First published in Science Fiction Eye, Issue 12, Summer 1993, pages 69-73. Copyright © 1993 by Ron Drummond

STEVE ERICKSON, trapped in a concrete bunker with only the twentieth century for company, has just been unearthed at an archeological dig in Los Angeles

by Ron Drummond

In Arc d’X Steve Erickson gathers all the force of his many visions into a final frenzy of self-immolation, a pyre that reduces the calculus of his own liberation down to the image of a black moth rising from between the lips of a dead man.
*.......... *.......... *

The grey-faced police lieutenant, who belongs to no racial group I can think of, excepting perhaps the quick-and-the-dead, won’t tell the pink-fleshed archeologist in charge of the excavation why the LAPD insists on imposing its jurisdiction on this site; he just mutters something about keeping out the homeless and pushes past the spluttering academic. He steps down the broad terraces of packed dirt and broken concrete and pauses before the shadowed doorway of the bunker, so many contrary impulses tugging at his features that the result seems more the work of a deranged cosmetic surgeon than actual emotion, mixed or otherwise.

I’m watching from inside the bunker, crouched in the rubble. In my hands I’m holding two halves of a ship, fore and aft, or a model of a ship anyway -- though in the last minutes I’ve grown quite certain it isn’t a model at all. Given what’s happened here in the last hours -- given what has yet to happen in the hours immediately ahead -- my certainty at that moment ends up being the strangest phenomenon of all.

The ship when whole must have had the bloated, broad-beamed look of any Ark in any child’s book of illustrated Bible stories -- room for a cast of thousands. Broken, you can see the baker’s dozen ark decks inside, each one crowded with a menagerie of emaciated toy animals. Or so at first I thought.

One half of the ark I set aside, in the dust next to the rusty kitchen knife. The other half I heft for a closer look: I can’t see her anywhere among the thirteen decks stretching the wishbone cross-section of hull. The upper decks are crammed, not with toys but dead animals in perfect miniature, though the birds on one deck are no more than a feathery pulp. There are elephants with shriveled trunks, broken-necked giraffes; wolves and monkeys and kangaroos. All dead, all exuding desiccation’s musk.

Of the lower decks, one is filled with nothing but dunes hardened to sandstone. Another is thick with jungle sucked dry of all green. Several are empty, though covering one deck are paintings of the charnel decks above. And on the narrow bottom deck, just above the keel, railroad tracks run the length of the ship.

Reaching between the two most widely spaced decks, I carefully pull out from among the close-packed animals a dead panther. But the panther has long since been impervious to any care I or anyone else could muster -- it crumbles between my thumb and forefinger with a sound like ripping parchment. I can feel the cracking of a thousand tiny bones. The panther’s papery husk, draped across my fingertips, is as dusty and fragile as a black moth’s wings: with my exhaled breath, it dissolves completely. Patches of brittle fur -- all sheen gone -- drift away in the sunlight slanting through the shattered wall behind me. I rub its thick dust between my fingers, until nothing of the panther is left.

I pick up the other half of the ship and try to fit the broken ends together. But something is missing, some unknown middle stretch of the ship’s hull, gone. Then I notice the waterline, and the barnacles. Now how could I have missed that? Couldn’t have, really, not in the world I knew. But then, none of this had ever belonged in any world I’d been to, unless it belonged in all of them.

The barnacles aren’t tiny like everything else about this ark. No, they’re normal in size, which means that on this ship they’re monstrous, ugly jagged volcanoes erupting from the upper hull. Yes, you heard right: the upper hull. Below the waterline, the hull is naked, scabrous wood. But above the waterline, thickest at prow and stern but spread in patches everywhere in between, across much of the upper deck, encrusting the wheel house and climbing the masts to cluster at crow’s nests, are barnacles. As if for long years this ship had sailed upside-down, to and fro on the endless ethereal airs of Rubicon Sky, while Noah and his despairing brood searched the murky ocean depths for any sign of the land forever drifting mere fathoms above their heads.

“There’s someone in there?” a gruff voice calls, and I look up and out the bunker door at the grey police lieutenant nodding sightlessly in my direction -- though it’s clear his question is directed at the archeologist standing on the ridge above. The archeologist, his face looking like the suddenly exposed underbelly of a trapped animal, shakes his head in panicked denial of his inability to voice unambiguously the simple word “No.”

If he’d managed to get that word out, the archeologist would have been telling the simple truth: there isn’t anyone in the bunker. I’m not really here at all. Then again, neither is Steve Erickson, newly awakened from the dead. Erickson is curled up in the darkest corner of the bunker’s front room, covered head-to-ankles in fine grey ash, feet encased in blocks of clear ice, which, melting, tick away like an unwinding clock.

Erickson stares at me from hooded eyes, though there’s nothing hooded in the gaze itself.

*.......... *.......... *
If reality ticks to the clock of memory, as Steve Erickson demonstrates so profoundly again and again in his work, then for me (or for anyone) his books are no less and no more than the sum of our memories of reading them, which is to say the memories we have of the visions his books set to ringing in the bell curve of the inner eye. Black words and white paper fall away like dead leaves, and are, in the end, meaningless before the colors that remain.
*.......... *.......... *
A child, easefully and wholly in the present moment and unaware of the tyranny of consequences, nevertheless naturally understands that every moment is potentially irrevocable. Steve Erickson hasn’t forgotten this. He understands that a child doesn’t end at the limits of her skin; her being fills the world and the world changes according to the color, texture, and portent of the moments that mark her. In Rubicon Beach, three-year-old “Catherine,” born to a family in the jungle estuaries of the South American coast, sees a man lying face down in the sand. Her sense that there’s something wrong with the man doesn’t arise from the man’s unnatural stillness, it’s that he gazes into the earth, “in the way she had seen her brothers gaze into the rivers looking for fish. To the corpse at her feet the small child explained, Nothing swims in the dust.”
*.......... *.......... *

This blending and imbuing of the world with the coordinates of one’s own experience is central to Erickson’s vision. But the implications of this run far deeper than mundane transference. It has to do with time, that time which obeys the dictates of no clock, but ebbs and flows to the changeful tides of memory, and the ways in which singular moments endure, altering every moment that follows. Thus Fletcher Grahame in Days Between Stations, who as a small boy is sitting in his father’s study gazing out at the St. Lawrence River when his father accidentally fires an antique flintlock right behind his head. “As the sound rose in his ears to become the sound he would hear off and on for the rest of his life, the roar of the river matched that sound and the two became inseparable for him; long after that he would hear the crack of the flintlock whenever he gazed too long at the water’s ongoing flow.” Catching sight first of his own expression in a mirror on the study wall, and then of the expressions on the faces in his father’s paintings scattered on easels about the room, it becomes immediately clear to Fletcher that “the flintlock’s report had seared all of them; all the faces in all the paintings looked as though they could’t stand the ringing in their ears.”

Fletcher Grahame will carry that moment through every moment to come; in the face of everyone he meets he will see the fading echo of a gun blast, in every river he’ll hear the maddening retort. In this way he knows never to assume that any moment is safe from sudden, violent dislocation; he knows that dislocation itself is coiled at the heart of every certainty, of every continuity, waiting to spring. When, years later and an ocean away from that moment in his father’s study above the river, Grahame comes face to face with the ultimate dislocation, it’s delivered to him by a crowd enraged -- the roaring of its many voices a river of water and metal. Fletcher Grahame accepts his death calmly and without surprise. The bullet he’s secretly waited for all his life arrives at last, though transformed, and the span of that life collapses to the duration of a thunderclap.

*.......... *.......... *

The kitchen knife’s thin edge, when new, would have glided through cucumber. Now it’s dissolving in rust, edge ragged with nicks, point broken. Who’s to say the darker fractals spreading the blade aren’t old bloodstains? The handle’s wood is pitted, grey with the dust of tumbled concrete.

The knife first appears in Days Between Stations. It’s a changeling blade, spinning through Erickson’s books with the deadly precision of a circus performer’s final, fatal trick. Sometimes it’s a saber wielded by a woman who opens up the necks of men foolish enough to think no choice is ever irrevocable. Sometimes it’s an island, stiletto-long and stiletto-sharp, that slices the river of the twentieth century in twain. And where again the two shall meet, falling beyond the island’s southern point, a drop of blood in the form of a shack built on stilts over the water. In the shack a big man sleeps, and dreams that no knife-blade of choice ever descended upon him at a moment when he held another man’s life in his hands, that the choice -- to let the man escape, or to draw the net closed and end all possibility of escape -- had never been his to make. But it is in the way of dreams to turn masks inside out, to bring pink inwardness face to face with more abysmal possibilities. The big man, dreaming, discovers that the knife cut his life in half, that he in fact made both choices, has lived two lives in the lengthening shadows of mutually exclusive and irrevocable acts. Two lives that have now come round again; whole once more, the big man sleeps, while outside someone in a boat dowses the pilings with gasoline and lights a match. In the doubled darkness where one man’s two shadows meet, history collapses into the black hole of the human heart.

*.......... *.......... *
  There was no river. No passage. No vast, inland sea, no easy road from there to here . . . Such dreams as the dream of the Passage are only very slowly and reluctantly released. They never really die, fading instead into a melancholic wonder, a wonder that lingers, driving the dreams of generations, rolling down time.
-- Sallie Tisdale, Stepping Westward
  To have a dream -- as individuals, as lovers, or as a country -- is to subject yourself to the law that your very dream will reach out to destroy you if you fail its demands . . . Our society is being demolished from within by the force of the dreams it has betrayed.
-- Michael Ventura, “Steve Erickson’s Phantasmal America”
“Over all of my novels hovers the ghost of America,” writes Erickson in an essay that can be found elsewhere on this website -- an essay (appropriately enough) that, by virtue of the hieroglyph of its title, can be discussed but not referred to. In his political memoir Leap Year, “a traveller searches the country for America only to find the United States.” This is key. By any objective measure, America has always and only been just the United States. This isn’t to suggest that America doesn’t exist; rather, of the many countries that are America, not one is coextensive with the United States. Not one has borders any two people could agree upon. (And of the myriad borders we agree upon so incessantly, not one limns any America I or anyone would happily choose to live in: for too many people, crossing into the United States means leaving America behind forever.) And yet these many Americas, Erickson suggests, do hold one of two heartlands in common: the heartland he calls America One or the heartland he calls America Two.

“It is in the land of the dreamers,” says Lake in Rubicon Beach, speaking not with his voice but from the silence at the back of his tongue, “it is in the land the dreamers dream that dreams of justice and desire are as certain as numbers. It is in the land of insomniacs that justice and desire are dismissed as merely dreams. I was born in the first land and returned to the second: they were one and the same. You know its name.”

In America Two, they don’t want to hear about America One.

*.......... *.......... *

In Days Between Stations there’s a street in San Francisco that vanishes, a street unknown to the vast majority of the City’s plugged-in residents. Lauren, who lived on Pauline Boulevard years before, returns one day to visit her old street only to find it gone. This stairway, here: between the bakery and the Post Office: walk up steep steps and come out on a shady street a block long, lined with Victorian apartments, dead at both ends. Though there is no other outlet, no other street leading onto Pauline, old cars sit at the curbs, gathering rust from autumn San Francisco fogs. Narrow stair at one end, steep hill at the other: and not even the suggestion that any earlier configuration of the City could have included access from another street. Once Lauren imagined helicopters lowering cars to the curbs on long cables in the dead of night. Returning years later, she walks the row of shops on the street below looking for the stairway up. She finds the bakery; she finds the Post Office. But between the buildings there is no opening, no stairs; no way back to where she once belonged.

Reading Steve Erickson is like living on Pauline Boulevard. And if sometimes the stairway out is missing, and you’re trapped on Pauline, still there is, in the eucalyptus shade, in the silence intermittent with cats, in the whispering of a child in a room where a cold click severs an open telephone line, something that impregnates the world with meanings unrevealed but hovering in the sky, as imminent as helicopters dangling cars that drive nowhere.

And if the stairs reappear one day and you follow your passion down the worn stone steps and away, you can never feel secure in the assumption that anything left behind will still be there when you return.

*.......... *.......... *

In colonial Virginia, a slave woman is burned at the stake for murdering her master. On a plantation miles away, five-year-old Thomas can smell her burning. He smells her in his hair, his clothes, his food. That night he becomes delirious with fever; lying in bed he’s transfixed by visions of the slave woman’s ashes gathering in the darkness above his bed, clinging to the rafters like black snow. For the rest of his long life the darkness in Thomas will be waiting for the slave woman’s ashes to fall. Until well past the midpoint of his life, the saint in him will remain shackled to the dark of him, and the dark to the saint. Only in Paris in 1789, in the nethermouth of the woman he owns, is Thomas able to release his darkness, to give it rei(g)n. By doing so the saint, too, is liberated.

“The invention of America sprang from men of furious sexual torment,” Erickson writes in Leap Year. “Jefferson with his forbidden slave mistress; Washington who loved a woman who was not his own wife but the wife of another man; Patrick Henry who kept his insane wife locked in his basement at the very moment he pleaded for death if not liberty; Thomas Paine whose first wife died in childbirth so that he believed he’d killed her, and thus was impotent with his second wife who chose to advertise his failure throughout the community, and in the shame of which Paine wrote his fiercest pamphlets. The invention of America by these men was meant to spring them loose from the bonds of afterlife, it redefined us not as instruments of God or heaven but rather as the incarnations of our memories of our own selves.

“. . . America is where only memory divides the present from the future, and where the unconscious dreams of the people who live here understand that the Declaration of Independence was signed after Hiroshima, not before, and neither has yet happened.”

That Sally eventually comes to love Thomas doesn’t begin to lessen her desire to kill him; if anything it sharpens it. At night, when he sleeps, or perhaps only pretends to, Sally pulls the stolen kitchen knife from beneath her pillow and holds it to his neck.

*.......... *.......... *
Wherever it appears, whatever or whoever it cuts, whoever wields it (whoever it wields), it’s a knife that severs No Return from No Risk, it’s a knife that carves away choices from those who hesitate (or refuse) to choose; it cuts off avenues of escape to those who assume a safe retreat, whittles the denied options of free will down to the whims of undeniable fate. It’s the dream betrayed returning to destroy the dreamer.
*.......... *.......... *

Adolphe Sarre, foundling son of whores, grows up in the century’s opening decades in a secret room without windows, a room filled with a sourceless light. Only during the Parisian twilight does the light in the streets, a “swirling smoky mix” of Seine riverdusk and gaslamps smoldering along the rue de Sacrifice, match the room’s light -- precisely the time when young Adolphe is exiled to that room for the duration of the pleasure house’s evening entertainments. The way the room’s perpetual dusk flattens all perspective imbues Adolphe with the sense that dimension is an illusion, “that in fact everything he saw was a flat surface, like a screen . . .” A candle on a shelf or a gaslamp above the street are merely punctures in that surface, and “beyond everything he saw there was an entire realm of blazing sunfire. . . .” The colors and forms, objects and people that fill Adolphe’s sight are the merest shadows of people and things behind the screen.

Years later, gone to the Great War and temporarily blinded by a bomb’s flash (sight coming home to him again in an army hospital and bringing with it the flatness of screens), by Armistice Sarre is ready to march with the triumphant French army back into the streets of Paris. During the days of celebration that follow, he finds himself in a theater, transfixed, watching the spectacle of Birth of a Nation. He cannot leave. Trapped in a way he never was in the secret room at Number Seventeen, he watches as the projector’s slash of light rips open a window into the world behind the screen. Again and again he watches the film, and sleeps in the projection booth (his army uniform rendering any eccentricity acceptable). Eventually a stringer from Pathé arrives with the newest films, and Sarre begs a ride to the studios.

*.......... *.......... *

From the moment the police lieutenant steps into the shadow of the bunker doorway, his face begins to change. The white drains out of it, and with it all grey has fled. The stasis of conflicted emotion flees too. His skin darkens. The nose flares wider, and his lips thicken almost imperceptibly; the face grows rounder, the forehead broadens. Grey irises turn coal black and spark with the light of intelligence and feeling. His expression, for just a moment, is the blank openness of a childlike innocence. Then a question begins to form there, an uncertainty.

The lieutenant steps over the threshold and his fingers begin to twitch, to curl and stretch at his sides. But it isn’t as if he’s preparing to go for the gun at his belt, rather his motions are those of a man discovering for the first time that he has hands at all. Another step, and his face continues to change: black fades to freckled white; the profile narrows; cheekbones move up and in. Eyes gone hazel, brow smoothing, chin narrowing, lips thinning to a pencil line, nose to a ski-jump. But even these features haven’t taken hold before they change again. The eyes grow long at the corners . . .

Through all this he remembers, and forgets, and remembers again the reason he’s here: whatever reason that might be. He looks around the rubble-strewn room, gaze passing right over me, squinting briefly into the dark corner where Erickson still sits -- feet almost free of the ice that continues, for the moment, to imprison them -- and looks away again. The policeman doesn’t see us. We aren’t here.

Erickson shudders, clearly aware that one of the LAPD’s finest is rushing life-bent through all the races of man only twenty feet away from him. Still, Erickson’s gaze hasn’t shifted, he’s still looking right at me, though to be frank it’s finally starting to dawn on me that he might not see me, which only makes me wonder who else might be sitting or standing here with us in this room that I’m not seeing but that Erickson or the lieutenant see plain as day.

Whoever that person might be, the lieutenant (now Chinese, now shifting rapidly to Amerindian) has seen her at last: the expression on his face is unmistakable: there isn’t anything remotely ambiguous or conflicted about it. His eyes start to bug out a little -- he’s clearly riveted by the sight of her. He’s staring into the space directly between me and Erickson (no, Erickson wasn’t looking at me at all), though why the lieutenant didn’t see her on his first visual scan of the room I don’t know. Maybe she wasn’t there. Maybe, when he first looked, he didn’t have the genes to see her; maybe he had to cycle through all the races of man to have genes enough for the sight of her. Whatever race she is, or was, or will be, whatever quality of unknowing darkness it is that lights up her face, the police lieutenant is rendered shit-faced with terror by the sight; a black man, features entirely unlike those of the black man he first became on entering this bunker, the lieutenant backs away, almost trips in the shattered rock; sprouting a blond beard from chin and cheeks gone suddenly white, he turns away, runs from the bunker into bright Los Angeles light, scrambles up the embankment to a grey freedom devoid of uncomfortable questions.

Across from me Erickson looks away from her at last, and starts to laugh.

*.......... *.......... *

Tours of the Black Clock begins in the year 1989 (though that fact is adduceable only from information provided much later in the book). It ranges over the width and breadth of a twentieth century sliced down the middle by the irrevocability of individual acts, end-gaming into years as late as 2007, “after the century has long since run out of numbers but only begins to understand it’s doomed never to die,” and ends, closing the loop on novel and century both, in the year 1901. The young man we meet on a riverboat at the beginning becomes the old man who dies on an ice floe at the end. Traditional numeric measures of time are rendered gobbledy-gook on the black clock’s face. On this tour, a singular moment can last longer than an entire year, or an entire decade.

Of all Erickson’s books, Tours remains ungrounded the longest: the events of the first thirty pages unfold almost completely divorced from any framing context. This frame-less, fog-bound time and place, where a young man named Marc ferries tourists back and forth from the mainland to a long narrow island that cuts the nameless river in two, itself provides the frame by which the book’s central narrative grounds us. (And for all the accuracy -- given its brevity -- of the preceding description, it doesn’t begin to convey those thirty pages’ desolate eroticism, its magic and mystery.) Two hundred pages on, by the time we return to the divided river and its dividing island, the context has grown so precise, so richly resonant that every event on those shores, on those waters, becomes a dance along the knife’s abyss.

After fifteen years of sailing daily between home and escape, Marc finally takes on a passenger who unknowingly cuts him free of his endlessly repeated self-betrayal: Kara, the young girl introduced in the closing pages of Days Between Stations, who finds buried in the sands of Kansas a cognac bottle with two blue eyes floating inside. Now, on the boat, mid-crossing, with the fog closing in, she “was probably not more than fifteen years old; she could have been born the night he assumed this post on the river.” On the river the sun and both shores have vanished; Kara is the first passenger in all those years to notice along with Marc their entry into the timeless, countryless moment. And, for the first time, he asks of a passenger, But why have you come here?

To bury something, Kara answers.

We know it’s the bottle of eyes she’s come to bury, eyes grown old and sad and nearly blind with the weight of all the dreams they’ve seen betrayed. In Days Between Stations, when Lauren and Michel, nearing the end, find one another in their own timeless moment, the intricacy of the web of dreams in which they’re caught and to which they’ve added their own dark weave stands revealed with a clarity it may never have again:

“. . . Tell me about your dream, she said. He shook his head. I don’t have a dream, he said. Once you did, she said; and he answered, It was someone else’s dream born in me, at the moment it died in someone else. And then it died in me, and I don’t know where it went, I don’t remember it at all. Lauren told him, I know where it went. She said, It was born again in my child, and it killed him . . . And now the dream is out there sailing the seas in a bottle, for anyone to find.”

Years later, plucked from the railing of a moon bridge buried in the shallow dunes of the Kansas desert (nothing swims in the dust), Kara finds the bottle of eyes a curiosity only and not for her; yet she instinctively knows she must carry it to its resting place.

But even dreams gone to ground carry a charge. Kara’s passage shakes other, stranger dreams loose from the betrayals that bind them.

*.......... *.......... *
Anyone with courage enough to listen to the knife’s song without flinching will discover its edge can liberate as mercilessly as it can destroy; mercilessly because one price of genuine liberation is the loss of easy outs, of excuses and comforting lies. All ropes fray and fall away.
*.......... *.......... *

A friend of mine recently explained to me why he didn’t care for Erickson’s work.

I want books that hold faith with the idea that there’s a way out of the maze, he said.

He said, Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in tidy, phony little endings, happily-ever-after and all that crap. It’s just that I believe in the human capacity to transcend the mazes that trap us, and the writers who inspire me the most have a way of evoking that capacity.

Don’t get me wrong, he said. Erickson’s a brilliant writer. He explores the twistings and turnings, the nooks and crannies of the maze better than anyone I’ve read. But it seems as though his characters not only fail to find the exit, they surrender to the understanding that there’s no exit to find. And that scares the hell out of me.

Listening to him, observing the matter-of-fact way he tells me this, with some dismay I realize that this is perilously close to what scares him about me, which is to say it’s perilously close to what scares him about himself. And while I recognize my maze in Erickson’s map, while I recognize in my friend’s words the way the exit eludes us both, I say to my friend now: Yours is an understanding I refuse to surrender to.

*.......... *.......... *

After the lieutenant’s retreat, the ark changes. A tiny woman appears, tied by her hair to the prow; her eyes shine the way to a distance I know well. The trunk of an upper mast grows twisted, sprouts many spreading branches. Where the hull is broken, I finally recognize the severing hack-marks of a kitchen blade.

All the ice has melted.

Free at last, Erickson gathers all the force of his many visions into a final frenzy of self-immolation, a pyre that reduces the calculus of his own liberation down to the image of a black moth rising from between the lips of a dead man.

I shut the book, and walk away.


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