In the deep blackness his head walked alone. Did heads have legs? he wondered. It was a long time before things appeared to him at all. They looked to be merely wavy lines and rows of glowing dots colored the penetrating colors of neon signs set against a deep black he had never before imagined. At first there were a very few of them and he had to feel his eyes to see if they were actually open because these pinpoint dots of unimaginable color were the sort of things everyone sometimes sees briefly with eyes closed tight. If he had eyes, he thought, he must be his head, but if that were true, what was it that was doing the walking? What was it that was doing the feeling? It seemed impossible to him that his head could walk as well as he. What eyes were what hands feeling? Did heads have hands?
As the little colored dots appeared to him out of the blackness, he heard the flapping of the crow/ravens’ wings like the roaring of a forest fire. He thought he smelled some hugely pleasured smell of childhood, all but forgotten. He watched the dots carefully and they formed themselves into wiggly lines of astonishing complexity and number, filling his vision with rows of jewels so bright they hurt the eye. Up close, the squiggles and dots seemed to be primal worms and unearthly scraps and glowing specks of life itself, like tiny neon lobsters and centipedes. They were not only the subject matter but the very fabric of this half-lit world whose filmy outlines were swallowed at every edge by the intensity of the blackness. In a moment only, he saw so many dotted colored forms, so many tiny stories were revealed to him, that he could not fathom how he or anything connected to him could be so wise and subtle and numerous.
As if rushing down a dotted street made up of tiny lights, he barely saw a glowing man brush by. The figure was misshapen and when it stopped and craned its hooded head toward him he saw that it was bent over with the weight of some great burden carried upon its bowed back. It might have been a basket and it might have been a sack, but the burden was so huge that the man could only walk with knees deeply bent along the glowing, dotted stones of the track he trod through the jet night. The man made a moaning and a crying noise with each labored step, a sound so pitiful and real that Chester felt his heart want to break. Was this his head feeling the loss of a heart like an amputated limb seeming to cry out still to its parent body? Chester did not know why, but he felt an ineffable sadness at the sight.
Then he was alone in the deep black from which the clever dots had first emerged. He was floating on a black sea under a full white moon and he was not alone. A ways off, a baby child floated in a copper basin, floated upon the black water. The child asked him if he had heard the one about the three blind elephants and the squashed mouse. He felt panic surge through him and he realized that he was lying on the wet earth, his nose pressed in the rich soil. He could not move. From somewhere far away, his head sought its body like a lover anxious for its mate. He heard Annie Bob, her old voice.
“I had three horses once,” said Annie Bob, in a conversational way. “One of them had a tail so powerful you could hook it up to the crank on a washer and do your wash as good as anything.”
“One of them – one of your horses – could do dishes with its tail,” croaked Chester Honeyacre’s head, buried as it was in the cool earth, fresh from rain. He did not see how it was possible to speak in this situation, but he did not mention it.
“I told you that, right?” asked Annie Bob.
“Uh, huh,” mumbled Chester’s head. “What about the third horse?” This seemed to Chester to be a very clever thing to remember and to say, given the circumstances. He was momentarily proud of his head.
“I said there were three, didn’t I?” said the old woman. When the head didn’t answer, she kicked it and it began to roll and fly along the earth and it rolled and flew, bouncing off the tops of the tall mountains of the West until it came to rest up on a rocky crag of Stick Mountain itself. The mountain fled beneath them, crumpled like paper and colored with rosy light and soft blue shadow.
“Slow down, babe,” said Annie Bob who was huffing and puffing to keep up with the speedy head. “I remember that third horse. That horse was a Quarter-horse named Lefty and he could remember names and dates and appointments and could do simple calculations and hold them in memory.”
“No kidding,” said Chester’s head.
“Let’s go somewhere. This mountain could explode any minute,” said Annie Bob, stretching herself like a young woman.
The head trembled precariously on its perch of stone. The very earth began to grind beneath.
“Besides,” said Annie Bob, shaking her hair out, long and dark, raising her arms and crossing them above her aged head like a little girl. “Besides, I’m tired of just sitting around. You know, Chester, activity is a sign of life and stillness is a condition of dead bones. Do you like to ride on the train?”
Chester’s head nodded yes, but it is impossible, it turns out, to nod when you’re not really attached to something like a neck. The result was that the head began to roll again, bouncing and hurling through the air, down off the troubled mountain and into a clearing in the deep dark black drippy forest where it found Chester’s body and snapped back on and the whole unit sat up and rubbed its balding head and felt its big body and concluded that nothing much was broken.
Annie Bob was perched up on a fallen giant fir among mushrooms and shelf fungi as big as the moon and she watched him. She pulled her gnarled knees up and hugged them the way a little girl might. She cocked her head to one side and peered at him intently.
“The train used to run right through here,” she said. “Are you alright?”
“I’m ok, I guess,” said Chester. “I must have tripped.”
A big smoking train pulled up in the middle of the woods, steaming and hissing. It was covered with little neon dots for a moment and then it was not.
“C’mon,” smiled Annie Bob. “Let’s take a ride on the train.”
He obediently followed her and climbed up the iron steps and into the railroad car. The old-fashioned porters were like statues and seemed to be painted with an uneven dark wash and they stood frozen in helpful attitudes.
“Get right on, Sir and Madam,” said one, who made no move to take their baggage, had they even had any. As the train began to move forward with quickening speed, Chester glanced behind and on the receding ground he spied the figure with the immense bundle on its back.
“What’s in the sack?” he shouted. The vanishing figure looked up and waved and in so doing dropped the bundle which rolled on the ground. Out of it suddenly squirmed a great snake, as white as milk, but then the train went around a bend and it was lost to sight. Chester followed the old woman through the crazily swaying connections between the cars, the noise deafening at first and then followed by the relative quiet once through the whooshing doors to the next compartment. Chester watched Annie Bob’s swaying female butt draped in its clingy skirt sashay down the squeezy little corridor and he felt sex surge through him like some memory he had entirely forgotten. He did not want to look down at his penis because he feared it might be a long white snake the color of milk. The windows in the dining car seemed daubed with gouts of glue, as if they had been through fire. The travelers too seemed frozen and their faces were a hideous pink color. A man in a fedora holding a silver coffee urn said, as they passed, “Hey, I’ve got a duck, a big sawbill duck, and in his platter-eyes can be read the future.”
“No thanks, pal,” Chester had the wit to say. “I’ve got enough problems with the present.”
“You can say that again,” said Annie Bob, sitting at a linen-draped table and lighting a cigarette in a long, neon-dotted cigarette holder. He didn’t want to say it again, but his head did and it made Annie Bob laugh like a young girl to hear the head repeat itself. Her eyes were as deep as a pot of black paint and her strangely youthful breasts struggled not to fall out of her little black dress complemented with little black heels and patterned black stockings. She still looked vaguely skeletal, thought Chester, but in a fleshy and voluptuous way. She sure didn’t look eighty-seven.
“Look, oh Chester, look!” she shouted gaily, like an actress, and she pointed out the bulbous and blistered window. Outside, the landscape whipped by. The train rolled and clacked and shook and bounced. They were passing over a deep river gorge. Chester saw a sign flash by and he thought that it said:
The trees outside looked like lacy foam rubber, set shallowly in painted plaster and then another train going the opposite way cut off his view. For a while, all he could see were the pulled boxcars whipping by, emblazoned with the mysterious names of the world of rails, chief among them the Beaverteeth, Mystery Island and Pacific Railroad, designated the “Scenic Route of Revenge”, or at least that’s what he thought the boxcars read. His vision cleared as the freight train passed and his train slowed. They were coming into a station.
“Look, we’re here,” cried Annie Bob above the shriek of the air brakes. Her eyes promised something more than he would have expected from an eighty-seven year-old woman. The town was called “The City of Hand Tools”. It seemed a long name for what looked to be quite a small town. There was a huge statue of something like a giant beaver in the little park across the street from the train station. He could see the distant, peaceful sight of a church steeple through the spongy trees that surrounded the little grassy square fringed with old-fashioned cars. The train slowed to a crawl across a street blocked by flashing gates and passed a little nasty bar with a stiff drinker outside who waved mechanically to the train. The bar, he noticed, was called “My Goddamn Ex-Wife’s Place” and that made him laugh and laugh. He felt giddy and better as he stepped down onto the platform and he noticed that while there were no tracks in front of the engine as it stood still, when it moved off, tracks somehow appeared behind it. How did it know where to go, he wondered? Two huge black birds circled overhead, screaming and barking at one another. He looked up and saw that they had big bills made of painted wood and that their feathers were scraggled and missing here and there. Still, their voices raged. He couldn’t make out what they were saying.
“Two ravens fighting,” said Annie Bob huskily, pulling him across a street made of plaster, painted black, with all the white and yellow lines too large and sloppy to be real. The cars they passed had no windows and seemed cast of some soft metal.
“Raven is good,” she murmered. “Raven is good luck in everything. Raven makes you talk a lot, though. C’mon, Chester. Let’s watch ourselves on TV and let’s fuck real nasty now.” Her voice was low and soft in his ear. This time, he thought, I am going to faint.
The station was called the Revenge Terminal. This struck Chester as odd. He fainted dead away in the great marble lobby. No one moved to help him, frozen as they all were in attitudes of helpfulness. When his face struck the floor he noticed, in the second before he passed out, that the floorboards were as soft as mud.
Then he dreamed that little cowboys surrounded him. It was a beautiful and peaceful dream. He smelled the smell of cowboy outfits, of childish fringed gloves with big leather cuffs and inlaid red leather stars. The little cowboys wore shirts with dripping leather fringe and some were of double-fronted Red Ryder design. There was white piping on black cloth, big hats, the smell of leather holsters and the explosions of cap pistols, there were leather thongs strapping the pistol holsters down around little legs, the draw, the shot. The little men who wore the little cowboy outfits had black masks across their little eyes. They were clever chaps with adult voices and concerns yet they danced and hooted and fired their cap pistols with childlike and good-natured abandon. Then, Chester’s dead father, Bud Honeyacre – who in real life hadn’t been much taller than these little cowboys – appeared, riding a beautiful white horse whose tail was a storm of snow and ice and whose eyes shone fractured, as if made of frozen diamonds.
“This is my horse Bonneville!” shouted the old man. “Look, Chester! This is a cost-effective use of my time!”
The little old cowboys in masks became still and serious and wary. One of them said carefully to Bud Honeyacre, “Hello, old man. Did you hear the one about the Jewish goat and the Catholicish pig and the Protestantish rabbit?”
“You can’t trick me!” shouted Bud Honeyacre, wheeling his frigid steed. “You can’t kill me with that one!”
Then he looked down at Chester, directly in the eyes. “Chester,” said the little old man, “revenge my foul and most unnatural murder.”
And with that he rode off, his horse’s hooves cracking like thin ice. The three little cowboys fired their guns at one another in anger. Chester thought that one of them – the one in the double-fronted rusty red shirt with dark green piping – might be himself.
Then he was lying on the forest floor and he sensed that Annie Bob was with him. He heard her voice.
“See,” she said. “This is the way I look at these things, in answer to your question. Chester, are you listening to me?”
“Yes, I’m listening.”
“Well, the horses are obvious. Horses are full of trouble but they are better than modern appliances or old tribal ways. They would be women. Get up, Chester. I’m tired of you lying down.”
When he rolled over and looked at her, she was the same wrinkled old woman she had always been. He was relieved beyond relief at this.
“The exploding mountain is obvious too,” she continued. “They say on TV – when I had a TV – that the Stick Mountain is going up any minute, and look what it did to my house already. The thing about two heads is odd. I’ve never heard that one before. Raven is Raven, of course. Library stuff, old people stuff. Use your local library, you paid for it. The train part is very interesting, but inconclusive. I don’t get it. I’ll have to ask around. Sex is always good, you are a horny guy, Chester, as well you should be. Revenge probably has something to do with your brother. The Freudian stuff at the end is just something you’ll have to work out for yourself. But don’t be confused. You were on the outside looking at the Stick People. They might be making a model of you, but you weren’t outside yourself looking at yourself. It was a vision, not a dream. That’s my analysis, as far as it goes.”
Chester was worried. “What does it all mean? Am I insane?”
“No,” she said, as if she had thought about it. “This is Indian-type stuff, so it confuses you. It doesn’t confuse me but on the other hand, I don’t like it. I like to go to fine bed-and-breakfast establishments in the San Juan Islands and drink bottled water from France.”
Chester laughed. She didn’t. He tried to stand up. He was very woozy and his knees were stained from crawling through ferns and blueberries. His head and shoulders were wet with black mud.
“What happened to me? Are there gasses in the mud?”
“Gee, that’s a good idea. I didn’t think of that,” said Annie Bob sarcastically. “You’ve always been a little unbalanced, Chester. But face it, you had some kind of vision, you gained some kind of knowledge, that’s what the old people would have said. You saw the Stick People, maybe. It’s all bullshit, you know.”
“Why do you say things like that? Don’t you have any pride in being Indian?”
“That’s like feeling proud of having one head,” said the old woman. “You have to be desperate to take pride in something like that.”
Some time later, when he finally made a list of all that he could remember of what had happened in the vision, he decided to put the old woman both last and first.
1. An old woman, my only friend
2. A tatooed man, a forerunner
3. Three industrious horses (women?)
4. Neon bugs make up a world
5. A glowing man with a genital burden
6. A floating child in a copper basin
under the moon
7. An exploding mountain
8. Helpful black persons
9. “Come back”
10. A white snake
11. The City of Hand Tools
12. A large beaver, enshrined
13. Drinking and sex
14. Two talking ravens, fighting. Good Luck
15. Watching yourself on TV
16. A dream of little cowboys (me?)
17. Joking father, murdered (?)
18. The same old woman, but very different
He wrote, at the top of the list, a single word:
though he was not quite sure why.