DUEL, n. A formal ceremony preliminary to the reconciliation of two enemies. Great skill is necessary to its satisfactory observance; if awkwardly performed the most unexpected and deplorable consequences sometimes ensue. A long time ago a man lost his life in a duel.—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911.
Dear Giant Squid:
You really abuse the patience of your readers! We ask really simply questions and you lead us around and around before just giving it to us straight. Just to refresh your memory: Something I read online led me to believe that I may be spending too much time on the internet. How can I tell if I should cut back on the time spent reading internet news sites and editorial columnists?
My Dear and Nameless Petitioneer and Your Skulking, Silent Cohort,
It is true, that my methods are a trial for your patience, and thus I remain humbled and flattered by your ongoing goodwill as we, with the ceaseless and irrepressible spirit of the snail (or, as I like to think of him, the Hardbacked Terrestrial Mono-Squid), find our path to our true Reward.
In the interest of trying your patience as little as is possible, I will "cut to the chase"—which, in this case, was actually an ambush. As it turned out, Villa's concerns about the possible presence of angry Tarahumara indians—who even unto this day tenaciously cling to the dry crags of Copper Canyon, like as lichens who sup on the sun and misery alone, with no need for water or nutrient—was entirely justified.
What was less clear to me and to the Bierce was the nature of these aboriginal inhabitants of the valley. We were two days past the canyon's mouths, and spirits were, in general, quite elevated: Not simply Bierce, who was puffed up and swaggering with the nearness of his finale, but more notably the remaining Villistas seemed heartened by the fact that, while a third of their number had passed on with preternatural quiet while we slept at the canyon's doorstep, no one had felt any subsequent ill-effects. By the second night they had even thrown over their lugubrious drinking in favor of merry drinking, and long into the night did we dance and whirl, my concertina carving a gay and jaunty non-euclidean jig out of the guts of the night, saving the Milky Way's still-quivering liver for Villa himself, who sat in his leather camp chair, his feet resting upon the canvas-wrapped crank-actuated telephone I had been carrying about at Bierce's behest for the past two-and-one-half years. El Jefe sipped 66-year Scotch from a tin cup so badly dented from years on the trail that it now described an inverse accelerated hyperparabola. That this cup held fluid at all seemed to defy both Newtonian mechanics and elementary fluid dynamics, and that the cup was lost in the ensuing melee has always filled me with a torpid, duckish sadness.
Even then, it would later become clear, the Tarahumara were tracking us, estimating our strength, and noting our abundant weaknesses. Our third morning began in the manner to which we had become accustomed, our years on the warpath with Villa: In an amiable hungover stupor. Soon the men were underway, our canvas-shrouded parcel was, per the usual, strapped behind Villa to his long-suffering pony, and it was not past mid-morning when we passed from the brittle dry aridity of the canyon to the blown out, lifeless box canyon that hosted the Gates of Mictlan: an anticlimactic and quiet literal "hole in the wall," entirely unadorned—in fact, either quite cunningly disguised to appear to be the work of nature and chance, or simply as much in fact—and hardly large enough to permit entrance to even a single file of boxcars.
Bierce's crest was fallen, and Villa laughed, a deep rumble from the gut.
"You was expecting like the Cathedral de la Virgín de Guadalupe? This is the place; I never been here before, but this is where the gringo university grave-robbers come, dig up a few broken pots and arrow heads, get a few of their Juarez slum-boy bag-carriers killed, and then go back to their museos to make displays about the noble savages that is all but extinct—"
But Villa's spirited critic of the Ivory Tower was abridged when one of his men screamed, and then another, and another, in a rising wave, a ten-story tsunami of suffering and pain rearing up over the sleepy South Seas fishing village. I turned to see that the men had been besought by a cloud of what appeared to be wingéd scorpions, their eyes glistening crimson in the morning light. The Tarahumara had flowed down from the cliffs as silently as mercury cascading down a tenement staircase, and blocked our retreat.
They were not human. They had the bodies of man, of sandstone sculptures carved by an only half-competent hand. They were broad chested, thick armed, large-fisted. And their heads were the dessicated, snarling, slavering heads of sun-maddened dogs. They stood in a miasma of flying scorpions and what appeared to be small snakes which had been bequeathed parakeet's multi-hued wings by distant, half-affectionate relations. And then, in a single body, and with no apparent sound or sign passing among them, the Tarahumara charged. I swung around to see Villa already sprinting toward the cave, with Bierce quick upon his heels. Showing a presence of mind that I attribute to superior upbringing and being encased in a velocitating suit impervious to both snakes and scorpions (although not to sticks or stones or dog-headed demi-men armed with either), I tore Bierce's telephone from the back of Villa's terrified and whirling pony—sadly taking a large portion of its rear quarter with me, and likewise fled, with a quickness.
"¡Coño de madre!" Villa hissed pantingly as we cowered at the back of what was a remarkably shallow cavern, "What the Hell we gonna do now, Profesor, in your chingada go-nowhere cave!"
"This is the Gates of Mictlan?" Bierce asked, glancing around in the gloom, calm and curious.
"Sí," Villa muttered, sidling up to the mouth of the cave. The expression on his face implied that the flying scorpions, winged snakes, and dog-faced men were brooking the remainder of Villa's men no quarter. I made a mental note to see if there was a single point of contact for hiring these minions en masse, of if they each functioned as mercenary free-agents (this latter I found unlikely, as the Tarahumara indians were not known to have developed or adopted the kind of accounting system that so many separate invoice would have necessitated—sadly, I found no opportunity to take up the matter with the Tarahumara's CFO, or even lesser members of their finance or accounts payable staff).
"Excellent" Bierce clapped his hands briskly, "Then let us make a quick telephone call and be on our way!"
I unwrapped our parcel and began sorting out the net of gossamer copper strands that functioned as our ground and medium, pausing momentarily to asses the cave's floor plan, as it can be tricky to properly disperse the transmission net in closed quarters.
Villa turned back from the grisly sight that lay beyond the cave's mouth. "On our way!" he mocked, "Maybe after nightfall, or maybe tomorrow, but I kinda got an idea that stone dog men and flying escorpiónes with ruby eyes don't sleep much, Profesor." Villa checked his rising voice, and then continued sotto voce, "I think that, with the lil bit of water we got, we'll be 'on our way' three days from now, mad with the heat, gums swelled and black for dehydration, and rasping out to the snake-birds to come and end the whole mess for us the quick way." The men looked at each other, Villa's eyes kicking up sparks like a suicidal coal miner's pick-axe, and I attempted to nonchalantly appear to be far more absorbed in my preparations than could possibly be the case.
"I shoulda killed you better when we met in Ciudad Juarez," Villa spat.
"Even if you hadn't grazed me, even if you'd plugged me square in the heart, it'd all be the same; there isn't enough lead and powder in the Middle Kingdom to send me along, now."
Despite the groaning and gnashing of teeth without, the double click of Villa fully cocking his six gun carried clear in the early coolness of the cave.
"Jefe, please, you're being more than a little melodramatic," Bierce sighed jovially, "Besides, the report will draw the stone-jackals and their canaries all the faster. But I am not going to kill God standing here chatting, so I—"
"Your very insane,"
"I'm not much more so than I ever was," but Villa was pale and slack jawed, and I believe that Bierce, like myself, was concerned for his continuing consciousness. "Listen, you won't even miss this God. And I imagine someone will pick up the slack," Bierce finished breezily.
I nodded with vigor. "ALTHOUGH I CANNOT TECHNICALLY GUARANTEE SUCH," I opined, in the interest of greasing the wheels of industry, "HAD I MONIES, I WOULD WAGER IT TO BE THE CASE. AS PERTAINS TO GODS AT THIS LATE DATE IN HUMAN HISTORY, THE RATE OF UNEMPLOYMENT IS HIGH. IT IS A CERTAINTY THAT SOMEONE CAN BE FOUND TO FILL THE ROLE. SHOULD THE OPPORTUNITY PRESENT ITSELF, I SHALL SUGGEST AN OLD AND DEAR ASSOCIATE, OF LATE STRANDED IN THE CITY OF DETROI—"
"Come on, Villa," Bierce cajoled, ignoring my suggestions, as was so oft the case in our time together, "You can go out there and die right now for a very long time," he daintily stepped among the net of wires I had laid out upon the dust, and then anchored to the canyon's copper substrate, "or come with me, die a little bit for a little while, and then decide how you like it."
Bierce crouched before the phone, lifted the receiver, and cranked the magneto furiously. "Besides, you hardly have a choice now." He listened at the earpiece and crooned into the mouthpiece, "Xolotl, Xolotl, are you there?" The last word came in two syllables—theeeey-aair—like a child playing in the Hide Your Goseeks.
And the psychopomp Xolotl was.
Dear unsigned reader, in the case that this answer is not sufficiently clear to you, then rest assured that I will present the entire matter in flat and with little or no flourish next week.
I Clearly Remain,
Your Giant Squid
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