October 7, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson
Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian
“I hear thunder,” Ivalene said in a puzzled voice, looking up to the blue sky stretched tight across the great canyon.
“How could there be thunder?” Will Ford demanded. “There isn’t a cloud in sight. They must be blasting somewhere close by to here.”
“So how could they be blasting, smartass?” she retorted. “Blasting isn’t allowed in, like, national parks–you know?”
The low rumble sounded again almost under their feet and Will Ford, looking at his boots, saw the head of the thunder cloud eight hundred feet down, flashing like a lightbulb between the walls of the side canyon. “Well I’ll be danged,” he said. “Look at that, would you? A guy comes all the way out here to the Grand Canyon for a little R & R, and it sounds just exactly like Baghdad on a slow day.”
“How could anyone possibly compare the two?” Ivalene demanded. “Thunder is the voice of Gaia, Will-the goddess of nature, goodness, and peace.”
Will Ford was about to answer her, when he thought better of it. Brains, after all, weren’t the reason he kept Ivalene around to begin with. Even so, it wasn’t always easy having a tree-hugger for a girlfriend. “Maybe you better get dinner started now, before that thing moves on up here and soaks us,” he suggested.
He had the fire already lit, and an armload of dead pine branches piled beside it; nothing left for him to do but prepare the thick beefsteak he’d bought from a butcher shop in Circleville, Utah on the trip south from Salt Lake City. The rest of the meal was the girl’s responsibility. Will poured a couple of fingers of single malt whiskey into a plastic cup and went on to the Jeep, where he pulled a nylon bag from the back and sat up on the front seat to open it.
The bag lay heavily on his lap, a hard, concentrated weight. He unzippered it, and drew out a piece of complicated-looking equipment painted black except for the glassy face mask. It was night vision gear, but unlike the standard issue model-unlike, in fact, any night vision Will had seen in his army career. He had bought it for seven dollars and fifty cents, American money, in a pawn shop in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. The pawnbroker, a bearded, turbaned man with a gold tooth and an eye that kept drifting up under its drooping lid, said the customer who had left it with him claimed it to be brandnew, state-of-the-art equipment, still in the experimental stage in the U.S.A. Having smuggled his purchase into the barracks in a duffel bag and hidden it among his other gear, Will had tested the system just once. The result had been profoundly disturbing-so much so that he had laid the thing away and not tried it again until, stateside at last, he had made further experiments at home in Salt Lake City.
Now he sat regarding the apparatus with an unease amounting to dread. Ashamed, Will replaced the night vision in its bag and wandered over to the cliff edge for a look at the thunderstorm. Though he’d been half expecting to find it crouched just below the canyon rim, waiting to leap up over and pounce upon the camp, the storm had vanished without a trace, except for a wet shine on the boulders far below and the acid smell of baked rock cooling.
“Storm’s gone away,” he reported cheerfully to Ivalene on his return to camp. “How’s dinner coming along, Baby?”
“It’s doing fine. I’ll be ready for you to do your steak thing, in just a few minutes now.”
“Good. There’s time for another whiskey, then. Sure you won’t have a drink-just a little one–with me, to stay warm? It’s getting downright chilly out here.”
“I don’t need chemicals in my body to keep me warm. And every outdoorsperson knows that alcohol does the opposite, by thinning the blood and reducing the flow to the extremities.”
Will Ford thought: Next she’s going to tell me that contraceptive foams are chemicals and that sex, by withdrawing the flow of blood from the head to the loins, makes you stupid.
The evening sun hung red above the western landline, burning along the undersides of the clouds and flooding the upper half of the canyon maze with a crimson brilliance that lay squarely upon the blue, purple, and black shadows below, without mixing with them. Will sat at a safe distance from the cliff edge to watch the sunset, while he finished his second drink. He was not a man to enjoy, or even notice, scenery. The Grand Canyon, however, was unignorable: something beyond scenery, like the background of a movie transformed by camera tricks and special effects. Without waiting for sunset to be over, he tossed the empty cup over the cliff before he could think what Ivalene would have had to say about that, and walked briskly on toward the fire. “If anyone had ever told me I was going to fall for a guy who ate dead cow,” Ivalene marveled as she watched him lift the great marbled steak from its waxed paper wrapper and place it, sizzling, across the carboned grill laid above the flames, “I’d have told them I was more likely to get involved with a lumberjack, than that.”
Will nodded to show he’d heard, but did not answer her. The words “fall for” set off an alarm bell in his mind. They weren’t the kind he was comfortable hearing any woman, let alone Ivalene, use.
It was dark on the North Rim when they finished supper. Ivalene cleaned up, and gave the steak bone to Will with instructions to bury it at a distance from camp. He threw it into the canyon instead and made a detour round the lighted tent where Ivalene was inside taking care of girl things, on his way to the Jeep and the bottle of whiskey he’d left on the front seat, together with the nylon bag.
In the dim car light, the night vision equipment looked especially sinister. Will Ford felt an impulse to hurl the contraption over the cliff after the steak bone and the cup, but resisted it. There was a mystery here, he understood-rather, the key to a mystery–that he could not ignore, or run away from. In Iraq, he had been decorated twice for bravery in action. Here, on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, there was no one to snipe at him, or try to blow him up with a bomb. Yet he was scared now, he had to admit: frightened beyond anything he’d ever known by these ugly black goggles attached by wires to the compact black box.
His experience in Iraq had been upsetting enough, but he’d reassured himself at the time by reflecting that this was a backward and uncivilized country, populated by people who were hardly better, if at all, than savages. The Salt Lake City one, by comparison, had been unnerving. This was a godly city, the capital of a God-fearing people who had taken a barren desert, similar to the Mesopotamian one, and in a few decades caused it to blossom as the rose. How could it be that the pawn broker’s goggles, when operated in Utah, produced a vision essentially the same as when he’d tried them first in Iraq? On the streets of Baghdad, the first-seen, familiar, and expected things had always been a scrim obscuring and hiding the shadowy, lurking, and often unseen reality behind it. In Baghdad, you came to expect the unexpected, suspect the hitherto unsuspected. That was normal for Baghdad, because Baghdad was Baghdad. But this was Salt Lake City, with its wide, immaculately clean streets, its tall modern buildings shining in the white desert sun, its prosperous, welldressed, and well-behaved people going about their honest business in the shadow of the Mormon Temple in Temple Square. In Salt Lake City, what you saw was always what you saw. Only the night vision saw anything different, anything other, anything to drive a sane man mad with terror.
“Are you coming to bed, Sweetie Pie, or what?” Ivalene called from the tent.
Will Ford looked at the equipment lying in his lap, and at the nylon bag on the seat beside him. “I’m coming!” he cried, gratefully, as he stuffed the night vision back into the bag, like a snake charmer returning a cobra to its basket. A full moon had risen, he saw as he crossed the open clearing where the fire had collapsed in a pile of glimmering red coals, at the opposite end of the canyon from where the sun had gone down, inverting light and dark like a photographic negative.
“Take your boots off and stick them up under the rain fly,” Ivalene ordered in a floating, detached voice as soon as he put his head and shoulders through the tent door. She lay naked in the half-zippered bag, and her eyes looked glassy. The inside of the tent was heavy with smoke and the familiar cloying odor, acrid and sweet at the same time.
Afterward, Will drank more of the whiskey while Ivalene smoked another joint. He had a toke when she offered it, and passed her his bottle in return. To his surprise, she accepted it and took a long pull. Will made a point of being approving.
“There’s no chemicals in that stuff,” he promised her. “Just a couple acres of corn, is all.”
“I like it,” Ivalene said positively. She reached for the bottle between them, sucked hard on it again, and patted her bare stomach afterward.
“You need to be careful with that stuff,” Will told her, “on top of what you’ve had to smoke tonight, and not being used to whiskey and all.”
“I feel fine,” Ivalene insisted. “Just look at the full moon through the tent wall.” She rose to her knees, grabbed his hand suddenly, and pulled on it, as if to lift him up. “Come on, Will! Let’s both of us take a moonbath!”
“What in Hell is a moonbath?”
“It’s when you get naked and run around outside and let the moonlight pour all over you and wash you clean-like standing under a waterfall!”
Now he’d heard everything, Will thought. He’d never known these earth muffins were so crazy.
“You go take a moonbath,” he suggested, “and I’ll just lay here and drink a little more whiskey and try and imagine being clean all over.”
He cursed under his breath as her pale form clambered heavily on all fours over his legs on its way out of the tent. Then he must have slept, because the next thing he remembered was hearing a scream. It was a woman’s scream, and Will Ford, waking all over at once despite the whiskey he’d had to drink and thinking for an instant that he was back in Iraq, reached instinctively beside himself for his rifle. Then, recalling where he was and with whom, he shucked off the sleeping bag and sprang naked through the tent door into the bright cold night beyond.
The cry, his combat-trained senses told him, had come from the direction of the cliff edge. Unconscious of the forest rubble under his bare feet, Will Ford sprinted to the stony verge and peered over it into the void below, transformed by the climbing moon to a rigid chaos of white and black, dark and light, shadow and lunar glare. Twice he shouted her name, and twice his voice returned him raggedly from every direction, multiplied like a staggered chorus of badly trained singers. In desperation, he looked wildly about himself. The night was nearly as bright as day, yet he could see nothing-rather, he was unable to make out anything. Then he remembered the night vision, tightly confined in its bag on the seat of the Jeep.
The moon showed him the way across the camp and back, as it had done so many nights in the Iraqi desert. Standing on a flat boulder, perilously close to the lip of the precipice, Will Ford settled the headset in place, adjusted the goggles tightly to his eye sockets, and moved the switch that activated the system to the ON position.
He saw nothing at first-nothing but the barren rock shelf below, a jumble of boulders and the sparsely scattered trees. Then, somewhere in that cold and universal immobility, something moved. Ford concentrated on the thing, and saw that it moved again. It was one of the little black trees, a juniper or piñon pine, but even as he watched, it was becoming less of a tree and more of something else: a creature mobile as well as alive, legged rather than rooted, more human than arborial, upright like a man, but otherwise like no man he had ever seen before. Will Ford felt sick with terror. It was happening as it had happened before, in Baghdad and Salt Lake City. Dreadful forms were emerging from the shadows wherever he looked. Gigantic serpents glided behind eroded gnomons, horned demons like those scratched in the desert varnish by ancient Indians slipped from one tree to the next, every rock was an incubus, and boulders the size of houses revealed themselves as pale dragons crouched behind black open maws as wide as dragline buckets.
Will Ford tore frantically at the goggles and headset. They came away easily in his hands, and two- handedly he hurled them with all his strength at the huge bats, scaly pterodactyls, and winged gargoyles flying upward from the abyss to darken the moonlit sky with their myriad rubbery black wings. He had not intended to follow them and was shocked to find himself actually doing so, working his arms frantically as if to discover and utilize vestigial wings of his own. But only his voice seemed to work now as he plummeted like a small struggling rock toward a ledge of shattering sandstone a thousand feet below, taking up in the bass register where Ivalene’s had broken from the treble clef five minutes ago.