Creating the illusion of the orange and black caterpillar as a stationary equator, Earvin rotated his hand until the critter crossed into the valley of his palm. He closed his fingers around the string and its infinite number of legs, but he did not squash it. He merely cradled it in hands that were placid, but powerful. When he opened his palm, a butterfly’s wings flickered like flames.
“How’d you do that?” I asked.
“I never reveal my secrets,” said Earvin,” but if you check behind my ear, you’ll find the caterpillar sure as a dime.” He winked. “They need a cocoon to transform. All I did was sleight of hand.”
We had been in the meadow since dawn, having ridden our horses south and west from the lake country, following the rivers and creeks along the way; the places where life gathers and breathes. Since the journey began, we had tracked a herd of buffalo, identified all different species of bird, and come face to face with a mighty buck, its pebbled eyes studying us from the other side of a slow, cool current. Now, we were in a field of green, surrounded by the bouncing wings of orange butterflies. Transformation was not a miracle here, but a natural process of time and biology. We were witnesses to the process. Earvin bent down to the ground and unrolled his long fingers like a gangplank for the caterpillar, and in a journey that stretched to eternity and back, the orange and black slouched its way millimeter by millimeter back to the good earth. I grew impatient with the slow march of progress—the length of a finger—but Earvin just smiled. He was much more patient than me. I looked to the sun peaking overhead, “Shouldn’t we be on our way?”
“In good time, my friend, in good time.” He watched the caterpillar disappear underneath a brown leaf, before donning his hat again. “You ready? “ he said. He had a way of controlling the pace. We cut back through the field, towards the riverbed. Life faded as we rode. Greens became brown and then gray. Shade turned to darkness, and the spectral light sifting through the leaves became the thick weavings of a spider’s web. The trees, which once were strong and solid at their trunks, were now half-rotten; their bark resembling the makings of a hollowed skull with a cracked jaw. The power of the river slowed into a crawl, moving much like a worm through sand and mud. The meadow was a swamp.
“Are we going the right way?”
Earvin said we were, but hesitation lingered in his answer. The sun was nowhere to be seen. Bearings were not lost so much as they didn’t exist. Howls, off in the distance, broke the silence that lived in the darkness of conjoining shadows. An owl hooted, and wings beat the darkness down upon us. We bowed our heads in defense, feeling the journey’s length in our shoulders. I swear, we became old between the meadow and wherever we were headed.
“Can you sense that?”
“No,” I looked around.
“No, you won’t see it—you’ve got to feel it.” His smile faded, and the hesitancy from earlier became a wall between his words. He ground his teeth and the sound was like a brick being edged out of a prison wall. “Death is in these woods. You’d have to be desperate or corrupt to survive.”
A laugh escaped my throat, and then I looked down in shame, not caring to where the moth’s wings of my words flew. I was scared, and I was ashamed. Then I wasn’t allowed to think about myself, for a cry, much like a baby’s, except filled with the experience of being hated, filled my ears and drowned my thoughts. Earvin got off his horse, and I mimicked his every movement. I lived these moments through him, plagiarizing the style and delivery of sentiment.
We led our horses by their bridles through thorn and vine, sinking into the sandy mud up to the calves of our boots. The cries continued, sounding like a creature being rendered less beautiful through its pain, through its experience of the real. The water, which had been brown, was now streaked with crimson stains that congealed as we grew closer to the cries that were bluntly incoherent in their vivid expressiveness of a world gone black.
Earvin reached his hands into a bed of scattered pine straw, thorns, and hemlock. He winced in pain, and I could see blood from a cut on his hand seeping into the crimson mud, mixing with the swamp. But he was not deterred and from the underbrush, underneath the archway of a gnarled root, he pulled out what looked like kitten, or rather a small cub. And yet, when it moved its head, I realized this creature was no cat, but bird’s head attached to the body of a small lion. And its wings, slicked with blood, were matted to the slow tremble of its ribcage.
“It’s missing a front claw,” said Earvin. “I think I can help it, but I’ve never seen one this bad. We weren’t intended for the swamp.” He extended the worn body to me in a manner that displayed the wound. Earvin’s eyes were filled with pain, and I wanted to ask him when and where he had ever seen such a creature. What I blurted out instead was: “Holy shit! A griffin!”
Across the front of his saddle the half-bird, half-lion creature looked much larger than it had in the swamp. And, at times, in the strange slanting of the swamp’s thinning light, the small mass could be mistaken for a boy’s body. Eventually, we stopped. We had come to a desert that in its starkness resembled a plain of white, alabaster snow, minus the cold. Blood dripped like wax from the griffin’s limb and down the side of Earvin’s horse, and the wolves that trailed behind us licked at the sand, barking.
“I think there’s a farm near here where we might seek shelter for the night, if we’re lucky.”
I didn’t say anything. I trusted Earvin. I trusted the horses. What I didn’t trust were my eyes—was that really a griffin? Did such mythical creatures even exist? I allowed the question to evaporate in the pale desert. We came to a rusted iron gate bookended by two stoic gargoyles; griffins carved in white stone.
“How’s he doing?”
Earvin looked down at the weakened creature. “He’s been through a lot, but, you know, that isn’t always a bad thing.” Earvin possessed a magic for optimism. The body, to me, appeared lifeless.
“Did you stop the bleeding?”
“For now. He’s got at least another day.”
“Couldn’t we just climb over a broken place in the wall?”
“We could, but we won’t. She’ll be hear soon.”
I wondered how he could know such a thing. I looked to the stars in wonder at how they spoke to some and not to others. I took in the moon’s flame, and then a vibration came from Magic’s saddle bag. He reached into the leather pouch and took out a device I didn’t recognize; a rectangle of glass and flashing lights.
“Yep, like I said, she’s here now.”
The key could be heard in the arthritic lock, and the gate creaked open.
“Magic,” said a voice belonging to a woman. I could not see her face. But I imagined it to be as pale as the stone griffins.
Earvin greeted her, and his voice was full once again of the meadow’s promise. And then quickly emptied.
“No, Magic, he doesn’t want you here.”
“What do you mean he doesn’t want me here? I built the damn house. My blood and sweat are here.”
“He doesn’t care. He says you’ve been gone a long time.”
“Gone—my ass—” and then Earvin got quiet and resigned. “Alright, then we’ll go.”
“Donald will, however, see your friend.” Then she whispered to Magic, “You can use the back entrance.”
I could feel the furrowing of Earvin’s brow. “Nah, I know what lies in there: just more swamp.” And Magic turned his horse back the wolves and a path that led to both the past and the future. And while I wanted to follow him and knew I should, I did not.
“You coming?” His voice sounded as if he already knew my answer.
“No, Earvin, I think I’ll see if the man’s as bad as y’all say.”
And we parted ways.
Riding up to the big house that rose like a white skull in the darkness, I marveled at the majesty of the place. Everything was white and still. Unicorns grazed in the lawn, nibbling on the sugar-coated sand. I followed the mistress of the house between their silver bodies. In her hand swung the key’s chain like a pendulum. An eagle’s claw—or was it the hand of a child?—swayed from the last link.
I followed her up the steps, still unable to see her face. She opened the door. “Have a seat at the table. He’s expecting you.” I walked in. The house felt cold. My breath seemed to crystalize in the air before me. Dust lay on everything like snow.
A table of mahogany took up a great deal of the hallway. Silver bowls of waxed fruit and platters of meat were on full display; a bed of thick eagle feathers in place of a table cloth. “Welcome,” said a voice at the far end, sitting in the flicker of an orange flame. When I leaned in, I noticed that the same orange burned like coals buried in the man’s skin. He was—orange—a dead sun in a cold, cold world. I pulled out a chair and sat down.
Watching me, his eyes twinkled with proud daring. He lifted a fork to me in a gesture of threatening communion. “Go ahead, try some.” I looked at my plate, smooth as bone, and then at the silver platter of what my host referred to as griffin meat. I reached for the platter. The meat was cool to the touch. I pealed it apart like cold chicken. As it passed the threshold of my lips, the baby griffin from the swamp, its missing claw and bleeding stump swung like a keychain through my brain. The morning and the day that followed were forever ago and fading. The meat tasted not of blood. I swallowed and took another bite. I did not think of the griffin anymore.
We ate without conversation, listening to the sound of stringed instruments sift through the cobwebbed corners of the vast corridor. I picked the platter clean, washing it down with a glass of red wine. When I dabbed my lips with the cloth napkin, droplets appeared like the faintest signs of an open wound, perhaps even as large as a paper cut.
“Have you seen the trophy room? Magic’s seen the trophy room.”
I wanted to tell the man it was ridiculous to think I’d seen the trophy room that I had very little to do with such a place as this, that I was merely a fan of spectacle. Instead, “No, sir, I haven’t. But I would love to see your trophy room.” He stood up and gestured toward the French doors behind him. I followed. The candles trembled from the table, and then we were standing in a room that unlike the cold and drafty space of the main hall was filled by the heat and the light of a hellish hearth.
And then, for the second time that day, all I could muster in terms of language was, “Holy shit! A griffin!”
Only this time there were too many griffins to count. Every inch of every wall was covered with the heads of eagles. Beaks springing forth like mighty yellow daggers. Eyes piercing from beyond the pale! I said it again, “Holy shit! Griffins!”
“I’m glad you can see that. You’re a perceptive man. Most people just think they’re eagles.” He cackled to himself. “But why in hell would I mount a thousand eagles’ heads on these walls? Eagles are mundane. Griffins are regal. But I tell you something—it’s quite difficult to tell an eagle from a griffin when you’re only looking at the heads!” Then he leaned back in the wing-tipped chair that served as both the room’s throne and its only piece of furniture. His face disappeared in the blackness of the chair’s shadows. “You know why I remove the bodies?”
I looked down at the floor, which seemed to be carpeted by golden pelts stitched together.
“I remove the bodies because I hate the mixing of the blood, but I tell you what—a griffin beats an eagle any day! But, seriously, I hate hybridity. You’re not a mulatto are you? If you were, I don’t think anyone could tell. I have a hard time telling. Ever considered turning yourself orange?”
The man kept talking, but I quit listening. One of the heads appeared to be much different than the rest. I stepped closer to it. “Did you get all these heads from griffins?”
“Okay, you got me. Those two are really eagles’ heads.”
“No, I mean this one. . .” I stopped speaking and leaned closer to the head. No beak. No feathers. But lips and skin. A nose even.
Nah, I know what lies in there.
The head belonged to Earvin. In fact, the head was Earvin’s. I had no doubt.
“Sir, are you aware that one of your griffin heads might be human?”
“I don’t think I’d make that kind of a mistake. No, these are griffins.”
I stared into Earvin’s eyes. I stared into the eagles’ eyes on either side of him. Could I not tell a human from a bird? “Sir, I really think you’ve made a horrible, horrible mistake.”
“Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the proof.” He led me through the kitchen where the meal from earlier, I could only imagine, had been prepared. Had I really eaten griffin meat?
We walked across the cold yard, sand sifting under our feet. The terrain here unsettled with every step. I then noticed the unicorns possessed no horns—they were merely horses! The man Earvin had called Sterling led me to the edge of a dark pit. “Look down there, son. That’s where I put the bones. I cut their heads off on that stump, skin ‘em from that tree branch, and drop the bones in that pit. Take a look. ‘Nothin’ but birds and cat bones up to the neck. You’ll see.”
I could not believe how high reached the mountain. Towards the top, meat and muscle still clung to the ribs and the spines. The skeletons were neither lion nor bird; they were human. The legs and the hips and the spines all reflected a need to walk upright, with dignity. But I saw not a single skull. The heads were elsewhere—mounted!
“You know I’m in need of an heir.”
I vomited my shame and everything I’d eaten in the dry, sifting soil, which I now realized contained no sugar, but salt and despair. And yet despite my notions of epiphany, the bones were still bones, alive and running as they always were.
The moon lit the highway like a spotlight, and Earvin’s foot fell heavy on the gas. A boy lay in the backseat moaning, unconscious, the stump at the end of his wrist wrapped in an unwashed Clippers jersey.
A half-Asian woman in the passenger seat said, “He’s ruining your upholstery with all that blood.” She lined up candy by color on the screen of her smartphone. Earvin looked over at her lap: How could you trust a woman like this one? “He needs a doctor,” he told her. The needle on the speedometer dipped down to ninety-five.
“We know a Doc.”
“No, I mean, a real doctor. Shit is serious. No one loses a hand playing basketball.” Earvin pressed harder on the gas. The engine roared like an angry cat. The needle moved past one hundred. He was determined to escape, but tired of it all the same. Man, was he tired of driving. But victory is a relentless beast and requires a constant pursuit.