“Hello, Robert. Can I talk to you awhile?” He flopped down on the sidewalk swinging his heels in the dust. I hunkered down beside him.
I said, “I haven’t seen Slim in town for a while.”
“Haven’t seen Slim. No, I guess that Slim doesn’t much want to come into town.”
Gently now. “Something happened to Slim?”
“Something happened to Slim? I guess Slim’s further along with his work, that’s all. His shaft’s deeper than any of ours.”
There was a motion in the glass behind me. Mr. Inschloss was watching us. Maybe I should get back to work. To hell with it.
“Why so much Paris green, Captain?”
“The lice. The lice are terrible.” He pulled off his hat. Throughout his salt-and-pepper hair were red running sores. There were flakes of bloody scalp caught in the hair and a sickening sight of tiny movement on every surface. The captain’s hair had been his pride. He used to say that his mane brought him women the way a lion’s attracts lionesses. I knew the first thing I’d do after the captain went away was to wash and wash and wash.
“I don’t think you should put the Paris green directly on your scalp. That stuff’s pure poison. It’s for—less advanced cases.”
The captain smiled dreamily as he replaced his hat. “Pure poison? We’re beyond that sort of thing. You should visit us sometime. I’ve told Brandon all about you. He’s holding a pick for you. I’m surprised it’s not calling to you.” He was watching the valleys of dust his heels dug. He studied them the way a man’ll read a newspaper.
“Captain, what say you and I and Slim catch a train to California? It’s bound to be a lot healthier picking oranges. Warmer on our old bones.”
“I can’t leave now, Robert. We’re getting close.”
The captain stood up and shuffled off toward the mining supply store. I leaned my broom by the doorway and went in. Mr. Inschloss handed me an unwrapped bar of carbonic soap. He asked, “Is he a friend of yours?”
“He showed me the ropes when I hit Telluride. Yeah, I guess he is a friend.”
“I’ve never seen such afflicted hair. You’ll want to wash carefully. I’m going to spray some pyrethrum powder. What does your friend do?”
“Ach, I should have known. Gold fever.”
The Brunckow Mine is located ten miles outside of Telluride near the pitiful headwaters of the San Miguel Rio. Brunckow was the first white man to die there. Any number of locals will tell you that the mine is cursed—that shadowy figures pass between the cabin and the shaft in the moonlight. In fact, when the mine is not being worked, it proves your manhood if you can camp there by night. Nobody questions that new people acquire the claim to work it. It once had a rich vein. And the lust of gold is—well, understood here; it is the reason for the place’s existence.
I bummed a ride from a drummer. He was hitting mines further away to sell snakebite cures and gold detectors. He’d drop me off at the Brunckow, then pick me up on his way back to town. Brandon, he asserted, was too smart to buy his gadgets.
The cabin had recently been repaired. New shingles here and there, a new porch, and a wind charger’s thin metal blades spun light into the cold desert. There were four spades leaning against the cabin. I knew that one of them was for me.
Suddenly I didn’t want to be here. My merely intellectual curiosity vanished. I was alone.
Mr. Brandon opened the cabin door. He didn’t look surprised. He was paler (and perhaps even a little more jaundiced) than when I’d last seen him. “Come in, Mr. Lyons. We don’t get many visitors here.”
I went in. There was a small fire going with a pot of beans. There were biscuits, butter, and honey on the table. “Have a seat. Mr. Macphedius tells me you used to be an astronomer. He said you’re on your way to Arizona. Are you hoping to work at Flagstaff?”
“There are far too many out-of-work astronomers even in the best times; the Lowell Observatory commands the best.”
“Like some beans to go with your biscuits? So you’re not the best. West Texas State Normal School, wasn’t it? Canyon, Texas, but you lived in Amarillo. I met an art instructor—a Miss Georgia O’Keefe. They didn’t keep her because she wasn’t the best, didn’t teach by the book, you see. I think Miss O’Keefe will go somewhere with her art someday. I see no reason why you shouldn’t with your astronomy. I’m a patron of the learning. That’s why I’d like you to work for me.”
“As an astronomer?”
“As a miner. You could save up someday to build your observatory. Like Lowell. He made money with his books. Did you know he was a student of Oriental occult lore? I’ve got a copy of his
“The captain said you were having trouble with lice.”
Mr. Brandon’s hair looked fine.
“A remarkable family, the Lowells. Poets, politicians, educators, inventors, diplomats. A huge flowering of genius all leading to Percival Lowell. Percival Lowell builds his own observatory to find Planet X, and they did two years ago.”
“The god of the underworld. Precisely. You see, there are more connections between mining and astronomy than you might think .Lowell was the key. He studied occult tradition, then went looking for Pluto. He came to Arizona to look for the furthest planet.”
“But he didn’t find it. He died fifteen years before.”
“They still found it at his observatory. His name was Percival—named after the knight who found the Grail. Do you know Wolfram van Eschenbach’s
? The Knights of the Grail live from a Stone of the purest kind. If you do not know it, I will name it for you. It is called
The insignificant stone. The exiled stone. Have you ever considered the number of aerolites that fall here on the western side of the mountains?”
“Well, there’s Meteor Crater.”
“And the Canyon Diablo meteor and a 980-pounder at Peach Springs and the Santa Ritas falls. There was even an explosive bolide here on February 24, 1887.”
“Seems a lot better than chance. I think I will take some beans. That what you’re mining for? Meteorites?”
“Not exactly. But you’re close to the idea. I knew you might understand when Mr. Macphedius told me about you. Mr. Macphedius and Mr. Baird—they aren’t men of the mind. They’re not prepared to house what we might find here.”
“So what are you mining for?”
“I do not seek the gold of the vulgar. Although I suspect an actual physical substance in this mine; I seek only the Medicine of Metals.”
“Alchemy? But I thought—”
“—that it had to do with retorts and alembics. No, any work may form the basis of the Quest. I have spent all my life looking for the place to begin. It’s here. I can see by the changes the Stone is working on Macphedius and Baird. The Stone is the Impossibly Other. That’s why I want you here.”
“I don’t follow.”
“You’re an astronomer, used to straining your mind to try to take in the whole universe. Yet you’ve lived on the bum for two years. You’re adaptable. I inscribed your name on a spade and you’ve come. I’ve got to have you. I may not be big enough to hold what we’ll unleash.”
It would be at least an hour before the drummer came back. I wanted to slow Brandon down—dim that horrible godlight in his eyes. Most of all I wanted to rid myself of some feeling that I was here because of some hocus-pocus he did on a seven-dollar shovel.
“How’d you pick this place?”
“Because it’s haunted. I’ve seen the ghosts! Think about it. Every mining community has ghost stories. Central City, Gold Hill, Black Hawk, I’ve been all over the state. Cripple Creek. They all have ghosts. It’s because something works on the miners as they dig. Some Hidden Power changes them, makes them immortal in a mindless way. But I will find out how to make connection with it. Here, I will perform the Great Work!”
“Where are Slim and the captain? What do they say about all this?”
“They’re sleeping in the mine. We prefer to work at night when we can feel the other miners working with us. You must stay. You must see.”
I rose from the table.
“Mister Brandon, I think you’ve been out here too long. You’re right about one thing—this is an alien section of the world. The rules are different here. You can look at any of the life forms and know it’s different. But I don’t think you can cross that gap, and if you could I don’t think what’s left would be human. Now I’m going to go and wake up Slim and the captain and try to get them to leave, and I hope for your sake you’ll think of doing the same.”
“They won’t go. They already belong to whatever’s in the mine.”
It was cold outside the cabin, but warmer in the mine. I flipped on the lights they’d installed, lights powered by the wind charger. The shaft ran sixty feet, turned to the left another thirty, turned to the left again for another twenty. Slim and the captain slept on the floor—no pillow, no sleeping bag. Their scalps and foreheads were covered by angry running sores. The bloody ooze had mixed with swirls of Paris green and run down to stain the collars of their shirts. Rock dust covered them. I knelt over Slim and poked him. He opened his eyes. The eyes seemed ordinary, yet a shudder went through me. Time seemed to slow. Then he giggled, and spit collected on his lips.
“Slim, it’s time to go. You’ve been down here too long.”
Slim shook his head. He knocked his hand against the captain’s chest. He pointed me out to the waking captain and giggled again.
The captain said, “You’ve come too late, Robert. You can’t get a share in this stake. It’s all ours now. You have no right to be here.”
“Captain, look at yourself. Whatever you’re unleashing is killing you.”
“Not killing us, Robert. Changing us. We’re much further along than Brandon.”
It didn’t look like argument would do much good. I couldn’t drag them out. Maybe if I went to the sheriff . . . I turned away from Slim giggling and rolling on the floor. I left the mine. Just as I stepped into daylight something crashed into the back of my skull.
My head hurt badly. It was night. I was trussed up leaning against the wall of the cabin looking toward the mine entrance. Brandon and the captain walked over to me. Brandon held a gun. “I’m sorry to use violence. Tonight we unite the opposites. I had to have you along. The planets within will join the planets without, and you and I will be transformed by their meeting.”
I had nothing to say. He continued, “Of course, should you try to escape, I’ll shoot you. Untie him, Mr. Macphedius.”
The captain untied me. An animal howl came from the mine. The captain said, “Slim says it’s nearly time.”
Brandon said, “Soon you will see the first of the mysteries of the Brunckow.”
Things stepped from the shadow of the cabin. Things misty, tall, and thin. They passed through us. When they touched us we could feel the memories. They were the ghost miners. We could feel their determination as they set out from Hamburg, their excitement as they left New York, their desperation as they left the gold fields of Alaska. There were flashes of their childhoods—seeing blue bellies overrun their plantation, shooting at a sky darkened with passenger pigeons, hearing sails flapping on a full-rigged ship. There was something else, too. The becoming aware of Something in the mine. A strange alien stretching of the mind.
The ghosts passed into the mine sustained by that feeling.
Slim howled again.
The captain said, “Slim says that he’s up to the Veil.”
Brandon said, “Come along, Mr. Lyons. I think you’ll find this more exciting than the promise of a New Deal.” He moved the gun in small arcs.
We walked into the mine. The ghosts were less distinct under the electric lights. Each of them labored at walls invisible to us. Possibly they labored at the depth the mine existed at in their times. We skirted the ghost miners with fog picks.
Slim stood buck naked at the end of the shaft. He’d cleared a good four feet since this afternoon. There had been gold in the rock. Gold dust glistened among blood and sweat. He held his pick high over his head, watching us with his time-slowing eyes. Brandon gave a nod and Slim turned to face the gray stone. He lifted his pick and gave a yell and brought the pick down on the stone. The pick bit into the rock and when he pulled it back the electric lights gave out. Something blue— like an alcohol flame—poured from the hole. The ghost miners moaned and began to dissolve into a mist, mixing each with each and entering our lungs. The blue light snaked out and entered Slim’s body. He went stiff. He tried to walk toward us. There was a smell of flesh burning. He fell forward, but the light streamed out of his eyes before he touched bottom. It passed into the captain, who died almost the moment it touched him.
Brandon stepped forward. He’d unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a copper medallion thick with runes and sigils and Ute signs. He beckoned the blue light, and it hit him hard just above his amulet. He turned toward me, a soft glow coming from his skin.
He said, “You see, I was prepared. I had made myself a crucible for the Great Work.”
His smile left. He grabbed for his heart. “No, no. That isn’t the way. Help me.”
I moved forward. There was a great fight going on within him. He lifted his Colt to his temple and fired. The light exploded from him. Before I could run, it was upon me. It burned with icy fire as it poured in through my nerves. It felt like a huge alien shape had been stuffed into my body. My skin would tear and my bones break under its pressure. It had radiated its strangeness into the desert here for centuries, millennia. It was trying to rebuild a world it had known. Change space and time into something it understood. It was no longer imprisoned, but this whole sector of space was bad for it. It burned. It cut at my neurons with strangely angled saws.
I began to think of the discovery of Pluto. It paused. It had seen Pluto, seen strange beings building castles out of solid argon. I thought about Einstein’s discoveries, about rocketry and man’s desire to leave the planet, Lowell and his theories of Martian canals. It pushed itself into my thoughts, but my thoughts weren’t big enough. I thought of the Big Dipper and the procession of pole stars. I thought of the Milky Way. I thought of the vast darkness between galaxies. There. It flowed into that darkness. That darkness inside my own mind. I had found a place big enough for it. It could dwell in that darkness forever. It and I were one.