turned and stormed out.

*

But before she could get very far on her own locomotion…

*

…security had the young lady and her friend removed.

*

            But, dear reader, friend – talk is cheap, and life, apparently is even cheaper. It is time to leave aside the code-talking bureaucrats and get on with it. So, what happened in Cancún?

[Visual: Newsreel screen test stripes flashes to Nazi troops saluting with open palm flashes to Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon flashes to Hells Angels at Altamont flashes to stock footage of the Mexican revolution: bandits on horseback riding down a train and firing at it with bolt action rifles; a trestle bridge explodes and the train crashes off the edge into a barranca; voiceover narrates:]

            “This is Cornelius Westbrook Van Voorhis, bringing you the news from Mexico: While narco violence rages along the border and floods ravage the southern frontier, the Caribbean resort of Cancún is the site of metaphysical forces locked in battle the likes of which has not been witnessed since the time of Cortez…. The forces of good and the forces of evil are lined up and facing off like something out of [voice stutters as if stunned], why, like something out of Star Wars. Hold on folks, we’re in for a wild ride! For Universal Studios, this is Cornelius Westbrook Van Voorhis, signing off, as time…marches on!”

V

Between Chicxulub’s Cretaceous sinkhole and the postmodern morass of the United Nations Climate Conference, I sweated in my suit, my knuckles grown sore from the hail of press bulletins I released, and time marched ever on.

                                *

Dateline, Cancún, Mexico: As evening approached on the final night of the United Nations Conference of Parties negotiations in Cancún, with a final climate change agreement only hours away, Bruno Sekoli, Chair of the Least Developed Countries Group said, “The situation for us is extremely desperate. Our countries are already fighting for survival. The Pacific Island of Tuvalu could be swept under the water at any time. It is very worrying to imagine what will happen ten years from now at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, Chair of the African Group, said that if no binding emissions reduction targets came out of the U.N. meeting in Cancún, “75 to 100 million people in Africa will face water shortages and crop yields could fall by a third by 2025.”

The concern at that moment was that the agreement expected to come out of Cancún had no binding emissions targets, no regard for human rights, and a foundation deeply rooted in market mechanisms designed to further cement the divide between rich and poor (known to economists as the R-P divide).

Indeed, Bolivian President Evo Morales, speaking to the press from the Moon Palace earlier in the day said, “If from Cancún we send the Kyoto Protocol to the rubbish bin, we are sending humanity to its death. We cannot, behind closed doors, develop documents that are not based in the thinking of peoples and in the suffering of peoples. We have an obligation to listen to the peoples of the world who tell us how to cool the earth.”

A few hours later, as delegates dozed in their rumpled suits in the hallways of the Moon Palace, this is indeed what happened. The UN Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, ended before dawn on Saturday with the adoption of what the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change calls “a balanced package of decisions that set all governments more firmly on the path towards a possible negotiated plan to develop a compromise to envision a scheme to identify an approach to agree as to whether or not to consider cooperating to dream up the possibility of a livable future.”

The agreement is seen by critics as a document without content, a result of a coercive and non-transparent process which claims to have the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius – but which, without binding targets for emissions reductions, is a hollow promise with no basis in reality. A 2 degree rise for most of the world is a 3 degree rise for most of Africa, which will lead to catastrophic impacts for precisely those most vulnerable and least responsible for the crisis.

“In the human body,” said Marcus Aurelius Velazquez Colchón of Bolivia, “a temperature rise of one degree centigrade is a mild fever, two to three degrees an extreme fever, and four degrees for a sustained period is fatal. The Cancún Agreements, by failing to limit such a temperature increase, condemn possibly millions to their death.”

The Global Survival Coalition called the agreements “an invitation to suicide.” The Organ for the Rights of Unsettled Indian Nations – whose director, Queequeg Caliban’son, was barred from the conference for wielding a spear, along with Bolivian Ambassador Marcus Aurelius Velazquez Colchón who threatened the Conference Chair by revealing a javelin and atalatl beneath his suit coat – called the agreements “a betrayal of our future,” concluding that the United Nations has become “the vendor of the Sky and all the stars.”

Indigenous peoples have been embattled throughout the two weeks of the Cancún summit, with deep divisions within the Indigenous Peoples Caucus as to whether to take a principled stand or to accept the best bad deal they can get. TO RUIN appeared to act as a galvanizing force among First Peoples, until Caliban’son’s expulsion from the conference grounds.

“We will not be vanquished!” the Indian strongman said as he was cast out.

The discord at the Cancún talks was also shadowed by concerns about the sudden disappearance of the rhinoceros from the city’s swank “Casino del Conejito.”

Representatives from the Worldwide Fund for Nature were present at the climate talks in Cancún, but were unavailable for comment.

###

How could I take this in? How could anybody?

I did what any man of reason, any child of the Enlightenment would do – I went to the beach.

Coming out first from the suicidal city and then from the humid flame of the jungle, I emerged onto a spit of sand, white as the ground-up bones of time, and there I sat with the immensity of history, breathing in, breathing out, as if my body were the sea itself and my spirit, well…as if all of history were a dusting of sand or a light rain of dead moths over me. I was pinched and pinched again by twinges of discomfort; width seemed too narrow and breadth too close, all greenness looked withered and when I looked down at my blue serge suit, it was the blue of bruises.

After days of confronting the bureaucrats, my heart lost sense of all that my eyes couldn’t see and I lost my simplicity…Everywhere I looked I tried to see my Natasha, and my Ophelia, but in clouds of anxiety they cursed me and their curses echoed the cynical declarations of the businessmen who were drowning the world in their bilious tide of greed: “you’re dreaming, Irving, you’re lost, Irving, you’re a fool and an ignoramus, Irving.” Under this pounding my mind might choose any road to wander on and my spirit was too deep in sorrow to check it. No fence or wall could mark my path into the wilderness.

Sitting on my bleary haunches in the fine white sand, the wall of resorts towering behind me and the poster-blue Caribbean swashing tremulously before, my middle-aged body felt like clay and a world-weary baudelarian, beatitudinous, luminously dark melancholy exhaustion, A Great Sorrow, a kind of Paradise Lost feeling, as if the angel of light were falling forever into an abyss of darkness, washed over me in waves.

(Has this ever happened to you?)

                                    *

That abundant sack of sadness, I think now in hindsight, was for my world, which was crashing down around me… But as much as this, my grief was also for my daughter who would inherit the ruins.

                                    *

The last glaciation ended more or less 10,000 years ago, and it was then, precisely then, that –

the scientists say – humans crossed the Bering land-bridge; precisely then that grains and gourds were domesticated in the Indus River Valley, at Ur in the Fertile Crescent, along the holy Nile, in the floodplains of the Yangtze. After agriculture came trade, and writing, and the birth of the great cities – Nineveh and Samarkhand and Toumbuctou and Babylon and Alexandria. The agricultural revolution took hold, and over thousands of years a wave of great migrations spanned the globe. They settled – we settled – in more great cities, in Machu Picchu and Tenochtitlan, in Marakesh and Rome and Angkor Wat.  Then, another, little ice age in the sixteenth century – there were other factors – spurred the industrial revolution, which took centuries to bear out. Then, the information revolution – in mere decades from teletype to Internet, a whiplash in historical terms.

And now, the end to all that. Perhaps.

Perhaps.

                                    *

We who love domesticated grain and gourds, let us be warned. Our time, it seems, has come….                  

                                    *

The tide was out and as I walked toward the wavelets, the pale, fine sand gave way under my feet to a spongy mass, like soaked peat, with sharp-edged shells driven into its soft tuft by endless successions of tides, the ocean forever churning and retreating.

I made my way toward the foam of the tidal basins, the sea’s edge, and as I walked – growing interested now in the possibility of shedding my suit and tossing myself into the brine, for a swim – the water seemed to retreat…It did, in fact, it was retreating. With each step forward, the lapidary sea slunk further out: the ocean was withdrawing before me like a serpent into its hole.

As I followed the timid, sucking ripples out, the land grew steeper, the incline of the continental shelf becoming with each few steps more precipitous. Now boats lay in the mud, now buoys sat on the calcium sediment, now trash and dead coral collected in the puddles. An exposed piece of culvert appeared, unsubmerged, its rusted lip unremarkable, its mouth dark and wide as a cavern’s opening.

Now the sea had retreated by kilometers, so it seemed: a mysterious vanishing. And then, I turned and peered into the blackness of the cavernous opening. I touched the rim of metal and felt a chill run through me.

Something there is that doesn’t love a hole.

                                                *

I walked in, and walked on. I was drawn in by the darkness. The culvert pipe under my feet was ridged, the hollows filled with sandy mud. The walls dripped and the drips rang out in the humid air. Patches of slime clung to the ceiling.

As I walked deeper the light of day faded and then flickered out in a green flash and I was in darkness.

But only for an instant.

A strange phosphorescence welled up into my sight…perhaps around me on the cave walls, perhaps ahead in some remote chamber or Cretaceous cavern. The darkness retreated now step by step, just as the sea had above. My eyes grew accustomed to the faint glow. Suddenly, the floor grew slick and the light grew strange, like grains of sand filling my corneas, and I looked up and saw that I had entered a vast cathedral of stone: white, chalky calcite walls, stalactites hanging with prehistoric certitude, arches of stone looming into darkness, water moving through it all, and a smell like a salmonella sandwich…Suddenly I realized I heard a murmuring sound, like voices, distant, or…not so distant.

As my eyes cleared, I saw in the ivory folds of the cavern walls just beyond the faint radius of light, long splotches of dull red, imperceptibly moving. Gradually they took the form of great birds. They were macaws, chained to perches. Their eyes gave off an eerie glow that seemed to light the entire monumental chamber. From one end of the vast room to the other, where the floor fell away into darkness, a putrid river seemed to run, through cracks abandoned by the sun, toward some infernal sea….

And then I heard the voices.

                                                *

I walked on, along a ledge of stone that circled up a cavernous outcropping, and the voices grew louder. What began as a mumbling echo became a man’s voice, speaking a language I understood. The darkness flickered. It was English. Suddenly then a piercing shriek echoed through the damp cathedral and resolved into a series of glottal bursts, like a hyena cackling. I rounded a corner and saw before me an incredible sight.

Beneath an enormous vaulted archway leading back into tunneling darkness, a curtain of blackened water carved sinuous patterns, dripping from the walls in a slow and constant flood. The tunnel, as far back as I could see, was filled with men – not men, in fact, but something more like hobgoblins, or…orcs! An army of them, groaning and stamping in place like restless cattle. A ghastly vision….

In the phosphor glow of some kind of algal spores that behung the cave’s ceiling, I could make out the orcs-or-whatever-they-were: their bloated, fanged, piggish faces all erupted like fungi from the tight collars of black suits with red neckties, or wide pinstriped jackets with yellow patterned ties; some had watch chains dangling from doublets, or i-pads tucked under their arms, or Bluetooth devices lodged in their grotesque, upward-pointed mangled earholes. And all of them, an entire phalanx, faced forward – toward where I crouched now, in a fissured dark corner of slippery stone – all tilting their heads and aiming their hollow reptilian eyes at a single point down below, and in front of me. Where the voice came from.

The orcs watched with rapt groans of indigestion, or hunger, as a man addressed them. His back was to me, and his face was shadowed, but he waved his open hand in bold gestures, and his voice was familiar. It was Sam Hasbin, the man from Wal-Mart.

*

“When we see a waterfall,” Hasbin’s voice said, pealing like dank Vespers in the cavy gloom, “we think we see an accidental cascade of water, or a limitless freedom of will, and even choice, in the innumerable turnings, windings, breakings of the braided strands of wavelets. But in fact, comrades,” – comrades? I thought – “everything is necessary; each movement can be calculated, mathematically, with the utter-most precision. Thus it is with human actions too; if one were omniscient, one would be able to calculate each individual action in advance, each step in the progress of knowledge, each error, each act of malice, each generation of profit, each failure.”

The orcs grunted.

“To be sure, my fellows, the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition; if the wheel of the world were to stand still for a moment and an omniscient, calculating mind were there to take advantage of this interruption, he would be able to tell into the farthest future of each being and describe every rut that wheel will roll upon. The acting man’s delusion about himself, his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculable mechanism.”

                                    *

The speech was so strange, the subterranean glow so disconcerting, the ranks of orcs so alien and horrifying – Orcs? Really? What doom-stricken fairy-tale is this? – that I had failed to notice a hanging thing, a wire cage the size of a large beast that trembled at the end of a rope, the whole apparatus cast in silhouette. Suddenly as my eyes fell upon it, a whimper arose from the creature locked inside, then grew to a keening whine, and then to a full-bodied shriek – “eehhh—ahhh—ooohhhh!”

The cage shook and the beast stood almost upright, gripping the bars with its long clawed fingers.

The orcs grunted and squealed as if in morbid laughter, a sinister cackle subsumed in shame or disgust. The creature in the cage stood and bellowed a pathetic piercing shriek –“ayy-eeeeeeeh!”

I could make out an upright figure, thin and bony, but almost human, and with a long mane of hair that reached straight to its hips, hair that in the quarter-light looked pale, gray, almost silver.

A primordial fear gripped me.

It isn’t?

I shrunk into my niche and squinted.

It couldn’t be…

Jane Goodall?

*

Offshore, a stretch from the hotel zone but not so far beyond the coral cayes at the continental shelf, the ebbing sea went slack.

*

The conference hall at the Moon Palace, a limo-ride from Cancún’s beach district, was oddly quiet. Closed-circuit TV broadcast government briefings from somewhere beyond the public plenary rooms. Queequeg and the Unsettled Indians cast about for targets, but the Press had vanished to the Mayan Riviera for the weekend, and no one of consequence was left. A melting pot of non-governmental organizations handed out flyers and paper pamphlets and mini-DVDs in plastic slipcovers, but the Powerful had vanished.

The Indians sat on the floor in their suits and beads, and smoked. Queequeg loosened his paleolith-patterned slate-colored neck-tie. He walked past the lackluster gaze of Security, between the gauntlet of magnetic body-scanners, through a turnstile that gave no resistance, and out of the conference center. The sun was high and palm trees swayed like Romany dancers against an electric blue expanse of distant sky.

Queequeg stood at the top of the steps as on a plinth, and stretched to his full height. His eyes took in the horizon, and then he looked about and pulled to him a metal folding chair, and he sat down in it and reached into a suit pocket and pulled out a plastic-wrapped ham and cheese sandwich on white bread, purchased at a UN concession stand for nine US dollars.

Queequeg surveyed the middle distance, and then he sniffed the air and spat.

                                                *

The ocean stood still.

                                                *

Below the ground, I huddled against cold rock and ground my teeth to silence my chattering jaw, as Jane Goodall pierced the air with the heaving, gut-wrenched cry of a caged chimpanzee.

The animal whining subsided and Sam Hasbin faced the orc-ish battalion and began gesturing again with his arms above his head.

“Gentlemen!” he intoned. “There comes a time in a man’s life when his assumptions about free will dissolve, and all that is solid melts into air. When man’s delusion falls aside like so much chitinous cocoon, and the calculable mechanism takes over.”

The orcs gathered up their saliva.

“Here in the caverns of Chicxulub, this venerable hole where the last great extinction began – the event that precipitated our rise to glory – we have gathered to make the great leap forward to the NEXT STAGE OF HISTORY! And so, without further ado, I offer you, Robert Zoellick, President and CEO of the World Bank!”

The falange of orcs erupted in cheers and grunting huzzahs. As Hasbin stepped down from the dais, and Dr. Goodall’s cage rotated above in silhouette, a vein opened in the cavern’s floor and a fine spray of vapor hissed through and suddenly thickened, hanging in the air, and slowly took form: a bath of shadows cast in a cloud of gas mutated to a horned and demonic shape, to a goateed hunching devil-tailed beast, to a man, standing, a white man, in a casual suit, with a thick toupee of hair and with flat-soled wingtip shoes. In the chiaroscuro glare, his cheeks looked sunken and his wire-bristle mustache took on a reddish glow, and he leaned into the podium and smiled over the assembled multitude.

When he spoke, his voice was human. All-too human.

“My friends,” he intoned to the gathered mass in dark business suits, “the Revolution, so long in parturition, has reached the moment of its delivery: now it must give birth or die.”

The mind-shackled mass before him shrugged their grubby appendages and slithered in their suits.

“The hour to finalize our preparations has arrived,” the demon Zoellick said.

“The end of History is at hand!”

Silence. Even the twisted rope of the primatologist’s cage held taught and still.

“And so, my friends, in order that you may bear finest witness to this apotheosis of all human wonders, let me tell you the course of history, from the perspective of those who have won.”

“The agricultural revolution, yes? Twelve thousand years ago? We spread across the earth, from the Great Rift Valley to the great river valleys, the Indus, the Yangtze, the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Rhine. We organized ourselves in cities and cultivated the land. We tamed the plants. We walked to the ends of the earth and declared our dominion.”

“That was breakfast.”

“The industrial revolution: over several hundred years we set fires in the belly if the land. We controlled the course of rivers, and made machines that gave us power beyond the human form. We made money the measure of all things, and we centralized our power in the North. We tamed the fire, and the minerals, and the waters, and the wild spirit of our kind.”

“That was lunch.”

“The modern age. We showed that our powers to create, and to destroy, are boundless. We unhinged the jaws of fate. We drew borders and erased them, we dreamed entire sciences and lay them aside, we unlocked the juices of the earth and turned up the building blocks of life. We tamed the ether.”

“That was dinner.”

He surveyed the crowd. His anthracite eyes glittered and his teeth oozed a dark acid.

“My friends,” he hissed. “Now it is time for dessert.”

            The grizzly bestial mass of orcs slurped its acrid fumes and bellowed on command, “Dessert, dessert, dessert! Dessert, dessert, dessert!”

            Zoellick waited for order.

            The darkness weighed.

            Beyond, the ocean’s elastic snapped.

“My friends,” the demon Zoellick said, “This is our finest hour. I do not have to tell you that we are surrounded by hostile forces, like an island of brilliant bejeweled coral in a sea of bleach. They call themselves the bottom billion, the globophobes… Their academics and professionals use loaded obscurantist terms like ‘the social majorities’ and ‘grassroots global justice.’ But we know them – we have always known them, for what they are: Peasants! Savages! Barbarians at our gates… Their economists say that our future is bound up with theirs, and indeed, they are not wrong. But I would phrase it somewhat less delicately: our profits, my friends, are bound up with their losses… Our benefits, with their costs…Our competitive advantage, with their frail weakness…Our consumption, with their oppression. To put it most clearly, for we are at an hour when we can no longer afford to mince our words, our dominance, my friends, our dominance, is bound up with their misery!”

            From the crowd of pinstriped orcs, a cry went up: “Our dominance! Their misery! Our dominance! Their misery! Our dominance! Their misery!”

*

I’d stepped out a hair’s width onto the ledge overlooking this black mass, my guts hollow and my blood cold, when a chirping sound split the heaving air.

“Fucking hell!” I fumed.

It was my phone.

From her cage, Jane Goodall craned her neck toward my shaded niche. Then the demon turned his glare toward where my Blackberry sounded in my suit pocket. And then the orcs, their frothy mouths agape.

“Fucking hell,” I said again, aloud. I fumbled in my pocket for the phone, and, with massacre encroaching, held it up and looked at the image on the screen.

It was Natasha.

“Fucking hell,” I said once more, this time to myself.

I pressed the green button.

“Hi dadda,” she said.

*

The ignorant army stood in vast, terrifying observance of my private call.

Natasha’s voice was tiny.

“Dadda!” she said. “Dadda, forget about the books, that’s the least of our worries. There are bigger problems.”

I gaped.

“Yes, honey,” I said. “I would agree.”

                                    *

The ocean, overburdened, turned and charged full-bore at the land.

                                    *

I looked at my phone in the palm of my hand. It glowed in the gloomy gloaming, and Natasha’s face looked lovingly upward to me – her ivory cheeks painted with a brush of pink, her dark komiku eyes scanning for me longingly in the digital horizon…

“Dadda, you’re not at work,” she said. She could see me, the sweat bulleting from my brow, the sepulchral surroundings. “Where are you?”

I looked up from the phone. By now, the orcs had seen me, and their grumbling was growing to a hot low roar of war. The demon Zoellick had seen me, and his eyes were hardened against me. The man from Walmart had seen me too, and he was loosening his necktie, which he wore cut, a battle trophy.

I said nothing.

“Are you in a cave, dadda?” Natasha asked, her voice reaching across landmasses.

“Uh, I am honey, yes. A sort of cavern. I think…I think it may be Chicxulub’s cavern.”

Jane Goodall wrenched her pinched, narrow head from east and back around to east like a screech owl, and let out a bellow, a haunted battle cry that ricocheted around the tunnel: “Ahhhhh-eeeeeeayyyyyy!!”

“Chicxulub’s cavern?” Natasha said.

                                    *

A slight shift of the subterranean breeze, and the weight of the amassed army seemed to seethe and lurch and throw itself into motion toward me like a wave.

“SIEZE HIM!!!” the demon screamed.

Jane Goodall screeched in existential dread.

The orcs stampeded….

I stood to turn and flee but a puddle of slime brought me down, I slipped and fell face-first onto the crusted limestone shelf, “Oof!” and the phone slipped out of my hands. “Natashaaa!” The lit screen left a speckled diode trail on the cold rock as it clattered down the walls toward the black fissures below. I could hear her little voice calling back to me, “Daddaaa!”

But there was no time to lose, I scrambled up again, and saw the orcs already in my peripherals, almost overtaking me. And then an amazing thing happened:

When it hit the surface of the black underground water, the phone cracked into bits and fritzed into a blaze of sparkling phosphoric light. A great white light, pure and florescent, engulfed my vision.

The cave blazed in dripping illumination.

It seemed to blind the orcs, and they stopped in their tracks. They howled and raised their arms to shield their pus-filled, evil eyes.

The demon Zoellick was nowhere to be seen. In her twisted cage, Jane Goodall whimpered and wept. And before my eyes, the glow that engulfed the cave narrowed to a ray and cast itself against a stalactite, a strange blue beam splashing onto the spire of rock like a reflection in oil.

The cavern darkened again like a theater, and in the light an image grew: Natasha!

Then, behind me, like some rank Beelzebub, suddenly the demon Zoellick appeared, his nostrils spilling smoke, his hands raised like raptor’s claws and trembling, apoplectic.

Time stopped. My head roared, the cavern, my head, the tunnel, my being, the low roaring like an endless immensity of thunder.

Zoellick stood over me, at once pale and dark and strangely androgynous, like some mock Marilyn Manson, and he fixed his eyes on me, and he spoke.

“Are you laughing, Mister Irving?”

His blue suit seemed to be alive and crawling with maggots.

“Laughing,” I managed to say back. “No. Not laughing.”

His jaw split like the unhinged mouth of a rattlesnake and he let forth a gut-twisting hiss.

“I will tell you something,” the demon said. “When you seek exaltation, you look aloft. But I look downward because I am exalted. Mister Irving, can you laugh at once and be exalted?”

I gaped. He hissed again.

“Unmoved is my depth, Mister Irving. And unshadowed is my Power. You know nothing of Power.”

He opened his suit coat and reached into his vest and in his pale bony hand he drew forth a glittering blade.

I gritted my teeth and stood.

“I resist you!” I cried with all the force I could.

His lips turned upward. “You have nothing to fight me with. You – you and all of your piddly savages – you, are nothing to me.”

I looked into his demon’s eyes. They were empty, jaundiced, unmatched: one was dark and sunken and the other bright as neon.

He raised the dagger.

“I am resistance,” I spit.

“Resistance, Mister Irving – that is the distinction of the slave.”

            His arm swung, but a burst of flashing light sent his thrust wild and a voice rang out, Natasha’s voice!

“By Estragon’s belt, you’re wrong, old man!” she cried.

Bathed in blue glow, Natasha leapt from the stalactite and flew through the air. She landed on Zoellick’s arm and wrapped herself like a python around it, grabbed the dagger barehanded from his fist and threw it skittering to the floor.

The demon just smiled.

“Show some respect, you little brat!” he spat, reaching for the blade.

                                    *

The roaring grows louder.

                                    *

And then the screen goes crosshatched with static…the picture scrambled…the sound reduced to a metal machine music. A tremendous caterwauling followed by enormous rattling tremors. A great explosion. Blinding smoke billows, roaring. A hot wind rushes through the tunnel. Behind it, a wave of bilious black water roiling with yellow foam comes crashing.

                                    *

A pipe has burst…an ocean of sewage is rolling madly toward the sea.

                                    *

And towards me.

                                    *

Standing in her bedroom, Natasha sees the water rising.

She sees the panic on my face.

She sees the demon closing in.

“I’m coming to save you dadda!” she cries.

                                    *

Her cry dies across the ether like a spirit nine-days dead.

                                    *

The screen flashes and goes blank.

                                    *

It begins with a trickle, like a bathtub overflowing. And then it grows…

                                    *

With the flood rising to my ankles, to my knees, to my waist, I fell into a revery…

I dreamed I had entered the body of a hog…That I was floating in a sea of blood, that I was entering the bloodstream of all animals, of all the world….

I was wallowing in a foul mire…. I dreamed that I was of the mud of the world, that I no longer belonged to humanity…I saw in the form of the rushing sewage the bearing away of human bodies, a conveyor belt of coffins, the grand parade of lifeless packaging. Yet it was very natural…

                                                *

Dateline, Cancún, Mexico: a plague, a storm, a tempest. When the sewage breached the lagoon, delegates from 180 countries drowned, rollicking in their suits, overwhelmed, no, overcome, by the literal shit-storm. Only a handful of delegates emerged: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, and, as if by fate, a raft escaped the flood with a pair of delegates from India and one from the island of Sumatra, Indonesia: the countries, arbitrary though they may appear to be, where the world’s last had rhinos dwelt.

None beside remains.

###

Book One : The Gone Rhinoceri

Standard

Where we learn of the mysterious and sudden vanishing of a particular charismatic creature from zoological institutions, in which some few had until recently remained.

I

The rhino was gone.

*

On a dull, cold New York City March morning, the lackluster gaze of subway riders and the tedious crowding through turnstiles, the tiny swish of the metropass card past the electronic eye of the card reader; the insipid coffee and the equally insipid newspaper purchased for a dollar and a quarter at the corner bodega; a lipless kiss from his wife of how many years, and no hug from the child, still asleep (work starts early at the zoo) – all of it added up, by the time Bill got to the darkened park to unlock the exhibits and begin feeding the animals, to a familiar listless brooding, like a mild but chronic and possibly infectious illness.

Bill, like so many in New York, in America, in the world, wore a sort of metaphysical undershirt everyday that said, “Life is Elsewhere.” Little did Bill know – little do any of us – that there comes a day when what we advertise to ourselves in our private trembling guts becomes so frighteningly true that it carries us away as if on a flood of sewage.

*

Bill had walked his usual morning route from the subway, two blocks down Boston Road alongside the vacant expanse of the Zoo parking lot and through Gate A (for Asia), to the cinderblock office. He hauled open the heavy grey steel door and slipped his time card from its slot and into the timeclock, an old cast iron piece of machinery that had hung there possibly for half a century. He felt with sickening assurance the familiar jolt when the machine bit the paper. He collected his keys and clipped them to his belt. He fastened his badge. He left the cinderblock shelter, let the heavy door swing to behind him, and strode, now that the coffee had kicked in and the badge had slightly boosted his sagging esteem, to the African Savannah.

*

High overhead a flock of glittering cranes spread their wings like blue glass against the pale winter sky, their whooping cry lost on the wind.

*

As Bill descended the slope toward the rhino’s pen, he sensed something. His eyes scanned the watery marsh inside the fence, left and right, up and down, and tried to pierce through the brown and dying stands of papyrus reeds in the dark water.

When he registered the problem, Bill’s listlessness evaporated.

The rhino was gone.

*

In Cleveland, about the same time, the same thing: rhino, gone. And in San Diego, and in Miami, and in Washington D.C., and Seattle, and St. Louis, and Dallas, and Denver. No rhino, anywhere.

*

Thelma Martin, the vet at the St. Louis Zoo, arrived at the large animal inspection lab that morning expecting to perform the rhino’s regular check-up. She’d received a memo the day before that Barabbas, the zoo’s lone black rhino, had been exhibiting signs of irritation; he’d eaten little for weeks, and angered easily, and spent hours rubbing his horn on the thorny acacia trees in his pen with an itch he couldn’t seem to scratch.

All the night before, Thelma had spent in research. She knew rhinos suffered periodic exfoliation of the bone on their horns, and that at such times rhinos show signs of antisocial behavior, even engaging in senseless acts of brutality against members of their own species. But Thelma knew too that animals held in captivity – especially the charismatic megafauna whose role in the wild is nothing less than to maintain the integrity of their ecosystems – sometimes succumbed to awkward, unfamiliar diseases: viral, bacterial, cancerous.

Thelma arrived that morning with every intention of deducing the cause of Barabbas’ strange behavior. But she couldn’t because, when she arrived at the animal inspection lab, Barabbas the rhino was gone.

*

All across Canada, the same thing: gone rhinoceri. In Ottowa, in Toronto, in Montreal, in Vancouver. Everywhere there’d been a rhino, it was gone.

*

In the Washington D.C. Zoo, when it dawned on Leo the zookeeper that Ravi, the two-ton Indian white rhino, had gone AWOL, he alerted Zoo Security, who alerted Homeland Security, who alerted the National Security Council and the Council on Foreign Relations. When the agencies protested that rhinos were beyond their jurisdiction, names were taken.

“You do know there’s a War on Terror going on, don’t you?” said someone to someone.

Would the rhino appear stalking the Mall or charging the Capitol? Would it turn up in Foggy Bottom, an armored biological threat to the Pentagon and the National Security Agency? No one could say.

*

In Mexico City, there had never been a rhino, though a polar bear there had died some five years before, cause of death unknown.

There had, however, been a rhino further south, in Cancún, at the Casino del Conejito. Visitors to the Casino would remember el Ché, the Cancún rhino, as having been generally dejected, not to say, grief-stricken, and wanting for attention. Now, el Ché was gone.

Was el Ché better off freed from his long captivity? I’m afraid that’s not for us to say.

*

There also had not been any rhinos in Oakland, Houston, Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale (though there were dolphins and flamingoes there), Oklahoma City, Detroit, Las Vegas (believe it or not), Cincinnati, Jackson, Knoxville, Harrisburg, Providence, or anywhere else south of the Texas border, save Rio De Janeiro where there was a white rhino known as “Sparkles,” and possibly at the extravagant hacienda of a Colombian drug lord somewhere in the basalt and granite folds of the Northern Andean cordillera, where rumors of a rhino circulated, unconfirmed.

*

But everywhere there had been a rhino in captivity, that rhino was gone.

*

In San Francisco, the rhino was a favorite of a precocious five-year-old named Natasha and her doting father, Irving.

I’m Irving. And this is where our story begins.

II

The zookeeper in San Francisco was Zach Jenkins. Way back in 1967 Jenkins had been a young guard at the bison pen in Golden Gate Park. In September or perhaps October of that year, on his watch, one of the Golden Gate Park bison went missing.

Zach Jenkins is not central to our tale and we’ll soon take leave of him, but stay with me, here’s the kicker: Incredible as it seems, a band of hippies in full Orphic Bacchanalia had declared the bison “common patrimony of the universe,” (remember, this was 1967), and liberated it from its pen. But once they’d done it they were in the awkward position of having to transport the bison to their commune in West Marin – of having to take responsibility for the animal.

After a long session of group meditation during which the implications of hiding the animal became clear, the collective decided that the only way forward was to follow the Orphic path to the end and sacrifice the beast for the good of all. With nothing short of archaic ingenuity, reborn in them as if the spirit of ancient Dionysus himself were rekindled in the rangelands of Marin County, they undertook collectively to kill the bison, bleed it, skin it, gut it, butcher it, and clean it, and over the course of an entire year of feasting – 1968, the year of global revolution (whose fuel, this particular small band came to believe, had been their very sacrifice) – to cook it and consume it.

And it was good.

*

For Zach Jenkins, however, it hadn’t been so good.

The episode of the shanghai’d bison haunted him for years after, both professionally and personally. What had once been called shellshock, then battle fatigue, and in Zach Jenkins’ time was known as combat stress, is now diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – a syndrome from which Zach, four decades after the bison raid at Golden Gate Park, continued to be afflicted.

When Mr. Jenkins, now an aged zoo-keeper, grokked that the rhino was gone, the old twitching of PTSD rattled his wiry frame. Had the same thing that had happened to the bison forty years before now happened to the rhino? Was history repeating itself, the first time as farce, the second as tragedy? It looked that way.

Jenkins was never seen again.

*

Karl Marx, homo economicus europeus, had never seen a rhinoceros. But for a brief period in his later life, when he lived with his wife and children impoverished in London, he owned a reproduction of Albrecht Durer’s famous 16th century gravure of a rhino, heavily armored and studded with knobs and horny plates. Marx greatly admired the illustration but at a dark moment was forced to sell the print in order to keep his family fed, even if only in cakes and lard.

During the hard years at the end of his life, Marx’s rhino was gone.

*

Back at the Bronx Zoo, Bill stood transfixed by dread.

“The fuck!?” he said to himself. “Where the fuck is the fucking rhino?”

By then the fact was inexorable; insuppressible; irrefutable; there was no rhino.

He picked up the phone and dialed.

“Give me the Department of the Interior!” he hollered.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said an attractive digital voice on the other end. “The United States government has no Department of the Inferior.”

“Not the inferior, the Interior!”

“For information on other agencies, please dial 09.” Click.

*

Elsewhere on Planet Earth, and largely unrelated to the question of the rhinos, in a brick and plaster cell where no legal instrument or enlightened humanitarian decree could come between the prisoner’s head and the bucket of excrement, this scene unfolded:

“Bif! Pow!”

“Smack!”

“Oooof!”

“Graaaaa!”

“Aaarghhhhh.”

Akbar, prone on the cold concrete, grasped the rim of the bucket. His face against the floor, legs splayed out behind, the ribs in his torso cracked and broken, two hands clawing the bucket’s ridged lip, his bulging forearms pressed and trembling against gravity, struggling to maintain his dignity, struggling to maintain some slight distance, if only inches, if only fractions of an inch, between his head and the bucket’s cold, rank, fecal contents. A single thought flickered in his brain, as if on a frayed circuit: I were but a mere crustacean, scuttling sideways on the floors of ancient oceans.

*

Days went by before news of the rhinos’ disappearance was reported through official channels. But in those few days, the word spread overland like blight on grain. One zookeeper called the next, asking if any such event had ever occurred before. What do we do? Is there a protocol?

Holly, the zookeeper in Vancouver, thought, though she couldn’t say it, that the First Nations People were to blame. Hadn’t they, just months before, blocked the railroad and tried to wreck the Olympics?

*

From the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, zookeepers were wrenched with an unnamed dread.

And they didn’t know the half of it.

*

The media telegraphed fear.

First, a brief note in the LA Times: Missing Rhinoceros: A Sign of Hard Times?

Then, The Washington Post: Animal Negligence or Criminal Mishap?

And soon, Reuters, AP, and the BBC: The Case of the Missing Ungulate.

When the Mexican papers got ahold of the story, they cast blame on the narcos: Treinta-mil muertos y un rinoceronte desaparecido: De peor en peor.

III

Sometime between the zookeepers’ collective anxiety and the media storm that darkened the global horizon, we, the parents, found out.

It was in San Francisco, on a Sunday. My wife Ophelia was out of state on business, so I had the day to spend at the San Francisco Zoo with Natasha, our five-year old.

The previous evening, Natasha and I had cleaned the kitchen while Ophelia prepared for a trip to some kind of political meeting (her profession involved campaigning for elected office every few years and running government administrations between: town councils, state assemblies, interstate commerce boards, city and county governments).

We had shuttled Ophelia to the airport for her flight to, Cleveland, was it? Or Grand Rapids? Somewhere, anyway, in the middle of the country. We had said our mildly anxious but affectionate family farewells, and then returned home, where I would prepare a dinner of mini-hot dogs and frozen peas with homemade persimmon ice cream (real persimmon, milk, dash of nutmeg, set in freezer to condense). I’m not ashamed to say, we’re a pretty hip, high-functioning family.

*

Natasha was our girl. We hadn’t borne her – my wife was past childbearing age by then. We’d adopted her. We did mountains of research, looking at programs in Guatemala, in Ethiopia, in Cambodia, in China.

Our search finally came to focus on the Balkans. We’d remembered that the dark blooming of AIDS across the Cold War-scarred region had made adoption of orphans a virtual industry in Romania in the 80’s. Decades later, after the wars in Serbo-Croatia, children were still being abandoned by the cartload, the culture no longer able to shelter its young.

After months of arrangements, we’d flown to an orphanage in Bosnia-Herzegovina to meet our new baby. The nuns had named her Natasha – Natasha being the Russian name for Natalia, Natal Day, referring to the birth of Jesus – because she’d been found on the orphanage steps on a Christmas morning. The infant, only months old, had been found wrapped in a shawl hand-woven of dogbane fiber. Around her little neck was a leather cord from which hung a small clay whistle shaped like a miniature swallow’s nest with four holes for fingering notes and one for blowing. Pinned to the blanket was a note that said, in Romani Cyrillic, the single word, ‘stranger’. Because of the note, the nuns determined that Natasha was one of that race of nomads that had come into Europe only lately from the milky Asian steppe – a gypsy.

From the moment we learned her story we loved her.

*

The doctors had diagnosed her as polymorphously perverse with atemporal inclinations, and sick in the body. The nuns at the orphanage said that at age two, she’d begun babbling in six languages, from Coptic to Gaelic. Because of this strange behavior, the nuns of course had come to believe that she was blessed. One of the Sisters claimed to have heard the child reciting Finnegan’s Wake asif it were a fairy tale she’d heard:

She larved and she larved

on she merd such a houses

the Gracehoper feared

he would mixplace his fauses.

I forgive you grondt Ondt,

said the Gracehoper, weeping,

For their sukes of the sakes

you are safe in whose keeping.

Don’t ask me how the nuns knew that was from Finnegan’s Wake, but regardless, they were simply awe-struck. And a little scared.

*

Natasha, it turned out, had a rare auto-immune disorder, contracted before birth, that, the nuns said, would give her magical powers while she lived, but that put her at great risk of a young death.

Natasha’s condition – her little life unspooled like a filament that could be cut by the slightest of destiny’s blades – taught our family to live as if each day might be the last. I won’t say it was easy – the adventure to come attests to that – but it was the best thing that ever happened to us

*

After she finished her persimmon ice, Natasha got her jammies on; then we ate a little popcorn with salt butter and nutritional yeast, and we settled into bed to read what was, at that particular moment, her favorite book: a parable starring three frogs and a strange old toad.

Natasha sprawled out on her Tinkerbell™ duvet in her flame retardant mauve footy pj’s and gazed up at me with her big brown komiku eyes as I read:

<< In the middle of Rainbow Pond there was a small island. Smooth pebbles lined its beaches, and it was covered with ferns and leafy weeds.

On the island lived three quarrelsome frogs named Milton, Rupert, and Beatrix. They quarreled and quibbled from dawn to dusk.

“Stay out of the pond!” yelled Milton. “The water is mine!”

“Get off the island!” shouted Rupert. “The earth is mine!”

“The air is mine!” screamed Beatrix as she leaped to catch a butterfly.

And so it went. >>

            Natasha’s eyes glazed as if they’d been buttered and her head slumped into the pillow. I read on: one day a large toad appeared and upbraided the frogs for their selfishness: “I live on the other side of the island,” the toad said, “but I can hear you shouting ‘Its mine!’ all day long. You can’t go on like this!” As soon as the toad hopped away, Milton ran off with a large worm. When the others protested, calling out, “Worms are for everybody,” Milton was defiant. “Not this one. It’s mine,” he said.

            Suddenly, the sky darkened and thunder rumbled and rain filled the air and the water turned to mud. The island grew smaller and smaller and soon was swallowed up by the flood.

            Natasha looked asleep, but when I stopped reading and put the book aside she lifted her head and glared. I read on:

<<Desperately the frogs clung to the few slippery stones that still rose above the wild, dark water. But soon these too began to disappear.

There was only one rock left and there the frogs huddled, trembling from cold and fright. But they felt better now that they were together, sharing the same fears and hopes.>>

            Finally the flood subsided, and the frogs were amazed to discover that the large rock that had saved them was not a rock at all – it was the toad. So they thanked the old toad, and soon the water had cleared. Sunrays chased silver minnows on the sandy bottom of the pond, and the frogs played and swam around the island and leaped after swarms of butterflies that filled the air.

            Natasha’s breathing had grown heavy, and I tried for a second time to put the book aside. And for a second time, she glared at me. I read on:

<<Later, when they rested in the weeds, they felt happy in a way they had never been before.

“Isn’t it peaceful,” said Milton.

Isn’t it beautiful,” said Rupert.

“And do you know what else?” said Beatrix.

“No, what?” the others asked.

It belongs to no one.” she said.

“And to everyone!” they all shouted happily. >>

I closed the book and set it aside.

“Night-night, sweetie,” I said, and laid a kiss on Natasha’s brow. But to my dismay, the story’d gotten her excited. Natasha bolted from her duvet and began leaping in the air and swatting after the swarms of imaginary butterflies that seemed to suddenly flutter cloudlike into our apartment.

I tried to settle her down with a series of distractions (another bowl of ice cream, a burst balloon, her stuffed baby jaguar giving a muffled goodnight purr) and persuasive gestures (inviting her to hide under the blanket with me and then feigning sleep). None of it worked.

So I tried the talking trick:

“Hey honey, did you like the book about the frogs?”

She huffed and squawked and then began to settle down a bit, just as I’d hoped, and she looked up at me, her purple jammies appearing suddenly too small.

“It reminded me of Das Capital,” she said.

Das Capital? Of Marx?”

(Yes, all children are special, but my daughter’s precociousness was sometimes just too-oo cute.)

“Yes, dadda, Marx. In its aspect of enunciating an ethic of communalism over primitive accumulation.”

“Don’t you mean communism, sweetie?” I said. (Natasha is really something else, isn’t she?)

“No dadda, communalism. Do you think Marx was a communist? Not in the Soviet sense he wasn’t. And in any case, It’s Mine rings more of the scientific anarcho-socialism of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid than of the farce of Orwell’s Animal Farm, don’t you agree?”

The mention of Animal Farm took me aback, as I would’ve never drawn the connection (and me an old Wobbly!).

“Sweetie, now that you mention it,” I said, “the story does have its utopian elements, a la Proudhon.”

“Exactly. Property is theft, isn’t that the message?”

“Well, I think, yes,” I said, engaging at her level. “But it goes beyond that, don’t you think, to include…”

“A spiritual dimension,” Natasha finished my sentence. “Yes, I do think so. If we are to live on one finite earth, we must enjoy her bounties as a form of prayer.”

            “Yes, yes,” I said. “That must be what Lionni means when he says the frogs felt happy in a way they had never been before.”

            “Of course,” Natasha said. “It’s the peace that surpasses the bounds of understanding!”

            “OMMMM, Shanti!” we both chanted, from deep in our bellies and then burst into a raucous fit of family laughter.

            “No, but seriously, dadda, at the very end, when the frogs say ‘It belongs to no one, and to everyone!’, it’s like the kind of mystical earth-wisdom or radical democracy that Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers fought for in the seventeenth century.”

            “In 1649…Saint George’s Hill,” I sang, putting on my best British brogue. Natasha joined in, “A ragged band of diggers came to show the peoples’ will! They defied the landlords… They defied the laws! They came in peace, reclaiming what was theirs!”

            We rolled on the floor laughing, and before the bedtime ritual was through we’d decided that “It’s Mine!” encapsulated all of the great ethical philosophies, from the Nichomacean Ethics where Aristotle wrestles with the question of how men should best live, to the Dhammapada, written, so they say, by the Buddha himself.

Finally, the talking trick worked, and as it is and must be for children everywhere at one time or another, my darling Natasha curled up like a pill bug and fell asleep.

*

And so morning came, with its tender glances. Morning, and off to the zoo with us.

*

We passed the flamingoes, flaming pink in their pen at the zoo entrance, and the seals, frolicking in the coastal fog, occasional shafts of sunlight bursting through like promises of celestial goodwill, and the meercats, scrabbling for bits of kibble at the dark mouths of their subterranean encampments. Natasha was in good spirits, as was I, as we made our way downhill toward the African Savannah.

*

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies. Did I know, or did Natasha, that by the time we rounded the wild boar pen and passed the turn-off to the Big Cats and came upon the mocked-up swamp where the rhino had lived, that we’d be drawing dangerously close to the home front, as it were, of just such a secret war? That somewhere behind the missingness of the San Francisco rhino – and all the other rhinos, too, as it would turn out – was some shadowy Illuminati or World Bank, a Wallflower Order or World Trade Organization or Knights Templar, some Gnostic Organizm of Economic Cooperation and Development, some addled avatar of an off-the-rails Earth Liberation Front or Armored Biotic Baking Brigade?

            Someone once said that History is like an hourglass, all the sand draining eventually through a single pre-congested point where all of time converges and all events collide; Natasha’s and my stumbling upon the gone rhinoceros in San Francisco that day appears to have been such a moment – the window through which we were able, nearly, to see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour – the hand of fate pushing us inexorably onward toward the strange series of events that followed – my abandonment of Ophelia and temporarily, of Natasha, my enrollment with the League of Unsettled Indians, Natasha’s great sea journey, the sewage spill to end all sewage spills, the fall through the center of the earth, the Burning of the Forests.

I wonder now if, had I foreseen the signs of the secret society behind the gone rhinoceri, I might have stayed back, and avoided all of that…And then I think, the world being a continual contest for power among unequal forces, and destiny being what it is, and the times being what they are … probably not.

*

               In any case – back to the zoo:

  1. We rounded the wild boar pen, and laughed, as we always did, at the sign urging silence, lest the boars be stirred into a fit.
  2. Natasha held her cardboard tube of cotton candy before her, and put her mouth on the fluorescent pink fibrous treat, letting it melt on her tongue. (Her mother has no need to find out.)
  3. We passed the turn-off to the Big Cats. The smell wafted.
  4. Somewhere above, a flock of white cranes arced into the nether blue distance, their wings flakes of rose quartz in the sun.
  5. Downhill we walked, step by absent-minded step. What need had we then for concern? The word antediluvian comes to mind as I reflect upon those moments now.
  6. We approached the wrought-iron fence, and saw the sign: Rhinoceros. Family: Rhinocerotidae. Genus: Dicerorhinus. Subspecies: D. s. sumatrensis. Native to: Sumatra, Indonesia. Status: endangered.
  7. Beyond the sign, the mocked-up swamp. Reeds and sedges, water hyacinth and duckweed greened the shallow pond where, we’d expected, the rhino would be wading.
  8. We drew dangerously close to the outermost reach of what can only be considered a secret war.
  9. We looked and looked. “Put me on your shoulders dadda!” Natasha said. And then, “I don’t see it, dadda.” And then, “Dadda, I think the rhino’s gone.” And then, “No honey, the rhino can’t be gone. Rhinos don’t just disappear.” Such antediluvian innocence…
  10. We stood as the day grew warm and pondered the eventuality. After an eternity a zookeeper approached in a starched white shirt with a nameplate at his breast, Z. Jenkins. “Where’s the rhino?” I asked him. The news struck Natasha and me like thunder: “It, uh, seems to have, well, appears to have, er, disappeared.”

*

               After that unsettling morning, I spent many an unsettled night delivering myself over to the Mystery: where had the rhino gone? I’d never been much a great Believer in anything – who is, in the twenty-first century where all things great and small have been removed to the merest spectacle, the greatest Gods diminished to mere splinters of Lucite for the hungry soul? – and yet, under the gathering shadows, as the ontological snipers took positions on the rooftops of reason, as the wild silvery whooping cranes passed above and far beyond reach, something began to change…

TO BE CONTINUED……

The Gone Rhinoceri and the Battle of Cancun is….

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…the title of a fun-filled, doom-driven novel that will soon come to fill this site….

MEET Natasha the Exploradora, a four-year old Marxist scholar with magical powers…

PERCEIVE the great turning of 2012 through the world-weary eyes of Irving, a retired hack journalist who finds himself at the heart of the greatest transformation since the last ice age

MARVEL at the prowess of Childe Harold, the Garifuna mystic, as he holds an army of orcs at bay, in: The Gone Rhinoceri and the Battle of Cancun

…coming soon….