He had unzipped the lower part of the legs of his Goretex hiking pants and stepped out of them, while he leaned against a rough stone wall. Then he had folded them and pushed them into his rucksack, pulled its drawstring tight again, and gone on. His long legs, suddenly freed to the air, were hairy and knobble-kneed.
He had been walking since dawn – a small revelation, the hushy ruddiness of an hour he rarely saw. Sharp cold, and the spreading flush seeming to tickle the undersides of low, distant banks of cloud.
But the sun had grown hot hours ago now, and he was looking for shade. He’d struck out over the hills behind the guest-house, away from the sea; up and over and down through scrub and rock, sometimes clumps of cedar, or an isolated olive grove. But there’d been no shade for a while, and he’d drunk the last of his water. He should have brought more. If he’d stayed on the roads he would have passed through villages – but he hadn’t the stomach now for people, not even some swarthy shopkeeper with a half-genial grunt; not even for a minute. He needed to get away, and to think; or rather walk through his thinking, and feel something beyond it – just his tread, his sweating shoulders, his long steps up the inclines.
There, at some distance before him, was a dark-green hill – the whole hill covered with olives. He couldn’t see a farmhouse, but often the groves belonged to people who lived in one of the villages. He clumped down through rocks and thin dry bushes and made for the grove.
There was an opening into the trees that looked just like a cave – dark and arched and inviting. He stepped into it, and was suddenly in a different world.
It’s true, what antiquity says: if you offer a foe an olive branch, you are offering to surrender to peace. Olive groves are uncannily soothing. There is something in the trees themselves that confers tranquillity. Each tree is a specimen, an individual – gnarled, swirly as a Van Gogh painting, all its dimensions rounded. It doesn’t thrust into the sky like a pine, but lies in wait like a mother to kiss your face etherically and soothe you as you pass by.
The tree seems wise with its centuries, its long waiting. There is no hurry in it.
He tramped between the rows in old dry grass, watching his step on the uneven ground. The grove was huge – there was no other thing on the hill but trees, and their sheltering creatures he could sense but could not see – owls, insects, maybe snakes, rodents, tortoises. Cicadas there were surely – their dessicated purr furled through the afternoon. He was heading towards the summit when he espied a thicket of some sort of bush he didn’t know the name of. Peering behind it, he found that he was looking at the entrance of a cave.
It resembled that initial cave of trees – an arched darkness – but was not so high. He’d have to kneel to enter it. He wondered at himself – why should he go in there?…And yet he knew he would.
His bare knees complained of the rough ground. Those knees were usually in jeans, and tucked under a desk – utterly forgotten. The pale skin shuddered at sharp leaf-edges, gravel, dirt, poky sticks.
He was surprised to see that the cave he was entering was not as dark as one might expect. It was about five feet tall, the same wide; and at the back it sloped down to show the entrance to a low tunnel, with light coming through.
So. This was just an antechamber he was in.
He’d been crouched over – he was over six feet tall, and had to stoop – but now he knelt again to survey the tunnel.
It was low – perhaps only eighteen inches from floor to ceiling – and appeared to be about four feet long. He thought of squirming through it on his belly, but notions of dirt in his mouth stopped him. So he lay down on his back with his head in the entrance and pushed with his feet while keeping his arms right beside him, using his elbows for traction. It was distinctly claustrophobic, looking right up at the bumpy rock in front of his face. But at least he knew the tunnel ended soon. He was not a spelunker and had no taste for labyrinthine adventures, thinking them foolhardy, and redolent of catacombs and mausoleums.
Quite soon his head had emerged…into a much grander atrium. Quickly he urged the rest of his body through the tunnel, and then, reclaiming his arms and legs, he sat up smartly and looked about him.
This chamber was much larger – about twenty feet across, and roughly the shape of a dome. The high ceiling had many humps and bumps, and he could see light coming through it in several places.
So. The hill was hollow, at least partly. And the top of it, among the rocks, must be shot through with holes. It would make for a leaky roof in a rainstorm.
But the place was somehow cheerful – cool, but not cold; with a pleasing dimness, and yet the rays of sun brought optimism and a good measure of visual clarity.
Again he looked about him, more slowly this time. The uneven sandy floor met the walls in all manner of lumps and hummocks, but there was a flattish place about six feet across, not far from where he sat.
He was not surprised to see man-made objects there. Surely this cave must have been known to people for thousands of years…How could it not be? This part of the world had been well-trod since pre-antiquity. The hidey-hole must have been used for all kinds of things – rituals, trysts, concealment during wars, storage, perhaps…and more.
He stood up, enjoying the sense of space above him – the top of the chamber rose at least thirty feet – and went over to the two objects.
One was a single bedstead, made of wood and rope. Someone must have pushed the components of it down the tunnel, then assembled it here. The rope was coming loose in places, and a frayed end stuck out. The bed looked old – no plastic anywhere about it.
The other object was less easy to identify.
He turned, bent and picked it up; gave it his full attention.
It was round – a sort of flattened cylinder – about eight inches high and maybe twenty inches broad, and made, as far as he could see, entirely of wood. Around the edge were strange little vertical dowels, like on a drum. The center part seemed to be movable; it could be rotated by means of a carved crank at the top – something like a salad-spinner.
But what was it for?
He turned it over, feeling its dry weight in his hands.
The bottom was…well, the bottom. It looked just like the top, but without the crank.
He turned it upright again.
Was it some sort of agricultural implement? For winnowing grain, perhaps? But where would you put the grain in? There were no holes visible.
But then he noticed something odd, as he turned it in his hands, sniffed it – no perceivable smell.
Some of the struts – each maybe the thickness of his small finger – had, near the bottom, an inset of stone.
That was very odd.
Was it some sort of ceremonial object?
He looked more closely.
The stones were a dark blood-maroon…garnet? He’d almost missed them, against the dark wood; but then, he could not have expected to see such a thing. Each was the size of his little fingernail, and was raised a little – a cabuchon.
Every third strut had a stone.
What could this thing be? It was not a drum – there was no resonating skin on it. It seemed hollow – almost like an old-fashioned ice-cream maker; but again, where would you put the ingredients in?
He sat back on his heels. He was quite thirsty now; he ought to leave this place, go find the road, a village. He shouldn’t leave it too long.
But he did not want to leave…not yet. His mind began to play and muse over possibilities.
Could it be…a time machine? Somehow?
Ha ha, he thought. And then the idea caught at him – if it were a time machine…he could go back…do…he knew not what…something…so that things might have ended differently. Surely, somehow they could have.
A flash of an inner movie came to him – a scene, oft-repeated.
He’s standing in front of their house in Carmel, California. The car is driving away. He can only see its hind end – a sight he now finds more ugly than anything else he can imagine: the blunt, careless, farting, stupid back end of a car.
She was so…curvy. And soft. In his arms at night. so…steely. Determined. That part he often ignored, not knowing what to do with it. Though he probably relied on it too. Terribly. Oh god. It scared him, that fierce intention of hers, though it seemed to him that she herself might not know where it wanted to lead her. But it might very well take her…where he couldn’t follow.
Her hair. Amber, fragrant with the essential oils she added to her shampoo – cinnamon, clove, bergamot. she’d told him the names.
Her breasts – her sacred, drooping-yet-jutting, tanned and pretty breasts – his; yet not his at all. Her strong hips and thighs, her belly criss-crossed with the lattice of stretch-marks.
And then his mind skittered, glancing off the next thing. His stomach lurched. He bent over.
The small one. Honey-haired too. Slim and vibrant, leaping, questioning, tugging at his hand, having breathy little conversations with him he could not exactly follow. Confiding things he did not feel equal to receiving.
How could they both just get in a car and drive off to fucking CANADA?
He did not think the rift was mendable. He himself lacked something – something human, important. That at least he could see.
He knew that of course he’d be able to spend time with his little girl – that was only legal – but he’d not made any threats of legal action. They’d not gone to lawyers. Not yet.
He’d not stood in Shara’s way. He knew the fault for whatever had gone wrong, was his.
He’d simply watched them drive up the street, past the neighbors’ houses with their cedars and crape myrtle, trumpet vine, oak and walnut. Then turn at the end, to the right, away from the sea; heading for the freeway.
He was kneeling now, the strange object lain down beside him in the sandy dirt. His stomach hurt. His throat was dry, so dry it was closing. He swallowed, but there was no moisture. He sat down on his narrow behind, hands beside him, digging into the soil.
And then came the bolt of pain through his hand, up into his arm.
His hand flew up by itself – he saw the scorpion clinging to it, tail curled over towards his thumb, fangs in his flesh – he shook and shook his hand in panic. The creature stayed on! It was hideous to see, bluish-tan, with a kind of sectioned yellow underbelly, and that tail curled right over its back. Horrid!
He was sobbing, gibbering as he flung out his hand. The scorpion suddenly flew free and hit the wall. Vanished into a crevice.
He was amazed at the pain. Had anything that painful ever happened to him before? He didn’t think so. Not falling off a bicycle, not skinning his leg raw on a tree he’d slid down, not even getting his shoulder punched by a big boy when he was nine. This was bad.
He was staring at his hand – the sting was on the web between the thumb and forefinger. It was already swelling.
Soon his hand was swollen hard and he felt dizzy. He sat down on the bed. What was he going to do? If he slid back out into the antechamber, retrieved his rucksack – he’d left it there, thinking it unnecessary to push it through the tunnel when he’d only be gone a few minutes – he would perish before he’d got down off the hills, ill, in the hot sun, without water or a hat. Why hadn’t he brought a hat? It was because Shara always told him to wear one…His phone was in his rucksack, but there would be no reception out here. He had part of a cellophane packet of dried figs, all packed tight together in a brick; and a bag of salted pistachios. That would keep him from starving, if he could manage to get through the tunnel with his hand like this…though that was a big If, it hurt like hell, throbbing and yet half numb too.
Now weird little spasms started to go through his arm. His hand swelled even as he watched – hard as a baseball, fat and round, with tinges of red, purple, green, white about it.
The worst thing was, he didn’t know what to expect. How bad were scorpion stings supposed to be? He had a vague notion that scorpions would be different in different parts of the world – but he didn’t know just how. There were scorpions in California – they liked the hot dry desert, the rocky uplands of the coastal range – but when he’d been a child he’d always headed to the beach, not up into the stickery hills. When his father belittled him or yelled around the house, he’d slipped out and down to the cool and soothing sands where the tide was just flowing out, walk there barefoot. Sat on a rock and gazed at the sea. So he didn’t know much about scorpions and spiders and things.
Did scorpions kill you? He thought they might.
His breath was shallower now. He was so thirsty! Was there no moisture anywhere? He looked wildly about him, but saw no telltale darkness in the sand.
What would it feel like, to die of a scorpion sting? Was his arm beginning to swell too? His ribs seemed too small for his heart.
Why had he come here? Run off to Greece, just because he’d loved and respected one of his professors in college, who’d happened to be Greek – who’d been kind, and very patient with him, and who loved to lecture and make jokes, and made mathematics come alive; who’d treated him as a whole human being, as if he mattered.
As Ben’s father had never done.
So Ben had lit off here when Shara left, and now look at him – stuck in a cave on a fucking mountain, dying of a scorpion sting. He should have studied up on the fauna! The various hazards! But he’d been too upset and in a hurry…determined to do something rash. Show Shara that he could strike out too, into the wider world. That he didn’t only need her. He should have stayed in Carmel, gotten some kind of therapy, that’s what Shara was always trying to get him to do…She loved therapy, did Shara – she and her girlfriends, with their tarot cards and crystals and past-life regressions. They’d stay in the den for hours, twittering and guffawing. Hunh.
How did girls get so happy? he mused moodily. Shara and Tallulah, spry as cats, bouncy and energetic and laughing, playing with clothes, or dandelions, or Tallulah’s dolls; or even swinging together in the swing-set out in the back yard. Like Shara was still a kid. How did they do that?
…But this thought was over in a tiny mote of time – because the hand yanked his terrified attention back with its throbbing doom.
Oh god, oh god – what should he do? What could he do?
Then he had an idea.
Perhaps, if his hand hurt so much, he should yell? It couldn’t do any harm – he was past caring if he looked like an idiot – and someone might hear him, and come to investigate.
He had to get past his father to do this – his father, yelling at him not to yell – telling him he was a wuss, a pansy.
He squared his chin and then opened up his mouth. He visualized the agony in his hand – it was like the poor thing had been smashed in a car door – springing out his mouth as he screamed. He yelled, howled, even cussed like a demented harpy, waving his hands about and letting the injured one scream out his wide-open mouth.
Then he found he was screaming for Shara – and then screaming at her – all the buried rage he kept for her, her facilities, slidiness, brightness – and her self-preservation; that took her far away. He screamed at her for leaving him, for taking their daughter, for making their daughter just like her. How could she do this to him????
He howled, raged, even beat the hurt hand on the edge of the bedstead – an explosion of the fiercest agony he’d ever felt –
Then he fainted.
When he came to a moment later he was lying face-down across the rope webbing of the bedstead. His hand was an angry purple and absolutely huge.
He broke into sobs – as if he’d cracked open suddenly, like an egg. He wept and howled and cried the tears his father never let him cry…thinking to himself that he was a wuss, was pitiful – he cried for fifteen minutes, half an hour, he didn’t know how long.
He never cried – what the hell was going on?
But the strange thing was, he was starting to feel better inside himself, in his chest, his stomach – even as his hand and arm burned and burst with pain, as if a car was running over it now, squashing it into the rocky ground…as if someone had thrust a pointed burning sharpened branch into it and was grinding the point around.
If he was going to die, at least let him get his tears out first, then -.
And he got the notion that this was an opportunity, an excuse to let his demons out, on the wake of the pain in his hand. And so, for the first time ever, he turned his attention deliberately to a sorrow and deliberately let it find egress: he thought about his father.
He sat up now on the bed and opened his mouth and yelled at his father – everything he’d ever wanted to yell. “You FUCKING BASTARD! YOU FUCKED UP MY WHOLE LIFE! Because of you i’m a FUCKING WIMP! FUCK YOU! I HATE YOUR FUCKING GUTS! YOU ASSHOLE! YOU STUPID – OLD – SHIT! You fucking BASTARD!” And he smote with his good hand into the air, imagining his father’s florid face there, his puffy eyes. Punched his dad in the puffed-out gut, ARGH! ERGH! THERE! “YOU SHIT! I lost my woman because of you! I KIIIIIIL YOU!” …and he imagined that his good hand held a knife.
By and by he felt a little better – actually a lot better.
In fact, he felt pretty damned good – except for the hand, except for that he was dying – but he was going out strong, fuck the fucking bastard, “WHY DID YOU HAVE KIDS IN THE FIRST PLACE IF YOU WERE GOING TO HATE THEM? ARGGHHH….” And then he cried some more.
All the childhood he had lost! All the brave adventures they should have had together! That ASSHOLE!!!
He was standing up now, sobbing, and somehow there was moisture enough in his body to make the mucus that ran down his face, the tears that wet his cheeks and dripped from his chin while he scrubbed at them with his good hand.
He felt amazing now – like he’d had a good bowel movement, only it was from his heart, from all over.
He just wanted to lie down.
Did that mean he was dying?
Well – nothing to be done. He couldn’t get outside now – his arm was too swollen, he’d not make it through that tight squeeze, you needed to scootch along with your elbows -what if he passed out in there, inside the tunnel, with all that rock right up around him?
His stomach and chest went cold, and he felt sweat come out on them.
What if another scorpion stung him while he was in there? His legs were bare, and his arms -.
But anyway he didn’t feel like going out there. It was all too much out there. He’d just stay in here, and maybe perish…
He lay down on the bed, face upwards. His eyes were now puffed slits, like his dad’s ha, but different…
But he could see that the light coming through the holes in the ceiling had changed. It was softer, not so bright.
He fell downwards towards sleep…
When suddenly he heard someone call his name!
Clear and strong.
It was Shara’s voice, as if she was just near him, in the cave.
He came full awake.
That was weird! All that commotion he’d made, and no Greek peasants had come to rescue him – but this?
What was going on?
He lay back and pondered the matter. How had her voice sounded? What was she trying to say?
She’d sounded peremptory, but also alarmed. Like she wanted his attention. Like something was going on.
She would call him, then – if she was in trouble? He’d doubted himself…but he was her husband, he was Tallulah’s dad – he was a fixit guy, he knew cars, he knew tools, he knew all kinds of stuff – she’d called him!
No – maybe she knew he was in a fix?
But maybe, somehow, unbeknownst or conscious as it might be, for some reason something in both of them reached out to touch the other?
He tried, in his mind’s eye, to picture her route.
Her parents lived in Edmonton, Alberta.
That was a long drive. There were all sorts of places on the way where mishaps could occur.
Why hadn’t he been worried about her, not only himself?…and he realized that he had been, underneath…
His arm, his hand, seemed to hurt a bit less now.
He went back to looking at the map in his mind.
If she’d stayed at motels each night…it was still a trip of days. She might just be getting near there today, if all had gone well…
And if it hadn’t?
He closed his eyes and strained into the dark, trying to see.
One of his feet, still in the hiking boot, was on the ground, his knee bent; one leg was on the cot. The foot down there touched something. He opened his eyes – oh yeah, the weird object. The round thing.
Then a picture came to him, a feeling – almost as if his own body had issued a command: Put the round thing on your belly.
He felt his flat, skinny belly calling out for the thing, wanting to feel its circular shape.
What was that thing anyway? A petrified drum? No – it had that crank on it. Ah, well…
And he leaned over and grasped the thing by one of its struts, and lifted it – it was heavier than it looked, yet too light to be solid wood – and he brought his other foot up too, and lay full length on the old cot, with the object resting on his belly, half-on, half-off his loose shorts.
He closed his eyes.
His hand was getting better now – quite definitely. It was a bit smaller and the pain was distinctly less. Maybe he wasn’t going to die now after all. Maybe a Greek scorpion sting wasn’t the worst sort of scorpion sting in the world.
It was much darker now in the cave. Gloaming outside then, in the trees. The owls would be coming out.
He could feel the silence grow watchful around him. The new darkness was touching his face, holding him; touching his eyelids. At least he was safe in here, he supposed – whatever that meant. He laughed to himself.
These thoughts settled by and by and he felt the round object on his belly, anchoring him with its gentle weight.
He was falling into something like sleep; and yet it was not sleep, not yet. Such a good, soothing feeling…his soul seeming washed clean, even as his painful hand throbbed; yet less than it had.
It was as if the thing on his belly was dialling him like an old-fashioned rotary phone. Calling his number. Right down through the horror of his thirst, the pain in his hand, the relief in him. He didn’t know why he wanted it there – he just did – it was centering him, pulling him in to some important, central location in himself.
His body was contracted, shrinking – screaming silently for water – and yet he was falling into some place that had sweetness. Dialling round.
His body seemed now to begin to spin…
He finds himself in some deeper cave – as if there is a chamber below this one. It is circular, and has narrow pillars of stone around the perimeter, at regular intervals, just as on the mysterious object.
In each stone pillar is set a large garnet – he can see the rich maroon glow of it.
There are Beings in the chamber – he can sense them, though he can’t see them.
They seem to be watching him, inspecting him curiously. He can feel their attention kneading him like soft cats’ paws.
They are in some way garnet-beings – there is the same maroon glow about them as about the stones; yet with more light in it. He feels they are benign. They want the best for him – are coming closer, to see what he is made of – how they might be able to help.
It is like they are wearing robes – he can almost see the reddish glow of them slipping through the dark, whisking here and there.
Things go on turning. He is quite off his head now – lost in this deeper place.
He is not in charge of anything.
They come close to where he lies on this same old bedstead, but in that deeper room. They reach out and begin to touch…not his body, but around his body.
They are working on him.
They are entering his universe on the level where their color lives – their deep resonance of earth and longing and lust – yet all of it transformed to a kind of silent beauty, through some alchemy he cannot name.
They knead at his aura.
A kind of fragrance comes to him – rich, cinnamony. Impossibly sweet…
They are kneading at him. Replacing his lonely anguish with a sense of belonging, of welcome.
As if he is loved.
Tears burn his eyes under the lids. No, no, no more water going out! he thinks.
Instantly a new thing occurs: it is as if the mountain has yielded up sweet, pure water and this is being transferred into his body by the Beings. They are squeezing out the stuck poison from the insect with the bowed tail; the bruising of his whole body in its fight with life, its sullen, wounded mien.
The legacy of his father.
His dad is being squeezed out of him, the yellow and purple and green of the venom is being drained out – and the coolest, most delicious, earth-borne water is washing through him instead. He makes a huge sigh…
He sees his mother – her timidity – and the timid way he himself loves.
His heart spins like a daisy.
The Beings cover him with a soft, soft blanket, for the night has grown cold. The blanket is of love – soft, light, non-interfering.
They pluck thorns out of his flesh – old thorns, made of past hurts.
They tell him he has done well tonight.
One leans over and kisses his face gently.
Then they knead away the last of the pain and the poison, the bruised colors of his life and who he thought he was.
Now, one plants a bush of the reddest roses in the aura above his chest; he sees the bush’s great root-system wrap him round, the streaming sap within the roots integrating all that has occurred…and there are thorns if he needs them, to repel invaders of whatever stripe.
The roses themselves, a multitude, are both his gifts and his gratitude, blooming there.
And he is filling with cool clear water…the rosebush nourishing him like a smile.
There is a mighty squeeze – all over him – and something exits his body down near his bottom. It looks like a huge raw liver.
His dad. His dad’s life. Leaving him.
It is not his own. It is Other.
It belongs out of him.
The liver slides away on a torrent of underground water, a river; and he can see that as it moves off round a bend, flowers have appeared upon it, to decorate it – the beginning of what his father must go through to find his own redemption, in his own time, in his own way.
It will be taken care of.
He is suddenly hungry. Yet he knows that he is not harmed by waiting – he is cleaning now, cleaning out.
Lying there on his back, in the dark and the shelter and the increasing chill, the ropes rough through his shirt, he hears a voice-that-isn’t-a-voice – just a sort of command, as if from both inside and outside of him – Go.
And he knows this means, Go to Edmonton.
Things are still now. The Beings have gone back into the walls.
He wakes later, here in the normal, upper cave, shivering with cold. He is so thirsty he feels possessed – yet his heart is floating, billowing, transcendent.
The taste of cinnamon clings around him, like those Red-Hot candies he had when he was young. A sweet smell is in his nose.
It is absolutely black in here.
He lies still, thinking about the condensation that surely must be gathering on the walls. When it’s light enough he will find some, lick it off. Maybe he will even try to do this in the dark. Then, at dawn, he will get out of here, go seek a village and water, and phone reception.
His hand feels much better now. Still swollen, still hurting – but better.
He’s drifting back into sleep, hugging himself with his good arm. He thinks about his trouser legs, out in the rucksack in the antechamber. About his flannel shirt, stuffed in there too.
He’s woken by a sound.
What was that?
As if there was a road nearby, and a car was rolling along on it.
A long, low grumble.
Then there’s a crack – nearer. Light flashes into the cave, goes out again.
He’s breathless, waiting. Makes himself draw breath in, let it out…slowly. No point in getting het up.
It begins to rain.
He can barely hear it – but he can feel the cool swish of air as it moves through the cave. There’s another crack, louder this time. More light.
He’s read someplace that caves aren’t safe from lightning. Lightning can strike inside a cave. You need to be in a building grounded by metal plumbing pipes, if you want to be sure you don’t get struck.
He draws himself in.
But, what to do?
Of course, nothing.
Wait it out.
Soon water is pouring down from the holes in the roof – here, there, there – he can hear it.
He can’t see anything, but he unlaces and takes off his boots and holds one up under a tiny waterfall coming down right beside him. The boot is a quarter-full in a moment. He lifts it to his mouth and drinks down the water passionately, greedily.
It soaks into him instantly, and his body feels exactly like a plant coming back to life – straightening, filling up. He holds the boot up again. Water falls in his eyes, onto his hurt hand. Onto his head.
He drinks and drinks. The boot is smelly, but it is wonderful, wonderful, to drink from it. So wonderful.
The cracks of lightning are fainter now.
Finally the storm passes and, a bit later, the rivulets from above grow silent and disappear.
He’s lying back on the bed in blessed gratefulness, his body swelling up with joy, with life, with relief.
He’d put the round wooden thing aside in his sleep. It’s knocking against his side, so he goes to put it down on the ground beside the bed.
His hand meets water.
Oh my god.
Why didn’t he think of that? In his huge relief – why didn’t he think of that?
The cave is flooding!
Reason tells him that the cave’s position within the top of a hill means it is very unlikely to fill with water. But still, the water has come in from somewhere – it could not have all come through the roof. There must be other, smaller tunnels leading into the broad hill. Anything could happen.
And, of course, his tunnel must be filled. His way out of the cave.
He falls back on the bed again, exhausted. Thank god for the bed! he thinks – astonished, suddenly, at his luck.
Nothing to do but wait.
And he falls asleep again…wet, shivering, hungry – but no longer thirsty; and with a curious lightness in his heart.
Fingers of light probing down into the cave wake him. He is very cold. He stretches – stretches , like a happy cat! – and looks at his arm, his hand. The swelling is further reduced – about tennis-ball size. He can move the arm pretty well.
Then he turns over cautiously, and looks down at the floor.
The water is gone. There’s just mud now, shining a bit in the dawn light.
He rolls off the bed, stands in the cold stuff in his bare feet.
A spark of light travels from his laugh, up to the holes in the roof. Out into the sky.
Some kind of connection – a strange connection, of Nothing to Nothing – for a laugh seems like the pop of a bubble – a little explosion of happy nothingness, saying hello to the sky, which salutes it likewise.
And in that spark, he has his first inkling that emptiness is good.
That it behooves us to befriend it, as often as it appears before us, as often as we can.
This is the light part, then – the crown on the hill, the answer, the counterpoint, to the deep red place he went last night.
The dessert; the reward.
It asks nothing of us…and everything.
Just let there be Nothing, it says. That is where I do my work.
And he laughs again.
As if he’s been given a great secret.
How could this be?
The thing everyone, everything, has taught him to revile?
But he feels it.
Like a thread of light running between him and those holes to the sky – not burdened by content.
That was the thing.
The world was so full of content.
He shook his head now, and bent to the business of getting out of the cave.
It took only a few minutes really. And plenty of mud, wet all over his back; and not thinking about scorpions. They must be safe within the walls. They’d be canny enough for that.
He was in the antechamber now.
His rucksack was gone.
He crawled out through the arch, stood up.
What a wonderful morning! Fog and damp clung to the olives. The pale sky, with its margin of reddish bloom in the east, its subtle pinkish ribbons, barely seen, striating the overreaching dome – was as beautiful a thing as he had ever seen.
Just twenty paces from the entrance, and down the hill a bit, he found his rucksack, lodged in the roots of a big old tree. He sat down, not caring at all about the muck and mud, and foraged around in it.
The figs were wet – that was fine – he began plucking them off the brick and putting them in his mouth, chewing, feeling the sweetness, the tiny crunchy seeds. What fantastic things dried figs were! Made of this place!
The pistachios were fine, still in their sealed plastic pouch. He tore it open and began to pry the shells apart, taking the meat out with his teeth and tongue, putting his tongue-tip, childlike, into each salty shell to taste the goodness, maybe get the bit of husk out, fitting over his tongue-tip dry and thin and salty. Eat that too. Throw the shell away, till the brownish, bent grasses about him were littered.
Biodegradable, he thought.
And then he rose to go.
But he saw it – just there – the round object. The shamanic drum.
It had come open! The action of the water – or it had been hit upon the cave wall – but it was in two parts.
He picked it up, a piece in each hand, and turned it over.
It was an ice cream maker! There was a metal chamber inside, with a space around it for ice and salt.
The shape and dimensions were such that his engineer’s eye told him it would be very efficient at cooling down the mixture fast – the shallowness and breadth gave it a lot of surface area. The crank would turn and turn, and the mixture would move, meeting the icy face of the metal everywhere.
But the garnets? What were the garnets about?
Some young tinkerer, in love with his ice-cream-loving bride. Making her a present – a jewelled confectionery. Some young, strange genius of these hills, some long-dead man he’d never know. Hell, people did build strange things – he had neighbours in California, grown men with money to play with, living out years of quiet dedication building the damnedest things in their garages. Hot-rods with lightning on the sides, powered by banana peels. Helium balloons they sent aloft carrying messages in foreign languages, that came down in a parking lot in the next valley, startling innocent would-be parkers.
Even, sometimes, something nice for their wives – a spice-rack with the names of the spices carved in it. A computer table, inlaid with the names of their children. Agates, polished in their own tumbler; made into a bracelet using copper wire twisted all about the stones, secured with a silver catch they’d bought online.
Why not a garnet-set ice-cream maker?…So that the work of her turning the wheel (and perhaps he turned it some too) would be done in the light of his secret worship.
For Ben was sure that such a man would not much speak.
He turned the two pieces over again in his hands, pondering the mechanism – how did it open? How did you put the ingredients in? An idea came to him, and he pushed on the cabuchons, one by one…and on the third stone, yes, it seemed to yield to the pressure of his finger – he pressed it as far as it would go – and saw a little metal plate stick up above the cylinder…a little latch, then, freed by the button of garnet. Ingenious!
He thought of carrying the relic with him – but knew that he would not. He did not need to keep his revelation. It would keep him.
He went back up and laid the two pieces in the antechamber of the cave.
He flew to Athens, then to Toronto; and on to Edmonton.
Tallulah was bouncing on her grandparents’ couch. It was a long dark-blue velvet-brocade couch, with strong fat armrests. A variety of cushions were strewn about, some on the floor.
Tallulah flew high, legs straight, ponytail aloft. She wore skinny leggings, blue, and a top with pandas on it. Her feet were bare; long and golden. She seemed too tall to be only nine.
He felt keenly the raw fact that he would not always be able to keep her safe – had not been able to, even in this last week.
“Tallulah,” he said. “Would you like to tell me what happened? I would like to hear it from you. Mommy told me last night – but that was Mommy’s scary adventure. May I hear yours?”
Her chin went down. When next she landed, she stopped bouncing. She sat on the edge of the couch. Then she scooted back, turned towards him. Wriggled over and nudged up against him. Breathed a great sigh.
“Yes, Daddy,” she said. (Lisped, really.) “May I tell you, please?”
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t there,” he said. He looked into her face. Her slender, elegant little face, like that of Lady Somebody who would ride to hounds. But honey-colored – like Lady Somebody had been born in California.
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t take care of you and Mommy. I hope that that never happens again.”
“But if you’d been there,” said Tallulah reasonably, “your weight would have tipped the car. Tipped it over? The cliff?” (She said ‘cwiff.’) “If you were driving. And had fallen asleep. And gone through the guard-rail. And then you might have died. And us too.” Her voice was clear and lilting. Like Lady Somebody with a lisp.
“So,” he said, “You want to tell me?”
“Well…It was night,” she began, breathily, haltingly. “We were driving. I was scared. It was so dark. The sky was so big. Like a circus tent, but you knew it just keeps on going and going. No stars, Daddy. Because of our headlights.
“i was missing you. Even though you’re usually kind of glum, Daddy.” (She said ‘gwum.’)
“Like, as if you are turned away in some other direction. Like you would be waiting for somebody to call you, but they never do. So you aren’t really here with me and Mommy. Daddy, like you lost something far away and you think it’s too far away to ever get it back again.
“But now you’re different,” she went on, laying her head against his arm. “I don’t feel scared. I can feel my Daddy is here.
“I feel better too, Daddy, kind of stronger, I noticed that this morning. Like now I can grow up and be a vet-er-a-narian and I will be able to never let any of the animals die.
“So anyway…Daddy, Daddy,” she crooned, and dug her head against his bicep, her long legs bending and flexing, against her body, away – “We were scared. Mommy was too. She said we would have to stop at a motel as soon as we came around the mountain.
“It was dark, but down far, far below the road there was the lake. That really big lake, remember, Daddy?”
“Yes,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulders.
What a big arm. What a narrow little slip of a girl.
“So we knew there was a lake down there, but we couldn’t see it. It was late, we were trying to talk to stay awake. I was trying to imagine you in Greece. That Greecey place. Like, they must have grease on all the roads.” She laughed.
“And I didn’t know why you were there. Mommy was trying to tell me but it didn’t make sense. You have us. Why would you go someplace else? For no reason?”
He could not answer that, at first. Then he said, “Sometimes people – maybe everybody, sometime – just has to find out something all by themselves. You might do that sometime too, when you’re really, really big.”
“Hmmm,” she said, in a grownup, considering way. Then, “Well, right now I don’t like that idea. But you never know, I guess.
“Anyway,” she went on, “It was late and then Mommy fell asleep. Just a little while. Her eyes closed and next thing we knew the car just went boom, over there at the side of the road, the side where the lake was, way down below.
“The car hit the guardrail thingie and there was this THUMP and a lurching like when you go in the Bumper Cars at the park and you bump somebody.
“And the guardrail was this silver metal thing like a car bumper, but all along the road. And it was all mangled, Daddy, and our car was sticking out with no road underneath the front. And we were in front.
“If you had been there I would have been in back. But Mommy and I were in front, and the car was just stopped there. But kind of moving, up and down.”
He drew in his breath. Let it out.
“Mommy looked at me,” she continued, “and her eyes were really big like an owl. And she said, ‘Oh, shit, Tallulah!’
“And I said, ‘Mommy, can we get out if we climb over the seat to the back?’ Because if we had opened the front doors, we would have fallen right down the cliff into the trees and the lake! And no parachute!
“Mommy said she was afraid to move at all because the car might tip over the edge. So we sat there. But we were so scared, and finally Mommy said, ‘Right, Taloolie-bean, we have got to climb over. It’s so late, nobody is coming, and even if they did, they can’t help us because if they got too close they might accidentally push the car down. Maybe they could open the back doors and give us a rope…but then we might as well just climb over.”
He let his breath out again. He’d been holding it. She was here. She was really here. It was okay.
“So we did. We slid upwards with our backs, first I went, and it was easy, but the car did rock a little bit. I just fell over backwards into the back seat, and Mommy had already unclicked the lock so I just opened the door and got out.
“I was standing right near the cliff but still the guardrail was there, just bent and busted. So I walked back to the road, and it was so dark.
“Then Mommy did the same as me, she tipped over backwards, but she had to turn around too, she couldn’t just do, like, acrobatics. Kids do that much better.”
“Mmm hmmm,” he agreed, holding her, feeling the fear in his throat, the heavy engine-end of the car, out over the tops of the tall, tall pines. He knew that road. The grand and glorious lake was far, far below.
“And so,” she went on, “Mommy and I, we got the blanket out of the back seat and we sat down in the grass by the road and we wrapped the blanket around us, both of us.
“And Mommy told me stories. She made me warm, but I couldn’t make her as warm.”
She looked up at him, to make sure he understood.
He nodded, acknowledging her efforts, her understanding.
“And Mommy said, maybe somebody would come by. But maybe they wouldn’t be nice. Or maybe they would.
“And I could tell she was worried. Her forehead was wrinkled up. I hate it when Mom’s worried, Daddy. I hate it when you are worried.
“So we just sat there, and I kind of slept a little bit, but I think Mommy didn’t.
“Of course there was no reception there so we couldn’t phone. I would have wanted to phone you immediately. Even if you were very far away. Even in China, I would have wanted to phone you.”
He thought of the cave. No reception. He would not have heard them…But he did. He had heard them. He breathed deep again. Let it out.
“It was just dark and cold and nothing happened except we heard some owls. Coo-wooo, coo–wooo,” she imitated. “And noises in the trees and stuff. But no animals came, and then it finally got very dark grey and then less dark grey. And we could see.
“We saw the trees across the road, and the sky was all wet kind of, and the grass was wet, where we were sitting. And we got up and went and peed behind a tree. Mommy said it was fine.
“Then we walked around on the road, up and down. And I saw a moose far below beside the lake when I looked down there. He had big antlers. Like a thing you would put coats on, you know.
“Finally somebody came. It was a big van. The driver said we could ride with him.
“But Mommy said No, please just phone the police when he got to town. We wanted to stay with the car.
“So he drove away.” (She said dwove.) “And Mommy unlocked the trunk and we had some snacks and water from the box. Some crackers and peanut butter and bananas and stuff.
“Then we walked up and down and more cars came. They all wanted to help us. But Mommy said the police should get there soon.
“Then finally the police came. They said they had to come from far away. They were nice. They said we were lucky.
“We got to ride in their car. It was warm. We had to go to the police station. It was warm too. There was an old lady cleaning. They gave us tea and Mommy had to tell the policeman everything while he wrote it all down.
“Then we went to a motel. It was this little, little town. Then we slept and Mommy cried. But I felt not too sad. We didn’t die. I still had Mommy.
“Then later the car got rescued. We went there with the police again. I wondered if the toe truck would just push it off the cliff with its toe and then try to rescue it from the water. But instead they hooked a huge hook on it, on the back of the car. And they pulled and pulled and the car came out of the guard rail and off the cliff backwards. And then it was on the road. And everybody kept saying how lucky we were. So we got the car back. It was okay. Just dented in front.”
Shara had come in from the kitchen where she’d been talking with her mother. She stood for a moment, silhouetted against the doorway; a dark figure against a light void, the window behind her in the kitchen letting in the summer brightness.
He felt a sort of ulp in his throat, but it did not go anywhere. It was not an ulp that led to tensing up and avoiding people’s eyes. It was just an ordinary ulp, which gave way almost immediately to a flooding warmth – and, most of all, a sense that, like any self-respecting pine tree, he had a backbone.
He was not quite sure how he’d acquired it – it had not been there before. But there was simply a sense in his body, of standing up and being here.
As if that was enough.
“So then,” went on Tallulah, “we drove to Gramma and Grampa’s. And then we really ate and really slept. And we waited for you.”
“How did you know I was coming?”
“Well, you always come,” she said, as if it were self-evident. “You’re the daddy. You have to come! You want us to be your home!
“And then you phoned.
“And now here we are. We’re all here together. I like Gramma and Grampa’s house. Some parts smell funny. But mostly it smells fine. The kitchen specially. And the back porch.
“Mom feels safe here. I can tell. When we were scared she was trying to be a mommy but she was also a little girl.
“The whole world felt like a little girl then. In the dark.
“But here it feels like both parents are here. And so the house doesn’t tip.”
He put his lips, his nose, in her hair. It smelled of shampoo, but also there was the musky tang of human. She sighed aloud. “I much prefer this,” she said. “To be safe.”
He looked up. Shara was sitting on the other end of the couch now. She was watching them. He could feel her chagrin at the adventure she had caused. He could see her eyes’ light, their alertness.
Their gazes caught. Something flowed between them. An old message, long abandoned.
A rivulet of desire ran up through the center of his body. Yet he did not wobble in himself. He stayed at home.
Later they lay in the dark, and there were a new man and a new woman in that bed. The balance of power had shifted. Things had come came back to true. To the middle of the see-saw. There was a man in the bed now. She didn’t have to do both.
She was very wet for him.
He bought an ice-cream maker, and a few weeks later, in September, when it was still hot in California, he placed, and then whirred, the ingredients in the blender: coconut milk, ripe banana, pineapple chunks, cashews.
Then he put the creamy slush in the machine and closed the lid tightly. He packed ice and salt into the cavity around the central cylinder.
Electricity made it whirr round and round, nobody cranked it; he regretted that, rather. But you couldn’t even find a cranking one anymore.
Tallulah danced about, excited. Shara lined up the pottery bowls and little wooden spoons on the counter. She insisted the spoons made things taste better.
It wasn’t hard, making ice cream.
Sept./Oct., ‘17, Corfu/Hebden Bridge