Fiction 2013 / Volume 43

A Scrubland Companion — John Thornburg

I once caught a glimpse of the floating mansion from the roof of my apartment complex at 10th and Foley. I went up there every now and then to smoke cigarettes and photograph sunrises or sunsets. Only this particular time I didn’t have my camera and this time I saw the mansion. Hovering noiselessly over the scrubland moving no faster than a snowflake, parallel to the horizon. I shielded my eyes from the sun as it passed and disappeared behind hills and mesas. Briefly I considered driving into the desert to see if I could catch sight or scent of it again but that would be silly. Floating mansions don’t leave footprints.

That night I went down to El Oso, the only bar within walking distance of my apartment. The place was always full of college kids who thought they were folk singers, insurance salesmen who thought they were cowboys, and drunks. One reason I liked that bar was because there were never any pretty girls, and I knew the bartender on a first name / signature cocktail basis, and anyway I could bear the clientele. It was a time in my life that I believed that not liking people was just as fun as liking them, that cringing at karaoke was probably more fun than singing. I put some dollars down on the bar and Kim placed a desert champagne in front of me. Ruffling my hair with my fingers, I told him that I had seen the floating mansion. He let out a single laugh like a porpoise and went into the back room. Unlike bartenders in movies, Kim was never seen wiping anything down with a rag or counseling people on any topic, especially not marriage and especially not what they should get their parents for Christmas. Get them a pocket watch: take the watch part out and put a picture of their dog

in there. Oh yeah, desert champagne is equal parts tequila and gin with a splash of champagne.

The floating mansion wasn’t strictly a mansion. It was actually a floating plot of land with a mansion built on its surface. Sure, the mansion took up most of the plot but there were outside parts too. Maybe a little front lawn or a small vegetable garden in the back. I would assume that the occupants of a floating mansion would have to eat something. Perhaps not. Of the various mythologies of Los Duermos, New Mexico, the myth of the floating mansion was not the most pervasive. In fact, if you tuned your ears to barrooms and bedtime stories, it is likely that you would hear about La Urraca far more often. Some people say that the myths relate to one another like intersecting points on a spider’s web, but no one ever suggests that La Urraca is the proprietor of the mansion. That would be too terrifying to consider.

I lived in Los Duermos my whole life except for the four years I spent in Las Cruces studying business at the university. In college I discovered a taste for liquor and kempt moustaches. I moved back and took up with a young court stenographer whose hands twitched whenever I spoke to her. She left me that August and I became an insurance salesman. I know what you’re thinking, but I have never once worn a hat with a brim. Not even when the sun was in my eyes.

The karate of the cowboy hat can be used exclusively to pick up women in states that start with the letter T. If you try to use it anywhere else women will find you bizarre and abusive. Unfortunately, this works for some women but that’s why it’s called a martial art and not a martial science.

I finished my desert champagne just as a peculiar young woman got done singing “Folsom Prison Blues.” Kim poured me another and I remarked that I almost didn’t hate her performance. He laughed once like a dog barking at a ghost and disappeared into the back room. I got up to go the bathroom and splash some cold water on my face. My skin looked

like an onion and my moustache needed a trim. As I looked up I realized someone was watching me. An inscrutable young woman, the Johnny Cash singer from before stared at me from the restroom’s threshold. I turned and told her politely that this was the men’s room. She didn’t say anything. Her eyes were a gloomy amber, the color of bourbon. She swayed a little, clearly intoxicated. Gingerly, I walked around her and exited the bathroom, returning to my seat at the bar. I finished my drink, closed my tab and went home. The moon sidled slowly along the edge of the mesa, big and red like a blood boil.

It is rumored that something like seventy percent of all UFO sightings in this part of New Mexico are all actually floating mansion sightings. I don’t believe that. I’ve seen the thing and it doesn’t move quickly like the UFO’s on TV seem to. The proprietor of the mansion knows no haste. Whoever it is that lives there, they aren’t going anywhere. It just drifts from place to place: that is the nature of a floating mansion. There are several theories regarding who lives in the mansion. Some people say it’s a witch, others a wizard. Some say it’s Elvis, others think that it’s either Emilia Earhart or D.B. Cooper. There’s a small contingent of theorists who insist that it’s Ponce de Leon. A few people think that it could be Baba Yaga or Tupac. At least one person thinks that a rock band consisting of anthropomorphic raisins resides there. As for me, I don’t really care. I just know that whoever it is that tends those hours, keeps those halls and rooms must experience an impossible loneliness. It is my suspicion that this crushing loneliness is what propels the mansion, though more accepted theories include steam, nuclear fusion, and black magic. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that nearly every churchgoing citizen of Los Duermos believes that mansion’s resident is the devil. But that’s silly because the devil lives in hell and everyone knows that hell is down. Note that down is not synonymous with south in this instance, although south of here is Mexico and nearly every churchgoing citizen would agree that Mexico is hell. They also agree that the president is the devil but he lives in the White House and not the floating mansion nor Mexico nor hell but that’s okay because logic has no place in mythology. If it did then it would be called the truth.

In high school, a girl named Nava took me to the prom. Nava was the first pretty girl that had ever taken an interest in me. She had black hair and eyes the color of twisted vines. We danced. A little. The dance floor shimmied before us as a labyrinth of lights and sweat. But labyrinths, by nature, always contain a minotaur. This particular labyrinth cast a jealous ex-boyfriend in the role of the minotaur. He shoved me as I passed him, and I shoved him back. The ensuing tussle ended with him falling on my arm hard, resulting in a grisly open fracture. The whole thing left me with bloody rented tux and a conditioned aversion to pretty girls. Every time I’ve ever spoken to a pretty girl since, I throw up either on them or in their direct vicinity. So now I have to date fat girls, the unhygienic and the skeletal. Sex generally fills me with dread. This is also what makes me a terrible insurance salesman and a fumbling person. Nava, like me, is one of those people that never really left. I can always tell when she’s nearby because the bones in my arm ache. Every now and then she attempts to reach out to me, but only because she sees me as this emotionally crippled high school kid. The funny part: she’s not even pretty anymore.

The reason I bring her up at all is because it was her grandmother that told us the original myth of the floating mansion. Her grandmother was this big Indian woman with wrinkles on her face like lightning strikes and panther-black hair. Her voice was encapsulating, deliberate, her words hung in the air fragrant and visible like incense smoke. She started the story the same way every time.

Long ago, a young guitarist named Luis Goza got lost in the deserts of what is now southern New Mexico. He was the first son of a second son, his father a degenerate turned outlaw turned revolutionary. Marcel Goza got shot in the base of the skull in his hideout in Texas. Luis, 6 at the time, escaped with the help of a young priest named Salvador Smith. Salvador was an abusive drunk and a willful gambler; some accounts of the tale have Salvador Smith forcing the youth to perform sexual acts upon him.

(Although Nava’s grandmother left this out when she told it to a young Nava.) When Luis was twelve he placed a metal tent stake across a campfire until it was cherry-red, picked the thing up with his bare hand, and drove it through the roof of Salvador’s mouth and into his brain. This rendered Salvador dead and Luis’ left hand unusable. (When Nava was telling me the story I stopped her here and reminded her that at the beginning of the story, she said that Luis was a guitarist. She shushed me and moved along.) It isn’t known how long Luis lived in the wilderness surviving by sheer force of will. Some say that God Himself sustained Luis the same way that He sustained Moses in the desert, with manna in the morning and quail in the evening. At any rate, destiny placed Luis in the employ of Kenzo Ishida, a figure that Nava’s grandmother compared to Don Quixote for the delusional nature of his behavior. Kenzo was an elderly immigrant from Japan living in South Texas who styled himself a samurai, practiced martial arts and possibly schizophrenia. If we cast Kenzo in the role of Quixote, then Luis came to occupy the role of Sancho Panza. He taught Luis everything he knew including the occult art of The Six Hat Karates. No one could master all six, not even Kenzo. At best the practitioner could master one or two. As far as Nava’s grandmother could gather, the hat karates had nothing to do with karate. They had a lot to do with hats, but we’ll get to that later. Luis was a dutiful apprentice, and he learned both from his master’s instruction and from ancient texts. After Luis had mastered both hat karates that Kenzo knew, he learned Japanese and started learning the others. It took him nine years to master the Japanese language and all six karates, a feat so impressive that as soon as Luis showed his abilities to Kenzo, he promptly died. They say that he died a proud man, but Luis reacted as though his master had betrayed him. Feeling abandoned and hopeless, he left Texas forever and no living man saw him again. So how Nava’s grandmother or anybody knew the rest of the story is unclear, but again, that is the nature of mythology.

The karate of the deerstalker can be used only to prevent yourself from being accosted by bats while at the top of a falling ladder. It will not work against crows, ravens, or flying squirrels, so don’t even try.

The next morning at five I climbed up to the roof again, this time with my camera in hand. The scrub nodded and shook as a sea of ambivalent rust and wood. The first slivers of sunlight sublimed the tops of the mesas into pink and blue plumes. In this town, the wind doesn’t sigh. It is just silent. After twenty minutes and twenty snapshots, I was ready to give up. In the corner of my eye, the mansion appeared. Closer this time. It came over a mesa in the north and descended the rock wall to the basin. I could only see its highest roofs and eaves as it floated east along the canyon before vanishing into a ravine. For the first time I considered how awesome it would be to live in a floating mansion. No pretty girls in there. No one to bore with insurance pitches. Just a fireplace and a library and probably an excellent record collection. In my excitement of seeing the mansion again, I completely forgot to take a picture. I wasn’t worried; I’d seen it twice in less than 10 hours. I was confident that I’d see it again. On the roof bathed with the infant sunlight, I smoked a couple cigarettes and whistled softly to myself. I enjoyed the solitude until my phone rang, causing me to leap forward in my chair.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Poco? You busy?” It was Lydia.

“No.”

“Wanna go to the dam?”

“Sure.” Poco was a nickname that our boss had given me. It was somehow directly related to my value as a salesman.

I hung up and went downstairs. Lydia was six foot four and three hundred and thirty five pounds. She wore glasses and had brown hair with dandruff so bad you could mistake it for breakfast cereal. So she was perfect for me as a friend, she didn’t make me the least bit nauseous. She was several years older than me but we both worked as insurance salesmen. So if she wanted to go to the dam that meant that we didn’t have work today for some reason. It was probably Saturday.

When I got to the dam Lydia was already there with a cooler full of beer, her bulk heaped onto a lawn chair that looked about ready to snap. She was already a couple in. I sat on the ground next to her and stared up at the crows circling the water. She grunted a brief greeting and passed me one.

The St. Luke dam created St. Luke’s reservoir. A popular destination for crackheads, nuclear families, and college kids. Nearby there was a hippie commune, a tent / Winnebago city. Great place to score schedule one hallucinogens, handmade apparel, and vintage vinyl.

After I finished my first beer I lit a cigarette and took a drag. I turned to Lydia and told her that I’d seen the floating mansion twice.

She snorted and then looked at me, bursting into a meaty cackle that shook her body violently. After she finished, she asked me where I’d seen the mansion. I told her. Another laugh threatened to earthquake her body into oblivion.

“So do you believe that’s the devil in there?” she asked with sass.

I told her no. It was probably something far more interesting. I imagined the mansion hovering above the lake, the water gently rippling beneath it, radiating from whatever force kept the mansion afloat. Maybe the occupant could throw a rope ladder down, and I could climb up. No. It would never work. If the mansion were powered by loneliness then inviting a stranger aboard would surely cause the mansion to settle and become an ordinary mansion. And even if it is powered by black magic or the likes, I don’t know if accepting the invitation of a witch is a great idea. Baba Yaga would make broth with my bones, devour my flesh and send my consciousness into the thrice-ninth kingdom.

Some say the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a blueprint for the floating mansion. But if you believe things like that you might as well start digging around in your skin with a razorblade because there are definitely implants in there.

I asked Lydia if she believed in the floating mansion. She said no, and asked if I did. I said of course, I saw it with my own eyes. She whinnied like a horse and shook her head. Another beer in, she asked me if I was ever going to start dating again. I said no and asked her when she was going to start dating.

“After I’ve saved up enough,” she said. “I’m going to move to San Francisco. The kingdom of hot middle aged women.”

I heard someone say once that no one lives in the mansion. Whoever owns it lives in a Winnebago in the backyard.

“So why not?” she asked. “Why don’t you start dating again? You’re so pathetic and sad.”

“Beautiful women make me throw up. And I hate sex.”

“A woman doesn’t have to be beautiful to be attractive,” she said.

“Doesn’t matter. If I’m attracted to them, I throw up.”

“That’s such bullshit.”

It was however, the truth. It’s not like I liked having this problem. I don’t stick a finger down my throat or take shots of ipecac, I have an honest to goodness physical reaction. I am not in control of anything. We had this discussion almost every time we got drunk at the dam. It was from Lydia’s father that I first heard the tale of La Urraca.

It is rumored that nearly 75% of people in this desert that claim they have been abducted by aliens were actually abducted by La Urraca. As soon as the first settlers established the town, rumors of something dark in the desert began to emerge. It hung in the dust columns and rock walls, wove through the scrub and into the canyons. Formlessly it trickled into the town, less of a physical thing but more of an awareness. A worry creeping into the consciousness of every living thing. The animals fled. Snakes, lizards, birds. Even the water receded. The people of the town barely had anything to eat or drink, it seemed like the only option would be to abandon the town to find a place that could sustain them. One day a stranger came into town, a blind man smoking a pipe. He asked for an audience with the mayor and they spoke at great lengths. After that, the blind man left and was never seen again. The next day the drought ended, and on its heels was the end of the famine. The blind man became the town’s savior, and it was a time of celebration. Life in the town finally began to settle into a normal cadence. However, as the celebrations ended, the mayor grew more and more weary. He’d taken to drink and would wander the loneliness tracts of the desert at night. During the day he sat in his tiny apartment, burning pungent incense and making tiny crosses out of bits of the desert he’d gathered the previous night. He nailed a cross to every door and above each archway in the town, then he nailed them to each wall and each fencepost. His psychosis was such that they were forced to replace him with someone with a sound mind. But people whispered. They were afraid of whatever unholy force the former mayor sought to keep out of the city. At night the former mayor wandered the streets moaning like a zombie. La Urraca que viene! The former mayor’s psychosis deepened, and he was restricted to his bed. On a year to the day the blind man came into town, La Urraca arrived indeed. It was at this point that I asked Lydia what La Urraca looked like. The simplest answer to that question is it depends who’s looking. Some reported they saw a young girl no older than seven, others said they saw a terrifying, lizard-like monster. Still others claim it was a young man in a custom-tailored black suit wearing a mask. He came into the infirmary where the doctor took care of the former mayor, and asked politely if he could sit down. He then cheerfully requested that the doctor bring him a pot of hot water for tea and allowed them to talk privately for a little while. Stricken with fear, the doctor did as he was told. He brought back the pot and the creature brewed a wicked smelling substance. Some say it smelled like mushrooms and moss, others say it smelled like tar and sulfur. At any rate, the old mayor drank this tea and immediately a change washed over him. His screams echoed throughout the desert. La Urraca held the cup and bade him drink on. When he finally finished the tea his body went into convulsions and he coughed up a small, white, egg-shaped object. La Urraca picked it up and held it against the sunlight. Satisfied, he placed it in his pocket and vanished from the town forever.

The karate of the Greek fisherman’s hat is the art of wielding candlesmoke and door hinges. It can be used to navigate the ancient cheese maze found on the moon, but only if you enlist the help of a talking blanket. Not to be confused with a flying carpet. But a master of the form would be able to tell the difference.

I went home from the lake in the early afternoon, the beer making my drive swervy and inconsistent. The desert glare seemed harsh and fake like that occult light within a copy machine. On the last straight stretch of asphalt into town, predictably, I saw those heavy blue and red lights. Turning and turning in their little glass cases, flashing like haunted stones trying to seduce a buyer. Well caveat emptor. Don’t do anything you’re not prepared to accept the consequences of doing. My father always told me that. I pulled the car over. This wasn’t as much an “oh shit” moment as it was a “well this was coming” one.

The stony eyed young deputy came to the window. He asked for my license and registration. I gave them to him as soberly as possible. He gave them a sour glance and took off his sunglasses, prompted by his sense of smell. His moustache twitched.

“You been drinking today, sir?”

“It’s like noon o’clock officer, you’re probably smelling last night.”

“You reckon you know how fast you were going?” he asked.

“Roughly seventy. Seventy-two miles. Per hour.”

“Right and what’s the speed limit on this stretch of highway?”

“Sixty-five.” The sign was in plain sight.

“Sixty-five he says,” the deputy rapped his fingers across the door. “And yet my radar got you going a chipper seventy-three and a half, you mind explaining that to me?”

“Bad upbringing I guess.”

“Bad upbringing he says,” the deputy brushed his nose with the tip of his thumbs. He spat on the tarmac. “Sir I’m gonna have to ask you to step out of the vehicle.” I did as he said and stood before him.

“Now you and I both know that it don’t take no genius to see that you’re as lit up as the Fourth of July.”

“Sir?”

“You’re as lit up as a Christmas tree,” he pointed a finger sharply in my chest. “As lit up as Times Square on New Years Eve.” He paused there for effect, spitting on the highway again.

“Holiday analogies aside, you’re a very drunk man. Now that said, I’m going to offer you a chance to walk away from all this. A mulligan, if you will.”

“Officer?”

“I’m going to give you a chance to walk free.”

“How?”

“Nothing but a little game,” he returned his sunglasses to his face.

“A game of chance?”

“A man of the desert never leaves nothin’ up to chance,” the deputy drew his sidearm and cocked it, held it aloft. “That is to say, I’m talkin’ about a game of skill.”

“Skill?”

“Yes. If you look due east you will see a fence. On three adjacent fence posts you will see three glass bottles. If you hit at least two of them, you’ll walk free. If you hit one of them, I’ll give you the regular charges, if you hit none of them, I’m going to add…” he thought, “resisting arrest!”

“And if I hit all three?”

“Shit, I’ll give you a little spankin’.”

“What?”

“That’s why they call me officer nasty.”

He handed me the gun. The sunlight played off its facets, all steel and black. I liked the weight of it in my hand, the heft. All the pusillanimity I felt was crushed to death under that heaviness.

“You better start shootin’, cowboy.”

I took aim at the first bottle and pulled the trigger. The blast pulsed through my body, I took a step back. Shy. I couldn’t even tell where the bullet went.

“There goes your spanking.”

I took aim at the second, I lined it up as carefully as I knew how but my hands were shaking, skin against sweat against steel. Shy again. I nearly fell.

“There goes your mulligan.”

At this point I knew I wasn’t going to hit the last one. I briefly considered shooting the cop but that seemed stupid.

“You know, what if I told your commanding officer about this?” I asked.

“Commanding officer?” He scoffed. “What is this, the army? And think. An officer of the law gives a drunk man a loaded firearm. No one’s that retarded.” I shot the gun where I held it. The bullet ricocheted by our feet, the desert denying us an echo. The cop jumped.

“And there goes your freedom.”

On the way to the station in cuffs I definitely regretted what I had done. A desert man should know no regret. Then again, a man living in a floating mansion is probably full of regret. What are his pastimes? You can only read every book in a massive library so many times. You can only listen to a massive record collection so much until it all becomes old. A tireless monotony infringing upon the freedom of living upon such a structure. Extinguishing all the romance from it like rain on a campfire. They say that Luis Goza was a man of no regrets. They say that after the death of his master, he split for the crossroads with nothing but a box full of hats, a canteen, and a poncho.

That’s where Luis Goza met a blind man in a black coat and hat. He sat on a gravestone, staring sightlessly with eyes the color of steel, the color of overcast.

“You got any water, sweetheart?” was what the blind man asked as Luis approached. His chapped lips concealed yellow, mottled teeth. Luis gave him some and naturally the two got to talking. In their conversation Luis mentioned how he’d lost the use of his hand and how he’d always dreamt of playing the blues.

“I feel ‘em in my body,” he said. “The blues. Building like rainwater in my soul, flooding my thoughts. I’m liable to burst.”

The blind man took off his hat, his eyes suddenly luminous like twin moons. Like coins over a dead man’s eyes. Where the inside of the hat should have been there was instead a tumbling darkness, a blank abyss. It was then that the blind man made his offer. He told Luis that his employer had a special pathos for him, and would grant him any wish upon completion of a trial. His hand could be restored and imbued with muscle knowledge of the blues. Anything he wished, up to six trials could be completed. However, if Luis were to fail then forfeit would be his immortal soul. Something like that. Luis, being a man with little to lose and a lover of adventures, promptly accepted. So Luis and the blind man stepped into the hat to face the first trial.

The challenge was simple. Get a woman to come home with you from the bar. Luis had until last call to make this happen.

“Where are we?” Luis asked.

“Texas,” responded the blind man. The bar lights played through Luis’ eyes dangerously. He removed the cowboy hat from the box and put it on. He sat down at the bar and ordered a club soda. Because you can’t do karate while you’re drunk. That’s dangerous. Three minutes after he sat down, a lovely blonde approached him.

“I love your poncho,” she said. “It reminds me of Clint Eastwood.”

Luis just smiled at her. He placed a cigarette on his lip and pulled a match from his breast pocket, struck the match on his thumbnail and lit up.

“Hey you can’t smoke in here you bastard,” shouted the portly bartender.

“Let’s get outta here then,” Luis smiled. She agreed. You should have seen the look on the blind man’s face. They stepped back through the hat portal and into the desert.

“What do you want?” asked the blind man.

“The things you said. I want my hand, and the blues.”

“Uh uh uh,” the blind man whistled. “Only one at a time, if you want the blues, you’ve gotta do another trial.”

Luis looked at his hand which was suddenly as unscarred as a newborn’s. They stepped through the portal again and onto a mesa. A tall ladder stuck straight out of the ground, at the top of which was a bell.

The challenge was easy. Climb the ladder and ring the bell. Luis tapped the dirt with his shoe. He took off the cowboy hat and returned it to the box. On his head he placed the Deerstalker. He ran to the ladder and leapt onto the bottom rung. The blind man threw a lever and the whole thing tumbled into darkness. Must be a massive cave or something because Luis just kept falling and there were so many bats. But he punched all the bats and kicked them, too. Up the ladder he scurried, and he rang the bell. As soon as he did he fell onto the desert floor again, back at the crossroads where the blind man applauded vacantly.

“Here is your guitar,” said the blind man. He handed him an old, busted piece. A resonator with steel skin and old strings.

“Then I guess I’ll be on my way.” Luis took the guitar into his hands and played a wild and lonesome chord, one that tumbled through the desert and took form as a tangle of weeds.

The karate of the rogatywka is used generically to defend oneself versus demonic entities made entirely of lightning, and specifically used to repair downed high capacity power lines. Sounds boring, but it is tedious to get the cherry picker out to fix those things.

The deputy took me to the station and tossed me in a jail cell. I was disappointed. The cell was rather cliche. Sparsely furnished, non-private toilet. Sour-smelling degenerate in the corner. No chains or rattling bones or anything even remotely cool. The old man in the corner opened his eyes from behind scraggly gray curls and a long beard. His lungs rattled like coke cans tied behind a limousine. He picked his nose openly and allowed his eyes to focus on me. It took a long time but when they finally did he started laughing.

“Yeah you don’t look like a good shot,” he snickered.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

“In for? You’re in the drunk tank dude, what do you think I’m ‘in for’?”

“Sorry.”

The man laughed. His sour breath plumed around him like a yellow cloud. I experienced a paroxysm of shame and illness. Into the cell’s musty latrine I emptied the contents of my stomach, my soul banging ponderously into the lenses of my eyes. The shadows grew and took unpleasant forms, blue, violet, contorting and inverting. The visions were so violent and powerful that I needed to lie down.

I fell into the tossy-turny depths of a blues fever. My body exceeded its outline. Spilled over the edges like crayon in a well-loved coloring book. Ghosts congregated in the cell, gathered around the old drunk, joined him in laughter as though I was the funniest act at the comedy club but much more like I was the most bizarrely proportioned animal at the zoo. Nava was there, of course, and so was the cop, the bartender, a man named rust, Lydia, the old drunk. Darkness crept into the seams of the cell and devoured it like roiling floodwater, swept away the wraiths like they were rag dolls in a river of lava. I succumbed to the blues fever, fell into a hot and brackish state of semi-consciousness usually only attainable by those who suffer from dementia or abuse pharmaceuticals. I had the sensation of floating. Above a blue pre-dawn desert I could see the casual glow of Los Duermos, mesas made black and amorphous by the dark horizon, stars ripping through the night sky like bubbles in rapidly boiling water.

I dreamt that I was a mansion, felt a spooky heaviness like the weight of a large object supported by something small or timid. A large rock on a smaller rock. A newborn’s skull on its spine. I took a weight inventory of my body, walls, roofs, ceilings. The grand staircase that curved up to the second floor like an elephant’s tusk, marble tile in the atrium, Persian carpets in the library, felt the weight of the books on their shelves and chandeliers dangling from golden chains. In the parlor I felt a grand piano, glossy and black like an obsidian sculpture, the furnishings of nine bedrooms and high hallways, musty back staircases leading up to star-lit kitchens with dusty, unused ranges and cupboards full of spiders. I accounted for the ballroom, the burst pipes, the balustrades and banisters, and I searched for the things I could not account for. The instruments of flotation hid from me. I sensed no sails, propellers, ballasts, bladders, jet engines, antigravity machines, I could not even tell if the mansion was supported from below or suspended from above. The floating did not feel light, it did not feel like a boat or like swinging. It did not feel like sliding across a frictionless surface. These are feelings that are easily sustained. Like the letter S. You can hold the letter S indefinitely in an angry, cacophonous hiss. Or you can sustain it in a sultry purr, seductive and legato, like a length of lace draped across a smoky bedroom. Not like the letter T. The letter T is instantaneous, staccato, abrupt. a smoke ring. It does not linger, and it does not feel pain. The letter T is the feeling of tipping over a balcony, right when you hit the point of no return, when gravity removes all hope of being able to recover from a fall. That was the way the mansion felt as it floated. The mansion floating was the letter T sustained.

The other thing that eluded my body inventory was the one thing I was most interested in. The occupant. No footfalls on staircases or pulses thrumming through bedframes. I had to conclude that the occupant of the mansion was a weightless vampire. No mirror could perceive him as he passed through the corridors, leaving the dust unstirred and the spider webs unbroken. He boarded up the mansion as one would to defend it from a legion of undead soldiers, but his only true enemy was the sun. No light could be allowed into the house. The years had eroded him into a frail, skeletal shade. Want of that thick forbidden liquid had caused him to grow weak. He could no longer transform into the vicious feral bat he once had, the one with dragon teeth and burning yellow eyes. No, over the years he had had to adopt smaller, more sustainable forms. The mansion’s many hours had seen everything from large fruit bats to the small, blind, and albino. Now he took the form of flittering and graying moth, meandering the desert by moonlight, only visible under one of Los Duermos’ sodium orange street lamps.

Or maybe the mansion really was vacant. I’d become familiar with that feeling. At the bar I’d always felt like I was pouring liquid into a bottomless well. Then suddenly the liquor would peel away the veil and I’d feel as though I was part of the world, only to wake up to a heaving emptiness. A heart can’t contain all of that abyss without being crushed to a drunken and jittering singularity. Maybe I’d finally plunged into the depths of mental illness.

But no, I emerged from the blues fever into a tiny white room that smelled cloying and sterile, my sanity mostly intact. A young nurse was adjusting an IV sticking out of my arm. I asked her what happened and she told me I had started convulsing in the jail cell. I told her I didn’t remember and she said that it happens. She left the room. My nausea subsided.

The karate of the coonskin cap is used to repair antique pipe organs in the American Northwest. Sounds simple but this is the American Northwest, most pipe organs out here were jury rigged out of logs and mammoth bones.

Some people say the floating mansion is actually a floating castle. The word castle implies fortification which would indicate that it may have had some sort of military application. A floating castle or fortress would be a valuable asset in a military campaign although sometimes if you press someone claiming that it’s actually a floating castle about fortifications, they will say that it is not fortified. In which case it would be a floating palace and not a floating castle. Some say that the floating mansion is actually a floating palace.

The doctor admitted me overnight. My head felt like Jack Kerouac’s typewriter it wouldn’t stop plunking away. I turned over and stared out the hospital window at the blistered Los Duermos vistas. The full moon blazed like a lobotomized jack-o-lantern over the horizon, and though my eyes were soft and bleary as too-wet dough, I could make out a speck moving swiftly across the moon’s surface. Transit of mansion.

“Hey.” A voice in the room echoed out and startled me. Defying expectation, Nava sat somewhat uncomfortably in the corner.

“I love your moustache. It reminds me of Lee Van Cleef.”

A moth bumped noisily into the window screen. Its sensory organs scrambled desperately for purchase, yearning for that incomprehensible forbidden light.

“That’s what I was going for.”

“You nailed it.”

She got up as if she was going to leave, but lingered in the doorway. She turned to face me, all of her awkward frumpiness: weirdly loose mom-jeans, pleated, wide flannel shirt. I could see traces of her former beauty, but I didn’t have the energy to feel nauseous.

“Did you see it?” I asked after a moment.

“What?” her blond hair fluttered in some kind of unseen hospital draft.

“The mansion.”

“Yeah.” She returned to her chair.

We sat in silence.

With two trials completed, Luis had fully intended to walk away. At that moment the blind man revealed something disconcerting. It didn’t matter how many trials he completed, Luis’ soul was forfeit. In a year’s time, Lucifer’s most fearsome hellhound would come to collect his debt. La Urraca. At this, Luis sat down in the sand and thought for a long time. The desert shifted around them, tediously performing its immense and intricate do-si-do. Civil twilight began as tumbleweeds gathered around the crossroads like teenagers outside a movie theater.

“I want a gun that can kill him,” Luis said after some thought.

“He cannot be killed.”

“I want to become invisible so that he cannot see me.”

“Petty tricks will not work on him.”

“I want a cage to imprison him.”

“More tricks Luis? I assure you, he will collect”

Luis considered for a while longer. Time enough for the sun to rise and the scrub to cast their houndstooth shadows all over the dirt and sand.

“What if I hid from him?”

“He would find you.”

“What if he could not reach me?”

The blind man laughed.

“The only place he cannot reach is heaven!”

“Then that is where I shall retreat,” Luis grinned. “If I complete the next trial, you shall grant me a great mansion, one that can stroll amongst the clouds. In one year’s time I shall begin my occupation of The Mansion.”

“Foolish Luis,” the blind man spat. “You will rot in your mansion.”

“Then I will complete another trial and gain immortality.”

“If you do that you will doom yourself to a hell of loneliness and shame.”

“‘Tis better than oblivion, I think.”

“In the end,” the blind man said, “you will retreat from your mansion and you will beg for the embrace of darkness. You will welcome it like the advances of a lover.”

“Do not attempt to curse me, Demon. I will curse myself.”

Despite Luis’ bravado, they say that the blind man’s prophecy rang in his ears. At first it was as noiseless as the wingbeats of a dragonfly, but the lonely years magnified it into a chorus of cathedral bells, ringing Luis to a wild and roiling abyss.

The karate of the tattered baseball cap grants the practitioner the ability to sit quietly in any setting and tune out all sounds except for the sound of rain striking the roads and rooftops in the closest town where rain happens to be falling. When Nava told me this, years ago, I asked her about the apparent anachronism of the baseball cap but she just shrugged and said that the things she loved most were all things that were out of place.

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