Excerpted from A Stone's Throw: The Enduring Nature of Myth, by Ross Laird
I mix up a batch of quick-setting modeling compound in a large stainless steel bowl. It’s the color and consistency of pancake batter. In a separate bowl, I mix the light blue catalyst. I pour the catalyst into the larger bowl and furiously mix the two solutions together for half a minute. The compound begins to set – I can feel the resistance increasing against my mixing spoon. I toss the spoon aside, take a deep breath, quell my panic, and place my entire face into the mixture.
For forty-five seconds I wait, trying to bring my heart rate down, struggling in my mind, again and again, with an image of my face stuck permanently in the hardening material, my hands desperately trying to pull it away. I’m fairly sure that’s not going to happen, but the rising tide of anxiety is pressing and claustrophobic. My air begins to run out long before it should. I hang on as long as I can, my lungs on fire, my hands twitching. Then, with the last of my breath, I blow out. The seal between my skin and the modeling compound releases, and I remove my face from the bowl. I open my eyes, look down, and see a perfect, inverted replica of my face: a negative. At the corners of my negative-eyes, small pockets remain where air bubbles were caught in the mold. The finished form looks and feels like a plastic gel; tiny ripples shiver across its surface as I move the bowl to the back of the bench.
In twenty minutes this mold will harden to the point that it cracks, so I move quickly. I dump a box of plaster of paris into another bowl, add a couple of cups of cold water, and start mixing. I follow the feel of the mixture and not the measuring directions. The plaster should be thin enough to pour, thick enough to dry without too much shrinkage from water evaporation – about the consistency of melted ice cream.
I mix for five minutes, then run the spoon one last time along the bottom of the bowl, looking for material not yet dissolved. Then I retrieve the mold from the back of the bench and pour the plaster into it. The mixture fills the form completely, leaving a flat expanse on its top. I dip my finger into it, feeling for warmth. Nothing yet. I sit down, wipe my hands absentmindedly on a cloth, and listen to the thump of my slowing heart.
Ten minutes later the plaster is hot, and hardening fast. It has begun to darken a little – it’s a faint, ashen color – and a thin film of moisture now lies upon its surface. I leave it to dry for another hour, and walk to the school to pick up Rowan. She’s excited when I tell her what I’ve been working on, and runs ahead of me, shouting that we should get going to see how the face has turned out. The day is unseasonably warm. My own face feels as though it has been cleansed by immersion in the compound.
Back home, I grasp the bottom of the bowl, place my hand securely on the top surface of the plaster, and invert the whole works. Then I put it down again on the bench and remove my hand from between the plaster and the bench top. I push the top of the bowl down with one hand and lift along its circular edge with the other. Moving in increments, stretching the form, I ease the hard plaster loose. I feel it release with a snick and come to rest on the bench top as the bowl comes free in my hand. There, hardened and delicate and incongruous on my workbench, is an exact replica of my face.
The first thing that occurs to me is that it doesn’t look like me at all. The face is too narrow, the nose pinched, the chin snubbish. My features seem flattened and elongated. My mouth is noticeably lopsided: full and fleshy on the left, narrow and descending, as though unsupported, on the right. I didn’t know the paralysis there was so evident. I’m used to looking at my reflection in a mirror, but a mirror doesn’t show a faithful image; it swaps left for right. I have never seen my face this way, as it actually appears in three dimensions. As a stranger sees it on the street. It looks unattractive, a bit eerie. But the topographic features are all there, providing me with a template for shaping the stone.
An archaic face, swimming in the waters of my family history, lies somewhere behind my own. Layered and interwoven with my countenance, gazing back toward a horizon limned by forgetting. This is the first certainty of the work; that I am a fable, remembering its own origins, kept vibrant by retelling.
The chronicle of my origin, of my family’s origin, came into my possession after my grandmother’s death. The pages are filled with precise, careful script, and have been photocopied from an obviously much older volume. The capitals are sharp and clear, the connections between letters fluid. Likely a feminine hand, though no one knows who wrote the material. The most recent events described in the narrative took place around 1700, but the language describing those events is modern in character; late nineteenth century, probably.
The chronicle, which begins in the thirteenth century, was given to my grandmother perhaps fifty years ago by an American relative with whom none of us has maintained contact. He was not the author but had received the book from more distant relatives. In its pages are myths and dreams and tales: a man held captive in the hold of a ship, breaking the manacles with his own strength; a woman hunting with wolves in the forest; a young girl born among exiles. I read of war and memory and of what my ancestors were compelled to preserve. There are no artifacts from the time of the chronicle; only worn stories, threadbare, freighted with the symbolism of our clan.
Where this chronicle ends – the exile of the Protestants from France, the Salem witch trials – another begins, written by my great-uncle Dave in his youth, after the First World War, after he wandered the mountains and then returned to Scotland, his ancestral homeland, to make sense of his origins. He was, I think, trying to understand why he had survived. His narrative – typed neatly, bound in black, precise and scholarly – describes among its first events an accusation of witchcraft brought against one of my ancestors. The last entry of my grandmother’s chronicle describes another ancestor, an inquisitor, and the witchcraft trials initiated by him. I find this strange and intriguing: these two events took place at the same time, on different continents, and were enacted by people who knew nothing of each other. Yet their descendants came together in my own family. Perhaps we continue, even now, the mythological struggle between heretic and inquisitor.
Dave’s family journal details his trip to Scotland and his visit to the ancestral lands of our family. He discovered what he thought were a few relatives, and he found references to our migration in the parish journal. At the site of the derelict homestead, he wrote, “The old house has been torn down, but its site is visible, and we took away several stones as souvenirs.”
Stones, particularly igneous stones – resistant to erosion, implacable and enduring as the gods themselves – were, for the Kem, a means of embodying ancestral narratives, tales of beginning, chronicles of family and culture and individuality. Every stone sculpture was itself a hieroglyph, a rebus, a talisman imbued with esoteric meaning. During the reign of Khafre and his contemporaries, the Kem transported millions of tons of stone, shaped it, carved it, rendered it the expression and lasting imprint of a culture discovering the soul.1 They brought stones from all over the Middle East and Africa: by boat, by sledge, by the power of words, if the old tales are to be believed. They transported blocks of seventy tons to Giza from as far away as Aswan, some five hundred miles. The Kem devotion to stone was matched only by the Inca and the Maya, whose similar achievements in craftsmanship came thousands of years later. For them also, the sacred stone arose from the waters. The title of the Mayan book of origins, the Popol Vuh, means “the light that came from the sea.”
In the Kem society of the third millennium BCE, replicas of the black stone of origin – the benben – were kept within temples and atop obelisks. They were also used as capstones for pyramids. The most famous of these, the capstone of Khufu’s pyramid (the Great Pyramid), has long vanished. The question of who walked off with it is not insignificant. How – not to mention why – did a band of marauders, or an invading army, remove a massive capstone, likely made of fifteen tons of meteoric iron,2 from a summit almost five hundred feet off the desert, without leaving a trace?
Khufu’s capstone, made of a metal the Kem considered sacred, was taken from the Great Pyramid perhaps four thousand years ago. But its image has persisted through myth narratives and thrives even today. The Washington Monument, deliberately designed in the tradition of Kem obelisks and intended – like the Great Pyramid – to be the largest monument in the world, is crowned by a 3,300-pound marble capstone at the summit of which sits a nine-inch-tall aluminum pyramid. During the period 1848–1885, when the monument was constructed in a series of halting stages, aluminum was a precious metal, and the small pyramid was the largest piece ever cast. The Washington Monument is still the tallest masonry structure in the world (about seventy-five feet taller than Khufu’s pyramid), and its role in American culture is identical to that of the benben stone of the Kem: the Washington Monument symbolizes, in stone, a tale of origins.
The circular blade of the grinder sweeps across the sharp edge of the stone, abrading the corner, throwing off sparks. I work in stages, one edge at a time, easing into the stone, widening my window on its interior. That window, which began as a small incision, grows to encompass the entire top of the stone. The surface must be smoothed, made more uniform, readied for carving. The top edges must be rounded over to accommodate the contours of the face I will try to carve.
I remove as much as an inch of stone from the corners; layers of igneous rock are pulverized and transformed into fine dust that covers every surface of the shop. My dust collector, mounted on the ceiling and guaranteed to clean every particle of dust from the air in my shop every ten minutes, becomes clogged. I can hear, beyond the din of the grinder and through the insulation of my hearing protectors, its motor dropping in cadence, growling, threatening to stall. The white plaster mask of my face is on the bench, in the path of the black stone dust. It first becomes darkened, then obscured but for its contours. I think of Shelley’s famous poem about the Kem, “Ozymandias”: “Half sunk a shattered visage lies… Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”3
As I pare down the surface, smoothing and leveling, I wonder about the black stone of origin in the Kem myth. It too was smooth and level and became the first seat of God, the Unnameable. The Shebtiw came and departed, but the Unnameable remained, shaping the new land with light. The myth relates how the Unnameable encountered a shadow cast by its own corona. This shadow, which is the necessary corollary of every light, meandered through the murk, twisted and labored, swelled into the shape of a serpent: the Great Leaping One, Nehapiwir.4
The island of beginnings was replete: suffused with light, nurtured by a well of souls. But it was not yet animated by time. Within its sphere, a world of becoming was yet to be born. The serpent fractured the boundary of that sphere, during a battle with the Unnameable that is described in the Kem myth in great detail.
This first battle was identical in character to an incident in the First World War, during which my grandfather and his brother, my great-uncle Dave, fought side by side.
My grandfather drove a team of black horses. An artillery gun, bolted to a stout carriage and rolled forward on wheels rimmed with iron, swung behind the horses as they moved from trench to hill. When one of the horses was killed in the fighting, my grandfather and his companions roamed the neighboring farms at night, searching for a fresh black horse. Always black. When they found one, they would spirit it away. The unfortunate farmer would wake the next morning to find himself bereft in another of the many ways of war.
In September 1918, when my grandfather was twenty-three years old, an Allied offensive was undertaken along the entire war front, from the Meuse region of northern France to the English Channel. Four avenues of attack were planned for four consecutive days beginning September 26. On the second day, the Canadian Corps was assigned to the capture of Bourlon Wood.5
During the serpent battle, the Unnameable called upon a host of deities that had crafted the first temples from granite and basalt.6 In their animal forms – lions, bears, bulls – they made a protective trench across the headland of the island. They moved slowly, in four groupings, leaving a carnival of footprints in the sand. Along a ridge at the boundary of the headland, where the cries of birds rose from nests in the grass, the divine bull – looking ahead, squinting into a sun climbing over the island’s meadow – mistook the scaled eyelid for a boulder, glanced past a mouth curved like a trench in the soil, failed to see the serpent’s neck beneath his heel. The bull stepped down with his hoof. The serpent rose up and struck.
The hosts of the Unnameable fell back in the face of the serpent’s attack. The snake encircled the seat of the god, pierced its hands and feet with fangs, and crucified the Unnameable at the shore. (In a later age, the Christian tradition adopted this scene in its own tales of origin.) The eyes of the Unnameable were broken open.7 The god’s form dissolved into every shining thing: its right eye became the sun, its left eye the moon. Below, the body of the serpent unfurled.
On the evening of September 26, the Canadian forces assembled in four divisions along a dry section of the Canal du Nord. It lay like a trench between Sains-lez-Marquion and Moeuvres. By midnight, preparations were completed. The soldiers lay in the open, huddled together for warmth. Across the canal, at the enemy encampment, nothing stirred. Under the camouflage of night and black horses, my grandfather Robert and his brother, David, moved unseen.
“It’s a wonder,” said my father, “that they didn’t go deaf from the sound of the guns.” At dawn, flashing across the canal, the horses still – miraculously still amid the thunder – the artillery barrage began. Infantrymen crushed across the canal bridge and fanned out into the forest. From their adjoining gun emplacements on dry ground just west of the canal, Robert and David shelled the Bourlon hillside through the day, targeting enemy guns trained on the bridgehead. Late in the afternoon, as the infantry edged to where retreating soldiers had left a barren hilltop, an enemy artillery shell ghosted across the sky and exploded in the midst of David’s battery. My grandfather, perhaps a hundred feet away, watched the soldiers of his brother’s emplacement tumble in the flash and roar. And, seeing that the hill had been taken, my grandfather crawled across the shattered ground to where David lay wounded and lifted him from the wreckage of the guns.
The foundation stone was fractured. Fragments fell away from it, into the sea and up to the sky, whirling and turning and vanishing. (Those fragments are still making their way home.) But the serpent was subdued: four phalanxes of gods rushed forward, captured the head of the snake, and wrestled it to the ground.
The brothers moved westward, one carrying the other along the corduroy road laid down by the army. At the field hospital, my grandfather stayed with his brother through the night, watched over him. They settled down beside each other as the night drew on, listened to the cries of the living and silences of the dead. Their words thickened as they spoke, stretched out and took shape in the autumn air, mixed with smoke and kerosene, with antiseptic, and lay upon the world like a blanket of promises. They spoke of mountains, of the west, of a path winding beneath the glacier.
Those words, spoken at the junction where all roads cross, held aloft by two brothers dreaming, remade their world. Later, when they came west and David walked the alpine paths, everything he saw was a memory of that night’s reverie. And I, walking those paths generations later, still see the words drifting in the sky, still watch them settle onto a ground of fallen cedars and tiny, speckled flowers.
In the Kem myth, the gods and the serpent together enact the ritual of “settling down beside” one another.8 They become one people, one company of gods. The bull fashions a stone marker on the summit of the island’s hill as a reminder of the necessary companionship of enemies. This resolution, in which the adversary is welcomed as intimate friend, is one that every subsequent age has fought, and often failed, to achieve.
Breaking the enemy defensive line at Bourlon Wood cost the Canadian Corps thousands of casualties, but their effort helped stall the war’s momentum. The day after the battle, the retreating German general sent word to Berlin that the war was lost. The Canadians arrived at Mons six weeks later, in time for the armistice on what was to become Remembrance Day. Today the battle of Bourlon Wood is marked by a memorial stone on the hilltop. When my father was the same age as his father was during the war, they went to see the lime trees nursed back to health and the monument with the stone block at its heart. Steep steps approach the summit through a terraced garden, quiet now with echoes.
The tale of my grandfather and his brother is one of the more recent origin myths of my family. But myths possess genealogies; they descend from a fabled origin, are steeped in the womb of the earth’s dreaming. Poetry is their midwife. Behind them, a web of predecessors stretches back through generations of telling, vanishes beyond the horizon of memory. The fable of the two brothers and the battle for the hill is only a more contemporary version of the much older Kem tale, perhaps archetypal, of the war between the company of gods and the serpent. In our familial myth, the defensive trench of the Kem is replaced by a French canal; but the fable is identical.
Myths are like this: we claim the storied child as our own. Look, he has his father’s eyes. Her mother’s hands. One of us. We will make a place for you, who have come to the river, the manger, the cave of wonders. We will claim you as our own, we will defend your place among us against those who would challenge it. We will believe the tale that you were born within the circle of our relations. We will forget that we have seen your brothers dancing in the fields of our enemies.
The altar of the black stone – at Bourlon, in an obscure tale of the Kem, on my workbench, damp and bright as I wash dust from its surface – is a pivot around which many things turn. Almost every tale of origin speaks of it, surrounded by bright fire. It is the foundation stone, the eye of wisdom, the grail. Relic of beginnings, it is the nexus around which the scattered forms of creation once gathered. It lies at the center of every myth, and we are caught up, even now – perhaps now more than ever – in its story.
In roughing out the carving, I am chiefly concerned with the removal of surface material. I can experiment here, using different tools and procedures. I need to learn the particular dialect spoken between stone and tool: how hard to press, and at what angle; where the grain of the stone lies, and what its rhythms are; how to cut, and be precise enough not to shear. As I work, the top of the stone grows smooth, and more rounded. It begins to look like a rock from the river. The bottom of the stone remains untouched, and is rough. This duality would not likely arise naturally – stones tend to be either eroded on all sides, or not at all – and for the first time I feel the absolute commitment of this task. I have engaged with the stone as a craftsman; it now bears the unmistakable mark of having been worked by human hands. It lay unhindered for millennia, minding its own business. Now I’ve taken it from the riverbed and started to chop bits off. I’ve drawn it into myths and tales, enclosed it within the circle of my own becoming. For its sake, and my own, I need to demonstrate that this has all been more than idle chatter.
Stone carving is an exercise in faith: that the material might yield, gently, its hidden structure, that my imagination and instinct might be sufficient to the task of discovering the stone’s inner life. I am unnerved by the prospect that I might get it wrong, that my impulses might betray, rather than serve, the concealed beauty of the material. I go slow.
Too slow, perhaps. I am tentative to the point that the grinder, which is capable of slicing through the stone almost as an ax cleaves wood, makes only small incisions. I prospect, moving to various points on the surface as I try to find a place to dig in. I am uncovering, from the long shadow of forgetfulness, an ancestral face. I don’t want to harm it, to scar it, to bludgeon my way through its delicate features. Along the edge of where I think the nose might be, I winnow down carefully toward the cheek.
I look at the surface of the stone, where the diamond blade sloughs off material in clouds of dust. And suddenly, surprisingly, my vision becomes blurred, then doubled. A second image is superimposed on my line of sight: a face, smooth and serene, watchful. It’s just a glimpse of something ephemeral – Yes, start right here, along the deep cleft where the nose meets the cheek – and then it’s gone.
I ease into the work, buoyed by a single, fragmentary glimpse whose origin I cannot explain. My faith is bolstered. My hands feel warm, at ease. I carve a deep furrow on either side of the unformed nose, checking the angle and depth of the cuts against the plaster cast of my face. I think of Khafre.
The origin stone of the Kem promised, for those capable of deciphering its symbolic text, the power of divinity. This is an old story, told and retold in many guises. But it began with the Kem: from the Hebrew God on his first day of creation (Let there be light!) to the spells of Harry Potter, words as magical power are a legacy of Khafre and his contemporaries. The religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are inheritors of a cosmology – archaic beyond measure – in which books embody divine power. The Kem told numerous myths concerning Thoth and his celestial book of knowledge – called the tablet of destinies by the Sumerians and, later, the tablets of the law by the Hebrews. Eventually, as this mythology made its way through medieval Europe and the Middle East, the sacred book of stone came to be associated with the Bible, with the Qur¸an, with the secret books of alchemy. The book of Thoth is the original philosopher’s stone, spinning the world’s ramshackle tale.9
On my workbench, the ridge of a nose begins to emerge from the stone’s background. I slough off much of the surface on either side; the grinder screeches, the dust rises, I am covered by a film of pulverized basalt. As I sight down the middle line of the carving, looking for where the nose and forehead might meet, I catch a momentary reflection of myself in the window: a gray visage, hair the color of dark concrete, coat to match.
I work for much of an afternoon in this condition, worrying about my lungs and my health and the consistent clogging of my dust collector. Then I head inside, take a shower, and settle into the den. There, ruminating on books of stone, I take down the old volumes I inherited from my grandmother and my great-aunt. These are my stones of origin, some of them centuries old, touchstones of my own past. I pick up a small German edition of Goethe’s Faust, dated 1837. The character of Faust the magician is based, in large part, upon a figure in Kem mythology, a man named Hardjedef who sought and found the book of Thoth. Inside the cover of Faust, I find a slip of pale notepad paper. On it, written in pencil in the hand of my great-aunt Eileen, I read: “Are we progressing?”
I lift down a book on Taoism, a subject of interest to my great-aunt, and now to me. Folded and tucked inside the flyleaf I find a typed letter, dated 1968. The writer, a friend and relative of Eileen’s, reports, “I am still only semi convalescent, and I do not know if I shall ever get any better. It is now two years since the ‘accident’ laid me low. I have, however, learned that nothing matters except a gradual understanding that life is a continual loosening of the bonds that bind one to things of time and space, and that nothing matters except a consciousness of what is beyond – the Tao, perhaps… Write and tell me you have been among the mountains again.”
I find a small sheaf of papers within the leaves of a 1912 edition of Tennyson’s poems. The book falls open at that place; the text beneath reads, “I will leave my relics in your land, and you may carve a shrine about my dust, and burn a fragrant lamp before my bones.”10 The sheaf comprises several sheets of old notepaper, a folded map of Italy, an advertisement for Robson Shoe Repair in Vancouver (address: “the wooden hut near the corner of Robson and Bidwell”), and a university examination package (“Discuss the tendency of the Romanticists to express themselves in imaginative narrative”). On all these pages, in the handwriting of my great-aunt – both intense and languid, somehow – are listed the names of books. Hundreds of titles. Some I recognize, others are foreign. Poetry, prose, plays, criticism, history. Somerset Maugham begins a list at the top of one page. Below, the works of Joseph Conrad are enumerated, and below these, in cramped letters near the bottom, I read titles by someone named Maurice Hewlett. The list fills the reverse side and continues on the next sheet.
The lists are in pencil, and some are so faded that I cannot read what she has written. On the back of the map of Italy, behind an encircling pencil mark at Florence, I see a shopping list and a sum of figures: purse, plaque, hat, pants. Total cost, 135 lire. A plaque? Of what, and where is it now?
I was still a boy when Eileen died, and the love of reading she awakened in me is a boyish love, full of romance and adventure and the heady salt scent of the sea. As I read these notes, which surely she had intended only for herself, I feel as though I am entering into her long-departed heart.
The radius of the grinder blade is large enough that I can shape the hollows of the cheeks with minimal fuss. The contours of the rough nose appear as I press deeper: bridge flat and wide, sides steep. It emerges, unmistakable, from the background topography of the stone. With every stroke I become more confident of discovering the face beneath. But not my own face. The plaster cast, a rough template, is not the image I glimpsed in the stone. I can use my own features to guide the work, to approximate proportion and distance, but the ancestral visage is something else. It must come from memory, from imagination, from the dream of a rock on the mountainside. As I work, I have the feeling that I am digging out, as from a grave, someone buried but still breathing.
Through the last weeks of winter and into early spring, while a turbulent sky fluctuates between sunshine and shadow, I work the stone and I read. I make my way through the family chronicle and the books of my great-aunt Eileen. I read Kem mythology, spliced into the diverse traditions of ancient Egypt and interwoven with many subsequent tales. I’m particularly drawn to the myths inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, purported to have been built on the site of the first Kem temple. Old foundations lie beneath the current structure, erected during the second century BCE. The limestone inscriptions – myths of origin, of the Unnameable, of the Shebtiw and the serpent battle – refer frequently to older tales, to earlier temples, to gods and heroes of an age preserved only in fragmentary images. I’m reading chapters and vignettes of the soul’s history.
And for every turn in the Kem myths, I find parallels in my family chronicle: in the letters and books of my great-aunt, in the journal of my great-uncle, in the stories told to me by my father and grandmother. Everywhere I look, the old myths are retold. I read of the Unnameable, god of origin, burning upon an altar of fire in the serpent attacks; and I read of Margaret, the most archaic of my Laird ancestors, burned at the stake for witchcraft. I read of a black stone floating upon the primordial sea; and I find a black stone in the oldest family records, in an account of an ancestral home built using the principles of Renaissance alchemy.11
The Kem are now lost, forgotten. And though the skein of their cosmology still glides through the philosophy and spirituality of the West, they themselves have gone into exile. But their trail is not cold. I discover it in the trodden paths of my own family, as though we have been drawn, without knowing, onto familiar tracks. Such tracks are never derelict but run across valleys, through forests, toward distant glaciers, preserving the way.
In the shop, I run my fingers over the stone, searching for contours beneath the dust. The tips of my fingers are stained the color of ash. The sculptors of Khafre would have devoted considerable effort to touching the work in this way: assessing, probing, reaching. But the rhythm of their work would have been incalculably slower. The grinder accomplishes in seconds what would have taken a month by hand. The slow rhythm of the ancients is an aspect of the work I’d like to recapture, though I plan to finish the work in my lifetime. As an experiment, I retrieve some corundum powder from the tool cabinet, a screwdriver from the drawer below the bench, and start in. Corundum powder is harder than sand, the abrasive used by the Kem sculptors, and the flat tip of my steel screwdriver is much tougher than any copper tool; but even with this considerable advantage, I expect the going will be slow.
I sprinkle some powder where it’s most likely to remain while I work it: along the deep cleft beside the nose. I sprinkle on a few drops of water and push the tip of the screwdriver into the slurry. I scrape. Back and forth, pushing down with as much weight as I can muster, I drag the tool repeatedly across the surface of the stone. The corundum glitters as it moves. I keep working for about five minutes, shifting my grip, altering my stance, persistent but eventually halted by the growing ache in my shoulders.
I take a short break, to figure out how to work longer before tiring, and then settle in again. This time, I lean forward, place the heel of the screwdriver’s handle against my chin, and hold it securely in place with both hands. I rock my upper body, using my weight to keep the pressure and my legs to move the tool. Fifteen minutes, then I have to stop again.
I use a rag to wipe the powder from the stone. The surface is shiny, but some of that luster is from the water. I wipe with the rag again, then wait for the water to evaporate. A couple of minutes later, when the surface hues are uniform again, I see the hatch marks from the grinder. The left edge of the work area, where I had leaned in most aggressively with the screwdriver, has a marginal sheen. Otherwise, I seem to have made no impact on the stone – with tools much harder than those possessed by the Kem. At this rate, I imagine this single face would occupy me full-time for more than a decade. Or perhaps the current academic theory of the Kem technique – copper and sand – is not altogether accurate. Perhaps, as old tales relate, they did sing the stones into shape after all.
But if copper tools and pounding stones and sand and persistence were used, I marvel at the dedication of those craftsmen. So much time would have been required, so much of that precious elixir to make even the simplest objects. Yet millions of Kem artifacts have been discovered: plain as well as remarkable. Many display an astounding level of precision, easily matching the best we can accomplish today. Incalculable stores of artifacts are still hidden: at Saqqara, near modern Cairo, only five percent of the necropolis has been explored. How did those sculptors, whose average lifespan was probably thirty or forty years, find the time to fashion such wonders?
I read, and work, and dream. In one of those dreams, a ship, perhaps a mile in length, lies moored at the shore of the river near my home. Its hull is pale gray, like the wing of a dove. Inside, the cabins and wheelhouse are vacant, the windows layered with dust. It is summer. Along the dirt track of the bank, dust rises and settles as I pedal my bicycle. I gaze downstream toward the ship. It draws me, insistent and implacable.
I climb the ramp, far up to where the deck bakes in the sun. The deserted ship is silent. I cross the deck from the port side, pass through the abandoned wheelhouse, and emerge on the starboard side. The river below, brown and lazy, meanders sternward toward the sea. I look out to the opposite bank. Small-leaved trees shiver in the light breeze. The air is hot. Steel stanchions at the edge of the deck are chalky with corrosion; threaded safety lines loop slack and flimsy in their mounts along the gunwale. In one spot, a stanchion has broken off, taking with it a section of rope. The gap, about three feet wide, opens into empty air. The fall from here would be several hundred feet.
Avery stands on the deck. His hair, straight and white-blond, ruffles along his forehead in the wind. The strangeness of this place, which has awakened in me awe and trepidation, does not affect him. Inquisitive and serene, he gazes down to the surface of the water. He takes a life jacket from my hand, straps it on, holds a stanchion with his left fist. The day slows, an inevitable momentum gathers around him, and though he does not yet move, the impulse to reach for him rises in me. I remember, fleetingly, that his name means “the truthful one.” The one who avers, the witness. In that moment of reflection and stirring movement, Avery turns to me, says, “I have to see,” and leaps from the deck.
He falls. Horror and terror, those familiar companions of my road, wash through me. Avery falls, spiraling, and I, frozen, watch him go. After an interminable descent, he strikes the water. White water erupts around him, his red life jacket flashes in the sun, and the brown river closes again.
He vanishes. And suddenly my dread of losing him overcomes my terror at his descent. So often it is this way: spurred on by fear, when what I need is courage.
I run forward, cross the white deck, and jump off. I fall and fall. Far below, I glimpse what looks like Avery’s head, or perhaps his life jacket, surfacing from the depths. But I can’t be sure – the river is too far down, my sight is obscured by the water of tears and the roaring of the wind.
I hit the river some distance from where Avery went in; a long way off, it seems. The speed of my impact takes me deep into black water. I don’t see him anywhere. My momentum eases, but I turn my head downward, swimming farther into the depths. I reach the bottom of the river. Below the silt and mud, a column of blackness tunnels into the earth, into nothing. I follow this terrifying and imperative chasm. And there, suddenly, I see Avery. Still wearing his life jacket, he floats past me, traveling toward the surface. He’s moving fast, appears conscious, and I let him go. His buoyancy carries him up faster than I can swim. I look up, following his ascent. There’s light up there, far off. As I watch from the depths of the black well, the light grows into an eye spread across the waters. It floats, lithe and massive, on the surface of the river.
I turn and swim toward Avery, toward the eye, feeling the pressure in my lungs as my air dwindles. The eye grows as I approach it; but I run out of time, and the aperture of my consciousness closes. I rise, feeble and disoriented. Before I reach the eye, it opens.
I awaken to foghorns in the distance, sounding from the Fraser River as ships pass along the waterway in the night.
On a cloudless day in early March, when the sun’s distant warmth fails to pierce the chill, we head down to the beach that fronts the strait to the south. The waterfront shops are quiet, the tidal flats sleek at the edge of the ebbing sea. A fleeting squall rounds the rocky point and kicks up a spatter of whitecaps. We drive the shoreline road, watching gulls rise with shells in their beaks. When they reach sixty or seventy feet off the beach, the birds swing toward the tumbled breakwater and the road. They let the shells fall to the rocks, then skitter down the breeze to pry the mollusks loose from their shells.
We park in the almost deserted lot. When summer comes, this parking lot and its dozens of companions along the shore will be filled to capacity from early morning until long after nightfall. But now, months before the brief carnival of northern summer, I can make out only a few figures along the pier: two companion joggers, a loose knot of tourists with a straggler hurrying from behind, and a lone figure at the pier’s end, looking southwest to where the mountains come down and give way to the open ocean.
The kids climb out of the car, excited and rushing. Elizabeth checks to make sure the zippers on their coats are pulled all the way up, their hats secure. We remind them of the beach rules: stay close, be careful, listen. As I lock the car doors and check my wallet for hot chocolate money, I remember the absence of caution in my own childhood. My brothers and I were encouraged – by my father, by a culture that still equates boys with risk – to be adventurous to such an extent that I can hardly believe we survived. We jumped off sea cliffs, hiked up avalanche chutes, hung on to the bumpers of skidding cars along snowy roads in traffic. My elder brother made gunpowder bombs, with my parents’ knowledge and tacit approval. He once gave me a Christmas present rigged to explode when I opened it. The wiring mechanism failed, and the bomb failed to detonate. If it had, the small charge might merely have startled me; after all, my brother had used one of his smaller “crushers” (as he called them), intending to scare but not to harm me. Who knows what might have happened if I had leaned toward the box as I opened it, or reached in with my fingers. It never occurred to us that such pranks were dangerous.
As Elizabeth and I follow the kids up the stairs to the promenade, I wonder aloud about the way my family normalized unsafe risks. It seems as though my brothers and I inherited and enacted the tension between my parents: my mother’s railing against the cage she had constructed for herself, my father’s insistence that everything would turn out all right, his absences when they did not. She had thought to make fresh dreams when she married, as if that act alone was sufficient to break the chain of her own family’s despair. But the spirits followed her, and eventually she surrendered to them, as her parents had before her. Spirits with the names bourbon, Scotch, and gin, hidden like genies in bottles above the kitchen sink. My father, the rescuer, the one whose bright future seemed always to be assured, kept trying to lead her out of the labyrinth. But he was frequently away, and when he was home his way of dealing with my mother – pep talks, a positive attitude, goal setting – was insufficient to the task of reclaiming her. Such strategies always are. The lost must guide themselves out, as every recovered alcoholic knows. Support and camaraderie can be of help, but only one person can face whatever lurks in the labyrinth and sends the well-wrapped bombs.
My father’s temperament was fundamentally ill suited to dealing with my mother’s alcoholism. Subsequently I built my counseling career on the theme of substance abuse. I imagine this to be a common experience: we take up what our parents cannot manage; without knowing it, we assume the weight of their unfinished dreams.
Elizabeth and I follow the kids along the low fence that separates the path from the railway tracks. Rowan and Avery run after each other, dart in and out of the empty picnic tables, laugh and shout with abandon. Rowan, a head taller, her purple coat bright in the clear air, lets her younger brother catch up, then scoots ahead again. Whatever I fail to resolve in my own life will be left to them – I think of those teenage years when my elder brother and I drank ourselves unconscious every weekend – but watching my kids today, their vitality shining unencumbered as we make our way down the shore, I feel the blessing of their safety. They’re not caught up in the struggle to make plain the contradictions of their parents’ world. They run ahead, free to follow their own impulses, while Elizabeth and I walk behind. We try to carry our own obligations, knowing we will, perforce, pass along some of them to our children. But we will not, I hope, pass along alcoholism, nor the surrender of oneself to empty dreams. Our kids will not be setting fires or smashing windows or blowing each other up to let us know something is amiss. They will find other avenues, no doubt, for the troubles their parents have not foreseen. And we will need to work out those new difficulties as they arise. But now, on a bright spring day, along the edge of an ocean stretching to the horizon, the knowledge that my kids have come this far – through the first and most crucial developmental years – without trauma, neglect, or the sacrifice of their own true natures is the greatest solace of my life. Elizabeth, much more than me, is responsible for this success. She is, both for the kids and for myself, the axis of our turning. I squeeze her hand as we walk down the beach in the wake of our children’s laughter.
The breakwater is a mile or more of boulders brought here from the mountains. Igneous stones, most of them: basalt and granite and gabbro. Blue and black and gray rocks, some of them eight or ten feet across. Most of the surfaces show virtually no erosion, indicating that the stones were recently (in geologic terms) cracked from the quarry.12 It will take hundreds, perhaps thousands of years for these stones to show significant weathering. I see several stones made of diorite, the material used in the statue of Khafre. After forty-five centuries of burial and abrasion by coarse desert sand, that statue has not even lost its polish.
As always, the breakwater is the principal attraction for the kids. Its easy slope of packed-tight boulders provides ideal scrambling and climbing terrain. We climb over the low fence, cross the railway tracks, and clamber down the breakwater’s top edge. There’s no danger of falling into the water – the tide is far out – though storms at high tide have been known to pound this shore with waves high enough to cross the breakwater and flood the street behind. Not today. The breeze is quiet, the water calm, the sun warm. The serpent is quiet. The eye of the Unnameable watches, serene.
While the kids climb, Elizabeth and I make our way down to the beach. The sand under our feet is moist, and small glistening outlines appear around our shoes. Fragments of kelp from the tide’s last flood lie scattered around a cluster of hoary stones embedded at the shore. White gulls and black crows squawk and caw at one another along the tidal flats, jousting in the air for morsels of starfish and the odd unfortunate clam.
Days like these will be a part of my children’s legacy: climbing on stones, scanning the waters for ships and birds and whales. I choose this as their inheritance, leaving the other at the roadside, where perchance other of our descendants will pick it up and let the genies out again.
Avery gets stuck trying to cross a span wider than his outstretched legs. He asks for help, and I climb up to him, stone by stone, in the way my father taught me when I was Avery’s age: always secure at two points, hand or foot, relaxed, leaning away from the rock. The maximum fall from anywhere along this breakwater is about three feet; even so, that’s enough to break a leg or crack a skull. I’m gratified to see that Avery is anchored by three points of contact – two hands and one foot – as he waits for me. He keeps trying to stretch himself across to the next boulder. This is healthy risk-taking: at the edge of skill, pushing the limit but not careless.
As I come alongside, take Avery in my arms, and carry him over the gap, I think of my own childhood experiments in climbing, one of which involved my friend and me scrambling up a high sandstone cliff without ropes. Halfway up, a couple of hundred feet above the road, we got stuck. No way up, no way down. We clung to the face a long while, debating what to do. For an hour, maybe two, we planned and talked and grew more afraid. A driver passing below slowed his van, rolled down his window, and yelled at us to get down: two kids had fallen to their deaths from this cliff a few weeks earlier. We eventually became convinced of our own demise. But we made it down; slow, tentative, terrified. At twilight, safely back on the road, the climb – which had been my idea – seemed to me more a brave achievement than a senseless, irresponsible blunder. My friend, a year older, was more reserved about our prowess as mountaineers. He understood better than I did, not only because of his age, that such risks were as likely to get us killed as to make us feel wholly alive.
I never saw him again after that climb. A few months later, along the road my father and I had driven to find the black stone, my friend was run down by a drunk driver. He returned, the Kem would have said, to the west, where the ancestors wait and dream. But I have not forgotten the way in which his encouragement and calm, when I had lost courage and begun to lose hope, guided us both home that day.
I check with Avery to make sure he’s feeling safe, then look ahead to the terrain he’s making for. The boulders are smaller, more manageable. Rowan hops from one to the next, careful and assured, her feet landing squarely with each stride. Avery moves on, almost before I’m ready to let him go, and grabs the next stone. He leans forward, jumps with both feet onto a flat-topped slab of black rock with a single vein of white running through it, and is off again.
I climb back down to Elizabeth, who has found some pebbles washed bright by the turning sand. Apricot and bronze and lustrous black. She holds up a small stone the color of jade, points to a web of lines circling within it. Thousands of years, probably, were required for the sand to render the smooth shape of this mandala. All that time, lying beneath the waters, indifferent to the tracks of travelers along this shore.
At the fringe of a shallow pool carrying the last of the ebbing tide shoreward, we find many polished pebbles. We look and touch and show them to each other. On the breakwater, the kids call out to ask what we’re doing. Elizabeth tells them of our find, and they scramble down to where we are. Rowan lets out a gasp – “An amethyst, Dad!” – and Avery finds a fragment of smooth quartz the size of his fist. He brings it to me, breathless with excitement, and shouts, “It’s a diamond!” into my ear.
We move slowly down the beach, two rambling kids with their parents, hunched over and looking. For Avery and Rowan, every rock is a gem, and they quickly fill their pockets. I remember the lines from my great-uncle Dave’s journal: “We took away several stones as souvenirs.”
We dawdle for an hour or more. The kids scavenge, asking us to identify stones. Whenever they find a black one, they bring it over to show me its similarity to the stone on my workbench. Avery asks me again about my encounter with the bear: was I scared, did the bear have big claws, were there any baby bears. By the time we approach the pier, the kids have twenty or thirty rocks each. Before we climb the stairs to the boardwalk, Elizabeth and I tell them they can keep two each; the rest must be left here, on the beach, for others to find or to be carried off by the tide. Rowan keeps a shard of pink quartz and a chunk of granite. Avery chooses a smooth black stone – basalt, I think – and a pebble with a golden vein of pyrite snaking through it. They throw the remaining stones back onto the tidal flats. A few gulls swing down to inspect this sudden movement on the sand. One of them seizes a pebble in its beak, lifts off a few feet, then drops it, disconsolate.
We ascend the wide stairs to the boardwalk. Secured by hundreds of black pilings sunk into the beach, the pier extends five hundred yards into the bay. At the end, where the tidal flats give way to a sloping bottom, a second, more modest breakwater protects a score of sailboats and fishing trawlers moored to a finger of dock. The bottom is visible at low tide, and we see a cluster of crab traps on the dark sand, some scattered shells, and a colony of starfish gathered round the base of a piling.
Rowan climbs onto a bench and grabs the rail of the pier. She points southeast, to where the white flanks of Mount Baker rise in the distance. That mountain and the one to the north upon which I found the black stone of origin are the two pillars of a volcanic belt that stretches through this region. The forces concealed beneath the forests could remake the land in a single day. Along the eastern skyline, the Coast Mountains, jagged and formidable and remote, march off into the wilderness.
Turning, looking shoreward, Rowan sees the White Rock from which this seaside town takes its name. At almost five hundred tons, the boulder is a dozen or more feet high and can be seen from anywhere in the wide bay. Spanish explorers first documented it during their travels through here in 1791, though it has lain on this beach since the retreat of the last ice age. A glacial erratic, it was carried here by sheets of moving ice and deposited, conveniently in view of subsequent tourists, precisely at the shore. It probably came from the north. The rock is painted every year now, to erase the graffiti of high school graduates.
The White Rock is a mythological artifact. Local legend relates that a divine prince, son of the sea god, was prohibited by his father from marrying his beloved, a mortal princess. In defiance of this injunction, the prince of the sea hurled a white boulder across the waters; where it came to rest, he and his bride made a new home. They became the first ancestors of the People of the Half Moon, the Semiahmoo, who reside here today.13
In myth, black stones and white stones are the same article. A white stone is often paired with a black stone, as in Hebrew legends of the black and white divination stones, the Urim and Thummim, used by high priests until about the sixth century BCE.14 A black stone is sometimes thought to have been white, such as the meteoric stone that lies at the eastern corner of the Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam. This black stone is said to have once been a pearl, gifted by God to Adam, cast out from the garden, as a sign of forgiveness. Another Islamic version tells that God gave Abraham a white stone from paradise, preserved now in a silver setting in the shape of a three-foot eye, that has turned black by its absorption of human experience. Black stones and white stones are each other’s disguises.
We walk back along the pier, past the boys fishing for perch, past the joggers heading back out for their third lap. The kids run on the planks, skipping every other one, finding the rhythm of their steps. Some of the planks are new – they still display the green hue of weatherproofing treatment – while others are ashen, smoothed by decades of rain. At the shoreward end of the pier, we turn east and follow the trail to the white rock. It rises from a bed of pebbles a few feet above the high-water mark. Driftwood logs fringe the stone’s enclosure. Elizabeth and I sit down on one of these while the kids run around the stone, looking for a way to get on top of it. White and black shells of clam and mussel lie on the beach among the tide’s flotsam: broken crab legs, slivers of wood, worn green glass. The air is fragrant with the smell of sea stones drying in the sun.
The kids find a tripod of thin logs, no doubt pressed into service by previous climbers, leaning into a hollow on the boulder’s southern face. The wood is worn free of slivers, rough but slippery. Rowan wraps herself around the largest log and shimmies upward; Avery follows. I wander over and stand beneath them as they go. Five, seven, ten feet off the ground. In front of me, on the surface of the stone, someone has written, “Grad 2002 ACS,” with a wide felt-tip marker.
Rowan and then Avery stop at the top of the logs, where the wood meets the hollow on the stone’s shoulder. They’re anxious about being so high, but they want to keep going; to the summit, another five or six feet above them. I don’t let them go that far. If either of them fell and slid down the back side, I wouldn’t have time to make it around before they rolled off the edge and down to the ground. They’re high enough; they shout and whoop and point.
Avery asks, with a big grin, if he can jump down. I tell him, No, sit down, enjoy the view. But I recognize his impulse. When I was a boy, my brothers and I climbed boulders and bluffs and trees for the express purpose of jumping down. We leaped from the high cliffs at Pu’u Keka’a, the Rumbling Hill, timing our descent to the rhythm of the incoming swells. Pu’u Keka’a is a volcanic spatter cone, called the Black Rock by tourists, that is the westernmost point of land on Maui. In local myth, it is where souls of the deceased dive into the ancestral waters. We jumped from its ledges, avoiding the troughs of the swells and the shallow bottom, striking the water where the waves rose up and doubled the depth at the shore. We did not know, at the time, that we were following the tracks of the spirits on their way back home.
Rowan climbs down, placing her feet carefully upon knots and ridges on the logs. Halfway down, when she is low enough that I can reach her, I gather her up in my arms. She’s only seven, but it won’t be much longer that I will be able to carry her with such ease. Avery comes down next, not wanting any help, halting and sliding all the way to the ground.
We amble back to the driftwood bench. Elizabeth looks out onto the tidal flats and the strait; I sit down beside her. The kids head down to the shore, tossing stones into the water. We watch them coming and going, looking back for acknowledgment, running down the beach into their own dreams. Their voices, echoing and filling out the day, make the substance of our world. They will depart one day, to be the authors of their own myths. But today we share the creation: black stones and white stones along the shore of the sea, an eye of fire ghosting across the sky, errant sand in the grain of a worn driftwood bench.
I work in layers, peeling back the grain of the stone. When it was molten, on the threshold of its beginnings, fresh from the volcano, the turbulence of the heat mixed the minerals in the stone the way cream mixes into coffee. By convection, by the flowing of currents at different temperatures, by virtue of air and ground and its own persistent, blazing heat, the stone was made into many interwoven layers of texture. But unlike wood or sandstone, in which the grain is typically obvious and distinctive, the grain here is subtle. It runs diagonally through the stone, from bottom left to top right, easing toward the vertical as it goes, with the result that my work on the left side is easier. I feel as if I’m slicing through material on the left, whereas the right feels tougher, requires a persistent and repetitive stroke that amounts to almost twice as much work. These layers are like the pages of a book. I read as I go, opening the volume.
I try to imagine the first figures described in my family journal, ancestors who lived a thousand years ago. Priests, clan chiefs, and farmers. A band of warriors, glimpsing a crucifix in the sky. I read of a man captured by pirates at the heel of a dark shore, a minister who died at the pulpit while preaching from the Book of Malachi. (“But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire.”15) I read of two women burning, one as heretic and one as exile, and of a man gored to death by a bull. From the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance with its devotion to alchemy, to soldiers and wanderers and writers in the nineteenth century: I read the myths of my own origin, in the leaves of a volume penned by an unknown hand.
I have inherited the last of the old books in my family. But as I read the journals, I discover that my small collection is part of what once was a great library begun by the grandfather of Cotton Mather, the Salem witch-hunter who is my distant ancestor. Much of this library, at one time the most diverse in North America, was brought to Canada when Mather’s great-nephew, a loyal British subject, fled Boston after the American Revolution.16 Since then, all but the ragged volumes on my bookshelf have gone: to collectors, to other libraries, to fire and rot and apathy. A 1790 edition of Robinson Crusoe, tale of the wandering mariner, is the closest I can come to the oldest books.
A series of Kem myths speak of forty-two books of stone, among them the Book of Struggling, the Book of Guardians, the Book of Protection of the Body, the Book of Traversing Eternity, the Book of Gates, the Spell of the Twelve Caves, and the Book of Illumination. The authorship of each volume was attributed to Thoth, the first magician. The myths say that the secrets of the books were forgotten, soon after the age of Thoth and his companions. (Five thousand years ago? Ten thousand? Twenty? No one knows.) The esoteric formulas were enacted in rituals of the Kem temple, but the means of embodying the magic had been lost. The words lay in ruin.
One narrative thread of this bibliomythology, about five thousand years old, tells of the magician Hardjedef, brother of Khafre, who walked in the library each morning, tracing his fingers across chiseled inscriptions on the walls.17 He was drawn by the shadows of vanishing light. Hardjedef was a scholar of the glyphs and of the power of voice. He knew of the book of Thoth which fell from heaven: one book, containing all the secrets, the one secret. Lost, hundreds or thousands of years ago. By reading the oldest glyphs, Hardjedef learned that Thoth had hidden the book of stone – in the river, beneath the black cliffs, protected by a series of nested boxes.18 The innermost box was forged of gold. It lay within a bronze box, which was enclosed by a box of palm wood. The palm box was inside a box crafted of ebony and ivory, and this lay within a silver box. Last of all, a box of iron: heavy and glimmering, concealing the mystery; around it, a host of serpents, scorpions, and crocodiles. The largest of the serpents was immortal, and invincible.
I work the stone, easing the grinder down, trying to see what I’m doing through the dust. It spins off the surface with such dense forcefulness that at times my view is entirely obscured. It renders the air into what looks like a liquid texture, thick and viscous as mud on a river bottom. I think of Hardjedef, and the way in which his story, one of the oldest of the Kem, has been reinvigorated and revised by subsequent mythmakers. The tale of the Hebrew ark of the covenant likely begins with him, as does the tale of Alexander finding a stone of wisdom at the gates of paradise.19 The Grail legends build upon the legacy of Hardjedef. He is a primordial Gandalf – who in turn is the mythic father of Harry Potter. Between these two, acting as their intermediary, is the Mickey Mouse of Fantasia, reading spells in a magic book. That vignette, which I remember with terror and wonder from childhood, is an adaptation, by way of the Greeks, of the tale of Hardjedef. Myths are never fashioned anew, out of whole cloth, by the storyteller. They are adapted, modified, edited, recast into forms sufficiently specific to a given culture as to permit the claim of authenticity. But the thread goes back, always back, to ancestral bards, claimed or disowned, who themselves borrowed the tales from a well of souls that has no bottom.
Myths come in layers, in nested boxes. This is one of the things I come to understand as I sculpt the broad cheeks and jawline of a concealed face.
The myth of Hardjedef tells of him forming, from wax, models of workmen, tools, and a barge.20 Speaking words of power, he brought the figures to life (like the brooms in Fantasia and at Hogwarts). Their animated forms grew, and they began dredging the river bottom. For three days and nights they worked, tireless, drawing up buckets of sand, sloshing them onto the deck, diving for more. Beneath the slow current, on the cold floor of the river, the well deepened. Hardjedef watched.
The workmen found the lair of the guardians on the fourth day. The iron box was visible behind scaled and seething ramparts. Hardjedef stepped forward and spoke; the scorpions and crocodiles dispersed, and the serpent, coiled around the box, rose up. Hardjedef killed it twice – once with a sword, once with a spear – but each time it returned. During the third battle, Hardjedef wrestled the serpent toward the shore, across the bank, and toward the desert. There he cut it in half and placed a mound of sand between the two halves. Unable to reconnect itself, the serpent lay sundered on the hot ground. Its coils, stretching across the desert in the pattern of the dunes, can still be seen today. Sometimes the serpent moves, or grows invisible, or raises its head into a dune that can be seen for miles. Eventually it will stitch itself together again.
One night, after working on the junction between the nose and brow and finding a small sliver of intrusive red minerals, almost like a capillary, I dream that I’m driving along a country highway with Elizabeth and the kids. We see a water-filled quarry at the side of the road and pull over to take a look. There are tourists and rock hounds and a man selling stones and carvings. Beneath the water, we glimpse beautiful formations of jade and red jasper. I amble down to the water’s edge, looking for a stone to carve, and I see a man hidden beneath a pile of rubble, digging and singing.
With a companion – a shadow, a shifting amalgam of many people I have known – we search. After finding many good specimens, we head back to the car along a wooden pier that stretches across the quarry. Suddenly a giant snake – thick as my own height, jaws opened, body disappearing into the murk – twists itself up one of the pilings, seizes my companion, and slithers back into the water. The pier begins to crumble. I jump into the water and follow the serpent down. As I descend, I look toward the surface and see a host of smaller gray snakes pursuing me. The mineral formations lie all around: tourmaline and jade and agate and serpentine.
I seize a sword – was it one of the gray snakes? – and slash my way down into the waters. I see a glint ahead, of something that fades as I awake, heart hammering, into a night made bright by the passing moon.
Nose and cheek and chin drift up from deep within the stone. Along the jaw, where the contour of the face tapers toward the chin, I remove the stone’s squared corners. Instead of abrading them, as I have with the surface of the face, I choose instead to slice through the rock, about two inches in from the edge. I cut diagonally, as though removing a pyramid-shaped corner from a block of cheese. The diamond-tipped blade whines into the stone. I brace myself, watch the angle of the cut, prepare for disaster. If the body of the blade strikes the edge of the cut, or if it twists and binds in the opening, a number of dramatic and unpleasant things could happen. The blade could jam and transfer all its torque into the handle of the grinder. Faster than I could react, the handle would spin forward onto the top of the stone. I’d break at least two fingers, the ones holding the upper half of the handle. The blade might also shatter: held tight in the kerf of the cut, spinning fast enough against the stone to glow with friction, bound and vibrating and with nowhere to go. Or, like a hot rod doing a brake-stand, it might seize up momentarily, coil its energy into one big thrust, then skitter across the bench. In this case, my hands would be jerked forward, likely into the blade.
Slow. Easy. Careful. The body of the blade slides into the first cut, with perhaps the thickness of a fingernail on either side of the leading edge. Half the blade, almost to the edge of the arbor, disappears. The motor slows. Then the spinning edge emerges on the far side, the motor speeds up again, and with a rattle the corner falls onto the bench.
Flush with confidence, I start cutting the second corner without shifting my position. Midway through, when my back starts to feel awkward and I rotate on my heel, my hands shift the blade slightly, and it twists in the cut. There’s a high-pitched sound as steel meets stone – a ringing, pealing, grinding clamor. I edge to the right, a tiny increment of movement, and the sound stops. Along the edge of my right hand, resting upon the secondary handle above the blade, a wave of heat pulses up, glides past my tight fingers, and drifts into the cool spring air of the shop. The second corner cracks loose; a shard with rough sides, a peaked summit, and smooth base where the cut was made. A ribbon of dark stain shows where the steel spun against the rock.
Hardjedef’s workmen raised the box from the well and brought it onto the deck of the barge. The polished iron lay like a silvered ingot in the sun. Hardjedef opened the bolts of the iron box, removed the silver box, and cracked its lid. Inside, ebony and ivory captured and returned the light. He lifted out the box of ebony and ivory, opened it where an emerald bolt lay across the hinge, and found, inside, a plain box of palm wood. He opened this box; inside, there was another – bronze, like a muted ember. He lifted it out. Along its sealed edge, he could see the flash of gold.
Hardjedef placed the bronze box on the deck of the barge. The bright seam shone through his hands, and he could see the fine webbing of blood vessels and muscles within. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the shore, rising and falling as the barge drifted on the river. The workmen were still. He raised the bronze lid. A flood, a blaze of brilliant light washed over him, and he was momentarily blinded. He could not look directly upon the golden box inside. But by turning his head, as though listening for a sound, far off, Hardjedef could gaze askance at the box. Its brilliance burned him. To gaze, even sidelong, upon the veiled mask of God – not the face, even, but the mask – is to burn with endless beginnings.
I release the power switch and the grinder stops. The blade keeps spinning for a few moments, winding down, marked by a blue swirl of discoloration between the arbor and the edge. I remove my earplugs. Suddenly I hear sounds: a car turning at the top of the hill, a skateboard running across the joints in the sidewalk – thwack, thwack, thwack – the creak of the shop door as Rowan peers in and asks if I know where the scissors are. The shop is a mess. An orange extension cord snakes across the stained floor and past the old records I promised Elizabeth I would store out of harm’s way, now grimed with a quarter inch of stone dust. Bits of sandpaper and loose tools are scattered across the bench: a couple of chisels, a multihead screwdriver, a small hammer.
In the midst of this detritus, rough and rudimentary upon the bench, are the beginnings of a stone face. Without eyes and a mouth, anonymous, but unmistakably a face. Emerging, unhurried, furrowed by scratches and hatched grinder marks, splashed with white, blue as the deep sea.
I touch the stone and feel its warmth. The pads and cuticles of my fingers are streaked with dark dust. I explore the ridges and hollows of the face, searching for the hidden shape beneath.
Hardjedef removed the gold box from its bronze enclosure. He sensed the weight of the stone of origin inside: the weight of every moment of the world’s unraveling, and the lightness of its departure. He sat on the shifting deck, placed the box in front of him. His hands, transparent in the liquid air, moved forward to the center of the lid.
Written language appeared around 3000 BCE – probably first in Egypt, then in Sumer – when tokens and symbolic signs were applied in novel ways. Soon thereafter, cuneiform and hieroglyphic scripts evolved to enable the projection of individual thoughts and images. And strangely, suddenly, a world illuminated by fire was ablaze with imagination. Within a few hundred years – by the time of Khafre – it became possible for anyone to claim a destiny equivalent to godhood. And it was written language, essentially, that proved the means of accomplishing this feat. “This is the word which is in darkness,” say the Coffin Texts. “As for any spirit who knows it, he will live among the living… he will never perish… he will never die” (spell 1087).
Nurtured by the gift of written language, the individual self emerged, unmistakably, in the art of the Kem. The eternal halls, once reserved for the gods and the symbolic, sacrificial king, opened their doors. The gate of the garden closed. The gods began to move back along old roads, their vacant places claimed by heroes and warriors and sages of the mythopoeic age.
At an indistinct juncture in the third millennium BCE, a one-way bridge was constructed in the human mind. That bridge, which crosses into the field of the modern self but which will forever prohibit our return to the garden, is the most mysterious of all our creations. It leads, with the audacity of innocent beauty, from a world of cosmic order, whole and ruthless, to a horizon beyond which the gods themselves cannot trespass. Our collective migration across the one-way bridge, over the course of more than two millennia, yielded the consciousness of the West. By the time of Alexander, last of the god-kings, the old world had gone. The Kem were subsumed into the evolving metaculture of the region: Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Turks. Their remaining traditions were driven underground, into the philosophy that would later be called Hermeticism.
Kem temples devoted to Ptah were called hi-ku-ptah, which the Greeks adapted to ai-gy-ptos – Egypt.
Alchemy derives – by way of Alexandria, Baghdad, Jerusalem, and Cordoba – directly and unequivocally from the Kem. It is the cosmology and spirituality of Thoth, of the book and the stone, syncretized and translated and adapted to the European cultures. Hermeticism, a tradition inclusive of alchemy, denotes devotion to Hermes, the Greek form of Thoth. The egg, the foundation stone, the concealed and universal book – these alchemical and Masonic motifs all began beside the river, long before the age of cathedrals. And they traveled downstream, toward the Renaissance.
In 1460, Cosimo de’ Medici (the great-grandfather of Catherine de Médicis, the rival of my ancestor Diane de Poitiers) sent a delegation of monks in search of books of archaic origin in the monasteries of Europe and the East. One of them returned from Constantinople with fourteen Greek manuscripts, the Corpus Hermeticum, a syncretic collection of esoterica composed around 200 CE which attributed its teachings to the mythic Hermes Trismegistus – Hermes Thrice Great – also known as Thoth. Marsilio Ficino, the chief scholar employed by the Medici family, completed the first translation of the Corpus Hermeticum in 1470. Along with the Jewish Cabala, which became available to scholars in Europe after the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, Ficino’s work was largely responsible for Renaissance mysticism.
- The fundamental orientation of every culture prior to the Kem, for seventy thousand years and more (the recent Blombos cave discoveries in South Africa have pushed back the cultural horizon by at least this far), was toward the rhythms of the divine in nature – the vegetal cycle, the wheel of time rolling toward the ancestors, a world suffused with regeneration and a universal, transcendent order. The earlier cultures lived within a sphere of eternal return, of the moon’s transformations and renewal, of humanity as a child of the goddess Nature. This consciousness, which carried humanity for the greater part by far of its development, was spun from the fabric of dreams. Gods walked in the garden. The turning of seasons was a manifest prayer lifted on the wind. Enclosed within a circle of emergence, nothing ever died. And yet the cultures of the Stone Age also assumed the dark cast of a nightmare: human sacrifice, ritual entombment of the living, the absolute abrogation of personal identity. In the Neolithic cultures, the self was subsumed by the inviolable structure of a universe centered firmly on divine order. The edicts of gods and goddesses were absolute imperatives. The odyssey of individual awareness, defined by rebellion against divine edict, was not yet a possible myth. Humanity could not yet eat the forbidden fruit. ↩︎
- Bauval, “Investigation.” ↩︎
- Exactly a century later, W.B. Yeats used the same imagery in his poem “The Second Coming,” perhaps the single most influential literary work of the twentieth century. Yeats was profoundly influenced by the Kem. “I believe in the practice and the philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic,” he said in an essay from 1901. “The borders of the mind are ever shifting… The borders of our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself” (Kermode and Hollander, Oxford Anthology, vol. 2, p. 1699). Yeats was introduced to symbolist philosophy by the poet Arthur Symons. They both may have known the philosopher and alchemist René Schwaller de Lubicz. ↩︎
- Reymond translates the name Great Leaping One as nhp-wr (Mythical Origin, p. 113). For the Kem, as for many other cultures of the old world, the serpent is a symbol of time and transformation. It sloughs off the skin of the past. The fact that a serpent occupied a central, positive place in the cosmology of the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas was subverted with great efficacy by Christian missionaries during the first centuries of contact. ↩︎
- The woods of Bourlon are mostly lime, or basswood, a tough yet pliable material that can be shaped by stone tools. Almost every wooden Stone Age weapon – bows and spears and shields – was made from it. In the Middle Ages, lime was called sacrum lignum, the holy wood, because of its use in the carving of religious figures. My grandfather and his brother found themselves in a forest of weapons and gods, all wrapped up together, hushed and waiting. ↩︎
- The Shebtiw first created Tanen, lord of the earth, whose name means “the risen land.” He was followed by the builder gods, led by Ptah, the supreme craftsman. Ptah’s company of artisans is formed from his teeth and lips; other gods are formed from his body. Djehuti, the Measurer, whom the Greeks called Thoth – scribe and magician, keeper of secrets – is the tongue of Ptah. ↩︎
- Reymond, Mythical Origin, p. 113. ↩︎
- Reymond, Mythical Origin, p. 113. ↩︎
- One version of the tale of the celestial book forms the basis of Mormonism. The Book of Mormon tells the mythological history of Hebrew exiles who left Jerusalem around 600 BCE and migrated to America. Their chronicle was inscribed on gold plates in the language of the Kem (“reformed Egyptian,” as the Mormons say), buried, and later revealed to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. ↩︎
- Tennyson, St. Simeon Stylites, stanza 15. ↩︎
- This residence was the Château Anet, the ancestral home of Louis de Brézé and Diane de Poitiers (later the mistress of Henri II). The sculptors and architects who worked on the château were alchemists. All over Europe, their brotherhood had erected cathedrals and castles and tombs, each embodying a devotion to Catholicism but hiding, beneath layers of symbol and myth, the philosophy of the “great work” of alchemy. At Dampierre, a castle renovated by the alchemical architects, a carved wooden panel surmounted by the insignia of Diane depicts a stone of fire floating on the primordial sea. See Fulcanelli, Dwellings, plate 25. ↩︎
- The White Rock breakwater was constructed in 1953. ↩︎
- The Semiahmoo (Half Moon) people of White Rock share common linguistic features with the Cowichan tribe on Vancouver Island (across the Strait of Georgia from White Rock), of whom the princess in the story was said to be a member. ↩︎
- Waltke, Finding the Will of God, pp. 62–64. ↩︎
- Mal. 3:2. ↩︎
- Some of the remaining volumes – more than fifteen hundred – were inherited by Samuel Mather, Cotton’s son, and then sold, by Samuel’s daughter, to the printer Isaiah Thomas in 1814. These books are now part of the permanent collection of the American Antiquarian Society. Much of the original Mather library was gifted to Cotton Mather’s nephew, Mather Byles, whose son brought many of the books with him when he emigrated to Canada. He did not bring them all: some were purchased, in fire sale fashion, in 1790 by Thomas Wallcut, and are now in the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society. ↩︎
- Tales of mythological priest-magicians are central artifacts of the Kem literary tradition. It was with good reason that Clement of Alexandria, in the third century ce, called Egypt “the mother of magicians.” Among the many tales concerning Kem sages, the search for Thoth’s sacred book (of which the Grail quest is but a more recent version) occupies a position equivalent to Hamlet in English literature. In Egyptology, the best-known versions of this myth cycle involve the competition between two magicians, Ptah-Nefer-ka and Setne. As Geraldine Pinch has demonstrated (Magic in Ancient Egypt, p. 50), Ptah-Nefer-ka is likely based on the historical figure of Hardjedef, who lived in the twenty-fifth century BCE. I have, accordingly, used the name Hardjedef in my adaptation of the tale. ↩︎
- The mythological motif of nested boxes was a favorite of the Kem. Many burials employed sarcophagi stacked like Russian matryoshka dolls. In the tomb of Tutankhamun, three inner coffins lay nested within a stone sarcophagus, which in turn was encased within four gilded shrines. The symbolism of seven layers, in the case of the boxes of Thoth, or eight, with Tutankhamun, has long been of great interest to students of esoterica. For large-format photographs and detailed illustrations (folding out to thirty-six by fourteen inches) of Tutankhamun’s tomb, see T.G.H. James’s outstanding work, Tutankhamun. ↩︎
- The similarity between the ark of the covenant as described in the Bible and ceremonial arks used by the Kem, some of which are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, is a source of comment and controversy among scholars. Such boxes, particularly when nested, were favorite motifs of the Kem (see previous note). Hardjedef’s tale, which predates the Hebrew mythologies by more than a thousand years, is the archetypal example of this motif. ↩︎
- Budge, Egyptian Magic, p. 145. ↩︎