Third Person Spoke

As he neared the crest, diffraction threatened to unhinge him completely. Walking was trying to keep balance on a small boat in rough seas, the ground continuously advancing, receding and shifting side to side. Yet he was reluctant to look up - a prospect even worse, of seeing the trees shift planes, needles of Ponderosa pines shimmering electrically, growing and shrinking without changing size, and the air itself shot through with implications of fracture planes while managing to suggest texture as of transparent heaving molasses. Still he moved upward. If he'd been dealt a bad drug, direction was meaningless, and if - as he allowed himself to hope - it was merely the effect of the blazing summer's sun on his over sensitized skin and skull then the nearest shade lay in a copse ahead. Though gripped by mild terror he marveled that he could perceive himself as a biosystem in stress, marveled at his ability to marvel under such circumstances, remained interested in the manifestations and at the same time saw himself as an objective observer, not belaboring the why but pondering the how.

He'd been sitting in the living room of their shack on the Ranch. His wife and infant son were gone for a few days - showing off the miracle to relatives on the coast - and it seemed as though all their compatriots had found someplace else to be on a perfectly still, hot day in July. He'd sat for an immeasurable time listening to the drone of insects, lines of aural colour painted on the seamless fabric of space and time, defining it, pulling it together and giving it substance. The odd half-hearted bark of dozing dogs in the yard punctuated the pattern coming to his ears as small but profound messages that he understood but could never explain. Even traffic on the road directly on the crest above the valley that held the Ranch was thin, and he could hear every car coming from miles away, an almost unbearably exciting crescendo of sound, an infinite sequence of false apotheoses teasing like an orgasm forever in coming, finally pulling his mind away, dropping it right back nothing changed, the space of a breath.

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page 2

Tired of playing with itself, his mind urged him on to action. There being utterly nothing important for him to do, he decided to go for a stroll and look at his plant. Early in the summer he had cast, buried, and poked into the ground with his finger a large number of seeds throughout the hills, the range of his explorations. Along marshes, in dry spots beside fences where horses and cows might miss them, at the edges of orchards, in overgrown fields where cattle had been penned in years gone past leaving dark soil, rich, smelling like Earth herself, and even into the air he'd planted his seeds dreaming of a marvelous harvest. Over the weeks he had searched the land and found nothing to show for his efforts. That had been alright; it was no more than a nice idea, the seeking had kept him busy and many things had come to sight that had been invisible before, but it was a surprise. Then searching for a different herb one day, he had spotted the bushy little pot plant thriving on a pile of cast iron barely covered with soil. Going for a walk to admire his plant had become his prime solitary entertainment.

Something had changed drastically in this day though, and as he finally reached the hilltop, he realized that he was also lost. Where he had expected to find a stand of deciduous trees there lay before him instead a shallow depression in the land, a bowl spotted with Black-eyed Susans, milkweed, prickly pear cactus, the inevitable grasses, and a mound of rotting beef parts, a heap of carcasses guarded by a team of large ravens marching the perimeter in odd mechanical patterns, looking not so much like birds as truly alien peoples performing a ritual.

He was immediately blessed with relief. Vision cleared up and the ground regained substance; it had nothing to do with bad drugs or sunstroke. His experience with synesthesia was minimal so he hadn't been prepared to perceive that the odor of decay was bypassing his nostrils and his mouth, confusing his visual center. Having realized that he found himself choking on the smell, a tangible presence that attached itself to the mucous membranes and every molecule of water in his body. Gagging, retching, he slid away from the lip of the bowl, scuttling from the miasma concentrated in that open grave and tracking his trail back found himself almost painfully yearning for a shower and glass upon glass of cold, clear water.

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page 3

As he hurried back the experience nagged. He had lost his euphoria but that was simply from the surprise; the mere fact, idea, presence or sight of death was not something that would normally disturb him. So he believed and it was the incongruity which bothered him: why and how and how much it all seemed like a portent. Life on the Ranch was idyllic when he wasn't suffering a self-chosen and self-imposed hell of anxiety and neural overload. It seemed almost personal, somehow planned for a purpose by some unpleasant mind; it was definitely a message and it spoke to his deepest fear, the fear that someone would see through him and find nothing, discovering the sham, telling him to "go". He was afraid to go, since that implied a destination and that required a decision. He had forgotten how to make choices, denied that he had power to make any; upon this fatalism rested his concept of freedom. He valued that freedom beyond all else, since it left him without choices; without the ability to choose the could remain unencumbered with responsibility. Without responsibility he would never have to ask himself where he was going, what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be. Without those questions he would never have to ask himself who he was. He did not want to ask himself who or what he was: he was afraid that the answer would be - "nothing".

Compulsively gnawing at nothing he arrived at the shack abstracted from immediate experience yet feeling filthy as though carrying another's unsavory body below the space of his head. Another surprise waited for him: he had lost track of the days, and his wife and son had come back home. He hugged them both but told her nothing. She showed her disapproval in subtle ways of his solitary tripping and his wanderings seemed to generate a distrust. He wasn't sure but he thought that she thought he was having it off with the single girl, the young mother with two kids who had recently shown up at the Ranch, not long enough to have been grasped and absorbed by the group consciousness. At the strangest times, the oddest places, she crossed his trail and he knew that sooner or later something would have to be done. Since he was convinced that he had never been responsible for a major decision in his life, that things happened when they were supposed to and whatever happened was meant to be, he was satisfied, though not quite content, to wait. Whatever this girl wanted she would eventually make known. Then he would be free to react.

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page 4

At supper that night his wife, whom he thought he loved more for her uncluttered enthusiasms, passion for life, and the gentle and colorful descriptions that she attached to experience than for anything physical or intellectual, unsettled him even more. From talking about her sister whom she had chanced to see on the coast she wound her way into a discourse on change. Wasn't it marvelous, her sister had found herself, had found a way to satisfaction in life? He maintained that things had changed for her sister; she quite adamantly held that her sister had changed. It was an important distinction, he thought, and foolish of her not to perceive the facts in the same way as he. She had never before disagreed with him on matters of philosophy.

Conversation ended on that note for the evening. She went out to spend some time with her gentleman farmer friend who allowed her to pretend she owned one of his Morgan horses. He thought about that for a while wondering if her talk about change had anything to do with the desire to own things. They had little, he knew that and was determined to be satisfied, but he realized that they had not once talked about such matters, he assuming that she wanted what he wanted, and did not want otherwise. The old horseman, he knew, wanted to own his wife. He didn't dislike the fellow, actually worked with him now and then and appreciated the odd nugget of earned wisdom that he would grudgingly let slip through his lips. He granted the elder man the right of experience but maintained the illusion of his own moral advantage on the basis of world history, that the pursuit of material satisfaction bred injustice. He saw two spots of weakness, two potential fractures in the unchanging plane of his existence: the gentleman farmer would seduce his wife with promises of horse flesh, which he had decided was her primary source of erotic satisfaction anyway, or the new girl on the ranch would puncture the ground of his collective notions with some dramatic action, generate an effect apparently unconnected with cause. He accepted that apparent randomness knowing that in the expansion of consequences the action would give him opportunity to derive a purpose. If someone new wanted to own him on his terms, that she would own nothing, then that would be that. If his wife wanted to be owned on the old man's terms, that was her decision.

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page 5

His wife came home just after dusk to stay home and look after their son. He set out to stroll the four miles to town and the bar. He was thinking about his son and that made the road seem long. His son would not fit any of the categories he had devised for explaining away the naked, difficult simple fact of existence. Looking at the infant brought strange feelings from out of the void of his bowels into his heart. Watching his movement, his eyes reflecting the input of sensory information and its synthesis, awareness gradually but obviously growing day by day - it was frightening in the way it suggested a distance between experience and the mental reconstruction of experience. He was nearly convinced that his son, knowing little, actually knew more than he did himself. Striving to know all through embracing nothing, it was disturbing to him to think that the distance and effort would all lead back to the same obvious thing. The thinking made him feel heavy; he couldn't hear the chittering and pinging that usually accompanied his movement through the dark country nights, and the air, instead of being a medium, seemed more like a barrier. Gathering up his will he began to sing to himself, marching to a tune about the long and winding road. Just as the rhythm of movement caught him up and he began to attune himself to eternity, a car pulled up beside him and he was offered a ride into town.

The next morning dawned perfectly. The excesses of the day before had left him somewhat empty and sore in spirit, and his sleep was poor, nerves raw and twitchy waking him early, but he translated unease into energy as he watched the birds of dawn impress their shadows on the blue gray slate of a new day. Feeding his son gently bouncing on his knee as he contemplated the process, the connections, the cycles that led to the baby bottle through the nipple, mild, somehow turning into the life that sparkled in the infant's eyes, he grew aware of an impending.

He could not focus a source, no noise on the Ranch still cloaked in stillness, nor a chill breeze but something different in the day itself, an anticipation. Something was going to happen today out of the ordinary and he was satisfied to wait. Speculation brought nothing but headache and confusion, and he had no control. Without choice, without decision, he might discover another channel to peace, another fissure into hell or something extraordinarily normal. Whatever it might be it portended changes and he waited with comfortable cold iron in his gut.

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page 6

Sitting on a picnic bench in the shade of the apple trees, strumming his guitar he waited. Shortly after noon a black car from the past turned into the road to the Ranch, raising twisty clouds of dust at the door to their valley, slightly obscuring the old blue Volkswagen van that followed hard in its wake. One would have been too much to absorb but both together added up to such an unlikelihood that he found his self retreating, coiling into a quivering little ball deep behind his navel as his ego put on a face and his face took on a life of its own, not his own. The vehicles were supposed to be in Mexico, the passengers on two separate but connected trips away a distance of thousands of miles. His shriveling fear was not of the people but of the meaning of their being at this place. The karma, the implications were incredible.

The battered black Volvo stopped before him, two windows eight eyes in a halo of dust and the doors blew open as though that accumulation of spirit they contained had at just that moment reached critical mass. The two dogs were faster, Trish and Maddy exclaiming joy at his face as Don and Marine pulled their travel-weary bodies over to his perch. Since some moment, an event outside of normal space and time but in a definite span of their past mutual experiences, he had been of two minds about Don. He had decided that Don was not saying what he meant but had no way of knowing whether the meaning he imputed was correct either because everything seemed to be not what it was. He realized that it was unfair to single out one friend as personifying that doubt but some patterns stuck even as they were struck, and he always worried that Don was secretly laughing at him, or worse, subtly letting on that all the doubts that lived in that secret place behind the gut were common knowledge, that everyone knew what he only pretended or hoped to know. Still, knowing his own madness he was able to summon more joy than fear when Don hugged him told him how glad he was to see him.

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page 7

Marine posed no threat to him at all. She was an angel in his mind, metaphorically and in reality. He was utterly convinced and held her body and her spirit in all the respect he had at his disposal. He had watched her grow from a beautiful girl filled with doubt about her own beauty and the various destinies to which it could lead her, a silent self-effacing presence, to the perfect woman she had had the potential to become, vibrant, confident, and gentle. The pressure of peers had had them as boyfriend and girlfriend in earlier times but they had never been lovers and that seemed to him an odd kind of blessing. He didn't feel that by that inaction he had been spared the possibility of opening up to her since he felt totally safe as it was but perhaps a bit proud and happy that he had not forced physical attentions on her that were not his own.

The VW van pulled up as they completed their hugs and were well into the initial babble of reacquaintance. He perceived living beings as discrete energy systems as though motes in a sunlit room but with a tendency to affect, to alter each other when put within a certain range and sometimes at a great distance. That discreteness was sacrosanct, virtually the sole basis of his metaphysics, and it was only with permission and mutual assurances of respect and trust that boundaries might be breached. It was this ritual communication that he heard beneath the trivial chatter, in these moments that he always sought to intuit intent, no matter the words that were spoken. In the van sat Robak and Demp, hanging back a few moments as though uncertain of their welcome or too tired to move. Far more comfortable with a crowd in which he might divert attention away from himself, he signaled with his eyes, beckoned with the psychic force he thought, and was often afraid, he had at his disposal. Finally as his wife came out with their child, the noisy and motley crew stood all together in the noonday sun.

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page 8

That night while some slept in the van, some under the trees and some on the floor of the tiny living room he called his own, whose walls he had impressed with patterns of electrical vision through many nights of psychic adventure, cracks counted, perimeter at once bounding and capable of containing universes, he lay with eyes closed and felt the movement of those spirits that had so suddenly wandered into his life. In the orchard Don and Marine were making love, she a wash of almost-darkness but luminous and warm moving through his mind like all the dreams of comfort he had but thought could never know himself. Don was a stridency, anvil muted with leather struck insistently with a view to shaping, some unseen creation, obvious but personal joy. Robak was in the van, a set of luminous globes moving on the periphery, a diversion of molecules dancing self-satisfied unimicable glee. Demp was closer on the floor of the living room roiling spirals of preconscious energy. He tried to probe this spring but the coughing from the other room told him that his power was invasive, not pervasive, and he backed his thoughts away quickly before the sleeping friend could discover his presence in that private place, his greatest fear of being caught out and branded a psychic vampire, a monster. His wife and child, closest yet, were so known to him that he couldn't feel them in his mind as anything apart from it, and he knew the changes in his son's consciousness as though they were his own. As he allowed himself to drift into sleep it came to him that the puzzle was not yet complete, all these pieces in his life, his head did not constitute a whole and there was still an impending.

Like so many mornings that summer on the Ranch, the next morning was perfection. The grumblings and bustle of seven people and many animals waking up and performing their rituals over, the group of friends sat down to a breakfast of waffles, strawberries, and ice cream. The food, fellowship, experience was so fine that they didn't finish until well after noon. Smoking just enough to be sociable they drove off to the beach to drift in languor, cool on the water on the sun-high day, taking small pleasures from the distraction they caused others, wearing odd outfits and so obviously inhabiting a time that had little reference, expanding all horizons and including anyone who had the courage to want to know the secret of joy. As hunger and evening breezes drove them back to the doors of the shack on the Ranch, they saw a figure huddled on the steps. Another castaway had come to find shelter in this contrived oasis drawn by inconceivable coincidence to the doors, Barro, their artist friend from the east, the final harbinger.

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page 9

He knew that Don and Marine, Robak and Demp had planned to go to Mexico and he understood how the trip curtailed by psychic discomfort and strong messages of decision more properly forgotten than followed could have led them all to this place, but Barro's sudden appearance had more the aspect of a manifestation. Barro had long been out of touch, pursuing a solitary course of courting his demanding muse, caught up in a political and emotional devastation so impossible to conceive at great distance that it seemed fantasy and none of them could understand his words. He had no problem with Barro though, thinking he recognized a kindred torn spirit caught on the edge where idea and reality showed awesome faces in all their truth, the truth showing that there was no compromise no correspondence no absolutes at all, all systems no more than constructions, all constructions cut by the edge.

In the evening as Demp sat in a corner reading and chuckling to himself, Barro watched as Robak and his wild-eyed friend put together a lamp shade from little pieces of plastic, inhaling stupidity from the fumes, giggling. When it was done they hung it up and it cast light over the living room that made it seem underwater. He asked Robak to dig out his dominoes and they played the game that only they understood, Barro still watching and complaining that the game had no rules, that they changed with the game. He only spoke the truth, the two others having gone through so many similar evenings together in various stages of ecstasy and devastation, so attuned to a common vision evolved to hold madness at bay that unspoken unspeakable knowing informed their common pursuits, the game made sense to those who would play it who were only those to whom it made sense. Senses disordered, the game made sense, made order of the common intent to retain sense in the face of disorder. They pulled at Barro, tried to bring him into the process but he held back claiming it offended his aesthetic, they feeling sad because it seemed a lack of trust, suspicion born of trust once too often betrayed, innocence lost in a grand dark city where soldiers took romance from the night and turned it into hatred.

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page 10

His wife gone somewhere with their son, Don and Marine pursuing their own path, he sensed restiveness in Demp and Barro, and Robak too seemed to indicate that the night was too young and beautiful to be stuck inside a tiny room, suggested that some exploration was in order. He was delighted when Demp's navigation found them a swinging bridge he had never known to exist so close to the Ranch. The four began to run from one end to another together and against each other in a deep darkness with uncertain footing like cloud-hopping over the chasm invisible below. They ran with eyes closed and arms opened screaming into the still night, the faintly glowing clouds above chasm below and chasm beyond. They screamed away the further specters, screamed away the demons within in harmony and discord in minor sevenths and inverted majors. He screamed for the disappeared moon to shed light on the night of his soul, for all the joy denied in his misbegotten quest for status and a perfect world where things changed and people didn't, for his spirit to come from hiding behind his gut and feel in the world the raw interface of inside and outside where nothing was promised, all was promise, for his spirit to come out and scream the insistence of its own birth, itself.

Later back at the Ranch he played his guitar and sang for them, tried to bring them into his secret vision, share the sight that came with the feeling that came with song. They smoked a little and Barro tried to tell how an innocent came to be in hell. They sat silently and nodded each in a mode of empathy, speaking of their own sad knowledge. He lay that night in bed and in his mind there were no waves no coloured balls no roiling, only a deep calm that accepted it was all for some reason he would know later, something he would eventually understand.

A week went by, barely the end of it and events already indistinguishable become a collective memory of time spent not wasted but filled and the quest went away. It might have been a day or a week or a month and his wife told him that she was going away, taking their son, that she had changes to pursue and he never would. He wept for himself and the things that might have been and people came to succor him. After a while they left him to his own devices and he began to learn that he could make changes too. He thought about that perfect week of summer on the Ranch and understood that his friends had turned up to let him know he need never be alone if he didn't want to. He thought about that but it was much later when he finally grew tired of the hell of self-obsession that he finally understood, and marveled at coincidence.

George Stepanenko

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