Colin Dickey

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I had waited, who knows how long— a few min­utes, or a half an hour— sit­ting un­der the blare of in­dus­trial flu­o­res­cents, un­til the bus fi­nally ar­rived out of a low fog. It was a forty- five minute ride, over the moun­tains, from Santa Cruz to San Jose, my des­ti­na­tion. Board­ing the bus, I fed my five dol­lar bill into the ma­chine, and slunk to­ward the back, wait­ing.

High­way 17 is one of those roads that evolved as a func­tion of un­even sprawl, to the point where it is now beau­ti­ful to drive at the speed for which it was built, and yet sui­ci­dal to drive at the speed that is now com­mon. For years Santa Cruz was a dis­tant re­sort town some hun­dred miles to the south of San Fran­cisco, sep­a­rated by miles of or­chard and prairie and the ridge of the Santa Cruz Moun­tains. Orig­i­nally ac­ces­si­ble mainly by a nar­row gauge rail­way that cut through the moun­tains, Santa Cruz has grad­u­ally be­come a siz­able sub­urb of the techno-in­dus­trial sprawl that has filled in the gaps be­tween San Fran­cisco and the moun­tains called Sil­i­con Val­ley. By 1940 a treach­er­ous mail route over the pass had been paved over and had be­come State Route 17, and the rail­road tun­nels were closed off. Wind­ing just un­der twenty miles over the Santa Cruz Moun­tains, and cross­ing the sum­mit at Patchen Pass, at 1,800 feet, it has since be­come a daily com­muter route, choked with traf­fic and ac­ci­dents, a har­row­ing drive over dark roads.

I grew up in these moun­tains, off of High­way 17, along the crest of the moun­tain range, and each day my fam­ily would travel up and down these roads. When I was a child I knew the turns in­tu­itively, and could tell where we were along our drive sim­ply by how much in­er­tia a given turn pressed on my child’s body. But my fam­ily moved away when I was six years old, and when we re­turned to San Jose a few years later, we lived in the Val­ley, not the moun­tains, and that wis­dom grad­u­ally seeped from me, and now, what lit­tle I can rec­ol­lect as an adult comes to me only in those stages of con­scious­ness in which one is not quite awake, not quite asleep.

That night I took the High­way 17 Ex­press, the bus that tra­verses the moun­tains into the Val­ley, and I thought mainly of other night rides. Most fa­mously, of course, Isra and Mi­raj, the Night Ride of the Prophet Mo­hammed, wherein he is first given the com­mand that his peo­ple must pray to Al­lah five times a day. The Prophet de­scribes him­self as in a state be­tween sleep and wake­ful­ness when he is vis­ited by an an­gel who brings him a golden tray of wis­dom and belief, then cuts him open from throat to belly, washes his en­trails with Zam-zam wa­ter, and then fills him with this wis­dom and belief. It is then that the Prophet Mo­hammed as­cends on al-Bu­raq, a white an­i­mal smaller than a mule and big­ger than a don­key who takes him through the seven heav­ens with the ar­changel Gabriel. At each gate he is named by Gabriel in an­swer to a gate­keeper’s ques­tion, who then asks, “Has he been called?” When Gabriel an­swers yes, the gate­keeper replies, “He is wel­comed. What a won­der­ful visit his is!” At the first gate, Mo­hammed meets Adam; at the sec­ond, Je­sus and John the Bap­tist; at the third, Joseph; at the fourth, Idris; then Aaron; Moses; and then, fi­nally, at the sev­enth gate, Abra­ham. Each prophet and pa­tri­arch greets Mo­hammed in the same man­ner, “You are wel­comed O brother and a Prophet.” In that sev­enth heaven, Mo­hammed is en­joined to pray to Al­lah fifty times a day, but af­ter re­peated dis­cus­sions with Moses, who un­der­stands too well the disobe­di­ent na­ture of hu­man­ity, and who tells him to re­turn to Al­lah and ask to have the num­ber re­duced— fifty times a day is low­ered first to forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten, then fi­nally five times a day.

The steed that car­ries Mo­hammed through the night, the Bu­raq, is some­times called “beau­ti­ful- faced,” which is per­haps how it be­gan to be de­picted by some as hav­ing a hu­man face: a short white horse with a hu­man head, some­times male and some­times fe­male, but al­ways lav­ishly adorned, oc­ca­sion­ally with rain­bow- col­ored wings.

Mo­hammed’s night ride, so filled with in­can­ta­tory rep­e­ti­tion through each of the heav­ens, and the clear- eyed vi­sion of Al­lah, sug­gests that even in strange nights like this there is or­der and pur­pose. The night ride for Mo­hammed is an im­por­tant stage in the nar­ra­tive of his life, one in which the truth of Al­lah is re­vealed through rit­ual, through rep­e­ti­tion and di­rec­tion. Per­haps our world has fallen away from this sense of or­der and per­fec­tion, as the re­li­gious author­i­ties of all brands are al­ways telling us— or per­haps such or­der was al­ways il­lu­sory, and now that the cover has been pulled back on this il­lu­sion, we can never go back to how things once were, even if the un­veil­ing of this hid­den dis­or­dered truth was ac­ci­den­tal or pur­pose­less. Ei­ther way, it’s true that we can never go back, and the Bu­raq will never again be to us a won­drous crea­ture so much as a mon­strous hy­brid, part beast and part hu­man, just as Mo­hammed’s own ac­count of be­ing pu­ri­fied can only seem to most of us un­be­liev­ers as a hor­rific dis­em­bow­el­ment— not far in tone from the dis­turb­ing rit­ual of can­ni­bal­ism that lies at the heart of Catholi­cism.

Night rides, I thought as we be­gan to pick up speed and move past the low foothills of Santa Cruz to­ward the moun­tains be­yond, will never again prom­ise us or­der and rev­e­la­tion. We are pre­pared, I think, to face hor­ror and deprav­ity, so long as we un­der­stand it to be part of an or­dered sys­tem— evil, in its way, is more com­fort­ing than chaos. The lure of a night­mare world like Dante’s Inferno is in its per­fect sym­me­try and jus­tice, and the sense that there is a co­her­ent logic be­hind even the most cruel bar­barisms. But as much as we may long to fol­low Vir­gil and Beatrice, view­ing this hi­er­ar­chi­cal Hell and then ascending through the or­dered tower of Pur­ga­tory and into the spheres of Par­adise, few of us will ever see even the Inferno— in truth we are never even al­lowed into its gates, where at least pain and damna­tion have a logic and an or­der, con­demned as we are in­stead to be led through the chaotic woods where Dante be­gins his epic, with its ter­ri­fy­ing trees whose branches lunge at us in spar­ring jabs, grab­bing at our clothes and skin.

When I was a child and lived in these moun­tains, we would drive up from the val­ley in the evenings, and in the fall and win­ter it would al­ready be night. My mem­o­ries from those drives is only of the way the branches of the trees as­sumed leer­ing, craggy shapes, as though all of na­ture had turned against us in our car, and I, help­lessly car­ried along, could do noth­ing but watch in silent hor­ror. I was a ter­ri­fied child, prone to night­mares: my bed­room was next to the garage and I spent long nights un­able to sleep for the mon­sters I as­sumed would be com­ing through that door, as though they’d latched on to the car in that night ride and fol­lowed us home. I’m still, as an adult, prone to night­mares that can shock me

awake, but I also see now how the over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion of my child­hood that so ter­ror­ized me also kin­dled some­thing in me that I now cher­ish: a recog­ni­tion that a tree is never just a tree, a door never just a door, that be­hind the ve­neer of or­der that we claim to ex­plain and ra­tio­nal­ize all that we see, there is per­haps some­thing form­less and chaotic, mon­strous but also won­drous, which some of us, ac­ci­den­tally glimps­ing through no fault of our own, can never again for­get or fail to be changed by. Par­ents who go out of their way to pro­tect their chil­dren, who teach them that “there’s noth­ing to be afraid of,” I al­ways think do them a dis­ser­vice, teach­ing their chil­dren not of the world’s ver­tig­i­nous pos­si­bil­i­ties but of its lim­ited tax­onomies. The dreams of a gen­er­a­tion, you could say, are born in the ir­ra­tional night­mares of its chil­dren.

All these thoughts f led through my head as the bus sped over the moun­tains, lolling dis­con­cert­ingly on curves so treach­er­ous that many have earned them­selves nick­names: Big Moody Curve, named for the river it par­al­lels but known for the black­ened ce­ment re­tain­ing wall that records all the cars who’ve slammed against it. Up ahead some­where was the Val­ley Sur­prise— the sharp and deadly turn that in­au­gu­rates one’s de­scent into the Santa Clara Val­ley. When I was about eleven years old, late one Sun­day evening an eigh­teen- wheeler took one of these curves too quickly and lost con­trol— the bed of the truck flipped and landed on a car car­ry­ing a French teacher at my school, who was killed on im­pact. Aside from my grand­fa­ther, it was my first ex­pe­ri­ence with mor­tal­ity— she was never my teacher, but as this fact set­tled into the school the next day, it was as though ev­ery­thing seemed to drift for a mo­ment. My friend Adam and I asked our math teacher if we could go for a walk, less be­cause we were griev­ing, I think, than be­cause we felt the heavy weight of the ex­pec­ta­tions sur­round­ing mourn­ing— as long as we were around oth­ers, we knew we would have to per­form grief. In­stead we wan­dered the hall­ways, not walk­ing so much as be­ing car­ried past the lock­ers and bath­rooms, idly dis­cussing what lit­tle we knew of death and mostly, I think, float­ing in that am­ni­otic space, the im­por­tance of which one can only see much later. I’ve driven over and been driven over High­way 17 count­less times since, but have al­ways thought of it, be­cause of that ex­pe­ri­ence, as the High­way of Death—less a histri­onic fear than a gen­tle recog­ni­tion, a road which we all com­mute over un­til the day we abruptly fail to make our jour­ney.

In fact, the only times I truly fear the high­way are nights when I take the bus, be­cause a night drive is so dif­fer­ent from a night ride. The for­mer can im­ply dis­cov­ery, a pur­pose­ful wan­der­ing, while the lat­ter bears with it the help­less­ness of be­ing car­ried some­where with­out con­trol. Any­one who’s fallen asleep on a sub­way late at night and missed a stop knows this feel­ing—you awake, and per­haps it’s only been a minute or per­haps an hour, but for that in­stant be­fore you get your bear­ings, you are seized with panic, since this train could have taken you any­where. It’s pos­si­ble that your train may have moved be­yond the known uni­verse of tracks and sta­tions al­to­gether, into some other place not on any map, into the bow­els of the city or the far­thest reaches of the sub­urbs, with­out any map or leg­end to guide you back the way you came.

I was be­ing car­ried over the moun­tains, and into the val­ley; the ride was out of my con­trol— at times I found my­self nod­ding off slightly, only to shock my­self awake. “To be car­ried over,” I re­mem­bered, is the orig­i­nal def­i­ni­tion of the word metaphor, a term which has come to mean the act of car­ry­ing over one idea into another, to carry an ab­stract term over into a con­crete ob­ject, thus unit­ing the two. In all good metaphors, per­haps, lies a hint of this same terror— you, the reader, are a pas­sen­ger who has fallen asleep for the briefest of mo­ments, only to wake sud­denly in a new space, and your mind turns from terror to won­der in that brief space of ver­tigo.

Such a terror be­fell a young Thomas de Quincey on another night ride in Au­gust 1816, while rid­ing as a pas­sen­ger on a mail coach be­tween Som­er­set and West­more­land. In those days be­fore the steam en­gine, the mail coach was the very sym­bol of speed and ef­fi­ciency— poor stu­dents like de Quincey regularly hitched rides on it through the night to save time and money. De Quincey had taken a small amount of lau­danum be­fore his night jour­ney, which gave him a sense of de­tached eu­pho­ria as the coach thun­dered past the black shapes of the dark­ened English coun­try­side. The horses knew the route well enough that the driver quickly fell asleep, which was fine, un­til mid- jour­ney, when they turned a cor­ner and de Quincey saw that the coach had crossed into the on­com­ing traf­fic lane, and that a young cou­ple in a gig were bear­ing down on them from only few hun­dred feet. He strug­gled to waken the co­matose driver, un­suc­cess­fully, and only at the last minute did the driver of the other ve­hi­cle see the coach and haul his horse to the left. They avoided di­rect col­li­sion, but the opi­ated wit­ness looked on in terror as the coach man­aged to glance the side of the gig; “The blow, from the fury of our pas­sage, re­sounded ter­rif­i­cally,” he later re­called. “I rose in hor­ror, to look upon the ru­ins we might have caused,” and with re­lief saw that the gig’s oc­cu­pants were un­harmed, as the som­nam­bu­list mail coach plowed steadily on into the night.

De Quincey would not pub­lish his es­say, “The English Mail- Coach,” un­til thirty years later, in 1849: a long es­say about speed, travel, and night­mares— an es­say that builds to­ward a long de­scrip­tion of that night ride, called “A Vi­sion of Sud­den Death.” But af­ter giv­ing a fac­tual de­pic­tion of those events, de Quincey em­barks on a long, hal­lu­ci­na­tory pas­sage called “Death Fugue,” as his imag­i­na­tion spins from those events into far darker places.

“Thus as we ran like tor­rents,” he writes, “thus as we swept with bridal rap­ture over the Campo Santo of the cathe­dral graves— sud­denly we be­came aware of a vast ne­crop­o­lis ris­ing upon the far- off hori­zon— a city of sepul­chres, built within the saintly cathe­dral for the war­rior dead that rested from their feuds on earth. Of pur­ple gran­ite was the ne­crop­o­lis; yet, in the first minute, it lay like a pur­ple stain upon the hori­zon, so mighty was the dis­tance. In the sec­ond minute it trem­bled through many changes, grow­ing into ter­races and tow­ers of won­drous al­ti­tude, so mighty was the pace. In the third minute

A night drive is so dif­fer­ent from a night ride. The for­mer can im­ply dis­cov­ery, a pur­pose­ful wan­der­ing, while the lat­ter bears with it the help­less­ness of be­ing car­ried some­where with­out con­trol.

al­ready, with our dread­ful gal­lop, we were en­ter­ing its sub­urbs. Vast sar­cophagi rose on ev­ery side, hav­ing tow­ers and tur­rets that, upon the lim­its of the cen­tral aisle, strode for­ward with haughty in­tru­sion, that ran back with mighty shad­ows into an­swer­ing re­cesses. Ev­ery sar­coph­a­gus showed many bas- re­liefs— bas- re­liefs of bat­tles and of bat­tle- fields; bat­tles from for­got­ten ages, bat­tles from yesterday; bat­tle-fields that, long since, na­ture had healed and rec­on­ciled to her­self with the sweet obliv­ion of flow­ers; bat­tle- fields that were yet an­gry and crim­son with car­nage.”

De Quincey, who main­tained that his imag­i­na­tive hal­lu­ci­na­tions long pre­dated his opium use, stretch­ing all the way back to his child­hood, doesn’t re­strain his imag­i­na­tion to ques­tions of bod­ily safety. For him the apoca­lypse has al­ready ar­rived, and he can gaze past his own death to a city of sep­ul­chers, end­less rows of mau­soleums that rise like sky­scrapers— of which he rushes through, the coach com­pletely out of his con­trol, and yet gifted with an aware­ness that the only or­der and form that en­dures is the mar­ble of the grave­stone.

We were now well past the sum­mit, plung­ing down into the Santa Clara Val­ley, where ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists were in­vest­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in, among other things, a hand­ful of dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies that all promised to cure death it­self, and my thoughts turned to another night rider, the coun­try doc­tor in Kafka’s tale, who is sum­moned on a dif­fi­cult night to a pa­tient who may or may not be dy­ing sev­eral towns away. The doc­tor has a car­riage but not horses to pull it, but in a dream­scape mo­ment, a groom and a team of horses emerge from a dis­used pigsty, seem­ingly solv­ing his dilemma. The driver, how­ever, an abu­sive brute, elects to stay with the doc­tor’s young and vul­ner­a­ble ser­vant girl, send­ing the doc­tor, help­less, on his way, and he can only watch be­hind him as the rapist turns his at­ten­tion to the young girl. The doc­tor, we know, has done noth­ing to de­serve this; in Kafka’s world the bar­gain with the Devil is made with the terms un­known to us, and with­out even the tem­po­rary boon granted— the en­tire trans­ac­tion is the Devil col­lect­ing his due. And so the doc­tor is car­ried through the night, the car­riage driver­less, reach­ing the home of the child who is one mo­ment healthy and the next is dy­ing— all the while the fam­ily hu­mil­i­ates and tor­tures the doc­tor for his in­abil­ity to heal what is clearly out of his con­trol. “This is what peo­ple are like in my dis­trict,” laments the coun­try doc­tor. “They have lost their an­cient be­liefs; the par­son sits at home and un­rav­els his vest­ments, one af­ter another; but the doc­tor is sup­posed to be om­nipo­tent with his mer­ci­ful sur­geon’s hand.” The old ways, with their prom­ise of or­der and rit­ual, may have passed away, but Kafka’s hag­gard doc­tor warns of the folly of as­sum­ing that they can sim­ply be re­placed by science and medicine— it­self per­haps noth­ing more than just one more form of rit­ual magic that’s los­ing its ef­fi­cacy.

“A Coun­try Doc­tor” builds to­ward a hal­lu­ci­na­tory blend of rit­ual and science, as the in­creas­ingly frus­trated and in­creas­ingly malev­o­lent towns­peo­ple tor­ment the help­less and use­less doc­tor: “And so they came,” he tells us, “the fam­ily and the vil­lage el­ders, and stripped my clothes off me; a school choir with the teacher at the head of it stood be­fore the house and sang these words to an ut­terly sim­ple tune: Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us, If he doesn’t, kill him dead! Only a doc­tor, only a doc­tor.” Naked, he is shoved into the bed along­side his dy­ing young pa­tient, as though, through some sym­pa­thetic magic of con­ta­gion, he might be made to draw out the wound from the boy and take it upon him­self. But the boy in­stead tells, him, “Do you know, I have very lit­tle con­fi­dence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet.” The most hu­mil­i­at­ing part, then, is per­haps this: that the doc­tor is a pas­sen­ger, not a driver. But then, what Kafka’s doc­tor has fi­nally be­gan to un­der­stand, what none of us learn un­til it is too late, is that none of us are ever the driver, that we are al­ways the pas­sen­ger on the night ride, no mat­ter what our re­li­gion or science or art may tell us.

Kafka’s story closes (“ends” isn’t quite the right word— it doesn’t end, it doesn’t reach its des­ti­na­tion) with the line, a false sum­mons on the night bell, once an­swered— it can never be made right, not ever. The night ride once promised or­der, but now it re­veals only the ver­tig­i­nous glimpse into the abyss. This is what Kafka’s Coun­try Doc­tor learns: that the life he thought he un­der­stood, and that any power he thought he held, is pure il­lu­sion. And it doesn’t mat­ter what ini­ti­ates the ride that will end in such a rev­e­la­tion— just as none of us ever know the mo­ment when we will awake on that night ride to learn our des­ti­na­tion has long since van­ished, and that we now no longer have any idea where we are truly headed.

These were the thoughts that peo­pled my mind on that long ride over the black moun­tains, as we de­scended into that sleep­ing, empty val­ley, tun­nel­ing through the dark. Colin Dickey is the au­thor of Cran­iok­lepty: Grave Rob­bing and the Search for Ge­nius, and Af­ter­lives of the Saints: Sto­ries from the Ends of Faith. He teaches writ­ing at Na­tional Univer­sity in Los An­ge­les, and is cur­rently work­ing on a history of haunted houses.

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