Fantastic Metropolis

Out of the Canyon

Jeffrey Ford

Although many of my younger colleagues here at The Gazette do not feel it necessary to retain a sense of objectivity in their reporting, I still hold to the credo that my job is not to make the news but to relate it to the public. The following story was the first time I had to work hard not to speculate about the facts.

I was sent some years ago to do a piece on the murder of a co-ed at Preston University. It was a very tragic incident, but not one I expected would consume my time the way it has. What began with the body of a young woman, a seemingly straight forward case of unrequited love gone sinister, slowly opened outward like an ever expanding blossom of infinite petals.

The damn thing has still not stopped growing, for recently I have noticed I am being followed when I go out at night. My phone will ring and there will be no answer, just the sound of one vibrating note. Don’t ask me how I know, but I am certain it has to do with the Tooms case. All of this plus what I have already come to learn tells me it is time now to pluck the evil flower in hopes that it will begin to whither before it overtakes me. I present it to you as objectively as possible, and leave it to your own discernment to reach a conclusion as to its importance.

Tooms Canyon is a God-sized thumb gouge in the earth a hundred miles East of the Rockies and twenty-five miles North of the historic Horace/Griffin line. The declivity is steep and treacherous. Nothing grows therein — not a weed. In the mid-day sun the red rock and powder become like the walls of a furnace, and the rippling of the atmosphere caused by the rising heat has been known to conjure visions of paradise almost too intricate to be a mirage.

In the Western wall at the Southern entrance to the canyon lie the radioactive sulfur springs which, year after year, draw the weak, the lame and the terminally ill. Although some well-documented, remarkable cures have taken place at the springs since their healing powers were first discovered in 1860 by Elijah Tooms (visionary and animal carcass sculptor) the poor accommodations, the harsh sun, have made it one of the best kept secrets among miraculous environments.

When Tooms died in 1930, at the age of ninety, he had just completed a three hundred yard boardwalk that ran from the old stage trail to the cave in order to accommodate patients who would find walking in the deep red sand too exhausting. Although its hand rails are splintered and some of its planks staved in or missing, it is still very much in existence. It had been patched once in 1945 when the area was made part of a Federal preserve and then later in 1968 after the area lost its protected land status and was occupied by a commune of draft dodgers, ex-prostitutes and college drop-outs from Southern California.

In his day, Tooms frequently took out ads in the newspapers back East and in California to herald the amazing properties of the springs and to announce that the use of them was free, but only five known individuals visited the site in the time that he was its self-proclaimed proprietor. His diary attests to the full recovery of each of the patients. In fact, he, himself, bathed in the springs regularly and attributed his life-long vigor to this daily ritual.

To this day, standing sentry within the cave of the glowing, yellow-green waters, are those sculptures that Tooms created from the remains of animals he had either discovered dead in the canyon or had shot, himself. The idea of making them came to him after he ingested a certain red capped mushroom that appears along the upper rim of the canyon following a heavy rain. He was gazing at the sun-bleached skeleton of an armadillo when he envisioned it rising up into a two-legged stance. Instead of its own insignificant head, he saw the skull of a coyote balanced on its negligible neck. Its paws were now bird talons dried like beef jerky by the sun. It said, “Build me,” to him in the voice of the woman who had broken his heart and sent him West in search of his fortune.

Because so many of the cures have, in recent years, been verified and confirmed by scientific research, the religious community came to believe that there must be some part of God swirling in those strange pools. In 1970, Hawaiian pearl divers were hired by the Vatican to explore the depths of the Tooms Canyon Curative Springs. Hundreds of feet deep, at the phosphorescent heart of the magic, they found a book half buried in the snow drift sand. When it was brought to the surface, the experts discovered that even the ink had been completely preserved by the inherent chemistry of the waters. It was clear that what they had resurrected was Elijah Tooms’ own diary.

Hardly anyone noticed the story, a mere 150 words, which appeared in the Horace/Griffin Examiner of January 1st, 1971. It was reported that in an unusual show of generosity, the Vatican bequeathed the diary outright to J.T. Mortenson, the famous neo-Freudian fundamentalist critic. “Le Mort,” as he was known by those who feared him in the academic world, immediately took a sabbatical from his teaching duties in order to begin poring over the unusual find.

During that year off, the critic became estranged from his wife of twenty years. Lilian Mortenson was said to have told her friends that the book was the cause of all of their problems. She confided that he had become obsessed with it, not just the story, but the actual letters of the words, the ink that formed them and the paper they were written on, as if some grandiose secret lurked just below the surface of the physical object.

During the divorce proceedings, she had it put in the official record that Mortenson had begun to consult ancient texts of magic and could be seen in his study hopping on one foot and reciting things backwards. “The day he drew a big circle on the Persian carpet with chicken grease and sat at its center for eight hours, playing some viciously annoying little instrument, was the last straw,” she said. “After that I packed my bag and went to my sister’s place.” All Mortenson could say in his defense at the deposition was, “Time is of the essence,” and with this he lost the Mercedes and house to his wife.

The following year, when Mortenson returned to teaching at Preston University, his colleagues found him a changed man. Whereas Le Mort had always cut a trim, dagger-like figure, as seemingly deadly as his reputation for slashing the works of those who disagreed with his proto-sexual sublimation theory, he was now grossly overweight and perpetually reeking of tobacco. “His eyes were like the openings to deep dark pits,” said his department head, Joshua Hyde-Summers. “He was always clutching his brief case to his chest and darting looks over his shoulder. I found him in the hallway that runs beneath the Fine Arts building one night well after the last class had let out, lying on the floor in an alcove, staring blankly at the ceiling. On another occasion, he nervously confided to me that he was being stalked.”

In late October of that year the body of a female student was discovered in that very alcove, lying in a pool of blood. The autopsy confirmed that she had her throat slit by a sharp instrument, most likely a razor. Students reported having seen a tall, thin figure, either with a very large head or wearing a huge hat, lurking in the shadows of the campus at night. This was the center of the investigation for a short time before Mortenson’s colleague came forward with new information. Because of the location of the body, Hyde-Summers notified police as to Mortenson’s strange behavior. “I went with the officers to find him,” said the department head. “I knew he would be heading for his night class just then. We caught up with him as he entered the alley between the Chemistry and Physics towers. The policemen called to him and he ran. They gave chase, but never found him. It was as if he disappeared somewhere between those two structures.”

To this day, no one knows for certain what fate befell the enigmatic J.T. Mortenson, but a year after his disappearance, when the university was having his office cleared out, a young scholar by the name of Ned Dyson found photocopies of ten entries from the Tooms Diary. Without telling anyone, he removed them from the archive box and took them to his own office and then home after work. That night, he read them to his wife as they got progressively drunk on merlot.

It was Mrs. Dyson’s idea to burn the pages one by one over the sink. “Think of it,” she had said, and he stood by and laughed, watching Elijah Tooms’ words ripple into brown and disappear. The next morning he awoke with a terrible hangover and a recollection of ashes in the sink. He groaned, but his wife told him, “Don’t worry, I have it all inside me.”

Over the course of the next two years, the young man and his wife conducted hundreds of sessions of automatic writing. She claimed that a spirit named Thilliada would enter her while in the trance state and direct her hand to reproduce the exact words of Elijah Tooms. Since the penmanship that resulted from these sessions was often nearly illegible, professor Dyson would immediately take the pages from her and begin to translate them into readable script. What resulted from their work was, supposedly, a complete and true replication of the text of the diary.

Notwithstanding the fact that Meg Dyson was eventually committed to a mental institution for pyromania and having held long conversations with the crows in her backyard, the diary was believed to be, by the few notable Tooms scholars who were given a brief glimpse of it, an authentic replication of the original work. It revealed the every day mind of Tooms — the searing heat of the canyon, memories of an unrequited, youthful romance in the city, coyotes along the eastern rim at dusk, experiments with the red mushroom, the bone sculptures (or Osteomorphetes as Tooms referred to them), the visitors, the cures.

After his wife was committed, professor Dyson, having felt that the book was in some way responsible for unhinging her, burned the only extent copy in his kitchen sink while drinking two magnum bottles of merlot and ingesting his entire prescription of valium. He lies in a hospital bed now on perpetual life support wasted to the appearance of one of Tooms’ osteomorphetes with but a thin scrim of flesh. His last words to the 911 operator were, “I have done the unspeakable.”

Many mysteries swirl about Mortenson and the Tooms diary. In trying to sort them out, I went to visit Meg Dyson one morning at the State Mental Institution at Barkersville. At the time, Mrs. Dyson was sedated, but her mind seemed quite clear. She sat in a chair on the veranda, strapped down with restraints. I introduced myself and asked her if she could shed any light on the history of the diary. Over the course of the next two hours, she revealed to me one portion of Tooms’ life as she knew it from his writings. At times, she would close her eyes and quote verbatim from the text she had helped to reproduce, at other times she would gibber incomprehensibly. I can only now give you in narrative form what I had from her. The absolute truth must remain a distant, rippling mirage, a feverish heat dream of the canyon.

On a breathlessly cold Sunday night in the month of August, 1885, Thilliada Bass, then seventeen and suffering bi-yearly bouts of lust, which the specialists of the time had deemed hysterical in the extreme and her parish priest had chalked up to possession, stepped off the late stage coach and into the starlit desolation at the Southern mouth of the canyon. The lights in Elijah’s second story bedroom window guided her. Past giant cactus sentries, thorns and tumbleweed, she found the house the man had built with his own hands. He met her on the porch, holding a lit candle.

Tooms’ first impressions of the girl were recorded in his diary: It is shocking to see Miss Thilliada without her kerchief. I have never before seen a bald woman. She told me that her hair had fallen out due to the treatments she was subjected to by the therapists back in New York. Still, she is quite attractive and seems a gentle creature. I like that she speaks up and is not afraid of conversation.

For the first week of Miss Bass’ stay there were blue skies and cool temperatures. Tooms would escort her each morning to the springs for her treatment. Sometimes the sands would be too much for her, and he would have to carry her part of the way. She was light in my arms, he writes, like a large doll or some baggage stuffed with cotton balls. When they arrived at the entrance to the cave, he would place her gently on her feet. Then he would walk down further into the caves where they gave way to unexplored passages and chambers. Once he was out of sight, she would undress and slip into the waters of the springs.

While Thilliada let the chemistry of the pool leech into her trouble spots, Elijah was deep in the earth, sitting cross-legged in a chamber that had long ago been painted by the cave man whose skeletal remains lay in the dust strewn with flower petals thousands of years old. Tooms refers to this place in his diary as the ancient man’s grave. The wall paintings depicted the hunting of an upright, horned creature, who had left many men dead in its wake. Very lightly etched into the wall holding the scene was a spiral that encompassed the action, the center of which was the left eye of the beast.

She told him on the second day of her stay at the canyon that her mother had paid doctors to concoct her illness so that she could be sent away. It seems her mother was conducting an illicit affair with a very wealthy gentleman and did not want it ruined with Thilliada spying on her every move. “The spring will help that too,” Tooms had told her. In the evenings she would cook for him, elegant meals derived from the native flora and fauna: possum and potato stew, crow with lemon glaze. Tooms recorded some of the recipes in his diary.

Thilliada had been with Tooms for a little over a month when he wrote in, as he put it, “a trembling hand,” I have done the unspeakable and there is no turning back. In a troubled confession, taking up three closely written pages, Tooms revealed that early one Monday morning, he snuck a peek at Thilliada as she slipped, naked, into the spring. I saw it all, and I ran down into the cave. In my fit of debauchery, I felt licence to snatch up the bones of the ancient man and work them over thoroughly.

In the privacy of a small shack that stood a hundred yards behind the house, Tooms assembled the ancient man’s bones, giving him a cow skull and the shins of an ass. He lacquered and drilled and pounded for hours at a time, and Thilliada wanted to know what he was making. “When it’s finished,” Tooms told her. He confessed in his writings that he must lower his gaze in her company now. After dinner one night, as he was about to take his plate to the sink, he found a note beneath it, on the place mat. “I saw you looking,” it said. He shoved the note in his pocket and left the kitchen.

As the days passed, she never mentioned the note nor gave any sign that there was some secret between them. Instead she spoke at great length about the current theories that there was a lost continent populated by exotic flying people at the center of the earth and that the entrance to this land was at the North Pole. “I don’t see it,” Tooms admitted to her, and she laughed at him for his lack of sophistication. Every day her excitement about seeing his latest sculpture grew, and he admitted how this fired his desire for completion.

Then came the torrential rains. Both Tooms and Thilliada stayed inside for two days for fear of flash floods and mud slides. She read a book about famous castaways, and he sat by the fireplace, playing his jaw harp. He recorded on the second night, as lightning and thunder ripped through the canyon, how it was the first time he noticed that Thilliada’s scalp had begun to sprout a dark fuzz. The next morning the rains had vanished and so, mysteriously, had his jaw harp.

On the following day, as much as he attested to wanting to spend time working on his pile of bones, he left the house early and went exploring for mushrooms up on the rim of the canyon. It was a quarter of a day’s journey, but before he went, he saw Thilliada to the spring. The harder the rain, the more magnificent the crop, he wrote. He knew he had to eat the hallucinogen right on the spot or its properties would diminish, so he searched long and hard for the most succulent disk.

He reported that at noon he found a most pleasing specimen and sat down with his back against a boulder to nibble on it. Its meat is soft and sweet like chewy confection, he said of the mushroom. When he was finished, he swallowed half the contents of his canteen, and, immediately, brilliant colors shot across the sky. A crow on the other side of the canyon called to him something about the ancient man’s bones. Then, from out of thin air, ten feet past the rim, he was approached by a figure with horns. It came out of a cloud, playing my jaw harp. The rest was vague, but I remember the creature whispering in my ear, and it sounded like wind in the canyon. Then I nodded in agreement. With this the entry ended.

Tooms again picked up his pen three days later in order to record the afternoon on which he revealed the sculpture to Thilliada. We stood out behind my work shack beneath an overcast sky. The weather was exceptionally cool for the canyon at that time of day. She wore a loose blowing dress with a colorful pattern of daisies, and her green eyes appeared lit from within with excitement. The work stood before us draped in an old sheet, and I told Miss Thilliada, “I call it Ogatai — a name the vultures screamed to me when I journeyed along the rim.” She clapped her hands like a child.

The sculpture Tooms referred to is still in existence to this day. It stands alongside the old boardwalk at precisely the halfway point to the springs. The cow skull is tilted back slightly as if the thing is watching the movement of the clouds, and its left hand is thrust out, palm up, proffering payment. The workmen who replaced some of the timbers and planks back in ‘45 testified to being haunted for many years by the statue’s diabolical grin. Some members of the ‘68 commune recall that the thing was known as ‘Thief,’ because occasionally they would wake in the morning and find it draped with their jewelry and holding in its right hand the straight razor that was passed around by the men for shaving.

Thilliada was so impressed, she threw her arms around Elijah and kissed him. When she touched me, he wrote, I could hear the canyon groan and the lizards leaping out of the water pail next to the well. She led him back to the house, and, as he put it: We had a feverish assignation on the kitchen floor. Later, in the parlor, she showed me something new. They eventually fell asleep and Tooms had a nightmare of Ogatai creeping through the darkened house.

She was still sleeping soundly when Tooms woke late in the night. He got up and immediately got dressed. The moon was in the open window, he wrote. It was so cold there was frost. He went downstairs and got his rifle from over the fireplace. As quietly as possible, he slipped out the front door and headed for the canyon. I trembled, and though it was cold, the sweat ran into my eyes and poured down my back. My very heart was chilled.

I came across him exactly where I had been told he would be, standing in the dried out streambed a hundred feet South of Fat Rock. He was clutching a leather satchel of some kind and wearing a brown suit that shone sickly in the moonlight. A heavy man, not likeable at first glance.

Upon seeing Tooms, the man called out, “Where are we?”

“The Canyon,” Tooms told him.

The man spluttered nervously, telling Tooms, “I know this much — it has something to do with the intersection of Fate and Desire.”

“Stop talking nonsense,” said Tooms as he brought the rifle up to aim.

I hesitated, watching him hold his satchel up to protect his head. He called out for his mother. Then I heard one note, the twang of the jaw harp, and with this, I fired a bullet into his heart. The stranger died immediately. Tooms went to inspect the body, but… Before I could lean over to check the wound, Ogatai was there in a starry whirl, holding the corpse over his shoulder. I carried the satchel and we headed for the springs. The osteomorphete creaked horridly along behind me, and I could hear it breathing.

Tooms and his weird companion deposited the dead man’s clothing, his satchel and the book it contained into the springs. Enormous bubbles rose as if the waters were belching. Then they proceeded down into the caves, to the chamber that had held the ancient man’s bones. They carefully laid the body out and covered him with the leatherized petals of pre-history. Out on the desert sand, I watched Ogatai dance in the moonlight, writes Elijah. When the morning came, I was alone in bed.

Thilliada Bass left the canyon a week later on the evening stage. Tooms never recorded his feelings about the departure. All he wrote was, She left behind for me her book of castaways, and I read it ragged as if it was the Bible. Two months later, he received a letter from her in which she stated that her mother had forced her into an arranged marriage with a young banker named Reginald Mortenson and that she was due to have a child before the year was out.

This was all I got out of Mrs. Dyson before she again reverted to complete gibberish. I thought I had taxed the poor woman enough for one day, so I called for the attendant to come and take her back to her room. When the young man arrived with a wheel chair, Mrs. Dyson became suddenly lucid again and asked me, “Why do you want to know all of this?”

I told her I was writing an article on it for a newspaper.

She started to laugh, and said, “If you’re smart, when you are done writing it, you’ll burn it. Don’t give it a chance to keep growing.”

I assured her I would consider her suggestion.

“No you won’t,” she said, and with this, the attendant wheeled her away.

There is one final article of evidence pertaining to this story that might help you to decide what it all means. Near the end of his life, after nailing the last plank onto the boardwalk, Tooms stopped writing in his diary, because, as he told Thilliada (by then the widow Mortenson) in a letter, the book was stolen. That missive had apparently been folded once by the old woman and hidden away in a copy of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. A few years ago the volume of Poe and the letter were discovered among the volumes of her grandson’s, J.T. Mortenson’s, library when his ex-wife sold the entire collection to the archives of Preston University for a tidy sum. The following is an exact transcription of Tooms’ only remaining words.

Dear Thilliada:

Not a day has gone by that I have not thought of you. Although I resolved long ago not to interfere with your life, things have changed now that death is close at hand. I was awakened from a dream of you and I the other night by the sound of something moving in my house. At first, because of my dream, I hoped it might be you, returning. Then, as I came fully awake, I thought it must be a strong wind blowing out of the canyon. As I listened more intently, though, I heard a distinctive creaking like a great wheel of bones endlessly turning and the labored breathing of a creature trapped by Time. The next morning, I discovered that my diary had vanished and in it’s place I found my old jaw harp. Back in the days when your youthful beauty graced the waters of the spring, I gave away everything to love you for a few brief hours. Now I know that what I agreed to set in motion will never end. So, I send these words to you from out of the spiraling canyon, and beg that you protect them from the flames. — Elijah

Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Ford.