Outside is good, outside is where I can take full breaths. Inhaling peace like white light and exhaling dark thoughts and distractions like black smoke, the way Bruce taught me. He and I spend a lot of time in the forest, he takes me out far, further than I ever went with The Babies. We’ve gone past the rusted boat launch on the dried-up creek, the landmark that used to be the stopping point. It’s covered with graffiti, which has served as the backdrop for countless pix that The Babies and I took inside, but it was only as I stood in silence with Bruce, trembling despite the warm air that was trapped inside the structure, that I realized what I’d taken to be separate pieces were really a series of interconnected glyphs warning us not to venture up the rocky shore ahead. “Look,” I said, “There’s some boundary, a sudden drop we won’t see before it’s too late,” but Bruce didn’t move to check it out. He seemed to be staring at the dead leaf and trash covered floor, but his head was cocked ever so slightly, so that I knew he was really looking at the ray of sun beaming in through the center of the boat launch like an orange laser. The sight of it filled me with a sense of purpose and melancholy, the combination so delicious it was almost too much to bear and it took some time before I was able to calm myself down enough to speak.
“Well, anyway, it’s late and we should turn back to make it home before dark.”
“There’s that word ‘should’,” Bruce said. “Whenever I feel like I should do something I stop and think well, if that’s the case I probably shouldn’t.”
“But what if it’s just something you don’t want to do?”
“That’s it. That’s exactly my point.”
So on we went. As I found out later, the only time to get to where we were going was at night. He told me all I had to do was concentrate on each step, one after another. Focus on where I was placing my feet, and how the forest looked and smelled and sounded all around me. “It will never be the same, one moment to the next,” he said. He came prepared with protein bars and head lamps and made me do the same; no more hiking in my Vans slip-ons–now I wore proper shoes and brandished a wooden cane like he did, except mine wasn’t a polished black but a knotty brown closer to the bark of the actual living trees that covered the ground.
(Upon further reflection, it’s not enough to say that the trees covered the ground–they infused it. Their overlapping roots rumbled and twisted beneath the surface, bulging up under moss-covered patches. They were the dogged insistence of life despite constant, unending decay. These trees were given by and given to the soil that was the effort of death working overtime for centuries, making a mulch out of disintegrating brown leaves, soft bloated bodies and stumps rotting elegantly, giving off a faint musk as they did. I caught a whiff and stopped despite myself–and Bruce’s instructions–and stared slack jawed into the powdery darkness of splintered wood, where an army of bugs and an infinity of microbes did their work—a nimble antennaed, gelatinous swarm of hunger, members of one interconnected system that traveled–sans maps or science–all the way up and over the hills and back to the house, where the trees finally and abruptly stopped, right in front of the basement windows, covered with a thick yellow film like cataracts on ancient staring eyes…)
Suddenly, Bruce shouted, “C’mon, Swim! Snap out of it. Keep moving–one step after another, that’s all there is to it.”
Bruce isn’t scared. He’s like Odious in that way. They both want to make me not scared too. It’s a funny pastime they share. His physicality makes a compelling case. Or is that just the way I feel when he is near? He’s so big and strong whereas Odious was (is) petite, slender. Regardless of his imposing frame he’s still dwarfed–like everyone– by the trees and the mountain and the stars and the giant vault of space overhead. I know that like Odious, the true source of his courage comes from an internal stillness, a hum inside The Central Generator: the effect of a well-controlled mind/system/belief-scape. Still it gives me a charge to watch as his giant frame lumbers gracefully like a bear over rocks, knowing he’s in pain from stiff joints and worse, but that he simply disregards it. His firmly planted cane is simultaneously a part of his body and a part of the nature he navigates.
For all his tools and gadgets, he never uses bug repellent or pulls out the potentially deadly ticks that attached themselves to his flesh, preferring instead to let them fall off on their own accord when they had finished their sup.
“It wouldn’t be very nice,” he explained early on in our hangs, as he offered me a peanut butter and honey sandwich.
“After all they need to eat, just like us.”
He held out a perfect triangle swaddled in wax paper, while being careful to barely look at my face, his preference being to flit his gaze between the lobes of my ears and my neck, which was another example of his kindness.
(If you had a gaze that was like a nuclear blast of raw energy, enough to pierce through and detect the entire history of a person in one to two seconds–discovering things they didn’t even know about themselves– wouldn’t the more polite thing be to look away? Bruce was nothing if not polite. He couldn’t care less about what anyone thought of him but whether he could offer them even a small amount of happiness was of extreme importance. As time passed, we developed an unspoken system of standing in front of mirrored surfaces and talking to one another’s reflection.)
As I continue spouting these observations, I should point out that I’m not always sure if my times with Bruce are real or a dream, though I am pretty certain that the fault (not the right word) for this is mine. Since the time with Behemoth, I’ve lost the ability to discern a certain stratum of details. While none of these are of crucial importance in and of themselves, taken together they contribute to a general sense of being ungrounded. Like whether Bruce’s headlight strap was always blue or did it start out being red? Or like when we went mushroom foraging. Did everything really happen the way it seemed to happen? He knew all the secret spots, so secret that later in the morning when the purple mist turned grey and then a delicate white that formed arabesques that swiftly evaporated above us, I became convinced we’d been seen and discovered: not by other humans, as we were the only ones for miles, but by something else, something that was watching, something that didn’t want us there, perhaps the subject of the boat launch graffiti, not a being but a set of circumstances linked to subtle, yet possibly dangerous, changes in the geography. But then just as quickly as it came, the fear was gone, like a jump cut in the editing. We walked and walked I found myself dreaming of when the trip would be over, thinking about other things, like having a beer and a smoke, so-called normal things that I’ve been unable to do with any sort of fluidity because if I look for a second too long the glass or the lighter will appear as floating in a void, and I have to look away and close my eyes with my heart pounding in my ears because I know the static is coming to fill in and freeze all the empty space.
Drenched in sweat, I stared at my feet. I tried to watch and appreciate and be fully present on the path. I followed Bruce over low, thick rocks like chopped down cemeteries until we came to a clearing in the trees filled with dark blue pools. It was a special kind of meadow that only appears on mountains. He told me the name but I forgot it. We found mushrooms there that were so big a single one filled a whole reusable shopping bag. I yelped out loud at the sight of a Lions Mane that I swear was five feet tall, crouching in the mud like an alien observer. Its shimmering white body resembled human nerves–how amazing that nature codes its medicine for us! So that it legit resembles the benefit it will give! Instead of picking it I lay on the ground and cried with gratitude and relief for its existence. To see it in person, immense and thriving! You see, I have a special kinship. Bruce has been making Lions Mane tea every day since it happened to help calm my feelings and regenerate the parts of my brain that the static burnt out. He explained that there were drops of poison that came through the screen and seeped into my eyes. I wanted to google and do some research, but he urged me to rest instead.
Rest and hike. Rest and wander off with him, past the final boundary of the old rusted boat launch…
But then what happened next is unclear. I tried tracking it in my mind, frame by frame: the two of us walking along the wobbly rocks of the dried-up creek, me falling on my face as I slipped on the black mud that rose around the rocks like oil. No water, just an oozing blackness. Even out here, I still find dried up bits of trash that washed up before everything was sucked away. “I’m sorry,” I said to a tree, my white hand flat against its magnificent trunk. But of course it’s too late, it doesn’t care…it never did, just like the mountain. Huffing and puffing I call out to Bruce that I’m not as busted as I seemed, it had just been a rough couple of months. He stopped and I thought he was going to answer that but for a long time was quiet before saying, hear that? I didn’t hear anything. No rustling of wind, no crickets. The chirping of birds sounded like it was behind glass. “This is the place,” he said, and he said a name I’d never heard before but knew instantly was the real name of the mountain, my mountain, the one I’d been living on for months. Bruce explained that in certain conditions at certain times of the year, it was possible from this vantage point to catch a glimpse of a larger mountain that flickered briefly into view behind the one we were on. “It’s so tall you can’t see the top,” he explained. “It has its own gravity. Even if you can’t see it, you can feel it.” We scrambled up the side of the creek bed and walked in the forest for several more hours…days, maybe…until it was night and we came to signs of active humanity: smoldering fire pits and strung up LED lights. A tribe of indigenous and white people with walkie talkies and leather utility belts greeted us with calm smiles. They gave us fruit and cans of seltzer and sprigs of herbs to suck on. They led us into the rock fortresses that were the mines. They were like sleeping monsters beneath the trees. I didn’t want to go, I felt a way about it, but Bruce rubbed my shoulder and whispered it was OK. A cold air blew like A/C from between gigantic, prehistoric boulders. I saw expensive Italian bikes parked around one of the entrances, and from deep within the darkness came electronic beats and synth chords. And then piano that sounded live. The acoustics were so crisp I could hear the wheeze and tap of the pedals. I followed our guides and went inside and admired the wooden walls decorated with black light paintings. I studied the cryptograms to no avail, although I could tell they shared a visual language with those at the boat launch. At this point I became separated from Bruce for the first time. I stood in front of a rendition of an ouroboros in which instead of snakes eating one another’s tails there were two shafts of rock tunneling into one another in an infinite loop. Stalagmites? Tops and bottoms…the earth’s eternal heated fuck. Inside the mine there were no screens and no signal. The air smelled dank but good. “You can feel the relief in your body,” a girl told me. She told me that when she was outside she wore an EMF resistant jacket but in here she was free. She wore fishnet tights and a green neon reflector vest over a black hoodie. Her eyes were tiny slits, as though she had adjusted to not needing to use them in the dark. “How long have you been down here?” I asked. “Long enough to no longer believe in the sun,” she laughed as she pulled out a silver dinner tray covered with molly so pure it was in chunky crystals. It had been so long. I cried tears of joy as I stabbed it with a pearl handled pen knife to break it up.
Bringing me here and giving me drugs…this drug in particular… I knew it was a part of Bruce’s plan to reacclimatize me. For the last month or so I’ve been like a trembling leaf, unable to leave his side, and as caring as he was he knew that wasn’t a permanent solution. Everything changes, he liked to say. Including what it takes to make us feel happy and safe. And now was the time of me trying to endure the simultaneous joy and pain of my thoughts without him under 5 feet away. He wasn’t gone, I could feel him nearby, guarding the entrance while I was tucked safely in the Earth.
People of all ages wearing headlamps and masquerade masks were dancing and swaying as I laid face down on an antique rug, feeling higher than I had in a long time. Everything I looked at was a shimmer like a beautifully disintegrating VHS tape, including my own naked legs upon which I wrote notes for this post that I’m writing now. I tried not to think about the weight of the trees and dirt above me and focused instead on turning into burning magma. I flowed across the surface of things and down the darkest shafts further and further, until I was finally able to cool and freeze into place forever.
But even in this peace I couldn’t forget the darkness of the screen, the black stars shining with silver white the way the words glowed on the retro DOS screen when I first met Heir Max98, his sentience beating in time to the flash of the cursor.
The community had hot houses and a tiny vineyard at the top of the mountain where they also grew their own weed. There was a shed packed with cans and glass jars, and another with salted meat. They had a sculpture garden filled with large metallic structures made with things they had found, some of which were hooked into laptops and queued up to react to music or movement. I stood smoking while the carcass of a busted car turned on a spit behind me. The Babies are getting ready for the next era but down here these folks were already in it. They didn’t have or need the internet, or the government. Even just a short amount of time here made the United States seem like a faraway thing. A drug dream, a fiction.
Days went by with Bruce lingering in the distance, the light on the Deadhead tattoo on the back of his neck like a signal back to me from someone who had already lived through the hope and dreams of several promised pure lands.
Was this just another failed attempt? Or were we finally getting it right this time? Whatever the case I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay but I also didn’t want to be back at the compound. When we’re there, I try to spend most of my time outside, avoiding the house and the basement, but eventually I have to go in to eat and wash up. I don’t like the way The Babies look at me. They have the same “searching glance” that Lil Mountain had when I talked about Odious. He’s still here, and that’s another detriment. I catch whiffs of his scent and see empty packs of Dunhills piled up in the cardboard recycling bin.
“Are you OK?” The Babies ask. One of them speaks while the others gather behind, little conjoined clusters, just like always. “Are you feeling sick? What are those necklaces and headbands that you’re wearing? Are you in a theater? Is this a game?”
“Don’t insult me,” I told them, my hands covering the place markers for where the priceless jewels would hang heavily from my body. I was angry not because they didn’t understand what was going on but because they talked to me like I was sick.
I ate some food and drank the wine they left out, before drifting back outside. Like I said, it was better out there.
Bruce was waiting in his studio.
“I think I’ve got it,” I told him. “I can’t explain it with words but I can see it. How it’s all going to go down when we get to Brooklyn.”
“We just go in there and scoop her up,” he said.
“Them. Scoop them up.”
“Yes,” he said.
“But how do we do that? We’re dealing with an ancient demon from the future who fucks with minds.”
“No one and no-thing can fuck with our minds unless we let them.”
“Yeah, but it’s tricky, it requires thinking about Heir Max98 without fear or anger. We must feel in an honest way, without repressing, but not go too far.”
“It’s like holding something carefully in your hand, not so hard that you crush it but not too loose so that it falls out.”
“Yes! That’s it!”
“Well, here’s the thing, Swim. It’s not just Heir Max98. You have to do that with everyone and everything you think about.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t–and that’s the real plan. We can’t rescue Odious Awry until you learn that first.”
Image: Walton Ford, Gleipnir (detail)
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