Persistence and acceptance were my only charges. To live as my luxurious birthright invited would be a simple task. I would never struggle, nor want for something soft or warm. At their most dire, my sufferings would be petty fixations.
While those who suffered, struggled, and died in my stead down in those mines—for their fathers were not benefactors of good fortune—destroyed beneath the fixed game of destiny, I contemplated why it was this way. What figure fixed the dice? What god of matter and science constructed such a mean and spiteful reality?
But I looked across Platavilla, her earth chewed and churned, and the men that labored in her wicked name. Never given enough to live. Never enough certainty to push away from the trap built by the man who arrived first.
My father came to this place before the others. With a lick of good fortune, he unearthed the silver vein, but before he did that, he killed the Natives for the land. Many hired hands under his employ died as he hunted for the first lode. Again and again he sinned in the name of his pursuit. Until, success. With his claim staked, Heinrich Keyes brought law to this place, and he called it Platavilla. He forgave himself of the necessary sacrifices in achieving good fortune, as if it were a thing one might forge with a hot enough fire.
I wondered if another man, other than my father, had reached this place and sunk a mine, would that man have forgiven himself of the necessary wickedness, and called it all good fortune brought on by an exceptional reach beyond that which a lesser soul might have resisted? Does a man know the ill he inflicts, only until his repentance? What are we made of, if not self-forgiveness? But do we become as gods when he casts such a verdict?
I labored over these questions, for it was the only labor I was permitted to engage, by my father’s order. He did not enjoy my descents into town as I did on that spring noontime, but his eyes could not be everywhere, and his mind was growing dull from inactivity. I took the stone-pebble path that wound from our home down to where it met the road. The wheel ruts were deep from the snowmelt. The soil was polluted with an ungodly filth that choked every surface, man, structure, animal, and vegetation. I wore a cape and boots fit enough to carry me through the muck. I crossed the central road. Before me led the wide causeway heading for the mine. The other buildings were made from cut logs—a public house, an equipment warehouse, a brothel, a general store, and a stable. The miners made their lodging in either these buildings or the bunkhouses my father had built closer to the mine, out of sight from where I stood.
Embarrassment restricted my direction. I desired an unknown lesson. And though I was not lost in some foreign locale—I’d walked into the town square before in my life, always against my father’s wishes—I experienced a heightened sense of things. The chill on the wind was harsher. The midday sun, still low in the springtime sky, cast thick rays atop stone, wood, and leaf, their brilliance in my mind becoming a beautiful warning. Any one of the elements entering my perceived reality was an entirely foreign thing. Not a threat—an unnamed thing, different from me, available for cataloging and recognition as it was, or as it could be.
It was then that my attention shifted from the totality of the hyper-bright here-and-now wrapping up my mind over to a figure on a horse. He was leaning forward on his mount, crossed hands holding the reins gently, resting just a little against the saddle horn. He was a skinny man, his riding leathers made that much clear. Dressed in black, he still seemed as much a gentleman as I’d ever seen, a gold pocketwatch now visibly open in his gloved hand. I’d lived in a silver world all my life, it was a striking sight to behold an object of its sister element there before me. The man on the horse saw me see him. He did not beckon or compel me. We simply locked eyes.
He did not move from his forward-slumped posture in the saddle as I approached. He did not even knicker to his horse when I’d nearly come to him—the animal simply turned and walked the causeway that led to the mine, and I followed. The earth expanded and yawned as the rider led us. I could have quickened my pace and caught him, but elected not. Instead, I noticed all I could about the man. His face was narrow and his hair was blonde, visible now as he lowered his hat, more fit for a cowboy than a gentleman. We were further than I’d ever traveled in the direction of the mine when the horse, again with no compulsion from its master, strayed to a small spur off the road. Again, I followed, never picking up speed. We moved among the fir trees, their bleeding sap and needling aroma dwarfing my sensory capabilities. The rider turned a corner in the beaten herd path.
I found him dismounted there. He faced away, attention set on the crater in the earth where a man might find some silver.
“They say there are only two stories in the world,” the man said. I took care to not step directly behind the horse or startle the beast. “The first story concerns a man who leaves home. The second story concerns a stranger arriving in town. The first involves the sorta fella what goes seeking a different somesuch. The second figures all is well till the world shows up and tells it otherwise. In both cases, storms alight the sky as weather rolls from here to there. While all that’s kicking off, each of those two men in those two stories stumble across questions. Is the world correct elsewhere? Or have we got it right already, thank you very much, please move on, mister, we don’t got no need for your elaborations upon truisms already etched fine and decent upon immovable stones? How’s a man to know? What’s a man to do? He can know himself, maybe, if he can spare a thought away from how he’s gonna wrap his lips around the next meal or the next woman, if he’s lucky. Fix up some immovable stones, so to speak, that come hell or high water, some-somethings keep certain and don’t never move, I’ll tell you what.
“You’re a good man, he says to himself. And you’ve done whatcha can with whatever path fate’s set out before you. And some men, he might have to confess, are just better. Better in ways he can’t rightly fathom. Might even be great men in the world. And blessed be those great men’s paths—wide and smooth. Like the avenues of New York City itself. Fit for a great man, or kings, if we still built them that way. There’s a fella, he figures, what did heaps of something with what was laid before him. Ah, to be so magnificent. So majestic. And pure in his totality.
“It’s the difference between us and the other that reveals a guy’s potential as creatures in a willful universe. The separation between me and the other thing, between you and me, and between you and a foreign third guy—I oughta say—that makes a mind wonder, is this the thing that kills me? We don’t want a mystery to kill us. That’d be embarrassing, being both dead and outsmarted. Death is the totality of pain. That’s the whole damn shooting match, so to say, and pardon the cuss, but we fear death because our mind warns us of it. Warns us of confusion, even as we lie as babes in cribs. We cry out at the difference, knowing even then what rightness feels like, and the absence of rightness. It’s a feeling, always has been. Primal rage, really. Maybe it’s a cry of uncertainty, or hunger, or loneliness, but we fear the incorrectness of straying too far from a certain path. We want to live. And while we want to live as best as we possibly can, away from uncertainty, from hurt, and from death—most of all death—we above all else wanna live.
“The foreign interlopers of a confusing universe are symptoms of a disease where death is the eventual dispensation. So do we flee the symptoms? Leave town? Confess that there are more sharp objects here than there are out there? Do we admit we haven’t got it figured right here?
“Or is it actually good right here? And death will come riding into town one day, set to shatter our close-held certainties with truths we either can’t confess, or hoped might stay buried? Sins long ago forgiven, so we might not be confused, or alone—or deathly? Is forgiveness real? Is it even possible? Depends on the sin, I suppose. Is sin real? In truth, no, I’m prime to posit. Not when there’s forgiveness to be had. Not when we can reach out a hand through the realities we were born into and perceive the footsteps of God. No. Not just. We can even step over God.
“Such admission is not difficult. We only struggle with the thought because we complicate it. Great men once told us God is in his Heaven and all is right with the world. Those were men without sin, so they say. And they arrived at the altar of forgiveness, robed in white, beneath arched ceilings, and in guarded temples of dead desert kings, and we too could be great, so they say. But they remained wealthy and protected, so I say. They offered up wars against others. Threats to their certainties of perceived reality.
“Sometimes, you’re the man leaving home. Sometimes, you’re the stranger on the horse, come to town. Don’t much matter if you’re Jesus of Nazareth or General George Armstrong Custer.
“What is proper, and deserved, and correct—all such things are pre-judged stories coming from out the mouth of a fella who got here first and likes it the way it is. He doesn’t cotton to men coming into town and he especially doesn’t like folks leaving town, neither. Here’s a man that wants nothing to do with any story. He is, in his mind, God almighty, without sin, and he alone dispenses mental and material reality. This town here—from this whole in the ground to the whorehouse, and the mud between, is a very small planet, where one man’s mind dictates metaphysical truth. But over that hill is another reality. It’s an uncertain place, too. What becomes of life, this way through the trees? Is it so entirely different? What will it ask of us? Will the entirety of our beings capsize, plunging us into the sea, and assured death?
“That’s a certainty. But when some new world chisels away the stone surrounding your being, will you break, will you transform, or will you actually breathe cleaner than you’ve ever done before? Leaving one reality behind for another is a terrible thought. In a whole heckuva lotta ways, you’re killing a portion of yourself. That might even be a spookier notion than death itself. I still suggest you try it, young man. In my studies, I’ve encountered a weird truth—” the man set his hat back on his blonde head. “Nothing kills you; only death kills you.”
He set his boot in the strap and mounted his horse.
“What’s your name, mister?” I asked.
“I’m Professor Kendrick Loomis,” the man said, turning the beast about. “Someday, you might hear that name in a conversation concerning the Five Old Men. And you can choose to believe whatever you’d like to believe. But if I’m gonna give some parting advice, it’d be to watch the post box for a letter sent from Shackleburg, Colorado. The ontology department could use a mind like yours.”
-- Alex Crumb
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