Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Elaine Lennon

The radio crackled into life. It shocked the desert air out of its silence. There was another man on the moon.  

Gene Cernan was exploring the Taurus-Littrow Valley on the lunar surface and his words echoed crystal clear through the cold hard night: 

“… As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.” 

Cyrus shivered in his thin clothes. He could barely breathe. He realised the pangs he felt were jealousy. Or envy. He couldn’t imagine the excitement, the actual awe of such an experience so far away, so far beyond his own at this moment. He stood outside his Chevy and looked up at the black sky shrouded in stars and stared up at the moon and tried to come to terms with what was going on up there. 

Do we know more about the moon than the earth, he pondered.

He slumped in the seat of his car and realised he didn’t even know what was going on where he was located right now. 

What we know lives here, mused Cyrus. What is it we can’t see? 

He heard the astronaut’s words and his heart pounded with a mixture of fear and envy. The not-knowingness of existence struck at his core. 

He fell into broken sleep, the transmissions from space ceased, the engine had sputtered to pause. A chill fell. 

The desert exposes and conceals. Parched, sun-blazed and dry. A dust sheet that occurs in every direction without a blemish or a boulder to interrupt the vast deposits of sand.  

It couldn’t have rained for months past.  It was a truly barren wilderness. At night it must have been as icy as the Arctic.

Cyrus stretched and blinked into early morning sun. 

He squinted at the vast expanse that stretched flat as far as the eye could see, unbroken by butte or hill. All there was straight ahead was road. For miles.

He drove. The earth eventually transformed into planes of rock shearing off into the distance. Tables and cliffs turning from brown to pink in the light. Shoulders of stone flashing and glinting, monolithic tomb-like structures broken with sedge and channels and gullies hinting at winter rains.

Sand everywhere. Some sedge and ragged purple sage. Snakeweed. Skeleton weed.

The road got neater, smoother.

Finally, a road sign, with two words scrawled on it: The Vortex. He turned left up an asphalt artery that ran two miles.

He found himself looking at what appeared to be a giant beige mushroom. He marvelled at its architecture and slid the car towards it, pulled like a magnetic draw. 

He approached it up a rock and sand path, barely touched by design except for worn tyre tracks. 

Up close the façade was an overhanging roof atop a sold brick and block construction whose huge reflective windows alternated with gigantic slabbed black marble frames. A psychedelic funeral parlour shimmering in the relentless rays of the sun.

The doorbell chimed sing-song and it echoed throughout a vast Modernist chamber that must have had recesses going back in space and time, up and down, beneath the base, back to the next butte which was several miles away. 

Eventually the wide solid black door was opened, just a notch. 

A darkened eye greeted Cyrus with a gruff, “Yes?” 

“I’m here for the interview?” ventured Cyrus. 

  “You’re late,” said the man.

“You are Felix Uhl?” asked Cyrus.

“Who else would I be,” said the disembodied voice already disappearing into the bowels of a circular cathedral-like entrance hall floored with flagstones and festooned with rough yellow walls.

Cyrus jumped to attention and pulled his aviators off his face, resting them in his bleachy blond hair, settling his bag on his arm and grabbed a notebook and pencil from his jeans, stuffing them into his shirt pocket. He had been instructed there were to be no recordings.

“I have a lot to show you,” said Felix. “Come.” He had a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

He beckoned Cyrus towards a glass elevator at the rear of the atrium.

Cyrus hesitated. He took in the figure before him. Imposing, tan, hair the colour of sable, well cut trousers, a denim shirt that had been ironed but the sleeves were rolled up just so. Leather thongs. Smooth extremities, as though he’d just visited a manicurist and a pedicurist. Buffed nails.

“I have a lot to show you,” said Felix. “Come.” He had a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

He beckoned Cyrus towards a glass elevator at the rear of the atrium.

“There are other people here. They don’t bite,” said Felix.

Cyrus automatically formed the opposite impression.

The doors slid shut quietly and Felix pressed the button marked B. He stood at the door. Cyrus backed himself into the wall. It was not a big container for two men. It might hold three at most. The machine made a whooshing sound as it moved.

  The shock of the descent briefly winded Cyrus.

He coughed nervously.

“It’s the effect of the changing air,” said Felix. “Like diving?”

The elevator chugged to a halt. The doors opened quietly.

Felix stepped out and wave his arm with a flourish.

“Come into my chamber, as the spider said to the fly!”

Cyrus stepped out into a corridor illuminated by dimmed blue nightlight. 

The air on the lower level was surprisingly invigorating considering they were so far beneath the surface. 

Felix led the way through a narrow hallway and then they turned right into the first of several tunnels.

“Wind generators feed the tubes,” Felix indicated a funnel system overhead running along both sides of the walls. Pumps zigzagged up, down and over frames. Steam bubbled and hissed in jets.

They entered a growing room. Silos of seeds sprouting. Green vegetables that Cyrus couldn’t identify, labelled with Latin names. A strangely earthy scent pervaded the atmosphere.

“The best nursery you ever visited, right?” asked Felix as he pointed out multiple varieties of common strains of potato.

“We can do it all, with controlled temperature, humidity, nutrients and carbon dioxide,” said Felix, marching Cyrus through corridor after corridor of oversized vertical shoots. “From pollination through harvest, a balance of rays to mimic daylight and nighttime, anything can be grown here.”

He walked Cyrus through what looked like a warehouse of millions of lettuces.

“What’s the smell?” asked Cyrus. The scent suffused his system and he inhaled great gobs of it. Its fresh heady sweetness was intoxicating. He was momentarily discombobulated.

“Chlorophyll,” said Felix. “Isn’t it delicious? I could get high on my own supply!”

He pointed out quick-developing herbs.

“The secret is in the stems,” said Felix. “These lights will do the job that the sun won’t do.” He pointed at the overhead system.

“What’s wrong with the sun?” Cyrus asked.

“Farming that way is destroying the soil,” said Felix, stroking the stamen of one plant. “People need to be enlightened.”

“I thought crops needed to be enlightened.”

Felix feigned deafness. He turned to face Cyrus. “Plants have the time of their life here. The best time. All the environmental parameters are met without disturbing the land. That’s why I’m talking to you. The message needs to get out. The things we can do with man’s staples! Come with me.”

They passed two men dragging a metal trolley bulked out with troughs of seedlings.

Cyrus nodded at them with a smile. They ignored him.

He followed Felix into a bigger, lighter area. 

Felix showed him his piéce de résistance, a huge bank of oversized sunflowers, they must have been twenty feet high. There were thousands of them, a mini-jungle. The stalks were several inches thick and it took Cyrus to crane his neck to see the tops of them – huge bowls of sunshine topping such impressive foliage. Upside down, facing what – the centre of the earth?

The phrase anil del muerto occurred to Cyrus. He found himself shivering.

“Sunflowers are just a burst of pure happiness, don’t you think?” said Felix, mostly to himself.

“Shouldn’t they be pointing the other way?” ventured Cyrus. He was directing his right index finger upward. 

Something about Felix’s reaction indicated this was the incorrect thing to say. 

“Why?!” he spluttered. 

Cyrus pursed his lips. “If they were pointing the other way you might be proving another kind of point. I mean, the sun is in that direction, after all.” 

Despite the low hum and whir of the air generators everything seemed to be sucked from the cavernous hold. 

Felix’ brow furrowed.

“What about the chemicals you’re using?” asked Cyrus.

“You understand nothing,” said Felix. “This is the future. No waste. No poisons. No herbicides. No pesticides. Everything in perfect formation. Come. The flowers are pretty but what follows is the real meat in the sandwich.” He walked briskly ahead of Cyrus.

They descended to another level in the glass elevator. 

“We seek enlightenment in the dark,” said Felix. “Don’t you agree?”

“Everything I know is wrong?” said Cyrus happily. 

“Something like that,” Felix nodded. 

Cyrus found himself retracting his index finger slowly, as if it were detumescing of its own volition. 

“Does anyone know you’re here?” Felix asked him. 

“My editor,” said Cyrus casually, avoiding his gaze. His viscera churned. He had no wish to be vegetarian. All these plants made him long for a cheeseburger.

The answer seemed to satisfy Felix. He beckoned Cyrus with his little finger to follow him. 

The doors slid open to reveal blinding light in another endless corridor of strangeness. There were dozens of giant mechanical octopi, a complex Heath Robinson construction of enormously appealing plasticity and childlike imagining.  

“Can you keep a secret?” asked Felix. He had a wolfish grin.

“Depends,” said Cyrus. 

“I’m building my own immortality machine,” Felix said. His eyes brightened as he mouthed the words.  

Cyrus found his delivery curiously bewitching. He almost believed him. 

“You don’t think it’s time somebody had a dream again?” asked Felix. “Come back here in fifty years and I’ll be as young as you are now,” he declared, spreading his hands so that his light filtered through his outstretched fingers, cocking his head provocatively. 

He opened a sealed door to reveal a circular chamber.

Cyrus was looking at a huge glass enclosure, maybe sixty feet in diameter.

“Everlasting life,” said Felix, circumnavigating the mechanical structure. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death. Recognise it?”

Cyrus shook his head.

“Corinithians fifteen, twenty-six. Doesn’t anyone go to Bible study anymore?” Felix said. “Don’t you want to live forever?” He seemed lost in a reverie.

“How does it work?” asked Cyrus. He squinted as a small buzz sounded while ball bearings whirred and whizzed up and down on what appeared to be a giant executive toy in a massive snow globe containing a galaxy of perpetually moving parts. Rainbows danced on the shards this way and that.

“Aerodynamics. And batteries. Batteries nobody thought of.”

“Not even Tesla?” asked Cyrus.

“Apparently so,” said Felix.

“So you’re an alchemist,” said Cyrus.

“Not so much. More an engineer with a life wish,” said Felix.

“Why here? The desert? Away from civilisation?” asked Cyrus.

He looked around at the alien setting, the iteration of life in a vacuum, the sheer unhumanness of it all.

“A long time ago – yesterday – life forces combined from other worlds to make man,” said Felix. “Self-preservation is linked with eternal life through a simple algorithm that can be found in the ground itself. Granite. Quartz. The old shamen and witch doctors out here know this truth. Nothing separates us from the sky except our ignorance. You see?” Felix held the palms of his hands out flat.

“Bioelectromagnetic healing. It’s the key to everything. It’s the answer to illness, the path to eternal youth. It’s life itself. It’s swarming in this very building!

“This very spot is the confluence of several ley lines. It’s the centre of the earth itself. I had to be here. I had no choice. I came here as a boy and met an old prospector who introduced me to a whole new world. A world of angels. A world of energy. The real world, not the falsehoods perpetrated by Washington and Madison Avenue. Aren’t you drawn to it? Can’t you feel the force? The sheer pull of the electricity?” He closed his eyes and bunched his hands into fists.

“The tabernacle,” he said softly.

“So you think you’re God,” said Cyrus.

“No, never that,” said Felix. His eyes were still closed. “Perhaps His messenger. This entire structure is aligned astronomically. The constellation of Orion guides everything we do here. What is God if not the stars?” He opened his fists to reveals crushed petals. He opened his eyes and stared at Cyrus.

Cyrus stepped backwards. One step. Two. Then another.

“We are all the offspring of star people,” Felix murmured. He was talking to himself.

Cyrus saw his opportunity and turned and ran out through the door, down the dimly lit hall and towards the elevator. Back to the future.

It made that whooshing sound again as he ascended to the ground. He pressed his hands to his ears.

In the cool of the hallway with its slatted sloping windows he ran towards the front door. He was relieved to discover it hadn’t been locked.

He ran to his car and grabbed the key from his trouser pocket. He gunned the engine. It churned and ground up as he shifted gears. He drove down the avenue in his gleaming silver machine, away from the magic mushroom in the rearview mirror.

  He wanted to escape Nemo’s periscope world. The world of soylent green and obsession and rocks. He was scared, he knew that. He shot across the still desert, at one with that slick of silver slinking into the night, eventually to the city, the familiar. Everything that seemed very far away right now. The freezing wind stung his face.

The sky was dark. The Cernan transmissions had stopped. The spaceman was travelling back to terra firma. The noise in Cyrus’s head was chatter from the dead ancestors. The radio couldn’t make it go away. He skidded into the void.

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