What is it that came before the word? Who is it laid bare the stakes? Some figure, hard to catch sight of then and harder to remember in the careening days that followed, though all were quick to recall that brush past the door, footstep in the dirt outside, tiny lift in the kitchen curtain just so, feeling of something invisible sweeping into the house as the first prayers went up, and on a night like that... Mothers with young children, for whom nursery rhymes were still wont to spill forth only half-bidden, were apt to think of him as Luceafarul, Eminescu’s famous evening-star, here finally descended down its ray of creation to smile on good, simple folk. Children, no less suckers for the magic conveyed in verse and raised on this heady backdrop of Sabbath chants, swore it was tiptoeing Eliyahu come through to finally take that sip of wine. Others--the lush on his barstool, the old man behind the leather shop counter, those whose connections to those old poesies had just about fully eroded, and been replaced with poporanist workaday practicalities--casted meaningful glances at one another until the stranger moved on, mumbling afterward about the accent they were sure they picked up, a new Jew arendator, landlord oppressor, another sent by cosmopolitans to infest the area, this town, Moineşti, rotten with rites and tribalisms and secret societies as it was, and by now its every parcel of land just so much commerce to line the cabal’s filthy pockets. And such an odd timbre in the man’s voice--what had he said his name was? No one could recall; only the most recent exchanges lingered in the memory, then they too went gossamer, took wing and flitted. He had asked for directions to the railway station. Word was he was headed for the capital.
He is pictured, when done so--in fresco cycles on seldom-passed walls, or in shabbily-xeroxed concert fliers pinned to telephone poles--in a few key poses. Here lifting a gloved hand up to the big departures board, here wandering in the aisles and whispering in a conductor’s ear, hiding in the locker toilet during ticket control, gazing out the window, expression content, peaceable as the countryside that just rolls by. Smiling at the gendarme who walks past and doesn’t see a thing. Smiling at the downcast woman in black, husband felled of late in an attack by rampaging peasants, whose wan countenance now carries with it this obscene suggestion of earning for oneself, however she must do it, on the city streets. The train reaches the capital, in fact, just as the attacks back in Moldavia spill over into a full-blown workers’ revolt, those same Mojnescht Jews now in, yeah, some trouble... And this hazy shape--call him Domnule Zgomot, Monsieur Bruit, a Herr Rauschen, a Mr. Noise, names being academic, and meaningless where he’s concerned--what concentrated kernel, what diamond-dense nucleus of his essence comes ripping before the Word, appears as if by hap, in a Western-style tailcoat and Beau Brummel boots, on the rainslicked streets of Bucharest.
He gets to work immediately, slipping handfuls of foreign gold coins, francs, sovereigns, Turkish lire, in the designated pockets. He hints, sly in backrooms and sure steady handshakes, speaking whatever language is called for, on account he knows them all. He tracks down the children, those chosen whose mothers still speak of his golden descent, children whom he means, in accented sagesse and an eye on the longview, to initiate.
“It’s a hard path, and doomed,” he says, in the darkened out-of-the-way spaces in which he makes his offers, this funny paradox being pretty much the crux of the whole schpiel. “Do you accept?”
“Ja ja.” “Oui oui.” “Da da.” He smiles, and the cellars illuminate, with just the barest spark of countervailing light.
Initiatory rites are proffered. The magic used is very old. The girls are separated from the boys and each is cleaned thoroughly, from head to foot, in warm waters that smell of linden and chamomile. Dried with flowers, white basil petals and ruddy umbels of dill. Eyelids are shut, like a corpse’s, with the gentlest brush of the stranger’s fingertips, and each child falls into a warm and welcoming sleep, hardly settled into for exploration of the lengthy gestation ahead before the stranger is gone, whoosh, the doorhinge flapping once more.
Years pass, and they are bad ones. Suddenly there is this saying going round. It’s in French, about l’état, and it goes, “Il tombera.” The mothers in the countryside fret and observe with silent dread the way things seem to be getting worse and worse. Yet there are contraindications. In the city, on the street, people begin to speak strangely. Old languages up and reappear on the tips of their unaccustomed Orthodox tongues. A rich father brings his daughter to the doctor, says he can’t figure out why she’s been spewing these snatches of trashy old noise. The doctor, world-beater, Budapest-born and rational as they come, furrows a practiced furrow, bustles a filing cabinet, talks about the weather, stalling on account of, well, it’s strange but the way the girl just sits there--dark hair straight down and sticking out in front of her eyes, also black, hard-set, yeah she’s got that initiate look alright--and babbles, oblivious to the grownups’ conversation and all in an unearthly, tilting low register.
The doctor sets her up with a basic hearing test. Pulls a phonograph record off of a shelf, explains that musical tones will sound in groups of one, two, or three. “Repeat them, that’s all,” but when the recording pops and wheezes to life, what begins playing is something different. Before the doc has a chance to realize he’s put on the wrong disc, a shimmer of clarinet birdsong lifts into the dingy room, arcs over their heads and next thing you know the girl is whistling back the trilly beginning of the ‘Quartet for the End of Time’--that infinitely slow piece of Messiaen’s, composed and performed of late in a freezing German prison camp, at a performance attended only by fellow captives, starved and faded, and the guards who just sat there, as this doc sits now, rapt...
As this doc sits now, rapt, here in indisputable waking tangibility, dingy security guard booth lit up in blinding fluorescence, overhead lamps and pale snowy TV monitors, one latexed hand on the Red Indian’s temple and the other stuffing in this plastic mouthpiece, stop him whistling, seizing, c’mon, wake up, these voices that’ve on occasion been known to just well up, ow, right up in the subject’s eardrums from wink to heady roar, shaking his brain with ghostly third ear tones. It’s not a new phenomenon, the subject here coughing, spitting up some jailhouse infant formula; what is it they’ve been feeding him?
His tongue spills out and he bites it, gnagn, hard, but the dull mouthpiece underside prevents any real damage. He shakes, sputters and goes back to lowing, another long, wordless cowcall.
“Shhhh!” the doc jamming shushing latexed finger in the subject’s plastuck mouth. “Shut it!”
The Red Indian lies back and the doc calms noticeably. In the brief window for observation afforded, he begins to note dimensions of the subject, though ultimately all he writes on his pad are the words “skinny kid.” The subject, eyes still shut, pushes up off the steel examination table, grunts and notices the mouthpiece, which he makes a move to pull out but ends up just losing his balance and spilling off the table onto the floor, where he lays like a lump.
The doc springs into action. “You alright son? C’mon...”
The subject turns around, eyes open, smiling through the mouthguard. He mushmouths a few words, intoning them slowly.
The doc pulls the plastic out of the subject’s mouth, a long line of yellowy spit trailing with. “What was that now?”
“Too many wines and too many beers,” the subject repeats, in a strange low voice. “I’m feeling dozy.”
The doc smiles, jots something else down. “What else can you remember?”
“The band’s all done, man, better pay up. Except--whoa, someone’s stealing all their shit. Someone’s robbing the band. Hey, whatchu writing?”
The doc shows him the pad. ‘Proleptic flashes.’
Flashes? ‘Atonwa’ is the name he goes by. His father was named Laloux and his mother St. Cyr and so he probably had a French name at some point but for a while now at least he’s been Atonwa. He’s been locked up a while too, and--here hazarding a glance in the reflective glass face of an out-of-order security cam monitor--looks to be loaded, heavy red-rimmed of eyelid, the whole bit, so he may just be forgetting some more crucial identifying information, maybe meditate on it a bit, get his bearings, except--
“We’ve got to get you out of here.” The fuck, doc? Where to? “Never mind where,” the doc here motioning to the table, where a rig of working television monitors, beige plastic cased and antenna’d, a bunch of kitchen TV sets all lined up in series, blink out their various black-and-white feeds, crummy label-maker numberings spelled out beneath each, “ONE,” “TWo,” “THR3E,” like that. One of these feeds, the one to which the doctor is pointing, seems to show a number of figures--there are five, now six--standing around, shirtless, heavy rucksacks, masks on, strapped. Strapped? Yeah, with a quantity of firearm. Guns, big ones and small, hanging off makeshift shoulder holsters crazily precipitous, or else in hand, as they pace and confer, but there’s no audio. “We just want you away from here.”
Just, wait, who, what’s that? Atonwa’s head pounds, a heavy tinnitus tone is oppressing the entirety of his perceptions, he can barely listen to what the guy is saying, and just what is it he’s talking about anyway? Puts a hand up to his eyes, cover, bright light, thump, metallic, pummel, blood, yeesh. “They,” guess the doctor talking about the dudes in the video? “are in that building. Here, get up.” He pulls Atonwa roughly by the shoulder, ow, shit--
“That building.” They’ve climbed onto a counter, now ducking into a sort of bubbled pod window right at ground level, the concrete and the night before them, the view is worm’s eye at best. Below him Atonwa can see the steel observation table he fell off of a moment ago but has now risen miraculous above like a spirit leaving the body. The room was underground--where he’s been, he thinks, maybe, for a while now--“that building there,” jerking his neck to attention, Jesus, and pointing out across an empty gravelly lot at a big concrete structure, maybe ten stories high and squatting just as wide, in the shape of a ship, hmmm. It’s only half-painted, rigged up with scaffolding, attendant portions slathered in blinding white primer. Police cars circumscribe the place--siren flashes continuing to do a number on Atonwa’s worn eyesight, not to mention his dizziness, or his blues--and a helicopter circles overhead, searchlight dripping lazily onto the ship’s upper deck, that is, the building’s roof, that is.
“Cool boat,” Atonwa says, and slides slitherine out of the doc’s grasp, slipping off the counter and knocking the TV sets over with a huge clatter. The constant falling feels natural, and he can’t seem to feel any pain just now anyways, so.
“Listen to me!” The doc--wait, are you a doc even?--is leaning over Atonwa, pulling him up again, rough, by the armpits. The guy is all elbows, jostley, jerk. “They are attacking the institute. If they find you... you’re going to want to have listened to me.” Going to, want to, have listened, this convolution. Must be serious, he is speaking so importantly.
Atonwa puts on a serious face for this important man. “What’s the plan then?” And congratulates himself on getting focused, see, not so hard, except that while he’s been reflecting proudly he’s been missing the plan; the doc’s already responded.
“Okay sorry, once more.”
Points to a door. “Go that way. Through the tunnel.” He slaps a magnetic card in Atonwa’s bandaged--bandaged?--hand, which he stuffs in his jeans. “Works on any institute vehicle. Drive, head north. Stay off the highway but get to Alabama.” Cool.
“No sweat, it’s done, baby,” he replies to reassure this guy, except he’s already in the tunnel, the doc is gone, Atonwa must’ve been sort of chewing, ruminant, on these words for a while now. This corridor is long, and, yeah, plenty dark on top. Through it all buzzes this steady metallic cricket hum, something loose in the lighting circuit, the sound flickering, following him, or else it’s he who follows. He breaks into a run, it gets louder. He stops, it stops.
The hall terminates in a plain wooden door dead ahead. Laughing at the eeriness and moving at a pleasantly buzzed, hotfooted dancing pace, Atonwa raises a bandaged fist. Knock knock, who’s there, don’t know, thought you might tell me... alright, very funny but as the door falls open, Atonwa skipping through like it’s nothing he--yikes, what’s that--jumps back out hastily, for there is someone else in there, no joke, funny guy, a figure caught sight of for a split second, and as Atonwa, responding to some inexpressible biological imperative, automatically makes to run the other way, a call goes up:
“Freeze!” He’s spotted, too late, should he keep running or freeze? Freezes.
“Turn around.” It’s a woman, Red Indian, young, gun pointed, hey--characteristics coming to Atonwa jagged, straggling through a haze. Behind her another dark hallway stretches, at whose end Atonwa makes out, through a large glass window, a dank but well-lit underground parking garage and some shiny rides tucked in, headlights peeking winks at him from a hundred yards away. Ahead of all that, leaning up by the door as if waiting for someone to come through--now standing between him and what’s his--is this figure, here fixing him with this weighty stare, an intensity. Fixing him with that Glock as well, heh.
“Where did you come from?” suddenly her expression’s changed; her gaze drifts nonplussed over him, up and down and up again.
“I don’t...” Atonwa’s teeth feel rubbery from the mouthpiece, words being bounced down in the asking to a tentative master statement, offered with exactly zero conviction. “To be honest I definitely pretty much just woke up.”
For some reason she accepts this answer. She’s a teenager, eighteen at most. Skinny, with huge eyes peering dark over a bit of torn green cloth she’s tied round her nose and mouth. It occurs to Atonwa he’s shirtless, like the men in the video. “Who were the men in the video? In that building?” he notices his heart, finally, feels a little more alive.
But there’s no pretense of a response, even. “Where are you supposed to be going?” she asks, lowering her weapon, and he just points down the hall, out the door, the cars. “Go.”
Atonwa pauses to think, but nothing much happens here on pause; instead he just nods, and walks past, into the moisture of the hot garage which, an exit ramp laying invitingly upturned at its far end, sucks in and swirls around a quantity of the heady vapors of the air outside.
The cars are tiny Florida-plated scenic tour numbers, not built for much more than what might come up on a pleasant amble in your favorite golf cart. Which is what they resemble, really, no backseat and open sides, white roofs and compact flat fronts. Magnetic card readers to swipe access cards through instead of any key ignition. There are a dozen of them huddled close in this garage, all the same. One other thing, Atonwa peering around for clues to a nascent mystery whose initial parameters, at least, a certain instinct’s telling him he’d better start mapping: around front each car’s got a logo printed heavy decal on the flat-paneled, vertical hood, big green letters, arranged in a circle, with exaggerated Hebraic serifs: “The Little Institute for Advanced Study and Noah’s Park Pavilion.” Inside the circumscripture a big tree blooms agreeably, and animal silhouettes--sheep, goats in monochrome--mill about the grass, one bending over to chew on the apostrophe in ‘Noah’s.’
Noah’s Park, hence that big boat building back there, he thinks--or maybe says aloud, since the nearest car answers by whizzing on by itself, engine all awhirr all of the sudden. Gah, jumping back for what feels like the hundredth time seized by the notion everything here is alive, or--wait--Atonwa noticing that actually it’s just recharging, this plug spit out the back and resting snug in a damp concrete-set outlet drilled safe in the ground.
Yanks the ripcord, gets in. He’s pulling out before he knows it, gliding up the ramp into the night air, no signals on this thing but no one around so far either and the rush of wind in his little open air cage feels fantastically exhilarating, his stiff body surface vivifying into sensibility, reacting to the outside in a way that he can’t remember doing for some time.
So what can he remember? spilling here onto the surface, through a vast “Visitors Parking” section whose constituent cars he feels he’d better snake between undetected, for suddenly there’s that siren and copter soundtrack, and sure enough, the small bubbled sideview mirror on this dumb cart is glinting back a lightshow, lines of black cars and yellow cordoning, siren flashes blue and red. Commotion back there behind him, and a dead certainty that he’s better off as far as possible from it. What can he remember? pulling here past an EXIT sign onto a short outgoing road flanked by billboards, one of which he hazards a glance up to check out. A cartoon lamb, eyes big and expressive. A sunburst, pleasant yellow light gleaming warmly from the backdrop. Big letters at bottom, outlined in stark red, say “ARE YOU PREPARED FOR THE RAPTURE?”
Something tugs him, he’s miles away. Is it memory? He can’t tell, wants to call it something else. Proleptic flash. The band’s all done. Why’d he wake up on that table? The band got robbed. What’s all that commotion back there? Someone’s robbing NMF. Quatuor pour la fin du temps. La fin. Fin.
He unfurls the bandage, peeling off sticky, some kind of ointment, hey man, where’d you get that lotion? The anointed hand looks alright. “Ça va?” It starts to make with a thumbs up for response, then reconsiders, comes back horizontal shaky, comme ci comme ça. How about you? Heh heh, good question, Atonwa giggling, dummy, not sure at what.
“Fun night,” man and hand seem to agree. Wait, not so fast; coming up to an intersection, traffic lights bright enough to confuse but hey, check out those sirens in the distance. Aw jeez. Pull over? Peel out? What had the serious doc back there said? North. Alabama. Looking up at the road signs. Mountain City Road, north to Alabama. Up at the red light, down at the wheel, up at the distant but approaching sirens, down at his hand. “What do I do?” The hand jerks right, north to Alabama, and points fiercely. Very well, whee, he peels out. Out the open side, the hand flips the bird for good measure.
The road’s a quiet one, but he guns it all the same. North feels good, the doc was right, and here’s that sign now, ‘Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful.’ Beautiful, sure! Hand’s posed in a confident thumbs up now, and whoosh, some noticeable weight’s lifted off of him, here crossing the border and making with a real deal smile, except, hmm, this sudden light up ahead.
A black unmarked car, tucked in and well-hidden on the underbrush-swathed shoulder. What’s that sound? A building buzz, hasn’t left him since the tunnel but is now rising, supplemented by a squeal of dopplering sine, feeding back, something awry in the signal path--a siren, bright lights, Christ, and it pulls out to block Atonwa’s way. Sound, thump, pounding, too strong, no conscience, no resistance, he slows down, sputters, put-puttering to a stop and peels out the edge of the cart--sweaty limbs tipping over the cool aluminum safety bar, the point of sensory contact the last physical sensation he’ll be able to recall--blots onto the pavement, and lies there, dripped and checked out.
Fun night, then fin, Atonwa afloat on the slipstream, back amidst the comfortably freeflowing dreams of days past, consumed, monolithic feedback signal having shivered up to blistering brain-rattler levels, ana- and prolepses exploding in a thousand directions, halflimp body spasming, locked flesh to thundercrack and squashed, there at the compass point, like a fly on a map.
Next: The Transfiguration of Ritchie Ra, wherein he explores the eye, illness, and the last Transit of Venus likely to pass over a populated earth. We’re introduced to some of our heroes. Phenomena astronomical are discussed, accidents happen and thoughts return to Earth as Alfonso Heliotrope leaves his mark on Ritchie’s body. Behind the mask is something even worse.