July 9, 2015
LLyn De Danaan
They are foxed and grimy, so much so that they stick to my hands. Their creases and bent corners make them nearly impossible to shuffle. I manage. With my eyes closed, I slip my fingers into the middle of the pile, and pull the Knight of Cups. Nothing surprising. The Knight of Cups slides out every morning except during the month of August. A familiar visitor now, I’d miss him if someone else were to show up.
He is dressed in not so shiny armor, erect and peering at the golden goblet in his hand. There is a hint of a smirk on his face. The horse is not sleek but stout and thick legged like an Irish Cob or Gypsy Tracker. One leg is lifted as if in mid-stride. Together, horse and rider present an elegant duo, capable and handsome. Getting the same card everyday isn’t a magic trick. I know the feel of this deck so well I can be fairly certain of getting the reading I want.
Today the card is reversed. An upside down Knight of Cups represents a person who has trouble discerning truth from lies. I can’t think who’d be lying to me. Dogs and cats and turtles don’t lie. I’m not gullible so even if someone tried to keep something from me, I’d see through the smokescreen. I wouldn’t be easily taken in.
Most days I draw the card right side up. It means change is coming. When isn’t it?
I’m always preparing. I exercise my body so I’ll be fit no matter what. I keep myself organized so I’ll know where everything is when it’s needed.
I stay busy, but am never mindlessly occupied. I choose activities that enhance my independence and chances of survival and over time I have created an autopoietic system. I have what’s required to live comfortably and all that’s here cooperates in maintaining and recreating itself.
Brightly colored images of flowers and trees and sinuous vines and fairy tale villages adorn both the interior and exterior of the house. The eastern wall, the biggest unbroken wall, depicts the village and surrounding landscape of Saint-Marc de Cournoyer in Quebec. Only I would know that. I have no visitors, so only I care.
The wizened, weather worn boards of the building soaked up paint so quickly I had to apply several coats and sometimes altered the images as I worked. Thus the walls are as pentimenti. Some clever psychiatrist could peel back the layers and read my changing moods.
Even the spigots, useless to me after the well was exhausted, and the sinks and workbenches and chairs and tables are painted. My ceramic pots, made from the argillaceous earth in the exposed banks on the nearest purple grey massif, are glazed to resemble the work of the potters in Faenza. Some of the clay veins I dig are micaceous and the vessels I build and fire glitter in the sun without further treatment. I cover most vessels with bright white quartz gathered from arroyos that criss-cross the flatlands below those mountains. I grind the quartz to a fine powder, apply the powder to the pots, then heat them in the kiln until the pulverized crystal vitrifies. Many of my first pots were meant to contain and store water, but now they are offered for sale or filled with long stemmed dried weeds the color of scorched tree bark and set about the house. My handmade mugs and dinner plates are painted with care and style so when I dine, I see something exquisite. I take care in preparing my food and it is attractive in its own right, of course. But the thing upon which it is placed and from which it is eaten is handsome as well.
What’s it like living here? It’s rather like passing the days on a carefully contrived stage set for a play called something like, “Eccentric Desert Rat: The Life of Bonny Bloom.” The production would star me, of course, dressed in blue jeans, faded and ripped at the knee and butt, and sporting a red-brown cracking face with hound dog jowls and topped off with a pile of frowzy grey hair.
After tinkering with the deck and thinking a bit about my card, I swallow my daily immunity boosting Lion’s Mane and Turkey Tail capsules (produced from my coddled and productive mushroom farm that thrives out of sight in a darkened shed off the back door) and then use an eye dropper to drizzle water into the tiny pots of Euycalyptus standing at attention, a platoon of tin soldiers, on a windowsill. These trees have sprouted from the blackened seed pods I collected and dried long ago. One day, I’ll walk out of my door and into a sweet smelling forest full of birds and mosses and the long absent moldy odor of damp leaves and rotting bark. I’ve already planted some seventy of these trees outside. They are of different ages and heights and claim most of my mornings as I deliver scant but sufficient water to each. It keeps them alive and growing slowly.
I am careful with water. As I said, the well gave out in a sudden sputter of grit and mud that exploded from the kitchen tap. I knew this was coming. The closest town added thirty or forty houses a decade ago and each of these sunk wells into the aquifer. That and twelve years of almost no rain drained it dry. I haul my water from town in five-gallon carboys once a month. A local co-op tanks it from a distant reservoir and offers it for $10 a quart.
Water is my greatest expense. I can’t live without it so I scrape for money.
Town is fifteen miles to the east and I am perpetually concerned for the life of my chattering, droopy and sun faded Ford Pinto for fearing it might not make it there and back. The car’s original finish was a bright bronze. It’s a pebbled grey and brown now. The tires are devoid of tread and the windshield is so pitted that if I didn’t know my way blindfolded, I’d be soon lost. I’ve thought about knocking the sand blasted glass out altogether. The dust storms have also scrubbed all the enameled letters and numbers from the front license plate, though no law enforcement has been seen in this region for a decade so I don’t care. The brakes, thankfully, are responsive, at least on the flatland, and I budget for oil and grease and belts. Of course, I do all the maintenance myself. Still, gas costs real money, when it is available, and water is expensive so when I take the empty carboys for water, I bring a stack or box of paintings and pots I can live without to sell on consignment at Polly’s store. I count on some tourists or wanderers coming through town and liking them well enough to buy them. Otherwise I can’t afford gas or water or corn meal or flour or canned goods or anything else.
It’s all okay, as my friend Chandler used to say. I’m never short of what I require and never go wanting. So much so that I often find I’ve put too much in the cook pot or on my plate. No leftover is tossed. I keep a compost bin a-brewing and use the soil I produce for the Eucalyptus and the roof garden. A fair amount of moisture accumulates up there. The dew of the morning condenses on to sizeable sheets of black plastic. These line several large, lipped pans.The dew is quickly bottled before the sun hits the roof. I have enough, over a few days, to water the chard and spinach. The plants love the sun, though I protect them from the intense noon heat with immense panels of scrap cardboard stapled onto a lathe framework. They frames are hinged and can easily cover the two deep, about six by ten feet boxes. These are planted with greens that I harvest and replant throughout the year. I mulch them well so that their roots stay warm on freezing nights and moisture is preserved.
I eat well. Wild foods complement my diet. Prickly pear is delicious. I gather eggs from wild birds; I take only a few and never more than one from a nest.
I don’t keep animals for food but have two half-wild dun colored dogs named Flee and Erica and a jumbo tiger striped mouser named Mr. Sandy Paws. They’ve been with me as long as I’ve been here, them or predecessor four-leggeds, and they are good companions. I don’t feel alone with them here because they are exquisite listeners and don’t demand much from me. My favorite pal, though, is my turtle Saint Jerome, named after the hermit mystic who lived in the wilderness. There is a reproduction of da Vinci’s painting of the saint with his companion lion on Jerome’s private box. Beautiful though it is, Jerome eschews his lair during the day. He is a social beast. He goes to the box to sleep or when the cat gets too playful. Jerome eats lettuce from my garden for dinner. I tried kale and chard but he turned up his nose…well really his whole face… at the slight bitterness of them. He actually spit the kale across the room.
The work. The work! I had to attend to the work everyday. For so many years, my work was my painting. That was all. That was enough. Sometimes I could find discarded siding or rafters or paneling in dumpsters in town, all free for the taking. I hauled my finds back with the carboys and made things of them. I constructed fences and walkways. All painted. I built a little shower and a latrine. I found scrap metal, old propane tanks, fenders, bumpers. I pounded and welded them together, then painted them and made fabulous beings to guard my house. And I made things to sell.
But then they came.
They swarmed like termites. Not angry, just born anew and looking for a foothold. I’m more isolated than I was in some ways because I don’t venture far afield with them about. I miss my regular climbs for clay and rock herbs and flowers. I miss my midnight strolls to watch the meteor showers or listen to coyote pups.
When it began, I was vexed and bothered by the passing parades of fanatics and vulgar people, pathetic rabble with pet monkeys and filthy children all shouting slogans, waving banners, and driving coughing, oil spewing trucks and campers along the road in front of my house. True, there are not so many now as there were during the height of the movement. In fact, there are only a few who come by to lay flowers by one of the towers or take photographs. I don’t want to see them or for them to see me and try to talk with me.
Movement people came as regularly as the tides at first; they seemed to float on a river of uninterrupted laughs and banter and often stopped to beg for water or to use the outhouse. Or just to sit for a while. I must have been on the maps they were sent. I spent more time picking up gum wrappers and cigarette butts now than painting.
Before the people came the giants. Pylons. Towers. They popped up like skeletal mutated cacti all around me. They were composed of steel latticework and supported miles and miles of power lines that transmitted electricity. The suspended cables were made of some kind of aluminium alloy. The shimmering wires buzzed and crackled and birds, the innocents and unknowing, flew into and under and around them and died. I found crows with their beaks burned off and pigeons missing wings. I noticed whole colonies of beetles and ants carrying grain-sized eggs on the move in an effort to escape them. That must have been fifteen years ago. The beetles and many other animals have been gone for a long time.
The structures stood over the land, great pairs of boney long legged structures as far as I could see though my site line was broken by hills and dips. Some of the towers were at least 1000 feet tall, defoliated crosses, axes of a shrunken world, trees of no life. Their extended arms were hung at each end with beaded porcelain or glass disks, dangling whorish earrings, and through these passed the strands of wire that carried the power. The discs reflected the rays of the sun and coruscated nearly blinding flashes of light lashed across the desert.
My dogs and cat and even Jerome seemed to have trouble sleeping after the towers came.
The pylons were built to relay power generated from the turbines of a new dam built on the other side of the mountain to the east. It was an untimely, ill-managed project. It was to serve a million greedy households, the papers said, to run their blenders and air conditioners and up to date dryers and hot water heaters. Just three or four years after the transmission towers were built, the talk was that the river was way below level from the drought and the power wouldn’t last much longer. The lake that was formed behind the dam had dropped to 42 percent of its capacity. Snow and rainfall had been abnormally low for years.
For now, the pylons were above and beside my bungalow and me and there was nothing left to do but paint them.
I started on a leg of the nearest one and worked my way up it with greens and blues and every shade of red …up one leg…higher and higher…I strapped my self on to the metal struts and carried paint in small buckets that hung from a belt around my middle. I climbed every day and had finished four towers.
Then, one day, sometime before the movement, maybe five years ago, a battery of trucks and earthmoving equipment and cranes and tankers came out here and men and women in snappy bright uniforms and hard hats climbed down and began to plunge a sharp auger deep into the earth. It hammered and drilled at the same time so that the earth shook with each of the machine’s violent lunges. The workers often withdrew and examined the bit on the tip of the thrusting rod. I was told that the tip was made of diamonds. After a careful, close inspection, the workers usually replaced the old tip with a sharper and brighter thing and readied it to thrust again. They poured water from a large tanker into the hole to cool the bit as it thrust and whirred and cut through million year old rock. I wondered if it would ever stop. Through the days and nights the machine thudded and thumped and made its way into my dreams, if I ever actually slept.
Workers set up portable lamps so that the site was brilliantly lit even at midnight and the few rabbits and deer and antelope still around stayed away, frightened by the light and activity. No I could not avoid the sound or escape the glare and neither could my dogs or cat. Or Jerome. I hung all my sheets on my cabin windows and then finally the blankets but still it was as if the sun had risen on us all night long. Finally, I nailed boards from my scrap pile across all the windows.
After several weeks, I watched the workers inject something into the holes. Deliveries of boulder sized pillow-like shrink-wrapped packages stacked and secured on flatbed trucks came racing to the site. I tried one night to get close enough to see what it was. I couldn’t read the neatly printed Chinese characters on the labels. The workers tore into the packages and dumped the contents into the holes they’d dug. The earth trembled as the substance created cracks and fissures deep in the ancient rock and exposed crude oil deposits, the leavings of plants and animals and all the creatures and beings that once walked the earth. Another army of quick moving laborers sucked it up with pumps and pipes like arteries carried it far away, life support for dying cities, transfusions for a hopeless world. The towers were left standing but they were only carrying a small amount of the energy, the little the dam’s turbines could still produce.
The trucks were moving out one day as I was making my regular drive to town to get water. The water was loaded and I drove the few blocks toward Polly’s with a few pots and paintings to put on consignment. Along the way I noticed a crowd gathered around a man standing on top of the cab of a 1983 rusty, pea green, Dodge pickup. The bed of the pickup was fitted up with two large speakers and a generator. A line ran from the generator to a microphone in the man’s hand. He looked like an old time preacher man in his cheap off the rack grey suit, maroon tie, and black felt fedora. He said he was a retired physicist and MIT professor and had a message. He said he had found God and that, “God is all around us and in us and moving through the cables and wires and phone lines and out of the ground and in the lightening and just really everywhere.” He said that, “We have been so intent on making God knowable that we have missed the obvious. God was energy, power, and all that animates each and every thing in our world. It is an act of worship to turn on an electric lamp. It is the great pylons and towers that carry his being that we should be worshiping,” that and, “the sun and the plugs and sockets and fuse boxes that bring God into our homes.” He said physicists had, “known all this for some time. We don’t know anything about much more than 5% of our universe. The rest of it is energy, that is, God. It fills everything. There is no void, only God and a little bit of matter,” he said. “God,” he said, “causes the universe to expand and fly apart. This God bends light and zaps x-ray signals from star to star and galaxy to galaxy just for fun.” “This same God,” he said, “can be made to work on our behalf if only we believe and grasp this truth.”
“Throw away your testaments, your bibles. These were written by people know did not understand the message of the burning bush. They are distractions.”
The banner that flew from the truck’s bed fluttered. It was printed on plastic and rigged upright on a two by two. The background of the flag was midnight blue and across the face of it was a bright, fluorescent streak of lightening against a muted rendition of the Andromeda galaxy. His props and his patter moved the worn and weary who stood around him pelted swirling dust from the desert.
“We must,” he shouted in a rapid rhythmic cadence so that the last word in each sentence was held for a beat or two, “study the words of Teilhard de Chardin who said that the universe is ripening within itself the fruit of a certain consciousness. That consciousness is the possibility that God and power have a consciousness that can be called upon to shape our world and us as it chooses. That with our human concentration and meditation we can break through to this God and all its energy and that God can become manifest around us.”
“Eckhart, the mystic, told us this,” he said. “‘The shell must be cracked,'” he told the crowd as he lowered his voice. Each word was drawn out. He returned to the former rhythm then. “In joining the flow of the energy, we can break through,” he said. “We have made a terrible mistake in thinking to electrocute murderers is to punish them. These people,” he said, “have gone straight to God and are with God. It is we who deserve such deaths, not the evil among us.”
“Some have always known this secret, this great truth, he declared. Michangelo knew. He put it into his Sistine Chapel painting of the creation of Adam. That spark, that fiery glint of life that is shown passing from God’s finger to Adam that was the secret made manifest. The Masons among the early leaders of the United States knew and put the floating eye of energy above the pyramid on our dollar bill. It’s been known by the few. Now we all know.” The preacher physicist climbed down from the truck, jumped up into the cab, and turned the key, flattened the gas pedal against the floor, and sped in the direction of the next town. He was traveling alone and no one had caught his name if he had said it.
People drifted away and talked among themselves in excited clusters. But just as I turned away, there was a loud eerie cry and something like the odor of outdoor grilling was in the air. Ribs or T-bones. It had been a long time, but I recognized the stench of flesh. I nearly gagged. I looked back.
The same group of lost souls I’d seen around the pickup was gathering around a tall tapered octagonal pillar, taller than any building in the town. It was slender pole and there were a row of them, placed about a block apart one from the other. At the top of each were two cross pieces each with four or five glass insulators that caught the sunlight and held high voltage transmission wires in place. A little further down the pole were the step down transformer buckets that looked for all the world like a couple of pressure cookers. These were rusted. Single strands of wire stretched out of these to service lines that led to streetlights and businesses along the street.
A man had climbed up the pillar beyond the transformers and up to the high voltage wires. He had meant to touch the highest wire, the one with the most power running through it. In the early days of television, guys putting up their own TV antennas were often electrocuted when their antennas toppled over on to these high voltage wires. They were accidentally electrocuted. But this man’s death was no accident. He was in his early 40s I guessed. He had a scruffy thin black beard and wore a ball cap with a green and blue hawk icon on the front of it. He was dressed in a white v-necked tee shirt and a pair of jeans. His scuffed and grubby red wing work boots and socks were on the ground below, blasted off his feet. He knew what he was doing because he had to somehow have touched to opposite wires. He was still up there, grinning, hands blacked and crisp, arms spread eagle against the top cross piece, legs dangling below, supported by a couple of guy wires. He was smiling.
Below him, a woman stood crying and yelling, “Praise God, the power and the glory.”
“Praise God, the all powerful.” The whole bunch that had been listening to the physicist was gathered round now and laying hands on her and one another. They could feel a tingle moving from hand to hand they said.
Their eyes were closed and they swayed slightly to some silent rhythm.
I drove out of town and home without taking time to drop off paintings or collect cash from last month’s sale.
I couldn’t stay away forever. I wondered what happened next and needed to get some cash and other supplies, so I drove back in a couple of months. There were stacks of newsletters called “The Current” on the counters of stores I visited. I leafed through one. “The Current” was peppered with stories of people finding God by touching open light sockets or dumping “hot” radios into bathtubs while sitting in the water. It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever heard of. There were posters glued to the cement power poles in town that read, “You’ll get the shock of your life when you find God.” I didn’t know whether to take this seriously. I avoided speaking to anyone on the streets. I took my work to Polly. She suggested that I begin bringing in paintings of the giant poles. People were looking for symbols of energy for their homes. Polly was ever the one to see an opportunity to make a buck.
“The tourism is bound to increase. We’ve had some national attention because the movement started here,” she said.
“Oh yes,” she said. “That preacher,” she pointed an enameled finger to a photograph on the cover of “The Current,” has been offered a national television show. It’s called Power and Glory. He’s on once a week. And it all started here.”
I couldn’t get home fast enough.
One morning when I stepped outside, there was a very small Asian man using a rag to wipe the dust off the fenders and hood of his newish black Accord. The chrome on the bumpers was already spotless, so shiny his smooth, smiling face was reflected from the front one when he leaned over the hood to wipe the license tag. I don’t know how long he’d been there. He was five feet one or two at the most and wore a light-weight barong tagalog shirt and a straw hat with a snap-brim. He wadded the cloth up into a ball, opened the trunk of the car, and tossed it in when he saw me. “Do you know where the gathering is to be?” he asked me. Of course I didn’t. I didn’t know there was a gathering. “Never mind,” he said, “I’ll find it.”
During the day, dozens of vehicles passed my house. There were Airstreams and tear-drops and food trucks and cars that were barely running. They coughed and spluttered and left dark oil stains on the roadway. Large metal canisters of gas or water or both were strapped to their tops along with extra tires. I saw a couple of model-T trucks with the hoods removed and engines and radiators exposed. Then there were the RVs as big as Greyhound buses with solar panels and TV antennas and pop out porches and poodle dogs peering out windows.
By the evening, the traffic thinned out and I leashed the dogs and walked down the road so I could see where they had all been heading. I reached the outskirts of a large encampment in about twenty minutes.
There were drummers in the middle of several concentric rings of people seated in folding chairs. Some were people were dancing around but most just sat and stared up at the towers. Or at the sky. I had a couple of brief conversations and was told that they were all looking for a sign. This was the center of the movement because it was from these posts that the electricity that joined the first believer to the power of God had come. Someone produced a map of the grid to show me. Sure enough. The tower they were under held a line that looped over the desert and a few hills and headed directly toward the town.
What I didn’t realize was that many people had already begun their fast. They were preparing to climb the towers within the week, sometimes several at a time, and wanted to be “pure” when they touched God. Meanwhile, vendors set up to sell tee-shirts with “End of Time” slogans and the lightening image against a black background. There were ball caps and flags and books and brochures and palm readers and dog toys and cat beds, all with the same logo or with a picture of Michelangelo’s creation of Adam. The hottest seller showed the logo’s lightening strike as a representation of the spark of life that jumped from God’s finger to Adam’s.
There were photographs being taken of the towers themselves, many with devotees of the new religion posed against the lattice and, incidentally, my paintings.
Of course if you preferred, there were vendors were available to take photographs for a price and print them right on the spot. You could buy a button with a picture of yourself touching a tower strut and the statement “I touched God” printed over it.
You could buy a chit to use the portable toilets and other chits for jugs of water available courtesy of the local Rotary Club. The county Democrats were selling hamburgers. Some said the smell of meat was in poor taste. The Demos switched to veggie burgers by the next morning.
One night, The drums and chanting did not stop and around one in the morning I heard firecrackers, scraped a chair across the floor to my porch, and sat out to see the fireworks show. People applauded and cheered. Then the drums began again. I got back to sleep around 3.
This was the morning, they had told me, that people would begin the climb. So I made a cup of coffee and sipped it as I watched the sunrise beyond the eastern mountains and strolled to the site. From what I could gather from the chatter, not all were aiming for the tops of the towers and the high voltage. Some planned simply to tie themselves to the crossbars and stay there facing the blazing sun until they died. But the main show, of course, would be the people who made it all the way and joined hands with the source, the manifestation of God on earth.
The encampment became semi-permanent for some. Because we were at the peak of a sunspot cycle, odd disturbances to the geomagnetic field on earth caused the power grid to fluctuate and sometimes one had to hang on to the wires for a few minutes before being electrocuted. Northern lights could be seen even at our latitude. Lightening storms were frequent, especially in the distinct mountains. Everything was taken as a sign. And still there was no rain and the river and dammed lake levels dropped lower.
Nobody much cared because the whole world had gone to hell. I was fine. But rumor was that there were actually wars being fought over water. I was told that several small Pacific Island nations had moved to the Northwest and established colonies in the national forests. Nobody could stop them. Nobody cared. Somebody passing by one day reported that humans had abandoned the whole of North Africa and Greenland and Finland, though without machinery or power, were growing orchards full of peaches and apricots. Somebody said Alaska native peoples had started vineyards.
One day, a climber touched a wire, hung on as time passed, and nothing happened. Not even a little shock. Another followed her up and tried. Nothing. The people below were alarmed. Rumors started. “We’ve been abandoned,” they said, as one after another people climbed and lived.
Slowly, they all packed up their tents and campers and moved out.
Though, as I said, a few come as curious tourists or to lay flowers at the base of the towers. All the charred body bits and picked, dried bones were long since collected by entrepreneurs who placed them in tiny beribboned reliquaries and sold them as one might sell the remains of a saint.
I am happy and living pretty much the way I was before the towers and the believers came. The people digging had already gone. That had been a last ditch effort. They mucked up the land but though it was desecrated, I’m doing my best to restore it. I want the birds to return, the beetles to come back, the ants to bring their eggs home. I want to hear the crickets and the coyotes and the ravens. I will do what I can. Someday the rain will return and it will find a place free of hurt, a place prepared to accept it. I fill the holes, I bless the scars, and I speak to every sign of life. Jerome is with me when I do this work. Jerome is always with me.