The sky wandered between the feet of scattered trees and over grass it normally could not touch. Nearby, what had been bleached grey by winter, and would soon be burned brown by summer, rose in radiant green along the water's sidelines to peer beneath the surface at their submerged companions. The reflection traced the topology of the land like a sweat-defined muscle taunt against the weight of the world. One of these, a mere rivulet, ran between a pair of boots. Here the sky's reflection was displaced by jean legs, a poncho, and one distant hat. The boots disturbed the sky as they trod across the shallows and up the hill from which the rain had been banished.
At the top of the hill, a wave in an ocean of grass, was a pointed upright stone. One side in perfectly carved script proclaimed this the highest point in the county. The other side stated, in roughly chiseled words, this was the final resting place of Tabatha Brighton, age twenty-two. Becky Davis took off her hat and set it atop the stone, then draped the poncho over both. She set her pack on the ground. From her utility belt she took a folding shovel and opened a cargo pouch that contained a compass. The hat and poncho together made a flat surface for the compass. Becky adjusted it for north, locked the shovel, and used it to measure a length tangent to the stone. She dug at that point to the depth of the shovel then got down on her knees and used the combat knife from her belt to probe the bottom of the hole. This produced almost immediate results. She soon held a plastic bag wrapped in tape. She cut the bag away to reveal a length of pipe with threaded caps on either end. Becky hefted the pipe then stowed it in her pack. She threw the bag back in and filled the hole. She set off down the opposite side of the hill, following flattened grass left by a vanished rivulet until she came to where the waters still flowed. Becky shadowed the waters as they gathered. Across the slope was a wide level area under cultivation. Corn rose above the other plants except where tomato and bean vines climbed latticework. Becky approached the women tending the garden.
The oldest of them said, "Good to see you Becky. You've been gone longer than we hoped yet return sooner than we feared. The quest?"
Becky said, "I think I found what we need."
"I said we chose wisely. You have an independent spirit."
One of the younger women asked Becky, "What did you seek? Where have you been? The story I've heard is all confused. What's going on? We're in trouble."
"Before the men knew they were sick, Marvin apparently quarreled with someone and decided to teach us a lesson. He buried the spare electric key then a few days later removed the online electric key from the water wheel itself during the night. Then he walked out of here."
The younger woman said, "Was he trying to kill us all? We're nearly out of the safe water. In a day or two we'd have been forced to start drinking surface water." Everyone looked sick at the very idea. Some looked at the nearby stream and turned pale.
Becky shook her head. "I hope I've learned enough to spare us that fate. Anyway, Marvin knew how to wreck the wheel if he wanted to destroy us."
"Then what was he trying to accomplish?"
"I think he wanted us to crawl to him to get the wheel fixed. Maybe one of the other men told him we could do fine without him or something like that. Competition can do strange things to people. My guess is he knew he might be pursued, and wanted to be able to destroy the part but not wreck his chance later to fix the wheel. So he buried one and kept the other. Thankfully, though he hid them carefully, Marvin kept exact notes about what he took and how to replace it and where he buried the spare. He knew it was too important to trust to his memory. It was more than the work of a minute to find them. Despite all his care not to utterly destroy us, Marvin was obviously bitter."
"Why do you say that?"
"He buried the spare key," at this Becky produced it from her pack, "One shovel length southeast of Tabatha's grave." The others murmured at this. For the first time that evening they were clearly angry.
"How did you force him to give it back?"
Becky was grim. "Once I tracked him down, Marvin made no objection at all when I took the key."
The oldest woman said, "I knew it. His ego left him to die alone."
Becky said, "Yes, at least we were here to bury the other men when the sickness took them. I found him lying in the open. Some beast had already started eating on him. I searched him and his belongings, found the notes and key, and got out of there. It seemed to take forever. I wouldn't wish what I saw on an enemy, let alone someone who'd been a friend."
"Obviously he didn't understand what was coming. Otherwise there's no way he'd have been so petty. If he hadn't been playing games he could have had a decent burial. At least the other men didn't die alone."
"How could anyone guess the black rain would make everyone sick then kill every male? And afterward! If we weren't well armed those crazy women in the night would have killed us to get our well water."
Becky said, "Those harpies would not have understood the irony. We did not have the electric key. Without the electric key the water wheel will not generate electricity. Without electricity we cannot run the pump that fills our water tower. We'd have soon been in the same situation they were."
"I doubt they would have cared much about our plight. They'd obviously already been drinking from the streams."
"Until we test the key we may still be in the same situation they are."
"Not that in the long run it matters." The women all looked at each other in silence.
"It matters to me," Becky said. "We still have our own lifetimes to preserve."
The oldest woman said, "Can you fix the wheel? Can you get us water from deep underground again?"
"Let's see if I have things figured out. Hope I learned something from those engineering classes before the Trouble came. Thought I'd be designing bridges and skyscrapers, not trying to repair machinery."
Becky and two other women entered the well house through a nearby metal door in a concrete wall. The wheel and its water had never made a sound. In the silence the women could hear rivulets joining and flowing among the grass.
Eventually the three women came out of the well house. They were smiling. "No suicide water tonight." Becky drank from a glass in her hand. "For now anyway, the stream remains our friend."
The oldest said, "For the time being. But for each of us, our rivulet will join ever larger streams until we each become part of Styx."
Becky raised the glass of water in toast. "Here's to a delaying action." She drained the glass and smiled. Another day.
"Sir, how have you been able to stay so creative?"
After your thirty-fifth birthday 'sir' is a cuss-word, and the 'stay' was not flattering either. But the woman in front of me was likely too young to comprehend, so I let it pass. "Once I stepped through Beauty's door the only limit has been my effort level. The gemstone of the universe is bursting with glittering facets. I just take notes."
She frowned at that answer. I swear she did. "None of that resonates with me. For instance, what is Beauty's door and how do you step through it."
I said, "I think you misunderstand art's purpose."
She of course frowned again. "Art helps you see."
"That's not it. I knew you misunderstood."
Once more she, well, you will have guessed. "Then enlighten me."
Sometimes it is so difficult to discern a pilgrim from a tribunal I just assume the latter. This one though seemed more like a pilgrim, though without good manners.
"I'll answer as I can. Art confirms you really did see what you thought you saw."
"That's supposed to be a serious answer?"
"Art shows someone has walked this path before you. That's why the unrelenting demand for novelty in art is misguided." Now she was actually mad. "You weren't kidding about not enlightening me."
I tried again. "Art depicts an experience you haven't had yet. For you it's a seed - the least impressive object you'll ever see. It contains a vast and aged tree inside, but you are at the wrong place in time to comprehend that yet-internal secret."
"But if it's explained --"
"It doesn't help to give you pictureless words, spices without scent, music pitched above your hearing. The explanation for you is still an abstraction, like looking at a family photo of people utterly unconnected with your life. But to a family member each face in that image simply explodes with meaning and emotions they cannot hope to explain to you."
"So art is waiting until I join the family? Or art is a seed that will become a tree."
"Might become a tree."
"Might become a tree," she repeated. "Are metaphors logical to demonstrate the inadequacy of abstractions?"
I said, "Were this a debate I would say your very question clinches my point."
"But it's not a debate," she said. Her manner was, at last, quiet.
"Let me be more personal. As a boy I sat alone on the bank of a pond one autumn day with a hand-held radio. What does that sentence communicate to you?"
"Only what you said. I see the 'boy' before me. Every other word is an abstraction. I know neither pond nor day. I don't know what was playing on the radio."
"For me that sentence communicates the moment a fault-line inside me slipped. I live today among the continuing aftershocks."
She asked, "Did you hear terrible news or something?"
"That's good. You're already imagining a story that covers the facts as you know them. But in truth any witness would have said nothing happened."
"Nothing changed your life?"
"The day was windless and cloudless. There were no longer bugs yet the weather was unseasonably warm. The water lifted exact depictions of the trees of scarlet and gold who hung their faces over the shore. I had not just arrived, and I had no place to which I needed to rush away. The natural and social worlds were exquisitely poised. Into this harmony a new song played on the radio. It was as if composed at my side that very moment. That song gave voice to the tranquility around and inside me. All these decades later I still feel my heart tearing open in a type of splendid agony to let all this wonder stream into my soul."
She realized. "This has been your way of telling how you walked through Beauty's door."
I said, "You phrased that right. How it happened to me. I don't know how or where or when you step through."
"You captured a magical moment."
"A magical moment captured me. I did not seek such because I'd forgotten such existed. Once you regain that magical awe you had as a little child, once you understand your intellect can never be more than a tiny candle in the noonday sun of the world, then you will begin, step by step, to see the majesty and anguish of the world around you."
"For example, in the news I heard how terrorists killed everyone on a bus. A common enough photograph of someone else's family."
She caught her breath. "I see. Every person involved has a story. If I make them family instead of a group photo of strangers, years would prove too short to tell the tales."
"Despite knowing nothing about their lives. That is why you have an imagination."
"Step through Beauty's door."
I smiled. "Unlike my experience, you have a witness."
"I do begin to see what you were talking about."
"As you go about your life, everything you see contains stories because someone made it. The shoes on the person in line ahead of you were made by someone, let alone the obvious person themselves. Imagine the life story of society's builders. Once you transcend superficial appearance, once you begin to read the signature in everything you see, then how pitiful is it to look at Nature and still see nothing!"
She listened now, and did not speak.
I said, "Look at this building. People built it. Who knows what prayers and tears, joys and fears were poured into every stone as it was laid. Only with our imagination can we read the echoes of the time capsule hidden inside every brick. How much more so the sun and grass and sky!"
She said, "I see now there are so many stories waiting to be set to verse or prose or painting or sculpture or music that all the artists who've ever lived can have only scraped the surface."
"I am now an old and often lazy man. The stories rise like spirits of the woods and ask permission to go into the herd of swine I call my writing. I rarely give them leave. All too often I am content to sit on the sidelines and cheer other artists. What makes this wrong is that some of these stories will never call on any other artist. If I am silent they will never walk abroad under future suns."
"My view has changed just in the few minutes we've spoken. Now the idea of whether or not my art will be popular seems puny. If I can voice the stories hidden in the bricks and trees and shoes, and people in checkout lines, then I've been faithful to my calling."
"This is why my answer to the unspoken question you brought to me in the beginning, a question about success, had to itself be unspoken. It does little good to define darkness. Turn on a light."
She said, "Thank you," and moved on.
As she walked off, out of habit I thought about the artisan who handcrafted her leather purse. It may have been a woman who grew up on a ranch, learning leather-work with saddle and bridle and belt from her beginning. Maybe someone, say her father, was injured by a malicious horse and became unable to support the household. The artisan turned her skills to making leather accessories to keep the ranch in the family. She succeeded beyond any expectation because she discovered people love to surround themselves with quality and beauty.
"Excuse me," said the young man who was next in line. "I heard what you said to that lady and it moves me."
I blinked because I was far away, and the speed of coming back to the conference and my writer's table made my eyes water in the wind of the world's resistance. I am a terrible promoter - I talk too long to each person. This person had that fire in his eyes. "Are you called to create?"
"I believe I am," he said. "More now than ever."
"There was a man at an artist's convention who gave away more than he sold. He could be so bold because he'd watched the world unfold after a greater had broken the seal. To conceal would be to steal what the future was due. Though he wrought fiction he was in love with what's true."
I love conventions. You meet so many new family members.
Mysteries of Western Kansas
The reception area of Matthew Eastman's office was decorated with a cattle theme of saddles, spurs, hats, and lariats. It was expected, given I was here to negotiate on behalf of my employer with Mr. Eastman for some of his cattle. Eastman cattle have a high reputation in the beef industry. A typical Western Kansas beef model is built around a stockyard where thousands of cattle are crowded together. Eastman's approach is thousands of partitioned acres of prairie grass through which cattle are rotated by mounted cowboys. Though it supports fewer cattle, the method optimizes the quality of both cattle and grass. Mr. Eastman also imports specialized hay from his operations in the East to further impart a deliberate flavor to the beef; a flavor so prized only the finest restaurants can afford to serve it. My firm had a new opportunity to provide beef to fine restaurants on the Eastern Seaboard, provided we could secure a supply of the right product.
When finally shown into his office, I was surprised to see a room with only a few bookshelves for decoration on the side walls. I was more surprised the wall behind his desk was decorated with only a single worn whaling lance.
My bachelor's degree from Hays is in journalism, though I am compelled to earn my keep in other professions. But my nosy curiosity is a journalistic trait that bleeds through my business topcoat.
"Pardon my beginning conversation on a tangent, but why do you have a whaling lance on your wall?"
"Oh, that's right. You studied to be a journalist. Hays, wasn't it?"
"Yes. But I didn't come to talk about me."
"Though obviously I researched you."
"Now I ask a second why."
Mr. Eastman said, "If anyone knows the power of mystery, it's me. I don't want that power out of my control in a negotiation."
"I would've thought someone like me too small for you to go to such lengths."
"Were you that small I would not bother to meet you face to face."
I said, "Point taken. To return to the first, why does a cattleman have a whaling lance dominate his office wall?"
"To remember that a chase may be impersonal, but the kill takes place as close range."
I did not know what to say to that.
"I am impressed," Mr. Eastman continued, "That you recognize a whaling lance. Most folks around here, if they have any idea, think it a harpoon."
"Certainly not the same reminder."
"How does a Hays journalist come to recognize such an object?"
I said, "Moby Dick. My father's favorite novel. I learned a lot about whaling to get closer to Dad. But why do you?"
"Clearly you've not done your homework on me." He pushed a sheet of a paper across his desk. "We'll start business on these terms. You'll get no better from me right now."
I read the paper. "The supply is rather small."
Mr. Eastman held out his hand. We shook. "Then you need to come back soon with better research on me."
"These are as good a terms as I was prepared to offer a little startup. But it intrigues me to imagine what you'll make of seeing what I'm made of."
"Isn't that a rather irregular business practice?"
Mr. Eastman was grave. "To speak frankly, your operation is so small as to be more business nuisance than opportunity. I planned to hear you out then refuse you. But I don't take such actions without having a feel for the person, so I invited you here. I wanted to have a handle on the content of your character, and such a sense only comes face to face."
"Then I should be honored you invited us to do business and invited me back."
Mr. Eastman nodded. "You should. The last thing I need is corrupt clients."
Obviously I would accept the handshake deal or walk out with nothing. "I hope to see you again soon."
I expected to return in a day or two with an amazing portfolio of research. It took six weeks. Embarrassed I had called Matthew Eastman a cattleman as if that was all he did.
"I'm amazed you still agreed to meet me after the fool I made of myself last time."
Mr. Eastman, not for the last time, was cryptic. "You don't know what you don't know."
"You're kind. Anyway, Matthew Eastman, father Jeremiah, grandfather Elijah, great grandfather Joseph, great great grandfather John, great great great grandfather Ezekiel, the originator of the family fortune."
"Not bad. That's not simple public record."
"I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know one of the wealthiest people around. Nor one of the largest landowners in the state, and a major operator in the vast Hugoton natural gas field. Which is also one of the largest helium producing regions in the United States.
Mr. Eastman said, "I must admit I was a bit surprised you knew so little about the person with whom you intended to do business."
"Were I you, I would have tossed out any pup who walked into my office and thought I was just a cattleman."
"If anything, power should at the very least be magnanimous. So, have you answered your question about the lance?"
I said, "Ezekiel Eastman began as an impoverished seaman, learned to harpoon, then eventually was given command of his own ship. From captain he progressed to shipowner, then to owner of a number of whaling ships. I assume this lance was one of his own."
"Captain Eastman sold his operation in 1857, near the zenith of the whaling industry, and brought his wealth to Western Kansas when much of the area was still, let us say, disputed territory. There's no mystery to why he bought land. A lot of land. Many people understood the benefits. What's hard to understand is how almost all his holdings just happened to be directly over the great Hugoton Gas Field. As if he knew the gas were there, and that in the future natural gas would be valuable." I paused to look at Mr. Eastman a moment, but he betrayed no reaction. "His descendents were well-trained in his passion --"
"With the land. Through all those generations the holdings were enlarged, never sold. When the reserves were realized, a well-to-do family found itself wealthy, as they say, beyond the dreams of avarice. Large as it is, I now see your cattle operation can be little more than a hobby to you even compared to your helium production, let alone the natural gas." I stood and began to pace.
"You are certainly better informed this time around."
"What I can't understand is how Ezekiel could possibly imagine such wealth lay beneath the grass better than sixty years before natural gas even had a value. Before he could have possibly even known it was down there."
"Our family mystery." Mr. Eastman said, "And please sit back down."
I said, "You sent me to chase a mystery you knew I could not solve."
"The future's brighter for any man who loses the illusion of his omnipotence."
"Some sort of business pedagogy?"
Mr. Eastman laughed. "I guess you could call it that. Did you come across any explanation at all?"
"There was an article in a small newspaper that quoted Ezekiel as saying the grass was the hair of a giant who would one day awake."
Mr. Eastman nodded. "You're a good researcher. That quote is quite obscure. Great Great Great Grandfather also said the sea of grass is what was left behind by an ocean that sank into the soil."
"As if he foresaw the existence of the Ogallala too?"
"Conjecture. There's no definitive solution to the mystery. We know what Ezekiel did, but not why. He took the fulness of his reasoning into the earth with him. It could have been pure luck. What I can tell you is my ancestor stood on this land and described the mystery he saw where other people only saw grass."