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Lightning jags above the Pyrenean mountains, thunder roars, and death takes on new meaning. It is appropriate that the first time I see the man he stands at the foot of the full-size crucifix that borders the road just outside the village. But then everything he does is appropriate.
Do I recognize him, this man who fought shy of cameras all his life? Of course not. His book jackets carry no image of him. I found his first book so disturbing I never read another. Millions bought his every book, but not me.
Then he died. On April 27, 1998. It was some two months before the death was reported, and about two months after then that we meet.
August 21, to be precise.
I'm jumping ahead of myself, but then I'm excited. It's not that he came back from the dead. That's wild enough, but he'll explain it. It's that he chose to come back to me.
The first drops of rain fall. They bounce off his head, and give an extra sheen to the silver hair with its curls drawn back across his scalp. I stop on my walk -- not because he looks at me, because he doesn't. He has never seen me before, yet he yells my name out loud against the thunderclaps as he looks up at the naked body of the crucified Christ.
It's a cry for help. I do nothing but remain where I am as the rain falls.
"Come here and look at this!"
I step up to his side, and we both raise our heads toward the face of Jesus.
"Tell me what's wrong about this, and what's right."
"Is this a riddle?" I ask.
"The only riddle is why I am asking you, and not telling you."
"It's wrong that Jesus was killed?" I suggest.
"You have a simple mind. Maybe that's a virtue in you. Can you absorb all that I am going to tell you? We'll see. First I will tell you what is wrong about this statue. It is pathetic that this crucifix is here. People paid good money to have this piece of wood carved, painted, and erected. What purpose does it serve? Every time they come and go along this road, they are faced with death. Christ is not about dying. He is about eternal life. Not death, but resurrection. If people want a symbol by the side of the road, then let them build an empty tomb. At least such a structure could shelter passersby from the rain. Come on, Martin. We will go to your home and get dry."
He shakes his head to sling water from his hair into my face, then starts off down the road into the village. I am impressed by his language. His voice is gentle, with a slight trace of an accent to give it distinction; I presume the accent comes from nearby Spain, and the flow of his words is beautiful. There is no pause, but softness of delivery gives polish to every word. His skin is tanned in depth, it has the color and texture of a local's, but his whole air of being is cosmopolitan.
"How do you know my name?"
"Is that what is important? How somebody knows your name? I use your name because I am talking to you. It is important that you listen to what I have to say rather than waste time wondering why I say it. We are speaking of Christ. There is time to consider you later. You now know what is bad about hanging this dead body beside the road for all to see. This morbid fascination with death kills the spirit. But tell me, what is good about it?"
"Nonsense. You go past this statue on your walk every day. Do you ever stop and stare at it as I was doing?"
"Sometimes. Not for so long."
"That's fine, as it happens. There is not so much to see. I am a sculptor myself, trained in Italy, so you can take my word for the quality of the piece. But you can never know this much for yourself, not about sculpture or anything, any work of man or nature, unless you spend time staring into it. Tune yourself to where you're looking, Martin. Open wide and see if there is a message for you there. If there is, you will know it from your eyes. They will vibrate. You will take in the energy of its creator. If you stare at a tree or a flower, you take in the energy of the universe. Stare at a statue, and you take in the energy of the sculptor. The devotion in that sculptor was slight. There is little that is universal there. But there was some care as he formed this image of the male human body. The male nude. You can see he ran his hands over the wooden skin. What value there is in this sculpture is in the surface alone. The statue has painted flesh but no heart, no guts. Still it's a body, nonetheless. That's our goodness, Martin."
"The body is our goodness?"
"Perfect. You're learning. My time may not be wasted. Yes, the joy of being human is living in a body. It's fine to have a body as an emblem of religion, even if it is a dead one. Do you eat meat, Martin?"
"You're wrong. Meat isn't dead. You'd run a mile if offered dead meat on a plate. It would stink to high heaven. No, the meat you eat has the life of the animal still inside it. That's why it gives life to you. You think Christ rose from the dead? You're a simpleton. Christ dies and the light goes out of the universe, the big bang gets sucked back in a big whimper. Christ never died. He picked up his body and took it for a stroll. The Romans had one agenda, and he had his own. He had work still to do. There's some work you can't do outside of a body. If people could just get a hint of that, they'd thrill to being alive."
We reach the steps that lead up to my house and he trots up them, as though leading me to his own home. The door is unlocked. He kicks off his shoes in the entryway and steps inside.
"Welcome," he says, and spreads his arms wide to hug me as I step inside to join him. The hug squeezes my arms to my sides and leaves me breathless. He holds me longer than is right. It feels like he is taking an impression of my body into the flesh of his own.
"You know me?"
I shake my head.
"But you do. You know me as well as I know you. I come like this, like this storm in your life, but it is necessary. I blow in, I make things fresh and clear for you, then I blow out again. Things can grow after a storm like the one I bring. You need new growth, yes, Martin?"
I'm too numb to nod my head, so I just stare at him.
"It is so. You were dead, and now you are alive. You have many years ahead of you. Me, I have this short reprieve. Just a brief while longer to jump around in my own body. I share what I can with you before I go. And now I give you what makes my body still work as it does. I give you my name."
He holds out his hand. I take it in mine and we shake.
"Carlos," he says. "Carlos Castaneda."
There was a power in the handshake, like a whiteout that left my mind blank. I don't know how it worked. I can only say I felt more drained than charged as a result.
"The Carlos Castaneda?" I ask at last.
He grins, lifts his hands in the air, and spins around on his right foot before clicking his heels at a standstill again to present himself.
"But you can't be."
"Why not? I'm a writer. You're a writer. We both find ourselves in this ancient French village. It's natural that we should meet."
"But you're dead."
The smile goes from his face and he flashes into anger. "Who told you so?"
"It was reported. I read your obituary. Your body was burned and the ashes spread over the Arizona desert."
"Details," he says. "Mere details." He steps further into the room and slumps into one of the armchairs.
"They kept your death secret for a time."
"Why a time? Why not forever?"
"Your son -- "
"I have no son."
"Stepson then. Your wife's son. He got an attorney's letter and released the news."
He says nothing. Simply leans back his head, opens his mouth, and lets out a long sound. It's a moan first of all, then the vocal cords stop vibrating and the sound is different. It's a death rattle. I step closer to examine him. Saliva drools from a corner of his mouth and his pupils have rolled back behind his eyelids to leave only the whites of the eyes and the veins.
There is silence, then his tongue sticks out, pink rather than gray, and remarkably juicy. It starts at the corner of his mouth and licks all the way round his lips. As I watch the tongue I feel myself watched in return. The right eyeball has swiveled back into place. One eye fixed on me, the other still white, it's like a hideous wink.
Then both eyes shut tight, stay closed awhile, and snap open. He stares up at me, opens wide his mouth, and laughs. It's a honking laugh, which seems to stem from spasms in his chest, and I feel the gusts of stale breath against my face.
I sit on the sofa to face him, with the window behind me, and wait for an explanation.
"So, dear boy." As he speaks he shifts his body to sit upright. "You think that death is the end?"
"Of course not. But look at you. See how much work you still have to do. It seems even my death freaks you out. Makes you too stupid to speak. How are you going to cope with your own death when it comes?"
"Did you really die?"
"That's good. It's good you can ask the question. It means you can accept the possibility that I'll say yes. Well, poor Martin, that is my answer. Yes. Yes, Carlos Castaneda did die."
"So you're not him?"
"If I'm not, then who am I?"
"You tell me."
"OK. Let's stop playing games. You're locked inside a temporal frame, closed into your own worldview, so I will answer in your own language. I'll use a tense you can understand. I was Carlos Castaneda."
"A good question. Thank you for asking. As we speak I see how helpful speaking is. I've been roaming these mountains, frankly astonished to still be alive. Christ walked on water, but it seems much more miraculous for me to be walking on earth. I was sick. Sick for a long while. Cancer is interesting, experiencing your own body's decomposition while still fully conscious, but it tires you out. By the time death comes it's a relief to let go. I wasn't finished though, Martin. The Romans kept to their time schedule when they crucified Christ. He went along with it, but still had his own agenda to complete. He came back, picked up his body, and carried on. As with the Romans for him, so with cancer for me. I let it have its say. Now I'm back. It's a delight to be free of it."
"How did you manage it?" This is the magic of logic. Even when something is palpably insane, like conversing with a dead writer who's strolled into your home, logic has a structure that can keep a conversation going. "Christ's body was smothered in oils, wrapped in cloth, and laid in a tomb. You were cremated. There was nothing left but dust."
"You are asking me to justify my existence?"
"Tell me how a man can compose himself out of dust."
"You know this already. You know how a human body is formed from the matter of combusted stars."
"That's physics. We're talking metaphysics."
"I'll tell you why I'm back. The cause before the effect. Does that make sense?"
"And then you'll tell me the effect? You'll tell me how you did it?"
"If you can't work it out for yourself."
"OK," I agree.
"You have any drink in this house?"
"Wine. Beer. Whisky."
"Whisky!" The thought cheers him. "Straight up. No ice. As it comes."
I pour one for him, then one for myself -- which I water down. He holds the tumbler near his nose, sniffs, and smiles. The vaporous smell of it seems enough for now. He doesn't drink.
"So," he says. "My story. Because it bores me, because it is everything I wish to escape, I will be brief. Pay attention. This bears no repetition."
From the Trade Paperback edition.