Everything comes full circle in this 8th and final installment of Humqaq. Spirits swirl and energies rise and fall as the narrator returns once again to Jalama, confronted with a deep and sordid history but ultimately cleansed by the waves.
Humqaq, part 8
By Jeff McElroy
I arrived by darkness. I passed Old Jalama Road and rolled into Lompoc for beer, cigarettes, and newspapers. Nothing had changed. I half-expected to see Sam leaning against the wall of the Circle K, but he wasn’t there. I got the stuff and headed back to Jalama Road. The road sign at the turnoff had been decorated with signs and candles and flowers by the protesters. Someone had spray-painted the words, “Uncle Sam is a Murderer,” and “The Earth Does Not Belong To Man. Man Belongs To The Earth.” I pulled over and got out to take a piss. I was instantly reacquainted with the eerie, windswept darkness of the area, and I felt like no time had passed since I’d last been there. Zipping up my fly, another spray-painted message caught my eye. It was further down towards the bottom of the road sign, written in a tattered, black scrawl. It said, “The Raven Comes.”
Despite the sign that said Campsite Closed, I decided to take the 14-mile drive out to the sea to see what I could see. The same haunted oaks nodded solemnly as I drove my truck beneath their overhead knitwork. The drip of moss was spirit material; wispy and webbed in intricate tufts of white cotton candy, billowing from the caverns of oak. I shut off my headlights for two seconds to feel the darkness.
The revelation of the midnight coast was a reunion. I was ashamed of all the lost time I’d spent bouncing around inland walls. There before me was the black watery canvas of my youth, the stars winking, indifferent to my homecoming. The manzanita was barren and frozen in sway to the east from the prevalent northwesterlies that combed and cleansed the salt cliffs; the ghastly head of the great sculptor, the puffed-cheek source of the wind often found on the sepia parchment of ancient mariner’s maps. The icing on the cake was that I was all alone.
What I didn’t know was that Jalama was officially closed by sanction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in joint effort with the Lompoc Police Department. I’d like to think that some rookie cop had dozed in his cruiser, or that the wind had blown down the barricades. The truth is that most of the protesters had either been rounded up and arrested, or they’d moved on to the barbed-wire entrance of Vandenberg Air Force Base where the news cameras could see their painted signs and dreadlocks. In any case, I’d had no resistance on my drive out, and the skeptic in me doesn’t want to acknowledge the pulsating suggestion that my trespassing was ordained by the Great Spirit, in accordance with Qilikutayiwit’s prophecy. It could have been the wind.
At the campsite, I stretched my limbs and lit a cigar. I’d arranged to cop a little herb from one of the young interns at the office, something I’m sure would spread like wildfire straight up to the top, but I cared not. Take the house. Take the car. Take it all. The wind and the stars and the sand be my currency to spend outright with no celestial debt. No more furrowed brows or nameless weights compressing my vertebrae into greedy gnome posture. No more. It had all been a mad chase that began and ended here on the sand and up there in the stars. Some knew it from the start. Some, like me, found out late. Others never realized it. They are the blessed ones, steering humanity on a crash course of decadence; Kantian birds, ignorant of the very substance of sky that facilitates their own flight. Flying higher and higher, or in our case, spreading wider and wider, oblivious to the finitude of the planet, unable to seek to the infinite within.
We believe in magic only at the polar extremities of our lives; at first, when we know too little— then, much later, after we know too much. I was at the weak point in which every Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness missionary hopes to discover his prey. I would have accepted any dogma, hypocritical or not, so long as its mysticism promised me a one-way ticket somewhere with room and board. A bed beneath the stars.
I lit the fire, watched it grow. I drank whisky from the bottle and smoked the herb. And so the old feeling of being watched returned. The warmth possessed my limbs and moved me to dance a dance I’d never danced, but knew all the steps, for each placement of my limbs in space felt logical and ordained. Arms outstretched: The Eagle. Palms down: inherit song of the earth in her rising terrestrial vibrations. Head lowered, knees brought high, slow steps: The Hunt. I circled the many-pronged upward-snapping flames to the measured chant of wind voices.
Hold not your meager homecoming as separate from Odysseus’, I thought. Your Cyclops may have taken the form of the taxman. Your shipwreck may be traffic, or cancer bested. Your Penelope may have resisted suitors in the guise of existential loneliness. Your Athena may be your imagination.
“Roaming in a Roman/
wilderness of pain./
Where all the children/
The West is the best…”
I’ve seen the burnt folds of valleys with timeless eyes. I’ve minimized the runes of progress. Houses may dot hillsides, pastel boxes, but I see the tan valleys as they once were; unchanged. The tractor moves sediment, but mountains remain. Glacial sculptures and plate tectonics echo strength, even in this cooling period. Or heating? No period. Just all.
The dance siphoned blood into my cheeks, ruddy with Scottish rage. Melancholy. Twinkle eye. Closing my eyes, I saw the blood red phoenix of dawn outstretched on the electric hologram of my consciousness. A cold gust rolled off the beer-dark sea, flattening the fire a moment. The old paranoia crept along the back of my neck. Shelter. I need shelter, I thought. I crawled into my camper shell and searched for sleep. Under the weight of the Great Spirit, I shivered. I sweated. I rolled from side to side like a malaria victim. My blankets smothered me, but when I kicked them off my bones froze. I knew it was the Great Spirit. I didn’t know if it was the Great Spirit. I kicked open the window of the camper shell and opened the tailgate. The stars giggled and teased, billions of them, staring like unblinking, Oriental eyes. Carrion motes of dust, fragments of planets. The lunatic wind blew from the north, not in gusts, but in one perpetual hum like the drone of an engine. My surfboards rattled in the dirt beneath my truck. Something was calling to me—warning me—inviting me out to play.
I pulled on my jeans, flannel shirt and boots. Stashed my 6’1″ and 5’11” squashes in the truck and locked it up. Swung my 6’3″ pintail underarm, all I’d need where I was going, and trudged south in the sand, in the direction of Point Conception. Walking with the wind, all was silent, but it rioted in my ears if I turned my head to either side. Lighting my cigarette was a chore that required me to hunch over in the shape of a shrimp with my shirt pulled over my head. A sliver of moon rubbed its glow into salt-bleached cliffs to my left and sparkled the hard-packed, low tide sand. I rounded point after jagged point, not sure of where I was headed. I knew exactly where I was headed. Rounding that final ragged point, I knew that I had arrived. Standing at the base of Point Conception, I was instantly awash in calm. It was all as it had always been. At the mossy foot of Point Conception, I found an abalone shell. In my pocket I found the shell Sam had given to me over thirty years ago. I didn’t realize I’d brought it. Couldn’t remember placing it in my pocket. I pushed them together and saw that they were, indeed, a pair. The north began the first rumble of the rocket at Vandenberg. Ignition. Closer to me, straight out in the sea sky above Point Conception, a dropkick boom replied. Now I saw the orange glow printed on the curve of the sky as the ballast engaged. The brown cliffsides smiled with gullied teeth. Slowly, I brought the abalone shells up to my face and placed one over each eye. Behold. I, a son of Scotland, deposited in the volcanic West, became witness to the circular exodus of all souls. The chariot ridden west, across the sky. I saw the Phoenician sages squinting towards the horizon of Gibraltar, discontent with their mortality, preserved by an alphabet, redeemed by the hope that perchance their seed would excavate the mystery beyond the Mediterranean. I witnessed the Asiatic bipeds put one calloused foot in front of the other, heading east, spears raised, following their prey over the icy Bering Straits. I saw the long-toothed, deep-browed Germanics and Vikings and Celts survive northern winters. And the almond eyes of the Orient remained secret behind their Himalayas and Steppes and oceans, not yet unlocked by the Silk Road. While across the Pacific, the same almond eyes scavenged the dusty Californio arroyos, following the sun here, to Humqaq. The Western Gate. The raven comes.
Now the glow came from Point Conception. At its base I noticed a small pool of water glowering with unnatural light. The glow quickly became a beam which arced towards the heavens. This luminosity combined with the rocket’s haze. I turned my gaze to the miles of beach to the north and watched a river of sand migrating south. It was a train of continuous sediment, like a fog. And the longer I watched it advance, the clearer it became that there were faces moving about. Faces and limbs. Torsos. Feet. Until it was a veritable crowd, joined in movement, all with the abalone shells for eyes. I was not afraid.
Roaming, gloaming souls. All of them. Liberated from Dante’s Inferno. Unaware of (and blissfully so) the Christ child. Gliding in infinite traversals of this hallowed ground, dead already, and dead again. Dead forever. Dissipation of chronology. The other side. If death is your birth, there’s nothing left to fear. Anxiety stillborn. The equality of the abyss. I doubted I’d be missed. Not for long, anyhow. No longer than the lifetimes of my contemporaries. Good-bye. Ascend. A virtuous end.
I tore off my clothes. I’d always dreamed of surfing naked. So I ran the timeless run down to the mystery of water and leapt into the surge. My skin burned in the icy brine, but I paddled true. The glow overhead printed the sea surface fluorescent green, darker in the valleys between advancing waves. I paddled outside and sat atop my board.
Two needle-points in the sky converged and grew a blinding aureole. The rocket commenced its trajectory to the ether, aimed at the pulsing, concentric circle of a nebulous star. Red giant. Cylindrical body of rocket. Housing so many urns, containing the ashes of Japanese businessmen. All securely strapped, riveted, promised to heaven. A section of sky. Simultaneously, their ancient brethren jettisoned to the same locus, albeit with the glorious lenses of abalone in their eye sockets.
The death of Manifest Destiny, played out in the sky. When there’s no more West, there’s only up. Or within. Choose. I saw the culmination of circumnavigation. Millions of years, billions of threads, all woven into the eye of the Western Gate. Humqaq. Even the mighty rocket, a toy. Laughable progress. A mote of dismal dust. The Chumash didn’t lose. They merely left a dying planet, each with a budding teardrop in an almond eye.
My wave was born of a butterfly’s breath. It was born of the friction of clouds, laughter, and plate tectonics. Its origins negated the concept of origin — my wave had always been. For every action, an opposite and equal reaction. Energy, the great Shape-changer. I paddled hard for the wave until we were one. When I jumped to my feet, I knew this wave was different. It warped into the shape of a nautilus, and took me away from the shore. West. Tonight, the waves flow toward Japan, then the stars. And the wind continues to blow. I’ll always be here. I know.
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