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Forced Perspectives: Prologue

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 4, 2019 20:08 EST



PROLOGUE, 1928: Before the Shadows Crept In

    “It was on the south wall of the Pharaoh’s city.”

    The man had to speak loudly over the onshore wind, and in spite of the rushing veils of sand he had taken off his goggles to see the dunes more clearly in the twilight.

    Aside from the shivering figures of his four hooded companions, one of them dutifully blowing into a smoking coffee can, the only features in the desolate landscape were the black rocks that stood up here and there like islands in the infinite rippled expanse of sand, and the fragments of broken plaster that littered the area all the way down to the surf line. The random arrangements of the rocks were no good as landmarks — for all he knew, they had shifted during the five years since he had last been here.

    “Boundless and bare,” called Mrs. Haas, the High Priestess of the coven, “the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    Wystan fitted the goggles back over his eyes and shifted the bulky knapsack on his back to a more comfortable position. His nearly-new 1925 Model T Ford pickup truck was stalled and stuck in the sand half a mile inland, and that was half a mile from the dirt track that led east to the new extension of Route 56 connecting Pismo Beach and Las Cruces. He wondered how he might find somebody in nearby Guadalupe with a truck and block and chains who would come out here at this hour. He didn’t need old women quoting Shelley at him.

    The three other witches were talking among themselves, probably speculating that Wystan wasn’t a very effective High Priest, and that perhaps they didn’t need a High Priest at all — especially one who drank liquor, in blatant defiance of the Volstead Act. Mrs. Haas’ shiny new Model A sedan was parked way back there on the paved road, and the four old women had sat in the bed of his pickup for the last leg of the expedition until the truck had got stuck. They had all then walked the last half mile, with much grumbling.

    “It’s unlikely we’re even in the right place,” said the witch holding the coffee can in her gloved hands. “One little movie set, out here in these miles of nothing?”

    “Keep blowing on it,” said Wystan. Then, “It’s here — all these plaster fragments were part of it. It wasn’t a little movie set.” He waved around at the empty miles of dunes, and went on more loudly, “The Pharaoh’s city alone covered ten acres, and the walls were a hundred feet high! And DeMille built a whole city here, besides, with medical tents and kitchen tents — even a kosher kitchen! — for all the cast and crew, all 25,000 of us. Altogether the production covered twenty-four square miles! We took over the town — you’d see Egyptian chariots parked in front of the bars, and DeMille hired every local person and horse and steer for the crowd scenes.”

    Wystan turned away from his tiresome companions, and he took the opportunity to pull his flask from an inside pocket of his overcoat. He quickly unscrewed the cap and swallowed two liberal mouthfuls of what his bootlegger swore was English gin, then twisted the cap back on and tucked the flask away.

    The witch with the coffee can had resumed blowing into it; her face glowed with each puff, and smoke flickered away in the gathering darkness. The wind smelled strongly of the ocean.

    “It was a fine movie,” allowed Mrs. Haas. “I never saw anything like when Moses parted the Red Sea.”

    Wystan laughed, so softly that the women probably didn’t hear. “You should have seen us all wading into the sea one day to get seaweed. DeMille had put up fences to show where the walls of water would be matted in later, and he had to shoot at exactly noon, or the fences would throw shadows, and at the last minute somebody pointed out that the path through what was supposed to be the Red Sea bed was dry sand. So DeMille and everybody else went rushing into the surf to drag up kelp and spread it out on the path. And he got the shot before the shadows crept in.”

    And a hundred people suddenly and spontaneously agitating the sea, thought Wystan, and them dragging a lot of living stuff out of the sea onto the land, roused my Ba hieroglyph sigil. It pulled its nails nearly all the way out of the Pharaoh’s south wall, and I had to hammer it back flat and repaint it to match the painted plywood wall before anybody noticed.

    He took a few unsteady steps in a new direction across the sand, and his boot scuffed something that wasn’t a pebble or piece of plaster; and when he had bent down to pick it up and shake the sand off it, he held it out for the witches to see. It was a rusty metal disk, and by the fading light over the ocean it was possible to read Eastman Film stamped on the surface.

    “This is the lid of a film can,” he said. “We’re in the right place. If the cameras were about hereâ¦the wall would have been east of us. Best we set up right here, between the wall and the sea.”

    “Where is the wall?” quavered one of the witches. “Did itâ¦erode away to dust? In just five years?”

    “No.” Wystan shrugged out of his knapsack and set it carefully on the sand. “DeMille, interfering son of a bitch that he was, hired bulldozers to dig a big deep trench and then damn well knock down the whole Pharaoh’s city set and push it into the trench, and then bury it.” Wystan had got the knapsack open, and now lifted out of it a lantern, an unwieldy two-foot-square cardboard portfolio, and, after groping around, a pair of needle-nose pliers. To the witch with the coffee can, he said, “Bring that over here.”

    When she had crouched beside him in the cold sand, he pressed the thumb lever to raise the lantern’s glass globe, and with his free hand picked up the needle-nose pliers.

    “You’re going to light that lantern?” asked the witch. Wystan recalled that her husband owned an Italian restaurant in Whittier. When he nodded distractedly, she went on, “So why did I have to bring these coals?”

    “Not coals,” he said, reaching into the coffee can with the pliers, “embers. And you brought them to light the lantern with.” He caught a glowing piece of punkwood with the pliers, and carefully held it under the bottom edge of the glass globe.

    The woman sniffed and said, archly, “Watch you don’t set your breath on fire.”

    Shut up, thought Wystan.

    In the kitchen of the High Priestess’ house back in San Pedro stood a four-foot tall Paschal candle; it had recently been stolen from a Catholic church in Redondo Beach, but its wick glowed with a flame whose combustion had been relayed — via a long, difficult succession of torches, locomotive fireboxes, ship’s lanterns, and even, for one anxious half hour, the bowl of a briar pipe — from the eternal flame at Baba Gurgur in Iraq.

    Wystan held the glowing ember of punkwood to the lantern’s wick, but the oil-soaked fabric didn’t catch fire. He bent down to blow on it, gently.

    “But you could have lit the lantern back at Mrs. Haas’ house,” said the witch; he couldn’t see her face in the shadows under her hood, but she sounded irritable, “it’d still be lit from the eternal flame, and I wouldn’t have had to keep dropping bits of rotten wood into this can for four hours while we drove up here.”

    “You noticed,” said Wystan tightly as he prodded the recalcitrant wick with the ember, “that Mrs. Haas had to send Cassie out to get coffee this afternoon. Her stove won’t work, with that candle flame pre-empting all theâ¦flamehood in her kitchen. Smoldering, it’s what you might call asleep, but if it had been a flame in this lamp back in San Pedro, I doubt she’d have got ignition in her car’s cylinders. Ah, there we go,” he added, for a bright inch-high flare now enveloped the lantern’s wick.



    The woman’s face was sharply visible now in the yellow glow, as was the sand for a dozen feet around. Wystan quickly untied the ribbons holding the portfolio closed and flipped open the cover.

    “Don’t look at this,” he said as he lifted out a square of one-by-eight pine board, onto which he had painstakingly glued little wooden carvings — a figure like a T and two wavy lines. He had arranged their pattern very carefully, following a precise description provided in a letter from Aleister Crowley, the British ceremonial magician.

    Wystan didn’t look at the board either. Even while putting it together, he had looked at only one corner of it at a time, and always in a mirror.

    For more than twenty years, Claude Wystan’s goal had been to find a way out of himself, and drinking provided only partial and temporary escape. He had studied in secret occult colleges in Leipzig and Beirut, and read a suppressed text of The Book of Enoch in the Ge-ez language, and had found and opened a lost tomb in the Umm El GaÊ»ab necropolis by the Nile and taken from it a five-thousand-year-old scroll that had escaped the destruction ordered by the Pharaoh Horus Aha. Ultimately Wystan had traced to Oslo a photograph of the Ba hieroglyph, and blackmailed the owner into allowing him to carve a high-relief copy. And DeMille had buried it.

    This hieroglyph he had brought to the burial site was a rare variant of the name of Nu, the Egyptian god, or force, of negation and dissolution; just as the lost panel he was seeking here tonight was a variant but still valid — dynamically valid — version of the name of Ba, the god or force that made identity and consciousness possible. The two were opposites, and he was confident that the buried Ba image would be drawn to the Nu image, illuminated by an extension of the Baba Gurgur fire.

    He set the Nu board upright in the sand in back of the lantern, facing inland.

    He flexed his fingers and sat back, watching the sand. The lost board with his Ba sigil on it was a yard tall, and its motion should be easily visible.

    For several long minutes, while the witches of the San Pedro coven shivered and shifted in their blowing robes, nothing happened. Streamers of sand whirled past in the lantern’s glow.

    Then, “Behind you!” called Mrs. Haas, pointing toward the dark ocean.

    Wystan turned and saw a point of agitation in the sand on the seaward side of the lantern; something was making the sand hump up, and it was moving slowly, laboriously, away from them.

    “That’s got to be my sigil!” he exclaimed, and he leaped up and began running after the moving tumble of sand.

    But why, he thought desperately, is it moving away from the Nu hieroglyph?

    He knew he’d lose it forever if it got into the sea, to which it was apparently being drawn; and it was moving faster, its long edges visible now as it tossed up bursts of sand that blew away on the wind. He dove forward onto the sand, his hands grasping the sides of the retreating wooden board, clinging to it even though one of its old nails dug into his right palm.

    “I’ve got the bastard,” he gasped, rolling over with it on top of him; then, more loudly, “Kill that damned lantern!”

    He heard a clank behind him, and the glow of the lantern became brighter; then some hasty scuffing, and the light was gone.

    The board’s tugging toward the sea stopped. Wystan sat up, and as his breathing and heartbeat slowed, the fingers of his unwounded hand were feeling the damp board, tracing once again the figure of a hawk with a bearded man’s head, which he had carved in Oslo many years agoâ¦and which in 1923 he had surreptitiously attached to the south wall of the Pharaoh’s City set, in among a cluster of other, inert hieroglyphs.

    He had understood that DeMille would film a fairly lengthy scene with that section of the wall in the background, but as it happened the scene was shot in front of the main, west-facing wall. If it had been filmed in front of the south wallâ¦Wystan believed that everyone who attentively watched that scene in the eventual movie, and thus kept the hieroglyph image in their attentions for the better part of a minute, would unknowingly allow the force that was Ba to enter their minds, and would thus unite with Wystan in a transcendent group-mind.

    More misfortune followed the re-location of the scene. DeMille had arranged for religious services to be available to the crew, and a Catholic priest and an Orthodox rabbi had together approached the director and told him that certain dreams their congregations were having had led them to believe that some genuinely dangerous sigil had been incorporated into the otherwise innocuous hieroglyphs on his set. DeMille had affected to scoff at the ideaâ¦but when filming was finished he buried the entire set, including even the rows of twenty-five-foot-tall sphynxes he had trucked up from Los Angeles.

    And so Wystan had tried to replicate the variant Ba hieroglyph, from memory — but he no longer had any hope of seeing the original photograph, even if it had still been in Oslo, and when he stared at his attempted replications, none of them had given him the remembered ringing in the ears and quiver of mild electric shock.

    But Wystan was still determined to rid himself of his own individuality; not to have it end in death, in which event he might find himself facing some afterlife judgment and be held accountable for his past actions — but to exist instead, in at least some attenuated way, past the death of his body, perhaps for centuries, in an entity so big that his individual sins would be effectively negated.

    The worst thing he had done was known only to himself, unshared with anyone, and loomed bigger in his mind because of that. He had ignored his father’s deathbed command to acknowledge a previously unknown illegitimate half-sister; and when, years later, Claude Wystan had idly traced her, he had found that she had eventually fallen into poverty and killed herself. No one besides himself knew about his betrayal of her, and of his father, and his greatest wish now was that he might lose the awareness of it himself.

    Ba could provide that. Wystan had needed to recover the buried hieroglyph sigil, and he needed at least a few credulous minds to combine with his, once he had found it — and so he had joined Mrs. Haas’ coven and, by default, had become its High Priest.

    And now he had finally recovered the Ba hieroglyph, the sigil. The Nu hieroglyph that had called it out of the sand would be inert, now that the extension of the Baba Gurgur fire in the lantern was extinguished,; but even so, he didn’t want to let the two sigils get within several yards of each other.

    “Pull that smaller board out of the sand,” he called to the witch who was standing over the dark lantern, “and put it back in the portfolio — That cardboard folder! — and close it and tie the ribbon. Now we all walk back to Mrs. Haas’ auto, and you stay out in front with it, away from me.”

    He got to his feet, shivering, and clasped the recovered Ba hieroglyph board firmly under his arm. With luck, he thought, by midnight we’ll be back at Mrs. Haas’ house on Paseo del Mar in the Point Fermin area of San Pedro. And we can finally blow out the sacrilegiously employed Paschal candle and make some coffee and then sit down around the kitchen table and all have a look at Ba. The minds of these few women and himself would not be enough to engender the sort of autonomous, transcendent entity in which he yearned to lose himself, but they were a start.

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