12: The Tunnel
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Working in harmony, Ginnie and Weena helped me out from under the door, with Droog digging at the sandy soil as well. Ira stood off to one side, sullenly watching.
“If you can’t learn to open that door without getting crushed, you should just let me do it,” Ginnie remarked to me. “You can open it too?” I said. Now that I knew about the border snail, I realized the door was a disk of mollusk shell. “Sure,” said Ginnie. “Remember? I let the Graf come through. Snaily likes me. She even lets me find her house.”
A direct ray from the rising sun filtered in through the space-maze and landed squarely on the hole of the cellar entrance—as if this were Stonehenge at the summer solstice. Weena emitted a throbbing chirp.
A greenish-brown mass pushed forth from the cellar door, a slimy surface of puckers and bumps, gradually taking on detailed form. A pointy tip protruded, then two flexible tentacles, and a pair of stalks with glistening black balls on the ends—
“See, Jim!” said Ginnie. “It’s Snaily! With feelers and eyes. She grew us this house.”
The snail swelled up her bulk and made a chittering creak in response—not with her mouth, but by shaking the Whipped Vic above her, lifting the place ever so slightly off the ground.
“Here we go, Jim,” said Weena, once again assuming her kind and cozy mode. “This house is a snail shell, yes. There’s plenty of these border snails, I think, but they’re hard to find. Snaily sought me out because I knew of the weak spot in the wall that you made.”
“With my special tip,” said Ira, perking up. “But I still don’t understand how anyone can walk through the snail.”
“We go into her mouth,” said Weena in the artificially bright tone one uses with a querulous child. “And her other end is in Flimsy. The land of the flims.”
“That’s not a real tunnel,” I protested, not liking the way things were playing out.
“It’s a tunnel through the border snail’s body,” said Weena. “In through mouth, gullet, stomach, and then out through her other gullet and mouth. She has two heads, you see, one in each world. She doesn’t eat with her heads, she eats directly with her stomach—which she positions among the teeming sprinkles of the living water.”
“What’s the living water?” demanded Ira. “I never heard anything about that.”
“The living water forms a shell around the Flimsy world,” said Weena. “It’s a womb, a hull, a rind. The surface of what you call an electron. Just now, this surface happens to intersect the center of Snaily’s gut. She likes it that way.”
I didn’t have the heart to start an argument about Weena’s odd image of an electron. Whether or not her notions made quantum-mechanical sense, they seemed in some way to match the bizarre levels of reality that I’d blundered into.
The giant snail raised her flattened tip, revealing a floppy, toothless mouth the size of a car door. The house groaned again, and Header’s corpse shifted on the steps.
“I’m not sure I can handle this,” said Ginnie.
“It’ll be quite comfortable,” said Weena. “I’m going to prop Snaily’s mouth open with my tendrils. But there’s something that Jim and I have to do in the basement first. I’ll go get that part ready. I’ll call you in a minute, Jim.” She squeezed past the flank of the snail and into the dank basement—where I’d seen Skeeves’s golden sarcophagus before.
“I’m glad I’m not going yet,” said Ira. “It might be a one-way trip. And, like I said, I’m not ready to leave Skeeves, romantic fool that I am. Imagine me on the waves, guys. A ruffle of ripples, a flash of sun, a yesteryear memory.”
“Oh, Ira,” said Ginnie. “It’s all too sad.”
“Why do you say it could be a one-way trip?” I asked, wondering if there were some big snag that I hadn’t heard about yet.
“You still haven’t figured it out?” said Ira, his voice faint and mocking. “Surfing accidents? Woman’s body in a car?”
Even now, I didn’t want to understand what he was getting at. I turned away from Ira and took Ginnie’s hand. Weena was still out of sight, clattering around in the basement.
Ginnie raised our joined hands, studying the pair like a cryptic glyph. “What do you really think is going to happen between us, Jim? You don’t know anything about me at all.”
But—thanks to our telepathic link—I did. Peering into Ginnie’s memories, I saw her as an awkward lonely girl from a broken home in Sacramento, her father gone to Alaska, and her mother working as an administrative assistant at a megachurch. Ginnie got into the skater scene in high school, then spent a year as a student at Sacramento State, graffiti-bombing the government buildings and running the soundboard for a punk club.
Ginnie had a drummer boyfriend named Goon, not that Goon used actual drums—he had input gloves that amplified the taps and rustles of his fingertips. Ginnie left school and her kind-of job to go to San Francisco with Goon. On the strength of her avant-garde chops, she landed a job as the sound tech at a Mission dance club.
Goon found work at a surf shop on Ocean Beach, and he’d get Ginnie free rental gear on weekdays. She began exploring the slopes of the ragged Pacific waves. It was all good for awhile, but then Goon moved in with a woman lawyer whose flat tire he’d changed near the beach. Ginnie couldn’t cover her rent alone. Looking for a mellower vibe, she hitchhiked down to Cruz...
At this point my access to Ginnie’s memories broke off.
“So it all leads up to this,” I said sententiously. “The fact that you’ve been able to find the Whipped Vic every night—that means something. And that Weena singled me out to help her—that’s significant, too. It’s destiny, Ginnie. We’ll be big celebs. Especially if I resurrect my dead wife.” I smiled, wanting Ginnie as well as Val.
“It’s pretty weird to imagine running off with you,” said Ginnie, letting go of my hand. “I mean—you’ve been living with that skanky Weena? And your wife died last year?”
“I can’t hide my past,” I said. “And I can’t hide that I see you as, as—” I hesitated, fighting back the phrase that had popped into my head.
“A punky furburger?” exclaimed Ginnie, reading my mind. “That’s what you think of me? Of all the rudeness.”
“I’m sorry, that’s how my thoughts run, I play with words. But of course I’m not absolutely assuming that you and I will, uh—” Again my thoughts were getting out of control.
“Not assuming, but hoping?” said Ginnie, her voice shooting up high on the final word. She broke into a laugh. “Not that I’m sure it’s even possible anymore. At least the jiva buffed you up. It’s hard to believe I actually swallowed one of those things, too. Do I look different?”
“Like a gritty saint,” I said, faintly perceiving a halo of jiva tendrils around Ginnie’s head. “Our Lady of the Soundboard.”
“There you go,” she said. “That’s the way to talk to a girl.”
“Very touching,” said Ira, watching us. “You move fast, Ginnie.”
“Why are you men so interesting in monitoring women’s sex lives?” said Ginnie sharply. “You’re like bellowing elk. Lower than that. Like computer viruses. And, Ira, you aren’t even interested in me that way. You’re gay for Skeeves, for God’s sake.”
“So?” yelled Ira, his face dark with anger. “I think it’s time we told your moon calf that we’re dead. Duh, Jim! Don’t you notice anything but the twitches of your dick?”
It took me a full minute to find my voice. The woman’s body in the Graf ’s car—that had been Ginnie. And Ira—
“Skeeves drowned me,” he said. “He says a voice in his head made him do it. And, dig this, the voice was Weena. You didn’t know that either, did you, Jim? Weena’s been orchestrating this whole freakshow.”
“Why—why would Weena and Skeeves kill you?” I stuttered.
“They didn’t want me walking around alive and knowing the secret of the tunnel. If I’m just a ghost, then most people can’t see me or hear me. I will say that Skeeves wasn’t a complete jerk about the hit. He brought along a big hunk of kessence from the border snail. And my sprinkle went straight from my flesh and into the kessence. And now I’m a wavy, groovy boy.” Ira wriggled his arms.
“It’s not like Skeeves had to listen to some crazy voice in his head,” put in Ginnie. “That’s no defense at all. You shouldn’t give him a free pass, Ira. Hearing voices is one thing. Killing people is something else. As far as I’m concerned, Skeeves and Weena both bear the guilt for killing you. And someday we’ll make them pay.”
I felt numb, unsteady on my feet. I was hanging around with ghosts?
“Am I dead too?” I asked. “Has everything since the hospital been a dream?”
“You’re still alive,” said Ira, giving me a rough poke. “All meat and full of shit.”
“You’re alive, but you’re very unusual,” added Ginnie in a kinder tone. “You found your way to this house on the border. And you’re able to see Ira and me. Mostly it’s just stoners and crazy people who notice us.”
“The people at the party last night?” I asked.
“A mix,” said Ira. “Some live, some dead. As for the rest of it—well, we’re as confused as you. Playing it by ear. Nothing left to lose.”
Weena reappeared just now, smiling out at us from around the bulge of the snail. “I’m ready for you now, Jim. Come here in the basement and lie down.”
“You’re going to kill me!” I cried. “Just like you killed Ira and Header.”
“No, no,” said Weena. “I want you to visit Flimsy and bring something back to us. If you were dead, the mission wouldn’t work. It’s all very simple.”
“So—so you want me to get in Skeeves’s gold casket?” I asked.
“It’s the Pharaoh Amenhotep’s sarcophagus,” said Weena. “He was in it for three and a half thousand years. My friend Charles and I have been at rest within it, too, of late—but only for a century. I was just now checking on dear Charles. I’ve taken off the lid. It’s a roomy box, Jim, especially since Skeeves and his San Francisco addict friend recklessly burned the remains of Amenhotep in a fireplace. The casket will readily hold you along with Charles and me.”
“I won’t be dead?”
“Your body will remain in suspended animation here. And your spirit will visit Flimsy. Your nice new jiva will travel with you and give you a fine solid body. And, as it happens, I have a cache of kessence by the sarcophagus as well. You’ll be an astral traveler like me.”
“You’re sure I can come back?”
“You know this is feasible, Jim. When you opened the snail’s door, my soul came back here and I reincorporated.”
“But your body was aging the whole time you were gone. Without your jiva, you look—”
“It’s very rude to discuss a lady’s age,” said Weena, starting to lose her patience again. “You’ll be back in a week. Your loyal dog can lie atop the casket’s lid to guard his master.”
“Skeeves will dipping his wick in the casket,” said Ira, wanting to stir up trouble. “I’ll bring him back into the house as soon as you guys leave. I like to know where my dreamboat is. Like—in the basement humping Weena’s tender remains.”
“Your coarseness reflects only upon you,” said Weena haughtily. “Skeeves’s ministrations act as a preservative massage.”
“Go ahead and park your body now,” Ginnie told me. She was wearing a feral grin. “It’s the only way to really get it on with a ghost like me. You can help me through the tunnel to the other side. I’m sick of it here. And—Jim—maybe you can help me settle some scores.”
Well—like I said, it had been a long, crazy night. I was hyped up from the sprinkles, and I had my jiva inside me. And my life was pointless. And I had my crazy hope of finding Val over there. What the fuck. I squeezed past the slimy bulk of the snail and into the basement. Droog came along.
The early morning glow was filtering through the cobwebbed and barred cellar windows. As before, I noticed that the rear part of the snail’s body tapered off very dramatically—dwindling down to a point. Which made sense, I supposed, if the snail’s other end was inside an electron. Whatever that meant.
The floor in here was really old concrete, cracked and rough. It smelled like mold and sewage. Over at the far end of the basement was a twisted little staircase that I hadn’t noticed before. But the main thing to see was the magnificent golden sarcophagus of Amenhotep, resting by the wall with the lid leaning against it.
The numinous shape carried an aura of magic. Untarnished by the centuries, the casket’s bulbous surfaces were alive with reflections. The sarcophagus almost seemed to glow from within. Bands of hieroglyphics ran around its base, and the exquisitely wrought face upon the lid resembled a dreaming god.
“We lie down in here and enter a trance,” said Weena, leading me to the oversized casket. “Originally there must have been some inner coffins as well, like a set of Russian dolls, but those went missing before the sarcophagus came into our hands.”
Hesitantly I peered within. A heavily bearded man was in there, his flesh waxy and pale, quite alone, ever so faintly breathing. There was indeed enough room for three.
“I just wonder if this is necessary,” I said, playing for time.
“The magic is likelier to work if you’re immersed in the aura,” insisted Weena. “You need to be inside. I don’t know if you can see it, but there’s a nice big slug of kessence at the foot end. That’s the body I was wearing when I came through the tunnel. I’ll share this kessence with you. Here.” She made some odd motions with her hands. “Still can’t see it? I’ve divided into two portions—half for you and half for me. Lie down in the casket.”
“How did you end up in the sarcophagus in the first place?” I asked, stalling for time.
Weena’s voice took on a soothing, reasonable tone. “There was a secret excavation in 1895, and a Frenchmen named Lanier found the tomb of Amenhotep I in Egypt. A Parisian nobleman acquired the golden casket, and the son of a California railroad tycoon bought it around 1910. Randolph Crocker. He wanted to add some tone to his ornate mansion in San Francisco.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” I said. “Go on.”
“Randolph Crocker engaged Charles Howard to write a monograph on the casket and the mummy.” Weena leaned forward to pat the inert body in the sarcophagus. “Charles was a disgraced expatriate British Egyptologist. A womanizer. He’d taught for a few years at Berkeley’s fledgling University of California before being fired there was well. He was having an affair with an assistant, that assistant being me. Is that enough?”
“Tell me just a little more,” I begged.
“Charles was a dabbler in the occult. He discovered what he considered to be a spell, embossed as a pattern of hieroglyphs in a frieze on the outside of Amenhotep’s casket. The spell allows the petitioner to leave his or her body without having to die. Charles and I wanted to run away together—and so we decided to flee to the higher plane. And that’s enough details for now.”
Raising her legs high, Weena stepped into the golden sarcophagus, being careful not to tread on the comatose Charles. She lay back upon him and folded her hands on her chest, posing like an effigy on a royal tomb. “Stop staring at me like you’re utterly demented,” said Weena. “Come here now and lie on me like a good boy.”
“Lie down and die,” I said bitterly.
“You’ll be back in a week,” insisted Weena, her voice still more honeyed than before. “I’m sorry that we quarreled. I’ll make it up to you, Jim.”
“Hurry up!” yelled Ginnie from outside.
I felt a sudden wave of bone-weariness. All this was so weird and so hard. I needed some slack. Maybe I’d find it in Flimsy.
I stretched out on top of Weena—well, more like next to her, really, as the sarcophagus was so big. Droog put his paws up on the edge of the casket and poked down his snout, sniffing me.
“Good dog,” I told him. “Wait for me if you can.”
“The lid,” said Weena. “Pull on the lid.”
“God help me,” I said. “I’m fucking doomed.”
I sat up and dragged the wood-lined golden lid onto us, shutting Droog out.
In the intimate darkness, Weena began crooning a petition. I shut my eyes and let her words filter in.
Time, jivas, space and goo
Yuels, zickzack, kessence too
Flimsy goddess old and new
My blank future calls to you.
She sang it over and over—at some point I began singing along, first mumbling the words, then chanting them quite loud. Our two voices overlaid each other, making dissonant beats.
A slight amount of light leaked in through the crack where the lid rested on the casket. Mostly the light was yellow, but as we chanted, I began seeing the hue change, slowly sliding down into red and up into blue, over and over, in synch with our chant. It was like the time when I’d been staring at the ceiling lamp in my bedroom. Not only were the colors swaying, I was beginning to see tiny bright dots—perhaps these were the electrons in the atoms of the air.
Suddenly I heard a scratch and a clatter, as if from very far away. That was Droog outside the casket, scrambling onto the lid. Weena and I sang on, bathed in the sea of electrons. Weena’s voice was very beautiful—sweet and thin and filigreed.
I don’t know how much time passed, but at some point I felt fully rested. I stopped chanting and drifted out of my body. I was like a speck of dust. The casket seemed enormous. My point of view was sweeping around violently as the air currents moved me. I couldn’t stay here like this. I felt an intense desire to make a wild leap out of this world into—what? Into the afterworld.
Just as I was on the point of jumping, something cool and pleasant flowed up around me. It was some of the kessence that Weena had stored in the casket. A ghostly body took form around the agitated dot that was my liberated soul.
I sat up. By rights, I should have bumped against the lid and spilled Droog to the floor. But I didn’t. I was in a kessence body now. I passed right through the lid.
I was sticking up from Amenhotep’s casket, with my kessence legs still nestled within my flesh body. I swung my kessence legs to one side, right through the casket walls, and now I was standing on the floor.
Perhaps surprisingly, Droog was able to see me. He made as if to hop down from the casket, but I gestured to him that he should stay.
I felt light on my feet, lively and strong. My jiva had come with me. I could feel Mijjy’s movements within me, as she firmed up a zickzack skeleton within the kessence form that I’d drawn from Weena’s supply.
And now Weena’s spirit stepped out of the casket as well. As a slender, jiva-enhanced ghost, Weena took on a truly idealized form—she looked like an Art Nouveau poster of a vibrant, sensual muse.
“You look very comely as well,” said Weena, reading my mind. Glancing down, I saw that my body was tweaked to an inhuman perfection. Via telepathy, I could see my face from Weena’s point of view. My jaw was more clear and chiseled than before, my hair a lush bob, my skin a flawless sheet of kessence covering the powerful zickzack bones and muscles beneath.
My teep powers allowed me to see inside the sarcophagus. Our three flesh bodies were at rest in there, on their own, alive. Atop the lid, Droog stared at us, his eyes flicking between me and Weena.
I followed the now-lovely Weena out of the cellar and into the yard, where Ira and Ginnie were resting on the ground near the giant snail. That one remaining jiva, Sukie, was hanging overhead, large and luminous, silently watching.
“Now Jim’s a ghost too,” said Ginnie. “What an epic night.”
“Our last night on Earth,” I said. I have this habit of cheering myself up by predicting the most depressing possible outcome—and then backing off from that. Really I was stoked about the coming trip, and I was hoping I’d make it back into my regular body at the end. But I didn’t want to jinx things by saying so.
“On to Flimsy!” said Weena. “Observe how wide I can make our tunnel.” She stretched out her hands in a sorcerer’s gesture. Jiva tendrils branched from her fingers and funneled into the snail’s maw. The fine hairs of the jiva fastened onto the space within, stretching it, widening the diameter.
Peering in, I saw a gently ribbed tunnel to—was it the afterworld? A twinkling, transparent wall rose in the middle of the tunnel, and through it I could glimpse faint sunlight at the other end. Due to some weird warping of space, the tunnel didn’t seem to taper, it appeared to remain about the same width throughout.
The great snail bobbled her eyestalks, peering inside herself, assessing her internal state. A faint odor wafted from her digestive tract: a blend of urine, mold and violets.
“Come on, my hero,” Weena urged me. “I’ll tend the gate. And Ginnie, you can come too.”
“You go first,” I told Weena.
“If you prefer,” she said. She stepped into the tube, walking in little mincing steps, swaying her round hips. Soon, skewed by the weird warpings and scalings of space, her figure took on the look of a snaky starfish. Ginnie and I followed after her. Weena had the creature’s gut stretched so wide that we didn’t even have to stoop.
Ira sang out a wistful farewell, the Whipped Vic rumbled, and Droog—sensing something amiss—howled from the basement.
Not letting myself think too deeply about what I was doing, or where I was bound, I continued down the tunnel with Ginnie at my side. In my ghostly jiva-enhanced form, I felt like a prancing giraffe.
The sparkling wall at the tunnel’s midpoint was a thick block of water, like a ceiling-high aquarium, perhaps two meters thick. The walls of the snail’s gut had a series of fans and tendrils that were continually seining this water for food.
“Living water,” said Weena, who was waiting there for us. “Force yourself into the wall, push to the other side, and worm out. Only watch that you’re not swept away.”
Certainly the living water was no ordinary form of matter. It seemed to intersect the snail’s intestinal walls without breaking them. It was as if the living water were a translucent overlay, a grease-penciled addition to this extraordinary reality.
I saw sour-colored polyhedral gems within the water—they resembled Weena’s sprinkles, only these ones were more highly animated, attacking each other and sweeping through the aethereal fluid in nested loops. I noted that the sprinkles had a general tendency to rise upwards out of sight, with new ones flowing up from below.
And these sprinkles were the food that the snail was interested in. Her sticky, fern-like feelers were systematically catching sprinkles. When a frond became quite rich with sprinkles, the snail would stuff it in into a digestive slit beside the water-wall. And then the frond would re-emerge, licked clean of its sprinkles.
Weena stepped into the living water, or rather, she pushed her way in. The skin of the water was leathery, gelatinous, and she had to force open a crack to slide inside. The living water seemed to welcome Weena. Her entry spilled not a drop.
The bright particles within the water converged on Weena, and for a moment she herself became a blur. She seemed to be working fairly hard to avoid being swept up through the tunnel’s ceiling—and to stay clear of the snail’s feeder-fronds. A moment later, she’d kicked across the two meters to the other side, and had clawed her way through the skin over there.
She waved to us with one hand, solid once again. While inside the water, she’d used her other hand to seine herself a catch of those colored dots that she and the snail so greatly prized.
Ginnie and I felt hesitant. To test things out, Ginnie poked a hole in the jellied surface and stuck her arm in as far as the elbow. A school of sprinkles swirled around her fingertips, intent as hungry diatoms.
“Ow,” exclaimed Ginnie, flinching back. “They nip. Surreal guppies.”
“How bad can it be?” I said, faking bravado.
“Lead on, oh cosmic mailman.”
If the outer layer of the wall was a springy gelatin, it was all liquid within. I wormed my way deep into the living center, holding my breath. An insistent current nudged me upwards, as if to force me through the ceiling of the snail’s tunnel. One of the snail’s feeder-tendrils latched onto my foot, but it was pretty easy to kick it free.
The darting sprinkles were landing in myriads upon my astral form. They seemed to be drawing off bits of my kessence, which didn’t seem like a big deal. But now, as if in reaction to the sprinkles’ onslaught, my ghostly form went abruptly to pieces, shattering into a solid jigsaw puzzle with each piece at a tiny remove from the next. And I hadn’t even begun to swim.
The water between the worlds flowed through me, dusting my innards, and it was only my resident jiva’s tendrils that were keeping me together at all. With an all-out effort, I pulled my body together and kicked my way across the two meters, fighting the current.
On the way, I inadvertently drew some of the living water into my lungs—but it didn’t seem to matter. Evidently you had a lot of leeway if you were a ghost. Flailing wildly, and twisting away from the sprinkles and the feeder-fronds, I made it to the rubbery membrane at the other side. I pried a crack into it, and wriggled through.
And there I was, on the other side of strange. Coughing out the living water and drawing in air, I managed a whoop.
“You look divine,” said Weena, waiting there.
Ginnie followed us through the narrow wall of water. Thanks to the assaults of the sprinkles, her ghostly body also unraveled and reassembled itself en route.
“Sweet,” she enthused, standing beside me now, even more fetching than before. “It felt like—you know how a light ray tightens up when it goes through a lens? I feel like I’ve been focused. My new jiva body was feeling like scratchy dress-up clothes—but now it’s just right. It’s almost like I’m really alive again.”
I touched Ginnie’s face. She was cool and smooth. Maybe a little bit like a plastic mannequin. But, still...
“Come on,” ordered Weena, standing by the exit. “Stop lollygagging.” She was all business again.
I could see another pair of eyestalks silhouetted against the faint disk of light that lay ahead, and the green of a field. And now Ginnie and I stepped forth into the other world, out through the border snail’s other mouth—