He had failed.
They led him into the desert and pegged him out under the stars. A filthy white cloth was wound around his loins. In the heat of the day the cords tied to his wrists creaked as they shrank. By night, his ligaments contracted with cold.
They left him on the desert floor for three days and three nights. He didn’t cry out and doubted if he would be better off if he did.
Dakota Joe squinted into the sun. The shadow of a circling eagle passed over him, snaked over rocks at the foot of the mountain and disappeared.
A bus had dropped Joe at an abandoned barracks where the road ran out at the far edge of San Pedro. The building was a hostel of sorts. A tall-fingered cactus stood sentry by the door. Next to it was a red tin chair. Beyond the barracks a dog puked into the stony desert. About a mile past the puking dog a mountain chain rose out of the plain.
Apart from the big-bellied driver the only other person on the bus was Carlos, a Californian with a brace of skulls tattooed around his upper arm. He was younger than Joe and said he was an ethnopharmacologist. Joe took this to mean he travelled third world countries with his budget and bum bag in search of cheap drugs. Carlos didn’t ask Joe what he was doing in San Pedro so Joe didn’t bother explain. He half-listened as Carlos recounted his own well-told adventures. Joe hadn’t come here for conversation. He came here to get away from all that, to get away from people, TV, billboards. All the chatter.
Why we have movies, television and newspapers and social media and rap and shit, said Joe’s agent Fatso Mulligan in Joe’s head long after he had said it in his office, is that in the beginning there really was the word. People had no cosscioussess back then, he said. Just voices in their heads, bossing them around. Some schizoid people still live with it. This was Mulligan’s pet theory and one he often expounded on.
There is a voice that goes on in and outside our heads, he said. It tells us who we are, where we came from, what we’re doing, who we’re with and how we’re fucking up. It goes on and on. We’re so used to it like fridge hum we don’t hear it mostly till it stops.
Why we’re in the right trade, said Mulligan.
Dakota Joe was at the periphery of that trade. He was an adventurer of sorts. Fatso Mulligan paid Joe for his notes and had writers create movie scripts from them. Joe would have an adventure – like the business with the Nazi gold – and years later it was almost unrecognisable to him when it hit the big screen. The Nazi gold was believed to buried in a cave in Egypt and Joe had gone in search of it. But the cave collapsed and killed his guide. The guide’s family cursed him and Joe fled. Everywhere – chitter chatter, said Mulligan in his head. Movies are chatter. The chatter tells us who we are, what we want to be. It’s our voice – our collective, unstoppable, timeless, who-you-are – and it’s not. The film industry is a medium for the voice. The voice is in us and outside of us.
He was illustrating his own point, thought Joe.
Don’t even get me started on memes, said Mulligan.
Fucken memes. Memes. Em e em e.
The writing is on the wall, said Joe.
You just illustrated my point, said Mulligan. You got it the worst.
You got your demons, I got mine, said Joe.
Mine are in me. We got an understanding. You got some other shit going on. You need to fuck off for a while. I know a place.
The bus dropped Dakota at the abandoned barracks at the far edge of San Pedro but there were so many San Pedros on his map he wasn’t sure if he was at the right one.
This looks like the place, Dakota said as a joke after the bus turned off the highway and wound its way to San Pedro but Carlos had buds in his ears and was nodding to what sounded to Joe like pan flutes and drums.
Carlos wasn’t staying at the hostel. His principle was to find an accommodating peasant, offer his family money and a carton of Marlboro cigarettes, and stay with them.
Fuck that lonely planeteer shit and their youth hostels and shit, said Carlos. In my trade you got to know where the people are coming from before you can pass through their doors of perception.
Chitter chatter, said Mulligan in Joe’s head.
You like that? said Carlos. He sat in the tin chair and pulled a bottle of mescal out of his pack. You wanna get drunk?
As shickered as he was Joe slept badly in his stretcher that night. Giggling came from another room somewhere in the building and penetrated the doze he fell into but when he woke up and listened for it all he could hear was the rubbery creak of the cactus in the wind.
When he stepped outside next morning Carlos was back and sitting in the tin chair. He lit a cigarette as Joe lowered himself into the chair he had dragged outside from his room the night before. Carlos tipped black coffee from a thermos into the flask’s cap and handed it to Joe.
You might need this, grinned Carlos. Big day ahead.
As Joe sipped the brew he remembered he’d agreed to join the ethnopharmacologist in one of his explorations. Joe had been drunk enough to float the notion in the rocky sea of his mind as an adventure Mulligan’s people could work with. He regretted that now. That wasn’t what he was here for. He wished Carlos would just fuck off and leave him alone.
Here he is, said Carlos as a man in a white singlet appeared from around the corner of the building. Joe recalled the man was the hostel caretaker. He had joined Joe and Carlos for a tot of mescal and gazed into the desert as he droned on in a language Joe couldn’t understand. Carlos must have because the man lit up a Marlboro, drew a machete from behind his back and wordlessly lopped off a finger of the cactus by the door. He waved away the notes Carlos offered him and stalked back the way he had come.
We better do this in your room, said Carlos.
Joe sat on the edge of his bed and watched as Carlos boiled the chopped cactus in a billy over a Primus on the floor.
You seen those other people staying here? said Carlos while they waited for the green soup to cool.
What other people? said Joe.
They’re performers, said Carlos. Site-specific performers. Pepe told me.
The caretaker. They’re not here right now.
The performers. Two women, one guy.
They must have gone out to rehearse or whatever the fuck site specific performers do when they’re at home, thought Joe.
Carlos took a nylon stocking out of his bum bag, strained the soup through it into a bowl, tipped the gruel into two cups, and handed one to Joe.
Hold your nose and pitch it down your throat, said Carlos.
The hostel caretaker – Pepe – appeared at the front door as they left the building. He pointed at the mountains, shouted at the duo and shook his head.
You get any of that? said Joe.
Nada, said Carlos.
He and Joe threw up into the desert out back then trekked into the mountains. Among the sun-cracked rocks skittered small lizards, scorpions and spiders. They seemed to be everywhere Joe looked. Wolves, coyotes, mountain lions and wild monkeys were sure to be about too. That hadn’t occurred to him before he and Carlos ventured out with no more than bottled water.
As it happened, no such concern needed to have occurred to him because nothing really happened. Some way up the mountainside he and Carlos sat in a cradle of rocks although it offered little shade. This looks like the place, said Carlos. They laughed but neither spoke much after that. Thought moved on before the words could come out but there were all the colours of a petrol spill in any movement and a roar from deep underground, felt rather than heard. A subterranean lake deep within the mountain supplied the fountain near the centre of the town, Carlos had told him the night before.
Fossils dug out of the desert suggested more than 350 million years ago a blind, penile-headed, feather-gilled, larval-staged, fish-lizard with tiny feet, or hands, lived in the underworld sea. Because the creature had no need to evolve towards becoming lizardy, land-borne and on track for Archaeopteryx-stardom, a moment in tectonic-time that marked the transition from reptile to bird, from scale to feather, it was frozen in time like that 20 million years old salamander found in a block of amber on a Caribbean island. Except 230 million years older.
The Caribbean salamander was a Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae, now extinct, an archaeologist told Joe at the time. He also told him he had idea about extracting some blood from it and having a colleague replicate a live version from its DNA. The trip wasn’t much of adventure but Joe made a note anyway and passed it on to Mulligan who was less than impressed and dropped the note into his drawer.
The shadow of an eagle slid up and over the rocks then slid over Joe and he lost his train of thought. He sat up with a jolt. Three figures were trekking across the plain toward the foot of the mountain. Joe turned to say something but Carlos had gone and Joe found he preferred being on his own right then. Carlos probably felt the same way.
Joe guessed the trio were the performers Carlos had said were staying at the barracks hostel. In the same instant he recalled a dream lost to him till that moment.
He’d gone upstairs at the hostel (there were no upstairs in reality) and found the three rehearsing in an empty room. Trestles and chairs were stacked against the walls. The boy looked at his feet and smirked. The women gazed at Joe. Joe grinned back but realised they were laughing at the boy who was behind him now, aping his mannerisms. The boy must have flung himself, but seemed to be flung, to the floor. He spasmed so violently Joe thought his spine might break. He tried to pin the boy’s shoulders to the floor to still him a little but the boy threw up. Green soup ran down Joe’s arms and he slipped in it as he stepped back, The women laughed and walked towards him, arms outstretched. Joe reached for a knife he’d seen on the floor but found he was only brandishing a piece of soap. The women laughed and laughed as they floated across the floor.
A thin trickle of gravel rolled down the slope behind him. Joe heard voices but they came from a couple of middle-aged day-trippers who waved from the ridge and carried on. The figures Joe had seen below had disappeared. The big sky and desert scared him a little then. The sound of the underworld sea rushed in his ears.
He looked around. Carlos was back and staring slack-jawed at a rock formation. Joe was about to say let’s get out of here when the performers rounded a boulder and stood smiling at them. The women were tall, broad-shouldered and the colour of coffee. The boy had a sullen look on his face. The women spoke to Joe but he couldn’t understand what they were saying. He felt a pain in his stomach and sweat poured off him. The women’s teeth flashed. The youth slouched away behind the boulder. One of the women kissed Joe on the lips then she and the other woman giggled as they followed the boy and were gone.
Joe started as a thin trickle of gravel rolled down the slope behind him. He heard voices and thought it must have been the trio but turned out to be a couple of middle-aged day-trippers waving from the ridge above. Touching his lip with a fingertip Joe found a ruby plume of blood.
Let’s get out of here, he was about to say. Carlos flew down the slope in great leaps. Joe followed but more slowly as insects, spiders and scorpions flickered on the ground all around him. Back on the plain Carlos said he wanted to write up his insights so they parted company.
Joe lay on his bed in the dark and watched maniacal cartoons kaleidoscope around the room’s walls but he was so exhausted he fell into a kaleidoscopic sleep.
He woke in the early hours of morning badly in need of a piss and a drink of water. His room was dark and hot. He made his labyrinthian way to the door by touch and stepped out into darkness. Further up the hall light came from a crack under a door. Joe slid along the wall and pushed at the door. Except it wasn’t the bathroom. One of the two women he had met earlier stood in front of the door and faced Joe. The other lay naked on a bed and smoked a cigar. The boy squatted on the other cot and smiled at Joe. Joe tried to explain what he was doing there but he felt humiliated by the boy’s smirk. He lurched to the sink, soaped up his hands and face and washed them and left, his neck hot with the muffled giggles behind him.
The sky was blue and cloudless again later that morning. The road that ended at the hostel was confettied with orange and yellow flowers. Marigolds, said a voice in his head. Joe shaded his eyes with his hand, Further up the road a procession of girls in white dresses made their way to the town plaza. Joe followed.
The women of the town wore mostly long black skirts with white blouses embroidered with flowers or small birds. Men shambled about in small clusters or slumped in the shade of trees or doorways. They averted their gaze as Joe passed.
A crowd was gathered near the fountain in the plaza. At the centre of the throng the boy from the site-specific performance trio lay on his back on planks set upon two trestles. He wore only a pair of tatty white shorts.
The hostel caretaker stood by Joe’s side. A cigarette was clamped between his teeth. He held Joe’s elbow and led him to the trestle, took the cigarette from his mouth, extinguished the ember on his tongue and set the stub behind his ear. Someone in the crowd cheered. The hostel caretaker took Joe’s hand and held it high like he was a prizefighter then pushed Joe’s fingertips into the boy’s stomach. A red puddle bubbled in the hole. The caretaker plunged and plunged and had Joe pull out a clotted pair of scissors, a stone, a rag and a kidney, and drop them in a bowl by the boy’s side. He pushed their hands deeper into the welling hole till they were almost up to their elbows in it.
Heads turned at a bark of laughter. The crowd parted a little as Carlos stepped forward. He raised his hands as if to show he had nothing up his sleeves. He turned to the boy on the trestle table and sunk his arms up to the pits in the youth’s bubbling abdomen. Bent over his work Carlos grunted, wrenched hard, jerked upright, and held high in both hands a blood-streaked, slime-coated amphibian with thick, purple lips, whiskers, a segmented belly and four foetal legs and four tiny feet, or hands. Suspended in time, it was both fish and reptile and even looked a bit human in its immobile fury.
The notion exploded in Joe’s head that Carlos had not only reached into the youth’s guts but through to the well under the mountain and into a sea of pre-consciousness, into a kind of ether, of something akin to mind, the source of the pre-lingual voice that was not noticed by most till it stopped. Carlos laughed at the shocked faces in the crowd and shouted about how it was OK, it was just a trick, but Joe couldn’t catch his words because standing by his side the hostel caretaker was droning some account in a language Joe couldn’t understand.
Men pushed through the crowd to grab Carlos and drag him to the ground. Joe turned to the caretaker for some cue to what was going on but the caretaker was gone. The voice droned on in Joe’s head, though, and told him how Carlos had fucked up, how Joe had fucked up, and always had. It occurred to Joe he might still be tripping. He staggered to the fountain and splashed water on his face and head.
“Jabon?” called one of the men from the shade of the tree.
His friends laughed.
The man who had called out spat on the ground and stood up. He held a machete loosely at his side.
A bus rolled into the plaza and its doors opened. The two women walked towards Joe. They were black holes in the light. Their faces writhed like snakes, then peeled back to skulls then to back to faces with galaxies behind their eyes.
A church bell tolled.
Joe go Joe go Joe go Joe, Joe heard in its slow peal.
He shambled towards the bus. From the corner of his eye he saw the men from under the tree climb to their feet. Machete blades flashed in their hands. The bus doors hissed shut and diesel fumes curdled the air as the bus grumbled into a turn, ready to go back the way it came.
Joe ran, but not as quickly as he once might have.
Before dawn they cut the ropes.
They lifted him gently and lay him on a raft of snakes so as he awoke to the chill rays of the morning sun he would twitch with the new-found freedom of his limbs only to be struck by writhing serpents.
Possibly he recognised his fate in that instant and resigned himself to it because as the warmth of his own excrement spread beneath his legs the snakes slithered out from under him and disappeared among the desert’s stones, bones and fossils.