When Rex Belknap quit his wife and their assorted little Belknaps, it was another woman who beckoned him away. Strange how some men seem to play out the whole of their lives in the laps of women, leaping from apron to apron only to lose themselves again in the ruffles. Ah, but stay your judgement until you hear. For it was not some glossy jetsam washed up on his shore, not a Mary Flirt, the mermaid, come with siren song and hips ashimmer to win his heart. It was old Gramma Belknap, long dead, long lamented, now swum up from his memory. A Joan of Arc, a Florence Chadwick, she crawled her way into his imagination, recaptured it, and from there besieged his soul. And the white sea unfurled in ruffles all around.
Long had she held sway over his spirit, since those tender days when he was a bouncy lump astride her knee knob. To a child all comings and goings are by magic, and to little Rex all movement was in Gramma Belknap. Wondrous Gramma! She could catch his breath in her knotty old fist and hold it just right to his ear for him to hear it rushing off. She could daub his spittle on a willow leaf and read the weirdness there of what was sure to come. She could take his bare foot and nail to it, with invisible nails, invisible horseshoes that made him fit to outrun nightmares through the valley-glades of dreamland. But still more wondrous, her master trick of quiet: the way she had them hold their silence together — she between creaks in her rocker, he between heartbeats on the ottoman — the deep-bellied hush enclosing them, no betweenness intervening.
And yet perhaps not so very much as this, perhaps even very much less so. For memory tends to candy an apple of the eye. Swum up, as she had, from nostalgia, Gramma Belknap glistened with a sugary glaze that hid her blemishes. Forgotten was her sour breath when something indescribable had rotted in her dentures; forgotten, too, her sour temper that time little Rex had set free the miniature bluebird that had perched on the ceramic hand of her St. Francis statuette. In saintly perfection, she shone like a polished golden apple, reflecting Rex’s soul. To his eye it seemed small and stiff and flightless.
Suddenly his life seemed stale and vain to him. Nothing would do but for him to take up the quest for wisdom. And so he kissed the assorted little Belknaps, who hid in the folds of their mother’s skirt, and kissed her, too, a farewell kiss. At the door, she tucked into his hand a final gift — a dozen hard-boiled eggs in a paper sack.
Far and wide Rex wandered and wherever the spirit listed he wended, leaving at every turn a sprinkle of shell shards. At the time of the twelfth egg, he found himself deep in the forest beside an outcropping of granite, an old gray slab of rock whose slanted face made it seem aloof from the greening, browning world around.
Such primal taciturnity, thought Rex of the rock, and after all it’s heard — the roar of the victor, the bleat of the victim, and all the echoes thereof ten thousand times over. Surely, I’ve fallen in with good company. Surely, a revelation is in the offing.
Thinking thus and feeling very right and clean about everything, he cracked his last egg on the granite and fasted on the white, tossing aside the yoke, which he deemed an unclean food. Lying there in the dirt, the little yellow ball soon swarmed with hungry black ants. And soon black beetles with horny mandibles came and ate up the ants. And soon blackbirds swept down and ate up the beetles.
Ugh! thought Rex of the sight. What a disgusting world it is! It’s encircled with a long bread line of backbiters. From egg to bird in one word — munch! Jaws, teeth, chops, beaks — munch, chew, munch, chew, munch! Gad, but I ache for a snatch of quiet amid the grating racket of it.
And thinking thus, Rex spat out the last of the white of his last egg and vowed that he had had done altogether with this noise of eating.
But of course Rex’s belly hadn’t. It became dyspeptic. On the first day of the fast it quibbled, the second it grumbled, the third it fairly snarled, and on the fourth it growled loudly.
“Hush up there, you greedy gut, you twisted tempter!” Rex growled back. “What a waster of everything living you are. Of green leaves and yellow fruit and red meat you partake, and what do you make of it all? Dung. Shoo! Well, let’s see what you make of nothing.”
But of course there wasn’t nothing for his belly to eat; there was plenty of Rex to be had. And so it began — his own belly — to devour him. On the fifth day it put away his sense of humor, the sixth it gobbled up his sense of proportion, and the seventh it gulped down his sense of balance. Rex collapsed in a swoon on the ground. Then he heard a voice — a still small voice — soothing, smooth, and wholesome, and it was Gramma’s, telling an old story:
“On the third day of Creation, the Lord spoke the Let-there-be that divided the earth from the seas and the Let-there-be that made grass and herbs and fruit. But between the two, He stopped to consider His work and a deep silence fell across the face of the earth. It was then that rock came forth. It came forth of its own power and it alone of all things was not spoken into being by the Creator. Listen to rock if you want to hear that deep silence.”
Of course, thought Rex. Of all things rock alone neither eats nor is eaten. Well, except by lichens. But they hardly count for anything — just fungus and algae. And besides, they’re very, very quiet about it.
He put his ear to the gray slab of granite and felt its hardness cool against his cheek. He listened long for the silence and by and by it spoke to him. “M’m’le, m’m’le,” it mumbled, no louder than a gagged mite.
With a piece of flint he found nearby, Rex bored into the granite, chipping and grinding away until he had opened up a mouth in it. Then it made a sound very much like that of an old man clearing his throat: “Ka-tharh!”
“Was that you, rock?” Rex said.
“Yes,” it said.
Rex bowed in reverence and said, “I’ve come to hear your wisdom, thou uncaused one.”
“Sure thing,” said the rock. “But first why don’t you go get yourself a nice big hot breakfast.”
Buried deep in the forest away from the clamor of humankind, Rex could believe that history had stopped. No such a thing of course. Just as likely that the world ceases to exist every time a child somewhere closes its eyes. Whether Rex heard it or not, the clock of history was ticking on as usual, albeit the pendulum had swung in a decidedly tock direction.
“ECONOMIC RUIN,” read headlines across the globe. Obituaries daily carried lists of disconsolate speculators fished out of the East River, the Seine, the Sumida, the Euphrates. Lead photos showed angry mobs in this capital or that burning effigies stuffed with worthless francs, marks, pounds, lira, pesos, or rupees.
Folks were beginning to doubt that the pendulum would ever go tickward again. They were fast losing faith in that great timepiece, which is driven by a mainspring of vitality and regulated by the oscillations between want and plenty, between ill and good. They needed reassurance that the escapement hadn’t stuck on its pivot. They sought a tick predictor.
What was required for one of these seekers to happen on Rex in his retreat? One very bad sense of direction, two good feet, and one dozen hard-boiled eggs. What happened when one of them happened on him there? Rex ran him off with a forked stick.
“Municipal bonds! Mutual funds! Barley futures!” he shouted after him. “You think I quit wife and family and came out here into the forest so I could become a personal financial advisor? Huh?”
“What was that all about?” the granite slab wanted to know after things had quieted down.
“Investments!” Rex made the word sound as if it had ringworm.
“So what did you tell him?” said the rock. “If it’d been me, I’d’ve said copper. Copper is a sure bet these days.”
“You — you’re interested in business — filthy-lucre, unrighteous-mammon business?”
“Why not? It makes the world go round, doesn’t it? I tell you, you keep your ear to the ground a few thousand years and you begin to catch on. Economics — what rhythms! Look, if that young man comes back tomorrow, tell him copper. That’s a sure bet.”
He did cautiously and Rex did reluctantly and copper was unquestionably: in the first week it doubled in value. The young man returned, wearing a new sharkskin suit, and gingerly dumped a heap of money at the slab before Rex could have at him with a forked stick. A wind scattered the green bills among the brown leaves. Rex snickered.
“I wouldn’t let that dough get away if I were you,” said the rock.
“Why? It’s just money,” he said.
“Try thinking of it as food and shoes, as grocers and cobblers getting a slice of the pie.”
Rex frowned. “I’d rather not think of it at all.”
“Look,” said the rock, “I don’t mean to take liberties. Ours is a business relationship. But I think it’s about time you considered the little woman you left behind and those little Belknaps. I bet they could do with some shoes and food. Don’t you?”
Good news travels fast; good financial news arrives yesterday before the milk. Pretty soon Wall Street had beaten a track to Rex and his rock. The big names of investment gathered in the forest like Methodists at an old-time camp meeting. Dow Jones and his boys filled the amen corner. Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith overflowed the pews. And E.F. Hutton kneeled to receive the good word.
And a dozen eggs away, assorted little Belknaps, shod in Nikes, padded across Karastan rugs on their way to Delmonico steak sandwiches.
“Alas!” Rex sighed.
“What’s eating you?” asked the rock. “We’re doing pretty well for ourselves, aren’t we?”
“But, rock, I came to you for wisdom.”
“So? You think maybe John Kenneth Galbraith is wiser?”
“Well, but stocks and bonds — it’s all so — I don’t know — so very much of the earth.”
“You got some place better place to look for wisdom?”
Rex cupped his hand and stared at it wistfully.
“Okay, okay, I get the point, Rex. We’re talking economic cycles and you’re looking for a still point in the universe, right? But what’s a cycle except amplitude and frequency playing with a straight line? It can all be summed up in one algebraic expression. Voila! there’s your still point. Besides, you’re helping lots of folks — little guys, too, cobblers and grocers, with little wives and little kids.”
Rex was eating regularly now; the rock insisted on it. Every day three chefs, all albinos with white mustaches, showed up to cater his special diet. For breakfast there were poached egg whites, slices of bleached bread trimmed of their crusts, and a glass of milk; for dinner, boned chicken breasts, boiled cauliflower, polished rice, angel food cake, and two glasses of milk. Before long a fold of fat had gathered on his white belly.
For all this, Rex was finding his duties less and less digestible. It wasn’t just investment counseling anymore; the rock had expanded its operations. Think tanks of every stripe sent agents to glean marketable tidbits about the future. Politicians came to plot campaign strategies against their opponents. South American generals swaggered in, gold medals a-jangling on their swollen chests, and demanded advice on staging coups. The rock answered them all without prejudice and it fell to Rex to deliver the dark words of counsel. Sometimes he hissed them through his teeth and sometimes he snarled them through his nose. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if they were words of doom.
“Buck up there, bucko,” the rock said. “Look at it this way: for the first time in your life you’re really having an effect. There’s hardly anything going on in the world that we’re not a part of — you-me, us partners, ol’ buddy.”
Munch, chew, munch! thought Rex.
Chance has a way of effecting change when it is wanted but is delayed in coming. In the case of Mr. Guatama, it was chance that put the old man, the sick man, the dead man, and the monk before him on the road he happened to travel. In the case of Mr. Belknap, the very same agent messed with his morning egg.
Somehow the albino chef was seized by a creative impulse and decided to fry the white for a change; somehow the pan got too hot and the egg drew up. When his breakfast was served, Rex immediately noticed that it resembled a gathered apron. As he stared at the crinkled edge, which, to his visionary eye, looked like ruffles on a hem, guilt and anger tugged his heart.
“What have you done to me, you bond mongers and potentates?” he bellowed. “Look how you’ve used me, you Philistines and filibusterers! Woe unto you, for judgment has come upon you as a tongue of lightning! Behold how I skewer and burn the iniquitous!” And thus saying, he fetched a forked stick.
Blue jays shrieked at the panic of the fleeing. Squirrels scampered up trees with executives close behind, who shinnied like schoolboys. Only a South American general stood his ground, brandishing a ceremonial sword. One poke from the forked stick, however, put him at the head of the scattering army.
“I hope you’re pleased with yourself,” the rock said after the wildlife had simmered down. “That holy tantrum of yours cost you a bundle.”
“Just so,” Rex said, the heat of battle still flushing his face. “Before, I left a wife and a few children; just now I chased off about a hundred. Before, I gave up a mortgaged home; today I’ve given up millions. I’ve never felt better.”
“Boy, oh, boy, it’s a potlatch masochist I got mixed up with this time!”
“Say what you will, but it’s a wicked world and I refuse to participate.”
“Still haven’t caught on, huh, buddy boy? There’s no quitting the world until the big hand and the little hand come together on the last hour. Fast away, fast your heart out; you still have the smell of blood on you and something out there smells it and crouches. If there is original sin, that’s it. Mama implicated you when she gave you suck.”
“Enough of your jive, and no tricks either. I’m on to you,” he said and poked the butt of the stick into the mouth of the rock. “Wisdom! Gimme! Now!”
“Gag a’mighty,” said the rock. “Okay, okay. But don’t limit my expression. Maybe tricks are all I have.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Cock an ear to this. I guarantee a revelation.”
Rex listened but heard nothing. His holy wrath was abating and he was tired, but he refused to sit lest the snapping of a twig should spoil a whispered intimation. So he leaned against his stick, resting his arm in the crotch of the fork and his head on the supported shoulder.
“Pee-yoo!” came the voice from Rex’s armpit. It spoke now from the wood of the stick under him. There was no mistaking it. “You saints are a dying breed as I may testify from smelling your rottenness here.”
Aghast, Rex threw the stick aside. At just that moment, a grubworm was crawling past, a blind albino larva, and the stick fell on it and squashed it flat.
“Oof! I am slain,” said the same voice, now from the grubworm. “Rex, my partner, my friend, I beg you, lean near and hear my final words.”
To him a grubworm was an unsightly thing and this one especially so since it was squashed and oozing. Nonetheless, Rex knelt and put his ear close to it.
“Oh, thank you,” said the dying grubworm. “Thanks my friend. Now hear me. I know my body’s all so white, but please, please, don’t eat me.”
“Another trick!” Rex cried. He battered the grubworm with his stick until it was thoroughly mingled with the earth. Now the voice came out all around him, from rocks and trees, from blue jays and squirrels, even from the ground itself. And it was laughing at him.
“How can this be?” he wondered aloud. “The voice is in everything. Or, hey, maybe it’s just in me.” Indeed, Gramma had once said something very much to the point.
When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit that gave them the knowledge of good and evil, she had told Rex, that wasn’t the end of the serpent’s trickery. Oh, no, for no sooner had they bitten into the fruit than the evil one transformed himself into a worm and hid in the fruit — in the half of course that had to do with evil. Once inside their mouths in little chewed up bits, he pulled himself together and crawled up their eustachian tubes to their inner ears. There he infested the cochlea of each ear, the coiled chamber where vibrations become the sound one hears. He’s there in us, too, where, unseen, he can whisper temptations and turn the best wishes of friends into the threats of enemies.
Rex jabbed at his own ears with a forked stick. “Out of there you tempter! Come out and face me, you worm in snail’s clothing!”
“Your wish is my command, captain,” the voice answered. “Unfortunately, we are inextricably bound together, you and I. Sorry, I can’t leave my post. Respectfully, I must refuse to comply.”
“You parasite! You diner on my good intentions!”
“Is that behaving like a good host? Micro-organisms line your intestines. They eat what you eat and thereby feed you. I do the same except that I add a dash of seasoning.”
“No, a heap of evil, you evil one.”
“Don’t soften me with sobriquets, okay? I prefer to say that I savor life, that I relish the round and rush of living. I have no love for stagnant Eden, I freely admit, nor for the saintly pretensions that negate hunger and refuse lust. I’m a sharpie, a prickler, the genius of itch. Even the indolent dead will sneeze, given a pinch of my snuff.”
Rex slammed his palms against his ears. “If the right eye offend thee, pluck it out,” he pronounced.
“And I shall set thy left to leer. Face it, honey, my lifelong love: there’s no divorce that can sever me from you. We stick.”
“Liar! There’s one whose hem you never stained, whose apron strings you were not worthy to loose with fudgy fingers. She can undo you. And will! Come, Gramma Belknap, come.”
As if from heaven’s swollen udder suddenly unstopped, a Milky Way of lactic fluids flooded down and floated Rex, like Noah in the ark, to the top of a slab of rock, his Ararat. From there he witnessed Gramma in frothy mist, spiraling like grace, turning from crawl to backstroke like Esther Williams in “Million Dollar Mermaid.” Hovering now above the waters, she drew out two tenuous rivulets and tied them about her hips in a crispy bow and smoothed the billows flat across her lap. Rex in reverence genuflected and fell astride the mossy rock.
“What’s the trouble, little boy?” she said. “Did your nightmare ride you down?”
“Gramma, it’s the vermin of my inner ear,” he answered. “He’s been playing tricks and saying things.”
“Against me?” She ruffled in a surf.
“Horrors, no! or I would’ve gouged him out myself. It’s the silence of the rock I seek. But this wily snake would tongue me back into the daily grind of teeth.”
“Herpetectomy — that’s my prescription. Cut the creeper out, my lad. Got a flint? Good. Make ready. Lie there still and don’t you scream. Happily, I know the line dividing good from evil. A fine excision will worm him out.”
The flint rose in her knotty fist, climbed high, and fell in fiery sparks towards his bare, unguarded ear. But just a hair away from home, another gnarled hand caught the plunge and stopped it.
“Enough of this morality play and these silly mock heroics! You drooling fool, you’d really let her burst your brains in the name of goodness, wouldn’t you?”
Second thoughts, it sounded like to Rex. Then he turned and saw a second Gramma and she as Belknap as the first though slightly jaundiced. Either way the struggle went between the two, it looked like attempted suicide.
“Gramma? Gramma? Which is who?”
“Both,” said the one with a wicked left jab. Now she scored with a right cross to the jaw that unmouthed a set of pearly white dentures. “But I’m the part you forgot all about, you sniveling little snot.”
“Listen to her,” said the voice inside his ear. “She speaks the truth though, admittedly, derogatorily.”
“Thanks, Slick,” the same Gramma continued while she bit, scratched, gouged the other. “As you cast me in a mold and robbed me of my natural vigor, which in old age I displayed in peevish feistiness, so now you’d do unto yourself. Both are wrong, you stupid poot. What good is salt without savor? What good is a tree without sap? The tree will wither and bland salt will replace its living fiber and it will turn to senseless stone.”
“Then how come you told me the story about the evil worm inside my ear?”
“To keep you away from my porcelain collection, you shiftless shit.” The breath from her foul mouth curdled the apron of her adversary.
That one, the Gramma Belknap whom he remembered better, had been giving tit for tat to the other, even slipping in a rabbit punch when Rex looked away. But when she saw him confounded by these words, she took a dive and hollered holy help.
“Ow! You see what tricks the tempter conjures now?” she said. “A formless wind buffets me and yet you talk to it and seem to see my very image. Ow! Seeming — that’s the germ of evil. How it infects your every sense, my cherished dear. Ow! There’s no hope for either of us unless you take the cure. Oooh!”
“The flint,” he said, “here it is.”
“No good. I haven’t the strength. I need your breath. Quick, come, breathe it into my lips. In the kiss of life I’ll suck that evil bugger out of you and save us both. Purified, you’ll hear the silence after all. Did I ever lie to you?”
Indeed, he couldn’t recall a time when he’d caught her at it. And so, despite the noisy protests in his ear, he put his lips to hers and gave his breath.
What she said was so. He felt the tempter struggling in his throat as it was vacuumed out. It tickled him right to the brink of a cough. For a brief moment, the sensation had him expecting that ecstasy was on its way. But then all desire — even the deepest, his longing for the wisdom of silence — abandoned him as well.
Someday it may come to you, the call to the quest, delivered to your doorstep by some antediluvian figure from your childhood, someone calling across the flood of years, spuming in what have become stagnant waters. Heed the call if you would, boil a dozen eggs and travel where the spirit lists, make the acquaintance of a rock and listen to it. But beware lest the tempter of your inner ear should hatch out and draw you back toward humanity.
And please, while you’re there, observe the rules of the forest: Don’t disturb the animals while they’re feeding. Don’t scatter the shell shards all about. And if you see a second rock nearby, this one not stately and erect like the first but sadly slumping like a man petrified in listlessness, please DO NOT DISTURB. Judgment may be coming soon, but until then, until the pendulum makes its final sweep and the hands come together on the last hour, the lichens have their work to do.