Sunday, July 31, 2005

Cave of Whispers

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“Ophelia!” Although he was across the field from me, the sharp alarm in Stanton’s voice carried to me. He waved and started running toward me. Wiping wet sand from my olive drab khakis, I made my way toward the dark, shadowy entrance of a cave partially obscured by a small, leafy redbud tree and an outcropping of yellowish cream limestone. I had spied the entrance after climbing over the top of the bank to Three Horses River.

“Ophelia! Stop!” The urgency in Stanton’s voice gave me pause.

I rubbed at my muddy pants, my wet dark green t-shirt. I didn’t want him to guess what I had just been through. But, how was I to know that the rope bridge over Three Horses River would snap shortly after making my way down it? If the bridge had simply flung me onto the cut bank, that would have been one thing. Having to scramble up the steep bluff consisting of sand, clay, and limestone was what made me such a mess. I was glad I had chosen dark colors, I reflected. Stanton would not be amused when he saw me. Or, perhaps he would – it depended on how he viewed my sense of adventure. At least the bridge didn’t snap while I was half-way across the river.

“There’s a cave. Don’t go in!” He approached me just as I had arrived at the cave’s opening and had pulled back a leafy branch. The heart-shaped redbud leaves had collected droplets of water which splashed into my face. I heard a few mosquitoes whine around my head.

“Why not?” I asked. “Snakes?” Stanton seemed to have snapped out of the mood that he had been an hour earlier. His eyes were no longer taciturn and glowering. Instead, they were dark, fairly glittering with concern.

He bounded across the tall grass and over a small prickly pear cactus to arrive with a jolt at my side. Gripping my arm, he pulled me to him.

“I’m so glad I got here in time. That cave is very dangerous,” he said, panting. I looked at him, his black jeans gripping his full, muscular thighs, the thick linen and cotton blend shirt, soft having been woven in the same breathable way that gauze was woven in fabrics from India or Pakistan.

“It doesn’t look dangerous,” I said. I thought of the nature center at the Chickasaw National Forest, and the snake displays. “Is it a rattlesnake den?”

“Worse.” Not releasing my arm, he pulled me back from the entrance.

“Mom told us not to, but Dev and I would sneak into the cave – you know how boys are.”

I nodded.

“When you first enter, you think that the limestone you’re standing on is firm, and that you can follow it. It opens up, and there is a small room. What you don’t know is that there is a crevasse.”

“A crevasse? In a cave?” I asked. I was no expert in karst topography, but a crevasse did not make a lot of sense. Crevasses were cracks or fissures in ice or snow fields, usually caused because of the movement between sheets of ice. Caves and drop-off points in limestone usually occurred because of the slow dissolution of calcium carbonate by water, particularly water with a slightly acidic pH due to salt or iron pyrite, which would result in the creation of dilute hydrochloric acid as the chloride ions reacted with the water molecules.

“Not a crevasse, per se. It’s a large hole in the floor where the limestone caved in, and fell down into an underground river far below. We used to go in with flashlights, and we could see that there was water at the bottom of the drop. You could hear it, too.”

“An underground river?” I asked. I stepped back from the cave entrance and looked sharply at Stanton. This was an insane playground for two young boys, and it was nothing short of a miracle that neither he nor his brother, Devlin, had suffered serious injury.

“Yes. And, if someone fell in, they would drown and their body would never be recovered.” Stanton paused thoughtfully. “Well, perhaps it would. But it would be downstream somewhere – probably in Three Horses River where the underground river connects with it.”

“Or eaten by catfish,” I said. A ghoulish thought had entered my mind, accompanied by images of the big, fat bottom-feeders stripping the flesh from corpses, and then swimming in and out of the ribcages and other bones.

“I haven’t been here since I was a kid, but my guess is that the hole is even bigger than it used to be,” said Stanton. “I didn’t want you to fall in.”

“Makes sense to me,” I said. “Let’s go in.”

Stanton looked at me in amazement.

“But I just told you how dangerous it was,” he said.

“Did it ever occur to you that it would make a perfect hiding place?” I asked. “After all, it has its own built-in booby trap. It reminds me of what one would hear about the pyramids.”

Stanton looked at me closely for the first time.

“How did you get so wet?” he asked. “You are covered with mud, too. Did you already go in? It doesn’t look like the entrance has been disturbed, though.”

“I ended up climbing around the bank and the edge of Three Horses River.” I paused and tried to rub out a clump of clay that was drying on my pant leg. “It must have been interesting to live here as a child.”

“There were quite a few caves. Some were too small to go into. Others were on private land, and there were gates across them. The big one down the road was called Two Horse Cavern.”

“Not Three Horses?” I asked.

“No. Two Horse Cavern because one could drive two horses, along with a small buggy or wagon, into it. This cave was called ‘Cave of Whispers’ or just “Whisper Cave.’ No gate, no fence, nothing -- which seemed crazy to me, given how dangerous it was.”

“Of course, it was rumored to be haunted, so I suspect that kept some people away. The story was that the Indians who built the mounds over near Spiro used this area in religious rites. There is some evidence that they practiced human sacrifice,” he said.

“Horrible, but not unusual,” I said. “I mean, what ancient culture did not practice human sacrifice? Or, at least, it is what leading anthropologists and archeologists would have you believe.”

“You’ve been reading National Geographic again,” said Stanton. His voice was severe, but his eyes were smiling..

“Wasn’t it on your relatives’ land?” I asked.

“Yes. This was all stuff that Dad inherited, and which he would always come back to, no matter where he was stationed. He would make a trip to Yahweh Springs, to “the place” as he called it – on the edge of Three Horses River.” Stanton looked thoughtful.

“He said it was his past and his future. He said it all the time and I never knew what he meant.”

“Can’t we just look in the entrance? We don’t have to go far. Just far enough to see if the big drop is still as big as it was.” The smell of mud and sweet flowers floated by. The sound of the water rushing by made a soothing backdrop. I took a few steps toward toward the cave, pulled back the branches again and looked in, warily.

“I hear it,” I said softly.

“What?” asked Stanton.

“Whispering. It’s like the sounds of flowing water, and whispering combined. In fact, it almost sounds like breathing – or heavy sighing.”

The sounds gave me chills. I thought better of going into the cave, particularly after I saw a large spider web with a black spider sporting long, shiny legs. A red hourglass shape was on its belly.

“Nice black widow spider,” I said, jumping back.

“I told you it was dangerous, said Stanton.

“I still say we should go in. Just clear out the web… scare off the spider,” I said. I grabbed a stick and moved the web around. The spider ran up the stick. I threw the stick toward the river.

“Now. That’s better. Let’s go inside,” I said. Stanton snorted.

“You are incorrigible,” he said. “Well. Be careful. I’ll lead the way.”

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Energy Sinkpoint

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“There is a dangerous energy sink-point in southeastern Oklahoma,” said Dad. “It’s coming in clearly. It’s very detectable.” He paused and checked the equipment again. “And it is infinitely negative.”

Dad was looking into a transparent electric bowling ball that glowed with a million miniature lightning bolts zapping through it, crackling and hissing through the vast silence of Dad’s laboratory.

“Thinking about taking up bowling?” I had asked Dad when I first saw his new device. Dad ignored my feeble attempt at a joke. I knew it was not a bowling ball at all, but a high-intensity plasma generator. The electrical energy was augmented by a daunting set of magnets, chemicals, and charged metal.

To tell the truth, I was nervous. I wondered about the possibility of a grisly death by electrical shock, and if we did die, how long it would be before our bodies would be found down here in Dad’s basement lab. Mother was staying with her sister in Plano, Texas, for a week, and people would simply assume that Dad was in Nevada checking on his gold claims or on a treasure hunt, and that I had decided to take a trip somewhere.

The door was securely locked, as it always was when he did his experiments. It could be dangerous to have someone enter in the middle of an experiment. That wasn’t the whole story, though. Dad was worried about losing control of some of the processes he had perfected and the amazing equipment he had developed.

He just couldn’t take chances, he said. Further, he was not quite ready to let people know the things he had discovered.

“I can split the frequencies into bands. I know where they start and end, and I can triangulate,” said Dad, distractedly. “This is strange. It is just so absolutely negative. It almost makes waves – like a dark, terrible river flowing into a huge, pulsing lake of negative energy so off the scale that it measures infinitely negative.”

“Can you locate the exact location?” I asked. The laboratory held an aroma I had not smelled before – it was pungent and sweet, like cloves and chili pepper.

Dad nodded. “Yes. This new method is very precise. It doesn’t home in on things, it identifies, locates, and can even track different energies. I don’t have it very finely calibrated, though, so all I can really detect at this point are very big, massive energy fields.”

“Like the one in southeastern Oklahoma?” I asked. I pushed the sleeves of my light cotton knit sweater up toward my elbows, and as I did so, I noticed that the hairs of my arms were standing straight up. Static electricity, I supposed.

“Yes.” Dad put a wire from the base of the bowling ball stand onto a control box which had a small liquid crystal display. “This shows the coordinates of the energy field. The infinitely negative place is here.”

He leaned over a map of the state of Oklahoma and drew his finger down the longitude and across on the latitude. Light sizzled. The miniature lightning bolts continued to flash across the miniature sky within the plasma ball.

“Yahweh Springs.”

I took a breath. Dad had no way of knowing that Stanton had lived there as a young boy, and that we had been talking about going there this weekend.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“With something of this magnitude, it is impossible not to be sure. I’ve never seen anything so negative – at least not in the continental United States,” he said.

I walked over to the map and looked down. Yes, just as Dad had said, the points coordinated to Yahweh Springs.

“The only other place that has an infinitely negative reading of this magnitude is in Southeastern Asia. Somewhere west of Vietnam, but not as far west as Thailand or Burma,” he said.

“In a way, to say it is like a lake of negative energy is incorrect,” Dad added, thoughtfully. “It is a sinkhole. Or, a vortex.”

I looked at the map and looked at the measurements that displayed on the crystal screen when Dad tuned in to the negative frequency. They did seem equivalent in intensity. In fact, it was clear the were almost mirror images of each other. I felt a chill go down my spine. I thought of Stanton and his mother in Yahweh Springs, and the place where his dad had been shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War. My some clenched and I could not bear to think any more. My body was reacting violently to the thoughts, to the energy.

“Are you all right?” asked Dad, sharply. “Ophelia?”

My hand began to tremble uncontrollably and I felt my body clench itself violently, the muscles in spasms so intense I wondered if something could be sheered off. My tongue felt huge and intrusive in my mouth and I fought to force air into my chest.

“Ophelia!” Dad’s voice sounded very distant, muffled. “Ophelia! Hang on. I’ll get help. You’re having a seizure.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Three Horses River

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It wasn’t such a great idea after all. In trying to kid-glove a psychological powder keg, I had put myself in an awkward situation. If I lost my footing or balance, I would most certainly plunge to my death. I would have no one to blame but myself. Nevertheless, I blamed Stanton for my predicament.

Stanton was in one of his strange moods, and I had learned that there was nothing I could do to distract him, or assuage whatever psychic pain he was suffering. I just had to wait it out. Unfortunately, his mood struck at a time that it was not very easy to wait it out. I would do my best, nevertheless.

Perhaps if I probed the area around the small farm where he had lived with his mother and brother shortly before the divorce, I would gain some insight into his situation. If nothing else, it was picture postcard perfect, with thick, tangled prairie grasses, wildflowers, and trees in a rocky land where sinkholes betrayed the secret caves and underground rivers that typified karst topography. Three Horses River was in flood after a week of storms and my plan to cross over it on the little rope bridge and explore the cluster of stone cabins nestled in a small grove of honey locust, persimmon, sweet gum, and box elder trees seemed dangerous at best.

The mood had started after we left the convenience store where we had breakfast, when we drove down the cobbled streets of Yahweh Springs and approached the square we had probed at night. The morning was overcast, with storm clouds speeding across the sky on the edge of a front. The air was clammy and strangely electric.

Stanton’s lips formed a line, his eyebrows looked oddly wooden. He was going somewhere in his mind and I was not welcome to accompany him.

“Here it is,” he said. He pulled into a driveway overgrown with weeds, and a small house constructed of the characteristic Yahweh Springs style of interwoven rows of rounded native stone and blocky squares of pink Tishomingo granite. “This is where we lived. This is where we need to look.”

Without waiting for my response, he parked the Suburban, leapt out, and walked with heavy determined strides to the sagging front porch. His muscular legs were like springs catapulting him along, and one could almost see the hyper-tense energy emanating from him. My stomach sank. I knew I was not going to be able to ask questions or do anything productive until his mood lifted.

As much as I wanted to solve the mystery of what drove his father to think that this is where and why he became God’s Hostage, or, alternatively – according to my theory – where the precious green-pink jade statue of the most revered female Boddhisattva, Tara, that Stanton’s dad had smuggled back from Laos was lost. It was, correspondingly, where Stanton’s dad lost his mind. He was convinced that the monks from the Buddhist Temple of the same name – God’s Hostage – were pursuing him in order to retrieve their property. Later, Stanton’s dad was convinced that the Laotian yakuza-mafia were also involved. He said that Chinese drug smugglers and opportunistic Americans had desecrated the temple by using it as a warehouse for heroin. They had even had the nerve to steal the elaborate jigsaw puzzle pink jade Mandala, which was comprised of a thousand small, elaborately carved jade pieces. I liked to think of it as a large puzzle resembling a large Chinese checkers, but instead of round marbles, each was an elaborately carved rounded figurine. But, all had disappeared. All 144 of them. The implications were grave.

Seeing the lives it had destroyed, it seemed to me that “God’s Hostage” signified a great deal more than a statue or a Buddhist temple. Whoever began to crave possession of the smooth, iridescent green, flashing pink jade skin of the lovely Tara, was driven to desperate acts – acts that would set them on a path to absolute ruination. It was the path for oblivion seekers. It was the path for those who would do anything to forget, to escape consciousness without paying the physical consequences of extreme dissipation or addiction.

As Stanton stood sat down on the edge of the crumbling porch, I decided to follow the red stone pathway to a small cliff overlooking the raging torrent that was Three Horses River, in flood.

The grass on the edge of the cliff was slippery, and the stones had been dislodged by the force of the rains and the waters cascading down after each fresh torrent. Although was not raining now, the ground was soft. I made my way tentatively to the small rope bridge, seduced by the roar of the water, the spray, the sweet promise of oblivion. I stepped onto it, holding the sides of the bridge with my hands, moved forward ten, twenty, thirty feet.

Below me, many feet below, the water crashed, boiled, and taunted me with its raw, insensitive force.

My right shin began to ache, and I looked down as I took my first step onto the rope bridge. Sweet-smelling moss and slime covered the lower edge of the rope, and as I stepped onto it, I heard a creaking groan as the wet fibers stretched to the breaking point. The place beneath an old scar on my leg began to ache in a strange way, reminding me of things I had utterly forgotten – the canoe accident on the Mulberry River, just across the border in Arkansas, where Stanton and I had tackled the river, never expecting it to have so many submerged tree roots and trunks. The impact of my leg against the metal of the canoe was so intense it split my skin apart, and my bone ached for a month.

So this was kinaesthetic memory. My leg remembered – it responded to the situation, the context, the circumstances that were so much like the time of the original injury.

Losing my focus for just a second, I slipped on the rope bridge, my body falling through the airy gap between rungs. I had the presence of mind to grip the rope, but even so, it wasn’t enough.

The rope bridge snapped – first on one side, and then, on the other, plunging me down, down, into the waters. My leg and my shoulder tangled in the rope.

Miraculously, instead of plunging to probably concussion and drowning in the middle of Three Horses River, I swung like a small girl on a tire swing, smack into the muddy 20-foot high cut bank. My breath was knocked out for a few seconds, but when I recovered, I was able to use the rope to make my way up over the small, muddy cliff to safety.

Scrambling up the edge, I clung to the slippery limestone cobbles, the clay, and heaved myself onto the prairie grass on the small bluff overlooking the river. I was filthy, but alive. It was a vaguely repellant condition, but the brush with death made me feel weirdly euphoric.

In the distance, I heard a male voice shouting my name. I wondered if Stanton had seen anything. I stumbled across the grass toward the small walkway. As I ran, my leg suddenly gave way, and the ground seemed to give way, as though I were trodding on a sinkhole, or a collapse doline. Next to a bush, I saw what seemed to be a shadow, except the overcast skies precluded any sort of shadow. Moving closer, I could see what it was.

It was the entrance to a cave.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Yahweh Brethen

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“Would you rather be wearing a rocket pack or a gown and veil outfit made of burlap?” Stanton asked me as he gestured to a garish 1950s cut-out of a deer wearing a rocket pack, and nodded toward an employee who was dolloping lumpy gray oatmeal into a bowl.

The Yahweh Springs “Speedie Trip Gas Mart + Groceries” was once a flag-bearing member of a flourishing chain of convenience stories whose logo – a goofy-looking leaping deer wearing a rocket pack – was almost as well-known in these parts as Sinclair dinosaur (green brontosaurus) or the Mobil flying horse (Pegasus).

I looked at the young woman, then at the flimsy Space Age deer. For some reason, all I could think of was the footage of the Challenger as it broke into three parts and plummeted to earth.

“The rocket pack,” I said without hesitation.

We were having in breakfast in one of the weirdest convenience stories I had ever seen. It was even stranger than the old Wichita Mountain gold mining camp converted into a restaurant famed for its one-pound “Meersburgers” and seismic monitoring station where I purchased pierced earrings with dangles made of rattlesnake “buttons.”

“I think I know where you’re coming from,” said Stanton. “By the way, those rattlesnake earrings look quite attractive on you. They’re nice with the little silver skull and crossbones charm. Trying to make a statement?”

He grinned and shoved his olive drab t-shirt sleeve up over his deltoid muscle. In the bulge just before the arm hit the shoulder was the tattoo he got in Germany just before he went to Kuwait with his unit. It was a small skull with roses flowering from the eye sockets.

“It hasn’t faded at all,” I said, leaning to get a close look. I looked at the tattoo, and then, for some unexpected reason, I found myself caught in the magnetic pull of Stanton’s eyes. His eyes locked onto mine. For an instant, the world cracked beneath my feet. I felt my stomach tremble, my heart pound, liquid heat pour into my core.

His hand pulled my head swiftly and gently toward him, and he touched my jaw with a hard, fiery yet delicate kiss. It happened so quickly I felt quite certain no one noticed. I sank back across the table onto the hard bench.

“Would you like a warm-up for your coffee?” asked the woman who had brought our homemade raisin bread toast, rose-hip jelly, alfalfa honey, and creamery butter to us a few minutes earlier.

“Yes,” I said. “Please.”

Stanton’s face grew hard as he looked down. I had an idea what he was thinking about. I reflected upon the history of this town – the town where he had lived briefly with his mother before she divorced her father during his last tour of Vietnam.

I wondered what the Speedie Trip had looked like when Stanton was young. I imagined it was more or less the same.

In Yahwah Springs, “Speedie Trip” had found an uncomfortable home in an elegant, old carriage house constructed of pink Tishomingo granite and rust-red native stone, which looked to me like the Garber sandstone. After the Yahweh Brethren bought land and established their compound on the outskirts of town, the historical tourists attracted to the old Victorian spa architecture decided it was just too creepy to walk around town.

“You got the feeling that you were being watched,” said one person in a letter to the editor after the Dallas Morning News had tried to compare Yahweh’s charm with that of Eureka Springs and had made a valiant attempt to air brush the photos to take out the weeds in the sidewalks and the broken windows.

After members of the Yahweh Brethren populated their compound, even the fly fishermen and canoers brave enough to tackle collapsed infrastructure and Three Horse River, the Class III “wild river” that raged over drops, “haystacks,” and waterfalls fed by underground rivers and artesian springs, started to by-pass the town. The final blow came when the owner of the Speedie Trip threw in the towel.

The town was about to lose its only commercial enterprise. The regional rural economic development board was afraid it would lose its federal grant money if small businesses continued to collapse. In desperation, Jack Landsdowne, the chair of the board, approached the Yahweh Brethren.

“Would you mind trying to make a go of the Speedie Trip?” he asked awkwardly. Inwardly he sighed.

He hoped he wasn’t dealing with another David Koresh, or an eastern branch of some sort of polygamous cult. That last thought lifted his spirits somewhat. The idea of nubile young women who had been trained to be “obedient” started him down the path of a rather pleasant erotic fantasy. The thought of his own teen-age daughter caught him up short, though. He would be sure to warn her away from this neck of the woods. He’d hate to see her kidnapped and made to be some mad messiah’s newest bride.

“I think it’s a “left behind” cult,” said Jack to his wife when he arrived home that night. She looked at him with interest. She had read all the Tim LaHaye novels and was looking forward to the television series.

“Oh? I don’t think those things work out too well in real life,” she said thoughtfully. “I mean, you can’t just sit around and wait for The Rapture. If you do, you start making bad decisions.”

She was referring to her marriage to Jack, but thankfully, he was oblivious to the fact that he had proposed to her at a weak moment, just after she had finished attending a week-long tent revival outside Righteous City. She had just rededicated her life to Jesus, and was waiting for a sign to tell her what to do with her life. Before that, she had been toying with the idea of joining the Peace Corps or becoming a Wycliffe Bible translator. When Jack proposed, she thought that it was a message that she was not supposed to be spending her life being mistaken for a spy or some sort of agent provocateur working for the CIA. Instead, she was being guided to be an instrument of God’s will, to bear witness to His greatness here in southeastern Oklahoma.

Overall, she did not regret it. She just wished she had made one small trip to the wilds of Guatemala or New Guinea to learn an unwritten language and to teach English while spending her nights under mosquito netting.

“They are a strange bunch,” he said. “They seem to have their own culture – they make all their own clothes from natural fibers. At least they’re not nudists.”

The last disastrous economic development experiment had involved a nudist cult. They had not realized that winters got downright cold in southeastern Oklahoma and that nosing around on what appeared to be abandoned property could get you a face-to-face encounter with a not very happy meth cook. One night, after an awkward trip to the emergency room to where a medic dug buckshot out of the left cheek of one of the plumper members, the entire group vanished into thin air.

“I don’t think they vanished,” said Jack. “I just think they put on clothes and cut their hair. What better disguise? They’re probably back at work as teachers and librarians.”

We finished our breakfast and walked up to the cash register to pay.

“This is my wife, Ophelia,” said Stanton, with obvious pride. My cheeks burned.

“I don’t know why you keep saying that,” I said under my breath. I felt my jaw clench. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you I’m sorry I divorced you without telling you.”

Stanton looked at me and his eyes glittered with determination.

“I love you, and we are here for a reason. I know you believe this as much as I do. We will get to the bottom of this.” He paused. The sound of bacon thrown on a skillet filled the air. He continued softly, intensely.

“Yes. Even if it kills us.”

Breakfast with the Yahweh Brethren - photo by Susan Smith Nash

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Cabinet of Dr. Cartografi

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The panel that unlocked the hidden door to the secret map cabinet was still ajar, and I wondered if Dad realized it. He had gathered his samples of Oklahoma crude oil in front of him and was preparing vials to insert into his new geo-frequency detection equipment.

“I’m going to spend some time with Stanton this weekend,” I announced to Dad. He looked up from small vials of crude oil from the wells he had discovered over the years. I was sitting across the laboratory from him, and I began making notes on the report he wanted me to revise before we presented it to our partners.

Dad wanted me to update the reports, and I didn’t want him to think that there was any possibility that I could do it on the weekend.

“If you can get the information to me today or tomorrow, I can do it before we take off on Friday evening,” I remarked. I took a sip of coffee from the mug I had placed on the worktable in front of me.

“You’re what?” Dad put down the Sharpie he had been using to write on the plastic label. “Did you say something about Stanton?”

I was painfully aware that the last time I had spoken about Stanton I had described him as the devil’s own spawn. It had not been a good day, and I had exaggerated for effect. Now I was going to have to eat my words.

“Do you think that’s such a good idea?” he said. He looked curious. “The two of you couldn’t seem to make much of a go of it two years ago. Besides, I thought he had moved to California or Colombia or somewhere he could work with that Navy SEAL buddy he had.”

“I never bought the story that Grist was a SEAL,” I said somewhat bitterly. I looked down at the report and started making more meaningless marginalia. “Do you have a new map I can insert on this page?”

“We need to get the report out as soon as possible,” said Dad. “I’ll be leaving on a trip and I want to have this wrapped up.”

“Okay. I’ll do it this afternoon if you can get the information for me.” I was glad for the deflection. I didn’t want to talk about Stanton with Dad. On the other hand, he was a patient listener. That was because he wasn’t really listening, I reminded myself. He was always somewhere else, planning ahead to his next trip or thinking about his latest project.

“You were pretty miserable, you know,” said Dad, quietly. “It took you almost a year before you could stop seeing your therapist every other day.”

“I made a lot of mistakes,” I said.

“Be sure you’re not making another one,” he said. I felt tears well up behind my eyes. The pressure on my eyes was almost unbearable, and I felt my heart tighten.

“Well, no one likes being alone. What you are feeling is understandable,” he said. I could tell he was groping for a way to change the subject. “Have I shown you the maps?”

I held the back of my hand up to my cheek hoping that my cool skin would calm me, and diffuse the tears that had started to cascade against my will.

Dad stood up and walked to the panel, opened it, and stood back as the expensive mechanism slid the panel smoothly into the wall. Dad’s laboratory now had another room, one filled from floor to ceiling with map cabinets.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about all that I have here,” he said. “I have every map I’ve ever worked on with my various pieces of equipment. All the surveys. All the field studies. They’re all here.”

The maps were organized according to state, and within each state, by county. They detailed all his investigations, the mines, the test holes, everything that had to petroleum and mineral exploration.

“Here’s what you might find interesting,” he said. “All the treasure maps are in this cabinet.”

He walked to an antique map cabinet that had been handcrafted in cherry with delicate brass pulls and mother of pearl inlays. A brass placard had been affixed to the top drawer: Dr. Cartografi.

“Who was Dr. Cartografi?” I asked. Dad smiled.

“I think it was some sort of brand name.” He opened a middle drawer. “Do you recognize this?”

I looked at it and felt a shock of recognition.

“Marcus? His mom’s map? The Farley Kritzof map?” Dad nodded.

“They are all there. The Blue Cave. The Lost River of Gold. Kokoweef. The Treasure of Tumacacori. Four Corners. Pahrump, Nevada. All of them,” he said.

Tears started streaming down my face, this time in earnest. Years and years of treasure quests, of hunts for smuggler’s gold, outlaw hideaways, western myth and magic.

“If you and Stanton get back together, maybe the three of us can go out and finish up some of these searches. I think I’ve got most of them either located or eliminated. I can’t do it alone,” he said.

For the first time, I became aware that Dad really did want me to help him find what he had been looking for during the better part of his adult life. I wasn’t sure what to say. I should have been elated. He was including me.

Instead, I felt my knees tremble. I thought of Stanton, of the lean, muscular harshness that he had acquired in the two years since we had last seen each other, the dark brooding eyes, the chiseled jaw, the lips set a bit too tightly together, as though self-control was the only virtue he believed in any more.

God’s Hostage.

It impacted all of us in ways we were only beginning to understand.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Reich's Basement

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Dad’s laboratory, like all good laboratories with the exception, perhaps, of Dr. Frankenstein’s, was in the basement.

More precisely, it was in our basement, which annoyed Mother to no end, particularly when he was still allowed to smoke his cigars in the house.

“You are going to blow yourself up, and all of us with you, if you don’t stop smoking cigars around those chemicals.”

Mother was referring to the solvents he used to determine whether or not the rock samples from the wells he was drilling contained oil. At first, he used carbon tet, but when that was deemed a controlled substance due to its extreme efficacy as a carcinogen, he changed to toluene, and then to xylene, after toluene was also found to be carcinogenic. Toluene was flammable, and, according to the Manufactures’ Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that came with every purchase, xylene was flammable in both liquid and vapor.

“I’m afraid she’s right, Dad,” I said. I regaled him with tales of my summer job in Tulsa at the Amoco Research Center. My job was to measure porosity and permeability in the tight gas sands cored while drilling wells. We had to clean out the hydrocarbons before we could take measurements, and to do so, we, in essence, boiled the cores in xylene.

Jimmy, one of the petroleum engineers in charge of the project, liked to come in and check out the progress. This was at a time when one could still smoke inside an office building, and he availed himself of the privilege. In fact, you rarely saw him without a lit cigarette between his lips, even when he leaned over beakers filled with boiling toluene and xylene.

Jimmy was amazingly diligent in checking the cleaning of the cores. In fact, he personally inspected every single core cleaning operation we ever did, which was at least one batch every two or three days, depending on the number of cores that had arrived from Wyoming and Colorado. He would smile apologetically at the door of the lab, then rapidly scurry in, his oversized white lab coat sailing up behind him, the tip of the cigarette in his mouth glowing red as he inhaled sharply. We had the cleaning operation under the ventilation hood: ten gas burners heating up large beakers of xylene, upon which we had placed a wire mesh screen and rows of cores. The xylene vapor would penetrate the cores and the hydrocarbons would drip down into the xylene-containing beaker.

The other lab assistants and myself theorized that he was getting a cheap high, somewhat akin to huffing glue.

He would lean his entire head under the hood and fuss with each rack of cores. We would stand transfixed, staring in horror at the lit cigarette.

“Excuse me, sir. Are you worried about the flammability?” I asked tentatively.

His head hit the hood as he jerked up in response to my question. “Whaddya think the hood’s for, little missy?” he said, his eye bloodshot and bleary.

One day, Jimmy was observed by a safety officer who immediately fined him and put him on two weeks administrative leave.

We wondered if he would take up building model airplanes or start cooking with anti-stick spray.

“Technically, it’s called inhalant abuse,” pronounced Butch, the lab supervisor. We were sorry to see Jimmy suffer, but we were desperately relieved to have such a menace removed from our daily lives in the lab.

After hearing my stories from the summer job trenches, Mother bought Dad the best chemical lab ventilation booth she could get her hands on. It had closed glass doors, a huge fan, and a warning system for fire and gases.

Dad was touched. “You care this much about my well-being?” he asked.

“I just don’t want you blowing up the neighborhood. Jill and Wendy just finished their landscaping project and their rose bushes are finally blooming. I think they’re pretty and I’m enjoying the view from the back patio. And, I want you to remember one thing: if you blow up this house, it will destroy theirs, too,” Mother said in her soft yet feisty Southern Belle accent.

“And furthermore, there will be no more smoking in this house. I’m tired of that cigar smoke giving me a sinus headache,” she continued.

Even on the sultriest day, Dad’s basement laboratory was always cool. Although most of his work was fairly pedestrian from a geoscientist’s point of view, it was mysterious and magical to me.

One half of the large laboratory was filled with standard laboratory equipment. Petrographic microscopes, microscopes, black-lights, high-intensity lamps for illuminating samples, gas flames, the famed ventilation system, glassware, equipment for cutting cores lined one wall of the lab. Another lab contained sample, and a locked glass cabinet with chemicals and samples. A bookshelf filled with reference books and lab notebooks filled the space next to the corner. There was nothing there I had not seen in my geology lab courses at the university. In fact, his microscopes were much better than the ones we used in optical mineralogy class.

A large worktable filled the middle of the room. The other half of the lab was filled with experimental devices one would never find in a standard laboratory in a university or a company.

I was not quite sure what they were, and when I asked Dad to explain them, he would often become a bit evasive. He preferred to talk about the results of his experiments rather than the actual provenance of the technologies. A few times, the words “chakra energy” made me realize he was far beyond the pale of the traditional science. The priceless collection of crystals of all the minerals I had studied at school were utterly breathtaking.

Crystals amply chakra energy,” he said.

“So what do you do with chakra energy once you’ve detected it?” I asked. Dad looked pensive. I knew he was wrestling with how much to tell me.

“That’s a difficult question to answer. There are many uses. The most obvious is healing,” he said. “But I’m more interested in the possibility that our chakra energies are affected by the energy of substances, waves, and forces.”

“Oh. Like being around a microwave station, or living under cross-country power lines?” I asked.

“It’s not like that. I’m interested in how one’s body can be attuned to the frequencies of certain substances – usually pure elements – so your body can be a detecting device,” he said cryptically.

“Like a magnet?” I asked. Whenever Dad talked like this, all I could think of were the New Age shops I had visited in Ojai, California and Sedona, Arizona– both reputed to be cosmic energy centers. In my opinion, the stores promised a lot but always failed to deliver. I had my astrological charts drawn up, my Toltec animal energy guide detected, and had even contemplated having a past life regression developed, but at the last minute decided that 50 bucks was too much to pay for something that would inevitably make me feel yoked to some sort of rancid pre-destiny. I preferred to feel free. I knew, of course, that freedom was an illusion. Even as I spoke with my dad, my future was being subtly altered by the conditioning I was receiving by listening to this crazy stuff.

“Can you reanimate dead cells?” I asked. “You can make a wet battery, like Luigi Galvani. I was just reading about how he studied the effects of electricity on animal nerves and muscles. He got a bad reputation later because Mary Shelley and others used his findings to go off the deep end.”

Dad looked at me curiously.

“The Frankenstein approach doesn’t work. Once the cell is really dead, electricity only seals its fate,” he said.

“I’m not interested in that anyway. I think it just creates a lot of problems to revive the dead. When your time is up, it’s up. If you think about it, eventually people are better off dead,” he said.

“What the heck do you mean by that?” I asked.

“Just that they’ve totally messed up their lives with negative thinking,” Dad said. “No. I’m interested in being able to detect elements with one’s body. I’m also interested in tuning the body so that it is as receptive as possible. I’ve been experimenting with Orgone Energy.”

“What??? Does Mother know?” I asked. I was truly shocked. I was used to Dad’s devices – the divining rods, the gold and platinum coils, the magnetometers, and infra-red devices. This was truly different. Apparently, he was following the teachings of Wilhelm Reich, who had tried to find a way to measure the energy expended when men became sexually aroused, and to find a measure for sexual energy. Reich believed in sexual healing, and he thought it could cure everything from depression to cancer.

So. Dad had no need of the electrical energy that so violently charged the air each spring and summer during tornado season. He was going to

“I think that the preventative removal of the prostate is a conspiracy to rob mature men of their orgone energy,” said Dad. “It’s criminal.”

Here is something I bought from Russ. It’s called the Orgone Energy Accumulator. It takes the wasted orgone energy from the atmosphere and keeps it in the coils. Then, when you plug it into your room, it releases the accumulated energy and charges you up.

“That’s a lava lamp, Dad,” I said. The lamp was a cone-shaped light fixture with the gooey purple-red substance that bubbled up in a way that resembled hot “pahoehoe” lava. It looked exactly like the “lava lamps” that were popular in the 1960s among hippies experimenting with LSD.

“Been doing any acid trips?” I asked, under my breath. Luckily, Dad did not hear me.

“Russ sent me this one. He charged it up with orgone energy.”

“How did he do that?” I asked, in spite of myself. I didn’t know if I really wanted to know.

“He has a friend who works at a sperm donor place in Las Vegas,” said Dad, rather placidly I thought. I felt my face blush.

“I was afraid you were going to say that he had a deal with brothels. He lives in Las Vegas, after all,” I said.

Dad looked at me. “That’s not a bad idea. But, I think that there might be too much negative energy in that. That’s not a very nice business.”

I sighed. It was interesting, but I was more interested in things on the other side of the lab. I wanted to find more gold and oil. In particular, I wanted to find a low-cost way to process “invisible gold” – the micro particles of gold found in gold deposits near Elko, Nevada, in the Carlin Trend.

“Well, you know what happened to Reich,” I said, darkly. I looked at Dad, who was adjusting the lava lamp Orgone Accumulator. He looked all the world like Wilhelm Reich in the famous photo of him with the “Cloudbuster” he kept in his back yard in Forest Hills, New York. Reich claimed to be able to channel orgone energy into the skies to create rain and to communicate with UFOs.

“Reich died in prison for practicing medicine without a license,” I said.

Dad wasn’t listening. He was staring into the depths of the lava lamp, lost in thought. Then, startling back to conversation he cleared his throat.

“It’s interesting, but I would not go as far as Russ does with this. I’m just interested to see if either the principles or the practice have any bearing on what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m about ready for a break. How about McDonald’s and coffee?”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. I wanted to ask him about my ideas about gold in Nevada.

Yahweh Springs

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“This was a really dumb idea,” I said weakly. The abandoned pavilion at the center of the town square cast eerie shadows in the light of the moon. Vines had overgrown the bottom half of the wooden structure, and the elaborate wooden filigree, the “gingerbread” was missing chunks.

“Why do you say that?” asked Stanton, mischievously. In the years since his mom had moved away from Yahweh Springs, the once quaint Victorian spa had turned creepy. Although Yahweh Springs boasted artesian springs that bubbled sulfurous waters as boldly as their sisters to the east, in Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, Arkansas, and to the west, in Sulphur, Oklahoma and the Arbuckle Mountains, the developers who had hoped for a comeback in the early 1980s were sadly disappointed. Vacationers were loath to invest in yet unbuilt timeshares, and when a fringe religious cult calling itself the Yahweh Brethren purchased a couple of sections on the outskirts of town, real estate transactions slowed to a crawl.

“Okay. It didn’t seem like a dumb idea this afternoon,” I admitted. “I mean, your mom lived here while your dad was deployed. This was the last place you guys lived before your mom divorced your dad. The idea that some of his stuff might still be hidden around the place where they lived made sense to me.”

The warm breeze rustled the leaves of the cottonwood, sycamore, and redbud trees that cast rippling shadows in the moonlight. The sweet scent of mimosa blossoms floated like the perfume of a ghostly debutante, and I shivered lightly.

“Now it seems really ludicrous. You don’t even remember where you lived – only that it was somewhere near the center square,” I said.

My voice was thin and tense, as we walked toward the steps of the octagonal pavilion. I could imagine brass bands playing Sousa marches in the early 1900s, and women wearing white dresses, big hats, drinking lemonade and singing about bicycles built for two. I could imagine FDR patronizing this locale as well as Medicine Springs in the Wichita Mountains. Yahweh Springs was established at a time when polio victims would go to hot springs for cures.

All attempts to bottle and sell the spring water had been wildly unsuccessful. The high sulfur content was repellant to most people.

“I thought your theory about ‘kinaesthetic memory’ made a lot of sense,” said Stanton encouragingly. “The conscious mind can’t recall events, but if your body replicates certain motions and feelings, memories will come back. It sounded like the same sort of theory of scent-triggered memories.”

“Thanks,” I said grimly. I leaned on the first step gingerly. As I shifted my weight forward, the step groaned. I jumped back, falling through a spiderweb stretched across the space between to weathered board. I batted imaginary spiders climbing up my neck and arms.

Stanton laughed. “Spider! It’s in your hair!”

“Yick!! Ick! I shook my hair frantically. Stanton laughed even louder. He grabbed me by the waist, pulled me to him and kissed me.

“Do you see the spider?” I asked.

“No. But I think I’ve been bitten by a vampire bat. I must bite you.” He was enjoying this. I was not. My intent was to come here and hope that the environment would trigger kinaesthetic memories, and that he would remember where his family had lived before his mother had divorced her husband and had abandoned the house and any possessions that her husband happened to have there.

It was a desperate gamble, but we hoped it would pay off. If it did, we would finally have answer’s to Stanton’s dad’s ramblings about “God’s Hostage,” and cryptic references to Laotian stupa, temple carvings, and mandala messages.

As far as anyone knew, Col. Harville’s ramblings and behaviors were simply the tragic consequence of 6 years of sorties and rendezvous in Indochina during the height of the Vietnam War.

I had a different theory. No one quite believed me, though. I had done some research, and had found that “God’s Hostage” was a loose translation of the name of a poorly known Buddhist temple located somewhere deep in the Laotian jungles near the Mekong River. Had Col. Harville been systematically smuggling artifacts and antiquities? I was willing to wager he had.

I felt Stanton’s thick, broad hand on the small of my back as he guided me to him, pushing me close against his hard, flat stomach. My hand reached down reflexively to his hips where I held on, just as I did when riding behind him on the Kawasaki motorcycle he drove too fast on the nights when his own war dreams intruded his sleep and he could only purge the images with adrenaline and the turbulent flow of air on his arms and chest.

In the light of the full moon, Stanton’s broad shoulders and thick, muscled arms could have seemed menacing. I wondered if I seemed absurdly gothic at his side, clad in unrelieved black, my black knit long-sleeve shirt, black pants, black short boots, punctuated only by a strand of fresh water pearls culled from clams in the Caspian Sea, and my makeup that was always a shade or two too light, my lipstick always a shade or two too dark.

An owl could be heard, as well as the quiet rustle of grass badly in need of mowing. He moved my unruly hair from my face and kissed my cheek.

“Don’t worry. In theory it was a good idea. Maybe it will work,” he said.

“Are you remembering anything yet?” I asked.

“Well, I do remember this pavilion. Maybe if we stand on it, I’ll have an idea of which direction we should go.”

We stepped onto the pavilion and I felt the wood give way.

“Be careful, Stanton. Termite damage, I suspect. My exterminator told me that termite “queens” are as big as poodles in this part of the country,” I said.

He froze. A cloud passed across the face of the moon, and we were plunged in shadow. When the light returned, Stanton breathed deeply, loudly.

“Crazy as it seems, your theory is working. I remember this place. I remember it. We lived over there.” He pointed across the plaza to a tangling dark shadow next to what appeared to be a small row of brick businesses.

We walked quickly across the square and followed the cracked sidewalk. Small bushes pushed up through the cracks of the sidewalk, and the uncut grass smelled like fresh alfalfa. It was almost cloyingly sweet. Stanton stopped in his tracks.

“It’s gone,” said Stanton. His face was dark, harsh.

“What? What do you mean?” I asked.

“Look. Fire. Or something. Burned to the ground.” His voice was hushed. He was right. There was nothing there – just a bare concrete pad, and small piles of bricks.

I was transfixed. It was such an expected outcome that I did not know how to react.

The sound of distant singing carried itself in on the night winds.

“Do you hear that, Stanton?” I asked. “Am I going insane? Do you hear it? Do you recognize the song?”

He turned toward and gestured toward a small rock building down the street. Lights blazed in the windows. “I think it’s coming from there. In fact, I can almost make out the words.”

The Yahweh Brethren had a small chapel on the corner, and they were having some sort of ceremony, and were singing a hymn.

“Oh my God, Stanton. We’ve mixed up ourselves with a cult that believes in human sacrifice. Just listen.”

We could make out the words: There is power, power, power in the blood …

Stanton laughed. “Come on. That’s a standard hymn. We used to sing it all the time at the Assembly of God church I used to go to.”

“This is really making me nervous. Let’s go, Stanton,” I said, trying not to sound too desperate. He looked at me and put his arm around me. His eye were dark and unreadable.

“I love you dearly, Ophelia,” he said.

We made our way back to the truck quickly and without incident. The simple, spartan Budgetel where we had rented a room for night seemed, upon approach, to be an oasis of light and well-scrubbed, disinfected cheer. I knew I would sleep like the dead tonight.

Tomorrow would be another day. The light would reveal the narrative that had been left unspoken for so many years.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Devil's Oasis

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The Oasis Motel, somewhere near Yorktown, Texas

We were in one of those motel rooms you see from the highway, and the sign says, “Ask About Our Weekly Rates.” Inside of one of the rooms, the atmosphere was close, claustrophobic. There was aluminum foil over the windows, except for one or two strips, which let in light, immediately diffused by the thick, semi-sheer curtains.

A thin man wearing a faded, but neatly pressed shirt and slim, dark slacks turned and looked at me. “I’m God’s hostage,” he said. This was the father of the man I couldn’t stop loving. It was tearing me up inside, but I wasn’t about to let it show.

“Huh, yeah, and who isn’t?” I responded.

He didn’t laugh. It wasn’t a joke to him. But there was something like a giant existential joke going on – if not a joke, at least some game was going, and I was caught on the periphery, without any knowledge of the inner workings of whatever great minds were devising the mental trap for this thin, slightly stooped over former pilot who had flown apparently a few too missions into Laos a few too many years ago; at least during years when it mattered, when the man I had had the misfortune to fall in love with was in his tender formative years.

During those strange, dark years of sorties no one could ever admit ever occurred, and surreal nights on a boat somewhere on the Mekong River, the mother left.

“She sent money, or she said she would,” the son explained. He was 14 at the time. At least that’s how I remember the story. It had been years since Vietnam, and yet it might as well be occurring today. The encounter with his father -- the small, polite retired Air Force Colonel who served in Vietnam continued to haunt me for months after it happened.

Stanton was not physically present in the room, but I could sense his disapproval. He would be horrified if he knew I had sought out his father. I needed to find him. I knew it signified some kind of twisted Rosetta stone that could be used to decode the inexplicable things that were happening.

“I was told to come to this hotel and I have not been allowed to leave. I will be told when it’s time.” He was serious. I stared at the floor while trying to process the information.

It was a hot day in August and I made the drive from Dallas to Yorktown, Texas in less than three hours. Mapquest said it should take me at least five. I was not even sure how I found it in the first place. Perhaps it was divine guidance. Perhaps it was the devil himself, or spirits determined that justice be served.

Stanton had mentioned a place called the Shangri-La motel, but how I divined that the real location was the Oasis was beyond anything I could rationally understand.

My original intent was to simply go to the Dallas Geological Society library to look up well logs and well information for Dad. He was convinced he had found a new Smackover field which would be step-out from the super-giant East Texas Field, with fresh production (albeit with high sulphur content). If his theory was right, it was something that could get us out of our slump, and get us past our string of bad luck. We needed a big discovery to compensate for the expensive dry holes we had just drilled. Dad liked the rank wildcats. I didn’t. There was not much I could do, though. I was still financially dependent upon Dad and Dad’s largesse. All the more reason to hope for a deep gas discovery in east Texas.

Missing a turn, I found myself on a highway that ended up being blessing in disguise. It was a shortcut to Yorktown, southeast of Dallas, toward Waco, made famous by David Koresh’s “Ranch Apocalype.”

My great-grandmother had lived due east of Temple, and south east of Waco, just a few miles from what became “Ranch Apocalypse.”

A few hours later, I was in Yorktown. I made a turn, and saw a two-story run-down motel, the kind with faded pastel panels and neon flamingos in the sign. The Oasis Motel. Suddenly, I knew it was the Shangri-La Stanton had mentioned.

My back was sticky with sweat and the air conditioning in the Honda I had bought new about five years before still worked quite well. I needed to get the windows tinted, though. I felt vaguely dizzy. I got out of the car and went to the office. An Indian or Pakistani walked quietly across the scuffed linoleum. There were bars on the windows.

“Do you have a long-term guest?” The man paused. Cooking smells wafted in from a back room. “Colonel Harville?”

“I’m his daughter-in-law.” My voice was a bit shaky. It wasn’t precisely true, but it would do. He looked at me strangely.

“His son is worried about him.” That was not true. It wasn’t true at all. His son was still caught up in useless rage and anger. When I asked him about his dad, I just got something so venomous I didn’t know how to respond.

You fall hardest in love with the guy who abuses you most.

Outside, a horn honked. The sound of an ambulance faded out of earshot. The man pressed his lips together and looked at me closely.

“If you are a member of his family, I will call him,” he said, rather stiffly. His wife came close to him. He looked rather protective, either of her husband or of their guest. For some reason, it touched me and I thought how special it was to have a relationship of long-term mutual trust and intimacy.

He made the phone call, place the phone quietly in the receiver. He looked down and said, rather sadly, I thought, a few quiet words. “He will see you, Miss. He is in room 216. It is upstairs.”

My knees trembled as I walked up the concrete steps outside the 1960s-vintage motel, and I gripped the metal banister with its thick, turquoise paint peeling off, and rust patches showing underneath.

“So Stanton got married. You’re his wife,” said Col. Harville.

“How long has it been?” I asked. “I mean, that you’ve lived here.”

“Eight years,” he said.

“Thank you for meeting me. I have wanted to talk to you for a long time.” I was astonished that Colonel Harville would even talk to me. When the relationship with Stanton went south, I would ask questions, but get no answers. No answers except cryptic references to his father.

Stanton had been in the Gulf War as an intelligence officer. Now he was back from the Gulf War, but time refused to heal his spiritual wounds. At one point, he had taken to drinking during the day and sleeping on a friend’s couch in somewhere near Fort Sill Army Base. When I met him, he was living in an old double-wide in a trailer park next to an enormous landfill where seagulls circled. Immense trash mountains of disposable diapers and Wal-Mart plastic bags glistened in the sun. In other countries, the trash mountains would be crawling with young people pilfering through, oblivious to the stench. The trash mountain was strangely beautiful, but I never could explain why.

When I met Stanton, he was developing his business as a commodities broker, and avoiding the calls from the military who wanted him back. He was a brilliant linguist, and one of the few who spoke Turkish, German, and Arabic.

“I prefer my view of Trash Mountain,” he said. He was referring to the landfill.

Most people found him somewhat less than charming. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

I was in the middle of preparing for the final stage of my general exams. I had broken my arm after deciding to see how high I could jump while rollerblading. I wasn’t wearing wrist guards, and when I came down on my arm – just how you’re not supposed to do it, I sensed I had broken it – instead of feeling extreme pain, I felt nausea. Denial was my first response. So, there I was in a pink cast covering my forearm, immobilizing my right hand. I secretly enjoyed the twinges of pain, thinking of “limit experiences,” seeking to understand the nature of the inner pain I, too, felt.

“Hey, do you ever feel an anxiety so intense that you look at your arms and wonder what it would be like to pull out the veins, or tendons—just to assuage that terrible fear that seeks to drag you down?” I asked him. I was studying for general exams, so perhaps this wasn’t an altogether abnormal mindset.

I knew what mine was about, but I wasn’t about to admit it to myself. My own dad lurked in the back of my head – my fragile mother lying in bed suffering migraines. My soft-spoken father who liked to ponder the hidden, unstated motives of people, was successful, kind-hearted, and yet he seemed very remote to me.

Col. Harville’s voice brought me back to reality.

“God’s Hostage,” he said. “That is what has kept me here for eight years.”

“You’re God’s hostage?” I asked.

He looked down, then into my face.

“I flew where no one says there were ever American missions. They call Laos the Land of One Million Elephants. Did you know that? The stupas are spectacular. Have you seen a Buddhist temple in the light of a full moon – a Laotian full moon? The humidity and the heat make the air unstable, and the moon seems to ripple like light reflected on water. Looking into the sky on a moonlit night is like looking into the surface of a dark, light-tinged lake.”

“You see your own soul disappear,” he continued. “It sinks like carved jade into the depths, without even the barest splash.”

“What happens after that?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.

“You will do anything you can to fill the void in your heart, your belly, your piece of mind. You think you’re hungry, but you soon find it is infinitely worse than that. You find out. Yes, you find out.”

Col. Harville paused. A look of raw fear transformed his face into wax and beadlets of sweat.

“Did they send you here? Did THEY?” he asked. His voice was hoarse as though he were tired of doing battle with God in a seedy motel in Yorktown.

“No,” I said.

But Col. Harville was not listening. I knew I should leave, even though my questions were not answered. Or, perhaps they were. I would have to think about it. I would have time. The drive back was long, and I was in no mood to rest.