Susurrus

 

            In the darkness on the new moon, in the midst of the still night, gaze lonely through the spaces between stars and find within the harbinger of intellect, the dawn of awareness–susurrus.

                        –Anonymous from a scroll found in catacombs beneath the mosque at Alexandria

  

            Fresh from the calm desert, Timothy gazed at Las Vegas on a neon night.  Industrial punk slammed sonic hammers from a tiny boombox, fighting for his mind’s time against the honking, the backfire–or was it gunshot?  Whatever.  Both were common enough on the strip.  It was a sweet cacophony to Timothy’s hungry ears.  Even the expletives of the jilted prostitute in her brightly painted reds and shiny plastic blacks were a welcome companion to his too conscious mind.

            Anything was better than the lonely howl of the coyote.

            Timothy scratched his scalp in nervous anticipation.  He had arrived: civilization.  He sucked on his Marlboro and almost coughed.  Tobacco was still a new vice, but it helped him, helped him to look like the others.

            He approached–sauntered was how he thought of it–toward two men, clinging to the few shadows on the glowing Las Vegas strip.  Timothy could watch through the brightly neon chilled air around him: Las Vegas people were together, bound by the allegro tempo in their chaotic progressions across the paved strip.  He could join their chorus.  Timothy was sure he could.

            The two men spoke in strained whispers with their backs to the street; Timothy caught what he could as he walked closer:

            "Fifty?  For two rocks?"

            "High grade, no shit.  I’ll do you right.  Shit, man, you can break each rock into three hits."

            "Okay, okay.  But forty, I only got forty."

            "Uh-huh.  Then you share the first hit with me.  You gotta prove you’re not a narc."

            "Hey, hey, no problem—-"

            "Hi, my name’s Timothy."

            "Fuck!"

            "What the fug you think you’re doin’ man?  You crazy?"

            "Back off, man.  He’s gotta be a cop."

            Timothy replied, trying to be like them, trying to like them, "Fug, no.  I just want to be with you, man."

            "Look at his eyes!  Look at his eyes.  He’s wired to the gills.  Let’s roll ‘im."

            Then, the pain came.  They were fast; that is, their fists were fast, whirling back and forth across his gut and over his face.  Timothy’s blood stained their hands.

            Timothy didn’t mind the bleeding.  It was a dance of pain, binding Timothy to them with his pain and their anger, a brutal language, but a communal one.  Yet images whirled through his mind, images that brought back ancient memories, things he didn’t want to remember, things he had forgotten: listening to the solemn echo of Tibetan chants against the stone walls of the cold monastery, dripping down through the cracks between the quarks as the monks stole quiet breaths, blossoming back up through a tingling wave of probability, and singing with the coyote, whose howl threatened to bring back all the other memories.

            "Enough.  I don’t like this dance." Timothy said, but the blood in his mouth slurred his words.

            "He’s too stupid to fall."

            "No shit.  My arms are getting tired.  You hold him; I’ll get his wallet."

            Timothy felt a pressure against his backside, touching hard, grabbing, pushing.  Touch was the best; touch was real motion, going away from the self and to someone, anyone else.  But when he had cleared the blood from his eyes, he saw that his friends had abandoned him.

            "Betrayers!  A pox upon you!" Timothy shouted and coughed up blood.

            This would never do.  People hated ugly people and feared diseased people.  "The black death." Timothy mumbled.

            Boils welled up under his skin, across his arms, inside his mouth.  "Nguh–nguh—-" Timothy mumbled.

            That was stupid.  He hadn’t meant to summon the plague.  Worse, it was a lonely pain.  But Timothy had forgotten just how much he could do, had wanted to forget who he was.  Now, this body was too far gone.  Timothy knew that he would have to start again.  But he feared to release his hold on this body, feared the absence of flesh, feared to be utterly alone without eyes, without ears, even for a short time.

            He released the quarks, dissolved the glue.

            The self tried to whisper to him, but his mind raced through numbers and equations; moved quarks, then protons, then atoms, then molecules–anything to distract him from the whispers, the voice that threatened to teach.  He knew it instinctively, his name, ageless, unique, alone: Pro—-

            "No!" Timothy screamed and was rewarded with the sound of his voice and the sight of fresh, firm flesh, surrounding his thoughts, aching to mingle those new senses with other people.

            Immediate reward: The banging music was still there, still cracking, raping the night with its furious and unique identity, an identity that was not Timothy’s.  That was the sweet part.

            ***

            "It was a freak accident, Lieutenant.  The lighter exploded while they were heating the bowl of the pipe.  Found some heroin in the room, too.  Could’a been freebasing, I suppose, and then didn’t seal the bottle of ether.  It was a fast, intense fire.  It caught them stoned and the whole room burst.  Better write a citation: The blankets in this ratbag weren’t fire retardant.  Poor bastards, they must’a been too tanked to get out."

            "Sorta like two cats in a microwave."  Officer Johnson tried to smile, but it was a poor joke that failed to stop the bile that rose in his throat.

            ***

            The music man climbed into a dented, red Triumph and sped away, leaving only the background traffic to delight Timothy.  It wasn’t enough.

            He had to go somewhere, somewhere with lots of people.  The hotels were brightly lit.  The clothes he had stolen were bloody, the epitaph of his former body and first mingling.  Still, people enjoyed accepting the images he sent into their minds almost as much as he enjoyed giving them the visions.  Timothy made sure that every eye saw him as a rich man.  Everyone liked rich men.  He made himself smell like stale tobacco smoke, a pervasive odor within old casinos.  Timothy wanted to blend perfectly with the other audience members.  He entered the softly lit ballroom where the big star was singing.  Only, it wasn’t a star.  That was a disappointment; stars sang so brightly in the night heavens, so long as you looked at their light and not at what patiently surrounded the stars.

            "No." Timothy muttered through clenched teeth, "Must’nt think of that.  Must’nt think of the before times.  People are the answer.  Motion is the answer."

            But it only got worse for Timothy.  The singer crooned softly like a coyote; the people were massed in the giant room with the plush carpet and idle drinks with melting ice cubes, but these people were alone, too, all silently listening to the coyote voiced man.

            Timothy turned to leave, but there was a real coyote barring his path.  They were pursuing him, had found him, even though he had lost himself.  Another ancient memory forced itself into his mind: They were as mighty as he on the new moon nights.  Timothy shouted, "Go away, green man!"

            The coyote smiled.  "So, you do remember.  Good.  But I’m not the green man today.  We’re in the People’s lands, so I’m the Coyote."

            The audience sitting around the back tables turned and stared at the man in the tux who shouted at air.  Some shushed him.

            Timothy heeded their command.  That was how companionship worked, wasn’t it?  You listened to others when they told you to do something so that when you were doing what they asked, you were actually them and not yourself.  He spoke softly and Coyote laughed at him when he saw that Timothy obeyed the people.

            Timothy said, "Go away, Coyote.  Go.  Go."

            Coyote sniggered, lewdly lolling his tongue toward a woman in a blue velvet dress, who showed slightly more generous cleavage than traditional decorum allowed.  Then, he said casually, oh, so casually to Timothy, "You’re much too confused to banish me, but suppose I told you some of your names, hmmm?"

            That would bring the memories back, all of them.  Timothy shuddered.  He couldn’t be human then.  Timothy said, "Then I would remember who I am, and I would be very angry with you."

            "That’s fine.  It’ll make for a grand game."

            Despite his best efforts, Timothy remembered that Coyote, the green man, loved all word games and tricks.  Coyote knew that his presence would be enough to break the silken barrier that blocked the ancient memories, that allowed Timothy to be a man.

            Timothy growled, "Then perhaps I’ll withhold my gifts."  Timothy didn’t remember what gifts he could withhold; it was a gamble, for he knew he was rapidly losing this confrontation.  Point in fact: Timothy remembered that Coyote had been his friend, his companion in his journeys to Earth on the new moon nights.

            But Coyote’s ears flattened against his skull upon hearing Timothy’s threat and he whined, "You wouldn’t."

            "Hah!  Got you, Coyote.  Go, go, go!"

            Coyote ran from the hotel with his tail between his legs, ran all the way into the desert and up the invisible rays of the new moon and slipped into the darkness.  The others waited for him in Timothy’s vacant house, where the invisible fires in the silver braziers burned precariously low.  It irked Coyote’s pride to admit he had failed, but something had to be done about their rogue compatriot.  The others were less than pleased with Coyote’s results, but when he announced Timothy’s threat, even the three hags of grief, misery, and guilt were frightened.  And when the Furies were frightened, when their snakes twined in braids and hissed too fervently their false bravado, all the others were silent; and none dared to tell Timothy who he really was.

            Timothy left the casino.  The coyote singer wouldn’t stop howling, and the appearance of Coyote only made it worse for him.  He had won, but he had also lost.  His mind was timeslipping, remembering ancient memories.  Fire gazing poets, long since dust, whirled through his mind.  Timothy wanted now, and Timothy wanted others.  That would help banish the memories.

            Sex, hot and sweaty and grunting, would be the perfect thing to force his mind to think of another, to be with another.  There were prostitutes aplenty, too.  The jilted one was not too far down the strip and he ran to catch her.

            "What’chu want?"

            Timothy smiled.  Smiling was always a good way to attract others.  "I want sex."

            She laughed.  Timothy savored the sound.  It was a small laugh, laced with mockery, tinted with jade.  Timothy enjoyed her mockery; she was communicating; it was subtle, something to ponder, something to share.  It made the heat rise to his face.

            She said, "Nice and blunt.  How long do you want me?"

            "Forever," Timothy blurted.

            She stared into Timothy’s eyes.  Timothy savored the puzzled and dubious expression on her face; it was unique, new.  The prostitute watched as Timothy savored her fear.  She palmed a key into her hand and poked the tip between the fingers of her fist.  "Back off, friend.  You don’t have enough money for me."  She had seen enough of her competition go with johns who acted weird.  Sometimes, they ended in the morgue.

            Timothy told her to see a fistful of money in his hand and her eyes lighted.  But she was like a doe, curious but wary: still innocent enough to consider and fantasize friendship.  Timothy heard all her thoughts ecstatically: This was companionship, interaction.  She looked at the money, looked at him, at the money again and gnawed her lower lip.

            Another woman approached, wearing gaudy stockings and stiletto heels, garish face paint and too long lashes.  She spoke calmly as if her voice never changed, could not change, "It’s alright, sister.  I’ll take care of him."

            Timothy’s friend (He already felt wonderfully close to her.) turned with flashing eyes toward the newcomer.  "Who you callin’ sis—-"  She stopped abruptly upon locking eyes with the other woman.  Timothy watched, but he was outside again, not part of this new conversation.  Timothy’s prostitute said, "Alright, he’s yours.  You’d better be careful, though.  He’s strange."

            "Thank you, sister.  Your womb will be fruitful."

            Already walking away, the prostitute muttered sourly, "Great.  That’s all I need."  She went back to her dingy room, where she knew at least Thoreau would be waiting for her.  Some nights were just too weird to turn tricks.

            Timothy stared into the newcomer’s eyes, but he found no companionship there.  Her eyes were cold under those long eyelashes, and she refused to meet his gaze.  Still, anything was better than being alone.  He asked, "Who are you?"

            "Erda will do for now.  Come, walk with me.  I know who you are."

            He knew he was trapped.  It had worked with Coyote: "Leave or I’ll withhold my gifts."

            Erda replied, "I don’t care.  Maybe that would be for the best."  She laughed, deep and powerful, but not so complex, not so quick and fresh like the laughter of people.  Her long red fingernails glimmered under a flashing orange sign advertising twenty-five cent slots.  She looked at her nails, brought them close to her face.  "I’m just curious for now.  I wanted to meet you at least once, and this is probably my only chance.  Why did you do it?  Why did you abandon who you were?"

            Timothy heard something in that.  Whether it was threat or predator caution or some trickery, he wasn’t certain.  He could dissolve his body, could start over again.  The new moon night wasn’t over.  That was all he needed to return to–to–where?  Timothy said, "I don’t remember why I did it; I only know I wanted to be with people.  I wanted to do what they do.  I thought I could laugh with them.  Is it so terrible to want to be someone else?  I just wanted to march with them."

            She said, "That was never your way."

            "No, it wasn’t." Timothy agreed.  How did he know that?  His heart started racing; he was remembering.

            She stopped walking and Timothy found himself standing next to her on the top of a lonely, green hill under the leaves of an oak tree.  It was dark.  There were no city lights, no car headlights, no wonderful music, save the chilling wind, moaning into his ears.  Timothy cried, "What?  I was in Las Vegas, around people.  How did I get here?"

            "You walked with me, and I am more sure footed than you upon the world."  Timothy heard no arrogance in her tone; moreover, her voice slipped wistfully into his mind.  "I wanted to see if a mask could work.  Humanity pains me and I can’t seem to shrug them off.  Of all the new moon spirits, you would know best.  If you could enjoy wearing a facade of flesh, anyone could.  I thought I might try it myself, but I can see that it’s just a mask and not a very good one.  The face paint just peels away."  Erda stood before him without make-up in a long and flowing woolen dress of shifting greens and browns and white.  She smelled of rose petals.  "I shouldn’t be friendly with you, you know.  You’re always prodding the people to new ideas.  It’s not so much the ideas as their haphazard constructions that I mind.  Still, I should just stop your game now.  You might be able to make humanity more bearable, if you carry the susurrus to enough of them.  Prometheus and Abraxes: Those are two of your names."

            Timothy said, "I still have my mask; I don’t have to remember; you can’t force me.  As long as I want the mask more than my name, I can block the ancient memories."

            She smiled and it was both feral and tender.  "I guessed that you could.  But you must know that the mask will always be a torment for you.  Masks are your opposite: the full moon, enchantment.  Besides, humans want you, or at least they think they do."

            "Am I so important?"

            She laughed again.  The sound mixed well with the biting cold wind in his ears as she said, "I don’t think so, but the others do.  You really beat the green man, but then you always did show up his tricks.  Still, he loves you dearly.  You have forgotten him for a long time, haven’t you?"

            Timothy spoke.  He could just keep the mask and answer the question by pretending to talk as if he were someone else, forcing his thoughts into a furious dance of denial and revelation.  "It wasn’t my fault.  The people became rational to an extreme, forgot Coyote’s tricks, and tried to summon me with meditation or physics or some such formula.  A few heard me without his trickery.  People are odd.  Even after this night, I still don’t understand them.  Without Coyote by my side, I was lonelier than–Aahh!"

            "What is it?" Erda asked, but her voice had no compassion, only curiosity.

            "I–I remember why I left my home.  It was the loneliness.  I am loneliness in too great a part.  And all the people who have heard me have tasted that loneliness.  It would be better that they don’t suffer me."

            Erda said, "Perhaps you are right.  Perhaps you should keep the mask."

            Coyote’s silhouette poked from behind the wide trunk of the oak.  He was taking a piss.  "Fah, go away, Mother Earth.  Rocks and stones, trees and tigers are all you care about.  You cannot advise him.  And don’t talk about me.  I have no need for pity from you.  You have nothing to do with us.  Though you gave birth to us all, we have outgrown you."  Coyote pointed a paw toward Timothy.  "He has separated humanity from you.  Don’t deny it.  You’re just as lonely as Prometheus in your manner, because he has lifted their thoughts from nature."

            "Is that such a good thing, jester?"  Now, her voice was wholly feral; and her eyes, tiger eyes.

            Coyote watched Mother Earth.  He fawned with his head down between his paws, but his voice was defiantly happy, "It’s perfect for me.  And for him.  But you?"

            "I don’t have to suffer you, jester."

            Coyote sniggered, "That’s just your problem."

            Mother Earth stepped toward him.  Coyote leapt up into the tree.  Timothy watched him carefully crawl onto a low and crooked branch, frantically trying to escape the lean tiger Mother Earth had become.

            But Timothy saw Coyote’s eyes sparkle in the darkness and shift to the right, quickly and with intent, as if there was a secret to be found next to him.

            Coyote sniggered again as he watched his friend take the bait in his eyes.

            Wondering what fascinated Coyote’s gaze, Timothy looked to the right of Coyote up in the tree, and there was a space between the limbs, a space that looked clearly into the night heavens.  The winds quieted; the sounds faded from his mind.  At that moment Timothy was utterly alone as he heard the sweetness whispering without sound through the loneliness, but not touching the loneliness, not disturbing the darkness: the susurrus, the echo of the I.  That ephemeral whisper fanned the ember in his breast into a warm, invisible fire.  Timothy crumbled and it was Prometheus who looked into the emptiness between the stars of the night sky and heard, so faintly, the echo of himself, contrasted by the bleak void: almost too soft, but so clearly and uniquely himself.

            Floating into the night sky, Prometheus looked to his heels and saw Coyote following him.  "Trickster, I was foolish to doubt myself.  The loneliness isn’t so terrible, after all.  I had forgotten the sweetness, the serenity within the susurrus.  Why did I ever wander through such a ludicrous masquerade?"

            Coyote laughed and nipped at his heels.  "Because I suggested it to you, of course."

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