Wednesday, December 30, 2009

No Frozen Chosen

"The Frozen Chosen" is a sobriquet deservedly applied to some Episcopalian parishes. That's unfortunate even in warm and comfortable seasons, but around Christmas, it's tragic - witness a friend of mine who found himself in an unemotional, going-through-the-motions church service on Christmas Eve. My own parish, St. Stephen's Houston, can be called a lot of things (starting with flamingly liberal) but Frozen Chosen we are not.

St. Stephen's has a post-Christmas tradition called Chili-Bingo. It's what it sounds like: bring chili and play bingo. The prizes are white-elephant Christmas gifts, tenderly re-wrapped to foist on someone else. If you bingo you can either select a fresh gift or poach one that somebody else already got. Every year, there are items that our parishioners can't possibly have received as Christmas gifts by natural means. Somebody had to have gone and sought out weird stuff and religious kitsch.

This time the tackiest item of the evening was the pink plastic Jesus figurine. It had in its base a magic eight-ball (where you ask a question and give it a shake, and the ball floats in the liquid it's suspended in and presents an inscrutable answer.) This absurdity goes by the name of Answer Me Jesus. Also notable were an LED-illuminated picture of the Last Supper and a windup toy called Nunzilla, which walks and spits sparks. Then there were a yodeling electronic pickle and a stuffed penguin that sings and dances when you press the red spot on its flipper. I briefly possessed the penguin after I poached it from somebody else and before a third person poached it from me. The singing penguin's happy dance made my whole table dissolve in laughter, as well as attracting the attention of the subsequent poacher.

A good time was had by all, even the twelve-year-old boy who got stuck with an utterly boring decorative tea-light holder. The rector's daughter graciously appropriated that item from him before the evening was over. It was an evening of mirth and merriment, and in the twelve-day season of Christmas nothing could be more fitting!

Friday, December 25, 2009

After the solstice

Red Bluff lagoon, Christmas 2009.

Apostate Treasures, LTD.

Merry Christmas, folks. I hope the holiday season is treating you and yours well this December, whether you're celebrating the Noel, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus. Last year I offered up a holiday gift in the form of Lame Duck Christmas. It was received so well that the mood took me to offer another holiday gift of fiction to you good readers this year as well. This one's quite a bit longer than "Lame Duck" and not so political in nature, but I feel it is apropos of the season, even if it's not a Christmas story per se. I hope you enjoy.

Apostate Treasures, LTD.
Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
--Shakespeare, Macbeth, IV,iii,22.

The bell jingled, barely louder than the squeal of the old hinges as Lauren shoved the door open. Twenty after. Twenty after. Edgar will not be happy, she thought. Not that he ever was. If he couldn't find something to be annoyed with, he wouldn't know what to do with himself.

"You're late, Lauren," he said from behind the ancient, manual cash register, not looking up from this week's edition of the Cottonwood Gin. Wild, white hair framed the bald crown of his head, thick eyebrows meeting in a knot above his craggy nose. "I'm not paying you to come in when you feel like it, you know? You ever think maybe I didn't get breakfast this morning?"

"Sorry, Mr. Berger," Lauren said, slinging her backpack off a shoulder to set it behind the counter. She coughed twice, and brushed her ashen hair back from her face, scratching her parrot-like nose with the tip of her little finger. "I wasn't feeling very well this morning."

"Oh," he said, the bluster bleeding from his voice. He pursed his lips, giving her a look halfway between pity and guilt. Lauren swallowed self-consciously, and coughed again. Makeup did only so much to cover the bags under her eyes and sallow complexion.

"I'm going to meet Florence and grab some lunch down at City Cafe," he said finally, hopping off his stool. "You watch things here. The truck came by this morning. Leon unloaded the boxes in the back. You can busy yourself with that if it stays slow."

Lauren nodded. Mondays were always slow, at least until the five o'clock crunch. She watched him leave, bell jangling at the end of its chain, then pushed through the swinging door to the back. Picking a utility knife out of the toolbox perched atop an old, chewed-up sawhorse, she sliced open the first box of the irregular pyramid before her. Bon Ami.

She hoisted the box, and tossed the knife back to the toolbox. It glanced off the corner with a metallic clang, imbedding itself in the hardwood floor, worn smooth with age and wax. Lauren backed through the doorway, carrying the box to the second narrow aisle, where she dropped it with a dull thump. She knelt in front of the half-empty shelf, her jeans worn through at the knees, less a fashion statement than necessity.

Taking a can of Bon Ami out of the box with thin, veined hands, Lauren mechanically went about her task, little coughs punctuating each move. A black, dusty ceiling fan droned on above her as she emptied the box. Standing stiffly, she kicked the empty box back to the storeroom like an unwieldy soccer ball, stopping briefly to take a swallow from the bottle of cough syrup in the backpack.

She booted the box off to the side, then jerked the knife free of the floor, slitting open the next one. Cascade.

The door jangled.

Sighing, Lauren set the knife atop the detergent and went to mind the register. She stopped short in the doorway.

An angel stood before her.

The proportions of his body were so close to perfect, not even the baggy Dockers and loose khaki pullover he wore could hide the fact. His face, with high cheekbones, straight, narrow nose and strong jaw could easily have come from a sculpture by one of the old masters. Skin like frosted glass. Hair of rich black silk. Eyes that almost glowed with an inner light.

"Miss, are you okay?"

Lauren stiffened, tingles running up and down her back. She'd felt the words within her as much as heard them. Resonant, strong, almost lyrical. Is he singing to me? She nodded, failing to stop herself from gawking.

"That's good. I was afraid you were about to faint on me," he said. His smile sparkled like a toothpaste commercial. "Could I trouble you to show me where you keep the salsa? I looked with the ketchup, but there didn't seem to be any."

"Chip aisle. With the bean dip and Velveeta."


The moment he turned, Lauren slumped back against the stool, lightheaded. Lauren, get hold of yourself. Angels do_not shop for salsa. And if they did, it wouldn't be in Cottonwood, she thought, but her heart continued to race along, juiced with adrenaline.

"Found it," he called out, hefting up a half-gallon jug of Pace hot. Instinctively, she tilted her head forward, hair falling forward in a protective veil.

His footsteps approached, and Lauren tensed, her eyes darting around the counter in a near panic. So this is what close encounters feel like? Oh, my God. He's coming... Stop it, Lauren. Think. Angels' feet don't touch the ground. Oh, Jesus...

The jug of hot sauce slid toward her across the counter.

"W--" She coughed. "Uh, will that be all?"

"I'd like a fifty-count box of King Edward Imperials, too.
If it's no trouble."

He smokes. There you go. Angels don't smoke. She turned without looking up. Cans of Skoal and pouches of Red Horse packed the bottom shelves, Marlboros and Camels the top. From between the two she took a yellow box of cigars.

"So do you always hide from your customers when you check them out?"

She glanced up. That dazzling smile was still there. "Sorry. I'm not very good with people."

"You ought to have more confidence in yourself. You seem like a nice person."

"This is too surreal," Lauren whispered, ringing him up.


"Nothing. Just, um, talking to myself."

"Oh. Well, as long as you don't start answering." He paid as she sacked him up. He took the paper bag up in one arm, then hesitated, suddenly looking unsure. "I, ah, you don't sell any local stuff here, do you?"


"I mean like crafts. Artisan creations. I work with wood," he said, hopefully. "Nothing fancy. Pens, jewelry boxes, clocks. Ornaments, too. Sometimes furniture, but not so much. I don't find it as fulfilling. I'm new around here, and need to find some outlets. This is the only store in town, so... do you think we could work something out?"

Lauren blinked. New in town. He wasn't just passing through. "Geez, I don't know. Edgar Berger owns this place, so you'd have to talk to him. I don't see why not. He'll probably be back in an hour or so, if you'd like to come back then?"

"Afraid I'll be busy. Here, how about this." He fished his wallet out of a back pocket with his free hand, then pulled a business card from it with his teeth. "My number and address are on the back. Could you have him give me a call when he gets a chance?"

"No problem," she said, taking the offered card.

"Thank you so much," he said, pausing halfway out the door.

"If things work out, you might be seeing a lot more of me around here... I'm sorry. I haven't even asked your name."

"Lauren. Lauren Redwine."

"And a lovely name it is. You might be seeing a lot more of me around here, Lauren Redwine."

The door squealed shut behind him, and Lauren released a deep breath. She still felt light-headed, and was about to get a Dr Pepper from the cooler when she remembered the card in her hand. She looked at it. Simple, elegant grey, with sharp black lettering:

Olivier Apostate, Woodworker, Woodturner

She opened the cash register, dropped it in for Mr. Berger, then glanced back toward the door.

"I don't know about you, Mr. Apostate, but I don't know if I could survive another meeting."

"Come on, Lauren. Get a grip. An angel?"

"You don't have to believe me, Kate," Lauren said, slowly stirring Half-And-Half into her coffee. "You don't have to believe me. I'm just telling you, is all. I have to tell

"But, shit girl. That's just plain nuts." Kate dug through the fridge, ice so thick on the freezer it nearly held the door open for her. She found a Pearl Light and a Lone Star Light, considered them, then put the Pearl back. She plopped her wide girth down across the table from Lauren, twisted the cap off her beer with plump, brown fingers, and took a deep swallow. "Convince me. From what you've said so far, it sounds like you've just got the big-time hots for the new guy in town."

"Kate, it's not like that. Well, it is, but there's more." A fit of coughing interrupted her, and she pulled out the cough syrup.

"Are you taking your medicine? You sound worse. Maybe you should go to the doctor and get checked out again."

"And what do I pay him with?" She grunted, swallowed the thick liquid, and thumped her chest with the heel of her palm. "I take my pills, and they turn my pee orange. That means they're working, right?"

"I just worry about you, girlfriend. TB's nasty shit."

"It's okay. Those false negatives, they put me behind on my treatment, is all. Just going to take a little longer for those antibiotics to clean me out." She coughed again, wiped her eyes and took a swallow of coffee.

"Mmhm," Kate nodded, concern still lining her face. "So what's so special about this guy--apart from his being a fox. How old is he?"

"I don't know."

"Well, give me a guess."
"I'm telling you, I don't know. He seemed young--there was this air of eternal youth about him, but he also seemed kind of weary. You know, like old people get."

"Christ, Lauren. You know how cornball that sounds? Does he have wings? A halo?"

Lauren shook her head.

"I thought angels had wings and halos. Harps, too."

"Kate, he didn't have any of that stuff. He looked like a normal guy, except that he wasn't. You'd just have to see him." She leaned forward. "Look, he gave me his business card, right? After work, I went by the library."

"Did you find anything in the book? Or had somebody colored it?"

"Funny, Kate. Real funny. But believe it or not, they had a couple of books on Angels. And guess what name I found? Olivier."

"So what. Maybe his parents were big fans of Sir Lawrence."

Lauren rolled her eyes. "The book said he was an archangel. A prince."

"Which still don't mean shit. Why doesn't he have wings? Why's he in Cottonwood, and not strumming his harp?"

"I looked up Apostate as well. It means `one who renounces his faith.' I think Olivier's a fallen angel."

"Shit," Kate said, leaning back. "This guy of yours sounds like some kind of psycho to me. That's not a natural name. It's something an axe murderer would come up with. Damn, Lauren, he's probably some kind of devil worshiper!"

"He's not like that. Not at all. He's... you'd just have to meet him, is all."

"No thanks, girlfriend. You didn't tell him where we live, did you?"

"No, I didn't. But it wouldn't matter if I did. He's not going to do anything. You'll see."

"What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm going to visit him tomorrow. I got his address off his card. Route 2, out toward Waterloo, past the Skull Creek bridge."

"No, you're not."

"Yes, I am."

"Lauren, what if you die?"

Lauren took the cough syrup bottle lid and balanced it on the tip of her finger, watching it intently. "All of us die, Kate. Some just sooner than others."

"Sorry. You know what I meant."

"I know. But I'm still going. Don't worry, I'll be okay. I promise."

Lauren coaxed her rusty Buick down the dusty, half-overgrown drive. Gnarled live oaks stretched their branches out to form a canopy over the road. The old car heaved to one side with every rut she hit, and the muffler and oil pan hit bottom a couple of times with a grating scrape. Shania Twain sang something lusty on the radio.

"He sure lives far enough out here," Lauren said to no one in particular, Kate's warnings about axe-murderers forcing themselves upon her. "God, I hope I don't get stuck. No one'd ever find me."

The Buick climbed down through a dry wash, strained to pull itself up the other side, and suddenly she was at the house.

The woods pulled back to form a clearing some fifty yards across, with a compact, yellow, two-story wooden farmhouse parked right in the middle. It badly needed a new coat of paint.

Lauren killed the engine. She closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath and got out of the car. The steps groaned ominously as she climbed up to the porch, and the porch did the same. Obviously, the house needed much more than a coat of paint.

Lauren rapped on the screen door--which had holes large enough to fly a grackle through--softly at first, then harder when no answer came.

"Wouldn't it be my luck if he wasn't home." Lauren leaned against the wall, frowning, and stifled a cough. Then she caught the faint sound of a metallic whine.

She followed the sound around back, realizing as she passed a clothesline overgrown with honeysuckle that she hadn't seen any dogs or cats. She couldn't ever remember seeing a house in the country that didn't at least have a dog lounging around in the shade somewhere.

The sound came from a shed just a few steps from the back door of the house, underneath the sprawling branches of a sycamore. It stopped a moment, then started again. A dusty blue Chevy S-10 pickup sat parked in front of it, a big dent in the driver's door. Branches and logs filled the bed.

Lauren stepped around the truck, and looked in through the open door. Band saw, table saw, routers, drill press, a dozen different sanders along with shelves of varnish and lacquers cluttered the room. Olivier sat at a wood lathe, shirt stained with sweat, sawdust in his hair, cutting a pattern into a spinning stick of wood.

Lauren sucked in her breath as her heart skipped a beat.

The lathe whine died away, and Olivier turned to her, a look of surprise on his face. "Lauren. What are you doing here?"

She felt a sudden sense of shame, like she'd intruded upon some place she had no business. "I-- I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. I just stopped by to visit, but if you're busy I can go."

"No, no. You're not interrupting." He stood, brushing sawdust away but only succeeded in moving it around a little. "You just surprised me. I don't get many visitors. Well, I don't get any, but that doesn't mean you're not welcome."

"Gee, thanks." Despite herself, Lauren began to relax.

"It's hot out here. You want to go in the house? It's not air-conditioned, but there's ceiling fans."

The briefest hesitation flashed through her mind, Kate's panic of devil worshipers. "Sure. If you like."

He led her to the house, and Lauren found herself watching his butt as they walked, much to her embarrassment. In the kitchen, he closed only the screen--this one had only a couple pencil-thick holes in it--and yanked the chain to turn on the fan.

"Like some tea? Water? I'm afraid I don't have much else."

"Water's fine."

He filled a plastic gas station mug at the sink, and added a couple ice cubes from the freezer. "If it looks a little dirty, that's because some rust got into the well pump. It's okay, though. Won't hurt you."

Lauren took the mug and eyed it dubiously. She thought she detected a slight browninsh tinge, but took a sip and it tasted fine.

"Lauren, I don't mean to be rude, but I've been working in the shop all morning. I stink. I'm going to jump in the shower right quick and rinse off, okay?"

She nodded.

"Great. Make yourself at home while I run upstairs. I'll just be a few minutes."

He gave her that smile again. She watched him go into the hall, then listened as his footsteps clomped up the stairs. Lauren took a sip of water, and heard the pipes rumble and clatter as he turned the shower. She closed her eyes, and imagined him stepping into the shower, lathering up...

"Stop it, Lauren," she snapped at herself. "It's not going to happen, so quit torturing yourself."

She walked into the hall, briefly glancing up the stairway. She started coughing, and took a big swallow of water. It didn't help any, but at least it felt good to make the effort. When the fit passed, she pushed open the nearest door.

It had been a dining room once, or maybe a large bedroom. Olivier'd apparently converted it into a library. A smallish, kidney-shaped table of burgundy wood sat in the middle of the room, with an odd half-reclining chair and a standing lamp. Threadbare drapes covered the lone window, thin streams of sunlight filtering through. Bookshelves lined the wall, smelling of cedar. Lauren touched the table, running her fingertips along the polished edges. She looked at the chair, then the shelves.

Did he do all his himself?

She pulled the drapes open a little to let more light in, then examined the titles in his library. Paradise Lost by John
Milton sat next to Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. There was the Bible, Talmud, Torah and Koran sharing shelf space with the complete works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Those books being there didn't surprise her. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time did.

Lauren scratched her head. She didn't recognize the vast majority of the books, but they didn't strike her as what one would find in an angel's collection--not even a fallen angel's. Books like Dreams of a Final Theory, Superstrings, Theories of Everything and a pair by some guy named Davies, The Mind of God and God and the New Physics. The only Davies she'd ever heard of sang in some 60s rock band her father used to listen to.

She noticed a small end table in the corner. A large box sat atop it, a case made of cherry wood. Grooves ran along the lid, and two separate rows of bas-relief whorls adorned the sides. Lauren traced the patterns, then lifted the lid. Rows of cigars filled the case. A humidor, she realized.

Then the stench hit her.

Gagging, she slammed the lid shut and backed away, coughing furiously. Her nose burned with the foulest rotten egg odor she'd ever smelled. Wiping her eyes, she grabbed her glass and took a swallow--spewing half of it on the rug as she continued to cough. The clenching in her lungs eased, although the smell still hung in the air. She twisted the doorknob of the room's side door and stepped through.

She gasped. Woodwork filled the front room of the house. Endtables, chairs, china cabinets and desks were literally heaped atop each other, separated by thick quilts to avoid scratches. Each had intricate designs and patterns carved into them, each one unique. Clocks filled the walls, cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, wall clocks and mantle clocks, some carved with woodland scenes, others geometric patterns, and some with simple, elegant lines. Statues dotted the room, a craggy mesquite Santa Claus here, a pecan jackrabbit here. In the corner, a lifelike woman sat serenely nursing her baby, indistinguishable from the living except for the uniform grain of the oak she was carved from.

Lauren stepped forward into the room. A box on a table beside her held dozens of polished oak and mesquite pens. Another held letter-openers. A stack of wooden plates climbed to her shoulder, as did a stack of bowls next to it. Rows of delicate vases lined another table--their mouths shaped like the blossom of roses, tulips, lilies. Clotheslines ran along the ceiling, with ornaments dangling from them. Brightly colored wooden balls, diamonds, stars, even snowflakes.

Upstairs, the water cut off. Lauren turned to go back to the kitchen, and stopped short. Above the door hung a carving of The Creation of Adam from the Sistine chapel.

She stood there, drinking in the detail--God's finger, the muscles in his arm, life rushing into Adam, the curls and waves in his hair...

"It's for sale if you want it."

Lauren snapped back to reality, unsure of how long she'd stood there, staring. Olivier stood there in the open doorway, watching her with an amused look on his face. Barefoot, he'd put on a pair of cream colored shorts and a light blue tee-shirt. His still-damp hair was combed back.

"You're an angel, aren't you," she said softly, more a statement than a question.

Olivier paused a moment, brow furrowed, then began to laugh.
"That's certainly a unique conversation starter. I've been called a lot of things in my life, but not too many people would choose `angel.'"

"That's not an answer," she said. "I think you're an angel. Or rather, a fallen angel. Your name's Olivier Apostate. I looked it up. Olivier was an angel who renounced his faith and was cast out. Apostate."

He shook his head. "My great-gandfather's name was Oppenschtadt. When he came over, they misunderstood him at Ellis Island and wrote down Apostate. It happened a lot. As for Olivier... my parents were big fans of the actor."

"I think you're lying."

"This is the strangest conversation I've ever been in, Lauren, you know that? If I'm an angel, where are my wings?"

"Maybe they're ethereal. Maybe they're just symbolic. Maybe that's where the falling comes in--they were taken from you as punishment."

"You've got an imagination, I'll give you that."

"But you haven't answered me yet. Are you an angel or not?"

"Okay, let's say--just for the sake of argument--that I am an angel. What difference would it make? What would you want from me?"

"Nothing. You're... fascinating. Interesting. You work wonders with wood. It's magical. You're truly an artist."

"And if I'm just a man?"

She bit her lip. "It doesn't change anything. Not really, but... you aren't just a man. I know it."

"You're not going to be convinced?"

Lauren shook her head. "You're not going to admit it?"

"Would you want me to admit to something that wasn't true?"

"Humor me." She glanced at her watch. "I've got to go. Edgar'll blow a gasket if I'm late again."

"But you just got here."

"It took me three hours just to work up the nerve to start my car," she said. "Who knows? If things work out, you might be seeing a lot more of me around here."

Olivier grinned. "I think I'd like that. You're a very... interesting woman."

"You never talk about yourself," Lauren said, staring up at the stars. "Tell me something about yourself. Your past."

They lay atop the farmhouse roof, on either side of the open attic window. A warm breeze carried the scents of honeysuckle and pine. Venus shone brightly above the fading purple-rose glow of the sunset. A thin crescent moon chased the horizon.

"I thought you already knew all about me. Being an angel and all that."

"Come on. I'm serious." She flicked a pebble from a shingle at him. "Even a fallen angle's got to have some things about him that aren't in books. Where've you been. Where you're going. How you got so hooked on wood."

He laughed. "You aren't a shy one, I'll give you that."


He frowned, shadows playing across his face. "No. Yes. It's just that I don't like to talk much about my past. I was young. Did some stupid things. I was really messed up for a long time."

"What, you do time in da joint?" she said, affecting a Brooklyn accent.

"Yeah. Something like that. And you're right about one thing. It was hell," he said softly. "But it's all a sham, you know? We put ourselves there. It took me a long time to figure that out. The world doesn't ask much from us. They wouldn't break me down, I swore. Defiant. Principles and all that. No sir. Never give in to the system. Then I realized I was just dragging myself down. What was I proving? Who was I impressing?"

He fell silent. Lauren breathed softly, her heart thumping in her chest. "So what did you do?"

"I walked away."

"Get out of here. You walked away from prison. Just like that?"

"Well, no. Not just like that. And it wasn't exactly prison. It was more like a mental health facility."

"You mean..."

He shrugged. "Most insanity is voluntary, at least in my direct experience. They only keep you 'til you're cured. Once you realize the things you've done are wrong, realize why they're wrong, and admit that, you're cured. Well, not cured. It's like alcoholism. Always recovering. That last part's the toughest. Admitting you're wrong. I know I stayed there much longer than I needed because I wanted--no, needed--to believe it was the world that was screwed up, not me."

"You weren't... criminally insane, were you?"

He laughed. "I'm not the Joker. I didn't kill anyone. People that far gone aren't getting out. They don't want out. You know what the sad thing is? Most everyone there could do the same thing I did. They're just too damn stubborn."

"Are we talking about the state hospital or eternal damnation?"

"Doesn't matter, does it? You're going to believe what you want to believe no matter what I say. Don't think either place would miss me, though. I sure don't. Especially the stink. I couldn't wait to get away from the stink. Talk about irony." He reached up to the sky, spreading his fingers wide. "You know what I missed the most, though? Trees. Never saw a tree my whole time. I used to love to lie under this big old oak, just listening to the river rolling by, cicadas humming away above me. I missed maples turning color in the fall. I missed palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze. I missed the rough bark and skinny pine needles and apple blossoms and... I just missed trees."

Lauren choked back a cough. "So that's why you work with wood?"

He nodded. "It lets me get close to the heart of the tree. Feel it, touch it, shape it. Let whatever form that's inside it break free. I like the sawdust in my hair, to breathe it, fee it under my fingernails. Absorb it. You must think I'm pretty flaky now, eh?"

"I guess so. I don't know. I've never really felt that strongly about anything."

"There must be something. Someone bright as you has got to have some kind of hobby. You paint? Write? Play piano? Something?"

"No. I used to go out dancing. A lot. You know, two-step, Cotton-eye Joe. I even picked up a little jitterbug. I got to be pretty good, but I don't anymore."

"Why not?"

"Why else? This cough, among other things. Guys don't want to dance with someone who's going to hack up a lung before the first chorus."

"Have you seen a doctor about it?"

"Yeah. It's TB. And don't you get that look everyone else gets. I'm on medication. They gave me some stronger stuff the other day. And I'm not contagious. Well, not very. Just don't drink after me or kiss me, and you'll be fine."

"Oh. I, ah..."

"That was a joke." Lauren smiled, turning onto her side. "You can get pretty skittish sometimes, you know? Must've hit a nerve."

"Oh really?" Olivier said, sitting up. "And just what makes you think I'd want to kiss someone fresh out of high school? This is Texas, Lauren. You're father'd probably come after me with a shotgun."

"I doubt that," she said softly. "He's dead."

Olivier bowed his head, clenching his hands together. "I'm sorry, Lauren. I didn't know. Well, of course I didn't know, but still--"

"It's okay." She shrugged, looking away. "My mom's dead too, in case you were wondering. My kid sister, Vicky. She would've been eighteen next weekend."

"Lauren, I-- I don't know what to say. If you want to talk about it, I'm willing to listen."

"There's nothing to talk about. I killed them."

"Lauren, no. You didn't."

"And how would you know?" she snapped, turning to him with venom dripping in her voice. "Were you there? I don't think so. You were in Hell, or Huntsville, or wherever, but you sure weren't around when my parents died, so don't go making judgments on who's at fault!"

"But you're not the kind of person--"

"Who kills people? Then you don't know me very well, do you?" She pressed her palms over her eyes, and a short, furious bout of coughing wracked her body. Gasping, she looked up at Olivier. "I was a kid. Without a license. Trying to show off in the family car. There was a wreck. I lived. They died. What does that tell you?"

"That must've been hard on you. I'm sorry, really. But you can't go on blaming--"

"Bullshit, bullshit and bullshit," Lauren said. "You sound just like those know-it-all shrinks they made me see after the wreck. You disappoint me, Olivier. I expected more from you. I thought you'd understand a person can't rationalize away responsibility."

"Well," Olivier said after a long silence. "What do you expect me to say to that?"

"Nothing. I don't expect you to say anyth--" Lauren broke down coughing again, doubling over violently. Olivier scrambled over to her, gently taking hold of her shoulders. She shuddered, pushing him away. Gagging, she forced down the burning itch in her lungs. Shaking, she wiped her eyes, then her mouth.

Olivier watched her carefully, his brow furrowed in concern.

"I don't feel very well," she said, her voice dry and scratchy. "I think maybe I should go home."

"That might be a good idea. Let me help you."

This time she didn't push him away as he eased her over to the open window. She held him for support as she climbed back into the house, and he held her steady, following once she made it inside.

Behind them, on the shingle where Lauren had rested her hand after wiping her mouth, a smear of blood glistened in the starlight.

The router bit into the walnut, crafting the wood even as fine sawdust clouded about it. Olivier worked along the grain, and gradually the vague outlines of the face grew more distinct. He nicked at the still-irregular shape of the figure's cowboy hat, not quite sure what form he wanted to draw from the wood. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he set the little cordless drill down and studied his work.

"So you are a fox. I guess I'll have to give Lauren that much."

Olivier jumped at the voice. "Who are you?" he demanded, turning to the door.

"Kate Montavo. Lauren's roommate. You remember Lauren?" Kate leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed, scowling.

"Of course I remember Lauren. What kind of question is that," he said, brushing away sawdust. "What are you doing here?"

She ignored him. "What's that supposed to be?"

He glanced back at the foot-and-a-half high figure. Not yet half finished, it was still distinctly female--in the midst of some sort of dance step. "Lauren. Dancing. Well, when it's finished, at least."

"Mmhm. I figured as much." Kate gestured with a finger. "The hat brim needs to be more pointy at the front. Like Dwight Yoakam's. That's the way Kate wears it."

"Ah, thanks--" he began, when Kate suddenly stepped over and slapped him hard across the top of his head. He jerked back. "Ow! What's the matter with you?"

"Me? Me? What's the matter with me? What's the matter with you is what I want to know. How could you do this to Lauren?"

"Do what to Lauren? I haven't seen her in a week."

She smacked him again.

"Quit hitting me!"

"You make me sick. Waltz into town, get her all worked up with this angel bullshit, then disappear when things get rough. Shit. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Whoa, whoa. Slow down. I have no idea what you're talking about."

Kate set her fists against her hips and gave Olivier a sideways stare. "Lauren's sick."

Olivier nodded. "Yeah. TB. She told me her doctor gave her some new medicine--"

"Christ, how dumb can you make them," she muttered, pinching the bridge of her nose. "You listen up. Lauren's sick. It's not just coughing anymore. She's in the hospital in Waterloo. Been there since Monday, and it don't look like she's going to be coming out again. She's been asking for you, Lord knows why. So I'm asking you again: what's the matter with you?"

"I... I didn't know. We weren't on the best of terms last time I saw her."

"So you two had a fight. You got a phone? Seems to me your sorry ass could've picked it up any time and found out. And get yourself an answering machine. I tried to get you all day yesterday and this morning and you wouldn't answer the damn phone."

Kate turned and stomped out of the woodshop, casting a glance back over her shoulder. "You coming?"

Olivier scrambled up. Outside, Kate climbed into a dusty tan and white El Camino. "Get in," she said, pushing the passenger door open as the engine growled to life.

"I don't understand," Olivier said as Kate guided the car across the rutted drive to the graded county road. "I mean, I knew she was pretty sick--she'd said as much herself--but she told me she'd gotten some new medicine that'd take care of her."

"Would. If she'd take it," Kate said, watching the road. "I found her on the bathroom floor a month ago, puking and coughing her guts out. She'd had a false negative skin test to begin with, and a resistant strain of TB on top of that. She's been in bad shape for a while, but hid it pretty well. The doctor wanted to hospitalize her then, but Lauren said nothing doing. It was all I could do getting her to accept a new prescription. Sometime later she flushed the pills. Maybe that night, for all I know."

"But... why? People don't die from TB anymore."

"There's a lot you don't know about Lauren. She's sick in a lot of ways." Kate looked at Olivier. "You know what happened to her family?"

"She said she had a wreck and killed them."

"Humph. That figures. She was fifteen. Had a learner's permit. They were driving home from a football game when a drunk swerved into their lane and hit them head-on. She blames herself. Thinks the crash should've killed her, too. Now, I'm afraid she's going to let it."

"That doesn't make sense."

Kate bit her lower lip. "A blood transfusion infected Lauren with the AIDS virus. Some rare strain they didn't screen for at the time. Italian or some shit like that. Symptoms started showing up a couple of years ago, when she turned eighteen and her parents' social security benefits cut out, wouldn't you know it. Edgar and Florence Berger, they were friends of her folks. They gave Lauren a job, but it's been rough on her. Expensive. All these damn-AIDS illnesses, and then she goes and catches TB.

"The wreck messed with her head. I know. We've been best friends for a long time. We were on drill team together." Kate wiped fiercely at her eyes. "She wanted to die with her family. She still does. She's talked about killing herself--a lot. But she never tried. Now... there are a lot of ways to commit suicide."

Olivier looked at her, tears now flowing freely down her plump, brown cheeks. He reached out, gently resting a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said softly.

The rode in silence the rest of the way. Kate parked the El Camino in front of the squat, grey-bricked hospital and led Olivier inside past the unmanned reception desk. Three doors down the wing, she stopped.

"I'm not going in. I can't stand to see her like this. Besides, it's you she wants now," she said, not looking at him. "I, uh, I don't want you to get the wrong idea or anything, because I don't think you're an angel. Fallen or otherwise. But, if you could, I mean... She's hurting real bad. If you can do anything for her, please." Kate turned and walked quickly down the hall, her steps echoing after her.

Olivier pushed the door open, and the stench hit him. An odor possible only in hospitals, sweat and antiseptic mixed with just a tinge of sour urine.

Lauren lay in the far bed, the room's dividing curtain pulled halfway back. IVs wound up her bare, blue-veined arm. An oxygen mask covered her mouth and nose, a wet fog blowing from the open end of the hose connected to it. Dermal sensors wired to the softly humming stack of monitors behind her bed dotted her arm, with other wires disappearing beneath her green hospital gown.

Olivier stepped softly into the room, sitting down on the bed opposite Lauren's. The plastic mattress lining crackled. Lauren's eyelids slit open, her red eyes casting about until they focused on him.

"Hi, there," he said softly. "How you doing?"

She managed a weak smile, then screwed up her face as a cough forced its way out. It was a dry rasp, lacking any force. "Knew... you'd come," she said, her voice weak, brittle.

"Kate got me. She's worried about you. I'm worried about you. She told me you've been here since Monday. I didn't know. I would've been here."

"S'okay. Edgar and... Florence been here. They take good care of me."

"But you haven't taken good care of yourself. Why, Lauren? Why didn't you take your medicine?"

"Threw... pills out."

"I know that. Why didn't you take them? They could've cured you."

She shook her head slightly. "No cure. You showed me..."

"I showed you? I showed you what? Lauren?"

She lifted her hand, and he took it. It was thin, cool. "Nothing to fear. I was too chickenshit before. I can... see my family. I was right, wasn't I? A... about you?"

Olivier swallowed, gripping her hand. "Yeah. I couldn't fool you, could I?"

"Knew it." Lauren seemed to shrink then in the bed. "Tell me. I don't want to be afraid."

"You don't have anything to be afraid of. Nothing at all. I guarantee it." He cleared his throat, clasping his other hand over hers. "It's been a long time, you understand, but I kind of remember there wasn't much harp-playing. Unless you were into that, of course. Lauren, have you ever seen the Grand Canyon?"

Her grip loosened.

"Well, imagine the majesty and awe of that, and throw in the savage beauty of the Amazon jungle and the living sculpture of the Great Barrier Reef. Put that all together, and multiply that a million times, and it's still only a fraction of what you feel when you stand at the gates of Heaven with your eyes closed." He spoke quickly, throat tightening. "There aren't words to describe it. It's complete happiness there, total fulfillment. But it's not artificial, like a drug. It's pure. And it's not boring. Oh, no. It's the most exciting place there ever was, because it's at the center of all realities. I mean, the secrets of the universe there to explore, and believe me, the Angels aren't anywhere close to all-knowing. And this isn't the only universe. There's an infinite number of creations out there, each one more wondrous than the last--"

"Olivier," she said, eyes closed. "I love you..."

"And I love you too."

She shuddered slightly, and stopped breathing. Olivier bowed his head, holding her hand to his forehead. He sat there, motionless, body tensed, as if he would prolong her life through sheer force of will. Suddenly, he spoke, voice firm and resonant. "You can't have her, Michael."

A pure, crystalline voice answered. "It's been a long time, hasn't it, Olivier." Michael stepped from the shadowed corner of the room, feet scant inches above the floor. Flowing platinum hair framed bright eyes. Robes woven from the fabric of the sky itself wrapped his perfect, muscular body, snowy wings flexing absently.

"I said, you can't have her." Olivier finally looked up, tears streaking his cheeks.

Michael shook his head sadly. "It's her time, Olivier. You know that as well as I. And I'm not `taking' her anywhere. I just help souls find their way."

"It's not her time. It can't be. It's not fair. You don't know what she's been through."

"Fairness has nothing to do with it. That's not the way things work--you haven't been gone that long. These twenty years she's lived were only preparation for what's to come. The rules haven't changed, Olivier. They're still the same as they've always been."

"Damn you and your Goddamn rules!" He stood suddenly, anger flaring. "Lauren's not going with you."

"Don't even think it. You were never a match for me, even before. I don't want to have to hurt you again." Michael's wings pulled in tight, flinching at the bitter memory.

Olivier glared at Michael, then, slowly, unclenched his fists.

"A nasty business, this death. Dying. It's not something we've ever had to face up to, is it?" Michael said, stepping forward to rest a hand on Olivier's shoulder. "I've seen every death of every person that ever lived, and even I still don't understand it. It frightens me. But it's part of what they are. We just have to remind ourselves what awaits them afterward."

"I loved her..."

"I know," Michael said simply, hugging him tightly. "But now you have to let Lauren go. It's her time. She's ready."

Olivier nodded, pulling away. As soon as he did, he felt a presence beside him, one he couldn't see. His skin prickled, but then a soothing calm fell over him. A moment later, the feelings moved on.

"She's on her way," Michael said. "I suppose I should thank you now. A'albiel gave me twenty-to-one odds you'd take a swing at me before giving in."

Olivier managed a wan smile. "And you took him up on it?"

Michael shrugged. "What can I say? I have faith in you."

Olivier sucked on his lips, began to say something, then thought better of it. Instead, he knelt beside the bed, stroking Lauren's hair.

"You've got as much time as you need," Michael said, turning
away. "The doctors won't come until you're gone."

"Thank you."

"And Olivier?" Michael said, growing transparent. "A word of advice."

He looked up.

"You should know that He's watching you. Closely. Don't disappoint Him again."

Olivier stared after Michael long after he was gone, then
slowly turned back to Lauren's still form. Silently he rose,
bending forward to kiss her brow.

"Farewell and Godspeed, Lauren Redwine," he whispered, then left the room, the door closing silently behind him.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Have a very Nihilistic Christmas

Emerging from a long dinner at the postindustrial brasserie last night at midnight, my companion and I found the weather had turned from subtropically balmy to arctic port in the time it had taken to drink a bottle of Bordeaux and navigate various conversational spelunkings. Exploring this phenomenon further, we found one of the edges of the world (behind the Austin Police Department shooting range, if you're wondering) and several signs of our mass existential entropy, including this model home at the end of Delwau Road in East Austin (right down the street from an abandoned condominium sales office on wheels parked at the side of the road, complete with photo of tanned white couple enraptured at the end of the pool). We had not set out to discover the spirit of Nihilist Christmas, but there it was, calling our names in the blistering wind (or were those the names of the dead?). When confronting these kinds of nameless voids, trustworthy company is recommended.

I hope to soon be moving in to the model unit at the end of the street where no one drives, a conceptual performance without an audience, a perfect simulacrum of an American life. I don't think the water is hooked up, but it looked like the cable is working.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yard Art

I like looking at holiday yard art, and I've seen some great stuff (and not so great) in my new neighborhood, but this is my favorite inflatable because of where it's situated - by the Campus Police station!

Another inflatable I'm seeing this year is Rudolph stuffing Santa down the chimney. It's cute to watch. If you catch a glimpse of it unexpectedly, though, the jizz of it makes you instinctively think there's something very peculiar going on and maybe you should call the cops-!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In space, no on can hear... a foghorn?

Resisting the temptation to make some convoluted allusion to Ray Bradbury's famous short story, I share with you good readers this particularly interesting bit of planetary science. It's accepted fact at this point that Saturn's moon, Titan, has abundant liquid on its surface in the form of methane or ethane seas or lakes. But now researchers have teased out of data indications that fog forms regularly on this hazy, shrouded world:
PASADENA, Calif. - Saturn's largest moon, Titan, looks to be the only place in the solar system - aside from our home planet, Earth - with copious quantities of liquid (largely, liquid methane and ethane) sitting on its surface. According to planetary astronomer Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Earth and Titan share yet another feature, which is inextricably linked with that surface liquid: common fog.

The presence of fog provides the first direct evidence for the exchange of material between the surface and the atmosphere, and thus of an active hydrological cycle, which previously had only been known to exist on Earth.

In a talk to be delivered December 18 at the American Geophysical Union's 2009 Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor and professor of planetary astronomy, details evidence that Titan's south pole is spotted "more or less everywhere" with puddles of methane that give rise to sporadic layers of fog. (Technically, fog is just a cloud or bank of clouds that touch the ground).

This discovery in and of itself is interesting, but opens the floor to larger questions. Titan's weather patterns are so different than those of Earth, the meteorological forces so alien, that fog cannot form the same way it does here.
"Fog - or clouds, or dew, or condensation in general - can form whenever air reaches about 100 percent humidity," Brown says. "There are two ways to get there. The first is obvious: add water (on Earth) or methane (on Titan) to the surrounding air. The second is much more common: make the air colder so it can hold less water (or liquid methane), and all of that excess needs to condense."

This, he explains, is the same process that causes water droplets to form on the outside of a cool glass.

On Earth, this is the most common method of making fog, Brown says. "That fog you often see at sunrise hugging the ground is caused by ground-level air cooling overnight, to the point where it cannot hang onto its water. As the sun rises and the air heats, the fog goes away."

Similarly, fog can form when wet air passes over cold ground; as the air cools, the water condenses. And mountain fog occurs when air gets pushed up the side of a mountain and cools, causing the water to condense.

However, none of these mechanisms work on Titan.

It will be interesting to see what further revelations arise from this research. Check out the entire release at the Caltech website.

Monday, December 14, 2009

La Linea

The Boston Globe has an amazing selection of the Year in Pictures up at its site (thanks @greatdismal), which includes this extremely science fictional image of the new Arizona border wall...that moves.

A recently constructed section of the controversial US-Mexico border fence expansion project crosses previously pristine desert sands at sunrise on March 14, 2009 between Yuma, Arizona and Calexico, California. The new barrier between the US and Mexico stands 15 feet tall and sits on top of the sand so it can lifted by a machine and repositioned whenever the migrating desert dunes begin to bury it. The almost seven miles of floating fence cost about $6 million per mile to build. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The border, of course, is the ultimate fiction.

Joe Haldeman named Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master

CHESTERTOWN, Md. – Joe Haldeman will be honored as the next Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master for 2010 by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The Grand Master represents SFWA's highest accolade and recognizes excellence for a lifetime of contributions to the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

SFWA President Russell Davis announced the decision after consulting with the Board of Directors and participating past presidents. The presentation of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award will take place at the SFWA Nebula Awards® Weekend in May. The Nebula Awards weekend is available to the general public with advance registration.

“Giving the Grand Master is one of the true pleasures of serving as the President of SFWA,” said SFWA President Russell Davis. “Being able to give it to Joe Haldeman--a past SFWA president, an extraordinarily talented writer, a respected teacher and mentor in our community, and a good friend--is not just a pleasure, but a genuine honor. I can think of no one more deserving that I’d be more pleased to recognize.”

The author of 20 novels and five collections, Haldeman remains one of the most popular science fiction writers working today. His landmark novel, The Forever War, won the Nebula, Hugo and Ditmar Awards for best science fiction novel in 1975, and spawned two follow-up novels, Forever Peace and Forever Free. In total, his writings have garnered him five Nebulas, five Hugos and a host of other awards as well as numerous nominations. Other notable works include the novels Camouflage, The Accidental Time Machine and Marsbound as well as the short works “Graves,” “Tricentennial” and “The Hemingway Hoax.” His latest book, Starbound, is scheduled for a January release.

Haldeman is the 27th writer recognized by SFWA as a Grand Master. He joins Robert A. Heinlein (1974), Jack Williamson (1975), Clifford D. Simak (1976), L. Sprague de Camp (1978), Fritz Leiber (1981), Andre Norton (1983), Arthur C. Clarke (1985), Isaac Asimov (1986), Alfred Bester (1987), Ray Bradbury (1988), Lester del Rey (1990), Frederik Pohl (1992), Damon Knight (1994), A. E. van Vogt (1995), Jack Vance (1996), Poul Anderson (1997), Hal Clement (1998), Brian Aldiss (1999), Philip Jose Farmer (2000), Ursula K. Le Guin (2003), Robert Silverberg (2004), Anne McCaffrey (2005), Harlan Ellison (2006), James Gunn (2007), Michael Moorcock (2008) and Harry Harrison (2009). Until 2002 the title was simply "Grand Master." In 2002 it was renamed in honor of SFWA's founder, Damon Knight, who died that year.

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.


Listen to me.

The mp3 of my IEET seminar talk, "Those Who Cannot Remember Doc Savage Are Condemned To Repeat Him: The 20th Century Backlash Against Posthuman Bodybuilders," is up here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bookshelf: J. R. R. Tolkien and Anne Rice

I just started reading J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality and Religion by Richard Purtill. Originally published in 1983, reprinted in 2003, this is not a new book, but it's new to me. The book posits that Lord of the Rings is perfectly congruent with Tolkien's Roman Catholicism. The author's exegesis is thoughtful and detailed, and the 2003 Forward by Joseph Pearce makes it clear that this is a mainstay for anybody interested in the religious underpinnings of LOR. It looks like apt reading material for Advent.

The first chapter resonated with something I heard on NPR not long ago about a brand new book: Anne Rice's Angel Time. She was interviewed on Weekend Edition, and it was a good interview, a pleasure to the ear.

After her famously dark and erotic vampire novels, Rice returned to her Catholicism and wrote Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt—astonishing her fans and her foes alike. Evidently she's been staying the course, with another Christ book and now Angel Time. On NPR she lamented the portrayal of angels in many books and movies as "downright aggravating. You know, because the effort is always to make the angel human, to make the angel flawed—wants to stay on earth, doesn't want to go back to heaven, falls in love, that type of thing. And I always thought it was a failure of imagination." She has an excellent point. Similar failures of literary imagination include Milton's Paradise Lost, in which Satan is far more interesting that the angels of light.

Instances where imagination did not fail include LOR. Purtill makes some fascinating remarks in this regard, For one thing, Sauron is as abhorrent as he should be, thanks in part to Tolkien emphasizing the ugly effects Sauron has on people we care about. For another thing, the numinous is made believable. (*Numinous* [from the Classical Latin /numen/] is an English adjective describing the power or presence of a divinity.—Wikipedia.) Purtill comments:

"The problem for the creator of literary myth in the modern age, when the objects of primary religious belief have so often been scoffed at, is to create gods and heroes who can be taken seriously. . . . To do this the author must take them seriously. . . . an attitude of 'we can't really take this seriously, but let's pretend', is fatal to secondary belief. [Secondary belief means the reader takes something as true in the context of the fictional world.] That is precisely what makes so many modern fantasies ultimately unsatisfactory: we cannot take them seriously because their authors do not. And it seems to be the case that those who have a real primary belief in persons or things that they believe to be real and numinous, as Tolkien and C. S. Lewis did, have the best chance of producing stories in which fictional numinous persons or objects can command secondary belief.

"This is not surprising when we reflect that the artist must draw on his or her experience. Those with an experience of really having been in love can write convincing stories of love; those who really believe in a real God and revere real saints can write convincingly of gods and heroes. In many modern writers, the instinct for reverence, for awe, seems dead—or at least weak from disuse."

So the convincingly numinous is a rare quality in modern literature. Tolkien succeeded. Arguably, this is why it was Tolkien who, as pointed out in Pearce's Forward to Purtill's book, emerged as "Greatest writer of the twentieth century" in 1997 surveys in the United Kingdom, an outcome that appalled many critics and other literati. It's not only LOR's imagined world with its wonders and terrors, sympathetic characters, and epic story arc. It's the book's convincing depiction of numinousness, and heroism: faced with equally convincing evil, characters make brave, bitter choices and take hard paths which they follow to the end.

Here is my eccentric and incomplete list of other modern SFF books that succeed in showing the numinous. Or not.

Lucifer's Crown by Lillian Stewart Carl (Five Star 2003.) Unless you're allergic to romance or to fictional depictions of saints, holy places, and the Divine, read this book!

Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (2001 and 2003.) Whoever wrote the Chalion Wikipedia entry had this to say: "The Curse of Chalion is noted for its focus on religion and metaphysics. This is not only a novel about self-sacrifice and redemption, but also a piece of speculative theological fiction which closely examines the relationship between free will, fate, and divine intervention."

The Shack by William P. Young (Windblown Media 2008.) This is most definitely Christian literature. His theology is enlightened Evangelical. His depiction of the Trinity is amazing.

C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia does succeed in showing the holy, even though it's way too allegorical for my tastes. LOR isn't allegory, but it might be called parable, as that term is understood by scholars of the Bible as literature. A parable is a story about secular people, places and things that makes listeners or readers reflect on religious truth without telling them what to think. Allegory busily supplies the reader with the appropriate conclusions. Parable does not.

My own novel Hurricane Moon (Pyr 2007) has touches of the numinous. At least that is what the author intended: on one level I intentionally made the story a parable of how revelation works in the universe as it is known to science. (I based it on Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology.)

Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy in my opinion aspires to the anti-numinous as well as the anti-heroic, and succeeds on both counts.

LaHaye and Jenkins' Left Behind? Dunno, it's somewhere in my to-read pile on the bookshelf. By all accounts its happenings are more doctrinal than numinous.

As for Anne Rice's Angel Time, I haven't read it yet and the reviews on Amazon are all over the map, but I respect the level of imagination she aspires to with this one.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tora Bora and the case of the disappearing necromancer

Remember the four months after September 11, 2001?

Afghanistan! The American response to the destruction of the World Trade Center and parts of the Pentagon played out like the action movie narrative it wanted to be, violent acts of Hestonian moral clarity acted out on an ideal soundstage: the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Our "time to put on the war paint" revenge saga would appropriate a potpourri of fantastic precedents in which ramrod American paladins export frontier justice to the pre-medieval realm beyond the Khyber Pass—Rambo, Soldier of Fortune magazine, Robert E. Howard, Rudyard Kipling, High Noon. One almost expected the White House to assemble a special team of actual 1980s action movie heroes to be HALOed in as a kind of semiotic vanguard against the bad juju emanating from the mythic territories of Central Asia.

Prior to that, our primary experience of Afghanistan was its portrayal in adventure narratives or their news media analogs, from John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King to its 20th century Rocky Mountain döppelganger, John Milius' Red Dawn. The CNN narrative played to all that—remember the first time you saw a picture of some Special Ops soldier in massive beard and civiilian combat gear, riding a horse across the B-movie landscape of Armageddon? In that brief period of the immediate military response to 9/11, we were all complicit in writing history real-time as a postmodern Western, each of our soldiers some kind of Outside magazine update of the frontier scout, loner Hawkeye with a customized AK-47 and a little bit of Pashto.

And the enemy was immediately personalized as an enigmatic other, a mysterious necromancer out of some 1970s Frank Frazetta painting, dark Gandalf crossed with Bond villain.

Concrete evidence of this narrative overlay of the dramatic events occurring in real life were all over the place, from the real-time action figures based on photos of our S.O.F. paladins to the insane USA Today-style graphics of Bin Laden's imagined mountain fortress, a work of news media fiction based on DC Comics cutaways of Kal El's Fortress of Solitude, a ready-made design for the G.I. Joe Spin Boldak Adventure Playset.

As detailed in this excellent piece by Edward Jay Epstein, the comic book secret headquarters meme fit so perfectly with the American master narrative, that what started as leftover lore from the 1980s became a government-certified part of consensus reality during the climatic run-up to the showdown at Tora Bora:

The story probably reached its high point on NBC's Meet The Press on December 2nd when Tim Russert, the host of the program, provided Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with the artist's rendering of bin Laden's fortress. The interview proceeded:

Russert: The Times of London did a graphic, which I want to put on the screen for you and our viewers. This is it. This is a fortress. This is a very much a complex, multi-tiered, bedrooms and offices on the top, as you can see, secret exits on the side and on the bottom, cut deep to avoid thermal detection so when our planes fly to try to determine if any human beings are in there, it's built so deeply down and embedded in the mountain and the rock it's hard to detect. And over here, valleys guarded, as you can see, by some Taliban soldiers. A ventilation system to allow people to breathe and to carry on. An arms and ammunition depot. And you can see here the exits leading into it and the entrances large enough to drive trucks and cars and even tanks. And it's own hydroelectric power to help keep lights on, even computer systems and telephone systems. It's a very sophisticated operation.

Rumsfeld: Oh, you bet. This is serious business. And there's not one of those. There are many of those. And they have been used very effectively. And I might add, Afghanistan is not the only country that has gone underground. Any number of countries have gone underground. The tunneling equipment that exists today is very powerful. It's dual use. It's available across the globe. And people have recognized the advantages of using underground protection for themselves.

The assault on Tora Bora was built up as the denouement of our real-world action movie. The big showdown in which Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes would trudge through the snow and blast their way into the hydroelectric plant and the TV rooms and the 2000-room hotel and the submarine base and the Soviet wonder tanks and bring the bad guy back to be prosecuted by Sam Waterson.

Eight years later, we are still waiting for the final act. The picture went off-script and has never gone back. No wonder President Obama has been dithering, in a quandary about what to do. He's trying to figure out how to make the Afghan War fit back into the American narrative of how we roll, instead of being the Forever War. The unfulfilled search for this fantasy fortress, and the evil mastermind within, turned out to be the missing reel of our Zeitgeist. Such a massive delayed climax of our cultural self-conception that you can't blame the Alex Joneses of the world when they wonder whether Bin Laden actually exists, or is just an invention of our secret masters smoking cigars in the club rooms of the Bilderberg Group.

In this context, it is especially interesting to see the story of what really happened up there in December 2001 laid out by John Kerry's Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff in their new report. A partisan spin, no doubt, with patrician Kerry rehashing arguments he made to little effect in 2004, but a fascinating glimpse into what was on that missing reel of the post-9/11 history that could have been.

The report relies on recollections from an ex-Delta Force officer who goes under the pen name of (I kid you not) "Major Fury." Fury was apparently in charge of the 90 special ops troops who were at Tora Bora with the Afghan irregulars, and he vividly describes the scene of our soldiers listening in to the non-stop radio chatter among Bin Laden and his ~300 Qaeda manning the last stand, right up through the dropping of the first Daisy Cutter since Vietnam, when many of the men deep in those caves were vaporized.

The report continues with another classic Hollywood scene, the maverick CIA operative's futile efforts to get the brass to do the right thing (think Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger) to accomplish the just mission:

Another confirmation came from the senior CIA paramilitary commander in Afghanistan at the time. Gary Berntsen was working at the CIA’s counterterrorist center in October 2001 when his boss summoned him to the front office and told him, ‘‘Gary, I want you killing the enemy immediately.’’ Berntsen left the next day for Afghanistan, where he assumed leadership of the CIA’s paramilitary operation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His primary target was bin Laden and he was confident that the Al Qaeda leader would make his last stand at Tora Bora. His suspicions were confirmed when he learned bin Laden’s voice had been intercepted there.

From the outset, Berntsen says he was skeptical about relying on Afghan militias ‘‘cobbled together at the last minute’’ to capture or kill the man who ordered the 9/11 attacks. ‘‘I’d made it clear in my reports that our Afghan allies were hardly anxious to get at al Qaeda in Tora Bora,’’ he wrote in his own book, Jawbreaker, which was published in late 2005. He also knew that the special operations troops and CIA operatives on the scene were not enough to stop bin Laden from escaping across the mountain passes. In thebook, Berntsen uses exclamation points to vent his fears that the most wanted man in the world was about to slip out of our grasp.

‘‘We needed U.S. soldiers on the ground!’’ he wrote. ‘‘I’d sent my request for 800 U.S. Army Rangers and was still waiting for a response. I repeated to anyone at headquarters who would listen: We need Rangers now! The opportunity to get bin Laden and his men is slipping away!!’’

At one point, Berntsen recalled an argument at a CIA guest house in Kabul with Maj. Gen. Dell Dailey, the commander of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan at the time. Berntsen said he renewed his demand that American troops be dispatched to Tora Bora immediately. Following orders from Franks at U.S. Central Command (CentCom) headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Dailey refused to deploy U.S. troops, explaining that he feared alienating Afghan allies. ‘‘I don’t give a damn about offending our allies!’’ Berntsen shouted. ‘‘I only care about eliminating al Qaeda and delivering bin Laden’s head in a box!’’

Dailey said the military’s position was firm and Berntsen replied, ‘‘Screw that!’’

Stories by soldiers of secret battles that paint themselves as heroes require due skepticism, as do political "fact-finding" reports by legislators with a partisan promotional agenda. But notwithstanding the layers of spin, the report is pretty compelling in making the case from multiple sources that Bin Laden was really there in Tora Bora, and allowed to get away because the Pentagon didn't want to send in a large contingent of American troops to crowd out the Afghan allies or piss off the Pakistanis by blocking the back door to the Tribal Areas.

Thinking about it from the perspective of the end of the decade, one can't be blamed for wondering if letting Bin Laden go wasn't a necessary predicate to the initiation of the Iraq War. If we had captured Bin Laden, wouldn't that have sated the Furies possessing the American public, and deprived the Bushies of the narrative they constructed to justify that invasion? Alas, we'll never know. We're stuck instead with the Forever War, one whose opportunity for an ending came and went a long time ago.

Good luck inventing a victory condition for this one, Mr. President.