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Ian meets Death in a dream. He is promised the answer to any question. Failure to understand the answer will cost him his life. Unhappy Arlen gives up everything and moves halfway around the world and discovers the man she's been waiting for always. Terminally ill Wyatt finds that he has the ability to raise the dead. Three fates converge to ask the ultimate question--what is Death?
Just returned from Sardinia, where we'd planned to stay two weeks but ended up driving away after only five days because it is one HIDEOUS island, dahling, let me tell you. I'm always suckered by books like The Sea and Sardinia or The Colossus of Maroussi, where famous writers describe how wonderful it was to be on wild and woolly islands forty years ago when the native women went golden topless and meals cost less than a pack of cigarettes. So, fool that I am, I read those books, pack my bag, and flea (intended) south. Only to see topless women, all right—two-hundred-pound German frau-tanks from Bielefeld with bazooms so enormous they could windsurf on them if they only hoisted a sail, meals that cost more than my new car, and accommodations the likes of which you'd wish on your worst enemy. And then, because I have a limp memory, I always forget the sun in those southern climes is so deceptively hot that it fries you helpless in a quick few hours. Please witness my volcanic red face, thanks.
No, I am past forty and consequently have every right to "just say no" to things like these trips from now on. When we were driving back, I said to Caitlin, "Let's just go to the mountains on our next vacation." Then, lo and behold, we came to an inn below the mountains near Graz, next to a small flickering brook, with the smell of wood smoke and slight dung, red-and-white-checked tablecloths, a bed upstairs that looked down on the brook through swaying chestnut trees, and there were chocolates wrapped in silver foil on our pillows. There's no place like home, Toto.
While we were in Sardinia, we spent a lot of time in a café-bar that was the only nice thing about the place. It was called the Spin Out Bar, and when the owners found out we were American they treated us like heroes. One of them had been to New York years ago and kept pinned on the wall a map of Manhattan with red marks all over it to show anyone who came in where he'd been there.
At night the joint filled up and could be pretty rowdy, but besides the Nordic windsurfers and an overdose of fat people in floral prints, we met a number of interesting characters. Our favorites were a Dutchwoman named Miep who worked in a sunglasses factory in Maastricht. Her companion was an Englishman named McGann and there, my friend, sits this story.
We couldn't figure out why Miep was in Sardinia in the first place, because she said she didn't like a lot of sun and never went in the water. She was happy to leave it at that, but McGann thought it germane to add, "She reads a lot, you know." What does she read about? "Bees. She loves to study bees. Thinks we should study them because they know how to make a society work properly." Unfortunately, neither Caitlin's knowledge of bees nor mine extends beyond stings and various kinds of honey we have tasted, but Miep rarely said anything about her books or her bees. In the beginning Miep rarely said anything about anything, leaving it up to her friend to carry the conversation ball. Which he did with alarming gusto.
God knows, the English are good conversationalists and when they're funny they can have you on the floor every five minutes, but McGann talked too much. McGann never stopped talking. You got to the point where you'd just tune him out and look at his pretty, silent girlfriend. The sad part was, in between all his words lived an interesting man. He was a travel agent in London and had been to fascinating places—Bhutan, Patagonia, North Yemen. He also told half-good stories, but inevitably in the middle of one about the Silk Road or being trapped by a snowstorm in a Buddhist monastery, you'd realize he'd already spewed out so many extraneous, bo- ring details that you'd stopped paying attention six sentences back and were off in your own dream image of a snowbound monastery.
One day we went to the beach and stayed too long—both of us came home with wicked sunburns and bad moods. We complained and snapped at each other until Caitlin had the good idea of going to the bar for dinner because they were having a grill party and had been talking about it since we'd arrived. Grill parties are not my idea of nirvana, especially among strangers, but I knew if we stayed in our barren bungalow another hour we'd fight, so I agreed to go.
"Hello! There you two are. Miep thought you'd be coming, so we saved you places. The food is really quite good. Try the chicken. Lord, look at your sunburns! Were you out all day? I remember the worst sunburn I ever had ..." was only part of McGann's greeting from across the room when we came in and walked over. We loaded up plates and went to sit with them.
As both the evening and McGann went on, my mood plunged. I didn't want to listen to him, didn't want to be on this burned island, didn't relish the twenty-hour trip back home. Did I mention that when we returned to the mainland on the overnight ferry, there were no more cabins available, so we had to sleep on benches? We did.
Anyway, I could feel myself winding up for one hell of a temper tantrum. When I was three seconds away from throwing it all onto McGann and telling him he was the biggest bore I'd ever met and would he shut up, Miep turned to me and asked, "What was the strangest dream you ever had?" Taken aback both by the question, which was utterly out of left field, and because her boyfriend was in the middle of a ramble about suntan cream, I thought about it. I rarely remember my dreams. When I do, they are either boring or unimaginatively sexy. The only strange one that came to mind was of playing guitar naked in the back seat of a Dodge with Jimi Hendrix. Jimi was naked too and we must have played "Hey Joe" ten times before I woke up with a smile on my face and a real sadness that Hendrix was dead and I would never meet him. I relayed this to Miep, who listened with head cupped in her hands. Then she asked Caitlin. She told that great dream about making the giant omelette for God and going all over the world trying to find enough eggs. Remember how we laughed at that?
After we answered, there was a big silence. Even McGann said nothing. I noticed he was looking at his girlfriend with an anxious, childlike expression. As if he were waiting for her to begin whatever game was to follow.
"Dreams are how Ian and I met. I was in Heathrow waiting to fly back to Holland. He was sitting next to me and saw that I was reading an article on this 'lucid dreaming.' Do you know about it? You teach yourself to be conscious in your night dreams so you can manipulate and use them. We started talking about this idea and he made me very bored. Ian can be very boring. It is something you must get used to if you are going to be with him. I still have trouble, but it is a week now and I am better."
"A week? What do you mean? You've only been together that long?"
"Miep was coming back from a beekeepers' convention in Devon. After our conversation in the airport, she said she would come with me."
"Just like that? You came here with him instead of going home?" Caitlin not only believed this, she was enchanted. She believes fully in chance encounters, splendid accidents, and loving someone so much right off the bat you can learn to live with their glaring faults. I was more astonished that Miep had come with him yet said openly what a bore he was. Was that how you sealed the bond of love at first sight? Yes, let's fly off together, darling, I love you madly and'll try to get used to how boring you are.
"Yes. After Ian told me about his dreams, I asked if I could come. It was necessary for me."
I said to McGann, "Must have been some kind of powerful dream you had." He looked plain, pleasant, and capable but only in a small way—like an efficient postman who delivers your mail early, or the salesman in a liquor store who can rattle off the names of thirty different brands of beer. I assumed he was a good travel agent, up on his prices and brochures, and a man who could choose a good vacation for someone who didn't have much money. But he wasn't impressive and he talked forever. What kind of dream had he had to convince this attractive and nicely mysterious Dutchwoman to drop everything and accompany him to Sardinia?
"It wasn't much really. I dreamed I was working in an office, not where I do work—some other place—but nowhere special. A man walked in I'd known a long time ago who had died. He died of cancer maybe five years before. I saw him and knew for sure that he had come back from the dead to see me. His name was Larry Birmingham. I never really liked this fellow. He was loud and much too sure of himself. But there he was in my dream. I looked up from my desk and said, 'Larry. It's you! You're back from the dead!' He was very calm and said yes, he'd come to see me. I asked if I could ask him questions about it. About Death that is, of course. He smiled, a little too amusedly I realize now, and said yes. About this time in the dream, I think I knew I was dreaming. You know how that happens? But I thought, Go on, see what you can find out. So I asked him questions. What is Death like? Should we be afraid? Is it anything like we expect? ... That sort of thing. He answered, but many of the answers were vague and confusing. I'd ask again and he'd answer in a different way, which at first I thought was clearer, but in the end it wasn't—he had only stated the muddle differently. It wasn't much help, I'll tell you."
"Did you learn anything?"
Ian looked at Miep. Despite her aloofness and his dialogue ten miles long, it was obvious that there was great closeness and regard between these two remarkably dissimilar people. It was a look of love to be sure, but a great deal more than that. More, a look that clearly said there were things they knew about each other already that went to the locus of their beings. Whether they'd known each other a short week or twenty years, the look contained everything we all hope for in our lives with others. She nodded her approval, but after another moment he said, gently, "I ... I'm afraid I can't tell you."
"Oh, Ian—" She reached across the table and touched her hand to his face. Imagine a beam light going directly across that table, excluding everything but those two. That's what both Caitlin and I felt, watching them. What was most surprising to me was that it was the first time Miep had talked of or shown real feeling for her man. Now, there was suddenly so much feeling that it was embarrassing.
"Ian, you're right. I'm sorry. You're so right." She slipped back into her chair but continued looking at him. He turned to me and said, "I'm sorry to be rude, but you'll understand why I can't tell you anything when I'm finished.
"Excuse me, but before I go on—it's hard for me to tell this, so I'm going to have another drink. Would anyone like a refill?"
None of us did, so he got up and went to the bar. The table was silent while he was gone. Miep never stopped looking at him. Caitlin and I didn't know where to look until he returned.
"Right-o. Tanked up and ready to go. You know what I was just thinking, up there at the bar? That I once drove through Austria and got a case of the giggles when I passed a sign for the town of Mooskirchen. I remember so well thinking to myself that a bonkers translation of that would be Moose Church. Then I thought, Well, why the hell not—people worship all kinds of things on this earth. Why couldn't there be a church to moose? Or rather, a religion to them. You know?
"I'm rattling on here, aren't I? It's because this is a terribly difficult story for me to tell. The funny thing is, when I'm finished you'll think I'm just as bonkers as my imagined worshippers at the Moose Church, eh, Miep? Won't they think I don't have all my bulbs screwed in?"
"If they understand, they will know you are a hero."
"Yes, well, folks, don't take Miep too seriously. She's quiet but very emotional about things sometimes. Let me go on and you can judge for yourself whether I'm crazy or, ha-ha, a hero.
"The morning after that first dream, I walked to the bathroom and started taking my pajamas off so I could wash up. I was shocked when I saw—"
"Don't tell them, Ian, show them! Show them so they will see for themselves!"
Slowly, shyly, he began to pull his T-shirt over his head. Caitlin saw it first and gasped. When I saw, I guess I gasped too. From his left shoulder down to above his left nipple was a monstrously deep scar. It looked exactly like what my father had down the middle of his chest after open heart surgery. One giant scar wide and obscenely shiny pink. His body's way of saying it would never forgive him for hurting it like that.
"Oh, Ian, what happened?" Sweet Caitlin, the heart of the world, involuntarily reached out to touch him, comfort him. Realizing what she was doing, she pulled her hand back, but the look of sympathy framed her face.
"Nothing happened, Caitlin. I have never been hurt in my life. Never been in the hospital, never had an operation. I asked Death some questions, and when I woke the next morning this was here." He didn't wait for us to examine the scar more closely. The shirt was quickly over his head and down.
"I'm telling you, Ian, maybe it is a kind of gift."
"It's no gift, Miep, if it hurts terribly and I can't move my left arm well anymore! The same with my foot and my hand."
"What are you talking about?"
Ian closed his eyes and tried once to continue but couldn't. Instead, he rocked back and forth, his eyes closed.
Miep spoke. "The night before we met, he had another dream and the same thing happened. This Larry came back and Ian asked him more questions about Death. But this time the answers were clearer, although not all of them. He woke up and he says he had begun to understand things that he didn't before. He believes that's why the scar on the inside of his hand is smaller—the more he understands of the dream, the more it leaves him alone. A few nights ago he had another, but he woke with a big cut on his leg. Much bigger than the one on his hand."
Ian spoke again, but his voice was less. Softer and ... deflated. "It will tell you anything you want to know, but you have to understand it. If you don't it does this to you so you'll be careful with your questions. The trouble is, once you've started, you can't stop asking. In the middle of my second dream I told Birmingham I wanted to stop; I was afraid. He said I couldn't.
"The ultimate game of Twenty Questions, eh? Thank God Miep's here. Thank God she believed me! See, it makes me so much weaker. Maybe that's the worst part. After the dreams there are the scars, but even worse than that is I'm much weaker and can't do anything about it. I can barely get out of the bed. Most of the time I'm better as the day goes on ... but I know it's getting worse. And one day I won't ... I know if Miep weren't here ... Thank God for you, Miep."
I later convinced him to show us the scar on his hand, which was utterly unlike the one on his chest. This one was white and thin and looked years old. It went diagonally across his palm, and I remember thinking from the first time we'd met how strangely he moved that hand, how much slower and clumsier it was. Now I knew why.
There's more to this, Sis. But what do you do in a situation like that? When half your brain thinks this is mad, but the other half is shaking because maybe it's real? They asked us for nothing, although I doubt there was anything we could do. But after that night whenever I saw or thought of McGann, I liked him enormously. Whatever was wrong with the man, he was afflicted by something terrible. Either insanity or death dreams were clearly out to get him, and he was a goner. But the man remained a bore. A good-natured, good-humored bore who, in the midst of his agony or whatever it was, remained wholly himself, as I assume he'd always been. That's the only real courage. I mean, few of us go into burning buildings to save others. But watching a person face the worst with grace, uncomplainingly, grateful even for the love and help of others ... That's it, as far as I'm concerned.
Two days later, Caitlin and I decided more or less on the spur of the moment to leave. We'd had enough and weren't getting any pleasure at all from the place. Our bags were packed and the bill was paid within an hour and a half. Neither of us likes saying goodbye to people and, as you can imagine, we were spooked by McGann's story. It's not something anyone would be quick to believe, but if you'd been there that night and seen their faces, heard their voices and the conviction in them, you'd know why both of us were uncomfortable in their presence. Then it happened that as we were walking out to the car, we ran right into Miep, who was coming toward the office in a hurry.
Something was clearly wrong. "Miep, are you all right?"
"All right? Oh, well, no. Ian is ... Ian is not well." She was totally preoccupied and her eyes were going everywhere but to us. A light of memory came on in them, and her whole being slowed. She remembered, I guess, what her man had told us the other night.
Excerpted from From the Teeth of Angels by Jonathan Carroll. Copyright © 1994 Jonathan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 4, 2012
From the Teeth of Angels by Jonathan Carroll. This is one of his earlier books and a lot of people reviewed it as
not "mature writing." I'm not sure what those reviewers meant. The subject matter discussed was death, a very mature topic, and having just had a brush with death myself, I found his insight poignant and downright hilarious in a rdeliciously dark way, which is just what I like. If you like reading magic realism or cross genre fantasy, then check out this interesting view on death for yourself. It's good, really good. I swear, you will find yourself wishing you'd written the darn thing yourself!
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Posted August 12, 2009
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Posted October 25, 2008
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