Night falls over town. The fog doesn’t recede. Sodium lights flicker to life. Some hold steady; others strobe on and off in lugubrious, neurotic cycles. The sky takes on the sickly orange glare of their light. The parking lot at Safeway empties. Cats are fed and dogs put inside for the night.
Benjamin lowers the blinds and wanders from room to room with a candle on a drip pan. Beneath a bag of tealights in a box he packed before college, he finds his compass. It still has lead in it. He reaches deeper into the dark square and feels the triangular prism of an engineer’s ruler, pinches a stiff parallelogram of eraser, pushes away the flimsy plastic cylinder of a cheap kaleidoscope. He pulls the ruler and eraser out, then finds his old clamshell phone masking-taped to its charger. He plugs the phone in and swipes his smartphone off. After almost a minute the ancient one flares on, screen glowing blue against the dark.
He sits cross-legged on his one nice rug and constructs a heptagram.
Earlier that afternoon, Ben’s right fingers pick at a scab on his left forearm. The knotted tag of skin comes off, is rolled into a satisfying little ball, drops to the floor. His fingers play with the fresh wet spot, brushing sticky moistness. Right forefinger presses its pad into the goo and pulls back, skin clinging before peeling away. The finger bends at the knuckle and into the wound, pushing till the skin parts and spreads to accept the digit. Embedded up to the first knuckle in the forearm, the finger stops. Wiggles back and forth, scratching some deep, subcutaneous itch.
Ben looks down and slowly pulls his finger back out. Skin pinches back over the puncture. He examines his fingertip. It’s not bloody, though there is a transparent wetness. He touches thumb to forefinger. They cling slightly to each other with the tacky liquid. “What the fuck,” he says, and closes his computer.
The bathroom door displays the green VACANT crescent, thank God. He washes his hands and forearms vigorously with pink, foaming soap. Splashes water on his face. Big jaw, black stubble, green eyes, bushy eyebrows. No overt signs of a slipping grip on reality. There are paper towels in the paper towel dispenser. He dabs his face with one, bunches another up, presses it to his arm. On his way back to the table he resolves to put the incident out of his mind. A minor hallucination. He’s working too hard. He pulls his chair out to sit down, but there’s something else wrong. His computer is gone.
He stands. Starbucks is pretty full, and a vague hope forms that he might see a friendly face grinning over a successful prank, but the faces are unfamiliar and quietly hunched over their devices. Ben strides over to the heavy plate glass door and pushes it open as fast as it will move, which is not very. The parking lot is full with shiny, late-model cars. There are un-backed-up files on that computer. His pirated movie collection, some design work he’s been slaving over, and of course the nude shots of his ex hidden in their secret folder. At least the computer is password protected—the bastards will just wipe the hard drive. A cluster of cars drives quickly down Main Street, trying to reach the next light before it changes. Everything is glaringly bright and washed out in the summer fog.
His heart pounds. Ben’s left hand is clutching a paper towel. He wads it up, tosses it at a short, severely trimmed hedge. His eyes follow the arc and catch on a silver glint within the sculpted bush. The corner of a laptop computer. His. He pulls it from the brown branches. Some kind of bloody handprint is on it. Like blood but ashy gray. Without thinking, he wipes his computer on his pants, probably wiping some fingerprints. Whatever though, it would be a whole hassle to drag the cops into this. What’s done is done, and his pants are disgusting.
Back inside, Ben opens the computer. The screen flashes to life and asks for his password. He types it in; all is as it should be. The room is big, and everybody’s absorbed in their screens. An espresso machine screams into milk and over the speakers a singer-songwriter strums and hums. A cell phone chimes, and a middle-aged woman stands up and hurries to the door, phone pressed against ear. He will not get lost in work again. The afternoon is lost. He stuffs the computer into its sleeve in his bag. As soon as he’s swung his backpack over his shoulders, a young couple rush over and set lattes on the blonde wood tabletop, explorers planting flags. They can have it.
The glossy black rental car sat in the driveway, all its doors open. Pinned to his La-Z-Boy like an insect in a box, Ben watched her carry box after box to it. When they first got together Kris wouldn’t have left him that way, for the simple reason that neither of them had been old enough to rent a car. She would have had to borrow Mara’s pick-up, and at least then Mara would have told him a lewd story about one of her hapless lovers to cheer him up. The milestones had been passing by faster and faster. Voting, smoking, paying rent, paying taxes, drinking. Being able to rent a car was maybe the last exciting one. The coming attractions were annual colonoscopies, collecting Social Security, nursing home, funeral.
Their relationship had held the promise of making sense of all this. They had been serious about building something vast and buttressed and impressive, something they could be proud of and live inside, together, safe, forever. Of course this was separate from why he liked Kris in particular: her pleasure as she laughed at his jokes, the sleepy love in her eyes when he left her in bed in the morning, the way even now she walked around, tall, lithe, with a sense of dignity and purpose. All his guesses as to why she had ever liked him seemed inadequate: he looked good in a collared shirt, had a sharp nose like her father’s, could talk a mile a minute about books. He knew, or had known, how to bring her shivering sexual bliss.
Kris was wearing sensible shoes, a sundress he hadn’t seen her in for years, coral lipstick that matched its geometric print, her hair up in a chopstick-secured bun, her face hardened with determination. This wasn’t easy for either of them, Ben thought, but he couldn’t bring himself to help her carry boxes. He knew why she didn’t want to be with him any more. He’d stopped painting altogether and could be sullen and sad for days at a time. He got all quiet at the check-out counter at the grocery store till she paid. He never wanted to go out, let alone dance. She was bored with his familiar body. Plus, there had been bad omens. The cat disappearing. The crazy man screaming at them at noon as they walked down Telegraph Ave. “What are you doing? Don’t you know what you’re doing?!”
The opposing wall loomed white and evil. Most of the art had already come down. The only remaining piece was stupid and ugly, a ubiquitous poster of a lighthouse battered by a wave at least five stories tall, the lighthouse keeper standing on the catwalk, seemingly unaware of the vast wave. Kris’s friend Jordy had added to the poster with pastel crayons, adding a clumsy, acrylic yellow lightning bolt that struck the lamp chamber, which he’d tinted red. And he’d cut out the lighthouse keeper and placed him, head-down, beside the lighthouse.
All Ben wanted was break-up sex. Break-up sex was the only thing he wanted. But she drove away without saying goodbye. So he lay on top of the covers that evening trying to get hard. He couldn’t until he found his way to one of his regular websites and looked up a video he’d used extensively in college, two young Russians fucking each other in every position, at one moment performing for the camera and the next oblivious to it, lost in the act of worshipping each others’ bodies. The wave knocked him from the battlements, and he plunged toward the sea, weightless.
That was New Year’s Day. Now it’s summer, and the front walk is scattered with dying succulents and decaying advertising supplements from the local newspaper. Ben walks upstairs and unlocks the door. Inside, home is dim and damp, with traces of mildew and Nag Champa incense. Sometimes Ben turns all the lights off and walks from room to room trying to frighten himself. He can feel it in certain doorways, in-between spaces, especially the threshold of the bedroom. A lingering sense of violence and decay, like the set of a low-budget horror movie. But usually he can’t get properly scared.
He steers through the murk till he reaches the kitchen, where he turns on all four lamps. Since Kris left he’s been collecting antique lamps into which he screws boutique light bulbs. He hates the weak-tea light of compact fluorescents. Edison bulbs glow a satisfying orange-yellow from their curlicue filaments.
The kitchen table is cluttered with opened bills, half-read magazine, water glasses. Ben tidies them into piles, puts the glasses in the sink. In the clear spot, he opens his journal, writes down what happened at the coffee shop. Everything seems covered in a heavy coat of stupidity, and me at the center of it, stupid as can be. But I press forward.
He shuts the notebook and runs his fingertips across the stippled, hard black cover. Long, strong fingers, squared-off fingernails at the end. He’s heard that if you look at your hands in a dream you can take control and fly.
“I didn’t mean to scare you, honey. Only I thought I should ask, Okay if I use the shower?”
“July, hey, thought you’d left already.” Ben slips the journal under the pile of magazines. She’s looking at him with her big, dark eyes, eyeliner smudged. “Yeah, shower away. There’s shampoo and stuff in there. Just use it.”
July walks silently out of the kitchen. Ben hears the creak of the bathroom door and the hiss of the low-flow showerhead. July is his co-worker at the brewery. Lately she’s been coming over to his apartment at about midnight and fucking his brains out. Then she falls asleep, and he watches her sleep and thinks about Kris and then finally drifts off himself. July has a small voice and doesn’t want a relationship, which is fine by Ben. Usually she slips off first thing in the morning, but this morning he left before her. Now she’s taking a shower, calling him honey.
He remembers the laptop, the bloody handprint. Taking the computer from his backpack, Ben sees that it still has some of the strange blood on it. He gets up and wrings the sponge out under the faucet. July screams in the bathroom, and he remembers that plumbing has cause and effect. He shuts the tap off, and a moment later she screams again. There’s no winning. This is why you live alone.
The dried liquid lifts easily from the anodized aluminum, turning the yellow sponge gray-orange. He doesn’t want to run the tap again, so he fishes a page of newspaper out of the trash, wraps the sponge up, and throws the bundle away. Gets a new sponge out from under the sink.
They met in a car accident. No one died, but Kris’s Ducati was totaled and Ben didn’t have insurance. Some people are born and die in poverty. Others slide ever so slowly into it. Ben was of the latter sort, and for the two months before the accident he had prioritized eating food, drinking beer, and paying his tuition over keeping his insurance current. He knew he was rolling the dice, and he had fucked it up royally. Though the accident wasn’t necessarily his fault.
A streak of headlight out of the dark, slammed brakes, impact. In a haze of adrenaline and terror he pulled the Boat, a mid-90’s Corolla inherited from his cousin, half into a ditch, cut the engine, and forgot where the switch for the emergency blinkers was. The console of the Boat was cluttered with special rocks and stickers and doo-dads. The button was above the stereo. He left the door open and jogged over to the rider, hands trembling. The bike was twenty feet away, smashed into a guardrail, but Kris lay in the middle of the road. He didn’t know her name yet. Behind all her leathers and big helmet he didn’t even know whether she was alive.
He rolled her limp body over so she lay on her back. Shit—she was out cold. He wanted to get her off the road, but he had heard you shouldn’t move an injured person. There were flares in his trunk somewhere, but he couldn’t just leave her right in the blind spot of a big curve late at night. He tried to pull her helmet off, but the chinstrap made it so he just tugged at her head. She reached up with one hand to undo the strap and laughed as her hair spilled onto the wet asphalt. She was clumsy on her feet, so he supported her over to his car.
An hour later, they were drinking whiskey shots at the Golden West. Mara had hauled the bike off to her place. Kris had convinced him to sign onto a scheme where they’d report the accident as having happened tomorrow. Ben had promised to get his insurance straight by that time. The whiskey tasted like something handed down from heaven, and the rest of the night only got better.
The scab. With July gone, Ben can pick at it in peace. In the name of science. It’s too fresh though, not yet stiff enough to come off in one piece. Calling off the experiment for the time being, Ben continues his search in the way that everyone does in the 21st century, on the internet. His face is bathed in blue brightness as the search terms gradually narrow: “finger in arm,” • “sticking finger in arm,” • “I stuck my finger in my arm,” • “I can reach inside my body” (getting closer now), • “my skin is permeable” (colder), • “can you reach inside yourself” (Deepak Chopra), • “haunting skin falling off” ( Goosebumps), • “I had a scab and when I picked it off I accidentally stuck my finger deep in my arm.” Nothing. They say that if you can think of it, you can find it on the internet. But that’s not true here, or at least Ben’s net talents are inadequate to summon it.
Something shifts inside him. Tectonic movements, an odd weightlessness. Ben shuts the computer, and in the impenetrable dark he leans forward, and his back blossoms. It feels like a big, bloody flower is aching out of his spine, light pouring in, petals of bone, euphoria. The feeling washes over and through him. As it subsides, or settles in, he knows a least one thing that’s changed inside him. He takes out his smartphone and writes a text message to Frankie, his best friend from high school: I’m Benjamin again. It feels good just to write the letters, to hear the three syllables again. It feels more encompassing of his capacity as a vessel. He already forgets why he changed it for college. The phone vibrates, maybe ten seconds after he hit send. It has been noted, Benjamin.
His face relaxes into a smile, and he feels her holding him, cradling him close against her chest, the way she has so many times before, her fingers weaving through his mop of black hair. Frankie, math whiz and all-league soccer goalie, with her long pink-dyed braid, the way she could look right at you, narrowing her eyes, had remained steadfast that they were friends and not lovers, till Ben came to see that she was wise, that they could love each other without it having to get messy and stupid. A friendship like theirs was a blessing. He taps the glass screen. Thank you.
The change is deep and comforting. Maybe he can do magic again.
On the fourth night of Cat’s disappearance—he disappeared in February, although not on the fourteenth, that would have been too on-the-nose—they gave it another shot. The neighbors had all checked their garages. Phone poles for miles were plastered with missing cat posters. The lady at the animal shelter had promised with perhaps an excess of feeling in her voice to check any new arrivals. Earlier that day, one of Kris’s coworkers at the hospital had told her what she claimed was a surefire technique for bringing a missing cat home. Step one: visualize the cat. If you get a strong image, that means he’s still alive. Step two: as you fall asleep, visualize a golden string stretching between you and the cat, a sort of astral fishing line. Step three: reel the kitty right on in.
Ben and Kris’s visualizations after turning the lights off and crawling under the comforter were vivid and strong. Cat lived! They dreamt of string and great yarn balls and shiny feline pleasure.
When they woke up on the fifth day, however, there was no cat mewling at the door to be let in, and the food on the porch remained untouched.
All this worrying about Cat was exhausting. Making posters and talking to neighbors and going on guided visualizations felt like a second job. They weren’t taking care of themselves, wearing dirty clothes because they didn’t have time to go to the laundromat, eating pizza from a takeout box for the third day in a row. Kris wouldn’t tell him about her day or ask about his. He was suffocating
“Do you think we could take a night off?”
“We should have got one of those collars,” Kris said, staring out the window, “The ones with the tracking chip.”
“Babe, I just feel like we’re killing ourselves.”
“And?” she said, chewing another bite of pizza, drilling through the pizza box with her gaze. “You got some better idea?”
“I don’t know,” he said. There didn’t seem to be much to lose, so he went ahead and added, “I think this cat thing is messing with our relationship. We need to slow down and focus on us, too.” He looked down at his pizza and back up to find Kris staring at him. “Look, I want the cat to come back as much as you do. I just don’t know if there’s too much more we can do.”
“I’m going to take a walk,” she said. “I’ll do it myself. I didn’t ask you to help. You do your thing. I’m going to find my cat.”
A minute later she was out the door. Ben finished his cold pizza, tidied up, and put himself to bed.
Kris kept taking her walks. The missing cat flyers frayed at the edges, were postered over, or finally dissolved into the masses of pulp that cling to certain phone poles. One day, Ben washed Cat’s food and water bowls and returned them to the stacks of dishes for people. Successive vacuumings removed the great bulk of hair fibers stuck in the rug. The vole population swelled. Eventually, he could almost believe that the black cat named Cat was gone forever.
As a teenager, Ben had drawn many dozens of heptagrams. Now the moves are foreign and half-forgotten. He draws the great circle, finds opposing points, marks quadrants, draws intersecting arcs and then new arcs from the intersections. It’s part guesswork, part muscle memory. The paper busies with faintly traced circle segments. Pinpricks dot the perimeter. Benjamin thinks he’s found the radius that will incarnate a seven-point star, but after hopping around six other points the compass returns to the top of the great circle at a point perhaps a centimeter from the origin. He wads the big sheet of sketch paper and sends it parabolic into the wastepaper basket.
Starts again. Arcs and arcs, segments of two dozen circles. Three dozen. Straight lines connecting vertices and creating new ones. Benjamin tries a new arc-length, and when it returns to the top point the new line and old point align within the width of the compass’s lead. He’s found the seven-segment period. Using the straightedge, he connects the points to form a star. Uses his pocket knife to trim the hardened rubber off the old eraser and erases everything but the great circle and the heptagram.
So there’s still something of the magician to Benjamin after all, though he feels like an old man sitting a bike for the first time in years. Why did he give it up so easily? He puts on a suit and jacket and brown leather dress shoes. Almost sleepwalking, going on intuition, Benjamin assembles his totems.
Back in the bedroom, he lights three sticks of incense and sets the incense holder, a darkwood dugout with a woman’s face biting the incense, in the middle of the seven-point star. He lays out the objects, starting with the top-most point and moving clockwise.
1. The candle up top, halfway burnt-down, drips covering the brass holder with its single carrying ring. The smell of beeswax and the light softly yellow.
2. A stemmed glass filled almost to the brim with a Mendocino Pinot Noir, the end of the bottle, murky grains of yeast settling to the bottom.
3. Benjamin picks the scab from his arm. It’s now stiff enough to tear off in one piece. It hurts. He doesn’t try to push his finger into his arm again but places the scab carefully in its position on the paper.
4. In front of his knees Benjamin places the Claude Glass, or black mirror, that he found years ago in an antique store and paid too much for. He’d written a paper about black mirrors in college, how they were made to reflect landscape in a scenic way, to make it easier to paint sentimental scenes, but ended up changing the way people saw the world. When he got the chance to buy one, he’d jumped on it, but he’s never had the occasion to use it. Till now.
5. His old cell phone, which now claims to be fully charged, though you should never trust an old battery.
6. The sponge, retrieved from the trash, still pregnant with queer blood.
7. Back near the top, to the left of the candle, he places the bone-handled pocketknife he inherited from his grandfather, with the long blade opened.
The summoning diagram is complete. What spirit is he going to call? He feels ridiculous. Adulthood doesn’t have room for this. He remembers being younger and innocent, trying to invoke spirits using special words from books by famous occultists. After making certain he wouldn’t be disturbed—that his mom had a night meeting or a date—he would sit in the middle of thirteen candles and say, “Azazel, lord of blades and mirrors, visit me this eve. I would have your assistance and will make it worth your while.” His book said that Azazel enjoyed the presence of cats, so he would arrange to have with him Colossus, his mother’s impressively overweight cat. Nothing ever happened during the ceremony itself, but Benjamin was certain they were the cause of his recurring nightmares. One time Colossus did flick his tail through the candle flame, momentarily flaring up the crackling flame. Then the cat flicked its tail, the fire blew out, and the room filled with smell of burnt hair, which at the very least was demonic in odor.
Now, he can’t bring himself to believe that words from old books in languages he doesn’t speak will have any power for him. From college he knows that words are merely signifiers, arbitrary sounds upon which meaning we collectively agree. Words long out of circulation can’t have intrinsic meaning unless you’re a specialist. If magic is a real thing, it functions through intention, eloquence, and clarity of thought, not an ancient alphabet.
Benjamin breathes out and cracks his knuckles. The summoning circle he’s built has its own strength and logic, and he lets himself believe in it, if in nothing else. What does he believe in? This seems an important question if he’s going to summon something from another world. For starters, he believes in his grandmother, even though she died a year before his birth, believes in his ancestors generally. He believes in suffering but also in transcendence, even though it’s been a while since the latter made an appearance. He believes in epochs of human life, in the different truths known only to the toddler, to the child, and later the confusing truths of the teen. He doesn’t really believe in adulthood. Being an adult means being skeptical of everything, which doesn’t leave much room for truth. He believes in death. In stars, planets, the sun and moon, orbits, gravity, the speed of light.
Benjamin realizes that he believes in the place where he lives. He knows beyond doubt that it has a special power. As he turns it over in his head, this seems like a solution: he will summon a spirit of place. This requires no skills in a dead language.
The candle is burnt most of the way down, and the objects around the star breathe rhythmically in the unsteady light. “My name is Benjamin. I’m twenty-five. I was born here, at Redwood Hospital, and I’ll probably die here too. I’m part of this place, and I’m ready to talk to its spirit, where sea meets blufftop, where salmon spawn in streams, where foxes take chickens.” Ben thinks of wild beauty, sun-washed golden hillsides, cold waves lifting above jagged reefs, wind-bent cypress, townsfolk walking the bluffs before sunset, holds it all in his heart. “I have questions that I would like answered, so I made you this circle. There is light, and I poured you a glass of wine, brought you a blade. Please visit me this evening.”
He can’t think of anything else to say. He sits there on his knees, trying to meditate, to focus all his attention on the invocation, to clear his mind so that the answer can flow right in.
Ben’s erection juts not quite at ninety degrees from his hips, veering a bit to the right. His right. The right, incidentally or not, is the hand he masturbates with. Only Ben can see this. Kris is wearing a blindfold. It’s one of his old ties, from when he used to dress up fancy: black silk embroidered with red diamonds. Her hand finds his penis.
She bends towards him slightly. Out of habit he reaches down to hold her hair back, but it’s held in place by the blindfold. She slides her tongue down the prow of his cock and gently kisses the tip. Takes him into her mouth, a French kiss from which she pulls back and then engulfs him again, her lips first brushing and then wrapping him while her tongue plays as though against another tongue.
He moans. Kris pulls back and holds him. Her cloaked eyes hide her emotion, so he doesn’t know whether or how much she’s enjoying this. She sighs, sounding satisfied, and rubs her cheek against his stiffness. She whispers. Ben can’t make out what she’s saying. He watches this intimacy and feels somehow separate, almost jealous. When she slips him back in her mouth he feels already at the point of orgasm.
Ben is awash in the flood of sensation and pleasure, eyes half-shut, swaying slightly. His swirl of thought tightens to a single, half-formed prayer that this feeling not stop, that he not remember that Kris hated blowjobs, that this dream go on till he comes. She gradually increases her pace; Ben leaves his body. He sees waves crashing with white spray against bluffs. Shelves of farmland with decrepit, beautifully decayed barns. The tree line and young stands of redwood he climbed as a teenager. Barren ridgelines and, beyond, in the hazy distance, the Sierra Nevada. He spins in a wash of whitewater and when his eyes clear he’s looking at a tall, triangular mountain, covered with snow and glaciers, rising to a single, blue-glowing point. Distantly, Ben feels his orgasm rising, the warm surge building in his spine, his sight flaring red and orange and blue and green.
He says “Stop” in a quiet voice and carefully takes himself from her mouth. “I want to come with you.” He lays her back on the floor and kisses her on the mouth, tasting himself. She is slippery and fever-hot against his hand, and he’s not sure if he’ll be able to hold off long enough.
“You could have come in my mouth,” she whispers as he pushes slowly into her.
The phone rings. Ben is laying on his back, his legs asleep under him, uncomfortably erect against his bunched up slacks. It takes him a second to locate the old cell phone, and he stares at the tiny blue screen. An unfamiliar 707 number. His heart thrashes.
“Benjamin,” says a woman’s voice, deep and calm.
“Um, that’s me.”
“You called.” He can’t figure out quite what’s going on, where he is. She goes on. “Are you ready to meet us?”
The summoning circle. Deep breath. “I think I am.”
“Drink the wine.”
Benjamin takes a sip. “What’s your name?”
“You haven’t earned that.” Her tone is businesslike, maybe a little impatient.
“Okay, how do I earn it?”
“Drink the wine.”
He tips the glass back and swallows the liquid in one gulp, like he used to do in college when nobody was looking. “I drank it.”
“Good. Now tell me the other objects on the septagram.”
“Heptagram,” Benjamin says, immediately regretting it.
“I prefer the Latin, and I speak however I please. Don’t forget this. Now tell me the other objects.”
“There’s a sponge with some blood in it. A dark mirror. The scab off my arm. A candle. And my pocketknife.”
“Alright. Put the scab on the mirror and place them at the bottom, opposite the candle. Place the sponge in between, in the middle of the star. And take your pocketknife with you.”
Benjamin shuffles the diagram as she’s said and puts the pocketknife in his pocket. “Where am I going?”
“For a drive. Take the phone and the knife and come to me.”
“Okay.” His entire conception of how the world works is sloughing off like mud in a rainstorm. “Should I put the candle out?”
The car clock says half-past ten, but it’s an hour fast. Outside of the warm cockpit, fog whips over the windshield so thickly that he has to run the windshield wipers. He’s driving too fast and doesn’t care. The curves of Highway One were built to be slalomed, and the car bounces back and forth, hurtling, careening, charging, squealing. He wants to get there before the dream fades. Already the ancient cellphone is throbbing its low-battery warning every thirty seconds. The woman’s voice occasionally speaks.
“Have you passed Kidney Lane yet?”
“Can you see the ocean?”
“Turn right onto the driveway in the middle of the stand of eucalyptus.”
“Park and walk to the barn. Leave the phone.”
The car grumbles into silence. He touches his favorite rock on the dash, a smooth pink river rock, flicks the headlights off, and gets out. When he slams the door, the cabin lights die. Darkness establishes itself. He sets off through waist-high grass wet with dew. The barn is a silhouette of even more profound black against deep night. As he cuts his own path, it looms larger and larger, a great, dark carapace. He can’t tell its condition or material, only the shape, the weathervaned peak and gable roof. He feels but does not notice his sodden jeans.
“Come in, come quick.” A woman’s voice, not the one from the phone. The grass gives way to crunchy gravel. For a second he’s worried that he’ll run smack into the wall of the barn. A firm hand grabs his, and he is led. Blackness. The smell of perfume, rose and a sharp pinch, almost vinegar. The hand lets go. A heavy door creaks closed.
Susurrus. Leaves rubbing together. Running water. Voices. A shattering glass.
“Hello?” he says.
“Benjamin,” responds a chorus of voices.
Scrape and flare, a match springs to phosphoric life, a blue star in an empty cosmos. The light softens to warm woodflame, which illuminates the face of the woman holding it. Shadows play in the wavering light. As his eyes adjust, he can make out a dozen or more figures seated around a long table. The woman holding the match is deeply tanned and creased with wrinkles. She has a narrow jaw and strong, high cheekbones that pull the skin there taut. She stands at the head of the table. Benjamin is by the foot, where there is an empty chair.
“Sit,” she says, and blows the match out. He feels the chair with his hands. It’s heavy, and it scrapes against the wood floor as he pulls it out.
The woman’s voice echoes off the rafters, imperious. “Did you call us?”
“Yes,” he says. “I need help.”
“And how can we assist you?”
“I hoped you would,” he says, grasping for words. “I’m hoping you’ll answer some questions for me.”
“How many questions?”
“Um,” says Benjamin. “I guess three should do it.”
He gathers his thoughts. “Well, first, I want to know why I stuck my finger in my arm this morning.”
Her answer is immediate. “Reese, you’ll take this one.” Benjamin twists his neck to look for Reese or even hear a noise of acknowledgment, but the darkness is impenetrable. “Your next question,” she says.
He tries to say it as clearly as he can. “Well, right after I pushed my finger in my arm somebody took my computer, maybe trying to steal it? And they left a bloody handprint. Who was this person?”
“Clarisa, that’s you. Last question.”
“Why did Kris leave me?”
“You probably aren’t ready to know the answer, Benjamin, but very well. L will show you what you seek. The rest of you may leave.” Chairs scrape back from the table, another glass shatters, footsteps. A door opens and closes. The room is silent, and Benjamin waits, rubbing his sweaty hands on a lace tablecloth, feeling silverware and a plate and several glasses.
Out of long silence, her voice again. “We are ready to begin. Are you?”
Another match flares, and Ben can see that only four people besides him remain at the table. The woman who seems to be in charge goes around, lighting candles with the match. Light accumulates and gradually discloses the faces of others sitting at the table and, bit by bit, the layout of the barn.
It feels larger than he had expected from the outside, as all buildings do. The space isn’t broken up by horse stalls or partitions. There’s a long table at this end, a rug at the far end, endless shelves with books and jars and carved figurines lining the walls, pillows and cushions at the edges of the rug. The three sitting down are picking at the ends of a meal: salmon, asparagus, potatoes. One is a beautiful woman, a broad happy face, wearing hoop earrings and dark hair that spills in loops and curls down her back. Across from her sits a man in middle age, Asian features, wearing a tunic and eyeglasses. Ben thinks he recognizes him from the organic food co-op or the line at the bank. The third, sitting to his left with just a single place setting between them, is a girl in her late teens with many rings on her fingers. Her hair is dyed pink, and a small, knowing smile perches on her lips. None of them meets his curious gaze.
The leader finishes lighting the candles. They are broad, off-white cylinders with veins of wax running down their sides. She sits back down.
“Reese, why don’t you go first,” she says.
The man in the glasses looks up. His eyes intently lock on Benjamin’s arm. Then he relaxes and leans back in his chair. “It’s easy,” he says. “You’re a painter. You’re a painter who doesn’t paint. Can’t paint. How long’s it been—two years? You’re blocked. Or you were blocked. Your body’s trying to fix this, as our bodies so often do, acting on their own to bring us back into balance. Usually it’s internal, but in this case you had something wrong with your left hand. You’re left-handed, right?” He pauses.
“Yeah, I am.” Benjamin says.
“Well, you don’t need me to tell you this, you would have figured it out on your own, but you’re on the mend. You can paint again.” He clears his throat and goes on, “Now, if you would be so kind, the knife.”
Benjamin slides his grandfather’s knife towards him, and the teenage girl passes it to Reese, who folds it into his palm and drinks a swallow of wine. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say in response. It’s amazing news, news he would do almost anything to have be true, but he also can’t believe it.
“You can leave now, Reese,” says he woman at the head of the table. “Clarisa, it’s your show.”
He sits cross-legged near the center of a large rug as the three women light dozens and dozens of lamps and place them in a ring around him. The still air fills with acrid kerosene fumes. Benjamin looks at the ornate glass lamp bases. One is the proud face of an Indian, another a distorted warship, and a third is in the shape of an apple. Eventually he can’t make out the barn walls beyond them anymore, only sees blackness, as if the circle of lamps exists in a small, blacked-out theater, or in outer space.
Clarisa hikes her dress up to her knees and steps quickly over the wall of lamps. Once she’s inside, the smell of her cologne augments the smell of the lamp oil. He recognizes it from the hand that led him into the barn—rose, vinegar. She turns away from him, and someone hands her an ornate, worked-silver censer. Smoke curls from its gaps, smelling of dry hillsides and pine. She sets it in the middle of the rug and then sits down on the opposite side of it from Benjamin. She stares at him where he sits on the floor. He stares back. A gathering trail of smoke traces their gaze. Benjamin looks into her deep-set black eyes, regal eyes, his vision gradually hazing. A horizontal column of smoke gathers and grows in the space between their eyes. Benjamin’s gaze is fully occluded. He can’t see her anymore. His eyes sting, so he closes them and looks down at his feet. The smoke releases from its line and wanders into roils and fumaroles and curtainous billows that spread flat before turning in on themselves, fragmenting, reforming, making thunderheads and queer nebulae. Forms and symbols and curls of alphabet twist away before Benjamin can read them. The sharp edge between smoke and clear air seems resilient, even getting stronger as the fractals resolve and reconfigure. He watches the galaxy of smoke roll and gently spread across the carpet. As the edges pass over the lamps they’re caught in sudden, strong updrafts and are sucked down, up, are dispersed, finally flume into invisibility.
He looks back at the woman. Her eyes are still trained on him. As he meets her gaze, she says, “If you want to know don’t look away.”
He focuses. The column of smoke forms again, grows denser. Benjamin stares straight into it. She fades into the haze as it darkens, growing almost solid. It fills his field of vision. There’s a flash, a sizzle of light. Lightning. He can’t see anything but this dark weather system lit up by occasional arcs of electricity. The damp pavement smell of ozone mixed with kerosene and incense fills his nostrils. Sage, wood resin, and the musk of dark tobacco. His eyes well with tears. He doesn’t look away. The smoke engulfs him, and he coughs. A suffocating heat presses against his arms and legs. Still he tries to look towards the woman.
With a barely audible sigh, the smoke lifts from his body. It forms a shell around him, a dark cocoon. Shapes form, serpents and agonized faces, but Benjamin refuses to break the woman’s gaze, wherever it is.
A dark pyramid of smoke forms in front of his eyes, separate from the wider shell. He moves his head slightly to see it better. It is a four-sided pyramid. Its straight lines are a violation of the swirls and commas of smoke that make up the rest of the cloud. As he’s looking at it, a tiny figure emerges from a hole on the front of the pyramid, not a man but a wisp of smoke. It makes its way to the foot of the structure and grows, swells, sprouts arms and legs and a head but no face, till it is taller than the pyramid, which it looks down at. The smoke-creature brings its hands together in a praying gesture. The pyramid releases, its sharp edges curling back into the cloud.
The smokeling draws a circle in the air, bits of smoke trailing off its finger and lingering to form a ring. It reaches with two hands and pulls the ring, which extrudes to become a cylinder. It sets the smoke-tub on the floor and reaches one hand into the cloud. From its other hand tumbles a stream of heavy smoke that fills the vessel, sloshing and splashing like water. The smokeling shrinks and climbs into the tub, submerging fully. And then man stands up out of the smoke bath. His features are strong despite being made of smoke: a pointy French nose, big biceps, a flaccid penis. Benjamin doesn’t recognize him. The man walks in place, moonwalks. Suddenly a car speeds out of the wall of smoke and strikes him. He tumbles to the ground and the car speeds back into the cloud.
The smoke man stands back up, clearly in pain. He touches his head, winces, looks at his hand, and winces again. He runs in place again, opens a heavy door, walks over to a table, picks up Ben’s computer. He walks back through the door, opens the computer, leans his head into the screen. He pushes his head through the screen, but it doesn’t come out the backside. It just disappears. The rest of his body slips away the same way. The computer snaps shut and hovers there in the air, rotating slowly, around and around.
“Have you seen enough?”
“Yes,” he says, and, as he speaks, the smoke loses its shape, envelopes him, and he coughs and chokes, crying, rolling on the carpet. By the time the smoke lifts, all but one of the lamps are gone, as is Clarisa. He lays on his back, gasping.
“Are you ready for the third answer, Benjamin? You don’t need to move.”
The space between sleep and waking when you can really remember your dreams is so easily lost. When Ben finally wakes up, it’s late morning. The sheets are wrapped around his legs. Sunlight spills through the part in the curtains, forming a beam that cuts straight and hot across his back. He’s sweating, the sheets are damp—it’s time to get up. Ben slips into his paisley bathrobe and stands by the door, peering into the dark hallway. He can feel the dream right there. A madcap ritual, a dark barn, lamps.
Oh shit, it’s Tuesday, Ben thinks. I’m late for work. Really late. He races to get dressed and drives across town. At the Brewery, his boss fires him. Peter, with his potbelly and frazzly red ponytail and kind, high-pitched voice. Ben limps into the bank to cash out his last paycheck and five vacation days. Then he’s home and drunk by noon, feeling ill. All he wants is to forget.
That night, Frankie comes over. She had an intuition that he needed her. She holds him on the couch, and he tells her all about his crummy day as she runs her hands through his hair. Then she asks him, “Why did you text me asking to say I should call you Benjamin again?” and in one single rush the whole dream comes back to him.
He tells her every detail he can remember. Almost every detail. She doesn’t laugh at it, which surprises him. At her suggestion, they go through the apartment looking for evidence of the ritual he remembers performing, but they can’t find anything conclusive. They pull out the box he remembers finding the compass and ruler in, but there’s only a bag of tea lights and some old notebooks in the cardboard cube. In the kitchen, a fresh sponge sits in the sink, but there’s no evidence of the smoke-blood-impregnated one. On top of his dresser he can’t find his Claude Glass, and when he checks his pocket he feels that his grandfather’s knife is missing. His arm has only a faint scar where he thought the scab had been. Ben doesn’t know what to think, and Frankie’s gullibility or whatever it is isn’t helping him put it out of his mind.
“Maybe something really did happen, Benjamin.”
“You don’t need to call me that, you know. I don’t know what got into me with that. Benjamin just sounds so highfalutin.”
“I like it, dude. Benjamin’s what I called you when we met.”
She’s wearing a Humboldt State baseball cap and such a friendly smile that he can’t bring himself to shrink back into his hermit crab shell. On an impulse he says, “Want to drive out to the barn? I think I remember where it was.”
She drives them down the coast in the last rays of sunset. He calls out when he sees the driveway through the stand of eucalyptus, and they park when they reach the edge of the field. With the light of dusk, they quickly find a well-trod path over to the barn. It looks just like its silhouette from the night before. Frankie slides back the barn door, and Benjamin holds his breath. But inside there’s none of what he saw the night before. Though there is the strong smell of burnt kerosene. And Frankie notices two broken glasses on the floor. He feels slimy and confused.
“It definitely happened,” Frankie says. “Definitely.” He stares at her, feeling his whole body cold.
She laughs. “Snap out of it. It happened, and your name’s Benjamin, and you’re going to be just fine. Come on, let’s go out to dinner, celebrate your getting fired. Fuck those people. You’ve got the spirits of the coast on your side. And they told you to paint!”
The next morning, Benjamin gets out his easel and palette. It’s true, he can paint again. As days go by, he paints scenes from the dream. He paints a pyramid with a smokeling coming from the top. He paints a river of blood erupting from his own back. Frankie comes over sometimes to have a beer, and she always compliments the paintings.
Around the end of the month he realizes he’s running out of money and moves back in with his mom. He puts an ad on Craigslist: Looking for painting studio space, not much $$$. Five minutes later a woman writes back, and they agree to meet at her house that night. He thanks the computer, as he should.
“Come,” says the woman. Her name is Louisa, and her fingers are full with rings, like the girl from the barn, though they don’t look alike at all. They step across the threshold of her house. Inside, it’s dark and warm, with the sweet resiny smell of palo santo and the herbal char of burnt sage. Through the windows you look out on the dark trunks of pine trees. Beneath one window is a shrine covered with metal bowls and crystals and seashells. He follows her into the kitchen. She fills a kettle and puts it over a gas burner. It really is dark in here. He wants to kiss her, wants to take off her rings and feel her hand against him. But it’s not time yet. She’ll say when it’s time.
While the water heats, she leads him by the hand to a long room attached to the back of the house. There is only a bare futon against one wall. “You can have this room if you want,” she says. “You paint, right?”
“You’ll rent this space to me?”
“You can have it.” She gives him an appraising look. “How do you take your tea?”
Benjamin drives out every morning to the house under the pines. He enters through a side door and works on his new project. The panels are violent and strange even to him. When he runs out of canvases he starts painting on pieces of plywood that he steals from the wood recycling pile at the dump.
Around four o’clock, the woman knocks and enters. They drink cheap beer and eat cold sandwiches that she makes. He keeps a stash of chocolate for dessert. Her cat comes in sometimes and reminds him of his cat, even though Cat was black and Nubia is white with gray markings. They talk about what she has written that day, what he has painted. Sometimes they make love on the bed against the wall. Sometimes they go outside and hike down to the bluffs, where she teaches Benjamin the names of the different flowers and succulents and grasses. He wonders what he will call the paintings, when they’re done. He doesn’t know how to paint them yet, but they’re getting better.