The Professor has teeth like foxed paper, teeth the antique parchment color of aged ivory: the sort of old bones hunters wrest from riddled carcasses in faraway places to hang up in their studies and blow pipesmoke at for years and years; also perennial halitosis teeth; mossy, misused, malodorous. All in all a catastrophe of a mouth, and just as bad a mouth that never stops talking. The Professor has the unimpeachable confidence of someone comfortably aware of, and satisfied with, their proportion relative to everything around them; there he is, sitting in the van’s passenger seat, talking, talking. He’s optimistic about this project.
They all call him the Professor but he has not confided to anyone in the crew his credentials; certainly the others have each asked at some juncture of this trip what, exactly, he does; but each time they got only an answer so circuitous, so baroque and pompous, laden like an altar with fustian terms and gibbets of lore and the general excreta of an overstuffed mind, that before even any single sentence resolves itself the listener is lost in the tractless veldt of the man’s curious learning.
It’s an open secret, this obfuscation, one that everyone here acknowledges, but only silently, each to himself. There’s this curious innocence among the men, an antique traveler’s reticence, a compelling superstition that to pry into a fellow traveler’s life is to tamper not only with his selfhood but to violate the fragile camaraderie that has carried them this far from home, out into a desert to interview a zealot. This superstition, that a veneer of anonymity is crucial to ensuring the journey continues, seems besides the point now. As if it were possible to stop at this late stage. The van is already leaving the last town.
It’s one of those unfathomable provisional small towns that seem only to manifest on long trips, as if for the benefit of the traveler, to contextualize the otherness of journeying: compact, self-sufficient and arcane as the Vatican, cultivating its own seasons and schedules independent of the rest of the world. They’re passing the last building now, a two-story ambiguity hard by a ruptured barking lot baking under a rime of dust. On its street-side facade there’s a stain outline denoting where, at some point, there was a sign; and, whatever deeper shade it once was, the sun and wind and heat and cold has left the painted walls a leached, wading pool-water blue.
Gemini (“the ‘G’ stands for Gemini,” he says), freelance journalist, sits in the back of the van, watching through the tinted window this young secretive ruin pass by. Slanted against the seat next to him, in its polymer hardcase the size of a child’s coffin, is the camera. Mezzo, the mute cameraman, sits in one of the middle seats ahead of him. Mezzo prefers not to associate with the camera when he is not working. When he has to handle it he does so almost brutishly, strongarms the thing as if to indicate to it that he’s not in the mood for its bullshit.
The Director is driving. Strangely he does a lot of the gruntwork on this trip. Well, “Director,” but in the constellation of cinema’s early luminaries he is, at best, a minor light, a hack who thinks he’s an artist, and one always contrapuntal to the trends of the times, and uselessly prescient in that way. A decade ago he was making sci fi movies when everyone else was out here, committing cowboy morality plays to celluloid; when he turned his hand to Westerns a few years ago, audiences began to want stories about the stars. He carries the paunch and wears the nondescript apparel of an eternal townie, looks like someone who has a favorite barstool at the local dive, where he is known by some vaguely demeaning nickname. Never rich but mysteriously able to access funds when he needs them, he’s funding this documentary entirely with his own money. He calls it Eschaton for no other reason than that he likes the sound of the word; he’s a dithyramb addict; he may forget the project in a week and take up something else entirely, always at the behest of the little golden sphinx of his ambition. Gemini, who has been following the Director around for nearly a year now, accreting material for an article or articles on the industry, has seen the man incubate and then dissolve enough projects to occupy an entire studio.
The Director found the Professor. The Director seems to hang on the Professor’s every word. He believes deeply in the unkempt man who, he says, tipped him off to this cult in the first place, which means the two men must’ve met somewhere, somehow. Even though, to Gemini, the idea of these two men seems inherently supramundane, strange and impossible to imagine as two planets colliding. The Professor’s opinion of the Director is impossible to glean; only guesses can be hazarded as to his opinion of anyone or anything, for his outward persona consists entirely of the words that pour from him at the slightest, at any provocation. So, then, Gemini does not hope or believe he will figure out the man’s reasons for coming. The Professor doesn’t appear to be a particular expert on religion, nor have any especial interest in film. He never calls anyone by their name, or indeed seems to refer to anyone in any extended manner at all.
The Professor says suddenly into the silence of the car: “I too, was once a child. You’ll have to take my word for it, for I’m the only one left alive from that faraway time.”
“Were you a dreamy child?” the Director asks. This is how they speak to each other, this singular conversational protocol, limited to the two of them, with its own rules and rhythms.
“An exceptional dreamer. A prodigal dreamer. Virtuosic dreamer!” The Professor holds up a single finger, as if struck by a revelation or tolerantly correcting a pupil trying their best. “I dreamed my first dream the night after I was born. I never slept without a schedule, even as an infant. I grasped life’s schema as soon as I was dry. I went to sleep promptly at 9 o’clock that night, with none of the newborn prolegomena, no low crank from croup, nor was I ever jaundiced or unduly enervated. Do you understand? Moreover I didn’t need to close my eyes and wish wordlessly for sleep; no, I simply, immediately, slept. Now, this troubled my parents. One might suspect they were jealous of my innate serenity, and that may be, in part, true, for they were perverse in their way. But I think even then they had, through the strange chthonic parent-child sympathy, a presentiment of what I dreamed of. Because you see, that first dream of mine disclosed, in perfect detail, the circumstances of their deaths – deaths which, mind you, were still dozens of years in the offing. They loathed the omen that I became, the doom I intimated wordlessly. Never did I misbehave, but my implications, what I carried in my head about them, turned me into a Black Spot, an adorable but unlovable harbinger.”
“Dreams inspired much of the imagery in my older films” the Director says. “The root of The Disc came from a dream I had about a disc, flying low across the sky. There were no windows on it and everybody wondered what it might carry inside of it. Feared it. From that starting point it was easy to imagine that a ship like that would, or could, carry a nuclear bomb inside it. In my movie the Russians put it there. They’ve made a deal with the devil, so to speak. The devil in this case being the Martians, who gave them the ship. Have you seen that one?”
Farther away from the town now. Even the freak tenacity of the desert scrub erodes over these distances, fewer and fewer specimens standing further and further apart like last bedraggled soldiers retreating from a decisive rout. And the sun still high but falling, bearing down on scraps of clouds above the distant mountaintops, grave, huge, symbolic, poised above them like some apocalyptic weapon in an abstract war mural, turning them lighter, lighter, coingold at last, a molten regalia; then drops behind them, still manic and inflamed, and the clouds black now in eclipse, flying in all directions like shrapnel. Further away and up the sky is serene, echoing, cathedralized, passing with great dignity into what will be another stark night. The moon has been up for hours, cradled in a lacunae between two far-off peaks. It’s nearly full, but faded, sunk into the deep sky and laved by its waters like a shell.
Underneath this and other cosmic histrionics the van turns off the paved road onto a dirt track, a hint of a path that takes them further out into the scrublands. Low hills appear, this road winding around their far side. Taking this curve the small crew in the van sees that the path goes on to descend into a shallow valley, a hidden swale in which the commune lies.
A handful of spare, weatherbeaten buildings: a barnlike affair made from clapboard, a pair of long, low-slung Quonset huts of galvanized steel, and, some yards behind this grouping, a slightly canted silo. The dirt path, moving down into the valley in a series of unnecessary switchbacks, eventually runs almost up to the door of that barn, passing between a pair of columns, each thirty feet high and capped by a small cuplike structure, like the crow’s nest on a main mast. And, at the bottom of the valley now and fast approaching, the travelers see that, indeed, in each one there’s human form, with a shorn head, bare chest, and sunken eyes looking not at them but at some indeterminate point on the horizon.
Their van nears, slows, the Director kills the engine and gets out. The barn’s door slides open on warped iron rails, and, as if following cues in a stage play, a group of people emerge from the uncertain light within into the dying light without. A dozen or so of them, in dusty black chambray workshirts and malfitting jeans hung across emaciated ascetic’s bodies like tarps thrown over bundles of sticks. Like those gaunt stylites perched at the top of the pillars, these peoples’ heads are shaven, men and women both. All shorn, all with skin burned and creased by the sun, thin as fingers, all smiling; personal demarcations so eroded between them they look more like the gaunt, sexless figures a troubled child might draw than men and women of the modern world.
Gemini disembarks last and joins the three others to stand facing these desert apparitions. One among them detaches from the rest, hand extended to grasp the Director’s own: already outstretched, plump and brown; a little game hen.
“Rector Elijah Buell,” the figure says as they shake hands. “Welcome to our uncommon little parish.”
There is a faint sound behind them. The crew turns. One of the stylites has bent his head over the edge of his nest, exposing raw red peeling scalp. A liquescent gobbet of beige matter falls from his open mouth and lands in the dirt with a sound like a rifle report heard at an extreme, improbable distance.
“Emesis,” observes the Professor drily.
There’s Mezzo in the barn, behind the camera, sweating profusely under its vinyl shroud, aiming its unblinking lens up at the ceiling and what lives there. The Professor goggles and gurgles, head craned back. The Director has his arms crossed and keeps shaking his head and smiling into his beard. As soon as he saw the ceiling he stopped the pleasantries and asked Rector Buell if they could get some B-roll. The Rector consented with a nod.
In his notebook Gemini refers to it as the “moth situation.” Behind a tight mesh screen that spans the entire length of the barn, closely packed across every inch of the ceiling, are moths, each as big as a splayed human hand. They are a strange non-color, some pale intersection of white and lavender. Wings overlapping wings, the way the lozenges of steel on scale armor dovetail; and underneath countless sets of six barbed legs shuffling, adjusting, scratching. The constant abrasions against one another scrape off their scales, which fall onto the mesh screen. And each wing with a dark eyespot too, so that the shifting, rustling mass looks back at the looking camera with its own thousand thousand eyes.
Rector Buell and his flock stand patiently by, serene under the constant susurrus above while Mezzo gets his footage. Eventually the hood retracts into the camera’s undercarriage and Mezzo, mopping his face, rejoins the others.
“We are currently in the midst of a fast,” Buell says, “But we are happy to serve you a meal, humble though it may be.” (NB: a mere hour after meeting the man, Gemini finds it hard to believe he ever had trouble distinguishing the Rector from his congregants. It’s an argument for any of those theories, so popular at the time, that posits a secondary visual plane beneath our apparent one, a symbolic plane where true natures are emblematized externally: a clever person may be a fox, a shy person a rabbit or tender slug. Because Gemini, in Buell’s presence now, feels something necromantic emanating from the man, a tang of something fungal and unhealthy.)
Eating now, Gemini finds himself acutely aware of the hopeless processes of biological life, the farce of his own wet innards, even now sustaining him with their vulgar motions: acidized mush being pushed through hot yards of gut. Cured meat, beans boiled without salt, whole carrots crudely peeled; that is their dinner. The Professor, sitting next to Buell, puts to the man a series of queries that, as far as Gemini can parse, are concerned with the life cycles of the moths.
The Director, meanwhile, chaws his meat looking thoughtful, although Gemini has spent enough time with the man to know that what is probably in his head is a favorite scene, replayed endlessly, of himself, on a stage, garnering acclaim. He does seem to have stumbled onto something unusual here, Gemini admits.
“The emissaries are a gift,” Buell says to the Professor. “A tool, in a way, to help us in our translation.”
Buell smiles. “Translation is the word we use, although we may be misapplying the term. You’ll have to forgive us for that Professor. We’re all laymen here. On the threshold of greater knowledge, yes, but still humble as we approach that higher place.”
“Words are malleable, Rector, of course. And far be it from a humble drudge, as I am, to gloss another man’s terminologies…but if you could elaborate on this translation, and on this greater knowledge you seek, this threshold you stand upon?”
One moth, vagrant, has moved past the mesh layer. It crawls down one of the support beams and then shunts clumsily into the air. The supplicants look at it with love and awe as it moves as if jerked on a string, before landing on Buell’s wrist like a buckler.
“I can show you, if you like.”
The party – the Director, the Professor, Gemini and Mezzo, as well as Rector Buell and a couple of his people – cross from the barn to the farther Quonset hut. The camera is riding on Mezzo’s back, its front legs wrapped around his midsection and heavy octopoid head resting on his shoulder like that of a hydrocephalic infant. At the door Buell pauses, turns to look at his guests.
“You are about to meet some others of my flock, adepts who are in an advanced state of translation. While I gave you my permission -”
“Now look here Rector you said we could film -” the Director says.
“- while I gave you my permission to film whatever you like,” Buell continues, “I need you to understand I expect you to show an artist’s decorum inside. You can ask me anything you like and I will answer, but do not talk to those within, do not touch them, do not do anything that might disturb their concentration. They are at the most important point in their process, further along than we are – than even I am – and we must respect the distance that exists already between us and them. Is that understood?”
The men nod. The Director, now that Buell has said his piece, stops the man before he opens the door, because it is time for Buell to have a layer of stage makeup applied. This the Director does himself, with a two-sided brush and a folding palette. Meanwhile Mezzo attaches the long photosensitive filaments to the camera’s lens, as if it too needed to be properly made up before going to work. From the camera’s side compartment he retrieves the handheld spot and, once the Director is done with Buell, shines the spot onto the man’s face.
The white foundation takes the harsh light, spreads it evenly across Buell’s face. His pupils, now encircled with heavy black liner, dilate within their double ring, make his emaciation seem less like a physical condition, and more a metaphysical disease, as if his thoughts were sapping his life-essence. He blinks in the bright light.
“Are we ready now?”
Inside, beds line both walls. A series of bare bulbs run along the center of the ceiling, with wire connecting each to each and hanging limply like bunting or swags. They hum, their filaments quiver minutely; a few moths are here too, perched lethargically here and there.
In each bed a form, familiarly human but strangely proportioned, lying blanketless and nude. Something thick and colorless covers their skin like a rind, fills their open mouths, their noses, erases the delineation between finger and nail, flattens the breasts, turns the genitals into smooth formless mounds. Every so often an encrusted extremity will move, slightly: a finger will extend, pointing feebly, a mouth dilate, a calf turn like a caught fish at the bottom of a boat, leaving a lavender residue on the white sheet.
“Jesus fuck,” whispers Gemini. The Professor wheezes near-soundlessly, like an under-rosined violin. The Director’s eyes, behind his tinted glasses, are two beads. Mezzo already has the camera running, its eyelashes quivering in sympathy with the hum of the bulbs. Buell, with his two people, stands to one side and watches the filmmakers.
“They’re dead,” Gemini says.
“They’re not,” Buell says tonelessly. “They’re being translated. And when they’re ready they’ll be taken from us.” He smiles at his supine charges, these rigid flaking forms. A moth drops from the ceiling onto one of the bodies. “Come, follow me.”
The Director tells Mezzo to stay where he is and continue to film the sleepers. The others follow Buell towards the far end of the barracks, where stands a partition with a door.
Inside the room there are shelves, and on the shelves are jars filled with colorless powder. The Professor gawks and adjusts his glasses, with Buell’s permission takes a jar and holds it up to the light.
“The scales,” he breathes. “Lamellar…..wing scales…..”
“It is the gift,” Buell says. “What the emissaries have brought to us. The avenue to translation.”
“You….what, eat this stuff?” Gemini asks.
“Controlled ingestion, yes. Over the course of several weeks.”
“But they’re dying out there,” Gemini says, without any heat.
“It looks like they’re dying. But what you see happening is a gradual forfeiture of, first, the lower bodily functions, then the architecture of the body itself – the organs, et cetera – and, at last, the soul’s escape from the brain, the loftiest prison of all. The soul, you see, gets lost in that sinful coil, and we seek to liberate it through translation.”
“But then, what happens next? What are they being translated into?”
“We chose the word carefully. Think of our bodies, this reality, as a language, a tongue through which the soul expresses itself. It stands to reason then, that if the soul is translated into another language, a grander, higher, more nuanced language, it can express itself more fully.”
“And what exactly,” the Professor interjects, “Would this other language be? Bodies are not syntax, of course, but – another planet? Too, whose language is it that you are learning to speak?”
“I don’t pride myself on my eloquence, but right now I am ashamed of my limited ability to explain what I mean. I – we – have received a Visitor. An envoy arrived in answer to my prayers, and under its tutelage I am bringing up myself and others, translating ourselves into something greater. Integrating into a Greater Form.” The others stare at him, and then he shrugs. “We do not proselytize. We do not force our views onto others. If people wish to join us, we are here. Even those who are here may not qualify for translation. It’s an arduous process. There is a long stripping-back before the final abandonments of translation itself. It’s not for everyone.”
The Director seems bored with this room, bored with Buell’s cognitive cosmogony. The Professor places the jar back on the shelf and grazes his fingers across the glass, almost longingly, almost lover-like.
Suddenly Buell yawns hugely. “I’m afraid I’m up past my bedtime,” he says. “Can we continue this interview back in the main hall?”
Gemini, the errant journalist, is outside the barn now: smoking and looking at a huge night above, full dark of deep night, unvelvetlike, aqueous and sheer, a mourning mantilla spread without a wrinkle. Out here in the desert the stars are violently bright, sprent in huge geometries, burning in anxious tangent to one another and connoting arcane purpose, like a ritual glyph made of salt. The moon, thickened, shines fat and buttery, a yellow bone button at the bottom of a drawer. Somewhere else, far away, it has just rained so hard that, in the dark, the trees are drooling; but here it is dry, vast and without an echo, like the inside of a skull.
Everyone else is back inside the barn again, wrapping up filming for the night. Leaning against the imperfect clapboard Gemini can hear the camera humming, hear Buell talking.
“Some years ago I worked for the government. They kept me in a cubicle and slid papers in all day through a hole in the door. They expected me to stamp them. But with which stamp? I had dozens in there with me. The crux of my job consisted of picking the right stamp for each paper, then sliding the stamped paper back out through a different slit in the door. When my shift was up I waited for my manager to let me out. The sound of his key ring jingling outside my booth made my mouth water. He would open the door and hand me my box dinner. Each day he would show me how to fold out the little paper handle to carry it with, and send me on my way. Then I would walk home. But one night, I had a visitation…..”
That night the crew sleeps alongside the ascetics in the Quonset hut closer to the barn, which they call the Barracks and is designated for the untranslated.
The Director is already asleep, fell fast asleep. He dreams he is crawling around in the bowels of a civic building of indeterminate purpose. Weightlessly he moves down long cement corridors, comes at last into an enormous bathroom. Walls and floor both are tiled in small, smoker’s teeth-yellow tiles. Along one wall are urinals, at set intervals stretching into the far distance. The sloped floor beneath carries any stray or splashed urine down to a central drain. But there are sticky spots on the floor. And he must walk across it barefoot.
Mezzo’s beard and hair smell like the camera’s shroud. He has a blister on his finger where he touched one of the hot coils on its underside. He sleeps soundlessly now, dreamlessly, his injured hand tucked into his pants, cupping his balls.
Gemini dreams that he leans over the side of his bed and pulls his notebook from his jacket pocket. When he opens it he finds that he is unable to read his own handwriting. In his dark uncertain sleep he can’t be sure if he dreamed this or not, or he is dreaming this unsureness, right now.
The camera is in its coffin underneath Mezzo’s bed, looking at the inside of its lens cap.
The Professor waits until he is sure everyone is asleep. Then he climbs out of bed, and out of the Barracks. He enters the other one, moving on mincing feet past the inert forms of the translated.
Early the next morning – too early, through the Barrack’s high windows the sky is a series of paling squares – Gemini is awakened by Mezzo, who is shaking him with one hand, his other’s pointer finger bisecting his lips in a “Shhhh” gesture. He motions for Gemini to follow and the two men go out into the raw dawn, where the Director is already standing, hands akimbo.
“What’s going on?” Gemini whispers.
“The Professor is gone.”
“Gone. I mean, I’m sure he’s here, but where exactly the fuck is he, is the question.”
“Um.” Gemini waits for an order.
“We need to look for him. I need him not to fuck this up for us. Here, Mezzo and I’ll go look in that silo. You check in the other hut with the stiffs.”
“I’m not going back in there. I’ll go look in the silo.”
“That’s swell, I won’t argue with you. Look in the silo, meet us back here once you’re done, okay? Mezzo, c’mon. No you know what, get the camera first.”
Gemini approaches the silo. It’s been gutted and repurposed, all the outer impediments stripped, a doorframe cut crudely into the corrugated steel, a rough wooden door wedged crookedly into the frame and hinged badly. There’s no lock, no handle, just a hole where one might be fitted, opening onto a perfect, miniature spot of darkness.
Gemini leans down to look through the hole. He can’t see anything. There is a sound like a gentle wheeze, and a smell wafts through the opening, something carnal, but vegetal too, earth-musky and rhinitic – an acrid something that threatens to explode his sinuses. Breathing through his mouth, Gemini reaches through the hole. The door prises from the frame with a squeak and a rattle, and Gemini looks inside.
“Good god damn,” the Director says under his breath.
The Professor is in the back room of the hut, slumped sitting on the floor with the limp, splayed-limb abandon of a discarded doll. His mouth is open, his tongue black and swollen; some of his teeth sit on it, the rest have dropped down the front of his shirt like drool. His eyes are rolled back, their nerves already cut by the visiting organisms within him. His fingers curl around his own shucked nails in his palm.
“Professor? Professor,” says the Director, but there is no response. In the midst of his translation now, the forms of the Director and Mezzo are conveyed to the Professor through a fresh sense, one even he would be unable to explain to what he once was. Mezzo backs up to the door.
“No, wait,” the Director holds out a hand. He scratches his beard. “Start rolling.”
Gemini’s breath winnows in the weak light that falls between him and the darkling interior. Light that shows, now, imperfectly, a mound of bodies, entwined with one another, naked, almost tantric in their intricate concatenation. Their rigid colorless forms are fuzzed with colorless dust. Bare heads emerge from the tangle in several places, like polyps disclosing from coral; each looking up at something with its severed, sightless eyes. Gemini looks up.
He sees something, hanging from the ceiling like its emissaries, but so different. There’s something horribly bare and vivisected about it, something frank and gaping and indecent; it looks like a still of a uterine prolapse, or an anatomical cross-section given quivering fungoid flesh. The huge pistil-like center moving slowly back and forth to cosmic winds, surrounded by subordinate protrusions capped with lambent blue nodes, waving too; moths drop down and clamber around that center that throbs like a mangled face. And then around this, securing it in place above, an eruption of slimy man-sized fronds, and hanging root-like appendages flanged with gills that wheeze and cough. They move queasily, shaking skeins of thick colorless dust down onto the Form below.
A daub of powder lands on Gemini’s hand and, at this alien contact, hot wildflower panic blooms in is brain and he runs from that sanctum, back into the open air, around the back of the silo, away from compound, and slowly up the hilly side of the valley beyond. Legs digging into the angled earth, lungs nearly bursting, and his brain too. But, from an aerialist’s perspective, he would be, merely, a small dark spot moving, with steady pace, up, up, with the same industrious patience of an ant on its way home.
They are nearly back to the door when it is flung open. Buell is standing there.
And here’s Gemini Gemini in his own city again, an eyesore along a low coast. His face is still raw and red from sunburn. His hair has a bleached look to it. He’s been bopping from bar to bar and right now sits drinking gin from a tumbler somewhere tacky. Everything is lit up pink and teal and purple, turns everyone’s clothes to harlequin garb.
An acquaintance takes up on the seat next to Gemini. “Heya Gem, what you been up to?”
“Nothing much,” he says.
— Ben Schwartz lives in, and writes from, an Ohio of the Mind. You can follow him on twitter @schwartz_ben and on Bluesky @schwartzben.bsky.social