A Glimpse of Somewhither

Dear readers, the claustrophobia of time has not allowed me the leisure to write a All Saint’s Day Eve story as is my wont, so instead I proffer for your reading entertainment the opening chapter of SOMEWHITHER, which should have enough elements of the eerie to serve for this day. The novel is unsold, unpublished, part of a trilogy that is unfinished, so this is the only venue where there is any chance to see this work. Here is the first glimpse. Speculations as to what is really going on and who is really insane are welcomed. Enjoy.

 

SOMEWHITHER

CHAPTER ONE:  The Mad Scientist’s Beautiful Daughter

 

1.       My Question

 

“Dad, how many universes are there?”

“Only one, by definition, son. Hence the term universe.”

Spread out on the couch, still in his gear, my Father spoke in a weary monotone, not raising his head. I was surprised to get even a grunt out of him, much less an answer, even if it were a snarky answer.

If time were not so short, I never would have found the guts to ask. I had been holding back this question for years. But it was hard to look away from the second hand sweeping around the clock on the mantelpiece, remorseless as the blade of a guillotine.

I was pleased how calm my voice stayed. My question just sounded like something you’d ask out of idle curiosity, or because you saw it in a book, not a matter of life and death. It could even have been prompted by a casual remark in a text message you just saw on your phone before you slipped it (not moving too quickly) into your bathrobe pocket.

I was not pleased that he did not give me a real answer.

“Fine, Dad! Let’s use a different term, then. Call it a world or a continuum or a parallel timeline: A somewhere where the events we suffer went along a different branch. What is reality then: One or many? Finite or infinite? Tell me what is really real!”

Usually when he comes home from one of his business trips, Dad goes straight to the couch in the den to collapse in blissful fatigue before the fireplace, too tired to climb the stairs to the bedroom, and too tired to talk. So he laid now, head back, elbow over his eyes, one boot on the arm of the couch, and one on the floor.

The black and unmarked helicopter that flies without lights and brings him home makes its landing in the grove my brothers and I (as one of our chores) have to keep clear of shrub and sapling, way up the mountain somewhat above where the ruins of the old monastery stand. Dad takes over an hour to trudge down the twisting paths and switchbacks. So he is not the most energetic of conversationalists right after a trip.

This time something was different, because he grunted again, and spoke, “Every man not content with this world longs for a better.”

He make a sigh that was almost a chuckle, and continued, “But he would be more discontented yet to reflect that happier worlds could welcome no visitations by men as discontent as he. No. We cannot enter inside paradise until paradise is inside us.”

“And worlds worse than ours, Dad? What might they visit upon us?”

Dad lowered his arm and turned his head, so he could catch me with his eye. I could not tell if the squint in his eyes was just fatigue, or if there was something else, accusation or suspicion, there. Or fear. “So. Who have you been talking to? What did they tell you?”

parallel

2.       My Back Yard

 

The idea that my Dad would be or could be afraid of anything on Earth was disorienting to say the least. But I liked the idea that he was suspicious of me even less.

When I was younger, and Mom was still here, she would get my two brothers and me all out of bed before dawn, and we would stand shivering on the back porch with mugs of hot cocoa in hand, waiting for Dad to appear at the wood’s edge beyond the fallow field, now waist-high with tares and circled by the dismembered posts of a skeletal fence, that lay uphill beyond the back yard.

There were both bees’ nests and owls’ nests in those ungainly oaks, and their roots hid an extensive clan of rabbits fat and unwary enough that, with a .22 and help from Lady, we could have coney in the stewpot, except not on Fridays.

Deeper and higher in the wood, a family of foxes, black as midnight, made their den in the roofless remains of the chapel overlooking a cliff. Only the tips of the ears and tails of that fox family were white, as if snowflakes landed only just there. They helped us keep the rabbit population in check, so Dad told us not to disturb them.

Because of this, while we toiled and sweated long summer days to chop the weed and vine away from the rest of the monastery’s frowning and tumbledown walls, or clear leaves and beehives out of the narrow slits of its creepy and squinting cross-shaped windows, we did not have to approach the chapel they haunted, but let the greenery slowly cover the faded frescos of tormented martyrs and floating saints.

So I was thankful to those soot-black foxes with snow-white on the tips of their ears and tails. Not only did they get me out of a chore, they got me my job at the Museum. One of them. And they got me interested in Natural History, because they showed me at a young age that the world will show you its wonders, but only if you seek.

I sometimes wonder what kids who don’t have woods behind their back yards do in the summer. Join street gangs, I guess.

Back in the days before her funeral, when Mom had us awake and awaiting Dad’s homecoming, I recall how the birds would start singing while it was still pitch dark, able to sense a dawn I could never guess was coming. We would leave the windows open and all the lights in the house burning, and we carried flashlights in hand, so that our meeting would be nice and bright. We never knew which part of the wood would release him, since he never approached from the same way twice. He never held a light in his hand, and he moved quite silently, so we never saw him until he was at least halfway across the yard. Mom would gently wipe the camouflage paint from his face while he was sleeping, and undo his boots, dismount the bayonet, lock his rifle in the gun cabinet, lock the relic-bearing crucifix in the reliquary and the flask of holy water in the font, and then shoo us with silent gestures away back upstairs until the alarm clocks would ring the time for Morning Services, and we could officially get up.

I miss her.  Dad took his favorite pictures of her, and had them framed, and hung them in every room and corridor in the house, at the top and the bottom of the stairs, and over every cabinet in the kitchen and the arsenal, to remind us that she was still watching us, even if we could not see her.

This time, my older brother Alexei decided to spend his Spring Break with his College chums, drinking booze and getting in trouble, and my younger brother Dobrin was staying with Aunt Iaga, to keep him out of trouble, so this time it was only me here to greet the prodigal Father at his return, and make sure the fireplace was lit.

I should mention: Alexei is tall and slim and blue-eyed and blond, and Dobrin is taller and slimmer and bluer-eyed and blonder. Me? Back when we went to school like other kids, and they put on THE HOBBIT as a play, Alexei was Elrond the Elf and Dobrin was the Elf-King, and I was the guy who turns into a bear. I got to wear a huge furry mask in the fight scene. I did not really need the mask, even at that age. For Shakespeare, I can get cast as Shylock or Othello; when they did the Disney-musical version of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, I landed the role of Quasimodo, and not because my singing voice is that great.

I am tallest of all, but dark and bushy-browed and thick and broad, hook-nosed and thick-lipped, with a big stupid jaw like a Neanderthal and a sloped forehead like a Cro-Magnon, and big square teeth like a horse so I am afraid to smile at girls, because they might faint; either that, or offer me a lump of sugar.

Dad makes us all wear crew cuts, so my ears stick out.  Alexei and Dobrin can carry off the Jarhead ‘do. They look like Aryan Supermen straight off the recruiting poster or something. My hair is ink-black and wiry and sticks up no matter how short-cropped it is, so I look like I could use my skull to scrub away stubborn stains in pots.

I could not make a cup of real cocoa, and the kitchen kind of intimidated me, but I did microwave a cup of hot water and dump a powdered mix into it, the kind with mini-marshmallows. The cup sat ignored on the end table next to the couch, unsipped, and I could see clots of brown powder floating in it.

And I was crouching by the fireplace, prodding the log with the firepoker, trying to get a blaze to come up. I had not gathered firewood, kindling and tinder and all that, since that is a really slow and involved process. I had bought one of those oil-soaked logs wrapped in paper and made out of packed sawdust for a few bucks at the local Mega-mart, the kind you can light with a single match. But I still was poking at it, because it made me feel like I had done something to welcome him home.

In theory, I was supposed to tiptoe upstairs and let him sleep, and not stir from bed until the alarm rang to show that I was officially allowed to be awake.

But I had to ask. There had to be more worlds than this.

mad scientist

3.       Miss Verity Anthrope

 

“I was talking with Verity,” I answered his question. “Now that the Professor is in the nuthouse, she moved into her things into his office at the Haunted Museum, and I was helping clean his desk—Actually, I had to kind of jimmy the lock open to break into it—I hope that is okay because I am not sure if that is breaking open a desk is actually breaking a Commandment—and we found something odd.”

“You should call her Miss Anthrope.”

“What? I am not calling anyone Miss Anthrope. It sounds ridiculous. In any case, I don’t even think that is her family’s real name. It is a stage name the Professor made up. I think his real name is Anthropocalypsowitz or something.  Don’t you want to hear what we found?”

“If she is now your superior, you must speak with respect of her.”

“She is not my superior. Very Te—uh—Verity is just my boss.” ( I caught myself just before saying Very Teat, which is the nickname my pal Foster dubbed her.)

Dad’s eyes narrowed, as if he had read the unspoken word in my mind. “All the more reason to speak of her respectfully, lest you forget yourself with her.”

“Why should I call her by her last name? She is nearly my age!”

“Older than you. Old enough to act as trustee for her father’s estate while he is non compos mentis.”

“And I don’t even think she knows how to drive a car yet!”

“Son, that young lady proved herself; she sailed solo around the world in a yacht when she was sixteen years old, and made world headlines.”

“She made headlines for not sailing around the world, you mean.”

“She gave it the good college try, which shows considerably more application and ambition than any of my sons have displayed. Speaking of which, your applications have not been accepted yet to any college. What are you going to do next year? As of your birthday, I am starting to charge you rent.”

I bit back the comment that Professor Anthrope, with his money, could afford to have his daughter wreck a yacht in the Indian Ocean. If Dad was so impressed with daredevil stunts, then maybe he could buy me a used apple-barrel on the cheap; and I could work on plunging over Niagara Falls.

I said, “Fine! Whatever. So Miss Anthrope and me, we was looking through the Professor’s desk, and we found this—I don’t know, some sort of research paper for something he was trying to get published. He was working on the Enigma of the CERN Collider Disaster Cuneiform.”

“Don’t call them Cuneiform. Sloppy thinking. It is not yet established the cloud chamber markings are in fact a writing system, rather than merely random marks.”

The Super Large Hadron Collider is seventeen miles in circumference, five hundred feet below ground, near Geneva. It was too large to fit in Switzerland, so part of it overlaps into France, or under it. Because it was buried so deep, the quench event was contained: no one on the surface died. The ALICE facility in sector twelve was subjected to an inexplicable escape of radiation when the bending magnets in the section failed.

If there are verbs for the each type of death caused by exposure to various exotic particles, I don’t know what they are: so until then, let’s just say over a dozen scientists, staff, and visitors were electrocuted, microwaved, and Hiroshima’d. If you have not seen the pictures, don’t look at them up, because they are gross. Or just stick a Barbie doll into a toaster. You would not think a thing that operates at a temperature not far above absolute zero could unleash such energy, could you? Well, the guys who died did not either, and they understood the math.

Certain recording instruments — the press insisted on calling them “Black Boxes” even though technically they weren’t — had survived intact, and they showed that some of the mass-energy of particles was unaccounted-for, as if it had vanished from the universe.

Meanwhile, the mass-energy polite enough not to have vanished from the universe had turned into an ultrahighfrequency electromagnetic burst, which, strangely, had left an almost symmetrical pattern of dents in the cloud chamber, arranged in a rectilinear rows and ranks, and looking oddly like the triangular scratches of Sumerian Cuneiform.

A signal? If so, from where?

“The Professor is convinced that they are a writing.” I said stoutly.

“Mm. He says the same thing about Crop Circles.”

“He is a Harvard-trained symbologist!”

“Amazing what they give degrees in these days. But if you cannot measure it, it is not science.”

“Measured or not, he found the key to translate the Disaster Cuneiform…”

Dad grunted. “Was this before or after he started hallucinating?”

“He really did figure it out!” I said hotly.

Dad made a skeptical grunting noise, “Him, and no one else? Not likely.”

I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking of Bletchley Park and project Ultra, Alan Turing and the Enigma Project; of MIT and CalTech; of Think Tanks and linguists and cryptographers and cryptologists and mathematicians. He was thinking of the National Security Agency, who is the biggest employer of mathematicians and purchaser of computer parts in the world. He was thinking of the National Aerospace Administration team who inscribed the Voyager plate, and who had experts on the theory of how to make first contact with alien intelligences.

Everyone who was assuming this was a First Contact, assumed that we should be doing the things in theory you should do if you ever pick up signals from space aliens for the first time: you look for a common ground. If they are from another planet, your only common ground includes the scientific facts of the objective reality surrounding you. What else did we have in common? So you tap about prime numbers in Morse code or something.

These people—or entities—who inscribed the Disaster Cuneiform were not doing that. Why not? It was as if they were not even trying to be understood. But then why send the code at all? Maybe people from another universe did not even have in common any objective reality.

I said, “I tell you he solved it.”

Dad closed his eyes. “How?” And he drawled out the word with a long lingering vowel of disbelief bordering on disgust. Hao-oo- ooo-ow?

“He sought back to the primordial language, older than Indo-European, the common ancestor to all languages. The marks that looked like Cuneiform were not a mathematical cipher, and so all the code crackers could not crack it. The marks actually were Cuneiform — but a version so primal and ancient, older than Sumer and Babylon, that no record survives.  Because he thought it was a message from another branch of history, an Earth whose events never happened, not here. The papers in his desk were about the Many World Theory.”

“It does not make testable statements,” Dad said, lying down his head, and putting his elbow back over his eyes. “So it is the Many World Interpretation, not a theory.”

“How many are there?” I pressed. “Worlds, I mean? How many could there be? More than one?”

Dad spoke slowly. Maybe he was tired. Maybe his mind was on other things. “The Everett and DeWitt interpretation supposes that every possible outcome for every event at a quantum level defines its own world.

“That means if one electron twitches for one second in one carbon atom in the photosphere of a giant star in an unnamed galaxy beyond the Virgo Cluster, it creates a new timespace continuum identical, but for that twitch, to ours.” He uttered a noise half a sigh, half a snort. “How that one electron-second has the energy to reproduce the mass of the Big Bang, not to mention the memory to Xerox the location of every particle, is something Everett and DeWitt did not interpret.

“Now, Ilya, you’ve known that since you were twelve, when we taught you quantum mechanics.” One problem with being homeschooled, is that your parents never stop lecturing you: school is never out. The advantage is that you can get a summer job interning for someone like Professor Anthrope, who seems to know everything about everything.

I said, “The Professor’s theory is that only human moral choices would cause a split into two timelines. He thinks the universe was strictly monolinear until the human race evolved.”

“Hmph,” My Dad’s grunt showed that he was less than overwhelmed. “The point of the Many World Interpretation was to cleave to classical cause-and-effect while saving the appearance of quantum-mechanical events, which are random. It has nothing particular to do with choices mortals make, moral or no.”

“The Professor says that the inanimate universe, and the behavior of plants, animals, and most the things humans do, are all rigidly determined like clockwork.”

“Well, he’s about a century behind the times. Not even Einstein could save classical causation. It seems God does roll dice after all.” This was all muttered absentmindedly. Dad sounded bored.

I pressed on. “He says most human actions are determined, most, but not all. Things that seem like random choices, like deciding whether or not to have a bean burrito for lunch, are just the brain mechanisms acting out their pre-programmed conditioning. Only when we are making a choice that involves a moral question — like whether or not to break a promise — do we actually interact with something outside of normal causation and above normal psychological mechanisms, an eternal principle only the conscience can perceive; and that is what splits the universe in two.”

Dad just sighed. After a pause, he said, “Do you know how long it took me to make up my mind to ask your dear, sainted mother to marry me, Ilya? If this idea were true, that was all time wasted. I both asked her and never found the nerve, both raised my sons to be fine young men and never held them in my arms or heart or even met them. And I both had this talk with you and never did, because you are both alive and never were born.

“That choice and every other moral decision would be pointless, because no matter how carefully you use your judgment, in the other branch of time, you always act stupidly. Even to the weakest temptation, in the other branch, you always give in. Every time you walk the straight and narrow path to Heaven, the other branch leads you by ever darker, ever muddier, and ever hotter paths to Hell—a place that must be pretty crowded, since all the saints and patriarchs, martyrs and sages history ever knew both did their wise and heroics acts and also did the opposite, and in one branch were saved, and in the ten thousand times ten thousand other branches were damned.

“No, this is just one of those many ideas that is as pretty as the patterns as a poisonous snake, and you stare fascinated by the sinuous Celtic knotwork of its bright coils and gazing in its unwinking cold eyes, and never notice that all it is really telling you is that life is a lie. Don’t heed. Only liars say life is a lie.”

Dad took down his arm and sat up. He had not undressed, so that his Kevlar jacket still covered him mostly; but he had unzipped it, so a flap hung open, and the white collar of the deacon’s uniform he wore beneath was visible above his ammo bandolier. Around his neck, on a chain of rosary beads the Archbishop himself had blessed, he wore a ivory crucifix that contained, in a tiny glass vacuole, the finger bone of Saint Demetrius of Sermium, coated in the oil it spontaneously exuded; next to it, in a sheath, was his black-bladed stiletto with the wide hilts, a dark cross next to a pale.

“No, my son, if you must believe that there are many worlds, believe I pray you, that if you do evil in this world, you have not the power to create some new world where that choice was made aright. Only the Creator can create new worlds. Only miracles change history; nothing inside nature has the power to undo the natural consequences of an evil men do. ”

Then he looked at me sharply and said, “What order are you thinking of disobeying? What promise break?”

The fire was hot, and I was bent over it, so that I did not notice the warmth of the blush of anger spreading through my face until I heard how harsh my answer was: “Is life all a lie? Well, you would know, wouldn’t you, Dad? If you are my Dad!”

I gave fake log one last strong blow from the fire poker, sending up a cheery spray of sparks, and stood, and turned. I pointed the poker at him accusingly. “How many worlds are there? You know, don’t you?”

mermaid

4.       Rare Books

 

The same day Professor Anthrope was dragged away in a straitjacket, raving, I discovered what he had been working on.

You see, I did not want to go home, not and face the looks on the faces of Dobrin and Father. Looks of total not-surprise, looks that said I told you so louder than words. And I could not stay at the Museum; they had a cordon around it.

What angle had the Professor been working on?  What had he seen that the rest of the world had not?

So I went to the library. I looked up his work, read his papers and articles.

Hours went by, but it was not hard work, like weeding ruins, just brain work, and if bow-hunting teaches anything, it teaches patience.

I struck gold when I found a recent issue of SIGN AND SEMIOTICS journal, which published peer-reviewed papers on comparative symbology. Tucked in between an article on Merovingian Grail-Kings and an article on the links between Egyptian esoteric practices and the Cathars of Andalusia, was a paper by my own Professor Adramelech Anthrope. It was an article on semantic drift between Akkadian Cuneiform and a hypothetical proto-Sumerian logogram system, deduced from an application of Grimm’s Law. The article had extensive footnotes, as you’d expect, and some of the references were to books right here in this very library—where, come to think of it, the Professor last year had been sitting to do most of his research.

I had to get the librarian to unlock the case in the rare books room tucked into a corner of the top floor.

“You have to sign in,” she said sharply, pointing with her beaklike nose toward the visitor’s log.

There was one book in particular from the Professor’s footnotes I sought. If found it tucked between surviving volume, number XI, of the lost First Encyclopædia of Tlön compiled by the Orbis Tertius Society, and first edition of a book on Mesmerism:  Its Proper Study and Practice; or The Secrets of the Ancients Unlocked by Hans Schimmerkopf of the Homeopathic Institute of Vienna. Here was a rare unabridged edition of A Study of the Chaldaean Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language (with observations on the early tin trade in West Cornwall) by an author named Holmes. I looked up the chapter to which the Professor had referred in his paper.

The librarian had to sit in the rare books room with me, since I was underage, or maybe she just did not trust my looks. She watched me with cold and scowling eye while I read, no doubt fretting that, had she not been there, I would have blown my nose on the antique pages. I had to wear little plastic gloves while handling the book. I don’t know if everyone who steps into the rare books room has to wear them, or only teenagers with oily skin.

There was a discussion of the “Urheimat” or hypothetical original home of whatever tribe fathered the first Indo-European language.

For over a century, scholars had speculated about the location of Urheimat. This volume claimed to know the secret: one of the most fertile lands of the Fertile Crescent, between Ethiopia and Felix Arabia, between the Kebassa plateau and the Red Sea, where the modern city of Asmara rises in Eritrea. This is the spot were legend says the Queen of Sheba gave birth to the son of Solomon, Menelich, and this rich land history says the ambition of Caesar during his Egyptian campaigns attempted to annex but failed. Before Caesar, before Solomon, before even the long-vanished Sabaeans dwelt here, long before, the nameless and primordial tribe of man walked upright and invented fire.

That original band of fire-using early man was less than two thousand breeding individuals. Recent studies in genetics traced all human lineages back to ten sons of a genetic patriarch and eighteen daughters of a genetic matriarch. The tree of man is rooted in a single mother, the mitochondrial matriarch, because all other branches fell extinct. The first three lineages that arose from the genetic patriarch spread through Africa. Most paleogeneticsts rather fancifully referred to the ancestral genetic markers as Shem, Ham and Japheth. This author, more stolidly, designated them Son I, Son II and Son III.

Son III’s lineage was the one with whom this author was mainly concerned, the line from which races as distinct as Chaldaeans and Cornishmen arose. Perhaps clutching logs, this clan braved the waters of the Red Sea, those straights the Arabs call The Gate of Grief: twenty miles from isle to isle to the coasts of what is now Yemen. From there, Son III and his bloodline migrated to Asia to begat Sons designated IV through X: this great Diaspora of his bloodline reached from the Sea of Japan (Son IV), to Northern India (Son V) to the South Caspian (Sons VI and IX).

I bent my head over the page. The author speculated about the origins of dialects, and how they grow to form independent languages, and why they change over time. His basic question: since there is such a strong evolutionary incentive for individuals and groups to communicate with each other, either to form alliances in war or partners in peace, what possible reason was there for linguistic drift?

He saw how you would get special words for birds and beasts in one area not found in another, or why seashore people would have names for tools and nautical terms that mountain-dwelling tribes would lack: but aside from these special cases, who ever stops using a word his neighbors and ancestors used, and deliberately starts using a word no one understands?

The trait of misunderstanding had no evolutionary value, no good reason to exist.

He did not think it was nurture that caused languages to divide away from each other. He thought it was nature: a genetic disease. This author had written out the transmission vectors of the disease. As best he could from genetic and cultural clues, he tried to identify where it had started, how it had spread.

The Y chromosome lineages are positively associated with the major language groups of the world. In the absence of the genetic drift or defect, there is no correlative grammatical drift…

… the indication is of some primordial catastrophe, of which no record survives, or garbled perhaps as myth, disorganized both the genetic and intellectual structure of early man, causing a rapid degeneration from the robust features and larger brain of the Neanderthal, and other transitional forms…

The back flap of the book was a folding chart, like a map, of the linguistic tree, showing the descent of all the dead languages in the world.

It was yellow with age, and brittle, and I unfolded it very carefully, while the librarian stared at me, looking like she wanted to hiss. I did not rip it.

The sheet, unfolded, covered most of the table, and was covered with hundreds of spidery parallel lines, like a family tree, or like a nervous system would look, if you just picked it up out of someone’s body by the brain, and let the nerves dangle.

At the lowest root of the tree was a strange word: Ursprache.

This was the name assigned for the hypothetical common ancestral tongue of the Cauco-Sinitic, Euro-Asiatic, and Austric language groups, the languages of Son I, Son II and Son III.

If it had been spoken at all, it was spoken thirty-five thousand to sixty million years ago. The diagram showed the first major division in to three language families appearing in the Tigris-Euphrates valley: that was the day the pan-human Ursprache language died. An explosion of languages followed. According to this chart, it had occurred as suddenly, on the geological scale, as the extinction of the dinosaurs and the explosion of mammalian varieties of life. But what was the disaster?

Something fluttered to the floor like a dry leaf. It was a folded scrap of paper. I dropped my pencil, bent over, and palmed the scrap of paper before the librarian saw me.

I did not dare look at it until I was outside, and, just in case the librarian was peering at me through a slatted window, around the corner. I don’t know what the penalty was for stealing material from the library, but even if the cops were not involved, the librarian knew my family, as well as knowing my boss, since both Dad and the Professor were pretty frequent visitors.

The little scrap was in Professor Anthrope’s handwriting.

Wild Eyes is right! The Cuneiform is Ursprache!! He wrote An application of the Law of Semantic Drift, following an analogous genetic drift, to the earliest possible hypothetical ur-words of the CS, EA, A linguistic groups reveals common signs. Parallel worlds use the common language found on all versions of Earth as its Lingua Franca: the one semiotic form older than all others, the central stem predating the earliest division of offshoots.

On the other side of the scrap were two questions.

What else do we have in common?

How many universes are there?

At that time, that day when the Professor was first committed, I had not had the courage to ask my Dad that question.

tree

5.       Unspoken Words

 

I was glad I was talking to him when he was half-dead with fatigue, because he could not gather his wits enough to wear the poker-face he always wears when the topic strays too closely to those things we never talk about.

Well, I was talking about them now.

Maybe I was as confused as if I were somehow tangled in those ‘branches of time’ Dad had just mentioned. In one branch, everything was fine and I let him nap on the couch and went upstairs, all according to the standard welcome-home procedure the family had followed for years. In another branch, nothing was fine, and I had swiped the family car and was tearing at top speed down the road before Father put his boot on the back porch stair, and he was staring up at a silent house, alone and puzzled. In neither of the two could I talk to him.

Maybe I was one of those discontented people Dad spoke of. This one world was not enough for me.

To be sure, the globe of the earth and the reach of the skies, from amoeba to the great nebula in Andromeda, all the cosmos is fearsomely and wonderfully made. You have to be dead inside not to be awed, or stupid to pretend to be so cool as not to be. You cannot just be a scientist to learn it all, not just an explorer to see it, not just a poet to praise it, not just a priest to bless it. You also have to be a hero to protect it.

But there are also clues in the Earth, hidden things, overlooked, half-whispered things; clues that there is something more. Our world is mostly civilized these days, mostly tamed: but I knew there was wildness and weirdness out there. Where? Hither or thither or somewhere or somewhither: In elfland or outerspace or beyond the walls of the world.

And it was as if I could smell the wild hint of that somewhither clinging to my father like woodsmoke, like the musk of bloodshed.

Whenever I caught the scent, my happy life turned into a beartrap I would have gnawed off my leg to escape. Some universe larger than this one was meant for me.

And then there was the girl. (Maybe she was meant for me, too? But that was a thought I dared not to think or else my brain might explode.) So I had to know if her peril was real. Not everything madmen say can be trusted.

Like I said, I did not know which branch I was supposed to be in. In neither one, should I have been talking to him. I was caught in a fork, and I did not know who to trust or what was real.

So I had to ask. I had to demand. I had to know.

My words gushed out in an angry rush.

“How many worlds are there? And where do you go on your business trips? What business requires you be armed to the teeth? And don’t say it is dangerous missionary work—”

He said, “It is. Missionaries sometimes have to enter other reali — I mean, enter other realms and countries that are a little, ah, wild, and with my background in the service — it’s not illegal, but it is not something the Council of Bishops wants any public, ah, outcry —”

“— Where do you go? Name the spot on the globe. Give me the longitude and latitude, can’t you? You can’t. And you can’t tell me who am I really, can you, Father? Can’t or won’t! Why don’t I look like you or like my brothers? And tell me where Mom is!

“You mother cannot be with us.” His words were sad and slow. “She is no longer …”

“In this life? In this world?” My words were hot and quick. “So you’ve always said. Until today, I thought you meant she was dead and gone to Heaven. But you want to lie to me without actually lying. What world is she in? Is it one the Professor’s machine can reach?”

But I had said too much. The moment of weakness, of truth, had passed. Dad was stony-faced again, as he always is when we talk sniffs near the forbidden things, and he had regained his self-possession. Mentioning the machine snapped him out of it.

He rose to his feet and looked up at me. Ever since I turned fifteen, I have been taller than him, taller than my older brother. And yet, somehow, he managed to loom.

He said, “What machine? What does it look like?”

I wanted to argue. I could not.

I took my phone out of my pocket, snapped it open with my thumb, and brought up the text message, and handed it to him.

Dad had his face bent over the tiny phone screen. Dad said, “Why did he call you Marmoset?”

“It auto-corrects Muromets.” Muromets is our last name. “Professor Anthrope, uh, sometimes has trouble working the spelling-check.”

“You would think he would learn that in symbology school. How to spell words, I mean. They are symbols.”

Sunset on Babylon

6.       The Hither Shores of Uncreation

 

Marmoset

My daughter is in danger and needs your help.

I have escaped the asylum: those fools cannot begin to understand my power. And yet I cannot save her. Only you.

You recall our last talk, when we spoke of Many Worlds? It is all true.

 A working model of a Moebius Field Coil, just as described in the Disaster Cuneiform, is even now in the basement of the Haunted Museum. The Cuneiform instructions on how to build and power it were precise. But the power is still running. I was not able to shut it off before they took me!

Verity is on her way to the Museum now. She left from Tillamook about two minutes ago. You must get there first. She is a foolish and headstrong girl, and does not realize her peril.

The Moebius Coil can be used as a casement, to see what lurks on the hither shores of the Deep of Uncreation, beyond the Unborn Ocean.

I have seen the shadows that thirst for human blood, and heard the hunting cries of the Arch-Beasts that are above man in evolutionary scale. There are Giants in the Other Earths whom this Earth drowned, and fallen gods are their fathers. Deadlier far the Architects of the Tower of Utter Night, that hideous strength, for they are restrained from nothing they have imagined to do.

Woe to the inhibiters of Earth when the Dark Tower opens the dreadful gate! For the casement is also a portcullis!

I know why you are not like your brothers. Trust in me, only me, and fear nothing. The exodimensional radiation will do you no hurt. Only you. Bring no one else, lest he die. Do not be afraid of the fog. 

Go into the basement. Break open the door if you have to. The Moebius Coil Solenoid is upright on the breadboard stand. It is a hoop of twisted gold over a foot wide, woven with naked copper wire. You cannot mistake it. You must shut the power OFF.

Box the Coil and the three Penrose Triangle antennae, and bring all to me. Make special note of which cables and plugs are fixed where, and bring them and the cable adapters, the rheostat and the dry cells.

I am in the same place.

Remember what you swore! I trust you. Tell no one. They will lock me up again. I am not insane! Believe in me!

Especially do not tell your Father!

He is the Ostiary of the Templars.

Templar610

7.       The Door into Twilight

 

Now Dad looked at me with eyes that bored like twin lasers, and no trace of tiredness was in his face. “Is this the promise you mean to break? What did you swear?”

“To help him. To help his daughter.”

I did not mention that the Professor, during that last afternoon before his hearing, in that hot and airless motel room where he was holed up, had taken the Gideon’s Bible out of the drawer and made me put my hand on it, just like I was in a court of law or something. It was not the kind of oath a boy makes, cutting his thumb and his friend’s with a pocket knife and vowing to be best friends forever. It was the kind of oath a man takes. Or a Knight.

“What else?”

“Not to — not to tell anyone.”

“Anyone? Or not to tell me?”

“Not to tell you.” I mumbled.

“Why did you swear such a foolish oath? And once you bound yourself by it, why in the world did you break it?”

“Dad! Are you asking me to hide things from you? Hide the truth?”

His voice was oddly gentle. “Ilyusha, It would break my heart if I found you lied to me, and that includes the lies of omission. But your word is your word! Breaking your word is worse than breaking my heart, boy. My heart can get better. What you do now defines the kind of man you will one day be. One day very soon. Today.”

I shook my head, looking at my feet, and could not answer. I did not want to admit to him that if I kept any secrets from him, I would lose the right to be angry at the fact that he kept secrets from me. Anger made me feel strong, like I was wronged, so I had the moral high ground.

Admit to him? I did not want to admit it to myself, either: the idea was stupid. Another man’s vice cannot cloak you in virtue. Victimhood can make you self-righteous, but cannot make you right.

There is a way you can make your emotions revved up with murk, so that your brain kind of slows down, and you don’t have to listen to any thoughts in your head. Every kid my age knows the trick. Some grownups never lose the trick.

So I made my thinking murky, and lo and behold, I could not think of anything to say, ergo I did not have to say anything.

Dad spoke. “When he says I am in the same place; what place is that?”

“The Motel Eight on Straight Street. He was in Room 222 before. The likes the number for some reason.” Now I raised my eyes and raised my voice. “Dad! He trusts me! I swore! We cannot turn him into the police.”

“No one is turning anyone in. When did this message come?”

“While I was making the instant cocoa. Ten minutes ago. Less.”

He jumped to feet. He took me by the shoulder and began marching us both rapidly from den to back hallway toward the garage. He demanded, “Why didn’t you leave the moment you got the message?”

Why? That was a good question.

There was a confused tangle of reasons inside me. One thread of reasoning said that if my Father knew there was only one world, the one reality all sane people live inside, then the insane Professor was not only insane, but wrong. If there was no extra-dimensional worlds, then there was no Moebius Coil, and no danger, and no damsel in distress to save, and no need to leave.

Another thread said if there were many worlds, and my Dad knew that and never told me, then I could trust the Professor (who did tell me the truth) rather than Dad (who hadn’t) and then, with a clear conscience, I could leave without asking, knowing whose voice to follow.

Another thread, this one even more tangled, said that if there were other worlds, and Mom was in one, and alive and watching over us, she would not want me to leave the house without welcoming Dad home, even if the cocoa was only instant.

So everything in the snarl was somehow caught up in the one question of whether this was the only world there was, and therefore I could not leave without asking it.

Why had I not left? No way I could tell him. It would have sounded stupid. Stupider. Instead I said: “Gosh, Dad. I cannot drive the car! Was I supposed to jog?”

“Don’t get smart with me. You’re allowed to drive the Jeep.”

“During daylight, with an adult. Sun’s not up yet. And you told me not to—”

“Son, different rules apply during the End of the World.”

I did not know what to say to that.

The car keys hang on a little plaque of pegs, neatly labeled, beneath a picture of Mom. I mentioned there are pictures of her all over the house. She is in her wedding dress and behind the wheel of the world’s ugliest jalopy, made beautiful with well-wishes painted on the windshield and boots and tin cans tied to the tailpipe, and a snowfall of flung rice. She is standing on the seat, her long veiling frozen in mid-float of a long-ago gust of wind, and flings the bouquet toward some blurred figures out of focus at the edge of the frame. Dad in his Midshipman’s uniform, sword and all, is in the passenger’s seat, scowling at whoever was wielding the camera. Someone wrote DRIVE CAREFULLY in red in one corner.

mobius3pi0

8.       Dancing Maiden

Dad picked up the key to his gashog sedan, and pushed the little button that starts its engine. I heard the quiet roar of its big V-10 engine before he opened the sidedoor into the garage. The engine was built into the frame of a Chrysler Crown Imperial. Huge car, a real beauty.

The car he started was for him. For me, he flicked the keys of the Jeep off the pegboard and tossed them my way.

“It’s early yet,” he said. “Turn on the antiradar gear, the police band scanner, and run any red lights. If the police see you, crack the nitro tank and outrun them. Or just run on nitro the whole way. Here, take my night-vision goggles, and drive without your headlights on.”

I have always wondered what a person looks like when they completely lose their minds. They look normal.

My Dad looked entirely normal, just like he did was he was serious. It is the sane people who look crazy when the weirdness starts. I cannot imagine what my face looked like. Watch yourself carefully in a mirror while having a good friend slam you over the head with a two-by-four, maybe you can tell me what it looks like.

I stammered out, “D-Dad?! You want me to lose my license before I even get a license?”

“Saving lives is more important. And keeping your word is more important. Get to the Museum just like he said, and shut down the equipment just like he said. If you see Miss Anthrope, warn her out of the area. Or anyone else. If the Coil is active long enough to condense a dark fog, there is radiation her cell structure will not be able to withstand.”

Radiation? And what about me?” He was not answering. So I said, slightly louder, “Well, Father? What about my cell structure?”

“You will — uh — be okay.”

“How interesting! You know, Dad, when I was younger you let me ride without a helmet. Skydive, too. But not my brothers. Why is that? Didn’t care if I broke my head?”

“Because I knew you would be — uh — be okay.” He looked embarrassed. “We don’t have time to talk.”

“Don’t we? Because I ain’t moving a darned inch unless you give me some answers, Dad! What happens if I don’t move?”

“You’ve read the Revelation of Saint John?”

“Yes. But what does that have to do with — uh? What?”

“Ilya, this is serious. I’ll keep talking if you keep walking. Into the garage.”

“I am my sweatpants and bathrobe!”

“Take my jacket.”

The jacket was heavy and black and a little small on me. My wrists struck out. I think it was Kevlar. It was darned heavy. I am a little broader in the shoulder than my Dad, so I could not zip it all the way up. I clipped the collar shut, though it kind of choked me.

Great. I was wearing a bulletproof coat that did not cover my centerline ribcage, where I keep things like my heart and lungs. Maybe he just wanted me not to be cold.

He said, “Grab that flashlight there.” (This was a six-cell black Maglite as long and heavy as a billyclub.) “And—this. Here! There may be trouble.”

He unlocked the garage weapon cabinet. We don’t keep the firearms there, just blades. He handed me the katana Grampa Mikhail had brought back from Japan after World War Two.

The Japanese government in during the last days of the war produced a lot of quickly and cheaply made samurai-looking swords called shingunto to give to officers, because the military government was trying to enflame the populous with the romance of bushido, and the devotion to the Imperial Family.

This was not one of those.

Forged in 1913, a twenty-five inch blade, the tang was signed by Sadakazu, the Imperial Court Artist under the Meiji. The temperline pattern was ko-notare, or ‘billowing wave’, characteristic of the Soshu school. The hilt was ray skin wrapped in white silk, the tassels were red and gold; a sixteen-petal Imperial chrysanthemum was engraved on the tang of the blade; the fittings, guard and pommel were decorated with a cherry blossom motif, a symbol of the beauty and brevity of life. It was called Shirabyoshi — the White Dancing Maiden. It was named for the dancing girls, garbed as men and bearing white-sheathed swords, that performed for the Heian emperors before their downfall.

He held it toward me in both hands. “Bow and take the blade.”

This blade was probably worth more than the tuition would be for whatever college had not accepted me yet. I bowed and took it. It felt oddly heavy in my hands, even though, in theory, it was lighter than the hardwood practice sword I had been using since I was seven years old.

“Let it dangle from the baldric when you have to sit, but clip it to the jacket belt when you have to run, otherwise it will bark your legs. Treat it just like a gun. That means you do not draw unless you mean to kill someone. Remember to store the blade face up, and not to let the edge touch the saya when sheathing and drawing. Push the tsuba away from the throat of the scabbard with your thumb. And keep your gear clean.”

He tucked the sword cleaning kit into my pocket. This was a flat wooden case containing sword oil, cotton cloth, polishing powder and a powder ball to apply it, and rice paper for both fine cleaning and polishing. I felt a chill. How long was Dad expecting me to be gone?

katana

“Dad—you can’t—uh—Grandfather’s sword—it is too important! Let me use your Springfield—”

He said, “If you see someone who looks like he is wearing a costume for a Science Fiction convention, don’t try to shoot him. A really convincing costume.”

“Father? Of course I would not shoot a…”

“Better to slay him with the edge of the sword.”

“Uh?”

“Remember your footwork and maintain your distance. You are trying to stroke, not chop, because you want to bite deep and open a major vein, not make a shallow slice. Let his bloodloss work for you. Head, abdomen, hand: Decapitate, disembowel, dismember.”

“But not shoot him? If … he is in a costume.”

“If the area around the Museum is still crisp and clear-looking, not foggy, it is normal reality, and you will have time to go get your squirrel gun from the shed there. Only use the gun on human looking people. Got it?”

It struck me for the first time that not every kid’s father trains him deadly weapons modern and ancient, and expects such training to be used. For that matter, not every kid’s father orders him to kill science fiction fans, which struck me as a bit harsh.

And, anyway, science fiction fans look human. Some of them.

“Slash the kooks. Shoot the mundanes. Got it. Tell me why? Or, rather, why the hell?” I said.

“Watch your mouth. Gunpowder does not ignite in the Twilight region.”

“No gunpowder in the Twilight Zone. Wonderful.”

He nodded.

I kept my voice steady. “Dad. Seriously. Who are you?

“Me? I am going to the motel to stop Adramelech Anthrope before he wraps himself in the Twilight again. It is a side effect of the Uncreation, and a dangerous one. A practitioner can use it to excuse himself from certain laws of nature in a limited way. I assume that how he walked out of the asylum, and why he left his machine running. Otherwise I’d go with you.”

Chyort! I didn’t ask you where are you going. I figured if you weren’t calling the cops and weren’t coming with me, you’d go to him. I asked you who are you?”

“I am the Father that loves you and raised you. And a good Father will kick your tailbone up your spine and out your foul mouth, if you use inappropriate language, Ilyusha.”

“Okay, Mister Loving Father. How about a little straight truth? I am still not moving until you tell me—”

“Three questions. That’s all. Then you move. First question!”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Some things are men’s business only. You’re too young for the burden. I was going to tell you everything on your birthday, the day I start charging you rent. Wasted question. Ask better.”

I wanted to ask if the reason why Alexei seemed to go a little crazy when he came back from his year overseas was because of something he was told on his eighteenth birthday. But not if I had only two questions left.

“Where is Mom?”

He drew a deep breath and looked at his watch, which is a big instrument strapped to the underside of his wrist, waterproof, shockproof, probably a-bombproof, and shows military time on a big 24 hour dial.

“The enemy calls it Ylamdar, the Land of the Sons of Elam. The traditional name is Antregulus. The VPC number is Noachian-37. Brandan the Navigator dubbed it ‘Against the King Star‘ because the Matthew found there records no miracle of the Bethlehem Star. It ceased to parallel our world in the Seventh Century AD, as the Mohammedans never conquered Persia; and the Zoroastrian religion, not Islam, became the great rival of Christendom during the Crusades and the long decline of the Byzantine Empire. The Shahanshah of Ctesiphon rules from the North Sea to the Black to the Red to the Yellow. The Holy Roman Empire consists of France and Northern Italy. Ethiopia is Nestorian under Prestor John. Libya and Spain are Muslim. By clairvoyance, the Persian mages beheld from afar the New World, from the Aleutian islands to the Caribbean to Tierra del Fuego, and saw it consumed in wars between fragments of cannibalistic empires, whose dark pyramids never cease to smoke with human sacrifice, nor cease their stained steps to run red: and so the mages forbade any ship of the Zoroastrians ever to seek those shores. Japan and Iceland have established tentative colonies and endless feuds. There are Shinto shrines and Buddhist pagodas in California, and dark groves of thorn or oak or ash where slaves are sacrificed to Odin in Greenland and Quebec.”

Nothing had ever smote my imagination so fiercely. Through the open garage door, it was almost as though I could see the shadowy slopes of my boring Oregon hills alive with Samurai in their metal scowling facemasks and brightly silk-woven armor, Norse berserkers in their terrible horned helms gold-shining, Aztec jaguar-knights gorgeous in feathers and outrageous facepaints, all convulsing field and wood with flames of glorious war.  I vowed to see that land before I died.

But the thought of my mother in such a world burned in the back of my throat. “That’s—terrible! How could you let her—?”

He interrupted the question. “That’s the history she’s in, and the Zoroastrians have technology over there our world never discovered or developed, including clairvoyance that reaches between worlds. If she is alive, I think she can still see us. We cannot reach her. We will never have a way to reach her. The Dark Tower stands in the way, and all the portcullises are destroyed. That is why I held a memorial service. Last question! Make it snappy.”

“Who are you? What are you?”

“Get in the Jeep. Start the engine. You know who are the Sovereign Military Order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon?”

“Sure. The Knights Templar. They were wiped out in the Dark Ages.”

“Gah! Only someone who learned his history from watching reruns of the Time Tunnel would call the Twelfth Century the Dark Ages.”

“They were tortured and killed by some French Dude who wanted their money.”

“Philip the Fair wanted more than that. He knew Templars had possession of the Ark of the Covenant.”

“Wait. You mean the magical gold box that melts Nazis faces?”

“I mean the sacred vessel for carrying the tablets of Moses, the living rod of Aaron, and a jar of the bread of heaven. It also has power over the twilight, and over the eternal night of Uncreation. We used it to find and open the door of aeons. Only the Visible Fellowship of the Templars was martyred. The Invisible Fellowship continued. The Curia and the Holy Father protected us.”

“We? Us?”

“I am an Ostiary and Warden in the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ of the commandry assigned to the protection of pilgrims and wayfarers in the Ultramundane Realms, the Outreterre.”

He held up the oversized and ornate High School class ring he still wears on his right hand, and he fiddled with the collet like he always does when he is nervous or thinking. This time it was not just a nervous tick: he was turning the collet of the ring the way you would turn the dial of a safe.

With a click, the face changed shape. I don’t mean the ring had a secret compartment, I mean the class ring morphed like a special effect on TV: the face changed shape and color and grew larger.

Now it was no longer a class ring but a signet ring. The seal was white and gold, and engraved with two crusaders with shield on one horse and around them the legend written in raised letters: Sigillum Militum Χρisti.

He held it toward me so that I could see it.

“As in ancient days, our mission is to protect pilgrims and fight the enemies of Christendom, and watch and guard the doors into the Outreterre. I am one of those who can withstand the Twilight surrounding Uncreation. I am an Ostiary, a door-warden. Not far from here is the door I watch.”

He passed his fingers over it, and I heard it click, and then it was a class ring again.

The idea that there was a supernatural and inter-dimensional portal hidden in Tillamook, Oregon, made me snort, trying to smother a laugh. If I started laughing, I would probably never stop. I forced my wobbling brain to follow what Dad was saying.

“You know about the prehistoric ossuary beneath the Monastery.”

I did. My brothers and I, many a midnight when we were younger, tried to keep each other sleepless and terrified with speculations and ghost stories about it, or by pretending we heard scratching noises approaching the house. There were ancient chambers, walled and roofed with kiln-burnt brick, too small for a child to stand erect in, connected by narrow crawlspaces only a child could navigate, filled with clay pots filled with bones.

I knew there had been tribes of a darker, smaller people inhabiting North and South America long before the ancestors of the American Indians migrated across the Bering Strait and displaced and wiped them out. Northwest Indians hunted game and gathered nuts in woodlands that grew and swallowed where earlier peoples farmed and pastured.

Before they vanished, these lost people erected monoliths and standing stones that measured the stars and seasons of their planting, and buried their priestesses and holy slaves alive in chambers beneath.

Spanish explorers had discovered the bloodstained stones and skeletons beneath. A Mission, walled like a fortress, was erected on the spot, to remove the curse on the land. The monoliths were pulled down by mule teams and hammered to bits. No adult could crawl into crooked opening down into the dark well of bones, so they sent a drummer boy whose name is not recorded, and, later, according to the Mission chronicles, young novices. (Those boys had been the stars of the horror stories my brothers and I concocted to give each other nightmares.)

In later years, an order of monks built a Monastery on the Mission grounds, and steadfastly prevented any antiquarians or archeologists who otherwise might have learned of the find and been curious from digging up the site. That Monastery was abandoned not long after the Oregon territory gained Statehood, and became an antique itself. But the Church still owned the acreage over most of the mountain. It was land too steep for logging, so there was no incentive for the State to claim it by eminent domain and run us off. It was officially part of the Archdiocese of Portland and my Dad was allegedly the Deacon in assigned to maintain the grounds, and people were kept away.

I said, “I am assuming the Monastery was abandoned for the same reason it was built here. Whatever scared the prehistoric people into putting up their monoliths scare the abbot, right?”

He smiled, pleased. “Correct. The Curia ordered the Monastics away once the real nature of the danger was known, a man who was allegedly a Deacon of the Order of The Most Holy Savior, was placed here as watchman.”

The Order was also known as the Brigitines. Founded in 1370, they were wiped out in Europe during the Reformation. The only ones left in the whole world were here in Oregon, in Amity, where they baked fudge between prayers. It was tasty. As a member, Dad got a free supply on feast days and name days.

Only he was telling me he was not a member. I said slowly, “The Brigitine monks are a front group for the Templars?” The fudge-cooks? The idea was laughable, but I was not laughing.

Dad nodded.

I said, “Then you are telling me Deacon Derfel…?”

“He was actually an Ostiary of the Templars, a Knight: Sir Derfel Gadarn. And Deacon Eustace after him was also Sir Eustachius.”

Deacon Derfel was the man who lived here before us, and built our house, or, rather, build the main part, what is now the den and kitchen. Deacon Eustace was the man who kept the house before us, and installed modern wiring and plumbing. We had to tear out and re-do the entire septic tank because he installed it wrong, and it was leaking into the foundations.

Dad glanced behind him. Through the small windows in the back wall of the garage the leafy silhouette of the treetops and the rugged silhouette of the cliffs could almost be seen against the stars and clouds.

“The way between worlds opens in places where the walls are thin when the stars are right. The ancient peoples erected their stones to mark the spot and measure the times. We have also made measurements, using modern tools, and believe that the twilight door on this mountain here should remain quiescent for another two centuries. But there are forbidden methods, like your Professor’s machine, that can force a door open where and when there shouldn’t be one.

“And now,” His eyes rested on mine. His tone of voice was no different than when he ordered to me do yard work or clean the bathroom or something. Just his normal, even voice. “Now, as of today, you are an Ostiary. You are going to help me in my duty. There are things on the far side of the door that must be kept out of our reality. If your girlfriend opens the door into twilight, the Dark Tower will know.”

I started to open my mouth, but he cut me off.

“Now bow your head for my blessing, and say these words.”

He put his both hands on my head.

The Jeep was rumbling and muttering, warm under the seat of my sweatpants, and the smell of gasoline mingled with the smell of the pre-dawn night coming from the garage door, which, groaning, had pulled itself upward and out of my way.  Our front yard is a sharp slope impossible to mow with the riding mower, and the driveway dives down so sharply that riding bicycle or sled down its length was like being dropped from a bomb bay. Every light in the house was lit, and windows splashed slanted rectangles across the lawn. Beyond, darkness.

Something in how steeply the driveway just dove into that darkness seemed to stare at me as I spoke my Father’s words:

At any moment I may find myself in battle. However rigorous the task that awaits me, may I fulfill my duty with courage. If death should overtake me on this field, grant that I die in the state of grace, forgive me all my sins, those I have forgotten and those I recall now: grant me the grace of perfect contrition.

I wanted to ask him if I was going to die, and never see him again. But I had used up my three questions.

For those were the words of the Soldier’s Prayer, said only on the eve of engagement. There was something those words that made it hard for me to breathe. Fear? Awe? I don’t know. What am I, a psychologist?

So I was speeding down a deserted road that rose and fell across the hilly slopes like a rollercoaster, in a weird world of green shadows, the night-vision goggles keeping the wind out of my eyes, hair blowing, and was already a mile away from the house before I could catch my breath again….

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