Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Deep Heart's Core

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
-William Butler Yeats

I saw my cousin Danny the other day and he tells me this story. You won’t believe it cause I didn’t either and told him so, but he held up three fingers and said, “Hell yeah believe it, Scouts honor!” so that was that. He and two buddies, Dingo and Fish, are in the Sawtooth’s on vacation. Well, not vacation really, just out hiking like madmen for the hell of it he says. He doesn’t even like hiking, but those two are real hoots, so why not? Well for two days they go up and down the hills for about a thousand miles until they come to a lake where they decide to pit stop. Danny is soaking his feet while Dingo and Fish are peeing in a squirrel hole, just farting around, that sort of thing, right? Beautiful place, really, and smack dab in the middle of nowhere. We’re talking off the maps.
They haven’t been stopped ten minutes when a weedy figure comes out of the woods limping like he’s been batted in the knee. Just a hobbling. He’s a lanky bugger with a jagged beard, and not just cause he loves facial hair neither. He might not have seen a bathroom in a year. The beard and the limp make him look like an old man, but up close they can see that he aint. Well the guy makes a bee line for them and pipes in with an awful accent none of ‘em can place and says “What do you make of this heat boys?” No kidding. Just like he was one of them. Not ‘Hello’, not ‘What you fellas doing way up here’, just “What do you make of this heat boys?”
So Dingo says, “I make that the sun aint made of cheese, old timer.” I got a crack out of that. I know old Dingo and he’s a class A smart ass, so it’s just like him to call some dude “old timer.”
The guy says, “Son you should be a weatherman.” and then just smiles and shines a row of about fifty white teeth through his greasy beard. He was creepier than a spider, my cousin says.
The guy pulls out a dirty plastic container and scoops a drink of lake water, moving quite gracefully for a gimp, if you can imagine such a thing. Then he plunks down on a rock and asks if they’d spare him a bite to eat. Danny gives him half a sandwich and of course Fish, the last great Christian, gives him their only candy bar. The stranger gabbles as all their bodies rest in the sun, and the guy’s a real stretcher. I mean one after another. He’s had a million ladies, the ole bum Don Juan. And he’s worked a hundred jobs in a hundred countries, he says, though his working days are done. You name the war, I bet this guy says he was front and center. So what’s he doing up here, they ask, and he says he abandoned the public life for more human planes. He starts sounding like a real wacko.
So Dingo, graceful as always, says, “What the hell happened to your leg?”
The guy turns his leg to them. “The little brother sliced my knee in half with a cattle prick” he says, like it’s the most normal thing in the world. His pant leg was black and stitched up, all zig-zaggy like the neck of Frankenstein.
“Was it an accident?”
“He cut you on purpose?”
“Why would he do a thing like that?”
“Well, son, I reckon I made him mad.”
“You never said your name,” said Fish.
“I know it,” he said.
Old Dingo was silent a few seconds. Studying the leg. “You’d have to be more than mad to cut up your own brother.”
“You’re lucid, son.”
“You ever make peace with him?” says Fish.
“In a manner of speaking,” he says. “I killed him dead as winter.”
They all get stone quiet. Of course what do you say?
Then he starts whistling.
Danny said you knew at that moment the dude was a few screws shy. And it’d be one thing if it was your rolling down the road with the top down whistling. But it wasn’t. Instead it was a trilling, vibrato whistle that shot through the air and echoed off the lake and the trees, like he’d swallowed a flock of songbirds gone berserk. And the notes he was whistling wasn’t any notes they’d heard before, and Fish said that listening to him felt like bowing to a false God. That’s a churchy way of putting it, but neither could think of any other description.

You can imagine what’s going through their heads now. They’re sitting at some unidentified lake that’s off the charts and run plumb into a murderer who whistles like some inhuman flute. Unlucky bastards, but stranger things have happened right? My cousin has his shoes on by this time and Dingo, who’s usually a solid cucumber, starts to get all fidgety.
“So what are you doing up in these parts?” Dingo says.
“I live here.”
“Nobody lives here.”
“You must not be counting me. In fact this is my lake, and these are my trees, and the dirt you’re standing on is my patio.”
Well Fish being Fish takes mild offense to that and says, “This lake aint nobody’s lake but God’s.”
The man rises off the rock and shuffles a few steps closer and grins his pearlies again. “You’re wrong fish. I know God and he’s an owner of very little that isn’t a stolen heart pumping stolen blood.”
Fish’s eyes sink a bit, because to this point they aint said his name, so they’re wondering whether the stranger knew him somehow or not. It could have been an honest enough coincidence, but something seemed off.
“You been following us?” Dingo says.
The stranger chuckles, “Why do you ask?”
“If you don’t mind me sayin’, you don’t add up.”
“I might say the same about you three.”
“Yeah, how’s that?”
“Take it for what it’s worth. Take it from a man whose home is the woods you’re in. Take it from an old grizzly with a bum leg. Take it from someone who sees nothing but three scared and lost sheep.”
One thing is that old Dingo is a hothead, you know? Couldn’t keep his temper with a leash and a lock. So he stands and says “You know what I think mister? I think you aint never killed anybody. I think its time you turned around and took tail before I knock it off. I’ve kicked plenty of healthy ass and I aint afraid to kick cripple ass neither.”
The stranger just chuckles again. He’s still standing awkwardly over Fish when slick as silk his arm flashes and in a blink he’s holding a shiny black hand scythe right under Fish’s Adam’s apple.
“You might want to rethink that.” he says.
All was quiet, Danny said, even in the trees, like nature itself was taken aback. The lake spread out behind them clear as a sheet of mirror glass reflecting perfect blue and white. Fish doesn’t have a clue what happened, just that the sharp blade on his neck doesn’t feel so hot. As they’re all stunned at the quickness of those oily hands, the man lays into Fish’s ribs sending him off his own rock and onto his knees,
At this point Dingo is just as scared as he is angry and says, “Look mister, I don’t know what kind of kicks you’re getting, but we’re not looking for anything. We’re just minding our own business.”
“That is an impossible task son,” he says, that full toothed grin still cracking his beard. “You’re not capable of minding a thing. Owning a thing, yes. Taking a thing and putting it to work, yes. But minding something? Come on. Don’t patronize me with your mysticism.” At this nobody says anything. Dingo & Danny are shaking a bit, and Fish just kneels there with his eyes fixated and unblinking on his friends.
“My home is peaceful isn’t it? A man is lucky to have such possessions. I wake up in the morning and my birds sing to me. I wade in the lake and my fish swim about me. Lording as it was meant to be, wouldn’t you say?”
The guy goes on like that, blathering like a certified looney, you know? Danny admits he was a few steps beyond afraid. He’s got numb legs and sweaty hands and the beginnings of an upset stomach. I guess old Dingo hears about as much as he can stand and says, “Okay mister. You’ve made your point. We’re splits, okay. You’ll never see us again.”
“Son, what makes you think I’m letting you go? You know the law against trespassers?”
“Yes, I believe we do.”
“And what kind of a lord would I be to just ignore that?”
“A merciful one, I reckon.”
Just then Fish, if you can believe it, blade at his throat, pipes up and says, “To hell with all that talk Dingo. Don’t listen to this blowhard.”
The stranger looks down at Fish with the eyes of Cain and gives him another knee, and Fish looses his breath and straightens again, as composed as Mozart himself. It’s the nuttiest thing, Danny says, but he almost looks content.
“Look man,” said Dingo, “There’s three of us one of you. You think you’re fast enough to gut us all before we jump you?”
“It’s never a matter of thinking” he said, face straight as ruler. Then with a greasy flutter of the hand he spins the blade like an acrobat and sends the tip delicately in and out of the bottom of Fish’s neck, then back to the its parking spot under the Adam’s apple. Fish winces, and a purple gout of blood lets down onto his shirt collar.
Danny gets real embarrassed about this part too, but I’ll tell it anyways ‘cause I don’t blame the guy. He starts crying. It aint like him, I’ll be the first to say. Hell, I been with him when he dumped head first off his motor bike into gravel with no helmet and he didn’t so much as peep. And I seen his step-dad sock him in the eye twice when we was maybe eight or nine and even then he only cussed. He told me out loud, and he aint proud of it, but he starts to cry.
Dingo sits stock still drilling holes into this nut job with his eyes. The guy is still standing behind Fish, who’s kneeling on the ground, his collar getting redder by the second.
“Now’s when you plead for you life son,” he says.
Fish was silent. He only looked up and shook his head. Danny says he admires Fish as much for that gesture as just about anything.
“Go on. Take a page out of your buddy’s book. I don’t even need tears, just a little recognition.”
Fish’s eyes were clear, but he was silent as a mime with broke hands. He’s is a real rock anyways. The stranger couldn’t have got a word out of him with a chainsaw. That’s when the dude tells both Dingo and Danny to turn around and kneel down too. Of course Dingo tells him to go to hell.
“Unless I underestimate your skills” he says, “you’re going have a difficult time sewing your friend together. Just turn around and kneel.”
Danny was trying his best to regain himself and asks, “Why are you doing this? We aint nothing to you.”
“Do I need a reason?” the stranger says. “The earth is full and more of good fortune and bad. Often times one person’s bad is another’s good. The ebb and flow of life.”
They were all silent.
“Danny?” he said.
Danny was just looking at him. Helpless as a newborn.
“There is no why, and that is the best reason of all.”
“Who are you?” Dingo says.
“Turn around and don’t look back.”
“Who are you?”
“One more word and I de-neck this here fish.”
Danny gets down on his knees and turns around, and Dingo reluctantly follows. Behind them a few feet is Fish, cool as an ice cube, the blade still at his throat. That’s when they heard it again, that insane whistle, bouncing off the lake and filtering through the pines and leaves. Danny says it was driving him batty and that he couldn’t hardly keep his eyes in one spot, if that aint the craziest idea. Dingo is at his side and starts to shrug his shoulders and cup his ears, but the notes keep coming, vibrating like the stranger’s lips are wrapped around their brains. All they felt like doing, Danny said, was laying down into the dust on their bellies. Hell, I’ve never heard of such a thing, but word for word, that’s what he told me.
Dingo yells back, “You okay there Fish?” but he doesn’t hear anything except that whistle.
Now this goes on for who knows how long. Maybe one of those moments people talk about that seem like an hour, but never are. Then they hear something else. Fish, being Fish, starts to sing. Only God knows why, and it isn’t just any old song as you might imagine, but a hymn. Mark my words, he’s no singer, but his voice is coming out of that white outstretched throat like nobody’s you’ve ever heard. Danny said it’s like someone had stomped on the bellows of some profound fire in his chest. No one knew if it was a real song or if it was being made new as it came out, but it was a hymn alright, in holiest sense and it grew louder. The two noises scrape together in the mountain air while Dingo and Danny are bent over in exhaustion looking at the dirt. It isn’t long and moments later the song stops.
It’s a fuzz, Danny says. He doesn’t even know what happened. One second Fish is an untimely pee shiver away from a new air hole, and the next he is standing right next to them helping Dingo to his feet. Maybe Fish don’t know what happened either. To hear him tell it he just suddenly feels no blade on his neck. No more, no less. Who knows, but when Danny looks sideways they’re hollering run, which they do. They ran and ran, like deer with the trotskies, and still rising above the trees is the sound of the stranger’s slipshod whistle jerking at their ears. They hightail it to the edge of the clearing, Fish yelling all the time to keep going and to not look back. Their lungs catch fire in their chests, and their hearts beat like the kitchen made drum kits of youth, and above the beat still chasing them down paths of fallen trees is the lunatic noise. It’s ringing in the air and all about them the whole time it takes them to get back, which was about three hours. Not long considering. None of them said a word until they got to their truck. Either they was running or they was sucking air, but they sure as hell weren’t chatting.
You know me. No reason to blow smoke up anybody. Danny told me that although Fish was yelling to not look back when they were there in the clearing, he did. Fear and curiosity, right? Well you know what he saw? Nothing. Not a man, not a blade, not a ripple in the water. Nothing. He glanced back every minute or so at first, his skin just crawling at the sound, but never saw a thing. I don’t know what he expected, the guy was gimp. Danny ain’t a liar. He just aint. And I asked him if they’d been drinking, but he swears they was stone sober. But he also told me that when they got back to their outfit they still heard the whistle, and it didn’t go away until they got off the mountain.
The mind is a crazy gizmo. Way beyond what I’ll ever understand, so who’s to say what’s possible and what aint. But I don’t believe they just made it up. I know there’s some real nutso stuff out there. Ignore it as much as you can, I always say. But some things you can’t. What’s a man to make of it? You just have to build a new place in your brain to put it, I guess.


Christy said...

I'm glad you decided to post this. I love this story.

Nick said...

Killer Les, really killer. Its kinda like Heart of Darkness, except without the river, or boat, or Kurtz. But the old man is kinda Kurtz like....

Anyway, I think its great.

Livs said...

Lovely, lovely work! I love the narrative voice, as well as the distinct characterizations. GOOD STUFF! I think you may have been an AP while I was in El Guabo? Anyhooter, Congrats on having such a beautiful family and such a way with words....

Jen said...

Great story Les, you are a really good writer.

Darrin and Alicen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darrin and Alicen said...

You've sure got the talent Les. That was very enjoyable to read.

(I reposted this to say who was posting...although Darrin enjoyed it as well)--