Jerry pulls back the throttle and squints through the window of the cockpit at the little abandoned village below.
“Silent Valley,” he says in a voice-over style like in the promotional videos. The quietest place in the Western Hemisphere.”
The huts built by the scientists who studied the mountain movement barely stand anymore. The wrinkles deepen around Jerry’s eyes, and creep out past his sunglasses as he tightens his gaze on what is left.
“Where quiet is all you’ll hear,” Jerry continues in the suede-like voice of the videos my father made to sell Silent Valley real estate.
He knows me. Or he knows who he thinks I am. Like so many others, Jerry holds me captive in the fiefdom of his imagination.
Jerry nods at the dilapidated cabins. “Even the brainiacs couldn’t figure out what the hell is going on down there.”
I train my binoculars on the outpost below. I feign interest until we fly over them. Then I close my eyes and lean back, hoping that Jerry will mistake this for sleep. Just when I think he has he says, “Holy hell. Check that out, Madison. Even your family’s place is gone. It was here the last time I choppered in … well … one of Indizara’s people.”
He knows me for sure. Knows about the first-of-its-kind wedding I had planned, knows that Dad’s fortune was going to pay for it.
Whenever I’d come to believe my malign fame had run its course, like some kind of illness, a stranger made a point to tell me he knew me. It happens even now as I sit in the chilly vehicle of my escape with a guy who smells like Irish Spring.
That feeling returns—the one I wouldn’t have thought possible before all this. It’s like I’m paralyzed, while my blood has turned to fire. Then I remember Indizara’s admonishment: “Anxiety can be quieted if you focus on the Convergence. Seize on it hard and the most untamable fear will grow silent.” I do and it does.
It helps to imagine Indizara waiting for me in person—the real thing, not words on a screen. And it helps that that I can see that the West Mountain—the one we used to call “Mae” when I was a kid—has not only subsumed much of my family’s compound, but taken with it much of the pine-crammed forest that ringed the estate. Mae, in her slow, unstoppable slide, has crushed and disappeared everything in her way. I survey her path of consumption with my binoculars. Gone are the guesthouse, the main house, the stables, the studio my mother built when she went through her artist phase. In place of all of it is Mae, sitting serene and triumphant with her crown-like peaks and charcoal skin.
“I swear she’s moving faster by the day. Last time I could see the clearing where the wedding of the century was to be held,” Jerry smiles.
I tighten my body and block out the mention of the wedding.
“Technically, no,” I say. “There’s been no speed up for any of the mountains. They’re just coming for the heart of—”
“Everything your old man built.”
Now I want to say something eviscerating back, but what is there to say? First rule of coerced fame: The non-stranger always wins.
WestSouthNorthEast, I say to myself. This is the order it will happen in. The mountains that ring Silent Valley are converging. Eventually, the edges of West, South, North, East mountains will meet and knit together, leaving only a small aperture of what was Silent Valley.
We dip down and I can see the encroachment of South Mountain has broken the main road in two. Its eastern flank now sits on the road making it impassible and cutting off the main artery into town.
The landing strip that cuts through a yellow field comes into view and Jerry leans into the throttle. We go a little lower, and I can make out Indizara’s dark shape—a slice of face clouded by long dark hair—sitting in the driver’s seat of a white pickup truck.
I have never met him in person. I have only known him from his emails, which are meandering and beautiful. He wrote of the ultimate detachment, the final freedom that we would achieve in the Convergence.
The Convergence: A return to the mountain mothers who were coming back for us if only we could recognize it. Indizara had said that the mountains spoke to him and that they were calling for me—the first daughter of Silent Valley—to return home, and that only this could make the Convergence complete.
I lived for Indizara’s emails. If too long a time went by without one, I would call in Dad’s IT person to make sure my computer and my Wi-Fi were in good working order. Dad would get angry because I was taking work time away from an employee when business was just starting to bounce back after the plans for my one-of-a-kind wedding went viral.
The public hatred not only hurt business, it tore away all privacy, so that everyone knew that Mom had powder blonde highlights put in her hair once a month and Dad had a mistress—a pre-school teacher who favored colorful frocks.
The chopper blades slow and for a moment I feel a sense of panic. We land and they thwok, churning dust and then they go quiet. It’s no longer the ether-talk of online chatter. It’s all real now, as real as Indizara opening the truck door and swinging his skinny legs out of it. I consider staying right where I am until Jerry leans across and opens the door for me and I see Indizara approach. He spreads out his arms and says “WestSouthNorthEast.” His mouth breaks into a warm smile while his eyes lock on mine. I run toward him.
Indizara is skinnier than I imagined. When he hugs me I feel his ribs mash against my breasts. The slash of the blades builds again and the wind they generate forces me closer to him.
We watch the chopper rise up and head back. I try to remind myself that the poor dimwit of a pilot who spent most of his life in the military, was probably psychologically scarred. Really, the only difference between him and me is that I recognize a way out when I see one. That, and the mountains never called for him the way they did for me. Indizara never called for him. Indizara pulls me closer and I am no longer angry at Jerry.
Indizara leads me back to the truck. The hems of his low-slung jeans raise dust from the stubble. He gets in the car, and I slide in on the passenger side. He turns the key and the truck sputters to life.
When he sees me grab for a seatbelt that has been sliced in two he smiles. “We know we won’t go before the Convergence, and besides we’re the only car on the road these days.” He is fifty-four years old, and his face is as smooth as quartz.
As we head out of the field, I turn the handle to roll up the window and notice that there is no window. Just as I start to feel relieved that Indizara doesn’t seem to see he says, “It’s an old truck.”
The quiet is even thicker with the mountains moving together and all I can hear is the clatter of the truck and the squeak when Indizara taps the brake. We pass a sign that says “Downtown Silent Valley 15 Miles” with “Silent Valley” crossed out and replaced by “Sinagrais,” the original name of the valley. It’s a word I remember my parents saying when I was a kid.
Up ahead, South mountain intersects with the road, making a dead-end. I expect Indizara to slow down, but he does the opposite. He speeds up toward the mountain wall. He drives so fast that the cold air blowing in through the window frame turns my face numb. I open my mouth to say “Indizara,” but his name chokes in my throat. I feel like everything in me has turned to liquid and wants to escape. Then, in what has to be the last possible second, he jams on the brakes and the screech is so loud that it makes me scream. We skid toward the mountain, the truck fishtailing out, and stop within inches of it. The truck is parallel to the rock wall so that I would have taken the initial hit if we had smashed into it.
Indizara starts laughing and it sounds surprisingly girlish, high-pitched like my own giggle sounded once when I was in school and the one laughing. He rubs the back of his hand against my face and it comes away wet with tears, which he licks off and then laughs again.
“Saltiest tears, sweetest heart,” he says.
He keeps laughing and presses his eyes with his fingers.
When he can finally talk again he says: “The humor comes with the faith.”
“1139” is spray-painted on the rock wall. The day of Convergence; one-thousand one-hundred and thirty-nine days after the first movement of the mountains was detected.
Indizara points to the numbers and says “We know we won’t go before then and soon you will too. Know it andbelieve it.” He drills his finger so hard into my chest that I wince.
I keep crying and Indizara pulls me toward him. I remember how it felt when my one-time fiancé held me. He was skinny like Indizara, but more muscular from running endurance races.
“Look straight ahead,” Indizara says and points out toward where South Mountain has crushed a copse of maple trees. Their trunks are under the mountain’s rim and their leafy heads poke out and press against the trunks in front of them that have been felled by their weight. Collapsed together, their red and orange leaves look like a contained fire.
Indizara pulls me closer to him and says “Have you even seen anything so beautiful?”
I think back to my ski trips to Switzerland, the Kenyan safari we went on for my sixteenth birthday, the summers sailing on the Mediterranean, and I realize I haven’t. I feel something release in me and now I get why Indizara did what he did.
He shifts the truck into gear and circles the downed trees and we begin to make our way around the mountain to pick up the other end of the road. There is barely a path around and there are times when Indizara has to slow down to pass bumpy terrain or avoid getting stuck in mud.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“To the Colonel’s,” he answers.
“The Colonel’s?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s going to be finger-licking good, baby, you’ll see.”
He starts up with that girlish laugh again and I laugh along this time, not caring that I don’t know why.
When the road finally comes into view again, dusk is falling, and my stomach is trembling from all the bouncing around we’ve done in the truck. We pass by the empty boutiques and restaurants that made up the downtown of Silent Valley.
The Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket whirling on a pole breaks through the horizon. It still spins because of the work of my father who had generators and underground diesel reserves installed throughout Silent Valley. I would have thought the fuel would have run out by now. For a moment I feel a twinge of sadness for Dad.
I think it’s been three weeks since I’ve been at the KFC. I gauge time in bigger chunks now—by the passing of each night, not according to an hourly schedule. For a while I kept track by noting each morning on a receipt roll that I used as a journal, but lately that’s started to seem pointless. I do know that I haven’t been here long enough for the smell of old fog that emanates from my mattress and mixes with the odor of frying grease to stop making my stomach flip.
Most of the time we are in the parking lot of the KFC, each of us sitting on our own mattress around a fire that Indizara keeps going for warmth. The mattresses are thin and stamped with “Property of US Army.” Only when Indizara wants to have sex with me or one of the other women do we linger inside for any length of time.
It was after one of these sessions with Indizara that I found a rose-scented soap in the KFC bathroom. It was carved into the shape of a rose and its petals were edged with dirt that I chipped off. I take it out of my pocket now and hold it up to my nose. A cheap odor of fake roses tickles my nostrils. I would have been disgusted by the smell in my old life, would have thought it vulgar. Now it just brings relief as I sit on my mattress alongside the others.
We’re all working on what Indizara calls “returnwork”—art that we will toss into the fire when we’re done with it to train our minds in the habit of release, to help unstick us and accept the Convergence with grace when it happens. I’m making a collage with the cut-up KFC buckets. The old Colonel Sanders with the Van Dyke beard duplicated over it in different sizes and crisscrossed with banners that read “9-Piece Tenders;” “Family Dinner;” “Biscuits in Gravy;” “The Colonels’ Own Recipe.” I use cooled-off cooking grease as glue, but it barely holds down the pieces.
I take another sniff of the soap and that’s when I notice Andrew—the architect from Denver who came about a week before me—watching me; his sketchpad balanced on his crossed legs and a pencil in his hand. I get the feeling I’m being judged for the soap, so I put it back in my pocket and Andrew looks back down at his sketchpad. We’re supposed to lose ourselves in the returnwork, so that when it is finished and we toss it into the fire it is like we are immolating ourselves—willingly, happily. I shouldn’t have been distracted with the soap, but then Andrew shouldn’t have been distracted with me, so if he told Indizara I would be prepared with a defense. Our transgressions canceled each other out.
Not counting Indizara, we are six altogether, less than I had thought. I had expected a community. Could six be a community? Whenever I come close to asking that out loud I realize it is a meaningless question, formed in the confusion of the old thinking I had to escape, the thinking that had me plan a wedding that involved meteorological intervention and custom-made umbrellas. Six was a community; five was a community. One could be a community if looked at a certain way. Were we not all ecosystems unto ourselves?