Poster’s Note: Witiko Falls is currently on hiatus and these logs are unfinished. There’s also a fair amount of stuff in them, so here they are for anyone who wants to read up to the game’s current point.
Kurt: Mind’s Eye
10.06.1998, Tuesday morning
“Sun’s up, blood,” Wilson says as Kurt gets into the Prez. True to his word, dawn breaks over the Bitteroot, causing the cream-colored Towers to glow like fangs rising from the shadowed gums of the surrounding parking lots. A ray of sunlight blindingly glares off the bumpers and side-mirrors of nearby cars. Inside the Prez, Wilson sips from a can of Shop-Plus’ carried energy drink, Caffeine Fiend
. The can’s logo of the crazed, red-faced devil reflexively triggers Kurt’s brain to recall the brand’s commercial jingle that is blasted late-night on Omnivision: Mania in a bottle! Who wants to go full throttle?!
As the irritating ear worm continues to burrow in Kurt’s brain, Wilson looks at his best friend and adds, “Seriously, Count, maybe you should, like, crash or something. You’re looking pretty brutal. You wanna like dip with…?” Wilson himself looks notably sleepy, but he seems ready enough to drive, likely only due to the two already chugged Caffeine Fiend cans Kurt sees crumpled in the back.
The young man’s posture is crumpled. “No. I got tryouts to worry about today, man,” Kurt says while stifling a yawn, barely able to keep his darkened eyes open. His half-open eyes settle longingly on the energy drink in Wilson’s hand. “What’re you got on today?”
Wilson hands over the coveted energy drink. “Aiight, buzzkill,” he says half-jokingly, then answers Kurt’s question. “I got a thing to do, a little pickup and drop-off, then I’m gonna get fucking blazed. I’ll breeze by the school for lunch time to get some grind-age with you. I’ll probably stick around after that, to keep up my reputation and all. Also, I need to maintain a D minus in English or I’ll get kicked off the baseball team. Speaking of grades, can you do me a solid and write something down for me for to turn in for Fleischer’s reading diary? Just make sure to dumb it down. Wouldn’t do to seem like I’m trying.”
Wilson then shifts the Prez into gears and whips the car out of the parking lot. As he does so, Wilson punches a tape into the deck, causing the Sex Pistols to blare from the custom-installed speakers. As usual, it’s Wilson ‘anthem’ for their morning drive to school: No Fun
. Johnny Rotten’s familiar lyrics fill the car:
“Right here we go now
A sociology lecture
With a bit of psychology
A bit of neurology
A bit of fuck-ology
“Right no fun
My babe no fun
My babe no fun
Fun to be alone
Alone and by myself”
“Yeah. I can do that for you, man. It’ll likely help me stay awake, too,” Kurt says, taking a gulp from the offered energy-in-a-can. It’s not the first time he’s done Wilson’s English homework, and in truth Kurt has more than once forged a few signatures, permission slips, and doctor’s notes in his time, as well.
It’s easy to want to help a best friend in need. Ever since they first knew each other, Wilson has struggled with reading and writing. Dyslexic. Not that he would ever admit to that.
The energy drink tastes like high-fructose, carbonated kerosine lit on fire. Regardless of its ungodly amount of caffeine, the drink’s burning, chemical taste helps jolt Kurt awake.
Meanwhile, Wilson replies with a hand gesture that shows off his ‘MOST DOPE
’ hand tattoos. “You’re the fucking bomb,” he adds, then waves for Kurt to finish the drink when the basketball captain tries passing it back. As the Prez cruises down the solitary drag that connects St. Enoch’s and Witiko Falls, Wilson asks, “So for lunch, you want me to, like, smuggle in some O’Tolley’s, Chinese, pizza, or something from the Swiner?”
“Pizza. Always pizza.” Kurt tiredly yanks open his backpack, fiddling through its contents to grab his pencil case, an exercise book, and a textbook to lean on.
“A prince always gets what he wants,” Wilson replies, echoing the local pizzeria’s tagline. “No matter what!”
“Too bad you’re just a count,” he adds with a smirk that becomes a yawn as the Prez approaches the waking town of Witiko Falls. He squints as the dawn turns the Green Lady into a blinding snake of reflected light. “Fucking mornings…”
Wilson flips down his sun visor, revealing a black velcro holding stuffed with a dozen CDs, a spare BIC
lighter with an alien face, glow–in–the–dark condoms, and a sheet with sticker tattoos. “So how’re you gonna pitch it to Morgan?” he asks as they pass by the mostly empty Shop–Plus parking lot.
“What’s that?” Kurt says with dazed eyes, pulling them away from the exercise book in his hands. He hasn’t given it much thought, he realizes. Things have been rather hectic as of late. What is my plan of attack?
“I could make a dare out of it,” Kurt mumbles, scratching his chin. “I could also make a bet out of it, too.” He sighs and crumples in his seat a little in quick exasperation. “Girls are so tricky!”
“Chicas be hella crazy–,” Wilson agrees, “–and can make a dawg go postal.” The ‘sentiment’ is interrupted as a loud Caffeine Fiend belch ruptures from the Prez’s driver.
“Holy shit!” Kurt laughs, looking impressed by Wilson’s stellar burp. “I think that one’s a new record!”
“Soviet nukes got nothing against this grade-A fucking bomb!” Wilson laughs in agreement.
“Boris Yeltsin would be jealous.”
“Who?” Wilson asks, rubbing one of his red-rimmed eyes. He then glances over at his best friend. “But don’t sweat it with Morgan, dude. You’re tight. I mean, like, you should have seen it when you dropped trou last night. I’d wager some seriously heady nuggets that her panties could’ve been wrung out like one of Psalms’ mops.” The southpaw pitcher sniggers, then gives another burp, punching his chest to squeeze out a third.
Kurt shakes his head, grinning from ear to ear at Wilson’s words.
Ahead, the seniors’ route passes by the eponymously shaped Swiner, then makes a turn onto Nokken Run, where the road becomes comparatively busy with the early morning traffic of ingressing Falls High students.
Wilson scowls as he spots the red tailgate of Flawsen’s truck just visible ahead of a yellow school bus packed with underclassmen.
Kurt, having returned his attention to finishing Wilson’s essay, looks up in time to spot his friend’s scowl. He follows Wilson’s gaze.
That gaze shifts, though, as the bus forces the Prez to slow down and subsequently lose sight of Flawsen’s truck.
“I can’t stand that guy.”
“Fuckin’ bama…” Wilson agrees.
A second later, though, both seniors look up as they a notice boy at the back of the cheddar-colored school bus pound on the window to gain their attention. The youth’s mop of of hair is so black and messy it looks like a misplaced, spray-painted wig. His wrinkly, over-sized rayon shirt is equally disheveled, making the faded print of flying ducks all but indecipherable. But it’s his switchblade-slit eyes that make Kurt immediately recognize him as Tyler Stanger.
A sixteen-year old sophomore, Tyler is one of the pitied if not belittled Falls High students old enough to drive, but is nevertheless forced to ride the bus due to having no vehicle of his own, or friends or family who will give him a ride. That shame is compounded by the fact that this is the black haired sophomore’s third year having to ride the bus, as Kurt knows Tyler failed last year.
Then again, Kurt knows a lot about Tyler. After all, they used to be best friends. Or at least, that’s how Tyler remembers it. Others, including Kurt, remember that the Stangers were a local family to Witiko Falls who frequently shifted between being almost and outright broke, save for the few years when Kurt’s father hired on Tyler’s as one of his main barley hands.
As a consequence, the Crawfords and Stangers became closely acquainted, if not friends, with the latter sycophantically vouching for the latter to their fellow long-time town residents. And while those locals did end up embracing the out–of–towner family and their burgeoning barley farm, most of the gossip derided the Stangers as mere toadies obsequiously fawning for scraps from the Crawfords’ table.
And the Stanger’s only child, Tyler, was no different, except that most of his begging seemed to be for friendship from the slightly older Kurt Crawford, Jr. At first, Kurt’s parents pushed their son to indulge Tyler. After all, the Stangers lived on the Crawfords’ land and the two boys were less than two years apart in age. “Just think of him like a little brother,” his mom had said.
But like most little brothers, Tyler was often… annoying. Clingy. He constantly wanted to come over, to play with all of Kurt’s toys, to stay for every dinner. He wouldn’t ever leave, not unless he was directly told to do so. And then there were the ‘odd’ behaviors. Some of them didn’t seem that strange at first, like his love of fishing, but those penchants often took strange turns, like how he loved to impale worms on hooks and watch caught fish slowly asphyxiate when taken out of the water.
During the sleepovers that inevitably occurred when Tyler ‘invited’ himself over for the weekends, Kurt would sometimes wake in the dead of night to find Tyler staring at him with his slitted eyes, unblinking and unmoving. It made Kurt feel like he was one of the fish from his family’s duck ponds, slowly suffocating under the unsleeping gaze of the morbid voyeur.
But the worst part had been the smell
. Tyler stank. It was like he didn’t bathe, and his clothes were never quite washed, or maybe they were washed, but never properly dried so they smelled of rank, fermenting mildew, sweat, and other less pleasant body odors. Kurt wasn’t too surprised when he learned the other local kids called him “Stank Stanger” and similar nicknames.
And for the Crawford boy, making friends at school was always harder when “Stank” was around. Fortunately, their age difference meant that they never had any classes together, but Tyler was like a fly on a summer baking cow-patty at any other time he and Kurt could be together, from the bus to lunch to recess.
Despite multiple attempts to diplomatically distance himself from ‘Stank’, Kurt’s salvation from Tyler came with his father’s ‘accident’. When the Crawfords were forced to sell their farm, the Stangers were effectively evicted and jobless. As the Crawfords settled into the Towers, the Stangers were itinerant, at least until Tyler’s dad went off the deep end. Literally.
Allegedly so distraught at the loss of his employer and best friend, Tyler’s dad got drunk and drowned himself in the Crawfords’ old duck pond. Most folk assume that Tyler’s mom used the pittance of her husband’s life insurance to buy a trailer home in Maidenhead, but Kurt knows that it actually came from a small settlement with King’s Brewery over their mislabeled alcohol level on the beer cans Tyler’s dad had been drinking.
Either way, Tyler and his mother moved into the riverside trailer park, while Kurt and his family moved into the distant Towers. That distance, socially if not physically, only grew as Kurt graduated middle school and moved on to Falls High while Tyler remained behind at Lame Bull for another year. By the time Tyler became a Kelpie, he found his ‘best friend’ had replaced him with Wilson Perry.
That bitterness and enmity only increased during the subsequent three years as Wilson rose in St. Enoch’s Crips while Tyler joined their trailer trash rivals. As a consequence, the now-caffeinated if still sleep-deprived Kurt of 1998 isn’t surprised when he looks up and sees Tyler slap a hand against the bus’ back window to gain their attention, only to then curl all of his fingers into a fist, save one.
“Fuckin’ Bloods…” Wilson murmurs as he recognizes the boy and bird. He returns the gesture two-fold, steering uneasily with his knees as he shouts up at the bus, “Suck my tower-cock, Stank!”
It’s unclear if Tyler hears the taunt due to the distance and thick glass, but he at least recognizes the double-handed gesture. His response is to stand up on the bus seat, and mimic giving himself a two-fisted hand job till he ‘ejaculates’ by spitting messily over the back window.
Noticing the spectacle, an increasing number of other students on the bus turn around and laugh. Although neither Kurt nor Wilson can hear their words, the latter’s face turns red as Flawsen’s truck. The senior gnashes his teeth, as if trying to chew down a fiery retort lest he choke on it.
"Kurt remembers how Tyler, ever the toady and would-be ‘little brother’, had wanted to be a basketball star. He really never got the sport, and wasn’t ever good at it, but he did provide a younger Kurt someone to play one on one with, back when the Crawfords had their own driveway court. He would talk about he and Kurt would become rich athletes and then he’d come back and how he’d buy up all the land in Witiko Falls and then kick out the people who were mean to him and his family, or make them do things. “Make ’em squirm like a worm on a hook.”
It was a facile dream, especially the basketball part. But he did try out for the Kelpies’ team. He didn’t make it. At all. Stank stank at basketball.
There was another time, too, when Kurt went ‘polar bear swimming’ with a bunch of other kids from nearby farms and ended up playing ‘King of the Hill’ with a rock outcropping in the middle of the water. Stank wasn’t as bad in the water—he was a good swimmer, and his smell was better too.
It was an auspicious day when Amy and her older friends let Kurt and her ‘other little brother’ tag along. Stank actually managed to create a surprising win, more so as he was slippery as heck and the older, bigger teens pushed each other off, allowing him to become King of the Hill—only to realize that in the melee, ‘his’ trunks (which he’d borrowed from Kurt and were bigger) had slipped off the last time he was pushed off. The younger boy was left standing totally exposed in front of the older teens and especially the girls. The cold from polar bear swimming didn’t help with his shrinkage. “King of the Molehill” was the taunt that lingered.
But probably his greatest fear, Kurt reflects, is that everything his mother says about him is true.
“I can’t even get angry at Stank. I just feel sorry for the guy,” Kurt remarks, watching the lewd display with slow-blinking eyes. He suddenly has to stifle a yawn.
Brook: Skin Deep
10.10.1998, Saturday morning
The ride to the reservation is quiet, if not peaceful. The limousine’s interior, for all its size, feels tight, given the long, unfamiliar limbs of its occupants. Stan never speaks a word, but instead spends the first half of the trip constantly scanning the streets. Once they hit the reservation, though, his brooding gaze turns solely and unfortunately to Brook. Janne’s mien is far less grim, but she too is mostly silent and preoccupied as she opens her briefcase and begins working on an intricate, half-finished piece of white Hardanger embroidery.
Brook still dislikes being on the reservation for very obvious reasons, but even more so when he notices Stan’s eyes start to drill holes in his head. It’s unsettling. But he pulls his eyes away, feeling the warm steel against his chest and reaching into his box, pulling his hand cannon from its hand-tooled leather rest. It’s dirty from falling in the mud, if not just a little bit after being washed from the rain. He uses the inside lip of his shirt hem to polish it as they go, slowly emptying the box into his pockets until they arrive.
When the limousine grinds to a halt, dust clouds rise into the otherwise barren-blue sky.
As those clouds thin like a rotting funeral shroud, Brook sees that they have parked in a small, yet severely dust-blown wasteland. While the rest of the surrounding Bitterroot mountains and fir-covered foothills remain verdant, the immediate parcel of land has been shorn of its soil and vegetation and reduced to a parched bedrock of ground-down sediment pox–marked by deep pits and ravaged by sand–blown industrial treadmarks. Without the shelter of trees, the nigh-winter wind bites bitterly.
Brook knows this place. It has many names. Nanawtokani-Sikani. Blanket of the Skull. Omahkspaziko-Kizimi. Doorway to the Sandhills, the Sand Country of the Dead. Where Lost Brother Lives. The Aapoak Fields.
The abandoned ammolite mine and traditional Kanai ‘burial grounds’ are both guarded and shunned by the reserve’s natives. Few willingly approach it during the day. None dare tread it at night.
This October morning, though, the desolate region hosts more than its fabled shades. Five figures surround a tireless, salt–scuffed, and spray–painted truck frame left to hunker and rust away on Nanawtokani-Sikani’s rocky border. As the motley band’s collective gaze, if not lackadaisically threatening firearms, aim in teen’s direction, Brook recognizes four of the figures.
It’s been some time since Brook has seen Jim Mudhead–and the last time, his former teacher from Lame Bull Middle School wasn’t holding a shotgun.
While the thick-spectacled educator crouches on the ground, Makoyi–Koh–Kin “Kenny” Snakewater stands inside the truck bed. The thin, peyote-dealing tribal police officer isn’t dressed in his uniform, but instead wears chalky yellow warpaint and rough denim clothes while gripping the barrel of an antique WWII
era rifle fitted with a short bayonet.
Looking up puts a small pang of recognition and concern in Brook’s bones. The scene is scanned over once, being parked in a desolate lot, one of such importance to their people for its link to death, is grim. Even more so when he spots the men all with guns, and especially Snakewater and his face, his eyes narrowing.
Beside him, Hector Shortface squats on the lip of the truck bed. Dressed in work boots, faded jeans, leather jacket, and a necklace made of lynx claws, the leather-faced, local payday loan provider balances a bit of snuff on a skinning blade, snorts the pulverized tobacco, and then returns to sharpening his blade in long, slow arcs.
To Hector’s left, an unknown figure leans against the truck’s hood, while to his right, the band’s fifth and youngest member sits propped up against a faded fish–n–tackle sign that backs up to the truck’s rear axel. Brook recognizes the youth as Tihkoosue “Sue” Arnoux. Brook hasn’t seen Sue in roughly three years, not since he was sent to Kootenai County Juvenile Detention for stabbing a white bully on Lame Middle School’s playground, after the Kainai native was repeatedly bullied for his traditional name and hair. Sue glances up briefly at Brook, then looks down quickly at the rifle in his lap.
Yet, while Sue continues avoiding eye contact, the other four men all give respectful nods as Stan steps out of the limo. None seem to pay Janne Whitedoe any particular attention. Stan, meanwhile, gestures stoically for Brook to follow him to a cluster of tipis. While several of those tipis are plain or painted in monochromatic red, Brook’s grim guides makes his way to one elaborately decorated with symmetrical pattens in red, yellow, white, and brown. As a gust of alpine wind sweeps over Nanawtokani-Sikani, sand and broken-down gravel stir and crawl while the tipis’ tall lodge poles creak like old bones.
The box finds the boy’s hands in a pocket, carefully pulling five of the newly minted and exported cartridges for his weapon, sliding them into the chamber as Stan gets up and leaves the limo. Brook follows at his own pace, standing tall and appropriately tightening the chest holster as he looks over the figures once again, catching Sue’s eyes. It feels tense for moment, but to his relief, Stan leads him away to painted tipi. The wind echoes his statements, he feels raw and uncertain.
He doesn’t say a word around his people’s lands or constructs, and he won’t until he hears someone else speak first, waiting to be lead or gestured into the traditional building as he eyes the paint over. Something important is happening.
Somewhere above, Brook hears the piercing cry of an eagle as it glides upon a thermal. Behind him, the firearm-toting band tenses and scans the sky with their weapons. Meanwhile, Kills Many Horses swiftly raises the tipi flap and all but throws Brook inside. The sudden journey from cloudless day to deep shadows renders Brook momentarily blind.
Brook looks up to find the eagle, as well, surprised when he is nearly tossed into the tipi and all he can make out is dark. He does what he does when he steps out of his truck into the dark, smoothing his fingers along his eyes and squeezing them tight before opening them back into the dark, scanning for shadows. One that he’s hoping will be squat, thick, and familiar.
That hope is dashed like a bug against his Honda xr600’s headlamp. For as his sight adjusts, Brook swiftly discerns that the tipi is full of shadows–but none belonging to his mother.
Notwithstanding, nearly all eight of the shadowy figures are familiar to the reserve-raised youth.
The first of these figures Brook catches in his peripheral vision if not hunter’s hackles, as he senses a large muscular figure standing almost directly behind him. The figure–whom Brook slowly realizes is Makkapitew Dusty-Bull–wears a traditional, if bizarre, head-dress made from a narrow strip of skin with bear ears and bear claws affixed to resemble a pair of horns. His shirt, white save for bloody painted shoulders, reaches to his waist and bears long fringe along its bottom and short sleeves. His bare forearm has another strip of narrow bearskin with a claw attached. Makkapitew’s ensemble further features a traditional beaded belt, breech cloth, moccassins, a belt full of cartridges, and a large knife. The bull-rider turned head of Beavertail Casino security stares past Brook with a face painted crimson red with black streaks running from the corners of his eyes and mouth. Besides Brook, Makkapitew is the only other person standing inside the tipi. The other seven sit cross-legged in a semi-circle that faces Brook and the entrance’s flap.
At the flanks of that semi-circle, four pairs of venerable eyes settle upon the young boy with the wrinkled weight of long thoughts. Shadows surround their creased, septuagenarian and octogenarian faces and frames, but Brook recognizes the partially veiled visages of all four of the tribal elders.
Brook flinches ever so slightly at the realization that something is almost behind him, the hunter hackles indeed tuned enough that something that large suddenly being perceived sends up warning bells. That is, until he realizes who it is. Sunny’s dad, of all people. His job, his paint, his full regalia, even his reputation are all lost on his son’s classmate simply by virtue of knowing him. Still, even with the fear not quite there, the respect is. That look past him is telltale, even when the man is using his periphery, Brook can tell his role, and the purpose for the intense eyes, silently turning to regard the rest of the leadership of his mother’s people.
To the teenager’s left, Danny’s grandfather, Aaron Blackrib, sits beside the lean, if still handsome, silver-haired Hank Kicking-Woman. On the opposite side, the spiderweb–haired and prune–faced George Whitegrass holds one of the tribe’s consecrated wormpipes with a shaky, arthritic grip, while the nearly ninety–years–old hermit, Merle “Enkoodabaoo” Bad-Marriage, draws a deep breath through his nostrils before giving a lemon-puckered smile–an expression that might either signify relief at passing gas or recognition of his adoptive great-grandson’s scent.
Equally unknown are the two figures to the immediate left and right of the semi-circle’s center.
Although one of these men is distinguished by his well-coiffed silver and black hair and scarred lip, both figures wear coyote skins with their head thrust through a slit in the creature’s middle; decorative weasel-tails, hair-lock suits, blankets across their left arms, rattles in their right hands, and red paint on their noses, mouths, and chins.
The last figure is dressed in the ‘pelt’ of a western man of business and no small means. He wears a clean raquette-collared shirt with a black braided bolo tie, buckled belt, pressed dress slacks, and rattlesnake boots. Yet, beneath that mien of modernity, Jacob Absalom Ghostelk is a man of older, nigh-lost times. With his black hair pulled back into a single braid, the two lightning-white stripes at his temple resemble the markings of a misziazikaii. His new moon eyes regard Brook with the barest hint of a leather-tight smile that all but creaks in the shadow-drenched tipi.
Aaron Blackrib makes Brook’s heart hurt, and his fingers itch, reminding the boy that he should be in the hospital right now, beating the hell out of and then nursing his best friend back to health. The fingers more because now every time he thinks back to that day, he measures his fingers along on the palm of his hand. Checking their length and regretting the lack of time he’s had to follow up on that train of thought. Hell of a time to be thinking about the size of your manhood.
But his gaze does turn on the others. Hank Kicking-Woman, a reserve hero and villain depending on who and whose husbands one asks, though Brook always maintained that a year or two would give him a prettier face. George Whitegrass, the dream interpreter among other things, but the young adopted Blood always considered that the most interesting.
And of course, his great-grandfather. The man Brook breaks his back for weekly, delivering groceries and supplies, and acting as a patient ear and a home handiman. Out of all the people in Witiko Falls, Brook fears him the most. Not because of what he can do, but what he is. Alone. He’d nod to the man if he weren’t milky eyed.
The two others whose names he can’t place bother him, but the bear in the den of wolves reveals itself as his eyes adjust enough to recognize Mr. Ghostelk. Money is huge on the reserve, and if any man has too much, it’s this man. But he’s powerful, and from looking in the man’s dark eyes with that tight smile, he lets the boy know in an instant who is prey and predator in this tipi.
His presence keeps the boy silent as he slowly approaches the semi-circle, eases himself down a respectable distance and kneels, waiting for them to address him. The only thing comforting him the steel heart against his chest, and the weight of the gun in the same place. Even if was only the familiarity of the feeling, and not the thought of assaulting the Blood Tribe’s leadership.
At Brook’s respectful silence and genuflection, Merle’s smile lengthens like a limb-stretched deer pelt. The others’ reactions are lost to shadows and Brook’s diverted attention as the two figures flanking Ghostelk exchange their rattles and blankets for water drums, which they begin to beat upon in a rhythm that starts fast and hard and then slowly stretches and weakens like a punctured heart.
During the process, the four elders take up a mournful chant that likewise starts strong only to die slowly. In that wake, Ghostelk speaks, first in Kainai, then in English, with only the latter understood by the mixed-blood teenager:
“Brothers of the Iikunuhkahtsi, we are gathered at the foothills of the Sand County to render judgment and mourn the death of Brook Barnes.”
Brook feels the weight of sixteen eyes bear down on his skull like an avalanche.
Brook’s hackles once again rise, this time at the words of Ghostelk. The well-tuned reptile in his brain forms a split-second plan of escape. One round into Mack’s thigh. Grab Ghostelk. Use him as a human shield, dragging him towards the tree line. It doesn’t matter how Indian these painted porcelain dolls think they are, they are not sons or protectors of the these woods.
But the young man grabs that gnashing raptor sending alarm bells through his spine and banishes it back deep into his stomach as he takes a deep deep breath. This is some round-about bullshit meant to scare him, no doubt. It’s working. But great-grandfather wouldn’t have that smile on his face if this truly was an execution, and he knows it’s not 16, but 14 eyes pressing down on him. Less eyes than you feel on yourself when gathering firewood, but so much heavier.
But the boy is weary, sitting there with an expression like ice and stone, much like his mother, locking eyes with Ghostelk as his left arm aches to jump up onto that familiar finish on his .454’s handle.
Ghostelk meets Brook’s green-eyed gaze with another creak of a rawhide smile. He opens that smile to speak, but is interrupted by Aaron Blackrib. As usual, the old man’s voice is tired, listless, and in broken by old words in the Blood Tribe’s tongue, but Brook has never known the man to string so many words together–and particularly not in such a coherent manner. “Let’s this over with, Xinaaw. Apistotoki knows how much you love to hear the sound of your own voice.”
Several of the old men chuckle at the remark, even as it makes Ghostelk’s smile straighten into a knife-slit. Aaron continues: “Some
of us have nizitapimix who will miss us. Also, Wheel of Fortune comes on at 10:30, and I need to run. My old knees can’t take squatting here listening to whatever clever speech you prepared to stroke your own tongue.”
Ghostelk seems prepared to issue a sharp retort, but he is interrupted once more, but this time by George Whitegrass. His voice is raspy and weak, as if his words escape from his lips like smoke. “It’s not good to grow old.”
The remark draws several severe nods from the tipi’s seated occupants who variously echo the refrain. “It’s not good to grow old.”
All-too able to read his losing hand, Ghostelk murmurs the line as well, and then gives a conciliatory motion of his hand to both the old men and then to the comparatively younger man with the silver-streaked hair and scarred lip.
Brook crooks a brow. Blackrib speaks. It’s the first time he’s ever heard such a complete statement from the man, let alone seen him bulldoze verbally over someone like Ghostelk.
That man in turn parses out his words like dealt cards. “We, the Ikunuhkahtsi, are responsible for the judgment and punishment of misdeeds amongst our band. You have been spared from federal prosecution, but now must face ours. We will hear you speak.” There’s another grunt as Aaron adjusts his legs, causing the man to momentarily glance from and then back to Brook. “And then you will hear us.”
In the background, Hank leans to Aaron and whispers, “Is Wheel of Fortune the one with the pretty white woman turning the letters?”
A small smile sneaks onto Brook’s lips at the elder’s actions, but he nods lightly. “I’ll make it quick, Mr. Blackrib. I’m sure you’re waiting to hear on Danny’s health as well,” he comments, turning to face Ghostelk again.
“I was arrested for interference. Supervising Marshal Shofield. First, I found the old lunatic before anyone else, by chance. I tracked his scat and I interpreted his signs for the marshal. That he’d kill at night to give his devil a foothold. It turns out I drew him a map, too. I warned the undersheriff and my teacher that a bear often tracks those who walk through its territory. That my teacher and the white boy with us were in danger, as their faces had likely been seen. My portents were ignored.” He pauses and clears his throat.
“That night, as I watched the rain and forest, lightning struck the tower. It knocked me to the ground and I stood in the dark, doing my schoolwork. I noticed it then. Spider’s web, the spiral, the pentagram, the math that every natural being follows. The fires were set by the madman, to show his white devil where his sacrifice was to be. And the sign I found lead me to Scratch’s Corral. A very important place to me. With the radios out… and my ignorance that the lightning strike did not disable my truck radio, I prepared for war. I found a classmate, ready to be sacrificed, just the one I warned might be taken. And I found the madman. My plan… an artifact from… Uktena. I had it hidden there, and it was stolen. He would have taken it in exchange for a life, but flew into a rage when he thought I cheated him. I-” Brook pauses, looking at their faces and steeling himself.
“I bashed his jaw in with my bare fist. I crushed it into his skull like an old melon, and sent him to the ground. But it grew back. Just as I’ve seen coyotes do. We struggled, and I was winning! But he pulled a knife and held it to my classmate’s neck, taking him hostage. This is where the marshal found us. I had brought a flare gun to signal where I was, but he’d followed my bike’s tracks. His negotiations with the madman was failing, they all forgot about me. I used the rain to cover my steps, and grabbed his knife and neck from behind. And then I heard… I thought it was thunder, but as my mouth filled with gore and I felt the pop of his sinew come apart as I pulled on his arm, I realized the marshals shot at us. I almost revealed to them that he was to grow it back! But he did not. It would have been mortal, had I not packed my survival kit and first aid,” he says, looking down. That’s as much as he tells, slowly pulling out the steno pad from his pocket and leaning forward, offering it to Ghostelk, this time not making eye contact. “I had time. I… chronicled it.”
Brook’s story falls well on the ring of ears. Nonetheless, he senses the creased exchange of looks when he mentions trying to trade an ‘artifact from Uktena’. Otherwise, the seven seated men nod approvingly of not only Brook’s tale, but the manner in which it is told. The young man’s art seals that approval, as Ghostelk looks through the offered notepad with well-pleased surprise, then passes it amongst the circle.
“Hands of a kamosi-wa,” he says meaningfully. Others soon repeat the phrase as they look over the pictures in the dim light and ponder Brook’s words. The teenager, meanwhile, reflects upon Ghostelk’s remark. Although dysfluent in Kainai, Brook has been raised among enough reserve natives to know ‘kamosi-wa’ not only means ‘thief’, but a particularly habitual or skilled one, as the term also is the name of the cunning raccoon.
Eventually, George helps Merle hold the papers up to his clouded eyes, then whispers, “A story with pictures, Enkoodabaoo. Good like bear-berry.”
“Hands of a kamosi-wa,” Hank repeats, then adds, “All women love those.”
Merle’s face darkens into a bitter frown. “Not all women.”
The remarks casts a cold shadow across the room.
While the elder occupants remain silent as they communally share the long-time widower’s sorrow, Ghostelk leans forward, once again usurping leadership of the Iikunuhkahtsi. “Your tale is well-spoken, but three wrongs fell from your hands.” Ghostelk’s lips crack again into a bullwhip smile. “Name them.”
“I was hasty. I went off to rescue someone and ended up putting them in the exact same kind of danger. I didn’t set off a flare gun or double-check all my radios to see if I could attempt to call for backup. And I thought that I knew better in grabbing Moses while they were trying to talk him down. Nelson Judd was alive. I was alive. The deputies were alive. But I put everyone in danger.” He recites it humbly, already coming to terms with how much the marshal and his time behind bars drilled things into him.
Brook’s answer draws a series of disapproving grumbles. “I told you,” Aaron Blackrib murmurs. “He reeks of Xixihkini.”
Brook gaze turns over to Mr. Blackrib, stone faced before he turns back to Ghostelk. “Can you please translate? Because at this point I’ve had a bad enough week facing the devils that fester in our lands to suffer Mr. Blackrib whispering about the length of my fingers, or what I smell like, because I’m a filthy half-breed not worth teaching the old language.”
“But you want to hear what I really think? I tracked this madman, I caught this madman, and a part of me regrets not letting him die, or just blowing his brains out from behind while they all forgot about me. But I wanted him not to taint the lands with his ritual,” he growls, nails digging into his lap. He looks like he’s ready to burst, teeth grit and pulling at his pants.
“I think I saved a life, and that would make my mother proud. I think the crimes I committed were BULLSHIT
, and I think that if I have to spend one more second not at that hospital with my best friend, or in the Green Lady to rinse my soul out, or tracking down the answers to all these questions I keep being piled on with, I will go mad! More than my dreams already are!”
His face is even redder than usual, he’s shaking ever so slightly and panting, the pent-up frustration of days of being held down starting to boil over as his green eyes pierce into Ghostelk’s. “With all due respect. Mr. Ghostelk. I’d appreciate the council and the elders to educate me… on what they think my crimes really are. If a cub is not taught. A cub learns what they see.”
Brook’s rising rage causes a ripple of tension that makes the entire place smell of primal sweat and animal pelts so alive the tipi’s deer-hide might kick, leap, and pull itself to tatters. As the sixteen eyes watch him, he feels like a lone wolf trapped inside a ring of sharp antlers. It’s a situation that begs for blood.
Fortunately, the conclusion of Brook’s adolescent outburst contains just enough conciliatory deference, that coupled with the previously earned goodwill, prevents a stampede. Ghostelk raises both of his hands in a silencing motion. His ringed fingers hypnotically gleam in the solitary spear of sunlight piercing the lodge’s center.
Brook feels childish and dim again as the man so expertly quells everything. Taking a small breath and quieting himself so that the man can speak, lowering his head in that same deference to let Ghostelk speak.
Minor grumbles issue form the tipi’s shadows, but silence otherwise waits until Ghostelk continues. When he does, his words are for the adolescent bathed in the sun’s rising light.
“For too many moons, you have walked outside the ways of this people. Your people. It is time you join us. Learn of our ways. Learn of the strength that comes from many. You speak of this land, of taints, or souls. This is our sacred purpose. Those that suckle at Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast have forgotten the Iikunuhkahtsi, but we have not forgotten them. You wish to learn–that is good. We will teach you. You wish to have answers and praise that have been unjustly denied you–that is good. We will give them to you. You wish to no longer be whispered at, to no longer be a filthy half-breed–that is good. We will transform you.”
He regards Brook with another rawhide smile. “It is time for the boy named Brook Barnes to die. And time for the man–and more–to be born.”
The majesty of the event is lost on the boy. He gives Ghostelk a steady look and quickly pokes between him, Blackrib, and Bad-Marriage. Brook Barnes is who he is, it was the name given to him by the woman who pulled him out of that river, and he’s keeping it to the grave. It will be on his tombstone, not whatever these people give him. They have to realize they can never undo the damage they did, denying him for so long.
Still, he bites his tongue for just a moment, and wonders what his mother thinks about all this as he searches for a chance to speak.
As Ghostelk and the others look to him expectantly, that chance amply presents itself.
“Is my mother aware of your choice? Or what would transpire today? I haven’t seen her.”
“The Iikunuhkahtsi is not a place for a woman,” Ghostelk answers levelly, even as Aaron murmurs something about “stsimaki”. The casino and lodge owner flicks a glance at the man like a rattlesnake’s tongue before continuing, “But Mary delivered you into our hands. She blessed this meeting and recognizes its right to judge and punish you as deemed necessary.”
“About time… stubborn girl…” Merle mutters toothlessly with a twitch of his nose.
The sound of the boy’s knuckles cracking is palpable at all the comments about his mother. The things that woman does for them, and they slight her like this. “Then your judgment is to pull me into a fold. I want to know more about it. I’ve already heard many secrets in the Falls, enough that I worry at every shadow. Things that howl and aren’t answered, struggled between snakes and eagles, visions of blood, water, and pills. I’ve seen too much not to need to hear more.”
“Hear then the judgment of the Iikunuhkahtsi. For your misdeeds–of which the boy but not the man misunderstands–as well as for your deeds of honor, sacrifice, and blood, you must seek out each member of this council. Each of your elders will then provide two lessons, one of words and one of deeds. If you learn those lessons well and honorably serve your elders, your mourning as a child will be complete. Until then, you may not speak your name–nor may you serve the Xixihkini, the eagle of the white men.”
Brook listens and nods. It’s a good test of his abilities, sure, but even better training. Maybe he can finally get a few answers on how things are here. On some of the deeper mysteries, and on some of the ones that have been bothering him. The only issue is this, his name. He feels as through they would know. But he still nods, eyes narrowing as he reaches slowly and takes his wallet out, sliding a dollar bill towards Ghostelk. The eagle burnt out.
“Only speak it? It’d be awkward not to write my name for school.” With joking aside, he takes a deep breath and nods. “I accept your judgment, however. I’ll do what you say. I’ll be honored to learn from you all.”
After witnessing Brook’s deferential submission–as well as ritually burned dollar–Ghostelk’s leathery smile becomes the taut curve of a drawn bow. Indeed, the defaced bill draws more than one look of amazement, even astonished respect, towards the young man–an odd experience for the typically spurned mixed-blood teenager.
Brook slowly looks to Aaron Blackrib, and then slowly back to his great-grandfather. Best to start with an elder he knows the best. “I’ll start with my great-grandfather. Merle ‘Enkoodabaoo’ Bad-Marriage,” he announces.
Though, after he announces that, he leans in and retrieves the bill, giving Ghostelk a meaningful look. “When a cub isn’t taught, he learns what he sees. And as ‘Madcub’, I’ve seen a lot. Especially recently.”
Hazel: Attila Awakens
Hazel stands up. Her open eyes flash like the lighting now at her command as she roars, “I am Hazel Calloway Attila Bauman—I shall pluck the tenth fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and love my family as fiercely as I shall protect them—and woe to any who would stand in my path!”
Hazel’s words test reality as she rises to immediately find a figure standing directly in her path.
The TV-headed figure has not moved, and so as Hazel rises, she is once again a mere breath away from the the figure’s glassy face. Yet, as she stares into the dead-black mirror, she sees her own face staring back her. Her own chiral image standing in her path. The Chamber is quiet as the afterbirth of an echo. The screen-face flickers with the static of an overplayed VHS
Under other circumstances she might blink in surprise or alarm. Now she merely stares into the identical figure’s bespectacled gray eyes. The figure who stands in her path. “Identify your present intentions.” Is this… the symbolic gold dissolved by vitriol’s green lion?
Gigantic green blown-glass wings unfurl from the figure’s back, creating the quantum whirlwind of a particle collider. The sub-atomic tornado would annihilate most souls on a nano-molecular level, but Hazel’s psyche stands her ground, anchored by her recent reflections.
No sooner does she do so, does the figure collapse into itself, leaving naught but an old Dynatron CTV
sitting in the center of the Chamber. Absent the quantum winds, Hazel hears strange, yet familiar sound-waves from across the time-space continuum. The screen is once again dead black, a mirror that reveals a face that is her face and yet is not. The face or faces are in flux, before the reflection resolves itself into the image of a three–year–old Hazel staring at her family’s Dynatron 23" console television.
In her peripheral reflection, Hazel can see family’s living room, the TV-reflected glow of Christmas lights and decorations. She distantly hears her parents, Lydia and Richard, sitting in a sunflower-printed trinity sofa, sipping on eggnog.
Her face softens by the smallest measure at their image. She’ll find him too. She hasn’t forgotten. She never forgets.
Her parents’ reflections are small and distorted by the curve of the TV-glass, but Hazel is amazed at how very young and alive her mother looks. Still in her twenties, she glows with her recent graduation from law school and the fresh possibilities before her. Her laugh sounds like Christmas bells, high and bright. Her face is smooth, young, and stunningly unlined by the shadows of bereavement, divorce, and more than two decades. Maybe it’s the crackling glow of a nearby fireplace, but Hazel’s eyes now clearly see what her eyeless first father did: Fire
Richard receives that laughter like a cool, summer pool opens its body to a diver. His black shades conceal his socket-less face, but his smile shines like quicksilver in the TV-glass.
There are other figures too. In the heavily distorted corners of the fish-globe reflection, Hazel sees her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother is fussing over her grandfather, playfully needling him to try on a hand-knitted holiday sweater of misshapen snowmen. “Those snowmen have a god-damned better chance of enjoying a summer vacation in hell than of you getting me to put on that fudge-blasted, gadzooks ugly sweater. That thing’s a war crime against humanity–” he grouses back, “–and that’s saying something for a swizzle-stick–packing Joe who was at the Tokyo Trials.”
While his wife simply laughs at the irascible man and gives him a gingerly kiss, other guests awkwardly pause in their holiday small talk to see how their half-Japanese host and his wife react. The lovers, though, are too enmeshed with themselves and their intimate conversation about the bright-wide vistas of tomorrow.
The other guests, which include a cosmopolitan batch of friends from law school, marketing, and more bohemian circles, quickly recede into the reflected background, as do the half-dozen rugrats around Hazel’s age that play on the carpet around her with recently unwrapped Christmas presents. None capture the attention of the 1977 Hazel. Even while several of the guests encourage their children to say hello or offer to play with her, the young toddler simply stares vacantly at the screen. After all, the TV was playing her then-favorite channel. Static. Digital snow.
The stare might have seemed vacant to them. But the autistic three-year-old found that static an enrapturing sight. Every snowflake is unique, she’d heard—and she was curious whether the same was true for flecks of static. But after a little while even that didn’t matter. She could watch the crackling screen play out its unwavering program for ‘episodes’ on end. She thought she could see patterns in that static, if she stared long and searchingly enough.
Now, as Hazel stares into the temporally super-positioned TV screen, she watches the static snowfall in the double reflection of her own three-year-old self’s eyes. And she now longer thinks she sees patterns. She knows
she sees patterns. Her awakened sight steganographically decrypts the static movements and sound, resolving it into a blue screen of death. But that death is a doorway that transforms into a main menu of a home video recording.
At first, the menu options are banal, but the static wavers, distorting the screen and transforming the options.
PLEASE SELECT AN OPTION
DEATH AT FIRST SIGHT
EVEN THE SUN WILL DIE SOMEDAY
Hazel’s brow furrows at the choices available. It’s not much longer before she selects ‘death at first sight’. That sounds like the start of this narrative.
Both Hazels blink in perfect vacuous synchrony, causing the QED
to drop down to their desired chapter. The blue screen bleeds into static.
The time-continuum ripples and resolves into an alpine wilderness. A newly-married Harvey and Lydia hike together with their nearly five-year-old Hazel in tow. The September air has the warm husk of an Indian summer. Dusk falls across the pine-scented landscape, causing a lone, disoriented bat to flutter out of its cave in search of the blood-fat mosquitoes that snack on the young girl and her still-adjusting family. As they crest a ridge, they see an alpine pond. The honey-hued sunset transmutes the water’s surface into a golden mirror of the encircling mountain peaks. A pair of loons alight on the pond, ripping its surface as they languidly swim. On the other side, Hazel can see the reflected image of Gramps’ fishing boat. Her adoptive grandfather dozes, as his fishing pole rests between his toes.
“So much for meeting us at the shore,” Harvey chuckles goodnaturedly. “Hopefully he didn’t forget to catch us dinner.”
Lydia wipes a bead of sweat from her face with one of Harvey’s old boy scout handkerchiefs. “Remind me why I agreed to go camping?”
“He said he’d caught us dinner,” Hazel agreed. Strongly. The sedentary almost-five-year-old’s expression was little happier. And her brow little drier. “I’m tired.”
“I’m sure he did, sport,” Harvey says to Hazel before looking up and answering Lydia with one of his trademark big-chin ‘aw shucks’ grins. “Because you like doing it under the stars.”
“Harvey!” Lydia exclaims, swatting her husband with her handkerchief.
“Camping?” Hazel asks with a frown. “There are no stars. It is day.”
Lydia looks down at her daughter and offers her a sip from her canteen. “Yes, dear, it is day still, but not for too much longer.”
“But then we should have gone camping later. For stars.” Hazel raises the canteen to her lips and gulps loudly, then belches.
Lydia spares a glancing glare at her husband. “I told you that you can’t keep talking about… that so openly. She’s not a little girl anymore, Harvey.”
“What, of course she is,” Harvey says with a smile as he begins making his way to the shore. “I’ve seen bear droppings bigger than her.”
“Mommy is right! I am a big girl!” Hazel asserts.
Lydia smiles proudly. “Your mother absolutely is right. Why in just two days, you’ll be a pre-schooler!”
“Mommy’s always right, and so am I!”
Lydia laughs with a thin smile that spells ‘checkmate’. Harvey concedes with a big-chested chuckle. “Well, then, looks like I’m outnumbered and outgunned. Now, if it’s all right with you always-right ladies, how about I pitch our tents? One for Mommy and me, and one for the big girl and Gramps.”
Hazel frowns. Gramps is Gramps, of course, but they’ve never shared the same bed. Granted, it was also rare for Hazel to share her parents’ bed. Unless she was having a nightmare, she usually preferred to sleep by herself.
“I want my own tent.”
Harvey frowns and pauses unpacking the camping supplies he hauled on his back. “I only packed two tents.” He looks to Lydia apologetically and for support.
Lydia crouches down to look her daughter in the eye. “Hazel, I hear that you want your own tent. But since you’re a big girl, I am going to ask you a big girl favor.”
Hazel stares at the camping supplies as if counting them. Her face scrunches as she is forced to accept this numeric reality. Then she arrives at a perfect solution.
“Gramps can sleep in your tent. Then I can have one.”
“One tent isn’t big enough for three adults, dear,” her mother says levelly.
Hazel stares back at the tents as if computing their size. “I want to sleep in your tent.”
“But Gramps will be scared all by himself,” Harvey says, trying to help.
Lydia gives him a ’you’re not helping’ look.
“I’m scared!” Hazel proclaims.
Lydia levels another stare at her husband, one that clearly indicates that being right all the time doesn’t mean she’s happy.
!” Hazel yells, louder.
Hazel’s scream startles the loons, causing them to take flight and shatter the watery mirror. Gramps stirs as well, nearly but not quite dropping his toe-clutched pole as he rouses. Other birds burst from the scene, startled by Hazel’s piercing cry.
“Mommy, Daddy, I’m having a nightmare!” That line always gets her in her parents’ bed, so she says it now. And it is getting dark out.
For all their histrionics, Hazel’s words prove eerily prophetic, as a terrifying figure bursts from the underbrush only a few feet behind the almost-five-year-old and her mother.
Hazel’s young mind floods with fear, distorting her perception of time and space. Daylight instantly dies all around her except for a constricting tunnel of vision that is filled with a towering figure, a nightmarish beast with inhuman fur, massive horns wrapped in bloody skin, and blood-red eyes with too many teeth. Distantly she hears her own mother’s terror-paralyzed scream. The monster rushes towards them, clearly intent on ripping her and her mother apart. Her ears rip as a death-clap of thunder hammers on her skull. A terrible mouth opens in the monster’s chest, red and wet. And the monster screams, its first mouth filling with froth, the second with blood.
Her lungs constrict. Her vision funnels. Her sight grows black. In that fleeting instant before consciousness departs her brain like an exorcised poltergeist, the almost-five-year-old has but a single thought:
Hazel’s consciousness returns to the blue screen of death. The displaced by decades again, the raw fear still clutches her mind. The Dynatron CVT
flickers into black, revealing her reflection once again, a face that fluxes, before words appear.
The screen flickers again, returning to the blue menu screen. DEATH AT FIRST SIGHT
is no longer an option.
The fear barrels out of the screen with teeth and claws no less sharp than the monster’s, and equally determined not to relinquish its prey. But that prey has grown teeth and claws of her own. For an instant, she panics. That drawing those claws will hurt her as badly as the monster’s own. The gag-inducingly powerful taste of the quintessence-floodwaters lingers like a numbing brain-freeze that just won’t go away.
-AT!” Hazel snarls. The claws come out, long and wicked as they answer the monster’s decades-ago challenge. “להשמיד את הפחד!” As the proto-Enochian words tear from her tongue, her will
attacks the fear at its source. Adrenaline and cortisol, the two hormones being released into her bloodstream, and responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response. Hers “misfire” and go off in response to inappropriate stimuli all the time. She’s been on medication since she was almost five.
Now she no longer needs that crutch. The struggle against the decades-old fear-spike is as fierce as it is brief. As it was
brief. But on this occasion it ends in her
triumph. She said she would use her power to ‘fix’ herself. To stop from ever killing again, if it really was her. Fixing her panic attacks is just the opening course.
Hazel’s eyes scan back over the options menu. She selects ‘last words’.
Once more, the screen bleeds into static.
This time, though, the static never resolves. It’s as if the tape has been brought near a high-powered magnet. There’s the barest hint of video and audio, but she can only make out snippets of the latter and nothing of the former. Listening to the static-swallowed sounds, Hazel discerns a voice, or maybe two. Initially, she isn’t sure, but as the sequence plays, she becomes increasingly confident that the voice or voices are speaking in Italian. There’s a haunting familiarity to the voice, or voices, to their own lyrically, but she still fails to identify the owners or much of anything beyond broken phrases. The tap is simply too damaged.
“Inizierò chiarendo… per cui ora… destinato a morire…”
“…bisogno di vedere l’oltraggio… tuoi occhi, né di sentire i sussurri della folla… capire quanto… mi credi…”
“…anche i miei figli… speranza… mi ero lasciato…”
Despite all the incoherent static as well as the foreign tongue, Hazel needs no translation for the pain in the speaker’s voice.
“…torturato, ucciso o peggio a causa delle mie azioni… sapere quanto sia pesante il… di questa… sulle mie spalle…”
Pain… and guilt.
“Pensi… sia possibile per me dimenticare le… urla di dolore?”
Hazel’s brow furrows. The voice… it’s familiar. But who? The tape might be damaged, and she might be uncertain how to repair it. If she can even repair the obviously transphysical tape. But she can amplify her own perceptions. She reaches out into the ether, amplifying the fluctuations of the sounds’ pressure waves. “חזק יותר.”
The surviving fragments sharpen and amplify. The next portion is almost complete.
“…sento ancora la vergogna di ciò che ho fatto alle persone che ho imparato ad amare come la mia famiglia…”
Although Hazel is far from fluent in Italian, she can still discern the last two words. mia famigliamy family
“Non volevo la morte!”
More static again, each break sometimes ranging from a few seconds to minutes of chaos.
“Non volevo la morte!”
More static, punctuated by a defiant, “…quelli che sono morti con le mie azioni…”
“…la nostra morte ha avuto uno scopo…”
As the static continues to eat more of the tape, the voice becomes less defiant and more resolved. “…la mia morte sarà una cosa dolce e gentile…”
Perhaps it is her own distant Italian ancestry, or perhaps that her mother and maternal grandmother are both fluent in that Romance language, but Hazel cannot help but feel connected to the speaker, to their pain, their anger, and their resolve. Do their eyes flash lightning as hers did? She thinks so, but she cannot be sure. Nonetheless, the last words ring piercingly clear.
“Ti ringrazio per aver ascoltato le mie ultime parole. Ora sono pronto a morire.”
What follows though needs no translation. What follows should be silenced, not amplified. Screams. Till this point, Hazel has been unsure whether the voices have been singular or plural. But now… now she would stake her very life that the screams come from two people, if not for the terrible fact that no one person could experience such pain. The magically amplified screams tear through the air with such horror and agony that Hazel feels like her very mind and body are being torn and tossed in a flame that never dies. Hazel is fortunate the video feed was ruined. As it ends, the Dynatron flicks back to the blue menu screen. Once again, its menu options are reduced by one.
And fortunate too that her mind is as strong as her body is weak. She hisses in reflex at the flash of burning pain. But the look on her face quickly becomes a somber one. It might be hard for the girl with autism to empathize with other people. But she didn’t have any trouble here.
She rubs her head. There’s nothing she can do for… them. She scans the remaining options and selects ‘last rites’.
The Dynatron’s screen once again flickers to the earlier black screen and its disturbing message.
But the flicker is brief, and the blue menu screen reappears, dispassionate and awaiting.
“I think, therefor I am
,” she retorts. She scans the remaining options and selects ‘last rites’.
Her… first father’s? She doesn’t remember the funeral, but there had to have been one…
At Hazel’s selection, the menu screen once more blurs, achromatic static rippling at the distortion of the time-space fabric.
So many knees. Well, not actually knees, but their obverse. As a three–year–old, Hazel hadn’t known what the body part was called. It would be later, but not too much later that the preciously bright child learned the name for what she was staring at: popliteal fossa.
Her parents would learn what it was too after the formerly silent toddler started to talk. On a hot summer day she’d remarked, “Mommy, my popliteal fossa are sweaty!”
Yet, on this early February morning in 1978, just a few weeks past her family’s tragic car accident, the toddler’s popliteal fossa are far from sweaty. Light snow drifts slowly from the wintry gray sky, falling upon the old snow already covering Mountain Shadow Cemetery.
The shroud of snow amplifies the feelings of tranquil sorrow and melancholy that pervade the cemetery. Hoary in places, the snowscape is unspeakably beautiful, providing a scenic view of the nearby snow-covered hills and ice-filmed river. More proximal than those bucolic sights are the rows of simple snow-topped tombstones and smaller, freshly dusted headstones. In the distance, Hazel can see the white-shadows of mausoleums and larger, older sculpted angels and obelisks, dating back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
But mostly she sees the back of knees.
Those knees and their owners stand around an urn, laid in an open plot of snow-covered earth. With Lydia still bedridden due to her slowly recuperating injures, Hazel had been spared the trip to the crematorium and the ceremonial rite of plucking her father’s bone fragments from the ashes with shared chopsticks, starting with feet bones and ending with the skull bones.
Instead, that traditionally familial honor was delegated to a group of Richard’s friends, whom Hazel recalls her mother affectionately referring to as his “network” or “computer cabal”.
Some part of Hazel feels like that was a missed opportunity now. Her first dad’s cultural heritage clearly mattered to him, for him to don a Noh mask when he worked his magick, and for him to presumably have requested this funeral in his will, which most Americans would consider bizarre.
But that culture was never a significant part of who Hazel was. She grew up with two white parents, and looked just like them, so everyone treated her like she was white. Indeed, that was how she saw herself too, until she observed in one of her mom’s old photos that her first father had slightly sallow-hued skin. She’d always had a good eye for detail.
That specific detail also made her have a panic attack. “You should have told me that I was 25% East Asian! That wasn’t how I saw myself! Do you want to mention that I’m a boy too, or is there anything else about who I am that I don’t know!?” Hazel had screamed to her mother, shaking as she hyperventilated. Then she’d thrown up. It wasn’t that she was ashamed of who she was. It was simply too significant a change to her self-perceptions, coming too late in her life.
Still, she’d eventually adjusted to it. She even learned Japanese as a language. Everyone thought that was the thing to do back in the ’80s. She had a concurrent interest phase that she spent studying Japanese literature and mythology. But on some level it felt hollow. The man to whom those things were important was long dead. And it felt particularly awkward around Dad—well, her second dad.
She’s not sure that anything would have been meaningfully different, even if Lydia had systematically explained her racial makeup at an early age. But she still feels a deep pang of regret at not being able to take part in the funeral. Or to fully appreciate what it would have meant to her first father.
To her three-year-old self, though, that appreciation was truly limited, although Lydia had severely impressed upon her toddler daughter how important it was for Hazel to accompany her late father’s friends–even if she was unable to get her autistic child to truly understand what friends were.
“Friends are people who are not family, but with whom you enjoy spending time with,” the injured woman had tried to explain. When Hazel had pointed at the TV, Lydia had sighed but shook her head. “Friends are people, not things. They are alive. They talk, eat, sleep…” But Hazel had simply pointed at the TV again. Lydia had closed her eyes, pain and bereavement still heavy upon her face. There was a click in her throat as she sighed once more. “Fine. Dynatron is your friend. These other people were, are, daddy’s friends.”
Hazel had still looked fairly noncomprehending, but at least didn’t point at the TV again. “Dynatron,” she’d repeated.
It wasn’t until after the crash that the mute toddler had finally started speaking. It was a bittersweet blessing coming that soon after her father’s passing.
Yet, for all efforts to impress upon Hazel the importance of her attendance and best behavior, Lydia had been worried and reticent to allow Hazel out of her sight. There were several phone calls and finally a personal entreaty by two people even Hazel dimly recognized as ‘familiar’, but not family: a pair of men Lydia referred to as Al and Bubbles. Ultimately though, it had been Harvey that had swayed Lydia’s mind. “I swear to you that I will protect her and make sure she comes back to you, safe and unharmed.”
So Hazel had found herself, escorted by a relative stranger, in the company of only comparatively less strangers. And their knees, or more precisely their popliteal fossae. Inside the Chamber of Reflection, Hazel watches–or perhaps more accurately said, re-watches–as one of those knees bends, bringing into view one of the urn-encircling adults.
The man is tall and thin, with a frame that could be called either lean or gaunt depending on one’s politeness. He is dressed in a cashmere turtleneck, solid-blue bellbottom jeans, and a brand new suede ranch-coat. His medium-length black hair is combed in an awkward part that ripples over his ears, framing his large dark eyes and pallid Arab-American features.
Of all the figures, including the barrel-chested deputy behind her, the then–toddler Hazel recognizes the kneeling man the best: Al-nesr al-Tā’ir, or as Richard and Lydia more commonly called the young Iranian-American computer genius, Al or Altair. Altair’s dark, round eyes are wet with tears as he opens the urn and places three keyboard pieces inside, the first two smaller than the last. Hazel’s older eyes read them as they drop gently beside her father’s burnt bones.
“I don’t like this,” comes an older woman’s voice with a British accent. The eldest of the assembled adults, the woman is likely in her fifties, though her massive bouffant is silver-white. Apart from her ethnically crooked teeth, she is far from homely, or at least has a stately, professional demeanor that is only partially due to her ensemble, which consists of a silk neck-scarf tucked into a pastel plaid, belted trench–coat over and bell-flare slacks. Her black leather gloves clutch an Oddsfellow Bible.
“Of course not, Harry,” says a third figure to the statch-postured English woman. That figure, a man in his forties or hard thirties, shivers as he wears only a thin zigzagged–lined blazer over brightly stripped, wide–collared rayon dress shirt and high–waisted golfing pants. His thin hair, including his long sideburns and mustache, flutter in the cold, snowy breeze.
“It’s a funeral, ain’t nobody supposed to like that,” he says, blowing his hands into his hands as if about to roll a pair of dice.
“That’s isn’t what I mean, Chester,” the Englishwoman says to the man that Hazel’s parents typically called Bubbles. “I mean, I don’t like the risks we’re taking here. We’re too out in the open. Too exposed.”
“Daddy’s hiding,” Hazel abruptly remarks at the woman’s words.
Hazel’s words freeze the group far worse than the cold. The big-haired British woman identified as ‘Harry’ starts to cry, “Oh, sweet child,” and reaches for a handkerchief from inside her trenchcoat.
Bubbles also reaches inside his blazer, his shivering fingers rifling in his pocket, before he pulls out a cup of steaming hot coffee. “Ahhhh, much better.”
“We know the risks,” says another man’s voice, strong and full as a trombone. Yet, upon closer inspection, Hazel realizes the voice, despite its deep masculinity, belongs to a muscular, black woman with a giant afro. Her taut muscles are clearly visible under her tight, snow–white ski–jacket and matching ski–suit. Her golden-yellow cowboy boots are reflected in her all–but–gleaming aviator glasses.
“We know the risks, because she ran the numbers,” the butch woman says, placing a calloused hand around the neck of the last figure in the circle. ‘She’ is a he, Hazel thinks, but it is hard to tell due to the young person’s effeminate cheekbones, pale–white skin with rosy checks and ruddy lips, and the massive, full body length boho shag coat that swallows the figure and his accouterments, save for one, a bright orange and yellow Texas Instruments, Speak & Spell, which has been strung and slung around the figure’s shoulder like an electronic purse fit for a child. A slim white hand emerges from the black shag and begins rapidly typing on the Speak & Spell, even as its owners’ eyes continue gazing up at the sun through the falling snow. The Speak & Spell’s robotic voice intones: “deterministic nonperiodic flow evidence seems to favor the sea gulls.”
Bubbles stops mid-sip of his coffee. “Wait, you’re Ying? I though that…” he says, glancing at the athletic black woman in white.
“Because what?” the woman demands brusquely.
“No reason,” Bubbles answers as he tries to hide inside his mug.
Altair rises. “Everyone is upset. But this of all moments isn’t the time to fight.” He wipes his eyes. “Not against one another, at least.” He regards the others in turn. “Sinclair, thank you for coming. And you’re right that we are taking risks–but the risks are worth taking. But that doesn’t mean we need to carelessly increase those risks,” he adds, looking to Bubbles and his coffee mug. “Why didn’t you bring a coat?”
“Been in Vegas and Los Angeles for too long,” the mustachioed man says with a shrug-shiver. “Just haven’t been thinking straight ever since, ever since…” Bubbles trails off as he looks to the amply-dressed toddler that mores resembles a knitted, pom-pom marshmallow.
Altair takes off his coat and gives it to Bubbles. “Here.” Turning back to the almost achromatically dressed pair, Altair continues, “Thanks for coming, Yang, Yin. I would have understood if you hadn’t or couldn’t.”
The black woman, so identified as Yang, nods while the white man identified as Yin continues staring at the swirling ice crystals.
“Speaking of which,” Bubbles pips in, “where’s Proteus?”
“I thought we agreed not to use our handles in person,” Harry says.
Bubbles shrugs again. “I don’t rightly know his real name, do you, Limey?”
“Proteus is reformatting right now,” Altair answers.
Bubbles breaks in again. “Any of you find it weird that he calls himself after an A.I. that traps a woman and tries to rape her into conceiving a cybernetic baby?”
Harvey coughs, not too kindly. “Mind your language.” He juts his chin in Hazel’s direction.
The autistic toddler’s stare is largely blank at the new words.
Bubbles looks as if he doesn’t process the then-deputy’s words. “Demon Seed? You never read it?”
“I still don’t understand why we are meeting in person, Altair,” Harry says, “There’s a reason we’ve never all met in 1.0. Things are only going to get worse now that we’re off probation.”
This time it’s Yang who interrupts, and rather hotly. “Oh spare us another lecture on how much older and cleverer you are than the rest of us children, Sinclair. We know you worked at Bletchley. We know you delivered Turing’s mail.”
The Hazel of 1998 sits up at that.
The woman known as both Harry and Sinclair gives an equally irked look at Yang, then slides a much colder, calculating look at Harvey.
“He’s an end-user,” Yang says, as if reading her thoughts. “You on the other hand, are an old Cypherpunk pussy that’s been so scared to have any action that you’ve dried up.”
Hazel doesn’t look any of the figures in the eye as she abruptly half-states, half-demands, “Where’s Daddy hiding?” He said she’d find him. That she’s always been better at seeking than hiding. Hazel doesn’t yet have the vocabulary for ‘potential investigative leads’. But if they’re Daddy’s friends, maybe they know. There’s no reason he should hide. It’s illogical. Though it’ll take a little while before she uses that word too.
Sinclair’s eyes reflexively shut as if she’s just been slapped. When her eyes fly open, she looks as if she’s about to tear into Yang–but she’s stopped by Hazel’s remark as well as Harvey stepping forward. “Last warning. Mind your language or the girl and I go. Friends of her father or not.”
Altair kneels to look Hazel in the eye. Before taking her out to the cemetery, he had gifted her with a red handheld electronic game called Merlin the Enchanted Wizard
. Far from a simple child’s game, this one contained complex genetic algorithms that made its sub-option called Mindbender
particularly engaging, or at least maddeningly frustrating to lesser minds.
“Your daddy’s not hiding, Hazel. He’s dead.”
Yin, however, punches in another code that causes the Speak & Spell to provide another answer: “in the colors of the future”.
Hazel’s off-kilter gaze meets the dusky-skinned man’s nose rather than eyes. “What are the colors of the future?”
“You and I are going to have words about this back at the BBS
, Yang,” Sinclair whispers while the others talk. “But if you stopped hunting viruses, you would know we’re called Cryptogramics.”
“Tomato, tomatoe, you call Yin a Mathemagician, they call her a Chaotician. I call her Yin,” Yang replies in a nonplussed huff.
Meanwhile, Yin–or at least ‘her’ Speak & Spell–replies to Hazel: “taste the noise pink 1/f ubiquitous spontaneous long-range dynamical behavior supersymmetric stochastic dynamics future colors chaos when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future colors must be sensitive to initial conditions must be topologically mixing must have dense periodic orbits must be colors future must be can be can be cannot be can be–”
Yin starts to twitch and tic, until Yang places a firm, but gentle hand on Yin’s and stops ‘her’ from typing. “Don’t spam, Yin, kid,” she kindly rebukes. “That little kiddie toy has more computing powers than six Cray-1 supercomputers, but it takes time to read the FAQ
“What are the colors of the future?” Hazel repeats. Her expression is an odd melange of noncomprehending and stubborn. Her gaze this time is addressed to the red electronic game in her hand.
Yin–or the hand–tries to passively obey, but Yang blocks the typing and gives her partner a soothingly paralytic embrace. “Altair,” she says, “time to kill your babies.”
The expression draws a sharp look from the lawman who swiftly draws his gun and closes to Hazel.
Altair raises his hands plaintively. “It’s an expression, officer! Computer slang.”
Harvey slows, but doesn’t holster his gun.
Sinclair and Bubbles step back reflexively.
“It means deleting one’s favorite files so one can make room on one’s hard drive for actual work,” Altair adds, trying to be reassuring.
Harvey doesn’t seem to comprehend the explanation, but he at least appears pacified or convinced that they don’t mean to murder Hazel. For now.
“We should have done this in 2.0,” Sinclair states.
“No,” Altair says, swinging around, but more out of desperation or conviction than any violence. “This is the only way. We need to be here, here in the physical to be reminded what is going on.” He points to the urn. “To feel, to touch the stakes, the costs. Without Richard…” Altair starts, then stops to ball his fists against his eyes.
Sinclair goes to embrace him. Bubbles lays a hand on the taller man’s shoulder. Yang follows suit with a giant hug. Yin takes a side-step and crooks his or her head in the general direction of the group.
Hazel stares up at the falling snow. There’s a particular pattern to some of those endlessly spiraling flakes.
Harvey looks away, as if permitting the group a moment of private pain and solace. That moment is brief, but when it ends, the group once more repositions themselves around the urn in a circle. Altair motions for Hazel to take a spot in the circle.
The Hazel of 1998 cringes as the nonverbal cue goes over her three-year-old self’s head.
“It’s okay, Altair,” Harry says, gently. “We’re all standing on the edge of the same hypersphere.”
She leans down and opens her Bible. “Et cum produxerit fructus, statim mittit falcem, quoniam adsit messis,” she reads, then translates, “And when the fruit offers itself, he sends the sickle immediately, for the harvest has come.” She then tears out the page, crumples it, and places it reverently in the urn. Still kneeling, she reaches into her trench-coat and produces a bag of colorful candies wrapped in cellophane. She extends them to Hazel.
The toddler walks over, perhaps finally within the circle’s boundaries, and reaches out a hand to take them.
“Jelly Babies, luv,” Sinclair says, smiling, though perhaps a little sadly.
Her older self is too… resolved
to flush with embarrassment right now, but she probably will later when she mulls the memory over. This was her own father’s funeral. She shouldn’t have needed candy to respectfully participate in it. The ‘autism excuse’ feels like all-too thin here.
Yet, time also changes her perspective on what happens next. With Hazel now within the circle and only a hand’s distance away from the kneeling woman, Harvey cannot see what both Hazels see–Sinclair slides a laserdisc from the Bible’s cover and slips it into Hazel’s jacket. “Pretty pictures for your mum to show you,” Sinclair whispers.
Meanwhile, Yang puts something else in the urn, which Hazel doesn’t notice, likely due to her younger self being too distracted by the candies and her older sense too fixated on the laserdiscs. The latter of the Hazels recalls having her mother first vet, then later play the laserdisc for her daughter. The disc had contained a children’s game or set of computer games, complete with nursery rhyme songs, digital videos, and photographs of cats.
Her younger self had appreciated those. Her older self appreciates the woman’s kindness.
Her mom, at least, had drilled in how she was supposed to react to people giving her things. Hazel feels a flash of gratitude that her mother was still stubborn enough to repeatedly explain the right words for the otherwise mute child to say.
“You’re welcome, luv. You’d be surprised what wonders are right before you eyes.” She smiles, then turns to the group.
Bubbles, his coffee mug now mysteriously gone, pulls out a Mattel Electronic Football game, shakes his head, and stuffs it back into his jacket pocket, wherein he fishes out an Atari game. “There it is,” the man smiles, snow peppering his sideburns. As Bubbles flips it over, Hazel sees the game’s cover identifying it as Breakout
Bubbles glances at Yin. “You sure I’m supposed to read this. I mean, it’s not going to make a lick of sense to the kid. I don’t even understand it.”
Hazel: Try me now, Bubbles.
Yin is busy staring at the small eddies of wind-blown snow under a tree. But his or her hand types out, then waits for the robotic voice of the Speak & Spell: “numbers have been run not this one run run run double pendulum swings fun fun fun”.
Bubbles looks to Yang. “That means yes,” she says.
“If you say so,” Bubbles shrugs, then begins to read, squinting in the wintry light:
“The wonderful thing about the Internet is that for the first time, people will have a concrete example to think about, when trying to comprehend metaphysical principles. Cyberspace does not have the dimensions of length, width and height. It has neither a physical location nor a material existence. Yet its reality is obvious.”
“Think of the Tree as analogous to the Internet. Each sefira is a web site and each path is a hypertext link between the sefirot. Each sefira is a state of consciousness or awareness, while the path is the subjective experience of moving between the sefirot. The Tree of Life is as real as any part of cyberspace. The ‘mouse click’ that gets us from one sefira to the next, is our deliberate visualization that it is so. The ‘icons’ that we click on, are the symbols of the sefirot and the paths. The ‘computer screen’ is our own screen of consciousness. Our meditations create the thought forms that act as ‘intelligent agents’ that move through the ‘cyberspace’ of the Tree in the 4 Worlds, the four dimensional-hypersphere.”
Bubbles looks around, shrugs when nothing significant seems to occur, then puts the atari game inside the urn. “Kinda weird, Richard, for you to give a gift to Yin and I to then have us give it back to you, but it’s your funeral, pal.”
“not for us for the one one plus nine is ten ten is one plus none one plus none is one run the numbers run run run run run run run run run run run run–” Yin begins to frenetically bang his or her hands in a glitch-like tic.
Yang stops the manic gesture with her own strong hand. “I know you miss him too, Yin.”
Yin’s distress, however, does not dissipate. It’s only when the black vans appear does the meaning of Yin’s last message become frighteningly clear.
run run run run run run run run run run run run
A chill goes up the older Hazel’s spine. Damn it, these people don’t know—the occupants of that van are in league with the unman
that killed their friend!
Hazel’s eyes dart between their faces. And her father’s—second father’s, face.
Hazel sees a similar sequence of emotion play on all of their faces. Shock. Recognition. Fear.
She prays—figuratively—that they escape. It is all her present self can do.
The line of three black vans slam to a lockstep, equidistant halt along the straight stretch of Last Danse Drive that borders the cemetery. In eerie synchrony, the vans’ side-doors slide open.
Yang pushes Yin protectively behind her, then whips out a pair of butterfly knives from her striped ski-jacket. “Sinclair, Bubbles, take the kid and run!” she yells, her gaze glued to the black vans. “Go–we’ll hold them off!”
Hazel’s younger self looks up at the vans when she hears the noise. The perfect synchrony of their opening doors captures her attention.
The toddler is similarly mesmerized as three seemingly identical figures simultaneously exit the three vans, their strides matching as well as their de facto uniform of dark suits, white whites, ties, and black-banded fedoras. Their pale hands are unarmed but menacing as the trio stalks towards the group of mourners.
The fixative toddler starts walking up and down in place, in mimicry of their likewise perfect stride.
Seeing the approaching figures, Sinclair freezes like an electrocuted rat. Bubbles curses and stops only long enough to grab Hazel’s arm mid-pace before trying to flee away from the road and the converging figures. “Come on, Harry, you gotta log us out!”
The mustachioed man’s words if not actions stir Sinclair from her paralytic spell, and she goes to follow–but not before Harvey draws his service revolver and places the man in his sights. “Let go of the girl! Now!”
So dragged and distracted, Hazel barely sees Yang flicking and spinning her butterfly knives while Yin punches madly as his Speak & Spell. breaking weather update localized inclement weather
Hazel’s young self abruptly screams. Maybe at the unfamiliar man’s sudden touch. Maybe at Harvey’s gun.
Or maybe how, up close, the three Spooks so closely resemble the monster that killed Daddy.
Hazel’s scream is caught by an inexplicably sudden gust of icy wind that rushes through the cemetery and smashes into the three men in black with the force of a hurricane. Vision is obscured as the icy gale kicks up the cemetery’s covering of snow, creating a blizzard. Hazel dimly hears two of the men in black crash into the vans, one of which tips over from the combined impact and unstable aerodynamics.
Yang charges into the fray, disappearing from sight, while Yin continues to visually study the chaotic sea of snowflakes. The Speak & Spell calls out again in its robotic voice: “computing topologically transitive bounded linear operator calculating density of orbit entering hyper-cyclic point error weak admixture non-constant continuous eigenfunctions of the shift operator”
The next moments happen all-too fast, even when Hazel is reliving or at least reviewing them with the hindsight of the future.
Hazel finds herself thrown to the ground, though she is unsure whether Bubbles willingly releases her or if Harvey pulls her away. She feels her future and present father over her, protectively shielding her with his body. There’s so much shouting. So much yelling. Then there’s the piercing thunder of gunfire, gun-smoke and snow mixing into an ashy fog as the toddler’s world is deafened. She feels something wet and warm hit her face, then watches as Sinclair’s body crashes to the ground, her once kind face gasping in silent agony and pain like one of Gramps’ lake-trout thrown unto shore.
Hazel dimly sees Bubbles’ feet running away, only to be replaced by a sea of military boots and the shouting of men in white camouflage uniforms with baclavas and assault rifles. As sound slowly returns to the world, she hears Harvey and Altair yelling over the Speak & Spell’s own cries of “insufficient power to compute low battery please replace batteries.”
Then the sky turns orange as a massive fireball erupts by the road. Flaming shrapnel, including a scorched windshield wiper and a charred shoe, rains down on the cemetery, chipping tombstones and breaking Richard’s urn. Hazel, however, is saved from the burning precipitation by Harvey’s protective if almost smothering body-shield. The next thing she distinctly remembers is seeing knees.
More properly, the back of Altair’s knees as he kneels and holds up his hands in surrender to the ring of white-uniformed military figures. Then all is black as Harvey puts a hand around Hazel’s eyes. “Don’t look,” he shouts, his words barely audible over the post-explosion ringing. For all her struggles and protests, the deputy’s hand is too strong and too wide. She feels the ground shake with boots and bodies being moved, but all she sees is blackness and all she hears is Harvey repeating, “No, you don’t want to see this. You don’t want to see this.”
After what feels like hours to the toddler, Harvey withdraws his hand, but not hold on his soon to be adoptive daughter. Hazel squints her eyes, like a long-time prisoner emerging from a dark cave. Altair. Yin. Yang. Bubbles. Sinclair. They are gone. Some signs of the former presence remain though. A pair of spent batteries, a smoking crater near the road, and a pool of cooling blood that is so very, very red against the snow. Foot depressions everywhere. The toddler takes it all in reactively, but the Hazel within the Chamber of Reflection actively scans those prints, and based what she sees, Hazel surmises that Altair, and possibly Yin, were hauled away. Alive.
Harry was right.
They shouldn’t have come. They seemed like good people. She’d wanted to contact them. To ask about her first father. To know the people he counted among his friends. There was Altair, intent upon honoring her father’s memory despite the dangers. Harry, who was so kind to her. Hazel didn’t have as firm a sense of the others’ characters. But she’d have liked to.
And now they’re all dead. Then
they were all dead. After she’d only just met them. She wants to cry how unfair that is.
Almost all of them. But she isn’t optimistic about Altair and maybe Yin’s fates.
Join today. There is safety in Consensus.
After twenty years? Perhaps they’ve joined the “Consensus,” or still languish in ROSEWATER’s bowels, enduring god knows what. Perhaps they’ve been written off and simply executed. Or maybe they somehow escaped. But that feels like a fool’s hope, a child’s happy ending spliced on to an adult’s all-too sad story.
There is a lesson to that story, one that has been indelibly etched upon Hazel’s mind by the blood of her father’s dead friends.
She must be subtle in the use of her powers. She must not allow the government—and perhaps not anyone—to know what she is.
Hazel’s ability to further study the snowscape’s evidence, though, is literally blown away as a helicopter descends. Once again, Harvey uses his body to protect her from the buffeting winds. Meanwhile, Hazel realizes she is surrounded by ring of white-clad military figures, their rifles all the more menacing since they are pointed inward. As the black helicopter lands on the road, two figures step out. Initially, both Hazels, past and present, mistake the black-dressed figures as the same ones who exited the van. Hindsight and future experiences, however, allow Hazel to distinguish them, and furthermore, to know that she has seen them before–or in this timeline, after.
It was or will be a different road, although their faces are once again obscured, this time by the glaring sun upon the snow rather than blinding head-beams. But both Hazels can see their heights, one oh so clearly being not-tall while the other is definitely not-short. Inside the Chamber of Reflection, Hazel’s psyche hears the rewinding of a tape, following by a haunting country song:
Every time the Devil knocks,
I can’t help but let him in the door.
So every time the Devil knocks,
Please forgive and understand…
Hazel gives a smile that’s sadder than any frown.
“Thank you, deputy, now bring us the child,” the not-tall man says while his not-short companion adds, “You have the gratitude of ROSEWATER
and its consensual constituents, Deputy Bauman–now comply with the directive to deliver Hazel into our custody.”
The nineteen-year-old deputy baulks. “No, she hasn’t done anything.”
His reply causes the ring of rifles to rise and tighten.
The three-year-old Hazel numbly stares at the necks of the two Spooks. She’s not sure at what point she stopped screaming.
Hazel watches as their larynxes bob as the not-tall man and not-short man speak.
“We will take things from here.”
“Our agents will resolve the present incident.”
All she can think to yell is what will soon become one of her favorite words:
Harvey puts a comforting hand on his eventual daughter. The Spooks continue, undeterred and seemingly unperturbed by the panicking child’s screams.
“That was not a request.”
“The imperative was vocalized without a provision of argumentation or noncompliance.”
“NO!” Hazel screams again.
Harvey echoes the girl’s shout with one of his own. “No! I swore to her mother that I would return her safe and sound. So you’re not getting her unless you kill me too.”
“Fine,” says the not-tall man as the not-short man expounds, “That eventuality is within the acceptable parameters of collateral damage protocols.”
The young Harvey swallows as he regards the ring of readied rifles. “What about her?” he says as he holds subtly points at Hazel with his own service revolver while holding onto her firmly with his other hand.
The Spooks tense, causing a ripple of almost static to wash over the circle of soldiers.
“That’s what I thought,” Harvey says, though he isn’t smiling. “You don’t need me, but you need her. God only knows why. Or maybe it’s not God, but the devil. Either way, just because you don’t need me, doesn’t mean I can’t be useful. Sure, you’ve done a bang-up job cleaning up this mess, but it’ll be a lot easier to clean up and convince the town if one of their own backs up your play.”
The not-short man and not-tall man look at one another, then turn back to face Harvey and Hazel. “Go on.” “Proceed with your proposition.”
Harvey swallows again, but it’s only Hazel that hears him whisper to himself, “Damn it all, Lydia, but I love you.” He then speaks up, eying the Spooks: “You probably already know this, but I played quarterback for the Kelpies. Was pretty damned good too. Not just because I was fast or smart or strong, but because I listened to my coaches. I passed on their orders to the team.”
“And the team, they followed those orders, not always because the plays were smart or right, or because they had much love for the coaches, but because I
was the one asking them. They believed in me, because I was one of them. They knew that I wasn’t somebody sitting on the sidelines, but that I was on the same field as them, and so they trusted… they trusted me.”
“You tell me the plays, and I’ll make it happen. But you, you have to let me take the girl back to her mother.”
Snow drifts like static across the gray sky as the Spooks consider Harvey’s offer. One of fractal microcosms lands on Hazel’s cheek, where it slowly melts like a tear. The Spooks break the silence.
“All right, but remember what we’ve said.”
“The proposition is accepted. Our arrangement must not be forgotten.”
They pause, then add: “But no one, including the girl, can know. Knowledge of this event and this arrangement must be eradicated from Hazel’s memory and prohibited from disclosure to all other entities.”
“W-what does that mean, how–?” begins Harvey, but is too distracted by the Spooks’ nods to notice the soldier who approaches stealthily and sticks Hazel’s neck with a syringe.
There is another half-screamed, “NO-” that’s abruptly strangled in its birth.
The chemicals hit Hazel’s consciousness like drain-o, flushing the toddler’s memory down a drain so deep into her subconscious that no mortal hand or self-reflection could ever retrieve it.
Hazel rises from that drain into the surface waters of self-reflection. So, that was why her father—or second father—made his devil’s bargain. For them. Hazel doesn’t know what to say. These people killed her first father. His friends. Would she have done the same? Not that such a dilemma ever bothered Harvey. After all, Richard would have just been in the way. He really does owe all that he is to ROSEWATER
, doesn’t he? Not just becoming county undersheriff less than a year later, but getting the woman he-
Hazel squashes that thought before it can complete itself. He’s her dad. He’s done everything for her and her mother out of love. How it must have stung, too, for Lydia to divorce him ten years later. That left her, Hazel, as the sole thing he had to show for his devil’s bargain. And now, Lydia leaving, and her caught up in the Sweeney murders—why, he’ll have nothing at all left. The devil always calls it in the…
No! Fuck that!
She won’t let his actions on that long-ago winter day be for nothing. She’s already resolved in her course of action. She won’t go to prison or the madhouse because of the Sweeneys. She won’t destroy their family.
There’s still a looming threat behind all of this. ROSEWATER
saw something significant in her. Wanted her. They were willing to let Harvey have her in return for his service. Maybe she’s not that valuable to them, and her life can be barg-
Or maybe they just thought being in Harvey’s custody was good enough for their purposes. Maybe they were willing to be patient. Maybe they were waiting for something. Like her Awakening.
She’ll deal with that in due time. Worry about the coyote trying to eat one’s face over the bear lurking in the background.
I won’t let anything that Dad has done be in vain… or that I have.
As the Dynatron’s flickering blue menu screen returns, Hazel considers the sole three remaining options.
EVEN THE SUN WILL DIE SOME DAY
She selects ‘timer’. She’ll see this through to the end.
Blue once more bleeds to static, swallowing Hazel’s vision.
When it resolves, Hazel sees a black screen with red digits, reminiscent of an alarm clock, save that the series of digits is counting down:
She frowns and scans the screen for anything besides numbers. What is this clock counting down to?
A distortion ripples through the screen, erasing the countdown. In its place, the Dynatron flashes another message:
The blue menu screen reappears, bearing but two options:
EVEN THE SUN WILL DIE SOME DAY
“Someone would certainly seem to want to discourage me, wouldn’t they?” Hazel answers, her tone half-smirking, half-grim. “If I am already dead or destined to lose, why tell me these things? That suggests there is some goal to be satisfied in my belief
of them. I reject that belief. I will taste the tenth fruit and save my family,” she states simply, before selecting the fittingly last option.Even the sun will die someday.
flashes, then bleaches the screen into variegated lines of static.
The audio feed crackles in first.
“Okay, just a second–no peeking, Hazel!” The eighteen–year–old Hazel hears something clunk, slosh, and crinkle before her boyfriend, adds, “All right, open your eyes.”
As the Hazel of December 11th, 1992 does so, the Dynatron’s screen reveals a large field of winter barley beneath a cold, star-pricked sky. Hazel and Lance sit inside the cab of his early graduation present from his ‘parents’, since his father bought with his deceased mother’s life insurance, a brand new F100 pick-up truck. A warm blanket is thrown over the single cab’s black leather seats, and its frog-lights and headlights are both off, casting its sky-blue hood in shadows. The tall, lanky senior tries to put on a brave smile as he passes a bow–topped, six–pack–sized cooler to Hazel. “Happy nine-months anniversary!”
“Oh Lance, I wonder what this could ever be?” Hazel comments wryly as she opens the lid.
She hopes it’s not beer. She isn’t supposed to drink with her meds, and so never really developed a taste for it. Beer is still icky.
Lance gives a weak chuckle and nervously tries to take off his hunting cap, but only manages to undo a single ear flap. “I hope you like it.” As the cooler opens, the cab’s dome-light reveals not beer, but a large bag of water, in which swims a goldfish. Nearly the size of Hazel’s hand, counting its large tail, the goldfish has distinctive metallic–red scales and long–flowing fins. Lance tries again, and this time succeeds in taking off his hat. Scrunching the object in his hand, the blonde-haired senior explains, “You always talk about wanting a pet.”
“Oh my goodness, is this a large goldfish,” Hazel remarks, her eyes not deviating from the red-scaled fish’s movements. “And what a distinctive hue to its scales. Where did you find it?”
Lance’s smile remains goofy, but some of his anxiety bleeds off like the exhaust pumping from his truck. “It’s a comet, a breed of goldfish. I got it at the state fair this fall. Well, I got a bunch of them, but I wanted to give you the best. A lot of them have birth defects, but the ones who survive the first bit, they tend to be hardy. Real hardy. Easy to take care of, and then can live for long time. Decades, even. And they can grow larger than a foot, too.”
“They tend to be either that red color or a mix of red and white, but I read that some of them can be different colors too, like brown… and I’m rambling…” he says, laughing again. “Do you like it?”
“I have heard of the comet breed. I had thought they were significantly smaller, however,” Hazel remarks, her eyes continuing to follow the fish’s movements. She finally looks up at his question, though, and smiles. “It’s great, Lance. All that it requires now is a name. Are you aware of its sex?”
“Great,” Lance repeats, then smiles like the sun as all his worry melts away like winter frost, “That’s great! I’m so happy. Yeah, they were about the size of my pinky when I first got them. I was originally saving the fish for Christmas, but then I found out about today, and what with it being our nine-month anniversary, and I thought–I thought it was just too perfect.” He reaches slowly for Hazel’s hand. “Just like you.”
“Yes, nine is an auspicious number, you were right to gift me the fish when you did,” Hazel replies. “A trinity of trinities. Mathematical perfection coincidental with the average length of a woman’s pregnancy.” She’s actually blushing a little bit herself, though, as she lets him take her hand. She’s frankly not accustomed to hearing that sort of praise from people besides her parents.
“But come,” she continues, “we must mark this equally auspicious occasion with a name for the fish. The goldfish is regarded as an omen of prosperity in Chinese culture. For a young woman, dreams of a goldfish are said to suggest marriage to a wealthy and pleasant man.” She thinks for a moment. “The word ‘prosper’ was specifically used. That makes me think of the Vulcan ‘live long and prosper’ farewell in Star Trek. And you say this breed of fish even has a long lifespan.”
Lance seems over the moon with Hazel’s blush and allowance of physical contact. As Hazel continues to talk, Lance doesn’t withdraw his hand, but he does at least backtrack to answer Hazel’s earlier question. “I don’t know if the fish is male or female. It doesn’t have any of spots or tubercles on its gill-shields, but that doesn’t mean it’s a girl. Like your uncle says, ‘Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’.”
He rubs his thumb on Hazel’s hand, and blushes himself as he adds, “I read that goldfish don’t become sexually active up to a year in age. So it’s hard to know now.” He scoots closer again until the stick shift halts his progress. “The Swift-Tuttle Comet is coming tonight,” he explains, even though Hazel was the one who originally told him last week.
Physical contact from Hazel isn’t so unusual nine months into the relationship. It definitely took a while for things to get to that point, though. Hazel was honestly impressed with how long he was willing to wait.
“Yes, it is,” she remarks. “If we do not yet know the fish’s sex, that removes Sarek as a contender as a name. But perhaps something gender-neutral reflective of the auspicious celestial occurrence would be appropriate.” She thinks. “Swift-Tuttle does not roll off the tongue well, not to mention ‘Tuttle’ is one of our peers’ last names. Hmm, perhaps simply ‘Comet’.”
“Okay, sure,” Lance says, his attention clearly less focused on the fish’s name. “Meierhoff said it’s the single most dangerous object known to humanity. The comet, that is–the comet-comet, not the fish,” he adds with a laugh as a bit of anxiety creeps back into his voice.
“Worry not, it is not predicted to pose any meaningful danger for at least two thousand years,” Hazel offers. “I am certain that humanity will have fully taken to the stars by then.”
“That’s good, I guess. As for tonight, it should be close enough to see with binoculars.” He not so subtly glances at the truck bed. “I’ve brought some, and a board like you asked for the crop circle stuff.” Hazel watches Lance’s neck turn the same shade as the fish. “I was thinking… maybe after… we could, um…”
She does mentally frown at his dismissal of the fish’s name—there is great significance in names, after all, as her uncle would have vocally agreed. She supposes that Comet is appropriate enough, though, and that they can leave the matter be.
Even Hazel doesn’t miss the cue as his face reddens. But she does miss what he might really be wanting. They had, after all, planned a specific timetable for when that would happen. Lance’s reaction nevertheless causes her cheeks to redden slightly in response. “Yes, certainly… we may kiss, you do not need to feel embarrassed…”
Nine months is almost long enough for Lance to get accustomed to Hazel’s atypical manner of speaking about physical affection. Almost. He starts to say something, but his mumble comes out as a cross between, “You’re hot…” and, “That’s not…” He nonetheless leans in and down to give Hazel a kiss, which he attempts to turn French. Hazel feels the cooler-contained goldfish and water slosh around in her lap.
“Be… be careful, the fish…” she responds, but the warning abruptly cuts off when she feels his tongue in her mouth. Oh. That’s… not the first time they’ve done that… it’s still… in the heat of the moment, she reciprocates, even if first base still feels weird to her. She tries not to think about how their saliva is intermingling. She’s actually more comfortable with second, in her own way.
Whether Lance senses as much or simply feels the same, it doesn’t take long before the 4-H president slides into second base hot and heavy. The cab windows fog up in short order while Comet continues to swim obliviously in circles inside its plastic bag.
Hazel largely lets her Lance take the lead, though it’s hardly as if he’s more experienced than her. The only thing she’s firm on is no sex—and absolutely no to unprotected sex. They’ve (well, she’s) specifically planned for that to happen on graduation day, as part of the sacred Timetable. She thought that was a great idea. They both know exactly what to expect and when, right?
But she hadn’t expected this. And once the initial, mutual awkwardness is past, Hazel ceases to think about the goldfish, or anything besides her boyfriend. She still feels a little giddy at those words. ‘My boyfriend.’
Bucking noises—and others—sound from the truck’s seats, and the fish swims on.
Amidst the adolescent-awkward, heat-of-the-moment gyrations, the tape player is turned on accidentally, filling the cab with John Denver’s mid-song folk rock anthem:
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain highHe climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below.
He saw everything as far as you can see.
And they say that he got crazy once, and he tried to touch the sun.
And he lost a friend but kept his memory.
“And his name is Mnemosyne!” a flush-faced but definitely no longer embarrassed Hazel sings along at the end. She thinks that’s a clever added-on line. It kind of rhymes. Kind of.
After both the song and teens each reach their climax and subsequent denouement clean-up, Lance asks as he re-buckles his pants in the cramped cab, “What did you say? Did you… rename the fish while we were…?”
“Oh. Just… singing along,” a still-breathy Hazel answers. “Comet was the last
thing on my mind, you can be assured. Though I can see how you might have thought so.”
“Oh… that’s that’s good. Great,” he replies as his own breath settles.
Hazel cups her hands over her mouth as she abruptly starts laughing.
“What?” her boyfriend asks, with a spike of worry or at least self-consciousness. He looks over himself to see if he’s put on his clothes incorrectly or left too big of a mess. Neither event would be the first time.
“Did I… rename the fish! I’m sorry, it’s just…” Further words are lost as Hazel doubles over in a second fit of laughter. “It’d just be… right then, shouting out… ‘his name is…!’”
She only laughs and laughs and laughs.
“Still, I can…” she wipes her eyes, “see how you might’ve…” Hazel takes another look at his puzzled expression and just laughs again.
Her mirth subsides after another moment. She then clarifies upon seeing his frown, “I wasn’t laughing at you. I just found the mental image of me renaming the fish at… that particular moment, to be rather comical.”
Lance’s frown lessens at Hazel’s explanation, but does not fully dissipate. Still uncomfortable with a joke he seems unable to grasp, if not still suspects he is the butt of, he switches subject. “So, I brought the plank. What design are we doing tonight? Something random, one of our old shapes, or something special, what with our… with the comet?”
Hazel was about to start giggling again, but her humor finally and fully dies at Lance’s discomfort. She might not be much good with emotions, but wondering if she’s the butt of a particular joke is an emotion she knows intimately well.
“Lance, please, I was not laughing at you. If anyone, I was laughing at myself and my own peculiarities. To still be thinking about naming the fish at my moment of sexual climax would be absurd, even for me. But it has just enough basis in reality to make it an exaggeration rather than fabrication. That made it humorous.”
She then adds, even more seriously, “I don’t laugh at people when they are… leaving themselves open. I consider that to be highly cruel.”
Lance sighs and brushes his knuckles against the tiny stubble on his chin. “Okay, Hazel, it’s all right. I believe you.” He tucks his shirt into his pants, then adds, “Sorry if I got bent out of shape a bit. It’s just that I really en–I mean, no guy wants to hear laughter right after, well, that.”
“Well, if you wish to feel masculine, I am still mostly undressed,” Hazel states directly. “There is a rather pulp-like image—pulp-like as in the early ‘pulp fiction’ stories Conan the Barbarian featured in, to clarify—of a muscular man with a nubile girl on his arm. In fact, Conan was usually even less clothed than you presently are, which makes our present disparity in dress all the more pronounced.”
She then smiles and leans up against the much taller boy’s shoulder. “I remember when you flipped that desk with Jason Tutweiler in it. Defending my honor with your Samsonite feats of strength. That made me feel very feminine on a primal, atavistic level.”
Lance chuckles self-defacingly. “As I told you, I’ve just had a lot of practice cow-tipping. Rancher’s son and all.” Despite his words though, Lance seems to instantly relax at Hazel’s re-initiated contact and titillating words–or better said, any lingering thoughts about Hazel’s bout of laugher vanish as other thoughts flare up. One of his hands trace the curve of a breast down to her navel.
“Primal…” he repeats quasi-hypnotically, then leans down to kiss Hazel’s neck. Once, twice, thrice.
Hazel feels the flush rising to her cheeks again at Lance’s last word, but it’s not from embarrassment. She feels… satisfied, being able to stoke that kind of natural
response from someone, especially a boy, that it seems like she so rarely can.
“This is where I say something indicative of your possessing status, like… ’I’m all yours…’” she breathes as she feels his lips against her neck.
“Do you ever wonder,” he asks absentmindedly as his hands continue to rove, “like what happens after we die? Like do we have souls? Or are we just animals? Primal or not, just animals that live and one day die, and that’s it?” In the moment, it’s hard to tell which is more idle–Lance’s questions or the movements of his hand down below Hazel’s pant-line.
His next words, though, somewhat dampen the mood. “In absence of any empirical evidence to the contrary, I can only presume that we cease to exist. We do, however, possess sentience and the capacity to recognize and contemplate our own mortality. We are capable of abstract reasoning and taking actions that serve a purpose beyond simple daily survival. We have purpose
to our lives where animals do not.”
“Yeah,” Lance says in slow agreement. “I think that too. Sometimes I still think of stuff like heaven and hell and some kind of afterlife or sorts, or souls living on beyond death. Maybe even reincarnation, but mostly it’s like how I was when I figured out the tooth fairy and Santa Clause were just my dad. I didn’t want to not-believe, but I just couldn’t anymore. Still I pretended for a long time.”
“I stopped around when I hit puberty. As you say, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy were examples I cited when explaining my newfound non-belief to my parents.”
Lance’s long fingers stroke Hazel contentedly. “Still, it made it easier to deal with a loose tooth that hurt. At least I knew I was getting a quarter at the end of it. I think that’s why people, even those who don’t really believe, still pretend and talk about souls.”
Hazel just as contentedly watches them. Her mind is half there, and for the moment, she really is
enjoying toeing the balance of ‘primal’ and higher thought. “For the simple promise of heaven? I suppose so, but to my mind it remains an inherently childish attitude. I said close to that exact thing to my father. I don’t think he was very sure what to make of it. ‘Heaven’ is the ultimate present you want Santa Claus to leave under your tree. Amusingly, even he and God are both depicted as white-bearded old men.”
Lance’s fingers frustratingly stop as he pauses to think. Furthermore, his eventual response falls rather flat in terms of cerebral considerations. “I’m thinking of growing a beard.”
And she had just been about to start talking about Hermetic alchemy and methods of immortality too. There’s a mental sigh.
“A beard is very primal,” the still mostly-nude Hazel offers.
Lance grunts like a gorilla, then laughs freely in a way that he almost never does. “Soul-less animal or not, I love you, Hazel.” His fingers resume their wandering, this time more purposefully.
Hazel’s mind initially blanks out at those words. Maybe her standards are stricter than other people’s. Love, the kind shown between family, is eternal. Or at least should
be. You don’t say you love someone unless you’re prepared for those words to be forever.
‘Forever’ is far too soon at eighteen.
She replies by pulling him closer by his shirt’s collar and pressing her lips to his.
Lance accepts her kiss and returns it three-fold. Between each, his words are hot whispers upon her lips. “I am going to die. You are going to die. Even the sun will die someday, but that doesn’t change what I feel for you, here, tonight.”
“As long as… man has realized he is mortal… he has dreamed of immortality. There is… nothing beyond… powers of…” There’s a few more words like ‘science’ and ‘technological advancement’, but multi-tasking between such different lines of ‘thought’ is rather much for Hazel.
She elects to pursue the more primal line.
Perhaps it is the strange duality of the carnal and cerebral that instigated the teens’ second pursuit of that primal line, but in the midst of their passion, Hazel is aware of their bodies slipping into acts and patterns she first learned from the same occult books her father later burned. Her climax not only feels like the rush of a shooting star–but it coincides with the comet’s passing rain of fire. Both teens are left breathless, but Hazel feels the exact opposite of spent. Rather, she feels imbued. Empowered. Puissant.
“W-what was that?” Lance eventually asks, too dumbfounded and deliriously happy to even flash a goofy smile. “No, don’t even tell me,” he says waving her off. He rubs his hand across his face. “I’m definitely
growing a beard.”
It’s been five years. She’s picked up new books. None of them have once been taken to her father’s house, but she’s poured through them twice as deliberately (a fact that she has informed him of), as much out of stubbornness as existing interest.
She’s evidently picked up a few things, too.
She closes her mouth as Lance says he doesn’t want to hear it. Well, in fairness, she’d probably ramble for hours once she got going.
“I approve of such a change in your facial hair-style,” Hazel answers. “And it was from my books. You can learn a great deal from reading.” It almost makes her want to have sex early. Petting is nice, but those books had so much more to say about actual intercourse.
And puissant indeed does the eighteen-year-old feel. She’s long felt she was behind her peers in this… area. But not so right now. There’s still a faint smirk to her lips as she re-fastens her bra.
Lance crooks an eyebrow at Hazel’s attribution to her books, but he doesn’t gainsay it. Instead, his goofy smile returns. “Well, never let me complain about you having your nose in a book again.”
Perhaps the ‘Timetable’ would have been broken that night, had not Lance once again switched the subject. “So, what do you want to do with the circle? I’m feeling way too good and alive to drive home, late hour or not. Plus, I’d love to freak out the Crawfords.”
The thought would have been tempting. But without protection, absolutely not. Then again, maybe Lance was prepared for that too, in case she changed her mind…
“Yes, let us do so, it is very warm inside and the cold night air will provide a pleasant contrast,” Hazel answers, pulling on her turtleneck next.
A few moments later, the two seniors are heavily dressed against the near-freezing December night air. Comet or Mnemosyne remains inside the cab, swimming in cooler-contained spirals. Outside, Lance retrieves a large plank of wood that he and his girlfriend has used to create crop-circles.
As usual, he looks to Hazel for direction. He’s still smiling ear to ear as his speaks with a puff of breath-vapor. “Well?”
“I am of a mind to attempt a pentagram,” Hazel answers, her breath visibly steaming in the cold night air. She motions towards a spot with a gloved hand. “It is an unusual design, but they may come in many shapes and sizes. And it is… fitting in its own way, I shall simply say, given our earlier activities.”
“I’m ready,” Lance agrees immediately with what initially seems like blind happiness, but which Hazel swiftly realizes is something else. She feels it, energy pooled inside herself, threaded to her lover, anchored to the ground. Alignment. Synergy. Unity.
The night is very cold. But she’s feeling all-too hot. Sex—or at least sexual climax—is a potent form of mystical energy, and were it to be channeled through the proper points…
A pentagram isn’t so unusual a shape, in fact. She read a seminal study by a one John Martineau, not too long ago, that revealed that the pentagram acted as one of the principal geometric constraints in the layout and proportion of many crop circles.
Five points corresponding to the four classical Greek elements. And that fifth unifying and transcendent element—spirit, quintessence, at the head and uppermost point. All five contribute to life and are a part of every human—though in that moment Hazel only thinks ‘of her and Lance’.
The number five has always been regarded as mystical and magical, yet essentially ‘human’. Humankind has five fingers or toes on each limb extremity. They commonly note five senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. They perceive five stages or initiations in their lives—birth, adolescence, coitus, parenthood and death. The number 5 is associated with Mars. It signifies severity, conflict and harmony through conflict. In Christianity, five were the wounds of Christ on the cross. There are five pillars of the Muslim faith and five daily times of prayer.
Five were the virtues of the medieval knight—generosity, courtesy, chastity, chivalry and piety as symbolized in the pentagram device of Sir Gawain. The Wiccan Kiss is Fivefold—feet, knees, womb, breasts, lips—Blessed be.
The number 5 is prime. The simplest star—the pentagram—requires five lines to draw and it is unicursal; it is a continuous loop. Hazel lectures aloud as to these facts while she directs Lance where to press down with the plank. Context and precision are both necessary.
Expressing the saying, “Every man and every woman is a star,” one can juxtapose Man on a pentagram with head and four limbs at the points and the genitalia exactly central. This is Man in microcosm, symbolizing humanity’s place in the Macrocosm or universe and the Hermetic / Tantric philosophy of associativity as above, so below. Hazel briefly pauses to rummage a flashlight out of Lance’s truck and a ruler out of her purse. “Precision is necessary,” she repeats. “The geometric proportions of the regular pentagram are those of the Golden Section, you see…”
The Golden Proportion is one beloved of artists since Renaissance times and also to be found in post-Hellenic art and in the geomantic planning of Templar sites, being those proportions of a rectangle considered most pleasing to the eye. Here, the ratio of the lengths of the two sides is equal to the ratio of the longer side to the sum of the two sides. Or, as Hazel goes on, “A/b = b/a+b = a+b/a+2b = a+2b/2a+3b…”
If a square is added to the long side of a golden rectangle, a larger golden rectangle is formed. Continuing this progression forms the basis for a nautilus spiral. The ratio of the distance between two points of a pentagram to its total width is in the golden proportion, as is the ratio of the height above the horizontal bar to that below, as is the ratio of a central part of a line to the outer part.
“Precision is necessary,” Hazel repeats. Ruler in hand, she’ll make sure the dimensions of Lance’s board-crushed crops are accurate down to the exact inch. They must maintain the golden proportion.
Returning again to the five elements, tracing a path around the pentagram, the elements are placed in order of density—spirit (or aether), fire, air, water, earth. Earth and fire are basal, fixed; air and water are free, flowing. The single point upwards signifies the spirit ruling matter (mind ruling limbs), and is a symbol of rightness.
But this pentagram doesn’t have a single point up.It has two
up—and one, spirit, downwards, subservient. “This,” Hazel proclaims proudly as she surveys the field of oh-so-carefully crushed barley, “symbolizes the carnal nature of Man. Or in layman’s terms,” she continues with a growing smirk, “we just wrote ‘sex’ over this field.”
“But not without purpose—or I should say, higher as well as base purpose. Another way of seeing the pentagram’s path is as Man’s spiritual journey through evolution. The spark of Life descending from God, the divine source of life to the simplest embryonic form—earth, rising to flow—water and air, on our plane of existence—compare with the intonation of the AUM
mantra—then again descending to the fire of purification before again rising as a divine spark to find again his spiritual source.”
“But a journey may traverse many routes, and the journey(wo)man may undertake their journey in an infinitude of different states. The clothes they wear the provisions they pack, the others whom they journey alongside, their simple state of mind…”
“Our journey is the pentagram. Our route
is, as we have so inscribed upon the field, sexuality. But we are not merely stating that sex is life.”
Hazel’s booted feet lightly crunch against the frosted-over ground as she strides into the center of the pentagram, being careful not to step on any of the lines. She motions for Lance to follow—and to likewise be careful. “We have made this pentagram, the symbol of Man’s journey from embryo to divinity, occur by means of sexuality,” she continues. “We have written a message upon this barley field that literally says, ’sex elevates us from the basest of life-forms to godhead itself.”
She motions across the barley-field pentagram’s five points with another thickly-gloved hand. In her other arm, she holds onto a blanket and second, much smaller object—in hindsight, completely unsurprising for a teenage boy—that she retrieved from Lance’s truck, midway through the pentagram’s creation (that she had him pause during her absence. Precision was necessary).
“What do we mean by such a statement?” Hazel resumes. “Let us begin by defining divinity. At its most basic, divinity is the capacity to make possible the impossible. According to what is
possible, and what you yourself have stated, both of us shall die. The sun shall die. Even the universe shall succumb to inevitable heat-death.”
“But through this pentagram, we state that we have the means to cheat death. That is the impossibility we may render possible. Our affection for one another, and the carnal actions through which we express that affection, are the means by which we may do so. Through our will—or True Will
, as Crowley would term it—the laws of the cosmos may be overwritten.”
But it’s more even than that. Hazel can feel something building in her, in the air around her. She considers the facts. Crowley, Parsons, Randolph, and all the other occultists she so reveres have repeatedly spoken of love and sex between magicians as the key to unlocking true theurgy. And here, beneath this comet, on the ninth month of their relationship—three threes—on this flawlessly drawn pentagram. Logic and intuition both dictate: this occasion is infinitely more portentous than any high school graduation.
Without any further ado, Hazel unzips her pants, pulls down her panties, and lies down in the center of the pentagram. The night air is cold against her exposed sex, but its intensity is nothing against that within her voice as she all but commands:
“Take me. Here. Now.”
Her right hand holds the thrust-out condom she retrieved from his truck. Part of Hazel is terrified as she speaks those words. Even just the petting is… they’ve been taking things slow. This wasn’t planned in the Timetable.
But the scientist—or at least mystic—within her tells that crying little to aspie to sit down and shut up. This set of circumstances is simply too perfect. Virginity has a power of their own too. She can only lose that state once. It would seem such a shame to waste it on a less portentous occasion.
Lance, who throughout the process of shaping the pentagram has been slavishly obedient, becomes utterly spellbound as Hazel beckons him. His wintry breath quickens as he undoes his belt, his hands confident and committed where once they were unsure and awkward.
Yet, as he steps into the pentagram’s center to straddle his supine lover, Hazel discerns movement in the stars. A flicker of blackness on the edges of the large pentagram points where stars die and then are reborn. Lance kneels down in the frost-bitten, flattened barley, his eyes riveted to Hazel and thus blind to the stellar phenomenon occurring around them.
Hazel missed the rest, or at least that portion of the rest, back then. Part of her froze up. This was too much. Too soon. Petting was fine, but actual sex
, that kind of intimacy with someone… put it off, please, they could do this later, maybe somewhere n…
The occultist in her had irritably squashed that second bout of sniveling like a landed fly. That wasn’t why the Hazel of ‘92 didn’t make out what came next in the heavens above. It was just too damn dark.
Her six-year-older self smiles into the Dynatron. Not a problem now. Another flash of brilliant radiance isn’t going to be useful here. Hazel needs something more low-key. She pictures the cat that she was only just petting in her mind’s eye, mutters, “לראות בחושך,” and her pupils abruptly expand to the size and slit shape of a feline’s.
So sharpened, Hazel’s eyes of the future-present discern what her younger-former self does not.
Something occludes the stars along those five points of the horizon–five figures dressed in black robes standing at the points of the massive pentagram, their silent movements of their dark-sleeved arms creating eldritch patterns.
Maybe it’s for the best her younger self didn’t see.
So revealed to Hazel’s psyche of the future-present, the occult scholar identifies the hypnotic flash of their pale hands, tracing shapes in the comet-crossed sky. No, not just shapes, but letters.
Even the Hazel of ’98 gawks in instinctive and outrage and revulsion. That was a private moment! How… dare
And what a fool girl she was. What did she even think she was trying to accomplish with that act of ritual sex? Yes, she powered that pentagram, and she had no idea towards what end! She just blindly experimented, acting solely on instinct!
Yet, like that dark, celestial auspicious night, the analytic or at least occult side of Hazel’s psyche temporary subdues or sidesteps her rage and revulsion, drawn to the mysteries of those letters, their language, and the words they form.
Enochian. The language of angels.
Each figure hypnotically traces a different symbol or letter in the sky, and those letters keep changing, but Hazel’s brilliant mind seizes upon her limited sight and rings her senses till she bleeds comprehension from the scene. There is a pattern. Patterns, actually. And Hazel has always been best at inducing patterns. Structure. Order. Five figures, standing on five points of the pentagram. Five hands tracing the sky. Five symbols spelt out, forming five words.
S A T O R A R E P O T E N E T O P E R A R O T A S
Hazel finds she needs no starting anchor point or orientation to read the silent star-chanting, for no matter how she reads it, it is the same:
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
The Sator Square, a notorious palindrome millennia old. Fluent in Latin, Hazel knows the hyper-folded palindrome can be grammatically as well as visually be read up and down, backwards and forwards, and finally boustrophedon, or in alternating directions–and since word order is unconstrained in the ancient dead language, the translation is the same. It is a perfect pattern–and inviolate pattern.
Yet, even if Hazel were not fluent in the dead tongue, she would still recognize the mysterious invocation, as her her occult studies have crossed paths with the Sator or Rotas Square particularly many times.
Tonight, however, it crosses hers. Yet, for all the inviolate structure of the Sator, Hazel’s pentagram-centered congress is twice violated. First, by the black-robed figures, and then by the frantic approach of another man into the field, his shouting immediately evident to both Hazels.
“Hey, what you’re doing!”
“What the hell! Get out of here, or I swear I will shoot!” A second later, a shotgun rips the night air, proving deadly evidence of the man’s sincerity.
Hazel barely had a chance—although still just enough of one—to scream as the panic attack hit. Lance at least knew what those were by then. She isn’t sure how the hell else she would’ve gotten away.
The sudden sound and interruption causes one of the robed figures to falter in their Enochian invocation.
While the Hazel of past-present is overcome with mind-asphyxiating panic, the Hazel of future-present watches the similarly panicking but not paralyzed Lance. He shouts first in alarm, then again as he calls Hazel’s name over and over. He hefts his flailing girlfriend and doesn’t pause to pull either of their pants up as he rushes them back to his distant truck.
Hazel of future-present watches as the farmer spots them, then runs straight after them, shotgun in hand. “I see you, McDermott! There’s going to be hell to pay!” Yet, as he runs into the center of the pentagram, he reflexively pivots away from the fleeing teenagers and fires at one of the robed figures which he detects in his peripheral vision.
For all the horror her then-self might have been paralyzed in, the Hazel of 1998 looks back on the scene with grim satisfaction. It’s no less than those figures deserved. And however she might felt towards that shotgun-toting farmer at the time, she’s now all-too glad he was there. She was such a fool drawing and empowering that pentagram without actually knowing what she wanted it to do.
The chaotic consequences of that act continue to replay before Hazel. She watches as the shotgun slug tears across the pentagram-flattened barley field like a miniature comet. It makes a bloody crater in one of the robed figures, who crumples and collapses into the winter grain in agony.
The farmer shouts above the cut-down cultist’s screams, “State law limits a man to three loaded shotgun shells, so you gotta ask yourself two questions. First, how closely do I follow the letter of the law, and second, which of you motherfuckers is next in line to water my barley with your blood?”
Three of the robed figures turn expectantly to their last standing member. In response, the figure solemnly declares, “Adversus solem ne loquitor.” Enhanced by her arcana, Hazel’s future-present perceives two things her past-present conscious mind could not. The figure turns not to the enraged, firearm-toting farmer as they speak, but to Hazel–and not the one overcome by a panic attack.
As the figure locks gazes with Hazel, she sees its face–or more properly what lurks beneath the black hood: a rabbit mask. “Adversus solem ne loquitor,” the figure repeats as its subordinates slip into the darkness, dragging their cut-down compatriot with them.
“Adversus solem ne loquitor.”
Those words, and their translation, echo in Hazel’s psyche as Lance frantically carries her body back to his truck and flees. Do not speak against the Sun.
Hazel stares back at the garbed cultists with narrowed eyes. If they can perceive and speak to her, then a sympathetic connection exists—and one that may work both ways. She gesticulates and readies a spell should they attempt to further exploit it.
The cultists, like the comet, pass away in a flash of light. In its wake, the Dynatron screen becomes dead blue again before flickering to a sunset image with a superimposed image.
Even the sun will die someday
The sun will die, Hazel thinks. The amount of energy required to forestall, much less prevent such an occurrence is simply too great. But as she spoke to Lance, humankind may well have taken to the stars by the time their sun dies. Humans may be mortal creatures, but to those of sufficient cleverness and determination, ways may yet exist to circumvent the laws of nature.
Nevertheless—for now—entropy shall receive its due. She has come perilously close to death herself. It may yet await her outside the Chamber.
“The sun shall die. But in the time allotted to me, I shall fight to live.”
The Dynatron’s options are all but empty. Hazel selects the last remaining one.
The menu screen dissolves back into static, achromatic snowfall.
Fish-globe reflections of the Christmas of 1977 resurface on the glass screen, the blur of faces, familiar and otherwise, alongside her own raptly attentive face–a shared gaze between her three year old past–present self and twenty three year old future–present self. Only the Dynatron’s glass screen and the singularity-condensed span of twenty years separates them. Both selves or self detect something appear in the static snowfall, a pattern of letters above a blinking QED
in a top corner of the screen. The letters form a single word:
Dimly, Hazel is aware of reflections of her mother and first father, of her maternal grandparents. But she also is aware of the recursive glass door that awaits her exit from the Chamber.
Hazel spares a last, long look for her family—especially her first father—but as she is about to turn away, it is her younger self who catches her gaze. She isn’t sure if ‘she’ can hear ‘her’. She isn’t sure if the autistic toddler understands either—or cares enough to act on what ‘she’ does understand. But some part of ‘her’ does. She has come far in those twenty years—very far, she now thinks—but the Hazel of ’77 and ’98 are still the same Hazel. She spares a sweet, if sadness-tinged smile for the small child as she stoops to make eye (or at least nose) contact and states softly,
“Go spend some time with your daddy. You don’t have a lot left.”
She waits a moment, then turns away from the Dynatron’s screen. Every person, her studies have taught her, is a mixture of the four elements, some stronger and some weaker as according to the makeup of their soul. Air, as but one example, is related to the “mental”. It is therefore possible he who has it in an overriding quantity can go astray, led by fanciful thoughts. What the candidate needs to learn is if he perseveres in walking the inner path, he will learn how to balance the elements, to get rid of the worst aspects of each of them—to smooth his rough ashlar—thus harmonizing his personality, and his life. One again, balance between the material and the spiritual. The Chamber here is not identical to the one employed by the Freemasons, but there are similarities—likely drawn from her own subconscious. Hazel cannot help but think back to saying that every would-be initiate into that craft beholds.
IF YOU PERSIST IN, YOU SHALL BE PURIFIED FROM THE ELEMENTS
YOU SHALL COME OUT FROM THE ABYSS OF THE DARKNESS
YOU SHALL SEE THE LIGHT
VIGILANCE AND PERSEVERANCE
The second sentence clearly alludes to the psychological “process of individuation”. Abyss, from Greek abyssos, literally “bottomless”, in psychology means the “collective unconscious”, the values of a group which man has unconsciously absorbed during his early life. Through the process of individuation he will find his own values, that make him an individual, that is, a unique entity, which can no more be divided—Latin: in-divisus—an integrated personality, master of his life and of his destiny. It is a process of self-realization during which one integrates those contents of the psyche that have the ability to become conscious. It is a search for totality and a balance between them that creates the integrated personality, one not tending one way or the other.
If the candidate learns the lessons taught in the Freemasons’ chamber, he shall see the Light, that is, God. He shall “know” Him, becoming one within the One. The sun, displayed on this tarot card, symbolizes rebirth, or the return of the great light also symbolically announces the candidate’s “resurrection” or rebirth from the womb. The rooster, a common symbol in the Freemasons’ initiation, and its crowing recommends vigilance and perseverance, symbolized by the long vigil through the night for the rebirth of the sun which the rooster holds daily. Vigilance means to watch oneself with patience, to avoid arrogance for good results— if any—so gained; perseverance is the continuation of the journey on the inner path: research and learning are endless, indeed.
Hazel has weathered a long night. She has found—rediscovered—her values. She will obtain ultimate knowledge and taste the great tree’s tenth fruit. She will love and protect her family. She will not allow the Sweeneys’ deaths to impede either of these goals. They have not broken her, but tempered her. She is whole. She is One.
She exits the door.
Stepping through the threshold, Hazel finds herself in a massive field that fills the stretches across the four-fold horizons. Above and around her, the air is humid, saturated with heat and dampness that cause her still naked skin to prickle and bead with sweat. Clouds the color of dark smoke march across the sky like cumulonimbus regiments, their thunder booming like lock-step boots and atmospheric artillery.
Below her, the seemingly infinite field is cold and dry, as fallow as a parched bone. Its expanse has been flattened and raked by some colossal force or supernal machine. Gazing forward, Hazel notices several looming shapes that connect the storm-trod sky and barren earth. Their sheer size causes Hazel to pause before correctly identifying the shapes: gigantic irons. Excruciating hot, dry heat radiates from the metal plates that face Hazel, hiding their the massive, plastic-shod reservoirs of water.
Near one of the monstrously huge machines, Hazel perceives the hazy silhouette of a distant figure, its back turned to her as it walks between two of the upturned irons.
Was… she naked this whole time? She honestly didn’t notice. This place is funny like that. Her nudity would normally greatly distress her, but this a dream. Or something like
a dream. And there are more important matters weighing upon her mind.
Her bare feet pad against the barren soil as she strides towards the figure. She could invoke a minor protective spell against the simultaneous cold and heat, too. But she doesn’t. She has a snaking sense of who the indistinct figure might be as she draws closer.
Invigorated by her meditative reflections within the Chamber, Hazel endures the tempering elements, even as they become part of her. Soil grinds into her heels, air she sucks into her lungs. Her skin becomes flush with heat and sweat from her exertions, but she presses forward.
As she passes between the first pair of monolithic irons, Hazel’s enlightened eyes notice two details. First is a line of words etched onto the outer rim of the nearest iron’s plate. procul hinc, procul ite profani
, it reads, which Hazel, as a learned student of Latin, deciphers as, keep away, you who are profane
She straightens her back and raises her head high. Another part of her again contemplates invoking a ward against those elements. She dismisses it. She’s come this far without help, and she’s stubborn enough to see her journey on through to the end.
Head held high, Hazel’s attention however is brought down when she hears a pitiful cry. Looking to the ground, directly before the colossal iron, she beholds the gruesomely crushed and burnt-black body of a man, his habit and flesh charred into an ironed paste. Horrifically, the man raises his uncrushed head and pleads with his scorched tongue and charred lips: " Th…ir…st…"
Ahead, the distant figure continues to walk towards another far away row of monstrous irons.
It is within her power to provide succor to this man and to catch up with the retreating figure. Perhaps not on her own. But with her magic—her True Will
, as described by Crowley—all is possible. The moisture in the air is all-too abundant. " מים," she repeats. Commanded by her will, the spread-out hydrogen particles condense into a tangible liquid stream that runs from her outstretched palm to the horrifically crushed man’s lips.
The half–crushed and fully–burned figure sips gratefully. He smiles in gratitude as he opens his uncrushed hand, then dies. Inside the man’s charred hand is an inviolate token of gold. The token bears two letters.C.S.
Above, a single titanic bolt of lightning courses from the sky, down into the adjacent giant iron–an iron which seems to come alive and slowly rise and turn.
Hazel picks up the token. She couldn’t save him, but she did what she could in the little time that remained. Now she can only move onwards. And faster. Hazel raises her gaze to the sky, throws her arms wide and exclaims,“רוחות באוויר, להרים אותי ביניכם!”A strong breeze abruptly sends her long hair blowing back. Winds lap around her bare knees like eager hounds ready to obey their master’s will—and so they do.
In echo, another bolt of lightning surges toward and awakens a titanic iron. This one too rises and turns, so its soon red-searing metal faces down towards the ground–and most alarmingly above Hazel.
Those damn things are going to crush her. And they’ve appeared every time she’s exercised her True Will. Perhaps she needs to be more subtle.
Hazel releases the almost-complete invocation and lets the gathering winds die—but enough of them linger, just soft enough and quiet enough, to help propel her body out of the way as she naturally
ducks and rolls to avoid the fast-falling irons.
The god-sized irons plummet down like a pair of pistons whose impact halts precisely at the surface of the field. The half-crushed corpse is flattened and burnt away into ash that is smoothly ironed into the fallow field. Hazel barely survives a similar fate as her last will-enhanced leap hurls herself clear of the two irons.
Those irons, blind to the outcome of their efforts, slowly return to their original upright positions. Once again, they become dormant figures, though their shadows loom large. Ahead, Hazel sees the dark figure has regained the ground she had made in her pursuit. Its back remains once again to her as it passes between another pair of giant irons.
Hazel: No action without consequence. No power without price.
She thinks back to Bubbles and the steaming coffee mug pulled out of his pocket. And what happened to him. She’ll need to be more subtle outside of the Chamber. There are no grand invocations this time. Hazel merely stares at the figure, impresses its visage upon her mind—with her right next to it—and starts walking. But she’s still faster than last time.
Her stride twice-quickened by will, Hazel nearly halves the distance between her and her quarry–which she can now tell is wearing a dark robe that trails to the ground, creating small, swirling patterns in the ironed earth.
Her attention, however, is once again diverted from the slowly trodding figure by another inscription etched into the side rim of an iron:date et dabitur vobis
, she reads, then translates, give and it shall be given unto you
. This time, no human tongue beseeches her. Instead, there is a pitiful roar by a lethally crushed and charred lion. Its once noble mane has been burnt away, and its visage is grim as it opens its mouth and begs. “S…a..lt…”
She remembers talking about lions to her dad not too long ago. The king of beasts deserves greater dignity. “I think there’s some around here. Let me look,” Hazel answers, bending over the barren earth. She digs with and dirties her hands, looking for rocks. Sodium is a major component in most types of them. It may be a coincidence when the willworker who could extract that sodium turns back to the lion with a handful of salt in her browned palms and kneels by its side. “Will this suffice?”
The dying lion gratefully licks the rock-salt, then expires in a great shudder that overturns its clawed paw, revealing another, similarly sized and shaped golden token. Its inscription, however, is unique: S.M.
She did all that she could there too. She now clutches two coins in the palm of her hand as she steadily makes her way after the less-distant figure. That’s twice the irons haven’t tried to crush her. There is much to be said for the value of subtlety. Her next act of will is similarly low-key.
No flashy motions. No chants in esoteric tongues. She just walks faster, harder, the “trooper” her dad never quite described her as on family hikes. There’s just the figure, there in her mind, and soon there in her sights.
Meanwhile, the massive irons soon fade from sight and Hazel detects minor variations in the soil, ever so slight rises and depressions, like unto earthen wrinkles. As the terrain changes, Hazel all but catches up to her quarry when the figure crosses through a magnificent gate, whose wall is made of impenetrable, velvet shadow.
From the metalline gate, two guards emerge, blocking Hazel’s passage. The first figure, a male, beams at Hazel, notwithstanding the terrible fever which burns his brow. “Congratulor!” he shouts, even as the other figure, a female, shivers with a dreadful chill as she weeps, “Condoleo.”
Hazel looks between them. “You would seem of a divided mind.”
Notwithstanding their contrarian salutations, each raises a hand, as if expecting something from the would–be–entrant.
Hazel holds up the tokens. “Do you require these to allow my passage?”
They figures stand still as columns, save for the fevered shuddering of the former and the equally suffering shivering of the latter.
Seeing their extended palms, Hazel regards the sole material possessions in her own palms. Materia. A long-time scholar of occult, Hazel recognizes the symbolic nature of the coins as pass-tokens that functions as esoteric as well as exoteric keys. Yet, Hazel is particularly trained in Hermetic lore, and so she also intuits the symbolic nature of each token. Namely, each coin represents the element for which they were exchanged, water and earth.
While the former element contains the alchemical property of wetness and the latter element contains the alchemical property of dryness, both also contain the property of coldness. Together, they form the Celestial Salt, the principle of base, passive matter. Moreover, the two elements demonstrate both the First and Second Laws of Hermetics. All is from One. Polarity.
The two tokens, though divided, create the oneness of the fixed elements of the Celestial Salt, while also symbolizes the alchemical polarity of dryness and wetness. Yet, as Hazel also knows, As Above, So Below
, and thus, the Celestial Salt is only half of the Prime Materia, whose polar opposite is the Celestial Niter.
From the oneness of the Niter, the polarity of the volatile elements manifests as air and fire, which both contain the alchemical properties of heat, yet are divided again in their wetness and dryness, respectively. Thus, to transcend from the base matter of the Celestial Salt to the more refined spiritual state of the Celestial Niter, Hazel must return the correct tokens in the correct order–not as they are, but as they can become, thus symbolizing the dyadic monism of the first two great laws of Hermetics.
Hazel looks between the figures, approaches the weeping female, and holds up the water token. Some of the dirt on her hands has smudged onto it and distinctively taken the shape of an upwards-pointing triangle with a line bisecting its upper third from the lower two thirds; the alchemical symbol for air. To the feverish male figure, she presents the salt or earth token, with its own dirt-inscribed upwards-pointing but line-less triangle; the alchemical symbol for fire.
“Condoleo,” weeps the woman as her tears and then entire body begin to evaporate. Similarly, the male shouts “Congratulor!” as his fever intensifies into a literal smoldering, then burning inferno. As one, the disincorporating figures flip over the symbolically transmuted tokens in their hands. As Hazel watches, she sees the inscribed initials on both tokens have changed. M.N.
reads the evaporating coin, while the melting coin reads J.M.
As one, the figures and the tokens complete their metamorphosis, and thereby reveal the now-open gate. A single coin sits across the threshold, smaller in size of fashioned of purified gold. A chimera is inscribed on its face, above three letters: S.P.N.
She stoops to retrieve it.
The coin is far heavier than the others, nearly requiring Hazel to use both hands to heft the mysterious token. As Hazel contemplates the object and its occult significance, her mind conjures a seventeenth \century quote from Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens
: “The Stone that is Mercury, is cast upon the Earth, exalted on Mountains, resides in the Air, and is nourished in the Waters.”’
As Hazel grasps the token, the square token stretches into a cube, just like German alchemist’s engraving. The Prima Materia. Hazel is well aware that the prima materia, otherwise known as the materia prima or first matter, is the ubiquitous starting material required for the alchemical magnum opus and the creation of the philosopher’s stone. It is the primitive formless base of all matter similar to chaos, the quintessence, or aether. The singularity from which is drawn the polarity of the Celestial Salt and Celestial Niter. All from One.
Similarly, Hazel perceives the significance of the Chimera. Beyond its intimate connections, the chimera is an alchemical symbol, denoting the union of the three grand alchemical essences–sulphur, salt, and mercury. Hazel’s enlightened psyche also grasps how it relates to union of the Metaphysic Trinity–the supernal resonances of entropy, stasis, and dynamism.
There’s no telling how such a symbolic object may come in useful within this dream-realm. Hazel hefts the distinctly heavy coin and strides past the gate after the retreating figure.
The figure continues to retreating–or is it guide?
Yes. The latter may be far more accurate.
Either way, Hazel’s determined strides swiftly overtake the robed figure. As Hazel’s reaches out to grasp the figure’s shoulder and force it to face her, the robe falls away. She hears three hard thuds.
She frowns, pulls the robe fully away, and casts it aside to see what may lie beneath.
Three irregular, egg-shaped stones, each the size of a baby’s head, sit on the ground. Across the near middle of each of the stones is a closed-fast zipper. All three rocks shift of their own volition as indistinct sounds spring from the zippers. “Mmmhmmmm…”
Hazel’s frown is more puzzled than anything else as she unzips one of the stones.
"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, " gasps the stone, from the unzipped ‘mouth’, the inside of which bears a full row of pearly teeth.
“Greetings,” Hazel offers.
“Mhmhmmm,” mumble the other two stones, clearly excited or irritated at their peer’s release.
“Salutations,” says the first stone, then adds, “A minor word of advice. Jogging.”
It’s not unusual for the young woman with autism to make such mistakes. She unzips the other two.
So liberated, the other two gasp, then stretch their zipper lips.
“Greetings to you both as well.”
“What a sight for sore eyes,” exclaims the middle rock.
“You don’t have eyes, you dolt. You can’t see anything!” says another.
“Lies!” replies the middle one. “Scandalous lies. Why, my vision is so keen I can see Plato’s Ideas.”
“Here we go again,” says another in a voice that would clearly roll eyes–if it had any.
“You are clearly better joggers than I am to maintain locomotion without legs. Perhaps you are similarly without need for physical eyes.”
“Did you hear that?” asks one of the rocks. “The chymist complimented me!”
“I head just fine,” says another. “Why, me ears are so fine I can hear the rustling of the heavens themselves. Besides, she was complimenting me, not you. I did most of the work, after all.”
“Bah!” shouts the third. “You two would have gone around in circles if I hadn’t counted off for you.”
“Counting? More like blathering.”
“It sounds as if the effort was a cooperative one. My compliments are addressed to you all,” Hazel replies levelly. “May I inquire as to your names?”
“Our names aren’t important,” one of the stones says.
“Well maybe yours isn’t,” another replies.
definitely is,” replies the third. “Whose turn is it to ask?”
“Definitely not, you asked last time.”
“That was the time before.”
“No, it most certainly wasn’t.”
“You both can’t count.”
“Why I’ll have you know I can number Democritus’ atoms!”
“I shall inquire as to the identifying aspects of your personal identities that each of you finds most significant,” Hazel offers diplomatically.
“I like this one,” says one of the stones.
“That’s only because she unzipped you first.”
“Which is why I should ask.”
“It’s my turn!” protests another. “Why don’t we leave it up to the chymist to pick?”
“I might propose a chance-based deciding mechanism to resolve the question of turns, or to simply rotate orders,” Hazel again offers. It’s a solution she knows all-too well from dealing with her bitterly divorced parents.
“See?” a rock says to its peers.
“You can’t see anything, you blockhead.”
“I told you I can see Plato’s Ideas!”
“Hear we go again.”
“Hear? Why I can hear the rustling of the very heavens.”
“Perhaps it may also prove efficacious if I spoke to you in turns,” Hazel suggests.
“I’ll keep count,” replies the third cheerfully.
“I believe it would be most satisfactory to the largest number of parties if I were to do so.” Hazel closes her eyes, waves her finger in a random pattern, then addresses the rock she sees herself pointing at. “You remarked as to the significance of my name. I am Hazel Bauman. Please identify yourselves, through your names or other defining traits.”
“Is she pointing at me?” says one.
“No, she’s clearly pointing at me.”
“You’re both hopelessly blind,” chides the third. “At least I’m not deaf. We were asked a question.”
“We’re stones of course,” answers one of the rocks to Hazel. “Oh dear, now she’ll think we’re just ordinary stones.”
“Is it a she? I can’t tell.”
“I am female,” Hazel clarifies levelly. This was already a dream, or at least a mental state approximating one. And these are stones rather than people, or at least sentient stones, so it wasn’t as if her nudity was greatly bothering to her. Still, it’s good to hear that it’s clearly lost on her audience.
Enough so, as well, that she’s willing to touch the rock who she means. They aren’t… exactly people, so the touching isn’t quite so bad. “This is whom. I shall address my next query to the next stone on your right or left, which I shall determine through the flipping of a coin.”
“I got picked! Hahaha!” exults the selected stone.
“Please expound, as you are clearly not ordinary stones.”
The others grumble a bit, likely at not being chosen, but the touched stone obliges her query.
“Why, isn’t it obvious? We’re Philosophists’ Stones.”
“Heads, right. Tails, left.” Hazel flips the heavy coin in her palm, gets heads, and turns to address the right-most stone. “You are distinct, I presume, from philosopher’s stones. What is your purpose?”
All three rocks groan at the mention of ‘philosophers’ stones’.
“Not the other
ones. Definitely not.”
“As I have stated, I believe you to be distinct from philosophers’ stones.”
“Wonders! Wonders! Wonders!” exclaims a stone. “She is a true believer!”
“Oh zip it, Gustavus,” chides another. “No one is interested in your styangraphy, palenchics, and caprimantic arts.”
“Oh, you’re lucky I don’t have my solar microscope, Eduard, or I’d melt your lips shut!”
“Be civil, commoners,” says the third, then seems to direct its attention back to Hazel. “Forgive my lessers, but at least one of us are made of more noble materials.” The rock bobs a bit as if bowing. “Count Cagliostro, at your service.”
“Count? I thought you were a prince,” snickers the stone identified as Gustavus.
“It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lord,” Hazel replies with an inclination of her head. She addresses the right-most stone again. “Please expound on your purpose as philosophists’ stones.”
“Why, good chymist, we are as we always have been, advisors, counselors, and solicitors.”
“Some have called us seer stones, or see-er stones,” chimes in another, “as we help illuminate the secrets of secrets.”
She turns all the way to the left-most stone. “That is a most commendable function, as well as highly distinct from the function of philosopher’s stones. What guidance and counsel would you presently offer me?”
“Bah, no one’s ever called us that except for him,” says the rock who self-identified as Count Cagliostro. “Eduard is a charlatan through and through. Best be careful or he’ll soon fleece you of your wife’s Secreta Secretorum
“That’s Sir Talbot
to you, Prince of Quackery! And I’ll have you know that cross-matching is a sacred act decreed by the angels!”
“Perhaps it would be of assistance if I posited specific topics and present dilemmas,” Hazel offers.
The remaining stone, the one referred to as Gustavus coughs, as if to clear his throat. “Insects.”
“I wish to consume the full fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This is obviously a considerable undertaking. How would you advise me to begin?”
‘Sir Talbot’ or Eduard speaks up first. “Why you must consult with the angels of course and apperceive your own Holy Guardian Angel.”
“Always angels with him. Far better to focus on healing your base matter before seeking psychic refinement,” says the Count. “I might be able to assist with both, though, as I am a talented psychic physician.”
The third chimes in, “I find it best to to first answer a question with a question.”
Gustavus continues, “Why?”
“Always ask oneself why before planning a sojourn, as the self-reflection grants oneself the proper perspective, much like riding a hot air balloon can help one not only survey one’s destination, but the proper course. Which is why I invented the hot air balloon, naturally–and the Montgolfier brothers are nothing better but second best, I assure you.”
“However, seeing as you lack a hot air balloon, I might recommend getting a cat,” Gustavus adds.
Holy Guardian Angel. That
is a term familiar to Hazel from her readings. “There is merit to all three courses of action—or contemplation, in the case of the third. The question, then, is which to pursue first. What is your diagnosis of and prognosis for my present base matter?” she asks the Count.
“It is a delicate question, yet fortunately most of the subject is in full view. It has been some time since I treated the congenitally frigid. I would need to consult my personal copy of The Most Holy Trinosophia
, but I would advocate plenty of sleep, perhaps under the supervision of a quasi-maternal figure as a grounding medium. Have you a step-aunt by chance?”
“I do not. I do, however, possess an aunt,” Hazel corrects.
“Well, perhaps that will suffice. Regardless, I recommend a dosage of calisthenics. The mind is naught the only thing that atrophies without proper exertion. Would you care for me to write you a prescription?”
“He means forge
you one,” interrupts Gustavus.
“I would feel at infinitely greater ease knowing that Aunt Winnie was watching over me than Mackenzie Snakewater,” Hazel states. She refrains from stating more. “I presume by ‘exertion’ you mean sleepwalking.”
“Somnambulism has a certain greater gravitas, wouldn’t you agree?” says the Count.
“Physical exercise would not seem inadvisable. I am, however, presently in the hospital and potentially in custody as a murder suspect. Might I achieve such exercise without leaving my room?”
“And honestly, Gus,” says the stone to its peer, “I’m surprised by the medium, though not target of your dispersion, what with you are learned practitioner of stynagraphy.”
Gustavus harrumphs, then comments to the group, “I still recommend a cat.”
“Just as I still suggest she seek her Holy Guardian Angel. Are you familiar with the Abramelin procedure?”
“We will address the matter of the cat when we are finished with my present line of inquiry,” Hazel states to the stone. “As well as that of the angel. All three subjects are of great value to me. That is why I must complete them one at a time.”
“Our good chymist lacks the time and resources to perform the Abramelin procedure,” Cagliostro says, almost preening as Hazel returns to his ‘line’.
“That matter shall be addressed,” Hazel repeats before turning back to the Count. “How may I—or you—secure Aunt Winnie as my nurse?” She then adds, “This is very
important to me. She may do much to ease my parents’ distress.”
Her voice starts to grow raw as that subject is addressed. They must be worried absolutely sick…
“Have you any mistresses or large diamonds?” asks the Count, as if such is a naturally reasonable line of inquiry given the topic of discussion.
“As a master of the caprimantic arts,” interrupts Gustavus again, “I might be able to intervene, if you can provide me with a goat.”
Hazel’s brow furrows. “Would a symbolic goat, diamonds, or mistresses suffice?”
Eduard likewise chimes in, “I believe Vaclav the Duke of Opava had an invocation that might be of use, something I picked up during my tenure at the Faust House.”
Physically, the closest she has in the real world are a pair of diamond earrings, along with some transparent clips to make up for how she never had her ears pierced. The former were a 22nd birthday present. Her mom wanted her to have some jewelry for nice occasions. Hazel remembers asking about that gift. Her mother had never been too concerned over what clothes or accessories she wore in the past, so long as it was clean and hole-less. And she almost never wore earrings. Lydia said that these were things she’d need to think about, now that she was graduated from college, and had even added that she was proud of how far Hazel had come as a dresser since her sweatpants-wearing middle school days.
Hazel had felt a bit embarrassed at that reminder. But she was happier, too, to have her mother’s approval.
Just hold on, Mom… I’ll be back, and I’ll be better, better able to protect us…
“Tell me of this invocation, please,” Hazel requests. Kill a goat to assuage some of her parents’ pain? Easily done.
The Philosophists’ Stones, not privy to Hazel’s thoughts, argue amongst themselves a bit before Eduard answers: “I am the daughter of Fortitude, and ravished every hour, from my youth. For behold, I am Understanding, and Science dwelleth in me; and the heavens oppress me. They covet and desire me with infinite appetite; few or none that are earthly have embraced me, for I am shadowed with the Circle of the Stone, and covered with the morning Clouds. My feet are swifter than the winds, and my hands are sweeter than the morning dew. My garments are from the beginning, and my dwelling place is in my self. The Lion knoweth not where I walk, neither do the beasts of the field understand me. I am deflowered, and yet a virgin; I sanctify, and am not sanctified. Happy is he that embraceth me: for in the night season I am sweet, and in the day full of pleasure. My company is a harmony of many Cymbals, and my lips sweeter than health itself. I am a harlot for such as ravish me, and a virgin with such as know me not: For Lo, I am loved of many, and I am a lover to many; and as many as come unto me as they should do, have entertainment. Purge your streets, O ye sons of men, and wash your houses clean; make yourselves holy, and put on righteousness. Cast out your old strumpets, and burn their clothes; abstain from the company of other women that are defiled, that are sluttish, and not so handsome and beautiful as I, and then will I come and dwell amongst you: and behold, I will bring forth children unto you, and they shall be the sons of Comfort. I will open my garments, and stand naked before you, that your love may be more enflamed toward me. As yet, I walk in the clouds; as yet, I am carried with the winds, and cannot descend unto you for the multitude of your abominations, and the filthy loathsomeness of your dwelling places.”
“Oh my, my apologies, that clearly isn’t the right one,” it says in apology after a moment.
“The first portion actually felt somewhat personally applicable,” Hazel offers. “But do go on,” she motions to Eduard.
“Looks like someone’s zipper is a bit rusty, eh?” Gustavus chuckles.
“Blockheads…” the Count groans and bobbles as if rolling non-existent eyes.
“Wait, wait, I’ve got it,” Eduard says, clearly embarrassed. “For God has stamped and sealed all creatde things with this character of Trinity, as a king of hieroglyphical writing, whereby his own nature might be known. For the number 3 and the magic number 4 make up the perfect number 7, the seat of many mysteries. And seeing that the Quaternary rests in the Ternary, it is a number which stands on the horizon of eternity, and doth exhibit everything bound with God in us, thus including God, men, and all created things, with all their mysterious powers. Adding three, you get ten, which marks the return to unity. In this Arcanum is included all knowledge of hidden things which God, by His word, has made known to the men of His good pleasure, so that they might have a true conception of him.”
“Such numbers are indeed significant for the reasons so elaborated. I must confess, however, that I do not see the subject’s immediate relevance to my aunt.”
“Ah, well, sometimes the angels send us the answers we need, rather than want,” the stone answers.
“They aren’t angels but microscopic insects, Eduard, which is why insanity increases as the infestation spreads,” Gustavus remarks.
“Let us remain on-focus, please. What must I do to assist you in obtaining Aunt Winnie as my nurse?”
“If I might be so presumptuous, my lady, it is we who are assisting you,” the Count says in self-congratulation. “We but live to serve.”
“I recommend a cat–specifically a black one, from Morocco if possible,” chimes Gustavus, then adds, “A devil disguised as a cat might also do, in a pinch. Otherwise, I suggest you employ the ancient art of legerdemain, only slightly less in esteem than the caprimantic arts, and one not requiring so many goats.”
“To wit,” the Count expounds, “Doctor Katterfelto is suggesting you perform a certain dextral ritual whereby a valued possession vanishes from your personage and through obscure, inscrutable means manifests again upon the personage of a nurse other than this aunt.”
“A black kitten or imp would also do,” Gustavus adds with a rocking gesture.
“Charlatans!” exclaims Eduard, then seems to turn to Hazel. “Do not listen to these Princes of Puff and Quackery! Trust in terrestrial astronomy. I and I alone will be your shewstone.”
“You clearly aren’t listening–perhaps because your ears were cropped off, you fraud!” exclaims the Count. “She has clearly chosen me as her advisor!”
“Wonder! Wonder! Wonder!” Gustavus exclaims. “This one is a true believer and lover of cats. The chymist may entertain you buffoons, but in the end, it will be I that will be chosen, I swear upon my solar microscope!”
“I choose all of you. I am in need of good counsel, and I believe that can be found among you equally,” Hazel answers frankly. The words aren’t new. She’s said some variation of them to her parents countless times. Just usually with a ‘two’ instead of ‘three’. “We shall address the topics of cats and angels once this present matter is concluded.”
She turns to the Count. “You are correct, the three of you are the ones assisting me. I would be helpless to effect such desired ends without your aid.” She considers for a moment. “The only possession still upon my person are my glasses. They are valued indeed, however, for the deficits they correct in my sight.”
“A nurse who stole my glasses could get into trouble, especially from my parents. There is little reason for any nurse to perform so petty a theft—with the exception of Mackenzie Snakewater.” Hazel smiles at that. “Very well. She seemingly steals my glasses out of spite, and the matter comes to the attentions of others. She is replaced as my nurse by Aunt Winnie. What must be done to effect this plan?”
Hazel’s long-practiced politesse smooths over the bickering stones–at least for the present moment. Count Cagliostro clears his ‘throat’, then recites, “My dear Philochatus, you are about to penetrate into the sanctuary of the sublime sciences; my hand is about to raise for you the impenetrable veil which hides from the eyes of common men the tabernacle, the sanctuary wherein the Eternal has lodged the secrets of nature, kept for a few that are privileged, the few Elect whom His omnipotence created that they may SEE
, and seeing, may soar after Him in the vast expanse of His Glory and deflect upon mankind one of the Rays that shine round about His golden Throne.” The Count adds, “There is an accompanying diagram, but I seem to have misplaced it.”
“I am privileged to receive your knowledge all the same,” Hazel replies.
Sir Talbot then chimes in, “Why good chymist, with some of my red tincture, which I obtained alongside the Book of Saint Dustain by virtue of the spirit creature of Northwick Hill, you could very well transmute the glass of your glasses into another more rarefied crystalline matter or shape befitting the proper temptation you wish to conjure.”
He then adds his own recitation, “Nature rejoices in nature, nature rules over nature, and nature is the triumph of nature. A human begets a human, the lion begets the lions, the dogs beget the dogs, grain begets grain. What is begotten against nature is a monster incapable of life. The Adepts teach this: only gold brings forth gold again at the harvest. This is the revealed mystery.”
“Our base natures define us all,” Hazel concurs. “Would this transmutation of my glasses’ matter be permanent? My relatives would find it suspicious were they to suddenly be made of gold.”
“Quartz to diamond?” the Count muses, as if almost complimenting Eduard’s recommendation.
“I can draw forth gold from a cat’s viscera,” Gustavus opines.
“I do not doubt your capabilities, merely whether it is within my current best interests to employ them to their full extent.”
The Count bobs its ‘head’ again, and in hearty agreement recites another passage, which Hazel recalls being from the Trinosophia: “Two stumbling blocks equally dangerous will constantly present themselves to you. One of them would outrage the sacred rights of every individual. It is Misuse of the power which God will have entrusted to you; the other, which would bring ruin upon you, is Indiscretion. . . Both are born of the same mother, both owe their existence to pride. Human frailty nourishes them; they are blind; their mother leads them. With her aid these two Monsters carry their foul breath even into the hearts of the Lord’s Elect. Woe unto him who misuses the gifts of heaven in order to serve his passions. The Almighty Hand that made the elements subject to him, would break him like a fragile reed. An eternity of torments could hardly expiate his crime. The Infernal Spirits would smile with contempt at the tears of the one whose menacing voice had so often made them tremble in the bosom of their fiery depths.”
“It is not for you, Philochatus, that I sketch this dreadful picture. The friend of humanity will never become its persecutor . . . The precipice, my son, which I fear for you, is Indiscretion, the imperious craving to inspire astonishment and admiration. God leaves to men the task of punishing the imprudent minister who permits the eye of the profane to look into the mysterious sanctuary.”
Eduard mumbles something which seems like agreement.
Gustavus, however, makes a snide comment under his breath about “being too familiar with two stumbling blocks, but ones with different names.”
“I shall endeavor to heed this counsel, for I have seen evidence of its truth already. Indiscretion and the misuse of power are any willworker’s downfall.”
“Yes, best to take the guineas and keep moving,” Gustavus chimes in again, this time in ingratiating agreement. “To avoid… stagnation,” he adds. “Yes, stagnation, that’s it.”
“Movement is preferable to stasis,” Hazel concurs. “And with my aunt replacing Snakewater as my nurse, I have little doubt that I shall be in a better position to move forward upon my awakening. How might this state of affairs be arranged?”
All three begin to offer myriad recommendations, but the only coherent one Hazel hears is, “French prostitutes are capable of many a tricks.”
“There are no French prostitutes available,” Hazel replies levelly. She feels like her mom addressing her five-year-old self.
“A pity,” coughs one, or perhaps two, of the stones. “Perhaps the Count can assist.”
“Why of course, always happy to oblige and aid the most noblest of spirits,” answers Cagliostro with a proud ‘puff’.
“No, the other
Count,” says Gustavus.
“I believe Graf or Margrave would be the more accurate title,” says Eduard.
” inquires Cagliostro, clearly peeved as well as a bit… frightened. “Why, you know he will only lead to her ruination. You cannot trust him, you of all should know that.”
“I am willing to consider all potential sources of counsel,” Hazel offers. She can’t imagine what her parents are going through. Winnie could help. The philosophists have posited a number of promising ideas, but actually following through on them is proving… arduous.
“Well…” begins the Count, unable to refuse a request for counsel, “did I ever tell you I was a close acquaintance of Giacomo Casanova? He was most marveled when I mystically translated a text in his hand.”
“And by translated, he means forged,” chimes in Eduard.
“You’re just jealous,” bickers back the Count. “You’re the worst profligate amongst us.”
“Counsel me as to this other count. Who is he and how might I gain his counsel?” Hazel inquires directly. Perhaps a firmer conversational hand is needed.
“Get on with your story, Cagliostro,” Gustavus urges. “There are cats to consider.”
“Very well, my lady,” the Count says. “So Casanova, he related to that he had a chance to meet this personage. He recalled that this ‘extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of the Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds, professing himself capable of forming, out of ten or twelve small diamonds, one large one of the finest water without any loss of weight. All this, he said, was a mere trifle to him’.” The Count’s zippered lips curl inward as if attempting to swallow his next words, but they come out all the same.
As Hazel listens, she looks at the robe lying on the ground, then pulls it on to provide some semblance of modesty. That idea was long in the coming.
“Further more, he told me, ‘Further more, Casanova summed his feelings for him as such, ’Notwithstanding his boastings, his bare-faced lies, and his manifold eccentricities, I cannot say I thought him offensive. In spite of my knowledge of what he was and in spite of my own feelings, I thought him an astonishing man as he was always astonishing me.’”
“It hurts you to praise another, doesn’t it, Oh Prince,” Gustavus teases with a chuckle.
“Oh how I wish my ears have been burned shut rather than cropped,” laments Eduard. “Silence from the angels would be a worthwhile trade to no longer to you two and your ceaseless pantomime of sense and sound.” He adds, “He’s over by the tree, waiting for you.”
“What a crime against the sacred art of the prestige!” Gustavus scoffs.
“Yes, clearly the good chymist wanted me to reveal his location,” grouses the Count.
Hazel scans her surroundings for trees.
Off in the distance, Hazel sees a solitary tree–or perhaps a lonely set of conjoined trees. Looking up for the first time since passing through the gate, the robed Hazel sees the sky is longer filled with rigid, uniformly marching clouds, but lighter, more chaotic cloud formations akin to wet watercolor paint or an old VCR
mid-buffer. The color of the clouds, though, is still the same threatening smoke gray. The ground too, though aren and deeply raked, rolls. Like a velvet sheet undulating beneath her feet.
And off on the horizon looms a single tree or arboreal duality. At the distance, she cannot tell if there is anyone or anything beneath its bowers, but it looks as if a tree is growing out of the brand of another tree, such that the arbor leans as is blown by a perpetual wind.
“Thank you for the direct and concise answer,” she replies, turning back to the stones. It feels like it’s getting to be time to leave. “I still desire your collective counsel. If I were to carry you, would you be willing to accompany me further on my sojourn?”
The three stones quite literally and proverbially fall over themselves in acquiescence.
“We live but to serve our most noble of patron!” exclaims the Count.
“Why, I am your shewstone!” shouts Eduard.
“Of course!” echoes Gustavus, then most quietly adds, “But as for my counsel, might I suggest you leave behind the other two. That way, if you happen upon a cat, you will have a free hand.”
“Excellent,” Hazel replies with a smile. Getting straight answers from them has proven difficult, but they have provided some answers. All knowledge is useful. Besides, she has to admit that she kind of likes them too, bickering and all. “And there remains no need to choose. I may take all of you.”
There is a mixture of grumbling and jubilation at Hazel’s decree.
Hazel looks down at her present vestments. This robe is big on her. Most clothes are big on her. When she was younger, she was sore about how she would literally always be looking up to her taller parents, but right now it means more cloth to work with. Hazel tears off the ends of the baggy sleeves and overlong hem. The tears are notably quick and clean. She lays down the three strips of cloth and ties them together, but there don’t seem to be any gaps in the fabric either as she places the three stones and heavy coin into the half-open sack she slings over her shoulder. She proceeds onwards to the tree.
The trio of stones grumble and bicker a bit at their close proximity, but their arguments soon turn into bragging contests again, as each seeks to woo or impress Hazel. “…you should have seen the Emperor’s face when I transmuted quicksilver to gold! Poor Rudolph almost fainted!…”
“…imagine their surprise when I transmuted the tail from long to short and back again–and they dared compare my black Morocco to the infinitely poorer specimen that the flea-bitten Whittington traipsed around with…
“…and that is when I escaped from the apothecary’s covenant, a mere lad less than fifteen summers…”
She replies with some variation of, “Most impressive feats,” or “Extraordinary indeed,” to each boast, favoring them equally. This is a piece of cake next to dealing with her parents. And like when dealing with her parents, she doesn’t lose sight of her larger goal. Her determined strides carry her towards the distant figure.
The tree, which initially seemed so minuscule against the world-expansive field, soon overtakes and becomes the world, rising out to fill the sky and stretching out roots to encompass the earth.
Yet, for all its majesty, the tree feels more familiar than foreign, and Hazel feels akin to a child returning to a tree she climbed in childhood. The figure standing beneath its bower is similarly familiar. As are his words:
“The epistemological snake simultaneously devours and begets its own ontological tail. Truth is Ouroboros.”
“Hello, Uncle Leo,” Hazel smiles. It’s not quite a happy expression. Or a sad one.
Just an older one. It’s been less than a week since they last saw one another. It feels like a lifetime. It feels like she’s lived all the hardships and travails of that lifetime with none if its joys. But she isn’t worse for it. He’d know all about that, she supposes.
“I am gladdened to see a familiar face.”
Whether cowed by the tree or man beneath it, the philosphists’ stones become uncharacteristically quiet.
Leopold regards Hazel with his iron-ocean eyes, then turns to the tree. He places a loving hand on its bark. “I was raised by trees. Thüringer Wald,” he intones in his heavy Germanic accent. “The Thuringian Forest,” he repeats, translating.
None, however, was needed. Hazel speaks fluent German.
“It is a beautiful place, much like the wooded mountains surrounding Witiko Falls.”
“I am certain. The forests of the Old World are not so expansive as the ones in the New. But there is a sense of history to them that is not present here.”
“Yes, history…” the man says, still staring at the tree–and once again Hazel is struck at how much smaller he seems when his mesmerically intense gaze is not upon her. “As a young boy, I would wander the Rennweg. The elderly grandmothers and old men would warn me, though, to beware and not stray from the path. For they said that in their days, the woods were filled with tatzelwurms. The way they spoke, the way they believed
, there was naught a tree in all of the Wald that lacked a tatzelwurm wrapped around its boughs or trunk.”
Leopold then turns to regard Hazel with an intensity and weight equal to the massive irons. “Can you imagine such a thing?”
“‘Stay on the path’ is a warning older than any of those grandmothers,” Hazel replies.
“The history within that forest extended beyond its physical boundaries.”
Leo’s magnetic-gray gaze does not waver, but holds fast and strong as he awaits an answer to a question that increasingly seems so painfully far from trivial.
“I can imagine, all-too well, what it is to walk into a forest believed to have as many dangers as trees.” There’s another old
smile. “I have walked such a forest. And I do not believe I have yet left its boundaries. Perhaps I will not ever. And perhaps neither have you. A man I respect once told me that there is no safety in true science.”
Her answers seem to invoke a sliver of sadness in Leo’s expression. “Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem,” he says like an oath breathed before a headsman’s axe. (“The only safety for the conquered is to hope for no safety.
“I have lost my first battle against my foe,” Hazel answers. There’s that same old smile. “But this war is far from over, and I have not yet been conquered.”
He takes his hand off the tree and steps toward Hazel, his grey eyes unblinking. “The war is not over, but reality has been all but conquered.”
“When I see the enemy’s flag planted upon my keep’s turret, I shall contemplate alternatives to existence among the conquered. Until then, it is only logical to persist in fighting, no matter the odds.” Her own gray eyes start to harden too as the smile dies. “And I have fought and sacrificed too much to arrive at this present moment only to give up now. Nor do I believe that you
would supply the pills that facilitated my Awakening, nor appear now within the depths of my psyche, only to counsel that all is lost.”
“The war is not over, but reality has been all but conquered,” Leopold says with another step, such that his eyes loom like achromatic moons. “And your answer evinces substantive proof of that reality. I inquire as to whether you can imagine a forest full of tatzelwurms, a wood full of real, living, breathing stollenwurms, springwurms, arassas, praatzelwurms and bergstutzens–_dragons_, and your mind marches lock-step with the consensus, perceiving only danger which must be vanquished.”
“You are numbered among the great, old souls, but you have been raised too much by the shackles of this present generation. You speak of your foe–but after all you have seen, after all you have sacrificed, cannot your psyche perceive the true oppressor?”
“Then it is a literal answer to your question you so desire? I find such a change refreshing. I have frequently been told that literal answers to questions are improper ones. Perhaps I have,” Hazel contemplates.
“Within a mere span of days, I have encountered direct empirical evidence—not merely within the depths of my psyche, but the waking world—that vampires and spirits of the dead are all-too real. Yes, I can imagine
a forest full of such mythical creatures, all-too readily. Its only difference from my prior experiences is a matter of degree.”
“I am Awake. I have beheld the Tree of Knowledge in all its glory, and I have supped upon its fruits. I know what I am. Or are we to speak of morality rather than epistemology? I do not know all
of what I am there—but I know enough to realize my path forward.”
“Or perhaps it is not we
who should speak, but I who should listen. I am still but a novice on the path of True Will. There is a great deal I do not yet see nor understand. To maintain an open mind is paramount in science—and if you have counsel on how I may yet defeat or simply realize my oppressors, I shall hear it gladly.”
“Yes,” Hazel then remarks slowly, “I would hear such counsel. You are referring to a far vaster reality than my own, are you not? ROSEWATER’s agents claim that ‘Reality Deviants’ are everywhere and that my government needs me. These are not the statements of a group convinced of its imminent victory. I do not think that reality has been all but conquered at all.”
Hazel watches as Leo’s mind latches on to three of her declarations like a black iron bear-trap. He takes another step towards her, piercing a never-before-breached barrier that has hitherto existed between them. “You posit that you are Erwachen,
that you have known dem Baume der Erkenntnis,” (“the Tree of Knowledge”
), “and that you know what you
are. Non diligere Deum, qui mandata eius participando cum perfidis non custodit.” Hazel’s mind well understands the Papess ultimatum: God does not love those who allow perfidy.
Leo takes another step closer. Time seems to slow, as if distilling in some rarefied, crystal whose shape is an aurelian tesseract. “Then I must demand proof of your positivism. Answer me thrice veridically, and I shall do likewise–this I swear upon the Rosy Cross. If you are _Erwachen, then name me.”
“Very well. You have brought me much knowledge and rendered me great aid. I shall answer your queries fully and honestly—this I swear upon my commitment to my own brand of truth. You are Leopold Schoening, also Erwachen
, a disciple of the Rosicrucians.”
,” Leo declares with all the solemnity of a dirge bell. Hazel knows the word keenly. It is one the vice principal often uses with his students. A traditional translation renders it as incomplete
, although in its present usage, its more literal rendition seems more accurate: a lack of understanding
Leo presses onward with his proctored prüfung. “Her Name contains five and fifty, and yet has only eight letters; the third is the third part of the fifth, which added to the sixth will produce a number whose root shall exceed the third itself by just the first, and it is the half of the fourth. Now the fifth and the seventh are equal, the last and the fifth are also equal, and make with the second as much as the sixth, which contains just four more than the third tripled. If you are Erwachen
, then name Her.”
Hazel has ever been more a scholar of the humanities, occult and otherwise, than the natural sciences and their underlying field of mathematics. Nevertheless, she learned more from the likes of Dorothy Vosburg than self-defense. Consequently, she recognizes the riddle as ultimately a mathematical, or more specifically algebraic, puzzle. However, that knowledge also reveals to her the insolvability of the puzzle without knowing at least one of the initial values.
Fortunately, Hazel’s more specialized education presents a pathway, as she recognizes the riddle’s origin as one of the three foundational manifestos of Rosicrucianism, specifically the Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz anno 1459
. Rendered in modern times as The Chymical Wedding
the obfuscated, symbolic treatise, which first manifested publicly in the early seventeenth century yet claims to have been first written two centuries earlier, contains a passage wherein the author and several other invitees are posed the same riddle by the Virgo Lucifera. The author, as if realizing the insolvability of the riddle replies:
The answer was intricate enough to me, yet I left not off so, but said, “Noble and virtuous Lady, may I not obtain one only Letter?”
“Yea (said she) that may well be done.”
“What then (replied I again) may the seventh contain?”
“It contains (said she) as many as there are Lords here.”
Yet, the riddle posed to her now, diverges ever so slightly from the one she first read–another present left for her by the Sisyphus Manor: a 1885 first edition of Waite’s Real History of the Rosicrucians
. Namely, Waite’s translation into English diverged as so:
My name contains six and fifty, and yet hath only eight letters; the third is the third part of the fifth, which added to the sixth will produce a number, whose root shall exceed the third itself by just the first, and it is the half of the fourth. Now the fifth and seventh are equal, the last and first also equal, and make with the second as much as the sixth hath, which contains four more than the third tripled.
In contrast, Waite’s original translation, as well as the book’s first English translation in 1690, all read contains five and fifty
Hazel’s study demonstrated that this change had nothing to do with the line in Liber Al vel Legis
, and everything to do with the solution to the riddle presented by Waite in his 1924 Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross
which presents a solution by taking the number of each letter as its ordinal position in the English or German alphabet. Like any cogent mathematical solution, Waite’s reasoning depended on the Virgo Lucifera’s response to the narrator, that the seventh–and thus also the fifth–letter contains . . . as many as there are lords here
The recollection triggers Hazel’s nigh-eidetic memory to run through Waite’s computational logic:
Call the letters of her name a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h. These sum to 56.
Since “the fifth and seventh are equal, the last and first also equal”
2a + b + c + d + 2e+ f = 56
“the third is the third part of the fifth,” to 3c = e, so
2a + b + 7c + d + f = 56
“the third . . . added to the sixth, will produce a number whose root shall exceed the third itself by just the first”, so,
sqrt(c + f) = c + a
“. . . and it [the root of c+f, or c+a] is half the fourth” so d = 2(c + a), so
4a + b + 9c + f = 56
“the sixth . . . containeth four more than the third tripled” so f = 3c + 4, so
4a + b + 12c + 4 = 56, and
sqrt(4c + 4) = c + a, which latter can be rewritten as
sqrt 4(c + 1) = c + a, or
2 sqrt (c + 1) = c + a
“the last and the first are also equal, and make with the second, as much as the sixth have.”
Slightly ambiguous, could mean a (or h) + b = f, or a + h + b (= 2a+b) = f.
If the former (call this case 1) then a + b = 3c + 4, so 3a + 15c + 8 = 56, so 3a + 15c = 48, a + 5c = 16.
If the latter (call this case 2), 2a + b = 3c + 4, so 2a + 15c + 8 = 56, 2a + 15c = 48.
The reference of numbers to letters strongly suggests that a positive integer solution for all the variables is expected. At this point, c + 1 has to be a perfect square; which could make c 3, 8, 15, &c. However if c is more than 3 and a third, a will be negative.
So c = 3. In case 1, a + 15 = 16, so a = 1. In case 2, 2a + 45 = 48, so a = 1.5, suggesting that the case 1 reading of the constraint was correct.
So h = 1, e = 9, g = 9, f = 3 × 3 + 4 = 13, b = 12, f = 2(1+3) = 8, giving
1, 12, 3, 8, 9, 13, 9. 1
By ordinal position in the English alphabet, ALCHIMIA
._Or, as rendered in the modern vernacular, ALCHEMY
Yet, Hazel is not merely a scholar of paper and vellum, but of also of bash line coding–and the computer programmer detects several errors in Waite’s coding. Like unto Hazel’s own otherworldly sojourn, the narrator of the Chymical Wedding
receives printed and engraved messages. These messages are inevitably written in Latin. It is therefore reasonable, Hazel concludes, to assume that the solution to the puzzle will be a Latin construct, rather than one based on the Germanic, much less English, alphabet.
Due to the numeric nature of the clues, Hazel also assumes the solution will consist of Roman numerals that are used concurrently as letters to spell out words. The puzzle specifies eight letters, and it is reasonable to assume that each letter-space should contain a single alphanumeric character. This limits the number of letter positions to eight, and the potential choices of single character Roman numerals–that must also function as letters–from which to choose. Once again, her fluency in the lately far from dead tongue indicates that the single character Roman numerals that function as both numbers and letters are as follows: I which equals 1, V which equals 5, X which equals 10, L which equals 50, C which equals 100, D which equals 500, and M which equals 1000. As all this information funnels through Hazel’s psyche, she blinks–and finds that Leopold has not. He awaits her answer.
Providing the prolix riddle’s answer, however, proves all the more difficult as her mind distractedly re-contemplates the first riddle.
And a great deal more besides. The references by the philosophists’ stones to the ‘other count’. So Casanova, he related to that he had a chance to meet this personage. He recalled that this ’extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks…
She’s heard of that figure. He’s famous among theosophical circles as one of the ‘Ascended Masters’. All manner of incredible deeds, tales, and past identities are ascribed to him, from brewing an elixir of immortality to being the Merlin of King Arthur’s court. Including appearing before and guiding occultists for centuries after his reported death. No. That’s simply too incredible. He’s a figure out of stories and fables.But the time periods given by the stones match. So do the names. The will of Francis II Rákóczi mentions his eldest son, Leopold George, who was believed to have died at the age of four. The speculation is that his identity was safeguarded as a protective measure from the persecutions against the Habsburg dynasty.
Some historic accounts say that St. Germain was a Jew.Those could be wrong. The most plausible accounts say he was the natural son of an Italian princess and tax collector. But those accounts could be wrong too. Throughout his adult life he deliberately span a confusing web to conceal his actual name and origins, using different pseudonyms in the different places of Europe that he visited.And whatever else may be true, Hazel can’t imagine Leo lying about surviving the Holocaust. He could be telling the truth, if he
was really an Alastian Jew, like some of the accounts say.
She thinks back to the philosophists’ stones. Their references couldn’t have been more explicit. On the other hand, they’ve also proved themselves amply deserving of their names. For all their preening and boasting, little of their counsel has actually been actionable. There are ways she could test that. Ask for counsel on some question or dilemma she has already answered, like how to deal with-
Leo’s riddle isn’t completely new to her. She’s well-read. She’s come across it before…
02.14.1992, Friday evening
Saint Valentinus’ Feast. The night air is crisp as Lottie’s fried trout, and cold as Gramps’ similarly flavored ice cream.
Although Hazel’s date–her first
date–officially began when the Kelpies’ varsity quarterback and Falls High senior hunk, Troy Saunders, arrived at Sisyphus Manor early Thursday evening, the affair actually started when her mother found a key with Troy’s name inside their mailbox two days prior. Hazel had come home that Wednesday to find her divorced parents sitting at the kitchen table–and atypically, they hadn’t seemed upset, with each other or with her.
Instead, both of them practically beamed with pride, even if she had also detected the worry that tirelessly nags parents of children with disabilities. Still, Lydia had all but giggled when she had passed the key to her blossoming seventeen-year-old daughter. Harvey, however, had been the one to explain the key’s significance, namely that it was an old town custom for male admirers to ask out ‘their Valentines’ by slipping their uniquely inscribed key in their female counterpart’s mailbox.
Seeing her parents actually sitting together
in the Sisyphus kitchen was weird. Beyond weird. And coming then, right around Valentine’s Day. Some childish part of Hazel couldn’t help but joyfully think: Mom and Dad are getting back together!
But that wasn’t it. And what it really was, was even weirder. She hadn’t been sure how to react—at all. Sure, school gossip was that Troy’s big smile hid a wounded heart since his long-time girlfriend and seemingly fated Nymph to his Satyr had moved away, out of town. It was hard to say which was the bigger scandal—someone leaving Troy, or someone leaving the town.
Hazel, for the most part, could have cared less. Sure, he was hunky. But he was also a stupid football jock. You’ve met one jock, you’ve met them all.
Valentine’s Days usually consisted of the girl with autism studiously ignoring them—or at least trying to. Someone bullying her, that was always easy to deal with. She could verbally rip them a new one, then tattle to her dad. However odd a child Hazel may have been, few bullies were bold enough to torment her to her face.
But Valentine’s Day wasn’t an enemy she could beat like that. Just watch everyone else being happy with their sweethearts when she had no one. Her parents usually tried to cheer her up, but there was only so much they could do. And their well-intended but too-obvious efforts just made her feel like she was being pitied.
Hazel had always hated Valentine’s Day.
She honestly had no idea how to react. Part of her initially bristled, feeling like she was being pitied—that her parents were trying to ‘do something’ about her autism again. But it was a small part. Seeing them together, looking so happy
… then, of course, there was the downright bizarre fact that Troy Saunders was asking her out on a date. She looked between her smiling parents, then dumbly asked:
Then she gave an awkward smile too.
“Because you’re a beautiful blossoming young woman!” Lydia had answered as she brushed back a strand of hair from Hazel’s face.
Harvey had then chimed in, “Just because he’s a football player, kiddo, doesn’t mean he isn’t smart enough to know a real catch when he sees one.”
Hazel remembers his comment had prompted Lydia to squeeze Harvey’s hand.
Harvey had blushed. “Because football involves… catching… and things.”
A face that Hazel oh-so-consciously realized was starting to turn red… until she saw that squeeze of her parents’ hands. “But…” she fumbled, “we have hardly spoken, and as best I can ascertain, we hold few common interests or personality traits… there are other girls who are physically comely, or comelier—not to say that I am not, of course… but there are others who meet the requisite physical criteria, and whose place in the social hierarchy better approximates his own…”
Lydia had tried to verbally wave away her daughter’s self-dismissals and reiterate Hazel’s many attractive qualities, but Harvey’s answer proved more memorable: “Maybe… maybe Troy is tired of the same bleach-blonde cheerleaders, maybe he’s looking for something, someone different… someone more
Hazel could offer no refutation to that.
She had still tried to think of ways to prolong the conversation. Her parents had seemed happy
, around each other. Anything to keep them talking and in a good mood. She had looked between them again and falteringly asked, “Well… what should I wear? I am uncertain if the occasion constitutes formal, semiformal, or casual, and I am similarly uncertain as to the choice of activity or venue…”
Her parents had laughed in genuine happiness at Hazel’s queries and their atypical uncertainty.
“It’s like dancing,” Harvey had eventually said. “Let him lead with the night’s activities.”
“To a point,” her mother had added with the first hint of sternness, or perhaps resurgent parental worry. But then she had relaxed and said, “But like dancing, everyone always looks at what the girl’s wearing. How about you and I take off tomorrow, and I take you on a pre-Valentine shopping spree.”
“Maybe we could all go. A male perspective would be useful too,” Hazel had added hopefully.
Anything to keep this happy moment between her parents going…
There had been some discussion on that point, but Attila the Conquerer ultimately proved victorious. Hazel was allowed to play hooky–"Easier to guard the key," her father had mentioned mysteriously, and then all three of them had drove out to Coer d’Alene to go shopping. Lydia was all but gushing with glory as she used the date as an excuse to buy a plethora of well-heeled dresses for her chronically plain- if not homely-dressed daughter.
Hazel’s dressing was better at seventeen than at her sweatpants-wearing fourteen. But there was still a ways to go. She beamed with happiness when the three of them all agreed to go out together. An entire day
, of no fighting, just doing something nice together.
It felt like they were a family again.
She had offered at one point, “If you are concerned for my safety or anything untoward occurring, one of you could accompany us as a chaperon. I would not mind.” Her parents might found that sad, sweet, or both.
continued when sometime later, Harvey invited Troy to the Bauman family’s traditional Lutheran Feast of Saint Valentinus–but not at Lacewood. When Friday arrived, Hazel’s first date started as a double date at Sisyphus Manor, where she and Troy ate alongside a surprisingly congenial, if not affectionate, Lydia and Harvey.
The evening of the dinner date, Hazel had dressed up in a strapless light purple gown picked out by her mom. Her parents might have been expecting her to be inflexible. But so long as it felt comfortable, she didn’t particularly mind what clothes she was in.
She elected not to wear her glasses—or rather, to just stow them away in her purse. Lydia tried to push wearing contacts. Hazel had squirmed. She’d never worn contacts before. That was too big and uncomfortable a change now. She proved similarly inflexible where footwear was concerned—but she refrained, that time, from enumerating at length the many health drawbacks inherent to her mother’s fashion choices.
But by the time of the dinner, the weirdness had dissipated. Her parents were together. Happy.
For Valentine’s Day.
On a normal date, Hazel might have been hopelessly awkward and tripping over her own feet. But seeing her mom and dad like this was a dream come true. She all but beamed with happiness. As for Troy, her father had raised a very good point. Maybe he did want something more. And she was
a highly intelligent, even attractive, as she bashfully admitted when her mom crooned over how she looked in the mirror, young woman. It wasn’t even that she felt safer and more confident around her parents. This date had
to go well, for their
date to go well.
She ‘tried’ to talk about less esoteric things like Shakespeare’s instead of John Dee’s writings (even self-congratulating herself for finding that ‘compromise’). And she might have knocked over the salt and pepper shakers without her glasses. But she wasn’t flustered. She glowed with smiles and laughter.
This was how I always wanted Valentine’s Day to be…
Troy had seemed… surprised when Hazel had approached him in school on Thursday and publicly accepted his ‘key’, yet when he arrived later that evening at her home and saw Hazel transformed
, his surprise was even greater–and clearly of the desirable kind. It was the first time anyone had ever really looked at her like that
And as the evening progressed, first with a meal prepared by Lottie and Gramps and then later at a Nostrum-hosted holiday party for the town’s VIPs; including the mayor, superintendent, and hospital director; it had felt like dancing–or more properly, it had felt like how her father described
dancing. Hazel was showered in compliments–and not the token praises she had been raised on whenever her mother had dragged her around to work parties.
Moreover, Troy perfectly framed her. He lifted her up, socially, facilitating flowing conversational transitions, supplementing Hazel’s comments on Shakespeare with evidence of the Baconian theory of authorship, courtesy of his senior thesis. He smoothed away her few faux pas, either literally catching something that the glassless-Hazel accidentally bumped or socially sweeping away a gaffe with a humorous anecdote of a literal pigskin fumble. Throughout it all, he never stole her spotlight but instead somehow brightened it.
He did, however, steal her parents’ hearts, as he swapped Kelpie football tales with Harvey and wooed Lydia with stories about his current internship at the credit union and plans to major in business at one of the three colleges that had accepted him. Far more importantly to Hazel, her parents had seemed re-smitten by each other. Perhaps they had only put on a show for Hazel’s date, but they smiled, laughed, and even danced together at the party.
Still, Hazel had been surprised when both
of her parents decided to stay behind for the Nostrum after-party–and then promised to both
see her later, likely “much later” that night at “home”. Together. “Don’t stay up waiting for us, dear,” Lydia had said, pressing her champagne-flushed cheek against her daughter’s in a parting kiss. Harvey had simply given Troy a good-natured thump on the shoulder, then spared a wink to Hazel before whisking away Lydia in his arms. The crowd had swallowed her parents, and a moment later, Troy had escorted ‘his Valentine’ outside and across the parking lot where his fire-red Mustang Cobra waited.
As these events replay in Hazel’s mind, the Falls High junior is struck by how the night air is as crisp as Lottie’s fried trout, and as cold as Gramps’ similarly flavored ice cream.
It was like something out of a fairy tale. Everything that could have went right seemingly went right. Troy having a brain. The compliments on her looks. Him hitting off with her parents. Her parents hitting off with each other
. Hazel had simply wanted to prolong their all-too rare moment of civility at first. But was it possible they were…?
She was just swept up enough in the fairy-tale evening to think that maybe, just maybe, it could be. She was a little nervous at first when her mom and dad left her alone. But everything else had gone so well. In hindsight, she would consider, it really was the perfect way to go on her first date: start out in a private setting with the boy and her parents, transition to something with more people, and finally leave them alone. She’d probably have been a wreck otherwise. But it went perfectly, like everything else.
She rubbed her arms in the cold. Her feet were sore too. After how well the dinner with her parents had gone… she’d finally bent and mumbled to her mom that okay, she could try
wearing heels just for this outing. Nothing too high, and she’d bring a change of flats. Her feet were sore. But it felt worth it. It all did. And part of her was excited. Shakespeare was a good enough author, sure, but not a true passion of hers. If Troy had kept up with that, maybe they could even progress to talking about Crowley’s and Dee’s writings.
That isn’t the first thing on her mind, though. “I don’t know if you are aware, no, you probably are not, but my parents harbor great enmity for one another. That is to say, they hate one another,” Hazel quietly remarks once they’re outside. “Normally, that is. They’re divorced. But tonight was… this was the happiest I’ve seen them together in…”
She has to reach in her purse for a tissue. Her eyes are getting damp. It takes several fumbling tries without her glasses in the dark.
Troy misses a step in the moonlight. “I didn’t know, Hazel,” he says softly, repositioning his lettered jacket across her otherwise bare shoulders in the cold air. “My folks are still married, but between you and me, sometimes I wish they weren’t.”
Above, the waxing moon shines like an egg.
“It is a testament to how well they got on tonight that you did not,” Hazel observes. She frowns upon hearing that he wishes his own parents divorced. That’s nigh-inconceivable to her mind. “You desire them… separated? May I ask as to why?”
While the rest of her surroundings are a blur, Hazel can still see–or at least imagine–the details of Troy’s handsome face lit by the glow of the surrounding parking lot lights. Her mother had described him as a ‘A tall drink of water’. Tonight, the senior’s dark, short hair is neatly parted and combed, and his green Witiko eyes, clean-shaved jaw, and pearlescent teeth reflect the waxing moon.
Hazel tenses slightly as he drapes his jacket over her, but there fortunately isn’t any skin contact. That’s more tolerable. “And my thanks for the warmth, the temperature is cold and my attire insufficient to ward against it.”
He opens the passenger door to his sports coupe for Hazel, then says with a slip of his smile, “The dress looks amazing–on you.”
“Oh, why thank you,” Hazel replies. She still isn’t entirely used to getting compliments on her appearance, then ‘conversationally’ expounds, “My mom picked it out.”
Troy smiles, then offers a hand to help Hazel step into the car. “Come on, it’s cold out here.”
“Yes, that is an even better remedy,” she goes on, stalling for a second of time to brace herself against the physical contact. Her limp hand finally takes his.
On the other hand, she does appreciates the help. She’s not at all used to walking in heels, and the moment she’s seated in Troy’s car, she promptly pulls them off to massage her feet.
While Troy closes her door and walks around to the driver’s side, Hazel’s foot massage is interrupted as her reaching fingers brush up against a slim book stuffed with dog-eared papers. Although nearly blind as the proverbial bat, the bookworm recognizes the book’s familiar size and binding. Raising it up into the parking lot light, she confirms her suspicions by the imprinted circle of the Ouroboros. It’s a copy of Arthur Waite’s translation of the Chemical Wedding
–not the typical reading assignment by Coach Ross.
Troy hops into the car, blowing into a hand as he starts the ignition. “It’ll take a little while before the heat wakes up, but at least we’re not in the wind,” he says before turning to Hazel and finding her holding the book and its crammed-in stack of notes.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he apologizes, “It must have slid up from under your seat during the drive over.” He extends a hand to move the book. “She’s got a lot of horsepower, but not much space to stash stuff.”
“The car, that is,” he says with a weak smile.
“This is the Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz anno 1459
!” Hazel exclaims excitedly, all of her other thoughts immediately forgotten. She can’t believe he’d read a book like that. There’s so much we can talk about!
“I am not normally one for ‘romances’,” she goes on, “but it’s my favorite of the three manifestos! There’s even just a wink to Dee slipped in, with his Monas Hieroglyphica! It is really is the perfect symbol, Dee wrote an entire book by the same name explaining the its full meaning and significance. It took me forever to track down a copy, which I can let you borrow if you haven’t read, it’s very good and will enhance your enjoyment of the Chymical Wedding
. People say the Monas
is esoteric but it’s actually quite easy to read, Dee breaks the contents down into a series of ‘theorems’ rather like chapters that are all quite short, especially the early ones. I even remember the first theorem, it’s that brief: ‘It is by the straight line and the circle that the first and most simple example and representation of all things may be demonstrated, whether such things be either non-existent or merely hidden under Nature’s veils’.”
“Uh, sure…” Troy says, clearly not following a fourth of Hazel’s hypomanic de facto soliloquy.
Hazel pauses in mid-stride at that. He kept up with her during the party, and he had The Chymical Wedding
in his car, didn’t he?
“Ah, I am sorry, I had presumed this book was something you were reading.”
Troy withdraws his extended hand, a bit thoughtful or perhaps utterly distracted as he puts his car into gear and begins driving out of the parking lot. “No, you’re right. I’m reading it, or better said, I’m trying to solve a riddle in it. If I don’t, I can’t… graduate. I’ve been working on it for, well, awhile. But I’ve only just begun reading the entire book, thinking there might be clues in it.”
He looks over at Hazel, only then remembering to turn on the heat. “So… you’ve read it?” He then laughs at the ridiculousness of his own question, given Hazel’s earlier gush of information.
“Yes, when I was thirteen, it has been some years but it has remained my favorite ‘romance’ ever since,” Hazel answers, seemingly without notice of the question’s redundancy. She then frowns. “But why need you—do you have to, that is, solve its riddle? That is a very unusual graduation requirement.”
Troy shrugs. “Growing up often gets weird.” He looks at Hazel again, surprise once again spreading on his face.
“Please, I would hear more,” she continues. “If there is a class that assigns the Chymical Wedding
as a reading, I have been remiss not to take it.”
“It’s not a class, not really. It’s more of a… club.”
“Ah, the Young Rosicrucians Club, no doubt. It had sounded interesting, but I am already in enough extracurriculars for my liking.”
Troy smiles, but doesn’t outright confirm her hypothesis. Meanwhile, moonlight streams through the windshield as the snow-capped Bitterroot races past them in a rushing blur.
Troy’s smile only increases as he looks his date. “You know, Hazel, it’s a good thing you’re not a senior this year, because I know about three dozen would-be Nymphs that would die of envy seeing you in that dress.”
Hazel feels a bit of red rising to her cheeks. Seeing her parents getting along so well wasn’t the only weird
thing this evening. “That is very flattering.” It’s rather shorter than her previous soliloquy. “And I imagine many seniors consider it predestined that you will be the Satyr.”
“But in any case,” she goes on, returning the conversation to more familiar realms, “I can certainly help you in solving the riddle, that is hardly fair as a graduation requirement.” Hazel was never popular in school. But there were still occasionally times when classmates would be oddly nice to her. It usually preceded being asked for answers. Hazel Bauman might have been weird, but no one ever called her stupid.
Troy’s handsome smile doesn’t fade as he replies, “Since I have a habit of never saying ‘no’ to a beautiful lady, I’ll accept your offer.” He then looks back to the road. “If you can read my chicken scratch, you can look over my notes to see what I’ve got, or think I’ve got, so far.”
Hazel fishes through her purse and pulls on her glasses. “Turn on the lights, if you would please, that will make it easier to work.” And make it highly inconvenient to drive, but Hazel doesn’t drive.
Troy reaches up and hits the dome light.
Hazel flips through the book. “So, to start, do you have ‘I’ for the number of present lords?”
“Because it’s a Rosicrucian text, they mean ‘lord’ as in ‘God the Lord’—and so there may only be one.”
“How did you know which riddle…” Troy speaks once again in surprise, but he glances over quickly and then tugs at out a worked over sheet of lined paper. “I think this is my current draft. It should have a picture of a floating eyeball with some–,” he begins, but then amends as he seems to remind himself with whom he’s speaking, “Look for the paper with the all–seeing–eye drawn in the right top corner.” Sure enough, Hazel finds the reference picture.
“That’s the riddle for which the text is best-known,” Hazel answers absently as she pulls up the seeing-eye note.
Hazel recognizes the copied image, which features a floating eye looking upward over a rocking field marked by a crumbling aqueduct and lean pyramid. It’s a reproduction of a woodcut from Kerver’s sixteenth century, Ori Apollinis niliaci, De sacris notis & sculpturis libri duo.However, the woodcut has been reversed horizontally–although Hazel can still easily read and translate the transversed Latin inscription at the bottom:Quo modo DeumThis is the way of God.
She’d wondered—actually, hoped_—that her atheism was the reason Leo hadn’t invited her to join the invitation-only club.
That lack of invitation still bothered her pride._Troy is nicer than I expected, but he is hardly…!
Hazel brushes the petty thought aside to focus on his notes instead.
While Troy drives, Hazel sees that Troy’s notes begin with the re-written riddle and subsequent clue. Below that, the Kelpie quarterback has written eight asterisk-like stars to represent the “eight Letters”, with their corresponding numbered positions listed sequentially below. Below that, Troy has listed parentheses to note letters that are noted as equal to another, that is the first and eighth letter as well as the fifth and seventh.
1= 2 3 4 5= 6 7= 8=
(8) (7) (5) (1)
Below that, Troy has written:3rd is the 3rd part of the 5th.
There is some marginalia beside it, not all of which is legible, but Hazel’s own genius fills in the gaps. Indeed, Hazel has to admit that it’s is an incredibly clever device, and all the more surprising that Troy has grasped it, as she too believes that the first occurrence of the term ‘the third’ in the statement is actually referring to a fraction, as in one-third. Thus, if one-third is the ‘third part’ of the value, the value must be one, or “1/3+1/3+1/3” as Troy’s note states. The “fifth” in turn refers to the fifth letter position
. So the 5th letter (and thus the 7th) has to be a 1!
Exclaims Troy’s note, followed by someone else’s script that reads, The dead still speaks,
to which Troy has seeming written LATIN, of course!!!
and underlined three times.
“Yes, this looks correct thus far. There are a multitude of Latin words whose second-to-last letters end in I, and whose preceding letter are preceded by another I,” Hazel remarks. She smiles upon seeing the note. “’Latin’s a language as dead as can be. It killed the Romans and now it’s killed me.’ My dad liked to quote that when I was learning it.”
Troy laughs. “But you’re right, though,” he remarks. “I came at it mathematically, but theologically it stands to be ‘1’ or ‘I’, as divinity is both trinity and unitary. Unity. And the text, the Wedding, is esoteric but ultimately a Christian-themed treatise.”
“Yes. And there is great significance in such ‘divides’. Wars have been fought over them,” Hazel replies seriously.
Troy nods. “So I feel pretty solid about those two.” He taps to the next line.
* * * * I * I *
1= 2 3 4 5= 6 7= 8=
(8) (7) (5) (1)
“Which added to the sixth will produce a Number…” Hazel murmurs. “Okay, that can
be V. You add ‘I’ after ‘V’ to produce the first numbers in excess of three. It could also be X, but let’s make note of our assumption, proceed off of it, and see if it leads to a valid solution.”
“That’s exactly that I thought too!” Troy exclaims with the enthusiasm of a homecoming touchdown pass. “Especially with the clue about the sixth letter position, the whole ‘make with the second as much as the sixth, which has just four more than the third tripled’. Man, it’s like this stuff has been drilled into my head.”
He shakes his head. “Anyways, the ‘third tripled’ is the Roman numeral I. So the sixth letter position will have ‘four more than the third tripled,’ which would be four plus
one, or Roman numeral for five!” He taps the sheet, his finger forceful enough for Hazel’s leg to jostle. She sees the quarterback’s next major line:
* * * * I V I *
1= 2 3 4 5= 6 7= 8=
(8) (7) (5) (1)
Hazel also notes another piece of marginalia: Is math Adamic? Lingua universalis?
The last word has been crossed out, replaced by universalus
, then crossed out and replaced in turn by universus
“Not precisely,” Hazel answers in reply. “It arguably comes closer than any other language, certainly. But different cultures still teach math in different ways, vocabulary for the mathematical terms necessary to lend context to numbers still varies by language, and syntax of course can also vary by language.” She’s always been more of a humanities than numbers person. “But I digress. As to the next letter…”
Troy blushes a bit at that. “Ah, yes, sorry, I tend to scribble stuff down as I work.” He coughs to clear his throat. “So I worked on the third letter position next. I was more comfortable with the math. Roots and all.”
“Oh no, I certainly do not mind, it makes for more entertaining reading whether I agree or disagree,” Hazel offers. “And perhaps our partnership was a fortuitously fated one, for I am a student of the humanities first and foremost. I had actually been about to address the first and last letters, but please, expound.”
Troy smiles once again genuinely if still with a surprise. “Well, I did wonder if it was a botanical or occult reference, perhaps some clue pointing to a real or mythical plant like the Tree of Pansophia the…”
Hazel tries not to look too doe-eyed. I can’t believe I wound up with this guy!
“I believe the reference was numeric. But that is an… excellent line of thought.”
“Yeah, but you’re getting this after months of me banging my head against that book and going through two whole notebooks. My last umpteenth drafts were like the second and third day of summer football camp,” he says, then laughs as he realizes his analogy likely isn’t relevant to his date.
“Anyways, so if I remember this next part, the riddle says that the ‘root will exceed the third by just the first.’ So that’s a little tricky, right, until you delineate it. So the root of four, that is, what we have as the result of the fifth and sixth letter positions, is ‘two’. But ‘the third’? I’m assuming that means the third letter position, not the fraction. And ‘the first’? That could be the first letter position too, but that way led to mathematical madness, or at least delineated dead-ends.”
Troy smirks and makes another turn along a dark stretch of roadway. “So, maybe the ‘first’ could mean the first Roman numeral of the fifth and sixth letter position combination, which after all, is the main topic for this part of the riddle. So stay with me, if this were true, then ‘the first’ would mean the Roman numeral ‘I’, right?”
Hazel gives a largely blank look at the football reference, but then resumes their mathematical discourse with a frown. “The phraseology is highly ambiguous, yes, and could be taken to mean either the Roman numeral or the literal first number in the solution. I believe it to be…” She frowns in thought. “The numeral for two exceeds the numeral one by just itself. I and II. If we accept two as our solution, then checking our work, two is the root of four. And that would mean the third letter is… one.”
Looking over Troy’s notes, Hazel sees a similar conclusion as she reads: x + 1 = 2, where x – unknown third letter position. Solve, and x = 1. Proof, vale of root = 2, 2 > 1 by 1, so x = 1 = I.
* * I * I V I *
1= 2 3 4 5= 6 7= 8=
(8) (7) (5) (1)
“Exactly!” Troy says again, his eyes replaying the math as much as watching the lonely road. “It fits perfectly.”
“Okay, now for the first and the… actually,” she frowns, “we should pull over, we are getting quite engrossed in this. It is a small inconvenience against the risk of an accident.”
Troy hesitates a second before replying, “We’re almost there. How about I shut up and let you read over my remaining math. Make sure I’m not missing something, like some how the white serpent relates to the Monas Hieroglyphica or something.”
“Very well, that is an acceptable compromise,” Hazel answers. She stares back down at the notes.
Flipping the note to the second half, she reads:
Half of the fourth. Problem: 4th letter position can’t equal twice the root. 2 x root = 4 or IV. Multiple letters in single position? Feels wrong. Too clunky.
To the side is another piece of marginalia written in another’s handwriting: Algebra transcends numbers. It transmutes letters.
After which, Troy has scribbled, Alphabet? Alphanumerical order?
“But are you certain you do not wish to pull over? You seem like you would like to continue the conversation, and I am certainly happy to, simply under safe conditions,” Hazel continues.
“It’s okay,” Troy says more confidently. “We’re almost there. Read it over, and then let me know what you think. It’s the end part that I’m stuck on. My Latin is more undead than dead.”
“Very well, I shall use the remaining moments to further… ah, alphabetical! Yes, that’s… I am breaking my word, I shall be silent,” Hazel replies as she stares back down towards the notes.
The next part reads, Idea: placement of alphabet characters as a solution? Root is 2, so letter B is 2nd letter in alphabet. Root of 2 = half of solution, solution = 2x, or the fourth letter of the Roman alphabet. What’s the fourth letter in Roman alphabet?
Hazel has a multitude of thoughts, but true to her word, she remains silent until the drive’s end.
To the side, Troy has written, What does D stand for? Super Bowl, no go.
“D is the Roman numeral for 500,” she states, immediately breaking that word.
Troy all but punches the steering wheel. “I knew it! Well, I mean, I obviously didn’t know, but I suspected. That it was a number.”
“Yes, the larger ones are less known, but they parallel the smaller ones. Just as the sequence of ’I’s turns into V at five—well, technically four—so too is a new numeral introduced at 50.”
He shakes his head. “Five hundred, so that means…”
“L is 50, C is 100, M is 1000,” Hazel recites.
Troy trails off and chuckles. “I guess I don’t win many points with you if I admit I learned most of my Roman numerals from watching the Super Bowl.”
“I am afraid not,” Hazel says dryly. “My dad inherited all the sports love in the family.”
Troy stalls as another car’s headlights coming the other way flashes their high-beams and honks madly.
“Watch where you’re driving!” Hazel abruptly shouts, though it sounds mostly directed at the other driver. She un-tenses after a moment, then says by way of explanation, “Road safety is important to me. I was in a crash when I was little.”
“I’m sorry, Hazel. Is that why–” Troy starts to say, but then is cut off by another oncoming car she vaguely remembers. It too flashes its headlights and honks loudly. The driver’s side window is down, allowing the male driver to be heard screaming and flailing a half-full but swiftly emptying beer can. “DROWN
Hazel yells and clamps her ears against the noise. She didn’t expect that. Doesn’t like that.
Troy swerves slightly at the blinding high-beams, but he maintains control over the road–a road which for the first time, Hazel realizes is nowhere near her home or the town.
“This is not the road to my house!” Hazel exclaims in sudden alarm. The near-collision already has her on edge. “What are your intentions?!” she demands.
Instinctive panic at the noise, the swerve, the abrupt and totally unexpected change
wells in her breast, but she forces it down through sheer will. This is not
the time to lose her head.
“Shit,” Troy curses quietly, but still continues driving–to some unknown, to Hazel at least, destination. “Hazel… I’m sorry, I haven’t been… I haven’t been fully honest with you.” He grits his teeth. “Shit. I didn’t mean… I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Stop. The car.” The panic in her voice is gone. The ‘alpha bitch’ who would do her mom proud is all-too present as her gray eyes bore into his like irons.
“I can’t…” Troy starts to say. “I mean, it’s not safe, there’s no shoulder. Look, Hazel, we’re almost at the Cottage.”
She doesn’t blink at any of the ‘buts’. “Pull over and explain—NOW
, or you could just have the Sheriff’s Department and an army of lawyers on your ass!”
The Kelpie quarterback, though clearly flustered and ashamed, doesn’t fumble his control of the car. Not yet at least. Instead, he cements his eyes to the road and responds in a half-gritted if quasi–calm voice, “You have every right to be mad, Hazel, and you can threaten and scream at me all you like, but I’m not pulling over. There’s no shoulder. Look.”
“What is a should—never mind,” the non-driving teenager dismisses, though the iron in her eyes no less hard. “And I do not threaten—I promise
. Now tell me. What
is going on here, and why are you not taking me home!”
“Hazel, look around.” True to Troy’s words, the thin path is more trail than road, bereft of shoulders, much less asphalt. The path is overgrown, hedged in by thickets of trees and deep winter snow banks.
“I trusted you! You… my parents adored you! You even got them to stop fighting!” Her voice breaks towards the end, pain finally leaking in through her anger.
! I’M A FUCKING JERK
, A FRAUD
!” Troy yells back, his calm finally shattered.
“I didn’t give you my key,” he says, more deflated than angry now. “It was a dare.”
“It… what?” Hazel chokes. “Then why did you say…?”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Hazel. I didn’t know… I didn’t know that it would be… I didn’t know you… didn’t know it would be you…”
She blinks in confusion. “What… do you mean you didn’t know, I asked y… I said you…”
He sucks in a deep breath, his hands clenched white on the wheel, even as a low-hanging branch scraps the roof. “I was dared to give up my key, and then go with whoever the Left-Handers gave it to.”
Hazel grows very silent.
“I didn’t know they would pick you… I didn’t know that you were… I didn’t know until you found me in school, earlier today.”
Her next words are hoarse. “That’s all this was. A… a joke.”
“No!” Troy yells, though not nearly as loudly as before. “No, I mean, yes, but not all of this. I meant… I meant everything I said.”
“My parents. They… were so happy…” Hazel croaks. “That I was finally going on a date…”
“Bastards…” Troy whispers to the cold wind outside.
But that iron edge isn’t overlong in returning. With her glasses back on, she looks a lot more like the Hazel Bauman he’s used to seeing, but still halfway stuck between the school daily reality and tonight’s fantasy in her evening gown. “If you meant everything, why did you not alert me that you were driving to the Fairbairn Cottage? What are your present intentions?”
He sighs. “To complete the dare, we need to carve our initials in one of the old Fairbairn Cottage logs. I was hoping to drive out, carve them, and then take you straight home. That’s it.”
“And what possible
reason, I ask you, do I have to ever want to do such a thing?” Hazel scoffs.
“None now,” he says bitterly.
Her voice doesn’t quaver again so much as drift halfway off. “I… when I saw you reading the Chymical Wedding
, I thought… this had to be a dream come true…”
Hazel looks out the window. She can’t find anything else to say. Her first date. Her parents’ happiness. All just a joke. No one would ever ask her on a real date.
She feels like crying.
It all feels tainted. The talk with her parents. That happy day spent shopping. The dinner. All the compliments she got from everyone at the party. All of it, fake.
“When was it?” she abruptly asks, and when she does her voice comes out a sob. “When did I stop being Hazel the weirdo, Hazel the martian, Hazel the retard—I know that’s what they all call me—and start being a human being?”
Troy is quiet for a moment, as if allowing Hazel’s stinging words to soak in his own self-recrimination. The car rolls to stop in clearing before he turns to Hazel, his handsome face cast silver by the lopsided moon.
“When your dad let me in… before you came downstairs, I was looking at your family pictures. There was a picture of you, as a little girl, about eight or so, and you were reading a book in a boat while your grandfather was asleep.”
Past her glasses, Hazel’s eyes are starting to water, staining the makeup that her mom had so carefully applied earlier that evening. She remembers trying to sit still amidst repeated flinches, squirms, and half-protests, half-apologies of, “I’m sorry, Mom, it just feels weird,” in response to the ticklish and unfamiliar brush. Her hair’s probably loose, after her earlier flailing, and the painful shoes she wore at the party are since kicked off. The fantasy evening is fast unraveling like Cinderella’s gown at the stroke of midnight.
She feels a flush of shame, suddenly, that she needed her mom to do her makeup. That she squirmed and flinched so many times. Normal girls aren’t like that. None of this was her. She was delusional, thinking she could ever have an evening like this.
He turns and gazes out the window. “I’ll take you home. Fuck them, and fuck me. You deserve better. So much better.”
“Why?” she asks, almost bitterly. “The only people who say that are my mom and dad. I’ve still never been asked out on a date. A real date. I still don’t have any friends. If I dropped dead one day no one outside my family would even care.”
No. There’s no ‘almost’ in that bitterness.
Troy inhales sharply though his nose and slides a solitary hand across the steering wheel. “Because you are who you are. You’re brilliant
. You make smart look dumb as bricks. And you love your parents. Maybe more importantly, you are who you are. You didn’t become somebody else because you put on a gorgeous dress. The dress just allowed us to see you. We’re the ones who are fucking blind. We’ve grown so used to wearing masks and costumes, that we don’t know what a real person looks like anymore.”
The uncorked font of venom and self-loathing is just as abruptly cut short by Troy’s powerful words. Hazel says nothing for a moment as they replay in her head, stammers, then finally mumbles, “Everyone loves their parents. Everyone with… good parents, anyway.”
“Maybe, or maybe good parents are as rare as good dogs in these woods. Maybe that’s why most of us are monsters…”
“You’re not a… it’s not that simple. My parents, they… they hate each other. And you at least came clean. You’re not a Mackenzie.” Hazel isn’t sure what she’s getting at. Whether she’s protesting. Agreeing. Trying to make some point. Looking for a point to make.
“You said it was… the Left-Handers who put you up to this?” She sounds more puzzled than anything else. “I thought if anyone would, it would be her clique of friends.”
Troy runs a hand over his face. “Mackenzie’s dating Dean, so I don’t know.”
“Well, neither do I, clearly.” Hazel rarely uses hand gestures, but her next words and tone sound as if she is dismissing the matter as unimportant. “What happens if you don’t fulfill the terms of this dare, anyway?”
“You don’t need to worry about that,” Troy says. “You didn’t deserve any of this. Let me drive you home, or if you want, I can take you back to your parents and apologize.”
“Perhaps not, but I have asked. Call it scientific curiosity. What happens?”
Outside, faint wisps of snow start to fall from the sky. Most are caught by the canopy of pine boughs, but a few thread through the trees and land on the heat-warmed windshield, where they melt and roll down glass like tears.
“You choke on a dare and you’re out. Means I take shit, lose respect, and maybe some prissy chicks and douchebags make it their life’s mission to throw the ‘king’ off the hill.”
Hazel looks out the window and sighs. “Well, it’s starting to snow. We might as well go out and carve our names before it gets too much colder.”
Troy shakes his head slowly. “Hazel… I don’t want… I can’t ask you to… you’ve done enough. I’ve done enough.”
Her voice starts to harden again. “I’m NOT
happy you took me on a date under false pretenses, don’t get me wrong. As intended jokes go, that was incredibly cruel.”
“But it was far more so, I think, than you initially realized, and by the time you did, there was no readily tenable way to back out. There is something to be said for coming clean rather than drawing things out and breaking my heart later.” She pauses, then sighs again. It’s a soft and almost wistful sound.
“And far more saliently… you made my parents incredibly happy together. At least for a night. I wish I could see them like that all the time.” She reflexively dabs at her eyes, but her fingers cone away dry. “You have no idea how much.”
“I hope it’ll last. It probably won’t, if I’m being realistic. But when it did, it… made me happy too. And so did the date. Even if it was fake. It was… still my first. That’s at least one thing I’ve gotten off my chest, I suppose.”
A glare starts to emerge on her features. “And when your ‘friends’ in the Left-Handers ask how the dare went, I want you to tell them the truth.”
Troy’s face tightens, but he listens, not wanting to interrupt his ‘date’.
“I want you to tell them how you saw pictures of me with my grandpa, and realized I was a human being, not just a freak. You thought I looked gorgeous, hit off with my parents, and showed me a wonderful time. Then when you came clean out of guilt, and told me everything, I carved my name onto the cabin anyway. And they won
That same iron from earlier is boring past her slate-hued eyes.
“I think that should nicely teach them just how small and petty their little ‘dare’ is. Let them go ahead and laugh then. Maybe with a little luck it’ll even shame them out of pulling a hoax like that on anyone else.” She snorts. “Maybe it’ll even make them better human beings, but that’s probably a Hail Mary.”
Troy regards her with a surprised smile once again stealing over his face. “You know, Hazel, maybe you should try out for the football team. Beyond looking good in a lettered jacket, I have a feeling you’d be the meanest, toughest lineman the Kelpies have ever had.”
“I am my mother’s daughter,” Hazel replies with a smile that’s at once grim, fierce, and even, oddly, cheerful. “And I rather suppose my father’s, if the football spirit is any indication.”
“Well then, before tonight’s through–,” Troy says with another pearlescent smile, “–remind me not to kiss you without both your and your parents’ permission.” He then motions off to a desolate stretch of the woods, “Shall we?”
“I believe that permission was implicit in my father’s wink. But yes. Let us.” She digs out the change of flats she brought along in her (roomy) purse.
“Well if my math isn’t too rusty, that only leaves two to go,” he replies with a wink of his own. “Speaking of math, may I?” he says, referring to the alchemical ‘romance’ and notes still sitting in her lap.
“Ah yes, of course. You may lift them without intruding upon my personal space.”
“Duly noted,” he says, retrieving the items, only to grab a pencil from a cubby beneath the cupholders. “Just going to try something real quick,” he says in explanation. “So if D equals 500…” he muses out loud as he checks the math against the riddle, “Yes…. yeah, it works. Which only leaves the first, second, and eighth…” He sticks the pencil in his mouth, then uses both hands to rifle through his other notes and dog-eared book pages. “H-mre!” he mumbles, finding a note.
Hazel looks over the notes, then abruptly says, “Avidivia.”
Taking the pencil out of his mouth, he arches a brow. “Huh?”
“Second guess is acclivia. For the solution,” she explains.
“Walk me through that?” he asks gently. He in turn points to a note. “Because, when it says ‘the last and the first are also equal, and make the second as much as the sixth hath’, that can be expressed mathematically as, two times x plus y equals five, where x equals the unknown value of the first and eighth letter positions, and y equals the unknown value of the second position. And their sum equals the sixth letter, which we’ve determined is the Roman numeral for five. Or V.”
He then flips through several other pages that have been heavily crossed out in places and scribbled over. “And that means…” He starts to make another note on his main paper. “…the only combination that allows three Roman numerals, of single characters, to add up to the Roman Numeral V or value of five is zero plus zero plus five. Given that the first and eighth letter positions have to be equal, they must be zero, which makes the second letter position another V. So… if we say a zero is the shape of an O, we get OVIDIVIO
… what does that mean? Is that even a word? Ovid was a Roman poet, right? Or writer at least.”
“Ovidivio is close,” Hazel agrees. “And from a mathematical standpoint, it is correct. Mostly, at least. But not quite. The Roman numeral system does not contain a zero. And now,” she smiles, “we must turn away from math and towards the humanities.”
“Ovidivio is not a valid Latin word. There are several Latin words it approximates, but only if we are willing to dismiss Latin tense and declension, and savagely maul the rules of grammar in so doing. Furthermore, consider the context of the riddle: it is posed to Christian Rosenkreuz by a female virgin. Odividio is a distinctly masculine name. But as to why we should specifically use ‘a’… this is a Christian text, so let us consider Jesus’ words in the New Testament: ‘I am the alpha and the
omega, the first and the last.’”
“The Greek Alpha and Roman “A,” are the first characters in both respective alphabets. Indeed, the Greek answer to this riddle in the edition I read is actually ‘Alethinia’, which means ‘truth’. It is also an attractive name in its own right, but I digress. The Greek character for ‘omega’ is, rather appropriately enough, the last letter in the Greek alphabet. In Latin, however, the Greek character of ‘omega’ is transcribed as the Roman letter ‘O.’ This clue could suggest the substitution of the Roman equivalent of ‘omega’ with the first alphabet character from either alphabet."
Hazel’s eyes re-skim Troy’s notes. “So, we simply replace ‘o’ with ‘a’. Avidivia. Now, it is true that the Roman letter A does not have a numeric value in Roman numerals. But remember the clue ‘the last and the first are also equal, and make with the second as much as the sixth hath.’ The lack of numerical value of the Roman letter A means that it has no numeric relevance, or therefore, a value of zero. Because of this, the above statement still holds true: the first, second, and eighth letter positions equal the sixth letter position. Or in this case,” Hazel takes up the pencil and starts scrawling onto a blank spot of the paper,
A (0) + A (0) + V (5) = V (5).
“Now,” she continues, “let us check our work…”
“‘My Name contains five and fifty, and yet hath only eight Letters’.
True, 8 total letters, V (5) & D (500) occupy positions, ‘500’ contains ‘50’.
‘The third is the third part of the fifth’
True, the 5 th position is Roman numeral I, or,” Hazel scrawls down, “1/3+1/3+1/3.”
“‘Which added to the sixth will produce a Number.’
True, the 6 th position is V, which combined with I is the Roman numeral IV (4).
‘Whose root shall exceed the third it self by just the first.’
True, 2 is the root of 4, and 2 exceeds the third letter position of I, and the first character in IV by just itself.
‘And it is the half of the fourth.’
True, the 4 th letter position is D, which is fourth in the alphabet, twice that of the root value 2, or B, in alphabet placement.
‘Now the fifth and the seventh are equal.’
True, both the Roman numeral I.
‘The last and the first are also equal.’
True, but the O is replaced by the A, which becomes numerically irrelevant, or zero.
‘And make with the second as much as the sixth hath.’
True,” Hazel scribbles down again, “A (0) + A (0) + V (5) = V (5).”
“‘Which contains just four more than the third tripled.’
True, the 6 th position is V (5), which equals 4+1/3+1/3+1/3.
‘The seventh contains (said she) as many as there are Lords here.’
True, there is just one (I) Lord in Christianity.”
Hazel sets down the pencil and looks up. “‘Avidi’ is a form of the Latin word ‘avidus’, and means desire, greed, or longing. The tense could be either genitive singular (possessive) or most likely the nominative plural. Avidi can be translated as ‘the eager ones.’ Via, in turn, is a Latin word with various meanings and nuances, such as road, street, path, or ‘the way,’ and is presented as either the nominative singular or ablative singular. The Romans occasionally used the word via metaphorically, as in a spiritual path or way. Use of the specific combined term of ‘Avidi Via’ can therefore be roughly translated as, ‘The path of a person (or men and women) of desire.’”
Hazel’s features downturn slightly in a frown. “It is worth noting that I have not encountered ‘avidivia’ as a specific phrase in any Latin texts I have read. Nevertheless, it is also worth noting that the Latin construction of names allowed considerable license, and that the term originated in 1616 CE—that is, when the Chymical Wedding
was first published—not in traditionally surveyed classic Latin literature. The name is consistent with the esoteric image of feminine holy wisdom, or Sophia, as being the guiding path of men and women of desire.”
“All things told, ‘avidivia’ certainly does not have the same connotations as ‘alethinia’, while seems altogether more appropriate to a Rosicrucian text. Nevertheless, it meets all the mathematical, linguistic, and thematic requirements demanded in puzzle. And I rather suppose,” she adds more dryly, “that given the frankly esoteric nature of the revelation, the initial reason for willful obfuscation now becomes readily apparent. Even if it perhaps remains twice as ironic in Greek. But Uncle Leo loves his Latin.”
“Acclivia…” she murmurs thoughtfully. “That could be a valid answer to the puzzle, if you were to re-arrange a few of the initial components… in fact, it would be a fascinating thought exercise to try and translate the puzzle into another
language.” She then asks thoughtfully, “Do you know any Japanese?”
Troy hastily transcribes Hazel’s explanation, both in its process and outcome, jotting down the Latin and theosophical knowledge that flows so swiftly and puissantly from Hazel’s lips. He follows along with her, confirming each step of their ‘proof’, growing all the more excited as each portion of the riddle is confirmed.
Her final query rocks his mental balance, but he literally shakes off the seemingly tangential rabbit hole with a twist of his neck. “No, just a little bit of French, and evidently not nearly enough Latin. But Avidi Via, what does that mean? I know you said it means ‘the path of the eager ones’, but what do you think that
“Let us start by considering these ‘eager ones’. They are eager to either have
something, or to do
something. So tell me, Young Rosicrucian, what does the order your club emulates ultimately desire?”
Snow continues to cascade fitfully between the night-blackened trees. Troy regards the fragile crystals melting on his car’s blood-red hood. “They could also be eager to become
something,” the Kelpie quarterback says.
“That may also be the case.” Hazel considers for a moment. "Pupils in the Lectorium Rosicrucianum are said to undergo a practical spiritual path that gives their lives meaning. The starting point for this path is the divine spark within man, the divine nucleus that the Rosicrucians refer to as the “Rose of the heart”."
“Yes… for them to ‘become something’ makes the most sense of all. The Rosicrucians ultimately seek to undergo a transfiguration or metamorphosis of the soul. They desire the awakening of a new spiritual awareness, as originally described by John in the New Testament: ‘I must decrease; the other in me must increase.’ The immortal ‘other’ is not at home in this world of opposites and antithesis, rather it originates out of a higher nature order. That order is the field of true life which exists completely outside the bounds and restraints of the material life we know, and the shadow-like life on the other side, where the dead follow a process of dissolution between incarnations. The higher nature order is beyond this. It is the world of the spirit-soul, the original creation. Whoever experiences this experiences a recognition of God, the Gnosis, within themselves.”
Hazel trails off as she realizes she’s fallen into lecture mode.“The… grossly simplified version is that they are ‘eager’ to attain Gnosis so that they might be closer to God. Let us not forget that their beliefs have Hermetic as well as Christian roots.”
Hazel almost asks then if Troy believes in God. Not being invited into Uncle Leo’s exclusive club stung her pride. In 1998 she’d be more likely to shrug it off. But to the then-17-year-old whose nigh-sole source of esteem was her intelligence and erudition, it stung indeed. She’d hoped it was simply her lack of belief in God that disqualified her, but she’d never been able to confirm that. And so it stung and stung.
But somehow, after tonight, it really doesn’t seem to matter as much.
“Hopefully that answer is clarifying to you,” Hazel continues. “Now come, those initials aren’t going to carve themselves.”
Hazel: The night has been significantly whittled and chopped away like the Scold’s logs by the time Troy’s car pulls away from Sisyphus Manor. Notwithstanding, her parents have not yet returned home. Having been told to expect that leaves the then-junior comfortable enough, and she waves as the Mustang’s headlights recede into the falling snow. Heading inside, Hazel curls up on the living room couch, turns on a lamplight, and reads a book until she hears her mom and dad get home. She could change into pajamas, but opts to simply kick off her shoes and keep on her gown from earlier. Her parents, and mother especially, had seemed really happy at seeing her dressed up.
Perhaps even as happy as she’ll be seeing them come home together.
GM: Yet, as the hours unravel, that hope is stretch thin and threadbare, leaving her heart chilled as her bare shoulders in the drafty house. Still, Hazel’s unrelenting drive if not sheer stubbornness rejects the enticing call of her bed’s warm comforter and sleep’s soft embrace. Occasionally, she hears the things in the attic scratching and scurrying, just as gusts of unbroken wind buffet old gothic windows that slowly rime with frost.
Hazel’s vigil is not fully in vain, though, as she spots an unfamiliar vehicle pull into the manor’s circular driveway. Lydia steps out, alone and seemingly all-too small against the backdrop of darkness. Clutching her cashmere coat to her throat, she braces against the hilltop wind and makes the lonely climb up the remaining lawn. Hazel hears her mother’s shoes stomp hard twice on the groaning porch, then work the lock with her keys to open the front door. A cold gust all but blows Lydia inside, and she has to shove hard to close the door, which she promptly locks.
“Damned hill and house,” she mutters to herself before she turns around and sees Hazel waiting for her, alert and awake. She startles a bit from the unexpected surprise, but then puts on a smile. “Oh, Hazel, I didn’t see you, dear.” She regards the book in her daughter’s lap. “Have you been… waiting all this time?”
Hazel: Hazel sets it down as she takes her mother’s arrival fully in. This… was not what she’d been expecting. She’d admitted to Troy that her parents’ seeming reconciliation probably wouldn’t last forever, but she had expected it to at least last the night. “Well, I didn’t feel tired, and I’d have been reading anyway…” She’s only one sentence in before she realizes she’s rambling. She trails off and then asks quietly, “Where’s Dad?”
They said they’d see her later. At home. Both of them. They’d promised.
GM: Lydia does not immediately answer as she joins Hazel in the sitting room. Still dressed in her snow-flecked cashmere coat, she folds herself on the edge of a plum-colored settee diagonal her daughter. Whether whipped by the winter winds or blushed by wine, Lydia’s flush cheeks stand out against her otherwise pale skin and contrasting black hair that has lost much of its curl. Her lips purse, then she answers softly, “Harvey had to leave the party early, but he will be here in the morning to give you a ride to school. That is, if you want to go.” Lydia glances at her daughter’s ‘night-time reading’ as well as her still–worn dress. Her eyes swim with thoughts, but she contents herself to reel in only one, for now.
“But I believe the real question at hand is how was your date.”
Hazel: “It sounds like that’s a bit of a story. My evening was too.” She looks at her mom for a moment, and is about to remark tomorrow is a Saturday before she belatedly realizes the woman just trudged up a long snowy hill. “Would you like to share in my blankets’ warmth? I am sure you are cold, and they have absorbed much of my body heat.”
True to her word, Hazel has cocooned herself underneath the comforter brought out from her bedroom, as well as the weighted blanket that Dr. Reiter once recommended to help reduce her anxiety. A third and final blanket is draped over her once-bare shoulders like a shawl so that she can still read. Between those warming layers and the fireplace she turned on, Hazel had struggled not to fall asleep.
But she’d stayed up. So that she could see her parents. And it’s not lost that Mom isn’t calling him ‘your father’.
GM: “Perhaps in a bit, dear,” her mother says with a smile that seemed poised on a razor’s edge. “So?”
Hazel: “Well, the tale is somewhat long in the telling, and I do not wish you to remain cold.”
GM: “Most worthwhile stories are,” Lydia relates. “But don’t fret about me. I want to look at you a bit longer. I’ll be over soon enough.” She does unfold her arm and glances into the flames. “I do love a good fire.”
Hazel: Hazel pulls off her remaining blankets so that her mom can fully see her. As with during her date with Troy, her hair and makeup are somewhat mussed, and she’s kicked off her shoes and pulled on her glasses so that she can read. But she’s pleased that she was right about her parents evidently still wanting to see her dressed up.
“Yes, direct vent fireplaces are considerably more safe and efficient than conventional wood-burning ones,” she agrees.
GM: Lydia’s widening smile sidesteps Hazel’s remark, as her maternal eyes only see her daughter still mostly transformed by her evening attire and makeup. “Usually, youth is wasted on the young, but some nights are exceptions.”
However, her eyes narrow slightly as she sees something. Rising and stepping forward, she plucks a small pine twig from Hazel’s tresses. She arches a brow. Her smile doesn’t fade, though it does return to its knifepoint edge.
Hazel: “I am pleased to hear further validation that I am exceptional,” Hazel smiles back.
Recognizing that look, she continues, “There is an explanation for the pine. In any case, things started off very promisingly. I found that he had a copy of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz in his car!” Hazel still can’t entirely keep the exuberance out of her voice. “That’s a classic Rosicrucian text, it seemed like we had so much in common…”
“There’s a famous mathematical and linguistic puzzle in it he needed to solve as a graduation requirement—yes, that does sound very strange—I’ll have to share it with you, it’s a very clever intellectual challenge—but regardless…”
GM: As Hazel begins to relate her story, Lydia sits down at the edge of sofa, her knees turned to and touching Hazel’s as she regards her daughter.
Hazel: Hazel doesn’t mind that contact. She’d pull away from most anyone else, but not from her mom. She goes on to describe the remainder of their evening, up to their arrival in the Fairbairn Cottage, in its entirety. Her sharp memory leaves out few details. Troy’s initial inability to understand her soliloquy about Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica. His repeated compliments on how she looked and the envy she’d inspire in would-be Nymphs. How he’d initially solved two of the puzzle’s letters. Her typical agitation at the drunk driver yelling ‘drown ’em deep!’, and near-panic attack when she realized they weren’t driving home. The next portion of their conversation she initially recites all but word-for-word, but then decides to compress. There’s no need to prolong her mom’s distress describing her own.
GM: As Lydia listens to the tortuous tale, she tries to keep a neutral mask, but occasionally it slips. This is her daughter after all.
Hazel: Instead, she gets to the ‘good part’—what she ultimately decided to do about the would-be pranksters.
GM: Lydia listens attentively, if quietly, save for a few ‘I see’s and ‘go on’s.
Hazel: Troy’s preceding words, too, about why she deserved better. Those she indelibly remembers.
GM: Lydia’s mask once again slips at that telling, and her smile is bittersweet as she brushes a lock of Hazel’s hair between her aged fingers. “Oh Hazel,” she breathes, her eyes rimming but not yet overflowing.
Hazel: “So I suppose the fairy tale had to came rather back down to earth,” Hazel grants. Her voice had started to break a bit at some parts of the story, but the retelling wasn’t so great an emotional rollercoaster as the reality. “But I have to say that I was rather flattered by the ‘meanest, toughest lineman the Kelpies have ever had’ compliment.” She smiles. “My response to that was ‘I am my mother’s daughter’.”
GM: Lydia’s tears fall like the melting snow on Troy’s windshield. She saddles closer to her daughter, not quite embracing her, but holding her hands both fiercely and gently. “Oh, Hazel, dear, you are so special. If people only knew. You’re a miracle! Someday, you will find someone who truly sees you for who you are. And when that day comes, I hope that he’ll help you see how exceptional and special you truly are. So much so that you can’t not believe it.”
Hazel: “Oh, Mom, I didn’t mean to make you cry…” Hazel cuts in.
GM: Lydia sniffles back a tear, but another slips down her other cheek. “I’m okay, Hazel. Remember that crying isn’t always bad.”
Hazel: “Oh, that is right. Tears of joy.” Hazel tries to put on a more confident smile. It might be a little worn, but the feeling is more than there. “And I know I’m exceptional. Some of my words were simply spoken in a typical fit of teenage self-loathing.”
GM: “You’re my billion dollar baby.” She squeezes Hazel’s hands, lovingly.
Hazel: “And, yes… I don’t think Troy and I are going to wind up in a relationship. But… I am pleased to have taught the Left-Handers a lesson, and maybe even made a friend.”
GM: This time it’s her mother that’s quoting the bard. “And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
Hazel: Hazel smiles at that, but goes on, “And… hearing that Troy wanted his parents divorced, much less considered good parents to be rare, was a bit of an eye-opener, too.” She pauses thoughtfully. “I suppose like anything else one is accustomed to, it’s easy to take for granted. And I do…” Even then, the admission still isn’t completely comfortable to the self-conscious teenager. “I do sometimes wish I had more friends… but if I had to choose between you, Dad, and few friends, or lots of friends and no parents… I know I wouldn’t even consider it a choice. So maybe I’ve actually gotten the better end of the deal.”
Hazel doesn’t initiate a hug. But she does lean her head against her taller mother’s shoulder as she murmurs, “I love you, Mom. So much.”
GM: Lydia leans her own head down upon her daughter’s. “As I love you, Hazel.” She then braves a hug. “I’ve always loved you, ever since the doctors finally let me hold you with all your ten toes and ten fingers. Warts, wrinkles, and all, I’ve always loved you–and I always will, no matter what, where, or when.”
A sound somewhere between a sigh and a laugh escapes her lips. She holds Hazel still, but leans back a little to look down at her daughter. “But you know what else?”
Hazel: Hazel initially stiffens at the hug, like she usually does. But like she usually does, it doesn’t stop her from squeezing her mom back. “What’s that?”
GM: “As far as first dates go, I think yours–for all its warts, wrinkles, and all–went better than most. Why, my first date was with Baxter Biggels. How about that name? All the neighborhood girls teased Baxter, saying he was Jewish because he had black, curly hair. Regardless, Baxter took me to the Kream Kastle Malt Shop. Spelled with two ’k’s, which I never understood, nor did I ever learn why its mascot was a pig. I mean, cream and castle are both spelled with ’c’s, and it certainly wasn’t pigs’ milk in their shakes, or I certainly hope not.”
“Anyways, so there was Baxter and I, sitting at the counter, and he ordered us a giant milkshake with two straws. Now, as a girl that just barely learned how to put on a bra, I thought that was scandalously delicious, especially since Baxter gave a whole two dollar tip with his hard-earned lawnmowing money. But somewhere between sip number two and too many, I got a terrible brain freeze. It took everything I had to keep focusing on smiling, laughing at the right times, and just generally being perfect and pretty, then one of the times, when I leaned down, I missed my straw–and it went right up my nose.”
“Well, Baxter thought that was so funny, he laughed so hard that milkshake came out of his nose and all over our milkshake. Sharing didn’t seem too delicious after that. Good thing, too, or who knows, maybe you would have been Hazel Biggels, hmmm?”
Hazel: That moment of hilarity seems to echo across the decades as Hazel gives an abrupt half-guffaw, half-shriek of amusement.
GM: Her mother smiles.
Hazel: She takes a breath to calm herself, but still laughs out, “Up your… Mom, I can hardly pic… and Baxter Biggels, what kind of a stupid name… Biggels. I mean… it sounds like how a toddler might try to say ‘big’…”
GM: Lydia laughs herself, unfettered and free as a young preteen heading to a malt shop. She then leans in, glancing around the empty house, and whispers conspiratorially, “Well, between you and me, Mr. Baxter had quite the cheeks.” She adds with a wink, “His dimples weren’t too bad, either.”
Hazel: It takes Hazel a moment to connect the mental dots. “Fate dealt him a pitying hand to make up for his name.”
GM: Lydia seems to chuckle in agreement.
Hazel: She doesn’t actually look around the empty house, but she does add in what she would later mentally chide herself for being a pointlessly low voice, “Troy and I did kiss, to end the date. After our earlier talk, I did not feel under any great pressure to perform, which was… helpful. He even let me gather myself for a few moments to physically and mentally prepare for the unfamiliar sensation.”
GM: “And…?” her mother asks with an impish expression. “How was that… sensation?”
Hazel: “It was…” Hazel finds herself blushing a bit. “Unusual. Ah, unfamiliar. But… pleasant. There was some amount of social anxiety, but it struck me as an acquired taste.” She then adds, unaware at what point to stop, “I think I prefer masturbating, as that is what I am used to. But I can see kissing being comparably pleasant in… a distinct manner.”
GM: Lydia’s smile slants momentarily, but she recovers quickly enough. “Yes, dear, both can be very enjoyable. But I am so happy to hear it was a pleasant experience for you. That bodes very well. Just remember Dr. Reiter’s maxim: ‘Private places, private spaces’.”
The rule had been necessary.
Hazel: “Ah. Right. I am sorry, I was caught up.” She continues, “Oh, but speaking of getting caught up in things, I solved Troy’s puzzle too. I think you’d enjoy the intellectual challenge of it, Mom, it combines mathematical, linguistic, and literary components to arrive at its final solution…”
It’s been six years since Hazel last looked at that riddle. Her mind re-churns it over like grain through a thresher.
She got it right then. So did her mom, after she filled Lydia in on some of the literary ‘clues’—the corporate lawyer wasn’t much of one for reading Hermetic Christian texts. Re-considering her mother’s words gives her some heart. And I always will, no matter what, where, or when.
Just hang on, Mom… once I’ve fully realized my own Gnosis, I’ll be that much more able to protect us…
Her eyes have blinked once, but they haven’t wavered from Leo’s.
At Hazel’s pronouncement, she perceives the tree burst into blinding, eldritch flames that rise higher and higher till they transcend the heavens. Once more, her awakened self senses nine-blossoms of sephirot-fruit, whose golden pomace refines and ripens rather than burns in the celestial-stretching conflagration.
His back turned to the tree as he faces Hazel, Leo’s frame creates a small blot of shade in the otherwise searing light–and from that shadow issues his own answer: “Entitas ipsa involvit aptitudinem ad extorquendum certum assensum.”
Hazel is well aware of the phrase’s translation as well as ontological assertion–one that takes on new meaning in the light of the Tree of Pansophia and its sephira-fruit. Reality involves the power to compel sure assent.
It’s not the first time she’s heard that phrase from Uncle Leo. The flames cast flickering shadows against her face as she replies,
“I believe you have a third question still to pose, Comte de St. Germain.”
At Hazel’s words, the Pentecostal Shekhinah of the Tree of Pansophia and its golden sefirah disappears. To Hazel’s eyes, it seems as if a curtain of reality burns down, revealing a new stage of existence. The tree–no longer burning yet still heavy laden with nine branch-veiled blossoms of golden fruit–transcends the ‘set change’, but several new props manifest. Beneath the tree stands a small but inexpressibly curious altar, on which lays a book covered with black velvet, overlaid lightly with gold.
By this stands a small taper in an ivory candlestick, its flame burning continually despite the candle’s delicate dimensions. In its refined flame–which Hazel would perceive to be false save for the briefest of flickers stirred by her own breath–occasionally manifests the image of a figure or few, though their details are lost to her mind due to the presence of other splendors.
Indeed, by the taper stands a sphere or celestial globe, which turns clearly about by itself. Next to this, a small striking-watch, and by that, a little crystal pipe or syphon-fountain, out of which perpetually runs a clear blood-red liquor. And last of all is a skull, or death’s head, in which resides a white serpent whose length is such that though it winds about the rest of it in a circle, its tail still remains in one of the eyeholes until its head again enters the other.
Now dressed in robes reminiscent of Hazel’s, the figure whom she once called Uncle Leo but now named by her as the Comte de St. Germain, stands before the altar, his back to the tree as he faces Hazel and completes his triadic inquiry: “If you are Erwachen
, then name thyself.”
Coupled with his first question, this last question brings to memory her last ‘test’ proctored by the man. Namely, she recalls his remark that “Titles and names may be shed and begotten like snakeskin, but they are not lacking in power or significance. It is therefore salient to employ the proper title with the proper occasion as well as audience.”
Yet, still unsure of the true nature of her audience, as well as occasion, Hazel is left to grapple with what names and titles might be deemed properly as truth
. Any further insight to be gleaned from his expression is both lost and found in his alembic eyes. Once more, those metamorphic twins do not capture Hazel’s reflections like mere mirrors, but reveal them like scrying pools of possibilities. Those reflections stir and shift as he blinks once, then twice, before solidifying into the immovable images of his seer-stone gaze. He then waits with the intensity of a condemned, blindfolded man listening for the sound of an executioner’s axe–or a savior’s pardon.
Hazel thinks back to their last conversation of the significance of names. She remembers Leo (whatever the rest of his name) calling her Hazel Attila Bauman, and correcting him that it would also be proper to include first middle name of Calloway. He cautioned her that her true name
was not yet to be revealed, and then made her bleed.
As true names go, the secrecy and thus potency of Hazel’s has been somewhat diluted by the presence of both her middle names—atypically for residents of Witiko Falls—on her birth certificate. Still, ‘Attila’ remained a name she rarely spoke or used. Most identification-requiring forms only require one middle name. Be they tax returns, employment contracts, or college add/drop forms, Hazel has always filled out either ‘C’ or ‘Calloway’.
The time for her true name seems nigh. Her intoned reply is slow and stresses the equal significance of each syllable as she answers,
“I am Hazel Calloway Attila Bauman
For all of Hazel’s living recollection, the man she was raised to know as Uncle Leo has always been the very epitome of self-control. But now, at her answer, she senses some crack in that cold forged iron, a spark of red hot anger or rage or fervid madness. Before whatever beast of irrationality or disquieting ennui can claim him, he looks away and almost whispers to the seemingly empty heavens.
And to Hazel’s awakened senses, she thinks she hears the heavens–or at least the cave of her psyche–echo back in a static hiss:
INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER
But no, this time, the trumpet-like cry from the seraph’s bullhorn is similar but ever so different–and in that difference, the robed man before her seems to take some shred of hope.
THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER
As that echo of an echo crashes down on Hazel, another curtain of reality crumbles, transforming the scene before her. In that transformation, Leopold sheds his white robe like snakeskin, its cloth coiled around him, even as he is revealed to be dressed in another robe, but this one of blackest night. Sable draperies unfurl from the tree, whose branches now loom over and around Hazel and Leo, creating an encircling shroud whose sole source of light is the flickering, immortal taper.
In that dim illumination, Hazel sees shadows appear on the already inky wall of sable. Nine in number, ear bears the semblance of an executioner, armed with an axe. All nine seem to point to Hazel and raise their axes. Leo once again stands impassive before the altar, though his hands now bear a large golden grail.
The white-garbed Hazel reflexively tenses at the actions of the axe-bearing figures. Perhaps their function is ceremonial—though even in such ceremonies as she is likely to encounter here, danger may be no less present.
She silently and expectantly observes Leo’s actions with the golden chalice. The seraph, though… could it be her Holy Guardian Angel? The Liber Samekh
‘s procedure by which to commune with one is very specific. She’s attempted to perform it before.
This time she might have better luck.
As Hazel ponders that issue while staring into her chrysopeian reflection inside the grail, her peripheral vision barely detects the sudden, violent movement of the shades. As the shadow-play of all nine axes fall, Hazel feels her throat involuntarily tighten, then seek to loosen in a scream. She watches as her own shadow cleaves in two twice, first in half, her riven ‘bodies’ falling to either side of her, and then as her ‘heads’ roll from her bisected neck. The macabre scene continues as copious blood gushes from the beheaded, riven shadows.
Hazel’s jaw clenches at the umbral decapitations. But the actual sight of the flowing blood causes her hands to reflexively dart to her neck.
Somewhere inside the black cage of sable, she hears the echo of a familiar voice. Even assaulted by the sudden, graphic shadow-execution, Hazel’s mind discovers the sounds. They too are familiar–and now much clearer when no longer distorted by massive static: “Ora sono pronto a morire. Che i tuoi dei abbiano pietà delle tue anime…”
The words issue and wither from her shadows’ decapitated lips: “Che i tuoi dei abbiano pietà delle tue anime…”
Hazel has little further time to ponder those Italian words as Leopold kneels and uses the grail to meticulously catch the all–too corporeal fonts of blood that erupt from Hazel’s twice-severed shadow-necks. Her peripheral attention, though, is once again stolen as the nine shadowy executioners raise their axes once more–only to decapitate their own shadow-heads in unison. Slits, where the shadow axes passed, appear in the black curtain. As one, the sable draperies fall to the earth in silken ribbons.
Leopold meanwhile dips his finger into the blood-filled grail and then marks all four pieces of Hazel’s riven shadows with hermetical, Rosicrucian sigils. When his incantation is complete, conjured coffins arise from the ground, entombing the eviscerated shadows. Before those two coffins seal, Leopold pours the remaining blood into each container, draining the grail dry to the last drop. His labor finished, Leopold collapses, seemingly as drained as the grail itself.
Hazel frowns and goes to one knee by the fallen man. “Do you require recuperative assistance, Uncle Leo?”
As Hazel approaches, she fears her uncle is dead. His skin is so ashen, and no breath stirs from his robed form. The smell of blood–_is it hers? was it hers?_–is overpowering. She feels the involuntary urge to reach up to her neck again, to empirically assert that she is alive.
Yet, before she can confirm either her or her uncle’s vitality, a third curtain of realty crashes down as the last of the draperies slip off their branches and cover Hazel, her uncle, the coffins, and the artifacts like a funeral shroud. When Hazel brushes off the sliced piece of sable, she finds the cloth is but her own robe which has been transformed from white to midnight.
A mild curiosity against Leo’s welfare. She pulls off the other sable-pieces to ascertain his state.
That ascertainment proves difficult as he has seemingly disappeared–as has the rest of their surroundings, which have been replaced by a triangular sepulcher forged of chrysopeian gold and precious stones.
A vessel of polished brass dominates the sepulcher’s center, in which stands a green-glass seraph whose features blend and blur between Dynatron and Zadkiel, lord of the hashmallim, protector of the fourth fruit of the sephirot, and archangel of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. The seraph’s arms bear an electrum-forged sculpture of the Tree of Pansophia, which continually drops fruit into the vessel. As often as the fruit falls, it turns to the green water of vitriol, the Azoth or Quintessence, and runs out into three small golden grails.
This altar in turn is supported by a three beasts fused together–a chimeric lion, goat, and serpent, which in turn stand upon an exceedingly precious base. The Chimera continually shifts between Hazel’s eyes, its constituent beasts including the forms of an ox, an eagle, then swan, and salamander, and so forth.
She checks to see if her improvised sling containing the coin and philosophists’ stones is still present.
A four are accounted for–though only the latter three mumble and wobble with their mouths once more zipped shut.
“You appear unharmed. I will see to your mute states after a moment,” Hazel replies. Leo has vanished and looked greatly unwell. Hazel is confident that he can handle himself and certain that he knew his ritual would carry a toll. But she would be remiss not to at least check on him.
She approaches the altar’s vitriolic waters and stares into her green-hued reflection.
Her preferred medium would be a black-glass mirror, bathed under the light of a full moon for seven months and kept covered for all other purposes. But pools of water are an equally time-honored (if not older) divinatory medium. And… something tugs her towards the font of quintessence. Physically, like a low-intensity magnet. Her sensory hypersensitivities have sometimes had benefits, but she’s not sure if it’s even that.
Like calls to like. Blood calls to blood.
She’s not sure what prompts the thought—or the sudden impulse to cut herself before she realizes that a bladed edge is unnecessary. A murmured invocation, a minor effort of will
, and several droplets of blood seep through her fingertip like the skin is a thin sponge. She almost gasps as what she sees.
It’s the same green as the pool. But after she reflexively jerks her hand, the blood is as red as any human being’s. Perhaps a trick of the light.
But the subtle magnetic pull is still there. Like calls to like.
She frowns, but not for overlong. She thinks back to the cube-headed figure she encountered in Sisyphus, and the immense, drowning font of quintessence that she foolishly sought to drink. It nearly overwhelmed her essence.
But she survived. She paid the price for the power that is now hers.
Some of it is still in me.
The red staining her fingertip seems to all but shine against the polished brass vessel. At just the right angle, tilted against the flowing vitriol, it almost looks green.
Hazel flicks her blood—her quintessence
—into the already brimming three goblets. The red doesn’t sink or dissolve as it lands, but flows across the surface of the azoth like ink and twists into patterns and images. She looks between the three goblets. The left will pull answers from the past. The center will reveal the present. The right will portend the future.
The admixing liquids-but-not-liquids shimmer. They are no longer red or green, or at least not just
red and green, but a color—or a thousand colors?—that both transcends and permeates every other on the visual spectrum, the raw unbridled essence of Creation distilled into chromatic form.
She fixates her inner eye upon a single face as her physical eyes stare into the central goblet—and she becomes conscious that is not wearing glasses. A name flashes across her mind.