The Montréal Review, April 2011
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He looked again at the Indian woman.
"We were talking about that earlier, before you came in. I was about to learn what the snow means."
She touched an ice cube in her drink with her fingernail. Hugh had mentioned her story three times now.
"Robert Frost was right about a few things, even though he was a monster-"
With a reflex I blinked at the row of bottles, to block the wide slit mouth and ugly teeth that broke the pane of water, the claw slicing down-
"'I've miles to go before I sleep.'"
To change the subject I asked Hugh how he'd come to Ingot.
I thought he was from the East, because he knew books and pronounced "stars" as "stahs."
He didn't answer, looking away at the door's porthole, as if expecting the crow, and I wondered if something was wrong, if he'd run from some trouble and was hiding out.
Or even if he was some kind of psychic, someone with ESP, a mentalist who read minds at the county fair and ends up arrested for a swindle.
"I needed a place off the beaten path," he said now. "You know, away from academics and advisors? Somewhere free from influences, so I could think things out-"
"You were in college?" I asked him.
"I studied philosophy at Princeton," Hugh said. "I came to Ingot three years ago to write my thesis, for a Ph.D. in the history of consciousness."
"That sounds pretty tough."
No wonder he knew so much about books.
"My topic is very large and difficult-"
Hugh smoothed the folded towel that lay on the counter.
"It's taken a lot of time to get the words right, to say what I mean-"
He turned his wrist and I saw a long whitish scar.
"To know what I mean-"
As casually as I could I lifted my beer.
"How do you like Montana?" I asked after a minute or two.
"Have you ever seen New England, in the fall?"
"Just pictures in a magazine. On TV," I said. "You've seen a lot of Montana, since you moved here?"
"The pictures don't really do it justice."
"It's a big state. The Big Sky-"
"I mean New England."
"Oh. No, I guess not."
"Seven years ago this September," Hugh said, "something happened there."
I glanced at the woman, who was watching us now.
"You don't have to-"
"I want to tell you. You'll understand better some of the things I've said."
"Okay," I said.
"My parents and younger sister and brother were on vacation in Vermont, to see the changing leaves. For weeks they'd been talking excitedly about their trip, making preparations. In Massachusetts it's a yearly ritual-the way people in Denver pack a picnic lunch and drive up to see the aspen."
"I've seen those," I said. "Up by Durango. It's something."
His head bent forward, then he lifted two fingers to push back his glasses.
"North of Bennington, there are many country roads. Most of the year they're deserted, just townspeople and local farmers. The maple trees are planted in rows, a whole forest, for maple syrup.
"Which is a whole other story-it takes 40 years for a maple to safely bear, so the man who planted the tree would hardly live to taste the sap.
"Anyway, in the fall the roads are crowded with sightseers, especially near a little town called Winford."
I felt my shoulders tense. I'd opened something up and now it was too late.
He nodded toward the mounted head on the wall.
"Have you seen a moose?"
"A live one, I mean."
"A couple of times," I said. "In Alaska."
"Have you?" He turned to the woman.
"Yes," she said.
"Then you know how large they are. They can weigh half a ton. They can cause a lot of damage if you hit them at any speed, even if you're driving a heavy vehicle."
"Listen," I said. "I didn't mean-"
"Anyway, just outside of Winford, on a blind curve, a bull moose walked out into the two-lane road, just as my father entered the turn."
I saw it before he said it.
"A tour bus with 60 people from New York had just entered the curve from the other direction. It was going too fast. The bus driver swerved to avoid the moose and hit my father's car head on. My parents and teenage sister were killed instantly. My younger brother died after a week."
"That's terrible," I said. "I'm sorry."
"My life turned to ashes. My mouth literally tasted of ashes. I couldn't eat or sleep. I could hardly catch my breath."
It was seven years this September and Hugh was still shaken.
I remembered 80-year-old Ralph Weeks at the Elgin and his story of the lightning and the struck boy named Jerry whose hair turned white 50 years ago. Ralph had told me when I'd asked if he'd ever seen Sleeping Child Lake and he said he'd been foreman of a sheep ranch near there.
"I'd been accepted to graduate school in philosophy, from my teens I'd been working out my own intricate system. My professors at Amherst had been very encouraging. But now all my ideas seemed meaningless."
There was nothing to say.
I looked quickly at the woman.
Her eyes were on Hugh.
"I kept thinking of the car and the bus and the moose," Hugh explained.
With his finger he drew a triangle on the bar.
"How all three had to arrive precisely on time, at exactly the same second. If just one of the three hesitated, if the driver had eased his foot on the accelerator, if the moose had stopped to browse a yellow leaf, if my father had slowed to view the changing forest, the wreck wouldn't have happened."
"It doesn't make any sense," I said.
"I wasn't sure if I wanted to live anymore."
"It's hard," I said.
I wished the woman would say something.
"I felt the emotional shock of losing my family, but also the meaning of the loss. I realized I wasn't able to exist in a world that was senseless or evil-"
I put out my hand and touched my beer mug, then saw that it was empty.
"I had my dad's life insurance," Hugh said, "and some money from my parents' estate. I had plenty of resources to ruin myself in style if I wanted to go that route. Everything looked thin and fake, like the set for a failed play."
"Sure," I said.
"I started drinking too much, taking drugs."
Hugh shook his head.
"Finally, I tried to overdose, on cocaine-"
I saw the woman pull back her black hair in the mirror.
"I woke up in a charity hospital, in a room with a man who'd lost both legs and several fingers from diabetes. His wife had left him after the doctors removed the first foot. He was very friendly and kind to me. He'd heard my story from the nurses.
"'Well,' he'd say in the mornings, as a greeting, 'let's see what today brings, what do you say, Hugh?'"
I leaned back from the bar.
"You see, the man was terminal, and for someone with my background in logic his condition and outlook were important things for me to consider, especially just then-"
"Don't go into it," I said. "It's a terrible thing."
I didn't know if he heard me. He adjusted his glasses.
"After I was released, I stopped the drugs and alcohol. I decided that intellectually it was a cop-out, it was too easy and offended my sense of pride in the work I'd put in."
Hugh lifted his chin, looking over at the woman, then back at me.
"My roommate in the hospital had inadvertently suggested a strategy. I realized that my own crisis was so severe that it presented me an exceptional opportunity. Because of my loss, I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance at objectivity, to test for myself whether God existed or not."
Hugh took another breath.
"I wouldn't try to kill myself, but I wouldn't make any move to protect myself either. I wouldn't seek death but I wouldn't avoid it or take special precautions. And I wouldn't tell a lie, to myself or to anybody else, about anything-I'd open all the doors and let the wind blow through, whatever wind existed, ill or none or something else, if there was something else-It was as if I picked all the leaves off those maple trees and threw them in the air and waited for them to fly off into space. And you know what?"
Hugh stepped back suddenly.
He raised his arms, held them out for a second and let them fall slowly, spreading his fingers as he dropped his hands.
"The leaves came down again, softly, like snow."
He leaned forward.
"That gravity," he said softly, "was both meaning and love."
He saw me move my hand on the bar.
"I know it sounds like a cliché," he said quickly. "I'd heard that before and dismissed it with contempt. A priest stopped by to see me in the hospital, to counsel me and talk about the Holy Spirit, and I sent him out of the room. But it was true. They were the same thing, time and death were an illusion. I felt the presence of something outside us that holds us up."
Hugh stared at the folded towel.
"The way I'd explained it to myself was that I'd had a creative breakdown, a breakthrough that set my mind racing and opening up like an encyclopedia, all the pages turning in a rushing wind. I'd read about similar situations. Carl Jung, for example-"
He looked up.
"My heart was soaring, like I'd risen from the dead. All the scattered notions and facts from all my years of study linked together in a series of interlocking circles, like the logo for the Olympics.
"I saw it all instantly," he confided, lowering his voice. "After I'd quit trying, the whole enormous thing, just sitting in a lawn chair behind my apartment in New Jersey."
He waited, watching me, and finally I said, "That's a heavy thing."
"It's taken four years to try to capture the complex simplicity of those few moments."
"That's a long time," I agreed.
"I'm just finishing up. I manage the bar to support my family. We're typing the final manuscript right now, making last-minute changes. I've been working for weeks, round the clock to get it done before the deadline. I guess I'm nearly exhausted. I get too talkative-"
The phone rang
Hugh turned and picked up the black receiver, listening.
"You've got to fix it. I can't leave."
He began explaining about fuses and a circuit breaker.
What he'd related seemed too intimate, something for private talk with family or close friends.
I wondered if he'd said more than usual today, because he was excited to be finishing his book.
He was all worn out with the strain, he'd been going too hard and he knew he was getting into psychological trouble. I wondered if he'd been talking with other customers about his thesis, about his family and the moose, and what happened to him after the crash near Winford.
Was that why the Silverado was empty on a Saturday, except for the woman and me? I glanced at her again and she met my eye.
"Throw the switch," Hugh was saying.
He rubbed his brow.
"Wait a second, then throw it again."
Maybe Hugh was always in trouble. The wreck was horrible, you'd never be the same, but seven years had gone by.
As he held the phone to his ear I wondered now if there really was a thesis. That movie "The Shining" was about a writer who takes a job as the winter caretaker at the mountain resort. He ends up typing the same sentence over and over-"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"-then tries to murder his family and dies frozen in a maze.
"Did it work?"
The Indian woman was staring into her drink again, as if she looked into a mirror. I couldn't tell what she thought.
Maybe in Montana there were other people living way off by themselves with a thought they couldn't let go of, like that old image of a light bulb showing the moment of illumination.
It flashed on and like a moth they warmed themselves at it through the long winter nights, circling closer and closer as they tried to steal the flame without singeing their wings and catching fire, like when I'd got high after work at the mill and in Custer's told Tug I was in love with his sister, our awful boss' wife.
Like I'd kept thinking of the morning's dream.
"Good," Hugh said. "That should do it."
He hung up.
"Bad time for power trouble," Hugh said.
He was ready to continue. Again he leaned toward me across the counter.
"Plato's my specialty," he said. "It's academic blasphemy and may cost me my degree."
There was a note of satisfaction in his voice. His paper was counter to prevailing European thought since the Renaissance, Hugh said, which from his point of view had lost its balance and tragically swung way over to Aristotle and linear logic. Of all the philosophers, Plato most clearly described the underpinnings of mystical thought.
"Do you know the story of the cave and the shadows on the wall?"
I nodded. "I had a philosophy class," I said carefully. "At school in Corvallis."
Hugh launched into a description anyway.
"It represents the central timeless myth, which probably first begins with the Siberian bear shaman who ate psychedelic mushrooms and left his body to wander the spirit world. Its latest and most explicit manifestation is in the research and writing of Rupert Sheldrake, the visionary English biologist. He went to Cambridge but was influenced by a friend who was a member of a Catholic monastery in India."
Hugh said that Sheldrake believed in something called "explicate" and "implicate" order.
"All actions and thoughts, all happenings of atoms, geology, weather, animals and plants, make a record in the invisible, timeless, implicate order, which affects present and future explicate events. Nothing is lost or inconsequential. Does that register with you?"
"Sort of," I said.
Hugh nodded and went on.
"This information can be broadcast and received across time and space-that explains animal telepathy. Sheldrake discovered it was more than instinct or memory that allowed homing pigeons to find home. He theorized that 'home' was always calling to them, silently. When they flew across the Channel from France back to England, they always found the pigeon house, even when Sheldrake put it on wheels and towed it miles away."
By conducting experiments with molecules and crystals, Sheldrake believed you could discover if certain shapes existed elsewhere in the universe and know the stage of Earth's evolution in comparison to other planets.
Hugh said Sheldrake called the implicate shapes "morphic fields," invisible structures of information. Their action at a distance was "morphic resonance."
"Plato's theory of the archetypes is the key," Hugh said again. "Every thought or object is both itself and something more, a manifestation of a discrete, preexistent idea intricately connected and responsive to all other ideas as it expresses its own life and influence."
He turned and took another beer from the ice bin, opened it, and set it in front of me with a fresh mug.
"We're all partly shadows, cast by our prototypes, in the light of Aton, Ikhnaton's indivisible sun," he said proudly. "We're metaphors, for a world of perfect forms."
I slid the long-necked beer forward on the bar.
"So this isn't just a bottle," I said. Now the woman was watching me.
"Exactly. It's the embodiment of a living, breathing, immortal idea."
"Carl Jung?" I said.
"Yes, he's central. The Interpenetration of Matter and the Psyche? His synchronicity theory. I wonder if his ultimate ground, his collective unconscious, the Unus Mundus, isn't the Holy Ghost-"
I poured the beer and took a long swallow.
Drunk or sober, most college people I'd met were materialists.
Paul in Mussel Bay was a good guy and cared about saving wild salmon and other sea life, he was excited and concerned about the striped yellow fish I'd brought from the Blue Fin . He'd given Tug the story "The Great Stone Face," about the good man whose face changes to match the noble rock, and joked about the monster in Sleeping Child Lake and the Happy Hunting Ground.
But he and his friends were still scientists, mainly interested in things you could measure and touch. Unlike Rick Speaks, they didn't talk much about sparrows' souls.
For Hugh, a beer bottle wasn't just a bottle but a door to another world.
I realized he was trying to communicate what he had experienced because he believed it had a significance beyond himself and his own private feelings. I thought of his five linked circles and Black Elk's broken hoop.
"Trace it back-"
Hugh leaned forward suddenly, setting both palms on the bar, speaking faster as he rode a new wave:
"Theosophy, the Masons, the medieval alchemists, and later the Rosicrucians. Hegel, before him the Cathars, the Sufis, Saint Augustine's City of God, the Christian Gnostics and Jewish Cabalists, Plotinus and the Alexandrians. The basic idea is clearly stated in Plato's cave allegory-And the others-Pythagoras, Empedocles, Hermes Trismegistus? Plato's roots are in theirs. He was rumored to have been initiated into the Egyptian mysteries. We know he was a member of the Orphic Brotherhood."
Hugh looked suddenly sad.
"Modern man has turned his head from the light outside the cave, fallen asleep as the flames of his fire danced and he watched, transfixed by the shadows across the blank rock wall."
He gripped the edge of the bar.
"To discover, to understand and grasp something is to remember what you already know-"
I thought about that.
"I've got a question for you," I said.
"What's that, Bill?"
I realized it was something that had always bothered me. I'd never met anybody I could ask about it. In college I'd been embarrassed to ask the teacher. Now I had a chance.
"Do you remember that part in Plato," I said, "when Socrates is in jail and his friends come to see him the last time?"
"The Phaedo, " Hugh said immediately. "Walking around Athens, Echecrates bumps into Phaedo and asks, 'Were you yourself, Phaedo, in the prison with Socrates on the day when he drank the poison?' What an opening line for a movie. Imagine being there, Bill, hearing Phaedo tell the story."
"There was one thing I never understood," I kept on. "If it was supposed to be sad or funny or just part of the dialogue."
"Socrates is going to die and his friends have come to comfort him, to say goodbye. Then they start asking Socrates about life after death and reincarnation. They argue and reason it out and finally they all agree that the soul lives before and after the body. Then one of them-"
"Cebes of Delos?"
"Cebes says, 'Yes, I see all that, Socrates, but what if after wearing out so many different bodies, life after life, the soul itself begins to tire and wear out?' And he's saying this to his teacher, who's about to kill himself, to save everything he's ever stood for."
Hugh didn't answer.
The seconds went by as the green clock ticked.
I'd forgotten the scar on his wrist, the death of his family in the blind turn with the moose-
The subject had changed to his thesis.
But they were connected, one had produced the other.
Now I was like Cebes.
"At first Cebes couldn't make the leap," Hugh said finally. "In the end he understood-"
He started to say something else, then didn't and looked down at the bar. We were silent, considering the intensity of each man's world.
The phone rang again and he turned and lifted the receiver-he sounded all right as he set a time for a delivery of whiskey from Spokane.
I finished my beer and was surprised when I looked up at the clock behind the bar. I'd been there nearly two hours.
But it also seemed as if a year had gone by since the crow had cawed and crossed the round window.
I stood up. I didn't want to miss the bus and I could wait for half an hour across the street in the station.
Again I remembered that the green lake was waiting.
Hugh turned back from the phone.
"I better go. Get up to the lake." I was buttoning my coat. "I'm an intern at the Lakeview Inn."
Now I was finally going to Bruce Banner's sourceless lake, after my rich uncle had got me out of the mill. In three months I'd be manager of the Blue Heron Motor Lodge on Lake Chelan in Washington.
Crater Lake was the deepest in America, then Chelan, then Sleeping Child. I'd looked them up in the dictionary.
"Thanks for listening. I hope I didn't tire you out."
"No-I'm going to buy your book when it's published," I said as I reached for my wallet. I'd forgotten I hadn't paid.
He hoped a small press would print it, but he wasn't very optimistic.
"You never know," I said.
"That's what my wife says."
Hugh said she was a philosopher too, at work on her own book on Emanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason while Hugh ran the bar and she watched their little girl, Margaret.
His wife's name was Greta and she was helping him on his thesis with the editing and typing and German quotations. She was the one who'd called earlier about the circuit breaker.
Kant was interesting, Hugh said, and modern, if you thought about depth psychology and subatomic physics, how what you saw in the outer world was a mirror of your own unconscious mind.
"A flower looks a lot different to a man than to a bee. What would it look like to Jung's self, instead of Freud's ego?"
"A different mirror," I offered. I put the five dollars on the bar. "Maybe I'll stop in on the way back. I need to get up to the lodge at Sleeping Child."
We shook hands.
"I'll look for you," Hugh said.
"What's the title of your thesis?"
"The Other Atlantis," Hugh said.
He wrote it down quickly on his note pad, tore off the page, and handed it to me.
"Got it." I slipped the note in my coat pocket. "Hugh Edwards. I'll remember. Good luck."
He smiled and I looked down the bar.
The woman was pulling something from a black purse.
I didn't know her name, I hadn't spoken to her, but over the last hour and a half together we had heard the story of Hugh Edwards' near death, his illumination and rebirth, and his attempt at communicating the secrets that he'd found, that were richer to him than any vein of silver.
Now we'd never see each other again or talk about what had happened with Hugh.
I felt like something important had happened-as important as finding the tropical fish in Blue Fin's net and getting fired when I'd stopped Roper from using the gaff-as Tug's same-day offer of a job at his brother-in-law's sawmill, then my uncle getting me into the college-as the professor sending me to Sleeping Child Lake, because my uncle was rich and owned the big hotel in Seattle-
As important as seeing Jenny again in Mussel Bay? I thought suddenly. As her saying that Holly, her twin sister, had died?
But then that was what Hugh was talking about, his family in the car and the bus swerving from the moose. I picked up my bag and moved down the line of stools past the stove, toward the jukebox and the painting of the woman on the red daybed.
I shivered at the cold sky that hadn't snowed as I pushed at the swinging door with the porthole and went out and the sharp air stung my face. At the curb I turned my head both ways up the sad silent street that looked ugly and unreal, something from a lucky miner's hangover dream, bad as the monster last night.
I was ready to cross the ruined pavement and wait for the bus when I heard a step behind me.
"I heard you say you were going to Sleeping Child."
The Indian woman was standing next to me. She had a clear, open face, a straight nose, and large dark eyes fringed with long lashes.
"That's right." I hadn't seen her clearly in the dim bar.
Her lips were full and generous, with the beauty mark at the corner of her mouth. Her black hair fell past her shoulders onto her expensive plaid Pendleton coat.
In the gray winter light, she was exotic.
"Would you drive me up there?"
"I would," I said, "but I don't have a car. I'm taking the bus."
"Here," she said, lifting her hand.
A brown rabbit's foot hung from the key ring.
At her wrist shone the silver bracelet. It was set with turquoise. I looked at the blue vein by her hand, remembering Hugh's scar, then took the keys.
"It's parked around the block."
We started down the sidewalk across from the bus station, past the closed Miners' Union office, a boarded grocery, an abandoned storefront that still offered steam baths and cold lockers for venison. Her tall polished boots echoed sharply on the cracked, slanted granite slabs.
She turned right at the corner.
"There it is."
I took in the tall grill and its side like a rocket's shiny fuselage on the deserted gravel street.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"No," I said. "I just remembered something."
"The lake's the door," Bruce Banner said at The Mast. "That's where you enter-"
"You still want to go?"
"I have to," I said. "They're expecting me."
"Don't worry," she said. "We'll go together."
She smiled and held out her hand and I took it as we approached the long Cadillac white as snow.
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Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation's James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, Starry Night Review, and other journals. "Now the River's in You," a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.