A Story from the Wisconsin Holyland
Things blew up almost overnight. Our neighborhood has always been a Mardi Gras, or like wilding students on spring break. It is still raucous these days, but now only angry in nature. Our neighbors have all become rabid dogs. Damage has been done, and warning shots fired. We are hearing screams. You must choose sides, the religionist Garcias tell us. Armageddon is here. Satan has a plan. My heavens, I think, the forces of darkness approacheth, and we don’t even buy canned goods.
We were not prepared for this, Keiko and me. We had scouted the condo on a Saturday. The neighbors were knee deep into a pool party, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive pulsing between the condos. They were all shapes, heights, and colors, bobbing in the hot tub and pool like all the healthy ingredients of a good, melded stew. One even looked like a carrot. Two women were kissing. No kids to be seen.
They welcomed us with open arms and their always open bar.
Tawny the firefighter would announce through her bullhorn the readiness of the next round of margaritas. Keiko and I are loner nerds. We yearned for friends. After many drinks, we literally fell into the deep end.
At the end of the evening everyone hugged. After the moon eased awake and stars smiled their light into the blackening sky, Keiko and I decided to buy. We felt at home in this stew, safe, as if we belonged. I guess we felt the light, laughter, and hugs promised to keep the world’s darkness at bay. Like the stars would. The alcohol didn’t hurt either.
Now we hide behind our locks and peek out from behind the drapes to gather intelligence on the enemy, or those who might be the enemy. Could be. Can be. It seems so very human to pick something seemingly solid to hide behind, even if only a vague idea, or nebulous ideology.
All this is way out of my wheel house. I am fully unprepared for such human drama. I study mathematics and other obscurities. I am called boring. Nothing much else swirls around up there north of my brain stem. Until all this happened, of course, this chaos.
I am called boring. Nothing much else swirls around up there north of my brain stem. Until all this happened, of course, this chaos.
Keiko is a broader mix of acumens. She is classically trained in music and a doctor of chemistry. Now she is branching off into quantum mechanics. She says she needs to dive deeper because “inside everything dances.”
So we both study the abstruse. We are not only husband and wife, we are yin and yang of the nerd patrol. Everybody says so. The thick glasses give us away if you just go by looks, but so does our cluelessness regarding what happens out there in civil society, or less than civil these days.
But they liked us, our neighbors. I know. You can’t fake gut laughter that propels snot from your nostrils. And how many can pretend fat tears? I think they all cried when Keiko lost the baby. We’re all about the same age in this unusual neighborhood, all trying or about to try that passing on your genes thing, the melding with someone else and handing down of yourselves. I recall all the drunken chats about raising our children together. I would be Doctor Number-nuts in our pool party culture, the neighborhood math prof, and all our issue would attend Stanford.
Only Liz and Dez would have to adopt, Liz and Dez the dizzy lezzies. That’s what we call them anyway. They not only don’t mind the cognomen, that’s what they told us they were when we met. They are the wildest and craziest of the bunch, PETA Jill Steinists who fashion sturdy reusable shopping bags from those polyethylene surgical blankets hospitals incinerate after use. Then they give them away to save the planet. You get ten cents off your bill down at Pic ‘N Save for every bag you bring on your own, and they are so sturdy they never break. Besides saving the Earth, Liz and Dez the dizzy lezzies had a passion for planning the drunken bashes and, Liz says, edible berry bikini panties, until they donned black and began smashing anything establishment with the other ironically fascist Anti-fascists. “It all must come down,” Antifa Dez shrieked at me yesterday. “You either stand with or against us,” screamed Liz. But we don’t really know where to stand. We have nothing black in our wardrobes.
And the Garcias said that too in their own inscrutable tongue. “If Jesus isn’t your General,” Candela pointed out with her forefinger in my face, “you’re a minion of Lucifer, unwitting or not.” Santiago just held up his Bible so I could read its title, as if an exclamation point. It didn’t take long for the Garcias to migrate from traditional Roman Catholic to militant fundamentalist evangelical. Keiko and I are not sure what turned that switch. Maybe they drank the Kool-Aid and ate the free Sunday morning doughnuts at The Community Church down on the corner where the trailer park people handle snakes and moan a lot.
I thought Denzel and Jayla the gentlest, though. I mean, they’re schoolteachers! Jay was teaching my girl how to corn row her hair one day, then the next donned a ball cap with an X and shrieked that Keiko had no right to misappropriate corn rows, whatever that meant. “An apocalypse is pending,” Den warned, “but it will be a race war, and Jesus himself better pick the right side.” We thought we best not tell the Garcias.
Bette and Scott Ehrlich, sweet and kindly McCain-anites, have become virulent Trump-eteers. They want the wall, and reported the Garcias to ICE, Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Turns out the Garcias have been here longer than the Ehrlich clan. Their forefathers trekked west with Coronado and sought the Seven Cities of Cibola long before our government commandeered part of Mexico to stretch its Manifest Destiny west.
Armand is a cop, his live-in Tawny the toned female firefighter who once for a Hamilton arm wrestled me flat. I just witnessed them in the parking lot shouting Denzel and Jayla down that minorities are the problem because they have declared open season on cops. Jayla said to watch your back because cops have declared open season on you. Santiago was out there too. “An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. Exodus 21:24,” he said.
Even Noreen and Tony Mahler went off an even deeper end, our kooky alienologists who believe pterodactyls roam the Rockies. They now only wear camo and plan their own version of the end times war against a New World Order of international government and corporate elites, especially Walmart, who have conspired to build a worldwide network of Deep Underground Military Bases (D.U.M.B.s) and high speed magnetic trains for their own survival when the nuclear balloon goes up. They are DUMBnuts, or NUMBnuts, in the view of our neighbors, DUMB asses who believe in DUM bases.
As for Keiko and I, we think it best to have actual scientific proof something exists before you exert all that effort to believe in it, that the Scientific Method is a good place to start. I think we’re now minorities in that way as well. Lately, logic does not rule.
So we are now at a loss. All Hell has broken loose, and we don’t know where this started or why. It’s like one day we woke up in a zoo, or the jungle, or a circus, and all the animals have grown sharp teeth, and all the animals are running amok, like someone injected something into the air or water that is making us all go apeshit on each other. We don’t know what triggered it, but trigger seems the right word, come to think of it.
We are at a loss because neither of us has have ever even engaged in an argument. My wife is a child of the new gentle breed of Japanese pacifists who succeeded the Samurais that led their culture astray. I am simply the untouchable pencil-necked geek the other kids ignored in school unless they needed help solving quadratic equations up at the whiteboard. We are both so focused on our work and hobby we are quite inept at human interaction. Being invited to join an inebriated chlorine stew was the first time either of us was invited by anyone anywhere. We thought we had taken that most rare and fortuitous side street that leads to a Nirvana invisible to the rest of the world, like in a Stephen King story where you make a wrong turn down a deserted blue road and drive smack into Elvis and Rock ‘n Roll Heaven. Now instead it seems more like the very medieval and European concept of Hell. Or combative Viking Valhalla. Someone just fired one of those old-fashioned Jarts right through our window. Know what they are? A 1970s-backyard game, not unlike Midwestern Cornhole, they had to ban after children were impaled by pointy steel-tipped flying missiles arcing down on their toes. The Jart didn’t shatter the window. It just made a little round hole, like a bullet would. Its point is still stuck in the glass, its red wings suspended in air.
We didn’t see it coming. My head was on the job seeking real-world applications to the phenomenon of Fibonacci numbers. They are the numbers in an integer sequence when each number is the sum of the two that precede it, like 0/1/1/2/3/5/8/13/21/34, et cetera. I know regular people don’t get their relevance, but their applications include computer algorithms for search techniques and heap data structure, and Fibonacci cube graphs can be used for interconnecting parallel and distributed systems. They exist in Nature too, like in tree branching, which is called phyllotaxis, the arrangements of leaves on a stem, pineapple fruit sprouts, artichoke flowering, and the way pine cone bracts are arranged. Fibonacci numbers exert an influence on things despite being invisible to naked eyes and not even fathomed by most people. I guess things are always in some sense the sum of multiple things that precede it, like the combined DNA helix you inherit from all the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal ancestors who walked the Earth before you, or the medley of all your experiences, but I am also sure the most natural truths are mostly invisible to most people.
If you think what I do is a bit out there, Keiko’s work will seem even more off the wall. She works with Molecular Music, something pioneered by Dr. Linda Long that connects the ostensibly polar worlds of music and biology. Thanks to Dr. Long, they can now actually generate music from three-dimensional protein molecules, and the music is used to teach molecular modeling of complex proteins. You can emit music from herbs and even the human body for medicinal purposes. Keiko has herself turned molecular movement into music. She generated a computer program called a Molecular Music Box Generator in which you see and hear a wind tunnel’s hydrogen bonds with alpha helix pitch mapping. She says the project creates a gateway to understanding life, the true essences that lie beneath the ranges of eye and ear. She says life’s music is not restricted by logic or language and can communicate and connect with us at a deeper level, freeing us to experience the very stuff of living matter itself by hearing the actual voice of Nature. Its harmony. Like Fibonacci numbers, I think, but that is just the way I think. Not like our neighbors, though. They think very differently.
We’re most afraid of the ones with weapons, but we don’t even know who has them. Bette and Scott Ehrlich were the sweethearts who stayed with us the evening we lost the baby. Bette held Keiko’s hand in her hospital room and actually sang her to sleep with Sarah McLachlan’s In the Arms of an Angel. Her voice was so rich and melded, she sounded like a whole choir of winged preternatural beings. Scott sat with me in the waiting room. He said maybe God decided the world wasn’t gentle enough for this particular baby. Now they are making their proclamations on signs they post on the mailboxes. The last one reads, Take White America Back! We wonder from whom. We wonder for what.
Armand and Tawny: The fitness couple. She taught Keiko to swim. He put me on an exercise regimen. We jogged together as couples down the winding trails in the woods. They shared with us all the healthy ways to sweat, especially their most secret and sweaty bedroom rituals. I read somewhere that the greatest gift is sharing something private you love. Armand and Tawny did that for us. Now they’re even packing when they go to their cars. You can see the bulges under their long, black trench coats.
The Garcias paid for the all the party decor. They would make up feast days and celebrate unknown third world holidays. Anything to get the band back together and laughing. Jude is the patron saint of lost things. “Maybe lost people too,” said Candela. “Pray to St. Jude for the peace you have lost. He will find it and return it to you.” Superstitious? Yes, but sweet too. With his own two hands Santiago crafted our baby crib. He said it will be filled one day with our future. Now they sit at home with the shades drawn waiting for Jesus to draw them to his bosom and smite the rest of us with his ethereal but very literal sword.
Tony Mahler was Mr. Fix-It, and Noreen would show up at your door unannounced with a pie she had baked. She would learn your favorite and bake it, and she did that for everyone. Mine is cherry, Keiko’s mince. Armand joked his is porcupine. Noreen made him one, with chicken, I think. I saw that from the roof. Tony was laying my shingles and prattling on about the twelve species of aliens who live in catacombs under Kansas with the blessing of our government. I should especially beware the lizard men. Last week he said I should avoid the radical lezzies, that if they don’t mellow out he will “fire and forget, then let God sort them out.” Bette is now busy in her kitchen baking explosive desserts into small plastics.
Liz would lay hands on Keiko, not to heal but to nourish her spirit after losing the baby. Dez would steep mint tea, and the girls would kibitz on their patio while their pair of lezzie canaries crooned about their lovely lives. They shared their eclectic music. Enya. Mediæval Bæbes. Gaelic Storm. Last week they tore down a statue of George Washington. Never mind that he led a ragtag army and defeated a harsh monarch and empire against all odds. He owned slaves. If they had been born him, they would have freed them. We know Liz and Dez owned the Jarts at one time.
Denzel and Jayla were our closest friends. Jay helped Keiko with all the baby planning and shopping. Den and I would play Scrabble and wax on about physics. Both read the finest novels and belonged to a book club where everyone listens respectfully, even to stupid ideas. But they wear dark armbands now and meet with strangers who wear dark clothes in their dark condo after dark.
All this is the biggest mystery Keiko and I have ever confronted. We have always been drawn to mysteries, you know. You can tell by our work we are that type, and puzzling out mysteries is our only hobby.
Like the Cochno Stone. We spent ages on that one, reading everything, testing many theories against our logic.
It is a flat Bronze Age rock—about five thousand years old—rediscovered in the late nineteenth century in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Measuring about forty-two by twenty-six feet, it displays one of the most extensive set of carved petroglyphs in the country, roughly ninety spirals and other indented markings that might represent a cosmic map of planets and stars. Nobody agrees, though, on what it really is. This is what drew my wife and I to it.
It could be an altar where ancient spiritual rituals were conducted, but isn’t that what we always think when we are unsure what something is? We ascribe it religious implications. I told Keiko that if our civilization were somehow lost, then rediscovered, archaeologists of the future who unearth a golf course would infer theological meanings for the round, dimpled Titleists they find and the mounds of broken golf tees that litter the tee boxes. They would be deemed sacred sites of worship where shards of totems representing humankind’s broken dreams were laid to rest in prayerful homage to the Titleist gods.
Of course, The Cochno Stone could be simple rock art because even cave dwellers were inspired to make art, and rock was our natural canvas. Perhaps the stone even had a normal, practical purpose in the daily life of the village, maybe depicting a crude map of nearby dwellings, and natural elements of the environment, like a waterfall. There are even some like the Mahlers who attribute its markings to extraterrestrials because the swirls resemble crop circles. Or they could simply be tribal symbols that recount the story of a people, like the beaded belts of some Native Americans. Keiko and I think we can prove they are like piano keys, a musical composition derived from the natural harmony of planets and stars.
Maybe to those ancient people it was like how we saw the stars above our condo, as entities we hope are sympathetic to our fates. They once seemed to welcome us into the light, but now they feel so cold and distant.
Like our neighbors.
As of late, Keiko and I have tried to keep our minds off our neighbors by studying the Voynich manuscript. We’ve spent more time on it than even the pyramids, the whereabouts of Atlantis, the Shroud of Turin, or the Cochno Stone, even more time than trying to prove Shakespeare was Shakespeare, that a man named Shakespeare who was not an aristocrat really wrote all that wonderful stuff. You might call Voynich the mystery of mysteries, though, or mother of puzzles. Better wrapping your brains around that, we figure, than the most recent whodunit of who murdered the obese Hmong couple down the block. We don’t know what people despise more these days, the establishment, minorities, smokers, or fat.
The manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written with quill pen and iron gall ink on fine vellum calf skin in an unknown tongue. Carbon-dated to the fifteenth century, it is named for Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who bought it in 1912. Some think it is written in code, and even World War II allied cryptologists have taken a crack at it. Some of its pictures are painted, but the paint is unremarkable, and the text has no obvious punctuation.
Grammatical markers and syntactical structure have been examined to no avail. Besides the unknown language, there are a few Latin references to the months of the year and zodiac. Based on the pictures, the manuscript is broken into different sections: astronomical, biological, cosmological, and what appears to be herbal. It seems to cover everything precious to human beings.
It could be a nonsense fabrication by Voynich himself, an artificial language, or an unknown person’s personal shorthand, or it might merely be a hoax. Keiko and I are developing proofs that demonstrate it is much like the Cochno Stone, only instead of a culture’s reverent depiction of its mystical tie to Nature, it is that of a single man’s.
Why waste time on the Cochno Stone and Voynich Manuscript, you might wonder, when the fabric of civilization itself seems to be unraveling in our very own condo association? Because there is more to life, dear Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy, or religion, or ideology. The Fibonacci numbers and molecular music have taught us this: What is truly meaningful about being human is what is deep down inside things, under the rocks, between the lines, in its bones. You might call it the marrow of being human. And we are all part of something much bigger, and this is critical point: We can use reason to find it.
And must. There is a music deep down inside us, inside everything, and it is the pulse and dance of molecules. And the harmony deep under our human noise is what we need right now.
Keiko and I do not know what it’s like to be fundamentalist Christian and therefore feared and reviled, or lesbian lover leftists and therefore feared and reviled, or Tea Party conservatives and therefore feared and reviled, or police officers and therefore feared and reviled, or even wild conspiracy-ist survivalists and therefore feared and reviled. But we are indeed minorities who get strange looks from disconcerted people because they see us as alien. And we are human beings who know deep down that everyone wants the same thing: safety, happiness, and joy.
So, we feel it time to share what we know. We feel it time to remix that colorful human mélange we first saw blending, albeit drunkenly, in a chlorine pool into an even grander harmonious stew.
In art and literature, a bricolage is a construct that melds diverse things in one great unifying gesture. It is one of my favorite Scrabble words. Keiko and I will be that bricolage. We can’t bake pies or plan parties or nourish muscle and skin with our hands, or share sweaty secrets, and can’t do many other things. These are the gifts of our neighbors. But we can give them our own gifts, the gifts of nerds.
Tawny couldn’t believe it. Keiko walked right over there and asked to borrow her bullhorn. She brought it back home, then I bellowed out an announcement to the entire hood. Keiko and I are coming, I said, to visit with each and every couple alone. Prep the margaritas, I said. We will be waving a white flag.
We will tell them about the Voynich manuscript and Cochno Stone, whetting their appetites for mystery. I will then share Fibonacci’s numbers. Perhaps by doing so, I can add something to them that makes something else that might enrich their lives. Maybe they will see that we combine with others to make part of them, and they combine with still others to make part of someone else, and on and on, until we all add up to everyone and everything in this whole wondrous and crazy world. It’s like The Kevin Bacon Rule. I mean, hasn’t every actor in Hollywood worked with someone who worked with him? Kevin is the tie that binds.
And Keiko will share her molecular music so they can hear for themselves how Nature unifies everything disparate deep down under the skins of things, so they can hear Nature’s genuine voice, the song of actual living matter that really echoes inside us. Keiko has literally recorded the music from the movements of planets and stars. You should hear it. There is indeed an authentic harmony of the spheres.
Maybe our neighbors will see.
Maybe they will hear.
We all must believe in something. This is as good as anything.
Keiko is pregnant again, her womb filled with our future. We want to share that future with our friends in a world that is gentle enough for this child.
Forgive me for being hopeful, but that is just the way I think.
I read somewhere that the greatest gift is sharing something private you love… like Fibonacci numbers, maybe, and molecular music.
And maybe hope as well.
You’ll know it works when we break out the drinks, crank up the tunes, and rent that spongy mat and big, padded Sumo costumes.
Larry Malchow’s story “Wash The Crying River” won the 2019 John Steinbeck Award For Fiction sponsored by Reed Magazine of San Jose State University, appearing in Issue 152. His story “Trapped” was published in New Guard Volume VII, and his story “Liberty Motel” will appear in the anthology Portal 10: Speculative Fiction, sponsored by Easy Street Magazine. Larry earned his bachelor’s degree in literature from Ripon College where he later worked as Alumni Director, Annual Fund Director, and Executive Director for Major & Planned Gifts.
Cagibi Issue 7