NOVEMBER 04, 2018
THE 20TH CROSSING
So anyway, the time came for Denby to make the annual crossover, which had remained as a Tradition even though the offices and the Household had been transplanted by force during the Night of Shattered Fires. Tradition has its own powerful force as some of you may know.
The sun descended and shadows grew long across the little avenues of Silvan Acres. Because of the creek passing through, and then the long absent train line and now the road, this place had been a traveling place for many hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The Editor said, "Go now," and so Denby took his walking cane and went out to the uplift where the earth was embanked higher than in other places along the road.
To his great surprise a train came trundling along the way beside the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, even though Denby could not recall such tracks ever having been there. He did not know that in years past a train had followed that same path for many years.
The machine heaved to a stop with steam and groaning and Denby climbed aboard and took his seat in a cabin with no other passengers in the car. The train proceeded down Sir Francis Drake, stopping at Yolanda Landing and various points not known to Denby and then proceeded south and east through a dense fog that made identifying landmarks difficult. For a long time everything outside the windows was entirely black and Denby assumed they were somehow crossing one of the bridges.
At one point the train stopped and the conductor, a gaunt man wearing a robe, came down the aisle announcing in a foreign accent "Endstation! Endstation!"
Denby disembarked to find he was on the Shoreline Road on the Island. He walked along the path there that bordered the brightly lit condos and the seawall until he came to the Iron Gate. He undid the latch and was greeted by any owl. "Who? Who are you? Who?!"
An iron bell began to clang and then he saw the vast expanse of bonfires lit upon the beach. Those bonfires lit by the souls waiting passage to redemption or eternal fire.
A distant dog or set of dogs set up an infernal barking.
He used his cane to push open the gate and so step through a veil of mist to the Other Side where a long reach of strand with bonfires extended to north and south, broken only at this height by the extension of a stone landing.
As in years past, as he approached the Portal, the Voice bellowed to him from some echoing deep cavern.
"Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate!"
"Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate!" and the words flamed inside the skull as if poured in molten steel. Just as it had each year for the past 19 years.
For pete's sake. As per Tradition, dammit, Denby muttered.
A large owl, about two feet tall, perched on a piling scolded him with large owl eyes.
"Hoo! Hoo! Hoooooo!"
Okay, okay. Poor choice of words.
On the other side the ground sloped down as usual to the water for about thirty yards, but he could not see the far lights of Babylon's port facilities or the Coliseum. A dense, lightless fog hung a few yards offshore, making it appear that the water extended out beyond to Infinity. The sky above was filled with black cloud and boiling with red flashes of lightening and fire although not a drop of rain had fallen.
All up and down the strand he could now see that countless bonfires had been lit, as is customary among our people in this part of the world to do during the colder winter months along the Strand, and towards one of these he stumbled among drift and seawrack.
Sitting around that fire, he recognized many faces. And many more all up and down that beach.
"si lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta"
Strange words in another language reverberated inside the skull: "si lunga tratta / di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta" echoing and echoing down long hallways of echos into eternity
A small child, barefoot and wearing a nightdress ran past and disappeared as quickly as she had come.
A blonde woman figure appeared before him, glimmering with an internal light and gauzy fabric blown by an invisible wind. This apparition greeted him.
"Denby!" said the woman. "Here you are again!"
"Hello Penny," Denby said. "Back again after 19 years."
"A year has passed up there in your world, I guess. Here another year is all the same for waiting."
Several little girls, all between the ages of six and nine ran barefoot across the sands between them and vanished into the misty beyond.
The two of them went down to one of the bonfires not far from the old stone jetty wharf that appeared every year extending out into the shallow waters offshore, and which magically disappeared by dawn the next day, having served its purpose.
There were several people with faces Denby recognized, the most recognizeable was a man dressed in a dapper, white suit and white tie with black polka dots. On his head he word a white fedora decorated with a black band sporting white dots.
"You look like a successful man," Denby said.
":You have reached the pinnacle of success as soon as you become uninterested in money, compliments, or publicity." said the man.
Another man looked vaguely familiar to Denby, like he had seen him in person before. "What's your claim to fame? I think we have met before."
"Baker beach, long ago. You jumped over the bonfire. When I was in my late 30s, I lit a figure on fire on Baker Beach in San Francisco. It was me, a friend, and maybe eight people, tops. There wasn't any premeditation to it at all. It was really just a product of San Franciscan bohemian milieu."
"Larry," Denby said. "Ever lose faith in people after everything went to Black Rock and got so big?"
"I've learned never to expect people to be better than they are, but to always have faith that they can be more. Black Rock is a place where people can heal, " Larry said.
"Sorry I never made it out to that part of the desert," Denby said.
A woman with her hair done up dreads spoke next.
:Where there is a woman there is magic. ...
Two little barefoot girls ran into the circle around the bonfire, then ran off laughing and screeching the way little girls sometimes do.
"The Ferryman is coming," Penny said.
From far away a gleam pierced the murky fog and grew as the skiff approached the wharf.
Souls appeared in large numbers walking toward the jetty.
A young man wearing glasses and sitting at the fire started with surprise and out popped a gold coin into his hand and he exclaimed with an English accent, "I say! Life would be tragic if it weren't funny!"
"Everything is about to change for you, Stephen." Penny said. "Even for one as intelligent as you."
"People who boast about their IQ are losers. Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change." Stephen said.
"If you are who I think you are," Denby said, "Got any advice for those of us left behind?"
"Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious," Stephen said as he stood up to go.
"Any idea of the chance there might be intelligent aliens out there?"
"I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldnt want to meet." And with that, Stephan ambled down to the wharf as the Ferryman approached.
A large woman came down the Strand surrounded by a bevy of Black Angels trailing great black wings and she belted out this song as she approached.
"Hey 'rethra! You haven't changed a bit!" Denby shouted.
"Music changes, and I'm gonna change right along with it. Be your own artist, and always be confident in what you're doing. If you're not going to be confident, you might as well not be doing it."
And with that the Queen of Soul mounted the stone steps to the wharf with her band of Angels trailing wings of glory.
A heavyset man, going bald, strolled past. "Afraid of death? Angry about anything," Denby asked.
"People are unjust to anger - it can be enlivening and a lot of fun," said the man. "As for dying, I will not have it said about me, 'he couldn't do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here'."
A young woman with close-cropped hair walked by and she was singing,
"All my life Is changing
Next came an august-looking man with piercing eyes and shock-white hair and Denby remembered that he had been sent to glean hints for the Editor of how the elections would go.
"John! John! We are so divided! Any ideas about what is coming up for the Nation?"
And this is truly what John did say. ""Our shared values define us more than our differences. And acknowledging those shared values can see us through our challenges today if we have the wisdom to trust in them again." With that he took his obolus coin and ascended to the wharf.
Two men remained sitting beside the fire as Denby turned away from looking at the dock where the Ferryman with eyes of wheels of fire took oboli fare and ushered the souls on board.
"And now you two," Denby said. He faced the one man with close-cropped wavy hair and tattoos on his arms. Concerned about travelling over the river? Any regrets."
"As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life -- and travel -- leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks -- on your body or on your heart -- are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt. . . . It's been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
"What is it about food that captivated you," Denby asked.
"Food is everything we are. It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It's inseparable from those from the get-go. . . . Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.
"The Ferry is leaving now," Penny said. "You can face the water again."
Indeed the heat on his back from those terrible eyes began to recede and a gentle night breeze brought cooling relief.
Denby turned to face the other man, a stern-looking fellow with white hair. "And you sir, are not going on this trip I see. I would have thought that surely, of all people, you were an immediate passenger."
"Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, practicing patience and being persistent. . . .As I approached my 95th birthday, I was burdened to write a book that addressed the epidemic of 'easy believism.' There is a mindset today that if people believe in God and do good works, they are going to Heaven."
"Denby," Penny said. "These men, like me, have done things they regret." She looked at the man who at one time had been a joyful celebrant of food and social communion. "And self-murder takes a long time to forgive, for the man must first forgive himself and that is hard."
The foodie man stood up with a sigh and turned to walk down to the water's edge and stare out into the fog where already the glimmer of the departing skiff had become a faint orange glow.
A bevy of five girls ran past, playing touch tag with each other. One stopped and let another tag her, saying, "You're it!"
"It's okay, Anthony," said the little girl, looking up and taking his hand in both of hers. "We all still love you."
"Nothing," said the other man, who clearly had been some kind of preacher, "Can bring a real sense of security into the home except true love."
"Looks like nothing is guaranteed, not even a lifetime of piety," Denby said.
Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, practicing patience and being persistent. . . Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion - it is a daily process . . . ", the preacher said. The wonderful news is that our Lord is a God of mercy, and he responds to repentance. "
"O Billy, don't be so lugubrious," Penny said.
Three girls wearing pinafores came running out of the darkness and danced around the figure of Penny in a circle, holding their hands.
"The girls are always here," Denby said. "They are here each year for twenty years, but they never grow up."
"Yes, some of them will never be born or grown up. They are all the possible, the never were, and the yet to be born," Penny said. "Alice, come here!" And she grabbed her and swung her around in a circle by her arms as Alice squealed with delight.
Another one with light-colored hair and blue-green eyes ran up to Denby and made to hug him around his thighs, but her arms sank through his body. "O Papi! Are you a ghost?" she said.
"Do you have a name," Denby said, dropping down to hunker at eye level.
"Not yet," she said. "Or maybe never." She looked sad.
So Denby said, "I name you . . . Sapphire. Do you like that?"
"I dunno. Sapphire; why that?"
"Because my dear, you are very precious. And because of your eyes."
"O! I am Sapphire!" And with that she ran off into the darkness, calling out to her friends. "Hey! I am Sapphire! I am almost possible!"
"Isn't that the cutest thing!" Penny said. "Too bad we never made a . . . ".
"Lets not go there," Denby said. "You almost married Steve, remember?"
"No, he almost married me; that is different. How is Steve these days?"
"Happily married to a woman named Martha. She is robust and resilient."
"O that is good. I am happy for him -- he was always getting into trouble," Penny said. "Throwing beerkegs through the window when he had locked himself out of his house."
Alice and Sapphire came running up and stood there, looking at the two of them. Sapphire cupped her hand and whispered into the ear of Alice while still looking at Penny and Denby.
"O!" said Alice with wide brown eyes.
"They are so adorable!" Penny said. "And they keep me good company. I sure wish we had . . . ".
Then it came, interrupting what she had to say, rolling as thunder across the Strand, making the two girls run away and others of the Faithful drop to their knees. The tolling of the Iron Bell.
"Time for you to go," Penny said. "Do not say you wish you could stay -- you know that is not possible just yet. Go now."
Reluctantly Denby turned to go up the slope.
"Denby." Penny said simply and he paused as a wind kicked up with gusts.
She reached out her hands to cup his face. Cold, so cold. He felt a wetness on his lips, on his face. Perhaps the slap of saltwater from the Bay carried by the wind.
"Good-bye. Until next time."
He ascended the slope as the sound of the bell and three dogs became more insistent until he stumbled through the gate which slammed shut behind him. There, an open door to a train compartment waited for him and he climbed in to plotz into a seat in an otherwise empty railcar with salty, wet cheeks. On the return journey, he reflected Penny had become in the afterlife what she had been before. In life she had been a nurse during the height of the AIDS plague whose job it had been to handle the affairs of patients who had been sent home from Hospice as they lapsed and eventually died and allowed her to handle the paperwork of such things, there always the angel to usher souls to the door and through it to the next form of existence, if any, beyond.
The train passed through shadowy regions of smoke and the skeletal forms of houses and the smoke of spooks until it passed Yolanda Landing and eventually to the San Geronimo Station, where Denby disembarked. From there he went dutifully to the Island-Life offices although he felt exhausted unto death.
The Editor awaited him as in years past.
"So this is the 20th time you have crossed over," said the Editor. "How was it this time?"
Denby fell into a plush chair Martini had snagged from a For Free roadside pile. He gave the Editor the one thousand yard stare.
"I can tell you are wanting a drink. And by just the look of you, so am I." The Editor reached into the desk and pulled out a bottle of Glenfiddich and set two glasses on the desk before pouring more than two fingers into each glass.
"Any idea how the elections will go this time and what will become of the Country? You did ask, did you?"
"I did ask," Denby said hoarsely."We have common values we need to remember."
"That is more than usual," said the Editor. "Anything else?"
"There is nothing else to say," Denby said, his thoughts now far away. The thousand yard stare.
"I suspected not. It is all according to Tradition. At least we have that. Cheers."
"Cheers. Slainte." Denby said.
They sat there until the first glimmering of light appeared above the eastern hills. And so ended the last night of Los Dias de Los Muertos, the time when the veil between the worlds is thinnest.
The sound of the train horn keened from Oaktown across the estuary and wended its way through the specrtral fog-shrouded Marin's well-matriculated hills and slid over the sleeping bulk of Princess Tamalpais following the old, forgotten railbeds that once led along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to the coast, stirring the coyotes who began to howl their evensong which carried forth on the winds over White's Hill and Fairfax, ululating through Silvan Acres and the haunted niches of the San Geronimo Valley, coursing with faint gray shapes along the ridgetops through the mist to an unknown destination.