TOMB, n. The House of Indifference. Tombs are now by common consent invested with a certain sanctity, but when they have been long tenanted it is considered no sin to break them open and rifle them, the famous Egyptologist, Dr. Huggyns, explaining that a tomb may be innocently "gleaned" as soon as its occupant is done "smellynge," the soul being then all exhaled. This reasonable view is now generally accepted by archaeologists, whereby the noble science of Curiosity has been greatly dignified.—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911.
Dear Giant Squid,
Last week I asked a question about columnists on the internet and you answered with a long story about Mexico and Ambrose Bierce. Could you please just answer my question:
Do I spend too much time online reading advice columnists?
My Dearest Reader,
We were five weeks into the heart of Mexico when we found the tomb. We had marched South after our agreement was struck, and kept on marching until my internal compass spun freely, as if caught up in a magnetic whirlpool. Five weeks of camping. Five weeks of devouring naught but desert rodents. Five weeks of losses both physical and spiritual. I was struck that to travel the same distance in the seas or upon a well-paved road would have taken less than a day, but here in this country, whose land had been torn by erosion like flesh under a dull knife, it took an eternity.
I had set off to chronicle the life of the greatest advice columnist to ever live, but had wound up a press-ganged aide-de-camp to a doomed man. Bierce's form grew ever more ragged during our trip. There were days where he could not be stirred despite all my cajoles and caterwauls. On these days he lay, thin as a sheet, upon his cot and drew pained breaths. I took to tying his hands together and wearing him like a fleshcape. On several occasions I pinned him to a crossed set of thin bamboo spars and, anchored to a spool of fishing line, several of the younger soldiers brought him a loft on the back of the cut-rate Mexican sirocco breeze. Once we painted him green and he gripped a pike with his fingertips. Pancho Villa's men paraded back and forth, waving Bierce as though he were the flag for a far, far better future that all of us were fighting for.
The sun was low in the sky on the evening we entered Copper Canyon. Villa asked me, in low tones, why it was named such. I struck out with one massive leg of my exploration suit, easily gouging a half-cubit into the hard scrabble before the leg came to an abrupt, clanging halt. I wiggled it loose, and Villa squinted into the hole. "YOU SEE, DEAR GENERAL, THIS ENTIRE CANYON IS ONE SOLID INGOT OF COPPER. LEGEND SAYS IT IS THE CORPSE OF AN OLD GOD CAST OUT OF HELL BY XOLOTL AS SHE TOOK HER PLACE AT THE DOORWAY. I THINK IT MAY ACTUALLY BE THE GUT OF AN ASTEROID AND WE WALK IN THE EYE OF THE CALDERA OF ITS IMPACT. I triggered my shrugging mechanisms and Villa nodded, satisfied.
We camped there, at the mouth of Copper Canyon, knowing that the next day would surely bring us to our destination. The men were nervous as gulls before a storm. I perched at a narrow passage behind them, blocking all egress. None made any effort to enter the canyon on their own. Villa slept atop the chest which contained all the firearms and cutlasses. Mutiny was possible, but difficult that night.
Bierce could not sleep. Full-bodied and drink engorged, he paced under the moonlight, giggling like a Congressman. We sat in the still night air, watching the moonlight play across the copper peaks like a juggler tossing pennies in the air. He was both energized and distant; I felt I must needs approach him, conversationally. It is the goal of every biographer to capture the mind of the subject like so much moonlight in a jar, or a prized scarab beetle on the end of a display pin. "TELL ME, AMBROSE, WHAT DO YOU FEEL UPON THE CULMINATION OF THIS JOURNEY? IS YOUR WANDERLUST—OR WHATEVER IMPULSE IT IS THAT DRIVES YOU—SATED?".
"Sated," he snorted. "That, my friend, is the feeling that one has for the plate after he has eaten its contents." He stood near the winking Hades of our spent campfire. "I am a gourmand when it comes to life: There shall never be enough to show me the plate." He picked up a copper rock the size of a human eye and hurled it skyward. "Come and rest, old friend, tomorrow I shall give you a final chapter to curl your readers' hair."
I did not sleep in those days, instead electing to spend me evenings practicing at the concertina. But I found that my abnormal fortitude in the face of their Morphean predilections unnerved my traveling companions—apart from Bierce, who likewise was beyond sleep, like so many other of the petty facets of the Mundane Life—so I developed mannerisms to camouflage my strength. I settled my chassis upon the copper valley floor and dimmed my internal illuminations. My mantle took on a placid, ducky hue and I narrowed my eyes.
Bierce finally lay upon the ground, his form deflated. I heard him whisper, "I only wish I had more to give my friends. I fear I am beggared in my deathless age, having relied a touch too heavily on the assistance of friends for a tad too long. At the very least, shouldn't I reimburse Blanche Partington for the empty coffin they buried my memory in?"
I had no answer for this, and so offered none.
Pancho Villa's men were brave and strong that night. Though they stood upon the mouth of their hell they did not cry nor flee. They drank the ends of their whiskey and ate the last of their pollo. The men whispered prayers to saints and madmen and gave themselves over to destiny. A third of them never woke again, their souls taken in the dark, so quietly so that it did not catch even my peerless attention, alert though I was.
As the sun rose so did I, which is not to say I orbited the earth at a distance of millions of miles—at least not yet—but rather I found the dawn-time a convenient time marker with which to shake off my feigned slumber, feign a set of calisthenic stretches, feign a desire for coffee, and then resume the chronicles which, in truth, I had meditated upon all the night through.
In the main of the encampment, Villa stood over the sprawled bodies of the dead men. They neither stank, nor bloated, nor grew stiff of limb; neglect their pulselessness, their stillness, and the lack of breaths' susurrations or bowels' borborygmal gurgling, or any of the other sundry, subtle instruments in the symphony of a mass of sleeping men, and you might think they were simply very tired workers, sleeping the sleep of the just. Villa used the toe of his creaking, split boot to turn one body over, much to the shocked terror of his remaining soldiers. He stepped back, surveyed the turned man—who had all the seeming of a sleeping babe—then the rest. He shifted his sombrero and noisily slurp his coffee through his mustache. "Mighta been bad water." Villa opined, "Or bad beans. Or bad chicken." His hard eyes glistened.
"But they died so quiet," someone gaped.
"Maybe escorpiónes come in to get warm in their bedrolls with them."
"There's no swelling, jefe," another muttered.
"Or cheap liquor cut with kerosene." His men shivered as one single body, like a horse shaking off flies, "Or mighta been Tarahumara indians—still some of them up on the cliffs, and they hate anyone who even looks like they might talk a lil conquistador español." Several men groaned, and one swooned. "Could be anything, kill a buncha men like this, so quiet."
"Could be Mictlantecuhtli," an anonymous voice whispered.
Villa took another long slurp of coffee, and sighed. "Mighta been." He said flatly. "Mighta been anything." And then there was silence, and then the weeping began among the men, and the weeping came to grumbling, and in the grumbling there was mutiny and there was murder.
And Bierce stepped forward.
"Your comrades, sad to say, are dead," he began, "But I still live," he finished disingenuously. "As do you. Is this not a sign?"
My stenographic equipment, sadly, was deleteriously influenced by the copper content of the surrounding hills: any audio recordings made via my modified Poulsen Telegraphone—my usual mode, at that time, for tracking my thoughts while upon-the-go—were lent a booming pre-echo of such magnitude that nothing could be clearly discerned, apart from the ghostly screams of the great many horribly deceivéd Christian dead of our late American Civil War, being smoked to spectral jerky in the Blood Jesus' Heavenly Chimneys. Subsequently, I was forced to jot notes in a cramped hand upon the back of a dead bandito and then, when his comrades were not looking, to remove and tan said be-noted skin for later reference. Highlights from the forty-minute speech include:
"We are the raw material that fills the bellies of worms . . . "and his denouement:
"You men [are] . . . persons of greater enterprise than discretion, who in embracing an opportunity have formed an unfortunate attachment."
"Death is master of us all; we spend only what small pittance he has left in our hands."
"Heading up this canyon, gentleman, it beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!"(I have also the word "eggplant" written here, but do not recall the context.)
Inexplicably, the men cheered of a single voice at this pronouncement. Sadly, their enthusiasm would not last. But, for the moment, Bierce had turned their hearts, and so he then turned his body, and with their cry of ascent still warm on their lips, the men marched into the mouth of hell itself. Villa, astride his swaybacked pony, followed.
I know that this seems even further afield than we wandered last week, but trust me: If you have trekked this far, then, like Villa's men, all favor lies with soldiering on to your quick approaching reward.
I Remain Indebted to Your Patience,
Your Giant Squid
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