aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 30: Over The Dark Deserts

You don’t truly understand necromancy if you can’t explain it to your great-great-great-grandmother.
Steven Kaas

Evening, May 12, 2017
Mojave Desert

I.

California shifted around us. Plains, then mountains, then taller mountains sloping down at last into a mind-boggling flatness of desert. And there we were. I had spent my entire life in that tiny strip of California coastline between the mountains and the sea. Now I was in the real West, a Biblical wilderness of scrub and harsh rocks unlike anything I had seen before. The land where the great dramas of the late twentieth century had played out, the twin stories of the Comet King and the Other King. In the blazing sunlight it felt more real and solid than the dreamland I had left behind.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the Wall Drug signs began to appear.

Before the sky cracked, Wall Drug had been a shopping center in South Dakota. There aren’t a lot of things in South Dakota, so the owners of the shopping center had tried to turn it into a tourist attraction. They put up billboards along the highway – “Only thirty miles to Wall Drug!” – “Only twenty miles to Wall Drug!” – “Only another ten miles to go before WALL DRUG!” Presumably the expectation of getting ever closer would turn an ordinary shopping center into some sort of transcendental recreational/commercial experience. The radius had grown. “Only fifty miles to Wall Drug!” “Wall Drug, in just another hundred miles!” Finally, it metastasized through the entire Midwest, becoming the omphalos of its own coordinate system: “I don’t know what state we’re in, but it’s only another two hundred eighty miles to Wall Drug.” Some wag at US McMurdo Station had briefly planted a “9,333 Miles To Wall Drug” sign at the South Pole.

After the sky cracked, the Wall Drug coordinate system started to impose itself more and more upon the ordinary coordinate system of longitude and latitude. Worse, the two didn’t exactly correspond. You could be driving from New York to New Jersey, and find a billboard promising Wall Drug in only thirty miles. Drive another ten, and sure enough, WALL DRUG, TWENTY MILES. Drive ten more, and you’d be promised a South Dakotan shopping center, only ten miles away. Drive another ten, and…who knows? No one has returned from Wall Drug in a generation. It’s become not only an omphalos, but a black hole in the center of the United States, a one-way attraction and attractor fed by an interstate highway system which never gives up its prey. Some say it is in Heaven, others in Hell, others that it remains in South Dakota, from which no word has been heard for thirty years.

Interstate travel is still possible, but it follows a very specific pattern. You go forward until you see a Wall Drug billboard. Then you hastily switch directions and go back to the previous city, transferring you back to the normal American landscape. Then you tentatively go forward again. After enough iterations, you can make it from Point A to Point B intact. But if ever you see a Wall Drug billboard and continue to travel, the land will start looking less and less like where you came from, more and more like the grassy semi-arid plains of South Dakota. Once that happens, you can still turn back. But if you turn back too late, you may find that Wall Drug is in that direction too, that every point of the compass brings you closer to Wall Drug, with no choice but to remain in place forever or go boldly towards that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.

This was what had happened to the Midwest. That close to the omphalos, even a few feet down a side street would be enough to lose yourself forever. Automobile travel became impossible between the Mississippi and the Rockies. Thousands of small farming communities lost their lifelines to the outside world. Large cities dependent on food shipments starved, right in the middle of amber fields of grain. Then came the Broadcast to finish them off. A few small farms survived here and there, but otherwise the Plains were as empty as they had been when the buffalo roamed.

Jane cursed, and we started looking for an exit. We turned back to Barstow, then turned back around. We’d only gone about ten miles before another Wall Drug sign made us repeat the whole cycle.

“I’m tired,” said Jane. “You drive.”

“I don’t know how,” I said. I’d grown up in Oakland, which wasn’t very car-friendly. And by the time I turned sixteen, technology had declined to the point where only the more expensive models with the Motive Name were still working.

“You put your foot on the pedal, and if something is in your way you turn this big wheel here,” said Jane. “It’s the Mojave Desert. There’s nothing for a hundred miles. You’ll live.”

So I drove. It was a nice car. A white Cadillac. The scholars tell us that God drives a Plymouth Fury, for it is written in Jeremiah 32:37: “He drove them out of the land in His Fury”. But the Twelve Apostles shared a Honda Accord, for it is written in Acts 5:12: “They were all with one Accord”. The commentators speculate this may have been the same car Jesus used when he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, though if there were more than four or so moneychangers it might have required a minor miracle. My mother used to have a really old beat-up Honda Accord. For all I know maybe it was the same one they used in the New Testament. It gave up the ghost after a year or so and we were back to taking buses.

I wondered what she would think seeing me now, behind the wheels of a Cadillac. Cadillacs were from a different world, the world of CEOs and Silicon Valley theonomics. I’d read the history of the company once; it was named for Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the man who founded Detroit. His name comes in turn from the French words “ca du lac,” meaning “house by the lake”. A man named “house by the lake” founded the city of Detroit. This was not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.

LAS VEGAS, 141 MILES, the sign said as it whizzed past.

Las Vegas comes from Spanish “vega” meaning “meadow”, but we Anglophones have a different association. Vega is the brightest star in the summer sky. Its name comes from the Arabic word “waqi” meaning “falling”, because they thought its constellation looked like a bird falling from the heavens. You know who else was the brightest of stars before falling from Heaven? Right. That’s who you named your city after. Good going, Spaniards. And so of course it became the sinfulness capital of the world.

Las Vegas means “the meadows”, but it also means “the fallen ones”. Kabbalistically, we were traveling from a city named “the angels” to a city named “the fallen ones”. We were doing this even though the power of nominative determinism was so strong that a man whose name meant “house by the lake” had just so happened to found the biggest American city on the continent’s biggest lake.

We were not clever people. I hoped that Ana would get here sooner rather than later.

II.

Beyond Barstow was Yermo, whose name meant “wilderness”, and Nebo, named for the tomb of Moses. On we drove, over the Hollow Hills, through the Yarrow Ravine Rattlesnake Habitat, past the Alien Jerky Store. We passed Zzyzx – a name made for kabbalistic analysis if ever there was one. We sped through the dishonestly-named dingy border town of Primm, then the honestly-named dingy border town of Roach. We saw the Spring Mountains, crossed to the far side of Paradise.

I had hoped Jane would fall asleep so I could escape, but of course no such luck. She took out the book we had stolen from the angels and leafed through it, going back to read the same few pages again and again. Finally I’d had enough.

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“Mind your own business,” Jane told me, but without anger. More in a dreamy, distant way as she watched the scenery speed past.

So I pressed my luck. “I’m falling asleep here. You can at least give me some conversation.”

Jane nodded. “Fine,” she said. “A riddle for you. How is Rhode Island like a falling bird?”

I answered without even thinking. “There is Providence in both.”

Jane smiled a tiny bit. Maybe I had passed some kind of test? But she just said: “Explain”.

“It’s a line from Shakespeare. ‘There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’ But he’s paraphrasing Matthew 10:29, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.'”

“Yes,” said Jane. “But what does it mean?”

I’d never heard a kabbalistic gloss on those verses before. The top rabbis wouldn’t even touch the New Testament. But the basic point was clear enough: “During Jesus’ time, little birds like sparrows were used as a cheap sacrificial offering for people who couldn’t afford bigger ones. People at the marketplace sold them for a pittance, so they became a metaphor for anything insignificant or worthless. Jesus said God nevertheless watches over each one. And so we should be heartened, for if He watches over these birds He must certainly watch over us.”

“Anything else?” asked Jane.

“The Shakespeare quote is from Hamlet,” I recalled. “Horatio predicts Hamlet will lose a fight and suggests he bail. But Hamlet doesn’t care about the odds. He says ‘We defy augury’, then paraphrases the verse from Matthew. If everything happens according to a divine plan, he’s got nothing to fear.”

“Anything else?”

“There are a bunch of verses from William Blake that say pretty much the same thing. Um. ‘A Skylark wounded in the wing / A Cherubim does cease to sing.’ Some others along those lines.”

“Anything else?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“It might be the secret of the Other King.”

I almost drove the car into a cactus.

III.

In the mid ’90s, Las Vegas was on edge with rumors of some kind of necromantic cult. The Comet King had come to the city, smoked out the cultists, and personally executed the leader. There it should have ended.

As the century drew to a close, the rumors started up again. Killing the leader had only made him stronger. Now he was regrouping. Those who died in the fight against him became soldiers in his armies. He wore a deep scarlet robe with a hood covering his head. No one had ever seen his face.

The Comet King had other problems now. His great crusade had failed. His wife was dead. He kept to his room, leaving the day-to-day work of governance to his Cometspawn. They were less confident than he was. They stayed out of Las Vegas, delegated the problem to subordinates, hoped it would take care of itself.

In March 2001, the necromancer seized control of Vegas in a spectacular coup. There was no bloodshed. Black-robed figures with skeletal faces and inhuman strength came from nowhere and demanded the allegiance of the city’s governor and garrison. The necromancer declared himself a king and took up residence beneath the great black pyramid of Luxor. He didn’t provide an origin story or even say how his subjects should address him. The partisans of the Comet King began calling him “the other king”, and the name stuck.

The Comet King, still brokenhearted, at first refused to leave his mourning chamber. But when his children begged and cajoled him, he rose from his bed, gathered his armies, and took up the great sword Sigh for the last time. He marched west. The Other King and his undead legions marched east. On July 29 they met in the Never Summer Mountains near Fort Collins, and the two armies fought each other to a stalemate.

Then the Other King himself took the field, ripping through the Comet King’s troops with secret Names of fire and night. The Coloradan line began to buckle. And so the Comet King, looking terribly old with his white hair and lined face, strode to the front of his ranks and challenged the necromancer to single combat.

They fought high above the earth, darting in and out of clouds, their attacks shooting like lightning to the barren ground beneath. The mountains shook. Some cracked. The air thundered with the sound of forbidden magic.

The Comet King’s body dropped lifeless to the ground.

The Coloradans fell back in horror and rout, but the Cometspawn moved among them, rallying their troops. The Cometspawn broke through the enemy ranks to rescue their father’s body. The undead seemed timid, offering only token resistance. Finally, the dark armies retreated back to Las Vegas. Spies reported that the Other King had been gravely wounded, a Fisher King wound that never healed, his mind intact but his body hopelessly mangled.

From then on, he stayed underneath his pyramid, directing his armies from afar. If Colorado had hoped his injury would slow his conquests, they were disappointed. First Nevada fell. Then Arizona, and all New Mexico west of Santa Fe. The Cometspawn lost battle after battle. They retreated behind the Rockies, abandoning the rest of their empire. And when the Other King had finished, he sent his armies into the Rocky Mountains, where over the span of years they advanced mile by bloody mile, growing over closer to the last redoubt of Coloradan power.

If Jane really was a Dividend Monk, then she was part of that last redoubt. The secrets of the Other King would be more important than anything else she could bring back to her besieged people.

“How is it the secret of the Other King?!”

“Back in ’01,” Jane told me, “when the Cometspawn first started worrying about the Other King, they sent their advisor Father Ellis to the Dividend Monks in Taos to get an oracular pronouncement on who the King was and where he’d come from. By the time Ellis returned to Colorado Springs, the Comet King was back in the game, Ellis told him the pronouncement directly. Then the Comet King died, Ellis disappeared, and now even the Cometspawn don’t know what the oracle said. But the Dividend Monks meticulously record all their prophecies because the trance never tells them the same thing twice. Whatever they told Father Ellis went straight into their archives. When Taos fell to the Other King six years ago, the monks brought their relics and archives to Angel Fire, and from there the relics were flown up to the angels themselves for safekeeping. That’s what we got there. The archives of the Taos monastery. And that was the monks’ answer to Ellis. That riddle.”

“Las Vegas’ name means fallen bird,” I blurted out.

“What?”

“The name of the star Vega comes from the Arabic word waqi, meaning ‘fallen’ or ‘falling’. They named it that because the constellation looked like a bird falling from the sky. So Las Vegas could mean ‘the fallen birds’. And the Other King’s secret is that not a bird falls to the ground without God’s decision. There is providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

“Huh,” said Jane, and upon her features flashed very briefly that look I had seen when I figured out the angels’ filing system. As if briefly remembering I was a human being instead of a pet or object, and seeming a little uncomfortable with the fact. “That’s…interesting.”

“But not very actionable,” I said.

“No,” Jane agreed. I imagined she’d been hoping for some secret weakness that Colorado could use to turn the tide of combat. A kabbalistic connection between the Book of Matthew, the city of Las Vegas, and divine providence didn’t seem immediately helpful.

“Will you be safe in Vegas?” It wasn’t a good place to be a Coloradan operative.

“No,” she said. “Neither of us will be. I’m sorry I had to bring you here, Aaron. Really, I am.”

And then we passed out the belly of the last little valley, and before us loomed the towers of Las Vegas, capital of the Great Basin. Jane looked more nervous than I’d ever seen her. We switched places; she took the wheel. Beggars and prostitutes and drug dealers started knocking on our car windows at the stoplights, making their respective pleas.

The sun set behind the Red Rock Mountains as we checked into the Stratosphere Hotel. I repeated Jane’s secret to myself, like a mantra. Even in a falling bird, there is providence. Even in Las Vegas, God is with us. Somewhere.

Night fell upon the city of the Other King.

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