Lara Collection 003.001: Restored Memoir

I wrote this as a contribution to the Lara Collection, a player-organized creative project for Uru Live. Players are creating works about a hitherto-undocumented event in the D'ni cavern's history:

Recently, I was approached by a young explorer who claimed to have come to the restoration due to a trunk he'd found among the effects belonging to an ancestor of his. This trunk contained numerous documents of a possibly D'ni origin.

According to notes in the trunk, both in English and in Spanish, they belonged to one Domasio Lara, a prospector from Mexico who got lost in a network of caverns in northern New Mexico, south of the San Luis valley. There, he discovered a devastated 'Caverna del Oro', which he assumed was the mythic El Dorado. He gathered up papers, maps and such as proof and returned to the surface. However, he was not believed and passed on his findings to his descendants.

-- from the invitation post by J. D. Barnes

(Other Lara documents are appearing in the DRC forum. This document first appeared in this thread.)

I also took the opportunity to write an homage to Edward Whittemore, which I've been keen to try for years.

. . .

(The provenance of this document is even murkier than that of the rest of the Lara collection. It is in English, and clearly refers to Lara in the third person; but it appears contemporaneous. The most likely explanation is that the unnamed narrator wrote this text describing his conversations, and later -- perhaps years later -- passed the document to Lara, or to his descendant, for safe-keeping.)

(At the same time, the style and subject prefigure Whittemore. Perhaps he encountered the collection in his Middle East travels?)

I walked into the Chinaman's Eye, and I saw an old man in an old army uniform. He sat at the smallest darkest table in the saloon. In front of him were a glass, a little black book, and a bottle of mezcal. The book was closed and the bottle was open.

I navigate by stories; I sit and drink with the most interesting one I can see. The closed book and the open bottle were the best story in the saloon, so I sat down and asked the man which one was better.

Well, he said, the bottle isn't good. It's the cheapest mezcal but that's what I like to drink. It's harsh and strong and it stings. If I drank brandy I would remember what's sweet in life, and if I drank whiskey I'd remember what's rich in life, but I don't drink to remember my life so mezcal is good enough for me.

And the book? I asked.

I haven't read it. So I guess the bottle is better after all, for a closed book and a closed bottle are neither any good to anyone. Have some mezcal, Father.

So I drank with the man who had been a soldier, and the husband of a visionary, and the friend of a Mexican prospector, and was now the owner of a book and a saloon in San Francisco called the Chinaman's Eye.

The soldier asked, Father, what do you imagine Heaven is like?

I had returned to the saloon, which I'd found out belonged to the soldier. He sat in it each day, starting in the afternoon, with the closed book and the open bottle in front of him. He drank his mezcal slowly as night fell, and now I drank mezcal with him and considered his question.

You'd think my job would be to know that, I replied, but of course I don't. We speak of a great and golden City, full of saints and angels, free of suffering. We imagine living there just as we live here, but with no disease or age, and bathed in the presence of God. It's not much of a story, bland and simple I'll admit, but what other kind can sinners tell?

Why, any story at all, the soldier said as I sipped my drink. Any story is a thought in the mind of a man, which means it must be a thought in the mind of God, and surely all of God's thoughts are manifest in Heaven.

That's true, it must be as you say. And didn't Dante write of the spheres of Heaven, the Moon and Sun, Mars and Venus and so on, each with its inhabitants and its nature?


A poet of Italy.

Well I'm no poet, only an old soldier, but I've heard stories far beyond the Moon and the Sun. A story of a tree that rises to pierce the sky; a story of twelve golden islands in a warm silver sea. A story of a jungle full of singing serpents, of a desert of cracked ice that breathes its vapors up to stars no man has ever known.

Surely those are stories of wonders, and I would love to hear them too. Who spoke of such things to you?

That was my wife, and she only spoke of what she saw. All the years I knew her, she was blessed with visions of Heaven.

I sat down, and the soldier looked across the table at the bottle and the book that separated us. I reached for the bottle and left the book alone.

Sir, you spoke last night of your wife. But you never told me her name.

Why, she was Mary, a fitting name for a blessed woman I always thought. So many women bear that name, but then so many women are blessed, so many women and men that it's a wonder we are not all Josephs and Marys. Well, like the blessed Mary-- The soldier laughed then. --Your pardon, Father, I think of her often and speak of her rarely, here in this saloon which we once owned together. You were asking about my wife.

She had visions.

That's so. Not fits, you understand, not great babbling ecstasies such as you hear about.

Such as visit the Shakers or the Gift Adventists?

Do they, Father? I have not seen such things. Mary held only a great light, half-remembered and half-seen, that lived in her dreams and the edges of her sight. She was shy about it sometimes, but I loved hearing her visions, and so she brought them forth for me as words, simple bright words that a soldier could understand. And so I loved her.

Of course you did, what else could you do? But tell me her words. What was her Heaven?

Oh, everything, as I told you yesterday, or perhaps it was the night before? Crystal bridges threading gulfs of sparkling twilight. Fern trees like sequoias sheltering grazing iguanas the size of elephants. Waves of curling violet cloud breaking on shores of splintered glass. But chiefly the city, the Kingdom of Heaven, golden and pure, surrounded by seas of light.

Just as the Bible says after all, I laughed.

Surely, Father, and why not? It was the word of God that Mary spoke.

And the book? I asked very gently, touching the black leather that lay between us, the volume that the soldier had never touched or opened or spoken of.

The word of God as well, Father. Nothing else but that.

The next time I walked into the Chinaman's Eye, I bought a second bottle of mezcal. Two drinking from one bottle finish too soon, and I wanted to hear more of the soldier's life.

This book, I asked him. That was Mary's Bible?

Oh no, Father. That is, yes, hers; but the Mexican's before her.

The Mexican you say.

Just so, the Mexican, a prospector and wanderer, a dusty leather man. He walked out of the desert and into our saloon.

He must have liked your sign as much as I did.

Certainly he did, as you did, that's an old story and I'm glad you know it. The half-lidded eye: it says, I see some things but then others I don't. Appropriate for a place where men sit and drink mezcal, which is what the Mexican drank, harsh and strong and stinging.

But he had found no gold? Only Bibles, I suppose. A prospector who strikes Gospel is a rare miracle indeed.

Now you're jesting, Father, but strangely enough you're right. He had found no gold in the desert, nor silver either. Men with gold and silver do not drink cheap mezcal. But the Mexican had found a cavern -- had become lost in a cavern, to tell truth. He had wandered many days underground, or perhaps it was even weeks. And then he returned to the open skies with drawings, with memoirs, with maps and charts and sketches. Things he had seen, and then others he had not seen but merely discovered written down, in ancient tattered books and parchments.

But what had he seen?

Why, what else but a golden city? A lost and empty city buried in stone. A city in ruin, surrounded by a dying golden light. The fabled city that Pizarro and de Leon had sought; found by a Mexican prospector who knew he beheld El Dorado.

You need not pay for your mezcal here, Father, not in my saloon, not now that you know my wife's name. It is cheap drink besides.

Thank you. But I must ask --

Calmly, Father, it is all in the past and there is nothing but the story to be told. You are curious about the city of course, the golden city so like and so unlike Mary's vision.

Yes, curious, exactly so. We say much of Heaven, but never that it is a deserted city, fading away to ruin. It would be theologically unsound at best.

And in a cavern, to boot. Underground.

Insupportable! I laughed. I shall telegraph the Episcopal bishops at once. But truly, it was the city Mary had always seen?

It truly was and she was as wonder-struck as you. She had often described to me the colonnades and plazas, the arches and flying balconies, until I could see them as clearly as this glass before me. And there they were in charcoal and chalk, the papers lying on this very table. The Mexican had a fine hand.

I wonder if Heaven has shadows in this mortal world. Cast like Plato's shades by the light of our Lord. El Dorado, Atlantis, Shambhala.... Or perhaps the original Shadow, Hell itself? The City of Dis found eternally empty, a place of punishment turned into the best joke ever played by His witty and infinite mercy.... But wait, what of your wife's other visions? The strange trees and stranger beasts, the castles of wire and glass, the unknown skies?

The Mexican spoke of those as well, but he had not stood among them. They were woven in tapestries in the city's halls, displayed in great windows of colored glass, illuminated in manuscripts. He had brought a few pages back, and Father you should have seen Mary's eyes shine to behold them. The conch-huts of the vine jungle! she cried, as if she had played beneath their spiral eaves. And behind them, where you cannot see, the waterfall!

And so the prospector sat here, where I sit, and told his stories.

He did, and Mary told hers. They poured out each other's obsessions, while I poured the mezcal and wondered that God's creation could contain so many things.

I apologized for my few days' absence. I have been seeing San Francisco, I told the soldier, and learning about California and the Territories.

Following our wanderer's footsteps?

Indeed but the trail is cold. You said he found his Caverna del Oro in New Mexico.

Yes, and is it not curious?

So many things are, but tell me, sir.

Why, curious that a Mexican would wander into New Mexico Territory, and fifty years after the war.

Wars fade into memory. And of course the Union has fought a greater war since.

Certainly, in the East, but here in the West an old soldier remembers. Mexico claimed this land, Alta California and Nuevo Mexico, the brilliant deserts.

And then Texas leaped into the Union's arms.

Just so. Mexico claimed the Nueces, we the Rio Grande, but was that the whole of the tussle? North and west ran the disputed land, into the high dry places... Caves have been found there before, Father, and since. I spoke last month to a young cowboy...


Pardon an old man who wanders. The war, you see. We fought for land, through gunsmoke and fever, down past the Rio Grande to Ciudad de Mexico. And now I wonder if a voice whispered in the President's ear that treasure lay in the Nuevo Mexico wastes. If Santa Anna defended and lost a golden city, dearer than any painted desert.

It could be so but soldiers died just the same.

So we did, Father, as soldiers always die. Would an empty city have stirred our blood? In the end it was the gold of California, not the riches of El Dorado or of Heaven, that we won for the Union.

And you came here?

I had dodged bullets in Mexico but not the yellowjack fever. Army life held no more appeal. When I mustered out, San Francisco was already booming; I thought to build a saloon. To sell mezcal to prospectors with fire in their blood, to drink a little myself -- mezcal purifies a man's blood, there's nothing better for fever.

It has sustained you, certainly.

It did and it does. But mezcal is harsh and strong and stinging, it keeps you alive but it does not fill your life. I came to San Francisco for work. I found Mary and a vision of Heaven.

Now you must tell me the end of the story, my son.

The story of a soldier and his wife, of a Mexican and his book? But I don't know the ending. How many of us fit our lives so neatly?

Not one man in a thousand I suppose. And even he likely wondered on his last day what ever happened to his socks.

The soldier laughed. So and just so. Well, Mary was fascinated by the Mexican, his tales and his papers. They talked late into the morning, comparing stories and writing notes, long after an old man had fallen asleep. Then Mary began to speak of leaving San Francisco, of journeying to the desert and searching for Heaven.

Forgive me for asking, sir, but were they intimate?

You mean, did she share his bed? I suppose she did but what does it matter? From the first I loved the light of Heaven in Mary's eyes. Now she pursued that with all the force of her soul, and I loved her the more for it. Besides (the soldier laughed again) I am an old man, and since Mexico my health has never been good.

Despite the mezcal.

Oh, indeed -- please attend to my glass, Father, it is empty. But Mary was... well she was not a young woman, but still, ten years younger than myself? Fifteen perhaps? And her years did not weigh heavily, you would not have thought her an old soldier's wife. No, I do not grudge Mary a moment of joy. Joy that perhaps she thought lost in the life of a saloon-keeper and her old husband.

But in the end she left?

In the end... she did not run off with the Mexican, that is what you are imagining but it wasn't that way at all. He had given her this book, or perhaps she had taken it from his room; they shared many such artifacts in their investigation. One morning I came downstairs; the Mexican was asleep at this table and Mary was gone.

Merely gone.

Gone, left the Mexican and the book behind. He knew no more than I. He said she had been studying the book and then he dozed off. We agreed that she must have gone to the desert, but alone in the night? Without money or wagon?

Unaccountable but the heart moves in its own way.

Surely it does. Mary loved me, and this place, and I'm sure she loved the Mexican in her way, but the golden city was in her heart before any of us.

I am surprised, a bit more surprised every evening, to find you sitting here with the book unopened before you.

Oh, well you are a man of letters, Father. A book falls open in your hand, that should surprise no one. I am only a soldier.

But it is all you have left.

Perhaps it is rather all that remains, and I wish it to remain so.

And you say that you are no poet, I smiled. But I take it the prospector moved on?

Ah, the Mexican, just so he did. A few days after Mary left us. He said he was going to the universities of the East, to see if learning might make clear what vision had not.

He did not go after Mary?

I do not think so. I gather he was married, I am not sure but I think it was so, and a moment of joy in the wild lands is not a life. But then perhaps he will turn his face to the desert, if not today then when he is old.

Silence passed a few moments, and I refilled our glasses.

You asked me, that first night, what the Bible said of Heaven.

So I did and you cut to the heart, Father. My thoughts turn to this book, I confess it after all.

You called it the word of God, even though you have never opened it.

It came from the city, did it not? And this is the path I tread, night after night... my Mary saw Heaven, not just as a golden city, but a silver temple and an mahogany village and a brassy market and an onyx ruin, all at once. Meadows and canyons and ancient forests, spires and seas and abysses, on without end.

Realm after realm, world upon world, a house of doors opening to every wonder imaginable by God.

You understand it. But what then is contained in God's Bible, in the book stolen from the altars of Heaven? Not just our little stories, a garden and a flood and a resurrection. Surely not.

Go on, I think I see but I cannot grasp it.

No one could grasp it, do you understand? Such a book would contain every story, every wonder, every thought in God's mind, which includes all thoughts.

You mean, Hercules at his labors. Loki stealing the hammer of thunders. Sedna combing the sins of mankind from her hair. All in the same book with our Father, the prophets and the psalms?

All those and more. A girl fleeing a castle in slippers of fur or glass. A boy who draws a royal sword from a boulder. A hero searching the world for one honest man. A king who sees his father's ghost and runs mad. And then...

Then? More?

...We turn a page, and find the stories turned round and sideways. Our Bible, our little stories must be only a shadow cast by the word of God. Move the light and the shadows dance...

...Joseph and Mary flee Jerusalem on a flying carpet, guided by Ariel to an island where a sorceress turns men into pigs. Atlas draws Excalibur from the root of the World-Tree and strikes down the pretender, Zeus, who falls to Earth in a shower of gold that sets Atlantis alight. Goliath tears off Grendel's arm and nails it above the door of David's temple...

...Sheherazade tells lurid tales to the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, as their parents battle frost giants. The Jade Emperor plays chess with Pharaoh for the fate of the condemned Jesus; but he has already escaped Rome and lives to a vast age in the desert, fathering innumerable smiling children whose only flaw is that they turn to stone in sunlight...

...Mohammed journeys to India, where he leads the Wild Hunt to slay the Bull of Heaven. He founds a great kingdom there; its people call him Prester John. The kingdom is later overthrown by an army of dwarfs, who march seven times around his walls chanting Dreamtime songs which grow a forest beneath the city overnight...

...Hanuman the Monkey King battles Esau the Wild Man of the Hills, shaking the land asunder. The Great Wyrm crawls up out of the cracks. King Solomon captures the Wyrm in a clay lamp, seals it with wax, and places it on top of a glass mountain surrounded by brambles, so that only the bravest prince may win through and have his wishes granted...

...and round again: Mohammed and Solomon whispering secret stories to Sheherazade, Ariel slaying Goliath with a sling stone plucked from the eye of Odysseus, Jesus leading his people from slavery in Babel as Pharaoh circles the walls where mermaids part the Red Sea for a lump of magic gold brought by three kings to Eve daughter of Mary who spins it into straw breaking the Phoenix's back upon which rests the world...

...on and on, parable upon folk tale upon fairy tale upon legend.

No one could read such a thing, I whispered. It would contradict every faith ever held. Every belief.

Not at all, it would confirm them. People imagine that you discover God's truth by paring away falsehood, discarding lies and mistakes. They cannot imagine that there are no lies. That to discover God's truth is to encompass, to accept, truth upon truth until truth passes understanding.

And you say all this is contained in the little black book between us.

I can imagine nothing else that it might be. And now you know, said the soldier, why I fear to open it.

I never saw the soldier again after that night. I was called away for a few days to attend a sick friend, and when I returned to the Chinaman's Eye, I was told that the proprietor had left town. No, the bartender said, he did not know why or when he would be back. No one had even seen the soldier leave. But he had left something behind, on the table where we had spent so many nights, and I was welcome to keep it if it struck my fancy.

It was seven years before I returned to San Francisco. By that time, the Great Fire had struck; no trace of the saloon remained, nor anyone who remembered it. I could find no word of the the soldier, his wife, or the dusty Mexican prospector who had walked out of the desert carrying stories.

I sat down in a different saloon, placed the unopened book before me, and drank a glass of the cheapest mezcal. It was harsh and strong and it stung -- like life, I might have said; but a soldier who was not a poet would have laughed at that.

Last updated January 13, 2008.

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