Sasha used a remote control to put up the electric garage door, and I said, “You okay?”
I knew that she was physically unhurt and that her answer referred to her emotional state. Killing Tom Eliot, Sasha had done the only thing she could do, perhaps saving one or more of our lives while sparing the priest from a hideous frenzy of self-destruction, and yet the firing of those three shots had sickened her; now she was living under a grave weight of moral responsibility. Not guilt. She was smart enough to know that no guilt should attend what she’d done. But she also knew that even moral acts can have dimensions that scar the mind and wound the heart. If she had answered my question with a smile and assurances that she was fine, she would not have been the Sasha Goodall that I love, and I would have had reason to suspect that she was becoming.
We rode through Moonlight Bay in silence, each of us occupied with his or her own thoughts.
A couple miles from the Stanwyk house, the cat lost interest in the view through the windshield. He surprised me by stepping down onto my chest and peering into my eyes.
His green gaze was intense and unwavering, and I met it directly for an eerily long time, wondering what he might be thinking.
How radically different his thinking must be from ours, even if he shares our high level of intelligence. He experiences this world from a perspective nearly as unlike ours as our perspective would be unlike that of a being raised on another planet. He faces each day without carrying on his back the weight of human history, philosophy, triumph, tragedy, noble intentions, foolishness, greed, envy, and hubris; it must be liberating to be without that burden. He is both savage and civilized. He is closer to nature than we are; therefore, he has fewer illusions about it, knows that life is hard by design, that nature is beautiful but cold. And although Roosevelt says other cats of Mungojerrie’s breed escaped from Wyvern, their numbers cannot be large; while Mungojerrie isn’t as singular a specimen as Orson seems to be, and while cats by nature are more adaptable to solitude than dogs are, this small creature must at times know a profound loneliness.
When I began to pet him, Mungojerrie broke eye contact and curled up on my chest. He was a small, warm weight, and I could feel his heartbeat both against my body and under my stroking hand.
I am not an animal communicator, but I think I know why he led us into the Stanwyk house. We were not there to bear witness to the dead. We were there solely to do what needed to be done for Father Tom Eliot.
Since time immemorial, people have suspected that some animals have at least one sense in addition to our own. An awareness of things we do not see. A prescience.
Couple that special perception with intelligence, and suppose that with greater intelligence comes a more refined conscience. In passing the Stanwyk house, Mungojerrie might have sensed the mental anguish, the spiritual agony, and the emotional pain of Father Tom Eliot—and might have felt compelled to bring deliverance to that suffering man.
Or maybe I’m full of crap.
The possibility exists that I am both full of crap and right about Mungojerrie.
Cats know things.
Haddenbeck Road is a lonely stretch of two-lane blacktop that for a few miles runs due east, paralleling the southern perimeter of Fort Wyvern, but then strikes southeast, serving a score of ranches in the least populated portion of the county. Summer heat, winter rains, and California’s most violent weather—earthquakes—have left the pavement cracked, hoved, and ragged at the edges. Skirts of wild grass and, for a short while here in early spring, an embroidery of wildflowers separate the highway from the sensuously rolling fields that embrace it.
When we had traveled some distance without encountering oncoming headlights, Sasha suddenly braked to a halt and said, “Look at this.”
I sat up in full view, as did Roosevelt and Bobby, and surveyed the night around us in confusion as Sasha rammed the Expedition into reverse and backed up about twenty feet.
“Almost ran over them,” she said.
On the pavement ahead of us, revealed by the headlights, were enough snakes to fill the cages of every reptile house in every zoo in the country.
Leaning forward into the front seat, Bobby whistled softly and said, “Must be an open door to Hell around here somewhere.”
“All rattlers?” Roosevelt asked, taking the ice pack off his swollen eye, squinting for a better look.
“Hard to tell,” Sasha said. “But I think so.”
Mungojerrie stood with hind paws on my right knee, forepaws on the dashboard, head craned forward. He made one of those cat sounds that are half hiss, half growl, and all loathing.
Even from a distance of only twenty-five feet, it was impossible to make an accurate count of the number of serpents in the squirming mass on the highway, and I had no intention of wading in among them to take a reliable census. At a guess, there were as few as seventy or eighty, as many as a hundred.
In my experience, rattlesnakes are lone hunters and do not, as a matter of course, travel in groups. You’ll see them in numbers only if you’re unlucky enough to stumble into one of their nests—and few if any nests would contain this many individuals.
The behavior of these serpents was even stranger than the fact that they were gathering here in the open. They twined over and under and around one another, in a slowly seething sinuous mass, and from among these slippery braids, eight or ten heads rose at any one time, weaving two, three, four feet into the air, with jaws cracked, fangs bared, tongues flickering, then shrank back into the scaly swarm as new and equally wicked-looking heads rose from the roiling multitude, one set of sentinels replacing another.
It was as if the Medusa, of classic Grecian myth, were lying on Haddenbeck Road, napping, while her elaborate coiffure of serpents groomed itself.
“You going to drive through that?” I asked.
“Rather not,” Sasha said.
“Close the vents, crank this buggy up to warp speed,” Bobby said, “and take us for a ride on the rattlesnake road.”
Roosevelt said, “My mama always says, ‘Patience pays.’”
“The snakes aren’t here because we are,” I said. “They don’t care about us. They aren’t blocking us. We just happened to come through here at the wrong time. They’ll move on, probably sooner than later.”
Bobby patted my shoulder. “Roosevelt’s mom is a lot more succinct than you are, dude.”
Every snake that rose into sentry position from the churning host immediately focused its attention on us. Depending on the angle at which the headlamps caught them, their eyes brightened and flared red or silver, less often green, like small jewels.
I assumed that the light drew their interest. Desert rattlers, like most snakes, are nearly as deaf as dirt. Their vision is good, especially at night, when their slit-shaped pupils dilate to expose more of their sensitive retinas. Their sense of smell may not be as powerful as that of a dog, since they’re seldom called upon to track down escaped prisoners or to sniff out dope in smugglers’ luggage; however, in addition to a good nose, a snake has a second organ of smell—Jacobson’s organ, consisting of two pouches lined with sensory tissue—located in the roof of the mouth. That’s why a serpent’s forked tongue flicks ceaselessly: It licks microscopic particles of odor from the air, conveying these clusters of molecules to the pouches in its mouth, to savor and analyze them. Now these rattlers were busily licking the air for our scents to determine if suitably delicious prey might be found behind the headlights.
I’ve learned a great deal about desert rattlesnakes, with which I share the earlier—and warmer—part of the night. In spite of their evil appearance, they possess a compelling beauty.
Weird became weirder when one of the weaving sentries abruptly reared back and struck at another that had risen beside it. The bitten rattler bit back; the two coiled around each other and then dropped to the pavement. The flexuous swarm closed over them, and for a minute, turmoil swept through the braided multitude, which writhed not languorously, as before, but in a frenzy, as supple and quick as lashing whips, twisting and coiling excitedly, as though the urge to bite their own had spread beyond the angry pair we’d seen strike each other, briefly sparking civil war within the colony.
As the slithery horde grew calmer again, Sasha said, “Do snakes usually bite one another?”
“Probably not,” I said.
“Wouldn’t think they’d be vulnerable to their own venom,” said Roosevelt, returning the ice pack to his left eye.
“Well,” Bobby said, “if we’re ever condemned to live through high school again, maybe we can make a science project out of that question.”
Again, one of the rearing rattlers, weaving above the rest and licking the air for prey, struck at another of the sentries, and then a third grew agitated enough to strike the first. The trio raveled down into the swarm, and another siege of spastic thrashing whipped through the undulant masses.
“It’s the birds again,” I said. “The coyotes.”
“The folks at the Stanwyks’,” Roosevelt added.
“Psychological implosion,” Sasha said.
“I don’t suppose a snake has much of a psyche to be logical about,” Bobby said, “but yeah, it sure looks like part of the same phenomenon.”
“They’re moving,” Roosevelt noted.
Indeed, the squirming legions were, so to speak, on the march. They began to move across the two-lane blacktop, across the narrow dirt shoulder, vanishing into the tall grass and wildflowers to the right of the highway.
The complete procession, however, consisted of more than the eighty or one hundred specimens that we had been watching. As scores of snakes disappeared into the grass beyond the right-hand shoulder, scores of others appeared out of the field to the left of Haddenbeck Road, as if they were pouring out of a perpetual-motion, snake-making machine.
Perhaps three or four hundred rattlers, increasingly quarrelsome and agitated, crossed into the southern wilds before the blacktop was clear at last. When they were gone, when not a single wriggling form remained on the highway, we sat in silence for a moment, blinking, as if we had awakened from a dream.
Mom, I love you, and I always will. But what the hell were you thinking?
Sasha shifted gears and drove forward.
Mungojerrie made that sound of loathing again. He changed positions in my lap, so his forepaws were on the door, and he gazed out the side window, at the dark fields into which the serpent horde had slithered toward whatever oblivion it was seeking.
A mile later, we reached Crow Hill, beyond which Doogie Sassman should be waiting for us. Unless the snakes had crossed his path before they crossed ours.
I don’t know why Crow Hill is named Crow Hill. The shape of it in no way suggests the bird, nor do crows tend to flock there more than elsewhere. The name isn’t in honor of a prominent local family or even a colorful scoundrel. Crow Indians are located in Montana, not California. No crowfoot grows there. And history has no record of braggarts regularly trekking to the top of this mound to gloat and boast.
At the crown of the hill, an enormous outcropping of rock rises from the surrounding gentle contours of the loamy land, a solitary gray-white knob like a partially exposed bone in the skeleton of a buried behemoth. Carved on one face of this monument is the figure of a crow, which is not, as I once thought, the source of the name. Crude but intriguing, this carving captures the cockiness of the bird yet somehow has an ominous quality, as though it is the totem of a murderous clan, a warning to travelers to find a route around their territory or risk dire consequences. On a July night forty-four years ago, the image of the crow was scored into the stone by a person—or persons—unknown. Until curiosity had led me to learn the origins of the carving, I’d assumed that it dated from another century, that perhaps it had been chiseled into the rock even before Europeans set foot on this continent. There is a disquieting aspect to the image of the crow, a quality that speaks to mystics, who have been known to travel considerable distances to view and touch it. Old-timers say this place has been called Crow Hill since at least the time of their grandparents, however, and references in time-yellowed public records confirm their claim. The carving seems to embody some primitive knowledge long lost to civilized man, yet the name of the hill predates it, and evidently the anonymous carver meant only to create a pictorial landmark sign.
This image was not like the bird on the message left with Lilly Wing, except that both seemed to radiate malevolence. As Charlie Dai had described them, the crows—or ravens, or blackbirds—left at the scenes of the other abductions were also unlike this carving. Charlie would have remarked on the resemblance if there had been one.
Nevertheless, the coincidence was creepy.
As we approached the crest, the crow in the stone appeared to be watching us. The raised planes of the bird’s body reflected white in the headlights, while shadows filled the deep lines that had been cut by the carver’s tools. This was a colloidal stone, and chips of some shiny aggregate—perhaps nuggets of mica—were scattered through it. The carving had been artfully composed to position the largest of these chips as the eye of the bird, which was now filled with an imitation of animal eyeshine and with a peculiar quality that some visiting mystics insist is forbidden knowledge, although I’ve never understood how an inanimate hunk of rock can have knowledge.
I noticed that everyone in the Expedition, including the cat, regarded the stone crow with an uneasy expression.
As we drove past this figure, the shadows in the chiseled lines should have shrunk from us in the rapidly diminishing light, as the entire carving settled into darkness. But unless my eyes deceived me, for an instant the shadows elongated, violating the laws of physics, as if trying to follow the light. And as the crow disappeared into the night behind us, I could have sworn the shadow pulled loose of the stone and took flight as though it were a real bird.
As we headed down the eastern slope of Crow Hill, I restrained myself from remarking on the unnerving flight of the shadow, but Bobby said, “I don’t like this place.”
“Me neither,” Roosevelt agreed.
“Ditto,” I said.
Bobby said, “Humankind wasn’t meant to travel this far from the beach.”
“Yeah,” Sasha said, “we’re probably getting dangerously close to the edge of the earth.”
“Exactly,” Bobby said.
“You ever see any of those maps from the time when they thought the earth was flat?” I asked.
Bobby said, “Oh, I see, you’re one of those round-earth kooks.”