Buy books at Blithe House (in association with Amazon.com)
The Emerald Mountain :
Victor J. Banis
We are all hearts in exile, stumbling alone in the dark, trying to find the path home. It may well be that God’s greatest gift is the loneliness of the journey.
Rain becomes San Francisco. The purples and pinks and oranges of the Victorians become pastels, the gray leaves green again, the sidewalks washed clean of the dog droppings that tax the unwary pedestrian.
I wasn’t there that day, when Simon came up from the station, but I have imagined it so often, have dreamed it so vividly, awake and sleeping, that I have only to close my eyes to see the scene as clearly as if it were memory, and not imagination.
He paused at the curb, waiting for the signal, enjoying the rain upon his face. People would look at him. The wind tossed his hair like a lover’s fingers, and rouged those marble cheeks. No doubt he smiled; he liked to smile, and when he did it lit up his face in a magical way. Yes, people looked….
Castro Street was a kaleidoscope. On the far corner, in the brightly lit windows of the Peaks, young men watched the passersby, and older men watched the young. A pedestrian darted into the street, skirting cars and their spray, a chorus of horns scolding his audacity.
The light changed. Simon played Dodgem with umbrellas, and paused outside the bar. He felt a twinge of expectation, that sense of something impending.
The rain came down harder. Like a hand in his back, a gust of wind nudged him toward the open door. Inside, the overheated room smelled of damp clothes, of sweat and beer and too many colognes. Glasses clinked, and a murmur of voices competed with one another. He made his way to an unoccupied table.
At least, he would have sworn there was no one there when he sat down, until a voice said, almost in his ear, “I was afraid you wouldn’t get here in time.”
Simon started and turned, and found himself looking into the face of a stranger, a craggy face with a majestic nose and deeply cleft chin; and electric green eyes, fastened directly on his own, compelling attention.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered, and half rose to his feet. “I thought the table was empty.”
“No, please. I insist.” The stranger laughed and spread his hands. “The table is large and my drink is small.”
Simon glanced around. The other tables were full and men stood two deep at the bar. Really, it would have been a miracle to find an empty table on a day like this. It was share the table, or fight his way to the bar.
“Well, if you don’t mind.” He smiled, and looked out the window, to discourage any intimacy. Outside, passengers jostled to board a bus. A Latina woman with a crying baby pressed against the bar’s window in an effort to avoid the rain.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the stranger said.
Not very original. Simon sighed, and was half out of his chair, when a young man with a tray on his hip came up and asked, “You want a drink?”
“The way you’ve been bobbing up and down, I wasn’t sure.”
Hawk eyes said, “Order a drink. And do sit down. People are staring.”
“Look, I don’t even know you. I’m sure,” Simon said. Or did he? Surely he would have remembered those eyes, the brows like caterpillars.
The waiter tapped his tray with a cerise fingernail. “Most customers don’t need an introduction before they order,” he said, “But you can call me Mary.”
“I meant him,” Simon said.
The waiter cast a quick, bored glance around the room. “There’s a roomful of guys, honey, and I don’t do introductions. If you’re interested in somebody, send a drink. Or blow a kiss, it’s cheaper. What’ll you have?”
“I’m Michael,” the stranger said. “He can’t see me.”
Simon asked, “What do you mean, can’t see you?”
The waiter took a nervous step backward. “On second thought, sweetheart, I don’t think you need another drink,” he said. “How about coffee?”
Simon’s senses felt oddly heightened. He knew people were watching, he seemed to see them without looking. The music was louder than before and he could hear snippets of conversations.
“Is this some kind of a joke you guys cooked up?” Simon asked.
The waiter took another step back. “Honey, we don’t like trouble here. Maybe you should try another place.”
Even before it happened, Simon had stood, turned to look outside, as if he knew the Latina woman was going to scream, as neatly as if they had rehearsed it. She held her baby at arm’s length and shook him.
“My baby,” she shrieked, “He’s stopped breathing.” She looked around frantically, and suddenly stared directly, beseechingly, into Simon’s eyes. “Gran Dios. Save him, save my baby.”
There was a movement toward the door, not a stampede, exactly, but enough that Simon was jostled along. Without knowing exactly how he got there, he was outside, part of the crowd around the sobbing woman. The baby lay on the sidewalk, crimson faced, not breathing. Surely the child was dead.
Thunder rumbled. Simon shivered. It reminded him of—of what? The thought was gone as quickly as it had come. It was just a rainstorm. Just thunder. His hands felt cold and numb. He had no consciousness of moving them and yet, when he glanced down at them he saw them stretch, of their own volition, in the direction of the infant. He seemed to watch from some place outside: he saw himself lean over the child, and asked himself, what is he doing, he’s not a doctor?
The lightning struck right where he was standing. He thought, it’s supposed to come before the thunder. It exploded inside his head, a blinding blue-white light. Electricity crackled along his arms and out his fingertips. His senses, preternaturally heightened an instant before, shut down completely.
It might have been seconds or hours before he became conscious of himself again. He felt as if he had been lifted up and carried a great distance. Was he dead? Didn’t people die from lightning strikes?
But no, he was just where he had been, outside the Peaks. The rain still fell. Saturday afternoon traffic rushed by. Everything was as it had been.
Except, a baby was crying and—he realized this more slowly—people were staring, staring wide-eyed at him, mouths agape. He looked down. It was that baby, the one who had surely been dead before, howling lustily and kicking his feet.
“You saved my baby.” The mother scooted around clumsily on her knees and fell against Simon’s legs, seizing them so violently she nearly knocked him over. “He brought my baby back to life!” Her voice rose to a shout.
Simon shook his head in confusion and struggled to break away from her grip. “What happened?” he asked of no one in particular.
Someone tugged at his sleeve and a voice at his ear said, “We’d better get out of here.”
It was Michael, from the bar. “What’s going on?” Simon demanded. “Is this some kind of dream?”
Michael leaned so close that Simon thought he meant to kiss him. “In a moment,” he whispered, his eyes glittering with demonic light, “they’re going to collect their wits, and all hell will break loose.”
He tugged at Simon’s sleeve. Bewildered, Simon let himself be led. As if under a spell, the onlookers stepped aside, the woman surrendered her hold on Simon’s legs, and in a moment, Simon and his companion were around the corner.
“What the hell is this?” Simon demanded, stopping abruptly. “What happened back there?”
“Her baby died,” Michael said, so matter-of-factly, he might have been describing the weather. “You put your hands on him, and he came back to life.”
“You’re…are you crazy? Dead? I never touched him. I never laid a hand on him.”
“You did. You put both hands on his forehead. I saw you. They saw you. What do you think…?”
From the corner behind them, someone shouted, “Hey, you, wait.”
“They’re awake,” Michael said. “Better run for it.”
He began to run and Simon ran with him, with no idea what he was frightened of, what he was running from, or to. He fled across the street, up another, until he couldn’t run any further. Side aching, he staggered against a tree.
“Listen, if you think...” he panted, and turned toward Michael—but there was no Michael, only a middle-aged man twenty feet away who reversed himself and walked briskly in the opposite direction.
This was where I came into the picture.
I have read a great deal of nonsense about my supposed relationship with Simon. At various times it has been reported that he and I were long time companions, that we were brothers, even, ridiculously enough, that I was his father.
Simon used to laugh at my irritation with that suggestion. “It is possible, you know.”
“Only with the greatest leap of imagination,” I replied.
The truth is, until the day Joe Kelly came to me with his weird assignment, I had never heard of Peter Lucas Simon. Sometimes, I wish it had stayed that way. As any storyteller will tell you, however, some stories the teller chooses, and some stories choose the teller. This was one of the latter, and I will tell it as well as I can.
It has been more than a decade, though, since I seriously attempted to write anything more than the occasional bit of fluff for The Weekly Banner—The Weakly Bladder, as those of us on the staff called our gay newspaper, though not when Joe Kelly was at hand. Whatever limited currency my name may once have possessed has long since faded into nothingness. And writing is like any other form of exercise: you lose the knack of it after a while. It’s not true, about riding a bicycle. I tried after twenty or so years, and fell flat on my ass.
Besides, and this worries me more, so much of what I must write, I know only second hand or have had to conjure. It might be supposed that the time I spent with Simon would give me some insider’s knowledge. Indeed, I was with him often—though had I known the future, that time would certainly have been greater.
“Well,” Simon used to say, “you can’t have a future except at the expense of the present, and the cost is too great.”
Of course, when Joe stopped at my desk that day, I had no inkling there would be any story to tell. I was listening to The Reverend Maxwell Marshall’s “Sinner Repent Hour.” The sin of queerdom was high on Marshall’s top-ten list of sins to repent. Those who didn’t repent should be eradicated, “in Christ’s name”. He labeled Matthew Shephard’s killers as “heroes.” It was hate and evil cloaked in piety, and I found it grimly amusing. I especially liked to watch him on television. It was better than Oprah.
Joe parked his shapely rear on one coffee stained corner and said, “I want you to do an interview.”
I took the headphones from my ears. “Talented drag queen? New shop? Candidate for Empress?” I had done them all, with equal ineffectiveness.
“I’m not sure what he is.”
I sighed. “Not the Abominable Fag again.”
Joe’s self control was superhuman. He never laughed at my jokes. “I had a conversation with my friends Bruno and Nate,” he said. “You remember them?”
“Bruno, the hot guitarist? He’d be hard to forget. I’m not sure I want to know Nate, if he’s the competition.”
“Nate’s been sick.” He gave me a significant look. Of what, I hadn’t any idea.
“Half the gay community is sick. It’s a tragic story. It’s not a new story. What we do is news, isn’t it? Silly news, but news, surely. Or is that news to you?”
“Nate is no longer sick.”
“Yes. The new meds. They’ve performed miracles.”
“This appears to be a miracle.” He hesitated. “Just not that particular miracle.”
“Look, Editor-mine, what exactly am I groping for here? You want me to talk to Bruno and Nate?”
“Their neighbor, actually. His name is Peter Simon.”
This pause was even longer. I waited him out. “He healed Nate,” Joe said finally.
“He’s, what, a doctor? A miracle worker?”
“I don’t know what he is. Look, I got a couple of calls last week. Something very interesting happened on Saturday, at the Peaks.”
“Now that’s a miracle,” I said. “Wait, I’ve heard that one. Some guy waved a magic wand and brought a dead woman back to life.”
“It was a baby.”
“Okay, a baby brought a woman back to life, that’s easy to explain. Mass hallucination. A really boring afternoon. Too many cocktails.”
“At least thirty people saw it.”
“Thirty people saw something. I saw a two-headed calf once. Honest. Drinking Cutty. I had the damndest time getting rid of him the next morning. Taurus is a bad sign for me.”
“From the descriptions, this Peter Simon could have been the one at the Peaks,” Joe said, undaunted.
Joe and I looked hard at one another. I looked hard at a coffee stain on the table. If you looked long enough, you could make out the face of the Virgin Mary. “Let me see if I’m tuned in here,” I said. “You found Jesus in drag and you want me to interview him? My friend Lena said he’d be a leather dyke this time. Is this turning anti-lesbian? Joe, we publish a weekly gay rag which is read by very few, none of whom has heretofore exhibited any interest in matters religious or philosophical. Why us? Why me?”
“Because it’s the only newspaper I edit,” Joe said. He grinned and blew me a kiss. He was cute. He was exasperating. “And because you’re the most intelligent person I know.”
Okay, he was also perceptive. “Moe and Curly will not like hearing that,” I said. We both knew I had lost the argument.
“Just talk to him. Okay?” He handed me a slip of paper with an address on it. “Talk to Bruno and Nate first. See me when you finish.” He walked away.
“I’m getting too old for this,” I said, but Joe was already out of hearing.
Bruno was six foot of gay male fantasy. Nate was boy-next-door, good looking if you like that type and weren’t lusting after his partner. He wore a pale green robe that matched his eyes. There was a friend there too, whom they introduced as Mike.
We settled on tea, and sat in the living room. The tea was minty. There was the aroma of lamb roasting. It was very domestic, ordinary. No one looked loopy. Maybe Joe had made it up. Only, Joe wasn’t imaginative. He had never made a pass at me, which illustrates his lack of imagination.
“Joe wanted me to talk to you,” I said, to break the ice.
“I thought Joe would know what to do,” Bruno said.
“What exactly is it you want him to do?”
He looked puzzled. “People ought to know, about what happened. It was a fucking miracle. Isn’t that news?”
“We’re a gay weekly,” I said. “We consider every issue a miracle. What makes yours special?”
“Nate was dying,” Bruno said. “That’s why we brought him home. The Meds didn’t work. We decided we’d both rather he die here.”
“I begged Bruno,” Nate said, “No IVs, no drugs. Forget it all.”
I must have looked unimpressed. “Show him,” Bruno told Nate.
Nate stood and his robe fell open. Now I was impressed.
“Very nice,” I said, all too lasciviously, and waited for Bruno to pound me senseless.
“You don’t get it,” Nate said. “A week ago, I was lesions, head to foot.”
“Do you see anything wrong with him now?” Bruno asked.
“Not a thing,” I said. Nate closed his robe and sat down. I gulped a mouthful of tea.
“Neither do I,” Bruno said. “It’s like he was never sick, like he never got infected in the first place.”
“That happens with the new Meds.”
“You weren’t listening,” Nate said. “I couldn’t take them. Severe reactions. I stopped three months ago.”
“Spontaneous remission.” It sounded lame even to me.
“No fucking way,” Bruno said. He began to pace like a tiger in a cage. “That night, when it happened—he’d already said goodbye and closed his eyes. He was dying. I knew it. He knew it. I held his hand and watched him go.” His voice cracked. I felt ashamed of those lewd thoughts. Still, I wanted to ask for another look, for journalistic reasons.
Mike had been silent. “It’s true,” he said. “I’ve watched others let go. It was a matter of minutes. Seconds, even. Then there was this knock at the door.”
“I told Mike,” Bruno said, “Get rid of them, whoever, tell them to come back some other time.”
Mike said, “I went to the door, and there was this guy, I’d seen him around. Ordinary looking. Only, he didn’t look ordinary just then. He looked, I don’t know, spaced.”
“What did he say?”
“I swear it, he said, ‘I’ve come for Nate.’ That’s all. No hello, nothing, just, ‘I’ve come for Nate.’”
“And you let him in? A stranger, he looks spacey? Weren’t you scared?”
“Scared? I almost dropped a load. Listen, you know how people talk about their hair standing on end, well, it’s true, I could feel my hair stand up. And something else: with the light behind him, it looked like he was glowing. All I could think was, Jesus, it’s the Angel of Death. I backed out of his way and he came in, he went straight to the bedroom, like he’d been here before.”
“I looked up,” Bruno said, “And here was this guy, this neighbor. I said something like, what do you want, but he just ignored me, he went to the bed. Tell him,” he said to Nate. “Just the way you told me.”
Nate looked up at the ceiling. “It was just like people describe it. I was in this tunnel, moving toward this light, and somebody called my name. I looked around, and there was this person, I didn’t have a clue who he was.”
“Nate had never met him,” Bruno said.
“And he, he didn’t exactly come toward me—it’s hard to describe, he became everything, like, the sky, the whole universe. Me too, even; and then, there was this, I don’t know, this explosion, inside me.”
“Like lightning,” I said.
His eyes came around to me. “Yes, sort of, I guess. I opened my eyes, and there he was, leaning over me, the guy in my vision. Somehow, he had brought me back. I was healed, completely. Just like that. The sores were gone, the fever, the pain—everything.”
Peter Lucas Simon was ordinary—average build, brown hair, clear skin. Nobody’s dream of masculine perfection, but I thought he probably made out pretty well; or could, if he chose. There was something of the ascetic about him, though. Or maybe that was the circumstances.
He seemed not very surprised to see me. “The place is a mess,” he said. The living room was cluttered, mostly books, journals, newspapers. It prejudiced me in his favor. Good journalists aren’t supposed to entertain prejudices.
“Peter,” I began.
“Call me Simon,” he said.
I had walked automatically to the window, a habit. The view was modest but pleasant, a glimpse of hills over the housetops. It was near evening, windows lighted.
“Everyone calls you Simon?”
“I don’t know.”
Which was an odd answer. I turned to him. At the door, he had been in shadow. Now, in the light, he was better looking than I had first thought. His complexion was remarkable; it almost seemed to glow. His lips were full, his nose small. A cute face.
Except for the eyes, wide, hazel—and utterly lifeless. If eyes are the mirror of the soul, as they say, and I were a little more fanciful, I might have said this was a man without a soul.
“Where are you from, Simon?”
“I don’t know,” he said again, embarrassed. Understandably.
“You don’t know where you’re from?”
“Look, I may as well get this over with. I really don’t remember. Anything.”
“Anything?” I must have looked as astonished as I felt. “You’ve got amnesia?” I couldn’t help sounding skeptical. That was too easy.
“Maybe. I don’t know. Sorry. I’m saying that a lot. But, really, I can’t—I’ve tried to recall things, but nothing comes to me. There’s this wall. I don’t know what’s on the other side.”
“How far back can you remember? The Peaks, on Saturday? That was you, wasn’t it?”
For a moment, I thought he would deny it; then, red faced, he said, “Yes. The baby, you mean?”
“They say you brought him back to life.”
“I don’t know.” He grinned sheepishly.
The grin transformed him. Really, I had never seen so changeable a face. It seemed different each time that I looked at him. It was the grin, though, that made all the difference. It appeared slowly, hesitated for a moment about his lips and gradually made its way to his eyes.
How could I have thought his eyes dull? They gleamed with something I could only think of as sweetness. It was unbearably appealing. I took him in my arms and kissed him.
He could not have been more surprised by the kiss than I was. Until I found my lips on his, the thought of kissing him hadn’t so much as crept into my mind, and, here he was, kissing me back, embracing me tentatively at first and then, increasingly, as violently as I embraced him, until we clung together with an almost desperate ardor.
It was a sexual experience unlike any I’d ever had, and my experience could not be described as limited. Simon was more compliant than passionate, though that word too seems inadequate. He didn’t just welcome me to him, he surrendered himself utterly, he became me in some way, melted into the very essence of me. We ceased to be two men making love, ceased even to be, in a sense, but simply became an act of pure orgasm.
I don’t want to make this sound like some phantom fuck. That orgasm we became, which was how I thought of it when it was over, was The King Daddy of Comes. Appropriately, it was simultaneous. I’d had that happen once or twice. Usually it took careful timing, observation of your partner’s responses, control over your own. This just happened.
We rolled away from one another, holding hands, getting our breath back.
It occurred to me that perhaps he had seduced me (which was ridiculous since I was the one who had initiated what had happened—whatever that was) to distract me. I turned to look at him, and was immediately ashamed of that thought. My bullshit radar is state-of-the-art. There was no guile in the face that looked back at me.
There was something sad and remote, however. He looked pained, frightened even. Frightened? I’m impressive, but not that impressive. My smile froze on my lips. “Was that okay?” I asked inanely.
“It was wonderful,” his mouth said. His expression did not say wonderful.
“You look like you wish we hadn’t,” I said. “Please don’t tell me that was your first time.” He gave me another one of those blank looks. “Let me guess,” I answered my own question. “You don’t remember.”
He smiled, that achingly sweet smile that managed in a twinkling to turn him from an okay-looking guy into something uniquely, overwhelming desirable. I had to refrain from jumping his bones again right then and there. It had been years since anyone had made me that horny.
“Well, you may have forgotten the school,” I said, “But you surely remembered the lessons.”
He wasn’t listening to me, though. He was staring into space. “Rain,” he said, “Lightning…”
When he looked at me, his eyes were dead again.
I left him that day with nothing more than the knowledge that something had changed, changed profoundly in my life—that knowledge, and a brochure.
“I think I may have been there,” he said when he gave me the brochure.
It was for a place called Earth Light, some sort of retreat, it appeared. It was in Ohio, in Eaton. I had grown up there. I knew that area well, but I had never heard of Earth Light.
I called my niece, Karen, in Eaton, to tell her I was popping in for a visit, which made her day, and I went back to the office. Joe was not there. I typed up the story for him, straight, no tinkering, just the facts, ma’am, left it on his desk, and called United to make a reservation for the redeye.
I knew I was in the vicinity of Earth Light long before I arrived at its main gate. Walls of green stone that seemed to glow in the sunlight ran alongside the road—surely the highest, longest walls in Ohio. Finally, I arrived at the massive metal gate. A brass plaque read, Villa Eaton. Directly across the road a dilapidated barn exhorted me to “Chew Mail Pouch.” In the distance, treetops stood stark against a metallic sky. A trio of crows winged upward, jeering raucously.
The gate swung inward as I approached. I drove through and felt a qualm of unease as it shut behind me. Those walls were easily four foot thick. It struck me that there was something prison-like about Villa Eaton.
Now you’re getting wiggy, I told myself, and proceeded up the drive.
If Earth Light was a prison, it was certainly the best landscaped one on the planet. The drive must have been a half a mile long, winding among shrubs and trees that were already budding and grass the greenest I had ever seen. Geese splashed in a small pond and strutted on the grass. One of them made a feint in the direction of the car, honking and flapping his wings, and lost interest.
There was a small orchard of fruit trees, apple and cherry, and plum, many in bloom. The drive made a sharp turn and I saw the house at last.
It was huge, four stories, U-shaped. Set on a slight knoll, it gave the appearance of floating above its surroundings. I suppose I had been expecting something Victorian or perhaps gothic. Earth Light was simple to the point of starkness, made of that phosphorescent green stone, so shiny with the late afternoon sun striking it full on, it was almost impossible to look at it directly for more than a moment or so. For all its sleek modernity, however, it yet had a feel about it of great antiquity. I thought of ancient Mycanae or Carthage.
I parked near a fountain where nymphs, or maybe angels, embraced in a cascade of water. It was warm and eerily quiet, no sounds but the chuckle of the amorous naiads in the fountain and the distant honking of geese. There was the unmistakable scent of new-grown grass, and, fainter, the perfume of the orchard. The smells of spring. It must have been a mild winter. I had never known an Ohio spring to come so early. But I had been away a long time.
I had barely reached the steps to the front door when it opened and a man all in black came out and down the steps to meet me, walking with a long, athletic stride.
“Father…?” I extended my hand and introduced myself. His handshake was firm, vigorous. He might have been forty, perhaps, or as old as sixty, with the look of a Persian prince from some mythical tale: olive skinned, tall, angular, with thick salt-and-pepper hair and a wide, sensuous mouth.
“Doctor,” he corrected me. “Doctor Fatima.”
I was fishing, of course. “Sorry. I just assumed… It’s the sort of thing the Church does, isn’t it? Homes for waifs, that sort of business.”
If he took offense at my offhand description of “business,” he concealed it behind a friendly smile. “We are a spiritual operation,” he said, putting one hand on my shoulder in a comradely fashion and leading me up the steps. “But we are not connected directly with any church.”
“Not connected directly?”
He shrugged. “Our guests are entitled to their personal religious affiliations, of course.”
We came into a long foyer, classically spare. Only a small reception desk, unattended, broke the expanse. A number of doors opened off either side, and he gestured me through one of these, across a reception room, and into an inner office. From the windows in the far wall you could see the lawns and the drive twisting all the way down to the gate, even the road outside. So much for how he had known I was here. A remarkably uncluttered mahogany desk dominated the center of the room. On one wall two wing chairs in worn burgundy leather flanked a fireplace where a fire burned low.
“Would you like some coffee?” He indicated an ornate silver service and next to it, incongruous, an electric coffeemaker. “Or something stronger. I’ve got some rather interesting Ohio wines. Most people don’t realize Ohio produces wines.”
“Catawba,” I said. “Sparkling Catawba. At one time, it was the most popular American wine, wasn’t it? In Europe, I mean.”
“Exactly. Longfellow wrote a poem on the glories of Catawba,” he said, looking pleased. “Have I tempted you, then?”
He had the look of a man who knew a good bottle of wine when he saw it, and he sounded so hopeful of tempting me that I felt like a heel, turning him down. “Tempted, yes, but not sold,” I said apologetically. “I have a long drive tonight back to the airport.”
“Ah, well.” If it occurred to him to suggest that I spend the night, he kept the thought to himself, and only waited patiently for me to explain my visit.
I said, finally, “I wondered if you could tell me something about Peter Simon. Peter Lucas Simon. He did reside here at one time, did he not?”
His eyes, a vivid green even in the now fading light of the room, studied me keenly. “Did he say that he did?”
“Yes.” It was nearly the truth.
“Then, yes, in that case, he was a guest here.” He considered for a moment, looking into the fireplace. “You must forgive my caution. You see, discretion is a major part of what we offer at Earth Light.”
“And the other part?”
“Of what we offer? I suppose you could call us an asylum, though in a far more old fashioned sense than the word means today. A refuge, a home for those not at home in the world. Sometimes one simply needs a place to disappear to.” I must have looked skeptical, because he added, with a faint smile, “There are people who need to disappear for a time.”
“Did Peter Simon need to disappear?”
He made a tent with his fingertips and gazed at me across them. “I’m weighing, you see, how much I can say without violating our promise of discretion.”
“Promise to whom? To Simon? He knows I’m here. We could call him, if you’d like.”
“No, that won’t be necessary, you wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t all right, I’m quite aware of that.” I had to wonder how he could be so fully aware of that, if he hadn’t spoken to Simon; and I was sure he had not. “But, he’s not the only one to consider.”
I thought about that for a moment. “What you’re saying is that, he wasn’t here entirely on his own initiative? There’s someone else involved? Family? Parents?”
“Simon was brought here by someone, yes, I can tell you that much. Parents, no. His mother died when he was young, his father shortly before he was brought here. It was a tragic occurrence. Without going into details, I can tell you that Simon was deeply disturbed.”
“But he does have family?”
The way he smiled told me he wasn’t going to answer that one. I tried a different tack. “I assume someone paid for, for all this.”
That smile again. “You could make that assumption. Of course, I have no qualms in telling you that we are generously endowed.”
“Not, however, by a church?”
“No. Not in the sense that you mean the word, at any rate.”
I sighed. “I believe I will have some coffee.” When he made a move toward the desk, I said, “No, please, I can get it myself.” I didn’t so much want coffee as I did a moment to think about what he had told me. Or not told me. The death of Simon’s father. How had he put it—a tragic event? That could explain some of Simon’s problems. But not all.
Outside, the sun had taken on the opalescence of approaching evening. The wall that surrounded the villa had turned green-gold. A bird, or perhaps a bat, flitted past the window.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and took a moment to examine a print on the wall, a landscape of a mountain, a now familiar green, its peak cloud-encircled, a path winding up from a walled city.
“Should I know this scene?” I asked. “It looks familiar. Not Fuji, surely?”
“Interesting that you should find it familiar,” he said. “That’s Qaf. The emerald mountain. Do you know of it?”
“No. Maybe something I saw once in a book.”
“The city is Jabarsa. And, in the distance, Jabalqa, its twin. In Zoroastrian legend, the havens of the soul. The lost soul.”
“Dr. Fatima,” I said without turning, “What you said, about people disappearing: you didn’t mean literally, did you?”
“Why should you ask that?”
“There’s no one here,” I said. “I haven’t seen anyone since I arrived, not a single soul. Except you.”
“It’s interesting you should say that. Part of our curriculum is devoted to the significance of perception in determining our individual sense of reality and illusion. Your perception that there is no one here is an illusion. By the time you leave, I have no doubt you will perceive that the reality is otherwise.”
“But how to explain the illusion?”
“We are a spiritual retreat. Part of each day is devoted to meditation. You have happened to arrive during that time.”
“Shouldn’t I hear chanting?”
“We chant in the morning, those who care to chant. Our afternoon meditation is silent.”
“For those who care to meditate.”
I turned back to him. Our eyes met briefly, his intense, watchful. The fading light from the fire formed a sort of halo behind him.
“Your name isn’t by any chance Michael, is it?” I asked.
He looked amused. “Does that matter?”
I shook my head, not sure myself why I had asked. Nor why it should amuse him. “It’s a common name. Someone Simon mentioned. Is there a Michael here? On your staff? A guest, perhaps?”
“It is a common name, as you say.”
I thought, when I left that day, that I had learned nothing. Later, I came to realize that I had learned far more than I understood then. Illusion or reality, however, I left without seeing anyone else.
I had a quick, early dinner at the airport with Karen. I was queuing up for the security check when I realized I must have left my briefcase at Earth Light. There was nothing of any consequence in it—I had only brought it to make me look more official—but I’d had it a long time and was fond of it. I gave Karen the directions for Earth Light, and asked her if she would pick the briefcase up for me.
Somehow, I was not particularly surprised when she called me, just as I was entering my apartment back in San Francisco, to tell me that she had been unable to find Earth Light.
“I drove the entire length of Pittinger Road,” she said, “Nine miles of it. There was nothing like what you described. I found the barn, but there was a big old farmhouse across from it. The name on the mailbox was Khoff.” She spelled it for me.
I puzzled over that. Khoff? Qaf?
Joe printed my story, just as I had written it. To my surprise, it created a sensation. Our silly paper flew out of the racks. The Associated Press picked it up. It made the network news. They called Simon “the gay messiah.”
We were besieged. My friend, Lena, was leaving for a hiking tour of the British Isles, and she let Simon and me move into her apartment for the duration. I didn’t go into the office for a week.
It was a strange week. We were lovers—I suppose. Yes, Simon and I were lovers. We had sex, incomparable sex. I loved him—I suppose. Yes, I loved him. Certainly, I wanted no one else, and that had never happened to me before. I wanted to stay with him, not just for the moment but forever—I thought. I tried to tell him that, wanting to explain it as much to myself, as to him. He only smiled, and looked unconvinced.
“You think I can’t be faithful, don’t you?” I asked.
“I think you will betray me, yes,” he said.
“I won’t, I swear it.”
He only smiled.
I don’t know how he found us. I knew him, of course, the minute I saw him: Christiandom’s favorite fag basher, The Reverend Maxwell Marshall, and here he was, at our door.
“Where is he?” he demanded without preamble. “Where is this messiah of yours, this gay messiah?”
Simon was in the bedroom, changing linens. He heard the voice and came into the room. “Who—” he started to ask, and froze, his face going whiter than the sheet in his hands.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Marshall demanded. I should have closed the door in his face. I was too astonished, by his sudden appearance but even more by Simon’s horrified reaction. Marshall pushed past me. He held a Bible in his hand, and he waved it in Simon’s face.
“You are an abomination,” he cried, and I had never seen his anger, his hatred, so virulent. He looked ready to kill. “The Lord will strike you with lightning. He will smite you, for your evil vices, for spreading your wicked lies.”
“Oh, God, no,” Simon said, but it came out a moan. He dropped to his knees, burying his face in his hands, and began to tremble so violently, I thought he was having some kind of fit.
Time for my Big Bad Daddy routine. “Get out,” I said. I’m not a large man but I can be imposing when I put my mind to it. “Get out of here, before I call the cops.” I put a hand on his chest and shoved him backward. He went, the two of us performing this funny little two-step toward the door.
“I’ll go,” he shouted over my shoulder at Simon. “But you will be punished for your sickness. You will be struck down.”
I had him in the hall by this time. I slammed the door hard in his face, and turned back to Simon. He was still on his knees, head bent, sobbing. “Simon?” I said tentatively.
It was a moment before he said anything, and when he did, his voice was choked and he talked in a monotone, as if he were in a spell. “We were on the boat, my father and I, on the lake. It was storming, one of those storms that come out of nowhere. I was trying to get us back to shore, but I had just told him that I was queer. He began to rant. He was a preacher. He called me an abomination. He said the Lord would strike me with lightning, would smite me for my evil vices.”
“That’s sick,” I said. “Simon, you know it’s sick.”
“No,” he said, speaking directly to me now. “He wasn’t like that, really, he was just angry, and shocked. He was my father. He loved me. I loved him. He would have gotten past it, only…” His voice broke. “I was on my knees, begging. I let the boat drift, and it crashed on the rocks, tore open. It sank in minutes. He was thrown overboard. He couldn’t swim. It was dark, and I couldn’t find him for the longest time, and when I did, I towed him to shore, but it was too late. He was dead.
“I knelt over him, cursing God and crying. It was my fault. I had killed him, my father. My queerness had killed him. I shouted at God, I said, take me instead, damn you. Give him back his life. I love him. I’ll give anything, even my soul. Let him live and my soul, my life is yours…” He paused again, breathing heavily. “There was a bolt of lightning, and—and that’s all I can remember.”
I couldn’t think what to say, it was so fantastic, and yet it made sense, the only thing so far that had made sense in this whole mystery of Simon. “And your father?” I asked finally.
“You still don’t get it. He lived, but he lived trapped in that anger.” He raised a tear-streaked face to me. “That man, the one who was just here. That’s him. He’s my father.”
I ran outside, thinking Marshall might still be around. There was a Muni stop just two blocks away, and I thought he might be there. It was stupid. People like Marshall didn’t ride buses.
He hadn’t left at all, of course. He had only waited for me to leave. I knew that the moment I heard the shot. There was just the one.
It was all he needed.
Simon opened his eyes, and Michael was there. When had he come? How had he known?
“There is a mountain, at the roof of the world,” Michael said, and it wasn’t a voice, exactly, it was distant music, the fleeting scent of something long forgotten, hovering at the remotest edge of memory. “The wind at your back blows down from the far Himalayas, and at your feet, in a great green valley, lies the ancient kingdom of Chin.” He extended his hand. Simon took it and, at its touch, seemed to rise all at once from the floor.
“Come,” Michael said, “Let me take you there.”
The wall simply faded as they approached, and the air beyond it was a path paved of sighs.
“You devil,” Simon said, “I know who you are now. You’re taking me to Hell, aren’t you?”
Michael’s laugh—had he never heard it before?—was the rustle of springtime leaves in the wind.
“Oh, my dear Simon,” he said, “Where do you think you’ve been?”
They found no trace of Simon. Marshall confessed to shooting him. The police came, but there was no body, no blood, nothing to indicate that Simon had died there. Marshall changed his story, to say that he only wounded him, that Simon was alive when he left, and must have wandered off. Marshall did not go to prison, but his ministry was ended. I read years later that he was found dead in an alley, a derelict.
There was a great furor, a solemn furrowing of brows on the nightly news, but nothing came of it. There were some who pressed for more vigorous action from the investigating authorities, but their indignation was undercut by sightings. Simon was seen on the subway in New York, on a streetcar in New Orleans, in Gila Bend. No one could say with certainty that he was dead. Many insisted he was alive.
They questioned me, of course, asked if I had seen him, and I said no. I said I had hardly known him, I had only written a news-story about him. So I betrayed him. As he said I would.
In time, the tumult died down. It was shortly after that, after Joe had called, and called again, and again after that, leaving plaintive messages on my machine, messages I ignored—shortly after that, and entirely on a whim, that I sat down one day at the word processor and, hardly thinking beforehand what I was going to write, I typed:
We are all hearts in exile . . .