When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears and Watered Heaven with Their Tears
At this age, and for as long as his career had lasted, for all the novels, essays, nonfiction books, and short stories he had published, Paul Brunce, now in his sixties, had never written a single word about his sister.
And for good reason.
First of all, he had never been one for cannibalizing his life to use in his work. He knew, he knew, the romantic way of seeing things, that nothing separates the life from the work, has been productive for poets especially, ever since Byron set out to seduce his first woman or take his adventurous hike around the environs of dangerous Greece. As a boy in a small beach town on the central California coast, he cut his eyeteeth on On the Road. He read The Old Man and the Sea. And when circumstances led to his spending time in a state training school, he read vigorously and widely. He read The Sound and the Fury. He read Dreiser, he read, God help him, Virginia Woolf without ever knowing—until late in his twenties when he read a biography of her—just how crazy she was. (He also read a lot of science fiction. But no fantasy. He never developed a taste for fantasy.)
Brunce knew, as if instinctively, the fine line between life and art. For a while he lived on the southern coast of Spain, drinking the awful Fundador that Hemingway reminded anyone who didn’t ask would take its toll on you. He went to the bullfights and leaped to his feet to shout praise of a fine matador. In Paris, between his junior and senior years as a scholarship student at San Francisco State, he wore a beret, and when he returned to California—one of the most romantic states in the union, by his count—he lived in San Francisco as he thought writers lived, in a filthy rental, surrounded by trash cans that held the aging wrappings of steaks he would steal from the supermarket.
But when at long last he sat down to write he used nothing from his own past. For better or for worse, it turned out—you learn these things as you practice your craft—that he was one of those writers who looked outward rather than in. That’s how he saw it: nothing from his own life seemed interesting enough. And, besides, he did not need to expose himself, or anyone else in the family, when there was a world of material outside his own small world, a world of lives sprawled across the country and the globe, and a world of history going back down deep into the past all the way to the Neanderthals.
So for his first novel he plucked a pair of characters from history, some early American political radicals. His second novel took on the subject of some American painters, historical figures whom he disguised slightly, for the sake of bending a plot. His third book centered on the rise of an American businessman who destroyed himself and his family even as he ascended to power. (Brunce used a newspaper article that had caught his eye to serve as the kernel of that book.) His short stories were mostly the stuff of invention, incidents he had viewed out of the corner of his eye. His nonfiction—a book about the writing life, a book about American literature—had always come to him from the world around him, not from anything he knew from having grown up with it.
No family matters—when he looked back that seems to have been his rule. Graham Greene, one of his favorite novelists, once said that all a writer really needs is a childhood. He stood opposed to that, had even given talks on why we should look outside ourselves for material and write about the world at large, not about our sensitive sensibilities that reside within. He put his shoulder against the door behind which lurked all of those geniuses of whatever age who, as the late Mailer once wrote, never got out of prep school. Or even lower grades.
“The writer who turns to adolescence for his material is bound never to mature,” he wrote once in an essay for the Sewanee Review. “Genius in youth—that’s for linguistics theorists and mathematicians, writers take time to grow.” Another writer he knew always pointed out to his students that writers are the slowest of artists to mature, because of their lack of experience when they first start out—their lack of experience in the world. Brunce was thinking of this fellow when he wrote that sentence in the Sewanee essay.
Twenty years went by. What started out as an experiment became a vocation, and his (what he regarded as outward-looking) books sold up and down. He won a few minor prizes, and established himself at the center for the arts in the large coastal city to which he moved after his third marriage. Three marriages, but no children. His current wife was teetering on the edge of what people today called premenopausal, so that if they had any time it was fast running out. But—and here is one of those intimate details that you usually find in medical literature and self-help books only—though they used no contraception when they made love they never talked about what might issue from that decision. He just didn’t want to think about it. He knew what he thought. He had his work, and that was enough.
In fact, a few well-regarded critics had written about it. Two doctoral dissertations became book-length publications about his own publications. (He liked the sound of that repetition—like any writer he found as much truth in language as he did in experience, perhaps even more in the former than the latter.) He had a few disappointments, as any artist does. A critic whose work he had admired since college wrote a dismissive review of one of his novels. (And followed it up with a letter to him some months later, saying he was sorry he had been so negative. Might they meet for a drink sometime when Brunce was in the city? Brunce never wrote back.) Further disappointment—though this could always change—though Brunce was a great fan of the movies, no one had ever made a movie of any of his books.
Work followed along, and followed along. As it happened for him, he’d be wrestling with the end of a final draft of one novel, and the beginning of a new book—or, in the case of his nonfiction, a subject to write about—would come to him, as easily as any idle thought about going out for a drink, or watching a movie, might come to him. He imagined it was like that for Flaubert, one of his favorite writers, whose thoughts flowed along smoothly—write a novel about an overly romantic provincial wife, perhaps go to the brothel, write to niece—
What else about him that we should all know?
He aspired to make fine art and devoured genre novels, and as the graphic novel became a hot ticket rekindled his childhood passion for comic books by indulging himself in these comic books for adults. He wrote an essay for The America Scholar called “City Maus and Country Maus” about the future of the genre. He read science fiction the way most people eat potato chips. Some of his best childhood memories were his recollections of holing up in his room for an entire weekend and reading his way through an Asimov or a Heinlein novel. This sort of book made the future seem more real than the past. And for a period in his adolescence, about which he had never written and believed he never would, these books helped him keep his sanity. And as an adult he devoured science thrillers. When Michael Crichton died he mourned for weeks.
Not many people would notice his own passing that way, he was convinced. Many of the writers he knew taught in universities and so had built-in constituencies, years and years, decades, some of them, of (mostly) adoring graduate students.
Between his second and third marriage, he had been offered a university job for quite a lot of money, and accepted it, but he was still drinking back in those days and this produced in him some evenings that verged on the psychotic. To have an affair with a student was not unknown, back in those days before university policies on sexual harassment. To have an affair with a colleague was not unknown either. But to have an affair with a student and then, later in the year, have an affair with the wife of a colleague was thoughtless, incautious, verging on the utterly foolish. The dean of that college, who had been a fan of Brunce’s work and had made a big effort to put together the offer that brought him there, called the writer and arranged to meet him at a local wine bar. There, amid a scene that looked like something from a novel Brunce would never write—too clichéd, too predictable—the dean made him another offer. The student had lodged a complaint against him. The faculty spouse he had seduced had gone into a sanitarium. Brunce could resign, and there would be no publicity. Or he could stay on, and be pilloried by the compliance officer who at the time was a hulking gym freak with a shaved head and an earring in his left earlobe.
Sometimes, but not most of the time, alcohol helped him to see things rather clearly. After several glasses of an extremely dry and highly tannic red, Brunce said he would resign.
He took no joy in it when he heard months later that the same compliance officer had been arrested for possession of child pornography and that his computer hard drive had yielded hundreds of photographs of underage subjects in various pornographic poses. By that time, as luck would have it, Brunce had gotten a contract to write a biography of a famous American writer whose career, cast into darkness at his death, was now returning into the sunlight of hindsight.
The book somehow touched a nerve and brought Brunce enough money for a couple of years of independence, and even better a well-paid shot at writing a screenplay based on this same writer’s life, and an option on a recent novel of his own, a book that, like all of his books, looked outward rather than in.
Outward, outward! He didn’t make this his cry, but after some of the trouble began to mount up he realized why he chose to look at his life and his work from this angle. Yes, the dismissal of childhood—for this there were reasons, the dark living thoughts that lurked beneath the surface of things. Nothing made this plainer to him than discussions with his new wife, a delightful woman who wrote songs for movies and commercials and didn’t think twice about telling him every single thing about herself and her childhood, especially her childhood, during the first year of their marriage.
“I want you to know me,” she said, in her special version of directness of speech, which meant stepping right up to you, or taking you by the hand or the arm or both, and looking you in the eye—difficult sometimes when he was driving them somewhere.
Difficult not to be so forthcoming himself, but he resisted telling her everything. Why should he have to reveal all of the awful details of a childhood he saw as best forgotten? Or ignored.
Because, this wife said, the continually repressed details would come back to haunt you, bob up again to the surface, like a body in some movie thriller that a killer weighed down with chains but somehow rises to the surface of a lake.
Body? Chains? Killer? It was all a bit much for Brunce, and he longed to change the subject. But he loved her, and so had to mention some of it. It had been years since any of it had come to mind, mainly because of his sister’s ability to manage with so little contact. “It was touchy, a while back,” he told his new wife, while driving one afternoon up to Jeffersonville, New York, on the edge of the great Catskill forest, where a friend of theirs kept a weekend house he had offered for their use now and then. “She’s been living in the state hospital for a long time now.”
“You never told me that before.”
“I haven’t visited her in a while. It’s not a pretty situation.”
“Have you ever thought of having her live with you?”
Brunce made a noise, something like a half-laugh or half-grunt.
“Not possible,” he said.
“Are you sure?” his wife said.
“Never was, never will be,” he said, the landscape flashing into his mind, the beach at Half Moon Bay, the redwood house up in the hills a couple of miles to the east of the ocean, the small house in the flats.
His wife was a New England girl and had little sense of what that coastline looked like. He tried to explain.
“So much fog,” she said, “not really my idea of California. We’re taught that it’s all sunny and bright.”
“In the south,” he said. “Though even they have rain in winter. Not to mention smog.”
“That’s nowhere near what I call winter,” she said, reaching over and laying a hand on his, even as he held tightly to the steering wheel.
She had that way with him, the gift of dispelling bad weather and bad news. Still, this time she insisted.
“Tell me about her,” she said. “I shouldn’t have a sister-in-law I know nothing about.”
You loved fog and damp, or else you moved out of Half Moon Bay as soon as you could. If you were a child, you had no choice but to stay. But if you were an eight-year-old boy whose parents just presented him with a baby sister you found ways to do other things. You read comic books, you made up stories and wrote them down. Later, you went to the beach and bodysurfed, no matter what the season and what the weather. Half Moon Bay had its own microclimate, and if you were a child in that situation your childhood had one as well.
He had his dreams. Perhaps it was the fog that usually claimed the night in most seasons, but he dreamed as vigorously and ferociously as anyone he knew. You don’t know other people’s dreams, unless you inquire about them, and most of the time you don’t inquire. Unless you were like young Brunce, and so obsessed with your own middle-of-the-night imaginings that you asked other people about theirs.
One Sunday morning, after being awakened by what he took to be ghosts in the fog, he went to her room and, finding her still lying listlessly beneath the covers after what must have been a restless night’s sleep, asked her about it.
“Sis,” he said, “did you hear noises last night?”
She was five, a pliable little thing in white-girl’s cornrows whom he often wrestled with and twisted into pretzel-like poses.
“Go away,” she said (as best he remembered it). “Go away, or I’ll tell Algalune.”
“You better not,” he said, trying not to show the fear her threat induced in him.
“I will,” she said.
“You will not,” he said.
“You want to bet?”
“I bet you,” he said. “What do you bet?”
She bet nothing, but squirmed away, and ran upstairs into their parents’ bedroom and closed the door.
He sat a while, listening to the noises overhead—their mother, still in bed, his sister whining, and then settling into a quieter mode—and then he grabbed his jacket from the front coatrack and walked out into the morning fog.
These weekend mornings, nothing like them, when he could walk along the road leading to the beach, no one else in sight, and find the waves lapping endlessly on the rocks, as if nothing had happened in anyone’s life, anyone’s life on earth, all the night before, and would not happen in all the days to come.
Ever since he could remember he kept a secret tide pool, and on this morning that was his destination.
At the base of a jetty of large boulders the tide dashed in and out, according to some process his teacher might have mentioned in science class—something to do with the moon and its proximity to the earth—but for him this long rhythm of waves covering and uncovering his special place seemed to have more to do with his own desires than any pull of the moon. This morning the waves fell just short of his prize, leaving him time for the pleasure of counting the occupants—two spider crabs, a scattering of shells, and some beautiful stones the color of a pale moon.
The crabs escaped his pursuing hand, but the shells lay still, laved in frothy sea foam. A scalloped blue half shell held in its center a black mark—an X—which he pretended had been dabbed there by the pen of some undersea god or creature, someone writing in dark fluid the story of what happened below the waves. Sea monsters raced each other just offshore, where octopi and walrus, sea elephants and women with fish tails and naked to the waist—he had seen his mother more than once exiting from her bath, and so he did not have to imagine what these mermaids carried with them in their high-postured swims—sketched their fluid formations. Another shell, this one colored a blushing shade of red, announced what he pictured as the bleeding of some whale, shark-punctured and thus wounded, blundering forth as it tried to shake away the pain. And here—here!—a curled nautilus that gave the appearance of function—a cylindrical key to some undersea door, through which, if he turned the shell, he might swim all the way to the kingdom of Atlantis, a place he had read about in a book with curled pages and smudged drawings that he had found in what passed for the library at school.
Tentatively he picked up the nautilus shell, rolled it in his fingers, but then lay it back in the pool.
Next he took up one of the stones, stared at it, pretending that he was a god and the stone was a world, a world well within his power to create or destroy.
Without another thought he popped it into his mouth and got up and kept on walking, that briny taste coloring his tongue and cheeks.
When he reached the curve of the beach where rocks jutted out into the rougher range of waves—some underwater undulation making for a rib-backed series of tougher water—he spat out the pebble into his hand and tossed it into the ocean.
He turned and ran toward the trees near the nearest road, knowing in his heart that some beast might wade out of the water and find that pebble and sling it toward him, hitting him at the back of his skull, in that small place where his head met the top of his spine that he knew, from hearing stories from other boys at school, and from reading comics, meant the end of you.
He didn’t look back until he reached the road.
The beach, all calm, about to disappear in a billow of forward rolling fog.
His sister was sitting on the porch, as if she had been waiting for him the entire time he was gone.
“I went to the beach,” he told her.
“Not s’posed to,” she said.
“Shut up,” he said.
“No,” she said.
“You shut up,” he said.
But he had forgotten exactly why he had taken off for the beach in the first place.
It wasn’t for a few more days that he remembered why. Another night, the same sounds.
And when he returned that time from the beach, he brought her a gift.
“Guess what,” he said, holding out his clenched fist between them.
“Don’t know,” she said.
“Look,” he said, opening his fist to reveal the two wriggling spider crabs no larger than the nubs of pencil erasers.
“Crazy creatures,” he said, never having said the words before. “See how they want to play?” It was then he made the voices, a different squawking tone for each. “‘Oh, oh, look at me, squiggling all around, look, look!’ ‘Help me, help me,’ the other one says. ‘Save me from prison! Please save me!’”
Mira stared at them, amazed, engaged.
“‘Mira, I’m talking to you, Mira, help me, help me.’ ‘No, Mira, stay away, this one is mine. I’m going to kill him and eat him!’”
She slapped at his hand and the tiny animals went flying.
He scrambled to retrieve them, never found them anywhere on the porch, and when he looked up she was gone.
“And I was gone, too,” Brunce said. “Just after that. Such a horrendous situation. If I had been just a bit younger, like Mira, I might have been really screwed up by it. I could even have figured that taking those two spider crabs from the tide pool caused all the rest to happen. Untune one string, and so forth. The universe—our family universe—went to hell.”
“That was when your father left?”
“If it wasn’t that day, it was the next day. Or soon after. Mira was around six. I was thirteen, fourteen. Those nights went on—I could hardly sleep because of all the noise, quarrelling, my parents shouting at each other, Mira whining, whimpering. And then one morning, I woke up, got dressed, went down for breakfast, and there was my mother. She was standing at the stove, but in the chair where my father usually sat and ate his breakfast—no one. Absent. Gone. Nada. Se fue.”
“You’ve scarcely ever mentioned him. What kind of a man was he?”
“The fact I’ve never said much about him, that should tell you a lot. He was in many ways an admirable guy, born in north Jersey, went to technical school in Hoboken, I think it was, very plain childhood. His own parents were pretty ordinary, if anybody is pretty ordinary. I have the faintest recollection of a visit we made to their house when I was quite small. He enlisted in the army. He was so smart—he knew so much about radar and other related technologies—they weren’t going to put him at risk and let him get anywhere near a real war. So they kept him in some place outside of Seoul. And after that he came home and went to work in a laboratory back in Jersey.”
“And he met your mother there, yes? Oh, I love these kinds of stories. Tell me how did they meet?”
“At a dance. Like something out of a forties movie . . . ”
“You’ve mentioned once before—”
“Yes, how I pieced it together over the years. Yes. From talking to my mother, and to a few family friends. Pieced the end together. The night before, they’d had a terrible fight, over the Mira thing—”
“The Mira thing?”
“I haven’t told you about that. I’ll explain. I know least of all about that, but I have some information. But, just listen now. They’d had pretty good times. And he was good to me when I was little, if a little distant. But about Mira. I don’t know when it started. Early, sometime early. And she, Mother, knew about it. How could she not know? She told him she knew. She told him she wanted him to stop. And he broke things, he woke us all up. I don’t know what Mira did, but I listened. I could hear him shouting, and then crying, through the night. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have a conscience. He wasn’t crazy, just tormented, a bad man in that way, and not in any other, but that one thing was enough.
That particular morning, the morning after the terrible fight, instead of going to work—driving east on Highway 92 and connecting to 280 and heading south a few miles to Los Altos—he drove north on Highway 1. Just short—just south—of the hairpin turns known as Devil’s Slide, he pulled over and parked the car, and left it there . . . ”
The cliff behind him remained in shadow, while some thousands of feet out along the ocean, over the whitecaps, the brilliant morning sun spread its light all the way to the wall of fog at the horizon some thirty miles out to sea. Seabirds swooped and called, midway down the sheer cliff to the rocks below. Something had caught hold of him and he lumbered, rather than walked steadily, across the roadway to the dirt ledge and the small barrier of stones at the cliff edge. His gait convinced him that he was in the control of a stronger, if not higher, power than his own. It commanded him, a voice out of the depths of his stupid angry boiling ignorant knowledgeable grief at what had transpired the night before, and on several other nights.
He saw Mira’s face, pale, innocent, her eyes large with terror. Many people had written about such matters as this, and he had, with perhaps more fascination than your average person—which might, with hindsight, have given him some clue as to what cooked in his soul—read those pages in magazines and books. But then he read a lot of pages about terrible events—about murder and war and torture—and he did not find himself involved in any such matters as that.
But in this! Yes, yes. He had.
Want to blame it on something in his own childhood? Go ahead, although he couldn’t dredge up any single event. Want to blame it on his military service? Could be. Some nights, in the barracks, he could feel darkness of spirit lurking in the darkness of the ceiling. Want to blame it on his use of drugs? Go ahead. Alcohol? Why not?
But think of all the men who had suffered some sort of abuse—excessive punishments from fathers or mothers—who had slogged through the mud in actual battle rather than just in training—who had felt the loneliness of the Great American Night and believed they might never return from what voyage they were taking—and they sometimes drank to excess, and sometimes they ingested certain drugs that sent them on even more frightening journeys. Yes, in some Borneo of the mind he had traveled a jungle trail, with strange animal calls threatening all around him, and had come to the lip of the cliff above a sacred river, where he stood awhile, while ancestral voices—he knew them from a poem that had fascinated him as a child, a poem his father had read to him and that he had read to his own children when they were both quite small—chanted in his ear.
In one of Brunce’s stories he might have stepped back from the space above the roaring ocean—he had not yet found a way to incorporate chaos and melodrama into his work, so he ended up focusing on the disruptions of the everyday world, of life as we live it, not as we imagine it or fear it. But here he was, trying to treat it, deal with it, work with it, however you want to describe what we do with the facts of life and the demands of art—art! He felt so pretentious ever using that word! He called it work, most of his friends called it work, which is what these guys who grew up on the underside of the aesthetic world, reading comic books and Jack London before approaching Chekhov, Joyce, and Proust, talk about when they talk about art—
But this man wasn’t a character in one of the stories or novels. He was his father, Father, as Brunce came to think of him, a man on the lam from his deepest and darkest disgrace and horror, no, not a made-up figure, not a figment, but the man who had engendered him, a man of average, normal background, who had never acted in any way bizarre or strange or dangerous before, a man who, for no apparent reason, suddenly gave in to one of the most awful urges our species is saddled with.
Who knows where Brunce was when it happened?
Early morning, on his way to school, while up the road his father lingered, swayed, almost, on the edge of the cliff, and if he could have become Superboy and started running running running faster than fast, putting on speed beyond speed, he might have caught up with him and pushed him back from the edge.
Or was he already at his desk, in Half Moon Bay, sitting with hands folded in front of him, feeling the light drizzle, like fog rain, of fatigue settling over him, because he had been up so early with his sister. He could have shot through the window and flown at the speed of light—a little faster but not much faster than the speed of these words—up Highway 1 to where his father teetered, and pulled him back.
Where was his mother?
She had awakened early, as usual, and made her father’s breakfast and her own, and then woke Brunce and urged him to get ready for school. The house was silent. The sun had come up over the hill to the east, announcing one of their few bright mornings here, where fog usually ruled. Brunce didn’t know why, but he took his time getting dressed, while his mother called to him several times. What was in a boy’s head at this time in his life at this time in the morning? Not much but fog with occasional hints of sun. He listened to the silence for a while, and when he heard a bird cry out he took it as a signal and pulled on his jeans and struggled with his sweater; he methodically tied up his boots. He liked tying them. It gave him a feeling of accomplishment.
“Are you coming down?” his mother called from the foot of the stairs.
“Your father has already left,” she said when he appeared in the kitchen.
“Where’s Mira?” he said.
“Still sleeping,” his mother said.
“No, she’s not,” he said, without really knowing why.
“Shut up,” his mother said. She had never spoken like that to him ever before, and he didn’t know what to do or how to feel about it. Something had happened to her. But what had happened he could not yet fathom.
He went back up the stairs to Mira’s room and listened at the door. He heard the bird sound on the other side.
He couldn’t say why he didn’t go in, but the next thing he knew he was back in the kitchen, and then he left his breakfast on the table and charged out the door and headed off to school, leaving his mother and Mira behind to do whatever it was they did after he departed.
Piecing things together all these years later, he could only imagine that it was the most ordinary stuff. She helped Mira get dressed, though on this morning she must have taken a moment to hold her close and wish to herself that certain things had not happened in the night. (She held Mira and then asked to see her underpants. Wouldn’t a normal mother’s blood run cold at the thought of it? Was his mother normal? He didn’t think so. Not after what had happened, not the way she handled it.)
Because here’s what she did (at least what he pieced together about what she did, which to his mind is something quite resembling the truth. He may be a fiction writer, but when it comes to facts about his own life he doesn’t change them. He might assemble them and reassemble them into different arguments or narrative lines, but he would never change them): she finished helping Mira dress, and when his sister went to the bathroom his mother went to the cabinet in the living room and found a bottle of vodka and took a long pull, and then another, before returning the bottle to its resting place. She then went in to the bathroom and studied Mira’s deposit in the bowl. She then helped Mira adjust her clothing and left the house with her and walked her to the elementary school, speaking to her most of the way.
“Mira, you know your mother wouldn’t ever hurt you. Do you know that?”
“Yes, Mama,” Mira said.
Speaking through tears: “You are my little sunshine, you are my artichoke’s eye, my cumin dumpling, my oyster girl, my star upon stars, how I love you. I love you so much!”
Cars passed them by. Patches of fog rolled in off the ocean.
“Dancer of my dance, little cupid love, girl girl, wonder girl, you make me so happy, you are the cat’s meow. Can you say meow?”
Mira said nothing, so mother prompted her again.
“Can you say it?”
Now Mira began to cry.
“No, no, no, no, little pumpkin, please don’t. We have to go to school. We don’t want the teachers seeing you like this. It will make them worry. You don’t want your teachers to worry, do you?”
“No, Mama, no.”
But Mira kept on crying, all the way to the beach, pulling back as Mother pulled her along.
Yes, no school, they walked to the ocean.
Which makes it almost seem something like a dance, doesn’t it? Off goes Father to the Devil’s Slide, and Mother walks Mira to the ocean. (He had by this time settled at his desk at school, where he was fiddling with his pencils and drawing squiggles along the margins of the reading book the students were supposed to work on within a few minutes, although, looking back, he could see that an image was emerging out of the seemingly meaningless massing of squiggles.)
His mother’s mind was filled with more than a few squiggles itself—fraught with disgust and fear and self-loathing, what happened? She knows, she knows, the weeping girl, her fragile body, all this, all this. Waves roared in. Everything has changed. The tide has gone out and will never return.
Mother and daughter knelt at one of the tide pools. Mira must have remembered our little jaunts there because she stopped crying and swished her hand through the (cold, cold) water.
“Crabs go,” she said.
“Oh, yes,” my mother said. “Oh, yes, they do.”
At his desk, furiously working the pencil, he could see an image, a pattern begin to emerge—a large dark bird, crudely drawn, but clearly recognizable.
Birds skittered above them, seeming to swoop and call.
His mother ducked her head, stepped close and took Mira by the shoulders.
“What did he do? You tell me, what did he do?”
In a voice scarcely audible above the sound of the surf, Mira said, “He called me Algalune . . . ” Or, “He called me, Algalune.”
(Mother could not figure out which.)
Below his feet, where the cliff edge ended and the empty space began, Father saw a white gull gliding.
What is it like to fall into that space? Into all that emptiness?
just a dropping off, yes?
Light as air?
Air as light?
But if we ever know
We’ll only know for the time it takes for us to fall away—light as air, air as light—to the rocks below.
I remember a great deal about the next five years, but much of what I recall is ephemeral. Or if important, painful.
I attended school, but didn’t do much work. I got in fights in the schoolyard (once clobbering a boy with a baseball bat that, if I had swung harder, might have changed my life forever). I disrupted the classroom, on the worst occasion overturning all of the desks in the room in a frenzy that, after all these years, I still cannot understand or explain.
But what was my story? Mira’s story was everything.
After our father’s disappearance, she began to alternate between fearsome nightmares and sleeplessness, the latter a rather rare occurrence for a child. And as with a person much older—in fact, until I learned from her about her nocturnal problems I hadn’t been aware that a child might know these torments—she got along with much less sleep than I ever could have survived on in those days.
She grew gaunt, like one of the children you see in photographs of turmoil in third world countries. Mother pretended not to notice, but I did. She rarely sat still at breakfast, using up energy I didn’t know how she found, because she wasn’t eating much, to wander around the kitchen, eyes down, touching surfaces—stove top, sink, table, shelves, shelves—before going back to her room and throwing herself down on her bed.
Mother finally began to give in; she kept her home so that she might try to sleep a little in the mornings. Sometimes she’d even lie down next to her and take her in her arms. At which Mira would usually jump up and wander around the room, as though there could be only one person at a time in her bed.
So she piled up a number of school absences, for no good reason, since she didn’t seem able to catch up on her lost sleep. Instead she grew more gaunt, and more aimless in her behavior.
When she did get to school, her teachers certainly noticed. Her homeroom teacher sent a note home and then called. Mother wrote back to her, called her, went in to speak with her. Seeing Mother, they began to view her as the problem. This went on for years. They’d see Mira, they’d worry. They’d contact Mother, they’d see Mother. She’d tell them about Father’s disappearance, and everyone would retreat into sympathy for her.
Nobody paid any attention to me, which was wonderful and awful at the same time. So out I went, on a binge of laying out from school, and throwing rocks at windows, and I hung out with some older boys at the beach—a tough band all of us, because of the constant fog and wind, but especially tough since a couple of these boys had no homes, their parents having been found out by La Migra and sent back to Mexico while they wandered off and made the decision, a tough one at their young ages, to stay behind and fend for themselves. One of them, the big hero of our bunch, a guy we called Ricky Loco, had already been arrested for minor thievery and sent to a state school, and then deported after he came out, and then after a year or more found his way back across the border and up the coast and back to our same beach.
We indulged ourselves in minor crimes while he was away, boosting some crates of pop from the back of a delivery truck, defacing signs with spray paint, pissing in flowerpots on the porches of distant neighbors, and, once, somehow managing to hot-wire an unlocked car that we drove—I wasn’t behind the wheel, though I was, I admit, in the car—to the beach and rolled onto the sand until its wheels bogged down. (Years later, when I saw a movie about some college kids who managed to lead a white horse up several marble staircases into the office of a dean, I understood that the car had been our Half Moon Bay equivalent of that cool trick.)
All of this was a fine distraction from what was going on at home. Mother was drinking. Mira was sick a lot, and, as a result, missed a lot of school.
And there was Gil.
Mother met him—in fact, we all met him—at the state beach about fifteen miles down the road from Half Moon Bay. Mira and I were playing in the surf while Mother sat in a beach chair and read a book.
Or pretended to. Although, when I was a very small child, she read to me, I don’t know that she had ever read a book all the way through after Father disappeared. It was something about her attention span. (Although, alas, I couldn’t put her to the test by giving her one of my books to read.)
That day at the beach, with the wind blowing quite strong, and vast flights of gulls moving back and forth across the lower western horizon like torn fragments of spume and froth whirled up on the wind from the crashing surf below, she was holding a book by a Brazilian mystic, something about alchemy and desert travel and the visions of a young girl who knew nothing about her own powers until one night in the desert she woke the caravan with a shriek and all looked up into the dark sky an instant before it seemed as though the full moon itself exploded. (Oh, this family pattern began to emerge for me, always with our eyes on the stars! Even my father, before he made his exit, had his hobby of reading science fiction—in fact, it was his cache of books that I found back in the house after this day at the beach that started me on my own tear of reading, reading, reading: H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Heinlein, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Bester, Bradbury. Other kids read about the sea, I read about the stars. And on some nights, when I was feeling particularly extravagant with the rush of life in the upper cosmos, I would read to Mira while she tried to fall asleep. It would be a very long time before I found out the effect that some of this had on her. What did I know? I read to her. I tried to soothe her, to help her sleep.)
Space—no planet, no surrounding landscape, no world underfoot. Only the stars in the velvet night, and hanging against them a great red sun that was beating like a heart. Huge and tenuous at one moment, it would slowly shrink, brightening at the same time as if new fuel was being fed to its internal fires. It would climb the spectrum and hover at the edge of yellow, and then the cycle would reverse itself, the star would expand and cool, becoming once more a ragged, flame-red cloud . . .
That day at the beach I was so distracted by a novel in my hands that when I heard the roar of a motorcycle, muffled by the steady crash of surf and whir of offshore wind, I scarcely looked up from the page. By the time I did, Mother had already been infected by his glistening stare, by that tilt of his head and leather jacket, the scarf blowing in the wind—everything Father was not—by Gil the Biker, as we came to speak about him, a lean man with tanned skin and a scar as long as his lip cut into his right cheek just next to his mouth. (First I think it was me, I referred to him that way, and then Mother picked it up, and then Mira. Gil the Biker.)
“Paulie,” she said to me. “You know how hard I work raising you and your sister now that your father’s gone?”
“Yes, Ma,” I said.
“I can’t help it, how tired I get. So . . . I’m going to go for a little ride,” Mother said, standing over us. Her eyes were floaty, something to do with the wind, I thought. (I didn’t know it at the time, but they had already huddled under a blanket and snorted, a great feat on a windy beach. It was Mother’s first taste of the stuff. How tired did she get? Tired enough to snort coke while caring for her children at the beach.)
Except that I didn’t need any care, not me.
“You go, Ma,” I said. “I’ll watch Mira.”
“I have to go. But I’ll be right back. I promise. I just can’t turn this down.”
She leaned down and kissed Mira on the forehead, handed her hand to me, so that I would hold onto her, and with her cocky biker walked across the road to where his machine stood glistening in the sun.
Just like that, they rode away in the direction of Santa Cruz.
Mira and I stood at the line where the sand ended and the asphalt began, waiting for almost an hour before the two of them roared up over the lip of the road and returned.
“See,” Mother said to our sand-blistered faces, “I wasn’t about to leave you.”
I don’t know what Mira thought. She never said much at all about what she was thinking or feeling. It had certainly never occurred to me that Mother leaving us was a possibility.
Gil became a fixture in our lives. In those days, when California bikers were still fighting the helmet wars, he would appear at our house around supper time, bare headed, in a T-shirt and jeans, with pockets full of chocolates for us (and other goodies for Mother).
Now and then, when Mother had some appointment (at the doctor’s, usually, or at the bank) he would even pick us up at school, the two of us doubling up behind him on the seat for the short ride home. Most of the time we would find him seated at the breakfast table, with coffee cup and cigarette in front of him, while Mother, in her nightgown, gazed serenely out the back window at the garden.
As young as I was then I was old enough to feel the sting of hostility when I saw him taking my father’s place at the table. I stared at his scar until he caught me staring and I looked away.
Who was he and what did he know?
Mira went off to school with Mother.
“Want to play cards?” I didn’t know what Gil did in this world besides ride his bike and bunk with my mother and us. It seemed as though he could give his morning over to playing cards.
But I told him I had to go to school, and headed out the door.
I went straight to the beach.
There was Ricky Loco, sitting on a boulder, smoking a cigarette. Ricky Loco had arrived back across on our side of the border, hardened a little after his time away, and not wanting to be distracted by our minor criminality.
“You don’t got a car,” he said. “Do you?”
“I’m too young to drive,” I said.
“Your mother got a car?”
He reached into his pocket and came up with a couple of tightly rolled cigarettes.
“Give these to her,” he said. “You tell her you got a friend wants to borrow her car.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You better know,” he said. “And don’t go smoking those fucking joints yourself. Give ’em to your mother.”
He stood up and gave me a friendly punch on the arm before walking off.
I wandered the beach for a while, stopping now and then to stare off into the white haze of the surf or watch birds ascend without benefit of moving wings on high coils of air. I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I went to school. By the time I got there word had spread that Ricky Loco had returned to town and that he had been arrested.
There I was, with a house taken over by my mother’s biker boyfriend, and me with two joints in my pocket. What was a boy to do? That night in my room I smoked up a storm, and entered dreams I never knew were possible, with star men and whirling planets playing very large roles. An alien in the form of a chameleon spoke to me from the window ledge. I woke up with a bad taste in my mouth and the first headache of my life.
“You look terrible, kid,” Gil said to me at the breakfast table. His hair was mussed up and he had an odd look in his eye.
I shrugged, didn’t say anything.
“Hey, so, you want to walk your sister to school today? Your mom and I have to get up to the city for a little thing we’re planning on.”
I didn’t ask what that was. Perhaps I should have. But I didn’t.
“Ok,” I said.
He reached across the table and gave me a little tap on the chin.
“You’re cool,” he said.
I closed my eyes and gave myself over to that headache for a moment or two. If he only knew how cool I was!
So with a hollered farewell and the roar of a bike engine, Mother rode off toward the highway.
Aunt Corey, Cordelia Jane Cousins, arrived at school late that afternoon when Mira and I were standing there, still waiting for Mother.
“I can’t believe she did this,” Aunt Corey said as she led us to her car, an old Cadillac plastered with bumper stickers—down earth, up uranus!—make peace, not war—birth of the cool—a bunch of them, a bunch. I read them and Mira cried.
“Stop it,” Aunt Corey said, “just stop it. Crying’s not going to get you anywhere. There’s no getting around it. The bitch took off, but not before calling me and telling me that I had to come down here and get you, because there’s nobody else. She was crying, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I can’t,’ and she got me crying, too. She can’t do this?” Aunt Corey lit up a cigarette and started the car. Smoke plumed up around her as the Cadillac purred and growled. “When she comes back I am going to give it to her, I’ll tell you!”
Years went by before I saw the ocean again, which I suppose is why I find myself writing about it all the time. (Only my current Jungian shrink can help me see the truth about that, yes? Water, water, the Great Mother, womb-home, things she claims to see in my work, which she reads, as you know, as part of our work together, though I don’t want to think about Jungian symbols in the stories I write. I just want to write good stories. Do you know what she says to me? That writing is phallic and reading is feminine. So I suppose this means I hold both ways of being in the world in me, and though I write and read every day I can’t say that I do more of the former than the latter. It’s more difficult to be phallic than female, is the way I see it, based on my experience . . . )
But, oh (oh, female vowel sound!), I missed the ocean.
Up in Volcano, the hamlet in the foothills of the Sierras where Corey took us to live, we had roaring streams after snowmelts, but for a while I dreamed about the curl of waves and the erratic music of the gulls, the ghosts of fog, the perfume of sea foam and sage drifting through the low hills near the beach. I fell asleep thinking about my tide pool, dreaming of opening the door to Atlantis and swimming on through.
Though these dreams soon faded. I was a beach kid mingling with mountain kids, and that took some struggle. Literal struggle. Two kids jumped me in the schoolyard in Jackson the first day of class. I left one of them with a scar on his forehead in the shape of a half shell. His brother attacked me the next day and, as it happened, there was a baseball bat standing against the schoolyard wall. I picked it up and swung at him, hitting him in the stomach.
He vomited blood, and never bothered me again. Neither did his brother.
My story—the story of my life, such as I understood it—took this mountain path and I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I kept on looking forward.
Mira, without me knowing it for a long while, felt the trouble coming, both from within and without. She looked back.
Aunt Corey had given her a little room in the side of the house, with a single small window that looked out onto the edge of the property. Dark trees, and above them a sliver of a moon, these things she saw the first night she stayed in that room, alone, alone, alone. Years later, I learned that she made her first journey out on that night, disintegrating her skin, bones, cells, all, and thus passing in noncorporeal form through the glass of the window and reassembling herself on the other side of the frame.
And started walking. Into the woods and then on the other side of that stand of trees out onto the road, walking west, west, downhill much of the way, until she stood on a rise overlooking the eastern hem of the delta, and then with a push off against the pavement—odd, no cars, not a single one as she set out, but it was undoubtedly quite late—she took to the air, arms outstretched, stringy hair flowing back from her skull like a pennant in the wind. Over the delta, down toward the city, that quickly she flew, and then south again along the cliffs at Devil’s Slide, where our father had disappeared in the company of the mighty ocean that crashed repeatedly—and repeatedly—all night against the rocks.
She imagined she heard someone call her name, someone who had to be our father.
But now he didn’t respond, if he had called to her in the first place, and by then she was already skimming past the cliffs and swooping down onto the roof of our house in Half Moon Bay.
There she hunkered for hours, settling in like an owl or other bird of prey in the hopes of a scent that might produce a meal.
She looked to the west, where the waves slapped the beach.
She looked to the south, where the road sloped toward the southern parts.
She looked to the east, from where she had come, and saw nothing.
North. In that direction her mother had departed.
Center of the space above the house, her rooftop perch, with a scattering of pinecones that had fallen and caught in winds and deposited on the flat place: here she remained, longing for the scent of her mother. But the house was dark and empty and no trace remained of the woman who had abandoned her, us. Still, she kept on hoping, sniffling, peering with owl-like precision into the dark spaces around her while fiddling idly with the hem of her nightgown.
The sky behind the eastern hills turned a shade less dark. In the west, above the pounding ocean, the sky remained dark as the ground. Hours had gone by. She stood up, feeling a weakness in her legs that sent her lurching back against the exhaust pipe at the edge of the roof. Ow! It scraped her, right through the cloth of her gown.
Back in Volcano her body stirred, and she opened her eyes, remembering nothing of her dream, for surely it had been a dream. The front of her flannel nightgown and her pillow were soaked with her tears. She sat up in the bed. Did she feel a tingling in her arms? She thought she felt a tingling in her arms. Sliding her feet onto the cold wood floor she tiptoed out into the kitchen, where she found Aunt Corey, already dressed for work, sitting at the table with a cup of coffee and a magazine in front of her.
“Hello, little girl,” Corey said, looking up from her meditation over those objects.
Smoke curled about her face. Mira could taste the bitterness of the coffee, the acrid residue of the cigarette.
“Can you say good morning?” Corey said.
“Good morning,” Mira said.
“Good morning, Aunt Corey. Can you call me that?”
“Good morning, Aunt Corey.”
“How are you today, darling?”
“I’m glad to hear it. Well, you know, today we have to—”
“But my arms hurt,” Mira said.
“They do? I’m so sorry. Why is that?”
“Because I was flying,” Mira said.
“Oh, silly, were you? Where did you fly?”
“Home,” Mira said.
“You must have dreamed it,” Corey said.
“No, no dream.”
“It must have seemed so real.”
Mira nodded. “I have a hurt,” she said.
Mira turned her back to Corey and pulled up her gown.
“Mira, aren’t you wearing any underpants? And what is that red mark?”
“See,” Mira said.
“See? I see that you shouldn’t walk around without your underpants.”
“Mama let me,” Mira said.
“Well, you’re living in my house now, darling. Now fix yourself and go right back in your room and put on some panties. Your brother lives here with us too, you know?”
Mira went to the dish rack and took down a plate and let it fall onto the floor in front of her, where it splintered into several large pieces and a number of tiny slivers.
“What did you do?”
Corey pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. “Mira!”
Mira hitched up her nightgown, squatted in front of Corey, and before our surprised aunt could do anything but stare—but what might she have done?—Mira pissed on the linoleum floor.
Thus began years of miserable incidents, in which my little sister played out her sorrow about our absent mother—because, as you might figure, she never did come back to pick us up, of which more details later—other peeing incidents, some involving poop, torn and mutilated dolls, an outburst in a restaurant in which she threw food and overturned chairs. This led our justifiably worried Aunt Corey to many many hours of meetings with teachers, school psychologists, and then to a shrink in Sacramento. Little Mira suffered terribly, and then she got bigger, older.
No amount of counseling appeared to do her any good, not in the long run. There was a while when all seemed to be quiet, which is to say good and calm. She did her schoolwork; she did her chores. She had the inside chores: helping with the dishes, setting the table, helping with the laundry. I had the outside chores: taking out the trash, sweeping the walk, fetching the mail, and, as I got older, hauling in wood for the fireplace and washing the car.
And then something would happen, sometimes an incident at school in which Mira, because of some hurt she perceived, would let loose a surge of curses at a schoolmate—or at a teacher.
No amount of discipline seemed to help, and no amount of consultation on Aunt Corey’s part made much of a difference either.
Shit, fuck, piss, cocksucker—where did a girl her age hear these words?
I never used them. Certainly, Aunt Corey never did.
It was as if Mira received this stream of hot language from some unseen source, from a nasty voice close in her ear. It was always possible that one of her little classmates whispered this kind of language to her, but it didn’t seem plausible that such a thing happened.
Within a year, things had moved beyond language.
Aunt Corey heard about it in a telephone call from the school. I got wind of it when a breathless kid named Vander Holdenkamp barged into our classroom and before the teacher could stop him in a loud stage whisper announced that there was some hot stuff going on in the schoolyard.
“It’s your sister!” he hissed at me.
Without looking back, I charged out of the room, the teacher’s angry voice in my ear.
“Come back here, come back!”
I wish I had turned back. As I rushed out of the building and into the empty schoolyard, I saw a crowd of kids just beyond the fence that led onto a flat field of scrub plants and sandy earth, a crowd that gave my heart a cold jolt of rage even before I knew the reason why it had gathered.
My sister, lying on her back, with a boy pounding his body against hers, while several other boys stood in line for the terrible honors, and the cruel pathetic audience of other children cheered and jeered.
Time then stopped, while I picked up a rock and hurled it against the back of the boy who had mounted my sister.
A small riot ensued, as the boy let out a scream, and his friends charged at me, and my sister cried out a hateful name for me, and these others wrestled me to the ground.
“You stop it, Paul!” she cried out. “These boys are my friends! Go away!”
Hours later, after Aunt Corey had returned from the local clinic where Mira had been examined by a doctor, we sat in the vice principal’s office, me, Mira, Aunt Corey, the parents of the offending boy, and the teacher who had run after me and found us all writhing on the ground.
“Tell us, Paul, just what you thought you were doing?” The vice principal had already elicited statements from everyone else except Mira and me.
“Nothing,” I said, my mouth tasting of blood and dirt.
“You could have killed someone with that rock,” he said.
This dream-like interrogation went on for a while longer, its point being that since, as the doctor surmised, the boy had not penetrated my little sister, the truly dangerous event had been my blow to his back with the rock.
But then, as we recollect such matters from our childhood, who is to say, who is to say, just what part is dream and just what part actually occurred?
Mira certainly didn’t recall the incident with any realistic appraisal at all.
“I unnerstan, Aunt Corey, I unnerstan” was the only thing she said when Corey spoke to her about wandering off the school premises with such boys, but, of course, she didn’t “unnerstan” at all. Years later, after I found her journal, I unearthed a passage about this same event, which she depicted as “a conglomeration of astral energy and dirty earth powers, ganging up on me to push me further down into my own troubles, so that I might come back out the other side . . . ”
You can see from this passage that by then she had already dived into the deep waters of her situation, but way back then, the day I ran out to the field to try and rescue her, she already was teetering on the edge.
A visit from our mother soon after this incident pushed her even further toward that point of no return. The woman who gave birth to us arrived on a brisk Sunday morning of piercing blue skies, quite unexpectedly, in a black helmet and leather jacket and jeans on a Harley, her own, and proceeded to pull small gifts out of the saddlebags. A book for me—she knew me, she did—two novels by Olaf Stapledon in one volume, Last and First Men and Star Maker, and The Old Man and the Sea, a book that has shaped me forever, because it was so perfect and imperfect at the same time. For Mira she had brought a silver butterfly-shaped hair clasp that she said she had bought at an Indian reservation in New Mexico.
Mira took the butterfly clasp from her, stared at it a moment, and tossed it into the air. I watched it catch the light before it fell to the ground, while our mother screamed.
“It didn’t fly!” Mira shouted, and ran around to the back of the house and hid in the scrub bushes until Aunt Corey, with her begging manner, finally coaxed her inside.
Corey made supper for us all, and while we were eating Mira ducked under the table several times and pulled at our ankles.
“Please,” our mother said. “Please. You’re too old for this.”
“Never too old, never too old, never too old,” Mira began to chant.
The two sisters tried to ignore her, but I couldn’t. I knew Mira was feeling awful, or she wouldn’t have stayed under the table for so long during the meal.
I don’t remember what we ate. I do remember staying up late to read the Stapledon, though I didn’t get far in its dense passages about the far distant future of our species and took up the slender Hemingway. A sentence, and more, floated up to my eyes. The shark was not an accident. He had come up from deep down in the water as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mile deep sea. He had come up so fast and absolutely without caution that he broke the surface of the blue water and was in the sun. Then he fell back into the sea and picked up the scent and started swimming on the course the skiff and the fish had taken . . . I drifted away.
To be awakened in what was the middle of the night by the sounds of someone tapping on my window. I sat up in bed in the darkened room, and then got up, the Hemingway novel, which had slipped onto my chest when I had fallen asleep, dropping to the floor. (Where was the Stapledon? Somewhere near the foot of the bed. Why do I recall these seemingly stupid details? I don’t know. Writers remember, they do, they do.)
The tapping increased, and I went to the window. Outside, the air was bright with snow, light reflecting off the myriad flakes from a half-moon hovering above the dark tree line. At the edge of the clearing a medium-sized buck stood, head (and thus his small rack of antlers) tilting toward the house as though in punctuation of a question someone within had raised. The slanting snow, the trees, the animal figure, the sound of my young beating heart, the floor beneath my feet—everything came together for me in a sudden intake of my breath, and I understood that, though it was not the sea in some Caribbean shade of thunderheads billowing overhead, I wanted to write down what I saw and hold the sentences up to the light. For the first time, I knew what I wanted; it was my making. I was holding that moment, the mix of mood and aspiration, when the noise of women shouting clattered across my near-dream state.
Aunt Corey: I can’t!
Mother: Please, I just need a little more time.
Corey: You told me that a year ago!
Mother: I just need a little more time.
Corey: To get your head straight?
Mother: That’s right.
Corey: What about my head?
Mother: It’s easier for you.
Corey: What is?
Mother: Life, living, days.
Corey: That is such bullshit!
Mother: The kids love you. They hate me.
Corey: They miss you. They just don’t . . .
Mother: Don’t what?
Corey: They don’t know you.
Mother: I don’t fucking know me.
Corey: That’s the problem.
A glass shattered, a scream went up.
Mother: Fucking . . . kill . . . myself.
Corey: Stop it! When did you start talking like this? I never remember you talking like this.
Mother: Fucking kill . . .
Corey: If you don’t . . .
Mother: No, no, no.
Corey: Put that down.
Mother: I . . . I . . .
Corey: There, that’s it.
Mother: I’m so . . .
Corey: There, there.
Mother: There, there? Where, where?
Corey: That’s it.
Mother: I am so . . .
Corey: Who isn’t?
Sobbing, sobbing, my mother sobbing.
Corey: Oh, you are so . . .
Mother: What am I?
Corey: What did you just do?
Mother: It’s medicine.
Corey: The hell, medicine.
Mother: It calms me down.
Corey: You are such—
Mother: Shut up.
Corey: Don’t speak to me that way. I’ve helped you.
Mother: She’s a devil.
Corey: What are you talking about?
Corey: You are so . . .
Mother: You wait, you’ll see.
Chairs scraped against the kitchen floor. Noises, yelps.
I hadn’t taken more than a step out into the hall when I heard Mira scream.
Mother: See her?
Corey: Let her go.
Mother: She’s the devil.
Corey: Let her go. Don’t be ridiculous.
Mother: Evil, evil.
Corey: You’re stoned, you asshole.
Corey: Let her . . .
As I ran into the kitchen, I saw our mother twisting Mira by the neck, both of them down on the floor, with Aunt Corey tearing at Mother’s arm.
“No,” I shouted, “let her go!”
“She’s a devil!” Mother screamed.
I picked up a chair and swung it at her, hitting her shoulder and neck. As she grabbed at the pain, Mira scrambled away and ran from the room.
Simple as that—oh, yes, so simple! I chased after Mira and found her huddling in a closet in Aunt Corey’s bedroom. I sat next to her, trying to hold her in my arms, as I believed then a brother should. But she pulled away, as though I were trying to tear off a tuft of her hair or pinch her arm. After a while we both fell asleep, only to be awakened by a slamming door, and the revving roar of our mother’s motorcycle. I jumped up and ran from the room, racing to the door. Aunt Corey stood there, shaking her head.
As you might expect, both of us turned gloomy, though in Mira’s case most of what she felt she kept inside, showing little in her face. In fact, for a time Mother’s departure seemed to have a slightly good effect on my sister. Following a suggestion from our aunt, she began to weave little gewgaws like potholders and placemats, a dull hobby, you might think, unless, as with Mira’s work, you began to notice the design she used in almost every one of her creations. No mean feat, at her age, that was true, but there was the eye, right in the middle of every woven thing she produced—the eye of God, as she called it.
“Very nice,” Aunt Corey said, when taking a look at a number of Mira’s creations.
I mumbled something similar. For me, at the age that I was then, things girls made with their hands didn’t figure a lot for me.
“Eye,” Mira said, holding up one of her potholders in front of her face, so that the eye rested in the middle of her forehead.
“Cute,” Aunt Corey said. “The third eye. How did you know about that, darling?” she asked.
“Eye,” Mira said, still holding that image up to her forehead.
For a moment, it gave me a little chill in the chest, as though she had become a character in one of the science fiction novels I had read.
Or in one of the horror novels by Stephen King I had not yet discovered, but would, to waste time with them over the many hours in years to come.
It wasn’t until years later that I recognized the design as similar to a woven image that ran through a great deal of the tapestries and mats made by the Huichol Indians of northwest Mexico.
But these were our lives, not stories out of horror fiction, though there were times over the next few years, when I would, as I see it now, of course, but not, never, back then, retreat into the imaginary worlds of ragtag genre fiction, that I sometimes imagined that the many lives I conjured up by reading began to bleed into one another.
Now on that subject: you know, as an artist, a writer, one of the great pleasures that you discover as you work—and a pleasure that often pays you back in spades for the drudgery of everyday labor, the typing, the typing—comes in the form of noticing the links among early scenes and late, between seemingly quite dissimilar locations, beginnings and ends, much of it in the form of what composers might call motiv or motif. And the joy of following the threads that hold all the sequences together, threads of language and action, the bone and nerves and muscle of a story or novel, ah, I don’t mean to lecture, though. Just think of the singing of your blood in your veins that might come of discovering a gold coin in the mud, or if you still recall—just joking—what it was like, that electrical charge that surged through the air when we first met—it’s like that, the joy that comes of this particular variety of art.
Mira, her third eye, one memory bleeding into another—your blood, mine—it’s on my mind now because of what I want to tell you next.
Mira stopped talking, except to say that word.
Eye and eye and eye, that was the only thing Mira said to us at home, and the only thing she said to her teachers and fellow students. Eye. Over and over. Her teacher called Aunt Corey and Aunt Corey went in for a conference that turned out to be most unsatisfactory.
“She needs help,” the teacher said.
“I’m trying the best I can,” Aunt Corey said.
“She needs professional help,” the teacher said.
Fuck you, Aunt Corey wanted to say. I’m trying as hard as I can. She’s not my child. I’m doing my best.
But she didn’t say that.
She said, “Can you recommend somebody?”
So that’s how our weekly trip to Sacramento began.
Down from the foothills and back, down from the foothills and back. I didn’t always travel with them. I was older, and had things to do after school, such as walk out into the woods with pals from our little school and compare the size of our peckers, or discuss the sex lives of our parents.
“My ma wouldn’t do that,” Jim Gimbel said, a big-eared kid with a crew cut dyed purple around the edges.
“What are you talking about?” Jared Pilker, who lived down the road from me, threw back at Jim.
“I did it with her!”
“You his father?” I said to Jared, and Jim pitched a fallen branch at me, and then chased Jared down the hill, catching him around the chest and throwing him to the ground.
“Enough!” I shouted when I saw Jim about to burst into tears.
“Make him apologize,” Jim shouted.
“I apologize to your mother’s pussy!” Jared rasped through his pain.
“See?” Jim said, and picked up another branch and brought it down on Jared’s shoulder.
“Shit!” Jared screamed, and I jumped between them, and then we all calmed down and after a while just stumbled along through the woods, throwing rocks at squirrels.
And, now and then, break into a shuttered house that belonged to rich folks from the city—as in San Francisco—who came up to the Sierras during the summer and on ski holidays only.
We did this maybe only once or twice a year, because we were smart kids and knew the state police got on these cases with great speed, working, as they did, for the pleasure of putting away rednecks who tamper with the fine living of high-rolling high-tech folk who owned the large properties around our little village. We also did these things easily, a rock through a window, or even finding a window unlocked, and then having the house to ourselves for hours and hours, nothing crazy on my part, except once, which I’ll tell you about in a minute, but now and then some of the other boys, my friends Jimmy and Arnie, went a little wild, pissing on sofas, and pulling out drawers and throwing everything on the floor, or—one guy, whose name and such I won’t bother with, because I really only remember him for this, one guy, a real space case, dropping his drawers and depositing some turds on the living room rug.
When I got inside one of these houses, I went like a maniac through the dressers and desks, hoping to find—what? Money? Gold? What was I looking for? I couldn’t have told you back then. On this particular afternoon that I sharply recall—while Aunt Corey and Mira were riding down to Mira’s psychologist, staying for the session, and then driving back up into the hills—I pulled down books from shelves, glancing at them and tossing them aside, glancing, tossing them aside (because how could I ever have predicted at that time in my life that I would one day understand all too well the amount of living and hard labor that went into the composition even of a bad book, let alone one that might live a little while in the minds of readers, or one that, oh ye gods, might make the leap from one generation to the next?).
And then one book caught my eye—On the Road—and I picked it back up from the floor and stuck it into the back of my pants, and kept at my restless agitated labor, still looking, still looking. My friends were shouting from the other room.
Hey! Come here! Hey, take a look!
By then I was bending down and looking under the bed in the master bedroom, pulling at a lowboy that rolled easily out from under. Inside: sweaters, smell of mothballs, a manila folder, which I tossed to one side, and an old cigar box, though this I kept directly at hand.
Hey, come here!
Wait a minute! I called back.
And opened the cigar box to find a row of neatly rolled cigarettes. I wasn’t a smoker then, or even now, but I had some interest in what I took these to be, and so I removed one and put it in my shirt pocket and closed the box.
Shut up! I called back.
And opened the folder.
Yes, of course, just as you probably guessed, it was a stash of photographs showing adults—I stress this, adults!—in various sexual poses, including one with a fluffball of a pet dog with its paw—clearly the owner had posed it—on the woman’s chest.
Disgusting! I said to myself, even as I worked my way through the sheaf of glossy photographs and grew more and more excited by what I saw, right down to the final picture, which showed a naked masked woman—I should have told you that all the people in these photographs wore plain, dime-store masks—serving drinks on a tray to two other naked people in bed. If this were a story, I suppose the naked waitress, whose large drooping breasts kept my attention for at least a minute while my friends kept on howling for me from the other room, would have turned out to have been Aunt Corey, whose naked torso I would have recognized because I had been spying on her through the keyhole of her bedroom. But this wasn’t one of my stories, this was part of my life, and the naked waitress was a stranger, though someone I, in my instantaneous pubescent fires, longed to meet. Oh, yes!
(And in answer to your question, before you ask it, of course I was spying on Aunt Corey through the keyhole! What normal American boy wouldn’t have been doing that?)
I heard my friends thundering near the bedroom door. Quickly I closed the folder and returned it to where I found it and rolled the lowboy back beneath the bed.
In another odd anti-twist to the question of life versus art, if that is what I happen to be talking about here, I later learned that it was just then, in the car, on the way back from the psychologist’s office in Sacramento, that Mira began to bleed.
From her eyes.
“Look!” Mira called to Aunt Corey from the backseat. She had just felt a slight tingling in her right eye and had rubbed her knuckles against it, her knuckles coming away tinged with blood.
She held out her small fist over the back of Aunt Corey’s seat.
Corey glanced over and made a noise in her throat.
“Uh! How did you cut yourself, darling?”
The faint thought passed through her mind, she told me years later, that something in the session with the psychotherapist had caused Mira to do some harm to herself, and she raced rapidly back in her mind through the meeting, which was almost all Mira playing with some toys, dolls, Legos, the doctor had given her—could she have cut herself on a Lego block?
Mira didn’t say. She sat back in the seat, and her own mind raced, but not playing back that session with the doctor, she told me later that day. This marked the beginning of the period when she began to talk to me about what was happening to her. Because she was scared, she didn’t really know what was happening, and she hoped I could help, though, of course, she didn’t put it exactly in those words when she spoke to me—at that age she didn’t have the ability, even as she was thinking in what I later came to call her cosmic mode, to think in a simple rational way.
She said to me, “I told him who was talking to me,” and I said, “What are you talking about?” and she said, “I told him, he asked me, I told him.” I said, “You mean the doctor?” and she said, “Yes,” in that tiny voice of hers that later became such an instrument of noise, and I said, trying, I suppose, without knowing the term for it, to keep rational, “And who was talking to you, Mira?” And that was when she said that disturbing name. “Algalune,” she said. “Who is that?” I said, but she was already preoccupied with the bleeding that came on so heavily at that moment. She ran from me, ran toward Aunt Corey, screaming.
Algalune, Algalune . . . a kind of music in that word or name. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I’m not sure I know even now. But that night, while I lay alone in my room, the word went around and around in my mind. Unable to fall asleep, I found some matches and, after opening my window, I lit up that cigarette I had found in the house we had broken into, and then using my free hand to fan the smoke out into the dark above the snow I inhaled deeply, and deeply again. Junior smoker that I was, I thought it was a miracle that I didn’t cough and disturb what was building around me as a distinctive and almost palpable silence. Aside from the intake of my own breath the house was quiet, and outside the window no wind brushed across the tree branches, or the surface of the snow, which seemed to glow with an interior whiteness, without the light of a full or even half-moon to lacquer its brilliance. I have no excuse for telling you that over the next few minutes I did nothing but fan away the smoke and stare at the snow. The weed itself had no strength, I became convinced, and I felt as stupid as a patch of dirt that I would stand there, trying to feel the power of something that had no hold on me or any other part of the world. Fuck! I cursed it in my mind, I cursed myself. No father, no mother to care for me, I had only dutiful Aunt Corey, and I thought of her asleep beneath a heap of covers only a room away, and little Mira only two rooms away, and my mind drifted back to that photograph of the masked “waitress,” and I tried to call up the image of her large breasts, the tray of drinks, wondering what a drink would taste like. Fruity, I supposed, because I had not yet tasted dryness in a drink, and just then I felt a little tingling in my limbs so that I shifted my feet and then glanced out into the dark to watch the curls and the filigrees of smoke fade into nothing.
Someone coughed inside the house, Aunt Corey, no doubt, because of the loudness of the sound she made in her sleep, and I looked back into the room. Sleep, I said to her in my mind. Sleep, and don’t bother me. What am I? Not your child, not your son. The waitress came into my mind again, her breasts, the nipples like crochet work, intricate and hypnotic.
No more coughs.
I turned back to the window, inhaling more smoke.
Poor kid that I was, still half a child, not yet more than half a man-to-be. My mind suddenly swimming in that smoke. Algalune, Algalune. That word—name?—Mira spoke came drifting in my mind. Oh, Algalune, power of the night. Speak to me in thy darkest woeful voice that I might end my days as a creature derided and blind in a world where woe rules, triumphant over good.
What? I had no idea what I was saying to myself, or to anyone who might hear. I drew in more smoke, held it in my lungs, exhaled.
The room began ever so slightly to tilt, so that I had to lean against the windowpane in order to keep myself straight and upright.
And then came the tiniest shift of wind, of air, in through the window like a thief in the night. I looked out and thought I saw a small dark shape at the edge of the trees where nothing had stood when I had looked before. The cold air nailed my feet to the floor. The shape began to stir, and I felt paralyzed, desperate to close the window but unable to move.
A noise outside, the scratch of claw on wood directly beneath my window. My chest froze, and I dropped the cigarette, reaching to close the window before it was too late. I caught a glimpse of movement just below the sill. Fear blew through me like a cold shifting wind.
At the sound of her voice, I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“Mira,” I said, turning around. “What are you doing?”
“Help me,” she said, and held up a hand smeared with dark blood.
The extraordinarily early onset of her menses brought on another round of visits to Jackson, to the general practitioner, and then, on his recommendation, to Sacramento.
Which left me alone and on my own some afternoons after school. It wasn’t long before I found myself hoping for another glimpse at those photographs, and another—I have to admit it—another couple of tokes on one of those cigarettes. So one gray winter afternoon, as I watched Aunt Corey drive away with Mira in the backseat, I counted to about twenty-five and then took off through the snow into the woods behind the house and headed over toward that vacation home my friends and I had visited.
This time I didn’t need my friends, and didn’t want them either. Being alone might have made a difference if I hadn’t done this before. But I knew the way. The house appeared to be as deserted as ever. I noticed a few footprints in the snow, but these, I figured, might have been our own, from the first time that winter we had gone in to look around. I went in through the same unlocked kitchen window and headed directly to the bedroom and pulled out that lowboy and opened the box.
The tightly rolled cigarettes were gone!
The folder with the photographs was gone!
Those rats! I cursed my friends, figuring that they had come in without me and taken the stash, the weed, and the dirty pictures.
Goddamn! I said out loud.
(That name, word, just came to mind, so I used it.)
Al-ga-lu-lu-lu-lune . . .
I blanked out.
I don’t know what it was, but that’s what happened.
So that when I heard noises from another room, I had no time to run.
My chest had gone cold before, now it was all the blood in my body.
Right out of an old western: the chp guys burst into the room with big guns drawn.
You know a lot about the next part of my life, because you’ve read the stories that led up to the novel, and the novel itself, and the memoir that got me started in this writing life, the life I love so much. It’s what I did, what I do, what I will do, years and years to come, pray the gods. Some writers go to war and come back with stories, others go out into the world looking for stories involving danger and other peoples’ misfortunes, but I have done just fine as far as “material” goes, by just trying to keep my head above water, and failing, sometimes. But failure, with all of its painful details, is so much better to write about than the smooth thing success, without ripples, without wind, without shadow. So went the long round of hearings and an initial probation, and my fall back into petty crime—Jesus, it was only a joyride on a mountain bike that I found on the hitching rack in front of a local motel, but for that judge down in Jackson it was the last straw—and my journey into the world of juvenile incarceration.
The first time I finished my sentence, which that same judge reduced by a large number of months, I returned to Aunt Corey’s to find that nothing seemed to have changed. My aunt was working hard to keep her job and the house in good order. Mira was still bleeding, and seeing the psychologist twice a week down in Sacramento. I tried to fit myself back into this round of things, first by fooling myself into a burst of enthusiasm about returning to school, and second by my pleasure at seeing Aunt Corey and Mira again. There had been times, oh yes, and I have written about them, when I thought I would never see the old places and the old good things again. But here they were.
It didn’t take but a week for me to leave them behind again.
What do I weigh now? About a hundred and seventy at most? I was never a big kid, but food in detention bulked me up, and I learned out of necessity to fight hard and, if it had to be, dirty. So when I saw Jimmy and Arnie coming toward me down the hall on that first day back in school, and I saw they were smiling, I got hopping mad and pushed them both, one in each hand, back up against the lockers.
“Shut up, you rat!” I said. “The Chips were waiting for me.”
“It wasn’t us . . . ” Jimmy looked to be pissing his pants right then and there.
“Oh, so the owners found out by reading minds all the way from San Francisco.”
“They must have come up.”
“You fucking ratted on me,” I said.
“Why would we do that?” This was Arnie, a sly smile on his face.
“Because you went back into the house, and you got caught. So you set me up.”
They denied it, and the truth was, I couldn’t figure out what had happened, but it didn’t matter, did it? Because I had already gotten caught, and now here I was, scaring the hell out of these two, just by standing there.
“Well, kiss my ass!” I said, and yanked them both forward and then slammed them back against the lockers.
Just in that moment, the principal came roaring down the hall.
“I saw that, Paul!” he said, and by the end of that day I was on my way back to the juvenile facility in Sacramento, and back in to the life that would give me all the fuel for those first few books.
All these disappearances and absences, first, our father, and then our mother, and now, for Mira, it was me that disappeared again, which left her with nobody but Aunt Corey, poor, loving, dedicated, hardworking Aunt Corey, overwhelmed by this responsibility and determined to execute it to the best of her ability.
Mira, alone with Aunt Corey.
Because that was when her imaginary—if imaginary he was—companion or contact or whatever you want to call him began really to sink his talons into her life.
I don’t use the image of his talons lightly.
Not only was all of Mira’s worst time going on while I was living my young life in the system, after a while she began to keep a notebook. So that when I say talons, I mean talons, because that’s how she described him.
I’m not kidding. I’m not making this up.
Look, you know this, all my life, I’ve told you, and you’ve seen me doing it these last couple of years we’ve been living together, I’ve been a reader, because reading feeds writing, but I’ve also been a reader right across the menu, from filet to Big Macs. Even when I first started out as a reader, as I mentioned, I was reading Olaf Stapledon and Hemingway, and as I grew older I read everybody in between, and a lot of people on the fringes. That period of incarceration really got me started, because I had so much more time on my hands than most kids my age, and I made up my mind rather early in my troubles that I wasn’t going to waste the time. Because time is a terrible thing to waste, all puns intended.
Christ, I read everything, just like young Willy Faulkner in the post office at Oxford, Mississippi, or as a night watchman at the local power plant—whenever I didn’t have to get off my ass to perform some absolutely required labor I was sitting down and reading.
And that reading included, along with the books that would serve as a horizon point for the best in me, the mountains I strove to reach, the stars I wanted to stretch high enough myself to touch with my own fingers, some crap. But entertaining crap. And some highfalutin crap. Do I have to name them? Horror by H.P. Lovecraft, and then some of the early Stephen King, and then spy thrillers—but no mysteries, mysteries just sort of left me cold—and some crime caper fiction by Elmore Leonard, the king of the hill when it comes to that kind of book. I’ve never thought to add up all the hours I’ve spent reading, and I certainly haven’t ever added up the sum for all the hours I’ve spent reading the junk genre stuff. Needless to say it’s been a lot of hours. But then in my work life that’s the equivalent of somebody else taking a break and going outside to stare at the noontime sun or at the sunset, or the moonrise. When you take a breather you still keep breathing air.
One of the first entries in the journal that Mira kept in the years while I was away, the physical object itself bound in old Christmas wrapping paper Aunt Corey must have used for one of her presents.
Yes, I went. I went away.
And left her feeling as helpless—I’m paraphrasing the journal entries from here on in—as a kitty on a road.
She kept up her doctors’ appointments. What choice did she have? And for a while the care the doctor showed her seemed to have some effect. The bleeding became sporadic, and then ceased altogether, all of this without a real diagnosis.
She actually settled in at school, and she was doing so well for a while that for a time I believed that I was having something to do with her previously awful condition, the fearful visions, the bleeding.
Because when she and Aunt Corey came to pay me a visit at the juvenile facility in Roseville—a kind of boys’ camp with walls, where the usual viciousness and brutality and bad food that boys found in junior high was duplicated by the state with an almost perfect sense of pitch—the first thing they noticed was the black eye I had suffered in a brawl in the play yard about three days before their arrival.
It made Aunt Corey cry whereas Mira merely stared.
That same night she recorded in her book that her bleeding began again.
But some good things came of my incarceration. The paneling in my office? The garage doors? The bathroom tiling? All things I learned to do as I spent my time in one institution after another, acquiring skills. (Of all the writers I know, and I’ve met plenty by now, I’m the only one I know who can do both paneling and electronics! Of all the writers I know, I’m the only one I know who has waited so long to use the most horrendous events of his life for aesthetic purposes.)
And, as I said, I read. I read my way from the first day to my last in that place.
And when I got back to Aunt Corey’s I kept on reading, right through another couple of months of Mira’s doctors’ appointments, and I read right through getting picked up again for taking a neighbor’s brand-new suv for a joyride and going back to Roseville. And right through the next couple of years of staying in and getting out and going back in again.
Mira had been doing fairly well during this period. For her it wasn’t simply, The Time That My Brother Was Gone, it was the Time—she wrote this in her notebook some years later—When Healing Came and Went.
She didn’t describe the major event of that time in her young life until long after it was over. But it began, if I can trust her notebook entries, while I was up in Roseville, learning a trade, working out, reading the Captain Horatio Alger sea adventure series and trying and failing to get very far in War and Peace and more Olaf Stapledon. (Oh, and if you’re wondering how I got ahold of all these books, most of them came from a project that a couple of undergraduates started up over at UC Davis—read yourself free was the name of it, and folks from all over donated books that the UC Davis kids delivered to juvenile detention facilities around the state. Now you recall? That’s the group I gave all that money to after I got the movie option.)
Anyway . . .
Sorry to sound so blasé. Jesus, I was feeling anything but that, except as I tell it to you now, a certain inevitable weariness sets in, maybe to counteract the pain that comes in telling it.
Her birthday, a day meant to be, God knows, a happy occasion in anyone else’s life.
At the clinic in Jackson, where she worked all these years, Aunt Corey prepared to draw blood from a young woman whose pregnancy test turned out positive, and Mira walked out of the school building, singing a little song to herself about her birthday—it’s my birthday, not your birthday, my birthday, not your birthday, but we could share a birthday if we need to—and I was sitting in the facility library, staring in a dreamy state at a map of the China Sea and South Pacific, imagining myself living on a small island, part of the Indonesian archipelago, that I had read about in some story earlier in the year, title of which escapes me.
The school bus pulled up into the driveway.
As I tell you this my heart sinks like a stone in water. I still see her standing there, waiting, watching for the bus. Get back inside the building! I want to shout at Mira. Go on, go on!
But I didn’t know until later that Mira ran out to meet the school bus, just as a car pulled up behind the bus, and out stepped a woman wearing a leather jacket and dark glasses.
“Mira, honey,” the woman called to her.
The teacher in charge of the bus loading went right up to her and began to converse.
Oh, she said, oh, impressed that Mira’s mother—she had identification—had driven all the way up from the city to pick up her daughter.
Oh, I drove and drove, Mother said. Her breath came in short bursts. She was excited, not having seen Mira in all this time, her eyes behind the smoke of her glasses darting wildly about, from Mira, who was hanging back behind the teacher, to the teacher’s face, to Mira again, to the school building, to the bus. The air was thick with fumes from the vehicle’s exhaust, making it all the more difficult to breathe. I think I know what she was thinking—me, the novelist, and her son, making, at least a good guess.
She was thinking: all the way from the city, that life I lead, waking so early, working the night at the office, how good to key in what I key in, remunerated in stock upon stock, using my brains for a change, all those years wasted, that horrible man, the way he used me, the toking, the drinking, living in fog after fog after fog, but today was a bright blue morning once the fog lifted and driving up here, all this way, my heart ballooned with hope, as though it might just float me up out of the car and into the air, and I could sail all the way over the Sierras and keep rising higher and higher into the straits of air where oxygen is wanting, but I could keep on going, going to get my little girl after all this time.
Her good motives: not a bad woman, no, just foolish and incompetent, and when it came to love just as stupid as stupid can be, not unfeeling or uncaring but without much sense of what she was doing in the present, let alone what consequences would follow from what she was doing.
Here we go, she said to Mira once they got underway. Wave good-bye to your school.
Mira sat there, thinking, I will speak to the trees and say good-bye. Yes, she was sending them brain messages, as she came to call them. Good-bye, trees, good-bye, cold air, good-bye, clouds that floated so close to the ground you thought they would settle on your head like a blanket.
Yes, she was still so young, so naïve, she thought she could put him behind her just like that.
Insulated, in the car, her mother chattering away, she couldn’t hear Algalune say to her, waving from the trees, “See you later.”
Yes, and neither could Mother see, let alone imagine, what happened to Aunt Corey when she returned home from work expecting to find Mira. Corey had gotten used to my absence, and in a way it made her happy that she didn’t have to deal with a hungry, growing, galumphing, and rather mischievous, if not entirely criminal, boy (though the system had already translated my mischief into crime, I wasn’t entirely ready for the criminal life). But to find a completely empty house, without her darling Mira! She had come in the door and then she raced right out, and then raced in again, calling the school on the telephone.
Hello, hello? She could hardly speak; she tried so hard to explain everything all at once.
The principal told her that Mira’s mother had arrived to pick her up.
Her mother! What did she look like?
The principal described the woman. She had all the proper identification, she said. Are you saying that she wasn’t Mira’s mother?
No, no, Corey said. I’m coming over. I don’t know what to do.
Shall I call the state police?
Yes, no, it was her mother, you described her to me. I’m sure it was her mother. The police won’t do anything. I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!
But it was her mother, the principal said, and so everything is fine.
Her mother! My sister hasn’t been fine in years, she’s . . . Corey’s voice sputtered out into the incomprehensible. She felt faint and leaned against the wall. She had to take a wee. She couldn’t think straight, her heart beating faster and faster and faster. Mira! Oh, my God, she had fallen in love with her little niece over the years, as disturbed as the girl was, or perhaps because she was so disturbed, she had kept her and defended her, cared for her, and now this! Oh, my God, she wanted to kill herself. She wanted to kill her sister, yes, her sister was driving her mad!
By this time, Mother and Mira had nearly reached Sacramento, and headed west on 80 toward the city.
Oh, my darling, Mother said, I have missed you so much. Do you know how much I’ve missed you?
Yes, Mama, Mira said.
More than life itself, I have missed you all the years I was away, so crazy. Why did I go? Why did I go?
And Mira was listening and not listening, drifting into a half-sleep, and also discovering that though they had covered a certain number of miles since she had stepped out of the school door she somehow believed that they were returning to Aunt Corey’s house. It wasn’t until hours and hours and hours of driving, and sinking into a deep sleep and waking to smell the sage-tinted salt air of the Pacific, that she understood how far she had come.
Om, Mother said to her. Om. Om. Ommmmm . . .
Mira smiled, hoping she was not dreaming now.
Little girl, little Mira, caught in this web of life, like a moth in a spider’s web. Or, yes, butterfly, if they, too, become entangled. (My knowledge of nature focuses more on the inner than the outer. I have never studied butterflies—or moths, for that matter—but I have brooded long and hard over my sister, my Mira, little Mira, just then believing that she had been found by the woman she had missed so much that she had had to put her out of her thoughts so that she might not begin each day with a terrible feeling of having shattered into a hundred pieces.)
“Do you like it here?”
“Yes,” Mira said. “But Aunt Corey’s going to be mad.”
“I’m the mad one, the angry one,” Mother said. “Angry at myself for having abandoned you.”
For some of us, nightmares begin in sleep, others, much more unfortunate, in waking, and others, the least fortunate, from waking into birth and onward. Mira’s sleep that night may have set a new record. First, she dreamed—yes, here he was—having caught up to her, if ever she left him behind—of Algalune, engaging him in a conversation that, according to her notebooks much further along in this rapidly tumbling forward series of events, was a new and higher level of engagement.
Hi, he said.
You here? she said.
Yeah, yeah, I sort of never left, though I did wave good-bye. Did you see me wave good-bye?
I thought it was good-bye, really.
Really? What’s really? What’s real?
It amazed her that she didn’t feel afraid. When he had first spoken to her it had scared her, coming from her father’s mouth, but now it was just his voice in the dark in her little room up at our mother’s house near the beach. You, he had said, in a deep bass with some trills in the upper register. Two voices at once, almost, is what it seemed like. How could anyone speak that way? But he did. And she listened.
I’ve been watching you for years, from over in the shadows. That’s why you couldn’t see me. But if you knew what you were looking for you could have felt me. A little fear. A faint trembling. A lot of worry about small things—were you going to fall? Were you going to get sick and throw up? Were other kids going to like you? At first, you remember, you tried to ignore me. Ah, ah, don’t deny it. You tried. You pretended I didn’t speak to you. But pretend that something doesn’t exist and you have to admit that it does.
Good, good, and spoken like a big girl.
I am a big girl.
Yes, yes, you are.
And now Mama’s come to get me.
Yes, yes, she’s got you. Do you like it?
I missed her.
And she missed you. Like an arrow sent flying toward a target.
Mama’s not an arrow.
But she could pierce your hurt. I mean, your heart. Well, she already has. The question is, do you want it to happen again? Do you want it to happen over and over and over?
I don’t know.
You have to make up your mind. The way you make up your bed.
I’ll explain. Things will become clear. But first, do you want to take a ride?
Flying again? It made me dizzy.
You’re a bigger girl now than you were back then. It will make you strong and wise, this kind of flying now.
I’m ready to go.
And before she knew it—as they say in stories—she was soaring above the trees, in this case, heading north up the coast to the Devil’s Slide, where our father had disappeared, and then slipping west and out over the boiling surf, the ocean.
(And when I read this part of her story, I understood that a great deal had happened to her that she had never talked about, this flying trip, comparable to one of the trips I, myself, had taken.)
To the islands! Off and soaring! Through clouds and above the clouds, this young girl, in the arms of Algalune, looking up into the stratospheric blue above and down at the green-tinted Pacific below. She blinked and the Farallon Islands lay below and behind her, and before she could take a few more breaths—hard to breathe up there, but then Algalune held her so tightly that even at sea level she might have had a difficult time breathing—nothing lay before and below her but open ocean, checkered only by shadow and cloud. It was noon, and it was midnight. It was morning; it was night.
But night with a bright burning spume of sparking smoke and a thick stream of fire.
Mauna Kea erupting!
And in his arms Algalune had a slender girl, giggling, laughing, as though she were years younger than her actual age—which was nine and twelve and twelve hundred and twelve thousand!
As they soared closer to the volcano, her eyes nearly burst from their sockets. The pain, the pain was awful!
Nursing her burning eyes, she returned home from this flight to the islands soaked with sweat and utterly exhausted. She awoke in the dark, her eyes still aching slightly, the air scented with sage and pine, the room locked, faint chorus of birdsong beyond the shuttered windows. She felt someone’s breath on her face. A man lay next to her.
It was her—our—father.
Things crashed about her, her eye sockets sparked, she screamed, and he woke up, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her.
Stop this right now! Do you hear? Stop this right now!
How did it happen?
(I have pieced together the events, perhaps sewn is an even better metaphor, or welded, from Mira’s notebook, from police reports, and evidence at the various hearings. I know you’d rather just hear a smooth story, but that is fiction. Real life—it’s always got these gaps, intense islands of experience separated from the mainland, sunken treasures, and the blindness that comes of burning eyes. Sometimes it has the effect of sounding unbelievable, sometimes it has the immediate impact that fiction rarely imparts.)
He had stepped right up to the edge and stared down for a long time at the crashing surf. This drug-toting philandering prick-of-a-father of ours. And worse. He knew himself, which was why he wanted to kill himself. He discovered just at this moment that in addition to all else that he was a coward.
Stepping back from the edge he began walking slightly uphill on the east side of the curving road at Devil’s Slide, staring at the sky, some gulls swooping and swerving, and then at the striations in the upper cliff that marked the various layers of undersea eons in which that tilted rock had lain horizontally while a half mile of water flowed and rushed above it. Prehistoric sharks and trillions of smaller fish passed above it. And after great tectonic shifts and undersea eruptions, the ocean floor settled back in new formations, pushing these sheets up and above the water so that they now obtruded into the air. Millions of years later whales passed over, swimming south in spring to mate in the warmer locations of coves off the coast of what we now call Baja California. I’ve always admired the creationists for their ability to conjure up a god with an imagination so baroque as to produce all of these layers of life at the same time, but when you look at the exquisite sets of circumstances, volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes and planetary shifts of velocity and solar disturbances that have made the planet we live on what it is today, you have to stand in much more awe, and wonder at the mystery, rather than the answer, that the creationists have put forward. That mystery suggests a math and a physics and a biology far beyond anything any god we creatures might imagine could produce. Literalists lacked imagination, I’d always thought, until I recalled all of Mira’s literalism about her life and dreams.
Glancing back at the curve in the road, he gave his car a last thought and kept on walking, sticking out his thumb now and then as he made his way down and around to the eucalyptus grove that formed a canopy above the asphalt. It wasn’t until he reached the flats, where the road moved northward in a straight line for about a mile or so, that a small truck stopped for him and the driver offered a lift.
Inside the cab, it reeked of cigarettes and sweat. After his head-clearing moments on the cliff at Devil’s Slide, Father could barely stand the odors, holding his breath for as long as he could as the driver went on, as only autodidacts can, about life and politics.
“Maybe the president, but then, the way things go, he’s probably in on it too. He’s probably calling all the shots, know what I mean? So when the Big One hits, I don’t want to be anywhere near . . . ”
Yi, yi, yi! He went on and on, driving slower and slower the deeper he got into his theory of how just about everyone in the waking United States was involved in a grand conspiracy to screw him out of his living wage even as they took over the secret reins of the country in order to further the plans of the Jews and the space aliens.
Eventually Father got out of the cab near Seventeenth and Mission and walked into this shabby, evil-smelling hotel lobby and took himself a room. Lying on the bed, he listened to the noises from the street—cars, busses, trucks, sirens, shouts—and the murmuring that rose now and then to a high whine of people in the rooms on the other side of the walls and in the hallway. His blood pulsed through the veins in his neck, making his head feel like a large sac of swelling liquid. His legs twitched with anticipation.
“Om,” he said to the ceiling, with its water stain that looked like the old map of the continents before South America parted from Africa (he had seen that map in grade school, before the creationists had commandeered the curriculum in his old hometown school of Wullee, Texas).
“Ommmm . . . ”
He had taken a yoga class with Mother, yes, and saying the cosmic word soothed him, for a sweet minute, until he felt his teeth begin to rattle and an awful further swelling of that blood sac in his head. But it was his bowels that got him moving, a certain twisting and tightening that brought him to his feet and then, on a run, to the tiny bathroom. Sitting on the commode, his knees touching the doorjamb, he unloosed a shower of foul-smelling drizzle and sighed deeply, in wonder at the capacity of his body to act without his consent.
After performing his ablutions in the extra-tight space, he hiked up his trousers and stepped back into the room, where he took up a position at the window, studying the street. It wasn’t ten minutes when he spied a familiar face, and hurried down to the lobby and the sidewalk, where, after making a good call, he took off in a southerly direction.
“Mikey,” he said, catching up with an old companion after only a few blocks. They walked together without talking, and then ducked into a narrow doorway, the entrance to a laundry.
The odor of bleach nearly took his head off. Why couldn’t he just suck this intense atmosphere into his sinuses and get stoned on cleanliness? Ever since college—when his habit had turned him into a dirty beast, the worst money hound in his dormitory, an uptight, wasp-ish kid from the right side of the tracks, who went through your wallet the moment you ducked into the shower, and pilfered the jewelry boxes of whatever girl from his philosophy or Spanish class had made the terrible mistake of thinking it might be fun to get to know him—he had fed a habit large enough so that it itself had a habit. He had great good luck—something, he figured, that came along with being to the manner born, or was it manor?—and never ever got caught. How many times had he stood there while a willowy girl with a blonde weave wept on his shoulder because Grandmother’s necklace had gone missing from her dormitory dresser? (Men were a little more wary, but if anyone looked at him sidewise he produced his best man-to-man stare and delivered the news that his integrity would never have allowed for him to commit such a dastardly deed as pickpocketing anybody’s sheave of cash.)
He graduated into a slightly higher level of theft, working as a cashier in some small banks where, when the managers discovered certain discrepancies in his drawer, they quietly let him go, rather than making the kind of fuss that would bring some publicity. (Any publicity in the banking business was bad publicity, was how the managers saw things.) While working at a concert ticket service he had the occasion to meet a few like-minded people, and before too long they became a full-scale business operation, as they saw it, or a gang, as most of us would see it, deeply involved in credit card fraud, selling card numbers to various shady acquaintances as well as using card numbers for their own immediate gain.
This little business helped him to learn the easeful art of disappearing. First, it was simply employing telephone numbers that led people nowhere, and then it was office space, and then it was one scam after another, easing someone else’s credit card debt (by easing them from their credit cards and money), helping with mortgages (by creating fake mortgages), helping people lower their interest rates (by lowering their cash supply), in each little bit of scam-foolery a slightly different turn that always led to the same place.
Until he met Mother that was his modus operandi, and it kept on working. When they lived together, and produced me and Mira, he appeared to have slackened off on his criminal side, with emphasis on appeared. From telephone work, he developed a con that led him, in that naïve age, to have lunch with any number of needy elderly women and relieve them of various amounts of money, sometimes actual cash, more often again than not, checks, and, now and then, some negotiable stock certificates.
Now you’d think that after some years of all this criminal activity someone might have caught up with him. I’m sure the police, if not federal agents, were interested in his work. But from what I could see—which, from a kid’s level, was a bit like looking at the underside of the carpet—everything appeared smooth.
I can still hear his voice in my ear as he hoisted me to his knee, though my aversion to his physical presence is something that I feel, in retrospect, mainly because of what I learned about him and my sister. “You’re going to go far,” he whispered, “if you stick with me, kiddo.” Kiddo. Nobody else I knew spoke like that, using words like lingo for language and caboodle for everything else.
He’d give my thigh a squeeze, and that hurt, and so I’d ease away, breathing deeply in and trying to breathe deeply out the peppermint-like odor of his breath—he popped those little mints—and the slightly musty odor that lay on his skin and clothes. Father was a smoker, but he never smoked at home. Father was a drinker, but he never drank at home. Don’t ask me why, but unlike Mother he never brought these vices into the family unit.
He brought other vices.
After several years of being dead to us he swung back around, out of the Mission and down from Seattle, where he had spent a few years crossing over into Canada and back again as way of keeping ahead of the police, and tracked Mother down—one of the skills of his labor was reversing the searches that law enforcement sometimes attached to his name. He was determined to make things up to Mira, or so he said in a note that I found stuffed beneath some unwashed clothes of hers much later on in the course of these events that injured her originally.
But how do you get close to a girl her age without doing even more damage than you have already done?
Father spent some time during his disappeared years writing in a notebook and trying to answer that same question:
Seattle—But what is a father? Adam, the first father, did not get a great example. How could he have? An apocryphal version of the Genesis story (very learned, my father, right? Yes, which suggests that depravity doesn’t have a lack of interest in the scholarly, no, quite the contrary, and can sometimes have quite a high iq) has him and Eve having a daughter as well as their sons, and the sons had their way with the daughter, both of them, and that caused the rift between the two brothers that led to Cain killing Abel. Did Adam too have his way with his daughter? Could he have done it because there was no other way for the family—the FIRST family—line to survive?
Sure, I lie awake worrying about what I did, but if it really bothered me that much wouldn’t I have jumped?
Went downtown, down along First and then wandered a while along the harbor front, enjoying the sound of the ferries, cries of gulls, walked back up the hill and found a gaggle of kids at the corner near Pike Street Market. Girls are not a dime a dozen. But under fifty dollars. Boys are more expensive. For some reason there are fewer boys for higher [sic!]
Portland—Wonderful bookstore here, an entire city block. I came down to look for some difficult-to-find science fiction titles. Why didn’t I just call them and ask if they had the titles? I was too lazy. So I went to the effort of making a special trip down from Seattle, found a small hotel downtown, and went into the store in search of some Olaf Stapledon, whose novels I admired as a boy. Star-Maker.
It changed the way I thought about everything. The realms of outer space, the dense and distant traffic of time. I found the books and started reading. Iff not him what kin sy supply? Density of kajabulous. On the corner, a pale young girl begging for spare change. I gave her a deep lecture as any father would. Fed her. Father and daughter back at the hotel. When I woke up in the morning she was gone, having taken all of the cash from my wallet, just as I had planned.
Ooma jaya kalafin, scrupulous about secrets . . .
Algalune . . .
My heart ran cold as a New England river when I saw that name in the entry.
After all the years of working my own fiction as fine fine art, I felt like I was in an H.P. Lovecraft story or a Stephen King novel! My life, my father, my sister! All part of some horror show!
All this planning, but I wasn’t ready. And then one morning I awoke, to blinding light in my bedroom window, to music, tinny but rhymical [sic] in my ears, and a surging of my blood, and a turning in my bowels and spine, as though great snakes were twisting and getting into position to strike!
That was when, after all those years, he drove south to set his scheme into motion.
Mother had been living up near Woodside with her dark-skinned biker, until one night he did not come home.
And another night went by.
On the next afternoon, she drove over to the Spike, the bar where the loosely affiliated band of bikers he called his family, when they weren’t off rumbling south or east in some great migration having to do with drugs or extortion, usually gathered for drinks and pool.
In tight jeans and a T-shirt that read eat my tits, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she sidled up to the bar. A lone drinker sat at the far end, an older man whose bandana turned him into an old woman.
“You seen Gil?” she asked Wes, the hirsute bartender. His T-shirt read sick transit glorious munday.
He shook his head and kept on lining up shot glasses along the bar.
Noise at the door as a troop from the club pushed through. It didn’t take long for them to surround her and begin what turned into an interrogation.
“You don’t know?”
“You’re lying, bitch!”
It went on for awhile, with a little pushing and shoving on their part. She didn’t know what was going on, and nobody told her. Things would have ended badly for her if a state trooper hadn’t walked into the bar, and the club members drifted away from her to have what appeared to be a little meeting with the trooper over in a far corner of the room. Mother took the opportunity to leave. Her heart rattled like a snare drum all the way back to her house, where she lay awake through the night.
A couple of days later some bikers roared past her house in the middle of the night, waking her, causing her to get quickly dressed and hold the telephone to her chest, ready to call the police.
Nothing happened, except that she pissed her pants.
And her lover never returned, either.
She didn’t know. Was he lying in a ditch somewhere, his bike overturned on top of him? Had he taken a fall? Been stabbed in a fight?
Had he gotten stoned and leaped into the sea?
To get through this period when she had nothing to ingest, she took to reading Buddhist literature, and turned over in her mind that phrase about how when the student is ready the teacher will appear. How could she have known that it was Father who would find her a few weeks later in the hair salon? Precisely how he did I’ve never figured it. Mother never said anything to me, though he must have explained his detective tricks to her. But the horrible transfiguring messy truth is that he did find her.
She was unconscious when he arrived, flat out. (Twice the booze to make up for the absence of coke.) At the noise of his entry into her little house, a dilapidated rental out near the flats on the outskirts of Half Moon Bay, she opened her eyes and tried to scream. She was sure it was the gang come to kill her.
Instead she saw a ghost.
“What? What fuck? This happening? Scream at you. Can’t say! Uh-oh! Jesus, Mary, Calliope! Mama!”
She could scarcely speak, only awake enough and lucid enough to make these odd phrases—oh, my dear mother!
“Kill me, ok? Just fucking kill me!”
She turned over and hugged the mattress and waited, figuring this event for the worst and most realistic nightmare she had ever dreamed, and so she’d eventually wake up—or it was the final event in her life, in which case, she was nearly dead.
And it turned out to be neither, and a fusion of both.
“Get up,” Father said. “Turn around. Aren’t you happy to see me?”
If this were a work of fiction, and we came to a gap like this—where I didn’t know what Father said to Mother after that—I, or most any other writer, would already be filling in the gaps by what we would imagine to have occurred. The look on Mother’s face when she turned around to stare at him. How easy to picture that, knowing that oval face of hers, with her long drooping nose and the delicate eyebrows, and having seen more times than I could count the amazed stare she’d respond with when the world threw her a curve. The way he leaned down and, offering her a hand, hauled her up to where she could sit next to him. The odor of tobacco smoke in his breath. The faintest scent of his breath beneath that tobacco odor. The way his eyes sometimes zigzagged when he was excited—surely they were zigzagging when he saw Mother.
Did they weep? Shout? Embrace? Perhaps even rip their clothes off and make vigorous and grindingly exultant love? They might have, they could have, they should have. But did they?
Did she get up and look him over in his totality? Did he do the same? Maybe they stood together at the stove while she cooked him a meal of eggs and potatoes, a celebratory meal for them, for us, always. They might have taken a walk down toward the ocean while he told her the story of what happened as he stepped up to the edge of the cliff at Devil’s Slide?
They should have. I can’t say they did.
What did they do? Did they talk about us, the children? He would have asked in that husky tar-smoked voice of his about our whereabouts. When he heard her mention Aunt Corey’s name, he would have thrown his head back and exhaled.
He never liked her.
Staring out at the ocean—who doesn’t do this when confronted with it?—he made himself, them, a little plan.
Within days, she had driven up to our school and driven away with Mira. And in that room where Mother put her and closed the door after her, Mira awoke to find Father lying next to her.
This began for Mira the first (and worst) days of the rest of her life, as the trite saying goes. Father would lie next to her nearly all through the night, until that time when full dark and near light shared the same space in the window—“calming her” he told Mother when he left her to go into Mira’s room—and Mother lay alone, staring up at the ceiling that became more and more sharply defined, saying to herself that Father would never leave again, not as long as Mira kept him here. Slipping from the bed, she went and dug deep among her underwear in the dresser, coming up with the last of the coke Gil had left behind, and it jolted her heart, and then soothed her as she crawled back into bed. Soon the lights went out. Next thing she knew someone had scattered books all about the room, and she pulled herself from the bed and picked up one after another after another, glancing at a page here, a page there, and then writing in a notebook. I don’t want to be alone ever again. I don’t want to be alone.
At dawn, she found that she had gone back to sleep awhile, notebook in hand, books in her lap, and she shoved all this aside and went to the window.
Fog. No sign of sun, just white light shimmering beyond gray. She returned to her notebook, and to some of those books, copying some things, understanding little.
After first light, Father quietly opened the door and left Mira in her room.
“Did she get some sleep?” Mother asked.
Father ignored the question.
“I’m hungry as hell,” he said.
Mother had no appetite, but she did prepare him a hearty breakfast.
At midday, Mother gave Mira a cheese sandwich and a glass of orange juice.
Mira nibbled at the sandwich.
Father had arrived with a sheaf of cash, and that afternoon he drove them to a mall in south San Francisco, where he bought her a lot of new clothes. (They’d driven up 92, to North 280, and thus avoided the Devil’s Slide, the place where he supposedly had leaped into the sea—ah, yes, he did show some feeling, at least with regard to himself!) On the way home, they stopped at a nearby Thai restaurant.
Mira sat listlessly, refusing to answer questions about how she liked her new clothes, and how she liked the meal.
Mother prodded her, saying, talk, talk. Father kept on asking questions. Mira would not look either of them in the eye.
“I go pee,” she said after awhile.
“Stop speaking baby talk,” Father said.
“I go pee,” Mira said again.
“I’ll walk her,” Mother said, giving Father a look. She got up and accompanied Mira, still clutching her notebook to her chest, to the ladies’ room. Mira went into a stall and before Mother could push the door back slid the latch closed.
“What are you doing?” Mother said.
“Pee,” Mira said.
“Well, hurry up,” Mother said.
Mira sat down on the toilet and opened her notebook. She listened to Algalune who told her to write something in it. She took up her marker and wrote, carefully, slowly:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Aunt Corey, meanwhile, was frantic with worry, and tried, with the help of the teachers at Mira’s school, and the state police, to find Mother. She had a telephone number, which she had been calling and calling, to no avail. She knew Mother still lived somewhere in Half Moon Bay and gave that information to the police along with the telephone number. The police told her they would begin their investigation and contact her again. She spent a mostly sleepless night in bed and a listless day at work. After another night of tossing and turning, she dressed in a hurry at sunrise and jumped into her car and started driving west.
Where the fog had settled in the night before like forest ground cover that stretched from miles out on the ocean all the way to the hills on the east side of town, morning arrived with only the faintest of notice. You could hear a few dogs barking. But, as with most small towns weighed down with the blanket of fog, the place seemed relatively still, like a sleeping child in a household where all others had yet to wake. One of the Mexican farmhands who picked vegetables in the fields near the ocean might have been bicycling to work along Highway 1 dressed as if for winter. And now and then a delivery truck from the city to the north might have made its early way south along the cliff edges, where below the ocean crashed and broke, crashed and broke, as it had been doing all night, and all the day before, and all the millions of years before that.
Standing at the edge of the cliff—the edge of the continent, actually—you would hear nothing but the sound of the surf. But walking away from the edge, across the fields and toward the highway, you might then begin to hear the noise of what, in this small town, passes for early traffic, mainly the few cars headed north toward the city or east over Highway 92, toward the South Bay. And after one of those few and far between delivery trucks had passed, or a car or two had turned off to make the trip east up through the pass in the mountains, occasional silence settled even over the highway. In one of those lulls you might even imagine the click of the traffic light shifting from green to red, and then red to green, and then green to red again.
Summer, winter, these moments remained the same, with fog washing over everything in sight, and masking things unseen from where the fog unfolded over the cliffs to where it draped across the rooftops of houses splashed against the eastern hills. Witnessing this you might make the analogy to those moments at dawn or twilight when you recognized that for a few minutes each day, the coming of the light or the fading of it, seemed interchangeable.
It was the same way here in Half Moon Bay with the noise. Either this was the fading of sound at the onset of evening, or the coming of sounds that would eventually make up the noise of the day. Did it matter which? Yes, but not in that narrow stretch of time when you seem suspended between two realms of experience.
And then, without warning, everything shifts, and you know the time you find yourself in.
Not crepuscule, but dawn.
The beginning, not the end.
And everything commences to move in a straight line toward whatever its destination.
As in that high whine of a motorcycle drifting on the fog, in such a way that for a few moments—well, perhaps that period of indeterminacy has not truly yet ended—the noise seemed to come from everywhere: north from Devil’s Slide and south toward Santa Cruz, east from the mountains and west out over the rolling ocean, and from deep beneath the earth and from above, high above, the fog cover, and from within the body of anyone listening, out from all of its organs, heart, liver, kidneys, brain, and from outside all consciousness, as if it sounded in another dimension, something so distant that you could never imagine it, yet here came the sound.
Up and winding up, and then winding down, in whatever the reverse of the Doppler effect is called.
But for all of its effects, the only person in Mother’s house who heard it in its earliest incarnation was Mira, up early and wandering around the little house in search of a good place to rest and write and draw. This she found on the fetid sofa in the living room, and here she plunked herself down, listening for a short while to the sound outside and the murmuring snores of her mother who lay on a mattress on the floor. (Father had never made a sound, not through that night that had just ended or the night before, and even now he was so silent that he may as well have not been present.)
Though he was.
Mira felt him in the length of her small body, in the place where, for two nights in a row, he had entered her, and elsewhere in the refractory pain.
Two nights in a row. And yet she was sitting here, humming to herself, employing the same pitch as the highest point in the whining of that distant engine. Taking up her notebook, and a pen she had carried with her since her abduction at the school door, she wrote and wrote:
ks dlpwa qjjdks jdhg xwertrty splwkjjr pdsllamnz xklk
xxkssbsklesjsjsskd jdnnkshqpolazmx jjpolskaxmvnchdi
By now the engine had closed some of the distance between itself, its maker, and the small house where Mira sat and wrote—or is it worked?—in her notebook. Behind that roaring whine another siren-like song rose through the air.
Aunt Corey rushed along across the Bay Bridge, down Highway 101.
I had been lifting weights in the gym, and now it was time for English class. I had my own notebook in those days. I was reading Stephen Crane, his story “The Open Boat.” I had copied out the first paragraph, fascinated with its risings and fallings of vowels and consonants:
None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.
And Crane’s poem, this too:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
The idea here intrigued me as much as the sound of the opening of the story. To this day it has.
And the sound grew outside the little house in the fields of Half Moon Bay, the ascending and descending roar, and an ascending and finally descending whine of a siren behind it at some distance, as a cascade of gravel and pebbles and dust splashed up and billowed out over the nearly out-of-control turn and stop of a motorcycle on the dirt road leading up to the door. The driver of the police car who had been following the biker ever since he had crossed into the city limits jammed on his brakes, and spun about, sitting there in the dust and catching his breath even as he tried to make out the scene in front of him.
Which was Gil, leaping up the steps to the house and shouting.
And, after a moment, kicking in the door.
Father was the first to meet him—pushing himself out of bed and stepping into the front room.
“Who the hell are you?” Gil said.
Here was Mother, startled awake by the sound of the crashing door, jumping up from the mattress.
Gil gave her a terrifying look.
“Hey? I don’t go away for a couple of days and I come back and find this shit,” he said. “Who is this motherfucker?”
“My . . . ” Mother hesitated, either from fright or confusion. Who, in fact, was Father to her now?
“Your what? Your what?”
Violator, tormentor of my daughter, she should have said. Instead, she whispered, “My husband!”
“You fucking bitch! You said he was dead!”
Gil was stamping his booted feet like a little boy having a tantrum. (He’d been riding all night; he was strung out; he was outraged, and more and more. Had to have been.) He pulled his Luger from his jacket and fired directly at Father. Blood, the color of some of Mira’s darker crayons, sprayed from Father’s neck across the distance between Father and shooter.
“And now he is,” Gil said.
Father turned and took a few steps back toward the bedroom, and he fell to the floor.
Mother was screaming. Behind Gil someone was shouting, “Drop your weapon! Drop your weapon and turn around!”
This was the cop who came up behind Gil just outside the door and took a stance, legs slightly bent, two hands on his weapon, something right out of the police academy.
Gil turned, gun still in hand, and the cop shot at him twice, three times.
The biker staggered backward into the room, dropping the weapon and collapsing near the body of Father, which was still twitching.
The cop—I have his badge number and testimony, if you’re interested in the technicalities—stepped tentatively into the house, weapon probing the air. Here? There? He stabbed around him with the muzzle of his gun, fearful there might be others in the house ready to attack him.
There was Mother lying on the floor, caught by one of the bullets.
And Mira, in this room that now smelled of blood and sulfur, this little girl still sitting on the sofa, notebook in front of her, pens and crayons all around, writing, drawing. She glanced up at the cop.
“Hello, Algalune,” she said, in a voice as clear as any adult’s, and then went back to her work:
qplaskfndsmz lxpfsh sdke mddfeflsjdopotir lpqarems cfk lqpolrklf plwgfkls tethletletooowehlate late lWlat4e late late
3adl309u52333toolate2late2222 bi, algalune . . . .
Aunt Corey arrived later. The ambulance with Mother and Father had already departed. (She was already dead. He lingered awhile at Stanford Medical Center, but not long enough for me to get permission to be released and see him. Which was good and bad, because I did and did not want to see him.) Aunt Corey had had only to make a single inquiry of a local cop when she was directed to the small house in the fields near the ocean. They would not let her cross the yellow line of tape that surrounded the house, but when she saw Mira sitting in the back of a police car drawing in her notebook something sprung loose in her heart. She found herself unable to breathe, and she pitched forward onto the ground, giving as good an imitation of dying as anyone still alive might give. After that, she never felt well enough to teach, let alone raise a child. But still—remember that look in her eyes when we last visited her up in Roseville? She’s still a loving creature, but like all of us, related by blood to disasters of the worst order.
My sister turns fifty this year. I’ve thought of her less and less over the years, rarely visiting her in the state hospital where she has lived all this time, surrounded by notebooks and crayons, and smelling of her own urine, her hair wild and untended, her eyes almost unbearable to meet.
And I’ve rarely spoken about her, and never ever written about her, because, I suppose, I had to keep all this at a great distance and feel nothing, or else fall apart. I suppose if I were another kind of writer, the kind who sups on the exploitation of self and family that you find in much of the butchered art that passes for important memoir these days, I would have. I doubt if I ever will.
But now and then, on nights when sleep comes with difficulty, I let myself go, and lie in the dark and think about Mira, poor wounded bird, my sister, my legacy unspoken, and those lines of Blake that she copied into her notebook drift through my mind.
When the stars threw down their spears and watered heaven with their tears.
I’m a tough man, scarred on the surface and scarred within. Sometimes I do want to sit down by the waters and cry. Oh, yes, I do. I want to cry like a child—for my mother, father, for my little sister, for life when it did not seem to mean anything but only just existed.
Life is so pitiless, except where we extend ourselves toward it, and it’s a myth that time can bring some healing power to bear on even the worst of wounds. The only remedy is to forget, but forgetting is a kind of murder, and so we hesitate too long for this sort of ease and release.
And, as you know, I never had kids from either of my first two marriages. And you can’t have them, and I’m sorry for that, though now even if we wanted to try for them I’m probably getting too old to become a father myself, having reached the age when a few of my writer friends have already become grandfathers and grandmothers. Though a distinguished minority have put old lives behind them and even at this late date taken up with younger spouses and begun new families.
Such hope! Never undimmed. I salute the urge, even as I vow, to you, to myself, to whatever gods are out there lurking, listening in, that I’ll just go on with my own work, perhaps even to write about some of these dark matters that I have repressed for so long in part, in fear (and I admit it) of what feelings they might conjure up in me, and hope that it lasts at least as long as a child might endure in time. A lucky child.